Spain Snapshots: The Guadalupe Monastery of Cáceres

Many great places in Spain are seeped in legends, mentioned in texts or venerated by the insane queues at its ticket offices (I’m looking at you, Alhambra). 

For me, the Real Monasterio de Guadalupe was an obscure monastery and the name of many females, little more than a blip on a map in the wild back country of Extremadura. I figured it was worth a detour on our way to Trujillo.

Then came this:

According to legend, the veneration may have been carved in the 1st Century by Saint Luke himself, who then carted her around the world  before presenting the Archbishop of Seville, San Leandro, with it. During the Moorish invasion that commenced in 711, the Archdiocese of Seville looked for a place to hide her as invaders ransacked cities and palaces.

Turns out, I have something in common with this particular image of the Virgin Mary (besides my birthday being on the day of her ascension into heaven): we both made a pilgrimage to Guadalupe from Seville of 320 kilometers. When she arrived, though, she was buried next to the Guadalupe River and not discovered until the late 12th Century.

On that very spot, a humble chapel was erected and eventually converted into one of Spain’s most important (and arguably most stunning) monasteries.

Like all great pilgrimage sites, like the ending points of the Camino de Santiago or El Rocío, Guadalupe has attracted illustrious names in Spanish history – Columbus prayed here after returning from the New World (and the Madonna is now revered in Central and South America), King Alfonso XI invoked Guadalupe’s spirit during the Battle of Salado, and many modern-day popes have stopped to pray.

While we weren’t on a religious pilgrimage, really, I’m slowly ticking UNESCO World Heritage Sites off of my Spain list, and Guadalupe is listed as such. We joined the last tour of the day after getting lost in teeny towns on nearly abandoned highways, many of which bear names that were later given to cities in the New World, like Valdivia, where we devoured fried calamari sandwiches.

Tours to Guadalupe’s cloisters, treasury, church, religious art museum and sacristy can only be done on a guide tour in Spanish, which leave on the hour. As the monk droned on about artistic heritage, I stole into the Gothic cloistered courtyard.

As we had joined the last tour of the day, an elderly monk showed us through the sacristy, painted in its entirety by Zurburán, and invited us to the room that held one of three black Madonnas. The soaring chamber had frescoes of Catholicism’s most famous female saints, relics in every wall and a small turnstile that allowed the three women on my tour named Guadalupe to kiss the hands of the veneration.

They, like Columbus and Cervantes before them, had come to pray in front of the woman who gave them their name and ask for her eternal protection.

As it turns out, the 60 minutes we’d budgeted for the monastery stretched to nearly two hours, meaning we were late to meet Angela from Trujillo Villas, but a night in a cozy palace-turned-vacation-home has us back on the right track the following morning before visiting Yuste and the gorgeous hamlet of Garganta la Olla.

Have you ever been to Extremadura?

A Tenerife Road Trip

There is no greater freedom than windows down, music up and open road. On a recent trip to Tenerife – a volcanic island in the Atlantic that resembles a flat-based bowling pin and boasts Spain’s highest point, hosts a bustling tourism scene and is packed with colonial history. We rented a car from Hertz to see as much as possible during my quick weekend break. Over a day and a half, we made a huge loop around the island, hitting major cities and natural sites while skipping the heavily-touristed South End.

I left the planning to Julie and Forrest. As locals, they had clued me into what we’d be doing, eating, climbing and drinking. For was even going to take care of the driving.

The Novio and I rented a car when we were on Gran Canaria about six years ago, zigzagging around this near-perfect circular island – there is really no other way to see the islands. 

Day One

Santa Cruz del Puerto

Julie and Forrest live in the island’s capital, right near the port. Julie grew up in La Coruña, right near the port, and despite living a year in Seville, craves the water. She gave me a primer to the city’s few historical sites as we walked through lush urban gardens and decided that having a beer and catching up would serve us better.

The following morning, we were eager to get a start on the day. The majority of the island’s tourism heads to the south, where discos nuzzle up to the black sand beaches and there are holiday package hotels on the primera línea of every inch of beach. Our road trip on the TF-5 would take us to the northern tip of the island’s sites.

Teide

From Santa Cruz, take the T-5 towards La Laguna to the T-24 to the Teide National Park

The Megane climbed steadily through the birch trees towards the geographic center of the island. One of the biggest things on my Tenerife must-dos was seeing El Teide, a volcano which doubles as Spain’s highest point and one of two UNESCO World Heritage Sites on the island. The whole national park was mind-blowing, given that the landscape was positively lunar, dry and stunk of sulfur.

We paid to take the gondola up the view-point, which faces the southeast side of Tenerife and the island of Gran Canaria, but also got special permission to access the peak via foot. It was a steep, hot climb, but well worth the views.

La Orotava

From the park entrance, take the roundabout towards T-21, snaking down the mountain until you reach La Orotava.

After a morning of hiking on only a coffee, Forest directed the car towards the western side of the island, known for its wine crop and misty weather. As the clouds rolled off of Teide’s peak, we were left with a rainy, cloudy afternoon.

For lunch, we stopped at a guachinche, or a family run restaurant and winery. For the bargain price of 25€, we feasted on local cheeses and sausages, drank the family’s fruity wine and shared stories of living in Spain.

Puerto de la Cruz

Hop back on the T-5 to exit 32 to T-31 and follow the signs to the center of town.

We probably could have served to get rolled down the volcano to Puerto de la Cruz from the guachinche, but a quick car ride found us in Puerto, the north’s holiday-maker capital. This seaside village was once known for its stately Canarian palaces, but the center of town is overrun with German tourists nowadays. Puerto is also home to Loro Parque, the island’s best-advertised attraction, so it was difficult to not feel strangled by mass tourism.

We bee-lined straight for the black sand beach of Playa Jardín and walked around its old fishing neighborhood, La Ranilla, characterized by brightly colored facades and seafood restaurants. 

The center of town was crawling with people on a market day, so we found a terrace with ecological products for a quick coffee. It almost looked like a Canarian Disney Land – built up colonial houses with wooden balconies, small shops brimming with mojo picón and local wine and botanical plants lining the skinny roads. 

El Sauzal

Rejoin the T-5 to exit 21 and join the TF-172.

As night fell, Julie promised me a drink and a view. In their weekend travels on Tenerife, she and Forest had found a gorgeous terrace bar in the town of El Sauzal, a small blip of a town that seemed to drip down the side of a mountain.

The menu at Terraza del Sauzal was full of food and drink choices, and I settled on a Campari orange margarita. We watched the sun stain the sky pink, then dip into the ocean until the next day.

Day Two

Mirador de las Teresitas

Follow the port towards the northern tip of the island.

The following morning, we followed the road leading out-of-town towards the Anaga peninsula and nature reserve, keeping the port on our right-hand side. Immediately leaving the town of San Andrés, the road climbs to the Mirador de las Teresitas, a viewing point high above a beach of the same name.

The cliff is covered in graffiti and is apparently a sort of drug den, but that morning, we could see across the port to the capital, as well as Teide in the distance, peeking out of the clouds. Playa de las Gaviotas stretch under us on the other side.

I had only a few hours before my flight back to the mainland, so we hopped back in the car and sped towards San Cristóbal de Laguna, a colonial town nestled between two mountains.

San Cristobal de la Laguna

Take the T-5 out of the capital, towards the Tenerife Norte airport.

Apparently airport architects made a huge X on a map of the island as to where NOT to put an international airport, but Tenerife North was built anyway. The wind tunnel where La Laguna, as it’s known locally, sits was windy but sunny and warm for a March day.

The well-preserved historic center is the island’s other UNESCO site and is entirely pedestrian, crowned with a university and the Catedral de La Laguna. While there was plenty of history just under the glossy surface of La Laguna, we decided on beer and a few light tapas.

A few hours later, Forest dropped me off at the airport, and Julie made me promise to come back so we could do the Southern half of Tenerife. For a girl who has lived in four different cities and four different autonomías in Spain, Tenerife must be pretty special if she’s decided to stay on just one more year.

Like road trips? Check out my other posts: Montenegro // La Rioja // Understanding Spain’s Driving Laws

Autonomous Community Spotlight: The Principality of Asturias

Not one to make travel goals, I did make one when coming to Spain: travel to all 17 autonomous communities at least once before going home. While Madrid, Barcelona and Seville are the stars of the tourist dollar show (and my hard-earned euros, let’s not kid around here), I am a champion for Spain’s little-known towns and regions. Having a global view of this country has come through spending ample time in Andalucía, Galicia and Castilla y León – vastly different in their own right – plus extensive travel throughout Spain. 

Asturias and I have a special relationship – the Novio’s mother was born in Pola do Siero, making him as asturiano as he is andaluz. By the time we made the long drive to Asturias during my spring break in 2009, I was already in love with the region nestled between the Bay of Biscay and the Picos de Europa.

The small region is one of Spain’s wettest and, in my opinion, its most naturally beautiful, and the only autonomía considered a principality. Asturies, as its called in the local gable language, was also the starting point of my Camino de Santiago – Hayley and I walked from the industrial port of Avilés.

And it goes without mention that I love fabada and cidra.

Name: Asturias

Population: 1 million

Provinces: Just one, though Asturias has eight comarcas: Avilés, Caudal, Eo-Navia, Gijón, Nalón, Narcea, Oriente and Oviedo.

When: 12th of 17 regions, March 2009

About Asturias: It’s believed that the area has been inhabited for millennia by the Celts, but Asturias rose to fame in 722 during the Muslim Reconquest of Spain. Hiding in the caves at Covadonga, Don Pelayo is believed to have had the Virgen Mary appear to him, and she told him to rally and fight the Moors. He became the first king of Asturias and the region became a refuge for nobility until the Peninsula was once again under Christian rule.

The Novio tells me Asturians are 100% Spanish because the Picos de Europa blocked the peninsular conquest of the Moors. Considering it’s still a reino, it still has its rulers – Prince Felipe and Princess Leticia are next in line to the Spanish throne.

Must sees: Like Andalucía, I don’t even know where to begin, except for saying that your best bet for traveling in Asturias is by car. There are buses and FEVE trains across Asturias, but the service is infrequent, and there’s tons of encanto in many of the small towns that you shouldn’t miss.

The capital of Asturias is Oviedo, a small city with a huge cidra scene. Calle Gascona is known as La Ruta de la Cidra, and has cider bars lining the streets. There are also pleasant pockets throughout – the plazas, the old man bars, the green spaces, the old Romanesque churches. I highly recommend the bar Platero y Yo for their cachopo – the north’s answer to a flamenquín – and excellent wine list.

Gijón is a pleasant, seaside city with colorful buildings and a bustling port, and nearby, industrial Avilés has a well-kept old town. But Asturias’s best is in its small towns, many of which we passed through on the Camino del Norte – Cudillero, Luarca, Tapa de Casariego, Ballota.

East of Gijón, there are other hamlets worth exploring, as well. After visiting family friends in misty Infiesto, we spent two nights in Cangas de Onís and used it as a base to make it to Ribadasella, Poo, the caves and cathedral of Covadonga.

The beauty of Asturias is astounding, as well. When packing for the Camino, I made sure to bring a swimsuit for the untouched beaches we hugged as we walked for five days along the coast. You can’t miss the Lagos de Covadonga, one of Spain’s highest chain of lakes, nestled in the Picos de Europa. If you love the outdoors, Asturias couldn’t be any more perfect. 

Asturian culture is based largely in its celtic origins, including bagpipes! It’s also a literary region that takes art and theatre very seriously, and sports greats Fernando Alonso and David Villa are from Asturias – must be all of that milk. Asturias is also home to bable, a language that changes its vowels around. Case in point, the greatest youtube video of all time:

My take: Asturias is exactly like all of those Leche Asturiana ads – rolling green hills, tons of dairy cows and virgen beaches. If you couldn’t already tell, I love its paraíso natural, its jovial and grounded people (my mother-in-law included!) as well as its food.

Each month for the next 14, I’ll take a look at Spain’s 17 comunidades autónomas and my travel through them, from A to, um, Valencia. I’d love your take on the good and the bad in each one, so be sure to sign up for my RSS feed to read about each autonomous region at the end of each month! Next up for May is the Balearic Islands.

Read more about Andalucía and Aragón

Have you been to Asturias? What do you like (or not) about the region?

Spain Snapshots: Garganta la Olla, the gorgeous extremeño pueblo you’ve never, ever heard of

There was only one real reason why we stopped: it was sunny and just about 1pm, which meant it was beer hour. Snaking down the one-lane highway that led from the Monastery of Yuste, where Holy Roman Emperor Charles V retired to die, we decided to stop in the next town for a while.

That town was Garganta la Olla, a blip of a pueblo that has a larger-than-life legend. The woman behind the bar graciously served us a heaping plate of cured meats and cheeses with our beer as she hummed and wiped a few glasses clean. Garganta la Olla is home to just over 1000 inhabitants, making it yet another sleepy hamlet in the Cáceres region of Extremadura.

I tugged the Novio’s hand as I led him down the main road towards town hall. The wood and stone thatched houses looked like they’d been haphazardly constructed – kind of like the way the sticks fall in a game of Pick Up Sticks. Carvings in the doors mark just how old the village is – some of the constructions date back to the 17th and 18th centuries, when Garganta la Olla was in its heyday, although it’s believed to have been inhabitant for nearly 2000 years. 

The houses reminded me of the sort I might have seen in Haro, La Rioja or even outside of Spain. We walked beneath balconies supported by wooden pillars that housed humble homes. Within 30 minutes, we’d seen the whole of the center leisurely, including the artificial beach of Garganta Mayor, a nice sojourn after Yuste disappointed us (both in price and museum – not worth it!).

As for the legend of La Serrana de la Vera, it’s said that a scorned woman took up residence in the nearby Garganta, or mountain crevice, from which she seduced men and then killed them exacting her revenge against the Archbishop of Plasencia, who broke up their engagement and sentenced her family to a lifetime of dishonor. Miguel de Unamuno, a celebrated Spanish author, penned her legend, which is also accompanied by demon and serpentine figures that make up local lore. Día de la Serrana de la Vera is celebrated each August, and the city retains its medieval feel.

And if you’re into it, there’s also an Inquisición Museum that shows medieval torture tools and a former brothel that now houses a shop with products from the area – cured meats, sweet paprika and sweet breads.

Garganta la Olla is located in the La Vera region of Cáceres, at the foothills of the Sierra de Gredos. It’s about 45 minutes east of Plasencia and two hours north of Badajóz. 

Have you ever spent time in Extremadura? What are your favorite small towns in Spain?

Tapa Thursdays: Eating at a Guachinche on Tenerife

Julie’s plan had only three itinerary stops on my only full-day on Tenerife: Rental car. Teide. Guachinche :)

Eager not to ruin my own surprise, I refused to give into sneaking a peek at what this oh-so-tenerifeño dining experience was. I actually didn’t know it had anything to do with food until after we’d climbed to the peak of Teide on empty stomachs and was promised a mountain of raciones.

Zigzagging down the face of the active volcano through rollercoast roads, I actually think I heard my tripa gurgle. But the excitement in which Julie told me about these temporary, family-run restuarants blew my expectations (sorry, done on the volcano expressions and puns).

“Si esto se llama La Salú para mi madre, que descanse en paz!” 

The small restaurant’s owner, David, was showing us around the various dining rooms, all set around a humble kitchen where family members were peeling Canarian wrinkly potatoes (papas arrugás) and preparing meat at a grill. His mother, a sevillana by birth, married a Venezuelan before moving to the island. When she passed away, her family, who had always loved wine, planted a small vineyard and the guanchinche was born. The name, La Salud, is a homenage to the family matriarch.

We chose seats on the covered patio, watching the clouds roll in over Puerto Cruz. 

Guachinches began to spring up on Tenerife as humble restaurants from which small producers could sell their product. The island’s volcanic landscape lends well to producing young, fruity reds, so we ordered a half liter to begin with. The restaurants operate so long as there is wine to sell – it’s common to find guachinches closed late in the season. 

There were just five dishes on the menu, guaranteeing that everything we tried was fresh – eggs, sobresada and fries (huevos estampidos); garbanzos with a spicy tomato sofrito; chistorra sausage with fries, steak and cheese produced on the island. We ordered all but the steak and an extra half litre of the family’s fruity, fresh wine.

What I loved about the experience (aside from the price – 25€ for everything!), was the personal service we received. Everything was served hot and tasty, and we left satisfied.

Guachinches have started to pop up on nearby Gran Canaria, but the real thing is as tenerifeño as Teide itself.

If you go: La Salud is located in the town of La Orotava on the western side of the island, just east of tourist town Puerto Cruz. The address is Camino de Los Gomez, S/N. They’re typically open from 1pm until 11pm, though may be closed if the wine is depleted. You’ll need a rental car to reach many of them, or a reliable taxi service, as the guachinches tend to be set away from major cities in the north.

Have you ever been to a guachinche, or something similar? Would you eat with locals?

Photo Post of Carmona: The Perfect Little Day Trip from Seville

Nothing says long weekend like a roadtrip, a quick stop in a village and the mass migration of people during the sacred puente. Not wanting to go too far, I settled on taking a day trip to Carmona, one of the province highlights that is often shadowed by Seville (even though, in my opinion, the province doesn’t offer too much by way of historical sites). 

Rain was on the forecast, but it didn’t matter – Phyllis and I grabbed Pequeño Monty and took the A-4 all the way into town. My first trip to Carmona was five years ago on a similar, drizzly morning – I’ve been aching to return since (particularly because that was one of my poorest points of expat life – we didn’t pay to see anything and split two plates of food between five of us).

Most visitors to the city arrive to the Plaza del Estatuto, known to locals as the Plaza de Abajo. The oblong plaza is lined with old man bars. I swooned immediately.

This small city, perched on a hill above acres of wheat and olives, has seen traces of Bronze Age settlers, Roman emperors, Visigoth Kings and the Moors before its conquest in the 13th Century. In pounding the pavement, I felt like we were on the tails of history.

The old center winds up from the Puerta de Sevilla and its imposing city walls and onto Plaza San Fernando towards Calle Prim, called the Plaza de Abajo by locals. Hidden within the gradually steep walls that stretch to the Iglesia de Santiago and the Puerte de Córdoba are tucked-away plazas, convents, grandiose cathedrals and stately palaces. Many alleyways are so slim, you can touch both sides of the walls.

There was little car traffic (it seemed the whole town was either sleeping off the Carnival celebrations or at a wedding at the Priory of Santa María), and we practically had the whole place to ourselves.

Ending the day at the Necrópolis de Carmona (which is free, so you have no excuse to not go), we had gone from lavish renaissance palaces to the ruins of an ancient burial ground by just driving to the other part of town. Laying along the Via Augusta, Carmona has been attracting tourists for millennia.  We were just two unassuming guiris still amazed that such old stuff exists.

Have you been to Carmona? What are you favorite villages in the Sevilla province? I’d recommend the following:

Estepa, Ciudad del Mantecado

Itálica and its Roman Ruins

San Nicolás del Puerto

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