My Travel Round Up from the First Six Months of 2013

My parents, upon my high school graduation (10 years ago…thank you, Atlantic Ocean, for existing and putting distance between me and my fellow Tigers just this once!) gave me a heartfelt speech about how I was always the child who never learned how to walk. I went from spitting up on myself to running, just like I went from college to globetrotter four years later.

There was no better way to start my year than ringing in 2013 with my familia and cousin Christyn in Puerta del Sol. The first six months of the year have been busy (but the good kind), fruitful and happy. I’ve been able to sneak in some travel, my 30th country and finish a master’s in the process.

January

After a trip to Barcelona with my parents and taking various day trips around Catalonia, I returned to work absolutely pooped and with zero ganas to move forward. The chilly weather and the extra responsibility of becoming a training Director of Studies was a lot of work, but the great people at Almohalla 51, Myles and David, allowed Hayley and I to come stay with them at their newly-opened boutique hotel in Archidona.

I also looked forward to having the Novio home from his duty abroad. As a late anniversary present, I took him to eat our way through Florence and Bologna. In between bites, we checked out the sites along the Arno, drank copious amounts of espresso and Moretti beer and befriended a Venetian named Peppino. Buona manggia, sí señor!

February

February was quiet, though Angela and Ryan of Jets Like Taxis joined me on a colorful trip to Cordoba. I chalk it up to being a short month.

March

As the trimester wound down, I began to get geared up for my Semana Santa trip to Dubrovnik and Montenegro. Hayley, my Spanish media naranja, and I walked the impressive city walls in Dubrovnik while refueling on cevapi, a spiced sausage sandwich and drinking in the views and local beers at Buza Bar (despite its obnoxious advertising).

After a few days in the Pearl of the Adriatic, we took a bus across the border to Montenegro, which was my 30th country. While  the weather wasn’t stellar, we were charmed by Europe’s youngest country. The friendly people, the free wi-fi and the views of our roadtrip around the Bay of Kotor made for a rejuvenating week.

April

April showers seemed to have brought Feria heat – we sweated right through our flamenco dresses, and I think my right bicep is now twice as large as its twin from all of that fan flicking. I even broke some of my own rules when it came to stalking around the Real!

Just the week before, I had gone up to Madrid (if only I had a euro for every maldito trip I’ve made to la Capital…) to visit my sister-in-law, Nathàlia, and pick up my new car, Pequeño Monty. Nath is Brasilian but did her degree in Alcalá de Henares, city of Miguel de Cervantes fame, so she showed me around her town known for its university and free tapas.

May

Luckily for this guiri, the usual May weather was nowhere to be found, so we got some respite from the heat. Meg and I drank rebujito at the Feria de Jerez, a lite version of Sevile’s famous fête where you don’t get trampled by horses, and we bounced between a Mexican-themed caseta and a biker bar. Toto, We’re not in Sevilla anymore. The following day, I continued the fiesta in the Novio’s village at their Romeria de San Diego, a booze-soaked picnic in the middle of the dehesa.

A week later, I attended my first blog trip to Calpe, a small fishing village that has capitalized on the tourism boom from nearby Benidorm. Despite the hotels popping up along the beach, Calpe is laid-back yet bursting with energy. We were treated to tons of water-related activities, including paddle surfing and betting on our lunch at the Lonja de Pescado.

June

During the first weekend of June, I had to make a trip to Madrid for mandatory camp meetings and Camino dealings. I met with Pablo, Fernando and Alex of Caser Expat Insurance, who are helping me make my Camino For the Kids a reality. I even got my feet checked out by the team at Podoactiva, the same people who outfit professional athletes with their shoes.

The Novio and I snuck in a day at the beach, and my mom came to stay for a week in the last sweltering week of June. I was extremely busy with my master’s and preparing for summer camp. Apart from showing her my favorite restaurants and rincones of Seville, we also made it to Jerez to see the horse show, to Doñana for a horse ride through Mazagón, and San Nicolás del Puerto, where she got to meet the Novio’s mother and ride their prized mare, Orgiva.

I am happy to say that I have very few travel plans at the moment for the second half of the year, save slinging tomatoes at the Tomatina with Kelly in August and Oktoberfest with my cousins in late September – I need a break after a year of turning my blog into a business, completing a master’s in a second language and starting a new job. Sunshine? Yes. Siesta? POR FAVOR. 

Don’t forget that I’ll be back at camp in July, and then walking close to 320km to raise money and awareness for pediatric cancer patients back home on the Camino de Santiago. Please follow #CaminoFTK on twitter or instagram for more information. Sunshine and Siestas is also accepting guest posts during this time, so please send your stories and photos from Spain!

What were your travel highlights of the first six months of the year?

Seville Snapshots: Domingo de Romería

“The hilly encinas are my office,” said Jose, not looking away from his ham leg, from which he took thin cuts and arranged them neatly onto a plate for us. I’d been eating since arriving to the Ermita de San Diego in teeny San Nicolás del Puerto, my favorite village in Spain, and my stomach could only hold so much.

Springtime in Andalucia is all about a healthy mix of hedonism and religion (which surprisingly go hand-in-hand). Holy Week revelers pay a somber penitence to the cruxifiction and resurrection, then sherry is drunk by the bucketfull during ferias all over Andalucía, and concludes with romerías in nearly all of the pueblos from late April until September.

I’ve mentioned San Nicolás del Puerto, a tiny dot of a town on Andalucia’s map. At 700 people and seven bars (seven more than in my hometown of 55,000), the city is the source of the Hueznár River, part of the Vía Verde and the birthplace of San Diego de Alcalá. Nearly all of the town’s festivities revolve around the poor man’s saint, including the Romería de San Diego, held the second Sunday of May each year.

For a small village, San Nicolás throws a big party for the romería, which is like one-part religious procession, one part tailgate. Everyone brings their coolers full of food – chacina, tortilla de papas, filetes empanados, and homemade cakes – and finds a shady spot in the hills near the hemitage for setting up their picnic. They’re often reserved by parking cars, using a fruit crate for a makeshft sign, or by tradition – I always know where Rafalín and the Novio´s father will be with their own portapotty.

At noon, the saint comes dancing in, carried on the shoulders of locals and preceeded by a brass band from the nearby Alanís de la Sierra. It’s kind of like a homecoming, and I can almost imagine my high school’s fight song instead of the paso doble that accompanies the saint before mass. Diego bobs up and down as partygoers watch on horseback, some dressed in flamenco dresses and trajes cortos. The Novio and I watched from afar, busy kicking back a few bottles of beer and helping ourselves to everyone else’s food, lest it go to waste.

Have you ever been to a Romería? Spain’s biggest and most popular, El Rocío of Almonte (Huelva) is this coming Sunday. Read about my experience at last year’s fair here.

You Know You’re in Small Town Spain when…

I’ve lived in just three cities in Spain, all de-facto capitals of their respective comunidades autonomas. While cities offer all the amenities that make living abroad un pelin easier – from vegetarian options to world-class entertainment – Spain’s pueblos are its soul.

It seems that every Spaniard has his or her pueblo. Kike’s family has had land in teeny San Nicolas del Puerto, a hiccup of a village in the Sierra Norte de Sevilla, for centuries. The mountain air, fresh meat and raucous fiestas – among them, a haunted house in the middle of the summer – make it our preferred destination on the weekend. This is the kind of pueblo where everybody knows your name and all of your business.

Apart from San Nicolas, I spent 12 days living in a monastery outside of Madrid. The town of Uclés had, apart from the commanding monastery, one church, one bar, one plaza and one house converted into the “super club” during the months the guiris were up the hill. We happened to be there during the village’s super fiesta, a pilgrimage which allowed the village to swell to nearly twice its size.

While every pueblo has its trademarks, there are some things you just can’t escape. You know you’re in small town Spain when…

…eating, drinking and merry-making are dirt cheap

…saint is being exalted 

…all roads lead to the church

…there’s a low-budget charanga butchering every Bisbal song in existence

…mixed drinks look like this:

…everyone knows your name and your business

…someone throws a chicken in the air for fun (or does anything else strange)

What’s your favorite village in Spain? Why do you like it?

Tapa Thursdays: The Effervescent Jamón Ibérico

Some thing are just better experienced than written about.

Among my favorite moments of my five years in Spain are the “early nights” that turn into café con leche as the sun rises the following morning, the way my feet magically stop tripping over themselves the minute I don my flamenco dress, and the hours mulling over great food with gorgeous Seville as a backdrop.

Food has given me a greater understanding of Spanish culture and family life, as well as the way people socialize. I’ve come to scrutinize wedding fare, steer clear of certain establishments and get filled to the brim with tó lo bueno.

The common theme throughout virtually any dining experience? El cerdo ibérico, Spain’s prized pig.

I suppose it doesn’t help that Kike’s father owns a farm that raises pigs until they’re nice and fat, ready to be sold to a matadero and served for a Christmas splurge. Pork, a food I once ate reluctantly, is now a staple in my diet.

I dragged the Novio along to the annual Feria Internacional del Cerdo Ibérico, a ham fest in one of Spain’s foremost regions in production. Under the Denominación de Origen de Huelva, 20 million euros are earned yearly from the production and distribution of the hind legs, called a pata. I’ve been waxing poetic for years about the fair, one in which you can eat, drink and practically be Miss Piggy for under 20€, stocking up on artisan products and anise.

It’s one of those things you’ve just got to experience.

What it is: One of Spain’s most expensive pork product, jamón ibérico is thinly sliced ham from the hind leg of an acorn-fed pig. The meat is conserved in salt, then hung to dry for a year or two. The white part, called tocino, is fat and considered to be the tastiest part.

Where it’s from: The mountain range that separates Andalusia from Extremadura is the hotspot for jamón in the south. Here, pigs feast on acorns until the springtime matanza, when they’re slaughtered. The best places to eat ham are in these small villages.

Where to get it in Seville: Many establishments offer tapas and plates of ham, particularly in the center and at smaller bars in outlying neighborhoods. Try it on a mantecaíto sandwich at Bodeguita Antonia Romero, C/ Gamazo, 16.

Goes perfectly with: Good friends and a glass of fino. Ham tends to end up on panes, on montaditos and in tacos, or small bits as a garnish.

Check out my second appearance talking on Spanish TV, around minute 31:30

http://www.canalsuralacarta.es/television/video/viernes-19-de-octubre/31222/13 - Even my neighbor from 2ºIzq. has seen me!!

The Feria del Jamón y de Cerdo Ibérico is held yearly in the village of Aracena, 90 kilometres northwest of Seville. The fair tends to take place the third weekend of October, but the village can be visited year-round and boasts many beautiful sites.

Everybody Was Pueblo-Timing

Everyone in Spain is, sorry to tell you, not fútbol- or flamenco-obsessed. Not everyone in Spain loves jamón. Not everyone in Spain speaks Castillian. But, yes, everyone in Spain has a pueblo (and not-so-secretly loves it).

I learned this during my second year at IES Heliche. While discussing holidays (summer vacation for you gringos), I asked if anyone was going to a second home of theirs. Virtually all Andalusian families spend their summer months away from the sweltering cities at the hundreds of kilometers of coastline down here, so I expected to hear names of beaches within an hour’s drive (for the record, the lack of beaches is one of my extreme dislikes about Sevilla, along with the ever-shrinking airport and lack of live music – the good ones, I mean).

Nearly everyone in Olivares listed their summertime destination as Olivares. Like the ones below:

Ok, I assumed, there’s a financial crisis, and it’s likely that people are sticking around their hometowns, trying to stay in the shade. Qué no, the olivareños were simply moving house across town to their parcela – or little shack houses – with pools. Why leave your pueblo when all of your friends are around?

En fin, the pueblo is to Spaniards as our dogs are to Americans.

For ages, Ismael and I considered Olivares to be our pueblo, but I don’t feel the same way about Olivares as I do Kike’s town, San Nicolás del Puerto. With 700 inhabitants, this town is totally pueblarino and found high in the Sierra Norte de Sevilla.

While nothing can compare to a city as vibrant, folkloric and beautiful as Sevilla, I do love my pueblo time.

Cheers (with cough syrup)

The Sierra is home to several specialties, including the Miura brand anís flavored with guindas - a small, red cherry. I personally think it tastes like cough syrup and haven’t had so much as a sip for years. Still, bottles of the rojo líquido are consumed most often in the Sierra as an after-meal drink.

The Sierra’s crowning gem is Cazalla de la Sierra, a breathtaking pueblo blanco full of old men and wine cellars. Monica and I ended up here after hiking the Vía Verde last Spring, and this is where the famous anís is produced, bottled and packaged.  I tend to refer to anís as a grandpa drink (see here and see also: Monica’s love for old men and their attraction for her), but the serranos guzzle it down, served in a stout, bell-shapped glass with just one ice cube. Ask for un miura con un hielito and you’re set.

Sierra-Style Soirees

One of my favorite times to visit the pueblo is during their ferias, fiestas and romerías, all in the name of tourism, saints and, well, fun. San Nicolás is the birthplace of San Diego, and just about every male in the town is named after him (and the Novio wants his third child to be a flesh and bone sacrifice to him, too. Honest.) My pueblo is famous for its Halloween in July, Carnaval celebrations, Romería - a kind of pilgrimage to a hermitage -  and the same día de San Diego.

Here’s an excerpt from a blog I wrote after my first San Diego:

 After my usual siesta in Kike’s childhood bed, I took the main road in to its intersection with the main road out. There, sandwiched between the houses on Calle Diego, next to my favorite bar, was a charranga in full-swing and scores of small Diegos running around. The nearby owner of the camping, Diego (duh), welcomed me with a beer and I sang him the customary saint day song (Many children in Spain also receive gifts on the day the feast of the saint which bears their name is celebrated. San Enrique, for example, is July 13th. To my knowledge, there is no Saint Cat!), taught to me recently by my babies at school. The town was fuller than ever – Inma came from Córdoba to see her mother and ask that her son be baptised in the same church as she and other generations in her family had, and an old friend of Kike’s, María José, brought her small children and husband for the first time. The bailes, typically held on Saturday, were cut short due to the early morning parade to follow the next day.

 Small town festivals are often more raucous, more inviting and even more fun than the Fallas, San Isidro and Feria that Spain has become famous for.

Jamón, Jamón

Ask anyone what’s to be found in the Sierra, and the answer is undoubtedly JAMON. Spain’s great meat reigns king, and the famous Iberian ham is raised right in the mountains that run along the border of Andalucía and Extremadura. Kike’s father makes a living off of raising and selling pigs to the local matadero, so we have a leg of ham – hoof and all – in our house nearly every day of the year. While I can’t say I loved jamón when I came to Spain, the taste has certainly grown on me.

There are two types of pigs raised in the Peninsula – serrano and ibérico. The difference lies in both the color and the feed, which give the paletillas and patas their distinctive taste. Regardless, both varieties are trimmed, dipped in salt and hung to dry for up to two years before being sliced in thin rations for consumption. Ibérico’s pata negra is considered a delicacy for many palates, and its taste comes from – lo juro - the acrons the pigs munch on. Exportation has increased with relaxed laws in the US for serrano hams, but the minute I can have a real slice of guarrito in Chicago, I’ll feel like my parents can finally taste a part of the pueblo closest to my corazón.

Gastronomic Gems

Speaking of jamón, the food in the Sierra couldn’t be better: from guisos made by grandma to fresh chorizo and goat cheese, I always eat well in the pueblos. In San Nicolás, where tourism is slow – save the bikers and horseback riders among the Vía Verde – there’s no plethora of restaurants to choose from. In a normal weekend visit, we can hit all of them, and often venture into neighboring villages Alanís de la Sierra and Constantina for a meal, too.

By far the best eatery in the vicinity is Batán de las Monjas, a rustic-style restaurant owned by Diego. Part homestyle restaurant, part new-age dining (Diego’s son studied at a culinary school in NYC and now is one of the lead chefs at Seville’s famous La Bulla), the place oozes pueblo charm is the resting place for the livery that feasts off of bellota in hills surrounding the village. Typical prices for entrées are will run about 7€, so it’s easy to fill up for cheap. The migas in winter and creamy gazpacho in summer have won my heart, and Diego and his family always make me feel at home – even when not with the Novio!

A Cambio de Aires

San Nicolás has a truly privileged location, not only for its livestock, but also for its outdoor offerings. A Via Verde trail slices around the southern end of the village, making it accessible for bikers, hikers and riders. It’s normal to see bikes leaned up against Enrique’s bar on a sunny Sunday morning, giving the town an added tourism boost for the smattering of bars and eateries. There’s hills to climb, waterfalls to admire, a Roman bridge to jump from, wildlife galore and some of the warmest and down-home people you’ll ever meet. I’ve always felt like one more Marucha when I’m in San Nicolás, and for good reason – I’m accepted as one.

Have you got your own pueblo? What’s your favorite, FAVORITE thing about it? Been to the Sierra Norte de Sevilla? Tell me what to do next time!

Going ‘Round in Circles

Olivares, the village where I worked for three years, is exactly 16 kilometers away from my old house in the Triana neighborhood. This meant a 40-minute bus ride (barring cows and tractors in the two-lane highway) or a 25-minute trip with a coworker. I soon found out that this was equivalent to 10 miles to metric system-challenged Americans like me.

And then, one day, I walked 16 kilometers. I remembered Martin, my bike-wielding Dutch workmate, who came daily on two wheels and wondered how I could have walked the distance from Triana to Olivares (and, yes, uphill in the hot Spanish sun).

Monica and I, not feeling the beach or wanting to stick around in Sevilla, hopped a Cercanias short-distance train to the town of Cazalla de la Sierra, a mountain pass away from Kike’s village. Known for its enormous cathedral, white buildings and liqueurs, it is the one of the major tourism towns in the north of the province.

As we boarded the train in Santa Justa, it became apparent that the town is heavily-touristed. Scout troops, families and bikers boarded the train, leaving hardly enough seats for those who got on at other stops along the route. The train climbed higher and higher into the Sierra Norte, the farmland rich in acorn trees that feed those delicious piggies that give us ham and caña de lomo. When it let us off 90 minutes later in Cazalla, we saw no emblematic Miura signs or that big ol’ castle. We saw wilderness.

I approached a toothless man sitting outside the train station, which had no attendant. “Which way to Cazalla?” I asked.


He responded in perfect English: “Where are you from?” and, despite not having teeth, said it without any trace of an accent. I had to repeat Chicago about six times, and my neoyorquina friend kept her mouth shut before he pointed to the highway and said, “Just up that road, eight kilometres. The scenic route is flooded.”

I apologized six times to Monica, who just laughed at me as we watched the bikers head down the scenic route. So, up we went, with our sturdy walking sticks, Herbert and Leonard.

Poppies were in full bloom around the fincas full of olive trees and ganadería, livestock ranging from chickens to sheep to the elusive pigs and bulls we’d seen from the train windows. We hiked. And hiked. And kept hiking as cars and bikes whizzed past us. The clear sky coupled with Kike’s army-issued backpack that carried nuts, sunscreen and a book made for sweaty hikers, but we found some shade when we reached a fork in the road. At this point, we’d seen just one house, so the crossed-out CAZALLA was a bit ominous.

“Let’s Robert Frost this,” Monica suggested when we reached a fork in the road 100 meters up. An uphill path lead us to the gate of the Cartuja monastery overlooking horse pastures and a pristine view of the surrounding valleys. I peeked inside at the crumbling brick masterpiece of ochre and cerulean blue before a woman came face to face with me.

“You come for visit, or to stay the night?” she asked in crisp English. Geez, everyone here speaks my tongue! We told Mari Carmen, the supposed proprietor of the place, that we were headed into town. “Well, it’s three miles, so you better hop in the back.” She motioned to her blue van and Mon and I got in. Turns out that the cordobesa had bought the monastery over three decades ago and was lovingly restoring it. She was certainly weathered and looked like she’d dedicated 34 years to that place.

MC dropped us off at one end of the pueblo near a wholesale grocery store. Figuring our first stop should be the tourism office, we followed signs for the cathedral, passing pensioner’s homes and abandoned anís factories. The only people in the plaza were pensioners, and the tourism office, supermarkets and, um, everything were closed. A bar was the next stop.

People marveled at the two guiris in the two bars we had two beers in (yes, I prefer even numbers). We were treated to fried pig, sautéed mushrooms and nuts, free advice and a whole lot of stares. I asked numerous partons how long it would take to hike the Via Las Landeras back to the train station, the apparently flooded route. Tongues wagged when they told us it would take us about three hours and we had far less that to make it. Skeptical, I stopped at another bar and asked and was told I had the pleasure of meeting the town drunk, Rafael. He swore to be from Triana and asked where I was from.

“Chicago.”

“That’s not a real place. You’re from Carolina, then?” Si, por alli. Around there. We followed Rafael’s advice to take the main road down past the Cathedral until we got to a fountain and look for the small sign marking the start to the Via Verde, a green road established through a collaboration of the Environmental and Tourism office. What we found was a dirty and a dead-end. Now fearing we may never make it to the train station, we asked several more people before ending up at the other end of the main street.

The sign marking the trail claimed the hike down would take up to three hours. Monica and I tried jogging it, which didn’t last long due to horseback riders, steep turns and the intense sun on our backs. The flat path through fields of poppies quickly gave way to craggy farmland full of sheep, slate rock rivers and clandestine fields.

We made it down to the train station in just over an hour, sweating and beat. My butt hurt after the 16-kilometers. Monica’s calves quivered. It took us not even three minutes to fall asleep on the train.

I thought of Martin and realized that his 40 years looked good because, after a full 16 kilometers on his bike, he must be beat.

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