Travel Highlights from the First Six Months of 2012

It really hit me when I was saying goodbye to my students last week – time really does fly when you’re having fun. I’ve been so busy with everything that I never even stopped to take it all in, and what I’ve done the most in these last six months is travel. Menudo vida, ¿no?

January

On the tail end of my trip to the American Southwest with Kike in tow, I spent three weekends in a row out of town. First up was a trip to visit Hayley in Antequera and celebrate her birthday. Amongst other things, we went to Málaga to have a seafood cumple lunch at the famous El Tintero, where there’s no menu, just a live auction for your food! I don’t know what was better - fresh espetos or Hayley’s red velvet cake!

The following weekend, I got a cheap trip to Alicante to visit my dear friend, Julie. I’d never been before, so Julie showed me her sleepy seaside town – the tapas scene, the dominating Castillo Santa Bárbara and I even snuck a night in Valencia in!

February

One of my favorite places in Spain is Kike’s village of San Nicolás del Puerto. Nestled between the hills of the Sierra Norte de Sevilla and the acorn trees that feed the pigs, this pueblito of 700 people has become a treasured weekend getaway. This time, we took Susana, Alfonso and Luna, who loved the horses and piglets at Finca Los Leones.

March

I was thrilled that Kike would be spending time during a three-month training course in Galicia which has become like a second home to me in Spain. Our trip took us to Santiago, La Coruña and El Ferrol and included stunning weather, surprise run-ins and even a broken car. It’s all cake when you’re with the one you love, though!

Following that, I finally realized my dream of traveling to Turkey. Though we didn’t get to explore anything outside of Istanbul, I was taken by the warmness of its people, the monstrous monuments and the sumptuous food. I’d love to go back one day and see parts of the interior and coast.

April

After arriving from Turkey, I took a train out to Zaragosa, capital of Aragón and one of Spain’s largest cities. The weather did everything but let the sun come through, so we spent a lot of time relaxing and cooking while we stayed with Gonzalo, a friend of Kike’s from the military. Am I willing to go back? Sure, but not anytime THAT soon.

May

In 2012, I wanted to change up my travel routine a bit, so I went along with Audrey’s idea to do a giant obstacle course. She had exaggerated on obstacle course, but inversely: I signed up for the Tough Mudder, a 10-mile run with 25 obstacles somewhere along the way in the fields outside of the Boughton House. My body ached for days afterwards, but it was worth it. We got to see Oxford, too.

The weekend before, we’d gone to Murcia, a little forgotten corner of Spain where nothing happened but a wine tasting and a fight on the beach, all wrapped up into a lot of time in the car.

June

June has been quiet, comparatively. Between ending my current job and starting a new one, I’ve only made it to Marid for a weekend for a conference and a few goodbyes.

So, what’s next? The only big trips we’ve got on the horizon are this summer and at Christmas, but I’ll have three-day weekends to enjoy from September on. I’m heading to La Coruña Monday to work for the same summer camps I’ve been at the last three Julys (my apologies for the lack of posts), then making my yearly trip to America for the month of August. While I’m there, I’ll visit NYC and Boston for the first time in my life before heading back to Spain in early September. I’m also heading to the Travel Bloggers Unit conference in Porto with Lauren of Spanish Sabores.

So what’s been your travel highlight of these first few months of 2012, and what’s up next for you? Leave me a message in the comments so I know where to expect a postcard from!

A Beginner’s Guide to Turkish Food

While I’m off dancing my brains out at the Feria de Sevilla, the most wonderful time of the (Sevillian) year, here’s something to make your mouth water and to tide you over till Camarón and I return later in the week.

It’s no secret that my stomach has just as much fun traveling as I do. Traditional plates are something I spend my big bucks on, preferring to take public transportation or walk than skip eating something typical. Turkey was a treat for my eyes and ears, as well as my tummy, and we stopped as often to try food as we did to take pictures of the gorgeous, old as dirt city after buying our airline tickets. Sometimes our bellies smiled, sometimes they weren’t so satisfied, but here’s a rundown of Turkish food for beginners.

Kebabs

I couldn’t wait to get what was seemingly Turkey’s national dish in my tummy. Every street had a token kebab stand, meat swirling before our very (large) eyes in front of a heater. We tried to hold out, we really did, but caved the very first day. A friendly man at a kebab shop near a touristy area of the city carve us hunks of seasoned chicken and offered us a good price. While there was no sauce (I’m a condiments type of person, much to all Spaniards’ dismay), the chicken was practically roitesserie and the vegetables crisp. Kebab shops are scattered around the city and are cheap, quick and really really good. #glutton

Price: 1,50 – 3,00€ for chicken, slightly more for beef

Simit

As our hostel owner, nicknamed Beanie, made us coffee one morning, he pulled out a round loaf of bread with seeds and said, “The Breakfast of Turkish champions.” I don’t know what shocked me more – that there was a Turkish cousin to the bagel, or that Beanie actually knew some English.

Street food carts are all over the city, from hole-in-the-wall places in the old town to small glass pastry shops on wheels on the Galata bridge. We had corn on the cob, churro-like pistachio sweets, nuts and simit served up hot and when we needed it, which makes a great break while touring (or waiting in line at the Haya Sofia). Simit was by far my favorite, a poppy-seeded luxury from back home, piping hot and easily eating.  I couldn’t wait to eat the stupid ring of dough.

Price: = 0,50€

Meze

Meze is to Ottoman cuisine what tapas are to Spanish cuisine. Small dishes meant to be shared, meze can be of any scale, from savory to sweet, varied to simple. We tried a spread, which is typical to share before the main course of a meal, while watching Agamemnon’s dancers in his palace that included humus, babaganoush, vegetables and a potato salad, but a quick wikipedia search will show you that the variety depends on location and scale of the dinner.

Price – from 5€ and up

Çorba

My favorite Spanish dish is lentejas, so I squealed with delight when I read in Allie’s guide book that Turks love their lentils, too. I was dying to try çorba, a red lentil soup. At a little backstreet self-service right near our hostel, we found a big vat on a chilly night, and the bowl and bread cost us 0,75€! Stretching back to the Ottoman times, this dish has been well-copied, but we got homemade deliciousness by form of lentils, onions, paprika, potato and vegetable stock.

Price: 0,75€ – 2,00€ per bowl, often with bread.

Sweets

My body in Spain follows a well-worn eating habit, which includes a coffee sometime in the 90 minutes after I have lunch (the exception being Friday nap time). In Turkey, those bitter little coffees were often washed down with sweets, either Turkish Delight of baklava.

I grew up across the street from a Greek family, so the gooey nothin’-but-butter-and-sugah pastries have always been one of my favorites. Every coffee came accompanied by a round of baklava for us seven to split – flaky pastries layered with honey and butter, pralines and pistachio. Being a pistachio fiend, I really loved the ones flavored by the nut (which even took its green coloring!) and the round rounds that resembled tiny nests with candied pistachio eggs inside. We stumbled upon Saray Baklava, just off the beaten track. The owner serves up about a dozen varieties, but weighs the goodies instead of just giving you three for 9,50€. You’ll find it just opposite the entrance to the Basilica Cisterns, in front of a shop called Finito de Córdoba. who would have thought!?

Price: 20 – 60€ / kilo

Having loved the Narnia books as a kid, I couldn’t skip the Ice Queen’s favorite treat – Turkish delight. Kinda nougaty, kinda starchy lokum, as it’s called in Turkish, the varieties are endless. Rose, lemon, mint, pistachio and walnut seemed to be in abundance, and there were stands and stores hocking the sweet around the main tourist drag, Istiklalal. I personally prefered baklava, but picked up a few boxes of Turkish Delight for my boss and hosts in Zaragoza.

Price: 2€ for a 500g box, much more from the shops.

Of course, there’s more – kafta, humus (not so propio, but easy to find), fresh fruit drinks, shepherd’s (spicy) salad, eggplant, rakibut a girl’s only got so much room in her stomach!

Any other memorable food travels? Have you ever done a gastronomic trip?

Turkey Story

They say a cup of Turkish coffee is worth 40 years of friendship.

Between the seven of us, we barely had seven years of friendship, but we suddenly found ourselves in Istanbul, straddling two mighty continents and our own expectations for Turkey.  We laughed, we scowled, we ate a lot of baklava. This is our Turkey Story.

Our first day was rainy, so we spent the morning ducking in and out of mosques, listening to muezzin calls in stocking feet, relishing in feeling the carpet beneath them. After the trek downhill from Taksim and crossing the Galata Bridge, the two peninsulas that make up the European part of Istanbul, we found ourselves at the feet of the New Mosque. Our shoes came off, and the scarves went on.

Wandering the back streets of the neighborhood, we ducked inside of a brightly lit coffee house and enjoying our first cup of Turkish java. The first sip was bitter, even while we stared out at a soft rain and men playing backgammon in stumpy stools. As the cups were drained, we looked for signs of the future in the grinds. No Hogwarts-like fortune telling here, though.

The Hagia Sofia, a momentous Byzantine structure marked as a “museum” left us in awe. Low-hanging chandeliers and larger-than-life mosaics and script adorned the cavernous space.

Lunch was on everyone’s minds, so we hunted down a cheap chicken kebab and washed it down with freshly squeezed pomegranate juice. I remembered being warned about fresh juice in Morocco – the juice stung my gums and left my teeth purple, but I didn’t fall victim to bad water.

The Blue Mosque was on the docket for the evening, and we traipsed through Sultanahmet Square as the wind howled. Just as we passed under the gate, the call to prayer began, and tourists were barred from entering. We were forced to contemplate its size and greyish hue from the outside. Truth be told, we were over mosques and all of that effort it took to take off our shoes, wrap our heads up, and then undo it all upon exiting. We decided baklava was a good alternative.

The rain beat on, and Julie slipped into a bar. We ordered beers for us and one for Katerina, but our friends didn’t follow us in. when we left the bar, the waiter just replied, “There is the door, go away.” So much for Turkish hospitality. Since we’d pay for a dinner and music show at Agememnon’s (we think that’s what he wrote on the receipt…kind of), all of us chickens watched as the dervishes bowed before the altar and set to whirling around, soft-footed, as we ate our sausage kebabs. I was entranced and set my ISO to 3200, just to get the swirling effect.

The next day awoke us, sunny and warmer, which was a treat after arriving to the hostel with wet boots and a broken umbrella. Craving a view of the Bosphorous and Marmara Sea, we paused at the Galata Tower, an ancient lighthouse and fire department building, to marvel in the boats zigzagging their way through the harbor and the sparkle of the sun on the river.

Our attraction of the day center around the Topkapi palace, a fortified wall sitting on the end of the Eminönu peninsula. The imposing main gate, men dressed like old sultans and views of the channel were nice, but I left unimpressed and uninspired by the grounds and the prostitute bay, even after turning my camera’s color filter to bold.

Our hungry bellies lead us to a kebab shop off of the main strip, where I was bursting to pee. We had our first lentil soup there, called çorba, which we ate with fluffy white bread. As we chowed down our kebabs, one of the girls with a headscarf at the table adjacent to ours leaned over and began talking to Katerina. I was on the other end of the table, so I ate happily, interrupted. When I asked the waiter where the toilet was (non-verbally of course, just be jumping around like a little kid about to pee his pants), he pulled me outside into a hallway and encouraged me to play a game of tag with him up the stairs, around a few corners and directly into a squatty potty. International toilets – 6 (China, of course); Cat – 0.

As it turned out, she and the girl who accompanied her were executives at a publishing house, and they happened to be dining with an author whose books were being translated into English. She invited us to tea at their company office, a few doors down. Remembering a friend’s insistence that Islamic faithful are encouraged to share what they have, we had some tea with the girls, who rewarded us with free pins and books from the author.

Outside, the day was quickly turning to night, so I suggested we visit a place a student’s mother had recommended to me. Lover of all things macabre, I’d been talking up the cemetery that had been converted into an outdoor garden to smoke water pipes and have a tea for the duration of the trip.

Çorulu Ali Pasa was my favorite part of the trip. Through a narrow alleyway, we walked by stoves cooking hot coals in thin tin pots, and the men-to-woman-ratio was 10:1. Small groups of men sat on fraying woven blankets around pipes, with beautiful tiled lanterns overhead. It was twilight; the lanterns sparkled with the sun’s last daily effort as we ordered apple tea and a strawberry flavor for the pipe. I can’t say I’m a big shisha consumer, but we all relaxed as the men around us attended to businesses affairs or sat alone and smoked.

We retired to Taksim, nibbling at street food along the way. As we watched the sun cast an eery, moonlit glow on the mosque towers and Byzantine temples, I finally got the feeling: we were in an Islamic country. Only one thing left to do, then: head to Asia.

The following morning, which dawned bright and blue, we took a passenger ferry from the Eminönu side of the Galata Bridge to the Üsküdar neighborhood. The tokens cost a little under one euro, and the trip was barely ten minutes, and suddenly, we were traversing another continent. While the Asian side doesn’t have many monuments, the views of the Maiden Tower and business districts of the European peninsulas are breathtaking.

We had tickets for the archaeological museum, thanks to our MUZE pass, so we spent hours traipsing through sarcophagi on the warm day and split off from Julie and Tilly, also making a stop off at the Basilica Cisterns, an overly touristic underground cave. There were even animatronics, if you can believe it.

Our dinner was a quick cafeteria-like place, frequented by young students in the Taksim district and policemen. Live music pulsated in the nearby bars, but I found all of the walking and eating was slowly turning me into a sloth. We decided to ask the staff of our hostel (who spoke very little English) for some recommendations for hamams, the traditional Turkish baths, and found one right near our hostel. It would wait until after the Gran Bazaar, though.

Though overly touristy, this enclosed maze of 61 streets is home to vendors of everything from Turkish football jerseys to pashminas to antiques. We split up to cover more ground and browse the stalls under arches painted in ochre, dandelion and celestial hues. Fountains and tea stands punctuated every small street and the antique pipe vendors had hidden gems. But I had an agenda: evil eye jewelry, a few spice grinders and an engraved dagger for the Novio.

After having bargained in China and Morocco, I knew the drill: start below the price you’re willing to pay. Listen to the vendor rant about feeding his children (I didn’t see a single woman selling). Raise your price by a few lira. Continue repeating this step until you think you’ve exhausted the topic. Try adding a few more lira to get two. If this doesn’t work, walk away until they call you back. Lie about another vendor offering it for a cheaper price, if necessary.

In the end, I got three spice grinders for 5€ each, the dagger for 13€ instead of 20€ and two evil eye glass bracelets for 2€. Satisfied and exhausted, we awarded ourselves with MORE baklava in oozing pistachio and walnut varieties before finding the others.

We had agreed to meet at the hostel at 5pm, but we were on the other side of time, so we took the tram. Being late in the day, our group got split up, so Kristen, Katerina and I had to wait on the platform for the others for six minutes. As the second train pulled into the station, we looked frantically for the other two when I was approached. Clutching my bag, I realized it was my friend from Sevilla, Alberto, also enjoying his Semana Santa. First my alumnos in Santiago, and now Alberto in one of the largest cities in Europe. Surprised as always, we caught up while the funicular climbed the steep hill, stopping to take picture proof in front of the square.

As we relaxed in the hamam (moe about THAT later), we knew our trip was coming to an end. Tilly and Julie back to Coruña, Kristen to Málaga, me to Zaragoza and the other three to Sevilla for the Madrugá. I thought back on all of the baklava, the people and the six towering spires of the Blue Mosque. My four days in Zaragoza were certainly nothing to write home about (except to Ashlee, winner of my passport contest, obviously), but I was happy to have pushed my travel limits (hello, the toilets still get me!!) and finally see the last country on my must-see list.

Have you been to Turkey? What did you like, or not? Favorite food? This is definitely a city I connected with and would love to travel back to! For great articles on the country, check out Hecktic Travels, as the Canadian pair is there house sitting and exploring beyond Istanbul.

Of Mosques and Men

The muezzin’s soft wails over a crackling loudspeaker broke our girlish chatter.

As he strained to reach the top notes, calling to pray at the edge of daylight, we were ducking the seagulls that took flight in front of the New Mosque, Eminönu Yenicam. Crossing the Galata bridge towards our hostel in Taskim, I turned and watch the golden-topped towers glint in the fleeting sunlight, reflecting on the Bosphorous below.

Turkey was just what I needed – to stretch my travel legs after a year of being dormant, to fill my belly with new tastes, to be somewhere without an Easter celebration. It beyond fulfilled my expectation with its incredible food, friendly people and views bordering on fantastical.

The Galata Bridge stretches over the Bosphorus between the European fingers of Turkey’s largest city. The fisherman are there early, displaying their catches in shallow styrofoam pools or old fish tanks, their long poles leaned up against the blue iron of the guard rails, and they stay even as the muezzin wails at the end of the day.

As seagulls soared over the tourism boats, I caught my breath at seeing a mosque somewhere in the distance. Its twin towers and dome looked like a mirage set against pastels as the sun continued to sink below the Earth. I felt like I was in the far East, far from anything occidental and familiar.

I was snapped out of my revery by the smell of pistachio and honey. The rest of the girls had stopped midway across the bridge at a small snack cart that sold a Turkish cousin to the churro. I shelled out about 72 cents for the pistachio dream, finding myself a million miles away from Spain and a million dreams into Turkey.

Never fear, readers. I know I’ve been away a bit, but I’ve got a few things in tow, including an article (that pays me!) for GPSmyCity and a new stint as an expert for The Spain Scoop. But I’ve got five articles half-finished, 800-some pictures to sort through from Turkey and a rainy weekend ahead, so you’ll get your fill!

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