Reflections in Valladolid (or, the Weird Sensation of Returning to Your Study Abroad City)

Alejandro didn’t even need to tell me where to turn. As soon as I’d passed the Valladolid city limits, I went into autopilot and followed the roads I used to walk as a study abroad student in the capital of Castilla y León. Easing into third, I made my way past the bullring and Campo Grande, along the Rosaleda and the Pisuerga river to Plaza San Pablo, smack in the middle of the historic city. Alejandro was shocked that, nearly a decade after I studied there, I knew Valladolid better than he did.

He also found it hilarious that I remembered my first glimpse of the former Spanish capital – a boy peeing on a tree. A sign of the things to come, I guess. We had a good laugh as I navigated the wide avenues of Pucela.

I parked off of Avenida de Palencia in a square I’d pass through on our my to the university every morning, handing him his bags and giving the standard dos besos as I wished him well. He suggested having a beer, and I was only a few blocks from my host family’s new apartment, but I needed some time to soak up the city where it all started.

the historic center of valladolid

I walked from Avenida de Palencia past the National Sculpture Museum at Plaza San Pablo. Stood next to La Antigua and  in the shadow of the cathedral as the sun inched high into the sky. I was hoping to have a glass of wine in a bar I’d once nipped into, but the blustery November day meant that most things were closed. It was like a metaphor for everything I’d heard about pucelanos before I lived there – closed off and shuttered.

My feet led me back towards Plaza Mayor and its stately buildings and beautiful town hall; my stomach led me to Los Zagales, where my ears were treated to castellano. Just as I was paying and putting on my jacket, a hail storm erupted and the bartender smiled as he gave me another dos dedos of wine. Closed off? Maybe, but stingy the locals are not.

The hail suddenly slowed and then stopped, and I whirled around looking for what I knew would come next: a rainbow, stretched just behind the statue of the sacred heart. 

Plaza Mayor of Valladolid

Aurora’s whatsapp came just as I walked in front of Sotobanco, our favorite bar. She asked how the driving had gone and if I’d like to meet her and her mother to pick up Lucía, Aurora’s eight-year-old daughter. Again, my feet traced the city streets, slick with rain.

Older Aurora grabbed my hand and led me towards Plaza de la Universidad, literally tracing back the steps we’d taken when she first picked me up from the bus when we were assigned host mothers on that day back in May 2005. Back then, she seemed aloof, soft-spoken and overly Catholic. In these nine years, she’s become more than the woman who washed my clothes and made me tortilla.

When we arrived at Plaza de la Universidad to meet Lucía’s school bus, I reminded old Aurora of when I’d been on the bus, the last student to be chosen by a host mother. Be it luck or destiny, she smiled and clasped my hand tightly. “Sí, Cati, lo recuerdo.” The rain began again, a site I’d not seen in Valladolid ever – not when I studied abroad, nor on my subsequent visits.

Reflections of Study Abroad in Spain

The following morning, Aurora and I took Lucía to a children’s workshop in the newly inaugurated Auditorio Miguel Delibes, near the Real Valladolid Stadium. Sitting high above the Parquesol subdivision and a hill that slopes down gently towards the river, I contemplated the cold, gray day, and the nine yeas that had passed since my first moments in Spain.

The city of Valladolid itself didn’t seem to have changed since 2005, save the weather. Back then, we’d spend our afternoons next to the manmade beach, eating ice cream and drinking beer on the argument that it was cheaper than water (viva España).

Now, as I buried my nose in my scarf, I had to breathe a sigh of relief that this place, so emblazoned in my heart and my head and my first digital camera’s memory card, has remained largely the same. The hue of Plaza Mayor was the same fiery red, the naked statue in front of the post office still made me giggle, and the dollar store where we’d meet every morning to walk to class together called Los Gatos was open, despite slowing business in La Rondilla.

ayuntamiento de Valladolid

Returning to Valladolid is always a strange swarm of memories – the euphoria of discovering a new culture and language coupled with the then-debilitating homesickness and language barriers, namely – but Younger Aurora wields a bottle of local wine and two glasses.

A tí, Cati,” she says, pouring me a hefty glass, “and to this Spanish American life you’ve created.” Little does she know just how important she was to making it so. I hand her a Save the Day card and her eyes glaze over, but we toast and gulp down the wine, catching up on the changes our lives have seen in these few years.

Did you study abroad? Have you been back to visit since? If so, what were your impressions?

Tapa Thursdays: Los Zagales in Valladolid

Castilla y León may often be associated with being the breadbasket of Spain – cookie giant Cuétara is based out of Aguilar de Campoo (not a typo) – but it’s also renown for robust red wines, roast suckling pig and quality cuts of beef. 

Left to my own devices in the city where I studied abroad, I was clueless as to where to go. My señora Aurora’s tortilla and caprese salad held me over for the five weeks she cooked for me, and we never went out for meals, save a few trips to McDonalds. I remembered a small wine bar in the shadow of the cathedral where I’d snacked on pinchos a few years ago, but the biting cold had shops and eateries shuttered at the height of the lunch time hour.

Welp, time for Foursquare.

I chose based on location, skipping a gastrobar that was a few hundred meters closer in search of something a bit more down to earth. What I got, masked in dim lighting, wood panels and even a coat of armor, was one of Pucela’s most forward-thinking kitchens.

typical bars in Spain

The dishes at the bar were varied but standard – think revueltos, croquetas de la abuela, cured meats and cheeses. But I snagged a seat right in front of the dozen or so specialty tapas that had won numerous awards on the local and national level for taste and innovation. Their wine list includes the region’s DOs – Toro, Ribera de Duero, Cigales. I chose the wine of the month, called Museo and at 2.50 a glass.

My first food choice as clear – a mini hamburger of lechazo, or milk-fed lamb, with yuca chips and – get this – a red wine slushy. Served on a slate, the tender meat was juicy and full of flavor, and the burger simple. 

Hamburguesa de Lechazo

Intrigued, I ordered an Obama en la Casa Blanca, a tapa that won the city’s Pincho de Oro in 2009. The wild-mushroom based dish arrived in a white ceramic cupola, garnished with a slow-cooked egg white and a crispy puff pastry. Racist? Perhaps, but for a blind order, I was sold.

Tapa Obama en la Casa Blanca at Los Zagales

As the waiter topped off my second glass of wine, I asked him to surprise me, attesting to liking just about everything edible. He checked with the kitchen and asked them to make me a tapa they’d not featured on the menu in years.

It looked like this:
Tapas in Los Zagales Valladolid

It tasted like dog food.

I asked a few times what exactly I was eating, as I expected some sort of tarta de galletas hybrid, but the soggy biscuit, foamy merengue and who knows what on top left me gulping down my wine and asking for the bill.

In all, three tapas and two hefty glasses of wine left me 13.40€ poorer, but the best was yet to come. A hail storm began just as I was putting on my jacket and bundling up to leave for Aurora’s, so I got another free swig of wine and a rainbow stretching over Plaza Mayor.

If you go: Los Zagales is just off of Plaza Mayor – one of my favorite squares in all of Spain – on Calle Pasión at number 13. Hours vary by season, but get there early to snag a spot at the bar – prices are higher at the tables.

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This post was powered by the Typical NonSpanish project, which I’m working on with five other guiris and Caser Expat Insurance. All opinions and calories consumed are my own.

Walking The Medieval Murallas of Ávila

I’d seen the walls from the highway on the way to Madrid – like something out of a period piece, the red roofs of the historic  center spill down from a shallow hill, corralled by more than 80 stone towers. In this city of stones and saints, it’s what puts Ávila on the map.

On a recent trip to visit the city I studied abroad in, I detoured towards Ávila, a small provincial capital nuzzled up to Madrid. This meant backroads past crumbling castles, farmland and hamlets that are but a blip on a little-traversed highway.

Sigh. I love Castilla y León.

Las Murallas de Avila y su Visita

Ávila is a city of stone churches, small plazas and the birthplace of Saint Theresa the Mystic and Saint John of the Cross, founders of the Descalced Carmelites, though the imposing muralla is what I came for (I did light a candle for my abuela at the Church of Saint Theresa while de paso, though).

Construction began under Alfonso VI at the end of the 11th Century, and nearly a millennia later, the entire city was declared as a UNESCO World Heritage City, one of thirteen in Spain.  

Western Walls of Avila

Iglesia Santa Teresa, Avila

Avila CollageThe Cathedral of Avila

More than one kilometer of the city walls can be visited – the short tramo from the Puerta del Alcázar around the plaza and to the cathedral, and from Puerta de las Carnicerías around the western side of the old city to Puerta del Puente, at the lowest point of the city. You can also exit at Puerta del Carmen, right next to the Parador de Turismo. One ticket is valid for the entrances at Puerta del Alcázar and Puerta de las Carnicerías.

Walking the City Walls of Avila

The Cathedral of Avila from the City Walls

Puerta del Carmen Avila

Selfie at the Murallas de Avila

Visting the Medieval Walled City of Avila Spain

Leave 90 minutes or so to visit the walls, and don’t miss the numerous Romanesque and Gothic churches within them. Also of note is the museum, convent and church dedicated to Saint Theresa (or the yolk pastries bearing her name). 

If you go: The walls are open daily from 10am, with guided tours available. Tuesdays from 2 to 4pm free. If you have a Carnet Joven, show it with a photo ID for a discounted ticket. Be sure to bring sturdy shoes, as some parts of the walls are hazardous. Regular admission is 5€, reduced 3.50€. If you want a great photo, walk or drive to Los Cuatro Postes, just across the Adaja River.

If you like walks and hikes and old things, you’ll enjoy: The Dubrovnik City Walls | Climbing Teide, Spain’s highest point | Spain’s UNESCO World Heritage Sites

Have you been to Ávila? More importantly, have you tried ternera de Ávila?!

Thirteen Weird Spanish Superstitions

In planning a Spanish-American wedding in America, I’m having to juggle between two cultures, two languages – and a whole set of weird traditions and superstitions. Upon finally activating my online registry, my soon-to-be mother-in-law was horrified to see cutlery knives.

“Is that not a bad sign in the United States?” she asked, genuinely concerned that I’d be dooming our marriage before we’d even decided on entrees. Who knew that getting knives for a gift spells D-I-V-O-R-C-I-O in Spanish culture?

Moving to a new country often means tiptoeing when it comes to avoiding cultural blunders. Many of Spain’s odd superstitious are deep-rooted in tradition and the Catholic religion, and while some are laughable, as someone who grew up borderline obsessive compulsive, I find myself playing into their Spanish equivalents quite often.

El Gordo

There is a love of the game in Spain, and not just fútbolonline betting games, slot machines in bars and the national lottery system are all thriving in the midst of the financial crisis, and it’s not uncommon to see people lining up for big draws.

Spain’s biggest draw happens just before Christmas, known as El Gordo, or The Big One. People tune into the drawing on December 22nd to hear the children of Colegio San Ildefonso sing out the numbers, and many of the ticket holders religiously ask for the same numbers or only buy from places where other large prizes have been bought.

Apparently ‘lightning doesn’t strike twice’ is a concept lost on the Spaniards.

Witches, La Santa Compaña and La Güestia 

My suegra is from Asturias, a province in the north of Spain with a strong belief in superstitions and the supernatural (hence the horror of practically severing my marital bond before it started!). 

source

Fernando told us about La Santa Compaña before we left Baamonde’s pilgrim lodge one night. On dark, rainy nights in Galicia, these witches often offer candles to help light the way, converting you into a soul doomed to wander the Galician countryside for all eternity (there are worse things – it’s beautiful!). 

Similarly, La Güestia line up and travel from hamlet to hamlet in the sparsely populated countryside of Asturias, snatching up the souls of the dying.

And then there are the witches, dwarves and forest animals who play evil tricks on people, popular in local lore in the foggy, dream-like parts of northern Spain. In fact, many superstitions come from trying to avoid them!

Saintly Behavior

Per Catholic tradition, saints are revered. When I called a church about a premarital course, the priest asked our professions so that he might pray for us. Each saint is the patron of something – an affliction, an animal, a profession – and saint days are celebrated. 

Let’s just say I usually pray to the Virgin of Loretto when I hop on a RyanAir flight.

Bad Sweep Job

Not only should you avoid bringing a used broom into a new house (oops), but sweeping over someone’s feet will mean that that person will never marry. Good thing I’m the one who sweeps in the house most often!

A Place to Leave Your Hat

Just like in Italy, leaving your hat on top of a bed signifies that something bad will happen. Most often, this is related to losing one’s memory.

Un brindís!

Perhaps my favorite superstition is the belief that people, when toasting, must look one another in the eye. I can’t wait for the creepiness at my wedding when I get to stare down my family and friends!

What Not to Give a Baby

Babies should never be gifted anything in the color yellow, as it’s believed to bring the evil eye. There goes my nursery neutrality plan…

Salty

My mother always taught me that the salt and pepper must never be divorced (really, am I just cursing myself for fun now?!), making sure I passed them together to another diner’s hand. In Spain, the salt must never be passed or spilled, as this brings bad luck.

Tuesday the 13th

The film Friday the 13th probably didn’t gain much traction in Spain, as if the thirteenth day of the month falls on a Friday, a Spaniard isn’t bothered by it. Instead, Tuesday the 13th brings the mala suerte, as the word for Tuesday, martes, is related to the God of war.

As for the knives? Apparently taping a penny to the blade wards off divorce lawyers. Still, I’d rather not risk it!

Do you know any Spanish superstitions?

Love and the Art of Flamenco Guitar Making: A Visit to the Guitarrería Mariano Conde

The sawdust on the floor gave it away: this was actually a living, breathing sort of workshop, not one where the workers are tucked away, out of sight for appearances. My ears perked with each twang of the six strings of a flamenco guitar. There was a few hollow knocks, followed by a bit of sanding.

That’s where the sawdust came from. 

Growing up, I played the clarinet and learned music theory while perfecting trills, scales and my embouchure. Upon taking a flamenco course in Seville, I discovered that I shared the innate rhythm bailaores possess, the internal metronome that allows them to recognize palos and styles, then spiral into dance. My ears picked up the 2/4 and 3/4 counts and set my feet into motion with a firm golpe using my whole foot.

There are three big parts to flamenco – el cante, or the song; el baile, or dance;  el toque, or the guitar. The guitar is what accompanies  the cante, and sets rhythm to the bailaor. 

To learn about how flamenco guitars are crafted, Tatiana took us to the Mecca of guitarras flamencasGuitarrería Mariano Conde. Tucked away from the Ópera area on Calle de la Amnistía, this workshop has existed since 1915 and is operated by a third-generation craftsman and his son. 

Mariano hardly looked up from his work as he welcomed us into the bi-lever taller. He was sanding down the intoxicating curves of a flamenco guitar, crafted from cyprus and a century-old design. There was a muttered holaaaaa bienvenidas and a quick dos besos for Tatiana as she led us downstairs into the dimly lit belly of the shop. 

The tools of the trade stood against the wall – picks, sanders, measuring sticks, protractors. Nearly two dozen guitars in various stages of development, each showing just a fraction of the work that goes into crafting a lightweight flamenco guitar. In all, about 300 hours of labor go into producing a single instrument.

Mariano descended the stairs, carrying a soundboard over his shoulder. Made of thin strips of cypress or spruce, this part of the guitar provides for the reverberation and the sound that is transmitted when strings get plucked. Once this part of the guitar has been crafted, the sideboards are affixed, followed by the fretboard, or neck.

Just as a painter signs the bottom of a masterpiece, Mariano’s signature comes by way of the carving on the top of each fretboard – his is a minute, gently sloping “M.”

Many of the guitars we saw were in their final stages of production – applying coat after coat of French shellac, drying, or ready for the strings and bridge to be attached. Around the sound hole, Mariano adds another signature of his workshop, one which is solely dedicated to flamenco guitars: the rosette.

Made from carved and dyed pieces of wood, the color and pattern of rosettes changes regularly, and his current design pays homage to the first generation of flamenco guitar craftsmen in his family. The costs begin at 2800€ and rise steadily from there, depending on the wood used and hours of craftsmanship.

Unless, of course, it’s a Sonata.

A list of about 30 names of guitars, named for the poems that accompany the tag, are specially crafted for famous names in flamenco (including the recently deceased flamenco great, Paco de Lucía) and specialty buyers, including musicians who do not perform in the flamenco style. The Sonata guitars are pricey, but done solely by el maestro himself.

Mariano himself was hospitable, answering my questions between teens looking to replace nylon strings and other curious buyers who walked into the shop.

To say the Conde Hermanos, sobrinos de Domingo Esteso, are household names when it comes to flamenco guitars, would be an understatement. I’m not a flamenco aficionado, but can appreciate the discipline and attention it take to perfect an art, be it el cante or el baile or el toque.

The Art of Making, Alma Flamenca from Deep Green Sea on Vimeo.

I visited Guitarrería Mariano Conde as part of the ‘Origins of Flamenco’ tour with OGO Tours. Check out their website for loads more, from food to walking tours to excursions. Javier and Tatiana graciously invited my friend and I free of charge, but all opinions are my own.

If you’re interested in more Madrid and flamenco: My Perfect Madrileño Day | Mercado San Miguel | Where to see flamenco in Seville

Do you like Flamenco?

Spain Snapshots: Setenil de las Bodegas (and why I never need to return)

The eternal question I get from my visitors is: Ooooh, where should we go on your days off? I’m not the type of person to sit still on the weekends so long as there is sunshine, half a tank of gas and someone to watch the ever-changing highway signs for me.

Tobes works in the travel industry, so when we went down the list of obvious choices (Granada? Nah, was just there. Portugal? Let’s skip it because of the holiday weekend.) Nothing really stuck out at us.

It was time to get Señor Google involved, and the page rank spoke: Pueblos Blancos.

The white villages, known as pueblos blancos, are a string of whitewashed villages perched on mountains and in valleys in the Cádiz and Málaga provinces. Many, like Ronda and Grazalema, are quite well-known. There are two dozen of them, and I can count the number of them I’ve been to on one hand.

Once she’d recovered from jet lag, we hopped into my car and drove south out-of-town. Once you hit Puerto Serrano, towns begin to pop up in the distance as small white blips on a mountain, reached by snaking roads over hills and through farmland.

In a last-minute decision, we stopped in Ronda for libations and to stretch our legs, and while we could have spent the entire afternoon callejando, I had been intrigued by a village I’d seen on Trover – Setenil de las Bodegas.

Believed to have been around since the Roman times, the river gorge on either side of the Trejo has been exploited for shops and homes that are built into the overhanging rock. The result is something that kind of twists your mind:

Could you imagine going outside to see if it’s raining but come face to face with this rock? 

Tobes and I arrived at the merienda hour, when people were beginning to wake up from a Sunday siesta and head to the streets. The road that leads into town immediately shoots you onto a one-way street that winds through homes and uphill. Seville is as flat as Illinois, so we had several small scares as I tried not to stall or roll down the hill.

I found a parking spot at the highest point in town, right next to the city’s main attraction:

Setenil has just over 3,000 residents, though very few of them actually have houses built into the rocks. Apart from this alleyway, calle Jabonería and calle de las Cuevas de la Sombra are the only evidence of that this village has a claim to fame. You can drive under some of the overhangs, but we found that people weren’t willing to corral their dogs or small children or move out of the street for you.

We did climb to Calle Cerrillo, home to the San Sebastian hermitage and the supposed place where Isabel I of Castille (the most badass women in Spanish history) gave birth to a stillborn child of the same name. The sun was setting behind the mountains, turning the gorges golden and the buildings a dreamy off-white.

For a town with a rich history (Romans! Arab fortresses! Catholic Kings!) that’s known for its gastronomy, we left pretty disappointed with Setenil. The town was shabby, the locals indifferent to visitors and I saw very little encanto.

The town is a mere 20 minutes from Ronda and 20 more from El Gastor, so don’t go too far out of your way to visit – hit Vejer, Olvera and Arcos de la Frontera instead.

Like small towns in Spain? Tell me about your favorites or read a bit more on ones I love: Garganta la Olla (Cáceres) // San Nicolás del Puerto (Sevilla) // Carmona (Sevilla) // Osuna (Sevilla)

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