through others’ eyes

through others’ eyes

In our first year in Alicante we had five sets of visitors, and it’s been interesting to see our new home through their eyes.

They love our sunny apartment, with our view of the Med:

view - Mediterrean

They love our Mercado, with all of its sights and smells and our favorite stop-in: Katana.

They love our beach, with its lack of body shaming and our favorite stop-by: Xiringuito Postiguet, with its views, drinks, music, and friendly staff:

They love our castle, accessible by elevator:

They love our old town, with its sidewalk restaurants, including La Taberna San Pascual, run by our friend Antonio:

They love our neighborhood park and its outdoor bar: Sotello:

They love our sangria.

Our olives.

Our tapas.

Our paella.

Our parades:

Our fireworks:

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Vale!

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a weekend in Paris

a weekend in Paris

That sounds so pretentious to my Texas self: We spent the weekend in Paris.

Loving Husband pieced together flights so we could meet in Paris for the weekend. I left Madrid about the time College Roommate headed back to Texas; Todd left Alicante earlier and had a layover in Barcelona. We arrived in Paris within 2 hours of each other – just long enough for me to grab something to eat and get to where I could meet his flight.

A 40-minute cab ride from Orly into the center of town took over an hour. Someone was demonstrating – I never understood who, exactly.

Our hotel, the Hotel du Louvre, was being renovated. Half of it was closed off. But our room was right across from the Louvre, and we actually had a view from our room of some of the antiquity statues:

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We left the hotel and roamed away from the Louvre to find dinner. We stopped at a café that seemed popular, and a lovely gentleman with an American accent who was having an espresso asked us if we wanted to sit at the table next to him. We told him we were just perusing the menu and asked him if he would recommend the place.  He put his finger to his lips for a moment, then pointed up the street. “If you go up about 3 blocks…” Apparently, he didn’t recommend the place. We moved on.

After roaming a bit, we found a little Italian place. The food was good – not as good as our favorite place back home, but we’re spoiled. We got to chatting with the French couple at the table next to us and introduced them to Jimmy Buffett. As we were talking, the owner of the place piped in with “My girlfriend is from Austin.” More conversation with him after the couple left. An additional round of lemoncello – because his girlfriend is from Austin.

Our culture goal: the Louvre. We’ve gotten the hang of getting tickets in advance and downloading guide apps to get a preview, so we were set. Of course, there’s too much to the Louvre to get in one visit, but we did a pretty good overview. I will say that it’s much better laid out than the Prado. And with the first admission time of the morning, it wasn’t too crowded for most of our visit.

We then walked through the park and the statue garden, up the Champs Elysee. No time to stop anywhere, but the looking was enough for a first visit:

The next morning, a visit to Notre Dame. After all of our visits to Spanish cathedrals, which are constantly in a state of being cleaned and restored, we were saddened. We would have willingly paid admission if the money were used for restoration, as it is in Spain. But the exterior was dirty and the windows – beautiful though the were – were sooty, and much of the interior was in shabby shape.

And then: the reason we were in Paris: the Jimmy Buffett concert! At home, his concerts are in huge outdoor concert spaces, with 20-25 thousand spectators. La Cigale in Paris holds 1400. We were THAT close! We had seats on the first row of the balcony – perfect, considering all of the floor was standing space. 2 ½ hours of music we’ve known for 40 years – he seemed to be having even more fun that he usually has at his concerts. And 1400 people singing along all the way through…

Our return tickets were out of Beauvais – an hour bus ride from Paris to a terminal with only five gates and seats for 100 or so – by the time our plane boarded, we were packed into the waiting area like sardines. Some savings aren’t worth it.

Observations about Paris:

  • Paris is a city for couples, home to the People of the Tiny Table
  • As long as you’re wearing a black skirt, it doesn’t matter what else you have on—you’re stylish!
  • The 6-euro cokes were a shocker, but the iced carafes of cold water were awesome.

San Sebastian

San Sebastian

We waited almost too long to plan our trip to San Sebastian. Consequently, we paid a little too much for our train tickets and hotel. And we got only one positive response to our requests for private winery tours. But we got lucky – more in a moment.

The train ride from Madrid to San Sebastian is 7½ hours. That meant two days of travel for one full day in San Sebastian. But we were determined, and we’re past overnight trains. So we loaded up on e-books and snacks and settled in.

A snag when we deboarded in San Sebastian: we couldn’t exit the platform. The stiles were set up to take the small metro-sized tickets in order to exit, and we had regular RENFE tickets. The crowd grew. The worker overseeing the exit process just shrugged his shoulders. We waited. The crowd grew. People with bags clutching tickets and online printouts. Finally, they just released the stile and everyone flooded through and out. If it was meant to be a security feature, it failed miserably.

We had arranged with GoBasque for a private winery tour. It was the big expenditure of Roommate’s trip, and it was well worth it. When Nina and Ander picked us up, the other two tourists were sisters from Connecticut. Much to everyone’s delight, we were all of like mind about tastings and tourings.

Nina and Ander had done their homework, and Ander grew up in Basque country. The drive was punctuated by information about Basque history, culture, and language.

Our first stop was CVNE, a traditional winery in the Barrio de la Estacion in Haro, Rioja Alta. The first sight: workers sorting grapes just in from the harvest.

We learned new (to me) facts about Rioja wine and wine-making in general:

·       French oak is 800-1200 Euros per barrel

·       American oak is 400-600 Euros per barrel

·       The barrels have to be cleaned every 4 months, and they can only clean 50 a day.

·       During fermentation, the barrels lose about 7% of the wine.

·       After the wine has fermented, they blend the American and French barrels to get the desired taste.

·       Plastic corks are okay for young wines, but for not for others.

Fun facts about CVNE winery:

·       The cellar was designed by Eiffel. Yes, that Eiffel.

·       The winery had the first electricity in Spain – the third in all of Europe, behind only London and Paris.

·       A new cellar will double their production capacity, from 25,000 barrels to 50,000 barrels.

·       Their Monople was the first trademarked white wine in Spain.

Rules for producing Rioja wine are specific:

·       Excessive cleaning (see above – cleaning barrels every 4 months)

·       Barrels hold 220 liters

·       Time in barrel

·       Time in bottle

From there, we walked through the Barrio de la Estacion to Bodegas Muga. They had the most clever marketing thing I’ve seen yet in a winery: a coaster for each wine with a photo of the label and information about the wine in Spanish and in English. Each tasting was set on the appropriate coaster. Sure makes it easy to keep up with the wines you like!

Then back into the van to the modern winery: Bodegas Baigorri in Samaniego in the Altavista region. The winery is built into the hillside, with only the top floor visible upon arrival. This is floor 0, all glass with a welcome area and stunning views of the vineyards and countryside all around. The winery itself is in the 7 floors beneath the welcome area.

Here, too, it was sorting time from the harvest. Trailers of grapes were everywhere.

Fun facts about Baigorri:

·       They’re considered a medium producer, with 500,000 bottles per year.

·       All of their grapes are grown within 15 km of the winery

·       They have 125 hectares of vineyards, 25 owned and 100 managed by the winery.

·       The winery was established in 2002.

And more details about wine production:

·       The French came to Spain because of vine disease in their vineyards. The introduced techniques beyond foot stomping.

·       Tempranillo grapes are able to withstand temperature extremes.

·       Temperature has to reach 28 degrees for the sugar in grapes to be transformed into alcohol.

·       During the first fermentation, liquid and skins need to mixed for 18 days.

·       The second fermentation takes one month. The solid is separated from the liquid, and the malic acid needs to be transformed into lactic acid.

·       Young wines then go straight to bottles; the others then go into oak.

Their wines specifically:

·       In addition to French and American oak, they use 5% Russian oak. French oak is older than American oak and adds a strong and spicy element to the wine.

·       Rose is 50% tempranillo and 50% granache.

·       White wine is crianza and is fermented only in French barrels, which are replaced every year.

·       The Grand Reserve spends 2 years in oak and 3 years in bottle before market.

·       The B70 comes from vines at least 70 years old. There is not as much yield, but the flavor is better. They only produce 1100 bottles of the B70 each year. This wine ages in small oak tanks, not stainless tanks.

Our tour finished with a tasting lunch, complete with fabulous views out the floor-to-ceiling windows.

But Nina and Ander weren’t finished with us yet. We took a detour to the tiny town of Laguardia, where we roamed for an hour or so before returning to our hotels in San Sebastian. The town is definitely worth another trip.

The two evenings we spent in San Sebastian, we just roamed and enjoyed looking at the old and new art and watching the locals gather at the many tapas bars.

San Sebastian – and the wine area around it – definitely deserve more time!

Road trip to Olmedo

Road trip to Olmedo

Why Olmedo? College Roommate’s family name, so of course we had to check it out!

Our first full day in Madrid, we caught a train to Segovia, where we rented a car to go to Olmedo. This is where our travel travails begin.

Actually, they began in Cordoba, where we attempted to change our train tickets so we could leave earlier. If you buy your tickets in person—which my Loving Husband did—you can’t change them online. You can’t buy tickets online with a non-Spanish credit card. I had forgotten that part until after Elena had entered all of our passport/NIE information – twice!

Back to the car rental…

We had looked online and only found car rental agencies we didn’t know anything about. When we arrived at the train station, we asked at the information center. She gave us a map with the EuropCar office circled. Off we went in another taxi. Turns out, the car rental is just down the hill from the aqueduct on the main street. The Lovely Teenage Girl working the counter told us it was not posible to rent a car for a day; we’d have to return it Monday. This being Saturday, they were closing at 1:00 and would not be open on Monday. A one-day rental was no posible; we’d have to return the car Monday. Then the Grownup agent arrived. No problemo: we could park the car on the street and return the keys to the RepSol gas station up the street. Vale!

I had left my Texas driver’s license (finally arrived!) at home, so Kim had to rent the car. We had both been leery about driving in Madrid, and being of like mind, we had decided that renting in Segovia might be a better option—we could certainly avoid city traffic.

After struggling with the gears for a bit, then smelling that burning smell you never want to smell when driving, we realized we had not, after all, released the parking brake. Problem solved, we continued on our way.

Finally, I saw the plains in Spain where the rain mainly stays:

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While driving through the small villages, we passed a wedding party, complete with horse-drawn carriage. (I wasn’t quick enough with the camera.) In another town, we drove through a fiesta – literally, drove THROUGH a fiesta – locals with drinks in hand directed us through the crowd in the narrow street as we passed through town.

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At last we arrived at our goal: Olmedo. We visited with the girls behind the counter while we enjoyed our café con leche. We toured the Palacio Caballero de Olmedo – my knowledge of the literature of Lope de Vega is woefully inadequate.

Back to Segovia, where we enjoyed a celebratory sangría.

Then back to Madrid, where we took the obligatory city bus tour – both routes – before heading off to San Sebastian

 

Our version of the Spanish Grand Tour

Our version of the Spanish Grand Tour

My college roommate came to visit us in September. We’ve been friends for longer than either of us care to contemplate at this point in our lives.

A long first day in Spain: arrival in Madrid at 9:30, shower at the hotel, a quick bite, then to the Prado to see the temporary exhibit of the treasures of the Hispanic Society of America and hit the high points of the museum’s main holdings. Then the train home to Alicante, dinner, and – finally – bed.

We settled in for a few quiet days in Alicante, including meals at some of our favorite places: Katana in the Mercado and Xiringuito Postiguet beach bar. Castle Santa Barbara and its Game of Thrones exhibit.

We then hit the road for our version of the Spanish Grand Tour.

First stop: Granada and the Alhambra. We overslept, so had to get tickets and rush to start at the Nasrid Palace, then go back uphill to the Generalife. MUCH better to get there a couple of hours early and start at the Generalife. We were surprised: the crowds were larger than any we’ve encountered yet. Not so much fun with all of those tourists!

Kim is a serious quilter, and there are patterns everywhere:

Next: Cathedral of Granada. It continues to amaze.

Then on to Cordoba, where Todd dropped us off outside the old city wall. At the recommendation of the Lovely Elena at the Hotel Amistad, we had dinner at El Churrasco. Fantastic grilled salmon, accompanied by a lovely wine, followed by a decadent dessert: a truly grownup meal for 25 Euros each!

We hit the Mezquita as soon as it opened. Again, crowds of tourists. But the organ was playing when we got there, and we were able to get into the choir. This place is in many ways more impressive to me than the Alhambra (I don’t want to hear from those of you who disagree; I know this is a minority view.)

We didn’t have train tickets on to Madrid until 8:00 that night, but our concierge showed spaces available on earlier trains, so we headed to the station. But no seats available. So we trekked (via taxi) back to the hotel to stash our bags and find something else to do.

We started at the Casa de Sefarad, the Jewish Museum in the old quarter, just around the corner from our hotel. It is a fascinating place, and most of the information is available in English. The exhibits were interesting and manageable, and the staff was welcoming. When I asked if I could get a copy of the English explanations, I was told they would be happy to e-mail that information to me. Perfecto!

Still hours to go.

Leisurely lunch.

Still hours to go.

At the suggestion of the Lovely Elena, we visited the patios at the Palacio de Viana. Beautiful patio gardens were a welcome respite from the heat. Definitely a little-known jewel.

Finally, time to catch the train to Madrid. We had enough time at the station before the train to book our San Sebastian tickets.

 

a brief bit of Barcelona

a brief bit of Barcelona

fBarcelona will always be special to us – our oldest proposed to his girlfriend in front of la Sagrada Familia, and she said yes! If you declare your love and intentions there, you have to mean it!

It was a fast and furious two days – just a small bit of the city.

Of course, we started at Sagrada Familia, cuz you HAVE to do that. We booked our tickets several weeks ahead of time and arrived about an hour before our tour time to take pictures of the outside – and get engaged, of course. The exterior is, as expected, overwhelming.

 

I was afraid to go inside: with all of that going on, how on earth do you concentrate on God? But the inside was relatively much more calm than the outside. And is Gaudi’s design any more distracting than those of medieval churches would have been to their worshipers? Beautiful. And it will require several more visits to even begin to understand the layers of beauty.

 

Unlike for Sagrada Familia, we didn’t know we needed to get tickets for Park Guell. So, after tramping uphill to the entrance (we weren’t near the escalator end), we were denied entrance to the “fancy” part of the park and were limited to the open admission area. Husband and I sat and people-watched while the Newly Engaged toured the park. Next time, tickets ahead of time and start at the right end (with the escalator).

The food was awesome. Just around the corner from our apartment was Peix D’OR, where we got to pick our own fish for dinner. The woman manning the counter thought we didn’t know how it worked, but quickly realized we were just having a hard time deciding on what we wanted. The fish arrived perfectly grilled and covered with the best pesto I’ve ever tasted. YUM!

 

We had a lovely brunch at Firebug with the young set.

A visit to the aquarium – always a favorite activity!

 

Our most interesting sight: the Mercadona in our neighborhood. We entered to a foyer and check-out area much larger than our local Mercadona in Alicante. Followed the signs to an elevator lobby: the actual grocery store was in the basement! WHAT?!?! Huge, nice store, but you had to deal with the elevator to get back up to check-out with your groceries. Too weird.

 

 

first visit to the Prado – and more in Madrid

first visit to the Prado – and more in Madrid

I love the Madrid tourist bus. I do get tired of the tedious comments about architecture, but the views are marvelous. For the best photos, sit on the left-hand side of the bus.

We were very excited to arrive at Mercado San Miguel before the tourists. At 10:00 we had the place pretty much to ourselves and were able to explore and sample to our hearts’ content.

We dutifully booked our Prado tickets online, including one combo ticket that included the guidebook – a bargain if you are a collector of guidebooks, as my teacher friends tend to be. The Prado is overwhelming, so you need a plan before you go. We didn’t have one, so we ended up focusing on the 50 masterpieces. We took a break between floors for a cold drink, which helped. Still, we barely scratched the surface.

After the Prado, we headed back toward our hotel and encountered a surprise parade. It was the day of the Feast of the Virgin of St. Carmen, but I don’t know if this was that…

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The Royal Palace was beautiful. I think I can get much more out of it next visit, after I’ve had time to process a bit and read up on my Spanish history. You can’t take photos inside, which doesn’t stop many tourists, but I’m a rule follower in those regards.

We’re slowly chipping away at all that Madrid has to offer. So, until next time…