Simon the Toledo Sword Salesman

The shop was all red and chestnut wood. The gold-inlaid jewelry sparked and the intricate steel swords glimmered. One look around and my first thought was, “Where’s the dust?” The shop looked ancient, yet everything glowed as if it was brand new. And new it was.

In the medieval Spanish city of Toledo — the perfect day trip from Madrid — this juxtaposition of ancient and modern is everywhere. Steps from 14th-century fortresses are sleek and modern cafés. Blocks from a synagogue build in the 1300s is a bank opened in the 2000s. And overlooking a plaza filled with shiny new café tables stands the old wooden workbench of Simon the Toledo jewelry maker and sword seller.

Simon's Toledo Workbench

Seconds after we stumbled into his shop — simply named “Simon” (Plaza San Vicente, 1) — the plump old artisan shuffled towards us, carefully edging around a propane heater rattling out a small halo of warmth in the otherwise drafty shop. He was  almost as round as he was tall and bald except for a wispy ring of grey hair. He had the deeply lined face of a man who’d worked all his life and the kind eyes of a grandfather whose No.1 joy in life was telling stories of times gone by.

“I’ve been selling swords in this shop for 66 years,” he told me proudly after realizing with a relieved sigh that I spoke some Spanish. He ran his weathered fingers over the intricate handles of his swords, pausing at each just long enough to mutter which historical figure or pop culture icon it was designed after. “El Cid, Ferdinand ‘El Rey Catoloico’, Lord of the Rings, the Knights Templar, King Carlos III…”

We careened our necks to examine the elaborate designs and inscriptions on each design, careful not to touch the swords. All day we had walked past souvenir shops with large paper signs warning us “No Tocar!”, or “Don’t Touch!” as if the thick steel swords would crumble under our fingers. Seeing our awkward twisting and turning, Simon chuckled to himself, grabbed a sword off its metal rack and handed it to me. “Take it! Touch it! Grab anyone you want!” he said. This was no ordinary Toledo tourist trap souvenir shop. And Simon was no run-of-the-mill sword salesman.   

Simon the Toledo Sword Salesman
While he didn’t make the swords himself (he left that heavy metal work to the world-renowned steelworkers located just outside the city), he talked about them as if they were his grandchildren.

“This is a great sword,” he cooed, “a very very good sword, designed by King Carlos III! Or this one here, a very good sword, light, beautiful, the traditional sword of Toledo!”

For him, each sword was a story, a small glimpse at history and a window into the personality of Spain’s rulers. The sword of King Ferdinand, who funded Columbus’ trips to America and was arguably one of the most powerful Spanish kings, had a funky handle where one side curved up instead of down. When I asked why, Simon matter-of-factly responded: “He was the king! He could do whatever he wanted! And he wanted his sword to be different, unique, better than all the rest.” Mission accomplished, I thought.

As my friend tested each model of sword, I inspected the cases of elaborately patterned jewelry that lined the walls. There were pendants with minuscule birds woven around blooming flowers, earrings with geometrical stars triangles, scissors inlaid with golden vines and even a golden turtle whose shell was decorated with two golden knights on horseback. Each piece was handmade by Simon.

Simon's Toledo Jewelry
As I admired his handiwork, he shuffled over with a tall stack of faded postcards. Each one was from one of his past customers. He showed me cards from Japan, Costa Rica and Mexico, telling me about the men and women who had sent them, what they had bought and when they had come to visit his store. Some cards were so old I could hardly make out the picture on the front. Others were brand new, featuring, for example, a photoshopped picture of the Taj Majal reflected in Simon’s shop window (he really got a kick out of that one and apparently had no idea how the guy had “magically” made the Taj Majal appear in a picture of his shop).

Simon's Postcards

After about 30 minutes of browsing and story telling, my friend finally decided on a scaled-down replica of King Carlos III’s sword. It was one of the thinner swords with a cupped handle intended for fencing-style combat and based on the design of the traditional  swords of Toledo, which has been the mecca of sword making since Roman times.

After wrapping up the sword, Simon looked up at us and gave us one last piece of old Spanish wisdom before we left his shop. “Men may have the swords,” he said, handing Andrew his newly purchased espada, “but women, they beat us with only their eyes.” Well said, Señor Simon, well said.

Advertisements

Escaping Madrid’s Puente Madness in Alcalá de Henares

Madrid this weekend was a madhouse. The streets of the city center were clogged with impermeable human traffic jams. The metro was so packed that security guards blockaded the entrances, only allowing 50 people at a time to enter. And the narrow, weaving streets of downtown were parking lots of honking cars inching closer and closer to each others’ bumpers.

This was Madrid on Puente, aka a three-day weekend. As Friday was Spain’s Constitution Day, a national holiday, nearly the entire country (seemingly) flocked to the streets of their capital city to stand still in the middle of the sidewalk and admire the Christmas lights or ram their strollers through packed crowds over the toes of innocent bystanders.

Feliz Navidad in Alcalá de Henares

Needless to say after a day of this madness, I beelined for the first cercania train OUT of the city. Thirty minutes later, far from the insanity of celebrating Madrileños, I disembarked into the town of Alcalá de Henares, aka the birthplace of “Don Quijote” author Miguel Cervantes.

Don Quixote statue in Alcala de Henares

Alcalá is the second-largest city in the province of Madrid after the capital city itself, although you’d never know it by the quiet quaintness of the town center, a UNESCO World Heritage site. Walking toward the central plaza (Plaza de Cervantes), my friend and I joked that the tinsel-style Christmas trees hanging across the avenue were straight of A Christmas Story. We ate our words as soon as we enter the Christmas heaven that was Plaza de Cervantes.

Plaza de Cervantes in Alcala de Henares

Lining the plaza were wooden Santa’s elves’ type houses selling everything from chocolate-dipped churros to knitted slippers. A train blaring Christmas music circled a giant decorated Christmas tree (made of actual branches, not metal lights like Madrid’s tree). And lights were draped from tree to tree around the plaza.

After frolicking through the plaza and admiring the Cervantes statue (in which he is perfectly brandishing his feather pen!) we headed for lunch. Alcalá is known for it’s tapas culture. Like in Galicia and Granada, tapas bars in Alcalá give you a free small dish with every wine or beer you order. Unfortunately, when the price is free the quality is also on the low side. Not in the mood for a flurry of fried potatoes and sausage, we set off in search of a more sit-down style meal.

The Best Restaurant in Alcala de HenaresThanks to the advise of a fantastically helpful and friendly Alcalá native, we wove back into the antique kitchen utensil decor of Mesón las Cuadras de Rocinante. Like the majority of the restaurants throughout the city, las Cuadras was absolutely packed when we arrived around 3:30 pm for lunch. Every table was taken and the bar area was shoulder-to-shoulder with people sipping a caña (and it’s free garbanzo-bean stew tapa) while they waited their place at one of the red-checkered tables.

One hour, a glass of wine, and about a dozen near-disastrous collisions with the two frantic waiters later, we were finally able to claim a table. Within minutes, the bright tablecloth disappeared under cazuelas of meatballs and vegetable pisto, a basket of bread and its accompanying olive oil, a plate of seared mushrooms topped with cured jamón, and a dish of delicious semicurado cheese.

It was everything I love about Spanish meals. Every item was simple, yet inexplicably packed with flavor. They were cooked to perfection, in a way that spoke to the centuries of history and practice that went into each dish. And they were presented without flourish, allowing the downright deliciousness of each plate to speak for itself. Our feast, along with two glasses of wine, set us back a mere 17 euro each.

Delicious Lunch in Alcala de Henares

The most important part of the day completed with massive success, we set of to explore the two main sites of Alcalá: the house where Cervantes was born and the insanely beautiful Universidad de Alcalá. Unfortunately, our late lunch meant that we missed the last tour at the Cervantes house by 15 minutes (it started at 5:30pm) AND the final guided tour of the University (which started at 6pm). Guess we will just have to make another day trip to Alcalá!

Universidad de Alcalá

The University of Alcalá

My Real-Life Shark Week

Shark Fighting

Hunched halfway over the boat’s edge 43 miles from the Texas shoreline, my arms screamed with the fire of struggling muscles as a pleaded with my fingers not to let go. The padded fighting belt strapped around my waist slipped sideways. The thin blue straps of my chest harness snapped tight. I groaned as the harness dug into the back of my neck, sending a spasm through my back but preventing the red-and-black fishing rod from plunging into the Gulf. I yanked upwards, cranked my reel twice and panted with exhaustion. I had no idea what creature was fighting me on the other side of this spaghetti-thick fishing line, but one thing was certain: that sucker was big.

It was my second off-shore fishing excursion and I was determined to take home a victory in my family’s traditional First, Most and Biggest competition. The 14-pound Red Snapper I pulled in just after sunrise secured my “First” title. The beast now thrashing at the end of my line would, without question, put me in the running for “Biggest”.

Off-shore fishing to me is like the grown-up version of those kiddie carnival games where you toss a string over painted plywood and pull back a surprise toy. You never know what’s going to appear at the other end of the line, but by God you’re going to fight like hell to finagle it over that tricky wooden edge. In the case of the breaking-my-back catch on this Port O’Connor-launched fishing trip, no crashing wave or screaming muscle was going to keep me from discovering the particularly massive prize at the end of my monofilament line.

Off-Shore Fishing

This deep sea battle began beneath a scorching midday sun. After a morning of tossing back an array of Red Snapper — a bright, peachy-red, round-bellied fish that happened to be out-of-season — our expert guide, Steve, decided to take a stab at a more intense open-ocean adventure. Slicing up a jumbo-sized bait fish, he slid the 6-pound head-half onto a hook that would rival the Captain’s and cast a steel leader off the boat’s back side. The rod tip twitched then dipped then twitched again, teasing us as smaller fish nibbled chucks off of our super-sized bait. And then, WHAM, the rod swooped toward the waves, the reel whirred with sound of line escaping and the boat’s excitement level shot to the sky.

I jumped toward the rod, yanking it out of it’s holder, jamming the butt into my rod belt and cranking the line back onto the reel. Within minutes my confident cranking turned to desperate attempts at rotation, making my above-water attempts to wrangle in the beast below rather futile. My focus shifted from pulling this creature up to keeping myself from joining him overboard. I yelled for backup as my back muscles screamed and my biceps trembled.

Kurt, my fishing-guru step-dad, grabbed the rod and, in unison, with him yanking and me reeling, we inched the monster from his 200ft-deep lair.

The Two-Person Shark Heave

“This could take thirty minutes or three hours,” Guide Steve said, smiling through his sandwich as our ocean animal pulled out another 100 feet of line.

“I hope it’s a huge Grouper,” Kurt panted between pulls.

“Don’t let go!” my mom shouted from the other side of the deck.

“Maybe it’s a Hammerhead!” Steve exclaimed between bites.

“So. Cool.” I choked out between breaths.

For easily an eternity I cranked and Kurt pulled until a flash of very angry silver darted by beneath us. Another heave and three quick reel-turns brought a fin into view. A very large, very pointy, very shark-like fin.

I’ve watched enough Shark Week shows to know what happens next. The fisherman yelps with excitement as the camera zooms in on that fear-inspiring fin. In his attempts to get a good look to predict length and weight, he loses his balance and tumbles overboard into the awaiting jaws of his seriously pissed-off shark. A feeding frenzy ensues, which makes for amazing television and a not-so-amazing open-casket funeral. Thanks Discovery Channel for educating this city girl on exactly how NOT to catch a shark.

When that sharp, silver tail of my own deep sea creature finally broke the surface, water went flying, but my overexcited feet stayed firmly planted on deck. At least 240 pounds of sheer shark power dove back towards the depths and we fought against our ailing bodies to drag him back into view. A lifetime later, our Sandbar Shark gave in to the inevitable and all 8+ feet of his prehistoric power resigned to a stint at the surface.

My 8ft, 200+lb Sandbar Shark

We had done it. For the first time I had caught a creature bigger than I am. In this master battle of human willpower over shark endurance, my weakling biceps and incessant mantra of “don’t let go!” triumphed over his forceful tail and animal instinct to survive. I leaned over the boat’s side to snap a picture with this majestic creature, and was captivated by the sparkle of it’s skin in the sunlight and the dinosaur-like eye that stared blankly up at me. Even high-definition television can’t come close to capturing the almost tangible power of a shark swimming inches away or how stone-like its beady eyes are. The fear that usually clutches me every time I wade into salt water or motor out into the open ocean, a fear that seemed well-founded while watching the feeding frenzies of Shark Week, was nowhere to be found.

Touching the Beast

When the cameras stopped flashing, Steve snapped the line with a long metal pole and the shark that took an hour to come into view, disappeared in seconds. In it’s almost imperceptible wake it left behind a body full of burning muscles, a boatful of awe-inspired smiles and a “Biggest” title that my sisters are going to have a heck of a time trying to beat.

‘Feria Gastronomica’: Spanish for ‘Heaven’

Galicia Gastronomy Fair

One of the three delicious local wines I tasted during the “show cooking” demonstration.

This weekend I died and went to heaven. I apologize for the cliche, but in this case, trust me, it’s appropriate.  Let me paint you a picture… In the southern Galician town of Ourense lies a massive convention center that is cutely named “Expourense.” Last week this dreary, grayish metal beast of a building played host to food heaven. Booth after booth piled with regional wines, traditional tapas and artisan cheeses stretched as far as my hungry eyes could see. Chefs gave cooking demonstrations while tuxedoed waiters passed out tastes of their creations. Photographers, writers and food lovers swirled their tempranillos and moseyed from display to display. White linen tables stood clustered into makeshift restaurants, awaiting the joyous ritual of Spanish lunchtime. It was a paradise of flavor and I had but five hours to devour its wonders.

Asturian Cheese Table

I’ll take one of each please!

My first stop at the “Xantar” Gastronomic Fair was the Asturian cheese table. Stacks of cheese rounds in sizes ranging from a fist to a serving platter enticed me from all sides of the table. Atop each stack stood a small plate piled with tiny bites and behind each heap were the artisan cheesemakers themselves, each dressed in the traditional garb of their region. I started fresh and worked my way to strong, falling in love with Asturias with each morsel. As a slice of queso fresco melted over my tongue, a woman wearing a dress that looked like the lovechild of lederhosen and little house on the praire explained that this 100 percent cow’s milk cheese was aged only one week and got it’s pinkish-orange color from a hefty dose of spicy paprika. Farther down the table a young man with a Peter Pan hat introduced me to cider cheese. Picture cold, refreshing beer brewed solely from apples (aka cider) infused into a smooth brie-like cheese. I could almost feel the effervescence from the bright, sparkling cider as I sucked every drop of flavor from my tiny tasting bite.

Piles of dark red chorizo from Asturias’ southern neighbor, León, enticed us away from the cheese heaven. After marveling at the distinctly smokier flavor of León’s chorizo (compared to the Galician sausage I’m used to) we stumbled into a free “show cooking.” A young, slightly nervous chef was explaining to a crowd of about 20 feria-goers seated before his cooking-show style kitchen the proper way to scrape a thin layer of cooked egg from the underside of a cake pan, where he had apparently cracked it and backed it into a see-through sheet.

Moments after settling into our chairs (plastic lawn chairs classed up with linen slip covers) the first of our three wine glasses was filled and a bite-sized sample of the chef’s egg creation paired with tuna (from a can, as it always is in Spain) and drizzled with cauliflower purée.

Galician Gastronomy Fair Show Cooking

Thin sheets of egg sandwich tuna and peppers. Cauliflower purée ties it all together!

Show Cooking Dish #2

Soft organic cheese rolled in dried, roasted tomato and presented on a wheat cracker stick.

Show Cooking Taste #3

This apple sorbet was made using liquid nitrogen and soda water!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Next up was what looked like a mushroom but which was actually a smooth, smokey ball of cheese rolled in roasted, spiced and dried tomato flakes and served on a bready wheat cracker stick. This little appetizer packed a serious punch of flavor! Delicious. Next came the manzana sorbet, which the chef created by slowly pouring liquid nitrogen into a huge metal basin filled with about two cups of an sweetened apple mixture. With smoke billowing out of the bowl and cascading down the table the man explained that this light, refreshing dessert would be served in a nerf football-sized white chocolate egg which he had painted with dark chocolate. Ummmm, yes please.

Thus three glasses of wine and three interesting tastes later we sauntered over to wine tasting row, which led us to tapa land and, ultimately, sea food corner. While admiring a table showcasing Galicia’s marisco specialities (sea urchin, barnacles, crab, eel, etc…) Kassandra and I almost took out a passerby when one of the lobsters started walking off it’s plate! Then the razor shell clams started poking in and out of their shells. We scurried away before the eel could start slithering across the table…

Typical Galician Seafood

Galicia is known for it’s amazing (and rather unique) seafood. It’s completely common to find whole eel and octopus at the grocery store!

After a handful of rather adventurous samples including cured river eel (delicious!), sea urchin paté (less delicious) and barnacle paté (literally taste like a mouthful of dirty ocean water) we began to notice that the crowds around the booths had dissipated into the makeshift restaurants. So with already-full bellies we set off in search of a menú. An enthusiastic (and rosy-cheeked) recommendation from a friend we made on the bus, we settled for the epic lunch menú of a local Ourense restaurant. While the waiter assured us it would be no problem to share a menú, I don’t think the concept of sharing made it all the way to the kitchen. This was, without question, the largest meal of my life. Without further ado, I present to you our lunch:

Epic Galician Lunch Part 1

First first course: this flakey ceviche-filled pastry paired perfectly with our crisp Albariño wine. I say ‘first, first course’ because while the menu gave me the impression would could choose one from a selection of four primero platos apparently I was wrong…

Epic Spanish Lunch Part 2

Second first plate: While it is typical to serve bread at every meal in Spain, this place went a tad overboard, presenting us each with a whole loaf. And, obviously, a plate of cured jamón as well.

Epic Spanish Lunch Part 3

Third first course: Raxo. This typical tapa is made from the same ground pork as chorizo, only this one has a much stronger flavor and even more spices. It is one of the only Spanish tapas that I don’t like.

Epic Spanish Lunch Part 4

Fourth first course: Pulpo with potatoes. A platter of boiled octopus doused in spicy paprika, salt and olive oil usually constitutes a meal in of itself. Not today! Apparently in this meal-size time warp it is a mere appetizer. So full already…. but it’s sooo good!

Just to recap, we’ve now devoured half a bottle of wine, half a loaf of bread, ham, seafood pastries, ground pork and boiled octopus. And that was just the so-called “first plate.” Now it’s time for the actual meal….

Epic Spanish Lunch Part 5

Second Course: Beef steak (chuletón de ternera). This not only looked like a work of art, but tasted like one. It was crispy on the outside and ridiculously tender in the center. So lean, yet with so much flavor!

Epic Spanish Lunch Part 6

Dessert: Tarta de Caramelo. I didn’t think I could eat another bite, but when this slice of beauty changed my mind. It was like tiramisu topped with a dense chocolate cake and slathered with coffee-infused caramel.

And then I died happy…

All things Spanish, Christmas-style.

The Grinch Lives in Spain

Christmastime is in the air in Sarria, and for many Spaniards that apparently is a bad thing. After wrapping up the last of many Navidad-themed lessons (a Frosty the Snowman sing-along with third grade) I was practically skipping down the hall, debating how many bars of turrón to take back to the states for my family and admiring the elementary Christmas crafts adorning the walls, when I fell into step with another teacher. “Feliz Navidad!” I said, perhaps a little too cheerily considering it was pre-afternoon coffee. “I hate Christmas,” she responded, straight-faced and even-toned.

Whaaaa?!? This profesora, whose name I annoyingly can’t remember, went on to explain that, roughly “in Spain we don’t live as intensely as you do in America. We don’t celebrate as intensely.” She said Christmas for her is just a lot of work. It’s stressful and makes her miss the family members and friends who can’t be here with her. “If you have young kids, it’s fine,” she added. “But now it’s just mucho trabajo.

At first I thought she must be an anomaly. After all, who can really hate Christmas?!? But minutes later, when I asked the gym teacher (and resident Galician historian) Jose Manuel what his Navidad plans were, he gave the same response: “I don’t like Christmas. It’s too much work. Too much stress.”

As a unabashedly enthusiastic Christmas-lover I was initially flabbergasted that this culture that I hold as a standard-bearer for living as happily as possible was so llena with Grinches. But this Scrooge-dom, I suppose, has a pretty sturdy footing considering Spain’s Christmas traditions.

Just like most (all) Spanish holidays, the cornerstone of Christmas is two massive family meals, one on Christmas Eve, or Noche Buena, and one on Christmas Day. Unlike in America, where we have one ham or one turkey as the centerpiece of the meal, in Galicia these Christmas meals are chock full of protein options. In the Galician Christmas spread you could find roasted pork shoulder, shrimp, fish filets, cured ham, chorizo, sausage, clams, and fresh sardine-like fish all clustered onto the table between side dishes of usually garden-grown vegetables and varying shades of bread loaves.

Preparing such a feast not once, but SIX times over the Christmas break (on Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, New Years Eve, New Years Day, January 5th for the night before the Three Kings, or Reyes Magos, arrive and again on January 6th for Three Kings day) must be positively exhausting. And while spending the holidays with family is what makes it so special, mingling with those stubborn relatives for three weeks straight would undoubtedly give me a gray hair or two as well.

Despite the apparent lack of love for Christmas time among these middle-aged Spaniards, my little town of Sarria hasn’t let that Grinchiness prevent a full holiday transformation. Blinking snowflakes and glowing christmas tree lights line all of the main streets and Santa Clause figurines are hanging from a smattering of windows and balconies (apparently Santa climbs up buildings instead of slides down buildings in Spain).

Christmas spirit was in full swing during my weekend trip to A Coruña, Galicia’s second-largest town that sits on the Atlantic coast. Here’s a taste of that Spanish-style holiday cheer! (Click any picture to pull up the full-sized gallery)

Cod ‘de Casa’ (aka Bacalao from Braga)

Every Spaniard I encountered last week had one piece of advice for my upcoming day trip to Portugal: when in Portugal, eat bacalao. By the time I slumped onto the bus an hour before sunrise Sunday morning, this common fish (it’s just cod, after all) had assumed an aura of magnificence. My tastebuds were dancing with the prospect of a life-changing fish eating experience.

The Roman fort in Valenca, Portugal

This ancient Roman ‘Fortaleza’ guards the center of Valenca, Portugal.

But considering this trip was organized, planned and chartered by Spaniards, my over-eager tastebuds had eight tantalizing hours (read: a lifetime) to wait before they could probar this mythical Portuguese pescado. Three hours of traveling across breathtaking countryside, one hour of touring- in utterly confusing Portuguese- an 18th century author’s house and one clutch coffee break inside a Roman fort later, we arrived in Braga, Portugal’s third-largest city with about 175,000 residents.

The city center is completely closed off from cars and the wide calles are bustling with shoppers, handmade craft sellers and socializing señoras. It is also, much to my delight, brimming with pastelerias. Chocolate-drenched croissants, golden towers of walnut-topped muffins (or bolosin Portuguese) and caramelized creme tarts called my name from every other shop window. But with scarcely more than three hours to spend in Braga my attention was woefully dragged away from the bakeries back to our No. 1 target: bacalao. It was nearing 3 p.m. and many of the restaurants were winding down their lunch services. Portugal runs more on American time than Spanish, serving lunch around 1 pm  rather than 2:30 or 3 p.m.

After 20 minutes of frantic wandering the circles we had walked hadn’t gotten us any closer to a heaping plate of cod. Knowing only one word of Portuguese (Obrigada- thank you) I called out to a middle-aged couple strolling nearby in a mixture of Spanish and English. “Do you habla ingles? Español?” I blurted in their direction. Luckily I was rescued by another traveler in our group, who asked in Portuguese where we could find the best, and most affordable, bacalao in Braga. This fantastically helpful couple led us back down the street we had just traversed, assuring us that we were very nearby a nice spot and walking us right to the door. Casa Pimienta turned out to be a 100-year old restaurant that had been serving up Portugal’s specialty for decades. About half the tables were still occupied, despite the late lunch hour. En route to our mesa I spotted thick white filets of cod poking through stewed green leaves, sitting atop piles of rice and drowning beneath a thick pinkish sauce.

Using a mescla  of Spanish, Gallego, English and Portuguese we managed to order our massive pile of bacalao hidden beneath a mountain of fried potatoes. The main dish came with a side of buttery rice, croquettas de carne and a bottle of house wine. The Vinho Tinto was, unexpectedly, slightly effervescent  smooth and quite delicious. It was a whopping 5 euros for the bottle, proving that there is in fact a place where things are cheaper than Galicia (quien sabe?!).

Portugese Bacalao from Braga

A potato mountain covered our heaping helping of Bacalao.

I savored the purposely cold, but still scrumptious croquettes, gladly sipped the semi-sparkling red wine and scarfed down half a mini-loaf of wheat bread in the 10 minutes before our bacalao arrived in all of its fried golden glory. With expectations to rival a queen I dug into the hearty fish filet. It was… fish, lightly floured and flavored with now-familiar sabor of good olive oil. Tasty? Yes. Life-changing? Definitely not.

While the much-hyped bacalao clocked in below expectations, the city of Braga more than made up for the less-than-Earth-shattering lunch. The flower-filled streets lead to mist-covered hills in varying shades of green and orange. Ancient cathedrals, churches, libraries and façades are scattered among modern galleries and shops. Bright blue and white tiles pattern the buildings and intricate, peaked windows are adorned with all the flourishes and design of a noble’s house. Braga was well worth the visit!

The streets of Braga, Portugal

People crowd around a traditional Portuguese band along the flower-filled streets of Braga.