Yep, Burgos Deserves that ‘Gastronomic Capital of Spain’ Title

I didn’t realize until I was rolling Cristóbal (my four-wheeled red Samsonite and most trusty travel companion) across the soaking wet sidewalks along Burgos’s Arlanzón river just how badly I’d been needing a city break. Madrid is fantastic. I love living here. But it was definitely time to get outta the city for a hot second. For two glorious days I left the stress of Trinity English Exams, summer job applications and blog name frustrations behind and went on a mind vacation to Burgos. A gorgeous afternoon stroll along the River Arlazón River in Burgos, Spain

The 180,000 person medieval town is about 2.5 hours north of Madrid by bus in the province of Castilla y Leon. It has an 800-year-old gothic cathedral (named a UNESCO World Heritage site), a monastery so beautiful that kings get married there and a museum projected to be one of the most-visited in Spain within the decade.

But let’s be real. That’s not why I wanted to go to Burgos. For me, it was all about the food fame. Burgos was named the Gastronomic Capital of Spain in 2013 and I was bound and determined to see if it could live up to that title. Here’s a hint: IT DOES!

Empirical Evidence #1: The Blood Sausage

Burgos is known for three things: Ribera del Duero wine, cured sheep cheese and blood sausage. Being someone who turns pale and nauseous at the sight of blood (animal or otherwise), I have, as a general rule, steered clear of Spanish blood sausage, or morcilla. But when in Burgos I figured it was necessary to do as the Burgalese do. So I sucked it up and order a plate of the famous Burgos morcilla. Great. Freakin. Decision.

Morcilla is, at it’s most basic, a mixture of pig blood and rice (a fact I prefer not to think too much about) stuffed into pig or cow intestines. In Burgos it is typically sliced into thick medallions, seared to a crisp on both sides  and served with roasted red peppers. One bite and I didn’t care what it was made of. The crisp outside gave way to an intense, rich, slightly smokey flavor punctuated by the subtle texture of the rice. Needless to say I beelined for the first artisanal morcilla shop to stock up.

Blood Sausage and Roasted Peppers in Burgos

Where to find it: You can find great morcilla at just about any bar in Burgos. The best I had was at La Favorita on Calle de Avellanos, 8. I bought a sausage to take home at La Paloma, a small artisan shop on calle Paloma. 

Empirical Evidence # 2: El Morito

This may just be the best restaurant I have ever been to in Spain. I know! Bold statement. Without a doubt it is in the top five. El Morito is fantastically Spanish in that it has a long bar running down one side of the restaurant where people crowd three-deep to order a 1.20€ glass Ribera and a combo of highly original tapas and raciónes. A smattering of wood tables and four-legged stools line the wall and are perpetually full. Upstairs more long wooden tables are set with bright yellow paper placemats and are equally packed with people.

While awaiting our table for lunch, we situated ourselves at the far end of the bar with a direct view of the grill, where the calmest man in all of Spain was methodically cracking brown eggs, searing thick slices of goat cheese and warming piles of grey gulas, or imitation baby eels which taste like spaghetti noodles made of fish. Creatively constructed plates piled with for example, potatoes and eggs topped with grilled calamari and diced cured ham came flying past us. It was like a mouthwatering parade of food ingenuity. Ten minutes at Morito and I was convinced that Burgos was absolutely the food capital of Spain.

Smörgåsbord of seafood at El Morito

Grilled shrimp with gulas, smoked fish, salmon, crab and caviar and a salad of pickles, tomatoes and crisp lettuce.

Where to find it: Cerveceria Morito on Calle Sombrereria 27

Empirical Evidence #3: The Tapa

One of the first things I noticed in Burgos was how out-of-their-way nice the people there were. From the German-suit wearing old man (I’ll leave that insanity for another post…) to the waiters and bartenders, Burgaleses were more smiley, talkative, inviting and helpful than any other city I’ve visited in Spain.

Our camerera at La Parrilla was fantastic. She happily recommended me her favorite tapa, checked up on us to make sure we liked our food and smiled the whole time. Was this still Spain?!? Her cheerful wonderfulness aside, her tapa recommendation – an anchovy, arugula and tomato tosta- was deeelish. The small tosta was a perfect blend of crunch and fluff, with the sweetness of the ripe tomato perfectly offsetting the saltiness of the anchovy. Gastronomic Capital: 1, Rest of the World: 0.

Cured Anchovy, arugula and tomato tosta at La Parrilla in Burgos

Cured anchovy, arugula and tomato tosta at La Parrilla in Burgos

Where to find it: La Parrilla de Royal on Calle Huerto del rey, 18

Empirical Evidence #4: The Ración 

After a night of heavenly tapas, we decided to test out Burgos’ lunch menu scene on Saturday afternoon. Armed with a recommendation of a local, we headed to the narrow, bar-lined street of San Lorenzo, just off of the Plaza Mayor in search of Casa Pancho.

As luck would have it, they don’t serve their fixed menú del dia on Saturdays. Silver lining: they did have a couple seasonal lunch specials. We ordered the first on the list, artichokes stuffed with wild mushrooms atop crispy cured ham. If I could please have this every day of artichoke season that would be superb, thanks.

Stuffed Artichoke Racion in Burgos

Where to find it: Casa Pancho on calle San Lorenzo, 13

Empirical Evidence #5: The Breakfast

The typical Spanish breakfast of toasted baguettes topped with olive oil and tomato is delicious no matter where you get it. The bread is always freshly baked, the tomatoes ripe and flavorful and the olive oil, well, come on this is Spain, the top producer of olive oil in the world.

But in Burgos, this traditional morning combo was kicked into high saturation. The tomato wasn’t just red, it was blooming poppies on a sunny spring morning red. The bread wasn’t just fresh, it was perfectly toasted, crisp on the bottom and still soft and fluffy on the top fresh. And then there was the fresh squeezed orange juice. And the café con leche. And, well, just go to Burgos, okay?

Toasted Baguette with tomato and fresh-squeezed OJ

Where to find it: Delicatessen Ojeda on calle Vitoria, 5. This is also a great place to stock up on traditional foods to bring home from Burgos! They’ve got a good Ribera wine selection and a huge variety of other prepared and conserved foods!

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My 6 Most Epic Fails of Living Abroad

Metro Madrid Warns You: Don't Trip BackwardsCommon sense, of which I like to think I have at least a few drops, told me that moving abroad would come with a definite learning curve. I expected to have language barrier issues. I knew I wouldn’t always know what to order at at which restaurant at which time. I accepted that I wouldn’t have the first clue when it came to flirting with Spanish men or dealing with government bureaucracy or deciding if 13 degrees celsius is jacket or coat weather.

But what I wasn’t prepared for were the hundreds of situations where I didn’t even know what question to ask, or whether I needed to ask at all. Some days I swear my Spanish-speaking self never learned the basics of navigating life from my English-speaking self. If I had a euro for every time a stared dumbfounded at a store clerk waiting for my brain to catch up to what was going on or blurted out a collection of Spanish words that five minutes later I realized made absolutely no sense whatsoever, I could take that 10-day trip to Greece I’ve been dreaming about.

In the 18 months I’ve lived in Spain I have had my fair share of mishaps and mistakes. Some of those lapses of understanding/judgement/language/common sense have cost me hundreds of euros. Others, only my pride. Some of them I’m sure I’ll laugh about later… others still make me cringe. So without further ado, here are the eight lessons I’ve learned the hard way since moving to Spain.

1. Never put your purse in a bike basket.

Spring in SpainIt was the first gorgeously sunny day since I moved to Sevilla during my study abroad in 2010. My two American girlfriends and I hopped on our bikeshare bikes and were peddling down to the park to frolic in the Springtime wonderfulness. In my sun-soaked euphoria I let me guard completely down. I was chatting on my cell phone with one hand and aimlessly steering my bike with the other when I saw a white motorcycle begin to pull up beside me on the bike path.

Even after four years I can perfectly picture the man’s face as I looked over. I smiled at him, thinking he was coming up to say hello (yep, I was that naive) and in a split second I saw his face turn from contentment to malice. He reached out his hand, snatched my purse out of the front wire basket of my bike and darted across the six-lane rotunda. My mad-woman screams were to no avail. My furious peddling after him was useless. I had just enough of my wits about me not to dart into six lanes of traffic trying to follow him.

Everything was gone. My brand-new purse from the artisan stand on the Barcelona beach, my digital camera, my flip camera (this was 2010 remember), my ipod, my credit cards and student IDs, the 50€ I just pulled out of the ATM. After my hysteria died down, the police reports were filed and my travelers insurance check to replace everything was received, I realized two hugely important lessons. First, never carry all your electronics in the same purse (duh.). Second, things are just things. They are replaceable. My life was not, as I originally thought, in that purse. I just happened to have a bunch of tools to capture the joys of my life in that purse.

2. Beware of reflexive verbs

Spanish Language ProblemsThe dread-inducing Subjunctive verb tense aside, my biggest fail in learning Spanish has been correctly using reflexive verbs. In Spanish you don’t say “I’m taking a shower,” you say “I’m showering myself.” And as if learning the insane number of commonly-used Spanish verbs wasn’t tricky enough, many of them completely change their meaning if they are used reflexively. For example, acordar means “to agree” but acordarse means “to remember.” Seems safe enough right? So I accidentally say “I remember that we should go to that restaurant” instead of “I agree that we should go.” Life goes on…

But then there is the verb odiar, which means “to hate.” It wasn’t until about seven months into living in Galicia last year that someone finally told me that odiar was NOT a reflexive verb. For months I had gone around telling co-workers, friends and waiters that “I hate myself” instead of “I hate driving” or “I hate pickled white asparagus.”

But my accidental self-loathing debacle was nothing compared to my confusion/embarrassment over the word correr. It’s one of the first words you learn in beginner Spanish classes: correr, “to run.” But add that pesky little “me” to that innocent word for exercise and the meaning changes completely. Correrse means “to cum,” as in have an orgasm. In my inability to properly place reflexive pronouns, I’m pretty sure I told our housekeeper last week “I’m going to orgasm, see you in a hour.” Oh the verguenza…. 

3. Beware of words for oblong vegetables and household objects

Typical Spanish SaladIn Spanish, seemingly everything has a double meaning. And more often than not, that second meaning is “penis.” Living with four Spaniards I’m quickly learning how to talk about fruit, vegetables and straws without calling any of them by name. “Can you pass me the thing you use to drink out of that is long and skinny?” I’ll ask. Or “I love that fresh, green, watery vegetable on my salads,” I’ll say.

I learned to avoid words for oblong objects one evening while watching a YouTube video one of our past roommates had made. In it she demonstrated how to make her favorite cocktail, a “PinkTonic.” At the end of the video she takes a sip of the finished product with a super cool brightly-colored straw. Trying to participate in the oohs and ahhs and congratulations of my other roommates once the video finished, I said (or tried to say) “I love that straw! So cool!” All four of them burst into laughter. Apparently I had said “I love to masturbate.” Paja, I learned, technically means “straw” but is more often used as a slang word for “masturbate.” Pajita, the diminutive, is what I should have said. Oops…. lesson learned.  For reference, also be careful with the words for cucumber, turnip, chicken, eggs, shell, clam and female rabbit.

4. Don’t open the door for strangers. Even strangers with official-looking Comunidad de Madrid badges

My Sun-Soaked Siesta SpotI had just finished lunch and was stretched out in the afternoon sun beams streaming through my window when the doorbell rang. I had seen workers tinkering with the elevator and construction-like cables strung through the staircase on my way in that afternoon so I assumed it was someone making sure I still had electricity or informing me that the elevator would be out for a day or two. I tiptoed to the door and peered through the peephole. It was a youngish man with a Community of Madrid government badge and clipboard. I opened the door. Mistake #1.

In insanely rapid Spanish he started telling me something about a yearly test that the provincial government requires on all hot water heaters. He showed me the three-color carbon copy paperwork, allowed me to inspect his badge and then asked to come in and perform the check. “Vale….” I said, showing him to the hot water heater in the kitchen. (Mom, please don’t freak out.)

Euros Down the DrainHe held what I’m pretty sure he said was a carbon monoxide measurer up to the hot water heater, wrote down some notes, slapped an official-looking sticker on the front and asked me to sign at the bottom of the form. Then he told me to go get my credit card. Five minutes, about five hundred extremely fast Spanish words and a 200€  charge to my credit card later, he was gone. Later that night my roommates informed me that the “test” was not obligatory, the badge was probably fake and that I had been robustly scammed. The 200€ hurt. But the damage to my pride hurt worse. Just when I thought I was finally starting to understand this new culture I was living in, a fake electrician put me squarely back into the guiri category. Ufff.

5. Go straight to a specialist

Contrary to popular belief in conservative America, the socialist Spanish health system is not hell on Earth. Quite the opposite in fact. It is efficient, massively inexpensive and usually quite good. That is, if you use it correctly.

Three weeks ago I woke up one morning and couldn’t hear out of one ear. I had been stuffed up and assumed that my cold had settled in my ear overnight. Hoping it would resolve itself, I put off going to the doctor. Fast forward one week and I still can’t hear, I feel like I’m in an airplane midway over the Atlantic and the screams of the children in my elementary English class are reverberating around my head. It was time to see a doctor.

Not having the first clue how to go about doing so, I called the number on the back of my insurance card and made the first available appointment. “Do you want the general doctor or a specialist,” the insurance woman asked. “I don’t know… whichever,” I responded. The general medicine doctor I saw was the poster child for everything that could ever be wrong with a medical system. She kept no records, ran no tests and used the “assumption” method of diagnosis. Two super strong antibiotics and two weeks of continuing deafness later I made an appointment with a specialist.

The super nice ear specialist (or otorrinolaringologista in Spanish… yikes.) informed me I’d never had an ear infection, had been taking antibiotics for no reason, and prescribed me and anti-inflammatory instead. Two days later I could hear fine, the pain was gone and I vowed to never go to a general medicine doctor again. At least all the visits were free…

6. Don’t overestimate the Schengen Agreement

ParisI remember the day my small-handed and adorable European Union professor taught us about the Schengen Agreement. The agreements stems from one pillar of the EU treaty: the free moment of people, he explained in his captivatingly cute British accent. Any EU citizen can travel between countries that have signed onto the Schengen Agreement (which includes the majority of European countries) without a passport. Unfortunately, he forgot to mention that rule doesn’t apply to U.S. citizens such as myself.

I inadvertently tested that agreement last February while trying to visit a good friend in Paris. Preoccupied with planning whether I wanted Nutella and strawberries or Nutella and banana on my first crepe, I forgot to tuck my passport into my red carry-on Samsonite. Halfway to the airport in La Coruña, about a two and a half hour train ride from my tiny Galician pueblo, I realized my error. Frantically searching my purse, I spotted my Spanish residency card, remembered the darling British man’s lecture and breathed easy.

At the airport I learned the harsh reality. No passport, no boarding pass, no Paris. Luckily, one of the teachers at the school in my pueblo lived in Coruña, ran by my apartment, picked up my passport and rushed it to the airport. Waiting the hour and a half for him to arrive, watch the “boarding” sign flicker at my gate number easily took five years off my life.

I missed my flight by, I kid you not, 6 minutes. The fantastic man at Iberia was a saint and put me on the first flight to Paris the next morning. I still got my Nutella crepes but I will never. Ever. go to the airport without my passport again.

The 7 Most Ridiculously Delicious Things I Ate This Christmas

7 Best Christmas Vacation FoodsThe Spanish truly deserve a prize for how many crazy huge, fantastically raucous meals they can fit into one holiday season. Here in Madrid the cenas to celebrate Navidad start the first weekend in December and become ever more frequent as the actual holiday approaches. By mid-month every lunch and dinner Thursday through Sunday has a decidedly festive feel and ends with extra-friendly dos besos and emphatic exclamations of “Feliz Navidad! Feliz Año! Feliz Reyes!”

For me, this tasty tradition coupled with my holiday trips to two Christmas wonderlands (aka Prague and Vienna) made for a ridiculously delicious month.  This year my holiday meals spanned six restaurants (eight including my elementary school cafeteria and the kitchen in my Madrid apartment) and seven Christmas markets across three countries. It included three 5+ course Christmas meals, dozens of new ingredients and untold bottles of wine. Needless to say, I ate fantastically well this Christmas.

While nearly every meal was packed with goodness, there were seven dishes that sent my tastebuds into full-blown celebration mode. Varying from high-class cuisine to street food, imaginative to traditional, here are the seven most delicious dishes I had the sweet, sweet pleasure of tasting this Christmas. 

7. Sauerkraut and sausage potatoes at the Wenceslas Square Christmas market in Prague

Christmas Market Potatoes

I am not and have never been a potato person. In my family and in Spain potatoes are relegated to the role of  meat accompaniment. They are the white mountain of fried, mashed or scalloped starch that fills up the rest of the plate. Then I went to Prague and discovered the true awesomeness that potatoes can be. In the huge cast iron skillets of Prague’s Wenceslas Square Christmas market potatoes reached their full potential.

The intoxicating aroma of sausage, sauerkraut and spices floating up from six steaming skillets envelops the dozen or so market stalls on each side of this potato goodness. Rather than Spain’s fried slivers, Prague’s potatoes were halved, boiled and left peel-on. They were doused in spices, cheese and a sweet, tangy sauerkraut and slow-cooked into a mess of goey perfection. I opted for half sausage-and-sauerkraut potatoes and half cheesy potato dumplings. I will never look at a potato the same way again.

6. Beef carpaccio with lemongrass and a mango foam at Sticker in Madrid

Beef Carpaccio with Mango Foam

When eight food bloggers, guides and entrepreneurs celebrate Christmas dinner together there better be some downright stellar dishes. Madrid’s new gastropub, Sticker, did not disappoint for the Madrid Food Tour team’s holiday dinner.

Our six-course tasting menu was packed with creative adaptations of traditional Spanish favorites, like a Manchego cheese yogurt with cured ham dust and a peanut-crusted poached egg over chips. But by far the most tastebud-tantalizing moment of the meal was the beef carpaccio, or rather the bright yellow dollops of mango foam atop it. The espuma was both tart and sweet; it was light as air and melted in your mouth like good dark chocolate. I’m not much of a beef eater, let alone raw beef, but I’d take a plate of carpaccio any day just to get another taste of that mango goodness!

5. Homemade market-fresh sliders at my apartment in Madrid

Homemade beef sliders

After eight days of traveling, my sister and I were more than ready for a nice home-cooked meal. With no specific menu in mind, I took her to El Mercado de Maravillas, Madrid’s fresh food wonderland. Weaving through mountains of vegetables, glaciers of seafood and brightly lit displays featuring every conceivable part of a cow, pig or goat, we searched for something to tempt our growling stomachs.

We loaded up on leeks, carrots, strawberries, cheese, membrillo (a thick jam-like brick made from quince fruit). On a whim we picked up some ground-just-for-us beef. Two days later, after freezing our faces off at the Three Kings Day parade, we huddled back into my kitchen to turn our ultra-lean, utlra-fresh Spanish beef into some super American sliders. Dividing the ground beef into two bowls, Lisa seasoned her half with soy sauce, pepper and “secret ingredients” she declined to share with me. I sprinkled my half with basil, thyme, black pepper and olive oil and tucked a small square of aged Manchego cheese in the center of each little patty.

For toppings we caramelized onions, wilted spinach and toasted garlic in olive oil. By the time the table was set we had created a choose-your-own-adventure slider extravaganza with enough flavor to rival our fancy Christmas Eve dinner. Good things happen when Lisa and I cook together.

4.  Seared scallops on a mango and Thai basil salsa at Coda in Prague

Christmas Eve Scallops

For Christmas Eve we decided to go all out. I wasn’t buying a cross-Atlantic plane ticket to see my family, so instead I decided to buy an ultra-fancy dinner to ring in the holiday. After weeks of research we decided on Coda Restaurant in Prague. The seven-course Christmas menu sounded spectacular, the atmosphere looked adorable and the price was stomachable.

When we walked in on a rather frigid Christmas Eve there was a fireplace crackling, a pianist playing and a plate of Christmas cookies waiting on our table. Yep, good decision. With the help of our waitress, we chose a stellar Gala sauvignon blanc, my first Czech wine, to accompany our meal. And then began the parade of scrumptiousness… My “International Christmas Menu” included, and I quote:

  • Pan seared fresh scallops served with fresh mango & Thai basil salad and homemade chili jam
  • Farmer’s smoked trout ravioli with a light horseradish sauce
  • Traditional fish soup with bread croutons
  • Homemade orange sorbet
  • Roasted & sliced juicy beef tenderloin with truffle rissoto and foie gras sauce
  • Traditional plum jam ravioli served in plum brandy glaze with butter roasted breadcrumbs

My sister will tell you the trout ravioli was life changing. But that’s only because she has a shellfish allergy and could not partake in the pure ecstasy that was the seared scallop – chili jam combo. The mango salad played third wheel to the glorious marriage of spice and silky seafood that was blossoming between the scallops (my favorite food) and the chilies (um… yum.).

3. Pork Sausage and sauerkraut at U Tri Ruzi in Prague

Czech Sausage and Sauerkraut

As a rule, I never go to the same restaurant twice while exploring a new city. U Tri Ruzi in Prague not only forced me to break my own rule, but it shattered my stereotypes about sausage (hot dogs disguised as something edible), sauerkraut (rotten), fish soup (creamy blandness) and non-wheat beer (hop-tastic).

One bite of their thin pork sausages dipped in homemade whole-grain mustard and topped with a pinch of perfectly tangy, sweet sauerkraut and I vowed to never hate on German food again. It was real meat bursting with flavor and spices. We Americans need to come up with another name for those nasty putty-logs we call “sausage.” This was too heavenly to even share the same word.

2. Sausage sandwich at the Republic Square Christmas market in Prague

Christmas Market Deliciousness

Minutes after stepping off the airport bus into downtown Prague and we found ourselves smack dab in the middle of a Christmas dream. Toys, candies, food and mulled wine peaked out from the openings of tiny wooden houses strung with garland and lights. The smell of roasted nuts, cinnamon, cider and sausage wafted around us. Our resolve to first drop our bags off at the hostel before going Christmas market exploring evaporated instantly.

The smell of pure heaven drew me in toward one of the first stalls at the Republic Square market. Somehow without using one correctly-pronounced word of Czech I managed to order a sausage sandwich. The vendor sliced the thick sausage lengthwise and seared it on a hot skillet, adding a delectable crispiness to the center. Then he threw the two juicy sausage slices onto thick, crusty bread, added two lines creamy red sauce, and a couple tomato slices and asked for the equivalent of about 3 dollars. It was easily the best $3 I spent in the Czech Republic. I think I devoured the entire saucy mess before we even got to the table.

1. Giant apricot jam filled donut at the Schönbrunn Christmas market in Vienna

Best Donut in the World

You really can’t go wrong with a jumbo donut. But this face-sized creation went above and beyond where any American donut (or Spanish donut or any donut I’ve ever tasted) has ever gone before. Besides its fantastic size, this riesenkrapfen achieved the ideal balance of crisp crust on the outside and fluffy heaven on the inside.

When my sister and I ordered our most excellent dessert, the vendor pulled out the still-steaming donut, pumped it full of sweet-but-not-too-sweet apricot jam and covered it with a healthy dousing of powdered sugar. My new life goal: to install one of these donut stalls on my balcony. Holy donut heaven!

Now, excuse me while I go for a run….

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

45 Hours in Porto, Portugal (aka ‘More Port Wine, Please’)

Portugal, in my opinion, is one of the most perplexingly over-looked travel destinations in Europe. Bold statement, I know, but my third and latest rendezvous through the dusty old streets of Spain’s western neighbor absolutely confirmed it. Portugal’s food is more delicious than Britain’s, its cities are more colorful than Spain’s,  and its sweet wine is more scrumptious than Germany’s. Not to mention a three-course Portuguese meal sets you back less than 20 euro and a night at some of the highest-ranked hostels in Europe clocks in at even less!

Porto, Portugal

So with a three-day weekend looming thanks to Spain’s celebration of All Saints Day, I booked a whirlwind weekend in Porto, Portugal, the country’s second-largest city and (more importantly) the hub of Portuguese wine production.

Despite the fact that D.C. and New York are father apart than Porto and Madrid, getting from the Spanish capitol to the Portuguese port is frustratingly difficult. This may be the only time America beats Europe at public transportation. Unlike my East Coast cities, there are no direct trains between Madrid and Porto. And while it takes a mere 5 hours to go by car (the same amount of time it takes a bus to go from D.C. to NYC), it takes nearly 10 hours for ALSA to roll the 560-odd kilometers from Madrid to Porto. Only three airlines (Iberia, TAP Portugal and RyanAir) fly nonstop between the two cities and of those only the ultra-budget, less-than-cozy RyanAir offered holiday-weekend flights at less-than-extortionist prices. RyanAir for the win, again.

An overhead bin fiasco, two checked carry-ons and a parade of duty-free perfume later, we touched down in a rainy, grey Porto. It was 10:30 a.m. on All Saints Day (or The Day After Halloween as we call in it in the States) and we had been in Portugal for less than an hour when we discovered the first of many pleasant surprises in Porto. Halfway through the hedge-maze that is the Carregal Gardens, we spotted our hostel. Tucked between brightly colored buildings with balconies overflowing with ferns and flowers was The Wine Hostel, without question one of the nicest hostels I’ve stayed in throughout Europe. Upon opening the door we found blue painted tiles and boxes of dusty Port bottles lining the staircase. Instead of numbers, each room is named after a type of Port. Our bright and airy six-bunk room was “Late Bottle Vintage,” a term I would come to appreciate during the follow day’s winery tour.

Porto, Portugal

Bags stowed and stomachs screaming we braved the wind and rain in search of breakfast. Five minutes and as many map consultations later we reached the oldest cafe in Porto, Cafe Progresso.  The menu was surprisingly modern for a café that celebrated its 114th anniversary last month, sporting the word “Brunch” at the top and “scrambled egg” not far below. After a month in Spain where eggs are strictly relegated to the afternoon hours and  brunch is a distant concept, Progresso was quickly making my life.

The Oldest Cafe in Porto

Food requirements filled, our next stop was the third most beautiful bookstore in the world, Livraria Lello. Despite crowds of revelers, the century-old bookstore is spectacular, with a huge central staircase that looks like something straight out of Cinderella, or, perhaps, Harry Potter. Rumor in Porto is that J.K. Rowling, who began writing the Harry Potter books while teaching English in Porto, based the grand Hogwarts staircases off of the huge, winding centerpiece staircase at Livraria Lello’s, where she is also rumored to have scratched out a few pages in the upstairs cafe.

One block down from the packed bookstore was an equally impressive gem, this one’s shelves filled with every imaginable Portuguese-made product from chocolate “Bomboms” to brass horns.  We spent nearly an hour sifting through tables piled with soaps and and books, clocks and kitchen cutlery at A Vida Portuguesa, a two-story shop dedicated to selling only items made in Portugal.

A Vida Portuguesa

A Vida Portuguesa

Brass horns for sale at A Vida Portuguesa.

A Vida Portuguesa

Fantastically colorful soap lined that counters at A Vida Portuguesa

With Porto a sure winner in the “gorgeous shops” category, we climbed — and yes, climbed is absolutely the right word; Porto is insanely hilly — over to the Sāo Bento train station to see how the city fared in the art department.

The station’s main hall is decorated on all sides with pearly-white tile painted in brilliant blue depicting everything from daily farm life in 18th-century Porto, to the timeline of transportation from horses to steam engines.  The hall is impressive, to say the least, but more so for me was the story of how it was made. The architect, as our walking tour guide later informed us, was fresh out of college when the king commissioned him to create Sāo Bento Station.  He worked on the building for eleven years, laying tile after the king who began the project was killed and through the revolution that overthrew his successor and ended the Portuguese monarchy. If only those tiles could talk…

Sao Bento Train Station

Those blue tiles, or azulejos, speckle the city with bursts of color. With the spitting rain and thick grey cloudy skies, the streaks of blue along the giant stone buildings gave the city an almost- eerie melancholy feel that was ironically juxtaposed with springy palm trees and vibrantly happy-colored houses.

Two Churches in Porto

Day two in Porto was dedicated to my two favorite things: eating and drinking. For lunch we stumbled upon a tiny restaurant tucked into a corner among the maze of tiny streets behind the Ribeiro, or riverwalk. Low wood-slatted ceilings and dim recess lighting gave the feeling that we were dining on board a private yacht. White and blue china painted in the same style as the city’s azulejos clinked throughout the tiny space, further adding to the upscale yachtiness of the place.

We skipped the three-course menu featuring bacalao, Portugal’s most famous dish, and opted instead for a quick and fancy lunch of Porto’s traditional soup (a thick potato broth with kale-like leaves) and a simple salad (lettuce, big chunks of tomato, olives and onion all drenched in olive oil). You’d have thought we were eating naked. The chef, who happened to be having lunch with his wife at the table next to us, chastised the waiter for not bringing us our food before realizing that we’d received all that we’d ordered. The cooks and wait staff in the kitchen took turns peering through the small window to catch a glimpse of the locas who had ordered only primer platos. The blasphemy of our meal was sure to ignite at any moment a riot among our fellow diners. Thus we high-tailed it out of our little corner of lunch luxury the second our painted china plates were cleared.

Traditional Port Wine Boat on the Duoro River

Across the Duoro River and comfortably far away from the perplexed restaurant staff, we set out for the main event, Port wine tasting. Choosing from the dozens of wine cellars at random, we ended up at Ferreira, one of the oldest cellars in Porto. While waiting for the English tour to begin, we strolled down to a bodega that served tastes of Ports from a conglomerate of cellars. Port wine is stronger and sweeter than your typical table wine having been fortified with Brandy at the early stages of fermentation. As we would later learn in the wine tasting of all wine tastings, the Brandy used in ports has a super high alcohol content (more than 70 percent), which stops the fermentation of the grapes’ natural sugars into alcohol. Depending on the type of Port and the desired sweetness level, the Brady is added at different times. The earlier in the  process that the Brandy is added, the sweeter the Port will be.

Our first two tastes were white ports,  the Burmester ‘extra-dry’ which had a strong Sherry flavor, and the Barros ‘semi-sweet’ which, as Maureen described it, tasted like a warm fire at Christmas (I’d say it’s more caramelly toast). Next we explored the difference between “Tawny” Port, which is aged in small oak barrels allowing the wine to oxidize slightly and thus turn a caramel-rust color, and a “Ruby” Port, which is aged in huge oak barrels for fewer years and thus maintains its ruby-red color. The verdict for me: Ruby Port all the way. The Ruby maintained many of the robust, fruity flavors of typical red wine but enhanced those flavors with an intense, yet smooth sweetness emblematic of Port wine.

Armed with our four exploratory tastes and an utterly basic understanding of how Port is produced, we set off on our tour of Ferreira, a company that has been producing Port wine longer than the United States has been an independent nation. We strolled through dimly-lit cellars filled with giant barrels of meticulously aging Port while our appropriately-named guide Fabio explained why the floor was made of wood blocks rather than tile (two reasons: 1) to cushion the barrels so they don’t break when rolling them across the floor and 2) the wood acts as air conditioning; if the temperature starts to rise, they douse the wood floors with water, the evaporation of which keeps the cellars cool and slightly humid).

Port Wine Tour at Ferreira

We saw giant French Oak vats where nearly 11,000 liters of Tawny Port was getting a weeks-worth of large-barrel aging before being bottled. We filed past pyramids of 350-pound barrels of the sweetest type of Port wine, Lagrima (which translates to “tear”) as Fabio informed us that the wine got its name because its sweetness caused it to run slowly down the side of the glass, like tears sliding down a face. We saw bottles of vintage Port from the 1800s, stacked on their sides awaiting the day their flavors will finally “mature” (because apparently 100 years isn’t quite enough). And finally we sat down to taste the Ferreira wine ourselves, a bright red Ruby and golden sweet Branco Lagrima.

Tasting a Ruby Port at Ferreira

After a long, hard day of wine tasting we were in desperate need of some stellar Portuguese food at my new favorite restaurant. After experiencing the wine tour of all wine tours I didn’t think it possible to fit in an “everything I want out of a restaurant” dinner into the same day. I was wrong. At Casa Santo Antonio I had to make two decisions: what type of wine I wanted to drink and when I was too full for more delicious tapas-style traditional Portuguese dishes. That, in my opinion, is how every restaurant should be. No stressing about what to order or post-plate remorse about whether I ordered the right thing. At this Porto gem of a restaurant I was worry free and ravishingly expectant. I had no idea what our most adorable waiter Nelson would bring us next, only that it would undoubtably be ricisimo.

The parade of deliciousness started out fresh with Galician-style dense bread, garlic-marinated black olives, curried cooked carrots and jumbo pickled corn kernel-type things that I can never remember the name of. Fried bacalao (cod fish) fritters of joy followed with a side of perfectly spiced and scrumptious beyond it’s simplicity red beans and rice. Next we devoured a fava bean-chorizomurcillo stew that was even more flavorful than the picture leads on.

Fava Beans and Chorizo

And as the grandest of grand finales to this most amazing meal, Nelson brought us pork cheek in an olive oil-red wine- clove sauce. It was, without question, the tenderest, most melt-in-your-mouth meat I have ever tasted. This one dish freed cloves from their corner as a Christmas-time cider adornment and propelled them into ‘fascinating spice I can’t wait to add to everything’ status, a title they will have to fight with cumin over. We decided it’s worth another RyanAir flying adventure to Porto solely to taste Santo Antonio’s pork cheek one more time…

The most delicious meat ever made

A Piano in el Salón and Politics in the Kitchen

Breaking news alerts announcing each minuscule hint of an agreement to avoid the debt-ceiling apocalypse have turned my phone into a strobe light today. “Senate close to agreement,”… “Deal is imminent” … “President Obama applauds Senate”… “House GOP now meeting,”…

Letters to the President

“Delivering” letters from Texas first-graders to President Obama in 2012.

I’ve heard this story before. I’ve written this story before. And I can picture exactly what my day would be like if I’d chosen to stay on the path that so many of my peers strived to get to. It would have been frantic and stressful, frustrating and unsatisfying. It would be hammering out headlines in moments of sheer panic, then combing through Twitter in search of an update or a new angle. I would have typed myself into oblivion and left late, feeling defeated and behind the curve. Thus is the maddening immediacy of online news.

Instead, as history repeated itself in Washington, I stuck my tongue out at a Spanish second-grader, trying to help him understand the English “th” sound. While a Twitter tizzy of took off across the ocean, I got contagion-hugged by half a class of first graders whose tiny hands could hardly reach my belt loops. Today, while my country was in a politics-driven craze, I drank my morning coffee sitting down and basked in the afternoon sun on my balcony.

Glorieta de QuevedoAnd amid the cognitive dissonance of last year versus this one, it hit me: I live in Madrid. I’m not visiting, or touring or just passing through. This is my new home. And from this distant vantage point I can see the frivolity of many of the things I used to live and die by in D.C. Is American politics a big ‘ol mess? Yes. Is the sun going to rise and the coffee going to brew and the email from my Mom going to come through tomorrow if Congress doesn’t pass a bill tonight? Why yes, yes it is.

I tried to explain to my roommate in my improving but still crap Spanish what all the fuss was about in the States right now. All the Spanish news channels are covering the shutdown and the debt ceiling debate, but let’s just say the story is about 1/100th as long as last night’s soccer match re-cap. As my voice began to rise in frustration and annoyance at the history that was repeating itself in D.C., my roommate sighed, nonchalantly plopped another piece of sushi in his mouth and said “Bienvenidos al club, Amy.” Then he told me that Belgium went two years without a government while three leading parties battled for control. He told me about never-ending-cycle of Spain’s two most powerful parties which strategically tweak the laws to keep themselves in power, “like a fish with his tail in his mouth, it just goes round and round without end,” he said. Then we got sidetracked while I tried to pronounce “pass a budget” in Spanish — try saying “se aprueba el presupuesto” ten times fast! — and ended up laughing about appliances.
Royal Botanical Garden Happiness

Afterward as I walked toward my bedroom down the long hallway of our apartment, an intricate and peaceful melody drifted from the salón. I stopped for a moment to listen to my other roommate, a concert pianist and opera singer, as her fingers danced across her new keyboard. And that’s when I knew for the first time with certainty, that I’d made the right decision.

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.

My Camino on the Way of St. James

The Way of St. James

I’m not quite sure how to write this post. I want to tell you how amazing my Camino was and how beautiful the quiet hills of Galicia were and how interesting my fellow pilgrims were. I want to describe the quick, intense bonds I felt with complete strangers from completely opposite lives when we both stopped to shed jackets and re-apply sunscreen at the top of a hill while the morning mist still swirled over the sleeping red rooftops below us. I want to convey the sense of togetherness that dominated the trail and the hierarchy of  basic needs that dominated my thoughts: water, food, bathroom, top-of-foot pain, right hip pain, calf pain, heat. I want to convey the serenity, the peace and the rediscovery I felt. I want to show you the pine forest where we did early-morning yoga and the bright flower-filled meadow above which we took a late-afternoon siesta. I want you to smell the pungent differences between cow manure and pig poo. I want you to feel the solitude of a Eucalyptus forest in the evening and the electricity of a pilgrim-filled albergue at daybreak.

Camino Stretches!

But how can I do justice to an experience that was at once so profound and so simple? How can I properly share an experience so personal and yet so intrinsically shared?

Walking the Way of St. James

My camino was exactly what I needed and everything I didn’t know I was looking for. The best part about my camino was that it was mine. While 200,000 pilgrims will trek down the same trail this year, each of us will experience it in massively different ways. Some will walk 800 kilometers from France and some, like me, will walk only 110 from Sarria.

Camino de Santiago Success!

The trail was an a paradise that exceeded my expectations. But the second it ended real life hit me square in the face. I was stunned by how many people poo-pooed my camino. ‘You started from Sarria?’ many said, ‘talk to me when you’ve walked from St. Jean (along the French border).’ ‘You didn’t walk for God? Or for the Church?’ the pilgrim office lady pityingly said, ‘Well, your camino doesn’t count then. You can’t have the true certificate because you are not a true pilgrim.’

Weary on the Camino

With throbbing feet, exhausted legs and aching joints I felt my camino was just as valid as those who prayed their way into Santiago or those whose blisters had already come and gone. For two days as I wandered through the rain-drenched cobblestones of Santiago I tried to understand why I was there. On the trail where pretenses were erased and judgements suspended it all made sense. But in the reality of life among the bustle of the city I began to doubt my experience. I was shocked at how quickly the simplicity of the camino disappeared and the unnecessary stresses of life returned.

Then we went to Finisterra, the westernmost point of Spain which, before Colombus sailed, Spaniards believed was the end of the Earth. Standing on charred rock where pilgrims before me had burned their camino clothes as a symbol of starting anew, looking towards my country thousands of miles across that pearly blue ocean, that excited, enthusiastic-for-life peace of the camino returned. And it made every ache and pain and sacrifice 100 percent worth it.

Finisterra: The End of the Earth

Did I find the meaning of life along my five-day walk? No. Did I discover my purpose on Earth while looking out over the end of it? Not exactly. But I did learn that pain usually trumps hunger and that when people are working towards the same goal they are remarkably helpful and welcoming. I discovered that I don’t have to know why I’m doing something to love it and that I don’t have to have an end goal to have a plan. I learned that a well-timed joke from a best friend will get you through seriously un-sexy full-foot heat rash and that a smile from a stranger can propel you up the last hill of the day. I learned that usually a piece of paper means little but the dirt on my shoes means much. My camino was my camino and that’s all I need it to be.

Pintxos: The Haute Couture of Spanish Tapas

Best Pintxos in BilbaoOne of the first and most important words I learned upon moving to Spain was “tapas,” those often bite-sized morsels of delectable Spanish cooking that proliferate in the country’s montón of bars and cervecerias. Minutes into my first night of tapeando and I was infatuated. Tapas are small enough that I could try four or five different dishes in one night (#win); they are varied enough that no matter if I was sipping a Cruzcampo or savoring a Rioja the flavors paired delightfully, and they were cheap enough (especially here in free-tapas Galicia!) that I had no remorse going out fo tapas as much as humanly possible!

But this weekend as I explored the wonders of Bilbao and San Sebastián in the Basque Country, my beloved tapas met their match. Forget tapas. I’m over tapas. Bring on the pintxos!!

Pintxo is the Basque word for tapa, but this northern province has translated far more than the letters to arrive at their version of the Spanish staple. Where tapas are versatile, representative and convenient, pintxos are unique, daring and tantalizing. The Basque Country has taken traditional tapas and turned them into avant-garde works of both visual and culinary art, defying the simplicity of typical Spanish food and daring to mix, match and creatively stack the best flavors of this delectable cuisine into tiny masterpieces of flavor, spunk and excitement.

Here are the six most mind-blowingly awesome pintxos I had the distinct pleasure of devouring in Bilbao and San Sebastián. Somehow I think my next Tortilla Española here in Galicia is going to seem wildly lacking…

1. Toasted cracker topped with goat cheese and tomato marmalade, garnished with sesame seeds.

Tomato Jelly and Goat Cheese Pintxo

Where to get the deliciousness: In the heart of San Sebastián’s pintxo land, just south of Mount Urgull (which I highly recommend climbing!) is a long, narrow bar called Txalupa, where the pintxos are plenty and the bartenders are friendly.  Calle Fermín Calbetón nº 3  in  San Sebastián

2. Calamari piled on crusty bread

Calamari Pintxo

Where to get the deliciousness: In the heard of Bilbao’s old town is the city’s main plaza, ironically called “Plaza Nueva.” The entire square is bordered by pintxos places and is packed during the afternoon and evening pintxos hours. We stopped in to Victor Montes to snag this scrumptious bit of squid. Plaza Nueva, 8  in Bilbao.

3. Garlicky grilled mushrooms

Grilled Mushroom Pintxo

Where to get the deliciousness: Calle Somera in Bilbao’s Casco Viejo was on hoppin when we strolled over to Motrikes Saturday night around 9 p, (prime pintxos time!) While many of the bars along that route are geared more toward the younger drinks-rather-than-dinner crowd, the mushrooms at Motrikes  make it 100 percent worth adding to any pintxos evening. Calle Somera, 41 in Bilbao

4. Roasted zucchini, eggplant, fried cheese, lettuce and mushroom veggie burger on a dense, seedy wheat bun. 

Veggie Burger Pintxo

Where to get the deliciousness: Kuku Soak, also in Bilbao’s Casco Viejo region has hands-down the most creative and exciting, if not the best pintxos we tried in the entire city. Barrenkale Barrena, 18 in Bilbao

5. Marinated sun-dried tomatoes, creamy sharp cheese and membrillo topped with red currants.

Sundried tomato, cheese and quince pintxo

Where to get the deliciousness: Berton gave Kuku Soak a run for it’s money in my best pintxos of Bilbao competition. Both this daring delicacy and the roasted mushroom and serrano ham number that I tried were ridiculously tasty and refreshingly creative. Calle Jardines, 11 in Bilbao

6. Stewed veal in a red wine reduction

Red Wine Stewed Veal Pintxo

Where to get the deliciousness: La Cuchara del San Telmo was without question the best pintxos bar of the trip. This melt-in-your-mouth veal was one of about a dozen pintxos available, all of which looked positively amazing. Unlike most pintxos bars, La Cuchara serves their pintxos  hot and therefore does not have them displayed on the counter. Judging by the jam-packed bar, no one in San Sebastián holds that against them. Calle del Treinta y Uno de Agosto, 28 in San Sebastián

I’m Going to Do the Camino de Santiago!!!

I'm Doing the Camino!My excitement can hardly be contained. In 28 days I am strapping on my boots, cinching down my pack and setting a westward trek towards Santiago de Compostela! It will be 6 days of walking (theoretically) along the gorgeous Galician hills with my best friend by my side and the world ahead of me. I. Am. Stoked.

Catedral en Santiago de CompostelaThe camino de Santiago or Way of St. James is a pilgrimage to the catedral in Santiago de Compostela, the capital of Spain’s northwest province Galicia, where according to legend the apostle St. James is buried. Nearly 200,000 pilgrims walked the route to Santiago last year. (Interesting fact: 281 of those pilgrims did the camino on horseback. 22 did it in wheelchairs.) Many people walk the route for religious or spiritual reasons, many make the trek during a turning point in their lives. I’m not 100 percent sure what my motivation will turn out to be, but I have no doubt that somewhere between the blisters and the vistas I will find out. 

I’ll be starting the camino from my front doorstep here in Sarria. As fate would have, Sarria is the closest starting point for pilgrims to begin and be considered true peregrinos (yes, there is an official certificate of completion for this walk!). My pueblita is almost exactly 100 km from Santiago along the French Way, one of six main routes. The Camino Francés  actually begins nearly 600 km east in a town called St. Jean Pied de Port along the French-Spanish boarder, although about 20 percent of last year’s pilgrims began their journey, like I will, in Sarria.

Galicia is Gorgeous

My seed of camino intrigue that is now flourishing into action was actually planted long before the fates that be (in this case, the Spanish Ministry of Education) dropped me at head of the trail. In fact, the ganas to do the camino began growing before I could even point out gorgeously green hills of Galicia on a map. This crazy adventure came about, as many of my adventures have, because of brunch. It was a marvelous sundressy day and I remember it perfectly. I rolled out of bed and over to my favorite D.C. brunch hub/coffeehouse/cerveceria/happy place, Tryst. Upon discovering that half of Washington shared my desire for bathtub-sized coffee and labneh baguettes, I strolled next door to peruse a sun-filled bookstore while I awaited an open seat.

Until that day I had never realized that a bright green neighborhood bookstore stood next to my go-to coffeehouse (apparently my perception skills aren’t as keen as I thought), let alone that it was stocked with a decent-sized travel section (lo mejor genre en mi opinión). At the time, my application to spend the following year teaching English in Spain was still pending and my desire to jump ship and move overseas was nearly at the breaking point. Within 15 minutes I had singled out every travel book having anything to do with Spain and narrowed down my purchase to an intriguing-looking specimen with a doodle-style map blanketing the jacket cover. 

The book turned out to be rather whiney, but the storyline was fascinating: a American man took a month-long leave of absence to walk across Northern Spain along with thousands of strangers. I immediately added “Camino de Santiago” to my “want-to-do” list. Four months after starting the book, I received my teaching placement in, of all places, Galicia — the Spanish province where the majority of his book (and thus the majority of the camino) took place. Coincidence? Quizas.

Scallop shell decorations

If the camino was flitting around the back of my mind if America, it was drenching my field of vision here in Galicia. Scallop shells — the symbol of the pilgrims — decorated the sidewalks and fences; bright yellow arrows were sprinkled like breadcrumbs across the city; tales of past pilgrims were told and retold by teachers and amigos. Within weeks of arriving I had resolved that one day I would do the camino, but only if the right circumstances (read: the right compadre) arose.

Enter: Jenny. A bakers’ dozen of days ago I floated the idea to mi mejor amiga of filling the gap between my last day of classes and my flight back to the states by walking the camino. It was a long shot at best. Jenny has a grown-up job, a new house and a new husband and I was asking her to drop it all, fly across an ocean and walk through the rural hills of Northern Spain with me for 10 days. Who does that?!? Apparently, we do.

Spring in Galicia!

Thus far we don’t know how we are going to do the camino, only that come hell or high water (read: airline delays and customs controls) we are throwing on backpacks and boots on June 2 and hitting the trail. I imagine this new adventure will be a lot like eating an elephant; we’ll take it one bite at a time.

Have you ever walked the camino? Do you have any tips or suggestions?!?