A Madrid Walkabout: The City Beyond the Travel Guides

Madrid, as I am coming to find out, is a city made for walking. Yes, it is rather massive. Yes, it has an amazingly well-connected metro system. Yes, Google Maps doesn’t usually know whether I’m walking down Calle Jordán or the similarly tiny Calle Olid. But that’s part of what makes exploring Madrid de pie such an adventure. I usually have no idea which direction I’m going (or should be going) but with playground-filled plazas, impresionante old buildings and hub-ub-filled markets popping up everywhere, being lost is turning out to be far more fun than being on time.

Madrid Streets

The other night I decided to take a stroll around my new neighborhood near the Chamberí and Trafalgar barrios, just north of the heart of downtown Madrid. The guide books would have likely advised me to take a left out of my front door and walk down calle Fuencarral (the main street) towards the city center  where I could admire the quintessentially Madrid buildings: statue-topped skyscrappers featured on post cards, the main plaza Sol with it’s bear and tree statue, the expansive whitish-grey Royal Palace and it’s perfectly manicured gardens.  These are the icons of Madrid, but not, contrary to their central geography, the heart and soul of this city. For that, I had to walk the opposite direction, through the winding, absolutely un-grid-like streets of the upper barrios.

Rather than attempting my poor mapping skills, I opted for a meandering paseo with no destination in mind. I turned when the side street looked prettier than the main one, crossed the road only to examine the menus of cute cafes or peruse the old records at a hole-in-the-wall shop. The longer I strolled the more I began to understand the resting pulse of this city, the daily lives of its citizens and the driving force of its beauty.

Missionaries on a Park BenchHidden just off the main thoroughfare that is Fuencarral I stumbled upon a Plaza Olavide, where scores of kids still sporting their school uniforms kicked soccer balls and wobbled past on roller skates while their parents gossiped on the benches, guarded the strollers or had a caña  of beer at one of the dozen bar/cafes surrounding the plaza. This little neighborhood park/plaza didn’t have the splendor of Sol nor the intricacy of Retiro (Madrid’s version of Central Park) but it was real. It was functional. It had only a handful of empty benches and rumbled with the sound of chatter and children.

Beyond the plaza was a tiny (even by Spain standards) fresh fruit store, one of may absolutely favorite places. I peaked my head in to ask the shop attendant if he had any figs, my new fruit obsession. He snapped on a blue surgical glove and dropped six gorgeous, deep purple higos into a clear plastic bag asked me for a euro and slumped back down on his stool. Half of those juicy fruits would later become a spinach, goat cheese and fig salad for my dinner.

An Evening PaseoAs the sun began to set, I wandered deeper into the Chamberí neighborhood, which judging from the grand buildings, is home to Madrid’s more fortunate inhabitants. I saw a red brick school that looked like a relic from an old movie set at Oxford. I walked past a pop-up flower shop selling olive tree saplings that were bent from the weight of their bright-green fruit. I meandered past two old men in tweed suits and old-man caps arguing in whispers on a sidewalk bench. I spotted a small, faded blue sign on a ten-story tall apartment building advertising “Gas on every floor.” I slowed my steps behind an old couple out for their evening walk and watched as they shuffled towards a nearby church, the abuela explaining to her husband which parts had been recently renovated. Her show-and-tell complete they decided to call it a night and turned around to head back home.

It’s these little moments that give this city it’s magic. Of course I love to stand in the plaza outside the Royal Palace and admire its majesty and I can’t get enough of the flower gardens in Parque de Retiro. But it’s the more routine experiences of Spaniards that I’ve come to admire most. These are people who take walks just to take walks, who take hours to finish one beer because the stories are more important than the beverage, whose kids think a piece of rope is the funnest toy on the playground, and who have stores that sell nothing but scissors. This is the Spain I love and the Spain I yearn to know better, the Spain I’ll never find in a guide book.

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3 Reasons Why Madrid Is Actually Food Heaven

During my Summer spent in Texas, the first question I was always asked after telling someone of my plans to move back to Spain was, “What is it about Spain that you love so much?” My reaction was always the same: the food. Or more accurately, the culture that surrounds creating and eating food. In Spain “slow food” is not a fad, it’s the norm. Lunches here are hours-long affairs and serving day-old bread is sin. In the rural garden-filled hills of Galicia (my home for the past school year), farm-to-table wasn’t the restaurant’s advertised enticement, it was the diner’s unwritten expectation, one I came to cherish.

Fresh Galician Food

The freshest of meats from the carnecería in Sarria.

Moving to the 4-million-strong metropolis of Madrid this year, I feared my days of abundant food freshness were over. I’ve been a Madrileña for less than two weeks and already any and all of my food fears have evaporated. Madrid is not only a mecca of fruit stands and bakeries, but a foodie treasure chest bursting with traditional tapas bars, specialty restaurants and coffee-conscious cafes. Madrid, I am coming to find out, is the melting pot of Spain’s culinary excellence. In other words, it is food heaven. Don’t believe me? Here’s proof:

Exhibit A: Squid for Lunch. Claro!

Picture two American roommates in their early twenties planning a dinner with friends. What will the menu look like? As an early-twenties American, I can tell you from experience it will likely include ground beef or pan-grilled chicken, perhaps some pasta, probably a salad or maybe some homemade (and by ‘homemade’ I mean from-a-box) brownies.

Two days ago I experienced the same sort of meal with two twenty-something Spaniards. After some rapid-fire Spanish debate over what to fix, my new amigos announced it was time to ir al supermercado. At the corner market, my fearless masters of delicious cuisine marched straight up to the seafood counter, flagged down the haz-mat-style suit wearing attendant, and asked for three gooey, floppy, football-sized squid — well, technically cuttlefish — as nonchalantly as if they were ordering sliced turkey from the deli.

Package-o-fresh-squid in-hand, they strolled over to the fruteria next door to pick up fresh sprigs of parsley and cilantro, informing me that fresh herbs were clutch to making the family recipe’s sauce delicioso. An hour of kitchen-clanking and taste-testing later, my new meal-preparing role models laid a steaming pile of perfectly seared squid pieces on the table next to a dish of boiled new potatoes, a carafe of bright-green parsley-cilantro sauce and two plates of pan-fried Chanterelle mushrooms.  One bite of the crisp, yet succulent squid bearing a hint of the tart, garlicy punch of the green sauce and I floated off into Spanish food heaven…

Exhibit B: Viva la Vida, a Vegetarian Buffet

In a country where your typical bar has cured ham legs hanging from the ceiling and the “vegetarian” menus feature five kids of tuna, there exists the unimaginable: a plaza of not one, but two vegetarian restaurants. Ironically enough, these unexpected changes of culinary pace are nestled in the heart of one of Madrid’s oldest neighborhoods: La Latina.

Spanish Vegetarian Buffett

I stumbled upon the first and most impresionante of the veggie eateries last week while in search of a tasty-looking lunch spot. Inside I discovered everything I could want in a Spanish-style vegetarian restaurant. Lush green vines blanketed the ceiling and Chinese lanterns hung over the bar. Bowls of flowers floated on tables between flowy-skirt wearing diners. Along the black wall, buffet tables overflowed with vegetarian fare with a decidedly Spanish flare.

There were whole-wheat croquetas and meatless albondigas (meatballs). A clay pot of cold gazpacho was nestled alongside salads with bright red tomatoes, blocks of feta and dried dates. Every dish was bursting with color and flavor. I loaded as many kinds of exotic veggie goodness onto my plate as possible, awaited my glass of accompanying white wine, looked out over the Plaza de Paja and dug into veggie heaven…

Exhibit C: The Tomato Man

There are three fruterias between where I’m staying and the metro which means every day I’m torn between the green-and-yellow striped melons at the cavernous self-serve Rosa’s, the 2,35/kilo neon-green figs at Tomate’s and the so-purple-they’re-black bunches of grapes at Un Dia.  Trying to cover my bases, I decided to hit up each store and compare quality, variety and price. Five seconds after setting foot in Tomate and I realized not one of those three standards mattered.

The jolly round man that runs the smallest of the three produce stores, Tomate, hopped up to greet me the second I entered his shop. I asked for a quarter-kilo of figs (my new fruit obsession) and then stood dumbfounded in front of a table of six types of tomatoes. “Which is the best?” I asked after he’d carefully placed about a dozen small figs into a clear plastic bag. “These,” he said without hesitation, pointing to the least-red bunch of lopsided tomato-like forms. “They are ugly, but they are the most sweet, the most tasty.” He plucked the reddest mound from the table. It was relatively nice-looking on the top but squished on the bottom. “Eeh! Esta mal,” my tomato guru grunted, snatching instead a yellowish-red one and placing on the register with my figs.

Skeptical that such a bland-colored vegetable could be as rico as the brilliant red variety sitting next to it, I headed to the back to find a suitable salad back-up. “Toma! Probalo!” Tomato Man shouted across the store, a dripping hunk of the slightly-squished tomato extended in my direction. I rushed over before the waterfall of tomato juice could coat the entire register. Slurping, I shoved the chunk of light red flesh in my mouth. A symphony of sweet, garden-fresh flavor enveloped my tongue and I drifted off into this-is-what-real-veggies-taste-like heaven…

Delicious Tomatoes

Heavenly tomatoes on an ultra-fresh salad!

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?!?

The Art of the Go-To Restaurant

Matias PizzaThere are few things in life that stress me out more than choosing a restaurant (a fridge full of fresh– aka soon to be not fresh — vegetables would definitely be in the running). Ask me what country I want to visit next, if I want to quit my grown-up job to go frolic (ahem, teach) in Spain or what I want to do with my life and I’ll give little pause. But ask me where I want to go for lunch in a new city and I’m thrown into a tailspin of questions that can’t possibly be sufficiently answered by glancing at a menu outside.

I’ll wander for an hour hoping to stumble upon the perfect equilibrium between hole-in-the-wall authentic but not too dingy and modernly elegant but not too pricey. I’m intrinsically driven to try new things, but there are times when, especially after living in a city for a few months, I’m just in the mood for a place I can count on to be delicious, friendly and comfortably fabulous. Sometimes, I just need some stress-free food.

Trudys

My first stop on every trip back to Austin: a Trudy’s Mexican Martini!

In my hometown of New Braunfels my tried and true go-to is Gruene River Grill (rustic, riverfront, ridiculously delicious Italian margaritas and shrimp wontons). Austin has two go-tos, one for breakfast (Juan in a Million, obvs.) and one for drinks (Trudy’s, someone dame una Mexican Martini por favor!). In Sevilla it was El Tren for coffee (hello free, dependable wifi) and Marcos for dinner (bowl-licking Italian in an ancient arched setting). And in D.C., the candyland of restaurants? Tryst (scrumptious, reasonable, unassuming, close to home and everything I’ve ever wanted in a coffeehouse).

Matias cappaccinoSince unpacking in Sarria I’ve been on the hunt for the perfect sitio to add to my go-tos. The title is a tricky one to bestow. It must be delicious without being pretentious, comfortable without being drab and friendly without being pesky. Turns out, my stress-free eatery was one of the first restaurants I tested out in my little Northern pueblo: Matias Locanda Italiana. One sip of a Matias cappuccino and I was enamorado. One bite of their homemade brick oven-baked pizza and it became my new gold standard of thin crust. The ethically Italian, functionally world citizen, trilingual owner is charming, inviting and hilarious. He takes care of his regulars and has no qualms with me taking up the corner table with hours of typing and free-wifi browsing while savoring nothing more than one of his spectacular coffee creations.

Nestled amid albergues and touristy tapas joints, Matias brings authenticity to the old part of town that usually bustles with pilgrims stopping off for a bite along the Camino de Santiago. It’s the beacon of deliciousness at the top of a seriously steep hill, one I’m more than willing to climb for a scoop of their chocolate mousse (who needs a novio when you have this sinful mousse, Mr. Matias informed us during our last visit). Sarria may be known for it’s pulpo, but it’s these Italian plates of joy that drag me away from my estufa amid the rain and wind of Sarria’s wintery Spring.

Matias Chocolate Mousse

Matias chocolate mousse: my new Spanish novio

What is your go-to restaurant? How did you discover it?

East Meets West

My family is many fabulous things, but fancy is rarely one of them. Our idea of a nice family event usually involves University of Arizona t-shirts, bottles of Corona (“the good stuff,” as my Mom calls it) and a buffet table of steaming Mexican food. So when the abundantly elegant invitation for my cousin Aaron’s wedding landed on my doorstep, my eyes bulged, my jaw dropped and my fingers began frantically plugging in dates to every budget airline website I could think of. There was no way I could miss the most extravagant, most cultural and most exciting event in Callaway family history!

Aaron's Wedding Invitation

We Callaways (my mother’s side of the family) are 100 percent American. We speak “Amurrrican,” the only skin colors we display are Arizona-sun-tanned and (in my case) rainy-weather-white. We eat copious amounts of barbeque and we drink light beer. In other words, we couldn’t be more opposite from Aaron’s bride’s family, much of which flew in direct from India for the three-day wedding extravaganza. Saris were to be worn, curry to be eaten and Sanskrit to be spoken at the ceremony. I couldn’t decide which I was more excited about, watching my traditional Texan grandma tasting shrimp curry or seeing my 7-foot tall uncle twirling a bejeweled umbrella over Aaron as he rode a white horse up to the altar.

As the oldest among us six cousins, Aaron is a trailblazer, a trend-setter and, at least for me, an inspiration. Aaron defines courage, exemplifies determination and embodies adventure. He is a doctor in a family of teachers, a guy who holds his own in a family of all girls and fabulous success in world of too many disappointments. I was in middle school when Arrowhead Sr. set off for a semester study abroad in Madrid. I remember watching him pack over Christmas vacation and thinking that blindly flying halfway across the world to live with a family of strangers for six months was hands down the coolest — and bravest –thing anyone could do. I remember visiting Tucson the summer after Aaron returned and rapturously listening to his tales of cold showers, crowded metros and muddled Spanish. I remember resolving then and there that one day I’d jet across the Atlantic to see for myself what this crazy country was all about. Without the inspiration from my big cousin, I wouldn’t be sitting here now in Sarria, smudging Nutella on my keyboard as I type these words to the rhythm of a Spanish guitar.

As the eldest, Aaron siempre set the bar sky-high for the rest of us, whether it was his Spanish adventure, his specialized medical degree or his sweet dance moves. With a bride whom my family adores by his side, I knew his wedding would be no different. So with a Kayak.com deal on my credit card, two new dresses in my carry-on and enough anticipation to keep me grinning all the way across the Atlantic, I began the 30-hour epic journey to watch my eldest cousin walk down the aisle. I kept my trip secret from my family, knowing how much they all love surprises, and I must admit, I was just as excited to see the look on my mom’s face when I walked in as I was for the main event.

Surprising Meme

My grandma nearly dropped her crossword puzzle when she saw me! **photo courtesy of JJ Kellner**

The wedding extravaganza was, in accordance with Indian tradition, a three-day shebang. Due to the awesomeness of U.S. air travel I arrived too late to see what I have since heard was a marvelous dinner at my Aunt’s house. Aunt Pam’s Mexican-catered evening was the one Western-themed event of the weekend. From then on out each activity had a markedly Eastern vibe.

I had expected an extravagant show, a heart-strings-pulling ceremony, amazing food and a riotous rendition of “Mony Mony,” but I was absolutely unprepared for how much I would learn about another culture in the midst of my own family. Traveling is my passion. Experiencing other ways of life and other ways of looking at the world is what I live for (that, and of course, the food). I absolutely love flying home to visit my family, but I know what to expect in New Braunfels, Texas or Tucson, Arizona. Rarely am I challenged there to understand new customs or taste tangy, muddy-water-filled chip cups. Aaron and Serena’s wedding was like stepping off the plane onto the Sonoran Desert-themed plains of India. It had all the excitement and newness of one of my best-planned adventures, but I got to experience it all surrounded my my sister, parents, cousins, aunts, grandma and closest family friends. And it. was. awesome.

Traditional American weddings’ve got nothin’ on the drum-beat dancing, hands waving, color-splashed awesomeness that is an Indian wedding. This day is supposed to be one of the happiest day of two people’s lives. At every turn Aaron’s wedding manifested that joy and excitement. There was no solemn organ announcing the couple’s entrance to the church; there was a drum-bumpin’ dance party blaring from wheeled loudspeakers. There was no strict white and black dress code; the bridal party was decked out in vibrant colors and doused in sparkling jewels. It was as if Aaron, Serena, their family and their friends were so massively stoked about this marriage that we couldn’t contain it. If American weddings celebrate a union, Indian weddings shout it from the rooftops while dousing passersby in multi-colored confetti.

Here are a few of the best parts:

1. At every possible moment a drummer drops a beat and the room erupts with dancing.

aarons wedding drummer

**photo courtesy of Glenn Bassett**

2. The family is part of the program. At each event the bride and groom enter surrounded by their families. The wedding is truly a fusing of families, a fact that is made a focal point and a cause for endless handshakes, hugs and congratulations.

Aaron's wedding family

**photo courtesy of Glenn Bassett**

3. Color is everywhere! No boring white and black, this wedding is a rainbow.

Indian wedding party

4. Intricate decorations on the altar, the wedding hall and the bridal party aren’t enough. The guests get decorated too! Henna artists jazzed up all the female guests with temporary Henna tattoos.

Indian Wedding Henna

5. One night of festivities? Lame. Bring on three days of dancing, drinking, smiling and celebrating! 

Aaron's wedding fireworks

Fishing for Fun

A wise man today shared with me the folktale that my life has been missing. For six months now I have been trying to find the best and most accurate way to explain why I chose to come to Spain, why it was the right move for me to quit a dream job (someone’s dream, not, I discovered, mine) and move across the world for a job that paid much less in a field I wasn’t interested in pursing.

Sarria in the Spring“I love Spain,” didn’t seem to be explanation enough. “I want to learn Spanish,” didn’t quite cut it on the justification front. A long-winded lecture about “living life” and “living my age” and “learning about the world” always sounded a tad too idealistic to be fully believable. Luckily my friends and family didn’t need an explanation; they supported my wanderlust and encouraged me to follow my heart. Now I finally have the perfect story to illustrate to them why I’m bucking the traditional plan (school-university-job-husband-kids-retirement) and frolicking around a tiny pueblo in a rural corner of Spain.

This story is about a gray-haired fisherman living in a small wooden house by the sea.

Every morning the fisherman wakes up, walks down the beach to his tiny wooden boat and kicks off into the ocean. For two hours he casts his line to catch just enough fish for his family to eat that day and a couple extra to sell for a few euros. One day the aging fisherman encounters a man wearing a suit on the beach. He is a middle-manager at a large business, on a weekend-long beach vacation. Upon meeting the fisherman, the suit-wearing businessman tells him, “I’ve been watching you now for two days and I have a great plan for improving your  life…

“Instead of working just two hours every day you should start working eight hours. That way you can catch four times as many fish and sell them to the market for four times the profit!

Fishing on Galata Bridge

Fisherman casts into the Golden Horn from Galata Bridge in Istanbul.

“Then instead of this little rickety boat you can buy a proper fishing boat and hire a few men to help you run it and more than double your profit…

“With all that money you can buy a bigger, more modern house in the city…

“As your profits grow you can invest them in a whole fleet of fishing boats and your profits will grow exponentially…

Boating on the Bosphorus

Boating on the Bosphorus

“Then, with a healthy sum in the bank, you can retire and buy a vacation home by the ocean and a small fishing boat. Then you can spend your days fishing for fun!”

The gray-haired man stepped out of his small wooden boat and put his hand on the businessman shoulder. “Sir,” he said, “I already do.”

Why would I spend my youth at a desk, working to save money so that in forty years I can retire and begin to do the things that make me happy? I’m going to skip the forty years of sacrificing my happiness fish for fun NOW I’m going to figure out a way to make my happiness into my living. That’s why I moved to Spain. Because I couldn’t waste another moment living to work.

I love Spain

7 Ways Istanbul Trumps London

Istanbul's Blue Mosque

Istanbul has an ancient beauty all it’s own.

With an 11-day break from classes (apparently Easter warrants nearly two weeks of celebrations, me encanta España) I finally had a chance to check the two top cities off of my Most-Want-to-Visit list: London and Istanbul. These two titans of European travel topped my list for nearly polar opposite reasons. London seemed to be an obligatory stop.  I’ve swirled Chiantis in Rome, savored croissants in Paris, devoured tapas in Madrid and danced the day away in Barcelona. It was about time I paid homage to the most visited city in the world and got my fish ‘n chips on in London.

Istanbul, on the other hand, was the slow-burning obsession of my travel bug. The city represented everything I crave about international travel: utter newness, total uniqueness, vast history and, of course, fantastic food. Not to mention in my unscientific poll of travel-lovers (aka asking everyone I met), more people raved about Istanbul than any other city. To say I was stoked would be a slight understatement.

My 10-day Easter adventure was split almost exactly in half: four and a half days in England, followed by four and a half days in Turkey. In hindsight, I had booked the perfect cultural comparison. First I would explore the birthplace of Protestantism and modern Western culture, then the epicenter of ancient power and Islamic conquest. And after strolling each massive metropolis, tasting it’s flavors, touring it’s treasures and talking to it’s people, there is no question that if I was booking a return trip, Istanbul would be at the top of my ticket. Here’s why:

1. Flower beds? Try flower murals.

Istanbul's Flower Murals!

Forget flower beds, Istanbul makes flower clocks!

As far as flowers go, London doesn’t do too shabby. St. James Park near Buckingham Palace features immaculately maintained beds of bright yellow buds and rosy red petals. But from the moment I boarded my bus from the Sabiha Gökçen airport on Istanbul’s Asian side, I was greeted with the most magnificent display of flower landscaping I’ve ever witnessed. Huge swirls of bright pink and purple flowers decorated the hills lining the highway. Abstract murals of shrubs and buds flowed past the bus window all the way into Istanbul.

Sultanahmet Square in Istanbul

Sultanahmet Square was overflowing with gorgeous spring flowers!

Inside the city the flowers were even more impressive. At Topkapi Palace a thick blanket of purple flowers enveloped one courtyard in the sweet perfume of spring. Intertwining circles of forget-me-nots turned Gulhane Park into a living work of art. And outside the Hagia Sophia, vibrant rows of tulips filled geometric designs to create the multi-leveled adornments of a cascading fountain. The moto of Istanbul’s seriously skilled landscapers seemed to be “why build beds, when you can create murals?!?”

2. Tea Time,  Aladdin-Style

Apple Tea in Istanbul

Turkish apple tea is sweet, tart and all-around scrumptious!

The English may have cornered the market on traditional tea time, but the Turkish have taken tea to the next level. Clear glass vases of piping-hot Turkish tea are confined to no specified time, no organized location and no particular occasion. Tea makers are constantly scurrying throughout Istanbuls cramped and winding streets delivering trays of tea and lumps of sugar to shopkeepers, bazaar-stand workers and tiny stool-sitting customers. In Istanbul, tea (or çay, pronounced ‘chai’) comes in two flavors: Turkish and Apple. The former is an amber brown, bitter tea while the latter is light yellow and, as a friend described it to me, “sweeter than a jolly rancher.” Both are fabulous as are the perfectly palm-shaped glasses they are served in.

3. Treasure Hunting

In London, the treasures of the city are prominently displayed, whether it’s historical heirlooms in the British Museum, adorable and affordable styles in Primark or the queen’s crown jewels in the Tower of London. But in the chaos of Istanbul, the marvels of the city take a bit more searching to discover. For me, the treasure hunting began in the Grand Bazaar, a nearly 600-year old labyrinth of 60 streets-worth of shops, stands and stalls selling everything from Genie-style oil lamps to handwoven cashmere scarves.

Istanbul's Grand Bazaar

Rainbows of scarves lined the streets of Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar.

The true treasure, in my flavor-obsessed opinion, is two stops down the tram line at the Spice Bazaar, or as I have re-named it, Heaven. Picture this: a web of arched streets packed with people and overflowing with every color of spice, every type of Turkish delight, every scent of dried tea leaves and every variety of dried fruit. Istanbul sampled it’s way into my heart as I tasted my way down the streets of the Spice Bazaar. Two days of treasure hunting yielded two more items to add to my list of favorite foods: walnut-stuffed dried Turkish figs and roasted pistachio and pomegranate-honey Turkish delight.

Istanbul Grand Bazaar Lamp

Aladdin-style oil lamps at the Grand Bazaar.

Turkish Delight

Ridiculously delicious pomegranate-honey-pistachio Turkish delight.

4. Energizing (Not Incapacitating) Breakfasts

English breakfasts — with their sausage, ham, bacon, fried eggs, baked beans and buttery toast — may sound good on paper, but after polishing off that heaping pile of goodness, the only thing I want on my day’s agenda is a nice long nap. Delish? Absolutely. Conducive to exploring a new city? No way.

English Breakfast

Eggs, baked, beans, sausage, ham and toast, the typical English breakfast.

On the contrary, the typical Turkish breakfast — tomato, cucumber, tangy yogurt, feta-like cheese and bread — made for an unexpectedly invigorating start to a long day of mosque-ogling and treasure hunting. While it’s a far cry from what I typically think of as breakfast food, the fresh and flavorful vegetables paired with the salty cheese and flaky rolls were satisfyingly filling, yet delightfully light.

Turkish Breakfast

Two types of cheese, olives, cherry jam, butter, cucumber and tomato, the typical Turkish breakfast.

5. Street Food

I now have a whole new appreciation for street food. While Spain’s street-side roasted chestnuts are tasty, they don’t hold a candle to Istanbul’s sesame-covered simit (picture a thin, breadier bagel) or perfectly charred lamb kebaps.

Turkish street food

This bagel-like simit made for the perfect mid-morning snack!

Devouring a Kebap

Istanbul’s lamb kebap: street food as street food should be!

6. The Thames Ain’t Got Nothin on the Bosphorus

When it comes to city-dividing bodies of water, the Bosphorus Strait can’t be beat. Not only does it hold the trump card on the awesomeness scale of separating two continents, the Bosphorus is also magnificently teal-blue, is spanned by breathtaking bridges (especially when they are lit up at night) and bordered by an elaborate Sultan’s palace and stunning modern mansions. My day-long cruise up the Bosphorus to the Black Sea was easily one of the highlights of my trip.

Bosphorus Views

View of the Bosphorus from the Topkapi Palace.

7. Top-of-the-World Views

Just steps away from the Blue Mosque’s walls there is a unassuming doorway with an understated sign reading “teras” in neon letters. Four flights above that is the top of the world. Moments before the dusk call to prayer rang out over Istanbul, I stepped out onto the rooftop terrace of Mimar Sinan Cafe. What greeted me was easily the most spectacular view I saw on my entire trip. Stretching out in all directions wast the behemoth city of Istanbul. Directly in front of me the newly-built skyscrapers on the Asian side disappeared into the clouds . To the right the spires of Istanbul’s most famous mosques encircled the ancient city. On the left sparkling bridges held the city, and with it two continents, together. Behind me the intimidating domes of the Blue Mosque lit up as the light faded from the sky. In that moment, I was on top of the world. 

Best View of Istanbul

Pictures cannot possibly do this view justice.