Spain ’08 – Olé!


Forewarning: this narrative is going to be a lot like my original foray into blogging called “Foodalogue: A Gastronomic Travel Memoir” because, frankly, we did a lot of eating and drinking. We never met a meal or wine we didn’t savor…and with mucho gusto! All the restaurants we went to were unique, atmospheric and damn good! So I’m going to include restaurant names where possible for future reference and/or recommendations to friends. 

Let it also be known here, without further repeating, all meals included bread dunked in olive oil while we waited for appetizers (yes, we did that too!) Callos (tripe), pepper salad, croquettes, chorizos, morcillas and baby clams are some pre-meal tapas that come to mind). And we discovered pan con tomate and ate it at every possible opportunity. You might not be surprised to hear that lots of wine was consumed. Winemakers all over Spain are probably rushing to plant new crops. Even the ‘non-drinkers’ were sharing pitchers of Sangria by the end of the trip…and it was very rare that a few desserts weren’t ordered.

The Trip. With squeals and hugs, The Traveling Sisterhood reunited in JFK and welcomed two new members before taking our Iberia flight to Madrid.

To sum it up in advance of the narrative, the arrangements and accommodations did not disappoint. There was someone waiting for us at every point with a sign, our rooms were ready and, with the exception of one excursion, we had full-size luxury buses for just the 11 of us! Of course, the one exception would be the longest excursion — our day trip to Sevilla which was at least a 2.5 hour ride each way.

Once we arrived in Madrid, we were taken on a panoramic bus tour which gave us some orientation for the places we wanted to go back and visit on our own.

The first night’s dinner (which was included in our itinerary) at Las Cuevas del Duque was a great introduction into Spanish cuisine…it was a never-ending parade of Spanish tapas. I remember jamon y queso (Iberico ham & Manchego cheese), shrimps, grilled pulpo (octopus), salomillo (steak), tuna & pimentos with a balsalmic syrup, paella, piquillo pepper stuffed with a bacalao mousse, caponata, tortilla, delicious bread and dessert!! Gladly/sadly that meal set the bar for those to come (and stretched our stomachs to accept them!)

On our first full day in Madrid we had an all day tour which took us to the various important sites in Madrid, including a visit to the Royal Palace which awed us all.

In the afternoon we went to Toledo, a beautiful medieval city, where we visited the Iglesia de Santo Tome and saw El Greco’s famous painting depicting the death of Count Orgaz as well as a a synagogue ironically designed by Muslims (so it looks like a mosque). It was later usurped by Catholics and turned into a church, a true example of the history and culture of the country. That night we went to La Bola for Cocido Madrileno (a two-dish meal consisting of soup and secondly the meats cooked in it – all served in individual crockware).

Sunday was one of the many days we took off and made our own adventure. This day we visited the Reina Sofia Museum, tried to figure out Picasso’s Guernica  (shall I mention that one of our group who shall remain nameless tripped the security alarm in her enthusiasm to get close to the painting?) We spent the afternoon in the beautiful El Retiro park — first stopping at La Mallorquina, a popular bakery that had sweet and savory offerings which we took to the park for a picnic. Afterwards we strolled the park and enjoyed the day. That evening we had dinner at La Compostela, a Galician restaurant close to our hotel. Katie introduced the group to  their first (and not the last) tasting of ‘fried baby green peppers” and Mary and I sold them on Empanada Gallega which we grew up eating. Later Mary and I shared Arroz Negro con Chipirones (black rice with baby squid).

Another day we visited the Atocha Train Station and the memorial to the March 11 victims of a terrorist train bombing in Madrid, I believe the year after our September 11, which was very emotional and yet inspiring.

While in Madrid, we walked literally all day long but made rest stops for afternoon drinks in the Plaza Mayor and on another day at the famous chocolateria San Gines for churros and chocolate…wow! We also tried the Sunday flea market (El Rastro) but quickly retreated. Not recommended by this group…mostly junk and way too many people in tight quarters. That’s the day we opted for the picnic in El Retiro which was heavenly!

Four nights (and some rainy afternoons) in Madrid, a bullfight for some, and a live flamenco show for all — and we’re off to Barcelona. Oh, no…more rain! But it does get progressively better. Side story: when the pilot announced upon our arrival in Madrid the local temperature of 50-something, Mary takes their complimentary(?) blanket as a shawl to keep warm…and wears it more than once!

Our full-day tour in Barcelona took us to the Cathedral, the Barri Gotic (ancient quarters), and Poble Español (site of 1929 World’s Fair) where we had a paella lunch at La Font de Prades.

We also visited the Sant Pau Hospital, a series of ornate buildings in the Catalan modernisme style of architecture much like Antonio Gaudi’s works – the latter being the highlight of the tour…the Sagrada Familia church (120 years in the making), Casa Battlo, La Pedrera and Parc Guell, all of which we revisited when we had more time during our stay in Barcelona. Architecturally brilliant but commercial failures. Genius! What do they say about the fine line between genius and insanity?

We strolled Las Ramblas (Barcelona’s famous pedestrian walk which pulses with people, restaurants, shops, and mimes the like of which you’ve never seen unless you’ve been to Barcelona. They are wildly costumed and wildly entertaining.)

And, of course, we stopped for tapas along the way! When we went to a Basque bar for tapas, Dolores took the prize for eating the most tapas. We know because you had to count the toothpicks on your plate to pay your bill.

One evening we went to Señor Parillada, another very atmospheric restaurant in a beautiful townhouse in the La Ribera district where we feasted on an creative and somewhat different menu and a very interesting way of presenting the food like  bread wrapped in colorful tissue paper, vegetables served in a parchment cone, etc.

From Barcelona we took a train ride to Girona (ancient Jewish quarters). There we found a tourist trolley that took us through the old city and into the narrow streets for a nice little tour of this ancient city.

And, it’s a no brainer. We loved La Boqueria (the huge food market on Las Ramblas that takes food presentation to an art.) Katie and I loved it so much we set our alarms and went for a breakfast crawl on the day we were flying out to Torremolinos. It was really amazing to see that they break down their stands and set up them again daily.

Which brings me to Torremolinos, our last stop. After walking the streets of Madrid and Barcelona for 8 days straight, we were ready for a little RnR at a beach resort and we weren’t disappointed. Torremolinos is a lovely resort city below a mountainous town and our hotel fronted the Mediterranean Sea. Immediately upon arrival, some took advantage of the spa and had massages, others sat by the pool or beach and just relaxed. Dinner the first evening at La Huerta was included in our itinerary. It was yet another cozy, house-like atmosphere that served us tons of food!

Another night we went to La Lonja because they served Fiduea (paella made with vermicelli noodles in place of the rice). While full of flavor, it certainly wasn’t vermicelli…more like Bucatini…and it was wetter than I was anticipating. Some of the gals tried it again in a different restaurant and it was the same. I guess that’s the way they make it there.

Evenings in Torremolinos were much the same…we meet around 8:30PM, stroll the promenade around the big rock, stop at the bag shop (inside joke for those on the trip) and then have dinner.

Our hotel had live music and crowds of local people dancing everything from the waltz to a mambo. We caught a glimpse of it one night but, frankly, most nights we finished dinner around midnight and were too pooped to go to the bar. We were so full from eating and drinking and didn’t have enough energy to watch the dancing, never mind participate (not that we had partners)!

One day we took a bus to visit Mijas (a beautiful white-washed little town, much like Mykonos or Santorini). We walked around the town, found a beautiful cliffside place for lunch and lucked into an International Street Fair where we joined a group dance!

Another afternoon we actually just chilled…in our lounge chairs on the beach and got our feet massaged (1/2 hour 10E, not bad) and it was a real treat for our tootsies and calves after the workout we put them through in Madrid and Barcelona. The one day I wore a pedometer, I clocked our walking in at over 10,000 steps which equates to 5 miles+. And that was repeated pretty much daily in Madrid and Barcelona, less so in Torremolinos.

Our last dinner in Torremolinos was great (o.k., I warned you this was a lot about food but I was impressed with the quality of food throughout). We stumbled on Las Abarizas one night on our way back from another restaurant. It, too, was cozy and atmospheric and their menu was Argentine inspired so we went back the following night to try it out. We had empanadas, provolete (fried provolone) and the highlight was roast suckling pig which the chef carried out and quartered with a dinner plate and then threw the plate to the floor, much to our delight. Here, like in other restaurants, we were offered complimentary after-dinner drinks  or chocolates.

And that about brings us to the end of the trip. While it’s not a blow-by-blow travelogue, it’s pretty close. I decided to make this blog more inclusive so that those of you who weren’t with us could share the experience — and also for those of you who were with us, but suffer from CRS (can’t remember shit).

From this writer’s perspective, though I was a little fearful at the onset that 14 days might prove too long, I could have gone on…though I know for others it is more difficult to be away from home and work for 2 weeks. I also think it was the right mix of included tours and meals versus free time and choices.

While this was my 5th trip to Madrid (spread over more years than I care to admit), I fell in love with the city all over again. It just goes to show you that every trip, even to a familiar place, can be a new experience if you let it be.  I found Madrid to be more beautiful, lush and more pristine clean than I remembered. Barcelona was a first time for me. I was wowed by the modernisme architecture mixed with gothic and romanesque and I’d like to revisit someday and try the cutting edge restaurants offering high Catalan cuisine. And, Torremolinos, fuhgeddaboutit, what’s not to like?!

Por fin (that’s Spanish for ‘in sum’), I think it was unanimous…everyone loved Spain! It’ll be tough to pick the next destination. Would love to hear the plus/minuses from your perspective — and where you’d like to go next.

To Carolyn, Katie, Mary, Joann, Rita and “Charlie’s Angels”…it was great to travel with you again. Each of you adds a different dynamic to the group and yet we all meld together so well. Just think about all the laughs at the dinner table. To Carolyn…I hope you lost the key to the vault! Josie, I’d like to tell you we love your stories….when you weren’t on the phone!! And to Regina and Alma…I hope you enjoyed the trip and felt as comfortable with us as we did with you. Welcome to the Sisterhood!

Joan Nova

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