Thursday, March 24, 2016

Serendipitous Seville

My type "B" personality has always enjoyed the phrase, "Indeed the world is unfolding as it should" - The Desiderata. On holidays, for example, I like the slow pace of discovering little gems here and there, rather than making a list of all the "things" that must been seen or done and then heading out to do them!! Why not let them come to you, or why not just head out and see what happens!! Here is what happened to us!

1. Since we went to the market every other day in Seville, we walked over the Guadalquivir river every other day. There was always activity on the river - impromptu kayak racing, sculling, big tour boats, smaller fishing boats - wonderful serendipitous finds!!

2. There were also the street entertainers. Although they were everywhere and never really seemed to change their music, or their activity, they could be "caught off guard" once in a while. Somehow, I never imagined, "Jesus" taking a smoke break during his trials.

3. Beyond the flimsy flamenco dresses of the tourists shops, there were the couturiers. Shops here and there that offered the most amazing gowns with the traditional flourish of frills and flounces. If I were a foot taller, I would have bought one.

4. We also made several emergency runs to the two international book stores, we found in Seville. On the evenings we stayed in, we read. Yes, we did have a TV, but opening a book, looked a lot easier than trying to figure out the controls on the television, which offered mainly Spanish programs, anyway. Even, though I had brought three books with me, I ran out of reading material half way through the holiday. Somehow, I had never thought of reading "The Dubliners" in Spain. Then again I remembered reading "How Green Was My Valley" in Greece!!

5. Finally, there was The Cask of Amontillado. We went regularly to a stall in the market that had the most amazing olives, Spanish olives, of course, in so many different brines and marinades, with so many different combinations of artichokes, anchovies, tomatoes, pimentos etc., that I could have spent a whole day there, just deciding what to buy.

In fact, I spent so much time looking down at the olive display, that I almost missed the casks of Sherry on the wall at the back of the stall. There had to have been seven or eight barrels, each with a different type of "Sherry from the wood." I decided to try an Amontillado, because one of my favourite short stories is "The Cask of Amontillado" by Edgar Allen Poe and we had made a point of going to Jerez, the sherry capital of the world, the week before - an amazing distillation of literature, locale and libation. I'll leave you to read the story!!

Have a serendipitous day!!

Saturday, March 19, 2016

Serendipity in Granada

During our month's stay in Seville, we took a number of side trips to other cities in Andalusia, southern Spain. Guide books are helpful in that they point you in the right direction, however, after that, most of your travel experiences can be called serendipitous. Let me explain.

Of course, we had to go to Granada to see the Alhambra. It's a UNESCO world heritage site and a definite "must see." Although we booked our tickets on-line, we had problems printing them from the designated bank machines in Seville, partly because we had paid for them on-line with a North American issued credit card and partly because we had purchased our tickets, as seniors and our ages had to be validated. Believe me, I was thrilled every time I was asked to show my driver's license to prove that I was of a certain age!!

Granada, we realized, was an overnight trip. First the bus ride from Seville to Granada was three hours - round trip, six. Then, we had to stand in line to have our online reservations validated and finally, we had to stand in line to enter the Alhambra. Since we had no idea how long all this would take, we allowed two days.

Fortunately, the queue to validate our tickets was short, however, we had to pay another €10.00 because the senior's discount was for European Union seniors only. Apparently, they still feel that North Americans are rich! As our actual booking to see the Alhambra was for the next day, we decided to return to our hotel via a lovely sloped path, bordered by wildflowers and the walls of the ancient fortification - this was worth the extra €10.00.

Granada itself was busy. There were lots of buildings, shops, people and traffic. Fortunately, we were surrounded by mountains, the snow covered mountains of the Sierra Nevada. They were our mental escape, from the urban chaos. We managed, though, in spite of the madness, to potter around the city for the rest of the day and since the concierge at our hotel, suggested we go to the top of the hill, opposite the Alhambra for a view of both the sunset and the palace, which was lit up at night, we decided to have dinner up there that evening. He did not mention, however, the 50mph wind and the temperatures bordering 0ÂșC that we would find at the summit of the Albayzin. Perhaps he hadn't actually been there himself in February. This was not a serendipitous moment. We had hoped to find a restaurant here, but it was too cold to even look at the menus.

That being said we noticed a large group of people outside of one of the restaurants. "It must be a good one," I said. "Let's see if we can get in." We muscled our way through the group, only to have them disappear almost immediately into an oversized cab. They were actually a large extended family sheltering in the doorway of the restaurant, until their taxi arrived. By then, there was no time to read a menu - an anxious waiter was at the door. "We'd have to take this one on faith," I thought, as he took our reservation, ushered us upstairs and seated us at a table, by the window, with a full view of the Alhambra!! Forget dinner, the meal was before us!!

The food, in fact, was delicious, the restaurant was full and we were out of the wind and the cold. Serendipity at it's best!!

Next post, the Alhambra.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Who put the "arch" in Architecture?

I think it had to be the Moors. Sometime after 711A.D, the Moors crossed the Straits of Gibraltar from North Africa and conquered Andalusia (southern Spain). Once firmly entrenched, they built their monuments - mosques, palaces, battlements, etc. all supported by graceful arches. Every place we visited - Seville, where we were staying, Cordoba, Granada, Cadiz, Jerez etc. was filled with arched passageways, arched streetscapes, and of course the many arched alcazars.

Given the penetration of the Moors in Spain, I am amazed the crusades were able to make the headway they did, over the centuries, eventually driving the saracens back to North Africa by 1492. Today, Christianity is firmly entrenched in Andalusia and all that remains of the ancient Moors is their stunning architecture, their gorgeous orange trees and a certain look in the features of their descendants.

As with many conquerors, the re-established Christians made their mark in Andalusia. They converted the mosques to cathedrals, took over the palaces and generally purged, what they could, of moorish life.  The inherent beauty of the original buildings, however, cast their spell and although most of the mosques were destroyed, their minarets were spared. These ornate structures were converted to bell towers - their use, calling people to prayer, unchanged.

Fortunately, the crusaders kept many of the moorish palaces or alcazars, adapting them for their own use, into castles and fortifications. Although the structures themselves are stunning, their gardens are beyond belief. I was amazed that such an arid climate could support such lush vegetation. Everywhere, there were orange trees, rose gardens, espaliered fruit trees and flowers of every colour, shape and size. Effusive fountains decorated the courtyards and delicate pools of water shimmered in the sun.

Though the "arch" seems to define the buildings of southern Spain, there are other elements that make the architecture so charming. Earthy pigments of terra cotta and ochre tint the stucco applied to many of the structures, giving them a warm and inviting look. Artistic tile work adds variety to these facades, as well as creating interest in pavements, patios, fountains and even park benches. Plazas are fringed with exotic palms, where colourful flowers bloom, even in winter. Outdoor cafes, street entertainers, horse-drawn carriages and busy markets complete the festive air.

Seville and the other cities of Andalusia are places from another era.  There is an old world grandness about them that comes only with the passage of time and maybe the passage of a conqueror or two.

Have a great day!

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Shrove Tuesday never looked so good!!

How did Shrove Tuesday become Mardi Gras or Carnaval in Spain? Traditionally, the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday was the day you went to confess your sins (to be shriven), so that you could do your penance through Lent and resurrect yourself as a faithful Christian by the time Easter arrived.

Perhaps the later Christians thought that, if you had to go to confession anyway, why not make it really worth your while and build up a whole list of sins. After all, you were going to be subjected to forty days of abstinence, physical castigation and mental anguish anyway, so why not feel that you really deserved it!! In fact, why not have a fabulous party the day before Lent. Heck, why not make that a week or even two weeks of partying before you have to give up everything.

Whatever the reasoning, it created the celebrations the world enjoys today in places like New Orleans, Rio and Cadiz. In fact Cadiz is to Europe what Rio is to the rest of the world. People pour into Cadiz, in the south west corner of Spain every day, for almost two weeks before the beginning of Lent. We were told, that even though bus service had been doubled, we would still have to make a reservation well in advance. As it turned out, this information was for the weekend revellers. On the Monday before the celebrated Tuesday, we easily got a bus, in the morning, for the two hour trip to Cadiz from Seville.

It was a sunny day and very quiet. Perhaps Carnival was over and we had missed it? We did a few tourist "things" - walked around the city, which is surrounded by the sea, walked out to what looked like an old castle, watched fishermen on the rocks, cyclists screaming by and children playing everywhere - don't these kids go to school? Eventually we ended up in the barrio for lunch. This is when we realized that they were still celebrating and the party, for today anyway, had just begun!!

Hundreds of performers, all in costume, sang to the music of guitars and drums, while their floats moved slowly through the crowded streets. Other groups ate and drank, while waiting their turn in the parade or on various stages around the old town. Almost everyone was in costume and almost everyone was either eating the freshly caught raw sea urchins or drinking whatever was in their bottles.

I felt naked with out a wig or a mask, so we bought one mask - to share and took pictures, while we extracted ourselves from the crowds and found the one free table available anywhere for lunch. It was hard to believe that these celebrations had been going on for almost two weeks and there was still a fever pitch to them at 3:00pm on a Monday afternoon. You would need forty days of rest just to recover.

When we boarded our bus to return to quiet old Seville, we noticed the busloads of people arriving for the evening events. Clearly we were just part of the warm up. The real party was barely starting and tomorrow would be the last and perhaps the biggest day.

Wednesday, March 09, 2016

Beyond the Spanish Omelette.....

After spending some time in Spain, I have to say that I am challenged by their food, their eating hours and their eating habits. Let me explain. My husband and I have just returned from a month in Seville. It was wonderful to spend February in warmer temperatures, surrounded by amazing architecture and equally amazing events!! However, I could easily have skipped the restaurants, in favour of eating in.

I think that I may be some sort of travel freak, because I hate Tapas. These are those little appetizer portions of deep fried ungutted, complete with heads and tails, anchovies. (My husband ate them with relish - enthusiasm, that is, not the bright green kind.) Or they disguised themselves as little meatballs in tomato sauce, which in some restaurants tasted like a tin of tomato soup warmed up with a dash of Cumin, sigh! I didn't mind the french fried potatoes in the same sauce with a squirt of mayonnaise. However, I balked at the deep fried croquettes often made with yesterday's potato salad!!

I know that you could order small plates of Paella, but I make a better one at home. I did have an artichoke dish, which I loved, however, I also had one, I couldn't eat. And then there was the Alubias con Sacramentos, an appetizer so large, I couldn't even look at the main course - so much for the sacraments! I should also mention an unfortunate incident my husband had with a dish of oxtail stew. We were three weeks into our holiday before we realized we should really order just one meal and share it between us.

Sharing is obviously the way to go in Spain. In Madrid, we ordered a plate of something, which came with two sets of knives and forks. Clearly you ate from each side of the same plate. Fortunately no one had some horrible virus. Tapas are also more fun in a group. When my sister-in-law visited with her daughter, we could double our order of these snacks and lunch became a little more interesting. I wasn't prepared, however, for something that I will call "street sharing."

One day, we were sitting outside at a table, close to the curb, for a late afternoon nosh. I ordered the regional speciality, spinach with chick peas a.k.a. garbanzo beans - unfortunately changing the name doesn't improve the flavour. That being said, I managed to eat half of the small plate. While we were finishing our wine and waiting for the table to be cleared, a small, polite man approached me from the road. In sign language, he asked if I were going to finish my plate. I answered, also in sign language, no and offered it to him. He took it, produced his own spoon, stepped a little away from the table, devoured it, smiled, placed the plate back on the table and left. I was stunned - happy to be of service, but still stunned!!

I kept thinking that there was all this wonderful food at the market, why did so little of it appear on the menus or when it did, it was cooked so poorly that all the flavour was lost. Needless to say, I had trouble waiting until 8:00 or 9:00pm to go out to eat. Partly because of the food and partly because I hadn't trained my stomach to expect lunch around 3:00 or 4:00pm. I often wondered how everyone else managed to get from 8:00am to 4:00pm on churros (deep fried pastry) dipped in hot chocolate?

My secret to survival was cooking at home and a wonderful Italian pasta stall we found at the market. Though, I try to eat the food of the country, when I'm there, you can see, I needed a little respite from potatoes cooked in eggs on a bun. Several evenings during our stay we ate freshly prepared ravioli stuffed with either, walnuts, mushrooms, spinach and ricotta or almonds and blue cheese. Our choice of sauces was simple as well - a lush pesto, a tasty bolognese or a curious mixture of pesto, almonds and tomatoes, which was delicious!!

Cooking in other areas of Spain is different, I know. Barcelona had more fresh fruit and vegetables with their tapas and less of the heavy sauces. Madrid offered more grilled meat and fish done plainly in butter. I skipped an opportunity to eat goat there, but would have loved the roast suckling pig, which was gone, by the time we arrived. I did order Hake in batter one evening, which arrived as Hake in butter. It was lovely and why after all my complaining, was I ordering deep fried anyway?

Have a great day!!

Sunday, March 06, 2016

How much is that rabbit in the window?

In an earlier post, I mentioned that, by the time we were in our third week in Seville, I was ready to eat my way through the food market, we frequented, almost daily. I was itching to do a rabbit stew, a roast of fresh local lamb, and something with pork in any of its various offerings. I would mentally fry a mess of Sand Dabs, steam every mollusk, crustacean and curious sea creature I saw and braise a gorgeous large fresh fish, which would be scaled, trimmed and gutted before my very eyes.

On the other hand, I ruled out organ meat, any stomach or brain offering, and didn't think twice about blood pudding. There were also some curious gelatinous "things" that I passed over because  I was sure they were "acquired tastes." Now, I was tempted by the pigs' trotters, and the chicken feet were free!!

I knew, if I ever returned to Seville, I would have to try every type of red, green and yellow pepper in every shape, size and sizzle. I also knew I had to stew every dried bean and lentil there, adding to them, in a myriad of combinations, every herb or spice available.

Progress, though, comes in baby steps. So by the time we left, we were able to order, confidently, 100 grams of shaved Jambon, a specialty of the region, knowing that it would cost us around €10.00, not €100.00, which it can, if you are not careful. For the first week or two, we ordered the pre-packaged Serrano ham, just to be safe. I also wanted to learn enough Spanish to find out what they did with the ham bone, when they had finished shaving off all the meat. I saw a delicious bean soup in the making.

We had also eaten our way through five or six local cheeses, become addicted to the sweet Spanish onions, which you could buy in manageable sizes, bought several varieties of oranges and kilos of fresitas - small sweet strawberries. Even though the streets of Seville are lined with orange trees, these oranges are quite bitter and only suitable for English palates, in the form of marmalade. Go figure! I did, however, covet a jar of jam from blood oranges which I saw in a stall that made fresh pasta. Maybe it was a sort of Spanish-Italian fusion :)

Fortunately our apartment had an oven, many don't. We were blessed with three sizes of frying pans, the largest of which had a lid and various pots, steamers, and sieves. We had a set of great kitchen knives, enough cutlery for the Spanish army and a limited supply of bowls, plates and saucers, all of which were chipped! Why they decided to install just one electrical outlet in the entire kitchen and then expect anyone to use 1. a microwave, 2. a coffee maker, 3. a toaster, and 4. an electric kettle is beyond me. We managed though and were able to cook some great meals - better, I might add, than we had in most of the restaurants. More on this later.

Have great day

Do you speak English?

Never let the inability to speak a language interfere with your travel plans. Although, my husband and I do not speak Spanish, we blithely set off for a month's stay in Seville, Spain. Even though we had worked through a few on-line language programs before we went, somehow, we never managed to learn the phrases that we needed, when we needed them, if you know what I mean. We also managed to purchase a phrase book that was extremely limited. You could, for example, look up the English word and have it translated into Spanish, but there wasn't a section for Spanish words translated into English, except for the chapter on restaurants.

However, with the help of a few words here and there, a lot of sign language and some very kind people, we got to being quite conversant by the time we left. In fact, I had a Eureka moment about three weeks after arriving. I was in a fairly busy department store, when I noticed an elderly man, walking with two canes and having great difficulty in the crowd. He was asking a shop girl for the elevator or lift. No one seemed to understand him and he was obviously very frustrated. Fortunately, I had remembered, from Madrid, that "ascensor" meant elevator. When I said to the sale's assistant, "ascensor," she understood immediately. It was an elevating moment :)

There were less inspiring moments, however, especially at the market. Seville still has several daily markets and since we were cooking at home most of the time, we went to the market almost every other day - partly for food, of course and partly just to salivate. Every traveller has a particular passion and we happen to love food markets!! We were well into our second week, before we learned that "medio" meant half. I didn't mind the kilo of fresh strawberries that we bought the first week, but we were still finishing off the kilo of broad beans the week we left.

For the most part the vegetables and meats were recognizable and easy to order by pointing and saying, "dos" - two or "quatro" - four. It was when the total amount was rattled off for payment that we stumbled. Most stall keepers simply handed us the bill and we worked out the payment and when we couldn't even get the money right, they were very honest. They took our money and worked it out for us!

Eating out was easier of course. All the menus were in at least two languages and some were in four or eight. The translations were often strange, however, and we were soon asking for both Spanish and English menus to verify the translation of the English, because buttered Hake could show up in English, on a menu, as battered hake, however you were not going to get English fish and chips.

Needless to say, the more we learned, the more adventurous we became! By the end of our stay, I was itching to buy rabbit, without its furry coat, and make a stew. We did buy four whole, small Sole, ungutted, which we fried in butter - delicious! I was not ready to do Pigeon, even if they had taken all the feathers off, but I was ready to try a mess of Sand Dab, once we were able to figure out what they were.

More on cooking in Seville next post.

Have a great day!!

Saturday, March 05, 2016

Just Pack Up and Go......

...... Well, maybe some people can do it, but for us, it takes a few months of preparation. Let me explain. My husband is easing into retirement by trying to - travel a bit more, see his extended family a bit more and generally have more purposeful "time off." This all takes a bit of thought, so as not to waste those precious minutes of "free" time.

1. First he had to negotiate a month off, over and above his usual vacation time. This meant, of course, a drop in salary, a reworking of timetables and various other odds and sods. Fortunately management agreed!! I know that many people create time off by just booking a day or so off every week. However, a chunk of time, we felt, could be put to better use.

2. We then had to fill that time. Winter has never been a "fun" season for us. Yes, we ski and get out and about regularly, but struggling against the cold, the many layers of necessary clothing, the extra mess of ice, snow and slush has never been rewarding.

3. A month somewhere warm in winter seemed like a good idea. Now, where to go? In addition to dealing with Canadian winters, we have also struggled with finding time to see extended family. My husband's brother and sister live in Scotland. Their "free" time has rarely coincided with our "free" time and so we have gone years without seeing them. This February, however, my brother-in-law was taking a course in Spain and my sister-in-law had a week off in February for my niece's mid-term break.

4. Eureka!! Maybe we could all meet up in Spain!! Could we find a spot, though, in Spain, that would suit everyone? It would have to be in the south, have character, have enough interest to sustain us for a month, and fit the budget!!

5. After several weeks of searching through reams of information online, we decided on Seville. It was quite far south, but not the "hotels on the beach" boredom of places, such as, Malaga. It had character - lots of sights to see, a bustling city life, train connections to other parts of the country and enough reasonable apartments to rent!

6. We now had to book the apartment we had finally identified as "perfect." This took some time - almost two weeks, in fact, of frustration - missed or unanswered emails, hurried phone calls, more emails, etc. before it all suddenly "came together."

7. Next we had to find reasonable flights, plan an itinerary, get travel insurance and coordinate all the various comings and goings of guests. Fortunately, we have a great travel agent. Carl books the flights, we have identified, tweaks our itinerary to maximize our time and covers us with insurance. He would often book a hotel or two for us en route, however, this time, we booked our own for 3 nights in Madrid, before taking the fast train, which we also booked online, to Seville.

More next post on settling in, in Seville.

The pictures? Snippets of Madrid, our first stop.