My 2013 Travel Round-up

Leonor predicted it – she said she thought 2013 would be my year. Apart from earning a master’s in Public Relations 2.0 from the Universidad Autónoma de Barcelona, I did big things in travel: crossing off a major goal from my life to-do list, traveling to my 30th country and celebrating world-famous festivals.

Oh, and I got a promotion, too!

2014, you better live up to this year in travel, one in which I visited five new UNESCO World Heritage sites, 30 cities, and eight countries, and took nine round-trip flights and a boat. I also walked 325 kilometers across Spain for charity.

July

For the fifth straight summer, La Coruña welcomed me with sea breezes, seafood and a smattering of festivals. I love returning to a city over and over again that I truly enjoy, and Coru is one of those places. The rain held off for all but the first and last day of camp, meaning a bit of beach time and more freckles.

It wasn’t all fun and pulpo, though, as I was working on the oral defense of my master’s thesis project, one that dealt with promoting Marca España in the US. I wish I could say that this blog was enough, but, alas, I had to catch a Vueling flight to Barcelona in the middle of camp. In 20 hours, I had flown across the country, met my group members for the first time face-to-face, had the Powerpoint stop working when I got to the numbers part of our presentation (for real, these things only happen to me), and then flew back with a 9,0 in the presentation and the need for a small celebration.

Once camp had wrapped up, I sent my rebajas-laden bag to Seville and traded it for a hiking bag and boots. I stopped in Oviedo to visit my friend Claudia and take in the pre-Romanesque churches of the city before spending the night in Avilés.

You know what follows.

August

When August hit, Hayley and I were about ten days from reaching Santiago de Compostela by foot. Traipsing through Northern Spain with our own two feet was at trying as it was rewarding, and I learned a lot about myself in the process.

Luarca, Ribadeo, Vilalba, Playa de las Catedrales and Cudrillero got our touristic euros, but I think we gained a lot more than we thought we would.

We reached the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela before Pilgrim’s Mass on August 12th. Going home, I experienced an enormous slump where I found decision making difficult, the heat unbearable and a body that just needed to move, move, move.

That didn’t last for long, because I had purchased tickets to go to the Tomatina. For an American, this is one of Spain’s claims to fame, and though I had a great time slinging rotten tomatoes, I’m not keen on going again.

September

I began the new school year with a new job title – Director of Studies – and new responsibilities. After a successful start (just a few hiccups!), I traveled to Frankfurt to visit my cousin, Christyn, who works in Kaiserslautern. We took an overnight bus to and from Munich to attend Oktoberfest.

As a beer lover, I think this was as close as I’ll ever get to Nirvana.

October

I traveled locally this month, going to a fancy dinner party in Jerez at a bodega, and then rekindling my love with the province of Huelva by attending their ham festival.

We ate and drank all weekend. Perfect.

November

November found me in Malaga twice – the first time was for a conference of Anglo Writers and Bloggers About Spain held in Pedragalejo. We got a warm sunny weekend, and spent the days under a tent at OnSpain, an innovative language school just steps from the beach. Hayley and I launched our up-and-coming business idea, as well as met other bloggers, like Molly of Piccavey.

Later that month, Mickey and I were invited to take part in A Cooking Day in the Malgueño countryside. While we got horribly lost, we did spend a morning picking fruit, and the afternoon cooking up local specialties  and eating, enjoying the Spanish sobremesa until it grew dark.

December

The Novio and I finally escaped to his village, San Nicolás del Puerto, for the first time since June. In a town with not much to do, we find time to relax (although I did get a turn as a farm hand!) and attend a festival for one of the patron saints, Santa Bárbara.

December also brings me back to Munich, but this time I actually get to see some of the city!

Currently, I’m somewhere on the Danube River with my parents on a Viking Cruise. Along the way, we’re stopping in Passau, Germany, Salzburg, Vienna, Bratislava (oh goody, a new country!) and Budapest. I’ve already traveled to the majority of these places, but have not written about them on Sunshine and Siestas, surprisingly!

Then I’ll spend the 31st in the Madrid mountains with the Novio’s family, no doubt thinking about how good 2013 was to me, both personally and professionally.

On Docket for 2014

These itchy feet only have two things on the agenda for 2014 so far: a weekend in Tenerife visiting my friends Julie and Forrest, and a trip home to Chicago. I’ve also got to get to Trujillo from an invitation from Trujillo Villas, and am hoping to make Toulouse, Jaén, Ceuta and Dublin happen.

What did your year in travel look like? What’s up for 2014?

Tapas Thursday: Sampling La Brunilda

I have visited so many places whose names ring famous, and usually have felt like something was missing.

When it comes to food, I’m beginning to have high expectations.

In Seville, a city that’s home to seemingly hundreds of tapas bars, it’s hard to not fall victim to the newest or the trendiest. New bars and eateries pop up so often, and even a week’s absence from traversing the center means I’m bound to come across a new bar.

When La Brunilda opened (I think) earlier this year, my friends raved about the food. Websites raved about the food. I went earlier this month, a bit skeptical but looking forward to a new place.

Like many trendy new bars, the space – which looked like a converted coach house, thanks to a large door and exposed brick – was airy and not busy  early on a Tuesday. Having to work two hours later, I chose to not even read and weep the wine list and opted for a beer.

My friends suggested asking the wait staff for daily specials, but we were clear: D chose papas bravas and a magret de pato with a carrot cream, G and I both got an oversized tapa of dorada with pisto and cream of Idizbial cheese, and I couldn’t resist risotto with crunchy onions and asparagus. 

Believe it or not, I liked each dish more than the last.

I hope you haven’t taken a bit out of your computer.

While the food was spectacular, I didn’t feel that the service was. Our dishes came out quickly, but it took ages to refill beers and get the bill – I couldn’t even imagine how long it would take on a busy weekend night.

If you go: La Brunilda is extremely popular, so it’s best to go early or during the week. Located on Calle Galera, 5, near Reyes Católicos, the bar opens at 1p.m. for lunch and 8:30 for dinner. Closed Sunday night and all day Monday.

My Favorite Spanish Christmas Traditions

When you’ve worked in retail, you learn to hate, LOATHE, Christmas. May your days be merry and bright? Un carajo, may your days be filled with frazzled shoppers and annoying Christmas tunes.

Christmas in Seville means the adherence to age-old traditions. Sure, there’s bound to be an overplayed commercial depicting Santa or that obnoxious song for the lottery drawing (in which respected singer Monserrat Caballé looks like she’s being possessed by the Ghost of Christmas Past), but sevillanos stick to their beloved pastimes. 

Christmas in Spain

I officially recognize that I’m a Scrooge, but Seville is extra special during the holidays, and my feelings about the holidays have changed since moving here. In fact, I find myself missing all of those traditions I used to despise. I miss having a real Christmas tree and going to pick it out with my family, then moan when I have to set it up. I miss taking the train into Chicago to have lunch with my family at the Walnut Room, even if there are lines and my mother whines that Macy’s is NOT Marshall Field’s and we can NEVER shop there any other day of the year. I almost, almost miss shoveling snow.

But, it’s the most wonderful time of the year! No need to be sad when there are chestnuts roasting on an open fire.

You can forget about the 12 days of Christmas – to spark holiday sales and spending, Corte Inglés passed out their toy catalogue long before the official start to the holidays. Even though many would say the Immaculate Conception day on December 8th is the official start to the holidays, Christmas lights are officially on during the first weekend in December. 

Belenes

One of the first Christmas presents I ever received was a handcrafted dollhouse that my grandfather made. I spent hours changing around the design of the rooms, more interested in the aestethic than acually playing with the family of dolls that came with it.

Where we have Santa’s village, the Spaniards have belénes, or miniature versions of that Little Town O’ Bethlehem. But there’s more than the inn and the stable – church parishes, shops and even schools set up elaborate recreations of what Bethlehem, known as Belén in Spanish, looked liked. It’s common to see lifestock, markets and even running water or mechanical figurines.

The biggest belénes are in the cathedral, San Salvador, the Fundación Cajasol in Plaza San Francisco and even at the Corte Inglés. If you want to set up one of your own, there’s an annual market that sells handcrafted adobe houses, miniature wicker baskets to tiny produce and every figurine imaginable in the Plaza del Triunfo, adjacent to the cathedral.

Christmas Lights

Even though the days get shorter, the sheer amount of Christmas lights that light Seville’s plazas and main shopping streets seem to simulate the sunny winter days that we’re having this year.

Most neighborhoods will have their own displays up in the evenings along main thoroughfares. Expect your light bill to be less if you live near one of these streets – lights stay up until the Epiphany on January 6th.

Christmas dinners

It’s also quite common for companies to invite their employees to an enormous Chirstmas dinner, followed by copas and often dancing. When I worked at the private school, we’d travel to a finca or salon de celebraciones and have a private catering. The same goes in America – what happens at work parties…

My Christmas dinners at the academy aren’t huge productions, nor do we even do the special Christmas deals, which are stocked with loads of options and unlimited alcohol. I also do dinner with my girlfriends as a way to see one another before the busy holiday season. Many of us are off to travel, so it’s the best moment to dress up, have a cocktail and enjoy the ambience in the center of town.

Open bars on Christmas day

It wouldn’t be Christmas without the booze, so after the midnight mass, called Misa del Gallo, most Spaniards head to the bar to wait out their seafood and lamb lunches. As strange as it sounds, Christmas Day is not as big of a holiday as Christmas Eve or even New Year’s Eve, when Spaniards stay at home with their closest family members.

On my first and only Spanish Christmas, I was drinking beers at La Grande midday. Because, really, sevillanos are a social bunch, and holidays are meant to be shared with friends. My mother was appalled when I suggested having lunch at a restaurant on Christmas Day this year!

…and those I don’t like

Spanish Christmas carols, called villancicos, are TERRIBLE, though I always giggle over the ridiculous lyrics, like about how the Virgin Mary brushes her hair near a river after giving birth and the fish keep drinking water because they’re happy to see the Savior).

There’s always the huge influx of crowds in the center, which makes it difficult to move around and run simple errands (think, American post office lines to order a coffee).

And, of course, there’s the question of Spanish Christmas sweets – lard cookies and sweet anise liquor.

Perhaps the best Christmas tradition that I’ve stumbled upon since moving to Spain is that my parents want to travel. We’ve done away with the tree and instead spend our respective vacations traveling. We’ve drank glühwein at Christmas markets, skiied in Colorado and even stolen grilled cheese sandwiches in Ireland!

How do you celebrate Christmas near you? Do you like Spanish navidades?

Seville Snapshots: Christmas Lights in Seville

Seville is the type of gal who doesn’t really need to get gussied up – she’s stunning enough on her own.

But La Hispalense (she even has a fancy name) loves to gets glitzy at Christmas time. As soon as the long December weekend beings, the city center is bursting with shoppers, a number of handicrafts markets pop up in Plaza Nueva and the Alameda, and police controls tighten up, thanks to the number of merry markers drinking at all hours of the day.

But as soon as the lights are turned on, I feel like Christmas really begins.

This year the city has used LED lights to dress up the city’s biggest thoroughfares – Constitución, San Fernando, around the Encarnación – and even in the outlying neighborhoods. Dios, even the Alcampo next door is decked out in holiday style.

Once again, the 3-D mapping on the eastern facade of city hall is operating. According to Fiona of Scribbler in Seville, the light and music show that’s projected onto the building won an award last year. This season’s show, El Espíritu de la Navidad, will be played from dusk until 11 or 12pm on the hour until the Epiphany Day.

How does your city celebrate Christmas? Where are your favorite lights in Seville located?

Revisiting Gran Canaria: Driving the Miniature Continent of the Canary Islands

As I prepare for my upcoming Christmas trip, I’ve realized something: for as many years as I’ve run Sunshine and Siestas, there are loads of places I have never written about visiting (like, several stops on my Christmas route). 

One of those places is Gran Canaria. Though a part of Spain, the island chain that makes up the Canary Islands is actually closer to the Western coast of Africa and are a haven for North Europeans – as well as Spaniards – on holiday.

As it turns out, this near-perfect circle of an island had far more than we bargained for. After all, it is a UNESCO World Heritage site for its biodiversity, earning it the nickname ‘The Miniature Continent.’ Though we went in May 2008 for a wedding, the Novio and I were able to see loads on our Gran Canaria holiday.

Though arriving to the Canary Islands is actually quite easy, as Las Palmas Airport is one of Spain’s busiest, renting a car made the biggest difference. I blindly followed the Novio, as I did in the early stages of the relationship, as he navigated the large airport, stuffed me into a car and drove me right to breakfast.

The GC-1 highway runs the eastern circumference of the island and took us to Maspalomas. Known for its dunes and gay nightlife, we cozied up to an airy bar near the beach. I gawked at how everything on the menu was in big, bold English with tempting bacon and hash browns. The morning was spent walking across the dunes, which stretch on for three kilometers away from Playa del Inglés.

Not surprisingly, then, there were loads of holiday makers and a few who wanted to bare all in the warmth of the early May sunshine.

We followed the GC-1 though the mountains to Puerto Mogan. The seaside village sidles up to a small port and beach, perfect for our lunch stop. We strolled through the streets, avoiding the shade and popping into boutiques.  That afternoon, we had a long lunch with several beers and loads of footsy.  Back on the GC-1 later that day, the afternoon meant relaxing near our hotel’s beach and strolling through the center.

We hopped on the GC-2, the highway that runs counterclockwise from Las Palmas, turning off at the GC-20, a secondary highway that leads to the island’s second-largest city.

Arucas and the cavernous church de San Juan Bautista was the venue for Jose and Particia’s wedding the next day. Like Maspalomas, Arucas is famous throughout Spain, though not for its natural beauty. This village, perched on a mountainside, produces a sweet honey rum called Arehucas. We’d later drink it until the early hours, only stopping once we saw the sun. My first Spanish wedding has always been my favorite.

On Sunday, the Novio had the idea to drive inland, towards Roque Nublo. As the highest point on Gran Canaria, we had to take several small highways that snaked higher and higher into the mountainous central part of the island.

I hated him for it.

From the top, one can see not only the panorama of the whole island (though the northern part of the city tends to be covered in fog), as well as Teide, the volcano on Tenerife and Spain’s highest point. Hiking off the hedonism from the previous night served me well for the return trip to the Iberian Peninsula. 

Afterwards, we stopped in the quaint fishing village of Agaete for lunch and a bit of sun. Located on the west side of the island and a jumping off point to other islands, the bars were a bit rough around the edges and cheaper than the bars we’d been at in other parts of the island.

Though our holiday on the Canary Islands lasted just one long weekend, we felt miles away from everything. It truly is a miniature continent, and has something from every type of traveler.

Have you ever been to the Canary Islands? I’ll be traveling to Tenerife right after Carnavales next year and would love tips!

A Cooking Day in Málaga: Preparing Spanish Dishes in Andalucía

Spain is a country that’s easy to get lost in. I don’t mean the culture or the romanticism – I mean, GPS systems are absolute crap, and it’s easier to end up on the wrong road than it is to arrive to your destination calmly and on time.

Stuck in our constant chatter, Mickey and I missed our exit, had a local forget we were following him to Almogía, and ended up on a dirt road. I called Mayte, one of the women behind A Cooking Day, and she told me she hadn’t heard of the town we’d just driven through.

“There will be wine,” Mickey soothed. “There is always wine on a Spanish table. Don’t stress.”

 As it turned out, we were in Mayte’s driveway, but wouldn’t find that out before turning around again. But Mickey was right –  as soon as we’d sat down in the airy courtyard of her country house, dripping with Bougainvillea and antique lanterns, I felt at ease and over my road rage.

Mayte and Keti announced the menu before anyone had been introduced – ajoblanco, a citrus salad with cod and spring onions, fideuà and quince pastries, plus homemade bread. As with any Spanish weekend meal, we’d snack our way through the process, eating olives they’d marinated and malagueño cheese with homemade fig marmalade.

Prepping our meal

After meeting fellow blogger Robin Graham and his partner, as well as locals Ute and Sergio, wicker baskets were distributed and we went into the small huerto to pick fruit. Oranges, persimmons, figs and lemons are ripe at this time of year, and we’d be using several in our recipes.

Once back in the house, we donned aprons. Robin and I set to peeling shrimp while Mickey and Sergio pounded almonds using an iron mallet and a stone, a traditional method. As an American used to my fish coming headless and my chicken breasts cleaned, it was refreshing to know that we were truly making farm to fork food.

Mayte’s kitchen is spacious and modern, blended seamlessly into a century-old farmhouse that’s full of interesting pieces from her travels around the world. She and Keti, a longtime friend, set up the cooking classes in both English and Spanish earlier this year. They cater groups of two to just six, ensuring that everyone will get their hands dirty.

There would be blanching, chopping and stirring, but not without a glass of Rioja and a few stolen almonds.

Making our Food

First up? Kneading the bread and preparing it to rise. Mine refused to cooperate with me, and coupled with my lack of kitchen skills, I was toast. Ha. The day was a bit damp, causing the bread to need more time to bake and rise. I took another sip of beer.

We focused on the ajoblanco next, peeling away the case and chopping garlic – it was a dish I’d surprisingly not tried before. Mayte dumped everything into the blender and turned it on, and we were sipping it a short time later between nibbles of our baked bread and organic olive oil (Mayte’s recipe is below).

As we peeled the oranges we picked and chopped them, along with the ripe spring onions, the shrimp shells we’d discarded and the monkfish boiled in separate pots to serve as brother for the fideuà noodle dish that would be our main plato

Keti showed us a family secret – frying the noodles with a bit of oil and garlic so that they’d not get too hard later. As a last-minute addition, we made a simple alioli sauce of egg whites, garlic and olive oil to accompany this traditional noodle dish that resembles paella. 

La sobremesa

Nearing 4 o’clock, we  sat down to eat. The fireplace crackled as Mayte served us the salad. While I didn’t think I’d be too keen on mixing salted cod with oranges and onions, the malagueña salad was surpassingly good and felt layered, despite its simplicity.

Our bellies were happy and in good company around the table. Sobremesa is a Spanish term that refers to the conversation and camaraderie that always seems to happen around a table. In fact, the work for striking up a conversation is entablar, which perfectly encompasses sobremesa chat. I chose to bring Mickey because I knew she’d be right at home. Like me, she loves wine, food and good conversation.

As Keti finished the fideuà, we drank up, a rich Rioja that blended well with all of the flavors on the table. The noodles were cooked perfectly, creamy and with the right amount of flavor. Again, I was taken back at how flavorful something so simple could taste.

The Takeaway

For someone who loves food and dabbles in cooking, the outing was a fun was to spend a day. We rolled up our sleeves and got to see the process through, from picking the fresh fruit to taking the quince pastries out of the oven. Perhaps by my own election and in the name of art (and Camarón), I didn’t cook as much as I expected.

Mayte and Keti are personable, helpful and patient, and they make great company. I appreciated that they came up with a menu that pleased palates from five different countries and our two vegetarian counterparts, and the food was simple enough to repeat, yet filling and delicious.

[yumprint-recipe id=’1′] Mickey and I were gracious guests of Mayte and Keti of A Cooking Day, but all opinions belong to me. A Cooking Day is available to speakers of English, Spanish or French for 50€ a head, which includes the materials, food and drink, plus company. Mayte’s cortijo is located just off the A-7, right outside of Málaga. For more information, consult their website.

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