Autonomous Community Spotlight: Castilla y León

 Not one to make travel goals, I did make one when coming to Spain: visit all 17 autonomous communities at least once before going home. While Madrid, Barcelona and Seville are the stars of the tourist dollar show (and my hard-earned euros, let’s not kid around here), I am a champion for Spain’s little-known towns and regions. Having a global view of this country has come through living in Andalucía, working in Galicia and studying in Castilla y León, plus extensive travel throughout Spain.  

Finally, after six months, we’ve hit my first taste of Spain – a taste that is as tender as a suckling roast pig, as fiery as a robust glass of red wine and something that, honestly, feel like home to me.

In May 2005, I studied abroad in Valladolid, the de facto capital of Castilla y León and one-time capital of Spain. It’s where Cervantes, Columbus and Torquemada once called home. It may not have the monuments, the vibrant culture ubiquitous to Spain, the soaring skyscrapers – but that’s what I liked about it. 

Andalusia means so much to me, but it all started in Old Castille. 

 Name: Castilla y León

Population: 2.5 million

Provinces: Nine: Ávila, Burgos, León, Palencia, Salamanca, Segovia, Soria, Valladolid, Zamora. 

When: May 2005, 1st of 17

About Castilla y León: Castilla y León is the largest of the 17 autonomous communities (close to one-fifth of its landmass!), and one of its most illustrious. It was here that marriages (and thus kingdoms) joined and saints roamed, where scholars changed the face of modern Castillian Spanish, and where cities practically shine gold.

Can you tell I’m a fan?

So, let’s start from the beginning.

Despite having been inhabited for a millennia, the modern-day Castille and León was born out of the marriage of two monarchs. The Leonese crown had long been stronger and held more land, though at the beginning of the second millennia, their power began to wane, losing the kingdoms of Galicia and Portugal, along with their prestige. 

In 1230, the kingdoms became one when Castillian King Ferdinand III ascended to the vacant Leonés crown. These two crowns would fight independently in the Reconquest, eventually defeating Muslim taifas, though not before the Catholic kings – among the best-known Spanish monarchs of all time – send Christopher Columbus to the New World in 1492. Castilla has long been known for its scholarly and democratic traditions, which include being the region responsible for spreading castellano Spanish, as well as the first place where a curia, or public forum to address issue affecting the pueblo, was held.

In fact, Valladolid was the capital of Spain for five years in the early 17th century.

Among illustrious castellanos are El Cid Campeador, Felipe II (my favorite Spanish king with his funny hat), Santa Teresa de Ávila, Miguel Delibes, San Juan de la Cruz, Adolfo Suárez, and even former prime minister Jose Luis Rodríguez Zapatero.

Must-sees: Oh geez, where to start. I started, of course, in Valladolid, though there isn’t much to see in the capital city. There’s the national sculpture museum, a contemporary art center, a beautiful Plaza Mayor and a smattering of churches, though I spent most of my free time at the manmade beach on the Pisuerga River and at a bar called Sotobanco.

Skip Vdoid and head to the other treasures in the province, including nearby Peñafiel and its castle, which now hosts a wine museum. Castilla y León has a few protected wine regions, including Ribera del Duero and Toro – two of my personal favorites.

Castilla y León has six UNESCO World Heritage sites, more than any other region in the world, and several are a quick day trip from Madrid: the old cities of Ávila, Salamanca and Segovia (plus its aqueduct), the Gothic cathedral of Burgos, the old Roman gold mines at Las Médulas (check out Trevor’s post and pictures) and the archaeological remains of Atapuerca, near Burgos. This, plus the numerous pilgrim routes that cut through CL and eventually lead to Santiago de Compostela.

Castles are a prominent feature in Castilla y León – like in Ireland, they’re practically everywhere and there are rumored to be around 300 of them. Check out the Templar castle in Ponferrada, Segovia’s fairytale-like Alcázar and Castillo de la Mota in Medina del Campo, which was a prominent fortress in the Battle of Castille. You’ll also only find Gaudí outside of Cataluña in León and Astorga, where a beautiful palace lies along the French Way of Saint James.

Food is also a huge reason why Castilla y León shines. Apart from wine, Castilla produces a number of specialty meats, including morcilla de arroz in Burgos and roast suckling pig, pungent cheeses and milk, and is the largest producer of grains in Iberia. Cracker giant Cuétara is based in Aguilar del Campoo (not a typo), near Galicia, and with reason – there is nothing but fields around! Be sure to check out León’s Barrio Húmedo for free tapas, as well – I once at a croqueta de pizza pepperoni! You can also pick up sweets in Ávila that throwback to the town’s famous saint, Santa Teresa the Mystic.

The cities themselves are lovely, from the golden hue of Salamanca, a city famous for its university and Lazarillo de Tormes, to León’s juxtaposition of Gaudí palaces and humble stone homes. Burgos’s old town shines and Ávila’s fortified stone walls are still intact.

My take: If you’re a history or language buff, you have to get to Castilla y León sí o sí. If you love wine and meat and cheese, head out there. If you love churches, castles, rivers, limestone villages… you get it. 

To me, Castilla y León is more Spain than Andalucía. Call me crazy, but it’s the Spain I fell in love with nearly a decade ago, and the Spain that beckoned me back. Andalucía is flamboyant where Castilla is demure, yet a bit coy. And the wine… 

Want more Spain? Andalucía | Aragón | Asturias | Islas Baleares | Islas Canarias | Cantabria

Have you been to Castilla y León? What were your impressions of it? Cue Kaley and Cassandra chiming in now...

10 Reasons Gran Canaria is a Magical Experience

I’m pleased to bring on a guest post for the first time in ages. Like me, Sven fell in love with Spain a decade ago, and has been residing on Gran Canaria ever since. I’ve written about the islands a few times, but hear this local out – there’s a lot more to Gran Canaria than you’d think!

Maybe you’re already thinking about Gran Canaria for your next holidays? Or you just want to find out more about this beautiful island, not so far from Africa.

After all, there must be something special to attract over 3 million tourists every year, many of whom return time and time again.

In fact, this unique destination has so many unexpected charms they’re too numerous to mention, but here are ten of them:

1. You can walk through the Sahara without being in the Sahara

The Canary Islands are quite close to Africa – about 140km of ocean separate Lanzarote and the Western Sahara.

The unique climate conditions in the Canaries carries in a few thousands of years tons of Sahara sand to the Canary Islands in the air, and the most stunning result of this phenomenon are the Dunas de Maspalomas.

Follow the shore from the south point in Meloneras until you reach Playa del Inglés. You get an extraordinary feeling of how it feels to be in the Sahara on 12km of natural dunes without the heat.

The Dunas de Maspalomas is one of the most visited places in the Canaries.

2. Feel like heaven in Gran Canaria’s alpine world

The highest peak of the island of Gran Canaria, known as El Mar de Nubes, is Roque Nublo.

You get a similar feeling when you’re sitting in a plane, as you’ll see nothing else than clouds until the horizon below your feet. With an incredible view up to the neighbor island Tenerife, whose volcano Teide  sticks out of this ocean of clouds.

If it’s cloudy and rainy at the seacoast, get a car and drive up to the mountains. When you reach 1500 meters, you pierce through the clouds and the sun welcomes you. Remember to wear suitable clothing, as it gets chilly!

3. Just one season all over the year

There is no such thing as four seasons on the Canaries.

Well…as a local, of course you feel the winter. It’s the time with more or less 20 to 23 degrees in the north, when locals dress up with thick clothing.

As a short time visitor, your body is not accustomed to the local climate. That’s why you are able to enjoy 365 days of summer with mild temperatures between 25 to 32 degrees all over the year. In fact, the Canaries are considered to have one of the best and most stable climates in the world!

4. You get to see different continents in 30 square miles

Gran Canaria is like a miniature continent and was awarded a Biosphere Reserve label by UNESCO for its natural diversity.

This makes it an interesting place to visit, because the landscape changes drastically in just a few short miles. Apart from the desert dunes and the mountains, Gran Canaria also has tropical beaches, fir forests, more than 60 lakes, a green lung and dry and dusty desert areas.

And besides, you can get into another climate zone in between an hour if you want. In winter, you can even see frost or snow while tourists are enjoying the beaches in the south of the island.

When you’re sick of being in the steppes in the south of Gran Canaria, just follow the highway to the north for 40 Minutes and drive to Tafira.

You will find a green natural oasis, palm trees and flowers in all directions. And that’s the whole north part of the island. 

Since you’re already here, visit the island’s Botanical Garden.

5. Plants that don´t exist anywhere else in the world

I just mentioned the botanical garden in Tafira. This place shows you a few hundred endemic plants you can find only in the Canaries.

Sure, you will pass them by when you make a tour through the island. But certainly you won’t recognize them without a label. Those labels, you get to see in the Botanical Garden.

The “Jardin Canario” is not like those typical botanical gardens you walk through in half an hour, where you just get to see some trees and flowers. 

Its a huge area with forests, rocks, small lakes, animals, waterfalls and uncountable stone paths up to the top of the valley. It’s full of endemic plant species and even trees you won’t see elsewhere.

If you feel physically fit, follow the stone paths upwards. From the top of the valley,  the botanical garden presents you a wonderful view all over the green paradise and the valley surrounded by mountains.

On one of those stone paths you will find a little wide open cavern with space to sit down and enjoy the silence. You will know that you’ve seen the whole park when you find the founder’s tombstone somewhere hidden in the forest.

6. Your allergies and pains can disappear

Apart from having the world’s best climate, the Canaries is a haven for people who suffer from many different diseases and conditions. One important point is that there’s not much industry that could pollute the air, and an island like Gran Canaria gets fresh air from the Atlantic from all sides.

Many people with Asthma are report breathing normally, and people with muscle tension, rheumatism feel much better in Gran Canaria because of the favorable temperatures. People who suffer from skin diseases like neurodermitis, experience a significant improvement, too.  

This, of course, is not a medical advice; it’s subjective experience from thousands of visitors. That’s why Gran Canaria is not only well known as a holiday paradise: many retired people from northern countries move to this healthy island to live their life with less pain.

7. A dreamlike above- and underwater world

Water is an intimate part of life on Gran Canaria, particularly with water sports. Surfing far away from the coast, accompanied by sharks or even whales is an unforgettable experience for many surfers.

And sometimes they get to see orcas here, though  you can charter a boat trip to see whales and dolphins from out of a secure distance.

Snorkelers and divers will find an awesome living underwater paradise. With steep rocks, dropping down into unfathomable depths. Underwater trenches, volcanic caves, underwater dunes with countless wrecks. And of course, an impressive amount of beautiful fish and other sea animals awaits you.

It’s a fascinating sequence of the most beautiful underwater landscapes from the world’s oceans.

8. Perfect Produce

The first time you go into a fruit store in Gran Canaria (not a supermarket) you probably will call your family in your home country to tell them how great it smells here inside a fruit market. Tomatoes, Bananas or Mangos have such a yummy smell that you would love to bite in immediately. 

So when you’re on holidays here, get fruits in an outdoor market or individual fruit market. Fresh local fruits from Gran Canaria and not the frozen imported ones are incredibly delicious here. Look for the label “Producto de Canarias.”

Canarians also produce fantastic seafoods, cheeses and wines, so get crazy!

9. Get a front row seat for a specutacular view of the universe

The nights are absolutely clear on Gran Canaria, free of air pollution. And clouds are very rare on the south of the island, which gives you a mind-blowing view to the universe. 

You see the stars so clearly that you feel like you’re in the middle of the Milky Way. Because of this, NASA has some observatories in the Canary Islands, including one on the south end of the island.

Interestingly enough, the signals from the Apollo 11 mission first reached Gran Canaria. From here, Neil Armstrong’s “That’s one small step….” got forwarded to the Kennedy Space Center in the USA.

10. A paradise for history lovers

A few hundred years ago, Christopher Columbus left Gran Canaria bound for India, just after he prayed in a little church in Las Palmas for success and a safe passage.

So the capital of Gran Canaria is full of Columbus’ footsteps and there are a lot of historic buildings left to discover. Gran Canaria has its own interesting local history.

People still love to live in cave dwellings like their ancestors, the Guanches, and you’re able to visit some of those old caves, hidden all over the island.

As you can see, there are a lot of great secrets to discover in this tiny island and if you haven’t already, it’s time to book your flights. And who knows….many people who have been here for holidays got the idea to live here forever.

About the author: Sven is a writer, living since 10 years in the Canary Islands. He fell deeply in love with Gran Canaria and he wants to pass over his passion for this paradise to travelers on his blog, where you can download his latest Guide “Triana y Vegueta in one day”.  Follow his stories and photos in Google+ and Twitter

Rainy Days in Oviedo

It’s raining in Seville, rare in September but welcome after a hot and excruciatingly long summer. They’re those sort of spotty showers that come and go as fast as takes you to find a cozy cafe to wait it out. Usually, I’d be cursing having to take public transportation to work or scrambling to bring in laundry I’d hung in the sun, but this last week of rain has been incredibly relaxing.

In between the raindrops, people run into the street to do their errands, to have a coffee, to meet with friends. I was virtually the only person on the street last Friday as I let the bottoms of my jeans get wet on the way to sue my bank (pequeños placeres, people). For sevillanos, rain means literally raining on their parade, but so many places in Spain get rain almost daily.

I spent two days in Oviedo last summer with my local friend Claudia, ducking into boutiques, cider bars and bakeries when the rain clouds closed in and sipping coffee in the sun when they dissipated. In the summer months, the capital of the Principality of Austurias still gets rain nearly half of the day!

Clau lives right behind the train and bus station, so after I set down my bag, all packed for the Camino de Santiago, we stopped off at a bakery for an early afternoon treat. The repostería’s outdoor seating area looked inviting, so we caught up between mouthfuls of cupcake.

Just as we were counting out change for our coffees, a waiter came to zip the plastic enclosure around the patio. Asturianos are like dogs – they know when the weather is about to change.

I’d been to Oviedo once before with the Novio and some friends – his mom’s family is from Asturias – so we could skip the museums and touristic sites. The rain came and went quickly, leaving the marble pavement in the city center slick. 

Claudia is Argentian and once lived in Seville, where we met. After years of almost nothing but sun, she’s learning to live with rain.

Even with the spotty weather, Asturias shone. The colorful buildings stand apart amidst the grey skies that dogged my first of seven days in Asturias.

Having known one another for five years, Clau led me exactly where I wanted her to: a place to eat and drink in Plaza Fontán. We ordered a bottle of cider and two bollos preñaos, hardly breaking our chatter to have a bit to eat.

Once again, the sky opened and we could hardly hear one another over the rain drops on the canvas umbrellas. Unlike in Seville, no one ran for cover, but scooted their chars a bit closer to the table, lest a few raindrops splatter on them.

We ordered another bottle of cider to wait out the storm. Now with hazy brains, we took long naps and headed to Calle Gascona later on for endless rounds of cider, cachopos and giggles. 

The next day’s sun burnt the clouds off early in the morning. We hiked to the Pre-Romanesque churches of Monte Naranco, taking time on the way down to stop in bars for the views over the valley, have a caña and share a few snacks.

The rain held off all day in Oviedo, only to pour that evening in Avilés. No wonder the cows here produce such great milk – the grass really is greener on the other side of the Picos! 

Surprisingly enough, for the five days Hayley and I walked through Asturias on the Camino de Santiago del Norte, we had not one drop of rain. We were instead met with soaring temperatures and beach weather, a rare but celebrated thing in this corner of Spain.

I’ve dealt with rain in Lisbon, in Brussels, in Ireland, often sticking around in my hostel to relax or get to know other travelers in the bar or common areas. But somehow, rain in Oviedo just seemed like something to work around, and not get worked up about. Way to not be an aguafiestas, lluvia!

How do you cope with rain when you’re traveling?

Five Places in Spain that Surprised Me

When you’ve criss-crossed Spain as I have – both on four wheels and on foot – you’re bound to see a number of sites, of cities, of open road. While Madrid, Barcelona, Seville and Granada are the cities most synonymous with a ten-day itinerary through Spain, I’ve been pleasantly surprised with the, um, surprises in lesser-known cities and towns we’ve hit along the way.

Some have been planned, others were by pure luck or a because of a tummy rumble, or the place where I’d planned to rest my head. If you’re planning a trip to one of Spain’s big cities, there are plenty of other stops to consider not too far away:

Don’t go to SEVILLA: go to Jerez de la Frontera (Cádiz)

Sitting smack dab in the sunflower fields between coastal Cádiz and Seville is Jerez de la Frontera, a city renowned for its sherry and purebred Andalusian horses. Their fair is open to the public, their pubs fun and cheap, and the city is a gateway to the pueblos blancos in the region (as well as the beach!). I love Jerez because it’s like Sevilla lite – all of the andalusian salsero without the cost or the snobbery.

read more about Jerez.

Don’t go to OVIEDO: go to Avilés (Asturias)

Choosing a place to start the Camino del Norte last year was easy: we had two weeks, so we counted back 14 stages and ended up in Avilés, the third largest town in Asturias. While we’d heard that the city was smelly, industrial and a little unwelcoming, Hayley and I explored the town on foot the night before starting the big hike and found it a beautiful juxtaposition of traditional and up-and-coming. The food choices were outstanding, the buildings colorful and there were small pocket plazas and green spaces throughout the city center. It’s a quick FEVE ride from Oviedo and worth an afternoon.

Read more about Asturias

Don’t go to CÁCERES: go to Garganta la Olla (Cáceres)

After a disappointing visit to the Yuste monastery in the backwoods of Extremadura, we steered our car down the steep, cherry-blossom covered hills to the hamlet of Garganta la Olla. Rumor had it that it was one of Spain’s most beautiful villages – and it was – but it won me over with its bountiful free tapas, its dilapidated wooden porches and its local legends. It’s a bit out of the way, but a wonderful little place to wander through.

Read more about Extremadura

Don’t go to BARCELONA: go to Girona

I ended up in Girona after booking two flights with a long layover in the RyanAir hub of the same name. I expected to find an airport with something to keep me entertained, but instead saw little more than a snack bar. Plan B: get my poor culo to Girona and walk around to kill time. The city’s colorful buildings seem to tumble into the river, and its medieval alleyways and religious statues provide plenty of entertainment. It’s also home to some of Spain’s best dining! I don’t like Barcelona, but Girona is a quick escape away.

Read more about Cataluña

Don’t go to BENIDORM: go to Calpe (Alicante)

I was psyched to be invited on my first blog trip, #Calpemoción. I knew very little about the beach destination, other than that it was just north of Benidorm. From our first glimpse of the Ifach to the fresh seafood to stand-up paddle surfing, it was a beach escape worth repeating. What stood out about Calpe were the people we met, who had worked hard to be sure that tourism – while the city’s lifeblood and its most important sector – didn’t take away its charm.

Read more about Calpe

Spain is most like itself in its small towns and off-beat destinations. There are plenty of other places I’ve really enjoyed – Murcia, Cádiz, Alcalá de Henares – and others that are pure hype. Sure, Madrid has its museums and Barcelona has Gaudí, but getting out of the big cities makes trips more and candid. Thanks to a new house, I’m sticking close to home for my next few trips – Valverde del Camino, hiking in the Sierra Norte and a quick jaunt to Madrid with a visiting friend.

This post was brought to you by Booked.netTop Destinations to Go There – Top Destinations to Go There, and I’m encouraging other bloggers to take part. So let’s hear it, Jessica | Mike | Tiana | Kaley | Courtney!

What’s your favorite city or town in Spain? Why do you love it? Have you been to any of the places listed above?

Expat Life Then and Now: My Seven Year Spaniversary

I can’t clearly remember my first days in Spain. Between the jet lag, the whirlwind tour of the Iberian Peninsula with my grandmother and the nagging thoughts and regrets, it didn’t fully hit me that I had up and moved to Spain to teach English until nearly three weeks after my plane touched down on September 13th, 2007.

Cue my Jessie Spano moment once Helen was boarded on a plane back to the Motherland.

I was terrified to start a life in Span alone, barely 22 and not proficient in Spanish. Every challenge – from getting my residency card to remembering how to separate the trash – seemed to come with a mountain of self-doubt. Que Dios bendiga my bilingual Spanish roommate and my bilingual coordinator for helping me through those rough first weeks.

My first year in Spain seems like it was both so far in the past and like it was last year. I met Lucía and Valle, old coworkers from Olivares, last week for dinner, and the piropos rolled in – You look more womanly. You and the Novio seem to be a balanced couple. WAIT you and the Novio are still together? And you’re getting married?! And there’s a HOUSE in the mix!?

My, my you’ve come a long way (proof is below, as far as flamenco dresses are concerned).

Seven years is a long time, leches!

WORK then: auxiliar de conversación // now: director of studies

When I first arrived to Seville, I worked at a high school in nearby Olivares as a language assistant. For the first time, I was deviating from my goal of becoming a magazine journalist, and I’d have to do a job I had no experience in. Actually, in having a teacher for a mother, I swore I’d never run a classroom.

My job in Olivares was fun – I was respected by my coworkers and students, and found I was actually considering teaching as a vocation. After three years, I was given the equivalent of a pink slip and thanked for my participation in the auxiliar program.

Faced with no job prospects, no magic paperwork solutions and no money in my bank account, I thought I’d be done for in Spain, but both a loophole in Spanish law and a school desperate for a native speaker fell into my lap in one week, thus launching my career in teaching.

The longer I do it, the more I love it. In fact, I’ve turned down a few job offers in favor of my current job, directing the academic side of a small academy in town. I still have contact hours and get my kiddie cuddles fix daily, but not enough to leave my voice ragged and my nerves frayed at the end of the week.

SIDE JOBS then: student tour guide and tutor // now: freelance writing and voiceovers + entrepreneur

I came overly optimistic that my money would stretch forever in Spain – and it did, but only because I saved up a ton of green by working two jobs and cashing in a scholarship. But as someone who despises boredom, I needed to find something to do midday other than siesta.

Doing research for an article about volunteering abroad brought me to We Love Spain, a then baby student tourism company. I began asking questions about what the company did and where the trips took them, and was offered an internship as a PR rep. Let’s be clear – PR like you learn in journalism school doesn’t prepare you for Spanish PR. I spent time passing out flyers and making phone calls, but got to know my city and a lot of people through WLS. We amicably went our separate ways when I realized I wasn’t making enough money to support my travel and tapas habits.

I tutored up until last year as a way to make some quick money, but as my professional network grows, it’s hard to find time to commit to biking around Seville and giving homework help.

Nowadays, I fill my mornings with more than sleeping until a late hour and lazing around the house (me and lazy can only be used together if it’s post-work week, and even then, it’s a stretch). I do freelance work in both writing and translating, record children’s stories for iPads and tablets, and am getting a business up and running, COMO Consulting Spain.

Even during my ‘summer vacation’ I found time to plan half a wedding and co-author an eBook about Moving to Spain.

Hustlers gonna hustle, after all.

LIVING SITUATION then: shared flat in Triana // now: homeowner in Triana

The 631€ I earned as a language assistant my first year didn’t go too far each month, and paying rent was my first order of business with every paycheck I got. Turning down a room with a balcony right under the shadow of the Giralda when I first arrived, I ended up in a shared flat in Triana with two other girls – a Spaniard and a German.


Living in shared accommodation is one thing, but when you add in another couple of languages and cultures, things can get complicated. I thankfully escaped to the Novio’s nearly every night before moving all of my stuff and my padrón to his house. Four years later, I moved back to Triana with my name on the deed and way poorer. 

SOCIAL LIFE then: bars, discos and botellón // now: bottles of wine and the occasional gin tonic

Working twelve hours a week allowed me to explore other interests, like a flamenco class and loads of travel, as well as left me with two new hobbies: drinking beer and eating tapas. But that didn’t come easily – I actually had many lonely weeks where I’d do little more but work, sleep and walk around the city to stave off boredom.

Once I did make friends, though, life become a non-stop, tinto-de-verano-infused party. My first few years in Spain may have been chaotic, but they were a lot of fun!

Alcohol – particularly beer and wine – is present at meals, and it’s perfectly acceptable to have beer with lunch before returning to work. When I studied abroad at 19, I’d have to beg my host family not to top off my glass with wine every night at dinner, or remind them that I didn’t want Bailey’s in my coffee. But as soon as I met the Novio, he’d order me a beer with lunch and dinner, despite my request for water. 

Now, most of my social plans are earlier in the evening, involve far less botellóns and garrafón, and leave me feeling better the next day. I sometimes get nostalgic for those nights that ended with churros at 7am, and then remember that I have bills and can’t drink like a college kid anymore. I still maintain my love for beer, but hearty reds or a crisp gin and tonic are my drinks of choice when I go out with friends.

SPANISH SKILLS then: poquísimo // now: C1+

To think that I considered myself proficient in Spanish when I moved to Seville. I couldn’t understand the Andalusian accent, which is riddled with idioms and missing several syllables, despite studying abroad in the cradle of modern Spanish. My roommates and I only spoke to one another in English, and I was so overcome by the Novio’s ability to speak three foreign languages, that I sheepishly admitted to my parents that I’d let myself down on the Spanish front when they came to visit at Christmas.

I buckled down and began working towards fluency. I made all of the mistakes a novice language learning makes, including have to put my foot in my mouth on numerous occasions, but it has stuck. In November 2011, I sat the DELE Spanish exam, passing the C1, or Advanced, exam. I then one-upped myself by doing a master’s entirely in Spanish the following year.

I’d say I now speak an even amount of English and Spanish because of my line of work and my choice to have English-speaking friends.

FUTURE PLANS then: learn Spanish and travel a whole bunch // get married, decorate a house and start a bilingual family

A college friend put it best this summer when the Novio and I celebrated our engagement. He told me all of our friends thought I was insane for passing up a job at a news radio station in Chicago to go to Spain to teach, and that I’d made it work.  I can clearly remember the stab of regret that I had when I boarded the plane, the moments of confusion as I navigated being an adult and doing so in Spanish, of missing home and friends and hot dogs and baseball.

But here I am, seven years later, grinning as I remember how different my life was, but that I grabbed life by the horns and made Seville my own. I’d say I’d surprised myself, but I would expect nothing less.

Now that I’m planning a bilingual wedding, dealing with the woes of homeownership and starting a company, I realize my goals are still in line with those I had long before I decided to move to Spain. In the end, my life isn’t so radically different from 2007, just more polished and mature.

Reflections of My Years in Spain – Año Cuatro / Cinco / Seis / Making the choice to live abroad

Tapa Thursdays: The Bar that Never Fails to Impress, La Azotea

I had snagged Lindsay for a rare night out. She strolled into the locale she’d suggested, bright as always and pronounced something to the effect of, “This is the best place I’ve tried lately, and this place is going to be huge.”

And true it was. La Azotea – a venture owned by a Spanish-American couple – has quickly grown from a small place in the Macarena to a four-venue favorite, with a few more concepts in the pipeline.

La Azotea has yet to let me down – not in food, not in service, not in wine list, not in the fact that a few of their waiters at the Mateos Gago location now call me by name, despite only going a few times a year.

Let’s start with the food.

On my first visit, Lindsay and I went a bit crazy, ordering several raciones as if we hadn’t eaten for days. But it all sounded so good and so fresh. The bar boasts ‘alta cocina’ and it delivers, changing the menu seasonly to reflect what’s in season or what showed up at the market that morning. My picks are the cod flanks with almond sauce served on a bed of pesto or the boiled octopus over mashed potatoes.

Like many bars in the city, you’ll find the traditional dishes, though they hint international or sometimes feature a different ingredient – think mackerel lasagna. 

I’m not one to order dessert while dining out, though I’ve made a few exceptions at La Azotea. While they’re famous for their homemade orange blossom ice cream with mint and raspberry, I’ve also had mini french toasts with spiced honey ice cream.

And now that they’ve opened for breakfast at Mateos Gago, no one will judge you for eating eggs for breakfast.

Then there’s the great wine pairings.

The staff is knowledgable about grapes, seasons and how well they’ll go with whatever you’ve picked out to eat. I’d venture to guess that there are 10-15 wines available on any given day, which include rosés and cavas. 

La Azotea also stocks  more of the hard-to-find wines. Garum and Matsu, my current favorites, can always be found behind the bar.

Above all, the personalized service, to me, sets La Azotea apart. The staff takes it time to explain dishes and suggest wines or desserts, they’re attentive to top off your glass or swipe you a few extra olives. I wouldn’t consider myself a local by any means, but I am usually greeted by name.

I sometimes feel that dining out in Seville can be a bit redundant, that even places that have been staples of the food scene have taken a nosedive in service and quality. But if we measure by sevillano standards, each bar in the La Azotea restaurant group is always buzzing and full – a sign that you’ve made it in a city renowned for its multitude of tapas eateries.

If you go: La Azotea boasts three full service restaurants and one abacería. Only their Mateos Gago location is open daily, open all day and even offers breakfast. Rumor has it this could change, so check their website for details.

Are you disappointed in the tapas scene in Spain, or feel like it fails to impress you? Or is there a bar you absolutely love, every single time?

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