A First-Timers Guide to Las Fallas

At nearly 6 am, small firecrackers still fizzled on the streets. I’d been awake for an entire day, driving from one end of Spain to the other before plugging my fingers in my ears every three minutes. This is Las Fallas, the Valencian festival celebrating Saint Joseph by burning a whole bunch of paper-mâiché effigies.

Fireworks and charangas? Well, color me hortera and show me the way!

Las Fallas Ninots Flamenco Dancer

I’ve used my Semana Santa holidays to explore the Balkans and India and had planned to walk part of the Camino up to Mérida in 2016. But when Valencia’s biggest festival falls during your vacation time and you have a friend offering up a couch, you curb your walking plans in favor of pyromania.

After a six hour trip from Seville, I parked my car at the end of the metro line in Torrent and hopped onto the train. Emily, a college friend, had recently moved to Valencia and into the trendy, central neighborhood of Ruzafa.

Beautiful ninots in Valencia

Almost as soon as I’d surfaced the street with a duffel bag slung over my shoulder and a pillow stuffed under my arm, I was met with smoke. Smoke from kids lighting firecrackers in the street at their feet, smoke from the stands frying up churros and buñuelos. The streets of Cádiz, Sueca and Cuba had become an all-out festival chocked with food stands peddling stuffed jacket potatoes and corn, people carrying cans of beer and ninots, two-story high effigies that would meet their fiery deaths during the Cremà.

It took me nearly 30 minutes to traverse the narrow streets that had been shut down, save foot traffic. The ninots – the valencià word for puppet – towered overhead, depicting current events, celebrities and political figures, as well as nods to Valencian culture. Traditionally, each pocket of a neighborhood has a special sort of brotherhood, much like Seville’s religious hermandades, called a casal. Each casal pools together money, time and resources to conceive and construct a ninot and then display it on a street corner in the days leading up to March 19th, the feast of St. Joseph.

what is las fallas like

Valencia has 750 casales with 200,000 members – about one-quarter of the city’s population. That made for a lot of ninots to see (pick up a map of the most popular from the tourism office or look for city patrons on the main thoroughfares and in booths.

Emily’s flat on the eighth floor near the market was close enough to the action but far enough that I could relax for a short time. I’d arrived just after the Mascletà, a daily barrage of noise emanating from the city’s main square. Em and I hadn’t seen each other since we graduated, but we fell into a rhythm, gabbing our way out the door and into the street to gawk at the ninots, cans of beers in hand.

Ruzafa is not only the city’s hipster paradise, home to a dizzying amount of trendy eateries and bars, but a hotspot (pun intended) during Fallas. Every Haussmann-style street corner had a ninot stacked up to three stories and fanciful lights, arbor-style, surrounding them. Even in the middle of the day, young people stumbled around, throwing fizzlers into their wake. It was hazy, despite the overcast afternoon.

Are there fireworks at Las Fallas

Crossing Gran Vía de Colón, we ran right into the L’Ofrena des Flors. One of the Novio’s coworker’s wife is a natural valenciana and gushed about this part of Falles in which falleros don traditional costumes and bring bundles of flowers to a towering Virgen de los Desamparados sitting in Plaza de la Virgen. Behind the barricades, I craned my neck and stood on my tiptoes to watch the casales pass by, arms full of daisies and sunflowers.

Women falleras take their garb seriously – like southern Spain’s traje de gitana, quality dresses are handmade, unique and costly. Come to think of it, dressing for Las Fallas was more like the Feria de Abril than I could have imagined. Consisting of a hooped skirt and bodice, they are typically made of pure silk and embroidered. Once you add the lace shawl and apron, shoes, jewelry and hair do, you’ve practically bought a wedding dress.

Fallera Women in Las Fallas

child fallera

typical costume in valencia

And it doesn’t end there – each casal elects a fallera mayor, who plays the part of hostess and attends to a court d’honor. This means food and fresh flowers for twelve people, much like entertaining in a caseta – and just about as costly.

Night was falling as L’Ofrena ended. Firecrackers sizzled under our feet as we looked for a tapas bar with room to squeeze into. It was drizzling and the center of town was packed with revelers. Dessert was a classic farton, a spongy cake made from sugar, milk, flour and eggs.

Valencia city center

The night’s main attraction was surprisingly not pyrotechnics. Emily’s friends took us to an outlying neighborhood, Benimcalet, for a charanga. I confess: I have a soft spot for cheesy brass bands and Spanish wedding music. A small square was packed with people swaying back and forth to a rock band, and the old man bar anchoring the plaza served up cheap cubatas whose alcohol content was barely balanced out by soft drinks. By this point in time, I’d been up for 18 hours, and we danced and drank until the sun began to peek through the trees at 6am. I collapsed onto the couch, fully clothed.

A ripple of fireworks – the mascletà – rang through Ruzafa the next afternoon at 2pm. I was groggy, a product of both the deadly gin tonics from the night before and the crackle and pop from the rifles. I could already see smoke rising from the Plaza del Ayuntamiento.

I pulled on my boots and gulped down the coffee Em had made for me.Emily had already done her homework for the evening and had mapped out a route to see some of the city’s best ninots and lights displays before they’d meet their fiery end that evening. We spent the better part of the afternoon ducking out of the rain between visiting the city’s best ninots.

Tourists at Las Fallas Valencia

valencia festival las fallas

ninots las fallas mermaids

Popular lore says that the festival began as a way to burn off excess firewood on the spring equinox, eventually coinciding with the Feast of Saint Joseph, the carpenter. A typical piece of furniture burnt was the parot, a structure from which candles were hung. Over time, the primitive parots morphed into the effigies we see today, from rag dolls to elaborate, whimsical art pieces.

Like the chirigotas of the Cádiz Carnavales,  the majority of the ninots poke fun at politics and current events. We saw quite a few Rita Barberás, the former mayor of Valencia who was indicted for fraud in 2016, as well as ponytailed Pablo Iglesias, Belén Esteban and the King.

The rain meant we spent time drinking vermouths in Ruzafa’s trendy bars and watching the light shows on Calle Cuba. More than half a million colored bulbs glitter every hour after dusk, more than making up for the cancelled Cavalcada del Foc, a fireworks parade from Porta da Mar down Gran Via de Colón.

Light shows at Las Fallas

For hours, we powered walked, hand-in-hand, all over the center of the city, pushing past crowds and peeking into casales. The marquees were stocked end to end with tables and folded chairs, and scraps of food remained, untouched, in the centers. Falleras strolled in and out, often followed by a video crew.

As it neared 10pm, we were faced with a choice: nab a spot in the Plaza del Ayuntamiento to see the city’s falla be burnt at the very end of the night, or catch a falla infantil and one of the neighborhood fallas. We were at Convento de Jerusalén, just in front of the Estació de Nord.

the ambience of las fallas

This casal is part of the Secció Especial, amongst the most prestigious in the city (if you’re in Valencia before the Plantà on March 15th, you can visit all of the ninots and vote which two to save. They’re at the City of Arts and Sciences, and the expo is 3€ for adults and 1,50€ for children).

Just before 10pm, the casal’s fallera mayor and her pint-sized counterpart stood in front of the smaller, satire-free ninot. This close, you could see the fireworks-laden base that made up the whimsical, storybook creation. At 10 o’clock, the fallera infantil was introduced to the local media. She had a long string in her hand and tears in her eyes as a band made up of trumpets, drums and dolçaina – a reed instrument – struck up. She tugged on the rope, sending off a pinwheel of firecrackers that would eventually spark the effigy – something out of a bedtime story – in flames.

children's falla in valencia

I fingered the earplugs in my jacket pocket, not sure if they’d do me much good against the deafening sound of firecrackers being lit across the city. My face burned from the intensity of the flames and the black smoke rising from every corner in Valencia, turning my camel-colored jacket a dingy grey. The small-scale puppet burned quickly, fizzling out with the help of a firehose in less than 10 minutes.

We rushed through the throngs of people back to Ruzafa. The streets had been difficult to traverse during the daytime, but the proximity to the main attraction – La Cremà – meant that we were pushing through crowds staking out a prime viewing spot. We’d wanted to see one of the Secció Especial ninots, but couldn’t push through all of the people quickly enough. Ducking onto a side street, we got a front row view to one of the neighborhood fallas, a wizard holding a key with a devil on the side. No one seemed to know the significance.

political irony at las fallas

Emily snaked her way through the masses to a street vendor and got some snacks and a couple of cans of beer. Like Semana Santa, there was a degree of waiting around during Las Fallas.

Just before midnight, half a dozen firemen placed their helmets on their heads and stood poised to put out flames, lest they get out of control. The metal gates surrounding the sculpture were pushed back, leading festivalgoers to be crammed into doorways and even scrawl their way up light posts. I saw kids with firecrackers in their hands, ready to toss them at the open flames.

I glanced at my watch. At promptly midnight, the murmur reached a fever pitch and the firemen grabbed their hoses. I couldn’t see over the shoulders of the revelers in front of me, but heat rose from the bottom of my boots and up my legs. One of my greatest fears is dying in a fire (…and jellyfish), but stepping back from the flames was not an option. I had arms tangled in mine, elbows next to my ears and even a child underfoot!

Festivals in Valencia Las Fallas

Ninots burning in Valencia

The Cremà in Valencia

As quickly as it had gone up in flames, the statue burnt to the ground, a mass of smoldering ashes in mere minutes.

We tried to get close to the Plaza del Ayuntamiento to catch the city’s gargantuan falla, which is burned after all others have met their fiery demise. From the front of the train station, we only caught a sliver of the multi-story statue of a faceless man’s blaze of glory.

I found it disappointing that every single ninot was set ablaze at exactly the same time. I likened it to having to choose a bunk on the first day of summer camp – you never really knew it if was the best one, if your friends were nearby, or if you’d be stuck next to the kid who talked in his sleep.

ninots in valencia

The whooping and hollering in the streets lasted until the following day’s mascletà. My head was swampy, a mixture of warm beers and smoke inhalation. I’d spend another day with Emily traipsing around the Jardines del Turia before stopping by the Quixotic windmills in Castilla-La Mancha and the UNESCO World Heritage cities of Úbeda and Baeza.

Like the Tomatina, Las Fallas was a festival I was glad to see once, but it didn’t spark (sorry, I am the worst) enough interest in me to go back another year. It felt like waiting in a long line only to be slightly disappointed when you had something shiny and new in your hand.

Perhaps we didn’t do it right. Perhaps the rain hampered the festivities. Perhaps I just didn’t feel the true emotion, my senses dulled after a long car ride and the inability to shake the damp. And as someone whose favorite holiday is the 4th of July, even Valencia’s fireworks and fanfare weren’t enough to move it to my top-of-mind when it came to Spanish festivals. It was a lot of fun, laced with beers and laughter and smoke.

a first timer's guide to

If you go: Las Fallas is one of Spain’s coolest festivals and happens during the first three weeks of March, culminating with the Cremà on March 19th. Book ahead and consider staying in Ruzafa or L’Eixample, where you’ll be within walking distance of public transportation and all of the major casales. Also bring cash – lots of street vendors won’t accept cards. You can find an official 2017 schedule here as well as a map to all of the city’s ninots.

Valencia is a city I love more and more with each trip. Check out their crazy ice cream flavors, the UNESCO lauded Lonja de la Seda and the famous tomato slinging festival, La Tomatina.

Have you ever been to Las Fallas or Valencia?

Chasing Don Quixote: a Detour through Castilla-La Mancha

Bueno, Castilla-La Mancha isn’t exactly known for its long, winding highways,” Inmaculada said, dragging her fingertip across the screen of her mobile phone six consecutive times as the car pointed towards Valencia. It had been nearly 100 kilometers since I’d had to even move the steering wheel for anything other than overtaking.

Literally called the scorch or the stain in Spanish, La Mancha may not be famous for its roads, but it is renowned for two things: Don Quixote and Manchego cheese. Resting comfortably on top of Andalucía and cradled between Madrid and Valencia, its size and its small towns have intimidated me. Everything seemed a bit archaic, a bit sleepy and, mostly, a bit unreachable without a car and an extra-long weekend.

windmills and Don Quijote

Stretching out on either side of the highway as I drove Inmaculada and Jaime to Valencia was land. Sand. Barely a glimpse of a small town. Like any other Spanish student, we were made to read Quixote in high school and made a point of paying homage to a fictional knight bound by the ideals of chivalry and true love. But the landscapes I’d read about in Cervantes’s greatest novel were nothing but  flat and brown. A literal scorch of earth, true to the region’s name.

Three days later, I left the coast, shoes and jacket blackened from Las Fallas, and tilted back towards the heart of Castilla-La Mancha. The great hidalgo‘s “giants” were only a few hours away. I took my old, tired car, an allusion to the old, tired steer, Rocinante, with me.

The drive should have been easy enough: the Autovía de Este until it met the Autovía del Sur and a few minutes’ drive west to Consuegra, where eight or ten windmills stand guard on a jagged crest of mountain, crowned by a medieval castle.

“Destiny guides our fortunes more favorably than we could have expected. Look there, Sancho Panza, my friend, and see those thirty or so wild giants, with whom I intend to do battle and kill each and all of them, so with their stolen booty we can begin to enrich ourselves. This is nobel, righteous warfare, for it is wonderfully useful to God to have such an evil race wiped from the face of the earth.”
“What giants?” Asked Sancho Panza.
“The ones you can see over there,” answered his master, “with the huge arms, some of which are very nearly two leagues long.”
“Now look, your grace,” said Sancho, “what you see over there aren’t giants, but windmills, and what seems to be arms are just their sails, that go around in the wind and turn the millstone.”
“Obviously,” replied Don Quijote, “you don’t know much about adventures.

Per Trevor’s suggestion, I wanted to stop first in Alcázar de San Juan, home to a number of beautifully restored windmills that wouldn’t be run over with tourists. Spit out from the Contreras Reservoir that naturally separates La Mancha from the Comunitat Valenciana, the radio frequency suddenly switched to a CD, and soon the Eagles (could there be a more perfect band for a road trip?) were running through my stereo.

I calculated I had enough gas and my bladder could make it the 200 kilometers to San Juan. It was an easy jaunt on the A-3 until Tomelloso, where I’d hop onto the CM-42.

Maybe it was the Eagles or the long, flat, endless journey down the motorway, but I turned onto the wrong highway at Atalaya del Cañavate. As someone who uses landmarks to mark the way, the names of towns, echoing old battlegrounds and ruined castles, began to seem foreign. Stopping in Alamarcha, my phone confirmed what I’d suspected for several dozen kilometers: I’d gotten myself lost.

But the giants were calling, and I wasn’t too far off the path. Monty-nante roared back to life, I turned up the music and rolled down the windows. We set off, a girl and her horsepower, to slay giants. Or, take some pictures of windmills before lunch. The allusions end there for a bit, lo prometo.

Like our Quixotic hero, I blinked hard to make sure I was seeing what lay ahead. As soon as I’d gotten on the CM-420, the long, straight highways became curls around hills, between cherry and almond groves and without a soul or engine in sight. The brown patches of earth were immediately lush and covered in alfalfa, dewey from the previous day’s rain, and full of low, stout grapevines. I pulled over and turned off my GPS, happy to sit in near silence as Monty’s tires shifted effortlessly around curves. After all, this was as adventurous as my Holy Week travels would be.

“When life itself seems lunatic, who knows where madness lies? Perhaps to be too practical is madness. To surrender dreams — this may be madness. Too much sanity may be madness — and maddest of all: to see life as it is, and not as it should be!”

I began climbing a hill at what I believed to be halfway to San Juan. Just below the cusp, I saw the stationary arm of a giant – a set of windmills protect the town of Mota del Cuervo. We nudged our way towards them, standing in a solitary row of six or eight.

Windmills in Castilla

molinos at mota del cuervo, la mancha

Windmill landscape

The tourism office was closed and my car was the only one parked in the ample gravel lot. I had the giants to myself, and I practically squealed. Lately I’ve been feeling jaded as I travel in Spain, as if nothing else can ever impress me the way that laying eyes on the Alhambra or the Taj Mahal did; but feeling the wind whip by my ears as I looked across the scorched Manchego plain reminded me that, yes, there is still plenty of Spain to discover.

But I had to press on, to not let perception or kilometers or a low phone battery squash my dream of seeing Consuegra when I was this close. I drove right past San Juan and its beautiful windmills atop an olive tree grove crawling up the hillside. As soon as I’d crossed the A-4 highway some 40 kilometers later, the giants at Consuegra began to come into view, huddled around a castle.

windmills in my rearview mirror

The town itself was dusty and sleepy, as I’d expected. Streets had no names, rendering my GPS useless. Monty chugged slowly up the steep, barely-meter wide streets as old women swept street porches and clung to their door frames. Images of the old hidalgo became commonplace – bars named Chispa and La Panza de Sancho, souvenir shops touting wooden swords and images of windmills and an old warrior atop a barebones steed.

Rounding the final curve, a man waved his arms up and down, pleading me to stop and flagging me into a full parking lot. “It’s International Poetry Day,” he said, “and the molinos are closed to car traffic.” Closing my eyes and throwing the car into reverse, I consulted the day’s plan. After getting lost twice and being pulled over by a Guardia Civil, I had to make a decision: resign myself to hiking 500 meters up to the windmills as the clouds closed in ahead, or drive back down towards Andalucía for a winery tour in Valdepeñas.

I chose to buy a bottle of wine in the DO and call it a day. I had dreams and bucket list items to chase.

The windmills were barely visible, save a few solitary blades reaching over the rock face. After an entire morning searching for them, it was like they had stopped spinning, as if the proverbial wind had been blown out of my sails. And coupled with a bus full of tourists, they just didn’t have the wonder that the molinos and my moment of silence at Mota del Cuervo had.

Even the clouds overhead looked menacing and about to burst.

Panoramica molinos de Consuegra

Windmills at Consuegra

I hiked to the farthest point from the castle, to windmills bearing less common names and without selfie-stick toting tourists resting on the stoops. These windmills were decidedly less picturesque but somehow more authentic.

A View of Don Quixote's Giants

panorama of Don Quixote's windmills

Maybe it was a pipe dream to think I’d have the windmills all to myself for an hour of reflection. Maybe I thought they’d be bigger, like the giants I’d read about in high school. But like all things in the chronicle of the hidalgo, not everything is always as it seems. Feeling a bit dejected and pressed for time, I climbed back into Monty-nante, a true warrior after 1000 kilometers over four days, and took the autovía south.

“Take my advice and live for a long, long time. Because the maddest thing a man can do in this life is to let himself die.”

It’s been over a decade since I’ve studied abroad, and half a lifetime since we read an abridged version of Don Quixote junior year of high school. And it’s been just over four centuries since Miguel de Cervantes penned the closing chapter to a masterpiece that endures time and place.

Molinos de Consuegra

In high school, I remember thinking Don Quixote was a fool, a haggard old man with pájaros en la cabeza who should have listened to his trusted Sancho Panza. Feeling very much like a pícara myself at this moment, I had a car ride to reflect on things and my somewhat failed mission to fulfill a teenage dream.

After a few weeks that could very well change the Spain game, I couldn’t help thinking that the old man had a few things to remind me: about perspective, about the clarity in insanity and that failure is also a means to a happier ending.

EXHIBITION

Have you ever seen the windmills at Consuegra?

Why You Need This Adult Coloring Book Dedicated to Wanderlust

It was a night like any other: I was watching clips of America’s Next Top Model (shame, shame) when my Macbook Air screen when blank. It was a sign for me to go to bed, I presumed, so I clicked it shut and set it on my nightstand.

The following morning, I heard the familiar cha-CHUUUUUN that my Mac cries when turning on, and even though the keys glowed, the Black Screen of Death stared at me. I remember sighing heavily before reaching for my phone for a homemade remedy, cursing myself for updating the system before.

work online

After a few uninspired attempts to reboot a perfectly healthy system that recently underwent surgery to make it faster and more secure, I relented and took it into the Mac repair shop in Los Remedios.

Mr. Mac confirmed my fears: the cable that connects the screen to the keyboard was shot, probably from my long hours watching American TV series, mindlessly clicking on wikipedia articles and writing for SandS, COMO Consulting and other publications. And it was going to cost me at least 500€ to fix.

OK Universe, I heard you loud and clear: My computer does not have to be my best friend.

I had ideas for posts bursting out of my head, 89 unread blog posts from other sites I follow and several emails to get to, but I opted for a nap. A bonafide, not-binge-watching-Shonda-Rimes-dramas-and-calling-it-rest nap.

Faced with an afternoon with not much to do and spending money reserved for rescuing my Mac, I was desperate to find an activity to do at home that didn’t involve a screen. I came up with cleaning, which I’d done two days prior or organizing my desk. From under a stack of papers and lesson plans for the month, I unearthed Travel Between the Lines, and adult coloring book that my friend Geoff and Katie Matthews of Wandertooth Blog sent my way. I smiled – the cover features Lisbon, where I had recently traveled with my family.

Adult Coloring Books

Digging out and sharpening my set of colored pencils, I turned on a podcast and set to work on the first photo I turned to: street scene of rural Barichara, Colombia on page 22. Three-quarters of an hour of shading, lining and sharpening later, I’d used bright colors to turn whitewashed Barichara – which could have easily been a town in the mountains of Spain – into a technicolor dream, complete with a shiny new motorcycle leaned against the wall of the home.

For someone who daydreams about far-flung locales, I didn’t want Pinterest or the internet skewing with my creative juices on this project.

Adult coloring books have made a splash recently for their stress-melting power. And as an early millennial with her heart still stuck in the 90s, I have to admit that I felt like a kid again, more concentrated on shading and what color to paint the roofs than my broken computer. Plus, I had something to do while chatting on the phone with my mom on Sundays or before bed that didn’t require another screen.

Skepticism hadn’t crossed my mind when it came to the adult coloring book craze, as it seemed like yet one more thing on my bookshelf. But here’s why you should have one:

Serious wanderlust is ahead

I met Geoff for an early afternoon beer at a cervecería buried somewhere in Macarena. It was early, but anyone ho can match me for beers after Spanish class is a friend in my book. Studying at Sevilla Habla language school, Geoff was spending a few weeks in Seville and would soon be joined by his wife, Katie. The married Canadians had been traveling since 2009 full-time and have been to more than three dozen countries.

And that’s where this book comes in. Katie is the wordsmith of Wandertooth and Geoff is the visual video storyteller, but there’s little need for words or moving pictures in this book: there are 47 black-and-white pictures of their travels from 29 countries.

detail of Travel Between the Lines photos

Flipping through, I recognized a few places – the effervescent Eiffel Tower of Paris, home to my childhood wanderlust; the chain bridge in Budapest, a city I fell hard for; the place of my expat nightmares, Plaza de España in Seville. But more often than not, I couldn’t tell if the pictures were Asia or Central America or Europe.

All of the photos belong to Katie and Geoff

When Wandertooth came up with the idea for Travel Between the Lines, they were already seasoned globetrotters who had lived around the world. They sent their personal pictures to a designer, who in turn transformed them into art you could personalize. As travelers and part-time locals in many of these places, it’s like discovering a new place with a fresh set of eyes. Plus, they share two-line vignettes about their travels to each of the destinations featured at the back of the book.

Katie and Geoff Matthews

Geoff and Katie Matthews. Photo courtesy of Wandertooth.

What’s more, some of the drawings are easy to finish (think attending high tea in London) whereas other offer more of a challenge – kind of like haggling at a souk in Morocco or wondering what exactly you’re eating at a street market in Taiwan.

And by being 8.5″x11,” they can easily adorn your cubicle or cork board once you finish and rip them out. Think of it as a Color Me Mine for the clumsy or the minimalistic.

Support small businesses and publishers

Perhaps more important than fueling your wanderlust during your morning commute, Katie and Geoff are digital entrepreneurs and small business owners – even if their office has sand for a floor. Your purchase of the Travel Between the Lines helps them keep traveling, creating and running a digital empire.

Travel Between the Lines Coloring Book

And, like every Canadian I’ve had the pleasure of meeting, they’re crazy personable and very nice! And they make excellent tapas crawlers.

So while those 500€ to fix my Mac ended up being 189€ (and thus a plane ticket anywhere during Holy Week), a few minutes doodling and coloring is tiding me over.

Want to Get Your Hands on the Book?

Break out your colored pencils – and your phone camera! I’ve teamed up with Wandertooth to give you an adult coloring book – and I’ll send it anywhere in this big, wide world. 

All you have to do is follow me on instagram and a tag up to five photos with a place you’d love to see featured in an adult coloring book with the tag #mytravelbtwnlines. Think exotic, spiritual, adrenaline-pumping…and anywhere in between! Or, you can tweet them to me at @sunshinesiestas with the hashtag #mytravelbtwnlines.

Be sure to include the city and country it’s in and a quick description, along with your name and first initial so that I can contact you if we choose your photo.

Contest runs until March 31st, after which the winner will be notified. Winner has until April 10th to claim their prize, lest another pinner take your prize!

You can nab Travel Between the Lines: Inspirational Coloring for Globetrotters and Daydreamers on Amazon, or enter this contest for a free copy, courtesy of Geoff and Katie. And – psst! – another book is on the way! You might even see my hand wrapped around a cervecita on a warm March day featured!

why you need this

Have you ever bought an adult coloring book?

The Curious Case of Spanish Extra Virgin Olive Oil

“Passion and quality are at the heart of this venture. It’s that simple.”

I sneezed, a clear sign that spring was about to settle onto Andalucía for a brief period of time before melting into summer. The breeze picked up, and I wrinkled my nose, lest any more oliva pollen enter my system. For as andaluza as I sometimes feel and act, my allergies gave me up as an utter fraud, calling attention to me in a group of nearly 50.

Bodeguero puppy

Isaac Martín, event coordinator for Basilippo, an award-winning olive oil producer internationally recognized for its quality, kicked off a tasting event that was punctuated by my sniffles. Set at an old hacienda buried within acres of olive trees, an internet search for foodie experiences brought me to one of western Andalucía’s foremost producers of liquid gold, extra virgin olive oil.

Teetering on winter and spring, I was willing to risk puffy eyes to learn how to properly taste olive oil and look out for its quality and properties. As a staple of the Mediterranean diet, its health properties have long been touted, but not all aceite de olivo virgen extra is created equal: supermarket buyers often have to pick between an entire shopping aisle’s worth of brands and varying quality.

Arbequina olive oil from Andalucía

And the good stuff doesn’t come cheap.

The Basilippo brand, made with the manzanilla and arbequina varieties of olives, has been my go-to brand when bringing home a nice bottle for foodie friends, but I shamefully catalogued what I used to cook with or a dress a salad with at home: whatever came cheapest and in a plastic bottle. I had a lot to learn, and creative packaging could not longer be a barometer for quality.

And for a small-batch, family-run brand, passion for the ripest fruit and top-tier production practices, only the best would do.

Inside Hacienda Merrha’s lofty tasting room, several round tables sat armed with jewel blue tasting cups, a brasero disguised underneath by heavy cloaks. Diego Vergara, responsible for the company’s marketing, held up two sherry glasses full of orange juice as we sat. 

Properly tasting olive oil

His explanation of how to distinguish extra virgin olive oil was simple: one was an orange juice squeezed from ripe oranges. The second was a bastardization of orange pulp, colorants, chemicals and mass production. In other words, it was a soft drink meant to mimic the flavor of orange juice. If the product was bruised or off, the taste and aromas would be off. Perfection is this business, amidst mass production and knocks offs, truly came down to passion for the cleanest, most natural product.

The scents naturally found in olive oil – grass, banana and traces  of fruit – laced the air as the heater next to our legs in turn heated the smooth, rounded tasting capsules for optimum olfactory pleasure.

Flavors present in EVOO

Oil exists in dozens of varieties, and olives have been picked, pressed and packaged into olive oil for nearly eight millennia. Extra virgin – considered the healthiest and ripest state of the olive – occurs when no heat treatments have been applied to the product and is made from 100% olives of the same type. All other oils wane in quality, thus driving down the price. Packaging can also make a difference, as olive oil loses its properties with exposure to light or heat.

Again, I fully admit to being ashamed of the marca blanca I have stocked at the back of my pantry.

The three blue cups sat before us. Two contained about a tablespoon of product and were covered with a plastic condiment lid. The third, sitting at 7 o’clock, was filled and quickly covered. Blue cups are typically used in blind tasting as, unlike wine, color is not a factor in determining an oil’s quality. Smell and taste take all the credit here.

como degustar aceite de oliva

Olive oil’s properties are strongest when it’s as close to harvest as possible. The generous pours came from a bottle only a few weeks old, and Diego generated a bit of heat to release its intoxicating smell by cupping the glass in his hand and rotating it back and forth as if opening a bottle of pickles for about 15 seconds. Next came a quick whiff and recapping the jar.

We’d all come for the tasting portion of course, and sloshing it around your mouth like Adolfo of Plus Vino showed me to do wouldn’t cut it:

Olive oil has different tastes on your tongue and taste buds. Sucking in air as it travels towards the back of the throat makes it taste more viscous and potent. And I wasn’t the only one who got a burn in the back of the throat – slurps were followed by gags, coughs and grunts, the sign of a quality harvest.

Moving on, we paired a vanilla-infused organic oil with both regañá crackers and a crisp, hard cheese, as well as a pineapple ice cream drizzled in olive oil. Though most of Basilippo’s bottles come with recommendations for consumption, the kitchen serves more innovative dishes.

The man immediately on my left seemed to be some sort of aficionado and asked the white elephant question: How did Basilippo feel about the “adulteration” of Spanish olive oil? 

Brought up as extended family of the Rubinellis and the Dell’Alpe dynasty – a Chicago-based import company known for its quality Italian products – olive oil has always been a staple in my family’s kitchen. And until moving to Spain, I was convinced that Italy produced the highest quality product. But European olive oil is on par with organized crime – even though Spain produces roughly 40% of the world’s olive oil, most is shipped in bulk to Italy before being bottled, giving the impression that most olive oil is coming straight from the Boot.

How to do an olive oil tasting

This has been going on since the Roman occupation of Spain, when olive oil was used in commerce and called liquid gold (and in all fairness, my Italian relatives have a soft spot for Spanish cuisine). I’ve long felt that Spain is only beginning to embrace competing on an international market with its food products, and I’d likely consumed them as they paraded as Italian. 

But Basilippo’s product was meant to stay with the connoisseurs, a thead that runs thorughout its four generations of olivareros. International consumption is definitely on the table – they’ve won numerous awards worldwide and run a quality assurance program attended by visitors abroad – and they’ve got a strong local following. I thought back to Isaac’s powerful speech in which his love for his business reach my consciousness despite the sneezing and nose blowing. Passion isn’t so much an ingredient, but a habit at Merrha.

Diego explained that close to 10 pounds of olives are necessary to produce a single liter of olive oil of any quality, hence the small batches coming out of Basilippo (the production comes from just 20 hectacres of olivos). By the time our group of nearly 50 hit the gift shop, we’d depleted a large portion of stock. I introduced myself to Isaac, chuffed that so many phenomenal gastronomic treats now formed an important base in my diet.

fried olives from Andalucía

Unsatisfied with a few morsels of bread for mopping up oil in the gift shop, I sneezed my way back to the car and we struck out towards El Viso del Alcor. Craddled between Mairena and El Viso, this privileged land was believed to have been inhabited as Tartessos. It’s also home to one of the zone’s most innovative tapas bars, MasQueTapas.

All of the dishes on the two-paged menu are made with products from down the road at Basilippo and the place was packed on a rainy Saturday. As the waiter brought out drinks, he laid down a small dish of fried olives.

“But heating the olives changes their properties,” Kelly said, popping one into her mouth. “So these are probably the rejects.”

Low quality or not, they were exquisite, proof that a small sliver of land in my backyard, with its rolling groves of olive trees (and toxins for my system) is producing what could be the world’s most perfect crop.

a tasting at Basilippo

I’m on a mission to do something new every week of 2016 – from visiting a new village to trying a new bar or restaurant. Have suggestions for in or around Andalucía? Please share them, and take a tour of Basilippo‘s immaculate grounds, just 30 minutes from Seville (they’ll even pick you up if you use public transportation!). You can buy their products in small gourmet shops like Oleo-lé in central Seville.

Have you ever attended a strange food tasting?

Five Realizations I’ve Made About Myself as a Traveler

Staring at my 2015 planner just one year ago, I circled just two dates: August 8th, my wedding day, and August 15th, my 30th birthday. I inhaled sharply, knowing that as a new homeowner, long-term travel was off the table unless I was living with my parents.  

Quotes about Travel

For someone whose mentality was clocked in airline miles and train tickets accumulated, I was crestfallen. In the span of 60 days in 2014, we closed on a house and I signed away the freedoms and money drains I’d previously had.

2015 was not a red-letter year for my passport, but with minimum means to jet off, I began to scrimp and save for different things in my life that mattered: furniture to make myself at home in Triana, better food products for my never-ending battle to learn how to cook, and my wedding. And somehow, I still managed to travel to four countries and drive through six new states, plus visit several new places in Spain in a year in travel that was very bottom-heavy.

CASTLE

I made five key realizations about myself in the process, and began my 30s looking ahead to a different means to travel.

I cannot stick to a budget

I have never claimed to be a budget traveler, and it’s been brought to my attention that I am unable to stick to one, anyway. Oftentimes, my plane or train tickets are far less than what I spend in my destination (much to the dismay of my travel companions).

Case in point: my four days in Copenhagen. I cashed in on a free one-way flight from Vueling, shelling out just 93€ to finally touch down in Scandanavia. Armed with a list of cheap places to eat and things to do, I was ready to make the most of my first visit when I did the conversion and realized my euros had nothing on the sleek Danish kröner, and that even beers at happy hour were three times the cost of one in Seville. 

Nyhavn Denmark views

For the record, I do not like making dinner in my hostel or AirBnB’s kitchen, I rarely use public transportation or buy city passes, and I bring home senseless souvenirs. I’ve tried Couchsurfing and can’t resist a cool food tour. My wallet is defenseless outside of the 954 area code.

I am a slave to thinking that this may be my one chance to experience a culture and its cuisine, and I end up twice as far in the hole as I expect to be on the majority of my trips. Did I need one more pastry or that quick trip to Sweden when in Scandanavia? Probably not, nor could I resist the hot dogs or gløgg.

European Euros money

In Turkey, this meant a massage at a bath house. In Greece, I carted back an extra suitcase of gifts. My wallet is often empty, but what difference does it make if I’m not a long-term traveler and have a salary?

I know what it means – no new shoes when another pair falls apart.

Long-term travel is not for me

In all of the years I have blogged, I’ve let the idea of saving up and cashing in on a year-long trip play bumperpool in my head. Back when I was an auxiliar de conversación, I figured I’d spend a few years in Spain, then make bank as an EFL teacher in Korea or Japan and backpack around SE Asia for six months before getting a “real” job.

cobblestone road Europe

But when you’ve dealt with bedbugs, missed connections and lonliness, suddenly hitting the road for an extended period of time doesn’t seem like the best option.

For me, having a home base and possessions and a partner has been more fulflling, and the rest of Europe isn’t that far off. Yes, this means limited vacation days at times when prices spike, but thanks to Spain’s low cost of living, I feel it’s more justified to splurge (see? Not a budget traveler). 

I’m not into long roadtrips

Unable to afford a traditional honeymoon to Japan as we’d always planned, the Novio and I rented a car and drove to New Orleans, stopping in St. Louis and Memphis on the way down, Chatanooga, Nashville and Louisville on the way up.

Here’s the thing – I like driving. I believe that cars can take you where tours can’t. I find getting lost a lot of fun, once I’ve let out the requisite swear words. But I’m not into long distances – blame my commute to university for that one.

best hamburger in arkansas

The Novio and I had loads of fun on our trip, visiting a friend in Memphis and drinking down Bourbon Street in the lovely bubble of post-wedding bliss. We rafted down the Occoe River near Chatanooga, visited the Jim Beam distillery and stuffed ourselves with barbequed ribs and pulled pork. And we spent so.much.time. in the car, most of which had me either searching for radio stations in the middle of nowhere or writing wedding Thank You cards. Knowing we had a flight to catch meant missing a lot of things that we would have liked to see for sake of time.

I’ve discovered I’m more of a pound-the-pavement type of person, and sitting in the passenger seat of a Kia for hundreds of miles of cornfields wasn’t my idea of fun.

Best road trip car

That said, my parents are planning a 2016 summer roadtrip to the National Parks. Yaay?

I love showing visitors MY Spain

As someone living in Europe, I am often given the burden of planning itineraries. For me, it’s (more than) half the fun to read up on a destination, devour a book set in a new country and search for things to do, but when the trip actually hits, there are snags. My own parents went six days without luggage over Christmas, and it meant skipping some of our plans to wait at home for missing suitcases. 

Mirador de Graça Lisboa

But my favorite part about living in Spain is that I have a leg up on guide books and travel forums. I live here and consider myself fairly immersed in Spanish culture, and it’s most pleasurable to see my visitors dive right in to Spanish life.

When my best male friend finally made good on his promise to come see us, I had little else on the itinerary but eat, drink and head to the beach for a day. He’d come from South Africa, where he’d done all of those magical travel things like swim with sharks and bike through wineries. I couldn’t promise him much more than a taste of la vida española and took him to my favorite rincones of the city.

Calle del Infierno Feria de Abril

He claims to be satisfied with the experience. Who else would tell jetlag to go to hell when it’s the last night of the Feria?

That’s another big reason why my blog is so Spain-based. It’s my safe zone, my muse and the reason why most of you read it!

I don’t need to go far to be happy

There were times when my version of getting high was scouring flight search engines for good deals. That’s how I ended up with round-trip tickets to Marrakesh for 30€, to Brussels for 26€ and 102€ to Croatia, how my geographic knowledge of Europe improved…and how I drained my meager savings. I lived to spend my long weekends traipsing around Europe. And this was before Instagram and pinterest, so I traveled for the story and not the perception (although, I admit, at warp speed).

Don’t get me wrong – I still use all of those tactics nowadays and love hearing the ping in my mailbox with my reservations, but a year of limited resources meant Spain was my go-to destination. In fact, from my trip to the US over the 2014 holidays until my trip home for summer the following year, the only flight I took was to Barcelona! 

Portuguese National Beer Super Bock

I’ve long adopted the, “have car, will adventure” outlook, and having my own set of wheels has allowed me to delve into Spain and Portugal more.

One long weekend with rain on the horizon, I found my plans to go hiking in the Sierra de Grazalema foiled, so Kelly and I hopped in the car and drove north, away from the storm clouds. We stopped wherever we felt like it. “I hear there’s a castle in Real de la Jara.” We saw a castle. “Zafra has a parador.” Detour (complete with convent cookies!). “Oh look, a random monastery!” Nearly ran ourselves off the road trying to reach the top on a blustery day.

With itchy feet, anywhere but home will do, even if for a day.

View from the Hancock Tower

I have just one trip on the horizon – back to Chicago for my sister’s June wedding – and tons of ideas for quick trips, some to new cities and some to my favorite places. It’s almost just as liberating to know I am wide open to whatever adventure pops up as to having every long weekend in 2016 scribbled with travel plans in my agenda.

And after clicking out this post, I’ve realized that I don’t take nearly enough pictures of myself when traveling. Noted.

I didn’t do an annual travel round up, but went to Sicily, Denmark, Sweden and Portugal towards the end of the year. Where are you headed in 2016? What are your favorite destinations in and around Spain? I’m talking culinary travel, rowdy festivals and things to do in the great outdoors!

How to Eat Like a Dane at Christmas

“There is no word in any other language for hygge,” Maria says quite matter-of-factly. “The closest we can do is ‘cozy.'” The rain was coming down outside Copenhagen’s new Torvehallern food hall, and hygge, pronounced hyu-guh, was definitely not what I was feeling.

In the 24 hours I’d been in the Danish capital, I had become convinced at once that the Danes do everything better, from architecture to mulled wine. And, hell, they even did coziness the correct way (because the sun sets at 3:30pm and they have little choice but to hole up at home). I looked longingly at a gløgg stand just a few paces away.

Typical foods from Copenhagen Food Tour

For the first weekend in December, the lack of snow on the ground didn’t detract from my heart swelling for Christmas time. Everything seemed to have an extra sheen, from the glossy windows of Scandinavian design shops to the pop-up Yule markets. And there were evergreens. Real, prickly evergreens for purchase. Enough to make this Grinch’s heart grow three sizes in one day.

So, knowing nothing about Danish cuisine but pickled herring and a thing for open-faced sandwiches, I hopped onto a Christmas cuisine market tour with Food Tours Copenhagen

Torrehallerne Food Market in Denmark

Inside Torvehallern, the marketing wasn’t just humming; shoppers popped between shops selling everything from Scandanavia’s one fresh winter crop, kale, to organic wine and exotic spices. One of the glass and steel buildings held a full-on food hall; the other promoted products in small shops. Maria led us to a corner shop peddling food from the island of Bornholmer, a far-flung island south of Sweden.

“These are the inventors of our hygge,” Maria says, passing out paper plates with several small treats on them. “They had no choice but to become self-sufficient and make most of their goods at home, many of which we eat at Christmastime. Don’t be shy; grab a plate or the food will be nabbed by someone else in the market!” Starting at the top, we tried ground mustard spread over a flaky rye cracker, a sweet toffee and black licorice, followed by a lingonberry jam and a berry liquor. 

Typical food from Bornholmer Island

All this in under 90 seconds, lest a market-goer get a free sample. Maria followed up with a 40-proof grain liquor called Acqua Vit and a shout of skål! Oh, so that’s how the Danes stay warm in winter, I thought to myself as I shuddered from the taste.

Gløgg, an even more potent version of mulled wine, was ladled out for us at a nearby stand that faced a courtyard between the market’s two main buildings. The Scandi sort also includes vodka-infused raisins and almonds at the bottom of the glass, and I could feel four liquid ounces of hygge give me a boost of warmth as we tackled an outdoor stand.

traditional gløgg mulled wine in Copenhagen

Kanuts Kitchen, a free-standing food truck bridging the food hall and market by way of Viking-insprised dishes. The owners use only ingredients that existed in the first millennia – think pork sandwiches and root vegetables. We sampled aebleskiver, an apple dumpling made over a naked flame. Lingonberry jam and powdered sugar brought them into the 21st Century (and the food truck, which is a thing of its own on Copenhagen’s Paper Island).

Apple turnovers at Torrehalvern Copenhagen

aebleskiver Danish pastry

At this point in time, I’d figured savory treats would not be included on the tour, so I let my sweet tooth have a field day. Back inside the market, Maria led us to Grød, the Danish word for porridge. Smells of leeks and carrots wafted in our direction every time a frazzled shopper opened the heavy glass doors behind us, bringing in a gust of chilled air.

Rice porridge typical Danish food

She handed us a cardboard cup of rice laden with cinnamon, sugar and a hunk of butter. Legend has it that Danish children once believed that gnomes helped clean the house and look after the livestock, and grateful parents asked their children to leave them a small bowl of rice porridge, risengrød. It was probably my favorite dish of the day, even though my blood sugar was through the roof!

It seemed that everything I’d heard about the new Scandi food movement was wrong – we’d eaten porridges, enough butter to put a cow into retirement and had heaps of grain liquor. What happened to the fresh, inventive cuisine I’d been expecting?

Scandanavian food is having its moment of glory, thanks to the NoMa revelation in the early 2000s. What was once known as a butter-heavy, bleak gastronomic landscape was transformed thanks to local products, a focus on what’s fresh (again, just kale in December, often paired with – what else – herring) and the mastermind of René Redzepi. A restaurant of the same name – the hybrid of Nordic Food, or Nordisk Mad – is consistently among the world’s best.

Nørrebro Bryghus Brewery in central Copenhagen

After a quick stop for more chocolate and a spicy chai tea at an exotic spice market, we braved the cold once more to head to the Nørrebro brewery. As it turns out, the Danes begin their Christmas season a month earlier than Spaniards with the annual J-Day, or Julebryg beer day. 

Only on the market for 10 weeks, the special Christmas brew kicks off the first Friday in November with bars offering the first few rounds on the house. Nørrebro treated us to their version.

Dios, these daneses even have the Christmas spirits market cornered.

After two more rounds, I left the brewery and started back for the market, determined to find some food souvenirs and maybe another snack. Unlike most food tours, I wasn’t ready to roll home but had snacked enough to be comfortable. I did as Maria suggested – a hot dog on the street, mustard and fried onions dripping all over my hands.

Danish hot dogs typical lunch in Copenhagen

It would still be another few days before I got an open faced sandwich, called smorbrød, and I justified more than one pastry a day on account that a snegl was cheaper than a burger. After four days in Copenhagen, I’ve got little idea what the Danes eat but have pulled out Christmas cookie recipes for my family’s upcoming visit for a very Spanish navidad.

My Christmas memories as a kid tasted decidedly more Scandinavian than Spanish – gingerbread, warm drinks and a few sips of schnapps when I reached my teenaged years. Two hours and probably more alcohol than I needed at that time of the day, I was ready to hole up for hygge and feel nostalgic for my homeland, where snow falls for Christmas and it’s dark before dinner on a stark winter night.

Food Tours Copenhagen kindly offered me a discounted tour, though I was under no obligation to write a review for them. That said, I learned that Danes ALSO do Christmas better than we do, and that is an opinion Maria shares. Find out more about their tours in Copenhagen, Stockholm and Oslo on their website.

How to

Torvehallern is located at Frederiksborggade 21, close to the Norreport transportation depot and only steps from Rosenborg Castle. You can find the Nørrebor Brewery at Ryesgade 3 across the canal, and buy candy in bulk at Somods Bolcher at Norregade 36, just around the corner from the market.

Have you ever been on a food tour on your travels? Do you eat any typically Danish Christmas foods n your family?

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