Saturday, November 29, 2008

Cordoba – The Return of the Tapa

Our drive from Rascafria to Cordoba was supposed to take about 5 hours – and it did. It’s just that it also took two hours once in Cordoba to find our hostal. Considering both JCB and I were already quite ready to get out of the car, having to drive around a city without street signs trying to figure out where we were going was a strain our already waning patience.

Cordoba, like the other smaller/medium size cities in Spain, has many, very narrow roads. And the only signs that are posted say “Do Not Enter.” Our hostal had posted signs to point us in the right direction, but out of the eleven turns we needed to make to arrive, only 4 had signs – and the last turn, the turn that would have put us right on the street we needed to be on, well no sign for that turn existed.

We stopped several times to ask locals for directions. One very kind man even drew us a map. Still, we managed to mess up again. But luckily, JCB found some landmarks, and after pulling over to let the traffic pass us five or six times, we somehow managed to get back on track. And after only one more wrong turn, we saw THE sign to our hostal. We checked in just in time for a round of tapas...

It’s no secret that JCB and I have been getting just a *tad* sick of tapas. Well, tapas are back! These Andalucians know how to make small plates – especially without ham! Now that we are somewhat closer to the sea, we are seeing a resurgence of fish and other tasty vegetables. Not to mention delicious wines. Our favorite tapa from Cordoba was the salmorenjo – kind of a cold tomato soup with olive oil and a small bit of ham and hard boiled eggs – DELICIOUS.

With the return of great food, we treated ourselves to a great dinner in La Juderia – the Jewish neighborhood in town. Casa Pepe de la Juderia came recommended in Lonely Planet, and it didn’t disappoint us. I had salmon with orange sauce, while JCB ventured out a bit and had ox tail. We enjoyed some sangria, as well. Then the next morning, we continued eating salmorenjo, this time at breakfast with a tortilla de patata. This tortilla was the best yet, probably because our waiter doused it in olive oil and salt before serving it to us. Yes, we are LOVING Andalucia.

After breakfast, we toured Cordoba’s main attraction, La Mezquita. Another Catholic church turned Muslim mosque turned Catholic Cathedral. (La Mezquita is Spanish for mosque.) We were blown away by the beauty of the arches inside. So many entryways upon which JCB gazed... After about an hour of touring La Mezquita, it was time to check out of the hostal and continue our journey onto Sevilla. But Cordoba was a wonderful, if not quick, stop. 

Friday, November 28, 2008

Our Spanish-American Day of Thanks

We slept fabulously in our Sheraton Sweet Sleepr Bed, and woke up early on Thursday - Thanksgiving Day - with intentions to be as American as possible. This Thanksgiving  was the first either JCB or I have spent outside the US, and given the plethora of pork around us, we were both sad to be missing out on Thanksgiving feasts. 

But I had a great idea, if I do say so myself, to order "El Desayuno Americano" off the room service menu for a delightful American Breakfast in bed to start our day off right. And since we had also picked up a bottle of rose wine - yes, rose, which I now refer to as "breakfast wine" - I thought that adding some chilled wine to our American Breakfast  would be a great way for us to get over missing such treats as sweet potatoes, green bean casserole, stuffing, cranberries, and of course, turkey, during our families' Thanksgiving dinners. 

Boy was I right. I cannot wait to incorporate more breakfast wines into my life back in SF. We ate our meal, which also included American Coffee (and lots of it - not just a small cup!) and raddled off the things for which we are both thankful. It was a pretty special morning.

After breakfast, JCB and I got showered and dressed for a day in Segovia. And I will admit that for once, JCB was ready to leave before I was. (Something over which I am still amazed, but for which I am nonetheless thankful..) Before getting in the car and heading to Segovia, we walked around our hotel grounds to check out the Monastery of El Paular, the main attraction of Rascafria. 

I then took the wheel for our hour-long drive to Segovia, which in itself was amazing. The steep, winding roads took us through forests and over a mountain pass. Neither of us expected to drive through such a beautiful, snow covered mountain range in Spain. Especially not in November. The winding roads were quite scary at times. JCB in the passenger seat practicing Spanish ("Dos libros rojos...") with me bracing the wheel through switchback after switchback. We continued on for quite a while rather peacefully, when all of a sudden, after a rather sharp curve, I screamed.

"There's a BULL in the road!" And out of shear panic - I was SO afraid the bull was going to ram into the car - I sped off, while JCB fumbled for the camera. He was a little pissed, as he (reasonably) had wanted a picture of the bull. But my heart was pounding in fear. That bull was huge. HUGE. But in hindsight, I guess I wish I hadn't been so jumpy. I imagine it is doubtful the bull would have ran into the car. As JCB pointed out - in Spanish, I was so proud - "El coche no es rojo." (The car is not red.) So there is no proof of our run-in with a bull on the country-mountain road of Spain. But we swear, it happened.

We made it to Segovia not long after our run-in with the bull. We found parking outside of the center of town, and began walking in the very brisk November air towards the tourist attractions. Our main goals for the day were to see the Roman Aqueduct ruins, La Catedral de Segovia, y El Alcazar (castle). Each were amazing. It seems that our itinerary of cities is in the perfect order, as the architecture in each city seems to get better and better. 

Perhaps it is because we're both engineers, but the aqueducts were our favorite sight of the day. The Romans somehow constructed the aqueduct - which is 2950 feet long and stretches from the Sierra de Guadarrma mountains to the edge of town - without mortar. Just large granite stones placed on top of one another. It just doesn't make sense that this work could have been done 2000 years ago. I also don't understand why the people of Segovia didn't just build their town 2950 feet closer to the mountains, but that is a rather moot point in this day in age.

La Catedral was also impressive, but a rather quick stop for us. I think we've seen our fill of churches by now. So we wandered through town, lunched and shopped, before heading to El Alcazar. This castle is one of the most famous castles in all of Spain, because so many kings have lived there, but also because Walt Disney chose this castle as his model for the castle in Sleeping Beauty. The town eats that factoid up, by the way - there is a bar not far from the castle called Disney Bar. (We didn't stop there...) 

After climbing to the top of the tower and taking a few snapshots, JCB and I were ready to head "home" to Rascafria. Segovia was great, but after a few days in very quiet small towns, we were a little taken aback by so many people, not to mention so many Americans. I love how after a week in Spain and four lessons of Rosetta Stone, JCB does not want to hear any English. 

Back in Rascafria, we dined on more American food in honor of Thanksgiving. I had a vegetarian sandwich with potato chips, JCB a hamburger with French Fries. Glorious! We relaxed in our room with some more cheap but delicious Spanish wine, watched a couple episodes of "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia" and drifted off into a peaceful, thankful, Spanish slumber.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Ruta de Don Quixote

It is strange how we always arrive in towns so happy to be there, and always leave towns so happy to be moving on. Today was no exception. Even after an amazing dinner in Siguenza, we awoke early this morning, eager to get on the road... especially with some American food. We are really at our wits end with some of these tapas places!

We got on the road, and traveled north to Ayllon before heading back South towards Segovia and Rascafria. For some of the drive, we were following the Route of Don Quixote. (Or so the signs said.) It was actually a beautiful drive, with lots of castles and mountains and small towns. We are definitely getting our fill of small town Spain.

For the next two nights, we're staying at a lovely Sheraton in the very small town of Rascafria, about 100 KM outside of Madrid. It is quiet and peaceful and covered in snow. And since JCB and I both have spent so many nights at the Westin in Chicago for work, we are cashing in on points for a very cheap stay. Que bueno! 

JCB and I are both fighting colds, so upon arriving, we had lunch and then went back to the hotel to relax and rest. Our Sheraton Sweet Sleeper Bed is amazing. We climbed into the crisp white sheets and fell asleep for a few hours, and woke up around 9PM. For dinner, we ordered room service. Talk about lazy! We split soup and a hamburger. We watched a movie on my computer, Lost in La Mancha, a documentary about Terry Gilliam's efforts at making a film of Don Quixote. And we are ready to turn in for another blissful night of restful sleep.

Tomorrow, we will venture the hour's drive to Segovia for a hefty amount of sightseeing. I have wanted to visit Segovia since I learned about it back in my high school Spanish classes. I am very excited for tomorrow, to say the least. So time for bed - more tomorrow. Adios.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Latest Itinerary

We've made a few updates to our trip, again. Adding a night in Siguenza and moving Madrid out a few more days. Check out this map of our travels:

View Larger Map

We'll be turning the car in once we hit Sevilla, and training it from there. Nearly a week into our travel and we're having a great time. We're taking off for our another couple of quiet days in Rascafria (free Sheraton nights close to Segovia). More soon...

Spain Pics - Round 1

My sleepy day in Siguenza made for ample time to compile photos. 

Snow and Sleep in Siguenza

The first few days of our trip were pretty busy. So when we arrived in Siguenza, and realized how cute this place is, we decided again to re-arrange our itinerary and spend an extra night here. Vacations are supposed to be restful, right?

After we unpacked our bags, we headed down the street to Bar Alameda for lunch. Our drive to Siguenza took a bit longer than we had anticipated, due to some tricky sign reading near Medinaceli, so we were very hungry. Inside Bar Alameda, we found a bunch of locals playing cards and dominos. I don't think anyone except the bartenders work in this town. 3PM on a Monday and everyone was drinking and eating and having fun.

We sat down to tortilla de atun (Spanish omellette with tuna), chorizo, bread, and two drinks that I thought were a dark, stout-like beer. However, after a grimmacing first sip, we decided the drinks were less like stouts and more like Spanish Long Island Iced Teas. From a keg. Nasty stuff! One drink and both JCB and I were on our way to siesta time. 

We made our way back to the hotel, but stopped at a little store (mercadito) and bought some snacks, including two bottles of Spanish wine. A tempranillo reserve from 1999 (4,90 Euros) and a Rioja reserve from 2000 (3,30 Euros). Both were amazing, and we probably thought they tasted even better because we knew how cheap they were. Sleepy, we siesta-ed all night long. Nothing is open in Siguenza on Monday nights, so "when in Rome."

This morning, we awoke to light snow and brisk 2 degree Celsius temperatures. We bundled up - JCB literally threw his pants on over his pajamas - and took a walk to get breakfast. More tortilla, chorizo, and cafe con leche. Our food was good, the coffe was better. We felt ready to tackle our day.

Except that by noon, we were pretty much done with our day.  Siguenza is SMALL. Really small. Although La Catedral is beautiful, we whisked through it in about 20 minutes. And the castle? Well, the castle has been converted into a hotel. Still picturesque, yes, but nothing to really see except the outside. Still, we managed to keep ourself busy by eating every couple of hours. 

Yes, every couple of hours. We are hungry! All the time! In fact, I'd say we've been hungry pretty much since we left Lleida. And as we tried to find a place to eat, I started to remember why I previously vowed never to go back to Spain - the food is horrible. Well, let me correct that statement: the food in Madrid is horrible. And maybe all of Castilla? Cured hams. Bacon. Chorizo. Cured hams. Bacon. Chorizo.  Cured hams. Bacon. Chorizo.  And body parts that I prefer to see on a body rather than in a stew. And everything in oil. Even cheese in oil. Is that necessary? We miss our fish. We miss Barcelona!

When times are tough, though, I think it is always important to reach out to the locals. So we went into the Office of Tourism and picked up some brochures with restaurant recommendations. We sat on the cold steps of La Catedral and found a place that served "migas" - what our Lonely Planet described as an Aragonian treat of breadcrumbs, tomatoes, and olive oil. We had been looking for migas in Zaragoza, per our Lonely Planet's suggestion, but never found it. So, imagine our excitement to find the dish in Siguenza. Regrettably, though, and much to our surprise, when our migas arrived we found them caked in chorizo and chorizo juice and sprinkled - or maybe I should say, showered - in chunks of fat, which I will assume was meant to be bacon, but was really just gristle. Que es esto?! Bummed about our migas, we really only had a few bites. Sadness...

Siguenza came through in the end, though. We found a Chureria and satisfied our lunch craving with churos y chocolate! And we spent the rest of the afternoon lounging around our hotel. We lied in our bed, opened our curtains, and watched the snow fall. Siesta came early today. JCB slept while I watched a movie and compiled our pictures. But now it is time for La Cena, and we're eating at the hotel restaurant downstairs. The menu is impressive - take a look - and since there are many options without ham and bacon, we have faith that el Doncel will restore our faith in Castillan cuisine.

Monday, November 24, 2008

A Night in Zaragoza

Did I mention that we climbed 238 steep, winding stairs to reach to the top of the Cathedral Tower in Lleida? I don't think I did. That trek did a number on our legs - and thus, we were pretty excited to sit in a car for a couple of hours, driving to Zaragoza. 

JCB had an idea NOT to take the freeway, as our trip from Barcelona to Lleida was ridden with tolls. I didn't think there were going to be any more tolls, but since it was his turn to drive, I agreed that we could take the scenic route. New rule of the trip is that the driver gets to (has to!) make decisions, and that after all quibbles, we must kiss and say, "Te amo", which means, I love you. After money and how to raise the kids, I am certain how to drive is #3 on the list of topics over which married people argue.

But back to our drive, it was very scenic, if by scenic you enjoy driving through West Texas: a whole lot of nothing. Considering how many people live in Spain (40.5 million - gracias, World Factbook) and that Spain is roughly twice the size of Oregon (again, gracias World Factbook) and knowing that the population of Oregon is only about 3.7 million (A different factbook), I was not expecting to see so much open space in this country. I was wrong.

The drive wasn't that exciting, so JCB and I went through lessons of Rosetta Stone Spanish. (He is coming along quite well!) By the time we reached our exit for Zaragoza, we were both pretty ready to be out of the car. But we were not ready for the sight that lied before us - La Basilica de Nuestra Senora del Pilar, en La Plaza de Pilar. A mouthful, es verdad (true), and quite deserving of the title.

Says the Lonely Planet, "Brace yourself for the saintly and the sombre in this great baroque cavern of Catholicisim." Lonely Planet has let us down from time to time on this trip, but they were pretty spot on with this description of one of Zaragoza's main attractions. We couldn't take pictures inside, so we loaded up on quite a few outside. (Example, left, taken by JCB at night.)

There are no official tours on Monday, but since I was raised Catholic, I filled JCB in on some of what La Basilica had to offer from a religious perspective. JCB filled me in on the interesting historical facts. La Basilica was erected because on the grounds, on 2 January AD 40, Santiago (St. James the Apostle) saw the Virgin Mary descend atop a marble pilar. This piece of marble - "la pilar" - is enshrined inside La Basilica, and many of the faithful - including popes - have knelt before it and kissed it. In total, La Basilica was beautiful, and I even lit a candle for my grandparents inside.

Our evening in Zaragoza was somewhat tame, as it was Sunday night. But we managed to find a little tapas bar at which we dined on two amazing salads: green tomatoes with pesto and mozzarella (drizzled with balsamic vinegarette and served on a bed of greens) and a unique cold tuna and red peppers with pine nuts (drizzled with a raspberry vinegarette and served on a bed of greens). 

We rose Monday morning and had breakfast at the local chureria. Yes, that's right - a churos store. Absolutely nothing healthy about our breakfast, but absolutely nothing wrong with eating deep fried bread drenched in sugar and dipped in chocolate when you are on vacation. After breakfast, we made our way to another church/palace with Muslim and Catholic influences, La Aljaferia. 

La Aljaferia boasts beautiful architecture and ornate decor. It is one of the first palaces with Muslim origins through which I have toured while in Spain. And what I have learned from this experience is that I am a sucker for all the detailing in Muslim architecture: the elaborate doorways, the orange tree groves, the water fountains... I simply cannot wait to see La Alhambra in Granada. La Aljaferia certainly did a great job at getting me excited to tour more of the Muslim influences of Spain. 

Our tour of La Aljaferia lasted about an hour, and then we strolled back through the winding streets of Zaragoza. Frustrated that so many stores were closed on Monday, we finally found a small place at which we grabbed a more wholesome breakfast of bocadillos (small sandwiches). We checked out of the hotel, loadeded up the car, and were again on the road... 

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Yay-dah: Lleida

Due to some unforseen circumstances - JCB's client decided not to pay for our third night at the 5 Star Hotel in Barcelona - we have adjusted our itinerary. A little frustrating, yes; we found out pretty last minute, and by that time, we couldn't go back and see all the things in Barcelona we weren't going to get to see. But challenge is really just more opportunity, right? 

So instead of having a crazy night out in Barcelona on Saturday, we packed our bags, rented our car, and started driving to Lleida. That's right, Lleida. We hadn't heard of it before, either. But it was about halfway between Barcelona and Zaragoza, and we were able to score a 4-star hotel room for 64 Euros, so why not?

Well, yay for Lledia. Even though the town was virtually dead on a Saturday night, JCB and I managed to find the one happening restaurant: La Masia. The place resembled the nursing homes at which I used to tap dance as a kid. Carpeted floor, large circular tables, a coat rack on wheels, and a television on a stool in the corner. Add to it that all the tables were flanked by middle-aged Spaniards smoking like chimneys and toasting to life, JCB and I were quite sure we had invaded a family reunion. 

But we were received warmly. We're not sure an American had ever set foot in La Masia before. Our waiters spoke Catlan. Our menus were in Catalan. So I was speaking Spanish to the waiter speaking Catalan, but I wasn't even sure what I was saying. 

Nevertheless, I found a seafood dish to eat. I settled on it only because the waiter confirmed that none of the fish in the dish would have heads or eyes. JCB settled on a lamb chop. We saw a lot of feet on the menu, but when the waiter said, "Baaaaaaaah" and pointed to his leg, we figured he'd be OK. Not to my surprise, though, the food was fabulous. 

Delightfully full, we went back to the hotel, and slept soundly. Finally! We woke early, had some breakfast, and headed to a Catholic Cathedral turned Muslim Mosque turned Fortress turned turist attraction. It was a sight - just see the picture at left. And would you believe it, "This church has a bar!"

We walked around the grounds, both inside and out, and took a lot of pictures. The combination of the Muslim and Catholic influences in the archictecture was what I found to be most interesting. We made our way into a chapel and found a group of people celebrating what I thought was mass. However, we soon realized it wasn't mass, mostly because we noticed that one of the men on the altar was presenting a sword to the congregation. Loco!

After a quick stop at the bar (for coffee, although had we wanted, we could have had a shot of tequila) we were on the road again, headed to Zaragoza. Lleida, our unexpected, delightful surprise excursion, forever in our hearts. 

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Estamos en Barcelona!

After about 19 hours of travel, JCB and I have made it to Barcelona. For the past day we have done nothing but sit in airplanes, airports, or taxis. We have also done our fair share of eating. But since we really haven't slept, we are still starving. So we are trying to figure out where to go for la cena...

Our hotel - Hotel Majestic - is right in L'Eixample, so we are very centrally located throughout town. We had an amazing lunch of tapas and wine at a small place down the street. And it looks like we're going to head to another tapas bar - Cerveceria Catalana - for a light dinner before we go back to bed to pass out. Stay tuned for photos tomorrow!

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Long Time No Travel

It has been about a month since my last substantial trip. (Meaning, I went to Europe, of course.) And tonight, I am packing my bags to do it again... Only this time it is for fun!

JCB has a meeting in Barcelona, and I have decided to cash in some vacation time to join him. I'm going to be away from November 19 - December 8, and it is all for fun. So psyched! Here is our itinerary...

Date Destination  
19-Nov-08 Flying to London Heathrow and on to Barcelona 
20-Nov-08 Barcelona 
21-Nov-08 Barcelona 
22-Nov-08 Barcelona 
23-Nov-08 Zaragoza 
24-Nov-08 Siguenza 
25-Nov-08 Madrid 
26-Nov-08 Rascafria - Segovia 
27-Nov-08 Rascafria - Avila 
28-Nov-08 Cordoba 
29-Nov-08 Sevilla 
30-Nov-08 Sevilla 
1-Dec-08 Granada 
2-Dec-08 Granada 
3-Dec-08 Toledo 
4-Dec-08 Cuenca 
5-Dec-08 Valencia 
6-Dec-08 Barcelona 
7-Dec-08 Flying back to SFO

Stay tuned for lots of updates on our whereabouts!