We took a three-day trip just a bit outside of Madrid. We stayed in a rural house/hotel that was a renovated farmhouse; it was about 15 km from Segovia and was in the smallest town on earth. On Friday night we went into Segovia for dinner and a bit of sightseeing. Surprisingly, there was a festival going on in front of the Roman Aqueduct with ladies dancing in clogs and using sheets as props. For dinner we had tapas- chipirones (little squids in olive oil), calamares, y gambas (shrimp). For dessert we had a Segovian specialty called “Ponche Segoviano” which was a delicious cake that sort of tasted like a s’more even though there wasn’t any chocolate in it. We actually got more of the cake the next day because we loved it so much.

On Saturday we drove on a medieval town tour. The scenery was gorgeous and we couldn’t believe that we were less than 2 hours from Madrid. Spain is so diverse; I am always shocked at how many different looks it has. We went to Pedraza, Riaza, Sepulveda, and Duraton National Park. Our drive was marked by a lot of blue sky, golden wheat, brown earth, fields of sunflowers, occasional dilapidated castles, and a few sheep.

Pedraza is a walled town with a castle and a lot of charm. We went to Pedraza in the morning and then again at 10 pm because it was “la noche de las velas”(night of the candles). The town’s people put over 35,000 candles out in the streets- windows, sidewalks, plazas etc during the celebration. A classical orchestra played music in the plaza mayor. It was sort of like what I imagine the jack-o-lanterns are like at Roger Williams Zoo during Halloween season in RI… although I never actually went to that because of the long lines. Speaking of long lines- the streets were super narrow in Pedraza and the entrance/exit to the town was actually just an arched doorway.  It was super packed with people when we tried to leave and we all sort of moved as one through the arch. There were two older women, in their mid-80s, who were a part of the group. They were laughing so hard as we were passively pushed through the exit that it made me appreciate the comedy of the situation as well.

Riaza was special because it had a plaza mayor with a sand-filled ground, used for it’s own private bull fight every September. Sepulveda was where we had our second, and best, serving of Ponche Segoviano. Trust me- this cake was good. So good that Sean asked “hey, should I go buy another piece?” immediately after he ate his first. The Duraton National Park was right outside of Sepulveda. After driving through the park, on a really bumpy dirt road where a small car tipped into a ditch ahead of ours, we reached Ermita de San Frutos (hermitage of Saint Frutos (?). This was an “island” of land with ruins of a hermitage on it perched over a magnificent canyon. The water below was eerily green, like the Chicago River on St. Patrick’s Day.  Huge turkey vultures flew above.

We returned to Segovia on Sunday morning. I was most impressed with the Alcazar, which is a castle (with a legit moat!) that served as inspiration for the Disney Cinderella castle. We walked around the town, went to an art museum, cathedral, walked up the tower of the Alcazar, and then drove back to the hustle and bustle of Madrid. Our Spanish home.

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Intercambio in a cafe

July 10, 2011

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Inma and I have had our intercambio since November. We meet twice a week at a random cafeteria that we selected on the first day we met. The cafeteria is quite ugly, with the smell of jamon wafting in the air and mirrors lining the walls, but it has been the perfect spot to chat. The workers are always very supportive of my language learning; they even try out a few phrases of English to experiment. T he place is usually filled with worker-men and everyone says good-bye to us as we leave. Adios- hasta luego! Adios- hasta luego! Adios- hasta luego! It is nice and I will miss them.

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El Escorial with Inma

July 1, 2011

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Last week Inma took me to El Escorial, which is a small town about an hour outside of Madrid. Inma is my dear friend and intercambio partner. We meant to do an “intensive” language outing, whereby we speak only English for 30 minutes and then only Spanish for the next and so on. We were pretty good about sticking to this in the beginning but the hot sun took our energy and by the end of the day we didn’t talk as much.

Escorial is a world heritage site because it is a historical residence of the king of Spain. There is a monastery, royal palace, and royal park grounds. There is also a very old library that has over 40,000 volumes, many of which are from the early 17th century.  I tried to snap a photo of this but the security guards caught me. The town is surrounded by mountains and was very peaceful. Up on a cliff there is the “chair of King Philp II”, which is actually stones carved into a bit of a seat that overlooks the small town. It is quite nice.

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On Thursday, Madrid celebrated another Puente (holiday on Thursday so they extend the vacation to include Friday as well- like a “bridge”. Makes sense to me!).  We took a four-day trip to Asturias with Daniela and her boyfriend.  Asturias is one of the most beautiful areas of Spain. It is in the Northwestern area, and it borders the Cantabrian Sea. It is a very green, mountainous area with beautiful water views.

We always have a great time when we are with Daniela because #1. she is a darling, and #2. she is a native Spanish speaker and we eat very well when we know what we are ordering.   Asturias is famous for cider (Sidra) and the waiters have a fancy way of pouring the liquid. They hold the bottle high over their heads and only look at the liquid as it falls into the glass. A lot of it splashes on their pants. They pour about a sip worth at a time, because it is best to drink immediately. If you have liquid still in your glass when they return to refill, they throw it on the floor (even indoors!).  This is in keeping with the tradition because originally cider was use to be consumed outside and the leftover liquid was fertilizer for the earth, plus sometimes they only give you two glass to share and the thought is that it is more hygienic to get rid of the last sip.

Our hotel was in Oviedo and we were in for a surprise the first night. There was a special celebration with a huge bonfire in the middle of the city. People wrote things they didn’t like about their lives and threw the paper into the fire. It was magnificent. On Friday we went to a small town called Congas de Onis, which has a Roman bridge with a large cross hanging from the center. From Congas, we went to see the Covadonga (virgin Mary) in a chapel built into a cliff and the surrounding lakes. We took a taxi when we went to the lakes because the windy road was very narrow- not to mention occupied by cows.  The area seemed enchanted because it was so green and fresh, and the air was filled with the sound of cowbells, which the cows wore around their necks. Someone told me that people drop the cows off in the area in spring to let them graze free until the end of the summer, then they collect them once they have been fattened. It seems like a nice alternative to a factory farm I suppose.

On Saturday we went up the Sella River on canoes.  There were many people there because the weather was warm and the water was cool. We saw about 15 boats flip because of the rapids but luckily we were safe. After the river we drove to the beach town of Gijon. The seawater was so warm compared to the coast of RI but it is supposedly quite cold for Spain.  And lastly, on Sunday we went to my favorite place, Cudillero. Cudillero is an old fishing town built on a cliff. The houses are quite charming. We had delicious seafood there and, of course, more cider. One of the best things about Spain is that the people eat a huge meal for lunch instead of at dinnertime. The restaurants serve a “menu del dia” which is usually 8-12 euro. It includes bread and wine/beer/cider, a first course (salad, pasta, paella, etc), a second course (fish with a side veg, ham, chicken, etc), then a dessert and café con leche). All for VERY cheap.

Asturias was suppose to be our last big trip before we return home but we are considering squeezing in one more… maybe… Asturias will be hard to beat though!

Pictures from Pais Vasco

March 11, 2011

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When we visited Spain on vacation several years ago we thought “Que Fatal!” everytime we had to eat. We went from one restaurant to the next after being disgusted by unattractive pictures of questionable meat. We weren’t even vegetarians then. Why would restaurants advertise food with photos that portray the food as inedible? Why not just describe the food like in America?

Now, after months of searching, we have found many wonderful Spanish dishes. There is a cafe near our apartment that makes a pincho de tortilla with cheese that oozes out of it. I would eat it 7 days a week if I could. I guess at 3 euros I probably could but then I would need to expand my conversation skills in order to talk to the people behind the counter. Probably isn’t going to happen.

Despite our expanded restaurant options there are a few food items that I miss from the US. Danny was able to help in this area. He paid us a visit last week and brought with him: Tom’s toothpaste (x2), Baking powder, vanilla extract, chocolate chips, and dental floss. What a doll! We made chocolate chip cookies today, with a strange kind of brown sugar that is super granulated and has a strong molasses scent. They actually turned out quite well, they weren’t Megan’s mother-in-law’s cookies or anything but they were still pretty good. I was even able to make Sean angry by telling him I threw them in the trash. That’s the best way to make Sean angry. He loves chocolate chip cookies. He rejoiced when I told him I was kidding. Thanks for the supplies and company DG! bl

Two weekends ago we took a bus trip to Valencia, the third largest city in Spain and the (currently) most important port-town. We stayed at a B&B and our room was located in a separate building from the main one. (this marks the start of our experimentation with cheaper accommodations) The room was a bit chilly and we had to share three bathrooms with 5 rooms, but, overall, it was quite comfortable. The “breakfast” part of the B&B was delicious and free. The only real problem with the setup was that we got lost trying to find the random apartment building after a day out on the town. We tried the key in at least 5 doors before we realized we were on the wrong street.

The outskirts of Valencia were a bit dodgy but the historic city center was charming. We went to the city of arts and science, which is a massive area with about 5 museums. It was like a modern, sci-fi version of museum campus in Chicago. We got a day pass so we could pop from building to building. We spent so much time in the aquarium that we only managed to see the science museum before the place closed. The next day we went to a cathedral (again, we have seen about a million). This cathedral was very special though. It had the holy grail… yes! the holy grail.  It didn’t look like it was protected all that well so I wondered why someone hasn’t stollen it. The cathedral also had the arm of Saint Vincent. His arm was withered within a glass box and went from fingertip to elbow. He had some rings on his fingers. It was sort of creepy.

Our favorite part of Valencia was the paella and horchata. Horchata is a traditional drink that sort of tasted like liquid cookie dough. It was great. On the way back to Madrid there was a snowstorm. I was nervous because I was sitting, without Sean, in the front seat. I didn’t know if Spaniards knew how to drive in the snow since it doesn’t happen all that often, unless you are in the north. One of my students told me it is like cars “waltz” on the road when there is snow. The front window was fogged up except for a 6×3 inch space the driver could peak out of. I was sweating, trying to create a sentence in Spanish like “can I wipe the window for you???”. Luckily, the snow occurred at the halfway mark of the trip and the driver eventually pulled over for a break. Phew!  We give Valencia 4/5 stars. -b

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When I no longer live in Spain will I still think it’s okay to…

eat a half a jar of olives every day

drink Sangria at lunchtime

go to the bakery for miniature pastry 4 times a week

wake up at 2 pm

I’m guessing not. -bl

Cordoba, Spain- lovely

January 23, 2011

Last weekend we went to Cordoba and were in awe. Our hotel was directly across the street from a mosque, which contains one of the most important cathedrals in Spain (mosque + cathedral, perhaps a bit strange). The architecture of the cathedral was like nothing I have ever seen. There was a tapas restaurant outside the mosque and people brought their tapas to the wall surrounding the mosque (the wall served as a table or seat). It was a unique dining experience. The food was delicious and cheap. We ate there four times in three days. To top the trip off, the weather was spring-like and the streets were lined with lemon and orange trees. I wanted to pick one to eat but street water probably doesn’t make tasty fruit. All in all, we saw the mosque etc, a very old synagogue, a palace, and a castle of the Christian monarchs. -bl

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