Sunday, January 30, 2011

Snapshots from Spain

A snapshot of some of our day-to-day Spain experiences:

• Going to the city market to purchase fruits, vegetables and meat…the market is a bustling little place, with a few small bars/cafes where men sit drinking beer and snacking through the morning. On special days, the surrounding streets are filled with vendors with a huge array of fresh fruit, vegetables, herbs and nuts. You try some of the oranges, taste a fig, and jump in to get the best of the produce. The inside stalls sell everything from sausages to meat, chicken and dried seafood, plus baked goods, German products (the area has a large German contingent), deli meats and cheeses.

• Taking the FGV train (more a tram) from our small town throughout the Costa Blanca. The journey is quite scenic, but not a very efficient mode of simply getting from one place to the next—more a journey ideal for sightseers like us. It is used by many locals as a commuting method, as well as the high school students who travel some distance to school. We traveled a beautiful journey along the coast, winding through the mountains and arriving in Benidorm.

Benidorm is a large resort town, filled with European retirees. We walked through the crowded high rises down the old town and to the paseo along the beach, where Northern European retirees crowded the beach cafes and bars offering cheap food and drinks. Sometimes you have to just enjoy tackiness in all its glory, including the “American” biker bar, cheap souvenir shops and 2 for 1 drink offers galore.

• Taking a Sunday afternoon stroll along the waterfront with the crowd of locals, enjoying the varied scenery of the rocky coastline, the beautiful holiday homes and people watching. Today’s walk was even more exciting because the wind is stirring up the waves, so the surf was pounding and surfers were even catching some waves down along the Rotes beach.

• Getting a recommendation for the best area in town for tapas and finding the spots packed with locals. Doing the tapas stroll, having a glass of wine and a snack from place to place (and trying to figure out what some of the different foods are, with our limited Spanish…and being daring enough to occasionally try them even if we aren’t sure).

• Eating the delicious paella and local seafood. I don’t think I can ever have paella in a U.S. restaurant anymore—I had been to some supposedly wonderful Spanish restaurants before, but I have now been spoiled. I guess I’m going to be a bit of a paella snob from now on…

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Cultural Observations

Here are a few of the things we have observed living in Spain:

  • Jamon (pork) is HUGE here. I had heard it before coming, but you have to absorb it in daily life to understand...it is definitely the primary and favorite source of protein. You can buy a huge pork leg and a special device to hold and slice it at the neighborhood grocery store or even the local roadside gas station/self-service restaurant. There is serrano ham, iberico ham, chorizo and various other forms of sausage. Jamon iberico, especially the "black hooved" pigs who feed on acorns, is supposed to be the pinnacle form. Being a person who doesn't favor pork, I am fortunate that in this coastal region seafood is equally ubiquitous, though I have tried to experience the culture by tasting some of the pork. The best dish I tasted thus far was a bowl of chorizo (not spicy) in red wine sauce. It's hard not to love culture that treasures jamon and wine. Even a package of snack-mix we recently purchased had pig shaped crackers among the "standard" shapes.
  • Dogs are extremely popular. I cannot speak to whether this is a countrywide phenomena, or specific to our town/region, but almost every household owns a dog and there is little concern about their barking. Many cats roam as well, but a dog seems to be a must. Maybe this isn't anything cultural, just something I notice because of walking around a lot?
  • The siesta schedule remains alive and well. Despite apparent efforts to move to a more universal schedule (and calls from women's groups for more family-friendly work schedules), almost all businesses close for a few hours mid-afternoon. The meal schedule generally remains traditional as well, with bigger, later lunches and dinner being served at around 9 PM. In the tourist areas, restaurants may accommodate preferences for earlier dinners but you will not see many Spaniards in the restaurant before 9-9:30.
  • Things move on island time, or in this case peninsula time. No one seems in a hurry, anywhere. Life comes at its pace and trying to change or hurry it is, well... pointless. Moreover it is frustrating and unnecessary. Go with the flow.
  • Futbol is THE sport. Players are celebrities and you have to watch (and loudly cheer on) your team. On a recent evening out, we got to watch the big game with the locals in a bar--and by locals, I mean the men. The women all sat on the other side of the establishment playing Bingo.
  • A favorite activity is el paseo. In many towns, there are wide walking areas where couples, families and friends gather to take a stroll...on a nice evening or Sunday afternoon, everyone seems to be out.
  • People often enjoy a wine or beer...just about any time. You rarely see anyone having a soda with food...perhaps coffee, but more typically a glass of wine. There seems to be more enjoyment of a drink, less getting drunk. And, the wine is super-inexpensive (You can buy a bottle for 3 Euro in the grocery store..and it's not horrible, actually quite good. Or, better yet, find a place with large casks and fill your empty plastic water jug for 2 Euro/liter!).

All in all, a pretty wonderful culture...

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Crossroads between Spain, Britain, Two Continents & Two Seas

Gibraltar
by Bryan


It is an area less than 3 square miles and 30,000 residents, yet it has its own currency, own language and a history that spans back to long before the Earth was round. Gibraltar, on the southern most point of the Iberian peninsula, has been a British Territory since the 1700s. Driving into Gibraltar we instantly felt we were in a unique and special place in the world.

Just after crossing the boarder our bus had to cross over the live and active runway of the Gibraltar airport, holder of two Guinness World Records for only airport with a main highway crossing the runway and closest airport to a city center. Crossing it is also the only way in and out of town. The road and pedestrian walkway close when a plane is taking off or landing. If you are in the middle of crossing at this time, the gates go down, the siren sounds and you better hurry!




The main attraction here is, of course, The Rock of Gibraltar. One of the two Pillars of Hercules, it was at one time thought to be the end of the earth.

The Rock of Gibraltar is full of sites, beyond it's vast and unique views of the world. A quick hop into a guided taxi and you are on your way up. Not of the faint of heart, the road is narrow and treacherous. Within a few minutes, you are at the top where you see Europe, Africa, the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea all at the same time. Truly stunning!






We met the famous Gibraltar monkeys who are cute, wild, seemingly always hungry and make you feel as if they think you are there solely to see them. They roamed around and one even jumped on our taxi as if asking if he could come along for the ride... or maybe he just wanted some food, we weren't sure.





We then walked thorough a narrow tunnel (past the gift shop)and were inside the The Rock, St. Michael's Cave to be exact. This cave is full of Stalactites and Stalagmites formed over thousands and thousands of years. It's dark and wet inside the cave system. They pump classical music through the sound system, which is kind of cheesy, but then you see the stage and the seating built into the rock. There only a handful of concerts there per year, mainly in summer, and we imagined ourselves sitting inside this cave listening to a concert... the acoustics, the setting, the history of this unique place... wow.

From the natural caves, we headed into the man-made system. The English, during WWII, knew that losing the tiny, yet extremely strategic Gibraltar would be devastating to the Allies. So, they built a vast city of tunnels inside The Rock. The tour of these tunnels is fascinating and terrifying at the same time when you think of the thousands of soldiers that lived in them and the constant threat of siege. We left the tunnel system and hopped into a van that looked like it had been there since before WWII and started the drive down. The driver's only rule for the van was “don't scream”. Like a theme-park ride, except you know it's real, we descended down the two-way, but one lane switchbacks dodging and barely missing other cars, scooters and pedestrians and finally landed in the center of town.

Happy to be on our own and on foot after the ride down, we walked down Main Street. The architecture, shops, pubs, restaurants really made us feel like we were in England. Wait... this isn't Spain anymore, we are in England. We had lunch in a traditional English pub with its smokey bar, edible food, and bad service...
yep, this is England alright, except they drive on the right side of the road here. We spent the rest of the afternoon poking in and out of shops and taking in the sights. We traded a couple Euros for some souvenir “Gibs” - Gibraltar money that, although the same as the British Pound, is only good in Gibraltar. Lastly, we went to the airport and walked across the runway for one of those “only here” moments before getting back on our bus for the 90 minute drive back to Torremolinos in Spain.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Nuestra Casa: Our Spanish Home Away From Home

The View from Our Balcony: Denia, Spain: As I sit sipping my coffee in my dining room while alternately viewing the Mediterranean and the Montgo mountain, I feel at once transported to another world, yet at home.

We will call Spain home for about three months. Things feel different when you have that kind of time as compared to the harried adrenaline rush of the typical vacation, jumping from hotel to hotel and back home in a week. Some of the joys we have experienced so far include:

• Strolling (el paseo) along the Mediterranean with all the locals on Sunday afternoon, a leisurely walk through town punctuated by a cafĂ©, cana (small beer) or tinto (red wine) on the sidewalk.

• Visiting the city market, not only to admire the local delicacies, but with the necessity of negotiating in elementary Spanish to stock our home.

• Wearing out our soles walking everywhere, happening across hidden spots while watching everyone go about daily life (being in a resort area during off season makes this time even more unique as tourists are few).

• Feeling excited to come home after a tour to Gibraltar, pining for “my” Montgo and sea view. Settling in, cooking a good meal and having time to soak in the journey, reading a book about Spanish history or watch a football game.

Observing, wandering, smelling and tasting...improving our language skills...feeling just a bit like a local, but with the sense of wonder that can wear off at home...an ideal way to travel.

This post has been entered in to the GrandTourismo HomeAway Holiday-Rentals travel blogging contest. For more info. visit HomeAway Holiday-Rentals site.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Paella with New Friends


Continuing our warm welcome to Spain, our host invited us to lunch at her home in our first full day here. Her friend, Juan, who we had met the evening before, is known for his paella and was to be our chef. Our host's husband met us outside our condo and we walked to Juan's nearby home. We did our best to converse--I have felt good about how much Spanish I am able to understand and more keeps coming to me, but my speaking skills are very rudimentary. The aroma of the paella immediately caused my stomach to rumble in happy anticipation. Juan was cooking it in a large paella pan on an outdoor stovetop. We sat for a few minutes in the outdoor kitchen and shared a glass or rose wine. I felt like I had been transported to a TV show I had been watching over the last few months ("Spain on the Road" in which Gwyneth Paltrow, Mario Battagli and friends travel around Spain, mostly eating) as it did not feel real...the sun, the smells, the kindness of our hosts...perfecto!

We took a tour of Juan's garden and pool area. The garden is absolutely filled with fruit trees and we received a bag of tangerines to take with us and an invitation to come and get fruit any time. Shortly thereafter the paella was ready, so Juan loaded the large pan in to the back of his van and we were on our way.

Our host's holiday home is a bit further out of town, along the coastal road. The property is simply stunning, settled in to the hillside with the mountain over your shoulder and overlooking the Mediterranean. We were given the choice of sitting inside or on the large porch over the sea-outside, of course! As we sat down to the table overflowing with delicious food and looked out to sea with the sun shining down on us, I felt I was in my TV show (or a dream) again.

The chef did not disappoint with his paella--it put any previous paella I have tasted to shame. The flavor lived up to the aroma. Chock full of shrimp, chicken and homemade meatballs, the chef shared how we takes care in selecting just the right ingredients--knowing where to find the perfect chicken raised and fed with care and the most flavorful and fresh shrimp and vegetables. Our host also explained that for many men, making the paella is a macho activity and they are very serious about it--do not talk to them or bother them while cooking. Juan, on the other hand, has a more relaxed attitude and can socialize, as he did with us, while cooking. Somehow he has the right balance of taking his paella just seriously enough--with great results--delicioso! In addition to the paella (of which I had two giant servings), we had a plate of shrimp, homemade Tzizki sauce, cheese and refreshing melon to complete the meal.

I cannot imagine a more perfect meal complimented by good company and an ideal setting.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Spanish Hospitality



We arrived in Spain to a warm welcome. Our host was kind enough to pick us up at the airport, show us around and orient us to our temporary home. Our home was stocked with groceries, fresh fruits and vegetables, and some nice welcome gifts including delicious Rioja wine and Cava to toast our arrival. It was such a hospitable start that we have felt instantly at home.

After some rest from our long journey, our host showed us some of the area and particularly, sights that are not within walking distance since we do not have a car for our stay. We toured the local mountain, Montgo and went to the San Antonio lighthouse, a beacon over the Mediterranean. Words cannot adequately describe the beauty of the area, so I will let the pictures demonstrate instead.

We also drove through the town and got some hints on local restaurants. Some local specialties include varieties of fresh seafood, especially shrimp, and paella. Being in the Valencia vicinity, fresh citrus and fruit trees are abundant and we were treated to a big bag of tangerines from our neighbor. Other Spanish delicacies are olives and an abundance of olive oil (Spain is the #1 producer, Italy just does a better job promoting), jamon (ham/pork--several different varieties in degrees of taste and price), gazpacho (which we thought was Mexican in origin, but obviously started here first), many local cheeses including fresh goat cheese, Manchego and Cabrales blue cheese...and wine, this being one of the top producing wine countries in the world.

I love visiting grocery stores and markets in other countries as the different foods fascinate me. There is a daily market in town and on Lunes y Viernes (Monday and Friday) they add a special fruit and vegetable market in the streets. I am sure I will become a regular there, though we did not visit this week as we were so well-stocked with goodies from our host.

We are in the Alicante area of Spain--known as the Costa Blanca (the various coastal areas have been divided up and named as such, mostly a marketing term versus a cultural region). Denia is between Valencia and Alicante and directly across the sea from Ibiza. The location creates a perfect microclimate of sunshine and sea breezes--you notice immediately how green the town is compared with neighboring areas.

Our condo sits just outside the historic urban center, a short walk from the port with equally stunning views of the Montgo and the Mediterranean. The port is a working port, with much fishing and ferries to Ibiza and Palma. I am looking forward to visiting the fish auction/market that occurs each evening at 5:00. The marina has numerous restaurants and houses many yachts. The locals note that our building has contrasting views--ugly from outside (it sticks out somewhat as a high rise in an area with low architecture--you can find it from almost any point in town) but the most beautiful from inside looking out. Being on the fifth floor with a wrap around balcony, views abound.

Click here to see the photos of the views and the area.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

YOTel-huh?


For those who have never heard of the Yotel, you probably would guess I am simply mispronouncing hotel. However, it is indeed not just any hotel. The YO brand, which started with YoSushi aims to "constantly and never endingly innovate in order to deliver high luxury without the high cost." The Yotel is at once more and less than a traditional hotel and defines innovation.

Yotels are currently located in London's Heathrow and Gatwick airports, Amsterdam's Schippool and apparently coming soon to Times Square, NY. The concept fits a need not easily solved before...a place to rest in between flights, when stuck at the airport or on a long layover (or for laying your head between sightseeing and partying in NYC, I guess). It is particularly good for those who cannot sleep well on international flights and need rest before moving on to the final destination...be it a business meeting later in the day or an early next day flight. The Yotel rents by the hour (well, I believe the pricing is really three hour blocks) and offers a quick stop right in the airport. I call the rooms "pods" because they are designed to maximize the space with the primary goal of resting. You don't need a lot of space to lay your head and the Yotel "pods" are quite space-efficient.

On a recent stay, we had a "premium" room, the biggest by far and designed for two people or one person who would like to work and move around a bit. The room has a double bed, which lifts and lowers with the touch of a button for use as bed or couch. There is a small work table that lifts up from the wall opposite the bed and a chair hangs in a nook next to the desk to pull out when needed. When the bed is down, the walking room is minimal and the desk/chair combo cannot really be used. There are two nightstands, which are open underneath for hand baggage storage, and the bed contains room underneath for luggage. The bathroom has a sliding panel door (glass, so not very private--though there is a curtain to pull closed) and contains all the basics--a rain style shower, toilet, sink and even some pleasant smelling body wash/shampoo. You can request a hair dryer and some other items (power converters, alarm clocks-who uses one any more?, ear plugs-a necessity). The flat panel TV offers a wake-up alarm, email/internet, a variety of TV channels and pay movies. The room also comes with free wi-fi for catching up during your layover.

The smaller rooms have the same bathroom, but only contain a bed or "sleeping pod". They are staggered, so you may have an upper or lower "bunk"--your neighbor below or above you is separated by a wall and the bathroom is all yours, so you have your privacy. If you walk along the hallway, you get the feeling of a cruise ship and you can peek in the windows of the empty "cabins", but slide down your window cover and you have complete privacy. The lighting has various settings so you can rest in total darkness, read with some light or have bathroom lighting only.

Much like a small cruise ship cabin (especially an inside option), the room is cozy and you feel a bit cut off from light and life. Perfect really for sleeping well, especially if jet lagged. If you are going to be there through waking hours, you can work or play on the wifi, read and watch T.V. but you may also wish to get out in to the terminal a bit. The Yotel galley offers food and drink 24/7 and the prices are a good value, especially by room service or London standards. The menu is limited, but they offer good basics as well as quick breakfast options for those on the go. The Heathrow Yotel has a pub just outside its doors and it is a good place for a meal or a pint beyond the tiny space of your pod. There is also a small coffee shop, selling sandwhiches and pastries downstairs as well as a general airport store, ATM and money exchange. The Heathrow Yotel is in Terminal 4, a quick, free train ride from the main terminals.

Check out various videos people have taken of their Yotel rooms on Youtube (this link goes to one, but you can search for a variety).

P.S. It is truly the little things that count nowadays in airline travel (for those of us who can't shell out the $14,000 for first class overseas)...I am wearing the little socks I got on Virgin Atlantic around the house and enjoyed having them to keep my feet warm (and my own socks clean) on the plane. Virgin gives you a little bag with socks, a sleep mask, pen, toothbrush and toothpaste and a small envelope to collect for their children's charity. It may not be leg room, but the little comforts are still a plus. I also still advise going for the "specialty" meals--tried the lowfat one on this trip and not only do you get served first, they just seem fresher. It was quite decent and many thanks to the gentleman across the aisle who offered me his dessert which was much better than the low fat fruit.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

A Taste of the History of Charleston


Charleston, SC was a busy port during colonial times and a visit brings you face to face with the history of our country, from those times of prosperous trade and giant plantations, through the civil war and post-antebellum days to the modern city of today. It is a history fraught with the reality of being the top port for importing slaves. Though, interestingly, the others in the top 3 were all northern cities and northern states overall had more slaves, but the huge, southern plantations relied more heavily on their labor in large numbers.

Today's tourism revolves around that history, both traditional and the more sordid...with jail tours, ghost walks and tales of intrigue. It is a great city to walk around and soak in the architecture, stopping at the many museums and original homes. Carriage tours compete for your business...and they are a nice way to get an overall impression of the city from some well-informed guides. We chose Polo Tours and our guide, Patrick, was not only knowledgeable but had a great sense of humor. It was fascinating to learn about the regulation of the carriage tours and general management of the city...which is working carefully to preserve its history and quality of life for residents--maybe a little too zealously for some. Even on a cool, drizzly day, the carriage ride was enjoyable...and because of the weather, crowds were minimal.

The city market is a fun place to wander around, looking at everything from the traditional, locally crafted baskets to flea market "junk". I picked up a nice silver charm of the state symbol (one of my favorite travel souvenirs, to add to my bracelet which reminds me of many past trips). We also took the nighttime jail tour, which was interesting if not super spooky (okay, that is easy to say now, but I would not want to be left alone in that place). The city's many churches and graveyards also make for interesting viewing, on your own or on one of the walking tours.

The other thing you can't miss about this southern charmer is the food. You can find a little bit of everything in this cosmopolitan town, but don't miss traditional low country cuisine. Shrimp and grits will be good almost anywhere and if you've never tried grits, this would be the town in which to do so whether in this dish or a traditional breakfast.

The good restaurants are too numerous to name here, but these are a few worthwhile spots to check out on a visit:

Hominy Grill -all the traditional favorites, especially known for breakfast.

Cypress (and its sister restaurants, Magnolia and Blossom)-I loved the modern decor (I was picturing myself living on the second floor overlooking the dining area and huge wine wall) and the banana pudding pops were my favorite dessert in a while (a modern twist on an old southern favorite that only improved upon the original).

39 Rue de Jean- for tasty french food--a whole range of items so that you can enjoy a more casual snack at the bar or something a bit more upscale, but all of it high quality. I've had mussels many places and these were definitely in the top--with perfect bread to sop up all the buttery, garlicky sauce.

Husk Restaurant
- Unfortunately, we didn't get there this time, but I might have to make a special trip back with reservations in hand. This place focuses on spotlighting local ingredients and traditional styles with a new twist. Reading over the daily menu had me salivating and until I get back, I may just go online and read it every now and again...

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Clearwater Beach: A Little Bit 2011, a Little Bit 19??

Clearwater Beach remains a standout among beaches. Anyone who has only visited Florida's east coast has missed the real beauty of Florida beaches. While not a surfer's paradise, the pure white sand and crystal blue water draw sun worshipers, shell collectors, beach bums and retirees alike. Sunsets invite a round of applause from the patrons at local beach bars. Of course, the whole Suncoast is dotted with natural beauty and lays claim to Dr. Beach's top awards most years. Clearwater Beach adds in all the touristy goodies.

Clearwater Beach seems to be torn between two personalities (or eras) at the moment. It was once a more old-fashioned beach vacation spot, with primarily Mom and Pop motels, ice cream parlors, tacky t-shirt places, various sightseeing and booze cruises and seafood joints and bars. Much of that remains, though many of the Mom and Pops have been devastated by the economy of the last few years (and the unfortunate misperception that the oil spill affected this area, putting the proverbial nail in the coffin for some businesses). However, in recent years, the city has made some improvements to the infrastructure, with a beautiful beach walk along the Gulf. At the same time, a few upscale hotels joined the crowd of Mom and Pops. The variety is nice, and I like having a range of options, but it does make for an odd mix at times. The area still draws a lot of visitors from overseas, so not only do you have all ages and styles of visitors, you often find a variety of nationalities and languages.

It's a great place to take a walk on the beach and the morning is the best time to enjoy the peacefulness. As the day progresses, it's fun to embrace the people watching and soak in all the tacky goodness.

Some spots I would recommend:

Any of the Frenchy's Restaurants for fresh seafood. Rockaway Grill has the best location, especially for a sunset, but you can get a lot of the same food at the other spots with generally lighter crowds. Grouper in any form is delicious (fresh off their own boats) and the She Crab soup stands out (Just plan ahead--it is a meal in itself. A bartender told us they had a staff contest and most couldn't get beyond a bowl.). For anyone who hasn't tried Stone Crab claws, they may seem expensive until you taste them. They rival lobster any day.

Bobby's Bistro. The more intimate and modern little brother (or grandson?) to Heilman's Beachcomber. The Beachcomber is a little too traditional (stuffy, staid?) for me and the bistro offers the same quality (and awesome wine list) with a modern touch. We lucked in to a bistro table on New Year's eve due to a cancellation-a great end to 2010! The grouper dish I chose for my entree was the best grouper I ever recall eating (and I've had more than my share). It was cooked in parchment with a bechamel sauce and lump crab meat, so it was tender and rich, but the chef's biggest coup was in striking the perfect seasoning. Even after several courses on the prix fixe menu, I couldn't stop until ever bite was consumed.

Swim Bar at the new Hyatt. Located up high above the Gulf, this deck bar and pool afford some of Clearwater's best views. Come for the view at sunset, enjoy a cocktail or two.

Some other great places to visit include: The Sandpearl Hotel and it's restaurant and bars, for a fancier experience and beach front views. You get the feeling you're in Naples or Miami instead of Clearwater Beach. Head just across the street to Clear Sky Restaurant, which is well known for great food including a killer breakfast (Why is it that big breakfast seems to go so well with the beach? I guess it's the whole vacation indulgence thing...or being able to sleep it off...). I'm also a big fan of Island Way Grill for sushi, appetizers and great drinks, especially on their deck. It's also a good spot for a special occasion dinner, but I prefer the more casual atmosphere of the bar, deck or sushi bar.

The Sandpearl or the Hyatt are clearly two standout places to stay on the beach, but don't forget the Mom and Pops. We stayed at the Sands Point Motel and it's a whole different experience. I like having more space than a typical hotel room when it's for a few nights and many of the Clearwater motels offer small apartments (for prices also reminiscent of another era). Our room had a nice sized living room and small kitchen, so these places may be especially appealing to families as you can prepare food and stretch out a bit. They don't always have all the modern amenities...as I found out when I discovered no hairdryer (oh well, wet hair at the beach isn't a deal breaker). Also, our space heater didn't quite warm things to the preferred temp. the first night (these places weren't equipped for the climate change that seems to be hitting Florida in winter lately). Check online for a wide variety of small hotels and motels. I take TripAdvisor reviews with a grain of salt, but it's a good place to read up on some of the smaller hotels to get an overall impression.