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An Epicurean Odyssey: Madrid and trip conclusion


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At long last we had arrived at our ultimate destination, the largest and most cosmopolitan city in Spain. I had saved Madrid for last to keep us in a state of anticipation even as we were winding down our vacation. As with most large cities, enjoyment of Madrid is a matter of individual taste. Once the initial honeymoon of sightseeing is over, the experience depends on how one interfaces with the city. The energy, the culture, the food, even the weather come into play. This would be my third visit to Madrid and I had already seen all the touristy places like Plaza Mayor and the Royal Palace. I wanted to experience the modern city like a Madrileño, exploring residential neighborhoods and markets and eating like a local. Madrid was one of the forerunners of the food hall movement with the Mercado De San Miguel, which we had enjoyed on our last visit in 2014. Now there were at least three more food halls close to the center and we were determined to try all of them.

Our gamble on an Airbnb outside of the center paid off. The Salamanca neighborhood may not have been as atmospheric as Centro but street parking was relatively easy and our apartment was spacious and comfortable. It took two trips to get all our gear up to the fifth floor via the tiny elevator with a metal gate. As soon as we'd settled in, we jumped back into the car and drove to Mercado de San Ildefonso, the most promising of the new food halls I'd discovered. We found an impressive array of cuisines represented on the two floors of the establishment, with Asian and American-style food alongside the numerous Spanish offerings. The space wasn't particularly crowded but the energy was good thanks in part to an outdoor patio on the upper level as well as a stylish bar/vinoteca that offered a wide selection of wines by the glass and craft beers. We were quite happy with the results of our first dining venture in Madrid.
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An interesting development in our trip arose when my brother decided to fly over to Madrid after picking his two sons up from their nanny's home in Italy. This would make us a party of nine exploring the city, with five rambunctious kids. In the morning we decided the best option to feed everyone would be Madrid's largest market Mercado de Maravillas, in the northern neighborhood of Cuatro Caminos. Our enthusiasm was only slightly dampened when I maneuvered our car into one of the low metal posts that was placed along the curb, denting a front panel. I've damaged and even totaled enough cars in Europe that I refuse to let events like this ruin my day, but it was frustrating to have kept our car pristine across thousands of miles of driving only to damage it on the second to last day of the trip. The market was cavernous, as I'd expected, but it was immediately apparent that it wasn't at full strength. At least half the stalls were closed and some entire sections were almost abandoned. Many of the shuttered stalls had signs posted indicating they were closed for most of the month of August, the traditional summer vacation period in Madrid. This was unfortunate but on the bright side the market was so large that we were able to find several appetizing restaurants, mainly specializing in Latin American cuisine. Eventually we settled on a Peruvian stall where we had a satisfying meal of ceviche and anticuchos.
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Our next stop was the rooftop bar at the Círculo de Bellas Artes cultural center near Plaza de Cibeles. The drinks were ridiculously expensive and rather poorly made but the lounge chairs were comfortable and the views of Palacio de Cibeles and the rest of central Madrid were spectacular. Atop a nearby government building we could see two impressive black sculptures of horse-drawn chariots, or quadrigas.
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Returning to ground level we strolled west up Gran Vía, possibly Madrid's most famous avenue. The classical, ornate architecture was breathtaking but the midday sun was brutal on the wide boulevard and soon we had to retreat to a shadier location.
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El Retiro park began its existence in the 17th century as a private retreat for the royal family. While not the largest park in Madrid by a long shot, El Retiro probably is the best embodiment of the spirit of Madrid in green space. Two places in the park that shouldn't be missed are the beautiful rectangular lake, where sunbathers lounge on the steps of the marble Alfonso XII monument right at the water's edge, and the Palacio de Cristal. Unlike the similarly-named location in Porto, there is actually a Crystal Palace in El Retiro. The late 19th century structure is made almost entirely of glass set within an iron framework and now hosts contemporary art exhibitions. large_70f888b0-b927-11e9-876f-b1d4b52ad718.JPGlarge_AXAM7964.JPGlarge_IMG_3619.JPG

From the park it was a pleasant walk west into Centro, culminating at the enormous Plaza Mayor which is almost double the size of the one in Salamanca. In the cobblestoned square we recuperated from the long walk while the kids played with giant bubbles created by a street performer.
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That evening we regrouped at Platea, Madrid's most upscale food hall which offers a selection of high end plates for diners that aren't troubled about their budget. We splurged on a large and very expensive steak, sushi, and an assortment of other dishes in the noisy, neon-illuminated main floor dining area. It was a cool experience but I would rather return to Mercado de San Ildefonso on our next visit.
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I'd discovered after our itinerary was already set that our second and last full day in Madrid was Assumption Day, a major public holiday on which markets and many other businesses would be closed. In the morning we decided to try our luck at Mercado de San Antón. The food hall was open although most of the stalls offering anything substantial were shut until late morning. We stuck around long enough to get what we needed but made a mental note for our next visit that this was more of an evening place. Afterwards we drove to Templo de Debod, an authentic ancient Egyptian temple that was disassembled, shipped to Spain, and put back together in Madrid in the 1960's as a donation from the Egyptian government. The temple now stands incongruously atop the Príncipe Pío hill, surrounded by an attractive park filled with palm trees and conifers. A musician in the park was optimistically playing "Despacito" on his clarinet despite the absence of foot traffic on the paths.
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We followed a staircase down the hill which led us practically to the gates of the Sabatini Gardens, the official garden of the Royal Palace. Although the gardens seem to complement the 18th century palace perfectly, they were constructed to replace the royal stables in the mid 20th century. The kids enjoyed themselves racing around the manicured hedges and making us chase them until we were all exhausted.
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We met my brother's family at Plaza de la Armería, between the Palace and the splendid bluish-grey Almudena Cathedral. The cathedral was only completed in 1993, although its Gothic revival architecture makes it appear much older. We got the kids some ice cream and beers for ourselves and then we had to take a long walk back through the searing afternoon heat to our car. At least we could console ourselves with more beautiful classical architecture along Calle de Bailén.
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We took custody of my brother's kids for the afternoon and brought everyone to Parque Madrid Río, on the bank of the Manzanares River. I didn't even know Madrid had a river despite several previous visits to the city. It's hard to imagine being unaware of the Seine in Paris, the Thames in London, or even the largely-ignored Tiber in Rome. Nevertheless, no tourist guides to Madrid make any mention of the Manzanares. Part of the reason for this is that the M-30 highway was constructed alongside the river in the 1970's, making it difficult to access and unpleasant for those who tried. In the early 2000's, the highway was rerouted underground and the reclaimed river bank was converted into a long chain of parks connected by bike paths. The largest section of park extends from the Puente de Toledo to the Puente de Praga, in the Arganzuela district south of the center. The park was very crowded due to the holiday with hordes of kids playing in the splash fountains and on long metal slides. The Arganzuela footbridge that crosses the Manzanares is an amazingly creative blend of form and function.
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We had to tear the kids away from the slides because we didn't want to miss the Assumption Day festivities back in Centro. The silver lining to the market closures was that there would be a parade, street food, and possibly rides for the kids as part of the holiday celebration. The problem was that I couldn't find anything official providing details of locations and times and I therefore had to rely on information I'd gleaned from message boards. Our best bet seemed to be a square called Plaza de la Paja, but once we arrived in the area many of the streets were cordoned off and traffic was extremely slow and heavy. We eventually found a parking spot a half mile away, and we were lucky to find that one amid a dense thicket of cars occupying every single possible space. We joined a stream of pedestrians headed towards the square, but instead we ran into a huge crowd at Puerta de Toledo that was obviously waiting for a parade. The kids worked their way to the front, oblivious to angry grumblings from mostly elderly locals, while Mei Ling and I resigned ourselves to catching glimpses of them through the packed crowd. All we saw of the parade was the tops of some banners passing by. We realized that some white canopies further up the road were likely food tents and decided to prioritize that over the parade.
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Once we reached our destination we found some very appetizing grilling going on. I saw a sign for gallinejas which I assumed were small grilled chickens and turned out to be chicken intestines once I received my order. Fortunately I've eaten intestines of practically every farm animal but chickens before so I had no problem completing my sweep. They were pleasantly chewy and savory.
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Somehow my brother with his kids managed to find us in the huge festival. He ordered way too many sausage rolls and then we treated the kids to cotton candy and a couple of rides before calling it a night. Although Madrid overall had been anticlimactic, it had been a satisfying ending to our long journey.
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Amazingly, it's taken me almost a full year from the end of the trip to complete my travel blog. While some memories have already started to fade, the passage of time has shaped my perspective on how this sixth major European road trip compares with the others. While I had expected most of our great experiences to revolve around food and wine, what actually stood out the most was the number of beautiful and walkable cities we discovered over the course of the month. Most of the best meals we had were at the night markets and food halls rather than at restaurants, so I combined the top ten list for food and experiences on this trip.

10. Puerta Cinegia Gastronómica in Zaragoza. Some of the best and most interesting tapas we had on the trip, all in one location.
9. Winery Airbnb in Lamego. Eating breakfast under a canopy of grapevines laden with heavy bunches of fruit is an experience I'll never forget.
8. Dune du Pilat. A natural wonder and an amazing experience for the kids.
7. Laguardia. The most enjoyable and lively of the many tiny medieval villages we visited in Spain.
6. Aqueduct of Segovia. A breathtaking structure that doesn't get the recognition it deserves among Europe's unmissable sights.
5. Bilbao. San Sebastian gets most of the tourist love in Basque Country, but this much larger city has the best architecture and character.
4. Bordeaux. A sharp contrast to the refinement of the wine region, this gritty and intriguing city is unlike anywhere else in France.
3. Dordogne night markets. Particularly at Montignac and Saint-Amand-de-Coly, these riotous celebrations of food and community are unmissable.
2. Valencia. My favorite city in Spain. A beautiful old town, amazing architecture and street art, a pleasant coastal climate, and the home of paella.
1. Porto. Possibly the most underrated city in all of Europe. Absolutely magical, beautiful, and full of energy. We will be back.

Although I expected Salamanca and Madrid to give us a huge ending to the trip, both cities proved disappointing this time around. I'm confident that the main culprit was timing, in that August is very lethargic in central Spain due to the heat and the migration of many business owners to the coasts. We enjoyed Madrid much more on our previous visit in March despite the freezing weather. There's still plenty left for us to see in central Spain, including major cities such as Valladolid and Burgos and countless alluring small towns, which means we'll be giving Madrid another shot at a better time of year. We might combine that with a return visit to Portugal during the September wine harvest, or dedicate a special trip to the area. Either way, it will have to wait until our kids are all in college which is at least thirteen years away. Definitely a back burner project. In the meantime, I expect our next visit to Spain will most likely be a Spanish language summer immersion for everyone in Valencia.

I've fallen way behind on my travel writing, in large amount due to the sheer amount of traveling we've been doing. My next project will be to write up the six week trip in China and Japan we just returned from, followed by the shorter trips to Yucatan and Uruguay we took in 2018. Stay tuned!

Posted by zzlangerhans 01:24 Archived in Spain Tagged travel madrid blog tony gran_vía templo_de_debod friedman sabatini_gardens retiro_park Comments (0)

An Epicurean Odyssey: Salamanca and Segovia


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I had been looking forward to my first visit to Salamanca almost as much as I had to our return to Madrid. Despite its relatively small size, the city is legendary as a center of learning and culture in Spain. The University of Salamanca, established in 1134, is the third oldest in the Western world and dominates the center of the city. And wherever there is great literature and great art, great food seems to follow.

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Thanks to our late arrival on Saturday we didn't have time for anything except a quick al fresco dinner close to our Airbnb. On Sunday morning the municipal market was closed so we set off on our exploration of the old town. In Salamanca the sights are clustered within a very small area. Just north of our Airbnb was Plaza Mayor, one of the most well-regarded main squares in Spain. Early on a Sunday morning the square was pretty but largely deserted. We fueled up for the morning at an atmospheric tapas bar with a friendly staff.
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La Casa de las Conchas is a 15th century mansion whose facade is decorated with hundreds of scallop shell forms, symbolic of the Order of Santiago of which the homeowner was a knight. The building is now a public library, and behind it are the twin belltowers of the baroque La Clerecía church.
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A short walk south of La Casa de las Conchas is the Salamanca Cathedral, which is actually two joined cathedrals. When the Gothic new cathedral was constructed in the 16th century, it was built adjacent to the much smaller Romanesque old cathedral and actually leans on it for support. Later on, Baroque elements were added to the new cathedral. Although to cathedral is beautiful and majestic, what seems to fascinate visitors the most is the figure of an astronaut that is carved into the facade. Many people have chosen to believe that this carving demonstrates some kind of supernatural premonition of the 16th century masons who constructed the facade, despite the fact that it is well-established that the figure was placed there during a restoration in 1992.
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We walked around the university area in search of an imposing medieval campus but there was nothing to be seen on the order of an Oxford or even a Princeton. All we found was a collection of relatively featureless stone buildings that did little to convey the weight of nearly nine centuries of higher learning. Behind the cathedral is a small but immaculate garden called Huerto de Calixto y Melba which overlooks the River Tormes at the base of the hill. The upper reaches of the new cathedral are visible above the trees in the garden.
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The final sight on our walk through the center of Salamanca was the Convent of San Esteban. The ornate facade of this Dominican monastery is notable for its ornate Plateresque style. Soon after that, we had returned to our starting point in the center of the old town.
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At this point I was scratching my head. I had expected to spend the entire day exploring the highly-anticipated town of Salamanca but we seemed to have covered all the interesting buildings and streets by noon. Perhaps I should have been warned that I had overestimated the city by the fact that the tourist guides all seemed to agree the most fascinating detail of Salamanca was the astronaut carving on the cathedral. Fortunately we had the car and I had a great back-up plan. Just an hour southwest of Salamanca is the Sierra de Francia. Within this mountainous region are several medieval villages that have maintained their historic character thanks to their relative isolation. A relaxing drive over hilly regional highways brought us to Las Batuecas-Sierra de Francia Natural Park as the children slept peacefully in the back. We stopped for lunch at La Alberca, the largest and most touristed town in Sierra de Francia. We ate in the idyllic setting of the main square, surrounded by half-timbered houses with impressive floral displays on their balconies.
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Probably the most unique village in the area is Mogarraz, which clings to a steep hillside not far from La Alberca. In recent years the tiny town with just a couple of cobblestone streets has become well-known for hundreds of portraits that adorn the walls of the stone and half-timbered houses. The portraits were painted within the last decade by local artist Florencio Maillo, who based them on photos of town denizens that were taken for identity cards in the 1960's. The portraits were intended to be a temporary exhibition, but the residents enjoyed them so much they have requested that they remain hanging permanently. On the Sunday we visited, one would never know that Mogarraz has now been firmly enshrined on the tourist map. There was only one other car in the parking lot above the town and it was an easy task to find deserted sections of the main street to take our photos. Afterwards it was time to reward the kids with ice cream for their perseverance exploring the villages and then return to Salamanca.
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For dinner we decided to change things up by eating outside the old town. It was a fairly long walk north to Calle Van Dyck, which was reputed to have Salamanca's highest concentration of tapas bars. It was interesting to see the sudden and complete disappearance of older buildings once we crossed Avenida de Mirat into the modern town. We found ourselves in an area that was devoid of character and rather gritty. The tapas street was a far cry from Calle Laurel in Logroño. There was only a smattering of restaurants without much atmosphere, and hardly anyone on the sidewalk. Fortunately the place we finally chose provided a decent meal, but not a memorable dining experience such as we'd had elsewhere in Spain. Before tucking in for the night we returned to Plaza Mayor to see the brilliantly-illuminated facades and enjoy the growing energy. The square was far busier in the evening than it had been when we had eaten there early in the day.
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In the morning we only had the municipal market left to see, but it was largely a disappointment. Partly because it was a Monday, the market clearly wasn't at full strength and there was little in the way of foot traffic. Also, it seemed Salamanca was suffering from the same syndrome that affects Madrid in August where the locals abandon the city for the coastal areas. Many of the stalls looked like they were closed down for much more than a weekend. Perhaps that explained the lack of energy in the Salamanca's streets and restaurants as well. We left Salamanca somewhat underwhelmed but hopeful that we would find a more vibrant city if we ever return in the spring or fall when the university is in full session.
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We had a busy day on the road that would culminate with our arrival in Madrid. We deviated northward to see two medieval castles, La Mota and Coca. La Mota is a relatively modern reconstruction of a medieval fortress that had fallen almost completely into ruin by the early 20th century. The walls were surfaced in neat lines of brick separated by thick layers of mortar, giving the castle a pinkish, shimmering appearance.
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We arrived at Coca Castle during the mid-day closure which did not trouble us as we were eager to press on to Segovia. Coca's brick exterior was remarkably similar to that of La Mota, leading me to think that La Mota's restoration was probably based on the appearance of Coca although La Mota was originally constructed centuries earlier.
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Segovia is a small town that sits in an area of Castile y León that is reminiscent of American flyover country. We were surrounded by large brown fields of recent harvested grain that looked like they had been burned by the merciless sun. Trees were sparse. Segovia itself, however, has been blessed with a bounty of unique and majestic buildings that makes it a worthwhile destination for a traveler. Foremost among these is the Aqueduct of Segovia, which along with the Pont du Gard in France is considered one of the most impressive Roman aqueducts still in existence. The aqueduct occupies one end of the expansive Plaza Azoguejo, which makes it visible for quite some distance as one approached from the west. Up close, the dimensions of the structure are breathtaking and it is hard to believe from its excellent preservation that it was constructed almost two thousand years ago. Having visited the Pont du Gard as well, I feel that the Aqueduct of Segovia is more visually impressive because of its urban location and its composition of unmortared granite blocks. In fact, I can comfortably say that it is probably the most splendid remnant of Roman civilization I have ever encountered including the Coliseum of Rome. We found it hard to tear ourselves away from this colossal beauty and explore the rest of the town.
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Although Segovia is substantially smaller than Salamanca, it has a much larger historic area. The small modern neighborhoods occupy the eastern fringes of the town like afterthoughts. Between the aqueduct and the Segovia Cathedral there was no shortage of interesting narrow streets, some with intriguing views over the lower levels of the town.
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There's no shortage of majestic cathedrals in Spain but I found Segovia's version to be one of the most appealing. The enormous Gothic structure dominates the expansive Plaza Mayor with a seemingly endless array of ornate spires spaced around the multi-level exterior.
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From the cathedral it's just a short walk further west to the Alcázar. The stunning medieval fortress grows out of top of a steep cliff with a river gorge on either side. The facade is an imposing rectangular block topped by an array of turrets that looks like the model for the rook in chess. The Gothic steeples that top the lower turrets at the corners of the fortress are reminiscent of La Cité de Carcassonne. Inside the castle were plenty of relics of medieval warfare for the kids to frolic on.
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I took the two older kids up the steep staircase to the top of the central tower, from which we had amazing views of the cathedral and the surrounding countryside.
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We could have happily spent more time in Segovia, but once again we had to meet our Airbnb host in person in Madrid and we couldn't arrive too late. Surprisingly we had found much more worth seeing in our midday stop in Segovia than we had over a two-day stay in Salamanca. Regretfully we saddled up for the last leg of our month-long European road trip.

Posted by zzlangerhans 14:32 Archived in Spain Tagged travel segovia blog tony salamanca friedman la_alberca mogarraz Comments (0)

An Epicurean Odyssey: Galicia part II (incl Santiago)


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Lugo has the appearance of a generic Spanish mid-sized city until one suddenly arrives at the dense, undulating walls that surround the old town. For those particularly interested in Roman remnants, Lugo is the only existing city in the world completely surrounded by intact Roman walls. Within the walls, the vehicles and casual commercial activity of the town give way to the quietness of cobblestone streets and antiquated buildings. Despite its beauty the old town was almost eerily empty on a sunny August afternoon. We had truly arrived at Spanish tourism's outer reaches.
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In the old town the most interesting building is the structurally intricate cathedral, which defies attempts to photograph it it one frame. The 12th century edifice incorporates numerous different architectural styles and appears radically different from every angle it is viewed at. Around the central square Praza Major are several other beautiful buildings. The town hall is reminiscent of the one in A Coruña on a smaller scale. The Círculo de las Artes cultural center also stands out for its green hue and elegant design touches.
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The plaza itself is a shady respite within the old town with beautiful landscaping and numerous benches on which to take a breather from sightseeing.
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Before leaving Lugo we stopped at an immaculate gourmet food store to peruse local specialties and pick up a snack for the kids.
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As it goes quite often on our trips, our arrival in Santiago de Compostela was complicated by a difference of opinion between Google Maps and Airbnb regarding the location of our apartment. Eventually our host arrived to guide us to the correct door and I located the nearest parking garage. Street parking near the center of Santiago de Compostela is inconceivable. It was clear that we had rejoined the international tourism circuit that we had left a week earlier in San Sebastian. Santiago is the capital of Galicia and the final stop of all the St . James pilgrimage pathways, as the city's cathedral was built upon the reputed site of St. James' burial. The night was drizzly and chilly enough to require layered clothing. We set off through the narrow streets of the old town to dinner at Abastos 2.0, a popular seafood tapas adjacent to the covered market. We had just enough time to order and consume one of everything on the menu before the rain drove us away from our al fresco dinner and back to our Airbnb.
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Tuesday morning we were eager to wash away the market failure we'd experienced in A Coruña. The name of Santiago's market, Mercado de Abastos, was a good omen. The market by the same name in Oaxaca, Mexico is possibly the most spectacular market we've ever visited outside of China. Santiago's version takes place inside and outside a collection of long granite hallways, each one dedicated to a different specialty. The market was bustling with both locals and tourists and there was no shortage of small restaurants where freshly caught seafood was being served. We passed a pleasant hour running back and forth between different restaurants placing orders and trying to remember where we still had to collect food from.
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We returned to the center of the old town and found it had become quite crowded. The current of people in the narrow streets finally brought us to the square where the amazing Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela was located. There were probably over a thousand people in the square, many of them walkers of the Camino waiting to be let into the cathedral for the final step of their pilgrimage.
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Once we had seen the market and the cathedral there was really no reason to dawdle longer in Santiago de Compostela. It was a pleasant and vibrant city well-deserving of its tourist patronage, but quite compact and devoid of attractions outside the old center. I had chosen two cities to stop in on the way to Porto. The first was Pontevedra, a mid-sized city on the southern bank of the river Lérez. The attraction here was a typical Galician city that would be almost free of tourists, yet still offer some interesting sights.

The absence of street parking anywhere near the center forced us to walk some distance in order to reach Pontevedra's highlights. This proved to be somewhat of a blessing as the outer parts of the old town were quite atmospheric in their own right. We indulged in our favorite activity of choosing the narrowest street available at every fork, surprising ourselves when the route suddenly opened into a new charming square.
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Pontevedra's scenic center is the Praza da Ferrería, a wide open space surrounded by cafes. In the squares and alleys around Praza da Ferrería are majestic churches, parks, and some Gothic ruins.
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There was no shortage of majestic churches in Pontevedra. The magnificent Basilica of Santa María la Mayor is the essence of Gothic architecture both in its design and its placement in desolate splendor atop a rocky hill at the edge of the old town. I was thankful to be seeing the sinister-appearing church in broad daylight as even the gathering grey clouds overhead were starting to raise the hairs on the back of my neck.
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Tui is a well-preserved medieval village on the northern side of the Minho, the river that forms the northern border between Portugal and Spain. We parked the car in the designated area for visitors and ascended through the nearly-deserted flagstone alleys and stone staircases to the town cathedral. At the highest point of the town we had partial views of the river and some Portuguese houses on its southern side.
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On the way back down to the car we passed the Portuguese-styled Capela de San Telmo and stopped at a juice bar for refreshments. A few minutes later we were waving goodbye to Spain for the second time on this road trip.
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Posted by zzlangerhans 10:41 Archived in Spain Tagged travel blog tony tui lugo santiago_de_compostela friedman pontevedra Comments (0)

An Epicurean Odyssey: Galicia part I (incl A Coruña)


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By just about any metric Galicia is the most remote region of Spain. It occupies pretty much all the land between the northern border of Portugal and the Atlantic Ocean and is far from the peninsular connection to continental Europe. Like most of Spain, Galician culture represents an intermingling of the original Celtic people who colonized the Iberian peninsula and the Romans who conquered them in the second century B.C. The region was further molded in subsequent centuries by occupations by Germanic tribes, Visigoths, and Moors. The local language, Gallego, bears so many similarities to Portuguese that many linguists question whether it is a Spanish or a Portuguese dialect. Aside from all these unique features, Galicia is the most oceanic of all of Spain's regions and has a cuisine dominated by shellfish and mollusks. Galicia's remoteness, mysteriousness, and reputation for delicious seafood have drawn me to the region ever since I became seriously interested in traveling and I was very excited to finally have the opportunity to satisfy my curiosity.
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Despite my fascination with Galicia I had never heard of As Catedrais Beach before I did my advance research for the trip. It was clear it would be a shame to travel all the way to Galicia and miss this unique natural phenomenon. Before going it is important to be aware only 5000 people per day are allowed to visit the beach and permission can be obtained up to thirty days in advance. Much of the beach including the cathedral arch rock formations that give the beach its name can only be accessed during low tide. Advance authorization and tide times are available here.

When I planned our visit, I pictured our family strolling along the windy, rocky coast of Galicia passing through the stone arches in a tableau of solitary beauty. As happens quite often with travel, the reality turned out to be quite different. We arrived at a very congested parking area and it took a half hour to get through the queues of cars and wedge ourselves into a narrow space between two RV's. The views from the boardwalk to the west of the beach were quite pretty, but once we arrived at the entrance to the beach we realized that 5000 people is actually a very large number especially if they all show up at the same time of the day.
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Once we got down to the sand I didn't know which direction to go to see the cathedral arches. We walked several minutes in each direction and couldn't find anything, and then started asking people none of whom seemed to have any clue what I was talking about. I had to clamber all the way back up the stairs to the person checking tickets to learn that the arches are all the way at the far eastern end of the beach. Once the kids were on the beach all they wanted to do was play in the sand and they couldn't understand why I kept making us walk further and further down the shoreline.
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The walk to the arches ended up being a half kilometer hike requiring traversal of large rocks and navigation of several pools. The obstacles hadn't deterred several hundred other beachgoers who were busily filling their Instagram pages with cathedral arch selfies. Besides the arches there were several interesting caves and crevasses in the rock. It was quite a beautiful place even if it wasn't the idyllic, romantic natural tableau I had envisioned.
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By the time we had changed the kids and shaken off the sand we were already exhausted. It was just late afternoon but we'd already toured old Oviedo, explored Cudillero, and hiked the whole length of Cathedral Beach. Nevertheless I was reluctant to give up my last stop on the day's itinerary. Mondoñedo is a small town on the inland route to A Coruña that has a reputation of being especially pretty and typical of Galician culture. When we arrived on Sunday evening there were very few people in the streets but a surprising amount of traffic on the main thoroughfare. There was an impressive cathedral for such a small town and some lonely, atmospheric streets. The obligatory stop in Mondoñedo is at O Rei das Tartas to buy the eponymous tart made from pumpkin jam, chopped almonds, and candied fruit.
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Thanks to the stop in Mondoñedo we got into A Coruña very late. Despite a dark staircase with peeling paint and remarkably large spiders on the walls, the Airbnb was quite pleasant on the inside. Hardly any restaurants seemed to be open on Sunday night and we ended up at a Chinese place downtown. I was a little disappointed to begin our experience of Galician cuisine with generic Chinese food but given the hour and lack of options we had to prioritize sustenance over cultural exploration.

Thanks to our late arrival we only had the morning to see A Coruña. Our first stop was the municipal market to see the amazing tableau of seafood I had been anticipating from the beginning of the trip. What we found was ... nothing. The market was open but the seafood counters were completely empty and abandoned on Monday morning. No one goes fishing on Sundays. A few butcher and produce stalls were open but it was such a shadow of what we had hoped for that we immediately retreated to the car and headed for the old town.

A Coruña is an oddly shaped city that resembles a polyp sticking out into the Atlantic at the northwestern corner of Spain. On the northern side of the stalk of the polyp is the beach and on the sheltered southern side is the port. Between the two lies the old town with most of A Coruña's tourist attractions. The main exception is the Tower of Hercules, a restored Roman lighthouse at the northern end of the peninsula.
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An architectural touch that A Coruña is known for is the enclosed balconies that cover the facades of the townhouses that line the port area. These galerias were designed to protect the balconies from the cold Atlantic winds and quickly became popular in the modernist period of the late 19th century.
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The centerpiece of the old town is Praza de María Pita, a large open square fronted by A Coruña's enormous town hall. In the smaller streets around the square we found a good seafood restaurant to assuage the pain of having missed the covered market. Afterwards we viewed the ornate Iglesia de San Jorge in its baroque splendor.
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Before leaving A Coruña we drove to the Tower of Hercules. This structure is often described as a Roman lighthouse and the oldest operational lighthouse in the world, but it has been rebuilt several times and the current structure is only a couple of hundred years old. The tower is so pristine now it looks like it could have been constructed yesterday, and it certainly has little in common with other Roman remnants in Europe and the Middle East. Towards the shoreline is an enormous blue mosaic compass that represents the different directions of the world in which the Celtic peoples have migrated. It was amazing to watch the kids playing on this isolated spot at the edge of one of the most treacherous shorelines in the Atlantic.
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We hadn't rushed ourselves in A Coruña and now we were facing a stark choice. We could either spend the afternoon visiting fishing villages in the jagged coastal area around A Coruña, or we could venture back inland to the walled city of Lugo. In the end the thought of Lugo's perfectly preserved Roman walls was too much to resist. We jumped back in the car and set a course southeast.

Posted by zzlangerhans 14:56 Archived in Spain Tagged travel blog tony friedman a_coruna mondonedo cathedral_beach as_catedrais Comments (0)

An Epicurean Odyssey: Cantabria and Asturias


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Within a few minutes of leaving Bilbao we were already out of Basque Country. Cantabria is a mountainous region on the Atlantic coast that few international travelers have heard of, let alone visited. Our inclusion of Valencia and the Dordogne into this trip meant we didn't have time to spend even one night in Cantabria, but we had most of the day to explore at least the coastal highlights of the region. Our first stop was Santander, the largest city and regional capital. Given that it was Saturday our first priority was to locate and explore the covered market, an important part of our travel experience that had been somewhat lacking on this road trip. Fortunately Mercado de la Esperanza proved to be the best market we encountered on the Spanish section of this trip and was eclipsed overall only by the beauty in Biarritz.

The two-level market was humming with activity when we arrived. Outside the main building were a number of produce stalls covered by canopies. Staircases led downward to the seafood market on the lower level which was filled with determined shoppers circling counters laden with innumerable varieties of fresh, gleaming fish and shellfish.
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On the upper level we found more produce as well as beautiful delicatessens and a couple of snack bars. It was way too early to find anything substantial to eat but we were able to get enough into our stomachs to tide us over until lunch time.
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After striking out in every Spanish city since Valencia, we'd finally struck market gold in Santander. However, we weren't finished with the city yet. I was excited to check out Santander's answer to Azkuna Zentroa, the Centro Botín. The cantilevered exterior of this futuristic cultural center proved to be even more striking than its Bilbao counterpart. The outside of the building is surrounded by a maze of observation decks on multiple levels, eventually leading to the roof with views of the town and the Bay of Santander.
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It was a short walk through the Jardines de Pereda to downtown Santander. We spent a half hour walking among attractive modern townhouses mingled with a few remnants of the medieval old town, which had been largely destroyed by fire in 1941.
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The best seafood restaurants seemed to be clustered in the Barrio Pesquero next to the fishing port south of downtown. We drove to the area and weren't disappointed. Marisqueria Casa Jose had pretty much everything we'd seen in the market on their extensive menu and we ate our heart's fill of all our favorite shellfish and fish stew. We were now a little behind schedule but it had been well worth it to make the most of a great Spanish coastal town.

A half hour west of Santander is the preserved medieval village of Santillana del Mar. Despite its name the town is set well back from the shoreline. By the time we arrived I was the only conscious occupant of our car and Mei Ling wasn't excited about waking up so I decided to go out exploring on my own. Our GPS had taken us to the back end of the village and car entry was strictly prohibited, so I parked at the side of the road as close as I could and set off down the cobblestone road that led into town. Once I entered I realized there wasn't very much to see. The old churches and houses were atmospheric enough but nothing we hadn't already seen on a grander scale in Cuenca and Aragon. Once I arrived at the center of town it was clear that every single person walking in the street was a visitor and that every single business in town catered to tourism. There may have been a native population there, but if they weren't in the tourism business they were keeping well out of sight. I took some photos to show Mei Ling and went back to the car. There would be much better places ahead to spend our time.
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Close to the western edge of the Cantabrian coast, the fishing town of San Vicente de la Barquera enjoys a reputation as one of the more picturesque seaside towns in the area. We drove across the estuary via a scenic causeway but found little within the town that would seem to justify a stop. It seemed the town was probably much more scenic when viewed from a boat in the estuary with the Picos de Europa mountains in the background. There were surely decent seafood restaurants around as well but we had just finished gorging ourselves. Instead we passed through the town and paused on the northern bank of the Ría Brazo Mayor to take some photos of the medieval castle and church on the hill that rose behind the town.
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And just like that we were out of Cantabria. We would be spending a little more time in Asturias, the next coastal region on the way to Galicia. Much like Cantabria, Asturias consists of a coastal strip with beaches and fishing towns as well as a mountainous inland with picturesque villages and ski resorts. The only two cities of substantial size are close together in the center of the province, Gijón on the coast and the capital Oviedo fifteen miles inland. We were staying in a modern apartment complex a good distance from the center of Oviedo, where there was no ambiance whatsoever but convenient parking right outside the front door. Since we would be pressed for time the next day, we decided our best opportunity to see Gijón would be to have dinner there that evening.

Gijón proved to be a good choice as there was an arts festival going on in the old town by the seaside and the streets and cafes were filled with people. It seemed that every table was covered with glasses of sidra, the traditional fermented cider of Asturias. It was so crowded that our attempts to find a table in a restaurant were repeatedly rebuffed. We resorted to Tripadvisor which came through with a very authentic Asturian restaurant just a couple of blocks from the pandemonium which was practically empty when we walked in. We were served hearty traditional food including some flaming sausages that fascinated the boys.
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As usual for northern Spain our apartment lacked air conditioning but fortunately it was much less humid than it had been in Bilbao. We tossed the kids in the tub to remove several layers of grime that had accumulated over the last couple of days of heavy traveling.
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In the morning we did our walking tour of Oviedo's old town. The entire neighborhood was unusually bright and well-maintained, almost as though the old quarter had been recently restored in anticipation of some major cultural event. Nevertheless the foot traffic was quite low on Sunday morning and on some streets it felt like we had the area completely to ourselves. The focal point of the old quarter was the Oviedo Cathedral, whose tall Gothic belltower could be seen at the end of almost every street in the area. We also passed the covered market which was of course closed.
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Also in the heart of Oviedo is the Parque San Francisco, adjacent to the old quarter. This large and well-manicured green space boasts majestically tall trees, shady paths, bronze statues, and of course playgrounds. On the way into the park we came across a parade whose participants were wearing traditional Asturian costumes.
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Across from the park is a bronze statue of Woody Allen which has stood in the middle of the street since 2003. The actor has been a long-time champion of Oviedo and was awarded the Prince of Asturias award the year before the statue was unveiled.
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We had now been wandering around Oviedo long enough for the more touristy restaurants to begin opening for lunch. I had hoped to be back on the road at this point, but we decided it was better to eat now rather than risk being too late for lunch at our next destination. We browsed through the old town for a restaurant and eventually found one in an immaculate little courtyard with pastel townhouses, a polished flagstone floor, and a bronze statue of a woman and her donkey.
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We were now well behind schedule but Oviedo had been worth it. We were lucky the market hadn't been open, or we might have had to scrap our next stop entirely. That would have been unfortunate because the fishing village of Cudillero proved to be another highlight of Asturias. The tiny village is protected from the forces of the Atlantic by a long seawall which forms a port. Within the port numerous small fishing boats and dinghies are anchored. The village rises up a hill from behind a large boat ramp, but most of the action is concentrated at the lowest level around the main road through town.
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The village was obviously geared for tourism, but the vibe felt more like local Spaniards who were getting away for the weekend by car than international package tourists such as I'd seen in Santillana del Mar. Our chosen seafood restaurant felt very authentic as well, with succulent broiled zamburiñas and navajas. An industrial-appearing pump on the bar dispensed sidra into personal bottles and we had our first taste of the Asturian standard. I could see that sidra would have to be an acquired taste. The overall impression was musty or even fetid, and far from refreshing. Nevertheless it was a complex and savory flavor and I could see myself growing to like it over time.
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I was a little stressed out once we returned to the car because we were behind schedule for Cathedral Beach, our first stop in Galicia. I had to apply for permits to visit the beach a month in advance and if we arrived too late for low tide we'd lose our one chance to see the famous stone arches that give the beach its name. Of course there was nothing we could do except get back on the road and hope for the best. The gods of travel would make the final decision on how our day would end.

Posted by zzlangerhans 06:06 Archived in Spain Tagged travel oviedo santander blog asturias tony gijon cantabria friedman cudillero santillana_del_mar Comments (2)

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