A Travellerspoint blog

West Coast swing: Los Angeles II (Downtown and Echo Park)

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The Original Farmers Market isn't the city's only gigantic food hall. Grand Central Market in downtown LA also evolved from a public market that was established in 1917. The most recent influx of ethnic and gourmet food outposts began in 2013, coinciding with the international food hall movement. As soon as we stepped into the cavernous establishment with industrial decor, Mei Ling and I had to pause to catch our breath. Before us stretched a forest of colorful neon signs proclaiming the offerings of countless food stalls in a vibrant, open layout that extended as far as we could see. If the authenticity and quality of the food here matched the visual impression, we had arrived at food hall nirvana.

For the next half hour or so, we toured the amazing selection of food stalls trying to decide how we were possibly going to choose what to eat, or really how to choose what not to eat. We ruled out the numerous Mexican options, given that we were going to visit a Mexican food hall in East LA later in the trip. Our first selection was a Salvadoran pupusa filled with our chosen selection of carne asada, nopal, and squash. The pupuseria was a particularly popular and energetic spot with a fairly long wait, but the savory tortilla stuffed with delicious meat and vegetables was more than worth it. We complemented the pupusa with a blisteringly spicy aguachile from the cevicheria next door.

Once we found a table to enjoy our food, we noticed an enormous line snaking around the entire dining area. We discovered everyone was waiting to buy food at a restaurant called Eggslut at the south end of the market facing South Broadway. Given that hardly any of the other restaurants had a line at all, the lengthy queue for Eggslut was quite impressive. We tried to peek at what people were getting and all we saw were egg sandwiches and orange juice. Finally my curiosity got the better of me and I asked a couple of girls on the line whether the food was really worth the wait. They looked at me strangely. "It's Eggslut!". OK, I said. What's so amazing about it? "We haven't eaten here yet. But everyone says it's really good." I told them I was really surprised people would wait that long for an egg sandwich given that they were on the threshold of an enormous food hall with dozens of restaurants selling delicious preparations of every imaginable cuisine. It's the best food hall I've ever seen in the entire world, I told them. "Really?". They didn't sound excited. I'm sure it's a good egg sandwich, but there's no way it could be so much better than everything else on offer at Grand Central Market. It's a reminder that once something gets hyped on social media, it takes on a life of its own. I think at least half the people on that line were there just because the line was so long.

Even after we were full we found it hard to leave. We took one last tour through the market taking mental notes which restaurants we would sample on our return visit. There would be plenty of chances in our three full days left in Los Angeles. We got some coffee for ourselves and treated the kids to a sugar rush at an old-fashioned candy stall that was just too beautiful to resist.

We had a narrow window of time to squeeze in a kids activity before Spenser would need to sleep so we raced north up the freeway to Discovery Cube, one of Los Angeles' many children's museums. The view from the road looked nothing like anywhere I've seen around the world. We were surrounded by low, brownish hills with very angulated, furrowed contours. It looked like a landscape one might expect in a place like Mongolia or Bolivia or possibly even another planet, but here we were just a few minutes away from central Los Angeles.

The kids had a fun time at Discovery Cube. It was hard to get them out of the first area which had giant blue building blocks and a cupcake decorating lab. The biggest hits were the home inspection game and the hockey exhibits on the second floor that were funded by the Kings of the NHL. Overall I found it better than our Children's Museum in Miami but not as good as the ones in Houston or Milwaukee, and a far cry short of Experimentarium in Copenhagen. We'll have to try Kidspace on our next visit. Two of them within four days would have been too much.

The Friday afternoon farmers market was in Echo Park, a hip neighborhood just north of our home base. Before the market, we checked out the Echo Park Time Travel Mart, a unique novelty store with a time travel theme and the memorable motto "Whenever you are, we're already then". Aside from the items related to time travel, there were some really cool games and projects for kids. I picked up a dinosaur model whose pieces were all punch-outs from thin wood sheets and a book of science experiments for the home. It's hard to leave without making a purchase. Aside from the fact that a lot of the stuff is really neat and useful, the profits go to the community reading and tutoring center 826LA which owns the store. Before we left, we made sure to take the opportunity to be the front window display for a few minutes.

The Echo Park farmers market was a bit of a letdown after the previous day's extravaganza at South Pasadena, but I still got the chance to try some delicious Senegalese foufou. Dinner was still on the agenda, and there were two more food halls on my list in downtown LA. Corporation Food Hall is a fairly recent addition to LA's food hall pantheon, and it was surprisingly empty on a Friday evening. There was a relatively small collection of kiosks in a much more orderly arrangement than Grand Central Market. The place had a very modern, urban vibe with some whimsical touches. One of my favorites was the Italian kiosk Funculo, a play on the Italian profanity "fan culo" with a pair of forks displaying their middle prongs on the sign. The bar at the back presented their cocktail menu on old-fashioned View Master projectors. We had a pretty good meal of noodle dishes and gyoza. Hopefully the relative lack of custom at Corporation on the night we visited was only because it's predominantly a lunch spot for people working downtown. I'd hate to see such a unique establishment fail to establish a permanent presence in LA.

The route to the other downtown food hall took us past Pershing Square, which was nicely dressed up for the holidays and had a busy ice skating rink at the far end. Despite the fairly heavy presence of homeless people in the area, no one seemed remotely threatening and we weren't bothered at all. The sidewalks were pleasantly busy with people who were out for the evening. It was markedly different from the evening scene, or lack thereof, in the downtown areas of Miami and other major American cities we've visited. We finally arrived at TASTE food hall but despite the sleek appearance of the mall that housed it, the culinary offerings were a disappointment. They were mostly higher quality chains with a sterile atmosphere, just a step above a regular mall food court.

We'd only been in Los Angeles for two full days but we hadn't felt this thrilled about a new city in a long time. I was reminded of my first time exploring London with Mei Ling, and our visits to Tokyo and Prague. The best part was that my expectations had been so modest, which made the neverending awesomeness of LA even more satisfying. We still had two and a half days left, and many of the best experiences were still to come.

Posted by zzlangerhans 13:23 Archived in USA Comments (0)

West Coast Swing: Los Angeles I (Central and Pasadena)

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This was our third Christmas break trip, and I needed a good follow-up to 2016's Nicaragua and 2017's Yucatan. I initially was set on Lima but eventually decided that our exploration of the city would be limited by personal security considerations. Having three small kids to manage would put a huge target on our backs for petty criminals. It was too soon to go back to Mexico or Central America, and it's really hard to get excited about the Caribbean given that we've already visited most of the larger islands. There was only one option within the US if we didn't want to get frozen solid, and that was Southern California. I'd been there a couple of times in my twenties, and never felt much affinity for the area. Los Angeles seemed kind of spread out, generic, and soulless. San Diego felt to me like a midwestern city transplanted to the Pacific Coast. But now, having explored most of the warm areas in the Western Hemisphere, it seemed like our best option. I knew there was a lot of Asian culture in LA and I figured that at the very least we'd be able to get some authentic Thai and Vietnamese food for a change.

Once I started doing my usual advance research, I quickly realized we were going to find a lot more to do than eat Asian food. I was amazed by the number of ethnic neighborhoods I saw on the map, from Little Armenia to Filipinotown. I was surprised to find we would be within easy reach of a different farmers market on every day of our stay. There were also lots of options for kids edutainment, such as the La Brea Tar Pits Museum and Kidspace. Finally, many of the nearby suburbs like Santa Monica and Pasadena have lots of attractions in their own right. By the time we were ready to go, I had a full schedule of activities for our four full days in LA as well as three days in San Diego. I'd created a daily schedule that was more rigorous than usual in order to minimize trips across the city that would expose us to LA's legendary traffic jams.

We arrived in the early evening after a fairly rocky flight from Miami, and picked up our rented Ford Explorer uneventfully. I knew from the forecast that Los Angeles would be a lot cooler than Miami, but I'd forgotten how cold 50 degrees Fahrenheit felt when we were used to the 70's and 80's. We'd packed warm coats and long pants, but I hadn't brought anything but sandals and my feet felt frozen for most of the trip.

We didn't have to meet our Airbnb host so we went straight to dinner from the airport. Los Angeles and San Diego have both been eager participants in the food hall movement, with LA particularly having an abundance of options. We love food halls because we can mix different cuisines into an amazing fusion dinner, there's great energy, and we don't have to worry about how much of a disturbance the kids are making. It was the perfect solution to fill our stomachs after an exhausting day of travel. The food hall closest to our Airbnb was called Squaremixx, a collection of small restaurants that are all franchises of Korean chains. While the food may not be the highest level of Korean cuisine, it's indisputably authentic. At one stall at least, no English was spoken. Squaremixx occupies much of the third floor of a shopping center called Gaju Market. The ground floor is given over entirely to a Korean supermarket which we browsed for half an hour after eating our fill.

Los Angeles isn't a cheap place to stay, and over the last couple of years Airbnb has been catching up with hotel rates. However, Airbnb is still by far the best option for a couple with three kids since we need two bedrooms. The kitchen and large refrigerator are also indispensable, and we love the way Airbnb makes us feel like we're living in the city we're actually only visiting. I had a decent jump on the crowd and was able to get a great place in the central neighborhood of Westlake for just about $150/night with everything included. The area might have been a little working class for travelers who needed to feel submerged in LA glitz and glamour, but it was the perfect location for us. As one can see on the map, we were just a few minutes drive from all the amazing Asian neighborhoods in LA: Koreatown, Filipinotown, Chinatown, and Little Tokyo. We were also about halfway between Santa Monica and Pasadena, the two most far-flung suburbs that we had plans to visit. This made it easier to focus on specific areas of LA on each day of our stay and avoid the traffic.

Our cottage turned out to be very pleasant, with a lot of character. There was a fire pit on the front porch which we never had time to use, a spacious living room, and two comfortable bedrooms. Space heaters in each room ensured that we wouldn't have to worry about the cold temperatures when we were indoors. The owners were collectors of old cameras, many of which were placed on the shelves around the house. A sign on the refrigerator reassured us that none of the cameras would be filming us during our stay, a possibility which had not occurred to me until I read the sign. Street parking proved impossible, but fortunately the hospital next door allowed long term parking for about 5$/night.

We kicked off our first morning with a huge breakfast at Du-Par's. a 24 hour diner within the Original Farmers Market. The food was amazing, including possibly the best buttermilk blueberry pancakes I've ever tasted. I probably didn't push the kids to eat as hard as I usually do so that there would be more left over for me. The interior of the diner had a very classical, warm feel that made the meal even more enjoyable.

The back door of Du-Par's is also the threshold of the Original Farmers Market, where there are no longer any farmers but rather a large array of specialty restaurants, gourmet food vendors, and some miscellaneous boutiques thrown in. Many of the food stalls looked so appetizing that I regretted having gorged myself at breakfast. The Cajun food and the French seafood restaurant that was attached to a fish market were particularly appealing, but the quantity and variety of restaurants was overwhelming. Since we couldn't eat any more, we spent a half hour in the French gourmet market Monsieur Marcel, which had the same ownership as the French restaurant and fish market. The employees were very gracious to the kids, who were high on sugar and insisted on touching and demanding samples of practically every item in the store. After we were sure we'd explored the entire market, we left but vowed to return for dinner at Monsieur Marcel. The video is actually from our return visit a few days later.

Just a couple of minutes south of the Original Farmers Market are the famous La Brea Tar Pits and museum. We spent some time in the pleasant park that the museum shares with Los Angeles County Museum of Art, which is a beautiful building surrounded by some interesting landscape art.

The Tar Pits themselves aren't much to see, being fenced off and largely obscured by leaves and grass, but the museum has a very unique design. The ground level containing the exhibits is encased within a shallow hill reminiscent of a primitive burial mound. At the top of the hill is a metallic ceiling structure with relief images of Pleistocene mammals. From here, one can look down into the central atrium of the museum. The kids couldn't tear themselves away from rolling down the hill until their clothes were coated in broken grass.

Inside the atmosphere was mainly that of a kids' museum, which was fine by us. The kids mostly ignored the static displays and skeletons in favor of interactive exhibits like a mammoth tusk battle and the animal poop quiz. The gift shop was a big hit as well.

After La Brea we had a couple of hours to kill before our first farmers market, and the perfect piece to fit into the gap was the Griffith Observatory. The observatory is a Los Angeles landmark, visible high up on Mount Hollywood from most of the city. Griffith Park itself is an amazing feature of Los Angeles. It is one of the country's largest municipal parks and contains the Greek Theatre, the Los Angeles Zoo, and countless miles of hiking trails. We had fairly easy driving until we got into the park at which point traffic slowed to a crawl. It took another half hour to reach the observatory, where we found the entrance to the parking lot barricaded and police directing cars to continue down the road to a large parking lot at ground level. It took another twenty minutes or so to hike back up to the observatory but the effort was more than worthwhile for the glorious views of Los Angeles which unfolded beneath us.

The observatory was ferociously crowded, to the extent that movement was difficult in the anteroom containing the Foucault pendulum. I'm not sure if it's always like that, or if it was just a function of the holiday season. I found myself wishing that there had at least been a nominal admission fee to diminish the hordes. The indoor exhibits looked interesting, but trying to keep my eye on the kids amid the throngs proved too stressful and we quickly found our way to the observation decks. Oddly enough, the famous Hollywood sign isn't on Mount Hollywood but rather Mount Lee to the west. Never fear, Mount Hollywood is the one with actual views of the sign.

The observatory had several decks, with the wind getting steadily stronger and colder the higher we climbed. It was all worthwhile because the views of the city kept getting more amazing. There aren't many major American cities I can think of with mountains close enough to give a view of the skyline. I was impressed by how restricted the skyscrapers were to the downtown area. The rest of Los Angeles looks practically rural in comparison.

I already mentioned that there were so many farmers markets in and around LA that we were able to visit one each day of our stay. Why do we care about farmers markets when we travel? It's the embodiment of our anti-tourism travel philosophy. Aside from satisfying our love of food and its diversity, farmers markets are great places to interact with locals and people watch. They're also often a good alternative to a restaurant meal when you have three ebullient, squabbling kids. The best market I could find on a Thursday was in South Pasadena, just outside the northeastern boundary of the City of Los Angeles. Although it was 12 miles away, it only took us half an hour to get there. In fact, we never encountered any of the horrible traffic that LA is famous for. Maybe it was because we were there between Christmas and New Year's, or maybe we were just lucky. Somewhere along the way I spotted an odd statue of a man or troll diving down a wall next to a disembodied fist which may have been punching through. Was it a recent commentary on the border wall controversy, or something older that was completely unrelated? We only had a moment to snap a picture from the window, and I wasn't able to discover anything about the sculpture online afterwards.

The South Pasadena farmers market was huge, one of the biggest true farmers markets I've seen in the United States. The large majority of stalls were devoted to produce and all of those were operated by the actual growers. The diversity and quality of the fruits and vegetables were awe-inspiring, and the neighborhood was beautiful.

At the back of the market was a collection of food stalls and food trucks that was a level above the usual simplistic tacos and fried foods. We had finally finished digesting our enormous breakfast and we were ready to try out the selection at the market. The combination of barbecue, Thai soups, and Mexican food was so good that we obliterated any chance of going out for another meal that evening. By this point is was dark and getting steadily colder, so we were happy to call it a night at seven. Even though it was early, we'd done far more in our first day in Los Angeles than on an average day of travel.

Posted by zzlangerhans 14:06 Archived in USA Comments (0)

An Epicurean Odyssey: Aragon part 2 (Zaragoza and Huesca)

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When we're in a city with a market it's easy to organize our day. The market has to be the first destination, and then we head to whichever on our list of sights is closest. Zaragoza's covered market is a beautiful building reminiscent of Mercat Colon in Valencia, but unfortunately it was in the process of being renovated. Bummer. The temporary replacement was a block away, but it was overcrowded and devoid of atmosphere, with barely anything to eat.

Just a few steps from the rear entrance of the temporary market is Plaza de la Seo, which is one of the most breathtaking public squares that I've seen in Spain. At the eastern end is the tall Mudéjar belltower of the Zaragoza Cathedral, La Seo del Salvador. Occupying most of the north side of the square, bordering the river, is a far more impressive structure than the Cathedral. The Basílica de Nuestra Señora del Pilar is the tenth largest Christian church in the world. The square that these two churches preside over is elegant and unique. At the western end of the Plaza is the magnificent Fuente de la Hispanidad, which was constructed in 1991 as a part of the most recent remodel of Plaza de la Seo. Water runs down a concrete incline and spills over a jagged rent in the otherwise smooth surface into a pool. The water then runs underneath a walkway into another pool with a strange irregular shape. I didn't learn until later that the open space in the fountain including the pools forms the shape of Central and South America. Behind the fountain is yet another church, the stately Iglesia de San Juan de los Panetes, this one in Romanesque style with a precariously leaning tower.

Closer to the center of the square is another quirky modern sculpture, an enormous sphere whose provenance and meaning I never learned. After the sphere, the rest of the square is wide open to admire the amazing Basilica. The only building in Spain I can think of whose exterior is comparably spectacular is the Catedral de Sevilla, and I have to say I prefer Zaragoza's Basilica. Not only is it massive, but also colorful and satisfyingly symmetrical. We spent a fair amount of time trying to figure out a way to photograph the entire structure in one frame without using panorama and ultimately concluded it was impossible.

Although a striking building in its own right, La Seo del Salvador seems almost like an afterthought after the Basilica. The prodigious bell tower was a conversion from the minaret of the mosque that formerly occupied the site. In the foreground of the cathedral is the unusual cubical structure that marks the entrance to the subterranean Museo del Foro de Caesaraugusta.

We hadn't found much to eat in the market so lunch was becoming a pressing need. Fortunately, we were now adjacent to Zaragoza's "Tapas district", El Tubo. This small pedestrian quarter was colorful and atmospheric, although we found the restaurants to be touristy and not particularly good.

After lunch we walked north until we reached the Puente de Piedra, also known as the Bridge of Lions for the statues that guard its entrances. From the bridge we had another view of the Basilica as well as the greenish, uninspiring Ebro.

By this time the sun was at its peak and Spenser was sleeping on my back. Ian was passed out in the only stroller we'd brought and Cleo wasn't going to last much longer. Mopping the sweat from our brows, we abandoned our plans to explore modern Zaragoza on the northern side of the Ebro and headed back to the Airbnb for siesta. In the late afternoon, once some of the heat had dissipated, we ventured back out in the opposite direction towards Palacio de la Aljafería. The Aljafería was originally a Moorish palace, but it was repurposed by the Christians after they conquered Zaragoza in the 12th century. Today the building houses the Aragonese regional parliament, although much of it remains open for visitors. It's an appealing building, but not something I would have visited Zaragoza for specifically. We had time to kill before dinner so we looked through some of the dry exhibits. It was enough to remind us why we don't drag the kids through museums when we're traveling.

We don't usually eat at the same place twice, but there were no second thoughts about returning to Puerta Cinegia Gastronómica for dinner that evening. We weren't excited about walking all the way back from the Aljafería, so we tried our luck at the nearby bus stop. Although it was a straight line down the road to the old town, we learned that only one of the bus lines that came through would be heading in that direction. Naturally, it was the last one to come and it was packed. Mei Ling tried to shoo some people in further in order to get our stroller on but the driver waved us off. We had to walk, but the silver lining was that we found a cheap barber to lop off Ian and Spenser's shaggy manes.

Puerta Cinegia Gastronómica was great again, although we arrived a little early for a couple of our favorite stalls to open. After dinner, we walked down the main pedestrian street of the old town, Calle Alfonso I, at the end of which hovered the luminous central dome of the Basilica.

The only thing we saw in Zaragoza more amazing than Basílica de Nuestra Señora del Pilar in the broad light of day was the illuminated Basilica at night. The Fuente de la Hispanidad was also eerily lit up with an ever-changing series of vivid colors. If anything, the Plaza de la Seo was more busy than it had been during the day.

We left Zaragoza having seen much less of the city than is typical for us. Perhaps because we'd seen so many neighborhoods in Valencia we hadn't felt the need to explore as much. We had definitely made it to all the important highlights of the central city, and I think that's likely going to remain our entire experience of Zaragoza. It had been worth the visit just for Plaza de la Seo and Puerta Cinegia Gastronómica, but there's no compelling reason for us to return. Of course, we have many years of traveling still ahead of us so there's no way of knowing for sure. On the other hand, I'm confident that we'll be back to Valencia, Madrid, and Barcelona in the future.

We had to be in France by dinner time so there was no time to waste getting back on the road. It took us less than an hour of highway driving over featureless Aragonian landscape to get to Huesca. Like Teruel, Huesca was a small city with a good-sized old town. We wandered through a few picturesque alleys and squares before finding a tapas restaurant that seemed right.

The central part of the old town was a rising maze of small streets that eventually culminated at Catedral de Huesca. The 14th century Gothic church is most recognizable for its ornate arched doorway flanked by stone statues of the apostles. We treated the kids to ice cream in the nearly-empty plaza before heading to our last stop of the first Spanish leg of the road trip.

Castello de Loarre is just a half hour from Huesca via scenic one-lane roads. After taking the turnoff from the route that proceeds to the town of Loarre, the road rapidly ascends into the foothills of Sierra de Guara. At the highest point, a well-preserved medieval fortress commands sweeping views of Aragon's countryside. Castello de Loarre played a critical role in the reconquest of the surrounding area from the Muslims in the 12th century, and is now considered to be one of the most well-preserved Romanesque castles in all of Europe. Kids love castles, and this one had all the elements necessary to generate happy oohs and aahs from Ian and Cleo.

The views from Castello de Loarre reminded me a little of Rocca Calascio in Italy, although the access here had been much simpler. There were plenty of rooms, staircases, and ramparts to explore. As we ascended into the higher part of the castle we heard beautiful music which I assumed was being played on a speaker. We arrived in a chapel and saw two people already there who had such an understated presence that it took a few moments before I realized the amazing sound was actually their voices. They were taking advantage of the acoustics of the chapel to create exquisite, resonant music. It was over far too quickly, but it was a great reminder that the most memorable and wonderful moments of a trip can come at unexpected times.

Posted by zzlangerhans 13:26 Archived in Spain Tagged zaragoza huesca aragon Comments (0)

An Epicurean Odyssey: Aragon part 1 (incl. Teruel)

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By the fifth day of our trip, we were already traveling through our fourth autonomous region of Spain. These regions are not analogous to the provinces or states of other countries, such as the US or France, although the differences are sometimes difficult to understand. Anyone who keeps track of world events knows that over the years there have been significant issues related to the desire of some of these regions for complete independence from Spain, occasionally resulting in substantial bloodshed. Other regions are so closely affiliated with the central government in Madrid that their autonomy is superfluous. I won't claim to be an expert on Spanish domestic politics. Suffice it to say that Spain is a different animal from its Western European neighbors when it comes to the diverse priorities of its regional populations.

Aragon has been closely affiliated with Madrid and the central Castilian regions since medieval times, a union that was formalized by the royal marriage of Ferdinand and Isabella in the late 15th century. Because of its low political profile and lack of famous cities, Aragon has generally remained below the radar of international tourism. For us, that's a positive attribute. Our northward course to the French border would take us through all three provinces of Aragon: Teruel, Zaragoza, and Huesca. We arrived in Teruel towards the later side of lunch time, so our first priority was to make sure we didn't go hungry. Once we'd wolfed down some gourmet tapas at Gastrotaberna Locavore, we were able to focus on our exploration of the town.

Teruel's old town is relatively small but there's more than enough to see to make it a worthwhile stop if not an overnight stay. The Iglesia de San Pedro was our first exposure to Mudéjar architecture. This movement was a fusion of Gothic and Islamic influences that came about from the period of peaceful coexistence between Catholic and Muslim populations in the aftermath of the reconquest of central Spain. This coexistence ended when virtually the entire Muslim population was expelled from Spain during the Inquisition in the early 17th century, but fortunately the Muslim-influenced art and architecture has survived to this day. The church has a polygonal apse with minaret-like towers at the vertices and a separate bell tower that looked like it had undergone a modern renovation.

Some more wandering took us to Teruel's main square, Plaza del Torico. which is at the confluence of seven streets that extend into all different parts of the old town. The square had buildings whose beauty rivaled the most impressive specimens of Valencia and Barcelona, especially the surreal and lavender Casa del Torico.

Despite the allure of the old town, the streets were quiet and empty on a weekday afternoon. Perhaps that's why the unofficial motto of the town is "Teruel exists!". Of course, nothing makes us happier to encounter an atmospheric jewel in the middle of nowhere and have it almost entirely to ourselves. We explored more of the old town which contains several impressive Mudéjar towers, one of which is part of the Teruel Cathedral.

We had saved Teruel's most famous attraction for last, the Escalinata del Ovalo. This lengthy and elaborate outdoor staircase was only constructed a century ago, but was carefully designed to complement the original Mudéjar landmarks of the town. The staircase descends from the edge of the old town to the railway station below. We didn't have the time or the energy to descend the entire way, but we got a close look at the ornate landings and intricate brick banisters.

Half an hour from Teruel via a small local highway is Albarracín, reputed to be one of the most beautiful villages in Spain. The ancient town covers a steep hill nestled in a curve of the Río Guadalaviar, with the main road passing through a tunnel underneath. Once we arrived both Ian and Spenser were sleeping so we had no choice but to strap Spenser onto my back and take a stroller for Ian. We were already winded from climbing partway up the hill once we arrived at the foot of the town. High above us we could see the old city walls at the top of a hill. Facing south from the city we had views of the Albarracín Cathedral and the Castillo. To the southwest across the Guadalaviar were the classic scrub-covered rolling hills of Aragon.

Upon entering the town, we immediately found ourselves in the main square Plaza Mayor. From the square, narrow roads squiggled off upward and downward into the different levels of the town. We probably could have done more exploration if everyone was awake, but pushing the stroller up steep cobblestone roads quickly lost its appeal and we decided we had captured the essence of Albarracín.

We had a typically complicated arrival in Zaragoza. A main avenue brought us to the central neighborhood of El Gancho, where our Airbnb was situated, but the GPS then directed us into a narrow alley that I worried might lead us to an impassable situation. There was nowhere to stop on the street, so I drove up onto the sidewalk and I set out on foot on my own to locate the Airbnb. I soon found it and had the host explain to me the best way to bring the car up to the door. When I got back, Mei Ling had moved the car off the sidewalk and into the bus stop on the street. Apparently the cops had come by and forced her to move, although I can't imagine why it was better to have the car obstructing a bus stop than partially blocking a sidewalk. She told me they said they would be back shortly so we hurriedly took off and made our way back to the Airbnb, where the best news was that there was a working AC that hadn't been mentioned in the listing. It's rarely simple to find parking in Spanish cities, but central Zaragoza was locked down. I drove around the local streets for about fifteen minutes but every block was lined bumper to bumper with parked cars. Eventually I realized it was futile and parked in a supermarket garage, which turned out to be the most expensive one in the area.

El Gancho might not have been the best choice for parking, but it was the perfect location for getting around by foot. We didn't touch the car again for the remainder of our time in Zaragoza. Virtually everything of interest to a typical tourist is concentrated in a narrow area on the southern bank of the Río Ebro, the major river that arises in the Cantabrian mountains and courses eastward to the Mediterranean, splitting the region of Aragon in half. A few blocks to our east was the Casco Antiguo, or old town, with the central market and the famous Basílica de Nuestra Señora del Pilar. On our other side was the Aljafería Palace. We headed in the direction of the old town to find a restaurant, passing some amazing urban artwork on the way. At one major intersection I was amused to see the first American ethnic food store I've ever encountered. Of course, it makes complete sense. In the US we have plenty of Spanish, Italian, Greek, and other ethnic markets. Why wouldn't there be an American market in Spain? Unfortunately it was closed so I couldn't find out what typical American delicacies might be. Cheez Whiz? Frozen corn dogs?

We walked a couple of blocks away from the old town to find the restaurant I'd chosen from TripAdvisor, but it turned out to be full with an impossibly long wait despite the fact that it was only 8 pm on a Wednesday. I hate getting denied by a restaurant I've picked out because I can't escape the feeling that we lost our chance to have a legendary meal, and we'll never know what we missed. I wanted to retrace our steps back to the old town but Mei Ling shook her head and pointed in the opposite direction, which didn't look promising to me at all. I know better than to insist on my own plans, especially when I've just screwed up, so we headed down the wide and almost empty street Mei Ling had chosen. After a couple of minutes, we came across what looked like a little open-fronted mall with an escalator going upward. We could see clear signs of restaurant activity on the second floor and immediately realized we'd arrived at some kind of food court. Once we were upstairs, we knew we had found the most perfect possible place for us to eat. There were about a dozen stalls with every variety of Spanish food, from fresh seafood cooked to order to unusual and savory tapas such as octopus eggs. My favorite dish was the land snails, which I found crawling around a large bowl at the front counter of a tapas stall. When I placed my order, the hostess scooped up a few handfuls of the live snails and had a delicious dish ready for us in about twenty minutes. My regret at being turned away from the other restaurant instantly turned to consummate relief that we hadn't missed the opportunity to eat at Puerta Cinegia Gastronómica. It was our most enjoyable restaurant meal of the trip and overall an amazing experience. Mei Ling had done it again.

Posted by zzlangerhans 09:33 Archived in Spain Comments (0)

An Epicurean Odyssey: Valencia part 2 (incl. Xativa)

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South of Ciutat Vella, Valencia expands outward in a series of concentric rings separated by wide boulevards. The railroad lines coursing southward split modern Valencia down the middle. My research indicated there was little of interest to travelers in most of these modern, residential neighborhoods with the exception of a small area called Ruzafa (or Russafa in Valencian dialect). Ruzafa has become the hip, Bohemian neighborhood of Valencia with a heavy concentration of boutiques and cafes and it has its own covered market. We decided to start the day with breakfast in the market and explore the area.

The market was much less busy than Mercat Central, but we found some interesting displays of wild mushrooms and seaweeds that were unlike anything we'd seen the previous day. Of course, the ubiquitous delis with every conceivable permutation of jamon and queso were around every corner.

We eventually found the small food court where there was just one tapas stall. There was enough there to construct a meal along with some food we had bought in the market. We were obviously the only customers who weren't local, which was a nice change in milieu from the touristy atmosphere of Mercat Central.

There were a few small, old streets around the market that gave way to wider avenues lined with well-maintained, colorful townhouses that were quintessentially European. It was a pleasant place to stroll but at mid-morning on a weekday there was a distinct lack of pedestrian traffic and energy.

We had no interest in returning to Ciutat Vella, which meant that it was the perfect moment to embark on a day trip out of Valencia. I had already selected the town and castle of Xàtiva as our destination if we had the time. The town was only 45 minutes south of Valencia, and the castle was supposed to be the most beautiful in the region. Valencia, of course, is also the name one of Spain's seventeen autonomous regions. The region occupies much of the Mediterranean coast with the city of Valencia near the center. Outside of the city of Valencia, the region gets little attention from travelers with the exception of the Costa Blanca resort area to the south. However, there are certainly hidden gems like Alicante and Peñiscola that we hope to explore when we eventually return to Valencia.

After some initial misdirection from our GPS, we arrived at the sequence of sharp hairpin turns that ascends to Castell de Xàtiva. Once we were on foot, it was a fairly easy ascent up wide, shallow staircases to viewpoints from the ramparts of Castell Major. We didn't explore Castell Menor but we had beautiful views of it along with the medieval town beneath us. Outside of the old town was a peripheral layer of apartment blocks which gave way to warehouses and then fields that extended to a thin ridge of hills to the north.

We decided to have lunch in the old town and found it nearly deserted of pedestrians, although there seemed to be plenty of vehicles passing through. Once we arrived at our restaurant, we found it surprisingly crowded. The hostess gave us a sorrowful look and gestured at the tables, where the diners showed no signs of preparing to leave despite having mostly finished their meals. After about twenty minutes we were seated and had a decent if unmemorable lunch.

On the way back to Valencia we detoured briefly to Parc Natural De l'Albufera, a favorite weekend getaway for Valencianos. The park consists mainly of marshland surrounding a large freshwater lagoon, and some secluded beaches. The main activity aside from hiking and birdwatching is a boat ride on the lagoon. We found our way to the sleepy little town of El Palmar at the southern end of the isthmus between the lagoon and the ocean. The town is famous for its paella, but it was too early for any restaurants to be open. We drove across the isthmus keeping our eyes out for anyone offering boat rides, but I was inwardly relieved when we didn't spot anyone. It had already been a long day and we still had to find dinner.

We arrived back in Valencia in time to experience another amazing feature of Jardín del Turia, the Parc Gulliver. This unique playground consists of a 70 meter three dimensional representation of Gulliver tied to the ground by the Lilliputians. His hair and clothes are covered with slides, ropes, and nets that can entertain dozens of kids at a time. The kids had an absolute blast, and fortunately they didn't notice the tumescent gargoyle overlooking the park entrance when we left.

We thought we might find dinner at Mercat de Colón, a beautiful old market building between Jardín del Turia and Ciutat Vella. Inside we found a large selection of upscale boutiques as well as cafes crowded with Spaniards drinking lemonade and horchata, but nowhere that seemed likely to serve a substantial meal. We tried some overpriced sushi on the lower level, but finally gave up and searched online for a real restaurant in the area. We ended up at Panamera a couple of blocks to the south where we had a decent meal including the requisite Valencian paella as well as sangria.

Our three days in Valencia absolutely flew by. We regretfully took our leave on the final morning and made a stop at the seaside neighborhood of El Cabanyal. One of the interesting things about Valencia is that unlike other major European coastal cities, the neighborhoods near the beach are residential and largely devoid of tourists. El Cabanyal had some pleasant-looking buildings, but didn't particularly stand out after all the beautiful areas of Valencia we'd already seen. The Mercat Cabanyal was the weakest of the three covered markets we'd visited in Valencia, although certainly adequate for the basics.

From El Cabanyal, we drove to Valencia's famous Malvarrosa Beach. I had an idea that we might stop for lunch in one of the beach seafood restaurants, but Mei Ling went to scout a couple out and didn't find anything good to report. I was eager to get on the road, as we had a couple of stops on the way to Zaragoza, so we contented ourselves with a distant view of the beach from the road as we drove north out of Valencia. We felt the satisfaction of accomplishing everything we had planned for our stay in Valencia, but we had the distinct feeling there was still much more to discover. We decided that if we ever followed through on our plan to stay in a single city for a month to study Spanish and live like natives, it would be Valencia.

If this entry has awakened an interest in Valencia, I strongly recommend taking a look at this blog. I already linked to a couple of the entries earlier. The authors spend three months in each city they write about and then move to a new one. It's the most comprehensive and helpful guide to Valencia that I've come across in my research, and I plan to read every word in their Istanbul section as well before we go there this spring.

Posted by zzlangerhans 14:28 Archived in Spain Tagged xativa russafa Comments (0)

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