Top 5 Islands to Visit in Spain

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There are a ton of things to do in Spain, and one that we highly recommend is a detour to the country’s spectacular islands. With Spain encased by both the Mediterranean and the Atlantic Ocean, there are certainly plenty to choose from. But the following, at least by our humble reckoning, are five of the best.

Tenerife

Image credit: Pinterest

Tenerife is part of the world-famous Canary Islands, which have been described by CNN as possibly having the best climate in the world. That means year-round temperatures that hover in the mid-70s, which is just about right for a day hike, a swim at the beach and pretty much everything else. And you can do all those things in Tenerife, arguably the best among the Canary Islands. It has stunning beaches and breathtaking views, along with a vivacious nightlife and a bevy of world-class diving sites. 

Fuerteventura

Image credit: Pinterest

Fuerteventura is a perfect destination for surfers and beachgoers as it boasts over 150 beaches, the best of which are located at the northernmost town of Corralejo. Parts of the island, though, remain largely untouched and that means Fuerteventura is perfect for those who want to relax and be at one with nature. 

Menorca

Image credit: Pinterest

Part of the equally spectacular Balearic Islands is Menorca, which remains rather unspoiled by mass tourism. The beaches are top notch, but there is a pulsating city life thanks to Palma, Menorca’s small, yet, thriving capital. If you have deep enough pockets, we suggest you stay at Hotel Sant Francesc, formerly a 19th century palace converted into a five-star property. Here you can get accommodation fit for royalty. 

Ibiza

Image credit: Pinterest

Like Menorca, Ibiza is part of the Balearic Islands. But unlike the former, the latter has a much more vibrant city vibe, with parties and events pretty much everywhere. Ibiza is actually known for its array of super clubs, where tourists often flock to party all night long. During the daytime, the beaches are obviously an attraction and the best of the bunch is Playa de Ses Illetes, which we featured in our ‘Visit These 7 Beautiful Beaches in Spain’ post

Coming up , our  “The Other Ibiza” a 6 night foodie and landscape tour to this beautiful island.


Mallorca

Image credit: Pinterest

Another popular spot in the Balearic Islands is Mallorca, which holds the distinction of hosting the popular reality TV series Love Island, which was filmed in an opulent villa just outside the small town of Sant Llorenç des Cardassar. The series, a British reality dating show, concluded its fourth season last July, with Dani Dyer and Jack Fincham emerging as the winning couple. The couple were purportedly the first ones to fall in love with each other, and they did so amidst the backdrop of Mallorca’s majestic beaches, breathtaking vistas, and yes, luxurious villas. The main one, though, is privately owned; but the Casa Amor can be rented, and it will cost you anywhere from £4,572 (€5,050) to £7,417 (€8,193).

The fact is, Spain has many beautiful islands, and each has something special to offer. But if you could visit only a few, you might want to start with the five islands mentioned here.

 

Feature post for Corazon Travel

Written by: Felicity Amber

 

 

A Culinary Getaway to the Hilltop Town of Vejer de la Frontera, Spain

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The white villages of Spain: breathtaking, stunning, charming, or simply beautiful  are just some of the adjectives used in vain to try to capture the essence of these magical towns.  A visit is what is needed to truly understand their draw and there is nowhere better place to start than in the province of Cádiz – in a town called Vejer de la Frontera.

Vejer sits proudly atop its hill high above the River Barbate gorge, allowing views of the Atlantic Ocean as it leads to the Strait of Gibraltar.

 

Vejer de la Frontera, Spain

 

Although the Moors left centuries ago, their spirit is still felt through the city’s design and architecture.  A curiosity, often falsely attributed to their presence from years ago, is the cobijada – a veiled outfit unique to the area and worn by women for centuries. A cloth covering draped across the face and body resembling a burka, the cobijada actually came to the region in the 16th century, hundreds of years after the Moors’ departure.  Still spotted on some older generations up into the 20th century, it is now used only ceremonially, but this historic garment is immortalized in the cobijada-wearing statue in the old Jewish quarter.  

As you wander the small, cobblestone streets, you will no doubt notice a scent that looms large over this village: emanating from the endless orange groves, this natural fragrance combines with the aesthetic merits of Vejer creating a trip to appeal to all one’s senses.  After all that exploring and sensory stimulation, you’re most likely thinking about one of the most important senses: taste.  If you’re hungry – and you will be – you’re in for a treat.  Many may be surprised to learn that  a town as small as Vejer is becoming a world-class culinary destination.

 

Sherry and jamon in Vejer de la Frontera, Spain

 

Aside from the traditional – and highly recommended – restaurants which line the streets serving Spanish classics, a wave of newer restaurants have opened in recent years drawing on Moroccan influences or even on the avant-garde.  Locals and visitors alike scramble for reservations (a must) at many of these eateries and not only enjoy world-class cuisine, but are also able to soak in the ambiance of small town life in beautifully restored, historic buildings or  relax in a candle-lit patio hidden away behind fortressed walls.

So how is it that this small town with its population of around 13,000, has become a foodie destination?  To use a cliché from the real estate business:  location, location, location.  Although Vejer finds itself high upon a hill, the sea is still just a stone’s throw away, and the bounty that sea provides finds its way into a myriad of delicious dishes.  Bluefin tuna is a specialty which you may have the chance to try in a jerky-like delicacy called Mojama, in a traditional fish stew, or even in a more modern-day ceviche.  If you lean more toward the turf on a surf and turf menu, you’re in luck.  The excellent pork and beef from the area are world renowned.  

Vejer de la Frontera, Spain

An excellent location not only means access to excellent products, but also access to the adventurous and discriminating travelers who visit the province of Cádiz on the Costa de la Luz.  Often looking for something different and less traveled, visitors find their way to Vejer de la Frontera’s foodie scene for that gourmet experience that no one back home seems to know about.  The town can give many a larger city a run for its money when it comes to culinary wealth and offers an experience away from the crowds that descend on Spain’s southern coast.

Vejer de la Frontera, Spain

Want to see for yourself?  It’s an easy trip from the cities of Cádiz, Seville, or even Gibraltar.  And If you’re looking for something truly special, consider joining us on our New Year’s Eve trip to Cádiz where we explore the delicacies of Vejer through an exquisite New Year’s Eve dinner at the lovely Casa de Califa.

5 Spanish dishes perfect for an American Thanksgiving

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Sometimes being a rebel is just too tempting to pass up.  Whether it means sneaking an extra item through the 10-items-and-under line at your local grocery store or standing in place under a “no loitering” sign, we all have to bring our inner bad boy or girl out every now and then.
And when it comes to Thanksgiving, although we love tradition, sometimes we secretly think of putting a few alternative dishes on the festive table just to shake things up.

If you’re looking to add some spice – literally and figuratively – to your Thanksgiving feast this year, you need look no further than Spain for inspiration.  Here we take a look at five delectable Spanish foods and recipes which would fit perfectly on your holiday table making your guests shout Olé!

The Appetizer:  Jamón Ibérico

Often lauded as the Rolls Royce of ham, a Spanish jamón Ibérico is the star on any Spanish menu and treated with a much-deserved respect.  This Spanish delicacy is sweet and nutty with a delicate layer of fat (good cholesterol by the way!) literally melts on your tongue.  The Guardian, dedicated an entire article to jamón ibérico in 2010 stating that  “few food experiences have or ever will match it.”

Previously, very difficult to get outside of Spain, laws have changed worldwide, allowing gourmands everywhere to partake in the experience.  With many options to purchase a Spanish jamón online, there is no excuse to deny this treasure to your guests and you’ll find that it is the perfect prelude to the upcoming feast.  Odds are high that Anthony Bourdain will be having it on his Thanksgiving table as well!

The Sides: Espinacas con Garbanzos

Espinacas con garbanzos
Photo by Xemenendura via Wikipedia

A popular choice in the tapas bars of Seville, this is the perfect side dish, to combine your greens and legumes. The spinach is sautéed in olive oil with garlic and cumin along with the chickpeas. Slightly mash them for some texture and voilá, your Andalusian side is ready to serve. Go to recipe.

The Dressing/Stuffing:  Migas

Spanish Migas
Photo by Tamorlan via Wikipedia

Every region in Spain has their version of a dish called Migas.  Literally meaning crumbs in Spanish, this dish is made with day-old bread (hence the name crumbs) and is mixed with diced chorizo and bits of Spanish bacon.  Adding grapes or figs gives this dish its unique twist. Although intended to be eaten on its own, migas make a delicious alternative to a traditional stuffing mixture, and can be used as a dressing on the side or to stuff a bird. Go to recipe.

The Bird:  Pollo en Pepitoria

Pollo en pepitoria
Photo by Tamorlan via Wikipedia

Although turkey is not as common in Spain as it is in the US, it does find its way onto the dinner table, especially at the holidays.  But since we’re feeling rebellious, we’re suggesting a distinctive chicken dish, flavored with sherry and saffron.  Pollo en pepitoria, as it is known, is a comfort food that could be – and should be – elevated to a higher status.  This recipe can certainly be made with turkey too. Go to recipe.

The Dessert:  Tarta de Santiago

Tarta de Santiago
Photo by Katrin Gilger via flickr

When it comes to Autumn desserts, the almond rules in Spain.  And we can think of no better representation than the ubiquitous Tarta de Santiago (St. James’ cake).   A moist and rich cake made with ground almonds and no flour.  The recipe dates back to the middle ages and is named after the patron saint of Spain, St. James, known in Spanish as Santiago. His legend has spurred millions to undergo the pilgrimage, The Camino de Santiago (The Way!).  This cake is covered in powdered sugar and traditionally decorated with an imprint of the cross of St. James. Go to recipe.

Happy Thanksgiving from Corazón Travel and Insider’s Madrid

Madrid Gets Ready For Its Close-Up

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The silver screen has taken a liking to Spain.  From decades-old films such as the The Good, The Bad and the Ugly or The Three Musketeers to modern-day dramas like The Others or The Bourne Ultimatum  – not to mention the television phenomenon that is Game of Thrones,  Spain has been cast perfectly to either play itself or to wear the guise of a faraway land.   

When it comes to a picturesque urban backdrop for a period piece or modern European drama, our capital Madrid has just what it takes.  Although we all feel we know our hometowns inside out, it’s always interesting to see them through the eyes of others, especially through those of Hollywood industry professionals.

With film location scouts from the USA, Germany, and Chile descending on the city, Corazón Travel’s sister company, Insider’s Madrid, was chosen to act as their guide.  We wanted to not only share with them the great variety of locations Madrid has, but also to connect them with the soul of the city, its rhythm and its personality.

 

 

Along the way, in a private dining room over Spanish food and wine, we learned about each of them and their insider industry stories – an experience for the books!

 

 

A talented lot, these professionals have worked on films and television series such as The Grand Budapest Hotel, Sense 8, Hunger Games, X-Men and Star Trek.  They knew what they were looking for and Madrid did not disappoint.

 

Our cast included:

  • Anna Coats – USA

Fast and Furious 8,  Hunger Games: Parts 1 and 2, Insidious: Chapter 4, and television series such as The Office.

  • Klaus Darrelmann – GERMANY

Bridge of Spies, The Grand Budapest Hotel, Atomic Blonde and Ghost in the Shell. He has also worked on television shows such as Sense8.

  • Brian O’Neill – USA

The Revenant or Dunkirk, and in television series such as C.S.I. Miami and Snowfall.

  • Horacio Donoso – CHILE

El Brindis, The Black Pimpernel, an international co-production between Sweden, Denmark and Mexico, and most recently Neruda, among others.

  • Peter Gluck – USA

X-Men: First Class, Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation, Star Trek: Beyond and more recently  Black Panther, among others.

Tales From a Lesser Known Spain – Welcome to Cádiz

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You’ve frolicked on the beaches of Barcelona, overindulged during a tapas crawl through Madrid, danced flamenco in Seville, and maybe – just maybe – had a front row view of the running of the bulls in Pamplona.  But, Hemingway-inspired activities aside, Spain’s riches extend far beyond the stereotypical, and on your next trip to the peninsula, we suggest you veer to the southwest to hear a tale from a lesser-known Spain:  Cádiz.

View of Cádiz, Spain
Photo by David Ibañez Montañez

Said to be the oldest continuously inhabited city in Western Europe (founded circa 1100 BC), this tiny strip of land witnessed the arrival of the Phoenicians, as well as that of the Greeks, the Romans, and the Moors.  And more recently, relatively speaking, this port city watched as Columbus departed for the new world.

Becoming the gateway to the Americas brought wealth and fame upon this western outpost and the city flourished to become one of the richest and most cosmopolitan in Spain.  All good things must come to an end, as the saying goes, and Cádiz’s path was no exception.  Despite now being one of the poorer areas in the country, the city defiantly maintains its pride and its glorious past is still very much in evidence.

Add to this the fact that the Gaditanos, as the locals are known, are some of the most fun-loving, chattiest people in Spain, and you’ll instantly fall in love with the people of this out-of-the-way region.

THE CITY

Exploring the old city on foot is the best way to soak in the vibe and given that Cádiz is conveniently compact, meandering through the cobble-stoned streets is a joy.  Three thousand years of history are both literally and figuratively at your feet, and when you find yourself on a deserted street straight out of antiquity, you may mistake yourself for a time traveler.

View of Cádiz, Spain

Most sites of interest lie within the remnants of the city walls – a must-have back in the day given that pirates had a penchant for attacking this once-wealthy port.  The cathedral, with its unique golden domes, is the pièce de résistance, viewable from all points of the city.  Although an undeniable architectural beauty, the cathedral is a newer addition having been completed in 1838.  Definitely a must on your walk around town, the highpoint is to climb the cathedral’s tower called the Torre de Poniente for the stunning views.

From the cathedral, you’ll be able to see many of the city’s watchtowers which dot the urban landscape.  As a city of trade, Cádiz erected these lookouts in order to keep an eye on the sea and all who sailed in.  The tallest of these towers is the Torre Tavira located right in the center of the old town and definitely worth the climb.

Cádiz by the Sea
Photo by David Ibañez Montañez

The Roman theatre of Cádiz is one of the largest built in the Roman Empire and was even mentioned in the works of Cicero.  As happened in so many ancient cities, what we now regard with awe was at one time seen as nothing of importance, prompting a fortress to be built on top of the theatre, and thus concealing its grandness for centuries.   It wasn’t until 1980 that the theatre was rediscovered in an excavation giving us a glimpse into Roman life in Hispania.

Although architecture and monuments are visual representations of a city, the people are what give a place its energy, and nowhere can this be better observed than during carnival.  One of the most famous in Spain, carnival in Cádiz is known for its clever parodies and sarcasm based on current events and politics.  No one is spared a bit of gibing, but it’s all in good fun to celebrate the season.  The entire city participates in the event with preparations being observed  throughout the year.

THE PROVINCE

Beyond the city of Cádiz lies the province bearing the same name and exploring this oft-overlooked region will most definitely give you bragging rights back home. If you head north from the coast you’ll find the enchanting city of Jerez de la Frontera, where tradition and hospitality greet you at every turn, giving you the sensation that you’ve secretly walked into a family reunion.

Enjoying a glass of Sherry in Jerez de la Frontera, Spain
Photo by Kiko Jiménez

This is sherry country: Sherry is the drink of choice in Jerez and a tasting tour of the regional sherry bodegas is an experience that will make you a convert of this fortified wine (if you’re not already, that is).  A complex process of fractional blending makes for a variety of styles, whether the pale fino or manzanilla, or the darker amontillado , olorosos or the palo cortado. Each has its own story and its natural pairing partners. An additional pleasure of drinking sherry is the opportunity to see the venenciadores at work, present for all the special occasions, be it a wedding or a local fiesta. This name is given to the experts who pour sherry into the glass from the venencia – a traditional device consisting of a small silver cup attached to a long flexible handle which is then dipped into the ageing barrels.  Carefully lifting the venencia overhead, your host will pour you the perfect glass of this treasured drink for you to sample.

Another treat is a visit to the Royal Andalusian School of Equestrian Art to the Spanish traditions of horsemanship from times past.  The Andalusian horse also known as the Pure Spanish Horse was the preferred breed among European royalty and the Spanish would use their horses as a tool of diplomacy.  For a mesmerizing experience in what truly is an art form, get a ticket for the dancing horse show  – in effect a stunning equestrian ballet accompanied by Spanish classical music and riders wearing 18th century costumes.

Royal Andalusian School of Equestrian Art in Jerez de la Frontera, Spain

Venture further afield from the cities towards the mountainous area of the Sierra de Cadiz and you’ll see the hillsides dotted with picturesque, whitewashed villages perched on high. These are the pueblos blancos built in Moorish style, perched on high as a defense measure during more turbulent times.  Their striking whiteness is contrasted only by the gorgeous pinks and purples of the local flowers that hang from the window sills in the carefully preserved homes and the blueness of the sky.  Each town is a spot worth exploring, and climbing their winding streets adds to the true Cádiz experience.

With so much to see and do, this lesser known travel destination will be so no longer.  So if you’re thinking now about new year’s resolutions, put Cádiz on your list.  Quick!  Before word gets out!

Looking for a Foodie Experience on the Beach? Try the Local Chiringuito

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If you’ve ever been to a Spanish beach, you’ll know how lovely the sun, the sand, and the shore can be.  There’s the break of the waves inviting you to dive in, children building sandcastles as they have done for generations before, and everyone in a mood to match the joy of the day.

But there is another part of the beach in Spain which is just as important and just as ubiquitous: the chiringuito, or the beach bar.  More than a simple place to grab a beer, these stands can run from beaten-down to fancy, but each will have its unique clientele and its unique story to tell.

When deciding at which beach to spend the day, many Spaniards will take into account which chiringuito best suits their mood of the moment.

Depending on region, chiringuitos will offer local food to do their people proud.  Below we provide a few suggestions on dishes to try based on beach location.  Take the plunge and order any one of these.  You’ll feel like the ultimate insider.

 

1. El Espeto from Malaga

Let’s start down south on the beautiful shores of Malaga.  Known for its cracking nightlife as well as its alluring beaches, Malaga’s shoreline offers many options for the thirsty and peckish.  One thing you won’t be able to miss is the sight of el espeto.  You may want to translate this as simply fish on a stick, but by no means would that do this dish justice.  We are talking about fresh sardines skewered and grilled on open flames that result in a plate that tastes of the sea and of smoke, all at once.  Although the preparation may seem simple, for many it is an art form which demands perfection.  The sardines must be speared carefully and then be exposed to the flame at a certain angle and for a specific amount of time.  Anything less than this may send patrons heading to the chiringuito next door.

 

2. Tortillita de camarones en Cadiz

Continue westward to the opposite side of Gibraltar and you’ll hit the province of Cadiz, where fried food is the equivalent to a gourmet craft.  A must-have in this region is the tortillita de camarones which you will find on offer everywhere.  Best described as a shrimp fritter in which small shrimp, native to the region, are mixed into a batter and then fried thin like pancakes, this humble snack will make you rethink your aversion to fried foods.  A cold beer and a tortillita under the shade of a chiringuito is a great way to take a break from the sun.

 

3. Paella en  Valencia

Although served everywhere in Spain, paella originates from Valencia on Spain’s Mediterranean coast, and for many Spaniards, this area known as the Levante is the true place to delight in the arroces or rice dishes, where the bomba rice used in paella is grown.  This classic rice dish, prepared with seafood, meat or a combination of these, is all about the communal experience of eating from the same pan, the paellera. Made to order, the paella is brought to your table after resting from its time on an open flame.  Aside from its flavour and simplicity, the pleasure comes from scraping up the crusty rice from the bottom of the pan known as the socarrat.  A perfect Mediterranean afternoon could be described as beach, paella, and a chilled glass of the local macabeo white wine.

 

4. Pintxos in the Basque Country

If you head up north to the Basque Country, you’ll find colder waters, a seemingly indecipherable language, and a culinary tradition that is being hailed the best in the world.  You will also see the word pintxo written everywhere.  Pintxos are not actually a specific food, rather a collective term to indicate small snacks, a combination of which will make an ideal beach meal. A pintxo is literally anything you can pinchar or stick a cocktail stick through. They can range from simple to elaborate preparations,  with some served on small slices of bread while others are held together by a toothpick.  Do as the locals do and head to the bar, point out which ones you’d like, and make a meal out of these delicious tidbits.

 

5. Papas arrugadas con mojo in Canarias

More of a side dish and our first non-seafood, vegetarian friendly recommendation on our list, papas arrugadas are perfect to share among beach-goers.  These translate as “wrinkly potatoes”, which is not the most appetizing translation.  The bite-sized potatoes get their flavour from being boiled in heavily salted water, or sometimes seawater, where they will take on their wrinkly appearance.  Once drained, they are accompanied by mojo picón,  a spicy red pepper sauce which may seem simple, but contains layers of flavour that perfectly accompany these salty, shrunken tubers.

So, when on the beach and lunchtime approaches, follow the hungry Spaniards to their favourite chiringuito, see what they are eating and order that.  Your beach vacation will double as a rich culinary travel experience, memories of which will last longer than that tan.

Madrid in August – A Ghost Town Comes Alive Through Its Outdoor Festivals

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It happens every year in Madrid like clockwork. On the 31st of July, you’re walking through a crowded city full of urban hustle and bustle. The next day you wake up to the sound of nothing. Everyone has suddenly disappeared. What happened?

Madrid's empty streets in August
Madrid’s empty streets in August

As tradition dictates, the city’s residents seem to take a collective vacation in the month of August with everyone heading to either their hometown village or to the beach. Homes collect dust as the little ones are packed into planes, trains and automobiles to begin the annual family vacation. Restaurants and bars tape newspapers over their windows with notes instructing their patrons to return in September. And shops – seeming to ignore the threat of online retail’s appeal of 24/7 shopping – pack up their wares and send their employees anywhere but here.

Ah, August in Madrid – when the city that never sleeps seems to have finally gone to bed. This is often great news for the Madrileños who stay behind declaring August their favorite month since the city is much more tranquilo. Visitors to the city, however, are often in a different frame of mind when they realize that the restaurant they’ve been dying to try is closed or that the only other people they will meet during their journey are other tourists. There can be a general malaise among those who have come to jump headfirst into the city whose infectious vibe they’ve heard so much about, only to find that Madrid has had its batteries taken out.

But listen up! As locals claim, Madrid really is wonderful in August if you know where to go and what to do. Follow an insider’s advice and get thee to the outdoor neighborhood festivals for an authentic Madrid experience.

There’s not one, not two, but three festivals which form the trinity of rambunctious street parties Madrid has become famous for. Try them all!

San Cayetano

Photo by gaelx from Madrid / A Coruña (Fiestas de barrio), via Wikimedia Commons

The first to kick off the season is the Festival of San Cayetano which takes place in the district of the famous Rastro flea market and the Plaza de Cascorro. Although officially celebrated on the 7th of August, the festivities will run from the 6 – 8th of the month. Visit the church of San Cayetano on the Calle Embajadores to watch a float carrying the Italian saint’s image be carried outside and paraded through the surrounding historic streets. If you’re feeling inspired, try to grab a flower from the display as it heads back into the church and pray to the saint himself. As legend has it, you will be blessed with bread and work for the rest of the year.  The party continues in the plaza and surrounding streets where you’ll be treated to excellent tapas, drinks, music and dancing – a veritable carnival!

San Lorenzo

Photo by Barcex (Own work), via Wikimedia Commons

As San Cayetano winds down, right around the corner in the neighborhood of Lavapies, the Festival of San Lorenzo heats up. Celebrated on August 10th, you will see a similar procession as a statue of San Lorenzo leaves the church bearing his name for a trip through this fascinating district which celebrates him. With the Calle Argumosa filling with food stalls, picnic tables and stands to get beer, wine or spirits, you’ll be enthralled by what feels like a big Spanish block party!
Had your fill of tapas? You’re in luck. Lavapies is also one of the most diverse neighborhoods in Madrid allowing you the opportunity to try some of the best Indian or Bangladeshi curries in the city. Or head over to one of the many African restaurants popping up in the barrio to try an excellent plate of maafe before heading back into the street for more festivity.

La Paloma

Photo by Barcex (Own work), via Wikimedia Commons

And finally, from August 11-15, in the very-close-by La Latina neighborhood, you’ll be treated to the biggest of the three festivals: The Festival of the Virgin of La Paloma. Way back in the 18th century, a local woman by the name of Isabel Tintero displayed an icon of the Virgin Mary in the doorway to her house on the Calle Paloma which became very popular with people from the neighborhood.
Henceforth the icon became representative of both the neighborhood and the hard-working people residing there. Go check out the icon at the Iglesia Virgen de la Paloma located in the plaza of the same name. The festivities go on for days and if you’re not full up from the fare at the previous two street parties, you’ll have another chance to over indulge in excellent food and drink. All this while witnessing locals dressed in their traditional chulapo garb and dancing chotis – a time-honored dance unique to this marvellous city.

Madrid quiet in August? What? Who ever said that?

Disconnecting While Traveling or How to Create a Feast for the Five Senses in Spain

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Hiking the Camino de Santiago
Hiking the Camino de Santiago. Photo by Jimena Cuerva

I have a friend who was booked on a 13-hour flight from Madrid to Tokyo – in coach.  She was as excited as could be but not about her fabulous private tour through Japan, rather about the flight itself.   Her reasoning?  It would be the first time in a long time in which she could truly disconnect and not be riddled with guilt for not checking her phone every ten minutes.  She didn’t mention this, but I think the fact that she was also the mother of two children who would be staying home with dad for a week may also have had something to do with her excitement to squeeze into a tiny seat in the rear of a 777 for the greater part of a day.

I digress… It has been a while now since digital and mobile technology has permeated our lives and the benefits have been thoroughly assimilated. Life is – or at least it seems to be – easier, faster, cheaper, more comfortable, more connected.

But as we all know, these wonderful technologies have found a way to encroach on our down time making it impossible to take a break.   When it comes to being constantly connected while on vacation it can feel as if we had never been away.  There are no stories to tell our friends when we get back – they’ve already read or seen them all on social media.

Enter the idea of digital detox holidays which have become a modern day necessity with many now seeking help in learning how to save themselves from their digital selves.

What we’ve learned is that you do not have to travel to the North Pole to get away from it all nor do you have to lock yourself away in a retreat in the hills where WIFI is spotty.  

The trick is to go back to nature.  We’re not talking about escaping to the woods, although that could be a part of your plan.  We’re talking about using your five natural senses to guide your travels.  

Using our beloved Spain as an example we outline plans for the ultimate sensory stimulation – helping you live your experience rather than documenting it.

1. Sight

National Park in Spain

Spain’s 15 national parks are true national treasures with a diversity from perennially snow-capped mountains to volcanic deserts encouraging you to explore a beauty that can only be truly understood in situ.  Once immersed, it’s easy to forget that life beyond exists and this is why we come!  Make a visual memory rather than a digital one – it will be more fun to relate to your friends and family back home as you relive the experience using your mind’s eye instead of simply swiping right.  

2. Smell

Food Market in Spain

 

If you’ve never been to a Spanish market you’re in for a treat.  Tomatoes smell of summertime and the fish smells of – well, fish.  Maybe not the most pleasant of smells, but an olfactory awakening nonetheless.  Flowers, spices, and herbs are stacked and displayed releasing aromas we’ve forgotten how to describe.  Take your best descriptive adjectives out of your bag and create your story about your experience witnessing – and smelling – daily life in a Spanish town.  

3. Taste

Traditional Spanish Tapas

Ok, so this one is obvious.  Close your eyes and relish the flavours.  Don’t take pictures.  They may be pretty but your friends back home will not understand the true butteriness of a good slice of jamón ibérico through a photo – and neither will you if you focus on filters rather than your own taste buds.  

4.  Touch

Paella Cooking Class

 

What’s it like to hold a paintbrush in your hand as you paint a still life in the style of Velázquez?  Find out by giving it a go in a Madrid studio across the street from where the 17th century master created his best work.  Painting not your thing?  How about getting your hands dirty while making one of the most delicious paellas you’ve ever had in a hands-on cooking class designed to help even the inexperienced appreciate the tactile joys of gastronomy.  

5.  Hearing

Flamenco in Madrid

We’ve been taught to block out the sounds around us – from music players to constant chatting on our phones, we often miss the auditory stimuli of life around us.  We’ve not only forgotten how to listen but also how to hear.  Leave your devices in your hotel and wallow in the wailing sounds of Flamenco.  Raspy voices singing – almost shouting – as the click-clack of a dancer’s heels creates a musical harmony that will make you forget about your must-listen-to playlist.  

With all that travel has to offer us and life being full of experiences that must be had, many may reason that in order to find these cool places, these cool people, they must have their tech in their pocket.  If your thinking is such, make it easier on yourself and consider organizing a private tour with experts who will plan all of this for you.  

Go ahead – turn off the tech for awhile.  Enjoy your vacation. Your boss can wait.  Sit back, relax, and see, taste, smell, touch, and hear.

Tapas on the Mekong: Spanish Cuisine Takes on the World

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The rain was non-stop.  I’m not talking about one of those perpetual drizzles, but rather about a deluge of water that shoots down sideways with a force that feels like it will penetrate your skin.  Streets flooded, tin roofs banged, and puddles began to take the size of Lake Michigan.  This is the type of rain you would expect during monsoon season in Southeast Asia and that is precisely where I was:  Vientiane, Laos to be exact.   I clumsily tried to ride a rented bike through a city overcome by what seemed to be a white squall of legend.

Spanish tapas bar Laos
Spanish tapas bar in Vientiane, Laos

Although the storm appeared to come out of nowhere that wasn’t my biggest surprise that afternoon.  In an attempt to find shelter – and quickly – I stumbled upon what seemed to be a tavern magically transported to this tiny neighborhood in Vientiane.  Cervantes, a Spanish tapas bar, led me through its door for a cold beer and a plate of croquettes.

I don’t know if the restaurant still exists and a recent Google search pulled up another option in Laos, but I realized that Spanish food is becoming the new Chinese or Italian. Whether it be a paella on the Champs-Élysées or gazpacho in Ginza, Spanish chefs and food are doing their homeland proud.

Paella in London
Serving paella on the streets of London

Why?  Good question, that.

Fifteen years ago you would have been hard-pressed to find a Spanish restaurant outside of Spain and little to no knowledge of the culinary pleasures that lie within.  Americans often associated Spanish food with that of their Mexican neighbors. Elsewhere in Europe, it seemed to be only the cuisines of Italy and Greece that were representing the southern part of the continent.

Enter the economic crisis of 2008 which saw a wave of Spanish citizens venturing far afield to start lives anew.  These 21st century immigrants included young chefs who saw opportunities to promote their country’s gastronomic assets while making a buck or two.  Add to this the number of engineers, nurses, and teachers who also left the peninsula and who were simply looking for a taste of home.  Acting as unknown ambassadors, these globetrotters introduced their new friends to the flavors of Spain thereby encouraging the cuisine’s “discovery.”

Traditional Spanish tapas
Traditional Spanish tapas

Another factor in Spain’s appeal to the gastronomic club is due to the changing habits of the way many of us consume food.  When I was growing up, the idea of sharing food could get you a fork in the back of the hand.  It was an unknown concept.  Today, restaurants are dedicated to the idea of sharing and specifically to the “small plate” movement – suddenly a tapas bar seemed a natural fit.  Add to this that many in Asia have always enjoyed this custom of communal eating and suddenly sharing a ración de boquerones en vinagre in Hong Kong no longer seems strange.

Chef José Andres Spanish cooking demonstration
Chef José Andrés doing a public Spanish cooking demonstration

While the proliferation of Spanish food has many causes, another worth mentioning is the simple fact that food has become a cultural phenomenon.  It has entered our television and media culture, our literature, and has combined with our love of travel to create a kind of Gastronomic Explorer.  These influencers travel the world for us and share their finds, enticing us to try new cuisines for ourselves.  Through these adventurers, the world has discovered that there are many hidden gems within Spanish culinary tradition and people are eager to go beyond the paella and gazpacho they had come to know.

La Mancha - the land of Don Quixote
La Mancha, the land of Don Quixote

Speaking of travel and food, while it’s fun to try a croquette in Laos, I’d rather stick to the larb they are known for.  There is no better place to try traditional cuisine than in-country and for Spanish fare, that means Spain:  the land where Don Quixote dreamed of his Dulcinea – while his partner in crime, Sancho Panza, accompanied him, all the while indulging in a humble plate of migas de pastor and a good bottle of red.

On the Joys of Personalized Travel!  

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I don’t know about you, but I always think the word tour conjures up all sorts of images to which I am not particularly drawn. I think, for instance, of traipsing around in slightly mistaken footwear either feeling a little bit too hot or a tad too cold as I was optimistic about the weather in early March on that soggy plain in Spain.

I think of being semi-implicated in this complex route with too much information and all the wrong delivery from our leader at the front of the group brandishing a big red umbrella.

And I also think of sitting on a bus, feeling a bit passive as I watch the locals out and about doing their thing.

I suppose it if I had my way, I would call it getting down with things, getting to the point, getting the real deal and falling in love with it at the same time or just making some new friends in a completely new place while finding out exactly where you should be eating dinner that night.  “A little bit too long “ the marketing department would say delicately.

Enjoying a personal baking class

 

Basically it’s about making it mine, making it about me.  It’s called personalizing a tour and it is all the rage.  But what does that mean exactly?
Well, after years of thinking I could do it myself, I started to find that there was nothing more relaxing then having someone take us to their favorite places, introduce us to the people they have known for years – be it Pepe from the fruit stall in the market or Pepita from the Café Comercial who knows exactly how you like your coffee, and she hasn’t even met you yet.

Yes, those people.  Taking you to places that you might not have ventured into alone: like the sherry bodega which during the daytime could pass as the front end of a mechanic’s garage (yes local Madrileños, you know which one!). Also, if you pick the right person, that guide is an expert in art, history, social studies, anthropology or cooking.  They have quite a few credits from the University of life and can easily predict what you might like, what your husband would prefer to see, and most definitely what your children or grandchildren are going to go insane about. In a good way of course.

They have that ability to keep everyone happy, engaged, and make each family member or friend feel that this trip was designed specifically with them in mind.

Visiting a Spanish Ham producer

You are going to meet people, shake them by the hand and even try to communicate whether that be through a pidgen version of the local language or some wild gesticulating – either will be fine. For me, this is what a tour should really be.

Yes, it’s about learning things, but it’s also about checking things out, getting the scoop, meeting the locals, having a chat with them and by end of the day feeling like a part of you already belongs.  And that my friends, is where the true journey starts.