Author Archive for AnneInSpain

Aguilar de Campoó, the cookie town

Aguilar de Campoó, home to amazing old churches, is also nicknamed Cookie Town.

Yes, really: for many years Aguilar was home to the classic “María Fontaneda” cookie, a round cookie sort of like graham crackers but less crumbly. “Marías” are now made elsewhere by another company, but the cookie type is such a classic that the cookie name “María” is almost synonymous with round, brown breakfast cookie for dunking in milk.

Though Fontaneda* is gone from Aguilar, two other huge cookie factories still manufacture in the town (Siro and Guillon). For a more home baked cookie experience, the nuns at Santa Clara monastery make a wide variety of cookies and other sweets, and there’s a good pastry shop in the Plaza de España, very near San Miguel church.

While the cookie connection is sort of quirky, the old-church connection is a really big thing in Aguilar and the surrounding area. Here’s a short list of old churches and other old stones that you should try to see:

In Aguilar:

Santa Maria la Real monastery, mostly Romanesque style, on west edge of town. This was one of the wealthiest and most powerful monasteries in the area for a long time, with some ups and downs due to secular and religious politics. After the mid-19th century expropriation by the state it was abandoned and basically dismantled. Almost in ruins, there were several unsuccessful attempts to restore it, finally in the late 1970’s a private group got the rehab going. Today it is part hotel (see below), part local high school, part museum and part center for Romanesque studies. The museum includes a fabulous old cloister (photo above), the old chapter house and the church, with various models of Romanesque churches in Palencia province, some cleverly designed to open and view the interior. Alas, the museum information is not shown in English. Odd schedule to fit into the main use as a school, but they have several guided tours each day.

Santa Cecilia church, Romanesque style, on the hill above town just below the castle. Lovely, simple lines inside and out. Inside: look for the Massacre of Innocents column capital, to left of main altar.

San Miguel church, mostly Romanesque and Gothic style, in main square.

Santa Clara monastery, only the Gothic chapel as the rest of the convent is cloistered. If you want cookies, you buy them through a lazy-susan and screen arrangement so you never see the nuns. See end for website with times to buy the cookies.

Castle ruins, on hill above town. Mostly 14-15th c, on site of earlier fortress. The climb looks imposing but it’s not so bad and the view is nice. Town walls: the lower town was surrounded by a separate ring of walls, today we can see six city gates (best gates for photo ops are Reinosa, Tobalina, Paseo Real and San Roque) and a short stretch of the old wall by the Paseo Real gate.

Various for walk-by or strolling: Palaces with carved coats of arms on the façades. Plaza de España, a typical Castilian main square, fully lined with arcades and lots of typical bars or cafés. (ummm had a wine in one for 50 cents!). Riverside walkway and Isla park, nice walkway on south side of river and part of north side, pretty park on an island in the middle of the river.

 

Near Aguilar:

The area is just packed with Romanesque churches, supposedly more than any other equivalent area in Europe. That’s partly because in the centuries for building Romanesque architecture (11-13th) this area was important as border between Muslim and Christian Iberia; as history’s main events moved south it became a poor backwater without resources to tear down and replace the old churches. Take your time exploring, if you like history and architecture you will probably want to come back.

Santa María de Mave: Romanesque church of an old monastery, closed in the the 19th century expropriation. Lovely church, well worth a visit but with a quirky schedule, depends on time of year and day of the week. Ask for help at Aguilar tourism office to arrange a visit. The old monastery is now a small hotel, open April to November (see below). Near Mave, about seven kms south of Aguilar.

Santos Justo y Pastor: cave-church, probably 8-9th c, enlarged 12th c. This area has a number of cave-churches, this is one of the larger ones. Another church well worth a visit but with equally quirky schedule, though this one seems to be open more than than Mave. In Olleros de Pisuerga, about five kilometers south of Aguilar.

Mount Cildá castro, hilltop fortress town. Spectacular and easily defendable site, this village was inhabited off and on from the first century BC to 8th century AD by Celts, Romans and Visigoths. Excellent lookout for the entire area, and right over the Horadada canyon (see below). Near Olleros de Pisuerga, about a 45 minute walk, unpaved road from bridge over the Pisuerga at edge of Olleros, sign showing Castro de Monte Cildá. Loop option for experienced walkers: a much smaller, semi-marked trail starts at front door of the cave church, intersecting with the unpaved road at signpost for the fortress-town, go by the path and return on the road for a loop route.

Interesting churches a little farther away: Santa Maria de Valverde cave-church, about 30kms east of Aguilar in Valderredible / Polientes, considered the best of the area’s cave churches. San Salvador de Cantamuda Romanesque church, about 35kms upstream following the Pisuerga river.

Natural sights: The Horadada or Pisuerga river canyon is just southeast of town, excellent view from Mount Cildá, the train track goes through the canyon, too. The Tuerces near Villaescusa de las Torres, about six kms southeast of Aguilar, an area with limestone rock formations similar to the Torcal park near Antequera (near Málaga) or the Enchanted City (near Cuenca). Large reservoir about two kilometers west of Aguilar, has picnic and swimming areas. Cueva del Cobre, cave long considered to be beginning of the Pisuerga river; recent studies have proved that incorrect but the cave is still interesting, though not prepared for tourism. Near Santa Maria la Redonda, a little northeast of San Salvador de Cantamuda.

Walking and biking: Two lesser-known Caminos go through the area: the Camino Olvidado and the Camino Lebaniego. Other shorter walking routes have been marked by Aguilar City Hall or the provincial government.  There are lots of small paved and unpaved roads for biking.  One good biking route is Pedaling the Romanesque (Pedaleando el Románico), a 60 kilometer loop around the reservoir that visits many towns with old churches.

 

Nuts and bolts:

Where: Aguilar de Campoó is in the northeast part of Palencia province, a few kilometers from Cantabria and Burgos provinces.

Getting there from Madrid: Alsa bus line, station in town. https://www.alsa.es/ Train, but look at schedules carefully as some departures transfer in Valladolid. Station a few kilometers from town, taxi is five euros. Bus service for departures / arrivals of slower Regional Express trains; those are the departures with transfer. http://www.renfe.com/ Both bus and train stops are on the way to Santander.

Where to stay: in town, best is the Posada Santa Maria la Real, website: http://www.posadasantamarialareal.com/ A variety of other places in town are shown on tourism office website (my opinion: best to avoid Hotel Cortés Poza).

Where to stay, nearby: Charming small hotel similar to the Posada in Mave, 6kms from Aguilar, only open April – November, website http://www.elconventodemave.com/ . Several other small hotels or casas rurales (b&b) within 10km radius of Aguilar.

 

More information at:

Local tourism office: http://www.aguilardecampoo.com/ Very helpful website. Town tourism office is on the riverside Paseo de la Cascajera, a little west of the Plaza de España main square. Also very helpful, their pamphlet-map is informative and well-designed.

Tourism for Palencia province: https://www.diputaciondepalencia.es/sitio/turismo/ This province is relatively close to Madrid and has a lot to see; if you plan to drive to Aguilar, this website can help you decide on some cultural rest stops on your way there or return. (San Martin church in Frómista, San Juan de Baños church in Venta de Baños, just to mention ideas in keeping with the church theme of this post). There’s a provincial tourism office in Aguilar de Campoó, in the Plaza de España just to the left of San Miguel church as you look at church façade.

Santa Clara convent (for cookies and to visit the church, rest is cloistered): http://www.santaclaraaguilardecampoo.es/dulces.html Want cookies? Click on Horarios then look for “Obrador”

Notes:
Special note for fall 2018: Edades del Hombre / Ages of Man exhibit is in Aguilar until December 9. More information at: http://monsdei.lasedades.es/

*The cookie family Fontaneda bought and restored a castle in Ampudia (a little west of Palencia city), where their foundation manages and shows the castle (home to an extensive and varied private collection of just about everything) as well as renting venues for Events. This would be a possible stop if driving to Aguilar. More info at http://www.castillodeampudia.com/

Alpargatas, Spain’s rope-soled shoes

 


While August may seem late to think about alpargatas, most of Spain still has a month of nice weather – and the lines at the traditional shops are a lot shorter.

A tickle in your nose says you’ve arrived – it’s the distinctive smell of thousands of rope-soled alpargatas (espadrilles) in one of Madrid’s traditional stores.

What could be simpler? The classic alpargata is just a coiled rope sole and a cotton canvas upper. Nothing more than that – but this simple shoe is Spain’s favorite summer footwear.

Some history: The true origin of the alpargata is unclear. Some souces say Rome, some say Egypt, some say the Middle East – in any case, the most likely origin is somewhere in the Mediterreanean area, a very long time ago. What does seem clear is that here in Iberia, this simple footwear was already known in 14th century Cataluña.

Checking the origin of the word alpargata also shows differing opinions. The Real Academia dictionary (Spain’s equivalent of Oxford) shows the Basque word abarca as origin for alpargata – rather odd as this shoe doesn’t do well in wet climates like northern Spain, but interesting for the name similarity to the Menorcan sandal called abarca or albarca. People who know Spanish will have noticed the “al” that often indicates Arabic word origin; one source suggests alpargatas were adopted by Arabic speakers during the Middle Ages, and the original Spanish word changed through that contact to alpargata. The same source noted that there are dialectal variations of apargata and even pargata, without the “al”.

Originally alpargatas were worn mainly by country people, valued as inexpensive, lightweight, comfortable and for good traction on uneven surfaces. Today most country people wear modern shoes, but now and then you can still see shepherds wearing alpargatas. The rural tradition of using alpargatas survives in regional dance groups – many use this footwear as a colorful and authentic part of their costumes.

Today alpargatas can be found on many different kinds of feet all over the world. The styles have evolved as well – though the ever-popular classic style is still a solid-color cotton upper and a coiled rope sole. That sole is now made of jute instead of hemp, though Maxi in Casa Crespo remembers alpargata manufacturs with plantations of hemp to make the rope for the soles. For traditional alpargatas, the rope sole is hand-sewn to the two parts of the cotton upper but industrial models are creeping in. Laces can be decorative or functional depending on the style – some traditional styles are open at the sides and the laces keep the alpargatas in place.

Classic alpargatas can go just about anywhere – from the beach to most low-key social occasions, but if something dressier is needed, newer “fashion” styles take over where the classics leave off. Casa Crespo and Hernanz coincide that the classics sell well most of the year, with a boom between May and September, and the fashion models sell mainly in spring and summer. Both stores get new models every spring (usually in April) – different heel heights, different laces, different materials like leather or silk, patterned cloth, decorated with sequins or embroidery – the variations are endless.

Once you’ve tried these shoes yourself you’ll probably become an alpargata fan as well – and at the amazingly low price for the flat classic model, you can get a whole rainbow of colors to match all your summer clothes.

Tips on alpargatas

If you go to a traditional store in alpargata season, try to go off-hours (weekday mornings usually best) and be patient. It may take a while to get what you want. Be flexible, the shopkeepers might have suggestions.

Try on both shoes, and if the first pair doesn’t fit, try another pair in the same size. Since they’re made by hand, there may be size difference between pairs.

If you’re between sizes, get one that’s a little snug as they stretch, some styles more than others – the shopkeepers can tell you how much stretch you can expect in the model you want.

First wearing: For cotton canvas styles, to help your alpargatas mold to your feet, lightly spray the cloth uppers with a plant spritzer after putting them on – especially if they’re a little snug. If you got a classic style with no initial difference between right and left, you can use a marking pen inside one shoe to indicate right or left – after a few wearings they’ll take the shape of your feet.

Try not to get the rope bottoms wet as they may swell and disintegrate. If you get caught in rain, stuff them with newspaper, turn them soles up to dry and hope for the best.

To clean the cloth uppers, hand wash using nail brush, keeping the rope bottoms as dry as possible (this is easier than it sounds). Stuff with newspaper and let dry.

Where to buy: Getting alpargatas is almost a ritual, best done at one of the traditional stores. Both of Madrid’s traditional stores talk about multi-generational families who come together to get their summer shoes, or about people who first came to the store with grampa or gramma – and say that the place has barely changed in all those years. These stores are also a great place to people-watch – and of course to have an authentic Madrid experience.

Antigua Casa Crespo, calle Divino Pastor 29, Metro Bilbao. Classic alpargata store, founded 1863, family business in the fourth generation. Very crowded in season. Open Saturdays only May – September.

Casa Hernanz, calle Toledo 18, Metro Sol y La Latina. Classic alpargata store, founded 1845, family business. Also sells rope, baskets and many kinds of string for macrame. Very crowded in season.

Lobo, calle Toledo 30, Metro Sol y La Latina. Not a specialist in alpargatas, though that kind of shoe is one of their biggest lines (this is my own favorite). Also has Menorcan abarcas, flamenco shoes and desert boots. Very crowded in season, get your number and wait your turn.

Looking for something fancy or cannot manage the traditional stores? Go Fashion at Castañer (Claudio Coello, 51), or check out two stores just east of the Plaza Mayor (one on calle Zaragoza, another on calle Sal/Postas).

Thanks to the friends who suggested the idea for this post. You know who you are. 

Denominación de Origen / Certified Origin in Spain

Wine bottles showing labels for different Spanish D.O.

So you like food, wine, and all those good things?  And specifically Spanish food? Read on to learn about Spain’s  Denominación de Origen quality control system for agricultural products.

What is the Denominación de Origen (D.O.) system? It’s a Spanish regulatory system for some kinds of agricultural products and some kinds of food. Technically in English this is called Appellatation of Origin, but I prefer the easier to remember Certified Origin. Many other countries have their own regulation system, especially in the European Union (EU)

When was this system established? Spain’s main system is from 1996 (with some later updates) and is similar in some ways to the 1992 EU system. Two Spanish wine regions created their own regulations long before this date: La Rioja in 1926 and Jerez (Sherry) in 1933.

What are the advantages of the D.O. system? The D.O. system is a quality guarantee that protects and educates consumers. You know what you’re buying, and if you love or don’t love a product, you can read the specifications and learn for another time. The D.O. system also protects responsible producers by creating an identifiable product with a quality seal on the label, so no manufacturer can sell Rioja wine, for example (with all that name recognition) that does not meet Rioja quality specifications.

Who does the regulating? At the top is the Spanish Ministry that regulates agriculture (see suggested websites at the end). Every D.O. has a local administrative body called the Consejo Regulador; the Consejo is in charge of making sure the D.O. stipulations are followed and that the products labeled with the D.O. do indeed meet the requirements. The Consejo may also help new producers get on board, work with the government if regulations need changes, and also help promote the product outside the D.O. region. Additionally, if a private citizen sees or hears of infraction they can notify the Consejo, who should carry out an investigation and take action. (a cheesemaker I know did this when he learned that another cheesemaker was selling Torta del Casar cheese that didn’t meet the specifications and notified the Consejo of that D.O. It wasn’t a direct competitor, but the man I know said for the D.O. to work, it must be taken seriously by everyone).

Are there any disadvantages? The D.O. system imposes conditions / restrictions on producers, so there is less latitude to experiment with other raw material or other production techniques that might create an interesting new product. And while having a D.O on a product is good, not having a D.O. label can make success difficult for any product without the seal, even though it may be of very good quality.

So are there good products not certified by D.O.? Yes, many are excellent. There might be a wine producer very near the D.O. geographically, but cannot be a D.O. wine because the vineyards are not inside the geographical limitations. Or a cheese producer that cannot be D.O. because the goats are not the local girrrrls. Or products from areas that do not have D.O. certification (perhaps not enough producers or no agreement on the parameters), or the many agricultural products not covered by D.O. anywhere in the country. So a well-informed but cautious customer could make some really interesting discoveries, always with some caution and always checking for the registro de sanidad / official hygiene certificate / seal. (side note: very small family producers may not have the certificate and be fine, but buyers should always take care – best to not buy a case of wine or huge bottle of olive oil unless you are very sure of what you’re doing!).

What products are under D.O. in Spain? Most of us only think of wine for D.O., but this system also covers cheese, cured ham, sausage, seafood, olives, olive oil, balsamic vinegar, rice, saffron, paprika, honey, butter, hard cider, fruits, raw meat and vegetables.

What elements are described and regulated? As the name indicates, most important is the origin or geographical area (larger or smaller): that’s why the excellent Spanish bubbly is “cava” and never “Champagne”. Depending on the level of the regulation, the product probably must be grown (for plants) and raised (for animals) within the area; some D.O. also require the production process (if any) to take place within the area. The D.O. usually also includes requirements about the raw material – kind of grapes for wine, olives for oil, animal or even breed of animal for cheese and meats – and of course the fruits and vegetables certified are specific types. Items under D.O. that include some kind of manufacturing process (wine, olive oil and cheese, for example) also may stipulate the production process.

What else?

Spain’s certified origin system is actually more than D.O. In addition to the Spanish D.O. system, you might see European quality labeling on some products, like the European DOP or Protected Denomination of Origin; IGP or Protected Geographical Indicator, similar to D.O. but a little less specific geographically; ETC or Traditional Specialty Guaranteed, products made with traditional ingredients or recipes; PAE for natural, environmentally friendly production methods; or the two Catalonia-only categories “A” for small, family-run businesses crafting a very distinctive product; and “Q” for foods with superior raw ingredients, production methods or presentation.

In Spain the stars of the D.O. show are……

Wine has over 70 D.O, so you have opportunity for getting past Rioja, Ribera de Duero and Albariño. (try Somontano, Ribeiro, Bierzo and Priorat, for example). In addition to D.O., wine has other nomenclature. Table wine category is not usually linked to a geographical region, though often is produced in a wine region though with fewer specifications than D.O. Vino de la Tierra is a bump up from table wine, a little more specific in geography though still without all the D.O. regulations. Within most D.O. there is crianza and reserve, denoting age of the wine, and if you are travelling in a wine region you might get vino del año (year’s harvest), perhaps a glass of respectable Rioja at 0.50 centimes! And at the top of the line, some wine cellars bottle under a 2015 nomenclature called Vino de Pago, which is even smaller geographical area, sort of like terroir and estate-bottled.

Olive oil has around 30 D.O. We all know about olive oil in Andalucia, but did you know there’s also oil from the north and northeast? Usually the D.O. specifies the kind of olives, which may only exist in the D.O. region. Yes, there is a considerable difference in oil made with different kinds of olives, from mild to quite flavorful, with different oils appropriate for different uses (salad oil probably stronger than oil for making mayonnaise, for example). Olive oil is truly one of Spain’s star products, so it’s worth trying many to find your favorites – and worth having more kind in your cupboard at any one time. Learn more about olive oil here: http://www.bridgetospain.com/olive-oil-always/

Cheese has around 25 D.O.  Spanish cheese is excellent, really varied and not well known outside Spain, except for the ever-present Manchego. There’s smooth and cured, cow, sheep, goat and mixture. Get beyond Manchego by trying lightly smoked Idiazabal from the north; Majorero goat cheese from the Canary Islands; Cabrales blue-type cheese from Asturias in the north; and Torta del Casar sheep cheese from the west, a cheese so gooey that it’s best to lop off the top and serve as a spread. And that’s just to name a few cheeses of the many kinds in Spain – and not all with D.O.

Now it’s time for you to explore the world of Spanish agricultural products!

 

Photo credit: thanks to my neighborhood wine shop Vinomania for many years of good advice and for letting me take this photo in the shop. Vinomania is a small shop with a very good selection, friendly service and always good suggestions. Vinomania, calle Humilladero 18, corner calle Sierpe, one block west of calle Toledo, Metro La Latina.

 

Websites for more information, unless noted otherwise, only in Spanish (but still useful)

Our friend Wikipedia has ha good article about Spanish D.O. (English) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Denominaci%C3%B3n_de_Origen

Good descriptions of many products covered by Spanish D.O. http://www.cerespain.com/denominaciones.html

Good information on Spanish wine D.O., so you can do some exploring   http://www.cecrv.eu/denominaciones-origen/

Regulatory systems in the EU and elsewhere. (English)  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Geographical_indications_and_traditional_specialities_in_the_European_Union

Pages on this same site with more information on products with D.O. (English)
Cider in Spain  http://www.bridgetospain.com/cider-in-spain/
Hot peppers   http://www.bridgetospain.com/pimientos-de-padron/
Olive oil    http://www.bridgetospain.com/olive-oil-always/

The Spanish Ministry that manages D.O. is the Ministerio de Agricultura y Pesca, Alimentacion and Medioambiente (Ministry of Agriculture, Fishing, Food and the Environment). Their website is a labyrinth of pages, some very useful and some not at all. Here are a few.

This page looks like one of the better ones: you can filter by region (if you are travelling) or by product (if you are curious) to learn about Spanish products with D.O.
http://www.mapama.gob.es/es/alimentacion/temas/calidad-agroalimentaria/calidad-diferenciada/dop/default.aspx

Map of fruits and nuts with D.O. (interesting!)
http://www.alimentacion.es/es/turismo_agroalimetario/mapas_de_alimentos_con_calidad_diferenciada/frutas/boletin.pdf

Frecuent questions about D.O. (probably less interesting for most readers) http://www.mapama.gob.es/es/alimentacion/preguntas-frecuentes/faq_tcm7-48389.pdf

Statistics for some D.O. products   http://www.mapama.gob.es/es/alimentacion/temas/calidad-agroalimentaria/calidad-diferenciada/dop/htm/cifrasydatos.aspx

Bilingual Blips

 

Being bilingual is a blessing, and sometimes a curse. While doctors of various specialties extoll the benefits of knowing two languages, while cultural specialists sing the praises of people who can communicate fluently linguistically and culturally in more than the native language, the reality of living bilingual has some very odd side effects.

First, let me clarify. By my own very strict definition of bilingual, even after more than half my life in Spain, I’m not bilingual and never will be. My accent is way too obvious, though I’ve begun to suspect that’s a subconscious way of maintaining my original Anglo identity. But aside from that (and an occasional grammatical error) I’m totally fluent, including slang, puns and political rants in my second language. Most other people would consider me bilingual so let’s use that term here.

Usually I can switch between languages with ease – especially when listening I sometimes don’t even realize what language is spoken, it just goes to the processing center in my brain without going through any “oh, turn Spanish on/off”. This is mostly useful, though sometimes a word of the wrong language will sneak into a sentence. *

But sometimes that language switch gets stuck. That’s most noticeable when interpreting, when after a while I inevitably speak Spanish to the Anglo and English to the Spaniards.
Then there’s the written language. Again, usually this goes smoothly, but there are times when I cannot understand the English translation and must read the Spanish – alas, that can happen in museums or tourism sights, where the English translation is not very good (sad but true). When reading these English translations, it helps me to think in Spanish.

Menus are another confusing place. My restaurant English is not very good, so I almost always read the Spanish. Anyway, there are some very badly translated menus – one of my favorite bloopers is “steak in spit” (meat on a skewer).

Then there’s fast food. I really should collect all the ways to write “sandwich” in Spanish: sanwis (purely phonetical), samwis (phonetical plus grammar rule about mutating n to m), sandwhich (know-it-all who knows w always followed by h), and variations on these three (sandwis, samwich and the like). And my bilingual brain is still baffled at times by “hay sandwiches” which I’ve often tried to read as English (dried-grass sandwiches for horses) instead of part English and part Spanish, announcing the availability of bread slices with something in between.

Which brings us to my new favorite, seen when dashing through Madrid’s Cuatro Caminos rotunda-square: Low Cost Come. Hmmmm. We are not in the red light district of Amsterdam, and a second / third glance clarifies that we’re talking about food.

Translated, they’re talking about inexpensive food. Ungrammatical even in Spanish: using “low cost” like this seems to mean it describes the next word – but the noun is “comida”, not “come” which of course has a different meaning in English. One can only guess that small window space created a need to improvise – thus the command form “come” instead of the noun.

Better punctuation might help make this clear – or some indication that we are looking at two different languages. Anything else, in the situation, could lead to a bit of confusion, at least for anyone bilingual enough to notice the unusual combination of words.

And no, I do not have an especially dirty mind. Just a bilingual brain. Unless, of course, this is a supremely clever marketing strategy. Perhaps I should inquire?

 

*for a fun bilingual movie, look for Miguel y William (Michael and William), a 2007 romantic comedy about a fictitious meeting between contemporaneous writers Miguel de Cervantes and William Shakespeare and their rivalry for a lovely lady. It’s partly in Spanish and partly in English, with subtitles in whichever language is not being spoken. Not to be considered Great Cinema, but it’s entertaining and has some great Spanish scenery.

 

 

 

 

 

Some are hot, and some are not.

 

Some are hot and some are not.

Ahem. We’re talking peppers here. Padrón peppers to be specific. As the Galician saying goes: pimentos de Padrón, unos pican e outros non. (Padrón peppers, some are hot and some are not).

So what are Padrón peppers? They’re a smallish green pepper from Spain’s Galicia region, and yes, some are hot and some are not. Usually not kill-taste-buds hot. But sometimes eye-watering hot.

But let’s backtrack a bit.

First of all, Padrón is a bit of a misnomer. Technically speaking, these peppers are from the Herbón area south of Santiago de Compostela (Galicia region, northwest Spain). Padrón is a town in the area, but important for the peppers: San Antonio Franciscan convent (14th c) is in the Padrón parish, and it was the Franciscan monks who brought these peppers from the Americas, probably in the 16th century.

The peppers are so unique in Spain that they have their own Certified Origin, registered as Pimientos de Herbón, not Padrón, an important technicality if you’re at the market and want to be sure you get the right thing. But in a bar or if talking with friends, for now they’re Padrón peppers, just like they’ve always been – perhaps the alliteration makes the name sound better.   And scientifically, they’re Capsicum annuum.

Padrón peppers are best shared with a group of friends. Hot from the frying pan, liberally sprinkled with coarse salt and heaped on a plate, they’re an inviting sight. But beware: some are hot, and some are not. Sort of culinary Russian Roulette.

The traditional way to eat these peppers: pick up by the stem and pop the whole thing in your mouth (more cautious people will nibble the end first). Your friends are watching, either openly or out of the corner of their eye, evaluating the temperature of your pepper by the expression on your face. The theory is that odds change as more or fewer hot peppers show up on the plate – and while technically about 10% of Padrón peppers are hot, that doesn’t necessarily mean 10% on your shared plate. They could all be mild, or half hot: the 10% rule is over the entire production of peppers.

What makes the peppers hot is capsaicin, just like Padrón pepper “cousins” serrano or jalapeño peppers. But in Padrón peppers, the amount of capsaicin varies a lot depending on how much sun and water the plant got when growing. Traditionally Padrón pepper pickers have been women, and they mix the peppers they think will be hot with ones that will be milder. Thus the variation in pepper temperature when they reach your shared plate.

There is lots of lore about identifying which Padrón peppers are hot. Pepper experts say that the hottest peppers are longer in shape, or have longer stems, or are bigger and a bit reddish, or even that the coarse salt sticks less to hot peppers than to mild peppers. And a restaurant owner (as much of an expert as anyone on this topic) says that late in the season in a dry year, there tend to be more hot peppers, and hotter hot peppers.

Got a hot one? Don’t panic – and don’t try to cool down with water, beer or the local Ribiero wine (a great companion to any Galician tapa experience). The best solution is to eat bread. If at all possible, the hearty, coarse-grain Galician bread.

Still not ready to do it? Alas, the Padrón Pepper app promising to take the guesswork out of pepper tasting has disappeared from Google Play store. It had a hundred-percent accuracy guarantee: scanning the pepper with the phone’s camera it could evaluate pepper temperature. And if the pepper-eater disagreed with the analysis, the problem was with that person’s palate, not with the app.

So until the app or something similar appears, you’ll just have to take your chances with Padrón peppers: some are hot, and some are not.

Padrón pepper talk:

Padrón or Herbón? The Certified Origin regulation council is trying to change the name officially to Herbón peppers, to differentiate their peppers from similar peppers grown elsewhere.

Pepper season: the true Padrón pepper season is May to late October, though now peppers are grown in hothouses in other parts of Spain and Morocco and available most of the year. Hothouse peppers might have a slightly different taste and different proportion of hot and not.

Padrón Pepper festival: usually the first Saturday in August in Padrón town.

More about the peppers from the Herbón regulation council: http://www.pementodeherbon.com/en/home.htm

Madrid by Metro

Happy Hundredth, Metro de Madrid!

Well, sort of. Construction started in 1917, but the actual opening was two years later.

Getting the subway project started wasn’t easy. King Alfonso XIII (great grandfather of current King Felipe) added a million pesetas of his own fortune to the kitty to get things going – and cut the ribbon on the first 3.5 kilometers of Line 1 in 1919. It was a revolution: Sol – Cuatro Caminos in under ten minutes, instead of at least thirty minutes by tram. Line 1 was lengthened to Atocha almost immediately, and Line 2 (Sol – Ventas) followed shortly thereafter.

Of course the original subway was different: only four cars per train, train doors that opened by hand and fares that varied by distance travelled. Not to mention the stylish tile decoration in the stations, created by Antonio Palacios to help travellers over the claustrophobia of underground travel (this architect also designed Madrid’s Central Post Office, Bellas Artes and Maudes hospital).

Except for a few slow periods, the subway has continued to grow since those first kilometers. Since the 1980’s the growth has been constant – record-breaking in the late 1990’s – up to current track length of about 294 kilometers and 13 lines, second only to more populous London here in western Europe.

Veteran Line 1 isn’t the longest of Madrid’s subway lines, but it links train and bus stations, shopping areas, cinemas, restaurants, well-known sights and some fun lesser-known sights, so it has one of the highest user rates of all the lines: over 100 million people / year.

 

Read on to learn how the central part of line 1 can help you explore Madrid.

Chamartin, history: Originally a village north of Madrid where the wealthy “got away from Madrid”; village annexed by Madrid in 1948. Today: Train station for long distance and commuter lines.

Plaza Castilla, today: Underground commuter bus station for many points north, many city bus lines at stops on the surface; “leaning towers” just north of the roundabout-square.

Tetuán, history: This neighbourhood started in 1860 as a military camp for the victorious Spanish army after a war in Africa. The camp ended up being semi-permanent and infrastructure and population sprang up around it. The metro arrived in 1929, which helped consolidate the neighbourhood. Today: Tetuán is one of Madrid’s multi-cultural neighborhoods, this one mostly Latino; South American restaurants and shops abound just off main north-south street Bravo Murillo

Estrecho, today: Fun, almost unknown museum at calle La Coruña 18: Museo Tiflológico. Run by the Spanish Blind organization ONCE, this little gem has models of monuments from Spain and other countries, and an amazing section of artwork by the blind.

Cuatro Caminos, history: Ever wonder about the name of this square? The “four streets” are Santa Engracia, Bravo Murillo, Reina Victoria and Artistas, as Raimundo Fernández Villaverde was created after square was named. Today: important metro transfer – with endless escalators for line 6. Maravillas market on Bravo Murillo is one of the city’s best.

Rios Rosas, today: Old Canal de Isabel II water deposit (brick tower built 1865-1876) is an exhibit venue, worth visiting just to see how the space is used. Don’t miss the very top floor. Geology fans: Geominero museum at Rios Rosas 23 – exterior of the building is gorgeous.

Iglesia, history: Original name of this station: Martinez Campos. Today: Sorolla museum at General Martinez Campos 37. Excellent pastry shops near this stop!

Chamberi, history: Chamberí station was closed in 1966; after that, this “ghost station” was barely visible in the tunnel between Iglesia and Bilbao. Today: Now a mini-museum, with original decoration and advertising posters in ceramic tile. Guided visit (free, in Spanish), video and station visit with trains whizzing by behind a glass partition. Fun even without great Spanish. Access: glass structure on corner of Santa Engracia / Luchana. Open Thursday to Sunday, get current schedules by searching Metro Madrid Anden 0.

Bilbao, history: Site of one of the gates in the last line of city walls, called the “Snow Pit Gate” for the pre-refrigerator ice houses nearthe square. Today: best access for eating and drinking around Dos de Mayo, nearby cinemas, and one end of fashion street Fuencarral (other end is Gran Via).

Tribunal, history: San Fernando hospital was built to attend 3,000 patients and functioned until 1922; gave the subway stop its original name of Hospicio. The building is a Madrid history museum since 1929. Today: Interesting museum with good permanent collection and temporary exhibits (don’t miss the model of Madrid).

Gran Via, history: This emblematic street is fairly new, built 1910 – 1931. Subway stop Gran Via (original name Red San Luis) is right next to Madrid’s first skyscraper: Telefónica building on corner of Gran Vía / Fuencarral, completed in 1929. Today: The Telefónica building has excellent temporary exhibits, and a telecommunications. Gran Via is another shopper’s street – but watch out for pickpockets.

Sol, history: Although outside the medieval city, Sol has long been the bustling center for traffic, pedestrians, “Kilometer 0” for Spain’s radial highways, and the first major transfer point for the subway (lines 1,2,3). Remodelled and reorganized more than once over the centuries; site of all kinds of historic events. Today: Pedestrian shopping area on Carmen, Preciados and Monter north to Callao and west on Arenal to Opera. Best subway access for Plaza Mayor and for Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando (Alcala 13), also for Santa Ana tapa area and movies in English at Yelmo Ideal Cineplex.

Tirso de Molina, history: Original name Progreso (old name for Tirso de Molina square); the name of square and metro stop changed in 1939, shortly after dictator Francisco Franco’s victory in the Civil War. Madrid lore has two ghost stories for this station: one story claims that the bones of monks who lived in the convent that used to be in this square are under the subway platforms, placed there by the workers who built the station (and the other ghost story is too creepy to tell here). Today: The recent renovation of this square created a pleasant space with outdoor cafés and a flower market. Access to the Rastro flea market.

Anton Martin, today: One of Madrid’s first movie theaters (Cine Doré, Santa Isabel 3) is now the “Filmoteca”, running several sessions of different movies every day. Great prices and even cheaper with their ten-punch deal. Rooftop movies in the summer. A must-do for movie fans!

Atocha, history: The old part of Atocha train station was inaugurated in 1892, serving as a station for about 100 years until the new station took over. Today The old station is a greenhouse – a good place to relax before traveling or after a visit to the nearby art museums. New train station for long distance (including AVE) and commuter lines. NOTE: Direct-access metro stop Atocha RENFE better for the station, as old Atocha stop is across many lanes of traffic. Near Atocha / Atocha RENFE: Art museums Reina Sofia, Prado, Thyssen. Anthropology museum, Botanical Gardens, Cuesta Moyana bookstalls, Retiro Park.

Menéndez Pelayo, today: access for Tapestry factory and museum (Fuenterrabia 2)

Pacifico, history: Opened in the early 1920’s on the edge of the city. The “Nave de Motores” generating station, created to guarantee electricity for the subway via a combination of huge engines and transforming power from electrical companies is nearby. Today: The electrical station is newly open as a mini-museum (see Chamberi). Pacifico is an important metro transfer, one stop from Mendez Alvaro (South Bus Station/commuter train station).

Camino Inglés – the English Route

Traditionally English pilgrims (when England was still Catholic) or other northern European pilgrims (ditto) sailed to the ports of El Ferrol or La Coruña and journeyed south from those points on what we now call the Camino Inglés (English Route). It’s a north-south route straight into Santiago without coinciding with the French route.

Nowadays the Camino Inglés is a lot less travelled than the other historical routes like the French, Portuguese or coastal routes. If you’ve done other Camino routes, or have not (yet) but want a shorter or less travelled option the Camino Inglés is a good choice.

Guidebook: John Brierley’s book on Sarria – Santiago – Finisterre, including the Muxia circuit and the Camino Inglés.

When walked: July 7-11, 2017

Route: Ferrol – Santiago, about 123 kilometers. Another branch starts in La Coruña, about 76 kilometers so does not qualify for the Compostela certificate (if that is important for you), though La Coruña is a nicer city than Ferrol.

What’s good and less good: I really liked the mixture of sea and mountains first three days, then the transition to countryside. Lots of varied forests, including chestnut trees at a low altitude. Less good: walking Ferrol – Fene (about 20 kilometers) has a fair amount of industry (old shipyards) and warehouses. Part of that is unavoidable but I can’t help wondering if they could have routed around instead of through some of the warehouse areas.

Usual stages and other ideas: Brierley’s suggested six stages are probably the best for distances and infrastucture: Ferrol – Neda (15.5k), Neda – Pontedeume (16k), Pontedeume – Betanzos (20.7k), Betanzos – Hospital de Bruma 28.4k, big hill), Hospital de Bruma – Sigüeiro (25.2k), Sigüeiro – Santiago (17.2k), all distances as per Brierley. I did it in five stages (Ferrol – Pontedeume first day), and it’s also possible to break Betanzos – Hospital just short of the halfway point.

Important note: route changes in near future: if you are planning to do this route soon: some routing changes are planned and will be marked this fall, so be aware that current guidebooks will not be 100% accurate. New route will hit all the major towns and many of the smaller ones; in some places changes will be minor and in other places more important (one local woman says the new route from their town into Sigüeiro is much better than current route). At least one change has already been made: shortly before Hospital de Bruma (well after Casa Julia): the official signage seems to disappear, replaced by handmade yellow arrows nailed to trees and newly painted arrows with slightly different color of yellow. Fear not, the apparent improvisation is the real route (for now) and re-connects with official signage.

Signage: Better than expected but not perfect. There are lots of crossroads and you have to watch carefully, sometimes signage is there but not immediately visible from your angle or covered by vegetation. Lots of arrows painted on the asphalt.  Going through industrial / warehouse areas can be tricky, especially just outside Santiago, where there is almost no signage (basic idea for Santiago warehouse area: after turning left into warehouse area stay straight ahead through two rotundas, walking on left side of the road, warehouses are on the right side of the road. Signage reappears shortly after last warehouses).

Infrastructure: Fewer supermarkets, albergues, pensiones, hotels, bars than on the Camino Francés, Camino Norte or Camino to Finisterre. Not a deal-breaker, but you do need to be more aware of your supply places.

Places to sleep: Most of these places are listed in Brierley book. Ferrol: I stayed at Hostal La Frontera, good location but a little minimalist and bar doesn’t open until 8am. Nearby Hostal Zahara (not in Brierley) looks nicer and bar opens at 6am for breakfast (excellent tomato toast). Camino friends recommended La Almendra. Pontedeume: I stayed at Hostal Norte and wouldn’t repeat, no elevator, very minimalist, bar opens at 8.30am. Nicest hotel Eumesa is at a very busy intersection, Pension Luis is well located but looks very small. My pick here would for a repeat visit probably be Hostal Allegue. Betanzos: I had a reservation at Posada Cheiño, but switched to Hospedaje Betanzos, where a little more money got me a huge room with bathroom (other place didn’t have bathroom) and access to a full kitchen. Camino friends say the municipal albergue here is excellent. Hospital de Bruma: I stayed two kilometers up the hill at Hotel Canaima (Alto do Viento), nice room with full bathtub to soak your weary body after long day and big uphill – though neither dinner nor breakfast at the hotel was memorable, and price was a little high. Almost right across the highway from the hotel: Pension o Meson Novo, less expensive though no idea on what it’s like (you do not have to return to the albergue to continue the Camino, there’s a paved road that does a diagonal to join the Camino several kilometers beyond the albergue). Same Camino friend who recommended Betanzos albergue says the Hospital de Bruma albergue is very good, but there are only 22 spaces so the hotel / pension are good to know about. Sigüeiro: Stayed at Sigüeiro hostal and really liked it, this was my favorite accommodation on this trip. New with modern design, nice bed and interesting bathroom setup (shower and toilet in one space, sink outside in the room, much more efficient for sharing a room), very good dinner and good breakfast.

Places to eat / have coffee: Surprisingly, I did not see any “menu del día” deals. This fixed price menu idea is all over Spain, not just on the Camino, and not seeing any at all was strange. That has price implications, since the fixed price menu is usually a much better deal than ordering off the menu, so you will need to pick and choose both your places and what you eat. Places to stop on the trail: The Brierley book is pretty accurate though not 100%, due to scarcity of stopping places it’s good to plan ahead to be sure you have water and food. Places I stopped showing my stage breakdown, either memorable or not in Brierley or not well described in Brierley, other bars exist most days: Day 1: Neda-Santa Maria, no bar at Neda pedestrian bridge by the albergue, continue another 15 minutes to find a bar just beyond Santa Maria church (not in Brierley), Vilar de Colo bar is in the warehouse area, not in the town. Day 2: Miño: bar Green (memorable), turn right down short flight of stairs when you see the basketball court-square, bar is under arcades on left side of the square. He gave me a chunk of homemade poundcake (bizcocho) and slices of melon and watermelon for free, plus some tourism pamphlets (supermarket in same square). Day 3 ( Killer Day Betanzos – Hospital de Bruma): Only two bars on a long and challenging day, first in Presedo,  Xente do Camiño (memorable) which is well after the sign for the local albergue, good place with food and big outdoor sitting area and second in Vilacoba, Casa Julia which is small place right on the highway, easy to walk past but a stop is highly recommended since (for now) this is last stop before Hospital de Bruma. Casa Julia is also the place they count pilgrims, see below, if you speak Spanish chat with the young man. He was making filloas (local version of crepes) when I went by on a Sunday, handing them out to all customers. Day 4: Centro/Calle, bar Cruceiro, friendly with good potato omelette, empanada and poundcake, a classic Camino stop. Day 5: Hotel Castro (not in Brierley), about 2-2.5 hours from Sigüeiro. Places in towns (mostly dinners), I ate at these places: Ferrol: bar-restaurant near main square, right in front of Pescaderia fish market, excellent seafood, big outdoor sitting area. Pontedeume and Betanzos both dinner spots were forgettable, both towns have a lot of options. Breakfasts in those towns: Pontedeume, Café Martinho is right in front of the bridge, opens 6am. Betanzos, Churreria-cafeteria just to the left of calle Rollo (Camino street), near though not on calle Venezuela, opens 6.30am except Sundays when 7am or in fiestas when 8am. Hospital de Bruma, there’s a restaurant right by the albergue that my Camino friend likes, I didn’t stop since I was going on to the hotel, where dinner was forgettable. Sigüeiro: cruised town and did not find many options, perhaps because of Monday closings, ended back and Sigüeiro hostel and had a yummy dinner of mushrooms and potatoes, good food at a good price AND they have a secret back terrace that you do not see from the front, very good choice for dinner.

Beaches: Weather was not cooperating during my walk so I didn’t even dabble my toes in the sea but here are my observations: several beaches on the way out of Ferrol, excellent La Magdalena beach in Cabanas just before Pontedeume, and just after Miño near Ponte do Porco.

Fiesta Betanzos: My trip coincided with the Medieval Market in the medieval town of Betanzos. Market was cute and had nice things – but backpacking you have to think at least twice before buying anything. If you are planning for the future and want to see this or avoid it (town was packed to the rafters), check the dates: it’s probably the second weekend in July.

People on the trail: This route is a lot less travelled than other routes – my “bubble” (people more or less in same space on same day) was about 25-30 people. The young man in Casa Julia (see above) says he counts pilgrims and that day (a Sunday) he had seen 21 so far – he counted 2000 pilgrims last August (about that many daily arrive in Santiago early July). Obviously 25 people a day is not a lot – but several albergues are about that size so good to plan accordingly and know your options.

Going alone? I saw two other women walking alone, and two other Italian women who were sort of together and sort of not together. I felt completely safe, but it must be said that women alone are still a little unusual here so if you are a woman and go alone you might get some comments (like I did). For that reason, if you have never walked alone and are feeling a little uneasy about it, perhaps a more-travelled route would be better for a first solo experience.

Want more walking? Before your Camino Inglés: San Andres de Teixido is about 50 kilometers from Ferrol, according to the Ferrol tourism office marked all the way with stone pillars with a red fish (see photo). Actually, if you want to put together a longer route, part Camino de Santiago and part local custom, start here: https://caminoasanandres.com/ (Spanish only, sorry), scroll down a tiny bit and click on Caminos de San Andrés: if you know your Camino de Santiago routes you’ll see Ribadeo (north route) and Ourense (Via de la Plata / Sanabres route), as well as other towns on the Camino Ingles as starting places to walk to San Andres, so you could put together a longer combo route in this area. Galician lore says that if you don’t visit San Andrés while living, you must visit after death, so locals often make pilgrimage to this site, more important for them than going to Santiago. Learn more about the San Andrés route: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/San_Andr%C3%A9s_de_Teixido     After your Camino Inglés: what better choice than Santiago – Finisterre – Muxia? The journey to Muxia for Virgen de la Barca / Virgin of the Boat is again more important for locals than Santiago – celebration date is the first Sunday after September 8. For more about this shrine go to http://concellomuxia.com/en/item/santuario-da-virxe-da-barca/

Cabo de Gata: Sea and Sun – and lots more

 

 

Like sun? Like nature? Like outdoor sports? Like lesser-known destinations, and don’t mind a longer drive or figuring out some transportation options?

 

 

Then consider Cabo de Gata, the southeast tip of Spain. Almost desert-dry, with the lowest rainfall in all of Europe, so your chances of warm, dry weather are pretty good most of the year, and there are things to do if the sun doesn’t shine during your entire stay.

So exactly where is this? Between Mojácar (south-ish on Spain’s east coast), and Almeria city (east-ish on Spain’s south coast), and everything east of a line through Níjar connecting the two places – plus a bit north of that line (Sorbas and Tabernas).

Cabo de Gata Natural Park: One of the main attractions of this area is the Cabo de Gata Natural park, declared in 1987. Thanks partly to park zoning, the coast between Mojácar and Almería has mostly escaped excessive development; farther back in time the lack of water also hindered development, so now you can enjoy a relatively pristine coast. “Relatively” pristine, as ironically, the park did bring some rather unfortunate building in urban areas, along with much needed money from increased tourism. Hopefully the park zoning and environmentalist interest will help guide the area’s development in the future.

So what’s to see?

Along the coast

— Villages or man-made: Mojácar, charming white village on a hill overlooking the sea. Agua Amarga (south of Mojácar) and Cabo de Gata (south coast, east of Almeria), two old fishing villages, now developed but still with a bit of old flavor. Cabo de Gata lighthouse on southeasternmost tip, placement and view. Cabo de Gata saltpans, probably used in Roman times and still in operation; saltpans are between lighthouse and village. Almeria city, castle and Cathedral built on site of a 10th century mosque; can see bits of mosque but not as spectacular as Córdoba. Almeria city also has a museum with some archeological artifacts from the area, though the best pieces are in Madrid.

— Nature: View from Mesa Roldan lookout. Rock formations, all along eastern coast but especially between San José and the lighthouse, in the sea and on the beaches. Crater of old volcano, northwest of Los Escullos. Flamingos and other bird life in salt pans near Cabo de Gata village. Sand dunes, especially Playa de los Genoveses. Best beaches: Monsul and Genoveses beaches near San Jose. Agua Amarga beach, small but nice, and beaches south of that village, some only accessible on foot at low tide. El Playazo, near Rodalquilar village. Cabo de Gata village beach is long but rather rocky. Some nice beaches near Carboneras (east coast) but nearby cement factory is a bit off-putting. Mojácar’s beaches are smallish and outside town. San Pedro nudist beach just north of Las Negras (nice walking path to get there, 40 minutes); this used to be a lovely, almost pristine beach but has some issues now –illegal bars, “alternative lifestyle” settlement that is not terribly respectful of the environment.

Inland

— Villages or man-made: Near Tabernes: several US – Western town film sets remaining from the 1950-1970’s era of “paella westerns”, host to stars like Clint Eastwood, Brigitte Bardot, Harrison Ford, Raquel Welch and others. Nijar village, one of largest in the area and typical of inland Almeria. “Norias” or water-wheels to draw water for irrigation from underground, one of the best is in Pozo de los Frailes. Abandoned gold mines near Rodalquilar. Cortijo del Fraile ruins near Rodalquilar, site of the events described in Federico Garcia Lorca’s tragedy Bodas de Sangre (Blood Wedding). Archaeological sites (prehistoric and Roman), interesting for history buffs.

— Nature: Tabernas desert, limestone “karst” formations around Sorbas: at least Aguas and Covadura caves, also some gorges so narrow they look like caves.

Environment / sports: There are lots of opportunities for activities in nature (diving, kayaking, hiking, cycling, horseback riding, caving in Sorbas) BUT please remember this is a natural park in a fragile environment, with permit requirements or restrictions for some activities. As always, leave no litter, and if you see any left by less considerate visitors, perhaps you could do a good deed and pick it up. Information on active travel companies in links below.

Shopping: Traditional crafts include ceramics (often cream and blue, some greens and grays). Rag rugs called “jarapas”: these rugs were often used on beds to protect the bedspread. Woven grass mats and baskets. “Indalo” fertility goddess symbol, a stylized stick figure with outspread arms. Good places for shopping: Níjar, Sorbas, Mojácar, San José.

When to go: October – May, with early June and late September a possibility though with higher temperatures. I have swum in the ocean in December (and don’t consider myself especially fond of cold water). BUT….. If it rains, it (usually) pours: Yes, this is the driest part of Europe, but when it rains, it is often a downpour that can cause flash floods. Notice the number of no-bridge stream crossings, where minor paved or unpaved roads dip down over a gully. Heavy rains can and do fill these empty gullies with roaring rivers (hard to believe but true). If that happens, do not try to drive across what was yesterday a dry gully. Ask locals about alternative routes, or even better, ask local police or Guardia Civil; they’ll be in charge of any rescue operations so give them a chance to stop the rescue situation before it happens.

Best villages to stay: Mojacar, Agua Amarga, Las Negras, Rodalquilar (a little inland), San Jose, Cabo de Gata all have hotels of different styles and prices.

How to get there: By car: Fastest but less scenic: southeast to Murcia, then south through Lorca; this is the best route if you plan to stay in Mojácar or Agua Amarga. Most scenic, more challenging driving: to Granada then south through Sierra Nevada and southeast to Almeria through the Alpujarra mountains on smaller roads (several possible routes). Other transportation: Almería station is centralized for train and bus. Madrid – Almeria is a very long trip, so direct bus not a good idea, but Alsa buses run from Jaen, Granada, Sevilla and Malaga. Renfe has direct Madrid – Almeria train service, usually one or two trains a day, sometimes more April-September (www.renfe.es); alas, the convenient night train seems to have disappeared. Almeria does have an airport, and flights may be cheaper than the train. Many towns in this area are connected to Almeria by bus, so if you don’t plan to move around much, public transportation is possible.

And last but definitely not least, that question you may be asking yourself: Why is this called Cape Girl-kitty? And the answer is: the name doesn’t come from “cat” but from “agate” (semi-precious stone) that used to be found along the coast. And yes, if you know your rocks and you’re really lucky, you still might find an agate or two.
Websites for more information / pre-trip planning: English version not always available or complete.

https://www.cabogataalmeria.com/ Good general site with lots of links, well organized. This would be my first pick. On this site, info on the “Western” towns: http://www.cabogataspain.com/Gata-Nature-Reserve/Activities/Leisure/Western-Village-Tabernas.html

Other sites:
www.cabodegata-nijar.es
www.degata.com
https://www.turismodealmeria.org

http://www.museosdeandalucia.es/cultura/museos/MAL/      Website for Almeria Archaeological museum.

https://www.turismodealmeria.org/prepara-tu-viaje/como-llegar/    Some info on bus lines in the province of Almeria.

More information, once you’re there:
Park visitor’s center: Centro de Interpretación de la Naturaleza Las Amoladeras,
Highway AL-3115, Tramo Retamar-Pujaire Km. 7.

Other places for additional information (park or general tourism), take your pick here: https://www.cabogataalmeria.com/Cabo-Gata/Parque-Natural/Puntos-Informacion.html

 

Hike Like a Girl

Hike in a skirt? Really? The same thing you wear for dress-up days at the office, to church, out on a special night on the town?

Yes. Oh my yes. I’m a total convert.

Hiking skirts came across my screen many years ago and I sort of laughed off the idea, but it stuck in the back of my hiking-brain. Last year I did my first serious forays into the world of skirt-hiking. It only took a few days on the trail to realize what I’d been missing all along.

And we’re talking skirts, not skorts. Skorts are fine for many things, excellent for travel or if skirts just feel too airy for you in some situations. Skorts also let you go with a shorter length, if that’s what you want. But when it comes to hiking, skirts have some real advantages over skorts, shorts and long trousers.

 

So why hike in a skirt?

–   Ease of pee: it’s a lot easier to flip up a skirt and drop the undies than to unsnap, unzip and drop trousers or shorts as well as the undies. It’s also faster and more discrete – less likely you’ll get caught showing the unshowable if you’re wearing a skirt.  And wedgies? Less likely in a skirt, less noticeable and easier to fix.  Ummm.  Some women even talk about going commando (no undies). I’m not ready for that, at least not yet and maybe never, especially in a knee-length skirt.  But it’s an idea.

–   Temperature regulation: in the summer skirts are much cooler than shorts. In cool weather, wear with leggings, and if it gets warm, just pull off the leggings without having to change everything.

–   Less washing: Since skirts are less in contact with your body (especially the sweaty part of lower body) they stay cleaner for longer.

–   Go everywhere. If you are on a multi-day hike / cultural trip and trying to pack light, a skirt goes more places than shorts or even trousers. Yes, you can wear trousers or shorts many places, but not in all countries or all situations. And even if there are no cultural issues, skirts are nicer and you might feel better at a restaurant or cultural sight wearing a skirt, especially if your other option is shorts (because skirts are almost always cuter than shorts, right?)

 

Making your trail skirt selection:

–   Length: Best is between just above the knee and about mid-calf: shorter and you need to be careful about sitting down or legging up on the trail, longer and you might trip over it – unless there’s an easy way to shorten temporarily like the Macabi skirt.

–   Style: too straight / tight will restrict movement, extremely loose may get tangled on trailside vegetation. Some of the straight designs have kick pleats or shaped hem that gives a little more freedom of movement, but generally speaking flared, gathered or with gores are a better choice. Especially good: a style that is not too obviously for the trail – or at least something you feel ok about off-trail if you will be doing any multi-faceted trips.

–   Waistband: many skirts are designed to ride on the hips instead of the waist – is that ok for you? Some skirts have fold over knit waistbands instead of woven waistband – that probably means pull-on style and adjustable length by folding over the waistband – is that ok with you? If the skirt has a waistband and zipper, look at zipper placement: zippers and buttons in the back or side might not be comfortable wearing a big pack and hunky waist belt. Personally I prefer a real waistband with belt loops, letting me adjust the waist size with a tug on the belt -on long hikes my waist measurement can vary somewhat, so having a real waistband and a belt (just one tug to change size) is better for me – but a waistband and belt is just a bother for other women.

–   Fabric: As for any trail clothes, all cotton is not the best because when it gets wet (sweat, rain, washing) it takes forever to dry. Better to look for blends of some cotton but more synthetic , or a technical textile like supplex nylon – feels almost like cotton but zap dries (technical textiles are not as cool as natural textiles, but zap-dry is a real advantage). Some trail skirts are wool, which I’ve never used but people who have absolutely rave about wool (cool, warm, doesn’t get stinky, etc) . Some trail skirts are knit, which I probably would avoid because knits usually take a little longer to dry, snag more easily (brambles, oh dear), and get stretched out or baggy more quickly than woven fabrics.

–   Pockets: Yes, yes and yes. It’s especially nice to have at least one security pocket closing with a zipper or snaps. Check pocket design and location – will the pockets interfere with a big pack? Are the cargo pockets nicely designed and in a place where they don’t emphasize the widest part of the anatomy?

 

Try skirt hiking before you buy: If this is starting to sound like a good idea but you’re still not sure, check your closet. Maybe you have a skirt to test the idea on a few day hikes: pick something you already have that is more or less right for the job and go for a hike, maybe with shorts or trousers in your pack in case it really doesn’t work. And if it really doesn’t work, ask yourself why. Are trail skirts just not for you, or was your skirt not the right thing? If it was the skirt, what wasn’t right?

What I’ve used: Macabi original skirt and Kuhl Splash skirt. For me, the first is better for spring and fall, it’s a little hot for summer in Spain (though I love it for general travel in the summer). For summer hiking my favorite is the Kuhl Splash skirt (thanks to the person who clued me in, you know who you are). It’s cool, cute and the right shape for my body – only negative aspect is that it has a little too much cotton so it takes a little longer to dry. Alas, this skirt has been discontinued, you still might find on dealers like Campmor, Sierra Trading Post or Zappos.

Some brand names for hiking skirts: Some of these are general sportswear manufacturers so you may need to filter a little to find the skirts (no websites, sorry, but a quick google will turn up any of these, perhaps adding the word skirt if you don’t find on the first try): Purple Rain / Macabi / Sierra Designs / Mountain Hardware / Patagonia / Exofficio / Kühl / Columbia / Marmot / Royal Robbins

Can’t find what you want on these sites, or looking for deals? Look on end-of-line places like Campmor, Sierra Trading Post, Zappos, Moosejaw, Shoebuy.

Not thrilled with the style of the hiking skirts you see, though you really like the idea of hiking in a skirt? Look at the more general sites for travel or urban leisure clothing like Travelsmith, Lands End, LL Bean. Especially if you end up on one of these sites, before deciding what to get think how you’ll use your skirt. Fabric content and pockets (for example) are less important on a skirt for day hikes than for long, self-contained through hikes.

Not just for girls: Some secure and forward thinking men have posted their skirt-hiking experience on websites and gear reviews. Ease of pee is not an issue; most have tried and liked skirt hiking because it’s so much cooler –avoiding what some call “crotch rot”

La Latina Like a Local

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The secret is out. La Latina is the best ‘hood in central Madrid.

Actually, the secret has been out for a while. La Latina Locals have known for a very long time, it’s just the non-locals who have discovered us recently. And while not native Spanish, as a thirty-two year resident of La Latina – and two additional years in nearby Tirso – I’m totally a La Latina Local. I’ve seen kids grow up; spry adults turn into creaky elders; and commerce appear and disappear, all in the heart of this fabulous neighborhood.

So what is so special about La Latina? Read on for the scoop from a local.

It’s super-central – about a ten minute walk from the Plaza Mayor – but mostly quiet, a village inside the city (except when non-locals arrive en masse to have fun).

It’s cool in temperature as well as vibe – we get cooler winds almost direct from the mountains by way of El Pardo, the Casa de Campo and Las Vistillas park.

It’s friendly – the locals know and greet each other on the street, in the stores and in the bar-cafés, striking up conversations on every imaginable topic.

It has everything that La Latina Locals need within easy walking distance, including access to Madrid Rio and Casa de Campo parks.

 

Visitors tend to stay in a few specific spots – so where do the La Latina Locals live their lives?

Bars / cafés: Muñiz (own churros in the morning, coffee, a quick beer and hanging out); old style Almacen de Vinos (Gerardo) and “Vinos” for beers and hanging out; all on Calatrava street. J.Blanco on Tabernillas street for aperitifs or beers. Paco on Humilladero is another traditional spot, now discovered by non-locals so in transition. All these spots are very authentic and very different from less-local spots around Plaza Humilladero – Tomas, Tomasa, El Viajero or designer tapa spot Juana La Loca which alas, took over the locale of a traditional tapa bar.

Food shopping: Best bread bakery in La Latina: Tahona del Capricho on Humilladero street. Best pastries at + Que Pan (More than Bread using plus symbol) on Plaza de los Carros (good bread, excellent pastries and cakes and a nice small coffee shop). Cheese and cold cuts at Los Andes on Toledo street (excellent selection of Spanish cheese, some foreign). Best wine and liquor shop: Vinomania on Humilladero, corner Sierpe (not huge but very good, varied selection of Spanish wine, including some nice surprises from places you would not expect). All the local mom-and-pop grocery stores have disappeared, but some of the Chinese, Latino or Moroccan-run places have strong La Latina Local support (Chino on Toledo corner Sierpe, Ay Madre la Fruta and two small supermarkets on Humilladero to name a few). And of course the La Cebada market: it’s ugly from the outside and a little sad inside with lots of empty stalls, but the overall quality and service is very good.

Other shopping: La Latina is not a destination for shopping-shopping, though there are two interesting jewelry stores (Ruda and Almendro streets) and some fun and useful traditional shops (candles, espadrilles, baskets), though many other traditional shops have disappeared (cork store, wine-barrel maker, etc).

Churches:  Three La Latina chures are special for the neighborhood and for the entire city: La Paloma (south end of La Paloma street). The real name is San Pedro el Real, but everyone knows this church as La Paloma, home to the image of the Virgin of the Dove (La Paloma), Madrid’s true if unofficial patron saint. This area is Where it Happens for the crazy fun La Paloma street party in mid August, and the church isstart and end point for procession on August 15. San Isidro (calle Toledo). Final resting place of Madrid’s male patron saint San Isidro; this is start and end place for May 15 procession and where the faithful can venerate San Isidro’s tomb. San Pedro El Viejo (Nuncio street). This church is home to the image Jesus Nazareno el Pobre, one of Madrid’s most beloved religious statues, used in the very popular Thursday procession during Easter week.

Other noteworthy La Latina churches: San Andres on square of same name and San Francisco el Grande on south end of Bailen street (see post on this church at http://www.bridgetospain.com/san-francisco-el-grande/)

San Isidro museum (The Origins of Madrid) on Plaza de los Carros. While less local, this is a must-do for visitors to see the model and map of old Madrid (including most of today’s La Latina) and to learn about Madrid’s patron saint San Isidro, who was an 11th century La Latina Local.

The Barley Field: our empty lot. La Latina neighborhood has a huge empty lot between La Cebada market and Toledo street. It’s the site of the old sports complex, torn down in 2009 after several inoperative years. Theoretically the lot and the spectacularly ugly market next door are part of an urban renewal program (new market and leisure center) – but Madrid is still emerging from the Crisis and until there is more money we have….. a hole in the ground.

That’s the un-cool part. The cool part is that the hole in the ground is also the Campo de Cebada (The Barley Field), named for the surrounding “La Cebada” square and the market. Operating since 2010, it’s a citizen-run outdoor cultural project, with concerts, story-telling, basketball, occasional circuses or mini-markets; the concept is a shared space where people can get together, chat, have fun, share ideas. Oh, and sometimes have August “pool parties” in protest for the delay in creating our leisure center – wear your swimsuit, bring buckets of water, squirt-guns and your towel. City Hall has given its OK on the Campo de la Cebada for now, though probably no funding for activities. It’s not clear when / if the urban renewal project will happen or what will happen to the Barley Field when (if) the project happens (go to http://elcampodecebada.org/ and “Agenda” to see upcoming events at The Barley Field).

Practical information:

Geographical limits: La Latina borders are more or less these: from Plaza Segovia Nueva (just south of Plaza Mayor) south along Toledo street, Estudios street and Ribera de Curtidores to Ronda de Toledo, then west to Glorieta Puerta de Toledo, north-northwest along Gran Via de San Francisco and Bailen to the Viaducto over Segovia street and Segovia street east back to Plaza Segovia Nueva. That’s the big picture: many locals would say that the part between Toledo and Ribera de Curtidores is Rastro, not La Latina, others would end the neighborhood at Cava Alta / Almendro in the north instead of Plaza Segovia Nueva. And take note: central Madrid La Latina neighborhood takes its name from the subway stop, and is completely different from City Hall administrative district La Latina, a southwest slice of the city, not in the center.

What’s in the name: La Latina metro stop takes its name from Beatriz Galindo, founder with her husband of Nuestra Señora de la Concepción convent. Beatriz was a writer and teacher, most notably to Isabel La Católica (who ruled 1474-1504) and Isabel’s children; Beatriz’s nickname was La Latina due to her skill in Latin from a very young age. The convent was founded in the early 16th century on Toledo street next to Plaza de la Cebada, outside the city center of that time and next to a small hospital. The original building was torn down in 1904 to widen Toledo, and shortly after that a new convent built in a neo-mudejar decorative brick style. Fiestas Paco party-ware store is at street level of the current convent, which bears a plaque explaining the founding of the original convent.

Metro stops: La Latina in the north, Puerta de Toledo in the south and Tirso de Molina a little out of neighborhood to the east.