Author Archive for AnneInSpain

Ride the RailTrails


“Excuse me, señora, could you tell us where the Carrilet is?

Without saying a word, the elderly woman pointed behind us. We turned, and rather embarassed, recognized the stone foundations of a railway bridge right behind us. No roadbed on top, but the foundations were definitely there.


Really, we should have seen it. But that was 1993, our second day of biking an old railbed only partially converted to a bike track and we hadn’t developed the skills that would guide us later on. One thing quickly learned: when in doubt, it was best to ask someone older. Many would remember when the railroad was still in use.

Losing train service is bad news for a town, but now the old railbeds have an alternative use for walking or biking, a use that has gone from marginal to mainline in a very short time, often bringing employment and eco-friendly development to rural areas. Most of these trails are used by locals of all ages – grampa walking for health, ladies out for a Sunday stroll, joggers, kids learning to ride bikes – as well as visitors exploring on foot, by bike or on horseback.

Before thinking “not for me” please read on a bit. Spain’s Vias Verdes have something for just about everyone. They’re a great add-on to other trips as well as a destination of their own: a pre-lunch stroll, access to great scenery or a historical sight, a way to burn off kid-energy. The Vias Verdes are definitely something to keep in mind as you start thinking about upcoming spring holidays.

Rails to rail-trails, a bit of history: Spanish train company RENFE was set up in 1941 to create order in Spain’s chaotic and almost bankrupt. Renfe immediately closed many train lines as unprofitable at that time, then again in the 1960’s – 1980’s as freight and passenger traffic moved towards the highways. In numbers, a detailed 1993 study showed 7,600 kilometers (about 4,720 miles) of unused railbeds.

That’s a significant year: in 1993 the Fundacion de Ferrocarriles Españoles (FFE, Foundation of Spanish Railways) began coordinating the Vias Verdes program to convert the unused railbeds to rail-trails or greenways: tracks for bikers, walkers and horseback riding. Around 1,700 kilometers (about 1,000 miles) have been converted since 1993.

What are the Vias Verdes like? Rail trails are generally not hilly, though some of the old mining railroads have a prolonged grade in one direction or another. Just choose your direction correctly you’ll be cruising downhill.

About 60 of the 93 rail-trails created to date are equipped with bridges, tunnels, signs, kilometer markers, benches for resting and a good surface. Quite a few of these trails are stroller and wheelchair-accessible, appropriate for children who are still wobbly on their two-wheelers. Theoretically on these trails there is no motorized traffic – but in a few cases the trail is used for local traffic.

The remaining trails can be used by the adventurous. Depending on the trail there may be little or no signage, tunnels with no lights, rough surface or navigational issues. These rail-trails are not dangerous but are usually more challenging – and quite possibly more fun for experienced walkers and bikers.

Play detective! While on the Vias Verdes, watch for signs of their rail history, an detective game that’s fun for adults as well as kids. Check out the railbed itself, complete with bridges, embankments and tunnels. Look for old train infrastructure like loading docks, water tanks, signage, freight yards and an occasional tie still embedded in the ground. Notice the “recycled” stations, somehow still train-like but with new uses like bike rental, art or music schools, police or fire stations, hotels, restaurants, libraries, a car wash, bathhouse for swimming pools, churches or even part of a convent.

For more information see website – the English section is pretty good.

For route information, go directly to itineraries / itinerarios link at top left. All trails have basic information on distance, maps, trail surface, and some trails have full route information on accommodations, local fiestas, bike rental, tourism offices (where you could ask about horseback riding). Look for the green leaf on trail listing to see what trails have extra information. Most routes have comments by users (in Spanish), good to check especially if you are less experienced or traveling with children.

Want some suggestions? See below – an asterisk* after the name indicates trails with more route information on website.

Carrilet – I (Girona)* An old mining railroad that also had passenger service. Follows a pretty valley between medieval Girona and Olot. Best parts: Olot – Les Preses and San Feliu de Pallerols –

Amer. A personal favorite, near pretty villages, a lovely natural natural park, Girona city and more.

Terra Alta (Tarragona)* Inland Tarragona, goes through wine country and a convoluted landscape of low mountains. Lots of tunnels, most light up automatically as you enter, but good to take a flashlight just in case. Best part: Bot – Pinell de Brai (in that direction, downhill). From Pinell you can continue on the Baix Ebre rail-trail to Tortosa and then to Amposta on the Ebro Delta.

Senda del Oso (Asturias) An old mining railroad. Spectacular scenery, try to see at least Peñas Xuntas gorge. This rail-trail is usually considered one ove the best in the country. Near Oviedo and several of the Asturian pre-Romanesque churches.

De Pas (Cantabria)* From mountains almost to the sea, this rail trail has Cantabría’s beautiful green scenery. Goes through Puente Viesgo spa town.

Plazaola (Navarra)* Originally a mining railway, later enlarged and lengthened to include passenger service. Pretty mountain route, be sure to travel north for a downhill cruise.

Sierra de la Demanda (Burgos) Another old mining railroad, see the smelting chimneys in Barberillo de los Herreros. The whole trail is pretty, perhaps the best is around Pineda de la Sierra (nice church). This railbed continues north (unsigned) to near archaeological site Atapuerca, discovered when the railroad was built in the late 19th century. The southern end is near various cultural sites in eastern Burgos.

Alberche (Madrid) A Primo de Rivera project that never saw trains, what now remains is from San Martin de Valdeiglesias to Picadas dam. Best part: along the Picadas reservoir, starting by the M501 highway. Not signed but following edge of reservoir no way to get lost. Absolutely flat, nice scenery, a good day trip from Madrid.

Jara (Toledo)* Another Primo de Rivera project, this trail is in western Toledo, between Santa Quiteria and Calera y Chozas. Usually considered one of the best rail trails in central Spain, when traveling north it’s a long smooth downhill, with typical La Mancha-Extremadura scenery. The southern end is near Guadalupe monastery.

Sierra (Cadiz-Sevilla)* Yet another Primo de Rivera project, fully built and never used. Several of the old train stations have been converted to hotels and restaurants, one to a bird-watching center (near Zaframagón bluff, huge vulture colony). Pretty scenery. Near Ronda and the white villages.

Aceite (Jaen)* Southwest from Jaen through a typical landscape of olive groves, with nine iron bridges from the 19th century. The roughly parallel highways would be an interesting back route between Jaen and Granada.

Via Verde trivia
– The first: Senda del Oso and the Carrilet I were both created in 1993-94, Aceite shortly afterwards.

– The most visual: For scenery: my personal choice would be the rail-trails in the green north, other people would choose the more Mediterranean routes in the south and east. For impressive train infrastructure (bridges, tunnels, etc) Del Aceite, la Sierra, de la Jara, Serpis, Plazaola, del Oso are all good choices.

– How a Via Verde is created and managed: The process of creating a rail-trail starts at a local level, usually when a local government contacts the Fundacion de Ferrrocarriles Españoles (FFE) to ask about turning an unused railbed into a rail-trail. In some cases, the FFE contacts local governments to suggest the idea, especially if they’re coordinating a project in an adjacent area. To encourage local governments to consider this idea, the Foundation maintains a pretty good website and does ongoing promotion like conferences and visits to functioning rail-trails.

Once the process starts, the FFE answers questions, gives ideas, helps with viability studies or proposals to get funding. They Foundation doesn’t finance the projects directly, but they help find financing from governmental sources or sponsers. The cost varies tremendously depending on the condition of the railbed, but can easily reach 25,000 euros for a kilometer of trail.

A Via Verde needs to be well designed, useful for local people and a good draw for tourism to make that investment in money and energy worthwhile. Through good planning, good luck or maybe the boom in active travel, most rail-trails are quite successful, bringing recreational options for locals, employment and eco-friendly development to rural areas.

When the rail-trail is completed, the maintenance and management is carried out on a local level. The FFE displays information on the Via Verde website, and acts as a watchdog to be sure the local government fulfills their obligations. If a Via Verde is not managed correctly – unauthorized motorized vehicles on the trails being a big issue, lighting in long tunnels another – the FFE posts a notice on their website, hoping the problems will be solved. Theoretically a trail can be downgraded, which could reduce the number of users and revenue for an area.

Buy by weight in Madrid

One of the best additions to Madrid’s commercial scene in recent years: stores where you can buy many kinds of non-perishables by weight. We’re talking different kinds of nuts and dried fruit, many kinds of beans, lentils, pasta, various grains including oddities like barley, and lots and lots of rice – one place has 15 kinds, and even then not the really odd stuff.

So why buy at these places? Well, most stores bag in paper, so you are doing your bit for the environment. You can also buy just about any quantity, which is good if you only need a little for a recipe and don’t want leftovers, whether to avoid temptation of extra chocolate chips, or due to space constraints. You can also get a small amount to try an oddity – green rice, black quinoa, chestnut-flour pasta – or get a mega amount of something you know you like a lot but can rarely find, so you want to stock up.

There are quite a few of these stores nowadays, here’s a selection with my admittedly subjective comments. (niceness is an important factor for choosing where to shop!). At any of these places there shouldn’t be a problem if you take your own bag, but you should definitely ask before assuming it’s ok.

A note on quantities:  many of us think more by volume than by weight. You can ask for a scoop (una pala), half scoop, or the weight you want.  When getting beans, grains or pasta, I usually ask for a quarter-kilo, which is a little more than a half-pound.

Casa Ruíz. This is my favorite, there’s a good selection and one store isn’t far from my apartment. Small chain with stores in Barcelona and four stores in Madrid center-city. Store employees bag, in paper. Large, good selection, well laid out. They do themed gift boxes, too. My opinion: employees at Santa Maria de la Cabeza store are nicer than Andrés Mellado – those are the two stores where I shop. More info at

Pepita y Grano. Another small chain, three stores in Madrid. Store employees bag, in paper. Good selection, including some really unusual rice. Have only shopped at their newish store on San Bernardo, really nice employees. More info at

Placeres A Granel. Medium size independent store (not a chain) near Argüelles metro. Super cute store, good selection, and very nice woman owner / manager. Store employees bag, in paper. Calle Guzman el Bueno 4. More info at

El Granero de la Corredera. Medium size store, two in Madrid, I’ve only seen the one near Noviciado metro. Clients bag, in paper. Good selection, though I prefer layout of other stores more. Corredera Baja de San Pablo 33. More info at

Casa Terra. Biggish store just off Gran Via. Nice layout and good selection.  Lots of unusual pasta, not wheat-based. Store employees bag, in paper. Nice people.  More info at

Granel Madrid. Smaller store in the upper Rastro area. In Covid-times you may need to wait if employees are waiting on other clients. Smaller so less selection, but still very worthwhile, this is where I go if need something in a hurry (it’s closer to my apartment than any other store). Generally nice, especially the woman. Employees bag, in paper. Calle Embajadores 12. More info at

Bio c’bon. General health food store that has some products by weight. French chain with three stores in Madrid. Clients bag, in paper, from plastic containers with levers. They used to have pretty good selection, but I was at the Princesa store recently and they were very low on stock on everything, not just products by weight. Check online before heading to any of their stores, I think the company has had some economic issues and may be closing at least the Princesa store. More info at

Salud Mediterranea. Another general health food store with some products by weight. The by-weight selection isn’t huge, but this is one of the best health food stores in Madrid, three stores, one near Atocha (the one I know), one near Chueca (which is mostly if not all cosmetics and supplements, not food), and another store in Salamanca neighborhood. Client bags, in paper, from plastic containers like previous place. More info at


Life in Time of Covid19




Balcony banner: We’re going to get through this. #I’m staying at home


Life in the Time of Covid-19

This is a personal account about Spain’s experience spring-summer 2020 with the COVID-19 virus.    As such, there are some personal stories, some opinion, and yes, some politics, though a lot of this is hard news with some minor interpretation. No apologies for the opinions or politics and please do not bother refuting here or on Facebook; I’m not starting an argument (dialogue always ok if respectful), just reporting what I saw and felt.

Yes, it’s long. Feel free to scroll / skip around.   Some of you know this story from having experienced firsthand, or having read my posts during lockdown.


The onset
Spain’s first detected case of COVID-19 was January 31 on island of La Gomera, a German tourist who most likely was infected in Germany before arrival. Nine days later there was another case on Balearic island of Mallorca, another tourist. Late in February the first cases were detected on the mainland (Madrid, Valencia and Catalonia).

It’s hard if not impossible to find patient “zero”, but some of the first mainland cases in Spain are probably connected to a soccer game between a Spanish team from Valencia and an Italian team from Bérgamo . That game was played in Milan mid-February, with around 40,000 Italian fans and 2,500 Spanish fans. Late in February there were several other soccer games in large stadiums and the traditional weeklong art fair (ARCO), with 93,000 visitors, many international. Then the weekend of March 7-8 saw more soccer games, a political rally for the newish far-right political party VOX, and the traditional Women’s Day demonstration-celebration. And in Madrid, a traditional and traditionally crowded farmers’ market on Saturday, with a lot of close contact and sharing yummy food.

All of those events were before the virus really became visible in Spain and all those events probably contributed to the spread of the virus. But with what we know now, it’s quite possible that the virus was circulating undetected, even before the first cases, and for sure before numbers exploded in later March.

Some politics (you can definitely skip this if not interested)

Quick summary on Spain’s political spectrum, since there are some implications for the virus management.

Spain has two big country-wide parties, the Partido Socialista Obrero Español (PSOE Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party, social-democrat, center to mid-left) and the Partido Popular (PP, Popular Party, starts right of center and goes a little farther right than mid-right). Both parties have had their share of fraud, mismanagement and in-party fighting, the PP issues are more recent.

There are three other major country-wide parties: left of the PSOE is Unidos Podemos (UP, United We Can), a newish coalition of an older coalition and the newish party Podemos that started ok but went south after party infighting and mismanagement. Squeezed between the PSOE and the PP is another newish party Ciudadanos (CC, Citizens) which overlaps both parties a little and does some swing voting; they grew quickly with previous voters from both parties, but lost a lot of votes in the last election due to some bad decisions. On the far (far, far) right of the spectrum is Vox (sort of like Voice), the newest party which I cannot even write about without some anxiety.

There are also a fair number of regional parties that do not have a lot of support outside their regions, spread across the political spectrum, and aligning when and where their interests lie.

Currently Spain’s government is a center – left coalition, made up of PSOE, UP and some regional parties, with PP and Voz firmly in the opposition and CC often but not always in the opposition. It’s a coalition government because with so many parties, now the only way to have a big enough majority to elect the Prime Minister (done in Congress after the popular vote) is usually to form a coalition with several parties; the current coalition was formed early in 2020 after prolonged wrangling behind closed doors. Spain’s Prime Minister (head of government) is Pedro Sanchez from the PSOE. Spain is a a Constitutional Monarchy, so King (Felipe VI) has no real political power but signs laws into effect.

State of Alarm
The Spanish Constitution (approved by referendum in 1978) sets out rules for different States of Exception, including the State of Alarm (SoA). The SoA is declared by the Prime Minister, must be approved by Congress and can only be for 14 days, extensible for same period with renewed approval of Congress. Spain’s first SoA started March 14 (see Errors for some comments on timing of this). It was pretty clear that the SoA would be declared from early in that week – schools closed different days depending on region, but generally before actual SoA, Madrid schools closed March 11. I tried to go to the gym on March 12, entrance and what I could see was unusually empty, people at front desk told me they were waiting for confirmation but they most likely would have to close that same day, perhaps within a few hours, dependent on news in official state bulletin.

The SoA (which we all called the lockdown or encierro/enclosure) was quite strict: we could only leave our homes to buy food or medicine or to go to the doctor. Dog owners could walk their dogs, but not excessively; joke was that people borrowed dogs from friends to have excuse to go out, though that may not have really happened. Theoretically we were supposed to food-shop at places closest to our homes, though surely I was not the only person going farther away just to get some exercise. Unlike other countries with lockdowns, we did not have any option for walking for exercise until early May.

And yes, the lockdown was fairly well enforced. For someone like me who remembers the extreme police presence of immediately post-Franco Spain, it was really disconcerting to see so many police in the street. And yes, I had a personal encounter with the police, having ventured to a market some distance from my apartment looking for unusual vegetables unavailable in my neighborhood (celeriac and sunchokes, if you’re curious). My market mission was unsuccessful, and I was headed up an absolutely empty Gran Via (main shopping street in center city, usually crowded) towards a big supermarket when two police stopped me and asked nicely if I was aware of the current mobility restrictions. Equally nicely I said that I was on a quest for a strange vegetable to boost immune system and now on my way to the supermarket, they asked where I live, asked to see my ID and let me go. They could have fined me since I was a little too far from my home, but between my age, gender, not-Spanish nationality and politeness they didn’t. And yes, channeling my mother, I thanked them before we parted ways (although did not use the “time and talent” phrase that she liked to use. That would have been over the top, the thank you surprised them enough).

My other almost-encounter was less direct but more scary. Early in our lockdown I left to go shopping, and saw two people in full haz-mat suits at the door of building next to mine, with several police nearby and two ambulances on the nearest cross-street (my street is pedestrian). When I came back from shopping, ambulances and haz-mat people were gone, but there were two police still at the door of the other building. They kept their eye on me until I unlocked my downstairs door. I did wonder if they would have stopped me from walking past the door of the other building, if I had been going that way.

Any kind of shopping was quite an adventure. The only stores open for first months were grocery stores; store selling office supplies; cell phone/supplies stores; cleaning supplies stores; and (get this) alcohol, as in wine, beer, gin, etc. Oh, and pastry shops / bakeries and some sweet-and-salties shops (snackies being necessities in time of lockdown, ya’know). All stores controlled number of people inside, so we had to line up everywhere to wait our turn to go in, sanitize hands and usually put on single-use gloves. Checkout lines had (and still have) lines on the floor to help people keep proper distance.

During this initial time, masks were not officially required though that changed fairly soon to being obligatory anywhere public indoors, soon extended to on public transportation and anywhere public where personal distance could not be maintained. I made my own masks fairly early on; Madrid health service gave everyone a nice KN95 style mask (the kind with shaped front), and also a surgical mask, which was distributed by local police outside train stations early in May when masks became required on public transportation.

While stuck at home, many of us started following an 8 PM ritual: standing on our balconies to clap in thanks, especially for health care workers but also for other essential workers risking their health and even their lives to take care of the ill and keep society moving (bus drivers. cashiers. cleaners. and a lot more). That started early on, and continued daily until well into May or early June. My balconies are onto a big patio; I was one of the regular “clappers”, and ended up with a waving relationship with other people looking onto the patio. (Some weeks after we stopped clapping, I connected with the most frequent clapper across the way: she wrote her cell number in big numbers on a big notepad, I texted her and we went out for coffee.) As a counterpart to the clapping, the opposition parties called for a daily pan-banging at 9 PM: standing on the balcony and bang a pan with a spoon in protest for the government’s virus management (according to them). This was not followed in my neighborhood, I think there was one person a street over on maybe two nights, while the clapping (and cheering) was enthusiastic and weeks-long. Other friends and acquaintances tell me that pan-banging was more frequent than clapping in their neighborhoods.

Our lockdown was super tight until late April. First group liberated were kids under 14 years old, who could go out for an hour a day for a walk after April 27 – though theoretically only with one parent, and not to play with friends. (anyway, all kid stuff taped off and parks closed). Next groups liberated: May 2 was the day HOORAY! We all got some freedom for exercise, though in slots of time and theoretically limited in distance to one kilometer from home for walking, though “sports” had no limits, so of course my power-walking became a sport and I never got stopped. (didn’t go too far out of my area, anyway). Parks were closed which placed some serious limitations on were to walk and together with time slots even created crowding, at least in the places I was walking. I usually walked 7.45-8AM to 10AM or a little later – technically my slot ended at 10AM (10-12 AM for over 70’s), but I usually used walking as prelude to any shopping, for necessities real or imagined – never has my pantry been so well-stocked! I went out after 8pm several times – that was other time slot for my age group – but it was really crowded, lots of people standing on corners socializing, understandable but probably risky. So I rarely went out in that time slot.

The State of Alarm was renewed seven times times, each time with Congress’ approval. The last two renewals were especially problematic, with opposition from PP and Vox. If I remember correctly, both times CC voted for the extension. The State of Alarm ended on June 20, after more than three months of lockdown.

The last weeks of the SoA were the “de-escalation”, four two-week periods gradually loosening the lockdown, with parameters for moving from level 0 through levels to level 3: that was May 11 to June 20. The parameters for changing from one level to another included amount of contagion in a health-region, number of total hospital beds available, number of ICU beds available, level of testing, level of primary care. The two-week period for each level was to match the maximum incubation period, to be able to evaluate effects of increased mobility on contagion. Still under SoA, the decisions for allowing regions to move between levels were still being made at central government. If I remember correctly, at level 3 some of the health decisions returned to local health-region.

Since regions had different situations, parts of Spain where at different levels: lower-contagion Galicia and the two island provinces skipped level 0, going directly to level 1. Madrid and other areas stayed at level 0 longer; Madrid was still in level 2 at the end of lockdown so we went directly into the New Normal from level 2, with no intermediate level 3. Each level had gradually more movement allowed, regulating what kind of establishments could open and at what capacity: outdoor cafés were among the first to open (yay!), though indoor restaurants not until a later level, and in both cases with lower-than-normal capacity and strict-ish table distancing regulations.

Madrid entered phase 0 on May 11. That more or less was the end of our super-strict lockdown. We could go out for exercise without restrictions on time, though still could not leave our city / town. That was in later phase, though between one thing and another, I did not leave Madrid until mid-July. Yes, had my first social encounter early in phase 0 (coffee in Santa Ana square, people-watching and checking out waiters fulfilling new table wipe-down rules. People all seemed a little subdued, not usual Madrid vibe. Shortly after that met a different friend for a wine and again, it was different. Usually in Spain you can dawdle over your wine or beer, but with fewer tables available due to new spacing rules, the waiter and clients were glaring at us when we stayed on a bit after second wine. About a month later with same friend we had another wine (Verdejo white, in case you are interested), that time we stayed on and waitstaff was very welcoming, even invited us to a round.

Spain is in the New Normal as of June 21. We’ll see where it goes – actually, we’re already seeing some of the new reality and it isn’t great – yet. Economically it has been huge, especially for hotels, bars, restaurants. Lots of places are closed in Madrid-center, some may not open again, others may open in September when locals come back from vacation and the bar/hotel/restaurant furlough period ends. Small stores seem less busy; I was looking in a shop window and the shopkeeper called out a greeting to come on in to his empty shop, which has never happened to me in the past. I haven’t been to the big stores in central Madrid (department store nor my beloved FNAC books and music nor Decathlon sports store) so cannot evaluate how they’re doing, but my general feeling is that a lot of people are still hunkering down, evaluating what they have, what they need, what money they have, where in the past at least some of those places benefited from a fair amount of retail therapy, where now people are thinking more, whether from economics or from a mindset shift from the lockdown, which seems to have happened for a fair number of people. (a lot of us are still feeling fragile, and from comments of people online that is not just here in Spain).


Other comments.

Communication with citizens
One thing I really noticed in the management of COVID-19 is the importance of messaging. Health authorities and all levels of government need to work together to give clear, frequent, honest and consistent messages to citizens. The messages need to express the severity of the situation and at the same time emphasize that with everyone working together, the situation will eventually get better. Messages should also include compassion for the numerous and complicated emotional and economic issues of this pandemic.  If messaging is absent or off, it’s really hard to get citizens to follow health guidelines.

Spain’s main messenger was rather atypical: epidemiologist Fernando Simon is never seen in a suit and tie, frequently has messy hair and carries a backpack instead of a briefcase; the public has learned that he goes to work on a motorcycle and de-stresses with surfing or technical rock climbing. As unconventional a messenger as he is, his curriculum is impressive and his messaging must have been fabulous both in delivery and information shared, because he went from unknown to literally having a large fan club and his face on tee-shirts (when queried about that, he suggested that some of the profit go to a NGO). I don’t watch TV so only saw a few videos and can say personally that I’d be more likely to trust a message from someone like Fernando Simon than from most suits. Though yes, I am making an exception for Dr. Anthony Fauci, for whom I have a very high respect, even if he can’t pitch a baseball.

The errors
Like other countries, Spain’s government was a little slow setting out restrictions at the start of the pandemic. That is understandable: calling for restrictions is complicated both politically and economically, and it was hard to evaluate and really believe the impact the virus would have. Nevertheless, it’s clear that if the State of Alarm had been called just a week earlier, the situation would have been very different. Another error was closing schools several days before State of Alarm was called, giving kids two play days with friends, and giving families time to head to vacation homes. Both those situations probably helped spread the virus.

There have been questions about the length of the State of Alarm and about the parameters and timing of the de-escalation; the complaints were mainly from the opposition parties who wanted a faster un-winding, but also from some regions where contagion was lower, where they also wanted to get back to “normal” more quickly.

Spain’s Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez (PSOE) has publicly admitted to having made some mistakes – that kind of admission is rather rare for politicians. The opposition parties (PP and Vox) have criticized the government’s virus strategy, though they have not had a lot of really good alternative suggestions. Pedro Sanchez has asked the opposition to hold their criticism until the health crisis is closer to a solution.

At the end of July, the leader of far-right party VOX (Santiago Abascal) announced in Congress that in September he would present a vote of no-confidence against Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez, because it is important to “return the voice to the Spanish people”, calling Sanchez’ government illegitimate, and calling on the PP to support the censure (for now, the PP has said no). Sanchez’s ironic reply was to ask Abascal that if it was so important why wait? Or was he (Abascal) going on vacation in August?

Where now, early August 2020?

COVID-19 is going to be around for a while, probably a long while, even if we get a vaccine relatively soon, which is not 100% sure.

So…… to stop the virus spread, we all need to think personal responsibility and social responsibility, following health guidelines to stay safe ourselves, and to not endanger other people should we be or become infected. Yes, at very least that means masks, personal distance, lots of hand-washing, avoid face-touching, avoid touching surfaces outside your safe-zone (your home), sanitize high-touch areas in your home if you or others have been out.

But it also means evaluating risks and making good decisions. There are a multitude of charts to help you evaluate risks of different activities, but it’s easier than that. Indoors is higher risk than outdoors. More than 15 minutes encounter with a person at close proximity is a risk. Eating, drinking, talking, singing in close proximity is a risk. The last two are especially risky without masks. Alas, a lot of the recent contagion in Spain has been through social contacts: parties, family meals, bars, etc, which seems to indicate that some people are not making great decisions.

So where is travel on the risk spectrum? Yeah, this is especially important for me. My favorite kind of travel is walking and hiking, so as outdoors, not too risky. Hotels have new health guidelines, as do albergue pilgrim accomodations on the Camino (Road of St. James). The albergues are usually communal everything so their changes are more complicated and more important than hotels – as such, quite a few albergues have been unable to fulfill guidelines within a reasonable time frame and reasonable cost, so many have not opened yet and may not open this year. Alas, that is especially true for the traditional “donation” albergues that do not charge a fixed amount, rather whatever pilgrims can / want to pay. Which of course means some people who can pay do not, causing ongoing, on-edge finances for these traditional establishments (that dynamic has been going on for years, the new health guidelines make it even more complicated). The other part of travel is transportation: I feel ok on buses and trains in Spain where masks are required. Research shows that planes are not too risky if they are not at capacity, though of course there is a lot of conflicting information from different studies.


New Normal, going forward is not just going back

So now the philosophy. We’re all longing for our PV (pre-virus) life. Hugs, socializing, eating in restaurants, care-free travel, movies and theater and a lot more. It’s hard to even think how casual we were about all those things, just eight months ago.

And yes, a lot of those things will return, between herd immunity and whatever vaccine comes (when it comes). Although a lot of us will probably be at least a little wary for the foreseeable future, even when the virus is more or less under control.


The other part about going forward is contemplating what the virus has shown us about our society and our world. COVID-19 has really taught some lessons about a lot of things: health in general; economic inequality; access to health care; responsibility of governments on all levels to keep citizens informed ; responsibility of government to manage crisis for the health and well-being of their citizens; citizen responsibility to make the right decisions for themselves and for society in general. There have also been questions about climate change and human pressure on natural space creating more situations where virus can jump from animals to human.

Obviously I could go on or go into detail, but other people have already done that better than I can. This is just a reminder that this Great Pause is a huge crisis, an enormous tragedy, but also an opportunity for all of us to think honestly about what the Old Normal was like – not just the good things we miss, but the less-good things that need change. Some of those less-good things are out of our direct control, but at least we can be aware of things that need fixing and change our attitudes, if that will help.

And yes, we need to manage changes going forward, because going back to things obviously wrong or broken is not the way to have a better world.

And yes, those of us living in responsive democracies need to get together and tell our governments, on all levels, what needs to be changed.

Potty Talk

Yes, this is relevant. All will be revealed.


So the urge strikes when you are far from home. What’s a girrrlll gonna do? 

Because yes, this is for women. Men have it a lot easier when needing a bathroom break.

Urban needs
Locals in Spain joke that there’s a bar/café every other block in most cities – until you desperately need a coffee, a beer or a potty break, then there are none. In smaller towns the rule of thumb is bar in the main square, bar on the highway, though yes, there are towns where that rule does not apply and even (gasp!) towns with no bars.

Cultural notes: in Spain we call them “bars”, which in English may sound alcoholic, but in Spain most places serve coffee, alcohol and some kind of food. There are several words for bathroom: aseo, servicio, baño and WC are the most frequent. In most places, the bathrooms are only for clients; if you really, really don’t want anything, you can offer 50 centimes or a euro and gesture at the bathroom or ask if you speak Spanish. This has become standard practice some places on the Camino / Road of St. James.

Pick your place: Gone are the bad old days of really deficient bathrooms. Gone (thankfully!) is Elefante toilet paper, brown paper bag on a roll, also gone is crepe-paper toilet paper (neither very efficient or user-friendly). Now most public places have clean or very clean bathrooms, though some might be missing hand soap and every now and then toilet paper. Tip on the TP: check on the wall before you go into your stall. Some public bathrooms now have a big dispenser outside the stalls, grab what you need before going into your stall. (this might sound silly, but does eliminate the task of looking into all the stalls until you find one with paper). And yes, it’s a good idea to always have Kleenex with you, just in case.

If you are often out and about in your city, it’s good to locate the best not-bar potties on your usual routes. This is especially important if you are often with kids or if you sometimes have sudden urges. Here are some of mine in Madrid:

Corte Inglés department store in Callao, second floor next to the elevators (other “Corte” stores are also good choices but I never remember where the WC is located in most stores, this one is easy to find). FNAC in Callao, top floor. Bus stations at Moncloa, Principe Pio and Plaza de Castilla; for the last in the underground station and also surface station between the leaning towers. (yes, these are usually all quite clean). Most Mercadona supermarkets. Retiro park, three WC that I know of (near Angel Caido, near the bandstand on north side of the park, near the southwest corner of the big lake). And last but definitely not least, the brown-box freestanding bathrooms, on the street various places around the city. They cost 10 centimes and yes, they really do seem to self-clean after each use, I’ve never found an icky one.

On the trail
Sooner or later it’s going to happen. You need a potty break when there are no potties to be had. This is not a major problem, though the first time might cause some anxiety. Just keep some things in mind:

Pick your place. (duh). Get far enough away from the trail to not be obvious, but not so far away that you have problems finding your way back, especially important if you are in thick vegetation or on a lightly travelled trail. This may sound silly, but people can and do get turned around after a pee-break. If you are with a group, it’s good to tell someone you are taking a break, perhaps with a code phrase like “looking for a green door”, borrowed from a long-ago hiking friend and now my own code for walking with groups (yes, that’s the reason for the photo at the top, now you know!).

Know the unfriendly plants and stay as far away as possible. Brambles and other thorny things are obvious, but you should also know more or less what poison ivy looks like, and in Spain, stinging nettles.

Leave no toilet paper. This is a no-brainer, but many people do not follow this simple rule. There several ways around this, of course: pack your paper out in a plastic bag, dump the contents at first trash can; don’t use at all, drip onto panty liner and clean yourself up at first opportunity; peecloth made of an old sheet or bandanna, kept in plastic bag and washed out as frequently as possible.

Be fast and / or discrete, especially important if you are on a well-travelled trail like the Camino (Road of St. James).  One fabulous way to be discrete is to wear a skirt for hiking, that way you will rarely if ever be caught showing the unshowable (more on that idea here ). Another way to be fast is a F.U.D. or female urination device. These thingies are also known as pee-funnels (yes really) and let women pee standing up, just unzipping your pants and using the funnel as per manufacturer suggestions and your own common sense. Women seem to have strong opinions about these devices, from “game-changer” to “useless”. That seems to depend partly on strength of quads (for squatting) and / or open-ness to strange new ideas (of course these work when in really icky bathrooms as well as on the trail).  If this device sounds like it might work for you, read reviews of the various F.U.D. brands out there as they really are different. Do some googling with F.U.D. or pee-funnel. Oh, and some suggestions for F.U.D use: practice in the shower first, learn about aim, and do not pee into the wind.

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. 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. 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: 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 . Several other small hotels or casas rurales (b&b) within 10km radius of Aguilar.


More information at:

Local tourism office: 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: 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): Want cookies? Click on Horarios then look for “Obrador”

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

*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

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:

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)

Good descriptions of many products covered by Spanish D.O.

Good information on Spanish wine D.O., so you can do some exploring

Regulatory systems in the EU and elsewhere. (English)

Pages on this same site with more information on products with D.O. (English)
Cider in Spain
Hot peppers
Olive oil

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.

Map of fruits and nuts with D.O. (interesting!)

Frecuent questions about D.O. (probably less interesting for most readers)

Statistics for some D.O. products

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:

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).