Madrid Food and History Tour a Must-Do

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Madrid is a proud city—from colossal buildings of monumental magnificence to curious culinary corners where locals gather. While living in The Dominican Republic, I quickly noticed the neighborhood’s most precious food imports were from Spain, sangria was sipped in cafes daily, and the local families I knew traveled to the Mothership often—a rite of passage of a hallowed heritage. 

Though I’ve enjoyed eating in Madrid on previous solo trips, this time I went with the pros—Devour Madrid —and am so glad I did. As promised, on the Tapas, Taverns, & History Tour I learned more about the capital’s history, ate my weight in four family-run- century-old tapas bars, and walked and talked it off with an amazing guide, Eduardo Munoz, and some very nice people. 

At 6:30 we met at Plaza de la Villa– Medieval landmark/former seat of Madrid’s city government and site of The Casa de Cisneros, built in 1537 by the nephew of Cardinal Cisneros, advisor to Queen Isabel. By the time we parted four hours later, I’d met new friends—a couple from Arizona, another from outside London, a mom and son from North Carolina, and a woman from Washington, DC who also enjoys solo travel.  

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At our first stop, we enjoyed jamón ibérico de bellota and cured meats from several Spanish regions.  As a southern girl who lived two years in Morocco with almost no pork available,  I was in “country ham” heaven. We also enjoyed cava (similar to France’s Champagne) and award-winning organic olive oils.

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We each had to try drinking wine the traditional way. The no-spill secret was to pour into the mouth without hesitation, then extend the arm fully to allow a steady stream.

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On we walked to the Royal Palace (above) and Plaza Mayor (below).

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In the Plaza de Oriente is a statue of D.Pelayo Rei D Astu, leader of the Christian kingdom called Asturias. He is credited for starting the Reconquista which saved the Iberian peninsula from the Moors.
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The sign of a good tavern–literally–is daily specials on the chalkboard rather than laminated posted photos of food.
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Here we enjoyed Tosca Cerrada Palomino Fino en Rama 2016 made from grapes of Cadiz region of Spain stored in barrels which give it the flavor of sherry. Different and delicious.

 

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No food tour would be complete without giving The Botin, the oldest restaurant in the world, its due. On another trip to Madrid I made an evening here (more on that later).
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We also passed this popular Irish pub in Madrid.

Next stop was Meson del Champinon, a local institution where the stuffed mushrooms and pimentos (grilled peppers) are legendary. The sangria was excellent as well.

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Our final stop, a boutique hotel and bar in a building dating to the 14th century, was my favorite part of the evening. Eduardo said here we’d relax and talk over more food and wine. He added:

“Wine is like people. You have to give it time to express. It is about feelings. The older the wine the longer it takes to know it. It is more complex.”  He added we get to know each other over good wine. Certainly over our four hours together we enjoyed cultural and personal exchange.

We discussed the royal wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle. The Londoners said the princes marrying brides they met at university makes the monarchy more accessible. With big smiles and protective pride they added: “They lost their mother and the country loves them. It’s exciting!” We also revised our Bucket Lists based on suggestions of members of the group. I asked them about Sark, an island in the southwestern English Channel off the coast of Normandy which is reached by ferry and traveled by horse-drawn carriages because cars are not allowed. A friend says we should visit. They said they have been there and often travel to nearby Guernsey. By night’s end we discussed pros, cons, and principles on topics as varied as Uber vs Taxi, Hotel vs AirBnB and grocery dairy vs milkman delivery.

I was first drawn to Europe years ago by not only what was served on the table but by what transpires at table. Lingering over food, wine, and thoughtful perspectives makes my heart as full as my stomach. As we all parted, Eduardo gave us a curated city guide to navigate the rest of our stay, and when I return to the “real world” and face hard challenges or circumstances, I’ll remember his words: “Poor soil makes the best wine. The roots have to go deeper which makes it richer.”

 

Thanks to Devour Madrid for the tour. As always the opinions here are my own.

Auld Lang Syne…Best Part of My German Holiday

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Age appears to be best in four things: old wood best to burn, old wine to drink, old friends to trust, and old authors to read. –
Francis Bacon

It began as a house swap inspired by one of my favorite Christmas films, The Holiday.  My friend, Amy, would stay at my apartment in Marrakesh while I would stay in her apartment in Hamburg, Germany.  I’d also travel to see Arunima in Idstein, but she convinced me I’d be spending all of my time on a train. I didn’t want to be a bother, but she said I’m family.

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I met Mithu, (still Arunima to me) discussing old authors in my English class. She was my student and graduated high school in 1986– the last year I lived in Kentucky before moving to Tennessee. Though she hasn’t aged in three decades she was and is an old soul, still taking care of people she loves, still loved by many. The Super Student is now Super Mom. And a lifelong friend.

Thirty years ago she was my TA and Girl Friday (and Monday-Thursday), a pro at managing the yearbook staff, helping me with my paper load, and keeping a new teacher sane. She helped me pack up my life in Lexington and even visited me a few years after that in Nashville. In the time since we’d seen each other, she became a mom of twins in Germany who are now the age she was when I met her. Knowing I couldn’t fly home Christmas, she and her sons, Lucas and Max, graciously opened their home to me. And I am so grateful they did.

I knew reconnecting with this old friend would make my first Christmas away from my children bearable. She must have been exhausted after a weeklong business trip to Crete, and when she had time to decorate, cook, clean, and gift shop I have no idea. I do know that when she picked me up from the airport, same warm hug, same wry sense of humor, same kindness and ease, we picked up the friendship as if no time had passed. Now both adults, expats, single moms, we have even more in common.

Who knew in the ’80s two Kentucky girls would spend this Christmas together in Germany?   I will never forget walking into her quiet, peaceful home, advent candles glowing before a beautiful tree.

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Or wandering the quiet Sunday streets of Idstein, a town founded in the 12th century.  The oldest building, the watchtower below, was built around 1170, but became the “witches’ tower” around 1676 during witch hunts similar to those in Salem.

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Here mistletoe abounds.

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I will never forget talking the new Star Wars movie and books with Lucas and Max who are majoring in German and English (or playing Activity  which required game-challenged me to explain, pantomime, or draw the English translation of German words and phrases–like “pipe of an organ” or “beer crate” for my partner to guess).

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Or walking with Ingrid, the boys’ grandmother, in green fields flanked by a German wood and a pink sunset after she and Mithu prepared dinner. We returned to a cooked goose and white linen.

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Fresh apple pie, our Nachtisch (aftertable/dessert in German)
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Baker and Bearer of Roses

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Or being invited to the home of Patrik, Arunima’s boyfriend, where I had Christmas lunch with his mom and sister.

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Raclette on Christmas Day–simila to fondue, meat is grilled at table and topped with melted cheese

Or the night before I left, after a week of all the  food, food, food (to be said in the rhythm of Dr. Zeus) Arunima served,

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we relaxed, talked, and laughed over wine and a movie.  Prost! (Cheers!) to her visiting me in Marrakesh soon.

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As 2016 calls us to all look ahead in hope,

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I love that “Auld Lang Syne” (meaning “for the sake of old times”) reminds us to first look back in gratitude, remembering one of life’s greatest gifts, old friends.

In Cologne but Never Alone: Reminded by Christmas to Fear Not

 

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Christmas is charged with nostalgia. I’m in bed looking out my window at the Market of the Elves in Cologne, Germany. Under tents and trees all lit up, replicas of funny bearded men beckon below. Elf statues are more numerous here than in pictures of Santa’s workshop in the book Mama Lou read to my sister and me when we were kids. I came to Cologne to find Christmas cheer because I knew I’d need it.

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I have dreaded the holidays for months. It is the first Christmas I’ll spend without my children with me.  My son graduates in May on my daughter’s birthday. Last year we had the ultimate Christmas reunion, but because flights from Marrakesh to Nashville are too expensive with the May trip, we decided I’ll be home for Christmas if only in my dreams.

Because flights are cheap to Europe, I decided to spend the holiday with a friend in Germany and take the train to the Christmas markets. My daughter said she couldn’t bear to think of me sad in my apartment alone and all the family wished me well. All my coworkers—international teachers who in their collective years abroad have traveled to every country on the planet it seems—said “No one does Christmas like Germany.” And so here I am in a city with seven Christmas markets—an amazing place (as you’ll see in my next post). Yet despite enjoying the music, live trees, winter air wafting with spices and mulled wine, I’ve also shed some tears.

Since moving to Africa I’ve had bouts of loneliness and fear. Through every trial God comforted me, strengthened me, grew me more into the woman He has always wanted me to be. I have found freedom, peace, joy that nothing from without can sustain—only his presence within. I have seen beauty and experienced adventure as gifts—love letters from Him–during this amazing season. I have been protected and contributed on this new continent,  feeling totally in His will and being blessed beyond anything I could have ever imagined. Still… despite so much growth…so much faith and thankfulness for how far God has brought me physically, emotionally, and spiritually throughout the course of my life and particularly over the last sixteen months… despite feeling closer to God than ever  and thus, like the Proverbs woman clothed in strength and dignity who smiles at the future … a woman who now lives most days without fear, regret, and doubt….that woman took a holiday. Today, thankfully, she is back.

While teaching The Life of Pi my eyes filled at the line, “All of life is letting go.” It seems I was brought to Africa to learn this truth more than any other.  I had to let go of so much to follow the life in Morocco God planned for me. Being close to family and friends; renting the home and leaving the job where I’d been secure for over twenty years; giving up comforts like water and wifi that never failed, a car to grab what I forgot at the store, a neighborhood and greenway where I’d walk my sweet dog, Ella.

Letting go is painful. Because our natural reflex is to hold on. We fear if we let go we’ll lose something rather than free ourselves to receive gifts God wants to place in our hands. Letting go means losing the illusion of control and stepping out in faith, believing, remembering this leg of the journey was God-mapped though I can’t see where it ultimately will lead. I’m realizing that distance doesn’t mean I’m asked to let go of family and friends. Though I can’t hug them during the holidays, they are with me in my heart, loving me on Skype and in spirit.

Letting go means losing fear—the greatest enemy of the soul. I believe with all my heart, “God does not give us a spirit of fear, but of power, love, and a sound mind.” I just don’t always live it. Like Linus, I’ve been able to drop my security blanket (whatever I contrive and hold onto thinking it will protect me against fallout of a fallen world) when I remember two simple words—a mantra in my Bible: “Fear Not.”

My Truth and Light

Yesterday as I walked along the Rhine River with God I thanked Him for being my wonderful Counselor, my Prince of Peace. I believe with all my heart He is Emmanuel—God with us. This morning I googled “Daily Devotion” to reset (as I must do every day) my mind to truth.  Only truth trumps fear. Up popped this post by Jason Soroski explaining the impetus for dropping what we cling to in fear.   I’m also grateful for his Part 2, which reminds me why, after letting go, I as a human, pick up my blanket again.  I’ve often felt like Charlie Brown–someone who wants to be perfect but never gets it right.  I’m thankful for this reminder that I don’t have to. I’m loved by One who will never leave me.

I came to Morocco believing the move would benefit my family, finances, future, and faith.  In the latter, I knew I’d find true freedom.  I haven’t seen where my story will end and thus fear sometimes still rears its ugly head, but the Christmas story  reminds me again that I am to fear not.

On the train ride to Cologne I saw beautiful woods and a river. I knew this trip was what I needed. Though the skies were cloudy and I was striving to trust in the dark what I’d seen in the light, God again was taking me on a journey that would make me lie down in green pastures…lead me beside still waters… restore my soul.

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And this Christmas I find comfort and cheer knowing no matter what 2016 holds, no matter where I’ll live, work, serve, that surely goodness and mercy will follow my all the days of my life and I’ll dwell in the house of the Lord forever.

 

Spring Fling with Andalusia

There are so many precious moments we take for granted or don’t appreciate until later. Then there are those that while IN the moment, we realize we are happy and THIS time we will never forget. I knew on April 3, 2015 I was in one of those moments.

Since reading Paulo Coehlo’s The Alchemist–an inspiration for my move abroad– I’ve wanted to see Andalusia–the land of the book’s hero. I always understood why Santiago wanted to see the pyramids. But after seeing the shepherd’s home with Ale and Moni (who live in Vigo, Spain and met me in Tarifa), I marvel that he ever left.

I’ve loved singing in the car with the windows down since I was a kid. We sang with our taxi driver–a warm southerner full of fun and music–who even played one song dedicated to me, a fellow Southerner.  So if you are in Tarifa and need a ride to Bolonia Beach, Taxi 21, at the Tarifa Bus Station or 695 080 841 is the way to go.  The fee is 25 Euro.  Later in the season, a public bus will also be an option, but bet it won’t be as much fun as we had.

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I had a spring fling. I fell in love.  With Andalusia.

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Exhausted, I’d returned to Marrakech the day before from a 12-day, 7-city European tour/ Model United Nations conference with teens. Needing a vacation from that “vacation,” in less than 24 hours I’d washed clothes, repacked, and flew Ryan Air to Spain. In an hour, I was in Seville.

I wanted to relax in the sun after the snow in Russia. I needed time alone, then time with friends, Monica, who had suggested the southernmost tip of her country, and her husband, Ale. I needed to write, drink sangria, eat grilled meat, and wear summer clothes without harassment. I needed to be in a country that celebrates Easter. I needed to feel free again.

Though the distance between Southern Spain and Morocco is merely 35 kilometers and the two cultures share Moorish roots, in many ways they are worlds apart. Those wanting to experience both can fly from Marrakesh to Seville, then take the bus or rent a car to Tarifa. (Details found here.) Or from Marrakech, they can take the train or car, then ferry across. Likewise, some travel from Tarifa to Tangier by ferry for day trips or extended stays. And for those wanting to experience a third culture, they can hop a bus or taxi to British territory, Gibraltar, just 45 kilometers down the beach from Tarifa. The bus ride from Seville began at 8 PM—just in time for creamsicle sunsets and Irish green fields and olive groves.

I arrived at the bus station from Seville near midnight and was so happy to see, as promised, Juan Jose there to drive me to the condo I’d booked. He not only showed me how the kitchen appliances worked, but the pantry and fridge which he’d stocked with coffee, bread, butter, milk, and local olive oil. He showed me the lights of Tangier from the balcony. From The Beatles to the Beat Poets, the likes of The Rolling Stones, Tennessee Williams, William Burroughs, Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg sought the city’s inspiration. But this trip, I needed distance. I was grateful to be on Spanish soil again—not only because I’d been to Barcelona, but because the country is what a friend calls “the Mothership of Hispanic culture “ which I love and feels even more like home. I fell into bed and slept deeply.

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Refreshed, I wrote again while drinking coffee before green grass, sand, and sea. Though I didn’t see whales common to the area April-October, I felt another force of nature creating waves. Here winds created from air pressure where the Mediterranean meets the Atlantic range from 45-80 kilometers per hour, making this coast a kite-surfer’s paradise. (The next night I’d be blown so hard walking back to the condo from the Old Town that a new earring I bought that first afternoon would be swept from my ear and lost.)

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This is the land of Don Quixote.  It was too windy to ride one of the gorgeous Andalusian horses on the beach as I’d hoped, so I wandered into the Old Town, named from the Moorish invader, Tarif Ibn Malik, in the first century.   Castillo de Guzman was a walled fortress where long after African rule, the Spanish and British together defended the tower from Napoleon.

My first lunch was at Bar El Frances suggested by Juan Jose as well as Restaurante el Caseron.

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Cafe Babel became my wifi/sangria spot, and the next day where I had a Texas-sized plate of local beef.  (Everyone in Morocco thinks my accent is Texan, so it seemed fitting.)

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Guitarists playing, people laughing, beautiful boutiques with breezy beachwear calling.  By the time I left, the saleswomen at Butterfly Tarifa and Natural Chic Tarifa knew my name.  And I knew a new name, too.  I love MELÉ BEACH resort wear.

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http://www.belledusud.com/
Brought this blushing Barcelona baby home http://www.belledusud.com

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https://www.facebook.com/cafe10tarifa/timeline
Cafe 10 Tarifa https://www.facebook.com/cafe10tarifa/timeline

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Confiteria la Tarifena

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Cafe de la Lux

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That Diane Lane moment in Under the Tuscan Sun when you want to just go for it.

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Moni and Ale arrived on my second night in Tarifa.  We caught up on the balcony over good wine, then headed to the Old Town for the Easter procession and fresh catch.

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amovetomorocco.com likes matsuwines
Happened upon these guys–El Pícaro, El Recio and El Viejo– whose faces tell the age of the wine. Enjoy @matsuwines
Seville
After arriving in Seville I noticed many men dressed like this.

During Holy Week, Semana Santa, crowds–Catholic, Protestant (like me), or neither– come to see the processions of decorated floats carrying images Mary and Jesus.  In Tarifa the processions begin on two different streets but converge in the city square.  In churches floats of Mary and Jesus are cared for by members of cofradías.  We saw the Holy Thursday procession with Mary where black-robed “Nazarenos,” or the penitent ones, are in front of the float with a band behind.  Monica said Antonio Banderas carries a float annually in Malaga (another coastal city 160 kilometers east of Tarifa.)

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On our last day we headed to Bolonia Beach where we explored Roman ruins and ate on the sea. The next day we boarded different busses and hugged goodbye…till June.

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On Bolonia Beach, west of Tarifa, is the Roman ruins of Baelo Claudia. Here Emperor Claudius controlled trade routes in the first century AD.

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Easter in Europe

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It’s good to be back on the blog and away in Spain.  I’m writing again, finally, from my balcony in Tarifa in another Cádiz– not the one beside Kentucky lake where I grew up, but in a province of Andalusia.  From here Santiago, seeker in The Alchemist, set out on his adventure. Here I’m taking a much needed break from mine.

As the fog lifts and I listen to waves roll in, I can see Morocco just across the sea. Tarifa to Tangier is a 35-minute ferry ride but tired from travel, I’m ready to finish my spring break relaxing. In the last 13 days I’ve tasted 9 cities (all but one new to me) in 7 countries…posts of all of them to come.

Today I’m simply sharing Easter in Europe…eggs, lambs, baby chicks, churches…symbols of spring and new life.

When I was a child, Easter was boiling, then painting eggs with Mama Lou.  Each one became a fancy ladies’ face with tulip lips, rouged cheeks, bright eyes, and long lashes.  We’d top each girl with a tiny, pink hat, place her in a wicker basket on faux grass, then pose with our pretties by Forsythia bushes, buttercups, and purple hyacinths.  Easter was new dresses and patent leather shoes from J. C. Penney where Mama Sargeant worked.  It was an orchid or gardenia corsage for church from Daddy.  One year it was capes Mommy had tailored for my sister and me.  It was always sunrise service, breakfast, then back for Sunday school and church.

With my kids in Tennessee, Easter was a visit from the bunny, egg hunts, church, and a big lunch–glazed ham with all the fixins’.  We posed for pictures seated on the wicker lounger on the porch or hugged under the dogwoods and beside the snowball bush.

I miss my family this week, but I’m so thankful neither they nor I am ever alone.  Easter to me isn’t just personal.  It’s a person. The ultimate demonstration and celebration of love.

Mahatma Gandhi said, “A man who was completely innocent, offered himself as a sacrifice for the good of others, including his enemies, and became the ransom of the world. It was a perfect act.”

Whatever your beliefs, I wish you a week blossoming with peace, happiness, and love.  And I hope you find Easter eggs–precious surprises of hope–all year long.

Pretties in Prague…

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Saint Basil’s Cathedral, now a museum/UNESCO World Heritage Site, in Moscow…

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Palatial palace cathedrals in St. Petersburg and Pushkin…

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and buds bursting everywhere…

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Sunny smiles in Vilnius, Lithuania…

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And bagels with eggs and lambkin in Bratislava…

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PInks and purples in Paris…

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Now off to the beach to hunt seashells…and Easter eggs… in the sand.