Addicted

Andrew and I are addicted. Before I tell you to what, let me tell you the how and the why.

A couple weeks ago we spent a blissfully relaxing school week chaperoning English camp for a sweet group of 12 and 13 year old students. What? Being responsible for 43 moody teenagers and having a good time aren’t mutually exclusive? It’s true. Week Camp was run completely by a third party company. The camp counselors were entirely in charge of the little terrors throughout the week and us “chaperons” were left to our own devices from Monday at noon until Friday afternoon at 4pm (or better known as arrival and departure times for the bus ride).

Yes, these pictures were taken the middle of April. Cold spell!

Besides showing up for mealtimes in the dining hall, where we indulged in some of the best Spanish cuisine has to offer (think: french fries, country ham, potato soup, lentil soup, fish soup, ham and cheese pop-tarts, essentially anything the color light brown), our time was all our own. Our main teacher activities consisted of the lifestyle I imagine a Spanish pensioner having. Between feeding times, we took long, rambling walks, drank coffee at our favorite neighborhood bar, sat around and chatted in the sun, observed the locals, read and napped. Tough life, huh?

This brings me to the discovery we made on one of our treks to the tiny village (Coladilla is the name of the pueblo, if you’re interested) that was 2km down the country road from the tiny village (Vegacervera, León) we stayed in. Another practice that Spaniards avidly partake in, and that I personally respect and admire, is making, buying and appreciating local and artisan products. In Coladilla we were told that the local quesería (cheese factory) made some darn good cheese. Andrew and I are a little skeptical when it comes to cheese we haven’t tasted before though, seeing as some folks recommend cheese that is much too strong and stinky for our delicate palates. But, we decided to take the risk and bought two entire wheels of cheese (I never thought I’d ever buy that much milk fat at one time), lugged them the two kilometers back to our lodging for the week and let them ripen and breathe on the counter.  It is important to know (and I just learned) that cheese breathes. Many times if the rind is still on the entire wheel, it is perfectly fine to leave at room temperature, just don’t leave it in plastic. Because, if it breathes, well, it also sweats. If you do decide to refrigerate it for the stench factor (it can get pretty stinky, however mild the cheese is that you buy) don’t put it in a plastic bag either. Once you’ve sliced it, wrap it in parchment paper.  This is all according to a reliable source. Oh, the things I’ve learned in Spain.

Once back to Laredo, we waited a couple of days to “cut the cheese.” Haha, I just chuckled out loud typing that sentence. But, really, our diet of light brown called for a purge of sorts once back in our own kitchen.

I guess you’ve figured out that we’re addicted to the artisan cheese made with local cow’s milk from Coladilla. It is quite scrumptious if you ask us. It isn’t too funky, not too mild and plenty creamy for our persnickety cheese tastes. It makes my cheeks pucker just a little every now and then from its sharpness. It’s good. It is part of our before-meal snacking time. A torn piece of crusty bread and a glass of red wine make it even more delicious. Eat it with a sliced apple. I’m sold.

The second wheel we gave to some friends, but now I’m wondering if that was such a smart idea (except it probably was, for my waistline).

Back to Laredo

We’re back to Laredo and resting while it is raining April showers outside. This post is mostly to tell you about how Portugal is an (almost) ideal travel destination and also to make sure you know that a wife being sole navigator for her husband can lead to extremely tense situations. We happen to both think our job (ie him driving and her directing) is more difficult than the other’s. I was told many times that I need to go off feel for a city that I didn’t innately have. Instead I offered names of streets to turn down (that happened to occasionally be one way-whoops) and we managed to arrive successfully to each and every location. The smart car made it back without a single scratch and we are more or less unscathed too. Andrew has commented on our cholesterol levels more than once though, since we’ve been eating a pretty meat and dairy heavy diet. Back to munching veggies for us!

Some quick highlights of our trip:

Bom Jesus. A gorgeous monastery built on top of a mountain near the Northern Portuguese town of Braga. Glossy emerald moss and mosaic tiles make up the path to the top of the monument and the gardens behind the cathedral are reason enough to pack a picnic and spend the afternoon in the shade. The walk from the bottom is a 15 minute one, up steps the whole time, but it is shaded and delightful. Devout Catholics sometimes complete the journey on their knees, a sort of pilgrimage. The fountains along the way are interesting as well, representing the 5 senses. My favorite was sight- a sculpture of a man with water flowing from his eyes.

Guimarães. Restored city, almost perfect old town. It is the birthplace of Portugal.

Porto. My first impression of the city was disastrous. Our hotel was frightful (sorry, Andrew), the first street we chose to saunter down was the very definition of sketch and our restaurant for the evening was difficult to locate. We went to bed a little stressed, but woke up to sunny skies and a gorgeous city after a full night’s rest. We slipped into a church decorated with traditional Portuguese blue and white tiled mosaics, we ate our first and only ever franceshina (a ham and cheese sandwich base that includes a hot dog and some type of mystery meat slapped in the middle, topped with a soft fried egg and a secret sauce), toured a Port wine cellar (and tasted!) and walked high above the Rio Duoro. Next time I am definitely cruising inland on the River Duoro!

Belém. This town, essentially a part of Lisbon, is a site that is featured in every tourist book written on Portugal. Its monuments best represent the Golden Age of Portugal. Also noteworthy is the café that serves the original recipe for the pasteis de Belém (cream custard filled phyllo pastry). These little beauties are made all over the country, but the best are found in the blue awned shop in Belém.

Portugal is a unique country, full of cultural and historical sites for tourists. We both agreed that we could have easily spent much more time there, exploring, enjoying the cuisine and just relaxing in the laid back atmosphere of its cities. I also can’t forget to mention how affordable Portugal is for travelers. An espresso shot (uma bica) is between 50-75 euro cents. In comparison, here in Spain, the same beverage will cost 1.10 euro. A night in a comfortable, family run hotel costs between 50 and 65 euro and should include breakfast and parking. Entrees for dinner run between 8-12 euros and a bottle of wine (at a restaurant) is 6-10 euro. Not to mention that the attitudes of the folks working in tourism is astonishingly helpful and positive. Almost everyone we ran into spoke a little bit of English, as well. Here’s what I’m trying to say… Go to Portugal!

If we can ever offer any help with travel questions or give you hotel suggestions for places we’ve visited, we’d love to. Let us know!

Semana Santa: Road trip to Portugal in the Smart Car

Hi! We wanted to say have a great weekend before we take a two and a half week hiatus from blogging. We’re off to enjoy our Semana Santa exploring Portugal. Andrew will be the red head driving the black smart car and I’ll be the moral support and all time navigator. This car is actually automatic, so I might take the wheel once or twice as well! Look out! This will be my first time to visit this part of the Iberian peninsula and I’m pretty excited to eat cod, drink Port wine and check out the old world towns of Porto and Lisbon.

Also, we wanted to tell the Cockrums from Knoxville thanks so much for coming to visit us! We had a great time eating seafood and exploring the Basque Country with you guys! While they were here visiting, we got to see San Juan de Gaztelugatxe, a 10th century hermitage located on the Bizcayian coast. Really impressive.

We’ve been taking full advantage of having the car to see as much as we can. Last week we drove along the Cantabrian coast and enjoyed rocky, un-commercialized, pristine beaches. On Saturday, we took a day trip to the northern part of the province of Burgos, to a rural region called Las Merindades. We did a 10km walk around a man made lake, the water from which supplies the city of Bilbao. While not the most spectacular scenery, it was a beautiful day and a nice change of pace.

And, last, Happy (early) Easter. We’re thankful to have been given this opportunity to live and travel abroad for a year, but we know that it is a gift that has been given to us by the Lord. I pray that you have a restful weekend and can rejoice in our Saviour, Jesus Christ. He is risen indeed.

Dordogne…we meet again

After passing through the delightful Bordeaux wine country our next stop was the famous Dordogne and the base city of Sarlat. Having tasted a glimpse of the region in December when it was dreary and wet, we vowed to return in a sunnier era. This time around we were blessed with above average spring temperatures and blue skies, perfect for being outdoors. The difference in weather from the previous visit and this one was incredible and made for an entirely different experience.

The Dordogne has some of France’s most pristine countryside and preserved villages, where the rural and small-town way of life is cherished. It is, in my opinion, France at its best. However, it is by no means a well-kept secret, with hordes of Brits and Europeans vacationing here every summer. Yet in the off-season and with a little wondering off the beaten path, it’s quite possible to have the countryside to yourself.

The highlight for us this time in the Dordogne was exploring the smaller villages and hiking through woods, orchards, and fields. I shouldn’t overlook Sarlat however.  The city of Sarlat-la-Canéda is handsome in its own right and is a great place to wander and spend the night. We had excellent meals and friendly waiters eager to fill in my broken French with English.

The Dordogne is an unforgettable region with a lot to offer in the way of rural tourism. There are chateaux of every variety literally every few kilometers perched on scenic hills and bathed in sunlight. It is the antithesis of Paris. I’m not saying that Paris it bad, but that it couldn’t be a more different world. Go to the Dordogne for a chance to enjoy old world charm, good food, and a break from urban life. It’s a magical place.

Saint Emilion

Our first night in France, we stayed at a family run hotel and restaurant combo. Andrew and I both really respect the work of a locally owned and managed establishment like this one. Friday night we were treated to a jazz concert and three course meal, slept soundly in a comfortable room and woke Saturday to a basket full of fresh pastries and jam. It was obvious the owner was doing the bulk of the work, aided heavily by a competent and friendly staff: he met us at check in, took our orders for dinner, served breakfast and waved goodbye as we payed the bill. And, for all that, not a detail was overlooked. In an area of France where many well off travelers opt for a night in an 18th century chateau and don’t bat an eyelash at the hundreds of euros calculated on the final bill, Le Bon Duq offers a comprable service for a fraction of the price. If you want to check out the vineyards of Bordeaux and le entre-deux-mers, but are on a tighter budget, please, stay here.

From our hotel in Les Billaux/Libourne (a 40 minute or so drive from Bordeaux) we set off to discover the popular (for good reason) and well preserved wine town of Saint Emilion. We arrived fairly early, so the first half hour of exploring, we had the streets blissfully to ourselves. Birds chirped gleefully, baby lambs nuzzled mamas, the sun sparkled in the cool morning air and French grandmas tended their flower boxes. It was a scene from a movie. Surrounded entirely by vineyards, the buildings of the town are made of more gorgeous blonde stone. Wine vendors dotted the store fronts and servers at cafés set tables outdoors for lunchtime. After traipsing around St. Emilion for a while and dreaming of buying our own little cozy home in town, we headed off to find a winery open for tastings. Easier said than done. Ultimately, our mission failed, but we did have the opportunity of meeting a former vineyard and winery owner who had recently sold his business and property to new Chinese owners. The Chinese flag waved next to the European Union and French flags out front. They didn’t open for visitors.

From the countryside we drove towards the Dordogne region, stopping for a quick walk in Bergerac. Even though it is the main hub town of this region, we wouldn’t recommend a stop. There are more beautiful views of the Dordogne and more tastefully restored timber homes elsewhere.

Our final stop for the day was in Sarlat, a town we’d visited in December when it was gray and raining. It was lovely even in the wet and cold weather, but Springtime turned it magical. More later…