Going out with a bang

The last stop on our final weekend hurrah in Spain was a city that Andrew had been dreaming of all year long. I think his year in Spain would have been incomplete had we not gotten to spend a day visiting Cuenca. Andrew seems to only gain energy on weekend trips, returning home ready to face a week of work, while I start off eager to escape, only to be worn out with the thought of getting home and doing the laundry we’ve accumulated by the end.

Cuenca itself is interesting enough and definitely merits a visit, especially if you are looking for a day or two trip from Madrid. We traipsed around the old town, which is fairly small, gawked at the Casas Colgadas, houses built into the side of a cliff, literally “hanging houses,” admired the brightly painted houses in the center square and toured the Cathedral. Also worth checking out is the Parador de Cuenca, an ancient convent turned government-owned luxury hotel. An iron bridge connects the old town and Casas Colgadas to the Parador across a deep gorge in the middle of the city. Walking across the bridge was definitely not my favorite part of our visit to Cuenca.

What I remember most about our time in Castilla-La Mancha, though, is the extraordinary hospitality that we received from the family run hotel and restaurant we stayed at for the night. The hotel itself was located a few miles outside of the city, per Andrew’s bargain hunting requirements, so when we pulled in the gravel parking lot to the establishment, we were surprised to find a full parking lot and people spilling out of the entrance way. Already, I felt intimidated by the amount of boisterous Spaniards blocking our path to the check-in counter and began to second guess Andrew’s choice of accommodations. The check-in counter was conveniently located right inside of the restaurant area, where a large group of people was indulging in an aperitif and socializing before the lunch hour. I generally hate to tromp into a group of Spaniards when I’m not expecting to, mostly because they always are dressed fabulously and have their makeup perfectly in place and on a normal travel day I’m dressed in flats or tennis shoes (heels or boots are really the only acceptable footwear for stylish Spanish ladies) and wearing minimal makeup. This phenomenon is only exaggerated on Sundays, when everyone puts on their best face and outfit and prances out onto the streets, into the bars and restaurants, to see and be seen. Of course, we showed up at prime time cocktail and tapas hour on a Sunday, the last day of our trip. I look ragged and tired, the ladies at the bar were polished and styled. Needless to say, I felt as though we were on display as we waited patiently and rather nervously at the counter: the under-dressed and awkward Americans. Thankfully, this situation played out in under 5 minutes and once we met the sweet lady who checked us in, we both felt right at home.

The sign of a great family run hotel establishment has to be that when the required information for the transaction has taken place, credit card number given, passports checked, room key handed over, breakfast time confirmed, the person working at the desk has the courtesy to ask if this is a first time visit to the area. The check in girl at El Rento, the place we were lucky enough to stay, promptly pulled out a map of Cuenca, slapped it down, proceeded to explain directions to the center, the best place to park and pointed out the highlights of the city. I am always appreciative whenever this happens, since it means we won’t have to search for the tourism office and won’t have to drive around guessing where we can park. This is also the perfect time to ask for restaurant recommendations so you don’t have to spend precious time scrutinizing menus and looking for a place that isn’t too expensive in a city you’ve never visited before.

The whole time we spoke, the lady we later learned was the proprietor’s daughter, patiently answered our questions and treated us graciously, genuinely glad we’d decided on El Rento for our stay in Cuenca. A little hospitality really turned our one night stay in Cuenca into wishing we had time for another night. We ate all our meals at their restaurant and we especially enjoyed our Sunday night dinner. Around nine o’clock in the evening we returned from the city, hungry from walking. We ventured back into the dining room that had earlier been packed with a huge family celebrating a first communion. Now it was filled with old folks from the community, taking part in their Sunday night ritual of eating at El Rento and watching TV together. A hushed silence dominated the tone of the room, unusual enough for chatty Spanish folks, as the guests eating at the restaurant watched an old black and white movie on the flat screen TV. We both felt priveliged, at least I did, to be in the middle of a weekly tradition that must literally be dying out as all the people surrounding the tables eating salad and deep fried croquetas were in the seventy plus category. The most endearing moment, though, had to be when a tiny, hunched over, elderly man burst through the front door, so triumphiant he’d made it another week that he raised his fists above his head, shook them and shouted a greeting to all his friends.

Staying at El Rento left an incredible impression of true familial hospitality in my mind. For a generation where everything should be done as efficiently as possible and which places personal boundaries even higher and closer, afraid of letting others in or revealing how his or her life is lived out each day, El Rento allowed us a glimpse into what it would be like to be a part of a Spanish family, if only for a few happy hours.

Soria

After our stay in La Rioja, we loaded the four door luxury Peugeot sedan we’d splurged on for our rental and headed south to Soria, the least populous province in Spain, with a population density of a mere 9 people per square kilometer. On the last half of this trip we were continually commenting on how isolated we were; looking out from atop a ridge on a tiny highway and not glimpsing a single dwelling or being for miles. One of the charms of travelling in Spain is being able to completely escape modernity and population if you decide to. It is a unique feeling, to happen upon a hamlet, one that has inhabited its little crevice in the world for centuries, park your car and walk around, in utter silence, knowing there must be someone living there, grasping for evidence of life in windows and finding only empty glass; children’s projects hanging in the frame of the school window the only sign that the village indeed has a resident or two. Especially being from the Southeast, a fairly densely populated region, where an attempt to escape the noise and traffic to the Smoky Mountains is only frustrated by hordes of well-meaning tourists wielding gigantic cameras at each trailhead, a sliver of the world where quiet reigns is welcomed.

Unfortunately the weather turned windy, cold and started to spit rain. We tried to squeeze in a visit to Numancia, the ancient Celtic settlement immortalized by Cervantes in Don Quixote, but freezing water pellets and gusty wind kept us from doing much more than stepping foot inside the ticket booth.

Soria, the city itself, was surprisingly interesting. For not being on the tourist map at all really, this town of 40,000 in the enormous autonomous community of Castilla y León, humbly presents a variety of sights. I think the Río Duero might be what is so enchanting about Soria. Each place I’ve visited that is located on the Duero, whether Porto, Zamora or Soria, has had a unique feel, a lot of which is due to the attractiveness of the river itself. Soria does well to play up this aspect of its location, creating a sense of escape even within the city limits. A 3km walk from downtown Soria, the Monasterio San Santuario is a principal tourist attraction. The walk to the monastery itself is peaceful, the river gently moving along next to you. The monastery is steeped in tradition and, also, a little bit of recent history. The exhibit inside the monastery walls is fascinating, describing in detail what life was like for the monks who decided to forgo the commodities of their time and live a life of solitude within the walls of this fortress. And, the Duero, a source of undying inspiration for poets of multiple generations, like Antonio Machado, is also given a tribute inside of the monastery. Quotes of poetry that pay tribute to the waters of the magical river are transcribed onto the walls of a special room within the monastery.

On our walk back to Soria, we discovered another jewel the city has to offer: a park woven neatly into the banks of the river. Wooden bridges criss-cross the tiny island patches of grass that are scattered along the bank of the river nearest the city, inviting visitors to picnic, swing above the cool water and traipse underneath the umbrella of trees.

Inside of the city, the architecture is also impressive. One can wander into the still functioning high school where Machado taught classes for five years. A smattering of churches with noteworthy facades are sprinkled throughout and restaurants offer up traditional Spanish cuisine at reasonable prices. All this adds to the beauty of the provincial capital, but the real reason to visit Soria is to be inspired and enchanted by the Rio Duero.

Check out posts about Zamora and Porto for more of the Duero!

La Rioja

I’ve finally looked through the pictures Andrew took our last month in Spain. I enjoyed seeing our memories, laughing about how Andrew had a mini-afro most of the year that I love or how I felt anxious, annoyed or exhilarated at the time a frame was snapped. Looking through the scenes of our reality only a few short months ago makes me sad, too, though. I miss our relatively stress free life and all the time Andrew and I had to travel and spend together. I think my feelings of nostalgia have been accentuated by our transition to Knoxville, which has been bumpier (for me, at least) than I’d originally anticipated.

Our last hurrah in Spain was in true Andrew form. Always ready to seize any excuse needed to rent a car and hit the open road, the necessity of Fedex-ing home our belongings from the Madrid Airport Fedex office turned into a four night trip to a few spots he had been dreaming about fitting into our Auxiliar year.

We started off in La Rioja, a beautiful region that shares history and culture with both the Basque Country and Castilla and is known for producing some of the great robust red wines of Spain. While many vino-aficionados have surely tried a fruity vino de la rioja, most tourists overlook visiting this northern region. My introduction to La Rioja, incidentally, took place in the deep south of Spain, in Granada. Quite timidly and still unsure of culinary terminology in Spanish, I ordered a “vino rojo” in a tapas bar near the plaza de toros. (I later learned if you want to order a glass of red wine in Spain, ask loudly and boldly for “un vino tinto!”) The server glared at me and repeated, “un rioja?” Terrified of incurring her wrath on our entire table, I blurted “¡Si, por favor!,” as though that was exactly what I’d said, how dare she question me?! She proceeded to serve me a delicious, easy-to-drink glass of wine and I mentally noted that one day I’d have to visit the place where “un rioja” is made.

Before venturing to the hotel the first evening, we made a quick pit stop in the picturesque wine town of Briones to stretch our legs. After a quick spin, we continued on to the hotel and discovered we were ravenous. Thankfully, we found one open bar that seemed to be serving tapas and devoured sardine filets served atop a toasty piece of baguette and drizzled with olive oil. Making the meal even more tasty was the fact that the barman showed a true interest in us and shared a little bit about himself as well. It is our tried and true travel experience that the fewer tourists a town or region sees, the more friendly and welcoming the locals will be toward visitors (this is why we often visit places you’ve likely never heard of: Andrew hates crowds and tourist traps).

The following day we briefly toured Logroño, the capitol of La Rioja. Another majestic Spanish city, largely forgotten and well worth more time than we allowed. Make sure to indulge in a tapa or two in Logroño. Most bars serve a killer “champi” concoction, made of grilled button mushrooms, piled on a crusty heel of country bread and smothered with some sort of “champi” white sauce. Watch out for the sauce; I managed to destroy my travel pants for the trip with the milky, oily substance. Well worth it for such a delicacy though! If you are interested in visiting wineries and participating in tours and tastings, I’d recommend scheduling those ahead of time. We found most places that offered tours to be booked or not open on the day we happened to be available to taste.

The highlight of our adventure to La Rioja was a tour of the Yuso monastery, which is tucked in a valley behind rolling green hills and fields of wheat. Famous for being the birthplace of the Spanish language, we decided that we would take part in a guided tour for a change. Led entirely in Spanish by a witty guide, I would recommend the tour to any Spanish speaker nerdy enough to be interested. Most impressive were the huge, animal skin bound books filled with ancient Gregorian chants.

To finish off our day, we ate fried calamari rings and took a quick nap next to a creek in the small town of Nájera. Located on the Camino de Santiago, we spent our time eating on the terrace watching the pilgrims trickle in from a long, weary day of walking and imagined when we, too, will set off from Saint Jean Pied de Port in France on the famous 500 mile trek through Northern Spain.

What I’m going to miss about Spain

Our time here is quickly coming to a close (published post-return to the US). I know that everyone says this about unique opportunities and experiences, but it went by so fast. Didn’t I just move here a couple of months ago? Why is it that when you finally feel comfortable somewhere, it’s time to pick up, move and feel all uncomfortable again? But, I know feeling outside of your comfort zone is critical to growth in all aspects of life, so it can only be a good thing (I’m hoping and praying!). We’re looking forward to change, but I have been thinking quite a bit about what I love here in Spain and what I’ll miss about living on the Iberian Peninsula.

1. A truly laid back culture. I think anyone here will tell you that their work doesn’t dominate their life. People make time for taking long walks along the beach with their family and their cute dogs, they learn new hobbies, practice languages and spend time and care preparing meals to share with the people they love. Instead of a ‘live to work attitude,’ people here work to live. I realize this isn’t always what leads to genius, innovation and productive national economies, but the stress level of the average citizen seems to be pretty low. People look healthier and one the whole, just happier. This could all change overnight with the global economy teetering the way it is and with Spain’s national unemployment over 25%, but I somehow get the feeling they’ll weather whatever comes their way.

2. Local artisan products. Spain has been producing some of the highest quality food products for centuries. A few items that come to mind are: wine, cheese, olive oil, dried hams, chorizo and bread. Each product is respected in its purest form and a simple, but filling meal for many in the evening is a crusty piece of bread, a hunk of artisan cheese and a glass of wine. Also noteworthy is the affordability of these products that are considered “gourmet” in the US. We’ve bought a bottle of good wine for less than three euros, more than 2 lbs of cheese for 10 euros and a liter of store brand (and good quality) olive oil for a little over a euro.

3. The eating out experience. At first, Andrew and I were both shocked at the sticker price of a single meal in a restaurant. 12 euros for lunch? In my mind, I’d do the math conversion to dollars and come up with almost 18 dollars. What? But, after our fair share of enjoying the daily menu, I’ve got to say I think dining out in Spain, and maybe even Europe in general, has got to be the best deal of all. When eating lunch at a restaurant, which is the main meal of the day, the advertised price generally includes the tax, service charge and tip. The meal consists of a starter, main course, and dessert, plus the meal normally comes with wine or water and bread. When you think about it, eating dinner at a nice restaurant in the US means that if you decide to have even one glass of wine, it could run you upwards of $6 a glass. That is not including your meal, the tax or the tip. If we both decide on a glass of wine with our lunch here in Spain, they occasionally serve us the entire bottle! Another factor that I appreciate is the care with which food is prepared and served. Servers aren’t the lowest of the low on the totem pole here and neither are the folks working away in the kitchen. They treat their work with pride for the most part and the quality of the food reflects that. I’m really going to miss our occasional treat of Friday afternoon eating out here in Laredo.

4. Since I’m home now I can tell you I really miss the beach! I didn’t think I would, but it is a great place to take a walk, to dip your toes in the water and to relax. Not to mention the heat here is stifling while the high’s last week in Laredo were in the 70’s.

5. Walking to work. Enough said.

6. Finally, I’ll miss getting to go on so many new and exciting travel adventures with Andrew. Looking back over our pictures, I am reminded again to be thankful we had the chance to spend our first year of marriage abroad, travelling, teaching and learning. I know we have new challenges coming our way and I also have a good feeling we’ll still be travelling, teaching and learning.