Category Archives: Spain

Christmas in Madrid

This year my sons  and I decided to spend a few days in Madrid over Christmas. Madrid is their home town so not such a random destination! Of course, the Spanish do the giving and receiving of presents part on January 6th, el Día de Reyes,  so whilst all my English relatives are busy playing Santa on December 25th, all my Spanish relatives have to wait another 12 days – in other words, we English celebrate on the first day of Christmastide and they celebrate on the last.
Barajas, Madrid’s airport,  has expanded since I was last there and we arrived at the newest terminal, 4, late in the  evening to see the unusual tubular design at its illuminated best!



We had so many relatives to catch up with that our stay turned into a bit of a culinary marathon. We arrived on December 28 so we got TWO Christmases in – first ours in the UK and then theirs!  The first big Spanish family feast we attended was on New Year’s Eve, (I had originally written New Fear’s Eve here before I proof read – which could be more accurate, actually – fear that we were going to explode with all this food!)  Anyway, in for a penny, in for a pound!
At my oldest sister-in-law’s we kicked off with a glass of cava and the customary toast and then started off gently with a consommé, quickly followed by the tenderest cutlet of hake you can imagine, served with shellfish and washed down with wine or more cava. This was a night time meal so fish was the star of the show. We also polished off platefuls of ‘gulas’ (‘angulas’ to give them their official name – elvers, or baby eel)

and to tell the truth I don’t rightly remember what pud was! It’s all a bit of a blur now but the meal would have been rounded off by the ubiquitous ‘roscón de reyes’ (kings’ cake) – a sort of giant doughnut – some are filled with cream, some not, and traditionally they contain a trinket and an ‘haba’,  a bean, which these days are made of plastic – if you are unlucky enough to break a tooth or choke on either of these it’s meant to bring good luck !! The ‘roscón’ serves the same purpose as our English Christmas cake – everyone has some tucked away in the larder in case unexpected guests drop in.
Obviously, you have to leave a bit out for the Three Kings too when they drop in on their camels with the presents on the eve of January 6th.

The next spread was the very next day – New Year’s Day. In between, the younger element went into town to La Puerta del Sol to celebrate New Year’s Eve in the traditional way, by drinking too much and falling into the fountain – much the same as Trafalgar Square in London, really. So back to the dinner table – my middle sister-in law was in charge this time (there are three of them so they spread the load!) First seafood soup, and for the main course,  ‘cochinillo asado’ (suckling pig – this family does not cater for vegetarians!!) Apart from ‘roscón’, the other traditional Christmas sweet in Spain is ‘turrón’, which these days you see made of all sorts of ingredients – chocolate, coconut, crystallised fruit – though still the most popular (and some say the ‘only authentic’ ) is the original one made traditionally from honey and almonds. They’re all delicious – so I say ‘Bring it on!’! She then brought in the most enormous pot of coffee  to finish off – or to finish us off!

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No room at the inn!
At any other time of year when we visit Madrid we stay with relatives, but as everyone had lots of their other relatives staying because it was Christmas,  we rented an apartment which was bang in the middle of the  old quarter of the city in La Latina, a stone’s throw from La Plaza Mayor. To work off a few calories, over the next few days we explored the area around our apartment, starting with the Plaza Mayor – the  beautiful, historic and atmospheric main square of Madrid – if it ain’t happenin’ around here – it ain’t happenin’!!
The Segway seems to have become the transport of choice for the more intrepid tourist.  The Tourist Information Office in the La Plaza Mayor is one of the departure points for these tours and and now that a lot of Madrid’s central streets have been pedestrianized it’s the ideal way to go  – plenty of ramps and flat surfaces to whizz down – you can be outside the Royal Palace or the Prado Museum in no time!
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Wherever there are visitors, there are street artists and La Plaza Mayor is no exception – very interesting to watch them work, although they usually have a zealous ‘minder’ hanging around to stop you photographing their creations – except for one here, who had left a phone number and a note saying ‘Call me if you want to buy something’ !!
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The Plaza Mayor is an architectural gem, a beautiful part of the old city, but it’s a typical tourist trap – they lure you in and are quite happy to charge 3 or 4 times the going rate even for a beer or a coffee. But you’re paying for the surroundings and to watch the world go by – this is true winter or summer.
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At Christmas time, as in any big city, the square fills up with the weird and the wonderful – like Merlin here, who didn’t seem entirely sure of what he was doing!
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Or would you miss this photo opportunity?
The square is lined with great shops – natty headgear – suits you, sir!

or some Toledo steel – Toledo is a town just south of Madrid famous for two things – one is the painter, El Greco,  born in Crete, but who settled in Toledo and worked there for over thirty years till his death in 1614; and the other is the production of steel, dating back to 500 BC – lots of daggers, and swords etc but since knights are a bit thin on the ground now they have taken to selling these weapons to tourists and collectors.

Below is a traditional Belén, the Nativity scene you see depicted all over Spain at Christmas in homes and public places. This particularly detailed one   was on display in a glass cabinet in the Plaza Mayor, but all the churches have one,  some much more elaborate than others – some life size, others more modest, some with moving parts, and, although younger Spaniards are not church goers, a lot take their children to see a Belén or indeed help them to build one at home.  Of course, some families have a Christmas tree instead or as well – I prefer the Belén.

The Plaza mayor was the perfect place on the way home from the hubbub in town to chill with a glass of wine or a beer  – they even put on a nightly light show and a jazz trio up in one of the balconies.


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The main shopping areas around Calle Mayor, Preciados and Gran Via were building up nicely to a last minute pre – Christmas buying frenzy, with people snapping up those last few items  – funny, this was all over and done with in the UK but here we were again – Christmas lights, wrapping paper, street stalls with seasonal food to sample, choirs singing carols, cash tills pinging – it all felt a bit Ground Hog! One of the main streets, the Gran Vía has some very swish shops – fancy some jewellery ?-  the Spanish are nothing if not ostentatious!
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or some shoes ? These were beautiful quality.
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or at the other end of the scale, despite being housed in this very grand building, I am told  you can bag a bargain here in the Mercadillo del Gato,

Or when you tire of shopping you can just admire the contours and lines of the city’s apartment buildings and urban architecture.
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Although it gets bitterly cold in Madrid in the winter, most of the time you can be assured of a brilliant blue sky which really lifts your spirits. This means, of course, that you also get a beautiful sunset, and one of the best places to appreciate it is from the Parque del Oeste, just up from the Royal Place, where you will also find El Templo de Debod (or Debod’s Temple) which was gifted to the Spanish by Egypt in the late 1960s. With the sunset as a backdrop and the strategically placed floor lights, it’s a dramatic sight and very popular with visitors – in fact, we were being elbowed out of the way by people wanting selfies or just nice pictures – but at any other time of year it’s a beautiful spot to look across to the Royal Palace and the Almudena Cathedral, which take on a fairytale quality when they are lit up at twilight.
 

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as does the esplanade in front of the Palace, where we came across this wonderful old carousel, and a very enterprising ‘musician’ getting a tune out of some wine glasses!

Of course, Christmas is all about children! I don’t have any small children of my own now as mine are grown up but that didn’t stop me going to see a brilliant exhibition of Comic Book Superheroes, all made from Lego! You have to admire the ingenuity of the exhibits.
See if you recognise anyone!
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I will finish with a bizarre sight that met us on our way home from the cinema on our last night there – two science bods (unless they were just two geezers who had stolen a very expensive piece of equipment!) had placed a big telescope

out in the street near Opera so that,  for a small donation obviously,  you could gaze up at the moon! And the donations disappeared into here!

 

Alternative Empanadilla

I have recently acquired two new things – one – a ‘gluten free’ friend (a diagnosed coeliac) and two – a new electric oven – what better than to combine the two and try out a few new recipes!
My first ‘gluten free’ attempt was some chick pea flat bread which was actually quite tasty but the first time I made it I was still using my trusty old gas cooker with eye level grill – 100 years old at least! Now I had to make the flat bread in my new electric oven – the top oven is apparently a grill.
I decided to use the flat bread as the outer casing of my alternative ’empanadilla’ – those of you familiar with Spanish cuisine will know it as a typical Galician dish, traditionally made with a dough (or pastry) base and topped with peppers and tomato and fish, usually tuna, though the one made for us by my husband’s aunt many moons ago in Villagarcia de Arosa contained ‘anguila’ (eel) –  and delicious it was too.
For my take on this traditional recipe (well, if Jamie Oliver can say that , so can I!)  I used smoked trout, roasted peppers and tomato pesto.
Of course, the point was to road test my new oven:
Verdict on the oven ?  Don’t think the grill was hot enough – the flat bread took ages and came out almost like biscuit.
Verdict on the empanadilla?  – not bad! I would do it again.
To make it just whisk up some chick pea flour, water and salt, turn into a shallow, oiled pan and put under a hot grill – takes just a few minutes. Or cook on the hob as you would a crepe.
Use the flatbread as your base, spread some tomato pesto onto it, then your fish and top with roast peppers – the more colourful the better – and – voilà!  Empanadilla de trucha ahumada – delicious washed down with some sauvignon blanc.
    
    
 

    

 
 
 

Muscle power! La Vuelta Ciclista a España 2015

Last month I had my first experience of seeing the Vuelta Ciclista a España  at close quarters – close enough to see the effort on the cyclists’ faces, witness the strength and endurance of those participants as they pushed themselves to their physical limits – it was amazing to think that just days earlier some of them had taken part in the Tour de France as well!
Here’s a run down of all the stages to give you an idea of just how arduous this cycling game is: (game! sorry, lads!)

Nr Date Start and finish Length Type
1 Sa 22-8 Vuelta 2015 stage 1 Puerto Banús – Marbella 7.4 km TTT
2 Su 23-8 Vuelta 2015 stage 2 Alhaurín de la Torre – Caminito del Rey 158.7 km finish uphill
3 Mo 24-8 Vuelta 2015 stage 3 Mijas – Malaga 158.4 km hills, flat finish
4 Tu 25-8 Vuelta 2015 stage 4 Estepona – Vejer de la Frontera 209.6 km flat, finish uphill
5 We 26-8 Vuelta 2015 stage 5 Rota – Alcala de Guadaira 167.3 km flat
6 Th 27-8 Vuelta 2015 stage 6 Córdoba – Sierra de Cazorla 200.3 km finish uphill
7 Fr 28-8 Vuelta 2015 stage 7 Jódar – Capileira / La Alpujarras 191.1 km mountains
8 Sa 29-8 Vuelta 2015 stage 8 Puebla de Don Fadrique – Murcia 182.5 km hills
9 Su 30-8 Vuelta 2015 stage 9 Torrevieja – Cumbre del Sol 168.3 km hills, flat start
10 Mo 31-8 Vuelta 2015 stage 10 Valencia – Castellón 146.6 km hills
Tu 1-9 rest day
11 We 2-9 Vuelta 2015 stage 11 Andorra la Vella – Cortals d´Encamp (And) 138.0 km mountains
12 Th 3-9 Vuelta 2015 stage 12 Escaldes / Engordany (And) – Lleida 173.0 km hills, flat finish
13 Fr 4-9 Vuelta 2015 stage 13 Calatayud – Tarazona 178.0 km hills
14 Sa 5-9 Vuelta 2015 stage 14 Vitoria – Alto Campoo / Fuente del Chivo 215.0 km mountains, flat start
15 Su 6-9 Vuelta 2015 stage 15 Comillas – Sotres 175.8 km mountains, flat start
16 Mo 7-9 Vuelta 2015 stage 16 Luarca – Ermita de Alba 184.0 km mountains
Tu 8-9 rest day
17 We 9-9 Vuelta 2015 stage 17 Burgos – Burgos 38.7 km ITT
18 Th 10-9 Vuelta 2015 stage 18 Roa – Riaza 204.0 km hills
19 Fr 11-9 Vuelta 2015 stage 19 Medina del Campo – Ávila 185.8 km hills
20 Sa 12-9 Vuelta 2015 stage 20 San Lorenzo de El Escorial – Cercedilla 175.8 km mountains
21 Su 13-9 Vuelta 2015 stage 21 Alcalá de Henares – Madrid 98.8 km flat

A quick calculation means that they covered around 3,170 kilometres over the 21 days, not counting time trials, and averaged 175 km a day – not bad! According to the two entertaining Spanish television commentators, cyclists need to take in 6,000 calories a day to sustain this effort – well, the training might help as well, of course – they commented that the UK’s  own Chris Froome, who is held in high regard in Spain, was stick thin compared to some – unfortunately, despite being victorious in the Tour de France in 2013 and 2015, this year in Spain he suffered a mishap and fractured a foot. Inevitably, he had to drop out, but not before completing that stage.
The reason that this year’s Vuelta caught my attention was because Stage 18 would be passing through Riaza, a small town in the mountains in Segovia a stone’s throw from where my husband was born. I know this area well – been going there for 40 years, in fact. In the end we didn’t see the tour there, though – I was lucky enough to be taken to Avila to watch Stage 19 instead. I say ‘lucky’ because my ‘guide’ for the day was a nephew-in-law who is from Avila, knows the area like the back of his hand and is a keen cyclist – result!!  As well as that, Avila is a beautiful place, surrounded by an impressive – and intact – city wall.
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The cyclists had to ride up the slope in the shadow of the city wall, over cobble stones – not ideal! But this was an excellent spot to get some photos – they had to slow down (a bit!) so you just had to make sure you stayed on the right side of the Guardia Civil, who were stationed along the road at intervals.
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I have to say the crowds were very well behaved and the Guardia Civil are no longer that fearsome, gun toting bunch they once were – although they still look quite tough!
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When I looked at the shots I’d got – more by luck than judgement as they went past in a blur – what amazed me was how closely they cycled to one another – when you thought you were looking at one cyclist you realised there was another right behind him.
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Of course this race – or any other – couldn’t take place without the veritable army of support vehicles, carrying spare bikes, spare parts, drinks, food, medical supplies  – in fact, everything but spare arms and legs, it would seem – and then there were the valiant cameramen perched precariously on the back of motorbikes to get those exciting shots for  television.
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The scenery in some of the mountainous areas in northern Spain was nothing short of spectacular and when you realise that these guys have to cycle up those mountains – it hits you just what a monumental effort it must be to get that fit.
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teamSpirit1That evening we made our way home to Madrid  on the ‘back road’  (I think that means we avoided paying a toll!) and we stopped to admire the wonderful view across the hills of El Escorial – the 16th century monastery built on the proceeds of 16th century ‘Spanish gold’ (’nuff said!) My photo doesn’t do it justice but it looked splendid nestled into the hillside at dusk.
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I am more pleased with this one of the car headlights meandering up through the valley below us.
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We saw the final stage of the Vuelta in Madrid – I left my camera at home because there were too many people and the pace of the race was too fast and furious to even hope to get a good shot. Up and down the main streets they pedalled – the pelotón streaked past us  – one giant mass of multi coloured logo covered lycra.
In the distance we could hear the excitement rising in the commentators’ voices  – the end couldn’t be far off – but we decided to savour the atmosphere from a ‘terraza’ with a ‘tinto’ or two. Down this end of the Gran Vía at least the world was starting to go by more slowly.