February 26, 2013

Our Last Stop - Barcelona

The capital city of the autonomous region of Cataluña was the last stop on our road trip. We left our rental car at the airport and headed downtown. After spending nearly a week in the countryside, villages, and smaller cities of Spain it was refreshing to be back in the bustle of a major urban area.

Buildings along the Gran Vía near our hotel.
Our hotel was centrally located on Gran Vía near La Rambla and Plaza Cataluña. After dropping off our bags, we headed out to explore the city. It was early evening and the streets were packed with locals, tourists, and visitors. Like Madrid, Barcelona is a very vibrant city - it's alive with people enjoying culture, food, and the company of friends and family.

People at an outdoor market in the Barrio Gothic neighborhood of Barcelona.
We walked up the Passeig de Grácia, passing the designer shops and fashionable cafes. We then turned around and walked to Plaza Cataluña where there were people enjoying coffee or vermouth at the cafes, Irish soccer fans were celebrating a victory over the hometown Barcelona team, and others were just enjoying the evening by the fountains in the center of this square. From there we continued down La Ramba, passing stalls selling souvenirs and snacks, street performers, and the famous Boqueria Market. Barcelona is an exciting city and we were looking forward to spending our last few days in Spain there!

Nighttime traffic at the intersection of Passeig de Gràcia and Gran Via de les Corts Catalanes in Barcelona, Spain.

February 17, 2013

Cathedrals, Tapas, and a Moorish Palace

After fabulous food and cooking classes in Donostia (San Sebastián), it was time to continue our road trip. Leaving Basque Country we headed east towards Zaragoza. Again the countryside changed. We left behind the ocean and lush green hills. The terrain became more rugged and the trees were alight with bright fall colors.
Driving into the region of Navarra.
The sun was low in the sky as we approached Zaragoza. After a few wrong turns we were at our hotel on Plaza Nuestra Señora del Pilar. We checked into our room in the quirky, Hotel Las Torres. My favorite part of our room, aside from the balcony with the fabulous view of the cathedral, were the words "Buenos Noches" and fluffy black sheep painted on the wall.

Basilica Nuestra Señora del Pilar
The cathedral, Basilica Nuestra Señora del Pilar, is hard to describe in words. The church is topped with multiple spires and domes and blue, yellow, and white tiles. After walking around the plaza and admiring the exterior of the building, we went inside. The interior is cavernous with tall ceilings and ornate chapels. (Out of respect for those who came to worship, I did not take photographs inside the cathedral.)

Punte de Pierdra spanning the River Ebro
with the cathedral in the background.
But the cathedral was just one of many architecturally interesting structures within walking distance of our hotel. On the plaza there were several municipal buildings, La Seo Cathedral, and a medieval bridge (Puente de Pierdra) only a few blocks away. The plaza became even more magnificent after dark when bright lights illuminated the cathedral and other buildings contrasting them against the dark sky.

The cathedral and plaza illuminated at night.
After admiring the cathedral and surrounding sights, we headed off into the maze of streets of the old neighborhood of the city. The streets were filled with people of all ages - locals, tourists, and pilgrims visiting the cathedrals. We joined the others in the city's many tapas bars getting one bite and a small glass of wine at each place before moving on to the place.

Aljafería Palace
Before leaving the city the next month we visited Aljafería, an Islamic palace built in the 11th century when the Moors ruled this area of the Iberian peninsula. From the outside, the palace looked like a typical medieval fortification with a moat, high stone walls, and towers. However, inside it was different from anything I'd seen before.

The courtyard and garden at Aljafería Palace.
In the center of the palace there was a tranquil courtyard with orange trees and fountains. The adjoining room was open to the garden and had ornately carved arches. Going further into the palace many of the doorways were decorated with elaborate carvings and were the keyhole shape typically associated with Islamic architecture. There were rooms with painted ceilings - dark blues and metallic golds. Some of these included designs of bundles of wheat painted for the Christian kings and queens of Aragon who took up residence in the Palacio de la Aljafería after reclaiming control of the city of Zaragoza from the Moors in the 12th century.

The room that opened to the garden and courtyard.
We wandered from room to room admiring the art that was incorporated into the building. There are many different rooms on three floors that are open to the public. Some areas of the palace are not open to visitors because this building is also home to the Parliament of the region of Aragon.

Windows in a stairwell in Aljafería Palace.
Soon it was time to leave Zaragoza and travel to the final stop on our road trip - Barcelona.

A room in the palace that was decorated by
Christian Kings and Queens of Aragon.

February 10, 2013

The Outside of a Museum, a Puppy, and a Bridge in Basque Country

There is more to Basque Country than just food. There is beautiful countryside, arts, sports, and more. (If the weather is a little warmer next time I visit San Sebastián, I would like to try sea kayaking in the lovely bay.) One of the biggest reasons Basque Country has become such a popular tourist destination is art. For a long time this area along the Atlantic coast was mostly home to fishing villages. Then in 1997 the Bilbao Guggenheim Museum opened and since then the tourists have followed.

So, while we were only a short drive away, we decided to take a day trip to Bilbao. As I have said before, I normally don’t like spending hours in museums in my travels. I prefer to wander the streets and see the everyday life of the place I am visiting. However, my interest in seeing this museum was to see the building itself. So, we made the hour drive to the Basque port city of Bilbao.

When we arrived it was foggy and rainy. We parked our car in a nearby shopping mall garage and walked to the museum. Rain in Basque Country does not dampen the mood of a day - it enhances the environment. (And it is responsible for the lush, bright green hillsides throughout this region.) The Bilbao Guggenheim was designed by Frank Gehry, it is completely different than any structure I’ve ever seen. It’s shape the building resembles wind or clouds; while the outside is made of titanium which glows on a cloudy day. The curving lines of the structure seem to mimic the hillsides around it.

Me standing outside of the Bilbao Guggenheim Museum.
After admiring the museum building, we went inside to have lunch at the museum cafe. After a quick tapas lunch with a small glass of Rioja (of course), we headed back outside to see some of the other sights of Bilbao. I know, many people will criticize the fact that we did not wander through the museum’s many galleries and exhibits. I’m sure they are lovely. You should check them out when you visit if you like modern art! The street is my museum.

The living Puppy statue with the museum in the background.
First up, was Puppy, a tall, living statue of a dog outside the museum. The fur of the Puppy is made of living plants and flowers, giving it a fluffy look. Originally, Puppy was intended to be a temporary exhibit, however, it was very popular and the citizens of Bilbao bought it. Now it is on permanent display in front of the museum.

The Zubizuri (or "White Bridge" in Basque)
From there we walked along the river towards the center of town. Here is where we came upon one of my favorite things in Bilbao, a curving footbridge designed by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava. The Zubizuri (or “White Bridge" in Basque) is a beautiful and graceful suspension bridge that allows people to cross the Nervion River which runs through the center of town. This is probably my new favorite bridge in the world!

Me on my new favorite bridge!
From the bridge we continued our walk to the old part of Bilbao, with it’s narrow streets, old buildings, and churches. After exploring for a bit and getting lost, we headed back along the river, over the Zubizuri to our car, and back to San Sebastián in time for dinner!

February 3, 2013

Learning about Basque Cuisine in San Sebastián

One of the seafood stalls in the Mercado de la Bretxa (San Sebastián's market).

So, what’s better than eating in San Sebastián? Learning to cook a few of the local dishes! On our second day in San Sebastián, we met up with Gabriella, the owner of Tenedor Tours (a local tour company that arranges cooking classes for travelers and visitors). She brought us to the market where we tasted and gathered ingredients - seafood, bread, cheese, jamon (Spanish ham), and more. Then we went back to the kitchen where our instructor chef, Josetxo, was already busy preparing to help us learn about Basque cuisine.

Wheels of Idiazibal (local Basque sheep's milk cheese) at a shop.

An artisan jamón (ham) shop in San Sebastián.

The first thing we prepared was basic - anchovies with a fresh relish made of peppers, onions, and olive oil on toast. A little snack to eat before we started to cook. These anchovies had a delicate briny flavor, not the salty, overpowering reputation this type of fish has acquired in the USA. After this snack we started making more substantial appetizers.

First, pan fried fresh sardines. Again, this dish had no resemblance to the more familiar canned sardines that I still don’t understand why Jonathan enjoys eating for breakfast at home. Next we made what Josetxo referred to as hedgehog shrimp. To make these we dredged the raw shrimp in flour, egg, and then fideo (short vermicelli noodles) to give the little hedgehogs their spines before being deep fried. Under Josetxo’s tutelage, Jonathan made aioli to accompany these spiky shrimp.

Hedgehog shrimp we made.

We enjoyed our appetizer dishes with some local Basque cider and txakoli (white Basque wine pronounced "choc-o-lee"). I loved the hedgehog shrimp and homemade aioli! The spikes on the shrimp seemed designed to pick up the perfect amount of aioli. And they were crunchy and fun to eat.

Josetxo teaching me to prepare hedgehog shrimp.

Next we began cooking the main course dishes. We made two dishes - chipirones su tinta and bonito en piperade. The first, chipirones su tinta is squid with a sauce created from its own ink. To begin we had to clean the squid and chop some onions and peppers. After watching both me chop vegetables earlier in the day, Josetxo assigned me to squid cleaning. This was a slimy job that required removing the ink sack, bones, and other inedible parts of the squid. The next task was to saute the onions, peppers, and smaller pieces of squid and then stuff that mixture into the larger pieces of squid. These stuffed squid then simmered in a sauce of more onions, peppers, tomato, and the squid ink. In another pan we sautéed more peppers, onions, and tomato for the second, dish bonito en piperade or tuna with pepper sauce.

Bonito en piperade (tuna with pepper sauce)

While the main courses were cooking we began baking the dessert. For this course we made an apple tart with apricot glaze. This time Josetxo had me help slice the apples, a task I accomplished without incident. We then layered the slices on the pastry crust and put it in the oven.

Soon we were sitting at the table with Gabriella and Josetxo enjoying the the food we made. The squid dish was very good - with it's inky flavor it was a perfect dish for a rainy evening. It had a strong earthy flavor, perfect with a glass of Rioja. And the tuna was one of my favorite savory things we made all day. The tuna pepper sauce was simple, but rich and delicious.

Me at the table before the cheese course.

As if we had not had enough food already, next came the cheese course. We tried a variety of Basque cheeses, my favorite of which was Idiazabal (a local cheese made from sheep's milk). To end the meal we had a piece of the lovely tart we made. A perfect end to a fun day! And I look forward to cooking some of these things again when we're back home in Washington, DC...

Our apple tart with apricot glaze fresh out of the oven.