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How To Fiesta In Alicante

8 Jun

Alicante isn’t a city that’s known for its looks; nor is it a place that I would call ‘pretty’. My anticipation for a picturesque, cute Spanish old town was quickly let down once I realized it was run amok with nightclubs, drunken hen do’s and ugly, decrepit buildings. In fact, you might be wondering what’s so great about this typical English holiday destination with little to see aside from the sea. A fiesta with the locals of course!

As the locals do at Mercado Central, Alicante

As the locals do at Mercado Central, Alicante

Alicante is a small city on the Costa Blanca with a great foodie scene at a fraction of the cost of the larger tourist cities like Barcelona and Madrid. While aside from the monstrous Moorish Castillo de Santa Barbara that towers over the popular beach Playa del Postiguet, there aren’t many massive tourist sites to see (although I do recommend making the time for this one and it’s stunning coastal views). That’s okay though when it’s sunny year-round, there’s plenty of paellas to keep you full (try Dársena on the waterfront) and there’s, of course, a party around every corner.

Where to fiesta in Alicante:

Hogueras de San Juan: We witnessed the start of the summer’s most important festival, the celebration of the arrival of the summer solstice. We were lucky to see the Artistic Fiesta Lights in the Plaza del Ayuntamiento and the parade of natives dressed in traditional garments, impressively some sporting large paper mâché heads whilst on stilts. Unfortunately, we missed the best bit of the festival, on the 24th of June is the Night of Burning or “Noche de la Cremà”, when 200 large satirical paper mâché statues are lit on fire.

Hogueras de San Juan

Hogueras de San Juan

Mercado Central: On a Saturday afternoon locals gather around midday at the epicenter of the city, the central market. After roaming the meat, cheese, fruit, veg, and fish stalls, a common shopping place for regulars (don’t forget to hold your nose from the stench), everyone orders a small plate of pre-cut Iberico Jamon from one of the vendors, grabs an unlabeled beer from the booze stall, and stands in the sun outside catching up with friends before starting their Saturday night. We too took part in the tradition which was one of the highlights of our trip, chatting with amicable locals to the sound of chants for the forthcoming football match and trying different varieties of Spanish ham and cheese…and of course, beer.

Choosing our Jamon platter in Mercado Central

Choosing our Jamon platter in Mercado Central

Devouring Jamon in Mercado Central in Cambridge Graduation (Dr!) hat!

Devouring Jamon in Mercado Central in Cambridge Graduation (Dr!) hat!

Carrer Castanos: If you like generously free poured gin and tonics in large round glasses, shisha’s and salsa dancing at any hour of the day, this is your spot. Bar Ten10 offers all of the above, and we couldn’t help ourselves to a midafternoon boogie after indulging a few too many beers outside Mercado Central. For a safer option, take a turn on Calle San Francisco for a variety of cute tapas restaurants, sit alfresco and enjoy fresh squid, fried green peppers and so much more. El Rebujito Taperia was highly recommended, although the squid didn’t live up to its expectations.

Jules with Al Fonso and Davide

Jules with Al Fonso and Davide

Football: The Champions League Final 2017 took place whilst we were in town, Real Madrid vs. Juventus, and without a question, the city supported their famous neighbor Madrid. Pubs and tabernas put their TV’s outside, as everyone under the sun gathered to witness the epic match. We were lucky to find a spot to sip Aperol spritz perched on the ledge outside Amapola Pub, to observe the locals go nuts in the frenzy watching Real Madrid defend their UEFA Champions League title. Even better, next door, Taberna San Pascual served the best aubergine lasagna and Spanish meatballs; one of our best meals in the city.

Champions League Final at Amapola Pub

Champions League Final at Amapola Pub

Il Barrio: If you’re 18 and want to party, Il Barrio on a Friday and Saturday night is where it happens. Who would have thought we were too old for it? The youngins poured onto the streets out from upbeat discotheques to rock metal clubs. Instead, we chose to dance our hearts out at Havana Club, one of the few places that played both Spanish and Top 20 English-speaking dance beats. For a few hours, we were the only ones on the dance floor, sangria in hand, rocking out as if we were anywhere in the world. Plus, if you venture during the day there’s always spots like La Tasca del Barrio to keep you busy with their killer tapas and wine selection.

Jamon from La Tasca del Barrio

Jamon from La Tasca del Barrio

So there you have it! If it’s simply the sun, sangria and tapas you are seeking, shared with friendly locals and a stunning coastline, leave your tourist map at home because you’re still in for a treat. In fact, there are no hawkers to chase you down, some even need to go find their English speaking friend to help. And whilst we were slightly off season, I can’t comment on the mega beach and pool parties that sculpt the classic summer sesh. So would I go back? Likely not, but for a quick and cheap holiday in the sun I certainly don’t regret going either.

Pintxos Fever in San Sebastián ​

27 Sep

I must have gained 10 lbs at least. Pintxos for breakfast, pintxos for lunch and more pintxos for dinner. I’m not complaining though. I certainly would call my first visit to San Sebastián in Basque Country Spain a success.

Pintxos, San Sebastian

Pintxos, San Sebastian

Pintxos are sort of a form of tapas, bite-sized snacks typically served on a small piece of crusty bread in northern Spain. It’s common ground for both locals and tourists to stand at the bar, napkins thrown on the floor, as you help yourself from wooden boards sitting out on the countertop with everything from Jamon (cured Spanish ham), gambas (shrimp), anchovies, croquettes, imitation crab meat and goats cheese to some really interesting and unique ones, each place having its own specialty and recipes. They are best paired with a local vino tinto (red wine) from neighboring Rioja or a garagardo (Basque for beer).

Some places are really good at the honor system and keep track of what you’ve taken while you munch away, while others you must first show your plate to the bartender then pay before taking a seat. Once we finally arrived in the pintxos capital of the world San Sebastián it was non-stop snacking.

I met my Australian bestie Nidya in the industrial port city of Bilbao, as it was an easy place to sync up. I was just a short flight from London but Nidya made the long journey from Brisbane to Singapore to Zurich then finally Bilbao. Hotel Abando was perfectly situated for our one night stop off. It gave us an opportunity to catch up and get our first taste of the famed Basque delicacy of pintxos at notorious Café Iruña, then a few others along Ledesma Musikariaren Kalea, a foodie’s dream street, before making the hour journey north the following morning.

Nidya and Lisa selfie at Pintxos bar on Ledesma Musikariaren Kalea

Nidya and Lisa selfie at Pintxos bar on Ledesma Musikariaren Kalea

In Basque they speak their own language Euskal Herria so Nidya’s native Spanish from growing up in Peru didn’t necessarily always get us far. She even admitted it’s not what it used to be as it’s now more of a form of Span-glish, but it still was a big help which defaulted her the role of interpreter at times.

Pension Goiko, in the heart of the compact streets of Old Town (Parte Viaje), San Sebastian was a cross between a hostel and budget hotel suitable for both backpackers and couples. The location was unquestionable. The beach was just a short stroll away as well. One thing that didn’t go unnoticed is the noise from the alcohol-fuelled night owls who filled the streets till the early morning. I’d argue however that you would likely get the same problem anywhere in Old Town so just bring ear plugs and enjoy being in the thick of it.

Unfortunately it rained all weekend but we still managed a walk along the beach and through the picturesque port. We were delighted to come across  fresh oysters in the middle of yet another rain storm, but we weren’t too fussed as it was a great excuse to escape the cold, wet weather. I can only imagine how beautiful the sea would look on a sunny day as the town is known as a surfer’s paradise.

The city was a lot larger than I imagined, with Old Town, two beaches, and the local neighborhoods, there was plenty to do. Known for it’s Michelin starred restaurants, we couldn’t get in so last minute so we stuck to the narrow cobblestone streets of Old Town. My favorite pintxos bars were La Cepa for their melt in your mouth Jamon – seriously it was the most magical and sensory thing I’ve ever eaten; Casa Alcalde for their house vino tinto, and Nagusia Lau for their great pintxos selection including morcilla and fresh octopus. Other popular spots include Taberna Gandarias, La Cuchara de San Telmo, and Bar Nestor although we were so caught up we never made it to those.

San Sebastián Old Town

San Sebastián Old Town

Atari was the real deal when it came to a more formal dinner. Ordering off their raciones (small portions) menu we stuffed ourselves with beef cheek, local fish of hake, and squid with black squid ink. All the tables were fully booked ahead but we were lucky one came free just as we arrived. Even better, the bar turns into one of the hottest after dinner spots in town, as both locals and tourists take their Aperol spritz on to the steps of neighboring church Iglesia de Santa Maria to mingle under the stars.

When the rain finally cleared the following day we stumbled across Mercado de la Bretxa on the cusp of Old Town. On Saturdays the fruit and produce vendors are out, replaced by craftsman on Sundays. Luckily for us, there was a fundraiser taking place for a few hours that we passed by with just chance. We watched a gastronomic cook-off on one side of the market, amateur chefs competing on who makes the best salsa-verde. On the other side, they were dishing out local beer Keller accompanied by merluza (fresh hake fish, lightly battered and fried). A local informed us this was the real deal in terms of authenticity, as two seconds later a small marching band formed, strumming and blowing their horns to traditional Basque songs. 

 

As the San Sebastián Film Festival was on that weekend it made for some interesting additional fun. Later that afternoon our noses lead us to the Japanese pop up Cinema Caravan. We sat out on the wet stone steps of a schoolyard sipping sake and eating takoyaki (fried octopus balls) while watching a video installation against the old walls and jamming along to the DJ set. Later that night while sipping Basque craft beer we chatted to Bertrand from Bordeaux. He was in town for the film festival and gave Nidya some insider tips for her next stop in Barcelona while I sat trying to make sense of his broken english, Spanish with a french accent, and Nidya’s translations.

Port of San Sebastian

Port of San Sebastian

Our luck would have it that on our final day the sun finally came out! It gave us the perfect reason to walk off all our pintxos calories as we hiked to the top of Monte Urgell to witness the famed Statue of Jesus, and stunning views over the sea.

So the biggest question remains, when can I go back?

 

Reconnecting with Madrid 

12 Sep

The last time I was in Madrid was April 2003. I was a 19-year-old study abroad student living in London and had just spent the last few weeks backpacking around Europe with a few other American students. We started in Italy and went from Rome to Pisa then to the picturesque seaside towns in Cinque Terre. Shortly after a few of us split off after spending time in the south of France and took an overnight train from Nice on into Spain. I remember sleeping on the bottom bunk of a sleeper car for just a few hours after staying up most of the night drinking beers and playing cards.

We hadn’t really thought the itinerary very well through. I don’t think we ever even looked at a map to quantify the distance. This was still when we were early adopters of the Internet and needed to pay at an Internet cafe to use it. We did not have cell phones and solely relied on word of mouth advice and guide books. All I knew was that I had to get to Madrid by a certain date as that’s where my flight back to London was booked.

At some point in the long journey our train stopped. “Everyone out!” Completely confused, myself and my travel companions got up and tried to urge the conductor that we must continue on! Our train tickets clearly stated that we were booked all the way through. We were told the next free train from Barcelona was in three DAYS!!!

Laura was expected to fly out from Madrid (623km away) that night. If she missed her flight she would surely miss her connection back to the US the following day. But it was Easter weekend. We were too clueless to know that everything shut down for Easter in a holy city. Laura unfortunately had to call her parents to get some money for an emergency flight from Barcelona back to London. Unplanned yet unphased, Kari and I stayed back.

We stood in the middle of Barcelona Sants railway station perplexed but still casually agreed to throw in the towel and make the most out of the unexpected stopover. A new city at least! As we began brainstorming our options two male backpackers who were next to us overheard our situation. “You’re stuck here too? We’ve been here for days.” We got chatting and they suggested we try a cheap hostel in the city center which they had stayed at earlier in the week. Weary, yet considering we had no other option, we went along.

One was a pilot for British Airways. He validated it and all and so with my passion for travel we agreed they couldn’t be all that bad. In fact, they were true gentleman. For the next three days they gave us a personal tour of the whole city. They knew what to do and where to go. We dined along touristy Las Ramblas, learned the history of the famed church La Sagrada Familia, and roamed the parks sipping sangria from giant juice boxes with straws. On the last day they walked our heavy duffle bags to the train, we said goodbye, and that was that. Just simple pleasantries of genuine strangers with no funny business.

As soon as we arrived in Madrid Kari headed straight to the airport. I was left alone. This was my first time traveling truly by myself and I must admit I was a bit scared. I had some confidence from roaming around Europe the past few weeks to give me a boost, but I was also just ready to go home to London.

I remember being very hungry but I was too nervous to attempt to speak Spanish to buy anything. With some remaining credit left on a calling card I had, I went to a pay phone on a street corner and called my mom. Really I just wanted to chat to a familiar voice and pass the time. I was a wuss. Instead of enjoying the city I went to the established Prado Museum. If I’m honest, it wasn’t because I was into art. I don’t even particularly enjoy museums but I just wanted somewhere that felt safe to go.

I remember being ecstatic to come across mega stores Top Shop and Zara. Despite being too broke to buy anything, the familiarity of the stores and the appeal of something I could relate to calmed me. Shortly afterwards my day was done and I was off to the airport and back in London. It felt forever those hours alone on the streets of Madrid but as soon as they were done I looked back proud of myself for staying street smart and learning more about my personal strengths. I had really challenged myself that day.

13 years later I visited Madrid again, but oh how much had changed since that first visit. Both with myself and my confidence to travel as well as what I get enjoyment from when exploring a city. I was lucky this time though, as I wasn’t alone. I joined Alex on his journey driving roundtrip from London to Madrid and we met up at his halfway point.

Having been turned off by Spain since that first journey many years ago I’m now a converted woman. Glorious weather, fabulous architecture, and most importantly, the amazing food. Sure, it’s been a while since I’ve last been in Spain so it took me a couple of hours to feel comfortable speaking broken Spanish and ordering food but my gosh what we ate was out of this world!

Los Gatos, Madrid

Los Gatos, Madrid

Our first night we stumbled across Los Gatos cervecerias and were blown away by the voluptuous olives, smoked sardines and stuffed octopus. The goat cheese salad was sweet with balsamic but warm and perfect with apple and walnuts. The decor, the simple tapas and the cute location on Calle de Jesús made it the perfect first stop. And we might have thought cervecerias was short for ceviche but we were just silly and naive as it, of course, means brewery or more or less a bar.

El Rasto, Madrid

El Rasto, Madrid

I’m glad I took the time to explore Madrid on foot. I did some basic research in advance and ‘starred’ some hot spots on Google Maps. Luckily for us Sunday is market day at El Rasto, a local flea market selling everything from shoes, hats and clothes to simple tourist nicknacks. We grabbed empanadas from the side of the market to keep us going. Where the market ends we found a slew of local cervercerias. Unlike most European cities where Sunday finds the whole city shut down and quiet, the streets of Madrid were alive with both locals and tourists, and each tapas bar we visited was busy with regulars having a Sunday afternoon snack with an accompanying beer.

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Garden and view at Real Basilica de San Francisco el Grande

A short walk on we uncovered Real Basilica de San Francisco el Grande, which despite being closed still had spectacular views. From here it was only a few minutes to my favorite building at the heart of Madrid, Palacio Real de Madrid – the royal palace. We sat on the steps of Catedral de la Almudena listening to an accordion player serenade us as we overlooked the magnificent structure.

Palacio Real de Madrid

Palacio Real de Madrid

Walking to the enormous outdoor park Casa de Campo was worth the distance to witness the massive public grounds. Surprised by how much dry dirt rather then greenery was present, the best part was stumbling across the beautiful recreational lake. Families and couples rented row boats and we sat observing in the shade at La Bicicleta taking an escape from the heat. Although there was a huge family celebrating with spurts of laughter and champagne being shared, I was still weary to eat the crabs and octupus sat out in the heat, but the complimentary potato chips standard at most cafes was still appreciated.

La Vuelta, Via Grande, Madrid

La Vuelta, Gran Via, Madrid

Our accommodation was centrally located on the busy shopping artery of Gran Via, which made getting around the city on foot amazingly accessible. The famed cycling race La Vuelta came right past us on Sunday evening and it was incredible to see in person how fast and talented they truly are. Tapas Tapas on neighboring Calle de la Montera may have been a chain but was still delicious and perfect for people watching. The true gem however was Viandas de Salamanca jamon bar that served out of this world cured ham on baguettes, freshly sliced meat to go and more.

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Viandas de Salamanca, Madrid

Another popular tourist stop is the El Teleférico cable car that overlooks the city. Unfortunately we found out the hard way that it was shut, but that didn’t stop us from walking through some amazing gardens and witnessing another spectacular view of the royal palace. Even better, the hard-earned walk gave us an excuse to go to San Gines, the most popular stop for churros in the city.

 

San Gines Chocolateria

San Gines Chocolateria

Clearly my appreciation for Spain has matured from apprehension to pure love for all things Spanish. Luckily, I’m off to Michelin Star haven and pintxos capital San Sebastian tomorrow.

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