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Playing Catch Up: April Updates

Wednesday, April 22, 2015
Relevant words & a reminder to sigue adelante

Happy spring, everyone! I don't know about you, but so far this season has flown by. These past couple of months have been filled with nonstop travel, chaotic days at work, wine nights with friends, exploring Spain extensively, and enjoying Madrid on a tight budget. Balancing teaching, blogging, travel and friend-time has been a bit of a challenge lately, but I'm working on catching up, getting organized and reprioritizing. 

Coming Soon

I've got so many backlogged posts and stories to share with you, especially about my spring break trip to the Canary Islands! My good friend Amy of Restless Fork and I had a magical time exploring Tenerife and Gran Canaria (and tasting our way through the islands, of course). Between Puerto de la Cruz, Costa Adeje and Las Palmas, I fell irreversibly in love with the Canaries - and I can't wait to tell you all about it!

But that's not all! Tomorrow I leave for Santiago de Compostela, a lush hidden gem in the north of Spain. This stunning city in Galicia has been calling my name for quite some time now, and I can't wait to have my friend Trevor of A Texan in Spain show me around. Stories to come soon!

I'm currently working on a guide to Eating Gluten-Free in Madrid, which I'm excited to share once I wrap up my "research". (Man, taste testing is such a chore... right?!) In the meantime, I may have to sprinkle another post or two about Barcelona in the mix. That city has seriously gotten under my skin!

Black sand beaches in Puerto de la Cruz, Tenerife

So what's the plan for next year?

As some of you may remember from my quarter life crisis post, I couldn't decide whether to stay in Spain or go back home to the USA next year. Unfortunately, not much has changed since then. My heart still wants to stay in Madrid, but my brain is still telling me to go back home.

So, I'm leaving it up for the fates to decide. Out of the three teaching programs I've applied to in Madrid, at this point I'm only banking on one of them. If that program excepts me, I will stay in Spain for another year. If I'm rejected from the program, I'll move back to Seattle and figure out the next steps. (Which would probably entail grad school, a potential move to California, and lots of Chardonnay to cope with the inevitable Spain withdrawals.)

So, we'll see what the universe has in store! Since it's about a 50/50 chance either way, I'm trying to have an open mind and be content with both options. Advancing my career and reuniting with Kitty Purry, Whole Foods and my teal KitchenAid wouldn't be all too terrible, but the mere thought of leaving Madrid tears me up inside.

Time to take advantage of balcony picnic season in Madrid!

Adventures Ahead

A few days after I get back from Santiago de Compostela, I'll be headed to TBEX - Europe's largest travel blogging conference! This year TBEX is being held in Costa Brava, Spain - just a hop, skip and a jump away from Barcelona. Since it's so close to Madrid this year, I figured "why not?" and signed up on a whim.

Although my blog isn't big enough to compete with the mega-successful travel bloggers who regularly attend these conferences, I didn't want to miss out on the opportunity to grow my blog and make new blogger friends! And thankfully, I'll have my dear friend Erica of The One with Wanderlust by my side to calm my anxieties! Seasoned veterans, have you got any advice for us first-timers?

Following TBEX, my dad is finally coming to visit Madrid (hooray!), followed by one of my old sorority sisters. After that I'll be headed to Oviedo in northern Spain, and then Copenhagen. My mom is coming to visit again at the end of June, so after school lets out we'll be venturing to Granada and Mallorca!

Between those confirmed trips, I'd like to squeeze in a beach weekend in Cádiz, eat my way through San Sebastián, and make the most out of life in Madrid. My "Madrid Bucket List" is still a mile long, and there's about a thousand restaurants and rooftop bars I'm still dying to try out.

So much to explore, so little time!

Stay Tuned!

Whether next year keeps me here in Madrid or brings me back home to the States, good things are a brewing on this here blog. You can follow along in real time on Instagram, or on my recently inaugurated Facebook page. (It's about time I finally caved!)

So what's new with you? Any updates?
In the future, is there anything you'd like to see more of on this blog?

Getting to Know Toledo: A Tour with Travel Republic

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Just outside of Madrid lies Spain's former capital, the historic city of Toledo. This medieval hilltop town is one of the most colorful views into Spain's captivating past. Due to the city's history of peaceful coexistence between Christians, Jews and Muslims, Toledo is also known as the "City of Three Cultures". Not only is this enchanting UNESCO World Heritage Site brimming with history, but it is unquestionably one of the most picturesque towns in Spain.

On my first trip to Toledo a year and a half ago, I spent the day eating and drinking my way through Spain's former capital, strolling through the town and getting lost within its charismatic streets. However, I barely scratched the surface on Toledo's history, sights or monuments. I left Toledo knowing almost nothing about it.

Thankfully, this time around I got to experience a crash course in Toledo's history on Travel Republic's Madrid Toledo Tour. The perfect way to experience Toledo on a time crunch, this tour showed me all of the city's major sights and gave me a much-needed history lesson.

If you only have a few short days in Madrid but don't want to miss out on the cultural mecca of Toledo, this informative half day tour is a great way to quickly see the city and enjoy the sights. Our tour started at 8:45 in the morning and lasted roughly five hours, bringing us back to the center of Madrid just in time for lunch. 

We were transported to the city and back in a comfortable private bus, which gave us a relaxing opportunity to enjoy the scenery around us. Although food and drinks were not included, we were given the opportunity to fuel up with a café con leche on the way there and pick up some marzipan - a typical delicacy from Toledo that's not to be missed.

We hit almost all of Toledo's major sights on our tour, including the Church of St. Tomé with El Greco's hauntingly beautiful masterpiece The Burial of the Count of Orgaz, the Synagogue of Santa María la Blanca, the Museum of Victorio Macho and the Monastery of San Juan de los Reyes. 

We also visited a workshop where we witnessed the antiquated technique of damascene. Damascene involves the inlaying of precious metals in steel, and today it is a tradition that Toledo is still notorious for practicing. Seeing this practice firsthand gave me a unique insight into Toledo's ancient traditions that I wouldn't have experienced otherwise.

Inside the Synagogue of Santa María la Blanca, my favorite stop of the tour
The intricate exterior of Toledo's cathedral
Inside the Monastery of San Juan de los Reyes

As we stopped at each sight, our informative guide gave us a brief overview of Toledo's history and significance within Spain. As she covered the basics while throwing in some fascinating anecdotes, I was able to paint a picture in my mind of Spain's dynamic past. 

In the story of Spain's vibrant history, Toledo was positioned as the beating heart of the country. Through its series of captivating transformations and transitions, the medieval town of Toledo has acquired a timeless, fairytale-esque quality. Without a doubt, witnessing the old world charm of Spain's former capital is an all-around magical experience.

Observing damascening in a traditional workshop
Speaking of old world charm, Toledo is also well known for its medieval swords!

Getting to know Toledo on Travel Republic's Madrid Toledo Tour was a memorable way to transport myself back into Spain's compelling past. An ideal tour for those with limited time in Madrid, this condensed overview of Toledo's sights and stories is a great way to gain a better understanding of Spanish culture and history.

Travel Republic graciously invited me on their Madrid Toledo Tour, but all opinions expressed are my own.

Have you ever been to Toledo?
What's your favorite day trip from Madrid?

Discovering Catalan Cuisine with Devour Barcelona

Thursday, April 16, 2015

As an ardent lover of Spanish gastronomy, I've spent the past year and a half following my tastebuds through Madrid and the rest of Spain searching for the perfect bite. This hunger for Spanish culture and cuisine led me to work as a social media intern for Madrid Food Tour for six months this past year, from which I was able to discover even more about this country's culinary gems.

However, not too long ago I realized that there was a large, gaping hole in my knowledge: I knew practically nothing about Catalonia. Catalan cuisine is one of the superstars of Spanish food, so how had I been living in the dark for so long? 

On my first trip to Catalonia's capital five years ago, I missed out on most traditional dishes because I didn't know what to look for. Because I was overwhelmed by the options and too lazy to do my research, my first culinary experience in Barcelona was kind of an epic fail. That's why I made it a goal to rediscover Barcelona as a foodie this year.

When I decided to make my way back up to Catalonia in March, I turned to Devour Barcelona Food Tours to give me an introduction to Catalan cuisine

An omelette made with botifarra, a traditional Catalan sausage

We started our morning on the bustling Passeig de Gràcia, making our way towards the quaint neighborhood of Vila de GràciaBarcelona's very own hidden village. Tucked away from the chaos of the big city, the village of Gràcia still retains its authentic small town charm. Amongst the local shops and sunny plazas, one can find dozens of family run eateries serving quality, homemade food. 

Exploring Gràcia's Mercat de l'Abaceria Central
A delightful olive, artichoke and sundried tomato skewer at the market
Sampling various Spanish and Catalan cheeses with membrillo, a heavenly quince jelly
It's not a true Spanish market unless there's lots of jamón!

Fueled by the delectable treats from our first stop, including cava - Spain's signature sparkling wine that is mostly produced in Catalonia - we ventured into Gràcia's neighborhood market. We wandered through the colorful stalls, stopping at a local olive stand and cheese vendor for some decadent snacks. 

Upon entering the market, it became clear to me that we were no longer in the touristic hub of Barcelona. Unlike Barcelona's famous Boqueria market, there was not a single tourist or selfie stick in sight at Gràcia's Mercat de l'Abaceria Central. In this quiet neighborhood just beyond the sprawling Eixample, we had stumbled upon Barcelona's best kept secret.

Trying a selection of olive oils in a neighborhood shop
Learning how to make pa amb tomàquet, a typical breakfast or snack in Catalonia
The best patatas bravas I've ever had at l'Anxoveta

As we headed towards our next few stops, our vivacious guide Renee peppered our tour with colorful stories and anecdotes about Gràcia, giving us a better understanding of Catalan customs and culture. We then visited a local olive oil shop for a sit-down tasting, where we learned all about the differences between various Spanish olive oils. I found this to be particularly fascinating, since I hardly knew anything about Spain's olive oil industry!

Next, we headed to my favorite stop of the tour: l'Anxoveta. While most guests sampled a traditional Catalan bomba, a fried potato and minced meat croquette, I feasted upon the best patatas bravas of my life. We also learned how to make pan con tomate - or pa amb tomàquet in Catalan - a traditional Spanish breakfast comprised of toast, tomato, olive oil, salt and garlic. The gluten free bread that l'Anxoveta provided me tasted like the real deal, and the patatas bravas were so spicy and divine that I went back later that weekend for a second serving.

Pickled anchovies and fuet, a Catalan cured sausage, at a traditional neighborhood bodega

Spending a day with Devour Barcelona was the perfect way to further my knowledge of Spanish gastronomy, learn more about Barcelona's culture and history, and sample the best of Catalan cuisine. Not to mention, they did a great job of accommodating my gluten free needs and providing me with delicious alternatives. I never felt like I was missing out! Thanks to our enthusiastic guide and the tasty array of traditional dishes we got to try, I feel like I got to experience an authentic taste of Barcelona.

A tapa of escalivada, a classic Catalan dish made of grilled vegetables
A mini crema catalana, a dessert similar to crème brûlée with hints of orange and cinnamon

The Gràcia Neighborhood Food Tour runs every Tuesday-Saturday morning starting at 10:00 am. The tour lasts several hours and includes at least 12 different tastings. I highly recommend this tour to all foodies and hungry travelers who are curious about Spanish and Catalan cuisine!

I was graciously invited on this tour as a Devour Spain intern, however, all opinions expressed are my own.

As a Celiac, I took this tour at my own risk. While Devour Barcelona can make substitutions to accommodate a gluten free diet, they are not perfectly suitable for people with Celiac Disease due to risk of cross contamination. If you avoid gluten and are interested in taking this tour, please get in touch with Devour Barcelona by email to discuss Celiac/gluten free options.

Have you ever been on a food tour?
Which city would you like to taste your way through next?

Charmed by Valencia

Saturday, April 11, 2015
You've done it again, Spain.

Valencia had been on my Spain Bucket List for over a year, so once I finally booked my weekend getaway to the east coast of Spain, I had developed some pretty high expectations. 

So in this delightfully diverse country with hidden gems in every corner, do you think I was disappointed?

Of course not.

First, let's talk about the cuisine. The region of Valencia is home to Spain's most famous dish, paella. This tasty concoction of rice, vegetables, meat, seafood and saffron can be absolutely heavenly when done right. Unfortunately, bad paella can be found near tourist traps far and wide throughout Spain. (Rule of thumb: if there's a picture of paella in the restaurant's window, don't eat there.) 

However, if you do your research, Valencia can be a paella lover's dream. We indulged on the vegetable paella at La Pepica, an old haunt of Hemingway's. At this traditional, airy restaurant by the sea, I could almost picture good ol' Ernest himself declaring what a fine place it was. We enjoyed our exquisite pan of paella alongside some mussels and local white wine, rendering it the perfect meal.

And what better way to wash down some savory paella than with a pitcher of Agua de Valencia? A blend of freshly squeezed orange juice, Cava (Spain's version of champagne) vodka and gin, this upgraded mimosa just might be my new favorite cocktail.

Not to mention, there's also the Mercat Central de Valencia, which unquestionably makes my list of all-time favorite food markets in Europe.

I timed my trip to coincide with the first weekend of Valencia's Las Fallas festival, which is held every year from March 15th - 19th. Appropriately named "the fires", Las Fallas is a colorful fiesta filled with larger than life paper mâché statues that mock political and cultural issues, gunpowder shows in the middle of the day, and a lifetime's worth of pyrotechnics. On the last night of the festival, the city is set ablaze as the satirical paper mâché figures called ninots (meaning "puppets" or "dolls") are burnt to the ground. 

Despite only being in Valencia for a full day and a half, I found the city to be completely enchanting. I'm already aching to go back and spend more time exploring the city. (And drink more Agua de Valencia, obviously.) There are still so many things that I have yet to discover, like the intriguing City of Arts and Sciences and the gorgeous, vast beaches. Moreover, I'd love to witness the Nit del Foc, the last night of Las Fallas festival where all of the ninots are set on fire.

With so many excuses to spend more time in Valencia, I sincerely hope I get the chance to go back soon and get to know this picturesque city better.

My Valencia Picks:
Where to Get Your Paella Fix: La Pepica
Must-Try Dishes: Paella, buñuelos de calabaza (pumpkin fritters), horchata, Agua de Valencia
Can't Miss Sights: Mercat Central de Valencia, City of Arts and Sciences, Catedral de Valencia
When to Go: March 15th - 19th for Las Fallas festival
Best Agua de Valencia: Café de las Horas