Korea is easier with a few tips

In general, Korea is an extremely easy country to navigate, but there were a few times when we were awfully lucky to have kids living there to help.  In particular, when you are using airbnb there is no concierge or English-adept staff to clarify those details which can make life miserable when you are not in the know.

Getting in and out of your apartment

We had paid for 2 weeks of an efficiency apartment, meaning we were completely on our own.  In advance, the host was to send us the lock code which theoretically is all one needs to enter.  Ha.  We would have been stranded because the system of house locks is completely different from the US but consistent everywhere we went in the country.

Getting into your apartment:  A small box about the size of a cigarette pack is mounted on the door.  To use your key code first slide up the cover, enter the code on the numeric pad, slide the cover down, wait for the musical tone, and then open the door.

Getting out of your apartment:  In order to leave your apartment, which will lock automatically again when the door is closed, you push the button on the inside of the lock mechanism, watch the little dial turn, and then the door can be opened.  If for some reason the dial doesn’t turn you can turn it manually.  But for both ingress and egress, take your time and wait for the lock to do its thing.  Trying to open the door from the inside before it’s ready screws things up and you must take a breath, wait for tones and automatic things to happen, and start over if necessary.  DO NOT PANIC!

Without our kids showing us, we would have been locked out, and then locked in!  It’s a great system once you know how it works and though there are different versions in different apartments (and the exterior door of our guest house in Jeonju worked the same way) they all look and work the same.

Communicating With Your Airbnb Host 

I had booked our Seoul apartment on my desktop.  Emailing back and forth via the host’s airbnb address worked great in the US.  In Korea, when I tried to email from my phone airbnb responded that I had to authenticate myself via the airbnb app because I was using an unknown device.  I downloaded the app, entered all the info, but it never linked up to my original account.  USE THE APP while in the US.  Our kids came to our rescue, as they had gotten his phone number when I sent them the airbnb booking, but I was never able to get in touch with him on my own.  It didn’t occur to me that the way I had communicated from the US would not work when all I had was a smartphone in Korea.

Use the “Egg” 

Wifi is all over the place in Korea, and with few exceptions we were able to use various free services all over the city.  Sometimes when it appeared no service was on where we happened to be, walking a half block usually revealed another we could use.  However, most Koreans carry an “egg” which is the small personal hotspot and super handy.  While the egg does lose connection depending on where you are, it almost always comes back.  However, our phones always appeared from the wifi icons to be connected even when they were not, so you might not realize you aren’t connected until you try and do something other than GPS.

Many of the accommodations I looked at said “free egg” but ours didn’t so I didn’t know there was such a thing pretty much universally. Hence I hadn’t gotten the password, but again kids came to the rescue, called the host and got the “egg” password.

GPS-enabled Maps Are a LifeSaver

I am a fan of Maplets, even more so now.  This little app downloads digitized maps (tourist maps, subway maps, trail maps, etc.) worldwide and more and more of them are GPS enabled.  When no wifi was available we were able to figure out where we were by using these–and they worked even when Google and Apple maps seemed baffled (e.g., the blue spot would appear, but no map behind it).   Get Maplets and download subway and other maps (you can search by location)–they are also great because you can zoom in to details.

In general, Apple and Google maps were useless for routes and distances.  We could never get a walking route, for example, even when the map seemed accurate and visible.

Electronic Kiosks at Restaurants

If you walk up to a restaurant and see an iPad-sized thing mounted in front, this is how you register that you’re there and want a table.  While you won’t have a Korean phone number, you can enter your name, in which case do find a human and tell them what you have done.  Otherwise you will never get a table.

Spoken English is Rare

It seems strange that with every street sign, subway stop and most informational signs having an English translation so few Koreans speak English.  They are extremely friendly, will try to help, and of course as in many countries people will strike a conversation when they hear you talking and they want to practice English.  Hand gestures, pointing, and all the other things one does in a foreign country work just fine–but do not assume because the menu is translated that anyone in the place can read or explain it.

Use a Native or Foreign-Enabled Texting and Calling App

We use KakaoTalk to communicate with our kids living in Korea.  It is highly functional–probably similar to WhatsApp which we also use.  These work with wifi and enable crystal clear phone calls as well as texting.  While they only work with other people who have the same app, we had told friends and family to download and use KakaoTalk and that was our primary communication mode.

We did not get a SIM card, and we turned off data services for our phones (which seems to annoy Verizon no end as we were bombarded with offers and warnings when we sent data via KakaoTalk or WhatsApp) by making sure airplane mode was always on.  We used texting and KakaoTalk phone calls on wifi and it was entirely free.

If in Seoul and Hungry for Home Food, Head to Itaewon

Itaewon is for foreigners, and so there is a wonderfully mixed population and an incredible array of restaurants.  American style food, halal restaurants, Mexican restaurants (a current fad so it might be something different in a few years) abound, mixed with every kind of Korean food you can imagine.  There is also a reasonable choice of American food in the grocery stores–we bought a box of cornflakes so we could eat breakfast before setting out, both to save money and to have something familiar.  Itaewon also has several of the best bakeries I’ve been to anywhere.

However, with a few exceptions the coffee places open later in the morning than we would have liked–we finally found one that opened at 8am (Bread Show–excellent!) but many do not open until 10.  If you must have a caffeine fix before heading out there is ample instant (comes in little paper tubes that have both sugar and creamer, ugh) and the convenience stores (7-11, CU, etc.) all sell about 20 kinds of cold canned and cartoned coffee.

Centro Historico de Ciudad de Mexico

We spent two separate days in the intense downtown and enjoyed both immensely. There is so much happening, seemingly at all times, it can be overwhelming…but the historical sights, the fascinating architecture, the markets all add up to a vibrant scene.

From Roma Norte it was about 20 minutes to downtown via Uber, though on Saturday the driver noted the many closed off streets made getting us to our museum of the day somewhat complicated.

The zocalo is immense. On one side is the cathedral, two sides are government buildings, and the fourth is shops at street level (mostly jewelry) and restaurants on the second level, meaning there are hawkers every few feet encouraging you to come and eat something. Once off the zocalo there is a mix of every kind of retail, many many restaurants at street level, and every few blocks or so a string of food stalls on the sidewalks. Is it my fault I spend all my time in Mexico hungry? The smells of corn tortillas and grilling meat and vegetables are so enticing. Mostly we recognized the food but every now and then I had to ask “what is that?” And I would have tried them all—if my stomach could have fit everything.

Templo Mayor

This was on our list but when we asked a driver “what is the one thing we should not miss while here” the answer was Templo Mayor. Yes!

The history of how this site was rediscovered is fascinating. I won’t go into it here, see the link, but let’s just say some developers were probably mighty pissed that their plans were foiled by a major discovery in 1978 (the round “tablet” below–it was a world-renowned find). And it is such a large excavation, right smack in the middle of the downtown, that it must have cost the city and country a lot of money in foregone taxes, not to mention the expense of the dig itself.

There is the site itself and the attached museum, both worth the time. We spent several hours and were fascinated and dazzled. The juxtaposition of the site and the adjacent cathedral is also pretty cool, as you view ancient and contemporary religions right up against each other.

Tacos de canasta

I must share our lunch experience. I very quickly glanced at yelp and saw a highly rated taco place and without reading anything we headed over-it is just a half block off the zocalo. The name is Tacos de Canasta los Especiales, and there was a large queue which David joined while I slid past the line to the inside to try and figure out the deal. In the back was a large multi-part room, lined with narrow stainless steel counters and every 5 feet or so enormous bins of chopped lettuce, pickled jalapeños and carrots, and seemingly gallons of a guacamole salsa. Every few feet the counters had stacks of napkins–this is an ‘eat with your hands’ place. I went back to David, shrugged my shoulders and in a minute we were at the first “station”. I asked “que es el sistema?” and he replied we paid for how many tacos we wanted, he then handed us a token with the number of tacos, we handed the token to the next guy who gave us two paper plates each with two tacos that he had scooped out of the basket in front of him, and we headed back to a counter to eat. We don’t remember what it cost but according to Yelp it’s 40 pesos for 5 tacos plus a drink. Suffice to say it was embarrassingly cheap, and they were delicious and the entire scene great fun. HINT: Carry some silverware with you–I have some snap together knife/fork/spoon “kits” in a little box that I bought at Cole Hardware in downtown SF. They sure came in handy here, as I didn’t want to leave a bit of the crunchy lettuce and jalapeños.

Palacio de Bellas Artes

We decided to wander and ended up walking over to the Palacio de Bellas Artes where we enjoyed the beautiful architecture, murals, and a very fun temporary exhibit titled “Redes de Vanguardia” (networks of the vanguard) about Amauta, a Peruvian arts and politics journal from the 1926-1930 that for the first time brought indigenes art and culture to the fore. Seems so obvious now, but recognizing indigenes contributions was a breakthrough at the time.

Museo de la Ciudad de Mexico

This is one of those places that is terribly under-represented in the guide books. We went there our last full day in the city, and it was a wow. The building, just a few blocks off the zocalo, is lovely, the displays about the challenges of large urban centers is a multi-media wonder, and the information about the city itself—its history from pre-Hispanic to modern times is rich and entertaining. However, some Spanish is recommended as much of the information is not translated (though much is). There is an entire room devoted to explaining the many different jobs that keep the city running, from teachers to street food vendors to dog walkers to construction workers. Each wall is covered with photos and descriptions, and there are also five or six videos that profile work and workers…it was incredibly illuminating and it brings the people of the city alive.

On the second floor are a series of art exhibits, including one that had just opened—we were so lucky!—that comprised four large rooms filled with mostly very large contemporary paintings of Ciudad de Mexico. We loved it.

Downtown on a holiday weekend

That last day, a Saturday, the zocalo was filled with tents. We asked our Uber driver what was going on and he said it was just “normal.” As we walked around we figured out it was a celebration/observation of life with a physical disability. For example, there was a footrace with paired runners, tied together at the wrist with one runner blindfolded. There were wheelchair races and apparently a race on crutches, as there were many pairs of crutches lined up against the fence. A short zipline was managed by members of the military helping kids go back and forth. We didn’t enter but it looked like a lot of fun, like a different kind of carnival. “Normal.”

Naturally for Mexico, around the fair were artisan street vendors selling anything and everything. Something we had not seen before were maybe five or six spots where indigenes shamans (?) offering purification. Individuals stood with their arms out, eyes closed, as they were fanned with burning bundles of dried something that might have been sage, serenaded by conch wails, and otherwise rid of bad spirits. Intriguing, but I wasn’t brave enough to do it. Small children ran everywhere, and I had to photograph a group of 4-6 year olds sitting on the pavement trading Barbie and other doll clothes so intensely they were oblivious to anything happening around them.

From here we walked to La Ciudadela, an artisanal market. The market was really great and well worth a stop even though we had been shopping at markets for two weeks. The walk could have been a 15 minute affair but the crowded streets and vendors were too interesting to rush by and we spent about 40 minutes dawdling. I was hungry (surprising?) so kept stopping to ask street vendors “what is this?” I am still regretting not trying a “pata” taco–the customer who told me this mysterious ingredient’s name put her fingers to her lips, Italian style, gave a kiss and said “Muy rica!” A few blocks later, though, we came upon “Tacos de Tripa.” The cook pulled pieces of tripe out of a boiling caldron, chopped them into tiny pieces, tossed them on the steel grill where they became crispy, separated them into little piles each of which he covered with a tortilla, deftly flipped each over, crisping up the tortilla as well. I love tripe and was delighted to stop and order one, yes please to onions and cilantro, while a couple eating next to me asked “What is the word for ‘tripa’ in English?” (In Spanish of course.) And then they wanted to know the English word for caliente, hot, which I explained was the same as the word for picante (spicy). We agreed that ‘tripa’ (tree-pa) is a much prettier word than ‘tripe.’ Oh yes, the taco was delicious.

Wandering Mexico City

As everywhere we have been in Mexico, this is a friendly, comfortable city where a little Spanish will get you far, most everyone is happy to explain or help, moving around is straightforward, Uber is ridiculously cheap, and the food is plentiful and delicious.

We have started each day with coffee and a pastry (if you are in Roma Norte we highly recommend Buna for croissants—cuernitos—of the highest quality and especially well made espresso drinks), stopping at a fruit/juice street vendor for what may be a quart of freshly squeezed orange juice for 40 pesos or so, then after a refresh at the hotel calling Uber to head to a museum. From there we wander to a taco stand or market or hole-in-the-wall place for lunch, and either walk and wander or call Uber to take us back to the hotel to spend the rest of the day in and around the Roma neighborhood.

Yesterday, for example, we visited the Museo Soumaya in the Polanco neighborhood, known as the Beverly Hills of Mexico City and reputed to be the most desirable real estate in Latin America. The museum contains Carlos Slim’s personal collection. The guidebooks call it “eclectic” and I would rename it “Stuff I Bought.” It is the most bizarre, oddly organized, hodgepodge of an art museum imaginable, housing everything from an enormous (too much so) collection of Rodin to postcards and watches. The building was designed by his son-in-law and is, shall we say, striking. The interior has an open stairway and ramp which wind from level to level and room to room, and I was freezing the entire time because there is a wind tunnel effect adding to the oddness of the experience. Sr. Slim has no apparent discipline or taste, and while the collection includes many paintings from recognizable artists I learned something I’m not sure I wanted to know—even the biggest names (Renoir, for example) did some truly mediocre work. But it was free, we toured with energy, and were out in perhaps 90 minutes.

Having no interest in walking around a cliche rich peoples’ neighborhood to ogle houses or Chanel shops, we hopped an Uber and went to the Friday market in Condesa to find something to eat. Now, that was more like it.
Below note the beautiful blue corn gorditas and quesadillas. A very nice man in front of the cooks is there to explain what is on offer and take orders. Gorditas were “chicharron” but in truth that meant cheese, nopales, and a few other vegetables stuffed into fat tortillas that were split like pita and grilled. The mushroom quesadilla was alas eaten too quickly to make it into the photo. I was happy to see a juice vendor so I could get a picture showing the enormous number of small, green and yellow orange rinds piled into the two big bags as he grabbed halves, pulled down on the juicer, and tossed them aside in a single motion. Poetry.

It was about a mile’s walk back to our neighborhood in Roma, so we decided that would make a perfect end to the afternoon. We were correct—discovering the beautiful, dog-filled Parque Mexico and the enchanting architecture of Condesa, and before we knew it we were back “home.”

Trotsky and Casa Azul

Our friend Christina had encouraged us to check out the Coyoacan neighborhood and that meshed nicely with our plan to see Trotsky’s house and small museum as well as Casa Azul, the home of Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, two worthwhile sites only a few blocks apart.

We had both been ignorant of the Trotsky story, and both had the same revelation about how the heck Trotsky ended up living, and being assassinated, in Mexico City. Turns out Rivera, also a socialist, had prevailed on the government to give Trotsky asylum, and even had him as a houseguest for a few months (during which there was apparently a strong flirtation between Frida and Leon).

Trotsky comes across as a lovely guy, doting on his chickens and rabbits while he wrote obsessively, often using a dictation machine. It was while he was working at his desk that the assassin came up behind him and hit him in the head with an axe. It is a very small, traditional, modest casa and he and his wife were admired for adopting a completely Mexican life.

Now, Casa Azul is something else again—filled with art, curios, gardens, studios, traditional kitchen (no electricity or modern accoutrements of any kind), and the very sad remnants of Frida’s pain-filled life. In spite of her physical misery, however, she had many lovers and intense relationships while at the same time suffering greatly from Diego’s affairs. We rented the audio-video tour and highly recommend it.

We walked on a few blocks to the small mercado looking for lunch, and ended up in a lovely conversation with a couple from Montreal, ate an enormous lunch at a little counter in the middle of the market, walked for a while in the lovely, quite, cobblestoned neighborhood of Coyoacan, then took Uber home to Roma Norte.

The symbol of Coyoacan is the coyote, and they’re everywhere.

Taxco!

Eat, Drink, Party, Shop!

Hotel Los Arcos

I’m not sure how I selected this place but it turned out to be perfect. While there is no quiet spot in Taxco on a weekend, the location, just around the corner and down the hill a bit from the zocalo, was ideal. The room was large and comfortable and the central patio peaceful and picturesque. On the roof is a large terrace with gorgeous views of the town, which stretches way up the mountain and down into a valley. Walking this town requires stamina (it’s at around 6,000’), good shoes, and strong thighs and knees. We loved it.

Food highlights

Well, the food in general in Taxco is as delicious and inexpensive as elsewhere in Mexico but a few meals and restaurants stand out.

We had two fantastic, and typically enormous, breakfasts of chilequiles with eggs. The restaurant that serves in the hotel patio is terrific and highly recommended for convenience, service, delicious food. One of the “jams” they serve is a sweet chipotle that was memorable…not spicy, just a smoky, just sweet enough condiment. For the view—though the servings were overwhelmingly large so eating was almost discouraging, we went to Del Angel, a hotel behind Templo de Santa Prisca, the huge central church on the zocalo. The restaurant has several outdoor terraces, all with sweeping vistas of the town. Don’t get me wrong, the food was great—but entirely too much for a normal human being to consume in the morning.

Two of our three nights in town we went to La Bendita, a small cantina-like place for drinks and small plates such as tacos, tostadas, quesadillas. The ceviche tostadas were what called us back for a second time, and I highly recommend the chicharron pescado (fried fish) tacos as well. My mojito(s) were delicious, and both nights David had the liter of beer. Sitting at a tiny table on a tiny balcony overlooking the zocalo madness was entertaining. The second evening the moon rose over the bell towers to give us a magical picture.

Finally, on the Taxco food front, we went to the famous Tia Calla, a basement level pozoleria. David isn’t a big fan of pozole but I am—and he had the chalupas, four little tortillas with chicken and chipotle. By the end of his snack he said his mouth was tingling but they were not the killer heat we know from chipotles in the US. The pozole was the best I’ve had.

Plata

I really wanted to be in town for the Saturday market, a truly insane explosion of silver puestos (little stands) that seemingly filled every bit of space in the town—buildings that were closed on Friday opened to be consumed by hundreds of vendors each with approximately a card table’s worth of display. While many vendors sell the same things, as you walk each aisle you see that from one to the next they have a particular type of jewelry or a distinct style. My plan was to leave with enough pairs of earrings to last me for years, and I did. We also bought a few little gifts which will not be shown here as we want to surprise the recipients. The prices are absurdly low and the experience always “muy linda.” I had tried to describe Saturdays to David—there are always hundreds of vendors in stores and on the streets in Taxco—but he was shocked at the sheer level of commercial enterprise.

Simply too picturesque

We wandered the town every day, and at every turn enjoyed the beauty of this amazing town, one of Mexico’s Pueblos Magicos.

Puebla For The Food

Where we try to taste everything!

Cemitas

Cemitas are the Puebla version of an oversized, overstuffed sandwich.  They are everywhere…from tiny puestos, holes in the wall with rickety card tables and often waves of heat coming from gas fired flat grills of beaten steel, with shallow depressions that are filled with cooking oil for frying potatoes and nopales, stand alone puestos on the street where buy your food and eat out of hand on the sidewalk, to full restaurants that serve cemitas from a menu.  

Our last afternoon in Puebla we knew cemitas were on our menu for lunch, and as we left the Casa Alfenique we asked the group of students at the entry where we should go for cemitas—they recommended the neighborhood El Carmen, which was very close to where we had stopped for chanclas the day before.  It was about a 20 minute walk, and we were en route when we passed one of the tiny holes in the wall, the grill in the doorway, 3 women cooking like mad, and a sample cemita displayed on the edge of the grill as an advertisement.  The sample cemita was enormous—and the smells of the frying potatoes and nopales was enticing.  Also, only one of the 4 card tables was empty.  David said “let’s just go here” and as it was 2 blocks from the hotel and we were hungry from all the work of visiting museums, in we went.

As we sat down at the empty table we were able of course to watch all the cooking—it was literally right in front of us.  One woman was making tortillas from a pile of masa harina that must have been a foot tall and a foot wide.  As she removed the tortilla from the press she passed it back and forth from hand to hand—exactly the same technique I had watched recently in a video about making naan.  Each tortilla puffed up as she moved them around the grill.  A second woman was chopping onions with an enormous knife.  The third was cooking cemitas—she took 3 paper thin pieces of meat, probably pork, and slapped them on the grill.  While the meat grilled she prepared the rest of the filling. The bottom of the roll was covered with avocado, strings of Oaxacan cheese (the only cheese we saw in Puebla), slices of onion, an herb papalo which is kind of similar to cilantro though unrelated, a good flavor and quite strong, and a handful of French fries.  As you can see from the picture, it is enormous. I was unable to finish my half and I was so very hungry when I started!  Anyway, this little place turned out amazing food and was always full—there was a “nicer” cemitas place next door which was empty as we walked by.  What a treat.  And our 100% good luck eating street food held—no after effects at all.  

Chanclas

These were described to us as a kind of sandwich, but though there is bread involved these are nothing like a sandwich.

Small white rolls, which are somehow hollow, are cut in half.  The place we went—recommended by our Uber driver, letting us off there instead of taking us back to the hotel as he told the owner “I have some tourists here who want chanclas”— was of course tiny so I could watch the assembly which included shredded chicken, slices of avocado, the top of the roll and then the entire plate is filled with a thin red sauce similar to the red sauce we know from red enchiladas in the states.  One order is four chanclas—I ALMOST finished mine, though David had no trouble with his four.

Moles (that’s mo-lays, not the rodent)

Every region seems to have its own specialities when it comes to moles and we had several different such in Puebla.

The dark mole, almost always served over chicken or a chicken wrapped in a corn tortilla, is sprinkled with sesame seeds and is intensely flavored with a very definite chocolate undertone.  A little too sweet for me, but David loved it.  We also had a mole “house specialty” at the sister hotel Meson Sacristia de la Compania which was not at all sweet, even a bit sour/tangy. I loved that one.  The other common mole in Puebla is pipian, ground squash seeds which I liked as well, lots of cumin and a hint of tahini-like flavor.   We had this trio at Fonda de la Santa Clara over beef—we were a little tired of chicken on our last night.

Tacos al pastor and tacos arabe, and the grilled mix alambre

Tacos al pastor and tacos arabe are both specialties of Puebla and so good.  Arabe means the meat comes wrapped in a flour tortilla, well, halfway between pita bread and a tortilla.  The default meat in a taco arabe they call “carne blanco” which means it’s not reddish brown with spices as al pastor is.  Simple and delicious, especially with the bright green tomatillo salsa usually on the table.

Al pastor is what we see in the US if you are lucky enough to live near good taquerias: stacked meat, heavily spiced, turning in front of a roaring vertical grill, sliced off in thin pieces and served on corn tortillas with pineapple, onion, and cilantro.  OMG so good, almost refreshing with the fresh pineapple on top.  I could have eaten those every day if there hadn’t been so many other things to try!

(At the central bus station, which is like an airport with all the companies in one place and a large waiting area surrounded by food stands, the “Rincon Poblano” (Puebla Corner) had tacos arabe and cemitas—but we were on an morning bus and passed, reluctantly.)

Our first night we went to Las Ranas where we ordered the .5kilo of meat with a stack of tortillas.  It turned out to be a mix of meats—not sure what all—with peppers and onions and a cover of melted cheese.  So delicious and we could not finish, as hungry as we were after a long day of travel.

In conclusion—

Every single place we went was so friendly, so helpful, and so welcoming it was easy to jump into foreign foods with happy confidence.  For a food festival, go to Puebla!

Madrid, museum heaven–oh, yeah, and good food, too

With only four days left and pretty darned tired we arrived in Madrid…Spain’s New York City. We had been given somewhat complicated instructions to the apartment which did not correspond to the Metro maps we had, and spent maybe 30 minutes in the airport-sized train terminal looking for a tourist information desk. It was late afternoon on Saturday and no luck until we decided to just go to the Metro and figure it out. Voila, an information booth where the young woman marked exactly where our apartment was, just four or five blocks down Calle Mayor–“look for Casa De La Villa,” so simple after all.

Our destination stop was Sol, smack in the middle of madhouse Plaza Del Sol. One of those heaven-sent ticket machine aides helped us buy the card and explained we could put two riders’ worth of trips on one (like the lovely T-10 card we used in Barcelona.  Unlike our mistaken albeit inexpensive purchase of 2 rides to the airport on one card in Porto and had to buy a second card…which, when we got to the Porto airport we found there was no turnstyle exit anyway. Whatever.)  For all the complicated instructions we’d had from our Airbnb host re looking for particular routes, it turned out there is just a single metro train running through the Madrid train terminal, and in about 8 minutes we were coming up the escalator into crazy Plaza Del Sol.

Yikes. A large and crazy plaza where several streets crisscross at acute angles, both pedestrian and not, a gazillion people, but all we had to do was make sure we remained on Calle Mayor and in 10 minutes we were at our address. Alas, we were early by about 45 minutes–Roberto would meet us outside and take us up but not until 7:30. We were so tired and hungry and thirsty…looked up the street a short block and there was a bar where people were sitting in a little enclosed patio smoking and drinking.

Yeah! We sat at a small table with luggage heaped around us but there was ample room and in a quick minute David had a large beer and I a glass of cold white wine. Relief. I got up to see if I could get a menu as we really needed a snack. The waitress was very apologetic but the kitchen was closed. All I could order was one of the salads. Poor us. We had the most delicious burratta salad with cherry tomatoes and arugula, so refreshing and ample with a ball of burratta that more than generous. With a basket of bread we couldn’t have been happier and then it was 7:30 and Roberto was there.

The apartment was just as expected; we settled in and then went looking for dinner. The rather crazy tapas bar scene was just a few blocks away, but everything looked crowded and hipster. Hungry and now hungrier, we knew enough by this time about food in Spain to drop into a narrow little bar/restaurant that was anything but hip, the front section all folks drinking and watching soccer, squeezed through to a table in the back and perused the now relatively familiar array.

I had one question-what was tripe Madrid style?  It means cooked with chorizo and blood sausage. David ate the sausage and I tried my best to finish the delicious, meltingly tender tripe but it was altogether too much…half portion of course. David, with a bit of help from me, finished a half portion which was most generous of anchovies in vinagre, what we call in the US white anchovies. So good. And a small order of patatas bravas to round out the flavors. Staggered home to bed as we had a busy Sunday planned.

I think on this trip we have eaten about 200 anchovies.  Not complaining about that.

It was an accurate introduction to Madrid. We spent the next three days walking, eating, and being dazzled by the Royal Palace (10 minute walk): the Prado (20 minute walk) and the Thyssen (across the boulevard from the Prado).  All in all, though we had some complaints about the apartment itself the location was fantastic.

David had sussed out all the information about tickets, free times, and locations of our 3 sightseeing goals.  On Sunday nights the Prado is gratis from 5 to 7. We decided a visit to check off a few boxes was worth it, and it was, because we knew Tuesday was reserved entirely to see everything there. Mondays the Thyssen is gratis 12-4 but closed on Tuesdays and Wednesdays.  Our plan was set and we filled our last 3 days thusly:

Sunday

Sunday morning, El Rastro, a rambling outdoor market where basically everything is available from antiques to socks to batteries to pots and pans.  As we started down one of the side streets of the market area, lined with a hodgepodge of junk shops and antiques we passed a corner joint advertising bocadillos de calamares.  Okay, will be back for that!

We were still on the hunt for coffee and a teeny bar, Bar de Ca’ Kiko, called to us.  If this had been our first day in Iberia we would have passed, but we knew it would be a safe and interesting experience and it was.  This place was filled with a shifting crowd of men from (probably working) the market, and there was plenty of high spirited morning commotion. Every time someone left he’d (I was the only woman in the place) slap the small counter and with a “Chicos!” and was out the door.  Behind the counter were two gruff looking men making coffee and handing food over the high counter–their specialty is tostas as shown in a long handwritten menu on the wall.  Piled on a back ledge and under plastic covers on the counter were mysterious (to us) toppings on thick slices of bread, presumably toasted.  As we drank our cafes con leche (delicious as usual, and served in small glasses as usual) I tried to puzzle out what the I was looking at paired with the list on the wall.  I knew every person I asked about food, in both Portugal and Spain, would be happy to explain in Spanish I could largely follow, and the men behind the bar were as friendly as they could be proudly explaining what was what adding “Muy rico” after each.  Every few minutes an arm with a plate of more tostas was thrust through a rough hole the size of a small window in the door to the kitchen, and one of the men took it and added it to the inventory.  I kept asking, what’s this? What’s that? They even had something listed as barbacoa, a food word that has many many definitions depending on where you are in the Latin world.  (In one city I visited in Mexico has a string of “barbacoa” stands outside of town–where barbacoa means grilled goat.)  Anyway. a strange melange on bread turned out to be that, and when I asked them what kind of meat they looked at each other and said “Ternera?” (beef) so perhaps it’s beef. It all looked so good…but we weren’t at all hungry and knew those bocadillos de calamares were waiting for us when we finished at the market.

We wandered, I bought some earrings and David bought a leather billfold, and then we started looking around for that corner joint we’d seen on the way in.  It was only 11am but hey, we’re on vacation–and with some backtracking and hey-didn’t-we-come-down-this-street’s we found it.  Joint is the word, with soccer games on one tv and a weird kind of Latin candid camera show on another, and “decor” that hasn’t changed since 1960, and people standing or perched at the counters eating bocadillos, and drinking beer.  We joined in, David having beer and I a glass of fresh squeezed orange juice that you can get anywhere, anytime, and our bocadillos de calamares, a Madrid specialty sandwich comprising a long crusty roll filled with tender fried calamari rings, on which you can squirt either mayo or aoli.  A perfect brunch!

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After I ordered a fellow called out to me “You speak English!”  He and his wife were from Toronto (that’s in Canada, he explained) and had just finished a group hike on Majorca.  They didn’t speak or understand a single word of Spanish, and seemed very surprised that I did.  We had a small dish of patatas bravas, gratis with our drinks, and the woman asked what it was.  How can you have been in Spain for more than 1/2 a day and not know that?  Anyway, I gave her a piece on a toothpick which she reluctantly ate.  Poor people.

We headed to the Royal Palace and took the audio tour.  We liked the tour very much, but it was funny/tiresome that almost every explanation came around to how this or that painting or decoration “demonstrated the legitimacy of the Spanish monarchy”.  But surprisingly interesting–it includes such amazing decor as several rooms where the walls and ceiling are entirely porcelain!  As we left we heard the music of pipes and castanets outside–it was the tail end of a demonstration/parade we had seen on the walk back from El Rastro, a Basque protest, with music, costumes, enormous oxen pulling huge wooden carts and even a Green Peace sign, all demanding an end to agribusiness destroying great food and village life.  The marchers, in costume and periodically breaking out into castenet routines, all looked somewhat grim but the crowd seemed on their side with smatterings of applause.

Free night at the Prado, 5-7pm!  We headed over and joined a two block and growing queue and at 5 the line moved and we were part of the crowds inside where we got our bearings, sort of, and readied for a quick dose of art. Wow. We couldn’t wait to get back.  It would have been immensely frustrating if we didn’t know Tuesday was Prado day.

We stopped at La Plateria for a yummy dinner of judios verdes con jamon, paella (both half portions meaning of course they were huge) and still hungry (!) we each had a plato, David the hake and green salad, me grilled beef with salad. Enjoyed a bottle of wine with dinner and strolled home through the still busy streets, I guess normal for 9pm on a Sunday in Madrid.

Monday

On the chilly and refreshing Monday morning we started with a long walk past the palace and up to Gran Via, the sort of main commercial street, very big city with huge buildings, Times Square style signs, and lots of people. We were on a quest to find a pair of shoes for Hannah which were summer style and only could find them on sale racks…hence store after store had maybe one or two, but not in her very common size 39. It was fun to have a mission and an excuse to speak Spanish about shoes…and then pretty sure we wouldn’t be successful…we found them!

We had had a late breakfast so went to the Thyssen museum for the free opening at noon.  This is a very lovely, somewhat quirky assortment as museums based on a private collection tend to be.  Unlike the Prado, the collection ranges into some 20th century art which was great to see but surprising to SFMOMA members as there was basically no modern artists that in the US we consider iconic–no Jasper Johns, no Thiebaud, no David Smith, no Diebenkorn, one Lichtenstein.  We also saw so, so many artists we had never heard of–several times I thought like “Oh, that’s Braque” but it was someone totally unfamiliar.  Even the Impressionist collection was surprising, with only two small Renoir (never saw them before).  Two Edward Hopper, neither of which I’d seen before anywhere.  So Fun!

We took a midday break for a quick lunch in the museum restaurant, a beautiful, no stunning, ultra modern setting outside with okay food, then finished up till almost closing time (4pm). We were so tired, and a bit nervous about our stamina for the following day’s plan to see everything at the Prado. But we perked up with a tapas supper at Txirimiri where we not only had great food but fun conversation with the guy behind the bar and a buddy of his, both enthusiastic about explaining some food terms and menu items to me. I had so much fun talking food in Spanish! And a few glasses of cava made me feel almost fluent.  They had a wonderful array of pintxos including one that David ordered twice, thick slice of bread with a slab of smoked salmon.

Tuesday

Tuesday, our last day, and we were happy to have a plan to carry us through. We decided to wander our way to the Prado as it doesn’t open until 10, and stopped in a panaderia for superior croissants. Gosh they were good, and as fresh a can be–this is an on-the-premises bakery and I watched as a fellow was baking them in the back. A suitable ultimo desayuno.

We hit the museum at about 10:20, skipping the line as usual due to David’s going online for tickets. With audio guides in place off we went.

I cannot begin to describe the breadth and depth of the collection. It is a marvel, a joy, a revelation room after room after room…3 floors plus a small circular room at the top holding the treasures of the dauphinois. While I could probably live without seeing any more bloody crucifixes, everything was worth seeing. They have, for example, rooms of enormous paintings of historical and mythological events. Huge rooms that hold just six canvases, other rooms with exquisite landscapes, family portraits, royal portraits. Go to Madrid and give it two full days. It did, combined with all we had seen to that point, inspire us to read or audiobook the history of Iberia.

Two artists I’d never heard of and fell in love with, Marin Rico (1833-1908) and Mariano Fortuny (1871-1949).  The scene of the Alhambra below is Rico, the charming painting of his two children in the “Japanese room” by Fortuny.

We ate at the Prado restaurant, really very good, and at around 5 we stepped outside in a daze.

 

For supper we decided to try El Sur, which was maybe a 25 minute walk away into a neighborhood we’d not visited before.  We finished off a lovely bottle of wine–“3 Tempranillos” which is a blend of, what do you know, three tempranillo grapes all from the Duero valley but from 3 different elevations.  It was delicious.  A nice, homey place, nothing at all fancy, and we ate our fill, went home, and packed.

Up at 3:15am, driver arrived to take us to the airport at 4…flight to Amsterdam at 6.  All without a hitch!

 

Granada…ticking down the list

Time to leave lovely Sevilla.  We had an early bus to Granada, 8:30, and had some anxiety about the long walk with all our stuff and the changing weather. Córdoba had been lovely, really a perfect day, but Thursday promised rain.

Luckily we had had a kind of revelation coming back from the train station when we returned from Córdoba. When we had arrived in Sevilla we were so totally disoriented as to the layout of the city that we had not completely understood that our Airbnb was just like two short blocks into the old city. In other words we were two short blocks from the modern city, the one with cabs and wide streets. When we came home from the train last evening it all made sense, and handy to know because as we crept out of the Airbnb it was raining quite hard and happily we knew a cab would be easy to find and it was.

The bus was full and luggage space inadequate, it rained the whole way, and the bus took about 45 minutes longer than scheduled. We both were a bit queasy when we got off, and the city was still wet with rain spitting on and off. We got into a cab right away, and right away we felt so much better as our driver was a delightful conversationalist and though he spoke very rapidly I was able to keep up as we discussed Spain, the US, intergroup stresses in both countries, the environment, tourism, gosh, I cannot remember what all we explored. I was ecstatic that my ability to communicate had improved so much! Turns out he was from Córdoba so we talked about what we had seen there, how it was different from Granada, etc. I think the ride was about 15 minutes weaving through the complicated streets of Granada. It was raining harder when we got out. Our hotel was in a pedestrian zone so we had to walk into the square and even with his directions we were confused as we stood against a building juggling phones to get a map up. Well, Hotel Los Tilos was literally 15′ from where we stood and we hustled in.

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It was actually nice to be in a hotel, our only one of the trip, because we had a bathtub! We both took two baths over the two nights we were there! While the hotel was fairly bare bones it felt like a luxurious return to the 21st century after Sevilla, and our view out on the square delightful, with The Alhambra in the distance and the cathedral right across the way.

We needed food and a walk. Food was at Los Diamanté’s, a 5 minute walk and so good we had lunch there again the next day. A modern, slightly manic place with long shared tables on one side, bar seating on the other, and an open kitchen in back, waiters running to and fro shouting out orders to the kitchen.

The place was kind of empty when we arrived, as it was only noon, but within 15 minutes it was full and fiesta-like. We were so hungry for vegetables and they had something translated as “buds with garlic” and another of marinated tomatoes. We ordered both. Buds turned out to be little, maybe 4″, romaine heads, sliced top to bottom and doused with a marvelously tasty vinaigrette loaded with smaller-than-minced dark brown garlic. I think the garlic was sautéed, drained, and added to the vinaigrette as the taste was very fresh and not at all bitter. The tomatoes were icy cold and crisp, also small, with oil and vinegar. Absolutely delicious. And a perfect balance for the mixed fried seafood and intensely flavored,yummy razor clams.  This all followed the Spanish rice that came with our glass of beer and glass wine of wine order.

We returned for lunch the next day…and had probably the plumpest freshest mussels possible.  And the rice again…

 

Well fortified we headed out into the rain for a walk through the Arab quarter, up winding cobbled streets, almost entirely pedestrian only, staying clear of the rainwater rushing down the middle. The cobbled paving was well designed to drain quickly leaving the sides pretty passable. We had to take care but it wasn’t especially slippery thank goodness. Up and up we went, to a puerta at the top opening into a small square, so pretty.

We were pretty wet when we got back down but took a quick tour through the cathedral. The audio tour was oppressively Catholic, with rather tedious and extremely religious explanations of how each nave celebrated a particular incarnation of La Virgen. The place is enormous, shown vividly by means of a scale model. The bell tower is, however, rather stubby with no actual bell, explained in the audio tour the result that the “planned third section” was abandoned due to “stability problems.”

Thoroughly chilled after the cathedral we headed to our room for hot baths. Heaven.

Granada is known for its unique custom of free tapas with each drink order, rotating through the tapas of the day. We took full advantage that evening with a visit to La Vinoteca, eating the food that appeared as we each enjoyed several glasses and finishing with a salad off the menu of mixed greens, mango, avocado, and very sweet and flavorful shrimp, with teeny tiny squares of crispy bacon adding a surprising smoky-salty note. I want to try this at home, but it is very hard to find shrimp of that quality so this may remain a happy culinary memory only.

The Alhambra

No one goes to Granada without visiting The Alhambra. I was amazed to find it so close to the center of the city and also amazed at how very steep the walk is, through a true forest (not a manicured park) filled with birds none of which I could see in the tall trees. Up, up,and then you are there, an ancient walled castle/palace/fort with extensive gardens and multiple buildings of various eras.

Like La Mezquita it combines Moorish and Christian-western influences and spaces. Unlike La Mezquita the Christian rulers built their palace rooms right into and indivisible from the Moorish rooms. It is enormous. We walked several miles as we of course went to every building and then through the Alhambra museum, fantastic even to our over-stimulated eyes and minds. The only thing we skipped is the reportedly uninteresting Bellas Artes museum.

Exit to Madrid

We had train tickets to Madrid leaving around noon and we knew there was a bus bridge to the high speed train. The train station is right in the city, only a 25 minute walk from our hotel, so even though we would have all our stuff we headed out on foot. A boring walk but pretty easy. The station was a bit shocking after the various other terminals and stations we had been in. It is a smallish building with inadequate seating and nothing else. The room gradually filled up, suddenly there was a long queue, our tickets were gruffly inspected and we were divvied up among several buses each bound to a different station. Ours was an hour or so trip into what seemed the middle of nowhere, no town in sight, just a new station with several high speed tracks. We had seen the tracks for much of the bus ride, elevated through the endless olive groves. An hour later we were headed into the Córdoba station, so familiar from our earlier day trip from Sevilla.

I went into the small tienda that sold products of Espana to chat with the woman at the counter whom I had enjoyed talking to when last there when buying a few little gifts. We had shared a laugh when a large, unsmiling man had come to the register to pay for a bottle of beer (yes, you can buy a beer just about anywhere). He looked and sounded so grumpy I said to her when he left that he really needed a beer!

She remembered me and I told her we were leaving for Madrid and then home. We talked about our dogs (she has three), the tragedy of abandoned dogs, how much we loved them. She asserted “dogs are better than people” and we shared how sad we were when our dogs died. She insisted Spanish people are not dog lovers as there are so many abandoned dogs, and we commiserated about our respective societies’ failures. Then David and I had to rush down to the platform as we had been startled when last there at the approximately 30 seconds’ pause of the train for new passengers.

Madrid! Final stop!