Puebla For The Food

Where we try to taste everything!


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.  


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!

Beautiful Puebla

Boy oh boy has this city ever changed in the 17 years since I took a day trip from my immersion school in Cuernavaca. It seems very prosperous, much larger, with a lot more going on everywhere we turn.

We are staying in Meson Sacristia de la Soledad, a lovely small inn with maybe 4 guest rooms (counting the tables set in the dining room that seems right). The owners live here as well, and are delightful, helpful, warm, welcoming. When helping us with the lost iPad I kept apologizing for the trouble, they kept telling me it was their job to help and make sure we were comfortable and happy.

I cannot recommend Meson Sacristia de la Soledad highly enough.  The location is great, the room is comfortable…the owners have several other properties, one of which has a full restaurant which we dined at one evening (delicious) but we are happy we are here instead—smaller, quieter, just lovely in every way.  I cannot wait to post reviews every place I can find.

The historical district was a Dia de Los Muertos celebration—happy friendly crowds everywhere—which continued into Sunday unabated.

Below are scenes from around the zocalo. Nice town.

Templo de Santo Domingo/Capilla del Rosario

When we were at the International Museum of the Baroque (see below) a couple urged us to visit this church, so we did. The main church is stunning, with an enormous wall of saints (?) and other people important to Christianity (we couldn’t identify a one), but when you reach the front and look to the left, the Chapel of the Rosary shines out at you and then draws you in. I have never seen such compelling faces in the decorations around the walls of this small, extremely tall, chapel. It’s a wow.

Museums Galore

We are museum lovers and Puebla has given us a slew to visit. I don’t think I can rank them so will just give you a snapshot in the order we saw them, more or less.

Museo Amparo

This is listed as a private museum, which is surprising because they had free days and also free nights at the museum. In any case the tickets are inexpensive. The audio guide is solely for the pre-Hispanic exhibits, and wow, they are great. Why great? They are arranged by aspect of life—music and musical instruments, artistic expression (first place I have encountered a discussion of the contrast between European art, which strove for realism, and pre-Hispanic art which is dominated by a more abstract representation of people and things), spiritual understanding of how the world works (rivers, for example, are the way the life forces communicate with each other)…so rather than a chronological march, everything is tied together to help you understand how they saw the world.

The special exhibits were no less impressive. An exhibit open right now features an American Jewish-African Ecuadorian woman, Karina Skvirsky, which blew us away. She works with photo collages, which were disturbing and interesting, but her short film that represents/recreates her great grandmother’s journey at age 14 from the Ecuadorian countryside to the city where she worked as a domestic was spellbinding.

The first view of the terrace through the glass walls seemed unreal.

Finally, the third floor, which we might have skipped because it’s the cafe and we weren’t hungry, opens onto a terrace that is exactly at the height of the many surrounding church domes and towers—which are so close, given the narrow streets, and of many colors, under a cloudy sky the day we were there that looked unreal. We gasped.

Museo Internacional de Barocco

This extremely modern, almost distractingly high tech museum about 20 minutes’ drive from the Centro Historico was a surprise in all ways. Puebla, founded in the 1500’s, is a baroque city with many obvious examples of the style in its churches and other buildings. The museum, though, explores everything about the baroque period—architecture, science, music, painting, etc.—around the world, using poblano examples wherever appropriate but is truly a complete picture of how the baroque period changed everything in western culture.

Bilbao-like on a huge site complete with rock lined pools.

The architecture of the museum is very modern designed by a Japanese architect, and stunning. On the inside the exhibits are arranged by subject (painting, architecture, scientific exploration, music…) and each room is filled with examples, explanations, multimedia presentations, narrations. It was wonderful and a bit exhausting. Well, well worth the Uber ride and typically low ticket fee.

In this room a narration and shifting pictures on two huge screens (you can see one here) discussed baroque buildings in Puebla, which is laid out in a scale model, lighting the building discussed in turn. Very elaborate!

Biblioteca Palafoxiana

Not strictly a museum, this is the first public library in the Americas. Bishop Juan de Palafox left his personal collection of 5,000 books to the Seminary of San Juan in 1646, with the stipulation that access not be limited to church personages but open to the public. It is small and gorgeous and the exhibit laid out in cases in the center is currently on the recording of indigenous languages by the clergy during the first several hundred years of the church’s presence in Mexico.

This beautiful poem brought tears to my eyes. The panel to the right had the Nahuatl translation. The title is When a Language Dies. Use your google translate if you do not read Spanish. Vale la pena.

Museo Casa Alfenique

This was a surprise—we expected a restored residence (it is named for a confection made of egg whites and sugar and is embellished within an inch of its life) but it is a lovely history of Puebla and its role in Mexican history (you all know that 5 de Mayo celebrates the victory over the French invaders in Puebla, right?) as well as a lovely explanation of China Poblana, the creole/criollo indigenous/Spanish culture of Puebla revered in Mexico. Well worth the visit.

Casa De Los Hermanos Serdan

This place was a little gruesome—the bullet holes from one of the revolutionary struggles in 1911 remain on the exterior and inside, including a large decorative mirror with obvious bullet damage. The exhibit is about the Mexican Revolution in general, about which we realize we are insufficiently educated, and the slaughter in and outside what was the private home of the Serdan family. I cannot begin to explain what all this was about—read some history if you are interested. But do visit the museum when you come to Puebla. These events still resonate.

Mexican Pre-Thanksgiving Sojourn and Our Event Filled Departure and Arrival

The worst part of traveling is the night before an early flight. We slept poorly as usual. With a 6am departure we had scheduled a Lyft for 4:25am, having checked and double checked that we were set for such an early ride. I looked at my phone at 4:15…”Your ride will arrive in 45 minutes.” WHAT? Checked Uber–no cars available. Called Flywheel Taxi, “Open 24 hours” to get no answer. Called the Lyft driver to confirm he was going to be that late, saying “I have a flight to catch”…his initial response was “Hey, why the attitude?” He went on, very impatiently, “They just put this on my list and I still have to drop this guy off at SFO.”

Went back to Uber, still no cars available. Then a most welcome text appears, “Your ride will arrive in 15 minutes.” They had found a new driver, who did appear in 15 minutes. We were so grateful, and it turned out so was she. She had been out in Walnut Creek where she was getting calls for rides further and further out, and “I wanted to get back to Oakland, and I took this (our) request because I had already turned down 2 and they don’t like that.” Arrived at OAK in plenty of time, boarded, relaxed, and off we went.

The airport in Mexico City is big and pretty well organized. When David turned down a hallway to the men’s room a young man walking out said it was closed, and to follow him. We did, a long and complicated route, to an open men’s room. That left us a very short hallway from the bus counter where we bought tickets for a bus leaving in 30 minutes–David prodded me to ask for a senior discount. I did, happy to remember the word for “discount” but the the ticket agent was unsure there was one, that is until he asked if we would contribute to their fund for “ninos en Puebla,” which I gladly did and then voila, the senior discount was discovered and applied and after a short wait we were on the bus to Puebla. Took a taxi to the hotel, Meson Sacristia de la Soledad, through a mass of people which the driver complained about steadily. Then a police barricade was at our block so we walked the last bit. Dia de Los Muertos, with a major parade two blocks further which we ran to watch after checking in to this lovely, warm, hospitable little inn (meson=inn).

Our room is huge, colorful, comfy. We dumped our things and headed to the parade, and then to Las Ranas for supper. The zocalo (central square) was jammed with families, many in costume, many elaborately painted faces, vendors, a stage with a band playing, balloons of course, just happy madness everywhere. Supper was great–a half kilo of a meat/pepper/onion/cheese mass, hot off the grill, and a huge supply of tortillas. We ate until we could eat no more. With David’s beer and my jamaica the bill was $8. We wandered back through the crowds intending to fall into bed, but…

David: I can’t find my iPad!

Me: Relax, I’ll find it.

Ha. No iPad. David was of course very upset as he concluded he had left it on the bus, and I, realizing that calling the bus company myself would be futile as the conversation would be way too complicated, went downstairs to ask Paco for help. He roused the owner who, in his pajamas, called the bus company and after a very long and, yes, complicated, conversation, reported the missing item. We had our ticket stub so we knew what seat, which bus, etc. He gave them his cell number to call if they located the iPad. They gave him an incident number which we would need to retrieve the item if they found it. David had calmed down, we had setup “erase” on the iPad as soon as it connected to the internet, and got ready for bed.

Knock, knock, knock at our door maybe 45 minutes later. It was Paco, to report they found the iPad and the owner would drive us to the terminal the next morning after breakfast. I think I said about five times “Es verdad?” The next morning I assured the kind owner (Lulu) we could go whenever it was convenient for her, but she graciously said “David will not be able to relax until he has it in his hands” which was true, and within a little while we had retrieved the iPad and everything was wonderful again.

A Certain Type of Executive

I had lunch today with a long time colleague and friend in the health care tech business.  She works for a company recently acquired and had some stories about working with the new management.

This got us around to musing about executives, yes, male, and a personality trait we have both run into many, many times.  This is the trait of “must be handled carefully” and I’d call it epidemic if I weren’t pretty sure this trait has been around forever.

Why, you say, should a senior executive with lots of power (and lots of compensation) need to be “handled” by subordinates?  Gosh, you tell me.

The handling rules center around preserving his status, never making him look bad, inviting him to meetings that he routinely snubs or, worse, joins late and disrupts or sidetracks the discussion, couching all disagreements in the soft cocoon of words like “I am probably off base here, but…”  The handling includes chasing him down for decisions, but of course nicely and respectfully no matter how late, how urgent, or how many times you’ve been put off because he is “too busy” and “too important” to address the issue.

The handling includes moving meeting times because “He’s just landing” or “He’ll join later” (rarely does, and never apologizes for the commotion he’s caused).  The handling includes smiling sweetly when he lectures or rants based on his lack of understanding of basic facts.  The handling includes huddling in the hallway with colleagues to come up with “how” to present bad news or news that conflicts with his beliefs.

So what?

There are a host of ethical, political, and emotional reasons why this behavior is dumb.   But it’s the cost to the organization that is especially maddening–where are the hard-nosed cost hawks when you need them?  Calculate the difference in prep time between outlining the facts and recommendations in a few bullet points versus figuring out how and when to gently introduce the concept that the executive is or is probably wrong.  Calculate the time spent in meetings where a decision isn’t made, freezing action while the “too busy” executive tries to find time to make up his mind.  Calculate the wear and tear on subordinates who must guard against speaking the truth, or even against raising a controversial idea.

Dear executives, GROW UP.  Act like a person with a brain who is aware there are other persons in the world, also with brains.  Stop being such a baby.  Surely your ego is strong enough to take a little blunt talk and a little disagreement, and if you cannot defend your ideas, maybe they’re indefensible.

These probably go without saying…depending on how much you travel

Miscellaneous tips and traps re traveling Portugal and Spain via Airbnb and trains:

  1. The US has laws about how hot tap water can be.  Apparently the EU has not–the hot water everywhere, from the modern apartments to the 300 year old house, was extremely, shockingly hot.  And, so, ALWAYS find out how to use the shower while you have the host there.  We had both annoying and one scary experience with setting the shower temperature (this was a mysteriously designed two level shower, and in the process of turning it off I got shot with hot scalding water at my groin–no harm but yikes).  And ask if you can run any water in the edifice, e.g. to get a drink or flush a toilet, while a person is in the shower.
  2.  Do not expect WiFi on trains–there was none on the high speed train Barcelona to Sevilla; if there is WiFi it will be quirky.  However we did have electricity so have your converter handy, not buried in your bag.
  3. Drink the house wine!  It was uniformly good, and often seemed especially good as food wines.  Funny aside–in Spain the server would ask in response to a request for a glass of vino tinto or vino blanco, “Dry or sweet?  Old or young?”  Never was I asked by varietal, nor were wine lists organized by varietal.  Made it fun and different, and I didn’t have a bad glass the entire three weeks.
  4. If you travel without data service on your cell devices (we do because we are cheap and you can manage without it) and therefore are dependent on the connectivity you have in your abode, remember to download offline GPS-enabled maps (many that are on Maplets, Google, special apps) for when you are out and about.  You cannot get the step-by-step or breadcrumb directions with just GPS, but you have a totally usable map to find your way.  And it’s good practice to not be blindly following step by step instructions or maps.  Look around you and get your head out of your phone!
  5. Book trains in advance to save significant money.
  6. Whenever possible go online for event or museum tickets.  Don’t be daunted by the “must be printed out on paper” warnings…these seem to be obsolete.  The difference between having a ticket you bought the night before and buying one onsite is about a 30-person line, and that was off-season.
  7. Do get the audio tours in places of interest and museums.  Worth the money every time.
  8. If you are traveling by train, DO NOT HESITATE to get on as soon as the doors open. They are not waiting for anyone or anything.  Pay attention to the car number and find it as soon as you can.  Ask a conductor if you’re not sure which direction to head–at least then an official knows you are getting on.  But be quick about it!  We also noticed that the indication on your ticket as to seat number is often labeled mysteriously (e.g., one ticket had “Plaza” as the field label for seat number).

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 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!


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.


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, 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.


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!

Yeah, yeah, yeah, we ate well in Sevilla too!

I am going to highlight just four meals, two of which were in the same restaurant, and one which sated our salad-and-vegetable starved appetites.

Yelp plus recommendations in Rick Steve’s guide have continued to serve us well. Our first night I scoured Yelp to find something a little different from tapas, tapas…poor us…and we headed to La Azotea. Right in the heart of la zona touristica a block from the cathedral, this narrow and modern place serves higher end (50-60€, including a bottle of wine) food with imaginative combinations as well as the typical, but here especially high quality, plates of Iberian ham, pork cheeks, pan con tomate. I wanted to go right away in case it was as good as the reviews promised.

It is. The first night, with a bottle of rosado, we ordered “media” (small, ha ha) portions of salmon tartare, a potato salad with capers and smoked salmon, and oxtail meatballs. These three “media” portions were a huge amount of delicious food…we were even struggling a bit to finish the oxtail meatballs which were served in a very rich sauce. We were glad we waved away olives and bread.

Two nights later we rewarded ourselves after a grueling day of sightseeing and ten miles of walking with a return to La Azotea to order  “media” portions of the potato salad, again, pan con tomate, and the burrata salad, a plate composed of two mounds of burrata and a scoop of lemon sorbet on a small head of red butter lettuce with little gelatin squares tasting of fresh basil. To top it off we had the steak tartare, little cubes of meat mixed with a tangy light mustard sauce. Ate every last bit with a bottle of Rioja (yummy and 15€).

The night before we needed vegetables so headed to El Rincon de Beirut. The enormous menu daunted us until we saw a “combo” that the waiter explained was basically all the appetizers. It came, we ate, our bodies said thank you.

Our final gustatory highlight came in Triana, the city across the river. We strolled across at lunchtime and settled on a Rick Steve’s suggestion of Taberna Miami, an old bullfighting themed place that promised to be “reliable for seafood” and sits in the middle of the pedestrian zoned street in the middle of centro historico. We were so hungry and just started ordering, again attempting to not overdo it by getting the tapas size of everything.

Little whole fried shrimp, crunchy shells and all; a huge platter of fried squid rings that we had eaten half of in a few minutes; grilled tiger langustinos that tasted like lobster and were challenging to peel; a platter of sliced chorizo; and fried bacalau so tender and flavorful we judged it the best we have had, and we have had a lot. With David’s bear, total 40€.

p.s. Returning from our day trip to Córdoba we stopped at a random place in the new city because they had a sign out front advertising paella.  Sounded soooo good, so we had the mixta.  YUM!  With beer, two glasses of wine, and a salad, 20€.

Our wackiest Airbnb

We arrived after a 6 hour high speed train ride from Barcelona, first class coach and a breakfast far superior to what we had on the plane coming over, into the modern Santa Justa terminal in Sevilla.

Following the map we trudged into town (those backpacks are great, but we were tired and a bit hot) and as the streets became crowded with sidewalk cafes, all full with the leisurely Sunday crowds we found our maps confusing so stopped a waiter to ask where Fabiola was. First answer was “Hmmmm,” and a gesture to follow him as he asked another waiter who replied “Hmmmm.” They concluded we were heading in the right direction but suggested we go to the next plaza and ask again. It took a few wrong turns, but in this part of the city the “blocks” are short and unpredictable so it was not really a problem and suddenly we had arrived.

We knocked on the narrow metal doors and our host hollered out, opened the door, and a fast talking, sort of wild, somewhat comical and frantic small middle aged man hustled us through a tiny crowded courtyard of sorts and into a dining room that was completely filled by a table, TV, and a few chairs. He spoke so quickly it was a bit hard to get into the rhythm of his Spanish, and when I replied in Spanish he gleefullly insisted he would speak only Spanish to me, an unnecessary declaration as what little English he has is incomprehensible.

“Passaportes!” David handed them over as Juan pulled out his forms and started filling in our numbers. Within one minute he had a tourist map spread in front of us as he circled one place after another, some with almost illegible names he scrawled in the margins. “Levies,” he announced, where we could get a meal at any time and was a few steps and corners away. Go here for bullfights, here for a church, and so on. When he circled a long green park and said “Heepies!” I stopped him. “Hippies?” “Si, si, pero artistica!” We discovered later it is a park called The Alameda and no “Heepies!” were in sight.

The house is a festival of hazards and quirks…we struggled to both keep up with Juan and stay out of his way. “Cocina! Bano!” He then thrust a key ring into my hand, “grande para la puerta y pequena para su habitation!” I looked at the keys…the little one for our room is like for a child’s jewelry box or diary…and, yes, the key to our room fits a tiny padlock that fits a wobbly lock that holds together two small doors of glass panes covered by a pair of thin white curtains.

The stairway to the second floor where our room is located is perhaps 5 degrees short of being a ladder, turning at the top to a warren of rooms which comprises two bedrooms, a “salon” as he calls it, a little anteroom between the two bedrooms that somehow holds two stuffed chairs, a matching couch, a blinking modem and router, and small TV. Before we could settle into our room Juan gestured us up another impossibly steep stairway to a two foot by two foot landing where he stopped to give us detailed instructions in rapid Spanish and lots of pantomime regarding keeping the key under the mat. He pointed to one door, his room, and then led us out to a multi-level hodgepodge of a rooftop with lounge chairs, clotheslines and a view of other rooftops in this very old, very crowded barrio. Looks pretty cool, but we never returned.

The entire house is built around the tiny central court, and all the rooms have large double windows, glass with thin white curtains, and inside shutters. Our room, our smallest yet, holds two single beds shoved together and a small dresser and wobbly wardrobe…all of the furniture seems handmade and ancient but the beds are firm and we slept well with tall, never to be quite closed floor to ceiling windows to the “street” (the house sits in a short narrow spur off the street proper) and as necessary opening the shutters and window to the courtyard. When a remnant of the hurricane came roaring through Sevilla one afternoon we saw that the courtyard is covered, more or less, with hard plastic which held the torrential rain for the most part but started leaking after a while. The floors are all tiled, and so uneven that in places the tiles clatter as they are not, and could not be, cemented in place. But the bathroom functions well, and as with every place we have stayed in Iberia the water pressure is strong and hot water hotter than hot. As in Évora the shower stall is tiny (though in Évora it was modern and sleek), so small that when David dropped the soap he couldn’t pick it up without inadvertently bumping into the handle and turning the water off.

I did think to ask Juan how old the house is. “200 or 300 years!” It is a wonder, and we are happy to have had this experience, and look forward to Granada where we will be in our first and only hotel of the trip.

The Surprises of Gaudí

I had seen my fair share of photos of Barcelona before visiting, and almost all show the various outside delights of the fanciful, mosaic-encrusted benches and such, giving me the impression of Gaudí as a fanciful, over-the-top, Disney-like designer of his own colorful and, to my eyes, silly but unmistakable look. I am embarrassed that I knew so little and that I did not understand just how brilliant and humanistic he was.

David insisted on purchasing advance tickets to 5 distinct Gaudí works: Sagrada Familia, Park GuellPalau Güell, La Pedrera, Casa Batlló. I objected. Too much of the same stuff! Four is plenty, or even three! You are crazy! I thought I was on a forced march that would be tiresome and boring. Wrong.

(Follow the links above–we tried to keep our cameras under control–for pictures and information.)

Sagrada Familia. Words are insufficient. While just seeing a soaring cathedral, under construction and due to be completed in 2026, is thrilling, and the exterior detail is full of surprises (for example, all the figures of saints, etc., look like real people because they were based on people of the neighborhood and individuals on the construction crew) the interior is a thrill. Gaudí believed both the design of, and strength of, the natural world was the most effective and apt basis for a monument to God, and so the columns are very plain, unbelievably tall, branching way above as a tree does in a narrow Y-shape. The effect is stunning.

David was smart to get us tickets to the towers on the nativity side. After maybe a 15 minute wait in line we got into the narrow elevator and zoomed to the top. Warning signs are clear–do not go if you have heart trouble, claustrophobia, vertigo, asthma–and one should heed them. Extraordinarily narrow and steep stairs must be navigated, and they seem to wander all over the place, yielding not only panoramic views of the city below but take you very close up the the construction underway. Well worth it if a teeny bit scary.

La Pedrera was probably our favorite of his residential work and to us best displayed his approach to design. Perhaps because he worked in a time of scientific discovery and rapidly modernizing city and political life, his work combined brand new engineering approaches with overtly naturalistic and flowing design. For example, none of the interior spaces depend on load bearing walls…his “superstructure” was put in place first, and the curving walls and abundant windows were possible because he had total freedom to put them wherever he chose. The rooms of the furnished apartment in La Pedrera are human scaled and intimate, nothing grandiose, and windows facing the outside and the interior light well/atrium make each room including servants quarters feel airy and also practical. Here and in his other more grand houses he used textured glass doors and “windows” to bring light in to areas with fewer real windows. He used subtle design cues, such as tiling the servants areas, kitchen, and children’s bedroom, with wooden parquet for the rest of the apartment. The master bedroom is perhaps 1 1/2 times larger than the maid/nursemaid’s.

La Pedrera also has a detailed museum explaining his life and his times. The museum is in the attic which, as in his other houses, was intended for storage and laundry and has a parabolic ceiling design that makes the space feel both larger and more intimate than its actual dimensions suggest.

Audio Tours

Each of his residences is managed by a different organization and so each has a distinct audio tour style and technology. Some, like at Sagrada Familia, are a bit elementary teacher-sounding with periodic questions…”Look up. Can you see the (something or other)? What does it remind you of?…” which got a bit tiresome. But Casa Batlló, which is privately owned and operated, has a virtual reality audio tour on an Android phone.  When you point it at anything in the house the little screen shows that spot furnished as it was originally.  Some were even animated, as a fireplace that has the General shape of a mushroom.  The animation shows the fireplace as a mushroom which then disappears in a cloud of dust to reveal the fireplace as it is today.  Pretty cool. And they don’t give you any hint of how it works, which was entertaining as it dawned on us what it was doing.