Monday, May 31, 2010

Spain Sierra bike trip – Day 1

We organized a five-day bike trip with Bike Spain in Madrid. I found the company online and was impressed with their willingness to accommodate our small group of two and our schedule. They modified the schedule and the days so that we could fit in the tour in exactly between our two weekend visits to friends. This is my first ever bike trip that I haven’t organized myself, so I’m excited.

Today is by far the easiest day of the trip, as it involved no required biking. A staff member picked us up from our friends’ house and took us to the village of Soto del Real, about an hour north of Madrid. We got our bikes and equipment, went through the logistics, and were able to settle in to our hotel. We are staying at the Hotel Prado, a basic but clean and pleasant place with very friendly staff.

Soto del Real used to be called Chozas, which means shephard’s huts, because in the 15th and 16th centuries, it was nothing more than a collection of stone huts used by shepherds as they led flocks of merino sheep to and from Segovia. It’s a dry and rocky place, but at 900 meters above sea level, has more trees than Alcala de Henares, including juniper bushes, white maple, oak, pine and cypress.

After lunch (only 9 euros for a menu del dia at the Restaurant Miratoros) and an afternoon nap, I biked through town, then to the Cuenca Alta de Manzanares Regional Park, located on a mountain behind town. I think I saw the descendants of some of those original sheep, wide bodied sheep behind an old stone fence. Wildflowers filled the grasses, emitting a sweet scent. I rode up to the Casa de la Cerca del Cura. I’m not exactly sure what it is – a priest’s house, a monastery, a small church--but it was a stone religious building surrounded by huge boulders upon a promontory overlooking the village and the valley. It was peaceful there, with the only sounds being the wind, the birds and barking dogs. It was a nice place to enjoy the breeze, the sweet air, and the calm.

Meandering around town for some dinner supplies, I came across the fruteria DeMaria (calle real 23; tel: 91 847 86 00) with beautiful cherries, strawberries, apples, peaches, nectarines and apricots – a much appreciated antidote to the heavy, oily we’ve had so far. A nearby shop, Tahona (Virgen del Rosario), emitted a smell so sweet I had to go in. It was a bakery with fresh baked loaves that included some non-white options.

The center of town is small and pleasant, but apart from a few interesting stone buildings, not particularly striking. The residences around the town are quite nice – they look like what I’ve seen of houses in Arizona. Earthly colors in a dry landscape.

None of the towns we’ll be passing through on this bike tour has more than 10,000 inhabitants. I’m looking forward to experiencing some small town life.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Chinchon and Spanish Sunday lunch

Our excursion today was to the village of Chinchon, located just south of Madrid, set in an arid, rocky landscape, covered with olive groves and red poppies. The three-story central plaza, lined by balconies, dates back to the 15th and 16th century. The town itself is even older. Because the plaza is so typical in the traditional sense, it is often used to film movies. It’s home to a wine and anis festival in the spring and a garlic festival in October. On occasion, when bullfights are held, they close off the plaza and use it as a bullfighting ring.

We walked down the narrow streets, lined by old white buildings and dark, ancient balconies. We saw a pastry chef working on his creations through a large window. Most bakeries advertised leche frita, or fried milk, a special type of sweet treat. There were several hotels, though being Sunday, most of the shops were closed. Our friend said the main industries are the production of alcohol (anis, wine and lemon liquor) and garlic. Chinchon garlic supplies all of Spain. There is also a lot of unemployment, so villages like Chinchon appreciate the weekend visitors from Madrid.

Just as we reached the bottom of the downhill road and entered the central plaza to admire the view, we saw a police officer, and then a motorcycle. Then another, and another, and another. A whole line of motorcycles filed into the medieval central plaza, one following the next. The sounds of their engines filled the air. I was expecting something along the lines of Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution. Were they going to do wheelies in the plaza, jump off their bikes and do a dance?

They just filled the plaza with their bikes, got off, appeared to enjoy the attention and the photo-taking by the spectators, strolled around a bit and went into the bars lining the plaza, then continued on their way about a half hour later. We sat at an outdoor table, enjoying a drink and the scenery.

We also discovered the ethnological museum, which was open on Sundays and was very well done, though it could have used a tour guide. “This made me somehow nostalgic,” our friend David said, upon seeing the objects he remembered his parents and grandparents using.

As it was our friend’s birthday today, everyone gathered at a restaurant for lunch. They seated us at a long table under the trees and lined up bottles of wine and water. The grandparents ordered a variety of appetizers to share – sausage, croquetas, beans, salads, empanadas. The bread was served warm and was the lightest, airiest, most delicious bread I’ve had so far in Spain. This particular place, Arboleda (Avda. De Aragon 361, 28022 Madrid; Nacional 2 Salida 11, Puente de San Fernando, Tel: 91 747 46 31), is known for pork chuletas, so almost everyone ordered that, though I took sea bass. This was followed by flan with cream or ice cream and tea. A leisurely 3.5 hour meal, during which the family relaxed and chatted, the favorite uncle taught the toddlers to throw food and to throw sand, and no one commented. The birthday girl was regaled with gifts of beautiful clothing, an adult with a recent birthday was given a remote control helicopter, and the children were given gifts just because they are children and the grandparents give them gifts almost daily.

It’s hard work to spend so much time eating, so we came home to rest for the remainder of the evening.

I haven’t been this unstressed for quite a while – no deadlines, not much to think about, not a whole lot of reason to check email or to spend much time online. Life is good in Espana and I’m relearning how to accept and enjoy some down time. In just a little while, we’ll begin a four day bike trip in what will likely be intense heat. Then I’ll be back to trying to achieve a goal – but while enjoying plenty of Spanish-style rest stops.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Alcala de Henares

We spent today touring Alcala de Henares, an attractive town of old buildings, tiny iron patios, centuries-old churches, convents and universities topped by gigantic stork’s nests and the large, majestic bodies of these birds (there are over 100 pairs of them in town).

The main street is the second longest colonnaded main street in Europe. The magisterial church, which require that all priests also be university faculty, is only one of two in Europe (the other is in Scotland). It’s the birthplace of Cervantes and in October, the main street is converted into a medieval market. The roofs are made from red clay tiles, which presents a beautiful sight when viewed from the top of the local tower. And the city is blooming with roses, large, fragrant, of many colors.

We visited the house of Cervantes. My friend said that it isn’t his birthplace exactly. He was born just next door, on the cross street. But the city thought it was better to have his hour on the main tourist route. It was quite a nice patio-style house, located next door to the hospital where his father worked as a doctor and which still operates as a care facility for poor elderly people.

We climbed the 109 steps to the top of the tower, for a great view of the town and an interesting tour, all for one euro. The best part was the museum to the university, which is the main reason Alcala de Henares was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1887. It began construction in 1499 and opened in 1508. Two other universities were already operating in Spain, but this was the first one to be a “university town,” to have students live on campus, and even to live under a set of laws different from those outside the university. There was a jail on campus where students would be punished for infractions such as speaking anything other than Latin, returning after 8 p.m., or bringing a woman on premises.

The university is visited by the King and Queen each year, where they present the Cervantes prize to an author that writes in Spanish. The first woman to ever receive her doctorate was a member of a family close to the king and the king had to order that the university allow her to sit for her exams.

The procedure of taking doctoral exams seemed to instill fear into my husband, who has a Ph.D. The candidate has to study eight years for a licenciado, even more for a doctorate. He would stand at a pulpit with his examiners on benches on the other side of the room and the galleys full of students who would jeer, cheer and mock the candidates. Each professor was allowed to ask one question. The candidate was supposed to both show his knowledge in answering the questions and his strong character in being able to handle the raucous crowd.

If he passed, he was led out a particular victory route, thought an arch of accomplishment and into the town where he’d be greeted by cheering people. They were always happy when someone passed because a new doctor was supposed to throw a party for the townspeople from his own money.

If he failed, he was led back through the door he entered. Real burro’s ears were attached to his ears, he rode a burro and he was walked through town, where he was mocked and spit upon and had waste thrown at him by townspeople unhappy that they weren’t getting a party. Then he returned to the university, where his classmates were to spit upon him in sufficient quantity to turn his shirt from black to white.

While I’m not much of a shopper, I enjoyed doing some shopping here. I loaded up on fantastic children’s books in Spanish at Libreria Diogenes (Calle Ramon y Cajal 1), my friends took me to, El Trastero de Lula, a cute little shop with quality toys, I bought the local specialty, candied almonds, called almendras de Alcala, at one of the oldest confectioners in town, and I enjoyed window shopping in the variety of other stores.

I also enjoyed the breaks, during which we sat outdoors at cafes and drank coffee, tea, beer, water and/or sodas. The food was plentiful, but I’m finding that I need some adjustment to the high fat and carbohydrate content. We started the day with churros (fried, sweet bread) and thick liquid chocolate. Our first drink break came with bread crumbs friend in oil with a bit of sausage. For lunch, we had a huge plate of fried potatoes, fried croquettes, cod fried with egg, and some delicious octopus on top of grilled potato and tomato. That came with a free serving of super greasy fried rice. Italian ice cream was our evening snack. For dinner at 10 p.m., we enjoyed grilled hot dogs, pork and sausage, more French bread, gouda cheese and a salad. The food is so heavy I can see why the afternoon nap is part of the culture. I’m just thankful we walked many miles, which hopefully helped to moderate the effects.

Our friends live in a development about a 20 minute walk from the center of Alcala. What is nice about it is the community aspect. In the mornings, everyone gathers at the churreria for their churros con chocolate. By 10 a.m. my friend says there is a line wrapped around the block. They can walk to the vendors of different foods, to the gym, to their children’s schools, to the park. There is very little need for a car on a typical day.

Both of our friends grew up here and now live just minutes from their family members, who also stayed local. They seem content with their life here. I can see why. This is a nice place, with a very relaxed culture. Though we flew in to Madrid, we are basing ourselves here. So far, I’m not missing the city.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Lessons in hospitality

Mark and I arrived at our friends’ home in Spain. They led us to an open and light-filled loft, half of the square footage of their apartment. I hear birds chirping. We have a private bathroom, a place to relax, a flat screen TV. My friend filled our personal refrigerator with drinks and put some snacks on top of it. In the bathroom, she laid out all kinds of toiletries we could need and said to help ourselves.

I did, in fact, forget my shampoo. It’s great to be able to grab a snack when hungry and not have to ask, or to find a way to go out and buy something. I’m reminded of similar hospitality I’ve been offered in many countries – the kind where the hosts think of what the guests might want or need, and do their best to accommodate.

In the U.S., on the other hand, it seems common to give guests a space, and tell them to make themselves at home. But they are often on their own in terms of feeding themselves and they may even take out the hosts in thanks for the lodging. I understand that people are tired and busy and may not want to put themselves out for guests. But that extra step makes being a guest so much more enjoyable. It makes me want to repay the favor – which makes the experience better for everyone.

We don’t have great accommodations for guests – a fold out sofa in the living room. I do try to have food on hand, I try to make at least one decent meal anytime someone is visiting and I tell people to help themselves to whatever is in the kitchen. But I recognize it’s not all that comfortable to rifle through someone else’s kitchen. I also admit that with the pressures of parenthood and work, I’m often fine with just suggesting we go out to eat.

This reminds me that I should make a bit more effort. I should have toiletries easily available and ready to use. I should have some snacks available in an easy to access place. And I should make an effort to think about what my guests would like to eat or do, and try to make that happen.

Where have you encountered the most welcoming hospitality? How do you welcome guests?


Oh, the relaxed Spain of my youth. It is coming back to me.

“You’ve come to Spain to do sports?” my friend’s mother said to me, referring to the four-day bike trip we’ve planned. “You are supposed to come here to eat and relax.”

I told her my goal was to eat as much good food as I could without gaining weight, and that the biking would allow me to eat more.

“But it’s not a problem if you gain weight,” she said. “Because you’ll return to the U.S., where except for Thanksgiving, there is no good food, and you will lose it.”

I have to agree with her on the food. After a day and a half spent in airplane travel and a stopover at a house where there was almost nothing to eat that was not processed, I’m longing for quality food made from fresh ingredients even more.

We all gathered at a table outside a bar. Our group ranged in age from one month old to grandparents. The bar tables were all full. Plenty of people strolled outside. My friend said there were less people outside than usual, because on Friday evenings people head to the villages.

Eat, drink, relax. Adults entertained the children. No one talked much about work, about obligations, about anything stressful. It was just an acceptance of and enjoyment of the moment. This seems to me like a nice place to live.

The power of a village

I’ve been in Spain less than four hours and already I can see a place that puts “it takes a village into practice.” Our friends live in an apartment complex filled with small tykes. When I asked how it was possible to have so many toddlers in one building, they said it was due to the economic crisis. “There is nothing else to do,” Jose said. Or, as his mother theorized, perhaps it’s due to the storks that are prevalent in this area. One of these massive birds flew by as we sat at a table outside of a bar.

The complex has a locked outdoor patio, with a basketball court, swings and toys. “You can just let your kids run in here. Nothing can happen since it’s enclosed and there are always so many people we know here,” said Lucia. Giant roses – pink, yellow, red and fragrant – grew from small garden patches amidst the toys. “If someone needs to go and do something, someone else will watch their child.” It’s such a simple way to help the neighbors get to know each other, to interact, to help each other out, yet it’s not something I’ve seen in the United States.”

From there, we went to a bar that was literally 10 feet from the front door of the building. Both adults and children congregated there. The kids could run around and play, the adults socialized and drank, everyone enjoyed themselves.

Our hosts quickly assembled a family group. Jose, his parents and his two brothers all live within a couple of buildings of each other. The three generations see each other all the time.

In the fall, 2.5 year old Jose Jr. will start preschool. It’s five days a week, located a five minute walk from home, and can be as long as 8-3. My friend Lucia thinks it will be possible for her to find work that will allow her to pick him up by 3. The cost - $0. Public preschools are free, and education is mandatory from the age of 4.

Community, family, connection, support for parents and for early education for all – those are all values that I cherish. When I see them practiced elsewhere, it makes me sad that some people in my country think making each individual struggle, and the children to pay the price, is necessarily great. They may mock what they call “socialism.” But a little care for all people, and structures that support inter-reliance go a long way in terms of creating happy, secure and protected children – and adults.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

I heart MSP

MSP has always been one of my favorite airports. It’s clean, there are some interesting shops, you can find something decent to eat, the employees are friendly and don’t shout at you, there is a fantastic rest/nursery area for mothers and children, and today, I get to listen to live piano music by Aldo while I wait. Free concert of soothing music in airport = awesome.

High tea

This year I decided to take my mom out for high tea for mother’s day. I searched for a tea room in her area and found Ladies Elegant Tea, which seemed to have very good reviews. We were joined by my sister-in-law and her two tweens.

We were the only customers for high tea on a weekday afternoon, but what a pleasant time we had. As a tea aficionado, I’ve tried quite a few tearooms. What was most impressive about this one was the attention to detail. Every cup, plate, saucer, and instrument was a pleasure to look at. One child’s teapot had a china cat atop. All had drip catchers and were placed upon beautiful candles/potholders to keep the tea piping hot throughout the service.

The children appreciated their special brightly colored napkins, and the way pink sprinkles appeared not only on the cupcakes, but on the crustless PB&J sandwiches.

I had a fantastic Island Magic iced tea, with flavors of mango, coconut and passionfruit.

This little gem of a tearoom allowed us to enjoy quality girl time as a family, which is priceless.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Airport without child

Last night I arrived in this airport with a 2.5-year-old child. I can’t say he misbehaved during the 3-hour flight. He did pretty well. But he didn’t sleep and it’s hard to keep a child entertained and seated within about one square foot of space, especially when the guy in front of him threw dirty glances every time he touched the table on the back of his seat. So I certainly had no rest and spent every minute attending to him.

We had some fun. I enjoyed his excitement at watching the airport activity upon landing, and I was proud of him for drinking 2-3 cups of liquids during the flight and holding it until we reached the bathroom in the airport. But it was tiring and I arrived exhausted.

Now I’ve left him with grandma and grandpa and am off to Europe on my own, where I will meet Mark. Initially, I missed the entertainment value he offered. If nothing else, he always keeps me amused. Then I didn’t know what to do with myself. I soon figured out how to browse the shops, looking for a birthday gift for a friend, then to snag a seat next to a man playing live on a grand piano, and have some quiet writing time with beautiful background music.

Wow, freedom. Free time. Motherhood has taught me to use it well. But sometimes, I want to do nothing more than space out and enjoy the lack of responsibility.