Thoughts and Recollections of Spain

In just a few short days we will be departing Spain, and I am reflection on our experiences here as we prepare to leave. Spain has impressed me in a number of ways – some good and some not so much. Many of these impressions will become my memories of Spain, and I share them here with you.

The Food

A typical delicatessen in Spain offers whole or cut cured hams and many varieties of cheese.

A typical delicatessen in Spain offers whole or cut cured hams and many varieties of cheese.

The selection of fresh fruits and vegetables and the varieties of market-fresh meats, cheeses and fish in Spain are remarkable. Prices can vary a lot compared to what I am used to seeing in the U.S. and the U.K. The most inexpensive fruit is oranges. The flatlands near where I live have orange groves that spread as far as the eye can see. Restaurants and sidewalk vendors offer fresh-squeezed orange juice almost everywhere in the country.

The most expensive food item is ham, which is a story in itself. There is cured ham you can buy at a deli counter (jamón cocida), and cured hams sold as an entire leg (jamón ibérico and jamón serrano). A ten pound leg can sell for $100 at the local meat store or run as high as $500/pound for the gourmet stuff. These hams look remarkably similar to prosciutto, but they are not the same.

One of Spain’s major contributions to world cuisine is paella, a pan of rice cooked with spices, vegetables, seafood, chicken or meat. It is a staple on many restaurant menus and a good choice for a large group. I like to think of paella as comfort food like how Americans eat macaroni and cheese or a bowl of chili.  It is not a gourmet dish, but it can be quite tasty.

I also have to mention tapas. Some have been quite good. Most have been mediocre. I think of tapas as better-than-average bar food – something to snack on with beer to take the place of preparing a regular dinner.

The People

We have made a number of friends during our time in Spain, and every one is from another country – Portugal, Colombia, Cuba and England. None are native Spaniards. Although I live in an all-Spanish, non-English speaking neighborhood, only one person ever smiled or greeted me with a simple ‘Buenos dias’. One good thing is that people give us space and do not impose themselves. Still, I have to wonder if the locals are just not all that friendly. Perhaps the beach towns have been so overrun with expats for so long that the locals are numb to outsiders. Since joining the EU, Spain has experienced the flood of northern European expats and seen the cost of real estate soar. Most of the coastal areas of Spain are now a string of resort towns. Tourism dictates the local economy, and our city of Torrevieja is no different.

The Country and its History

Elaborate exterior décor adds to the elegance of the architecture in Spain's fine cities.

Elaborate exterior décor adds to the elegance of the architecture in Spain’s fine cities.

Spain has played a central role in the history of civilization from the ancient Iberians to the Phoenicians, the Carthaginians, the Romans, the Moors, the Catholic monarchs, the global explorers, the conquistadors and the rise and fall of the Spanish Empire. Like other countries, Spain was built in layers, one on top of another.  Most of the architecture in the cities now reflects the elegance of 19th century facades with many fine parks, plazas and pedestrian walkways.

We have enjoyed the quirky grandeur of Anton Gaudí architecture in Barcelona, the mosque cathedral in Cordoba, the Gothic cathedral in Seville, and the classic beauty of the Royal Palace in Madrid. We have seen the Roman amphitheater in Cartagena, the Alhambra in Granada and the fertile countryside filled with vineyards, olive groves, almond orchards and fruit trees. There is a sense of grandeur in Spain that rivals any of the Old World countries, and their culture lives on through traditional music, dance, bullfighting, art and a modern-day monarch.

Statues of Christopher Columbus standing before Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand in the gardens of the Alcazar of Cordoba, one of many monuments honoring the memory of Columbus.

Statues of Christopher Columbus standing before Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand in the gardens of the Alcazar of Cordoba, one of many monuments honoring the memory of Columbus.

Even with Spain’s rich history of art, culture, architecture and empire, I am left with gaps in understanding the country. For example, there are statues, monuments and tributes to Christopher Columbus throughout Spain. Why is there so little history told about Magellan, Pizarro, Balboa, Cortez, et.al., and the roles they played in building the Spanish Empire? I started reading about these explorers and conquerors in elementary school. One must understand something of their exploits to appreciate the history of all of Latin America, the Caribbean and The Philippine Islands.

Where is the energy and drive that keeps a country’s economy vital and strong? While most of the industrialized world has more or less recovered from the economic depression of 2007-2011, Spain seems mired in record high levels of poverty and unemployment. Young people with college degrees are leaving Spain in record numbers to find work elsewhere, creating a brain drain that will take decades to restore. I have listened to stories of the work ethic of Spaniards who are more focused on clock-watching than productivity. Spaniards still prefer to take afternoon siestas, which made sense when people worked outdoors. However, what do employees who commute to work do for three hours when their place of work closes its doors every afternoon?

I have read and viewed so many news stories about corruption in government in Spain at every level that I sometimes wonder how the the country has managed to build their wind turbines, high speed trains and solar farms. Then I read that energy rates and train fares continue to rise to cover expenses while economies of scale would suggest that costs should be coming down. Where is all the money going?

I came to Spain with high expectations, and I enjoyed my time here.  I am a bit pessimistic about Spain’s future as I mull over these puzzling questions. Whatever happens with Spain, there is no denying its appeal. It is a beautiful country and we have taken in much of its beauty during our six months as you can see from this brief video Florence created. I hope you enjoy the imagery as much as we enjoyed experiencing it.  Hasta luego!

© All photos are copyrighted by Florence Lince.

News and Sports from a Global Perspective

The crown is transferred to Felipe VI of Spain on June 19, 2014.  His wife, Letizia and his two daughters stand before the Congress of Deputies for the ceremony. Photo credit: Reuters

The crown is transferred to Felipe VI of Spain on June 19, 2014. His wife, Letizia and his two daughters stand before the Congress of Deputies for the ceremony.
Photo credit: Reuters

While living abroad over the past three years we have witnessed several historic moments up close. When we were in Mexico in March, 2013, we experienced firsthand the collective elation of the Latin American world when the Argentine cardinal, Jorge Mario Bergoglio, was named Pope Francis I. We were living in the United Kingdom in July, 2013, when Prince George was born, the newest heir to the British Throne.

Pope Francis visits the slums of Vargihna, Brazil in 2013. Photo credit:  Wikimedia.org

Pope Francis visits the slums of Vargihna, Brazil in 2013.
Photo credit: Wikimedia.org

Most recently, we watched the swearing in of Spain’s new king, Felipe VI. The event was a ceremony without a coronation or much fanfare, following the abdication of his father, King Juan Carlos, for reasons of poor health. Even though this was a low key event by royal standards, hundreds of thousands of Spaniards lined up along the parade route from the Congress of Deputies to the Royal Palace in downtown Madrid, where thousands more assembled below the palace’s central balcony to cheer their new king and his family.

Outside of the political arena, the top story in the world right now is the World Cup soccer tournament taking place in Brazil. It is fascinating to watch the hopes of sports fans from around the world rise and fall with the fortunes of their national teams. I wonder how many Americans know or care that the United States soccer team is still alive in the qualifying pool with Germany, Ghana and Portugal, and a victory in either of their next two games will advance the U.S. team to the win-or-go-home second round of the tournament.

Mexico's Andres Guardado is fouled by Brazil's Daniel Alves. Photo credit:  Sydney Morning Herald, Australia

Mexico’s Andres Guardado is fouled by Brazil’s Daniel Alves.
Photo credit: Sydney Morning Herald, Australia

Every café and bar across Spain turns on the live telecast of the soccer matches. Games start here five hours later than local time in Brazil and fans gather in the evenings at every watering hole for the excitement. Unfortunately, Spaniards have had little to cheer about. Although Spain was the top-rated team going into the World Cup, this week they suffered their second straight loss and they will soon be packing for the trip home. Highly-ranked England lost their second game as well (to Uruguay), and they, too, are headed home.

Although my expectations for the United States team are low, I will be excited if they advance in the tournament against the world’s elite teams, most notably Holland, Germany, Brazil and our next opponent, Portugal. And even though I am not a huge soccer fan, I find myself cheering for teams from my favorite countries that I have visited – Croatia, Chile, Uruguay and Mexico.

Soccer in the U.S. has never caught on like football, baseball or basketball. Even professional hockey draws three times more paid attendance per season than does soccer. I think one reason Americans find men’s professional soccer laughable is because so often following contact between players, the player with the ball collapses in a theatric display of pain and agony, which looks as phony as professional wrestling. It appears these feeble antics are displayed with the hope of drawing a penalty, and most American spectators would react like ‘What a wussie!’ The exception this week was Mexico. Their machismo was evident as they battled host-nation Brazil to a 0-0 tie. The Mexican players jumped up quickly from the turf so as to not give any satisfaction to their more physical opponents that the hits they absorbed had any effect.

The World Cup continues up to the finals on July 13, and I will be proud of the U.S. team no matter how they perform. Also, I will cheer for my favorite underdogs to hold their own against the world’s football powers. Unlike American football, superior strength and a strong running game is not the typical determining factor in a soccer match. Like Spain found out, being elite does not assure victory. Personally, I think Germany is the team to beat. Do you have a prediction?

Cordoba, Spain – Crossroads of History

One of the many pools in the gardens of the Alcazar Palace.

One of the many pools in the gardens of the Alcazar Palace.

Our ride inland through the fertile and most populous region of Spain, Andalucía, revealed a checkerboard of golden acres of wheat alternating with verdant fields of sunflowers.  I have never seen or imagined so many sunflowers, and the fields in full bloom glowed with bright yellow made all the more vivid under the shining sun.

The walls surrounding La Mezquita give it a fortress-like appearance.

The walls surrounding La Mezquita give it a fortress-like appearance.

Our ABC Tour (Another Blessed Cathedral) ultimately led us to La Mezquita (The Mosque), now known as the Cathedral of Cordoba.  There is nothing like it in the world and a bit of history is necessary to appreciate its story.

Pushing back the boundaries of a weakened Roman Empire, the Visigoths built a Christian church in Cordoba on the site of a temple honoring the Roman god, Janus.  The Visigoths controlled most of what is now Spain for over 100 years before the Muslim conquest early in the 8th century.

The courtyard of palm and orange trees leading to the entrance of The Mosque Cathedral.

The courtyard of palm and orange trees leading to the entrance of The Mosque Cathedral.

The Muslims (referred to as Moors in Spain) made Cordoba the capital of their Al-Andalus region in 718 AD.  Beginning in 784, the emir of Cordoba ordered the construction of a mosque on the site of the Christian church, which was demolished.  During this period, Cordoba also became one of the most prosperous cities in the world, known for its advancements in science, art and architecture.  The Christians and Jews in the city were welcomed to stay and worship as they pleased as long as they paid a tithe to the Muslim emir.

The array of columns hints at rows of palm trees in a desert oasis.

The array of columns hints at rows of palm trees in a desert oasis.

Over a period of 200 years the mosque was enlarged and enhanced until it became one of the largest and finest mosques in the world.  It is an impressive structure covering some 250,000 square feet.  From the outside the mosque does not appear that impressive.  While ornate by today’s architectural standards, the mosque gives off a distinctly military feel with forty foot high walls and iron gates at its arched entries.

So magnificent was the finished mosque that when the Catholic Church proposed building its cathedral addition in the middle of the mosque, it was over the objections of the people of Cordoba.  Opposition to the cathedral was overruled by King Carlos V without his ever having visited the site.  In 1526, when the king did witness the damage he had unwittingly allowed, he is said to have remarked, ‘You have built here what you or anyone might have built anywhere else, but you have destroyed what was unique in the world.’

The Mosque covers an area of over 250,000 sq. ft. with over 800 columns spread throughout.

The Mosque covers an area of over 250,000 sq. ft. with over 800 columns spread throughout.

Once we entered the huge courtyard and the cathedral itself is its grandeur revealed.  Florence and I both looked at each other and simultaneously mouthed, ‘Wow.’  (If only there was a word that equaled Wow to the tenth power.)  The expanse of the mosque is filled with over 850 columns made of onyx, granite, marble and jasper, all holding up brightly colored red and white arches which in turn support much higher arched ceilings.

The Roman Bridge featuring 12 arches connects the Old City with the new.

The Roman Bridge featuring 12 arches connects the Old City with the new.

Cordoba today is a tranquil city with parks and plazas with plenty of fountains and statuary.  It is also one of the premier locations in the world for bullfights.  Many people find bullfighting to be a cruel sport.  In fact, bullfighting has been banned in some areas of Spain, most notably Barcelona in the Catalan Region.  However, bullfights remain popular in Andalucía.  There are fourteen bullrings in Cordoba, the largest of which is the Plaza de Los Califas, which seats 16,900 spectators.  The excitement stems from the possibility of death faced simultaneously by both fighter and bull.  It is worth noting that bulls bred to fight are raised and treated gently and fed only the finest food fit for a bull.  As for the moral principle of bullfighting, I personally find it hypocritical to criticize a fight to the death between man and bull when we as a society raise vast herds of cattle to be unceremoniously slaughtered without giving it much thought.

Strolling the Jewish Quarter of Cordoba with our new British friends, Ruth and Mike Steele

Strolling the Jewish Quarter of Cordoba with our new British friends, Ruth and Mike Steele

We topped off our tour of Cordoba with a stroll through the picturesque Jewish Quarter with its artisan ceramic and leather shops and a synagogue dating back to AD 1350.  We passed the museum of the Spanish Inquisition in which about 3,000 people (some estimates are higher) were executed for their religious beliefs.  We also visited the nearby Alcazar Castle with its spectacular gardens.  The royalty of Spain clearly knew how to live in grand style.

The power of the once mighty Spanish Empire came full circle for me after having seen the Spanish influence in colonial Latin America during our two years touring and living there.  Even though Spain is no longer considered a major world power, its place in history is forever set with an elegance that rivals any country.

The Grandeur of Granada

The main altar in the church of the Monastery of Caruja

The main altar in the church of the Monastery of Cartuja

Traffic posts topped with pomegranates

Traffic posts topped with pomegranates

Named from the Spanish word for pomegranate, Granada is a vibrant city with the energy and buzz you would expect from a university town.  Rather than one sprawling campus, the University of Granada is parsed out over a number of sites including buildings with historic and cultural importance – churches, seminaries and royal houses.  I tried to imagine how unique my college experience would have been had I studied in such a historic atmosphere.  Rated one of Spain’s top universities and with 80,000 students, I now understand the youthful dynamism that Granada radiates.

The altarpiece in the Monastery of Cartuja by master, Sanchez Cotán, is painted to give the illusion it is made of grey marble.

The altarpiece in the Monastery of Cartuja by master, Sanchez Cotán, is painted to give the illusion it is made of grey marble.

The most iconic site in all of Granada is The Alhambra, the Moorish citadel and palace overlooking the city dating back to the 9th century.  We did not tour The Alhambra mostly because I did not purchase tickets in advance, and admissions sell out daily.  I felt bad at first about missing out.  However, I have seen so many palaces and fortresses in the last couple two years of travel that I am not too disappointed.  Also, every blogger who has traveled to Granada has written much about The Alhambra.  I do not think I could have shared anything new.  We made up for any loss of discovery with a few stunning additions to our ongoing ABC Tour*.

This marble and ebony shrine sits beyond the main altar of the Carthusian Monastery behind a wall of Venetian glass.

This marble and ebony shrine behind the main altar of the Carthusian Monastery is partly concealed by a wall of Venetian glass.

We first visited the Monastery of Cartuja.  The construction, which began in 1516, was never completed even after three centuries.  The Carthusian Order of monks derive their name from the Chartreuse Mountains of the French Alps, as do the English Charterhouse monks.  Although this order at one time occupied twenty-four monasteries in Spain, most of these were confiscated and secularized in 1836.  Today, only four Carthusian monasteries still exist in Spain.

Carthusian monks are permitted leave their cloister only three or four times per year.  The rest of the time they spend in silent meditation and prayer.  They speak only when necessary.  They dine together only on Sundays and Holy Days.  Their meals are always vegetarian.  They pay for their basic needs by performing various crafts including making rosary beads from rose petals.  We saw some samples of these rosaries in the monastery gift shop, and they still have a flower scent.  A set of rosary beads costs €40, about $55.

There are two identical pipe organs facing each other overlooking this massive sanctuary of the Cathedral of Granada.

There are two identical pipe organs facing each other overlooking this massive sanctuary of the Cathedral of Granada.

We later made our way to the Cathedral of Granada.  The towering Gothic façade has one tower because the original design calling for two towers was too massive for the foundation built atop the city’s ancient mosque to support.   The cathedral’s Renaissance interior is so huge in scale that I could not help but feel small.  The massive, ornate columns soar nearly 200 feet to the arched ceiling.  It took over 180 years to build this cathedral, and I can understand why given its size and infinitesimal detail.

One last stop on the ABC Tour was the Church of San Jerónimo, or Saint Jerome, the 4th century priest who translated The Bible into Latin.  While modest compared to the grandeur of the Cathedral of Granada, it was still impressive.  The Catholic Monarchs, Queen Isabella I and King Ferdinand II, founded the monastery and church, which was built in a distinctive Renaissance style.  If the names of these monarchs seem familiar, these are the same Spanish monarchs who commissioned the sailing expedition of Christopher Columbus to find a western trade route to the East Indies.  His discovery of the Americas led to the rapid rise of Spain to the stature of a world power.  The tombs of the king and queen now rest in the Royal Chapel just outside the Cathedral of Granada.

Classical music played by students of the music conservatory made our Granada visit complete.

Classical music played by students of the music conservatory made our Granada visit complete.

Granada made the leap from a medieval city with narrow, winding streets to a modern city by razing some medieval buildings that had historic significance.  What was lost to antiquity was replaced by a downtown with gardens, parks, plazas and streets lined with sidewalk cafes, bakeries, shops, apartment buildings and hotels.  The current mix of old and new is quite appealing.  Add in a free classical quintet concert (flute, clarinet, bassoon, French horn and oboe) at the top Royal Conservatory of Music during this, Granada’s 2014 Week of Chamber Music, and this made for a great addition to our tours of the great cities of Spain.

*ABC Tour stands for ‘Another Blessed Cathedral’ in reference to the churches and cathedrals we have visited in a dozen countries in the last three years.
Note: All photos are the copyrighted property of Florence Lince.
The high mountains of the Sierra Nevada provide winter skiing and year-round fresh water for Granada and the fertile valley where it lies.

The high mountains of the Sierra Nevada provide winter skiing and year-round fresh water for Granada and the fertile valley where it lies.

Resurrection in Torrevieja – an Easter Story

Beach cafés thrive during tourist season.  Bring a chair, a towel and some sunblock and you need not leave the beach all day.

Beach cafés thrive during tourist season. Bring a chair, a towel and some sunblock and you need not leave the beach all day.

Here in Torrevieja, Spain, things have been quiet up until this week. Holy Week, the week leading up to Easter, also marks the official beginning of the travel season. Torrevieja, a city with a population of about 100,000, slumbers peacefully through the fall and winter seasons with less than half that number of residents.  Suddenly, along comes Good Friday and the city bursts at the seams. This wave of visitors to Spain’s Costa Blanca is the annual ‘British invasion’ since most of the recent arrivals are from the UK, many of whom own apartments in the city.  Restaurants that have been sitting dormant suddenly come to life like a bear coming out of hibernation. Beach chairs, towels and beach umbrellas are flying out of the local stores. Cold beverages and snack foods are also big sellers.

Most of Spain’s fellow EU citizens enter Spain driving their own vehicles, and now finding a parking place on a city street would be like looking for an unoccupied parking meter in Times Square. One should keep in mind that the driving distance from Europe’s northern cities to Spain is less than 1,000 miles, a straightforward two-day drive. This proximity and the relatively low cost of living in Spain compared to many Western European countries explains why so many non-Spaniards have taken up residence in Spain, both seasonally and permanently.

The larger Catholic churches conduct Easter parades during Holy Week.

The larger Catholic churches conduct Easter parades during Holy Week.

Thinking back to Easter Sundays from my childhood, I recollect colored Easter eggs, chocolate bunnies (white chocolate was my favorite), jelly beans and pastel colored M&M’s hiding in simulated grass-filled baskets. Here in Spain I have seen no grocery displays for egg-dyeing, no candy displays, no special chocolate treats. The focus for Easter is almost entirely on the religious significance of the holiday. During Holy Week the churches in town, almost all of which are Catholic, parade down the city streets with statues of Christ on the Cross or of The Virgin Mary in glorious robes hoisted high on the shoulders of young men. Often, the parades of made up of parochial students in their school uniforms while their parents walk alongside with video cameras or stand back to proudly watch their children.

There is a daily migration to the beach in Torrevieja and coastal towns all along the Spanish Riviera.

There is a daily migration to the beach in Torrevieja and coastal towns all along the Spanish Riviera.

Just like in the United States where Independence Day marks the beginning of the travel and vacation season, the media here warns of extra highway patrol officers to crack down on speeders. It is estimated that 12 million motorists hit Spain’s highways in the days leading up to Easter, and the added traffic patrols are fair warning for all drivers to maintain safe practices on the highways.

That is Easter week here in Torrevieja. Our Easter was peaceful and pleasant. I hope yours was, too. And it turns out the Easter bunny left a white chocolate candy bar in my cupboard!

I Hit the Jackpot in Torrevieja

Life-size bronze statues of a director and five musicians pay tribute to the rich musical legacy of Torrevieja.

Life-size bronze statues of a director and five musicians stand on the Paseo Vista Alegre in tribute to the rich musical legacy of Torrevieja.

This was the final week of the Tapas Crawl, the 10th Annual Ruta de Las Tapas. We set out for the town center to check out the annual Book Fair on the downtown waterfront. Florence and I are avid readers, and we were interested to see if there were many books in English available at reasonable prices. Granted, the local library has a decent English language section, mostly fiction. A range of restaurants would be serving their best tapas for whenever the hunger bug hit, but first a little shopping was in order.

The annual book fair consists of six large book kiosks on the seafront pedestrian walkway.

The annual book fair consists of six large book kiosks on the seafront pedestrian walkway.

We were surprised to learn that Suzy and Rob, purveyors of the Bargain Books shop downtown, were the only outlet for English language books in town. I would have thought there would be demand for more given the large English expat population in Torrevieja. According to Suzy, that used to be the case. However, the other businesses folded, and now she and her husband have the last remaining English language bookstore.

Tomato and cheese pizza - 7€ ($10), and plenty left over for later

Tomato and cheese pizza – 7€ ($10), and plenty left over for later

We had eaten light that morning. Then it was time to ‘tapa off’ our appetites. I was already salivating in anticipation of our return visit to La Mila-Grossa, the Argentine restaurant we had discovered the previous weekend. We made a stop at La Bella Lola, which offered an excellent toasted tomato and cheese tapa. Next stop – La Mila-Grossa Restaurant.

Empañadas with Salsa de la Abuela - As soon as the aroma hit my nostrils I knew I was in for a treat.

Empañadas with Salsa de la Abuela – The aroma told me I was in for a treat.

We started with some fine appetizers. However, we had the main courses in mind. Florence longed for a vegetarian pizza, and I planned to make a meal of the house specialty empañadas. I had sampled them the weekend before, and the anticipation was killing me. When the empañadas arrived, I inquired if they had hot sauce thinking I had spied some on a side counter. Our server, Mariano, asked if I wanted ‘picante’ – the hot stuff. Oh, yeah!

Let me interject here that I love hot, spicy food. I have not tasted a decent hot sauce since we left Mexico over a year ago. Suddenly, a plain bottle with a generic skull ‘n’ crossbones sticker appeared on our table. I was as nervous as a teenager on a first date. Could this be the moment I had been waiting for? I put a taste on my fork and licked it off. A tense moment passed, and then a small fire started on the tip of my tongue. The juices that formed in my mouth were as sensuous as my first French kiss! I thought I heard angels singing. My heart beat and breathing sped up. It was delicious!

The handsome, young Mariano made me a gift of his grandmothers salsa.

The handsome, young Mariano made me a gift of his grandmothers salsa.

I had a pleasant conversation with Mariano after we had eaten. He told me he was from a town near Mar del Plata, Argentina, where his mother lives. He now lives here in Torrevieja where his father’s family originates. As we were preparing to go, I asked if the picante sauce served with lunch could be purchased. ‘Le gusta?’ he asked, pleasantly surprised. (You like it?) Then he told me his grandmother makes it for the restaurant, and yes, I could have some.

Mariano brought a generous container of the heavenly elixir from the kitchen. I asked him how much. He handed it to me and said, ‘Esto es un regalo para usted.’ (This is a gift for you.) Mariano had given me a gift of liquid gold which I now call Salsa de la Abuela, grandmother’s salsa. I had hit the jackpot! Muchas gracias mi amigo.

Note: All photos are the copyrighted property of Florence Lince.

Pet Peeves

Pet photo credit: Google images

Pet photo credit: Google images

Cats and dogs are the most popular pets in every country we have visited.  In many Latin American countries, stray dogs were common.  They were not feral, so they were most likely abandoned.  In some cases the dogs would form packs.  While gathering in packs may have provided social contact, it did little to provide sustenance.  It was still every dog for itself. 

Some expat communities have helped fund spay and neuter services.  We observed this in some locations in Chile, Panama, and Mexico. There are now branches of the Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in a number of countries.  They do wonderful work, but they are vastly underfunded for the scale of challenges they face.  Although I think citizens of emerging nations appreciate the benefits of animal controls, I do not think it is a priority.  Locals who live on sustenance-level incomes cannot afford to consider animal welfare ahead of their priority of feeding and caring for family members first.

Here is my rant.  Many expats bring their dogs with them when they relocate to another country.  Particularly in Spain, I have noticed few people, locals or expats, clean up their pets’ poop.  There are stinky little land mines everywhere.  You would not dare walk on the grass in a park for fear of stepping in a pile of poop.  A picnic blanket on the grass would be a ridiculous fantasy. 

I love animals.  They are not the problem.  Their owners are the problem, a serious enough problem that a national campaign to get dog walkers to pick up after their dogs is underway in Spain.  Posters in bus stop shelters show dogs imploring people to do the task the dogs cannot do for themselves – pick up their poop.  Some cities have employed local ‘poop patrols’, service workers who have acquired the unfortunate nickname of ‘brownshirts’, a reference to Hitler’s pro-Nazi storm troopers.  Just last week the local papers reported the first fine levied on a dog owner for failure to pick up after his pet.  This was a second offense.  I believe the first offense is a warning and subsequent offenses carry a €100 fine equivalent to $137. 

In most cities in Spain, stray cats are an issue.  These mangy, dirty and often diseased felines can be spotted under parked cars around markets, dumpsters and places wherever people toss scraps.  One local here in Torrevieja found an injured cat that had obviously been hit by a vehicle.  He mercifully took the cat to a local veterinarian to have it put down to end its suffering.  The vet performed this task and then billed the guy €160, over $200.  When he protested the cost which he grudgingly paid, the vet’s receptionist told him, ‘We are not a charity.  If we did not charge for this service, we would be inundated with animals.’ 

I can wring my hands and feel indignant about the poor treatment of cats and dogs in some countries.  However, the fact remains that not all societies think of domestic animals as members of the family.  To many they are just animals, and if they do not have a caring owner they are nothing more than a nuisance.  It is sad to think about, but it is not something that will go away anytime soon.  The best we can do is to encourage responsible pet ownership.  That is true in every country including our own. 

Starting Anew in Torrevieja, Spain

There are two miles of beaches lining the coast of Torrevieja.  This beach is two blocks from our apartment.

There are two miles of beaches lining the coast of Torrevieja. This beach is two blocks from our apartment. Pedestrians can walk the entire waterfront with shops and restaurants lining the walkway.

We have walked the city streets, learned the bus routes, visited the central shopping mall, checked out the main cathedral and located the nearest supermarkets and the public library.  Now that we have our feet on the ground we are free to check out the interesting sights of the city.

The 'coralista monument' is a tribute to music and musicians.  It references the Habaneras singing style brought to Torrevieja by sailors who brought Cuban-style song and dance back from the Caribbean in the 18th century.

The ‘coralista monument’ is a tribute to music and musicians. It references the Habaneras music adopted from Cuba via shipping trade dating back to the 1700’s.

Torrevieja, or old tower, is a city of 100,000 people with double that number when you count the surrounding suburbs.  The original tower that gave the city its name was built as an overlook facing the sea.  The tower no longer exists except for some foundation stones that mark its origin.  The city has since erected a stone tower representing the city’s namesake.

The Torrevieja area had proximity to sub-sea level lowlands just a half-mile inland from the coast.  Some early settlers dug a ditch from the sea to these lowlands and flooded two areas to form shallow lakes that were used as dehydration ponds to make salt.  These two salt ponds are huge, combining to cover over 9,000 acres.  Salt production still takes place and now exceeds 800,000 tons/year exported mostly to Western European markets.  The shoreline areas of the salt lakes are protected parklands serving as habitat for birds and wildlife.  Wading birds are common as they prey upon fish in the shallow lagoons.

Torrevieja's main church viewed from Plaza Constitución.

The city’s central church was rebuilt in 1844 using stone blocks from the old tower that was left in ruins from this earthquake.

The city does not have a natural port, so the area was overlooked until the 17th century as far as a hub of commercial activity.  Early settlers were mostly fishermen from Genoa and Naples looking for less competitive fishing areas.  To this day Italian surnames are common among the local population.   Modern day Torrevieja features a water-break seawall that extends nearly a mile around the city’s main marina which moors over 300 boats.  People can stroll the entire length of the seawall on a beautiful boardwalk and get an outstanding view of the city waterfront from offshore. 

The elaborate altar inside the Church of the Immaculate Conception

The elaborate altar inside the Church of the Immaculate Conception

The main church in Torrevieja, the Church of the Immaculate Conception, was originally built in 1798.  A severe earthquake in 1829, which would have registered a 6.6 using the Richter scale, had its epicenter close to Torrevieja and devastated the city.  Surrounding towns were also nearly destroyed.  There was little history of seismic activity along the Mediterranean coast, so the local populations were caught completely by surprise. 

Picturesque parks are found throughout the city, like this one a few blocks from our home.

Picturesque parks are found throughout the city, like this one a few blocks from our home.

The current city of Torrevieja is a tourist and expat destination.  Nearly half of the population is made up of British expats who own a home or apartment somewhere around the city.  English is spoken in most shops, restaurants and businesses.  There is an English language weekly newspaper, an English cinema, and innumerable groups and clubs including golfing, cycling, acting, hiking and jogging.  Runners were drawn to the 31st annual Torrevieja Half-Marathon, which took place on February 23rd and draws over 2,000 runners. 

The Central Market of Torrevieja offers a variety of fresh fruits, deli items and goodies.

The Central Market of Torrevieja offers a variety of fresh fruits, deli items and goodies.

While we are not beach people per se, we enjoy strolling along the waterfront on a warm sunny day and feeling the cool breeze.  And now that we have our bearings, we look forward to getting to better know our new home town.

We Made It Just In Time

We Made It Just In Time

Our latest story was just published by BoomerCafe.com, the top U.S. website for Baby Boomers where we submit a monthly story updating readers at BoomerCafe on our travels.  This month’s story shares our transition from Croatia and getting settled in Spain, an effort still in progress.  Link here for our story and perhaps some other articles you might enjoy as well.

Stay tuned for updates as we move into our new apartment in Torrevieja on February 21st, the day before my birthday.  What a gift!  And after we settle we have much more of Spain to see and to share.  La Vida aquí es marveloso!

Life on the Costa Blanca

The palm lined Esplanade in downtown Alicante divides the harbor from several high end hotels, restaurants and apartment buildings.

The palm lined Esplanade in downtown Alicante divides the harbor from several high end hotels, restaurants and apartment buildings.

After arriving in Spain via a Grimaldi Line cruise ship ferry from Italy, we divided a week between the two great cities of Barcelona and Madrid to spend time sightseeing and to visit friends.  There is no question that the highlight of Barcelona was La Sagrada Familia, although I will admit that the sights of Madrid impressed me somewhat more than did Barcelona.  They are both beautiful, world-class cities.  However, the rich history of Spain seemed more evident to me in Madrid with its parks, palaces, cathedrals and art museums. 

We walked past Alicante's Plaza of the Bulls.  Bullfights still take place in the arena during the summer.

We walked past Alicante’s Plaza of the Bulls. Bullfights still take place in the arena during the summer.

I will also admit that playing tourist after leaving Croatia in early January left us both mentally and physically drained.  So it was with more than a little relief that we rode the motorcoach for the five hour ride to Alicante.  We emailed our host family of our estimated arrival, and they were waiting to greet us as we landed on their doorstep, just a 10 minute taxi ride from the bus station.

The Castle of Santa Barbara has stood watch over Alicante for over 1,000 years.

The Castle of Santa Barbara has stood watch over Alicante for over 1,000 years.

I had read quite a bit about Spain and its many great cities.  Somehow I was drawn to the region known as the Costa Blanca, thus named for the pale color of the sandy beaches on the Mediterranean coast.  I now know the decision to come here was absolutely the right one.  Alicante is approximately halfway between Barcelona and Gibraltar on the Spanish Riviera.  Here people enjoy over 300 sunny days per year.  There is a bounty of fresh fruits and vegetables grown locally, and the area is so gorgeous that it is mind-boggling.   

The beachfront of Benidorm, one of Spain's most touristic cities.

The beachfront of Benidorm, one of Spain’s most touristic cities.

Our host family is helpful and kind beyond any expectation.  Our arrangement with them is to rent for a month while we look for a more permanent setting.  This has given us the gift of time to get our bearings and explore the area.  Our first venture was to explore the city of Alicante itself.  We walked the mile or so into the city center and discovered the Central Market, the City Center and the Esplanade, the colorful, tile-paved waterfront pedestrian walk.  We did not think we could find anything finer than downtown Alicante.

Overlooking the sea is Benidorm's Church of St. James.

Overlooking the sea is Benidorm’s Church of St. James.

The next day we hitched a ride with our host, Raul, to the touristy seaside town of Benidorm, about 20 north.  We were struck by how many tourists there were in January.  We heard English, French and German spoken by those we walked among along the beach.  And we noticed almost everyone was at least our age or older.  Clearly, the pensioners of Europe come here to escape the cold weather up north.

This beautiful promontory divides Benidorm into north and south halves.

This beautiful promontory divides Benidorm into north and south halves.

We have yet to explore further south to Torrevieja and Murcia.  Considering how much we have enjoyed each of the cities we have visited in Spain, it is hard to imagine we will not also enjoy our upcoming visits there and points beyond.  Spain has proven to be comfortable and hospitable.  The prices for essentials are affordable on our budget, which means we can also afford to tour more of the country in the weeks ahead.  In the meantime, we should have a place to call our own in time for my February birthday, and that will be the finest gift I could wish for.

Transitioning to Spain

Spain's Royal Family no longer lives in Madrid's Palace.  When not in use for ceremonies, it is open to the public.

Spain’s Royal Family no longer lives in Madrid’s Palace. When not in use for ceremonies, it is open to the public.

We have evolved from our initial goal of living in a different country for awhile to being The 6 Monthers, our current lifestyle of moving to a different country every six months.  Our objective is loaded with challenges as far as observing the tourist and visa laws of the various countries in which we wish to live.  We are in a race against time to obtain dual citizenship with Italy which will solve the Schengen Visa issue throughout most of the European Union. 

Standing on the Plaza de Independencia is the Puerta de Alcalá.

Standing on the Plaza de Independencia is the Puerta de Alcalá.

The hardest part of being a traveler in the manner we have chosen is the transition between countries.  Our travels are best done when we start from a base in the country of our choosing.  From there we take single-day and multi-day trips to surrounding areas to learn what we can about the culture and the beauty of the country.  When it comes time to move, we must pack everything we own into our luggage and cart it with us which is burdensome on multiple levels.  Primarily, it is draining to live out of suitcases for any length of time.

Is it a palace or a cathedral?  No that is the Palacio de Comunicaciones, otherwise known as the Madrid Post Office.

Is it a palace or a cathedral? No, it is the Palacio de Comunicaciones, also known as the Madrid Post Office.

We gave ourselves seventeen days for our latest transition from Croatia to Spain which allowed for stops in Rome, Barcelona and Madrid.  These are three world class cities with great history, food, art and culture.  They are cities I had only learned about in school and through my reading over the years.  For me, seeing them for the first time was a thrill I eagerly anticipated.  We got a tiny stateroom on the overnight Blue Line ferry from Split, Croatia, to Ancona, Italy, then caught the train to Rome.  For the 20 hour crossing from Italy to Barcelona, we also got a stateroom on the Grimaldi Line ferry.  In each case we were grateful to have avoided checking bags and paying the fees we would have incurred at airports.  We even got a little sleep along the way.

An evening on the town with my two favorite women in Spain

An evening out with my two favorite women in Spain

Rome was glorious, no question.  For me, our visit to The Vatican was the greatest highlight.  I will always think of Rome as a must-see place, one that made me say “Wow!” with almost every turn.  Among Barcelona’s most interesting sights is Antoni Gaudí’s architecture, and the highlight for any visitor to Barcelona is without question La Sagrada Familia.  For a number of reasons, Madrid was my favorite stop.  Perhaps it was the reunion with our new friend, Ana, whom we met during our Discover Croatia Tour.  Spending time with friends is always a treat, especially while living in a country far from home.  Madrid is unique and beautiful, and there was way more to see and do than we could fit in during three days.

Sometimes called the 'Superman Building' the Metropolis Insurance Company placed their name on the building when they purchased it.

Referred to by some as the ‘Superman Building’ the Metropolis Insurance Company placed their name on the building when they purchased it.

Overall, I am glad we visited these places in the off-season.  We avoided major crowds in each city as well as the summer days which can be insufferably hot.  That part was good.  I did lose my wallet to a pickpocket on the subway in Rome.  That experience made me much more conscious of my surroundings and much less trusting of people on the street.  And like any crime against a person, I felt violated, which impacted me psychologically.  It took me a few days to almost get over blaming my naiveté and blaming other, less scrupulous people for being assholes. 

This apartment building across from our hotel is typical of the fine architecture throughout the city.

This apartment building across from our hotel is typical of the fine architecture throughout the city.

Ultimately, traveling for over two weeks with daypacks and suitcases is too much.  We need closets and a washing machine and a kitchen of our own so we do not have to eat restaurant food every day.  That does not diminish the wonder and beauty of the places we visited during our transition.  It does, however, diminish our ability to maintain our energy and to fully appreciate what we are seeing.  Such is the learning curve of The 6 Monthers.  We are not on vacation – this is our life.  I believe we will get better at it as we go along.      

All photos: © by Florence Ricchiazzi Lince

The Ultimate Barcelona Experience

One of Gaudí's earlier projects, La Pedrera incorporated innovations like a self-supported façade and underground parking.  Under renovation during our visit, this photo is from Wikicommons.

One of Gaudí’s earlier projects, La Pedrera incorporated innovations like a self-supported façade and underground parking. Under renovation during our visit, this photo is from Wikicommons.

My first surprise about Barcelona, a metropolitan area of five million people, is that the city is only about 150 years old.  The roots of the city go back to Roman times, but the city as we see it now has few remnants older than the mid-19th century. 

Gaudí loved color.  He did not much like square corners. Photo credit: Wikicommons

Gaudí loved color. He did not much like square corners.
Photo credit: Wikicommons

Barcelona underwent major changes in the 1800’s.  In a controversial move, the powers of that time decided to tear down the medieval wall that contained the city.  Along with the wall, many medieval era buildings were also demolished.  A master plan was developed which included plazas, parks and tree-lined streets that were over 100 feet wide with wide sidewalks.  Although some property owners fought these zoning restrictions, today Barcelona has lots of wide boulevards, plazas with beautiful artwork, and public parks providing spectacular vistas of the city.  The result today is a feeling of wide open spaces with lots of light, nice breezes and lots of green space throughout the city.  Further improvements were made in preparation for hosting the 1992 Olympic Summer Games, including new beaches and modern construction.

Stylish architecture is what catches my eye in Barcelona, and none is more striking than the inescapable designs of Antoni Gaudí.  I was prepared to be amazed by the unusual shapes and bright ceramic touches of Casa Batlló, Park Güell and other famous Gaudí works.  I was hardly prepared for the spectacle that is La Sagrada Familia, the Catholic Basilica of The Sacred Family.  As we walked from the nearby Paseo de Sant Joan, my heart began beating faster as the glory of spires towering more than 500 feet over my head came into view.  Everything about La Sagrada Familia demands that I look up. 

The spires of La Sagrada Familia pierce the sky over 500 feet above street level.

The spires of La Sagrada Familia pierce the sky over 500 feet above street level.

I can hardly get my head around what I am seeing.  Is this art?  Is it architecture?  Is it the creation of a crazy man or a genius?  What sort of mind is able to bring such a remarkable vision to reality?  These thoughts go through my mind as I gaze upward in amazement and awe.  Interior pillars start out five feet in diameter at their base.  As my eyes follow their upward taper, they seem to grow sixteen evenly space ridges.  These ridges split in two as I follow the lines upward.  The vertical lines then dissolve until further up the column is perfectly round.  Suddenly, the column splits into multiple branches that taper and disappear into the ceiling they support.  The effect of the multiple pillars is like a forest of giant trees supporting an elaborate ceiling 200 feet overhead.

The West entrance to Sagrada Familia is also the oldest.  It depicts the Nativity in sculptures high over the portico.

The West entrance to Sagrada Familia is also the oldest. It depicts the Nativity in sculptures high over the portico.

La Sagrada Familia was not completed in Gaudí’s lifetime.   In fact, the construction that began over 130 years ago continues to this day.  This was not a commissioned project.  Gaudí utilized only money that was donated in order to carry out the construction.  To this day only donations from entry fees and benefactors are used to pay for the construction.  It is estimated that 2.8 million persons annually visit La Sagrada Familia.  The base admission is about $27/person without a personal guide or audio guide and exclusive of a trip up one of the towers.  The two newest towers are equipped with ultra-modern elevators.

The interior of Sagrada Familia is light and open.  Color is added with the extensive use of stained glass windows.

The interior of Sagrada Familia is light and open. Color is added with the extensive use of stained glass windows.

Gaudí believed that all great efforts required sacrifice.  He felt paying the ongoing costs of constructing La Sagrada Familia was exactly the sort of sacrifice that was required to achieve success.  It is estimated the project could take ten or more years to complete.  I do not think Gaudí would mind. 

In 1926, Antoni Gaudí was struck by a tram on his way to his local church.  He was knocked unconscious and taken in a coma to the hospital.  No one recognized him at the time.  During the night he awoke and asked to have last rites administered.  He died later that night.  He is now buried in the crypt below the main altar of La Sagrada Familia.  Catholic masses are conducted there daily.

Interior columns evoke images of a forest with branches high overhead.

Interior columns evoke images of a forest with branches high overhead.

The elaborate ceiling is braced by the many-branched columns soaring 200 feet overhead.

The elaborate ceiling is braced by the many-branched columns soaring 200 feet overhead.

The colors and details throughout the cathedral dazzle the eyes/

The colors and details throughout the cathedral dazzle the eyes.

Our Tour of The Vatican

Photos are not allowed in the Sistine Chapel.  This photo courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.

The Ceiling of the Sistine Chapel by Michelangelo
Photos are not allowed in the Sistine Chapel. Photo credit: Wikipedia Commons.

Nothing quite prepares you for viewing The Vatican.  Vatican City looks small on the map, and compared to the rest of Rome it is fairly small.  However, it takes four hours just to walk through the Vatican Museums, the Sistine Chapel and Saint Peter’s Basilica, so it is not small.

Although everyone has seen a photo of the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel which was painted by Michelangelo 500 years ago, a photo cannot begin to do justice to the experience of seeing the ceiling through one’s own eyes.  The photos do not provide any indication of the scope or scale of the artwork.  Also, the appearance of three-dimensional columns on the ceiling is an illusion.  The arched ceiling has a smooth surface.

Even though the Sistine Chapel is no bigger than a high school gymnasium, there is so much to take in visually that we took a bench along the side of the chapel and we sat for half an hour just looking at the artwork.  Our necks hurt from looking up constantly, so we took in the murals along the side walls as well, which are the work of other Renaissance masters.

So much history has taken place within these walls.  This is the chapel where the Congress of Cardinals votes to select a new pope.  This is where, after over a four year span, Michelangelo stepped out of his primary artistic role as a sculptor to paint over 5,000 square feet of frescoes on the ceiling and high walls of the chapel.  Unlike the portrayal of Michelangelo played by Charlton Heston in the movie The Agony and the Ecstasy, he did not lay on his back to paint the entire ceiling.  The artist did spend a great deal of time bending over backwards, however, and that had to be agony.

Michelangelo had many helpers who most likely mixed paint and made the many trips up and down the scaffolds which reached over sixty feet above the floor.  Assistants also probably did the messy job of mixing fresh plaster since Michelangelo took on the difficult task of painting frescoes by applying paint while the plaster was still drying, thus creating the strongest possible bond between paint and plaster.  Even if some talented assistants had been tasked with painting a bit of sky or scenery, Michelangelo gets the credit for designing and painting the masterpiece that is the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.  He hired and fired so many assistants that no one else could take credit for any significant contribution to the finished work.

Twenty-five years after the completion of the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, Michelangelo was approached on behalf of the pope with the commission to paint the vast wall behind the altar which now holds his other chapel masterpiece, The Last Judgment.  He was hesitant to take the job thinking it was a test that would taint his reputation if he failed to live up to the standard he had set with the chapel ceiling. 

Photo credit:  Wikipedia Commons

The Last Judgment by Michelangelo
Photo credit: Wikipedia Commons

The Last Judgment was the largest fresco ever painted up to that time, and it was a controversial piece given the amount of nudity that was depicted.  When the pope’s Master of Ceremonies, Biaggio di Cesena, proclaimed the painting was more suitable to a public bath or tavern than a holy place, Michelangelo painted a likeness of Cesena on the body of Minos, Judge of the Underworld, with donkey ears to symbolize foolishness and with a snake coiled around his middle to cover his genitalia.  (bottom right corner)  Cesena complained to the pope, who is said to have joked that his judgment did not extend to hell, so the painting remained unchanged.

During the ecumenical Council of Trent, nudity in religious art was condemned.  In 1564, after Michelangelo’s death, the genitalia referred to as ‘objectionable’ in The Last Judgment were painted over with drapery, which is how the painting has been viewed to this day.

Getting to the Sistine Chapel involves strolling through extensive galleries and museums.  You will begin to appreciate the vast treasures of The Vatican when you join our walk in this short video.

First Impressions from Rome

Pope Clement XIII had the Palazzo del Quirinale built as a summer palace on Rome's highest hill to escape the stench of the Tiber River.

Pope Clement XIII had the Palazzo del Quirinale built as a summer palace on Rome’s highest hill to escape the smell of raw sewage which flowed down the Tiber River.

We round the corner to enter the Quirinale Plaza and catch our first sight of The Vatican.

We round the corner to enter the Quirinale Plaza and catch our first sight of The Vatican.

This is my first visit to Rome.  My wife, Florence, has visited Rome on five occasions prior to this visit, so she is excited for me to experience awe and wonder of The Eternal City.   She loves to describe the sights I am about to lay my eyes on for the first time, and she is eager for my reactions.  However, her descriptions do little to prepare me for what I am experiencing.  There is simply no way to describe Rome to the first-time visitor.  It would be like trying to explain Disneyland to an alien.  One must see Rome for oneself.

Florence loves roasted chestnuts.  I bought cookies.

Florence loves fresh-roasted chestnuts.

As we start walking from our hotel near the central train station, I begin to notice the numerous locations that sell pizza.  My comment – ‘Look, another place that sells pizza!’ becomes tiresome, so I begin noticing shops with baked goods.  I had to stop.  After stocking up on a few essential goodies, we wander toward the President’s Palace, known officially as the Palazzo del Quirinale, the historic home of thirty popes dating back to the 16th century.  It is the sixth largest palace in the world and the largest home to any head of state.  From outside we have no idea about the scale of the palace on the inside, and the guards at the gate were not about to let us wander in to see for ourselves.

Mythological figures and horses seem to emerge from the rocks and pools of the Trevi Fountain.

Mythological figures and horses seem to emerge from the rocks and pools of the Trevi Fountain.

Descending from Piazza Quirinale on Rome’s highest hill, we see crowds of people ahead.  A quick check of the city map confirms they are converging on the Piazza di Trevi and the iconic Trevi Fountain.  There is so much happening artistically in the massive fountain that I can hardly take it all in at one time.  Also, I now realize how fortunate we are to be visiting Rome in the off season.  I think we would have had to wait an hour or more to get the photos that were available to us just by walking among the crowd to the edge of the observation area.

The Spanish Steps leading to the church above are the widest in the world.

The Spanish Steps leading to the church above are the widest in the world.

A few blocks beyond the Trevi Fountain is the Piazza di Spagna (the Spanish Plaza) and the Spanish Steps.  These 135 steps ascend to the Church of Trinitá dei Monti.  This day was the eve of The Epiphany, the day when the three magi appeared in Jerusalem following the birth of Jesus, so there was still in place a Nativity scene on the upper terrace of the steps.

Massa, the lovely sales clerk at Vinovip near the Trevi Fountain, cheerfully offers samples of liqueurs, which I am happy to taste.

Massa, the lovely sales clerk at Vinovip near the Trevi Fountain, cheerfully offers samples of liqueurs, which I am happy to taste.

We encountered numerous sights on our initial stroll through the city.  The fascinating thing about Rome is one can walk a mere block or two in any direction and suddenly you come upon a park, a plaza, a fountain, a palace, or one of the dozens of architectural wonders which abound, and we have barely scratched the surface.  Fortunately, Florence scheduled our stay here for a week.  She knew not to cut short our time in this great city.  All these legendary places are now coming to life right before my eyes.

The Top 10 Best Things About Croatia

The Neretva River Delta grows enough citrus to serve several countries.

The Neretva River Delta grows enough citrus to serve several countries.

Counting down, these items make my list of the ten best things I discovered about Croatia.

10. Fresh fruits and vegetables

There is a great choice of fruits and vegetables during the harvest season.

The fresh markets offer a great choice of fruits and vegetables during the harvest season.

Everything grows fresh in Croatia.  We were fortunate to be living in Croatia during harvest season.  There were melons, pomegranates, figs, plums, grapes and apples.  And there was citrus.  Almost the entire Neretva River Delta is planted with citrus – mandarins, lemons and several varieties of oranges and they are quite affordable.  Other fruits like bananas and tropical fruits are imported.  The variety seems endless and prices are quite good. 

9.   Coffee

Every place we have visited has a coffee bar (or two or three) on every block, or so it seems.  I am not saying that the coffee is as good as what we could purchase at every market in Panama or Costa Rica where it was grown and picked and roasted within walking distance of our house.  But every café, bar and coffee shop in Croatia has an espresso machine, and it is a custom in Croatia to ‘take coffee’ for almost any occasion.

8.   Olive oil and wine

There are countless vineyards and olive tree groves throughout Croatia.

There are countless vineyards and olive tree groves throughout Croatia.

I think everyone in Croatia either has their own olive trees or is related to someone who does.  The same goes for vineyards.  They make a lot of olive oil in Croatia, and they also make a lot of wine.  Production numbers seem small compared to wine growing regions in other parts of the world, but Croatia’s population is only about 4.5 million, and they consume most of what they produce.  However, wine lovers who get a taste of the finer Croatian wines will likely wish to add some bottles to their collections.

7.   Cheese

Farm fresh is not just a saying in Croatia.  Yes, this was my first time milking a cow.

Farm fresh is not just a saying in Croatia. Yes, this was my first time milking a cow.

I confess I love cheese.  And I have come to learn that not every country has great cheeses.  Croatia got it right!  There is probably as much cheese-making tradition in Croatia as there is making olive oil and wine.  Lucky for me!

6.   Bakery breads and other goodies

You should not expect to find a bread aisle in the supermarket.  All breads, cakes, cookies, and other baked goods are made fresh daily in a bakery.  There are in-store bakeries and independent bakery shops on nearly every block in the commercial areas.  Many Croatians still bake their own items if they have time.

5.   Natural beauty

The waters of the Lika River are scenic and pure.

The waters of the Lika River are scenic and pure.

Where do I begin?  The Dalmatian Coast, Plitvice Lakes National Park, Skradinski Falls in Krka National Park, the Neretva River Delta, Lake Vrana, the mountains, the forests, the islands, the natural springs.  Croatia is so diverse that the list of scenic spots seems never ending. 

4.   Clean air

To me there are two key items that define ‘quality of life.’  Being able to breathe clean air is one of those things, and it is not a given everywhere.  It is in Croatia, especially on the Dalmatian Coast with its steady breezes.

3.   Clean water

These springs in Lika County have provided fresh water to the area for two thousand years.

These springs in Lika County have provided fresh water to the area for two thousand years.

This is the second key ‘quality of life’ item, and Croatia has abundant resources of clear, clean water.  Many of their rivers are spring-fed at their sources.  You can dip your cup or water bottle into most streams and expect to get pure water better than the bottled water for sale at the market.  Wherever I travel I compare the water with what I experienced in my youth hiking past creeks and streams in the Cascade and Olympic Mountains.  Clean water is not a given everywhere.  It is in Croatia.

2.   History and Culture

The medieval fortress near Samobar reminds of the civilization that existed here long ago.

The medieval fortress near Samobor reminds us of the civilization that existed here long ago.

Croatia may have finally appeared as a country on geography maps in the last twenty years.  However, as a region with a distinct culture, Croatia has a history of its own dating back over 1,500 years.  Many of the traditional foods, dress, music and dances are still common today.  They have their own language, their own art, their great legends and their heroes.  All of these traditions are woven into the fabric of everyday life.  One of the great things about traveling in Croatia is the people are eager to tell their stories and share their culture.

1.   The people

The friends we made in Croatia will be our most lasting memories.

The friends we made in Croatia will be our most treasured memories.

I have said this before and it bears repeating.  The people of Croatia have been among the most welcoming, most hospitable and most caring of any we have met in any country we have visited.  They care how you feel about their country and about them.  They want you to appreciate the beauty, the history and culture, the food, the wine, and their hospitality.  And I do!

One more thing, the women in Croatia are quite style-conscious.  In the cities and towns women seldom go out in public without putting on makeup and nice clothes.  At first I thought there was simply a high percentage of striking-looking women.  Then I realized that women of all ages take great care to look their best in public.  The men, not so much.  They may be ruggedly handsome, but they do not dress up unless they are hoping to impress the women.  That however, is a whole new story.