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.
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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.

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.

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.

 

Market Day in Šibenik, Croatia

Overlooking the first fruit vendor booth at the fresh market

Overlooking the first fruit vendor booth at the fresh market

The fresh market in Šibenik, Croatia, is open every day.  However, Saturday morning is when shoppers turn up in large numbers and the most vendors are set up to serve them.  This is one occasion where I make no effort to avoid the crowds. 

I embarrassed the bread lady when I asked for a photo.

I embarrassed the bread lady when I asked for a photo.

Surrounding the open air market is an array of meat and cheese shops and my favorite bakery kiosk where my preferred baguette of whole grain bread costs $1.20.  I have returned so often that the lady no longer needs to ask me what I want. 

There is a fish market and several butcher shops.  However, I am eating mostly vegetarian these days, so I peruse these shops mostly out of curiosity.   I will say it is a good thing I no longer have a barbecue grill, because I cannot envision this vegetarian lifestyle if there were a grill on my deck.

The vine ripened tomatoes look awesome.

The vine ripened tomatoes look awesome.

I love the hum of the crowd and the animated vendors encouraging shoppers to take advantage of their great deals.  And most of the fruits and vegetables are great deals.  I bought a pomegranate for 60 cents.  We mix and match a variety of apples for about 40 cents/pound, and we get pears for about 65 cents/pound.  Carrots, broccoli and cauliflower are about the same.  Potatoes and onions are quite inexpensive.  Bananas are over 90 cents/pound because they come from Ecuador or Costa Rica.  However, we save so much on other produce that we do not mind paying extra for bananas.  The eggplants, which are not my favorite vegetable, look amazing.  They are thin and firm with few seeds, perfect for the way Florence cooks them and the way I most enjoy them (recipe below).

Fish and meat, cheese, honey and condiments - there is much more than produce available at the market.

Fish and meat, cheese, honey and condiments – there is much more than produce available at the market.

Florence’s Recipe for Baked Eggplant Wafers

Mike has never been a fan of eggplant, especially when it is cooked in thick slices that become mushy when baked.  However, when I bake thin wafers of eggplant so that they come out of the oven with the texture of a cookie, there are seldom leftovers.  He even requests them if we have gone a long time without having had some.

Ingredients: 

2 or 3 small to medium-sized eggplants
Approximately 1 cup of bread crumbs
¼ cup olive oil
1 egg or egg substitute

Directions:

Pre-heat oven to 350°F

Line a cookie sheet with aluminum foil and spread a layer of olive oil across the sheet.

Peel eggplants and slice into thin wafers no more than ¼” thick.  Bathe in whipped egg and then coat both sides of eggplant wafers in bread crumbs. 

Lay bread crumb-coated eggplant wafers on oiled cookie sheet and bake about 20 minutes on one side or until they begin to brown.  Remove cookie sheet from oven and flip eggplant over to bake on second side also until lightly browned.  They will come out of the oven with the texture of a cookie that is crispy on the outside and still slightly moist inside.  Serve hot. This recipe will yield two or three sheets of baked eggplant wafers depending on the size of the eggplants.

Save leftovers to snack on either cold or reheated.  Try using some leftovers in a sandwich.

If you try this recipe, let me know if you like it or any variations you may have tried.

Pozdrav Hrvatska (Hello Croatia)

Overlooking the Old Town of Šibenik and the waterfront

Overlooking the Old Town of Šibenik and the waterfront

One of the most interesting sensations I experience when coming into a new city for the first time is how new and different it looks from any other city I have seen.  My eyes try to take in as much as possible.  Are the streets straight or winding?  Is the town flat or hilly?  Are the buildings interesting to look at or quite plain?  Are there sidewalks, and if so are they wide or narrow?  Where do people shop, eat and stroll?  And perhaps most important, is it clean?  There is so much you can tell about a city based on these initial impressions.  For me, all of these questions lead to the ultimate question, would I want to live here?

St. James Cathedral sits on the largest plaza in the old town.

St. James Cathedral sits on the largest plaza in the old town.

When we first visited Šibenik, Croatia, I saw only the main streets.  It was hardly enough to make an impression.  I spent a whole day on a boat tour to Kornati National Park, a chain of islands twenty miles up the coast from Šibenik.   Florence stayed in town with our group and got the all day city tour.  She loved it so much that when the opportunity to live in Croatia presented itself, Florence proclaimed, ‘Let’s go to Šibenik!’  Since there are few places in Croatia that I would say no to, I said, ‘Okay.’

narrow-passage

Passageways winding through the old town are worn smooth from centuries of use.

There are many stairs leading up the hill of the old city.

There are many stairs leading up the hill of the old city.

Šibenik is different from any place we have lived.  The old city was pieced together over nearly 1,000 years.  What they call streets I would call passageways.  These passages wind and weave in a seemingly random way.  Some of them lead to a small plaza with shops and restaurants.  Others dead end at the steps of someone’s apartment building.  All of the buildings are three or four stories high.  There is no way to spot landmarks except to become familiar with the shops on any given passageway.

At the top of the hill is the largest cemetery in town.

At the top of the hill is the largest cemetery in town.

All the stairways and passages are paved with stones the size of cinder blocks.  They are all worn smooth and shiny from the footsteps of countless thousands of people over hundreds of years.  At first, I feel like a lab rat in a maze trying to figure out where I am and how to get back to my own apartment.  Then, something special happens.  The streets and passages no longer look strange and unfamiliar.  I begin to recognize an intersection, a café and a shop.  Now I know where to go when I need to purchase groceries or a gift. 

We found the ice cream shop in our new home town.

We found the ice cream shop in our new home town.

Šibenik is not a big city.  If I wanted, I could walk from one end of the old town to the other in about ten minutes.  However, I would never do that.  It is too beautiful and interesting.  All the strange new sights I remember from our first day in town now look familiar.  The comfort comes in getting to know someplace new.  I can only describe it by saying it feels good to be home.