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.

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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.

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!

The ABC Tour

Since this post is partly about me, I thought I should share it with you. Florence and I are on the same tour of the world, and it is good to have more than one perspective. For the past six months, Florence has written of the same subject matter as I have. As your would expect, you will gain a different perspective by reading her version. Enjoy! – Mike

Reflections

Mike has always joked that he is on the ABC Tour. That stands for, Another Blessed Cathedral. In many ways he is right. We have visited the main cathedral or church in every city we have traveled too. However, there are reasons other than my just wanting to light candles.

Many of the cathedrals or church’s we have entered have been around for hundreds of years, some going back as far as the 13th Century. Many of these places of worship were sponsored by the wealthiest patrons of their time so no expense was spared in the decoration or the carvings that can be found inside their walls. These are not modern buildings with stucco drywalls and simple stained glass windows or paint by number paintings. Many of the places we have toured have sculptures and deities leaping from the walls, chiseled in their glory to make them…

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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.

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!