Antayla, Part 2

Antalya has a lot to offer aside from the food and the beautiful turquoise water. It has a bustling night life, family friendly activities such as the aquarium and asusement park, as well as numerous public parks. We saw many Antalyans, particularly in the evenings once the blazing hot sun had started it’s journey westward, enjoying the parks. Almost everyone had portable camp chairs, some had blankets, and a lucky few scored one of the picnic tables provided in the park. It was nice to see so many people out enjoying each other’s company. Families picnicked, friends shared beer or tea, old men played batgammon. We saw this same scene repeated in each of the several parks we visited in the city. We have noticed in our travels that in cities, where people tend to live in apartments, and most folks don’t have yards, they really take advantage of their communal, public green spaces.

Probably the coolest thing(s) Antalya, has to offer (again, aside from the food and the Mediterranean) is the region’s multiple historical, archeological sites. Antalya was first settled around 200 B.C. by Attalus (and named in his honor) II Philadelphus, king of Pergamon. Shortly after it was occupied by the Romans and was a thriving port city. Turkey has around 120 ancient archeological sites and the region of Antayla has seven of these. We were lucky enough to visit two, as well as the archeological museum. Phil loves ancient history so he has written about these visits here, here, and here (He writes really fast. He’s a professional. Check out his book on amazon). Because Phil has written extensively about our visits to these sites, I’m just going to post a few of my favorite photos from our visits. Click on the photo for the location.

One other highlight from our visits to these archeological sites that I want to mention is that on our visit to Pammeluke, we met a couple from London; Amanda (originally from Canada) and Rob. We ended up having dinner with them after our tour and we hit it off so well, we made plans to meet up in Istanbul (stay tuned). It is really nice to have travel buddies!

I have mentioned several times how lovely the turquoise waters of the Mediterranean are (Yes, you have. We get it. But do you?), and a couple of my favorite activities from our trip were taking a day to get out on the water and a day to get out in the water. We took a two-hour boat cruise that rode us to Düden Falls (that we actually walked to a couple of times, as mentioned in Phil’s blog) and back. I really enjoy being out on the water and find it incredibly relaxing. Maybe this is from happy childhood memories of pontooning with my family on the Lake of the Ozarks or maybe it’s because everyone loves being out on the water and finds it incredibly relaxing. Either way, it was fantastic and the beautiful water mesmerizing.

Our hotel had a pool which we took full advantage of but we really wanted to get out in the sea. Our hotel was only about a two-minute walk to the water but quite a far walk from an actual beach. We were high above the water on rocky cliffs, which made for both spectacular views and a difficult time accessing the water, or so we thought.

On one of our walks to Düden Falls we noticed, while taking in the views that below us were beach chairs, sitting on decks that had been mounted to the side of the cliff. There were many of these places for sunning and swimming. They were sometimes connected with a hotel and always with some kind of restaurant or bar, in order to access refreshments easily as you lounged. At any of them, one could rent a chair with umbrella and towel for a relatively small fee (around $12 USD for two) for the entire day after descending the stairs to the cliff bottom. The aforementioned refreshments are available for an additional charge. There are also changing rooms and bathrooms for folks to utilize.

Luckily for us, a hotel/restaurant three minutes walk from our hotel had very nice swimming decks so we took half a day to enjoy the beautiful water and respite from the heat. They had two tiers of decks and we grabbed chairs on the lower one. The umbrellas offered sufficient shade for my pasty skin and a ladder off the end of the deck access to the water. We had a couple of beers, lounged, swam, and half slept for a few hours. It was divine.

Another fun activity Antalya has to offer is their cable car, or teleferik, as they call it. Up, up, up we took it to the top of Tünek Tepe Hill where more spectacular views awaited. Phil wrote in more detail of our trip but I have included some of my favorite photos below.

I would be remiss if I did not mention a few quirky features I noticed and found endearing about Antayla. The first is the number of well mannered and well cared for street animals, namely dogs and cats. There are dogs and cats all over the place, just hanging out. The dogs were usually quite large and while typically a large wild dog might be a bit (or a lot) inimidating, these dogs were passive. Why? Well, many businesses and individuals leave fresh food and water out for them. There’s no reason to be aggressive if you’re well fed, left alone, and living in paradise (that goes for people too, I suppose). When talking about the dogs to a fellow we met from Denmark, I said, “They all seem pretty chill” to which he responded (in a surprisingly very California sufer-sounding accent), “Yeeaaah, they chill suuuper hard”. The cats still slip in occasionally to the indoor-outdoor restaurants but mostly they are looking for dropped morsels and never usually stick around too long and never once meowed at us for food.

Another thing I noticed was almost every business, from hair salon, real-estate office, nail shop, car dealship, you name it had a table and chairs right out front for employees to utilize for relaxation (mostly tea drinking and smoking from what I saw). I first noticed this when I thought one nail shop was a cafe because of the table and chairs. These spots don’t seem to be used specifically for an official “break time” as such. Simply, if there is down time, they sit and releax. Much better than the “If you’ve got time to lean, you’ve got time to clean” approach most U.S. employers take. I wasn’t able to take as many photos of the employee relaxation stations as I would have liked because they were usually being utilized. It would take away from my relaxation if a stranger randomly snapped a photo of me while I was chilling, so I had an eye out for vacant ones. I found a couple.

Lasty, a very handy feature of Antalya that I have never seen anywhere (they are not in Istanbul either) are taxi call buttons. The buttons are mounted on poles or the sides of bus stops. You simply press the button and within a few minutes (or often seconds) up pulls a taxi. A Russian fellow we met said, ” Who needs Uber when you have Button on a Pole?” Who indeed. Not me. Button on a Pole worked great.

We really enjoyed our two weeks in Antayla and have agreed we would definitely go back in the future. So, until next time Antalya!

Antalya Part 1: Let’s Talk Food

Our first stop in Turkey was the beach city of Antalya, in the south along the Mediterranean coast. Citizens of the U.S. need a Turkish Visa to enter the country, though this can be easily obtained via website or in-person at the airport upon arrival (we read). Phil completed the application online, paid $50 each, and we were able to print out the 90-day Visas, which we presented at the airport in Geneva prior to boarding our flight. Easy peasy.

We planned to stay in Turkey for a month, though that seemed too long to stay in Istanbul exclusively. After a friend of a friend in Spain mentioned she was going to school in a beach town in the south of Turkey, we started looking at our options. Antalya seemed like a great one, so we booked our flights. Antalya is a city and a region located on the Tourquoise Coast (the name tourqoise actually comes from the french “pierre turque” meaning Turkish stone) of the Mediterranean Sea. Antayla is in Asia and is a resort city popular with tourists and expats from all over the world. Neither of us had ever been anywhere in Asia previously, so that was cool.

Our hotel in Antalya was very on brand for our “nice hotel about 20 years past its prime” preference (that I mentioned in this post). A couple of nice bonuses were their pool and free breakfast. I’m not a big breakfast person (brunch is another story all together) and often opt to skip the meal all together. However, when it’s included, it not only helps us save money on our overall daily food expenses (if we have a big breakfast, we usually skip having either a full lunch or dinner and have a snack for one of the meals instead) but it also forces us to wake up by a certain time. With that being said, I like to sleep. Not having a job and having a lot of time in the day to do what we please, often leads to us sleeping in. There’s nothing wrong with sleeping in. Sleeping in is great but having a semi-routine is also valuable. For me, a routine helps to serve as an anchor (to the day, to time, to reality) during a time in which I have no other obligations. Plus, if I really want to sleep in, I still can. You’re not the boss of me, breakfast!

The hotel breakfast was good. Turks are actually quite known for their breakfasts and many restaurants offer traditional Turkish breakfasts. A typical Turkish breakfast consists of different types of bread, cheese, meat, honey, jam, olives, eggs, tomato, cucumber and sometimes potatoes and other vegetables or delicious fried cheese rolls (looks like a taquito but tastes like phyllo stuffed with cheese). Oh, and tea. Lots of tea. Turks love their tea, even more than they love their famous Turkish coffee. In fact, Turkey is the largest consumer of tea per person in the world. Kahvalti means breakfast in Turkish and literally translates to “before coffee,” so while Turks still love their coffee (just not quite as much as tea), they do not drink it with their breakfast, only after. I am not Turkish, so I had both coffee and tea with my breakfast.

Unlike the Brits, Scots, and Irish, the tea loving Turks do not add milk when they have a cuppa, though may choose to add sugar. The strong, black tea is poured into a traditional, small, tuplip shaped glass. One drinks it by grabbing the lip of the glass with the thumb and pointer finger to avoid burning themselves.

One of the things that has struck me since being here, starting with our first hotel breakfast, is how fresh the produce is and how abundant (agriculture is Turkey’s largest employer). Some form of vegetable comes with almost any meal you order here. This is a very good thing for us. We like vegetables and try to eat them as often as we can. When traveling, however, especially when being budget conscious, we don’t always have as many as we would like.

As long as we are talking about the food, let me tell you more about the food. It is amazing. I love Turkish food. It consists of a lot of meats including lamb, which I love, also a lot of bread, which I also love. Typically when I think of Turkish food, I think of flat breads but we have encountered all types of bread here from fluffy white to a tasty pretzle-type ring bread called simit that is covered with sesame seeds (a favorite of Phil’s). But it’s not all meat and bread. We have also had delicious seafood, rice, chickpeas, pickled vegtables, and a bounty of the aforementioned fresh vegetables including; tomato, cucumber, eggplant, peppers of all kinds, onion, garlic, and fresh herbs. We have had a lot of fresh parsley since being here and it makes me wonder why we don’t incorporate it into salads more in the U.S. We have yet to have a bad meal in Turkey. In fact, you can find a delicious, meal for two if you look a bit outside of major tourist areas, for around 200TL (Turkish Lira), which is roughly $12. Oh, the food!

Some of our favortie dishes in addition to döner kebab are stuffed grape leaves (they call then vine leaves in English here), içli köfte (a stuffed, fried meatball), lahmacun (often referred to as Turkish pizza) which is a crispy flat bread with spices and minced vegtables and/or meat, pide (which actually tasts more like pizza than lahmacun) that’s a flat bread (thicker than lahmacun), covered in meat, cheese, or a mix of the two. We also found some tasty treats at the nearby bakery in Antayla including a delicious beef and onion stuffed flaky pasty (see excited photo below). One of the most surprising dishes we had was what the waiter described as “Turkish macaroni”. It was not something I would typically order but he urged us to so we did. It tasted a lot like toasted ravioli (if you’re from or have been to St. Louis, Missouri, you are very familiar with this) which is essentially deep fried pasta, then covered in a tomato sauce and yogurt. It was pretty good.

One of my favorite meals in Antalya was a small restaurant where the couple working spoke very little English. The woman was able to convey that we needed to come inside and look at the dishes they had prepared, select what we wanted, and then they would bring them to us. This type of set up is fun but can be quite dangerous for someone who likes to try a lot of foods. I kept pointing and they kept loading up plates and bowls. I even let Phil get a few dishes. The other notable thing about the restaurant were all of the jars of pickled vegtables they had stacked up. The dishes we had, usurprisingly, had a lot of pickled veg incorporated. It was all so delicious. We were way too full for dessert yet somehow ordered it anyway. It consisted of a Turkish flan-like dish and a crumbly cake with honey and cinnamon.

Antalya has way more to offer visitors than just delicious food, although that would be enough for me. For what we did (besides eat), stay tuned for more about our adventures in Antalya!

Adventures in Turkey: Pre-travel Worries and Confronting my Biases

After parting ways with my mother-in-law, Marie (read all about our adventures here), in Geneva, Phil and I flew to Turkey. Turkey is a place Phil has wanted to travel to for a long time but to be perfectly honest, I did not feel the same. I was apprehensive and a bit nervous about traveling to Turkey.

In texting with a couple of friends since being here, I said, “I’m not sure what I expected, but it wasn’t this.” That isn’t entirely true. I think deep down I did have some expectations and I think they were mostly tied to Turkey’s religion and geography, not that I know very much about either.

I know Turkey is an Islamic country, with 96-99% (depending on the survey) of people identifying as muslim. I have never traveled in a majority muslim country. I don’t know much about Islam, only some of the basic tennants and am familiar with western stereoptypes and (mis-)information.

Turkey shares a border with Iraq and Syria but it also shares a border with Greece and Bulgaria (and Armenia and Georgia, now we’ve covered them all) both of which are in the European Union. So while, it’s a good idea to stay away from the south-eastern border area, Turkey is a relatively safe travel destination.

So, what exactly was I nervous about? What was I expecting? If I answer with the first things that pop into my mind, in simplest terms, I thought: 1. I’m not going to be respected because I’m a woman. 2. I’m going to stick out as an American and that is a bad thing.

In researching our trip to Turkey, I read that because Antalya and Istanbul are big tourist hot spots, you can pretty much wear whatever you want and no one will look twice at you. Istanbul is the 13th largest city in the world (for comparison’s sake New York is 45th) for crissakes, no one cares what I’m wearing or look like. Did I think a group of radicals was waiting to disappear a big blonde American lady in her early 40’s for baring her shoulders in public? Did I think I would enter the spice bazaar and never come out? No. Of course not. Maybe? I don’t know.

Well, we’ve yet to visit Istabnul so TBD on the disappearing but so far so good. We have only visited Antalya which is a very international city and I have been amazed by the live and let live attitude here. Women in conservative muslim dress walking next to friends in shorts and tank tops (something one might see in Sourthern California, so why did it surprise me here?). Bars and restaurants serving alcohol are next to tea shops and restaurants that do not. A sex shop displaying their products in the window near a fancy dress shop offering very conservative options. Bridal shop after bridal shop (y’all, there are SO many bridal shops!) offering backless and sleeveless options alongside floor length, long sleeved ones. I was surprised when a muslim family asked me to take their picture while Phil and I were out and about as I was wearing a sundress that displayed a bit of cleavage. No one cares. Why should they? You do your thing, I’ll do mine. Let’s be cool with one another and mind our own business. In fact, Antalya feels much more tolerant than many US cities*.

*From what I have read, Turkey has a way to go with LGBTQIA rights and in fact due to shifting politics has taken a few steps backwards in terms of rights in recent years (the same could be said for the U.S.).

Much of what I expressed above sounds like it was written by a sheltered individual, ignorant of the world. It was. The more I travel, the more I realize how little I know about the world and other cultures and the more I want to keep traveling to experience them and gain some understanding. Yes, I was apprehensive but I came anyway. That’s a big part of travel; being [of course] excited but also a little nervous about being out of your comfort zone.

So, regarding the two fears I listed above, what has my experience been? Well, 1. Other than a taxi driver telling Phil that the people around him were all driving like women, I haven’t encountered any sexist sentiment, 2. I stand out here less than I did in Spain. There are all kinds of folks here, dressed in all kinds of ways with all kinds of body shapes and skin tones. Turks know I’m not Turkish when I don’t respond to them in Turkish when they speak to me but they don’t know I’m from the U.S. and if they ask where I’m from and I tell them the U.S., it’s always met with, “Oh, America!” in a friendly tone.

Since we’ve been here, Phil and I have attended two meetup groups (one was a spanish/english language exchange!) and met people from Iran, Mexico, Kasikstan, Denmark, France, Pakistan, and all over Russia (there’s quite a large Russian population here); Moscow, St. Petersburg, and Siberia. I mentioned that Antalya was a very international city and it also has an exciting and collaborative vibe to it. In some ways, I feel like I’m experiencing international travel for the first time here, in Turkey.

As I discussed in this blog post, the fact that I am very lucky indeed to be experiencing these adventures is not lost on me. The fact that I was born in a country that speaks the lingua franca and has one of the world’s most powerful passports that allows me to travel broadly is also not lost on me. I’m human, so there are still moments of frustration, laziness, and anxiety during this grand adventure but Phil and I make it a point to catch ourselves when we are in spectacular or sureal moments of our travel (like recently when we had an amazing meal on a terrace overlooking the Mediterranean Sea), gesture to our surroundings and acknowledge,”This is pretty amazing.” Turkey is pretty amazing.

I can’t wait to tell you all about our amazing adventures here in Antayla and Istanbul, so, stay tuned!

Covid, My Mother-in-Law, and Prosecco: Three Unforgettable Weeks in Italy

Phil and I have been lucky enough to have visited Italy three times previously. Our first trip was to Rome in 2004 which also happened to be my first trip to Europe and it was a magical experience. Then, a short fifteen years later, in 2019, we took a road trip up the Adriatic after beginning our trip in Raiano, in the Abruzzo region. Raiano is where Phil’s mother was born and where his grandparents were from. We were hosted by Phil’s mother’s cousin, Sandra and her family, including Phil’s great aunt, Fernanda, who is the sister of his late grandmother, Giovannina. We most recently traveled to Florence from Gijón this past September (which I wrote about here).

Italy is a wonderful country to visit. The people are friendly, the food is delicious, and the country is beautiful, not to mention the rich cultural and artistic history. I highly recommend anyone considering a trip there to rent a car if you can. Seeing the country and stopping in cities and towns a bit off the beaten path is not only fun but also typically less expensive than sticking exclusivity to big city tourist destinations. If you have a limited amount of time, of course see Rome, Florence, or Venice (in that order of importance, in my opinion). Full disclosure, I have never visited anywhere south of Rome so take my recommendation for what it’s worth. I guess that just means we’ll have to keep going back until we’ve explored the whole boot.

As mentioned, Phil’s mother, Marie, was born in Raiano. She left at age two with her mother and brother to join her father, Attilio, in Chicago where he had already been living for a couple of years. Marie had never been back to Italy. The fact that Phil and I were already in Europe and could join her there relatively easily seemed like the perfect recipe for her visit. Phil and Marie began discussing the possibility and before I knew it, Phil had a plan and a rough itinerary for the journey and the flight tickets were purchased. We were going back to Italy!

We would start in Rome. I loved Rome when we visited in 2004 (Oh geez…that was almost 20 years ago!) and was very excited for the opportunity to go back. Phil and I had five days to ourselves between parting ways with my aunt and cousin in Edinburgh and Marie’s arrival in Rome. Instead of trying to cram in another destination between trips, we decided to get to Rome early and decompress a bit. We chose a rental apartment in a neighborhood outside of the city center which was a 20ish minutes via train or cab away from the hustle and bustle.

As it turns out, we would need those five days to recuperate from covid. So instead of seeing the sites of Rome, we ate soup in bed and watched a lot of Netflix. Instead of staying in our rental with us, we booked Marie a hotel right across the street from the Vatican (she saw the pope her first day in Rome!). Phil was able to join her the day after she arrived and they toured the Vatican and St. Peter’s basilica together (Phil wrote about our time in Rome here). The following day, and our last day in Rome, I was able to join them for a tour of the Colosseum and Palatine Hill. We also revisited Trevi fountain (which was even more spectacular that I remembered) and the Pantheon.

I feel very lucky we had the extra days in Rome before Marie’s arrival that allowed us to recuperate and I am also glad I was well and able to see the Colosseum. It was the number one site I wanted to see on the trip. When Phil and I were in Rome all those years ago, it was the one major site we didn’t see. We tried to peak in from the outside but as it was the last day of our trip and we were poor twenty-somethings, we couldn’t afford the entry fee.

After Rome, we rented a car and drove to Pescara, a lovely city on the Adriatic Sea in the Abruzzo Region, about an hour’s drive from Raiano. Marie remembers her family talking about Pescara as a summer beach vacation getaway. We were there just before the busy season kicked off in Pescara which made for very affordable accommodations as well as a less congested time on the beach.

We stayed in a nice hotel right on the beach. We’ve come to realize our favorite hotels seem to be ones that are nice but about 20 years past their prime. Everything is clean and in good condition, but a bit faded. The service is typically quite good plus they often offer free, tasty breakfast buffets as a way of enticing guests. The Hotel Promenade fit the bill perfectly.

We enjoyed our first two days there so much, we decided to scrap our original plans and stay for two more days. We sunned on the beach and splashed in the (cold) ocean, enjoyed delicious seafood and local cuisine, drank a lot of Prosecco, and had a day trip to Raiano and Sulmona, home to the famous Italiana Confetti (delicious candy covered almonds). I was unfamiliar with these almonds until I met Phil and his family. They are a part of Italian tradition and are a staple guest takeaway of any good Italian wedding.

After bidding arrivederci to Pescara, we were off to Florence. On the way, we made a stop in Perugia, famous for their delicious chocolates (as well as the Amanda Knoxx/Merideth Kercher murder scandal as I was informed by Marie, who loves true crime stories). The chocolates are indeed quite delicious (and we neither witnessed nor were party to any crimes while there).

Next stop: Florence! Marie is a woman of many interests and in addition to true crime, she loves the Medici family (and the series about them on Netflix). The Medicis are a famous family who moved to Florence and became the most powerful and influential family in Tuscany for several hundred years. Florence was a must for Marie.

As I mentioned, Phil and I were just in Florence last September. We’ve jokingly been referencing the movie Something About Mary in relation to having a second trip to Florence so quickly after the last. In the movie, while lying about being an architect and where he’s designed buildings, Matt Dillon’s character asks, “Have you ever been to Santiago, Chile?” to which the Tucker character responds, “Twice last year.”

After Florence, we headed to the town of Rapallo on the Amalfi coast. But first, a quick stop in Pisa! Rapallo is very near to the famous city of Portofino. Rapallo more affordable and much less crowded than Portofino so it met our needs perfectly.

In Rapallo we stayed at a Best Western which may literally be The best Best Western. It was amazing. It felt like a fancy five star hotel (we broke our general rule of staying at the oldy but goody hotel). The staff were fabulous, the breakfast buffet was restaurant quality, and they had a spa. Not to mention that we had two balconies with sea views! While in Rapallo, Phil and I celebrated our 15th wedding anniversary. As an anniversary gift, I had a massage (my first since 2019) and a pedicure. It felt so luxurious.

Rapallo was beautiful with the sea and mountains surrounding it. A highlight of the trip was taking the funicular to the top of the mountain where we visited the beautiful hilltop church of Sanctuary of Our Lady of Montallegro. We also grabbed an Aperol Sprtiz (have I mentioned how much I deeply love Prosecco?) at a super cute boutique hotel-restaurant with sweeping views of the sea and town below.

We finished our whirlwind trip in Geneva. We stayed just over the boarder in Annemasse, France, a diverse, working lass suburb of Geneva (Phil and Marie took a day trip to Chambery France to visit her aunt which Phil will be writing about soon). Switzerland is the second most expensive country in the world (Bermuda is number one. Who knew?). An espresso which costs about €1.25-2.00 in most European cities, is 5.00 (actually 5 Swiss Francs but it has pretty much the same value as the Euro and in fact both Francs and Euros are routinely accepted in most business establishments in Geneva).

The two highlights of Geneva for me were the boat cruise we had on Lake Geneva and the amazing French Dinner we had at Côté Square Restaurant. It was expensive but totally worth it. You only live once and how often do I get to have a fancy French dinner in France er, well Geneva (which was once France)? Plus, it was absolutely delicious; in the top three best meals I have ever eaten.

We had such an amazing time on our trip. What I enjoyed most, even more than all of the lovely places, food, and even more than the Prosecco, was getting to know my mother-in-law. Phil and I have been together for 22 years. We have never lived close to his mother. We have of course visited Chicago and Marie visited us both in St. Louis and in Long Beach but we have never really had much one on one time. In fact, I was honestly a bit nervous about so much togetherness prior to our trip and three weeks is a long time and a LOT of togetherness. I’m happy to report there were no fights or really any disagreements. We laughed a lot and really enjoyed each other’s company. I couldn’t have asked for a better Italian getaway or better travel partners.

Next stop: Turkey! Stay tuned.

Adventures in Seville and Edinburgh: A Story in Photos

Our last Spanish city (for now) was Seville, and we arrived the evening we left Granada (Phil also wrote about our time in Granada here). My aunt Harriet and her daughter, my cousin, Hannah had arrived a bit earlier at our rental apartment in Seville and we were eager to meet up with them. Hannah visited us last year shortly after we arrived in Gijón but I had not seen my aunt Harriet since Christmas 2019 so I was very (very!) excited to see her. This was Harriet’s first trip to Europe so she was quite excited as well, and that made for a super fun and unforgettable trip!

The plan was to spend four days in Seville before flying to Edinburgh for another five days. Time continues to fly way too fast; as I type this from our current location in Antalya, Turkey, it has been three weeks and three countries since we parted ways with Harriet and Hannah. In an attempt to catch the blog up to real time, I am going to make a couple of shorter (mostly photo posts) of our recent travels, starting below. I hope you enjoy them all.

*Also, Phil wrote a really lovely piece reflecting on our year in Gijón here. Give it a read. You won’t be sorry you did.


(Click on the images above and below for descriptions)

Edinburgh (Phil wrote more about our Edinburgh here)

Stay tuned for more about our trip to Italy (with Phil’s Mom), France, Geneva and Turkey!

Exploring Granada

After leaving Frigiliana, Phil and I returned our rental car at the train station in Málaga and boarded the train for Granada. A short while later, we left our bags at our hotel and were off to explore the ancient city at the foot of the Sierra Nevada mountain range. There is also a Sierra Nevada mountain range in California. I assure you, it’s not the same one.

We loved Granada and really wished we would have allotted ourselves more time there. It is definitely a city we would visit again. My favorite area of the city was the old Muslim neighborhood of Albaicín with it’s thin, climbing, stone streets, teterias (tea houses), spice shops, restaurants, and many other merchants tucked closely to one another. It feels much more like a snapshot of Morocco than of anything else I’ve seen in Spain.

One of the things I took away from our month in Andalucía was how different the south of Spain is from the north; the people, the history, the food, and architecture. Of course they’re different. Same as anywhere (of course they’re different, same as anywhere?). What I mean is, if I spent a year in Rolla, Missouri, after that year, I’d have a decent insight into the people of Rolla, Missouri; the general character traits of the citizenry, the vernacular and idioms, and regional culinary specialties. Could I say I knew more about Americans? Well sure but had I spent that same year in Jackson, Mississippi, Boise, Idaho or Boston, Massachusetts; would I walk away with the same perception of Americans? Definitely not.

This afternoon in Granada was spent wandering around Albaicín, eating a tasty late lunch at the very cute and reasonably priced Ras Cafe Bar where we shared some of the best pâté and lamb I have ever eaten.

My favorite part of our visit to Granada was meeting up with our friend, Reyes, the following day. Reyes is the sister of our friend Diana, from Gijón, whom I’ve written about many times. We were lucky enough to get to know Reyes a bit during her visits to Gijón. She lives in Granada and let us know that when we visited, she would be happy to show us around. We had a full day together that started with a delicious lunch, the star of which was an amazing shrimp risotto (no photo because I could waste no time getting it into my mouth).

After lunch, we climbed our way through Albaicín, passed the shops of leather goods, beautiful Moroccan lamps, and teterias. We stopped at one shop selling loose leaf tea, spices, soap, and chocolate. It smelled amazing inside. I wanted to buy everything. When living out of a suitcase (that you have to haul around yourself) practicality dictates that accumulating things isn’t really an option. So, I bought a few super tasty dates and a dark chocolate bar with cinnamon knowing those items wouldn’t stick around long.

On we went with Reyes to the Mirador de San Nicolás, high above the city with gorgeous views of Granada below. Being a Sunday afternoon, there were many other folks at the mirador; families with picnic lunches, local teens drinking beer, kissing couples, and groups of friends enjoying the lovely afternoon.

After descending the mirador, we joined some of Reyes’s teacher friends (Reyes is a teacher at a local high school) for drinks on a rooftop bar. They were all very lovely and welcoming. We left with a few other suggestions of spots to check out from Reyes and plans to meet for breakfast on Tuesday.

When we woke up the following morning, we headed out to find a teteria in Albaicín. I really wanted to have tea and sweets for breakfast. When peeking into the tea shops the day before, I noticed delicious looking layered, filo pastries. These types of pastries are my very favorite, typically consisting of layers of filo dough, nuts, and honey among other ingredients. Baklava is probably the most popular (in the west anyway). When we lived in southern California, I was lucky enough to try many of these delicious little gems at the local Greek Orthodox church’s annual festival in Long Beach. I also had an Armenian co-worker who brought in two huge boxes of various tiny filo pastries around Christmas. She also used to make the BEST Armenian coffee that I actually still think about sometimes, but I digress.

Luckily, we had slept in because it became apparent as we went in search of a teteria that they were not breakfast spots. In fact we entered one and were told to come back later because they weren’t open yet. We did find our spot, Teteria Diwan, shortly thereafter and ordered up a small pot of tea each. Phil had a black tea with ginger and clove and I selected one with cardamom and cinnamon. We both drank the tea with milk and a little sugar, something we don’t do at home (we drink our tea straight up) but we both agreed adding just a bit seemed to really amplify the flavors. We shared a couple of small pastries and enjoyed them so much, we ordered two more. Our waiter/tea maker seemed to be pleased by my love of the pastries as after we’d paid, he gave us one more on the house to try. Everything was delicious and we really enjoyed our time there.

After our tea and treats, we again headed up, up, through the Albaicín toward the Gypsy (or Roma) neighborhood of Sacromonte (holy mountain). Reyes had recommended we visit the area, in particular the casas de cuevas (cave homes). We went to the Museo Cuevas del Sacromonte where I learned so much about the history of Gypsies, Gypsies in Granada, and of Flamenco dancing.

The Gypsies (Gitanos as they’re called in Spanish) were considered outcasts and made their homes high in the hills on the outskirs of town. They welcomed into their community other marginalized groups such as Islamic Moors and Jews who refused to convert to Christianity (and refused to leave the country) following the reconquista. The mountains surrounding Granada are made of relatively soft stone so the Gitanos carved their cave homes into the mountains and whitewashed them. They had separate caves for sleeping, cooking, working, and for livestock.

Both Gypsy and Gitano come from the word Egypt. Europeans thought these nomadic peoples came from Egypt though now we know they migrated from India. The first Gitanos came to Granada in the 15th century. Spain passed many anti-Gitano laws over the years including banning traditional language and dress. In the 1950’s around 3,600 people lived in the cave homes of Sacramonte. In 1963 major flooding forced most Gitanos from their cave homes, then Spanish government forbade them to rebuild. Today, a few cave homes remain and around 50,000 Gitanos continue to call the neighborhood of Sacromonte home.

The roots of Flamenco dancing in Spain, while a bit mysterious, are believed to have originated with the Gitanos. In the summer, some bars located in former Sacromonte cave homes, host Flamenco shows and musical concerts.

On our final day in Granada, we had breakfast with Reyes and then toured the famous Islamic palace and fortress of Alhambra. Alhambra is huge and consists of many different buildings and garden areas. In addition to exploring the grounds, we visited Nasrid Palace and the Generalife (hen-er-al-leaf-ay). The Generalife served as a leisure palace for the Kings of Granada when they wanted to get away from the stressors of Nasrid Palace. “This palace is too darn palatial and beautiful. I wish I could get away to a palace or something but like another palace that I can see from my main palace.” #palaceproblems

Nasrid Palace requires an appointment while the rest of Alhambra can be explored at your leisure (with a ticket, of course). We finished the day by boarding the train to Seville where we were to meet up with my cousin and aunt. Leaving Granada too soon but excited for the next adventure.

Frigiliana: Pueblo Blanco in the Mountains

After leaving Málaga, Phil and I headed 45 minutes westward to the mountain village of Frigiliana. Because it was Semana Santa or Holy Week, accommodations almost everywhere in Andalusia were quite expensive. Andalusia is a very popular destination for Spanish and international tourists alike, especially during Holy Week. It’s essentially the national spring break for the country as schools are closed for the entire week and many families vacation during this time. Because of this, it was cheaper for us to rent a car and stay in a smaller town than securing accommodations in a larger city. I am so happy it worked out this way for us!

As I mentioned in my last post, Málaga was very crowded when we were there so the chance to take it easy in a small mountain town definitely appealed to us. Frigiliana has its fair share of tourists but most are day trippers; plus it has a more-spread-out, less sardine-in-a-can feeling than a big city. Our rental is on a quiet edge of town, overlooking the Sierras of Tejeda, Almijara and Alhama Natural Park.

Frigiliana is a Pueblo Blanco (white village) named for the whitewashed buildings that make up the town, which is done to keep the interiors of the buildings cool in the hot Andalusian summers. There are 19 Pueblos Blancos in Andalusia. At one time they served as a border of sorts between the Christian Kings in the North and the Moorish kingdom in the south. The villages are mostly in the mountains (once serving as fortresses), with small, winding streets and the whitewashed buildings, typical of these Iberian Moorish villages in the Middle Ages. Frigiliana has been named as Spain’s “Most Beautiful and Well-preserved Village”on multiple occasions.

The town consists mostly of eateries and tourist shops. A fellow named Paco owns a small grocery store and fruteria near our rental. He doesn’t speak any English, which is somewhat unusual for the more touristic south. It works out well for us as we can practice our Spanish with him. He tells me my Spanish is good, which is nice of him.

We always lead with Spanish in any interaction (we are in Spain, after all) but 90% of the time here in the south, the person responds in English because they are used to dealing with English-only speaking tourists. In fact, we went to an Indian restaurant here in Frigiliana and the waitress was Irish (the chef was Indian). She not only spoke English to us but also to the Spanish family who came in, only one member of which could speak English. She then complimented the woman on her English when she had to order for the whole family!

We took a quick day trip to the town of Ronda, another Pueblo Blanco, famous for their large Puente Nuevo (new bridge) connecting the town via two giant cliffs. The “new” bridge was built in 1793. The town also has a very cool Roman bridge that we passed on our walk up, into the town.

We’ve taken advantage of all Frigiliana has to offer including beautiful hikes into the Sierras of Tejeda, Almijara and Alhama Natural Park. The first time we went, we set out to do a 3.5 mile loop. We missed the sign for our trail, however, so ended up just walking out a bit and back, though it was still nice to be out in the sunshine and nature. The weather here thus far has been a lot like Southern California; mostly sunny, no humidity, not too hot or too cold. I didn’t realize how much I had missed that.

The second time we set out to do our loop, we made sure to take the correct turn. There was a couple behind us (to make this easy, I’m going to call them Blue Shirt and Makeup) ascending the hill and we stepped aside and let them pass. After a few minutes, we continued on. Pretty soon, we encountered Blue Shirt and Makeup heading back down. They asked us if we’d taken the route before because up ahead the trail suddenly stopped. We said we had not and thought to ourselves that sounded odd but it was definitely within the realm of possibility that we had once again taken a wrong turn or path or that something had obstructed the route. We turned around as well and started heading down, directly in front of Blue Shirt and Makeup, when we met yet another couple (I’ll call them Fit Gal and Cargo Shorts). Phil asked if they had hiked the trail before to which Fit Gal replied they had not but were following a map for the loop path. I explained that Blue Shirt and Makeup had been following the trail up when it suddenly stopped. Makeup then added,”Well, it doesn’t stop but you can’t go forward without climbing,” a bit of information she had initially omitted. Fit Gal said “Yes, that’s the idea,” to which Cargo Shorts responded “Hey, you didn’t tell me that!” and they both continued up the hill. Phil and I looked at each other, deciding on how we wanted to proceed. Makeup said something like, “Trust me, you don’t want to go that way” and her and Blue Shirt continued down.

Up, up, up

We decided to follow Fit Gal and Cargo Shorts and check out the situation for ourselves. We figured we could always go back if the trail became too treacherous but at this point we were curious about this “climbing” portion of the trail. While we did encounter some steep, rocky areas (we were walking up a damn mountain after all), there was nothing super dangerous or that required any gear other than our two feet and shoes. We stopped a few times for breathers, leap frogging with Fit Gal and Cargo Shorts, and were quite proud of ourselves when we reached the top of the mountain, huffing and puffing as Fit Gal zoomed passed us in her trail running shoes toward the highest peak. It offered spectacular views of Frigiliana as well as Nerja, the coastal town below. We enjoyed it so much, we went back for a second round a couple of days later.

The only day trip we’ve taken during our two weeks here, other than to Ronda, was to the beach town of Nerja that lies below Frigiliana. Before arriving, we had grand plans of day tripping all over Andalusia; Cordoba, Cadiz, maybe a Morrocan tour day. We ended up deciding that we can’t see it all no matter how much we try to cram in. We are also preparing for a pretty intense travel schedule over the next month. For us, it made more sense to unwind in a relaxed, natural setting to recharge our batteries a bit before visiting city after city over the next few weeks.

View of Nerja from Frigiliana

So what’s on the agenda for the next month? Well, we’ll be heading to Granada in a couple of days followed by Seville where we will be joined by my cousin and aunt (yay!). From there, we will travel to Edinburgh, Scotland. We’ll part ways with my family there and fly on to Rome. A few days later, Phil’s mom will join us. Phil’s mother, Marie, was born in Italy (we visited her home town in 2019) but hasn’t returned since she left at age 2. We’re excited to spend most of May traveling through Italy and then into France and Switzerland with her, taking in sites and visiting family. We have a few more travel locations in mind before returning to the States so stay tuned. Our next chosen destinations may surprise you.

First stop in Andalusia: Málaga

Phil and I left Gijón on April 1st and headed for Andalusia. Our plan for sometime has been to spend the month of April here in the south of Spain exploring Andalusia. We have never been to the south in any previous travels and it offers cultural experiences unique to the region.

The Moorish influence is seen in the south much more than in the North; in the architecture, mosques, mosaics, and even the food. In fact, Asturias is the only region of Spain that the Moors did not conquer. Some consider The Battle (and victory over the Moors) of Covadonga, led by Asturian king, Don Pelayo, as the beginning of the reconquista (or reconquest) of Spain from the Moors.

We’re excited to experience Andalusian culture during our month here in addition to the unique features of each city we stay in. Currently, we are in Málaga, on the Costa del Sol (Coast of the Sun) of the Mediterranean Sea. Málaga’s history spans almost 3,000 years and is considered to be one of the oldest, continuously inhabited cities in the world.

We’re staying in old town Málaga, which luckily means we are near a lot of the historic and cultural tourist attractions and also, unfortunately, means we are near a lot of the historic and cultural tourist attractions. We love taking in cultural sites but really dislike the crowds and hubub of major cities. But wait, Jess. Didn’t you live in Los Angeles*? I know. I know. But LA is spread out. European cities are not.

If money were no object and we could always travel exactly as we want to, we would stay in a small town near the big city and take a cab to and fro in addition to renting a car and exploring the countryside. Driving and parking in a big city can be expensive and frustrating and often, public transportation may not be an option to take to small, country towns. *This is actually quite a lot like Los Angeles (and why we lived in Long Beach).

Money, is an object (what does that saying even mean?), however, so we are staying in the city center which allows us to walk to almost all attractions we want to see and also provides easy access to public transportation for things that may lie on the outskirts of town.

Málaga has a lot to offer. Sixteen museums/historic/cultural attractions just within walking distance (this may vary depending on what you consider to be walking distance) of our Airbnb. We have decided since we are going to be doing a lot of traveling in the coming months, we would give ourselves at least the first day in any new location to do absolutely nothing and feel ok about it. Since we aren’t going to have a home base for quite a while, we need to give ourselves some down time as if we are in our home. No one can maintain a vacation-level travel itinerary for months without suffering extreme burn out. We don’t want to burn out. We want to enjoy our lives. We don’t have to hurry and we don’t have to see everything that any one destination has to offer.

So, our first day in Málaga, we didn’t do a darn thing except go to the grocery store right next door to our apartment. The next day, we slept in and decided to go out exploring around lunch time. We walked through the super busy and touristy old town dining area, passed some places our airbnb hosts had recommended (they were all packed).

We happened down a little, narrow street and onto a place called Restaurante La Valiente Málaga. It was totally dead inside but super cute and a quick Google search revealed good reviews. The waiter was nice and the menu selection was good. We chose to split a dish of Migas (stale bread crumbs, seasoned and cooked in oil) topped with [ethical] foie gras. A pair of Spanish farmers are producing foie gras without the standard practice of force-feeding the animals. The menu detailed this and our waiter informed us as well(I even found an NPR article about it). We also enjoyed a dish of ravioli stuffed with pork, ricotta, and parmesan in a white wine, saffron, and parmesan sauce. It was amazing and tasted like very fancy mac-n-cheese. We finished by sharing a postre of layered short-bread cookies with mascarpone cheese, sherry wine cream, and candied figs. It was a-mazing. Rich and not too sweet. Everything was really delicious and quite reasonably priced.

After lunch, we decided a nice, long walk was in order so we headed toward the beach. It was a little chilly and a lot windy but the sun was shining so off we went. There is quite a large park, Parque de Málaga, that runs parallel to the beach. It’s a large, 33 hectare green space that includes gardens, fountains, and sculptures.

After exiting the park, we continued along the beach. In the weeks before our arrival, Málaga had experienced the worst train storms they’ve seen in 50 years. Most of the buildings are covered with a reddish-orange film of sand because of this. Some of the beach front looks a bit disheveled as well. Many of the chiringuitos (beach bars) that line the water have been in a rush to repair and rebuild from the damage. We saw many chiringuitos open for business and a few closed and others hurriedly making repairs in preparation for Semana Santa (holy week) that attracts many tourists from throughout Spain and the world.

After walking along the beach, we took a path a bit in and up toward a lookout point. El parque forestal de El Morlaco is a large, hilly park that felt like a forest within the city. There were several dog parks within the larger park and I always love seeing dogs so, bonus!

After our walk, we decided to check out the CAC (Contemporary Art Center) Málaga. We really enjoyed their collection. I’ve shared a few of my favorites below.

The next day, we decided to check out Alcazaba. The name of this fortress-palace means citadel in Arabic. It was built between 1057-1063. Below the citadel sit remnants of a Roman theater dating back to the first century BC. Some of the Roman era materials were reused by the Moors in their construction of Alcazaba. Alcazaba is connected, via a walled corridor, to the castle of Gibralfaro; which sits even higher on the hill, overlooking the city. The site dates back to the Phoenicians around 770 BC and was fortified by Calif Abd-al-Rahman III in 929.

One can purchase entrance to Alcazaba for 3.50 or entrance to both Alzacaba and Gibralfara for 5.50 so we opted for the two-fer. Alcazaba is incredibly well preserved and huge. It was easy to get a bit turned around walking through. It was crowded but very worth the nominal entrance fee.

Image courtesy of Wikipedia

Although the two fortresses are connected, the public must access the sites separately. Gibralfaro is quite a climb so we opted to head back to the apartment for lunch and see it later in the day.

We returned, re-fueled and ready to climb; and climb we did. Up, up, up to the castle ruins. Sturdy ramparts are all that are left of the castle but one can climb and walk along them and check out the great views of the city, and the plaza del toros.

There is a Parador (private/public hotel chain in historic Spanish buildings) near the castle. I’ve written before that whenever Phil and I are in a city with a Parador, we like to go have a coffee there. The coffee did not disappoint and the large patio off of the hotel offered a nice spot to take a rest.

The next day, we were off to visit the Russian Museum of Málaga, the first Russian state museum in Western Europe. The museum’s collection is comprised of selections from the Russian state Museum in St. Petersburg and is renewed every year. The space also hosts temporary exhibits. We were lucky to see the exhibit War and Peace in Russian Art. The exhibit has been on display since before the war in Ukraine began but felt particularly poignant because of it. Russia has a long history of war. The exhibit certainly does not glorify war but depicts the toll on individuals, families, and society. It also depicts the joy and relief experienced in times of peace.

Siberian partisans by Yury Khrzhanovsky 1927

After our long walk to and from the Russian Museum, we decided to head to a wine cellar, named El Pimpi, to see if we could get a table. El Pimpi has been in business for over 40 years and is beloved by Malagueños and tourists alike. In fact, one of the most famous Malagueños, Antonio Banderas, became a shareholder in the bar in 2017. The owner of our apartment informed us that when Antonio Banderas is in town, it is very common for him to have a drink in the bar and talk with folks. He also told us he is very involved in Semana Santa, so we had reason to believe he was, in fact, in town.

As we entered, a large group of tourists were exiting, snapping photos of the photos of famous people on the wall. There happened to be two empty seats at the bar, which we jumped on. We figured the bar suited our needs just fine as we only wanted a couple of drinks and a snack. We had tried unsuccessfully, early in the day to get a dinner reservation. The bar was definitely the way to go and we enjoyed our spot perched near the entrance and the bar tender. We noshed on the absolute best croquettes I have ever had. Grandma’s stew croquettes they were called and they did in fact taste like a delicious stew of roast pork with onion, carrot, potato, and spices had been simmering on the stove for hours, then breaded and deep fried. We also tried the local dish of berenjas fritas con miel which is fried eggplant served with dark honey. They were also delicious. We finished everything with a coppa of the local sweet, red wine of Málaga that is taken after meals as a digestif. Everything was delicious. No sign of Antonio though.

The next morning I got up a bit early (well, earlier than usual) to go down to the nearby bakery and grab a slice of cake for the birthday boy! Carrot cake is one of Phil’s favorites (red velvet is his very favorite, FYI just in case you are ever in a position in which this information could save your life) so I grabbed one plus a slice of chocolate because it’s nice to have choices.

I called and made a reservation for us at Restaurante Gabi, a beach-side chiringuito, that our airbnb hosts had recommended to us. It was a beautiful, sunny day so we decided to walk the hour and half down the beach to the restaurant, as opposed to taking the bus. On the way, we passed many beach front homes and bars along the paseo maritimo that reminded me of the area near Manhattan Beach and Hermosa Beach in Los Angeles County that the locals call “the strand.”

We were tired and very hungry when we finally arrived at Gabi. It was well worth the wait. The waiter provided excellent recommendations. We dined on prawns, salad, and the fried eggplant with honey dish we had the night before. A large sea-bream cooked on an open grill was the star of the show. Almost all of the chiringuiots we passed have large, outdoor grills made out of old, metal boats. It is cool to watch the fish being prepared near the open flame, plus the wood-fire and cooking fish smell amazing.

We took our time on the long walk back, stopping for a drink and then again along the paseo to sit and look at the beach. Some cat friends joined us, louning in the sun.

We wrapped up the day with gelato in old town. I had the best pistachio gelato I have ever had. On our recent trip to San Sebastian with my family, I had tasted what up until this point had been the best pistachio gelato I had ever had. I really hope (and plan to do my absolute best to ensure that) this trend continues during the remainder of our travels. Stay tuned for more from our next stop in Andalusia, Frigiliana!

Be sure to check out Phil’s blog about our travels here!

Adventures in Asturias, Basque Country, and Castile : A story in photos

Hi there! It’s been a while since I’ve posted anything and that’s because Phil and I have had a very busy month. A good kind of busy. My aunt, uncle, and cousin visited us in Asturias, then we traveled with them to San Sebastian and on their way back to the Madrid airport, they dropped us in Burgos!

I am writing this post from Andalusia. Phil and I said farewell to our beloved Gijón yesterday, our home for the past year. We’ll be traveling around Andalusia for the next month and I will be sure to tell you all about our adventures. For now, enjoy the photos and a few quick stories from our recent travels below. Phil wrote in detail about San Sebastián here and here and Burgos here. Enjoy!

The Woffords arrive! Aunt Sara, Uncle Mark, and Cousin Madison

On our way to Lugo to see the Roman wall (I wrote about Lugo previously), we stopped at Castro de Cabo Blanco and took in the beauty of the Cantabrian Sea.

While in Lugo, we went to the same restaurant for pulpo gallega (Galician octopus) that Phil and I had visited on our trip there. When speaking to the waiter, I thought he said he would bring enough pulpo for three people. There were four of us but as we weren’t sure if everyone would like it so enough for three people sounded sufficient. We could always order more, if needed. Welllllllll, Sara and Mark did not care for it (we ordered some steak and fries, so they did not go hungry) and Madison and I attempted to tackle the mountain of pulpo on our own. Pulpo is very high in protein and very filling.

We did our best, to the point of being uncomfortably full, but ended up leaving a bit of pulpo. Asking for a doggy bag isn’t really a thing here in Spain and leaving too much food is considered rude. When the waiter collected our dishes, I let him know the pulpo was quite good, “Que rico” and he motioned to the remaining pieces with disapproval. We discovered when he brought the check that instead of pulpo for 3 people, we’d been given 3 orders of pulpo! One order had been more than enough for Phil and I.

The next day we headed to Covadonga and Cagnis de Onis. Phil and I had visited once before but they were definitely worth a re-visit.

A few from our last day together in Gijón:

Next stop: San Sebastián!

On our way!

Pinchos (or pintxos in Euskara, the Basque language) are small portions of food, typically in the style of an open-faced sandwich, served with wooden cocktail sticks. At least, this is what they are in Basque country and some other areas of northern Spain. In Asturias, pinchos refer to small sandwiches eaten as a snack or for breakfast and they also refer to small plates of gratis food served with drinks i.e. olives, potato chips, nuts, or sometimes stuffed buns or tiny sandwiches.

I love Basque-style pinchos. They may be my favorite thing to eat in Spain. It is so fun to look at the selection offered (usually under glass at the bar) and pick and choose what looks tastiest. San Sebastian is known for their food. It is some of the best in Spain. The food was indeed good. I was very surprised, however, at how good the food in Burgos was. They also offered pinchos. So. Many. Pinchos! I felt their quality and variety most definitely rivaled what we’d had in San Sebastian.

Stay tuned for more travel adventures coming your way!

Antroxu for Me and You!

A few weeks ago Phil and I started seeing posters around town with the word Antroxu and a guy in a rainbow unicorn costume on it (see below) and we figured it was some kid-focused carnival. We didn’t think twice about it until some friends from our meetup group started discussing the regional happenings for Carnaval. Carnaval is essentially the same thing as Mardi Gras, both of which are the celebration period before the Catholic fasting season of Lent which begins on Ash Wednesday and ends on Easter Sunday.

Our friends shared a link of Asturian happenings for Carnaval and we realized that Antroxu was Carnaval. Antroxu is Asturian (not Spanish) for Carnaval (Xixón is Asturian for Gijón). Let me tell you, Antroxu is big in Asturias, with many towns hosting grand celebrations with costumes, bands, parades, and music. The official holiday (a for real, you don’t have to go to work holiday) of Antroxu is the day before Ash Wednesday, the same day that is typically referred to as “Fat Tuesday” in the U.S. However, the celebration, as the poster indicates, lasts for several days.

The unofficial start of Antroxu is on February 24th with Les Comadres. Les Comadres is a huge ladies night and is an Asturian tradition that is not celebrated in Spain at large. The origins date back to Roman festivities that celebrated married women during the month of March and was the only time of year that women had the same rights as men. Women of all ages go out for a night of traditional foods and sidra with [lady]family and friends. The night might even include entertainment by a male stripper! During the Spanish dictatorship, Comadres was frowned upon, so women hosted celebrations in their private homes. Since the early 80’s, Comadres has once again been celebrated in siderias and restaurants throughout the region. Our profesora Lupe informed us that she has a group of six women that she celebrates with every year. How fun!

Photo from local newspaper El Comercio of a past Comadres celebration in Gijón

We decided we would celebrate Antroxu by attending the annual parades in both Gijón and the nearby town of Avilés. The Avilés celebration takes place the Saturday before Lent and is famous for their large foam cannons (huge cannons that shoot soap suds) that they use to fill the streets with “la foma”. We even saw a video from a prior year’s celebration of folks kayaking down the streets in the foam!

We met up with our friend, Utkarsh, at the bus station and followed the costumes toward the action. Two large stages had been erected in one of the town’s main plazas and metal barricades set up on the pedestrian-only street marking the parade route. We grabbed a table at a cafe along the parade route and settled in. Just after we ordered a second beer, however, the waitress informed us that we would need to move as in five minutes, la foma would be covering the streets. We watched as her and her co-worker hurriedly stacked the outdoor tables and chairs and we hurriedly chugged the beers we’d just ordered. Excitedly we put on the plastic ponchos we’d purchased for the occasion.

We stood along the street in front of the cafe and saw them wheel out a foam cannon and cheered as it started spraying. Little children and teenagers led the charge into the stream of foam. After about thirty seconds, however, the foam stopped. Confused, we waited ten minutes and again, the cannon had a short burst of foam and stopped. After this happened 2-3 times we decided to walk around the corner of the plaza to see what was happening. We saw another cannon doing the same, sporadic bursts. This was about half an hour after the parade was to have started and we wondered, “Is this it”?

Then we decided to grab a beer at one of the restaurants that had tables set up in front of the stages on the plaza. We figured whatever was going to be happening on the stages, we now had a front row spot to check it out. Eventually, an hour or so later, we saw a few floats go past. The foam was getting fuller in the streets as well but by that time, I’d lost my desire to play in it. It was dark and cold and the idea of being wet and cold did not appeal to me.

We enjoyed our beers and a couple of pizzas as we took in the costumes of the passers by from our vantage point in the plaza. At 10pm, we realized that nothing would be happening on the stages until 12:30 and decided to call it an early night, figuring we had Monday in Gijón to make up for it. As we made our way to the bus station, we saw loads of teens and twenty somethings with bags upon bags of ice and bottles of hard liquor heading toward the plaza. Utkarsh explained that they were preparing for a Botellón, which is a gathering of young folks drinking in the streets.

On Monday, Utkarsh joined us for lunch at one of our favorite spots in Gijón, Bistro 21. Utkarsh had met us there for lunch once before and fell in love with their pistachio tiramisu (it is truly amazing) and called to ensure they would have the desert on the day we went. They did along with some other delicious dishes including a goat cheese pastry with tomato jam, salad of chicken and avocado, and pork with pear chutney for the first course offering and Greek musaka and cod with a saffron aioli for the second.

After lunch we took a long walk before returning to our place to relax a bit and get ready for the parade. Our friend Diana, and her daughter, Diana, met us at 7pm and we headed out. We weren’t sure what to expect after having been a bit disappointed by the events in Avilés.

As we neared the parade route, we heard loud and lively snare drum beats. The parade in Gijón doesn’t have large floats but consists of several (twelve this year) groups of charangas. A Charanga is a group of drummers and dancers who perform a routine based on a theme of their choosing. The charangas work together to develop the theme and routine throughout the year in anticipation of the performance. Families often perform in the same charangas year after year and is a tradition passed down through generations. Awards are given based on performance with the top finishers receiving prize money.

In addition to the charangas, there were also other groups without drums and dancing who walked along the parade route with small carrozas (floats). These carroza groups also had a chosen theme and are awarded prizes based on presentation and performance.

The charangas all gave wonderful performances. We danced and drank beer on the sidewalk while enjoying each performance and happily awaiting the next. The vibe in the streets was a joyous and celebratory one. As the last performers passed by, everyone along the parade route filled in the street and followed the parade, dancing and laughing all the way.

The following afternoon, we joined some friends for a typical menu de Antroxu that consisted of traditional Asturian foods; pote (Asturian strew of smokey meats, beans, and greens) and picadillo (ground chorizo often served with friend potatoes and eggs and sometimes fired corn cakes). We of course paired the meal with sidra (Asturian hard cider).

As we were walking our friends home after lunch, we passed all of the charanga groups who were gathered in Plaza de Jovellanos. They appeared to be practicing and waiting around for something. We bid adieu, or more precisely, we bid hasta luego, to our friends and decided to stick around and find out what was happening. After a while, the charangas began taking off, one by one, making their way up the calle toward Plaza Begoña as they performed. We were witnessing parade round two it seemed and I was all about it! Each charanga made their way toward the stage that had been erected in the plaza and then dissipated into the crowd.

We made our way toward the stage and saw her, La Sardina. Entierro de La Sardina (the Burial of the Sardine) takes place on Antroxu, the day before Ash Wednesday. While Wikipedia provides this explanation for the ceremony, we were told by several native Spaniards that it is a joke referring to Lent. They explained that because during Lent, Catholics don’t eat meat on Fridays but fish, the sardine is being buried to suggest that if all the fish are buried, then they can eat all the meat they please.

In addition to large sardine lying in state, there were mourners dressed in black on the stage as well as many older women in the crowd, dressed all in black, often with veils on. As I snapped a few photos of La Sardina, they began announcing the carrozas and charangas winners. Our friend Luis was in one of the charangas, named Perdíos de los Nervios (madly nervous) which won fourth place. Their theme was fortune tellers and their costumes were really cool with each non drummer wearing a desk with a crystal ball and a computer with webcam (for modern day fortune telling).

Perdíos de los Nervios

I am so glad we decided to participate in the Antroxu festivities. Being in a new country and having new cultural experiences has been very exciting. It has certainly led us out of our comfort zone at times and encouraged us to do things we may not normally do. When we return to the U.S. one of the lessons I will take with me from our experience is to get out and attend local events and celebrations. Typically, going to the town apple festival or the city’s Thanksgiving parade would not appeal to us: too many people, too many kids, too much going on. But why not? If we go once and hate it, we won’t go back but I shouldn’t assume it’s going to be a bad time if I have never experienced it. Attending those little (or big) local celebrations are experiencing culture too. My culture, the culture of my neighbors, the culture of my community and fellow Americans. You don’t have to live in an exotic location or foreign land to learn about people, who on the surface anyway, may be different than you are.