Tag Archives: Spain

Europe 2013: Gijón, Spain

Gijon SpainI had never heard of Gijón, the Big Apple of Spain, until I read an article in American Way magazine, an American Airlines in-flight publication. Curious about the former fishing village, known for its cider, we decided to check out the port city. We woke to a gray day with storm clouds hovering low and threatening. Drizzle chased us from Suances to Gijón as we motored along the Bay of Biscay, but as we entered the town, the sun peeked through the clouds.

Playa de San Lorenzo

Playa de San Lorenzo

We began our exploration with a walk along the waterfront. Playa de San Lorenzo is a beautiful, crescent-shaped, golden-colored beach and has a five-thousand-foot-long promenade that stretches along the water. Parts of the coastline are rocky, and areas do have strong currents as well as big waves, but we had no plans to swim or sunbathe, merely to take in the scenery.

Gijón marina by the promenade

Gijón Marina by the Promenade

At the end of the promenade, we retraced a path to San Pedro Church, which is located at the foot of the original village Cimadevilla, the oldest part of Gijón. The style is Romanesque Asturian, typical of the architecture seen throughout the Cantabrian seaboard. Unfortunately, the church was locked, so we began the steep climb through the narrow cobblestoned street to Cerro de Santa Catalina, a park at the tip of Cimadevilla’s peninsula, to see the stunning coastal views. On our way down, we came across the ruins of an old Roman settlement and baths. We explored them, then toured the city square, before our thoughts turned to lunch and fabada asturiana. Fabada is a rich Spanish bean stew, a hot and heavy dish best served for lunch and best eaten on a day like that one: chilly and rainy. Ours was served with crusty bread and a glass of Asturian cider. For dessert, we purchased turrón at a nearby bakery to nibble on during the drive back to Suances. Turrón is either duro (hard) and crunchy, or blando (soft) and chewy. The candy is made from toasted Marcona almonds, sugar, honey, and egg white.


 

San Pedro Church in Gijón

San Pedro Church in Gijón

I knew from experience that the Spanish eat dinner much later than we do in the US, so we had made reservations at Restaurante La Dársena for nine. Even then, we had the restaurant to ourselves until the stroke of ten. When we arrived the maître d’ gave us a quizzical stare, as though he was stunned to see anyone looking for a table at this early hour. After some scurrying around, we were shown to our table with a view of the marina. Our server informed us he was Argentinian and had recently relocated to Spain. When it came time to order, we couldn’t understand him and he couldn’t understand us despite our Spanish, which is pretty good. Suddenly, he threw his arms into the air in exasperation and walked off. Not the best start to a meal, but he soon returned with a platter of raw fish. He pointed and we nodded or shook our heads. He understood “broiled” and looked rather pleased with himself as he walked away to fill our wine order.

San Pedro Church in Gijón and Author Pat Krapf

Me at San Pedro Church in Gijón

The incident reminded us of another dining experience. We were at a small family restaurant in Croatia, and the lunch menus weren’t in English. We asked for help, but our server just nodded to anything we said. Not very hungry, we ordered three starters—at least that’s what we thought. When the meal came, we were dismayed to see three main courses. Before we touched the food, we asked to see the owner. We explained our mistake and told him we would pay for the third meal, but could he please take one back. He simply nodded and whisked away the beef stew, which he handed to a man behind the counter. The man took a seat at a nearby table and proceeded to eat it. The check came and the owner had removed the dish from the bill. However, we included the cost of the stew in our bill, paid it, and gave our server a good tip. As we were leaving, the owner said in perfect English, “I hope you enjoyed your meals, and please come again.”

At La Dársena our wine arrived, and twenty minutes later our meal came. Oh no, I thought. Déjà vu. No way could we eat all of this seafood, one large and two small platters of fish and shellfish. But we did. And other than a loaf of crusty bread, that’s all we had for dinner, and every bite was broiled to perfection. Fish, bread, and wine: a fine meal indeed.

Next week: “Europe 2013: The Guggenheim – Bilbao, Spain.”

Europe 2013: Suances, Spain

Santander SpainSunday morning I stood on the balcony of our room at the Altis Avenida Hotel in Lisbon and watched people pour from the underground metro. Across the street policemen gathered. Curious, I glanced up and down the avenue. More officers hiked the gradual grade and lingered at the corner to converse. I wondered if Portugal’s terror alert level had shifted higher after the murder of Lee Rigby in London. As more officers and then men in military uniforms began to gather en masse, I moved to the balcony off our bathroom, which had a better view of the street that ran in front of our hotel. Now, military personnel flanked both sides of the avenue and stood in the median strip. Erring on the safe side, I told Dave, then called the front desk. The woman on duty said it was an annual military event but didn’t say of what kind. She seemed nonplussed, so I thanked her and hung up but kept a watchful eye until we had packed and were ready to leave for the airport. We had a plane to catch to Santander, via Madrid.

Security at the Lisbon Portela Airport was tight, but all of Europe was on heightened alert, the TAP agent at the terminal informed us, especially after the murder of Lee Rigby and the stabbing of the French soldier Cédric Cordier. Her comment came as a surprise, as we hadn’t heard or read about this latest incident. We boarded, and the hour-and-fifteen-minute flight went fast. From Madrid we flew to Santander, a short fifty-five-minute ride, then rented a car for our three-day stay in Suances, which is on the central coast in the province of Cantabria. I had questioned Dave about visiting this part of northern Spain, as I had heard it can be cold, wet, and somewhat dreary in May, but his mind was made up. Since I had never been disappointed with his travel choices, I went along. And as I’ve stated in an earlier blog post, growing up overseas had taught me from a young age to simply go with the flow. Well, my “flow” was about to be put to the test…in a minor way.

Suances SpainRain followed us on our drive from Santander to Suances, and we never saw the sun again that day. As we closed in on afternoon, the temperature began to fall, and a cold breeze snaked its way into the car. Thankfully, the antibiotics had knocked out our colds, so I wasn’t concerned about the inclement weather. When we pulled into the front lot of the Albatros Hotel, Dave looked at me and said, “Uh, this wasn’t exactly what I had in mind.” I asked him what he expected from a hotel with the word “albatross” in its name. We checked in and followed the directions to our room. I have a keen sense of smell, and a faint musty odor hung in the dimly lit hall. The room was sparsely furnished, the bed resembled twin cots shoved together, and the shower drain in the dated bathroom was so clogged with hair, the water would not drain. I called housekeeping to unclog the shower and went to the window to see the tranquil view—cows grazed in a lush pasture, and patches of blue peeked through an overcast sky. We unpacked, and I suggested we go downstairs for a cocktail before dinner.

CilantroOn this trip we had two inside jokes. We could never find mustard for our sandwiches in any of the French delis we ate at, and no green olives for Dave’s vodka, not even in Italy of all places. We kidded each other about packing mustard before leaving on our next European trip and carrying olives as well. This reminded me of my father, who loved cilantro after being introduced to the herb in Mexico City. He would carry it with him in a small baggie and put it on almost everything. No wonder we kids love it.

Albatros Hotel SuancesIn the bar lounge, I ordered wine, and Dave a vodka on the rocks. When the server left, I asked, “Why didn’t you ask for olives?” He replied, “I’ve given up.” The server returned with our drinks, and to our surprise placed a bowl of large Spanish olives on the table “for us to snack on.” We explained our dilemma in Italy, and she said, “I know. There they make olive oil from them, but in Spain we eat them.” As for finding mustard in France, she said, “A lot of French people holiday in Suances, and the French love their mayonnaise.” We were about to find out just how much they loved it. We finished our drinks and went into the dining room for dinner. Because of the rain, we had decided to eat at our hotel rather than walk into town.

Our server handed us menus and left. We chose the fresh catch of the day, but the moment we placed our order, our server said, “Oh sorry, we don’t have any more fish. We have a French tour group at the hotel and they ate all of the fish. We only have beef.” We inquired about shrimp cocktail as a starter. Oh yes, they had plenty. The boiled shrimp arrived in the shell and with the heads on, which was fine, but swimming in mayonnaise? Not even tartare or spicy mayonnaise—just plain, warm mayo. I scraped the bland condiment off the shellfish, and we shared the starter. The meal did not improve. The beef was round steak: thin, the texture of shoe leather, and tasteless. We enjoyed our green salads, passed on dessert because the French tour group had eaten all of it, and instead finished our meal with a good Madeira. Although our stay hadn’t started as planned, the visit ended on a positive note. Overall, the room was clean and provided the basics, and the hotel staff was friendly and helpful, making up for any the shortcomings in the accommodations.

Next week: “Europe 2013: Gijón, Spain.”

Italy and Spain

Spain

Mid-October 1969: Other than brief layovers on our way to destinations afar, this would be my first real visit to Europe. Why my father chose Rome, Italy, and Madrid, Spain, as opposed to any other cities or countries, I never asked. With all the moving we had done, I had learned to go with the flow, and this attitude had served me well all those years.

I have vivid memories of Mass at the Vatican and our tour of St. Peter’s Basilica, both spiritually moving places. And I was both impressed with the Colosseum and amused by the multitude of cats that made the ancient ruins their home. But the sight that enthralled me most was the Victor Emmanuel Monument, a grandiose building of white marble with a massive curved colonnade.

In Madrid, I remember little of the city itself, but our day trip to Toledo stuck with me over the years, memorable enough that I would make a second visit decades later and two years after my father had passed away—a bittersweet return.

Next week: “Sailing the Virgin Islands Aboard the Schooner Mistress.”