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Trip Report Oh Solomillo! 15 Days in Spain

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Well, we’ve been back from Spain for almost 4 weeks now, but I’m just now getting my act together enough to write up a trip report. We started planning a trip to Spain for our anniversary (we dubbed the whole trip “15 days for 15 years”) many, many, many months in advance – the day that frequent flyer tickets were available for international flights. I know that people complain that airlines have cut back drastically on the flights available for frequent flyer tickets, but if you know your travel plans far enough in advance there is ALWAYS availability for that first week or two that flights are available for booking (about 11 months out). We’ve both been to Barcelona before and count it as one of our favorite cities in the world, so it made sense to start there (easing into the country in a place we were already familiar with), then moving down to explore the south before ending up in Madrid for an easy flight out. It worked out great, turning into 4 separate miniature city breaks: 4 nights Barcelona, 3 nights Granada, 4 nights Sevilla, and 3 nights Madrid.

When trying to pack for the trip (we always pack carry-on only) I was a bit worried about the temperature changes we could expect going into such different climates (especially in that transitional period of September and October), and I was right. The average temperature chart and 10-day forecast I was basing my packing on had me packing a little of everything – from light t-shirts to warmer sweaters – but we ended up with a heat wave that had the temperatures running about 10 degrees above normal for most of the trip. I never needed the jacket I packed, and, except for one cool day in Granada, didn’t need the sweaters until we got to Madrid (but for the final 3 days of the trip I was very happy I had packed them!). Hotels were all booked in advance, and transfers from city to city were also booked in advance. We booked a non-stop flight from Barcelona to Granada, the train from Granada to Sevilla, and the high-speed AVE train from Sevilla to Madrid all in advance and all via the internet, printing out the tickets in advance (train tickets, anyway). We also pre-booked our timed Alhambra reservations for Granada and pre-booked timed Sagrada Familia tour reservations in advance (we printed out the Sagrada Familia tickets in advance, and had no trouble printing out the Alhambra tickets at the Alhambra tourist information office in Granada when we got to town). Everything worked out just fine.

From experience gained in previous trips, I activated the smallest available text message plan and smallest available data plan for using my iPhone in Europe, and was very glad I did. Every hotel had great wifi available, but I found that having the data plan available for when we were away from the hotel was a great security blanket, allowing me to check email, pull up a map, activate the iTranslate app for when I couldn’t remember the right word for something in Spanish, check museum times, restaurant locations, or general googling needs. Shout-out to the iTranslate app, by the way – it worked very well most of the time (although a little less successful for translating some menu items). I grew up in south Texas so learned some Spanish at an early age, but I’m the first to admit that I’m not fluent, and what I do know – or did know - is very rusty. Still, I found that I remembered much more than I thought I would, and we managed to get by fairly well with general conversations, but Mexican-based Spanish only goes so far when dealing with various regional dialects, and there are some words that are definitely region-specific when dealing with menus. If you don’t already know what montaditos are, or what chiperones are (or that baby chiperones are called puntillitas in the south but not in other regions), or the difference between solomillo de iberico, secreto de iberico and presa de iberico, the iTranslate app isn’t very helpful and there isn’t anything in Mexican-based Spanish that is helpful, either. It made for some very delicious trial and error, though.

Okay, this little general background overview is making me hungry already. Here we go!

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    That was probably my biggest takeaway from the whole trip --- love, love, love solomillo. We absolutely adore seafood (arroz negro - with sepia ink and chiperones and -- when we were really lucky, almehas -- was a running theme through the entire trip), but a truly spectacular medium rare solomillo de iberico is a wonderful thing.

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    Day 1 - Barcelona

    After an uneventful (even pleasant!) overnight flight, we landed in Barcelona at 11:30 AM and quickly grabbed a cab to our hotel downtown. We’ve been to Barcelona before and are familiar with the area, so we decided that this would be the best starting point for the trip (DH is an architectural engineer so Barcelona is close to heaven, as far as he is concerned). Even though we usually stay in Eixample, this time we decided to try staying in the Barrio itself just to see what it was like after dark. This was the hardest hotel to decide on for the trip and the only hotel that was not a direct recommendation from a friend or that we/I had not visited in the past, so I crossed my fingers and hoped it would work out. We decided to try the Raco del Pi (officially H 10 Raco del Pi), just off the Plaza del Pi in the “upper” part of the Barrio. As I handed the hotel information to the cab driver (who spoke no English) he looked at the address and got a little bit of a worried look on his face, then tried to tell me that he wouldn’t be able to drive all the way to the hotel because of the pedestrian streets in the Barrio. When it was obvious that I already knew that (and spoke just enough Spanish to let him know that was okay) he relaxed a bit, but as he got closer to the city center he kept trying to find information in his little book as to where it would be best to drop us off. Fortunately I had a map and already knew how to get there from the Boqueria, so I asked him to just drop us there. A three or four minute stroll through little cobblestone passages and we found it easily enough -- a darling little hotel on a pedestrian-only street, with glasses of cava waiting for you at the front desk to make the already-easy check-in process even easier. Up to the room to unpack a bit, then it is time to wander out and get oriented with a quick stroll down La Rambla before heading over to Los Caracoles on Calle Escudellers for the obligatory first lunch.

    Los Caracoles has been around forever, and – even though it definitely leans toward touristy these days – we have always made it our first food stop in Barcelona. Traditionally we start with caracoles (a steaming bowl of small snails that you eat with toothpicks) and chiperones fritas (my all-time favorite whole baby squid, lightly battered and fried), plus maybe a half of their amazing roast chicken, straight from the rotisserie that you can see from the street. Today though, we decide to try something different. We decided before the trip began that we were going to try to find a good paella or arroz negro (sepia ink black paella) in each city – a semi-scientific attempt to compare regional differences in preparation of the classic dish. Fortuitously, every Wednesday Los Caracoles has arroz negro as a lunch special, and today they are making their version of this masterpiece with sepia (cuttlefish) and esperdenyes (sea cucumber). Fabulous! With grilled calamari (chiperones a la plancha) as a starter and a nice bottle of white wine, it was a great start to the trip. The only slightly sour note was the very heavy hinting by the waiter when he brought our bill that the service charge listed was a government required tax and that it was NOT in place of a separate tip (I know this is a very touristy place these days, but this was the ONLY restaurant of the entire trip where we were pressured about tipping). Still, it was a great lunch and a great beginning to two weeks of adventure. By now it is about 3 or 4 in the afternoon and we decide it is a perfect time for a nap (even though we got a surprisingly good amount of sleep on the plane, we are still sufficiently jet lagged to want an excuse for a siesta). A little bit of shopping along Calle Escudellers, then up the little streets through Plaza Mayor and back to the hotel for a nice long nap before venturing out for the first evening.

    Later in the evening – about 6:30 or 7 – we wandered out to explore the area, stopping at various tapas bars for a glass of wine and a small nibble of something good. We wandered across Villa Laietana toward Mercado de Santa Caterina and found a fabulous, obviously trendy tapas bar and restaurant right next to the market that was a perfect stop (same name as the mercado, by the way - Santa Caterina). It must have been about 8 pm, because there was a big line of people waiting for the manager to open up the restaurant table portion of the place, but the outside tables and the long bar area have obviously been packed for a while, and the chalkboard had a great list of tapa specials in addition to their extensive normal menu of tapas and raciones. We had a lovely time with a racion of fried anchovies and a couple of glasses of wine at the bar, smiling at the oh-too-cute group of Japanese students across the bar excitedly taking pictures of their food. Later that night, wandering back through the Barrio, we found another, very casual tapas bar that was a perfect counterpoint to the previous stop. Old school versus new school. Here we found a few tables, populated almost entirely by locals on dates or business friends stopping for a drink after work. This was where I finally saw how a tapas bar should work – there is a menu with staple items that the kitchen will fix as ordered (platters of jamon, quick-fried chiperones or other small hot plates), a series of daily-made cold salads behind the counter that are available in tapa, half-racion and racion portions, and then a long counter of montaditos – individual slices of French bread each topped with whatever the chef felt like creating that day, priced individually or specially priced for an assortment of 6. A few good nibbles here and we are ready to wander back through the Barrio to our hotel and call it a night (I know that 11 is still early by Barcelona standards, but I’m prepared to use jet lag as an excuse for as long as possible!).
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    I'm going to Madrid in April (first time!) so am looking forward to that part of your trip especially.

    H10 Raco del Pi area looks super. Hub and I walked a lot through that area from Ramblas to Duomo.

    More please (with more paragraph breaks if possible).

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    Barri Gotic in Catalan, Barrio Gotico in Castellano. You're right, Barri would be more appropriate - I just naturally gravitate to the Castellano since I can speak and read (barely) enough Castilian-style Spanish to get by, and readily admit that I can't say anything more than "please" and "thank you" in Catalan. Maybe one of these days if I get the chance to spend longer periods of time in Barcelona and the Costa Brava I'll get better at it, but - unless the spelling of a word gets close to a similar word in French - I'm hopelessly lost when it comes to Catalan.

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    We are planning a trip for this coming summer. Barcelona is a done deal. Trying to figure out the rest of the itinerary. Loving your report. The details are fun to read and helpful. More please!

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    Day 2 (part one) – Barcelona

    Good Morning, Barcelona! This morning we have timed reservations for a tour of Sagrada Familia. We’ve been looking forward to this! When we were last here six years ago, it was still little more than a gigantic construction site with a museum under it. The progress in the past few years has been phenomenal. Even though it is still clearly a construction zone, the interior of the basilica has been enclosed and has an “almost finished” feel to it. DH has an architecture background, so it is easy to understand how Barcelona and Gaudi have a special place in his heart. He has really been looking forward to this tour.

    Trying to buy metro tickets, we encountered our first annoyance of the trip. Citibank has been advertising that they will issue chip-based cards to anyone who asks for one, and has been advertising that the cards will ABSOLUTELY work in Europe, which moved to PIN and chip cards years ago and where non-chip US cards are routinely rejected these days. We took them at their word and requested the chip cards, taking care to set a PIN that would work in European machines. I even talked to a manager at Citi before we left, and was personally assured that the card would work fine in any automated machine in Europe (the machines that historically reject the non-chip cards that are still being used in the US). When we used the card yesterday for lunch at Los Caracoles, we got the first hint that all might not be as Citi claims. The card was accepted, but instead of requesting us to put in our PIN number into the portable credit card reader in the waiter’s hand, as we expected, the card reader had a message that told the waiter he needed to print out a receipt and get a signature. Hmmmmm. What will happen when we need to use the card in an automated machine? Let’s find out. Sure enough, the card is rejected by the machine selling the metro tickets. We are able to complete the purchase with cash, but I’m losing confidence in Citi’s claim about the compatibility of their card. We’ll see.

    Metro tickets finally in hand, we took the metro over to Sagrada Familia and got there early, hoping to have the time to do a walk-through ourselves before the tour started. It was perfect. There is a special entrance for people who already have tickets, and we got through the gate in no time. Seriously, people – buy your tickets in advance for this! You don’t even have to do a full-blown tour, just go online and get your tickets in advance, print them out, and walk past the giant queue of people who didn’t have your foresight. We have a good half hour to wander around by ourselves before finding the meeting point for an English-language tour. It was a great way to do it, because DH had a lot of questions about building materials and design based on our independent walk-though, and the tour guide was able to answer them. After the one hour tour DH spent another hour going back through the building and the museum exhibits at his own pace. He said later that this visit was the highlight of the entire trip for him.

    When he was finally ready to tear himself away from Sagrada Familia, we walked out into the brilliant sunshine and decided that lunch should be a picnic in Park Guell. Within a couple of blocks of the basilica we were able to find a little shop that made us sandwiches of jamon Serrano, cheese and tomate on spectacular fresh baguettes. Along with the sandwiches we bought some focaccia and a bottle of water, then packed up our purchases and took a taxi up to Park Guell. The first time we visited Park Guell, years ago, we made the trek by metro, bus and hiking up the insane hill to the entrance. A taxi (especially to or from Sagrada Familia, which is almost a straight shot to the park) is much easier, much quicker, and not very expensive (anywhere from 5 to 8 euro, depending on traffic). Definitely worth it. The park is packed on such a beautiful day, of course, but we managed to find a section of the undulating bench to have our little picnic. It was a perfect place to rest for a while and take in the scenery before deciding what to do with the beautiful afternoon.

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    Day 2 (part two) – still Barcelona...

    So we are taking a break after lunch at Gaudi’s spectacular curving bench in Park Guell, looking up at the palm trees, out to the calm Mediterranean sea, and down at the masses of tourists taking their pictures with the giant iguana sculpture at the fountain, and trying to decide what to do with the beautiful afternoon in front on us. We have a total of 4 nights in Barcelona (so three and a half days), but since we have been here before we have already done most of the “must see” sights – La Pedrera, Casa Battlo, the Picasso museum and the Palau de la Musica Catalan are all already checked off the list. We have tickets to visit Palau Guell tomorrow morning, but the only “planned” activity for today was Sagrada Familia. What to do next?

    It is such a beautiful warm day, why not go on down to the beach? We take a taxi down to a comfortable midpoint, then walk down Laietana and through Barceloneta before finding ourselves on the beach. No need to swim today (although it is definitely warm enough and many, many others are doing it), but we find the beach branch of Tapa Tapa (I’ve always liked their place across from Casa Battlo) and decide to settle in for happy hour. (Don’t let the disjointed narrative fool you – it has been a long walk and it is DEFINITELY happy hour.) Ah, tapas on the beach – VERY relaxing after a very active day. A cocktail and many tapas later, and we wander back over to the main road and catch a cab back up to Bouqueria (the cabbie very obviously took the long way around, unnecessarily increasing the fair and thereby robbing himself of a decent tip). We explored the Bouqueria for a while, sampling some Jamon Iberico Bellota from one of the ham merchants and searching for a vendor selling the small packets of tinto de calamari (the sepia ink needed to make black paella) or a vendor selling larger size tins of Pimenton de la Vera, the wood smoked paprika that is DH’s favorite. No luck with either quest, but the jamon was delicious.

    After the impromptu shopping at the Bouqueria we intended to head straight back to the hotel to freshen up, but instead found ourselves wandering past the Plaza del Pi, searching for a tapas bar that had an empty table outside. It was a long search, but we finally found one at Bilbao Barria, on Plaza Nova (next to the Cathedral). It was fate. We got the last open table outside on the square. We had just ordered two glasses of white wine when we noticed another English speaking couple looking in vain for a table outside. We had two spare chairs, so invited them to join us at our table if they wanted. It was the beginning of a great evening. The couple, originally from the Netherlands, spends nine months of the year in Spain, at a house on the coast near Girona. They had just driven two hours to Barcelona because they were in the mood for good tapas, and it turns out that THIS is their favorite tapas bar in all of Barcelona. It was the chance for a great conversation with almost-locals, and a chance to have someone “in the know” teach us how this particular tapas bar worked. The waiter will take your drink order, but for food you go inside, pick up a plate, and walk along a seemingly endless counter of different delicious montaditos, picking up whatever looks good to you. Each montadito has a long skewer. Back at your table there is a tall silver vase to put your empty skewers in. At the end of the night the waiter adds up the number of skewers to figure out your bill. There are two different length skewers to denote different prices (the dessert tapas are a little more). The waiter was great, and seemed very appreciative of the fact that we were willing to share a table. He brought a second vase for the other couple to keep the bills straight, and we found ourselves talking late into the evening. Definitely no need for a separate dinner tonight.

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    Day 3 – still Barcelona…

    Okay, I promise today’s adventures won’t be as drawn out as the recounting of Day 2! This morning we have tickets to tour Palau Guell. It is great to have a new Gaudi building to look forward to! The mansion was closed for renovations the last time we were here and reopened fully for tours just a few months ago. The self-guided tour is great, finishing, of course, on the spectacular roof with the colorful chimney pots. Make sure you go on a clear day – it would be a shame to try to do this in the rain and not experience the roof.

    We originally intended to visit Montjuic this afternoon, but it is a hot, sunny day and, well, we wimped out. Next time. Instead we opted for a little shopping and then a visit to the Cathedral. We were there years before, but I don’t think the elevator to the roof was open then. It is the one thing that makes the entry fee for the Cathedral worthwhile – they check your ticket before you can take the elevator to the roof.

    I have never gotten used to the fact that churches in Spain charge an entry fee to visit. The Sagrada Familia I can understand, because the entrance fees are actually funding the construction costs to build it, but every cathedral in Spain charges an admission just to go inside to see it – a practice almost unheard of in France or Italy. At least in this building the fee gets you access to the elevator and therefore the roof, which has a very nice view of both the mountains and the sea. The Cathedral itself is as lovely as ever, and the geese are still happily living in the garden in the cloister. Some things never change!

    After a little more shopping we found ourselves back at Bilbao Berria, where we once again scored an outside table on the square, and once again offered our spare chairs to the first English-speaking couple who came looking for a table after everything was full. This time we shared the table with girlfriends out for an afternoon – a local and her best friend from college, an American who had just finished 2 years in Gambia in the Peace Corps. What a fun conversation! And double fun to see Barcelona through the eyes of a student who had just spent two years in Africa, feeling the culture shock of re-acclimating to a big city, trying to get up the nerve to try some of the tapas that her friend had selected for her (both her girlfriend and I tried to assure her that the montadito topped with a mound of baby eels was the best thing there, but she never got up the courage for that one).

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    Day 4 – Barcelona, Sitges, and the first Solomillo Sighting

    As I said, we have been to Barcelona before and have already done most of the “must see” sights. For anyone planning a first trip, I think that 4 days is reasonable -- it might be a bit of a tight fit, but it will give you the time to explore all of the Gaudi landmark sites (Casa Battlo, La Pedrera, Sagrada Familia, Park Guell and now Palau Guell), plus the Palau de la Musica Catalan, and still have time to squeeze in the Picasso museum. Add in a stroll down La Rambla and a visit to the Bouqueria, a walk through the Barri Gotic, maybe a visit to the Cathedral, some exploring in Eixample or Gracia or a visit to the beach and Barceloneta and you could easily fill 5 days without even thinking about a day trip out of town. For us, we had done so many of the things on the “must” list previously that on Saturday morning we found ourselves with no plans, so we decided to do a day trip down to Sitges. We took the metro to the train station with no problem, but encountered problems trying to purchase tickets for the regional train at the automated machines. Once again they would not take the credit card that Citi had promised would work. Fortunately the tickets are quite inexpensive, and it is easy to complete the purchase with cash. We had a little bit of trouble finding the commuter train section of the station, but eventually got to the right platform. The trains run about every 15 minutes, and it is only a 40 or 45 minute ride.

    While Sitges could have been a fun outing yesterday (with the abundant sunshine and high temperatures), today has turned out to be overcast and a little cooler. Not quite beach weather. But the town is charming, with an inviting beachfront promenade and sandy beaches that seem to go on and on and on. And the surprise of the day trip was finding the Casa Bacardi museum and visitor center. Huh? Who knew that the founder of Bacardi (Facundo Bacardi Masso) was born in Sitges? There is even a statue honoring him on the beach. My kind of town.

    But, as I said, it is an overcast, gray day, and after a couple of hours exploring and a nice lunch it is time to catch a train back to Barcelona. A bit more shopping in Barcelona and I’m finally able to locate the packets of tinto de calamari that I have been looking for at a little stall in the Mercado Santa Caterina. Maybe we’ll be able to make our own arroz negro when we get back home.

    Early evening finds us back at our little Bilbao Barria. Not only does our waiter recognize us and give us an open table on the square, he comes over 10 minutes later and asks if we would be willing to share our table once again. Of course we would! He brings over two British ladies on holiday in Sitges, who have taken the train up to the big city for the afternoon for some shopping and tapas. Once again, a good time was had by all.

    For dinner tonight we want to finally do “real” dinner, and decide to make our way over to Les Quinze Nits on Plaza Reial. We have eaten there on previous trips – I know that the place sometimes gets mixed reviews, but we have never had a bad meal there. The line is always long but it usually moves fairly quickly. Tonight we are both in the mood for the pork tenderloin, listed on their menu as “filete iberico con salsa Pedro Ximenez.” Yum. The pork is so buttery soft that they do not even bother to give you a knife, and the sherry sauce is to die for. They don’t call it “solomillo” in Catalan (or even in the Castellano used in this part of the country, I don’t think), but this was the first solomillo of the trip. If they can get an iberico filet this good in this part of the country, I can only imagine the deliciousness waiting for us when we get farther south. We will find out starting tomorrow!

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    The serious "solomillo zone" is definitely in the south (paticularly Sevilla), but I was also surprised by the fact that the term is used in Madrid. It must really be just Barcelona and Catalan that don't use "solomillo" as the word for tenderloin. I think the biggest takeaway from this trip - particularly since we went to three separate regions - is the regional differences between the menu terminology. We found that "montadito" was never used outside of Barcelona, and that Barcelona never used the standard terms for various roasted or cured pork cuts that were standard in Granada, Sevilla and Madrid (solomillo, presa, lomo --- oooh, lomo... yum...). There needs to be an app that can accurately translate what the menu items in the different regions of Spain really mean, in a manner that you can relate to. Solomillo doesn't really mean "sirloin," which is what a translation app will call it. And there is no accurate translation for "lomo" or "presa." Or "secreto." Maybe we need to invent a "Spanish Pig" app.

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    solomillo is GRILLED pork tenderloin, but I think "lomo," at least as the term is used in Andalucia and in Madrid, is smoked/cured tenderloim or whole loin -- either way it is seriously YUMMMMM.

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    Day 5 (Sunday) – on to Granada!

    An EARLY wake-up call and we are in a taxi to the airport by 5:30 AM to catch a flight to Granada. Driving through the heart of Barcelona we see many people heading home after their Saturday night adventures – maybe next time we should try just not going to bed. At this incredibly early hour there is no traffic on the road and we make good time, and have enough time at the airport to get coffee and a bocadillo (serrano ham and manchego cheese on a thin baquette) before boarding our plane. The non-stop flight is about 90 minutes long, and we arrive in Granada just after 9 AM.

    It is overcast, foggy, drizzling and chilly, and I pull the umbrellas out of the suitcase and change into a sweater before we even leave the airport. I hand the address for the hotel to the taxi driver, and away we go. The hotel is a recommendation from a good friend and is absolutely perfect. Hotel Casa 1800, on calle Benalua, a pedestrian street (really a narrow cobblestone alley) just off of Plaza Nueva -- a converted 17th century palacio practically at the foot of the Alhambra. The room isn’t ready yet, of course, so we drop our bags off and prepare to explore the town for a bit. The front desk clerk is excited to tell us that today is a special festival day in town – the Festival de Nuestra Senora de las Angustias (Festival of Our Lady of Sorrows) is always celebrated the last Sunday in September, and there will be a big procession from the cathedral early this evening, at about 6 PM. The desk clerk mentions his hope that the rain will stop, because the statue of the Virgin Mary might not be carried out for the full procession if it is raining. Researching this later, I found out that this festival is a very big deal and the procession is similar to what you would find here for Holy Week. What a nice surprise, and a lovely way to begin the Andalucia portion of our adventure. Here’s hoping the rain moves on soon.

    We start our adventure with a visit to the Alhambra visitors center on the plaza – find the machine and just slip in the credit card that you used to reserve you’re Alhambra tickets and you can print them out in no time flat. We are all set for tomorrow morning. Today is still rainy and we opt for finding a nice cafe on a plaza (with a large canopy) and grab some coffee, a bocadillo to share, and an order of chocolate and churros. Breakfast at a lovely plaza in Granada, enjoying a nice break and watching a soft rain fall. What could be better? (Okay, maybe “no rain” could be better, but it wasn’t bad at all.)

    After a LONG interlude we walk around a bit more, exploring the lovely area around the Cathedral (with the carefully maintained souk-ish shopping zone –touristy, but still kinda fun) until the rain subsided. When heading back toward Plaza Mayor, HD found a tour guide center that does guided walking tours of the Albayzin – the old Moorish quarter – and we booked a tour for early afternoon. It was lovely, and quite possibly something that we would not have done on our own (I know there are a million different tour books that tell you how to do it, but that doesn’t mean I would actually get my act together enough to do it on my own). The only down side, I’m sorry to say , was a fellow tour group member from Down Under (NZ, not Oz) who chatted a little TOO amiably throughout the entire tour. Really, really amiably. Still, other than an overabundance of other tour groups lapping us, it is a great couple of hours wandering through a beautiful area of the old town, and the rain doesn’t move back in until the last five or ten minutes of the stroll. We finished up about 4 pm, just in time to head back to the hotel to settle in and unpack a little before exploring the city again and catching up with the processional for the festival. We were told that the processional (and yes, people emphatically told us that it is a processional, not a parade) should start at about 6 PM, but the Cathedral area is definitely abuzz by 5. Lots of groups milling about, getting into position near the Cathedral and on Gran Via, the street that will serve as the main route for the beginning of the processional as it leaves from the Cathedral.

    Okay, here’s the funny part… We watch the beginning of the processional, along with the throngs of locals that have lined the streets. And then after a while it gets a little …. boring. Maybe a quick stroll through the surrounding streets would be a good pick me up. So we wander around a bit and find what looks like a nice, casual tapas bar… and find EVERY member of the first group from the processional already in there. Yes, apparently this is how you do a serious religious festival day in Granada… you march in the processional a while, and then you find a good bar to have a drink and a tapa before eventually continuing on. We cozy up to the bar and order a couple of glasses of wine. And we are presented with those glasses, plus a delightful little tapa of iberico ham and slices of manchego. Yes, we have found heaven. The tour books are right, people – Granada is the place where tapas are free. This is the spot in Spain where a tapa is considered to be part of your drink order – you don’t know what your little gift is going to be, but it is likely going to be something good. In this case, a glass of wine comes with some jamon iberico. A great little pick-me-up before going back to watch more of the processional.

    When we get back to the curb, the procession is definitely still in progress…two lines of pilgrims walking along the road with lit candles, dressed in their Sunday finest. Many of them, I notice, are in bare feet. A gentleman next to me on the curb explains to me that the barefoot participants are those who have made a special request to the Virgin (usually for an illness for themselves or for a family member) and walking the entire route barefoot (remember, there is still a light rain in the area) is the final part of that request. We watch for a bit more, but the rain is back, and it looks like the traditional culmination of the procession – the appearance of the status of the Virgin – might be adversely impacted by the weather. When one of the final groups appears with their crucifix covered in rain gear, it seems obvious that the Lady is (probably) not going to show. We go back to one of the side streets and slip into another tapas bar for another glass of wine. The television in the bar is broadcasting the processional (I told you it was a big deal), and eventually we see an image of the Virgin statue coming out of the cathedral for a grand total of two seconds, then going back inside. Game called on account of rain.

    Wandering around after we left the processional we found what I can only describe as a nouveau tapas bar. A cool little place called Bar Los Toneles near the Mercado where, cozying up the bar and ordering a couple of glasses of wine, I looked at the list of tapas and ordered adventurously (not yet entirely realizing that in Granada your first tapa is usually free with your drink). The first bar we went to just automatically presented us with a couple of slices of jamon y queso. This bar has a list full of designer tapas that I can only describe as serious fun, and the bartender/owner makes us two tapas to order of avocado, brie and balsamic honey on slices of grilled, pressed French bread. There is some craft at work here, and we are only charged for 2 glasses of wine. I think I like this town.

    Later in the evening we are wandering about, trying to decide what to do for dinner. All of the tapas bars are packed solid with people from the processional. Sunday night on a festival day – it doesn’t get much more crowded than this! The tapas bar recommended by the hotel for a light dinner was too full to even think about getting in. We eventually decided to try a little Moroccan place – Granada is THE place to do Moroccan, or so I’m told. Unfortunately, this particular place was not exactly spectacular. The eggplant and the lamb kabob were both good, but the couscous with mixed meats was NOT good (okay, it was borderline terrible). If we had stopped at the appetizers we would have been fine and would have walked away full – we didn’t need the extra course anyway.

    Back to the hotel – still early, I’m sure, by local standards, but we were up at 5 am, and bed by 11 or 11:30 seems reasonable to me. After all, tomorrow we have the Alhambra!

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    Hi!I like your interest in Spanish cooking culture.

    If you check in Google "despiece cerdo ibérico" you will see the cuts and where they come from.
    Lomo and solomillo are just the cuts and they can be cooked or preserved in many ways, mainly the first one. You can find it smoked, air cooked (like jamon) and also preserved in lard or olive oil.
    The name of these two cuts are almost always the same in Spain in Spanish.
    Try to make a stuffed solomillo, using "pimientos de piquillo".
    The video below is in Spanish but you can follow it easily.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UDIETSoGiu0

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    Bilbao Berria is a Basque place and the "tapas and skewer" thing was Basque pintxos/pinchos, a distinctive food tradition in this major culinary region of Spain. In the Basque Country the system is usually based on trust alone; you tell at the end how many pintxos you and your group have had. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pincho
    http://www.basquecountry-tourism.com/gastronomy.php

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    You are right about Bilbao Berria being a Basque place. I knew just from the different experiences we had in various tapas bars throughout the city that this was a different experience, but I didn't realize until later that this particular place is definitely Basque, and serves their tapas/montaditos/pintxos in the Basque style. The Basque tie-in also explains why we were able to find montaditos topped with gulas - teeny tiny baby eels - here, but did not see them on the menu at other bars in the city. What made it extra great is the fact that such a large percentage of their customers are obviously locals who know the place well. With such a great location on the plaza it could have fallen into a tourist-trap syndrome of mediocre food, but they know what they are doing when it comes to tapas, and their customers love it.

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    Bilbao Berria is one of the better pintxos bars in Barcelona, many are far away from the "real deal". Next time in Barcelona I reccomend you visit Txakolín, also fabulous warm pintxos directly from the kitchen. On the edge of the vibrant El Born area: http://www.tripadvisor.com/Restaurant_Review-g187497-d997276-Reviews-Restaurante_Txakolin-Barcelona_Catalonia.html

    And people in the Basque Country will be deadly offended if you call it tapas ;-)

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    Like TDudette, I am looking forward to reading about Madrid as I will be there for 3 days/nights in March 2014.

    But in the meantime, I am thoroughly enjoying your travels through the rest of Spain and finding inspiration therein.

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    Day 6 (Monday) – Granada, Day 2

    This morning we are off to see the Alhambra. On the advice of friends (and every travel guide ever written on the subject) I reserved timed tickets for the Nazaries palace as far in advance as possible (about 90 days out). With timed tickets for the palace for 11:30, it worked out well to catch the bus from Gran Via at about 9:30 and use the Justice Gate entrance to save the long walk from the main entrance. If you haven’t printed out your tickets in advance you still have to go to the main gate to retrieve them, so remember to print your tickets out no later than the day before (you can do it at the tourist office near Plaza Nueva very easily).

    It is still very overcast today but the rain seems to have (mostly) stopped. After going through the Justice Gate we had plenty of time to visit the fort and Charles V’s palace before it was time to queue up for the palace visit. The Nazaries palace is breathtaking, as expected (and a bit crowded, as expected, but it is possible to position yourself between the throngs of guided tour groups and enjoy the rooms in relative quiet and at your own pace). Don’t forget to visit the little “secrets room” with the great acoustics.

    I’m not sure I would recommend our next decision to everyone, but it worked out really well for us. After spending 90 minutes in the palace, it is after 1 PM and we are getting hungry. We know we should go ahead and power through and visit the Generalife Gardens and the summer palace, but we also know that will probably take another hour and a half to two hours. Did I mention we were hungry? We decided we didn’t want to eat on the grounds and didn’t want to wait another 2-3 hours before having lunch, so instead of visiting the Generalife Gardens and the summer palace now, we decided to break it up and get a separate ticket to do just visit those sights tomorrow. It turned out to be a great plan for us because the weather was even better the next day and it made for a very pleasant visit to the gardens.

    So we grabbed the shuttle back down the hill and made our way to Chikito’s, famous for their 8th century recipes, for a long, leisurely lunch. It was perfect. Granada salad (cod, oranges and olives), fava beans and jamon, and then monkfish in a very complicated cream sauce with mushrooms, and a nice bottle of wine. We split each course between the two of us and were definitely full! Back to the hotel for a siesta.

    This evening we went back to the “creative” tapas bar we found the night before (Bar Los Toneles) and had a great time chatting with the bartender/owner (my Spanish is definitely getting a little bit better) and trying out various tapas concoctions before wandering over to the Pescaderia square to seek out Oliver’s – recommended by our hotel for their seafood. We are still planning to try a paella or arroz negro in every city on the trip, so tonight seems like a good night to try Granada’s version. They don’t have arroz negro, so we “settle” for their delightful paella de mariscos. Very good. Very, very good.

    After dinner we head back toward Plaza Nueva to have a nightcap at Diamante – a great tapas bar that was recommended to us for a light dinner last night but was WAAYYY too crowded to get in. Tonight is a little bit better – just crowded enough, but with an empty chair or two. We order a couple of glasses of red wine and are surprised with a tapa of one of my all-time favorite things – a plate full of teeny tiny almehas (clams), none of them bigger than a fingernail, in garlic and olive oil. Seriously good.

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    Day 7 (Tuesday) – Granada, Day 3

    Sorry for the delays in posting, everyone… I hate it when reality interferes with good intentions!

    Last day in Granada. The only other thing on my list of must-see sights is the Royal Chapel, with the tombs of Ferdinand and Isabella. The chapel is beautiful, the tombs are beautiful (and yes, notice that Isabella’s head is making a deeper indentation into her stone pillow than her hubby – supposedly a nod to the fact that she has the bigger brain), and the adjoining treasury with artifacts, including robes and her silver crown, was WAAAAAY cool. After the chapel visit we spend some time wandering through the shopping district (the real shopping streets as well as the Alcaiceria), then have a light early lunch before spending the afternoon back up at the Alhambra to visit the gardens and the summer palace, taking in the views of the city and the countryside on what is finally a clear, sunny day. Back to the hotel for a siesta and a relaxing tea-time in the hotel’s beautiful central courtyard (where we met a mother and daughter that had just arrived in Granada after 30 days of walking the entire Camino de Santiago), then, eventually, back into town for our last night of tapas-hopping and dinner back at Oliver’s for some amazing seafood (clams, grilled sea bass and monkfish in a saffron sauce, for anyone interested). A great night. Tomorrow, Sevilla.

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    Day 8 (Wednesday) – Sevilla, Day 1

    Taxi ride to the tiny Granada train station – one of those stations where you actually just walk ACROSS the track to get to the correct platform for your oncoming train. We had a hard time deciding between taking the train and taking the bus from Granada to Sevilla. Since there is no high speed train option, both methods are listed as taking about 3 hours. At least with the train there is no danger of traffic problems and (I assume) you have a better chance of staying on schedule, so we decided on the train. I never knew a three hour train ride could be so long. Uneventful, not unpleasant, but long.

    When we finally arrive in Sevilla, it is a quick taxi ride to our hotel – Hotel Dona Maria, in a pedestrian zone just off of the square in front of the Cathedral. I’ve stayed here before and it is darling, with a rooftop pool and open air bar that has a stunning view of the Cathedral. Our room isn’t ready yet, so we drop bags and start exploring, getting lost in the beautiful little streets and hidden plazas. Other than an overabundance of tour groups, it is a great stroll.

    Back to the hotel to check in, and the desk clerk asks if we want to reserve tickets for a flamenco show while we are in town. Of course – this is the place for flamenco. Not having done much research (I know, I know, but you can learn from my mistakes, right?) we took the desk clerk’s recommendation of booking tickets for El Patio Sevillano because, as he put it, “it’s happier” than the Tablao El Arenal. More on that later.

    For now, we ask for a recommendation for a place to get a good arroz negro for lunch. In our initial exploration of the Barrio Santa Cruz we have already seen several restaurants advertising both paella and arroz negro, but they were all in very touristed squares and seemed to be catering to tour groups. I want something good. The clerk recommends two or three restaurants in walking distance that he circles on our little map. They were all busts – I’m sure they have good food, but even the ones that had several paellas listed on their menus do not list an arroz negro. It is the heart of lunch time (about 2 or 2:30 pm), and all of the sidewalk seating for every restaurant and tapas bar in the barrio seems to be full, and we can’t make up our minds what we want. Fortunately, we walk across the Avenida de la Constitucion into the Arenal neighborhood between the Cathedral and the river and find a restaurant that has outdoor tables all along a little hidden alley – La Isla Sevilla (Calle Arfe 23). Just one look in the window of the restaurant tells you that this is a good place, as they are proudly displaying the fresh fish of the day. After sitting down we look at the menu and discover a long list of seafood selections, but the only paella listed is a “normal” paella de mariscos. I asked the waiter if it was possible to get an arroz negro. His eyes lit up, and he assured us it was possible. Arroz negro for two, please! It turns out that we had stumbled on one of the best seafood restaurants in the city.

    A half hour later, we are presented with a magnificent paella pan of inky goodness – rice with sepia ink and an abundance of seafood, including tiny clams, squid, monkfish, dorado and octopus. My heart still beats a little faster whenever I think about it. Without a doubt the best arroz negro I have ever had.

    As we are digging into our treasure, a table of six Japanese tourists takes a table behind us and looks at the menu, and then looks at our table, then back at the menu and back at our table. It is obvious they are trying to figure out what we ordered. One member of the group speaks Spanish and is taking responsibility for ordering for the table, and we can hear his conversation with the waiter as the waiter is explaining our arroz negro to him. They end up ordering two paellas for the table – one classic seafood paella and one black rice, just like we have. I’m afraid we started an off-menu trend that afternoon.

    After the amazing lunch we walked down toward the water and walked along the river, enjoying the beautiful sunny afternoon, the palm trees, the view of the Torre del Oro, and the water. I love cities with a river running through the middle of them because how the residents use the river gives you a great insight into the personality of the city itself. Lots of people are enjoying the riverside path – some obviously getting in a good run, some having a picnic, some just taking the time to have a good conversation with a friend, and some others kayaking on the river. One thing I remember from my first visit to Sevilla years ago is the kayak basketball game that the kayak club plays in the river here. I’ve never seen it anywhere else. There is no game this afternoon but there is a kayak practice going on, and we can watch kayakers practicing their hoop shots. I dare anyone to watch kayak basketball and not smile.

    Back to the hotel for a LONG nap, and then we are ready for the first evening stroll in Sevilla. Sevilla is made for strolling at night, visiting one tapas bar after another. All of the traditional tapas bars in the neighborhood are packed to the rafters and beyond, with happy patrons spilling out into the streets. We sidle up to a bar for a couple of glasses of wine and start trying to figure out the tapas rules for this region. The main rule is to know what you want and be quick in your ordering! The bartender is working too hard to spend time talking you through it. We visit a couple of bars then walk through the winding streets, shopping our way through the Santa Cruz district and finally stopping for a few tapas at a sidewalk table on one of the main streets. We’re reading the chalkboard list of today’s tapas, and the word “solomillo” keeps coming up. Solomillo al whisky? Solomillo gorgonzola? Solomillo al quatro quesos? What is this “solomillo?” My handy iTranslate app translates the word as “sirloin.” We order a solomillo al whisky, some jamon croquets and a tapa-sized platter of manchego and settle in for a bit to watch the world go by. If this were the only solomillo I had on the trip I would be underwhelmed. When it is listed as a tapa at a tapas bar, your solomillo is likely a thin pork cutlet with a heavy covering of sauce. Tasty, but nothing spectacular.

    Back at the hotel we take advantage of the beautiful night and the rooftop bar. It is a week night (and still only about midnight, so early by local standards), so there are only a few other people around, but a glass of red wine, under the stars, looking and the beautifully-lit Cathedral makes for a delightfully peaceful end to the day.

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    Really enjoying this. Thank you for posting, and in such glorious detail. I am so looking forward to exploring more of Spain, and I am already making notes of your bar and restaurant discoveries. Arroz Negro, I shall be tracking you down!

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    Thanks for the words of encouragement! I'll try to get more of the report out soon. And for anyone wondering why arroz negro isn't just called paella negra, I THINK the reason is that it is usually made without saffron, and paella MUST have saffron or, well, it isn't paella.

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    Super TR and good advice for Granada goers. Do you think the Japanese tourists thought you were locals?

    DH and I found ourselves waterside in a Venice bar and many tourists were clicking away from their gondola rides. "We've been immortalized in someone's scrapbook!"

    More, please.

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    Day 9 (Thursday) – Sevilla, Day 2

    This morning is all about the Cathedral. I visited here years ago, but this is DH’s first time. As you probably know, there are two big “must” sights in the Seville Cathedral – the Columbus tomb and the amazing High Alter. The tomb is still there in all its glory but, unfortunately, the high alter is completely closed for restoration. I mean completely. And the worst part is they have installed a life-sized PICTURE of the alter in its place. Seriously? I’m feeling a little gypped. How would you feel if you visited the Louvre and waited forever for your chance to see the Mona Lisa, and they had a photograph of the painting hanging on the wall instead of the painting itself? Not good. Not good at all. The visit to the terrific treasury makes me feel a little better, but it is still a disappointing morning.

    We spend the afternoon doing a little shopping at a local market (we love visiting local markets when we’re travelling, don’t you?) . We are mainly looking for large tins of the famous Pimenton de la Vera – the wood smoked paprika – and for good saffron. No luck finding good saffron, but DH does pick up a couple of tins of his favorite de la Vera, and we also find a lovely selection of Riojas and a butcher that is slicing delicious shavings of jamon de iberico bellota (the good stuff) to order. A nice little to go bag of wine and jamon and we head back toward the room to have our own happy hour, then out a little later to tapas-hop once more. Tonight we find a little bar that has half-racion platters of my favorite baby squidlets. Lightly fried whole baby squid. In Barcelona they are called chiperones fritas, but here chiperones means slightly larger calamari (should we call them teenagers?), and the word for baby squid is puntillitas. Whatever you call them, they are delicious.

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    Day 10 (Friday) – Sevilla, Day 3
    Yesterday was the Cathedral, today is the Alcazar. Gorgeous. Quick tip – yesterday afternoon when there wasn’t a line at the ticket office we dropped in and picked up tickets for today in advance. That way when you are ready to visit you can just walk past the line and go straight in. Absolutely beautiful, and a great morning.

    Lunch today is at one of the little tapas bars in Santa Cruz. We settle on a sampler platter with a mixed grill of different iberico pork and grilled chicken. Everything was wonderful, but the problem with a mixed grill platter is that you don’t necessarily know which is which (as in, “wow, that’s yummy, but is that the secreto or the presa?). Maybe this will take more research. We also got a small half-racion portion of lomo iberico – cured pork loin – that was fabulous. It might be sacrilegious to say this, but I think I like lomo iberico even more than jamon iberico. (And I know that technically lomo just means “loin,” but I never saw the term used on a menu to mean anything other than a cured form of pork loin or tenderloin.)

    This evening we stopped for tapas at 5Js (Cinco Jotas) on our way to the flamenco show that we had made reservations for when we arrived. I knew nothing about 5J’s but we liked the look of the place and the menu looked great. I didn’t find out until much later that it is a chain of restaurants associated with 5J jamons – producers of some of the most famous iberico hams in Spain. We split a half-racion of their solomillo iberico bellota with a sauce of juniper berries. An amazing experience. With a nice glass of red wine, this is absolute heaven. Really, really, really, really amazing. Barely medium-rare pork tenderloin, so tender that it melts in your mouth. I could eat this every day.

    So off to the flamenco show, El Patio Sevillano – recommended by our desk clerk because “it’s happier” than the gypsy-style flamenco of Tablao El Arenal. Umm. How do I put this? I have no doubt that there was some serious talent on the stage (there were definitely a couple of high points and a couple of very good performers), but the whole thing felt a little Disney-esque, for lack of a better term. Some of the performers even performed to pre-taped music rather than to a live flamenco guitar. Not what I was hoping for.

    When we get out of the show we are walking back in the general direction of the hotel, but taking a liberal series of detours through charming streets that we have not yet explored. It is closing in on midnight Friday night, and the town is hopping. And somehow we find ourselves right in front of Restaurante Enrique Becerra, the famous little restaurant that is one of the real classics in town, where you always need reservations. The place is crowded, of course, but there is a tapas bar area in the front and we decide to try to get in and maybe get drinks and tapas at the bar. When we went in the waiter approached us. We said we just wanted tapas and he pointed to a table in the dining room that was just being cleared. Yes, we scored a dining room table at Enrique Becerra on a Friday night for tapas. Fried mejillones were amazing. Grilled artichokes with ham, yum. And the special tapa on the menu tonight is risotto with goat cheese with stuffed chiperones. OMG. This little culinary experience definitely saved the night and went a long way toward offsetting my disappointment in the flamenco show.

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    Day 11 (Saturday) – Sevilla, Day 4

    Today is spent doing a lot of shopping in the big shopping zone just north of the Cathedral area. Lots of wide pedestrian-only streets with lots and lots of shops, and a big Corte Ingles department store with a supermarket in the basement where we finally found good pimenton de la vera and good saffron de la mancha, along with some more packets of tinto de calamari. For a late lunch we decided we needed one more visit to La Isla, and this time split a regular mixed paella for one and a big bowl of clams in a marinera broth. Perfect match.

    We wandered back past the Cathedral at about 6 pm, at exactly the right time to see the Virgin processional leave the Cathedral to the cheers of a large crowd gathered in the square. It was the 450th anniversary of something or other – we never found out what – and a lovely way to start the last evening in Seville.

    Tonight I want to take one last chance to see really good flamenco. Fortunately, we did. Early that evening we picked up tickets for the La Casa del Flamenco show later that night at Hotel Alcantara (Ximenez de Enciso 28). I wanted to make up for the less-than-memorable flamenco performance last night (at least less that memorable-in-a-good-way), and my guidebook lists this is one of the best shows in town. It was fabulous – leaps and bounds better than the floor show extravaganza of the night before. I read that this is one of those shows where you never know who is going to show up, and every night is different. Tonight there are 4 performers (2 guitarists and two dancers - 1 male, 1 female) trading off performances, and it felt like the flamenco equivalent of a good jazz club with jazz tap dancers, if that makes any sense. If you are looking for a good flamenco show in Sevilla, I highly recommend it. Notably, there were no tour groups there, and only a few Americans. The audience mainly looked like it was composed of people who were visiting from other parts of Spain, locals who had friends visiting and wanted to show them a good time, and even a few people who were obviously on a date. This completely made up for yesterday!

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    Glad you finally had a great flamenco-night in Sevilla. Would be sad to be left with a bad, "happy" and meaningless touristy experience when there's so much excellent flamenco in town.

    La Casa del Flamenco is one of the better places with top notch artists such as Luisa Palicio, Juan Polvillo, Andrés Peña, Ana Morales, Alberto Sellés etc performing regularly. All have been soloists at the most important flamenco festivals and performed in the finest theaters. The program one month ahead is published here: http://lacasadelflamencosevilla.com/entradas/agenda_completa?page=1

    Luisa Palicio from Estepona (Málaga): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p_fBzzTX2HY

    Rising star Alberto Sellés from San Fernando (Cádiz) in the wonderful Lope de Vega theater in Sevilla: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gV8hmd2Kox8

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    Loving your report. A few comments: "solomillo" in the North of Spain refers mainly to beef and not pork. They don´t eat much beef in Catalonia and in the South of Spain, while up here in the North (Basque Country mainly), grilled (rare) T-Bone Steaks are a specialty. Also, we use “montaditos”, but have imported the term from the South. Your favorite tapas bar, Bilbao Berria (Bilbao is where I live), is supposedly a Basque pintxos bar…but no colour compared to the real thing. It´s true that the gastronomic differences are huge among regions in Spain…and accents, habits, way of life, way of being, languages…it´s probably the most heterogeneus country in Europe, being so small. The North is always a delightful surprise to visitors, being so different from the typical idea of Spain.

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    Thanks so much for such an informative TR, will definitely make use of it for our May trip to Barcelona, Madrid and Seville.We will be staying in an apt in the Barri Gotic and hopefully will be able to try your favorite restaurant, Bilbao Barria. We are also in Barcelona for 4 nights but being our first time, it will surely be a more rushed trip than yours!
    Looking forward to hearing about Madrid!

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    Day 12 (Sunday) – Madrid!

    This morning we take the AVE high speed train to Madrid. It is a completely different experience from the local train from Granada to Seville – this includes double scans of tickets and x-raying your bags before you can board the train. An uneventful two and a half hours later we are in Madrid.

    It is a bright, sunny, chilly Sunday morning as we grab a taxi for the short ride to Hotel Room Mate Alicia on Plaza Santa Ana, recommended by a friend. The location is fabulous, but I must say that the hotel is just a little too hip for us, and the room reminds me of a dorm room, except all euro-centric and uber-cool. Sorry, but a shower that is open to the entire room might be considered trendy and chic, but it is a little bit outside of my comfort zone. The location can’t be beat, though, and we noticed that there is a “Me by Melia” hotel on another side of the Plaza that looks delightful and a little bit more our speed – we’ll file that away for next time.

    After checking in we walked over to the Plaza Mayor (very busy on a Sunday) and then across the street to the Mercado San Miguel, where there were so many people that you couldn’t even walk, much less shop your way through the food stalls. So then we walked toward the Plaza de Oriente, near the royal palace, to have a light lunch at La Taberna del Alabardero (also recommended by a friend). So we are sitting outside, sharing a presa de iberico (help me out – I think that presa is a pork shoulder cut, and it was delicious), enjoying the sunshine, and who should appear but a troupe of what initially appeared to be street performers, but within a few seconds it is clear that it is actually a group of music students and opera students who had decided to give themselves a little extra practice and give the crowds around that area a special treat – a half hour performance of classic pieces (including “O Sole Mio”). What a great way to start our visit!

    Back toward the hotel to unpack and take a quick nap, then we headed over to the Prado museum for a quick visit. On Sunday afternoon from 5 to 7 it is free admission, so it is a perfect time to drop in and hit the obligatory sights (Las Maninas and Garden of Earthly Delights) before wandering out to explore the Madrid tapas scene.

    The busiest (and cheapest) tapas place is definitely the Museum de Jamon – a very lively crowd around the long bar, with €1 glasses of wine and a racion of my favorite lomo (cured pork tenderloin) for €3. The next stop on our little tour was a bit less successful, as we decided to go give Mercado San Miquel another try. Although the tapas and montaditos at the Mercado are tasty, they are incredibly overpriced. We finally realize that the whole place seems like an overpriced food court. It was fun to visit and look at all of the various vendors, but we won’t be back.

    We then wandered back to our home neighborhood (Plaza Santa Ana) and stopped at a Cinco Jotas on the square. Remembering the 5J’s in Sevilla fondly, it seemed like a safe bet for a light dinner and we were happy to take a table on the square. (On a side note, by the time it gets dark in Madrid you need a sweater with you, as the town cools off very quickly, and it is nice to see that all of the restaurants on the square are prepared with outdoor heaters.) We ordered a full racion of the solomillo in berry sauce that we had loved so much in Seville. It wasn’t bad, but not nearly as tasty as the exact same dish in Seville, and the pork seemed to be a bit overcooked (medium to medium-well, instead of the perfect medium-rare that I was hoping for). Still, with a delightful Caesar salad (complete with jamon croquets!), it was a nice experience, and dinner on a busy square, watching both tourists and local families enjoying the evening, was great.

    After dinner we finished the night at a little Vinoteca wine bar across the street from the hotel. They have seating in the plaza as well, but the bar itself looked like fun and it is always fun to chat up a bartender, especially at a wine bar. We had a nice time comparing glasses of various riojas and crianzas before finally making our way back across the street to our hotel and a good night’s sleep.

    Overall, my first impression of Madrid is a little bit of sticker shock with respect to their tapas prices. Montaditos that cost €1.50 to €2.50 everywhere else (Barcelona, Granada or Seville) are €3 to €5 here. (And although here they are just called tapas, we found that most of their tapas consist of something delicious served atop a piece of French bread, the same as a montadito in Barcelona). Price-wise it is probably the equivalent of someone visiting the US and comparing prices in Manhattan to prices in other metropolitan areas, but the tapas prices here are more “off-scale” than the prices for regular dinner menu items, which seem to be about the same as dinner menu prices in the other regions. Notably, wine is still about the same – usually no more than €3 to €4 a glass, even for a really good red. For anyone interested in sangria, it was interesting to see that sangria will almost always be twice as much as a glass of wine, even though it only has half of the alcohol, because orange juice and mixers – not to mention the fruit - are so much more expensive than wine is. Still, the city is beautiful and the weather is lovely, and it is so nice to finally be able to wear the sweaters that we packed and have been carrying around in our luggage for the past 10 days!

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    One thing about sangría: it´s a tourist trap. It´s one of the false truths about Spain, locals rarely have it in a bar (it´s normally home made and to be tasted with friends) but visitors tend to think that it´s a "local" thing. Up here in Northern Spain we very rarely have it, it´s not in our drinking list.

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    Very enjoyable, tejana. I have 2 Spanish CDs and one is SA and one is Castilian (with the lisps)--if anyone even understands me in Madrid, don't know what kind of accent it will be!

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    Day 13 (Monday) – Madrid, Day 2

    This morning we are thinking about taking a day trip to Toledo, and the front desk tells us that, because we have a US credit card, it is best to go to the train station to buy tickets. The train station is a nice 10 or 15 minute walk away, but when we get there we find – once again – that the automated ticket machines will not take our card (the one that Citi assured us would work in automated machines). We get in line for the in-person desk and quickly realize that it will probably take at least an hour to buy tickets, and decide it is a sign that we aree supposed to spend our time today exploring Madrid instead. Toledo will have to wait for another trip. The sun is shining, it is starting to warm up a bit (although there is still a morning chill in the air), and Madrid is waiting for us.

    The Reina Sofia museum is just across the street from the train station. It was fabulous. The current focus of the exhibits is all about war and the interaction between war and politics with the modern art and artists of the time, culminating, of course, with Picasso’s Guernica. I love the way that they have paired movies and films from the time period with the art in each room. The pairing of Guernica with Bunuel’s classic “Forgotten Ones” showing on a continuous loop was brilliant. I’m not normally the biggest fan of modern art, but the entire visit was spectacular.

    After the museum it is back to the hotel, where the sweater needed this morning is exchanged for short sleeves. We ask the front desk for a recommendation for a restaurant for one more arroz negro, and she immediately sends us off in the direction of La Barraca – known for their paellas and considered by many to have the best paella in Spain. Ten minutes later we walk into La Barraca, prepared to put its reputation to the test. Instead of one of the many paellas listed on their menu, we immediately go for their arroz negro, which is listed as containing only calamar and chiperones (squid and squid? Or is that “big squid” and “little squid?”). It was very good, and the fava beans with jamon and onions we had as a starter was excellent, but I think I like the arroz negro at La Isla in Sevilla a little better (maybe the tiny clams they added in Sevilla made the difference). The rice is very good, though, and a little less salty than I have come to expect, especially for sepia-tinted rice. A very good last paella, indeed.

    After lunch we wandered back through the shopping streets, eventually making it back to the hotel for a nap and then back out at about 8 pm for tapas and people watching – first on the square at Plaza Santa Ana and then at a little bar on Calle de Leon for wine and more of the lovely lomo iberico.

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    Day 14 (Tuesday) – Madrid, Day 3

    After breakfast this morning we headed over to tour the Royal Palace. Wow. The tour took about three hours, including the special exhibit from El Escorial that they were running. A really magnificent building, and a lovely morning.

    For our final lunch in town we had originally intended to find a restaurant that was recommended by a friend, so set out to locate Casa Luca on Calle de Cava Brava. We found it, and it looked charming, but they we decided to take a peek at its next door neighbor – Taberna de los Huevos de Lucio, also on Calle de Cava Brava (Cava Brava 30, I believe). It just had a vibe about it that we really liked. We went in because of how cool the place looked, and when we asked to see a menu it looked great, so we decided to stay and wait for a table. And it was only after we had decided to wait for a table that we looked up and saw the pictures of customers like Bruce Springsteen, Antonio Banderas and Bruce Willis on the wall. This might be shaping up to be a very good meal.

    The place was packed but we managed to get a table for two after only about a 10 minute wait. It was AMAZING. Fried eggplant to start, and then DH had the best solomillo of the trip (indescribably good, with an unbelievable cream sauce), and I had an absolutely insane monkfish with shrimp and garlic in a garlic and parsley sauce. I can’t even describe the perfection of this meal. This might be the best meal of the entire two weeks (or at least tied with the arroz negro at La Isla). With a lovely bottle of wine, it made for a very memorable last lunch.

    Then it was a long stroll back through the Plaza Mayor, mainly for a chance to get a picture of our favorite street performer (the guy in the goat costume -- it’s hard to explain but he was adorable) and back through the Puerta del Sol to get the obligatory pictures of the bear sculpture and the “kilometer zero” marker, before returning to the hotel for a quick nap and some preemptive packing.

    Later that evening it is time for our last tapas stroll, beginning with drinks at the Plaza Santa Ana. We tried to get into a cute little restaurant on Calle Leon for dinner that had been recommended to us but it was packed, and we were told that they had reservations already booked that would make it impossible to get a table for quite some time. Too bad – the place looked adorable. Instead we wandered some more and eventually ended up back at Cinco Jotas on the square. I’m so glad we did. Tonight they redeem themselves, serving us a perfectly medium-rare (even bordering on rare) half racion solomillo. Together with a half racion of grilled chiperones in ink and some nice red wine, it was a perfect last dinner on the square.

    With an early flight tomorrow we are in bed by about midnight, but we can easily hear the crowd on the still-lively plaza until at least 3:30 AM, when I finally drifted off. When our cab picked us up at 5:30 AM, we could still see people heading home after a festive night.

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    Mikelg

    I was shocked when our young cousins, born gallegos, ordered sangria in Santiago bar.

    Sangria has taken on odd proportions in the US. Once a drink where they added fruit to mask bad wine, has become a BBQ favorite. It is the same with tapas in the US. The word tapas has become bastardized in the US to mean any small plate. 99% of Americans have no idea of the unique nature of tapas in the Spanish culture and the how the "many angels can fit on the head on the pin" debate that explodes over the differences between tapas and pintxos.

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    tejana..Reminds me of my first trip to Spain AGES ago and telling the Cab driver we wanted to go to Casa Botin (long before it was a tourist "must do").I used my very best University level (2nd yr) Spanish and he turned around and smiling said in perfect English "Your Spanish is very
    Tijuana! You must be from the States!" Memorable meal and wine and a small pottery wine jug on my shelf. Love Madrid!! Sangria in Salamanca in a very large pottery bowl in a very nontouristy bar was outstaning and very reasonable. So were the tapas!!!

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    After being in Spain for a while I was getting a little more comfortable with my Spanish, but I thought it was hysterical when the desk clerk in Madrid said that I spoke very well but that he thought he detected a “Mexican accent.” In Seville when I was having (or trying to have) a conversation with our favorite bartender there I said (in Spanish), that I was sorry that I didn’t speak much Spanish and was immediately corrected. In Mexico you use the word “Spanish” (“Espaῆol”) to mean the language, but in Spain, I was informed, you NEVER use it that way. In Spain the word “Espaῆol” only means the grammar aspects of the language (the grammar that you are taught in school), and that you always refer to the local dialect when you mean to say that you don’t speak the language. He tried to explain to me the different dialects for different regions. Although Castellano is the term for Castilian Spanish and would be appropriate for the majority of the country, the actual dialect spoken in the south is Andalusian, so you should apologize for not speaking much Andalusian, etc. Then he made a joke about the language used in Madrid by sticking his nose up in the air and accusing Madrillenos of being way too proper in their speech, speaking pure Castellano, and staying loyal to the “high tongue.”

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    "Nice to meet you": Mucho gusto conocerle or Encantado/a de conocerle.

    <Spanish” (“Espaῆol”) to mean the language, but in Spain, I was informed, you NEVER use it that way>

    Many people in the Basque Country, Catalunya and Galicia (where a large number speak euskerra, catalan and galego) will be especially picky about using the term castellano, but elsewhere "español" is widely used. For all practical purposes people in Andalucía speak español/castellano, the official language in all of the country.

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    " Mucho gusto" is one way to say nice to meet you. You can also say "encantada" which is like saying, I'm delighted to meet you.
    depends on the occasion...I tend to say mucho gusto

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    Whenever I am in Barcelona I have a habit of beginning a conversation by apologizing for speaking only a little castellano and no catalan, and then continuing in castellano. It seems to take the edge off of presuming that everyone defaults to castellano, which is not necessarily a good assumption in Barcelona and the Costa Brava. As for my "Mexican accent" it was something I had never thought about before, but I suppose it is similar to someone raised in Louisiana visiting Long Island -- technically both regions speak English, but good luck understanding each other!

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    Tejana, instead of sangría I´d have a glass of good wine (red is my favorite), or a "caña" (in Madrid, it´s a small glass of draught beer), or even a glass of white wine. We tend to drink white wine in the morning, red for afternoon and night. In the north, we drink a lot of cider (natural cider, not sweet, not sparkling, just pure fermented apple juice, 6,5º alcohol content). Also, "zurito", in the BAsque Country it´s a small glass of beer to go with the pintxos (so you don´t get drunk, something not socially accepted in a bar).

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