We began our journey abroad, flying in to Madrid and spending the next three and a half weeks in Spain, starting our trip in the north. Our good friend and local Munia, was there to meet us and host us in Madrid on the first day of our arrival, and we spent the entire evening catching up on the last year we had missed out on in each others lives. The following morning Munia, her husband Mon, and us stuffed our bags into her silver Polo and began our road trip toward Munia's hometown; the great Santoña! The town and region is very famously known for its anchovies and having heard so many stories, we could not wait to finally be visiting!
There are many things that we loved about Spain, which you will of course be reading about, and there is no particular order in which we love all these things about the country, but I can start by saying how much we love the cured meats (I am sorry to any vegetarian readers here). On a little pit stop on our way to Santoña, we sat on the patio in the little town outside of Burgos, and sipped on some beer and devoured a plate of cecina . The meat was so soft and delicious it melted in our mouths. As I write this I can taste its distinct flavor on my tongue. But I am focusing too much on this, so back to more important things.
We arrived to Santoña in the evening and the little fishermans town was bustling, with its locals lining the small streets, eating, drinking, and enjoying the Feria de la Anchoa that happens once a year. We quickly joined the crowds and got our first taste of Santoña’s famous anchovies. (Yes, you might want to eat before continuing to read this post on Northern and Southern Spain, because it might have some side effects if you are on an empty stomach). Now, I realize the taste of anchovies is somewhat acquired, but these are no ordinary anchovies. As a big fan of the fish, we had never tasted something so heavenly. There are several different ways to eat them and when referring to grabbing some small bites (or any small snack in general like an amuse-bouche) it is called a pincho in northern Spain. The pinchos of Santoña consisted of anchovies served in many different ways. Since the Anchovy Festival was taking place, there was also a contest as to who served the best anchovy pincho. Naturally, we went around and tasted all the competitors (Marco may have tasted each more than once). Anchovies served in a shell with roca and fig marmalade, anchovies served on a fresh piece of bread with goat cheese and honey, anchovies served simply on a fresh piece of toasted bread. You name it, we tried it. You would think, that we would be anchovied-out, but we finished off the night with some deliciously home cooked anchovies at Munia’s family’s house.
The next morning after our anchovy hangover, we walked around Santona exploring its forts and beaches until it was time for more pinchos and tapas. This time we enjoyed some snails, hildas, and the most delicious mussels you have ever tasted. Marco and I wanted to come to this hole in the wall place everyday to have some more (such tasty mussels that you could swim in their broth) but unfortunately they were only open on weekends. Worry not, our gastronomic tour led us back to Munia’s house for another delicious meal prepared by her mother. Naturally, after all that eating we took a classic Spanish siesta to prepare for a Saturday night out. Which brings me to another thing we love about Spain: their gin and tonics. I realize this makes us sound a bit alcoholic, but its how they make the drink using such precision and a handful of different ingredients: orange, lemon or lime slices, and clover and cinnamon spices. It also doesn’t help when they serve it in glasses as big as my hand with all my fingers spread out :) Might be an English drink but the Spaniards know exactly what they are doing.
Making it home at 4:30am after a great night, the only natural thing to do is sleep in and have a lazy Sunday. We did exactly the opposite. We woke up at noon, put on our joggers and comfortable clothes, and hiked all the way to Faro Del Caballo. It was a pleasant hike in the beginning, as we enjoyed the beautiful scenery and climbed down 500 steep steps to the tip of the lighthouse overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. The weather was perfect, a bit on the warmer side actually, and the water looked appetizing. Of course none of us had brought our swimsuits because it was the beginning of May and the water would be ice cold. As we watched a few people jumping into the sea we wanted to rip off our clothes and do the exact same. Well, that’s exactly what Marco ended up doing. Dropped down to his man panties and jumped like Tarzan from a rope into the cold Cantabrian water. Five times. We cheered him on and basked under the Spanish sun.
So remember those 500 stairs I mentioned earlier? Those were the stairs that we had to climb in order to get back up to the top. The trip went something like this… “we can do it, its really not that bad” to “almost there” with a little of “I can’t, I need to stop” and finally “I absolutely hate this and I can’t breathe”. Exhausted from natures stair-machine workout, we had a relaxing afternoon visiting Mon's hometown of Santander.
In the morning we were off to hike the Picos de Europa, the Swiss Alps of Cantabria. Ok, so we didn’t exactly hike the mountains because they were still snowy. No, the real truth was that our legs were so sore from yesterdays ‘little’ workout, I thought my thighs would slide off the bone at any moment. So instead we rode up to the peaks in a cable car with spectacular views of the mountains and found a secluded area to reenact The Sound of Music. Another highlight of the day, was sitting down to feast in a cozy tavern style restaurant, where we devoured local-made cheeses, sausages, meats and soups. A very mountain-full meal you would say. At night we enjoyed a quiet evening back in Santona in Munia’s home discussing important topics such us ‘famous oil spills in history’ and ‘the need for quality Netflix abroad’.
The next few days included day visits to the small surfer town of Mundaka, the monastery or future Game of Throwns location of Gaztelugaxte (try saying that three times in a row), the bustling city of Bilbao, prancing around the forest in search of geometric shapes and eyes painted on the trees in Bosque Pintado De Oma, and getting lost in Biarritz, France. Don’t worry, we also did a lot of eating. But I won’t bore you with the details, because after all that we finally made it to San Sebastian; the foodie capital of Northern Spain and also well known for their pincho pote nights. Since we are on a daily travel budget and San Sebastian can be a bit expensive when it comes to getting Michelin-star level food, we decided to join the crowds for a ‘happy hour’ pincho pote night. Turns out the median age was 21 and feeling like chaperones at a high school dance, we filled up on some semi decent pinchos and tried to find a more fitting bar. Well we did, and ended up in 1983. A bar with an older bartender with a beautiful thick mustache (think of a Spanish and chubby Tom Selick), who burned his own 80s synth CDs to play in his bar, and who took 10 passionate minutes to make a cocktail. It was amazing.
Besides eating, which we did, A LOT, we spent our days walking around the beautiful streets of San Sebastian, enjoying watching the surfers in wet suits and bare feet scurry along the city streets to make it the beach and catch their waves. After sadly leaving behind San Sebastian’s gastronomical adventures, we made our last pit stop before returning to Madrid, in Rioja; one of Spain’s wine regions. We spent a day being wine snobs and getting the chance to tour Bodegas Ysios, the most stunning winery building I have seen. The architect behind the design, Santiago Calatavra, wanted the building to mimic the Sierra de Cantabria mountain range in the background, and so he designed these beautiful metallic rolling peaks as a roof. As cheesy as this sounds, the idea was well executed both outside and in.
The following morning, we left the north behind and made our way back to rainy Madrid. We said our goodbyes and ‘see you again in Japan’, to super hosts Munia and Mon, and we begin making our way down to southern Spain.
Our two-week Andalusian adventure began in Cordoba. We had arrived just in time for their yearly Festival de los Patios, where homeowners open their gardens for public viewing and a winner is selected at the end of the festival. We spent every afternoon visiting all the patios in each neighborhood and having the chance to view some of the prettiest flowers and gardens I have ever seen. Each patio was different in their own way, depending on the plants or flowers each homeowner chose to use, but it seemed that every single garden had a lemon tree, a water well and close by an old broomstick made of bamboo. Besides gazing into people’s gardens, we spent our time (yes you guessed it) eating. How can you go to Spain and not indulge in the food? By now you have probably realized that Marco and I enjoy eating a lot. In Cordoba, we had the pleasure of feasting on lots of fried seafood, salmorejo soups, and the best bull tail stew you have ever tasted.
On our last day in Cordoba we had the opportunity to visit the Mezquita Catedral or Great Mosque. This is one of most interesting buildings we had seen. And not just because it is architectural beautiful in its Moorish style, but because it represents a building that at one moment was a sacred place to different religious groups. You can see the mark left behind by each religion and walking around the vast space of the Catedral you can see the evolution of the building. A must see for anyone and not just nerdy history buffs.
From Cordoba we followed the well beaten path down to the capital and largest city in Andalusia, Sevilla. Although very beautiful, it was the first time in our trip where we experienced so many tourists gathered all together in one place. Marco and I always try to avoid large amount of tourists when we can (which is ironic since we are also tourists), but Seville is a city that attracts a lot of people from around the world. And of course, after being there for three days we understood why. From the Seville Cathedral where Christopher Columbus is buried, to the Alcazar (also known as Dorne for you GOT fans out there), and the beautiful Park De Maria Luisa. Seville’s streets are filled with history, beauty and obviously the delicious food. The only word of advice was to choose wisely, since it is a very touristy area. I will now pause to mention another thing we absolutely love about Spain. Vermouth time; that hour before you eat lunch where you sip on some Vermouth and enjoy a little tapa. Marco and I could definitely get used to being Spaniards. After lots of Vermouth o’clocks, history walks, and city scavenging, we left Seville behind.
Our next stop took us right on the water, to the beautiful town of Cadiz. We fell in love right away and it reminded us a lot of Cuba. They say that when Havana was built they based it on the city of Cadiz, and you can definitely see the similarities. Once one of the most important port cities in the world, the old town is designed accordingly with more than 100 watchtowers that where used to spot ships coming in. Quiet and quaint, we spent the next couple of days getting our first taste of summer, relaxing on Cadiz’s beaches.
Since we were in the south and right on the water we wanted to enjoy all the fresh seafood, until we discovered Bar Manteca. Run by two sons of a matador, it serves some of the most delicious cured pork. Jamon, salchichon, chorizos, lomos, and much more, are all sliced and served on waxed paper. We tried to refrain ourselves from going there twice because we wanted to try new places to eat, but we did not succeed. We tried practically everything on the menu, the waiters became our friends in the end, and we drank everything from their famous manzanilla sherry to their Vermouth, and of course cold beers. Just writing about this place, makes me want to buy a ticket to Cadiz just to visit our friends at Bar Manteca! Besides settling at Casa Manteca, we had the opportunity to visit the Torre Tavira enjoying some of the best views of Cadiz and experiencing our first camera obscura. We got to see Cadiz through a unique and very different perspective.
The final stop in Spain was the tiny wind surfing town of Tarifa known for being one of the windiest cities in Europe. Everybody had previously mentioned the high winds, but having grown up in Greece and dealt with the Meltemi winds of the Cyclades Islands, I thought we would be just fine. I was definitely wrong. On the first day as we tried to set up for a day on the beach the Levante winds began. They covered our towel and bags in seconds. The wind was so strong that the sand felt like a thousand pricks of needles against your skin. When you jumped in the water to escape the wind, the current picked you up and threw you against the crystal clear waves. After trying our hardest to take advantage of the beautiful beaches of Tarifa, we gave up and instead watched the kite surfers from a safe distance. We spent two relaxing days in windy Tarifa, getting used to its chill vibe. Our adventure in Spain was coming to an end, and we would soon be heading across the straight and in to Morocco. On our last night, we stared out past the Atlantic Ocean to our right and the Mediterranean Sea on our left and saw Morocco’s twinkling lights calling our names. The next morning, with our passports in hand we boarded the 40 minute ferry and waved goodbye to Spain, as we floated towards Africa.
Illustration by: Guido Fusetti