Thursday, 31 May 2012

On Our Own Again - Madrid and Bilbao

Our family holiday ended with a teary departure at Malaga Airport. My sister, brother-in-law and mother flew back to England. We on the other hand headed to the bus station, on our way north to Basque Country.

It was a long trip, so a quick overnight stop in Madrid was in order. Tia had visited here before, and after a long bus ride, I didn’t feel up to hitting the big attractions, but I did enjoy walking the streets. For a city it was pretty impressive with big plazas like Plaza Mayor and Sol. We were looking for dinner, and stumbled across a place that was quite busy with Spanish speaking patrons. Peeking inside we saw many ham legs hanging from the ceiling and thought, mmm … jamon.

We elbowed our way to the bar and order a plate of jamon iberico on fresh bread with some tomato based sauce and a beer - tasty to say the least. The Spanish really do know how to cure meat. We were a hundred metres down the road when Tia insisted we take a photo of the place so we could remember the name. It turns out we just had jamon at the Museum of Jamon …

Madrid Streets
For dessert we scouted out one dish that kept eluding us, chocolate con churros, which seemed to be a popular midnight snack and so finding a location for our treat was easy. We order two mugs full of chocolate, loaded up on a dozen donut sticks and dipped, licked and crunched our way through the thick, rich brown sauce.

Chocolate con Churros - Madrid
Another bus ride took us to Bilbao, the capital of Basque Country. It was a vibrant and culturally dynamic city that also had that relaxed, carefree feel. This could be seen in the variety of architecture, where old classic buildings sat comfortably beside very modern, brazen statements such as the titanic Museo Guggenheim.

Angles of the titanium clad Museo Guggenheim - Bilbao
Angles of the titanium clad Museo Guggenheim - Bilbao
Angles of the titanium clad Museo Guggenheim - Bilbao
Everything seemed to gel well together; nothing seemed out of place. We spent a day walking and sight seeing around the small city centre, which really clicked with us.

Foot bridge over the river in Bilbao
The prey of a giant spider near Museo Guggenheim - Bilbao
This was also the first place where we sampled that sixth food group, Basque Country pintxos. These amazing two-bite sized dishes were a real eye-opener. The thing to do here was to do a txikiteo (do a bar hop) while eating the specialty for that particular bar. For dinner we would sample about four bars and have a couple of pintxos at each, a great way to spend the evening.

Beer and Assorted Pintxos - Bilbao
Tortilla de Patatas (Spanish Potato Cake) - Bilbao
We also had our first menu del dia, basically a set menu that changes every day. So for lunch we found a restaurant that looked popular and was not too expensive, and ordered our three-course meal inclusive of a drink. I went for a wine and Tia chose water; however we had no idea that the complimentary beverage was not just a glass but a whole bottle worth. Little wonder that the Spanish need a siesta after lunch - a ritual that we both enjoyed soon after, together with many locals in a nearby sunny park, sobering up from lunch.

Friday, 25 May 2012

Antics in Antequera

Another day of Andalucian exploration. I had gotten itchy feet and, for inspiration, picked up one of the many books and brochures lying around the holiday apartment. This one was called Antequera, with a photo of some interesting looking rocks on the back. Ben figured this was as good a reason as any to do a day trip, plus Shilo needed to hitched a ride to catch up with an old friend, so we tried not to feel entirely selfish stealing the car for the day.

After a few wrong turns, followed by a lucky right, we made it into and out of busy Malaga city to arrive at the chilled town of Antequera. Normal Spanish town life prevailed with hardly any tourists it would seem, and it was nice starting off with a breakfast coffee to soak it up.

Browsing Antequera for Streetscapes and Churros
Once we were among the narrow streets we attempted to find one of the main attractions of Antequera, the Alcazaba. It was a 14th century fortress and therefore the largest building in the town on top of a hill, so we did not think it would be too difficult to find, especially since we thought we were clever and could memorise the town's topography without a map. Oops, wrong hill we realised as we snapped this shot of our intended destination before heading to the other side of town.

View of Alcazaba over Antequera Town
Wrong turns did not fazed us as Antequera was a pleasant place to get lost in. Evidence of ancient Rome lay among at least 30 medieval churches dotted around the small town and centuries-old archways and buildings blended seamlessly with modern houses and shopfronts. Plus we held hopes of stumbling across a churreria (alas, not today unfortunately).

16th Century Arco de los Gigantes (Arch of the Giants) leading to Plaza Alta - Antequera, Malaga Province
Plaza de Santiago with central fountain, Iglesia de Santiago on the left and Santa Eufemia Convent on the right - Antequera, Malaga Province
This beautiful panoramic shot from the ramparts of the Alcazaba takes in the great view of the town and the hills beyond, including Face Mountain (to the right) which, when seen at the right angle, really does look like the profile of a face looking up!

Count the Churches. 180 degree panoramic of the beautiful town of Antequera
Next we headed out of town to walk the easy ruta amarilla (yellow route) of the El Torcal Nature Reserve. These fascinating limestone rock layers were forced up out of the sea hundreds of millions of years ago, but somehow maintained their horizontal layered form into which time, wind and rain have chiseled fascinating rock patterns.

El Torcal Panoramic - near Antequera, Malaga Province
Huge Natural Rock Stack Formations - El Torcal near Antequera
Poking About the Rocks of El Torcal - near Antequera
At first it looked like some professional rock stacker had become a little overzealous with their occupation, but this just proved that nature itself was just as crazy.

180 degree panoramic of the El Torcal landscape - near Antequera
An All Natural Rock Stack - El Torcal near Antequera
Mountain goats and other rock climbing enthusiasts would probably get a kick out of this as well.

Out of Reach. Ibex standing high up on top of rock formations - El Torcal near Antequera
Standing on a rock stack - El Torcal near Antequera
We were on a bit of a high after our rock scrambling sojourn, so we were a bit disappointed with the lack of birdlife at our final stop at Laguna de Fuente de Piedra, a lake known for its flamingo population. Most likely the wrong time of year since we only saw one pale flamingo picking among the reeds. No worries, we had a great day anyway.

Thursday, 24 May 2012

Because We Can - Tangier, Morocco

As the most southerly region in Spain, Andalucia also happened to be the closest we would get to Africa this trip. So when someone randomly joked about hopping over to another continent we immediately thought, well heck, why not?! So Jude was to get another set of immigration stamps on her passport.

Jude in a Hat. On the way to Morocco
Slipping past the rock of Gibraltar, we offloaded the car on the Spanish side into Tarifa's ferry carpark, where we boarded the early morning ferry bound for Tangier, Morocco. Fresh off the boat, we somehow ended up in the hands of local guide Mustafa and his driver friend Fayed. As we headed out towards the city, Mustafa quickly pointed out that some celebrity was on the ferry with us. "Some American," he said, "Lenny Kravitz I think." "Really?" We were skeptical, but sure enough, at the next set of lights the aforementioned man was reclining in the passenger seat of the car next to us. As you do! We grinned and shrugged, as I spent the rest of the day trying to get the song Fly Away out of my head.

Moroccan Heat - The Medina, Tangier
Mustafa was rattling off historic dates, pointing out French, Spanish and Arabian influenced buildings, remarking upon famous people's mansions ("and to your left is the house of the Prince of Saudi Arabia …"), but we were too dazzled by the fact that we were in Africa! A quick caffeine and carbohydrate stop put us back on track, and we headed towards the retail pastures of the Old Medina of Tangier.

Spot the Satellite Dish - The Old Medina, Tangier
For this was the pull that Tangier had for Europeans - a dusty city of bazaars where hustlers abounded, haggling was expected, and tour guides were in the business of collecting sales commission. But instead of getting us down, this just put us back into the exciting vibe of Southeast Asia again, except with very Moroccan sights, sounds and smells filling the air.

Beautiful Door and Lamps - The Medina, Tangier
Welcoming Colours on a Door - The Medina, Tangier
Light and Shadows on Houses - The Medina, Tangier
Graffiti on the Wall - The Medina, Tangier
White Walls and Ramparts - The Medina, Tangier
Morocco on Shoe Strings - The Medina, Tangier
Khubz (Moroccan Round Flat Bread) - The Medina, Tangier
Spices, Grains, Peas and Beans - The Medina, Tangier
An average, but substantial lunch of traditional Moroccan dishes sustained us during the ensuing marathon around the Medina streets.

Mint Tea - The Medina, Tangier
Pastilla - The Medina, Tangier
Chicken and Vegetable Tagine - The Medina, Tangier
This day was my first experience souvenir shopping with Shilo. I was quite surprised to discover this other side of my mother-in-law, as Shilo's pile of Moroccan carpets, shoes and other trinkets grew bigger and bigger in happy defiance of the threat of airline excess baggage fees. However I couldn't help but agree that she got some pretty good deals, as we all discovered the wicked joys of haggling again, and found that the walkaway trick still works (sometimes).

Lantern Light. While getting hustled by carpet sellers - The Medina, Tangier
Back on the boat to Spain that afternoon, a little heavier but a lot happier.

Tuesday, 22 May 2012

Over the Hills - Ronda and Casares

One fine day we spent in Ronda, a charming historical town precipitously perched along dramatic escarpments and across the deep El Tajo Gorge.

Houses on the Tajo Gorge - Ronda, Malaga Province
We adjusted our timetables to that of the Spanish, where lunch was not even thought of until after 2pm, siesta was taken very seriously (people would stop by the side of the road to nap in their cars), and dinner before 9pm was a strangeness pursued only by certain tourists. Nibbling on melt-in-your-mouth thin slices of jamon iberico, we enjoyed the sights and took in the laid-back plaza ambience.

Stretch! Trying to reach the door knockers on this massive church door - Ronda, Malaga Province
Church of Socorro, Plaza del Socorro - Ronda, Malaga Province
Descending the hills towards Casares, we stopped several times for Ben to shoot the landscape that had turned golden with the setting sun.

Castle and Village of Casares, Costa Del Sol
Sunset over Casares, Costa Del Sol
Lone Tree at Sunset - near Casares, Costa Del Sol
Some curious dogs came out to see who had come to visit, and we all couldn't resist a little play.

El Blanco puppydog - near Casares, Costa Del Sol
At Casares we tried to find a place for dinner. It was a little early (for the Spanish) but thinking that there may have been more options closer to the centre, we attempted to drive our huge seven-seater into town. Hmm, not such a good idea we realised, noticing the walls closing in as the steep streets became narrower and narrower. Just at the point where one cannot reverse, another car came in the opposite direction. Side mirrors were folded in, passenger panic rose, and Jude must have felt the tension as she started to wail; we had all pretty much given up the paint of at least one of the side panels when suddenly the street opened up to a small but breathable plaza. Funnily enough, the locals didn't seem to blink an eyelid at our vehicle's transgressions, as Ben stopped for a bit to regain his senses, before swinging a multi-point turn to drive back down the alleyway again. All European streets seemed big and tame after that little exercise. No wonder scooters are so popular.

Pueblos Blancos - Casares, Costa Del Sol
Tired, hungry and mildly traumatised, we stopped at a restaurant off the main road out of Casares. This turned out to be one of the best meals that we had in Spain, as we were treated to fresh, creative and perfectly prepared Spanish takes on traditional food, complete with great wine, warm friendly service and quite a reasonable price tag to match.

Grilled Vegetables. Dinner at Venta Garcia Restaurant - Casares, Costa Del Sol
Chicken Salad. Dinner at Venta Garcia Restaurant - Casares, Costa Del Sol
Roast Pork and Apple Sauce. Dinner at Venta Garcia Restaurant - Casares, Costa Del Sol
Not a bad reward for a fun day's outing.

Monday, 21 May 2012

Under the Andalucian Sky

The family decided to go to Spain for the week. This naturally entitled us to the same privilege and thus began our tour of South Western Europe. We were all so proud of Jude taking her first international flight, although I couldn't help but feel a slight pang of jealousy as she managed to get her British passport weathered with a Spanish immigration stamp at barely three months old!

Nonna and Jude - Casares del Sol
Blue and White - Casares, Costa Del Sol
Malaga was a beautifully sunny 25 degrees celcius as we picked up our seven seater people mover from the hire carpark. Ben practised driving on the right side of the road while going along 130 kilometre per hour Spanish highways, as Layla calmly navigated to the holiday apartment in Casares; Shilo and I tried to convince our youngest passenger that the fluorescent tangerine hired carseat was not all that bad. It was supposed to be a quick Carrefour supermarket stop for supplies, but as soon as we entered our jaws just dropped. Rows upon rows of whole jamon legs were strung alongside dried sausages of all sizes, shapes and colours, luring us across the aisles to the charcuterie section where we were blown away by the crazy amount of choice. In Australia thin slices of this beautiful dried ham would be an expensive gourmet pleasure; here this was just the normal stuff from standard deli. Spain had just elevated the standard of our ham palates to the next level.

Warm Reception. Timber Balconies and a Blue Sky - Ronda, Malaga Province
At the holiday apartment, another sun-soaked balcony offered deep azure sky views over terracotta terrace houses to the horizon of the Mediterranean Sea. Some days we'd wake up late, swim in the pool or laze by it (in my case, try to even out a bad t-shirt, shorts and sandals tan developed over four months in Southeast Asia), sip crisp glasses of vino rioja blanco (or bottles of San Miguel), and pig out on hastily selected but oh-so-tasty platters of chorizo, morcilla, goat's or manchego sheep's cheese, pickles, olives, garden salads and fresh crusty breads.

Our tasty platter of chorizo, morcilla, goat's or manchego sheep's cheese, pickles, olives, garden salads and fresh crusty breads. - Casares

Castle Ruins on the Beach - Sabinillas, Costa Del Sol
Other days we'd stroll down to nearby beachside village of Sabinillas, savouring sangrias (and more San Miguels), paella and tapas, before browsing the Sunday market for trinkets. Hours would be spent chatting and general people watching.

Dinner at Sabinillas - Costa Del Sol
Spanish Men Playing Cards - Sabinillas, Costa Del Sol
Spanish life was good.