Tag Archives: Spain

Glazed Olambrillas

This is a series of posts about Italy, Malta, and Spain that starts here.

If Lynn was as disappointed in the hotel breakfast buffet as I was, she didn’t show it, and it didn’t prevent us from holding our usual hour-long breakfast conversation.

Lynn had already informed me that she would boycott travel to the U.S. while Trump was in office.  She and her husband were contemplating a trip to Helsinki and Russia.  She had a friend, a former colleague from when she worked for Nokia, who might be interested in joining them.  Might I be interested in joining them?  It would be some anniversary of the Finnish composer Jean Sibelius’ … birth, death … I can’t remember, and Helsinki would spruce up its concert halls for a special slate of performances in his honor.  They would meet her Nokia friend in Helsinki, then take the train to Moscow and on to St. Petersburg to visit the Hermitage Museum.

“But wait,” I challenged her, “You’ll go to Russia, which has a despotic ruler, but you won’t come to the U.S.?”

“But you lot chose Trump,” Lynn replied. Ouch.

We talked about our travel bucket lists.  Both lists include Russia, specifically the Hermitage, and I would love to make a pilgrimage to Tolstoy’s house.  Mine list also includes: some sort of boat trip through the Amazon, a yoga/meditation spa retreat somewhere in southeast Asia possibly on a lagoon, hiking through Japan and eating sushi along the way instead of gorp, and—I recently snorkeled for the first time in Belize—anywhere that offers snorkeling on a reef gets extra points.

“I’d also like to spend some time living on a narrow boat to see how that would be,” I added.  “I looked at house boats in St. Paul a couple years ago.  They’re beautiful inside, lots of gorgeous woods, and you don’t pay property taxes!  But it’s Minnesota … in the winter you have to shrink wrap your boat in plastic or set bubblers around it to keep it from being crushed by ice.”

Lynn appeared to shudder; she is not a fan of boats, especially ones where you have to walk up a gang plank while the boat is rocking front to back and side to side.

“I quite fancy going to Ethiopia,” she said.  We had discussed the possibility of meeting up there the previous year, when I had thought I might go for work.  Alas, that didn’t materialize.  Then a state of emergency was declared due to protests by the country’s ethnic groups in which hundreds of people were killed.  Our talk pivoted to ethnic conflicts, war, international development, torture, and genocide.

“Well, that’s a good cue to move along to the Transito museum, isn’t it?” I suggested.  And so we did.

It’s actually called the Synagogue of El Transito.  It was founded by a guy named Samuel ha-Levi Abulafia, who was treasurer to the king of Castile in the mid-14th Century.  After the Jews were expelled a hundred and fifty years later, it was renamed the Church of the Transit of the Virgin.

Thankfully the place was only steps from our hotel so we were able to find it without getting lost. It was like a very, very small version of the Alhambra, with what I would call Moorish designs.  This made sense because most of the work on it was carried out by Muslim craftsman—back in the day when we all got along.  You know, that one day.

There was an attached museum with very, very detailed written history of the Jews in Spain, which I skipped, and a collection of Sephardi religious and household items in what used to be the women’s balcony (In Orthodox synagogues, women sat separate from men in a balcony or behind a screen where they can’t be seen, and they aren’t counted in the 10 attendees required to hold a service.)  This is a circumcision chair.  Don’t ask me how it’s used.

There were steps leading down to the foundation, which promised some marvelous archeological find but which contained only this sign:

Glazed olambrillas? They sounded tasty, whatever they were.

We walked out to explore the city and find some lunch.

Feature Stories

This is a series of posts about Italy, Malta, and Spain that starts here.

After the Alhambra Palace, the Sercotel San Juan de los Reyes hotel seemed like walking out of a Technicolor movie into a black and white one.  No more sunny terrace, crisp white monogrammed sheets, beautiful tiled bathroom, or heaps of smoked salmon at the breakfast buffet.

Lynn had booked separate rooms for this next-to-last leg of the trip.  We had shared rooms in Madrid and Granada.  We got along fine, but sometimes it’s nice to have your own space for a few nights.  I was looking forward to some long baths, which would have felt weird in a shared room.

The Sercotel wasn’t a dump; it’s not fair to compare any hotel to the Alhambra Palace. It certainly wasn’t as bad as the EconoLodge Vince and I stayed at in Green Bay, Wisconsin on our pilgrimage to see John Cleese.

The Sercotel was a mid-range hotel.  Functional but worn around the edges.  The ceiling was sloped, with a skylight that had one of those complicated blinds I could never figure out. There were various possibilities, none of which I could operationalize.  I was able to open the window but it wouldn’t stay open unless it was propped with something.

My room in Sorrento had had one of these skylights, and I had used a spare pillow to prop it open and block the light, since the blind kept snapping open with an alarming noise.  There was a thunder storm in the night and the pillow got soaked.  Before I realized that it now weighed 40 pounds, I went to grab it, forcefully, and it nearly slid out of the third-story window.  I grabbed it by the corner at the last second.  The image of a wizened Italian mama getting bonked by a giant marshmallow-like missile while she pushed her bread cart made me wince. I put the pillow in the bathtub to make them wonder what I’d been up to, and left a big tip.

So I was wise to these skylights, and I propped the one at the Sercotel with three “courtesy” size bars of unwrapped soap.  There was no way to block the light, but that wasn’t a problem in Toledo because it was so gloomy.

I snooped around the room to check out the features.  The shower was another European thing I’d seen many times.  It featured a nozzle on a long pipe with three different dials marked with indecipherable numbers, letters, and symbols.  I knew the one for water temperature had a stop—that is, if you tried to get water warmer than tepid you would hit a stop—you had to intentionally hold in a button to go beyond luke warm.  This is a nanny function to keep children and idiots from scalding themselves.  I guess it’s a good thing but I have to re-learn it every time.

The complimentary toiletries included a large sponge—did people get so grimy in Toledo that they couldn’t wait until they got home to exfoliate?  Then there was a comb:

I couldn’t resist posting a photo of it on Facebook and asking, “Who uses these free hotel combs?”

Immediately, two of my cousins responded that they wanted it.  Then a friend wrote, “We can never use these combs because they’re not designed for ethnic hair.”  We’re talking Jew-fros.  I was tempted to respond, “I’ll be sure to lambaste this hotel on Trip Advisor for its anti-ethnic-hair combs.”

Another day, another breakfast buffet.  Now, you know me, I’m not one to be critical.  But the buffet at the Sercotel featured dry white bread, spam-like rendered pork products, and processed cheese.  It was also energy inefficient.  The “toaster,” below, blasted out enough heat to keep the whole hotel warm, but never actually toasted the bread.

There was a cappuccino-espresso-coffee apparatus though, and that’s the main thing in the morning.  I stuffed myself with cheese toast while Lynn ate the Spammish ham.

“Londoners ate Spam for decades after the war,” Lynn said.  “I had hoped to never see anything like it again.”

Out on the Town in Toledo

This is a series of posts about Italy, Malta, and Spain that starts here.

After four hours on a bus with, like, the Valley Girls from Colorado, we arrived in Toledo around 5:00 pm.

I had suggested Toledo when Lynn and I were exchanging emails about the trip.  I dimly recalled from my Jewish education that Toledo was a center of medieval Jewish mysticism.  I can’t say I felt any mystical vibes there, but there were definitely many Jewish—and Islamic—references.  Of course, any actual Jews and Muslims had been expelled from Spain in the 15th Century, but the city did its best to attract tourists based on its religious diversity of 600 years ago.

To sum up the weather in Toledo in one word, I would use the word “gloom.”  It was gloomy all day, with rain off and on, and dark at 6:00 pm.  Dark in the way of someone flipping off a light switch, not in the way of a slow, sweetly colorful gloaming.

I loved it.  I had loved Granada for its sunniness, and now I loved Toledo for its dreariness.  I’m flexible like that, and it’s a really good trait if you’re a traveler because you never know what you’re in for.  You have to roll with changes and surprises; to be delighted by them is even better.

We were famished after our long journey so we popped out onto the street to see what we could find to eat.  Everything in Toledo seemed to close at sundown.  Stores, restaurants, even the street lights, if there were any, were turned off.  This made it difficult for us to find our way around—not that we had any difficulties getting lost in the brightest daylight.

We saw a light at the end of a street and walked toward it.  It was a very unappealing-looking tourist restaurant with the same sign we’d seen elsewhere advertising pizza, hamburgers, schnitzel and sauerkraut, and other dishes that could be defrosted in the microwave for tourists from various gastronomically unadventurous countries.

But it was the only thing open, so we went in.  We were the only customers, it being “only” 6:30, and the kids who ran the place seemed flustered.  What could these tourists possibly want at this time of day?

“Oh look,” Lynn said, pointing at the oily menu, “They’ve got mussels.  Surely those wouldn’t be frozen?  And they come with chips.”

“Will they be chip chips, or crisp chips?” I wondered aloud.  Chips, to Brits, mean what Americans call French fries, while crisps are what Americans call potato chips.

“Ooh, let’s find out!” Lynn enthused as we tried for 15 minutes to flag down one of the teen employees who were loitering in a clutch at the bar.  The mussels with chips arrived, along with a bottle of bubbly, and here’s what they were:

The mussels appeared to be smoked, and they were artistically (possibly accidental) arranged on top of potato chips, with a brownish red sauce poured over it all. Lynn looked dubious but after tucking in we both agreed it was delicious.  Of course we were very hungry, but so what.  The house cava or brut or prosecco or whatever it was cost about 5€ and was excellent.  As I’ve lamented before, why can’t we get good cheap house and happy hour wines in America?  It’s just not fair.

A tour bus appeared outside and about 75 Spanish-speaking tourists who appeared to be retirees poured in.  Every single one ordered a cup of tea.  “Not one ordered a beer or a glass of wine,” I observed.  “Maybe it’s an AA convention?”

“They’re pensioners,” Lynn answered, “on a package tour, and tea is included but they’d have to pay extra for a beer.”

I’ve been on package tours, and on none of them did we talk as garrulously as this group.

Suddenly, at some invisible signal, they all started to file out.  A woman explained as she passed us that they were on a high school reunion trip.  She said this rapturously, as though it was the most exciting thing that had ever happened to her.

Bless her. Being on a bus with my aged high school class would be a nightmare to me.

Like, Totally, Sort Of

This is a series of posts about Italy, Malta, and Spain that starts here.

Juan drove us back to the Palace, our heads nodding in a stupor in the back seat.  As we passed through the exurbs of Granada, Juan pointed out the area where he lived with his wife and kids.  It was mile after mile of new high-rise buildings.  Not as scenic as the white villages or central Granada, but probably more spacious and affordable.

His kids were five and seven, which made me realize he was probably a lot younger than I’d guessed.  I felt sheepish about the lecherous comment I’d made to Lynn when I first saw him.  “We have a sort of ‘women’s privilege’,” I said to Lynn later, “where we can make smarmy remarks about men but if they did the same toward a woman we would be disgusted with them”

“That’s changing though,” she remarked.  “In HR circles you can’t get away with anything like that, no matter who you are.”

We would move on to Toledo tomorrow.  We’d been in Granada five nights and at last, we sat on the hotel terrace again and had the excellent tapas platter, as we should have done every night.

The next morning, after stuffing myself with enough smoked salmon to tide me over until the next trip, we caught a cab to the bus station.  It was full of “colorful” characters, which is probably an insensitive word.  There was a nun and a dwarf, but not a dwarf nun like there had been in Rome. There was a mute who was begging with a placard that said, “Soy mudo.”  There were your standard backpackers sleeping on their packs, playing guitar, and dividing a Snicker’s bar five ways with a Swiss Army knife.

There were the usual vending machines offering … Snicker’s bars and cigarettes, but also these fabulous stands selling dried fruit and gelato.

dried-fruit gelatos

No one seemed to be buying.  I didn’t buy anything, so they’ll probably be replaced by a MacDonald’s.  It’s all my fault!

We were seated on the bus across the aisle from two American college students whose conversation consisted mainly of these words: like, totally, actually, literally, I mean, you know, sort of, kind of, and gross.  They weren’t talking loudly, but their voices carried in the way of people who are cock sure of themselves.

“I’m like, totally going to Portugal.  I mean, it’s actually on my list, although, like, my friend Chelsea posted pics of the food on Instagram and it’s kind of like gross, you know, sort of like, totally gross.”

It was a four-hour bus ride.

There was no wireless but the students fiddled nonstop with their phones.  Were they paying for data roaming? They both wore sunglasses and ear buds, even while talking to one another, which seems like the height of rudeness.  At least they could have done that thing where you take out one ear bud in a feeble attempt to demonstrate you give a shit about the person who is trying to talk to you.  I often lift my sun glasses when I’m speaking to someone so I can make eye contact to acknowledge they are human.

Lynn sat in the aisle seat reading a book, apparently unperturbed.  Maybe because I’m American, I’m embarrassed by annoying Americans—although I’ve been one myself plenty of times.  But I know myself; once I clock on to something that bugs me, I have a very hard time pulling my focus away.

The scenery changed from olive groves to gently rolling reddish-hued hills.  I did a pretty good job of focusing on it until I noticed the students never looked out the window.

Then I caught this: “Like, Ben Carson is totally so smart!  I mean, he should actually be kind of like, the head of something, you know.”

My knee jerked–literally–and I clutched Lynn’s arm to stop myself from leaning across and totally giving them, like, a piece of my mind.

“Maybe they’re being sarcastic,” Lynn whispered.  Yes, I told myself shakily, that must be it.  I put in my ear buds and played some Pink Floyd.  I wasn’t going to let them ruin the landscape for me.

Why the Jews were Expelled from Spain

This is a series of posts about Italy, Malta, and Spain that starts here.

Lynn and I were ensconced in the back of the Mercedes, well supplied with bottled water and potato chips in case the car broke down in the Sierra Nevada Mountains.

Our destination: the “white vilalges” Pampaniera and Capilera on the other side of the Sierra Nevada from Granada.


We took two-lane roads through the mountains, winding around hairpin curves.  If you were prone to motion sickness, you would definitely want to take a Dramamine for this ride.

Lynn and I chatted with each other and I asked Juan questions now and then.  This was the area where Spain’s bottled water came from, he said, which made sense since it was mountains.  He was from a town we would pass through, Bubion, population 300.  His family still lived there.  We stopped for a shepherd with a flock of goats crossing the road.  That answered my question about what people did for a living here.  They kept goats and sheep and bees, but they mostly depended on tourism.

After a couple hours, Juan asked which village we wanted to stop in first. I don’t remember which one it was because they looked the same: tiny, white-washed towns of a couple dozen buildings clustered around a bend in the road.

“How much time do you want here?” he asked.  Ummm…we didn’t know, never having been “here” before, but we thought an hour would be enough.

Juan hung out with some friends while Lynn and I wandered around.  Now remember, it was the off season.  We appeared to be the only tourists, and a lot of businesses were shut, the owners probably off to Florida for the season.

Two shops were open.  They featured the local craft specialty—thick, heavy, woven rugs that you would pay 10€ to buy and 100€ to get home.  There was also much unremarkable pottery and fashionable women’s clothing made in China.  It was one of those places where you feel like you should buy something to support the local economy, but I couldn’t muster enough interest to pick anything out.  I think Lynn bought a pottery bowl.

We walked up the road to get a view of the mountains—which were spectacular—and found a B&B that served coffee.  We sat in the garden and drank coffee; not a bad way to kill a morning.


After an hour we ambled down the hill, found Juan, and proceeded to the next village, which looked exactly like the first.  I probably sound like I’m complaining but I’m not, they were lovely and picturesque but they did look the same and I knew a limited number of Spanish superlatives so I didn’t know what I would tell Juan about this one when we reconnoitered.

white-village-2 white-village pampaniera balconies

We stepped into a tiny empty church and a man followed our every move.  “There’s a 2€ admission!” he informed us.  We paid it and beat it out of there.

It was nearly 2pm so there was a restaurant open for lunch.  We climbed to the roof top patio and the waitress was clearly not happy to have customers.  The menu was limited to combinations of ham, eggs, and bacon.  I ordered “potatoes with bacon” sans bacon, Lynn ordered ham and eggs, and we both got a beer.  When the food arrived a half hour later, my potatoes were heaped with bacon—sarcastic bacon?—and Lynn’s plate had a pile of ham topped with a raw egg.

I gave Lynn my bacon and she fed it to a cat that was slinking nearby.  The waitress, forced to emerge from the interior by the arrival of more tourists, glared at us.

“I have a theory,” Lynn said, “that the Jews were expelled from Spain because they didn’t consume enough pork products.”  There was much laughter, which the waitress appeared to take as a personal affront.

Within a minute we were surrounded by a dozen cats who consumed all the bacon, raw-egg saturated ham, and the dry white bread in our bread basket.

Beer and potatoes in the sun made for lovely naps as we were driven back to the Alhambra Palace for our last night there.

All Over the Place

This is a series of posts about Italy, Malta, and Spain that starts here.

I had read about something called the white villages.  I didn’t really get what they were, how we would get to them, or what we would do when we got there, but I pitched them to Lynn for our last day in Granada.

“We could rent a car,” I said.  “I love to drive!   We drove all the way to New Orleans and back.  I drove in the south of France and loved the mountain roads … I’ve driven in Chicago and LA …”

Hire a car?” said Lynn skeptically. “Nothing against your driving, but have you noticed how well we do on foot, with a map?  Nooooo, I don’t think so.”

She suggested we procure a driver.  We asked at the front desk and boom, it was done.  The “taxi” as the concierge called it, would pick us up at nine the next day and take us to two or three white villages outside of Granada.  It would take five or six hours and cost around 80€. This was actually a lot less than a car rental.

We waited on the steps of the Alhambra Palace.  Vehicles were parked higgledy piggledy in front of the hotel, where two tiny lanes ran into one another.

There was a Bimbo Pan truck.  “I love that name,” I said.  “I first saw it in Mexico and didn’t realize they would have it here.

Reader, Bimbo is a bread company.  The founder died recently, so in reading his obit I learned that the name Bimbo was a combination of Bambi and bingo.  I guess it was supposed to appeal to kids.  Back in 1945 Mexico it was innocent enough.

Now I just looked up the word bimbo.  It originated from the Italian “male child” (a female child would be bimba) and at first it just meant “a guy” in American slang but somehow back in the 40s morphed to mean an “attractive but unintelligent female.”  Maybe the founder of the bread company would have named his concern Bango if he’d known what bimbo meant north of the border.  Wait, scratch that.

In case you are snickering at the name, you should know that Grupo Bimbo owns owns Wonder Bread and Sara Lee and had revenues of $14 billion in 2014.  Not bad for a third world country.

In Mexico, the Bimbo trucks were ubiquitous.


Bimbo sponsored the local futbol league where I first studied Spanish, in Cuernavaca, so I bought a tight-fitting jersey as a joke.  It was supposed to be ironic, but back in the US, no one got it; they just averted their eyes.

A handsome man stood next to a black Mercedes.

“Wouldn’t it be nice if that was our driver,” I nudged Lynn lewdly. She ignored me.

Then the man walked over and asked in Spanish if we were Ana and Leena.  Woot!

We sat in the back.  Many travel guides advise women to sit in the back of taxis because otherwise the driver will assume you’re a slut who wants to be raped.  It makes you wonder about the travel guide writers. Aside from a taxi driver in Dubai dropping me off at a brothel, I’ve never felt threatened by a driver.

Juan, our driver, had clearly set up the back seat for passengers, with water bottles and snacks.  He worked as a driver for excursions such as this one, and yes it was his car.  I was able to carry on a basic conversation with him because he spoke slowly and, as we wound through the steep winding foothills of the Sierra Madre, learned that he was from one of the white villages.

This was much better than me driving.  We passed hundreds of wind turbines, and Lynn and I talked about the turbines in the Scottish highlands, where she lives and where her husband crusades to get them placed appropriately—not wrecking the views or ruining neighbors’ lives with their noise.  He was currently on edge, awaiting news on a funding proposal to set up turbines that would benefit the community in perpetuity.

Strangers, All

This is a series of posts about Italy, Malta, and Spain that starts here.

The trolley ride was worth the agro of finding the tickets and figuring out how to get on the damn thing.  As I’ve written, many of the streets of Granada are no wider than one lane.  The trolley was narrow, but it came within inches of grinding against the stone walls on either side.  Granada is also very hilly.  At one point we were going downhill and it felt like the brakes weren’t engaging.  Everyone cried out in alarm.  I think there may have been an old woman with a basket of kittens crossing in front of us.  At the last minute the trolley lurched to a stop and we all laughed nervously in relief.

Lynn and I wanted to find a fast, cheap lunch place.  We came upon a hole-in-the-wall Syrian restaurant that didn’t serve alcohol but that was okay.  The place was maybe 12 by 12 feet, had four tables, and was decorated with rugs depicting scenes from Syria, presumably. It was run by a man and wife; she was the cook and he ran the front of the house, such as it was.  He spoke some English and was able to tell us he had come from Syria two years before.

The door opened and a little girl waltzed in, as little kids do, twirling and fidgeting and humming.  Her father gave her a very long hug; I wondered if that was his usual style or if he fiercely appreciated being safe in Spain with his family.  Was this all of his family?  He went in back and came out with a giant present for her—a puppet set.  She sat near us and I spoke Spanish with her.  She was five years old and no, it wasn’t her birthday; the present was from her aunt and uncle who lived far away.

Our host brought our food.  After my two-week trip to the Middle East the year before, I had sworn I would never eat hummus again.  But it was great to have something different—hummus, falafel, baba ganoush, a simple salad with vinegar, and olives and pita bread.

Other customers filtered in and I heard an American accent.  It turned out that one of the guys at the table next to ours was a Syrian-American from Chicago visiting cousins in Granada.

I asked where the toilet was, and the owner pointed behind me.  What?  I stood up and turned around, then parted two rugs hanging from the ceiling to reveal a dilapidated door that didn’t lock.  Now, “toilet” in Spain and most other places in the world means what most Americans call the “bathroom.”  The bath “room” was smaller than a broom closet and the actual toilet was not bolted to the floor so it made a loud thunking noise when I sat down.  It was awkward, and I just had to do what I had to do even though probably everyone in the restaurant could hear it.  Where was the loud music when you needed it?

Lynn and I went our separate ways for the afternoon.  I visited the Musuem of the Sephardi aka the torture museum, which I wrote about as soon as I returned.

As I write this, the headline on the front page of the Sunday Minneapolis Star Tribune newspaper is, “Twin Cities Jewish Community Shaken by Rising Anti-Semitism.”  So while the exhibit was historical, it really wasn’t.

Meanwhile, Lynn had found the tourist office and had asked about the Flamenco shows.  To my relief, she had decided she didn’t need to see one.

We tried another hole-in-the-wall restaurant for dinner.  We ordered a pizza and it was clearly a frozen one that had been microwaved.  So what?  We wolfed it down, and their cheap house red wine was fantastic.

We were the only ones in the place besides a young woman who we guessed was Chinese.  She was frantically trying to get her mobile to work.  I wondered if she was homesick.  We would have been happy to keep her company her if she had ever looked up from her phone.