Tag Archives: tapas

Travels in Spain, The Origin of Tapas

According to one legend, the tapas tradition in Spain began when the King of Spain, Alfonso XIII, visited a tavern in the town of Ventorillo del Chato in the province of Cádiz, and ordered a glass of sherry.  On this particular day there was a gusty wind, so the innkeeper served him his glass of sherry covered by a slice of ham supposedly to prevent the sherry from getting dirty but more likely because he didn’t want to have his head cut off!

The King finished the sherry and ate the ham, and when he asked for a second glass, he requested another tapa or ‘cover’ just like the first.  This evolved into the practice of using slices of bread or meat as a practical measure meant to prevent fruit flies from hovering over the drink. The meat used to cover the sherry was normally ham or chorizo, which are both very salty and activate thirst and because of this, bartenders and bodega owners began creating a variety of snacks to serve with sherry but, more importantly, increasing their alcohol sales as a consequence.

There are alternative stories about the origin of tapas but so far this is my favourite.

 

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Travels in Spain, The Bodega

Bodegas

Travels in Spain, Madrid to Belmonte via Chinchón

Regions of Spain

Some time ago now we set ourselves the ambitious task of visiting all of the seventeen Autonomous Communities of Spain and to begin our quest we chose Castilla-La Mancha, the land of Don Quixote, windmills and wide open plains.

It was an early morning .flight and in razor sharp skies the plane crossed the Atlantic Spanish coast somewhere close to the city of Santander and below us we recognised the two thousand five hundred metre high peaks of the Picos de Europa and then  crossed the massive northern mountainous regions of northern Spain.  It was brown and rocky with huge mysterious pine forests and blue shimmering lakes, long roads negotiating the mountains and valleys and snaking between towns and villages and from above it was possible to begin to appreciate the immense size of the country and of the task that we had set ourselves.

Closer to Madrid the predominant browns gave way to vibrant greens and then into a mosaic of contrasting colour  as the aircraft made its final descent and landed at the airport.  It was rather disorganised but the customs were brilliant and the United Kingdom immigrations control could learn a thing or two about getting passengers through an airport quickly from these guys.

Then collecting the car was gloriously simple as well and within forty minutes we were heading out of the city on the A3 motorway and on our way towards our first destination, the town of Chinchón, about thirty miles south of Madrid.

Chinchon x 4

Not far out of the city the scenery suddenly became more attractive with acres of olive trees and stumpy black vines slumbering in the fields each with the contorted face of a medieval gargoyle concealed within its gnarled and knotted trunk.  In the trees and on top of pylons there were stork nests and in the sky buzzards hung above us on the thermals looking for easy lunch in the fields below.

We arrived in Chinchón at about half past one and ignoring the edge of town tourist car parks steered the car towards the Plaza Mayor at the very centre of the town.  Parking has rarely been easier and there was a perfect spot right in the Plaza and I was sure there must surely be a catch.  There was a glorious blue sky and big sun and it was warm enough to change into summer holiday linens although this did take some of the locals by surprise as they were wrapped up in woollies and coats and still obviously uncertain about and distrustful of the early Spring weather.

Chinchon

The Plaza is in a marvellous location with a big irregular shaped square that is used for town festivals and the occasional bullfight; it is surrounded by a hierarchical arrangement of buildings of two and three storeys with two hundred and thirty-four wooden running balconies, called ‘claros’ and shops, bars and restaurants on the ground floor all spilling out onto the pavement.

It was the location for one of the opening scenes, a bullfight as it happens, in the 1966 film, ‘Return of the Magnificent Seven’ and was also used as a location for the film ‘Around the World in Eighty Days’.

Magnificent 7.Around the World in 80 days Chinchon

After a few minutes spent soaking up the atmosphere we compared menu prices in the bars and selected the cheapest tables on the sunny side of the square and settled down for lunch where we enjoyed salad, calamari and tortilla and after a couple of glasses of Spanish beer set off to explore some of the tiny streets running like a spiders web off of the square.

First through narrow lanes of whitewashed houses to the very top of the town and to a castle with excellent views over the houses and the surrounding villages and countryside but the castle was in a state of serious disrepair and closed to the public so we left and after calling in at the Parador hotel to see how wealthy people spend their holidays we walked to the other side of town and climbed again, this time to the church which had equally good views over the tiled roofs of the houses which in some way reminded me, in an ochre sort of way, of Tuscany.

Chinchon Castle

Beyond the houses there were the surrounding villages and the predominantly buff and grey coloured countryside stretching as far as the horizon.  From this elevated position it was possible to appreciate that despite its close proximity to Madrid that Chinchón is essentially a small Spanish village and despite the Plaza, which grabs all the attention this is a living and working community.

From the castle we took the road back into town which took us through lazy whitewashed streets where elderly ladies in black dresses sat gossiping in the doorways and men folk sat on benches discussing important matters of the day.  In the centre of town along streets leading off the Plaza there were a few shops, a mini market, butcher, grocer and a fishmonger, an electrical shop that didn’t look as if it had sold anything for a very long time, a florist and a photographer.

And we were back at the car park; we liked this place and wished that we were stopping longer but it was time to leave now and make our way to our accommodation in the provincial town of Belmonte.

Chinchon Windows

Travels in Spain, The Levante and Torrevieja

Torrevieja pier statue

 “I think you are missing the fact that ex-pats in little England actually do enjoy their view and their way of life in Spain. What’s wrong with sunshine and cheap booze and cheap fags?” – fellow blogger, roughseasinthemed  (Be sure to visit, you might like it)

I last visited the Levante east coast of Spain on a golfing holiday in May 2008.  We didn’t play golf every day and we alternated playing days with sightseeing along the coast.  One day we went to the seaside resort of Torrevieja and as we drove away I said that I would never go back.

I had to keep this ‘not on my bucket list’ thought to myself this morning when my sister Lindsay revealed that this was the plan for today.

In 2008 I still considered Spain to be massive holiday resort for the benefit of visitors from the north, it was only a year later when I began my travels into the interior and came to realise just how wrong I was.

Since then I have been fortunate to be able to visit almost all of Iberia, Spain and Portugal (except for Gibraltar, La Rioja and Navarre) and I am much better informed now and much less critical of the coastal Costas.

Torrevieja Street Art Spain

I didn’t like Torrevieja that day in 2008 because I wore blinkers and couldn’t see beyond the crowded beach and the long concrete strip overlooked by 1970’s high-rise hotels with towels hanging from the balconies like carnival bunting and littered with bars with cheap plastic orange furniture and tacky pictures of the food on the menu displayed on pavement boards.

Torrejievja Spain

To be honest, on that day I set out not wanting to like it and I successfully fulfilled my own petty ambition.  So here was an opportunity to set the record straight.

One thing that I did like that previous visit however were the impressive sandcastle artists who had constructed the most amazing displays of castles, dragons, ogres and naked ladies and were diligently carrying out constant running repairs to prevent the things drying out and collapsing back into the sea.

I was glad to see that they were still there…

Torrevieja Beach Sculpturesbeach-nude

It was rather cold this morning, there was no sun so there was no question or debate about taking the swimming costumes and towels and I think everyone was relieved about that and appropriately dressed we drove the short distance to the coast where we parked the car and set off for a walk along the seafront promenade.

It was much as I remembered it, still concrete, still lined with high-rise.  It isn’t an attractive place, it isn’t Alicante with its attractive patterned paving and palm fringed boulevards.  It is much more utilitarian and functional.  Sprawling and horizontal it invites a direct comparison with vertical Benidorm, fifty miles or so to the north.  Benidorm is better (in my opinion).

In 2008 I wanted to snigger about Torrevieja but today I wanted to find the good in it.  We strolled along the promenade, popped inside some tacky seafront shops because I wanted some postcards and then selected a café for a drink.  There were no orange plastic chairs and no pavement picture boards and there was an impressive lunchtime tapas menu.  We had a drink and as we left promised to come back later to eat – I wonder how many times the staff hear that?

TorreviejaTorrevieja 2008

So we continued the walk along the seafront and then Mick made the fatal mistake of taking us back through a shopping street and we were detained several times as Kim and Lindsay were distracted by shoes and sparkly things!  How many pairs of shoes does one person need I always wonder?

We went back to the bar for lunch and where it had been quiet and abandoned earlier it was busy and vibrant now and we set about choosing our tapas.  In this part of Spain a surprisingly high percentage of the population speak Valencian, a form of Catalan, and here the tapas were the northern Spain alternative – Pinchos.  

A Pincho is a Tapas where the topping and a slice of bread is held together with a small wooden skewer (a Pincho).   It is a good trick, you just keep choosing small dishes and lose all wallet control and when you have finished the waiter counts the sticks and makes a charge for each one at the same time as you pick yourself up from the floor and dust yourself down after the shock of the bill.

It is a system that relies completely upon a lot of trust!  I can tell you that they were all delicious choices and I could easily have blown our entire daily food budget in that place if Kim hadn’t insisted on a bit of gastronomic restraint.

After lunch we made our way back to the car park and left Torrevieja.  In 2008 I said that I would never go back but in 2016 I have moderated that and said that I wouldn’t rush back.  That is a compliment!

As we left I snapped this picture of the clouds over the sea.  Is it just me or can anyone else see an Angel smiling at my unexpected conversion?

Torrevieja Spain

Travels in Spain, Alicante

alicante-esplanada-de-espana

It was mid-November and the weather was just perfect.  Shirt-sleeve weather in fact with sunshine and big sky so after breakfast we were away to the nearby city of Alicante which I was sort of surprised to discover is the eighth largest in Spain.

The short drive north took us through a wild landscape of lagoons and wetlands and for me this was another surprise.  I would have to say that it is hardly the Camargue in the South of France but away from the urbanizations and the towns it wasn’t what I was expecting and it turns out that this is a region for bird spotters and wild life photographers and I could see why as flocks of vermillion flamingos strutted through the shallow waters like statuesque flamenco dancers.

flamingo-flamenco

We arrived in Alicante and found plenty of room in an underground car park – plenty of room because Spanish drivers object to paying for car parking in the same way they boycott toll roads and would rather drive around in ever decreasing circles wasting time and fuel until they disappear up their own exhaust pipe looking for a free spot than spend a couple of euro to leave the car in a secure place.

As we emerged blinking into the sunlight, even though I have never been to Alicante before I had a strong feeling of Déjà vu.  We were on the Esplanade de España where the coloured floor tiles undulate like a rolling sea in a storm and I knew that I had seen them before.  It took me a moment or two to drag up the memory but then I remembered – I have a picture of my granddad in this very avenue, perhaps even this very spot taken nearly sixty years ago.

Alicante Old Picture 1960Alicante promenade 1959

In the photograph below my grandparents whose names were Ernie and Olive were probably about fifty years old or so and they were clearly having a very good time sitting at a bar enjoying generous measures of alcohol, the same sort of good time that I like to enjoy when I go travelling.

I’m guessing of course but Granddad, who looks unusually bronzed, seems to have a rum and coke and Nan who looks younger than I can ever remember her appears to have some sort of beer with a slice of lime and that’s about forty years before a bottle of Sol with a bit of citrus became anything like fashionable.  With him is his brother George (no socks, very impressive for 1960) and his wife Lillian. Nan and Granddad look very relaxed and with huge smiles that I can barely remember.

Benidorm Bar 1960?

We walked first around the marina and stopped briefly for a drink and then on to the beach, abandoned today because although the sun was shining it was perhaps a little too cool for a dip in the Mediterranean so we bypassed the opportunity of getting into our bathing costumes and made our way instead to the castle which sits on a rocky outcrop and looms large over the area.

Finding a castle to visit is not difficult in Spain because, according to the Spanish Tourist Board, there are over two thousand five hundred of them, for comparison there are eight hundred in the United Kingdom but France claims almost five-thousand but it includes a lot of questionable  small Chateaux in that number.

It looked like a strenuous climb to the top but fortunately there was an express lift so we took the easy option and in a few seconds were standing at the very top of the city.  Alicante castle turned out to be as good as any in Spain, there is a lot of reconstruction and renovation of course but I find nothing wrong with that and we enjoyed an hour or so walking around the battlements, looking at the exhibits and enjoying the elevated views.

Alicante Castle

We had return tickets for the lift option but walked down instead and at the bottom at around early afternoon we searched for the old town and somewhere nice to eat.  We were looking for a tapas bar and found one that we liked in a pleasant square in the last of the Autumn sunshine where we ordered a beer and selected our favourite food.

According to legend, the tapas tradition began when the King of Castile, Alfonso the Wise (if I was King I think I would like to be called ‘the Wise’, so much better than ‘Andrew the Fat’ or ‘Bad King Andrew’) visited a tavern in the town of Ventorillo del Chato in the province of Cádiz, and ordered a glass of sherry.  There was a gusty wind, so the innkeeper served him his glass of sherry covered by a slice of ham to prevent the sherry from getting dirty.  The King liked it, and when he asked for a second glass, he requested another tapa or ‘cover’ just like the first.

Wine and Tapas

This developed into the practice of using slices of bread or meat as a practical measure meant to prevent fruit flies from hovering over the drink. The meat used to cover the sherry was normally ham or chorizo, which are both very salty and activate thirst and because of this, bartenders and restaurant owners began creating a variety of snacks to serve with sherry, thus increasing their alcohol sales.

As we finished lunch the sun slipped behind the tall buildings and cast long shadows across the square so as the temperature quickly dipped we paid up and left and strolled for a second time around the marina before returning later to the town of Quesada where we were staying and spending an hour or so in the garden before preparing to go out for an entertaining evening meal.

Alicante Tapas

Travels in Spain, Valencia and The Costa Blanca

003

I am fairly certain that I have mentioned here before that I have a travel ambition to visit all of the seventeen Autonomous Communities of Spain.  So far I have managed fifteen but still need to add La Rioja and Navarre to my  list.  I could have chosen to go there this time but instead I went to the east coast where I have been previously.

I have been to Valencia and Murcia before and I have always said that it isn’t my favourite part of Spain but now my sister lives there so this provided an opportunity to visit and possibly make a reassessment.  I resolved that if possible that this should be a voyage of discovery.

This part of the east coast of Spain is called the Costa Blanca now but it is still quite often referred to by its once regional name of Levante from a time when the Moors had colonial ownership of the Iberian peninsular and had a heavy presence all along this Mediterranean coastline.

It is said that the name Costa Blanca was originally conceived as a promotional name by British European Airways when it first launched its air service between London and Valencia in 1957 at the start of the package holiday boom.  I think this may explain why I have always been a bit snooty about it because I have always associated it with concrete holiday resorts and as we flew in over Benidorm, gleaming like a shiny pin-cushion I was fairly certain that nothing short of dynamite was going to change my opinion.

Alicante Castle

This opinion exposes my prejudice and ignorance because the problem that I have is that I find it difficult to get an understanding of Valencia because you need to dig deep to find the true heritage of the place.  Nothing shouts out to me like the Flamenco of Andalucía, Don Quixote of Castilla-La Mancha or the Conquistadors of Extremadura, of Gaudi in Catalonia, the Camino Way of Galicia or tales of Saint James and the Reconquista in Castilla y Leon.

The only flimsy thing that I have ever had to go on was the story of El Cid and the battle with the Moors over the city of Valencia

Benidorm Spain

Allow me to go on; it has always concerned me that there are a great many British living in this part of Spain, in Torrevieja alone there are about twelve thousand which accounts for about thirteen per cent of the entire population.  In fact the Spanish themselves are in the minority at only forty-eight per cent and soon it is estimated that in total there will be one million Brits living on the Costa Blanca.

It is not only British but also the Scandinavians and the Germans and the Dutch and even the Spanish themselves because as more immigrants arrive then more people from other regions of Spain head east for the jobs that are created. Valencia has some difficulty retaining and protecting its own identity and many local people lament the loss of heritage and language and tradition.

So I got a bigger spade and started to dig a bit deeper to try to learn something about Valencia other than the story of El Cid.

paella

I suppose I have to start with paella because although it has come to be regarded as the national dish of Spain it originated right here in Valencia.  When the Moors reached Alicante in 718 they discovered a pleasant climate perfect for growing crops that wouldn’t grow in the deserts of North Africa and set about turning this part of the peninsula into a centre of horticulture.

They developed a system of irrigation and exploited the wetlands that were created to grow rice.  Not just any rice however, not your supermarket economy rice, not Uncle Ben’s ‘boil in a bag’, but arroz bomba introduced from the east which has the perfect constituency to produce the dish.

These days people will add almost any ingredient to a paella but the true Valencian meal is always made of chicken, rabbit and white beans.  Most things work but I have a friend who adds liver and that doesn’t but then again I have strong culinary views on liver – avoid it at all costs – it takes offal.

valencia-oranges

The period of Moorish occupation was to last nearly four hundred years and normally I would look for palaces and castles as a reminder of this time but in the Levante you have to look at the countryside because the Moors created the landscape of the region. After the irrigation they planted citrus groves and peach and almond orchards. The terraces seen on the hillsides throughout the region are an everlasting Moor legacy.  There are no olives or vines in Valencia just acres and acres of fruit that stretch as far as the eye can see.

In holiday brochures this might be the Costa Blanca but it has a less well-known alternative name – the Orange Blossom Coast which owes its name to the sharp, sweet smell of citrus that hangs in the Spring air.  Spain is Europe’s largest producer of oranges and two-thirds of these little balls of sunshine come from the region around Valencia.  The millions of orange trees are shiny green the year round, clothed in delicate white blossoms in spring and bright orange baubles in the autumn when each tree groans under the burden of some five hundred fruits.

We landed in Alicante in bright sunshine around about lunch time and after a short drive to the urbanisation of Quesada we immediately settled in to local life by finding a bar with some local tapas.  It was good to be in Spain once more.

Tapas Alicante

Travels in Spain – Andalucía, Ronda and the Puente Nuevo

New Bridge Ronda

“We sighted Ronda. It was raised up in the mountains, like a natural extension of the landscape, and in the sunlight it seemed to me to be the most beautiful city in the world.” –  José Agustín Goytisolo

Ronda  is one of the pueblos blancos (white towns) so-called because it is whitewashed in the old Moorish tradition and sits like a wedding cake on the surrounding ragged countryside.  It also happens to be one of the most spectacularly located towns in Andalucía sitting on a massive rocky outcrop straddling a precipitous limestone cleft in the mountains.

Ronda is most famous for a one hundred and thirty metre high bridge, the Puente Nuevo, whose name means ‘new bridge’ and which spans a dramatic gorge that divides the city in two.

Ronda Bridge Painting

To put that into some sort of perspective it is the height of thirty London double-decker buses, seven times higher than the Presidents’ faces at Mount Rushmoor, four times higher than the Aqueduct of Segovia, two and half times higher than Niagara Falls and more or less the same height as the Sydney Harbour Bridge.

The bridge was begun in 1751 and took forty-two years to complete.  It is supposedly one of the most photographed structures in Spain and often quoted as one of the top places to see in Europe and lots of people must have taken that recommendation literally because this afternoon the town was swarming with day-trippers from Seville and the Costa del Sol.

We crossed the bridge and looked out over the sprawling patchwork landscape of burnt brown, cream, beige and copper coloured fields that spilled out across the flat valley plain punctuated with terraces of irrigated green, a meandering river far below, swollen by recent rain and a dramatic grey sky full of heavy cloud and pregnant stormy menace.

Ronda Andalusia

The author Ernest Hemingway and actor and film director Orson Welles both lived in Ronda at some point in their lives (it seems that they lived almost everywhere) and both wrote warmly about the place.  Hemingway’s novel ‘For Whom the Bell Tolls’ describes the murder of five hundred fascist Nationalist sympathisers early in the Spanish Civil War by being thrown from the cliffs of El Tajo and into the Rio Guadalquivir by the Republican forces.

Or possibly vice versa, I have never read the book so am not absolutely sure and neither are the historical accounts because even after seventy-five years both sides continue to accuse each other of the grisly crime but those who lost their lives are in some small way poetically remembered by Orson Welles who said – “A man does not belong to the place where he was born, but where he chooses to die”

We walked over the bridge and admired the expansive views over the surrounding countryside and from here it was easy to understand why Ronda was one of the last Moorish strongholds in Spain, only finally falling to the Christian armies in 1485 just seven years before the fall of Granada.

It was possible to visit the interior of the bridge by climbing down a set of steps carved into the side of the canyon and then entering a chamber where there was an interesting exhibition in what was once the guard-house describing the history of the bridge and its construction.  Just behind the guard-house was the cramped prison, which allegedly both sides used for imprisonment and unimaginable torture during the civil war.

Ronda Andalucia

Ronda, it turns out, has three bridges, the first and lowest may have been Roman but was certainly Moorish and the second was built in the middle ages.  They are both at the bottom of the canyon and as both the old town and the new town were at the top this meant a lot of aching legs and creaking wagon wheels to get between the two so the third and most famous bridge was built right at the top to make life a whole lot easier for everyone.

In the evening we went into the town looking for somewhere to eat.  It was much quieter now that the tourist buses had left and there was plenty of choice.  After a larger than planned lunch neither of us were especially hungry so we were easily talked into a tapas bar with a promise of a mixed plate of local specialities.

According to legend, the tapas tradition began when the King of Castile, Alfonso the Wise (if I was King I think I would like to be called ‘the Wise’) visited a tavern in the town of Ventorillo del Chato in the province of Cádiz, and ordered a glass of sherry.  There was a gusty wind, so the innkeeper served him his glass of sherry covered by a slice of ham to prevent the sherry from getting dirty.  The King liked it, and when he asked for a second glass, he requested another tapa or ‘cover’ just like the first.

This developed into the practice of using slices of bread or meat as a practical measure meant to prevent fruit flies from hovering over the drink. The meat used to cover the sherry was normally ham or chorizo, which are both very salty and activate thirst and because of this, bartenders and restaurant owners began creating a variety of snacks to serve with sherry, thus increasing their alcohol sales.

It wasn’t the best tapas that we have tasted but to be fair it was traditional and authentic and we liked that and when we had finished we left and returned to the Hotel Poeta de Ronda and hoped that tomorrow the rain would stay away.

Tapas