Mountains, Monks and Wine

On a day trip out of Barcelona we hired a guide to take us to Monserrat and a wine tour in the Penedes wine region — partly because we wanted to see the monastery, but mostly because we wanted to see the countryside, the mountains and become a bit more familiar with Spanish wines. Once again, we lucked out with a charming, knowledgeable and well-connected guide, Emma.

The drive to the monastery was pretty straight forward, although simply getting out of Barcelona and the steep narrow road up to Monserrat convinced us we would never want to attempt this by ourselves.

Montserrat is a working monastery and is considered one of the most sacred places in Catalonia. Destroyed by Napoleon’s forces in 1811, the rebuilt monastery doesn’t wow you as much as the views do—but amazing nonetheless. It is also famous for a world renowned boys’ choir—the boys live and study here—and for monks who still sing the haunting Gregorian chants.

Emma hustled us into the church before mass started when they close the church (if inside, you must remain for the two hour mass). While we aren’t the least bit religious, and after seeing churches in almost every city we visited on this trip we agreed Montserrat was the best—less over the top baroque, fewer tortured Christs, and only one very important Madonna and child. The Black Virgin.

While the Black Virgin is behind glass, for an extra fee you can join the devout and touch her orb.

Even here we couldn’t miss the separatists tension in the Catalonia region—a little pro-independence dressing on some statuary which we were told would be promptly cleared away as soon as a monk spotted it.

We could have ridden the gondola or taken the funicular to the top, but neither of those appealed to us and certainly wouldn’t to anyone with a fear of heights. The mountain is crisscrossed with hiking trails which had much more appeal if we had more time.

And then it was down the mountain to the Penedes wine appellation and a tour of the Albet i Noya winery. Producing about a million bottles a year, this is a totally organic production — using natural fertilizers, relying on rain for irrigation (although climate change means a drip system is being installed) and refusing to use any anti-fungal agents. If the vines get a fungus, production is simply lower. Given the variety of grapes grown, harvest is staggered so only a small crew is needed beyond the winery staff to pick the grapes by hand. It is also a pioneer in developing new varietals resistance to climate change.

We missed the harvest but did get to walk through the process, mostly powered through solar panels.

Watched the local sparkling wine bottled. Penedes is famous for its sparkling wines, cavas, but this winery doesn’t call it’s wine cava because it withdrew from the Cava Association over concerns there were too few controls on quality. Too many bad wines labeled as cava, they said. Have to say their sparkling wine was the best we had in Spain, maybe the best we have had in a long time, cava or not.

The winery was once a farm and today’s winemaker once worked on the farm before starting his winery.

Lunch began with a wine tasting of a couple white wines and then two reds. Not to get too much into the weeds of wine tasting, we were impressed. And impressed enough to go to the hassle of buying a bottle to take home to our Syrah loving friends.

We were lucky our guide knew this winery, knew the winemaker and his passionate staff! Truly one of the best days in our month long trip to Spain. We wished we had connected with her sooner to tap into one of her full day wine tours or her tour to her homeland, Andorra.

Barcelona Undercurrents

Barcelona is, without any question, a beautiful city. And an historic city. And that history has left wounds which are apparent today, even if they aren’t always obvious.

It was our last full day of our month long trip to Spain, October 12. Columbus Day or Indigenous People’s Day back home. In Barcelona and Spain it was the Day of Spain, a national holiday. The street in front of our hotel was closed, we were told, for a parade. (One more instance of a gap in translation — not a parade but a march). Of course we altered our plans for the day to hang around and watch the action.

A block from our hotel barricades were set up and police stood by as city workers scrubbed away graffiti on the sidewalk. Not sure what it was all about.

In Catalunya Square, the main square of Barcelona, a number of tents had been set up and music blared. The early crowd was obviously having a good time.

But we had heard that this was not a day the pro-independence Catalans celebrated. They would be staying home. A few years ago fights had broken out between factions — the pro-Spanish unity groups versus the pro-Catalonian independence groups. And there has been a controversial referendum on Catalan independence a few years ago. We don’t know the whole story for sure, but Franco’s legacy of represssing the Catalan language and speech still hurts here. One young man told us about his Catalan grandmother being exiled to France during the Franco years and Catalans being arrested for simply speaking their native language.

The ultra right-wing party of Spain. For more info on Vox
The gist of the banner, “I speak Spanish at home. Why not at college?” Apparently in an effort to preserve the Catalan language a certain percentage of college classes must be taught in the regional language. Not a surprise that this has become a political issue.
“Equal work, equal pay” with a reference to the lower wages paid in the south of Spain.

Emotions were clearly high. Complaints about Catalonia not paying enough in taxes. Signs in green — the color of the Vox right wing party — declaring no steps backwards.

Aspects of the march and rally felt like a MAGA event, but we don’t really know, except many participants carried both green Vox signs and Spanish flags. Apparently, the vote for the Catalan region to separate from Spain reflected a nearly fifty-fifty split. The issue may or may not split strictly along cultural lines.

Couple of the guys all dressed up and a very animated woman being interviewed by the media

And it does remind us that behind the historical sights, the charming cafes and beautiful buildings in almost any tourist destination, there is lies a complex set of not necessarily resolved issues.

As we walked the neighborhoods in the five days we were Barcelona, we kept noticing flags hanging from the windows—flags that supported the creation of an independent Catalonia. Despite the flashy pro Spain events of today, we know that a strong undercurrent for independence still exists.

Somehow we do have a knack for finding political demonstrations. And we do find them fascinating, often more so than the tourist sights. What does that say about us?

Seville Part 2; wrapping it up

We spent nine days in Seville — longer than your typical American vacation would allow most to do. But we’re retired. We have the time. And we like settling into a place for a while. Seville was a good option for us.

We did the major sights with guides the first two days we were here. After that we just explored the neighborhoods, took a day trip to Cordoba and another to the Doñana National Park.

First Cordoba. We were wowed by the Mezquita. The contrast between the Moorish elements and the 16th century church was stark. The openness and space of the mosque. The iron gates and small chapels of the church. Not knowing much about either religious tradition, we weren’t sure what to make of the differences, but certainly felt the Moorish design was more comfortable and less intimidating.

A not-to-be-missed sight for us was the patio garden tour. Every May Cordoba holds a contest to determine the best patio. Some patios are private and others are shared by several homes. A group of the perpetual winners in the annual contest have put aside their competitive spirit and come together to create a walking tour — for a small fee. Each garden had similar components — lots of plants in pots hanging on the walls of the patio, a bird or two chirping away in a cage and water. The patios are small oasis’s for escaping the heat (even in early October it was 90°). Bougainvillea. New Guinea impatients. Azaleas. Impressive.

We also visited the small synagogue, built in 1314, and used for over a hundred years until the Jews were expelled from Spain. And this is one of just two or three synagogues remaining in Spain. Before the Inquisition, Spain had a flourishing Jewish community. We visited on Yom Kippur and came away reminded of how fragile tolerance can be.

The trip to Doñana National Park was like a trip to an entirely different world. The town on the edge of the park, El Rocio, is a white washed but largely modern town for the horsey crowd. We were told by our guide that all of the new townhouse style homes come with stables! And that at the height of the season the sleepy town swells to thousands. Hardly a person in sight and just a couple horses the day we were there.

We spent the day in a four wheeled drive Jeep, driving over what looked to be dried river beds, although our guide said not so. However, much of the area is under water after the winter rains. But the only water we saw was in irrigation canals. There are three main attractions to see in the park. We saw two of them — what our guide called the queen of the park, the Imperial Eagle. We dubbed the Griffon Vulture the crown Prince. The king, the Iberian Lynx, remained elusive. We didn’t complain; we added over a dozen birds to our life list.

And we saw plenty of the Red Deer, some of the bucks with huge sets of antlers.

Red deer through the morning mist

Back in Seville we wrapped up our visit soaking up the ambiance and checking off a couple more sights.

Old pictures of the Seville Bull Arena show the ring hasn’t changed much over the years. It’s hard to imagine today’s audience sitting on the brick benches, but apparently they do. The section for the press seemed too close to the action, but then I thought about the photographers who stand alongside the field in football games and occasionally get hit. Of course, like all the other tourists Peter had to pretend he was a bull fighter.

The Archivo General de Indias (Archives of the Indies) was a gorgeous Renaissance building. We tried to translate the descriptions of the items in class cases with limited success — treaty between Spain and Portugal dividing up the new world, contract between Columbus and Spanish monarchs, reports from the colonies. Interesting even if we were looking at copies of the originals.

Of course, then there was our pursuit of food. We had toured the Triana Market with our guide on our second day in Seville. An excellent place to buy fish of all sorts, some meat stalls and a lot of small establishments offering tapas. A great place for a snack. We tried to tour the Mercado de Arenal, only to discover it was a victim of the pandemic. Only a few places remain open — a bike rental shop, a small vegetable stand and maybe one or two others. Sad.

We had originally intended to do quite a bit of our own cooking while in Seville. However that didn’t happen. The two of us could eat dinner in a casual tapas bar with a couple glasses of wine and three or four tapas for a quarter the cost for dinner back home. Maybe less. So why cook? Plus, the markets with fresh fruit, vegetables, meats and local delicacies just weren’t around the tempt us. The mini-markets in the old part of the city where we stayed did provide the basics — so-so bread, cheese, juice and such for breakfast. Shopping there we did cook a light dinner of sausage and vegetables on pasta one night after too big a lunch. That was about the extent of our cooking.

Then on our next to last day when we found a mega-charcuterie store in Triana. A huge number of jamons hanging behind the meat counter. Butcher hacking up whole chickens. A huge selection of different cuts of pork that we don’t see at home. A glass case of aged veal and beef. A case full of Spanish cheeses.

We finally found where locals shop — probably a quarter mile from the nearest tourist attraction. We drooled and quickly went to the Triana Market for lunch.

Seville was our last stop in Andalusia. We have heard that our next destination, Barcelona, is quite different. We shall see. For now, we have been charmed by this corner of Spain.

Think Small

We’ve done an awful lot of traveling over the years. Big cities like Rome, Tokyo, London, Moscow are great. Even the smaller cities or big towns — Avignon, Granada, Prague — are amazing. The cathedrals, the town halls, the castles, the museums! But we’ve come to the realization that our fondest memories often come from the small towns and villages where we’ve been lucky enough to spend some real time — from a week to a full month — Gradil in Portugal, Motovun in Istria, Buoux and San Siffert in France, Potrero in Costa Rica, Kinvarra in Ireland and now Vejer de la Frontera in Spain. Again and again our memories (and our stories) come from those small corners of the world.

Clockwise from top left Kinvarra, St. Siffert, Cevalu, near MonteVerde

These are towns most people have never heard of. Some are big small towns like Vejer and Motovun, but others like Buoux and San Siffert are dots on the map with maybe one restaurant or cafe and virtually nothing else.

While small, we have chosen these locations with care. We look for a place offering multiple day trips and sights within an hour or so drive. We look for villages big enough to have a coffee shop, a restaurant or two and a market. And we look for charm — some historical buildings, often on a hilltop with views and a place a bit off the beaten tourist trail.

What makes these small towns more attractive to us? Being able to return to a home base where you get to know the locals feels almost homey. It gives us, however superficial and temporary, a sense of belonging to speak to the same neighbors each day, drink espresso at the same cafe. It also encourages us to slow down, focus more on being somewhere rather than dashing off to catch all the must see sights in a famous city.

Of course, this comes with a few caveats. For the most part, you need a rental car. Most of these small towns are not easily reached. And you need the luxury of time. If you are in a country for a short stay, you will want to see the major sights before venturing off the beaten path. Fewer locals will speak English. And in most of these towns, good mobility is essential —lots of walking, often on cobblestones with steep hills. No taxis.

That said, we were lucky enough to find Vejer de La Frontera — one of the best examples of a great small home base in southern Spain. From there we could drive in 15-30 minutes to a number of different beaches for walking and swimming. Want to try wind or kite surfing or just plain old-fashioned surfing?

Not exactly our thing, but another option. Gibraltar was 90 minutes away, Cádiz 40 minutes. Roman archeological ruins, the other more famous white villages and Jerez, the Sherry capital, all within easy drives. From our home base we could hike from the village or drive in under an hour to more challenging hikes. Enough to keep us busy for a week.

Then there was the town itself. Just wow! Approaching from the east, the white buildings in the distance just spilled down the very steep hill. Once we arrived in the town, we realize there were two hills – one ancient and one modern, but in both all the buildings were white. Definitely a Pueblo Blanco. The only exceptions were the beige sandstone church in Castle perched high above the old town town itself. And despite all its picturesque qualities, it was a real — complete with laundry hanging from clothes lines.

View of the old town and church from our “home” in Vejer de La Frontera

In the valley between the two, there was a community of white washed buildings two and three stories high built 100 years ago. That’s where we stayed. Our place was one of several sharing a small courtyard. Our neighbor, José, greeted us as we came and went and locked the courtyard gate promptly at 9:00pm. He spoke such a colloquial version of Spanish we could barely understand him, but through pantomime and speaking louder he managed to explain how to manage the gate.

At the street level in both parts of town there were often shops and restaurants and on the upper floors apartments and homes which meant there were a lot of locals. It is a tourist town, but mainly Spanish with a handful of Brits, Germans and French. Amazingly, we never heard an American accent in the week we were there.

From the old town in Verja de La Frontera looking towards new town

The streets are narrow and steep but nevertheless, cars, taxis, scooters, motorcycles come through at terrifying speeds, often plastering pedestrians against the stone houses. In August they run bulls through the same streets. We wondered which was more dangerous – cars or bulls. But we soon found the best pedestrian friendly routes through the town.

And from our foodie perspective, the town was heaven. There were plenty of restaurants, a number of big grocery stores, wine bars, cervecerias, pastry shops, cafes and a food market (a smaller version of the San Miguel market in Madrid) offering tapas from the vendors selling fresh seafood or charcuterie.

Seafood tapas at market

On the advice of two British ex-pats we found several amazing restaurants — El Jardin del Califa a standout for ambiance and food and El Quixote for its food and friendly staff. El Jardin del Califa sprawls on the side of a hill over multiple levels. Inside is a warren of passageways stairs and very narrow low doorways – sort of a reflection of the town. The main dining area is a lovely courtyard patio, the cocktail lounge has a beautiful rooftop terrace with breathtaking views. And the food – Morrocan! Tangines, couscous, dates and olives. El Quixote — wonderful fusion food and no ambiance, but lots of locals. Basically Spanish dishes with some very Asian accents — scallops with a kimchi cream sauce browned with a culinary blowtorch at the table, a stir fry of Iberian pork and vegetables served on Asian noodles. All delicious.

Night view from terrace at El Jardin del Califa

Not all small towns are food havens like Vejer de La Frontera, of course. But most will have some very good regional cuisine or specialties. We still dream about the fois gras in St Siffert, goat cheese in Apt, truffles in Motovun and oysters in Kinvarra.

Yes, we will continue to travel to the great cities and towns for their history, culture, vibrant energy, and gastronomy. But there will always be a place in our travels to think small.

Seville, Part 1

“Seville doesn’t have ambiance, it is ambiance”, wrote James Michener. And our introduction to Seville certainly supports that assertion. We spent our first two days with our guides rubbing shoulders with tourists from all over, dodging cars and motorcycles along the narrow streets and seeing the sights. Yes, Seville does have something special.

The tower of the Sevilla Cathedral

Like most travelers, we read guidebooks to prep for a new destination, talk to fellow travelers to get tips, but once there, often just follow our nose. We have learned, however, that a good local guide provides more insights than a guidebook and knows the community better than our fellow travelers. They invite you to see their towns through their eyes, with their insider’s knowledge, passion and pride.

We hired guides for two different tours of Seville — Penelope for the more typical tourist route. The Royal Alcázar and gardens. The Sevilla Cathedral. The Barrio Santa Cruz. The Jewish quarter. And the second day Maria led us on a gastronomy tour — because after all, we travel on our stomachs. A couple shops that offer local delicacies or traditional foods. The Triana Mercado. And several tapas bars. A brief dip into tasting sherry. We asked both of them for tips on where to get good local food, where to shop and what other sites to visit. Armed with their advice, we are ready to take on Seville on our own for the next few days.

Seville Cathedral and our local guides

In both cases we got much more than we bargained for.

First the food. Like many tourist cities, food is more expensive and often less authentic the closer you are to the major sites. We found good tapas restaurants off small squares a bit further away from the Seville Cathedral. We love the Spanish approach in many restaurants. Order a couple dishes and share them. Splitting or sharing meals is expected. Tapas bars often offer dishes in three sizes — tapas, media raciones, and raciones or plato (single, double or full order).

Upper left meatballs, pork cheek tapas sized and Russian salad media racine sized below

Tapas are often eaten standing at the bar or around a tall table in the midst of a crowd. As Penelope said, it is as though Spaniards want to feel the breath of others on our cheeks. And because the bars are so crowded, everyone practically yells to be heard. Intimate, yes. Quiet, no.

Many restaurants don’t even open for dinner service until 8:30 in the evening. But the tapas bars are busy starting with the lunch crowd in the early afternoon, then the after work crowd grabbing a snack (and a drink) a couple hours before dinner and they may stay full late into the night for the dinner crowd.

While food is always on our minds, our trip to Seville and Spain has not been entirely about food.

Yes, we are interested in the Spain’s history, but capturing it is complicated. The right wing in Spain would like you to believe that historic conquest of the Moors made Spain more Spanish, and keeping immigrants out now does the same. As you look around and see ancient palaces in the Moorish style built by people who lived here for hundreds of years, it’s hard to say to say their descendants aren’t as Spanish as anyone else. Identifying the Seville Jewish ghetto ignores the breadth of Jewish contribution to the city. And looking at the architecture built after the second conquest (“reconquista” is a term now appropriated by the right wing), it’s good to remember in the 14th century the Christian King Pedro I had the 10th century Moorish castle rebuilt by Muslin workman to capture both cultural traditions. Such is the complexity of history!

And if Seville is not just about the food, it is not just an historical museum. It is also a living city.

The Metropol Parasol, informally know as The Mushrooms, was built as an urban renewal project a dozen years ago—controversial both for its design and changing (some would say destroying) a decaying neighborhood. An elevator ride for 10€ takes you up to the viewing platform. From there you climb up to walk around the top of the structure with incredible views of the city. Exiting down the flight of stairs you go past placards describing how many bolts were used, how much Finnish pine was used (and trees replanted) and other points of civic pride. The largest wooden structure in the world!

The Mushroom

From the top of the Metropol Parasol, we counted over 30 churches, monasteries and convents. No wonder at 9:00am each morning the church bells ring and ring and ring.

Seville’s Cathedral

Seville is know for its religious processions, where during Holy Week, or in honor of a church’s patron saint, members of neighborhood group carry floats depicting religious statutes are carried from their home church to the cathedral and back. A process which can take hours, if not the full day. While we were not there for Holy Week, we did stumble across a training session.

Clockwise from bottom left, first team stopping, getting out, second team getting into place and lifting float.

As we continue to explore Seville, we will continue to hear Maria and Penelope in our ears, reminding of the lessons they shared with about their home.

Going Wild in Andalusia

The western face of El Betijuelo

When our guide first said, pointing up to the rocky face of Sierra de San Bartolomé, that’s where we are going, we thought she was crazy. We were about an hour into the hike and had already been up and down the fairly steep, but manageable trail and we were enchanted by the pine forests and the cool mist swirling around us. But climbing up to that rock face? Really? Laura, our guide, reassured us we could do it. And the sun would come out before the end of the hike, she said.

Earlier Laura picked us up at our home base in Vejer de La Frontera and we drove to the eastern side of the mountain, up a narrow road to Del Estrecho Natural Parknear the town of Tarifa. Across the Straits of Gibraltar was Morocco, though barely visible in the morning mists. In previous drives we had admired the pine forests which were puffy mounds of green on top of trunks throughout the region. Now we were going to get up close and personal with those forests.

Looking east toward Tarifa

As we started our hike, Laura stopped to point out familiar and not so familiar plants and bushes. Wild olive trees whose fruit are collected for a kind of oil. Wild rosemary and thyme. Another bush that blooms in February and is used in perfume. A berry that migrating birds stop to eat.

The trail was not obvious and the footsteps of previous hikers disappeared in the dusty path. Without Laura it would have been a search and rescue mission to recover two lost Americans. We had just made our way down to nearly sea level when we walked through the edge of a cow pasture (our path was frequently blocked by inadequate stick and barb wire gates which supposedly kept the cattle in or out of the area). Laura pointed up to the high point in this hike. Yikes! But she assured it our assent would be relatively gradual and easy. She was right. Relatively…

Once we gained elevation, the clouds lifted enough for us to see the town and beach of Bolonia and the blue Atlantic Ocean. After a bit more of a climb, she pointed to the sky and there were Griffon vultures soaring below and above us with their massive ten foot wingspans.

We sat on a couple of rocks (Mary sat safely a little further back than Peter and Laura) watched the birds fly in and out of the clouds, sometimes above us and occasionally below us. We had seen these birds once before on the Istrian peninsula in Croatia. It was a thrill to see them again. We had seen stork nests not far from here. These birds now live permanently in this part of Spain, not migrating to Africa as they used to. Climate change, speculated Laura.

We reached the highest point in our hike with only a little huffing and puffing and began to walk along the spine of the mountain with the Mediterranean Sea off to our left in the distance and the Atlantic to our right. We avoided the jagged rock walls where rock climbers do their thing. The plants along the trail were shriveling up from lack of rain providing little nourishment for a pair of horses we passed. It must look very different in the spring after winter rains.

Laura pointed down to the pasture where we had first been shown the place where we now stood. Holy cow! It looked so small and so far below us.

But just a few yards further the the trees and bushes dripped with moisture from the clouds blowing through them. The mountain, the winds and the clouds create a series of microclimates around this hilltop.

When we said we enjoyed the cool wind, Laura was too polite to openly scoff, but clearly the locals are less fond of these winds. Theoretically we experienced the Poniente, a fresh westerly winter wind that is humid. A bit cool today. (The easterly summer wind is Levante). Regardless, the winds make this part of the coast of Spain popular with kite surfers.

At times we climbed over large boulders, but most of the time we hiked between rocks outcroppings and knee high brush.

And Laura was correct! The sun did come out just as we began our descent down the east side of the mountain.

The path back to the car was a steady decline, a clear and easy to follow trail. And Morocco now visible off in the distance. Still it was hard to to soak in the view while watching our footing. Thankfully throughout the hike we stopped frequently to admire and take some photos of the views.

We will remember this day as one of the highlights of our month Spain. Laura was a charming guide with very good English. She was willing to share with us her insights into Spanish life. She had grown up in Argentina and lived here now running her own small business,, offering tourists a variety of outdoor experiences. We wished we had also signed up for the birding tour she does in one of the region’s estuaries. As it was she helped us add one more bird to our life list — Sardinian Warbler.

Not enough time in this corner of Spain!