BEST VACATIONS: SAN DIEGO

18 Nov

Recently, some of my favorite haunts in my hometown of San Diego have been mentioned by friends or in the news, so I am re-posting, (with a bit of editing) my article about The Hotel del Coronado and other fun activities in the San Diego area. The outside of the hotel, built in 1888, provided the background for the famous movie, Some Like It Hot starring Marilyn Monroe, Tony Curtis, and Jack Lemmon. The movie looped, playing continuously in our hotel room when we were there. The Crown Room was considered an architectural achievement spanning 160 feet by 60 feet, without any pillars to interrupt the view. The 33 foot high ceiling is paneled in beautiful Oregon sugar pine. Wizard of Oz author L. Frank Baum is credited for designing the famous crown chandeliers, which were installed c. 1911. In 1920, an enormous banquet was held here for England’s Prince of Wales, and in 1927 Charles Lindbergh was honored with his own celebration after his successful solo trans-Atlantic flight. Today, the Crown Room has a tradition of elegance and continues to play host to a spectacular Sunday Brunch, consistently rated as the best in the San Diego area.

HOTEL_DEL_CORONADO crown room

The Crown Room

Relaxing on the deck of your deck of my roomy villa, I sip my morning coffee while the cool mist clears, revealing the adjacent expansive sandy beach in Coronado, California. Then we proceed to the comfortable, beach side Windsor Cottage for complimentary continental-style breakfast. Concierge staff is available to help with restaurant and activity recommendations and reservations. Afterwards we either proceed to the reserved beach space for summer villa guests or the kids go to the children and teen activities. This is the way each day can start while staying at Beach Village at The Del. Staff at the beach will provide lounge chairs, towels, umbrellas, sand toys, food and beverages. This is pampering at its best. Coronado Beach is often rated as one of the best in the world, especially for families. It is a large un-crowded sandy beach with gentle waves good for kids or first time surfers.

Beach Village is among my top three favorite hotels in the world. The newer cottages and villas are adjacent to the historic Hotel Del Coronado, (called “The Del” by we San Diego natives), which dates back to 1888. Beach Village rooms have a casual, yet luxurious beach side vibe. Our family has stayed in the same corner room during our annual summer weekly visits, dating back to the first year it opened. We chose a two bedroom suite, which had one large bedroom with a king bed, and the other with two queens. Each of the bedrooms has its own fireplace and elegant bathroom. There is also a central living area with a gourmet kitchen, dining room and living room area; the couch in the living room has a fold out bed. All of the many activities, pools, dining and drink venues, and children/teen activities of the main hotel are available to those at the Beach Village, but not the reverse. Beach Village has many small private pools dotting the grounds, in addition to its community pool.  Beach Village is expensive, but less costly accommodations are available in the historic part of The Del, with many of the same perks.

Beach Village at The Del (Credit: Flickr)

Beach Village at The Del (Credit: Flickr)

Daytime fun is at hand with surfing, paddle boarding, boating, biking, and fitness classes. There are a variety of venues for drinks and music at The Del. Seasonal music, beverages and casual fare are available at the Sun Deck Bar and Grill which boasts a great view from its second story outdoor setting. Babcock & Story Bar, named after the founders of The Del, features a 46 foot hand-crafted Mahogany Bar which came to the hotel by way of Cape Horn in 1888. The Bar offers seasonal entertainment, snacks, light meals, beverages, and televisions for watching sporting events. I am still upset that they removed the grand piano where they had weekly jazz and R&B frequented by locals and guests; they replaced the area with a bakery case. At sunset, for a fee, Beach Village guests can get drinks and a snack at the Windsor Cottage while enjoying the table top built-in fire pits. S’mores on the beach after dark can be a memorable experience for families or couples. During the day, be prepared for the roar, and I do mean ear-piercing decibels, of the military jets coming into land over Coronado’s beach at the adjacent Naval Air Station. Some find it entertaining, and the rest of us annoying.

Allosaurus at the San Diego Natural History Museum

Allosaurus at the San Diego Natural History Museum

During our week stay, we eventually tear ourselves away from The Del to enjoy San Diego’s many other offerings. I always take my kids to at least one fun and one educational activity, which sometimes are both. One of our favorite activities is to go to historic Balboa Park where the 1915-16 Panama-California Exposition and the 1935-36 California Pacific International Exposition were held. The Park has numerous museums, with the San Diego Natural History Museum (great dinosaur exhibit when we have been there), San Diego Air and Space Museum, Reuben H. Fleet Science Center, San Diego Museum of Art (small but quality 19th and 20th century art and interesting special exhibits), and the Sam Diego Model Railroad Museum. The park has many interesting plants and gardens, including the 1935 Old Cactus Garden, Botanical Garden (check for closed days), and California Native Plant Garden. There are five children’s play areas and three dog parks. Of course, there is the world famous San Diego Zoo, and for an experience with animals in a more natural environment, head a half hour north to the Wild Animal Park. Sea World is educational, interactive place for the kids to learn about sea life. They also offer a play structure in Sesame Street Bay of Play, in case the kids aren’t exhausted enough. Legoland, about 45 minutes north of Coronado, is great for younger kids. Wait to buy any of the Lego construction kits until you are ready to leave the park.

Old Point Loma Lighthouse at Cabrillo National Monument

Old Point Loma Lighthouse at Cabrillo National Monument

Cabrillo National Monument is the place where Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo stepped onto the shore in 1542, becoming the first European to set foot on the West Coast of the United States. In addition to information about Cabrillo, the area hiking trails, tide pools, the Old Point Loma Lighthouse, and the military history of Fort Roscrans. The area that is now Presidio Park and Old Town was home to the first European settlement on the West Coast which started in 1769. There are no original structures left. It was the first in a series of presidios and Catholic missions in California which were used in Spanish colonization. The first mission was later moved a few miles away on the aptly-named Friars Road. The Junipero Serra Museum is in the park and is dedicated to the history of San Diego.

Gaslamp Quarter

Gaslamp Quarter

Head back over the Coronado Bridge, or for more fun, take the ferry from Coronado Bay to the nearby historic Gaslamp Quarter in downtown San Diego to sample the many restaurants and see historical buildings including the ornate former Oyster Bar run by Wyatt Earp after the shootout at the OK Corral. There are many great jazz and live music venues in the Gaslamp, but most do not allow kids. If you took the ferry to downtown, you can make the U.S.S. Midway Museum on the harbor your last stop before heading back to Coronado. Kids and military buffs enjoy touring the immense air craft carrier.

Del Mar Race Track

Del Mar Race Track

We love going to the Del Mar Race Track. I give each of my sons a set amount of money, an average of $2.00 for every race, and then let them decide how they want to bet it. When they were minors, I would place the bets for them. Our friend who previously owned race horses scoured the handicapping analyses to inform his bets, but my son who just went to look at the horses being paraded in the paddock just before they raced was far more successful. Last time all of the boys donned their 1940s suits and fedoras-they were a hit with the crowd. We like to sit trackside in one of the reserved dining areas which has table service. It can be quite sunny so sunscreen, and protective clothing and head attire are important. Afterwards, we stop for a snack or light dinner on the beach in Del Mar or La Jolla, and then back to our Coronado retreat.

Shells from the Del

Shells from Beach Village at the Del

If you want beach weather, the best time to visit the San Diego area is from the beginning of July, so you won’t be subject to the “May and June gloom,” to mid-October. This will be one of your most memorable, fun family vacations ever. Beach Village offers packages and seasonal discounts, or you can stay in the main building or one of the many other family-friendly San Diego hotels. If you can afford Beach Village, it is worth the splurge.   I love the assortment of shells they leave in the room each evening and have them displayed in my home so that I can be regularly reminded of those wonderful trips.

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Day Trip: Historic Guadalest

28 Oct
Iconic Guadalest bell tower

Iconic Guadalest bell tower

Walking through the 1300+ year-old man-made rock hewn tunnel is the only way to get access to the historical and picturesque village of Guadalest, Spain. The town is situated inland within walled fortifications on a pinnacle in the mountains. Historically, it was an important strategic site as its location made it impenetrable. In spite of its inland location and a drive on serpentine, hilly roads, the town is one of the most popular tourist attractions in Spain, with both historic and touristic offerings.

 

The area of Guadalest was occupied by the Moors starting around 715 A.D., and the Alcozaiba Castle was built in the 12th century. All that remains today of that Castle is a restored tower. The Moors brought their traditions of terraced farming, which are visible throughout the surrounding landscape and still widely used in this area of Spain today.

 

The Castle of Guadalest was built during the 12th century, and renovated in the 15th and 16th centuries. In July of 1644, an earthquake destroyed much of the castle, and in December of that year, much of the town. The castle was further damaged by a bomb during the War of Succession in 1708. The Castle’s hilltop remains are still visible from below, or one take the steep trek to castle ruins.

 

Panoramic view from Guadalest's walled old town

Panoramic view from Guadalest’s walled old town

Other points of interest are the remains of Peñon de Alcala, the watchtower that is located on a rocky peak which juts straight up from the ground, and the jail/dungeon dating back to the 12th century. The charming Baroque-style Catholic Church built in the 18th century was restored after it was burnt and looted during the Spanish Civil War. Next to the church is the Orduña’s family home which is now a museum. The Orduña family rose to prominence in Guadalest from the 1600s until the death of the last heir in 1934. For book lovers, the museum boasts a large historic library with approximately 589 books from the years 1500 to 1800. A look over the town’s walls affords panoramic views of the surrounding mountains, the glimmering blue reservoir below, and the Mediterranean on the vista.

 

18th Century Baroque Church: Our Lady of the Assumption

18th Century Baroque Church: Our Lady of the Assumption

There are eight other museums, which range from the quirky the Salt and Pepper Museum, the historic Ethnological Museum of the Valley of Guadalest, and the macabre Torture Museum. There are the usual souvenir shops, but also unique regional products and high quality items for the home or gifts. Cafés are available for a respite or quality local fare.

 

To get there, one can take the short trip by a tour bus or car. The drive is hilly and windy, but not treacherous, and is quite scenic, with one route passing another castled town, Polop. Bring good walking shoes, as the route up to the historic areas of Guadalest are steep and the round rock pathways can prove slippery. Near Guadalest, there are the waterfalls, Fonts de l’Algar, and numerous physical options such as hiking, biking and mountain climbing.

MEETING PAUL BOCUSE

1 Oct
My Pressed Duck Number

My Pressed Duck Number

There we were-unexpectedly personally greeted by Paul Bocuse at his eponymous restaurant as we ducked in from the sudden downpour. As a dedicated foodie, I was determined to make the pilgrimage to Paul Bocuse’s L’Auberge du Pont de Collonges near Lyon. If you are a lover of French food, he needs no introduction. His accomplishments and accolades are many including being named the “Chef of the Century” by the esteemed Culinary Institute of America at their Leadership Awards Gala on March 30, 2011. We had reservations for my son’s 21st birthday. Up to that point we had enjoyed a fabulous week in Paris, with fantastic food including the famed pressed duck at Tour D’Argent and many types of offal.

Once we got to Lyon, we sampled the delicious, hearty traditional cuisine Lyonnaise in the many convivial bouchons, all the while anticipating our evening at Paul Bocuse. We were surprised at the distance the restaurant was from the city, but enjoyed the cab ride through the countryside. When we arrived, we saw an unexpectedly colorful exterior on the building. Just as we were exiting the cab, the rain suddenly poured from the dark clouds. We huddled under umbrella provided by restaurant staff and scurried toward the entrance.

Paul Bocuse menu

Paul Bocuse menu

Once inside, we were immediately greeted by Paul Bocuse who shook our hands. I am not the least enamored by movie or sports celebrities, but I was so moved at personally meeting Paul Bocuse that I was speechless. Then I stupidly bowed to him and started crying. Everything that night from the food and beverages to the service were impeccable. I had labored through the French menu with my limited French, but my fluent son had no such problem. As we were leaving, they offered us a souvenir menu, which I took in English; it just didn’t seem right, though, to order from anything but a French menu at the venerable Paul Bocuse.

Carcassonne: worth the trip?

4 Sep

Carcassonne Towers

I have long wanted to go to the historic, fortified walled city of Carcassonne, a UNESCO world heritage site, located in southern France, with its fairy-tale looking defensive double walls, castle, drawbridge, watchtowers and cobbled streets.  Not only was I fascinated with it, I had read about and seen enticing photos of the five-star Hôtel de La Cité, located in the heart of the medieval citadel, and relished the idea of staying within the walled city. The hotel has the traditional, comfortable luxury that I favor, with inviting outdoor spaces and great views of the expansive valley below.

 

I had initially flown directly from Alicante, Spain to Toulouse, in the region of Occitanie, scheduling the first three days in Toulouse. For the fourth day, I booked the Hôtel de La Cité. Carcassonne is only a short, scenic 40 minute train ride from Toulouse. Unfortunately, I misjudged how long it would take to get from my hotel in Toulouse to the train station due to having to navigate around the old town and to get a ticket for my dog from an agent. Fair warning, I was able to book my seat on the train via the internet but not for my small dog, which had to be done in person at the train station. So I took the next train, an hour and a half later, with my small dog, Pepper, (AKA Pimienta) in his portable, wheeled carrier.

Pepper (aka Pimienta)

 

The train station in Toulouse had a piano permanently located in the waiting area, and many people spontaneously sat down and played. It’s these little serendipitous things that contribute to my passion for travel. There was also a foosball table, which kids and adults stopped to play. Be aware that in many train stations in France you need to get to your train by walking under the train tracks via stairs. If you have mobility issues and/or a heavy suitcase, it can be challenging. Allow extra time or if you are disabled, request help when booking your ticket.

 

Barbacane alfresco dining

Whenever I take public transportation like a train or bus, I try to go one timeslot earlier than my needed arrival time, in case something like this train trip goes awry. So even though I left an hour and a half later than initially intended, I still arrived on time at the hotel where I had scheduled to eat at the hotel’s Michelin star restaurant, Barbacane. Lunch was in the lovely garden area with views of some of the wall, watchtowers, and the valley below where Carcassonne residents now live. The prix fixe three course lunch which included two courses, each served with a glass of wine selected by the sommelier to pair with the food. Water was included and a choice of dessert or a cheese plate at the end, all for a quality, reasonably-priced meal of €39. Pepper sat quietly under the table.

 

Dog-friendly garden patio

 

After lunch, we went to my room, which was spacious, with elegant furnishings, a great bed and a menu offering a variety of pillows from which you can choose. Knowing I was bringing my dog, they gave me a room with stairs that led down to a garden area, where Pepper could do his outdoor duties. There also was a table and chairs on the upstairs patio. I was surprised and pleased to see they had a dog dish with water in the room ready for Pepper, the first time I have ever experienced that. And there was no extra charge for the dog, whereas normally there is.

 

After settling in to the room, I went out to explore the rest of Carcassonne within the walled citadel. The area is pedestrian with the exception of an occasional delivery vehicle, but it was very crowded with summer day trippers. There are a few buildings and museums worth exploring.

Saint-Nazaire

The Gothic-Romanesque Basilica Saint-Nazaire dates back to the 12th century and has beautiful stained glass. The rest of the buildings largely house touristic shops selling regional specialties including food (foie gras, cassoulet, truffles, and olives), local wines, knight-themed items, and cafes and restaurants.  It felt more like a crowded theme park than a historic site. I had only booked one night at the Hôtel de la Cité, as I first wanted to see if I enjoyed it enough to stay longer; I was glad I did. I considered exploring some of the other areas of Occitanie, but ultimately decided to head back to Toulouse and explore it further.

 

I used the internet to find a last-minute hotel reservation for the next three nights in a different area of Toulouse than my initial stay. After I arrived, I told the taxi driver the name of my hotel, he said it was just a short distance, waving his hand toward a large boulevard. So I walked, and walked, and walked. The hotel was not straight down the street, and I wandered for a while, luggage and dog in tow in the heat. I stopped for a cooling beverage, where I could ask the staff for directions. Feeling slightly refreshed and optimistic, I again set off for my hotel. An unexpected finding was that there were three hotels within a two block area that had the same name as the one I booked. Well actually, the main name was the same, with a slightly different second name. I finally found my hotel, which I initially found shockingly spartan after my stay at a five-star hotel. After I got over my initial dismay, I found the room adequate, particularly as I don’t spend much time in my room, and it was a dog-friendly hotel. I spent the next three and a half days in Toulouse exploring different neighborhoods, historic sites, and scouting out delectable food. I am already thinking about a return trip to Toulouse.

 

Toulouse Travel Tips

20 Aug

Capitole Plaza, my hotel on the right

Living in Spain provides me the luxury of being able to travel to nearby places, like Europe and Africa, at very inexpensive costs. I initially explored the idea of travelling in central Spain this August, but it was too hot, and then Prague and Budapest, but the direct flights from where I live were not available in August. Preferring direct flights, which have a decreased chance of delays, I explored other options and decided to go to Toulouse and nearby Carcassonne, which are at the base of the Pyrenees in southern central France, not far north of Andorra. The flight is only about an hour each direction, which cost me €61 each direction, and €72 round trip for my small dog, who traveled in the cabin under the seat in front of me. I spent a week in the Toulouse area.

 

Typical building

Toulouse is the fourth largest metropolitan area in France, and the Occitanie area (formerly Languedoc-Roussillon) in which it and Carcassonne are located is the largest geographical region in France. Toulouse is known as the “pink city,” due to the many buildings made of pink stone and bricks. It is a walk-friendly city with distinct neighborhoods, which are the types of large cities I favor. When I first arrived, I stayed for three days at the Grand Hotel Opera, centrally-located on the large Capitole Plaza. It was a good starting spot, with cafes and restaurants serving drinks, snacks and higher-end cuisine. I do not like shopping, but there were a variety of shops/stores on or near the plaza, surprisingly including a number of U.S. stores like Sephora and Foot Locker, and other popular European stores.

 

Before I arrive at vacation destination, I try to get a basic familiarity with the areas and places I would most like to visit. I am a foodie, so I read up on the typical regional cuisine, recommended restaurants, as well as live entertainment. Obviously once I arrive, I get a better feel for the area, and make my plans accordingly, but I leave room for a great deal of spontaneity which can result in serendipitous finds. One such occasion occurred when I walked to the local fruit and vegetable market, where I decided to have lunch at one of the many nearby restaurants. I noticed it was cloudy and looked like it could rain, so I found a restaurant, Le point Gourmet, with a good awning coverage of the outdoor area, and most importantly, good food.  I was too late to get the daily special of duck hearts, fresh from the market, as they were already sold out. But my duck breast, duck-fat fried pommes frites (French fries), and salad were delicious.

 

Seafood pasta

While sitting at the restaurant and waiting for my food, it started raining. Many of the diners not under cover frantically arose, trying to grab food, beverages and belongings. Most handled it with aplomb and humor, but one family where I was dining, got into an argument with the owner, which became quite heated. After they diners left, the French owner, who spoke very good English, (I only speak English and Spanish), said the three patrons were blaming him for the rain, and he replied he was not God. He correctly mentioned that there was only a brief rain, and the patrons nonetheless said they would not pay for the food. There was some more heated discussion, with their continued verbal attacks and complaint about their mother being disabled, to which the owner said his wife, who was still working long hours at the restaurant, had cancer. They finally left. The owner then told me the following story: “God made France, with beautiful landscapes, oceans, vegetation and so on. When he finished, God said, France is perfect, everything. It is too perfect, so I am going to put French people there.” Hilarious!

 

Salade Gourmande

The food in the Toulouse area is regionally-based, as is common in Europe. They are famous for their cassoulet, foie gras, sausages, many types of offal (veal kidneys, gizzards, hearts, and sweetbreads), fantastic variety of cheeses, predictably delicious bread and baked goods. Most places offer quality, affordably-priced prix fixe menus, not as inexpensive as where I live in Spain, but far cheaper than you would pay for comparable food in the U.S. Also, the regional wines are excellent, usually inexpensive, and frequently available in varying amounts like 15 ml, 50 ml, and 75 ml (respectively, a glass, a little more than a half bottle, and a full bottle.) For those who live in Spain, Toulouse does not cafés on every block or even several on every block like there are in Spain, which I realized when I looked for a place to duck into when it started to rain.

 

Statue Joan of Arc

The other thing I did not anticipate were the operating and closing hours for businesses, with many shops closed either in the afternoons or early in the evening, and also many places, including restaurants, are closed on Sundays, holidays and during parts or all of August.  I failed to check the holiday schedule before I booked my vacation, only to learn that there was a religious holiday, Assumption Day, in which many businesses were shuttered.

 

The Toulouse and greater Occitanie area offer numerous entertainment and outdoor activities. In Toulouse, there are the expected ancient and historical buildings and museums. There was a jazz concert series during the summer featured such icons as George Benson and Wynton Marsalis. The Garonne River and Canal du Midi offer great spots for events and leisure. There and in the Montagne Noire, nearby mountain range, offer opportunities for outdoor and physical activity enthusiasts. Winery tours in the region is another popular and easy day trip from Toulouse. Toulouse also boasts Europe’s largest space center, which also offers venues oriented toward children.

 

Garonne River

After my first three days in Toulouse, I took the short 45 minute train ride to the walled city of Carcassonne, where I spent the night, at the fabulous 5-star Hôtel de la Cité and ate at their Michelin-star restaurant, Barbacane, which I will write about in a subsequent blog post. I also plan to share my restaurant reviews from Toulouse which I will publish on TripAdvisor: they recently reported I have over 100,000 readers of my reviews!

Top Five Things To Do in Elche Spain

6 Aug
IMG_1671

View from the top of Altamira Castle of Basilica of Santa Maria

Located in the southern area of the Valencian Community, just south of Alicante, Elche makes a great one or two day trip. It is the third largest city in the Valencian Community, with Valencia and Alicante being more populated. The Palmeral de Elche (the Palm Grove of Elche), which consists of approximately 200,000 palm trees, was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2000, and is one of the main draw for tourists.

The area is believed to have been settled by Greeks, then Carthaginians and Romans, followed by others including several centuries of Moorish rule. The city offers a mix of nature, history, an engaging city centre, and the option of lovely beaches and great shopping, with over 1000 shoe factories!

 

The following are my recommendations for the best sites to visit:

 

  1. I recommend starting at the Museo Arqueológico y de Historia de Elche (MAHE), located in the Altamira Castle, built during the 12th to 13th century. The museum provides visual, written, and verbal information on the history of the area in displays which provide a summary of each of the periods of occupation. The most famous archaeological find was the statue “The Lady of Elche,” believed to be from the Iberians in the 4th century. A copy is on display, with the original being in the National Archaeological Museum of Spain in Madrid, which is a source of contention for the people of Elche who believe it should be returned to Elche. During my tour of the museum, I found the succinct overviews of each era to afford adequate information without museum fatigue. The MAHE facility is modern and mostly accessible, with the exception of the very top of the castle. Take those remaining stairs to reach the top of the castle for a panoramic view of the city and the adjacent Palmeral.
  2. As soon as you exit the MAHE, you will find part of the Palmeral, and the municipal park. The Palmeral is thought to be established during the 5th century by the Carthaginians. Sophisticated irrigation systems were added during the Arab occupation during the 10th century. It is the only such palm grove in Europe, and the northernmost such palm garden. In this part of the Palmeral, there are paths where one can observe the varying vegetation, ponds, swans, historic buildings, a restaurant, exercise stations, playgrounds, and more. The Palmeral is not only confined to this area, but is spread around the city. There are maps available at the Tourist Office or hotels, which provide suggested paths to view the palms.
  3. Across the street from the MAHE and Palmeral is the city centre where there are a number of visit-worthy historical sites. The Basilica of Santa Maria has layers of history, with a beautiful Valenciana Baroque façade. Originally a Mosque, after the Reconquista, a Catholic Church, probably Gothic style, was built. It was here that the liturgical drama, Misteri, Elche Mystery Play, was first presented. In 2001, it was declared a UNESCO “Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity,” and is performed every August in conjunction with the Assumption of Saint Mary. Later the church was rebuilt with different styles over the centuries, eventually with the current emblematic regional blue tile domes.
  4. Nearby the Calahorra Tower, built in the 13th century in the Amohade style, was the most important entry gate to Elche, with the road leading to Alicante. Note the shape at the base of the Calahorra is wider to provide structural stability. However, this did not prevent severe earthquake damage in 1829, which resulted in the loss of the two upper floors. On the surviving back wall, there is a colorful vertical garden, flanked by a gastro-restaurant, which is an inviting place for a meal or refreshing drink.
  5. The Huerto de la Cura is a 12,000 square meter garden displaying Mediterranean and tropical plants. It is famous for its Imperial Palm, which features a unique date palm with seven branches. It got its name from a visit by the Empress Elisabeth of Austria, Sissi, in 1894. The park’s inviting paths, plants, and ponds provide an enchanting and tranquil respite. There is a souvenir area where you can buy plants and regional food and craft items.

    Seven branch Imperial Palm

    Seven branch Imperial Palm

Favorite and Unique Foods in the Costa Blanca Area of Spain

23 Jul
fresh fish and fishmongers

Fresh fish and fishmongers

Being a foodie and lover of nearly everything from the sea, I feel like I am living in food paradise here in Altea, which is on the Mediterranean in the Costa Blanca area of Spain. I previously spent time with a friend, originally from the city of Valencia, just an hour north of Altea. She always provides interesting cultural and historical information about the area.

 

We went to the old town area of Benidorm for tapas, also known as pintxos. I must add that Benidorm is a place I usually avoid, as it is known for drunks, bad behavior, crazy “hen” and “stag” (in the U.S. known as bachelorette and bachelor parties), exotic dancers, legal prostitution, and mediocre entertainment. However, there are a few redeeming activities, including the tapas spots in the old town, many of which are similar to those in San Sebastian, a culinary delight which boasts the most Michelin stars per square meter, and three of Spain’s three star restaurants out of a total of seven. Like any touristic spots, it is easy to end up in a place with mediocre food and poor service. That is where a local friend can be helpful.

 

Sepia

Sepia

We started at a parallel street to the main tapas alley, where we enjoyed a small glass of wine accompanied by a simple, but tasty tapa of orejas fritas (fried sheep ears) for only 1€. We then moved on to the main tapas alley restaurants. My friend explained the specialties of each. One featured suckling pig and suckling lamb, common to areas of central Spain like Toledo, south of Madrid. (No hate mail please.) My youngest son and I are big fans of sepia (cuttlefish, similar in texture to calamari “steaks”) and small fried octopus legs (rejos,  which have a similar texture and taste to calamari rings and tentacles.) While in Benidorm we ordered huevos de sepia, (eggs of sepia.) Obviously, not every tapa appeals to everyone, but it is fun to go with friends, and share various tapas, including ones never tried before.

 

Besides the omni-present many varieties of regional Spanish jamones (hams) and delicious cheeses available throughout Spain, each area of Spain has its own specialties.

Party-size mejillones (mussels)

Party-size mejillones (mussels)

Even travelling only a half hour inland, one will find different local specialties. Rabbit is popular in my area. There is a dizzying variety of fish and seafood. After a year, I am still struggling to learn the names of all the fish, and shellfish. For example, there are many varieties of bi-valves, not just mussels and clams, but many types of each of them. The specialty seafood markets and even the regular grocery stores have an incredible amount of fresh stock, with fishmongers ready to prepare them to your specifications. You won’t see any fresh fish which is already fileted. Another unexpectedly delicious find was gulas also known as angulas (baby eels) which have the consistency as thick spaghetti with a seafood taste, They can easily be prepared with shrimp, garlic and abundant olive oil (after all, Spain produces the most in the world) and baked for a short time. They are also used in many other ways including salads and toppings for tapas.

 

Gulas (baby eel) and shrimp

Gulas (baby eel) and shrimp

Squid ink pasta or paella are delicious if you like that inky seafood taste. I find the black color to be an inviting, unique experience. On one occasion, when my son and I were at an outdoor venue for salsa-dancing, we ordered the paella negra with seafood. I was surprised that of the 15 or so fellow dancers sharing our table, ex-pats who now live here, none had previously tried it. After a first cautious bite, each of them dug in for more.

 

Paella is a Spanish dish originating in Valencia, so there are many choices of types of paella from which to choose, although there is only one traditional type according to the hardcore, which consists of rice (typically bomba), green beans, rabbit or chicken, snails, saffron and other seasoning cooked in a shallow pan. Other popular local paellas include paella negra (squid ink previously mentioned), verduras (vegetable), a la banda (with squid rings), and mariscos (seafood.) However, there are many iterations of paella, including but not limited to arroz meloso (a slightly moister rice dish) and arroz caldoso (a soupier rice dish.) It is not unusual for a restaurant specializing in rice dishes, an arrocería, to have 10 to 20 rice dishes.

 

fideuawithrabbitandseafood

Fideua with rabbit and seafood

Another popular dish is fideua, which is a dish prepared similar to paella, but made with small pasta instead of rice. For both paella and fideua, which are freshly made to order, allow at least 30 minutes for preparation. But since this is Spain, your meal is likely to last at least two hours anyway.

 

Cocido de pelotas (a stew made with “balls”) is a hearty stew with cabbage-wrapped balls made of ground meat, spices and a binder. Homemade, good quality pelotas are widely available at local butcher shops. The weekly local farmers’ market offers delectable, seasonal fruits and vegetables.

 

Bounty of weekly farmers' market

Bounty of weekly farmers’ market

When I went for pizza, very popular here as in many places in the world, I saw the special topping of the day was “granada.” Although I speak decent Spanish, that word was unfamiliar. I learned it is the word for pomegranate, which actually sounds quite similar. This time of year Valencian oranges are abundant and incredibly cheap, which make delicious fresh orange juice, known here as zumo (not jugo as is commonly used in many Latin American countries.)

 

While I do love the food here, there are some things I miss that are not readily available here, including Mexican-style corn tortillas; many Asian condiments; spices like sage, allspice, red chili flakes, habaneros or other spicy chiles; and my shameful favorite junk food, Cheetos.