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Visions of Altea

21 May

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Food Porn from the Costa Blanca: Altea, Albir, Alfaz and Benidorm

23 Apr

Perro Negro: Altea, bacalao with clams (bacalao con almejas)

Interrmezzo: Albir, lobster and mussels in Thai sauce (bogavante y mejillones en salsa Thai)

Tragantua Gran Taberna: Benidorm, octopus in garlic olive oil (pulpo al ajillo)

La Capella: Altea, Jamon bellota iberico

La Favorita Taberna: Benidorm, tapa with serrano ham, crab and shrimp (tapa con jamon serrano, cangrejo y gamba)

Sabor: Altea, carpaccio

Cerveceria Casa Juan: Alfaz, asparagus tortilla (tortilla con espárrago)

La Maja: Altea, cod on black rice (bacalao con arroz negro)

Blau Bellaguarda: Altea, roasted lamb with roasted veggies (cordero al horno con verduras asadas)

House of Jarl, Altea, brunch with paté, chorizo, perfectly cooked egg, cheeses, salad, potato with creme fraiche and dill

Rainbow seen from La Maja restaurant in Altea
3-17-18 (arcoiris)

Four Days of No Running Water in Altea Spain: NO BUENO!

18 Feb

Altea fountain with fresh water

Day 4 with no running water in my apartment in Altea Spain. (No bueno.) Initially, I inquired of my two neighbors in the same building had water and they did not. My contacts with the property manager, Pacqui, at Ibis Inmobliaria, were unbelievably frustrating and unprofessional.

 

When I told her I did not have water for two days, she asked if I had paid the bill, even though the bill goes to her office, and then I pay it every month, so she should have known that. Then she asked if the neighbor had water and when I said no, she advised me to go to the water company for info. My Spanish is pretty good about daily matters but more challenging when trying to communicate about uncommon things. I asked here via text several more times, and she dismissively replied in Spanish that something must be broken. So when will I have water, I asked her in Spanish, and she said when it is fixed, and have a nice day with a smiley emoji. In spite of my repeated requests for information, she never gave me any idea what was wrong or when I would have water. Even when I told her I would look for a new apartment because I could not function without water or without knowing when I would have it, she did not respond.

 

Too bad I had recently just gotten rid my cupboards of all the empty bottles which I could have used to get water from the local fountains, which fortunately provide potable drinking water at many spots around town.

 

Finally, I found the emergency water hotline which I called on day 4. They asked me the same questions several times, i.e. how long have you been without water, and are your neighbors without water. Then they asked me why no one had reported it; apparently neither the property manager nor the neighbor who runs a barbershop bothered to call. During that time, I observed a man working on the street on a pipe, and about half an hour after my call I had water, but I think the restoration of water was a coincidence, not due to my call. After that, the water company called back and informed me the water would again be shut off for more repairs in three days, which although inconvenient, but I can handle it with advance info.

The lack of customer service and difficulty in accomplishing bureaucratic or business tasks is one of the most frustrating things about living in Spain. It took me almost two and half months to change my internet provider. You can’t just walk into a store and buy a cell phone, nor just cancel a service and return the equipment. And don’t be surprised if what they tell you to do is different each time you go back trying to fulfill their last requirement.  All that said, I still love my life here in Spain, in spite of the occasional frustrations.

Fun, Food and Music: Two Days in Javea

10 Dec

Altea

Travelling requires planning, and then when things go awry, flexibility. I love living here in Altea, on the Mediterranean, in Spain, but I also want to continue my life-long love of travelling to new places.

 

To that end, I have been looking to explore nearby destinations, and places further afield in Spain and beyond. However, from where I live, it is often not easily accessible to other areas of Spain, and beyond. The local tram, now over 100 years old, is a major way to travel from Altea to the north to Denia and to the south to Alicante, and destinations in between. It is about an hour by tram from Altea to Denia and two hours south to Alicante. However, the tram has been undergoing upgrades, and so now only runs to Calpe, three stops north of Altea, and then you need to transfer to a bus which substitutes for the tram. I was going to Javea, (aka Xàbia) a little less than an hour north of Altea. While dogs are allowed on the tram, when I went to the local tram station and asked if I could take my dog on the bus, (since it was a substitute for the tram), she called to ask her superiors. She told me it was not allowed.

Pepper (aka Pimienta)

So I had already made Pepper, (aka Pimienta) my small dog, a portable carrier/backpack incognito, by tacking on black scarfs inside on the netting, so I could “sneak” him onto bus public transport. But when I took the tram from Altea to Calpe, and tried to transfer to the bus for destinations north beyond, I was told I had to leave the backpack in the luggage hold in the bus, (which is the same as the animal transport policy for public buses in Spain.) I could not leave the dog in the soft backpack in the luggage hold.

 

So I had to regroup. I ended up taking a taxi to Javea, for 48 €. Originally I booked the Parador in Javea (paradors being historical buildings converted into hotels and restaurants), but the booking website incorrectly said they allowed dogs. Then I booked The Hotel Rodat, also a 4 star hotel.  It was a lovely hotel which reminded me much of hotels in the Santa Barbara area of California. Unfortunately for me, the dog-friendly rooms were down many stairs, (with no disabled access nor rails for the stairs) and no ability to eat in any of the hotel restaurants with your dog; in Spain, usually there is outdoor seating where pets are welcomed. I was planning to eat at their 1 Michelin star restaurant. The room service only had a limited menu, and did not include any dishes from the Michelin-starred restaurant and very few from the more casual dining restaurant. A dog-friendly hotel where you cannot eat at any of the restaurants? No bueno.

Thus I proceeded to the L’Arenal beachside region of Javea where I enjoyed some snacks of berberechos and lobster soup at Fontana Restaurant. The outdoor covered roof with gas heaters allowed a cozy view of the beach walkway and all of its activities. Afterwards, I walked about two miles to the port to Varadero restaurant and bar where Destry Spigner, a local blues and soul singer was performing. In addition to enjoying his performance, I had a tasty snack of Spanish cheese and hams.

berberechos-e1512931392598.jpg

berberechos

After a restful night’s sleep, I enjoyed the garden area outside my room while Pepper played fetch. I then returned to Los Remos, a restaurant which had an enticing menu that I had seen the previous day, but was unable to eat at as the kitchen was closed after 4:00 p.m. until the dinner service. I am glad I returned as I had one of the best meals I have had in Spain, (bogavante azul) and superb mixed sautéed vegetables. While dining, I watched the busy beach area, with youngsters getting surf lessons (although there was hardly any surf), families walking and playing, and dogs running on the beach (which is not allowed in the summer, but tolerated in the winter.) Happy and sated with my outing, I returned to Altea via taxi, for the same 48€ that it cost me to get to Javea from Calpe.

bluelobster.jpg

blue lobster (bogavante azul)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

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!

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.