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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.

 

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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.

 

 

 

 

 

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Affordable Luxury in the Jewel of Spain’s Costa Blanca

17 Apr

Altea

Here is an excellent article about Altea written by my friend, Ted Williams (aka Paul Theodore Williams) for International Living magazine.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Dear Fund Your Life Overseas Reader,

One of the challenges of moving overseas is selecting the right place for you. Cost of living, climate, convenience, and several other factors will play a big part in your decision.

But when you find the perfect place for you, it’s something you won’t be able to put a number on. You’ll just know it.

Texan native Paul, who tells his story below, is one of the folks who has found his perfect overseas home. Read on, and discover why he’s so taken with this little town on Spain’s Costa Blanca…

Shane Ormond

Shane Ormond
Managing Editor, Fund Your Life Overseas

P.S. If you like the romance and culture of Europe…then Spain is calling your name. It offers sophistication, charm, comfort…and at a price you’d expect to see in Latin America. In fact, it’s the best bargain in Europe today. Uncover the insider secrets to find your ideal Spanish destination in our comprehensive Spain Uncovered Bundle—available this week only at an almost 50% discount. Act before midnight tomorrow and you’ll receive a free report on Spain’s Secret Income Opportunity.

***

Affordable Luxury in the Jewel of Spain’s Costa Blanca
By Paul Theodore Williams

This morning, I awoke to the spotless Altea seaside, refreshed by an early spring shower. These March mornings are cool, and showers are frequent at this time of year, but the afternoons are sunny and warm enough to peel off the jacket.

I took my two dogs for our morning ritual, walking down to the craggy beach just a couple-of-minutes from my home. The crisp morning air is a refreshing and energizing start to the day. As the waves crashed rhythmically against the shore, I began to wake up and turn my thoughts to the day to come.

These mornings, walking the coast in Altea, the jewel of Spain’s Costa Blanca, may feel like part of a vacation commercial. But it’s my normal everyday life, compliments of working as a teacher in Spain.

I teach at a school about seven miles inland from Altea. Is that why I came here? Not really. Teaching, for me, is a means to an end—a way to live life on my own terms. I’m not making a fortune by American standards, but compared to the cost of living, I live comfortably, have a constant flow of disposable income, and get plenty of time off to do what I want.

Coming from Texas, I was used to a lower than average cost of living. However, Altea is even drastically more affordable than that. My first home here was an apartment on the seafront, which I rented for just for $485 per month, with my utilities totaling at about $100 monthly. Since then I’ve met my wife—she was the landlord of that apartment as it happens—and I’ve moved on from that apartment to something bigger.

Fuel is more expensive here but my car gets 45 mpg and we only use it for going to work and our weekend adventures, since the whole town is happily accessible by foot. One stroll through the jasmine-filled streets and you’ll never want to get back in a car again. Fruit and vegetables are at least half the cost of back home and finding organically grown produce is the norm, not the exception.

We both love to cook, but we also love to eat out. For an authentic, traditional Spanish meal, you’ll get a glass of wine, starter, first and second courses, and dessert or coffee for about $11 at lunch and $16 at dinner. A great bottle of wine, that I would expect to cost $20 to $25 back home, may set me back about $5. If I’m watching soccer with the boys I can get a pint of beer for $2.70.

One of the best Indian restaurants in the area, Crown of India, sits on high in the old town with a 270-degree panoramic view of the mountains and coast. They offer a wonderful dining experience for about $20 including wine or beer. But I must admit, my favorite restaurant is a Michelin-star restaurant, BonAmb, in Javea, about 30 minutes away. It’s more expensive than the other restaurants in the area but they bring the essence of the Costa Blanca from land and sea to table with a refined, sophisticated touch.

Here, I’m able to indulge my love of food. My wife and I enjoy frequent outings to enjoy the region’s world-class wineries and artisanal cheeses. My favorite winery close to home is Mendoza in neighboring Alfaz del Pi. The extended four-hour tasting includes a tour of the grounds, and a tasting of eight wines along with locally produced meats, cheeses, and olive oils.

I could live in other towns nearby and live on even less, but Altea is my heaven on earth. To my front, I have the Mediterranean Sea with its calming rhythm; to my sides and back, I have a backdrop of rugged mountains. Together, they form a microclimate that means less extreme highs and lows in summer and winter, while also giving the town a magical light that must be seen to be understood.

 

16 of My Favorite Spanish Foods

13 Feb

I have decided to revisit some of my favorite meals and foods here in the Costa Blanca area of Spain:

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First course beachside at La Maja

grilled artichokes

grilled artichokes

Chopitos (fried baby squid)

Chopitos (fried baby squid)

Flan

Flan

Composed salad with goat cheese

Composed salad with goat cheese

Cocido con pelotas (traditional regional favorite)

Cocido con pelotas (traditional regional favorite)

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Sample of tapas served complimentarily with wine or beer

Paté plate

Paté plate

Seafood salad

Salad with cheese and ham

John Dory fish with salad and fries

John Dory fish with salad and fries

Sautéed fish with veggies in saffron sauce

Sautéed fish with veggies in saffron sauce

Seafood salad

Seafood salad

Jamon

Jamon

Grilled octopus

Grilled octopus

Pimientos de padron

Pimientos de padron

Paella with rabbit and calamari

Paella with rabbit and calamari

 

 

 

A Humorous Guide to Smoking in Spain

2 Nov
  1. img_1410Although smoking is not allowed indoors, it doesn’t count if you light up while heading for the door.
  2. Nor does is count if you stand in the doorway and smoke.
  3. You can stand at the outside window counter of a bar/restaurant designed for serving people outside, and while facing the inside, blow smoke inside.
  4. You can smoke in an outdoor restaurant patio, even if enclosed or babies/children are present.
  5. You can hold your baby or child while smoking.
  6. You can throw your lit cigarette into the street when finished, regardless of whether you are walking, driving, or are on your third or fourth floor home balcony.
  7. You can publicly smoke at your job.
  8. You would rather sit outdoors so you can smoke, even in inclement weather.
  9. Don’t worry if your smoking bothers anyone else.
  10. You can smoke outside the gym door before and after exercising, and if you need a smoke break during your workout.
  11. Buy household items that can be used both as vessels for serving food and as an ashtray.
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    Cups that can be used to serve food such as allioli (Spanish version of aioli) or can be an ashtray.  I’m not kidding. See the four protrusions on top designed for putting cigarettes when vessel is empty.

Visual Valencia

9 Aug

When my youngest son was visiting for the summer, we took a trip to nearby Valencia, the third largest city and Spain and the capital of the autonomous community of Valencia (Comunitat Valenciana, in the local Valenciana dialect.) Valencia was founded as a Roman colony in 138 BC, and has historical ruins from the Roman and Arab occupations.  I will be sharing some writings regarding our adventures there and other interesting nearby towns. But now, I want to share the visual delights of Valencia, from the beautiful historic buildings, the Lonja de la Seda (Silk Exchange, built between 1482 and 1548, a UNESCO World Heritage Site), the mind-boggling architecture of the City of Arts and Sciences designed in part by native-born Santiago Calatrava, and, of course, street entertainers, and food at restaurants and in the famous Mercat Central (Valenciana for Central Market.)

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City of Arts and Sciences

City of Arts and Sciences

City of Arts and Sciences

City of Arts and Sciences

One of a number of exhibits at the City of Arts and Sciences

One of a number of exhibits at the City of Arts and Sciences

Ceiling of La Lonja de la Seda, originally painted blue with gold stars

Ceiling of La Lonja de la Seda, originally painted blue with gold stars

External window at La Lonja de la Seda with view of internal stained glass window

External window at La Lonja de la Seda with view of internal stained glass

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Valencia Central Market

Inside the Central Market

Inside the Central Market

Yummy offal

Yummy offal

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Spectacular array of vegetables

Delicious whole calamari

Delicious whole calamari

Jamon bellota at the venerable Casa Vela, since 1908

Jamon bellota at the venerable Casa Vela, since 1908

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A Fulfilling, Less Stressful Life Running an Artsy Bar in Idyllic Altea Spain

7 Jun
saraanddavidaltearte

Sara and David at their artsy bar in Altea

In the same week, Sara Wilson lost her job as a staff writer for a major business magazine, and her husband, David Fernandez, lost his position as a private chef for socialites in New York City. They used that as a springboard to “re-examine our careers and quality of life.” They originally met in France, married and moved to California, then to New York to further their careers. Even though they liked certain aspects of living In New York, their lives were stressful, too money driven, and they didn’t get to spend much time together. Sara reflected, “Life gave us solution when we got laid off within a week of each other.” After considering their options, they initially decided to move to more relaxed Spain with the idea of opening a restaurant with David’s father. When that didn’t work out as anticipated, Sara and David started exploring other options, and eventually settled on opening a bar and eatery.

 

Sara reported, “My six years at the magazine job interviewing entrepreneurs helped us in the process of starting our business.” She added, “Ironically, I learned from people’s stories and their tips for success.” David had previously completed culinary training in Paris. She noted, “David is more of a visionary and risk-taker than I am, but it was our joint talents that helped us develop a successful business.”

altea

Picturesque and historic Altea

They spent several months exploring towns in the Costa Blanca area along the Mediterranean. They briefly looked at touristy Benidorm, but it did not possess the attractive and friendly location they were seeking. Then, “Unexpectedly we encountered a village paradise…called Altea,” recalled Sara. “We loved Altea’s stunning coastline, white pebble beaches and inviting and tasty restaurants lining the promenade.” But it was when they entered the old town, once a fortress, that they were really “awestruck. We loved its picturesque, narrow, pedestrian streets, punctuated by small artisan shops, that lead up to the hilltop church plaza.” Thus they set about on finding a place in the old town, known as Casco Antiguo.

 

Not long thereafter, they found an apartment and a place to start their dream business, a café/bar which was promoting various forms of art. “The rent was the cheapest we had found, and was the right size for just the two of us to run.” It consisted of two floors that had been transformed from an old house. We liked the fact that it had a mezzanine, a decent stock room, it was just one street down from the church plaza, and was on one of the most charming streets of Altea.” The business had been operating primarily as a sports bar, with a focus on the arts, as well, hence the name AlteArte. Importantly, “The bar already had a local clientele.”

They bought the business, but not the building. Sara stated, “We had been warned that it was important that the business have an existing business license. Just as we were ready to finalize the purchase, we learned that AlteArte did not have a business license.” The owner had applied for it and it was reportedly in process for a substantial period of time, (not unusual with the Spanish bureaucracy), but it had never been completed. Once the owner was aware that this unresolved issue was holding up the sale, the license was quickly approved. Sara and David speculated that the business license application was likely languishing with the local authorities, and that the owner, who was a local native, got the process completed quickly. Sara said, “It helped to buy a turn-key business, with an established clientele.” The prior owner, who sold them the business, wanted Sara and David to be success, and was supportive in a variety of helpful ways.

alteartegrouppix

Typical evening with friends at AlteArte

Sara and David “wanted to change the ambience to a cozier environment, which we did by adding tables and changing some of the décor.” They later hung their now iconic multi-colored bicycle upside down from the ceiling, and added some other kitschy design elements. They provide Wi-Fi, and show major soccer matches (“fútbol”).   “By changing things, we lost some of the former clients but gained others.” During their first year in business, they were often complimented on their tasty mojitos, so they decided to make that a focus. They setup an increasingly growing mojito menu, and identified AlteArte as a “mojiteria,”which set it apart from the other bars. They also make “nojitos,” alcohol-free mojitos. Adapting to client demonstrated preferences, “We abandoned our early idea of making it a coffee-centric business, instead focusing on our excellent selection and preparation of teas,” in addition to other typical bar beverages. Although their service focus is primarily on beverages, they also have a small selection of tapas and quesadillas, the latter being a popular, but rare item in Altea.

 

alteachurch

Casco Antiguo in Altea

Asked if they have encountered any problems or challenges in setting up their business, they reported initially the neighbors complained about noise and the tables and chairs they had placed on the stairs adjacent to their building. “Eventually, we were able to make peace with the neighbors, after convincing them that we would keep the noise down, and not cause them any problems.” During the slow time of year, they do minor renovations to AlteArte, but they noted it is hard to find qualified people who complete the work in a timely fashion. After deciding to start their business in Altea, Sara quickly began learning Spanish, something she felt essential in running their business.

 

The owner of their building had been renting out the top floor to various people as a shop with touristic and artisan items, but after a series of several failed businesses there, he asked Sara and David if they were interested in adding the top floor to AlteArte. “We decided to take this opportunity to expand. The top floor is primarily for special events and gallery exhibits, as well as weekly intercambio (Spanish English language exchange.)” AlteArte exhibits “one or two artists’ works each month.” The middle floor is an inviting area with pillows and populated with board games.

“The customers, new and old, shaped AlteArte’s atmosphere by natural evolution.” They have about an equal percentage of local and expat customers, with “most ex-pats in this area of the Costa Blanca area of Spain being Scandinavian.” In the beginning, most of their clientele came through word of mouth and Facebook. After opening the gallery on the third level, we reached out to local newspapers and magazines to promote those events.”

After they first opened in February 2010, Sara and David ran the business by themselves. “During our second and third summer, we hired our first employees. In our fourth year of operation, we hired Emily as our first full time employee. She had been a patron, and she had a good work track record of seven years at one local restaurant.” They emphasized it is very important to check out the reliability and work history of potential employees in Spain as there are generous laws favoring them, such as being allowed substantial sick leave just after being hired. A few months later, they hired another young woman, Ampy, full-time. Both employees are friendly, competent, and able to communicate with the clients regardless of what language they speak. “We pay them a little more than the typical local wage, and uncommonly, we also give them one day off a week including during the busy summer months.”

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Sara and David inside AlteArte

When asked about other start-up or ongoing expenses or requirements, “there was an initial food safety course, basic business insurance, and nominal annual taxes.” They have not had any tax liability in the United States based on their Spanish net income. “We recommend using a gestoria,” which is a person whose task is to deal with the idiosyncrasies of Spanish government departments, for paying complex fees and taxes. “We receive an annual visit from the health department to check for correct refrigerator temperature and proper sanitation.” With regard to promoting AlteArte, “We have done some marketing by advertising our business in local tourist maps. Because we are in the Old Town, which is a steep, historically-protected area, we are not required to have handicap accessible facilities.” Sara reported, “AlteArte has allowed us to cover all of our expenses including the luxury of having two employees” which affords Sara the opportunity to spend long visits with her family in California. This year she has had two separate one-month visits with her family. AlteArte has given David, now 40, and Sara, 37, “a more comfortable, and significantly less stressful lifestyle than at our prior high pressure jobs, and the opportunity to spend more quality time together.”

 

When asked what advice they would give to others considering opening a business in Spain, they recommend, “Be patient and committed.” They said, “One cannot expect to open a business just for a summer, and turn a profit.” They also stated it is important to understand the demand for the type of business one is considering, and the required permits if starting from scratch. “It is also essential to have enough capital for start-up costs, slow periods, and unexpected expenses.” Sara said, “I’m kind of glad I didn’t know before we started how many businesses end up closing down.”

Now celebrating over six years of operation, AlteArte, is a favorite with local ex-pats, Spaniards, and international travelers. They feature monthly art exhibits by local artists; a book club for which Sara often arranges for the author to be present in person or remotely; live music; weekly Spanish-English language exchange (intercambio); movie nights, craft, drama and dance workshops, cooking competitions, and many more. Asked about her most cherished memory, Sara quickly reported it was when director Eugenio Mira, an Altean native, chose to premier his movie Grand Piano at AlteArte, and afterwards had a question and answer session.

Retiring to a Fun, Inexpensive, Quality Life

20 Mar
Altea on a rare cloudy day

Altea on a rare cloudy day

Today I got up at the crack of noon. It’s not something I do every day, but it is a luxury I relish after those late Spanish nights out with friends. Yesterday, I had two Norwegian friends over to my house for a traditional American dinner, something they asked if I would do. Here in Altea, in the Costa Blanca area of central Mediterranean Spain, it is sometimes difficult to source some typical American food ingredients, but it makes for a fun challenge. When I wanted to make authentic Jamaican Jerk chicken and could not find habañero peppers, David, a chef and co-owner of my favorite local bar, AlteArte, volunteered to buy some for me at a commercial food market for restaurants. AlteArte is a local mojiteria (bar specializing in making mojitos) and arts bar.

 

After our American dinner, Daniel, one of my invited guests, was hosting his monthly movie night at AlteArte, so we took the short walk to it in the center of the historic old town at the top of the hill. We stayed late enjoying the busy, convivial atmosphere. The prior week Daniel had me to his house for a traditional Norwegian dinner. Both he and his roommate each created their unique regional specialty dishes. Being from north of the Arctic Circle, Daniel’s dish was roast pork with crackling skin. Delicious! I love the opportunities to meet new friends with whom I can exchange our different cultural traditions. Another particularly memorable experience I have had was when a Nepalese family invited me to their house for a delicious, homemade meal at their home. It was my first time eating traditional, homemade Nepalese food, and afforded me the opportunity to get to know more about their lives and culture in Nepal.

 

Seafood paella

Seafood paella

There are always challenges when trying to re-create and share American traditions to my friends in my new home country, Spain. However, mostly I embrace the new cultural and food customs here. Jamones (various types of ham and pork products) are a Spanish favorite, served simply as thin slices or often as an ingredient in many dishes, like steamed clams with pieces of ham. I have even found ham in the usually vegetarian gazpacho blended soup and in steamed clams. There is an incredible bounty of fresh fish and seafood from the local Mediterranean. I enjoy spontaneous daily forays to local bars where, in the evening, I get a free tapa with my glass of wine for as little as 1, 20€ ($1.32.) Inevitably, I encounter friends with whom I enjoy genial conversation.

 

Bar Cuba

Bar Cuba

Although I was an avid live music fan when I lived in the Central Coast of California, here in Altea Spain, there are many diverse activities, including the many regional Spanish festivals, live music, in addition to the time spent celebrating new cultural experiences with friends. One of my regular favorites is going with friends to Bar Cuba, for salsa and other types of Latin dancing to live music by Rafa, a friend who is originally from Venezuela. Bar Cuba is co-owned by Raúl and Nikki; Nikki is a friendly, competent businesswoman who originally hails from Jamaica. Other nights she schedules salsa and other Latin dance classes, karaoke, televised soccer games (fútbol), and specialty international dinners. Living in Spain allows me to enjoy traditional Spanish festivities, as well as experience cultural experiences from the variety of ex-pats who live here.

 

With the low cost of living in the Costa Blanca, I no longer have to work, and can focus on friends and fun. The Spanish are known for their many festivals, which offer spectacle and fun. Where I lived in California, it was nearly impossible to function without a car.

Moros y Cristianos festival

Moros y Cristianos festival

Here in Spain, I relish no longer having to have a car. I walk to all of my local activities, or take convenient, efficient, inexpensive public transportation to nearby towns, with unexpected health benefits. Instead of finding it difficult to even arrange a short monthly get together with a friend in California, here in Altea, rarely does a day go by where I don’t meet up with friends, whether planned or spontaneous. It is sometimes hard for me to believe that I live in one of the most beautiful villages in Spain, with such an inexpensive cost of living, and fulfilling quality of life.