Tag Archives: festivals

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!

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Historic and Tasty Jijona: Costa Blanca Day Trip

18 Dec
Jijona (Xixona)

Jijona (Xixona)

Another great day trip in the Costa Blanca area of Spain is a day in Jijona, a short drive in the hills northwest of Alicante. Jijona, also known in Valenciano as Xixona, is famous for its Turrón, an almond-based nougat.

 

Turrón is particularly popular at Christmas time in Spain. Jijona has a yearly four-day Christmas festival, which obviously features turrón, along with other Christmas- and winter-oriented gifts, like hats, scarfs, toys and more.

Jijona Christmas festival

Jijona Christmas festival

 

Turrón is typically made from finely ground almonds, egg whites, honey and sugar. It comes in a variety of textures and forms. There is one with a soft paste-like consistency, which, to me, had a gritty, not pleasing texture. There are soft and hard turrón bars, with pieces of almonds. I saw chocolate-flavored turrón, turrón-flavored gins and liqueurs, and many other non-traditional additions. Samples are generously provided from the Christmas parade of wooden stands located in the central market. There are also other Christmas-related exhibits, and food/tapas booths with adjacent seating where people can rest their feet, and enjoy a snack and beverage.

 

Turrón samples readied for festival go-ers

Turrón samples readied for festival go-ers

The Moors brought almond farming and turrón to Spain during their occupation of the area. During the 16th century, King Felipe II praised turrón, which increased its popularity. Historically, there were a few main families who dominated the turrón market. These decaying family mansions feature beautiful architecture and are visible on one of the main streets in Jijona: Monerris Planelles family home, Rovira family home, and Aracil family home. Only turrón made in Jijona and Alicante can receive the official seal of authenticity, “Consejo Regulador de Jijona y Turrón de Alicante.” There are tours available at the turrón museum and factory. Several other areas have a similar type of nougat like turrón, including Catalonia (Spain), France and Sicily.

 

Snow well

Snow well

There are other interesting things to see in Jijona including historical churches and a convent, the remains of a castle (destroyed in the Spanish War of Succession), “and snow wells” (thick walled round buildings located in the cool Carrasqueta mountain range which came into use in the 18th century to store snow for making ice cream.) In August, there is a Moros y Cristianos festival, which are very popular in the province of Alicante. Parking is typically a fair distance from the touristic areas, but are well-marked and on an easy, gradual incline.

 

 

Summer Fun in Altea Spain

21 Aug
Summer in Altea's Casco Antiguo with craft booths

Summer in Altea’s Casco Antiguo with craft booths

While Altea (Spain) always has many entertaining activities, summer brings additional fun offerings. Ever a music fan, I appreciate the variety of city-sponsored live bands playing at various outdoor venues, including 40’s style Big Band, jazz fusion with a Mohawk-sporting accordion and keyboard player, flamenco, regional (Valenciano) folk music, to mention a few. I also went to a rock jam session held on Sunday afternoon at a local tram station, which had an eclectic, inviting atmosphere.

 

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One of the 60 mural paintings hanging from balconies in Altea’s Casco Antigua

In Altea’s hilltop Casco Antiquo, (Old Town), the church plaza and the walkway to it, which are sparsely filled during the winter months (as exemplified my Facebook cover photo), are now packed with throngs of visitors and locals. This month in Casco Antiguo there are a display of 60 painted murals by different artists which hang off balconies, hence named Balconades d’Altea. Also during the summer in Casco Antiguo, there are many artisan craft booths featuring various types of original art, jewelry, leather and more. Most restaurants in Casco Antiguo are open for the summer season, with many types of cuisine available such as Spanish, French, Italian, and other ethnic cuisines.

 

 

 

L'Olla fireworks

L’Olla fireworks

In June, we had the San Joan (Valenciano) for St. John festival, which features water-inspired activities, including parades and midnight bonfires at the beach, which normally are prohibited. Another popular summer beach activity is the spectacular firework display, Castell de l’Olla, over the Mediterranean. People head down to the beach with beverages and/or picnics for the midnight show, which this year lasted over 30 minutes. Alternatively, people may watch the show from the comfort of their balconies or terraces, as I did, or a café in Casco Antiguo’s plaza.

 

During the summer, many people enjoy going to temporary, seasonal chiringuitos, beachside bars/restaurants, which offer full service food and beverages with tables, and shade, if desired. I recently went to bonavida, a great chiringuito on the beach where I love their fried fish and seafood plate. (I recently posted a short video from it on my Facebook.) On many of the beach areas, there are lounge beach chairs and umbrellas available for rent.

 

One of the water sports marinas in Altea

One of the water sports marinas in Altea

There are many water sports available with a number of seaside businesses offering such activities as snorkeling, diving, kayaking, boat rental, sailing lessons, fishing, kitesurfing, and more. I love snorkeling, and every Christmas school vacation, I took my three sons to warm spots with good snorkeling, such Australia, Belize, Hawaii, Mexico, and various Caribbean islands. The Mediterranean in Altea is warmest in July and August, reaching 25C/80F degrees. For me, that is an ideal snorkeling temperature, so I scheduled a boat snorkeling tour this past week. It was postponed due to unusual rain, so I went the following day. The water was not as clear as I was hoping and the sea life not as vibrant to those which I am used to, but it may have partially been due to the recent rain. I enjoyed it anyway. There are also places to snorkel right off the beach without a boat. The dive center from which I took my snorkeling trip was located at Greenwich Marina/ Pueblo Mascarat. It was my first visit there, and I discovered new restaurants, and live music venues, including one, Macao, with outdoor lounge seating, which I plan to soon attend.

 

In the towns adjacent or near Altea, there are also many activities. This week-end there is the three day Festes de L’Albir, (Fiesta of Albir) with a car parade, children’s activities, food and beverage stand, music, games, and walk to the iconic lighthouse. Several bars in the Albir beach area offer live music, including soul, Latin, rock, comedy to name a few. Bar Cuba is one of my favorite spots, which offers complimentary bachata or other types of Latin dancing at 2000 on Saturday evening, and live Latin music for dancing Saturday and Sunday evening. They also feature other dance lessons throughout the week such as kizomba, salsa, line dance, and mambo for a nominal fee. I enjoy the instructive and professional complimentary bachata

Salsa class at Bar Cuba with Ray

Salsa class at Bar Cuba with Ray

lessons with Andres Ledesma so much, I took some small class private lessons with him.

 

What are your favorite summertime activities?

Sant Joan Festival in Altea Spain

26 Jun

BOOM BOOM BOOM. The sounds outside were so loud as to cause my dog, Pepper, to run to hide under the bed. I peered out of my window which affords a view of the cathedral at the top of Altea’s old town, where I was surprised to see fireworks midday. The fireworks signaled the start of the day’s Sant Joan Festival.

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Waiting to be doused with water at Sant Joan festival in Altea

Sant Joan Festivals are very popular in Spain, particularly in the Province of Valencia where I live, as well as in Catalan-speaking areas, and Galicia. Sant Joan is the Valenciana and Catalan languages way of saying Saint John. The Sant Joan festival in Alicante is Spain’s largest, and one of Alicante’s most important festival. The festivals occur around June 23, the day of Sant Joan, typically with numerous days of activities that vary with the location.

In Alicante, there are large “Ninot” characters that are set on fire, much like the famous “falles” festival in Valencia in March. The Ninot are amusing parodies of famous people or politicians made of wood, cardboard, mud, and other items. This year’s Alicante festival occurs for four days. There are noisy early morning (for Spain) wake-ups, parades, costumes, music and many more activities.

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Sant Joan parade with masks

In my town of Altea, when I first heard about the impending festival, I had no idea what to expect. My initiation to the festival was the booming fireworks midday, followed later by a parade of locals with cartoon character heads. There have been three early morning wake-ups by noisy participants yelling, playing instruments, and more fireworks. My apartment is on the street where all the local parade participants go as they head up the hill to the cathedral in Altea’s main plaza. One afternoon, there was a huge pan of traditional paella cooked in the plaza for all to sample. One midnight during the festival, people wade into the ocean. After all, St. John is remembered for baptizing Jesus.

This festival requires stamina. The first group of parade participants, which included many musicians, continued to march and perform for more than 12 hours. During the second afternoon parade, the noisy participants of all ages wore torn t-shirts and were soaking wet as they made their way up the hill. There were two groups, each carrying a tall tree, many drinking from large jugs or other vessels of wine, while the people watching on from their apartments above dump and spray water on the giddy participants.

 

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Raising the tree

 

Once done with the procession, in the plaza the trees are hoisted to stand erect. Men attempt to climb the tree as high as possible onto the unstable trees to tie on their ripped t-shirt. An ambulance was waiting nearby for anyone who might fall. However, I think it is nearly as dangerous for the women who wear spindly high heel shoes while walking on the uneven, rocky plaza surface, or dancing when the late night band plays.

 

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Climbing the tree to tie on a flag

Today, Sunday, parade participants wore traditional costumes while trekking up the hill to the accompanying music followed by a “solemn” mass. There are numerous activities scheduled including more music processions. (Altea music schools for youth and a professional school for adults so music is always a prominent part of any festival.) There will be more fireworks, and in the plaza another giant communal paella, and disco music starting at 11:00 p.m.

 

What has been your favorite festival experience in Spain?

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.

 

Quirky and Different Customs in Spain

6 Feb

I love my new life in Altea Spain. However, there are some quirky and unexpected things which I have encountered or needed to adjust to.

 

I recently read that when local children were enacting a bull run using toy wooden bulls that this year they would not be allowed to have the bulls’ horns lit on fire during the run. Apparently this was perfectly fine in prior years.

 

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Tree on which people climb to tie on their t-shirt at the St. John festival

During the many Spanish festivals, people sometimes engage in dangerous behavior. At the local St. John festival, participants carry a tree to the church plaza while encouraging observers to throw water on them. Once in the plaza, they pull the spindly tree to a vertical position and fueled with alcohol attempt to make the perilous climb to the top. What I found particularly interesting was the ambulances that were waiting just a few feet away. One has only to think of the running of the bulls in Pamplona for another example. Or the “baby jumping” festival near Burgos, where people in costumes jump over a mattress on which lie babies born in the prior 12 months. This ritual serves to rid the babies of evil spirits and guard against illness.

 

As I have mentioned in prior posts, dealing with the Spanish bureaucracy is nearly always fraught with difficulties, often because what you are told you need to do changes with successive visits. Similarly, I have had my rental cars towed two of the four times I rented them. In one case, I parked in a handicapped spot and put up my disabled placard. When I returned to retrieve the car, it was gone. When I contacted the local police, they informed me I had parked in a handicap spot reserved for a specific car, as indicated by the numbers on the handicap parking sign. I said I have travelled to and driven in many countries, and have never seen handicap spots for specific vehicles. I received a blank look, and was told I had to fork over around $150 to get the car out of impound.

 

I have also previously mentioned the multiplicity of problems I have had in receiving packages sent from the U.S. One box arrived gaping open, with items missing. Then the postman asked me to help carry it because it weighed a lot. Another box of household items was twice returned to my son, first because I declared there was no monetary value to items which were only sentimental, and the second because they did not see the documentation that I had submitted the nearly 100 Euros customs fee. I have been trying unsuccessfully for more than two months to get a refund for that, and there is no chance of getting a refund on for the hundreds of dollars I spent in having the box mailed here twice.

 

The sidewalks in my village are made of attractive, but incredibly slick tiles, especially when wet. It is so precarious that people typically walk in the road when it rains. I see many more people here with arms and legs in splints or casts, which I would bet is related to the falls people have. I have jokingly suggested that maybe the tile sidewalks were the idea of the local orthopedic physicians.

 

Moros Y Cristianos festival 2015 in Altea

Moros Y Cristianos festival 2015 in Altea

The Spanish definition of opening early means 9 or 10 in the morning. Such opening times are understandable in light of the lengthy afternoon siesta, and businesses and meals occurring late at night. Often when businesses close for several weeks or months, there is no sign informing the would-be patron of the closure. Nor are there websites for businesses which provide that information. Businesses including grocery stores are closed for national and local holidays, which can sometimes last several days. After the several day local Moros y Cristianos (Moors and Christians) festival, all businesses were closed for the day, not for the holiday but for a day for people to recover from the festival. After four days of festivities and drinking starting at 8 or 9 in the morning, and ending around 4 a.m., they need a recovery day.

 

I find Spanish people generally genial, and polite. They always greet you when you enter their business. In their vehicles, they are very good at stopping for pedestrians at crosswalks. However, when walking, they may suddenly cut right in front of you or stop and block the sidewalk while conversing. When picking up my dog’s excrement from the sidewalk, I have had people step over my head, and roll over my foot with a stroller.

 

Sometimes there are what seem to be arbitrary rules. When we recently went to a high end musical and dance variety show which featured a choice of two dinner menus, we were told everyone in our group had to order the same menu. Otherwise, we would be placed at separate tables based on our dinner choice.

 

Have you ever encountered unexpected behaviors/customs while living in or travelling to a new country?

 

 

Entrada Cristiana (Christian Parade Entry): Altea

25 Oct

In my last post, I gave a brief summary of the annual Moros y Cristianos  festival, and showed some of the opening day festivities.  This post will feature a few photos from Entrada Crsitiana, and next post Entrada Mora.

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