Snapshot Sunday: Driving along the Great Ocean Road

[ptcPhoto filename=”GreatOceanRoad1280.jpg” title=”Buddha” caption=”Driving on the Great Ocean Road – Victoria, Australia” position=”center”]

Australia’s Great Ocean Road is a picturesque ribbon of highway along the southern coast of Victoria. Not only does the 250-kilometer stretch of road have plenty of great views, but it also offers some perspective: It serves as the country’s largest World War I memorial, built by returned soldiers between 1919 and 1932.

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Snapshot Sunday: PTC Down Under!

[ptcPhoto filename=”Kangaroos-1.jpg” title=”Kangaroos” caption=”Kangaroos near Jindabyne, New South Wales – Australia” position=”center”]

This morning we got up early and hired mountain bikes to visit the Bungarra Alpine Center outside of Jindabyne, New South Wales. This troop of grey kangaroos took a break from their grazing to check us out, and to pose just so for a photo.

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Snapshot Sunday: An Amble Down Porto’s Waterfront

[ptcPhoto filename=”Porto5x7-1.jpg” title=”Porto” caption=”View of Porto from across the Douro River – Porto, Portugal” position=”center”]

They say that Portugal’s second-largest city, Porto, is hard on the feet but pleasant to the eye. Climbing through the city’s hills can be tiresome indeed, but the views and namesake port wine are worth the effort. Cross the bridge to take in Porto’s stacked hillside, which tumbles down to the Douro River in a fanfare of color.

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Five Highlights of an Andalusian Road Trip

Ah, the road trip. Endless miles of asphalt sprawl out in every direction, all kissed with the thrilling prospect of unwrapping a country’s hidden gems one by one and on your own time. Nothing but speed, the wind in your hair, and Tom Petty’s greatest hits pouring out from the speakers and into your ears like a heady 80’s cocktail. This, my friends, is what freedom feels like.

[ptcPhoto filename=”SevillaHendrix.jpg” title=”Hendrix” caption=”A little Jimi in Sevilla.” position=”center”]

Our Spanish road trip began in the country’s southwest corner, where olive trees cloak every hillside and the streets seem to grow more narrow with each ancient city you pass. Andalusia makes up the most largely populated autonomous community of Spain, offering its guests a vast array of sights, tastes and sounds. Here are five that have stayed with us, long after the wine was drunk, the music sighed a breathy diminuendo, and the sun set on our time in Spain.

1. Tapas

One version of history tells us that tapas – small plates of food – originated in Andalusia during a time when sailors frequented the small towns along the coast. They would just stop in for a drink or two and some R&R, but you know how it is.

[ptcPhoto filename=”SevillaTapas.jpg” title=”Tapas” caption=”A fish tapa in Sevilla” position=”center”]

Before long, the tiny winding streets of the villages would be flooded by inebriated and boisterous seamen. So the innkeepers decided to start providing small plates of food along with the drinks in an effort to keep the noise levels down. Not sure how effective this strategy was, but the idea stuck and the tapa was born.

[ptcPhoto filename=”RinconOctopus.jpg” title=”Pulpo” caption=”Dinner in Aracena – in our expert opinion, the best octopus in Spain.” position=”center”]

In some cities like Granada, tapas are still provided free of charge with a drink order. In most places, though, they cost between €1-5 and come in a wide variety. From cool cups of gazpacho to piping hot plates of unctuous pork jowls, there’s something for everyone. Bowls of fresh, oily olives, crusty warm bread and plenty of vinho tinto de la casa round out meals that are eaten slowly over the course an evening with friends.

2. Flamenco

Like tapas, flamenco originated in this part of Spain. The early history of flamenco is not well-documented, but the major styles come out of the triangular region between the towns of Jerez, Cadiz, and Sevilla – each still vying for recognition as the birthplace of this style of music and dance.

[ptcPhoto filename=”SevillaFlamenco.jpg” title=”Flamenco” caption=”This dancer was beautiful. And fierce.” position=”center”]

Flamenco is made up of four elements: Voice, dance, guitar, and something called jaleo, which roughly translates as “hell raising” and involves the clapping of hands, stomping of feet, and shouts of encouragement. If you go to a show, also listen for the duende, a mysterious and despondent element that often comes through in more intimate performances.

At this performance we felt like we’d just showed up to a family’s home where they were singing and playing together as part of Sunday dinner. It was a large group of men who seemed like a family that spanned several generations. This type of show is more familiar and less polished, and while you’re less likely to come away with great photos of the performance, you’ll feel like you’ve experienced authentic Spanish flamenco.

3. History

Throughout southern Spain you’ll witness a flourish of influence from bygone eras. The Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Moors, and Christians – to name a few – have all ruled over the Iberian Peninsula at some point during its 32,000 years of human history.

[ptcPhoto filename=”Andalusia-15.jpg” title=”BaeloClaudia” caption=”Roman ruins at Baelo Claudia” position=”center”]

Every town will have a castle or a fortress, a cathedral, old stone walkways, and wrought-iron balconies on which artists and musicians have whiled away days of brooding or reflection. And most retain some mark of the Muslims and Jews who carved out their own place and space – an old Jewish quarter, perhaps, or remnants of a minaret from which calls to prayer were once sounded out to the Muslim shopkeeper, to the Muslimah mother who pointed her children towards a faraway Mecca.

[ptcPhoto filename=”Andalusia-4.jpg” title=”Jerez” caption=”Looking out over the Alcazar of Jerez, a former Moorish fortress.” position=”center”]

This sense of amazement at a place so laden with history often profounds those of us from the New World, where our recorded history and influence can seem simple in comparison. If nothing else, noting the storied history of a place like Andalusia is both insightful and humbling.

[ptcPhoto filename=”CadizBuildings.jpg” title=”Cadiz” caption=”Cadiz, the oldest city in Europe.” position=”center”]

4. Pueblos Blancos

The Ruta de los Pueblos Blancos, or “route of the white hill towns,” can be easily overlooked by visitors without private transport. Marked by their uniformity of whitewashed facades tumbling down steep and slender cobblestone streets, the towns are strewn throughout the hills in and around the Sierra de Grazalema Natural Park.

[ptcPhoto filename=”Andalusia-13.jpg” title=”Arcos” caption=”Arcos de la Frontera, the largest of the pueblos blancos.” position=”center”]

The towns themselves were mostly built during the Moorish occupation of Spain, and weren’t whitewashed until the early twentieth century. Many of the names are followed by “a la frontera,” which reflects their place on the front line of the Christians’ centuries-long fight to reclaim the land and slowly push the Moors back into Africa.

[ptcPhoto filename=”Andalusia-8.jpg” title=”Details” caption=”Dictator Primo de Rivera had the towns painted white in a quest for a ‘politically engineered appearance of normality’.” position=”center”]

While you can drive through most of the white towns in a day, we wish now that we’d have spent more time lingering in the town plazas, soaking in the sunlight, and watching evening unfold as the tiny tabernas lit up the streets.

[ptcPhoto filename=”WhiteTown2.jpg” title=”Grazalema” caption=”The town square and church in Grazalema” position=”center”]

5. Spanish Countryside

Andalusia is about the size of Maine, meaning that there’s a lot of ground to cover. You’ll see dramatic shifts in scenery, from fields of olives that seem to go on forever, to mountains of limestone reaching up into the sky, to ribbons of rocky coastline where the sea air billows over the land in salty gusts.

[ptcPhoto filename=”Andalusia-12.jpg” title=”Green view” caption=”A vista from the roadside.” position=”center”]
[ptcPhoto filename=”Andalusia-11.jpg” title=”Sheep” caption=”Sheep grazing in Sierra de Grazalema Natural Park” position=”center”]

Maybe it was just that the year-round Andalusian abundance contrasted sharply to the harsh winter we saw during our visit back home, but the green knolls, red fields of fertile soil and bright blue skies seemed hyper-vibrant there.

[ptcPhoto filename=”OliveGrove.jpg” title=”Olives” caption=”Puffy clouds float over an Andalusian olive grove.” position=”center”]

These first couple of weeks in Andalusia have imparted on us the nostalgic romance of the rolling hills, the deep rosy notes of the wines, the throaty, mournful soul of the music – some essence of what it means to be Spanish.

But the road stretches further after this, through the mountainous passes of the Sierra Nevada and up to the imposing medieval bastions of Granada and Cordoba. There lie more of Andalusia’s charms, waiting to draw us deeper into the Spain of the Moors and of Ferdinand and Isabella. Stay with us as we put the car in drive and continue the journey north.

A Little Ditty about Wine and Jamón

You’ll hear the accountant in me complain a lot about the high prices in Europe. But there’s some good news for boozing carnivores who visit southern Spain: Wine and jamón are pretty affordable there. And they complement each other just perfectly, and they’re absolutely delicious.

Jamón: What Do We Know?

Jamón is dry-cured ham from Spain. There are two primary types: Jamón serrano (meaning ham from the sierra), and the more sought-after jamón ibérico, made from black Iberian pigs that hail from southwest Spain. It’s kind of like prosciutto, but there’s a longer curing process that lasts for at least twelve months – and sometimes for up to three or four years.

[ptcPhoto filename=”FirstJamon.jpg” title=”First” caption=”Our first sampling of jamón in Spain.” position=”center”]

We started our journey through Spain in the southwest and quickly became accustomed to high quality jamón at low prices – around €4 for a tapa (small plate), and €5-8 for a full ration. When we left Andalusia for Madrid and Barcelona we were shocked at how high the prices are up north – upwards of €12-14 for a small plate in some places! The best of the best iberico varieties sell for around €70 ($96) a pound.

[ptcPhoto filename=”Jamon-2.jpg” title=”Best caption=”The best ham of the trip: Iberico in Jerez.” position=”center”]

Jamón iberico comes from acorn-fed free-range pigs. It has a unique aromatic taste that’s much less salty and more savory than the ham we’re used to back home. Speaking of back home, up until 2005 no jamón was allowed in the U.S. because none of the Spanish producers met FDA approval.

[ptcPhoto filename=”SevillaJamon.jpg” title=”Healthy?” caption=”They say the acorn-rich diet makes the meat high in the healthy kind of cholesterol.” position=”center”]

How can you tell what kind you’re getting, other than by price and taste? Iberico varieties of ham will come from legs with black hooves, while the hooves of serrano pigs are white.

[ptcPhoto filename=”Jamon-7.jpg” title=”Black” caption=”Serrano in the back, iberico in the front.” position=”center”]

The ham is always prominently displayed so that you can see the product. The few legs of jamón that make it to the U.S. are required to have their hooves removed before import, so I’m not sure how you’d verify the type in the States.

[ptcPhoto filename=”MuseoDelJamon.jpg” title=”Museum” caption=”The ‘Museo del Jamón’ in Madrid.” position=”center”]
[ptcPhoto filename=”BigPlateJamon.jpg” title=”Serrano” caption=”A large portion of serrano.” position=”center”]

Fun Fact: Although the process of curing of ham goes back to at least the Romans, Spanish jamón took on special importance during the centuries of Moorish occupation that lasted until the 15th century. Spanish citizens ate ham as a symbol of religious and political independence from the Moors, whose Muslim religion prevented them from consuming pork. This means that curing and eating jamón has been a marker of Spanish identity for over a thousand years.

[ptcPhoto filename=”WallJamon.jpg” title=”Wall” caption=”An entire wall of legs.” position=”center”]

So it’s no surprise that Spain has the second-largest per-capita consumption of ham in the world, coming in just behind Denmark at 123 pounds per person per year. If you order a hamburger (hamburguesa) in Spain, you’ll likely receive something made of pork instead of beef.

[ptcPhoto filename=”Jamon-3.jpg” title=”FP” caption=”I believe this is what they call ‘food porn’.” position=”center”]
[ptcPhoto filename=”Jamon-5.jpg” title=”Sad” caption=”And this is what they call sadness.” position=”center”]

Wine: We Could Know More…

We don’t know a ton about wine, apart from when it’s there, we like to drink it. What we did learn is that along with being ham paradise, Spain is also the world’s third-largest producer of wine after France and Italy. The two go together like song and dance – throw in some cheese and it’s a party.

[ptcPhoto filename=”BarcelonaWine.jpg” title=”Barcelona” caption=”A bottle of wine in Barcelona.” position=”center”]
[ptcPhoto filename=”GranadaWine.jpg” title=”Granada” caption=”Wine in Granada.” position=”left”]

Vineyards throughout the country grow over 600 types of grape. Most popular is a white grape called Airén that is used to make Spanish brandy (it should be noted that brandy, sherry, and cava are three entirely different worlds in the Spanish wine repertoire).

The most widely-grown red grapes are Tempranillo, which are used to make delicious full-bodied red wines.

Every market you visit will have a huge selection of wines ranging from the €.80 boxed varieties to types that are scandalously pricey – and all seem pretty good. We were glad to enjoy many Tempranillos and Garnachas in the €1-4 range that suited us just fine.

[ptcPhoto filename=”StoreWine.jpg” title=”Store” caption=”Wine selection at a market.” position=”center”]

So while there are countless types of extremely high quality Spanish wine, the nuances are lost on those of us who are less educated. In writing this I realize how sad our wine ignorance is, so we’ll have to do further research when we get to Australia in a few weeks. Shucks.

Until next time, happy eating!