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!

Gibraltar on a Shoestring

Here’s a place we didn’t know a thing about before visiting. And it’s a strange place indeed. British overseas citizens, with their proper English, pints, pounds, and fish and chips live happily among palm trees, views of Africa across the Strait, and a whole colony of famous Barbary macaques.

[ptcPhoto filename=”GibraltarHike-9.jpg” title=”Rock” caption=”The Rock” position=”center”]

Known as “the Rock” for its massive limestone edifice, Gibraltar forms a peninsula that juts out from the southern coast of Spain. The territory holds significant military and commercial importance for Britain, and debates over Gibraltar’s sovereignty still loom large in relations between the two countries.

[ptcPhoto filename=”GibraltarCoins.jpg” title=”Currency” caption=”Gibraltar pounds have a 1:1 exchange rate to British pounds. BP can be used here, but not the other way around.” position=”center”]

The thing about Gibraltar, though, is that we almost missed out. Our research on hotels turned up one pricey option after another, so we thought we’d have to skip it. Couchsurfing to the rescue! We met great new friends, Maria and Steve, who agreed to host us for a couple days while we explored the Rock. Maria is Estonian and Steve is Polish, so while they aren’t native Gibraltarians (I just like that word), they’ve been living there for some time and were able to show us around during our short stay.

So, lodging: Free!

On our first day there Steve and Maria took us up a local’s trail on the Rock, thus avoiding the $20 fee that many people pay to ride the cable car up to the top.

[ptcPhoto filename=”GibraltarHike.jpg” title=”View” caption=”Views from the Upper Rock.” position=”center”]

It’s a steep climb, but there are plenty of opportunities to stop and see the macaques along the way. Take care around them, though. On a good day they’re thieves, and on a bad day they can be pretty aggressive.

[ptcPhoto filename=”NoFeeding.jpg” title=”NoFeeding” caption=”Watch out for those fangs!” position=”center”]

The city of Gibraltar does their best to care for the monkeys, setting up playgrounds and even a “restaurant” up top. The idea is to keep them away from town and preserve a symbol that has become synonymous with the Rock of Gibraltar.

[ptcPhoto filename=”MonkeyFood.jpg” title=”Title” caption=”Lunch at the monkey restaurant.” position=”center”]

Maria, in an effort to make friends, got herself into a whole barrel of fun.

[ptcPhoto filename=”GibraltarHike-3.jpg” title=”Mid air” caption=”A great action shot of the attack.” position=”center”]

The macaques aren’t phased by humans with cameras, so if you’re courageous enough you can get pretty close to them.

[ptcPhoto filename=”UsedtoHumans2.jpg” title=”Close up” caption=”I wonder what they think of us.” position=”center”]

According to this recent Daily Mail article, at least 120 of the macaques are being deported back to northern Africa since they earned a reputation for “…attacking people, vandalising hotel rooms and trashing the streets.”

[ptcPhoto filename=”GibraltarHike-5.jpg” title=”Sweet” caption=”I party like a rock star. Get it? ‘Rock star’?” position=”center”]

Steve is a wealth of knowledge and told us all sorts of information about Gibraltar and its history. For instance, he informed us that inside the Rock is a huge labyrinth of roads and tunnels, the distance of which is significantly longer than surface roads in the whole territory.

[ptcPhoto filename=”GibraltarHike-6.jpg” title=”Steve” caption=”Steve and the monkey.” position=”center”]

Cost to see the sights, local tour guide included: Free.

Since we had a kitchen and were able to make meals, the cost for food was also extremely low. There’s one supermarket on the whole peninsula, so it’s a pretty busy place but it has a great selection. On our last evening there Steve even made us dinner. Did I mention these guys were awesome?

Food Costs: $15 a day for two people.

I also mentioned pints before. You can go to the bars and spend $5 each, or stop by the market for drinks instead. Due to extremely low taxes there, alcohol and cigarettes are really affordable compared to much of Europe.

Drink Costs: $3 per person per day.

So there you have it. If you’re in the south of Spain and want to do something different, stop by Gibraltar for a couple of days!

Update: One Year In…Old Questions, New Plans

After a six week break in the States, we’re back on the road – literally, driving along the winding paths of the Iberian Peninsula in a long loop from Portugal through Spain and back again. It’s a bit strange to embark on Leg Two after being home. It’s as though we hit pause for a time and now we’re trying to get back into the swing of things – getting back some into some sort of schedule, planning for the year, and, more generally, trying to figure out what we want to do with ourselves in the long-term.

[ptcPhoto filename=”Path1280-lowres.jpg” title=”Path” caption=”Where does the path lead?” position=”center”]

Going home was, for me at least, an eye-opener. Maybe turning thirty while we were there has spurred something in me that’s less ok with not having a concrete plan for the future. Some days I’m consumed by panic over all the not knowing, and some days I can just roll with it. But it’s good, at least now we’re both pretty certain that while we could just go back and pick up where we left off, it’s not something we’re likely to do. That’s a start, right?

[ptcPhoto filename=”SevilleStatue.jpg” title=”Statue” caption=”This statue looks all calm and collected. Maybe she has it figured out.” position=”center”]

Anyhoo, enough introspection for one post. Back to the trip.

Overall we’re feeling like Europe is…can I say this? Compared to Asia, anyways, Europe isn’t always so exciting. Aside from the part where Eric had his wallet stolen in Barcelona, which is NOT the type of excitement we’re after.

In Spain we understood quite a bit of the language and we didn’t find ourselves being challenged in the same ways we were in, say, China. And things cost a lot. For example, going into the Gaudi Modernist Museum costs €21.50 ($30 USD) each, but our daily budget was only $100 overall. Most everything is priced this way, so we ended up skipping a lot of major sights and fancy meals out in an effort to save money for the rest of the world. Thankfully many hostels and apartments had kitchens, but that means we ate a whole lot of my cooking and only skimmed a major component of Spanish culture. In short, I think we’ll be sticking to the original plan of coming back to western Europe when we’re old and rich.

[ptcPhoto filename=”EricClown.jpg” title=”Clown” caption=”The clown-carrying, at least, is free.” position=”center”]

With all this time in we’ve started making some badly needed updates to the website. We’ve changed our “About Us” page, but since our regular readers may not see it I’ll copy most of it here:

Up until now, it doesn’t look like our site has answered the three big questions everyone seemed to ask when we were home – questions about how we afford traveling, what it’s like to travel as a couple, and what have been some of our most memorable experiences. Those certainly are three major pieces to this puzzle, so it’s high time we addressed them!

How Can We Afford to Travel the World?

Before leaving Denver, Eric worked as a software engineer and I was an accountant. We saved every possible penny over the course of 18 months, sold almost all of our possessions including our cars, furniture, and Eric’s condo, and rented out my property for rental income. I also had some spare dollars left over from my time as a student that went into our savings.

But for the most part, the only way we were able to quit our jobs and travel was to make saving money our top priority for a very long time. There have been a lot of financial sacrifices, both before and during our trip, but we believe that most everyone can travel long-term if they’re really dedicated and make it a priority.

Do You Get Tired of Being Together All the Time?

Well…yes. We’re pretty-much together 24/7 and that much togetherness can take a toll on even the best relationship. What’s good about it is that we’ve gotten to know each other on a much deeper level since we left, and we get to see the world with someone we love.

[ptcPhoto filename=”LegoCordoba1.jpg” title=”Mezquita” caption=”We do fine, but the Lego people? They are so sick of each other.” position=”center”]

It helps that we have our own interests and hobbies – Eric is always travel-hacking flights or learning new programming skills, and I do a lot of writing and flirt with things like knitting and ukulele-playing. Also, we have very different talents when it comes to the trip itself. I track all of our expenses and Eric maintains the website. I’m the big picture “Where to go, what to do” person, while he figures out the daily logistics that make it all happen. We make a good team. Will we need separate vacations after all of this? Probably!

What Have Been Your Favorite Places and Experiences?

There are a few towns to which we’d probably never return, but for the most part we look back fondly on every place we’ve visited. It’s as you might expect: Places that challenge you also teach you the most. The Chinese food in China is nothing like the Chinese food back home. Big cities can get crazy expensive.

But if we have to narrow it down, here are some of our most memorable experiences from our first year of travel, in order of occurrence:

Bonus Question: What are we Most Looking Forward to on Leg Two?

The coming year will be a big one for PTC. After a couple months in Europe we’ll fly to Oceania before stopping back in Asia…and then back to Europe (but further east this time)! By autumn we’ll be in southern Africa, and then we plan to finish up the leg with yet more time in Asia. We promise there’s some rhyme to our reason with regard to routing…

Here are some highlights in our plan for the year:

  • Eating Peking duck in Hong Kong
  • Diving the Great Barrier Reef
  • Hiking with friends in New Zealand
  • Shopping in Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar
  • Finding accordionists in Bulgaria
  • Seeing the Big Five on a safari in southern Africa, and…
  • Laying on beaches. Many, many beaches.
  • If anyone out there is interested in this level of detail, here are our travel dates for the year.

    Dates!

    • March 4th – Hong Kong
    • March 11th – Australia
    • April 10th – New Zealand
    • May 12th – Fiji
    • May 26th – Myanmar and Thailand
    • August 1st – Eastern Europe (TBD)
    • September 15th – Turkey
    • October 14th – Southern Africa (Zimbabwe – Botswana – Namibia)
    • December 17th – Southeast Asia (Vietnam – Laos – Cambodia – Malaysia – Indonesia)

    That’s it until the next time it changes!

Snapshot Sunday: Graffiti Gone Wild in Barcelona

[ptcPhoto filename=”Graffiti640.jpg” title=”Graffiti” caption=”Graffiti Wall in Barcelona, Catalonia – Spain” position=”center”]

The world is a canvas for graffiti artists in Spain; it seems you can’t walk a block without spotting a vibrant flourish of spray paint. This piece near La Rambla street in Barcelona is a good example of mixed media doodles. Notice the many layers which indicate it hasn’t been painted over in quite some time.

Click here to view a larger, detailed image.