Category: Travel in Spain

Nature Still Reigns in Cabo de Gata

The dramatic shores of Cabo de Gata Natural Park in Almería, Spain call out to me like no other place I have been along the Spanish Mediterranean coast.

This stoic land has witnessed thousands of years of human history, yet has remained relatively unchanged. The harsh living conditions here – with less rainfall annually than anywhere else in Europe – traditionally kept long-time settlers away. Phoenicians, Romans, Moors, pirates and defenders of the Catholic crown came and went. Indiana Jones, filmed here on his Last Crusade, left no physical trace.

In spite of new technologies making desert living more feasible, Cabo de Gata has remained largely undeveloped thanks to its natural park status, granted in 1987. With over 1,000 species, the site was named a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in 1997. The protected area encompasses around 175 square miles of land and 50 square miles of sea.

While natural park protection does not equal zero development, it at least provides a barrier to more invasive land-use trends common along the Spanish coast, such as golf courses and densely packed condo towers, to name a few.

Nonetheless, shady politics have resulted in some questionable projects in the park, such as the locally infamous Algarrobico Hotel. Construction on the immense complex was nearly complete when halted by judicial order five years ago following pressure from environmental groups. The case remains mired in the Spanish legal system, and the structure in limbo. The balance between tourism and protection can be difficult to maintain in this breathtaking place, and defenders of the park must be ever-vigilant.

Immediately surrounding the park, advances in greenhouse technology have resulted in an agricultural boom in the desert. Plastic and glass structures increasingly dominate the local landscape, commonly referred to as the Mar de Plástico, or Plastic Sea. According to Spanish astronaut Pedro Duque, this highly reflective “sea” is among the most prominent man-made constructions visible from space. While he apparently meant his observation as a compliment, I find it rather disconcerting.

The (Ever-Expanding) Plastic Sea

vs.

Protected Cabo de Gata

Click here for an interactive image. I suggest zooming in on the Plastic Sea for the full effect.

Given this context, I am particularly thankful for the relatively virgin landscape that remains in the park, and for the opportunity to experience the natural beauty of Spain’s Mediterranean coast as it has been for millennia.

Fishing villages (founded before the site became a park) recall the plentiful waters that attracted the earliest temporary settlers to Cabo de Gata from across the Mediterranean Sea.

This part of the coast was particularly attractive because of extensive natural salt flats. According to archaeological footprints, Phoenician, Carthaginian and Roman traders all harvested salt here, which they used to preserve their catch.

Cabo de Gata’s salt flats are still harvested today by Union Salera de España and French salt conglomerate, Salins, which claim to use sustainable methods. What is not consumed locally is shipped off to Scandinavia, where it is mainly used for salting cod. Our taste and uses for salt follow a well-marked trail in history.

Fresh seafood remains a top attraction for Cabo de Gata visitors today. In villages within the park, a host of rustic seaside cafés prepare the day’s catch in a no-nonsense manner. At El Manteca, a fine example in Las Negras, the fish and seafood are served expertly grilled or fried, seasoned with olive oil, salt and lemon juice. Nothing to overpower the delicate, fresh flavors.

Panoramic vistas of the sea add extra luster to the term “Mediterranean Diet.”

In Cabo de Gata, geography still dominates, which, for me, makes this section of coast particularly evocative. On isolated beaches and atop dramatic cliffs, I feel as though I could be in many centuries at once, experiencing the natural forces and features that have shaped the culture of the region.

Additional Tips and Links:

The photos in this post were taken in January, and, as you can see, we had beautiful weather. This is not the season for swimming, although there were a few visitors from Northern Europe in the water. Yet overall, the beaches were empty, which of course would not be the case in summer, when park officials actually limit the number of beachgoers allowed to enter. Winter is a great time of year for hiking the extensive trails within the park. I have a feeling the long, shadeless stretches would be dusty and insufferable in the dry, hot summer months. But I would love to return for a swim.

This article by Jo Williams on andalucia.com offers a great overall description of the park, including flora, fauna, walking routes and places to stay.

For additional tourism information, see this comprehensive site. I particularly recommend the rural lodges, such as the Cortijo el Campillo.

The Amigos del Parque Natural de Cabo de Gata-Níjar have a page on Facebook.

Megaplayback – A Fresh Look at Village Life in Spain

In Cudillero, a fishing village in Northern Spain, a white-haired señora looks up from sorting the day’s catch. She stares at the camera as the music begins, and her lips start to move, synching (more or less) to Gloria Gaynor’s famous first line, “Once  I was afraid, I was petrified….”  The camera advances with the song, past ladies mending fishing nets whose lips also move to the lyrics of “I Will Survive.” Young women join in, classic Spanish beauties with flowing dark hair who pass along a basket of shimmering fish as they sing. The camera is in constant motion, taking viewers through the narrow, colorful streets of Cudillero, past locals of all ages and vocations. The participants do their best to sing along, their actions choreographed to the music. Fish are clearly the local protagonists, and even a hake takes a star turn in the hands of a fishmonger-cum-puppeteer. Sparkling cider (the fermented kind) flows freely.

I came across this video while channel surfing one summer evening in Murcia. I had to pause  – the scene was goofy yet earnest. The entire village seemed to be involved, having a good time while showing off local culture and traditions. This was a display of a quality I love about Spain, the fact that traditions are taken seriously, but not to the point of becoming staid.

Cudillero, population 5885, was competing with other small villages across the country (of between 5,000 and 10,000 inhabitants) for the chance to win 30,000 euros on Megaplayback, another experiment in reality TV. Participants had three minutes to prove their village was “the liveliest in Spain,” and that they knew best how to have a collective good time. They had to select a song and produce a video in a continuous take, and their movements were to be coordinated to the music. The final product should, according to contest guidelines, “sacar todo el sabor del pueblo” – bring out the full flavor of the village, showing viewers what makes the place special.

Megaplayback has ended – it was far from a chartbuster – but you can still watch the final videos on YouTube. Catch the winning submission, a rousing rendition of the Black Eyed Peas’ “I Gotta Feeling” by inhabitants of San Adrián, a village in Navarra, a region in Northern Spain. Or see some of my other favorites, including the videos of Alcalá del Valle, in Cádiz, Andalucía; Carnota, in maritime Galicia; and Añover del Tajo, in the central region of Castilla la Mancha (even the mayor has a cameo in this entry). All of the videos have their charm, really, and make for a novel way to armchair travel in Spain.

TIP: For now, you can still find a map of participating villages on the official program site.

Pipirrana de Jaén – A Tomato and Green Pepper Salad from Jaén, Spain

This one goes out to all of those luscious summer tomatoes ripening on vines around the world.

pipirrana and aguilas 008

On a recent trip to a natural park in Jaén, a province in Northern Andalusia (read more here), I ordered pipirrana (not only delicious to eat, but also fun to say) every chance I got. Each version I had of this refreshing salad was a slightly different blend of the following base ingredients: ripe tomatoes, green peppers and hard-boiled egg in a garlicky olive oil vinaigrette. The result was akin to gazpacho, in salad form. I loved the blend of textures – the juiciness of the tomatoes, the crunchiness of the peppers — and the deep flavor of the dressing, perfect for dipping bread (my favorite way to clean the plate). Some versions were more soup-like than others, and the egg whites sometimes came grated and not diced, a nice decorative flourish (and a way to have a bit of egg in nearly every bite). One of my favorite versions, seasoned with cumin, was redolent of Andalusia’s Moorish past.

In all cases, this quenching salad, typically served cold, provided delectable relief from midday heat.

Pipirrana de Jaén– Tomato and Green Pepper Salad from Jaén

As is the case with many traditional Spanish recipes, there are likely as many variations of pipirrana as there are cooks, some more complicated than others. An entirely different pipirrana, with roasted peppers and salt cod, can be found in the region of Murcia. The following recipe is based on what I remember from the salads I had in Andalusia; several pipirrana recipes on Spanish websites; and Janet Mendel’s version in her book, Traditional Spanish Cooking. I have chosen a simple version, which makes for a quick and easy addition to any summer meal.

The olive oil from Jaén (where about 70% of Spanish olives are produced) tends to be fruity and assertive, so be sure to use a flavorful extra virgin olive oil in this recipe.

Pipirrana can be served as a side dish or fortified with canned tuna or sliced cured ham to make a light meal.

3 medium tomatoes, cut into 1/2-inch cubes

1 medium green pepper, cut into 1/8-inch dice

1 hard-boiled egg, the white and yolk separated

1 garlic clove

Salt

1 tablespoon sherry vinegar (red or white wine vinegar will work, too)

3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

Combine the tomatoes and green peppers in a medium bowl. Dice the white from the hard-boiled egg (1/8 inch pieces) and add to the vegetables.

For the dressing: Pound the garlic with 1/4 teaspoon salt in a mortar and pestle, forming a paste (or put the garlic through a press). Add the yolk from the hard-boiled egg and mash to blend. Combine the garlic, yolk and vinegar in a small bowl, then whisk in the olive oil, adding it in a steady stream. The dressing will be thick and smooth. Taste for salt, and add more vinegar for balance if needed.

Pour the dressing over the tomatoes, green peppers and egg whites, and toss well.

If you like, garnish with additional ingredients: tuna, ham, olives… (see variations below).

Chill for one hour before serving.

Yield: 4 servings

Variations:

  • Top off the salad with 1 (5-ounce) can tuna, packed in water or olive oil, drained.
  • Or, garnish the salad with several slices of  serrano ham (to taste), cut into thin strips. (You can use any cured ham here.)
  • Toss in 1/2 cup flavorful olives (green or black), such as Arbequina, Picholine or Niçoise, either pitted and chopped or whole.
  • For a more seasoned vinaigrette, add 1/8 teaspoon ground cumin, blending it into the garlic-salt paste before adding the yolk.

Postcard from Granada: Bedtime Stories at the Alhambra

An ongoing translation project at the Alhambra makes me reconsider how I read this evocative monument.

blog pool

Gazing at the walls of the Alhambra is, for me, similar to gazing at the stars. In both cases, my observations are informed by fragments of  fact, bits of myth and legend, my own memories and an undeniable romantic sensibility.

This was my third visit to the Alhambra, on a breezeless night in July. And while I was far from alone, I could still lose myself, as I tend to do, in the intricate patterns and details of the carvings and mosaics, imagining the lives  of former residents and guests.

blog mosaic

On this night, my mind filled with images (admittedly inspired by 19th century paintings and Hollywood) of sultans, Catholic monarchs and the so-called vagabonds of Washington Irving’s Tales of the Alhambra (1832). I could also see my mother, fresh out of college in the summer of ’68, enthralled by the Royal Ballet of London in Generalife, the Alhambra’s gardens.

For me, this is the magic of the Alhambra, the stunning architecture that transports me into the past, as though I have stepped into a giant book. And like a child, I concoct my own version of the tale based on memory and imagination.

blog ceiling

While I cherish this rather fanciful experience, I am nonetheless intrigued by a new opportunity to “read” the Alhambra in a different way. I’m referring to the actual walls of the palace, which, for those who can decipher the elaborate Arabic inscriptions, are a vast book in and of themselves.

blog inscriptions

Significant portions of the script have been translated over the years, but it is only recently that an exhaustive effort to translate all of the text in the Alhambra complex, over 10,000 inscriptions, has been undertaken.

Last March, researchers from Spain’s School of Arabic Studies, based in Granada, made public the first fruits of their labor – a book and DVD offering a virtual tour, in Spanish, through the 3,116 inscriptions cataloged in the luxurious chambers of the fourteenth century  Comares Palace (where I took all the pictures you see here). This is just the first phase of translations – four additional volumes are scheduled to be published in 2011. An English translation is forthcoming, as well.

According to researchers, only a minority of the inscriptions consist of poetry and Koranic verses, in contrast to popular belief. The bulk of the text extols the Nasrid dynasty, the last of the Moors to rule in Spain, as well as the Alhambra itself. Single words like “blessing” and “happiness” frequently occur. The name of Allah is the most common word so far, indicating how closely religion and power were intertwined. You can read more about the details of the translation project in this Guardian article.

Arch blog

I haven’t bought the DVD – I don’t know if I am ready to take this scholarly leap. But then again, we can never know exactly what happened between the walls of the Alhambra. There will always be room to read between the lines.

Question for readers: How do you experience the Alhambra, or any other historical monument for that matter?

SOME PRACTICAL INFORMATION:

  • If you’d like to read more about the history of the Alhambra, click here.
  • You can see a (soundless) demo of the Comares Palace DVD here by clicking on “Demo CD Corpus Epigráfico”.
  • For now, the book and DVD, in Spanish, can be purchased at the monument’s bookstore. I also found them here.

Beating the Heat in Southern Spain: El Parque Natural de Sierras de Cazorla, Segura y Villas

Summer in Southern Spain means hot. And I happen to live in one of the hottest cities in the country, Murcia. It no longer surprises me to see that Murcia has outdone, yet again, other infamously sweltering locales like Cordoba or Seville.

Rising temperatures generate anxiety, even among locals. The other night at dinner, friends recalled with horror The Day It Hit 48 last summer, almost 119 ºF. So far, this year has been relatively mild, but anything is possible.

Fortunately, I have recently discovered an enticing option for relief from the heat (crowded beaches aside) – the Parque Natural de Sierras de Cazorla, Segura y Villas, located in Jaén, a province in Northern Andalusia.

Cazorla - Gateway to Nature

This natural park comprises the largest protected area in Spain. And while the  afternoon temperatures in July can easily climb into the upper nineties, the evenings and mornings are refreshingly cool thanks to altitude – the entire park lies above 600m, around 2000′.

During the five days we recently spent in the park, my boyfriend Manolo and I settled into a perfect summer rhythm by my standards. We’d start the day with a gentle hike and/or village excursion, having decided July was not the ideal time to tackle peaks. (Mt. Yelmo, whose bald, 6000′ summit demands a steep, largely unshaded climb, would have to wait.) One day, we followed the Río Borosa through a narrow canyon and were rewarded with some surprisingly lush vistas (for Southern Spain, that is).

Río Borosa Trail View

We navigated the narrow streets of perched villages like Segura de Sierra, whose restored hilltop fortress, from which the photo below was taken, was once the home of Moors and later of knights of the Order of Santiago.

Sierra de Segura

After the daily excursion, it was time for a leisurely lunch of regional specialties like thin filets of smoked trout or tender, stewed game, such as boar and deer. Grilled, local segureño lamb was also a good choice for its delicate flavor. Bread was essential to mop up the golden traces of olive oil left on nearly every plate. This is Jaén after all, the olive capital of Spain.

Eat Local

We’d then have a siesta (of course), and to pass the final hours of heat, a rejuvenating swim and stone-skipping session in one of the rivers that begin in the park, like the Guadalquivír, below.

Río Guadalquivir


By 8 pm, it was time for a cold beer (customarily served with a free tapa) to celebrate the fact we’d made it through the day hardly having broken a sweat.

SOME PRACTICAL INFORMATION:

Weather note: To avoid the heat completely, it would be best to visit the park in another season. I’d like to return for some longer hikes myself, and I bet the leaf changes in the fall are lovely, although the rivers might not be so enticing…

Where we stayed:

Hospedería Río Zumeta

Hospedería Río Zumeta: A rustic mountain lodge with homey rooms and DIY charm. The restaurant specializes in local cuisine, such as trout, which in two days I tried three different ways, all of them delicious – smoked, a la plancha and in escabeche, a vinegar and olive oil marinade. As of July 2010, full room-and-board was a budget-friendly 48 euros per person/per day.

Lodgings I’d like to check out:

Casa Rural Molino La Farraga

Parador de Cazorla – El Adelentado