Portugal: Doors, Tiles, and Ovos moles

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A couple of months ago, I had the treat of visiting my dear friend and her husband who were living near Porto, Portugal. Though my primary goal for the trip was seeing and hanging out with her, I was, of course, ecstatic to explore another European country. They were such wonderful hosts to me and took me all over the place to experience everything Portuguese.

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Exploring Porto…
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One of my favorite pastimes ended out being scouring the surrounding areas for unique tiles and colorful doors. There is an abundance! The city of Porto is decorated everywhere with the iconic blue and white tiles, from the train stations to the church exteriors. But even in the smaller towns nearby, there is no shortage of intricate tiles in every color imaginable.

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In Aveiro

My other favorite pastime was— wait for it— eating! Big surprise. Thankfully, my friend and I have always shared a love for food, so I was never hungry. After they picked me up from the airport, we went into Porto and ate a massive, Porto-original sandwich, called a Francesinha. I think there were about four or five different kinds of meat inside, and the amount of cheese on top was crazy! In general, I found that Portuguese food is quite rich and hearty. The baked goods in Portugal are hard to beat. From the delectable pastel de nata to the traditional, pillow-soft, sweet croissant, Portuguese treats kept our tummies full in the time between meals. Oh and did I mention the churros?!? Interestingly, these Portuguese churros far surpassed the Spanish version. Lastly, I was obliged to try the strange but popular egg yolk sweet, called ovos moles. The town of Aveiro is known as the home to these little novelties. I actually liked it, much to my friend’s chagrin, ha!

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Francesinha sandwich

We did so many other things too. And I wish I had more pictures to share. The view of Porto from the Gaia side of the river is stunning. The narrow, cobblestone alleyways are enchantingly medieval. The Ovar Thursday market is a bustling place of trade. The expansive, sandy beaches are warm and peaceful in February. And I mustn’t forget to mention the very awkward experience of accidentally walking in on a small, private funeral and backing out slowly.

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View over Porto and the Duoro River
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The vast Ovar beach

Under the Maltese Sun

The copious amount of sunshine was just one of the many pleasures of our recent trip to Malta. Needless to say, I sunburned a little. We spent three wonderful days on that tiny island and saw it all… well, almost.

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Day 1 – Off-roading and jaw-dropping vistas

The theme of Day 1 really did seem to be off-roading. We had rented a little manual Kia Picanto, and Tex adapted to driving on the left side rather seamlessly. But our GPS directed us to take some very rocky paths (I won’t even call them roads). Somehow, we made it out alive and laughing and with somewhat higher blood pressures. Anywho, our first stop was to see St. Paul’s Island on the north side of the island. This is where they claim that Paul and Luke shipwrecked. You can read about it in Acts 27. While this stop wasn’t initially part of our itinerary, it ended out being one of my favorite things. Not only is it incredible to think of the apostle clambering out of a wrecked ship right there, but it is also a beautiful display of God’s creation. And as a cherry on top, we were the only souls there to soak it in that morning.

 

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A view of St. Paul’s Island

From there, we drove down to Mdina, an ancient city near the center of the island. This was the capital of Malta during the time of Paul and is likely the town where Paul stayed for much of his time on the island. St. Paul’s Grotto (technically in the town of Rabat, but within walking distance of Mdina) is the underground site claimed to have been where Paul founded the first Christian community on Malta. We purchased tickets at the Wignacourt Museum, which gave us entrance to both the Grotto and St. Paul’s Catacombs, as well as some WWII bomb shelters. The catacombs are early (4th century AD) Christian burial grounds, made up of innumerable tunnels and cave-like rooms. We had never seen any catacombs before, and these were remarkably fun to explore. One of the special pieces of architecture down there was called an Agape table. It was at this table that certain funerary feasts took place in honor of the dead.

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One more memorable stop in Mdina was an adorable tea garden, called Fontanella Tea Garden. It sits on the edge of the city’s high wall and overlooks much of the island. We ordered tea and tried a couple of their popular cakes, a strawberry meringue and a lemon cheesecake. I was quite pleased with the quick service and decent prices of this little establishment.

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A splendid tea
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From our table in the tea garden…

A bit after noon, we hopped into the car and headed towards the Blue Grotto on the southwest coast of the island. We were amazed at how easy it was to cover pretty much the entire island of Malta in one day, well really only 2 hours, of driving. Once we arrived and parked, we headed out to buy tickets for the much-sought-after boat rides into the Blue Grotto. I can only imagine the crowds there in the summer, but early February proved to be the perfect time to visit. For only 8 Euros each, we rode in a small motorized fishing boat out into the crystal Mediterranean and cruised through several grottos, including the Cat’s Cave, Reflection Cave, and of course the Blue Grotto. The light turquoise water that you can see in one of the pictures is caused by white sand on the sea floor reflecting light back up through the water. This was truly breathtaking.

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Heading into the Blue Grotto

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Our last destination for the day was the southern tip of the island, near Marsaxlokk. We took in some sun and watched the waves lap against the stony edge of St. Peter’s Pool. While I do wish it had been warm enough for us to swim, we were happy to be there with fewer people. We also visited the Salinas salt pans, one area of many on the island which have been used since the Phoenicians first established them. Still today, throughout the summer months, there are families that tend to the salt pans and harvest the sea salt after the water has evaporated.

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St. Peter’s Pool

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The Salt Pans

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After a very long walk to a highly-reviewed and very much closed restaurant, we stopped at a little seaside joint in Marsaxlokk to eat. Tex had quite a plate of pan-fried calamari, and I had some yummy fish-filled ravioli.

Day 2 – The Maltese Capital

We spent all of Sunday in the capital city, Valletta, which boasts of forts, gardens, and long hilly streets. The two main things on our agenda were Fort St. Elmo and the Palace Armory. And of course, some renowned pizza.

To start off our morning, we began walking along the city wall towards the Upper Barrakka Gardens. I think we could have stayed in the gardens looking across the Grand Harbor all morning and never have gotten bored. Plus, it helps to have a walking encyclopedia like Tex to tell you all you need to know about the Great Siege which happened there.

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Looking across the Grand Harbor
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Upper Barrakka Gardens

We continued along the wall until we reached Fort St. Elmo (which was closed for another couple hours), and then walked into the old city center to the Palace Armory. The Armory seemed to be a fairly extensive collection, exhibiting everything from real Knights’ suits of armor to early guns. By this time, we were famished and rolled on down to Sally Port Pizzeria. I ordered the La Vallette pizza with Maltese sausage and goat cheese, and Tex had the Genovese pizza with pesto, parma ham, and “too much green stuff” (haha!). There weren’t any seats available at the restaurant. So we carried our pizzas down to a bench by the fort, tore the napkin in half, and devoured the pies while hungry spectators eyed us.

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Next, we finally made our way to the historical Fort St. Elmo. Some crazy things happened there. During the Great Siege, where the Ottomans were surrounding the Knights Hospitaller who inhabited the island, the Ottomans succeeded in taking Fort St. Elmo. The Ottomans subsequently slaughtered the defenders and floated their bodies across the Grand Harbor on wooden crosses. Some Knights who still remained in another fort, which I’ll discuss later, answered their foes with cannonballs made of the heads of Ottomans. Pretty gory and sad.

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View from the fort

To end the day, we roamed the streets of Valletta, poked our heads into a couple of churches, and grabbed some pastizzi to take back to the apartment. Traditional Maltese pastizzi are crunchy, flaky pastries filled with either ricotta or mushy peas. When still warm from the oven, these little things are delightful!

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Inside the magnificent St. John’s Co-Cathedral

Day 3 – A Place Called Victory

Well, actually, it has been called Birgu for its entire history and was renamed Vittoriosa about five centuries ago. Depending on who you are talking to, the town could be called either of those names. Personally, I like Vittoriosa, because it seems a fitting name for such a gloriously lovely town. Vittoriosa is built on one of the main peninsulas in the Grand Harbor and is known for its strong fortification, Fort St. Angelo. The town had a very medieval feel, with pale yellow stones paving the streets and covering the sides of houses. The Fort itself was more charming than an Italian villa. So charming that I told Tex he should become a Knight so that we could live there. (There is one resident Knight of the Order of St. John who has the privilege of doing so!)

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Defending Fort St. Angelo

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This is where I wanted to live in the Fort…

Fort St. Angelo was the fort I mentioned above where some knights remained after St. Elmo was taken in the Great Siege. It was here that the knights prevailed, hence the town’s name Vittoriosa.

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A quiet courtyard in the Fort

To wrap up our time there, we visited the Malta at War Museum, where we donned some hard hats to explore another underground network of bomb shelters. Malta was very heavily bombed by Axis planes during World War II, because of its critical location in the Mediterranean. The museum provided a unique look into the lifestyle of Maltese civilians during the War. Finally, we stopped in the town main square at the Café du Brazil, which served up our favorite meal of the trip… Maltese rabbit ravioli!

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That is the long and short of our most recent adventure. Thank you for taking the time to read it 🙂

Penny-Pinching in Strasbourg

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In October, we took a little camping trip over to the Black Forest and spent a day on the other side of the border in Strasbourg, France. I expected Strasbourg to be very German. And it is… But it certainly has a French feel too. Anywho, I thought I would share what we did and how we pinched a few pennies along the way.

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Crossing into Petite-France

Penny-pinching tip #1: Take your car. And take your tent. This has become one of our favorite ways to travel in Europe. We have camped in the Wachau Valley of Austria, the Netherlands, and now the Black Forest. Camping does not have to limit you to outdoor activities (though that is something we enjoy). A tent can also be your base from which to explore the bustling towns of Europe. Heck, you can still pack a nice sweater or a dress. I’ve done it. Europeans tend to pamper their campgrounds, which does annoy me sometimes, but I know a lot of people might prefer it. There are also Airbnb campsites, which is what we did this time. And we ended out spending for two nights probably half of what we would have spent on one night in a hotel. As an added bonus, you get to take in all the beauty of nature.

Additional advice: Park at park-and-rides in larger towns and cities. And then take advantage of the tram or bus system. This is usually cheaper than paying for parking in the city center… and less stressful, in my opinion.

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We happened upon this lovely church, after getting caught in the rain.

Penny-pinching tip #2: Go out for one big traditional meal, instead of three meals a day. This is a tip we also implemented in Ireland. I would especially recommend making lunch your big meal, because menus tend to be cheaper. So real question– how do you get by on one restaurant meal per day? My answer– bring snacks from home to tide you over and/or go to the grocery store and cook for yourself. On our Black Forest trip, I made these pumpkin energy balls, packed some homemade biscuits, and brought along a couple other snacks. So breakfast was covered, and the snacks pretty much got us through lunch (I must admit that they were supplemented by a few “pain au chocolats” that we picked up from a bakery as soon as we got into Strasbourg).

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Mouth-watering French pastries

The meal that we ordered that night in Strasbourg still makes me laugh. One of the must-have regional dishes is called “choucroute,” French for sauerkraut. It’s ironic because we live in Germany, the land of limitless sauerkraut, and yet on our little excursion into France, what did we order? Why, choucroute! I have never seen such a massive pile of sauerkraut. They served it warm with a few different pork cuts and potatoes. It was quite hearty and delicious.

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You might not be able to tell… but there is a huge pile of sauerkraut underneath the meat!

Alternative to PP tip #2: Street Food! This is another of my and Tex’s favorite ways to eat plenty without breaking the bank.

Penny-pinching tip #3: Be a low-maintenance traveler. This is one that I am still working on… Ahem, yes, I did ask Tex to buy us some [DELICIOUS] lemon shortbread cookies at a specialty cookie shop. But honestly, it is not very difficult to spend an entire day just wandering the streets of a lovely European town, without spending money. Soak in the architecture, even of commonplace houses. Feast your eyes upon bakery displays. Walk on into that beautiful cathedral or through that peaceful park. Be a person who can appreciate things without having the thing. I’m preaching to myself here.

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Strasbourg’s charm did not disappoint. We promptly found the cathedral, which was stunning. It actually may tie (with St. Peter’s Dom in Regensburg) for my favorite cathedral. I am so glad that we decided to wait in the long line to go inside. Entry was free! We meandered through the streets surrounding the cathedral. All kinds of signs and banners decorated one of the streets, and countless bakery windows were filled with every manner of sweet treats and breads.

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Inside the lovely cathedral
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These beautiful stained-glass windows!

Next, we decided to visit the most famous and historic part of town, Petite-France. Half-timbered houses, adorned with flower boxes in the windows, lined the edges of the canals. We strolled over cobble-stoned footbridges and gaped at the quaint beauty surrounding us.

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Half-timbered buildings and canals in Petite-France

Those are all the penny-pinching tips that I can think up right now. Hopefully, I’ll have more soon ♥

36 Days in Spain

¿Qué hicisteis el fin de semana pasada? This was the common topic of conversation for a whole month of my summer. As you may know, I spent 5 weeks studying sophomore-level Spanish in Seville. Well, sophomore-level Spanish means only one thing—verb conjugations. We spent a decent chunk of time practicing the preterite tense, especially asking questions like the one above, “What did you all do last weekend?” (Please do note the use of the vosotros/”you all” verb ending which is a necessity in Spain, but is obsolete in Mexico!) Let me just say… I had four thrilling weekends while I was there, and I would love to tell you what I did. Yo tenía cuatro fines de semana emocionantes cuando estuve allí, y me encantaría escribir sobre eso.

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View over Seville from La Giralda tower

PEOPLE

As a backdrop to the rest of my musings, you must know that the Spanish people are simply lovely. My host mom, Nancy, was the first to demonstrate this. One of my favorite times of the day was our late-night supper and learning more about Nancy and her husband, as well as about Spain and Andalusian culture, through our many conversations in Spanish. At first, these conversations were intimidating. I didn’t know half of the words that I wanted to use. But Nancy was so gracious and patient as we tried to describe what we meant to the best of our abilities. I remember one time, as Nancy was serving us eggplant, I described the vegetable as “una planta de huevo,” literally “plant of egg.” How confused she was! And for good reason. Haha!

Aside from my host parents, I also got to know a few of the Spanish tutors who worked with our class. These guys and gals were fun to be around and were a wealth of information about the language and how to navigate life in Seville.

PLACES & THINGS

The Alcazar and Catedral in Seville— According to our guide, approximately 100 grams of Christopher Columbus is buried in the Catedral.

Italica Ruins—These were some neat ancient Roman ruins, the birthplace of Emperors Trajan and Hadrian.

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The arena at Italica

Bullfight in Seville—This was a very interesting experience. And I’m glad to have seen it, just so I know what it really is. However, I don’t know if I would sign up to go again, as it is rather gruesome and sad. For those of you who think a bullfight is mainly just a matador saying “Olé!” (as I did), here are the nitty-gritty details… The bulls are raised in an environment such that they never see two-legged animals (aka humans) until they charge into the ring. They are colorblind animals but have a keen sense for movement, which means that it’s actually the waving motion of the cape, not the bright color, which entices them. In the first “tercio,” or round, the matador and his accomplices (I forget what they were called) engage the bull in a series of cape-waving and charges. Then the picador comes out, riding on his horse, and stabs the irritated bull in the upper neck muscles with a lance. As the second tercio begins, the bull can smell his own blood. The banderilleros run out on foot and stab the bull in that same neck region, using colorful, small, barbed sticks. This part looked terrifying, since the bull was already incensed and the banderilleros were relying solely on their ability to escape by running faster than the bull. By this point in the fight, the bull’s neck muscle has been significantly weakened. The third tercio begins as the main matador makes a few skillful passes of his cape (called the “muleta”), keeping one foot in place if he is top-brass. Finally, after some dramatic gestures and facial expressions and yelling, the matador goes for the kill and guides the curved sword down through the neck into the chest cavity towards the heart. In the entire evening, we saw three matadors each kill two bulls. Some fights were obvious successes for the matador, accompanied by loud “Olé’s” from the crowd and the waving of white handkerchiefs. A couple of times the kill was not very clean, and the crowd showed their disapproval by whistling at the matador.

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The Alhambra and the Royal Chapel in Granada—The Alhambra was another beautiful example of Islamic and Western architecture in combination. Granada was the last Muslim stronghold in Spain to surrender to Ferdinand and Isabella, the Catholic Monarchs. Those same two monarchs are buried in the Royal Chapel… And by the way, did you know that Granada means “pomegranate” in Spanish?

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One example of intricate tile work
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A courtyard in the Alhambra
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Another courtyard…

The Mezquita (Mosque) in Cordoba—Apparently, this iconic building has Roman origins, was later converted into a Muslim mosque, and eventually acquired an enormous Catholic cathedral nave right smack in the middle of all the arches.

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One of my favorite pictures… Heading into Cordoba!

Malaga—A group of girlfriends and I visited over a free weekend. We hit Picasso’s museum and, of course, the beach.

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La Rabida Monastery and Palos de la Frontera—This monastery was where Christopher Columbus stayed before he left for the New World. The monastery itself was just beautiful. Plus, not far from there, we were able to see life-size replicas of Columbus’s three ships. They were much smaller than I had imagined!

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The Nina, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria

Cadíz beach—Tex and I thoroughly enjoyed this beach trip. We went in the morning to avoid crowds and took a picnic. It was pretty windy, but that didn’t keep us out of the water. The sand was some of the best my toes have ever felt.

Madrid and Toledo—The highlight of Madrid, in my opinion, was the Prado Museum of art. After a semester of taking Art Appreciation, it was pretty cool to see the actual Las Meninas by Velazquez, Goya’s Saturn (though creepy), and Van der Weyden’s The Deposition of Christ. On the last day of the program, we visited Toledo, only a short trip from Madrid. I want so badly to go back to Toledo again (but this time, take Tex with me!) during the celebration of Corpus Christi. We were there at the end of the week’s festivities. The entire town was dressed up—colorful banners draped from the windows, flower baskets and garlands hanging over the streets, bows and streamers tied in the trees. All of this, added to the town’s already medieval ambiance, bewitched me. We also walked to the edge of town, where we stumbled upon the Don Quixote Trail. How fun is that?! He was “from” the Toledo area and “adventured” along this trail. If we go back, I would love to road-trip along it. Sorry in advance for the uncanny number of photos…

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Celebrating Corpus Christi in Toledo
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From the Don Quixote Trail in Toledo
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How cute is this?!

EXPLORING SEVILLE ON MY OWN…

Las Setas—This is the modern icon of Seville, and its name actually means “the mushrooms.” If you go, there’s a lively market down below… including a stand crawling with snails! It is also a great place to get to know some local Sevillanos. So great, in fact, that our teacher thought it would be nice for us to go there and interview people in Spanish. It was tough but made for a great memory.

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La Plaza de España—Tex and I made a stop here in the heat of the afternoon to ride a boat around the little canal. The architecture and tiles are beautiful!

“Yemas” at the Convent of San Leandro— I’m so glad I had a free morning to hunt down this gem. After hearing about a few different convents that make and sell their own sweets, I decided I had to try some. The sisters of this particular convent are completely cloistered, meaning that their direct contact with the outside world is limited. Thus, to sell their egg-yolk and sugar sweets (called “yemas”), they have devised a rotating door with shelves. I waited for a few minutes, until I finally heard a voice ask what I wanted, then I ordered and placed my money on the shelf. She spun the door, around came my bag of treats, and then next my change. I never saw a soul.

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The quality of this picture isn’t great, but I had to show y’all the rotating door 🙂

El Torre del Oro— The Tower of Gold

Shopping the streets and the markets (Mercadillo Historico del Jueves—Thursday Flea Market in the Feria)

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Antique tiles at the flea market

FOOD

Pisto con huevo- This is basically the Spanish version of ratatouille, though in my opinion, much better… It’s tomatoes, zucchini, eggplant, bell pepper, onion, and garlic all stewed together with a fried egg on top! I’ve already made it a couple of times at home, though it’s hard to replicate Nancy’s recipe.

Freshly squeezed orange juice- My roommate and I discovered this reasonably-priced treat in one of the many cafes on our first walk to campus. And we enjoyed it many more times after.

Churros con chocolate- Thanks to a sweet friend who wanted to celebrate my birthday, I was able to finally try authentic churros with chocolate at the Virgen de Lujan Chocolatería.

Tapas- gambas (shrimp in a garlicky butter sauce), albondigas (meatballs), calamari, salmorejo (a Cordoban twist on gazpacho… made of tomatoes, bread, and garlic). Nancy first took me out for tapas at Bar Bugarín, one of the neighborhood favorites. And then, it was so good that Tex and I made a trek across town for lunch.

Chicharrones!- This deserves a whole paragraph. If you are from Texas, you’ve probably had pig skins before, but you have NOT had Spanish chicharrones. Tex and I tried them at a market (Mercado Lonja del Barranco) that my host mom recommended. It was a memorable food experience. They are meaty, fatty bits of pork, deep fried so that they truly do melt in your mouth, and coated in a delectable spicy salt. Needless to say, I raved and raved about them to Nancy, who later bought me a large package of the tasty morsels. I ate nearly the whole bag in one afternoon and had to confess to Nancy as she was taking us out for our final “family” supper that evening. And I sadly do not have a picture.

Paella- (with a LOT of seafood… Mom, I still prefer yours.)

Berenjenas con miel- Fried eggplant topped with honey. This was another of Nancy and her husband’s specialties.

Gelato– Sometimes multiple times a day. Specifically, the flavor “Nata” (cream).

Tostada con jamón- Toast drizzled with olive oil, spread with pureed tomato, and topped with thinly sliced Andalusian ham. This is the quintessential Spanish breakfast.

And that’s all folks! Thanks for taking the time to read my long-winded post ❤