Category Archives: Europe

RONDA: WHERE BULLFIGHTING WAS BORN

 

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Joy and I rented an Audi Q3 to drive from Malaga to Sanlucar de Barrameda. On the way though, we passed by Ronda, a beautiful city sitting on the top of gorge that separates the old from the new town. A bridge called “puente viejo” connects the two parts of the town. We did not have the time to visit this bridge but we managed to visit the “puente nuevo” which offered magnificent vistas of the gorge and the surrounding countryside.

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We managed to visit the Iglesia de Nuestra Señora de la Merced Ronda. Unfortunately we failed to visit the The Chapel of the Hand of Saint Teresa in the Camelites Convent and the “secret” bakery.   The bakery is where you order your bread or pastry in a rotating cabinet and you never get to see the nuns. On the other hand, the hand which is encased in a golden armour is said to be the uncorrupted hand of Rain Trees which was given to the nuns in Ronda just before the outbreak of the Civil War. It is reported that General Franco seized the relic and kept it in his bedroom during his tenure as the leader of Spain.  It was returned to the nuns after his death.

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We managed to have a short walk through the old town and meander through its pedestrian area. Walking along Calle Espinel we turned left and found ourselves in the central plaza of the town, called Plaza de Socorro. There we saw the water fountain of Hercules with two lions on his sides that he just tamed.

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This is apparently, hallowed grounds for the Andalucians. It was in 1918 when Blas Infante, the “father” of Andalucia unfurled the Andalusia flag on the first floor balcony right behind the fountain demanding the same treatment for autonomy as that of the other Spanish provinces. That building is the Circulo de Artistas (Arts Society) where a great number of cultural activities like flamenco performances take place.

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Because we were pressed for time, we did not get to visit the bullring in Ronda. But this is where modern bullfighting is said to have been born, largely because of the Romero family.  In particular, according to andalucia.com, Pedro Romero  is considered the first matador to truly conceive of the bullfight as an art and a skill in its own right, and not simply as a clownishly macho preamble to the bull’s slaughter. Joy and I love bullfights.  So, we will certainly be back to Ronda during its corrida season.

The reason why we were pressed for time was because I had not brought any formal suit or shirt for the baptism of Nadia. So we wanted to make sure we got to Sanlucar de Barrameda while the stores were still open. It would have been lovely to have lunch in Ronda, but we decided to try to hit a town much closer to Sanlucar.

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However, just 20 kilometres from Ronda Joy remembered that Setenil de las Bodegas is one of the interesting pueblos blanks so popular in Andalucia. So that’s where we headed for lunch.

AN INSPIRING SPANISH BAPTISM

Joy and I were on a trip to Sanlucar de Barrameda in Southern Spain. We went there because I was going to be a godfather to the daughter of a good Spanish friend of mine. The baptism ceremony was a short but solemn one. The family of my friend was complete: parents, siblings, cousins and close family friends. Oscar and Edyta Sergio Garcia christened their daughter Nadia. And as they were travelling all over the world, it took them 5 years to finally get their daughter baptised into the Catholic Church. Since I made a promise to be a godfather to their child even before she was born, I had no choice but to fulfil that promise. So on August 18 2018, I became a godfather to Nadia.

Baptism Ceremony
Baptism Ceremony

The ceremony was performed in a beautiful church of the Parroquia del Carmen. This church was originally constructed by the Carmlites in 1677 and was completed in 1689 through the generous contribution of the Marques de Arizon.

After the baptism, we proceeded to the reception at Patio Los Galanes, a cavernous restaurant with a very beautiful patio built centuries ago. The food was excellent and the wine was overflowing.  What really struck me though was how the family members interacted amongst themselves. I could feel the love and warmth among Oscar’s siblings, parents, aunts and uncles, and cousins.

Oscar with Nadia, Joy and Edyta
Oscar with Nadia, Joy and Edyta

In spite of the fact that many of them hardly spoke any English and we (Joy and I) could barely pass conversational Spanish, we all had a lot of fun.  The family made us feel welcome. I was especially happy talking to Eduardo, Oscar’s father.  He spoke a bit of English because for many years he was a harbor pilot in Sanlucar and Seville. Most importantly we shared two of the best things in life: red wine and bacalao.

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Oscar has two other siblings – Eduardo Jr., and Raquel, a diplomat in the EU in Brussels.  She, of course, spoke perfect English, as did Ricardo, a cousin of Oscar who is an investment banker in London.

 

Raquel, Oscar's only sister
Raquel, Oscar’s only sister

Having heard and read of how much secularised Spain has become, it was a surprise to me to see, later on, Spanish families going out together.  Local.es, an internet-based English news service provider reported that Spain’s tight-knit family unit is not what it used to be. According to its research, the latest study by the country’s official stats body (INE) showed a drop in the average number of members per household from 2.58 in 2011 to 2.53 in 2013. With the population dropping and the the number of homes growing,that meant, according to the report, that the number of Spaniards lving by themselves is going up.

While indeed this may be true on paper, it did not seem that way on the ground.  I thought Oscar’s family was an exception. We could sense his family was not unique when we went out later that night.

Families eating and and having fun
Families eating and and having fun

We had dinner at a local restaurant where we listened to some flamenco music.  And there we saw local families enjoying the dinner together. Then we went around Plaza Cabildo close to midnight for tapas and drinks and we saw children, young parents, and grandparents frolicking around the fountain in the plaza.

Of course we never got to talk to them, but definitely Spain is far from being an individualistic country. The happy faces I saws among the parents, and the impish smile and laughter of the children made me conclude that Spain is still very much a family-centered country.

This was a short trip for me and Joy. Thanks to Oscar, Edyta, and Nadia, this trip opened our eyes to how God continues to bless humanity. Indeed what we have seen in this short trip serves as an inspiration for us back home to continue to safeguard our families, our values, and our tradition.

 

The Hillside Town of Sicily, Taormina

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After a 50-minute drive from the Catania airport, we arrived in Taormina and checked in at the San Domenico Palace Hotel. Salvatore and Patrizia were waiting for us there. The hotel itself is an old one, an elegant one for sure. Movie stars and royalty have all been to this hotel. It started as a monastery.
As soon as we got settled in, we walked to the main street of Taormina, Corso Umberto 1. With some local antipasti, we had a couple of glasses of Nobilvini Lambrusco Deli Emila as apertivo at Ferrara, located close to the Duomo along Corso Umberto. It was a rainy evening, quite unusual for Sicily. Salvatore noted that it hadn’t rained since May of this year. It must have taken quite an effort for Patrizia because she was suffering from bad case of colds. She, however, braved the bad evening weather.
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Ferrera was a random place we chose as it was closest to the time we were being pelted with rain from the heavens. One particular local delicacy was called aranchina. What we had was the small version. Salvatore promised a real aranchina the following day.Photo 6
Walking the streets of Taormina was not too pleasant as it was drizzling and with Patrizia running a cold we did not feel too comfortable. However, she was such a delightful company that we tended to, selfishly, overlook her coughing and enjoyed her company and the unfolding sight of a well lighted Taormina town.
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The Duomo, a small one by Italian standards, is located at the center of the town. Despite its size, it still gives an imposing and beautiful presence in the piazza. Taormina is a very small town but since the 17th century has been catering to tourists from all over and from all walks of life.
Mandarins of Sicily or oranges for the rest of us is a primary fruit in the island. It is turned to limoncello and all other delicacies from marmalade to gellato. Salvatore was not sure whether this was indigenous to Sicily or was brought by past traders from China. Considering the number of invaders Sicily has had, this observation will not be farfetched.
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We had dinner in the Silke Sicilian Bistro along Corso Umberto 1. The restaurant was nothing fancy, but the staff was very friendly. This was where we discovered that portions of food served are enormous. We had various local antipastis again and then a lot of very fresh seafood. I thought Croatia was the king of seafood. Now I know it is Sicily.
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For the wine, we , of course, ordered a bottle of Sicilian red – Sicilia Maria Costanza 2014. It was perfect with the Sicilian dishes we had. While the food was not “gourmet” level, it was authentically local according to Salvatore. The meal was capped with the obligatory grappa.
The rain had stopped by the time we finished dinner. And so, we had an enjoyable walk back to our hotel.
Beautiful bougainvillas of Taormina were everywhere adding to the beauty of the evening walk. Other than this flower, Sicily also has flowers similar to the Philippines like the gumamela. Other than the cool weather, it did feel like home.
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The San Domenico Palace Hotel is a beautiful hotel. Centuries old, it is a historical one with wide hallways and cavernous halls. The bar offers a daily afternoon of great classical and contemporary piano music.
Tomorrow promised to be a great day.

CROATIAN RESTAURANTS: CUISINE AND WINES (PART 1)

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Seafood. That pretty much sums up what Croatia cuisine is for me.
Well, I think they have meats and exotic dishes like rats, wild boar, and other game, but we never experienced them, and even if it were available, I limit myself to seafood. So, seafood it is.

Let’s start with their cheese. The most famous of Croatia’s cheese is called “Pag” cheese as it comes from the island of Pag. In Croatian, it is called “Paški sir.” It comes from sheep, and it is somewhat hard but perfect to start or end one’s meal. The cheese comes from a specific breed of sheep called Paska Ovka found mostly on the island of Pag. The interesting thing about Croatian cheese is that animal rennet is not allowed in the cheese making in the country. Only microbial rennet is allowed, thereby making Paški sir technical a vegetarian cheese.

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As the main courses are seafood, the appropriate wine was naturally white. We had the Malvasjia variety most of the time, but occasionally we had the Grašvinja as well. Both wines are dry and fresh and perfect companions to the sweet, fresh grilled delights from the sea.

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Foremost among the seafood favorites is the sea bass. Although sea bass is now farmed in Croatia, sometimes you can get lucky with one that is fished from the sea. We were lucky to have this in Slovenia in a restaurant called Wine Bar and Restaurant Sova. Located along the shores of the Lake Bled, it is an excellent place to have a quiet meal with best Slovenian and Croatian wines of the region. The owners are hospitable and very helpful. Although we got in a bit late, as soon as a table with the lake view became vacant, they came over and offered to transfer us to this table with a scenic view.

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A word of warning though regarding terms like “for one” or “for two” in menus in restaurants. For the Asian stomach, always multiply these numbers by two. This is true for most of Europe, I guess. Second, if the restaurant has an English menu or, worse a multi-lingual one (with flags to boot), you can be sure the restaurant is frequented by tourists. The implication, of course, is that the price are likely to be higher than it should be. Take that as a given and just order what you want and forget about converting to your own currencies.

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In this regard, I have always wondered whether finding a good local authentic restaurant where locals go is like chasing rainbows. The more a place gets noticed in various fora, the more tourists go, the higher the prices go, and the more locals stay away from these restaurants. In the end, there is only the restaurant that has excellent cuisine and excellent service where only tourists go. What a conundrum!

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We went to a restaurant in Ljubljana, Slovenia. While it is not Croatia, allow me some leeway. The restaurant is called “Luda.” They have two set menus: a 5-course menu for €34 and 3-course one for €22. Excellent execution, this is a gem just off the tourist area of Ljubljana.

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The wines of Croatia are certainly world class. I do not want to describe the different varieties found here but what has been established is that the Zinfandel grapes of California originated here. According to Wikipedia, “DNA analysis has revealed that it is genetically equivalent to the Croatian grapes Crljenak Kaštelanski and Tribidrag, as well as to the Primitivo variety traditionally grown in Apulia (the “heel” of Italy), where it was introduced in the 18th century.[2] The grape found its way to the United States in the mid-19th century, where it became known by variations of the name ‘Zinfandel,’ a name which is probably of Austrian origin.”

My favorite was Malvasjia. Fresh and cool and dry, Malvasjia is perfect with the Croatian seafood cuisine. I enjoyed it most with the fresh mussels and oysters we had in Mali Ston. Out in a floating platform, our host pulled out the oysters from the sea, opened it, and with just a dash of lemon, slurped it up and concluded with a sip of Malvasjia wine. Everything just fresh!

One of the places we visited was Restaurant Beom in Portoroz, Slovenia (Belokrishka cesta 68, Portoroz 6320 Slovenia). As we were traveling from Slovenia on our way to Rovinj, We had lunch along the way, at this restaurant owned by a couple who are friends with Jerry, our guide.

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The restaurant has an unassuming facade. When Jerry’s friends, Nena and Marita started whipping their dishes, it felt like we were in a Michelin restaurant. The couple had an excellent local pasta which I remembered was just called “Istrian” pasta. The family had sea bass, John Dory, calamari and mussels. All these wonderful seafood were partaken with a Batic Malvasjia 2016. Truly refreshing lunch. And to cap the lunch, Marita went out of her way to get the famous cream cake done by a local baker. Zizola, a digestif, made sure our lunch was complete!

One of the highlights in our culinary agenda was the dinner at Monte, probably the only One-Star Michelin restaurant in Croatia. The experience we had there was almost like being in a theater. The movements of the staff were flawless, precise and the dishes were presented creatively. As we weren’t hungry when we went to the restaurant, we didn’t do the 5 or 7-course menu. I started with the risotto with shrimps. The shrimp was so fresh; it literally melted in my mouth. For my main dish, I had the monkfish in olive oil. With the local cava to accompany our meal, it was just heavenly.

Monte is located on Montalbano 75, Rovinj.

The restaurant I loved most in Rovinj though was Snack Bar Rio. Located along Obala Alda Rismonda – Riva Aldo Rismondo 13 in Rovinj. This is a long time favorite even of locals. Service here is very friendly, and one feels at home almost immediately. Seafood is king here. I had their tuna steak while my two sons swear by their mussels. My wife had seafood kebab which, according to her was the best she has ever had and the most creative way of cooking seafood.

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For the wine, the restaurant has a special relationship with a local vineyard/winery. We had their Malvasjia Rio Puntulina, which was excellent when paired with the seafood.

Because Rovinj is a tourist destination, one will never be short of choices for restaurants. Really, the question as I have asked earlier is how do you find one that gives you value for your money. And that value comes in three ways: the food, of course, then the service, and then the cost of these two wrapped around the ambiance. The ambiance for me becomes only important when experienced with the food and the service.

At this point, we were just halfway through our trip. So I still have quite a number of restaurants to talk about. On one hand, while this trip was very taxing, I thoroughly enjoyed the trips to the restaurants, the tasting of the wines, and the company of the people you love in this world.

Until next time…

CALÇOT – A NEW CULINARY FIND!

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Holy Thursday found us driving through the Prades mountains on the way to Barcelona. As we left the scenic routes of the Prades mountains, driving from the Monastery of Poblet to Suria through the calcerous mountains of Prades, we went though the village of Valls. Now this area is know for calçots, a kind of spring onion, which until then we knew nothing about. I did watch an espisode of Anthony Bourdain depicting an afternoon of eating calçots, but I had no idea what it was nor what it tasted like.  Until this Holy Thursday.

With my friends Calvin and Pata Genotiva, my wife Joy and I had finally a taste of the famous Catalan spring Oinion called calçot.  By itself and with the romanesque sauce it is good, in fact, excellent!  But knowing the history and the cultural perspective of calçot made it even more interesting. Calvin and Pata did manage to have their meats, I was stuck with my bacalao. But definitely I want to go back to this place next time between November and April.Here’s more about calçots: http://www.culinarybackstreets.com/barcelona/2013/calcots/

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RUNNING BY DAY, IMBIBING BY NIGHT

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We were in the Monastery of Poblet, in the Prades mountains near Barcelona for a day of contemplation for the Holy Week. We had a 5:15 AM matins with the monks and then a 7:30AM laude before I geared up to run.

The Monastery of Poblet is a UNESCO World heritage site. Except for one, all Kings of Aragon are buried here. The Monastery is surrounded by by vineyards, particularly the bodega of Torres. Torres is one of the more famous bodegas in Spain.

Running through this countryside was not easy as its terrain is rolling with a good number of uphill runs. The scenery though is breathtaking especially when I went through the vineyards.

A thought crossed my mind then – great running by day, and great wine tasting by night!

Spanish countryside, Spanish wines…great combination!
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