Archives for category: Travel

Previous to this past weekend, if I had been stuck with the word “Carnaval” during a round of Taboo, I would have been limited to the words Venetian masks, New Orleans beads and Brazil to describe this festival to my fellow players. My concept of Carnaval was limited to its popular manifestations widely known in the U.S. Unbeknown to me, Carnaval is also celebrated in Spain. Certain cities are more famous for their Carnaval celebrations, and draw huge crowds, such as the Carnaval in Cádiz. Others are mostly local celebrations, like the one in Valverde del Camino, the tiny pueblo where Julia teaches. Julia and I had the opportunity to witness both of these distinct Carnavals during this past weekend and walked away with a bevy of new buzz words to describe Carnaval.

We first attended the one in Valverde del Camino, which was celebrated on the night of March 4. Julia had been told since September that this night of Carnaval when the town turns upside-down was not an event to be missed. We cobbled together costumes, as per the required dress code for Carnaval, and set off to see what we could see in Valverde…

Valverde’s celebrations kick off with a parade in the streets. Giant floats blaring music overflow with crowds of people. Julia and I estimate less than 3% of the people in the streets were NOT in costume.

Pirate was a popular costume choice. So was anything involving cross-dressing, such as the pictured male bride. Julia and I estimate about 1/3 of the men cross-dressed.

Julia ran into some of her students and fellow teachers at the Carnaval!

Middle Eastern costumes were also popular. In fact, we saw quite a few “Middle Eastern terrorists.” I thought it was interesting to see a costume that would be so taboo in the United States be completely accepted in a different cultural context.

Valverde’s parade ended in the town’s old train station, which had been converted into a dance hall, complete with bar and live music! This group was one of our favorites they made these scuba diver costumes completely out of household materials!

Found a cow to go with my cowgirl costume!

There was a large chocolate y churros tent outside of the old train station, providing all-night revelers with fuel. Julia and I left the station at 5:30am, and people were still dancing away!

While Valverde’s Carnaval was attended almost exclusively by locals, Cádiz’s Carnaval has become so popular that it is a major tourist draw. During the two weeks leading up to Cádiz’s Carnaval, costumed musical groups called chirigotas compete with sets of musical numbers. The competition is televised from Cádiz’s main theatre. Their songs are filled with political and cultural references, and Julia and I were assured that we would understand not one bit of their content. The official chirigotas participate in this televised competition, and then sing on stages and floats during the weekend of Carnaval. In addition, unofficial chirigotas roam the streets and attract crowds by spontaneously bursting into song. Many Spaniards consider the unofficial chirigotas a bigger draw than the official ones. Julia and I went to Cádiz during the day on Sunday, which is considered to be the actual Carnaval. After the sun goes down, the city dissolves into botellón, or one large drinking party.

An official chirigota on a float.

Another chirigota float. Though both these chirigotas were all-men groups, there were also co-ed, all-women, and junior chirigotas.

An unofficial chirigota, all in piggie suits. At one point, they were holding up a cured ham leg and had the crowd chanting “jamón! jamón! jamón!” (“ham! ham! ham!”).

Another unofficial chirigota. They called themselves the sad bullfighters from Cataluña, a northern Spain province where bull-fighting has been banned.

Julia and I loved that the Cádiz Carnaval crowd included families (despite the extremely racy content of the unofficial chirigota’s songs and the abundant drinking in the streets- as in people with shot glasses tied around their necks with coolers of drinks in tow) and people over the age of 65, like this lady in the Technicolor wig.

As the sun went down on Sunday, the streets were bathed in light with lights like these all over the city!

The week after Carnaval in Valverde, the place become a ghost town as everybody abandons the city for their country homes. It is customary for families and friends to travel from country home to country home, drinking and eating the week away. I imagine in Cádiz, the largest cleaning crews known to man must take over the city streets to clean up the confetti, silly string and remnants of the night’s revelries from yet another year’s Carnaval. I’ve indulged in similar rituals today by barely budging from bed and cleaning up the remnants of a room ripped apart by last-minute packing. The Carnavals were unique from anything I had ever experienced! If your travels in Europe ever coincide with the days of Carnaval, consider making the trip to Spain because it is very much worth seeing!




Yesterday, a couple of friends and I took advantage of a sunny day to travel outside of Sevilla to a little town called Carmona. As one of our Spanish friends described it, Carmona is a “pueblo, pueblo, pueblo.” Translation: it’s itty bitty! But it is known for its quality tapas as well as some Roman ruins that were discovered on the outskirts of the town in 1885 that date back to the 1st century BC!!! Here is a photo record of our time in Carmona…

Exploring the ancient ruins…

The ruins included several tombs, as well as an amphitheater where archeologists guess gladiator fights took place! Any statue or pottery remains were inside the little museum on-sight, so the tombs were basically empty pits. Still, it was very interesting to see what’s left and imagine people in that spot over 2000 years ago!

Our tapas trail began when 2 girls from the group were brave enough to approach a gang of older men, tricked out with newsboy caps, tweed and Ray-Ban sunglasses (the elderly man uniform of Spain), to ask for a recommendation. They pointed us to a place near-by.

Another older man greeted us at the restaurant, and helped us arrange tables for our larger group. Then, he proceeded to go inside, return with a glass of red wine, and plant himself in a chair in the sun facing the plaza, letting a younger man working there take care of our table. What a work day!

We had a tapas sampler that was beautifully presented and had some stand-out dishes- the calamari and the Russian salad (cold potato salad) were very good.

After basking in the sun a bit, we moved on to Round 2 of our Tapas Trail experience. The second place was closer to a typical tapas experience- no fancy presentations, just simple platters of food. Their croquetas*, fried potatoes and bread were all amazing. Plus, the tables of the cafe sit in the shade of a part of the ancient city wall!

Papas bravas= fried potatoes with a “spicy” sauce (in Spain, their heat tolerance is generally very low, so when you see “spicy” on the menu, you should translate that as mild to perhaps not spicy at all), and a generous amount of mayonnaise (also a note on Spanish mayo- the quality of Spanish mayo is much better than the US. Many people grew up here with their mom’s homemade mayo, and so they don’t accept gloppy stuff that tastes like Best Foods)!

A close-up of some croquetas and fries.

*Croquetas= a cooked filling (like ham, cheese, spinach, etc.) mixed with bechamel (a French white sauce), coated with breadcrumbs and fried. There are many variations on croquetas in Spain, and a lot of them are delicious! Also, their fries are no McDonalds fare- they’re often fried in olive oil, which I think gives them a less greasy and crunchier exterior. Since they’re freshly made, they also taste more like an actual potato.

I would recommend Carmona to anyone who visits Spain and is interested in seeing a little town outside of the big cities. It was such an easy day-trip from Sevilla. We had plenty to do for the afternoon, and returned to Sevilla with our bellies very satisfied! Ending the trip with some ice cream was the sweet ending to the day…



A couple more exceptionable culinary experiences from Granada…

Granada is known for its Moroccan foodthe falafels are the most talked-about, but its other offerings such as couscous tagines are also worth mentioning.

Spain is all about pork products- they’re pretty impossible to escape. At La Oliva gourmet food shop, there is quite a variety to sample!

In the afternoons, market stalls are set up alongside the main cathedral in Granada. The baskets are filled with piles of spices, and as in the case of this picture, whole-leaf tea blends. The aromas are amazing!

Come fall, the smell and smoke from roasting chestnuts fills the air in Granada, as well as Sevilla. The nuts are very filling, with a starchy, potatoe-esque texture and taste. We took this pic in the Mirador San Nicolás, which has the grandest view of the Alhambra, a continuous stream of street performers and chestnut roasters always near-by.

With gray skies and a chilly wind, today seems to mark the end of the fabulous fall weather we’ve been having in Sevilla. I’m crossing my fingers it doesn’t rain since I have laundry drying on the roof!!! I hope everybody has a good day and stays warm!



Granada!!! It is such an enchanting city with a mix of exotic winding streets in the Moroccan quarter and charming plazas in the center, resting in the shadow of the stately Alhambra and snow-capped mountains of the Sierra Nevada. I studied abroad here 2 years ago, and the trip felt like a kind of homecoming.

Julia and I interspersed foodie missions with explorations of the city, in the process re-visiting some beloved favorites and discovering new ones. Welcome to Granada…

1. Chocolate y churros in Plaza Bib-Ramblas at Bar Alhambra

By far the thickest drinkable chocolate I’ve ever tried- when the waiter plops the cups onto the table, its contents barely budge. The greasy churros make for very indulgent complements. The advisability of eating this is questionable- for me, it resulted in a headache and a long series of strange dreams that night. However, if it is drugged, which is entirely possible given it’s addictive quality, the Granadinos don’t seem to mind- if you glance at the surrounding tables, every single person is partaking in the same guilty pleasure!

2. Flamenquín from Braulios

Though Americans may claim deep-fried Twinkies, Spaniards can claim flamenquín- a dizzying combination of cheese and serrano ham rolled in a pork chop, fried to a crisp and served with fries and mayonnaise. Another stomach-whopper like the chocolate and churros, the flamenquín is an excess in protein as the chocolate is in sugar. It is a traditional dish from the city of Córdoba, but is also a special of the classic restaurant Braulio in Granada. Worth trying  at least once!

3. Cookies from a convent

There are lots of nuns in Granada, and they include baking cookies with their religious duties! Delicious cookies at that. Securing some nun’s cookies involves placing an order through an intercom system, laying some money on a large lazy-susan type apparatus that protects the nun from being seen, and receiving in turn a box of tightly packed cookies. The cookies tend to have different kinds of ground nuts. Others are like jelly candies coated with coconut. And yet others are like butter cookies. Fantastic fuel for hiking up to see the Alhambra.

4. Piononos

The pionono is a pastry indiginous to a little town outside of Granada. It consists of a very thin rolled cake, saturated with a sugary syrup and topped with a little crown of caramelized pastry cream. They are served cold, and have a very pleasing medley of textures and not-too-cloying sweetness. They’re an awesome local specialty.

Of course, this list does not include everything we had to eat, like afternoon snacks with Carmen (the lady I stayed with during my study abroad), amazing vegan food from The Piano, or a home-cooked lunch of hake and potatoes and salmorejo (a cousin of gazpacho) made by Francisco, a foodie friend who owns a gourmet shop, La Oliva, in Granada.

Wishing everyone a happy and delicious rest of their day!



Since I talked about high art in one of the Paris posts, I thought I would share some of my snapshots of street art from our travels. This sparked a breakfast table conversation between Julia and I about what exactly should be considered street art. Is any doodle on the street a candidate for this label, or does it have to be an intricate graffiti mural? My pics are more of the former kind, so I use the term “street art” here loosely. What do you think constitutes street art?

Sprayed on a wall in Paris, near the Sacre Coeur

Literal street art in Vernon, France (near Giverny)

Hello Kitty (or should I say Hola Kitty?) in Lagos, Portugal

Whether street art or no, these scribbles made me smile:-)



This past weekend, Joanna, one of our friends from orientation, invited us to spend a night at her apartment in La Palma, the little town where she teaches. The population of La Palma is about 10,000 people, and I was intrigued to see a Spanish small town, since Julia and I are having the opposite living experience in Sevilla (pop.=703,000). In the city center, La Palma feels like other Spanish cities I have been to, with several plazas fronting pretty church facades. A couple of differences-

1) Every eye was upon us when we sat down at a café or restaurant.

2) About one out of every two people was holding a baby. No exaggeration!

3) 10 minutes walking from the city center ended in farm fields stretching to the horizon.

We took advantage of the countryside to do some “trekking” (British English for hiking). Though the flat fields didn’t hold the charm or grandeur of mountains or coastlines, the overwhelming silence apart from bird calls and distant tractors droning was a nice reprieve from Sevilla’s constant buzz and clatter.

Picnic spot

Sunset in the fields

“Hay cathedral”

When Julia and I returned, we watched a frightening depiction of the future in Blade Runner with Agustín and Antonio. It made our time outside of the city seem even more precious!



This past weekend, Julia and I, along with several people we met at our orientations, went to Lagos, Portugal. It’s reputed to be a great beach getaway, and a favorite escape from the cold and rain for northern Europeans. Lagos is a beautiful city, with dramatic coastlines a la Big Sur and a charming downtown filled with good restaurants and fun dance clubs. Sadly, we had the misfortune of visiting during a weekend forecasted to be full of showers. We were tenacious and insisted on our beach time, even if it was interrupted by sprints to shelter during the intermittent downpours. You can see the rapid weather shifts in the pics below:










These pictures were taken within 15 minutes of each other! Though we didn’t achieve tans (or a sunburn on my part), we did discover that the people in Lagos believe in good food, and generous portions of it. None of this tapas business to be found. A lot of what we had was very familiar- burgers, pasta carbonara, and fresh seafood. One of our favorite discoveries was a little crepe and cake place owned by a German lady living in Lagos. She makes her cakes fresh every morning, and rotates the kinds of cakes she has. She also is passionate about gnomes, and uses them liberally in her decorations. They even mischievously found their way into the pictures I took of her delicious creations.










It’s not too clear in the pics, but the cheesecake and chocolate cake are surrounded by whipped cream and mixed fruits. She also served our tea and coffee in china cups and saucers- such a cute touch! Did I mention the cakes are 2 euros for a slice? The little place felt imbued with the owner’s personality, passions and eccentricities, which made for an original and fun experience. This is what food chains can never recreate.

The owner of the German cake café told us, “You either hate or love Lagos.” I don’t know about living there, but as a visitor, I couldn’t see find what there was to hate. Even in the rain.

Today was a Spanish holiday, and since I have Mondays and Fridays off, I just have to work tomorrow and Thursday. I think I will be sorely traumatized when I get a real job! On the downside, I caught a major cold this weekend. I feel sorry for my seat partner on the train tomorrow!



Although the last post may be deceiving, Julia and I did do other things in Paris than just eat. We had both done the requisite touristy things like ride the Eiffel Tower and see the Louvre before, and we were both interested in new experiences. So, we cobbled together an itinerary that we nicknamed our “Grand Garden Tour” and visited Giverny and Versailles in back-to-back day trips. Besides being a recipe for exhaustion by the end of our 2nd day, it was a really interesting study in gardening and aesthetic contrasts. The pictures below explain this best…

Day 1, Giverny:

Day 2, Versailles:

One garden designed to look natural, and the other transparently hyper-designed. Both supremely beautiful. Which garden do you think you would prefer to have in your backyard, if you could be Monet or Louis XIV?

Versailles was holding a fascinating art exhibition when we visited. Since 2008, Versailles has been been hosting year-long, single artist exhibitions with the aim of “bringing the chateau to life,” according to their program.  Takashi Murakami is this year’s chosen artist. You might recognize his name from his recent collaboration with Louis Vuitton. His works are inspired by manga as well as meetings between modern and ancient Japan and eastern and western cultures. Critics compare him to Andy Warhol because he manufactures his art like commercial products. His sculptures and paintings were dispersed throughout the palace and gardens in a way that invited comparison and contrast with their surroundings.










Isn’t it interesting how this art contrasts to the works inspired by the gardens of Giverny, such as the familiar view below?

I think both artists could be called pioneers. Some people do not like the Murakami exhibition because they say visitors come to Versailles to see Versailles, not a modern art exhibit. What do you think?

Lots of food for thought!



Cut to 12pm the night before Julia and I have a 9am flight to Paris…frantic throwing of things into suitcases and cries of despair- “I have nothing to wear!!! Paris is too cool for any item in my closet to show its non-chic face. We will be laughed out of the city by all of the stylish Parisian girls!”

After our trip, I can say that packing for Paris should be very easy if you follow 2 rules: take every black article of clothing you own and, if you happen to be visiting in the fall, every warm article of clothing you own that fits rule number 1.

Fortunately, we weren’t laughed out of the city limits. However, we were faced with an equally challenging dilemma several times a day while we were there- what to eat?

Now, it would seem that in the land of pain au chocolats, baguettes, french onion soup, macaroons, and butter galore, finding something to eat should be easy, right? I would like to believe so too. However, the city is fraught with pale imitations of these dining gems, luring innocent little tourists like me right into their bland, unremarkable traps. Our quest was to not only eat French food, but amazing, soul-expanding, epiphany-causing French food. On a budget, of course!

Here is what we found…

1. Let’s start with breakfast…at the Jean Millet patisserie. Julia and I managed to try a good amount of pain au chocolats and other various pastries on our trip, and we chose to come back Jean Millet for our last breakfast in Paris. The outer shell shatters into a million little butter-infused pieces, and the ratio of chocolate to pastry is perfect. If you’re searching for classics done right, look no further. What a wonderful way to greet the day!

2. These are some Laudrée macaroons in the Versailles gardens. Laudrée macaroons are to pastries what Christian Laboutins are to the shoe world- a brand of pure luxury. Although I’m slightly breaking my “on a budget” rule here, one bite of their vanilla bean macaroon is practically worth a pair of those red-bottomed heels. Flecked with vanilla beans, the pastry cream is strongly reminiscent of creme brulée and encased in the most delicate macaroon shells. We also tried chocolate, coffee and rose petal, but the vanilla bean was the one I was dreaming of on our plane back to Sevilla. Getting into the spirit, we ate our little cookies with hearty cries of “Let them eat Laudrée macaroons!”

3. Ok, ok, so although we could have fueled ourselves entirely on a bevy of Parisian sweets, we took a break for sanity’s, and our health’s, sake, to have some other kinds of food. Like fondue! Joanna, in the picture with me above, took us to a place that she said was very touristy but which I completely enjoyed despite the usual negative connotations that adjective usually holds. Le Refuge des Fondues is close to the Sacré Coeur, and came up with the creative solution of getting around a tax on wine served in stemmed glasses by perversely putting it in a baby bottle instead! It felt a little Twilight-esque with our blood-red bottles. Although neither the fondue, or wine, is out-of-this-world amazing, the funky atmosphere and fun dining experience make this place worth a visit!

Out of the many, many dining out experiences we had in Paris, these are my taste bud highlights. I hope you had fun reading about them!



Yikes! It has been a busy week and a half! What have we been up to here in Sevilla?

1. We went to Paris! For 5 days, to visit our friend Joanna who has quite an interesting job with the American embassy. Although we meant it to be a 4 day stay, fate intervened (aka a national transportation strike in Spain) and we had to stay an extra day. What a pity!

2. We (finally!) started our jobs! After 3 weeks, it feels like a very delayed start on the whole reason why we’re here. The teachers love putting me in the hot seat, and leaving me to the mercy of 30 Spanish teenagers to ask me questions such as what is your favorite color? What is your opinion of the current economic crisis? Do you have any pets? And do you have a boyfriend? The 12 year olds are sooooo cute! The 16 year olds, well, I have to admit I’m still a bit scared of them. At least all of the teachers I have worked with so far are extremely friendly. And I only have to work 3 days a week!

3. And, very importantly, we got internet for our apartment! So now I have no excuse not to update the blog.

Voila! And there you have it! Our last week and a half. I’m thinking of publishing a couple of successive posts on our Paris trip, if you’d like to read about our culinary and visual discoveries!