Monday, January 31, 2011

Beat the Madrid Heat Tour: Part 7-Tallinn, Estonia...Who Knew?

I'm embarrassed to admit it, but when we decided to go on a Scandinavian Cruise this past summer, I was excited about every port except Tallinn, Estonia. Why?? Ignorance, mostly...My friend, Nickie, moved to Madrid from Estonia, and loved it! I couldn't imagine why she liked it better than Spain...and I secretly thanked God, that my husband could NEVER get stationed there. All her stories about the snow and freezing cold, and don't forget the Cold War stereotypes. She kept telling me about this idyllic medieval city with its wonderfully preserved wall and towers. She talked about how the town square reminded her of her time in Garmisch, Germany. I would nod my head politely, but I did not really believe it would be that nice. Boy, was I wrong! The ship's "Tour and Shopping Guy" told us that he thought Tallinn was the inspiration for Shrek's Far Far Away Land, and I believe it! I have to say that it was one of our favorite ports. We were able to walk right off the ship and into the old town which was small enough to fully explore by foot. I was completely charmed by this little town on the Baltic Sea... St Olaf's Church (also known as St Olav's Church) is the tallest structure in Tallinn, and in light of our family tradition of going to the top of everything, we climbed the spiral steps and a wooden ladder, and stepped outside into the cage that wraps around the spire of this 13th century church. It was a little scary, but it gave us a great view of the city. The contrast of the new Tallinn and old Tallinn is striking...
All we had to walk on was this thin wooden walkway that went all the way around the structure.A look up the spire...What a view...it was worth the climb...We got a great view of the old medieval wall from up there...Besides the fact that his best friend lived here, Nine (he had a birthday) was excited to visit Tallinn because one of our favorite shows, The Amazing Race, had one of its pit stops here. We remember the episode when the pink-haired guy from Montana spent a lot of time inside this building looking for a "candle-abra." He didn't make the connection that it was a "candle-ah-brah." Classic...
According to Rick Steves', this little cafe used to be a hit with the KGB set. According to some, many retired KGB still live in Tallinn...
Very tasty treat, although the clerk was rather snarky...Estonia was getting ready to switch over to the Euro at the beginning of this year, so they had prices posted in Kroon and Euro. Even though we had been told before we left the ship that Euros wouldn't be accepted ashore, seeing the euro prices threw me off. When I handed her Euros to pay for our snacks, she rudely told me they didn't accept them. When I pointed to the sign, she said, "That's for us!" Hmmp...rude! Tasty though...and a free bathroom...bonus!
Tallinn was full of adorable shops and cafes...Here are just a few...
Here is the town square with its city hall, shops and cafes with their outdoor eating spaces. If they put together temporary outdoor eating spaces this close to the arctic circle, then we should be able to enjoy such places in the States...Come on, America, let's go...
Nice car...Lotus, I think...don't quote me...I'm not a big car girl...
Thirteen (he had a birthday, too) and Nine were about to mint their own Estonia coins...pretty cool...
At this restaurant you can eat Bear...where else can you eat Bear??? We did not, but we could have...tee hee... There were so many little hidden places to discover in Tallinn...wish we had more time!
We had a great time, and once again, I was reminded not to judge a book by its cover...Hasta luego...

Saturday, January 29, 2011

And the Winner of "The Heart of Spain" is...

...Jennifer Caldwell!!! Congratualtions, Jen! Please don't write me that two out of the three giveaways have been won by Jen's...We all know it was a very popular name for girls born in the 1970's. Jen, I think you are really going to love this book! I'm so excited that someone who is such a foodie won this book about families and food! I will get it in the mail to you soon! I have 3 autographed copies of a great book about Barcelona to give away next month. All followers will be eligible to win, so make sure you are an "official" follower! I have a sneaking suspicion that some of you have only clicked the "like" button and I can't see who only "likes" the blog. Send me an email if you aren't sure and I will check for you! If you aren't a follower yet, what are you waiting for??? Hasta luego!

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

15,000 Hits...Now I Need 100 Followers!!!

Wow, I am so excited that I've reached 15,000 hits on my blog!!! Thanks for spending your time stopping by and reading posts on my blog! Goodness knows you have many choices when it comes to the internet. Please continue to read and let me know you are out there by becoming an official follower, either through google or facebook's networked blogs. Being an official follower also qualifies you for giveaways on my blog and I've got 5 planned over the next 5 months. Help me reach 100 followers!! Thanks again! You are awesome!!

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Win a Copy of "The Heart of Spain-Families and Food" this Friday!

“No contracts, just word of mouth, like the old days,” said Don Harris, author of “The Heart of Spain,” when telling me about the suppliers who help LaTienda.com bring the best of Spain to the United States and Europe. Can you imagine a place where people still do business with just a handshake? According to Don, Spain is such a place. The affection he has for Spain and its people is immediately obvious. The Harris family and Spain go way back! Don, a former Navy chaplain, was stationed in southern Spain at Naval Station Rota in the 70’s. Living off base in the Spanish community of Puerto de Santa Maria gave his family a chance to become immersed in Spanish life and form relationships that have lasted a lifetime. They developed a love of Spanish food and culture so strong, that it inspired them to start their own online store that is a leading supplier of Spanish food in America.

In a phone interview from his retail store in Williamsburg, Virginia, Don shared how LaTienda.com and his new book came into being. After their time in Spain was over, Don’s family visited as often as possible, vacationing, seeing old friends, and exploring parts unknown. In his book, Don writes, “On the return flight we would load an extra suitcase with memories of Spain: those long tube glasses they use at tapas bars, ceramics and cazuelas of all sorts, Maria cookies, and most of all, bars of Heno de Pravia and Magno soaps whose familiar fragrance still waft through our home.” Once retired from the Navy, the family settled in Williamsburg, Virgina, where Don had attended the College of William & Mary. Then in 1996, just a year after amazon.com burst on the scene, the Harris clan got into the online game with a “.com” of their own. They put up a website selling the bright and beautiful Spanish title of Andalucia. Unfortunately, the site didn’t take off as they’d hoped. The American market loved the tile, but not to the degree of the Spanish. In Andalucia, you’ll find entire walls, both exterior and interior, covered in these colorful tiles; not so in the States. That, coupled with the fact that the tiles were heavy and prone to breaking kept the online tile idea from taking off. Even though the tile business didn’t pan out, it did attract the attention of some Spaniards living in the United States. And when Don asked them if they’d be interested in buying Spanish “jamon” instead of Spanish tile, around 200 of them said they certainly would. So Don and his family started working on bringing world renowned Spanish “ham” to American tables. This took some time, and Don used the La Tienda website to keep his eager customers abreast of his progress. He started writing essays about Spain, its food and its culture, to keep them entertained. Don finally found a way to bring Spanish food, wine, cookware, and bath products to the masses, and have been doing so successfully since 1997. While LaTienda.com grew from a “mom and pop shop” to a major player in the Spanish food market, Don’s writing continued. Don wrote about his own family’s experiences in Spain, as well as the families of their Spanish friends who supplied La Tienda with their labors of love. His writing and photos gave readers an appreciation of the quality of the artisan products available at La Tienda, allowing them to connect with the people and the processes behind the goods. Before Don knew it, he had over 10 years worth of stories about Spanish families and food. At his own family’s urging, Don sifted through all those essays, pulling the best of them together into this impressive new book, “The Heart of Spain-Families and Food,” and what a treasure it is!
Don was kind enough to donate an autographed copy of his new book to SpainIsMyHappyPlace.com for a giveaway. Whoever wins this 239 page hardcover is in for a real treat. Don shares the stories behind the Spanish foods he loves, as well as the continuity of Spain’s culture, fiestas and strong sense of history. La Tienda and the Harris family are committed to supporting family-owned Spanish wineries, sherry bodegas, Iberico pig farms, olive groves, cheese factories and restaurants. This book beautifully honors that commitment. The wonderful color photos really make these stories come alive for me. I was impressed when Don told me these pictures, for the most part, are Harris family photos from over the years. One of my favorites is on the cover, where two little girls are dancing sevillanas. It’s like they already know they are “españolas.” Look at their little hands, turning just so, almost instinctively. It’s in their blood and seems to come so naturally to them. I love that these adorable little girls are being watched by their encouraging mother and exuberant grandmother who are also wearing traditional polka-dotted dresses.

This book is a real keepsake, whether you’ve been to Spain or not. You can’t help but be taken in by its majesty. Not only does Don share his insights about food and culture, but also explores the artisan traditions that have remained intact decade after decade in a modern world addicted to progress and efficiency. Don shows us when it comes to quality, efficiency is often overrated. Don’t worry if you don’t win this autographed copy because you can purchase your own on sale right now at LaTienda.com. It’s 25% off until January 31st, so click on that link to get one while it’s still on sale. It's part of the Winter Sale, with over 100 items available at up to 40% off. If you do win the autographed copy, you can keep it for yourself and give your extra copy as a gift to someone you care about. That’s what I’m doing! I ordered three yesterday, one for me and two for friends. I can’t wait to give my copy a permanent home on my coffee table. Hasta luego…

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Beat the Madrid Heat Tour: Part 6: The King Is A Party Animal...

We couldn't leave Copenhagen without seeing the Danish Crown Jewels...well, Eight could, but we weren't listening to him because he was of a frame of mind to hate all things Copenhagen simply because the weren't made of legos. Here are a few examples of the crown jewels...How could anyone prefer legos to these...honestly....
Eight was giving Copenhagen the thumbs down, but we found it very interesting, especially Rosenborg Castle and the exhuberant King Christian IV (1577-1648), who called it home. I think Rick Steve's does a good job of describing this royal who was known as a lover and a fighter.
According to Steves, "During his 60-year reign, Christian IV reformed the government, rebuilt the Army, established a trading post in India, and tried to expand Denmark's territory...The king was a large man and lived large as well. A skilled horseman and avid hunter, he could drink his companions under the table. He spoke several languages and gained a reputation as outgoing and humorous. His lavish banquets were legendary and his romatic affairs were numerous." He even lost an eye in battle and had the shrapnel turned into earrings.
Yes, he wore earrings and had a long rat tail braid on the side of his head...the equivalent of a 16th century mullet perhaps? So not only did this king have a reputation as a bit of a party animal, but apparently he was a ladies man with a touch of the "perv" as well...Check out this room of mirrors where he used to like to meet ladies....It's hard to see, but in the first picture, all the walls and the ceiling are mirrored, and in the second picutre, it shows that the floor is mirrored as well. According to the castle guide, the floor was also mirrored so that the King could look up the ladies skirts...nice...oh well, I guess that's why they say "It's good to be King.
With all that being said, it really was a showplace. I think it is one of the best preserved palaces I've seen, and recently, I have seen a lot...I think it was the tapestries that impressed me the most, so many are so faded and these were really vibrant. Here's a few pics from the palace...The only thing I didn't really care for were the amber items...I just don't like amber, I don't know if it's that it reminds me of bad 70's fashion jewelry or the movie, Jurrasic Park, but I just don't like it all that much. It has too dull of a finish for my taste. It is very popular though. When we went on our Scandinavian cruise is was all the rage in all the ports...One of the only things I saved money on...hahaha...Copenhagen has many beautiful palaces, but if you can only see one, I would recommend the Rosenborg...Hasta luego...


Friday, January 21, 2011

Day Two in the Test Kitchen: Operation Gazpacho!

Tiff and I were back in the Test Kitchen today, working on our cookbook...Our mission was to take another stab at gazpacho...Monday's effort was edible, but far from delicioso! We wanted to recreate our favorite commercial brand of gazpacho, Alvalle. If you live in Spain, or anywhere this brand is sold, Tiff and I say, don't bother making it yourself...It is fabulous, but since we know that we won't be able to live in Spain forever, we set about creating our own version of this tasty, healthy elixir...We went back to the drawing board and made a second attempt and we hit the jackpot! This gazpacho is kickin'!! We are thrilled! It doesn't taste like our beloved Alvalle, but it is extremely good and we are proud to put our name on this version. Husband says he thinks it's even better. That's nice to hear. We like it by the glass, especially in the summer. Add a little vodka and you've got Gazpacho Bloody Mary, but when we serve it as a soup, we like the idea of the "Gazpacho Bar." It's a lot of fun and of course, it will be in the cookbook!
The little dish above is a pepper made for popping, and I think it's better than any jalapeño popper I've ever had. This dish is called pimientos padron and it is a tapas classic, and so simple to prepare...garlic gives this dish its special punch. They are fun to eat too...hold the stem and eat it all in one bite...just leave this stems on your plate...YUM!

The last recipe of the day was a dish we call "Hammered Olives." The marinated olives are full of flavor and are a great make ahead dish for any party, in fact they taste best when left to marinate overnight! So easy and soooo delicious. I gave this recipe to a friend and she told me that after her family had eaten all the olives, she soaked up the rest of the herb infused oil with a baguette and even ate the oranges...Now that's a testimonial! More to come...Hasta luego!

Thursday, January 20, 2011

"Life Is A Dream, Intellectual Madrid..."

It was a brisk December Sunday morning in Madrid, and we'd been given a brief respite from the rain. Husband and I drove into Madrid and walked over to one of our favorite spots, the Plaza Santa Ana. We were being treated to a walking tour of Madrid. Our meeting place was Cafe Miau. We got there early, of course...so American, but this gave us time to have a coffee before taking the "Life is a Dream, Intellectual Madrid" Walk. Our docent, Almudena, was already at the cafe when we arrived. She was going over her notes and looked very stylish and professional in her pink overcoat. Three more people arrived for our tour, two of which were return customers from Rome. They had been to Italy several years ago and had taken a walk with Context and loved it. We made our introductions and headed out into the city to see what we could see. The returning customers were a couple from Long Island, who had been on a Context walk in Rome a few years back. Rathering encouraging, I thought, that they would seek out Context again for another city tour. It was nice to walk the streets, learning new things and talking with eachother about where we'd travelled before while sharing our insights about Madrid.

I was contacted by Context Travel to check out one of their walking tours they had recently started providing in Madrid. I checked out the company and found they have received endorsements from Travel+Leisure, National Geographic, Fodor's, Frommer's, Lonely Planet, and Rick Steves', just to name a few. I must admit, I was impressed. Context offers intimate group or private walking tours of 13 cities in nine different countries. According to their site, the docents are "scholars and specialists—in disciplines including archaeology, art history, cuisine, urban planning, history, environmental science, and classics—who, in addition to our normal work as professors and researchers, design and lead in-depth walking seminars for small groups of intellectually curious travelers." The company is "committed to the character of the city—its built environment, cultural heritage, and living fabric." I am very excited about having Context here in Madrid because we are always looking for new ideas for our family and friends who come to visit. Sometimes you want to go along, but because of busy schedules, sometimes you have to send your guests out on their own. I would totally send my family or friends out on one of these walks. They are affordable and with the low docent to walker ratio, we were really able to pick Almudena's brain about whatever piqued our interest.
Context offers several walks in Madrid, including an Introduction to the city, art walks of the Prado and one focusing on Goya, and historical walks about El Escorial, Flamenco, the Spanish Civil War & Madrid Under Franco, as well as the Life Is A Dream, Intellectual Madrid. I wanted to take the Life Is A Dream walk because I was interested in finding out more about the great literary figures of Spain and where and how they lived. Here's the description of this walk from the Context website:

"For centuries, the heart of Madrid's literary and intellectual life has centered in the Huertas neighborhood, to the east of the Plaza Mayor and Puerta del Sol. A vibrant quarter that was once home to such seminal figures of the Spanish Golden Century as Cervantes, Quevedo, Góngora, Lope de Vega and Calderón de la Barca, this district is still the heart of theatre, art, and the cultural life of the city. During this three-hour walk we will look deeply into daily life of 17th century Madrid as we stroll the quiet, pedestrian-only streets of this hidden but most magnetic area of the city. The great thinkers and artists of that century will bookend and shape what will become a thematic orientation to Madrid's place in European intellectual history.

Our seminar starts with a visit to the church of St. Sebastian, the parish church where the great writer Lope de Vega was buried. The church is also home to a 400-year-old confraternity of actors, and thus an anchor in the theatrical traditions of Madrid. The guided visit to the nearby residence of de Vega offers an extraordinary opportunity to immerse ourselves in the period, while a discussion of the writer's exceptionally adventurous life and herculean literary work articulates our understanding of intellectual life in the 17th century. Perhaps the most prolific writer that has ever lived, Lope de Vega was born in Madrid in 1562 and died here in 1635. His pastoral novel Arcadia presents an idyllic existence which was far removed from his experience as a soldier in the Invincible Armada and a troubled lover in cloak-and-dagger baroque-era Spain. The figure of de Vega allows us to look at the role of cloaks and capes in the history of Madrid, as well as its associations with the literary world. Passing by the site where the first edition of Don Quijote was printed will allow us to continue our literary and intellectual them will also giving us occasion to discuss the towering figure of Cervantes, who lived in the area...Our focus will be on the continuous life of the neighborhood and its role in art and culture through the centuries, and how this has defined Madrid as a city....On this walk we will also look at how 20th-century Modernists left their imprint in this quarter with the construction of Cine Doré, a must for cinema lovers and oft featured in Almodovar’s films. As homage to the history of film making in Spain, we'll pass, too, the site of the first cinema projection. Depending on the interests of the group, we may take a quick culinary break to explore the sweet delights offered by nearby Casa Mira, or perhaps head to one of the best bakeries in town which has been successfully providing Madrileños since 1830, and which featured in a novel by Benito Perez Galdós. In the end, we'll emerge with a vivid portrait of the literary lions who defined Madrid and the intellectual life of this city over the past 300 years. We'll also get a chance to explore one of Madrid's more bohemian quarters as a way of immersing ourselves in the contemporary city."

Our docent, Almudena, originally from Madrid, like many Context guides, has her Ph.D. According to her bio, "[t]hroughout her Ph.D., Almudena traveled extensively around Italy and Spain, and lived in Rome for a year while collecting documentation kept at the Vatican archives. Her main interests lie in the history of the Church in the 1300s and the patronage of medieval fortresses, reliquaries, and textiles, as well as tomb sculpture. She has worked as a family art workshop docent at CaixaForum Madrid and teaches history of art to young children on a private basis. She has translated numerous academic articles, and her most recent contribution is the translation of the chapter dealing with the architectural history of Toledo Cathedral in a recent book published on the building." So she really knows her stuff! She had an answer for every question asked and I felt like I saw things that I haven't seen in any guidebook about Madrid thus far. At 55 euros a person, I think this is a great value for a three hour tour. She brought to life the literary figures she spoke about and the not-so-friendly rivalry between Spanish icons Lope de Vega and Cervantes. The only negative comment I have to make about the tour was that it was a Sunday morning, and while it was nice to have the streets of Madrid to ourselves, some of the places Almudena showed us weren't open. If taking this tour, you might want to keep the timing in mind.

As I said, I feel like Alumenda gave us many "new to us" places to return to, places I hadn't heard of in the year and a half that I've lived here. She showed us two "new" restaurants, Casa Alberto at Calle de la Huerta, 18, established over 100 years ago and a neat old chapel turned restaurant, La Capilla de la Bolsa at Calle de la Bolsa, 12. We were able to peek inside and it was gorgeous! She also took us to a boutique of a cool and hip Spanish designer named Paloma del Pozo and to the shop of a talented woman who paints lovely silk scarves. Sadly, I have lost her card, but it's right across the street from Lope de Vega's house, so I will be able to find it again...Thank goodness! Here she is working on one of her creations...

When the tour ended we said good-bye to Alumeda and our new friends, and slipped over to our favorite churros place, Maestro Churrero, before we drove back home...shhhh, don't tell the kids! It was a delightful way to spend a Sunday!

...And I have some exciting news...Spain Is My Happy Place is teaming up with Paul Bennett, the owner of Context Travel, for a giveaway of a Madrid Walk in a couple of months, just as the weather is getting nice for a stroll through Madrid. Click here to visit the Context Travel website to check out all their great tours and book your own walk of your own. Happy trails and hasta luego...

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