Good Eats: Perfecting Paella in Barcelona

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During our week living like locals in Barcelona, we decided there was no better way to absorb the culture than to learn to cook from a Catalan. My mom started browsing for options on Trip Advisor and came across Marta’s Paella Cooking Class and knew it would be perfect for us. We called and booked ourselves the afternoon session for the next day.

Marta welcomed us warmly into her home and after introductions were made between all the students (there were 8 of us), we were immediately put to work. She explained that although paella is originally from Valencia, the region to the south of Cataluña, most Spanish families have their own recipes for the rice dish. Paella can seem intimidating on paper, so she loves sharing her simple techniques to make a fantastic pan of the stuff.

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We were each given a duty, whether it be chopping garlic and onions or portioning the meat and fish, equally dividing the work so we could all have a hand in the finished product. The quarters were close enough that we could observe what everyone was doing without feeling cramped, and Marta guided us step by step so no one got lost.

Once the prep was done we headed outside onto her beautiful terrace to start cooking. As she called out ingredients we handed them to her, watched them sizzle away in the giant pan and tried to hear her explanation of the process over our grumbling bellies.

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The day was sunny and 70 degrees, perfect for an afternoon of cooking on the terrace. Just as the smell began to drive us wild, Marta added the broth to allow the crispy rice to cook and we settled down to chat and await the finish product. Our company included  family from Texas and a couple from Japan, making for some really intriguing exchanges. Marta helped us understand Catalan politics, not one to shy away from controversial topics, and we felt so lucky to find ourselves in the home of a local on such a lovely day.

When the paella was ready it was almost too pretty to eat. Marta’s version includes prawns, cuttlefish, mussels, chicken and pork sausage, plus plenty of vegetables, making for an incredibly vibrant dish. We dug in and for the first time there was a lull in conversation; the paella in front of us was so delicious that it made our mouths water even between bites! This is the best paella I’ve had in Spain, and eating it under the sun in a private home made the experience that much more special. If you’re in the neighborhood, skip the touristy spots on La Barceloneta and give Marta a call, she’ll be so happy to feed you.

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The Best of Barcelona

Oh, Barcelona, you confusing little minx you. You’ve got everything going for you…the beach, Gaudí, incredible seafood and and an equally great night life. You’ve also got hordes and hordes and hordes of tourists. And tourist menus. And employees looking to take advantage of tourists.

Though I am a traveler, I can’t stand tourists. Ok, let me rephrase that. I love fellow travelers and think it’s amazing whenever anyone decides to venture out, but I get extremely overwhelmed in crowds and grumpy when the streets are flooded with people taking pictures and staring at maps. Times Square is my personal hell and sometimes the streets of Barcelona seem to be mini-versions of that hell. What a positive way to start off a post, eh?

Well, despite the hellish bits, I can’t say I’ve ever not enjoyed myself in Barcelona. I hopped up in 2012 with a wonderful travel companion and we had a blast eating our way through the city, wandering the quieter neighborhoods and causing trouble after-hours. I knew that Barcelona would never be my favorite city in Spain, nor top 5, but it was fun and lively and an enjoyable escape. An escape I probably wouldn’t jump to take again.

When my mom suggested renting a flat in the city for New Year’s after our whirlwind central Europe trip, I can’t say I was thrilled. I had my sights set on Istanbul or Amsterdam…something more exotic than the much-exploited Barcelona. After some thought, I realized it would be nice to introduce my dad and brother to the side of the city I’d seen, and I agreed to give it another shot.

As always, I was surprised by how much different my experience was this time. It was so lovely to feel the sun warm my bones after a month in Germany and Switzerland, and even better to see the wonder in my father’s eyes as he got to know the second Spanish city he’s ever visited. Sure, there were perhaps even more toursits than there had been on my first visit, but my family’s excitement for the jewels of the city helped me forget the less thrilling parts.

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We took a different approach this time around. With a whole flat in the beautiful Gracia neighborhood we got to really live the city, feeling comfortable and at ease with plenty of time to see everything.

We were right down the street from the Gaudí houses, which made for mind-blowing eye candy on each venture out of the house. I tried to take a cue from my dad’s childlike curiosity and focus on the special details of Barcelona instead of acting like a snobby Madrileña with my nose turned up at the very idea of the city.

I was reminded once again how important attitude is in travel as my experience drastically changed once I talked myself out of the scowl that crept up at the sight of the crowds at the Sagrada Familia. The unfinished building is a true wonder and breathtakingly stunning; a couple hundred chattering foreigners should never ruin that experience. Every so often I would catch glimpses of my dad and brother in different parts of the church, passing headphones back and forth as Danny DJ’d the tour with Bach symphonies. They are such a special pair and knew just how to create the most powerful sensory experience for themselves. I realized that I had the power to tune them out and enjoy the jaw-droppingness of it all instead of getting annoyed by the groups pushing their way through, so I did just that.

My family was the perfect group to spend a week with in Barcelona. We ate Spanish breakfasts every morning, complete with tostadas and rich café con leche, complemented by macarons that my mom picked up from the French pastry shop next door.  On New Year’s Eve my dad and I woke up bright and early to pick up the fixings for a feast at La Boqueria market: clams from Galicia, fresh parsley, garlic and lemon, the creamiest jamón de bellota and plenty of cheese. I loved walking down Las Ramblas without a sign of the regular crowds, just locals on their way to work and abuelas picking up the family’s daily bread. I remember thinking that if only Barcelona were like this every day, I just might fall in love.

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That night my mom worked on a salad as my dad prepared his linguini with clam sauce with all our fresh ingredients, my brother played his guitar and sang and I sipped champagne while passing the jamón and olives around for everyone. We ate 12 grapes as Barcelona erupted into fireworks and happy shrieks and felt so lucky to be in such a vibrant city to kick off 2014.

Living Barcelona like a local showed us a whole new side to the city, and I’d love to go back and try life outside of the center to get an even more authentic taste.

I may not be in love with you yet, Barcelona, but you’ve certainly piqued my interest.

48 Hours in Milan

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Milan was never on my lists of places to visit. All I’d ever heard about the universal capital of fashion was how ugly and industrial it was…I could survive without seeing Milan.

Even so, EasyJet offers amazing prices on flights from Madrid to Milan, and Milan happens to be very close to the Swiss border where I’d be visiting family in December. For convenience’s sake (and the temptation of a beautiful hotel we found on Jetsetter), my mom and I decided to meet in Milan for some Italian food and fashion before heading north for the holidays. Though Milan had never tempted me before, I was at least wise enough to know that Italy is never a bad idea.

I was welcomed to the city by chilly winds and Christmas spirit. My first impression was that everyone was right. This city was U.G.L.Y. My bus from the airport dropped me near the train station where some questionable folk loitered and trash spilled over bins. I was hungover, make-up-less and all I wanted to do was get to the hotel, hug my mama and soak in the tub for a bit.

As my cab headed towards our neighborhood, Milan went from dingy to charming, with ivy-covered houses and painfully fashionable men and women speeding by on Vespas engulfing the wide streets.

When I finally rolled up to my hotel, I felt like Alice in Wonderland. Not only was the place whimsical and a modern take on the rabbit hole from the story, but the people who filled with lobby were wonders in themselves. Women wrapped in incredible furs and tiny men in perfectly tailored suits and the most beautifully crafted leather and suede shoes I’d ever seen sipped bellinis and didn’t touch the food in front of them. I towered over all of them, even the women in their enviable 6 inch Miu Miu heels, and wondered why I couldn’t have been bothered to even slap on some mascara before heading to Barajas.

After a nice long bath and a catch up with my mom, we headed out for drinks and dinner and, of course, some people watching. We had a cozy dinner of pasta by the river complete with the best Italian wine I have ever had the pleasure of tasting, a Barolo from my mom’s favorite winery (she’s quite the traveler herself), and a view of the twinkling Christmas lights over the old town.

Our 48 hours in Milan were filled with delicious bites, luxury and eye-popping fashion. I loved browsing the Christmas markets by the insanely beautiful cathedral, wandering the design museum and ogling da Vinci’s “The Last Supper.” The Milanese eye for fashion and their ability to dress themselves is truly mind-boggling, even for this New York gal. I now know the importance of a good tailor and quality materials, though my budget allows for neither. Someday dreams, I suppose.

 Though Milan in itself isn’t a stunner, its importance in the world of fashion has molded into a charming and impossibly cool spot to spend a few days eating, drinking and, of course, shopping.

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Mystified in Marrakech

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Africa has been the setting of so many of my happiest memories, from laughing with my cousins at Victoria Falls and chasing leopards in Botswana, to watching the sunrise from a hilltop mosque with my best friends in northern Morocco. I think of Africa and I smile.

My memories of Marrakech are different. They are blurry and incomprehensible; colorful and chaotic.

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As soon as I left the airport, I knew the southern city was going to be different from the white and blue villages of the north that had welcomed me two years before. The city was at once more modern and ancient than anywhere I stopped in the north. Wide, paved roads were jammed with traffic and hastily constructed horse-drawn cabs. The old medina’s walls closed off the souks and tiny alleyways from centuries before and our cab zoomed past it as we headed into the new part of the city.

Everything was so much more commercialized. Billboards, big storefronts and racks and racks of clothing contrasted with the hooded men carrying live chickens by the dozen and veiled women wrangling hordes of playing children. My brother elbowed me and pointed out the family of four, newborn included, balancing precariously on the moto ahead of us. The chaos of the city overwhelmed our senses before we even stepped out of the car.

While the tranquility of the northern cities and the openness of its people helped me to look inside and reflect, Marrakech started off as an out-of body experience. I had never seen, or felt, anything like this before.

When we got to the Palmeraie area where we were staying, my heart started to calm. Out in the desert, surrounded by palm trees and open sky I breathed in the fresh air and relished the silence. The sky sparkled with stars and I felt a familiar feeling wash over me. I have always said that staring at the African sky makes me believe in God, be it at sunrise in the Kalahari or sunset over the Atlantic in Asilah. For something that beautiful to exist, there must be a divine creator out there watching over us. I went to bed with renewed hope and energy for the city.

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We wandered the souks under the hot late-morning sun, and I felt the anxiety from the evening before return to my body. I had been in markets like this dozens of times before, why was this so different? I didn’t understand. People were blatantly trying to rip us off, even as we bargained. They made fun of us and cat-calls awaited at every turn. I enjoy haggling, and have become very used to cat-calls from the streets of the Bronx to Madrid. I can always ignore it.

In Marrakech it bothered me deeply. I never felt comfortable and welcome like I did in Rabat or Chefchaouen. I was so grateful to return to our little oasis in the desert that afternoon.

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I spoke with an old friend from Granada whose family has Moroccan origins. He explained to me that in Marrakech people tend to be much colder than in the north, as they know tourism is always a sure thing. People become hardened by the groups of privileged travelers and learn to take advantage. Hostility is palpable.

I was disappointed. My mom and brother were disappointed. We had all heard so many positive things about the city, and wanted to be able to see that part of it too. We vowed to try again, this time in the new part of town. We wandered and shopped and dined with the locals, but simply never connected. People continued to treat us coolly, and the city never seemed to calm.

I know that so much of what we saw is cultural, while most is not a representation of the people of the country. We stayed in the desert and drove in daily, so we never had the chance to really immerse ourselves.

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I still found the colors, the food and the rhythm of the city fascinating. I still think that Islam is an incredibly beautiful religion. I am still in love with Morocco. And I would love to go back.

If I could do it again, I would stay in the old medina. I would wander the streets on foot and be more prepared. I would try to chat with more locals, as that made all the difference in the north. I would try to learn more helpful phrases in Arabic.

I absolutely enjoyed my time with my family in Marrakech, though it was not what I expected. It was stimulating and thought-provoking, and at times scary. There was something mystifying about Marrakech, and I’m determined to go back and solve that mystery.

Granada: This Must be the Place

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I couldn’t go back.

The last days of May 2012 were etched in my memory, playing on a loop every day since my return to the States. I dreamed of watching the sun turn the Sierra Nevada peaks pink once more, of jumping on the back of a moto and weaving through the old streets one last time, but everything was different and I couldn’t go back.

Granada became a sort of fairy tale for me. The cloudy, fabled type of fairy tale that makes real life seem sad in comparison. The city nestled between mountain and sea was a paradise that I wasn’t completely sure truly existed.

How could what I lived during those five months be real? How could a place like that go on existing when I was drowning in New York with two jobs and a full course load?

My first taste of Granada changed my life forever. It opened my eyes to the magic that’s possible each and every day when you seek it out, to a new rhythm of life, and left me with an insatiable hunger for Spanish language and culture. I worked like crazy to return to Spain and come August found myself in Madrid, four hours north of my precious oasis. With a trip planned south soon after my arrival, of course.

I was convinced that Madrid would never capture my heart. Poets didn’t write about Madrid, its history doesn’t do much for a romantic and madrileño Spanish is much too proper to be charming, I thought. Andaluz and the land of Falla and Lorca and the olive groves would always be the dueños de mi corazón.

But within ten days of arriving in Madrid, I cancelled my trip to Granada.

Against my internal protests, the capital was sucking me in. The diversity of the city, the vibrant nightlife and abundance of interesting souls I had encountered in a few short weeks told me I couldn’t go back just yet. I couldn’t give my heart back to the city of my dreams just yet, for fear that it might stay there forever. I needed to give this new place that was being so good to me a fighting chance.

So I spent five months falling head-over-heels for my new home, and one January evening I wrapped myself in a blanket, lit candles and sat down to reread my well-worn copy of Romancero gitano for the hundredth time. As soon as I reached the third ballad, I knew it was time. My heart cried out for the land that first called me to this country and I finally felt ready. Within an hour I had a flat booked, bus tickets set and stars in my eyes.

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Within the past month I have spent a total of ten days in Granada, and it is even more heart-stoppingly dreamy than I remember.  The city found little ways of showing me why it will always be the be-all, end-all in my eyes. From wandering the winding streets and spotting puppies peering over walls, to letting my thoughts escape me under the strong February sun as the enchanting cadence of my beloved Andaluz accent and Spanish guitars transported me to an alternate reality, Granada wasted no time in wrapping her beautiful hand around me, promising that this time she wouldn’t let go.

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This time, I don’t want her to. In no time I forget about my past in Granada, about my constant desire to relive it, and decide to start a new romance with this beauty. Without trepidation I retrace my steps to my old haunts, but now with new friends and more life lived under my belt. We spend our days in the sun and our nights laughing with locals in crowded, hidden tapas bars then adventuring out to cause the best kind of trouble.

Granada makes me feel like I can do anything. She inspires me to chase my dreams, all the while making them even bigger than I thought possible.

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I am more than content in Madrid, but as for the soul-stimulating, utterly captivating and mysterious jewel to the south….well, she’ll continue to be my mistress in this Spanish love affair until the day of my return to her inevitably arrives.

For me, Granada will always be the place.

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In Prague, All You Need is Love

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The first time I saw Prague I was 12 years old, watching Mission Impossible with a blanket at the ready to cover my eyes during especially scary scenes. My grandmother always indulged me with movies I may have been to young to see, starting with Jurassic Park. They became a sleepover staple between the two of us since I was about 6, along with ice cream sandwiches and the promise of a midnight swim, though my tired eyes never seemed to make it that late.

By 12 the bombs and gunfire were nothing I hadn’t seen before, and the blanket stayed wrapped around the two of us. I watched Tom Cruise navigate the streets of old Prague, sidestepping through Kampa Island and realizing he’d lost it all amidst the fog wrapped around the Charles Bridge. I was captivated.

To me, Prague has always been the mysterious, artistic, and bohemian diamond of eastern Europe. I imagined myself walking along the river nearly consumed by fog, drinking with artists in smoky bars and writing about the adventures I would surely have there.

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I got the chance to visit Prague not once but twice this fall, before it got too cold but still in time to experience the darkness of her early winter nights. The city is by all means enchanting around Christmas time, the cobblestone streets filled with families, smells of mulled wine and high spirits despite the chill in the air. Perhaps the mulled wine has something to do with that…

Yes, the city itself is a charmer, but I wasn’t head over heels. I couldn’t figure out my feelings towards the city.

At first I thought maybe it was the cold, as the spoiled madrileña that I now fancy myself was missing the Spanish sun. Then again, I mused, maybe it’s the people…the Czechs aren’t nearly as vibrant as the peoples of my beloved Mediterranean cultures. The food perhaps? Sausages, goulash, potatoes and beer are great and all, but I’d almost always prefer fresh fish, produce and great local wine. 

I didn’t arrive at the conclusion until I returned to Prague a month later, just after Christmas: maybe, the problem was me.

I had become so used to falling in love with a place (the sap that I am) without trying at all. In places like Spain, Italy, France or even Morocco, I don’t have to try hard to find what it is that makes them special.

Prague is clearly a stunner, maybe more beautiful than any place I’ve ever been, but I think I had lost my adventurous spirit after so much travel. My first weekend there was spent wandering the streets, bar crawling and segway-ing around the city instead of looking for the bohemian and mysterious side that had always called to me.

I had a wonderful time with fantastic company, but I was purely not in love.

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Listening to an Irish musician playing his guitar in front of the Lennon wall, I had an epiphany: the secret to Prague is just that; love.

It has long been a city that promotes equality,  progress and good vibes. It has long been a hub for artists and musicians looking for inspiration and good company.

Sure, it gets very cold in Prague and night falls at 4 pm in the winter months, but that’s why the pubs are packed with groups of friends and families drinking beer after beer and indulging in comfort food to warm themselves from the inside out. Sure, the people aren’t as immediately charming as the Spanish, but their kindness will make you feel welcome and reassured.

I had so many expectations about Prague that I forgot to go out and make them a reality. It wasn’t until I studied the demands for peace and love on the Lennon wall, watched a Czech girl scribble in her journal in the sun along the river and stifled my shame of not knowing a word of the language to chat with locals that I understood what I lacked was love.

As the Beatles said, it is all you need, and that is especially true in this city. Once I reminded myself to look beyond the physical beauty of the city and open my heart to the subtleties of the people and culture, the love came right back to me.

I suppose that’s how it usually works, isn’t it? Sometimes, once you get comfortable in a place, be it Spain or New York or rural Kansas, you’ve got to go somewhere uncomfortable to remind you of the importance of an open heart and adventurous soul.

Prague is now a very special place for me, and I can’t wait to go back for more inspiration. If that next trip happens to be in the toasty summer months, though, I would not mind. Not one bit.

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Grateful in 2013

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Hello from Germany! I have spent the past week traveling through northern Italy, Switzerland and the Alsace with my mom, celebrating the end of my second semester of graduate school.

I will pass the holidays on a river cruise up the Rhine and down the Danube, spend New Year’s in Barcelona, and head south to Marrakech before making my way back home to Madrid… so you can expect a lot of fun posts in the new year!

This semester has been busy and beautiful, and I hope you all have enjoyed following my adventures as much as I have enjoyed sharing them. I am so grateful for the success of this blog, the wonderful feedback I’ve gotten and connections I’ve made, and for all of you who keep on reading.

While I am enjoying my time with my family, I leave you with some excellent reading material.

I haven’t been able to post much on this blog recently because the little free time I have has been happily dedicated to writing for Madrid Food Tour. Through the company  I’ve learned about so many little-known spots in Madrid, eaten amazing food and met some incredibly interesting people.

Take some time this holiday break to check out the awesome things the MFT team is up to:

Spanish Sabores 

Lauren Aloise, the founder of Madrid Food Tour, has been blogging about Spanish food and culture for years now. In fact, Spanish Sabores was one of the first Spain blogs I ever read! Head over to her blog for some mouth-watering reads.

Madrid Chow

I met James Blick, a Spanish food and wine expert, at an MFT wine tasting and was blown away by his knowledge of the country’s history. He leads our Tapas, Taverns and History Tour and runs Madrid Chow, both of which excellent, both of which deserving of lots of attention.

Get in My Belly! 

Paula Móvil is one of the MFT guides, a food-obsessed Guatemalteca that happens to have one of my favorite foodie instagram accounts. She writes her blog in Spanish and English, chronicling her culinary adventures in Madrid and around Europe. She always seems to order the most sinful thing on the menu, and looks impossibly chic while doing it.

Curiosity Travels 

Jessica Wray is a fellow intern and world-traveler. She spent the past two years teaching English in South Korea and exploring Asia and now she’s decided to take on Madrid, blogging every step of the way and letting her adventurous spirit inspire.

One Bite at a Time

Amy Bingham is on her second year teaching English in Spain, relocating from Galicia to the capital to write about all her foodie ventures. Be fairly warned: don’t read her blog on an empty stomach! This girl knows how to eat.

Madrid Food Tour Blog 

Once you’re finished devouring everything my coworkers have ever written, head on over to the MFT blog where you can check out some of my articles and learn all about where to go and what to order in Madrid and all over Spain!

xoxo

Happy holidays to all of my readers. I wish you all lots of love, good food, great wine and fabulous presents this season.

For now, my gift is to transport you to the a land where the fog from the lake swirls around the snowy mountain peaks, and the persimmons hang plump and orange on their branches even in December.  Won’t you join me in lake hopping along the Italian-Swiss border?

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