captivated in cuenca

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City life demands rest every once in a while. Sometimes you just need to get away. Luckily, it is much easier to escape Madrid than it was New York. Smack dab in the middle of Spain, you can get pretty much anywhere in under half a day.

For the most tranquil of trips, there’s an array of charmers within a couple hours of the city center to choose from. A few weeks ago, we piled into the car and headed to Cuenca for just such a getaway. We chose the Castilla-La Mancha mountain town after seeing pictures of its winding roads and colorful houses; a taste of Andalucía in a region we’d never been to!

In a little under two hours we had the car parked on a precariously steep hill and found ourselves running to the sunny side of the street to escape the morning chill. This pale Irish lass usually avoids the sun at all costs, but during the colder months in Spain I seek it out without thinking; it is so strong that the color springs back into my cheeks almost immediately.  You’d think it were spring if it weren’t for the smell of the changing leaves.

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Cuenca, like most Spanish cities, has a lot of history. Built as an Arab fortress in 714, the city was impossible to conquer due to the fact that it was built into and on top of a steep, rocky hill. It was only handed over to the Christians when Toledo was conquered in 1080, though Cuenca remained technically untouched. As warriors became more accustomed to the mountainous terrain of Spain, the hilltop became an easier conquest, and changed hands between Arabs, Berbers and Christians until 1177, when the Christians took over for good.

The architecture that remains is nearly all Christian-influenced, including Cuenca’s cathedral, which was the first gothic-style cathedral in Spain. The only real Arab structure is El Castillo, or the old fortress, of which remains only a tower that provides a fantastic view of the city. Interestingly, the castle constructed by Muslims also served as home to the Inquisition in the 16th century, meaning the attacks against and persecutions of non-Christians were planned there.

The most famous of all structures in Cuenca are, of course, the hanging houses. Typical in the 15th century, the houses are built right into the rocks of the mountain and appear to be hanging. Only a few remain today and attract thousands of tourists daily, causing the city to be named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1996.

Aside from the sites I’ve mentioned, there really aren’t that many destinations in Cuenca. It is the prefect place to wander, spending a few minutes at each spot and then moving on. That’s what we did, at least. We saw everything in under two hours, and then found ourselves chatting about Spanish history and culture at the overlook, while looking down on a city that represents so much of what makes this country so interesting.

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After a long conversation, I let my thoughts get lost in the scenery below. The trees make the rocky hill look like it’s going up in flames. They have turned bright yellow, red and orange, matching the colors of the houses perched on the peak. I find myself wondering if the city was designed this way, its houses painted to match the colors of the trees and clear sky, or if its residents are just quirky life-loving beings. It seems impossible to have a bad day when you tread among such happy colors.

That’s a problem of mine, though. A wide-eyed romantic, visions of lives full of happiness play out in my mind each time I visit a place with so much charm. Anyone who reads my writing must know that by now. I leave pieces of my heart nearly everywhere I go, but is my heart deceived by the pretty houses, quaint neighborhoods, fantastic food and seemingly-still-in-love elderly couples who fill the plazas? Do I see the place I want to see? If I do, is that wrong? I worry that if I lived in Granada or Madrid as a real person, that is someone with a real job and obligations, as opposed to a student and writer, I wouldn’t be as enchanted. I hope that I would always notice the details, return the smiles of kind strangers and make time for good food and friends and wine no matter how stressful life became.

The dilemma of the life of a traveler: am I really seeing the world if I just stop by for a little while? A head full of wonders, questions and romantic visions really ain’t much of a dilemma it seems, but how lucky I feel to struggle with it.

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madrid mola: the key to falling in love with spain’s capital

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Madrid is hard to love. Every time I visited, I left disappointed. Next to colorful Andalucía, captivating Basque Country and fascinating Barcelona, the capital seems industrial and plain. Sure, the city is home to some stunners like the Palacio Real and the Prado, but they somehow get lost in the shadow of commercial Gran Vía, touristy Plaza Mayor, and too many restaurants claiming to have the best paella in the peninsula.

Madrid seems to close itself off to visitors. Tourists run the risk of getting lost in the parts of the city made just for them. I know I did. In all honesty, I was terrified of having the same negative reaction I experienced both times I passed through before.

Third time’s the charm, it seems. I persevered, moved my life here, and the heart of Spain opened up its heart to me.

My secret? Well, I’ve walked down Gran Vía twice, have only gone to Plaza Mayor for five minutes, and avoid any restaurant with international flags on the menu like the plague.

Madrid is a city meant to be lived. It rewards you for going off the beaten path and into lesser-known neighborhoods with boutique galleries, artisan shops, avant-garde graffiti and every type of food you could ever want.

I spend my days here weaving my way through Chueca’s vibrant streets, people watching in the ultra chic Barrio Salamanca and discussing culture and politics with new friends over vino in outdoor cafés. I only go to the Centro and Sol at siesta time during the week, when I can really see how the locals live. I’ve found that the Palace is best seen just before sunset, when the sky sets itself on fire and the swarms of tourists stop in their tracks, and that the only way to do the Prado is an hour or two every other week.

The most important thing is to not let the capital overwhelm you. Stop for a big lunch and linger over café con leche. Browse in any shop that catches your eye. Don’t get bogged down with “must-do’s.” Instead, let the social atmosphere guide your plans, as it does for the city-dwellers. Go to a pincho bar where you can sample everything, or better yet, let an expert guide you. Check out Plaza Mayor for a moment, then head down to La Latina where you can see the real madrileño culture. All you need is a curious mind, adventurous spirit, good walking shoes, a tapa and a great bottle of wine at the end of the day, and you’re golden.

The remnants of Madrid of years passed are important, but it’s modern life that will capture your heart. That’s how it got a hold of mine.

If you visit Madrid, don’t get caught up in research and planning. Get caught up in moments. Moments of la vida madrileña, like the ones I leave you with below.

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down where the olive trees grow

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“Podría sentarme aquí todo el día, sólo para mirar al cielo andaluz” 

“I could sit here all day, just to stare at this Andalusian sky,” I breathed as we sunk down into the shade, seeking solace from the afternoon heat. My eyes had been glued to the heavens since we arrived two days earlier, when my preferred region seemed to set them on fire, welcoming me back after a long year away. This time I would not be back in Granada, though. This time, my dreams of Andalucía would come to life in the olive groves of Sevilla.

As soon as I arrived in Paradas, I knew I was in trouble. I knew I was going to end up leaving yet another piece of my heart in this sleepy pueblo. The white-washed houses, azulejo tile accents, quiet roads and rolling olive groves are irresistible to this romantic, as anyone who has ever read my blog should know. I spent the weekend here recharging my batteries, surrounded by the most wonderful familia sevillana; doting mother, chattering aunts and olive-farmer grandfathers included.  With a belly full of grandma’s croquetas,  mama’s patatas con tomate and papa’s Rioja of choice, I felt as home as I could be thousands of miles away from my own family. That’s the thing about the andaluz people; they have a way of warming your soul from the inside out just by being themselves. They care for you and chide you and feed you and love you as if you were their own.

This is what I mean when I say that Spain and her people are being incredibly generous to me. I moved back here six weeks ago, and have somehow found myself welcomed into a family. Paradas, Javier’s parents, grandparents, aunts and cousins,  and the memories I brought back to Madrid with me will always be so very precious.

I hope my photographs and stories can do my time here justice.

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It’s beginning to feel like fall in Madrid, but summer’s still in full swing down south. The temperatures climbed to the high 80′s this weekend, so short strolls around town were scattered between cool-downs in the garden and fresh juice inside the traditional andalusian patio.

Each time we got our energy up to head back into the heat, we were met with quiet streets. We could walk for blocks without seeing a soul. Every so often, though, we’d come across a group of children giggling in the shade, mom’s watching easily from their perch at the café, or an elderly couple out for a stroll.   Each and every person we saw met us with a big smile and blessings; normal for the man at my side whose father grew up here, not so much for this stranger. In New York smiling at a stranger could get you into a good deal of trouble. I think I like the Paradas reaction a bit better.

Once the sun went down, people started to trickle out of their homes and into the plazas for beers, plates of shared food, and more beer. By then, we couldn’t walk five feet without being greeted by a relative, childhood friend or waitress with an exceptional memory. Any question I had was readily and happily answered as I learned about the tiles that decorated many homes (influence from the age of Al-andalus, I’m told), which restaurants have the best food, and which are good because they allow the family dog to dine with you. I learned that the town’s intricately beautiful church was largely destroyed during the civil war, though the painting by El Greco inside was salvaged. I learned that the best tortilla de patatas shouldn’t look too pretty, and that you should always, always let a local order for you.

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We planned our trip very last minute, realizing we could catch the last harvest of the season. The olives in Sevilla are largely reserved for the table, picked early and by hand so as to avoid over-ripeness and bruising. We bounced our way into the olive groves around mid-day in grandpa’s truck, just as the sun was getting hot, to watch the process unfold.

I’ve dreamt of exploring these fields since I first read García-Lorca’s poetry, yearning to interpret the metaphors for myself among the trees that spoke to him. My literary pilgrimage ended in awe as I absorbed the vastness and natural beauty of the groves. This is the Andalucía, the land of folklore and tradition, that inspired so many artists before me. The cities have all the typical charm coupled with the modernity that makes them livable for people like me, but reality lives here in the campilla sevillana. No jaw-dropping architecture or romantic stories of arab kings and queens, just true and simple beauty, true and simple pleasures, true and simple, and wonderful people.

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The reality is that this land is truly full of folklore, with a great appreciation for cante jondo, Spanish guitar and poetry, but only once the long work day is over. Each and every olive that is placed on your table when you order a beer has been picked by hand, examined for size, shape and ripeness, and dropped into the basket that hangs from the worker’s neck. Olives for oil ripen until November and then are shaken from the trees, but table olives take extra care. The men’s gnarled fingers were a testament to that.

No one complains, though. In fact, the men were genuinely passionate about their work, chattering away about the different type of olives and how to tell if they’re just right. The weeks of harvest are long and hard, but rewarded on Sundays when wives and children bring picnics to enjoy under the shade of the lush branches; little ones learning how to pick from their fathers, wives fanning themselves and chastising the teenagers who’d rather be at home.

I always fancied Andalucía to be a place of dreams, refusing to believe that it’s anything but paradise. I was surprised I wasn’t disappointed when I found just how real the day-to-day is in the campo, but even more enchanted. The harsh reality of the hands of the grove workers in the context of the Eden-like surroundings seemed like a metaphor for the beauty of life. For positivity in the face of negativity and bad news.

As I see it now, it must be in this image that my favorite artists found their inspiration, because my soul was filled with it that afternoon.

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I am so very content with my life in Madrid and know I’m where I belong in this moment, but I can’t help but dream of a long life under the andalusian sky.

Podría sentarme aquí todo el día, sólo para mirar al cielo andaluz,” I said, and we agreed that one just breathes better down here.

Yes, “se respira mejor,” and all I know is that I want to grow old with the magic of the campo air filling my lungs as I watch the sun fall behind the branches of the farthest olive tree.

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segovia is for lovers

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I’m not much of a sight-seer. Never have been, though I am getting better with age. Churches that were once deathly boring now fascinate me and I get giddy in museums that you may have found me dozing off in five years ago. That said, I’d almost always rather be wandering the streets of a new place instead of inside a building or staring at a monument, however historically important they may be. Segovia is full of so many marvels that I was equally as content exploring the Romanesque churches and examining the stunning aqueduct as I was taking in the energy of its streets.

An hour’s bus ride from Madrid, this ancient city could not differ more from the capital. It reminded me so much of Granada with its cobblestone streets and charming ambience, but had a distinct flavor of the north. Instead of Andalusia’s orange trees and falling wisteria, Segovia finds itself smack-dab in the desert of Castilla-Leon, under endless blue skies and hugged by thick greenery. Instead of lively tapas bars and seafood spots, Segovia’s winding alleys are filled with cozy asadores and taverns offering the local special, cochinillo, roasted suckling pig, as well as pig cooked every way you could imagine (and some you’d rather not).

Early on a Saturday morning, I watched the city wake up. Families trickled into the plazas for cafe con leche with their grandparents and furry friends, and I got a glimpse into what life might be like in this land of centuries passed. I made friends with a pair of light-eyed Moroccan boys playing futbol and blasting Gangnam Style in the calle, chased down all the sweet puppies I could find and simply let my eyes wander for hours. I liked what I saw.

Segovia is for romantics. For lovers. For those who let their minds churn as their eyes drink in the wonders before them.

Your senses are assaulted upon arrival with the sight of the glorious aqueduct obscuring the city only slightly, its arches letting the scent of roasted meats waft through. Your passage through Segovia’s front door of sorts is rewarded with gem after gem: carefully crafted windows in centuries-old homes overflowing with flowers, the most breathtaking gothic cathedral you’ll ever lay your eyes on, and the former abode of infamous Reina Isabela. The mixture of hugely important historical institutions and the tiny details the watchful eye catches in the alleyways of Segovia could keep even the most temperamental soul contented for days. Throw in a plate of cochinillo, a bottle of red and a long siesta with the Spanish grandpas in Plaza Mayor and you may be tempted to stay forever.

The Spanish know how to live. Each city I visit proves that to me, though they all choose distinct paths. Whatever they do, they do it right.

According to my heart, Spain just might be the place.

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a perfect weekend in san sebastián

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I’ve been a terrible traveler. A month in to my new life in Spain, I had already cancelled one trip (to my beloved Granada, of all places!) and had no desire to leave Madrid. This city and its people are being so generous and good to me, and I couldn’t imagine finding anything better elsewhere.

After all the incredible things travel has brought me, I should have known better.

Luckily, I had a ticket to the coast paid for long ago, and knew I couldn’t waste it. With a few quejas from my heart, I left my new home behind and hopped on a train north to San Sebastián for what turned out to be the most perfect long weekend.

Soon after the train pulled out of the station, I knew I made the right decision. The five hour ride flew by as my eyes fixated on the marvels we passed along the way: fields of sunflowers, charming old-world towns, herds of grazing sheep and endless green mountains. The rolling olive fields of southern Spain captured my heart long ago, but the north didn’t take long to seduce me. I fell in love through the window of coach number five.

I passed the weekend with the most wonderful company wandering through the city’s old quarter, breathing the sea air and eating and drinking marvelously. The gods were smiling on us as we were treated to fantastic weather and a few happy surprises. We happened to coincide with the film festival, and jumped at the chance to take in a brilliant film and hear the director speak. The following day, we hiked Mount Urgull and stumbled upon an indie rock concert at the top. We found a seat on a crumbling wall between picnicking locals and watched the boats bob in the bay below as the sweet sounds of John Berkhout consumed the hilltop. Our adventures were fueled by tasty little pintxos, plates of shockingly innovative cuisine and lots of txakolí.  Life can be so beautiful, and San Sebastián did a fine job of reminding me.

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Luck was on our side in this port town and it revealed its many hidden, and not-so-hidden jewels to us with ease. I’ll be back soon with a guide to the spots that wowed us, so hopefully you can have a perfect Donostia weekend as well.

scenes from madrid

La vida madrileña is very much agreeing with me. My heart feels contented knowing I’m back in the land where I belong. I’ve settled into my new place, and am currently writing this post under the Spanish sun on our terrace. Life doesn’t get much better than this, and thinking of all the wonders I have ahead of me here makes me giddy.

Madrid is like a mixture of my two great loves, Granada and New York City: metropolitan yet calm, booming yet charming, modern and vibrant with constant reminders of centuries passed. I am enamored. As I continue to get accustomed to the city, I leave you with some shots I’ve captured with my iPhone in my first few days here.

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See you soon with a new (wordier) post!

an escape to montauk

Montauk is my happy place. In difficult moments, I imagine myself laying on the deck of my dear aunt and uncle’s house there, watching the stars fall from the pitch black sky, listening to good tunes as the waves crash below. The beach town is linked to twenty years of memories with people I love so much, and its gentle breeze carries them all back to me. Montauk calms my soul.
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Nestled on the tip of Long Island three hours from New York City, Montauk provides an escape from urban life. Though considered part of the Hamptons, this little village is as far from pretentious as they come. It is above all a fishing town and a surf haven, where the people have been roughed up by the sea, but grounded by the beauty that surrounds them once the lighthouse guides them home.

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I have spent nearly every August of my 22 years in this most special place and this summer was no different, although I observed with a new set of eyes. I drank Montauk in unlike ever before, knowing that my days here marked my last on American soil for who knows how long. It’s not hard to live in the moment here, though. Treasures hide in plain sight around these parts, and call you to explore. To rise before the sun and watch the magic that happens as the world awakes. To see with your own eyes the wonder of creation as the island lights up the pebbles under the ocean break, as the birds chase the fishing boats beginning their day under the floating sun, and as the surfers balance patiently, worshipping at the alter of the sea.

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Recently, many have taken notice of the effortless cool of Montauk and it has quickly become the Hampton’s newest hot spots, with young promoters and developers converting village institutions into clubs and restaurants. In spite of the influx of visitors on the never-ending search for chic, our old girl has resisted change. She’s kept her charm, exposing it to those who come with genuine spirits looking for tranquility in the simple. There’s something to be said for a community that holds onto its traditions despite powerful forces of change. Montauk reminds me of Morocco in that way: full of institutions that transport you to a time passed, that rescue you from the influence of modernity and the pressure to be something you’re not. The places that encourage you to simply be, content in soul and spirit, who you are, to forget your troubles and remember your blessings…those are the places that will latch onto your heart. There is charm in the rust, in the salty locals, in the smile you draw from said local once they realize you respect and honor their place. The magic is in the details.

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Sidle down the storm-beaten cliffs and melt into the sand. Watch the sun set as this morning’s catch sizzles away on the grill. Treat yourself to a lobster roll near the docks as you watch the fishing boats come in, their barnacle-ridden hulls contrasting with the sailboats that bob on the horizon. Paddle board as the sun begins to fall, carefully avoiding the crab traps hidden along Fort Pond. Once  you’ve made it to the easternmost point of New York, there’s no need to leave. No need to retreat to the designer labels of the “real” Hamptons.  You have all you need to escape from those distractions in front of you.

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If New York is the best city in the world, Montauk is its heavenly counterpart. An oasis that restores sanity when the hustle and bustle  of the boroughs to the west starts to overwhelm. As I come to terms with the fact that chasing my dreams around the world means leaving my happy place behind, along with my city, I can only hope its spirit continues to grow, resisting the influence of “cool”. Montauk is cooler now than any club or hipster crowd could ever make it, because it strives to nourish the souls of both its inhabitants and its loyal visitors. To calm us with its whispering winds, its temperamental waves and its vast, brilliant skies. I will never stop coming back here, and when I am far, I will return here in my mind and let the calm wash over me.

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