Solothurn, Switzerland: Mountain Paradise

Solothurn is a lovely, walled, medieval river town located in the northwest corner of Switzerland. I was lucky enough to do a home exchange there for 10 days trading my house on the western shores of Puget Sound in Washington with a teacher and his family who lived in the foothills of the Jura Mountains. You can read my Solothurn review in the travel website Solo Traveler

The Agua of Valencia

It was a Mother’s Day Vulcan mind meld! As promised in my previous blog post,  I started to write about Agua de Valencia, the specialty cocktail of Valencia, Spain. However, fellow blogger Fork on the Road (aka Glenn Kaufmann) beat me to it with a Mother’s Day post on the same topic. We took an evening tapas tour of Valencia compliments of the city tourism bureau that ended with Agua de Valencia at what became my favorite haunt, Cafe De Las Horas.  During our tour Glenn suggested I try another specialty of Valencia called horchata, a refreshing drink made from tiger nuts. His Fork on the Road informative blog about both drinks is posted here. He’s a food blogger focused on the story behind the food. Me, I’m an eclectic travel blogger who was enamored about the ambiance of the place and if I would ever be able reproduce the nectar known as Agua de Valencia once I got home.

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My first foray into the cafe was late at night with a tour guide and Fork On the Road. When trying to find it on my own during the day, it was hard to believe this nondescript exterior housed the magical interior of my first Agua de Valencia experience.

But once inside, Wowzer! There was the crystal bar chandelier and painted blue ceiling with gold stars that I remembered from my first Agua de Valencia night. But it was my second time that had me noticing all of the art deco lighting, the bouquet of fresh cut flowers and the play of light off the well-stocked bar.

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On my third venture in I studied the marble, the historic art on the walls and the lush red coat of paint everywhere. Fork On the Road describes it as a bordello-like atmosphere. Maybe so. I just know I was charmed by its baroque over the top attitude enough to return multiple times during my month’s stay. Literally translated Cafe de las Horas means Coffee Hour, but I never came for the coffee. It was their Agua de Valencia that brought me back every time.

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I asked the bartender for the recipe and he said good bartenders each have a slight variation in their ingredients, but an authentic recipe with advice could be found at SpanishWines.com. Here it is:

Recipe for Agua de Valencia

  • 200ml Orange Juice
  • 50ml Gin
  • 50ml Vodka
  • 700ml Cava (or Champagne)
  • Pinch of sugar

Method:

  • Into a pitcher jug, pour one glass of orange juice – best if it is freshly squeezed orange juice.
  • Add a bottle of semi-dry Cava (or Champagne if you do not have Cava).
  • Add a shot and a half of both vodka and gin.
  • Add the sugar according to taste.
  • Refrigerate before serving.
  • Serve in the jug, and then pour into glasses to drink. Enjoy!

If you are planning on making this drink then you may want to consider these pieces of advice. Do not use orange liquors such as Cointreau to make the drink as it is the fresh orange juice that gives the drink its aromatic qualities. Also, try to use oranges grown in the Valencia region as this will make the drink more authentic.

Naturally, good quality alcohol will make the drink taste better, and Cava is always preferable to Champagne as it is truly Spanish. The sugar is optional, and if you prefer a drier cocktail instead of a sweet one, then you can always use dry Cava or Brut. It is also a good idea to prepare this Spanish drink in advance as it is best served very cold which means time in the fridge. You should mix the drink in the pitcher with a spoon, but when serving the drink, you should try and remove the spoon from the jug without disturbing the mixture too much.

The Urge To Speak My Mother Tongue

I’d been in Valencia, Spain solo for two weeks when it struck me that I hadn’t had a full blown, uninhibited-by-the-constraints-of- my-mediocre-Spanish conversation in 14 days. I was living solo in an apartment in a city that was in the midst of Fallas, their exuberant March three weeks family and friend oriented festival which would be followed immediately by a family and friend oriented Easter. I needed to let loose a torrent of pent up English mother tongue words. But where to find English conversation in a city that speaks Valencia (a version of Catalan spoken in parts of Spain) and Spanish? I asked The Google. And then I asked The Facebook.

INTERCAMBIO EVENTS. Intercambio, which literally means exchange in Spanish are informal language and cultural events sponsored by schools, bookstores, coffee shops and pubs that allow participants to practice a language. It turned out there were many public intercambio English events in Valencia inviting English speakers to come converse over beers and coffee with Spanish speakers wanting to improve their conversational English.

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My first intercambio was at the Ubik Cafe , a coffee shop, wine bar, restaurant, bookstore in the charming Rusafa neighborhood. The evening was advertised as Singing in English and that’s exactly what it was. A local expat musician distributed sheet music of Beatles tunes and led the audience of Spanish and English speakers through a lively and social sing-along concert. On Monday evenings, Ubik sponsors a more traditional intercambio facilitated by a local language school where multiple language skills can be practiced including English, Italian, French, German and Spanish. I was unable to attend because while I was singing in English, a local told me about another intercambio venue:

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Valencia’s Portland Ale House is owned by two guys from Oregon fell who in love with Valencia and brought craft beer brewing and sensibilities to the city. The owners came from a land only three hours south of my home turf. I would not only be able to talk English, I could talk U.S.A. Pacific Northwest English! The pub was decorated in comforting memorabilia – a University of Oregon banner, Northwest Airline antique signs and black and white photos of Oregon. After the owner greeted me, I was seated at the intercambio table and given coupons for any combination of three free drinks and pizza as payment for my time as a conversation partner. I was joined by another English speaking partner (from Seattle no less!) and six locals – all young professionals wanting to practice English. The evening was a combination of informal table conversation and pub trivia contests where our intercambio table competed with the pub’s regular crowd. It was a trivia question that prompted another suggestion from one of the locals:

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IRISH PUBS An Irish friend once told me you can find an Irish pub in every moderate sized city in the world. Irish pubs are generally staffed by friendly Irish bartenders, televise soccer and rugby and are frequented by English speaking tourists and expats. There are at least five Irish pubs in Valencia but I only checked out one to see if it satisfied my need for an English chat. It did. Finnegans of Dublin was conveniently located on my daily walking route back to my apartment. The second time I dropped by for a beer after exploring all day, the bartender recognized me and introduced me to a group of London tourists who were there to watch a soccer match. I joined them and two soccer games later left saturated with English conversation.

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LOCAL TOUR GUIDES  The Valencia tour site Discovering Valencia offers a variety of guided tours with English speaking guides. I took the evening tapas and wine tasting tour with their lively and knowledgeable guide, Irma Mariscal and, as it turned out, another travel blogger from the U.S. That not only gave me an evening of speaking English but I also learned a lot about the protocol and culture of tapas, the history of Valencia and I discovered wonderful restaurants that I returned to during the rest of my stay.

I stayed in Valencia for a month with the intent of improving my Spanish by living there as an immersion into the language. My Spanish did improve. In fact, the rare English conversation I heard while out and about was so unusual it would nearly stop me in my tracks. By the end of my trip I thought I was hearing more English street conversation. It turned out the conversations were still in Spanish, but I understood more of it. Still, I found I needed the occasional relief of hearing and speaking unfettered English. As a solo traveler without the companionship of fellow English speakers, I needed to seek out those opportunities. And by doing that I also sang, played pub trivia, cheered a televised soccer match and sampled the cuisine and wine of Valencia.

Next post: Agua de Valencia.

 

La Alberca, Spain: Hemingway Never Ate Here

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I’d seen the sign before in Madrid proudly displayed on El Cuchi Restaurant just off the Plaza Mayor. Hemingway Never Ate Here. I’d seen the phrase in a London gallery as the title of a painting by Patrick Caulfield. Now I was standing in the middle of a medieval plaza of a small Spanish village tucked into the mountains of La Sierra de Francia and there it was again on a bar specializing in wine, ham and bull tail stew.  I figure if the Fates send me the same odd message three times, it’s a sign my peregrine compass is about to discover something special. And La Alberca, Spain is special.

About four hours northwest of Madrid by car and an hour east of the university town of Salamanca, the village of La Alberca  was officially founded as a community in the 1300’s. Though geographically isolated, La Alberca did not escape the history that shaped Spain. There are cave paintings in the surrounding mountains indicating the area was inhabited as early as the Neolithic era. There is evidence the multi-cultural village had influential Jewish, Arabic and Catholic roots. The name La Alberca comes from the Arabic words, berka and al which translated means “place of the water”.

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The village’s layout of narrow streets and some of the architecture indicate there was an influential Jewish population in its early development.  Over some of the doorways are engravings from the Spanish Inquisition. These were the homes of Jewish or Muslim residents who converted to Christianity during the Inquisition and proclaimed their new faith to avoid prosecution.

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At the end of the Middle Ages, the image of the Virgen de la Pena Francia was discovered nearby and a shrine was built. Today the southern route (the Ruta de la Plata or Silver Route) of the famous Catholic pilgrimage, the  Camino de Santiago , also known as the Way of St James passes by La Alberca to reach the shrine as evidenced by the clam shell route markers on the walls of some of the buildings.

The Catholic Church of the Assumption of Our Lady in one of the village plazas is not only an architectural and historical structure, but it’s the starting point for a nightly ritual unique to La Alberca of local women who walk through the streets at sunset ringing a bell reminding residents to pray for lost souls.

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In 1940 the village was designated a National Historic Landmark by the Spanish government. The designation carried strict building and remodeling restrictions to insure that La Alberca is architecturally frozen in time giving visitors the opportunity to meander authentic medieval streets and shop and eat in buildings looking just as they did in the Middle Ages.

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The National Historic Landmark restrictions have resulted in interesting juxtapositions of important modern day building functions such as this bar over the public library.

I never did solve the mystery of the Hemingway sign. When I asked the barkeeper about it, he shrugged his shoulders, smiled and gave me a sample of the area’s famous Iberian ham to taste.

It may be a village, but La Alberca caters to Spaniards and international visitors who want to do more than a day trip. Just outside of town within walking distance is the hotel and chalets of Abadia de los Templarios. The owner also owns the Hotel Dona Teresa inside the village and there are additional accommodations around the small main plaza.

 

 

 

Valencia Spain’s Maritime Easter Celebration

Because of the 2016 calendar specs, there was exactly one day between the end of the three week, high decibel, frenetic celebration of Fallas and the beginning of Easter week called  Semana Santa in Spain. One day. How do Valencians survive a never ending month of celebration with only Saturday to clean up Fallas, put away costumes and prepare for the traditional Spanish Palm Sunday processions?

Valencia survives because much of the city leaves on vacation after Fallas and its maritime community of Cabanyal is where you find Easter. They say the city of Valencia turns its back on the sea. If you only toured the old city and its adjoining districts you wouldn’t know Valencia has a thriving Mediterranean port and charming maritime community of Cabanyal nor miles of sand beaches. Its a legacy of the Romans who preferred to build their settlements so they couldn’t be easily attacked by water or land. Valencia’s bus and metro systems get you easily to Cabanyal and the tourist bureau, Tourismo Valencia as well as 24/7 Valencia, the monthly English tourist guide both publish schedules of Semana Santa Marinera.

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There are twenty Cabanyal brotherhoods called Cofradias who plan and carry out the week’s activities. During the early processions of the week they participate wearing peaked hoods that obscure their identities. On Easter Sunday they march carrying their hoods.

The fishermen and women of Cabanyal have a proud history of independent thinking and their version of the Easter Sunday procession is a less pious version of what you might see in other parts of Spain.

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There are brass bands playing everything from traditional Spanish music to John Phillip Souza with some bands entirely made up of drum corps.

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There are platoons of Roman soldiers complete with wigs, swords and plumed helmets.

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There are Herods, sexy Salomes, Roman maidens and charioteers of all ages.

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Children are an important part of the Sunday parade with parents in costume carrying infant children the entire route and older children playing in brass bands, marching in Confradias and dressed in Biblical costumes waving and throwing flowers to onlookers.

Its a family event with the crowds of onlookers and parade participants retreating to homes or local restaurants for an Easter meal when the parade ends.

The streets go quiet. The costumes are packed away for another year. The Cabanyal Easter Sunday procession signals the end to four weeks of Valencia spring festivities.

India: Nothing Prepares You

I thought I was ready. I’d read the guidebook, some history (though not much sunk in without the context of being there), travel blogs and gotten a lot of advice from friends who traveled there previously. Intellectualizing India, particularly when one is there on a humanitarian mission, does little to prepare you for the real thing.

It began with my airplane descent into Delhi through a smog layer so thick the normal visual cues of a descent (skyline, runway lights) were invsible. Delhi has recently been designated the most polluted city in the world.
However, the pilot took pains to assure us over the loudspeaker that the conditions were milder than normal; our landing would be safely completed. My fellow passengers, most of them Indian, began pulling down jackets out of their luggage as the plane taxied to a stop and I knew immediately that my packing had underestimated the weather. Note to self: guidebooks do not take into account global warming changes in that chapter about weather.

My immersion into the work of The India Group humanitarian project began immediately at the Delhi Airport after a 24 hour sleepless flight. We work with Hindu families of one of India’s lowest castes, the farming caste and one struggling family of Sikhs. I sponsor Amandeep, the only child of the Sikh family and it was his father and another father in the project who could translate who met me at the airport and got me to my lodging in downtown Delhi

Since I arrived two days earlier than the rest of the team it gave me a chance to meet Amandeep and his mother and to be given a tour of Delhi’s largest Sikh temple with them and a basic understanding of their religion. The temple is a beautiful white marble complex. Despite all of it’s oppulence, it is a place of refuge for Sikhs and vistors who wish to live on the temple grounds for some time.

20160205_125714Langar is the Sikh practice of having a large kitchen staffed by volunteers that feeds all visitors no matter what their religion. In the Delhi temple only vegetarian food is served to honor the beliefs of other religions allowing everyone to eat as equals. The Gurdwara is the eating hall and volunteers were serving hundreds of people at a time while hundreds sat patiently outside the Gurdwara waiting their turn.

 

 

 

 

Paris: Two Guidebooks; Two Times

I had never been until last year. I wanted to save it until I had the time to savor the city. I wasn’t sure if I would love it (sigh….all those charming Paris movie and novel scenes) or be hugely disappointed it wouldn’t live up to my decades of pent-up expectations. The first time I went in May (ahhh, Paris in the springtime) and ended up staying an extra week. I returned five months later (mmmm, Paris in the fall). Clearly I am enamored. Since all of my time in the City of Light was an independent exploration (no tour buses and guided walking tours for me) and most of it was solo, I was intent on experiencing it my way. On the other hand, I did need a bit of guidance to travel the lesser experienced sights of the city but wanted to avoid the Fodor/Frommer/Rick Steves/Rough Guide/Lonely Planet tourist paths. Ultimately I found two small guidebooks and used one for each trip.

100 Places Every Woman Should Go In France by Marcia DeSantis, a former Parisian expat, was chock full of suggestions for Paris. It was my springtime guide to the city. I began with her suggestion that I overcome my acrophobia: don’t just snap the iconic exterior photo, but climb the Eiffel Tower steps to the second floor cafe (670 stairs of beating heart and sweaty palms) to toast my accomplishment with an overly priced glass of champagne and gaze at Paris’ rooftops and towers.

It was also her recommendation that took me to the department store Galeries Lafayette, not to shop but to gaze in awe at it’s magnificent stained glass dome and to Sainte-Chappelle, a medieval Catholic chapel where I listened to a concert while the setting sun played off its stained glass windows.

I would have never spent Paris temps precieux at a movie theatre, but her description of La Pagode art house cinema (a reconstructed Japanese pagoda used originally as a ballroom complete with tearoom garden and more stained glass) inspired me. I saw Still Life, a thoughtful English movie but could have seen their weekly screening of Breakfast at Tiffanys. 

Paris Sketching

It was her enthusiastic description of Merci, a concept store opened in an old wallpaper factory that found me there sketching over a cappuccino on a rainy day resulting in one of my favorite Parisian photos.

Bocce Ball Paris

In Luxembourg Garden, I searched for the bocce ball courts (as per her suggestion) and spent the better part of an afternoon cheering for very serious Frenchmen, while trying to figure out the games’ rules.

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And I braved the terrifying prospect of getting a haircut in a hip Parisian salon with my minimal French – made all the more fun when the stylist eased my concerns with champagne.

When I returned in the fall, I took with me City Secrets: Paris, the Essential Insiders’ Guide by Robert Kahn. This compact guidebook is filled with insider personal recommendations of 150 artists, writers, architects, historians and gourmet chefs who live in or regularly visit Paris.

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It was the keen eye of an artist contributor that made me take notice of the public art Metro stops and actually sit to listen to the street musicians.

 

I would never have found La Belle Hortense, a tiny wine bar/bookshop/tapas restaurant/literary and art gallery had it not been mentioned by both a food features writer and landscape architect in the guidebook.

As a travel sketcher, I appreciated the recommendation of a painter contributor to browse and augment my watercolor pencils at Magasin Sennelier, the historic artist supply store that invented oil pastels for Picasso.

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In a Paris guidebook seen through the keen eyes of artists there were a multitude of recommendations about looking in through shop windows and doorways and looking up at murals, lighting, ceiling motifs.