1 and 2. The sun and the sea. Let’s call it a tie. It’s impossible to love one more than the other.
It’s sometimes said that Spain is a cold country with a lot of sun. That may be true of places further north than Nerja and the Costa del Sol. It certainly hasn’t been true here this winter. Most days the temperature has reached the mid 60s, and with the bright sun at midday, some folks sit on the beach or take a run in just tank tops and shorts. It does cool off quite rapidly by about 4 PM, but rarely have I wanted more than a light polar fleece for the evening.
As for the sea, well I haven’t even dipped a toe in the Spanish Mediterranean yet, but it’s just lovely to wake up to view of the water, shining silver in the morning sun. Or to walk to town along the beach, listening to the sound of the surf.
3. The way Spaniards smile and encourage your halting, mispronounced Spanish. I haven’t yet encountered someone who responds with anything but delight when you attempt Spanish, no matter how badly mangled. The locksmith grinned when I switched to Spanish after he had trouble understanding the English “five” in my phone number. The salesgirl at the Nerja bakery I patronize patiently repeats “ensaimada” with a smile when I try to order the fluffy pastry coil covered with powdered sugar. And the dentist cheerfully gave me a lesson in rolling my “r’s” when I tried to pronounce the word for my new dental night guard.
4. The art and architecture. OMG. The buildings. The ceramics. The ironwork. The carvings and plasterwork. The colors. It’s completely over the top, a fantabulous tangle of Muslim and Christian styles piled one upon the other over the course of centuries. At first, it seems just too much to absorb, but as you quietly try to take it in, your eye alights first on one exquisite detail after another. The craftsmanship is simply amazing.
5. Convent cookies. As membership and donations to religious orders have dropped off in recent decades, convents in Spain have turned to their kitchens to shore up their finances, selling preserves and other goodies, especially cookies. In Seville, a half-dozen or more convents sell their wares, including these traditional sugar-encrusted lemony goodies called yemas. Each cookie is carefully wrapped in tissue paper before being packed into a small lightweight wooden box.
To my mind, the best cookie is a mantecado, a soft crumbly butter cookie, often lightly flavored with lemon, almond or, my favorite, anise. In the small town of Trujillo, a Spanish companion and I knocked on the door of the tiny Convento de Santa Clara to be greeted by a tiny nun. Wizened and hobbling on arthritic feet, she was at least 80, but smiled broadly when we asked to buy some cookies, please. She asked where we were from, and when told I was from the U.S., invited us in to view the tiny church and its prized artifacts. Only six nuns remain at the convent, all of them well-advanced in age. The convent isn’t likely to survive much longer–a shame, if for no other reason than that the mantecados they lovingly bake six days a week are delicious.
It’s worth noting that, should you buy some of these cookies when in Spain, prepare to eat them all before leaving the country. They don’t travel well. They are so rich with butter that they’re extremely fragile, and the slightest pressure turns the round disks into a pile of edible sand. (Did that stop me from scooping it up and eating it? Of course, not!) I suspect it would make a fabulous cookie crumb crust for a pie. Someday, I’ll try it.
6. The orange trees that line the streets and dot the plazas and squares in Valencia, Malaga, Seville and, I presume, elsewhere in Spain. When in blossom or fruit, the trees perfume the air. I don’t know what happens to the fruit–some of it falls to the ground and seems to be collected regularly by the street cleaners. I’ve never seen anyone actually picking the oranges, but I suspect that urban foragers do a gangbuster business. The oranges aren’t sweet, but bitter and better suited to marmalade than juicing or eating out of hand.
7. The ceramics. The Spanish can make anything out of tile and ceramic. And it’s always colorful and beautiful.
8. The way even small packages are wrapped and tied up neatly. A pasteleria (a bakery that sells pastries, as opposed to a panaderia, which sells bread) will carefully transfer your cream-stuffed goodie to a gold foil tray, then wrap it in paper and tie it with a ribbon or string. In Valencia, the clerks at my favorite pasteleria eschewed the string, opting instead to hold two corners of the wrapping paper in each hand and swiftly flip it over a few times, winding the corners into twisted horns that hold your package closed. No plastic clamshells for these folks.
9. Seeing nuns in traditional wimples and habits, complete with heavy cotton hose and sensible oxfords. I don’t know exactly why I find this sight so anachronistically charming, but I do. My Catholic friends who attended parochial schools tell me that I might not, had I suffered the knuckle-rappings they did as a child.
To me, a Protestant growing up in a largely Catholic town, nuns weren’t an uncommon sight, but they were always somewhat exotic and foreign. Warren, R.I., had a Methodist church, a Baptist church, an Episcopal church and a small congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses. It also had an Irish Catholic church, a French Catholic church, a Portuguese Catholic church, a Polish Catholic church and an Italian Catholic church. (As a youngster in 1960, I couldn’t quite understand adults’ comments that the country would “never elect a Catholic (John Kennedy) president”. Why not, I thought? Almost everyone in the U.S. is Catholic, aren’t they?)
10. The smell of leather. Walk along any reasonably touristy street and you’re sure to pass a half dozen or more small shops selling sandals, purses, jackets, luggage and anything else that can reasonably be made from animal skin. Vegans won’t like it, but to me, the smell conjures up images of ruggedly handsome men, wine or whisky in crystal decanters and old, beautiful books. Maybe that’s weird, but the aroma of leather makes me happy.
And 11 (you didn’t really think I could confine myself to just 10, did you?). Flowers blooming all year round–really! This was taken in a park in Seville on Feb. 19.