10 Things I Love about Spain


1 and 2.  The sun and the sea.  Let’s call it a tie. It’s impossible to love one more than the other.

My favorite view in Nerja.

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.IMG_2476

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.IMG_2387

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-IMG_1947stuffed 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.IMG_2458

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.










How to Make A Sandwich, Sicilian Style


Not for nothing is Andrea Borderi called genius. Every day a small crowd gathers IMG_2815at his shop at the edge of the daily outdoor market in the old section of Siracusa, to watch him ply his trade. Over the course of a few hours, he’ll make perhaps a hundred sandwiches, each of them a work of art.

IMG_2914Like other artists, Borderi has complete creative license.  Customers don’t tell him what kind of sandwich they want. They simply tell him how many sandwiches they want and he takes it from there, drawing from his palette of meats, cheeses, vegetables and condiments as the moment’s fancy takes him. But the basic format remains the same.

1. Slice a foot-long loaf of Italian bread and scoop out a bit of the middle to allow more room for the scrumptious fillings.

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2. Start with a layer of flavorful vegetables: Sun-dried tomatoes, marinated mushrooms, a bit of golden corn or perhaps a combination laid out in careful separate dollops along the bread.
3. Throw on a handful of greens–romaine, arugula, red leaf lettuce, etc.–along with some raddichio, all quickly and expertly chopped.
4. Dice one ripe red plum tomato per sandwich and scoop it on. Now grate fresh parmesan directly on the growing mounds. To complete this layer: Give it a squirt of extra virgin olive oil and squeeze on the juice of a freshly cut lemon half.
5. Add a layer of creamy white, slightly salty fresh mozzarella. While you’re slicing it, be sure to cut some extra pieces, handing them out to the customers in line. After all, no one is complaining about the long waits and most turn down the offer to have a sandwich made more quickly by an assistant, preferring to watch the show and enjoy the genius’ work.
6. Pare a few thickish slices from a bright yellow cheese and place them on top, along with  few black olives.  Be sure to give the olives a smack with the broad side of a knife and remove the pits first!  If so inclined, sprinkle on a few small slices of a mildly hot red pepper for some extra color and zing. At this point, too, you might add a slice or two of a pungent sausage–salami, pepperoni or the like.
7.  On a sheet of butcher’s paper, layer some slices of your chosen Italian cold cut–ham, mortadella, proscuitto or the like.  Place a row of thick chunks of thrice-baked, creamy  ricotta on top of it. Depending on your choice of meat, you might sprinkle on some fresh basil leaves or dust the meat with wild Sicilian oregano (accomplished by simply shaking a dried bouquet of it over the food). Maybe drizzle a bit of local honey on top.
8. Now carefully use the paper to turn the meat and cheese into a neat roll. This is the point where the sandwich genius double checks his work, inhaling deeply, to ensure that the meat and cheese are seasoned correctly.
9. Plop the roll of meat and cheese on top of the already huge mound of goodies on the bread.  Top  it with the other half of the bread and carefully cut it in half, wrapping each half in butcher paper.

Time required to prepare two Borderi sandwiches simultaneously: about six minutes, while maintaining  interaction with the customers throughout. Borderi asks them  where they’re from, periodically hugs and gives the Italian two-cheek kiss to old friends, and hams it up for photos. It’s a show that his audience delights in. (“Obama!” says Borderi to Americans, offering them a high-five and a wide grin.)

And the sandwiches?  They’re phenomenal, as well as a tremendous bargain: only €5 for one big enough to feed at least two people.

Dolce Far Niente in Sicily


Summer in Sicily reminds me powerfully of childhood. True, it’s a much more exotic setting than the small working class town I grew up in, and the thermometer indicates that it’s at least 10 to 15 degrees hotter most days than southern New England ever got. But there’s much that feels the same. The tempo of life, for instance.  The languor of Sicily in August feels a lot like I remember summers as a nine- or ten-year old: Waking late, with the sun already well up in the sky. Spending hours reading a book or just sitting idling, daydreaming. It’s what the Italians call dolce far niente—the sweetness of doing nothing.

There’s a freeing carelessness that feels like childhood, too. Most days I don’t bother with make-up, just smearing on some sunscreen. And much as I did as a youngster living close to the waterfront, I often simply put on a swimsuit and a light cover-up first thing in the morning, because it’s cool and comfortable and I know that at some point before the sun sets, I’IMG_2240ll end up in the water. Those of you who know me well will recognize this as highly unusual behavior. I typically avoid occasions that require scanty clothing and don’t particularly like swimming either in pools or at beaches. But in Sicily it’s easy to leave behind the self-consciousness about dimply thighs, sagging boobs and ginormous butts. Women (and men) of all shapes, sizes and ages have no compunction about revealing far-from-perfect bodies—pasta-bellies and wrinkles be damned. (Of course, some of them do look pretty good!) I’ve even taken to wearing sleeveless tops in the only slightly cooler evenings, letting my usually camouflaged underams flap freely.

The neighborhood I grew up in was originally a summer community, made up mostly of small homes where families parked for the summer. As time passed, many of the homes were insulated and enlarged for year-round occupancy or new ones meant for that purpose were built. But there were still a number of summer-only residents when I was young; many of the neighbors had boats of one sort or another (I, in fact, had a canoe); and community life centered around the local beach.

IMG_2335In Syracuse, the homes aren’t wooden and are centuries older than the summer houses of Laurel Park, but they share a sort of casual summer shabbiness as well as the faint smell of mildew and damp, and typically inadequate, outdated and often jerry-rigged plumbing and electrical systems. And just as in my hometown, here wet swimsuits and threadbare towels hang outdoors on railings to dry; flip-flops are the footwear of choice for all ages; and meals are casual affairs, often eaten outdoors.

Although there’s no actual beach in Ortygia—the small island that is the antique and cultural heart of the working city of Syracuse—the sea is very much present. While three bridges connect one side of the island to the rest of Syracuse and a marina occupies another stretch, much of the island is surroundIMG_1625ed by a steep, fortress-like seawall, adding to the sense of Syracuse as a place  with a long history of cultures repeatedly clashing  and commingling. At one or two spots, long, steep staircases lead down to small sandy areas outside the seawall and a handful of tourists and locals spread their towels there to take in the sun and jump in the waves.

But I, along with most of the inhabitants, prefer the Solarium—a large wooden deck-like affair accessed by a metal stairway down an outcrop of boulders. Hovering over the water, it’s large enough for a couple dozen souls to spread their towels and bask in the sun until the heat drives them to IMG_2264jump off into the sea. An adjacent spit of boulders shelters those who prefer a more natural, if less comfortable, place to park their bottoms and a higher diving point for the more intrepid teens and tweens.

The water is clear and its temperature perfect—cool enough to refresh, warm enough not to chill. Some people swim vigorously or snorkel, but most, like me, simply float, bobbing up and down in the modest waves, grinning at the deep blue sky and endless sea ahead of them.

Is Madrid “The One”?


We’ve only been dating for a day or two, but I have a good feeling about this relationship. As a potential long-term match, Madrid ticks a lot of the boxes.

  1. Physical attractiveness. Madrid has that particular handsomeness of so many Spanish men, combining a dignified aging with youthful vigor. Stylewise, Madrid is pretty interesting, too. Like the Spanish policemen who role up their sleeves just-so, Madrid can be a bit fussy, what with the Baroque palaces and manicured formal gardens. But just as the policemen’s muscled physiques and hip beards bespeak their more macho selves, so do Madrid’s casual outdoor cafes and tapas bars, not to mention the bull ring.
  2. An interest in culture–ballet, symphony and opera, as well as Broadway style theater and flamenco. But Madrid’s no snob. Along with the St. Petersburg ballet performances this summer, there’s a showing of all the 007 James Bond films along with a special on the costumes and sets for the movies. And of course, Madrid has plenty to offer in the way of art, architecture and history, as well.
  3. An amiable disposition. Madrid’s friendly and open, and loves a good conversation.
  4. An intriguing history. I think I could spend years getting to know it all.
  5. A mutual interest in food and eating well.
  6. Imagination and a good sense of humor. How else could you explain all the giant winged creatures, horses and chariots atop the buildings?
  7. A nice ride. I’d never have to drive again. Madrid just takes the wheel and whisks you wherever you want to go via Metro or bus.
  8. Our communication is good, too. Between my rudimentary Spanish and Madrid’s cosmopolitan grasp of English, we’re getting along fine.

Of course, Madrid  can be quite moody—extremely hot and bothered sometimes and very chilly at others. That’s a red flag, but it’s too early to tell if the big swings will be more than I’m willing to tolerate.

I wish Madrid were more green, too. Big shady trees lining long pedestrian walkways and a giant urban park are all well and good. But that side of Madrid can be a bit of a hassle to access, if you’re not careful.

And, well, there are signs that Madrid may prove to be somewhat high maintenance. Other dates I’ve had in recent months have been the complete opposite: It would take so little to keep up a happy domicile that I could easily dally with other suitors, skipping off for long weekends regularly. I fear that won’t be the case with Madrid. I’m sure I wouldn’t be tethered to my kitchen stove, but I probably would have to trade off some freedom.

Of course, it’s early days, yet; I’m far from ready to make a commitment. At my age, you really need to date for quite a while before you’re ready to move in together. Baltimore taught me that. And playing the field for the past five months has made me cautious about love at first sight.  Uzés, France just looked so good at first glance, it was hard not to keep my heart from bounding out of my chest. But with a little more perspective now, I can see that a pretty face isn’t enough to keep me interested over the long haul. Like many charmers,  Uzés is just too shallow. Mirepoix, with it’s lovely medieval arcaded town square—never was more than a harmless flirtation. As for Montpellier—such a strong candidate on paper: I stuck the difficult relationship out for two months, struggling to give it a chance and appreciate the good in it. But, come on, a girl just shouldn’t have to work that hard.

When the right one comes along, there should be some magic, some fun involved. The fact is, I wasn’t planning to meet Madrid. Browsing the Internet sites for a good match, Madrid looked too hot, too cold, too big and too expensive, so I never even tried to arrange a date. I just wound up stopping by for a few days on my way to another engagement. And whether it works out between us in the end or not, I’m sure glad I did!

The 10 Best Things about Montpellier

  1. Passion-fruit sorbet shaped like a flower in an ice cream cone. Aside from how pretty it looks, it has a sweet-tart tang that makes the world seemIMG_2021 cropped like a happier place. And it reminds me of Hawaiian Punch, a favorite beverage when I was young.
  2. The English Book Shop on the Rue de la Bras Fer, crammed with English language books of all sorts and IMG_1991offering tea, coffee, soft drinks and assorted goodies. It’s also where a small mob of native English speakers and a polyglot mix of others eager to practice their English skills cram a downstairs room every Friday from 5 to 7 pm.
  3. The limestone paving in a small pocket of streets in the Ecusson—the old city. The Rue de l’ Ancien Courier and others nearby are narrow and twisty, IMG_0998filled with history and crammed with cute little boutiques. The Rue du Bras de Fer even has one of the few remaining original arches crossing the street, which is actually a series of wide shallow steps.
  4. Tuesday evening organ practice at St. Michel’s church just around the corner from my apartment.
  5. The colorful trams, with paint jobs designed by the likes of Christian La Croix. In fact, the public transit as a whole is pretty great. A 10-trip ticket for the tram costs 10€. IMG_1977Ditto, a 10-trip ticket for the regional bus system, which will get you the 20 minutes away to the Mediterranean beaches or 40 minutes to the gorges and mountains of the Cevennes.
  6. The Monoprix, where you can buy “une cannette du Coca Light” for  0€89. Plus, it’s actually cold and not just slightly chilled as most soft drinks in France and Germany are.
  7. The fedoras. Everyone–male or female, young or old—wears them.IMG_1979 cropped
  8. The trompe l’oeil buildings.  I had to go up to and touch this building before I understood that it really is just one big flat wall.IMG_1982
  9. A cold Monaco—a frothy pink concoction of beer, grenadine and either lemonade or lemon-lime soda. Probably too sweet for real beer dinkers’ taste,but surprisingly good on a hot afternoon.
  10. The quirky bicycle art scattered around the city. IMG_0953 I’ve spotted one emerging from a staircase, three whole bikes emerging from a wall two stories up and one with half the bike on one building and the other across the alley. I’ll bet there are lots more in the outer sections of the city.

Rocks and Trees, French Style


Can someone explain this to me?  I don’t get it.   This particular “objet” sits outside IMG_1708the St. August church  30 feet from my apartment in Montpellier. It looks like some kind of oversized, formless chia pet. Other larger versions of what I think might be viewed as some sort of living sculpture are sprinkled around the city. In the garden opposite the Gare St. Roch rail station, a large boulder sits in the middle of a fountain. Water seeps down the sides of the boulder and plants of varioIMG_0962us types sprinkle it with green. There’s a scrawny wildflower here and there, and what looks like some form of lichen creeping over and into some of the crags. At the PrIMG_1263omenade du Peyrou, there’s another such boulder–this one with a small tree growing out of it–in the middle of a reflecting pool.  A third boulder sits in a plaza fountain surrounded by outdoor cafés.

IMG_1515 One of the city’s largest and most famous public statues—the The Three Graces, sitting in the middle of the city’s Place du Comedie—incorporates a mound of natural rock, adorned both with chubby  cherubs and scraggly plants. It’s unclear to me if the cherubs were carved from the rock or were somehow cemented into place. Either way, the juxtaposition of the formal statuary and the rough rock is, to my eye, at least, weird.

Equally strange is the French predilection for sculpting trees into unnatural forms. I’m not against pruning or shaping trees in principle. Sometimes there’s a very good reason for it. Fruit trees, for example, are often espaliered—a French word (just saying). They’re rigorously pruned and trained to grow flat against a fence or trellis. Ditto, a variety of flowering trees.  In the first case, the treatment makes it easier to pick the fruit and in the second, makes a pretty spectacular privacy barrier around a courtyard or patio.

A bit of judicious pruning can enhance IMG_1897a tree’s natural shape, too. These beauties–called plantanes in France and Germany and plane trees in Britain–often line a town square or the drive to a stately home. In fact, they often line streets–most often main arteries leading into country towns but sometimes what seem to be just random bits of road. They’re closely related to what we call sycamores in the U.S., and, well pruned,  they form a beautiful high canopy. So why prune them to look like giant candelabras? They look strange and unnatural even when they’ve leafed out fully. When they’re bare, they’re ugly graceless things.

Still that’s mild compared to the trees that have been pollarded–at least, I think pollarding is what is being attempted. When you pollard animals—deer, cattle, sheep, for example—you cut off their horns or antlers. (Language digression here: A polled breed, such as polled Hereford cattle, is one which has been developed from a natural genetic mutation causing it to be hornless.) But when you pollard  a tree, you don’t just lop off a limb or two. You shear every limb off every year, causing the tree to form large bulbous knobs.

It’s thought that the practice of pollarding trees arose in the Middle Ages so that the new growth would ensure an adequate annual supply of kindling. That’s no longer the case, of course, so pollarding is done for purely aesthetic reasons. Aesthetic reasonIMG_1890s? The result is a tree that at its best—for a few months in summer—looks like a ridiculous beach umbrella with a supersized center pole. At its worst—which is for the remaining two-thirds of the year—it looks like an arthritic troll: gnarled, knobby and disproportionate, with a trunk far too thick for its height.

Some poor trees are truly tortured. The tops are simply lopped off, along with all of their limbs in spring to keep them from growing taller or wider or–evenly.  Some, for example, find themselves shaped  like lantern arms or street light poles, with a single horizontal limb.

Other IMG_1283trees are simply sheared into conformity. We’ve all seen squared-off hedges. But full-grown trees?  How do they even do that? I doubt I could make such a level cut on two-foot wide privet hedge.  How do they evenly shear off a 30-foot wide, 40-foot high tree canopy?

And why do it, anyway?   It’s not as if this public park is an immaculately kept formal garden. It’s pretty much a IMG_1284big  litter-strewn gravel square, though it does lead up to the rather lovely classical Chateau D’Eau, which, coincidentally, sits on its own hunk of natural rock in a reflecting pool.  At least in this case, though, the natural rock base is strewn with flowering plants. Incongruous perhaps, but pretty


A Retreat for the Weary


Before he was a saint, Guilhem of Orange was a soldier. Born in the mid 9IMG_1386th century, he was cousin and confidante to Charlemagne. Renowned as a warrior, he fiercely defended the southern borders of the Frankish empire, battling Gascons, Basques and Moors, ultimately forcing these last to retreat to Barcelona. Then he retired.

Seeking peace and quiet after years of battle, Guilhem founded a Benedictine monastery in the remote Gellone valley in 806. For the next several centuries thIMG_1370e abbey thrived, drawing pilgrims with two reliquaries: one containing the remains of the abbey’s famous founder; the other, several small pieces of wood, said to be part of the cross on which Jesus was crucified and given to Guilhem by Charlemagne. Indeed, the abbey became an important way station alongIMG_1374 one of the European routes to the shrine of St. James in Compostella, Spain. By the middle of the 11th century, the monks at Gellone Abbaye, now renamed the Abbaye de St. Guilhem, in honor of its recently canonized founder, were wealthy enough to build a new church and cloister.

In succeeding centuries, however, the abbey declined, suffering first from neglect and then from desecrIMG_1344ation and pillaging. Abbots drawn from aristocratic families and named by the King, rather than elected by the monks themselves, allowed the  vitality of the monastery’s enterprises to dwindle. During the 16th century religious wars, militant Protestants pillaged the abbey and defaced or destroyed much of the sculpture. By the French revolution, only six monks remained; the monastery was dissolved aIMG_1335nd the buildings sold to a local stonemason, who carted off the stone for use in other buildings, peddling choice bits to wealthy clients. Eventually, parts of the abbey–columns, windows, statuary and more– woundIMG_1359 up scattered across Europe. Some even came to rest across the Atlantic; several  columns dating from around 1200, were purchased by a wealthy American collector. They’re now in New York’s Cloisters Museum.

Today, what’s left of the abbey and the starkly IMG_1349beautiful Romanesque church sit in the middle of a well-preserved medieval village, with a population of about 250. Some grapes and some olives are grown nearby, but the village survives mainly on tourism. IMG_1354 IMG_1346In the height of the season, in July and August, thousands of visitors will make their own pilgrimage to St.-Guilhem-le-Désert. On a beautiful, warm Sunday in mid-May, the number of tourists already equalled the number of residents.

It’s no wonder. The old soldier was clearly on to something. It’s an idyllic retreat.  The lush greenery and craggy peaks are a IMG_1387stuIMG_1357nning setting for the mellow old stone walls and tile roofs. Flowers bloom profusely in the sun. And everywhere there is the sound of running water—from the small riveIMG_1310r that runs by the town, providing a series  of picturesque  waterfalls, as well as from the numIMG_1392erous spigots and fountains –flowing with potable water — scattered around the town. Even underfoot, clear water runs, criss-crossing the village in a series of open gullies and stone-topped drains.