While doing prep research for the trip I found out about a TV series that was aired originally on PBS (Public Broadcasting System) and available through Netflix called “Made in Spain.” It is a combination cooking and travelogue show hosted by Spanish chef Jose Andres. Chef Andres takes the viewer on a mouth-watering culinary excursion of the different regions of Spain and introducing his viewers to tapas, small appetizer-sized finger foods, which are the bedrock of Spanish cookery.
TV and reality, I was to learn, are worlds apart. There is a canyon sixed gap difference between a master chef lovingly arranging each tapa appetizer on a plate like a miniature work of art and the more mundane, and frankly, not all that appealing reality of the tapas bar concept. For starters, tapas in Spain are not arranged in individual plates and brought to a table as Andres presents them in his program. Instead, tapas are piled in platters on the counters of tapas bars. Customers then grab whatever tapas they want and put them on a plate. The tapas bar-tender tallies the total up and you usually stand at the edge of the bar counter and eat the things. There are several things that fall under the heading of unappealing about this set-up. First, the tapas are sitting out in hot temperatures for however long – hours or minutes, no way to tell which – and people grab them with their bare hands, stand around eating near them, which can mean that the tapas are being breathed on, or sneezed on, or coughed on, or exposed to any number of other element besides the heat. Add to this the sad reality that smoking is the national pastime in Spain, which means that the person next to you is also blowing smoke on to the tapas and on to your face while you are standing next to them.
I am not a fan of standing while eating my food, especially after walking for hours sightseeing. I also hate being anywhere near cigarette smoke – it grosses me out more than I can describe. The thought of eating with someone smoking next to me is enough to make me lose any desire to eat. Call me spoiled, and I may be alone in my dislike for the tapas bar experience, but I like to sit, relax, and breathe clean air when I am eating my food. Tapas bars offer no such amenities for the diner.
For the tourist unaccustomed to Spanish hours, adjusting to their very different daily routine and eating hours is a problem. Especially if, like we were, you are traveling on a tour, and you are therefore, still expected to keep ungodly tour hours – be ready, breakfasted and mounted on your tour bus by 8:30 a.m. – even through you probably were not able to even get into bed before midnight because at 10:00 p.m. you are barely done with eating dinner. In Spain restaurants don’t even open for dinner business before 8 or 8:30 p.m. So since you are not on the same schedule as the Spanish people, who are given from 2:00 p.m. to 5:00 p.m. to indulge in a siesta or other leisurely pursuits, sleep deprivation is visually evident in the travel pictures featuring you smiling at the camera doing an unscripted impersonation of a haggard looking raccoon.
Store hours in Spain are another issue travelers may have difficulty working around. Stores open from 10:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m., close for three hours and reopen from 5:00 p.m. to 8:00 p.m. on weekdays, close Saturday afternoons and all of Sunday. Not sure how the office hours work, but my understanding is that they keep similar hours as stores. That makes for a very long day, but also presents a problem for tourists who might want to get some shopping in. Given the Euro exchange rate I wasn’t that interested in shopping, so in my case the odd store hours just added shopping prevention incentive.
I speak fluent Spanish, so my experience may be different from that of non-Spanish speakers. It is probably true of any country where you may be traveling that if you speak the language people are going to be more comfortable and friendly toward you than if there is a language barrier gumming up the communication avenues. Because I can speak Spanish I met with people who were more than eager to talk to me, tell me stories, and who were open, cordial, and totally friendly. One example was at a lovely pottery shop in Seville called Sevillarte. The lady who helped us turned out to be the owner with whom I struck up a conversation after I admired the lovely and unique pottery she sells. She brought out a binder with photographs of the factory where they make the pottery and explained to me the painstaking process that goes into the making of each piece, from the designing stage to the many painting and baking steps before you have a finished piece. It is a family owned business that, she told me, they have operated for five generations. She was distressed because she feared that they would be the last generation to run the business since neither any of her children or grandchildren had shown any interest in continuing the family tradition. The beauty of their pottery will be a sad loss.
A word of caution and advice to travelers, wherever you may be headed. Always be aware of your belongings. Any big, cosmopolitan city is going to have their share of pickpockets. Our tour guide, Alex, was very emphatic about cautioning us to be careful, especially in Barcelona. Barcelona, he joked was the pickpocket capital of the world. “Pickpockets do a three-year apprenticeship in Rome to learn their craft and then come to Barcelona.” But it is true of any city, at home or abroad, that if you are in a crowded place, pickpockets are probably on the prowl.
Not to sound like a commercial, because I unfortunately don’t get any commission from them, but I highly recommend investing in a Pacsafe purse or their backpacks. I have a crossover Pacsafe purse that I use when I travel and it is ideal because it is in front of me at all times and the construction of the purse makes it difficult for a would-be burglar to do mischief. The purse’s strap has a wire running through it and it has a wire mesh construction on the body of the purse to make it slash resistant. They make a large array of products and I wouldn’t leave on a trip without one.
Finally, a few words about climate. September was the perfect month to go to Spain, since the temperatures in that month had tempered down to a livable level. Summers in Spain are extremely hot. In fact, I was told that the country pretty much shuts down for the month of August, when the locals take time off to hit the beaches and get out of the stifling cities.
Climate change has affected Spain in a big way, making it even hotter and dryer during the summer months. I was told that in the past Seville, which the Spanish call the oven of Spain, used to have temperatures range in the 90ºF during the summer months. In the last few years the average temperatures have increased to range between 100 and 115ºF, a sample of the way in which climate is changing. That is bad news for an already extremely arid country. Much of Spain receives most of its rainfall during their winter and spring months. When I was there in September the lack of rainfall and the scarcity of water was shockingly apparent by the completely dry riverbeds we passed in our travels. Water is now and will become even more or a problem for Spain in the future. Parts of Spain are becoming not just arid, but turning closer and closer to desert conditions, a vivid reminder that climate change is a world-wide problem that is going to impact all of us in different negative ways.
Oh yes, I almost forgot one of the very pleasant discoveries of the trip – sangria. My mother and I ordered a pitcher every evening while on the trip. When I got back home I found a nice recipe for it and made a batch. I am sure that come summer I will be mixing up some batches of it often, as it is a refreshing concoction laden with fruit and lots of ice to be enjoyed on hot summer days to come.