THE last time my husband Kidlat and I were in Spain in the spring of 2017, we brought our children with us. Our son was just three years and ten months old and our daughter was one year and ten months old. We had an amazing time during our two-month trek across five European countries with our little ones, mainly because we managed our expectations and declared it our “Parks and Playgrounds Tour of Europe.”
As my father-in-law Kidlat Tahimik prepared for his epic art installation to be housed in the Palacio de Cristal in El Retiro Park in Madrid (sponsored by the Reina Sofia Museum), the question came up: could we go to the exhibit opening with the children? We, the adults, had our vaccine shots to prepare for the trip. But as the Delta variant made its way to Baguio, we got cold feet about bringing our unvaccinated children with us. We finally decided to push through with the trip, but without the children (who were ecstatic at the thought of having the longest sleepover of their lives at their cousins’ home in Manila).
Coming to Spain during a pandemic lockdown was just the plot twist I needed. After months of languishing, I was suddenly able to breathe the fresh air of freedom. I have been to Spain many times before, to visit my high school friend Cristina Martin (sadly, she passed away in 2018 after a two-year battle with cancer) and college best friend Mari Brias who has resided there since 1995. But there was something different about Spain this time. I could feel this atmosphere of joy, of celebration. Madrid had come out of lockdown just three weeks prior to my arrival. People were jogging in the Retiro and walking their dogs, or zipping by on electric scooters. School children accompanied by their teachers were playing outdoors. Restaurants were open and full of people. Museums were open, some free of charge. Madrid was carefree and full of life!
In our child-free state, Kidlat and I said yes to every glass of wine, to that second or even 3rd café con leche of the day. What follows is not a definitive list of restaurants to try or places to visit in Spain, but they do represent the highlights of a trip that were a balm for my tired soul.
Madrid is the grand dame of cities, the capital of Spain. Its wide, elegant boulevards feel expansive, yet its unique neighborhoods make the vast city feel nicely crammed. Walking around the beautiful city was such a pleasure, and a good thing too, since we certainly indulged in its gastronomic delights.
Honest Greens – Not your typical Spanish restaurant, Honest Greens offers healthy dishes that cater to a variety of diets (gluten-free, vegetarian, vegan, paleo, low carb). Ingredients are sourced from local farmers and suppliers who produce in a responsible and sustainable way. After days of eating jamon iberico, croquetas, and tortilla de patata (which I didn’t mind at all!), it was such a nice change to dig into a massive goat’s cheese salad drizzled with balsamic vinegar and extra virgin olive oil, herb baked chicken, and hummus tinted pink with beetroot. A bottle of Desig white wine accompanied the wholesome meal. There are several franchises of the restaurant across the center of Madrid, but the one we tried was on Calle de Hortaleza, in Madrid’s gay, bohemian Chueca neighborhood.
Casa Marius – The best way to try a restaurant’s extensive menu is to go as a group of 12. We were a motley crew of old friends, relatives, and fresh acquaintances. By the end of the meal, we were one happy, chummy and satisfied bunch! Each dish we ordered (times three, so everyone could have more than one serving) was absolutely beautiful—calamares, croquetas de jamon, tomato salad topped with tuna (made from slices of tomato that were as wide as a baby’s face), grilled pork belly with crispy skin (similar to lechon kawali), steak. Miraculously, our large group consumed only two bottles of wine. This particular outlet in Chueca was a pleasant 20-minute walk from our Airbnb in Barrio Salamanca.
Luckily, my first weekend in Spain was a long weekend for Mari. After sitting out a rainy Saturday, we drove the following day to the historic city of Segovia in the autonomous community of Castille and Leon. We arrived just in time to catch the tail end of the Spanish lunch period. We headed to Restaurante California upon the suggestion of Mari’s work colleague, a native Segovian. The place did not disappoint! Segovia is known for its cochinillo, so the three of us each ordered the cochinillo set menu. The starters themselves were like full meals—judiones (gigantic white beans cooked with pork, similar to fabada), artichoke hearts simmered in white wine and topped with jamon, goat’s cheese salad made from local goat’s milk. Then, the cochinillo, cut into pieces in front of us with the edge of a plate and served with a salty, broth-like sauce. In the busy, cozy family restaurant, we sighed with pleasure after every bite.
In Spain, wine is served like water. Instead of giving us a glass of wine each, the waiter simply gave us the entire bottle of Rioja! Dessert was tiramisu served in a Mason jar and polished off with café con leche.
After that sumptuous feast, we were able to explore the beautiful city of Segovia in the afternoon and into the early evening. From the 2,000-year-old Roman aqueducts (a UNESCO heritage site), we walked the charming, winding streets to the Alcazar de Segovia (famous for allegedly being the basis for the Disneyland logo), popping into artisan shops, watching shadows change as the street lamps came on to usher in the night. I highly recommend visiting a place in the daytime and staying until the sun sets, for another aspect of a city’s character is revealed in the moonlight.
Avila has been on my bucket list for a while, mainly because of the mystic and Saint Teresa of Avila. The only Spanish my grandmother Rosalinda taught me was St. Teresa’s prayer:
Nada te turbe
Nada te espante
Todo se pasa
Solo Dios basta
Ten years ago, I came upon Entering the Castle, Caroline Myss’ meditation upon the saint’s book The Interior Castle, which talks about the many ways one can approach God, through the “rooms” contained in one’s castle (her metaphor for the soul). This intrigued me and made me even more curious about the city that boasts of being “The Town of Stones and Saints”. Unfortunately, because we visited on November 1, the museum devoted to St. Teresa was closed. So we assuaged our disappointment with a visit to the Cathedral of Avila, a striking Gothic cathedral built for the most part of the 12th century.
After our cathedral tour, we took a gastronomical dive into the dish that the city is known for – Chuletón de Ávila! This is basically a one kg to 1.5 kg cut of T-bone steak from the indigenous cow known as Ávileña-Negra Ibérica. Though many people order an entire cut for themselves, Kidlat, Mari, and I decided not to kill ourselves in the effort and decided to split a single one kg portion. At La Lumbre restaurant, our waiter brought the raw slab to the table for inspection before bringing it back to the kitchen for grilling. We had the steak cooked medium, and paired it with goat’s cheese salad (again, I know, but the cheese was from that region as well), and a refreshing bowl of salmorejo, a puréed cold tomato soup topped with chopped jamon iberico and hard boiled eggs.
It was at this meal that I began my exploration of wines from Ribera del Duero, one of the top wine-producing regions of Spain. We happily polished off a bottle of Protos, and for dessert tried the other dish Ávila is famous for – creamy pieces of yema. As the sun made its way down the sky, lengthening shadows and bathing the valley below us in golden light, we walked all around Las Murallas or the medieval walls of the city, finishing our walk outside the perfectly proportioned Basilica of San Vicente, which was lit up at dusk.
Ávila sits on a rocky summit 1132 meters above sea level, making it the highest provincial capital in Spain. Looking down at the golden valley decorated in autumnal colors, I felt that I could begin to understand the ecstasy of St. Teresa’s union with the Divine. Perhaps, if I hadn’t just consumed 350 grams of chuletón, I could have levitated from the sheer joy of being there.
(To be continued: Toledo, San Sebastian, and the Joaquín Sorolla Museum)