Castillo San Marcos

Castillo San Marcos
13th-century castle, El Puerto de Santa Maria. That WAS our house to the left and behind the tree!

Saturday, January 2, 2016

¡Feliz Navidad y Prospero Año!

Crosses on Basque hilltop, December 2015
This Christmas season was unusual here in El Puerto.  Instead of the biting, humid cold we had last year, the weather stayed temperate and at times downright summery, inviting us to the beach for several outings!  That was a relief to Suzi and Ethan, who requested that we spend Christmas Eve in a house that was warm. 
The ayuntamiento of Puerto all dressed up for Christmas

Expecting the damp cold we’d had the year before (which drove my stalwart German relatives out of our palace and to a nearby hotel), we booked a renovated farmhouse in Bilbao, complete with fireplace and excellent heating.   Suz and crew arrived mid-December, and we fiesta’ed around Puerto for several days, giving me a chance to dance in the multiple zambombas that continue throughout the month.

Click here to see me dance in a zambomba!

Christmas lights of our street, Calle Larga in Puerto

Then off we drove to Bilbao.  Suzi and Ethan flew, but we’d waited too long to buy affordable tickets, and so opted to rent a car (cheap!) and stay overnight in Salamanca on the way there, and in Toledo on the way back.  Salamanca is a magical university city built of sandstone, and it continued to please, although it did rain on us a little (to be expected).

Stunning sandstone in Salamanca
Our farmhouse in Northern Spain was nothing short of spectacular.  Luis, the owner, is an art restorer who turned his talents to the family home just outside of Durango, nestled between Bilbao and San Sebastian.  Every board of flooring, every outline of paint around gorgeous stone windowframes, every iron railing had been lovingly cleaned, restored, and protected to bring out its full beauty.  

An inviting living room and toasty fireplace

Decadent dining room for Christmas dinner

The detailing was painstakingly perfect and spot on
Luis and his sister Carlota have an impressive decorator’s eye, and the pieces of art, the impeccably refinished antiques, and the delightful details at every turn and in every corner made our stay in this old farmhouse a dream come true.  And it was deliciously warm to boot! 

Click here to see more photos of the beautiful old farmhouse.

Caroling by the fire
Simone arrives!

We picked up sister Simone in Bilbao to bring the three sisters together at Christmas for the first time in several years.  And the farmhouse was perfect, the weather was glorious, sunny, and warm (for Northern Spain), and the food scrumptious. 

The Guggenheim Bilbao and funny Scotty Dog plant sculpture

Browsing through Bilbao
We visited the Guggenheim and downtown Bilbao—my favorite of the northern Spanish cities.  San Sebastian was beautiful turn-of-the-century quaint, but the sloping hillsides and Bilbaíno riverfront got my vote.  But everywhere were the amazing pintxos! These little snacks substituted for a regular meal on several of our days there.

A pickle sandwich!

We celebrated Christmas with our traditional singing, a delicious meal of capón (giant gelded rooster) and Heidesand (our favorite German Christmas cookie), and walked the mountains around Durango on Christmas day.  To our delight, we were serenaded by Basque Christmas carolers! 

Click here to see and hear the Basque carolers

Joy to the World

On our way home to El Puerto, we stopped through Toledo, a fabulously medieval city just south of Madrid.  Unbenownst to me, it was named one of the two most important places in Spain to visit by Fodor’s Guide, and indeed, I was enchanted.  

One of the seven gates of Toledo

Set on a hill overlooking the curve of the Tajo River, which surrounds it on three sides, making it an excellent defensive site, Toledo enchants with stone and brick walls (the brick as well as the alcázar and a mosque a tribute to its Moorish past), tiny meandering cobblestone streets, a striking Cathedral, not one but two synagogues, and the best marzipan (made by nuns) that I’ve ever had.  

Gothic glory

Turrets and towers everywhere

All types of marzipan, but my favorites are the delicias--with egg yolk in the center!

No matter that one of the synagogues was named Santa María de la Blanca, there was more sense of a Jewish quarter here than in any other Spanish city I’ve visited. 

Synagogue St. Mary the White in Toledo
Lights to mark the Jewish Quarter

Street signs also mark the historic Jewish center

Click here to see a Christmas band play in Toledo

Once home, we had just a few days to rehearse before our three-sister and four-kid premiere at Bar Milord.  Our friend Juan, the proprietor of Bar Milord, was again taking a chance on us (and our kids) to bring in the crowds.  

Vale That in the house


And we did, and rocked the night away with an all-friends, all-family concert.  Introducing Tia, Sasha, Rivers, and Gonzalo!  And the three Rico sisters on harmony!

Rocking the crowd at Milord's

Click here to hear Tia sing Shake It Off!
Click here to hear all of us sing Country Roads!

And that was just the warm-up act for the New Year’s Eve party at the palace.  Joined by mostly Americans and French (the Spanish celebrate with their families and sometimes make a cameo appearance at 2 am, if at all), we celebrated with fireworks and a disco ball until early morning. 

Getting the disco ball going for New Year's Eve in the palace

Me in my Charo New Year's outfit with fake diamond eyelashes and friends Angeline and Ebru

Fancy ladies
Dancing with friend Paqui
Happy New Year!

And of course there was the obligatory dip in the ocean on New Year’s Day.   This time we hung out at the lovely chiringuito overlooking Las Redes beach, which has surprisingly delicious food for such a beach operation.  Now that we are all clean, we are ready for 2016!

Ready to rumble

Washing away our sins

Tuesday, December 15, 2015


Time for some Christmas spirit and Christmas cards!

December ushers in the Christmas season, although Spain, like the U.S., has also started its holiday advertising sometime right after Halloween.  And to my delight, a thousand zambombas erupt throughout Puerto, Jerez, and probably in the rest of Andalucía.  (But not in Madrid!  The streets were quiet the first weekend of December when we visited our friends Carlos and Annette, who are now stationed there with the Air Force.) 

Carlos and Annette were fabulous hosts, zambomba or no zambomba!

But December’s weekends here are all about zambombas.   A zambomba is both a musical instrument (see below) as well as a flamenco Christmas party, often outdoors, and  traditionally around a fire.  The streets overflow with song and dance, providing me with multiple forums to dance a pataita de bulerias.   Although I’m still not very good (and I’m realizing, the better I get, that I will NEVER be very good, having started much too late), I seek out every opportunity to dance, unlike many of my Spanish friends, the vast majority of whom are much better dancers, but they just don’t like to show off like I do. 

The Christmas lights are always gorgeous
Click here to see me dance in my teacher Lola's zambomba!

This year I was part of my dance teacher Jaime’s singing class that worked up a bunch of villancicos.  Thus far, I’d learned only popular ones:  Peces en el Rio, La Marimorena, Campana Sobre Campana.  But this group taught me the more ancient and traditional flamenco villancicos: Carita Divina, Azucar y Canela, Los Caminos Se Hicieron.  We learned about 10 new ones in a very short time, and again I fell head over heels in love with the rhythmic harmonies of Andalucía. 

The tubs of water are for wetting down your hands!
Click here to hear La Carita Divina
Click here to hear Azucar y Canela
Click here to hear Los Caminos Se Hicieron

Once we had some of these songs down, one Saturday we took to the streets of Jerez after an excellent lunch in Plaza Platera.  Jerez was an explosion of singing, dancing, and the zumming, thrumming sound of the zambomba, that funny percussive instrument made from a clay jar with a stretched covering with a reed poked through it. You moisten your hands and glide up and down the reed; the resulting zzzuuubbb-zzzzuuuubbb matches well with the most traditional villancicos.

Singing around the fire

 Click here to see me playing the zambomba in Jerez

Every plaza seemed to be throwing its own zambomba, and as we were a group of some 20 strong, we were our own moving zambomba.   Every time we stopped and sang, passersby would stop and join us, until we had a impressive-sized group, all singing, with the occasional dancer entering the center of our circle to whirl and twirl before gracefully exiting.   And so Jaime guided us through the streets of Jerez until we wimped out to go home at 11 pm, leaving the rest of the group to continue until who knows when!

Singing and dancing until the wee hours

And of course I organized my own palatial zambomba.  With my favorite bring-a-plate-of-tapas-and-a-bottle-of-whatever, these parties are easy, and all I had to do was arrange the music and find plenty of chairs.  My friend Jesule and his group led us through villancicos, sevillanas, and of course the bulerias.  (These musicians have stamina during this season, sometimes playing 3-4 parties per day on the weekends!) 

Rumba with Paqui

Time for the bulerias
Jaime bailando: This is what I aspire to...and it will take me another 20 years to get there.

After they left (for their next event!), we began singing and dancing with no need for music other than the accompaniment of our palmas (clapping).   In my premiere, I sang bulerias for the first time in public with the gorgeous copla Mal Alma, much to the amusement of everyone. 

Todd gets roped into dancing--what a good sport!
Begoña and Juan Pablo sing around the fire

Fiesta fun

To my delight, my friend and former student Timothy Hurst came to visit just in time for the zambomba.  I learned to teach at Our Lady of Perpetual Help (OLPH) in Anacostia, Washington, DC, also known to the kids as “Our Little Prison Home.”  Timothy, a young 11-year-old in 7th grade, was in my class my very first year of teaching.  He’d found me through Facebook, as have many former students, and as he was stationed in Crete, Greece, I’d invited him and his family to come stay with us.  It was strange and familiar at the same time to get to know him and his wife Natalia, a strikingly beautiful Puerto Rican, and to play with their two small boys Gabriel and Massimo. 

Teacher and student

We took Timothy, Natalia, and the boys to Todd’s former patient Mr. Suitt’s farm in Chipiona.  Not a zambomba exactly, but we made off with freshly harvested potatoes, carrots, and oranges.  Perfect loot, just in time for the arrival of Suzi, Ethan, Griffin and Ado for the holidays!

Bugs Bunny's dream: Nascent carrot farmers

Monday, November 30, 2015

Autumn in Spain

Thanksgiving means Sasha's birthday!  Feliz cumpleaños to our little turkey! (Purple hands courtesy of tie-dying activity)

I find myself feeling a little sad and nostalgic as we head into the home stretch of our time here in Spain.  The end of September marked the beginning of our last year here, and so from here on in everything takes on the color of being “the last time…”  at least for a while. 

Rustic rural:  Benamahoma house near Grazalema

Autumn is a good time for this kind of mildly maudlin reflective mindset.  And so when my friend Maribel told us about a lovely house close to Grazalema in the nearby Sierra de Pinar mountain range, just after a energetic game of padel with Mati and Charlotte, it seemed a perfect opportunity for an impromptu weekend getaway to view Spanish fall colors in the mountains.  

Another pueblo blanco of Andalusia: Benamahoma

Within three days, Maribel, Mati and I had the house rented for the following weekend, and had recruited Angeline, Trev, and their family, as well as Mati’s sister Laura and her kids. 

Playing games.  The house is as beautiful inside as it is outside.
Three sisters??  All we know is, we love Trev.

And so the first weekend in November we found ourselves in a rustic country house perched on the edge of the well-traveled hiking trail from Benamahoma to El Bosque.   Benamahoma (from the Arabic for “Sons of Mohammed) is a small pueblo blanco nestled on the border of the Sierra de Grazalema Natural Park.  

Green and ghostly: legend tells of spirits roaming these paths

It houses the natural spring that gives rise to the Rio Majaceite, which in turns flows into the Rio Guadalete and on down back to our home town of El Puerto.   

A bunch of hikers

The foot paths running alongside the Rio Majaceite are well-loved by the Spanish, and this weekend was no exception; the gorgeous fall weather brought out hikers of all ages, and we joined them for several hours to hike down to El Bosque.

Javi cooks up the paella for a late lunch after hiking.  We were hungry!!

The weekend flew by, playing guitar and games at night and breakfasting all together before hiking until the traditionally late Spanish lunch.  

The digital version of charades

More old-fashioned: game of spoons

On Sunday we hiked an almost completely abandoned trail; we had to search for it carefully, and the beauty and wildness of the area was enchanting.   

First arrivals: Paloma, Steph, and Sasha

We reached the cross keeping watch over Benamahoma and continued on through the arroyo, while the girls amused themselves plaiting flowers into their hair and playing tag.  All too soon we returned to Puerto tired and content.

Flower girls

A fun group!

Another fall tradition loomed large at the end of November: Thanksgiving.  Having celebrated with a mix of people, both American and Spanish, many of whom were already very familiar with our most American holiday, we decided to cook our own turkey and celebrate again in the palace (in part to assure a smooth supply of leftovers, my very favorite part of Thanksgiving).  

Ready to eat
We invited Spanish friends who had never had the chance to eat a proper Thanksgiving meal: my friend Charo and her husband Miguel; my friends and neighbors Maria and Enrique; my beloved friend Antonia, the very first flamenco compañera who complimented me on my dancing, no matter that it was very beginner; and my flamenco teacher Jaime, who not only has taught me a huge amount about flamenco in a very short time, but who loves to learn about new traditions and customs. 

My best effort to date!

And to my credit, I made the very best turkey ever in my life.   Moist, tender, and juicy, crispy on the outside, delicious moist-bread stuffing on the inside, with cranberry and mashed potatoes and green beans and gravy, all prepared so that it came together in one fragrant delicious smorgasboard.  

The perfect place for Thanksgiving

Pumpkin, apple, and pecan pies rounded out the meal, and oh, what a setting…there is no better than our splendid dining room at the palace. 

American turkey and Terry fino:  the best of both worlds

And so time flows on, turning more quickly than I would like, pushing forward through the weeks with a stealthy speed that I would love to slow down.  But as the saying goes, time flies when you are having fun.  And so it is!

Welcome to Thanksgiving at the Palace