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

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