Halloween Weekend in La Vera

There’s no better place to spend Halloween weekend than in an old, agricultural village way out in Extremadura, called Villanueva de la Vera, with houses dating back to the 1800s.  These houses made of stone and wood are so old that the doorways are extremely squat, just enough for someone my height to pass through.

During siesta time the narrow, uneven streets are abandoned and the beaded curtains that hang across every front door seem ominous. There’s even a terrifying-looking house in the outskirts of the village, think typical haunted-looking asylum, with the windows and doors all shuttered.

We stayed in one of the country houses typical of small towns, and after eating some delicious raciones of tapas out in the plaza, exploring the village a bit, and having a never-ending dinner smoke and jam session with the resident musicians, we put on our costumes, painted our faces, and went out among the village to wreak havoc and fear!  Mostly, people were like WTF, cuz it wasn’t even Halloween night. But we had fun anyway.

After half of our crowd left the following day, the remaining four of us had a lovely little lunch outside in the garden of the house. The tomatoes and olive oil in Extremadura are excellent, not to mention their marmalade. Cream of chestnut, which I’d never had before, is to die for. And Javi bought about 324989 ecological soaps made of olive oil.

Of course, a vacation isn’t a vacation without making some new friends. This kitty followed me around and waited outside our door for me to pet her. I really think I was a cat in my past life.

Also, no vacation is complete without two intense games of Trivial Pursuit, the first time getting your ass kicked and the second time exacting a just revenge. 🙂

Overall, I got the Halloween that I wanted, minus the haunted hayride and the pumpkin carving contest. We looked everywhere for big orange pumpkins, and the closest thing they had was round butternut squash. Try carving those!

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The surprise trip turned out to be…

….drumroll…Oporto, Portugal!

In Portuguese, it´s Porto, which translates as “port.” Apt name, as its coastal location and its river Douro lend to the city some beautiful views and beaches within a metro-ride away from the center. Even though “charming” is an over-used word to describe most small cities and towns in Europe, Porto really was exactly that, but with many ruined buildings and old grungy neighborhoods thrown in the mix. Adds to the historic charm.

Red rooves, the up and down of hilly cobble-stoned streets, small French-style cafés everywhere…

We finally managed to locate a world-famous bookstore, Livrería Lello, where some of the scenes from the Harry Potter movies were shot. One can see its resemblance to Hogwarts; its snaking ornate wooden staircase is its prize attraction.

FOOOOOD. How can one ever write about a destination without mentioning the food? Especially Portuguese food, with its amazing seafood dishes — codfish, bass, sea barnacles, octopus, shrimp, you name it. The salt taste of the sea makes it seem as if these sumptious creatures were caught only minutes ago. Also, good food is much cheaper here than it is in Spain.

We decided to splurge and order the most expensive fish I’ve eaten ever, a huge oven-baked sea bass buried in sea-salt. Even though the fish alone was 46 euros, the entire meal was actually pretty reasonable, considering it was also my first time trying barnacles fresh out of the sea and seasoned by mother nature. They look pretty weird but are mighty tasty.

Javi putting on his photo-face. The fish was accompanied by a stewy rice with spinach, beans, and a delicious red sauce. After paying the bill, we took a stroll in an attempt to digest the entire fish that we had just eaten, and decided it might have been better if we had gone instead to this restaurant here:

A trip to the beach and bike-riding. Sun, breezes, a long boardwalk, exercise… The weather was perfect, water was cold.

Cabeleireiro = Hair salon. These were everywhere, which led to our non-stop repetitions of “Cabeleireireireireireiro.”

We went on a small cruise of the Douro and got to see some of the bridges connecting both sides of the city and the pretty houses overhanging the water. Also enjoyed just lounging on a bench by the riverside, watching the gondolas drift by, sipping on iced cafe con leite, observing the cable car going up and over the river.

The notable difference between the Portuguese and the Spanish surprised me a bit, in our interactions with waiters, tourist information points, hotel clerks, and even strangers. I mean, they do live on the same península and speak similar languages. But the Portuguese seem much more reserved and professional and speak English exceptionally well. The Spanish generally give off much warmer personalities and love to chit-chat; it only took a funny comment or a thumbs-up from a Spaniard like Javi to get the waiters to crack a smile and show their neighborly hospitality.

Porto’s also home to some interesting ceramic art. We popped into a small ceramics workshop in a little alleyway manned by a busy Portuguese lady. Some of the tile art was quite beautiful, with simple scenes of the city and its river.

Who can resist a city where old trolleys still run regularly?


Rainy Avila

After getting off the train in Avila, John and I notice that the weather has dropped about 15 degrees since leaving Madrid, plus the sky is overcast and rainy. Any time we decide to take a vacation anywhere, it’s COLD. Only after I return to Madrid do I discover that Avila has the reputation of being a notoriously cold town.

We follow the “Tourist Information” signs which instead lead us to the walled city: it’s impressive, especially with the backdrop of angry clouds. This is what I love about escaping the big city on the occasional weekend — I feel as if I’ve stepped into another century. I imagine the 15th or 16th century royalty bustling about inside the walled plazas, the guards stationed on the towers overlooking the town, on a day as rainy as this.

Since I haven’t come prepared for such weather, we do what we always do best: go on a coffee and lunch tour of the place. Various coffees, some beers, a kebab (because never again will I voluntarily eat another bocadillo) and some excellent conversation. We pride ourselves on the fact that at least we stepped foot outside the train station, and that we DID go up on the wall, even if for a short while. We must come back one day in the spring when Spain’s weather lives up to its expectations.