Top ten tapas and free eats in Madrid

In Spain, the “tapa” is the traditional free snack that often accompanies a drink in a bar. There is something unusually delicious about free food, especially when presented alongside a glass of red wine or an ice-cold “caña” (small glass of beer). “Tapas” are sensible – no drinking on an empty stomach. They also serve to whet the taste buds before a meal. Some even call tapas an “alcoholic’s paradise!” Unfortunately, in modern Madrid, you will most often be served a small bowl of crisps, a saucer of olives, or if you’re lucky a piece of bread with a slice of ham or cheese. Any larger serving comes at a price. Free tapas are not easy to come by in Madrid, but if you know where to go you’ll find an abundance of bars where you can eat well for the price of what you drink.

  1. Pepa Tencha, Calle de Apodaca 3, Metro Bilbao (Lines 1,4) and Tribunal (Lines 1,10) – Every Wednesday and Saturday from 8.30pm, this Italian Café offers a free “aperitif” alongside their affordable wine collection. The name is slightly misleading – it refers to an all you can eat buffet of pasta, polenta, salads and various dishes. If you’re looking to eat nearly free in Madrid, this is the best place to come.
  2. El Tigre, Calle de Infantas 30, Metro Chueca (Line 5) and Gran Vía (Line 1 and 5) – El Tigre is the go to place in Madrid for free tapas. Buy a round of beers and get a plateful of delicious snacks to go with it, along with the lively ambience one comes to associate with this most Spanish of Spanish cities.
  3. La Paloma Blanca, Calle de Espiritu Santo 21, Metro Tribunal (Lines 1,10) – This small hole in the wall bar grants you a generous portion of food gratis with your beer. Expect bowls of tuna and pasta salad, accompanied by a fried egg and bread. Ideal for backpackers looking for a protein boost.
  1. Magister, Calle del Principe 18, Metro Sol (Lines 1,2,3) and Tirso de Molina (line 1) – More than just another generic Spanish bar, Magister brew their own beer and each glass comes with a tapa of your choice, from cheese, pork products, Spanish omelette and much more.
  2. A’Cañada, Calle de Fúcar 20, Metro Anton Martín (Line 1) – This small, but packed bar is located close to the Reina Sofia Museum runs in a similar vein to El Tigre, offering plates of food for free with each drink.
  3. Boñar de Leon, Calle de la Cruz Verde 16, Metro Noviciado (Line 2) – A friendly, family owned tavern that serves the best Tinto de Verano, a cocktail of wine, lemon and vermouth, in Madrid. Their free tapas is very generous: from a Spanish omelette to cheeses and meat from Leon.
  4. El Rincón de Abulanse, Calle Cabarello de Gracia 18, Metro Gran Vía (Lines 1 and 5) – Cheap drinks and generous tapas.
  5. Bar La Mina Café, Calle de Mauricio Legendre 5 post, Metro Plaza Castilla (Lines 1,9,10) and Charmartín (Lines 1, 10 and trains) – While this bar is away from the centre, its location near the northern train station makes it an excellent stopping point for an “aperitivo” after a day trip to Segovía or El Escorial, offering free “pinchos,” Spanish appetisers to accompany a drink, this can include Iberian Ham, mussels stuffed with béchamel sauce and breadcrumbs, cheese and Russian salad.
  6. Mercado de Maravillas, Calle de Bravo Murillo 122, Metro Cuatro Caminos (Lines 1,2,6) – A huge market hall where you can buy all kinds of vegetables, cheeses, meats and much more, but it also houses numerous bars which offer generous portions of free tapas, such as “paella,” a Spanish rice dish, or garlic potatoes. The prices for drinks and food here are incredibly cheap!
  7. Malaspina, Calle de Cadíz 9, Metro Sol (Lines 1,2,3) – Just round the corner from Sol, this bar offers small tapas with your drinks, from tuna and potato salad, to toasts topped with Iberian pork products.

[flickr image via Ruth L]

Hiking in France’s Basque Region

Basque, Basque region, France
The Basque region straddles the border between northeastern Spain and southwestern France. For the past five days I’ve been hiking in Spain’s Basque region, and today I and my group are crossing the border into France.

One of our Basque guides, Josu, says the culture on the other side of the border isn’t as strong. While only 28% of Spanish Basques can speak Basque (Euskara), that number goes down to about 15% in France.

“They don’t have as strong of an identity,” Josu says. “They didn’t have Franco, they didn’t have Guernica, they didn’t have the Carlist Wars.”

And that’s an important factor for the whole Basque separatist movement. Being a distinct cultural and linguistic group got them a lot of grief from various Spanish governments. Just like with other minority peoples, that helped strengthen their identity, which in turn increased their separation from the nation. And while the Spanish Basques aren’t being persecuted anymore, they still mistrust the central government. In France there’s been more of a live-and-let-live feeling. ETA, a terrorist group that wants an independent Basque state, has committed relatively few attacks there.

%Gallery-124848%Today politics are on everyone’s mind. There are local and regional elections all across Spain and Josu is standing for mayor of Alcalá, a scattering of 23 villages with fewer than 700 voters. He’s in the Bildu party, a separatist party that was only legalized a month ago and has already caused controversy because of its alleged links to ETA. Some people call it ETA’s Sinn Féin. The supreme court, however, saw insufficient evidence of a link and allowed them to run.

Josu doesn’t think he’s going to win because he hasn’t done much campaigning. He’s mostly running so Bildu will be on Alcalá’s ballot. There’s some tension under his calm demeanor, though.

It’s a shame politics have to mar such a beautiful landscape. We drive only a few miles into France and our route has us walking along the seaside until we reach the border again. The views are excellent, with waves crashing into sheer cliffs and large fingers of rock stabbing out of the surf.

“Legend says that giants used to throw rocks at the people and they’d land in the water like this,” Josu says. “There are stories of witches too. They used to fly to the caves to have their covens.”

One true tale of this rugged shore is about the wreckers. These were a type of land pirate who lured ships onto the rocks and then looted the cargo. Josu tells us the women would stand up on the cliffs holding lanterns on dark nights to fool sea captains. When a mariner followed the signal of what he thought was a lighthouse, he’d crash on the rocks and have a horde of wreckers descend on the surviving crew. Read Daphne du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn for a great fictional account of this line of work.

In contrast to the shore, the land is peaceful, with broad green fields and apple orchards. A stately home with graceful, round towers stands proudly in the distance. The cliffs gradually level out and we walk along a wide sandy strand. This is Hendaia Beach, the longest in the Basque region. Like along other parts of the coast, it saw its heyday in the earlier part of the century when elegant villas and casinos housed and entertained the wealthy. It’s still popular for surfers willing to brave the cold waters of the Cantabrian Sea.

All too soon we’ve made it back to the border, where we go for lunch in Hondarribia, a very Basque town. While there we do a very Basque thing–bar hopping for pintxos! The Basque answer to tapas, these elegant little meals-on-bread will fill you up after two or three servings. There’s an endless variety and each bar has its specialties. They’re best when washed down with some txakoli, the Basque sparkling wine.

After lunch we return to San Sebastián, the wealthiest city in the Basque region. This port was the place to be back in the region’s days of high-class tourism, and our hotel, the Hotel de Londres y de Ingleterra, once accommodated the likes of Mata Hari. Check out the photo gallery for their astounding view of the bay.

Still talking about our very Basque lunch, we head out for a very Basque dinner on the outskirts of San Sebastián, overlooking the industrial port. With the sun setting and the ships coming and going, it’s a location to touch any traveler’s heart. We arrive a bit early so we go to a bar along Pasajes de San Juan, a street that seems to be a virtual Basque cultural center. Basque flags and protest banners adorn the windows. Basque is almost the only language heard in the bars as a band goes from place to place playing traditional music, to which everyone sings along as the txakoli flows freely.

Josu looks very at home, joking with crowd and smiling at the band. His mobile rings every few minutes as friends call him to give him updates. He plays it cool, still insisting he’s not going to win. I don’t quite believe his nonchalance. As another politician once said, “You don’t run for second place.”

Dinner is at Casa Mirones. The food is the usual high standard I’ve come to expect from this part of the world, while the view is incomparable. One wall is all glass, and we’re treated a full view of the harbor at twilight, the ships passing by so closely we could call out to the crew. Sometime during the excellent paella, Josu gets the call he’s waiting for. His face lights up and he beams a grin at the world. The table erupts in applause as he announces he’s won.

Bildu made a surprisingly strong showing. In the Basque region they got 25.9% of the vote and their candidates won many regional and local seats. Whatever people think of Bildu, it looks like it’s here to stay.

It’s not every day that your tour guide makes the news.

Coming up next: Politics and people: an immigrant’s impressions of the Basque Country!

Don’t miss the rest of my series: Beyond Bilbao: Hiking through the Basque region.

This trip was sponsored by Country Walkers. The views expressed in this series, however, are entirely my own.

Grantourismo blogger on guidebooks and travel writing

Grantourismo on guidebooks and travel writingLast week I posted a Q & A with blogger Lara Dunston and her husband and partner Terence Carter about their travel project and blog Grantourismo. In addition to good advice about renting a vacation apartment and getting “under the skin” of a place when traveling, they had a lot of interesting things to say about guidebooks, both from their experiences writing them and how they see travelers using them wrong.

Read on for more on the guidebook writing process, how you can use them best on vacation, the changing media landscape, and which bloggers and publications offer the best content for travelers.How did this project stem from your experiences as travel writers?
Grantourismo began as a personal travel project that developed from our frustrations, firstly, with our own work as travel writers, and secondly, with how many travelers rely so much on guidebooks. Terence and I wrote, updated or contributed to around 50 guidebooks for Lonely Planet, Footprints, Rough Guides, DK, and others, and what we loved most about guidebook writing was when we worked on a city guide and rented an apartment for a month or two and really got beneath the skin of the place.

So many writers who aren’t residents of a place ‘parachute in’ to a destination for a few weeks and do crazy 18-hour days ticking off sights/bars/restaurants etc in a frenzy and leave. We didn’t start travel writing to live like that. However, what we disliked was the tedious stuff – ensuring the post office was in the right spot on the map, checking bus timetables, etc. We’d also been doing lots of feature writing, especially profiles, for magazines and newspapers, and what we loved about that was experiencing places through their people.

What’s the difference between guidebook and feature writing?

Grantourism guidebooks travel writingWith guidebooks, unless Terence had a photography commission for the same book we were writing, we mostly traveled anonymously. As feature writers we could contact people, doors would open, and we’d have incredible experiences, and come away feeling like we’d really learnt something. For instance, for a story on Michelin-star chef Pierre Gagnaire’s Dubai restaurant, we spent a night in the kitchen, Terence cooking and me observing and notetaking and – Terence ended up cooking a dish for Pierre! Grantourismo was an attempt to develop a project that would give us the opportunity to have more of those kinds of experiences and have the best of both worlds, of guidebook and feature writing. We also wanted to inspire travelers to travel in the same way, to engage more with locals and explore their own interests when they travel. This desire grew out of a frustration with seeing how obsessed people were with their guidebooks and witnessing travellers miss out on amazing opportunities because they would only go to places their guidebooks recommended.

I’ll never forget going to a great little stand-up seafood tapas place in Barcelona and seeing a young American couple sitting on the doorstop next door frantically trying to figure out if it was in the guidebook. The place was heaving and it was full of locals! Just go in! There’s also another famous tapas bar in Barcelona which once had a great reputation but it fairly mediocre now but because it’s in every guidebook, people line up for it an hour before it opens. Yet there are 20 other better tapas bars in the surrounding streets! We’d rather see people leave their guidebooks closed occasionally, talk to locals more and pursue their interests. If you’re passionate about food and cooking, why not go to a place and do a cooking course, stay in a vacation rental and shop at the markets and cook? If you love a restaurant get tips on where to eat from the waiter, and if the restaurant is quiet, why not ask to see the kitchen and chat to the chef?

So can travelers still rely on guidebooks for basic info?
Guidebooks are great for background information on a wide variety of topics on a place. What’s the alternative? Lugging around half a dozen books on the history, politics, geography, culture etc of the destination? Or load those books onto a Kindle or iPad, although of course not all travelers can afford hi-tech gadgets or even want to take them to some destinations. The ‘front/back matter’ in guidebooks can usually be relied upon – sometimes the stuff is written by subject experts, or it’s written by authors who do a great deal of research, it’s fact-checked, and it doesn’t date quickly.

Where guidebooks can be unreliable on the other hand is in the perishable information – reviews of hotels, restaurants, shops, cafés, bars, their addresses, phone numbers, prices, opening times etc. It’s not necessarily the author’s fault. Businesses move or close down, things change. It’s the fault of the publisher and their long production schedules – sometimes a year or 18 months can pass from the time the author has done the research to the time the books hit the shops. Some places never change or change little, like small country towns, but cities like Shanghai or Dubai change constantly.

We once worked on a first edition guidebook that took two years from the time I submitted the manuscript and Terence submitted the photos to reaching the bookshops. I wrote the first edition of one guidebook and updated the second edition, but I know that book has since been reprinted twice without further updates. How can travelers rely on those books? In some cases, I think the publishers have a lot to answer for, particularly when new museums or significant sights would make a ‘Top 10’ list but haven’t been added.

Any guidebook series you do like for local recommendations?
We like niche guidebooks, such as Hedonist’s Guides, which uses authors that really know their stuff when it comes to restaurants, bars, and hotels.Hedonists also come in a cool hardcover book as well, so they don’t fall apart, and as iPhone apps that are updated much more frequently than the book.

This year, on our Grantourismo trip, we’ve been on a mission to find locally produced guidebooks in each place we’ve visited, and when we’ve tested out a book and loved it we’ve interviewed the publishers/editors and showcased the book on our site, such as the arty and rather philosophical ‘My Local Guide to Venice‘ and the straight-talking ‘Not for Tourists
in New York. We want to encourage travelers to look for these books because they bring a uniquely local flavor and multiple perspectives on their destinations, unlike the big mainstream global guidebook publishers where the authors’ personalities are never allowed to shine.

Grantourismo guidebooks travel writing
What can user-generated content like TripAdvisor offer travelers compared to traditional media?
I think user-generated content supplements books and travel features in newspapers/magazines but can never replace quality guidebook authorship or travel journalism. While user-generated content wins out in terms of currency (the reviews have dates), guidebook authors and travel journalists are professionals with expertise. It’s our job to assess hotels, restaurants, bars, sights, and so on. Having slept in thousands of hotels across all budget categories, eaten tens of thousands of meals at all kinds of restaurants, visited thousands of museums, etc, gives you a degree of experience and expertise that the average traveler who has 2 weeks (in the USA) or at most 4-8 weeks (in the UK/Australia/Europe) holiday can never hope to match. If a guidebook author tells me the XXX hotel is the best in Milan and a reviewer on Trip Advisor tells me the YYY hotel is the best, I know whose opinion I’m going to trust.

If the traveler writing on Trip Advisor focuses on describing in detail their very specific experience of a hotel or restaurant, that kind of information can be helpful when weighed up against other reviews by travelers and experts. Where it can be detrimental is when the Trip Advisor reviewer starts making claims about a certain hotel being the best in the city or the cheapest or friendliest or whatever. What I want to know is how many hotels have they stayed at or inspected to be able to compare their hotel to? A guidebook writer specializing on a destination might have stayed at a dozen hotels in that city over a number of years, and inspected 50 others. So when it comes to user-generated content, my main issue is with the authority of authorship. There are also plenty of games being played out behind the scenes with
manipulation of reviews (both positive and negative) of properties. In a recent destination we visited a local foodie who told us to simply ignore the top 10 places listed on Trip Advisor as they’re rubbish. And she was right. We’ve personally seen scathing reviews of hotels and restaurants that we know are some of our favourites in the world – so who are you going to trust? The user ‘britney_1537’ or a professional travel writer?

Where do you see travel journalism going?
I can’t see travel journalism in magazines or newspapers changing significantly because it hasn’t changed in its genre, form or structure a great deal at all. What has changed is that there are far more journalists working for broadsheets and travel magazine these days that are doing trips ‘courtesy of’ a tourism body or travel operator – and it’s apparent from the first paragraph, even if it’s not declared. There has definitely been a trend toward publications redefining and narrowing their focus and we’ve seen wonderful new niche travel publications born in the last year or so such as Wend and AFAR – a magazine after our own hearts and minds!

I can see traditional travel publications embracing more user-generated content in the way that some of the UK newspapers have been doing by incorporating reader’s travel writing and tips and linking to those on their main travel pages. I love how The Guardian in the UK engages its readers on Twitter and I dig the Twi-Trips that Benji Lanyado does, which are kind of mini-versions of that fantastic journey the Twitchhiker did that had us all engrossed in his journey halfway round the world relying totally on the hospitality of strangers.

I also think we’ll start to see more travel writers like Terence and I who have worked across traditional media platforms entering into direct relationships with companies as we have with HomeAway Holiday-Rentals and producing content on their own websites and blogs or on the company’s blog, as say, David Whitley has done for Round the World Flights in the UK. But it will only work if the writer can negotiate editorial control as we did with HomeAway Holiday-Rentals. As long as writers maintain their integrity and apply the same ethics they would to a story for a newspaper or magazine, it’s a good thing. But how many travel companies are willing to give writers this freedom? If you look at our last few posts on Cape Town and our first posts on Kenya – which are both reflective and critical – you have to ask yourself how many travel-related companies are willing to let writers produce this kind of content that doesn’t gloss over the situation on the ground?

How can travelers benefit from the changing media landscape?
Travellers can benefit by content that is more creative and less restricted by a publications editorial style or writing guidelines, by content that is more freewheeling in spirit. A perfect example is Pam Mandel who blogs at Nerd’s Eye View, who has a unique, intimate, chatty style of writing that wouldn’t work for a lot of newspapers for instance – but she’s heading off to Antarctica soon on a sponsored trip and I can’t wait to see how she brings her own singular brand of writing to that adventure. What’s important with these gigs, like Grantourismo, is that travel writers continue to be upfront, honest, critical and opinionated in their writing. They need to maintain their integrity and ethics. Travelers in turn need to expect that of the writers they’re reading – if they’re seeing ‘sponsored story’ or company widgets/logos on their blogs (both travel writers and bloggers), they need to look for an editorial policy. It’s only by writing critically that writers will win readers’ trust in the long term and projects like Grantourismo will succeed.

Check out more on Grantourismo on their blog and Twitter page.

All photos courtesy of Terence Carter.

It’s Rioja Restaurant Week in NYC and Chicago!

Last January, my husband and I took a trip to the Rioja region of Spain. We sampled Rioja wines and visited underground cellars by day, and hopped from bar to bar snacking on tapas and drinking Rioja wines by night. We found that there were several Rioja wines that we loved, at that the tapas served there (while not incredibly creative like those offered in the Basque country) were simply delicious. So I was very excited to see that this week, October 18 to 25, is Rioja Restaurant Week both here in Chicago and in New York City.

From now until Sunday, dozens of restaurants in both cities will offer special deals and dishes to celebrate the wine and cuisine of the Rioja area. Some will offer $12 tapas and wine pairings and others will offer $25 or $50 prix fixe menus paired with wine. Other specials offered as part of the promotion include a 15% discount on dinner or a 20% discount on a bottle of Rioja wine. Not a bad deal. This means that at Eivissa, a Catalan tapas restaurant in Chicago (for example), you can either get a multi-course dinner for two for $50, or just nosh on their signature tapas, which are half off weekdays from 4pm-6pm, and enjoy a bottle of Rioja wine for as little as $30.

Over 50 restaurants in NYC are participating, along with nearly 30 in Chicago.

The Abbey Resort and Spa: A surprise foodie retreat in the Midwest

When you stay at a resort like The Abbey Resort and Spa on Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, chances are that you’ll eat many of your meals at the property’s on-site restaurant. This can sometimes mean dining on uninspired dishes like rubbery “hotel chicken” or resigning yourself to the fact that you’ll be spending a fortune on each meal in order to avoid heading offsite in search of better or cheaper food.

So one of the things that impressed me most about The Abbey Resort was the clear dedication to quality food at affordable prices. Over the course of my stay, I had the chance to sample several of their signature dishes, from a hearty dinner that included grilled scallops, tender beef filet and rich espresso creme brulee to a light meal from the spa menu that featured an Asian chicken salad, fresh veggies and a dessert of grilled pound cake with strawberry puree. I’m a picky eater with a former chef for a husband, so I can be hard to please. But there was not one dish I tried that I did not like. Even more impressive: almost everything served at The Abbey is made from scratch.

The Abbey’s foodie focus extends beyond the kitchen walls though. On summer Sunday afternoons (Memorial Day to Labor Day), the resort hosts “Burning Down the Docks” -an all-day celebration of “brews, blues and BBQ”. Nearly 200 people attend each event and indulge in $2 Leinenkugel beers and BBQ straight from the onsite smoker while listing to live performances from local (and local to Chicago) blues bands.

With the season for outdoor barbecues behind them, The Abbey has moved on to a new series of culinary events for the Fall. For three weekends in October and November, The Abbey will host their third “Great Chefs at the Lake” series. Guests who pay for the package ($219 per person for two nights) will arrive on Friday for a welcome reception with that weekend’s featured chef. On Saturday, they’ll watch that chef prepare some of his or her signature meals and then enjoy a four-course dinner, with wine pairing, created by the chef specifically for the event.

The Abbey has pulled in some pretty big names in Chicago dining for the series. October 23-25 will feature the cuisine of award-winning chef Todd Stein from cibo matto and the trendy ROOF bar at The Wit hotel (and formerly of acclaimed restaurant MK). November 6-8 they’ll welcome Dudley Nieto from tapas restaurant, Eivissa. The last weekend, November 13-15, food from Coobah, helmed by chef Jimmy Madla (who is also the drummer for the band Veruca Salt), will be served.

To find out more about the strategy behind the food focus at The Abbey, I talked with Director of Operations, Michael Lucero, who previously worked as Food and Beverage Director of House of Blues in Chicago. Here’s what he had to say:

How did working at the House of Blues prepare you to run operations at The Abbey:
When first interviewing at the House of Blues, I realized that [with multiple venues in one] the operations were very similar to a resort, without the guest rooms. The main reason I joined the House of Blues [was] because of their dedication and commitment to the culture. . . They never wavered from the quality and service standards that helped build their brand. This is where I realized broader benefits of “scratch cooking.” Although it costs more to do so, the quality is always better and more consistent. It also allows creativity and this is where chefs thrive.

When I joined The Abbey, I wanted to bring that aspect to a resort setting. When compared to stand-alone restaurants, customer perceptions of hotel food tends to be lower – too expensive, inferior food, and relatively “staid” menus. We are changing those perceptions here at The Abbey. It started with our philosophy of “hiring the smile-training the skill” – bringing back service dedicated people. Then we focused on the food. Well over 70% of the menu is prepared with raw ingredients.

A great example would be our new BBQ menu in the Waterfront (restaurant). All meats and fish are butchered by our Chef, mixed with home-made ingredients, and smoked by our Pit Master on our outdoor smoker. The Pit Master is certified with the Kansas BBQ Society. This is as good as it gets. This philosophy extends throughout the kitchens in all food preparations.

Speaking of your Pit Master, Matt Whiteford, how did you select him as The Abbey’s BBQ master?
Matt was the perfect person to do the grilling. Our goal was to create a menu and an experience unique to our dockside location, a destination that locals can enjoy frequently, and a dining scenario where all guests would share in the gospel of great BBQ. We realized a great opportunity to align the resort with an award-winning Pit Master. [Matt] has competed for the last five years nationally. . his process was exactly what we were looking for. His “layers of flavors” technique, applying spice rubs and various marinades and glazes during the cooking process, followed by one of Whiteford’s gourmet BBQ sauces [which the resort sells], delivers exceptionally tender and delicious BBQ. He truly has a passion for BBQ and his personality is perfect, always interacting with the guests as they enjoy their food.

I didn’t get a chance to watch Matt in action (or try his famous pulled pork), but I did chat with him for a few minutes and it’s true, his love for what he does is immediately apparent. It’s that obsession with quality food that I think makes The Abbey stand out among other Midwest resorts. They not only serve delicious meals at a variety of price points, they recognize that their guests have a passion for creative cuisine too.

Disclosure: The Abbey Resort and Spa did cover the cost of my stay, but the views expressed within my post are entirely my own. Gratis or not, the food here was delicious and I’m carrying the extra five pounds to prove it.