Dancers

Flamenco dancers onstage at the theater inside Sevilla’s Mercado de Triana.

The young dancer stood statuesque, in a white dress with ruffled red trim that matched her crimson lips. Her gaze penetrated the darkness. Lean and intense, her hair drawn tightly away from her face and secured with a red flamenco flower at the crown of her head, she glowed in the stage light.

With two swift stamps of her foot and writhing wrists, she started to move. Her red block-heel shoes rapped the stage floor with a force that vibrated through our seats. She clutched her skirt and swirled it, her expression a mix of pain and nostalgia, her focus within, on something we were not privy to.

With her onstage were a guitarist and a singer. They watched her closely, taking cues from her movement, accompanying the dance with swift hard strumming and impassioned, melodic lamentation. The singer counterpointed the dancer’s footwork with sharp claps, slapping the first three fingers of one hand into the palm of the other. Shouts of “Gitana!” came from behind us, encouragement to the dancer, whose expression and movement had become a story of pride and defiance.

We were in Sevilla, the heart of Andalusia, the home of flamenco.

***

Teatro

The diminutive theater lives in the heart of the market.

Earlier, deep in the halls of the Mercado de Triana, blue tiled lettering above the stalls advertised the vendor’s products: frutas y verduras, charcuteria, pescados y mariscos. But on this Monday evening, the stalls were gated and the indoor market was vacant. Only the signage and vegetal aroma betrayed the building’s day-to-day function.

We were not here to shop or eat. We were here for a demonstration of flamenco from a band of Spanish gitanos (gypsies).

In front of a stall converted into a Teatro, we met our hosts, Manuel (Manu) Santiago and MarÍa Hernández. A husband-and-wife team, by day they are social workers who represent the gypsy community in Sevilla. They are also artists, teachers, and flamenco evangelists who dress the part: he wore a luxe cherry-red velveteen jacket and she a short, fringed dress and stilettos. At a makeshift ticket stand outside the theater, a young man stapled small squares of paper into cones and filled them with gummy candies, which he handed to us with a shy smile. Manu said of the man, “He is a romantic.”

Manu spoke of the gypsy culture in Spain and the role of flamenco in their community. Gypsies have been persecuted for centuries, he said. The music reflects their struggles. “Flamenco was how they stayed connected with one another.”

He invited us to pass through the heavy velvet curtain into the intimate theater, where about 25 upholstered theater seats rose in tiers from the front of the room to the back. We took seats in the first three rows, a flower’s toss from the stage, where four crimson lacquered chairs faced us.

Manu introduced the first performer as a proud member of the gypsy community and a flamenco guitarist. The same young man who was fashioning cones outside the theater sat on one of the chairs with his instrument. He began to play, chopping at his strings and filling the small theater with swift, staccato chord progressions.

Manu Taking Questions

Manu (right) describes the gypsy culture and answers questions.

After a couple of solo arrangements, a second man entered the stage and sat on a chair next to the guitarist. Dressed in black, with a shock of black hair, his dark form framed by the bright red chair, he closed his eyes and began a mournful song. His deep voice, at times raised in a wail, resonated through the theater. The lament he expressed was palpable, the emotion raw and visceral.

Between performances, Manu expanded on the gypsy art form, emphasizing the multidimensional nature of flamenco. A range of themes convey different moods, from pain and loneliness to joy and celebration. “Music was passed down from one generation to the next through the community,” he said. To demonstrate the style differences, he and MarÍa took the stage. Manu and the other guitarist played while MarÍa belted out a gutsy song, her voice filled with bravado and pride, a clear contrast to the man’s moody performance.

On Stage

The gypsy ensemble.

Next to appear was the fierce young dancer in the white dress, who performed a couple of solo numbers before being joined onstage by a young man. The mood then changed to one of pursuit and competition, as the pair stomped and charged toward and away from each other like a bullfighter and his adversary. Ultimately, the feeling was celebratory.

To cap off the performances, we were invited to join in a flamenco-ized version of “I Did It My Way,” a fun way to wrap up the evening. We thanked our hosts and the performers, and filed out of the market.

Back in the street, we couldn’t help but stomp our own feet in a lame attempt to replicate what we had witnessed. And we were reminded of the talent and years of work it takes to make art look so effortless and beautiful.

The young dancer appeared, now in skinny jeans, trailing a roller bag. She had looked older onstage, in the lights, channeling an emotional, centuries-old cultural heritage. Now here she was, a smiling teen-ager, thrilled to have her picture taken with MarÍa.

Bob and Sebastian

Sebastian and Bob discuss important matters under the watchful gaze of a disembodied dinner guest.

Manu and MarÍa joined us for tapas at Taberna Miami, a nearby restaurant and shrine to bullfighting. We squeezed into a private side room, La Sala del Toro, and arranged ourselves around the table. Above the wainscoting of Spanish tiles, with their intricate blue and green floral designs, hung pictures of famous bullfighters and their bovine conquests. Sebastian sat at the head of the table beneath the vacant gaze of an unfortunate bull whose head was mounted on the wall.

Waiters poured glasses of inky Alcorta tempranillo while Sebastian ordered food. We started with the familiar salty-savory trio of paper-thin jamón Ibérico, salami, and sharp cheese. Next, two varieties of crispy golden croquetas with gooey interiors: mild, creamy hake that oozed in the mouth; and luscious savory oxtail, rich with lip-coating collagen.

After the finger snacks came shallow pans of shrimp confit in a garlicky olive oil laced with fiery dry Thai bird chiles — delicious with a slice of warm baguette to soak up the juices.

Croquetas

Creamy hake croquetas disappeared quickly.

Finally, crumbled blood sausage served in small, shallow paella pans of rice. Rich, savory, earthy and crispy around the edges, it was one of the most delicious plates of the whole trip.

After a lovely meal and lively conversation about flamenco, the food, and MarÍa and Manu’s twin children, we said goodbye to our hosts and stepped out into the cool November night. Bob, Dorothy, and Kati grabbed a cab while the rest of us walked back to the hotel across the canal. We stopped at Casa Morales, one of Sevilla’s oldest bars, for a nightcap.

Amid the tall earthenware jugs that lined the walls, Sebastian previewed our next adventure. In the morning we would drive to Jerez, an area known for sherry production and dancing Andalusian horses. There we would learn about – and drink! – sherry. We would also enjoy a multicourse meal by one of Spain’s most innovative chefs, paired exclusively with sherry.

CasaMorlesNEEDSEDIT

Jeff, Roxanne, and Kyle among the earthenware jugs at Casa Morales.

We sipped and chatted about our memorable evening, again humbled by the warmth of the Spanish and their eagerness to share their culture. With the evening’s flamenco memories still vibrating, and tomorrow’s agenda set, we drained our glasses and strolled back to the hotel.

We were in Sevilla, the heart of Andalusia, the home of flamenco. Is there a better place to be?

 

 

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Casa Roman Table

Lunch at Casa Roman on a pleasantly sunny afternoon under a bright blue sky.

 

The first leg of our adventure behind us, we left Madrid on a brisk, sunny morning via high-speed train, southbound for Sevilla.

After a 2 1/2-hour journey through a tawny landscape stippled with olive trees, we detrained, collected our bags and met Sebastian, who along with Dorothy had orchestrated our trip. He led us out of the cavernous station into glaring sunlight, where we boarded Sevilla’s version of the Weismobile and headed to the hotel. The stunning Corral del Rey occupies a restored 17th-century casa palacio in the city’s old quarter. After checking in, we tried to orient ourselves. Sebastian’s advice: Drop a pin on your phone’s map to find your way through the city’s ancient labyrinthine passageways. Modern-day breadcrumbs.

Jamon hanging

Jamon Iberico curing over the bar inside Casa Roman.

After a short respite, we strolled to la Plaza Venerables for lunch. At Casa Roman, waiters arranged a long table on the square in the shadow of the imposing Hospital de los Venerables. Once a home to priests, today the building houses a research center devoted to the work of famed Spanish painter Diego Velázquez.

Pitchers of ruby-red Sangria appeared, along with a couple of bottles of fresh, fruity Albariño. Soon the table was laden with salty cheese, fried cuttlefish, crispy dogfish croquetas, earthy artichoke hearts, tangy Salmorejo and, of course, thin slices of jamón Ibérico with its distinctive ribboning of rich fat.

Inside the restaurant, sweating lobes of Ibérico hung curing above the bar, a familiar scene in our travels. In Toledo, we had asked Gerry why jamón was so ubiquitous. He explained that in medieval times, pork was plentiful and easy to preserve, but it also served an important cultural function. If a Christian found himself needing to prove his religious affiliation, he would eat pork, which is forbidden to pious Muslims and Jews. “See? I am a ham eater!”

Jamón Ibérico appears on nearly every menu as a standalone snack or appetizer. At Casa Roman, it’s incorporated into practically every other dish, too. It was clear: In Spain, jamón is royalty. And during our lunch at Casa Roman, the refrain never rang truer: “We are ham eaters!”  

La Masia Lunch

Lunch at La Masia

Gathered around an enormous table at a cervecería in Toledo with the Weis family and Kati’s Spanish host madre, it was easy to feel the love. Platters of simple, homey food appeared, wine poured freely, laughter erupted from every sector. It was a genuinely happy moment.

That morning, we had been driven from Madrid to Toledo, where Kati had spent a college semester a few years prior. We spent the morning with Gerry, hiking the cobblestone mazes of the hilly medieval city, exploring churches, mosques and synagogues, learning about the art, architecture and history of the area.

It was here, an hour southwest of Madrid, that Kati fell in love with Spain. Upon meeting Tomy, her host mother during her semester abroad, we understood why her experience had been so profound.

 A couple of weeks before we left the States, we heard that Tomy’s husband had passed away. We thought this sad event would alter our Toledo itinerary. But after talking with Tomy, Kati assured us that her madre wanted to meet for lunch as scheduled. The only change: Rather than having Tomy cook for us, we would go out.

Tomy

A lovely portrait of Tomy.

So around 12:30, after our morning tour, we dropped Gerry at the train station where we bid adieu (or rather, adios) to our affable Madrid guide. From there we drove to a modern apartment complex in the Toledo suburb of Polígono, where Tomy lives. When we arrived, she met us in the foyer. A beautifully petite woman with a warm smile and an air of fortitude, she greeted each of us with besos.

“Ah, it smells the same!” Kati declared as we filed into the tidy apartment, despite the fact that it was not the same home she occupied during her studies here.

Kati and Tomy prepared nibbles and caught up in the kitchen while the rest of us sipped wine and made ourselves comfortable in the living room. A tiny yellow bird chattered in its cage next to the front window. The TV was tuned to a cooking show featuring a hunky Spaniard preparing a delicious-looking tripe stew. Though I had just met her, I realized Tomy was a kindred spirit.    

She speaks no English, but it was, in the words of Dr. Bob Weis, “no problem.” Kati confidently translated as we snacked on crackers, salami, and Spanish cheese. Sipping a second bottle of Rioja, we talked about Kati’s semester in Toledo and how much we had enjoyed spending the morning there.

With typical enthusiasm, Gerry had revealed the layers of history behind the ancient plaster walls. The region’s multireligious tradition meant Christians, Jews, and Muslims coexisted for centuries, at times literally building on top of one another. “When you renovate anything in this region, especially churches,” he said, “you end up with an archeological site on your hands.”

We recalled seeing a pair of young newlyweds posing for pictures earlier that day on the medieval Puente de San Martín spanning the Tagus river, which prompted Tomy to bring out her own wedding album. We oohed and ahhed over pictures taken more than 50 years ago. There were smiles among us; suddenly there were tears, too. The absence of Tomy’s husband weighed heavily in the room.

Lunch at La Masia

A table filled with delicious, homey dishes.

Soon it was time for lunch, so we clambered into the bus, which was captained by our smiling, taciturn guardian and driver, Bea, and headed to La Masía.

The cervecería was buzzing at 2pm on Sunday afternoon as the 10 of us squeezed past local families through the wood-paneled bar, down a wide curved wooden staircase to an area that better accommodated a group of our size. 

The sprightly waitress brought us menús del dia, en Español, and Tomy took the lead in ordering several bottles of young tempranillo. She may not understand a word of English, but she clearly speaks our language.

We spent several minutes quizzing each other on unfamiliar vocabulary. “Do we know what guiso is?”

“I think it’s stew.” 

“And what’s buey?”

Tomy sensed our struggle. She and the waitress conferred with an amiable fellow we took to be the manager, or maybe the chef. He and Tomy commenced a spirited discussion about what and how to feed our linguistically-challenged crew. Their rapid-fire exchange might have been mistaken for an argument had it not been punctuated by laughter and, ultimately, a verdict: We would order everything on the menu and share, tapas-style. 

The rustic fare was precisely what the day called for: fork-tender pork cheek luxuriating messily in a succulent red-wine reduction; filet of beef bathed in a white sauce that practically begged to be eaten by the spoonful; creamy scalloped potatoes, dusted with paprika, alongside sautéed shishito peppers; seared tuna steak served with a piquant sesame mustard; a simple salad of tomatoes, onion, and flaked tuna; and small loaves of bread, for tearing and sopping, placed directly on the tablecloth. Unfussy and  satisfying, it was an ideal family-style meal.

Liquor de Tomillo

Chupitas de Liquor de Tomillo and gummy candies.

At the end of the feast, Tomy ordered chupitos (shots) of an electric-yellow beverage called Liquor de Tomillo (thyme), a digestif typical of Toledo. A row of glasses arrived on an oblong platter amid a scattering of gummy candies. We were dubious. The syrupy liquid had the day-glo quality of a medicinal — the kind of drink most of us politely refused after experiencing our first real hangover, decades ago. But a sip or two revealed a smooth, herbaceous tonic, semi-bitter and not too sweet. Roxanne aptly described it as limoncello without the limon.

Having gorged ourselves, no one was hungry for dessert. Tomy wouldn’t have it. Eyes narrowed, finger jabbing, she scolded us in Spanish: “When you see my dessert, you all will be so jealous!” Though stuffed, we were swayed. The ice-cream cake and custard appeared, and then disappeared as if by magic.

The day faded to twilight as we left the restaurant and returned Tomy to her apartment. Grateful for her hospitality, we shared tearful farewells aboard the bus. Then Kati walked her to the door where, no doubt, a few more tears were shed.

It was a gift to have had a glimpse of everyday life in Spain. With such warmth and support, it was no wonder Kati fell in love with Toledo, with the culture, with her Spanish familia. Bea turned the bus around and set course for Madrid. As we looked back, Tomy was still waving goodbye.

Day 1: Madrid

April 22, 2011

Tapas in the window of a taberna, Plaza Mayor.

Tapas at Plaza Mayor.

Having survived the near-coma induced by 17 hours of travel and a nine-hour time difference, our first full day in Madrid called for on-foot orientation. As every road trip requires fuel, we descended to the lobby of our hotel in search of fresh fruit to counter the unfortunate but unavoidable transgressions committed en route. The hotel restaurant, Midnight Rose, features a sleek dining room abutted by a swank tapas lounge. (More on that later in the trip.) Confronted with the choice of breakfast menu or buffet, we chose the latter — half-price if you join the hotel chain’s loyalty club — and started the day with fresh orange juice, coffee, sliced citrus, pineapple, eggs, pork in various mouthwatering forms and the like. My favorite: a table devoted to assorted cheeses, lox, cherry tomatoes, salchicha and jamón ibérico. Delightful.

Thus fortified and dressed for whatever weather might develop, we ventured west through narrow cobbled streets toward historic Plaza Mayor, which presented the first of many statues whose subjects were either 1. Master astride mount or 2. Steed en solo, having ditched master. The statuary of Madrid has a decidedly horsey flavor.

Restaurants surround Mayor, not surprising given the plaza’s tourist population even at 9 a.m. rivals the number of bronze caballeros in the city. What did surprise was the freshness of the shrimp, octopus, sausage, peppers, croquettes and other enticements artfully arranged in taberna windows. It was all we could do not to re-indulge. But no — onward to visitor-crammed el Palacio Real, through the royally trim Jardines de Sabatini, up to the Plaza de Espana, along the perimeter of Parque de la Montana and through the tranquil rose garden there, up the hill to Plaza de la Moncloa, back along the Gran Via toward Puerta del Sol and our home square, Plaza de Santa Ana. We walked for four or five hours, and though clouds threatened, not a drop christened us.

Ravenous now, we explored Santa Ana in search of a bite. Last evening, in our sleep-deprived haze, we bumbled into the modern Vinoteca Barbechera for croquettas, gambas y tortilla before succumbing to weariness. Today, we opted for Cerverzería Aleman’s terraza seating (outdoor, on the square) where we enjoyed a basic but welcome ensalada mixto, delectable aceitunas (olives), a crusty bocadillo de jamón ibérico y queso manchego (ham and cheese on baguette) and patatas fritas (addictive potato chips served at every taberna). Beer and wine in hand, we were set to linger — but alas the sky darkened and finally discharged. Relatively warm and dry beneath our terrace umbrella, we ate, drank and heartily sympathized with the luckless souls around us as they ducked, scrambled, scattered and otherwise fled the deluge. Many were unsuccessful, but most accepted the drenching with good humor, including our waiter, who warmed up to us as the temperature fell. “I am sorry so much,” he said. “This crazy weather.” We paid our tab and headed up for a siesta.

At 11-ish, our appetites spurred us out into the night with the rest of Madrid and its tourist onslaught. Holy week or is this typical? The cervecerías ringing Santa Ana overflowed, so we cut up a side street and happened on Guru, a quiet Indian restaurant with an open table. We started with a prawn flatbread called a puree and buttery vegetable pakura accompanied by a spicy-salty chile paste, a creamy mint sauce and sliced onions. Sizzling chicken tikka and a mild, savory aloo gobi rounded out our modest midnight meal and sent us home satisfied if not raving. We’ll happily try this place again, but for now it’s back to the pork — and whatever else awaits.

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