My good friend Tara came to Puerto de Santa Maria to soak up some sun, do some yoga, eat tapas, marvel at the Giralda in Seville, and take copious pictures of sunsets. I believe she accomplished all of that, and much more. We were lucky enough to be accompanied by my friend Manuel and his wife, Amparo, to two little pueblo blancos I hadn’t previously had the pleasure of meeting.
On the way to our destinations we stopped at Venta Andres, a roadside restaurant which is also well-known for its adjacent economical fruit stand. Ventas are drop-in restaurants off the highways in Spain which usually have traditional, home-cooked food and waiters who are happy to make recommendations for “what’s good today.”
Manuel was very deliberate about wanting conejo, (rabbit) but somehow he and the waiter settled on a variety of other dishes for all of us to share. We ate a salad with hearts of palm and anchovies, then a stew with deer meat, and finally rabo de toro, also known as bull’s tail. Would you believe a bull’s tail is so enormous it actually has a bone in its center? I couldn’t! I thought bull’s tail was just a name used to represent an important part of Andalucia’s culture. But it is actually the tail. It was a very tender, juicy and fatty meat that tasted like a well-done roast. We also enjoyed menudo, classically known as the “stew of intestines” by many expats. Tara expressed later she did, in fact enjoy the flavor of the sauce, and ate the garbanzos but left the intestines. I couldn’t blame her as they did look somewhat hairy.
First we made our way into Medina Sidonia, a little village of about 10,000 people, perched, as we might have guessed, on the top of a hill. Like many cities in Andalusia, cities were built high to see oncoming invaders and were surrounded by fortress walls. The buildings were painted white, I realized recently, to help manage the scorching summer sun and keep buildings cool inside. Every pueblo blanco I’ve been to has had its own unique flavor and once I soaked in the narrow streets and unending charm, I could pay more attention to how people interact. Watching men, women and children converse and play, and experiencing their openness to talking at length with strangers has been one of the highlights of my time here in Spain. People can enjoy one another here in such a simple and present way. It might be why once, a Spanish woman said to me, “This whole concept of learning to slow down and enjoy life….I don’t get it.”
Now I understand it’s because she had always lived that way. Why does there need to be a philosophy for feeling naturally at ease in your skin and with your people? Well, sociology might tell us a thing or two about why. But what’s sticking to me most is what joy it has generated within me to experience this here. I’m quite sure that reverse culture shock is already knocking on my door as I plan my return to the U.S.
In Medina Sidonia, Tara and I bought an assortment of famous bakery goods from a lovely-smelling shop called, “Amarguillos.” Amarguillos are simple but delicious pastries whose center is filled with almond marzipan. They are of Arabic descent, and all of them reminded me of the pastries I tried in Morocco over a year ago: white, small, and just slightly bitter, which makes the immense amount of sugar used more tolerable. Amargo means bitter in Spanish, so the translations of these tiny delights might be Little Bitter Cakes. Tara and I ate them nearly hour by hour until she left Spain!
Later we made our way to another village called Alcala de los Gazules. Al-Qala in Arabic means castle or fortress. And according to my favorite Andalusia information site, http://www.andalucia.org, the city was named “of the Gazules” for the Gazula tribe that lived there, who were of Berber origin. While my knowledge of the Berber people is scanty at best, I’ve heard they are the indigenous people of Northern Africa and tend to be Sunni Muslims. They were responsible for building the Giralda in Seville, as well as the Torre of Oro (tower of gold).
While walking down from the main plaza of the city, we spotted a man weaving what looked like a basket handle. He had an easy, nearly toothless smile and all the time in the world. While he mentioned that young people don’t seem interested in such traditions, he certainly didn’t seem vexed about it. He laughed and sat in his doorstep making jokes. He was joyful. It was lovely.
Finally, we made our way to Chiclana to watch the sun setting over the Atlantic. We took pictures, laughed together, and found a fancy hotel to drink Kas and cafe, the lime soda and typical coffee served in Cadiz. We made jokes about the strange chairs and wondered about the flashing lights we saw in the sea. My coffee was poorly put together, but I don’t remember that part at all.