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Max Abroad : The Best of Spain

Quite simply writing about the best things Spain has to offer and anything that might crop up along the way. Spain is a lot more than just sun, sand and sea...

Barcelona's "Finished" Sagrada Familia
Friday, September 27, 2013

In 1882 work began on Gaudi's masterpiece, The Sagrada Familia. 120 years on and the building is still unfinished. Fortunately the last stone is not far away. 13 years is the expected time it will take to finish the works as long as the donations do not cease. However a video had been released showing the world what this magnificent building will look like once it is complete. So fast forward in time and marvel at this architectural jewel....

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Ávila - A City of Mysticism and Spirituality
Friday, September 20, 2013


Ávila is a medieval town of heritage, history, art and gastronomy. Founded on three cultures, the city walls, houses, palaces, churches and convents make up the town's complex artistic heritage. The image of the mediaeval town comes from its fortified city walls, which are much more than a mere symbol in Ávila; they are the monument that defines the town and how it is laid out.

Ávila reached its maximum splendour in the 16th century as a town of mysticism and spirituality, epitomised by Teresa de Cepeda y Ahumada, or more commonly known as St Teresa of Ávila. If one follows the Route of Teresa, you will travel from the Gothic style through to the Renaissance, as Ávila’s most universal saint lived halfway between both periods. Saint Teresa and also San Juan de la Cruz brought the Spanish language to one of its highest levels through their poetry and writings on mysticism. 

Most of Ávila’s festivities and traditions are religious, but they also have a pagan side. Religion is joined by other leisure activities that are based on the town's multi-racial customs and traditions. Each quarter of the town has its own festival in remembrance of the divisions that existed in the past when each of the groups who went to repopulate the town settled around a parish church.

Ávila became a World Heritage Site in 1985 and has formed part of the Spanish Jewish Quarter Network since 2005. This heritage requires an unhurried visit at different times of the day and, if possible, with the help of a good guide to understand the ancient town, the mediaeval town, the Renaissance town and the recovery it underwent in the 19th century. Few cities in the world can offer so much in such a small area. As in many Spanish mediaeval cities, Ávila was home to Jews, Muslims and Christians. They all left their mark and form part of the town's cultural legacy. The city's history across the years was marked by many people, some of whom were Hebrew and Muslim writers, such as Abraham Nissim Ben, Hebrew author of El Libro de la Sabiduría, Mose de León, author of La Rosa del Testimonio and  Esplendor during the thirteenth century and considered the most important book of Jewish mystical writings, and the named Mancebo de Arévalo, Arab author of Tafçira, a journal on his experiences with Muslim traditions and one of the last pieces of spiritual writing on Spanish Islam. 

Besides the archaeological evidence that suggests an original wall from the late-antiquity period (fifth century), set around a small area, the walls standing today date from the Middle Ages. With a perimeter of 2516 m (around an area of 33 hectares), 87 turrets, 9 gates and 2 small gates and 2500 merlons, the walls of Ávila are the best-conserved example of their kind in the world. Palaces built on the inside formed a second line of defence against popular revolts and/or enemy attacks on the town. However the date of their construction is a matter of controversy. Some suggest that, in keeping with tradition, they were built at the end of the 11th century, while others consider that most of the construction work took place during the second half of the 12th century-beginning of the 13th century, as is the case of neighbouring military constructions. Built on rock foundations, the walls stand as a powerful defence entirely made of granite masonry, filled with stone and mortar. It has an irregular quadrilateral shape that is almost a rectangle and positioned longitudinally from East to West. Its construction began on the most vulnerable side (the east), where there are no natural elements of defence, which is why it is the most robust and grandiose side of the walls. The walls have a thickness of 3 m and a height of 12 m. There is a semi-circular turret every 20 m, standing 8 m above the height of the walls and this side has the largest and most solid gates. The gates on the north and west sides are less majestic and the turrets show signs of work by Mudejar builders (brickwork). The south side gives the impression of depletion and the size of the masonry work decreases. It has smaller semi-cylindrical towers set further apart and gives an overall sensation of reduced resistance and robustness. The east side has a large amount of reused Roman materials (altar stones, urns, cornices, animal statues and columns, etc.) thought to come from the dismantling of an early Roman necropolis that was once located in the area. In the 16th century, it was still used for economic control and health safety purposes and restorations were carried out to repair the walls; however, after the danger of war had disappeared, the decision was taken to remove some of the additional defence items (barbicans, moats, etc.), which had become ineffective against the military machines used at the time. The repair and restoration work before their designation as a National Monument on 24 March 1884 was of a sporadic nature. However, two events led to it being used again for defence purposes: the French occupation (1809-1812) and the Carlist wars (1836-1840). The work carried out later was supervised by the state and focused on the maintenance, restoration and artistic conservation of the walls as national heritage to favour their function as one of the city's sites of interest. At the end of the 19th century, certain intellectual circles advocated the demolition of the walls in keeping with what was happening in other European cities as they were considered a barrier to urban development. The Town Hall's insistence and the lack of finance for the demolition work prevented their ideas from being put into practice, fortunately in those days you couldn’t spend money you didn’t have, a lesson that many Town Hall’s could learn nowadays! 



Ávila’s Cathedral stands as both church and fortress and its apse, known locally as the “cimorro” and set in the walls, is the most imposing turret of the east wall. Considered the first Gothic cathedral in Spain, it stands on the remains of an original building that was devoted to El Salvador (The Saviour). In 1172, Alfonso VIII decided to extend the original building and commissioned the project to the French master builder, Fruchel. He was ordered to begin the construction of the current building in transitional Romanesque-Gothic style and took part in the construction of the Caleno granite apse (or cimorro), the ambulatory (which has conserved the original Romanesque windows), the first body of the transept and the foundations of the Caleno granite walls.

After his death, a second stage of construction brought in new materials and the use of granite ashlars; the project continued in Gothic style. The building is of a clearly defined Burgundian style and stands on a Latin-cross layout made up of three naves, a transept and a semi-circular upper end with a double ambulatory and chapels set between the buttresses. It is flanked at the bottom end by two square-shaped towers (the one on the right is unfinished and the one on the left has been finished off with merlons and narrow windows) and covered by a groined vault. Some of the cathedral’s stained-glass windows were damaged during the Lisbon earthquake in 1755 and had to be replaced. The first body of the towers and the naves date from the 13th century and the second body of the towers, the cloister (finished in the 16th century) and the vaults and flying buttresses date from the 14th century. The roof as it is today was laid on top of the original granite roof in 1578 after the sidewalls had been built in brick. The work was completed at the end of the 16th century / beginning of the 17th century with the addition of a few chapels.

The 'Gastronomical Triad' of the town is made up of Judías del Barco (large haricot beans from the village of El Barco de Ávila, also known locally as 'pipos'), Chuletón de Ávila (veal chop from 500 g to 1 kg in weight, depending on your appetite!) and Yemas de Santa Teresa (sweet cakes made from egg yolks and sugar). A delight for any palate especially the Chuletón if you are a meat lover!





This type of menu is a true example of Ávila gastronomy, based on agricultural and cattle-farming products from a province that varies greatly in both geography and climate. Pulses and legumes have earned their fame thanks to the haricot bean from El Barco and the Carilla (a small haricot bean with a black dot) from the banks of the River Tormes and the chickpea from La Moraña in the north of the province. Meat is also popular: kid from Candeleda, lamb from the Amblés Valley and roast suckling pig from the north of the province, which personally if one of my favourites, succulent and bursting with flavour.

The way the food is cooked is very simple and rustic with no sauces or extravagance; the importance is given to the quality of the product itself to ensure that it provides original flavours without the need for enhancements.

But that’s lunch, and there is an appetiser that is a must for anyone visiting the walled city: its tapas or, as they say locally, 'ir de pinchos'. In Ávila, when you ask for a drink, you are given a small dish with all kinds of delicacies. From classic tripe, not for me but though, sweetbreads or the ever-present Spanish omelette to small bread rolls and tuna fish pasties, etc., a great opportunity for tasting small portions of all kinds of local food. 

Other authentic dishes from the region would be tasty garlic or Castilian soup, with the characteristic flavour of paprika from the village of Candeleda or pork meats that are conserved in jars of olive oil in which they have first been fried, known locally as pork loin or chorizo sausage 'de olla', now that is spectacular but not so good for he cholesterol, but once in while it won’t hurt.
As already mentioned, the roast meats come from local breeds (such as Designation-of-Origin veal, or kid and suckling pig, which have their own designation). However, the classic way of enjoying suckling pig in Ávila is fried and refried in small pieces, known locally as “cuchifrito”. So if you like crispy bacon, this will blow you away.

If you prefer fish, you can enjoy the famous fried, baked or pickled trout. And as Ávila is an inland town of Catholic tradition, cod is cooked in a variety of excellent dishes: in batter, with garlic and paprika or in a red pepper sauce.

As always it is important to accompany the food with local wines, which also follow the maxim of simplicity and taste. They are full-bodied and big on the palate and come from the area around the River Alberche. Sweet and fruity, they are especially enjoyed as sangria during Holy Week in Ávila. There are also liqueurs of different tastes and bouquets, such as orujo, a strong liquor made from what is left of the grapes after they have been pressed to make wine.

The healthiest dessert is fruit and should be enjoyed in season: peaches from Burgohondo, Reineta apples from El Barco de Ávila, cherries from the Tiétar Valley and figs from Poyales are just a few examples. And for sweet-toothed visitors, besides the famous yemas, there are many other traditional sweets, such as mantecados, perrunillas, amarguillos, jesuitas, empiñonados and torrijas, etc., which are not hard to find as the town is peppered with cake shops. Ávila is a city that is well worth a visit so if you happen  to be passing by, stop off, you won’t be disappointed.


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Spain's Underground Treasures
Tuesday, September 10, 2013



Having visited the Languedoc-Rousillon region of France many years ago, a region which is honeycombed with caves and caverns, forming one of the richest areas of subterranean systems in France, I was intrigued to see what Spain had to offer and Mallorca is one of the places that has some of the most beautiful hidden treasures the country has to offer, so on my last trip to the island, I took advantage and decided to visit them. The Artá Caves are located on the coast in the municipality of Capdepera, in the Cap Vermell, surrounded by mountains that tower over the sea. The caves have been visited since times gone by and it is very likely that the island’s primitive inhabitants knew of them, as did the various populations that later inhabited the island. Going through the towering entrance, we gain access to the chamber known as the Vestibule or Entrance Hall, where countless stalactites with prodigious shapes and extraordinary proportions hang from the high arched ceiling. Tall stalagmites rise up gracefully from the floor. They vaguely resemble human forms, mysterious, motionless, rigid visions that are indifferent to human gazes, and have that imposing superiority of nature’s marvelous creations.


Hidden inside stones, rocks and mountains are hollows or crevices of varying sizes. Even in the most compact minerals minute cavities are visible to the naked eye. In the mountains it is unusual not to find these hollows of assorted shapes and sizes, some of which are completely closed off while others have openings to the outside world, obstructed to a greater or lesser degree by rockslides. The origin of these concavities can be found in the following phenomena: Sudden dislocations of the earth or the constant action of groundwater.

The formation of mountain ranges during the different geological periods and earthquakes are two of the main causes of the formation of caves. Groundwater flowing along impermeable beds slowly undermines the upper clayey layers until they eventually collapse, leaving a space covered by other calcareous layers that are sustained by their arched forms. The formation of caves is observed in almost all types of known terrain but where they are most abundant is in calcareous rocks, where they acquire gigantic proportions and take on extraordinary forms. If caves do not have an outside opening, water penetrates their walls producing the same effects. Once the cave has been formed as a result of either of the phenomena mentioned, water circulating above the cave, containing calcium carbonate and smaller amounts of magnesium, filters slowly through small fissures giving rise to the following features: when a drop of water appears on the roof of the cave, it leaves a deposit – as a result of excess carbonic acid being released – of the calcareous material that it carried in solution, which is the material from which a stalactite is slowly formed. When the drop falls to the ground it still contains some calcium bicarbonate, which is deposited on the cave floor to form the stalagmite. After many years these two formations may eventually come to meet and form a solid column, which will often have a bizarre, fantastical shape. Furthermore, before evaporating, the fallen drop slides across the ground creating the hard, sinuous surface that forms the floor of almost all caves and underneath. The age of the geological formations is not always in relation to their height. Sometimes it is possible for a four meter high stalactite to have been formed more quickly than one two meters high or even one a meter high. They are dark, silent places, where it is almost impossible to hear the fall of the minute drop of water that appears, clean and transparent, at the end of the stalactite and expands, falls and slips across the sinuous floor, creating numerous features as it goes. Nature is at work here, discretely and silently, and so slowly that the advances of her mysterious work are measured in centuries. The powerful chemical energies and dynamics of the various elements that circulate around the silent enclosures are the invisible architects that raise arcades, porticos, statues and columns, seemingly following preconceived aesthetic ideas, as if wanting to reveal the typical features of diverse artistic manifestations. Next to these magnificent, imposing creations of nature our insignificance is apparent.


Located on Mallorca’s east coast are some even bigger caves; The Caves of Drach and are without doubt one of the island’s most outstanding tourist attractions. Hidden within the caves is Lake Martel, considered to be one of the largest non-subglacial subterranean lakes in the world and certainly the largest in Europe.

The Caves of Drach were known in the Middle Ages and explored in 1880 by M.F. Will and in 1896 by E.A. Martel, who discovered the cave with the lake that bears his name, a crystal clear water mass which is about 170 m in length and 30 m in width and up to 12 meters deep in parts. The cave was remodelled for visitors between 1922 and 1935: a new entrance was made, paths were designed and ladders built. An electrical lighting plan designed by the engineer Carles Buigas was also installed. The caves extend to a depth of 25 m, reaching 2.4 km in length. The four caves, called Black Cave, White Cave, Cave of Luis Salvador, and Cave of the French, are all connected to each other forming an underground palace. 

Guided tours take around one hour and follow a 1.2 km path. The tour includes a classical music concert and a boat trip across Lake Martel which is very surreal. The temperature inside is around 21ºC, with a relative humidity of 80%. The lands on which the caves are found date back to the Miocene period and inside they are just spectacular. 

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The Best Table In The House
Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Having announced earlier that day that we would be passing by to watch the match and have a bite to eat and a few drinks, our friends at “La Cueva” en Torrenueva assured us the best table in the house. To be honest, I figured they were just being nice and showing a bit of a sense of humour. We had been going there for years but recently friends of the family had just taken it over and customer service had been greatly improved, not just for us but for everyone, the bar had taken a great leap forwards and was working better than ever before. Fresh blood with enthusiasm and a bit of creativity in the tapas had done the world of good for this village venue.  I mentioned to my wife that they would reserve “the best table in the house” for us and my wife was also bemused. She answered “outside? But they are all the same?”... I replied “Yes, outside, but I suppose it will be near the flat screen so we can watch the match”, but to be honest we were in for a pleasant surprise, something that would never have crossed my mind. The day passed and I hadn’t given it any more thought than you would. We had suffered 44ºC+ that day and the heat was stifling, the sort of heat that takes your breath away when you step outside from an air conditioned room, a change of temperature of no less that 20ºC in an instance, it knocks you in the face, your body heats up instantly and it is no different than stepping into a hot oven.  I felt like a roast on Sundays.

We arrived at La Cueva a little early and they were hosing down the street before setting up the terrace. I figured it was to clean the pedestrian area before the next sitting, but it was exceptionally clean in fact and there was the waiter with a power hose dumping litres of water onto the pavement (from their well). I said to him “it looks clean to me, why so much water?”…. “it’s not for the dirt” he replied and smiled “it’s to take the heat out of the paving”. Naturally the burning sun heated up the paved terrace area that had absorbed the heat throughout the day only to release it again at night while everyone would be having dinner, so this was a daily ritual before opening for the evening sitting. While he prepared the tables we grabbed an ice-cold beer and waited anxiously to be seated at the “best table in the house”. The tables and chairs were your typical aluminium tables and chairs you would find on any terrace around Spain sponsored by Coca-Cola, so I wasn’t sure what was going to make our table stand out from the rest, apart from maybe being in front of the flat screen. The table went out, chairs in place, flat screen on and I immediately went towards the first table in front of the screen, when the waiter called out, “No, no that table, yours is over here”…I looked over to him and he pointed to a table that was two rows back up against the wall, admittedly the view of the flat screen for the match was more than acceptable but I was a bit confused. “There you are, the best table in the house, as I had promised. This is a table people fight for every night, trust me you’ll be very happy at this table”…Fight for? I thought…What on earth is he talking about? It’s no different than the other tables and is right up against the wall, is he losing the plot? He walked back out and said “that’s the table that gave this bar its name: La Cueva, sit down and you’ll see what I mean!” I proceeded to sit down, as did my wife and family and suddenly we received a gust of cold air coming up from beneath our chairs, which I have to admit was incredibly refreshing given that we were still over 33ºC at that time with virtually no humidity. It passed and then after a few seconds another gust of cool air came up from beneath the table and chairs, as if there were some sort of air conditioning unit next to us, cooling down the vicinity of our table. I looked down and what did I see? An iron grill covering the entrance to a hole that seemed to go down a fair way beneath the building, what they called a “respiradero”, a large and very old vent.“It is the vent for the underground stone cave” said the waiter, “it will be chucking out cool air all evening…enjoy the match!”. To my surprise it did, as if we had our own air-con, the circulation of underground air through the caves brought the cool air out through the vents right up to our table…it wasn't just the best table in the house it was the coolest table in the house! It was very common in this region to build or carve out an underground cellars or caves to preserve food and thus have a cool room at all times, many building had them and the one at “La Cueva (The Cave)” had one, just in the right place! All of a sudden it became my favourite table, while everyone else was fighting off the heat we were calmly relaxed in our natural microclimate, enjoying tapas and beers without giving the heat another thought. In fact the only thing that provoked any "heat" was the poor perfomance on the pitch by our our team!


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