My co-author and frequent collaborator, Cameron Hewitt, is well-traveled, smart, and insightful. And, while he and I are in perfect sync in our travel styles and priorities, he gives voice to the next generation of "Rick Steves travelers." Join me in enjoying his reports right here. —Rick

Postcards from Madrid

I just spent a week in Madrid, working on the next edition of our Rick Steves Spain guidebook. And, as always, I snapped lots of photos and took careful notes. Enjoy these “postcards” from my trip — and please share your own Madrid travel stories in the comments below or over on Facebook. Happy travels! —Cameron

Madrid, Spain
Madrid, Spain

Spain's bustling capital has a surprisingly compact and manageable historical core. It almost feels like a big village. But just a short walk away, you know you're in a European metropolis. The main boulevard — Gran Vía — is undergoing an extensive renovation that will widen the sidewalks and reduce traffic congestion. 

Spain's bustling capital has a surprisingly compact and manageable historical core. It almost feels like a big village. But just a short walk away, you know you're in a European metropolis. The main boulevard — Gran Vía — is undergoing an extensive renovation that will widen the sidewalks and reduce traffic congestion. 

Spain's bustling capital has a surprisingly compact and manageable historical core. It almost feels like a big village. But just a short walk away, you know you're in a European metropolis. The main boulevard — Gran Vía — is undergoing an extensive renovation that will widen the sidewalks and reduce traffic congestion. 

Madrid, Spain
Breakfast in Madrid

Most hotels in Spain don't include breakfast in their rates...and some don't even offer it at all. No hay problema.That just creates a great excuse to head to a neighborhood bar and dig into a Spanish-style breakfast: hearty wedge of tortilla española (potato omelet), crusty roll, fresh-squeezed orange juice, and café con leche. At around €5, this almuerzo de campeones keeps me going through a late lunch.

Most hotels in Spain don't include breakfast in their rates...and some don't even offer it at all. No hay problema.That just creates a great excuse to head to a neighborhood bar and dig into a Spanish-style breakfast: hearty wedge of tortilla española (potato omelet), crusty roll, fresh-squeezed orange juice, and café con leche. At around €5, this almuerzo de campeones keeps me going through a late lunch.

Most hotels in Spain don't include breakfast in their rates...and some don't even offer it at all. No hay problema.That just creates a great excuse to head to a neighborhood bar and dig into a Spanish-style breakfast: hearty wedge of tortilla española (potato omelet), crusty roll, fresh-squeezed orange juice, and café con leche. At around €5, this almuerzo de campeones keeps me going through a late lunch.

Madrid, Spain
Prado, Madrid

Madrid is home to the magnificent Prado (arguably Europe's best museum of Old Masters). I toured the museum at a fairly busy time — late morning, just before lunch — and for the most part, I could see all of the paintings I wanted to, despite the crowds. But the one bottleneck was Hieronymus Bosch's detail-packed The Garden of Earthly Delights. Art lovers camp out here for 10, 15, 20 minutes at a stretch, unpacking the many details. Who can blame them? If I were on vacation, rather than working, I might bring a folding chair and binoculars and really settle in.

Madrid is home to the magnificent Prado (arguably Europe's best museum of Old Masters). I toured the museum at a fairly busy time — late morning, just before lunch — and for the most part, I could see all of the paintings I wanted to, despite the crowds. But the one bottleneck was Hieronymus Bosch's detail-packed The Garden of Earthly Delights. Art lovers camp out here for 10, 15, 20 minutes at a stretch, unpacking the many details. Who can blame them? If I were on vacation, rather than working, I might bring a folding chair and binoculars and really settle in.

Madrid is home to the magnificent Prado (arguably Europe's best museum of Old Masters). I toured the museum at a fairly busy time — late morning, just before lunch — and for the most part, I could see all of the paintings I wanted to, despite the crowds. But the one bottleneck was Hieronymus Bosch's detail-packed The Garden of Earthly Delights. Art lovers camp out here for 10, 15, 20 minutes at a stretch, unpacking the many details. Who can blame them? If I were on vacation, rather than working, I might bring a folding chair and binoculars and really settle in.

Madrid, Spain
Calle del Arenal, Madrid

I appreciate how the streets in Madrid's historical center are all marked with colorful illustrations. In this case, Calle del Arenal is named for the sand (arena) that was stockpiled along here during the construction of the city.

I appreciate how the streets in Madrid's historical center are all marked with colorful illustrations. In this case, Calle del Arenal is named for the sand (arena) that was stockpiled along here during the construction of the city.

I appreciate how the streets in Madrid's historical center are all marked with colorful illustrations. In this case, Calle del Arenal is named for the sand (arena) that was stockpiled along here during the construction of the city.

Madrid, Spain
Mickey Meth

In Madrid's high-traffic, touristy areas, you'll see hucksters dressed up in cut-rate costumes of Mickey Mouse, paunchy Spider-Man, and off-brand Minions. They prey on little kids — approaching them with a hug, then forcing the parents to pay for a photo. A local explained to me that these are down-on-their-luck people who have been left unemployed by the recent economic crisis (which Spain has been very slow to recover from). While I have sympathy, taking advantage of visiting children seems sleazy to me. I came to think of these characters as "Mickey Meths."

In Madrid's high-traffic, touristy areas, you'll see hucksters dressed up in cut-rate costumes of Mickey Mouse, paunchy Spider-Man, and off-brand Minions. They prey on little kids — approaching them with a hug, then forcing the parents to pay for a photo. A local explained to me that these are down-on-their-luck people who have been left unemployed by the recent economic crisis (which Spain has been very slow to recover from). While I have sympathy, taking advantage of visiting children seems sleazy to me. I came to think of these characters as "Mickey Meths."

In Madrid's high-traffic, touristy areas, you'll see hucksters dressed up in cut-rate costumes of Mickey Mouse, paunchy Spider-Man, and off-brand Minions. They prey on little kids — approaching them with a hug, then forcing the parents to pay for a photo. A local explained to me that these are down-on-their-luck people who have been left unemployed by the recent economic crisis (which Spain has been very slow to recover from). While I have sympathy, taking advantage of visiting children seems sleazy to me. I came to think of these characters as "Mickey Meths."

Madrid, Spain
Madrid's Mercado de San Miguel

Foodie tourists are attracted to Madrid's Mercado de San Miguel, just outside of the Plaza Mayor, like a bug zapper. This old market hall was recently renovated and filled with quality eateries. It sounds great...and it is. But it's also extraordinarily crowded (especially on a holiday weekend, as when I was in town). I kept circling back to try to find a quiet time to graze, but it was always jammed. Oh, well. Next time...

Foodie tourists are attracted to Madrid's Mercado de San Miguel, just outside of the Plaza Mayor, like a bug zapper. This old market hall was recently renovated and filled with quality eateries. It sounds great...and it is. But it's also extraordinarily crowded (especially on a holiday weekend, as when I was in town). I kept circling back to try to find a quiet time to graze, but it was always jammed. Oh, well. Next time...

Foodie tourists are attracted to Madrid's Mercado de San Miguel, just outside of the Plaza Mayor, like a bug zapper. This old market hall was recently renovated and filled with quality eateries. It sounds great...and it is. But it's also extraordinarily crowded (especially on a holiday weekend, as when I was in town). I kept circling back to try to find a quiet time to graze, but it was always jammed. Oh, well. Next time...

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If you’re more interested in the culinary side of Spain, here’s a rundown of my favorite Madrid tapas experiences from this trip.

I was in Spain to scout out additions and updates to our Rick Steves Spain guidebook. The 2019 edition will be available this December.

 

Postcards from Central Spain

I just wrapped up two busy weeks traveling around the central plain of Spain — Toledo, Segovia, Salamanca, and more — updating the next edition of our Rick Steves Spain guidebook. And, as always, I snapped lots of photos and took careful notes. Enjoy these “postcards” from my trip — and please share your own Spain travel stories in the comments below or over on Facebook. Happy travels! —Cameron

We’ll begin in Toledo, Spain’s cultural (and historical) capital.  About an hour south of Madrid, Toledo is a delight — and packs in more than its share of top-notch sightseeing.

It’s understandable why many Spain aficionados believe that Toledo has the country’s finest cathedral — including this exquisite gilded altarpiece. Holy Toledo, indeed! Times like this, I’m glad I bother to haul around the good camera.

In addition to its majestic cathedral, one aspect of Toledo that intrigued me was the strong Mudejar influence — the work of Muslim craftspeople who stuck around after the Reconquista made Toledo Catholic again in the 11th century. If you can’t make it to southern Spain (where the Moors hung around for another 400 years), you can get a good taste of this style in Toledo — such as here, at the Santa María la Blanca Synagogue-turned-church.

I have to admit…even after more than 18 years living in Seattle, I’m still a Buckeye at heart. And I still get a kick out of the street called “Calle de Toledo de Ohío”…complete with the official seal of my home state, in the upper-left. O-H!

Just outside of Madrid is El Escorial, a fortress-like monastery built as the country residence (and final resting place) for Spain’s austere Habsburg monarchs, as well as the headquarters for the Inquisition. The palace — like the people who built it — doesn’t have much personality. But the library, filling a vast hall with the collected knowledge of 16th-century Spain, is a highlight.

Spain’s devastating Civil War ended more than 80 years ago (dooming Spain to 40 years of Francisco Franco’s rule). And yet, the topic is still controversial in Spanish contemporary life. It’s surprising how few sights or museums relating to the Civil War you see in Spain. History museums tend to gloss over that topic, to avoid offending anyone on either side. (I spend a lot of my time in Germany and in Eastern Europe, where many people are willing to grapple with gruesome realities that took place far more recently.) For this reason, I share Rick’s affinity for the Valley of the Fallen, the massive, Franco-built monument and mausoleum for the victims of the Civil War (just up the road from El Escorial). While its architecture and its origins are unmistakably fascist, today it’s considered a rare monument to the darkest days of Spain’s 20th century.

I love Segovia. This was my first visit to this small city, just outside Madrid, and I was enchanted by the gigantic, fully intact Roman aqueduct that runs through the middle of town, as well as by its fine cathedral and its fanciful, Romantic Age castle (which I came to think of as the “Neuschwanstein of Castile”).

I finished my swing through Spain in the place where it all began: Salamanca, where I first set foot in Europe as a college student in 1996. This was my first visit back since my semester abroad here, and I was blown away by how elegant this fine old sandstone university city is…just as I remembered, but even better.

I was so excited to step into Salamanca’s Plaza Mayor — Spain’s finest main square — after all these years. But when I did, I was a little disappointed to see it cluttered with kiosks for a book show. (Don’t you just hate when that happens?)

Still, the space is grand — especially after dark, when floodlights twinkle on, the sky turns a murky blue, and everyone in Salamanca is out strolling.

Speaking of which, one vivid memory from my student days was what night owls Salamantinos (and all Spaniards) are. On my first weekend staying with my host family, I returned to the apartment around one o’clock in the morning. The next morning at breakfast, my host mother asked me worriedly, “Are you not feeling well? Why did you come home sooo early?” I recall seeing families out strolling with their little kids around midnight. Over the years, I convinced myself that I was exaggerating this memory. But on my Saturday night in Salamanca, sure enough, I snapped this blurry photo of a family out with their preschooler at 11:30 p.m. Some things never change.

 


You can read about my student days in Salamanca in this post about a visit to my host family’s farm.

I was in Spain to scout out additions and updates to our Rick Steves Spain guidebook. The 2019 edition will be available this December.

 

 

Madrid: A Paradise of Tapas

The crock of gambas al ajillo is still sizzling when it hits my table. The tiny pink shrimp, hazy with the aroma of garlic, spit little flecks of oil. It smells like heaven. But on past visits to Madrid, I’ve learned my lesson the hard way: If you dig right in, you’ll scald the roof of your mouth…leaving your taste buds tenderized for the rest of your trip. So I wait, patiently, until it’s cooled off. Suddenly I hear a sharp sizzle. Under the monstrous copper flame hood in the corner, a row of squid shimmy on the griddle.

Finally, my shrimp have cooled enough — but even then, I’m careful of the second hazard of gambas al ajillo: a shirt spotted with garlicky oil, a stain you’ll never get out (or stop smelling). Careful as I am, somehow I still manage to drizzle a stripe of oil on my shirt. I try, fruitlessly, to wipe it away with the tissue-paper napkins, which I toss into the marble trough at the base of the bar. Oh well. Sometimes you have to sacrifice a shirt for a good meal. This may be only my first bite, but already I know that — on this trip to update our Rick Steves’ Spain guidebook — I’m going to really enjoy Madrid’s tapas scene.

The Spanish capital is also the melting pot of Spanish cooking. Within a few steps of Madrid’s Plaza Mayor, you’ll find eateries showcasing jamón from Castile, manchego from La Mancha, sardines from Santander, paella from Valencia, gazpacho from Andalucía, octopus and sprightly white wine from Galícia, mar i muntanya (“surf & turf”) dishes from Catalunya, and wildly creative Basque-style pintxos — each one perched on a slice of rustic bread. Madrid may not be Spain’s best culinary destination (that title would go either to the Basque Country or Catalunya). But it’s certainly a handy one-stop-shop for sampling everything Spain has to offer.

Let’s begin with a touristy extreme. Dropping into Rick’s favorite bullfighting bar — La Torre del Oro Bar Andalú, right on the Plaza Mayor — I belly up to the bar and order a beer…basically as a cover charge to hang out and take pictures of the grotesque bullfighting decor. The actual bulls’ heads might haunt a vegetarian’s dreams, but the many photographs of too-bold matadors being graphically gored make it clear that Spain’s national pastime has no real winners.

When my beer comes, it arrives with a tidy little pile of paella on a saucer. Always suspicious of tourist-gouging tricks, I confirm that it’s free. It is indeed. They’re staying true to the spirit of the “tapa,” which originated as a free bite of food to accompany a drink. (The little plate the bite comes on can act as a tapa — a “lid” on top of your drink.) A good paella is hard to come by; most restaurants serve microwaved portions with dreary, muted flavors. But this one seems fresh: it’s a shellfish risotto, richly flavored and colored with intense yellow saffron, tasting unmistakably of the sea.

I’m tempted to order another drink just to get the other free tapa I notice them handing out: a mini-mug of the garlicky cold tomato soup, gazpacho. But I’ve got other places to be, and I’ve had my fill of the bulls’ glassy stares (and the vintage photos of bulls’ horns piercing madators’ groins and chins). When I ask for the bill, I’m charged a total of €2…so much for ripping off tourists.

A few steps away, I see a cluster of Madrileños lined up at Café Rúa — famous for its bocadillo de calamares. This simple street food — Madrid’s answer to a Chicago hot dog or a Naples pizza — is a hunk of French bread filled with hot, greasy, crispy, fried calamari. Less than €3, this squid-wich is sold all over town — but Café Rúa is a classic.

These are all touristy choices…handy for people exploring Madrid’s compact core, looking for a bite between posing with colorful statues of flamenco dancers. But the Rick Steves Spain guidebook also recommends some areas with a more appealing mix of Madrileños and outsiders. And I find these much more fun to check out.

Over near the Prado runs Calle de Jesús, where — in one three-block stretch — you can take your pick of a dozen different tapas bars. I have the good (or bad?) fortune to reach Calle de Jesús at prime tapas time: Saturday night, 10 p.m. Each bar is overstuffed, with would-be patrons outside peering into foggy windows, waiting for someone to leave, in the hopes of bushwhacking a path to the bar.

Surveying my options, I’m drawn in by one in particular. Inside, an excited weekend hubbub bounces off the colorfully tiled walls. Madrileños stand in little clusters, precariously perching their plates and glasses on narrow counters, waving their arms in conversation…it’s a miracle glassware isn’t flying everywhere.

Behind the bar, five uniformed bartenders scurry to and fro. It’s peak-of-peak, and they’re in the weeds, but they are a well-oiled machine. They’re remarkably well-coordinated and efficient, shouting instructions to each other as they toss plates like frisbees to hungry diners. Just watching one bartender expertly fling two ice cubes each into four glasses held in one hand, in a matter of seconds, is like watching a pitcher land a split-fingered fastball at the bottom crease of the strike zone. If you’re an indecisive diner who appreciates when the server helps explain your choices…well, then, Jesús help you on Saturday night in Madrid.

As somebody leaves, I make my move to squeeze in the door and shimmy along the bar to the far end, hoping to find a spot to claim for my own. I never do, but the procedure allows me to survey the complete lineup of canapés (little sandwiches) under glass and make my selection. I wave my arm until the bartender takes note. He points me all the way back down to the other end of the bar, where he’s spotted a space that just opened up.

Once positioned, he gives me a quizzical look — a “whaddaya want?!” sneer, pulling back his top lip to reveal questioning teeth — and I rattle off my order: open-face salmon sandwich and a banderilla. Named for the fancy stakes the bullfighter jabs into the fleshy neck of his victim, this is simply a variety of pickled items pierced with a toothpick. But it turns out I’ve upset the delicate order of things: There are two kinds of banderillas under that counter, each with a subtly different type of preserved fish peeking out between chunks of pickle and pepper. Which one do I want, for God’s sake? We don’t have all night here! I point to one at random, and within moments my food is before me.

It’s delicious. The salmon is incredibly tender. And the banderilla is an explosive pop of vinegar and salt, with a slight anchovy finish. It’s so good, I order a second.

Surveying the hubbub, I think of some of my friends back home who would love this…and even more who would absolutely hate it. Tapas are a full-contact sport, and not for everyone. You’re diving headlong, as a rank beginner, into a very specific culture that you can’t possibly understand.

Checking out dozens of Madrid tapas bars for our guidebook, a few things become clear: All of them are supremely tempting. But not one of them is what you’d call user-friendly. Posted menus are rare, and ones in English are almost nonexistent. You can survey the few items they have ready to go, under glass at the bar. But then, after you order, you’ll notice delicious, piping-hot, and (frankly) much better-looking plates coming out of the kitchen…ordered by in-the-know locals who understand that what’s at the bar is only the tip of the iceberg. A menu?! How were you to know there was a menu?

My best tips: Be patient. Don’t expect attentive service. It’s nobody’s job to make things easy on you. Do a little homework — be aware of what each bar is known for (especially if it’s something you have to order from a menu). And while you’re getting up to speed, don’t be afraid to show up early with the rest of the tourists, at around 8 p.m., when things are still quiet. If you wait until 10 p.m., like the Spaniards, you’ll be swimming with sharks. (For even more tips, see my post on “The Trouble with Tapas.”)

Another great strip of tapas bars — hitting that elusive sweet spot between touristy and local — runs a couple of blocks south of the Plaza Mayor, along Calle Cava Baja. While the bars on Calle de Jesús run to more traditional choices, Calle Cava Baja mixes in some boldly innovative variations.

This is a great strip for checking out trendy Basque-style tapas bars, which many first-timers find more enticing and accessible than the old-school ones. In a Basque bar, the counters are lined with eye-catching, typically wildly creative bites — making it easier to understand exactly what you’re getting. Along Calle Cava Baja, Txakolina Pintxoteca Madrileña (at #26) is a great example of this.

But this trip’s best Madrid tapas experience took place just beyond the far end of Calle Cava Baja, where the bar called Juana la Loca overlooks a lonely square. Named “Juana the Mad” (for the 16th-century Spanish queen), it feels like a more sophisticated, more civilized alternative to the standard tapas bar. It’s crowded, but not crazy. Like at most tapas bars, you can try to show up a little earlier to snag a table, or stake your place at the counter and peruse your options — which, here, run to creative, updated Spanish classics and experimental “fusion” dishes.

Their signature dish — and the best €4 value in Madrid — is a tortilla de patatas. It’s a creative variation on the typical tortilla española (egg and potato omelet), but it’s jammed full of heavenly caramelized onions — giving it a sweet, slightly bitter, intensely satisfying flavor.

Ultimately, the Madrid tapas scene is like Spanish cuisine generally: It’s not delicate, and it’s not subtle.

Spanish cooking is Spanish culture — bullfighting and flamenco and Picasso — on a plate: Bold. Uncompromising. Unrelenting. Aggressive. Spanish food is about choosing a flavor profile, then doubling and tripling down on it. The chef wants to slap the eater across the face with flavor…challenging them to turn away. If French cuisine is about technique and nuance and subtlety and surprises, Spanish cuisine is the opposite. It’s a firehose of flavor. (I like to half-joke that a Spanish chef never met a vegetable he didn’t want to submerge in olive oil and garlic. And maybe sauté, too.) For this reason, Spanish cooking could be accused — not unfairly — of being one-note. But there’s no question it’s flavor-forward.

Personally, it can overwhelm my palate. After a few days in Spain, I need to detox my taste buds with something different. But for now…I might just have to circle back for another portion of gambas al ajillo.


Every single tapas place mentioned here is recommended in the Rick Steves Spain guidebook. I’m in Madrid updating that book — but I’m finding that I can’t improve on Rick’s great picks.

The tapas scene is intimidating. And that’s why, after a previous trip to Spain, I wrote a blog post all about the procedure for making the most of Spanish tapas, rather than being overwhelmed by it.

While in Madrid, I’ve also bumped into a few Rick Steves’ Europe Tours in Spain…who are navigating Spain’s culinary scene with the expertise of a top-notch guide. It makes me a little jealous, I must admit. We make things so easy on our tour members…

Acorns and Corncobs: Looking Back at my Semester in Spain

I’m heading out for my next trip to Europe. First up: Spain. And on this trip, I’ll be going back to the university town of Salamanca for the first time since I spent a semester studying there, 22 years ago. I guess I’m feeling nostalgic, because I keep thinking about one of my favorite experiences from that trip — one of the first times that travel caused this bumpkin from Ohio to think about food in a very different way.

Midway through my semester abroad in Salamanca, on a drizzly Saturday morning in November of 1996, my host family announced at breakfast: “Moisés, today we’re going to la granja!”

Moisés — my middle name — is what I go by in Spanish (because “Cameron” is perilously close to camarón — “shrimp”). And la granja was, it turns out, the family farm. The idea that my host family owned a countryside property was hard to digest. Shoehorned into a tight, seventh-floor apartment in the urban jungle of Salamanca, they seemed pure urbanites. Piling in the family car — and jamming three of us in the tiny backseat — they explained that la granja was a family property, going back generations.

When you leave Salamanca, there’s no sprawl. It’s just ten-story concrete apartment blocks one minute…then, quite abruptly, the vast expanse of the Castilian Plain the next. After about an hour driving through sun-parched husks of humble crops, we pulled up a gravel driveway to a time-passed farmstead.

My host brother, Fran, took me on a walk around the grounds. Leaves crunching beneath our feet, we passed through an oak grove. Fran rustled around in the crinkly leaves and pulled out an acorn.

“Ah, bellota!” he said with pride. “The bellota is so important to this part of Spain. We feed bellotas to the very best jamón — jamón iberico de bellota.” Spaniards are aficionados of their air-cured prosciutto — jamón. And even in my brief stay in the country, I’d already learned that jamón iberico de bellota was the connoisseur’s choice: black-footed pigs, freely roaming the forests of western Spain, and feasting exclusively on a diet of top-quality acorns.

“The bellota is perfect nutrition,” Fran continued. “Even people even eat it!” Noticing my failure to hide my disgust, Fran took a big, toothy bite of the acorn, finally managing to sever, chew, and swallow a tough little chunk. “Delicioso,” he said through a wince. He offered me a bite. Gamely, I bit into the nut, which flooded my mouth with an astringent cocktail of intense bitter and sour. All I could muster through clenched teeth was, “Sí, fuerte!

Heading back toward the farmhouse, we passed a bin full of corn cobs. “Do you ever eat this?” I asked. Fran grimaced and laughed a little bit. “Corn? Of course we don’t eat corn. That’s animal feed!” He shook his head and muttered to himself again, “Corn…” Having grown up in Central Ohio — with its sultry summers producing towering stalks of corn — I consider sweet corn on the cob one of the great gourmet delights on this planet. I’ll admit, I was a little hurt…maybe similar to how Fran felt when I balked at his acorn.


Then I thought about the castañas that vendors had just started roasting in rusted metal bins on the sidewalks of Salamanca. Back home we call them “buckeyes” and slap them on football helmets. It would never occur to me to try eating them. But here, castañas are the roasted chestnuts of Christmas-carol fame…filling the air with a pungent seasonal aroma.

Returning to the farmhouse, my host father announced he was ready for our help with the winemaking. He had pulled on a pair of wine-stained denim overalls and a cockeyed trucker hat. He opened the big, swinging door to a rustic (and, let’s be honest, far from sanitary) barn with a poured-concrete tub in the corner. My host family was far from affluent, but wine in unlabeled bottles always flowed freely at their dinner table. They had told me the wine was casero (“homemade”) — but until now, I had not realized they were the ones who made it.

Fran pulled on a pair of rubber galoshes and climbed into the tub. His father began pouring in buckets of grapes, and Fran squashed them underfoot. Watching my host father make wine — using a method clearly handed down across the generations, relying more on instinct than on science — I suddenly recognized in him the soul of a farmer.

“Moisés, now it’s your turn!” I was hesitant at first, but I pulled on those boots and started stomping. Watching the liquid trickle from the mash of skins and stems out the little concrete spout and into a plastic bucket felt gratifying…productive.

When the bucket was full of mosto (grape juice), Fran’s father lugged it over to an eons-old wooden cask and poured it lovingly into the hole in the top. When all the grapes were stomped, the cask was corked and we headed back to the car. “Now the grape juice ferments,” my host father explained. “We’ll come back next week to check on it.”

Returning home at the end of a long day at la granja, we were in a festive mood. After a light dinner, Fran turned to me and said, “Do you want to do shots?” The question surprised me, because it was the first time they’d suggested doing shots (and I’m not much of a drinker). Noticing my puzzled expression, Fran said, “It’s something special. It’s a like a sweet liqueur — but it has no alcohol.” This only made me more confused. “It was a gift from Melanie.” This drew excitement and fond nods from the family around the table. “Sí! Sí! Melanie! Qué buena chica! Melanie was one of our host students, from el estado de Vermont.”

Still not quite sure what kind of sweet, non-alcoholic liqueur I was agreeing to, I watched Fran go to the liquor cabinet and return with a leaf-shaped bottle. “Delicioso,” he promised with a wink, as he opened the bottle and poured the thick, viscous, amber liquid into a few shot glasses. We all picked up our glasses, raised them in a toast, and slugged them down. Lifting the glass, a familiar sensation filled my mouth: maple syrup.

Uf! Me repite,” Fran said, wheezing and burping a little after his shot — as if he’d just slammed a slug of aguardiente. I stifled a laugh, then started to gently explain that people don’t usually drink maple syrup straight. But quickly, I realized that it doesn’t matter what Americans do with maple syrup. My Spanish family’s improvised custom brought them great joy. Who was I to tell them they were wrong?

One thing I love about travel is learning how food interacts with cultures differently. Going to a place where people eat acorns, only animals eat corn-on-the-cob, and a family celebrates with shots of maple syrup challenged my preconceptions about the world I live in. And today, more than two decades later, I realize how I was shaped by those lessons walking with Fran through la granja.


I’m writing this on the plane to Europe. I can’t wait to see how Salamanca measures up against my memories. Stay tuned over the next few weeks as I travel in — and blog from — Spain and Sicily. Over on Facebook, I’ll also be posting some video snippets from my trip. Wherever you’re headed, happy travels!

Top 10 Icelandic Experiences: Volcanoes, Glaciers, Puffins, and More

Rick Steves Iceland is one of just two Rick Steves guidebooks (along with Istanbul) that has its own “Experiences” chapter. That’s because here in the land of fire and ice (and puffins), visitors enjoy experiences they can’t have anywhere else. This post — the grand finale of my Iceland blog series — is a roundup of 10 Icelandic experiences you should not miss. As always, thanks to our co-author, Ian Watson, who taught Rick and me everything we know about Iceland. And thanks for following along with my series. Goða ferð!

Experience a volcanic landscape.

Westman Islands, Iceland

Iceland sits smack in the middle of the Mid-Atlantic Range, where the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates are constantly pulling apart. This line — carving a lopsided “X” through the middle of Iceland — is where you’ll find Iceland’s many volcanic and geothermal sights, from the famous Blue Lagoon spa to the simmering plain of Geysir, and from to the geothermal sights around Lake Mývatn to Eyjafjallajökull (the volcano that halted European air travel in 2010). The odds of seeing an active volcano during your visit to Iceland are slim (but not nonexistent). However, signs of past volcanic activity — and ongoing geothermal mischief — are everywhere. Iceland’s best museum about volcanoes is in the Westman Islands: Eldheimar Museum, built around a family home that was swamped by liquid rock during a 1973 eruption, and left just as it was when they fled. Outside, you can hike along a jagged ridge, noticing street signs marking where (50 feet below your feet) residential streets once ran. And you can even summit the still-warm volcano itself, which slumbers over the town it nearly wiped out.

Cruise a glacier lagoon and stroll “Diamond Beach.”

Southeast Iceland’s gobsmacking glacier lagoons (Jökulsárlón and Fjallsárlón) are some of the most stunning sights in all of Iceland. You can ogle the bobbing icebergs from shore, or go for a trip on a RIB (rigid inflatable boat). You’ll bundle up and cruise across the frigid water, ogling the deep-blue hue of newly calved glaciers. Then your captain leans over and hauls in a giant chunk of 500-year-old-ice for everyone to touch.

And just across the road from Jökulsárlón is another great sight that might even rival the lagoon itself: the so-called “Diamond Beach,” where those bobbing icebergs wash up on black sands on their last stop before being swallowed up by the open Atlantic. Diamond Beach looks like thousands of gigantic precious stones, tumbled by the turgid river, sprinkled across an endless expanse of black velvet.

Get to know a puffin.

In downtown Reykjavík, you can’t escape the puffins…in stuffed-animal form. As the unofficial mascot of Iceland, puffins are everywhere. Puffins live most of their lives adrift in the Atlantic, coming ashore only during the summer breeding season (usually from late May or early June until late August). if you’re in Iceland during those summer months, there are ample opportunities to see puffins in nature. Reykjavík has several companies offering birdwatching cruises to the so-called “Puffin Island” (Akurey), where the adorable birds roost. But the Westman Islands, with the largest puffin population in the world, is Iceland’s best puffin destination. And even outside of summer, you can be all of guaranteed of meeting a real-live puffin at the Westman Islands’ aquarium. This is the home of Tóti, a puffling who couldn’t take flight, and has since been rehabilitated and adopted by the museum. Tóti waddles around the exhibits, thrilling visitors with a close puffin encounter.

Hang out in a fjordside village.

Iceland has no real cities outside of Reykjavík (the “second city,” Akureyri — with just 18,000 people — feels like a small town). And yet, Iceland is surprisingly cosmopolitan; even ridiculously remote “backwaters” can be unexpectedly on-trend. One of my favorite examples is a little village of 670 people on the far-eastern fjords of Iceland, about as far as you can get from Reykjavík — Seyðisfjörður. Buried at the deepest point in a claustrophobic fjord, Seyðisfjörður is the only place in Iceland tethered to the outside world (by a ferry line to Denmark). A top-quality sushi restaurant sits across the rainbow-painted main street from an enticing microbrew pub. And just up the fjord is a funky bar/pizzeria downstairs from an art gallery. The bartender explained that, in the 1950s, a German artist moved to Seyðisfjörður and opened an art academy. And today, students come here from all over the country— and around the world — to study art and be inspired by Iceland’s majesty. Exploring places like Seyðisfjörður gives me a new appreciation for the can-do pioneer spirit that has kept Icelanders thriving since the first settlers sailed here in the Viking Age. Other delightful fjordside villages worth lingering in are Borgarnes, Húsavík, and Siglufjörður.

Splurge on a quality Icelandic meal.

Iceland’s high prices force many visitors into subsiding on hot dogs and groceries (and occasionally, on a dare, suffering through a bite of the notorious “rotted shark”). But if you cheap out on all of your meals, you’ll miss the fact that Iceland has an excellent food scene…no, really! Set aside enough of your food budget to splurge at least once at a quality restaurant where you can experience what top Icelandic chefs are doing today. As a compromise, consider doing your splurge at lunchtime, when even the most expensive restaurants have relatively affordable lunch specials in the $25-35 range. I had a memorable blowout dinner at Grillmarkaðurinn, in Reykjavík, but for other ideas — and an overview of what makes Icelandic food so enticing — see my post about Icelandic food.

Relax in hot water.

Myvatn, Iceland

Many Iceland-bound travelers are familiar with the famous Blue Lagoon lava-rock spa. But that’s just the beginning of Iceland’s thermal bathing culture. Imagine ending each long day of sightseeing, hiking, and driving with a long soak in hundred-degree water. Aaaaahhh! Your choices range from “premium” thermal baths (my favorite is Mývatn Nature Baths, in the North), to hot springs that require a hardy one-hour hike, to municipal swimming pools where Icelanders gather with family and friends, and tourists find they’re outnumbered. If you need to escape from Iceland’s chill, or just recover from a busy day of Icelandic experiences, you’re never more than a short drive from a thermal bath. For all the details, check out my “Blue Lagoon and Beyond” post.

Geek out at an obscure museum.

Iceland does museums exceptionally well — even in the farthest reaches of the country. For example, one of my favorite sightseeing experiences in all of Iceland is the Herring Era Museum in little Siglufjörður, two hours away from just about anything, clinging to an almost-Arctic pinnacle of the North Coast. I never thought I could be fascinated by the herring industry. But this wonderful museum achieved that feat. In a trio of rustic buildings, thoughtfully designed exhibits explain how shoals of herring in the late 19th and early 20th centuries created a huge industrial boom in this little town — singlehandedly generating half of Iceland’s GDP and arguably helping bring about Icelandic independence, by making the country economically viable. In the attic of the salting station, you can walk through the dorms of the “herring girls” who came to Siglufjörður to work round-the-clock during the brief summer herring season. Walking between the bunkbeds and still-set tables, you feel like the workers have just stepped away for their shift. The Herring Era Museum is just one of dozens of unaccountably riveting sights scattered around Iceland; other favorites include the open-air folk museum of turf houses at Glaumbær, the Whale Museum in Húsavík, the state-of-the-art Lava Centre in Hvolsvöllur on the South Coast, the Settlement Centre in Borgarnes, and the Icelandic Emigration Centre in Hofsós.

Appreciate the midnight sun…or the northern lights.

For hyperactive sightseers, it’s a thrill visiting Iceland in the summer, when it never really gets dark. You could spend the morning splashing around the Blue Lagoon, then have lunch and putter around Reykjavík, before heading out in the mid-afternoon for a long day trip into the countryside (such as the Golden Circle). The sun technically sets, but dawn commences before twilight is complete. (In fact, summertime road-trippers are in danger of falling asleep at the wheel, because it’s so easy to lose track of how late it’s getting.) But the one disadvantage of visiting when it never gets dark is that you certainly won’t see the northern lights. For that, you’d have to come in winter — when (if you’re lucky, and it’s not too cloudy) you may get a glimpse of those mysterious dancing lights in the sky. Coming twice — once in summer, once in winter — is not a bad option. (For the pros and cons of off-season travel, see my post on itinerary tips.)

Appreciate Reykjavík’s street art.

Reykjavík has a salty harbor and some fine museums. But my favorite activity in the Icelandic capital is simply strolling and appreciating its endearing ambience. Reykjavík’s funky artistic spirit comes with some of the most eye-pleasing street art anywhere — the work of well-respected local artists, who are invited to paint blank walls before they can be tagged with ugly graffiti. Another fun Reykjavík pastime is to go on a scavenger hunt for little plastic action figures, which a local prankster nicknamed “the Toyspreader” has glued to signs all over the city center. For more on the Icelandic capital and its street art, check out my Reykjavík post.

Ford rivers in a monster-truck bus and hike high above the Valley of Thor.

Our Rick Steves Iceland guidebook focuses on destinations that can be easily reached with a two-wheel drive car. But we also include coverage of one of Iceland’s more difficult-to-reach hiking destinations, Þórsmörk — the “Valley of Thor.” While it’s only about 15 miles as the crow flies from the dramatic Seljalandsfoss waterfall on the South Coast, getting there is part of the adventure — you’ll need to ford several gritty rivers filled with milky glacial melt. If you don’t have a four-wheel-drive car, no problem: Various companies offer day excursions into Þórsmörk, on tour buses with gigantic monster-truck tires. After a long, slow, bumpy ride — thundering through of streams and rivers, windshield wipers flipping furiously to and fro — the bus deposits you at the base of some of the most rewarding hiking trails in Iceland. Summiting the little peak called Valahnúkur (a moderately strenuous, 3-hour-round-trip hike), you look out over a starburst pattern of valleys separating glacier-topped dormant volcanoes.

These 10 experiences are just for starters. Head over to Iceland and make your own list. You won’t regret it.

Happy travels!


Thanks for joining me for my Iceland blog series. Of course, you’ll find details on all of the experiences mentioned in this post in our Rick Steves Iceland guidebook, co-authored by Ian Watson.

In case you missed some of my other Iceland posts, here are all the links:

Top 10 Budget Tips for Iceland

Welcome to Iceland: A Stroll Through Reykjavík

The Westman Islands: Volcanoes and Puffins in Iceland’s Undiscovered Gem

How to Enjoy Iceland’s Thermal Baths: The Blue Lagoon and Beyond

Lake Mývatn: North Iceland’s Geothermal Wonderland

How to Drive Iceland’s Ring Road: The Ultimate 800-Mile Road Trip

What to Eat in Iceland

Iceland’s 4 Best Day Trips from Reykjavík

How to Plan an Iceland Itinerary — From a 24-Hour Layover to a 2-Week Road Trip

Family Travel: Visiting Iceland with Children