Top 5

Top 5 Places to find the Ghosts of Spain

A while back I wrote to Giles Tremlett, the Guardian’s Spain correspondent and author of Ghosts of Spain, to see if he would like to take part in our Spain Top 5’s series. He’s been very busy up until now with the release of the Spanish version of his book (España Ante Sus Fantasmas, published by SIGLO XXI), but here at last are Giles’ Top 5 places to find the Ghosts of Spain…

1. Valle de los Caidos

Franco’s tomb and a ghostly reminder that his regime was about both God and Patria. Set in a beautiful wooded valley outside Madrid, the conjunction of fascist grandeur, natural beauty and religious ardour is, in the true sense of the word, awesome. Also El Escorial is just down the road.

2. The cemetery at Paracuellos de Jarama

The huge white cross you see on the hillside by Madrid’s Barajas airport marks a cemetery where the mass graves of those murdered by the defenders of the Republic lie. The civil war was not black and white.

3. The Roncesvalles pass in the Pyrenees

Where the Basques fell on Charlemagne’s rearguard – a central act in the Basque myth of statehood. Also a beautiful spot (though you can skip the “monuments”), and specially good for looking at vultures.

4. The monastery at Poblet

I always try to visit the Cistercian monastery here during the week and out of season. A chilly winter afternoon is best, because you get it virtually to yourself. What can I say? There is something magical about the place, and not necessarily because it represents part of Catalonia’s pre-Spanish past. No wonder Gaudi found his inspiration here.

5. The Creation Tapestry in Girona cathedral

They recently dimmed the lights here so as to prevent the tapestry from fading. This makes the intense colours harder to make out but I can’t help looking at this huge piece of fabric without imagining the 11th century fingers that put it together. Girona is the Granada of the north-east and well worth a visit anyway.

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Spain Travel Top 5

Top 5 Spain tourist scams

Nothing like getting a top expert to forewarn us about the latest dangers to unwary tourists on the sunny streets of Spain. So, without further ado, our Top 5 series continues with an appearance by a famous Barcelona detective. Ladies and gentlemen, in his own unique voice, I give you Larry Kovaks, P.I.:

Kovaks, P.I.“These rainy days. Strange for August. But that’s the way mother nature intended it for this old mudball and you better goddamn well accept it. Means the guiri crime wave is ebbing, so there isn’t much work for me. Good thing they asked me to do this top 5 thing.

But the idea of a top 5 scam report irks me. What exactly does top 5 mean? The top 5 most successful scams? The top 5 best scams? The top 5 five most ingenious scams?

The virulent underbelly of guiri scamming is truly a menace to this society. I couldn’t, in all due consideration to the respectable author of this blog, say that there is a top 5 of any scam. A scammer, a gypmeister, a short conner, what have you, has one m.o. And that is to pull the deed and not get caught. Therefore, by any means necessary and he or she is happy as, well, a sauced-up guiri in Lloret.

Considering the nature of my work, and the highly compromising situation I would put myself in if I were to reveal my perceptive insights into crimes I am going to solve, I will limit this list to the 5 most nefarious and dastardly scams I have confronted yet. Gypmeisters should not take this as sloth on my part. I am hard at work on the next cases.

1. The Drop Cigarette Con
My first face-off with vice in this dissolute burg started with this one. I was subjected to perhaps the most common form of gypmeisting. In Barcelona, at least. What these fellows do is block you in a confined space (usually an escalator, or a narrow staircase). They do this by dropping a cigarette or other meaningless personal item, and impeding your exit while they "try” to retrieve it. An accomplice of theirs sneaks up behind you and bumps you. As they bump you, they snake their gypmeisting fingers into your pockets and steal your wallet. They got me one time …

2. The Bouncing Cartoon Con
Some of the dirtiest rat bxxxxxxs to have scurried across these piss-laden streets. What they do is sell these cute little bouncing cartoon cutouts. Often they are Simpson’s characters, but they just as well may be Mickey or even Minnie Mouse. A goddamn shame. What they do is put seductive pop music on and "make” the cartoon cutouts dance. Foolish associates have ventured the notion that the bouncing cartoons are actually powered by magnet fields. No such thing. It’s much more sinister than that. There’s a little motor behind that stolen boombox. And much more …

3. The Soccer Trick Con
With world cup fever on the wane, this might not be a "top 5” scam. But it is definitely a scam. And a dirty one at that. What these fellows do is throw on some knock-off Barí§a gear and dribble a soccer ball around. Only in the most touristy spots. I encountered them on the Ramblas a few weeks ago. They dribble up to you, do a fancy trick, and … well, even vigilant eyes like mine can’t spot gypmeisters like these. They beguile you with their "elastico” moves. And before you know it, your vacay plans go blooey.

4. Crap On Clothes Con
This is a fairly old con. There are several variants, but one of the most common goes like this: The gypmeister hides behinds trees or bushes or what have you and he or she squirts a foreign substance onto your clothes. They say something is on your clothes and offer to clean it off. BEWARE! This moment is key. What they are about to do is relieve you of your hard-earned euros.

5. American Tourist Con
As shocking as it might sound, there are gypmeisters who, con mucho morro, don tourist disguises in order to rip off tourists. I encountered these fellows on the Ramblas, of course. The Ramblas is a veritable paradise for gypmeisters of all races, creeds, and filthy intentions. They are in cahoots with other scammers and gather around them in order to attract real tourists. Real tourists are innocently lead into their tempting world of gypmeisting (in my case it was the classic "hide the pea con”).

In this world you can’t judge by appearances. Just remember that.

I would like to thank Ben for the opportunity of sharing this invaluable knowledge with potential tourists of Spain. Please, watch out. If you ever see any suspicious behavior, don’t hesitate to contact me:

Goddamn palookas. Poltroons. ‘Bout time someone took them to the cleaners.”

Spain Travel Top 5

Top 5 don’t miss Iberian Wine trips

As part of our on-going Top 5 series, Ryan from Catavino has come up with the greatest travel adventures to be had in the world of Spanish and Portuguese wine:

1. Sanlucar de Barremeda
A small and indiscriminately located town in Andalusia, it is the home of Manzanilla sherry and a place I fell in love with last summer. As a result of my passion for sherry, Manzanilla being one of my favorites, the trek to Sanlucar was more like a pilgrimage than a vacation. Sitting at a beachside bar watching the sunset with a cold glass of Manzanilla sherry, I literally thought I had died and gone to heaven. Couple that experience with a tour of one of the oldest Manzanilla sherry houses, where I sipped 150yr old PX out of a barrel, and I would have to say this is a “don’t miss” for any wine lover.

2. Priorat and Montsant
Located just inland from the Roman town of Tarragona, this is one of the most exciting new wine regions in Spain. However, because Priorat wine is currently priced well beyond anyone’s wine budget, you might find yourself exploring other regions for economic reasons. Fortunately, there is another option. The region of Montsant literally circles Priorat, offering fantastic wine for great value. Rugged terrain with steep hills, poor soil and rich history, this region is a fun place not only to visit, but when stopping in the region’s default capital of Falstet, it is a great place to pick up some wine! Because production levels are so low, however, it may require you to book a ticket and plan a trip to taste many of the exquisite wines from this region, which in the grand scheme isn’t such a terrible thought to ponder.

3. La Rioja
How can I not mention Rioja? You have Longroño with narrow streets and winding roads where some of the regions greatest culinary treasures can be tasted – think stuffed mushrooms, white asparagus, and chorizo and potato stew, but you also have wine galore. Although for me, I would rather spend my time in Haro, a quaint town that is not only full of great restaurants that serve traditional roasted lamb, but also holds the greatest wine museum created by the winery Dinastí­a Vivanco. I’ve been to a lot of wine museums in my travels and to be honest, the majority of them bore me. What makes this wine museum different is that they take you through the entire wine making process from beginning to end, while giving you a unique and interesting perspective on the process of making wine. This is not to be missed by any wine lover who has a chance to wander over there.

4. Toro
Granted, you could probably visit this small Castilla y León town in a day, but it will be a day well spent. In truth, although the Bodegas are growing rapidly, they are relatively uneventful to visit and the region as a whole is a bit barren. On the other hand, this area is dripping in history, having sent some of its Toro wines with Columbus as he went off to re-discover the new world. Additionally, the town is nestled inside ancient stone walls where a castle and a quaint little square house several small bars offering just about every wine produced in the region. You can wander all night trying different tapas and tasting the rich ink like wines from this region, while feeling history vibrate through your soul. Plus, not a stone throw’s away, you have the incredible white wine region of Ruéda with its cornerstone grape Verdejo. The best part is the fact that you are only two and a half hours from Madrid, allowing you to not only visit the city famous for its night life and architecture, but also taste wines from one of the most famous regions in Spain!

5. Oporto
Located in Portugal, this city has so much history and significance to the world of wine it would be a shame to miss it. Influencing such wines as Ribera del Duero and Toro in Spain, and Port in the Douro valley of Portugal, Oporto is wedged in the valley of the Douro River as it makes its exit out to the Atlantic. Steep slopes with colorful houses and historic buildings, Oporto even lays claim to one of Gustav Eiffel’s architectural achievements – a giant two level bridge that is the focal point for visitors to this town. Take a day to eat octopus at a small restaurant on the bank of the Douro and then wander across to the other side of the river and take a tour of the world’s most famous and historically significant Port houses where you can sample their wines. This year is the 250th anniversary of the region’s wine demarcation as the oldest regulated wine region in the world. If you visit Iberia, don’t forget this town!

Spain Travel Top 5

Top 5 Valencia City Escapes

Kids with boat, Valencia

Continuing with our summer Top 5 series, Derek Workman, an English freelance journalist who lives in Valencia and has written guides such as Small Hotels and Inns of Eastern Spain and Inland Trips from the Costa Blanca, lets us in on a few of his favourite Valencian getaways:

Five places I’d rather be in Valencia than sitting at my desk writing…

1. Cabañal
One of the old fishing villages that form the Pueblos Maritimos down by the port. It’s full of old modernista houses covered in decorative tiles. After an hour on the beach at Malvarrosa I’d wander in to El Polp for lunch; a real neighbourhood cafeteria with a strange décor that somehow or other brings together American diner and Edwardian elegance. In the evening I’d nip in to Bodegas Montaña, one of Valencia’s oldest, and have a couple of their excellent tapas.

2. The Riu Turia
In front of the Palau de Musica. At least I would if it was Sunday morning. Despite still being called the riu it hasn’t seen a drop of water since the 60’s and is now 9 kms of parks, fountains, etc. (It’s where the City of Arts and Sciences is set.) On Sunday morning the world and his brother while away a couple of hours listening to music and the splashing fountains in front of the Palau; strolling, chatting, playing with the niños on the grass and trying to avoid the cool dudes on their in-line skates. During August it has an open-air cinema which is the bees-knees because the films start at 11pm, when the heat of the day has mainly disapated.

3. Mercado Central
Said to be the biggest covered market in Europe, I love wandering around it even if I’m not buying anything. The ladies will shout at you saying that their fish is the best in the market and you should get in quick while the going’s good. It’s so popular now with tourists that some of the stalls even have ‘No Foto!’ signs stuck up. If you fancy your hand at making a paella there are stalls that sell only the beans that go into it and others where you can buy nothing but the snails you need to make a proper paella Valenciana. I haven’t gone as far as buying a pig’s head, though – yet!

4. Cinquante Cinq
A local French restaurant owned by an Englishman and with an English head chef. Curios combination but excellent food and gets packed out with Spanish. I once had sopa de zanahoria, pastel de buey and pastel de pan y pasas – in other words, carrot soup, shepherd’s pie and bread and butter pudding. The Spanish diners didn’t realising that they were eating a typical British meal and loved it.

5. Sat at a table on the street…
… outside the bar below my apartment, swapping lies with Toni next door about how brilliant we are. It could be any bar, it’s just being able to relax and chat with friends in a Spanish way instead of shouting at each other across a packed British pub.

Image by Derek Workman: Kids with boat, Valencia

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Spain Travel Top 5

Top 5 reasons to vist Murcia

Bando de la Huerta Fiesta, MurciaAs part of our continuing Spain Top 5 series, I asked Murcia-based Matthew Bennett from The Big Chorizo (which covers news, comment and opinion about Spain and Spanish) to come up with 5 great reasons to visit this often overlooked corner of Spain. Is there more to Murcia than empty lunar landscapes and gated golf towns? Over to Matthew:

Ben asked me to write about the top 5 places and things to do here in Murcia. There are loads more but these would be the top 5 for me right now. If you’re ever down this way, check them out:

1. ZM Nightclub
On the beach at the beginning of La Manga: candles in the sand, outdoor dancefloors, bowls of fruit on the tables to relax away the alchohol, refresh tired bones and watch the sun come up with your friends.

2. Bando de la Huerta
On the first Tuesday after Easter, the biggest traditional Murcian fiesta of the year – half a million Murcians get dressed up in local costumes and start drinking promptly sometime before noon – nobody I’ve met has ever seen the procession which is supposed to be the centrepiece and the party ends the following day around dawn.

3. Easter Week
Semana Santa, both in Murcia city and in Cartagena down the road, is spectacular, whether or not you’re the least bit religious. The solemn, splendid, military-style religious processions in Cartagena contrast with the more lively ones in Murcia where the pilgrims dish out sweets for the kids. My favourite procession is Holy Thursday here in Murcia where the procession is a silent, darkened one because that’s the night Jesus was killed.

4. Calblanque Beach
If you turn right off the La Manga road just before you reach Cabo de Palos, instead of following the road into La Manga, you will completely miss all the tourist beaches, golf villas and throngs of people in the Mar Menor to find Calblanque: deserted natural beaches at the end of a (purposefully, I think) winding dirt track.

5. Mar de Músicas
Every July in Cartagena, music from around the world (this year South Africa was the special guest country) resonates around this ancient seafaring city and, especially in the Parque de las Torres amphitheatre high-up on the hill overlooking the port, takes your breath away as you sip a cool copa to escape the suffocating summer heat.

Image: Two friends at the Bando de la Huerta fiestas, by Matthew Bennett

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Spain Travel Top 5

Top 5 places Ben would rather be right now

Fino bar, Malaga

As part of a series I’ll be running this summer with help from Spain’s best writers and bloggers, I’d like to start with the Top 5 places I’d rather be in Spain right now (considering it’s too hot to venture outside here in Madrid!)

1. Following a long-distance footpath in the Pyrenees
Years ago I tried to do the GR-11, which crosses the mountains from Catalonia to the Basque country, coast to coast. It nearly killed me and after just 3 days I went back to Madrid for the car. But I’ve never known such incredible vistas and solitary valleys, and I’d love to try it again…

2. Playa de Andrin, near Llanes, Asturias
I’ve mentioned it before and I’ll mention it again: foraging goats on steep, fern-covered cliffs, cool wet sand, crystalline waters, cider and a bocadillo in the bar on the hill for lunch… forget the costas, this is a real beach.

3. A Fino Bar in Malaga
Any Fino bar will do, really, just knowing that I am in one of the Andalucia’s most lively cities and that there is glass of cool fino in my hand would make my day. Later I’d take a walk around the old town and finish up with grilled sardines on the admittedly not-so-attractive beach.

4. Strolling along Gros beach
San Sebastian is the most attractive combination of surf, sand and city in Europe. Forget famous La Concha beach, always packed, and check out Gros, full of beautiful people and great waves, and just 5 minutes walk from the old town: Pintxo heaven, the classiest tapas in Spain.

5. Driving across the central plains on my Vespa
In any direction, me and the Meseta, not in any kind of a hurry, and no need to be back for a week.

Image: Fino in Malaga, by Ben.