Turron, Cagatios and other Spanish Christmas Treats

Christmas is approaching fast and, like many other countries, Spain has her own sweets and treats. Let’s take a look.

Last week, I made my way to Jijona, also known as ‘the cradle of turron’. It’s in this little village some 20km north of Alicante, in the middle of almond groves, that Spain’s Christmas sweet no. 1, turron, was ‘invented’.

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Surprisingly, the sweet, often called the Spanish nougat, doesn’t have a very long tradition. In the 18th century El Lobo, the most famous company, started to produce turron, grinding almonds, mixing them with sugar, honey  and egg white, stirring and stirring, then cutting it into squares.

turron

The turron museum of Jijona documents the making of turron, all by hand in the beginning, to today’s modernized production. There are basically two kinds of turron: very hard one, often with pieces of almond in it and soft one which is mostly made in Alicante. Over the years, this traditional Christmas sweet of Arabic origin, has undergone varieties. Now there is turron de chocolate, turron with candied fruit and much more.

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Let’s turn to a custom which I first saw on a Christmas market in Barcelona. The caragtio is a piece of dried tree trunk, dressed up as Papa Noel and with his backend covered by a blanket. During the time approaching Christmas, the cagatio is fed with apples by kids, because, so the story goes, when he is kept well fed and warm with his blanket, at Christmas he will ‘shit’ sweets and little presents which the kids find under the blanket.

cagatio

If you fear for your teeth, stay away from the hard variety of turron and enjoy polvorones instead. They are little cakes, often compared to biscuits, which melt into almond and butter flavored powder as soon as you get your teeth into them. They are very dry and crumble easily that’s probably why they are wrapped individually and want to be handled with care until they reach their final destination: your taste buds!

The best polvorones are made in Southern Andalucia.

The 6th of January is the day when Roscon de Reyes is eaten all over the country. It’s a large, round bread, glazed and topped with candied fruit and powdered sugar. Hidden in the dough is a coin or a figures of baby Jesus. Who ever finds one or the other will have good luck during the coming year.

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Feliz Navidad!

La Cite du Vin/Bordeaux

Come with me on a tour of Bordeaux’s brand new landmark: La Cite du Vin. The only thing which surprised me was that it took so long to come into being. Bordeaux is after all the capital of wine and THE appropriate location for an outstanding wine museum.

Well, here it is, opened only this year. La Cite du Vin  is much more than a museum, it’s also an indoor amusement park and an architectural masterpiece. Designed by Anouk Legendre and Nicolas Desmazieres, the 55m high building rises into the sky close to the river Garonne. The shape alone is food for discussion.

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To me, frankly, it looks like a boot whereas it is supposed to represent a decanter or wine glass which no doubt is more appropriate.

Be prepared for high tech and..darkness. I am a great museum fan, but, I’ll say so right from the start, this is not my favorite. But, go and judge for yourself.

The entrance

The entrance

The huge structure spreads over 10 levels and you follow the parcours permanent right to the top. Along the way you learn everything there is to know about wine. History, cultivation, commerce, transport, you name it, you will find it.

At the entrance you are provided with massive earphones and a hand held gadget because interactive is the key word of this museum. Huge screens tell stories whilst an audio guide whispers into your ear. The screens, displays and images are the reason why this place is so very dark, something that made me feel claustrophobic. Everybody shuffles around with their earphones and gadget, it resembles zombie central. Nobody can talk to anybody else and discuss the exhibits and you can’t ask any questions either because an audiotape doesn’t answer.

I liked the mural about ancient wine cultivation and the bottles, encrusted with shells, recovered from the sea.

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mural

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At the ground floor there  are also shops where you can buy wine and a Café. To enjoy this kind of museum cum amusement park you have to be a fan of high tech, otherwise you might run outside after just 40 minutes as I did, to let me eye rest on the waters of the Garonne and enjoy the sunshine after all that darkness.

For quite a detailed guide please consult: http://www.bloomberg.com/news/photo-essays/2016-02-25/bordeaux-s-81-million-cite-du-vin-aims-to-be-the-guggenheim-of-wine

Apart from the eye catching shape of the building, it has, in my opinion, nothing in common with the Sydney Opera House or the Guggenheim in Bilbao to which it is compared, both of which  I have visited.

 

El Greco’s Toledo

Dominikos Theotokopoulos, better known as El Greco, was born in 1541 on the Greek island of Crete. He started out as a painter of icons, then moved on to Venice where he became acquainted with the works of Tintoretto and Tizian.

It’s unknown how and when he came to Toledo, but it’s in this city where he created his best known works and where he lived until his death in 1614.

My recent visit to Toledo had several purposes and aspects, but on of them was, of course, to see the great master’s works, home and museum. 2014 put El Greco and Toledo in the spot light because of the 400th anniversary of his death and many events, the traces of which persist today, were held in Toledo.

I was always fascinated by the unique style of his portraits. The elongated, serious faces are instantly recognizable. El Greco painted mostly religious scenes and, in Toledo, finally got much coveted and needed commissions to create paintings for several churches and the cathedral.

He also made a name for himself with the aforementioned portraits. What he did little was paint landscapes. One of them is the View of Toledo, which creates a dark and even menacing image of the city.

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Naturally, having seen the painting, although only in reproductions, I was curious to find out how and if the reality differs from the image created by El Greco.

It does. The two most famous landmarks of Toledo, Alcazar and Cathedral are not in their real place. The river Tajo meanders in a different way and, most surprisingly, the city walls are missing. Why that is, is anyone’s guess but it’s interesting to compare an artist’s impression with reality. The painting is in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, not in Toledo.

I made my way to the modern El Greco museum with a sculpture of the artist in front and lovely gardens inside.

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garden

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El Greco, who cherished a rather lavish lifestyle, rented rooms in the Palais of Marques de Villena close by. His famous work The Funeral of Count Orgaz hangs in the church of Santo Tome for which it was created.

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You can practically go from one church to the next in Toledo and find creations by El Greco in many. Despite finally making a living from his work and a name for himself, he failed to get commissions from King Philipp II, although he tried very hard. He died leaving huge debts.

It wasn’t until the 19th century that his originality and superb craftsmanship were really appreciated and Expressionists were influenced by him.

 

 

 

 

The Best of Cartagena/Spain

Cartagena, located on the southern end of Spain’s Costa Blanca, is a captivating mixture. Thousands of years of very exciting history, are embedded in a lively, modern city. Whether you arrive by car, coach or train, your eyes are immediately drawn to the massive walls which encircle a large part of the city. History is beckoning.

Charles III Rampart

Charles III Rampart

Living in Torrevieja, Cartagena is only 1 ½ hours away. It could be a day trip, but there is so much to do and see and I like to take my time, so I stay overnight.
It’s not only the sites and museums which I like to visit at my leisure, but Cartagena is also a foodie heaven and excellent for shopping. In short, the best of everything which can’t be enjoyed in a hurry.
HISTORY
Founded in around 227BC by the Carthaginian Hasdrubal the Fair, Cartagena’s importance was always due to its natural and protected port and its coveted strategic position. Therefore the city has been a battlefield for many civilizations.
Its heyday came after 209BC when the city was conquered by Scipio Africanus and became part of the Roman Empire. After the Vandals and the Visigoth come the Arab conquest in 714AD and the integrations into the Caliphate of Cordoba.
In 1245 Alfonso X conquered Cartagena. The colorful history continued over the next centuries with the subsequent rise and fall in the fortunes of Cartagena.
The importance as a sea port continues and the city is still an important navy position of Spain with an Academy and ship yards.
Naturally, all these civilizations left their mark and we’ll look at the best in more details.

 

PUNIC WALLS
Cartagena is best navigated on foot. In fact, you can take in all the major sights by following one big circle, beginning with the remains of the Punic walls.

Punic Walls

Punic Walls

They are the oldest historical site and beautifully housed and exhibited in a modern steel and glass building very close to the train and bus stations.
Not much of the rampart is left, but what is really fascinating is what has been discovered underneath. A several story high crypt where monks very buried can be accessed by narrow stairs. Even a few bones are on display.

Stairs to the crypt

Stairs to the crypt

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Leaving, turn right into Calle Duque San Diego which will lead you straight to Calle Mayor. Along the way, you come past Casa Fortuna, a Roman villa which contains some colorful and well preserved mosaics. Sadly, the little museum has erratic opening days and hours, so you will be lucky to get in.
During a period of prosperity in the early 20th century, many fabulous art deco buildings were constructed in Cartagena and a few of them can already be admired along the way.

Casa Aguirre

Casa Aguirre

Take a look at Casa Aguirre Muram which is today a modern art museum.
On your left you can see the Castillo de la Conception on the hill and parts of the famous Roman Theatre. The entrance however is from Calle Mayor.

Roman Forum

Roman Forum

ROMAN AMPHITHEATRE
Probably Cartagena’s most famous landmark is the Roman Amphitheatre. Dating from the 2nd century BC, it’s the second largest on the Iberian peninsula after Merida.
It’s a huge complex which consists of several parts. You enter from a very pretty pink and rather incongruous house off Calle Mayor, opposite the Town Hall. You might miss it, if it weren’t for the signs because it doesn’t look ‘roman’ at all.

Entrance

Entrance

Several stories contain statues and other finds , then you walk along an illuminated tunnel past excavations and alight on the top tier of the theatre.

Tunnel at the amphitheatre

Tunnel at the amphitheatre

You can walk all the way down if you want and see the stage and the seats of the nobility.

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MARITIME MUSEUM
As you leave and are, again, in Calle Mayor, you may walk a few steps and visit the Maritme Museum. The first ever submarine was actually invented by Mr. Peral, a native from Cartagena, and it’s exhibited in the museum together with many other models and artifacts to do with military and civilian seafare.

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Submarine

Submarine

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CALLE MAYOR
If you have, so far, followed my itinerary it’s definitely time for a rest, a coffee and some food. No better place in Cartagena than the length of Calle Mayor. A pedestrian area, you can combine shopping, sightseeing and eating.

Windows Casino

Windows Casino

Several of the before mentioned art deco buildings are to be found in Calle Mayor, including the very typical white lattice facades and windows. The former Grand Hotel is now a bank but the Casinos, which in Spain is a cultural society and has nothing to do with gambling, still shines in original art deco splendor. Closer to the port you find the neo classic Town Hall which is often the venue for contemporary art exhibitions.

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Don’t miss out on a visit to Cartagena’s most popular café/restaurant La Tartana. Their choice of tapas, montaditos and pinchos is mouthwatering, all to be enjoyed beneath chandeliers and surrounded by mirrors and memorabilia.

Interior La Tartana

Interior La Tartana

Refreshments

Refreshments

If you fancy a spot of shopping, you have also come to the right place. You’ll find excusive boutiques side by side with the much more economic ZARA and perfumeries like Sephora.
CASTILLO DE LA  CONCEPCION
The medieval castle perches high up on a hill and is visible from just about anywhere in Cartagena. It’s surrounded by a park and you have two possibilities to get there.
You can either follow the paths through the park if you fancy a spot of hiking, or you can take the ‘easy way’. This is a spectacular glass elevator which, as it climbs, affords you wonderful views over the city and port. Then, you walk along an enclosed walkway to reach the castle.

Lift to the castle

Lift to the castle

Interesting are the remains of the Arab past of Cartagena as well as the architecture of the castle which has been well restored.
HARBOR TRIP
Whenever I am in a port town, one of the first things I do is find out if there is a boat tour. A view from the water always gives such a very different impression of a city. You can see many things you might not even find when walking through the streets.
Luckily, Cartagena offers boat trips and they are really pleasant. Walk to the end of Calle Mayor towards the water front, cross the main road, walk down some steps and you are at the dock where the little tour boats depart.

Tour boats

Tour boats

The trip takes you out past the military part, the cruise ship docks, the container docks and the wharfs towards the entrance to the harbor, guarded on each side by two identical but rather derelict castles.

Entrance to the port

Entrance to the port

The best view of the Castillo de la Concepcion is actually from the water, a great photo opportunity. The tour lasts about 1 ½ hours and in the summer, they depart hourly.
MOROS Y CRISTIANOS – A FESTIVAL
If you happen to visit Cartagena in the last week of September, you are in for a treat. The city celebrates its greatest festival, enacting the battle between Moors and Christians. Roman soldiers and colorful Arabs roam the streets, a big part is reserved for entertainment, tents and stalls and there are ‘real battles’ and fireworks.

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Eating, drinking and merry making day and night, so, just join in.
If you have followed the route I have mapped out, you’ll end up at the foot of the huge wall which catches the visitor’s eye on arrival.
It’s the Charles II Rampart which isn’t very old but very impressive. Encircling a huge part of Cartagena’s old town it also encloses gardens, parks and a row of elegant town houses.
There are of course many more churches and museums to see in Cartagena or excursions into the vicinity to be taken. I think you can see why I recommend to stay more than just one day.

Istanbul Day Trip No. 2 – Goztepe

Day trip No.1 lead us to Sariyer on the Bosporus. For me personally, the main attraction is the fabulous Sedberk Hanim museum. Given my love of museums I was happy to discover that leafy Goztepe is the location of yet another such little gem. But that’s not the only reason why this Istanbul suburb makes for a great day trip.
It seems that poets and novelists have a penchant for founding their own museums. Think about Turkish Nobel prize laureate Orhan Pamuk and his’ Museum of Innocence’ now open in Istanbul’s Cukurcuma district. The museum is closely related to his novel of the same title.
Equally famous in Turkey, although maybe less known abroad is poet Sunay Akin. His passion, apart from his literary work, are toys. To exhibit his vast collection and make it accessible to the public, he opened a Toy Museum in Göztepe.


Toy museum Goztepe

Toy museum Goztepe

As it turned out, a visit to Gözetepe’s Toy museum is a delightful day trip, because you have four experiences all rolled into one outing.

Haydarpasha Train Station

 

Göztepe is a very green and quite elegant residential suburb located on Istanbul’s Asian side and well worth a visit on its own. To get there, I enjoyed a Bosporus ferry ride.

Ferry ride

Ferry ride

I took the ferry to Kadiköy from Eminönü near the Galata Bridge and made sure it stops at the historic  Haydarpasha train station.

Haydapasha train station

Haydapasha train station

Haydapasha train station outside

Haydapasha train station outside

The art deco building is a famous Istanbul landmark which you can visit en route to Göztepe. Then take the suburban train from Haydarpasha to Kartal which departs from platform 2, alight at the fourth stop, cross the road, walk down Tanzimal Street until you reach Dr. Zeki Zeren Street, turn left and proceed to the end.

 

Toy Museum Goztepe

The building itself is attraction number three. The museum is housed in a beautifully restored konak, one of the old wooden houses not located on the water ( those are called yahlis) which, well into the 1800s prevailed in Istanbul over stone houses. Fires, earthquakes and neglect have destroyed many, so it’s a special treat to visit a konak restored to its former glory.

Welcome to the toy museum

Welcome to the toy museum

Pay your admission of approx. $3 and become a child again for the next hour or two. Akin has assembled more that 4000 toys from all over the world and they are displayed over four floors, grouped together by subjects.
German Käthe Kruse dolls, sit next to a splendid Barbie collection. Doll houses, replicas of American drug stores, Indian fortresses and space shuttles, all are rubbing shoulders in this extraordinary museum.

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Round the visit off by enjoying a coffee or tea in the Café located on the ground floor next to a toy shop where you can buy toys, teddy bears, books and other souvenirs.

Cafe and shop in the toy museum

Cafe and shop in the toy museum

The museum is open Tuesday to Sunday from 9.30 am to 6pm.

Baghdad Avenue and City Park

 

After your visit to the museum, be prepared for some serious shopping along Baghdad Avenue. The 14km long one way Avenue is the Asian equivalent to Istiklal Avenue on the European side of Istanbul with elegant shopping malls, designer stores , upscale restaurants and cafes. It’s a pleasure even if you just mingle with the crowds and window shop.

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If shopping isn’t to your liking, you can finish off your day trip to Goztepe with a walk in City Park, with 10.000m2 Istanbul’s largest green zone.
With so many different things to do and see, a day out in Goztepe will pass much too fast.