Paella

I know it’s a cliché writing about a dish that is known worldwide and stereotypical and emblematic of Spain on my blog, but there is a lot more to it than meets the eye. It’s something many Brits would typically do, go down to La Rambla in the centre of Barcelona and have a massive, watered-down glass of sangria, and have a rather plastic- looking plate of paella and feel like they’re living the Spanish dream. Seriously mate, dream on. If you want a paella, do it right, and your wallet and taste buds will thank you for it.

Paella is typical of Valencia, and they love telling you about it, and every paella tried outside of their community is often compared to their own. There have even been other articles posted, stating that you need water from Valencia to make the perfect paella, a theory proven wrong on a program called El Punto de Mira. Brits also may assume that this famous dish is eaten everywhere in Spain, but couldn’t be further from the truth. The further inland and northwest you go in Spain, the less likely you are to see them.

Another common misconception is that Paella is primarily a seafood dish, loaded with king prawns, calamari and mussels. That is a common version, but the authentic version, the valenciana, has no seafood in it at all. Chicken, rabbit, butter beans, runner beans, and optionally duck and snails are the main components to go with the rice. Other regions have their varieties, and they are worth trying, but this is considered the authentic one.

Another key thing to think about, is the way it’s prepared. Paella is cooked on an open fire, and that really does make a difference. You don’t get the same charred taste like that of putting meat on a grill, but the aroma from the wood does get infused in the rice and gives it a different flavour. Saffron also must be used, expensive though it is, and some restaurants either don’t use enough, or cut corners by substituting it so it gets it’s iconic colour. Still prefer that plastic rubbish from that tourist trap you visited the other day?

The preference to how a paella is finished off has divided the nation. Do you prefer the rice to be caldoso or seco? That question is like asking a Brit if they prefer ketchup or brown sauce with their bacon sandwich. Caldoso means soupy, that the rice has a lot of water in it but like a thick sauce whereas seco means dry. The moisture from the paella has mostly gone, but is replaced by an intense flavour especially from the socorrat, the layer of rice that’s roasted at the bottom of the pan, and the best bit in my opinion. I personally love both kinds, but I think the seco version just edges it.

The varieties of this world-famous dish are endless, and I would try as many different kinds as possible. Other notable kinds include ones with lobster, with black rice, vegetable or get the best of both worlds, with the mixta. One ingredient you should never find is chorizo. Jamie Oliver received a huge backlash here in Spain after adding some in his recipe, and rightly so.

A paella might seem quite expensive, but usually they cost around 10€ per person, depending on the quality and location as well as the number of people who are eating it. The more people, the cheaper it gets, so sharing is caring everyone. Also just be aware that a good sign that your Paella is going to be from scratch, is when they take at least 20 mins for it to arrive after you order it. Waiters would normally warn you of how long it takes if you don’t order any starter or dish to share, so a good suggestion, would be something light, like a salad or some sardines. One more thing to take into account, is that many bars and restaurants will have a tacky poster, advertising that they are specialists with paellas with pictures of their varieties. I would generally avoid those places as they usually aren’t great.

To sum up, paellas are an amazing way to give the weekend a huge lift. The varieties are endless, they are perfect for sharing, and they have the most amazing presentation. However, it’s very easy to end up in a tourist trap, eating that fluorescent yellow rice. When you find a place that does it right, you’re on cloud nine, and my advise, is to go to where it all started, Valencia for the paella valenciana. They really are the most authentic, for the most part, the best and they know they are, so they are eager to take care of you. See for yourself.

Camino de Santiago: Day 1 León- Astorga

The Camino de Santiago or Way of St James as us Brits call it, is one of the most famous pilgrimages in the world, and is a major challenge for anyone who takes it on. People usually walk the main route, but cycling has become a lot more popular in recent years. But truth be told, I had never heard of it until I moved to León and saw people passing through the town with an impressive amount of gear. The objective is simple, get to Santiago de Compostela, the capital of Galicia in northwest Spain. Simple right? That’s what I Thought…

I first developed an interest in doing it when one of my flat mates and a couple of mutual friends attempted it back in October of 2012. But their preparation of drinking beer and Vodka the night before their departure, didn’t seem like a wise decision. I was right. All but one of them actually made it to Santiago, while the others barely completed a third of the journey. I decided there and then that I actually wanted to give it a go myself. However the opportunity didn’t arise until March the following year.

A friend of mine from Brazil called Rafael mentioned during a night out that he was looking to do the Camino by bike during the Easter break. Somehow, this conversation ended up with us pledging to go together and a rough plan was in motion. The problem was he had ordered a brand new bike to do this trip, while I was trying to see if I had a mate who was brave enough to lend me theirs. I managed to get one the day before we set off, but I still felt underprepared. I had done some spin bike training, and we got the booklet you need to get to allow you to stay in the hostels. However, I felt like we hadn’t studied the route well enough, we didn’t know what to expect. We had spent just one day looking online before we set off.

The key advice we were given was to pack light, but with enough for almost any situation. My rucksack had quite simply: a sleeping bag, a rain jacket, a change of clothes or two, a small towel, the most basic toiletries, a small torch, and some rations. Nothing more other than the jacket and gloves that I would be wearing most of the time. We were both really new to this, and at least we knew if we needed more things, there were some key towns along the way that could help us out.

So we finally set off on the 30th March 2013 and we were super excited. Disaster struck just 2km into our trip when my bike broke down in spectacular fashion. Rafael made a desperate dash back to León to see if there was a workshop who could fix it while I waited. Interestingly enough I broke outside a pawn shop, and there I found a decent-looking bike for 40€. What the heck, I had to go for it, and it was certainly a morale booster for us. I also had to applaud Rafael’s patience and calmness during this delay and we continued with same energy as before.

The Camino takes a sharp climb up the hill where you end up passing through the various neighbourhoods before we were finally granted with open countryside near the airport. From there, we had two options, and we had no idea which one was better or shorter, so we took the option on the left, which turned out to be the harder option. From there you follow the descent to Fresno del Camino, a small farmer’s village from which we ended up on dirt tracks for some time. My Bike was not absorbing the bumps very well, so it was a relief to reach some tarmac some 10km later.

After passing through Chozas de Abajo, the Camino, for the most part became a very flat affair with snow- capped mountains in front and to the right of us far in the distance. For most of the day, it was cold and gloomy and we didn’t see many pilgrims around, which suggested that this route wasn’t particularly popular. I could see why. While it was a relief to arrive at a village, the lack of activity and facilities was ever present. It didn’t take long for the discomfort to become commonplace with this bike and I started to realise how much I had underestimated how tough this was going to be.

After 3 hours of riding, we had made it to our major rest stop of that day, Hospital de Orbigo. This was the largest village we had come across so far, and had a large roman bridge crossing the river which makes it worth stopping by for even an hour or so. This village also Had a few hostels, that were open, giving us an opportunity to get a taste of what to expect when we reached Astorga. A kind man called Eugenio allowed us in and was very happy to show us around, and we were really impressed by what we saw. It was like a typical youth hostel with bunk beds and facilities to allow you to do everything you normally can do. But the key difference is that only pilgrims can stay there.

These hostels are also where you get your booklet stamped, which is very important down the line. It works as a way to check your progress, to assure that you haven’t cheated in some way getting to Santiago, and all the stamps are unique, like something you get at immigration on your passport. You need to have it stamped twice a day when you are certain distance from your goal. We got ours stamped there just to be sure.

Upon leaving the village after what felt like five minutes, but was actually an hour, another choice was upon us, left or right. Rafael made the choice this time and it was a kilometer further than the other way, but he believed there would be more to see. I didn’t doubt his logic, and I was sure I wasn’t going to suffer much more. The route temporarily took us off road before reconnecting at Villares. From there, it was off road and with no contact with anyone else for the next hour. This was the hardest part of the day, and I realised that my bike disliked hills even more than I did. It was slow going and difficult to ride on, due to the mud. I fell off a couple of times, struggling to maintain control on these trails. At least only my pride was damaged.

By this point we were digging deep to get to Astorga, and we could feel that we were so close, when all of a sudden, we came across a stone cross and behind it, the valley opened up, where we could see the town! We took some time to admire the view, and finally saw some fellow pilgrims. Was it worth going the more difficult way? Absolutely! You won’t be disappointed. It was plain sailing getting down onto the main road again, and the final few kilometers were the fastest of the whole day.

We checked into the first hostel we could find in the centre of town and took the time to unload everything and check out the sights, for which Astorga has plenty for a small town. Like León, Astorga also has a Gaudi- designed building to see, the aptly named Palacio de Gaudi, which you can visit. The centre is built on top of a hill and is surrounded on most sided with fortifications, our hostel was right on the Edge of it, giving us views of the countryside. Not bad for a fiver a night. We also found more guides and information that was crucial in helping us plan the next few days and where to rest.

My legs by the end of the day felt like lead, but the family-sized portion of pasta that we made that night took the edge off. We also had the chance to talk to other people in the hostel, and you realise that people from all over the world were doing this. I ended up talking to an Australian woman and her boyfriend, who had met other people during the Camino and stuck with them for the last week. Bonds had been made, and I guess the more company, the better the experience. After a good chat with them, my bed for the night beckoned me. Early start tomorrow…

City Guide: León, Castilla y León

It’s only fair to write my first blog about the city where it all began; my Erasmus year in a city that is well off the beaten track for most Brits. I chose to study in León following a conversation I had with my senior lecturer at Uni, and he didn’t take much convincing when he showed me just a taste about what was in store for me. I arrived there in September of 2012 and left in July the following year, but in reality, you don’t need more than 2 days to see the city.

León is a bit of a mission to get to as the nearest international airport is some 160km away in Asturias, which was how I got there. To the north, the city is flanked by the Cantabrian mountains and almost everywhere else, the vast plains of the Meseta Central. Since I moved away from there, the city has been connected to Madrid and Valladolid by AVE and you are 2 hours or so by bus from the coastal city of Gijón. Nevertheless, give yourself plenty of time to travel.

The main sight of León has to be its impressive cathedral set in the centre of town. Voted as one of the most beautiful in Spain, the cathedral has drawn visitors from all over the country, and has unique features, such as the twin towers being a different height to each other (unintentionally), and that a lot of the design and layout is based on Notre Dame in Paris. As impressive as it is inside, it’s outside where its’ charms lie.

Other sights worth visiting are also the Basilica of San Isidro where it’s one the disputed places where the Holy Grail is located, and it’s usually free to enter. León is also one of the few cities in Spain where the architect of the Sagrada Familia, Antoni Gaudi, left his mark, with the Casa de Los Botines. However, you can’t enter it under normal circumstances. The old quarter of this city is well worth exploring and getting yourself lost, and you know when you reach its limits; when you see the old roman wall of which much of it is still preserved. The most beautiful plaza in the city isn’t the Plaza Mayor in my opinion, but the Plaza del Grano, you’ll understand why.

This Plaza is also home to a monastery which is used by pilgrims for a famous route known as the Camino de Santiago, you may have heard of it. León is a key stop on the main route to get to Santiago and for many (myself included), it’s a starting point. The iconic yellow arrows carve through the old quarter and cross the River Bernesga over a Roman bridge via a monastery called San Marcos, one of the few attractions from outside the centre of town really worth seeing. Pilgrims of the Camino, often choose to sleep here and for them it costs just 5€ a night.

For anyone looking for a normal place for the night, you certainly won’t be ripped off, if anything, its a bargain. A private double room may only set you back 20€, while a bed in a shared bedroom would be only a tenner. The cost of journey to León is paying you back with cheap accommodation for which there are loads of places to choose from, and don’t even get me started on the food.

Eating out in León was definitely one of the major highlights of my time there. Tapas is free with every drink you buy, and more often than not, you get more than your money’s worth. It’s typical to order a corto, a very small beer, like a quarter pint and have a tapa included. Most people do this, especially at dinner time and you would spend around 1€ for a beer at most places, no more than 1.30€ or you’ve spent too much. Barrio Humedo is a well-known area for tapas, and it’s well worth checking out the local dishes, such as: cecina, sopa de trucha, sopa de ajo, morcilla, queso de Valdeón, and botillo just to name a few.

However, there are a couple of areas I think are better value for money than there, such as the shopping district, bar Odin, Seaki and Las Tapas (original name right?) to name a few, and the area near Plaza Cid. You get about 3 or 4 if not more things served for the price of a beer. I guarantee once you’ve visited 3 or 4 bars you will be full and will have only paid a fiver for it. During the day however, you are more likely to have a sit down meal, and again, a good set menu will cost about 8-11€.

The weather in León is quite extreme between day and night. It’s not uncommon even during the summer to have a jacket for the night, even if it was a hot day, as temperature can go below 10 degrees even in July. In winter, if you don’t have a jacket, you’re a maniac as it can snow as late as April there. Also the sun can be very strong there, just a word of warning.

Spanish is the main Language here and even though there exists a leones language, nobody speaks it and this particular dialect is one of the clearest in the whole of Spain, so if you speak a little, you should be ok. English is not very well known there however, and people are hit and miss to you depending on how well you can communicate with them.

To Sum up, León is a fairly small city that’s hard to get to, usually cold, but has so much to offer, not just on your plate, but with an experience that’s difficult to replicate. I would definitely go back as part of a tour, and I did back in 2015.