Tag Archives: Spanish customs

What’s With The Sailor Suits…?

There can be no doubt: Communion season is just around the corner. For several weeks, the shops in Spain have been displaying a selection of breathtaking outfits:

Communion outfits

If it’s trashy enough, Toledo has it!

I shall not got on about the dresses… though I could (hell, I wore one of these frightful contraptions myself at the tender age of 9!). What struck me were the sailor suits. Only a few months ago, I was watching a popular Spanish TV series set in the 70’s, and the communion boys were strapped into these garments, ready for their first crunch of the sacred wafer. (Though you’re most definitely not allowed to crunch them!). It would seem that the naval theme has not suffered a decline in popularity since then, at least here in Spain.

Rummaging around in my own childhood memories, I don’t recall seeing these when I was shunted through this most Catholic of rituals. My male peers, as far as I remember, just wore ‘normal’ monkey-sized dark suits.

My initial guess was that Bavaria not having a proud (or any kind of) naval tradition may have played a role in the absence of sailor suits, but then, I suddenly remembered that I was in possession of my granddad’s First Communion picture! Here it is:

HIs enormous shoes were most likely borrowed from a grown-up relative.

My Granddad! And the collar most definitely smacks of seafarer’s style, don’t you think? Gotta love the short trousers 😉 This picture must have been taken around 1940. His family was dirt poor, so these enormous shoes were most likely borrowed from a grown-up relative.

I’d love to hear from my readers… are sailor suits (still) popular as formal wear for boys where you live? I’ve just been googling around a bit, and I discovered that Japanese school uniforms frequently feature this style.

Enough about clothes, let’s finish off with some food:

I've posted these bread flowers before, so feel free to ignore them, but look at the advertisement behind: Communion cake! I never one of those, and I'd be sure to remember, believe me... I'd have traded that in for a stupid white dress any day!

I know I’ve posted these magnificent bread flowers once before, but look instead at the advertisement behind: Communion cake! I never got one of those, and I’d be sure to remember, believe me…! I’d have traded my insipid white dress for a succulent cake in a flash!

On the other hand… that cake does look a bit dull and prissy for my taste… (and, at the same time, strangely phallic). (Sour grapes, me…? Nevah!)

In any case, I’ve no real reason for retrospective cake envy, as my birthday cakes  were quite something… here’s the evidence, in case you missed that mouthwatering post with all the bad hair:

70’s/80’s Flashbacks: My Love Affair With Cakes

Dreamy Steamy Cocido

After an entire week of stuffing myself with glorious Portuguese food, my first outing less than 16 hours after arriving back home involved… food. And lots of it. ‘Team Tapas’ was on its annual mission to indulge in the best cocido to be had anywhere in the province, served by  a restaurant called Finca Los Valdespinos in the village of Carmarenilla, 25 mins drive from Toledo.

Cocido is a typical dish of central Spain (of Madrid, in particular, and often referred to as “cocido madrileño”), and a very simple affair. It’s a stew made with chickpeas (garbanzo beans to readers from the US), noodles, vegetables, potatoes and different kinds of meats.

Unlike the stews you may be familiar with, cocido is not just slopped into a soup dish and put in front of you, but served up separately, in three courses. First comes the broth with noodles:

Carmen shows off her expert ladling technique.
That’s Ana in the back there, drafted in by Team Tapas as reinforcement.

Next in line are the chickpeas, veg and potatoes:

There's also a tomato-cumin sauce to go with the chickpeas, plus some cabbage, onions and pickled green chillies

Olga looking all dreamy….
There’s also a tomato-cumin sauce to go with the chickpeas, plus some cabbage, onions and pickled green chillies to be tossed in, according to taste.

Last up is the meat component:

From left to right: Beef, chicken, pork belly, chorizo, morcilla (blood sausage).

From left to right: Beef, chicken, tocino (pork belly), chorizo, morcilla (blood sausage).

The restaurant was heaving, and they have several dining rooms.


I do quite like the light fittings 🙂

The decor of the place is … eccentric, to say the least. The rafter-riding witch you can see up there is not alone. She has an army of sisters, accompanied by straw chickens and all manner of rural paraphernalia cluttering up every available corner. It’s quite overwhelming. By contrast, what comes out of the kitchen is not just in excellent taste, but nothing short of divine!

Annual Tapas Competition – Round II

Those of you who read last Sunday’s post will know all about Toledo’s annual tapas competition “La Jornada De La Tapa“, and how I’m sacrificing myself to participate 😉

I just got back from stuffing myself with these delicacies:

Roast (I think it was pork) with tzatziki in a mini bun

Roast Pork with tzatziki in a mini bun

I already sampled the above tapa last week, but forgot to take a picture out of sheer greediness. I made up for it today, phew! Unfortunately, the meat in my bun was very fatty and I didn’t enjoy it quite as much as last week. A cracking tapa, though, the flavours really work!

Roast courgette filled with venison and topped with manchego cheese. Divine! ...but sadly a tad out of focus ;-)

Roast courgette filled with venison and topped with manchego cheese. Divine! …but sadly totally out of focus 😉

There was a third tapa, but it was a total disappointment on all fronts, visually as well as organoleptically. To console ourselves, we stopped by the ham shop:

My partners in crime: Begoña (beige coat) and Alfonso, tucking into his ham baguette

My partners in crime: Begoña (beige coat) and Alfonso, tucking into his ham baguette

A world of chorizo....

A world of chorizo….

If you want to take a look at last week’s tapas delights, click here.

Annual Tapas Competition – Round I

Every year in November, Toledo mounts a tapas competition, “La Jornada De La Tapa”. Bars and restaurants create their own special tapa, and our job is to trawl from place to place until we cannot squeeze in another morsel for fear of bursting out of our seams.

Of course, a glass of wine or beer is mandatory with every sampling, I leave it up to you to imagine the state of the judging panel by the end of a 3-hour assessment round. But someone’s got to do it.

The tapas are priced at €2 this year, and there are 82 participating bars and restaurants in Toledo.

This is serious stuff, you understand - this is the voting slip.

This tapas contest is serious stuff, you understand – here are the leaflet and the voting slip.

My co-judges Olga and Carmen

My (already a bit tipsy) co-judges Olga and Carmen

Olga can't wait to tuck in to hers ;-) Steak cooked in soy sauce, with foie gras and and fig salsa.

Oh, the anticipation 😉
Steak cooked in soy sauce, with foie gras and and fig salsa.

Fried Iberian pancetta, chickpea stew with vinaigrette.  Sounds like a weird combo, but it was delish!

Fried Iberian pancetta, chickpea stew with vinaigrette. Sounds like a weird combo, but it was delish!

I didn’t take pics of all the tapas we snarfed, but the one below was the definite winner for me:

Iberian pork glazed with hummus and onions

Glazed Iberian pork with hummus and onions. The meat was melt-in-the-mouth tender and the flavour out of this world.

We finished off with cake, of course:

La Malquerida has probably the best carrot cake I've eaten anywhere. And I've eaten a lot of carrot cake in my life...

‘La Malquerida’ has probably the best carrot cake I’ve ever eaten anywhere. And I’ve eaten a lot of carrot cake in my life 😉 This one’s very moist and not too sweet, and I even love the frosting, which I usually just scrape off.

We’re planning on another tapas judging expedition next Sunday. I hope to be a bit more consistent when it comes to taking photos of those lovely creations before gobbling them up.

Friday Frolics: Toledo’s Musicians

Last Friday night, my friend and I spotted this group of Galician Gaiteiros (bagpipe players from Galicia, an autonomous region in the North West of Spain) roaming the streets. I’m not sure what the difference is between a “gaita” and a Scottish bagpipe. They sound just the same to my untrained ear – like cats in heat being trodden on by spiky heels.

GaiteirosNext up, a guitar player setting up in one of Toledo’s main shopping streets. He’s struggling to find himself a suitable spot amidst the perpetual digging-up-of-pipes.

What a fetching outfit! love the socks...

What a fetching outfit! Love the purple socks…

This one's a regular, he plays his cello outside Toledo Cathedral every weekend.

This one’s a regular, he plays his cello outside Toledo Cathedral every weekend.

I’ve featured the lovely Ana Alcaide and her nyckelharpa once before in this post, but here she is again, seeing that she is a local and a regular, as well as the most famous.

Ana Alcaide

La Noche Toledana: Burning Men, Cathedral Innards And A Medieval Tiff!

Saturday a week ago, I was out and about with some friends, enjoying La Noche Toledana. Click here for the previous post explaining what it’s about, in case you’ve missed it.

Armed with a bottle of beer (what a classy lot we are) and ice cream, we witnessed ‘the burning of the man’:

Burning manIf you’re wondering what this annual ritual is all about, I haven’t got the faintest.

They put up projectors in the streets so we knew where we were at all times

They put up projectors in the streets, so we knew where we were at all times. Quite handy, as I couldn’t find my way out of a paper bag…

The court building all eerily lit up

The court building all eerily lit up

Toledo Cathedral by night

Toledo Cathedral by night

La Noche Toledana gave us the opportunity to get into Toledo Cathedral for free. They usually charge an outrageous €12, and so I’d only ever been inside once. There was an organ concert, which normally wouldn’t be quite my thing, but it made for an amazing atmosphere that night.

The organ

The organ

Toledo Cathedral interior

Shoddy workmanship, that. There’s still a few bits NOT covered with gold paint!

El Greco's Apostles. The painter once lived in Toledo

El Greco’s Apostles. The renaissance painter, born in Crete, lived in Toledo and died here in 1614. He is said to have used patients in a local mental hospital as models for the faces of his famous paintings of the twelve Apostles.

Toledo Cathedral Art

Not only the Son of God, but also the most celebrated pole dancer of his time. I always suspected that his alleged carpentry gig was just a cover to feign respectability

I took these earlier on, outside the town hall; it was still light when we set out on our round:

"Red socks and sandals. Bloody ridiculous!"

“Red socks and sandals. Bloody ridiculous!”

"I did try telling him this morning!"

“I did try telling him this morning!”

"Just keep scrambling those eggs, that's something you know about" "Just can't take a joke, can you?!"

“Just keep scrambling those eggs, woman, at least that’s something you know about”
“Keep your hair on! Not that you’ve got a whole lot left under that silly hat. Ooooops… another one of your bal… sore spots, is it?!”

La Noche Toledana: Funky Lightshow At The Mosque Of Cristo De La Luz

Last Saturday, Toledo celebrated its annual Noche Toledana (= Toledanian/Toledanean/Toledan Night, … now if someone would please put me out of my misery and tell me the correct adjective!!!). Historical buildings, museums etc, open up  to the general public for the night, entry is free.

Incidentally, the original Noche Toledana featured a ‘celebration’ of quite a different kind. The historical event took place in the year 797, when Toledo, although officially under the rule of the Moors like the rest of Spain, enjoyed the status of an autonomous city. It was jointly governed by the resident Visigoths, Arabs, Hispanic Romans and Jews.

Alhakén I, who was the (Moorish) Governor of Spain at the time, didn’t much like this state of affairs. So, he laid on a ceremony to celebrate the appointment of his newly chosen Governor of Toledo, Amrú, inviting 400 guests carefully selected from Toledo’s ruling elite. During the banquet, he had their throats slit and tossed their heads into a mass grave he had ordered to be dug out earlier on.

The Spanish expression “to have/pass a noche Toledana”, which means to spend the entire night in a fraught state of sleeplessness, is still in common use today. It is certainly true that during the town’s annual Noche Toledana, nobody gets much sleep, there’s just too much great stuff to go and see 🙂

We started our expedition at the Mezquita De Cristo De La Luz (Mosque of the Christ of the Light), two minutes from my house. It is the only mosque that remains from Toledo’s Moorish period, built in 999. It was later turned into a (Christian) church. Virtually all of Toledos’ places of worship have gone through at least one denominational change over the passing centuries.

They lit up the mosque, inside and out, in different colours, and it was all very atmospheric.

Mezquita Blue


My picture editor is missing the ‘remove potbellied man’ button

Mezquita Red

Meqzuita purple

Mezquita interiorMezquita interiorMezquita InteriorMezquita Amarillo

MezquitaMezquita NaranjaMezquita Purply PinkMezquita BlueThere will be more from La Noche Toledana soon…

Meet Alcalá De Henares’s Most Famous Inhabitants

Like many of you, I grew up with stories about the Klapperstorch, which is what the White Stork is called in German. The German name, which translates as “clattering stork”, refers to the characteristic noise the bird makes with its beak during the mating season.

Now here’s an interesting factoid for you: storks are mute. The clattering sound is the only type of noise they can produce, as they don’t have a syrinx (voice box), which is what ‘normal’ birds use to trill and chirp you out of bed in the morning when you could really do with another couple of hours of shuteye. So, no annoying squawking, crowing or screeching out those stilt-legged creatures, which only adds to their serene mystique.

Apart from the beak rattling habit, storks are famous for their brightly coloured red legs, for blocking up chimneys with their armchair-sized nests, and, of course, for delivering babies. My friend Maria told me that in Spain, storks don’t just pick them up from any old place, oh no, they fly them in fresh from Paris. So, all Spaniards are, in fact, French. I’m glad we’ve cleared that up.

Although I’d heard a lot about storks, I’d never actually seen one in the flesh until I got to Spain. We have some in Toledo, but they are hard to find, you’ve got know where to look. Not so in Alcalá de Henares, the town Maria and I visited earlier this week. Those winged giants are everywhere, perched on rooftops, church spires, arches, trees…  Alcalá is famous for harbouring more storks than any other Spanish town, owing to its conservation work which has greatly increased the number of breeding pairs.Storks







There’s a stork vs. crane joke in there somewhere…


Storks for sale

Storks for sale in a local shop 🙂

If any of you have any stork-related lore to tell, maybe something that’s particular to your culture/country, I’d sure love to hear it 🙂




Bad Cake Karma In Alcalá de Henares

Those of you who read my Weekly Don Quixote post a couple of days ago will know that I absconded with my friend Maria to Alcalá de Henares earlier this week, a town located ca. 35km northeast of Madrid. Like Toledo, it’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Not quite as scenic and arresting as Toledo or Segovia, but still fairly respectable.

Maria and I had a really good time, but one thing that will forever be etched into my memory about this visit is a rather unsatisfactory cake experience.

After a morning’s wandering about and taking photos, we treated ourselves to a tasty sushi lunch. However, as is so often the case in Asian restaurants, the dessert choices left much to be desired, and so we decided to go elsewhere for coffee and cake.

This should be easy enough… unless you’re in Spain. They do have nice cakes, but these tend to be sold in bakeries/patisseries not equipped with coffee machines or tables, and are strictly take-home only. It was no different in Alcalá, where we’d been ogling sumptuous pastry creations in bakery windows all morning.

Eventually, we spotted a place that seemed to offer the whole package: delectable cakes and a coffee frother inside, as well as tables and chairs outside.  But, would you believe it, they were closed for lunch! (Many shops still follow traditional business hours, and this means a siesta-conducive marathon lunch break lasting from 2pm to 5pm).

Maybe, just maybe, this is not the absolute smartest strategy if you’re in the business of selling coffee and cake, but seeing as there was no suggestion box, the owners may never cotton on to the revolutionary concept of giving people what they want when they are most likely to want it. Sigh.

We tried the restaurant next door, asking if we could have a coffee and a dessert, but we were promptly told no. They were serving either a full lunch or nothing! Paradoxically, the place was flippin’ empty, and it was 3.30pm, which is the tail end of Spanish luncheon time. What famished last-minute hordes were they expecting to pile through the doors at this hour?!

I’m constantly being told that “customer service is a lot worse in the South”. To be honest, I cannot imagine that. Nor do I want to.

In the end, we settled for a place on the main street where they were happy to give us a table outside in the sunshine. Unfortunately, although the coffee was top notch, the cake, a gooey choc brownie concoction, was crap. It sure looked promising enough on the plate, but it turned out to be afflicted by that characteristic aftertaste of having been deep-frozen 😦

I shall leave you with some pics of the town…

The Cathedral

Part of an ancient Roman residential area

There was a large Roman settlement before Alcalá came into being. These remains were once part of a residential area.

Roman Mosaic

Floor mosaic in a school for posh Roman boys. Like an ancient Etonian outpost…

Front of the University Building

Front of the University Building

University interior courtyard

University interior courtyard

Maria in university doorway

Maria in university doorway

Alcalá's main street

Alcalá’s main street

A handsome pair of gargoyles

A handsome pair of gargoyles
There's a whole nest of them...

There’s a whole nest of them…

Cathedral towerIf you examine the Cathedral tower closely, you’ll see something that Alcalá is very famous for… more about that in my next post.