Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Sjoerd's visit

During our long stay last winter in Amsterdam, we made good friends with our harbormaster, Sjoerd, and we’ve managed to stay in touch via Facebook and Skype. While Amsterdam was having an even worse winter than the one we experienced, we reiterated an earlier invitation to come and visit us in Spain. Sjoerd, now an avid kite surfer and distributor for Blade Kites, asked me if there were any kite beaches in our area. After a quick search on Google, I replied that there was and sent him a link to kite-surfing site with more information. Soon we got a message that he had booked his flight. Hooray!

After our wet and cold winter and spring, I was concerned that the weather wouldn’t clear up in time for Sjoerd’s visit, but fortunately the days were all at least partially sunny and warm. After the requisite walk through old town Cartagena and visits to the ham departments of the local grocery stores, we started looking for beaches. Sjoerd had brought his kite-surfing gear with him and was ready to go.

We learned a lot about what makes a good kite-surfing beach during Sjoerd’s visit and got to see a lot of the surrounding area that was new to us. The first day we went to the end of La Manga on the Mar Menor and found the kite beaches there but no wind. The next day we visited the beach closest to Cartagena (which isn’t suitable for kiting) and took the scenic route through the petrochemical port with its refineries at Escombreras, the local landfill in an abandoned mining area at Gorguel, and finally to the El Lastre beach by Portmán. Sjoerd was quite taken with this beach, which has black sand, until he read somewhere online that it had been heavily polluted by the local mining operations.

Little beach closest to our marina

Old mine buildings on the way to Portmán

Tiny marina at Portmán

Sunday we went in the other direction and drove to Mazarrón and beyond. There was still no wind, but that was OK because the beaches were mostly rocky and not good for kiting. It was an awfully pretty drive, though.

The three of us on the way to Mazarrón

Beach near Mazarrón

Natural sandstone sculptures near Bolnuevo

Finally, on Monday we went to Cabo de Palos and Los Nietos. I knew there wouldn’t be kiting at Cabo de Palos, but I thought the fishing village there would be interesting. Los Nietos is the place we checked out on our train ride back in February. This time we turned toward the Viva Bar and Restaurant. We had wrongly assumed that it was closed in the winter, and, boy, did we ever miss out then. Viva is at the end of the beach, and they cater to the kite surfing crowd (when it’s there) as well as the expat community. There was a little wind, so Sjoerd decided to get his kite wet and see if the wind would pick up. It didn’t, but Sjoerd made a valiant attempt and then treated us to a steak dinner. Thanks, Sjoerd!

Cabo de Palos

Attempting kite surfing in light air

Despite the lack of wind this trip, Sjoerd liked the area enough that he’s talking about renting a place in or around Los Nietos for a month or two in the winter. And we had fun too!

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Madrid trip and more

It’s been a quiet winter with unusually cold and wet weather, so we’re told. For the most part, we’ve just been hanging out on the boat with nothing much to write about. All of that changed in mid-March when our niece Jennifer and her significant other, John, came to Spain for their vacation. We rented a car and drove to Madrid to meet them, explore a little, and bring them back to Cartagena with us.

We had arranged to meet Jennifer and John at Taberna Almendro 13, which nephew Joel recommended, at 7 p.m. to begin our Saturday evening of tapas and wine tasting. When we got there and learned it didn’t open until 8 p.m., we agreed to make it our second stop. The area has lots of options, and we found a place with a table available that specialized in Canary-Islands-style tapas. There we discovered that Jennifer’s John does a great job of picking tapas, and we look forward to having the whole potatoes baked in salt that he chose again when we get to the Canary Islands.

Then it was back to Almendro 13 again where we lucked out to get a table and found that they don’t serve red wine (because we hadn’t read the above link in advance). We couldn’t figure out what the fried potatoes with ham were called but managed to order a delicious rosca to eat with our beer. We decided to try again another night for the potatoes (which we did), but to find a place with red wine next.

We had passed the stairs into the Plaza Mayor when we noticed what turned out to be my favorite stop, the Mercado de San Miguel. There we got glasses of wine and then looked for a bit of a table so that we would have somewhere to put dishes. Although we weren’t hungry by then, all the food looked wonderful, and we had to sample something. Once again we found a spot and enjoyed our wine and bite of food. It was by far our best tapas and wine evening.

The next day was Sunday and the museums were free. Jennifer and John had already been to the Prado, and we agreed to meet them at the Reina Sofia Museum, which houses Picasso’s “Guernica” among many other modern works. Some hours of art were followed by a walk through the Parque del Retiro for people watching. We were unsuccessful in our subsequent attempt to find the Mercado San Miguel again, but found sustenance somewhere else in the area around the Plaza Mayor before we split up for the evening. There are places to eat everywhere in the area. The trick is to find somewhere to sit.

Jennifer and John at the Reina Sofia Museum

Sunny afternoon at the Parque del Retiro

Monday morning John and I spent at the U.S. Embassy just a couple of blocks from our hotel because we discovered when we were packing for the trip that our passports were missing. Whether they’re lurking in some obscure corner of the boat or, more likely, were stolen at the local market, we needed to be sure that we would have valid passports when we leave the dock again. While it’s terrible to lose your passport, it happened under the best of circumstances since we were going to Madrid anyway. What a nightmare it would be to come into a strange port and not be able to find them.

In the afternoon John and I walked around on our own and saw the royal palace and the cathedral and many other beautiful buildings before trying the Mercado San Miguel again. We found it this time, but it was packed. John started feeling a bit the weather, but I went out to meet Jennifer and John again at Almandro 13 that evening.

Banco de España

Famous symbol of Madrid, the Bear and the Strawberry Tree statue

Royal palace

On the drive to Cartagena the next day we detoured to visit a winery, which we thought from its Web site would be open for tasting. It wasn’t. Lesson: call to be sure before you go. It isn’t like Oregon and California. The detour was interesting, though. There is a lot of empty country between Cartagena and Madrid. It was good to leave the excellent freeway system to see a bit more. When we reached Cartagena, we took a list of Jumilla area wineries to the marina office and asked them to call for us, so we had an appointment for the next time and wouldn’t be disappointed at the end of our drive.

In Cartagena I walked Jennifer and John all around town, but the highlight of that part of the visit was the getting caught up with each other and the winery visit. Julia in the marina office had made our appointment with Casa de la Ermita because she likes their wines, and it was an excellent choice. The winery has a beautiful view on a hill at the edge of a nature reserve, and the tour and tasting were informative and delicious, respectively. It’s amazing to us how rocky the soil is where they grow the grapes. It appears to be all rock and no soil. And rather than planting on the south-facing slopes as is common in Oregon, the vines are on the north slopes.

Good times aboard Solstice

Visit to winery and vineyard

A view of the countryside from the vineyard

All in all, we had a great time on our break from routine boat life. It’s always a treat to get to see a bit of the country, and we were very happy to have the family visit to give us an excuse.