Not long ago, I was shocked — shocked! — to discover that a movie-loving young friend had never seen Casablanca.
“I’m just not into black and white,” she told me. I’m hoping she’s simply a late bloomer. Because no one should miss out on the pleasure of watching what the New York Times called, "a picture which makes the spine tingle and the heart take a leap," and that film critic Leonard Maltin called, “the best Hollywood movie of all time.” If you haven’t seen this romantic thriller set in World War II Morocco, you don't know what you're missing!
Pop quiz for those who have seen the film: Where was everybody in Casablanca trying to get to? That’s right, Lisbon. I had only the haziest idea why, and so when I heard that Magda G. had started the Casablanca Tour of Lisbon, I decided to go find out more.
Magda explained that due to Portugal’s neutrality during World War II, Lisbon became the only port in continental Europe still running clipper ships to New York. By 1940 refugees, political fugitives, and exiled royalty from all over Europe were converging on Lisbon in hopes of getting passage to the New World. Meanwhile representatives of the warring powers arrived to set up propaganda offices, and the city was soon bristling with spies, intrigue, and skullduggery.
We strolled around the plaza known officially as Praça de Don Pedro IV but referred to by locals as Rossio, or Main Square, and dubbed by the British “Seasick Square” for the dizzying effect of the undulating pattern of the paving stones. Magda pointed out several charming sidewalk cafés, which were unknown in Lisbon until Parisian refugees began asking if they could drag their tables out into the sun.
“Before Facebook,” Magda said, “the cafés were our information exchange. Everyone was trying to get a visa, but it was difficult — and very expensive. Everyone hung out here, hoping for news about who could be bribed. Sexy German women claiming to be Swiss were always seducing Allied officers in hopes of getting information from them.” As you can imagine, this did nothing to lessen the city’s popularity.
While the rest of Europe was ravaged by war, Lisbon prospered. The wealth of refugees, former heads of state, and government intriguers on lavish expense accounts flooded the economy with cash, jewels (crown and otherwise), gold bars stamped with swastikas, and other portable assets. Portugal’s dictator António Salazar didn’t want to lose his profitable new guests or get drawn into the war, so he insisted that the various factions co-exist in a peaceful manner — or at least not slit each other’s throats in public places.
Some of Lisbon’s newfound wealth was spent on culture, including bringing foreign films and international movie stars to Lisbon. Remember Leslie Howard, who played Ashley Wilkes in Gone with the Wind? Howard’s true love was Shakespeare, and in 1943 he gave a lecture on the Bard at the Portuguese National Theater on Seasick Square. It was to prove the final performance of his life. The Nazis had discovered that Winston Churchill was in Morocco and believed he would be stopping over in Lisbon on his way back to England. Most unfortunately, Howard was traveling with his agent, a short, fat, bald guy who was always smoking cigars; the Nazis, mistaking him for Churchill, shot down their plane.
One of the last spots on the tour was the Hard Rock Café, a former movie theater where in 1942 a new Hollywood blockbuster called Casablanca was shown. I tried to imagine what it must have been like to sit in that darkened theater as the famous story began with the narrator’s words, “With the coming of the Second World War, many eyes in imprisoned Europe turned hopefully, or desperately, toward the freedom of the Americas. Lisbon became the great embarkation point. But, not everybody could get to Lisbon directly, and so a tortuous, roundabout refugee trail sprang up…” A trail so many in that theater had taken, although not always through Casablanca.
This is just one sliver of Lisbon’s long and colorful history, most of which I know absolutely nothing about. But thanks to the Casablanca Tour, I’ve started making the acquaintance of this fascinating city. I’m hoping it’s the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
Visitors arriving in Seville usually love the idea of tapas but are easily confused by the traditional tapeo. I explain it’s an evening spent visiting a series of tapas bars, nibbling small portions of food and ordering a round of drinks in each one. While guests always express enthusiasm for the concept, the plan often bogs down as soon as it’s implemented.
“Move on?” they say, bewildered, when it’s time to leave the first bar. “But we just got here. We’ve hardly eaten anything. And I’ve only had a half pint of beer. We can’t go yet!” They dig in their heels and refuse to budge until the evening is well advanced and the only thing left on the agenda is a nightcap.
Living in Seville, where most people eat five times a day and tapeos are common, I’ve adopted the nomad’s approach to eating. I graze and move on, like the sheep, yaks, and other creatures that roam the earth in search of ever-more-tempting foraging conditions.
Some Americans do seem to resonate naturally with the mix of nibbling and wandering so dear to the Sevillano heart. I encountered one such like-minded grazer last Saturday, when I was lucky enough to be invited to participate in a test run of a new food tour that’s launching in Seville. The grazer-in-chief was Lauren Aloise, co-founder with her husband Alejandro of Devour Seville’s new Tastes, Tapas & Traditions of Seville Food Tour.
By wild coincidence, our first stop on the tour was the small café near my old language school where my classmates and I used to take our morning breaks. It was here that I first attempted to order tea with milk, a request generally greeted with disbelief and incomprehension by Sevillanos. When I said té con leche (tea with milk), the helpful staff produced a tea bag stuck in a cup of boiled milk (horrible!). Next I tried té con leche aparte (tea with milk apart, or on the side), and they brought me tea, but not the milk. Apparently by “apart,” they assumed I meant in another room, or on someone else’s table. To be as clear as possible, I learned specify té hecho con agua, con un poco de leche aparte para añadir (tea made with water, with a little milk on the side to add in). You can see how rapidly my vocabulary advanced thanks to this trial-and-horror method and the endless patience of the waiters.
On Lauren’s tour, we sampled slivers of freshly cut jamón (ham), orange-flavored almond cookies baked by nuns, fried sand shark marinated in cumin and vinegar, and other treats. Mostly we grazed on the hoof, but from time to time we settled around a table for heartier fare, such as the robust mantecado de lomo al whiskey. I’ve often dined on lomo al whiskey, pork loin in a garlicky whiskey sauce, usually accompanied by French fries and a small basket of bread for sopping up any leftover sauce. Here, they combined it all in one huge sandwich. I have to admit I was skeptical. French fries inside a sandwich? Why, that’s flying in the face of nature! But I had to admit it tasted amazing.
Another surprising highlight came in a dim little bar I’d walked by hundreds of times without noticing it. There we tasted the house specialty, orange wine, made from the rind of Seville’s bitter, ornamental oranges. It was unexpectedly wonderful, and I instantly added it to my list of favorite tapas bars in this city.
Tapeos are all about this kind of delightful discovery. Sadly, not every city lends itself to nomadic foraging. One night, Rich and I met up with friends in San Francisco to attempt a tapeo in an Asian neighborhood. Our various Chinese, Vietnamese, and Korean hosts appeared gobsmacked, and not a little peeved, that four adults were proposing to share a single appetizer and two beers. We soldiered on, but it was hard to maintain the fiesta mood under the waiters’ withering glares. But I suppose it could have been worse. At least I didn’t try to order the dragon tea with milk.
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Ever taken a photo like this?
Of course you have. Everybody does. A passing stranger offered to take a shot of us in this picturesque corner of Transylvania, and there Rich and I are, standing stiffly in the center of the foreground, trying not to look self-conscious. My unkempt appearance and Rich’s plastic bag do nothing to enhance the scene. I can assure you that this is the first and last time this photo will be making a public appearance.
So how do you take travel photos that are fresh, charming, and original? Let me count the ways.
1. Choose subjects that tickle your sense of excitement and/or your funny bone. You have no obligation whatsoever to be the 20 millionth person to snap a shot of a travel companion standing awkwardly in front of the Eiffel Tower. Wait until you pass by something that makes your head swivel back around for a second and third look. I did a double take when I chanced upon this gnarly, cynical, panhandling Santa on a Seville sidewalk last Christmas. Yep, I paid him a euro for the privilege of taking his picture, and it was money well spent.
2. Symmetry can feel static; place the main subject off-center whenever possible. Pros advise having the horizon line a third of the way from the bottom or top, and the focal point a third of the way from the left or right. They call this the Rule of Thirds, and it’s a good general guideline to keep in mind. (The other most important rule is: there are no rules.)
3. Play around with cropping. It’s tempting to share shots instantly while you’re on the go. But sometimes it pays to invest a little time bringing out the best in an image. You don’t need to master complicated technology like Photoshop; the simple iPhoto program that came with my computer works fine for me. On the shot below, I shaped the photo to show lots of floor space, suggesting the desolation of this chilly, gritty, half-abandoned train station in rural Romania.
Then Ryan at Jets Like Taxis re-cropped the same photo for a post about my book Pack Light. And frankly, I think this version does a much better job of showcasing the formidable character of the woman at the ticket window.
4. Rejoice in serendipity. At first I was annoyed that a motorcyclist tore though the alleyway just as I snapped this vegetable stand in Napoli. But when I took a closer look, I decided the ghost rider captured something of the elusive, quicksilver speed of the city, and it’s become one of my favorites.
5. Resist the temptation to post endless selfies and gimmicky shots. Go ahead if you must; take the one that makes it look like you and your friends are pushing over the Leaning Tower of Pisa. But then try to find images, like this Kraków street scene, that surprise viewers and make them want to linger for a closer look.
Creating our most memorable and post-worthy photos has little to do with technique and everything to do with the deceptively simple task of really looking at what’s right in front of us. An ordinary scene can suddenly strike us as truly extraordinary. As with this casual photo of a friend on an early morning walk in southern Spain, the radiant beauty of a random moment can take our breath away and make us dizzy with the sheer joy of being part of it.
Do you have a favorite travel photo? If so, I invite you to post it on my Facebook page EnjoyLivingAbroad and tell me something about it.
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A map from a Buzzfeed poll in which Americans failed to dazzle.
When it comes to geographic literacy, we Americans tend to score embarrassingly low. In a poll involving a world map and hundreds of 18 to 24 year olds, six percent couldn’t find their own country, two thirds couldn’t pinpoint Great Britain, and seventy-five percent were unable to locate Israel or Iran.
(How is your geographic literacy? Take the poll here.)
In another survey, 30% of young Americans couldn’t find the Pacific Ocean on a world map. Now that’s disturbing.
Having entertained more than 100 visitors, most from the USA, I can personally attest that many arrive in Seville expecting a sort of European edition of Mexico, complete with spicy food, giant sombreros, and hazardous tap water. (This confusion is so pervasive that local souvenir stands now carry giant sombreros for tourists, and locals struggle to contain their derisive laughter when foreigners wear these hats
in public.) I spend a considerable amount of time debunking myths and showing family and friends the real pleasures of the city, including congenial tapas bars, colorful festivals, and some truly quirky points of interest.
In a spirit of public service, I wrote down my best recommendations and assembled my published articles, posting everything on my website. What did I include? I’m so glad you asked.
HOW TO ENJOY SEVILLE
My Favorite Tapas Bars
Eating Tapas Like a Sevillano
Where to Find Great Flamenco
Just 24 Hours in Seville? No Problem
10 Oddball Things To Do in Seville
5 Tips for Picking Great Tapas Bars in Seville
Seville Sip by Sip
A Practical Guide to Napping
My Blog Archives, Seville
Maybe I should be adding a section of maps, too.
Whatever we can learn about other countries is useful for boosting cultural literacy — something that's important for everybody, not just Americans. It turns out that the good people of Great Britain are pretty geographically challenged, too. In a recent poll, nearly a third of Britons couldn’t identify Portugal (many confused it with France) and a quarter of them couldn’t find Spain. “Even more worrying,” noted the report, “was the fact that 24 per cent couldn’t locate Ireland.”
And when it comes to a grasp of US geography — well, the map below shows the only two states one UK resident was able to identify in a survey. "We really wish we could tell you this is the worst attempt," wrote Buzzfeed, who conducted the survey. "It’s not even close."
Yikes! I guess we all need to get out more.
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As my regular readers know, I never get free or discounted goods or services for mentioning anything on this blog (or anywhere else). I only write about things I find interesting and/or useful.
I'm an American travel writer based in Seville, Spain and my home state of California. Right now I'm on a Nutters' World Tour seeking eccentric people, quirky places, and wacky food so I can have the fun of writing about them here.
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Winner of the 2023 Firebird Book Award for Travel
#1 Amazon Bestseller in Tourist Destinations, Travel Tips, Gastronomy Essays, and Senior Travel