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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So we get off the train at the station – more of a shed, really – in the dark, in a small village deep in the Carpathian Mountains of Romania, and despite email promises, no one is there to meet us. The unpaved road holds no taxis, cars, or even the horse-drawn carts we’ve been seeing in villages along the way.
Part of the reason I love train travel is that it makes me feel like I’m living in the 19th century. An era, I now recall, that has some pretty dark chapters, including a few set in this very region. “Are those bats?” Rich asks, as something flutters by at the edge of my vision.
A smiling man appears suddenly out of the gloom. “I take you!”
“Did George send you?” I ask.
The man seizes our bags. “I take you!” And off we go in his car.
There are moments when you simply have to trust your instincts, your luck, and whatever saint watches over travelers now that St. Christopher’s been debunked.
Some 30 km later, we arrive at his snug wood and cement house, where his wife and a hot meal await us.
And in the morning, we look out our window to discover that we have gone back 700 years and are in the midst of the medieval village of Botiza. Despite evidence of various modern conveniences – electricity, indoor plumbing, a cell phone tower – most of the villagers still live in much the way their ancestors did back when Vlad the Impaler was a boy.
We are charmed and dazzled by the opportunity to hang about the village, exchanging polite greetings with the locals, who seem utterly unfazed by the presence of a couple of foreigners – who might as well be time travelers, given the differences in our lives. This is no Disney version of ye goode olde days, but a place where things change very, very, very slowly.
Most families build houses and barns by hand from wooden planks cut from trees in the nearby forest. They raise chickens and may own a cow for milk and/or a horse for transportation and labor.
In September, they scythe the hay, haul it back in a horse-drawn cart, dry it on racks made from saplings, then pile it into haystacks handy to the barn.
They work long and hard every day and go to church on Sunday. When I asked what they did for fun, I was told that some Saturday nights there are weddings, with music and dancing, and the whole village attends. Other than that, once in a great while someone might stop by for a beer. This is the central bulletin board that lists all present and upcoming activities in the village.
Not surprisingly, most of the teens are counting the days until they can head to the nearest city, dye their hair, get tattoos and piercings, join a rock band, find a desk job, and forget they ever came from this nowheresville. As for their elders, some have part-time jobs in town, but mostly they’re hanging on to the old ways.
Looking to the future, many have already bought their coffins, tombstones, and burial plots in the village cemetery. But modernity is creeping in. Their ancestors would never have used an exclamation point on a gravestone, but thanks to Facebook and other social media, punctuation standards have changed!
What is the afterlife coming to?
See more of my photos of Romania.
Rich and I are now heading even deeper into rural Transylvania, and we probably won't have Internet access this week. So if you don't hear from us, know that we're off having adventures, and I will report back when I can. Ne doresc noroc! (Wish us luck!)
I'm an American travel writer based in Spain and currently living in California.
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