Friday, March 30, 2012

Lisbon Half Marathon

While in Portugal, I became a more devoted runner, so I decided to train for the Lisbon half marathon. It is a beautiful race set along the waterfront of Lisbon. The race begins across the bay from Lisbon and runners cross the historic 25th of April Bridge on the one day of the year when it is closed to traffic. Runners then continue down to the Praça do Comércio in central Lisbon before ending in the historic area of Belém just outside of the city. Hillary also did a shorter version of the race with a few embassy friends, so she also got to run across the bridge.

Before the race, I was determined to finish in under two hours, so that I would beat the time of a friend from the previous year. On race day, I felt great and my legs felt strong, and I finished in 1:47, averaging just over eight minutes per mile, a full minute faster per mile than my goal.

The South African embassy had organized a post-race party for the diplomatic community, so we were able to soak up the sun after the race and chat with colleagues while enjoying South African sausage and wine. Not a bad day.

Sunday, March 18, 2012


We went to our favorite Irish bar on St. Patrick's Day and found the place overrun by British sailors on shore leave while their ship was making a port call in Lisbon. A couple of the sailors joined our group for the night as we celebrated the holiday.

One of the guys was convinced that I was actually another sailor he knew named Kyle Blackburne.

However, the most important contribution the sailors made to our group was teaching us a game they called Spoofers. (Full name: Thank you gentlemen Spoofers.) The game is a strategy game in which the loser buys all the other players a round of drinks.

The game requires all players to have three coins. Each player puts any number of the coins, from zero to three in their hand and then holds their hand out in the middle of the circle with their finger pointed. The group then proceeds around the circle with each player guessing the total number of coins held by all players.

No player may guess the same number as any other player. After all players have guessed, players reveal their coins in the same order in which they guessed. If a player guessed correctly, they must stand at attention and say, "Thank you gentlemen spoofers" with a completely straight face.

If the player successfully performs the phrase, they are out of the game. However, if they laugh, smile, or have trouble getting the phrase out, they stay in the game and have to continue playing. This is repeated until only one player is left. The last player remaining must buy a round of drinks for the entire group, the type of which is chosen by the first player to go out.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Skiing in Spain

In February, we drove from Lisbon to southern Spain for a ski trip at Sierra Nevada Ski Station, Europe's southernmost ski resort, a short distance east from Granada.

The trip could be done in a day, but we were in no hurry to arrive at our destination. We stopped in Seville for a dinner of tapas before continuing to the small town of Carmona, a walled city dating back to the days of Julius Caesar. We spent the night at the Casa de Carmona, a sixteenth century renaissance palace converted to a hotel in 1991. The palace had seen better days, but it was located in the heart of the walled city and was a good place from which to explore. After a traditional Spanish breakfast in the main square, we continued our road trip east.

Our destination was La Almunia del Valle, a small hotel in the hamlet of Monachil on the slopes of the Sierra Nevada mountains. The owners of the hotel, Patricia and Manuel, gave up Madrid to open this beautiful place where they cook traditional meals using local ingredients. We spent five nights in what felt more like a home than a hotel.

We had decided to divide our time between skiing and exploring the area. We started our first full day by driving the short distance over one of the mountain passes to Sierra Nevada Ski Station. The prices were more affordable than most places to ski in the United States and far cheaper than what we would have paid in Switzerland or France. The mountain is a high-altitude, barren mountain with few trees. The lift lines were short and the après-ski was great. Our last day at the mountain, we decided to snowboard. Hillary and I had both tried it out more than a decade before, but we assumed we would get the hang of it. Just when we thought we did, we would face plant at full speed. We both survived, but we were worse for wear.

We spent one of our days in Granada exploring the Alhambra, a ninth century fortress converted to a Moorish palace in 1333.

One great advantage of La Almunia del Valle is its proximity to Granada, allowing us to go into the city most nights for dinner. Granada is in the heart of Andalusia, home of tapas, so there are numerous bars serving small plates along with drink orders. We discovered Puerta del Carmen, a trendy packed bar that had arguably the best tapas we have ever come across - we made it a point to go back.

We also had dinner in Monachil, where at our hotel, we tried salt fish, a famous Iberian dish in which a fresh fish is coated in thick sea salt and baked for hours to lock in the moisture to create the most delicious fish you can imagine. On another night, we found a small local restaurant that had been carved out of a cave where we had a local white gazpacho soup called "ajo blanco", made with garlic and almonds.

The culinary highlight of our trip, however, was in Granada when we discovered La Oliva. A small wine shop run by a retired lawyer named Francisco, La Oliva is a must-visit on any trip to Granada. Francisco prepares a tasting menu in the back of his shop using local products for a maximum of three tables. The meal begins by sampling local gourmet olive oils from producers he knows personally. From there, the meal moves through around eleven more courses, all prepared on a small camp stove by Francisco. He has only one person helping him with cooking and serving, and she and Francisco were generous with pouring and refilling all the different types of wine which accompanied the meal. Francisco explains the story of each dish he brings to the tables. To end the meal, we had chocolate ice cream, sprinkled with a small amount of sea salt and orange-infuzed olive oil drizzled over the top, creating one of the simplest and best desserts we have ever found. The final treat was a flavorful Andalucian liqueur.

We returned to Lisbon, via a more northern path, spending a night in the western town of Aracena, which is home to the Gruta de las Maravillas, a remarkable cave network well worth a visit.