This guest post is written by Lillie Marshall who blogs at AroundTheWorldL.com. We traveled together for about a week in the Valencia Region of Spain in April, 2010. All photos used here were taken by Lillie.
As I stared at the sixth course of our third five-star dinner in Spain, I realized: this was a long, long way from my past life as a schoolteacher!
My name is Lillie, and for six years I was a high school English teacher in the Boston Public Schools, saving money and scheming future adventures. In August of 2009, I finally flew out of Boston to embrace the world! Since then I have had nine glorious months voyaging through Asia, West Africa, and finally Europe.
From the very day I started my own travel blog in July, I knew full well that the world’s number one travel blogger is Gary Arndt of Everything Everywhere. When I learned a few weeks ago that Gary would be in Spain the same time I was, I sent an email asking if I could meet up with him. When Gary agreed, I hopped aboard a nine-hour train from Andalusia to Valencia to meet him in person.
“So basically you’re a stalker,” replied a woman when I told her this story.
“Um,” I stuttered, “I mean, not really, but… fine, sort of.”
Labels aside, sending Gary that email and boarding that long train ride to meet him were two of the best decisions I have made on this trip. Instead of just chatting with me for five minutes over a cafe con leche, Gary generously invited me actually join him for a week of pure amazingness in Spain!
We Commence Eating
The first night I met Gary, we had reservations already made for us in what is rumored to be one of the best restaurants in Valencia, Seu Xerea. Imagine how I felt, after weeks of cheap falafel wraps and stale ham on bread, to sit down at a white-tableclothed setting and set my tongue upon the first course: a strawberry-infused gazpacho soup. YUM! Course after course continued to come out: petite and heavenly morsels of vegetables, fluffy bread, fish, meat, and then chocolate, each paired with top-notch wines.
Gary cannot eat wheat, so the chef created bread out of spelt flour. “This is the first piece of bread I have eaten in a year,” sighed Gary contently as he munched away. At the end of the meal, the head chef himself came out to sit with us and have a leisurely chat. How special I felt! And in all honesty, this man was one of the nicest and most interesting fellows in town. You know why else he’s awesome? Before he became a five-star chef, he used to be a schoolteacher! When I returned to my scrubby ten-bed hostel room to sleep, I was glowing with euphoria.
The next morning, our friends in the Valencia Ministry of Tourism arranged for Gary and me to have lunch near the America’s Cup venue, at a famous beachfront paella spot, la Pepica. I misinterpreted the scale of my map and ended up walking (then running) about eight miles and arriving to the table twenty minutes late and oozing with sweat. Always classy, that’s me! Gary graciously forgave my tardiness and odor.
Over our seafood paella, fried calamari, fresh salad, and tiny little muscles (“Seafood popcorn!” we said), I was finally able to ask Gary the millions of blogger questions I had been longing to understand. The clouds in my novice blogger head began to clear. After lunch, Gary invited me to watch the creation of his weekly podcast, This Week in Travel…. and even had me be a guest to let me talk about my site!
Spain = Tapas
That evening, we met up for traditional tapas with the Valencia Ministry of Tourism folks and all the main presenters at the tourism conference being held the next day, in Casa Montana, one of the oldest taverns in Spain. To my right sat one of New York’s top PR agents, Meredith Pillon, who is running the Valencia tourism campaign, and to my left was Blanca, the Deputy Director of New York’s Tourism Office of Spain. In front of us extended plate after plate of the freshest tapas in, perhaps, all of Spain. “I never knew tapas could be like this!” I cooed as I placed another slice of micro-thin beef into my mouth. It was an unforgettable meal.
The Tourism Conference the following day was a huge success, and it was thrilling to see the presentations by Gary, Blanca, Meredith, and the dozen other big-shots I had supped with the previous night. And then that evening– oh sorry, I just drooled on the computer remembering it– we went to what is likely the classiest, coolest restaurant in all of Valencia: Arrop. Arrop was born from the partnership of a chef and an archaeologist because it serves the cutting-edge five-star food in a sleek dining room which incorporates the actual ancient Arab Wall of Valencia. The food was not only swoon-worthy, but each course that came was a sheer work of art. And did I mention that everyone at the table was charming and delightful? We will not discuss how woefully underdressed I was, dusty backpacker that I am, and hope the volume of my frizzy hair hypnotized my kind company away from my raggedy clothes.
Benidorm and Elche
The following day we drove to the beach town of Benidorm for Gary to give a speech to the Valencia tourism community on social media and networking. I piped in a few words, myself, to highlight the trueness of his message: if hotels, restaurants, and marketers do not get on board with this new media, the public conversation about them will go on without their input and they will be left behind!
A giant herd of us descended for lunch upon the five-star Villa Venecia Hotel. “Oooh!” we gasped, gazing a the giant wall of windows overlooking the Mediterranean Sea and Benidorm’s arching Sunrise Beach. “Oooh, OOH!” we gasped twice more as the food began to come. Salad topped with creamy cheese… fried potatoes with a cap of egg and prosciutto… Valencia’s beloved paella… about four other courses that became a blur of joy… and then a martini glass filled with cream and chocolate ice cream. “Look at how big your eyes are!” laughed jolly Valencia Tourism Representative, Juan to me. Yes, I was staring. If I were a man and that food were a woman, I would have gotten slapped repeatedly for my lascivious leering.
The next day was a delightful tour of Benidorm, led by Benidorm’s finest and kindest tour guide, Maria. Lunch was multi-course ecstasy at La Cuina de Ponent, where we experienced a twist on Valencia’s standard paella: JUICY paella! “My dear friend the chef believes,” explained Maria, “that the rice is more delightful when you leave in the stock or the juice it is cooked in instead of draining it. And he is right: I so enjoy the juice!” We, too, lapped up that juice and rice with delight and praised the chef when he came out to chat at the end.
When evening came, we dove into the teeming “Tapas alley” of Benidorm, sipping Cava champagne and slurping oysters at Bi-arritz tapas bar while elderly Spanish revelers burst into spontaneous song outside the next restaurant. “This is really a superior form of food,” said Gary, yoinking a second oyster off the plate. “Convenient, fun, and ya get a little bit of everything.” “Mmmph,” I replied, mouth full.
After that, we have noshed on all-you-can-eat Sushi in Benidorm, indulged in American fast food, and then today had a scrumptious lunch at La Huerto del Cura in Elche, which was the former orchard of priests!
I am now fat, wide-eyed, more well-informed about the travel blogging world, and happy. Thanks, Gary, thanks, Juan and tourism gurus, and thanks, brilliant chefs of Valencia, Benidorm, and Elche!
Thanks to the Valencia Ministry of Tourism who sponsored the trip.