As anticipation grows for international travel, we at Out Travel the System thought this was the perfect time to profile Spain. It’s one of host Nisreene Atassi’s favorite places in the world, for a long list of reasons.
Joining her on the delicious way through this episode is Chef Ramon Martinez, culinary director of Jaleo Restaurants, which operate under the umbrella of Chef Jose Andres‘ ThinkFoodGroup, as well as Nacho Alonso, Spain Area Manager for Expedia.
They dish on why Chef Ramon is calling in from the dry goods pantry of the restaurant, and how even that showcases a Spanish specialty. From the best beaches, to Spanish history and culture, and why a winter visit could be a good bet, this episode has it all.
Listen in for tips on when to travel to maximize your budget, and for the last word on where to get a truly authentic paella – and what exactly that means. This episode of Out Travel the System is your go-to guide on planning your first or 50th trip to Spain, and finding hidden gems even locals may not know about.
Smoothing the way to spectacular Spain
Nisreene Atassi: When we were planning out this season of the show and thinking about which destinations to feature, I knew right away that I wanted to do a deep dive into Spain.
Spain is quite possibly one of my most treasured and favorite places on earth. From my very, very first trip in my early 20s, where I went from Barcelona to Granada, staying in hostels, to my most recent trip, where I went for my cousin’s wedding, just outside of Seville, the memories I have from each and every trip are ones that will last a lifetime. I’m Nisreene Atassi, and this is Out Travel the System.
I found some wonderful people to help me relive my memories of Spain and to guide you through how to make the most amazing Spain travel memories of your own. I have with me today, Chef Ramon Martinez. Chef Ramon grew up in Barcelona and is now based in Washington DC. He’s the culinary director of Jaleo restaurants, which operate under the ThinkFoodGroup umbrella of Chef Jose Andres.
Welcome to Out Travel the System, Ramon.
Ramon Martinez: Thank you very much for having me o n this amazing podcast. I’m so excited.
Nisreene Atassi: Wonderful. Wonderful. I also have with us today, Nacho Alonso. Nacho is the area manager for Spain for Expedia, based in Malaga, which is an absolutely beautiful place.
Hi, Nacho. Welcome to the show.
Nacho Alonso: Hi, Nissy. Thank you for having us.
Nisreene Atassi: So for our listeners, when we record these episodes, we are sort of doing it via video chat. And I just want to help everybody understand the vision of Ramon’s background right now. Where are you, Ramon? What is going on in there?
Ramon Martinez: So I’m actually on the quietest place on the restaurant right now, which is the dry storage. And I’m surrounded by cans. Actually, cans from Spain. I know that in America, canning means like not such a great product. And when you talk about cans, you think about the spam and all these. Canning in Spain is almost a way of life. The best sardines in the world, the best tuna in the world, put it on a can, and it’s the perfect way to preserve. So here I am, surrounded about by cans.
Nisreene Atassi: Amazing. Okay, let’s dig right in.
Nacho, I’m going to start with you. When people are planning, is it easiest to think of major cities or to consider planning by different regions?
Nacho Alonso: It always depends on how much time you have. If you have a week, obviously, you’re not going to be able to visit as many places, so I would focus on the main destinations that we all know such as Madrid, Barcelona, Seville. If you have a little bit more of time, you may be able to explore some areas that are not as known. Because near Barcelona, for example, you have the Costa Brava and Costa Dorada with amazing places to discover. But not many people go because they focus on Barcelona city. It’s dependent on what you want to do. You want to go to the beach or if you want to go hiking or just to see museums and the cities, you have plenty of options to go all over the place in Spain.
Nisreene Atassi: If you’ve listened to the show, then you know that every time we do a deep dive into a destination, I have a fun little pop quiz, rapid fire game that I always like to play. So I’m going to go ahead and name a category, and I want each of you to name their city or region that first comes to mind. All right? So don’t overthink it.
Ramon, we’re going to go ahead and start with you. Are you ready?
Ramon Martinez: You bet.
Nisreene Atassi: Okay, here we go. Beach.
Ramon Martinez: Costa Brava.
Nisreene Atassi: Family- friendly.
Ramon Martinez: Andalusia.
Nisreene Atassi: Outdoor adventure.
Ramon Martinez: Emporda.
Nisreene Atassi: Nightlife and dining.
Ramon Martinez: Madrid.
Nisreene Atassi: Heritage and culture.
Ramon Martinez: Would say Castilla La Mancha.
Nisreene Atassi: Okay. Nacho, your turn. Beach.
Nacho Alonso: Cadiz from one side. And if we take into account the islands, Ibiza and Formentera. I cannot choose between the three. Sorry.
Nisreene Atassi: Okay. Family- friendly.
Nacho Alonso: Comunidad Valenciana.
Nisreene Atassi: Outdoor adventure.
Nacho Alonso: Asturias.
Nisreene Atassi: Okay. Nightlife and dining.
Nacho Alonso: Madrid is a great call. But nightlife without Ibiza, it’s a no go. And in terms of dining, actually, San Sebastian.
Nisreene Atassi: Okay. Heritage and culture.
Nacho Alonso: Castilla y Leon.
Nisreene Atassi: Okay. Do you know what I love about this game? Is that it always highlights places that I have either never been to or never even heard of.
So Nacho, heritage and culture is a huge part of visiting Spain. And what would you recommend people go and check out?
Nacho Alonso: Roman Theater, some things like that, in Merida, for example, which is one of the best conservated Roman cities in the world. The Gothic period was great. And you have a lot of cathedrals such as Leon, Burgos, Salamanca. Three of them in Castilla y Leon. And I think that in every single city, you can find something that is going to leave you with your mouth open. If you go to Barcelona, obviously, we have the Sagrada Familia. Not a lot of people go to the Gothic Quarter, and walks around and sees the cathedral and all the area. I think that for me, Merida and the whole of Extremadura, which is sometimes a little bit left behind, is great. And Castilla y Leon has it all. Roman aqueduct in Segovia, the Gothic Cathedral. It has a lot to show off.
Nisreene Atassi: Yeah. I can see why this is such a tough question because regardless of where you go, you really get immersed in it, which is, I think, why Spain is such a fantastic place.
Nacho, I want to pick a little bit on the destination that you spoke about for ” best place to go for outdoor and adventure”. Tell us a little bit more about why you chose that place.
Nacho Alonso: I think the main reason is the Camino de Santiago, which is a pilgrim spot that goes all the way from France directly to Santiago de Compostela’s cathedral. If you like hiking, you are in for a treat. 20 miles a day, walking. You get together with pilgrims, and you do a group, and you go for dinner together, and you’re sleeping in hostels. You can go hiking. You have the (inaudible) . You go down a river with a kayak. The environment, the nature is great.
Nisreene Atassi: All right. Ramon, what about you? Tell us a little bit more about why you chose your spot for outdoor adventure.
Ramon Martinez: I mean, I love Northern, in the north of Catalonia, we have the Pirineos, an amazing place to do all these hikes, to do rafting. Also remember, so in winter, we have amazing ski resorts in Spain, all over, like the Pyrenees and in Baqueira-Beret, and northernmost Spain. And even in the southernmost Spain, in Granada, there’s some ski resorts.
Nacho Alonso: In Granada, it has a lot of cultural heritage that I forgot to mention earlier. I’m sorry, people from Granada. Because you have La Alhambra, El Generalife. In less than one hour, you are up there in Sierra Nevada, in one of the biggest ski stations in Spain. And if you drive one hour, you are by the beach, you are in Motril. And you have the Costa Tropical, which is one of the best weathers of Europe. So you have great weather, even to walk around by the beach in January.
Nisreene Atassi: Why do I live in Seattle? This just really validates it. I feel like I’m going to have to maybe make some paella tonight and convince my husband that we need to move to Spain.
Nisreene Atassi: We’re not going to have you on the show, Ramon, without talking a little bit about the food in Spain. Paella tastes very, very differently when you order it in Barcelona versus if you order it in Seville or somewhere else. So I’d love to get your take, Ramon, on if you are in the northern part, what’s the best thing to eat versus the central part versus any other place that maybe we haven’t mentioned.
Ramon Martinez: I think the magic of Spain, each region has a very particular way to do things or to eat things. Of course, if you go to the Basque country, there’s things that you should never miss. Those amazing ribeyes that you eat from those free range ox, actually. Because there’s not many ox left, but we still have some on the north of Spain. The pinchos. In Navarre, Spain, they call it pinchos, which is literally going to a bar full of open plates with different things on top with toothpicks. Probably now, not that much during the pandemic.
Nisreene Atassi: And when you go to pay the bill, they count how many toothpicks you have.
Ramon Martinez: You actually throw things on the floor of the bar. So you would get a napkin and clean your mouth. And then it’s like a natural thing, just throw it on the floor, and leave it there. And it’s part of cultural. It’s something that we don’t mind.
Nacho Alonso: My dad always told me that if I go to a city that I don’t know, and I’m looking for a place to eat, check the floor. The floor with the highest amount of napkins, toothpicks, etc. is the best place.
Nisreene Atassi: There you go. I love that. That’s a great tip right there.
Ramon Martinez: So, Basque country is amazing because they have Cantabrian Sea on the top. The fish that come from the Cantabrian Sea is completely different than the fish that come from the Mediterranean or even the Atlantic. So they have all these rodaballos, they call it, which is like this wild, different, smaller than halibut. And all they do, literally, is grill it on charcoal, put in maybe a little bit of olive oil on top, maybe with white asparagus. And it’s like the pureness .
Nisreene Atassi: Yeah. So where do you think is the best place to get really authentic paella?
Ramon Martinez: Oh, if you want to get the really authentic paella, you have to go to Valencia. I mean, now everyone calls paella, now most paella is the way of life. Being from Barcelona, what my mom used to make, it wasn’t paella. It was, you put like langoustines, and sausage. She would put ribs. But paella starts in a very humble way on the backyards of Valencia, so many centuries ago, when the families, on Saturday, they would actually kill the rabbit, kill the chicken, that they would have it on the old little farm. And on Sunday, as a festive thing, all the family would gather together, make a fire, and making the stock while it boils with the chicken and the rabbit, and then putting the rice and eating it all together on the spoon from the paella. And it straight that there. That’s what paella is, Paella Valenciana, which is like… There’s so much confusion about that because now people talk about paella. In the restaurant, a lot of people ask for like, ” Where’s the chorizo in our paella? Where’s the shrimp in our paella?” There’s just a little bit misconception, but because also, paella started in Valencia, in that way. But then each region, using what they would have around, they would make their own arrozes or paella de marisco. So that’s why if you go to Barcelona or to La Costa Brava, that is part of Catalonia, you’ll see a lot of seafood paellas and soupy rice, even arroz meloso, which is like almost creamy. And if you go to Castilla La Mancha or Castilla y Leon, you’ll see lamb rib paella, or a lot of rabbit also, more like meaty paellas. But definitely, when a Paella Valenciana is well executed and it’s well done, it’s life- changing. There, all the ingredients have their own flavor, and then everything gathers together on the rice. So when you eat the rice, you’ll feel all the flavor of the chicken, the rabbit, the green beans.
Nisreene Atassi: Yeah. Nacho, I can see you’re sort of on the edge of your seat. You cannot wait to jump in on this one.
Nacho Alonso: I’m going to try to do around the map. We’ll start on the northwest of Spain, in Galicia and Asturias. The seafood, the crab, the oysters, the mussels. It’s seriously one of the best things in the world. If you go to Cantabria, you have anchovies and sobaos, which is an 80% butter cake. Okay. And I’m not kidding. It’s 80% butter. But it’s great with a coffee. You need two coffees, one to dip it in, and then another one to drink it. In Malaga, where I’m living, there’s something really funny, which is called espeto de sardinas. In the restaurants, by the beach, they have an old boat, and they put wood on that and they burn it. So when it’s in ashes, they put some skewers with sardines on it, and they grill them, and you can see that. And that’s the most typical here. It’s so cheap. It’s so simple. It’s just sardines and salt, and that’s it.
Nisreene Atassi: Mm. I love espetos.
Nacho Alonso: I can eat 20 on my own. One of my favorite Spanish dishes, tortilla de patatas. It’s really simple. It’s three ingredients- egg, potato, and onion. This is one of the only few things that it doesn’t matter where you’re going in Spain, people ask for it. And it’s a win- win, always. In the south where I’m living right now, tuna. The tuna in Cadiz is one of the best tunas in the world. Japanese chefs come to Cadiz to buy those tuna and bring them to Japan. So it’s great for sushi, it’s great for stews, it’s great to do it any way. It’s a must- go.
Ramon Martinez: Not many people know, not even in Spain, that the best tuna in the world comes from there. And they do it in the almadraba way, which is such an ancestric way to actually get the tunas, when the fishers just jump on the sea and then get the tunas. And it’s during May and June that they do this thing because the tunas that come from the Atlantic go all the way to the Mediterranean. And that’s when the tuna has more fatty around the belly, the best tuna you can ever have. So, that’s a very special ingredient that I think that Spaniards, sometimes, we don’t talk enough about how proud we should be about this tuna.
Nisreene Atassi: Okay. I feel like we need a quick snack break here. When we come back, we’re going to dig a little more into trip planning for Spain, including when is the best time to go. So stay with us.
Nisreene Atassi: This is Out Travel the System. And I’m your host, Nisreene Atassi. This season, we’re exploring how to get the most out of your travels. This can mean not only how to save with smart booking tips, but also inspiration on when to splurge. We’re also tackling questions about the future of travel and why it means so much to so many of us. Catch up on all the episodes that are currently live for Out Travel the System, and subscribe wherever you get your podcasts to make sure you get the newest content as soon as it drops. Let us know what you’re thinking with the review of the show, or by messaging us on Instagram, Twitter, or Facebook. We’re @ Expedia.
Nisreene Atassi: Okay. We are back. And we’re here with Chef Ramon Martinez of Jaleo, part of the Jose Andres Restaurant Group. We’ve also got Nacho Alonso of Expedia. I want to talk a little bit about the Boqueria in Barcelona, off of Las Ramblas, because that is obviously a very big destination for tourists who are traveling in Barcelona. And I personally think it’s really worth it, but I’ve never actually had a chance to speak to anybody local. It’s quite an overwhelming place when you walk in. And I always try to go first thing in the morning. And you’re just hit with all of these smells and sounds of seafood and fish and all of these ingredients. And then when you’re there in the morning, they’re starting to fry things fresh. Do you think it’s worth it for travelers to go to? And what do you think are some of the best things to eat in the Boqueria?
Ramon Martinez: La Boqueria is an amazing place. It’s become more touristy. And so we have so many other markets in Barcelona, because markets actually, they were based on neighborhoods. So there’s still some markets in Barcelona, El Mercado de San Anton, El Mercado de Santa Caterina, that people around that they go every day to buy those things. The beautiful thing, though, to go to La Boqueria, and for people who’s never been, first of all, how many different, the smallest stalls there. But then there’s so many stalls, that just one thing. You might have one stall that is all the organs, like kidneys, livers, pork feet, ears, snout, all these parts. And then you’ll have one little stall that is all based on egg, goose eggs, duck eggs, chicken eggs. It’s all eggs. I was able and lucky enough to go with my mom every week. And you would be able to touch things and ask so many questions, and they would know everything about those products because these people have been selling that. And most of them also, they have their own farms and they get it there, and they bring it to the La Boqueria little stall and sell it there.
Nisreene Atassi: This is my biggest tip for all of my listeners. Go early. It gets super, super crowded around lunchtime. I think definitely try and go during the week. And the nice thing about sort of what Ramon is saying is that I actually learned a lot about Iberico ham, just talking to one of the stall owners, because I was trying to understand all of the different options. And I learned so much about it, what makes it special, why it’s so much more expensive than other types of ham and cured meats. When you go a little bit earlier and they’re not super busy, it gives you a chance to speak to them and learn their story. And I think definitely, definitely a must- see in my opinion.
What is the best time of year for people to visit Spain and why?
Nacho Alonso: I think that’s a tricky question because there are so many different places in Spain. If you want to go to the beach, I’m going to be doing the summer months. But that’s high season, so it’s going to be the most expensive. If you are able to be a little bit more flexible and go in September, there’s going to be less people, and it’s going to be much cheaper. If you’re going to go to Madrid, obviously, it is much cheaper during the summer because there’s no beach in Madrid. It can get really, really, really hot. So for me, Madrid, the best time to go is May, October, which is nice weather. It’s not as hot. If you go to the north, I would definitely go in the summer months. It’s the most rainy part of Spain. In summer, it’s nice and warm during the day. But during nighttime, you need to wear a sweater or a grab a jacket or something like that because it’s a little bit fresh. There are some destinations that are very season- heavy, such as Costa del Sol, Cadiz, Baleares. The Canaries is open the whole year. And it’s great because if you go in November, in Madrid, maybe it’s five degrees Celsius. You go to Tenerife, and it may be 25. So it’s great. It’s a two and a half hours flight, and you are in summer again.
Nisreene Atassi: I want to talk a little bit more about shoulder season, because that’s all about tips and tricks and travel hacks on this show. In shoulder season, obviously pandemic aside, has always been, I think, one of the really strongest in insider sort of tips for getting to a destination and getting that cheaper time. Is there a shoulder season, Nacho, that you think is going to yield the biggest travel savings?
Nacho Alonso: If we talk about Madrid and Barcelona, yes, there are shoulder seasons. February is a great month to visit Madrid, for example, because as you say, it’s not crowded. And if it rains, there’s always good weather at the bar. I always say that joke.
Nisreene Atassi: I feel like that belongs on a t- shirt or a bumper sticker. ” There’s always good weather at the bar.” I love that.
Nacho Alonso: It’s registered. Sorry. Barcelona is a little bit more complicated because during the summer months, it has a lot of really nice beaches around, like Chef Ramon was mentioning, Portage, Costa Brava.
October, November, maybe the shoulder season in Barcelona. Try also to check if there is any bank holiday. We have plenty of them in Spain. I think it’s around 15 a year. So make sure you check that because it’s going to impact the amount of people traveling from or to the main destination.
Nisreene Atassi: Okay. Those are some great tips. There are lots of options in terms of what to explore in Spain. What are some of the hidden gems that only a local would know of?
Ramon Martinez: There’s a lot of parts of Andalusia, actually. I know there’s so many main cities, Malaga, Seville, that people know. But there’s also many small towns and many places where they do amazing things. Place that I love to go all the time when I’m in Spain, it’s a little, little small town that is called La Alberca, in Salamanca. Which is like when we travel and we actually try to do visits and see the jamon is, that we sell at Jaleo, and meet the producers. And Salamanca and all this region, Extremadura, there’s like huge because of all the Iberico ham. So that little town, everyone is so open, and it’s like they make you even feel at home. You go there and you don’t know someone, and two hours later, you’re having lunch with them, and they’re showing you how there are pigs around eating the acorns and all this. And La Alberca, definitely, is like a thing that people should visit if they have the opportunity.
Nisreene Atassi: Okay.
Nacho, what about you? What are some of the must see or do things in Spain that you would recommend to somebody who’s coming for the first time?
Nacho Alonso: The first thing that anyone visiting Spain must do is get lost. It doesn’t matter if it’s Madrid, Barcelona, Colunga, Arousa. Get lost. A, the cities are walkable. Okay. There’s no downtown, as you can see in other countries. And people tend to be nice. We may not speak much English, but we are trying to be nice. And if you are really lost, we are going to point you in the right direction. And I think that’s when you are going to appreciate the local life. In terms of hidden gems, there is a little village, I think it’s 5, 000 people, one hour north from Madrid, it’s called La Granja or San Ildefonso. It’s very famous for some white beans, that for a stew, are great. But also because it has one of the best glass industries in the world, together with Boheme. And on top of that, it has a royal palace and gardens. The food is great. It’s really small. And just for a little walk, one morning walk, or like a whole day, for me, it’s a win-win.
Nisreene Atassi: Let’s talk a little bit about getting around. There are three ways that I feel like you can travel throughout Spain. Obviously, you can fly. There’s a lot of domestic flights that you can take. There’s obviously a train. And then you can rent a car and drive around, which I think could be a great way to explore some of the smaller towns.
Nacho Alonso: Okay. I would fly or take a train because right now, the high- speed train gets you from Madrid to Barcelona, I think it’s in two and a half hours, to Valencia in 90 minutes, to Seville in two hours and 15 minutes. So it’s really, really quick. Much, much quicker than driving. And the service is great. And once you get to the destination, obviously, you can visit the city that you go to, and then rent a car, and go and visit the surroundings.
Nisreene Atassi: The nice thing about Spain, especially in traveling sort of within domestically, is you can make a lot of these decisions somewhat on the fly. If you can plan ahead, that’s obviously going to yield the best results. But you can wake up in the morning and decide, you know what, today let’s take a day trip and let’s go and drive here, and you can go and grab that rental car. You’re able to have that flexibility. And especially also with, I think, the domestic flights, there’s a lot of really nice low cost carriers.
Is there anything else in terms of trip planning that you think is going to be really important for travelers to know?
Ramon Martinez: Yeah. I think being curious and open. We have a saying in Spain, that say donde fueres, haz lo que vieres, which means that wherever you go, just do what they do. And don’t be afraid, because you’ll see people on the market, sharing porron, which is this vessel that we all bring, and they pass it to the next, to each other. And just keep involved and get into the cultural thing and the traditions. There’s so many different traditions that you’re going to see all over Spain, and based families. I think they make this so rich. And those real small traditions everywhere, they’re so nice to see. And people will be really inviting and really welcoming you.
Nisreene Atassi: And how important is it, do you think, for a traveler to speak Spanish?
Nacho Alonso: It’s not essential because I think that we’ve improved a lot in terms of at least the basic English for everyone in the street. I always recommend try to do at least the effort. If you are going to ask for directions, instead of going directly, ” Sorry, where is this?” or ” How can I get there?”, it’s like, perdona, como puedo . In my case, if I see someone doing the effort, I’m going to be much nicer.
Nisreene Atassi: That’s a great tip. One other thing that we haven’t touched on yet is accommodations. What recommendations would you have for travelers who are trying to decide what’s the best type of accommodation for them?
Nacho Alonso: Focus more on the location. What are you looking for? Do you want to see views? Do you want to have a look into the city? But we have a huge variety of properties, but it’s not the typical resort that Americans are used to, because there’s no all- inclusive as such, as if you go to Cancun or this destination.
Nisreene Atassi: It’s an important tip because I think it helps to set expectations for people because you can find a four- star hotel in Spain, but it’s still very much a boutique hotel just by the nature of it and the character of it. So it’s not going to have necessarily all of the bells and whistles that perhaps a four star hotel might have in the United States. But if I had to give everybody one tip, it would be choosing a really good location, I think, is really important because that’s going to impact just the vibe and the energy that surrounds the hotel.
Before we sort of wrap things up, I’m curious, we’ve all been hibernating for the past year and a half. There’s so much pent- up travel demand. Ramon, where are you traveling to next? Where’s your next big trip?
Ramon Martinez: So my next big trip actually is in Cadiz, in Zahara de los Atunes, which is like a really small town that we go every summer. Half of my heart actually is there because we’ve been going for so many years. And it’s like I have almost my second family. I’m obsessed with Andalusia. So I’ve been going there, years and years and years. And definitely, I’m so excited to go back, because once you are in Andalusia, you can do so many things. And there’s so many regions. But they all keep these, I don’t know, family style, approaching way to make you feel like so good around them.
Nisreene Atassi: Nacho, what about you? Where are you traveling to next?
Nacho Alonso: One of the first trips we are going to do is the Balearics. We used to live there, so we want to do Majorca, Ibiza. And depending on the time, Formentera and Minorca. Formentera is like the Caribbean. It’s paradise. Really clear blue water, white sand, peaceful, quiet.
Nisreene Atassi: All right. Well, I don’t know about you, but I am not only incredibly excited to get back to Spain, but I am also very, very, very hungry. My guests today have been Nacho Alonso, Spain area manager for Expedia, and also Chef Ramon Martinez of Jaleo, part of the Chef Jose Andres Restaurant Empire. Thank you so much to both of you for joining us on the show today.
Ramon Martinez: Gracias, thank you very much. It’s been a pleasure to share all these excitement about Spain.
Nacho Alonso: Gracias, Nissy. It’s been a pleasure.
Nisreene Atassi: I’m Nisreene Atassi. And this is Out Travel the System, brought to you by Expedia. Join us next time as we get into what you can do only in Boston with this guy.
Paul Wahlberg: Everyone, this is Chef Paul Wahlberg. On the next step episode of Out Travel the System, I talk about my favorite place in the entire world, Boston, Massachusetts. Come visit, enjoy, stay as long as you want. We’ll let you stay forever, if you choose. But come and visit and listen to the episode.
Nisreene Atassi: Until then, happy travels.
Out Travel the System is brought to you by Expedia. Our show-runner and executive producer is Claudia Kwan, our associate producer is Katie Doten, with sound engineering from Jill Constantine. Additional production support is provided by JAR Audio.