Dining on prize-winning tapas during brief visit to Valladolid


Visiting Spain: Dining on prize-winning tapas during brief visit to Valladolid

Trying to take photos between the cars passing by, I didn’t stop to count the stone lions in front of the University of Valladolid.

Good thing I didn’t. “It’s considered bad luck if you count the lions,” said guide Nuria. “If you count them while you are a student here, you will never graduate from the university.”

So how many are there, I asked Nuria. “I don’t know,” she answered. “I went to university here and I didn’t want to fail.”

I didn’t attend the University of Valladolid but no sense pushing my luck. Another person, however, told me that there are 18 stone lions.

Opened in the 13th century, the University of Valladolid is the second oldest in Spain. The oldest, of course, is in Salamanca which is celebrating its 800th birthday this year.

About a two-hour drive from Madrid, Valladolid is the administrative capital of Castilla y Leon. The city sits on a hill between the Esgueva and Pisuerga rivers. “The name ‘Valladolid’ means ‘Valley of Waters,’” Nuria said.

Founded during the 11th century, Valladolid is one of the largest cities in Castilla y Leon with a population of about 302,000. Popular attractions are the National Sculpture Museum, the Museum of Contemporary Spanish Art and the Cathedral of Valladolid. Construction started on the magnificent cathedral in the 16th century but was not completed until the 18th century.

Columbus, Magellan and Cervantes

We had only a few hours in Valladolid on our way to Madrid but I’m so glad we stopped. Even that brief time allowed us to put our feet on the ground and get a quick overview of the city. Valladolid is also where we had lunch and the tapas were some of the best I’ve ever eaten.

Filled with history, Valladolid is a very walkable city so we took off walking as Nuria shared some of the historical treasures.

It was here that King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella married in 1469. It is where Christopher Columbus died of heart failure at age 55 on May 20, 1506. His house is now a museum.

It was where Miguel de Cervantes lived from 1604 to 1606 when Don Quixote was published and where he wrote some of his “Exemplary Novels” series. The house where Cervantes lived is also a museum.

It was here that explorers such as Ferdinand Magellan came to discuss their navigation plans. Magellan set sail from Spain in 1519 with a fleet of five ships to discover a western sea route to the Spice Islands. The voyage was long and dangerous and Magellan himself was killed in battle on the trip. But his ambitious expedition proved that the globe could be circled by sea and that the world was much larger than had previously been imagined.

Our lunch stop was in the heart of the city at a very popular restaurant named Los Zagales on the corner of the Plaza Mayor. Each year there is a tapas completion and Los Zagales is a winner year after year.

Tapas that don’t look like tapas

For our lunch, Los Zagales brought out some of those winners along with its tasty beer and wine. Castilla y Leon is known for its excellent wine.

Los Zagales has a long bar with numerous banners celebrating its winning tapas, an outside seating area and a casual dining spot with tables alongside the bar, plus a fancier dining room. We ate at the casual tables.

My favorite tapas was the winner of the 2009 Spain National Tapas Competition – Obama en la Casa Blanca (Obama in the White House). It was a delicious combo of poached egg, truffles, cream and potatoes served in a special white dish with a removable top. 

Part of the pleasure of these unusual tapas is that they don’t look like what they are. For example, the deceptive 2015 prize-winning tapas looks like a hand-rolled cigar resting in an ashtray with some scattered ashes, accompanied by what looks like a snifter of cognac.

The cigar is made of sardines with sesame powder for ash. And the cognac is juice.

Now that I’ve had a taste of Los Zagales and Valladolid, I’m ready to return to see more of what this beautiful city offers and to try more of those tapas.

-Story and Photos by Jackie Sheckler Finch

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