Thursday, June 3, 2010

La Rioja

By the end of the second day in Spain the jet lag had set in and I was in no particular hurry to do anything. Not that I had been in any real hurry before; from the beginning I had been determined that I did not want to return home from the trip in need of a vacation from my vacation. I also had a sore throat from the excess smoke I'd encountered since my arrival.  By the time I turned in for the night I had decided I would get up in the morning whenever I got up and then proceed from there.
On the morning of the third day I was still in the frame of mind to move at a leisurely pace. No Bodega visits had been scheduled in advance for Rioja so as far as I was concerned there was no need to rush to get there.  After a simple and quick breakfast of fruit, tortilla, juice, and a pastry it was back in the car for another road trip further north.
To get to or leave Castillo de Curiel you have to traverse a steep and narrow road that winds its way up and down a hill. There is no siderail and it can be a little nerve wracking with someone who is not taking their time through the curves (especially for a person who is used to sitting in the driver's seat). Fortunately there was never any oncoming traffic on the road at the same time.

I was always a little relieved to see the exit gate at the bottom of the hill when venturing out from the Castillo.
In no time at all we were back on the A-1 headed further north and east.  When planning a trip into Spanish wine country (which is pretty much everywhere) you kind of have to just pick a section of the country  and go with what's there.  I had been aware of several regions because of wines I liked having come from them but they were all too spread out to be able to plan a visit to even half, especially in the short time I would be there.  (Did I mention I'm not big on road trips by car?)
The grapes for reds and whites are not necessarily grown in the same places (most often not) and to get the full Spanish wine experience you almost need to start in the extreme west in Rias Baixas and then work your way around the country in a sort of clockwise motion until you were in east-central Spain where you would most likely head west and then down to the south.
As you travel through Spain by car (in Northern wine country) you see miles and miles land that is vineyard after vineyard between the road and the distant (an occasionally not so distant) hills.  Even though everything was still brown without even any leaves there were people about tending here and there pruning and tilling and so forth.  There are lots of ruins scattered about of old buildings of various sizes. There were a number of Bodegas along the way that could be seen from the road as well. 
Quite often during the trip I took place-marker snapshots to use as a reference point later on in order to help me to identify where I had been, especially on the road, as everything  had zipped by so quickly from the highway.  Just before noon, after about an hour on the road we passed the town of Lerma where I took one of those place-marker photos of the road sign and a couple of the town.

As a result of some fact checking I learned that one of the buildings in my photos that I could see from the highway was the Palacio ducal de Lerma, which was restored and converted into a gorgeous Paradores.  (It's the one in the photo below with the four dark points that look like church steeples.)  By the time we left the A-1 near the Burgos Airport the terrain had changed somewhat to green fields surrounded by hills.
About half an hour later we were on the N-120 about 34 km from Belorado near the Atapuerca archeological site.  (Place-marker photos helped me out again!)  It is probably for the best that I did not know what I was passing by or I might have wanted to stop which would have further delayed my arrival in Rioja.  Within minutes we had driven through the tiny town of Ibeas De Juarros.

There are a lot of little towns like that where you find you have driven in and out again in less than five minutes.  Just outside of town we made a pitstop at the Hotel Restaurante Sierra de Atapuerca.  If you take a look at the plano situacion (map) on the hotel's web site it shows how the N-120 intersects with the A-1 at Burgos.  Inside the hotel's cafeteria I got a kick out of seeing the Chupa Chups candy dispenser.
Five minutes later I was zipping past grazing sheep.
As we continued on toward Rioja the road began to incline and the terrain changed again to reveal more dense vegetation.  There was actually a road sign indicating the incline being at 6%.  I was amazed by the road signs in Spain.  There are so many different ones to indicate every imaginable situation from falling rocks to deer crossing to prohibitions.  Some are easy to interpret such as the red bordered white triangular sign with a large black exclamation point obviously indicating potential danger.  (I found an illustrated guide explaining of Spanish road signs here.)
Right after we passed through Villafranca Montes de Oca, one of the stops on the Camino de Santiago, we spotted a church that appeared to have been carved into the side of a rocky hill (or maybe a small mountain?) about 5 km before Belorado (another stop on the route).  It was really a neat sight (click the photo for a larger view).
My place-marker photos suggest the church is in Tosantos.  Fascinated by the sight of it, I had gotten out of the car to have a better look and take photos.  Back in the car, two minutes after I shot the photo, I took another place-marker photo of the leaving Tosantos sign.
When you are entering a town you typically see a large, white, horizontal, rectangular road sign and when you are leaving the town you see the same sign with a red slash going through it from the upper right to the lower left.

By the time we passed through the town of Belorado (another stop on the Camino) we had started seeing the signs for Santo Domingo De Calzada, our destination.  Within another ten minutes we had passed through Redecilla Del Camino and were finally in La Rioja.  
Along the way (sometime after Tosantos) we had seen a number of people who appeared to be making the pilgrimage of the Camino De Santiago.  Some had heavy packs and some were using what looked like ski poles.  To get to Santo Domingo we switched highways again and from there it was only a couple more minutes before we had entered the town.
We arrived at Santo Domingo De La Calzada in the afternoon.  Finding the Paradores was not an easy task and we drove around in circles trying to figure out how to enter the private street.  Below is the view from inside.  The miniature column in the center goes down into the ground to allow for vehicular access.  

It took forever to figure it out!  It was as if the place was hidden from ordinary mortals.  There seems to have been some technical problem with the mechanism that day but fortunately we had been able to follow an ambulance driver to the opposite entrance and finally reach the Paradores.

The hotel is gorgeous and everyone was very nice and helpful.  I had purchased a few post cards at the museum in Penafiel but hadn't had time to address and mail them before leaving Ribeira Del Duero.  Because it was Saturday when I got to Rioja, the post office was closed but I was able to pay for stamps at the front desk and the staff assured me they would mail the post cards for me on Monday.
Lunch at the hotel for me that day was a light one of grilled vegetables.  I still hadn't mastered reading menus in Spanish or knowing what certain foods were.  Back in the room I hadn't wanted to take a nap so late in the day (after 5:00) but I just could not keep my eyes open.  Most of the bodegas were starting to shut down for the day so there weren't many options for the evening.  On top of it all I was having computer issues so I finally gave up and took a short nap.
For Dinner we went to Casa Amparo where I had what was my best meal in Spain up to that point.  I ordered a soup, sopa de pescado, which I fully expected to come in a cup or small bowl and was amazed to be presented with enough soup to serve as my whole meal.

I also had another fish dish, two (count them!) vegetables and a delicious red wine, Vina Real.  The portion size was ample and service was good.  Everywhere else I had gone the vegetables were more or less garnish but at Casa Amparo I was served an entire plate of each.  I hope to be able to dine there again in the not so distant future.

More Coming Soon... 

Thursday, May 6, 2010

The Road to Ribeira del Duero

I was awake bright and early on Friday, the morning of my second day in Spain (around 6:00). I got up and peeked through the shuttered window at the street below; across the room my roommate was still soundly snoring away in his own bed. I could hear voices and I noticed a group of people across the street off to the side laughing and talking though I could not tell where they had come from since everything seemed to be closed. Before long they were joined by more and more people and then the group set off for its destination. At first I thought maybe it was two people meeting on the way to work and then as the crowd grew (and the noise) it seemed as though they were all on their way to some kind of party or event. All of this well before the sun ever came up. Since I could not get back to sleep, and because the alarm was set for 7:00 am anyway, I got out my journal and decided to do some writing. I went into the bathroom so that the light would not disturb my sleeping roommate. My first day in Spain had been spent walking around looking at the area around the Tryp Ambassador and relaxing in the room. I'd had breakfast at a little cafe, midmorning coffee at another and lunch at a Taberna. I had a little trouble adapting to the Spanish dining schedule -- dinner at the hotel had been around 9 pm after which I had gone back up to bed since the plan was to get up relatively early to start the drive to Ribeira Del Duero. I am not a meat eater, but I am not a vegetarian either. I like seafood (love sushi!) but I absolutely can not eat only a fish course without any fiber to help it go down (so to speak). I need balanced meals in order to not have certain, er, health problems. The grilled vegetables that had accompanied my dinner the night before were more or less garnish but we managed to persuade the server to get the kitchen to double the portion, which still was less than I would have put on my own plate had I been at home. (I don't recall the fish I had at the moment and it doesn't appear to be in my notes. It may have been hake... I'll cover the meal when I start posting wine and food info to the wine blog. There were only two other people in the dining room and all during dinner we kept hearing bird noises. The dining room is situated in a sort of atrium and has skylights so naturally I thought the noise was coming from outside. Eventually I realized there was a bird cage over in the corner and the animal kept up such a ruckus that they finally let him out of the cage. I looked up at a point and he was sitting on the bar in the next room (click on the photo to see a larger version). After a brief semblance of breakfast at La Taberna de Benja across the street from the hotel (I think I had a croissant and juice) we were on the road. There was a bit of morning traffic leaving Madrid but it was ok because it gave me a bit of a chance to look around. I'm sure I've said it already and I'm equally sure I'll repeat it a few times through my future posts, but there is just so much to see in Spain! Out on the open road the terrain was very hilly and you could see mountains in the distance. I had wanted to buy some fruit and other stuff to take along in the car and I should have done it when we were in the Mercado De San Miguel the day before but against my better judgement I decided to wait and then when we were getting ready to leave the little place I had seen across from the hotel was not open that morning. (This experience would happen again and I would quickly learn not to wait.) After about an hour and a half we stopped at Restaurante La Posada De Mari Cafeteria. This time when I ordered my orange juice I got to watch it being made. Ordinarily this is no big thing; people all over the world have fresh-squeezed orange juice on a daily basis but I would wager that most of those people don't have a Zummo juicer with which to make their juice. I'm not sure where the restaurant was other than obviously north of Madrid and somewhere between 30 and 25 KM from Aranda Del Duero (Capital of Ribeira Del Duero). Imagine an amusement park ride exclusively for oranges that takes them on a mini roller coaster ride and results in them being transformed into Oj and you will have an idea of what the machine looks like (at least to me.) Just in case you are one of those people that can not visualize well I have included a photograph. (I Love that thing!) We were headed north on the A-1. The drive from Madrid to Curiel in Ribeira Del Duero took about three and one half hours (including the brief stop at Posada De Mari). We had discussed stopping off at another recommended bodega on the way but I was concerned about missing our appointment at Comenge (FYI: pronounced Co-men-hay) so once we crossed the Duero River (Rio Duero) we went straight to the hotel to check in and stow our stuff. The Castillo de Curiel was conveniently located "next door" to Bodegas Comenge at the top of a small but steep hill. Even though it was technically spring, the weather was still quite cool and the vines were all dormant (that day I wore a long sleeved fleece pullover over another shirt and jeans). When we arrived at Comenge for our tour of the winery our guide, Leonore, wanted to wait a few minutes to see if any other visitors would show up. She said we were free to have a look around the property while we waited. There is a little pond in front between the road and the buildings which is inhabited by three white ducks and one very territorial goose. When Angel had walked over to the pond to get a closer look the goose had come over and fussed at him and he'd had to back away. I started taking pictures and when I tried to get closer to take some video (and close is a relative term here) that crazy animal came running and honking and actually attacked me! Good thing I was wearing jeans! I actually had to run to get away from it and it actually chased me for a bit! (See the video here.)
We started our winery tour beside one of the vineyards on the side of the building near the area where the wines are fermented. Of course it was pretty much given in Spanish with a little translating here and there, but fortunately I know a little about the process of grapes becoming wine and that helped me to be able to follow much of it despite my pitiful grasp of the language. In the area where the wine is fermented there are large steel tanks on one side where the must spends its first thirty days and then huge concrete vats where it spends its next stage. I learned that they use the concrete because it allows for better temperature control of the developing wine. Afterward the wine is put into oak barrels and moved into storage in a different area. Before bottling the wine will be returned to the concrete to be reblended so that all of the bottles will be consistent in taste and character and then put back into the barrels. After touring the facility we went up to the tasting room to try the wines. (The full account of the Bodega visit can be found in the wine blog.)
From Comenge we drove back across the Duero River to the town of Peñafiel (barely a few miles) to have lunch at the traditional Castillian restaurant Molino De Palacios. The cobblestone streets in most of these little towns were paved long before cars were ever thought of and are extremely narrow. They seem barely wide enough for walking let alone vehicle traffic. Turns are often quite sharp and you feel as though you are passing through private little allies were never meant for even a wagon or carriage to pass through and in most cases there is almost nowhere even to park a car.
To get to the entrance for the restaurant you have to pass through a sort of tunnel-like covered walkway that starts from the street above the building and leads downward and to the right, wrapping around the building past a body of water, which thanks to the restaurant's website and Google Translate I have since learned is the river Duratón.
The restaurant, which seems to have once been an old mill from the 1800s (and possibly a grammar school?) is fairly large with dining areas up and downstairs (you enter downstairs). None of the cuisine was even remotely familiar but I decided to try the menestras de verduras, which turned out to be a sort of vegetable stew made from zucchini, carrots, large green beans, cabbage and garlic, and the carpacchio de bacalao. (Bacalao is Spanish for Cod.) The carpacchio seemed smoked and was served with what seemed to be a sundried tomato ailoli or relish. It was all tasty, though mild in flavor. (I also had an ensalada verde which consisted mostly of iceberg lettuce.) I picked up a business card on the way out, though I did not notice until just a little while ago that there was a wine guide on back rating the wines of the Bierzo, Cigales, Ribeira del Duero, Rueda and Toro regions by vintage year (based on harvest quality).
After lunch we headed for the Museo Provincial del Vino (Provincial Wine Museum) which is housed in a very old restored castle (the origins of which reportedly date as far back as the ninth century). It was only a short distance away from the restaurant to the museum and I was able to get a great photo of it from the road below. There are many old castles dotting the landscape across Spain and a number of them have been restored and put to modern use like this one.
My first glimpse of Castle Peñafiel had been from the road on the way to the town of Curiel. At that time though I had been more concerned with finding the hotel, checking in and making it to the appointment at Comenge on time. I could actually see Castle Peñafiel in the distance from the Comenge vineyards in Curiel, which is where I first heard that it housed the museum (see the very first photo above) and, of course, any institution devoted completely to the art of wine was a place I definitely wanted to visit.
It was fairly late in the afternoon when we arrived at the Museo Provincial. Once again we had to take a winding road up a steep-ish hill in order to get there. We had only been inside long enough to look at jsut a few of the exhibits on the first level (there are three levels total) when someone came in and told us that we should go back outside in order to take part in what was more than likely going to be the last tour of the day of the other parts of the castle.
You have to climb up (and down) a series of very narrow and very steep steps to get to the various other areas of the castle where, at least on the upper levels, you are eventually rewarded with an incredible panoramic view of the surrounding area, including the two rivers.
Originally constructed in the early part of the tenth century the structure measures over 200 meters in length (almost 230 yards - or 690 feet) and has several sections. It was either renovated or expanded in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries (my fact checking has been significantly inhibited by my poor grasp of the Spanish language) and those efforts contribute to its current appearance.
After the castle tour we were allowed to re-enter the museum area and resume viewing the exhibitions, one of which was a series of essences for you to smell like the ones you would find in a wine aroma kit. After going through all of them I finally understood the grapefruit connection with Sauvignon Blanc. Of course I took way too many pictures (mostly in the castle section) to post in these few paragraphs so look for a slide show or even a separate blog entry on the castle in the not too distant future. Just to whet your appetite though, here is a short video I shot from the "roof" of one of the sections:
I had a little trouble uploading the video so I cut out the middle section to just show the view from two opposite ends. The second video below is a little shaky from me walking to the other side and not as sharp once I get there because of the zoom but that only lasts a few seconds. When it zooms out and pans downward you will be looking at the museum entrance.
When we left the museum it was around 7:00 PM but somehow it seemed more like 5:00, maybe because of the light (position of the sun overhead). We rode around for a bit looking for other bodegas to visit but most were closed or they were not accepting visitors (reservations are a must!) and the idea of possibly having to find the way back to the hotel in the dark did not appeal to me so we turned back. We took a brief look around the town of Curiel via car and then went back up the hill to the hotel.
Dinner that night was ok except for my fish which had too many little bones and kind of a weird texture. It almost seemed as if it weren't completly cooked. The only real drawback of the experience for me though had been the fact that by the time we were nearly done with the meal there were at least three or four people smoking in the dining room. As it was, when we'd arrived there had been a man smoking a cigar and we'd had to move across the room to get away from it. With the arrival of the other smokers it had become a lost cause. At this point my sinuses were already giving me some trouble after Madrid and my throat was still a little irritated. It was beginning to look like I was not going to be able to breathe freely and enjoy the rest of my time in Spain do to the smoke. I am happy to say that things didn't turn out in such a way for that to be the case.
By the time the sun had started to set on Castillo de Curiel the jet lag had started to affect me and I knew I was not going to be in a hurry to get up and go anyplace right away in the morning.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

My First Day in Madrid

When I arrived in Philadelphia Wednesday evening I had about an hour and a half to find the gate for my connecting flight. My NOLA flight had landed in terminal C while my Spain flight was departing from terminal A. It must have been at least a two mile walk from one to the other. My knee had become stiff on the first flight and I thought that the trek across the airport would help, but that wasn't the case. I had worn my cowboy boots on the plane so they wouldn't add weight to my suitcase and they were starting to bother me because I hadn't worn socks. Of course I hadn't expected to go on a hike either. The signs in the airport were a little confusing as the language was different from what I was actually looking for. Fortunately there was an information desk along the way where I was able to find out I was headed in the right direction. I got to the gate and checked in and made a few phone calls home, something I wasn't going to be able to easily do until the next time I was in that same airport nearly two weeks later. When I boarded the plane there were lots of empty seats so it was easy to get comfortable as people began spreading out. Dinner was decent and I elected not to spend $5 on a headset since I had brought my MP3 player along. I eventually tried my earbuds with the in-flight entertainment system and discovered I could only get sound through one channel, but it was better than nothing. The flight itself was pretty uneventful aside from a little turbulence here and there though it was a little weird flying over the ocean in the dark and not having any concept of what time of day it was. After a time I could see dark blue through the windows on one side of the plane and a lighter shade of blue on the other. I arrived in Madrid around 8:00 in the morning. Temperatures were in the thirties but I was prepared for it as I had brought along a sweater/coat and carried it with me on the plane. It had actually come in quite handy as a blanket during the flight. I made my way through the airport and customs fairly easily by trusting my instincts and just following everyone else getting off the plane, retrieved my baggage and stepped out of the terminal to find my traveling companion for the next twelve days eagerly waiting. We made our way over to the parking area and stowed my stuff in the rental car and set off for the hotel in downtown Madrid. After checking in we took a stroll around the area. We happened upon the opera house, which was practically around the corner from the hotel, (we had originally planned to see Salome but there were no tickets available) the Plaza de Oriente and the Royal Palace of Madrid. I was hungry after not having eaten in several hours so we ended up at a nice little place called Cafe Vergara. One of the things I am going to miss the most about Spain is that in most places when you order orange juice it is almost always freshly squeezed right then. For breakfast I had a slice of tortilla (sort of a Spanish omelet/pie without a crust made with potatoes and eggs) served with a cold piece of bread and juice. (Options are often limited when you don't eat meat and it's even harder to order if you don't speak the language.) We walked around a bit more after eating and passed through the Plaza Mayor before going back to the area by the Palace and Opera House. Of course I took pictures at every turn. Forget about everything being bigger in Texas; everything's way bigger (and more ornate) in Spain! It seems there are monuments, scultpures and/or fountains every where you look in Spain. We walked around again; there was a long line to get in to the Palace and since my companion didn't want to wait, we didn't go in. I took a bunch of pictures of the outside of the Palace and adjacent Cathedral Museum as well as the Plaza de Oriente and then we walked around some more. We stopped for coffee at El Cafe de La Opera near the hotel for cafe con leche and discovered there was a restaurant attached which had live performances of operatic selections at dinner (fixed menu). We then walked back to the hotel to relax for a while until lunch time. Most of the buildings in Spain are quite old and were built before elevators I suppose that is why when elevators were added there was not much space for them and they had to be completely utilitarian resulting in little mirrored boxes barely large enough for one person to enter with a standard sized suitcase and a carry on. It is actually posted inside that the maximum capacity is four persons. Of course I had to take a picture of the elevator at the Tryp Ambassador. For lunch we went to the Taberna del Alabardero which is located in the same area as the opera house (I learned the word alabarda means spear). I started off with a pleasant Albarino and a variety of interesting tapas (more on this later) followed by Paella de Mariscos (seafood). The paella was a little disappointing. It was a little drier than what I am used to and it didn't have much flavor and had been cooked ahead of time and reheated. After lunch we crossed the Plaza de Oriente once more to have a look at the rest of the sculpture in the gardens and went over to see the Jardins de Sabatini (Sabatini Gardens) along side the Palace followed by more walking and of course more photo taking. I love the way that architectural ornament is so prominent in Spain. From iron work to doors and building facades to the layout of some sidewalks, the entire country is like a large elaborately decorated museum. I filled up a bunch of SD cards and ran through dozens of batteries on this trip. Many of the photos I never actually saw until I got back. Coming soon... Ribeira del Duero

Monday, April 26, 2010

My Spanish Journey

It seems as far back as I can remember I have always been interested in Andalucia and in Sevilla in particular. I'm not really sure why, probably some movie or television show (or a number of them) I saw as a child that captured my interest. When the subject of my going to Spain came up once again this past March it seemed finally that everything in the universe was working to make it happen (including the timing of spring break and LEAP testing) and so I got a passport and a ticket and started making plans.

The discussion had originally been about traveling during Easter to witness the Santa Semana celebrations, but that wasn't going to work out with my school schedule so I pushed the trip back deciding that if I was going to miss work I should do it during LEAP. It just so happened that shortly afterward it was announced that there would be no enrichment during testing and since the week after would be spring break all I needed to do was make sure I would be back (and well rested) in time for Jazz Fest in order to help my friend Ginger Kelly in her booth.

I had been so busy before I left for my trip to Spain that I hardly had taken any time to think about what it would be like when I got there. I wasn't worried about anything in terms of food or the culture or even my lack of fluency with the Spanish language, I was just looking forward to taking a break from all the post-Katrina stresses and angst that seemed to have be worse all this time later than it was in the months after returning from my exile in Baton Rouge.

I was so completely consumed with everything I needed to do before leaving New Orleans and all of the preparations for the things I would have to do when I got back that I didn't even start packing until just before I left. I knew was going to spend time in three different regions with different weather but the forecast kept changing so ultimately I just threw a bunch of stuff in a suitcase, packed up my computer and headed for the aiport. In my carry on were my journal, a few magazines and a large zip bag of yarn containing two of my latest crochet experiments as well a partially knit scarf still in progress. I wasn't sure if I would be able to sleep on the seven hour and forty minute flight across the Atlantic from Philadelphia to Madrid, but at least I had enough stuff to keep me entertained.

I spent most of the first two hours of my journey with the foot of a child in my back. About halfway to Philadelphia I finally turned and asked the mother if she could please do something about the seat kicking and her response was "I'm trying, but your seat..." My flight from Philly to Madrid was a completely different experience. It was not crowded so people started spreading out and taking empty seats as soon as it was ok to move about. Fortunately for me I sat in the middle section on the aisle and there were two seats between me and the guy at the end of the row in the other aisle seat so I was able to stretch my legs out and get comfortable.

By the time I boarded the plane I was seriously hungry. Dinner was two different kinds of pasta, one in a cream sauce and one in a tomato sauce with salad, bread and a brownie. I opted for a gin and tonic thinking it would help relax me so I would sleep, but I poured too much gin in the cup at first and the drink was a little strong so I had to keep adding tonic which eventually weakened the drink, but at least I was relaxed. There was too much noise during the flight (coughing, snoring, crying babies) along with intermittent turbulence for me to get any sleep, but fortunately I didn't have to worry about that thanks to the in flight entertainment. The music choices were lacking so I watched the movies "The Invention of Lying" and most of "Did You Hear About the Morgans." (Both were pretty funny.)

When I arrived in Madrid the temperature was in the thirties and I was glad I had brought my long sweater/coat and gloves and not the heavy jacket that had been suggested to me. I would soon find that coat would come in handy in the days ahead while traveling in the north. Coming next - The first day in Madrid.