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.


Alexandra said...

Thanks for visiting my blog and commenting today. I really enjoyed reading about your trip to Spain! Someday we'll travel there of my favorite places to visit.

Glad the volcanic ash didn't hold you up.

Givonna Joseph, said...

It looks like a great trip! I love the artistic look of your photos!
The blog is a great resource to plan to trip too. Aria and I hope to get there sometime.