December 28, 2012

Staying in Rioja

Entering the region of Rioja.
Leaving Segovia, we drove towards the valley of Rioja. We passed farms, medieval villages, and soon started seeing vineyards scattered on the rocky hillsides. The region was more rugged and less cultivated than I had expected. I had thought the region would be carpeted with rows and rows of grapevines, but there was also open space between the vineyards and villages.

The hilltop village of San Vicante de la Sonsierra.
As the sun was setting we approached our destination - the small town of Ábalos and our hotel. We turned off of the main road and drove up a steep hill to the village of San Vicante de la Sonsierra. The road had switchbacks causing the route to appear as a magenta blob on our GPS screen. As we entered the village the roads became narrow - they were definitely not designed to accommodate modern cars when they were built many, many years ago. After San Vicante de la Sonsierra we continued on small back roads to Ábalos. Here the roads became even more narrow as we drove to the center of town and our hotel. At one point we had to back up to an intersection to allow a tractor hauling a cart of freshly picked grapes to pass and deliver its load to a nearby winery.

Hotel Villa de Ábalos

Eventually we arrived at our hotel, Hotel Villa de Ábalos on Plaza Fermin Gurbindo. It is in an old stone house that has been immaculately renovated by the owner, Jose Luis Castillo. Inside, the old stone walls are exposed giving it a warm, rustic feel. The first floor of the building is where you check in and home to the hotel's restaurant, bar, and a wine shop where Jose Luis sells wine he makes. (Yes, the hotel really has its own house wine!) The second and third floors of the building is where the hotel's rooms are located. Each room combines the comforts of a luxury hotel and charm of a small village. There are modern bathroom fixtures, beautiful soaps, warm comforters, and wooden shutters on the windows. When we arrived saw the hotel and our room I completely delighted.

Our room at Hotel Villa de Ábalos.
The hospitality of Jose Lius and his staff is impeccable and the restaurant, La Cucina de Merche, is delicious. Every morning they serve an amazing complimentary breakfast to their guests. And, I mean amazing! When we were there breakfast included tortilla con patatas, eggs, figs and melon, yogurt, jamon, pastries, breads, jams, coffee and tea, and more... We also had dinner at the restaurant both evenings we stayed at the hotel. Not only was it more convenient since the drive up to the hotel through narrow winding streets is challenging in the daylight, but the food was excellent.

My bacalao with roasted red pepper sauce at La Cucina de Merche at Hotel Villa de Ábalos.

The restaurant is cozy with about half a dozen tables and candles at dinner time. The first night we shared a vegetable rice appetizer with Idiazabal cheese from the Basque region just north of Rioja. Then I had bacalao (salt cod) with a roasted red pepper sauce and Jonathan had one of the biggest steaks I've ever seen. The fish was moist and delicate - it’s hard to believe that had been dried and not fresh fish. And the red peppers were immensely flavorful. Jonathan enjoyed his steak but unsuccessfully attempted to finish the entire thing. For dessert I got a creamy cheese cake made from local cheese served with a grape syrup. This was lovely; creamy like a flan but with a strong, sweet cheese flavor. On the second evening I had roasted peppers filled with a fish and potato purée and Jonathan had cochinillo (roasted suckling pig) for dinner. Again the meal was wonderful, and this time Jonathan was able to finish the meat on his plate this time. Then for dessert we shared a lovely molten chocolate cake and some Idiazabal cheese with apple jam. (The sheep’s milk cheese from Basque Country is one of my favorite cheeses from Spain.) In such an amazing setting, this restaurant has definitely earned a spot on my list of favorite places to eat in the world!

Cheese cake made from local cheese served with grape syrup at Hotel Villa de Ábalos.
And, of course there was wine too! Jose Luis offers wine from wineries in the nearby villages in addition to the wine he makes and sells in his small wine shop in the hotel. His wine, Empatia, is wonderful and pairs perfectly with the food at the hotel restaurant. It has bright flavors of berries and raisins. We enjoyed drinking it with our meal both nights we were there, and bought some to bring home.

Wine and croquettes to begin a relaxing dinner at Hotel Villa de Ábalos.

If this is not apparent, we had a wonderful experience at Hotel Villa de Ábalos! It is an amazing place and I will definitely stay there again next time we visit Rioja. Actually, maybe I'll plan a trip to Rioja just to stay at the hotel! Perhaps I should just say: Me encanta Hotel Villa de Ábalos.

December 21, 2012

Visiting an Aqueduct

Almost 10 years ago I went to Rome and saw the Coliseum and the Pantheon. At both sights the ancient architecture and engineering were impressive, but neither met my lofty expectations. Perhaps it was how they were jammed into neighborhoods. Or the hordes of people crowding about that made it difficult to admire these structures in the location they sit throughout time. That was not the case with the aqueduct in Segovia. This two thousand year old structure in the Castile and León region of Spain exceeded my expectations.

It's amazing to stand next to a historical structure.
I have never seen anything like the Segovia aqueduct.

The structure towers over the town square. It has stood the test of time and changing beliefs. A cross now stands by one of the pillars and a statue of the Virgin Mary is perched up overlooking the town square.

We visited the town of Segovia on the first leg of our road trip around northern Spain - Madrid to Rioja. As we approached the town I expected to see the aqueduct from a distance dwarfing the buildings of the current town but did not. Instead there were modern suburbs and neighborhoods. We stopped for lunch at a small cafe, skipping the popular touristy restaurants in the center of town. Then we continued driving through the narrow streets. At one point we came around the corner of an ordinary block and there it was - the aqueduct. A massive stone structure stretching across the valley that houses the center of town, the Segovia aqueduct is still perfectly even with square corners two thousand years after it was built.

The stones fit perfectly together with no mortar.

A narrow street approaching Plaza Mayor and the cathedral in the medieval part of Segovia.

We parked our car and walked along side the stones down to the center of town. From there we continued up some stairs to the hill that is home to the historic old city. Standing there we could look out along the ancient structure that appeared even straighter and more perfect than from below. Every stone was the exact shape to press up against the one next to it. And the amazing thing is this huge structure was built without mortar and still stands strong and secure today.

The Segovia Cathedral
From the top of the stairs by the aqueduct, we headed off to explore the medieval part of Segovia. We walked through the narrow streets of the old city to Plaza Mayor and the Segovia Cathedral. As we got further away from the aqueduct the streets became quiet with locals going about their business, a shop here or there, and a few tourists wandering around with cameras. At Plaza Mayor we went to the cathedral. Inside the cathedral was amazing - I found it to be much more grand and ornate than I expected to see in this small city. The chapels were all beautifully decorated with religious paintings and carvings from centuries past. And there was a feeling of calm; as well as reminders that this church is still part of everyday life here in Segovia. As tourists walked by women were sweeping the floors and people were sitting on the pews focused on prayer and contemplation. It was a beautiful and serene place being appreciated by both locals and visitors alike.

Inside the Segovia Cathedral.

Leaving the church, we started walking back to where we parked our car. At the far end of the town there is castle, but unfortunately we did not have time to visit on this trip to Segovia. It was late in the afternoon and it was time to leave the aqueduct and drive to the next stop of our road trip...

December 14, 2012

On the Road in Spain

Me, driving in Spain!
After several fun days sightseeing and eating we rented a car and began the road trip part of our journey around northern Spain. There was a never ending list of places we wanted to visit, but narrowed it down to fit into the time we had without demanding we drive around Spain above the speed limit.

We drove by many of these black bull silhouettes on our road trip.
From Madrid, our itinerary included an afternoon in the town of Segovia, a few days in Rioja, then Basque Country (staying in San Sebastián with a side trip to Bilbao), a brief stop in Pamplona for lunch, an evening by the cathedral in Zaragoza, and finally Barcelona.

One of many hilltop medieval villages we drove by...
At each stop we planned on eating and learning about the different types of Spanish food and wine, and (of course) sightseeing. Our plans included medieval castles, Roman ruins, cathedrals, cooking classes, wine tasting, and more...

A message in a field along the highway to Rioja.
So, while I didn't want to leave Madrid (and Mecado de San Miguel) after only a few days, I was excited to get our rental car and get on the road!

We often drove by windmills or fields of solar panels...

December 7, 2012

Golosinas del Mercado (Market Treats)

Two of my favorite places in Madrid were Mercado de San Miguel and Mercado San Anton. Here are some pictures of the delicious food at these fabulous markets!

Tapas at Mercado de San Miguel
Cones of Sausages and Chicharones (fried pork skin) at Mercado de San Miguel
Seafood at Mercado San Anton
Spices at Mercado San Anton
Cheeses at Mercado San Anton
Jamon (Spanish hams) at Mercado San Anton

November 30, 2012

More Madrid

As if tapas, paella, Mercado de San Miguel, vibrant city streets, and historic palaces were not enough, we discovered even more in the amazing city of Madrid! When we were planning our trip to Spain, Jonathan insisted that we spent at least four days in this city. I am glad he did, Madrid far exceeded my expectations!

That said, I want to share more of my experiences in the capital of Spain. What else did we do? Went shopping and ate more food, of course! On a sunny day, we headed to the Chueca and Salamanca districts of Madrid. These neighborhoods are both filled with shops and cafes, but they are very different.

We began in Chueca. This district has narrow streets, old architecture, a more edgy feel, and is home to more small shops and local businesses. (There are many international brands there too along Calle de Fuencarral, including Camper, my favorite shoe store.) The best part about shopping here is that it is that it is home to another Madrid market - Mercado San Anton. The day we were shopping Chueca, we stopped at this market for lunch.

This market is sells more groceries and ingredients than Mercado de San Miguel. The first floor has stalls selling cheeses, vegetables, spices, seafood, meats, and baked goods. The second floor has stalls selling a variety of different tapas and the third floor is a restaurant. We began our market adventure and lunch on the first floor. There were a million ingredients we wanted to buy to bring home. Unfortunately, the only thing we could bring home was photographs...

Moving up to the second floor, we picked out a few tapas to share and found a place at the counter to eat our lunch. We tried a variety of different seafood dishes and some cider. In northern Spain hard cider is a common beverage for lunch or dinner. It is mild, not sweet, and slightly bubbly. It is not as delicate or high in alcohol as wine, but not as heavy or carbonated as beer. It’s perfect with a few tapas.

The first was bacalao al pil pil. This is a very traditional Spanish dish made from salted dried cod. This fish is not native to Spain, but is integral to its cuisine. Before cooking the dried, cured fish has to be rehydrated for over twenty-four hours. The consistency and taste of the bacalao is so moist and delicate it seems like fresh fish. The pil pil sauce is made creating an emulsion of olive oil and the liquid and gelatin that come out of the fish during cooking. It is light, creamy, and delicious.

Next we tried cured tuna. This was served on a piece of toast with an almond and olive oil. One thing I learned to love about Spain during our trip was the amount of detail they put into even the smallest bites of food. Each dish - no matter how big or small - is a perfect combination of flavors and this tuna on toast was no exception. The flavor of the cured fish was very mild and slightly salty. Adding the sweetness and nuttiness of the almond and olive oil made it perfect!

I do envy the Spaniards who live near Mercado San Anton or Mercado de San Miguel. (I have a secret dream that I’d like to live in an apartment upstairs from one of them!)

But, moving on... After lunch we walked from Chueca, along the wide boulevards and past the statue of Christof Colon (Christopher Columbus) to the trendy neighborhood of Salamanca. This is home to designer shops, cafes, and El Cortes Ingles (Spain’s most fashionable department store). Along the way we stopped at Cacao Sampaka for a some hot chocolate. (And to wait for the shops to reopen after siesta.)

Spanish hot chocolate is decadent! It is rich, thick, and creamy - and the chocolate I had at Cocoa Sampaka was the best I had in Spain. It was definitely made with very high quality chocolate and was a perfect siesta snack. Before leaving, we went to the beautiful boutique attached to the cafe to buy a couple of chocolate bars to bring home!

Shopping, wandering the streets, tasting tapas, and having some wonderful hot chocolate was an excellent way to spend our last day in Spain. And while, I truly didn’t want to leave, we had other places to discover. And I know I’ll be back to Madrid soon!

November 23, 2012

Nighttime in Madrid

Madrid is vibrant and alive - it's a city that never sleeps! Here's some photos of Madrid after dark...

A busy street lined with tapas bars near Puerta del Sol.
A tapas bar with a bright tile facade.
El Abuelo, a tapas bar that makes delicious gambas al ajillo (shrimp with garlic).

Another colorful tapas bar!

We stayed at a hotel on Plaza del Carmen.

November 14, 2012

Home of Kings

I often skip museums in favor of wandering the streets and visiting cafes when I travel. I prefer to learn about the life of the city rather than see the paintings they own. However, one exception is I enjoy visiting palaces and other residences that show art and artifacts in their original settings not randomly displayed in cases.

The Palace Gates
So, when we were in Madrid we visited Palacio Real de Madrid. The building itself is impressive on its own - a large, majestic, white palace built in the 1700s when the King of Spain moved the county's capital from Toledo to Madrid to be closer to the center of his kingdom. It is still the official residence of the Spanish Royal Family today, however it is currently only used for state ceremonies. There are over 3000 rooms in this palace and several of theses rooms are open for the public to tour. In addition, the public an visit the Royal Pharmacy, see the Royal Armory, and explore the palace grounds.

Inside the Palace Grounds
After getting our tickets, we entered the palace grounds and walked walked around the large paved area in front of the main entrance. The stones in this vast area were worn from centuries of use, but still serve their purpose today. It was great to see people from all over the world enjoying this space - walking around, taking photographs, and admiring the architecture.

Inside the palace we walked up the broad stone entry staircase, observing the well worn tracks where people have stepped repeatedly over the last 300 years. From there we walked through multiple elaborately decorated rooms - dining rooms, the former King's living quarters, the throne room, the living quarters of other family members of the former King, and the royal chapel. Each room was decorated in different colors - rich blues, greens, reds, and yellows. The walls were covered with ornate cloth and many of the ceilings were decorated with intricate paintings. (Unfortunately, photography was not allowed inside the palace.)

After touring the inside of the palace we visited the palace pharmacy (filled with old jars and potions), and went to the armory.

After spending three hours exploring the vast palace it was time to move on to my other passion - food. As the sun was setting, we headed to Mercado de San Miguel for some (more) olives and vermouth before dinner...

Olives and Vermouth

November 3, 2012

¡Mi Mercado Favorito!

Mercado de San Miguel

When traveling to different cities I always love to visit the local markets. Some of my favorite markets include Pike Place Market in Seattle, Chelsea Market in New York City, and Granville Island Public Market in Vancouver. Now I have a new ultimate favorite - Mercado de San Miguel in Madrid!

Tucked into the neighborhood near Plaza Mayor in the old part of the city, this place is a gourmet paradise. There is food to buy and take home (fresh fruit and vegetables, seafood, and other ingredients) but the majority of the stalls sell ready to eat tapas. There is a cheese vendor that sells delicious cheeses, a sweets vendor, a paella vendor, several vendors selling freshly cooked seafood, and (since it's Spain) a couple vendors selling wine. But, my favorite vendor was the one selling olives and vermouth on tap. Whether you choose to get a couple of tapas for a snack or make it a meal, after buying your food go to tables in the center of the market to enjoy your purchases.

During the four days we were in Madrid we stopped by this market three times - once when we first discovered it, another time for a couple of tapas before going to dinner at a nearby restaurant, and finally for dinner on our last night in Madrid. And there are still dishes that I did not have time - or space in my stomach - to try.

Olives and Vermouth
But, let's talk about olives and vermouth. Before coming to Spain, I had never really paid attention to this aperitif. I love olives, but I had not considered them a dish unto themselves. This vendor has numerous varieties of olives - green, black, stuffed with cheese, stuffed with pimentos, stuff with garlic, served with anchovies or tuna, and much more. It is almost impossible to decide which to try, and there are so many that it is (probably) equally impossible to try them all. So, each time we visited the market I ordered a plate of a few different olives. To go with the olives they serve glasses of sweet vermouth - or vermout con grifo (vermouth on tap in Spanish). The combination of the sweet, herbal vermouth and the strong marinated olives is amazing - the perfect start to any meal!

Pulpo de Galicia (octopus cooked Galacian style)
Pulpo de Galicia (Octopus)
Other than olives and vermouth, we tried numerous other dishes during our visits to Mercado de San Miguel. For seafood there was delicious Pulpo de Galicia (octopus cooked Galacian style), bacalao (salt cod), calamari, and a Spanish specialty called percebes (goose barnacles). The octopus - served with pimenton (or paprika) - was my favorite seafood dish. The bacalao and calamari were also very good. But, I have to admit I did not understand why precebes are so prized. They have a flavor similar to strong sea water, look like dinasour claws, and are very labor intensive to eat.

Another vendor, Paella y Ole, sells several different versions of the traditional Spanish rice dish, including paella de marisco (seafood), paella mixta (seafood and meat), paella de verduras (vegetables), and arroz negro (seafood and squid ink). I tried the marisco and Jonathan got the mixta. The paella was good, but not as good as the version we had at La Barraca.

Paella, Calamari, and Wine from Rioja

Then there is a vendor selling wonderful cheeses from all over Spain. I tried some different manchego cheeses, as well as some goat and sheep's milk cheeses. We also got some cheese, mushroom, and cod croquetas from a vendor selling them from a little cart near the center of the market. And since it's Spain, there is a vendor selling ham and other cured meats. (I think this was Jonathan's favorite market stall.) On the evening that we ate dinner at the market he enjoyed a plate of the Jamón Ibérico Bellota - a ham made from black-footed pigs that roam the woods free range and eat only acorns.

Lastly, there were vendors selling sweets. There were beautiful - and very tasty - pastries, turron, chocolates, helados (ice creams), and candied fruits. These are are almost too beautiful to eat. (Note, I said almost...) Like the olives, there were so many different pastries it was hard to choose what to buy. The pastries I tried were light, flaky, and fabulous!

When I return to Madrid, Mercado de San Miguel will definitely be the first place I go!

October 26, 2012

Perfect Paella in Madrid

When we are not traveling, my husband Jonathan often cooks on Sunday afternoons. Those are some of my favorite days...

While in Madrid we had the opportunity to eat paella at La Barraca, a restaurant famous for this rice dish. (I was skeptical as to whether it would live up to it's hype.) We arrived early for our reservation and were seated in one of the simple, homey dining rooms. We ordered our meal, paella (of course), and settled in to enjoy the atmosphere.

For appetizers I ordered salad and Jonathan ordered tripe. My salad was simple and Jonathan enjoyed his tripe. We ordered the house red wine - a very good Rioja for €13 a bottle. (That was definitely the bargain of the meal!)

Finally our paella arrived! The version we ordered was seafood with clams, mussels, shrimp, prawns, and langoustine. I don't know quite how to describe it... To say it was delicious would be true, but also woefully inadequate. It was definitely the best paella I have ever eaten. The rice was fragrant, the seafood was wonderful, and the dish paired perfectly with the wine. Yes, it was perfect paella and therefore the perfect meal!