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