Savoring the Great Wines and Gastronomy of Spain

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Wine Touring in northern Spain

The Rioja, Ribera de Duero, Navarra, Priorat, El Bierzo, Ribeira Sacra and the Rías Baixas wine regions

Spain has evolved into one of the premier wine and gastronomy destinations in the world over the last 30 years after undergoing a remarkable explosion in quality and diversity, unprecedented in the history of wine.  Its world renowned chefs, Michelin-starred restaurants with outstanding regional cuisine, exceptional vintages, spectacular scenery and welcoming nature, make it the perfect destination for gourmands and wine lovers, especially in the north, from Catalunya to Galicia.

Rioja
No adventure in Spain would be complete without a visit to Spain’s oldest and best known wine region, considered the “benchmark” of Spanish winemaking.  There have been many changes in the Rioja over the last several years as the area has felt the impact of the “Gehry effect”, with the profusion of innovative avant-garde wineries built by prize-winning architects. Bodegas Baigorri by local architect Inaki Aspiazu, Bodegas Viña Real by French architect Philippe Mazières and Santiago Calatrava’s Bodegas Ysios, have helped create great excitement along with Frank Gehry’s stunning Bodegas Marqués de Riscal, the titanium-clad building emerging from the earth like a vine, and have changed forever the concept of bodegas in the region and elsewhere in Spain.

Cellars in the Rioja require advanced reservations, sometimes as little as a day or two ahead of time, but visitors should plan well in advance for a tour in English, as most bodegas offer only one tour in English per day, and some only offer a tour in English one or two days of the week.  A few have opened tasting rooms, but often still require reservations.  And many now offer gourmet dining for small groups as well.

Ribera de Duero
Considered one of the most legendary winemaking regions in Spain, the Ribera del Duero, a short drive northwest of Madrid on the northern plateau, is home to some of the most elegant red wines in the world.  The Ribera del Duero appellation, or D.O., straddles four provinces in Castilla y León: Valladolid, Burgos, Soria and Segovia.

The fabled Milla de Oro, or Golden Mile, lies along both sides of the Duero River in the Valladolid province and is often referred to as the heart of the region.  Here you’ll find the renowned vineyards of Vega Sicilia, Pingus, Hacienda Monasterio, Aalto, Arzuaga Navarro, Abadía Retuerta and Mauro (the latter two sit just west of the appellation’s official limits).  As fabled as these wineries are, the region is filled with outstanding boutique wineries, including López Cristóbal in Roa, Hermanos Pérez Pascuas in Pedrosa, Ismael Arroyo-Valsotillo in Sotillo de la Ribera, Comenge in Curiel de Duero, and the quite small, but award-winning wineries of Bodegas Veganzones and Briego in Fompedraza.

The extremes of weather, from scorchingly hot summers with moderate to low rainfall and harsh, cold winters, combined with the unique soil conditions and higher elevation, create the ideal growing conditions for the Tempranillo (early-ripening) grape, known locally as Tinto Fino, or Tinta del País, but it is its great passion for producing great wines that make the Ribera del Duero so notable.

Navarra
One of the original kingdoms of Spain, Navarra boasts several exceptional wineries including Bodegas Otazu, located on a 15th-century noble estate along the Arga river in the foothills of the Pyrenees, 8 km west of Pamplona.  Otazu is the northernmost producer of red wines in Spain.  Within the Valdizarbe wine growing sub-zone you’ll find Bodegas y Viñedos Nekeas, producer of Vega Sindoa, which led in the resurgence of Spanish wines under the direction of Concha Vecino, one of Spain’s leading women winemakers.  Other outstanding wine makers in the region include Bodegas Señorío de Arinzano,  Bodegas ChivitePago de Larrainzar, Bodegas Irache, and Navarra’s  southeast corner, Bodegas Pago de Cirsus.

With three Michelin starred restaurants; Rodero, Europa and El Molino de Urdániz, Navarra is also well known for its outstanding regional cuisine, including its world famous pintxos.  One of our favorite stops is the classic Bar Gaucho in Pamplona’s Casco Viejo, the old quarter.

Priorat
Although not as well known within Spain as the Rioja and Ribera del Duero wine regions, the Priorat, located in the Tarragona province, was first introduced to the United States only some 15 years ago.  It offers some of the most powerful and expensive wines available on the market, including those from Cellers Capafons-Ossó, Vall Llach, Cims de Porrera, Clos Berenguer and Mas Sinén, along with traditional, family owned wineries such as Celler del Pont (Lo Givot). The productions are small, but the robust reds and succulent whites are well worth their lofty price.

Try a two, three and four-day exclusive guided tour of the Priorat and Montsant regions from Barcelona, or stay in Falset, the capital of the Priorato.  In vibrant, cosmopolitan Barcelona, you can enjoy its impressive Modernist architecture and the world class cuisine of its many celebrated chefs, such as Carlos Gaig and the Roca brothers.

El Bierzo
Autumn in northwestern Spain is a vibrant splash of color as you travel through Castile and León’s stunning El Bierzo wine region to Ponferrada and Villafranca del Bierzo from the provincial capital of León.  Bordering on the provinces of Orense, Lugo, and Asturias, wine production flourished here during the Roman occupation.  In the 9th-century  it regained prominence with the discovery of the remains of St. James in Galicia and the building of monasteries and pilgrims hospices along the pilgrimage route, the Way of St. James.

Monks kept winemaking alive and well throughout the Middle Ages, but production died off at the end of the 19th-century with the arrival of phylloxera, only to be resurrected once again in the mid-80s with the arrival of young, energetic winemakers like Alvaro Palacios, who, after bringing fame to the Priorat, has helped make El Bierzo one of the most exciting winemaking regions in Spain.  Other notable producers in the area include Bodega Luzdivina AmigoPalacio de CanedoBodegas Estefanía, Bodegas Godelia, Encima, and Bodegas Emilio Moro.

Ribeira Sacra
Smaller than the Rioja, but slightly larger and with an even more dramatic and visually stunning landscape than the Priorat, the Ribeira Sacra (“Sacred Hillside”) has been growing wine for over 2,000 years.  Its highly steeped terraces (bancales) on the banks of the Miño and Sil rivers date back to the Roman occupation and produce lighter, lively, fruity, mineral-rich wines, primarily mencía-based reds and godello-based whites, along with fine liqueurs, or orujos. Adegas Vía Romana and Adegas Regina Viarum enjoy two of the most spectacularly beautiful and panoramic locations of any winery we’ve visited and are truly “must sees” for wine lovers.

The Ribeira Sacra wines continue to attract world-wide attention, and we promise that once you try them, you will definitely be hooked!  Be among the first to enjoy a customized, guided tour of this idyllic “hidden jewel”.  You’ll be amazed by its incredibly lush, scenic beauty.

Rías Baixas
A mosaic of blue and green combining the Atlantic with the rich Galician lands, following the route of the wines of the Rías Baixas will take you from Santiago de Compostela in the north to O Rosal on the Portuguese border, covering the four zones; Condado do Tea, O Rosal, Ribeira do Ulla and Salnés, and embracing a beautiful landscape of vineyards, coastal cliffs, calm rivers and fertile valleys waiting to be discovered.  In the Rías Baixas you’ll discover the outstanding Albariños of Pazo CasanovaPazo Señoráns, Bodega Granbazán. and Lagar de Costa,

 

 

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Where To Dine in the Alto Douro

Here are our recommendations on where to dine during your next adventure in the Alto Douro:

Restaurante Rabelo (Michelin Plate)
Rua António Manuel Saraiva, Pinhão
Tel: +351 220 133 137

Bar-Restaurante Veladouro
Rua da Praia Nr3, Pinhão
Tel: +351 254 738 166

Castas e Pratos (Michelin Plate)
Rua José Vasques Osório, Régua
Tel: +351 254 323 290 / 927 200 010

Sus Douro
Rua José Vasques Osório, Régua
Tel: +351 254 336 052

Cacho d’Oiro (Michelin Plate)
Trav. da rua Branca Martinho, Régua
Tel: +351 254 321 455

Restaurant Douro Inn
Ave. Marechal Carmona, Tabuaço
Tel: +351 254 782 392

Restaurante Vindouro
Rua Macário de Castro, 39, Lamego
Tel: +351 254 401 698 / 961 422 784

Quinta da Pacheca
Rua do Relógio do Sol, 261, Cambres
Tel: +351 254 782 392

Restaurante DOC (Michelin Plate)
Cais da Folgosa, N 222, Folgosa
Tel: +351 254 858 123

Restaurante Cêpa Torta (Bib Gourmand)
Rua Dr. José Bulas da Cruz, 41, Alijó
Tel: +351 259 950 177 / 964 202 635

 

 

Exploring the Alto Douro

Touring Portugal’s Premiere Wine Regions

The Alto Douro

Although long famous for its fortified wines from such port houses as Taylor-Fladgate,  Offley, Graham, Noval and Sandeman, the Alto Douro Vinhateiro, one of the most beautiful wine growing regions in Europe, has, in the last twenty years or so, come into it own as a producer of world-class dry table wines, especially its robust reds, and including those of the oldest wine producer in the Douro, Quinta do Vallado, dating from 1716, and belonging to the descendants of the the legendary Doña Antónia Adelaide Ferreira.  Created in 1756, this region is the oldest demarcated wine region in the world, encompassing more then 64,000 acres, and crossed by the winding waters of the Rio Douro, which meanders west for some 900 kilometers, flowing from Spain’s Old Castile to the World Heritage city of Porto, gateway to the Douro River Valley.

Today there is an astonishing number of wine growers in the region, from a host of small family farms comprised of only a few hectares to the larger wine producers, including the largest wine and port producer in Portugal, the Symington Family Estates (Graham’s, Cockburn’s, Dow’s, Warre’s and Quinta do Vesúvio).  Surprisingly, its brittle, schistous granite soil, typical of the Douro region, sustains a wide spectrum of grape varieties, including Touriga Nacional and Touriga Franca, Tina Roriz (known as Tempranillo in Spain) and Malvasia.  Tending the vines on these vertiginous terraces can be exhausting as all the work is done by hand, with some of the estates maintaining the tradition of grape treading by foot in granite tanks called lagares.  In some cases, at Quintas such as at Sandeman and Noval, visitors can join in the treading, but be aware, it’s hard work.

Exploring The Upper Douro 

Along with the wine estates dotting the steep stepped hillsides of the Douro River Valley, the region is home to some of the most spectacular scenery on the Iberian Peninsula, making it a world-class wine tourism destination.  Here you’ll also find graceful Baroque churches, Cistercian monasteries, medieval villages and an abundance of olive, orange and almond trees planted alongside the vines.  There are even prehistoric rock carvings along the banks of the Côa River, in the Côa Valley, south of the Douro

River boats from Porto make regular excursions up the Douro, the larger ones stopping in Régua, others moving on to Pinhão, as does the train, and if driving, there are some exhilarating hairpin turns you’ll encounter along the way, but once you reach Pinhão your driving options are limited as there are no roads following the river beyond this point.  The train continues along the north bank, crossing the Douro at Ferradosa before continuing up river with stops in Vargelas, Vesuvio and Freixo de Numao-Mos do Douro, before finally ending up in the village of Pocinho 30 minutes later.

alto_douro-17-12aOne of the popular day trips from Porto is to take a cruise upriver to Régua or Pinhão and return on the train, or do the excursion in reverse, which can be a long day, or seem too rushed for some.  As an alternative, especially if you are planning on spending some time in the Alto Douro (highly recommended), you can cruise the waters of the upper Douro by boat from Pinhão, going all the way to the Spanish border at Freixo de Espada à Cinta if you have the time.  On our recent excursion in the Alto Douro, we opted to do a relaxing two-hour tour with Vintage Wine Travel, Pipa Douro, on their barcos vintage Friendship 1, traveling from Pinhão to the Tua River and back before lunch.  It was a perfect day in late October.

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Where To Stay

The Douro River Valley boasts a luxurious resort hotel, spa hotels, gracious manor homes and working wine estates, quintas, where one can relax after a full day of wine touring and exploring the graceful Baroque churches and Cistercian monasteries in the immediate area.  For our time in the Douro, we based ourselves once again in the center of the appellation, in the Cima Corgo sub-zone, above the village of Pinhão, the very heart of the port wine producing area, at the Hotel Rural Quinta do Pego, a small 10-room boutique property which enjoys a privileged location in the most prestigious section of the Alto Douro.  Located just west of Pinhão, it overlooks the river from its southern bank, where the sunsets are spectacular.

Other properties offering spectacular views of the Douro include Quinta de Santo António de Adorigo, a few minutes downriver, Quinta Nova, on the northern bank, and the hotel Delfim Douro, sits atop a mountain overlooking the Douro.  Quinta do Crasto  also sits on the north bank of the Douro between Régua and Pinhão and can be reached by car, train, boat or helicopter, while Quinta de la Rosa is only a fews minutes from the train station in Pinhão.  Although the Quinta do Vallado doesn’t have a view of the Douro, it’s boutique 6-suite property, Casa do Rio, about a two-hour drive, or about 100 kms upriver from Régua, in Castelo Melhor – Vila Nova de Foz Côa, sits between the vineyards and the river, and offers a spectacular view of the Douro, and makes for a great weekend get-away.

Lodgings with a river view

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Hotel Rural Quinta do Pego
Valença do Douro, 5120-493 Tabuaço
Tel: (+351) 254 73 00 70
Email: info@quintadopego.com

Quinta de Santo António de Adorigo
Estrada Nacional 323, Adorigo, 5120-011 Tabuaço
Tel: (+351) 254 789 177
Email: info@quintasantoantonio.pt

Quinta Nova de Nossa Senhora do Carmo
5085-222 Covas do Douro
Tel: (+351) 254 730 420
Email: quintanovalwh@amorim.com

Delfim Douro
Quinta do Loureiro, 100-758, Samodães, Lamego
Tel: (+351) 254 960 000
Email: reservas@delfimdourohotel.com / info@delfimdourohotel.com

Quinta do Crasto
Gouvinhas, 5060-063 Sabrosa
Tel: (+351) 254 920 020
Email : crasto@quintadocrasto.pt

Quinta de la Rosa
5085-215 Pinhão
Tel: (+351) 254 732 254 / (+351) 931 461 038
Email: holidays@quintadelarosa.com

Casa do Rio Wine Hotel
Quinta do Orgal, 5150-145, Castelo Melhor – Vila Nova de Foz Côa
Tel: (+351) 254 318 081 / (+351) 279 764 340
Email: reservas@quintadovallado.com

Accommodations without a river view

Quinta do Vallado  Wine Hotel
Vilarinho dos Freires , 5050-364, Peso da Régua
Tel: +351 254 318 081
Email: reservas@quintadovallado.com

Quinta da Pacheca
Rua do Relógio do Sol, 261, Cambres, 5100-424, Lamego
Tel: (+351) 254 331 229
Email: reservas@quintadapacheca.com

Six Senses Spa Douro Valley
Quinta de Vale Abraão, Samodães, 5100-758, Lamego
Tel: (+351) 254 660 600
Email: reservations-dourovalley@sixsenses.com

Where To Dine

Dining in the Alto Douro has improved markably the last few years.  DOC, the sleek and stylish outpost of chef Rui Paula of Porto’s DOP and the Tea House, is undoubtedly the region’s finest and most atmospheric dining spot, as it sits about the the banks of the Douro River between Régua and Pinhão, with an outdoors terrace and pier for diners arriving by boat.

The Taylor Fladgate port house owns Rabelo, the cozy British manor style restaurant in Pinhão’s riverside Vintage House Hotel, while the traditional family-run Bar-Restaurante Veladouro is a few minutes walk along the river from the hotel.  Castas e Pratos is housed in a stylishly refurbished former wine warehouse sitting between the river and rail tracks in Peso da Régua.  Restaurant Douro Inn is located in Tabuaço, about a 15-minute drive south of the Douro, and the gastronomic restaurant in the beautiful estate of Quinta da Pacheca is located across the river from Régua.

The “Best of Wine Tourism”

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Must See Quintas

Quinta do Seixo, belonging to the iconic port producer Sandeman, has one of the most breathtakingly scenic wine estates in the entire Douro.  Here “robotic” lagares, grape-crushing machines, simulate the rhythmic movement of the worker’s feet.  In its ultra-modern tasting room, with the area’s most awe-inspiring views, you can enjoy a VIP sampling of six ports, from their refreshing Apitiv white port to the elegant Imperial Reserve Tawny.

Quinta Nova de Nossa Senhora do Carmo, dating from 1758, and now owned by the cork-producing Amorim family, this winery focuses on first class table wine, such as their Quinta Nova Grande Reserva, on its 85-hectare estate high on the norther banks of the Douro.  The Quinta opened the region’s first wine hotel in it’s 18th-century antique-filled manor house and was awarded the Luxury Country Retreat of the Year for 2018 by the British publication Luxury Travel Guide.

Quinta do Vallado, situated on the eastern bank of the Corgo River, a tributary of the Douro, the quinta has been in the family for six generations and is one of the “Douro Boys” energetic projects.  The band of five winemakers, descendants of the old port-producing families in the Douro, have had a dramatic effect of the region’s estate bottled table wine profile.  Their Adelaide Vintage Port 2015 was awarded 95 points by Wine Spectator in September of this year, while the Reserva Field Blend 2014 received 95 points by the Wine Enthusiast.

Quinta do Portal, sitting high above the Douro in Sabrosa, its cellars designed by the acclaimed Porto architect, Pritzker award winner, Álvaro Siza, won the Douro Architecture Prize in 2011.  The winery, Casa des Pipas, is located between the vineyards with views of the mountainous Douro on the horizon.  Wine Enthusiast magazine has awarded their 2014 Grande Reserva 93 points, while the Auru 2011 received 92 points.  The Colheita 2009 was selected No. 27 of the top 100 best buys of the year by Wine Enthusiast.

Alves de Sousa, with 6 quintas (Quinta da Gaivosa, Vale da Raposa, Estação, Caldas, Aveleira and Oliveirinha) for generations supplied some of the most famous and prestigious Port companies until the late 80s when Domingos Alves de Sousa decided to produce his own wines, with the first Douro released in 1992.  Since then, 14 of their wines have been rated between 90 and 96 points by the Wine Advocate.  Quinta da Gaivosa, designed by local architect Belém Lima, and built in 2013, sits perched high on a hillside overlooking the vineyards in the Baixo Corgo region, 20 minutes north of Régua.

Others To Add To Your list

Quinta de Santa Eufemia, the 50-hectare estate is located about 300 meters above sea level on the southern bank of the Douro at Parada do Bispo, a few minutes drive from Régua.  Managed by the 4th generation of the Carvalho family, they cultivate the rare Portuguese varietals of Bastardo, Mourisco Tinto, Tinta Amarela, Tinta Barroca and Tinta Carvalha, and sell only in boutique stores, including their own port house in Vila Nova de Gaia.

Quinta das Carvalhas, Real Companhia Velha, is the oldest wine company in Portugal, founded in 1756.  Quinta das Carvalhas sits on the left bank of the river, directly across from Pinhão.  The oldest vineyards of the 120-hectare estate are almost a century old and benefit from the diversity of the location with its average annual temperature variation and rainfall.  The Quinta treads its harvest n the traditional manner, and like many in the Douro, produces its olive oil from 100-year old trees growing on the steep slopes above the river.

Quinta das Torres – Casa das Torres de Oliveira, an 18th-century country manor house restored in 1999, sits on 30 hectares of terraced vineyards 4.5 Km from Régua on the north side of the Douro.

Quinta Casa Amarela, located on the left bank of the Douro mid – way between Régua and Lamego, has been in the same family since 1885.  The Quinta’s vineyards average over 45-year old and it’s one of the Quintas maintaining the tradition of grape treading by foot in granite tanks.

Madrid’s Best Casual Dining

“Foodie” Gastro Bars in the Retiro District

Where Iberian Traveler Dines

Rather than slogging down the always packed tapas bar filled Cava Baja, we highly recommend for a more authentic, non-touristy tapas crawl, or casual gourmet sit-down meal, visitors to the city find their way to the upmarket residential area just east of Retiro Park. This neighborhood has by far the best taverns per square meter in the entire city, the city’s “golden mile” for small plates style dining. Head to the streets of Doctor Castelo, Menorca, Avenida Menéndez Pelayo and Ibiza for great food, fair wine prices, and with each glass of wine, a complimentary small tapa. This is the district where we always do our own tapas crawl or casual dining, as the cuisine and ambience are more sophisticated than those found in the La Latina’s more traditional, tourist-filled bars. The gastro bars/neo tascas here cater to the well-heeled, food-savvy, local crowd, including food bloggers/professional critics, and chefs on their nights out.

Starting across the street from Retiro Park
Taberna Arzábal

Calle Doctor Castelo, at the corner of Menéndez Pelayo, 13, in the upscale Retiro district, just to the east of the park and facing the park, we make this one of our first stops. Among the gourmet critics, it’s one of the most popular wine bar/small plates restaurants in town, so one must reserve in advance for one of the tables in the small dining room or just dine on small plates at the bar area, or come early to grab a table when it opens. Try the delicious wild mushroom and ham croquettes, fried artichokes, skillet of eggs with truffles, fideuá (a catalán paella made with pasta rather than rice) and a large selection of wines by the glass. Its open daily from 12:30 pm to 1:30 am, but the kitchen doesn’t open for lunch until 2:00 pm, closing at 4:30, and for dinner at 8:30, closing at 11:45 pm. One can reserve online. The owners have opened a new branch in the Museo Reina Sofía. Tel: (+34) 914 095 661

Take a short detour to Calle Lope de Rueda, between Calle Doctor Castelo and parallel Calle Menorca
La Montería

At Lope de Rueda, 35, was founded in 1963 by the Román family and is one of the “classics” of the neighborhood, a Taberna ilustrada. At the bar, try their tigres (breaded stuffed mussels) and the small dining room is a perfect place to frequent during the fall to feast on their game dishes: scallops of wild boar, venison with plums and Port sauce, warm partridge salad plus wild mushroom creations. Closed Sunday nights. Tel: (+34) 915 741 812

Back to Doctor Castelo
La Raquetista

Doctor Castelo, 19, left side, going up, is the new kid on the block, opened by the Aparicio brothers, named as an homage to the Basque women who played pelota with a racquet. Here there is a small bar and dining space with about five tables to choose from a small menu of around 10 starters and 10 mains, along with daily specials. Critics rave about the chef’s oxtail curry. Closed Sunday nights and all day Monday. Tel: (+34) 918 311 842

La Castela

Doctor Castelo, 22, is one of Madrid’s most beloved classic taverns, dating from 1929, with a tin topped bar, stucco columns, mirrors, marble and fine draught beer and vermouth on tap. Its super traditional dining room receives a Bibi Gourmand designation for good value from the Michelin guide and is justly famous for its bull’s tail stew. Closed Sunday nights (restaurantelacastela.com). Tel: (+34) 915 740 015 / 915 735 590

Taberna Laredo

Calle Doctor Castelo, 30, three blocks up from Arzábal, on the right, home of the Laredo brothers, is what most natives proclaim is Madrid’s best, and very popular, wine & crustaceans bar, where diners can feast on fin fish and (pricey) shell fish straight from the Cantabrian sea and choose from a fine selection of wines, with prices slightly more expensive than Arzábal. You can have small plates or tapas/wine at the bar (delicious ensaladi a rusa) or reserve a table in advance in the upstairs dining room. Stand out dishes include tuna belly salad, their risotto of squid and ewe’s cheese, skillet with eggs and truffles, black rice with baby squid and clams, their razor clams (navajas) and steamed baby clams, mussels, red and white shrimp and salmorejo, the Cordoban style, thick and smooth gazpacho. Laredo is said to be a favorite of (former) King Juan Carlos. Open 11:00 am to 5:00 pm and from 8:00 pm until midnight, closed Sundays. Tel: (+34) 915 733 061

Taberna Marcano

Directly across the street from Taberna Laredo, at Doctor Castelo 31, you’ll find another gastro bar/small restaurant getting rave reviews from Spain’s gourmet press and becoming our other favorite in this area. Super talented chef David Marcano, a protégé of Arzak, and former chef of Goizeko Wellington, serves a terrific arroz meloso con carabineros, or a soupy rice dish with giant prawns, yummy Idiazábal cheese or spider crab & shrimp croquettes, vegetable gyozas (fritters), steak tartar with fried quail’s egg, tuna tartar and an interesting cheese tray. His new gastro space is divided into two areas: the bar where one can dine on tapas and a fine selection of wines by the glass and the small formal dining room with around six tables. His creations deserve to be experienced as a full meal, rather than tapas, as most plates are meant to be served as main courses and can be ordered as half portions. It’s more of a “come-to-gourmet dine-casual style” type of place, with seating for 30 diners. Open for lunch from noon until 4:00 and for dinner from 8:00 until midnight, closed Sunday. Tel: (+34) 914 093 642

Moving Up and east on Calle Menorca
La Emualda Taberna

Menorca 4, near the corner of Avenida Menéndez Pelayo. The creator of this brand new gastro bar is Israel Arroyo, a disciple of 3-Michelin starred chefs, Arzak and Berasategui. He is dishing up classic Madrid fare, true “farm to table” cuisine, as all of his suppliers come from the Madrid province. He serves up mini casseroles, or cazuelas, as well as patatas bravas, calamares itos, soldaditos de Pavía, albóndigas de po o en pepitoria – tapas dear to madrileños’ hearts. Open from 1:00 pm to 4:00 and 8:30 pm to midnight, closed Monday nights (www.facebook.com/laemualda). Tel: (+34) 915 466 496

A Personal Favorite
Taberna La Catapa

In the former Taberna Laredo space at Calle Menorca, 14. Every dish here is terrific, especially the salmorejo, a Córdoba – style thick gazpacho, the tomato carpaccio salad, the torti a española, ensaladi a rusa, truffle croquettes and the wagyu beef hamburger. This Taberna attracts a very loyal local crowd and a smattering of Americans who live and work nearby. Stand out dishes here include carpaccio of Raf tomatoes, baked baby clams, potato and truffle croquettes and a delicious salmorejo, plus seasonal dishes, including wild mushrooms.
The engaging owner/chef Miguel Angel Jiménez is very hands on and pays personal attention to his customers well, as does his staff. The taberna also has a small dining room with a half-dozen tables that must be reserved in advance. It’s open from 11:30 am to 4:30 pm and 7:30 until midnight, closed on Sundays. Tel: (+34) 686 143 823

Moving on to Calle Ibiza
Mercado de Ibiza

Ibiza, 8, first block from the avenue, sits next to the newly renovated market, in a renovated bank building and is conveniently open continuously from noon until 2:00 am (until 2:30 am on weekends) except Sundays, when it closes at 5:00 pm. Divided into three sections, it offers the bar on the main floor with open kitchen and high top tables, a basement “clandestine” cocktail bar in the former bank vault and an upstairs stylishly decorated dining room with vertical garden upstairs. Come here for their burrata salad, individually prepared rice dishes and a scrumptious Brioche French Toast for dessert. Tel: (+34) 917 524 490

Taberna Pedraza

Calle Ibiza, 38, is also receiving fine reviews from the local gourmet critics. The owners, husband and wife, Santiago Pedraza and Carmen Carro, spent two years traveling all over the country searching out the very best purveyors before opening their new, petite bistro. Stand out dishes here include their potato omelet Betanzos style, their tuna salad, patatas bravas, chistorra (Basque sausage) from Lasarte, Iberian ham croquettes and hamburgers made of the finest Galician beef. This neo tasca has been open only for a year and has been lauded in all the leading gastronomic blogs. For summer dining, it offers a terrace. And best of all, it won’t break the bank. Closed Mondays. Tel: (+34) 910 327 200

Paradors and the Camino

A Journey Through Northwestern Spain

Following the Pilgrims Route – León to Monforte de Lemos

During the fall we enjoyed a leisurely excursion through northwestern Spain, traveling from Castilla y León to Galicia, staying in Paradors, government owned hotels, primarily historic monuments; castles, monasteries, palaces, fortresses and convents, converted into sumptuous lodgings for travelers.

We began our journey in the lively university city of León, at one of the jewels in the Parador’s crown, the grand, 16th century Hostal de San Marcos, ending our travels at the Parador outside of the village of Tordesillas, in the Douro River valley; where in 1494 the treaty of Tordesillas was signed, carving up the New World between the Spanish and Portuguese empires.  Travelers to this delightful corner of Spain can rest in regal splendor for very reasonable tariffs at these highly distinctive government-run properties.

The 5-star Grand Luxe Hostal de San Marcos de León is one of the most splendid examples of Renaissance architecture in Spain today.  Construction of this stunning historic monument began in the 16th century; it was built to house the headquarters for the Military Order Knights of Saint James, responsible for patrolling the ancient Camino de Santiago pilgrimage route and protecting its wayfarers, and King Ferdinand, the head of the order, financed the project.  The most prestigious sculptors and architects worked on its magnificently carved Plateresque façade, its monumental stone staircase, cloister, chapterhouse and intricately carved choir stalls.

Through the years the Hostal de San Marcos has served as a pilgrims’ hospital, a college, a prison, barracks and a concentration camp during the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939).  It now serves as a sumptuous Old World palace-hotel, attracting discerning travelers from around the globe, along with weary modern day pilgrims seeking a bit of luxury on the long road to Santiago de Compostela.  A scene from the Emilio Estevez film staring Martin Sheen, “The Way”, was filmed here in room 363.

This ancient capital of Castilla-León is also blessed with other fine historic treasures, including its soaring 13th century French Gothic cathedral, containing some of the most extraordinary stained glass windows in all of Europe, the frescoes of the San Isidro Collegiate Church, whose Kings’ Pantheon is known as the “Sistine Chapel of Romanesque art” and the Casa de Botines, a neo-Gothic creation of catalán Moderniste architect Antonio Gaudí.

The also city offers an atmospheric Medieval Quarter, where the locals and students gather for evening tapas in the Barrio Húmedo, or “Wet Neighborhood”, alluding to the large amount of wine spilled there each night.  It’s one of the best tapas scenes in Northwest Spain, and here it is still customary to offer a free tapa with each drink purchased.  Our favorites here: the new and buzzing gastronomic space, La Tienda del Mercado on Calle Varillas and the traditional El Nuevo Racimo de Oro on Plaza San Martín.


Parador de Villafranca del Bierzo

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Moving west to the extremely scenic but far less explored northwest corner of Old Castile, the exciting wine region of El Bierzo, visitors will find a handy base in the modern, newly renovated, Parador de Villafranca del Bierzo, which also lies on the pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela.

From here one can easily tour several  of the regions top wineries, such as Descendientes de J. Palacios in Villafranca, in addition to the Knights Templars’ castle in Ponferrada.  The remains of the 1st-4th century Roman gold mining operation, Las Medulas, an archaeological wonder and World Heritage Site is only twenty minutes away by car.  The ancient Celtic circular stone and thatched roof dwellings (pallozas) of O Cebreiro are only a short drive away in neighboring Galicia.

The stone and slate covered Parador offers rooms with large windows that face the steeply terraced vineyards to the south, simply gorgeous in the fall, and the densely forested Ancares Mountains to the north. The Parador, with two seasonal swimming pools, opens on the 2nd of March this year but closes from 3 November to 31 December this year.


About Castilla y León’s El Bierzo Wine Region

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Wine production flourished here during the Roman occupation and in the 9th century regained prominence with the discovery of the remains of St. James in Galicia and the building of monasteries and pilgrims hospices along the pilgrimage route, the Way of St. James.  Monks kept winemaking alive and well throughout the Middle Ages, but the production died off at the end of the 19th century with the arrival of phylloxera.  It was resurrected once again in the mid 80s with the arrival of young, energetic winemakers like Alvaro Palacios, who, after bringing fame to the Priorat, has helped make El Bierzo one of the most exciting winemaking regions in Spain.

El Bierzo sits in a square-shaped fertile valley protected by mountains on all sides, giving it a benevolent microclimate perfectly suited for wine production.  The indigenous mencía grape, covering two-thirds of its vineyards, thrives in these precariously steep, high altitude, slate-laced hills.  You can read “Travels in El Bierzo” for more information on this emerging wine region.


Paradors of The Ribeira Sacra

The Ribeira Sacra boasts two equally wonderful, historic Paradors in strikingly different settings from which to use as a base to exploring this wine region.  The first, sitting atop a hill overlooking Monforte de Lemos, is the historic site of San Vicente do Pino with its medieval castle keep, 17th century Benedictine Monastery and Palace of the Counts of Lemos, which now houses the elegant Parador de Monforte.

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You’ll find a very friendly staff, serene and beautiful cloister and a seasonal outdoors pool.  Plus, the Ribeira Sacra’s most acclaimed restaurant, O Grelo, is just a few minutes walk from the front door.  Here diners can feast on Galician specialties such as oven-baked baby scallops, octopus, Cedeira goose barnacles, monkfish and sea bass, accompanied by fine wines from all of Galicia’s acclaimed appellations.  A spectacular white wine to accompany this seafood feast is Pena das Donas Almalarga Godello, which one can purchase from the Centro del Vino in Monforte’s town center.

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The other option, in contemplative isolation, concealed within a chestnut forest to the west, is the Parador Santo Estevo.  The Benedictine Monastery of Santo Estevo de Rivas de Sil, dating from the 10th century, provides a peaceful and relaxing retreat in its secluded setting in Nogueira de Ramuin, a 30-minute drive from the regional capital of Ourense.

In its recent conversion to a Parador, it has retained the medieval elements of the original building, including the three lovely cloisters (Romanesque, Gothic and Renaissance) and the original chapel, while adding a dramatic architectural touch in contemporary steel and glass, avant-garde furnishings in the 76 former monks’ cells, and a seasonal spa.  In addition to the renovated monks’ cells, there is one suite,  room 210, Abad Franqula, named for the first Abbott of the Monastery.


Exploring the Ribeira Sacra

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The most spectacularly scenic region of Galicia, the Ribeira Sacra D.O., is found on both sides of the steep canyon walls of the Sil River, the natural boundary between the provinces of Ourense and Lugo, and west along the banks of the Miño River Valley.

This is a region known for its vertiginously steeped, strikingly beautiful vineyards, the oldest of which were carved out by the Romans 2,000 years ago, scenic and quite dramatic lookouts, castles, jewel-box Romanesque churches, and ancient Cistercian monasteries, all reached via country roads running through lush forests.

Artists will enjoy shopping for pretty traditional rustic pottery in the ceramic towns of Gundivós and Niñodaguia.  Nature lovers can take a leisurely catamaran cruise through the river canyons, and the more adventurous can enjoy white water rafting along the Miño.


Parador de Puebla de Sanabria and Pousada de Bragança

After soaking up the dazzling autumn colors in the Ribeira Sacra, we turned southeast for an overnight detour in the historic castle town of Bragança, but before then, we stopped in one of the most charmingly picturesque mountain villages in the Zamora province, Puebla de Sanabria, where the local restaurants were celebrating wild mushroom, game and truffle season.

The Puebla de Sanabria Parador is located in a spectacular spot, above the Tera River Valley, and the town serves as the gateway to the Sanabria Lake, the largest glacial lake in Spain. Nature lovers find plenty of hiking trails here, along with a highly picturesque medieval quarter of half-timbered homes and cobblestone streets.

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Although this Parador is of sleek, modern design, it enjoys a convenient, easy-in, easy-out location just below the medieval village with picture postcard perfect views of the town’s carefully restored 15th century castle.

Leaving Puebla, we continued south through the beautiful Montesinho Nature Park, which forms the natural border with Spain in the historic and still somewhat remote region of Trás-Os-Montes in northeastern Portugal.

Braganza

After an afternoon exploring the interesting and well-preserved medieval quarter of Bragança, we spent a relaxing night in the Pousada de São Bartolomeu, one of the Portuguese cousins of the Paradors of Spain, with its commanding view of the “Torre da Princesa”, the storybook Princess Tower.


Zamora, Toro, Tordesillas and back to Madrid

Our next stop was Zamora, at the Parador of the Counts of Alba and Aliste, a richly decorated 15th century Renaissance palace sitting on a pretty square in the center of this historic provincial capital.  The feel inside is one of fading medieval grandeur, with its display of coats of armor, heraldic shields, banners and tapestries adorning the glass-enclosed courtyard, and canopy beds in its superior rooms.

Zamora is located at the crossroads of the Vía de la Plata on the St. James pilgrimage route and is a living Romanesque Museum, as it is richly endowed with a wonderful collection of more than a dozen pale stone, superbly preserved Romanesque churches.

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The city serves as a fine base for both wine and cultural touring, as does its neighbor to the east, Tordesillas, which played a major role in world history when Queen Isabella and Ferdinand sat down with the King of Portugal in 1494 to work out a treaty that would divide all of the lands discovered in the New World.  While Portugal won Brazil, Spain got much of the rest.

The Parador of Tordesillas, housed in an ochre-toned ancestral Castilian home in the shelter of a pine forest, sits midway between Zamora and Valladolid and provides tranquil gardens, two pools, a Turkish bath and sauna and a children’s playground, inviting travelers to rest and relax. It serves as an excellent base from which to visit both the architectural treasures of Old Castile, such as the Royal Convent of Santa Clara in Tordesillas (a jewel of mudéjar art, called the “Alhambra of Castile”), the Colegiata de Santa María la Mayor, with its glorious polychrome Romanesque portal, in the town of Toro, Valladolid’s acclaimed National Museum of Sculpture and the former homes of Columbus and Cervantes and the castles of Simancas and Medina del Campo.  Plus the wine producing regions of Rueda, Cigales, Toro and Ribera del Duero are all within an easy drive.

From Tordesillas we made the quick drive to Valladolid’s rail station and zipped back down to Madrid on the high-speed AVE.

Chasing Fall Colors

 

Northwestern Spain and Northern Portugal

Autumn in northwestern Spain and neighboring Portugal is a vibrant splash of color as you travel through Castile and León’s stunning El Bierzo wine region to Ponferrada and Villafranca del Bierzo from the provincial capital of León.  Crossing into Galicia’s Ourense province on the N-120, you’ll find the vineyards of Valdeorras and Ribeira Sacra clinging to the banks of the Sil and Minho River Valleys, presenting a brilliant canvas of rich fall colors during the final days of the harvest season.

The Rías Baixas and O Ribeiro wine regions, closer to the Atlantic, are no less colorful, as are the vineyards of the Monterrei DO, in the southeast corner of Ourense province, which grow on both sides of the Tâmega River and in the Val de Monterrei, the Monterrei Valley.

South, across the Tâmega River, lies Portugal’s Trás-os-Montes wine sub-regions of Chaves, Valpaços and Planalto Mirandês, while to the west you’ll find the nine sub zones of the mountainous  Vinhos Verdes, Portugal’s largest wine region, bordered on the north by the Minho and on the west by the Atlantic Ocean.

Further south lies the drier Douro River Valley and it’s three sub zones; Baixo Corgo, Alto Corgo and Douro Superior, all waiting for you in a flash of fall color.  Hopefully the weather will be cool and inviting for a leisurely tour of some of Portugal’s most spectacular wine estates.


 

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Endless Possibilities

Fall in northwest Spain and northern Portugal presents an array of endless possibilities as the weather slowly changes in this beautiful, rugged countryside.  Starting from León, you can spend the  few days exploring the vineyards and long history of the El Bierzo wine region before moving on to the rich countryside surrounding cities of Ourense and Pontevedra in Galicia.

Temperatures in the Alto Douro are finally cooling down with the approach of the harvest season.  Here you can tour some of the magnificent Quintas and their terraced vineyards that line both sides of the the Alto Douro, where wine has been produced for more than 2000 years, join in a traditional grape harvest and savor the local cuisine.

Exploring Portugal’s Alentejo

Arraiolos to Vila Vicosa

Our latest Iberian sojourn took us to Portugal’s largest province, its “wild east”, the Alentejo, “the land beyond the River Tagus”, just 90 minutes east of Lisbon and just west of Spain’s Extremadura, the land of the Conquistadors.  The Alentejo is a vast, primarily rural, utterly tranquil and unspoiled area of rolling farm terrain, covering one third of Portugal’s surface but housing less than one tenth of its population.  This land of endless horizons and immense estates, latifundios, is dotted with vineyards, undulating wheat fields, olive groves and cork forests.

The region is populated by goats, horses, sheep and the famed acorn-grazing black pigs, and it boasts highly photogenic, fortified hill towns each with its own defensive fortress or castle atop the hill, built during the Christian Re-conquest.  Its handsome villages sport tidy whitewashed homes with wrought iron balconies, often trimmed with yellow (to protect against fevers) or blue (to ward off flies).

Early spring, when the landscape is blanketed with wild flowers, is the best time to visit sun baked Alentejo, which becomes stifling hot in summer.

During our tour, we lodged in several Pousadas de Portugal.  Similar to the state-owned Spanish Paradors, this network of landmark buildings converted to elegant inns, owned by the state and now managed by the Pestana hotel group, ranges from manor homes to former monasteries, convents, castles and palaces.

 


Posada Arraiolos
Posada Arraiolos

Pousadas Of The Alentejo

We began our journey in Alentejo’s westernmost point, at the Pousada da Nossa Senhora da Assunção, a “new wave” Pousada with 15 rooms in the original 15th century monastery, wrapped around a silent, marble and granite cloister planted with citrus trees, and 17 new guest quarters in a starkly all white, minimalist wing, designed by architect José Paulo dos Santos in the style of the Porto School of Architiecure.  The Pousada’s rooms provide 21st century creature comforts, with terrific sit out balconies where guests can admire the town of Arraiolos and its oval-shaped medieval fortifications looming above, with a soundtrack of sheep grazing on the hillside.  Utter tranquility.

Guests have use of tennis courts, a pool and Lusitanian horses at the stables next door.

Moving to the southern, drier and flatter Alentejo (Baixo), Portugal’s “bread basket”, we enjoyed another tranquil stay at the elegantly restored, 20-room, 15th-century Pousada Castelo de Alvito in the spic and span white village of Alvito, handy to wineries (Herdade do Rocim) and the city of Beja.  From our beautifully decorated, spacious deluxe corner room with arched Manueline windows and stone benches built into the thick walls, we watched the resident peacocks strutting about in the gardens below.

We then traveled northeast to Estremoz, to the “museum” of all pousadas, the Pousada da Rainha Santa Isabel, the majestic, former 13th-century castle-palace of King Denis I, built for his wife, Queen Isabel, high atop the town with magnificent views of the vineyards. Here we slept in regal splendor in our “period piece” of a deluxe room with heavy drapes, 17th century antiques and four-poster canopy bed.

From Estremoz it was on to quiet Vila Viçosa, on the Borba plain, the white marble town and ancestral home of the powerful Braganza monarchs.  Next to the enormous 16th century Braganza ducal palace sits the Pousada de Dom Joao IV, yet another sparkling white restored Royal convent with a lovely fountain-filled, frescoed cloister, original nuns’oratories, stunning marble staircases and doorways and whose ten, themed “special rooms” are worth the splurge.

Continuing north to the rockier Upper (Alto) Altentejo, we lodged in the imposing 14th-century monastery-caste-palace Pousada Flor da Rosa, a fascinating example of Portuguese Gothic with its defensive battlements and towers intact, once belonging to the Knights of the Order of Malta.   Our contemporary quarters, however, were housed, once again, in a new generation wing facing the garden, designed by yet another acclaimed Portuguese architect, Joao Luis Carriho da Graça.  The top floor tower suite with its enormous private terrace is highly coveted and provides a dose of medieval mysticism.

We ended our Alentejo explorations at the rustic style Pousada de Santa Maria in marvelous Marvão, the region’s most photographed garrison town, perched atop a dramatic escarpment, within the confines of a superb 12th century fortress with breathtaking, sweeping 360-degree views over the vast plains.  While lacking in grandiose public spaces, as it was sewn together from several cottages, it does provide a cozy and restful setting for hiking in the Serra de São Mamede Nature Park.

In addition to Marvão, visitors should not miss two other highly picturesque fortified hill towns, magical Monsaraz  (“Eagles’ Nest”), an extremely scenic border outpost above the gigantic Alqueva Dam, whose medieval castle courtyard functions an unusual makeshift bull ring, and Castelo de Vide the pretty neighbor to Marvão.  An immaculate, flower-filled, mineral springs town, it boasts an ancient Jewish quarter with small, restored synagogue believed to date from the 13th century, the oldest in Portugal.


A Visit to Evora, Capital of the Alentejo

The multi-layered Alentejo “capital” of Evora, a university town and UNESCO World Heritage Site, with its 15th-century Aqueduct, spider web of Moorish style, tiny cobblestone streets and wealth of monuments and Roman remains all contained within medieval walls, makes a perfect single base for exploring the region.  Evora’s former 16th-century convent, Posada dos Lóios, serves as an elegant and atmospheric lodging with a dead center location from which to explore the area.  It sits directly across from a 2nd century Roman temple and next door to the Igreja dos Lóios church with a nave covered with exquisite 18th century blue and white tiles, azulejos.

Across the street sits the excellent Museum of Evora, on the site of the former Roman forum and behind the museum, the pre-Gothic, fortress-like Cathedral on the site of the former Mosque.  This elegant Pousada boasts a cozy living room with fireplace, an inviting interior courtyard with pool, romantic glassed in cloister housing the restaurant, smallish standard rooms (formerly monks’ cells) but sumptuous suites (such as 101) with original frescoes.

Visitors to Evora should not miss the macabre Capela dos Ossos, the Chapel of Blones, of the Church of St. Francis, whose walls and columns are lined with bones of some 5,000 skeletons unearthed from city churchyards in the 16th century to serve as reminder of the fragile human condition.  For archaeology buffs, the environs of Evora are blessed with a bounty of megalithic sights, fields hiding menhirs, dolmens and stone circles, including a Portuguese Stonehenge, the Cromeleque dos Almendres, dating from around 2,000 B.C.