España 2004: Madrid

Thursday, 20 May 2004

Ah, Madrid! We are particularly fond of Madrid, perhaps because it was our first experience in Spain, and it was a very positive one. We are staying in the same place as last October (Goya75), an aparthotel complex at the corner of Goya and General Pardiñas. This time we actually have a corner apartment – one of the windows is on an angle looking directly down Calle de Goya (to the east) on the fifth floor, so our view is quite good.

After a pleasant two-hour drive from Peñafiel, we were able to navigate Madrid traffic and road system (it was very straightforward, as we suspected), and pulled into a non-parking place in front of Goya75. This, of course, started three different arguments (discussions): with the car behind us trying to park in the underground that we were partially (but not completely) blocking; with the Goya75 employee who wanted us to move so that the car behind us could get through; and with the next car behind us (after Steve directed the first car into the underground safely) who was also not very happy with the parking arrangement. However, there was no other choice and we remain on good terms with the Goya75 employee (see discussion #2) who we remember from last October. We are not sure what our status is regarding the drivers of the two aforementioned cars.

Another adventure ensued as we vacated the disputed “parking” place (after getting checked in and unloading our stuff). We then had to return the car, which we had enjoyed for the last two weeks (the Audi A4 – a very swish car). Navigation to the approximate location of the rental car agency (EuropCar – we have used them twice in recent years and highly recommend them) was fairly easy, but pinning down the exact spot where we were to drop the car was less straightforward. Nonetheless, we finally sorted that out and proceeded to check the car in. We were pleased that there were no extra charges, despite the fact that the car had been viciously attacked by a large flower pot as we left Barcelona two weeks earlier.

The EuropCar drop-off/check-in is actually at Atocha station, which was the scene of the terrible attack just over two months ago on 11 March. The (small) informal memorial that has been created is incredibly moving and we (along with many others) spent some quiet moments there.

We decided to walk back to our apartment through beautiful Parque de El Retiro, which looks quite a bit different than it did in October! Since it was about time for some lunch, we stopped at a restaurant with sidewalk seating (the Molaquatro) and had bocadillos de calamares. We had been told about this delicacy while in Barcelona, so we took this first opportunity and indulged – good choice! It was the perfect day for eating outside (yet another 3.0 on the Knowmark Weather Scale). Later, some shopping in our favourite haunts (recognizing many faces and being recognized once or twice), and then some tapas at a couple of the local establishments, followed by a late snack in our apartment.

Friday, 21 May 2004

One of our main reasons for coming back to Madrid (or so we keep telling ourselves) was to use the third portion of some art museum tickets that we bought last fall when we were here. At that time, we used the portions for the Prado and for the Reina Sofia museums. This time we visited the Museo Thyssien-Bornemiza which is located very close to the Prado. We walked down as it was a lovely morning and on the way saw many of the preparations for the Royal Wedding which is tomorrow. (Prince Felipe is marrying “former TV anchorwoman” Letizia Ortiz in a ceremony the likes of which haven’t been seen in Spain for almost 100 years.) After the wedding, which is in the church at the Palacio Real, there will be a procession through the streets of the city. We think we might check it out just for fun.

Anyway, we spent close to three hours in the museum, which was great. This is truly a wonderful city for art lovers. On the way back to our apartment we stopped for lunch, setas con jamon to start, followed by sepia a la plancha then flan for Steve and croquetas caseros and coffee for Susan.

After a short siesta we went on another small shopping trip, looking for a few wine-related supplies to take home. Eventually we hit a few of our favourite haunts for tapas. At Casa Poli (or the “red bow-tie place” as we refer to it) we had a particularly yummy version of patatas a la brava along with the usual bread with blue cheese and anchovy that they always seem to give us there. At Taberna Ultreya they fed us hazelnuts and tortilla with chorizo and peppers and in addition we ordered a tapa-sized version of their calamares a la romana which are really good. All washed down with wine, of course! Our late night snack at home was pear and cheese with wine which was delectable as usual.

Weather-wise, it was a pleasant 2.0 on the Knowmark Weather Scale as we did encounter a bit of rain. But there wasn’t too much of it and the temperature was just right. Not too bad at all!

Saturday, 22 May 2004

¡El día de la boda real! It had obviously been raining pretty much all night (despite the rain, the weather registered a nice solid 2.0 on the KWS) and today’s weather forecast was for light rain which actually held off for quite a while. We got a leisurely start and went for coffee at Taberna Ultreya where they always give us a small breakfast treat. Back for our regular yogurt/fruit/bread breakfast and by then it was time for the wedding. If you can believe it, we actually spent parts of two hours watching that on TV! Parts of it were fascinating, but by the end it was getting pretty boring. It went over time so the car procession started sooner than expected (perhaps also because of the rain?). By the time we hustled down to Plaza de Cibeles to check it out, they had already gone past but one of the cops we talked to said they might be coming back the same way. So we waited, and sure enough about half an hour later the procession did indeed return. So, what did Susan and Steve do on their last day in Madrid? They became semi-serious royal-watchers :-).

Once the wedding excitement was all over, we strolled back to our own neighbourhood and had lunch at Cassandra, which we knew from last October. After a complementary tapa of paella, Steve had revueltos Cassandra – scrambled eggs with green beans, carrots, mushrooms and shrimp. Susan had pimientos piquillos con gambas al ajillo. Both dishes were particularly yummy.

And, we found out that our flight tomorrow is three hours earlier than planned, so we are scrambling a bit. Nonetheless, we got everything sorted out and stayed up late (starting with an extra round of tapas and wine at Taberna Ultreya) enjoying our last day in Madrid and Spain. Until next year, perhaps!

España 2004: Peñafiel

Monday, 17 May 2004

Today we travelled from Ábalos in the Rioja region to Peñafiel in the Ribera del Duero area. Another beautiful day in our part of Spain – easily hitting 2.5 on the Knowmark Weather Scale. We first drove south through the mountains (Tierra de Cameros) to Soria. It was a beautiful mountain drive, rivalling similar travels in North America. There was a huge highway project underway, building a tunnel under the Puerta de Piqueras, which is difficult to navigate in winter due to snow, etc. However, we encountered no such problems today!

From Soria, we turned west on N-122, a great highway running east-west across much of Spain. We stopped in Villaciervos for lunch at a truck stop, having one of the best menús del día that we could remember. The Ribera del Duero wine region begins as we entered San Esteban de Gormaz, and we began to see vineyards quite frequently from that point. However, this region is quite different from Rioja country in some respects, as the vineyards don’t seem to be as concentrated, with many other crops and bush, etc. interspersed. But, we’ve only seen a little bit of the area, so our view point may well change.

Peñafiel seems to be a nice little town (~5000 inhabitants), with an absolutely stunning castle – real fairy-tale stuff. We wandered around, getting our bearings, had a glass of the local wine in one of the many bars and finally had some nice raciones for dinner at our hotel.

Tuesday, 18 May 2004

Briefly, the high points:

Drive to Quintanilla de Onésimo and visited the Bodegas Arzuaga Navarro; toured the bodega (with a most charming guide – Gustavo) and had a wine tasting; bought some wine; back to our hotel restaurant for a very nice menú del día; rest; driving tour north of the Rio Duero (comparing the countryside to the recently visited Rioja region – many differences, but also many similarities); returned to Peñafiel and decided to tour the storybook castle (it is quite amazing); walked through some of the town and stopped for a glass of wine and some tapas.

And, it was another beautiful day – we’ve decided to only give it a 2.5 since it was a little too warm for a while.

Wednesday, 19 May 2004

Today found us meandering through the Ribera del Duero region in the morning, taking in two bodegas (both in Pedrosa de Duero) – Bodegas Rodero and Bodega Hermanos Pérez Pascuas. We tasted at both places (and were well pleased) and bought several bottles. Our guides (Elena and Mónica respectively), were both perfectly charming and very knowledgeable. Our experience at both places was very positive and we continue to learn more about Spanish wine.

After our morning (and, early afternoon) in Pedrosa, we ventured over to Roa and had a very nice lunch at Hermanos Arrante. We wanted to try the lechazo, but many of the asadors only open occasionally, so we settled for chuletillas a la plancha – very tasty. Back to Peñafiel on some new roads (of course!) for a rest. Then a little shopping for jamón y cheso to go with the good bread we bought in Roa earlier. The default bread in this area is not to our liking, but they make a special bread in Roa (thanks, Mónica!) which we found. It is quite wonderful – much like focaccia. So, that was our dinner, accompanied by a fine young wine (tinto roble, 2002) that we had tasted at Rodero in the morning. On to Madrid tomorrow – apparently just in time for the royal wedding! The weather forecast is good for our transition day (and, another perfect 3.0 today).

España 2004: Ábalos

Tuesday, 11 May 2004

Travel day – headed for the Rioja region. A beautiful day for driving. As we neared the Rioja area, we stopped for some lunch (huge bocadillos) in Los Arcos, arriving in Ábalos in late afternoon. One feature of the area around Uncastillo and toward Tafalla is huge numbers of windmills – not the Don Quixote type, but the electricity-generating type. They are numerous and actually fit into the landscape quite nicely.

We then quickly explored the village (it’s not very big!) and took a brief driving tour (Haro and back), just to see what the area was like. Then, dinner at the hotel. There really are no other options here if you don’t want to drive, which is unfortunate. However, the food is very good.

Wednesday, 12 May 2004

Our first full day in Rioja. We’ve spent some time getting used to the area. It is amazing! And, we visited our first bodega and had our first wine tasting this afternoon. Bodega Puelles is a small, family-owned bodega in Ábalos about a kilometer from our hotel. We learned some about the basic winemaking process in Rioja and also something about the vineyards themselves. We also drove around the area quite a bit – the landscape is fascinating and there are vines everywhere. The weather was not great – only a passable 1.0 on the Knowmark Weather Scale – quite cold and very windy. However, the forecast looks much better for the next few days.

Thursday, 13 May 2004

Today, we probed the western and northern boundaries of Rioja Alta and Rioja Alavesa. This area is quite fascinating and strangely beautiful in places, particularly north of the Ebro River. And, the weather turned nicer – an even 2.0 today.

Administratively (politically), La Rioja is a province. However, not all of the province grows grapes or makes wine and not all of the province is actually part of the official D.O. Rioja. The official D.O. Rioja wine region is divided into three parts – Rioja Baja, Rioja Alta and Rioja Alavesa. Generally speaking, the better Rioja wines come from Rioja Alta and Rioja Alavesa. All of Rioja Alavesa is north of the Ebro and is actually in Álava, which is one of the three provinces that make up Euskadi (Pais Vasco) – the Basque country. We are staying in Ábalos, which is north of the Ebro, but it is in a very small enclave that is part of La Rioja province administratively – the only part of La Rioja that is so situated (except for a tiny bit around Briñas). From a wine point of view, technically this part of the area is Rioja Alta, but it is impossible to distinguish from Rioja Alavesa, which adjoins this small enclave both to the east (a little bit) and to the west (a larger bit), stretching from Haro to Logroño north of the Ebro.

We first went to Nájera, which is a major stop on the Camino de Santiago, a 1000-year old pilgrim trail from France to Santiago de Compostela, which is in northwest Spain. The pilgrimage is based on some Christian mythology and the trail is still used extensively today by not only religious pilgrims (a minority), but many hikers and bicyclists. Our main purpose in Nájera was to buy a copy of the Financial Times, an English-language newspaper (British) that we read occasionally and is widely available in Europe. It also happened to be market day (mostly clothing) which was fortuitous, since Steve needed a light sweater (mission accomplished).

Then, on to Ezcaray, which is up in the Sierra de la Demanda, a small mountain range that is south of the Ebro and roughly marks the southern border of the Rioja region. We then headed north (toward Haro), approximately along the western edge of the Rioja area, eventually crossing the Ebro at Briñas. This is the northwestern part of the region, containing parts of Rioja Alta and Rioja Alavesa.

Our final stop for the day was in San Vicente de Sonsierra (this area between the Sierra de Cantabria and the Ebro is known as Sonsierra). San Vicente is an interesting old village on top of a rather high hill. A very old church and the ruins of an old castle are at the very top and we explored them for a while and enjoyed the amazing views of the countryside. Finally, we continued our drive through some beautiful back roads, making a circuitous return to our temporary home in Ábalos.

As usual, we had dinner tonight at the Hotel Villa de Ábalos, which we enjoyed with one of the local wines (Rioja, of course!) that are featured there: Marqués de Lagarda Reserva 1998.

Friday, 14 May 2004

We did more of the same, yet different. Haro – bodega tour (Muga, bought wine); two other bodegas – no tour, but bought wine; lunch – indifferent service, overcharged, food was pretty good; Laguardia – very interesting town, informal capital of Rioja Alavesa; drove way up into the Sierra de Cantabria (generally marks the northern border of the Rioja region) for a spectacular view of the entire Rioja area. Our photos simply don’t do it justice. And, it was a bit hazy in the west and far south, so we know that the views are even better. Perhaps tomorrow or Sunday.

A lovely day here – nudging 2.5 on the Knowmark Weather Scale (a perfect 3.0 is attained only on a sunny day when the temperature is comfortable enough for shirtsleeves for the most part – not too hot nor too chilly).

Back to the tour at Muga (see above). It was a very interesting contrast to the one at Bodega Puelles partly because Muga is a much larger operation, but also because they use oak for the entire process starting with the fermentation vats. They have their own cooperage on site where they make all their own fermentation vats and most of their own barrels.

Saturday, 15 May 2004

We set quite a leisurely pace today, as we thought perhaps we had been too busy! Today is the Festival of San Isidro (more Christian mythology) in these parts. Plus, it is Saturday, so there are many visiting families; festival-type things; more social activity generally. And, that’s quite a lot, since Spanish society is (generally) more social than ours in Canada!

We meandered (found some new back roads) down to Nájera; got the week-end edition of the Financial Times; had a café y pastel; did a little shopping. We are managing to travel nearly every small road in the area, particularly north of the Ebro (bounded by the Sierra de Cantabria and the Sierra de Toloño), and immediately south of the Ebro. The countryside is fascinating – quite rugged, but with vineyards everywhere. We have tried to capture this, but our photographs simply don’t do this area justice. We spent a little while in the main plaza in Haro with wine and bocadillo at a table outside a small cafe, just people-watching. Then, we visited Briñas and San Vicente, where we just missed some of the festival goings-on. Nonetheless, there was a general party atmosphere there, so we joined in with a glass of wine and some nice tapas. Finally, we found our way back to Ábalos for a rest.

Since it was an absolutely gorgeous day (a perfect 3.0 in the KWS), we then walked out into some of the vineyards around Ábalos, and explored a little more of this small village that we hadn’t seen. Our hotel was quite busy (week-end visitors), and since the weather was great, the patio was hopping. We spent some time there in the early evening, before an excellent dinner (the best we’ve had so far at the hotel).

Sunday, 16 May 2004

Today was our last full day in the Rioja region – we will certainly miss it. It has been a memorable, enjoyable experience for us. Today we travelled some roads that we had not covered earlier, plus re-visiting other areas (which, of course, is unavoidable at times!). We set off to explore the southeast extent of Rioja Alta, travelling on LR-341 between Ventosa and Sorzano. It is a lovely drive. Many of the 300 series roads in La Rioja province are wonderful driving experiences. We particularly like LR-319 from Ábalos to the junction with LR-318 and LR-318 between San Vicente and Baños de Ebro. Also of note are LR-317 between Rivas de Tereso Peciña and San Vicente, plus A-3228 from Elvillar to Laguardia. A-3228 is in Álava, in the Basque country.

We travelled north from Sorzano to Elvillar, which is roughly the eastern extent of Rioja Alta (until you cross the Ebro) and Rioja Alavesa. We stopped for café in Elvillar in the only bar (every pueblo has at least one), which doubles as the local retirement lodge. Then we meandered down to Briones, which we had passed by many times, but never visited. We can always see it in the distance – partly because it’s on a hill (as are all the pueblos here), and partly because of the single spire from one of the local churches that stands out from afar. So, we explored a little of this village and stopped for a glass of wine and some snacks in the main plaza, in which stands the aforementiond spire that we had been noticing for days! A nice place with great views, enhanced by the gorgeous weather (another perfect 3.0 on the KWS). Then north across the Ebro on yet another unexplored road to San Vicente and finally back to our “home” for a rest.

Since it was such a beautiful day, we later decided to hike a bit north of Ábalos, where we climbed partway up one of the foothills (in front of the Sierra de Cantabria), searching for an old hermitage that we had driven to days before. However, it was too far to go, but we got some great views of the Rioja region/Ebro valley and some closeup looks at some of the local vineyards. As we circled back into town, we stumbled on to a small street party, where kids (and adults!) were breaking piñatas (clay pots here).

Tomorrow we’re off to Peñafiel, which we don’t know much about, except it’s in the Ribera del Duero wine region, which we are quite interested in. We had not planned the next three days in advance, so we did a little searching on-line, found a place and Susan booked it on the phone entirely in Spanish. At least, we’re pretty sure that’s what happened! We’ll know for sure tomorrow 🙂