Three Reasons Why Seville is a Foodie Haven

“So we’re initially going to just be making plans for cervezas and tapas, correct?” One of my closest friends was just a few weeks away from his trip, and he’d planned the itinerary for me: a week of eating, drinking and catching up (and that’s just what we did!). 

Spain's best city for Foodies

When it comes to showing friends, family and even readers my adopted city, they see less of the city’s monuments and off-the-beaten track gems, and far more grubby old man bars and fancy gastropubs than museums. My heart is happiest when my belly’s been wined and dined, and I love sharing Seville’s food culture with them.

I’ve eaten my way through Spain, from gastronomic sweetheart San Sebastián to family farms in Málaga, and Seville remains my favorite food city in all of Spain for three very important reasons.

Variety of Choices

If variety is the spice of life, Seville can only be described as zesty. Apart from the serving sizes and types of eateries, the sheer number of bars is dizzying.

While it would be impossible to count the number of bars in the city, figures tend to land in the 4,500 – 6,000 range when it comes to establishments for a bite or sip. Even if I wanted to try every single one, from the hole-in-the-wall abacerías to the Michelin-lauded gastro experience, it would take me years. And the question I get most from my readers, ‘Where should I eat in Seville?’ is harder to answer than you’d think. 

Devour Seville Tours

Taking a mid-morning tapas tour with Devour Seville, a food tour company with operations in four Spanish cities confirmed that. In fact, Lauren and I mused about other places that Devour Seville could have included on their four-hour tour through Seville’s central neighborhoods. Andalucía flamboyant capital has no shortage of choices, and tour guides are even thrilled to make recommendations for dinner. 

So, choice is a factor, but it gets even trickier from there. Bar or restaurant? Sit down or stand up? Trendy gastrobar or traditional tavern? Should we split large plates, or have everyone get their own tapas? And just how hungry are we?

What sets Andalusian cities apart from their northern counterparts in many cases is the serving size options you’re allowed. Lauren explained that the word tapa – Spanish cuisine’s most global export – has several different origins, though the most common is that bartenders would plop a morsel of food on a thin-lipped sherry glass to keep out fruit flies. This practice, said to have come from Seville’s little sister city of Jerez, is one of the easiest ways to sample and share food. If you’re hungrier, choose a ración or media ración.

seville sandwich city

And, of course, then you have to pare down a menu and decide what to eat and what to drink. The tour had several Andalusian hallmarks but left behind the tortilla, huevos estrellados and gazpacho. After a morning of chowing down, we’d tried eight different dishes, each with a backstory of is origin and the establishment that served it.

Arabic, Roman Influence on Cuisine

In the middle of the morning, Lauren led us to a cluster of churches in the heart of Barrio Santa Cruz. Once a pocket of the city where Jews, Moors and Christians mingled and traded freely, there are traces of culture on every block and hidden beneath the citrus fruit trees that perfume the city and the almond trees planted further east.

Their sugar and egg pastries are baked in convents around the city (many made with oranges, lemons or almonds!), and though Spanish baked goods don’t do much for me, the naranjines we tried were actually sweet with a touch of citrus!

Convent Sweets in Seville

Additonally, Seville was truly the gateway to the New World and Africa, with ships coming and going from the port and bringing products from far off lands. The city grew fat off of riches from its discoveries before the gold and silver was taken to Madrid on the Via de la Plata, but the gastronomic heritage remained.

After a pit stop for a few sips of orange-infused wine, we walked through the city’s historic quarter and into the once-gritty El Arenal neighborhood, where ships were repaired as they unloaded their goodies. The New World brought the tomatoes from your gazpacho, the chocolate you dip your churros into and the potatoes served with just about everything from montaditos to meat dishes.

Typical Taverns in Seville

Another fascinating tidbit of local history lies in the twelve city gates that once punctuated the walled city. As we walked under the Postigo del Carbón, Lauren gave us a run-down of other food-monikered doors to the city, like meat and olive oil. By this time, we’d snacked and tried several sorts of drinks, but we’d worked up enough of an appetite for the main course: tapas.

Walkability

I felt like we walked less on the Devour Seville tour than my previous taste tests with them in Madrid and Barcelona, but Seville is the longest tour! Even after winding through the streets of Encarnación, Santa Cruz and Arenal for four hours, I felt strong enough to have one last beer with another tour-goer at primetime on a sunny Friday!

Walking in Central Seville

All of my guests are surprised at how easy it is to walk around Seville – even if getting lost in the winding, cobblestone alleyways is part of the experience. The city sits at 11m above sea level and there’s one ‘hill’ in the whole place! 

Besides, Seville is beautiful, between the tucked-away plazas and tiled entranceways, so it’s easy to be entranced.

How to Tapear in Seville

A true tapas tour doesn’t just settle for one eatery – it’s quite normal for the hungry to go from bar to bar, ordering one drink and one plate before moving on to the next. And don’t expect to sit down at a table. Most tapas bars allow you (or force you if it’s that popular) to eat at the bar itself, giving you the chance to bark your order to the waitstaff without flagging down a frazzled waiter. Bonus points for the bar if they tally your tab in chalk right next to your plates.

Seville Food Tour Samplings

The bars clustered around the city center should be your focus if you’re visiting Seville – check out the bull meat entrées served in El Arenal, choose international dishes and Spanish favorites around El Centro, and opt for al fresco dining in La Alameda.

Be aware that many bars will not have English translations, and if they do, they’ll often leave you just as confused (seriously, I once saw ratatouille listed as ‘tomatoes attacked by angry vegetables’). Start by ordering a few plates – you can always get more if you’re still hungry.

On a Food Tour in Seville

If you’re overwhelmed, leave it to the experts at Devour Seville. This four-hour tour will have you sampling eight dishes, which is enough to feel satisfied without being stuffed. The guides are knowledgable and personable. Prices start at 65€ for their Tastes, Tapas & Traditions tour.

Devour Seville allowed me to tag along on their inaugural tour, though all opinions are my own. I’m a big fan of their mission – to use local vendors and provide customers with a taste of Spain – and their excellently assembled tours!

Have you ever eaten in Seville? What are your favorite places to chow down?

I’ve got loads about food in Seville, from Tapa Thursdays, which highlight foods and restaurants, to recommendations on where to eat in town. My instagram is also full of food and beer photos with fancy filters – follow me!

The A-Z of the Feria de Abril

It’s the happiest time of the year – now that the azahar has bloomed and the gold-laden Holy Week floats have been stored, Seville takes a week to celebrate Andalusian horses, Andalusian sherry and Andalusian music at the April Fair.

The Feria de Abril’s origins lie in a former cattle and livestock fair in the Prado de San Sebastián, though you’d never know it – the biggest and most traditional fair is all about appearances and connections, and it comes with its own set of vocabulary.

Feria de Abril Glossary

For a first-time fairgoer, your senses will be put to the test. The grounds smell of fried fish and horse poop and the music coming from the tents all begins to mix together into a raucous jumble of flamenco, but it’s a visual feast with the lights, the garb and the horses. 

I was completely underprepared for the fair my first year – I wore jeans and a ratty shirt, and then wore the wrong types of accessories with my flamenco dress and didn’t know how to dance sevillanas – but look forward to it each year. Like everything in Seville, there are traditions and rules about how to dress and how to act, and the vocabulary that’s used to describe every aspect is used increasingly in the weeks leading up to the big event.

spanish american girls at the feria de sevilla

You’ll already stick out as a foreigner, but here’s a list of 20 indispensable words to know if you’re heading to the Feria de Abril:

Albero: Albero is the sandy mix of terrain that lines the sidewalks of the fairgrounds. 

Alumbrado: Happening at midnight on the Lunes (Monday) of Feria, the main gate is lit by the city’s mayor. There are hundreds of thousands of bulbs covering both the portada and the lights along the streets, but they’re all LED!

Amazona: Women choose to wear either a traditional gypsy dress or don a riding outfit to ride side-saddle. An Amazona is a way to call the latter.

Calle del Infierno: Literally translated as ‘Hell Street,’ the Calle del Infierno is located at the western edge of the fairgrounds and has carnival rides, booths and food stands. Keep an extra eye on your purse here.

feria casetas tents farolillos lights in seville spain

Caseta: The makeshift tents that line the streets of the Real. These small structures are owned by families, political parties, businesses or organizations, some of them being private while others public. Each caseta has a kitchen, bathroom and room to dance or eat. 

Coche de Caballos: A central element of the fair is the Andalusian horse, and horse carriages circulate on a city-mandated route from noon until 8pm. The permission to bring a horse carriage is only granted to several hundred official carriages, and the licenses are pricey! Just be sure to watch for horse poop!

feria horses april fair seville

Complementos: A traditional dress is nothing without its larger-than-life accessories. Women don shawls (mantoncillos), earrings (pendientes), combs (peinetas) and large flowers, and it’s not uncommon to see bracelets of necklaces, either. 

Corrida de Toros: Big-name bullfighters come to Seville during the fair to practice their sport at the Maestranza bull ring. Tickets are pricey and seats are limited. In fact, the names of the streets in the real are named for Andalusian bullfighters, like Juan Belmonte or Curro Romero.

El Pescaíto: The opening meal of the fair, open to members of the casetas, where fried fish is served. This dinner usually commences at 9pm. The day itself is called the lunes de pescaíto.

Enchufe: A catch-all word that means plug in a literal and figurative sense, having connections and invitations to a caseta means you’ve got enchufe. Start asking around a few weeks before Semana Santa to see who has access and who can invite you (in exchange for food and drink, of course!).

Farolillo: Paper lanterns that are strung up in the fairgrounds and lit at night.

me and luna in the door of the caseta

Feriante: an adjective referring to anyone who is a fair-goer. As in, Cat es muy feriante.

Fino: Sherry wine made from Palomino grapes that is consumed by the bucketload. See also: rebujito.

Portero: The doorman in private casetas reserves the right to let you in or not. Flirting sometimes works, but you’re better off saying you know someone inside and will just nip in to look for him.

Portada: Taking on a different design every year, the portada is the main gate that crowns Calle Antonio Bienvenida. It’s covered in lightbulbs and is known as a meeting point (even though ‘Let’s meet under the portada‘ is like saying, I’ll try to look for you somewhere in the city center).

Portada de la Feria 2013

Real de la Feria: The recinto ferial isn’t enough of a name – Seville’s fairgrounds has an upgraded moniker known as the Real de la Feria, or simply el Real. It’s often referred to this way in the press.

Rebujito: This sherry and 7-up hybrid is the drink of choice for many sevillanos during the week. Served in a pitcher with ice and small glasses for sipping, it’s concocted from a half liter of dry sherry and two cans of the soft drink. Be careful – it’s a lot more potent than you’d imagine!

Sevillanas: Locals are known for being rancios – overly traditional – and the only music you’ll hear spilling out of the casetas are rumbas or sevillanas. Sevillanas is a four-part dance in which partners court one another. The basic steps repeat over and over again, but the difficult increases from the first to the fourth parts (and after too much rebujito).

Socio(s): Those with enchufe will likely know socios, or card-carrying members of casetas. Individuals will pay a yearly fee – in addition to whatever they spend – for the maintenance and decor of the caseta. Each one usually elects a president who must hire the food and entertainment, along with the people who erect the tent before the festivities. When the Novio and I were socios, we had to show a special card plus a yearly pass to be able to enter!

Traje de Gitana: Women tend to wear a flamenco dress with ruffles and polka dots, known as a traje de gitana or simply a traje. These garments can cost 500€ or more depending on the fabric, designer and number of ruffles, or volantes, and they are worn with complementos. Some women have multiple dresses so as not to be seen twice in the same traje. The only rule is that the dresses are not worn on the Lunes del Pecaíto.

And a word I taught my Spanish students after my first Alumbrado? Hangover.

Did I miss any words on the list? What are your favorite feria-esque words?

Tapa Thursday: 10 Typical Foods You’ll Eat at the Feria de Abril

I’ll just say it right away – sevillanos do not flock to the Real de la Feria for good eats. In a week dedicated to drinking and dancing, food is often an afterthought and sure to make a dent in your wallet faster than a new traje de gitana or registration for your horse carriage.

What to Eat at the Feria de Sevilla

Each of the marquees, called casetas, have a makeshift kitchen in which a contracted restaurant and bar keeps function. Typical favorites end up on the list in ración forms, so friends usually get together a common purse, known as a bote, to pay for food and drink. Because different restaurants are contracted out to feed them masses, food choices differ between venues. One thing you can expect anywhere, though, is to pay 2-5€ more for a plate of food at the fairgrounds, and beers will run 1.50€

Typical Sevillano

If the fair is a celebration of Andalusian culture, its most typical foods are regional dishes. From meats to fish to creamy salmorejo, eating at the fair means chowing down on hearty dishes synonymous with Southern cuisine.

Pescaíto

The fair officially kicks off with a dinner amongst caseta members, called el pecaíto (peck-eye-ee-toe). Traditionally beginning at 9pm on Monday and ending when the main gate is lit at midnight, fried fish is served. For the rest of the week, you can find friend cuttlefish, monkfish, baby squid and other seafood like shrimp on menus.

choco frito Sol y Sombra

It’s no wonder I always come home reeking like overused olive oil.

Cola de Toro

The bullfighting season in Seville reaches a fever pitch during the festivities, with big names in the taurino world squaring off against horned opponents during daily afternoon faenas. Each part of the beast is then used for something.

Bar Sol y Sombra Cola de Toro

Among one of Seville’s star dishes is cola de toro, or stewed bull’s tail. The tender meat is served still on the bone and with vegetables, often over fried potatoes. If you splurge on one thing at the fair that isn’t jamón, let it be bull tail. 

Solomillo de Whiskey

A dish for the less adventurous, solomillo is a versatile cut of meat from the part of a pig between the lower ribs and the spine. Usually served with a sauce, whisky and garlic is one of the most common ways to serve it. Pro tip: grab some bread and make a sandwich, or mop up the left over oil.

Cash Savers

When the economic crisis hit in 2008, Cruzcampo capitalized on a phenomenal marketing opportunity by turning a sour note into a moment to enjoy sharing food with friends (and a hilarious sevillana).

jamon y queso

Jamón may be delicious, but it’s not wallet-friendly. 

In all of my years in the recinto ferial, I’ve learned a few things about where and what to eat, and how to save money – one year, I even brought a turkey sandwich in my purse and, embarrassed, scarfed it down in the bathroom! I will usually eat one big midday meal at the fair, preferring to eat at home to save money, though the bars will serve food in the wee hours of the morning when you’ve had too much rebujito. It’s also not uncommon to see people eating at restaurants in the area in full Feria garb!

If you’re looking for a cheap way to mop up the booze apart from picos or bags of potato chips, try:

Caldo de Puchero

This warm broth is not only a cheap way to load up on calories during a binge, but local lore says it will also help you coat your stomach to keep drinking. The broth is made from the drippings of pringá meat – blood sausage, chorizo, chicken thigh, a salted bone, lard and morcillo de vaca – with a hint of peppermint.

Tortilla de Patatas

Tapa of Tortilla Española

Spain’s most universal dish is served all around the fair, often for 5€ or so. It’s easy to eat, pairs well with bread and is a good choice for vegetarians, as it’s made of egg, potato and salt, and often has onions or peppers mixed in. A tortilla lover’s condiment of choice is mayonnaise, which is usually available in individual packets.

Montaditos and Pinchos

montaditos

A budget lover’s go-to food at the fair are small sandwiches, montaditos, and meat skewers, or pinchitos. Available for about 1.50 – 2€, you can fill up on pork loin sandwiches and pork or chicken skewers. This will leave you with more money to ride the attractions at Calle del Infierno or invite your friends to another round – the Feria de Sevilla is all about appearances, after all.

For the Goloso

Once you’ve had your fill of savory foods, head to the periphery of the recinto ferial for a cheap dessert. There are sweets stalls standing just outside of the fairground limits, and on the western edge you can find Calle del Infierno, an area dedicated to sugary goodies and rickety looking amusement park rides, ferris wheels and game booths.

I’d just suggest going on the rides before consuming a questionable waffle or plate of churros.

Buñuelos and Churros con Chocolate

There’s nothing better than gooey, fried doughy foods in the middle of the night. Buñuelos are small dough balls with a chocolate, caramel or jelly sauce, whereas churros are long rods of dough that get dipped in hot chocolate.

bunuelo

Apart from the sevillanas music and horse carriages, a staple of the fair is the gypsy family who serves up hundreds of buñuelos an hour, just under the main gate. Even the most presumptious of sevillanos get their sweet fix there, so it’s a prime place for people watching!

Chucherías

Gummy, sugary candies are classified as chucerías, and they come in every imaginable size, shape and flavor. Check out the long ‘chuche brooms’ that are nearly a meter long and challenge yourself to eat one on your walk home.

Beverages

Drinking is a central part of any Andalusian fair, with special drinks taking center stage. You can still get your standard beer, wine, soft drinks and coffee, though sherry wine is drank by the bucketful (and I mean literally – 1/2 liter bottles are served in a bucket full of ice!).

Fino or Manzanilla Sherry

The April Fair has its origins in the livestock trade, though I like to believe it gave locals a good chance to imbibe in sherry wine of the fino sort. Palomino grapes lend a dry flavor to this beverage, which is produced in the Sherry Triangle of Jerez de la Frontera, El Puero de Santa María and Sanlúcar la Barrameda.

fino sherry

Sherry is an acquired taste for many, with fino being a dry taste and a pale appearance, whereas manzanilla is a bit sweeter and darker. When you ask for a bottle at the Feria, you’ll be served a half liter in a bucket of ice and will be asked how many small glasses you’d like. Sherry is meant to be sipped.

Rebujito

If you’re looking for a way to take the bite out of the sherry, mix half a liter with two cans of 7-Up and add ice, and you’ve got rebujito. This drink is crisp, refreshing…and more potent than it looks! 

rebujito at the Feria de Sevilla

A ‘jarra’ of rebujito is about 8-10 euros and served with small plastic glasses. Though it looks like a shot, it’s meant to be sipped and you should probably share it with an amigo. Again, this drink is toxic in large quantities, so you’d do well to order a few montaditos or a tortilla long with it!

Have you ever been to an Andalusian fair? What are your favorite eats? 

I’m what you might call a feriante – I love the April Fair. If you want to learn more, check out these posts:

The Do’s and Don’ts of the Feria | the Feria de Jerez | My Five Favorite Feria de Abril Moments | Buying a Flamenco Dress | Buying Accessories for your Flamenco Dress

Visiting Seville on Two Wheels: a Bike Tour through the City’s Main Sites

My first moment of consciousness was fragrant – the orange blossoms outside my window were finally in bloom, and I could smell spring wafting in between the persianas.

I deliberately left my jacket hanging on a dining room chair, breathing in the azahar and the sizzle off of the pavement as I crossed Triana towards the center of town. On the eve of Holy Week, I would be touring my city on my favorite form of transportation besides my own two feet. 

take a bike tour in Seville

Given that Seville is Spain’s most bike-friendly city and one of the European leaders in two-wheel transportation, it was only a matter of time before cycling tours caught on in the Andalusian capital. Andalucía Tours and Discovery had written me in November to invite me on a tour, and I was finally able to take them up on the offer on the first true day of spring.

Before moving to Europe, I imagined buying an antique bike with a wicker basket and doing my shopping  – a flaky baguette, a dozen apples and fresh cut flowers – by cycling. In reality, I use my bike Feliciano to get to and from work, often arriving sweaty and panting.

Seville Bike City

When I arrived, I was immediately surrounded by around a dozen Dutch tourists (I can’t make this stuff up!), adjusting their bikes in front of ATD’s bike and segway warehouse. I jumped at the chance to leave my rickety bike behind and use one with full tires, fully-functioning brakes and a bell that hadn’t been stolen. Rosalie helped me get my bike adjusted to my height and urged me to have a quick ride around to make sure everything was in tip-top shape.

Andalucia Tours and Discovery Bike Rentals

As someone who sticks to bike lanes whenever possible, I was wary to ride on the streets and sidewalks, especially in such a large group. But them group’s founder, Carlos, had another plan for me: we took off down Santas Patronas, using a pedestrian shortcut to pick up four lost Dutch women and deliver them to the tour group, which had already crossed the Triana bridge.

Bike Tour El Arenal Sevilla

Bike Tour Torre del Oro

The tour was in Dutch and German, so Carlos tagged along to conduct what felt like a private tour. In Plaza del Altozano, he gave me a challenge: ¿Qué no sabes de Sevilla?

As it turned out, plenty. We rode through the narrow alleyways of my neighborhood and he peppered in anecdotes and lore, from architecture to origins.  I continue signing up for tours of my adopted home town for this very reason – a city with more than 2000 years of history is full of secrets.

Bike Tour Barrio Santa Cruz Sevilla

Carlos kept me in good company – as a former school teacher himself, he knows how to keep a crowd entertained – and our conversation drifted from history to Spain’s political climate and everything that has changed in the seven years I’ve been a resident and the seven years he’s owned a small business. In a city whose tourism business is booming, Carlos is ethical and innovative, looking for clients in their own countries and doing things 100% by the book – a far cry in a city whose political corruption is glaringly evident at times.

Tour por bici en Sevilla

Bike Tour Sevilla Patio de las Banderas

Winding through the historic center and the palcos set out for the upcoming processions, we ended up in Patio de las Banderas, sandwiched between Barrio Santa Cruz and the Alcázar palace.

“Do you smell that?” he asked, pointing his nose towards the line of orange trees that had just begun to bloom. “Huelva has the light, Granada has the sights, but Seville is all about the smells.” I breathed in more, immediately sneezing. Spring in Seville is a double-edged sword for allergy-prone people like me.

Carlos pointed out places for me to take a picture of myself with the bike. I was already half a step ahead of him and handing my camera over.

Bike Tour group photo

Nearing the end of the tour, the guide brought us to a bar near Plaza de España to partake in another local pastime: having a drink. The Dutch ladies who had been lost before asked me inquisitively about how it was that I’d ended up in Sevilla.

While that’s a loaded question, I kept it simple: the weather, the cheap beer, and the fact that I can commute to work by bike.

Barrio Santa Cruz Sevilla

A tour on bike is perfect for anyone active, and especially recommendable if you’ve only got a day to see the city’s main sites and want to learn a little bit about them. The tours last around 3.5 hours, can be categorized as easy exercise and costs 25€, 19€ for students, with rental, tour, insurance and a drink included. Find out more about their tours and cultural activities on ATD’s website.

Have you ever been on a cycling tour on your travels?

In the spirit of full disclosure, ATD offered me a free tour. The awkward tanlines and opinions are all my own.

Tapa Thursday: Vermouth

vermouth in Spain

My biggest ambition in life is to become a Spanish abuelo. Who wouldn’t want to spend the days leisurely reading a paper in the bar down the street, sucking down a vermouth while looking adorable? I’ve already got the vermouth obsession down, after all.

My first taste of vermouth was actually on a food tour. I didn’t think I’d learn anything I didn’t know about Spanish cuisine, but an early stop at the Mercado de San Miguel’s vermouth bar proved that I had a lot to learn, and a new favorite beverage.

Vermouth Bar Madrid

Vermouth is making a comeback hard in Spain, much like G&Ts not so long ago. Pop-up bars called vermuterías, tastings and pairings and even the Adrià brothers of El Bullí fame are spearheading a sort of vermouth renaissance. While this beverage never really disappeared, it’s become the drink of choice for hipsters and for me anytime I’m in Madrid or Barcelona.

On my last trip to the Ciudad Condal, I happened upon a small bottega, or local watering hole, where vermouth was poured from a tap in the wall. No frills, no sky-high price tag, despite being a mere 150 meters from tourist hell. The girl behind the bar filled my glass, shoved a few mussels and a toothpick my way and charged me 1,85€. Other patrons trickled in, drinking the sweet wine by the glass or simply asking the bar keep to fill up old water bottles. 

The Novio even came back from the capital with a gift from my soon-to-be familia política recently: a bottle of vermouth with its flavorless soda water.

Vermouth at Cafe Comercial

What it is:  Fortified wine has been drunk for more than three millennia, often for medicinal purposes. Its name comes from the German ‘wermut,’ or wormwood,  

At its most basic, vermouth is a young fortified wine brewed with aromatic herbs like cardamom and and cinnamon and occasionally its namesake, wormwood. Sweet varieties also contain a fair amount of sugar – around 20% – whereas dry vermouths contain less than 4%.

Goes great with: Vermouths come in sweet and dry varieties, but salty snacks like potato chips, cured meats, olives or mussels in azabeche sauce are tart and will offset the sweetness or bring out the dry flavors. Typically, vermouth is consumed much like fino sherry wine in the South – as a before-meal drink, and most often at the weekend.

Where to find it in Seville: I have yet to find vermouth anywhere but the grocery store, and even then, it’s commercially branded martini mixes. I’ve yet to try smaller specialty shops, though sherry seems to be preferred to vermouth in these parts. You can find it for sale in 2.5 liter jugs at Bodegas Salado in nearby Umbrete for 7,20€.

 Are you a vermouth drinker? Any preferred watering holes, whether in Seville or further afield?

Autonomous Community Spotlight: La Rioja

Not one to make travel goals, I did make one when coming to Spain: visit all 17 autonomous communities at least once before going home. While Madrid, Barcelona and Seville are the stars of the tourist dollar show (and my hard-earned euros, let’s not kid around here), I am a champion for Spain’s little-known towns and regions. Having a global view of this country has come through living in Andalucía, working in Galicia and studying in Castilla y León, plus extensive travel throughout Spain.

spain collageI would have been totally clueless about La Rioja unless it was for a Spain-born love of red wine and Liz Carlson’s Young Adventuress blog. And without knowing it, I may have saved some of the best of Spain for last.

Name: La Rioja 

Population: 322,000

La Rioja Collage

Provinces: Just one, with the administrative capital located in Logroño.

When: 17th of 17, December 2012

About La Rioja: Despite having the smallest population in all of Spain, this region packs a lot of punch worldwide because of its wine. Reds, whites and rosés – many of which are celebrated – are manufactured from grapes grown in the vineyards that spain La Rioja and the southern end of the Álava province in País Vasco.

This area was once part of the Roman kingdom of Hispania Tarraconensis, based in modern-day Tarragona. Given its positions between kingdom kingpins like Aragón and León, the area was hotly disputed by even smaller dukedoms, but the Moorish Invasion of 711 meant that La Rioja was soon grouped into the Al-Andalus kingdom.

wine branches in la rioja

After Sancho the Wise swooped in during the early 9th Century of the Reconquista, he claimed the land for the Kingdom of León. After a bitter feud against the Kings of Pamplona-Navarra, La Rioja was given independence as the Kingdom of Viguera before being swallowed up by Pamplona once more.

The region continued to be jockeyed between Pamplona, Aragón, and the soon-united Castilla y León as part of both Soria and Burgos before a new administrative district was formed in 1822 by the Regio reform.

La Rioja got its modern name in 1982 when the Spanish Constitution was passed into law and Autonomous Communities were given more self-governance. The province stands for more than just their cash cow, but for a place where wine is an integral part of the culture.

Oh, and dinosaur footprints have been found here, so toma.

Must-sees: It should come as no surprise that wine is the main attraction in this tiny autonomía. More than 14,000 vineyards and 150 wineries fills the 75 square miles of the Denominación de Origen, whose lifeblood is the snaking Ebro River.

spanish wine

The earliest reference to wine in La Rioja is dated in the late 9th Century, and thanks to the continental Mediterranean climate and a series of peaks and valleys that protect the vineyards from the wind, several highly rated wines have been produced here. The most common grape varieties are tempranillo and garnacha, and the technique of aging wine in oak barrels for at least one year sets wines apart from other Spanish DOs.

You can visit a number of the wineries in La Rioja, particularly in the Álava province and outside of Logroño. We stuck to just a few – Bodegas Darien on the eastern edge of the city, Marqués de Riscal in Eltziego, Laguardia and its underground medieval aging caverns (as well as trippy Bodegas Ysisos) and romantic Haro.

Marques de Riscal winery in Eltziego

Our wine tasting trips were pre-booked and included a guided tour and several tastings afterwards. There are a few bodegas within walking distance of town, as well.

Logroño has a definite small-city feel and served as an excellent home base. We skipped the old town’s few historic sites and instead focused our time on pinchos heaven: Calle Laurel (and its lesser-known counterpart, Calle San Juan). Pinchos are northern Spain’s answer to tapas: simply order a glass of wine and a single serving of food served atop bread, and within a few bars, you’ll be stumbling down the “Path of Elephants.”

tortilla at bar sebas

If you can rent a car, get out of town: Haro and Laguardia are beautifully preserved towns, and a visit to the monasteries of Yuso and Suso means you can get your Spanish nerd on: the first written records of Castillian Spanish are housed here! Apart from that, Roman ruins are scattered around the province and each of the 174 villages seem to have their own flair.

I’m all for Spanish public transportation, but La Rioja is one place to rent a car (so long as you’re not imbibing!).

The town of Assa, La Rioja

A fair number of towns in La Rioja – notably Logroño, Cenicero, Nájera and Santo Domingo de la Calzada – lie on the pilgrim route to Santiago, so expect to run into pilgrims and arrows

My take: Admittedly, my four-day trip to Rioja has a lot of speed bumps. Getting ticketed by cops! Having my cell phone robbed! SO MUCH SPILT WINE! But I loved our venture north, and my companions and I often talk about it being the last weekend hurrah before we got into the heavy adult stuff. 

Wine Tasting at Bodegas Darien

Apart from indulging on Calle Laurel and in little blips of wine towns, we had a chance to not focus on ticking off historical sites or racing to see museums before closing time.

I’ve got a preliminary plan to drive up to Madrid in May and pick up a friend so we can spend a long weekend in Logroño together. After all, eat, drink and be merry!

Have you ever been to La Rioja? What do you like (or not) about it?

Want more Spain? Andalucía | Aragón | Asturias | Islas Baleares | Islas Canarias | Cantabria | Castilla y León | Castilla-La Mancha | Cataluña | Extremadura | Galicia

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