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

Autonomous Community Spotlight: Galicia

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 collageOh goody! I get to talk about one of my favorite places in Spain this month!

Ever since my friend literally stood over me as I looked for fares, then forced me to buy a ticket to La Coruña that I couldn’t afford, I’ve swooned over the northwesternmost province of Spain. Galicia is acutely Spanish while not being very Spanish at all, thanks to its Celtic roots. It’s a land ruled by superstition, by an aversion to long spans of rain along the coast, by plump seafood and white wine. Where stone churches and hórreos stand guard. Where language is sung, not spoken. Where rivers and mountains and forests abound. Where I’ve had one serendipitous experience after another.

camino de santiago in galicia

I’ve spent more time in Galicia than I have in the city where I studied abroad, Valladolid. Coruña is like a second home to me after five summers teaching there. 

Name: Galicia, or Galiza in local gallego

Population: 2.7 million

Galicia Collage

Provinces: Four; A Coruña, Lugo, Ourense, Vigo

When: May 2008, 10th of 17

About Galicia: Galicia is one of those places you’d probably peg as part of Scotland because of its weather and ever-present bagpipes, and the fact that it’s rather isolated – the high-speed trains won’t reach the region until 2017 (or so hey say). I both welcome this and fear it because Galicia is so staunchly suyo, that a boom in tourism may mean losing a little bit of what makes Galicia, Galicia.

mondoñedo galicia camino de santiago

There’s a long version of the story of Galicia, but here’s the short one:

Humans first began inhabiting the northwest corner – mostly north of the Duero River – of the Iberian peninsula in the Middle Paleolithic period slowly and eventually the Iron Age and Castro period. These people were of Celtic origin and called Gallaeci. Eventually becoming part of the Roman Empire and then the Visigoth, these kingdoms have left their mark on Galicia’s history and architecture before eventually falling to the Christian Empire in Northern Spain.

The Middle Ages was a time of  prosperity in Galicia, and even though the region was still under the Crown of León, inhabitants were ruled by seven kings in seven kingdoms that were able to retain their culture and language, though there were bloody conflicts between brotherhoods and kingdoms. Like today, the area was untamed and a bit unruly. Galicia was awarded autonomous status in the 16th Century with the Audencia Nacional, and nowadays, there’s a call for becoming an independent kingdom. Old habits die hard, I guess.

Must-sees: I should really start this section off with must-eats, rather than must-sees. Galicia has a wealth of regional dishes and a thriving tapas culture in its larger cities, so I’d wholeheartedly suggest fasting before heading up there. I’m serious.

typical food in galicia

Let’s start with the seafood. Galicia’s home to 1,500km of coastline, so mussels, crabs, octopus and the much-heralded percebes, or goose barnacles, are prominent on menus. Round up some friends and split a mariscada.

Then there’s the cheese. From smoky San Simón from Lugo and the boob-shaped queso de tetilla, you’re likely to skip dessert (unless you get a slice of Tarta de Santiago, an almond-based cake). Pair it with a crisp but sweet albariño wine which also matches nicely with seafood. Don’t miss Galician-raised beef, pimientos del padrón and collared greens.

Galicia

The majority of the region’s big sites are clustered around the coastal areas, particularly Coruña, Vigo and ancient tourist hotspot, Santiago de Compostela. Inland, the population is more sparse, though there are highlights in natural spaces, sacred areas and larger capitals.

Starting with political capital Santiago de Compostela: the ancient stone streets and cathedral where the remains of Saint James are reputedly buried, many tourists come to Santiago for a taste of Galicia. This UNESCO World Heritage City boasts a number of sites, a train station and an international airport, in addition to being the end of the Pilgrim’s Route to Santiago (though many pilgrims choose to travel to Finisterre). Read my posts about Santiago here.

A Coruña, nicknamed the Crystal City is nearby and sits on the end of a peninsula. Famous for its beaches and galerías (and, uh, the flagship Zara), it’s a bustling city that merits a day. Visit its beaches, the Torre de Hercules lighthouse and Cerro de San Cristóbal for views of the bay. Read more about Coruña here.

islascies3

Vigo is another large city, situated on one of the rías, is famous for its oysters and is the gateway to the Islas Ciès and Portugal to the south. It’s nearby to the much talked about Islas Ciès and its gorgeous beaches.

Inland, Lugo boasts sweeping farmlands and humble hamlets, and the capital retains its medieval city walls, which can be visited. You can also find the Praia As Catedrais – considered one of the most beautiful in Spain – in this province, just a taxi ride away from Ribadeo. Scattered around the region are celtic ruins, great hiking trails and roadside stone churches and cruceiros. Being a near-perfect marriage of sea and land, your time in Galicia should be spent outdoors (so long as the rain holds off!).

My take: My first taste of Galicia was a milanesa from fabled tapas bar La Bombilla in La Coruña.  We ordered enormous croquetas and juicy hunks of tortilla, served to us on plastic plates by seriously rotund women who had probably spent the better part of their lives in that kitchen. Everyone seemed…happy. Maybe it’s because they were eating and drinking, because I was grinning right along with them. Because, Estrella Galicia.

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I actually credit Galicia with opening up my severely limited taste palate to seafood. I swallowed mussels and octopus at an alarming rate that weekend. The rain held off so we could wade into the frigid waters at the Playa del Orzán, and we sipped gigantic and cheap rum and Fantas at dimly lit alternative bars. I vowed to come back, and soon after, I swapped a teaching position in the islands to return to Galicia. It rained all summer. I loved it.

For five continuous summers I risked the rain for three or four weeks in Coruña, and it’s quickly become one of my favorite cities in Spain. So many of my most treasured Spain memories – watching Spain win the World Cup in 2010, staying out all night at the Saint James Feast in Santiago, walking the Camino – have taken place out here.

Doing the Camino de Santiago through Galicia

Seriously – my ideal Spain is a hybrid between vibrant Andalucia (and its weather) and offbeat Galicia. 

Have you ever been to Galicia? 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

Photo Post: A Visit to the Seville Cathedral Rooftop

There are some things in Seville that don’t need any further explanation – a cotton candy sunset over Triana, Plaza de España’s beautiful tile benches, the dreamy chords and staccato of a flamenco performance.

And then there’s the largest Gothic cathedral in the world and its stunning minaret. Visiting the rooftop has long been on my to-do list, and even with a guide recounting the history, lore and practicality of the temple, the views of La Hispalense needed no explanation.

Florentino met us at Puerta de San Miguel, adjacent to Avenida de la Constitución. It was a busy Saturday evening, and the streets were clogged with families and street performers. Once we’d stepped inside – our guide with an enormous key and soft feet – we’d get ground rules: watch your step, stay with the group, and don’t touch any wires.

The massive cathedral of Seville

We climbed a winding staircase, worn down by more than 600 years of history. Etched Stars of David, rhombuses and other figures were a testament to the 100 years it took to build the cathedral once the city was reconquered. It was dark and cramped, but we emerged just over the sacristy, affording us views of Plaza de Virgen de los Reyes below.

The Giralda

cathedral in seville

For someone who has climbed the Giralda and visited the cathedral itself two dozen times, I didn’t think the building and anchor any touristic route would hold much mystery. 

Florentino reminded us to watch our step as I nearly tripped over a stone pod on the uneven surface. These devices were used as weights for the reliquia below – statues, paintings and even old altarpieces were hoisted using this archaic system.  So, there, I learned something. He pointed out features in the building process, from the stained glass to the buttresses, navigated a labyrinth of staircases, rooms and small patios.

sunset from the seville cathedral

sunset Seville Spain

When you’ve admired the sprawling cathedral from below, it’s incredible to see the details up close. So close, in fact, that I received a shock from wires designed to keep pigeons away. Oops, broke rule three.

We climbed and climb, retracing the Latin cross as Florentino recounted the 500 chapels below our feet and lore about the construction and consecration of the cathedral. Like everyone else, I gasped when we reached the highest point of the tour.

The Giralda Tower Seville

We were just a few yards from the Giralda, and climbed up the dome of the sacristy to contemplate the tower. Along with the Patio de los Naranjos, the minaret is a trace of the mosque that stood here until the reconquest in the 12th century.

Rooftop tour of the cathedral

Entering the temple shortly after, we walked behind the organ on a small walkway that could only accommodate you if you squeezed by, careful not to trip over the wires that light the naves. I had lost Florentino’s voice by now, but that hardly mattered.

Stained glass at the Seville Cathedral

rosette window in the catedral de sevilla

Once back on the ground, I could truly appreciate the immensity of the cathedral and its importance in Seville lore and history. The church built to inspire all those who see it to think that the architects and commissioners must have been crazy. Crazy, maybe.

If you go: Conocer Sevilla runs weekly visits to the cathedral rooftop – called the Cubertizo de la Catedral. Tours are about 90 minutes, cost 12 per person and it’s recommendable to wear comfortable clothing, as surfaces are unsteady and there is a bit of climbing involved. For more information and reservations, check Conocer Sevilla’s webpage.

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I visited the cathedral as part of the Typical NonSpanish project with Caser Expat. For more on the project, visit their webpage or find them on twitter.

Seville Videoshots: The Mercadillo de Belenes

It’s been a while since I’ve focused a Monday snapshot on Seville – I’ve simply had too many other things to write about, and planning a Spanish-American wedding can get consuming. In fact, I was a downright Scrooge about my holidays, as other commitments had me working and not enjoying the Christmas lights downtown or traditional Christmas dinners.

Seville's Nativity Market

A foiled attempt to run a few last errands before the holiday gave me about 20 minutes to explore one of my favorite fixtures to a sevillana Christmas: the mercadillo de Belenes. Belén is the Spanish name of the city where Jesus Christ was born, and the so-named nativity scenes go from basic with just the Holy Family to full-blown towns with running water and animatronics.  

 

While our sorry excuse for a Christmas tree barely has ornaments, let alone a fancy nativity, I’m greatly looking forward to building one, beginning with the Holy Family and the animals.

Have you been to any sweet Christmas markets?

Tapa Thursdays: Seville’s Newest Gastrocultural Offering, the Mercado Lonja del Barranco

Gourmet Markets in Seville

In a city renowned for tapas culture, more and more foodie-friendly offerings are popping up. From wine tasting packages and jamón cutting courses to ethnic bars and even a midday flamenco show, I’d thought I’d seen it all in Seville when it came to merging food and culture (hello, my favorite parts of blogging).

Then ex-bullfighter Fran Rivera (also the ex-son-in-law of the Patrona of Seville, Cayetana de Alba) pumped money into a gourmet food market in a century-old building. While mercados and plazas de abastos are nothing new to la vida cotidiana in Spain, places like La Boquería and Mercado San Miguel are becoming tourist destinations in other cities, and Rivera and business partner Carlos Herrera are jumping on Spain being a foodie haven (and anyway, people have to eat).

Mercado Lonja del Barranco Sevilla

Mercado Lonja del Barranco opened in late November to crowds, to rain, to runaway success. Housed in a glass and wrought iron building that served as a fish market until 40 years ago, the space has 20 different puestos featuring regional goodies, as well as half a dozen free-standing food carts and a Cruzcampo beer station that allows you to sample recently-brewed beer.

Each puesto has a specialty item, like acorn-fed ham, salmorejo or the mythical Spanish omelette, and there are a few cocktail or wine bars. And much like the Corte Inglés Gourmet Experience, several local restaurants have set up shop.

Mercado Lonja del Barrando creative space

Mercado Lonja del Barranco

The result is a chaotic but bright and lofty space with impeccable decoration, though seating is limited indoors and there is not rhyme or reason to the set up – it feels like a maze, even when empty. It’s less market and more fancy schmancy food hall, but the Mercado de Triana is right across the Puente Isabel II should you need fresh vegetables or a craft beer.

seafood markets in Seville

People at a Spanish market

food offerings at mercado lonja del barranco sevilla

The Novio and I met some friends on a Friday night shortly after the market opened. Even with rain clouds threatening, the place was packed to the (iron) gills. We found a table outside and just ordered a few beers, unwilling to sidle up to anywhere but a beer tap. While the food offerings looked incredible, there were far too many people to really enjoy the experience. As I’ve passed by in subsequent days, the market remains busy but the novelty has worn off a bit – perfect for sampling tapas or ordering sushi to go.

If you go: Mercado Lonja del Barranco is open daily from 10am until midnight; open until 2am on Friday and Saturday. Prices are variable, but expect a minimum of 10€ a head. The market plans to open cultural offerings, such as workshops and theatre, in the future. Check their webpage for more.

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I visited the Mercado Lonja del Barranco as part of the Typical Non Spanish project with Caser Expat. The power the experience, I enjoy and write about it in my own words. All opinions are my own.

What’s your favorite gourmet market in Spain?

The Anatomy of a Cesta de Navidad

When my very first cesta de navidad arrived, wrapped up in cellophane and emblazoned with Corte Inglés publicity, I excitedly ripped open the top of the box and dug out the contents of the box.

I was literally a kid on Christmas morning, just three weeks early.

Many companies and organizations give pre-packaged Christmas baskets to their employees during the holiday. They’re also raffled off at bars and hermandades for a few euros, but they all have two things in common: edibles and booze.

cestas de navidad el corte ingles

In my first cesta, I received four bottles of wine, one of whiskey and one of anisette, plus enough cured meat to tide me over until Easter. Baskets also include typical Christmas sweets, cheeses, conservas like bonito or white asparagus and an interesting brick of something called a “Christmas Broth.” Contents are neatly packed up and shipped out to the tune of anywhere from around 20€ and up to 300€! 

While my Christmas shopping usually consists of plane tickets to spend the holidays somewhere with my parents, this year I’ll be flying home for wedding planning. Rather than scramble for gifts amidst other scrambled shoppers, I decided to make a twist on the traditional Christmas basket by bringing my favorite and American-palatte-approved goodies home in ceramics.

What is in a Spanish gift basket

Because, really, what do you get the woman who has it all (as far as Spanish souvenirs go) and is picky? 

My American-Tastes-and-Customs-Friendly-While-Still-Being-Andalusian Cesta de Navidad:

1 50g sachet of saffron – 5€

Cesta de navidad saffron

The same amount of azafrán in the US costs $16, so I was thrilled to find it wrapped up nicely!

1 220g package of Andalusian oranges covered with chocolate and olive oil – 5€

cesta de navidad chocolate covered oranges

Everyone in my family but me are chocoholics, and these oranges are representative of Seville, with the olive oil giving it an appropriate amount of acidity.

1 300g orange marmalade spread – 4,50€

cesta de navidad orange marmelade

Naranjos abound in Seville, and the oranges collected from them are made into bitter orange marmalade. Nuns at the Santa Paula monastery make this particular type, and peddle it out of their turnstiles.

1 250mL tin of Basilippo Arbequina extra virgin olive oil – 8€

cesta de navidad Andalusian olive oil

Basilippo is an award-winning brand of extra virgin olive oil planted, harvested and pressed in nearby El Viso del Alcor.  The arbequina olive it’s made from is known for its suave and balanced taste.

1 package of Ines Rosales Tortas de Aceite with cinnamon and sugar – 2,50€

cesta de navidad Ines Rosales cakes

Tortas de Aceite have been around for ages, and Ines Rosales is an international superstar when it comes to producing them just outside of Seville. Other varieties include savory with rosemary and sea salt, or made with oranges.

Assorted lard-free polverones – 2€

mantecados de estepa

I’m not a fan of these crumbly cookies, which are ubiquitous with Christmas in Spain. The most common version are made from manteca, or pig’s lard, which is a no-no with customs in the US. I found some piggy-free varieties at Ines Rosales.

6 Cola Cao individual packages – 1,43€

cesta de navidad Cola Cao

The bright yellow plastic canisters are a Spanish kitchen staple, and I love the powdery goodness of Cola Cao every Sunday with my churros. Rather than buying the canister, you can get individual packets just like at a bar.

1 package of Suchard turrón with whole almonds – 2,94€

cesta de navidad suchard

Spanish Christmas sweets let me down, but chocolate turrón is practically a gigantic candy bar. The normal stuff is nougat, made only with sugar, egg whites and honey.   

3 individual bottles of Frexienet cava – 3,99€

cesta de navidad champagne

These small bottles of cava are festive and perfect for toasting the new year at midnight on New Year’s Eve. And they’re easy to carry and open!

3 individual tetra bricks of Don Simón red wine – 1,35€

cesta de navidad don simon

I’m the only wine drinker in my family, so these miniature tetras are for novelty more than anything! Plus, customs is getting stricter on how much alcohol you can bring back, and it must be claimed on your customs form.

1 jar of pimientos de piquillo – 1€

cesta de navidad pimientos de piquillo

For whatever reason, I thought that pimientos de piquillo would make a good gift for a dad who loves to experiment with recipes. If all else fails, I don’t think they’ll go bad any time soon!

San Vicente semi-cured cheese – 3,65€

Cesta de navidad hard cheese

Meats are a big no with customs, but hard and semi-hard cheeses are totally fine. My sister loves any sort of stinky cheeses, and this is one gift I’m glad to get in on!

2 bottles of Taïfa beer – 4,40€

cesta de navidad local beer

My family members are big beer drinkers, so I picked up some local Taïfa cervezas from the Mercado de Triana. 

And to put it all together, 1 ceramic bowl – 12€

cesta de navidad ceramics

All that extra weight cost me 50.05€ for each cesta. 

I added little touches of things I’d known would be hits, such as black-and-white old photos of Seville for my parents, a tub of Nutella for my sister (not Spanish, but what everyone equates with European snack food) and a Spanish heavy metal CD for my brother-in-law.

Noticeably absent are the meats, the fish and the olives, but why transport things home that could get me in trouble with customs, or go uneaten?

Are you decking the halls, or are you more of a Scrooge? More on Christmas in Spain: Spanish Christmas Sweets | My Favorite Spanish Christmas TraditionsSnapshots of the Reyes Magos

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