“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines, sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.” -Mark Twain

Monday, July 27, 2015

This is 40: Spain Edition

My family traveled the world when they were young, long before I was born.  My travel bug was inherited from my Oma and Opa who lived in Europe and toted the kids around nearly every weekend to the far corners of the continent.  Many of my mother's souvenirs were dolls in traditional national dress from each country they visited.  Growing up, I was drawn to one doll in particular.  She had a veil of black lace, an elaborate dress, and tiny wooden castanets in each hand.  She was from Spain.  As I grew up, Cabbage Patch Dolls were becoming popular.  Perhaps I was about 8 years old when I asked my dad for one.  But not just any Cabbage Patch Doll... oh no, I wanted one from the World Traveler collection, the Spanish Matador, complete with passport.

At the same time, I was immersing myself in Egyptology.  One day I would visit, and I made that dream come true in 2006.  Now, there was a second dream that I had yet to realize.  This dream was Spain.  I'll never be able to explain why my heart was drawn to Spain.  In junior high, I was picking out my high school courses, eager to enroll in classes that the "big kids" got to take.  The language courses were French and Spanish.  Growing up in a French-Canadian city in Rhode Island, I had heard enough French (everybody calm down, I'm fully aware of the difference between Quebecois French and Parisian French), and what would be come a personality trait - choosing a path contrary to popular opinion - I quickly enrolled in Spanish.

This year I turn 40, and I wanted this trip to be somewhat different than the ones I've taken in the past.  Sightseeing would be secondary.  Spain has a lot going for it these days.  They've been rescued from a Greek-like economic disaster.  Although unemployment remains dramatically high, the economy needs our dollars.  The ETA has laid down arms, opening the Basque country to the world.  The Euro is lowest against the Dollar than has been seen in years.  Spain boasts more Michelin-starred restaurants per capita than any other country in the world, namely in the very same Basque country.  With so many restaurants on the World's Top 50 list, it was high time that we spent our time and money on gastronomic tourism.  And what goes well with food?  Wine.  Spanish wine.  Rioja and cava.  And it shall be done.

We have spent years discussing, and 5 months of planning, as we're mere weeks away from our two-week Spanish adventure.  We won't be experiencing the land of flamenco, paella, or gypsy singing.  We won't be climbing the citadel walls of Toledo, or - sadly this time - not basking in the beauty of the Alhambra.  It's been decided that we'll need to make multiple visits to Spain.  This time, our journey is through the tapas bars, vineyards, world-renowned restaurants, cider houses, seaside shellfish towers, cava on the Mediterranean, and enough jamon to survive the zombie apocalypse and then some.  It is about viniculture and food.  With a little Gehry, Picasso, Dali, Gaudi, and Goya thrown in for good measure.  How did we get here?  And how did we decide where to go, with so many wine options in Spain?

It's no secret to those close to us that we're fans of good food and wine.  We try to take advantage of every opportunity to collect knowledge from an expert.  We had success with this plan before, so at the beginning of our dinner at Alinea late last year, we asked the sommelier for recommendations to wineries in northeastern Spain that we should visit.  By the end of our dinner, he presented us with a list of his favorite bodegas in the Rioja, Penedes, and Priorat regions.  Bingo: We had a place to start our trip planning!  A wine and food tour of Spain based some of Chicago's very own recommendations.  Next Restaurant is currently "playing" their Tapas menu, based on Achatz' and Beran's tapas research with some of Spain's legendary chefs.  Yeah, so... their Twitter feed was also a solid base for restaurant recommendations.

I urge you to follow along on this adventure.  We'll be two gals in a car (!) on a Spanish road trip through cities, farmland, from Atlantic to Mediterranean, and through the Pyrenees.  Our journey begins in Madrid, where, after our chance at a siesta, we'll start our vacation immediately with a guided tapas tour.  This will give us the lay of the land, er, tapas bars, to get our bearings on how to order, what to order, how to pay, and how to blend in.  Our total three days in Madrid will likely involve a visit to the Prado and Reina Sofia museums, the Royal Palace, the Temple of Deblod (yay, Egyptian!), and definitely involve more tapas, late dinners, and even later churros con chocolate.  And shopping.  My Desigual card is ready to go.

The car trip begins when we drive north out of Madrid and head to Elciego, in the heart of La Rioja
Marques de Riscal
wine country, to stay at the Marques de Riscal winery, with the hotel designed by Frank Gehry (who also designed Chicago's Pritzker Pavilion). We booked a package deal here for one night's stay, tour of the winery, tasting menu in their Michelin-star restaurant, and breakfast.  And more wine.  Maybe squeeze in some time in the spa.  With wine.  Maybe we'll be too busy with the wine.  This is our birthday treat to ourselves, as Carrie and I are both 40 this year and this is our dual celebration trip.  One night in Riscal is enough for our pocketbooks, so the next day we head further up Rioja country to the heart of the region, Haro.  We have a tour and tasting booked at Lopez de Heredia, which is partners with the Guggenheim Museum (more Gehry!) in Bilbao, so we'll collect our free tickets here.  We'll also try to find some time to book tastings in town at Muga, Cune, La Rioja Alta, and/or Ramon Bilbao.  Perhaps one of the most interesting accommodations we booked is in Haro, at Los Augustinos, a hotel built in the 1300s that also used to be a convent, military garrison, and hospital.

Our next move brings us to the very heart of the culinary world, in San Sebastian.  We haven't booked anything outside of meals in this town because, well, we're here to eat.  The food is the star.  One afternoon lunch has us booked at Arzak, the #17 restaurant in the world, which has maintained 3 Michelin stars for a record 30 years.  We'll leave the evening open to tapas-hopping (tapeando?), followed by another stellar lunch the next day at Extebarri, located in the hillsides outside Bilbao.  I was on the fence about eating here, until I met the rep from Ramon Bilbao winery at the Rioja Wine and Tapas festival in Chicago (research!), and he insisted we visit.  I'm all for meat cooked over an open fire, which is what Extebarri, #13 in the world, is known for.  We'll use our free passes at the Guggenheim this day, then head back to San Sebastian to lay around the famous beach and attack more tapas before we head out of town to visit a sagardotegia, which is Basque for "cider house."  From what we've learned, hard cider has been brewed in this region for hundreds of years.  Fans of cider that we are, we're not passing up this opportunity.  I might change my tune after driving in Spanish traffic, but so far I'm happy we'll be renting a car so we can explore so many of these special places.

At this point in the trip, a mini-vacation likely be necessary, so we'll be high-tailing it through Pamplona and Zaragosa on the way to Sitges, which is a seaside resort on the Mediterranean, just south of Barcelona.  We were sold on the beachfront hotel when they noted cava was free with breakfast.  Easy like Sunday morning.  Beach and bubbly and some relaxation will recharge us for the rest of the trip.  A pass through cava country in Penedes on the way to Barcelona will allow some time for tastings (shaking things up a bit from red wine and cider).  We'll be in Barcelona during the Catalan national holiday, so we're looking forward to what festivities we'll run into.  We'll likely keep our sightseeing here to the Picasso Museum and La Sagrada Familia, focusing on leisurely lunches and more tapas.  Carrie found a most-excellent hotel with a bakery in the lobby, so waking up to fresh baked-bread will be an added bonus.

Our last day will be a morning drive back to Madrid to catch our flight to Berlin for the night.  Berlin.  Yeah.  Didn't see that one coming?  We both used frequent flyer miles for flights (and for the car rental), so connecting in Berlin back to Chicago was $283 cheaper in taxes than connecting in London.    We don't care that Berlin isn't on the way back, or a bit out of the way.  That's $283 saved.  That's a good meal out.

So there you have it.  Our 40th year birthday celebration in Iberia.  I owe my Oma and Opa an apology for not visiting Toledo (which they spoke so highly of) or making a swing through Portugal or the Costa del Sol while we're there, as we only have 2 weeks, but I do thank them for the spirit of travel that I only began to appreciate as an adult.