April 25, 2013 - Posted by Erin in Food and wine, Spain, Travel, Travels in Europe, Travels in Spain

Camel races are a good time, to be sure, but after a trip to relatively alcohol-free Dubai, my mother and I needed to follow up with some wine. What better place to do the trick than a couple of days in Spanish wine country?

Truth is, though, that pretty much all of Spain is wine country — head in any direction and you’ll end up in one of the 62 (!) official Spanish wine regions (called denominaciones de origen, or DO’s). But on this trip we had our sights set on undoubtedly the nation’s most famous wine region, la Rioja, and, more precisely, a return to one of the country’s – and the world’s – most prestigious hotels, Marqués de Riscal.

Do you recognize it? Unless you’ve been under an architecture rock (totally possible), the structure’s undulating steel panels might seem a little familiar. Perhaps they remind you of the artsy exterior of the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, or maybe the Walt Disney Concert Hall in downtown Los Angeles, just to name a few.

Designed by revered architect Frank Gehry, the Marqués de Riscal Hotel was built in 2006 as an addition to its namesake winery, located in the miniature pueblo of Elciego. Its goal: to raise awareness around wine and the region, and also of course to increase visits to the winery itself. And oh boy, has it ever worked: Annual visits have surged from a humble 5,000 (pre-hotel) to over 60,000. It worked for me too, I guess, as I’ve stayed there twice now and can only hope that we’ll go back again one day (fingers crossed!).

Apart from lounging around in our rad hotel room while spying the Elciego Cathedral from a cushy bed, we also went on a tour of the winery’s bodegas, and even ventured outside of town to some of our other favorite La Rioja spots.

First was the pueblo of Laguardia, which sits precariously on a maze of bodegas and, as such, cars aren’t permitted to traverse the fragile, walled city.

Then we headed to the village of Ezcaray to do a little shopping (undoubtedly my mother’s favorite pastime). There, we stopped by the Mantas Ezcaray workshop to peruse its shelves, which bulge with rainbow-hued scarves and fuzzy blankets (many of which are exported around the world and sold at much higher prices!).

On my last visit to Ezcaray, I stayed at Casa Masip (pictured above) and dined at Michelin-star-rated Echaurren — both recommended, especially the restaurant, which is one of my favorites in Spain.


And that was my mom’s trip to Spain (and beyond, really): Dubai, La Rioja, and even quick visits to Segovia and La Granja. Next up: My father will be making his second and much-anticipated visit to Europe. Stay tuned for more family adventures, but next time — I’m guessing — without the camels.

April 12, 2013 - Posted by Erin in Books, Food and wine, Madrid, Spain

Yes, Plaza Mayor is lovely, and checking out the world’s oldest restaurant, El Botín, at least once is pretty cool too, but, like any good traveler must know, these types of places rarely are local favorites. With that in mind, here are a few of the spots that I frequent the most, and that typically don’t make it on to the tourist radar.

Coffee and work
On any given day, you’ll find me hanging out at (loitering?) the cafés of Madrid’s Malasaña neighborhood, bumming off free WiFi and sipping on a comforting cup of joe. My favorite, favorite spot is Pepe Botella, where the old-school café serves up their caps with a tasty cookie (which is really all that it takes to win me over). Other favorites include Tipos Infames, where I can surround myself with literary inspiration in the bookstore/wine bar/café/art gallery, and La Bicicleta for its wide open space and occasional early-morning hip-hop music (right up there with cookie-awesomeness). Finally, if you’re just looking for coffee (even coffee grounds) and don’t give a rip about WiFi, head to Toma Cafe; what I consider to be the epicenter of emerging coffee culture in Madrid.



Shop
I’m not going to lie: I don’t shop a lot in Spain. I find most clothing (save for shoes!) to be overpriced and/or under quality, at least in comparison to what I can find back home. That said, I never pass up an opportunity to visit Maxi at Antigua Casa Crespo. In his 150-year-old family shop, he and his wife sell the ultimate Spanish summer shoe: the alpargata (AKA the espadrille). Available in loads of styles and colors, the 100% made-in-Spain shoes cost — if you can believe it — under 10 euros for the basic style. Between the shoes and the friendly service, I never tire of going back for more. (Read more about Antigua Casa Crespo in the article I wrote here.)

Eat
My mouth-watering go-to is always La Ardosa – I just can’t ever get enough of their juicy tortilla, which I’m convinced must taste better given the Spanish-tiled walls and dusty-bottle-covered shelves. Then, when it comes to market experiences, I’m afraid I can’t hang with El Mercado de San Miguel (sorry!) – it’s nice, really, but jam-packed with people (eh hem, tourists), which I find not so fun. Instead I go to El Mercado de San Antón (especially for a nice selection of croquetas) or to Mercado de la Paz, where I can marvel at fresh produce and have my pick of pastries. Finally, for a proper sit-down meal, I go for the funky and inventive plates at La Gabinoteca.

See
My favorite somewhat-hidden spot to see is the Museo Sorolla, an inner-city mansion-meets-museum that houses the work of Valencia-born artist Joaquín Sorolla. Once his home, the museum is still furnished with his belongings, making it a lot more inviting than its other art-filled counterparts. And what I especially love are the gardens — free to enter, and filled with flowers and fountains, they remind me of a mini Andalucian paradise.

So now you tell me: What are you favorite spots in Madrid or in your city?

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