Travels in Spain

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.

November 28, 2012 - Posted by Erin in Spain, Travel, Travels in Asia, Travels in Europe, Travels in Spain, Trips to the US

Sometimes you meet a soul friend — a person that, with very few words or encounters, you just feel like you’ve known for a lifetime. My friend Candace is one of those people.

It might seem like a cheesy term, I suppose — soul friend — but there’s really no better way to describe our friendship. We first met two years ago at a travel-blogging conference in Copenhagen. Both feeling somewhat out of our element, we formed an instant bond over the spontaneity of chasing down a horse-drawn carriage that was delivering the season’s Christmas beer. Sporting illuminated blue Santa caps, we toyed with the idea of a future get-together (Spain, perhaps?) but, like most chance meetings, she could have very well just ended up being one of many Facebook friends that I “met that one time when I was traveling.”

That wouldn’t be the case for us, though. A year and a half and several sporadic emails later, and Candace messaged me to say she was finally thinking about coming to Spain. Not just to visit, though, but to do the Camino de Santiago.

Hmmm, I thought, the Camino.

The idea danced in my head, both tempting and terrifying me. I didn’t have any gear, I’m not a backpacker (far from it), and I barely knew Candace. But the time was right and the Camino called.

So I went, and I had one of the most moving experiences of my life. We stayed in grungy albergues (hostels along the Camino), ran through frigid poring rain, and lamented over gnarly foot injuries. We cried, we laughed, we complained, and we covered not only ground, but probably every discussable subject possible. We saw magic on that trip in the people we met, in the pain (both physical and emotional), and in the triumph of powering through it all to arrive at our destination.

And then Candace was off again, to the States and then to India (her new home, if you can believe it). “Yes, yes, I will see you in India,” I said with the same certainty as our first conversation in Denmark, aware that only time would tell when or how our paths would cross next.

Indeed, our next chance encounter wouldn’t be in India, but instead in San Francisco. My flight was already booked home last summer when Candace told me she would be in the North Bay for a writing conference. “Will you be there? Would you like to come?” she asked on the off chance I’d be around and interested. My answer was a resounding “yes” (or more like: “You’re what?!!!? When??!! Yes!!!!!).

Even better, with the event taking place in a tiny town, she not only needed transport, but a place to stay. So for several days, we held slumber parties at my friend’s house in San Francisco, and commuted each morning through the ethereal fog engulfing the Golden Gate. Once again we saw magic: magic in the conference, magic in spending time together in a third country (our country!), and magic in the serendipity of it all.

But alas, this trip too would end with no guarantee of when our worlds would intersect once more. Again, I vowed that I’d come visit her in India, knowing that logistically many stars would have to align (those stars being my budget, timing, and more of my budget).

Of course those stars lined up just like Orion’s belt. Not only would Candace be free in November, as would I — perhaps the very best time of year to visit India — but I was able to buy a plane ticket with miles! In fact, my whole trip to India would cost me a sum total of roughly $400 (flight, visa, food, souvenirs and (free) lodging). The travel and friendship gods must have really been smiling down on us, especially since silly me didn’t realize I needed a visa until just nine business days before the trip, when it was supposed to take ten days to process; it only took seven.

And off to India I went, where our next adventure would begin.

When Candace and I parted at the airport last Friday, we embraced, knowing that even though we have no idea when we’ll see each other next, that it will happen, and there will be magic.

Thank you, Hammie Hamster, for another amazing journey!

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October 31, 2012 - Posted by Erin in Spain, Travel, Travels in Europe, Travels in Spain

This week, I bring you a guest post from Agness; a Polish vagabond who, after graduating in 2011, left her comfort zone, setting off for the journey of a lifetime to China. She has been constantly traveling the world since then, living like a local for less than $25 a day. She has become passionate about photography and adventure blogging, sharing her enthusiasm for life as well as her travel experiences.


The Rock of Gibraltar: You’ve probably heard the name before, but how much do you know about it? Did you know that it’s home to some 300 monkeys? Or that it’s the perfect place to try both traditional Spanish and British cuisine? Or that it offers up adventure on the cheap? Allow me to introduce you.


Where is Gibraltar?
Gibraltar (meaning “The Rock”) is an overseas territory of the United Kingdom (yes, the citizens of Gibraltar are British people so you don’t have to worry about the language barrier), which sits at the entrance to the Mediterranean Sea. Moreover, it is also bordered by Spain to the north, so you can easily border hop by car or foot to carry on your travel adventures. Most of the visitors land in Spain to get to Gibraltar, but you can also fly there.

Why did I go and how long did I spend there?
My two friends (Cez and Barbara) and I rented a car in Malaga and drove all the way to see Gibraltar. We slept in the car and parked outside of the “Rock,” so that we could do it cheaply and comfortably — let’s face it, at only a short walk away, Spain has more space for parking lots and hostels, and is therefore a lot more budget friendly. We spent one whole day in Gibraltar, which — despite its small size — may not have been enough. There’s definitely more for me to see when I visit next time.

Why should you visit Gibraltar?
Gibraltar is one of a kind: It’s small and intense, expensive on hostels and cheap on duty-free, tiny on the map and huge on sightseeing. It’s got it all.


Things to See and Do on a Budget

1. Exploring St. Michael’s Cave
St. Michael’s Cave is a stunning natural grotto attracting a million visitors each year. The cave formations are colourfully lit, and travellers can read displays documenting the caves’ history. The entrance ticket is £10 ($16) and you can spend a whole day there if you wish to.

2. Watching monkeys in the Upper Rock Nature Reserve
The Upper Rock Nature Reserve is a great place to see wildlife as well as numerous plant species that are rare or unknown elsewhere in the world. Moreover, the scenery seen from the top is simply breathtaking. Be careful as there are plenty of cheeky monkeys around trying to steal a wallet or a piece of jewellery from you!

3. Shopping
While, you may think that such a small destination might have not-so-small prices, this is not actually the case in Gibraltar. Because of its political stance, it serves as a duty-free heaven for shoppers from around the world. Although the British Pound is the official currency, dollars, euros and other currencies will be happily accepted by shop-owners.

Where should you stay?
I am a budget traveller, hence I would not recommend staying in Gibraltar. Within just a 30-minute walk, you can be in Spain, where accommodation prices are much more attractive.

What and where should you eat?
Gibraltar is full of food and booze (British influence maybe?). Cafes, pubs and bars are scattered all over the place and will look very tempting on a hot Mediterranean day. You should not leave Gibraltar without a full English breakfast!


What’s the best way to get around?
A pair of trainers or sandals will do just fine. It’s a small place and everything is within walking distance. Nevertheless, I would recommend getting a cable car when you go to the top of the Upper Rock Nature Reserve. And, since the way back is easy and picturesque, you may as well just walk again.

Now that you’ve become acquainted with the famous rocky mass that is Gibraltar, I suggest you get to know it in person. With a mixture of adventure, cultures and scenery, it’s a European stop that shouldn’t be missed.

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The eTramping blog

July 19, 2012 - Posted by Erin in Food and wine, Spain, Travel, Travels in Europe, Travels in Spain

You didn’t think I was done talking about food in Montseny, did you? Not a chance. Actually, though, in this post we’re going to skip all the chit-chat and instead cut straight to the photos.

Below, feast your eyes on the museum-of-modern-art-worthy plates that I ate (and ate and ate) at Les Magnolies in the Girona region of Montseny. It was imaginative and decadent and, more than anything, a sight to see. So, without further ado, I present you with another calorie-free journey through food.


Anchovies that aren’t exactly anchovies, but instead a crunchy cracker-like outside filled with a fishy interior.

This “cappuccino” is a soup-style mixture of squash and anis, while the muffin is made of anchovies and oats. Honestly, I didn’t even know that until now (when translating the Catalan menu) — as weird as it sounds, it was positively divine.

Oh yes, that’s what it looks like. A baby scallopburger served with a side of fish and seaweed broth. Exactly what you guessed, right?

White asparagus with a farm-fresh egg, and jamón (and other things that I can only assume are laced with addictively delicious substances). This was probably my favorite dish — it was such a perfect mixture of flavors, temperatures and textures.

Vall d’Arbucies peas (code for “awesome,” I think) with stewed mushrooms. Ahhh, Catalonia and its beloved mushrooms! The fungi alone are enough to make me swoon.

Fish with onion, tocino (Spanish for “pig fat that goes straight to your booty”) and laurel. It tasted just as pretty as it looked.

Their award winning “best restaurant dessert 2011,” called gin-tonic. It was intoxicatingly good.

Apricot, verbena gelato, and other things I ate but have no idea what they are.
Honestly, this shouldn’t even be legal.

PS: These represent only half of the dishes served that night. I might still be full.

*Disclosure: I traveled through Montseny as a guest of Turístics Montseny. Rest assured that I’m keeping it real – all opinions are entirely my own. Don’t believe me? To read reviews about each place we stayed, ate at, and went, please click here.

[travelist location=”Carrer de Passeig de Mossen Antoni Serres 7, Arbucies, Spain” type=”img” url=”http://www.latortugaviajera.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/07/IMG_3781.jpg”]

July 13, 2012 - Posted by Erin in Food and wine, Spain, Travel, Travels in Europe, Travels in Spain, Video

Admittedly, blog trips can be a little perplexing. All of our hosts share their food, hotels and products with such love, that I finish the trip overwhelmed with gratitude, full of food, and with my eyes a bit crossed. In the end, it seems near impossible to pass all the experiences on to my readers, lest my blog posts turn into nothing but one large promotion. Beyond that, it often leaves little room for me to really highlight the places I loved, mention those I liked a little less, or even provide fair critiques.

Perplexed by this, I spent the final night of last trip dando vueltas (tossing and turning) over the issue. But somewhere between 1am and 2am in the morning, I had an epiphany and decided that I would provide a candid review for each hotel, restaurant and activity (!!!). My goal: To not only honor the generosity of my hosts, but also respect my readers, to whom I want to give the most honest input possible. Obviously, I will continue to share the highlights of my trip in more detail via my blog posts. Here goes….

Activities

El Parque de los olors
This is one of those activities I probably would have never thought to do. I mean, an herbal farm? Sounds illegal. But no, it’s not what you’re thinking. Rather, it’s a fresh-smelling paradise of fragrant plants – from lavender, to chocolate mint (no joke – it’s a variation of peppermint), and hunger-inducing curry plant. A visit will open your eyes and nose to the world of fragrant plants.

Castanya de Viladrau ~ Highly recommended
I was unnaturally excited to visit this chestnut farm, and couldn’t have been more impressed. Run by volunteers committed to keeping the chestnut-love alive and strong, the farm not only sells chestnuts but every nutty product you can think of – from chestnut beer, to crushed-chestnut-filled sausage, cookies and honey. The tour cured me of all my chestnut curiosity, and left me looking at the little roasted fellers with a new set of taste buds, err eyes. Read more about my visit here.

Cervesera de Montseny ~ Highly recommended
I don’t really drink beer, but my visit to this beer factory made we want to take it up with great zeal. The collective is owned by all its employees and is a true labor of love. As trailblazers in the Spanish industry, they offer a selection of artisanal beers and, little by little, distribute it as far away as the US. A fan of wine tastings, I found this to be an equally awesome beer equivalent, and very much worth the visit.

Serrat de Montseriu ~ Highly recommended
Josep is passionate about his small little bodega where he produces 10,000-15,000 bottles of wine by hand, per year. Focused on organic farming, he looked for a good place to produce wine, analyzed the soil, and then started growing. Since he doesn’t alter the wine (as many large wineries do), his creations turn out different every year, depending on the weather and other factors. Truly passionate about what he produces, a visit to Serrat de Montseriu will mean not just good wine, but also a unique look at organic wine making. I thoroughly enjoyed it and hope to return.

Hotels and accommodations

Hotel Masferrer*
This historic villa — with an archway dating back to the 13th century — reminded me a lot of those that I visited during my last trip to Catalonia; it offers the comforts of a home, with the amenities of a hotel (private rooms and bathrooms). The building itself is very well taken care of, the rooms and facilities relatively new, the land carefully manicured, and the hosts super warm and welcoming. If you’re looking for a hidden getaway that is less hotel and more house, this is the spot for you. Additionally, it’s not a far drive from Barcelona, Girona, or the beach.

Les Oliveres *
This accommodation isn’t unlike a bed-and-breakfast, complete with a few bedrooms and a kitchen. In fact, I can mostly accurately equate it to “grandma’s guesthouse,” in that it’s by no means anything luxurious with its unkempt land and old-school decor, but has a country coziness which might just be your thing (it wasn’t mine). To get a feel for it, check out the news report below in which I was interviewed. Never mind how horrendous I look (it was hot, we’d been trekking around the mountain. Forgive me).

La Morera
La Morera is another villa-meets-rural-hotel (apparently Catalonia is covered with them). Guests have their own private rooms and bathrooms, but share the common area. La Morera is especially rustic and, depending on your preferences, this may be both good and bad. The two-story rooms, complete with a very basic bathroom, and beds up stairs and downstairs, are most appropriate for families, or very friendly groups. If you don’t mind the not-so-glamorous room accommodations, then you’ll appreciate the highlight: the host. Preparing generous meals full of local favorites – like butifarra and toasted-on-the-fire bread — he makes guests feel like they’re in a secluded mountain home. It might be far from fancy, but there’s something to be said for the charm.

Can Vila ~ Highly recommended
This place was my ultimate sanctuary — I totally fell in love with every last well-thought detail, so much so that I’m eager to return. The main building has been entirely restored and renovated, so everything is brand spanking new, designed for the most discerning tastes, and comfier than my own house. Combined with the views, the subtle smell of farm, and the perfectly landscaped grounds (with a sweet looking pool!), I can pretty much guarantee that it won’t disappoint.

Rural Montseny
Located in the sweet little pueblo of Gualba, this apartment-like hotel is, well, nothing more than that. The rooms are fairly new and basic (and in some cases a little awkwardly laid out). That said, the beds are surprisingly comfortable. If all that matters to you is a cute pueblo and a good place to sleep, then this will do the trick. The bonus: it has WiFi (as did most places we stayed), a nice kitchen, and a tremendously friendly manager who gives spectacular tours of the city upon request.

Hotel San Marçal
When it comes to character, this is where you’ll find it. Occupying a 9th century monastery, you can easily imagine what the building must have been like in its past life. Not unlike the structure itself, though, the amenities are a little dated (think old sinks and out-of-date showers). If you’re like me and prefer a slightly more modern touch, then you might find it at their sister hotel, Hotel San Bernat, which has been more recently renovated.

L’om ~ Highly recommended
If you’re into eco and you like a good spa, gosh darn it, this is the place for you. It’s a proper, extra-cushy, cabin-style apartment in the middle of a pueblo – a surprisingly inventive concept given the remote location. Masterminded by Finnish designers, the building is constructed in natural wood and is maintained using renewable energy. Absolutely loved it.

La Coromina*

Owned by famous go-cart racer Antoní Zanini, this house reminds me of a home I might find in the American northeast, with it’s ivy-covered brick, and airy-bright interior detailed with crisp white crown molding. The restaurant occupies the downstairs salons, while guestrooms fill the floors above. Decorated like a comfy country home, it truly does feel like your own house in the Montseny countryside.

Restaurants

Hotel Can Barrina
With picnic-table views of the Montseny valley, dinner at this villa was the perfect start to our trip. It offers a rustic setting, imaginative dishes, and friendly service. I didn’t stay the night there, but would definitely recommend dinner if you’re in the area.

La Garrafa
We tried a variety of dishes here that were good. I wouldn’t say they were out of this world, but if I were in La Garriga, I wouldn’t mind stopping by again to try something a la carte.

Les Magnolies ~ Highly recommended
This restaurant delivers when it comes to innovative and modern Mediterranean cuisine – a foaming cappuccino that isn’t really coffee, but instead a sweet-potato soup; a frozen ice-cream-like tomato that bursts in your mouth; an award-winning gin-and-tonic dessert that tastes just as colorful as it looks. All in all, definitely a Michelin-star-worthy foodie spot.

Can Marc ~ Highly recommended
I fell in love with this restaurant, its food and its staff. Family owned, the restaurant is not only run by one of the family’s sons, but he’s one of the chefs too, along with his gorgeous wife who waits tables and serves. While the stone-wall setting recalls traditional fare, the cuisine swings extra modern and will blow both your mind and taste buds. They offer a tasting menu, which cannot wait to try again.

Romani
You wouldn’t know by the outside of the establishment that it would have such fantastically delicious dishes. While nothing fancy, they deliver classic Catalan and Iberian cuisine that tastes phenomenal. If you’re in the area and looking for a humble meal and traditional tastes, this spot is worth the visit. Plus the darling grandpa owner is so cute that I wanted to squeeze his cheeks.

La Vall del Montseny ~ Highly recommended
I’ve kind of fallen in love with this little valley, as all of my favorite spots seem to be clustered in the pueblo of Sant Esteve de Palautordera. This restaurant is no different. In terms of ambiance, it’s nothing particularly special, but the food was exceptional – a fresh pea salad, shrimp perfectly grilled with garlic, and one of the most amazing risotto dishes I’ve ever had. Definitely a restaurant you should try if you pass through the area.

Ripoll*
Located in what looks to be the darling pueblo of Sant Hilari Sacalm (sadly I only saw it by night), is Hotel Ripoll. While the hotel itself isn’t anything to write home about (note that I did not stay there), the cuisine was above average; they served a potato-y confection topped with egg and mushrooms that rocked my world. If you’re wandering around Ripoll and looking for a reliably tasty and inventive meal, this is a good option.

*Hotels marked with an asterisk are those at which I did not stay, but instead only visited.
**Disclosure: I traveled through Montseny as a guest of Turístics Montseny. Rest assured that I’m keeping it real – all opinions are entirely my own.