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.

January 31, 2013 - Posted by Erin in Food and wine, Madrid, Spain

I found a hidden wonderland here in Madrid, but I’m a little hesitant to tell anyone about it. I know I’m not the only one who’s discovered it, but I’m certain most tourists never make it there. So promise me you’ll keep it our little secret and not tell a soul?

I’d heard whispers about this mystical place before, but, until recently, I never knew where it was. And that’s because it basically hides inside a city block, like a parallel universe revealed behind a magic closet door. In fact, having recently moved to this secret spot’s neighborhood, I’d actually walked by it for months, not even realizing it was there. It’s that secret.

But then one day last autumn, I peered down an alleyway from which I regularly saw Spanish grandmas depart with grocery trolleys brimming with fresh vegetables. There was a certain hustle-and-bustle that indicated the alley was more than just a breezeway, but rather a tunnel to awesome, unexpected things.

So I wandered down it like Alice in a fantastical Wonderland adventure (and if you know me, then you know that the discovery of fresh and exotic foodstuffs is nothing short of Wonderland). And there it was: the most beautiful market in Madrid, Mercado de la Paz!!! I almost shed a full, proper, drip-able tear (not even close to exaggerating). One kiosk after another glowed with expertly arranged fruits and vegetables, fish that gawked at me with blank-but-tasty stares, and mountains of round, square and triangle blocks of cheese that tempted to timber into my mouth (these things are possible in Wonderland, you know).

The Art Nouveau-style market was constructed in 1879 in the residential/shopping neighborhood of Salamanca, and has around 60 kiosks. And while I’ve noticed a couple of the them are closed (a sad and probable outcome of la crisis), you’ll still come across almost every goody your market-loving heart could desire: vegetable sellers, butchers, fish stands, an herbal shop, a cobbler, dry cleaner, hair salon, bakeries, a couple cheese Meccas, gourmet products, and even a few tapas bars for good measure. Basically it’s heaven crammed into a small Spanish city block.

You’ll discover my hidden market paradise concealed between the streets Claudio Coello, Hermosilla, Ayala and Lagasca, with entrances on Lagasca, Ayala and Claudio Coello (the last being the most discreet of the three, despite its fat “MERCADO DE LA PAZ” sign, which I somehow managed to initially miss).

Now go find your market bliss amongst the La Paz kiosks, but just don’t go telling anyone about it. It’s our little secret, remember?

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.

Follow Agness on:
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The eTramping blog

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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.

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