By: Katie Roberts
Spain is a land of riotous contrasts. Some know it for cheap, sun-and-sand holidays in Ibiza, others lose themselves in the incredible art galleries of Madrid or the architecture of Barcelona. Beyond the big-name destinations are out-of-the-way gems offering amazing culture, food and wine. Both Jerez de la Frontera in the southwest, and Logroño in the north, have solid reputations built on the vine, and are fabulous additions to any itinerary.
See all of the photos from Katie’s trip to Spain in the gallery above
At 3pm on a Saturday afternoon, the narrow lanes around Calle Laurel in Logroño are heaving with people. They’re laughing and back-slapping, spilling out of tiny bars, quaffing red wine and nibbling on the speciality pinchos, or small tapas. It’s family-friendly, too, with people of all ages soaking up the good times that come easily with the infectious Spanish tradition of tapeo, or bar hopping. This congested, cobblestoned way is billed as one of the top five tapas streets in the country – not surprising, given Logroño’s location in the renowned wine-producing and agricultural region of La Rioja in central-northern Spain.
Still relatively untouched by mass tourism, Logroño is a modern, bustling city with an old town that takes you back through the centuries. Leaving behind the tapas bars, it’s just a short stroll through the historic, pedestrian-only streets to the 1927 San Blas Market where fresh seasonal produce is on sale every morning; it makes for great photographs and is the right spot to pick up a healthy snack.
Near to the market is the large square and meeting place, Plaza del Mercado, dominated by the Co-Cathedral of La Redonda and its two stunning 18th-century Baroque towers. The bells ring out on the hour. Unusually, the cathedral shares its title with two other cathedrals in the diocese, hence the “Co-” prefix. The Way of St James, the pilgrims’ route, passes through Logroño and is a stop-off point for weary walkers on their way to Santiago de Compostela. The churches en route have traditionally been important stops for the pilgrims.
Much of Logroño old town and parts of the fortified city gate and wall are well preserved. Signs explain the annual feast day dedicated to St Barnabas, which has its origins in the 1521 siege of the town by the French. Protected by the city wall, the citizens survived on fish, bread and wine before the standoff ended in victory for the town.
Honouring the efforts of grape growers is the annual Harvest Festival held at the start of the grape harvest. On 21 September, the Feast of St Matthew is celebrated with the treading of grapes. It’s a popular time for visiting, when the first must (pressed grape juice) is offered to Our Lady of Valvanera, the patron saint of La Rioja. Here as in other rural areas it’s obvious that Spain remains in many ways a conservative country, with Catholicism and century-old traditions held dearly.
After exploring Logroño, there are numerous options for tasting the fruit of the vine at the eight wineries encircling the city, many of which are tourist attractions in their own right. Self-drive, follow the cycling route, or take the easy way by hopping on the VinoBus.
The word rioja has been a protected designation of origin since the 1920s, guaranteeing the quality of the region’s wines and producers. Rest assured, wine-making is close to a religion here, with a history stretching back centuries. Don’t miss a taste!
Where: 350km north of Madrid, accessible by car and train, or one hour south of the international airport at Bilbao.
What’s nearby: Bull-fighting at Pamplona, contemporary art at the spectacular Guggenheim Museum at Bilbao, and the beaches of San Sebastian.
Stay: Hotel Portales de Logrono
Eat: Logroño boasts over 100 restaurants, including many with Michelin stars.
Contemporary Spanish dining using fresh seasonal local produce. A memorable dessert was a wedge of chocolate ganache and scoop of coffee ice-cream swimming in olive oil.
• Venta Moncalvillo
One-Michelin star restaurant in tiny Daroca village, where an incredible six-course meal with wine costs just 80 euros (S$130). Its most inventive amuse-bouche? Blood sausage macaroon and partridge in wafer
“Sherry is not an aperitif; sherry is a wine,” explains the charming Juan Mateos Arizou as he loosens the cork in the first of 16 bottles lined up for tasting on the large wooden table in the cavernous, hundred-year-old tasting room. It’s a mantra he repeats many times over the course of the next hour. The tasting follows a tour through the wine cathedrals, or cellars, at Bodegas Lustau in Jerez de la Frontera, Spain’s sherry-producing capital in the southwest.
Thousands of barrels are held at constant temperature in the six-century-old wine cathedrals. With 14-metre ceilings, stone columns and arches, they certainly are church-like, and the attention to detail borders on religious devotion. Indeed, the scale of the wine cathedrals was obvious when viewed from the tower of Jerez’s historic Alcazar (Moorish fortress) earlier in the day, as was their proximity to the town’s 50- odd churches. The cellars occupy entire blocks of the city, enclosing streets and lanes within their perimeters.
Bodegas Lustau produces over 40 wines that are exported internationally to great acclaim. The wines are made primarily from palomino and muscatel grapes which are grown in abundance in the hot and dry hills surrounding Jerez. Their alcohol content ranges from 15 percent in the drier, lighter wines to 22 percent in the Pedro Ximenez, which Juan recommends we pour on vanilla ice cream as a decadent dessert. Juan’s enthusiasm is infectious, and given the quality and breadth of what we taste, we agree that sherry’s stuffy reputation is in need of an image makeover.
Making sherry is complex. Old wine is gradually blended with new wine for a minimum of four years as flavours develop; some sherries are aged for 30 years. It’s also a carefully regulated industry. “Jerez”, “Xérès” and “Sherry” are protected words that can only be used on registered Spanish wines produced in a small triangle within the province of Cadiz. The barrels, Juan explains, can be re-used for decades. He points out some American oak barrels aged with Lustau sherry which will be sent to Jameson in Northern Ireland to age Irish whiskey.
With a history that stretches back centuries, Jerez has other world-class experiences to offer visitors (see heaps of other things to do here). A must is a visit to the horse dancing show at the Royal Andalusian School of Equestrian Art, which showcases the region’s equestrian heritage, skilful riders and talented horses. The unique Clock Museum is a real treat, especially at midday when the meticulously cared-for clocks chime – although not in unison, as it turns out. The century-old Alcazar, flamenco performances and bullfights are other things to see before heading off to explore the nearby coastline and its beaches. Of course there are more sherry cellars to see, and lots of churches too.
Where: One hour south of Seville, accessible by car and train. There is an international airport at Jerez and Seville.What’s nearby: Gibraltar is two hours away; Seville, one hour; the coast at Cadiz, 10 minutes.
Stay: Hotel Asta Regia
Make your trip to Spain happen
• CheapTickets provides a wide selection of cheap flights and fares to worldwide destinations, including the competitively priced Turkish Airlines. All flights, including budget airlines, can be searched and booked directly online. We like the handy multi-city search option too, useful for trips that are not straightforward.
• Turkish Airlines, voted best European airline in 2013, flies to Madrid and Malaga with a stopover in Istanbul. The airline is efficient and the food is good. For stopovers exceeding six hours, check out the free Istanbul city tour, which includes a tour of historic sites and a meal.
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