Rioja food and wine trip

Spain is one of those places thats close enough, you go to often, but never really know the place. I´ve never been to Rioja or any other wine region in Spain, so it was about time I finally wined and dined my way through northern Spain.

Faustino wines ageing

The trip was designed by the Faustino group, a winemaking family that started 150 years ago and has kept growing to include more brands and vineyards across Rioja over the years. They have a large presence not only in Rioja and Spain, but a rapidly expanding export market, including Iceland. The purpose of the trip was to invite the Icelandic market influencers to come and taste the best Rioja had to offer, not only in wine, but in food pairings too.

in the wine cellar

We were 8, with our local tour guide, bus and driver. Pablo liked wine more than any of us, coming from a family of winemakers and wine enthusiasts, and drinking it all day, every day, professionally. I´ve never seen so many wine cellars, filled with wine bottles and oak barrels, all filled with Rioja wine. Every road you took passed vineyard after vineyard, and every sunny, arable piece of land had vines growing. There were bush vines and training vines, head trained and spur pruned, and the terroir changed from vineyard to vineyard, sometimes even plot to plot.

in the vineyards

The main grape varieties, tempranillo and garnacha, are used to make red wines, and blush and rosé are on the upswing. Viura is the main white wine grape, and both tempranillo and garnacha come in ´white´varieties. Depending on the time spent in barrels, a rioja wine can be classified as a crianza, reserva or gran reserva, and the overall quality of the whole region is measured each year.

some of the oldest bottles of wine Ive ever seen

2001, 2004/5 and 2010/11 are considered the best vintages in the last 20 years, and we were spoiled enough to try a 1955 and 1970 Gran Reserva, also great vintages.

the Medieval town of Laguardia

We visited Malpica estate, one of the most iconic vineyards in Faustino´s line up. Outside of Faustino wines, we were invited into Pablo´s personal cellar, and I found a 1987 vintage and 100% Garnacha rosé to try. We visited the UNESCO buildings in the medieval village of Laguardia, and stayed in Logrono town, visiting the original birthplace of pintxos, aka tapas. We went to the best wine museum in the world, Museum Vivanco, and ate only at the best restaurants, including Michelin starred Tondeluna and Ikaro. We also went to the smallest village with a Michelin star restaurant in the world, Ventas de Moncalvillo in Daroca.

gourmet food to break up the wine tasting

After 4 days of having cava for breakfast, wine for lunch and wine for dinner, we were all wined out. It took a few days before the taste for wine returned, but so it did, and now, only for Rioja wines.

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Based in Barcelona for the Balearic Islands

I’ve been to Barcelona a handful of times before, but never in summer, and never just to visit Barcelona. This time around, I made a point to stay a few days actually visiting Barcelona, even though it was just a base for exploring the Balearics. I’ve always had a similar impression of Barcelona and Miami, but now the city has become distinct to me, for a lot of unexpected reasons.

Barcelona port

Barcelona port

I knew Barcelona was a little, um, metrosexual, but I’ve actually never seen so many transgender or genderless individuals in the streets of another city. Gay bars and sex clubs are a thing, and in a city where anything goes for physicality and physical relations, drugs and alcohol help fuel the creative limits to which you can take them. The number of ex-pats here for just that can attest to this truth, especially the thralls of English-teachers.

cute side streets in the Gothic quarter

cute side streets in the Gothic quarter

I had never noticed before how many people have dogs, and not just purse dogs. Big dogs, small dogs, pit bulls, or half a dozen dogs, people love dogs, and they’re all inside dogs. I guess that’s why there’s so much dog poop in the streets, though I wish people would clean up after their furry friends. Or move to the countryside where you actually have a garden and some outside space for your animal to live and play in.

I love Spanish pottery and the colourful decor

I love Spanish pottery and the colourful decor

Architecture in Barcelona is wonderful. It doesn’t have the ultra-tall highrises, but more manageable, older few-storey high historical buildings, often splashed in colour by some Spanish tile-work, and rarely with an elevator. The Gaudi influence here and there gives it a Tim Burton movie feel, white the Gothic and other classical European styles fill the city with beautiful balconies and window frames.

The Segrada familia cathedral, slightly shrouded by cranes and construction

The Segrada familia cathedral, slightly shrouded by cranes and construction

The number one visited attraction in Barcelona is the Sagrada Family Cathedral, the epitome of Gaudi architecture, and I only visited it for the first time today. I still haven’t taken a harbor cruise or ridden the Montjuic cable car, nor have I visited the Picasso museum or seen a football game at Camp Nou, so there’s plenty left to do to be a better tourist next time.

Pampered in Tenerife

the harbour in Las Galletas

the harbour in Las Galletas

It’s sometimes nice to balance out a ski vacation with a sun vacation, and its always nice to sit on a beach in warm weather, so Tenerife became an obvious next stop. It was also so cheap and easy to coordinate Andorra and Tenerife from Barcelona, where we spent 3 nights between our trip visiting old friends and some Icelandic acquaintances. I’ve visited other Icelandic people abroad, but its extremely rare to run into a stranger speaking Icelandic anywhere in the world. However, last time I was in Barcelona, I ran into a very good friend from Reykjavik at an empty nightclub on a Tuesday night, totally by chance.

beach of the Americas

beach of the Americas

Tenerife is the only place where this is likely to happen. In high season, there are 3 direct flights a week between Tenerife and Iceland, and statistics say around 180,000 Icelanders (which is half the population) visit the Canary Islands each year. We would be strolling along the seaside and hear Icelandic, sitting in a restaurant at a table beside some Icelanders, and get haggled by West Africans selling cheap watches with phrases in Icelandic! For some reason this totally blew my mind.

whale and dolphin scouting on our catamaran booze cruise

whale and dolphin scouting on our catamaran booze cruise

We hit Tenerife on the hottest January in years, which was actually the perfect temperature around the clock. We had shirtless days, dry and warm, and long pants but flip-flop kinda nights, with clear skies and little wind. We got around by foot in our little area, Playa de la Americas, taxi or bus to tourist sights and the airport, and rented a car one day to drive around the whole island. We could always find chilled rose wine and delectable tapas, though we stayed in a hotel with our meals included. Unlimited cava was served with breakfast, and at dinner we got too full on steaks and ribs to worry about lunch.

It was a wonderful ski vacation decompression, and an even better pre-trip therapy for my upcoming Middle East backpacking trip. So after swapping out my ski clothes for my skimpy beach clothes, I’m now carrying a backpack full of big, black clothes that I’ll need to handle the gulf sun a little more modestly.

 

In transit through Spain

Teatro Romano in Merida

I wanted to go from Morocco directly to Portugal with a ferry but the schedule around Christmas Day only had ferries to Algeciras. You can see Spain from Tanger, where Africa and Europe are only 15 km away at the closest point, and the ferry is only supposed to take 35 minutes. But, the boat leaves half an hour later than its supposed to, and passengers disembark one by one in Tarifa where lonely backpackers are obviously suspected for drug smuggling. So once all our bags have been ripped apart and our bodies patted down, you take a bus from Tarifa to Algeciras, with a view of Gibraltar rock in front of you and Morocco on your right the whole way. Take in the one hour time change, and the trip from Africa to Europe takes about 4 hours… but I didn’t feel I had gotten very far since Algeciras was full of cafes with Arabic speaking men drinking coffee. Not a Spaniard was in sight, probably because it was Christmas day, but the only two things open were the bus staion and an internet café, so I managed to make it to Seville on the only bus.

Filippo, the magnificent panini maker

I couchsurfed with an Italian in Seville, and his Moroccan friend came over, and they were the two strangers I shared Christmas night with. We drank Portugese beer and made paninis on his mini George Forman grill, so it was a very non-religious, international evening. The next day there were no direct buses to Portugal, so I made my way through Merida where I could change buses for a connection to Lisbon. I had 3 hours in Merida which I expected to pass without much excitement, but I found out Merida was a gorgeous town full of ancient Roman ruins. A Roman bridge, a Teatro Romano and a fort overtaken by African Muslims in the 14th Century provided beautiful grounds to wander around and dream about what this city was like 700 years ago. Since it was December 26th, the streets were full of eager shoppers trying taking advantage of the post-Christmas sales, and I started feeling very grateful that there was no direct bus that morning, or else I would have missed seeing this happy little city I hadn’t known existed.

Merida

After 8 days in Portugal and celebrating New Years eve in Porto, I needed to get to Barcelona. I thought it would be easy to bus it all the way across Spain, but again there were no direct buses so I had to connect in Madrid. I decided to take a day bus from Lisbon to Madrid, and an overnight bus from Madrid to Barcelona, but Jan 6 is another big holiday in Spain so there were no seats left on the bus to Barcelona. I didn’t find this out until I was in Madrid, standing at the bus ticket counter, and the next 12 buses were full so I was forced to enjoy a night and half a day in Madrid, unregretfully.

Kings cake

I stayed in the gay neighbourhood and drank beers with my Parisian friend, and the next day we walked through Puerta del Sol and Plaza Mayor to take in all the festive markets and enjoy traditional cake for the Kings holiday.

Plaza Mayor

In Barcelona, I met up with a British friend I met at Burning Man 3 years ago and hadn’t seen since. He lived in a huge flat with 2 other British guys, a French Guy, and a Spanish girl in the party center of Barcelona, and we joined them for a typical Saturday night out in Las Ramblas. We went to a club called Apollo, and after I walked 5 metres into the bar, I spotted a guy who looked exactly like a friend from Iceland. I thought about how funny it would be if I went up to him, tapped him on the shoulder, and excitedly started telling him in Icelandic how happy I was to see him, when I realized it really actually was him, and he was with 6 other Icelandic people. Small world.