Monday, November 19, 2012

Wine and cava in the Penedès region (Spain)

One of the highlights of living in Spain is the wine! You can get quality wines for low, low prices. If you're drinking at home and want to go the ultra-cheap route, bring a clean bottle to your local bodega and get it filled from one of the small casks for about 2 euros. When you ask for wine with your menu del día (= lunchtime set menu), in some of the more generous places, this results in a whole bottle being plunked down on your table. And then there's my personal favorite: in Barcelona, it's not uncommon for restaurants to sell cava (Spanish sparkling wine, or "xampany" colloquially in Catalan) by the glass. In fact, the tiny, narrow cava joints are among the most regularly packed bars in the city, and at 1.50 euros/glass, who wouldn't want to be drinkin' this Cristal?

While Spain's most famous region for wine is La Rioja, the Penedès region (appellation: Penedès DO) is not a far runner-up. It is centered around the towns of Vilafranca del Penedès (also very famous for their human tower-building castellers) and nearby Sant Sadurní d'Anoia, around 60 km west of Barcelona in a car. Since we don't have one, we explored the region with the rest of the guiris (Catalan for "foreigners") on a coach bus tour. In our defense, there were at least a couple of other local couples - including Catalans! - who also opted for the tour, sharing our drinking and driving concerns.

Our first stop was at the Bodega Jean Leon, whose original owner made his fortune as the proprietor of La Scala restaurant in Hollywood. Most of the wines produced on this estate are French varietals, and they gave us a too-young Merlot (bleagh!)  to compare with the full-bodied reserve Cabernet Sauvignon later. I should mention that "taste" in Spain is a bit of a misnomer. Receiving closer to half or even nearly full glasses of wine for each one, we felt it was all the more reason to get someone else to drive.

In contrast to the smaller estate, we also stopped at Torres, a global behemoth whose estates flourish not just all over Spain, but in California and Chile also. Does Sangre de Toro ring a bell? A covered tram brought us all around the vineyards and winery, showcasing their green building and sustainability commitments. We tried three wines paired with typical cheeses, and one Moscatel-Gewürztraminer blend made us reconsider our usual prejudice against white wines.  

Friexenet, our final stop, is no small potatoes either. In case you doubt its status as one of the largest producers of cava, the tour winds you through the deep levels of caves where barrels upon barrels hold the wine during the first fermentation and stacks of shelves store the millions of bottles during the all important cava-making second fermentation. Another three glasses of the effervescent gold (ok, so one was more of a rosé) met us at the end of the tour. Featuring blends of the three traditional cava varieties (going by super-Catalan names of macabeu, parellada and xarel·lo), they were delightfully refreshing and paired well with the bounty of tapas arrayed before us. Carquinyolis, a sort of Catalan almond biscotti, made for a delicious ending to our lovely day!

Sunday, November 11, 2012

PortAventura in Salou (Spain)

Back when Rich was a kid, if his birthday fell on the weekend, he always thought it'd be fun to go to the theme park to celebrate it. Alas, in such climes, they were never open by the time the auspicious date rolled around. Not so in sunny Spain!

Just outside Tarragona in the town of Salou is the theme park PortAventura. They've been running their annual month-long campaign to draw visitors in with their Halloween-themed additions and deals. The promotion through the Rodalies de Catalunya (the regional railway service) is a pretty good one, considering the train stops only a short walk from the gates and the total price for transport + entrance is the same as entrance alone. The Halloween theme was also very prominent with jack-o-lanterns galore, ravens roosting in trees, and cobwebs draped in all the rafters. The psycho-killers jumping out from shadowy areas did lead to quite a few screams from unaware folks and nervous laughs from their friends. The long line into the Mayan Curse experience was transformed with such haunted house-style antics as fog and zombies that it did make me jittery. Even the dead-eyed one who bore a passing resemblance to Bono was pretty creepy.

PortAventura has many of the run-of-the-mill attractions you'd expect to find in a good amusement park in the States. The designers did seem to do an above average job in the quality and details of the differently themed regions. For example, a rainforest in Polynesia was manifested not only in flora but in a microclimate of humidity, and the Great Wall wraps around an Asian-style garden in China. The biggest draw in 2012 is the new roller coaster (which is, in Spanish, literally a "Russian mountain"). Shambhala, now Europe's tallest coaster and also boasting the tallest drop, is fittingly billed as a Himalayan expedition. It gets a thumbs up from both of us... and a special mention for the curiously free, big air feeling that comes from dangling feet, the lack of an over-the-shoulder harness, and an unobstructed view throughout the ride. Dragon Khan goes for loop-de-loop gold with its 8 inversions (very disorienting afterwards), and Stampida brings you back for old timey, rickety wooden thrills in a dueling roller coaster race. But the best on-board roller coaster photos have got to be from Furious Baco. The individual cameras trained on each rider catch precious expressions on video as you get launched, reaching a speed of 83.9 miles per hour in 3.5 seconds! Sorry, mom and dad, in the shock of the moment, most of my video was the stream of expletives also being launched from my mouth. 

Monday, November 5, 2012

Tarragona (Spain)

After a little over an hour on the express train from Barcelona, we arrived in Tarragona. We'd heard nice things about this town in southern Catalunya so we thought it would make a nice day trip during the public holiday of All Saints Day. 

The town is ancient, with the ruins of the Roman "Tarraco" having been designated a UNESCO World Heritage site. You can wander around the old town looking for the 30 locations marked along the urban archaeological route from the tourist information center. Some of them have beautiful mosaics and intricate scale models for you to really appreciate the Roman heritage. Or so I've heard. Unfortunately for us, many of the museum sites were shut for the public holiday... in direct contradiction to the opening days and times posted on the doors themselves, I might add. We had to content ourselves with the sections of ruins visible from the roads and other public spaces. Since these included Roman walls, towers, and a fairly intact amphitheater with a stunning view of the Mediterranean, it wasn't such a bad consolation prize.   

Like Barcelona, Tarragona has its own highlights of Catalan modernisme architecture. Delicate, intricate ironwork shows up here and there, and even an old slaughterhouse was done up mighty stylish. Probably the best example, though, is the fantastic tomb of King Jaume I inside the Ajuntament (City Hall). The architect Lluís Domènech i Montaner worked his mosaic magic again to house the Catalan king's remains in a gorgeous boat flanked by angel sculptures.

More stone figures appear in the form of apostles on the edifice of the Cathedral of Santa Maria. You can count on the church to be open on a holy day. Despite a few dark chapels along the edges, the interior of the 12th century cathedral was actually quite light and expansive. We also took a walk along the quiet cloisters, but we couldn't quite bring ourselves to disturb the peace in the lovely interior garden.