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Sangria…a Taste of Spain

November 21, 2011 1 comment

Prompt #20: DRINK – my eighth post in bootsnall’s 30 Days of Indie Travel project.

Just as the cuisine of a place reveals clues about its culture and history, so does its signature local drink. What’s the best drink you had on the road, and did the drink have any connection to the place where you drank it or the people you drank with?

Sangria.  There really is no question about it.  Sangria is so tied into the culture of Spain, so representative of this country.  Sangria is delicious, refreshing, light and a mixture of complex flavors, just like Spain.

I found Spain to be a refreshing break from “Old Europe”.  Not as proper as the British, by the book like the Germans nor as traveller adverse as the French.  There was a sense of history, an understanding of those that had come before but at the same time a great enjoyment of life.  It just seemed like the Spanish people were fully aware that they had a great country and were happy to share it with the world.

Spain has long been a meeting place for different cultures.  The Arabian scholars helped preserve many ancient texts here, ensuring that we would have these records of history at a time when many in the Christian church were trying to destroy them.  Over time this past has been combined with the strong Catholic influence, combining to make Spain.  That said, even when traveling to different parts of the country there is a clear differentiation between the regions.  Madrid is different from Basque country which is different from Catalonia.  While there are certainly tensions, they all come together to form Spain.  Sangria has this mix of flavors with sugar and fruit balancing the wine.  It just works.

While traveling through Spain, from Bilbao to Rioja to Madrid and finally to Barcelona, most afternoons were spent having a glass (or pitcher) of Sangria.  Sometimes hopping from tapas bar to tapas bar, just to sample the variations on this delicious drink as we were sampling the various experiences of this great country.

The life of luxury

Over the last year I have spent more and more time trying to figure out the loyalty program game. This has included hours of research online, subscriptions to blogs, time spent in online forums such as flyertalk and applying for credit cards simply for the sign-up bonus. This effort has swelled my mileage accounts, gained me elite status on United Airlines and has allowed me to travel in a bit more comfort. Starwood hotel chain recently ran a promotion that awarded a free stay at any of their resorts after every three stays at any of their hotels. To take advantage of this, I made bookings at as many Starwood hotels as I could while in Belgium and Croatia. I earned two nights which I redeemed at the Marques de Riscal Winery and Hotel in Spain. I have stayed at some nice hotels this year, but this was the best so far.

Upon approach, what really makes Marques de Riscal stand out is the stunning architecture. The hotel was designed by Frank Gehry, the designer of the Bilbao Guggenheim Museum and the Walt Disney Music Hall in Los Angeles. Gehry designed buildings stand out with their sweeping lines and use of titanium and other reflective metals in their outer shells. The hotel is set amidst the winery and the vineyards, just across the road from the small town of Elciego. The colors that he used are designed to look like a Marques de Riscal Rioja Reserva bottle of wine, purple (wine), silver (foil seal) and gold (mesh net that graces the bottles to keep counterfeiters at bay).

While the architecture is what first strikes your eye, our stay was defined by the helpful service and hospitality shown by the entire staff. Because we didn’t have a car, we were “stuck” at the hotel, enjoying the sun, sitting out at the spa, taking the complimentary winery tour, relaxing and partaking in the fantastic cuisine. Breakfast on the outdoor patio overlooking the vineyards was a highlight, as was the 8 course tasting menu we had at the restaurant.  Our meal started off with a cheese and truffle stuffed cracker soaked in honey and served on a river stone.  The cheese cracker might have been my favorite dish of the meal, the sweet and savory characteristics were in perfect balance.  This was followed up by croquettes which were fantastic. (no pictures).  The last of the appetizers was a foie gras cone, topped with grape caviar.The first of three main dishes was langoustine lobster in a white garlic sauce.  Simply delicious. Second up was Hake, candied in butter which was very rich and finally veal cheek which was not my favorite but still good.

Deserts featured an apple and honey ice cream dish that even for my palette may have been too sweet and finally chocolates.  To finish the meal, the sommelier came around with a tray of herbs to make us a custom infusion, featuring chocolate mint, a very sweet herb that we missed the name of and some lemongrass.  This was a great way to finish a meal that left us feeling very stuffed.

While the food was the major highlight, the rest of the stay left us feeling bathed in luxury.  The spa featured a pool, sauna and jacuzzi as well as massages that featured grapes such as a merlot seed scrub and grape oil massage.  It was the perfect place to sit out in the sun and relax before heading to Madrid and Barcelona.  If you are ever in the Rioja region, this hotel is a must visit.  It is pricey, but the food, surroundings, and staff make it worth it.   If you can, however, do it for free as part of a promotion you may want to find a way to get to Rioja to experience the life of luxury at Marques de Riscal.

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