Tag Archives: bars & restaurants

SPAIN IN 2014 (OCTOBER-DECEMBER)

Hola to all our readers! Can you believe it´s already fall? Even though a few summer days always manage to sneak in during October… Winter is Coming! And there’s much to look forward to… The final months of the year are host to some of the most exciting concerts, festivals and traditions in Spain.

Two events will be taking place for most of the remainder of the year that are sure to excite lovers of art and culture. In Toledo, a special exhibition called El Greco: Art and Skill will be taking place until December 9th, giving visitors the opportunity to see over 75 works by the celebrated Spanish artist. And farther south in Jerez, be sure to check out the exciting events planned from October 9-January 6th related to wine, flamenco and Andalusian horses in honor of Jerez´s selection as the European Wine City of 2014.

October 2014

Although October marks the end of the season for most local festivals around Spain. in the northeastern corner of Spain, you´ll find the region of Aragón celebrating the Fiestas de Pilar from October 4th-13th. The streets of Zaragoza fill with maños (locals from Zaragoza) donned in traditional Aragonese attire and the red and black handkerchiefs that have come to symbolize the festival. The week of celebration culminates in a huge floral offering on the 12th in the Plaza del Pilar in the city center. Thousands of people dress in traditional costumes and come to the plaza to leave flowers before the Virgin. On the 13th, the festival closes with an offering of fruit in the morning and a parade that runs through the streets of Zaragoza at dusk.

Fiestas del Pilar. Source: Redaragon.com
Fiestas del Pilar. Source: Redaragon.com

In Jaén, fiestas in honor of the patron saint, San Lucas, take place from October 11th-19th. The program is full of exciting events including bullfights, dancing, and the National Autumn Show Jumping Competition, held at the Alameda Horse Riding Club.

Those interested in Spain´s “toro bravo” culture also should check out the Autumn Fair in Madrid at Las Ventas from October 3rd-12th. Madrid has a great bullfighting tradition and the Autumn Fair stands out among the world’s most important bullfighting festivals.

Also taking place at the same time is International Madrid Architecture Week. A wide array of activities related to architecture has been planned, including building visits, guided tours, exhibitions, courses and lectures. There are also children’s workshops for younger visitors to learn more about the world of architecture in an entertaining way.

Jazz music takes over the capital of Catalunya again this fall when the Barcelona International Jazz Festival kicks off on October 10th. Artists including John Legend, Wayne Shorter, and Chucho Valdes headline this year´s festival, with concerts planned at sites like the Palau de la Música Auditorium and the Espai de Danza y Música de la Generalitat de Cataluña until November 30th.

The Ciudad de las Artes y las Ciencias complex in Valencia will host the Valencia 500 Tennis Tournament from October 18th-26th this year. This annual tournament attracts numerous elite players from around the world who come to compete for the top spot. Valencia has made a name for itself as a top venue for major sporting events such as sailing, motorcycling, Formula 1 racing, equestrian competitions, and now tennis.

Valencia Tennis Open. Source: Industriadeltenis.com
Valencia Tennis Open. Source: Industriadeltenis.com

November 2014

Contemporary film takes the cake again this year at the 13th annual Seville Film Festival from November  7th-15th. Events are held at a variety of venues such as the Nervión Plaza Cinema and the Lope de Vega Theatre. It aims to concentrate on the promotion of European cinematographic culture while also paying the way for new media for cinematographic expression.

Top riders and horses from the international equestrian circuit will gather in Madrid at the Parque Ferial Juan Carlos I from November 27th- 30th for Madrid Horse Week.  Equestrian arts The international show-jumping competition is the main event, with over 100 of the world’s top riders participating this year. There will also be dressage and vaulting displays and exhibitions and demonstrations for audiences of all ages. The show will be accompanied by an recreation area featuring street entertainment, concerts, and a children´s area.

Looking to try some of Spain´s top tapas in one of the most beautiful cities in Spain? Then look no further and head to Santiago de Compostela  (Galicia) from November 7th-24th for the citywide tapas competition, Santiago (É) Tapas. The competition is a great opportunity to get to know the city (a UNESCO World Heritage Site) and its´ gastronomic culture. Over 40 bars, restaurants and taverns will be taking part to create delicious and original tapas which are then judged by the customers.

Santiago (e) Tapas. Source: Paxinasgalegas.es
Santiago (e) Tapas. Source: Paxinasgalegas.es

December 2014

More than 600 yachtsmen from around the world will compete for the Ciutat de Palma Trophy Cup in the waters off Palma (Mallorca). From December 5th-8th, the Royal Nautical Club of Palma will host this year’s championship, considered to be one of the most prestigious in dinghy sailing. The most stunning race is almost always the Optimist regatta, with more than 400 boats taking part.

In Spain, Noche Vieja (New Year´s Eve) is a very special celebration, where the fun and partying go on well into the early hours. If you want to get the year off to a good start, you musn´t forget to eat your 12 grapes at midnight for good luck!  If you can´t make it to the Puerta del Sol in Madrid for the famous official countdown, don´t worry! There will be celebrations in every city and town. Many hotels and restaurants organize special parties called cotillones that including dinner, dancing, and entertainment that will set the bar high for New Year´s celebrations for years to come.

New Year's Eve in Madrid. Source: Abc.es
New Year’s Eve in Madrid. Source: Abc.es

If you feel like taking a more adventurous approach to the New Year, Barcelona is the place to be!  The 3rd Barcelona World Race begins on December 31st in the Port of Barcelona. The race is one of the world’s most important yachting competitions and the only two-handed, non-stop round-the-world race. The finishes are forecasted for the end of March 2015. This incredibly demanding sporting event lasts for three months and covers a distance of 25,000 nautical miles across areas with the most extreme climates and the most inhospitable seas on the planet.

Stay tuned for more interesting articles on Spain. In the next weeks, we’ll post a fascinating interview to an extraordinarily unique character and collaborator of Madrid & Beyond… Don’t miss it out!

A SHORT VISIT TO SAN SEBASTIAN & LA RIOJA

Last April, our colleagues Carla and Hazel headed to Northern Spain for an inspection trip. As usual when going on inspection trips, this was a great opportunity for them to try some of the private tours and special experiences which Madrid & Beyond offer to its clients there. Also, they took the chance to visit some of the properties we usually work with and to even stay in two of them, where they were able to experience firsthand the facilities and services as our treasured clients do.

The first stop on their trip was San Sebastian. The attractive city of San Sebastián (or Donostia) sits on a stunning circular bay known as La Concha. La Concha is in fact just one of four beaches in the city, but La Concha remains the undisputed sovereign. Turning inwards, the highlight of San Sebastián is its old town is situated on the eastern side of the bay, wedged between this and the River Urumea and at the foot or Monte Urgull. This is where many of the sights are, most notably the Plaza de La Constitución and the churches of San Vicente and Santa María.

Carla at Monte Igueldo
Carla at Monte Igueldo

Upon their arrival, they checked into the Hotel de Londres y de Inglaterra, the best known four-star hotel in San Sebastián. Situated in front of La Concha beach and beside the historic quarter of the city, one could not ask for a better place to stay in the city. There are six floors and over a hundred rooms, half with views across the sea and the others overlooking the attractive Plaza de Zubieta. All rooms are very spacious, comfortable and tastefully furnished.

 After visiting the hotel and some of the rooms it was time to meet their expert guide and head to the market, where they visited some of the shops and bought the ingredients for their Private Cooking Class in a Gastronomic Society. Basque men gather at sociedades gastronómicas to cook, eat, drink, sing, and socialize. Until recently, women were excluded.  These clubs have nurtured the Basque culinary tradition, resulting in the current proliferation of top restaurants in and around San Sebastian. It is estimated that over 160 sociedades gastronómicas co-exist and Madrid & Beyond can arrange private access to the most prestigious gastronomic society of them all, where the aim is to promote traditional Basque cooking. Classes can be more hands-on or more of a demonstration depending on the client.  The main idea is to give a taste of the way cooking and gastronomy is a way of life here and to give a glimpse into the local culture.  The society brings people together to cook and share ideas.  Honorary members of this particular society include Arzak, Mugaritz, Ferran Adiá, etc.

Hazel showing her skills with the frying pan
Hazel showing her skills with the frying pan

 In the afternoon, they found some time to visit another of the lovely hotels we usually work with in San Sebastian, the Hotel Villa Soro. Located in a residential area, not far from San Sebastian historic center, this hotel was a 19th-century country house and is now the city’s finest boutique property. The hotel has 25 rooms in all, 15 of which are located in the main house whilst the other 10 are situated in what used to be the red brick carriage house. Despite the 19th century ambience, they have not foregone modern conveniences, which make it a very interesting property.

In the early evening, Carla and Hazel joined their expert guide and embarked on a Private Pintxos Tour. To every San Sebastian resident, the terms “pintxos” conjures up images of mouth watering delicacies, from simple eats to highly elaborate haute cuisine creations. Such is the fervor of the residents of San Sebastian for its gastronomy and pintxos, every year the city stages a competition in which all the bars seek to create the tastiest, most original pintxos. Winners proudly proclaim their plaques outside their doors, and many establishments are renowned for one dish above all others. Some of the delicious pintxos they tried were the Rosa de bogavante (lobster rose), the Foie a la plancha (grilled foie) or the carrilleras de ternera (beef cheeks).

Some delicious pintxos...
Some delicious pintxos…

Their second day started early, since they had to meet their private driver/guide and together head to La Rioja wine region. After a 1 hour 30 minute journey they arrived to La Rioja’s traditional wine capital Haro, where they visited one of the historical wineries in Rioja, dating back to the second half of the nineteenth century. Here, they firmly believe in employing traditional methods in all facets of the wine making, including their very own in-house cobblers or barrel makers – a sight to behold! Indeed, tradition oozes from every nook and cranny here… quite unique in every way. Afterwards, they continued to a modern winery in La Rioja Alavesa, where they learnt about the contrasting processes of modern wine making, including the carefully monitored stainless steel tanks whose temperature is controlled by a constant stream of water bathing the exterior of each. They had the chance to be guided through this process and to taste the wines with the owner of the winery, a very personal visit indeed.

Rioja Wine
Rioja Wine

After lunch it was time to do some inspection sites in two of the hotels we work with in this wine region:

  •  The 5* Hotel Marques de Riscal: Designed by renowned architect Frank O. Gehry, the property is his second masterpiece in Spain after driving Bilbao’s urban revival with the Guggenheim Museum. Located in the heart of the Rioja wine region (Elciego), it’s the perfect place for a relaxing break.
  • The Hospederia de los Parajes in Laguardia: A great little hotel, very comfortable.  It boasts an eclectic and funky design and each room has its own character. There is a spa and restaurant, and a little atrium where you can enjoy a drink.
Hotel Marques de Riscal
Hotel Marques de Riscal

In the late afternoon, they headed back to San Sebastian and checked into the Hotel Maria Cristina. This 5-star hotel has gained a deserved reputation as one of the most superior hotels of Spain. Throughout the hotel are Louis-XV and Empire-style furnishings. Facilities and amenities are entirely modern and the highest degree of comfort can be expected. The rooms are fully equipped and overlook either the garden or the Urumea River. Furthermore, a very central location makes it a popular choice for anyone looking for luxury and refinement in this very picturesque city.

2014-04-04 03.48.38
Hotel Maria Cristina

Their third and last day, they visited Getaria, a charming fishing village located just 30 minutes away from San Sebastian. Here Juan Sebastian Elcano was born. Don’t recognise the name? In the age of the exploration in the early 16th century, he became the first man to circumnavigate the globe. Also, for fashion lovers, there’s another “celebrity” who was born here… Cristóbal Balenciaga. He was an early 20th century designer to royalty and other wealthy patrons that started to come to San Sebastian when Queen Maria Cristina began to make it fashionable (she needed the sea air to fight a skin condition which caused the city to become a popular destination).  If you’re interested in fashion, there is a Balenciaga Museum at the top of the hill in town. Apart from this, Getaria is the ideal spot for a delicious seafood lunch in one of its numerous restaurants, with catch coming fresh from the boats anchored in the wharf below.

Port of Getaria
Port of Getaria

And just when you thought it was impossible to fit anymore into such a short visit, the ladies even had time for a couple of bites of tapas and a walk through the picturesque village of Hondarribia on their way to the airport.  Hondarribia is a very short drive from the airport itself, and well worth a visit.  A short 1hr 15min flight later and they were back home in Madrid… both agreeing that with every visit to San Sebastian they fall in love with the city and all the jewels the north has to offer, just that little bit more.

Interview with Nigel Hack, Founder of Madrid & Beyond

Nigel first came to Spain in 1992. After 3 years here he went back to his native country, the UK, only to realize that what he really wanted was to establish himself in Spain and to set up a travel company with a difference. He was convinced that the time was ripe to reach out to the discerning traveler offering more adventurous cultural experiences in Spain and thus, Madrid & Beyond was “born”. That was in 1998. Now, almost 16 years later Madrid & Beyond has established itself as Spain’s foremost specialist travel company catering to travelers seeking unique, authentic, exclusive, local experiences.

Hi Nigel, thank you very much for taking time out for this interview.

It’s my pleasure.

OK, let’s get started… After having traveled half of the world and with the opportunity of having a successful career in your own country, why did you decide to start a new life and business in Spain?

Well, I first came here straight out of university with the idea of learning Spanish for a year before returning to England to pursue a career in education. It was only after I returned to England after those first three wonderful years in Spain that I realized that I had to return. Whilst I had been very happy teaching history for the second and third year in Spain, my enthusiasm for a life in the classroom waned back in England, and I pined for, well, let’s just say I longed for a long list of intangibles that I missed about Spain. So if not teach, then what to do… I was young but had traveled widely both before, during and after university. Travel had become part of my DNA… I had no business acumen nor experience but I had always been Mr Organizer even as a teenager and happily arranged several trips overseas for my history students. So, I kind of figured out that my ideal job would be to arrange travel in Spain…

“In Spain there’s now a greater sense of liberty than elsewhere and people are generally not judgmental. A live and let live attitude still pervades. Most cities provide a good-vibe feel… totally safe. As I’ve discovered much more recently, people are incredibly child-friendly too…”

More than 20 years later, what is left of the Spain you first fell in love with?

Hmm, good question! But for me it’s probably a shorter answer if I tell you what has gone, never to return, because to be honest, Spain hasn’t changed that much… I think it’s we as individuals who change… especially as we take on responsibilities, raise families etc.

So, where was I? Yes, Spain is still pretty much the same but what’s gone is the peseta and the very, very affordable way of life. The old boys who recount tales of the Spanish Civil War have mostly gone… the “black” widows [widows who only wear black as a sign of respect to their deceased husbands] whom I only see in very rural areas these days…. The wild abandon that seemed to characterize the night…. Although what would I know? I’m in bed most nights by 11pm! Oh and the makeup of cities… until the 1990s it was a fairly homogeneous country… 99% Spanish… so anyone tall, or blond or simply foreign looking got plenty of attention… Now it’s much more cosmopolitan and multiracial… I don’t know the exact figures but I think about 15% of Spain’s population now was born overseas. Anyway, it’s become more European… good in many ways of course but I do enjoy visiting smaller towns and rural areas where the modes of the Spanish way of life remain truly ingrained.

Madrid & Beyond founder Nigel Hack
Madrid & Beyond founder Nigel Hack

What have been the positive and negative aspects you’ve encountered for both living and setting up a business in this country?

Gosh… again I could talk for a long time on both but I’ll keep it short… First of all, the negative… taxes for the business! For the day-to-day, not so much… but the quality of television leaves a lot to be desired (compared to the UK) all the films are still dubbed! Most depressing of all right now is the corruption that seems ubiquitous for those holding in public office.

Positive… well, Spain is friendly and welcoming so it’s easy to become part of wider groups of friends, participate in all sorts of sport, social events etc. It’s very all-encompassing. There’s a greater sense of liberty than elsewhere and people are generally not judgmental. A live and let live attitude still pervades. Most cities provide a good-vibe feel… totally safe. As I’ve discovered much more recently, people are incredibly child-friendly… so a great environment for raising children.   Should I say more?

How about the positives for setting up a business?

Ah yes… I guess I’m just fortunate that it’s worked. More importantly, I’m just grateful to have the team around me that I have. Yeah… even you Jorge!

Thank you Nigel…  You´ve spent a lot of time traveling across of Spain, from your point of view and based on your broad knowledge of the country, what are the “must-do things” anyone visiting Spain should experience?

Another easy question! I think it differs for everybody but let’s just run with the first few things that spring to mind… let’s aim for ten… OK, in no particular order…

Meet as many locals as possible… More specific… Ok…
Tour of the Gaudi monuments in Barcelona (better with a good guide)…
“Do” the Prado Museum in Madrid….
Go out for tapas in Madrid or Sevilla
Go to San Sebastian for amazing gourmet experiences and much more
Spend some time in rural Andalucia… Ronda and beyond!
Eat chocolate and churros in a typical churreria
Take a high speed train
Learn more about flamenco and bullfighting… sorry, that’s a little evasive but … Is that it?

One more…

Ok… Go to watch Real Madrid or Barcelona… especially if you’re a family.

Have you seen a shift in the reasons people give for coming to Spain?

Not recently although the fame of Spanish food, tapas and general lifestyle attracts more than it did when we first started. The Basque Country and San Sebastian in particular are more popular now than ever before.

Nigel and his son enjoying the Barcelona Carnival
Nigel and his son enjoying a parade in Barcelona

Thanks to your profession and position, you’ve been able to visit and stay at most of the best hotels around Spain. Which ones are your favorite, including one or two “hidden gems” outside the mainstream hotels?

For a small hotel, I have to choose Fuente de la Higuera in Ronda. It sounds cliché but you’re made to feel part of the wider family… For a luxury hotel, the Finca Cortesin is a personal favorite of mine whilst I should also mention some of the amazing rooms at the Arts in Barcelona.

Gastronomy is one of Spain´s main strengths in attracting discerning travelers. What would you say are your favorite products/dishes? Is there anything you miss from your native country in this aspect?

First of all, I don’t miss any “British” food per se but I love Asian food and it’s not always so easy to find outside of Madrid and Barcelona. In Spain, my favorite dishes used to be meaty and seafood dishes, such as suckling lamb; seafood stew, grilled giant prawns, chorizo and jamon iberico of course, but these days I’m a vegetarian so I focus more on the vegetable and rice dishes, such as a properly made paella, the Valencian fideuá or a bean stew. And I could eat or drink gazpacho and salmorejo till the cows come home!

Continuing with gastronomy… What places (bars, restaurants, cafes) in Madrid can you recommend that you would only share with a close friend (and, of course, everyone reading this blog)?

For bars, in the historic part of town I’d got for Casa Lucas or Matritum. Near our office [commercial center of Madrid], Le Cabrera is great for a drink after work or in the summer months, on the roof terrace of the Mercado de San Antón. I now live out of the center so I miss special places like La Venencia which dates from another era.  For restaurants, the best meal I had recently was at Sagardi en Euskal Etxea. I’m looking forward to dining at Ten Con Ten early in the New Year.

I can imagine that many of your prospective clients ask you about the current economic situation in Spain. What would you say to those who might be reluctant to visit Spain during these times of economic difficulties?

To be fair, I can recall two or three travelers who were a little reticent about coming to Spain, but that was during the time when “the pain in Spain” was on every front page. Their concerns were suppliers going out of business after they had booked their trip. Paradoxically, the crisis years in Spain have been our best years at Madrid & Beyond. Whether that is a measure of our luck or abilities, or an upsurge of discerning travelers coming to Spain it’s hard to say, but my message to everyone is the same as before… Prepare to have one of the best vacations of your life!

Looking ahead 5 to 10 years, what do you think will be the next big changes and trends for discerning travelers coming to Spain?

Experiences. Everyone will be requesting experiences. Many do now, but it will be the buzz word of the immediate future. Good news for us! As for apps and technology, I have no idea… for me it remains ALL ABOUT PEOPLE.

“Paradoxically, the crisis years in Spain have been our best years at Madrid & Beyond. Whether that is a measure of our luck or abilities, or an upsurge of discerning travelers coming to Spain it’s hard to say, but my message to everyone is the same as before… Prepare to have one of the best vacations of your life!”   

Anything else you would like to add?  

Just a quick word of thanks to all those travel agents we work with around the world…. Thank you for entrusting us with the trips of your clients. We will continue to strive to provide them with the best possible experience of Spain; its culture and people.

Again, thank you very much for your time and good luck in 2014.

You’re welcome. I hope the readers find my answers interesting and that they’re useful for them.