Tag Archives: food

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.

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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.

A SHORT ESCAPE TO SEVILLA

Last month I was lucky enough to go on an “inspection trip” to beautiful Sevilla. It wasn’t the first time I’ve visited this lovely city but this time I got to experience some of the private tours and special experiences which we at Madrid & Beyond arrange for our clients there. I stayed in a couple of hotels where our clients sometimes stay thus experiencing first-hand the facilities and services, and visited several others in the short time available.

For those who don’t know Sevilla, the capital of Andalusia is a captivating and beautiful city. It is well known for being a city of flamenco and bulls, the city of Carmen and Don Juan. Its history and culture give rise to pride, tradition, passion and joy. It’s easy to be seduced by its enchanting neighborhoods, with its twisting narrow streets, stunning patios and squares lined with orange trees. The most important monument in Sevilla is its enormous cathedral, the third largest, and the largest Gothic building in the world, featuring the tomb of Christopher Columbus and its 12th-century bell-tower, La Giralda, originally built by the Moors as a minaret.

The Cathedral and its "Giralda"
The Cathedral and its “Giralda”

The day I arrived, I checked into the 4* Hotel Fontecruz Los Seises, a newly renovated hotel of very special design, construction and history. What was once a sixteenth century palace belonging to the Archbishop is now an elegant and modern hotel that closely maintains its links with its past. Inside one can discover a Roman mosaic, an Arab well and sixteenth century columns amongst other attractions. A great plus in the warmer months is its rooftop offering an expansive terrace, and a small swimming pool and wonderful views of historic Sevilla.

After visiting the hotel, it was out to enjoy a Private Bike Tour of Sevilla. After meeting my English speaking guide, we got on our comfortable bikes and started riding through the historic city center. As my guide told me, there’s no better way to visit Sevilla than by bike. The city is flat, full of cycle lanes and usually very sunny… in fact it’s been recognized as the 4th best city in the world for cycling, according to several researches. I can only agree with it… in three hours and with little effort we visited most of the landmarks of the city, including the Barrio de Santa Cruz (Jewish Quarter), the Sevilla University (former tobacco factory), the incredible Maria Luisa Park and the Plaza de España, the riverside and the Triana neighborhood.

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View from the Triana bridge

My second day in Sevilla started with a very special Private Cooking Class. The host for the day picked me up at the hotel and we headed to the Triana Market, where we soaked up the atmosphere and purchased some of the ingredients for the class. After that we headed to our “workplace”, a kitchen located at beautiful penthouse property in the centre of Seville, with large roof terrace. During the preparation of the dishes, I was able to taste some local delicacies together with some drinks. The class was “hands on” and I get involved as much as I could in the preparation of the typical Andalusian dishes. After the class, we enjoyed the fruits of our “hard” labor with a sumptuous meal washed down by some excellent “house” wine…

Kitchen-Terrace
Kitchen and Terrace

After the class I headed to my next stay over, the impressive Hotel Alfonso XIII, which was designed in 1928 to be one of Europe’s most luxurious hotels. After huge renovation work completed in 2012, the hotel is in mint condition and there is no better time to stay here than now. Named after the king who commissioned it in 1928, Hotel Alfonso XIII was built to provide fitting accommodation for the heads of state and high-ranking guests that attended the 1929 Great Ibero-American Exhibition. Today, this famous hotel continues the tradition of luxury and impeccable service for all its distinguished guests. Located a short walk from the Reales Alcázares and Plaza de España, the hotel is the most distinguished address in Sevilla. For those who like to wallow in its comforts, there are also lush gardens, a lovely typical Sevillian inner courtyard with fountain and an sizeable outdoor pool during the summer.

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Alfonso XIII at night

Having been shown the hotel, there was little time to spare before meeting my local guide who took me to a Private Tapas Tour of Sevilla (yes, more food!!!). Tapas is one of Spain’s most famous and enjoyable ways of having a meal. It normally involves visiting a number of bars during the course of an evening, trying local delicacies and sharing each dish with your companions. As my guide says, Sevilla is one of the best cities in Spain for tapas. It is after all, the home of the tapas and has a very large number of bars per inhabitant, offering an amazing range of food. After talking about the food and drinks I would like to try, we head to the first bar, where we tasted some delicious seafood dishes: “tortillitas de camarón” (shrimp omelets)  and “ortiguillas” (battered seaweed) with some beer. Then in the second bar we tried a delicious jamón ibérico and “torreznos” (thick pieces of marinated fried rasher) with some red wine. We finished our tour in a bar where we tried some “secreto ibérico” (pork special cut) and a healthy salad… It was indeed a very food-focused day!

"Ortiguillas"  Source: cosasdecome
“Ortiguillas” Source: cosasdecome

On my last day in Sevilla I took the chance to visit a few other hotels in the Andalusian capital, including:

After a hard day visiting hotels and taking notes about the different types of rooms, the common areas and discussing the added values we get for our clients in each of the properties, I headed to Santa Justa train station and board the AVE (high speed train) to Madrid.

What an intense couple of days but I still felt there was so much more to soak up and enjoy about Sevilla. It’s hard to disagree with those who call it Spain’s most beautiful city; and with such wonderful hosts and guides, it’s a winner every time!

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.

Spain in 2014 (January-March)

Happy New Year to all our readers!!! From the Insider’s Spain Blog we hope that you will have many blessings in this 2014 and, why not, this might be the year you decide to visit our beloved Spain. If so, just continue reading and find out about some of the celebrations, cultural and sport events, festivals, etc. taking place in our country during the first three months of the year!

January 2014

It’s the end of the Christmas and New Year Holidays, and Spain goes back to “real life”… Just after these dates, from the second week of January, it’s the beginning of the sales season (Rebajas) which will be running in most of the shops and shopping malls until the end of February. During this time, retailers encourage us to keep spending (in case we didn’t do it enough during the holidays) by putting the prices of their products down (up to a 70% in some places!).

In Madrid, there’s a travel fair which has become more and more popular in the last decades: FITUR, which celebrates its 34th anniversary and will take place from January 22-26. The International Tourism Trade Fair of Madrid, with more than 200,000 visitors per year, is an important date for many in the travel business. Apart from FITUR, the city will also host the Gastrofestival, from January 24 to February 9, in which there will be many gastronomic routes, events, exhibitions, special menus, etc. along the city. The festival showcases one of Spain’s strongest identities in a fun, encompassing manner, bringing on board great national and international chefs but also combining with the worlds of fashion and art.

Source: Gastrofestival
Source: Gastrofestival

February 2014

The main festival taking place in Spain during this month is the Carnival. This year, the Carnival will take place from February 27 to March 9. Although there will be celebrations in most of the regions in Spain, the most popular places to enjoy the Carnival are Cadiz (Andalusia) and Tenerife (Canary Islands).

The Carnival of Cadizis one of the most popular in the World (it’s been awarded as a Festival of International Tourist Interest) and it receives every year more than 100,000 visitors. Apart from the costumes, etc. the highlight of this festival are the “chirigotas”, satirical groups of performers and their songs full of sarcasm and parody.

The Carnival of Tenerife has also been awarded as a Festival of International Tourist Interest. It does also attract people from around the World and it is considered the second most popular and internationally-known carnival, after the one held in Rio de Janeiro. Compare to Cadiz, this Carnival is more spectacular (in terms of costumes, parades, etc.) and mores similar to the idea of the Brazilian Carnival, which is famous Worldwide.

Carnival
Source: carnavaltenerife.es

March 2014

The Fallas in Valencia are the most important event in March. The days before Saint Joseph’s Day (March 19) the streets of Valencia are full of decorations (including the spectacular wooden constructions – ninots) and people celebrating (open air bars, music bands, etc.). Everyday tons of firecrackers and fireworks are thrown so, if you’re noise sensitive this might not be the perfect festival for you. On the last day of the celebrations (March 19) all the ninots (wooden constructions), except from the contest winner (which is spared) are burnt as huge bonfires, which is the culmination of this festival.

Apart from this festival, for those sport lovers, on the weekend of March 22-23 the “Clasico” soccer game Real Madrid vs F.C. Barcelona will take place at the Santiago Bernabeu Stadium (in Madrid). This is probably the most important soccer game in the World (at a clubs level) and it’s followed with interest by fans all around the globe. Do contact us if you are interested in securing tickets.

Source: resultados-futbol.com
Source: resultados-futbol.com

In the next few months we will publish another post with the upcoming events, festivals, etc. taking place in Spain during the second trimester of 2014, starting with the Holy Week Parades in Sevilla…

Stay tuned!