ciento volando

travel, stories, and other flights of fancy


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Madrid, Marqués (de Riscal)… and me (me me)

Another belated and miscellaneous post – for a bit of a ‘where in the world’ update, and to share some photos from a weekend away (which was quite a few weekends ago!).

I’ve never thought of that before… how the retrospective nature of most ‘posts’ lends a double meaning to the word. Very neat.

For any of you who were curious as to my current whereabouts, you’ve probably now guessed the answer; Madrid. After an intense summer of hosting visitors, farewelling Segovia, hiking the Camino de Santiago, and going home to Australia for a month (where the littler of my two big little brothers got married)… I came back to Spain in September, the plan this time being to seek my fortune in the nation’s capital.

There’s nothing like life in a big city to push you to drink, which is why, about a fortnight after moving to Madrid, I was pretty desperate to get out of town for a weekend and head wine-ward (north). My brother and his gir-wife(!) were visiting Spain on their honeymoon, and I planned the trip for the three of us, thinking (not entirely selfishly) that it would be a good way to show them some less touristy parts of the country, and indulge our shared enthusiasm for vino tinto. Having already been to La Rioja earlier this year ‘on reconnaissance’, I was familiar with Logroño and its famous nucleus of bars, La Laurel. But the most important part of our excursion, the bodega (winery), was new to me and a bit of a gamble. Thanks to serendipity, coincidence, and a post-reservation recommendation, we were booked in for a tour at the bodega Marqués de Riscal. To get there, we enthusiastically bussed our way to a little village I’d never even heard of before, appropriately called El Ciego (The Blind Man). There we stumbled across a restaurant called La Cueva, where we lined our stomachs with an excellent value €12 set menu (3 courses, bread, wine, and as much cider as you can drink), before continuing on foot to the main event…

The shiny new Marqués de Riscal “City of wine” was designed by Frank Gehry, of Bilbao Guggeheim fame. For a centuries old winery this was a somewhat controversial choice of architect. Gehry’s instantly recognisable, metallic, undulating edifice creates a striking contrast against the matte and earthy landscape of the Rioja. Strangely enough, it works. This is possibly due to the ‘wine inspired hues’ of the iridescent titanium waves, which are purple and copper-ish, depending on the light. We were lucky enough to visit Marqués de Riscal on a sunny autumn afternoon, when the countryside was in all its autumn-y splendour. However, much of the tour was spent indoors, and in some parts, below ground. For me the highlight was an impressively dusty cellar, where the best of the best wines from every year since 1858 were stored under lock and key (a bit like the wine equivalent of the ancient manuscript museum of Oxford’s Bodleian Library, a.k.a. the forbidden books section in Harry Potter). Apparently some of this wine was integral in persuading Mr.Gehry to agree to the design contract, and the bottles were so old they had to be cut open with a hot wire. In short, the tour was entertaining and informative, the guide spoke excellent English, and although we would’ve liked to have tried more wines for free (who wouldn’t), I think it was incredibly good value. It is a shame though that they don’t offer any ‘mid-range’ tastings (somewhere between the basic 2 wine package, and the complete Michelin starred degustation).  Naturally, we continued our own, self-guided tasting in the groovy, mood lit wine bar… which merged dangerously into a gift shop… and when the cab* arrived to collect us, we were somehow a whole lot heavier and lighter at the same time. *Unfortunately the local bus company offered no return transport to Logroño, but such was our contentment at the end of the day, that this didn’t seem much of a flaw at all.

So… operation big success… either that or the newlyweds were too polite to say otherwise. I certainly enjoyed their visit, and after nearly a week of quality time and carefree culinary indulgence, I was sad to see them go. Having my brother and new sister in law around was a welcome distraction, and a pretext to stretch out the summer’s festivities (although it was autumn it still felt like summer). Their departure marked the end of this phase and the impetus for a stark but necessary return to reality.

No more excuses, it was time to settle in properly and make something of my new ‘home’.

* * *

Madrid is an incredible city; a hub of almost everything and, despite Spain’s lingering financial crisis, a place which, at least in my eyes, is still brimming with opportunities… for those smart, bold, lucky and hardworking enough to find them (I’m not kidding myself).  Prior to this, I’d already enjoyed three challenging, but relatively tame and peaceful years in small-town Spain, starting in Hinojosa del Duque (have fun finding that one on the map!) and most recently in Segovia. However a few months ago I decided it was time to shake things up a bit and see what the big smoke had to offer – my reasons being primarily financial and creative; I felt as though I’d hit a wall in both departments. My closest friends in Segovia were also moving their separate ways, another sign it was time for ‘a change of airs’. Perhaps Madrid would deliver me an instantaneous network of lucrative private students, inspiring writers groups, girls sports teams (why are these so hard to find?), and bohemian artist friends (with a convenient surplus of backstage passes and high end hospitality connections)…

Surprisingly enough, this hasn’t happened, yet. And whilst I am incredibly grateful for having fallen on my feet in the work and accommodation departments, the first month or so in Madrid didn’t quite mirror the starry vision of my daydreams. In fact, I found it pretty tough, morale wise, and the question “what am I doing here and what on earth am I doing with my life?” crossed my mind more than once. This was no doubt due to an inevitable come-down after such an intense summer (tooo much thinking), and the shock-to-the-system of the daily realities of life in a big city (such an overly complicated, arduous affair!). Sometimes I wonder if my dream to be a writer is truly based on wanting to write, or simply wanting to never have to commute to work?! (In which case I’m sure there are much simpler and better paid career options out there!).

Anyway, I’m not going to bore you with my petty gripes and bureaucratic, professional, financial, emotional, and public transport related frustrations (oops, just did!), but suffice to say, I found the first month of this ‘next chapter in life’ to be pretty frustrating. Friends kept telling me that things would come good and it was just a matter of patience, and of course I agreed with them, but it was something I needed to remind myself of all too frequently.

In the end, not so much patience was needed after all. It’s amazing how quickly things turned around. Getting my first proper pay cheque alleviated one massive stress factor, as did the slow but steady increase in private student numbers. I finally managed to ship the last of my belongings over from Segovia, had a few long overdue catch ups, and found my running groove. I’ve now started Yoga, and am giving girls indoor soccer a go next week. I still ‘strongly dislike’ commuting, but I’m finding strategies to avoid/tolerate the peak hour crush. And thanks to the technological know-how of one of my housemates, I’m back on board (‘fully armed and operational’) in the computer department, having fortuitously ended up with not one, but two functioning laptops (I’ve renamed the little one ‘Lazarus’).

Now I know that it was never supposed to be, but life is getting easier. The momentary self-doubt has passed and the optimistic buzz has returned… I can’t help getting excited about what’s on the horizon (ok, a lot of hard work), and I have the feeling…that coming here was a very good move.

view from my new rooftop, Madrid

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Logroño, a recipe for crazy dreams

Basque Witch Craze - Edict of grace from the Spanish InquisitionIn 1610, six Basque women accused of witchcraft were burned at the stake out the front of the Santa María Cathedral of Logroño (a city in the north of Spain, just below the Pyrenees mountains). The Spanish Inquisition, notoriously unmerciful in some regards but generally forgiving of witches, announced the existence of a “Devil’s sect” in the area, sparking fear, hysteria, and the first ever full blown witch craze in Spanish history. At the public execution (which was attended by some 30,000 spectators), papier-maché effigies were also sacrificed, of another five unfortunate heretics who had (perhaps mercifully) died of typhoid before the burning ceremony. Fortunately, due to the tireless investigation and campaigning efforts of a heroic young Inquisitor, Alonso de Salazar, the witch panic was eventually quashed. No more innocent old ladies were murdered, and the Logroño executions became an anomaly in Spanish history (unlike much of Europe, where witch hunts were carried out for centuries, and the death toll ran into the tens of thousands).

Today in Logroño, there is a commemorative sign (not quite a plaque) where the burnings took place, which briefly states what happened and lists the unpronounceable Basque names of the victims.

But most visitors to the area aren’t really interested in its bloody medieval history. Most visitors to Logroño are there for only one thing: wine.

Logroño is the capital of La Rioja, probably the most famous wine region of Spain. Like pretty much every city, town and village in the country, it boasts a remarkably large number of bars and restaurants in proportion to the size of its population. So what’s so good about Logroño? Well, a glass of lovely Rioja is particularly cheap there (as it should be!), and the pinchos (bar food) are also cheap, and really, really yummy. But most importantly, the city is a starting point to visit the many bodegas (wineries) of the area.

The majority of the bodegas are in the countryside, scattered across the three distinct subdivisions of the region; Rioja Alta, Rioja Baja and Rioja Alavesa. In order to visit a selection of bodegas and see as much as possible of the beautiful landscape, a car would be ideal. But cars and winery tours aren’t really a great combination, especially when everyone else is driving on the wrong side of the road. So unless you can afford a private chauffeur, or want to limit yourself to an organised tour (I found none that appealed), everyday shoestring tourists and backpackers are limited to travelling by bus and/or on foot. Which still leaves plenty of possibilities.

Haro is a small town about an hour from Logroño, and home to a large concentration of bodegas (what is the collective noun for ‘winery’, I wonder?). The bus ride is picturesque, and passes through a few small towns which are home to more bodegas and touristy points of interest (wine museums and the like).

It’s recommended to book bodega tours in advance. Plenty of information and contact details are available on the La Rioja website.

Ramon Bilbao American oak barrelsIn Haro, a friend and I visited Ramon Bilbao, one of the newer wineries. This was partly because, of the many I had contacted, they had got back to me offering a tour at a time and price most convenient to our needs (yes, we needed a wine tour). But, coincidentally, Ramon Bilbao just happens to be my favourite La Rioja wine (of the few that I have tried). I even took a bottle of it home to my family last Christmas. It may not be the best or the oldest or the most famous Rioja wine, but for me it is special, and now even more so.

The tour cost 8€, and included a very generous ‘tasting’ of three wines; the Crianza (aged at least 2 years, 1 in oak), Reserva (aged at least 3 years, 1 in oak), and Gran Reserva (aged at least 5 years, 2 in oak). Cristina, our guide, was friendly, animated, and suitably passionate about wine (bordering on poetic). She did a wonderful job of explaining the complex scientific process in layman’s terms, and was overwhelmingly non-elitist in her viewpoint towards the ageing process and personal taste. She also sang to herself at random intervals. I probably would too, if I had her job.

Haro reportedly has a picturesque town centre, and a suburb of winery-outlet bars (cellar doors?). However, due to the inconvenient return-bus schedule, and unbearably windy weather, we decided to go head straight back to Logroño for a post-wine tour siesta.

Our accommodation in Logroño couldn’t have been better if we’d paid double. Hostel Entresueños was cheap, spacious, spotlessly clean, and the staff were friendly and helpful. It had good kitchen facilities, and a comfy lounge and dining area. Best of all, as it was relatively empty, our dorm accommodation was upgraded to a private room with a balcony overlooking the main drag.

The hostel was a stone’s throw from Calle Laurel, a long, narrow, winding street, where all the pinchos bars can be found. My favourite pinchos were the ferrero de morcilla (a ball of rich melted cheese, encased in black pudding and toasted almonds, made to look like a giant Ferrero Rocher), and the bacalao rebozado (lightly battered cod fillet with roasted mini green capsicum), which were both served at a bar called El Muro (the decor was a little too orange for my taste, but the pinchos were worth it).

The city centre of Logroño is quite compact, and can easily be traversed in an afternoon. So that, and a day trip to Haro or any of the other surrounding villages, makes a nice little weekend getaway. I don’t really have an opinion on whether Logroño itself was pretty or not, it probably is in summer. But the weather affects your image of a place, and we really lucked out in that department.

So that was the end of our Carnival long weekend. Zaragoza and Logroño, Goya and mudéjar. Red wine, rich food, and wild, windy weather. Carnival is only half heartedly celebrated in the area, so from Friday to Monday there was a random sprinkling of people in fancy dress, with no apparent rhyme or reason. Suddenly you would be sitting next to Cruella Deville and a baby in a Dalmatian jumpsuit. Are they pirates or have those girls just overdone the eye makeup? And to make matters even more surreal, I was reading Bestiario, a collection of really weird short stories by Julio Cortázar. Houses possessed by faceless demons and people vomiting up rabbits etc.

And then there’s the true history, the witch craze of 1611…   I’ve been having the strangest dreams recently.