The region of Castille and Leon in northwestern Spain is one of the top wine-producing areas in the country and boasts nine wine routes. One of those, the route of El Bierzo, follows the Way of St James, a portion of the famed “Camino” or pilgrims walk to Santiago. Bierzo is known for its numerous family-owned vineyards that have been passed down from generation to generation. The main grape varieties are Mencia for the reds and Gocello for the whites. The area has become a popular destination for wine tourism.
I visited two family-owned vineyards with outstanding red and white wines. The first, Cantarina, is just outside the very picturesque village of Villafranca del Bierzo. Both the town and the vineyard are definitely a visit. And of course, visits come with wine tastings accompanied by fabulous Iberian ham, artisan goat cheeses and tuna or meat empanada pies.
The second vineyard, Palacio de Canada, is a combination vineyard, hotel and restaurant. The visit included a rather elaborate lunch on their spectacular outdoor porch with gazpacho (small cones filled with salmon and tuna), croquettes (ham rolls with quince and foie gras) and an excellent dessert of lemon mouse topped with homegrown chestnuts in a fabulous syrup. This was followed by a tour of the vineyard complete with carts to drive you around the grounds.
The Bierzo area is also known for Las Medulas, where you can hike around a former gold mine that dates back to the Romans who, through an amazing feat of engineering, discovered a technique of blasting and pumping water through the mountains to extract the gold. A UNESCO World Heritage site, the landscape today consists of mounds of reddish clay peaks with a series of holes and tunnels caused by the water flows.
The city of Ponferrada is a convenient place to stay while exploring the area. The city dates back to the 10th Century when the Templar Knights built a fortress to protect themselves against invaders. It is one of the best preserved castles I’ve ever seen and if you’re lucky, you’ll be there at the end of June for their annual Templar Knights Festival that takes place under the light of the first full moon. So, check the dates! The town takes this very seriously with parades, knighting ceremonies, and a medieval fair. One night, the castle was the setting for an elaborate falcon display. Move over Harry Potter! Men and women in medieval costumes sent falcons from turrets at one end of the castle to the other end. Another night, dinner was served to about 600 people under a tent on the upper grounds of the castle. Everyone came dressed in medieval clothing.
After Bierzo, I ate my way through Madrid and can recommend two restaurants highly. The first is Dani Brasserie, a rooftop bar and restaurant on top of the Four Seasons Hotel with spectacular views of Madrid. There are awnings for shade and the food is amazing. The restaurant is one of several that the celebrated chef Dani Garcia has in Madrid. One of the dishes gave him his second Michelin star. It is a Tomate Nitro, with a tomato in the center surrounded by a ring of shrimp tartar and green pepper gazpacho with a touch of yuzu, an Asian citrus fruit very popular in Spain currently. For a more casual ambiance, try the Llama Inn, a fusion Peruvian/Japanese restaurant. Tapas, anyone? Devour Tours offers a variety of tapas tours. I did one in the Letras neighborhood and thought the white vermouth was terrific!
Of course, summer in Spain has to include something near the coast and beaches. An easy train ride from Madrid takes you direct to Benicassim on the eastern coast about an hour north of Valencia. It is a popular summer vacation spot for Madrilenos, but off the beaten path for foreigners. I stayed at a spa hotel called the Palasiet Thalasso Clinic and Hotel overlooking the Mediterranean. The saltwater pools were gorgeous and the well-equipped gym with pilates equipment had huge windows overlooking the sea. While spa treatments were abundant (sea algae wraps, massages under jet sprays, facials and other usual suspects), Palasiet is more than just a traditional spa. It is a clinic with doctors and various programs aimed at thalassotherapy, weight loss, stress reduction, nutrition, fitness and general well-being. The added benefit? The resort is just a few minutes walk to the beach and restaurants many of which offer the traditional paellas.