Let’s go, amigos!
By Barbara Gibbs Ostmann
Photos by the author
Costa Blanca … Costa Daurada … the mere words conjure up images of warmth, sand and sunshine, just the antidote to chilly North American winter weather. Now is the time to head to the Mediterranean coast of Spain, where the weather is already warm. Going in the spring or fall offers great weather along with fewer tourists and lower, shoulder-season prices.
Spain is hot, hot, hot right now — from cuisine to fashion. Let’s go, amigos!
Most flights from the United States fly into Madrid, and then connect to coastal cities such as Valencia or Barcelona. (Fly Iberian Airlines to get yourself into the Spanish state of mind.) Allow a few days for a Madrid sojourn before heading to the coast. The capital city is beautiful, packed with museums, great restaurants and many things to see and do.
The Gran Hotel Canarias Madrid makes a great home base. It is right in the center of town, across from the recently expanded Prado Museum and next to the Thyssen Museum.
Dining is a great pastime in Madrid, and Plaza Mayor is a good place to start. The area around the plaza is loaded with restaurants, such as Casa Botin, famous for its Castilian specialties and its listing in the Guinness Book of Records as the oldest restaurant in the world (circa 1725). Plaza Santa Ana, a short walk from the hotel and many museums, is home to lively tapas bars and wine bars. Near the Royal Palace, try the Café de Oriente. At the Thyssen Museum, dine in the terrace garden of the museum restaurant. For a simple and fun meal, check out the Museo del Jamon (Ham Museum), a chain of deli-cafes where you can see hanging hams, have a glass of sherry and a plate of sliced ham.
THE COSTA BLANCA
Tearing yourself away from Madrid, hop a plane or train and head to Alicante to begin your coastal voyage, then work your way northward along the coast to Barcelona, with as many stops along the way as your schedule will allow (or start in Barcelona and head south). Travel by rental car, plane or train, according to your preference and budget.
Alicante is on the Costa Blanca, or White Coast, and its beaches are spectacular. But there’s much more to do than lie on the sand and soak up the rays. Whether you take a guided city tour or wander on your own, don’t miss the imposing Santa Barbara Castle, which towers 500 feet above the city center, with panoramic views of the city below and the Mediterranean Sea. Early risers will enjoy the traditional covered market, the Mercado Centrale, bustling with vendors. Enjoy dinner at La Taberna del Gourmet or Nou Manolin.
A good base for exploring this area is the Hotel Hospes Amerigo, a beautifully renovated convent in the heart of Alicante. While the exterior is historic, the interior is ultra modern and comfortable.
A window detail in Villajoyosa
Nearby towns include Elche and Villajoyosa, each worth a visit. In Elche, a majestic date palm grove with 600,000 trees, planted by the Phoenicians and later cultivated by the Moors, will take your breath away. Palm fronds from these trees are used for Palm Sunday celebrations throughout Spain. The grove itself is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Take time to visit the Basilica of Santa Maria, the Huerto del Cura Botanic Gardens and the Archaeological Museum. Enjoy lunch (paella, anyone?) at Els Capellans Restaurant in the peaceful and beautiful surroundings of Hotel Huerto del Cura.
The picturesque fishing port of Villajoyosa is a major center of Spain’s chocolate production. A must stop is the Valor Chocolate Factory and the Chocolate Museum. You’ll want to stock up on Valor chocolate for gifts for the folks back home. For a scenic lunch stop, try the luxurious Hotel El Montiboli, perched on a cliff overlooking the Mediterranean. The dining room is wrapped in windows, with a view as divine as the food.
Next stop: Valencia, one of the most exciting cities in Europe, with its cosmopolitan mixture of old and new, tradition and trendiness, sophistication and casualness. The Hotel Astoria Palace, in the heart of the Old Quarter, is a great place to call home in Valencia.
Begin your visit with a walking tour of the historic Old Quarter, with the Central Market, fascinating La Lonja Silk Exchange, unique Lace Market, Plaza Redonda and the beautiful St. Mary’s cathedral with its legendary Holy Chalice, believed to be the chalice used by Jesus Christ at the Last Supper.
For a complete change of pace, head to the ultra-modern City of Arts and Sciences, a museum where the building and grounds are as spectacular as what is inside. Other good choices include the Fine Arts Museum, Valencian Institute of Modern Art or the National Ceramics Museum.
Be sure to visit the bustling, revitalized port area, home of the 32nd America’s Cup competition in 2007, and future home of the 33rd America’s Cup in 2009. There will be a pre-regatta in July 2008.
The port of Valencia hosted the America’s Cup in 2007 and will host it again in 2009.
Regattas prior to the 32nd America’s Cup provided excitement for observers and participants alike.
If you like being next to the water, you might opt to stay at the new and beautiful Hotel Las Arenas, with its lush gardens and stunning pavilions overlooking the sea. Indulge in its luxurious spa, or dine in the elegant Restaurante Sorolla.
Beautiful gardens and buildings of the Hotel Las Arenas on the waterfront in Valencia.
(left to right) The central market at Valencia is always bustling.; The National Ceramics Museum in Valencia has a remarkable exterior.; The ultra-modern City of Arts and Sciences is a must-see in Valencia.
For food to fuel your sightseeing, consider a stop for fideua, a paella made with noodles instead of rice, at Restaurante Submarino in the Oceanografico, or sample tapas at one of the many restaurants in the Old Quarter.
Be sure to try horchata, the artisanal beverage for which Valencia is known. A great place to get the real thing is in the suburb of Alboraya, where the chufa (tiger nut), the key ingredient in horchata, grows. The Horchateria Daniel serves a delicious horchata with the traditional accompaniment of freshly baked pastries.
Horchata is a popular beverage in Valencia.
For a charming outing and an authentic heartland paella, head out of town to the Albufhera, where you can take a boat ride through the shallow freshwater lagoon, a natural park known for many species of birds and fish, and visit a barraca, a traditional fisherman’s hut near the rice paddies and orange groves. La Matandeta is a rural farmhouse restaurant where the paella is cooked over firewood in a huge pan.
Exterior and interior shots of a barraca, a traditional fisherman’s house in the Albufhera.
FROM HISTORIC CASTLE TO MODERN SPA
For a historic stop on your route north, make a slight detour to the medieval town of Tortosa and spend the night in the charming Castillo de la Zuda Parador, a 10th-century castle. Be sure to get there in time to wander the streets of this picturesque village and explore the castle itself. For dinner, sample regional specialties in the parador’s restaurant.
This 10th century castle is now the Castillo de la Zuda Parador, a delightful place to spend a few nights.
(clockwise) The convent garden is an oasis of peace within the bustling city of Tarragona.; Exquisite Roman mosaics are preserved in museums in Tarragona.; The Le Meridien Ra Beach Hotel and Spa in El Vendrell must be seen and experienced to be believed.
Heading on to the Costa Daurada (Golden Coast), stop in the town of El Vendrell and spend a night –- or two or three -– at the ultra-modern and ultra-luxe Le Meridien Ra Beach Hotel and Spa. Splurge for spa treatments, such as the chocolate massage. Enjoy the beach, or play in one of the pools. Be sure to dine at least once in the hotel’s La Vinya del Penedes restaurant.
ROMAN ECHOES IN TARRAGONA
The next stop on your northward route is Tarragona, an ancient Roman city with layer upon layer of ruins, designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. Be sure to take a guided tour of the old town so you can understand the many layers of history upon which Tarragona is built. Each spring the town celebrates its heritage with Tarraco Viva, a Roman festival and games.
Excavated Roman ruins are interspersed throughout the modern city of Tarragona, which was built upon layers of Roman ruins.
Visit Tarragona’s port and see the fishing boats arrive in the late afternoon. Watch the fisherman as they auction their fish and mend their nets. For a traditional mariner’s menu, dine in the seaside Restaurante La Puda and sample Tarragona’s famous Romesco sauce. Or, savor authentic tapas at Restaurante La Nau, tucked away on Calle La Nau in the old town.
An ancient viaduct outside of Tarragona stands as a mute testament to the wonders of the Roman age.
The final stop (or the first, if you travel in the opposite direction), is Barcelona, the jewel of Catalonia. It would take another entire article to do justice to the wonders of Barcelona and its environs. Check with the local tourist office for maps and current events, then head out to see the sites. The celebrated architectural marvels of Antoni Gaudi are a must, and you’ll see them in many places throughout the city. Be sure to climb the steep towers of the iconic Sagrada Familia, or temple of the Sacred Family, for an up close and personal look at this architectural wonder.
While wandering along La Rambla through the heart of the city, duck into La Boqueria market, the largest in all of Spain. After whetting your appetite in the market, you might want to sign up for a cooking class at the Hofmann Escuela de Hosteleria (Hofmann Hospitality School) to learn how to cook Catalan specialties.
The Hotel Catalonia Berna is a great location for the hub of your explorations, within walking distance of many sites and close to the subway for longer trips.
A side trip to the Black Madonna Shrine of Montserrat, perched impossibly upon the steep mountains outside of Barcelona, is a must.
For more information about Spain, contact the Tourist Office of Spain in New York (212-265-8822); Miami (305-358-1992); Chicago (312-642-1992) or Los Angeles (323-658-7188) or go to www.spain.info.