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Mostly Food & Travel Journal

El Mosquito Restaurant

Galicia – deliciously diverse

Hotel Bon Sol, Mallorca

Mallorca for the Arts

Marisqueria Bahia

Maruja Limón

Remelluri Organic Winery

Tapas Bars and Michelin Stars

Travels & Tapas in Basque Country

Valencia

Vigo – crab, clams and continuity

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All restaurant, hotel and product reviews are sponsored; however, the resulting articles are unbiased and the opinions expressed are my own.

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Travel Reviews
- Spain

On this page:

El Mosquito Restaurant

Galicia – deliciously diverse

Hotel Bon Sol, Mallorca

Mallorca for the Arts

Marisqueria Bahia

Maruja Limón

Remelluri Organic Winery

Tapas Bars and Michelin Stars

Travels & Tapas in Basque Country

Valencia

Vigo – crab, clams and continuity


Mallorca for the Arts

mallorca chopins house We might well think we know everything about Mallorca – possibly spelled Majorca and often pronounced with a hard ‘j’! It’s evidently a tapestry of an island and so far we are just considering the name!

This is a beautiful island which has laboured under the touristic yoke of cheap package tours and ‘English Pubs’ with all that they imply. But there is another face of Mallorca – one of history, culture and the arts. This represents a far greater proportion of the island than the relatively small area of high-rise hotels and iffy t-shirts.

Composer Frederick Chopin and his lover George Sand discovered the charm of Mallorca in 1838 before modern trippers fell upon the island’s beaches. His health was failing with what was later diagnosed as tuberculosis.

mallorca chopinFrederick and George made a strange and noteworthy couple, although it should be mentioned that the aforementioned George was a woman, a French author called Amantine-Lucile-Aurore Dupin. She was evidently a radical cigar-smoking, betrousered lady who was bound to arouse comments. They were evicted from their villa near the capital, Palma, due to the fear of Chopin’s lung disease and the couple’s unorthodox lifestyle.

They discovered a 13th century Carthusian monastery in the hilltop town of Valldemossa, and here they lived for the following months. The monastery was originally built as a royal palace; however in 1399 it had been converted into a monastery. The Spanish government had confiscated monasteries in the 1830s and the estate was sold to private owners. One can learn something of their experiences in a book written by George Sand called A Winter in Majorca.

T mallorca graves he monastery is now a museum where one can see the three rooms and a garden terrace once enjoyed by Chopin and his lady-love. There is a jar-filled pharmacy dating from the 1720s, an original manuscript from Chopin’s final work, and what is thought to be his piano.

Valldemossa is a beautiful and unspoilt village and worth a visit even if Chopin isn’t your favourite composer. There are small shops and bars, bakeries and stunning views across the valley. These stone buildings offer a glimpse of life centuries ago. It’s often cooler here than on the coast, with refreshing breezes and the perfume of wild flowers.

Decades later writer Robert Graves discovered the joy of Mallorcan hill life. It was he who wrote I Claudius and many more popular novels of the 20th century. He lived in Deià, from 1929 (with a short break for the war) until his death. He was fleeing the psychological damage that had plagued him after he was badly injured at the Battle of the Somme in July 1916.

His house has been refurbished and adapted for visitors, and was opened to the public in the summer of 2006. One can see the kitchen, bedroom, sitting room and office. One has the sense that the great man might just have stepped out into the garden to collect some artichokes. The vegetable garden is well-established and will be of great interest to anyone with green fingers. Yes, those artichokes are flourishing but so are the fruit trees, giving oranges to be made into the quintessentially English marmalade.

mallorca wine There is a section of the house which has been transformed into a museum and this holds manuscripts, memorabilia and books giving an overview of the life of Robert Graves. There are copies of his novels in a multitude of languages, showing just how internationally well-regarded he was. Perhaps some holiday reading should be the memoir “Good-bye to All That,” with its focus on World War I, which had such an impact on the author. Robert Graves died in Mallorca and is buried in a surprisingly humble grave under a great cypress tree in the lovely local churchyard, and it’s a must-visit for his many literary admirers.

But where to stay in Mallorca? The Hotel Bon Sol (review here) makes a convenient base for visiting all the attractions of Palma, just a short bus ride away, and also the hills behind with those beautiful villages and their cultural connections. Mallorca has more to offer than an English Breakfast.


Visit Robert Graves’ House here


Visit Valldemossa here


Hotel Bon Sol Resort & Spa has 146 rooms and villas spread through the grounds, with excellent dining and leisure facilities including a luxury spa, 3 swimming pools, tennis, and a quiet beach cove.
Visit Hotel Bon Sol Resort and Spa here

Classic Collection Holidays offers 3 / 7 nights at Hotel Bon Sol from £727 / £1252 per person. Prices based on 2 adults sharing a classic room on half-board basis with return flights from Gatwick (other regional airports available) and private transfers.
To book this hotel and others visit Classic Collection Holidays here or call 0800 294 9315.

For more information on Mallorca visit Fomento del Turisme www.fomentmallorca.org/en/.


food and travel reviews

Hotel Bon Sol – it’s a family affair

Bon SolThis deceptively large hotel couldn’t have a better location. Hotel Bon Sol Resort and Spa is in Illetas, which is only 8 km (5 miles) from central Palma. One doesn’t need the extra expense of car hire: the bus stop is only a few yards away and an attractive €1.50 for a short ride into town.

This is a fine 4-star Superior hotel but it has a story which continues. Antonio Xamena, father of the present owner, became interested in gardens of every kind, from village plots to palace landscapes. This passion would serve him well when designing the grounds of the future Bon Sol hotel. When he was 17, he left his village and began work as a clerk in a tailor’s shop, just at a time when Palma was becoming increasingly popular with French and English travellers. His language skills allowed him to become chief clerk and then area manager.

Antonio loved living by the sea and swimming, and would dive in every morning before work. But the expansion of the harbour made the water muddy near where he lived, and less ideal for his daily dip. There were still clear waters in a small bay at Illetas and there was an old villa there. He bought the property in 1951. He and his wife moved in and they decided to use the extra rooms as a guest house, where they would accommodate visitors. In June 1953 the first guest arrived and a year later Hollywood actor Errol Flynn stayed at the Bon Sol. He enjoyed it so much that he recommended a number of his friends to stay with the Xamena’s, who had become friends. The family have pictures of Errol Flynn teaching the present owner, Antonio’s son Martin, how to use a sword in true swashbuckling fashion. More land was acquired in 1957 including the small cove which is such an asset to this hotel.

Bon SolAntonio and his wife Roger travelled, and collected objets d’art in places they visited around the world. Those paintings, statues, carvings and wall-hangings add so much to the individual charm of the Bon Sol. There is evidence of traditional Spanish style with wood furniture, panels and stone, but there is so much more to fascinate the guest.

So Martin, the now-grown sword-fighting child, and Lorraine, his English wife, and their children continue the tradition of hospitality started by Martin’s parents. These folks are not anonymous owners but are very much hands-on. Martin, Lorraine and their son Alejandro can be seen around the hotel every day. They greet their guests, some of whom might have been coming to Bon Sol for many years, although this is a hotel catering to every age, and it is finding a new and appreciative audience with young families. Perhaps this is the strength of Bon Sol: one can teach hotel management but real hospitality is a personal skill and the Xamena family are genuinely welcoming and warm. They have staff who have been with them for decades and that is something of an accolade.

Bon SolHotel Bon Sol Resort and Spa has evolved over time. The main building has a new reception area. There is a spacious bar with an outside terrace on which to enjoy a chilled glass of cava on balmy evenings. There are plenty of quiet corners and sofas on which to enjoy a good book. There is a library, and computer terminals and a printer for the use of guests. There is wifi everywhere for those who just can’t extract themselves from work or, more importantly, Twitter.

It has improved and expanded. No two of its bedrooms and suites are alike, but they are all well-appointed, as one would expect from a 4-star Superior hotel. There is the aforementioned wifi, obligatory minibar and electronic in-room safe. But the comforting inclusion of the tea- and coffee-making tray is an asset so often overlooked in European hotels. Perhaps that’s Lorraine’s English input! There is a TV with a good selection of channels, bathrobe and slippers, toiletries and hairdryer in the spacious bathroom. There is air-conditioning for the summer and heating for the mild winter. My room had a balcony with views over the cove.

Bon SolLeisure facilities include a heated pool in which to exercise, a non-heated pool around which to sit (although the more hardy will swim), two tennis courts, squash, crazy golf, table tennis, pool table, volleyball, petanque, children’s playground, gym, saunas, spa, Turkish bath, thalasso and physiotherapy. So that’s your day sorted, then. There is a children’s club in the hotel from June to September where the younger members of the group can enjoy activities while parents relax.

A full English buffet breakfast and continental buffet is served in the winter-garden conservatory or down by the beach. This is a creditable spread, and don’t miss the local specialities and the Sunday cava. The buffet lunch will have vacationers drooling over salads, fish, meat, paella and some rather well-crafted desserts, but don’t be too tempted to fill up as dinner won’t be far away.

Bon Sol The restaurant in the main building is elegant and somewhat more formal. Glass sparkles and candlelight flickers. The food here compares favourably with independent restaurants, and an upgrade from half-board to full-board is exceptionally reasonable (bed-and-breakfast rates are also available). The chef introduces diners to local ingredients and wines which one won’t easily find away from Mallorca. Fish is particularly good. Meals might even be accompanied by entertainment: there is often a piano player and sometimes a flamenco evening which is vibrant and colourful.

Hotel Bon Sol Resort and Spa is close to Palma with its historic cathedral, high-end shops, galleries and bars, but there are other places to visit outside town, such as the monastery which became Frederick Chopin’s home, and the house of celebrated author Robert Graves, who penned many novels including I Claudius. There is so much more to this island and it can easily be discovered using Bon Sol as a base. There is culture, art, refinement here and it’s a world away from the high-rise mass-catering resorts of some parts of the coast.

Hotel Bon Sol Resort and Spa
Paseo de Illetas
30. Calviá
Mallorca

Phone: +34 971 402 111
Fax: +34 971 402 559
Email: bonsol@hotelbonsol.es


Hotel Bon Sol Resort & Spa has 146 rooms and villas spread through the grounds, with excellent dining and leisure facilities including a luxury spa, 3 swimming pools, tennis, and a quiet beach cove.
Visit Hotel Bon Sol Resort and Spa here

Classic Collection Holidays offers 3 / 7 nights at Hotel Bon Sol from £727 / £1252 per person. Prices based on 2 adults sharing a classic room on half-board basis with return flights from Gatwick (other regional airports available) and private transfers.
To book this hotel and others visit Classic Collection Holidays here or call 0800 294 9315.

For more information on Mallorca visit Fomento del Turisme www.fomentmallorca.org/en/.


food and travel reviews

Remelluri Organic Winery

The mountains have been here for 80 million years; humans have been using the mountains for a lot less time than that, but nevertheless for a long time, historically speaking. The Romans used one of the peaks as a military fort. Later, in the 14th century, a monastery was built that gave birth to this farm, producing cereal and wine for the monks - La Granja Nuestra Senora de Remelluri (Our Lady of Remelluri). In fact, the village of Remelluri dates from the 10th century, and was named after a Christian guerrilla fighter called Ramellis, who helped to push the Muslims south from the valley.

Remelluri In the 10th and 11th centuries the monks in the monasteries at nearby St Millan de Cogolla (now a UNESCO World Heritage site and well worth a visit) produced beautiful documents and drawings describing the picking and crushing of grapes.

The farm was abandoned in the 17th century and it had many different owners, until Jaime Rodriguez and his wife bought it in 1968 as a ruin. They started, little by little, to restore the walls and the house. At that time there was no electricity, no telephone, no roads. It was charming, beautiful, and this was one of the reasons that they bought it – as a romantic getaway for the summer break with the kids. They knew that they could make wine here, as fine wines were already being made in the village, long before the industrial ‘Rioja’ wines of modern times. The family made their first wine in 1971 – about 10,000 bottles – with the vines that were already here. Apart from the historic accident of the monks and the farm, it’s the geography, the nature, the place, the ‘terroir’, that makes Remelluri so interesting.

The traditional Rioja viticulture always took advantage of the bush-vine system (French ‘gobelet’ or Spanish ‘vaso’ – a small glass): there are three main stems trained above the trunk, which spread out making the perfect round shadow to counter the effect of heat and sun. The vines survive with no irrigation, as the owners are faithful to the traditional methods and are looking for quality rather than quantity. They maintain a density of 5000 plants per hectare, so that the roots have to compete with each other.

Geographically the vineyard is in the cooler, fresher part of Rioja, with a lot of influence from the Atlantic breezes. They have a north wind blowing all summer and autumn, bringing welcome rain and keeping the night-time temperature down below 20 degrees. This helps the vines to produce better because the leaves don’t close, so photosynthesis can continue. The contrast between the cool of the night and the heat of the day helps to develop complexity, acidity, and sugars so the wines become much more sophisticated. Some of these wines can age in the cellar for months, and in the bottle for decades.

Remelluri In spring the shoots of the vine are very fragile, and in those past days winters were long, with a lot of snow and ice, and autumn was very short. So the monks in the Middle Ages sited the farm in the best possible place to get the shelter from the surrounding hills, and terraced them to get the maximum sunshine. The vineyards here are at the highest elevation in the region.

In areas such as Xeres, the sherry-producing region of Spain, there were at one time up to 120 varieties of vine, and even here there were perhaps 60 varieties, but phylloxera destroyed most vines. When the disease decimated the French vineyards the owners came to Rioja and Navarra looking for clean plants, and started doing joint ventures with local merchants and aristocracy. That’s how the classic Rioja started. They built wineries in villages near railway stations, and sent wine in bulk to Bilbao harbour, to be bottled in London for sale to Europe. The business was dominated by the British and the French.

Remelluri only produce 6,000 bottles of white wine, and only have 4.5 hectares of vineyard dedicated to white grapes. In the east valley they have around 20 hectares of very old terraces used to make their most prestigious wines – a really sophisticated Granja Remelluri (10,000 bottles) that is aged for two years in the barrel followed by six years in the bottle. It’s a wine that will remain in good condition for half a century. The other notable red wine is Remelluri Reserva, which is the ‘house’ wine, aged 18 months, and they produce around 250,000 bottles.

Remelluri The owners consider that the biggest challenge is to set the best example, be the best model, for their wine-making neighbours. Remelluri represents almost 33% of the organic vineyard area in Rioja. Policies in Rioja have encouraged a massive increase in production, but have not favoured the traditional producers or protected the old terroirs. The authorities gave money to replace the old vines, and everything was bulldozed and destroyed, and there has been heavy criticism from international wine-writers and journalists. Remelluri, because the family liked the wines of Medoc, started using French oak barrels, as opposed to the American oak generally used throughout Rioja. This wood offers less vanilla aroma than the American, and they replace about 10% of their barrels each year.

Telmo, the son of the family, who now runs the winery with his sister Amaya, likes to work with bigger barrels for certain wine. Telmo Rodriguez has been described by Berry Brothers and Rudd as one of the greatest of Spanish winemakers. He uses 500-litre and 300-litre barrels as well as the more typical 225-litre. You can see from the names of the parcels of land chalked on the barrels that they ferment and age each plot’s grapes separately until the point of bottling the vintage. Some of the French barrels are made from Hungarian oak these days, because French oak is becoming harder to find and more expensive. As wines are oxygenated and aged they are racked and moved to cooler rooms. These wines are delicate, being alive with yeasts and natural bacteria, and would have a tendency to become vinegar if not expertly handled!

I am sure a vinegar vintage will never happen at Remelluri. This is wine made with passion, dedication and consideration. This family know what they like. They respect heritage and tradition but they also embrace practices that allow them to make the best of this land. It’s the delicious marriage of art and organic science.

To learn more visit Remelluri here

To arrange tours of Rioja and the rest of Spain visit Travels and Tapas here

food and travel reviews

Valencia

Valencia Valencia is the third largest city in Spain after Madrid and Barcelona. The Port of Valencia is the 5th busiest container port in Europe and the largest on the Mediterranean, and is these days something of a work in progress. For those lucky enough to arrive by ship the impression is of a sprawling building site. Perhaps visitors will remember the 2005 America's Cup yachting races which were held at Valencia and attracted 150,000 visitors to the port each day during the two weeks of events.

Valencia was founded by the Romans. Its historic centre is one of the largest in Spain, with ancient monuments, views and cultural attractions enough to gladden the heart of any history buff. During the Muslim rule the city was called Medina at-Turab.

Most people might not recognise the name of the Castilian noble Rodrigo Diaz de Vivar, but mention Charlton Heston and El Cid and one has an epic picture of Valencia during a historic period of turmoil. Rodrigo was intent on creating his own principality so, in command of a combined Christian and Moorish army, he besieged the city between 1092 and 1094, and ruled there till 1099. He was killed in true movie fashion defending the city from an Almoravid siege (led by actor Herbert Lom), leaving his wife Ximena Díaz to rule in his place for another two years, when the Almoravids retook the city and restored it to Muslim control.

The ancient winding and characterful streets of the Barrio del Carmen near the market contain buildings dating back to Roman and Arabic eras. The narrow streets remind one of North African  souks. The Cathedral, built between the 13th and 15th centuries, is primarily of Gothic style but contains elements of Baroque and Romanesque architecture. Beside the Cathedral is the striking Gothic Basilica of the Virgin (Basílica De La Virgen De Los Desamparados).

There was a catastrophic flood in 1949 with dozens of deaths, and again in 1957 when the river Turia overflowed Valenciaits banks, claiming more than eighty lives. To prevent another tragedy the river course was diverted in the 1960s. The original track of the river remains and is now a lush sunken park called the 'Garden of the Turia' (Jardí del Túria or Jardín del Turia). This green ribbon offers cyclists and pedestrians a chance to cross much of the city without putting either a wheel or foot on roads. This park is a jogger's paradise and traffic-free apart from bikes carrying Lycra-clad enthusiasts. Followers of sports other than cycling might like to know that Valencia is the only city in Spain to have two American football teams in LNFA series A, the national first division: Valencia Firebats and Valencia Giants.

Valencia is known internationally for paella valenciana,  a rice dish cooked in a distinctive wide, shallow pan. Its main ingredients apart from the Spanish rice are saffron, seafood or meat, along with a few vegetables. This dish is offered in many local restaurants, but pick one that is frequented by residents rather than tourists.

Another good choice for gastronomic immersion are tapas or pinxos. These are on offer in many small bars across town from lunchtime onwards. There is something of a process for ordering these delicious snacks. Well, in truth one does not usually order them at all but rather select a few and pile onto your plate. The barman will note how many tapas you have consumed and will present the bill at the end of your grazing.

Apart from bread topped with the ubiquitous ham there might also be some seafood, cheeses and of course the famous Spanish omelette of onions and potatoes. Croquettes of various kinds should not be missed: they are usually made with a rich white sauce flavoured with ham, cheese or chicken.
Valencia
The residents of Valencia are blessed with a city sporting monuments to its historic past, but there is a living historic market (Mercado Central) that is very much alive. One can learn much about a country by taking a look at its produce market and Valencia has one that is vibrant with colour, rich in diversity and tempting at every turn. The Modernist facade is testament to the importance of the produce market in the past - and even in the 21st century.

There are stalls that specialise in olives. Tubs of them flavoured with herbs or spices vie for your attention between others mixed with red peppers or stuffed with garlic. Another vendor displays the biggest radishes you would have ever seen, alongside some surprisingly exotic yams attesting to Spain's growing ethnic population. There are rows of cured hams hanging like meaty fringes, and fish counters with glistening prawns and shellfish. Take a break at the market cafe and try some horchata which is a local speciality drink made with tiger nuts.

The largest plaza in Valencia is the Plaça de l'Ajuntament or Plaza del Ayuntamiento.  The City Hall (Ayuntamiento) is found here, and the central post office. The Plaça de la Mare de Déu contains the Basilica of the Virgin and the Turia fountain. Another beautiful photo opportunity…and there are so many in this vibrant city.

Valencia is a city with which one can quickly fall in love. It offers spectacular historic buildings, rustic tapas bars, plenty of retail therapy opportunities and much more. A day would give an introduction but one would need to stay much longer to enjoy the full romance of this Spanish gem.


food and travel reviews

Tapas Bars and Michelin Stars with Travels and Tapas

Jose and Isabel Macicior have fast become the faces of bespoke food and culture trips to Spain and southern France. They have hit the ground running, and seem to have a finger on the pulse of high-end vacationers.

restaurant review Food tourism is now big business and it’s raised awareness of delicious national specialities and regional restaurants; and it has introduced remarkable chefs to a wider audience. Jose and Isabel have created a company, Travels and Tapas, which tailors visits to the particular needs of its clients, and in a region that encompasses some of the best food and cultural pursuits in Europe.

Jose is a local, and has impeccable connections with owners of stately homes. He can elicit invitations across those usually private thresholds, through those usually closed doors. Travels and Tapas has already garnered a reputation for arranging seats at the best tables and places at the best pintxos (tapas) bars (see article here). If you are interested in history then you will be delighted with an itinerary that could encompass iconic architecture, museums and anecdotal adventure in the guise of Jose’s own family history, which is so much entwined with these towns and villages. Such a change from the UK, where many consider themselves nobility if they can trace their family tree all the way back to their father.

Travels and Tapas arranged dinner at a local restaurant with a firmament of glittering awards. Zuberoa is thoroughly deserving of its Michelin star but it exudes a quiet confidence and a smart-casual ambiance that makes it a cosy pleasure to visit. Chef Hilario Arbelaitz explains something of the restaurant’s past. ‘This is the oldest house of the village – 650 years old.’ Hilario is the 4th generation of his family to live here. ‘It was a farmhouse, and there was a little bar, and the terrace is where the chickens were kept.’

When Hilario was 20 and away at a seminary, and his brothers were small, his father passed away and Hilario had to come back to work the farm. The farmhouse was converted to ‘tea rooms’ and it grew from there. The base of the traditional Basque cuisine that he now presents is what he learnt from this mother, and he has researched and developed more dishes.

restaurant review His brother and right-hand man, Eusebius, is in charge of the customers and front-of-house.  Chef Hilario presides over the kitchen which attracts young chefs on stage from all over the world. I asked Hilario about his menu. ‘It has its focus on good seasonal products - hake in green sauce, squid in black ink, bacalau (salted cod). The tradition in this country was that the fishermen used to go to Nova Scotia, and of course the fish had to be salted, so here the usual way of cooking cod is always salted. In the spring there are broad beans – like green caviar, also pigeon, and partridge. 50-60% of the menu is traditional.’  There is a tasting menu, ‘menu degustation’, where Hilario can experiment and devise new recipes. ‘The tasting menu is 7 dishes, and in winter there is crab, langoustine, ravioli, sometimes white mushrooms and green asparagus – a kind of ‘surf and turf’ in a way; scallop, foie gras, with caramelised onion sauce and truffles; oysters in aspic with a lemon cream and caviar.

‘In the Basque country you have to do Basque cooking, I am not aligned with those who do new things for tourists who come and go. I have repeat business which is why I have to concentrate on Basque cooking, and keep traditional dishes on the menu because people ask for them.

Feran Adria has done a lot for the profile of Spanish cooking. I asked Hilario for his thoughts.
‘He has done a lot. Nouvelle Basque cuisine has opened the country to the world. In the past, no French chefs would come to the Basque country; now even 3-Michelin star French chefs will come here. Now the tourism in summer is gastronomic! Perhaps there are just two tables of Spanish people, surrounded by Australian, German, British tourists. I go to England a lot – I see Tom Aikens and a lot of friends of his, and Heston Blumenthal.’

restaurant review Who are Hilario's food heroes? ‘Feran Adria is one. El Bulli was a kind of ‘Picasso’ in the gastronomy world, that has elevated Spanish cuisine, and now everyone acknowledges it. Amongst the Basque chefs the best is Martin Berasategui. Martin used to come here to help a little in the kitchen and we are very close friends.’

Zuberoa is a flagship for Basque cuisine, and should be requested by any Travels and Tapas clients. Jose Macicior understands his native dishes and is an accomplished cook himself. He will proudly introduce visitors to restaurants that present the best, including some that are hidden gems known only to the discerning and very lucky locals.

Visit Travels and Tapas here


food and travel reviews

Travels & Tapas in Basque Country

We have likely heard of it but if pinpointing this region on a map was a capital offence then it’s probable few of usrestaurant review would be hung; but mention San Sebastián and more people will say that they know about it, and usually with regard to food.

It’s an attractive seaside city and municipality located in the Basque Autonomous Community of Spain. There is no doubt when you are here that this is physically within Spain's borders but culturally and politically outside. The majority of flags flying here are Basque. It lies on the coast of the Bay of Biscay and just 20 km from the French border, and that’s a country with which it has always had close ties. It has long been one of the most celebrated tourist destinations in Spain, even though San Sebastián is not a big town.

It's about food. San Sebastián is famed for it but there is so much more here, and to make the best of it you should have a local guide. A very enterprising one is making a career of creating bespoke tours for the discerning traveller. Jose Macicior  has deep roots in this region and is well-placed to introduce visitors to everything from hidden gems of local architecture that are not usually open to the general public, to those iconic tapas bars – he has been patronising them all his life and knows the specialities of each one.

I met Jose and his delightful wife Isabel at their apartment which is part of Jose’s ancestral home. “In 2002 we were a group of friends having dinner in London, and decided to arrange a gourmet tour in Navarra, the Basque country, and Rioja. We organised it from arrival to departure: we took care of the restaurants, hotels, land transport, wine tasting, everything. It was a success and everyone had a good time. Some of our friends recommended us to their friends and we have been doing those tours once, sometimes twice, each year.”

Isabel is originally from the Philippines so that was the logical spring-board to launch the company, Travels & Tapas. Jose explains, ”We launched the company in the Philippines last March because we had many contacts there, but we would also like to concentrate in the UK and some other countries, and little by little develop the clientele.”
restaurant review
Travels & Tapas is somewhat high-end, with fewer numbers for their bespoke trips than one would find with group tours with the usual travel operators, “but with outstanding service,” says Jose. “We can be versatile, we can design anything the client wants, we can be guides, we can accompany our visitors, we can be in contact by phone with advice about what to do, where to go. We travel nationwide, although the gastronomic interest is more concentrated in the north of Spain and in south-west France.”

A group of friends can contact Jose and give him an idea of their interests, then Jose arranges everything, from accommodation, restaurant bookings, to entrance to sites and events, and can act as personal guide for the group or provide them with the bespoke itinerary.

Jose and Isabel guided us around San Sebastián and the nearby villages, and there is a lot to see within a small area. The beaches are wide and golden and half-empty at the start of the summer. The Cristóbal Balenciaga Museoa fashion museum is a draw for anyone inspired by the classical elegance of this celebrated designer, and the sartorial retail opportunities are endless. But let's face it: your days here will be punctuated with some of the best food to be found in Europe.

Tapas in San Sebastián are known as pintxos but it’s unlikely you will have to call them anything at all. Pintxos bars are the ideal grazing venues for the linguistically timid as one has no need to consider incomprehensible menus. Simply pile your choice of pintxos on your plate and keep count of how many you have had. The barman will likely have a mental note, so no cheating. Boxes of paper serviettes are provided and one is expected to screw these up and throw them on the floor. That does give one a rather childish thrill.

The food is displayed in tempting ranks of vivid tomato-red, ham-pink, crust-gold on overflowing platters and piled dishes. Jose will take you here for tortilla, there for octopus, the bar around the corner for garlic mushrooms. Yes, one could buy a guide book, but things change, and only a local will be able to tell you what’s popular just now and also be able to plan a pintxos ramble for you that will offer the most-prized small plates, and some that are only available on that very street.restaurant review

Pintxos bars are not the places where one might readily expect to find haute cuisine but the food here is as haute as it gets.  The competition is fierce and that assures a high standard, and the variety of tapas will provide even the pickiest of eaters with enough to satisfy a gargantuan appetite. There will be slices of freshly cut and glossy Iberica ham, sweet and explosive peppers, and hosts of more elaborate savoury confections that will include each bar’s signature tapa.

This isn't a town that has just recently woken up to the idea of food tourism. The snack-laden counters were not just invented for the epicurean delights of visitors. The locals are passionate about their food and that’s contagious. Jose says there have long been amateur gastronomic sociedads, which have traditionally allowed only men as members. These groups would meet at their own professionally-equipped kitchens and dining rooms, and the members would take turns to cook for the assembled company. It seems that these culinary brotherhoods have spawned a breed of men that have higher culinary aspirations than the weekend BBQers of other nations, although I hear that they remain reluctant home cooks.

Spain is the place for the culinary high-flyers these days, and San Sebastián is considered the most exciting place to eat in the country. There are said to be more Michelin stars per head of population here than anywhere else, and the curious may consider why that might be. There is an abundance of good food from both sea and land and so perhaps these lucky folk have higher gastronomic expectations than most. Travels & Tapas tours can introduce the food lover to not only the pleasures of pintxos but fine dining restaurants as well, and Jose knows many owners of those Michelin stars – one might even get to meet a celebrated chef or two.

What Jose offers is a unique insider’s view of food and culture in a fascinating corner of Europe. “They say the North has stews, the Centre has roasts, and the South rice, and this is true, generally speaking. And of course all over Spain there is a lot of art and a lot of extremely attractive stately homes that can be visited, and one can even have lunch or dinner there.” Jose is a member of an organisation of stately homeowners who don’t normally show their properties, but Jose can open even those usually locked doors.

Jose and Isabel Macicior fill a rather classy niche. They provide tailored packages to visitors who want to experience the best at their own pace. They give support to tourists who want to tread the path less travelled. They unroll a tapestry of culinary, architectural, historic and cultural delights that are difficult or even impossible for the lone visitor or the regular package-tourist to access. 

Visit Travels and Tapas here


food and travel reviews

Galicia – deliciously diverse

galicia We all have prejudices. We don’t think that we do but that is in itself the nature of a prejudice. I was anxious that this region might be another version of a Costa-something, and I was not quite sure what a visit to northern Spain might hold in store.

I have spent some time in Barcelona and I was impressed by its history, style, charm and I still dream about its food; but what was Galicia going to be like? Well, where was Galicia? Will there be anything to eat when I get there? I can now report that Galicia is a culinary paradise for any lover of food from the sea. What we consider as celebration foods or ‘special treats’ are commonplace here. But it’s always interesting to put those clams and cockles into context.

Galicia is found in the north-west of Spain and has the official status of a nationality within Spain. It comprises several provinces which include A Coruña, Lugo, Ourense and Pontevedra. It is bordered by Portugal to the south which can be reached by bridges at various points. The romantic-sounding regions of Castile & León and Asturias are to the east, the Atlantic forms the western border (next landfall: America), and the choppy Bay of Biscay is to the north.

galicia

Galicia has nearly 3 million inhabitants, with most of the population living along the north and west coasts. The capital and the most populous city is Santiago de Compostela, but our main port of call, Vigo, is the second largest with over 200,000 inhabitants.

galica Galicia has two official languages: Galician (or galego, a Roman language similar to Portuguese) and Spanish (castellano or Castilian). Galician is recognized as the lingua propia ("own language") of Galicia. Tourists will find that even those locals who can only speak Spanish or Galician are always helpful; but a phrasebook and your willingness to make an effort will likely be appreciated.

The name Galicia comes from the Latin name for the region, Gallaecia, associated with the name of the ancient Celtic tribe that lived north of the Douro River. Ptolemy recorded that these people were the first tribe in the area to resist the invading Romans.

There are some well-preserved remains of this ancient castro (fortress) culture not far from the port of Vigo. One can see the foundations of their round huts and a couple have been completely reconstructed to show their thatched roofs. This group lived during the second half of the Iron Age and survived into the Roman era. Later, Galicia fell to the Suevi, and then the Visigoths; during the Moorish invasion of Spain (711-718), the Moors garrisoned Galicia, but never managed to have any real control, and were eventually driven out in 739.

In the 9th century, the followers of Saint James in Santiago de Compostela gave Galicia a particular symbolic importance for Christians who still, in the 21st century, take pilgrimages to the Cathedral there.

In 1833 the Kingdom of Galicia was merged into Spain with its single centralised monarchy. Galicia was spared the worst excesses of the Spanish Civil War as it remained in Nationalist hands for the duration (under General Franco – himself a Galician), although it is said that at least 4,200 people were killed after either a summary trial or no trial at all.

galicia The Galician economy finally began to modernise when Citroën arrived in Vigo, and the factory now makes more than 400,000 vehicles annually. The modernisation of the canning industry and the fishing fleet have also been vital: the major economic engine of western Galicia is its fishing industry. Vigo is the most important Galician port; it is one of the world leaders, second only to Tokyo.

Galicia lands more fish and shellfish than any other region in Europe and these are considered as local staples. The long coast offers both fishermen and shellfish collectors an abundant larder. Galicia's dishes use every kind of fish and seafood and they are prepared in many traditional and contemporary ways.

Our gastronomic tour of Vigo and the area around proved to be a rich and delicious education. We feasted on the bounty of the sea and visited spas to pamper the travel-weary.  So keep visiting Mostly Food and Travel Journal over the next few weeks to follow our restaurant route and be tempted by the best seafood in Europe. This is as far from “Full English breakfast all day” and “Happy Hour from 12 noon till 1am” as one can get. A gem of an undiscovered haven for those who want a glimpse of the real Spain and to learn more about its culinary riches.


SPANISH TOURIST OFFICE
PO Box 4009
London W1A 6NB

Tel: 020 7486 8077
Fax: 020 7486 8034

Information and brochure request line:
Phone: 00800 1010 5050

E-mail: spaininfo@tourspain.es

http://www.spain.info

food and travel reviews

Vigo – crab, clams and continuity

vigo For those of you living in the south of England, you will already know about Vigo. You will swear that it is a parish formed in 2000, and a modern rural village built in the mid-20th century. The village lies on top of the North Downs and its name comes from the pub on the main road. The name commemorates the Battle of Vigo Bay, a sea battle during the War of the Spanish Succession. Which leads me seamlessly onto the gastronomic delights of the eponymous Galician town which one hopes will now have a warmer relationship with its English visitors. These 21st-century guests come with friendly intentions.

Vigo in Galicia has a long history and the name comes from the Latin word Vicus meaning a small civilian settlement outside a Roman fort. During the 1st century AD the Romans completed their predictable romanisation, that occupation lasting almost six hundred years.

By the 16th century the town had more than 800 inhabitants, but plague and pirates decimated the population. In 1585 and 1589 Sir Francis Drake (known as just Francis Drake in this neck of the woods) launched raids.

In 1702 the celebrated Battle of Vigo took place, and a couple of decades later the city was temporarily seized by an English fleet as the Spanish fleet, which had departed from Vigo, had attempted to invade Scotland in support of the Jacobites. In 1778 Spain’s Charles III ended the monopoly of the ports authorized to trade with America, allowing Vigo to become an important anchorage, with the city growing rapidly in the 19th century. Many factories of salted seafood products opened, which brought wealth to the town.

vigo Vigo is a real town, and it also has all the amenities and infrastructure that any self-respecting tourist would want. Its Blue Flag beaches are pristine and it even has some islands that are reached by a daily boat service – visitors are limited in number to maintain the natural environment of this National Park. But there are those days, even in Spain, when there might be a spot or two of rain. This isn’t the Costa Brava and you wouldn’t be visiting Vigo if that was what you wanted. You are a discerning and cultured traveller, after all, looking for the unadulterated Spain. Perhaps a little retail therapy will be in order.

This is a working town with very few tourist shops selling plastic souvenirs. However, if you are on the lookout for some designer clothes then you will be spoilt for choice. If shoes or luggage are more your bag then there will be shops beckoning to you – lots of high-end boutiques offering both Spanish and international brands. You will be glad you came even if your bank manager isn’t. You will find prices here to be generally lower than in France, so bring an extra suitcase.

vigo So you have shopped till you have nearly dropped. You will find a café for a coffee and consider some cultural activities. The kids will love El Castro which is Vigo's main city park. It is an oasis from the traffic, and has magnificent views across town to the estuary. One can watch the huge cruise ships arriving and the small ferries crossing to the islands. The remains of the Celtic settlement on top of the hill will fire the imagination of the younger members of your party.

The Castrelos Manor House Museum is elegant and charming. This was a home till it was handed to the city by the last surviving members of the family. Located in the 17th-century Castrelos pazo, the museum has a magnificent façade and is considered one of Vigo's most beautiful buildings. It was restored at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries and is surrounded by beautiful gardens with 18th-century fountains and ponds. One can visit an exhibition of archaeological remains found in the region, as well as a stunning collection of portraits and other paintings from Galicia, including a Goya. The Manor has striking terraced gardens that will be a magnet for any lover of plants and trees. They are landscaped in different classic styles including a formal French garden.

An outdoor activity for all the family could be a visit to the sea and the famous Cambados shellfish beds, where you can watch the mariscadoras (shellfish gatherers) at work. You will be given wellingtons so that you can walk out onto the sand with the ladies and you will learn about the different types of cockles. vigoAt the end of the visit, you will be offered a small net containing shells so in future you will be able to recognise the difference in crustacea when they arrive on your plate. If you are lucky you might be invited to sit on the nets with the net menders (rederas) and find out more about their working lives.

Yes, the food may well be the reason you choose this coast for a holiday, so my next article will give you some suggestions for a diverse collection of restaurants which delight both tourist and local alike.



food and travel reviews

Vigo – Michelin Stars and Seafood

You will appreciate from these articles that I consider Vigo in Galicia something of an undiscovered culinary gem. The fresh produce and seafood are outstanding but you will likely be staying in a hotel where cooking facilities are strictly for the professionals, so you will want to find the best and the most interesting of restaurants to try all those aforementioned delicacies.

Vigo and the surrounding towns offer both locals and visitors an array of gastronomic opportunities. One can eat well here for a fraction of the price of similar in the UK. The cost is lower but the quality isn’t.

The El Mosquito Restaurant

galicia restaurant The El Mosquito Restaurant in Vigo is iconic and considered by many to be the best traditional restaurant in the town. With those considerations in mind one might expect a huge flashy chandelier-hung carbon copy of every other “iconic” restaurant in Europe. No, thank goodness, dear reader, El Mosquito is the “real thing” and it truly is celebrated for good reason.

El Mosquito first opened in the 1930s. The founder of the restaurant was Ms. Carmen Roel Rilo, who passed away in 1986. It wasn’t trying to attract swep-up diners in those days, but was said initially to be a ‘Tavern for sailors’, serving Spanish Ribeiro wine and small plates of fried fish (Ribeiro is a surname common in Galicia, Portugal and Brazil; it is also a wine-making region of Southeast central Galicia). There would have been plenty of sailors in those days and I guess they would have been satisfied with that rather short menu. I am sure those few items offered were fresh and tasty, but the discerning diners of the 21st century have higher expectations and the 21st century El Mosquito gives them just what they expect, and probably more. Ms. Rilo transformed, with the help of her family, this humble establishment into a worthy recipient of accolades.

galicia restaurant review The restaurant is found near the harbour in the old quarter of Vigo, a picturesque neighbourhood which reminds the visitor that Vigo was around a long time before holiday cruise ships or international airports were even thought of. El Mosquito looks small from the outside but walk down a short corridor past a seafood counter and you are into a charming restaurant of 60 or so covers – low ceilings and walls hung with photos of international celebrities who evidently discovered this culinary treasure before you did.

It’s no surprise that fish and seafood in all their guises are the staple at El Mosquito, although the menu offers something for every taste. Start with a slice or two of Empanada (a flat pie with a variety of fillings) along with a glass of white Albariño. Octopus is cooked to delicate perfection and a crusty bread roll warm from the oven might complete the epicurean prelude to your main event.

galicia restaurant review The restaurant has a considerable menu of fishy delights but don’t dismiss some of the lesser known dishes like “cod throats”. OK, let’s be honest, the description isn’t a winner but the reality is – tender and sweet nuggets with a choice of preparation styles. Sole and hake and other substantial fish are here, and those cooked in Galician fashion are simple and flavourful: a steak of white and moist fish with simply boiled potatoes and a garnish of peas, and the paprika oil adds vivid colour.

It’s unlikely you will make it through to dessert here ...but try. Lots of traditional local favourites to linger over. Sample the cakes with a cup of coffee or a liqueur to finish your evening. You won’t be in a hurry to leave this restaurant and you will promise yourself a return ...as have done many others before you.

El Mosquito Restaurant
Plaza da Pedra, 4 - 36202 Vigo, Pontevedra, Galicia, Spain
Phone/Fax: (+34) 986 433 570
email: info@elmosquitovigo.com
Visit El Mosquito here


food and travel reviews

Marisqueria Bahia

galicia restaurant review
Another noteworthy restaurant in Vigo is Marisqueria Bahia. This is a huge restaurant with two distinct characters. The tables are laid with fine linen and the chairs are draped in classic fashion. There is a panoramic view of the sea and that would make this, at first glance, a perfect place for a romantic and sumptuous meal. Turn your back on that vista and you will notice a mural of cutlass-wielding pirates and monsters of the deep along with tanks holding soon-to-be-dinners.

galicia restaurant review The hotel which houses Marisqueria Bahia was founded in1968, and in 1999 this striking restaurant was opened. It prides itself on quality foods from that great larder just across the road – the sea. There is plenty of competition in Vigo but Marisqueria Bahia remains the restaurant of choice for the many who come for special occasions and family gatherings.

This restaurant wants to make your visit a fun and memorable experience. Good food should be enjoyed. One should be able to lick fingers and wipe juices from chins, and the repast that will encourage both those practices will be the vast and pedestalled Platter overflowing with crabs, prawns, shrimps, clams and mussels. There are not only cold crustaceans but hot shellfish in saffron sauce, and lightly grilled langoustines with a faint and agreeable hint of charring on the tender meat.

Marisqueria Bahia has a convenient location down by the harbour and it’s bound to be popular with all those lucky souls who are staying in the Hotel Bahia. A seafood platter here is a delightful experience but it’s also an event, an item on your ‘Must Do’ list for Vigo.

Marisqueria Bahia
La Piedra (Calle de las ostras)
Vigo, Pontevedra, Galicia, Spain
Phone: (+34) 986 449 655
Fax: (+34) 986 449 658
Visit Marisqueria Bahia here


food and travel reviews

Maruja Limón

galicia restaurant review Rafael Centeno Moyer is a young chef with a stunning contemporary restaurant up a side street in Vigo. One could pass it without even noticing, and that would be a shame.

Maruja Limón was opened in 2001 and is now a magnet for those in the culinary ‘know’ worldwide, as well as the Galician gastronomic grandees, after being awarded a prestigious Michelin star in the 2011 guide.

Chef Rafael Centeno says his food is very simple, with its roots in Galicia and reliant on seasonal ingredients which he sources every day. His dishes are as contemporary and unfussy as his dining room.  Yes, unfussy, but still sophisticated and thoughtful.

galicia restaurant review It’s a small space with a frosted window onto the kitchen, wood floors and chairs. The menu is changed frequently and takes advantage of what’s good at the market on that day. Many dishes are rustic but presented with flair. One enjoys one’s own plateful but will feast one’s eyes upon the plates of others around the table. A restaurant where one wishes for greater capacity, to have just an extra starter or main course.

Maruja Limón is prestigious and a restaurant to be kept for intimate dinners. It’s special but not glitzy. It’s subtle and confident and truly deserving of its star, and I would suppose that there will be a galaxy of those in chef Rafael Centeno’s firmament before he moves on.

Maruja Limón
Victoria, 4 (Plaza Compostela)
36201, Vigo, Pontevedra, Galicia, Spain
Phone (+34) 986 473 406
reservas@marujalimon.es
Visit Maruja Limón here



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