Showing posts with label Spain. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Spain. Show all posts

Saturday, September 15, 2018

Tossa de Mar: a Mediterranean gem

Toss de Mar, Costa Brava

Tossa de Mar rekindled my faith in the Mediterranean. For many years I had been despairing as the towns and villages around this tremendous sea were gradually being consumed by blandness. That gradual but powerful neutering that overwhelms individuality and turns each beach resort into an identikit duplication of each other.

Towns that had character now morphed indistinguishably into one another; travel brochures highlight the same attractions of sandy beaches, vibrant nightlife and endless sunshine. One resort becomes another.

There are, of course, exceptions, after all, the Mediterranean is a large sea. However, they become harder to find, and more difficult to reach. And then there is Tossa. I don’t usually try to write “puff pieces”, but having spent a little time in the town, I can’t really resist.

Tossa de Mar is a small Catalan community lying in the middle of the Costa Brava some 100 kms to the north of Barcelona. It is, in short, accessible and lying within one of the most popular tourist regions in Europe. It has, however, retained its soul. Its growth has been obstructed by geography, tradition and the strength of the local community to direct the town’s future.

Tossa's 12th century castle
Tossa is old. There are Roman ruins, and ample evidence of an active community here some 2,000 years ago, but the dominant and irresistible historical authority comes from the picturesque and poised castle that overlooks the town. Built in the 12th century, this magnificent castle grew to encompass a medieval town, now sympathetically restored to its 14th century appearance. As the local population grew in the 15th and 16th century, houses popped up outside the castle, and the community of Tossa emerged into the pattern it shows today. Small winding streets creep around the bay and offer tourists a glimpse into the soul of the past.

The front street has, of course, restaurants, but the buildings, including the hotels date back to the 1950s and beyond; the temptation to knock them down and replace them with a shiny new hotel or “tourist complex” has been resisted, and Tossa is all the better off for it.

Tossa de Mar - Street scenes

There are many places to stay; mostly small, family hotels, and the Hotel Tarull is a fabulous example. The property, built in the 1950s is run by Lluis Soler Capdevila and his delightful wife Meri. Lluis is a third-generation hotelier, and it shows. His attention to detail and to the whims, needs and interests of his guests is remarkable. New guests are presented with a map of the town with his restaurant suggestions already hand written, along with notes of supermarkets and other interesting spots. His choices of places to eat were formidable, and the variety and quality of food available in this small community is surprising.

Too often beach-resort restaurants offset a fine view with mediocre food; menus that offer identical choice, often frozen and served with little enthusiasm but great expense. To be sure, these types of mountebanks exist in Tossa as well, but there are gems. Casa Igor, run by a Michelin star chef, Simó Tomàs Vallvé who retired from the pressure of Barcelona to run a small, twenty cover restaurant here, is simply fabulous. The combination of local ingredients, a small menu and an enormous imagination is an extraordinary find.

Another Tossa institution is the Restaurant Bahia; located on the front, and at first indistinguishable from it less memorable neighbours, this third-generation family restaurant is quite simply a wonderful place to eat. Their food is well cooked, well presented, most agreeably served and quite imaginative. The stream of regulars is a testament to their place in Tossa, and any visitor eating there finds a sense of what Tossa means to its people.

And there are about 6,000 of them; fewer in the winter months and more in the summer, but about 6,000 overall. Proud Catalans with the sense of confidence and dignity that a millennia of history will cultivate. It is a community of ancient traditions like the annual forty-kilometer pilgrimage el Vot del Poble undertaken each year since the 1400s to give thanks for delivering Tossa from the scourges of the Bubonic Plague.

Tossa de Mar is a town that knows its history and can see its future. It is a town that seems to have managed to find the elusive balance of tourism today, that point between the needs and interests of the local community and the desires and expectations of their visitors. It is a community that has earned the respect of its tourists, and one that will certainly delight new visitors for many years to come.

I love Tossa!









Saturday, May 14, 2016

Bodega Sommos: A Super Natural Winery

There are wineries, and there is the Bodega Sommos, located in north-central Spain, just south of the Pyrenees in rural Aragon. For those (like me) whose knowledge of Spain is limited to the most iconic locations, exploring Aragon has come as a complete and wonderful surprise.

Rural Aragon
It is a vast and geographically diverse region, and of historical significance to the British because of Catherine and her relationship with King Henry VIII; and that the pomegranate happened to be her symbol. Although betrothed to Prince Arthur (Henry’s brother) at the tender age of three, and married when she reached a more respectable eighteen, her Spanish life was spent with her parents (Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand (or Aragon)) wandering around the country fighting other kingdoms; not her, obviously, but she would have wandered along with the family. And so she probably had little appreciation of the beauty and diversity of her homeland, Aragon, which is a pity. Because it is a wonderful region of a wonderful country, and the Bodega Sommos is a crowning jewel.

I visited by chance; colleagues from Tbilisi had gone to the winery during a wine tourism conference in Barcelona, and had encouraged me to visit; I was planning a little wander thorough the Pyrenees with my brother, Rik anyhow, and so after contacting Blanca Galino Sanz, the most effervescent and knowledgeable winery representative it has ever been my pleasure to meet, a date and time were set (noon, on May 4th, as it happened), and off we drove through the mountains to keep the engagement.

And my goodness, am I glad that we did. Simply approaching the property is overwhelming. Spanish roads are wonderful, and one turns left by turning right; well, instead of blocking the highway, one is led off to the right and turned to cross the highway from a right angle, and it was at this moment that the full significance of the Bodega Sommos came into view.

Bodega Sommos 

When one is visiting a “natural winery”, there is an image of artisans, pretty frocks billowing in the gentle breezes, a slightly ramshackle but homely winery and a convivial tasting. Well, let me tell you that there is nothing ramshackle about Sommos; it is a fabulous building, designed in 2008 just in time to go bankrupt in the Spanish meltdown, but reignited in 2011 and now running on all cylinders.

My Favourite
They grown a lot of grapes. Chardonnay and Pinot Noir as one might expect, but surprisingly, also a Gewurztraminer, one of my favourite grapes, but completely unexpected here. The grape's success was due, we were advised, to the cold and wet winters, and the proximity to the mountains. 

Their reds are the traditional Merlots, Sauvignons and Tempranillos, and all grown with a meticulous eye for detail about every single thing that one could imagine affecting the crops. For this is a “natural winery”, organic, if you like, and uses no pesticides or chemicals in the production of their wines. 

In lieu of pesticides, pheromones are used to so erotically exhaust the pest-bugs, they fall motionless to the ground instead of spreading disease. Wild flowers are grown (or at least they allow wild flowers to flourish), and this melange seem to keep the meticulous vines healthy, happy and ready to please. Which is good, given that the bodega cost somewhere in the region of €120 million to create.

The massive tanks
They harvest gently; large drums of grapes arrive at the winery and are gently jiggled through filters that reject those of the wrong colour, shape or size and allow only the perfect fruit to drop  into the vast fermentation tanks; the tanks, of either 16,000 or 32,000 litres do their thing before they are further mixed.
Not by any crude whisk, but by removing the bottom third of the grapes and dropping them back on top to crush the luckier ones that had been lying at the top of the heap; mixed by gravity, the primary source of force in the bodega.This tactic, using only the pull-of-the-earth certainly seems to work, although gazing down to the depths of the 50 metre tanks one marvels at the sheer quantity of fruit that gets processed; actually, it comes to about 6,000,000 litres of wine each year, the sale of which goes some way to making a dent into the €120 million investment, and the twenty-five year-round staff who keep this wonderful machine ticking over in harmony with the order of things (as St. Augustine would have probably said).

Some oak storage barrels and "Area 51"

My favourite part of the bodega is Area 51; it is the experimental part of the bodega where 51, 100 and 200 litre tanks of secret, experimental creations are furtively fusing in the hope of finding the prefect recepie. Judging by the products that we sampled, these are not wasted efforts.

Blanca with Rik
It is a fine winery; ranked as the “2nd Wonder of the Wine World” by The Drinks Business magazine, a journal of the serious tippler, and as a visitor, overwhelming on many levels. It is architecturally stunning; sympathetic to its environment and although quite dramatically built, it retains the warmth of a more traditional Spanish Bodega. Perhaps it was Blanca, whose care and guidance enthralled us, and whose generosity in the dining room overwhelmed us, but perhaps it is that secret ingredient that all wineries seek.

For making wine is more than science; it is an art. It is always part magic and part sorcery. Fine grapes, perfect science, first-class facilities and ideal weather do their part, but it is the addition of that supernatural supplement that makes a truly great wine.


And the supernatural is at Bodega Sommos in abundance.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Overnight trains; Lisbon to Madrid on "The Lusitania"

It would help to be very small, which I most certainly am not, but I still like travelling overnight by train. 

Sleeping compartments are a little like dolls’ houses for grown-ups; they store a remarkable amount of stuff in a terribly compact space. They offer secret compartments, hidden staircases, cunningly designed bunks and an atmosphere of intrigue; although that might be a little too much Agatha Christie.  

They also offer insufficient pillows, no room to turn around; a night spent wondering which direction you are travelling in and a cacophony of rattles and squeals as the train hurtles towards its destination.

The compartment before I filled it up.

It is a toss-up. One that, I will admit, I usually come down on the side of travelling by train, but as my eyes shake about in their sockets at three o’clock in the morning, I wonder. Principally what on earth I am doing here when there are perfectly good aeroplanes that will cover this distance in an hour or so. And then, of course, I remember the hassles of getting to the airport, the loss of a reservation code and the concomitant shrug from an airline employee; I recall the joys of security as they ponderously determine if my shoe-horn violates some unspecified regulation, the delays of the flight, the endless elbow-jousting until we land. Then, of course, the joys of describing your suitcase to a luggage agent who promises that it will be returned soon ….. ah, the joys of flying.

I travelled last night from Lisbon to Madrid on the RENFE Trenhotel; for reference, a one way single-cabin in Gran Class costs €177, a double €240 and a simple reclining seat €35).

The RENFE TrenHotel

I should, of course, have taken the hint. When the conductor asked if I wanted the top or bottom bunk made up into my bed, I chose the top, a choice that seemed to fleetingly surprise him. It was, of course, as it always is, a flash back to boyhood, excitement and derring do. It was also a mistake; the sort of error that parents always allow their boys to make because as everyone who thinks knows, the top bunk will sway around far more. It is marginally better insulated from the shattering noise as the train careers through a set of points, but this is only marginally comforting as one hangs on for dear life as we take corners at suspiciously large speeds. Suspicious only because it is a Spanish train, and I have a good memory.

The Dining Car
“Never mind”, I tell myself, “This is a great way to travel”. I wonder again which way I am going, but can’t quite figure it out without reference to the window (actually, to add to my confusion, when I awoke, we were travelling in the opposite direction to the one that we were engaged in when I fell asleep).

I must have slept, thought, because before I knew it the conductor was banging on the door and advising that Madrid was only thirty minutes into our future; time to figure out the shower.

I was travelling is a very nice cabin - the top of RENFE’s line; it had seen better days, but then again, so has quite a bit of Spain, so I won’t be churlish. I will say, however, that a good scrubbing would do a power of good, as would new seat covers; or even, in this age of austerity, the application of a darning mushroom.

The shower, took some figuring out, and only by a process of elimination of what knobs and other protuberances could (or even might) do what, I found out the secret of the water supply.

And so, refreshed, still a little confused, I tumbled onto the platform at Madrid’s Charmatin station at 8.30 on a Saturday morning, never a time to visit a normally busy fifteen-platform station, wondering where on earth I might find my car.