From the architecture of Antoni Gaudi, to the masterpieces of Goya, Picasso, Dali and Miro, Spain oozes artistry, edginess and sophistication. Full of passion and creativity, the Spanish are live wires. They love music, dance, and late nights. There’s a reason ‘fiesta’ and ‘siesta’ are some of the best known Spanish words.
Spanish inventiveness extends to the kitchen too. You’ll find some of the most innovative and adventurous food in the world in Spain, from tapas bars to haute cuisine. After all, this is the birthplace of molecular gastronomy.
Spain can represent a bit of a stereotype when you think of Flamenco and bullfighting, but what's unexpected is how these traditions are actually genuinely incorporated into the everyday lives of locals. You'll see families going out on a Sunday to watch a bullfight together, and you'll here groups of men singing haunting flamenco while they catch up over drinks in a bar.
What’s also fascinating, is the variety of traditions and landscapes across the country. Spain has an abundance of iconic cities - from Barcelona, to Madrid, Seville, Valencia, San Sebastián, Cádiz, Córdoba, Granada, Jerez, Bilbao, Mallorca, and Pamplona. It’s culturally rich, and it’s culturally diverse.
Our time in Spain began in the North, in Basque Country. I’d wanted to explore the cutting edge pintxos bars in San Sebastián for years. The Basque region has it's own language, and 'pintxos' are small snacks, usually eaten in bars, very much like the tapas you would find in other parts of Spain.
Of the dozen or so pintxos bars we tried, A Fuego Negro was my favorite. Rather than ready-prepared pintxos lining the bar (which, let’s be honest, aren't always as fresh as they could be), they have a small menu of around 10 items that changes regularly.
Each item on the menu also lists the year that dish was first served. Lots of the old favorites were on the menu when we visited and we tried crab/avocado/liquorice (2006), grilled octopus/green apple/violet potato/red air (2007), and their famous "MakCobe" (2008), a Kobe beef slider with a pink bun infused with ketchup.
San Sebastian is home to three 3-Michelin star restaurants and we dined at Martín Berasategu. Some of the presentation was stunning, and I loved the four butters, but overall the meal didn't quite hit the mark for us. We still had a fabulous night, and next time we're in town we might try Arzak!
At this point we'd exhausted molecular gastronomy and modern pintxos (at least for the time being!) and wanted to try some more traditional Basque cuisine, so we were absolutely thrilled to discover Zelai Txiki.
Perched on top of a hill with a beautiful view, this family-run restaurant serves up authentic Basque food with a modern edge and a great wine cellar. San Sebastian can feel a bit touristy at times, especially in the streets around the pintxos bars, and this restaurant was the perfect escape.
Spain also has a rich culinary tradition of cheese making, so naturally we had to make room for some cheese tasting too.
Gluttony aside, we also really enjoyed walking the promenade at La Concha beach. We visited the aquarium which was utterly fascinating for Rosie, and to top things off we had some fantastically inventive G&Ts at La Gintonería Donostiarra in the funky Gros neighborhood.
On the way to Bilbao we stopped in Getaria, a traditional fishing village, for some authentic, fresh, barbecued fish. In the words of Basque chef Andoni Luis Aduriz, "grilling a fish well is like being able to make a painting with just one perfect brush stroke". They definitely got it right for us in Getaria!
Now to Bilbao. In the late '90s I discovered the story of Peggy Guggenheim (that art collection! those glasses! the affairs!) after visiting her former home in Venice, and I have been an admirer of the Guggenheim family's contribution to the world of fine art ever since.
Our only reason for going to Bilbao was to visit the Guggenheim Museum, but we ended up really enjoying the city too. At night, the old town came alive. Bilbao was a surprise.
Our pilgrimage to the museum didn't disappoint. The building is a work of art in itself, and with over 118,000 square feet of exhibition space it really is an art lover's paradise.
I especially loved Jeff Koons' 'Puppy' sculpture, that towers over you at nearly 50 feet tall and is literally alive with flowering plants.
Now that we'd had our art fix, it was time for some wine tasting, so we headed South to Rioja.
We spent the morning wine tasting with legendary wine maker Juan Carlos of Bodega Artadi. Now this is a man who is passionate about his wine! Considered wine of the finest winemakers in Spain, his 2004 Vino el Pison scored 100 points from Robert Parker.
While Rosie ate grapes he picked from his vineyard, Juan Carlos generously cracked open a bottle of his 2013 Pison for us to taste. It was sensational!
From Rioja we drove West to Ribera del Duero where we ate the best roast suckling pig in the world at Posada Real Fuente Aceña, where we also stayed. Known as 'lechazo asado', this dish is a mouth-watering local specialty. I actually think Justin dreams about this dinner... he definitely talks about it a lot!
We visited Jerez; home to Sherry, dancing horses, and a very vibrant Flamenco scene.
We also enjoyed a quick visit to Cadiz, where the beaches were beautiful.
The last city in Spain that we visited was Valencia, home to what is believed to be the Holy Grail, the cup from which Christ drank wine during the Last Supper. On our way to the Catedral de Valencia to check it out, we found ourselves in the middle of an incredible street parade.
Every October since 1365, the people of Valencia have come together to celebrate their liberty from Moorish rule. In true Spanish style, this involves a huge fiesta! We didn't realize we would be in Valencia on their "Día de la Comunidad Valenciana", but as the streets filled and the celebrations erupted, there was no way we could miss it. For anyone wondering, we did make it back to the cathedral the following day for the Holy Grail.
Exploring the streets of the old town, we also discovered a delicious local drink known as Agua Valencia. "Valencia water" is a potent cocktail of gin, vodka, cava (Spanish sparkling wine), and freshly squeezed orange juice served over ice in a huge goblet. Delicious, but nothing to do with water!
We also celebrated Rosie's first birthday in Valencia, and the highlight for her was visiting Bioparc Valenica, an incredible 10-hectare animal park that promotes conservation, respect for animals and their natural habitats.
The Turia River, which once ran through the Old Town of Valencia and into the Mediterranean Sea, was prone to flooding, and in an awe-inspiring feat of engineering the river was diverted out of the city. Today, the riverbed has been converted into an incredible eco-park, part of which is home to this zoo.