There’s nothing like creating a memorable trip. It starts with a kernel that serves as a building block—once you have that, the fun starts! This round the “kernel” was an American Society of Interior Designers (ASID) Board meeting hosted by Cosentino at their Headquarters in Almeria, Spain. After that, it was all about dreaming with my husband, Vinny, chatting about where should we go? Where should we extend? How long should we stay?
Originally, after my meeting we were going to turn west and head to Portugal, but the call of Italy was too strong. So, we planned the trip in three phases—busy Spain, a relaxing intermezzo in Ibiza, and more energetic travel in Italy. Getting to Europe from Sacramento always presents a travel challenge because of the lack of direct flights, as our options are to connect twice or drive to San Francisco (SFO) and fly more direct. We’ve always chosen the former, because overall travel time actually is faster and it avoids the 2+ hour drive to and from SFO, not to mention parking costs. And we love Delta Airlines and connecting in Amsterdam Schipol. If you’re connecting in Europe, we always recommend going there to avoid London Heathrow or Paris Charles De Gaulle if you can’t get a more direct flight.
Our first destination was Madrid. We had been there once before, but as any big city will do, it seduces you with different parts of itself everytime you visit and this time was just as delightful as the first. It’s always good to find a hotel chain that is consistent, and as we would find in three other locations, the NH Collection Hotels would prove clean, comfortable and convenient at the recommendation of American Express and our friends at Cosentino. Once we got to the hotel in 30-minutes, we took the requisite 60-minute nap to cut the edge off. We were awaiting the arrival of our good friend Chris, whom over a 20-year period has traveled with us everytime we have been to Europe. What a great wing man! His companionship and Euro-experience is always a great help. And it would come in handy as Vinny and I split up for a few days as I headed south to Almeria, and the boys headed north to the Rioja wine region.
So, after starting with a cocktail on that rainy Friday evening, we headed, where else, to an Indian-Spanish fusion restaurant called, El Hombre Pez Madrid. It was beautiful on the interior and so delicious! We knew that we’d have our fill of manchengo cheese and Iberico jamon for the next week, so why not spice it up to start?
Saturday broke cool and drizzly, but we had made a prior reservation to visit the Prado Museum and its collection of paintings and sculptures. The Prado didn’t disappoint, nor did our walk through Parque de El Retiro. Despite the slighty inclement weather, people were out. The walk from the hotel showed a city full of designer shops, clean streets and sophisticated people. Madrilenos are a chic, urban people that obviously take pride in their city. While we’re still testing and fretting about COVID, people in Europe are OUT. They’re traveling, eating, and seeing their friends. And while there are mask protocols and the requisite COVID test to return, people are excited and relieved to be back to some sense of “normal”.
And this led to our first 2-hour lunch at a hole in the wall restaurant called Floren Domezain. Incredible vine ripened tomatoes and produce, a surly waitress, and fabulous company. This was then followed by a Board dinner under-the-stars at the incomparable Numa Pompilio terrace. Let’s be clear, these people EAT, but also, time is taken, wine is served and conversation is had. This was a common theme throughout the trip. Take your time eating. Enjoy some wine. Eat late—lunch at 1pm, dinner at 8pm or later. This trip’s record was a 4-hour, 3-bottle of wine lunch in Granada for three. And don’t forget your 530-7pm aperitivo, with snacks provided! Of course, we were clocking 15,000+ steps a day, so we had the opportunity to burn it off while seeing the sites.
The next day the boys were off to Logrono, Spain, while I connected with some of the American Society of Interior Designers (ASID) Board members, for and intimate lunch at El Paraguas and then flew south to Almeria. Vinny and Chris rented a car at the Madrid train station and headed north. Spanish roads are in excellent shape and the drive for the guys was smooth. As they drove through some beautiful mountains, they finally came upon some vineyards as they entered the Rioja region. Logrono is a city of 120,000 at the epicenter of Rioja. They stayed at a Eurostars Marques del Vallejo hotel in the old town. Once checked in, they stumbled across tapas heaven. Apparently, on Sunday afternoons between 12-4pm, all of the tapas restaurants attract all the locals to sample their offerings. A tapa is a small portion of any number of meat, cheese, fish or vegetable dishes. They tried tried pork cheek, roasted peppers and smoked fish at a variety of places. Vinny and Chris hung in and as the sun came out chatted about life over espresso awaiting the next wave. From 5-8pm, the parade of people came out as people enjoyed their aperitivo as dinner wouldn’t be available till 8pm.
Next day, Vinny (now calling himself “Vincenzo”) and Chris checked out and headed to taste some wine. It being a Monday, some places were closed but by happy accident they headed to Marques de Riscal to see the Frank Gehry designed hotel and arrived 5-minutes before the 11am English language tour. $20 each for an hour and a half tour and tasting—what a deal. The tour was conducted by a great guide and they saw the entire operation which included their fabulous caves and their wine filling and packaging operation. At one point they were in their wine storage room with 2-million bottles of wine. Amazing!
In Haro, there is a winery district and Vinny’s target was Bodegas Muga and unfortunately it was closed. So, right across the street was another favorite, R. López de Heredia Viña Tondonia. While they weren’t doing tastings, they would sell a bottle. Also, in talking with the tasting room hostess, she asked whether they were going to Bilbao, which they were, and asked if they wanted free tickets to the Guggenheim Museum. Score! So the boys headed across the street to Bodegas La Rioja Alta which had a lovely tasting room where the next 2-hours were spent enjoying their wine offerings. It really is such a special experience to visit the wineries of wines that you’ve purchased and enjoyed in its country of origin. You get a sense of the operation and get to taste things you don’t get to when back in the US.
Next up was Bilbao. Bilbao is a city in the Basque Country region of Spain. If you know and learn anything about Spain, it’s people are proud and hold on to their regionalisms. The Basque and Catalan’s are among these groups that hold on fiercely to their traditions, have their own languages and literally want to be their own countries. The Basque language is nothing like Spanish, but luckily all signage has both languages displayed. Bilbao seems like a smaller version of Madrid. Clean, cosmopolitan and has as its anchor a Guggenheim museum designed by the aforementioned Frank Gehry. Chris and VInny stayed at the NH Collection Bilbao.
The visit to the Guggenheim was a delight. The collection is very modern with a hall of bent steel framing the size of a football field. It’s set along the river that doubles as a great social area and adjacent to parks and cafes. After visiting, it was time for Vinny to leave Chris and head to meet me in Granada. Bilbao’s airport is small and efficient and connected in Madrid on the way. Iberia is Spain’s flag air carrier and it didn’t disappoint. On time and efficient.
When Vinny landed in Granada, I was just heading to dinner with my ASID colleagues at a lovely restaurant overlooking The Alhambra. And if there’s a reason to visit Granada it’s that. The Alhambra is a palace and fortress complex located in Granada, Andalusia, Spain. It is one of the most famous monuments of Islamic architecture and one of the best-preserved palaces of the historic Islamic world, in addition to containing notable examples of Spanish Renaissance architecture.
The Alhambra is a testament to the time when people of Islamic, Christian and Jewish faiths all thrived together. This was the first of several guided tours we took on our trip. They give you a little transmitter and clean earbuds and you listen as your guide takes you through the grounds. There was a lot to see including hidden rooms, gardens and areas that provided amazing views of Granada and the surrounding mountains. While chilly with occasional sprinkles, the trip was educational and the walk down from the hill to the city was refreshing. It was fun to see a square from up top and say “I want to go there for lunch” and the path down conveniently drops you there.
The next day, after a walk around town in the rain, it was time to post up somewhere cozy for a long lunch. We found Parole, a few blocks from the Cathedral in Granada and with a great friend spent the next 4-hours and 3-bottles of wine leaning into a perfect lunch of Spanish and Italian foods. The staff never rushed us and did a great job of taking care of us while we enjoyed pizza, muscles, salad and pasta from the parmesan bowl.
Of all of our bucket list items, it was time for Ibiza. Unfortunately, due COVID, spending a long night dancing in one of their famed clubs wasn’t in the cards, so we decided to use our stop as an “intermezzo”, a break from some of the chaos of travel to and in Spain, before more chaos of traveling around Italy. We decided to stay at the newly opened Six Senses Hotel. It’s located about a 30-minute drive from the airport on the island’s northwestern corner. They can arrange for a car to pick you up and take you back to the airport. On arrival, the young staff is attentive and eager to help. Currently, there is one main restaurant for all meals set up in a market hall setting. On the final night, we dined at the inaugural service at Ha Salon, an outpost of internationally celebrated chef Eyal Shani. There was entertainment most evenings in the restaurant and the farm inspired cuisine was well prepared and healthy. We enjoyed spa mornings and even went on a hike.
The suite was well appointed, and we were right by the pool. As the resort is set on a hill, the views of the Balearic Sea are beautiful, and we hit it at the right time of the year to see a perfect sunset every night. One would say that a trip is just a collection of places until you meet the people you’re meant to meet along the way. Two lovelies in Ibiza were a new friend from the UK that was on a work sabbatical. It’s so enjoyable to have a wide ranging conversation with someone from another country and to hear their world view. We inquired about her perspective of what’s gone on in the US and what’s been on her mind in the UK. She said one word, ”Brexit”. So, just when you think of the world from a US-centric place, remember that every country has their stuff and our own self importance doesn’t carry much beyond our own borders. Another spirited and hospitable person was one of the restaurant managers. She had a great wit and made sure we were taken care of, offering a great positive energy to the hotel experience.
Now on to Italy by flying to Barcelona and connecting to Milan, Italy to begin our Italian adventure—check out our stops in the following blog.