Friday, July 12, 2013

Murcia: Out & About Photo Journal 1.

Hello friends!  I've decided that because I have SO many photos from this wonderful trip that I will slip in small photo journal entries between articles...  As I prepare my facts, photos and info from our first day of wine tasting in Yecla and Jumilla, I thought you might enjoy viewing a few photographs I snapped while enjoying siesta and late night tapas.  The city of Murcia is absolute pleasure to explore on foot, so whenever we had a bit of down time, I was out and about wandering...

This was a beautiful alley near our hotel with a modern, clean apartment building surrounded by potted flowers and trees.  I was struck by the graffiti looking so out of place in such an affluent looking neighborhood.

The pleasure of Spanish carbs... The breadstick on the left is a local specialty, looped around in the shape of a teardrop. 

This building, located near the cathedral, was one of the most striking I've seen.   Gorgeous hand-painted details using vibrant colors and exquisite masonry.

The fountain and geraniums outside of city hall.

The giant fish in the river Segura.

Longshot of the river Segura... A little low and dry this time of year.

The locks on the bridge over the river- each lock is permenantly attached by it's owner and hand-painted with initials as a symbol of everlasting love.

Opposite shot of the river Segura, looking down towards the city botanical garden.

The Teatro Romea.

A church located right around the corner from our hotel.   Bells on the hour, rung by hand.

Loved this tapas restaurant.  Taberna La Parranda Pequena.  A daily visit, for sparkling wine or a light snack.

Take a seat, pick a favorite.

Mojama (cured salmon), Marcona Almonds and fresh patatas fritas.

A small drum procession in the early evening.

Wam, slightly crispy eggplant with jamon iberico and tomato puree.  One of my personal favorite tapas delights.

Menu?  You're looking at it. 

Another favorite tapas- jamon iberico "riding" on deep fried artichoke hearts.

Meat hanging from the ceiling!  Another frequently visited tapas bar.

Look at all that jamon... My mouth is watering.  This place was great, the staff was hilarious, warm and insistent on stuffing us silly with food & drink.

Juan Gil and tapas- the perfect combo.  More on Juan Gil to come...

A foodie's dream.

Brined olives and Manchego.

I was constantly trying to figure out how to get this in my suitcase.  Jamon iberico.

The beautiful theater at night.  Sit on the steps, eat some ice cream and people-watch until your heart's content.


I'm working hard on my next article, but in the meantime, I hope you enjoyed this peek into everday Murcia.  Next up, La Purisima, Bodegas Seńorio De Barahonda, Bodegas Castaño, and Juan Gil.

*All photos are author's own taken between 6/22/13 & 6/28/13

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Murcia: Bold and New.

My day began early, bleary-eyed and sleepy on a Saturday morning, filled with the anticipation of travelling abroad and the hope that all would go smoothly along the way.  The hubbs, also half-asleep, was by my side as we swiftly made our way to SFO in the darkness of the early weekend.  My mind was racing-- did I remember my passport?  Did I pack appropriately?  How long was this flight exactly?  Actually I should say "flights", considering that there were three connectors I had to catch just to get to Alicante, along the southeastern shores of Spain.  After nearly twenty five hours of travel, our plane finally touched down (on time!) at the small, yet efficient Alicante Airport.  We were now just a short driving distance from Murcia- about an hour, spent chatting with our fellow bloggers Amy Gross, Julia Crowley, Cindy Rynning and our chaperone, Mike Matilla.  We were all a bit punchy by this point, but eager to begin our exploration of the region, starting with the city of Murcia itself.

Fields of gold.
Along the way to town, riding side-by-side with our driver, Pepe, the van became quiet as we all were taken aback by the incredibly unique landscape of the surrounding region of Murcia.  In comparison to other parts of Spain, this rocky, dry terrain was more Mediterranean than areas I'd visited in the past-- I couldn't help but think to myself, "this is a tropical desert."  The further we traveled, the more the land started to resemble parts of... Arizona?  Indeed, with beautiful clay colored dust, palm trees springing up left and right, giant cactus hulking alongside adobe-esque homes and roads that reached from the sea to the mountains, all in plain sight without foliage blocking the view.  This Spain was very foreign to me, completely and utterly different from the lush, fervent seaside towns of the North, more isolated and vast than Madrid and it's neighbors.  On one side you have the ocean, and not far from it, on the opposite side of the highway, you have a giant, sluggish mountain range that rises up from the plains like a dinosaur resting peacefully under an ashen colored rug.

The view at 120 km per hour.
The strange part, I had noticed, is that the further inland we traveled, the more greenery began to appear.  Not just a little plant here or there-- we're talking acres and acres of apricots, peaches, almonds, olives, lemons, table grapes and the like.  Modest homes made from clay, stone and wood, surrounded by palm trees and almond groves, fruit trees and vegetables for miles.  Striking plant life against a rather bleak landscape, much like California's own central valley, where irrigation is king even though the water supply is limited.  Like any other dry climate, Murcia sees very little rain in the winter and there is an abundance of sunshine and heat during the summer months, leaving very little natural water sources accessible to the people.  And yet, they thrive, dependent on their bountiful harvest of produce and flowers, often times referred to as "Europe's Orchard" amongst the growing communities.          

Old meets new(ish) outside our hotel.
We arrived at our hotel, the NH Rincon de Pepe, a startlingly modern hotel amidst the classic cobblestone streets and cool stone buildings of ancient Murcia.  Located in the heart of the city, walking distance from the gorgeous Castillian gothic Cathedral Church of Saint Mary, the hotel is host to two restaurants, a casino and the now blogger-infamous La Muralla bar.  Our rooms were spacious, comfortable and relatively well equipped to our needs, while the general property and atmosphere of the hotel was pleasant and relaxing.  A quick wash of the face, a glass of water and a huge sigh of relief for landing safely at our destination, we were ready to get down to business.  Well, sort of.  Actually, we were completely starving and in need of some decent sustenance after our long journey.  Perhaps a glass of wine or two, a cerveza, some local tapas and a good, long introduction to our surroundings.  We also finally were able to meet up with additional fellow bloggers Meg Maker, Robert Dwyer and Mary Cressler, traveling from different parts of the U.S.-- all three having had lost their luggage lost via Amsterdam.  Travel snafu aside, it was impossible to pass up the opportunity to get our first taste of Murcia...    
The gorgeous cathedral just steps away.
After we dropped off our own luggage, freshened up and settled in, we were asked to re-group for a casual lunch around 2:15 in the afternoon-- which, if you were wondering, is Spain's most important meal of the day.  Lunch here is not your average deli sandwich or fast food bite to eat.  Lunch is the biggest meal, usually one of the longest ( about 2-3 hours) and is chock-full of hearty, savory dishes.  For our introductory meal, it had been arranged for us to eat at the hotel's own alleyway restaurant, La Barra.  Situated around the corner and down a vibrant, skinny lane, La Barra's facade is a relaxed, down-tempo outdoor eating area where friends and neighbors can meet up for tapas while enjoying the fresh air.  The restaurant staff was nice enough to arrange a table for the nine of us to share, under a dark canopy, shielding us from the warm summer sun.  Our chaperone Mike, was integral in our food decision making (thanks Mike!), by helping us to understand the menu.

Typical Murcia lane.
We started out with a couple of dewy, cool pitchers of cerveza.  Traditionally, it's pretty common to start your meal or tapas session off with a cold bottle of Mahou, Cruzcampo, Estrella Damm or Estrella Levante.  After all, we were about to embark on a wine tasting bonanza for the next 5 days, why not give the palette a refreshing break?  There were glasses of Cava ordered as well- the bloggers wanted bubbles.  Bubbles in beer or bubbles in Spanish sparkling wine, it didn't matter.  Menus were quickly passed around and the fun began...

For our first course, I decided to go with the habitas salteadas con jamón y heuvos rotos (broken lacy eggs with ham and beans)- upon Mike's recommendation.  The hubbs pilfered half of this dish, and we found ourselves arguing whether or not his rollitos de salmon marinado el eneldo rellano de marisco (salmon roll stuffed with dill, caviar and crab) could compare.  Both were, without a doubt, divine.  It is very a special moment when you arrive in a country and are taking your first bite of local fare.  The beans in my dish were grown locally and cooked perfectly, and the jamon was savory and crisp.  The hubbs starter was melt-in-your-mouth tasty, although due to outdoor heat became a little too warm after a few minutes.  Nonetheless, each dish was a delicious intro to this unfamiliar region's culinary capability.

Mmm beer.
Mike in blue, ready to eat.

Beans, "lacy" egg, jamon.

As more dishes began to arrive, cameras appeared and the obsessive photo taking took action-- Tranco de bacalao rebozado con pisto murciano (salted cod with potatoes), tortilla el gusto espanol (layered potato omelette), festival de verduras del tempurada el iberico (salad festival of local veggies with ham) and for the sweet-tooth in all of us, postre de la casa sugerencias del dia (rice pudding).

Salmon roll.

Spanish tortilla.
It's a festival in my mouth!
Beautiful food in a beautiful setting will always be a good thing...  And I think I speak for most of the Murcia 8 when I say, "sabe tam bien" wholeheartedly.  Can't wait for the next meal.  If you can believe it, this was just lunch.  Our American tummies were bursting at the seams, and yet, we took a siesta and continued to eat more about 3 hours later.  It's almost impossible to to *not* eat in Spain, especially in a social aspect.  Spaniards eat like it's a sport: work hard, play hard, eat tons and walk it off.  A lifestyle I could definitely get used to.

It's a good thing there's a lot more coming where that came from... Stay tuned!

*All photos are author's own, taken over the course of 6-22 to 6/28 of 2013.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Murcia: An Introduction.

I'm just going to throw this out there:

Spain rocks!

This statement should come as no surprise, seeing as though I've expressed my passionate adoration for all things Spanish on several accounts.  I love Spain.  Spain makes me feel genuinely happy inside- from the minute I purchase my plane tickets stateside, to the last glance over my shoulder as I clunk down the air tunnel on to my returning flight home.  My journey back to California is usually a quiet one, full of reflection and an accompanying twinge of heartache, knowing that it may be a while before I return.  Beautiful memories bounce around my head like fireflies contained in jar, burning brightly, jumbled and fascinating.  Over the next few weeks, I will be sharing those memories of the people and places we became acquainted with throughout our exploration of the breathtaking Region of Murcia.

Courtesy of the Instituto de Fomento de la Región de Murcia (INFO), both the hubbs and I were invited to join the adventure by our wonderful host Mike Matilla, of Argos Consulting.  It was decided that the hubbs would, of course, cover all aspects of wine in Murcia, while I was fortunate enough to be the food gal, cataloguing with whom, where and what we were going to be eating on the trip.  Eat we did, until our stomachs were uncomfortably fat and full of Jamón Ibérico, Manchego, fried pulpo, Marcona almonds, Bacalao, bowls of fresh local fruit and flan dulce galore.  We were treated to fantastic al fresco lunches, homestyle banquet feasts, modern day Spanish gastronomy and tapas, tapas, tapas for five days straight-- I was a girl in heaven.

On top of all this phenomenal food, focus was concentrated on the "Wines from Murcia", specifically the Denominación de Origen (appellations) of Yecla, Jumilla and Bullas.  Each day was devoted to winery visits, meeting the associates, touring the facilities and learning the history behind these unique producers of incredible, affordable wines that primarily showcase the extraordinary native Monastrell grape.

Monastrell grapevines baking in the Spanish sun.
Over the course of five days we visited ten lovely wineries, three restaurants, an agriturismo, countless tapas bars, one castle, a wine museum, an ancient cathedral, and underground bar with a Roman wall running through it, a real-life cave dwelling and a humble homestead church...  Whew.  As tiring as all this may have been, especially running on an estimated 3 hours sleep each night (when in Spain!), it has to have been one of the most memorable, educational, fun-loving, spirited adventures I've endured and absolutely enjoyed.

Day one in Yecla will cover visits to the creative coop of Bodegas La Purisima, the gorgeous Bodegas Señorio de Barahonda, lunch under the sun and laughter at Bodegas Castaño, a warm welcome from the staff at Bodegas Hijos de Juan Gil in Jumilla, tapas hopping in the evening and a trip downstairs to "the wall", infamous late night watering hole of wandering souls.

Stay tuned!!

The friends I've made along the way are just as invaluable as the experience itself-- the Murcia 8 are busy at their keyboards, prepping, editing, photo sifting and writing their hearts out, helping to spread the good word on Murcia.  Keep up with fellow writers Ward Kadel (Vinopanion), Meg Maker (Maker's Table), Robert Dwyer (The Wellesley Wine Press), Amy Gross (Vinesleuth), Mary Cressler (Vindulge), Cindy Rynning (Grape Experiences) and Julia Crowley (Wine Julia) as they sip, savor and share their Murcia thoughts with the wine and food world.