Category Archives: Travel

The Valpolicella region yields good options for selecting Italian wines

Enoteca Oreste del Zovo wine shop in Verona

Verona, in northeast Italy, is a romantic city, steeped with history and beautiful vistas along the Adige River.  In the old city, one can cross the ancient Ponte Pietra bridge, visit a Roman arena and Casa de Giulietta (House of Juliet), the setting for Shakespeare’s classic love story or the Enoteca Oreste Dal Zovo, a wine shop that looks like something from an old novel.  It is there that the local wines from Soave and Valpolicella can be found.

In the hills surrounding Verona to the north, near the marble quarry region, lie the vineyards of Veneto, spread over many appellations, but known for the notable wines from Soave and Valpolicella. At times overshadowed, Valpolicella ranks just below Chianti in total production.

Valpolicella is most identified for the use of unique grape varietals and the distinct styles to their wines.  Grapes like Corvina Veronese, Rondinella, Croatina and Oseleta, relatively unsung  outside of Italy, comprise the red blends from the region.

Vineyards in Valpolicella

Most wines from Valpolicella are light and fruity, but offer many styles, including the richer Amarone made from dried grapes, Valpolicella Classico from the original sector, aged Valpolicella Superiore and Recioto, a dessert wine.

For decades, many of the highly rated releases from Valpolicella have come from Tenuta Sant’Antonio, an estate started by the four Castagnedi brothers:  Armando, Tiziano, Paolo and Massimo.  Beginning with their father’s vineyards and later adding the Monte Garbi property, Tenuta Sant’Antonio has produced some of the best wines from the region.  Wine and Spirits magazine recently named their 2013 Amarone della Valpolicella Campo dei Gigli (94pt/$70) and the 2015 Amarone della Valpolicella Selezi (92pt/$45) among the year’s best releases from the region. 

It is from the Monte Garbi property that Tenuta Sant’Antonio produces Valpolicella Ripasso Superiore DOC Monti Garbi 2017($20), made from re-fermented Amarone skins and aged 12 months in oak casks. Ripasso is the name given for wines made from previously fermented grapes skins.

Wines from Tenuta Sant’ Antonio

A blend from corvina, rondinella, croatina and oseleta grapes, the expressive bouquet of this wine was fruity with doses of cherry and spice. The flavors were light, soft on the palate and savory, pairing well with a flavorful hard cheese.  A good value.

Also from the Monti Garbi District, the grapes for the Amarone Della Valpolicella DOCG Antonio Castagnedi 2015 ($40-50) are dried out for three months prior to fermentation.  With natural malolactic fermentation and batonnage with regular stirrings, the juice sits in new French oaks casks for two years before bottling.

Deep colors and rich texture highlight this wine with heavy spice elements and licorice on the nose, balanced flavors and a luscious mouthfeel.

Castagnedi Brothers, Massimo, Paolo, Armando, Tiziano

Fermented and aged in all stainless steel, the Valpolicella Superiore DOC Nanfre’($15) blends corvina and rondinella grapes from vineyards in the villages of Colognola ai Colli and Illasi, near Verona.  The aromas and flavors are present and expressive throughout, making it an attractive option for an everyday wine.

Scaia is a brand of value-priced wines from the Castagnedi Family that includes, among the reds, a traditional Valpolicella blend and two single-varietal releases:  corvina and cabernet sauvignon. 

However, it was the pale wine releases that captured my attention.

Made from 100% rondinella grapes the Scaia Rosato 2018 ($15) is fermented and aged in stainless steel resulting in a lovely light salmon color, floral hints in the aromas and tangy fruit flavors that lingered throughout the soft finish.

Garganeda grapes

Common in the nearby Soave, the garganeda grape, the sixth most planted white in Italy, is native to the Valpolicella region and, with tight clusters, is often used for recioto dessert wines. The crisp Scaia Garganeda-Chardonnay ($15) has a steely bouquet of wet stone and citrus while the flavors are dominated by tangerine and almonds with a surprisingly long finish. 

Wines from the Valpolicella region are available on-line and in most retail and wholesale outlets.  A little research may reveal some new discoveries of fine Italian wines priced much lower than those from Tuscany or Piedmont.

Better yet, the best way to unearth Valpolicella and Soave wines is to travel to Verona, rent a room in the shadow of the Roman Arena and, at the same time, discover Titian’s “Assumption of the Virgin” in the Verona Cathedral or the sweeping sunset views from the Torre dei Lamberti (Lamberti Tower).


What to pair with crocodile and other African cuisine

A few years back, we purchased a South African photo safari at a fundraising auction and decided, this August, to schedule the trip and add three days at Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe.  Upon arrival at the Zulu Nyala Game Preserve in South Africa’s northeastern Zulu province, we discovered that all guests purchased their excursion by supporting a non-profit.  It’s part of their business model and something rewarding to be a part of.

Crocodile Frickadelle at the Palm Restaurant at the Ilala Hotel in Victoria Falls

The food was quite good, but commonly included such dishes as crocodile meatballs, ostrich filets and grilled Eland, Africa’s largest antelope.  Seeking a wine to pair with this new cuisine, I was delightfully surprised with a Diemersdal Pinotage 2017, from an historic winery in the Durbanville Valley region near Capetown, and began to rely upon their brand for the remainder of our African adventure.

Pinotage is a signature grape in South Africa, created in 1925 by Abraham Izak Perold, the first Professor of Viticulture at Stellenbosch University. It is a marraige of pinot noir and cinsault, a popular varietal used in southern Rhone-style blends and known in its homeland as hermitage.  The Pinotage 2017 and other red and white varietals from the Diemersdal Estate became a familiar name among many unfamiliar choices.

Wines have been produced at the Estate for over three centuries and six generations of the Louws family have artistically and meticulously farmed the land for over 130 years.

The Diemersdal Estate covers 840 acres, of which nearly 450 is planted under vine with pinotage, merlot, sauvignon blanc, chardonnay and others.  Of note, many of the remaining acres are used for grazing and the preservation of Renosterveld, a threatened vegetation type in southernmost Africa’s Cape Floristic Region. The hillside vineyards at the Estate welcome cool, misty afternoon breezes that permit dry-farming, culminating in fully ripened fruit.

To accompany fresh-caught grilled bream and crocodile frikadelle at the Palm Restaurant in the Ilala Hotel at Victoria Falls, we fortunately chose the definitively styled Diemersdal Sauvignon Blanc 2018 with layered tropical fruit on the nose and palate and a vibrant minerality on the finish. The reasonable price made this wine even more appealing.  

For the record, crocodile does taste like chicken and we had served as a meatball, then grilled and diced, potentially popular in the States when served in a taco. Crocodile tacos, an idea before its time?

Diemersdal also produces a high-end sauvignon blanc reserve and the Diemersdal Winter Ferment 2019, described as a “new world style of sauvignon blanc” with tropical flavors, a hint of grapefruit and a rich, vibrant acidity throughout.

Days later, seeking a white wine that we could pair with a buffet featuring an array of fish, meat and game dishes as well as fresh sushi, we selected the elegantly aromatic Diemersdal Chardonnay Unwooded 2017.  The rich, creamy texture of the wine is balanced with melon and citrus flavors that linger. I now can forever brag to my “foodie” friends of eating sushi in Zimbabwe.

In addition to the red pinotage, we selected a bottle of Diemersdal Merlot 2017 for dinner one evening at the game preserve. Aged twelve months in 30% new French oak, this wine is still young but delivered very evident spice overtones throughout the nose and palate.

Once again relying on Diemersdal for our last dinner in Johannesburg, we reached out for a bold, nicely structured Diemersdal Shiraz 2017, a complex wine with strong spice overtones and a full palate of flavors that paired well with everything from a venison stew to a cheese plate.

Wines from the Diemersdal Estate carried us through South Africa and Zimbabwe, but a search upon our return found them available on numerous on-line wine sites but very limited access in local outlets.

Diemersdal Estate

However, for those seeking to explore the pinotage varietal, your options are wide open.  K&L Wines in San Francisco and Redwood City offers a 2015 Beaumont Pinotage Bot River South Africa ($28), awarded 92-points from James Suckling describing flavors of “blueberry, violets, orange peel and citrus.”

For a local option, wine.com sells a Fort Ross Vineyard Pinotage Sonoma Coast ($37) from northwest Sonoma County, boasting ratings in the nineties and, most appropriate for our recent adventure, the Graham Beck Game Reserve Pinotage 2015 ($16) from beautiful South Africa.


The allure of Los Olivos as a wine country getaway

 

Years ago, we discovered the charm of Los Olivos when it was still a hidden gem.  The film, “Sideways,” and the surrounding vineyards exposed it to more people, but the authentic appeal is still there with many more culinary options.  Today, it offers a perfect getaway for those seeking rustic charm and access to extraordinary wineries and restaurants.

Los Olivos, population 1,000, is one of five small communities within the Santa Ynez Valley, forty minutes north of Santa Barbara and a

Downtown Los Olivos

few miles east of Solvang.  It sits in the middle of the warmer Santa Ynez Valley AVA, east of Highway 101, but is a short drive to the cooler Santa Rita Hills AVA where pinot noir and chardonnay vineyards extend west from Buellton to the Pacific Ocean.

Historically a stagecoach and railroad stop, Los Olivos remained concealed within oak-studded foothills for decades, seen only from cars passing along Highway 154 that connects with Santa Barbara via the San Marcos Pass.  Today, even with more tourists, the quaintness remains along with the old flag pole that sits in the middle of the town’s main intersection.

Where to Stay

Fess Parker’s Wine Country Inn and Spa is the only hotel in the downtown area.  Actor Fess Parker, who brought Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone to life for many baby boomers, was a long-time resident, property and business

Fess Parker Wine Country Inn

owner in the Santa Ynez Valley and purchased this luxury hotel years before his death. Pricy, but convenient, the inn is steps from everything the town has to offer.

The Ballard Inn/Restaurant is another property located minutes from town and there are ample hotel rooms in nearby Solvang.  Additionally, vacation rental properties, some associated with local wineries, are readily available for large or small groups.

Where to Taste

The appellations of north Santa Barbara County are among the best in California and there are copious opportunities for wine tasting.  Two of the areas finest producers of syrah, Tensley and Stolpman Vineyards, have downtown Los Olivos tastings rooms across the street from each other on Alamo Pintado Avenue.

Joey Tensley has earned accolades and recognition in recent years for his syrah and other varietals including the 2017 Colson Canyon

Tensley Syrah

Vineyard Syrah ($42) and the 2017 Santa Barbara County Syrah ($28) while the Stolpman Vineyard, one of the largest in the region produces many fine wines like the co-fermented sangiovese/syrah blend, La Croce 2016 ($66) and the Hilltop Syrah 2016 ($42). 

A few miles west of town, I recommend stops at Lincourt, part of Foley Family Wines specializing in pinot noir and chardonnay and Rusack Vineyards who produce pinot noir, syrah, chardonnay and other varietals in Ballard Canyon, outside of Solvang as well as on Santa Catalina Island.

East of Los Olivos, along the Foxen Canyon Wine Trail, visitors will find a plethora of tasting rooms including the Fess Parker Winery estate and one of my favorite experiences, well worth the effort to find it.  

View of vineyards at Demetria Estate

The relaxed and hospitable Demetria Estate, on a secluded mountaintop further up the trail, features fine Rhône and Burgundy style wines such as the “North Slope” Syrah ($44) with five percent viognier, the “Eighteen” Chardonnay ($49) and a grenache-based blend called “Pantheon” ($47).

Where to Eat

Although its reach was broadened, foodies discovered the Los Olivos Cafe long before it was featured in the film, “Sideways”.  A diverse menu, exquisitely prepared food, great wine selections, pleasant atmosphere and perfect location make it a must when visiting.

As the local dining scene has matured, Los Olivos Cafe has been joined by restaurants like Side’s Hardware and Shoes (lunch only), the upscale casual Bear and Star, Greek cuisine in Petros and the historic Mattei’s Tavern, all located within steps of each other.

For a more casual lunch, try Pannino, in the heart of town, the landmark Los Olivos Grocery minutes

Los Olivos Cafe

down the road or The Doggy Door, a sweet little stand that features both vegan or beef hot dogs plus gourmet sandwiches.

To work off the food and wine, I suggest a casual walk  around town to enjoy the unique garden sculptures at J. Woeste, western goods at Jedlicka’s Saddlery, the labyrinth at St. Marks-in-the-Valley church or a refreshment at Corner House Coffee.  They truly reveal the genuine rustic charm of Los Olivos.


The Women of Domaine de Mastrot

 

Elsa Martrot and moi

Adele and Elsa Martrot are eighth generation winemakers from the Meursault village in Burgundy.  They are the daughters of seventh generation Thierry & Pascual Martrot.  Females have dominated the most recent offspring and it does not appear that this trend will change in the future.  Elsa delivered a baby girl three months ago and Adele is expecting a baby girl in December, almost assuring that, if the will is there,  the ninth generation will be lead by women.

Winding through backroads that connect small villages of Pommard, Volnay and Monthelie in the Cotes de Beaune region, we arrived at the Domaine de Martrot estate which consisted of old stone buildings, farming equipment and a cellar beneath the house.

Those who are familiar with Burgundian wines have most likely experienced their releases.

They began exporting wines to the states in the 1950s and, today, seventy percent of their production is exported, mostly to the United States, Japan, Norway, Denmark and, more recently, other parts of Asia.  

Although records were destroyed during the French Revolution, they know that their family has produced wine in Burgundy since the late 1800s. Their total production is 150,000 bottles or 12,500 American cases per vintage.  The wines originate from 24 hectares of estate vineyards (60 acres) located throughout Cote de Beaune’s best appellations.

The only AOC permitted grapes in Burgundy are chardonnay and pinot noir with one small exception.  Beaujalois had a few gamay vineyards grandfathered in.  The weather is much like Sonoma County, the Carneros and Santa Rita Hills, California appellations that produce our finest Burgundian varietals

In 2016, there was an April frost from Chablis to Macron and they lost 60% of their grapes which resulted in 80% less yield. Adele explained that the moisture left from the frost combined with the heat from the sun can burn the buds.  At times, to save their vintage, they are forced to burn hay bales to create a smokey haze that filters the sunlight.

Less quantity usually results more highly concentrated wines.  When weather creates hardships for the producer, Mother Nature and the consumer are often the winners.  Hence, we tasted selections from the 2016 vintage.

Domaine de Martrot produces about twenty wines per year, evenly split between rouge and blanc.  French wines are always identified by the region and appellation and we tasted a diversity of terroir, each with its own identity.

To begin, Adele poured the 2016 San Romain, a blanc from northern Cote de Beaune.  Because it is warmer and the days are longer, the grapes mature faster and are picked in August. There was a clear minerality to the young wine that will become rounder within four to five years.   

The 2016 Meursault/Blagny 1st cru (premier growth) from a nearby appellation had a healthy acidity that was balanced throughout.  Adele described it as a good pairing with spicy Asian food, specifically  sushi.  They are increasingly exporting their wines to the Japan market.

For me, the white that stood out was the 2016 Meursault-Charmes !st Cru, a wine recently awarded 94-points by Wine Spectator.  Musky, stone fruit and minerality aromas preceded  complex, rounded stone fruit flavors with hints of honey and vanilla.  This wine is
available in the Bay Area for $90.  My bottle cost 55 euros, purchased and enjoyed in Burgundy.

Another 1st Cru release, the 2016 Puligny-Montrachet Les Chalumeaux was a stunning blanc with very clear floral notes on the nose and palate.

The 2016 Monthlelie, an elegant village wine from low-yield vines, was more medium-bodied than the other red wines that we tasted. The result of an early Spring hailstorm was lower quantity and higher quality.

I questioned Adele on how and by whom the grapes were harvested.  Because of how the vines are planted, the chardonnay is done by machine and the pinot noir by hand.  Migrants from French West Africa, including Senegal, Chad and other countries as well as Spain augment locals from the area.

Our last wine was a 2014 Blagny Le Piece Sous le Bois 1st Cru, expressing significant black cherry and spice aromas, reminiscent of fine pinot releases from top California appellations.  The dark berry flavors were round and fruit forward, lingering on a long finish.

As we celebrate our granddaughter’s first birthday next week,  I will imagine her developing a palate for Burgundian wines and, maybe someday, crossing paths with two young cousins making wine under the roof of a stone building in Meursault.


The Road to Conceito’s Wines

 

For many, the thrill of the wine experience is the search, finding that great value or rare hidden gem that you read about somewhere.  During a recent visit to Portugal’s Douro Valley, I pursued such an opportunity and survived to tell my story.

For centuries, Portugal has been known for producing the finest port in the world, using native grapes like touriga nacional, touriga francesa and tinto roriz, called tempranillo in neighboring Spain and other countries. In recent years, they have used the same varietals to produce acclaimed red wines.  

In 2014, three Douro Valley red wines, the Dow Vintage Port 2011(#1), Prats & Symington Douro Chryseia 2011(#3) and Quinta do Vale Meao Douro 2011(#4), dominated Wine Spectator magazine’s annual top wines list.

Most recently, critics have made note that quality white wines have emerged from the Douro.  One such release, the Conceito Douro

Hillside vineyards in the Douro Valley

Branca 2016 (white blend) and its story intrigued me and, although they were in the midst of the harvest, I reached out to winemaker Rita Marques Ferreira to arrange a visit.  

As with most wineries, Conceito’s small three person staff were in the throes of harvest, something that is time-consuming and must be undertaken within a precise window to maximize potential for greatness. 

Before leaving the hotel, I asked Lisa, the concierge for directions to the village of Villa Nova de Foz Coa-Cedovim.  She said that it was a beautiful ninety minute drive from our hotel in Peso da Régua.  An hour and a half to travel 43 miles should have been a clue.

What followed was a scenic, but harrowing drive up and over a mountain pass, via a long and winding road without many barriers.  At one point, we were behind a small truck carrying freshly harvested grapes.  For once, I didn’t mind the slow-moving truck.  It gave us some reprieve from being the only snail on the road.

Our GPS did a yeoman’s job of getting us to Cedovim. From there we were on our own, left to find Conceito with no commercial signage. We turned to the right and began to improvise.

In a few miles, we passed a small white building where a woman was observing a man on a fork lift dumping a tub of grapes through a de-stemmer. From her photos, I thought I recognized Rita, so we stopped and approached her.

Carla Costa Ferreira takes me on a tour

“We are very busy today, so you will meet with my mother, Carla,” she said.  “Besides, she speaks better English for you.”  I am always impressed how multi-lingual most Europeans are.

Unecessarily apologizing for the mess and her broken English, Carla Costa Ferreira, Conceito’s owner, gave us a tour of their small facility including the crush pad, large stainless steel fermentation tanks and the barrel rooms.

Afterwards, she led us to a small table with several bottles of their current releases to taste. I noticed a bottle of 2017 Conceito Douro Branca and inquired about the vintage 2016.  She left and soon returned, smiling.  “We have very little left, but I found a bottle,” she said.

The 2016 Douro Branca is a field blend of esgana cao, folgosado and verdelho, all native white varietals in the Douro. This wine was not a “fruit bomb”, dominated by one overpowering varietal, but a perfectly balanced blend with a subtle minerality and lush mouthfeel that lingered throughout a seemingly everlasting finish.  A truly pleasurable experience. Although it is priced at 20 euros in

Tasting the 2016 Conceito Douro white blend

Portugal, consumers in the states must pay $45 a bottle for the experience.

I asked Carla if she was aware that Wine Spectator had given the wine a 92-point rating in their national magazine.

“Yes, I am aware,” she said, “but I think they taste wines too early.  This wine will continue to improve for the next five to ten years.”

I believe her, but this wine was tasting very fine today.  Carla poured their top red blend, the 2015 Conceito Douro Tinta, another superbly balanced blend as well as their “Contrast” label red and white, designed as everyday wines at a lower price.  She said that the Contrast red was actually her favorite wine.

Conceito wines are authentic, created by a small team in a remote mountain village that does not seek notoriety of any kind.  Somehow, it still managed to find them.  


Lesser Known Wines from Pouilly Fume

vineyards in Pouilly Fume

While cruising the Canal Lateral de Loire, we moored the boat near Sancerre and planned to do some wine tasting.  Wines from the Sancerre region and nearby Rue Pouilly Fuisse are exquisite and easily recognizable in the California marketplace. However, today we decided to travel east of the Loire River to explore some lesser known white wines from Pouilly Fume’.

The Pouilly Fume’ appellation has only 1,300 hectares under vine compared to 3,000 in Sancerre.  The region is small but has produced dry-farmed wines for four centuries.  The only grape planted in Pouilly Fume is Sauvignon Blanc, but the distinction in the wines comes from the terroir, more specifically the soil types:  limestone, marl, a lime rich blend of clay and silt, sand and flint.

Neighboring Pouilly sur Loire, a sub-region of Pouilly Fume’ produces its wines exclusively from the chasselas grape, named after a commune in the Saone et Loire region of Burgundy. A little known varietal with a global presence, chasselas vines grow in Portugal, Switzerland, New Zealand, Chile and other countries. Wherever it is grown, dry, full fruity wines are found.

Distressed vines with signs of esca

Exploring the Pouilly Fume and Pouilly sur Loire vineyards, we found that the soils types could change within a few meters.  Although the region is 270 feet above sea level, there was clear evidence of sea fossils in the stones. 

The autumn changes were visible and some vines looked more stressed than others.  We discovered that this was due to the esca disease, which affects the trunks of the vines, requiring the replacement of nearly ten percent of stock each year.

Recent mechanical harvest missed some grapes at the end of the rows which we plucked from the vine and sampled.  Tasted side by side, the differences and similarities between the Sauvignon Blanc and chasselas were as evident as they are in the glass. Distinctively, Sauvignon Blanc offers more tropical while the chasselas more stone fruit on the palate.

Eventually, we landed in the tiny community of Les Loges, population 78, where ten families have produced wines for generations.  It was there that we met one such heir, winemaker Clement Marchand, owner/winemaker of Domaine Marchand & Fils, whose family has been in the community since 1650.  Today, he makes his wines in the same cellar created by his grandfather, a damp stone chamber filled with stainless steel and fiberglass tanks where the juice of his recently harvested

Winemaker Clement Marchand

grapes were in a slight fermentation boil.  Later, the wines are aged for months in oak barrels.  

Marchand grows high environmental grapes, a method known in this county as biodynamic farming.  While explaining that balance is critical in his wines, he added that it’s all about the soil where limestone can add hints of citrus, flint a mineral element and stone fruit from the marl.

Marchand produces about 25,000 bottles per vintage, divided among his four releases, all of which we tasted.

The Pouilly sur Loire 2017, made to taste young, had clear hints of almond on the nose and a crisp, healthy acidity that would pair well with shellfish.

The Sauvignon Blanc in the Pouilly Fume’ 2017 (Les Kerots) was also fresh and crisp, but with more stone fruit flavors and a lingering finish.  This wine would enhance any seafood dish.

The Pouilly Fume’ 2016, from the local marl-based fossil soil named kimmeridgian, had much rounder texture and a more creamy mouthfeel than the first two, delivering nice stone fruit  flavors.  The “Kimmeridgian” was Marchand’s highest priced release at approximately $30.

Our last wine, the Pouilly Fume’ Prestige 2016 was complex, but not too heavy with nice texture and soft, tropical flavors that  lingered on the tongue.

I believe that environmental elements can effect the way the wines are perceived.  There I was, standing in an ancient

Marchand & Fils Winery in Pouilly Fume

cellar, tasting wines that date back centuries in an authentic, small and secluded French enclave, east of the Loire River.  Of course, they were all tasting great.

Marchand explained that it is hard for his wines to make it to US markets, dealing with limited production and competition of established wines like Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc from our soils.  Feeling fortunate to have discovered this region and acknowledging that we may not see them anytime soon, my travel mates and I purchased some bottles for the boat.  Pouilly Fume’ is a hidden gem worth exploring.


Falling For Ronda

 

We had explored most of Spain during May 2012, the last few weeks in the south visiting Granada, Alhambra, Cordoba and Sevilla, but Karen had a plan for more. She said, “It will take some time, but I really want to see the white hill towns.” 

Our commitment to spend a few days exploring the hill towns of the Andalucia Mountains took us to a place far beyond our expectations.

We arrived in Ronda by train, seeking a place to sleep between our daily treks to the hill towns.  Rain required a taxicab to the hotel, but our desire to walk and see some of the town before dusk led us back out again with umbrellas and  raincoats. 

First, we stopped by the front desk for some local knowledge.  

“What can we see in the next thirty minutes”? I asked the clerk.

“Go to the plaza.  You take a left at the door and walk straight down the  street,” he said, “You can’t miss it,” 

In many regards, our image of old Spain is based on the Andalucia region.  It is the home of bullfights, flamenco, gazpacho and stunning mountain cliffs. Exiting through the hotel door, we were face-to-face with Spain’s first great bullring, dating back to the 16th Century and still hosting bullfights today.  When Ernest Hemingway wrote of Spain and bullfights, he was living in Ronda.

Puente Nuevo and “El Tajo”

At first glance, the Plaza de Espana was plain and unassuming until I stepped up to a railing. Managing to close my mouth and speak, I uttered, “My god, you’ve got to see this.”

“See what?” Karen asked as she walked toward me. 

“This,” I said, pointing off toward the distance.

As she approached the Puente Nuevo (New Bridge)circa 1751, the deep gorge they call “El Tajo” came into view.  The ravine was nearly four hundred feet deep and two hundred feet wide, dividing the newer town with the old Moorish area, La Cuidad, established around 1485.  El Tajo was spectacular enough with majestic rock formations, stunning natural landscapes and buildings perched on its cliffs,   but the view of the bridge, with huge piers reaching deep into the canyon amid wildflowers and waterfalls, translucent through the rain, was as wondrous as any I had seen.

Our short walk revealed that  Ronda was not just a place to sleep, but the largest and most spectacular hill town of them all.

Cliffs in Ronda

  Our first glance was a stunning preview and sparked my desire to rise early the next morning and hike down the canyon along the Jardines de Cuenca Park trail to view the span from below.

Pulling me from newfound inspiration back to reality, Karen said, “We can’t do it tomorrow, we’ve got a car waiting.”

“You’re kidding,” I said. My mind had latched on to those first impressions and was not letting go.

“Remember, we’re here to visit hill towns. Besides, we’ll be here for a few days.”

I had to quickly refocus.  A few hours in Ronda and I was already trying to figure out if I could live here part-time.

La Cuidad on the cliffs

Amid a steady rain, we received our rental car that seemed like the undersized love child of a Ford and a Fiat, with more dents than hub caps.  The local Hertz office closed and consolidated with the one in Malaga, eighty miles away. Our only option was a friendly, local dealer who acquired his fleet, one  by one, as funding was available.  He delivered the car and soon we were driving among olive groves, then cork forests in the Sierra de Grazalema Natural Park before the steep incline of the road reassured us that we would soon be in Grazalema, the  first white hill town of the day.

Nestled into the foothills and surrounded by spectacular

rock outcroppings, Grazalema was a cozy, little village. Whitewashed buildings, red roofs and window boxes overflowing with bright flowers lined the narrow streets that all led to a small public square that, aside from a few hikers passing through, was empty on this Sunday morning.

We stopped into s small pub to warm up with some vegetable soup, understanding and now accepting that the Spanish always add some jamon (ham) to the vegetables. I ordered a small glass of local red wine and was reminded that alcohol

Grazalema

cannot be served until 1:00 PM on Sundays.  The morning belonged to God which explained the seemingly deserted square.

Riding in the passenger seat over the steep Cadiz Mountain pass, in a rain storm, was the most “white-knuckled” journey in my recent memory.  Twisting, slick roads at high altitude with no protective barriers, in a strange car with manual transmission all shared responsibility for the increase in our heart rates.

Karen revealed what was on her mind.

“Don’t say a word about my driving,” she said.

She was the one that first proposed that the least stressful road trip option for us was her behind the wheel and me navigating.  With one slick, winding road up the mountain

and down, my role changed from navigator to comforter.

“You’re doing great”, I said. “we’re definitely not in a hurry.” 

We did find respite at the summit, stopping along the large mountainous saddle rendering views of a distant lake through the lifting fog.  The rain stopped and the sun appeared as we began our dissent down the mountain to the next hill town. 

The white buildings of Zahara seemed to spread and flow down the hills below an old fortified Moorish castle.  Once a Moorish stronghold, it played a significant role in the Reconquista in 1482.  Today, the quiet solitude reflected a much

Zahara

simpler lifestyle with friendly locals going about their Sunday afternoon, leaving the small church where the Virgin of Dolores statute sits or viewing the dramatic panorama from one of the vista points.

The forty-minute drive to our third hill town was easy, flat and dry.  The views of Arcos de la Frontera, shimmering in  the afternoon sun, made the extra drive worthwhile.  The perched old town, separated by a sheer cliff, was detached from the lower village, physically and culturally.

Hungry, we took a chance on a small restaurant near the Plaza del Cabildo and were rewarded with  fresh sea bass and a glass of local wine.  While driving home on a full stomach and a topped-off gas tank, images of Ronda and El Tajo still danced through my head. I anticipated that tomorrow would be a special day.

Our hotel in Ronda was built on the original home site of legendary bullfighter Francisco Romero, its facade seemed to stare

Arcos de la Frontera

at the bullring and long for past brilliance.Typical of many local buildings, the arena entrance lies innocently along the street while the rear exit reminded us that the entire town is perched atop cliffs with riveting vistas. The allure of the cliffs was overpowering and we soon left the bullring and began walking in thedirection of the old city.

Crossing the bridge and stealing another glance at the gorge, we entered La Cuidad, finding more narrowed streets and whitewashed buildings that, like most others, innocently faced the street. Once inside, we realized that they are built  directly on the cliffs of El Tajo.

As we entered the trail down into the canyon, the breathtaking views of clifftop buildings, waterfalls and the surrounding flora changed the deeper we descended.  Dozens of photographs later, we walked back up the trail and began to explore La Cuidad and remnants of early Arab culture.

Engulfed in history, we traversed the Moorish Quarter, moving back toward El Tajo, passed the Old Bridge, built in 1616 and

Karen in El Tajo

an aged wall to the Arab Bridge that marked the ancient entrance to Ronda.

A short distance from the bridge we found the remains of the Arab baths, whose location was not an accident.  After a long journey, the baths provided the essential place to cleanse one’s body before prayer.

The climb back up the opposite side of El Tajo to Plaza de Espana, in a light rain, left us with more memorable views and an appetite. Finding a restaurant perched on the canyon wall, we settled into a relaxing lunch with more breathtaking views. I could have enjoyed the rest of the day in my chair, with a glass of wine, stealing beauty with my eyes.

Karen spoke.  “Don’t forget, we have to be at entrance to the Pileta Cave by 4 p.m.

“Your’e kidding, I said. “Do you really want to go back out in the rain.”  “Ya know, we can’t do everything.”

“Well, I’m leaving at 3:30 and you can come if you want,” she said.

A history buff, Karen had discovered that the Pileta Cave is Spain’s best opportunity to view Neolithic and Paleolithic paintings, some dating back twenty-five thousand years. Curse you, Rick Steves.

At 3:30 p.m., we were both in the car, again passing through olives and cork on the way to the small town of Benaojan, the last benchmark on the way to the cave entrance. 

Descending into a cave is never pleasant, it’s deep, dark, damp and slippery and, as a designated lantern carrier, I shouldered the responsibility for the six people between me and the next lantern.  However, the rewards were astonishing and, at times, difficult to comprehend.  It was prehistoric finger painting that helped us visualize what their world may have looked like. 

Ronda and surroundings created many moments that jelled into one very special memory.  Exploring the Andalucia region surpassed expectations and re-energized two weary travelers to keep going and to always look forward.