Wednesday, 3 August 2011

Spain and Portugal - part two

The Ribera Del Duero

A nice sunny drive down from Mundaka took us on firstly the E80 out of the Basque county of Vasco/Euskadi to Burgos in the huge region of Castilla Y Leon. Continuing south on the E5 we finally turned west on the N122 towards Penafiel and our stop for tonight; Curiel Del Duero. All in all, about an easy 2½-hour drive.

Turning into the Ribera Del Duero wine country is fascinating and we soon saw the Duero River which would from now on be our guide all the way to Porto. Although the Castile plain is rocky and fairly flat I though the pastille colours were beautiful and very different from what I had seen before.

Driving towards Penafiel, I had noticed we had been steadily climbing higher and were now actually quite high at 850m above sea level. The silty and clayey sand, with layers of limestone marl and chalk, helps to produces the lovely browns, reds and yellow colours unique to the Ribera Del Duero. It is also the perfect home for the predominant grape Tempranillo, known locally as Tinto Fino or Tinto Del Pais.

The fierce continental climate and high altitude causes huge differences between day and night temperatures in the summer and a typical day can be 35°C during the day and fall to a quite chilly but welcomed 12°C! This allows the Tempranillo grape to ripen perfectly and produce some of the most famous and sought-after wines not only in Spain but the world.

Our holidays are always about trying new things and discovering new places but inevitably there are a couple of unexpected surprises … and little did we know it but we were just about to get one! The GPS took us about 3km past Penafiel and the villages slowly started to thin out. Then the odd sporadic run-down farmhouse popped up and we carried further on until there was now no sign of life at all. Libby then shouted “there it is up in the distance!” As we continued our approach we could begin to make out, perched very high on a random tower of rock, what seemed to be a huge castle … the surprise hotel Libby had booked. On we went towards the castle, never seeming to get any closer (a bit like the Monty Python scene in the Holy Grail)!

Finally we arrived at the base of the castle, its walls looked down on us from what seemed about half a mile up! With not a single sign, visible road or indication of how to actually get up to the castle we headed into the village of Curiel: bad move. The roads were so narrow that if you stopped the car you wouldn’t have even been able to get out to ask any directions – you’d struggle to ask out of a window. But with not a soul in the village that problem was avoided!

We drove up, down, round and round for about half an hour eventually driving back out the way we came and turning down a dirt track (because it was the only road we hadn’t tried!) and of course this WAS the road up to the quite magnificent Residencia Real Castillo de Curiel. On now, actually nearing the castle itself on the winding road, we noticed it seemed to have been built very recently and was not the old medieval castle Libby was quite expecting!

At last we arrived at the front door and the parking lot for three cars, luckily there weren’t any cars. We entered the grand (new) door and were greeted by a large empty armoured knight suit and a lift door. Up in the lift we went, finding reception and the young chap manning it. We were given our keys to our room which was grandly named Alfonso XI and a leaflet explaining all about Alfosno XI which on reading we learned our room was named not after a heroic king but a ferocious, merciless, murderer; an irrational leader obsessed with killing and sentencing people to death without trial. He was a wife beater, had serial affairs that bore 10 children and he eventually died during the black plague! Lovely.

Anyway, the hotel was very nice and clean inside, with plenty of cheap replica medieval furniture and statues. The room was big and very grand, again decorated in a medieval theme. The views however were stunning and looked right out on to the plains of the Ribera Del Duero and circling the castle were giant magnificent short toed eagles.

It was fairly hot and the drive had finished rather annoyingly so Libby was especially eager to find the big rooftop swimming pool she had seen on the website, we made it up to the top of the castle, and there was a swimming pool, or more like a bath! Evidently they hired a very talented photographer for the web site shots … fooled us!

After exploring the very large hotel it dawned on us that we were the only guests in the hotel. We whiled away the afternoon up on the terrace reading and taking in the views until the long awaited aperitif time finally arrived. We went down to reception to asked the young chap if we could eat at the restaurant he had told us about in the hotel and if we could have an aperitif on the ramparts overlooking the village.

“All fine” he said “I will inform the restaurant for dinner at 9pm, go out this door to the tables and someone will bring you a cold Cava”. Out on the ramparts looking down on the village was lovely but being the only people in the castle made me feel rather like a terrible king in Medieval times, looking down on the peasants below, at which I suddenly felt a bit uncomfortable!

Cava and olives were brought out to the terrace by the waiter who looked remarkably like the receptionist chap but in a barman’s outfit. Cava was lovely as were the olives. Once finished, we headed to the restaurant, still not a soul around (staff or other diners) then out popped the waiter who looked remarkably like the barman but in a waiter’s uniform.

I think I could now see what was happening and was now hoping he could match his predictable next chef’s outfit with some decent cooking! Waldorf Salad scenes from a certain Fawlty Towers episode when Basil lied to guests and did all the jobs in the hotel started to appear in my head, but to be fair the one-man band actually cooked a simple, but rather delicious meal of lamb cutlets accompanied with a good Ribera red wine. I am also sure he didn’t stay in the hotel that night and needless to say we decided to leave the rather weird hotel early the next morning!

So, if you like to spend time driving around looking for a way into a castle; you don’t mind staying in a room named after a murderer; you like small cold baths on the roof and being alone in a castle in the middle of nowhere with a uniform-changing staff member, then it will be perfect for you.


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