Echoes of the senses
on Iberian lands

Spain resonates beauty in the chorus of its landscapes, its arts and its gourmet delicacies. It is a sensorial voyage that touches all five senses.

Echoes of the senses|on Iberian lands

Spain resonates beauty in the chorus of its landscapes, its arts and its gourmet delicacies. It is a sensorial voyage that touches all five senses.

 

DAY 1: BARCELONA

Beginning the journey by crossing the Iberian Peninsula via the city of Barcelona is an excellent way to become immersed in this sensorial universe. The Gothic Quarter, once the medieval Jewish quarter, unveils thousands of hidden gems to those who let the whimsey of their desires guide them through its small streets. Minutes from the cathedral, Hotel Neri appears nestled in a 12th-century building.

Its restaurant opens out onto a little square so serene it seems as if it’s been reserved expressly for us. This is where we take our lunch, gazing upon the façade of the church of San Felip Neri, where Gaudí came to pray each day. Next, we head to Palacio Güell, the second house built by Gaudí, whose tiny details create bewitching chiaroscuro effects. Emerging from the architectural masterpiece’s spell, we feel at a loss for what to do next. Should we continue down the paseo along boulevard Passeig de Gràcia in search of other houses by Gaudí, like Casa Milà, nicknamed “La Pedrera”, or Casa Batlló; or wander around the rapidly changing El Raval neighbourhood to visit the Centre de Cultura Contemporània de Barcelona? The choices seem endless.

 

 

DAY 2: OLOT AND TORRENT

The next day, we drive an hour and a half from Barcelona and arrive at Les Cols, whose bold lines retreat into the soft undulations formed by the volcano and fields that encircle it. It’s run by Fina Puigdevall, a native of the area, who’s transformed her 13th-century family home into this stunning restaurant— a contemporary marvel by the Catalan agency RCR Arquitectes. A gilded wall, a work of commanding beauty that attracts the exterior light to its surface, opens out to a garden where chickens nonchalantly circle between apple trees. Like the decor, it’s through bold simplicity that the cuisine unleashes nature’s full force: sausages, buckwheat, vegetables from the kitchen garden and the region’s spring water. Indifference is not a sentiment you will have here. Take for example the onion served with sheep’s milk and bread crumbs. It’s natural to  say “this meat was cooked perfectly”, but has the same ever been said of an onion? Because this is exactly the case for the dish we tasted today. There is something about the recomposition of the onion soup — it’s so sophisticated, yet uses only three ingredients that any modest home would have.

To end this laid-back but intense afternoon, we continue our path towards the coast — to the Costa Brava. Our next “home”, Mas de Torrent, is located in a charming village. With the same chef at the helm of its restaurant, we happily find ourselves continuing the experience of Les Cols — its relaxed ambiance ever-present. The beach is so close, merely minutes by car; but once inside the outer walls of the hotel, it is a sea of lush greenery that welcomes us.

 

DAY 3: DENIA

For our third day, we follow the coastline, taking a national road whose stunning views of the sea accompany us until we reach the region of Valence. We arrive for dinner at the restaurant Quique Dacosta, where the chef is known to play with an entire palette of textures that are as sensual as they are vivid. Valence enjoys a close proximity to the sea, but it’s also one of the country’s largest mountainous regions, where wild ducks, diverse game and magnificent truffles can be found. Served on a bed of cauliflower, lamb sweetbreads from Guira and morel mushrooms from Maestrazgo suddenly plunge us deep into the forest. The transition from one dish to the other is vertigo-inducing.

 

 

DAY 4: MADRID

From Valence, a comfortable train takes us to Madrid in less than two hours. When evening comes, we head to Club Allard, where chef Maria Marte proposes a cuisine that is tantamount to a voyage. Originally from the Dominican Republic, she hopes to offer a change of scenery through her cuisine. The destination is not necessary the island of her birth, instead the myriad of ingredients and techniques lead each and everyone to find their own.

“I am trying to develop the broadest palette of greens, it’s like a sort of yearning for my native island.”

Maria Marte - Chef at Club Allard

 

DAY 5: CACERES

Approaching Extremadura, we skirt along the region of holm oaks whose acorns are the delights of Iberian pigs. We arrive in Cáceres to find restaurant Atrio. Here, Toño Perez and José Polo have created a place unlike any other.

How could anyone not be enchanted standing before this wonder of contemporary architecture that rises out of the centre of this historic city as if out of nowhere? Even its immense circular underground cellar, with some 4,000 references and 45,000 bottles from 26 countries or more, conveys a decor of sharp aesthetics and rare coherence. We later discover that city holds yet another surprise. The Helga de Alvear Foundation Visual Arts Centre has been built here to house the most important private collection of contemporary art in Spain.

In the evening we dedicate ourselves to experiencing the pairings between the culinary delights of Toño and José’s collection of wines. The play on flavours, in all their subtlety, glide rom dish to dish. First, a touch of acidity delicately reveals itself, followed by a pinch of umami, which is gradually increased until it peaks in a dish of tuna and Iberian pork cheek — a marriage of the land and the sea favoured by the chef and his signature dish — before continuing onto another transition, an elaborate cheeseboard for dessert. This is a cuisine that matures and improves over time.  

They confide in us that at their age they see themselves in much the same way — as bearers of a cultural heritage. They dream of endowing the city with a small opera house, organising a music festival and much more. As long as they are in Cáceres, the city will continue to breathe their organic art de vivre.

 

 

DAY 6: OROPESA

Before returning to the big city, we have one more stop we can’t miss. Halfway between Cáceres and Madrid, an hour and a half by car, we plunge into another universe. In the province of Toledo, the hotel Valdepalacios sits in the heart of a immense estate spread across 600 hectares. As we enter the guest room, we cannot believe our eyes. Stags, does, pheasants and other game frolic in complete freedom among the oak trees. The evening leads to dinner in an elegant restaurant worthy of the sort of holiday resort evoked by Proust. At Michelin-starred Tierra, it is chef Jose Carlos Fuentes who orchestrates the symphony of dishes. His cuisine sings of the region’s natural wonders: doe meat tartare accompanied by fermented papaya and yoghurt, a venison fillet barely seared in a marinade of pineapple juice, tiny figs the size of small almonds pickled slightly to create a crunch with each bite...

 

 

 

DAY 7: MADRID

Returning to Madrid, we arrive at Hotel Orfila.This charming hotel offers a faithful image of the city. The owner, a collector of antiques, has installed a part of his collection in the hotel: tables, lamps, paintings, along with a collection of vintage scarves protected by glass.

Our last dinner is at the two-Michelin-star restaurant of Ramón Freixa. The decor is contemporary, like the cuisine: one would think it modernist; yet, we soon learn that it has forgotten none of its origins. We’re brought back to the Catalan-style pairing of the land and the sea, but this time in a surprising form with a dish that combines the heart of a sea cucumber, rabbit, tiny anchovies and Enoki mushrooms. And then, there’s the chef’s favourite ingredient: the egg, which lends itself to a thousand different ways of cooking. As we delve into its versatility, he proposes to take us the next day to taste “the best tortilla in Madrid”. It’s the last day of our adventure. As planned, we meet Ramón Freixa at La Paz market. All the way in the back is Casa Dani, a stall run by true Madrilenians. Ramón wasn’t kidding. The potato tortilla is as creamy as a perfect omelet, savoury and dotted with caramelised onions.

 

 

DAY 8: MADRID

Already anticipating the nostalgia of all the savoury pleasures we have consumed, as we’re now well seasoned connoisseurs of Spain’s culinary delights, we decide to have our last lunch at Santceloni. Chef Óscar Velasco welcomes us into his new space, whose shades of muted gold recall the interiors of a Japanese temple. Even the kitchen staff carry themselves like disciplined monks. Everything reflects an air of elegance and sophistication. However, here the culinary references reach beyond that of a regional cuisine to encompass all of Spain. 

But that said, this isn’t a chef who simply fades into the Iberian Peninsula’s rich gastronomic culture. His dish of slow-braised lamb with black garlic and hazelnuts immediately evokes the mountains of Segovia, his homeland.The final touch at this restaurant is the cheese ritual, and it should not be missed for any reason. We are literally encircled by two enormous platters bearing sixty cheeses from various countries.

 

“I never try to force a product to become other than what it is”

Oscar Velasco – Chef at Santceloni

 

Waiting for our return flight, we can still feel the heat. It’s the type of heat that, no matter the season, reheats the soul, touching our inner depths. It fills us with the memories of every place we’ve visited, recalled through each of their own unique universes, distinct, incomparable; like each person met, each object seen and touched. As long as we can hold onto their essence — beauty incarnate — this sensorial experience will forever resonate within us.

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