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Max Abroad : The Best of Spain

Quite simply writing about the best things Spain has to offer and anything that might crop up along the way. Spain is a lot more than just sun, sand and sea...

Why are Ribera del Duero Wines So Good?
Wednesday, April 3, 2024

The simple answer is the terroir. It has often been said that vines love to suffer and the best wine comes from grapes that have had to struggle. There is a lot of truth in this. The deeper and more widely a vine has to spread its roots looking for nourishment the greater the mineral subtleties the grapes will have. Too easy a supply of water leads to bloated grapes that dilute flavours. So, small berries, laden with aromatic compounds and flavorful minerals but not overfilled with water are what winemakers prefer to use to make their best wines with. Generous amounts of organic matter in topsoil tend to contain richness and also they retain water, keeping vines happy and stifling their need to look deeper for sustenance. Hence, poor and often stony soils and subsoils are a preferred option for vineyards.

Ribera del Duero estates are located on geological strata that were deposited in the Quaternary period (the past 2.6 million years) on the floodplain of the Duero River as it passes through the spot which today is Aranda de Duero. Not long ago, this plain suffered from periodic floods as the river found its way westwards from north-central Spain to its estuary in north-western Portugal where it meets the Atlantic Ocean. These floods carried away much of the richness of the soil and left behind stones, sands and some clays. Today, the Duero is regulated by a series of dams and weirs to avoid catastrophic flooding. The vineyards that follow the river are situated between 12 to 19 meters (40-60 feet) above the level of the river, which means its moisture is completely independent of the Duero river itself.

The characteristics of these soils allow the grapes to ripen very well since the sun’s heat is retained during the day by numerous boulders, rocks and gravels on and near the surface. The effect on the grapes is to have solar heat from above and reflected or radiated heat from below. Another advantage is that these surfaces increase the colour of the grape berries by reflecting light upwards off the stones. Grapes develop darker skins to protect the genetic material in their seeds from potentially destabilising solar radiation. This effect promotes phenolic maturation, synthesizing polished and silky tannins which form the characteristic backbone of this vineyard’s wines.

The abundance of boulders and gravels also produces what is referred to as a quilting effect on the ground, avoiding the loss of too much moisture through evaporation, something that gives freshness and a naturally-balanced acidity to the wines. All this is reinforced by the altitude at around 800 meters (2,625 feet) above sea level. The higher the altitude, the thinner the layer of the protective atmosphere above the vines, hence the darker the grape skins.

The altitude also causes a pronounced temperature variation between day and night, something that stimulates the vines. This temperature fluctuation is also advantageous during the ripening period of the fruit because it causes an increase in fruit size during the cool of the night as the vine absorbs water and a decrease during the day as the heat of the sun and stones promotes water evaporation through the vine’s leaves. This incites a further thickening of the grape skins which enhances the synthesis of anthocyanins, substances responsible for skin colour.

A relatively high limestone content in the soils lends structure and minerality to the wines. Although limestone on its own is too tough for roots to penetrate, its soils are rich in what is known as plant-accessible calcium carbonate, the principal chemical component of limestone. Scientists have found that calcium is vital for the formation of disease-resistant grape berries. Grapes tend to concentrate calcium in their skins where they help in the formulation of strong cell walls that maintain skin cohesion and hence resistance to degradation. Vines that grow in soils that have less available calcium tend to prioritize internal cell growth over skin vitality, making grapes more susceptible to fungal diseases.
 
Terroir might sound like that stuff that gets stuck to your boots when you walk through a vineyard, but it is much more than that. It encompasses all the factors that can affect a grape’s growth and wellbeing.

 



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La Saeta in Semana Santa: Revering the Passion of Christ
Friday, March 29, 2024

La Saeta, a deeply emotional and spiritual form of devotional song, has become an integral part of the Semana Santa (Holy Week) celebrations in Spain. Originating in Andalusia, this unique musical expression has a rich history that dates back centuries. As the streets of Spanish towns and cities become filled with processions and fervent devotees during Holy Week, the haunting melodies of the saeta resonate, creating a profound and moving atmosphere.

The roots of the saeta can be traced back to the Moors' domination of Spain, which lasted from the 8th to the 15th century. The lyrical style of the saeta reflects a fusion of Arabic and Spanish musical traditions, resulting in a distinctive and captivating sound.

Over the years, the saeta has become intrinsically linked to Semana Santa, particularly in the region of Andalusia, where it flourishes. During Holy Week processions, statues depicting scenes from the Passion of Christ are carried through the streets, while saeteros (singers of the saeta) perch on balconies, doorways, or improvised stages. These singers offer their heartfelt devotions through song, expressing their adoration and pain for the suffering of Jesus Christ.

 

 

Themes in the saeta revolve around the Passion of Christ, focusing on his torments, crucifixion, and the sorrow felt by the Virgin Mary. The saeta serves as a poignant reminder of the sacrifice made by Jesus and elicits intense emotions from both performers and listeners.

The lyrics of the saeta are characterised by their simplicity and directness, often using metaphors and poignant imagery to convey the singer's spiritual connection to the Passion. The starkness of the lyrics, combined with the melancholic melodies, creates a sombre and introspective atmosphere.

The Virgin Mary, a central figure in the Catholic faith, is frequently the subject of saetas. These songs often express profound lamentation for her son's suffering and her own anguish as she witnesses his crucifixion. The saeteros use their voices to convey a sense of empathy and solidarity with Mary, amplifying the emotional impact of the saeta.

The saeta also serves as a form of personal reflection, allowing individuals to express their own fears, hopes, and desires in relation to the Passion. Many saetas delve into the inner struggles faced by individuals as they grapple with their faith and seek solace in the divine. These introspective elements further contribute to the emotional depth of the saeta.

In recent years, the topics explored in the saeta have expanded beyond traditional religious themes. Saeteros have started incorporating contemporary issues, such as social injustice and political unrest, into their compositions. While maintaining the core religious nature of the saeta, these expressions offer a creative outlet for social commentary and enable artists to connect with modern audiences.

La Saeta in Semana Santa encapsulates the power of music to connect individuals to their faith, stirring deep emotions and fostering a sense of unity in times of devotion. Its origins dating back centuries, the saeta has become an essential part of the Holy Week celebrations, particularly in Andalusia. Through heartfelt songs expressing the profound pain and adoration for Jesus' suffering, the saeteros help create an atmosphere of reflection and solemnity.

The simplicity and directness of the saeta's lyrics, combined with its haunting melodies, make it a truly unique form of music. By focusing on the Passion of Christ and the grief of the Virgin Mary, the saeteros succeed in evoking intense emotions that resonate with both performers and listeners. Furthermore, the inclusion of contemporary themes allows the saeta to remain relevant and adaptable to the changing times.

Year after year, this ancient tradition reaffirms its place as a powerful testament to the enduring faith and devotion of the Spanish people.

 



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Largest Cemetary in Europe
Friday, March 15, 2024

This vast cemetery in Madrid is the largest necropolis in Spain and Europe, and one of the largest in the world. Approximately five million people have been laid to rest here – that surpasses the current population of the city.

Our Lady of Almudena Cemetery (Cementerio de Nuestra Señora de La Almudena) is more akin to a town of the dead. Crowds of visitors, especially on All Saints’ Day, on November 1, walk the burial ground along pathways with streets names and varying sections that resemble neighbourhoods with different social standings.

There’s a separate walled “neighbourhood” for the tombs of the rich and famous, miniature palaces, many with ornate doors and windows.

 In another section, the graves of the less fortunate or not so well-to-do aren’t burial plots at all, but rather rows and rows of stacked mini crypts housing the cremated remains within niches several stories high, resembling apartment blocks.

In the centre is the historic heart of the cemetery, with beautiful marble tombstones and statues dating back to the 19th century. The cemetery was built in 1884 and grew rapidly as the cholera epidemic spread.

Although not as grand as the cemeteries in other capitals of Europe, Almudena still has some ornate and interesting gravestones worth visiting. So if you happen to be in the area it is well worth a visit. The Metro Line 2 will get you to the Elipa station, from where you can walk to the entrance, which is about half a kilometre away.

 



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Gaudi's First House
Saturday, March 9, 2024

Anyone visiting Barcelona is likely familiar with the unique work of architect Antoni Gaudí. His buildings are a defining aspect of the city. Now, visitors can become even more familiar with the revolutionary architect by stepping inside the first house he ever designed.

 

 

Casa Vicens is one of seven properties built by the Catalan modernist architect in the Barcelona region which are recognised as UNESCO World Heritage Sites. UNESCO considers its distinctive style an “outstanding creative contribution to the architectural heritage of modern times.” As they define it.

From the tiles painted with French marigolds on the first two floors to its domed rooftop, which provides a spectacular view of the neighbourhood, Gaudí’s first major architectural project laid the groundwork for his remarkable works of art and paved the way for Catalan Modernism.
Currently, a museum, which opened in 2017, it boasts 15 rooms restored with extensive research and input from descendants of the original tenants. It features a collection of furniture made by Gaudí and 32 paintings by the Spanish painter Francesc Torrescassana i Sallarés.

Stockbroker Manuel Vicens i Montaner commissioned the house, which was constructed between 1883 and 1888 as a summer home and it was later expanded in 1925 by Barcelona architect Joan Baptista Serra de Martínez. The structure contains a myriad of styles which reflect the innovative architect’s inspirations from subjects like nature to oriental and neoclassical architecture. Truly an architectural gem and very much worth a visit if you happen to pass through Barcelona

 

 



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One of the most beautiful buildings in the world - Palau de la Música Catalana
Saturday, February 24, 2024

The Palau de la Música Catalana was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997. The concert hall is an architectural jewel. Its exterior is as surprising and unique as its interior, with one of the most beautiful auditoriums in the world.

Built between 1905 and 1908 for the Orfeó Català (a Catalan choral society), it is currently one of the most representative Catalan Modernist buildings in Barcelona.  

Its impressive acoustics is the reason for which many famous artists wish to sing in the Palace of Catalan Music and why it is held in such high esteem.

If you happen to be in Barcelona and have enough time, I recommend booking the guided tour. If you don’t have time you must at least walk past the Palau to see this magnificent building.

 

The building’s guided tour begins with a presentation of its history, its current programme how it plays an essential role in the society of Barcelona.


 

Once the presentation finishes, visitors are taken to the concert hall. This auditorium is naturally lit during the day with a bright and colourful light thanks to its stained-glass panes and its enormous stained glass skylight. The hall is beautifully decorated to immerse the spectators into a magical world, almost fantasy.

 

 

The hall and the stage contain sculptures, busts, reliefs that fill the room with magic and create an ideal atmosphere for the various artists that perform in the Palau.

 


The tour of the Palace continues in the Lluís Millet hall which is a gathering place for concert-goers a striking Modernist hall with a small terrace with peculiar columns covered in mosaics.



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The Royal Botanical Gardens - A Breath of Fresh Air
Saturday, February 17, 2024

 

Founded by King Ferdinand IV's royal decree, the Real Jardín Botánico is a two-and-a-half centuries-old wonder, occupying 20-acres of lush terrain in the heart of Spain's capital city.

Housed in its current location since 1781 in a building designed by the same architectural team responsible for the Museo del Prado, the botanical garden was initially populated with over 2,000 specimens retrieved from all over the Iberian peninsula by botanist and surgeon José Quer. After implausibly surviving centuries worth of civil and international wars, the collection has expanded to over 90,000 flowers and plants (not counting its herbarium with a literal million specimens on its own) plus an estimated 1,500 trees.

Originally arranged according to the Linneaus method favored during the period, in which the specimens are categorized in terraces of import, today its expansive grounds have been rearranged in a fashion that makes more sense.

Visitors will find the Real Jardín Botanico has been divided into seven outdoor gardens and five indoor greenhouses. Each of these sections are arranged logically by theme, content, and nature of origin. Highlights include the "Terraza de Cuadros" – featuring a Japanese garden and a series of box-edged plots filled with medicinal, aromatic, and orchard-like plants arranged around a fountain – and a romantic, period-accurate garden arranged to echo an English garden bursting with trees and shrubs. 

 

Perhaps most fascinatingly of all, one of Real Jardín Botánico's greenhouses has the ability to recreate the desert climate, making it one of the very few places where visitors can experience an accurate desert experience without leaving continental Europe.



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Spain: A Nation of Over 1,000 Stunning Islands
Saturday, February 10, 2024

Spain, a radiant country known for its lively fiestas, flamenco dancers, legendary bullfighting, and scrumptious tapas, holds an esteemed position in Europe for its staggering number of islands. A joy and pride of the country, this fabulous archipelago stretching from the Atlantic Ocean to the Mediterranean Sea consists of more than 1,000 islands. Out of this considerable count, more than 60 glow with life as they host a bustling population, while the rest remain uninhabited, each retaining its untamed, natural charm.

These Spanish islands, diverse in culture, geography, and atmosphere, create a rich tapestry of experiences, attracting both locals and tourists to their sun-kissed shores. From the pulsating rhythm of the highly populated islands to the tranquil serenity of the barely inhabited ones, Spain bears a resplendent treasure trove of islands, waiting for the discerning traveller to explore and appreciate.

The Highly Populated Islands

Out of this multitude, let's embark on a journey exploring the five most populated islands, and delectable gems of Spain, treating ourselves to the rich tapestry of stories they have to offer.

1. Mallorca: The crown jewel of the Balearic Islands, Mallorca is not only the largest island in Spain, but also its most populated. The island's capital, Palma, is a bustling city thriving with tourist attractions such as the magnificent Palma Cathedral and the historic Bellver Castle. With a diverse landscape comprising serene mountains, glamorously rugged coastline and charming villages, Mallorca offers a bit of everything for everyone.

 

 

2. Tenerife: One of the seven Canary Islands, Tenerife's appeal lies in its wonderful year-round climate and diverse landscapes. The island is home to Spain's highest peak, the active volcano Mt. Teide, which also hosts one of the world's premier astronomical observatories. The thriving nightlife, lively festivals such as the Carnival of Santa Cruz de Tenerife, and Siam Park, one of the best water parks globally, are other attractions.

3. Gran Canaria: Often dubbed a 'continent in miniature', Gran Canaria is a melting pot of cultures, climates, and landscapes. The island showcases fantastic diversity, from the bustling Las Palmas city to the tranquil, sandy beaches of Maspalomas, the verdant forests of Tamadaba Natural Park, and the historical cave homes in Barranco de Guayadeque.

4. Lanzarote: Lanzarote's surreal volcanic landscapes, crystalline beaches, and year-round sunshine are what make it a tourist magnet. The island's gorgeous natural beauty has earned it a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve designation. Timanfaya National Park, Jameos del Agua, and Mirador del Rio are some of the captivating sites on the island.

 

5. Fuerteventura: The raw, untouched beauty of Fuerteventura, the second largest of the Canary Islands, has tourists swarming in. The island, with its massive dunes, stretches of white sandy beaches, and azure waters perfect for surfing, is a paradise for beach lovers and water sports enthusiasts.

 

The Least Populated Islands

Now, let's shift our gaze to the other side of the spectrum - Spain's least populated islands. These lesser-known counterparts, with their natural elegance and tranquillity, offer a wholly different experience.

1. Isla de Alboran: Midway between Spain and Morocco, this volcanic island is home to a Spanish Navy detachment and a lighthouse. Despite its isolation, the island’s rich marine life and bird population serve as reminders of nature's untouched beauty.

2. S'Espalmador: A short boat ride from Formentera you will find the island of S'Espalmador, uninhabited but for occasional tourists. The island boasts beautiful beaches and natural mud baths renowned for their therapeutic attributes.

 

 

3. Tabarca: Once a pirate stronghold, today, Tabarca is famous for its pristine beaches and crystal clear waters. With a small permanent population, close to Santa Pola in Alicante, the island offers several seafood restaurants, making it a gastronomic paradise.

4. Isla de Lobos: Situated between Fuerteventura and Lanzarote, this tiny island is primarily a nature reserve. With a handful of residents and an abundance of biodiversity, it's an idyllic location for nature enthusiasts

 

 

5. Montaña Clara: Part of the Chinijo Archipelago, this uninhabited island is home to unique bird species and a protected marine reserve. However, it's off-limits to visitors without special permits to preserve the fragile ecosystem.

Spain's vast array of islands, from the bustling, highly-populated ones to the tranquil, nearly uninhabited ones, all hold a distinct allure. Each island tells a unique story, offering its take on the Spanish experience. If you're eager to immerse yourself in vibrant city life, find tranquillity on serene beaches, delve into a rich history, or explore untouched nature, the islands of Spain offer all of this and much more. Truly, a paradise for island lovers!



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One of The World's Deadliest Waterways: Rio Tinto
Saturday, January 20, 2024

Unravelling a mystifying blend of beauty and peril, Rio Tinto, located in Spain, stands as one of the most unique and momentous rivers in the world. While its intricate network of water channels, steep hills, and visually stunning reddish hues paint an alluring picture, Rio Tinto hides a dangerous secret: it's one of the most polluted and hazardous rivers in the world.

The origins of the Rio Tinto, or "Red River," stretch back to around 3000 BC when the Tartessians commenced mining at the site. Later, the Romans continued these endeavours, palming off enormous quantities of copper, silver, and gold from the river. Turn around a few centuries ahead, and the river would be exploited extensively for around 5000 years before the mining operations were halted in 2001.

Traversing through the province of Huelva in southwestern Spain, Rio Tinto emanates from the Sierra Morena mountain range and merges into the Atlantic Ocean.

It is the journey through the historically mining-rich ground that presents to Rio Tinto its signature characteristic: acid water with a pH almost as low as battery acid. Its striking red, orange, and brown hues, from afar, draw comparisons with Martian landscapes.

 

Though it's this extreme acidity and dissolved heavy metals which give it its unique rust colour, it also renders it highly toxic. The contamination of the river is primarily due to the process of bioleaching, which involves the use of bacteria to separate metals from their ores. It releases hazardous substances such as copper, gold, and iron into the river, transforming its waters into a lethal concoction.

Despite the toxicity, the Rio Tinto heralds as a paradigm of extremophile biodiversity. Microorganisms called extremophiles thrive in the highly acidic environment of the river. Many of these microorganisms are chemolithotrophs, deriving their energy from inorganic compounds and capable of tolerating extreme pH levels, temperatures, and heavy metal concentrations.

 

The peculiar ecosystem of Rio Tinto provides invaluable insight for astrobiologists in their quest to understand potential life forms on other planets. Scientists often conduct research in the river to study how life might survive in seemingly inhospitable environments, such as Mars, which shares similar acidic and mineral conditions.

A beacon of scenic grandeur belying dire toxicity, Rio Tinto is a living paradox. Its allure lies not only in the strikingly surreal landscapes it shapes but also in the intriguing microbial life that it harbours amidst the extreme conditions.

Indeed, Rio Tinto is a testament to the resilience of life, and a glaring indicator of the extent of environmental damage that human activities have inflicted. The shifting narrative of the river from an economic goldmine to a desperate call for environmental preservation brings to the fore the pressing need for sustainable practices and effective mining waste management.

As we continue to strive for economic progress, the story of Rio Tinto is a chilling reminder to remember the significant responsibilities we bear towards preserving our planet's health and biodiversity.



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New Year's Eve Traditions in Spain
Thursday, December 28, 2023

The arrival of a new year means a time of change and, for this reason, many wishes are made. The New Year's Eve celebration is full of traditions and superstitions that seek prosperity for the future. One of the most deeply rooted is to eat twelve grapes with the chimes, but there are other customs.

 

Wearing red clothes

Celebrating New Year's Eve wearing red underwear is one of the superstitions they have in Spain. This colour symbolizes passion, love and prosperity. For this reason, it is believed that starting the year with red underwear will bring good luck. Other people tie a red bow around their wrist or wear a garter of the same colour.

 

Coloured candles

Having the house illuminated during New Year's Eve is also a habit to attract good luck. It is said that depending on the colour of the candles, some things or others will be attracted. For example, yellow means abundance, red love, blue attracts peace and green attracts health.

 

Wish list

This tradition consists of writing down the wishes for the new year on paper and saving them until the following year to see if they have been fulfilled. In addition, it is also traditional to write down the negative things that you want to leave behind and burn the paper before the end of the year.

 

Cava with gold

Another of the most common traditions on New Year's Eve is to toast with cava or champagne. Also, there are people who believe that putting a piece of gold jewellery in the champagne glass, such as a ring, will attract wealth. In these cases, it is important to be vigilant so as not to swallow the piece.

Other people believe that, at the time of the toast, money should be carried in pockets and shoes to attract abundance.

 

Eating lentils

This tradition originates from Italy but has also reached Spain. Lentils are believed to represent money and, for this reason, after the chimes you have to eat lentils. The ritual has to be done by placing a plate of lentils in the centre of the table and eating a tablespoon per person after the toast.



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Christmas Turrón!
Friday, December 22, 2023

Turron is recognised in Spain as a symbol of Christmas. It evokes festive spirit and socialising over the festive period. It is a very old, traditional sweet similar to a nougat, believed to be of Moorish (Arabic) origin. It was a desired dessert of King Felipe II of Spain, and there was even a book "Conduchos of Christmas," which was written by Felipe's chef Francisco Martinez Montino, that described turron in detail. It was often served for special occasions and when guests would be visiting, and this has remained a tradition ever since. If you ever go round to a Spanish family’s home during Christmas there will always be some turrón on the table.

Turrón has been a popular sweet for centuries, even outside Spain’s borders. It is said that the Moors invented turrón during the 15th Century in Jijona, a small town about 30 miles or so north of Alicante.
 

Jijona’s economy is entirely reliant on the production of turrón and there is even a museum of turrón that chronicles the process and history of the sweet.  There are two traditional types of turrón. Soft turrón referred to as Jijona, which you won’t break your teeth on and hard turrón referrred to as Alicante, which is like a thick almond nougat candy, similar to peanut brittle, and is pretty hard on the teeth but the almonds are fantastic once you get going!
 
The area of Jijona is an important region for almond and honey producers. The wild flowers which are abundant in the region combined with the almond tree flowers créate an ideal ecosystem for the bees. The honey, together with the almonds makes for the two main ingredients used in turrón. Sugar is also added and egg White for binding, producing a exquisite sweet. However if you do not have a sweet tooth it may not be for you! In 1939 The turrón from Jijona was protected by a designation of origin defining exactly what is traditional turrón and how it should be made, establishing different levels of quality, as with olive oil.
 
Alicante or Hard Turron is made by roasting, then chopping the almonds and mixing them with honey. The mixture is then simmered over heat and stirred constantly with large wooden spoons. Egg white is added to bind the mixture and it is cooled. Once cooled, it is cut into pieces that resemble bricks, wrapped in paper-thin rice paper and packed.
 
Jijona or soft turrón is  alot more work. Once the hard turrón has cooled, the blocks are ground up with almond oil to form a sticky paste. Then, it is reheated and beaten for hours until it forms a soft, even mix. Egg white is then added as a binding agent and cooled in square metal containers to be cut into thick slices and packed, due to the almond oil this neve goes hard and has a much softer consistency and is also easier on the teeth! Although these are the main two varieties of turrón, as you can imagine it has opened the door to whole range of different flavours which include egg yolk, nuts of all sorts, chocolate, dried fruits, truffles and even on ocasions rum ó brandy. In essence it is a very simple tradicional sweet that can easily me made at home. 

 

 



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