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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...

Ribera del Duero Wines - What makes them so special?
Thursday, October 29, 2020

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.


Ribera del Duero Wines for sale here:

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One of the finest libraries in the World
Thursday, October 22, 2020

In the 16th century, King Phillip II of Spain wanted to build a library that would hold not only books and manuscripts of philosophy and theology but also instruments of scientific learning such as ornate globes and astrolabes, both celestial and terrestrial, and maps of the known world. 

In earlier times, this would have been considered heretical, but this new emphasis on unifying the humanities and the sciences was typical of the spirit of a new age in Europe, the so-called Renaissance, and so the magnificent Royal Library of San Lorenzo de El Escorial was built. 

The library was designed by the mathematical and architectural genius Juan de Herrera, and it is notable for being the first library on the European continent to break from the medieval dogmatic beliefs on architecture and decoration. Indeed, it’s believed that the design and decoration of the Vatican library in Rome took its inspiration from Herrera’s work in El Escorial.

The plan for the space also influenced how libraries worldwide were to display their collections. It was the first institution to display its books and manuscripts in shelving cases along the walls rather than in bays that were placed at right angles. This was done so that the titles would be visible to visitors to avoid the damage caused to the books when they were taken out to view. 

The enormous collection of over 40,000 books and manuscripts kept here cover everything from philosophy to politics to poetry, written in a multitude of different languages, including Latin, Greek, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, English, French, Arabic, Persian, Hebrew, Chinese, and even Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs. Colourful frescoes adorn the ceiling depicting scenes from classical history that represent what the ancients considered to be the seven arts: grammar, rhetoric, dialectics, arithmetic, music, geometry, and astronomy. Beyond the cornice, you will also find a total of 14 paintings that show scenes meant to encourage an appreciation for the arts in the visitor. 



 Among the most fascinating objects in the library are the numerous wonderfully baroque globes and armillary spheres, of which King Phillip evidently was an avid collector. It is said that the king would spend much of his time in the library studying these instruments in the company of astronomers, geographers, and cartographers. 

The Royal Library (Real Biblioteca) is located within the monastery and palace complex in Lorenzo de El Escorial, outside Madrid. It is open from Tuesday to Sunday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. and the entrance fee 10 euros. El Escorial can be reached via public transport from Madrid. Simply take the Cercanias train (line c3) about a half hour from the Atocha or Sol station. Once you reach the station in El Escorial, it's a 30-minute walk to get to the palace, much of which is uphill so it can be quite a hike. Make sure you bring plenty of water and sunscreen if you visit in the summer.


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The Largest Vineyard in the World
Wednesday, October 21, 2020


The region of Castilla La Mancha in Spain is the largest wine region in the world with around 500,000 hectares of vineyards within its area of production, of which only about 165,000 are able to produce wines with "designation of origin D.O”, it is one of the most important vineyards in Europe with DO. It represents 50% of all vineyards in Spain, 14% of all vineyards in Europe and 7% of all vineyards in the world.

La Mancha is an ideal area for growing grapes because the yield per hectare is not very high and is of premium quality. In addition, the health of their vines is extraordinary due to the long hours of sunshine they receive and their great ripening cycle.

Moreover, the versatility of their land has enabled them to introduce a vast variety of grapes from around the world without any problems, complementing the indigenous grapes Airen and Tempranillo, whose quality has enabled sales to grow steadily in recent years. 

La Mancha is a vast expanse of land that has a flat terrain, without great heights and with beautiful red Miocene sediments of limestone structure. Their temperatures are extreme due to its continental climate, ranging from the winter cold of -15 º to a stifling 45º during summer. Dryness is one of its most distinct characteristics, since its micro-climate prevents the entry of moist winds, presenting a low rainfall (300 to 400 mm per year), thus La Mancha is primarily dryland farming dependant on rainfall, although recent restructuring plans has expanded the number of drip irrigation farms. Moreover, La Mancha has more than 3,000 hours of sunshine a year to sear their grapes; hence it offers the best fruit which is bought mainly by the French after supplying national demand.

Although the documented origins of vineyards in La Mancha are dated to XII-XIII centuries after it repopulated in the times of Reconquista, some would argue that the vines from La Mancha date back to the Roman times. However, the cultivation of vineyards in La Mancha really started to expand around 1940, due to the start-up of many wine producers throughout the region. The wine is also the main economic activity of the municipalities of this región. These wines are the King of Spain’s favourite, originally the Crown of Spain had the first railway track built between Madrid and Ciudad Real just so the King could have a constant supply of wine.

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The Fortress
Thursday, October 8, 2020


A silhouette of crenellated towers cuts the horizon, welcoming your arrival at the Castle of Javier, the birthplace of San Francisco Javier (St Francis Xavier), patron saint of Navarre, centre of religious missions and tourism in Spain. 

The fortress stands on a rock outcrop 8 kilometres from Sangüesa in the Central region of Navarre. Every year in early March the castle is the destination of thousands of people from all over the community in the popular pilgrimage known as the Javierada.

Cross the drawbridge and enter a world of towers, dungeons, machicolations, embrasures and arrow slits, enabling you to get to know the place where Francis Xavier was born (1506) and lived. He was later the co-founder of the Society of Jesus (Jesuits) and one of the most universal missionaries.

Near the border with Zaragoza (Saragossa) province, at the highest part of the small village of Javier, stands the imposing silhouette of the Castle of Javier, the birthplace of the patron saint of Navarre, San Francisco Javier (St Francis Xavier).

The origins of the castle go back to the end of the 10th century when a signal tower was built called la Torre del Homenaje (Tribute Tower). Its strategic location on the border between the kingdoms of Navarre and Aragon reinforced its role as a fortress, and the different sections of the castle were gradually added on. 

In 1516, Cardinal Cisneros ordered an attack on the castle and it was partially destroyed, and at the end of the 19th century, the basilica was built next to the castle. Reconstruction work on the castle began in 1952 gave the fortress its original appearance and nowadays it is one of the few castles that conserve its defences and structures such as machicolations and arrow slits.

Francisco de Javier was born into a noble family and was the sixth child of Juan de Jasso, an important figure in the kingdom of Navarra, and María de Azpilicueta. He left for Paris at 19 years of age to study in the Sorbonne, where he met Ignatius of Loyola, with whom he was later to found the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits). 

This is where his evangelising zeal emerged, which led him to travel to thousands of cities, towns and villages in Africa and Asia for 11 years until he died of pneumonia on December 3rd 1552 at the age of 46 when he was about to enter the Chinese Empire. Five centuries later, he has left his mark in all the places he visited, and in his native land, Navarre, he is loved, revered and admired. 

On the first two weekends of March, a popular pilgrimage known as the Javierada takes place to the Castle of Javier, in which thousands of people from all over Navarre travel great distances on foot to venerate the Saint. 

The origin of this tradition goes back to 1886 when the help of St Francis Xavier was invoked to stop the cholera epidemic that was decimating Navarre; in gratitude for the fulfilment of this desire, the people made a promise to make a pilgrimage to Javier.

You start in the entrance hall, going through the main door to the castle, where you can see a stone relief with three shields separated by angels, representing the family coat of arms. You go through the stables and down into the basement, where the bodegas (wine cellars) used to be.

A set of dioramas reveals small details of the saint's life, and from here you pass into the main floor with an exhibition of objects from the old castle, souvenirs of the Saint and a model of the old building. This museum is divided into three sections: 1) history of the building, 2) Javier and Navarra in history, and 3) the art gallery, where the highlight is the Flemish canvases by Maes. Finally, a ramp takes us up to the other rooms in the castle.

You start the visit in the Sala de Escudos, decorated with the coats of arms of Francis Xavier's parents and his family tree. Passing through a stone door you gain access to the Sala Principal or Grande (main room), a place for receiving visitors and where the family spent the most time. Then we go up the steps to the Torre de Undués until we reach the Camino de Ronda (battlements), a protected corridor for the defence of the castle. Stones and boiling oil were often poured over attackers through the machicolation!

Leaving the chaplains' rooms (now an oratory) on the left, you enter the old heart of the castle. There are two rooms here around the Tribute Tower, the oldest construction of its type in Navarre. The room on the right was the bedroom of St Francis Xavier, and on the left is the chapel of San Miguel (St Michael), the first one in the castle. Walk out onto the adjacent terrace, where you will get a sense of the strategic location of the castle, and enjoy the spectacular views: to the north, the Sierra de Leyre, to the west, the flood plain of the river Aragon, to the right, the frontier with Aragon, and to the south, the area known as El Castellar.

You then descend to the bottom of the tower, where a corridor takes us to the Hall of the castle and the Capilla del Santo Cristo (chapel of the Holy Christ). Behind a grille stands the Christ of Javier, an impressive 16th-century Gothic image carved in walnut. According to tradition, the figure sweated blood when the Saint was dying in Sanchuan, an island off the coast of China. It is surrounded by a dramatic mediaeval fresco, the only Gothic representation of the Dance of Death that exists in Spain.

Going down the stairs you come to the inner courtyard/parade ground and you exit through the gate. At your feet are the old steps, and on the left (breaking with the construction style of the castle) is the wall of the Basílica, built in the 19th century on the site of the Palacio Nuevo (New Palace) built by the parents of Francis Xavier, where he was born. The tour ends back at the starting point, the entrance hall. 

Once the visit to the castle has ended, do not miss the eclectic Basilica, whose façade contains images from the life of Francis Xavier.

A multi-purpose hall called the 'Aula Francisco de Jasso' has been built for the 5th Centenary of the birth of the saint, with capacity for 1,300 people, and also the 'Georg Schurhammer' exhibition hall, with the personal archives of the greatest biographer of Francis Xavier, specially brought from Rome.


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