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Tales from our travels
As you might expect from a chef who trained under Ferran Adrià, Paco Pérez creates dishes that could pass as artworks, colourful culinary portraits painted in foams, jus and powders. But these are not just hollow theatrics – Pérez has a gift for combining flavours that has bagged him a quintet of Michelin stars over the years. Miramar, the seafood-slanted restaurant he set up with his wife in his hometown of Llançà, near Girona, has become a site of gastronomic pilgrimage (sea cucumbers are a speciality). Peréz has not confined himself to Spain, however. When he opened Cinco at the Das Stue in Berlin in 2013, expectations ran high. Within a year, its technically accomplished, Iberian-inflected, 25-course tasting menu had added another Michelin star to his CV.
Marbella has been the famously chic playground of old-school, look-at-me Mediterranean glamour for decades, and Marbella Club is one of the biggest reasons behind its rep. Opened by playboy Prince Alfonso von Hohenlohe in 1951, the shore-side resort (which includes a spa, beach club, golf course, botanical gardens and champagne room, naturally) still attracts the glitz-garbed international jet set and those who like to watch them at play. Although these days, a lot of the younger guests slope off to barefoot-luxe coast club Nikki Beach down the road when they’re tired of lounging on the pool terrace…
If you have new-season swimwear to show off that is best accessorised by a 19th-century Mallorcan fort (every good bikini needs battlements for a backdrop), Cap Rocat is the place to do it. High in drama, blessed with sweeping sea views and radiating exclusivity from drawbridge to turret, it’s a secluded, adults-only hideaway, where supermodels and super yachters go for superlative service and one of the sexiest poolsides on the Med.
Contemporary Spanish cooking may well be progressive and forward thinking, but, as in most countries, it’s still dominated by men. Elena Arzak, often lauded as ‘the world’ best female chef’, is a welcome exception. Elena and her father Juan Mari Arzak (one of the big beasts of New Basque cuisine) are responsible for Arzak, the triple-Michelin-star restaurant that has been in their family for 118 years and a standard feature of gourmet ‘must-try’ shortlists. It is set in central San Sebastián (across the river from Smith hotel Astoria 7), home to more Michelin stars per square metre than any other city in the world – possibly related to the fact it sits at the geographical and culinary meeting point of France and Spain. In the last decade, Elena (whose professional education, inevitably, involved a period at El Bulli) has emerged as a remarkable chef in her own right, continuing and building on her father’s legacy with unparalleled artistry and improbably brilliant flavour combinations.
It’s not an architectural marvel, nor a museum of historical treasures, but the folk festival of La Tomatina, in the small Valencian town of Buñol, is one of the cultural highlights of modern Spain. Well, we say ‘folk festival’; it’s more a mass food fight – and a marvellous example of how humanity can latch on to something ridiculous and turn it into tradition. They story starts with a scuffle at a summer parade in 1945 when rambunctious youngsters went ballistic (literally) with a vegetable stall in the market, until the police intervened. They returned the next year to commemorate the anniversary, and again the next. More people joined in each passing year. Eventually, the city authorities gave up trying to stop them and instead started giving them tomatoes. Today, on the last Wednesday in August, around 40,000 eager fruit-flingers flock to the town square at 9am to pelt each other with 125,000kg of tomatoes, over the course of an hour, until the streets run red with juice. It is all both violently joyful and profoundly silly, and although the actual event only lasts an hour, the spirit of revelry fills most of the week. Accommodation’s in short supply in Buñol, but if you’re joining in the madness, Hospes Palau de la Mar in Valencia is an hour away. (Photo credit: MikeJamieson(1950) / Foter / CC BY-SA)
The man behind the kitchens of 17th-century rural estate Predi San Jaumell in Mallorca may have been born in the Balearics, but his culinary travels have taken him all over the world (via a three-season stint at El Bulli). Here in the Mallorcan countryside, he has precision-crafted a small but explosively flavoursome menu that takes island ingredients (home-grown olive oil, fish fresh from the coast, bread from the hotel’s own wheat fields) and turns them into contemporary culinary masterpieces. At an astonishingly good-value €38, his tasting menu is unmissable.
Andalusia is strewn with Moorish mosques, monuments and palaces – none more resplendent or limelight-hogging than Granada’s Alhambra. But while the crowds swarm to admire the glories of the 14th-century fortress, the less queue-inclined are 250km away in Seville, gazing in serene wonderment at the architectural showstopper that is its Alcázar. Built in the 1360s on what had originally been a 9th-century fort, the cluster of palaces, courtyards and gardens is one of the most eye-ensnaringly spectacular examples of Mudéjar decorative art in Europe (with a few Gothic and Renaissance touches at play, too) and a worthy Unesco-lister. The Alcázar isn’t a dusty relic of a bygone era, however; it still houses the Spanish royal family when they stay in Seville, and frequently makes appearances on screen – Game of Thrones fans may have spotted the beautiful Patio de las Doncellas (Courtyard of the Maidens), with its recently unearthed sunken garden, serving as the Prince of Dorne’s palace. One of Smith’s long-standing favourite stays, Corral del Rey, is within walking distance
Sooner or later, everyone serious about style who comes to Barcelona heads to Passeig de Gracia with space in their suitcase and a credit card that can take a beating. The smartest shoppers minimise their bag-lugging distance by checking into the Catalan capital’s most elegant address – the designer apartments of El Palauet. The art nouveau exterior gives way to a collection of modern, minimalist suites – each equipped with furniture straight out of a primer of 20th-century design classics and staffed by a personal PA, to book your restaurants, bag you tickets and, if need be, help carry your shopping...
At 24, Jordi Cruz became the youngest Spanish chef to earn a Michelin star for his imaginative and avant-garde cooking style. In the 12 years since, he has bagged another three – two of them for the hotel restaurant he’s been helming since 2010, ABaC Restaurant & Hotel in Barcelona’s Zona Alta – written a book on molecular cooking techniques, and been anointed as a judge on Masterchef Espana. In other words, he’s hot stuff (and let’s just say a certain proportion of his Masterchef audience haven’t tuned in for the cookery). Via ABaC’s startlingly inventive 15-course tasting menus (mole ice cream, tuna-skin curry, chocolate ‘earth’, plankton bread and oh-so-much more) Cruz demonstrates exactly how he lives up to the hype.
It has been over 130 years in the making – and it still hasn’t been made yet. The vision of revered modernist architect Antoni Gaudí (1852–1926), Barcelona’s imposing basilica – an attention-grabbing mash-up of Art Nouveau and Neo-Gothic – is Spain’s greatest work of unfinished architecture, and very possibly the world’s. By the time Gaudí died, only a quarter of the building was finished, and successive generations have been painstakingly labouring through the decades to bring it to fruition. When it reaches completion (slated for 2026), La Sagrada Familia will be the tallest church building on Earth, but it’s not just its scale that makes it so captivating; the sheer, visionary audacity and mathematically complex engineering of Gaudí’s architecture make it a marvel to look at even in its incomplete state. It has its detractors, of course – George Orwell called it ‘hideous’ – but there’s no denying its impact on the eyeballs, whether you regard it as the 560-foot folly of a lunatic or an otherworldly masterpiece. Stay at Meliá Barcelona Sky and you’ll be in easy reach.