A Spanish sojourn

A glorious sunset at San Antonio.
A glorious sunset at San Antonio.

One has to be exceptionally lucky to travel to an enchanting ­Mediterranean country like Spain half a dozen times … I’ve had that good fortune … visiting the olive growing regions of Spain for the first time in 2007, and then revisiting it on family holidays.

Add to this being hosted by SpanishTourism not once, but twice, is great luck indeed! Not only do you get the normal tourist’s induction into the country’s rich history, culture, great tourism spots, happening bars and pubs to hang out in, but also an insider’s perspective on what makes the Spanish people tick, how their economy is still struggling to come out of the 2008 recession and meeting people’s basic needs such as employment.

And … most of all, as you are not a tourist watching your depleting Euros all the time while looking at dining options, you get to taste the best of the Spanish cuisine in all its rich variety. On this trip, as the rice growing region of Valencia is famous for its Paella, a rice dish made with different kinds of meat, including sea food, and vegetables, we got a surfeit of Paella … a wide range from fine dining restaurants to a delicious one served up at the farmhouse of Huan Gorets, who grows rice in the reserved eco-forest of the Albufera lake, about 15 km from Valencia. And other delicacies, particularly cured ham, along with the delicious Spanish cocktail … the famous ­Sangria, on offer were an unforgettable gastronomic delight.

A view of Ibiza.
A view of Ibiza.

While last year it was mostly the magic of Madrid — I had to try really hard to spot an ugly building in the areas we visited in the Spanish ­capital — either in 2007 or 2013, this September it was the beaches of the hip and happening Ibiza, the coastal city of Valencia and the historic town of Tarragona.

Taking up Ibiza first, this is an island of dreams, where Europe’s rich and famous love to hang out, we, a group of five Indian journalists, land in Valencia, on the eastern coast of Spain. After three days we take a luxurious three and a half hour ferry ride from the surprisingly plush Valencia Port, on the deep blue waters of the Mediterranean Sea, to this magic island. It is only 79 km off the Valencia coast in eastern Spain. The third largest of the Balearic Islands, it is as famous for its spectacular beaches as the hippie movement in the late 1960s, considered a revolutionary and influential period in its history.

The new and the old: Belen (left) and a Spanish woman dressed in traditional costume.
The new and the old: Belen (left) and a Spanish woman dressed in traditional costume.

It is fascinating to learn why we find so many ‘Flower Power’ posters all over Ibiza … at the hippie market as well as all over the little town of San Antonio we visit, in search of a glorious sunset from its famous snow-white beach strip, where the locals and tourists descend in the evenings. For some reason, San Antonio, with its beachside cafes, bars and restaurants is a hot favourite of young Brits who love to hang around here, downing beer, Sangria, wine or other cocktails.

Ibiza’s hippie history

But the hippie movement first and why of all the places they descended on this little island. In the late 1960s, children from rich families, mostly in the US, who rebelled against the ‘materialistic and luxurious’ lifestyle of their parents in the post-World War II era, threw up their comfortable lifestyle at home and came to this island in the quest of free thought and speech.

They were attracted to Ibiza, because it already had numerous ­artists — painters, writers, musicians and even politicians, who had come here to escape the fascist period of General Franco which began in 1936. The freedom to speak your mind, dress as you wished, and live a simple lifestyle, attracted these youngsters. Spanish composer Miguel Roig-Francolí was born here; other notable residents were the English punk musician John Simon Ritchie (Sid Vicious), Philiac, the psychedelic rock band, Hollywood comedian Terry-Thomas, director Orson Welles and the Hungarian master forger Elmyr de Hory.

As Ibiza evolved into a melting pot of free speech and diverse cultures, it was only a matter of time before tourists started coming here in droves. The balmy Mediterranean climate was of course a huge draw and gave an escape route to tourists who couldn’t stand harsh winters in Northern and Central Europe. Throw in Ibiza’s fascinating beaches and small wonder that in the late 1980s and through 90s, chartered flights started arriving and since then Ibiza has never looked back. This is also a haven for the LGBT community and exclusive bars and pubs for them can be found all over the island.

Clubbing capital

Today it is considered one of the most happening places in Europe to party, listen to music and dance away your blues in its many nightclubs, Amnesia and Pacha being the most popular.

Small wonder then that Ibiza is considered one of the clubbing capitals of the world! At our newly opened, cheerful and fascinating hotel, The Hard Rock Hotel, the only one of this brand in Europe, there was live music to lift your spirits at various points but only till midnight. Asked why and soon found that as the nightclubs of Ibiza spring to life only around 1 a.m. and the music and dance continues into the wee hours of the morning, the hotel had decided to gift its guests live music till midnight.

The Amphitheatre in Tarragona.
The Amphitheatre in Tarragona.

A sprawling property with over 490 rooms, two huge swimming pools and many private and plunge pools, depending on your room type, choose this hotel if your pocket allows it as it exudes a cheer and positive energy that is difficult to match. Depending on the season, a room here can set you back by 200–500 Euros. And along with most of Ibiza, it shuts down for winter.

At nightclubs like Amnesia or Pacha, an entry ticket costs upward of 50 Euros, depending on the programme, and VIP sections are available too; no queuing up for entry at these amazingly crowded joints and no jostling for your drinks at the bar either. Beginning with 200 Euros for two, a VIP table can go above 1,000 Euros for a small group, with the drinks thrown in for free.

Historic Tarragona

From Ibiza, we take a flight to ­Barcelona and after an unsatisfactory half a day — you can’t even soak in La Rambla in that time — we drive to Tarragona, the historic town through which the Roman civilisation penetrated the Iberian Peninsula. As part of the second Punic War, in 218 B.C., Gnaeus Cornelius Scipio landed here and set up a garrison that over time would become the main Roman military base to provide a solid foundation for the Romans for 200 years.

Tourists enjoying balmy Mediterranean weather on the Dalt Vila ramparts in Ibiza.
Tourists enjoying balmy Mediterranean weather on the Dalt Vila ramparts in Ibiza.

In 2nd century B.C., Tarragona city was set up with a great wall built around it. Originally 3,500 metres in length, today only 1,100 metres remain, defining the city’s old quarter. The most iconic portion of this is the imposing Archaeological Promenade, where several of the conserved monuments and remnants of an ancient past remain, fascinating tourists and historians alike.

Walking through the narrow lanes of the old town is a beautiful ­experience — enchanting shops, friendly locals, and above all, striking monuments and cathedrals, just around the corner. Tourists can use mechanised segways if they are good at cycling; I am not, and so gave it a pass. A tumble on the cobblestoned streets wasn’t exactly an attractive option!

One of the most imposing structures in Tarragona is what is known as the Imperil Cult Complex or simply ‘The Temple.’ In the second half of the 1st century A.D., the city’s acropolis got a monumental status by the construction of a Provincial Forum and the Roman Circus. Built along two terraced squares and over a gigantic 7.5 hectares, this was the stuff of legend during Roman times. Of course much of it is in ruins now, though there are constant attempts to recover and reclaim part of the town’s rich ancient history. A large hall here has been identified at the inner sanctuary of a magnificent temple of the Imperial Cult.

Tarragona’s Roman Circus, where imposing horse chariot races took place in an era gone by, is considered one of the best conserved in the ­western world. Then there is the ­Amphitheatre, which was used for entertainment, fight of the gladiators, beasts and other public events. This was built around the turn of the 2nd century.

Even Ibiza has its own slice of history — the old town of Dalt Vila, with its imposing and ­defensive Renaissance walls which were built for protection against attacks by Turks. This is a UNESCO heritage site, and juxtaposed against the blue waters of the Mediterranean where luxury yachts of the rich and famous are either docked or sailing away, it proves to visitors why Ibiza is called the land of contrasts!

Pictures by: Rasheeda Bhagat

Rice farms and eco systems

Paella time: Huan Goret (left) helps the Chef to carry a huge Paella platter prepared for us at his farmhouse.
Paella time: Huan Goret (left) helps the Chef to carry a huge Paella platter prepared for us at his farmhouse.

A hugely enjoyable 40­ minute boat ride takes us to farmer Goret’s farm through the tranquil waters of the Albufera Lake. The Albufera natural park extends over 25,000 hectares, and has three eco systems, of which the lake’s spread is 3,000 hectares.

A fourth generation farmer, his farm extends over 200 hectares, producing 1,200 tons of rice, mainly of the round variety, and includes the Bomba, the premium rice used for Paella.

His cousin Belen, an astronomical engineer, helps him with technological inputs, and is a consultant to other farmers as well. She explains that in the 1970s and 80s, during the development boom in Spain, some territory from the Albufera Lake was also taken up for construction. But the Government stepped in and stopped the encroachment on the lake.

She gives me a valuable insight into how the Government steps in to protect specialised agri-produce. As the Bomba and other rice grown in this region are premium brands and export commodity too, farmers here are not allowed to grow anything else in this area. “Even if I can make more money from growing potatoes or other vegetables, I can’t do that,” says Goret. Hardly three percent of Spanish farmers grow rice on over 100 hectares of land and he is one of them. He exports rice to Europe particularly ­Switzerland and UK, as also Florida, which is a major customer.

So, is farming profitable business in Spain, I ask him.

“Not really; the cost of input and what we get from the sales balances out, but yes, we do get subsidies from the European Union so we can’t complain.”

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