FROM BARCELONA TO BILBAO, THE SPANISH LANDS ARE THE PLACE TO CHILL IN STYLEBudget airlines have brought us a step closer to Europe and the climate has always been a pull for us pasty northerners, but recently, the Iberian cities don’t seem to be out of the press. A whole new world of style has been born in Spain. Chef Ferran Adria leads the Spanish cullinary scene with his globally revered, triple-Michelin-starred restaurant, El Bulli, situated on a remote, rocky beach 2 hours from Barcelona. His vociferous support for Spanish produce, Sherry and wines has made the rest of the gastronomic world sit up and take note and has propelled Spain to new heights of international respect. The list of fantastic restaurants and bars within Spanish borders is endless, but we’ve put together a selection of not-to-be-missed venues for a weekend in the sun.
Ibiza or Eivissa, depending on where you emanate from, is Spain’s most famous island and its double name is mirrored in a peculiar split personality that has developed over the last ten years. It is known as the clubbing capital of the world, drawing music connoisseurs from across the globe for its jaw-dropping DJ line-ups and its range of superclubs that hold thousands. At the same time, thanks to reality shows like ‘Ibiza Uncovered’, the so-called Isla Bonita is burdened with a reputation for attracting the worst element of Brits abroad. Lary lads and loose lasses stumble through the streets of San Antonio wreaking havock, making mischief and collapsing in a heap at the end of the night. But beyond all of this, there is a very sophisticated element of Ibizan life – a third personality that escapes most of the tourist trade. A new generation of bars have evolved into world class venues with slick interior design, atmospheric lighting, extensive cocktail menus and some of the best resident DJs in Europe.
When the Warhol bar opened in December 2001, its mission was to attract the stylish and beautiful, and now anyone who’s in the know in the music, fashion or media worlds can be found flocking to it for album launches, catwalk collections or photoshoots. The Base Bar continues to draw the music buffs and Café Mambo on the opposite side of the island has stolen the glory from Café Del Mar next door as the best place to watch the sun go down. Wine Bar is a new development, whose proximity to Pacha nightclub has sealed its future as an all-year fashion hang-out where you can dump vodka limóns in favour of fine wines and Fino. Then there’s cushion-strewn Mao Rooms, from London’s Chinawhite crew, which has become a first class lounge on the Ibiza scene.
For food, L’Elephant is the island’s top French restaurant, located in the small town of San Rafael just outside of Ibiza Town. Sa Capella is a beautiful and impressive restaurant housed in a 16th Century church resplendent with stone statues, foliage and faultless service. La Casita in Cala Llonga is a sleek and stylish terrace restaurant serving gastronomically inventive dishes from its old farmhouse location.
Physically compact, yet culturally enormous; bohemian, and at the same time ultra chic. Barcelona is one of those cities that is all things to all men. It’s hub of creativity, with internationally renowned art galleries, designer shops and architectural delights that are second to none. Glitzy modern façades juxtaposed with the unique contorted architecture that is Gaudi’s legacy. Delightful squares and meandering boulevards that invite you to amble along for hours, glancing in the designer shops north of Plaça Catalunya. Then break your journey in the basement bodegas and tapas bars of La Rambla. In the summer, you can relax beachside at one of the scores of bars and restaurants along the Mediterranean coast of the Olympic port, dining on morning fresh seafood with a cold Manzanilla at your side. Aqua is a favourite hangout with bleached wooden tables and chairs spilling onto the beach front. For something more urban, Lupino, in one of the grafitti-ridden backstreets of the Raval district, is a fashionable spot with an alfresco terrace in similar style to one of London’s Hoxton haunts. Its slick, warmly lit interior is in direct contrast to the industrial carpark and the boqueria market that it looks out onto. The gourmands would prefer to venture into the commercial district to critically acclaimed Comerç 24 (closed in August), where the El Bulli trained chef, Carles Abellan, serves fantastic modern style tapas to a well-to-do professional crowd. For those of a more adventurous nature, a trip into Mount Tibidabo will provide views over the bustling city. A day at the theme park on high can be followed with drinks at Mirabelle and then completed with cocktails and dancing at the converted mansion known as Partycular. The sophisticated Eixample area offers a number of trendy escapes such as lounge bar Smooth, with its awesome selection of wines and Sherry, and velvet-clad Snooker, which won design awards when it opened a decade ago. El Ascensor in Ribera attracts the beautiful young things and with any luck you’ll be caught in the lift with one of them as you ascend to the modern designer club.
It’s big and bustling, it’s loud and crowded, lascivious characters skulk in dark corners, and taxi drivers will try to rip you off. It’s a capital city and no mistaking it. Slap bang in the middle of the Spanish mainland, Madrid is hot – and with none of the forgiving sea breeze that blesses Barcelona, the teracotta cityscape looks practically kiln-baked. But it’s not all stress and strife. The best place to start relaxing is in Paseo del Prado, the expansive promenade that puts all of the city stress on hold. Down the spine of the Prado are three gurgling fountains that are fed by a subterranean stream. Adjacent to Prado is the beautiful, landscaped Retiro park, alive with street performers, bandstand and boat rides on its artificial lake. Sandwiched between the two is the botanical garden, an oasis of peace at the nucleus of the city. Café Miranda captures the spirit and colour of Madrid. Modern European cooking accompanied by a vampish dinner show with drag queens and a psychadelic decor. Drag queens feature at Gula Gula (Gran Via 1) too, where eating at the self-service buffet is a colourful and entertaining experience. A more sophisticated option is La Vaca Veronica where market-fresh ingredients are combined to terrific results. For something on the fashionable tip, Larios Café is a glamorous spot and its delicious Cuban cuisine is popular with the arty designer crowd. But if you’re looking up-market then Salamanca is the area to head for. The Beverley Hills of Madrid, Salamanca is awash with high class restaurants and glitzy bars. El Mentidero de la Villa (C/Santo Tomé 6) or grandiose Pedro Larumbe (C/Serrano 61) for exquisite fish, Estay for contemporary tapas or Boulevard for quaffing with any A-listers that are in town. Another trendy getaway is El Viso Madrid (C/Juan Bravo 31) set on a number of floors with a beautiful terrace bar, basement club and a very well-heeled young clientele. For a change from the norm, La Ida is a funky, chilled bar with no signage to give it away and an unconventional interior design. Frequented only by those ‘in the know’, it’s definitely worth seeking out.
It is the flamboyant heart and soul of Spanish culture and a city that lives for tradition. From religion, which is embedded in its very essence, to football, politics, food and drink, the Andalusian capital thrives on its roots. Bull-fighting and flamenco are at the centre of its cultural calendar. And tapas is simply the done thing, for it was in Seville that the global obsession was born.Languishing at Spain’s southern tip, the sun-baked streets bask in the glory of a near-tropical heat. It is explosively colourful and architecturally stunning, its foundations carved from a multitude of occupations that span three millennia. The people smile, things move ever so slowly and mañana never seems to come. A weekend is simply not enough in Seville. You need time to stroll around from tapas bar to tapas bar, soaking up the atmosphere and the locally made Sherry; to meander along the river at sunset, stopping to crack open a bottle of Amontillado to mix with the rays of a sinking sun; to wander through the charming squares and the winding, cobbled streets of the Jewish quarter; and to drift from one hip bar to the next in trendy Alameda. Restaurants are less commonplace than in Barcelona or Madrid and Tapas bars take precedence. Egaña Oriza (C/San Fernando 41) combines bar and restaurant with elegance blending Basque and Andalusian cuisine in an expansive early 20th Century terazza. Another magnificient dining experience is La Albahaca – an exclusive townhouse which serves imaginative Spanish fusion dishes. Casa Robles serves gourmet Sevillian cuisine and is favoured by the Spanish royal family. Its sister restaurants Robles Placentines and Robles Tapas offer a less formal environment. La Colonial de Vinos y Viandas (C/Valpaiso 13) is the place to head for Spanish wine lovers – an amazing array of wines are accompanied by Cuban cigars and tasty tapas. Or try the inventive Mediterranean cuisine at La Madraza (C/Peris Mencheta 21), where you can titilate your taste-buds while gazing at the artworks on the walls which double as a gallery space.
Fifteen years ago, Bilbao was just a busy port and an old iron mining town. Fondly called ‘Botxo’ by the locals (Basque for ‘hole’), Bilbao escaped becoming a hole (literally) in the 90s with the gentrification of the dock area and the creation of such cultural magnets as the Guggenheim Museum and the concert hall, the development of the park, and the Sir Norman Foster designed metro system. The best way to get the most out of Bilbao is by way of a Txikiteo (the local version of a pub crawl) with a glass of Sherry and a plate of tapas in each bar. Alternatively, go top-end with Michelin-starred Zortzika – the lunch menu is best value. There’s also relaxed, but fashionable El Perro Chico, which looks out onto the recently cleaned river. Tapas bars tend to be more on the dark traditional side, but Harizki (Ledesma 7) goes against the grain offering gourmet style dishes in a slick, bright interior. As with other bars around Calle Ledesma, this place stays open a little later than the rest of the city. Worth a visit too is Artajo (Ledesma 4), where locals swear by the mussels in anchovy sauce.
The people of Jerez live for Sherry. Flamenco is a favourite pass-time and while drinking and dancing are woven into the fabric of life, it still remains a relatively peaceful and unspoilt part of Spain. Beaches and mountains are within reach at either side, vineyards and orange groves surround it and the ruins of once magnificent castles punctuate the landscape. It is a beautiful and ancient city, which despite being serviced by the no-frills airlines, still manages to evade mass tourism.The wide avenues of the city centre are full of shops and tapas bars are everywhere. Pass by Las Bridas for the kind of portions that you can share around or head for La Abacerio (Plaza Rafel Rivero) for a lively evening in alfresco surrounds. Good tradicional cuisine is to be had at Gaitán or El Gallo Azul (Calle Larga) for something a little more experimental. And whatever you do, make time to visit one of a many bodegas that are open for Sherry-tasting tours. It’s an unforgettable experience and one that will ensure you go away itching to come back.
One of the most fashionable places in Spain to holiday, San Sebastian couldn’t be further removed from the cheap resorts of the south. Golden beaches are beautifully maintained, landscaped parks and gardens, majestic mountains and the thrashing seas of the Bay of Biscay combine to dramatic effect. Designer shops keep the spendthrift upper classes happy as do some of the finest bars and restaurants in the country. Arzak is at the top of the list of restaurants to visit for the foodies (you are recommended to book at least a month in advance). Chef Juan Mari Arzak is often at your side to help you decide on dishes which change daily. Akelarre with its mountain location and views over the Atlantic offers a combination of traditional local cuisine and modern Basque interpretations and is not to be missed. All of the late night action happens in Parte Vieja, where tapas bars line the streets (try La Cepa, Martinez, Ormazabel and Gaztelu all on C/Agosto) and you can dance and drink until the very early hours.
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