|Spotlight on Spain|
Like fashion, travel destinations are in and out of style. Spain is currently in the spotlight thanks to the expanding of Madrid’s renowned Prado art museum, the new America’s Cup Sailing Village in Valencia and the amazing Guggenheim museum in Bilbao. The country is attracting foodies too with its modern twists on classic food and Spain’s growing reputation for wines.
Bilbao is the gateway to the Basque region of Spain, known for its gastronomy and natural beauty. No one knows where the Basque people originated, but everyone agrees they know how to cook. Pinxtos (pronounced pinch-ohs) are a regional specialty. The Basque form of tapas, these appetizers are served with mini drinks. Small plates are currently trendy in the U.S., but chefs are just copying the Spanish, who invented tapas centuries ago.
After sampling one pinxto, diners move on to the next bar. "You start out with five friends going to a bar, and by the time you go to the last bar you are with 20 people, picking up folks in each place," explained my tour guide Angel.
A few blocks away, the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum is known for its large display of 19th century North American paintings, a rarity in Europe. The Reina Sofía National Art Centre is dedicated to Spanish contemporary art including Picasso, Miro and Dali. Recently expanded, it now includes a red-hot restaurant called Arola Madrid, where Chef Serge Arola presents a modern twist on old-world Spanish cuisine.
You'll have to adjust your eating times in Spain because lunch starts at 2 p.m. and no Spaniard eats dinner before 10 p.m. It's worth staying up late, because Spain is on the foodie fast track. Even better, Bodegas (Spanish wineries) are just starting to open their doors to the public. Viavinum, the first wine tour company in Spain, lets guests take part in the harvest by grape stomping before sampling the bottled product.
Madrid also boasts the largest palace in Europe with more than 2000 ornate rooms and an army museum. American celebrities often stay at the Hotel Puerta America where chosen architects from an international competition were allowed total freedom to design floors. The best place for souvenirs and people watching is Plaza Mayor, located in the old part of Madrid. Shops selling berets and espadrilles (both invented by the Basques) are next to outdoor cafes tempting passersby with the aroma of fresh seafood in garlic sauce.
Famed Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava, was also instrumental in changing Valencia's image with his futuristic City of Arts and Sciences museum complex. The exhibits are interactive and fun so children won't even realize they're learning while playing. The design of the buildings reflects their purpose; the science museum looks like a dinosaur, the planetarium is an eye that opens and closes and the aquarium's shaped like a whale.
In the old part of town tourists line up to visit the Ceramics Museum and the Silk Exchange Building, (the country's original form of currency), which has been declared a World Heritage Site. The Cathedral displays what many believe is the Holy Grail, the chalice used by Jesus at the Last Supper.
Valencia's the birthplace of Paella and you can take a tour where chefs in costume prepare the saffron rice dish over an outdoor fire in the traditional manner. Guests sip Sangria on the riverfront while waving to passengers gliding past in old-fashioned wooden boats.
Each area of Spain takes great pains to maintain their area's culture, so travelers feel as though they're visiting several countries without crossing any borders. "Spain is a still a little bit of an unknown-people seem to think it's flamenco dancers with roses in their teeth," says Gabriella Ranelli De Aguirre, owner, Tenedor Tours. "That's still there, but there's also a new sophistication in Spain that doesn't always get into guidebooks."