Thursday, April 21, 2011

The Countryside around Alicante, Spain: Oranges, Wine, Marble and Caves

Part One: Mandarinablue Travel Experience and Heretat de Cesilia Winery

When I started planning my trip to Spain, I did some internet research and contacted a number of tour companies and individuals who I hoped would be able to offer me a tour or a local perspective on their home region in exchange for me providing them with some coverage on my blog.

Mandarinablue Travel Experience
Mireia Aldeguer of Mandarinblue Travel Experience near Alicante responded immediately and enthusiastically to my request.

I was delighted as she had a really interesting website offering tours of wineries, chocolate factories, mountain valleys and orange groves. As a solo traveller I particularly appreciated the fact that she has set up a special program called Half Mandarina to provide opportunities for solo travellers to meet and make friends with other travellers.

Tour Leader
This is Mandarinablue’s first year of operations, but Mireia has plenty of travel experience. Mireia grew up in Alicante and completed a university program in tourism before moving to Norwich, England, in 2002 where she worked for six years – no wonder she speaks English so well.

Mireia then travelled to Peru where she worked as a tour leader for Gap Adventures for a year. These were extended tours (up to two months) of the whole country. I would imagine that the success of this sort of extended tour relies on the tour leader’s personality to make sure that everyone is having a good time and to help the group weather any rough spots. Mireia has also led tours for Gap Adventures in Spain, Portugal and Italy, and she continues to collaborate with them.

Experiential Travel
Mireia is a passionate advocate for her home province of Alicante, but she doesn’t feel that it has done a good enough job marketing itself. To many northern Europeans who flock to coastal resorts such as Benidorm, Alicante stands for “sol y playa” – sun and beach – and not much else. As a result, the coast has been over-developed and the interior has been neglected.

In addition, Mireia believes that many tourists want more than just a beach vacation. They want to spend at least part of their time exploring the countryside and participating in the life of the local people.

Mandarinablue tours have been organized in conjunction with small, authentic businesses so that tourists can meet local people and gain a greater understanding of the local way of life – and the small businesses gain additional exposure.

A Personal Tour
Mandarinablue won’t start offering tours until May, but Mireia offered to take me on a personalized tour to two wineries in the interior of Alicante. I was delighted because it was an opportunity to go to places that are difficult if not impossible to reach without a car.

It was fun to travel through the small villages, get stuck in the middle of a bicycle race and see part of a parade in Hondon de las Nieves. There is a Sunday market in Alguena so the town centre was very busy.

I also had a chance to meet and talk with local residents and winery owners. I think they were pleased that I had gone to the trouble of moving off the traditional tourist route to explore some areas that are often neglected. And I was delighted to have a glimpse of their lives.

The coastal areas around Alicante receive lots of sun and warmth as well as a fair bit of moisture, so you’ll see lots and lots of fruit trees. Citrus fruits, particularly all varieties of oranges, are the most abundant. At higher altitudes, particularly as I made my way to Jumilla, there is far less rain and cooler, less moderate climates. As a result, there are less fruit trees and more vineyards, almond and olive trees.

I saw two varieties of grapes. There were tall, trellised vineyards. In many cases, these are table grapes and they may be irrigated.

The most common wine grape in this region of Spain is Monastrell, which is ideally suited for this dry area with large extremes of temperature. It’s a bush grape and is pruned very close to the ground before sending up fresh shoots each year. The vineyards are not irrigated and the vines are planted quite far apart. The vineyards still look quite bare as the vines were just beginning to send forth shoots and leaves.

The Alicante region produces a tremendous amount of marble, which explains the marble sidewalks and building facades in many of the cities I visited. You’ll see the quarries as you travel through this area. There’s a very large one in Alguena.

Heretat de Cesilia Winery
We spent the afternoon at the Casa Sicilia winery in Novelda. This is a fairly small winery with a single owner and reminded me of wineries I’ve visited in Canada.

Casa Sicilia estate was founded in 1707 and originally produced fruit and oil. The original kitchen and dining room have been restored, and it’s interesting to reflect on an earlier way of life. The estate is now being used to grow grapes and to make wine.

The winery is centered around a large restaurant area highlighting the relationship between food and drink. I had a lovely lunch and enjoyed a different wine with each course.

The winery has been using organic production methods since 2009 to produce a wide variety of red and white wines. They have just introduced a new white wine, and I found the rose very refreshing with good fruity flavour. I also really enjoyed their Mistela de Moscatel (sweet, white dessert wine) at the end of my meal.

I was entranced by the sight of a modernist cathedral in the distance overlooking Heretat de Cesilia. The Santuario de Santa Maria Magdalena was designed in part by Jose Sala Sala and bears a striking resemblance to Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia in Barcelona.

Thank You
I am very grateful to all of the people who went out of their way to give me such an interesting and educational look at wine-making and life in the Alicante region.

My sincere thanks to Laura at Heretat de Cesilia for an excellent lunch, tour and gift of wine.

See also: Part Two: Alguena’s Wine Cooperative and Caves

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