Before we begin, we need to state that this is a VERY large region and what follows, in the name of brevity, is a fleeting glimpse at the regions treasures and high points. Therefore, we highly suggest you check out the links below for more detailed information. Now back to the story…
On part 2 of our series, La Vuelta a España. We’ve now arrived at the southeastern stretch of the peninsula, renowned for its cornucopia of fruits and vegetables. More than any area in Spain, it is here that I might fear that I, as a cyclist, would casually veer off the road to consume twice my body weight in fresh dates, figs and almonds. I might even go so far to just buck the race entirely and stay wandering the countryside, pecking at whatever is fresh and in season at a given moment, such as oranges, cherries, peaches, olives, and of course, grapes. The scenery is breathtaking, dramatic and amply stocked to keep any gourmand content and satiated, so much so that it’s been called the produce section of Europe.
But what do locals do with their over-ripe produce? Clearly with so much production, farmers are bound to get creative with produce that isn’t perfect and shiny for storefront sales. And thus the creation of La Tomatina. La Tomatina is an annual, one hour long, tomato fight that draws approximately 20,000–50,000 international tourists to the tiny town of Buñol every August, multiplying by several times Buñol’s normal population of slightly over 9,000. With over-ripe tomatoes in hand, participants throw a total of 150,000 tomatoes (approx. 90,000 lbs) at men, women, children of every race, color, creed and domination. Now this is a real food fight! In truth, the origins of La Tomatina go back to adolescent high jinks in the 1940s, but it has been officially sanctioned since 1950 and its popularity has now extended to Nevada where they’ve created an annual tomato festival of their own!
The geography of this area presents interesting contrasts in that the sea lies in close proximity, providing this area with its equitable and pleasant coastal climate, but an intense continental climate farther inland where most of the vineyards are located. In some areas, temperatures can drop just above freezing on a summer night, and come morning, soar to 30ºC during ripening season – a little schizophrenic, but the ideal climate to craft some amazing big, bold, juicy, red wines.
There are three mainstay native red grapes that reign in this section of Spain: Monastrell (the king), Tempranillo and Garnacha-Tintorera with lesser amounts of Bobal and various international varietals. Garnacha-Tintorera, also known as Alicant Bouschet, is the only the grape a vibrant red fleshy interior. Wines of the southeast tend to be bbq wines, wines you might pair with a thick, charred steak or a fatty fish. Whites on the other hand are well worth checking out, with longstanding varieties such as Moscatel, Verdil and Pedro Ximenez. Also one of the more historic and interesting wines you will find here is a solera aged Monastrell called, Fondillon. It lies somewhere between an Oloroso sherry and old Port. If you ever see a bottle of this, buy, buy, buy….it’s a truly special treat!
But no matter what bottle you choose, there are ample amounts of local dishes to pair with them, especially, Paella – a simmered rice dish that includes seafood or meat (chicken and rabbit). Paella means pan, or specifically, a large, round dish used to cook paella. Historically, Paella gained its popularity in Valencia during the 19th century when the economy allowed families and friends to gather in the countryside and share stories over local gastronomy. The most widely used complete ingredient list of this era was as follows: short-grain white rice, chicken, rabbit, snails (optional), duck (optional), butter beans, great northern beans, runner beans, artichoke (a substitute for runner beans in the winter), tomatoes, fresh rosemary, sweet paprika, saffron, garlic (optional), salt, olive oil and water. Nowadays, you can find paella in various different forms, including: Mixed, Seafood and Valencian.
Other native dishes I might explore include: Fartons (sweet bread usually accompanying horchata de chufa), buñuelos (anise flavored fritter), Spanish omelette and any seafood you can get your hands on are some examples of typical Valencian foods.
The first four days of racing are over. We’ve seen both the expected, with HTC-Columbia winning the Team Time Trial, putting the “Manx Missile”, Mark Cavendish into the Red Jersey, and the unexpected, with Andy Schleck, one of the pre-race favorites, now over 28 minutes off the pace.
Philippe Gilbert of the Omega Pharma-Lotto team is in the Red Jersey going into three relatively flat stages that should see the sprinters come to the fore. Look for Cavendish to continue his dominance in the sprints over the next several days. It is possible for him to win the next three races, although the last climb of stage 6 will pose a challenge.
In the meantime, Omega Phama-Lotto will work hard to control the race and keep Gilbert in the Red Jersey. Frank Scheck of Saxo-Bank sits in 8th place, only 50 seconds behind, Dennis Menchov is in 14th place, 1:11 back and Spaniard Carlos Sastre of Cervelo is in 22nd place, 2:15 behind. I look for these teams to bide their time and save energy by making Omega do the work at the front of the peloton.
Stage 5 is clearly one for the sprinters with a big sprint finish expected in Lorca after 199 km of racing. From Guadix, a plateau town among the northern foothills of the Sierra Nevada, the peloton will roll east through three provinces: Granada, Almería and Murcia. They will leave the Sistema Penibético mountain range (and the Andalucía region) behind and cycle into the Murcia region for the run into Lorca where a mass sprint finish is virtually guaranteed.
Stage 6 starts out basically downhill for 130k, but the one categorized climb on this day, a cat 2, 5.1k @ 6.2% gradient, is close to the finish.
In any case, the finish to this stage with the cat 2 climb were featured at the end of last year’s stage 10 finish in Murcia and we know Sky’s Simon Gerrans, riding for Cervelo last year, won a four man bunch sprint on that day.
Another flat stage for the sprinters. There is one climb of about 400m at 120k into the stage, but it should have little bearing on the finish as there will be 50k to race, mostly downhill after the summit is crested. Look for Juan Antonio Flecha in a breakaway to try to get out early and steal the show from the sprinters.
Stage 8 returns to the mountains with six climbs totaling 3450m. The race culminates with a summit finish at Xorret del Catí, a short, explosive climb that was also the finish of Stage 10 in last year’s race which was won by Gustavo César Veloso of Spain. Look for GC contenders Frank Schleck, Dennis Menchov and Carlos Sastre to put the hammer down and move up in the chase for the Red Jersey.
After the fireworks of a summit finish, Stage 9 is an intermediate stage of rolling hills with a primarily downhill finish into the town of Alcoy. Many outdoor rock paintings exist in Alcoy, and there are some ruins of an Iberian settlement with fragments of Greco-Roman pottery. This is the final leg before the first rest day of the tour. The attacks should come early on with teams attempting to get loose for the opportunity to create a breakaway.
We hope you found this fun, and stay tuned as we attempt to bring you 6 more updates with a bit about the lands of La Vuelta a España!
Ryan and Gabriella Opaz
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