Drinking the Costa del Sol – A Trip from Barcelona, Spain to Lisbon, Portugal
Spend any amount of time in Spain and the subject of the Spanish paradox eventually comes up. As a nationality, the Spanish, it turns out, have one of the longest average lifespans in the world. According to the WHO, Japan is the longest-lived, with an average longevity of 83.7 years. Curiously, Spain is in 4th place worldwide, with an average longevity of 82.8 years.
Japan is clean, modern, and features a diet heavy in fish and vegetables. Spain, on the other hand, is another kind of animal.
The stereotypes are almost entirely true. Spaniards commonly eat dinner at 10 or 11pm, go to bed (or go clubbing) at 2 or 3am, sleep very little and go to work at 9 or 10am. Siestas are still common in smaller towns, but those follow a typically two-hour lunch that starts with two or three glasses of beer and wine. After work, Spaniards continue drinking and eating food that is largely based on cured meats and bread (the “Mediterranean diet” is a complete joke, at least as it relates to Spain), with frequent breaks to smoke cigarettes (often inside). They also spend too much time in the sun, all of which seems like it should add up to a recipe for an early grave – but which somehow does not.
The paradox is often explained in terms of stress. The Spanish live a seemingly carefree life unencumbered by the worries that plague many of us in the West – and while that has saddled Spain with its share of economic woes, those woes don’t seem much to have rubbed off on its fun-loving citizens.
Aboard the Star Breeze
And so it was into this world that I, a typically uptight American, was thrown, spending some 12 days venturing from Barcelona to Lisbon, courtesy of Windstar Cruises and its Star Breeze ship, which dutifully ferried myself and 200 other passengers along the fabled Mediterranean Costa del Sol. (Full disclosure: Windstar provided the room and all beverages on this journey; all other expenses were my own.)
The trip, dubbed “Spanish Serenade” by Windstar, began in Barcelona and culminated in Lisbon. Stops along the way — the cruise is 8 days total at sea; we spent extra time on either end — include Palma de Mallorca, Almeria, Malaga, Gibraltar, Seville, and Portimao. Before we visit the ports, though, let me talk a bit about the ship. With under 100 staterooms, the Star Breeze is a far cry from the mega-cruise ships I’d been on in the past. When we boarded in Barcelona, there were no crowds or lines — in fact there was no fuss at all. Just hand over your passport and credit card, then head to your room. We might as well have been staying at a B&B, only this one could float.
The 200 passengers are backed up by 150 crew members, and as with any cruise experience they are constantly scurrying about, cleaning, delivering items, or (of course) preparing food, which was in abundance to the extent you would expect on any ship. The vast majority of the passengers on our ship were American couples in their 60s (give or take). The number of kids onboard could be counted on one hand. Only one group of about six passengers in their early 30s — self-described “naughty children” from South Africa — added much variety (or rowdiness) to the onboard demographic.
Room service was available pretty much around the clock, and public meals were always top-notch. While the menu is largely “continental,” with the usual steaks, seafood dishes, and salads, Windstar does make an effort to incorporate local cuisine when possible. Several lunches featured local honey and a smattering of jamon, and some of the dinner specials had at least a touch of regional flair. A particular standout was the on-deck barbecue near the end of the cruise, an over-the-top picnic in lieu of the typical dining room service that featured a veritable mountain of international and local cuisine options. Had I known how opulent that meal would be, I might have skipped lunch that day. But in general, we opted of course to dine in port as much as possible, which typically meant lunch (or day-long tapas crawls) on land and dinner on the ship (since departure times were often late in the afternoon).
All told, travel on the Star Breeze was incredibly comfortable — the staterooms are gigantic compared to a typical cruise ship cabin — and you can’t ask for smoother waters than the Mediterranean Sea. (Once past Gibraltar and into the Atlantic, though, it’s a whole new ballgame of rocking waves and Dramamine gobbling. Pro tip: Wine and spirits prices in Gibraltar are ridiculously cheap, made even better because there are no taxes here. I saw rare bottlings here that would fetch $150 in the U.S. for £50… so allow plenty of time to shop,!) With such a small ship, the focus is definitely on the ports, so entertainment options are limited — although Windstar arranged two cultural events, one a dance exhibition and museum tour on land in Mallorca (see photo at right), and one on the ship, a short flamenco performance. Two musical duets performed cover songs nightly, and a casino with two tables and a dozen slot machines offered evening diversions. The occasional trivia game or show put on by the crew helped to pass the time, particularly on the lone at-sea day on the itinerary — but by and large the trip was very quiet.
Drinking Your Way Through Spain
Of course, this isn’t a website about cruising of course but about drinking, and your beverage options in Spain and southern Portugal are extensive though, in some cases, not at all what I expected. Let’s break it all down, drink by drink.
Spain is a phenomenal wine country, with numerous, impressive wine regions, but none of them are in the south of the country. The only major type of wine that is produced in the Costa del Sol is sherry, not including some of the area around Barcelona, which is the home of sparkling cava. In port, it was easy to find wines from Rioja and Ribera del Duero, depending on how fancy the restaurant or bar was. Even in upscale restaurants, it was hard to find a glass of wine priced at more than 4 or 5 euros, a far cry from the massive markups you endure in the U.S. But what you gain in affordability you give up in selection. Most restaurants have only a handful of offerings — maybe 5 or 6 wines, if you’re lucky.
On the Star Breeze, I was pleased to see that the otherwise California-heavy wine list was supplemented by over a dozen Spanish bottlings, which we ordered from exclusively during the cruise. Wines hailing from all over Spain were represented, but I found myself particularly drawn to La Montesa, a woody Rioja, and Casa Castillo’s El Molar, a chewy but fruit-forward garnacha-based wine from Jumilla, a bit north of the Costa del Sol. For whites, I particularly liked the albarino from Pazo Senorans which hailed from Spain’s well-regarded Rias Baixas; I found that the crisp wine offered lively minerality and fresh floral notes — a great choice for the ultra-hot climate of Spain. Most of the wines on the ship sold for under $50 per bottle, with only a handful of luxe exceptions. If I have one complaint, it’s that the staff on the ship seemed to have almost no knowledge about the wine program — and only a few staffers knew about the addition of the Spanish supplement (which was a separate list).
What didn’t I encounter during my trip to Spain? The much talked-about “blue wine.” I never saw it once, nor heard a word about it throughout the journey.
You might think that a country as hot as Spain would be rife with beer, and you’d be right. But beer consumption here is not like we’re used to in the States, where you can pick and choose from a dozen or more brands at even the smallest watering hole. Rather, in Spain (and large parts of Europe), you invariably get one choice. Both the Portuguese and Spaniards have a sort of local pride that ensures only a single brand of beer is served everywhere. In Portugal, it’s largely a lager called Super Bock. In most of southern Spain: Cruzcampo (with the occasional holdout serving San Miguel). I drank plenty of these beers on the trip — you have to, for hydration! — and couldn’t tell you a thing distinguishing any of them from each other. All are light lagers, very lightly hopped and designed to drink quickly before they get too warm. The bottom line: It’s not a part of the world to visit for the beer.
Gin and Tonic
This is going to sound strange, but Spain is in love with gin, particularly gin and tonic. Gin bars are common, especially in Barcelona, and it is common to see sidewalk signs touting “Sapphire and Tonic” (Bombay Sapphire is especially popular here, as is, strangely, Bulldog) for 5 euros or so. It’s said that Spain has “perfected the garnish” of the G&T, but in reality this usually just means a few slivers of fruit or something slightly more exotic, like a slice of fresh ginger. Beats a squeeze of lime, I guess.
In Barcelona, the current mecca of all things gin is Bar Martini, where, if you order the namesake cocktail, you get a certificate that enumerates how many martinis have been served. Mine: Martini #1,006,887,
Another odd Spanish trend: Sweet vermouth, on the rocks. That’s the whole drink. The Spanish seem to have as much of a love for vermouth as they do for gin, and bottlings range from standard Martini & Rossi fare to Carpano Antica to, surprisingly, numerous local vermouths. I had a couple of vermouths on the trip and was surprised to like them as much as I did. It’s still not going to become a go-to cocktail for me (the vermouth in your local watering hole has probably been open for months), but it’s more refreshing and intricate than I expected. To the Groundhog!
Often just “Ginja,” this is a Portuguese liqueur made from sour (very sour) cherries called ginja berries. Essentially a sour cherry liqueur, it is served neat in numerous Lisbon locations, for a bit more than a euro per shot. Having a shot of ginja is a rite of passage for visitors. Do not try to eat the berries if you find a few floating in your plastic cup.
Of course, they make sherry in these parts, though surprisingly few places actually seem to serve it. The most noteworthy exception in the region is Antigua Casa de Guardia in Malaga, said to be the oldest wine bar in this lively little town. It’s not hard to believe. Sherry (and a few other fortified wines) are served from one of a couple dozen casks, directly into your glass. In lieu of a bill, the barkeep scribbles what you owe directly on the bar, in chalk. There are no barstools, and no one speaks English — but this is one of the few places you can get by completely by merely pointing at what you want.
Looking for other fun stuff to drink? In Portugal try a Port and tonic, which is made with white Port, tonic, and a little mint. It’s a nice counterpart to Spain’s G&T. Be sure to ask for dry white Port, which is how the locals drink it. Sweeter styles of Port are said to take the drink a bit out of balance.
In Seville, a cocktail called tinto de verano is popular. It’s red wine plus sparkling lemonade, served on the rocks. Sounds bizarre but, much like a vermouth on the rocks, it works far better than you’d think and is a great way to drink red wine in the blistering summer heat. Note: It’s better when it’s mixed fresh; some establishments have the beverage premixed, on tap, which pales in comparison.
Orange wine is another popular item in Seville, but it’s not the same thing as the orange wine that’s currently shaking up the table wine market. Rather, here, vino de naranja is white wine, aromatized and flavored with Seville’s famous oranges and aged in a manner akin to sherry. You’ll see signs around town in the few bars that offer it, or you can look for the hard-to-miss bottles themselves.
Stay tuned next week for the next step in this travelogue, a detour to Porto, the home of Port wine. Until then, Salud!
Many thanks again to Windstar for making this trip possible.