Wednesday will be no day at the beach for the peloton. Just take a look at the stage profile:
With five categorized climbs and a difficult, uphill finish, this is a race for the die-hard climbers; one that slaps the sprinters with a hefty dose of reality. “Hey, you, muscular Sprinter Guy!” the Vuelta taunts. “I’m the Grand Tour for skinny little climbers. What the hell are you doing here?” What, indeed. Well, at least they can dream of a stage victory in Madrid . . . .
The Costa de Azahar
Lying between Tarragona to the north and Valencia to the south, the Costa de Azahar or Orange Blossom Coast is home to some of the most pristine beaches in Spain. Less developed than the more touristy Costas (Brava and del Sol) this stretch of seashore welcomes the traveler in search of peace and quiet. Several of the beaches here have been designated as Blue Flag destinations, so awarded because of their commitment to fostering biodiversity, protecting local ecosystems, and educating the public on environmental phenomena.
Our departure point is Benicàssim, originally a Moorish settlement established in the 8th century and named after the Banu Qasim Berber tribe that founded it. In fact, throughout the province of Castelló, you’ll stumble upon remnants of castles, towers, and other reminders of Muslim rule in Spain.
As the peloton makes its way north along the coast, Moorish architecture takes a back seat to natural splendor, as the mountains and Mediterranean Sea appear to merge, painting a landscape that makes us wonder if we’re the first to set foot on it. Alas, no; people have been here for thousands of years. But that’s the magic of this place: each person who arrives in Castelló discovers it anew.
Making our way north, toward the finish line, we approach the village of Alcossebre, another monument to Moorish rule and natural splendor. Perched between the mountains and the sea, our destination city offers a wealth of leisure activities: hiking the Sierra de Irta trails, scuba diving in the coves, or touring the L’Estany wetlands park. And there’s always the Castle of Xivert.
The Castle was constructed in the 11th century, and was modified after its capture by the Knights Templar. As with many Moorish castles in Spain, it was repurposed as a church during the Reconquista; the reason the gothic chapel that has been added on to the main structure.
What Shall We Drink?
Although this Mediterranean enclave produces little wine, it’s not far from the well-known regions of Tarragona and Terra Alta. We’re going to focus on the latter for Stage Five. Terra Alta, which translates to “high land” is aptly named, as it boasts the highest-altitude vineyards in Catalonia. Vines are planted at an average of 400 meters, on well-draining soils with pockets of limestone running through them. It is a favorable situation for making high-quality wines. Until recently, though, much of what was bottled was uninspiring: fair-to-middling whites from Garnacha Blanca, or bulk grapes shipped out for inexpensive Cava. Fortunately, producers and co-ops in Terra Alta seem to be adopting the same principles embraced by their counterparts in Priorat and Tarragona before them: crafting dry table wines from grapes like Tempranillo and Cabernet Sauvignon. And, as we’d expect from an up-and-coming region, prices are affordable, putting these wines in solid case-buy territory.
2011 Altavins Almodi Terra Alta Petit Red (14.5% abv; about $12 for current release)
An interesting blend of Garnacha, Syrah, Merlot, and Samsó (aka Carignan) this wine is deeply pigmented – dense purple to the rim – and gives off aromas of ripe blackberry and plum and a hit of coffee. There’s also something herbal, perhaps thyme, that emerges. A sip reveals stewed black fruit, vanilla, and a distinct savory component. The long finish has peppery notes. It is full-bodied, with moderate tannin and moderate acidity. Maybe not a wine for contemplation but, at this price, it would make a heck of a house wine. Here’s an inside glimpse of the world of Altavins:
Hope you enjoyed this trip through the idyllic countryside of the Costa de Azahar. I’ll be back tomorrow with a recommendation for Stage Six, when we head toward the city of Valencia. Viva le Vuelta!