People in Utiel know how to throw a party. In this small wine village about 80 km west of Valencia, mid October is time to celebrate with the Feria Utiel Gastronómica. The Feria showcases local wines and gastronomy in the large public park called Paseo de la Alameda, but there are also events taking place throughout the town all weekend. Last year (2016) we visited Utiel for the day and focused on the Feria, which left little time to explore the town. This year, we stayed and made a weekend of it.
The Utiel Ruta de Tapeo provided the perfect road map for exploring the town. To share the love of the Feria and encourage people to get out and about, twenty tapas bars and restaurants participate by offering a featured tapa and drink for €2.50 euros. The idea was to visit at least twelve establishments and collect a stamp from each on your map. You could then turn in your map to enter a drawing for prizes. The winners would be announced on the radio the following week. For us, it was an opportunity to immerse ourselves in the town and meet the locals. As we always say, a food crawl is a great way to get to know a city.
While following our Ruta de Tapeo map, we passed through different neighborhoods throughout the town. You can walk from one side of Utiel to the other in about 20 minutes. The Historic Center corresponds to the 14th-15th century medieval village that was surrounded by a wall (the blue shaded area in the map above).
Within this Historic Center is a small Muslim quarter and a Jewish quarter in the northwest section. These are the oldest parts of town with narrow, twisted streets. The area around the current Plaza del Ayuntamiento was the center of Christian activity where the 16th century Church of Our Lady of the Assumption stands. The Casa Consistorial, built in 1788, houses the Town Hall.
This part of the city holds the mansions of nobility, and this is where we made our first stop on the Ruta de Tapeo. The 250 year old Café-Salón Pérez is on the ground floor of one of the most historic buildings in Utiel. Called the Casa de la Cadena, it was a mansion owned by the noble family that ruled the town in the 16th – 18th centuries. Our bartender is the fourth generation of the Perez family to run the cafe. We were early on Friday afternoon and the Ruta had just started, so we were the only ones in the bar. Someone has to be first, right?
The emptiness added to the feeling of stepping back in time. So did the bottles on the shelves, which look like they haven’t moved since the 18th century. We were served a sweet fortified wine called mistela along with little cakes made of almonds and honey called Alajú that are traditional Arabic confections.
We finished our mistela too quickly and our glasses were filled with a strong peach strawberry concoction that he had made himself. From that point, I knew where to lay the blame for my inevitable morning headache.
Also in the historic center, Bar Snoopy seems the place to be, with a lively crowd spilling out into the street each evening. Maybe it’s because the regular price for a pincho and beer or wine is only €2.50. We were able to choose our own pincho, but you had to think fast. Every few minutes a new tray of pinchos was brought from the kitchen and people grabbed them up quickly.
The pinchos of morcilla and chicharrónes only lasted about 10 seconds. That’s right, blood sausage with fried pork skin is so popular here, we considered ourselves winners for managing to grab a couple of these beauties.
Nearby at Enoteca Pepe Blasco, a small wine bar with just a few tables, we were able to choose from a nice selection of good local wines. They equipped us with little bocaditos de jamon (ham sandwiches) wrapped in paper packages and glasses of Viña La Picaraza made from 100% Bobal grapes. We carried them down to the ancient underground caves beneath the bar, examples of the caves that originally existed beneath many of the homes in Utiel-Requena.
Our journey for tapas also took us north to the 19th century Plaza de Toros (bullring), although we were never able to figure out how to get inside. Across the street is the Cooperativa Agricola Utiel, a beautiful modernist style facility built in the 1940’s. The cooperative was founded in 1927 by a group of small local farmers, who sell their grapes to the co-op, which then produces wine under the name Bodegas Utielanas. Folks were coming in to buy boxes of everyday drinking wine for about one euro per litre. Having a party? you can buy a 20 litre box for €20.25 euros.
At Restaurante Garzaran, we declared to our server that the delicious shrimp wrapped in crispy potatoes with a Bobal wine reduction was the best tapa of the Ruta. He declared there was one better – their solomillo with foie gras and balsamic. He was right. To be fair, it was an extra 50 cents, but at just €3 including a drink, we could eat these all night.
For a sweet end to our Ruta de Tapeo, our last stop was Bar Camarote. They were serving almond cookies called Melaos with La Seranilla, another mistela dessert wine. In the back of the bar is a little nook called BirrasLand, where you can choose from a selection of craft beers.
And this is how we ended up singing Dancing Queen into a microphone in a wine village in the wee hours of the night. This very traditional bar with a classic dark wood interior had a hidden surprise – karaoke starting at midnight in their underground night club. We grabbed some craft beers and descended through the curtain to the club. When the Karoake Jockey discovered there were Americans in the house, he selected our first song for us. We opened with a group rendition of Frank Sinatra’s “New York, New York”, a true American classic, and the night went on from there…
By the end of the weekend, we had thirteen stamps on our map. We also had a better understanding of the town, the local gastronomy, and the people. One thing that really stood out to us was the extreme friendliness of the locals. As we walked through the town, people sought us out to ask where we were from, which city in America? We talked to people that had lived their entire lives in Utiel and to others that were born there, moved to other countries like American or the UK for work, and then came back; but without exception everyone that we spoke to was from Utiel. We were impressed to see such liveliness and openness in what we thought would be a sleepy little wine village.
Getting there: The C3 line of Renfe Cercanias has trains running from Estacion Norte each day. It should be a quick trip, but it is actually a slow 2 hour train ride. There is a high speed train from Valencia’s Joaquín Sorolla train station that gets to Requena-Utiel in 22 minutes, but the train station is actually between the towns of Requena and Utiel. We have not figured out how to get from the Requena-Utiel train station into town, so we have never tried it. (Seriously, if any of you have successfully taken this train and made to Utiel or Requena, please let me know.)