By Michelle Chaplow
Shakespeare would always introduce major characters in his plays to the audience before they actually appeared on stage, by making other characters talk about them. Abadia Retuerta Le Domaine had been dropped into conversation many times over the past couple of years – both the hotel and the wine.
I was already aware that this new yet historic hotel was situated in the very heart of Northern Spain, in Castile and Leon, a short drive from Valladolid. This region is rich with cultural history, where only the purest Castilian Spanish is spoken, and where some of the world’s finest wines are produced.
I had heard the whispers that the hotel has history, butler service, its very own vineyards, and superb cuisine. The elitist hotelier and gastronomy world was already focusing on this property, and yet it only opened its doors in 2012. When an invitation to visit the hotel arrived, I was delighted – I could check out first-hand if the rumours were well-founded.
You can really get a good feel for a country when you travel overland, so the train was the perfect form of transport from my home in Andalucia to the Spanish capital, Madrid, then onto Valladolid. The train means minimum fuss, no excess baggage penalties for camera gear, and as you sit back and look out of the window, you can feel the landscape transforming, from the parched pale colours of the lands of the south, to the greens of the north. Everything changes as you travel around Spain, with different scenery, architecture and customs; each province is like a whole new world, and Castile and Leon is no exception. As in all idealised travel tales, the train pulls in, the chauffeur is waiting at your carriage door to take your luggage, and you can concentrate on arriving in style.
Standing proud and tall amongst endless symmetrical lines of vines, stood the monastery, my home for the next three nights. The Abadía Retuerta estate covers 1,750 acres and the hotel is situated at the very heart of the estate, with just 21 rooms.
On arrival we were greeted with a very refreshing aperitif of apple, lemon grass and thyme. The butler accompanied me to the room, and as in all the best hotel rooms in the world, the long windows from both the bedroom and the bathtub were thrown open – vineyards as far as the eye can see. I also received a welcome note, a cute little jar of cheese in olive oil, a bowl of fresh Spanish cherries, a Moleskine notebook to record my memories, and a bottle of the wine – the very one that friends and colleagues had been whispering about.
I felt truly spoilt already and sat down to admire the view and sample the delicious cherries. The room had everything I needed, from the king-size bed, dressing table, Philippe Starck free-standing bathtub, fast Wifi, loads of space, and a genuine Miró painting on the wall.
It´s well known that luxury can be bought, but history has to be earned, and although the hotel opened its doors in 2012, the hotel is housed in a 12th century convent. Abadia Retuerta sits on the banks of the river Duero – abadia means abbey and retuerta means twisted, just like the meandering river Duero as it winds its way through the fertile lands of the Duero Valley. In May 2008, work was started to restore the Abbey and convert it into a five-star hotel. Swiss-Italian architect Marco Serra carried out the restoration and conversion of the monastery.
This is historic preservation on a grand scale, with meticulous care – each stone within the monastery has been lovingly preserved. The hotel has already won an award from Europa Nostra, a half-century-old organization which serves to protect Europe’s natural and cultural heritage.
Some of the best travel anecdotes are not pre-planned, and on the day of my arrival, the Abbey of Santa Maria de Retuerta was hosting a wedding. I was discreetly ushered into the rear of the Abbey by a member of the hotel staff. The event itself was as dreamy as they come, from the Spanish guests’ stylish outfits, the ladies’ flowing gowns, the string quartet, the Romanesque architecture, the frescoes, and the acoustics, to the beautiful bride, and the young bridesmaid in her meringue dress, who fainted and had to be carried out in her father’s arms, with female relatives running behind like ballerinas, fanning her; the girl returned with a smile to greet the bride as she walked once again down the aisle. Photography takes you on many journeys – not only to locations, but also right into a snapshot of people’s lives, and this was one of those unforgettable moments.
The cuisine whispers
Chef Andoni Luis Aduriz, one of the world’s finest chefs, who has two Michelin stars for his renowned restaurant Mugaritz in San Sebastian, is the gastronomy manager of the hotel. I had the chance to shoot a portrait of his Head Chef at Le Domaine, Pablo Montero. Pablo acquired much of his know-how whilst working at Mugaritz, and he has also been in the kitchen at The Fat Duck with Heston Blumenthal, and alongside Dani Garcia at La Calima in Marbella. He told me that his secrets are working with the finest seasonal market ingredients from the region; some of the herbs and spices are even grown in the hotel gardens. “It’s an honour to work in such an exquisite setting as Abadia Retuerta Le Domaine,” Pablo told me.
The hotel has three dining areas: the open-air Cloister Garden, serving breakfast and dinner during the summer months; the contemporary Vinoteca, with excellent tapas and dishes paired with wines from around the world; and the original dining room of the religious order – the Refectory. Whether you are religious or not, dining at this hotel is an almost spiritual experience.
The Refectory restaurant
This space, with its austere stone walls and high vaulted ceiling, is almost 1000 years old; it’s the original dining area of the monks. A freestanding bookcase divides the space beautifully, with the kitchen hidden behind. I recently visited a century-old historic hotel in London, and when I found that the books in their library had been replaced by replicas, my heart sank. But not here – this is the real McCoy, with original leather-bound antique volumes.
The restaurant has just 12 tables, with enough room to dance around each one – not that we did, but it would have been possible. The vaulted ceiling, the architecture, and the way that the tables were laid, resembled the work of a skilled artisan. Dining here was an occasion and we dressed for it.
I’ve no idea how they manage it, but the polished wooden floor in that room makes no sound when you walk on it – tall, impeccable waiters with shining black leather shoes and amazing posture floated in from behind the bookcase and simultaneously presented each guest with their dish, going on to reveal the list of secret ingredients. We saw faces illuminated as plates arrived, with was lots of eye-closing and momentary savouring of flavours, and plenty of contented laughter. This is one of those restaurants that must be way up on foodies’ bucket lists. It wasn’t just excellent cuisine and wine pairing from the vineyards literally outside your bedroom window, it was all this combined with flawless service; this was pure performance, pure theatre.
The menu speaks for itself:
Endive with honey vinaigrette
Steamed organic prawns from Medina del Campo with a citrus soup and radish
Cauliflower shoots with Comté cheese and truffle
Steamed pine nuts with seasonal mushrooms and egg yolk.
Turbot with seasonal vegetable ragout
Iberian pork cheeks glazed in red wine and butter sauce
Artisanal cheese assortment
Coconut curd cream with dressed red fruits and fresh herbs
No matter how much window-gazing you do at the vineyards just outside, the best way to explore is with Vanessa Gallardo.
Vanessa has the unusual title of “Wine Experiences Agent”, and under her tutelage, we were taken around the estate in a 4×4, as she explained meticulously about the soil, the climate and the types of grapes. We visited the bodega, enjoyed a wine tasting, and I shipped six bottles of the same wine home right away. Vanessa is a superb guide with an encyclopaedic knowledge of the wine industry.
In order to work off part of the feasts that we enjoyed at this hotel, and some of the guilt, we rode bicycles around the vineyards and along the beautiful riverbanks of the Duero.
Any woman who travels as much as I do appreciates a good spa – sometimes we can’t fit in a pedicure before arrival, as in my case. During my stay, I had the most wonderful full body massage, facial and pedicure, so I left this hotel a new woman. If you are into luxury hotel rumours, the rumour here is – and I saw the space myself – that a new spa is under construction.
The hotel gardens
The Hedge Museum is an open-air gallery which houses the world’s largest permanent exhibition of works by German sculptor Ulrich Rückriem. The juxtaposition of this historic building and contemporary art, made from huge blocks of stone, is the purest harmony.
You can also try your hand at croquet in the hotel garden, or stroll around admiring the flowers, listening to the trickling fountain and chilling on the lounging chairs.
A day trip to Peñafiel
Situated in the heart of the Duero wine region, Peñafiel, with its imposing castle and world-famous Plaza del Coso dating back to the tenth century, is well worth a visit
My conclusion: the rumours are correct
Watching the sun go down from your Philippe Starck bathtub, dining in the most exquisite style, sensing the history of a bygone age, and admiring the combination of contemporary pieces, harmoniously placed within this historic building, experiencing the spa and the nearby area.
My trip to Abadia Retuerta Le Domaine Hotel could not have been better. This is serious luxury, the rumours are true, it’s all here, right down to the helipad and, with the edition of a whole brand new spa, and I suspect some gastro awards in the offing, it can only get better.
I travelled to Abadia Retuerta Le Domaine hotel, courtesy of Voyages-SNCF.
Photography – click to enlarge images.