Valencia, Spain in 4 plates

Text & Photos:
Julie Schwietert Collazo
In the world of “alta cocina,” (translation: high-class cooking) one of the greatest achievements to which chefs aspire is earning a Michelin star.

A Michelin star is a global stamp of approval that says “This food is capital G “Good.” Two Michelin stars means “This food is even better,” and three Michelin stars, which are rare bestowals, means “This food is bucket list good.”

The stars are serious business. They can make or break careers and reputations. They can elevate chefs from obscurity to popularity almost overnight. They are, for some travelers, the axis around which their trips are organized (a colleague on my recent trip to Spain told me that she knows a couple who travel the world solely by Michelin stars, their goal to eat at every Michelin starred restaurant in the world).

Spain has a respectable share of Michelin stars and Valencia, the country’s third largest city, located on the Mediterranean coast, is home to 13 Michelin starred restaurants at last count (January 2011). I ate at a few of them on my trip to Valencia last week, including La Sucursal and Vertical. The former is included below in a round-up of excellent Valencian restaurants– with and without Michelin stars.

Restaurant: Agua de Mar
Location: Puerto Deportivo Marina de Denia
Atmosphere: The restaurant, located inside the marina at Denia, has indoor and outdoor dining; outdoor is best, as you’re overlooking the Mediterranean and the collection of fancy sport boats and leisure yachts at rest here. Plus, the outdoor tables allow more room to spread out… which you’ll need.
Tip: Finish the meal with muscat, a sweet dessert wine, served here in chilled shot glasses.
Best Dish: One of my first meals in Spain contained this monstrosity, which was a “starter” plate:

This should be its own meal.

Filled with onions, potatoes, and local ham, then topped with not one, but two eggs, this could have–and probably should have– been its own meal. It was the first dish that made me certain I’d never get any work done if I lived in Spain.

Restaurant: La Matandeta
Location: Carretera Alafar-El Saler, Km. 4
Atmosphere: This family owned restaurant is located inside a nature reserve, and if you doubt for one moment that paella is the house specialty, just step outside on the patio to confirm that the restaurant is surrounded by Valencia’s famous rice fields.

This is the kind of restaurant best enjoyed with friends or family; the tables are large, as are the portions, made for sharing. If you don’t have anyone accompanying you, the owners’ family will make you feel at home; the restaurant is an extension of their own homestead, and children play on the patio while you eat.

Call in advance and ask if it’s possible to have a tour of the rice fields before your meal (you’ll be too stuffed after your meal to enjoy such an excursion). If you prefer hands-on activities, La Matandeta also offers paella-making workshops.

Also, ask if there’s a special menu; when I visited, there was a special menu on which every dish was accompanied by some type of ice cream.

Best Dish: Paella

Paella is cooked outside over a wood fire.

Cooked slowly outdoors over a wood fire, you can choose from several different paellas. I tried two–the vegetarian paella and the paella with rabbit, duck, and snails– and both were dense, rich, and smoky.

Restaurant: Casa Montana
Location: Calle Jose Benlliure 69
Business in the front, party in the back.

This tapas taberna (tavern) is old-school in the front, with antique-type details and a bustling waitstaff dodging among tables. The newer “Sala de Barricas” is more sleek and modern, with long communal tables perfect for sharing tapas.

Be sure to taste the tapas that you wouldn’t be inclined to try. I resisted the mussels but when I finally gave in, I was glad I did; they were creamy, not at all fishy, and melted in my mouth.

Best Dish: Codfish

Creamy codfish, proof that you should try everything.

I’ll eat codfish, but it’s not my favorite. I dipped into this dish hesitantly at first, but after the initial bite, I surreptitiously pulled the plate closer to my side of the table for more. And more. And more.

Restaurant: La Sucursal
Location: Guillem de Castro 118
La Sucursal is located inside the Institute of Modern Art of Valencia. Decor is modern and minimalist, allowing almost complete focus on the food.

Pair your visit to the restaurant with a visit to the museum, which is on the smaller side and can be enjoyed in an hour.

Best Dish: Molecularized gazpacho

Gazpacho, molecular gastronomy style.

Molecular gastronomy is popular in Valencia, and this dish shows off how fun a well-executed dish can be. The red dots quivering in these spoons are mouth-pops of delicious gazpacho.

5 lessons learned at the Formula 1 race in Valencia

Text & Photos: Julie Schwietert Collazo
Hard core F1 fans.

It wasn’t until I downloaded the photos from the F1 race that I noticed the tattoo on his arm.

What, exactly, inspired the kind of devotion to racing that would compel a man to tattoo a car on his forearm? I couldn’t imagine.

After watching today’s race, though, I felt like I maybe understood… not enough to get a tattoo, mind you, but enough to have a deep appreciation for this sport. In fact, I felt like I actually understood life itself a little bit better. Racing requires incredible amounts of mental discipline and emotional control, and there were plenty of take-away lessons:

1. A great racer is nothing without the team.
I’ve long been more interested in the people behind the scenes who make things happen than the people who are up on stage, headlining an act, so this characteristic of racing pulled me right in. In racing, the crew is everything. You can have the best driver in the world, but if his crew isn’t tight, then he’ll have a hell of a time pulling to the front of the pack.

One of the Red Bull crews at F1, Valencia

2. Egotism has to be replaced with self-awareness and self-assuredness.
Each racing team spends millions on attracting top talent– not just drivers, but mechanics, engineers, designers, data crunchers, PR people, and peons. But no matter how good each one is, he’s got to keep his ego in check. The limited space and time available for prepping a car before a race create an environment where peacocking isn’t permitted. Each team member keeps his head down, focuses on his job, and realizes that his contribution is just one of many, which together make a safe, successful race possible.

Keeping their heads down.

3. You’ll get out of the pit faster if you can change your tires in 1.5 seconds.
If I had to choose the single element of this entire experience that absolutely blew my mind, it was this: a pit crew can change a set of tires in less than two seconds. Do you understand what kind of coordination and teamwork that requires? (They can also set up and break down entire garages in less than 12 hours).

How fast can you change four tires?

4. Attention to detail is everything.
Racing doesn’t permit a single lazy moment from anyone on the team. If you take a close look at this photo, you’ll see that everyone is either (a) doing something or (b) paying attention to what’s going on in case they need to step in and help out. No one’s staring off into space or playing with their iPhone. When it’s race time, there are zero distractions.


5. The greater the investment, the greater the risk.
These cars are expensive. The crews are expensive. The transportation and shipping of vehicles and gear are expensive. Racing is not a hobbyist’s game; it’s a big business. And when the investment is high, so is the risk. The only way to mitigate that in racing is to know your job and do it well.

Seems like a pretty good metaphor for life.

High stakes

Riding in a Formula 1 car in Valencia, Spain

Text & Photos:
Julie Schwietert Collazo

One of the Formula 1 cars used by bestlap F1 events

The hardest thing is to quiet my mind.

I am thrilled to have the opportunity to ride in a Formula 1 car on the same practice track that racers use to prepare for the Formula 1 race in Valencia. It’s a top-shelf, peak experience, even for someone like me: someone who knew nothing about racing before I was invited to Valencia to speak at a social media conference and then participate in F1 events, including a behind-the-scenes tour of the Team Lotus garage.
Buffing up the car in the Team Lotus garage at Formula 1 in Valencia

It’s also an expensive experience, and one I’m grateful to have as a guest of the local tourism board.

After signing a waiver (in brief: “You could die doing this. Please sign to acknowledge risk.”) and listening to a briefing by driver Felix Porteiro, I zip up my fireproof jumpsuit, tie the laces on my red, ankle-high loaner sneakers, and pick up a pair of yellow foam earplugs. When it’s my turn for two fast laps around the circuit, an assistant pulls a balaclava over my head and then pushes a tight helmet on top of that, pulling the chin straps.

Suddenly, excited anticipation is tempered by acute anxiety. The helmet is so tight that it pushes my cheeks smack up against my jaws. The rush of heat is immediate; the heavy safety gear and the relentless sun create an oven effect and I feel desperate for air. The laps will go fast, I know, but can I make it through them?

I climb into the car, seated to Felix’s left. I can see his eyes in a side mirror and there’s something about them I trust. But as the assistant tells me to shimmy farther down into the car, almost horizontal, and as he pulls the four point restraint seatbelt harness tight around my waist, I am gripped with fear. No one wants to be inside my mind right now, consumed as it is with the irrational thoughts that plague many of us when we are confronting a situation–no matter how exciting–for which we have no prior experience to serve as a point of reference.

The car is being checked and a camera is being secured to the car body by a video blogger. Just when I think “I can climb out of this car right this second,” we’re ready to go. I look at the assistant and ask him what to do in the event of a total freak out… because, honestly, I feel like it’s entirely possible. My mind is racing with crazy thoughts, like “What if I throw up inside my helmet and suffocate on my own vomit?” and “What if I pass out?”

“Just signal Felix,” the assistant says, as he snaps my visor into place and Felix hits the gas.

At this point, there’s absolutely no turning back. We are screaming down the track and for the first five seconds I think I might spontaneously combust- not because of the experience itself, but because I can’t control my own thoughts. This is high octane meditation: “Breathe. Breathe. Let go. Breathe,” I keep telling myself.

The Cheste F1 practice circuit, just outside Valencia.

And then, just as we’re coming out of the straightaway and into the first curve, it all just falls away. I feel the blood coursing through my body in a way I have never felt in my life and it is indescribably exhilarating. It’s as if I have gone into my own body, turned inward, and I’m hurtling at light speed through my own blood vessels.

It’s insane and it feels good and the fears of biting my cheeks and drowning in vomit disappear, replaced by the desire to just go faster. Three-quarters of the way through the first lap, Felix looks at me in the mirror and raises his hand: thumbs up? Am I ok?

I raise a thumb and keep it up. How he can even take a hand off the wheel at this speed is beyond me.

The "after" shot.

As we pull into the pit, just three minutes after we went screaming down the track, I stumble out of the car, peel out of the top half of the jump suit, and all I can think is “More.”

If you’re in Valencia and want to ride in a Formula 1 car, contact Carlos Molla Bataller of bestlap F1 events at or by phone: 96 141 77 28.