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An Epicurean Odyssey: La Rioja and Vitoria-Gasteiz


The autonomous region of La Rioja and the wine growing area of La Rioja overlap, but are far from the same thing. The wine grapes are grown predominantly in the valleys on both sides of the Ebro, with the largest subregions being Rioja Alta and Rioja Baja on the southern bank. There is also a small wine region on the northern bank of the Ebro known as Rioja Alavesa which is actually part of the Basque Country, and we headed there first on our only full day in the area. We enjoy wine but not enough to devote a full day to touring wineries, especially with the three little ones in tow. What brought us to Rioja Alavesa was the medieval walled town of Laguardia, which seemed like it might be the most interesting city in the region.

Just outside of Laguardia we stopped to admire Bodegas Ysios. This winery is more famous for its beautiful design and setting than it is for its product. The architect was Santiago Calatrava, who we were familiar with from the Ciudad de las Artes y las Ciencias in Valencia. The building has a surreal and striking appearance, with an undulating roof composed of enormous aluminum beams that create a pixelated appearance when viewed from the front.

Despite not having made an appointment to tour the winery, our curiosity got the better of us and we pressed on the buzzer at the front door. We could see people walking around the upper level through the huge glass panels but no one came to the door. I couldn't blame them. People undoubtedly show up off the road and ring that buzzer all day. We were content to walk behind the winery where we saw expansive vineyards with a backdrop of the rocky outcroppings of the Sierra Cantabria. There were innumerable bunches of unripe tempranillo grapes on the vines and we couldn't resist picking a few of the sour green spheres to pop between our teeth..

Back on the main road we took the turn-off to Laguardia and ascended to the hilltop citadel. From the mirador outside the walls we could see the winery we had just left as well as expansive views of the Rioja Alavesa.

We were delighted with Laguardia from the moment we passed through the walls. Perhaps because it was siesta time, the narrow pedestrian streets were quiet and peaceful without seeming abandoned. The buildings that lined the streets on either side were relatively tall, contributing to the sense of navigating a maze of canyons as we wandered through the town. Bright sunlight overhead and the omnipresence of greenery and brightly-colored laundry in the wrought-iron balconies created a cheerful atmosphere.

We took a break for lunch just outside the walls at Restaurante Amelibia Jatetxea, whose entryway was a shrine to Rioja wine. Then it was time to reward the kids with ice cream for having been upbeat and cooperative all morning.

At the northern end of the tiny town are some open squares and the imposing Torre Abacial and the Church of Santa María de los Reyes. We concluded that Laguardia was the most beautiful small town we had seen thus far on the trip, thanks in no small part to the lack of heavy tourist traffic.

We had now passed through most of the day in La Rioja and the closest we had come to a wine tasting was banging on the door of Ysios. We reviewed our options and decided our best option was the Vivanco Museum of Wine Culture outside of Briones, in Rioja Alta. Like Bodegas Ysios, this facility was surrounded by vineyards with a spectacular view of a medieval city on a hill.

Our experience inside was a good reminder of why we avoid museums when we travel. The kids tore around and made a god-awful amount of noise, and no amount of cajoling or threats made any difference in the way they behaved. Fortunately there were only three or four other visitors to disturb. I wasn't able to pay much attention to the exhibits, but the coolest part for the kids was a game where they got to squash projections of grapes on the floor by jumping on them. There was also the largest collection of corkscrews in the world, some of which had a phallic motif.

Vivanco is a winery as well as a museum so we finally had our opportunity to taste Rioja wines after we finished touring the exhibits. One unique aspect of the Vivanco winery is that they make wines from rare Rioja varietals. For most casual wine drinkers, the Rioja region is synonymous with Tempranillo grapes and it's true that Tempranillo makes up by far the highest percentage or even 100% of most Rioja wines. However, there are four other grapes permitted in Rioja wines: Garnacha, Graciano, Mazuelo, and Maturana Tinta. Garnacha was already familiar to us because it's the major constituent of Aragonese wines and also popular in France and Australia (as Grenache). I'd never heard of the others, so it was interesting to try wines which were purely derived from each of these grapes. And the verdict was ... they all tasted just about the same to us. We enjoy wine but we don't pretend to be connoisseurs, and I've never tasted a note of anything except grapes and alcohol in a glass of wine. How people detect cedar, coffee, plums and God knows what else in wine is something I'll never understand. Mei Ling and I certainly know what wines we like, and fortunately we usually agree, but it doesn't match up very well with the accepted hierarchies. The best thing about visiting wine regions is creating memories we can reopen any time we uncork a bottle from that area in the future.

We hadn't seen much of the Rioja valley geographically but we returned to Logroño that evening thoroughly satisfied with our experience. That evening we returned to Tapas Alley which was an even more riotous celebration of food than it had been the previous night. Then we took a last stroll around the center of this vibrant, engaging city eventually ending up at the warmly illuminated Cathedral of Santa María de la Redonda, looking even more beautiful in the dark of night than it had been in the sunlight.


Thanks to the heavy concentration of interesting cities in this part of Spain, we didn't have to drive far to get to our next destination. In fact, there was plenty of time to stop off at Vitoria-Gasteiz on the way to Bilbao. Despite being the capital of the Basque Country, Vitoria isn't even a blip on the international tourism radar that is dominated by San Sebastian and Bilbao. We love the change of pace that comes with visiting cities which aren't all about racing around to different attractions that are mobbed with tourists. We explored the more modern part of the city center first and found it pleasant and fairly typical of a Spanish mid-sized city.

Vitoria-Gasteiz starts to get more interesting as one ascends the steep hill that contains the medieval Casco Viejo. At the peak one is rewarded with the impressive Cathedral of Santa María de Vitoria, which was undergoing restoration at the time of our visit. Below the apex of the hill are a series of concentric oval levels with surprisingly wide and smoothly-paved roads. The levels are connected by staircases and escalators, giving the old town a very pleasing and symmetric geometrical structure. Navigating to our chosen tapas restaurant proved more complicated than we expected as we got the level wrong twice before we finally found it.

Lunch at La Malquerida was quite good, complemented by the alfresco setting in a small courtyard in the shadow of the Iglesia de San Miguel. I found myself in the unusual position of having to help a French backpacker who didn't speak any Spanish order his tapas, interpreting directly between two foreign languages I have far from a solid command of. In the area around La Malquerida the murals were vivid and electrifying, probably the best we'd seen on our journey.

We finished our descent from the Casco Viejo in Plaza de la Virgen Blanca, an atmospheric square dominated by a war monument and surrounded by beautiful buildings. The area was being set up for the annual city festival which would take place that weekend, but we would be long gone by then. It was time to move on to our next destination, the acclaimed and historic city of Bilbao.

Posted by zzlangerhans 13:51 Archived in Spain

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