Viva España! by Lauren

Tuesday, 22May, 2012

Viva España! by Lauren

by travellinlb

Don’t think flying Easy Jet back and forth from Amsterdam to London is not without its advantages. For one, you learn precisely how to minimize your travel time (always sit as close to the front as possible, walk quickly upon disembarking, don’t go to the bathroom till you’ve cleared customs).  Secondly, you get to know their in flight magazine on an intimate level.  Like reading it cover to cover three times over, while trying to focus on the words as the plane flounders while approaching a windy Amsterdam.  It was during one of these perusals that I learned about this fascinating mix of Architecture and Wine in La Rioja region of Spain.  Well wine makes sense, the Rioja region is renowned for its red Tempranillos that I love, but architecture?  And we are talking about serious renowned architects designing the “bodegas” (wineries) such ass Frank Ghery, Santiago Calatrava, Zaha Hadid, and even Norman Foster.  Whaa!?!  Spain is in a massive recession knocking about 20% of people out of the workforce, but out in the Spanish countryside about an hour and a half from Bilboa lies this relatively unknown region where top architects are changing the bodega landscape with buildings costing upwards of 200 million for about 20 buildings.  Clearly this was something to see.

After finishing ten straight months of work, my job was finally done and I was pretty ready to rejoice.  Hilary and I have talked about doing this trip for a while, because hey, really, whats better than seeing amazing architecture while sipping fantastic wine on a girls weekend? So we booked our cheap ass easy jet flight round trip to Bilbao for a whopping £70 and we were on our way.  Five days of Northern Spain, the Basque Country, food, wine and architecture.  The plan was to spend one day in Bilbao, rent a car and drive to the Rioja Region for two days of wine tasting, and then one day in San Sebastian before heading back to Bibao airport.  Being April we were hoping for abundant sunshine but instead Europe disappointed with rain and wintercoats.  Even so many of our activities were indoors exploring the food, wine, and world-class museums, so really what did we care?


We landed in Bilbao just in time for Spain’s “dinner”.  With a siesta in the middle of the day that essentially closes the country, most cities really come alive at night.  Dinner starts around 9pm and can consist of a full sit down meal or you can eat like the locals with the Basque version of Tapas called Pinxtos which are little snacks eaten at the bar.  Every bar puts out a range of Pinxtos and you (or we with our semi-lack of Spanish) just point to what you want to eat and its tallied up at the end.  Wash it all down with a €1.20 glass of wine and we were doing just fine.

I’ve found the best way to orientate yourself in any city is to first take a walking tour.  Not only do you learn about the city’s history, get an idea of how and where things are laid out, but you also get a sense of what you want to go back to.  We joined the 10am Old Quarter walking tour from the Tourism Office which was given in Spanish and English (although we picked up about 1/2 of the English).  The old town definitely seemed like the place to be.  At first it consisted of only three streets but then expanded and the result is a narrow pedestrian quarter flanked with beige stone buildings and jet black porticos.  Super cute to walk around the streets and just discover, happening upon massive churches, stairs to the pilgrimage, and picturesque squares.  From there it was a short walk to the Mercado, to see how the locals shop.  We were met with mostly meat stands, as Spain is very proud of their meat and especially their ham, we witnessed  butchers brutally chopping away at slabs of meat, pigs heads on display, rabbits with their kidneys hanging out, all the typical things you hope to see at a market!  I quickly took note of words like lomo (tongue) and pies (feet) of things I made sure not to order.  Squeezed in between all the carne were a few vegetable and cheese stands and some outstanding looking seafood.

We then walked along the water to the infamous Bilbao Guggenheim designed by Frank Ghery.  Since we’ve seen his buildings all over the US and most notably at the Disney Symphony Hall in LA, as we approached the building we were feeling a bit underwhelmed. On the outside it resembles some of his other designs and it was a very overcast day so there was no light to dance off the titanium.   However, that quickly changed as we entered the enormous atrium and listened to the free guided tour about the building itself, Ghery’s description of the building and his inspirations.  There’s not one curved wall in the entire building, which must have been a feat in engineering in and of itself and its designed to resemble a heart.  All the chambers flow back into the atrium like the atrium of a heart.  All in all the building was more impressive than the art, however we were both blown away and partially claustrophobic and on the verge of panic attacks by walking through Richard Sierra’s enormous maze like curved steel sculptures.

We wrapped up a full day of sightseeing with going back to the Old Quarter and bar and pinxto hopping, meeting different locals and drinking wine.  It was warm enough that the sea of people flowed into the cobblestone streets and the jovial atmosphere was infectious.

Onwards to La Rioja!

The next morning we jumped into our rental car and headed inland to the countryside.  At our 11am tour in Spanish with Ysios, we were half paying attention and probably annoyingly asking questions in English.  Ysios vineyard is designed by Spanish Architect Santiago Calatrava, responsible for many bridges within Spain and the Milwaukee Art Musuem.  I once did a Toyota film where we built a set imitating his work, so ever since then I’ve been a big fan of his designs.  The building was outstanding, designed to fit along incongruously into the mountainous landscape, with its curved roof and earthen color.  With floor to ceiling windows, the tasting room alone is worth a visit, and it looks out onto a small hillside town called LaGuardia, which would be our home for the next two days.

Finishing up at Ysios we drove to Longorno, another town for our 1pm at Campo Viejo, where Hilary mentions she should own stock in this wine since she extensively supports their business.  The exterior of Campo Viejo isn’t much to look at but inside is really where this bodega shines.  We had our own private tour in English with a guide, showing us the sparkling fermentation rooms, the vast barrel room lit with from underneath with tones of green and gigantic bottling area organized just perfectly.  Then for our tasting we were essentially left alone on the glorious porch overlooking the hillsides with a bottle of Reserva and some Spanish sausages. Umm…danger.

We checked into our mansion turned hotel in the small cobblestone pedestrian town of Laguardia.  This town is so cute you just want to eat it up and swallow it whole. There are basically no tourists, no cars, not much of anything except cute little bars, boutiques, and restaurants.  It’s the kind of town you’ve always dreamed of staying in or living in but usually pass on by for the destination city.  But this time this was our destination.  And we hit the jackpot with finding a little tower bar / restaurant / hotel where the owner had us climb up the tower to savor the views, then we happened upon an underground wine cave before settling into the evening in a local bar, making friends with the young girl bartender who had us trying every local drink, and eating whatever vegetarian food existed in the town while a local barked in Spanish to Hilary nonstop even though she didn’t understand one word.

The next day we visited the Ghery designed Marques de Riscal bodega.  Less impressive than the day before, the building seemed designed for design sake, rather than being built to accentuate the growing of grapes, or to mesh in with the landscape.  It is however a typical Geary inspired building with curved titanium and the colors of the building reflect the colors of wine.  But it felt forced whereas Campo and Ysios were both created with form and function in mind.

Our final stop was a three course meal  and tour at CVNE.  At this point we were a little tiresome of the tours, but CVNE surprised us with their incredibly old and spooky wine cemetery that houses wine from back in the 1860s. Its where wines come to die.  Shuffled into a tasting room for our three course meal we thought we would be tasting all the wines and sitting with the people from our group.  Strangely though we were excommunicated and banned like bad schoolchildren in time out to a romantic table for two where we bought our own wine and Hilary dined on a creatively inspired vegetarian meal of a plate of olives, cheese and salad, while I was served a typical Spanish meal of Potato and Chroizo Stew and a better part of a lamb.  Luckily one of the tour guides struck up conversation with us and had the waiters bring us some other wines to try.  Wasn’t exactly what we had imagined, but fun nonetheless.

Well Hello San Sebastian

All the charm of small cobblestone streets of an old town set against the magnificence of the ocean mixed with some of the best food in Spain, hell maybe even Europe. Welcome to San Sebastian.  Yeah, I could get used to this town.  We did our own walking tour through the picturesque old town stopping along the way for some very inventive Pinxtos.  These Pinxtos were a definite step up from Bilboa’s in both presentation, variety and creativity.  The possibilities for eating were endless.  Climbing up to the old fortress through shaded greenery, breathing in the fresh ocean air, we took in sweeping views of the city, finally able to don our winter jackets for some sunshine and a sip a beer overlooking the town in what maybe the most amazing place for a bar with a view.

But why come all the way to San Sebastian if you’re not going to throw down an absurd amount of money in exchange for a once in a lifetime eating experience at one of the many michelin starred restaurants in San Sebastian?  We chose to see what all the fuss was about with an enchanting, exhilarating, sensory overloading experience at the third best restaurant in the world,  set in the splendid hills outside of San Sebastian. After a harrowing car ride we rolled up to the unassuming Mugaritz.  We were a little nervous about the meal as I’d requested a vegetarian designed meal for Hilary and they had called three times asking me what kind of vegetarian foods she eats. The Spanish just don’t seem to understand vegetarianism.  But at Mugaritz, Hilary was in the best hands.  A surprising experience for both of us, we went down this culinary adventure and  ate whatever we was put in front of us during the 20 odd courses.  We learned however, not everything is what it seems.  We started with edible paper and an olive spread, moving on to grinding our own spices for our own soup, and desserts made of with chocolate nails.  There were salads made of edible flowers and cheese that wasn’t a cheese at all but made out of flaxseed.  About midway through the meal, we were escorted into the kitchen to meet with the chef Rafael Costa e Silva who greeted us with another course (mine was a bule cheese and black pudding macaron!) and to talk about the meal and tour the kitchen. We were given our menu of all the courses, and upon examining it, we realized we were only about half way through the courses!  This type of eating is not just about the food, rather about using all of your senses.  The experience is one of wonder, astonishment, giddiness, thrill, pleasure and delight.  Eating at Mugaritz is simply an event to savor.

This trip was one of those magical trips where you feel like you are constantly discovering new places, meeting new people, tasting new things.  Even though we were playing tourists, it never really felt that way. It was like we were fronteirsin the new Napa.  Before it became so popular.  The people, the places, the atmosphere, the food, its all so rich, so vibrant, so remarkable that its like you’ve traveled to exactly the place you need to be. Honestly, I don’t know why everyone doesn’t do this trip and I don’t know why this region is hyped up more.  It’s like the next Napa.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Cynthia May 22, 2012 at 12:14 pm

Sounds wonderful! Want to go!


Carolyn June 6, 2012 at 1:01 am

Oh- I miss the freedom of travel when I read this Lauren. Thanks for taking me along on your amazing journey!


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