Ninth in a series about a trip to Barcelona, Bilbao, Rioja and Granada
On March 31, we walked up the hill behind our hotel in Bilbao in search of a bank and breakfast. It seems that anytime we went just a block or so off the main thoroughfare, we were rewarded with good food at a great price. For just 5 Euro, we secured a croissant, tortilla (what we would call a frittata, but with more potatoes), espresso and tea.
We then took a taxi to the airport and picked up a car we had pre-booked through National after fighting off the agent’s attempts to sell us more collision and liability insurance. We were on our way to Rioja, Spain’s most famous wine D.O.C.
I don’t like driving in foreign countries, but I needn’t have worried. Spain is one of the easiest countries in which to drive. Besides driving on the right, the roads are well organized and well signed. And fortunately, the National agent had given us directions to the beltway that surrounds Bilbao’s downtown area, avoiding both congestion and confusion. The toll booths off the N-68 even take credit cards!
Once outside the immediate Bilbao area, the road began to climb, rising toward a steep notch in the first set of mountains that separate Bilbao from Rioja.
The mountains were unexpected. In visiting Rioja, I expected territory similar to Napa: rolling hills laced with vines. We hadn’t yet seen a vine and we were driving past 5,000 foot peaks with a few clinging patches of snow.
The Callera Cantabrica (also called La Cantabria and Sierra Cantabria), it turns out, span hundreds of miles from west to east across Northern Spain, creating a line that demarcates the “green” side of the north from the more arid south. Rioja is further boxed in by another set of mountains to the south that protect it from the worst heat of the central plains.
After 90 minutes, Collette the navigator directed me to turn east on A-124. Though the road changed names several times, the route through Labastida, Abalos and Samaniego would lead us to Laguardia, our destination in the heart of the subregion Rioja Alavesa, very close to Rioja Alta.
Vineyards came into view, although completely barren during this winter/spring shoulder season. Many of the vines were old, gnarled, stubby specimens – very different than the delicate pinot noir vines that are threaded along wires in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. They just stood there resolutely, blue grey against yellowy soil, with not a leaf bud was in sight. How could this barren place, this sickly looking soil, yield plump grapes for flavorful wine? I wondered even though I know some of the least forgiving soils support some of the most elegant wines.
We passed a squat dome shaped building, uninhabited, just off the road – a “guardaviña” where workers shelter in bad weather.
Every few kilometers, we spied a hilltop crowned with a church or Medieval wall. And just to our north, massive granite outcroppings resembled those seen in Yosemite.
Laguardia, it turned out, is probably the finest specimen of the Rioja hill towns. It has not one but two churches, one so unusual that it is worth a special trip, and an intact wall inside which shops and restaurants thrive in the narrow car-free lanes.
El Collado, our lodging, was not hard to find. Looking like a mini-castle, the stone family seat – complete with a crenelated tower – was relocated here in the early 1900s and later inherited by the “humble proprietor,” Javier. It perches proudly on the outside of the wall, adjacent to one of the major gates.
Being greeted by Javier was a little like being welcomed by Christopher Plummer in his role as patriarch of the Von Trapp family: distinguished, grey haired, full of decorum but (unlike the movie character) eager to meet a guest’s needs. We settled in with a glass of wine and a bowl of peanuts while the bellboy brought in our bags.
“The tower is open,” Javier told me. He led me up the mahogany staircase to the second floor, through a small sitting room and past a door to the winding wooden stairs. It was gloomy and cool inside the tower. I wound around several times and pressed down on the handle.
Immediately, cold wind rushed in. Ascending a few stone stairs, I landed on the eyrie overlooking the valley on one side and the Catholic school play yard on the other. Bodega Ysios’ undulating rooftop interrupted the plain between the town and mountains. It was exhilarating standing there on the summit of the hill, atop a three story tower, lording it over all I surveyed.
We walked into town in hopes of a snack. Seeing locals emerging from Bar Biazteri, we entered the bar area and picked out two eggplant pintxos and one stuffed mussel. With, of course, a little Rioja blanco (“seco” or dry) to top it off. Four glasses of wine and three bites for 10 Euros; you can’t beat that. (The more formal restaurant, as is often the case in Spain, is actually in back of the bar.)
We dined “at home” in the hotel’s traditional dining room. My partridge was reminiscent of the way my mother cooked upland game birds, and Collette’s lamb chops were tender and delicious. For dessert, homemade fig ice cream!