After two wonderful weeks in Spain, I can’t think of much I would change! Our hotels and itinerary turned out well. I expected to love Barcelona and the Alhambra, in Granada, and I did… but Bilbao completely exceeded my expectations and I highly recommend visiting Rioja, Spain’s most famous wine-making region.
So (drum roll please), here are my top 10 favorite sights and experiences from a trip with my friend Collette from March 24-April 8:
1. The Sagrada Familia in Barcelona
2. The Alhambra in Granada
3. Eating at Azurmendi, a Michelin 3-star restaurant, near Bilbao
4. Visiting Casa Battló in Barcelona
5. Touring wineries, especially Bodegas Muga, in Rioja
6. Visiting the Guggenheim in Bilbao – we lucked out and were there during the exuberant exhibition featuring Ernesto Neto
7. Staying at Hotel Castillo El Collado
8. Catching outdoor Basque folk dancing in Bilbao’s Casco Viejo (old town)
9. Eating tapas and pintxos – everywhere
10. Seeing the 13th century Santa Maria de los Reyes church in Laguardia — this is the only attraction that you probably won’t see in guide books, but we found it breathtaking and unlike anything we’ve seen
Handy links to all of my Spain blog posts are below this added observation about visiting Rioja….
As you’ll read in the posts about Rioja, wine touring in Spain isn’t like popping in for a taste or two as we do in Napa. To taste at most wineries, you will need to advance book a tour (in English, unless you speak Spanish). Because of the extra time commitment and scheduling logistics, we decided to just visit one winery a day, and we enjoyed that pace. On some trip forums, people talk about visiting three to five. I’d rather wine tour there the civilized Spanish way: one 90 minute wine tour followed by a wonderful lunch and siesta, but two wouldn’t be unreasonable.
Maribel’s Guide to the Rioja Wine Country, published in August 2011, is the “Rick Steves” of Spanish wine touring. I used it, but found it didn’t really help me understand much about Rioja wine making. I found the October 2012 cover feature of Wine Spectator — Revolution in Rioja — most helpful as an introduction to the controversies over styles of Rioja wine-making, which allowed me to seek wineries with distinctly different approaches. Unfortunately, some of those I wanted to visit weren’t offering English tours in the early spring, but the background reading gave me a deeper appreciation of what the winemakers are trying to do. My favorite source, however, was The Finest Wines of Rioja and Northwest Spain, by Barquin, Guitierrez and La Serna (University of California Press, 2011). With a thorough explanation of the terroir and the history, and more than 100 profiles of winemaking houses in Rioja, this book was my bible. The inside flap also has ratings of annual vintages from 1982 to 2010, with a recommendation as to whether you should hold, drink now (because it’s not going to get better), or do whatever you do with wines that are past their prime.
4. Voyage Through Barcelona (visiting Gaudi’s Casa Battlo)