La Rioja Region, northern Spain winery tour 2014

The Hotel Marqués de Riscal, designed by Frank Gehry in Elciego, Rioja Alavesa.

Having experienced some of the coastal aspects of the 'Pays Basque' region, we were intrigued to discover what lay beyond: the Cordillera CantábricaVitoria-Gastiez, the capital city of the Basque region and the towns, villages and wineries of the Rioja wine producing region situated either side of the Rio Ebro; plus a look at the famous cathedral city of Burgos. We travelled in late May and the weather was changeable: warm/wet/sunny/cold — very variable!


Getting there and around

UK-Bilbao: We travelled with 'easyJet' to Spain from Manchester UK for under £50 return — what a bargain, makes getting up at 0500 hours worth it. Car rental was with AVIS, no hassle and no deposit required. The roads in northern Spain are usually in very good condition and with very little traffic. Our main problem on this trip was negotiating one-way systems in city and town centres to unload baggage at the conveniently central accommodation we had booked. Accessing our hotel in Vitoria-Gastiez defeated even our experienced navigation skills — we had to park the car and walk to the hotel for advice to find the one road that allows vehicles in the right direction.

Vitoria-Gastiez, Logrono, Burgos, Bilbao accommodation

As mentioned, we opted for city-centre locations to make the most of the bar-hopping, pinxtos [tapas] and cultural facilities available. Our first stop was La Casa de los Arquillos in Vitoria-Gastiez — a small 'boutique' hotel recently converted from workshops in an ancient arcaded building overlooking the Plaza de la Virgen Blanca, one of the main squares of the city with bars, cafes and restaurants surrounding the central open space. The hotel occupies the top two floors [no lift] at the end of the building and has a very contemporary styling contrasting with cleaned ancient stonework. Our room was spacious and the main window overlooking the square had double, double glazing — windows to both the outer and inner surface of the thick stone walls, ensuring a very quiet night's sleep. Breakfast was a simple affair of fresh orange juice, fruit, coffee and toast in the top floor communal space lit by skylights in the roof. Friendly female staff offered to help with our luggage and directed us to the nearest parking garage [under the new[ish] Artium gallery] — reasonably priced for a city centre facility.

We then travelled through the Rioja Alta to Logroño to stay at the Hotel Calle Mayor this we found relatively easily. Again a contemporary conversion of an old building in a quiet side street with dedicated spaces in a nearby parking garage. The narrow, double height reception had a small breakfast area adjacent and small lounge at a mezzanine level. A lift made access to the upper floors easy and rooms were stylish in a pared-back way. The location of the hotel was very close to the riverside park, the main shopping streets and the tapas/pixtos bars grouped around Calle Laurel. Breakfast was good: hot Spanish omelette, served by Logroño's own George Clooney lookalike, in addition to endless coffee and juice and a good range of buffet items.

Heavy rain accompanied us on our journey to Burgos, often parallel to the Camino de Santiago route with numerous 'pilgrims' making their way through the very unpleasant weather. We had booked into the AC Burgos hotel, close to the cathedral and negotiated through the city centre, crossing the river twice to drop luggage and park under the hotel, via the tortuously narrow access ramp with padded corners. Typical of the AC group [now owned by Marriott] the atrium and public spaces were largely deserted during our stay and the room had polished wooden floors and a bay window overlooking the river. We skipped hotel breakfast, there are two cafes right opposite. Our one night in Bilbao, to allow a relatively early flight home, was in the Barcelo Nervion hotel near the Zubizuri footbridge. The desk staff were very efficient: realising we needed to get our car parked asap, directed us with alacrity to the hotel garage [not cheap]. Our room was quite spacious and bright, but the corridors were long and dim — lighting being activated by movement sensors. The Barcelo Nervion  is well located right by the river — although only suites have a river view and– within pleasant walking distance of all the main visitor attractions.

Rioja region itinerary

Vitoria-Gastiez
The route from Bilbao to V-G goes through an alpine landscape of rolling pine covered mountainsides and farmhouses with balconies and steeply pitched roofs. The city is '2014 Spanish Capital of Gastronomy' with over 100 bars, cafes and restaurants on the hilltop 'Casco Viejo' of concentric narrow streets and the surrounding boulevards. On our arrival on a sunny Sunday afternoon a festival atmosphere was palpable: people were spilling out of the bars, cafes and restaurants with drinks, exotic pinxtos and ice creams having a wonderful late lunch in typical Basque style. The Plaza de la Virgen Blanca, the adjacent Plaza Espana and Calle Cucharilla are lined with contemporary and traditional establishments where the Basque love of food and wine is exemplified: a glass of wine with a simple accompaniment to nouvelle cuisine creations featuring exotic ingredients speared with kebab sticks or presented in cones. The V-G tourist information has a very good Gastronomic map, also available online: http://www.vitoria-gasteiz.org/wb021/http/contenidosEstaticos/adjuntos/es/40/87/54087.pdf. A modern tram line weaves it's way through the city and the street leading to the mainline rail station has traditional ornate confectionery shops and more bar/cafes known for quality pinxtos. Unfortunately for us, the following day — Monday — many establishments and public facilities were closed, so we took the opportunity to drive [after some difficulty finding the correct route] to Parador de Argómaniz just a few miles away. The 18th century Renaissance palace, situated on a rise in the landscape, walls of sandstone ashlar alternating with masonry and an Arab-tile hip roof. Previously it belonged to the large and influential Larrea family. The large loft lounge and dining room has exposed beams, the only roof support, resting on rows of solid wooden pillars and held together with wooden dowels. We had a drink in the bar/cafe and then an excellent lunch in the dining room.

La Rioja and Logroño
The free on-line guide to La Rioja is produced by 'Maribel's Guides for the Sophisticated Traveller' [TM] is recommended for advice on accommodation, dining and winery visits. 


Vintage map of the Rioja Region. View our illustrated map see link below.


The Rioja wine region stretches between Haro to beyond Calahorra — either side of the Rio Ebro and into the wide flat landscape to the south. Rioja Alavesa is Basque [Alava province] and to the north of the Ebro: Rioja Alta and Rioja Baja are largely to the south of the river, although the towns of Abalos and San Vicente de la Sonsierra are both in Sonsierra an area north of the Ebro. Rioja Alta and Rioja Baja comprise the Rioja Autonomous Region with Logroño, the capital.

The Rioja Alavesa wine route follows the A-124 roughly east-west from near Brinas to the outskirts of LogroñoRioja Alavesa towns and villages along the route include BrionesLabastida/BastidaSamaniegoLaguardia/Biasteri and Elcegio; nearby in Rioja Alta are AbalosOllauri and San Vicente de la Sonsierra.

Labastida/Bastida and Laguardia/Biasteri are ancient walled towns originally built to guard the border between Navarra and Castile and have now embraced wine tourism offering dining and hotel accommodation in the palatial houses lining the main streets. The largest towns of Rioja Alta are Haro and Logroño. All have numerous wineries to visit; most require advance booking for a full tour that concludes with a modest tasting. We visited Bodegas Biagorri near Samaniego, the amazing glass pavilion entrance leads to cathedral like underground production and storage facilities; Bodegas Viña Real, between Guardia and Logroño, a huge barrel like production building with a central crane and storage facilities in caves blasted into the mountainside and Marques de Riscal, in Elciego, a traditional winery with 19th century storage, complimented by an iconic hotel designed by Frank Gehry. Another design icon is the Hotel Viura in Villabuena de Álava, designed by Joseba and Xabier Aramburu [designhouses], a stack of irregular concrete shapes shoehorned into a small village — it somehow works and the staff are very friendly too: only to happy to organise drinks for us in the bar decorated with wine boxes on the ceiling. Totally different was a charming lunch in the cellar at Los Calaos hostel rural/restaurant in the hilltop town of Briones — many recommends on Tripadvisor and by Maribel too. 

Onwards to Logroño, we found the Hotel Calle Mayor easily on Calle Marqués de San Nicolás, just a short distance from Calle Laurel, the main street for tapas bars — over 50 in just a few hundred metres. The offer is much simpler than in the north: three grilled mushrooms or blackpudding speared onto a round of baguette. We attempted to visit Bodegas Darien on the outskirts of Logroño, another cutting edge building, but found it surrounded by weeds and untended parking lots, abandoned after apparently being sold by the original owners. First sighting of people traversing the Santiago in the streets around our hotel — all looking very earnest. The park bordering the Rio Ebro was very pleasant, but the town has turned it's back on it and the only cafe was closed — electrical problems apparently.

The road to Burgos from Logroño parallels and on occasion is the Camino de Santiago, with an almost continual stream of walkers/pilgrims clad in all enveloping plastic cagouls to combat the downpours we encountered. The compact city centre is focussed on the dominant presence of the cathedral — honey coloured sandstone walls, gothic pointed windows and pinnacles on buttresses — the the Camino de Santiago route running adjacent to it's northern flank. We were relieved to note that in the Plaza Santa Maria there were only a few souvenir/religious artefact shops nearby, but many bar/cafes and restaurants for weary pilgrims and other visitors — one with a contemporary glass box actually in the square. In fact the dining and drinking opportunities were surprisingly good: one place on the [inevitable] Plaza Espana offering all drinks and tapas at one euro and the nearby Casa Paco offering clients free croquettes, as the whim took the kitchen staff to fry them up. In addition to our regular bar-hopping, we had a couple of sit-down evening meals in Burgos too: Restaurante la Cantina del Tenorio and La parrilla del Royal. On the lower slopes of the hill behind the cathedral is some contemporary architecture: apartment buildings and the The Centre of Arts Caja de Burgos [CAB], a reading room and snack area with a surprisingly large lower gallery space that housed a selection of contemporary artist's work on our visit. Crowning the hill is a castle surrounded by a public park offering a panorama of the city below. In a palatial 15th century building at Plaza de la Libertad with many historical associations, now owned by the Caja de Burgos bank, is the rehabilitated Casa del Cordón comprising a banking hall and exhibition space. On our visit it had a very good exhibition on the work of Fortuny [Mariano Fortuny Madrazo 1871 – 1949)], the Spanish artist, designer, inventor and manufacturer based in Venice. Best known for his velvet pleated fabrics for dresses, the exhibition also had furnishing fabrics, photographs, paintings, working drawings for stage machinery and lighting — well presented and curated. The Rio Arlanzón flows through the city with pedestrian promenades and gardens either side and Restaurant El Espólon [with a Menú del día for 12€] comprising the western facade of the Teatro Municipal. We were pleasantly surprised by Burgos, visitors and locals were enjoying themselves even though the weather was 'changeable'.

Finally back to Bilbao before our flight, we joined the E804 motorway to travel up through the mountain pass carved by the Rio Bayas through the Sierra de Cantabria range and down to a much warmer city hosting a triathlon event along the banks of the Rio Nervion on a sunny Saturday afternoon. In the Plaza Nuevo the bars were crammed and the arcades were lined with tables for a charity book event? and people dressed in foam rubber costumes — another Basque event !Later we visited the Cafe Iruna for Moroccan spicy kebabs and Calle Ledesma for a variety of pinxtos. A return to La Rioja is, we think, inevitable: lots of wineries, villages and towns still to visit; next time we hope to get to Haro, missed completely on this trip.

For information on buying Rioja wines, see The Wine Society guide: http://www.thewinesociety.com/resources/downloads/how_to_buy/HowtoBuyRioja.pdf.

To see our illustrated map at a viewable size visit:

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