It was time to leave San Sebastian and move the two hours south and west to La Rioja. After the last fiasco of trying to bring the car to the luggage in Bilbao, we gave in to the public humiliation of being seen on the streets of trendy San Sebastian with our luggage brigade. In plain view, we hauled and dragged our bags the short distance to the car park. With Becky at the wheel of “The Chamber of Terror,” as the rental car had been rechristened, we headed out onto the freeways to La Rioja and wine country.
About two hours later, we rolled into the Roda Winery in Haro in time for our tour appointment. Many of the wineries in La Rioja, like those in Chile, require a tour before you can taste the goods. Most often the tours need to be booked in advance and there is a nominal charge. Though it is nice to see the large and architecturally interesting wineries from the inside and out, the tours do limit how much wine is actually tasted. You end up learning more about the winery and their large-scale production methods than you do about the taste of wine. And so it was at Roda. And, in this case, the Roda wine was the best wine we tasted at any of our bodega visits in Spain.
After the Roda tour and a tasting of the Vina Todonia wines next door, we headed up the hill into Haro. We searched around for a place for lunch and ended up at Beethoven. Or was it Beethoven I or Beethoven II? I’m not sure that it matters as all three restaurants have the same owners and serve similar traditional-style, hearty regional fare.
Back in the car and not too far further along the roads, we were at our hotel on the immediate outskirts of the hill town of Laguardia. We checked in, took a short break, and headed out for another winery visit. This time we visited Bodegas Marqués de Riscal. Marqués de Riscal is a popular visit in the region, in part for their wines, but more for the fanciful Frank Gehry designed hotel on the property (Hotel Marqués de Riscal).
The staff at our hotel said Marqués de Riscal was five minutes away. This seemed too short, so we planned to leave twenty minutes ahead of time. The twenty minutes turned into fifteen minutes by the time we were in the car and moving. The TomTom had its own plans and took us through the back roads, passing through the narrowest of alleyways of any hill town it could possible justify visiting along the way. When we arrived at Marqués de Riscal we were ten minutes late for the tour but just in time to catch our purple dot tour group as it was leaving the reception area.
Our red-coated guide took us outside within eyeshot of the guards intent on keeping the riff-raff tourists outside of the expensive, exclusive hotel. I’m not sure that we needed to see inside the hotel, anyway. Gehry’s colorful and fanciful panels wrapped around a more traditional block building seemed to serve more as sculptural decoration than functional building space. And maybe, like many of Gehry’s buildings, the outside is more impressive than the inside. The guards made sure that we wouldn’t find out for sure on this visit.
Inside the bodega, our guide first showed us the chemical plant-style facilities of a modern winery capable of producing over a million bottles a year of oak cask aged red wine. In amongst the shiny stainless tanks and the mechanical presses, she gathered the group of about 30 English-speaking visitors.
“Form a circle,” our guide commanded to the group with gesticulating arms.
We never formed more than a half circle but that seemed to be good enough for our guide.
“Perfect,” when the group moved into something that may or may not look like an arc.
At the end of each stop she finished her presentation with “Any questions? Any doubts?”
There were few questions. I suspect that there were many doubts, at least about things unrelated to the tour, but those were left unexpressed.
We finished with a tasting of the wines. With a group this size, there was no chance that we would taste the bodega’s premium offerings. The 2008 Verdejo white and the 2004 Riserva Rioja red were both good, very good particularly considering their modest retail price tags.
Our hotel in Laguardia sits outside the intact defensive walls of the small hill town. In the evening, Becky and I climbed up the roads and walkways into the tight, car-less alleys of the town to explore and find food. We were still in the Basque country so pintxos from the bars were available. Though not up to the quality of the pintxos in San Sebastian, it made for a serviceable dinner in the quiet atmosphere of the old town. As is typical, a menu is not apparent for the pintxos. We just ordered what we saw on the bar and took the food outside to eat under the tower of the nearby church to eat. Then we saw a nearby table where two men were eating pimentos de Padron. Becky sprung into action and was soon inside the bar.
“Dos verde senors, por favor,” she ordered, using her newly minted Spanish combined with some vintage Becky-speak.
I wasn’t in sight to see the look of the barman as Becky had ordered what would literally be translated as “Two green sirs, please.” Somehow this was translated and we were served a satisfying plate of pimientos de Padron. I guess we were fortunate that they were fresh out of Martians.
After downing the peppers, we decided not to push our luck with more orders in Spanish and headed back to the room. More wine and more exploration awaited tomorrow.