La Rioja and Basque Country: Delicious Traveling
By Paul Shoul
GoNOMAD Senior Writer
Food is so much more than just a matter of sustenance in Spain. It is a daily reaffirmation of culture. More than any religion, it binds people together.
At the foundation of all Spain’s quirky festivals, crowded tapas bars and every family table is good food, which needs good wine or cider, which leads to good conversation. They are inexorably connected.
I just returned from a seven-day gastronomic romp in the north of Spain. From pintxos and sidra in Bilbao and San Sebastian in the Basque country to tapas and the beautiful wines in Laguardia and Logroño in La Rioja. Here are my favorite places to eat, drink, and what to do and see.
La Rioja: Great Wine Since Medieval Time
La Rioja has been synonymous with great wine since medieval times. Bordering the Basque country and nestled in the Ebro River Valley is the perfect environment for impossibly beautiful vineyards and over 500 wineries. It is the least populated of the autonomous communities of Spain and the country’s largest wine-producing region.
Calle del Laurel, Logroño
Laurel street in the old section of the capital city Logroño is one of the best concentrations of tapas bars in all of Spain.
At one time, it was a red-light district where the ladies of the night would hang Bay leaves (Laurel) from their balconies when they were open for business.
Heading out for a tapas crawl is an activity that could last all night. Each bar has a specialty or two. Have a short glass of wine or beer and a tapa. Talk until you are hoarse in the throat, move on to the next bar, and repeat. By the end of the evening, you may have consumed five or more drinks, but each was paired with food. Maybe that’s why people can keep this up for hours.
I made a rookie travel mistake on my first night on Calle Laurel by trying to pay for my tapas and drinks at a crowded bar when I got them. A look of confusion consolidated on the bartender’s face.
A Galician friend stepped in to explain, “He’s from America.” You forgot, didn’t you? he said to me, “We trust each other in Spain.”
Chef Ignacio Echapresto and his sommelier brother, Carlos Echapresto opened Venta Moncalvillo restaurant 25 years ago in their home town of Daroca de Rioja.
The rustic farmhouse was renovated to accommodate the first-class kitchen and has a fantastic selection of wines in its cellar of over 600 labels and over 20,000 bottles.
It is a must-eat/drink destination in the La Rioja wine region of Spain. Chef Igamcio’s beautiful creations have garnered a well-deserved Michelin star. Sourcing from his garden surrounding the restaurant, his food is fresh and innovative.
Wine Tasting in Haro
Located in the city of Haro, about 48 km from Logroño, The district station was formed in the mid-1800’s when transportation shifted from horse-drawn carriages to the railroad to transport Rioja wines. Every year the 7 Bodegas of the barrio (wine cellars) open their doors to the public for one of the great wine festivals in Spain, La Cata del Barrio de la Estación.
Here is how it works: The €80 ticket price includes a beautiful Riedel Cup 001 that hangs in a sling you can wear around your neck. A map to guide you around the barrio, tastings of 12 wines. (2 per winery), and 6 tapas made by renowned chefs. These are some of the best wines in the world.
The pours were overly generous, and the tapas prepared by some of the region’s best chefs were fantastic and ample. Getting behind the scenes of these great wineries and the overall party atmosphere is a terrific time.
Rioja’s Wine Museum
Deep in the heart of La Rioja wine region in the village of Briones is the Vivanco Museum of Wine Culture. A one-stop journey to immerse yourself in the history of wine, dine at their fantastic restaurant, and taste the beautiful wines grown in the vineyards surrounding this massive complex created by the Vivanco family.
It houses one of the world’s most comprehensive collections of wine-related objects and one of the region’s most important wineries. Leave plenty of time to take in the museum and arrive thirsty with a good appetite for La Rioja food. The wines are irresistible and the restaurant is one of the best in La Rioja.
San Millán Yuso and Suso Monasteries
The Yuso and Suso monasteries, located in San Millán about 23 miles from Logroño, are a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. This is the birthplace of the Spanish language, where the first writing in Spanish and Basque was ever recorded. Suso is the older of two. Situated high in the mountains and surrounded by caves where monks once lived and prayed. The larger Yuso Monastery is a sprawling complex where monks still live today.
The Basque Country: Autonomous and Proud
The Basque Country is an autonomous community bordering France in the north of Spain. They have their own government, culture, and unique language. As farmers, shipbuilders, and celebrated seafarers, the Basque were fishing for cod and whales in Newfoundland long before Columbus made his little journey to the Americas. In fact, they were part of his crew and built some of his ships.
From the Roman army to Franco, many tried to conquer their culture and rob the bounty of the Basque Country.
The bounty comes not only from the earth and sea but from their incredible culture of preparing and sharing food. They are the kings of cuisine, with more Michelin-star restaurants per capita than anywhere on the planet.
It’s hard to say just how much the Guggenheim Museum invigorated the city of Bilbao. In the 1980s it was an industrial city suffering from high unemployment as the once booming steel foundries started to fail. Inaugurated in 1997 and designed by Canadian architect Frank Gehry, it breathed new life into the city that is now a thriving economy and a growing tourist destination.
This history is beautifully articulated by the museum’s permanent installation of sculptor Richard Serra’s “A Matter of Time”, huge ship-sized twisting pieces of metal some 30 feet high forged by local steel foundries. Guggenheim Museum Bilbao
Victor Montes: Pure Basque
Victor Montes restaurant in the center of Bilbao in the Plaza Nueva has served Basque cuisine since 1847. It is named after the market that once occupied this space. It is in many ways the quintessential Basque restaurant with a lively pintxos bar on street level and tables for dining from the menu.
The food is pure Basque with excellent local seafood, wonderful local marbled grass-fed beef, and of course, Jamon Iberico Bellota, the finest ham in the world made from acorn-fed, free-range Ibérico pigs. Trust me. You want to eat here. Victor Montes
Pintxos in Bilbao
I ate in two fantastic Pintxos bars in Bilbao: La Viña de Ensanche and Bar Globo. Pintxos are exquisite little flavor bombs. Wash them down with a glass of funky Basque sidra or the beautiful sparkling local Txakoli wine.
The Medieval Walled City of Laguardia
The medieval walled city of Laguardia, founded in the 1200s, is the capital of Rioja Alavesa. It sits proudly upon a hill surrounded by vineyards overlooking the Ebro river, the city walls defending the Kingdom of Navarra. This is one of Spain’s most picturesque villages. Strolling through the narrow stone streets is enchanting.
Hiding beneath the streets is a unique system of tunnels where the population kept arms and hid during sieges and battles. Today some wineries still use them to produce and cellar wine.
Mayor de Migueloa is a winery, restaurant and boutique hotel inside a 17th century palace lovingly restored by Jaime Gutiérrez and Mery González in 1988. I had the pleasure of sampling Jaime’s elegant Tempranillo wines underground in the palace tunnels and consuming copious amounts of local grass-fed beef and lamb in the restaurant. What a meal.
Laguardia is a total immersion into the region’s history, gastronomy and wines.
Founded in the 15th century as a staging post in the historic district of Vitoria-Gasteiz, I experienced the beauty of sharing food at a Basque table. They were simple presentations, sometimes of only one ingredient adorned with olive oil and salt.
But each was at the epitome of freshness and flavor. Local and supremely delicious. Restaurante El Portalon
I only had one night in San Sebastian, but even a taste of one of the world’s best foodie destinations is a gift.
My basque friend and guide Noemi Lekube described the city this way, “Bilbao is the ‘yes we can’ city’ that worked hard to prosper. San Sebastian is like a pretty woman. She can do whatever she wants, and everybody loves her.” How could you not?
It is stunningly beautiful. The city wraps around the crescent-shaped La Concha beach. Surfers ride turquoise waves as fishing boats return laden with their catch.
The pintxo bars, restaurants, and nightlife are legendary. Many film stars and royalty have vacationed here. It is both an international destination and a fishing town at the heart of basque culture.
I was lucky enough to stay at the Maria Cristina Hotel. Dating from 1912, named after the queen. It is the most beautiful hotel in one of the world’s most beautiful cities. The rooms are glorious; the service is impeccable; it has a killer breakfast buffet and is in the perfect location overlooking the River Urumea, just a short walk from the old town.
Mimo Bite The Experience cooking classes are in the hotel’s building. A hands-on lesson on traditional and advanced Basque culinary techniques lets you eat the fruits of your labor and take home some new skills.