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Discovering There Is More To Rioja Than Wine…

Discovering Rioja

La Rioja was the biggest surprise on my tour of Northern Spain. So many Irish holidaymakers travel to Spanish cities and coastal resorts, but rarely to the countryside. I visited Chianti in Tuscany many times and loved it. Was there more to Rioja than wine?

 

After spending 48 hours in Bilbao, we took the short one hour drive to La Rioja. This was our second stop on our road trip through the Basque Country. It wasn’t long before the landscape changed. Although Rioja is one of Spain’s smallest regions, it is also one of the most diverse. We were surrounded by colourful vineyards, rolling hills, snow capped mountains and pretty villages.

It was late October and the autumnal leaves were a kaleidoscope of colours.  We stopped in the old towns of Haro, Cellórigo and Sajazarra and I was genuinely struck at how beautiful this region was. Sajazarra is home to a 14th century castle and a 12th century church, which we literally stumbled upon. The town is filled with ancient walls and quaint bodegas offering wine tasting. I was in heaven.

We stayed in the fabulous Teatrisso hotelin the pretty town of Cuzcurrita del Rio Tíron. Once a 16th century farmhouse, it was a theatre, a cinema and home to the Italian army during the war. It lay empty until 2011 when an enterprising couple, Laura and Jose decided to make it their home. When we arrived we were greeted by Laura, who personally showed us around her hotel, I was immediately captivated. If only the thick stone walls could talk, I was sure there would be some stories to tell. The restoration is superb and the modern furnishings seem to fit in perfectly.

Our rooms were stunning and equipped with quirky but attractive furniture. We were guests in their house but with all the comforts of a five star hotel. They even have an ‘honest bar’ where you help yourself and write down what drinks you have had. Prices were extremely good too!

Discovering Rioja

We went for a stroll around the village which didn’t take long. It is typical of many of the villages in La Rioja, picture perfect, but small. We ate in the only restaurant open in town, Asadoraker. Another family run business with home cooked food and nice wine – just what we wanted.

The next day we decided to try some wine tasting. Laura kindly booked us into the local bodega, Bohedal, and off we went. Bohedal is a small family run winery producing 100,000 bottles of wine each year. They offer a tour of their wine cellar as well as wine tasting. The personal attention was fantastic and I can honestly say I learned so much in our tasting session. I found myself smelling the chocolate, leather and pepper aromas and by the end of our wine tasting I could tell the difference between Romanian, American and French oak barrels. I was seriously impressed!

They even got the kids involved. Alex and Luke we allowed taste various grape juices while we tasted the wine! Depending on the time of year you visit, children can help crush or pick the grapes. They can also paint their own wine labels and cork their own bottles. They offer many seasonal experiences too, from Mothers and Fathers day treats to cookery classes.

Discovering Rioja
All good things must come to an end though and our time in La Rioja was over. What we saw was just a sample of what the region has to offer on a quick over night stop, and I loved it. There is so much to do here, I would suggest staying at least a week and exploring the region entirely. L

a Rioja is known for its old towns, wineries and culinary delights but it offers so much more. You can walk the Camino de Santigao, go skiing in Valdezcaray, play golf at Rioja Alta Golf Cub or even try hot air ballooning over the vineyards! I am also told the towns of San Vicente de la Sonsierra, Santo Domingo de la Calzada and Logroño are ‘must see’ towns. I guess l’ll just have to come back!

 

Read about our next stop on our tour of the Basque Country –  San Sebastian 🍴

 

Like city breaks? Check out more destination reviews and travel deals by clicking here.

 

Sarah

 

The Travel Expert

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48 Hours in Bilbao

48 hours in Bilbao

For many, the main reason for visiting Bilbao was the Guggenheim. But when you are travelling with two small kids, an art museum, albeit one of the best in the world, is not high on the priority list.  Luckily we discovered lots more highlights during 48 hours in Bilbao.

 

I always wanted to visit the Basque Country but as there was so much to see, I decided to plan a road trip. Bilbao was our first port of call. We only had 48 hours in Bilbao and decided not to frantically scratch the ‘the top ten things to do’ off a list. Instead we explored Bilbao at a leisurely pace, immersed ourselves in it’s culture and found a city that offers so much more than the world’s most impressive art museum.

We stayed at the modern Holiday Inn Bilbao. We had two rooms with a large living area outside, which was particularly handy with the kids. The hotel has a swimming pool, spa and leisure centre and a nice bar with a pool table. It was just what we needed, plenty of space and good facilities. It is located about 15 minutes walk to the old town, which we walked each day.


Walking down to the old town I realised I was going to like this city.  It was almost medieval, there were colourful buildings, narrow alleyways and pintxos bars (the Basque’s take on tapas) everywhere. After descending some 300 steps, we were greeted by a buzzing crowd in a large square. The atmosphere was tangible. Locals and tourists spilled out of pintxos bars. High street stores in old buildings were next to local crafts shops and pintxos bars. We strolled around the side streets and soaked up the atmosphere, before enjoying our first taste of Bilbao’s cuisine.

The Basque country in general is known for it’s culinary delights and Bilbao is no exception. Pintxos bars are on every street corner, Michelin star restaurants are plentiful and if you are unsure what to try, you can always book one of the city’s popular food tours. I loved eating pintxos and there was a huge variety to choose from. I have eaten tapas in many Spanish cities but I have never seen such variety before. Traditionally pinxtos or pinchos were small portions of food, with a cocktail stick pierced through them. This is no longer the case, pintxos can be anything from Iberian ham to risotto, small portions of food that Basque people have at any time during the day, usually accompanied by a glass of wine  🙂


After a great first night in the old town we decided to go ‘modern’ the next day and head for the Guggenheim. Bilbao is very easy to navigate and although we walked everywhere, there are trams, metro and buses too. We decided to walk along the river and admire the architecture that Bilbao is renowned for. We spotted people kayaking along the river. This struck me as a novel way to see the city, I began to wish we had more time…

After a leisurely stroll we arrived at the Guggenheim. Even if you have no interest in art or architecture – you can’t help but be blown away by the sleek modern design. Frank Gehry, the architect who designed it, deserves all the praise he gets. The titanium panels reflect the lights of the city and ensure that the Guggenheim looks different depending on what time of the day you are there. The enormous sculptures outside are remarkable too, it is impossible not to be impressed, even before you step inside.

Sculptures dominate the 1st floor as well as cool digital displays, so these kept the kids happy for a while! For art lovers the Francis Bacon exhibition is outstanding, unfortunately I did not get to see much more. It’s not the most child friendly museum I’ve been to, my kids were scolded on more than one occasion by a burly security guard! If you are travelling with children, don’t plan to stay for the day!

48 hours in bilbao

Tummies were rumbling after our morning’s sightseeing so we decided to try more pintxos! Time to visit the Plaza Neuva. This magnificent square dates back to 1821 and between the colonnade and the arches there are tons of pintxos bars. We sat outside with the locals, had wine and pintxos and enjoyed the Spanish way of life.  There was plenty of options for kids as well as unusual combinations like, goats cheese, onion jam and chocolate! Each one was better than the next, I could have sat there all day.

48 hours in Bilbao

We continued our stroll around the city, admiring the shops on the Gran Via, before taking the three minute funicular ride to Mount Artxanda, which offers the best views of the city. A mist descended while we were there but on a clear day it is worth a visit and it only costs €2! Bilbao is very inexpensive. A glass of wine Is €1 – €2, taxis and entrance fees are lower than many of its European counterparts and dining out is fantastic value.

We had sampled many pintxos at this stage so our last night we fancied a leisurely meal with a full menu. This, however, is not easy to find in Bilbao. Perhaps the fact that it was November and many places were closed, but we struggled to find a restaurant open that had a full menu. Our hotel recommended Columbo, a modern fusion brasserie which served everything from cheese burgers to Pad Thai – just what we needed!

48 hours in Bilbao
We collected our rental car the next day and decided to take a quick look at the surrounding countryside. Bilbao is so close to the coast and there are some excellent beaches near by. You can reach these easily by metro, so car hire is not necessary. The countryside resembled an Austrian ski resort, with Tyrolean houses and wafts of freshly chopped wood emanating from the deep forests.  We went in search of San Juan de Gaztelugatxe, a legendary chapel that stands on a peninsula jutting out into the sea.

This magical place was once a convent of the Knights Templar and was recently a setting for the TV series, The Game of Thrones.  We planned to drive past and stop to admire the view but after a quick search on tripadvisor, I discovered that it was only a 30 minute walk. My eyes should have told me that this was impossible but having read four different reviews that said the same thing, I persuaded my husband and the children that it would be worth the trek.

It was only after the 40 minute walk to reach the bridge that we realised that this wasn’t included in the reviewers comments… Three hours later we arrived back at the car, sore, thirsty but proud of our achievement all the same. The views are spectacular and definitely worth the trip, but be prepared. Bring water, snacks, comfortable shoes and take three to four hours to experience it properly.

And so ended our 48 hours in Bilbao, an unsung hero of the Basque country, full of culture and charm, I will definitely be back for a longer visit next time.

 

Read our next stop on our tour of the Basque Country – La Rioja 🍷

 

Like city breaks? Check out more destination reviews and travel deals by clicking here.

 

Sarah

The Travel Expert Sarah Slattery

 

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