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Sshh! Keep it quiet but I want to let you in on a secret.  Get to Rioja before word gets out. We did, hence this guest blog post, and if like us you love superb countryside, great food, kind hospitality and of course superb wines then you really can’t go wrong discovering this tiny region of northern Spain.

A perfect view of Rioja wine country

A perfect view of Rioja wine country

You don’t really need an excuse to visit, but ours was our 18th wedding anniversary.  Fly down to Bilbao, get on the road and within an hour you leave the pine forests behind and you look out on the hectares of vineyards of Rioja Alta. With the mountains running down on one side to the river Ebro on the other the A124 road is a series of photo opportunities, bodegas begging to be visited and well signposted paths waiting for hikers.

Our first stop was Haro. This town hosts a wine festival at the end of June, however we enjoyed just wandering the streets looking at the exquisite architecture and the storks nesting on buildings. To relax even further, what better than watching the world go by from one of the many bars selling delightful tapas all washed down with a glass of Rioja?

With taking it easy and relaxation our main priority we headed for the Wine and Oil Spa in Laguardia. After having a fantastic hot stones massage we did a circuit of the spa (€34 2 for 1 currently available). This includes hot and cold therapies that leave you so relaxed you feel as though you just may float. Afterwards take some time to explore the tiny lanes of the old town at the top of the hill before finding a place to eat in the many bars and restaurants.

As you will discover some of the main producers have spent a great deal of money creating stunning buildings. Dinastia Vivanco has a huge museum that explores wine through the ages. Outside they have hundreds of varieties of vines – we never realized there were so many and it really makes you appreciate the fine art of wine making.  Marques de Riscal, one of the most historic producers in Rioja, has a Frank Gehry (of Guggenheim design fame) building that incorporates an expensive hotel and winery.  Take the tour and visit the “temple” deep in the bowels of the estate where they have wines going back over 100 years before returning to the modern plant that produces 5 million bottles of wine per annum.

This is one of the lasting impressions of Rioja. They respect tradition but have put a modern innovative twist on it so that both old and new sit next to each other in perfect harmony. This is encapsulated by the Hotel Viura. The hotel looks as though it has landed in the tiny sand stone village that it occupies from another world. We loved the minimalist rooms that feature polished concrete floors, wonderful bathrooms and views of the municipal pool. Yes I know it sounds odd but when we visited the only visitors to the green coloured pool were swallows that dived and whirled above it as the sun gently dropped behind the hill.

Jeff Koons' sculpture Puppy, a 12 metres high ...
Image via Wikipedia

After a couple of days you realize that you need much longer, however our flight was getting closer so we returned to Bilbao with an overnight in the Silken Gran Hotel Domine. This is a great hotel right opposite the Guggenheim and Jeff Koons giant flower Yorkshire Terrier.

Bilbao is still largely a building site around the museum with lots of building work and changes to public walkways. Transforming itself from dock to smart and sassy world city is running at a furious pace but the Tapas (known as Pintxos) bars full of locals are still one of its main assets.

The museum has certainly given the city a huge boost and is a must-visit if you like modern art.  Currently Anish Kapoor has an exhibition spanning his work from the 80’s through today. The building really compliments his work especially with the 76 polished metallic balls that makes up “Tall Tree and the Eye” which stands glinting in the sunlight outside.  Permanent work includes Richard Serra’s’ stunning work “A Matter of Time” which fills the 300mtr long main gallery.

We will no doubt be back to Rioja with the family at some point to explore the Dinosaur prints, explore Logroño and enjoy hiking through the countryside. We would highly recommend Rioja, … but keep it to yourself.

Simon Ghent – Follow him at @SimonG_1

[Robert’s note: Simon’s guest post was prompted by the fact that we met through Twitter and then face to face at The Wine Gang event. When Simon was looking for suggestions on places to visit for his trip I had a few ideas, and I hope this passionate and enthusistic response will encourage others to explore, just as they did. Thanks Simon!]

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