Travel photography and writing have taken me to some wonderful places – from the mountains of Nepal to the chalky clifftops of the South Downs and stormy Scottish coastlines, I have been lucky to see places that live in my heart and mind – and to make landscape photography along the way. Few have as strong a hold over me as Rioja, a region of Spain whose wines have long been among my favourites. Back in September 2014 my then fiancé and I visited, partly so that I could make travel photographs for Pride Life magazine – partly so that we could simply soak up some sunshine away from a dreary British autumn.
We started our trip in Bilbao, the largest city in the Basque Country (of which Rioja is the principal winemaking region). Basques are a famously independent people, and around Bilbao it’s hard to escape outward signs of the region’s autonomy. As cultural as it is political, autonomy is reflected in the widespread use of the Basque language and the Union Jack-like orange, white and green ikurrina flag. When we visited, saltires uttered alongside the ikurrinas, a reminder of our own country’s debate over independence and identity as Scotland went to the polls for an independence referendum.
Bilbao’s medieval old town, Casco Viejo (or Alde Zaharra in the Basque language), is crowded with bright ikurrinas, ancient church portals and countless bric-à-brac shops, reminders of the city’s religious and mercantile history. On Sundays visitors can pick up pieces of history in the handsome Plaza Nueva, a mid-19th-century square, as it plays host to a bustling flea market heavy with the musky smell of antique books and furniture.
But Bilbao isn’t all about history. Outside the old town there’s an obvious and prominent reminder of the city’s modern regeneration: Frank Gehry’s visionary Guggenheim Museum, an architectural superstar (and travel photography magnet). An early morning walk along the city’s urban Nervión River in the small hours repaid me with a vision of the museum’s swooping titanium walls shimmering beneath cobalt skies. Later risers will find the museum’s vast collection of contemporary art well worth their time.
From Bilbao we struck south for Logroño, the historic capital of Rioja. Here the density of taverns, restaurants and cafés seems calculated to whip foodies into an excess of joy. Basque cuisine is dominated by pinxtos (or pinchos), dishes rather like large tapas. It is, we learned, something of a Basque tradition to wander from tavern to tavern, sampling pinxtos with small glasses of Rioja – a tradition that we were only too pleased to indulge.
It’s hard to pick one restaurant or tavern from the next, and a couple of days’ exploring can easily turn into a trawl for the most attractive places to eat. We chose El Rincón de Alberto – a tiny restaurant with a lot to offer. Owner Alberto Andres took us through the menu: full-flavoured anchovy toast, lusciously creamy ham croquettes and toothsome lamb’s trotters, all accompanied perfectly by a bottle of fruity Fos crianza. We followed dinner with a cheeseboard adorned with cabrales, the region’s famous blue cheese. Crunchy, salty and with an intense savoury finish, this was a worthy sparring partner for a plummy Nocturna crianza.
Logroño is a perfect starting point for visits to Rioja’s wineries (bodegas). There’s a great diversity of bodegas to choose from, varying from bland, chrome-plated consumer palaces to crumbling old châteaux with chilly stone cellars. Bodegas Dinastía Vivanco is firmly in the former category. A tour around its bells-and-whistles museum found its nadir in phallic corkscrews displayed awkwardly alongside artwork by Míro, Picasso and Juan Gris. The museum’s grim insipidity seemed to have permeated the winery’s barrels; I could find little merit in the bloodless offerings in the tasting room.
Perhaps the finest winery, on the other hand, is the Bodegas Marques de Murrieta. The estate is named for one of the founders of Rioja winemaking, Luciano de Murrieta, whose descendants continue to run the winery today. Its setting is almost stereotypically Basque: pale earth baking beneath expansive skies, and everywhere the aroma of Tempranillo grapes ripening in neat rows. Below the château, in darkened cellars, lie precious bottles of ancient wine, some dating back to 1852 – the year the Marques founded the estate. To tour these cellars, and the estate’s museum, is to walk back through winemaking history.
Following a tour of the museum and vineyard we enjoyed a tasting of three of the estate’s wines: a citrussy white Pazo Barrantes 2013, the classically silky Marques de Murrieta 2008 Reserva an excellent Dalman 2009 Reserva. Suitably armed with tasting notes and tipsiness we finished our trip by sinking our spending money into a couple of bottles of the winery’s iconic Castillo Ygay Gran Reserva, which were finally opened two years later at the top table of our wedding breakfast.
After a visit to the ancient hilltop fort of La Guardia, whose Torre Abacial tower commands spectacular views of the region, we rounded off our visit with a couple of days in San Sebastian, a superlatively beautiful seaside resort on the Biscay coast. San Sebastian is perhaps best enjoyed as a suitably lazy conclusion to a leisurely tour of the region. For food, the city outclasses even Logroño in the range of restaurants and pinxto taverns that crowd its pristine streets.
Our journey ended in La Fábrica, a San Sebastian restaurant whose almost anonymous exterior belies a truly outstanding menu. Its mushroom ravioli in foie gras cream – pungent, indulgent and sumptuous – is among the best food I’ve ever eaten.
This article first appeared in Pride Life magazine.