February 13 – 16, 2017 —
Friends John and Eileen arrived in Barcelona with plans for us to go and explore the Spain’s Basque region and Rioja wines. First, we enjoyed a weekend in Barcelona celebrating the Feast of St. Eulalia, the patron saint of Barcelona and one of the biggest festivals of the year. It is an all weekend party with events for both adults and children.
The opening parade included the traditional gigants (giants), figures made of paper mache and carried by a human underneath the skirt and guides alongside. They move amazingly smoothly considering their size and even dance. Different gigants represent different neighborhoods or associations. After dark comes the “fire-fun”, which includes small floats on wheels, loaded with gigantic sparklers shooting sparks into the air like a fire hose. Each float carries 25-50 of the sparklers and has a group assigned to quickly replenish the burned out sparklers with fresh ones and light them. As each one burns out it gives off a loud bang which reverberates through the crowd off the surrounding cement buildings. Between each float is a drumming group, in matching colors, thumping their way through Jaume Square.
The real draw is on Sunday morning when the Castellers – human castle builders – take center stage in the square. Each of the twenty or so teams represents a neighborhood in Barcelona. Teams pract,,ice all year long for this event. They include men, women, and two small children. They form a human castle with the largest group of men holding up the rest of the group and a group of men holding them straight under the weight. Groups reach up to seven humans high, at which point two small children shimmy up the backs of each layer to the top, puts their hands in the air to show they have been successful, then immediately shimmy back down again. It is hard not to hold your breath watching, hoping that no one falls.
With John and Eileen we headed off to the Basque region of Spain. We took a train from Barcelona to San Sebastian on the Bay of Biscay, Spain’s northern coast. The Basque people, with their own language and culture, have been seeking independence from Spain. To date the Spanish government has blocked it.
San Sebastian, located right on the Bay of Biscay is a magnet for tourists. The weather is mild, the views across the bay and from the top of the hills above the city beautiful, including a long and wide beach around the perimeter of the bay. And then there are the pinxtos (pinchos). San Sebastian, especially Old Town, is known for creating the pinxto, a small slice of bread with toppings and a toothpick stuck in. Creativity is the key here with everything from cheese to pig cheeks to be found. Each pinxto bar has its own specialty and most tourists have a glass of wine with a pinxto at one bar then continue on to another and repeat the process. Over an evening it becomes a pinxto crawl.
We rode the funicular to the highest point in the city which provided sweeping views of the beach, the city and the more rural agricultural area and hills beyond.
Continuing our exploration we rented a car and headed south to the Rioja area of Spain known for its fine Rioja wines. In the historic town of Laguardia we stayed at Casstillo El Collado, an old castle remodeled into a B&B. Mid-week in February it was very reasonable. Each room was different and elegantly done. The restaurant at the hotel is fabulous and, of course, featured excellent Rioja wines. It is all within a walled village of two story stone buildings and streets too narrow for cars.
Our first wine tour was at Bodega Lopez de Heredia which still produces wine the way it was produced generations ago using original techniques, including wooden fermentation tanks. Instead of having a climate controlled building, when the temperatures rise, they open the doors and windows!
In the afternoon it was on to Marques de Riscal, a very different set-up. First, and most amazing, is the design of the winery and neighboring hotel which were done by the architect Frank Ghery. They are colorful with a pink and silver titanium rippled roof. It clearly does not blend into the local landscape which was contentious with the neighbors when built. They seem to have gotten over it as it has become a major tourist attraction bring robust new revenue to the entire area. Many in the area have benefited.
We could have spent a week in the area exploring more wineries and other old communities, but our time was limited. Before heading north to Bilbao we did our final tour at the Museum of Wine in Haro. Well worth the visit, it highlighted old equipment and processes for winemaking. (Room of jars with smells!!!!!!)