España 2004: Ábalos

Tuesday, 11 May 2004

Travel day – headed for the Rioja region. A beautiful day for driving. As we neared the Rioja area, we stopped for some lunch (huge bocadillos) in Los Arcos, arriving in Ábalos in late afternoon. One feature of the area around Uncastillo and toward Tafalla is huge numbers of windmills – not the Don Quixote type, but the electricity-generating type. They are numerous and actually fit into the landscape quite nicely.

We then quickly explored the village (it’s not very big!) and took a brief driving tour (Haro and back), just to see what the area was like. Then, dinner at the hotel. There really are no other options here if you don’t want to drive, which is unfortunate. However, the food is very good.

Wednesday, 12 May 2004

Our first full day in Rioja. We’ve spent some time getting used to the area. It is amazing! And, we visited our first bodega and had our first wine tasting this afternoon. Bodega Puelles is a small, family-owned bodega in Ábalos about a kilometer from our hotel. We learned some about the basic winemaking process in Rioja and also something about the vineyards themselves. We also drove around the area quite a bit – the landscape is fascinating and there are vines everywhere. The weather was not great – only a passable 1.0 on the Knowmark Weather Scale – quite cold and very windy. However, the forecast looks much better for the next few days.

Thursday, 13 May 2004

Today, we probed the western and northern boundaries of Rioja Alta and Rioja Alavesa. This area is quite fascinating and strangely beautiful in places, particularly north of the Ebro River. And, the weather turned nicer – an even 2.0 today.

Administratively (politically), La Rioja is a province. However, not all of the province grows grapes or makes wine and not all of the province is actually part of the official D.O. Rioja. The official D.O. Rioja wine region is divided into three parts – Rioja Baja, Rioja Alta and Rioja Alavesa. Generally speaking, the better Rioja wines come from Rioja Alta and Rioja Alavesa. All of Rioja Alavesa is north of the Ebro and is actually in Álava, which is one of the three provinces that make up Euskadi (Pais Vasco) – the Basque country. We are staying in Ábalos, which is north of the Ebro, but it is in a very small enclave that is part of La Rioja province administratively – the only part of La Rioja that is so situated (except for a tiny bit around Briñas). From a wine point of view, technically this part of the area is Rioja Alta, but it is impossible to distinguish from Rioja Alavesa, which adjoins this small enclave both to the east (a little bit) and to the west (a larger bit), stretching from Haro to Logroño north of the Ebro.

We first went to Nájera, which is a major stop on the Camino de Santiago, a 1000-year old pilgrim trail from France to Santiago de Compostela, which is in northwest Spain. The pilgrimage is based on some Christian mythology and the trail is still used extensively today by not only religious pilgrims (a minority), but many hikers and bicyclists. Our main purpose in Nájera was to buy a copy of the Financial Times, an English-language newspaper (British) that we read occasionally and is widely available in Europe. It also happened to be market day (mostly clothing) which was fortuitous, since Steve needed a light sweater (mission accomplished).

Then, on to Ezcaray, which is up in the Sierra de la Demanda, a small mountain range that is south of the Ebro and roughly marks the southern border of the Rioja region. We then headed north (toward Haro), approximately along the western edge of the Rioja area, eventually crossing the Ebro at Briñas. This is the northwestern part of the region, containing parts of Rioja Alta and Rioja Alavesa.

Our final stop for the day was in San Vicente de Sonsierra (this area between the Sierra de Cantabria and the Ebro is known as Sonsierra). San Vicente is an interesting old village on top of a rather high hill. A very old church and the ruins of an old castle are at the very top and we explored them for a while and enjoyed the amazing views of the countryside. Finally, we continued our drive through some beautiful back roads, making a circuitous return to our temporary home in Ábalos.

As usual, we had dinner tonight at the Hotel Villa de Ábalos, which we enjoyed with one of the local wines (Rioja, of course!) that are featured there: Marqués de Lagarda Reserva 1998.

Friday, 14 May 2004

We did more of the same, yet different. Haro – bodega tour (Muga, bought wine); two other bodegas – no tour, but bought wine; lunch – indifferent service, overcharged, food was pretty good; Laguardia – very interesting town, informal capital of Rioja Alavesa; drove way up into the Sierra de Cantabria (generally marks the northern border of the Rioja region) for a spectacular view of the entire Rioja area. Our photos simply don’t do it justice. And, it was a bit hazy in the west and far south, so we know that the views are even better. Perhaps tomorrow or Sunday.

A lovely day here – nudging 2.5 on the Knowmark Weather Scale (a perfect 3.0 is attained only on a sunny day when the temperature is comfortable enough for shirtsleeves for the most part – not too hot nor too chilly).

Back to the tour at Muga (see above). It was a very interesting contrast to the one at Bodega Puelles partly because Muga is a much larger operation, but also because they use oak for the entire process starting with the fermentation vats. They have their own cooperage on site where they make all their own fermentation vats and most of their own barrels.

Saturday, 15 May 2004

We set quite a leisurely pace today, as we thought perhaps we had been too busy! Today is the Festival of San Isidro (more Christian mythology) in these parts. Plus, it is Saturday, so there are many visiting families; festival-type things; more social activity generally. And, that’s quite a lot, since Spanish society is (generally) more social than ours in Canada!

We meandered (found some new back roads) down to Nájera; got the week-end edition of the Financial Times; had a café y pastel; did a little shopping. We are managing to travel nearly every small road in the area, particularly north of the Ebro (bounded by the Sierra de Cantabria and the Sierra de Toloño), and immediately south of the Ebro. The countryside is fascinating – quite rugged, but with vineyards everywhere. We have tried to capture this, but our photographs simply don’t do this area justice. We spent a little while in the main plaza in Haro with wine and bocadillo at a table outside a small cafe, just people-watching. Then, we visited Briñas and San Vicente, where we just missed some of the festival goings-on. Nonetheless, there was a general party atmosphere there, so we joined in with a glass of wine and some nice tapas. Finally, we found our way back to Ábalos for a rest.

Since it was an absolutely gorgeous day (a perfect 3.0 in the KWS), we then walked out into some of the vineyards around Ábalos, and explored a little more of this small village that we hadn’t seen. Our hotel was quite busy (week-end visitors), and since the weather was great, the patio was hopping. We spent some time there in the early evening, before an excellent dinner (the best we’ve had so far at the hotel).

Sunday, 16 May 2004

Today was our last full day in the Rioja region – we will certainly miss it. It has been a memorable, enjoyable experience for us. Today we travelled some roads that we had not covered earlier, plus re-visiting other areas (which, of course, is unavoidable at times!). We set off to explore the southeast extent of Rioja Alta, travelling on LR-341 between Ventosa and Sorzano. It is a lovely drive. Many of the 300 series roads in La Rioja province are wonderful driving experiences. We particularly like LR-319 from Ábalos to the junction with LR-318 and LR-318 between San Vicente and Baños de Ebro. Also of note are LR-317 between Rivas de Tereso Peciña and San Vicente, plus A-3228 from Elvillar to Laguardia. A-3228 is in Álava, in the Basque country.

We travelled north from Sorzano to Elvillar, which is roughly the eastern extent of Rioja Alta (until you cross the Ebro) and Rioja Alavesa. We stopped for café in Elvillar in the only bar (every pueblo has at least one), which doubles as the local retirement lodge. Then we meandered down to Briones, which we had passed by many times, but never visited. We can always see it in the distance – partly because it’s on a hill (as are all the pueblos here), and partly because of the single spire from one of the local churches that stands out from afar. So, we explored a little of this village and stopped for a glass of wine and some snacks in the main plaza, in which stands the aforementiond spire that we had been noticing for days! A nice place with great views, enhanced by the gorgeous weather (another perfect 3.0 on the KWS). Then north across the Ebro on yet another unexplored road to San Vicente and finally back to our “home” for a rest.

Since it was such a beautiful day, we later decided to hike a bit north of Ábalos, where we climbed partway up one of the foothills (in front of the Sierra de Cantabria), searching for an old hermitage that we had driven to days before. However, it was too far to go, but we got some great views of the Rioja region/Ebro valley and some closeup looks at some of the local vineyards. As we circled back into town, we stumbled on to a small street party, where kids (and adults!) were breaking piñatas (clay pots here).

Tomorrow we’re off to Peñafiel, which we don’t know much about, except it’s in the Ribera del Duero wine region, which we are quite interested in. We had not planned the next three days in advance, so we did a little searching on-line, found a place and Susan booked it on the phone entirely in Spanish. At least, we’re pretty sure that’s what happened! We’ll know for sure tomorrow 🙂