On the road to Spain: Rioja Alavesa, Laguardia and Elciego

In rainy November 2019, we spend a few days in Pamplona and explore the city and the surroundings. Our first excursion has taken us to Puente de la Reina. Now, our second excursion takes us to the vineyards of Rioja Alavesa, Laguardia and Elciego. Because it starts to pour with rain around midday, we return to Pamplona early and return to Laguardia on the next day.

Source: Google Maps


Beautiful Rioja Alavesa in the Basque hills north of the Ebro

North of Laguardia in the hills, we find the yellow and red vineyards of Rioja Alavesa that politically is part of the Basque country, but belongs to the wine region Rioja.

We are just below the Sierra de Cantabria. Dark clouds are looming, but the sun breaks through the clouds.

When we return the next day, the weather looks much more friendly…

… and the mountains now have a snow cap. The Rioja wine region is surrounded by mountains.

Near Laguardia, we say hello to our old friend, the river Ebro.


Elciego, where the success story of Rioja started in the 19th century

Elciego is located close to Laguardia. It is here, where in 1858 Marqués de Riscal founded the first bodega in Rioja. It is one of the most prestigious bodegas of Rioja today, with the brave architecture built by Frank Gehry.  Even on this rainy November day, the large Riscal parking is completely full with buses and cars.

There are more such prestigious bodegas around Laguardia, one of them (Ysios) built by Calatrava.  We prefer the more modest bodega Valdelana and I buy a Tinto Reserva from 2007 and a Malvasia (I am curious about the Malvasia from Rioja).

Wine production in Rioja started to thrive, when at the end of the 19th century, Phylloxera hit Bordeaux and destroyed their vineyards. The French winemakers turned to Rioja then. In the 70’s, when I was a student, “Rioja” meant “Spanish wine” for me. That has changed – I value the diversity of the Spanish wine regions, with Rioja being one of them.


Laguardia – medieval city hiding many bodegas and the most colourful porch I have ever seen

Laguardia is a medieval, small city from the 13th century, until today surrounded by the town wall. This is the defensive abbey tower from the 13th century that serves as the belfry of the “Iglesia de Santa Maria de los Reyes”.

When we return the next day, this tower shines in the sun.

On our first visit, the narrow streets are wet… we walk through them hidden under our umbrellas.

This is the Plaza Mayor in the rain, with the new town hall.

When we come back the next day, the small town welcomes us with sunshine. The houses are crouched on the hill.

Laguardia is a town full of bodegas that are visited by many tourists, now that the sun has come out.

We stop at the church San Juan from the 14th century with the belfry worked into the town gate.

The church is in principle closed for a wedding today. As the doors are open, we enter and listen to the singer practicing solemnly for her performance at the wedding.

We have tickets for 11:15 to visit the porch of the Santa Maria church. It is only possible to see the porch as a guided tour. The porch is from the 14th century and has been repainted in the 17th century. To protect the colours, the porch has always been protected by a wooden door. Therefore the colours have been preserved illustrating to us, what porches might have looked like really. I have never seen that before.

The iconography centers around Maria, as the church carries her name. She stands in the middle of the porch.

She wears a dress with a beautiful pattern, meticulously worked out. Her face expresses sadness – she may think of the fate of her son.

To her sides are the apostles, beginning with Paulus to the right…

… and with Petrus to the left.

Above are the Annunciation (Gabriel announces to Maria that she will have a son) and the Visitation (Maria, pregnant from Jesus, visits Elizabeth, pregnant from Juan).

The story continues with the flight of Maria and Joseph to Egypt and the Adoration of the Kings. Above are Maria’s death and her ascension.

We leave Laguardia and continue our way to Burgos.

Sources: Marion Golder: “Nordspanien und der Jakobsweg”, Dumont Reise-Handbuch, Ostfildern 2018 and Marion Trutter (Editor): “Culinario España, Spanische Spezialitäten”, Tandem Verlag 2015.

From Bilbao to Santillana del Mar

On Monday, May 6th, we travel from Bilbao to Santillana del Mar, along the coast.


From Bilbao along the Ría Bilbao to the sea

Our GPS takes us to the modern and well-kept residential area with apartment buildings on the right hand side of the Ría Bilboa. Soon, we reach Portugalete.

Ursula talks about crossing the Ría using a puente colgante with a cabin. I am a little worried: I see our Audi hang above the river. But then it is easy: The puente colgante is a ferry boat that works like the four Rhine ferries in Basel (a wooden boat is attached to a rope). This ferry is larger (for cars) and attached to a metallic rope that glides along an iron beam, the design of one of Eiffel’s pupils. The guard tells me strictly that I am not allowed to leave the car…

After having crossed the Ría, we continue north to Santurtzi, located at the sea. We park our car in a narrow parking house.

The sun makes the port sparkle, and in the background, I can see the Puente Colgante that we had used half an hour ago.

We continue crossing mountains and ugly beach resorts with beautiful sand beaches, until we reach Laredo. It is another old city center with another sandy beach and many more ugly apartment houses.

I am hungry. Heavy traffic here and not one single free parking lot. Finally, we find one single free slot right in front of a pintxo bar. We have some tapas, drink some water, and as we want to leave… we find our car locked behind two cars parked on my side. One driver sits in his car and leaves. The second driver is nowhere. Ursula contends that now it is possible to get out. I am not convinced. Maneuvering on to the sidewalk around a tree and a hydrant and with the help of Ursula, of two more men and one women showing to me, how close I am to all that, I finally get out – but I am not really amused. “Land und Leute” or “country and people”, Ursula says, shrugging her shoulder. Hmm. I am not against “Land und Leute”, but to my opinion, there are limits…

We take the motor way and, one hour later, we arrive in La Casona de los Güelitos in Santillana del Mar. I do feel at home in this quiet old country house that has been tastefully renovated.

The sun shines and after a short siesta we decide to visit the mountains south of Santillana. Ursula has selected Bárcena Mayor that is said to be a typical Cantabrian mountain village. Driving through smooth, green hills with pastures, we reach a large parking area. A signboard promises restaurants, shops, hotels and guest houses. We get to a well-kept pretty village with thriving flowers all over, but it is empty. Not one shop open, not one restaurant open, everything dead. Pretty, but empty on this Monday.

We leave this place and continue uphill, uphill, uphill. A gorgeous panorama here. Smooth hills, green pastures with cattle – cows of all colours, goat and sheep.

After the Puerto de Palombera on 1250 above sea level, we reach a high plateau with the Alto Campo and the Pico Tres Mares behind us. The rivers that emerge here go either to the Atlantic in the north, to the Atlantic in the west or to the Mediterranean (hence tres mares). Signs point to the source of the Ebro. We find it, blue-green, in a lush forest.

It is a pozo (well) that emerges from the karst ground. The water comes from the creek El Hijar that originates at the sides of the Pico Tres Mares, disappears and appears again here, near Fontibre. The water is blue-green, due to the plaster, clay and limestone that the water picks up underground before emerging. This is one of several wells of the Ebro, there are more that have the label “source of the Ebro”.

What starts here as a small creek, flows through Spain – 910 km – ending in the Ebro Delta with its abundant bird life and rice fields (photo taken in November 2018).

We return to our Casa de Güelitos to have dinner in the small restaurant. I have three kinds of cheese from Cantabria, a solomillo and a glass of Rioja tinto.

We sleep well in our quiet guest house. In the morning, I can hear a cock crow.

Bilbao on the Ría de Bilbao and between mountains

On Saturday/Sunday, May 4th/5th 2019 we are in Bilbao.

Bilbao stretches out along the Ría de Bilbao. The Ría de Bilbao is the mouth of the river Nervión. Bilbao lies 14km away from the sea. The surrounding mountains do leave little space for Bilbao. About 400’000 inhabitants live densely, with 8000 persons per square meter, as my Dumont says. The inhabitants of Bilbao call their city “el bocho” or “eye of a needle”.

The city center is split between the old and the new town, the old town on the right-hand side of the Ría, the new town on the left side.


The old town on the right-hand side of the Ría

Near the water are the roofs of the small old town with the Cathedral Santiago seen from the Artxanda hill.

Elevators are used to overcome the height differences from the old center. A guard takes 45 cents per person. The button for the elevator is labelled “llamada” and I understand, you have to call (llamar) the guard to take you up and down.

The elevators built in concrete are scattered around the city center.

The heart of the old town is the Plaza Nueva with its arcades and the many, many bars and restaurants.

In the Cathedral de Santiago, it is the cloister that I like most, with the lemon trees.

The old town is small and full of bars and restaurants, pintxos are on display everywhere.


The new town on the left-hand side of the bay

This is the new town with its modern appearance, also seen from the Artxanda hill.

I had always imagined the famous Guggenheim Museum to stand close to the sea. But this “heap” of Titan stands inland on the banks of the Ría Bilbao.

The streets are ample in the new town. The lifeline is the Gran Via named after the founder of Bilbao, Don Diego Lopez de Haro.

There are great shops here such as Rosa Clara’s wedding dresses.

The style of the buildings is either promoterism (also called wilhelminian, second half of the 19th century)…

… or they are art nouveau (built in the early 20th century).

Then there are modern buildings, many of them built be renowned architects. One example is the Office Tower of Iberdola.

Another example is the Congress Center. The – also modern – red brick posh five star hotel Melia is mirroring in the windows.


The Guggenheim Museum marks Bilbao´s revival in the 90’s

THE highlight, the Guggenheim Museum, has been designed by the Canadian architect Frank O. Gehry and was inaugurated in 1997.

On three levels, the museum shows modern art.

On the second floor, we find the temporary exhibition of Jenny Holzer. Using words, she captures violence on plates, benches and in video installations – haunting. Another exhibition are the still-life paintings of Giorgio Morandi, put into relation with classical paintings of Jean Siméon Chardin (I like the boys playing with cards), El Greco or Zurbarán.

Outside on the terrace, the colourful balloons make great mirrors.

It is said that Bilbao benefited from the “Guggenheim impact” which initiated the revival of the city in the 90’s, after the decline of the steel, metal and shipbuilding industry.


Bridges are also the footprints of great architects

Some great architects also left footprints building bridges that cross the Ría Bilboa.

The White Bridge (Zubizuri) designed by Calatrava is playful with the strings and the transparent glass floor. It is said that Calatrava was not very pleased to see his glass floor being covered with a carpet, for the benefit of the pedestrians. Well, glass is slippery…

The Puente de Euskalduna has been designed by Frank O. Gehry. He was kind with the pedestrians: They walk under a roof. His bridge swings over the bay.


History of Bilbao

We visit the ethnological museum to learn more about the history of Bilbao. Around 1300, Don Diego Lopez de Haro transformed the fishing village into a city. After 1500, it was the center of wool and fabric trade with Flanders, later in addition for whaling.

In the 19th century, it was the mining, steel, metal and ship building industry that made Bilbao rich, and I discover, they also had porcelain production.

After the decline of the steel, metal and shipbuilding industry in 1990, Bilbao was able to win Frank O. Gehry to build the Guggenheim Museum. This set the base to motivate more renowned architects to build for Bilbao… and, as a consequence, the number of overnight stays doubled.


I felt at home in Bilbao

I felt at home in Bilbao, as this lively city with its modern appearance reminds me of my mother town Berlin, though Bilbao is much smaller and more manageable.

Our hotel NH Collection Villa de Bilbao was located near the Plaza del Sagrado Corazón de Jesús. From the fitness room on the seventh floor, I could see the statue of Jesús.

Yes, I will keep the memory of Bilbao in my heart.

Source: Mario Golder: “Nordspanien und der Jakobsweg”, Dumont 2017

Getaria – center of Txakoli and fashion

On May 3rd, we drive from Hondarribia to Bilbao. We stop in Getaria. It is a small town perched on a rock.

The gothic church San Salvador is from the 14th century. Inside you have to walk uphill to reach the choir – on the rock, it was not possible to build a church with a flat floor. This is the view of the windows.

Getaria is the center of Txakoli wine growing.

Txakoli is the grape of the Basque Country. I buy a bottle in a small shop.

The shop also sells tins with seafood or other regional products – this is an old tradition here.

Two important men are from Getaria, the first Born in the 16th century, the second in the 19th century. The first is Juan Sebastián Elcano who joined Magellan on his first round the world tour in 1515. It was him who completed the tour, after Magellan had died on the Philippine islands. The second man is Cristobál Balenciaga, the famous fashion designer from the 1920’s to the 1960’s. His work is on display in a modern building in Getaria. I am impressed. His creations are straightforward and look wearable to me. He makes the material flow. He started with waisted lines – all close to the body.

More and more his creations became less waisted. In the sixties, he designed straight dresses (white dress) or “remodelled” the body (black dress).

After the museum, we continue our way along the wild coast, just amazing.

Then the road takes us into the mountains and we cross one industrial village after the next. I start to understand that the Basques are industrious.

We arrive in Bilbao and look forward to discovering this lively city.


Discovering San Sebastián stretching along La Concha

On Thursday, 2nd of May 2019, we visit San Sebastián, called Donostia by the Basques. 


Driving along the coast via Jaizkibel to San Sebastián

From Hondarribia we drive along the coast and cross the mountain Jaizkibel. Our first stop is at the chapel Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe. Inside there are a black Madonna and boat models; yes, the Basque country needs support for their fishing boats.

From here, we see the Bidasoa’s river mouth with Hondarribia (Spain), Hendaye (France) and the Pyrenées in the background. 

On the Jaizkibel at point 455m, we find these Latxa sheep with their long, thick hair.

I ask myself, how these sheep full of wool handle rain. Do they get all wet? No, Ursula tells me, the Lanolin, or adeps lanae, protects them from the rain.

The Latxa sheep are typical of the Basque Country and give the milk for the cheese called Idiazabal.

From the Jaizkibel, we can see San Sebastián in the haze. The brooms are yellow.

A fire must have burnt these bushes.


San Sebastián – the old town with narrow streets and neoclassial houses

San Sebastián was devastated by a fire in the early 19th century. The old city was then rebuilt along the old street lines, in neoclassical style.

We stop in one of the many tapas bars to eat some pintxos, as tapas are called in the Basque Country.

We stroll through the narrow streets. I wonder, why the windows (and balconies) at the Plaza de la Constitución have numbers. My Dumont tells me, that the Plaza was used for bullfights and the spectators watched them from the numbered balconies (Marion Golder: “Nordspanien und der Jakobsweg”, Dumont Hamburg 2017).

In the baroque Iglesia de Santa Maria from the 18th century we find two statues of San Sebastián (or Done Sebastian, a name that the Basques shortened to Donostia). This is the traditional wooden sculpture…

… and here is the modern version of San Sebastián (he died from arrows).


San Sebastián – the bay La Concha between two hills

We continue to the famous bay called “La Concha”. It IS beautiful. I can understand why people select the sandy beach here to recover and swim. In the background, there is the Monte Igueldo.

Along the Rio Urumea, we find houses from the area of promotorism (late 19th century) and Art Nouveau (after 1900).

Also the ostentatious Puente Maria Christina was built around 1900.

Not far from here, we find the Jardín Bótanico. It is a cosy coffee bar with a lush garden. We wrap off our visit of San Sebastián, with a cup of coffee and a carrot cake.


Driving back to Hondarribia through green mountains

To drive back to Hondarribia, we select a road through the steep and green Basque mountains. The sea is far away, north of us.

Our GPS gets lost, leads us uphill and uphill, until we end up in this dead end street.

We turn back, find the main road again and finish the day in the restaurant Abarka with an excellent rodaballo or turbot and a glass of Txakoli, the wine from the Basque Country.


Around Bayonne – much visited coast in France

On first of May 2019 we take our car, leave Hondarribia and Spain and return to France. It is only about 30kms to Bayonne. At the border we get confused. We are in France, but at the next roundabout, we find a Repsol gasoline station. Right, we are back in Spain.

Using the Route Nationale, we drive along the coast line and find a free parking space right near the old castle in the center of Bayonne. We walk through the narrow streets of Grand Bayonne, with the typical half-timbered Basque houses that we already know from Hondarribia in Spain.

We reach the river Nive which separates Grande Bayonne from Petite Bayonne and which enters the river Adour later.

After an espresso, we visit the gothic cathedral Ste Marie which is not far from the river.

We love the ambiance inside the cathedral…

… and in the cloister.

The cloister is very busy on this first of May. There is a market of creative handicrafts, made by artists from the area.

For lunch we enjoy tapas, ham of Bayonne, cheese from the area and tasty paté.

In the narrow streets we look for the old palace Bélzunce from the 15th century.

This house may need some renovation, though the Salon de Thé on the ground floor looks inviting.

I have already learnt that the Bayonet was invented in Bayonne in 1703. This window tells me that the Makila, the armed stick (la canne armée), has also been invented in Bayonne.

We cross the Nive using the lowest bridge and look upriver.

Vauban has fortified Bayonne after the Peace Treaty of the Pyrenées in 1659. This is the part that protected Petite Bayonne.

The main church in Petite Bayonne is called Saint André. It has been built around 1850.

We return to Grande Bayonne. Not far from the old castle we catch another view of the cathedral Ste Marie.

Then we pick up our car and drive along the coast to Biarritz. We drive along the coast line with many, many fin de siècle grand hotels. The coast line promenade is full with tourists, and there is no place to stop. We continued south of Biarritz to a place called “Chambre d’Amour” with lush mansions, huge hotels and cliffs.

People are swimming in the cold water enjoying the waves of the Atlantique.

We continue to St-Jean-de-Luz. Tourists and tourists… just 7 parking spaces left in one of the park houses. We found one of the slots (uff, narrow!), have a drink in the Pergola and watch life on the windy beach of this beautiful protected bay.

St-Jean-de-Luz has a pretty old city with the cathedral Saint Jean the Baptist built in the 17th century.

The altar and the wooden balconies give it a solemn atmosphere. When Louis XIV married the oldest daughter of Philippe IV from Spain here in 1660, this church was still under construction.

We follow the coast line to Hendaye and stop above the cliffs. I catch the evening ambiance.

Hendaye and Hondarribia both stretch along the Rio Bidasoa, Hendaye on the French side and Hondarribia on the Spanish side. This is the view of Hondarribia seen from Hendaye.

The evening sun plays with the water here.

We say good-bye to another great day. Now we understand why Napoleon III loved to recover near the rocky Basque coast that also offers sandy beaches.