Category Archives: Araba

Medieval Towns in Basque Rioja…it´s more than just wine

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Rioja wine region is divided into Rioja Alavesa (Basque Country)Rioja Alta (La Rioja) and Rioja Baja (La Rioja and Navarre). It´s mostly small family wineries, but of course there are also some big ones among them too. A visit to a winery in Rioja is always a delightful experiences, as you spend at least a couple of hours learning how they´ve been making wine during centuries. No wine bars like in Napa valley…it´s a much more enriching experience.

Medieval tower in Labraza, where time passes slowly
Medieval tower in Labraza, where time passes slowly

But there´s more to Basque Rioja than wine. When you drive along the roads surrounded by vineyards, you will for sure find a beautiful medieval town on your way. Or several prehistoric monuments, like dolmens and funerary burial sites. Or incredible churches that keep inside amazing altarpieces. Or a walled town, just where lied the borders of the ancient kingdoms of Castile and Navarre. Or maybe  just a town with nothing special on it but full of flavor and a particular relaxing atmosphere, where one of its neighbors may invite you to his place for a homemade meal.

Dolmen of the Sorceress, in Elvillar
Dolmen of the Sorceress, in Elvillar

Next time you´re there, don´t forget to visit walled Laguardia and the façade of Santa María de los Reyes (a must), Labastida and its fortressed church, medieval Labraza surrounded by nothing but vineyards, Samaniego, Lapuebla de Labarca, Baños de Ebro, Kripán, Elvillar, Elciego and the Marqués de Riscal winery (designed by Frank Gehry, the Guggenheim arquitect)…you´ll find a lovely atmosphere in places where the path of time seems to be slower than in the rest of the world…

Fortress church in Labastida, Basque Rioja
Fortress church in Labastida, Basque Rioja, and Marqués de Riscal Winery in Elciego,Rioja AlavesaElciego, Marqués de Riscal winery

How a XIII Century Cathedral Is Being Restored

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In the very centre of what´s knows as The Almond (due to its peculiar shape), that is, the historic district of Vitoria-Gasteiz, the capital of the Basque Country, there´s the Old Cathedral of St Mary´s. A few years ago, a very interesting project was born: the restoration of this Cathedral to stop its decaying process, seemingly unstoppable at the time. They have a great motto, Open For Reworks, (Abierto Por Obras, in Spanish), and they offer guided tours with experts that show you why the Cathedral was about to collapse, what are they doing to prevent it from falling down and how are they “reconstructing” some walls and columns so the building stays as it is for several more centuries. Extremely interesting for art and architecture lovers, for families and kids and for everyone interested in History, with capital letters. The Old Town of Vitoria-Gasteiz offers a great array of historical monuments and it´s also well worth a visit (the Jewish quarter is very well kept and its buildings are beautiful). This project has received a good number of prizes, based on its universal interest, and you can have all relevant info on www.catedralvitoria.com, also available in English.

Castles in the Basque Country II. The Tower of Varona.

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This beautifully restored castle, or maybe fortress, built originally in the IX century and rebuilt on the XIII-XIV,  is located in the beautiful Valdegobia valley, in the much unknown province of Araba. Scarcely populated, it´s nevertheless full of historical places (very close to it is Valpuesta, one of the first places where the Spanish Castilian language was born) and near the pretty church of Tuesta. Also very close to the Natural Park of Valderejo and the town of Espejo (“mirror”, in Spanish). Nature at its full length…

The legends goes that there were three brothers and a sister, María Pérez, and the first three went to battle for Doña Urraca against  king Alfonso of Aragón. The lady also participated in the battle, hidden under an armor, and at one moment she found herself battling against the king, face to face. She defeated him, and admired by her braveness and after finding out he had been fighting with a woman, he told her “You´ve fought bravely, not as a feeble woman, but as a strong warrior. Therefore, you will not be considered a man hereafter (“Varón”, in Spanish), but “Varona” in feminine, and thus that will be the name for your descendents”. And so her name changed from Pérez to Varona.

For more info on the area, http://www.valdegovia.com/en/ver_index.asp, also on the romanic and pre-gothic church of Tuesta, Valderejo Natural Park, Salinas de Añana, etc…A very relaxing area, very authentic, full of unexplored jewels…And eating at the restaurant in the public swimming pool of Valdegobia may also be a great idea…

A Pintxo is not a Tapa…and a Tapa is not a Ración…

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pintxos BilbaoMany potential visitors to the Basque Country tend to ask about The Best Tapas Bars in town. Well, I normally answer telling them that, first of all, there´s no such thing as Tapas Bars. Most bars offer tapas or pintxos. And also, that a Tapa is not a Pintxo. To make it more complicated, a Pintxo is not a Tapa and a Tapa is not a Ración and Pintxos can be divided into Banderillas and The Rest while The Rest may have another subdivision, Pintxos You Eat With Your Hand and Pintxos Served On A Plate…it seems a bit complicated, uh?pintxos Donostia

Let´s start by the very beginning: Pintxos (or pinchos) were (and still are) small portions of food that are placed on the counter and you pick them with your hand. The classic one is the Spanish Omelette, served on a piece of bread. You get into the bar, order your drink, and grab the pintxo with your hand. There´s normally a big selection of pintxos on the counter, you can have as many as you want, but the local custom is to have just one with a “zurito” (half a beer) or a glass of wine or cider. In some selected places, mainly located in the Donostia-San Sebastián area, they also offer Pintxos made on order, more elaborate, more expensive, and that are nomally eaten using a fork.

Tapas are not Pintxos. Tapas are complimentary served in many parts of Spain, for free, to go with your drink. They are more basic than a pintxo, and may also be smaller. In some places they call Tapas to Raciones. A Ración is something that is served hot, you have it seated, in an informal way, and normally share several with your friends. And is not free. You may order A Ración of Calamares, of Patatas Bravas (spicy potatoes), of Albóndigas (meatballs), Champis (mushrooms), etc…pintxo ganador

One of the effects of the Pintxos becoming more and more popular is that  in many bars in San Sebastián they give you a plate and tell you to place your pintxos on it, then they charge you for them. That is an outrage!! Pintxos and drinks are always paid when you finish and should NEVER be eaten on a plate. It´s not our way and it should never be, pintxos are eaten with your hand and the etiquette says that they are paid based on an honor system: the waiter asks how many you´ve had, and you tell him the truth. No need to count…

Every year we hold a Pintxos Championship. The winner bar will be famous forever and customer will flock in to taste his small culinary preparations…For more info, a useful web is www.todopintxos.com.

The Salt Valley of Añana-Salinas de Añana, Araba

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Salinas de Añana2Following with those places that you normally won´t visit when coming to the Basque Country, there´s a very special valley located in the province of Araba. It´s an inner “salt valley”, where locals have been obtaining pure salt from the ground  for the past 1200 years. Abandoned for decades, it´s being recovered by a new Foundation that pretends to preserve and to recover its former activity. It can be visited in small guided tours, the surrounding landscape is just amazing and the whole area is full of towns with a historical past and beautiful buildings. The salt obtained is excellent for cooking and considered one of the best in the world. Much unknown, though…Salinas de Añana

To visit their web page, click here,  Salt Valley. And if you type “salinas de añana” in YouTube (no “ñ” in your English keyboards, I´m afraid), there are some very decent videos showing this spectacular result of the action of nature and human activity.

Cozy and Comfy Rural Lodging

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For those of you visiting the Basque Country and that don´t care much about accommodation in the town center, the sensible alternative is rural lodging. By “rural” I mean “out of town”, but it may also imply closeness to nature, farm life and beautiful and idyllic surroundings. If you decide on a stay in the Basque Country on a rural home, you´ll get very good accommodation with all your primary, secondary and even tertiary necessities covered, a very good price, wonderful homemade breakfasts and all the peace and tranquility you long for, but also nice talks with the house owners, local and ecological products at hand, horse rides, beautiful trekkings,…

Some houses are better prepared than others, some have swimming pool, others offer their kitchen for private use, you may have a jacuzzi or not…but all of them pass a quality certification every year to make sure that the accommodation level is keep high.

I´m very fond of this kind of tourism, perfect to get a better understanding of our particularities. The evental language barrier will be quickly overcome by a warm welcome and a sense of immediate belonging to the place. I make my reservations through two webs, www.nekatur.net and www.agroturismosdebizkaia.com (this one, just for the province of Bizkaia), but you sure know how to google using the right words…

Basque is Sexy

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I´ve been to the III Basque Tourism Week, held in Donostia-San Sebastián, Bilbao and Vitoria-Gasteiz. Lots of interesting people discussing about how to improve the quantity and quality of visits to our beautiful but alas! so unknown country. There was one sentence, though, that got all my attention, Basque is sexy, and yes, I think we are, and for a lot of reasons…

…because of our love for good food, good drinking and festivals…because there are plenty of places  yet to be discovered…because we make one of the best cheeses in the world (Idiazabal) but many others too…because in such a small territory we have sea, beaches, mountains, forests, lakes, caves and rivers…because our fiestas last long and suit all tastes and are really fun…because of our love for rural sports…because of our love for traditions…because of our unique language, euskera, so enigmatic…because we make one of the best wines in the world, the Rioja…because we don´t speak English and signs are in Basque and Spanish and tourists appreciate it…because of our laid back and easy going way of life…because we have the higher number of Michelin starred restaurants per head…because we keep a nice balance between rural and city life…because we have one of the most beautiful cities in Europe (in the world?), San Sebastián…because kids are welcome everywhere and we love to have them around…because of our love for families…and because a sunset from the top of the Hanging Bridge is a lifetime experience…among many other things…

It´s about time you come and visit a place full of  positive experiences and emotions…where you will find at home. And this is not just a gimmick!!

Araba, the ignored province, for no reason at all…

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Araba is the biggest of the three provinces that make Euskadi-the Basque Country, as it´s called. Its capital is Vitoria-Gasteiz, where the Basque Government and a good part of the Administration is based. Araba is usually ignored by tourism, except for its southern part, the wine region of Rioja Alavesa, where the best wines of Europe are made.

If coming to the Basque Country, try not to ignore Araba. It offers wonderful natural spaces (Valderejo, Gorbeia and Izki Natural Parks, for example), a wide diversity in landscapes and climates, excellent food, a great capital worth a visit and unexplored valleys surrounded by beautiful mountains.

virgen-blanca-nevadaVitoria-Gasteiz is considered the most livable city in Spain, due to its ample spaces, the high rate of trees per habitant, number of parks, low crime rate and high number of pedestrian areas. Its Old Quarter was declared a Protected Monument in 1997, and keeps the spirit of the old times. The restoration of the old cathedral, www.catedralvitoria.com, can be followed in a guided tour that explains the whole process and has won several awards as Best Restoration Project. Not far, you can have lunch at www.restauranteelportalon.com, a XV century building with a spectacular façade and a beautiful interior, and great food, of course!!. You can´t miss the excellent pintxos served at its many bars, many located in the pedestrian street Eduardo Dato (a popular one is www.sagartoki.es). And, on the way out of town, the sanctuary  dedicated to the Virgin of Estibalitz, many girls are named after the matron saint of the province.vitoria2

Not far from Vitoria-Gasteiz, you can enjoy the reservoirs of Urrunaga and Ullibarri-Ganboa, both offer excellent hikes and places to have great food. The town of Peñacerrada-Urizaharra, still keeps a good part of its mediaeval walls untouched. In Salinas de Añana, further south, near the Valdegovía valley, pure rock salt is obtained as it was done hundreds of years ago, in terraces where water evaporates (guided tours available). And then, the Rioja region…that will be object of a separate post.salinillas

Two great museums in Vitoria-Gasteiz not to be missed: Artium, www.artium.org, contemporary art in a spectacular building, and the Museum Fournier of Cards, over 20.000 models of playing cards of all countries.