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
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
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, and Marqués de Riscal Winery in Elciego,Rioja Alavesa
You have surely heard of the Catholic order of the Jesuits, as they are present all over the world. But I´m sure you didn´t know that the founder was born in 1491 in the heart of the Basque Country, in Azpeitia. Iñigo de Loyola (born Iñigo, a Basque name, that he changed later to Ignacio), of a noble family and educated in the best manner, soon became a soldier serving the King of Castile. In 1521 he was injured while battling in Pamplona, and retired to his fortress in the valley of Loiola, near Azpeitia and Azkoitia. During his long recovery he got used to reading religious books, that made him rethink his whole life. Once recovered, he started a life of sanctity that led him to the foundation of the Jesuit order, probably the most influential in the history of the Catholic church.
The 18th century basilica is located in a beautiful valley, surrounded by a park full of trees and by the Urola river that flows through the mountainous scenery. As you can see by the pictures, it´s a magnificent but at the same time a modest building, with a great dome covered in baroque paintings and designs. On its left hand side you can visit the birthplace of San Ignacio de Loyola, a.k.a. Iñigo de Loyola, that has been beautifully restored to its original state. You can visit both buildings, and in the fortress tower you can see the rooms as they were in the 16th century.
Right by the Basilica (or Sanctuary) there´s a nice, cozy hotel and some rural housings, as well as fine restaurants, in an atmosphere surprisingly almost tourist free. The valley offers very interesting visits, like the Ferrería de Mirandaola (Ironmongery) in theIron Valley or the town of Idiazabal, where the world famous Idiazabal sheep cheese is made (also, the Cheese Museum deserves a visit).
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.
Last Saturday I went to visit the Museo de la Boina La Encartada - Museum of the Beret (or “txapela”, in Basque), in Balmaseda, Bizkaia. It´s on the former factory that has been making berets for exactly 100 years (1892-1992). The museum - a classic , beautiful XIX century Industrial Revolution building- , surrounded by well kept gardens and a river, has been recently opened and offers a very comprehensive and thorough visit (available in English on demand).
They show the whole process, as some of the machinery is still in good working condition. All the machinery has been restored and, as the power they use to make them work comes from just WATER (thrusted from a turbine moved by the force of the water of the river), it´s constantly in motion. A very good guide shows you how wool is converted through a series of processes into a classic Basque beret, there´s a very instructive video (well, there are two, one is for kids and the other is for adults) and you also visit the home of the owners, kept as it was in early XX century. Entrance fee is very small and they offer berets for sale, at very reasonable prices. Nearby, the beautiful village of Balmaseda, full of beautiful churches, convents and a marvellous mediaeval bridge. A different kind of visit.
The web page is www.laencartadamuseoa.com, it´s just 30 kms from Bilbao and it´s off the beaten path, but worth the visit. Not far from Ferrería (ironmongery) El Pobal and the Rolls Royce Museum.
And this is me with the txapela I bought that day…