I have been travelling to Spain for almost 40 years now. My first visit was back in 1975, shortly after I had entered the travel industry and working for a Waterford-based travel agency. I spent a week on the Costa del Sol and familiarised myself with the regional capital of Malaga and the tourist resorts of Torremolinos and Fuengirolla and the small hillside village of Mijas. It was my first ever trip outside of Ireland and indeed the trip itself was responsible for quite a number of first in my then largely sheltered existence. It was the first time that I ever tasted caviar, garlic, or shrimp. I tasted my first olive (didn’t particularly like it) and probably my first ever glass of wine. When I think back now, I find it extraordinary that we were so insulated in Ireland from some of the best things in life. My mother had always been an adventurous cook and so I hadn’t exactly been raised on a diet of bacon and cabbage but nonetheless, even I was taken aback by the sheer profundity and diversity of gastronomical delights that whet my appetite during my week-long discovery of all things Spanish. Over the course of those 40 years, I have been back to Spain (both the mainland and many of its islands) on countless occasions and my love affair with the country has only grown and deepened. I love everything about the place — the food, the culture, the architecture, the history, the landscape but most especially the people. I thought I had seen most of what there was to be seen until just a few weeks ago when I had the pleasure of experiencing just two days amidst the decaying vines of the Rioja region, when I visited a number of impressive vineyards, including the extremely impressive Marques de Riscal winery — voted best winery in Europe in 2013! The region boasts approximately 150 vineyards of varying sizes and their respective wineries exceed your expectations at every possible opportunity and in particular at the extraordinary Eguren Ugarte winery — a testimony to the vision (not to mention the blood, sweat and tears) of one amazing man — who carved out 12 kilometres of caverns and cellars from the living rock over the course of 20 long years, using only a digger, a pick-axe and the help of 6 friends! The winery now boasts a state of the art hotel which has been so cleverly designed that the glass-fronted lift descends down through the vast cellars, enroute to the hotels’ bedrooms on the lower floors.
Both wineries are located in the Basque region of Alava which comprises part of the Rioja, as is the idyllic hilltop village of La Guardia. This part of the Rioja is dominated by a series of small fortified villages that jut up a few hundred feet from the relative flatness of the surrounding landscape where the rows of vines disappear into the distance. These villages were in effect sentinels, watching out for the first signs of invasion from the Moors who had conquered much of Spain back in the 9th and 10th centuries. La Guardia is paradise itself and boasts one of the most enchanting little hotels I have ever come across in my globetrotting over the course of the past 40 years — the incomparable Hospederia de los Parajes — a hotel that unbelievable as it sounds, is rated at just three stars! Should you choose to visit this part of Spain — and I strongly urge that you do — one of the more pleasant mornings (or afternoons) that you could spend is harvesting your own grapes and then crushing them in a vat by the traditional method of squashing them with your feet: a strangely therapeutic diversion!