Well, no, not all of it. But the day after we went to see the Guggenheim and I got crunched by the quieropractica in Bilbao, Tom and I had a down day. We woke up, had breakfast, and then I settled down to work on my novel. I practically fell asleep over my computer at ten o’clock in the morning, and Tom was in the same state. So we retired to our football-field-sized and comfortable bed and snored for a few hours.
When we awoke, I went back to work on my book and Tom went out to explore the surrounding area. I reread and edited and pondered, and came up with a brilliant solution to a plot problem, but didn’t write anything new. I suppose that’s some progress. Tom explored some surrounding villages and took photos. When he got back, we walked around town. We didn’t want to go back to the restaurant in the hotel; we had eaten there three times and couldn’t face it again, though it was very good. So we went to another hotel and ate there. I think we were the only people who ate there that night, and for good reason. The outdoor patio was pretty, though, and we could watch the swallows–las golondrinas–swooping around overhead, catching gnats and flies. I cheered them on.
Every night since our arrival, we had been hearing a church bell ringing at 7:30 pm, 7:45, then again at 8:00. It wasn’t the bells in the church across the street, which rings the hours and half-hours. This bell sounded different, and it was rung in a different manner. So we asked around, first in the restaurant where we were eating. No one had any idea. We went back to our hotel and asked the guy behind the tapas bar. No idea, but he gave us two free glasses of wine to compensate for his ignorance, so that was OK. Then we asked the concierge, who asked around and then told us the bell rang for the 8 pm mass at another church in town. I was astonished. Who would’ve thought that in Spain, no one would know that the bells were ringing for mass? I guess the times, they have a-changed.
So it was early to bed, and we awoke refreshed and ready for more adventures. This was the day for wineries. Unlike in the U.S., in Spain if you want to visit a winery, you have to make an appointment. When you get there, you have to take a tour of the winery–you can’t just walk in and taste.
Our first stop was Marques de Riscal. This has been a winery since 1858, but when you see the spectacular Frank Gehry building rising up from the vineyards around El Ciego, it is an entirely modern and astonishing sight. (Frank Gehry also designed the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, which is a sculptural work of art in its own right.) The winery produces something like eight million bottles of wine a year–mostly reds. The winery tour was interesting, as it included both the new parts (a lot of very highly automated equipment) and the old–like the cage where the 100-to-150-year-old bottles are kept for special events.
Once the tour ended, they gave us quite a lot of excellent wine. I will be looking for Marques de Riscal when we get back to California!
The Frank Gehry building houses a hotel and a 2-star Michelin restaurant. We decided to eat there later. Tom wanted to take pictures of another winery, Ysios, which also has a spectacularly designed building–although they told Tom that they didn’t have any tours in English. When we got there, it looked like they didn’t have any tours at all (it was completely deserted), but the building is fascinating. Tom calls it “pixelated.” It’s supposed to blend into the landscape. IMHO: not.
We returned to Marques de Riscal and went up to the restaurant. The concierge downstairs had called ahead to let them know we were coming. When we walked in, we were greeted politely by two people who clearly didn’t expect us. Their foreheads were wrinkled with deep concern: did we have reservations? There were perhaps 50 tables there, and not one of them was occupied at that hour. However, someone who did know the score rescued us, and we sat down to the most exquisite meal we have had in Spain so far. It was delicious, but above and beyond that, it was entertaining. Example: we were served an amuse bouche, consisting of a shallow dish with fog pouring out of it and dark brown “sticks” poking up out of the fog. The waitress said it was vine twigs from the vineyard prepared for our delectation. Then she hung around watching. We nibbled on them, and they were yummy. Then she told us it was actually cheese sticks. I said, “I totally believed you!’ She was pleased.
Everything else was presented with the same whimsey and artistry. We lingered for a long time, peering out through the Frank Gehry swirls of titanium, then we left and sat in the breezy patio downstairs until it was time for our next winery tour.
Which was in La Guardia, a tiny, medieval, fortified hilltop town. You can’t actually drive through the town–it’s strictly pedestrian–though you can drive up to it. Being clueless, we had no idea where to park or where the winery might be. Tom finally parked next to an old church (probably illegally, but no one bothered us)–and set off on foot to ask questions. We knew we were within yards of the winery, but had no idea how to find it. The first few people he asked didn’t know either, but one person grabbed the winemaker and he came out and showed Tom where to go and told him where to park.
The winery is called Bodegas Carlos San Pedro Perez de Vinaspre. It is as sharp a contrast to Marques de Riscal as possible. The family has lived there and made wine for centuries in “caves” excavated underneath their house. The winemaker told us that every house in La Guardia has these cellars under their houses, originally dug to preserve food in their cool, dark recesses, and to hide in when there were wars, which apparently happened all the time. Sometimes La Guardia was part of the Kingdom of Navarre, sometimes the Kingdom of Castile. I suspect the residents didn’t care much, so long as the soldiers left them alone. Once things settled down, they realized they had the ideal conditions for wine storage, and most of the residents make their own wine, though not everyone sells it.
First, he insisted on showing us a video about the wine-making process, which we sat through politely. (I told him that Tom used to make wine, but apparently this did not exempt us.) Then he took us down into the cellar. Definitely old school. Ancient stones dripping with mold. Casks dripping with mold–in one case, the mold looked like some sea creature was trying to engulf the cask it was growing on. I put my hand on the wall, and it came away smeared with wet, black mold. Then we tasted the wines–superb. When we toured Burgundy several years ago, some of the winemakers told us that the mold added to the quality of the wine, so maybe they had something there. (Shudder.)
The town was in the midst of a festival in honor of San Juan, La Guardia’s patron saint, so the tiny streets were thronged with merrymakers–bands, dancers, people in traditional costume, others in costumes not so traditional. That was a treat, even if it meant that finding parking was difficult.
A most satisfying day. We ate at the tapas bar at Echaurren (our hotel) that night and met the chef–who, we discovered is also the chef at the restaurant at Marques de Riscal. He normally works in Echaurren’s restaurant gastronomique, but it, like most of the other top-rated restaurants in the area, was closed for vacation. I guess June is the slow season in La Rioja.
The next morning we departed for Barcelona, traveling through increasingly barren and desertlike terrain. At one point we crossed the Greenwich Meridian line. There was a modernistic arc across the freeway in an otherwise desolate landscape to mark the spot.
Tom stopped for a break at a rest area. There were a few shelters with picnic tables. We were sitting at one of these when a Spanish couple drove under the few trees for the shade, got out and asked if they could share our table. I said sure, and they hauled out a huge cured sausage of some sort and offered us some. I declined, being kind of tired of cured meats by this time, but the Spanish for the most part have been so kind and friendly.
We stopped in Zaragoza for lunch because there was a highly rated restaurant there. We parked the car in a perilous alley (because it was so narrow you had to fold in your side-view mirrors to avoid losing them) and walked to the restaurant. It was locked, though the hours indicated it should be open. I rang the bell, and it was answered by a server who–surprise!–asked if we had reservations. There were many tables, all completely devoid of patrons, but she told us they could not serve us. Because no reservations. (You would think we would learn from these experiences, but we didn’t, and ran into the same issue in Barcelona.)
So we wound up eating at “Smurf2 Cafeteria,” which was every bit as good as you might imagine, and went in search of our car, which we had a little trouble finding. Fortunately, given the heat, we only made two exploratory ventures before re-discovering it, and then we were on our way.
We stopped for gas at a place in the middle of nowhere. Literally–it was just a gas station. No town or anything. To our surprise, the gas tank cover wouldn’t open, though it had done so without difficulty every other time. The lady tending the station tried to help. Other people tried to help. We couldn’t budge it. Tom called the rental company, and they said they had to talk to their mechanic and they’d call back.
I went in to try to explain to the attendant what was going on. She didn’t understand my inept Spanish and called her son, who spoke some English. He asked me if he could drive out to help us! I thanked him for his kindness, but declined. I told his mother over and over how nice they were, how kind her son was. She understood that part.
The rental company called back to tell us that when it got very hot (which it was), the gas tank cover sometimes wouldn’t open. Good to know, but it seems like an impractical design in a hot country like Spain. The car had been sitting in the shade for a while by this time, and Tom tried the cover again. It opened without protest, we gassed up, and were on our way again.
Our hotel in Barcelona, Gran Derby, is lovely–much nicer than we expected. It even has a bathtub big enough for two–though we won’t be sharing–a sitting room with a bullhide for a rug (poor toro), and a bedroom. The shower–Tom said he wished he had taken photos of all the showers we have used. Each one has had strangely shaped controls–squares, sticks, cylinders–and each has had its own system of turning on and off, controlling temperature, etc. This one has square knobs and the drain is a slit in the flooring that runs all around the shower–haven’t seen that before. But the shower flooring is mercifully non-skid, though the bathroom tiling is made of highly polished brown marble that would be a perfect skating surface for someone with wet feet.
We selected a seafood restaurant right on the beach for dinner, Can Majo. When we got there, we were told that because we didn’t have reservations, they might be able to squeeze us in at 10 pm. (We are very slow learners.) So we made a reservation for 10 o’clock, had a snack at a seaside bar, and then walked down to the water. I dipped my feet in the water; my first-ever contact with the Mediterranean. I have hopes it won’t be my last.
At ten, they permitted us in the restaurant. We ordered paella, which is their specialty. Service was slow, which was fine as it gave us time to people-watch. I noticed a group of three people as they came into the outdoor seating area where we were. There were two model-thin women, gorgeous in that exotic Mediterranean manner, with long. black hair and smooth, brown skin and huge eyes. They were dressed beautifully and they were accompanied by a pit-bull and a man who might have been the model for the dog. I spent time making up stories about who they were and why these two beautiful women were having dinner with this ugly man. Then the two women seated at the table next to us squeaked and pointed. One of them said “Cucaracha, is that the word?” As I was looking for the offending insect, the ladies I had been making up stories about shrieked and dropped their cigarettes as the bug scuttled under their table. It proved to be a bonding experience with our neighbors and we struck up a conversation. They were from the Netherlands, spoke perfect English, and were having a girl’s weekend away. We had a long and pleasant discussion, ate the excellent paella, then headed back to the hotel.
I think it was about 1 am when we got to bed. This may be normal for the Barcelonans, but it’s kind of exhausting for me. Of course, I had had no siesta–I really should spend more time in bed.