Thursday, September 19, 2013

Rioja And Basque Country...For The Second Time

Returning to the same vacation spot as last year brought about a sense of familiarity with maybe a splash of non-surprise. We knew that when we booked it. But we're not busy people. We don't enjoy "busy." A vacation for us shouldn't be that. It should be a pause, a respite and a jolt out of our everyday, humdrum routine. A dash of familiarity often facilitates that. This time, it did. And while something "new" like Croatia or Morocco (this place looks too stellar for words) will be next year's pause, returning to Rioja and Basque Country this time brought about strange and welcome empty brains in both of us and a sense of calm from the second we pulled into the Hotel Viura parking lot. We knew this place, this region, this air, this quiet, and all of that was just so damn palpable.

Just like last year when all of it was new, it felt...wanted, which is all one can really ask from a vacation.

At this point, I'm beginning to feel like a member of the PR wing of Hotel Viura in Villabuena de Álava, but it was essentially the reason we went last year and was a large part contributing to our return this year. The fact that such stellar food existed in the region was the impetus and having Hotel Viura as the backdrop sealed the deal for both trips. The odd thing is that, while I didn't think it was possible, Viura is getting better, carving out an even bigger niche in the region, taking great care to continue improving; finding newer, deeper, more innovative ways to distinguish itself, to become a more authentic and local showcase. The featured wines are getting more deliciously idiosyncratic, more local with a story behind them. The Finca La Emperatriz Viura pushes the boundaries of viura in a great way, brilliantly emphasizing its minerals and wool, all with an unapologetic austerity, something most viura producers tend to avoid. The Molina Pérez Tempranillo, done in the Beaujolais style with carbonic maceration, concrete tanks and served slightly chilled may become the wine flavor of this vacation for me (and of course a wine not imported to the U.S.). Viura as a place feels like Home with easily the best staff we've ever encountered. Faces that feel like Friends in an atmosphere that feels like the essence of Calm. Román, you have done one fantastic job.

Arzak in San Sebastían, not being able to fit it into last year's trip, found a place in this one. We also found great flavors, unique and delicious combinations, a real journey through a tasting menu experience (something many lack), a very pretty dining space, wonderful staff and an owner you just want to hug and say Thank You, and we did ("Señor, uno beso, por favor" pretty much exhausts Mrs. Ney's Spanish, but Chef was gracious). We also found tuna presented over an iPad playing the sounds and scenes of the sea, something that never came off gimmicky, only wondrous. We found (again) wine prices that were patently ridiculous in their cheapness (Egly-Ouriet Blanc de Noirs Grand Cru for 115 Euros, currently $135 at Binny's). And I found my absolute limit of huitlacoche. Worst burps on the planet. While Etxebarri remains the love of our Spanish life (still the best meal of our existence and huge efforts were made to experience it again to no avail), Arzak didn't ever really make a run at that crown, but once was entirely worth it.

Speaking of once. Marques de Riscal Hotel and Spa is a "once" if there ever was one, but sometimes yous gots to "Treat Yo Self!" That crazy business in the bottom middle of the picture above was only seen by us last year. Thinking about it got me to thinking, "What's in there? What's it like?" So we found out. Frank Gehry-designed, wild in its construction, even (and especially) up close, we got the "experience" and now we know. There's the Great, the Good and the Fine. The Great came in the massage and spa. And booking a noon session made for something freakin' spectacular. Everyone had checked out of the hotel so NOBODY was getting a massage, in the spectacular pool, sauna or jacuzzi. ALL of it was OURS. Capital-G Great massage leaving us with skin like we've never felt followed by a leisurely two hours frolicking in everything else the place had to give. Worth every penny. The hotel stay itself...not so much. It's pretty enough and well-run with a nice aesthetic, but surprisingly, not...immaculate.  A Bistro dinner made for a nice evening with perfectly prepared food, particularly the hake. But overall, as a hotel, in this price range, one I think could and should expect a certain level in the finer details. Check the paint job everywhere, guys, and dust the bookshelves in the library. And please give your housekeeping staff better uniforms. They look like something out of a women's prison movie. We were curious. Now we're not. But GREAT MASSAGE AND POOL!

I have a feeling, five years from now, the one place that will define this trip will be El Trujal del Abuelo in Cihuri, a place recommended to us by Elvira at López de Heredia (someone we can't say enough glorious things about. The best person both of us have met in a long time). At El Trujal, a place that sits only 20-25 people, let them feed you and you will get The Goods. Some of the best fat-slathered meat on this Earth and a house rosado that will define freshness and a sense of place in rosés from this point forward. Two of the meat tasting menus and two pitchers of rosado = 70 Euros (cash:  las tarjetas prohibidas). "I need to pay more!" was the impression, if only I could have said it. THAT was a great meal, the best of this trip...and it wasn't really close.

This is getting long so it's time for dot-dot-dot...

I wonder how Spain was for neck pillowing-wearing, only processed food-eating Tim who was Mrs. Ney's seat-mate on our Iberia Airlines flight? Bet it was confusing .... Speaking of Iberia Air, for $950 a pop and a straight shot to Madrid, you're mostly nice. A bit cattle-corralling but nice. As I get older, I find I'm missing the United perks though. And Iberia, five hours in, an 80-degree cabin temp isn't ideal ... You can spend $10-15 a day on a GPS for your rental car or you can plop down the change to buy your own. I finally wised up. TomTom 2535TM World Traveler, you came off without a hitch and you're halfway paid for. Gold star for me ... Though it also couldn't make sense of why San Sebastían seems to have a thing about not wanting its drivers to turn around and go the other way. I felt like Clark Griswold. "Can't get left!" ... The restaurant at Riscal has red toilet paper. Got some. A toilet paper framed display is in the works. Anybody know of a blue toilet-papered restaurant? Google wasn't any help. ... Free upgrades are so awesome, it makes me want to swear, particularly when this is your balcony ... I miss the church bell in Villabuena de Álava, along with The Quiet ... Watching a group of seven teenagers practice their dance routine for the upcoming Basque Harvest Festival from said balcony was kinda awesome. Got a video. Maybe I'll post it. ...15,000 people in that tiny town for the Harvest Festival?  ... If in Haro, a town devoid of great sit-down food, El Rincon Del Noble does the job quite nicely. Damn good lomo with garlic potatoes. ... If your trip is getting a little spendy, may I suggest supermarket/wine shop cobbled-together dinners? We had two. Canned tuna, leeks, kumatoes and baguette served us well. Ham-cheese-kumato-arugula sandwiches even better. ... Pair it with Malas Pulgas (Spanish Dog Whisperer) and Tu si que vales (Spanish America's Got Talent) and you got a funny-bewildering food and TV experience. ... Imodium, you're my new best friend. ... Had a chance to have lunch at Venta Moncalvillo, an impossible reservation according to many. On that day though, after having our share of piquillo-anchovy-cod-hake-beef-Iberico-Iberico-Iberico and everything else so Spanish, all done well, the only thing we wanted was sit-down pizza and Trattoria in Logroño delivered in that realm. Wolfing down three Roman-style pizzas with Calabrian chili oil drizzled on all of it and washing it down with a familiar Greco di Tufo made for some good eats. ... On Logroño, I gave it a bad rap last time. Not too shabby. Friendly place, sort of like the Cedar Rapids of Rioja. ... Hey, you people who take baths. Why? Just...why? ... "I got nothin'" was the phrase of the trip and we were fine with that. ... Spanish people are nearly as obsessed with their phones as Americans and rubberneck a car accident just as much. ... Gas station ashtrays are funny. ... Learn Spanish, Christo. Shame on you. ...  Apparently, if you drive an Audi in Spain, you're a dick. Seems to be a rule. ... Madrid is getting short shrift here but Madrid, I get you. You have a sensibility I understand and like. ... In Madrid, Hotel Silken Puerta America is a freakin' winner. Beautiful spaces all over the hotel, supermarket right around the corner, easy-peasy subway two blocks away (Cartanega on line 7) that's 20 minutes to the city center. Happy. ... Pillow menus? Sleep facilitation room service food? There are some benchmarks in the service of some hotels that just seem a wad tad over-the-top. ... El Mercado de San Miguel is worth a quick trip, even if only for the awesome sausage stand. ... Madrid got expensive. ... Two very good Madrid restaurants this trip. Not quite as great as Las Tortillas de Gabino from last trip, but Sacha delivers on patio atmosphere to the nth degree. Just a lovely place to spend a few hours with a wait staff so gracious. Note to people going: it technically is on Juan Hurtado de Mendoza, but around the back. ...  Astrid y Gastón's lovely atmosphere, lovely-times-ten service and the best ceviche I've ever had made for a happy way to end the trip. ... Airplane veggie lasagna will most likely have eggplant in it. Mrs. Ney now certainly knows that. Ugh. ... Eight-hour flights trump a 14-hour excursion every time, if available. ... O'Hare's new self-service passport check is stupid-great! Now THAT's an improvement in the lives of human beings.        

Good trip. Happy trip. Empty-headed trip in the best sense. We Liked this muchly. Croatia or Morocco is next and that will be a nice change-of-pace from the Iberian peninsula that has been "vacation" the last few years. But as long as Hotel Viura is in business, Jorge, Patricia, Juan,'re going to see our mugs. Get used to it. I think you already have.            

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