Basque Back Roads: Off the Beaten Path in Laguardia, Spain
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I had just drowsed off in the front passenger seat when the car rattled through a section of bad highway and woke me up. The driver, our guide Mikel Urkijo of Tours By Basques, explained: “We just drove out of Basque Country and into Spain. See how bad the roads are?” Within a mile or so our route lead us back into Basque Country and the road was smooth again, but by then I was wide awake.
The Basque Region of Rioja Alavesa
The landscape was amazing! We were on a broad plain, with a jagged range of mountains to the north, their spiked, rocky summits jabbing out of vast pine forests carpeting their slopes. Historically, the mountains blocked invasions from the north, while their foothills offered vantages for the fortified towns dotting the distant landscape. Today, more importantly, those peaks block the wet coastal weather pattern of northern “green Spain”, creating a drier, sunnier area perfect for grapes. This is the interior Basque region of Rioja Alavesa, one of the three sections of the famous Rioja wine region of Spain. In front of us was Laguardia, the vanguard of walled towns, whose 360-degree views from the craggy mountaintops out across the broad plain made it “the guardian” of hundreds of lush vineyards.
The Walled Village of Laguardia
The narrow, pedestrian-only streets inside the walls were lined with small shops and restaurants nestled in buildings surviving from the 11th through 14th centuries. Every so often we passed a vent at street level, too high to be the storm drains they resembled. Some were just slits cut into the stone foundations and some were modern looking.
They are all part of the ventilation system of the 232 wine caves beneath our feet. This subterranean labyrinth is so extensive that the area is pedestrian only, minimizing the weight for fear the whole town could fall into it. We were here to explore some of the caves and to taste Laguardia’s regional specialties.
The Oldest Original Winery In Spain
We entered the winery Casa Primicia through its large, arched stone doorway to find glass floors illuminating the storied history the foundations revealed below. Once owned by the Catholic Church, this building and both churches were the oldest in the village.
I find it unnerving to walk on clear glass, but it was unavoidable here. The early winemaking methods were clearly visible, distracting me from my fears as the paths from grapes to wine revealed themselves in the basements below. Today, wineries have vast arrays of stainless steel tanks with gauges and pumps controlling the wine-making process from crushing to bottling. That is true at Casa Primicia, too, but here the ancient stone vats where the grapes were pressed, the carved stone gutters where the juice ran out, and the stone cisterns used to collect and ferment the wine, were also present, preserved under glass for the history they represented. Wine was being made here from the 15th century onward, making Casa Primicia the oldest original winery in Spain.
The remains of the original entrance door, big enough to allow wagons of grapes to be brought in, hangs on the wall since the building was modernized in the 1980s, further illustrating the antiquity that surrounds you. Its skeleton key hangs next to it looking more like an installation at Philadelphia’s Barnes Foundation than a winery. You should definitely visit Casa Primicia and let the gracious host explain the history as he shares a tasting of their award-winning organic wines.
The Boutique Hotel Hospederia Los Parajes
From the winery, tour the narrow, winding lanes until you reach the boutique, 18 room spa hotel Hospederia Los Parajes. Besides being an excellent place to call home during your visit to Laguardia, the hotel has three different places to dine. The lowest is a charming snack bar known as “Calado”, located in the 16th century wine cave, and perfect for a cozy conversation over some local wines. A level above it is “Las Duelas” a traditional dining room in a wine cellar surrounded by old wine barrels. Then, off the main floor lobby, a more modern dining experience awaits at “Los Parajes”. Here you’ll find traditional dishes, and new dishes based on the old, in a combination of flavors, textures, and aromas to satisfy even the pickiest of eaters.
“Los Parajes” Restaurant offers you an immersion into Basque gastronomy and a diverse wine list to compliment every dish. Try the Rioja potato stew, a traditional Basque dish of the region, the grilled lamb ribs, and the dessert called French toast. Although it is more like a strata or bread pudding, by whatever name you recognize it you’re sure to love the taste. I also had real Basque Country appetizers of blood pudding sausages and the moistest ham croquets I’ve ever been served. All in all, it was a deliciously true taste of the region, especially when paired with the white and red Rioja wines the area is famous for.
Besides the great food and wine you’ll consume surrounded by antiquity, you’ll marvel at how many locals you’ll see and how few tourists. This is truly an off the beaten path section of Basque Rioja Alavesa. Enjoy!
Tours By Basques provided a knowledgeable and genial guide: https://www.toursbybasques.com.
- Casa Primicia Winery https://www.bodegascasaprimicia.com
- Hospederia Los Parajes (boutique hotel, spa & restaurants) https://hospederialosparajes.com