Thursday, June 3, 2010

La Rioja

By the end of the second day in Spain the jet lag had set in and I was in no particular hurry to do anything. Not that I had been in any real hurry before; from the beginning I had been determined that I did not want to return home from the trip in need of a vacation from my vacation. I also had a sore throat from the excess smoke I'd encountered since my arrival.  By the time I turned in for the night I had decided I would get up in the morning whenever I got up and then proceed from there.
On the morning of the third day I was still in the frame of mind to move at a leisurely pace. No Bodega visits had been scheduled in advance for Rioja so as far as I was concerned there was no need to rush to get there.  After a simple and quick breakfast of fruit, tortilla, juice, and a pastry it was back in the car for another road trip further north.
To get to or leave Castillo de Curiel you have to traverse a steep and narrow road that winds its way up and down a hill. There is no siderail and it can be a little nerve wracking with someone who is not taking their time through the curves (especially for a person who is used to sitting in the driver's seat). Fortunately there was never any oncoming traffic on the road at the same time.

I was always a little relieved to see the exit gate at the bottom of the hill when venturing out from the Castillo.
In no time at all we were back on the A-1 headed further north and east.  When planning a trip into Spanish wine country (which is pretty much everywhere) you kind of have to just pick a section of the country  and go with what's there.  I had been aware of several regions because of wines I liked having come from them but they were all too spread out to be able to plan a visit to even half, especially in the short time I would be there.  (Did I mention I'm not big on road trips by car?)
The grapes for reds and whites are not necessarily grown in the same places (most often not) and to get the full Spanish wine experience you almost need to start in the extreme west in Rias Baixas and then work your way around the country in a sort of clockwise motion until you were in east-central Spain where you would most likely head west and then down to the south.
As you travel through Spain by car (in Northern wine country) you see miles and miles land that is vineyard after vineyard between the road and the distant (an occasionally not so distant) hills.  Even though everything was still brown without even any leaves there were people about tending here and there pruning and tilling and so forth.  There are lots of ruins scattered about of old buildings of various sizes. There were a number of Bodegas along the way that could be seen from the road as well. 
Quite often during the trip I took place-marker snapshots to use as a reference point later on in order to help me to identify where I had been, especially on the road, as everything  had zipped by so quickly from the highway.  Just before noon, after about an hour on the road we passed the town of Lerma where I took one of those place-marker photos of the road sign and a couple of the town.

As a result of some fact checking I learned that one of the buildings in my photos that I could see from the highway was the Palacio ducal de Lerma, which was restored and converted into a gorgeous Paradores.  (It's the one in the photo below with the four dark points that look like church steeples.)  By the time we left the A-1 near the Burgos Airport the terrain had changed somewhat to green fields surrounded by hills.
About half an hour later we were on the N-120 about 34 km from Belorado near the Atapuerca archeological site.  (Place-marker photos helped me out again!)  It is probably for the best that I did not know what I was passing by or I might have wanted to stop which would have further delayed my arrival in Rioja.  Within minutes we had driven through the tiny town of Ibeas De Juarros.

There are a lot of little towns like that where you find you have driven in and out again in less than five minutes.  Just outside of town we made a pitstop at the Hotel Restaurante Sierra de Atapuerca.  If you take a look at the plano situacion (map) on the hotel's web site it shows how the N-120 intersects with the A-1 at Burgos.  Inside the hotel's cafeteria I got a kick out of seeing the Chupa Chups candy dispenser.
Five minutes later I was zipping past grazing sheep.
As we continued on toward Rioja the road began to incline and the terrain changed again to reveal more dense vegetation.  There was actually a road sign indicating the incline being at 6%.  I was amazed by the road signs in Spain.  There are so many different ones to indicate every imaginable situation from falling rocks to deer crossing to prohibitions.  Some are easy to interpret such as the red bordered white triangular sign with a large black exclamation point obviously indicating potential danger.  (I found an illustrated guide explaining of Spanish road signs here.)
Right after we passed through Villafranca Montes de Oca, one of the stops on the Camino de Santiago, we spotted a church that appeared to have been carved into the side of a rocky hill (or maybe a small mountain?) about 5 km before Belorado (another stop on the route).  It was really a neat sight (click the photo for a larger view).
My place-marker photos suggest the church is in Tosantos.  Fascinated by the sight of it, I had gotten out of the car to have a better look and take photos.  Back in the car, two minutes after I shot the photo, I took another place-marker photo of the leaving Tosantos sign.
When you are entering a town you typically see a large, white, horizontal, rectangular road sign and when you are leaving the town you see the same sign with a red slash going through it from the upper right to the lower left.

By the time we passed through the town of Belorado (another stop on the Camino) we had started seeing the signs for Santo Domingo De Calzada, our destination.  Within another ten minutes we had passed through Redecilla Del Camino and were finally in La Rioja.  
Along the way (sometime after Tosantos) we had seen a number of people who appeared to be making the pilgrimage of the Camino De Santiago.  Some had heavy packs and some were using what looked like ski poles.  To get to Santo Domingo we switched highways again and from there it was only a couple more minutes before we had entered the town.
We arrived at Santo Domingo De La Calzada in the afternoon.  Finding the Paradores was not an easy task and we drove around in circles trying to figure out how to enter the private street.  Below is the view from inside.  The miniature column in the center goes down into the ground to allow for vehicular access.  

It took forever to figure it out!  It was as if the place was hidden from ordinary mortals.  There seems to have been some technical problem with the mechanism that day but fortunately we had been able to follow an ambulance driver to the opposite entrance and finally reach the Paradores.

The hotel is gorgeous and everyone was very nice and helpful.  I had purchased a few post cards at the museum in Penafiel but hadn't had time to address and mail them before leaving Ribeira Del Duero.  Because it was Saturday when I got to Rioja, the post office was closed but I was able to pay for stamps at the front desk and the staff assured me they would mail the post cards for me on Monday.
Lunch at the hotel for me that day was a light one of grilled vegetables.  I still hadn't mastered reading menus in Spanish or knowing what certain foods were.  Back in the room I hadn't wanted to take a nap so late in the day (after 5:00) but I just could not keep my eyes open.  Most of the bodegas were starting to shut down for the day so there weren't many options for the evening.  On top of it all I was having computer issues so I finally gave up and took a short nap.
For Dinner we went to Casa Amparo where I had what was my best meal in Spain up to that point.  I ordered a soup, sopa de pescado, which I fully expected to come in a cup or small bowl and was amazed to be presented with enough soup to serve as my whole meal.

I also had another fish dish, two (count them!) vegetables and a delicious red wine, Vina Real.  The portion size was ample and service was good.  Everywhere else I had gone the vegetables were more or less garnish but at Casa Amparo I was served an entire plate of each.  I hope to be able to dine there again in the not so distant future.

More Coming Soon... 


Maria Papadopoulou said...

Wow, that was quite a journey you had! I felt as if i was there too.LOL
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Hoe said...

What soup is that? Look very nice.