Round The World and other travels

A frequent flyer's collection of trip diaries

This is: Northern Spain 2015

From bulls to wine, and a room with a view

Starting the day with a scenic drive - note the unusual door arrangement on our Opel Meriva

Today we would be taking our leave of San Sebastian and the Bay of Biscay, initially heading southwards into the rolling hills for a middle-of-the-day visit to Pamplona. Later, we would continue in a south-westerly direction towards Logroño and the world-famous Rioja wine-producing region - but first things first! After a repeat of Monday's breakfast, we checked out of the hotel shortly before 10am and loaded up the car, with Bruce taking the first leg to Pamplona. Fortunately, the rain stopped soon after leaving town, revealing some beautiful countryside that at times almost resembled alpine foothills. We pulled over into a viewpoint to take a closer look.


Continuing on towards our first destination of the day, we temporarily left behind the autonomous community of the Basque Country, entering Navarra (Basque: Nafarroa) near the town of Leitza. Pamplona (Basque: Iruña) is a city of nearly 200,000 people that only a few decades ago was just a small rural town. It is (in)famous for its week-long Sanfermines festival in July of every year, a period characterised by loud music, heavy drinking and general madness. The festival features the well publicised Encierro ('running of the bulls') event, where at 8am each day, six enraged beasts are provoked into chasing brave (or foolish!) young men dressed in red and white attire, through the narrow streets. My understanding was that the rest of the time - during the first week in March, for example - Pamplona was a charming place characterised by great food, friendly people and peaceful walks. A clear case of a split personality, by the sound of it!

We managed to park in a public garage directly under Plaza del Castillo, the city's main square, complete with bandstand. It wasn't long before we encountered a monument depicting the aforementioned Encierro bull run.

ABOVE LEFT: Morning arrival in Pamplona's Castle Square ABOVE RIGHT: Monument to the Encierro (running of the bulls)

Quickly finding our way to the bull ring, the second largest in Spain, we continued from there onto the city's impressive and well preserved ramparts, which simply demanded to be walked.

LEFT: The bull ring
RIGHT: Walking along Pamplona's walls and ramparts
RIGHT: We move from the ramparts into the Old Town, in the vicinity of Pamplona Cathedral

Having enjoyed numerous attractive views from the city walls, we emerged back onto normal streets near Pamplona Cathedral (more officially, the Catedral de Santa María la Real de Pamplona). We each paid our 5-euro entrance fee, which proved to be very good value.

Largely Gothic in style and dating from the 15th century, but with the notable addition of an 18th-century neoclassical facade, Pamplona Cathedral turned out to be a magnificent building, full of interest and with an enlightened approach to responsible photography. Highlights included the various side chapels (which had a tendency to eclipse the main church in opulence and splendour) and the beautifully preserved medieval cloisters, the oldest part of the complex.

RIGHT and BELOW: Royal St Mary's Cathedral in Pamplona

Once more in the open air, we found that the weather had by now improved substantially, the city being bathed in warm, spring sunshine. It was a pleasure simply to stroll through the streets and get a better feel for this underrated destination. We managed to see a few more notable sights, including the church of San Saturnino and the Town Hall (last two photos in panel below). The Plaza del Castillo was transformed by the bright conditions and looked particularly photogenic. We saw the Café Iruña at one end of the square, an establishment once patronised by American novelist Ernest Hemingway.

When we emerged from the cathedral, it had turned into a glorious day
RIGHT: Pincho culture was alive and well in Navarra

For lunch, we found an attractive little pincho bar just off the main square. (No, I haven't forgotten my spelling: despite the area's Basque heritage and the presence of several Basque Country flags on apartment balconies, it seemed to me that Spanish was very much the dominant language in Pamplona.)

Onwards to the Rioja wine region

Following lunch, I took the wheel for the continuation of our journey to the Rioja wine-growing region. We came upon signs for the A-12 road mercifully quickly after exiting the car park, and thereafter it was an easy run to Logroño, capital of the autonomous community of La Rioja, one of the smallest of the Spanish regions but also one of the most productive per capita. Navigating Logroño needed some care and attention, due to construction work on the main highway. A few kilometres west of the city, we turned northwards and slipped quietly back into the Basque Country just prior to arriving in the little town of Elciego (Basque: Eltziego).

Truly a room with a view at the Marqués de Riscal
Arrival at Starwood's Marqués de Riscal

There was no mistaking our next night stop. Part of the long-established Marqués de Riscal vineyard and winery, but managed by Starwood as part of its highly respected Luxury Collection portfolio, this was no ordinary hotel. We had reserved a room in a genuinely stunning landmark of modern architecture which, like the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, was a creation of Canadian-American architect Frank Gehry. Covered in wavy, coloured ribbons of steel and titanium, and representing an unapologetic celebration of the concept of asymmetry, the building was an attention-grabbing statement and certainly not intended to blend anonymously into the background. Once we recovered our composure and made our way to the check-in desk, we were informed that we had been upgraded to a town-view room and would also receive a complimentary winery tour the following day. Excellent!

The view from our room was simply fabulous, looking northwards to Elciego, with the parish church dominating the buildings and the beautiful Basque Mountains providing a glorious backdrop. After getting settled in, we took a little self-guided tour of this genuinely unique hotel, taking plenty of photos in the process, and then walked into town in the surprisingly warm afternoon sunshine.

A walk around the local village of Elciego
RIGHT: The celebrated Wine Bar at the Marqués de Riscal

What better way to get our evening off to an appropriate start than by visiting the hotel's pleasant and stylish wine bar? We certainly couldn't think of one, and indeed were brave enough to spend some of the time at an outdoor table. Later, we brought an amazingly varied and satisfying day to a close with a room-service dinner.

Tuesday 03 Mar

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