On Location: Northern Spain

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 Northern SpainNorthern Spain is home to both Europe’s most ancient language and most acclaimed modern museum. Farm to table food to die for. Verdant vineyards and vibrant street life.

Here are the highlights of recent trip to Basque Country and La Rioja in northern Spain. 

Just a short flight from Madrid, these adjacent areas will envelop adventuresome clients with their singular culture, food and wine. For me, they were hidden gem doorways to authentic bucket list experiences. In a trip hosted by The Tourist Office of Spain, Basque Country Tourism (Tourism Euskadi) and La Rioja Tourism, (La Rioja Tourismo), I spent a whirlwind week immersed in this culturally compelling and scenic part of the world.

Bilbao and San Sebastian

People say that Spain is like many different countries rolled into one. This is clearly evident in Basque Country, an area so distinct it has been called its own nation. The Basque people are arguably the earliest inhabitants of Europe, to this day speaking a unique ancient language called Euskera. Over the centuries, the Basque culture survived and thrived in the modern world. With 22 Michelin-starred restaurants, it has become known for what many say is the best food in Spain. My dining experiences—both in Basque Country and La Rioja, were second to none for flavor and freshness. Even the casual Pinxtos (a variation of Tapas served atop bread) were exceptionally tasty. 

Flying into Bilbao, the gateway city to the Basque Country and La Rioja, is an easy hop from Madrid. A tip for clients: for local immersion and historic charm, stay in a hotel located in the Old Town—walkable, safe, filled with restaurants and tapas bars and bustling with streetlife. In Bilbao’s Old Town, I highly recommend the 53-room Hotel Tayko for its upscale industrial chic design, attentive friendly service, and delicious cuisine supervised by a Michelin-starred chef. The city’s not-to-be-missed cultural attraction, a lovely waterfront stroll from the hotel, is the Frank Gehry-designed Guggenheim Museum—a spectacular modern icon that put Bilbao on the tourist map after opening in 1997. 

Another must-see Basque city is charming San Sebastian, flanked by the sea and beautified with flowering gardens. For clients who want to bask in luxury, nothing beats the historic Hotel Maria Cristina, a Marriott Luxury Hotel with a sumptuous daily buffet breakfast and delicious free ice cream on the terrace on summer afternoons. Every detail of this riverfront grande dame, first opened circa 1912, is gorgeous and pristine. At Mimo, a chef-driven cooking school located in the hotel’s lower level, clients can learn Basque cooking techniques followed by a tasty meal. 


We also spent time in Logroño the lively capital city of La Rioja, a region that shares its name with the esteemed wines of the area. Here, the streets of the Old Town are packed every night with diners and revelers frequenting the many restaurants and tapas bars. Just going out for an evening walk is a fun experience. Logroño is also the gateway to many beautiful vineyards and cultural attractions. Cients can easily spend a few days here enjoying wine tasting excursions and visiting ancient monasteries and the remarkable Vivanco Museum of Wine Culture—the world’s largest wine museum. Tip: the museum also has a sensational restaurant with vineyard views. 

Food and Wine

For epicures, oenophiles and just plain lovers of food and wine, Basque Country and La Rioja offer a unique feast for the senses. We tasted many grape varieties of red, white and rosé wines with varied degrees of aging at beautiful bodegas, restaurants and vineyards located throughout the regions. One standout was an outing to the biyearly Haro Station Wine Experience in La Rioja, an acclaimed festival where seven bodegas of various architectural styles, all clustered around a train station, opened their doors to visitors for wine tastings. 

Throughout the week, every bite of food was tasty and fresh. Among my favorite gastronomic and wine tasting experiences your clients won’t find anywhere else: Hearty farm-to-table cuisine and wine tasting hosted by the owner of Bodegas Mayor de Migueloa, a  family-run winery/restaurant/inn in the Basque village of Laguardia first established in 1619; a wine and tapas-pairing tour with a local educator in Logroño; and a memorable wine tasting and lunch at the Michelin-starred Venta de Moncalvillo farmhouse restaurant in La Rioja. Here, the menu changes each month according to what’s growing in the restaurant’s garden and the chef never uses more than four ingredients in any given dish. Every flavor shines. 

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