after dinner sneeze

a lot of g says, t says

Spain 2014: Bilbao and Rioja

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t says:

So … now that we’re a few day into our trip, it’s time to summarize some highlights.  We have taken SO many photos on our phones and it’d just be too annoying to load them all here.  Anyone who follows g on Instagram will have access to her thoughtfully curated/composed selection (which differs greatly from my not-as-thoughtful selection here).  Seek them out if you want more!

As mentioned in our last post, our trip started in Bilbao, and stayed at Barcelo Bilbao Nervion.  We don’t have any photos of the place that don’t reveal our true identities, but we were satisfied about it’s cleanliness, which really is our main criteria for an awesome hotel.  It was icing on the cake to have a disco-cow, however:

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When we first arrived to our hotel, a wedding reception was going on (and thus there was no parking – BOO!). Part of the reception was to use this disco-cow as a centerpiece for their cocktail hour. How hilarious is this! It reminded me of the golden calf false-god from the bible … without the smiting …

There were a few cool attractions in Bilbao, including the Zubizuri bridge and the Guggenheim.


the zubizuri bridge

Once again, we have a lot of photos with us in them, so I can only show you these:


spider!  this one’s for you, lc.



The Guggenheim’s offerings were fantastic in that it’s a very small museum, with only a handful “real” exhibitions: one about Yoko Ono, one about Braque (g appreciated it more than me), and a gigantic one called La Materia Del Timepo …

another ripped photo – but try to imagine what it’d be like to walk through these ginormous sheets of rusted metal!

… and another one installation entitled “The Visitors”, which was fantastic!  I would try to describe it, but have been told by g several times that my explanation is misleading and therefore it’s better off that I just not say anything … so I won’t … except that it was probably one of the most enjoyable exhibits I’ve ever had at a museum.

Food was present in various forms in Bilbao.  It’s a shame, however, that we were there on a Sunday, where there were very limited options for lunch/dinner.  For example, for lunch, we found a weird pseudo-Japanese place:

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Udon … around for the past 10 years!

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Is it fusion to have a “maki” made from “noodles” (cut in cross-section)?  I’m not sure.  Look carefully above and you’ll see chicken, lettunce, and a smidge of mayonnaise … essentially tasting like a chicken salad sandwich … with soba noodles …

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and they had ramen! it wasn’t bad! better than any i’ve had in Philly yet … i mean, it still has a ways to go (you don’t go to Spain expecting awesome ramen), but I appreciated their effort (btw, it was totally weird to have an Asian server speaking Spanish).


Dinner was quite an adventure on the second day in Bilbao.  Having met up with our friends, we had set out to go to a restaurant called Aizian … only to find them closed.  It turns out that Sunday in Bilbao is a very tough time to eat out!  Fortunately, we found one restaurant that was open and had satisfying dishes of oxtail (above), pork cheek, and shrimp.  None of us can recall what the restaurant was called.  Oh well!

From Bilbao, we went off to Rioja.  We stayed in the cute little town of Ollauri (oh-jao-ree) at a place called the Black Grape – we found it on AirBNB.  the place was pretty darn awesome – go ahead and find it on the web to find good photos.  For us, this one was the main factor:

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the “mini-bar” … is a vaulted ceiling wine cellar under the property.  The owners stocked it with wine and provide you with a list.  You can consume whatever you’d like and just pay them the appropriate amount at checkout.

There were numerous wineries we visited:


Check out the picturesque vineyards and humble villages.


The first was a tasting at Lopez de Heredia (i.e. Tondonia), to find a pretty extensive tour (the on-site coopering is amazing!), chock full of history and tradition. The wines are mighty good as well, but most can be found in the US (that’s not a “bad” thing, but we were on the prowl for the unattainable). What is clear, however, is that Tondonia is SO old …

roday wine room

… which was a stark contrast versus the ultra-modern Bodegas Roda.  Unlike LdH, this place was clearly built for modern winemaking, with every aspect of vinification carefully controlled.  The wines were nice, but ultimately, not something I’d shell out tons of money for.  It was striking that the most interesting wine was their Ribero Del Duoro – a wine made from grapes not even sourced from Rioja!

Perhaps our best winery was Remelluri.  This place was phenomenal, and we lack the photos to do it justice.  The tour (led by the winemaker’s sister – it’s a family-run operation there!), offered a great history lesson of the property, limited focus on vinification (after all, if you’ve had one winery tour, you’ve had them all), and astounding wines. It also looks like it’d be a fabulous place to have an event (not that I’m sure they’d even that – but if you wanted a fairy-tale rustic vineyard wedding, this place is the place – complete with tiny rustic chapel and sweeping views of vineyards and mountains in the distance!).

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Remelluri’s tasting was also the most complete of the trip, offering a bit of cheese and “the world’s best olives”, as proclaimed by one our European travel mate with ~25 years of olive eating experience under her belt.  The one drawback about the place, however, is that while they do offer an opportunity to taste vintage wines, including wine from the nearly-legendary vintage of 1982, you are NOT allowed to buy them to take home.  I wish I would have known that because I would have definitely purchased a bottle for us to taste right then and there – but instead, I let the tasting go by, and when we moved to check out, I was informed that we couldn’t have it “to go”.  Alas – a missed opportunity for sure!

The food situation in Rioja was a unique one for us.  We did a LOT of home-cooking at The Black Grape, making a few trips to town for a carniseria and other local supermarkets and keeping the overall expense of our trip way-down.  Over three nights, we spend ~250 Euro … for 8 people … including the majority of our wine …

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one such night featured paella …

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Another night was “meat night”, with several t-bones of veal and beef … cut by this chick with a ginormous knife …

One night was our anniversary, so it warranted a “fancy meal”.  We ventured out to Ezcaray to eat at Potal del Echaurren Tradicionale.


Because we are Americans, we had to eat an an insanely early time.  Their first reservation was at 9:15pm.  Of course, we showed up at that time and there was not a single other patron anywhere.  We ended up going for a 7 course tasting menu of very homey-humble dishes, yet expertly executed and pristinely presented, this is your place. The wine list was also exceptionally reasonable!

the restaurant featured no less than 3 fish dishes, of which the above was one.  which fish it was, I have no idea - it was a fish with a multi-syllabic name beginning with the letter "m".  it was delicious - rivaling the best of what we've ever had at Little Fish

the restaurant featured no less than 3 fish dishes, of which the above was one. which fish it was, I have no idea – it was a fish with a multi-syllabic name beginning with the letter “m”. it was delicious – rivaling the best of what we’ve ever had at Little Fish

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what “tradicionale” meal would be complete without albondigas? this was a heavenly smooth meatball over a puree that walked the line between potato and cauliflower.

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dessert was incredible, with some sort of caramel-custardy tart, a few slices of cheese, a bit of honey ice cream, and a slice of dried apple.

We also got info from “the locals” that there was a very traditional lunch-place that did an amazing lamb.  We set out to find it and were rewarded with a fabulously “normal” meal that we would not have been able to do without the help of our lovely Spanish-speaking travelmates.  It was called El Trujal del Abuelo in Cihuri.

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octopus, olive oil, paprika … bam – second best ocotpus i’ve ever had.

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what’s better than artichoke? artichoke with jamon, of course.

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we had to order the aspargus by the stalk, which was a little weird. But let’s say that this asparagus was as tender as scallops and easily spread on bread, yielding a wonderfully garlicky, buttery, asparagusy concoction that made me eat like 15 pieces of bread. so good.

the lamb (or what was left of it as you can see) was also quite good.  perhaps it wasn't as out-of-this-world as we were hoping (this is no super-tender fine-dining lamb, this is grilled home-style gnaw-on-the-bone lamb), but we were satisfied.

the lamb (or what was left of it as you can see) was also quite good. perhaps it wasn’t as out-of-this-world as we were hoping (this is no super-tender fine-dining lamb, this is grilled home-style gnaw-on-the-bone lamb), but we were satisfied.

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pineapple with olive oil and a dot of fig reduction. v killed this dish.


Now I know that we focused a lot on food and wine, but in truth, what else should one do on vacation in Rioja?  Food.  Wine.  Friends.  That’s it!  Ok, well that’s almost it.  We did stop by a wool shop in Ezcaray that manufactures some of the finest wool blankets/scarves/other products in the world, with lots of their products seen in some pretty high-end stores.  Like shopping for wine, we picked them up for a song and look forward to showing them off in the States.  Keep in mind that the shopping experience wasn’t glamorous, though (see above), so if you go, be prepared to hunt and peck.


Written by afterdinnersneeze

25 June 2014 at 7:40pm

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