Tuesday, 17 July 2012

Weekend Life....Hotel Viura, La Rioja, Spain

Hotel Viura, Villabuena de Alava, La Rioja, Spain May 2012

From the lush, green rolling hills and deep valleys of the coastal Spanish Basque region, our drive into La Rioja Alavesa felt like journeying into a different country altogether. The contrast in the landscape was astounding: where much of Basque country felt to us almost like Switzerland, Rioja was much drier, warmer and had more of the rugged Spanish landscapes we had been expecting. Shielded by the Sierra de Cantabria mountain ranges, Rioja is characterised by big blue skies, fertile plains, fields filled with scarlet poppies, pretty medieval villages and, of course, acres of vineyards stretching as far as the eye can see. This is one of Spain’s premier wine producing regions after all.

Our destination was Hotel Viura in the sleepy village of Villabuena de Alava. Turning off of the main road at the insistence of our sat nav, it was difficult to believe that an ultra modern 33-room hotel was nestled somewhere in the heart of this tiny village. Were it not for the presence of some discrete hotel signs guiding the way through the maze of tiny streets, we I probably would have declared ourselves lost. Upon rounding a corner we glimpsed the hotel design, which consists of a series of concrete and glass cubes seemingly balanced slightly off-kilter on top of one another, its ability to coexist seamlessly with the traditional architecture of the village was even more of a surprise and a testament to its designers. This juxtaposition of old and new is not unusual in this region of Northern Spain and leading contemporary architects such as Norman Foster, Santiago Calatrava, Frank Gehry and Zaha Hadid have all designed extraordinary buildings here over the past few years. Pulling into the car park, with the late afternoon sun casting a golden hue over the buildings, we couldn’t help but notice that the village was reflected in the large mirrored windows of the hotel’s cubes. A design fluke? Not likely. I can only imagine that the integration of the village, with its charming 17th century church and traditional houses, into the avant-garde design of the hotel was a pre-requisite to getting planning approval.

The interior design of Hotel Viura matches the modern exterior: polished concrete floors and ceilings, “chalkboard” style walls (they aren’t actually chalkboards as, out of curiosity, I tried to rub a room number off one day. Shhhhhh!) and sleek furnishings are softened with blonde wood, enormous rugs, soft gauzy curtains, artwork, subtle lighting (I loved the light “cubes” in the hotel rooms) and comfortable couches. Our spacious deluxe room was located on the first floor of the hotel overlooking the village and its communal swimming pool. Decorated in a palette of white and varying shades of grey with an enormous rust-coloured feature wall, the centrepiece of our room was the huge bed with soft white cotton sheets facing the bank of floor-to ceiling windows. As with Hotel Iturregi, the bathroom (with shower and bath) was integrated with the bedroom and separated only by a heavy grey curtain so for those who are a “toilet door always closed” kind of person like me, the open bathroom situation can take a little getting used to! Turndown service is provided and each evening we came back to our room to homemade truffles and a printout of the next day’s weather conditions.

Hotel Viura has two bars (plus a wine shop) as well as an amazing rooftop terrace where we enjoyed spending a couple of hours each evening before dinner. The terrace is beautifully presented with manicured Mediterranean gardens, plenty of white outdoor chairs to relax in (the most “prized” seating being two extra large round day beds*) and views of the craggy mountains, the village, church, vineyards and acres of blue sky. With a glass of crisp cold rioja blanco in hand and a plate of olives to share, we were content to just sit and watch tiny starlings duck and weave around the church spire in the dusky evening sky until the church bells alerted us that it was time for dinner.

The restaurant in the hotel (and room service) was excellent which was rather fortunate as there are no other dining options in the village (the walled hilltop town of Laguardia is only 5km away where there are numerous restaurants and bars). We had the Viura tasting menu which featured local and Basque produce, accompanied by wines of the region. Each course was beautifully presented and tasted wonderful. The highlight? A zingy watermelon gazpacho. It was so delicious that we ordered bowls of it from room service (despite it not being on the menu!) the next evening. Unfortunately our attempts to recreate its flavors back in London have failed rather spectacularly. I am blaming it on the lack of intense, ripe Spanish tomatoes ;)

Eat: A drive to La Rioja’s capital, Logroño, is a must to experience the concentration of tapas bars which line a cluster of narrow streets in the old town. Most of the bars specialise in just one or two types of tapas – garlicky mushrooms secured with a toothpick on a round of baguette and topped with a teeny prawn, tender lamb kebabs, thin slices of acorn-fed wild Ibérico ham, grilled chorizo, potatoes coated in a spicy red sauce as well as more exotic offerings (which I was not brave enough to try) such as lamb intestines and sheep’s ears (eep!). And the best thing is that each tapas only costs a euro or two!

Our favourite places? Bar Angel (for the mushrooms – we each had 3 rounds! Reordering felt rather like we were doubling down our blackjack bet at Caesar’s Palace in Vegas: a simple nod to the waitress and tapping the bar top with two fingers to keep them coming seemed to work!)

Taberna Casa Del Volapie (a cone of crispy calamari, and a delicious bowl of spinach and chickpeas with bread for mopping up and all washed down with glasses of local wine).

Do: Being one of Spain’s premier wine-making regions, bodegas (winery) visits are a must. It is just a matter of choosing which ones especially if you are short on time. Our picks?

Bodegas Roda (good olive oil as well as wine)

Viña Tondonia (with tasting pavilion designed by Zaha Hadid)

Bodegas Baigorri (which is about 3km down the road from Hotel Viura. The hotel has bikes for guest use so if you were feeling particularly energetic you could jump on a treadly and ride to the bodega)

*I will admit to feeling particularly pleased with myself each time I snagged one. Clearly I would be hopeless at one of those beach resorts where you need to get down to the beach by 8am in order to “bar” your recliner for the day!

Our stay at Hotel Viura was courtesy of the hotel.

Part III of our Basque road trip next week (the French Basque countryside).


  1. beautiful photographs!


    Qué bonita es mi España!! :)
    You should try Tenerife next time you drop by Spain (**wink**)


  3. Absolutely stunning landscape, architecture and food! Trust me, I'm Spanish and still can't manage a proper Gazpacho, if I want the real deal I always have to go elsewhere :(

  4. I'm from La Rioja, the most beautiful in Spain!!

  5. @Dominika - thank you!

    @Elmo - ha ha! I always wanted to use "dope" in a sentence but fear that I am way too uncool to do so. So I will leave it to you to do that! Yes, it was a fab hotel with excellent views - I wish I was sitting on the roof terrace right now! I would LOVE to go to Tenerife - I do hope you are okay if you are anywhere near where the terrible bushfires are right now.....

    @Luxe Vida - Ha ha! SO glad it isn't just us that are failing to recreate the gazpacho. We tried a recipe from a really respected food writer and it was dreadful. I think I need to give it another go with a different recipe....

    @Anonymous - yay for La Rioja! Home of fantastic wine and food and people!

  6. Viña Tondonia... the best wine in the world! Vanessa, wish I had come across with you in Haro and shown you around

  7. @Elena - that would have been fantastic! I am sure I will be back again so there is always next time xx

  8. I love these travel posts of yours. What an interesting building, a complete juxtaposition.

  9. @thecitygourmand - thanks so much! And it was a definite juxtaposition but somehow just worked harmoniously. I tried to take a photo of the town and the hotel but I couldn't quite get the angle. Probably needed a helicopter for that shot ;)

  10. Thanks Vanessa...for showing to the world this fantastic place: La Rioja.
    Your photos are very good!