Cheers To A Grand Design

You see just a glimpse of them at first. As you get closer you still can’t quite believe your eyes.

The backdrop is splendid enough – the Spanish medieval town of Elciego with its magnificent Saint Andrés church high on the hill – but it’s what sits in front that causes you to look again. Giant curls of pastel coloured titanium ribbons perch on top of what looks like a topsy-turvy ultra-modern building.

Nothing seems to be built straight. There are huge sloping windows, canopies, terraces, angled beams and girders. The roof reflects the sun so that it seems to be mischievously winking at you as you drive towards it.

Some vintages in their cellars are so old, they’re opened by cutting off the top of the bottle because the cork is so fragile

This is the Marqués de Riscal hotel, surrounded by its own vineyards in the Rioja region, and it’s outrageously wonderful. It looks fabulously out of place for a second but the closer you get, the more magnificent and less incongruous it becomes. Frank Gehry, the famous American architect responsible for many important public buildings (Bilbao’s Guggenheim Museum is one of his) is the man who designed it. You get the impression he had enormous fun.

I’m told that at first Frank’s people weren’t interested, on the grounds that Mr. Gehry only did grand buildings of a higher purpose (and presumably somewhere to stay wasn’t one of them). However he eventually decided to take a look and after some enthusiastic wine sampling (including a wine from 1929, the year he was born) he set about creating the building I’m now parking in front of.

The 3,000 square metres of multicoloured corrugated titanium represent a flamenco dancer’s dress in motion. The three colours – reddish pink, gold and silver represent the colour of Marqués de Riscal wine, the net that encloses the bottles and the cap. When you stop looking at the outside and step inside, you find Frank didn’t stop at the building. Gehry’s sketches hang on the walls and he even designed the lampshades to represent the clouds hugging the top of the Cantabric mountains that fringe this area. Stuart and Patricia have come here from New Zealand. Pat likes the wine but for structural engineer Stuart, it’s the building itself that’s the attraction. “It’s an extraordinary place” he says looking up at the roof supports “and I just had to come and see it”.

Personally I also came for the food. Francis Paniego, the first Riojan chef to receive a Michelin star, acts as a consultant to the two restaurants here and Jose Ramón Piñeiro is the chef here who interprets Paniego’s cuisine. He’s rated as one of Spain’s most promising young chefs and in 2011 the restaurant got its first Michelin Star.

Every dish on the tasting menu tells a story. A bowl of food called Sarmientos (branches) is placed in front of me, made mostly of cheese straws but looking exactly like blackened sticks in a slow burning fire. This evokes the pruning of the Riojan vines at the start of the year when the branches are collected and dried. In the summer they’re used to cook the traditional lamb cutlets (more on this later) or to make charcoal.

Then there’s Hierba Fresca (fresh grass) which takes its inspiration from the Sierra Cantabria mountains in the background, where the vineyards give way to the green meadows. The base is a sheep cream cheese, and on top is frozen steak tartar powder and fresh herb powder. It`s surrounded by a foam of smoked, sheep`s milk and is absolutely delicious.

Culetillas a la Brasa are chops of roast suckling lamb under a glass dome housing BBQ smoke. Taking it away leaves the smell of the barbeque and the taste of lamb. Simply superb.

One of two desserts is called Grapes Under The Ice where grapes are lightly cooked over wine so they infuse with the flavour of the liquid without altering the shape of the grape. Hidden underneath is a wine and red fruits ice cream. It’s all a work of art and local inspiration.

As a counterpoint I also tried Bistro 1860. It’s less formal but also offers traditional, fresh and local cuisine like Croquettes which are Jose’s mum’s recipe. Sitting outdoors overlooking Elciego with the Cantabrian mountains as a backdrop I enjoyed Iberian bellota ham which melts slightly in your mouth into a meaty unctuous jelly that tastes superb and as you swallow seems to pinch where your jaw meets your cheeks (but in a nice, nice way); suckling lamb cutlets that were soft and delicious, and pork trotters. These were nothing like the real thing to look at, but everything like the real thing to taste, with its soft flavoursome meat surrounded by a slightly sticky and delicious skin.

Throughout all the food is the chance to drink Marqués de Riscal (I really like their Limousin white and the Rioja Gran Reserva, both of which are aged in oak casks the latter for three years and at least another three in the bottle). Their winery is one of the oldest in La Rioja and recently celebrated its 150th anniversary. The oldest part dates back to 1858 and they were extended in 1883. Some vintages in their cellars are so old, they’re opened by cutting off the top of the bottle because the cork is so fragile.

There’s about 40,000 barrels here and at 225 litres per barrel, that’s a lot of wine. The buildings that house them are not underground but kept at a constant temperature and humidity thanks to the thick sandstone walls. Supplying the raw materials for the wine, the vineyards of Marqués de Riscal wrap around the building. 1,500 hectares is about 3,000 football pitches so you can understand why they call this the City of Wine.

The hotel will organise a wine tour and tasting for you. In fact grapes are everywhere here – growing, fermenting and even being applied to your skin. The Caudalie Vinothérapie Spa Marqués de Riscal will treat you to anything from a barrel bath to body wraps and scrubs using Merlot and Cabernet grapes. I was attracted to the ‘Pulpe Friction’ treatment purely on the strength of the pun.

The staff are helpful and friendly without being cloyingly obsequious. All 45 rooms and suites have a distinctive style, HUGE bathrooms and – for the most part – terrific views. I guess the attention to detail is summed up by the menu listing 11 types of pillow. I went for the Emerald side sleeper pillow with 23 ounce pure Hungarian goose down. I wanted to take it home.

So how to get here? Well I kind of ate and drank well throughout that part of the trip too.

Brittany Ferries will bring you here, sailing from both Portsmouth and Plymouth to Santander and Bilbao. I started the trip with a glass of champagne, watched the Cornish coast pass by through the huge porthole windows in the bar, and plotted dinner. There are a choice of restaurants for every pocket. I tried the Le Flora restaurant. The food here is excellent and the prices very good indeed. The seafood buffet is impressive and delicious with smoked salmon, king prawns and langoustines all set out like a giant picnic. Eating next to one of the big windows as you sail smoothly over the water is one of life’s pleasures.

There’s also a lot to do beyond eating. You can sunbathe, swim in a small pool, gamble in a casino, go to the cinema, listen to a band or watch a clown fold long balloons into cute animals (it helps if you have a child alongside for that last one).

Next morning it’s a splendid mix of full English breakfast on a French ferry and a light lunch as it approaches Spain. There’s something special about arriving somewhere by ship. I watched as we moved slowly into Santander, past sandbanks that made it look as if we’d run aground at any minute, before berthing right in the centre of town.

From Santander it’s about a two-hour drive to the Marqués de Riscal through some of the most stunning countryside in Spain. Thanks to Frank O Gehry there’s another stunning feature waiting for you at journey’s end.


Marqués de Riscal

Brittany Ferries