La Rioja is one of the most beautiful places in the world, as I mentioned below when I posted some of the pictures. I actually took quite a few pictures myself, but as many of you know, my camera cord somehow did not make it to Spain, so for now hundreds of spectacular photos are trapped in the depths of my camera. Pictures of Madrid, Cordoba, Granada, Valencia, Escorial, Segovia, Paris, and Rioja. Oof! I can't wait to print 'em all up and start on that scrapbook that Schmidtty gave me :)
So, the weekend of wine begins. I take a wild maze of trains and metros to get to the north end of town (I live south of Madrid in Getafe) and freak out because I am 15 minutes late, but its turns out there was nothing to worry about. Should have known an Erasmus trip wouldn't leave on time ;) I was on the bus with Hannah, who told me her Spanish boyfriend Kike would be taking a later bus. Lisa got there just in the nick of time, but sadly Daniel overslept. In one slick series of phone calls, Hannah arranges for Daniel to take the later bus with Kike. The whole gang had gone to Chapandaz (home of the famous Leche de Pantera) the night before, and Daniel's night had apparently turned into his morning. Turned out to be a good thing though, because in traveling with Kike he got to practice his Spanish. Kike, a nickname for Carlos Enrique (clever, eh?) is a pretty cool guy. He's a pretty happy camper and was down for anything all weekend. And he was patient with our horrible California slang, which Hannah constantly had to explain to him ("Stephanie...need your help, tell Kike what shady means").
The view out the bus window was glorious. Beautiful Spanish countryside as far as the eye could see, snow capped mountain ranges in the distance. It had been raining a lot so everything was green and fresh. Lucky for us it only rained at night during the trip, and we saw mostly sunny skies! We were on the bus for hours and hours, in which I admired the view and did some Literature homework (to the great amazement of everyone else on the bus). We were a good group, only about 20 total. There were the Erasmus coordinators Leyre (pronounced like "lady", as she told us), Alvaro (he wore stripes all weekend), and a couple of others. Leyre's boyfriend was also with us, and lucky for us was from Logrono, the capital of the Rioja region. The others were other foreign students from all over, and then our little group of Californias + Kike. We definitely got to spread out on the huge charter bus, driven by the magnificent Juan Carlos.
We stopped at the first winery, who's claim to fame is doing everything the old fashioned way. And they mean everything! There are no steel tanks, no machines, no nothing. The place was beautiful. Our guide (who none of us could understand) took us to the room where they make the barrels (wood imported from Tennessee), and then down into the dark, dank underground. The walls were covered with moss and the whole place was cool and swampy. We saw hundreds of barrels, fermenting mountains of delicious Spanish wine. We also saw the rooms where they kept bottles of wine to age - what a thing! Dusty glass bottles stacked to the high heavens, covered in dust and moss and shielded from the light of day. He showed us some really old parts of the winery (bodega) where they used tracks to transport the grapes, which is one thing they of course do not use anymore. Lisa decided she wanted to ride in one of the carts down the track, drinking white wine. Well, that continues to be her dream! The wine we tasted at this bodega was very good. A red with a spicy kick at the end, that smelled musty and ancient as the winery, and a dry sweet white that carried a faint odor of green apples. I don't think anyone bought anything, but it was very good!
After another bus ride through beautiful Rioja, we stopped at a market to get some food to hold us over (and balance out the wine). In Eroski, Lisa and Hannah and I decided to get camembert cheese and some bread, but there is literally no bauguettes. This doesn't exactly happen in Spain... ever... and it was the talk of the bus for quite a few minutes. But anyway! Back to my story. I ran out to the other store to buy a bauguette, some water, and choccy digestives (yum). Apparently when I was gone, Lisa was between the 2 exit doors when she realized she left the cheese at the register. She tried to go through the exit but it wouldn't let her and it started beeping. Flustered, she went out and was in the first of the 2 entrance doors when she saw Hannah coming OUT with her cheese. So she tried to go out the entrance and again it beeped and her and she was stuck. Pretty much everyone in our group was in hysterics at this point. She had to go back in and all the way around to the exit to get out. I wish I had seen it! Lisa is quite a quirky person, things like that always seem to happen to her... those of you who know my Uncle Scott would call this one "a potty story."
We got to some tiny little village in Rioja to stay the night, and met up with Daniel and Kike. This town was really neat, with low stone buildings, red roofs, cobblestone streets and little markets and pastelerias. My parents would have gone crazy, I hope they get to come to Spain someday! We walked around a little bit, then all went to have a big dinner. For only 10 euros, about 15 dollars, we ate like kings! Bottles of red table wine, platters of cured ham, cheese, salad, bread. Steak dinners with potatoes and vegetables. Chocolate mousse to top it off! We all kind of rolled out after that, having eaten to our heart's content. Daniel, Lisa and I decided to head back to the hostel and get some sleep after that while everyone else went to a little hole-in-the-wall discobar. The hostel was very quaint and comfortable, very unlike the one I stayed in in Paris (oh my, I still have to document that one...). The next morning they fed us breakfast of croissants, jam, big cups of milky coffee. And off we went once more.
We saw a beautiful monastery en route to the next and final winery. The tour was nice, and we got to see the magnificent little chapel and architecture. The land around the monastery was amazing. You could see green mountains, big bushy trees and the snow covered mountains in the distance. The first picture in the post below is outside of el monasterio. There were a lot of little old ladies on our tour who were very funny and asked lots of questions. They were all bundled up against the cold in their scarves, quilted jackets and pea coats, practical tan or black leather shoes. I think they were part of a tour organization for los viejos, it was very cute.
At the winery, we encountered an amazing wine that everyone loved, a 2004 reserve. I bought 2 bottles, one to take home to my parents and another to drink here with friends. The winery appeared rustic in appearance, but was very large and modern. Steels tanks and the whole nine yards. The cellars were very beautiful, lit with soft yellow light and full of aging bottles like the other place (pictures to come). There was one strange swedish boy on our trip who spoke no Spanish and, at this winery, kept wandering off and taking things out of the trash. The room where we sampled the wine was at the top of a tower, with a view of the vineyard and rolling hills. We tried 3 reds and a white, but the '04 took the cake. It was spicy, smooth and aromatic. I think my parents will love it - I hope so!
That evening we were in Logrono, where we went tapas hopping with Leyre's boyfriend. He knew all the best places to go for each thing; patatas bravas, bocatas de mariscos, shish-kebap, pimientos rellenos. It was all so good! Everyone else wandered off but the 5 of us followed him around and he was happy to introduce us to the wonders of riojan tapas. Everyone was out that night, tapas hopping. People with their babies, old couples, students, etc. It's a family affair in Spain, so different from home where the nightlife belongs to the young. We went to a cool bar for a while to hang out, then to a funky discoteca. Logrono is a pretty cool town, more modern than the rest of Rioja as the capital, but still with that old european vibe. The cathedral there was very beautiful too - I'm a sucker for cathedrals (the art, the architecture, the way music sounds inside).
As a surprise the next morning, we were dropped off at the side of the road only minutes after leaving Logrono and went on a 2 hour walk through fields of green and tiny little villages. The sun was shining and the air was crisp, a good day for a walk. The land really is something. Can I say enough how green it was? I only hope the pictures do it justice. After our walk and some lunch in the little village we ended up in, we got back on the bus to return to Madrid. I picked up my homework to get some more done, but my eyes kept lifting to the windows to see the magical countryside. Someday, I'll go back.
It is officially May and I come home this month. I am so excited! It will be a bittersweet goodbye because I want to take the Mohinos home with me, but I will be overjoyed to be home. Home! What a thing. I've been gone over three months and California seems so far away. The homesickness isn't so bad now. It's almost a relief that I am coming home soon, because it means I can really let go and enjoy myself without thinking about what an eternity away home is.
Happy May, everyone