There is more to Rioja than wine (although that would be plenty)

Timothy Barber
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PRINCE Charles surely wouldn’t approve. In the dell of Villabuena de Alava, a sleepy, sloping village squatting among the vineyards of Spain’s Rioja Alavesa region, sits the jagged, unruly modernism of Hotel Viura.

It is one of those “impossible” buildings, an optical illusion that seems to squeeze in more angles, surfaces and textures than logic should allow. Square blocks of glass and cement totter unevenly on stilts, other sections protrude like badly-attached Lego bricks; either it’s all about to collapse, or it already has. Whatever must the villagers, whose ancient houses look onto it and whose medieval church abuts it, think of the hotel and its whimsical, cuboid weirdness?

Well, while the Viura’s construction wasn’t without a bit of controversy, it’s not necessarily as incongruous as it first seems: the winelands of northern Spain have become an exhibition site for extreme architecture. Deconstructionist hotels, polymorphic wineries and post-modernist warehouses are sprinkled across the landscape, and some of the world’s most renowned architects have unleashed their ideas here.

It adds layers of fascination and, as it happens, beauty when travelling to the region, whether wine, architecture or the countryside is what interests you. Inevitably, you’ll find all three running into each other in this peculiarly handsome, and also just peculiar, corner of rural Europe.

The roots of such architectural adventurousness are found in nearby Bilbao. Here the Guggenheim museum, Frank Gehry’s post-structuralist masterpiece, was built in all its bendy, bizarre majesty in the mid ‘90s. It signalled the revival of a once severely depressed city, and an idea that could be extended; subsequent investment and ambitious local planning started bringing avant-garde buildings to Rioja’s plains.

For the tourist this presents an intriguing sense of juxtaposition. On the face of it, the space-aged buildings seem to come from a different world to the region’s pretty villages, mouldy wine cellars, old-fashioned bodegas and endless vineyards.

But as you roam over the countryside – crossing the invisible border into Basque country and back again, delving into wine cellars, ambling around venerable towns, dining in cantinas and bodegas, tasting the produce of Spain’s great wineries and investigating these extraordinary buildings – you see how they complement each other. Far from being architectural carbuncles, these are cathedrals that sit easily within the landscape and celebrate the culture and values of a historic rural industry. Hotel Viura is merely the latest addition the region’s ever-growing portfolio of architectural whackiness and wonder.


Marques de Riscal Hotel
America’s most famous living architect, Frank Gehry, not only opened the door for Rioja’s architectural surge with his Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, but followed it up with a breathtaking hotel and winery in the vine heartland itself. A freeform symphony of crazy, billowing surfaces and folds, its luxury facilities include a groundbreaking “vinotherapy” spa, restaurants and its own winery.

Hotel Viura
Imagine the buildings of a town fell one by one from the sky and piled on top of each other, and you’d have something of the curious nature of Hotel Viura. The boutique hotel opened in 2010 and includes a first class restaurant stocked with, naturally, a sensational cellar of local wines. Inside all is calmly sophisticated, with plenty of modern art and pristine surfaces; the floor-to-ceiling windows of the large, modishly decorated suites face out onto the sleepy medieval village. Escaping to one of the roof terraces hidden corners is a must.

1) The stunning modernist Hotel Viura; 2) French architect Philippe Mazieres’ Bodagas Vina Real; 3) The sweeping curves of Bodega Ysios in Laguardia; 4) Iraqi-British architect Zaha Hadid’s ultra modern Lopez de Heredia Vina Tondonia Wine Pavilion; 5) The Marques de Riscal, created by America’s most famous living architect, Frank Gehry; 6) Bodegas Darien, one of the most recent modernist bodegas to open; 7) The Guggenheim in Bilbao

The Rioja region sits in the north of Spain, occupying plains that run along the Ebro river, bounded to the north by the craggy Sierre de Cantabria mountains, which ensure a microclimate suitable for wine growing.

It straddles the border with the Basque region and is itself divided into three wine growing areas: Rioja Alavesa, Rioja Alta and Rioja Baja, each of which produces wines with a particular character derived from the area’s geography. The capital town is Logrono, which as well as its wine trade is famous for the multitude of “pincho” tapas restaurants – places that typically serve just one kind of tapas, the tradition being to walk from one place to another to sample different pincho and wines – clustered around the town centre. Perhaps the most captivating town, though, is Laguardia, a medieval fortress town in the Alava’s Basque territory whose antique cobbled streets are kept entirely free from cars.

Below several of the superb old houses runs a network of tunnels that were hewn out of rock and used as wine cellars – two large vats are still used here for grape-treading. As well as investigating these and the remains of the town’s 10th century castle, it’s worth standing atop its southern slopes and enjoying a vista that spreads for miles across the Rioja landscape, the gleaming waves of Calatrava’s Bodega Ysios lying right in the centre.


Bodega Ysios
From the lookout points of the hillside town of Laguardia, the region’s capital, Bodga Ysios is an extraordinary vision in the valley below: a kinetic ripple of gleaming metal fronted by a small lake that inverts the building in a reflection. Designed by famous Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava in 2000, it was the first of the modernist wineries in the region and slides beautifully into the landscape. The wave formation of its roof not only mirrors the peaks of the Sierra de Cantabria mountain range behind it but suggests the shape of oak wine barrels lying side by side.

Lopez de Heredia Vina Tondonia Wine Pavilion
The Iraqi-British architect Zaha Hadid designed this building in which past and present meet in remarkable fashion. In 1910 the Lopez de Heredia winery exhibited in a kiosk at the Brussels World’s Fair; in 2002 it commissioned Hadid to create a pavilion to house and expand on its old kiosk, for which it won an award. This was then reassembled at its winery in Rioja Alta, where it serves as the facility’s tasting room and shop. An inspiring place.

Bodagas Vina Real
Raised up on a hill overlooking acres of vineyards, this noble, circular building resembles a huge wine vat, constructed from concrete, Canadian cedar wood and steel. French architect Philippe Mazieres’ construction is just as dramatic inside, where thousands of barrels lie in neat circles, beneath which two gigantic tunnels have been cut into the hillside to house ageing bottles in the correct conditions. Vina Real offers a tour of its vineyards and the facility.

Bodegas Darien
One of the most recent modernist bodegas to open, Darien is an avant garde eruption of angles and corners whose crisp white walls are designed to reflect the changing sunlight over the surrounding vineyards. The snaking paths leading up to it add further to the flurry of lines and swoops.

Spanish budget air carrier Vueling flies from London Heathrow to Bilbao, with prices starting from €59.99 one way.

Tour operator Alava Incoming organizes cultural, gastronomic and other tourist itineraries in the Alava province, including trips to wineries.

If travelling independently of an operator, be sure to book visits to wineries in advance and to double check on their opening times. Timothy Barber stayed as a guest of Hotel Viura, where rates start from €125 per double room per night, including breakfast, based on two people sharing.