December 28, 2012

Staying in Rioja

Entering the region of Rioja.
Leaving Segovia, we drove towards the valley of Rioja. We passed farms, medieval villages, and soon started seeing vineyards scattered on the rocky hillsides. The region was more rugged and less cultivated than I had expected. I had thought the region would be carpeted with rows and rows of grapevines, but there was also open space between the vineyards and villages.




The hilltop village of San Vicante de la Sonsierra.
As the sun was setting we approached our destination - the small town of Ábalos and our hotel. We turned off of the main road and drove up a steep hill to the village of San Vicante de la Sonsierra. The road had switchbacks causing the route to appear as a magenta blob on our GPS screen. As we entered the village the roads became narrow - they were definitely not designed to accommodate modern cars when they were built many, many years ago. After San Vicante de la Sonsierra we continued on small back roads to Ábalos. Here the roads became even more narrow as we drove to the center of town and our hotel. At one point we had to back up to an intersection to allow a tractor hauling a cart of freshly picked grapes to pass and deliver its load to a nearby winery.


Hotel Villa de Ábalos

Eventually we arrived at our hotel, Hotel Villa de Ábalos on Plaza Fermin Gurbindo. It is in an old stone house that has been immaculately renovated by the owner, Jose Luis Castillo. Inside, the old stone walls are exposed giving it a warm, rustic feel. The first floor of the building is where you check in and home to the hotel's restaurant, bar, and a wine shop where Jose Luis sells wine he makes. (Yes, the hotel really has its own house wine!) The second and third floors of the building is where the hotel's rooms are located. Each room combines the comforts of a luxury hotel and charm of a small village. There are modern bathroom fixtures, beautiful soaps, warm comforters, and wooden shutters on the windows. When we arrived saw the hotel and our room I completely delighted.



Our room at Hotel Villa de Ábalos.
The hospitality of Jose Lius and his staff is impeccable and the restaurant, La Cucina de Merche, is delicious. Every morning they serve an amazing complimentary breakfast to their guests. And, I mean amazing! When we were there breakfast included tortilla con patatas, eggs, figs and melon, yogurt, jamon, pastries, breads, jams, coffee and tea, and more... We also had dinner at the restaurant both evenings we stayed at the hotel. Not only was it more convenient since the drive up to the hotel through narrow winding streets is challenging in the daylight, but the food was excellent.


My bacalao with roasted red pepper sauce at La Cucina de Merche at Hotel Villa de Ábalos.

The restaurant is cozy with about half a dozen tables and candles at dinner time. The first night we shared a vegetable rice appetizer with Idiazabal cheese from the Basque region just north of Rioja. Then I had bacalao (salt cod) with a roasted red pepper sauce and Jonathan had one of the biggest steaks I've ever seen. The fish was moist and delicate - it’s hard to believe that had been dried and not fresh fish. And the red peppers were immensely flavorful. Jonathan enjoyed his steak but unsuccessfully attempted to finish the entire thing. For dessert I got a creamy cheese cake made from local cheese served with a grape syrup. This was lovely; creamy like a flan but with a strong, sweet cheese flavor. On the second evening I had roasted peppers filled with a fish and potato purée and Jonathan had cochinillo (roasted suckling pig) for dinner. Again the meal was wonderful, and this time Jonathan was able to finish the meat on his plate this time. Then for dessert we shared a lovely molten chocolate cake and some Idiazabal cheese with apple jam. (The sheep’s milk cheese from Basque Country is one of my favorite cheeses from Spain.) In such an amazing setting, this restaurant has definitely earned a spot on my list of favorite places to eat in the world!



Cheese cake made from local cheese served with grape syrup at Hotel Villa de Ábalos.
And, of course there was wine too! Jose Luis offers wine from wineries in the nearby villages in addition to the wine he makes and sells in his small wine shop in the hotel. His wine, Empatia, is wonderful and pairs perfectly with the food at the hotel restaurant. It has bright flavors of berries and raisins. We enjoyed drinking it with our meal both nights we were there, and bought some to bring home.


Wine and croquettes to begin a relaxing dinner at Hotel Villa de Ábalos.

If this is not apparent, we had a wonderful experience at Hotel Villa de Ábalos! It is an amazing place and I will definitely stay there again next time we visit Rioja. Actually, maybe I'll plan a trip to Rioja just to stay at the hotel! Perhaps I should just say: Me encanta Hotel Villa de Ábalos.

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