What Frank Gehry Did Next
The spectacular Marqués de Riscal hotel plays the perfect, convivial host to Rachel Seed during a food- and wine-filled weekend in the beautiful region of La Rioja
We flew from Málaga to Bilbao via Madrid. Next time I’ll pay the extra to avoid the frustrating four-hour stop over in Madrid. The beautiful new Richard Rogers-designed Barajas airport is a spectacle, without doubt, but business lounges are the same the world over: bad coffee, stale sandwiches and children’s television blasting from the plasma screens. We flew out with Spanair with their ultra-friendly and helpful staff and back with Iberia – on their all-business class jet. With its huge leather seats, abundance of leg room, immaculately groomed staff and a free-flowing bar, it brought back the glamour of flying. Shame about the grumpy, power-happy check-in staff.
We hired a car from Bilbao airport for the stunning one-hour and 45 minute drive past the snow-capped mountains, sandstone medieval villages and acres upon acres of barren vineyards. I’m sure that the fertile, lushness of the vines in full fruit would be equally beautiful, but I loved the drama of the snow, and the contrast to the 20-something degree temperatures I left behind in Marbella.
After some persuasion (opening a bottle of Rioja from the year of his birth – 1929, if you must know – is said to have sealed the deal), architect extraordinaire Frank Gehry was commissioned by Marqués de Riscal to create a structure to house rooms for the family, visitors and board of directors of this historical 150-year-old winery bodega. The project soon grew in size, and 80 million euros later, it morphed into a 43-room hotel, complete with spa, world-class restaurant, exhibition rooms and tasting areas.
Love it or loathe it (most people have strong opinions one way or the other – locals called it ‘the thing’ for months apparently, but have now grown to appreciate the bold statement and the positive changes it has brought to their community), you can’t deny that the building has an enormous presence. It makes an impression from the moment you set eyes on it, shimmering boldly in the distance, rising up unexpectedly and dramatically in front of Elciego, a beautiful ancient village. And as you get up close you begin to understand it – the titanium ribbons of red (the colour of the wine), silver (the foil on the bottle tops) and gold (the infamous Marqués de Riscal mesh that encases every bottle) – there is method in the starchitect’s madness. The hotel’s five star status and membership of Starwood’s Luxury Collection, mean exceptional service should pretty much be guaranteed. And it lived up to expectations – from the moment we checked in the staff were bending over backwards to help us and remained so for the duration of our stay.
There are two ‘wings’ to the hotel and apparently the most coveted rooms are those in the main building, within the titanium wings. But I beg to differ. Whilst I can understand that there is something special about being in the midst of Gehry’s genius design, the rooms are smaller and surely, if you are staying in such an architectural masterpiece, part of the joy is being able to look at it? And this, along with the fact that the rooms are so much bigger and the spa is a hop, skip and jump in a towelling robe away, makes it the place to be in my opinion. Compared to the drama of the exterior, the interior of the hotel is more subtle but no less stylish. The rooms are comfortable, prescriptive urban chic with lots of leather and untreated maple, some great pieces of furniture (all OK’ed by Gehry himself) and the odd Gehry-designed chair and lamp to keep it interesting. All rooms have the expected five-star luxuries, including a rather swish Bang & Olufsen plasma TV, wireless Internet access, a well-stocked mini bar and high thread-count sheets. The all-important bathroom is absolutely enormous and impressive – as perfect as a hotel bathroom could be. Acres of dark marble, luxuriously kitted out with separate loo, gigantic walk-in shower, a bath big enough for two and twin basins. The Starwood Luxury Collection products are fine, but if you fancy some serious pampering I suggest you stock up on the divine, wine-derived Caudalie Vinotherapie toiletries from the spa.
There is no getting away from the wine-theme of the hotel. And, frankly, why on earth would you want to? The grape is everywhere, from the wine-themed exterior titanium plates, the cellar beneath the lobby, the Caudalie Spa with its wine derived treatments and products and, of course, the vineyards stretching for miles in every direction. Be sure to take the 90-minute tour of the bodega while you’re there. Starting with the modern stainless-steel fermentation vats, through century-old stone cellars where oak barrels line dark, mould-stained walls and finishing up in the tasting room, handily located right next to the shop where I challenge you not to drop a few (hundred) Euros.
Consultant chef, Michelin-starred Francis Paniego, has developed a creative and original Basque-inspired menu with lots of modern twists and turns – foie gras custard, Iberian-ham ice cream and sweet tomato tartar with cold garlic cream soup. Challenging but joyous food in a striking setting, with capable staff and a wine cellar to die for (well you wouldn’t expect anything less, would you?). There is a more informal restaurant for lighter meals and for (the impressive and delicious) breakfast – where the drinking of Laurent Perrier Champagne is positively encouraged by the adorable, young, gorgeous staff. Check out the cooler than cool Panton chairs and beautiful Gehry sketches on the walls. The rooftop bar and lounge with its panoramic views, a fascinating 1,000-book library and comfy sofas is the place to partake of a pre-dinner glass of Laurent Perrier Rosé (at a very reasonable and more-ish 12 euros a glass).
Design-conscious young couples, architecture aficionados, foodies and wine buffs. Fellow guests included bespectled, stylish architecture types, a smattering of Eurotrash, the obligatory over-enthusiastic Americans, and Madrileños on weekend breaks. A German fashion photography shoot was taking place for our stay – the poor model was seen hanging off various parts of the building in zero-degrees temperatures for the duration of our stay.
There is a lot to love about La Rioja but the most exciting thing is, unsurprisingly, the wine. The breathtaking, mountainous landscape produces some of the best wine in Europe. Actually, some of the best wine in the world. And an exciting spin-off from all this wine making is the rise of architecture designed, super-modern bodegas. There’s something in the air (and it’s not just the smell of fermenting grapes) – there’s a palpable feeling of anticipation and expectation; of new-generation of wine growers striving to bring age-old processes into the modern day, whilst respecting traditional methods. The result is a fascinating mixture of old and new: picture-perfect stone villages and Roman bridges if you look in one direction and futuristic, breathtakingly beautiful bodegas if you look in the other. If just being in this region makes you want to learn as much as you possibly can about all that is wine – and believe me, it does – visit the impressive wine museum at Dinastia Vivanco, a 20-minute drive from the hotel.
And if you can tear yourself away from the vineyards and bodegas, other leisure activities include two golf courses within 35 kilometres, mountain biking, horse riding and, if like me, you’re visiting during the winter months, the Valdezcarray ski resort is only 50 kilometres away and worth a visit – Courchevel it ain’t, but there’s something rather charming about this tiny, basic resort.
Without doubt, one of the most unique and special hotels I have stayed in. Highly recommended.
Doubles from 428 euros per night including breakfast, right up to 1,350 euros for the Gehry Suite.
Museo de la Cultura de Vino, km442, 26330 Broines, La Rioja