How to Explore Northern Spain

Three adjacent regions of northern Spain—La Rioja, Navarre and Pais Vasco (Basque Country)—can be a tempting combination for an itinerary focused on art, wine, food or hiking.       

The UNESCO-recognized “French Way” route of the Camino de Santiago runs through here, with little sunburst symbols along roads or buildings to guide the walking pilgrims past churches, wineries and dramatic landscapes. There are more than 500 wineries in La Rioja alone, and Navarre is known for wine and truffles, as well as the town of Pamplona, a favorite of Hemingway. The local roads are good and self-driving is very doable.

An inviting base for exploring the area is Hotel Marqués de Riscal, a five-star architectural gem designed by Canadian Frank Gehry, known for the world-renowned Guggenheim Museum in nearby Bilbao. The hotel is part of the “City of Wine” project developed in 2006, which includes a Michelin-starred restaurant, Spa Vinotherapie Caudalie and the oldest vineyard in the Basque region, founded in 1858. The hotel is a part of Marriott's Luxury Collection and is located at Calle Torro 1, Elciego, Spain (call +34-945-180-888; fax +34-945-180-881). Esther Morales ([email protected]) is the sales manager.

marquis gehry suite terrace
Hotel Marqués de Riscal has 61 rooms and suites. Shown here is the terrace of the 725-square-foot Gehry Suite. (Hotel Marqués de Riscal)

The spa is over 15,000 square feet, with a stunning heated indoor pool and a variety of treatment possibilities, all using the natural brand Caudalie. The Crush Cabernet Scrub and wine-based facials are popular with guests. There are whirlpool baths, a barrel tub, steam room, jacuzzi, gym and the traditional foot bath, the pediluvium, to soothe those tired feet.

In a landscape dotted with wineries, this one stands out. The Marqués de Riscal winery was the first to bottle Rioja wine in 1862 and they continue to win awards, including second place in the World’s Best Vineyards three years in a row. We loved tasting superb wines and tapas in the contemporary tasting room, overlooking lush gardens and original 19th-century buildings. Rising above the traditional setting is 21st-century Gehry architecture, with metallic pink and silver curved panels that catch the afternoon light and reflect it into the 61 rooms and suites. From the hotel, the panorama is endless vineyards, mountains and the rooftops of the medieval village of Elciego.

The Gehry Wing includes the Gehry Suite (725 square feet), a Presidential Suite with a loft feel, a wall of windows and a private terrace. The asymmetrical rooflines overlook the views of town and landscapes. Inside the space are curved walls and contemporary furniture. There is a king bed and one bathroom. Some suites in the hotel can be connected to adjacent rooms.

The Riscal Suite
The Riscal Suite in the Spa building offers 725 square feet of space and has a large terrace overlooking the medieval village of Elciego. (Hotel Marqués de Riscal)

There are other suites in the Spa building, including the Riscal Suite (725 square feet), which includes a large terrace with a village view.

Talented Chef Francis Paniego has earned one Michelin star at the Marqués de Riscal Ristorante, as well as two stars at his ristorante in the town of Ezcaray. At the hotel, diners experience creative, traditional cuisine with a mountain view in the main restaurant. There is also a bistro, 1860 Tradicion, with light meals and desserts. After dinner, guests are encouraged to have a nightcap in the rooftop lounge and library, which is also a good place for sundowners.

The hotel will arrange visits to the many historic sites and wineries in the area, as well as sports activities, such as biking or trekking. The property could be a welcome respite for the intrepid souls who have walked the Camino de Santiago.

Located within an easy drive of the hotel is Castillo de Monjardin in Navarre, where the wine-pairing lunches on weekends are memorable. Our lunch began with a sizzling hot rock, upon which a fresh lobster concoction was cooking; each course (and each wine) was better than the one before. For reservations, call +34-948-537-589 or email at [email protected].

Marquis Gehry Suite
The Gehry Suite has a loft-like feel. It has curved walls and contemporary furniture. (Hotel Marqués de Riscal)

For a more rustic experience, there are truffle hunts from the Museum of Truffles in Metauten, Navarre. Parts of Spain, France and Italy are known for the tubers—there are dozens of truffle museums in this part of Europe and this is one of the best at providing educational insights into this natural treasure. Reserve at It’s also possible to have a light brunch or lunch here (with truffles, of course) after the hunt and museum tour. For details, email at [email protected]; or call +34-722-250-346.  Note: The primary languages in this part of Spain are Spanish and Basque. Be certain to request an English speaking guide if necessary.

Whether one is walking the fabled Camino de Santiago or arriving by car, the Irache Winery in Ayegui, Navarre, offers a free outdoor wine fountain, originally set up to refresh tired hikers. The monastery was founded in 1702 as a hospital for pilgrims following the trail. Now it is a huge winery that holds three million bottles and ten thousand oak barrels, and produces wines that are sold around the world. Guests or passers-by are welcome to fill a cup of the red wine from the outside faucet. (There is a security camera to avoid underage partying). Book via

Marquie Riscal Spa Suite
The rooms feature contemporary touches like the cloud lamps made of white fabric balloons. Other details include green and black Italian marble baths and blackout drapes to shield from the bright morning sun. (Hotel Marqués de Riscal)

With the Hotel Marqués de Riscal as inspiration (or vice versa), travelers often crown their itineraries at the spectacular Gehry-designed Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao before flying out or continuing on to San Sabastian or France. The world-famous museum is simply amazing, with soaring spaces that confirm that architecture is indeed art.

There is a water feature outside, including interactive exhibits inside the museum, as well as some very large installations. Some visitors are so awestruck by the structure itself that they go from floor to floor just admiring the building. Afterward, there are tapas and drinks in the museum bistro.

Marquis hotel pool
The Vinothérapie Spa Caudalie at Marqués de Riscal has a heated indoor swimming pool, a hammam, and a Finnish sauna among other amenities. (Hotel Marqués de Riscal)

Spain has become a top destination in Europe for travelers and for good reason. The variety of experiences seems endless and the transportation between sites is good. Like Italy, there is so much to see in Spain that visiting one area at a time is the best way to get to know the country.

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