Romance, Retreats and Rituals in Rioja

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The entire Rioja region is a great romantic destination, with its spectacular scenery of two majestic mountain ranges framing undulating hills with their patchwork of vineyards, picturesque villages, bike trails, hiking, hundreds of wineries, Michelin-starred restaurants and tapas bars.

With so much to offer it’s almost impossible to recommend the best places to celebrate an anniversary, pop the question or just kick back with your partner.  There are, however, two places here that stand out: the unbeatable combination of a five-star luxury hotel, a Michelin-starred restaurant, a wine therapy spa and one of Rioja’s most famous wineries, all on the same property:  The Marqués de Riscal City of Wine.

The other alternative is a romantic weekend in Ezcaray, a village at the foot of La Rioja’s Sierra de la Demanda mountain range, consistently voted the most popular village in La Rioja and a candidate as the best and most beautiful village in Spain.

Marqués de Riscal in the village of Elciego is a true city of wine. It features one of Rioja’s oldest and best-known wineries, founded in 1860, that combines wine cellars dating from the mid-nineteenth century and an avant-garde vinification plant and barrel ageing cellars.  Next to the winery is a luxury hotel designed by  architect Frank Gehry with its spectacular undulating titanium roof.  Inside the hotel is a one Michelin-star restaurant supervised by Riojan chef Francis Paniego and a vinotherapy spa managed by Caudalie.

The perfect weekend at Marqués de Riscal is to check in to the hotel on Friday evening followed by a romantic dinner at the 1860 restaurant that features a unique presentation of seasonal Riojan and Basque produce and a wine list that features wines from Marqués de Riscal as well as a range of other Spanish and international offerings.  Following a drink in the library on the top floor of the hotel it’s time to retire.

The next morning following a late breakfast, take a guided tour of the winery to experience the huge contrast between winemaking in the mid-nineteenth century and today, enjoy a wine tasting and browse the well-stocked gift shop.

Then, after a light snack, visit the Caudalie vinotherapy spa to experience the half day “Stalks for Lovers” ritual - a Caudalie Grand facial treatment or any 50 minutes facial treatment in a private treatment room, barrel bath for two with a cranial massage, and Caudalie massage for two: duo divine! with our "vine flower" massage candle and a Macro Antioxidant drink.  Of course you can choose any of the other treatments, facials and rituals offered by this spa whose treatments use the brand’s own range of grape based products.

A short distance from the hotel is the village of Elciego with its winding streets lined with palaces adorned with noble family crests.

If spas and wineries aren’t your thing, Ezcaray is a great place to romance your partner.  It’s a beautiful village in the southwest corner of the province of La Rioja with a maze of narrow streets leading to a central square lined with half-timbered palaces, bars and restaurants. It’s  perfect for wandering around and breathing the fresh air from the nearby mountains, crowned by the majestic San Lorenzo rising 2300 meters above sea level. The Valdezcaray ski resort is on the slopes of San Lorenzo.

There are a number of great places to stay but the number one recommendation is the Hotel Echaurren, a charming, comfortable hotel that was originally a post hotel and has been in the same family for five generations. It’s not unusual to find the matriarch, Marisa Sánchez, chatting over a cup of tea and pastries with her friends in the front hall of the hotel.

The Echaurren houses three restaurants:  El Portal, La Rioja’s only two Michelin-starred restaurant where chef Francis Paniego (Marisa’s son) creates an amazing range of local and regional dishes with an avant-garde spin.

If you prefer something more traditional, the hotel offers Echaurren Tradición, with traditional Riojan cuisine featuring Marisa’s famous croquettes, loved by generations of weekend visitors to the hotel which offers full board if the guest requests it.

A third alternative is El Cuartito (The Little Room) where the Paniego-Sánchez children and their ancestors used to eat after school.  El Cuartito offers quick snacks and hearty local food at great prices.

Ezcaray is the perfect place to relax, mingle with the locals and weekend visitors, many of whom own apartments in the village, and enjoy great hospitality, food and wine.  An added attraction in July is Ezcaray Jazz, where some of the world’s best jazz groups perform in several venues, both indoors and out.