To celebrate the completion of my Bachelor’s degree at UC Davis, my husband gave me a mountain bike. Of course, he needed to have one as well so I would have company on my rides. We went to a local bike shop – Steve Larsen’s Wheelworks in Davis, California – and shopped for a good price at the end of the season. I picked out a black and white hardtail specialized stump jumper. Steve, who was a former competitive cyclist and at that time competed in Xterra off-road races, was super-friendly and gave us a warm welcome into the bicycling world. As I made my purchase he told me – this is a race bike, you’ll be racing in no time!
The first time I rode clipless I fell over no less than 5 times! I recalled Steve’s remark with amusement – no way was I going to be racing. But, mile after mile, my balance ability grew, I got in the habit of clipping out when I stopped, and I grew stronger and faster. Finally, one day, maybe about a year later, we went to our first UC DAVIS collegiate cycling club meeting.
We didn’t have to try out, we just needed to start training and racing, and there we were – members of the racing team. Wow, it was fun and the best part is that I made two very good friends that I still keep in touch with to this day : Nicky and Christina.
Last month – on a long weekend in Germany – I flew in to Bilbao to visit Christina and her husband Robert in their home in La Rioja, Spain. As I sat on the flight, I realized that we had not seen each other in person for at least 10 years! I became a bit nervous. How would it be? Would we have things to talk about? But, I wasn’t too worried, my memories of Christina were few but fond. I could recall long road rides in the countryside and mountain bike races in Reno.
Christina and I always got along well because she was authentically happy. She was strong, tenacious and an adventurer. She was curious about the world and it wasn’t a surprise when she headed off to Spain to earn her Ph.D. I watched from across the ocean on Facebook as she posted pictures of mountain biking, camping and hiking in a northern region of Spain. Occasionally, we exchanged messages, where I promised to visit someday.
Then, I moved to Germany and, suddenly, the hurdles to a visit were much lower, I only needed to select the time. So, it came to pass that as I planned my last 6 months in Germany, I picked a date, bought a ticket and passed a wild and crazy weekend with my college racing buddy in La Rioja, Spain!
I landed at the Bilbao airport and waited eagerly at the curb for a black Subaru carrying my friend and her husband. When they pulled up, they hopped out of the car and gave me a warm embrace. From the first moment, I knew it was going to be an amazing weekend! As we made the one hour drive from Bilbao into the famous Spanish wine region called La Rioja, we excitedly began to share a bit about what had happened in our lives in the 12 years (we did the math) that had passed.
As we drove through the Obarenes-Sierra de Cantabria mountain range, I tried to speak a bit of Spanish, as this is Roberts native language. Boy, it was hard because the Spanish hides behind a solid wall of German words now! Our first stop was at the Vivanco wine museum to quickly immerse me in the history of this place. A beautifully curated museum, I quickly learned about the land and the history, and the vines that weave the people together.
The museum contained many large wooden structures used in wine production. I snapped some photos for my dad who is a lumber jack and can make anything out of a felled tree. He loves inspiration! The implement below is a giant press for extracting juice from the grapes.
The museum contained many educational displays like this one that explained the varieties of grapes grown in the region.
The layout of the displays was elegant.
We found a beautiful collection of grape harvesting baskets.
A lower level room contained a multimedia display explaining how barrels are made.
Another giant press! I was amazed at the size of the wood.
Things started to get real when we found casks made from pig skin, and they looked like a real pig!!!
At the end of the trip I stopped by a local shop in Logronia and bought my own pair of La boteria decorated with local symbols.
One room in the museum contained an incredible collection of art and items embellished with precious metals and stones.
A strong theme in one collection was the nymph. An odd character that I have to admit I’d only encountered in “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” book series.
Our last stop was in the spacious wine cellar. It must contain thousands of barrels! Soft light illuminated columns and we paused for a group photo.The museum overlooks beautiful vineyards, but as the day was rainy, we piled in to the car and headed in to town for some tapas.
All of the wine region study had worked up quite a thirst so we headed in to Haro for my first experience with Saturday afternoon Tapas. This is something I was looking forward to from the moment I booked my flight! We arrived around noon which was a bit early for the Spanish crowd. We passed through a covered passageway that opened up into a large courtyard. People roamed the streets in cluster of three or four. Some gathered around tall tables outside Tapas bars. The windows and doors of the tapas bars were flung open and voices carried out into the streets.
We stepped in to our first tapas bar and passed through the narrow entryway that opened up into a slightly larger gathering area bordering the central element – the tapas bar loaded down with dozens of types of tapas. People gathered in clusters near the bar that was crowded with small plates and glasses of wine. The top of the bar was loaded with platters piled high with beautiful works of art otherwise know as tiny bites of awesomeness!
Mushrooms appeared to be in season and they were a popular style – incredible flavors. Marinated in butter or olive oil. To wash down the tapas we shared a round of chilled Vermouth produced in La Rioja. This tipple was new to me and it nicely complimented the tapas which were indescribable combinations of meat, vegetables, cheese and spices often perched upon a toasted piece of bread all held together with a skewer. We popped in and out of three tapas bars – eating a small bite at each place. Afterwards we roamed the town a bit to take in the architecture.
After lunch it was time to make our way back to the house but first we swung through Roberts’ hometown – Fuenmayor. A lovely place – we paused for a few moments next to the historical city spring.
The fountainheads looked like an interesting mythical creature.
Back at the house, I became fast friends with the resident cat Stinky Links (who for all the world looked just like a miniature Tony) and their german shepherd – Bear. We slipped into comfortable clothes and roamed the gardens – harvesting strawberries for a cake Robert intended to bake for breakfast. The tranquility was refreshing and restorative for my soul.
The clouds blew away and the rain cleared up for a bit as we struck out for a walk in the hills behind my friends countryside property. Bear ran ahead and Robert chased him. As the paved road gave way to gravel, I breathed a sigh of contentment.
My friend, Christina, a naturalist and fellow ecologist by training, taught me the names of some of the plants and we even found a few interesting insects. The hillsides were dotted with wildflowers. We often stopped for a species identification and to learn how local people used the plants for cooking and healing.
After climbing down in to a ravine to check out the local creek, the sun sank lower on the horizon and we turned back toward the house. It was one of those moments when a cloudy sky enhances the contrast of the landscape. Someday I’ll learn to paint and immortalized these scenes on a canvas.
That evening we headed into an ancient fortress town for a traditional steak meal accompanied by fresh local cider. Our table was in the cellar with the cider cask filling the wall at one end. The way to pour yourself a glass was to pull open the spiquot with your left hand and hold out the glass as far as possible away in your right hand as the cider spewed out at high velocity. Then you pour just a bit because it needs to be drank quickly before the bubbles collapse and the flavor profile changes. It was quite an experience!
The next morning we woke up and drove in to Labraza for a rainy walk through the deserted city streets. The place was absolutely beautiful and there is something magical about walking slowly through an ancient place in a rain storm.
I loved this wolf doorknocker!
The whole place had melded together over the centuries. Narrow pathways between the buildings where bordered above by leaning beams and slippery stone paths protected our feet from the earth below.
This little courtyard was one of my favorites!
We made one more left turn and suddenly my eyes were filled with the view of the vineyards tracing the surrounding hillsides.
We followed the narrow alley toward the vista. As I took in the old walls, I looked up and was amazed at the color of the ceiling!
It didn’t take long to walk every street in this tiny town and then we struck off down some gravel roads in search of, you guessed it, tapas!
A mist of rain clouds hung low above the vineyards obscuring the horizon.
Wheat fields provided a gorgeous contrast to the gray skies above.
We passed by gorgeous countryside villages that popped up in the middle of the fields. Every town was anchored by a large church.
We drove up a hill and parked the car outside a walled city. Then walked up a narrow lane toward the city square. I marveled at the contrast of bright red Christmas cactus blooms against the stone walls.
As we roamed the streets, Christina pointed out that most of the homes had the front door open giving passerbys a chance to admire the beautiful mosaic stone floors and sparsely decorated entryways.
Some of the entryways were paved with colorful tiles. It reminded me a bit of La Laguna in Tenerife.
Many homes had herbs hanging above the door, I could only guess it was a good luck bringing feature.
As we strolled toward the church, Robert recalled a time when they were running cows through the city for an annual festival and he hopped up and grabbed this ledge. Of course, we requested a re-enactment!
A huge church tower looms over the city and we decided to pay a euro to walk to the top and take in the views. It was worth the money!
When we were at the bottom, we noticed some people were exiting the church and dashed in for a few moments to marvel at the artwork.
By now we were hungry! So we popped in and out of a bakery and then had a lovely lunch at a series of Tapas bars.
We took off again for more countryside driving and paused at a winery that was designed by none other than Frank Gehry – the architect who designed the iconic buildings in the mediahafen in Düsseldorf.
I often asked us to pull over so I could snap a photo of the breathtaking scenery.
We headed to the house for a siesta and on the way passed through a town called Meano.
After a proper siesta we couldn’t resist the chance to take off on a hike on a mountain range that is locally called the Lions Head. Hiking into the mist was an intriguing experience – I never knew what would come next!
I found some cool yellow snails!
As we approached the top, the wind whipped and whistled around the edges.
At the top we celebrated with a snack of peanuts. Then beat a hasty retreat as sunset closed in upon us.
That night we headed in to Logrona for a traditional dinner of Jamon and cheese sandwiches.
Iberico Jamon is a regional speciality and it is incredible!
The Jamon is cured for years before being served up in thin slices that just melt on your tongue. A salty treat that completely consumes your senses.
The next morning I packed up and flew back to Germany and I marveled at all the experiences of the weekend. I only described here what we saw and where we went, but what I didn’t mention is that we had a constant string of conversation going the entire time. I found myself wondering when our relationship had grown so deep and open. I only had flashes of memories from college. But then I remembered that our time was spent on long bike rides in the countryside. It is hard to top the depth of conversation in which I can indulge when I’m on a long bike ride or a hike. Doors in my mind open into rooms that I didn’t know existed! I suspect that Christina and I had those conversations on our long bike rides and this bonded us with a strong invisible thread – maybe it is spider silk? I know not, but what I do know is that the thread tying us together is as strong as ever and I look forward to our next weekend adventure, wherever it may be.