Puentes! One of my favorite things about living and working in Spain. For those of you who’ve studied Spanish, you probably know that the more common translation of puente is bridge. However, it has another meaning: long weekend.
In Spain, there are many of these lovely puentes throughout the year, which means we get lots of three and four-day weekends. The first weekend of December this year was a puente for us because December 6th, which was a Saturday this year, is el Día de la Constitución (National Constitution Day) and December 8th, which fell on a Monday, was el Día de la Inmaculada Concepción (Feast of the Immaculate Conception). To take advantage of our days off from work, M invited C and I to come to her family’s vacation home in Haro, La Rioja, a town famous for its Batalla del Vino (Wine Battle). Some of M’s friends from her neighborhood also wanted to come, so in the end we were 11 people, two dogs and a cat in a three-bedroom house with one working bathroom. Clearly, this was the start of a great adventure.
We traveled in 5 separate cars to make the 3-1/2 to 4 hour journey to Haro. C, M and I ended up finding someone on BlaBlaCar, a popular car-sharing website in Spain and other parts of Europe, and we traveled with two women from a small village near Haro. Although BlaBlaCar can often be very awkward, we had a nice time together talking about our lives in Madrid and cool places to check out in La Rioja that weekend.
We were the first ones to get to Haro, so we went to M’s family’s house and got things ready for the rest of the group who were to arrive in a few hours time. As we entered the apartment, I wondered how on earth 11 people, two dogs and a cat were going to fit. I also discovered, with horror, that we would only have one working bathroom! I’m used to sharing one bathroom with three people since it’s what I’ve been doing almost my entire life, but sharing one bathroom with 10 people seemed impossible.
We finished preparing the house and then decided to go out for some wine and pintxos (tiny dishes of food, like tapas). At only 0,80€ a piece, we enjoyed many glasses of red wine and rosé. The pintxos were also cheap at about 1,00€ per dish, so let’s just say we enjoyed our first few hours!
At about 9pm, everyone else got to Haro, so we helped them unload their cars and then went out for more drinks. I was exhausted from a long week, so I almost fell asleep in one of the gin and tonic bars. It was about 3am and everyone still had energy and wanted to go to a karaoke bar! Luckily, at about 4:30am, we decided to go back home and rest so we could enjoy the next day which was Saturday. Even after a year and a half in Spain, I still can’t keep up with Spanish nightlife!
The next morning, most of us got up around 10 AM and had our breakfast of coffee and fiber cookies. As I’ve probably mentioned before, breakfast is not the most important meal of the day in Spain, so it is normally very light. The last member of our group, A, arrived around 11 AM and now that the group was complete, we set out to explore Haro during the day.
The town itself is quite small, so there was not a lot of exploring to be done. However, there were plenty of small restaurants, bars and cafés that we were dying to try. We spent the entire 2nd day going from bar to bar, tasting different wines from the region. When we weren’t drinking, we sampled some of the local cuisine (meaning I ate lots of potatoes and eggs while my friends enjoyed escargot and pork). Since it was a rainy day, we spent the afternoon inside a café sipping on cappuccinos and playing cards.
That night, we had an early dinner and then went to a karaoke bar. One of the girls, Cr, really likes Evanescence, so the two of us sang My Immortal. I can honestly say it had been at least five years since I heard that song, but it was fun to sing nonetheless. We stayed at the karaoke bar for a few hours and danced along as our friends sang popular Spanish songs well into the night. As a group of eleven people, I think we overwhelmed the bartender a bit, but it looked like he was having just as much fun as we were. Unfortunately, we had to cut the night short since we were going to visit a winery at 10 AM the next day.
On Sunday morning, I was the first one to wake up at 7:30 AM. I had my morning coffee and waited anxiously as my friends slowly crawled out of bed, a bit hungover from the night before. After my morning coffee, my headache from the fun time at the karaoke bar started to go away and I was ready to go and taste some more wine.
Of the three wineries I’ve visited in Northern Spain, Bodegas Ramón Bilbao was the biggest and most beautiful. About a 15 minute drive outside of the center of Haro, Ramón Bilbao sits between two large mountains and is surrounded by acres of vineyards.
We followed the tour guide for about an hour through the different parts of the winery as she explained the wine-making process. Although she used a lot of complicated wine terminology, she also provided thorough explanations for those of us who did not know much about wine-making. I learned about how wine is processed and fermented, as well as how it is stored. Apparently, the wine in Bodegas Ramón Bilbao is typically stored in either American or French oak barrels, the latter being the most valuable. After passing through the vault where they store the oak barrels, we headed upstairs for our wine tasting.
We tried three different styles of Rioja wine: crianza, reserva and gran reserva. The crianza is the youngest of the styles and it usually stored in barrel for about a year and then in a bottle for another. The reserva is the second youngest. It stays in a barrel for one year and in a bottle for two before it can be sold. The gran reserva, as you may have guessed, is the oldest of the three styles. It stays in an oak barrels for two years and then sits in a bottle for another three years. As far as the flavors go, I found the crianza to be a lot weaker than the reservas. The gran reserva had a very strong flavor with hints of espresso and chocolate. I enjoyed the gran reserva, but it was a tad too strong for me. I think the reserva was my favorite of the three.
After the winery visit, we decided to explore the nearby village, Santo Domingo de la Calzada. The women who drove M, C and I to Haro were from that village and they recommended that we visit on Sunday so we could check out the village’s medieval market. They told us we could find great food and handcrafted goods and, with Christmas coming up soon, we knew it would be a good idea to go. Also, we had nothing better to do. So, I called up my friend, L, who lives in Logroño, the capital of La Rioja, and in about 30 minutes all of us set out to explore Santo Domingo de la Calzada and its medieval market.
L had been there multiple times and guided us to the best parts of the market. We walked past clothing shops and restaurants and instead made our way to the center of the village. I felt as if I’d been transported back 400 years in time as I stood next to a man dressed in medieval garb and warmed myself by a wood fire. To my left, there was a stand with a couple in matching medieval costumes selling wafers that were twice the size of my head. Of course I had to try one.
We spent another hour at the medieval market while some people bought Christmas gifts and others sampled food. When we were finished shopping, we watched an eagle show. I was in awe as the massive bird landed on its trainer’s outstretched arm.
Afterwards, we went back to Haro to have lunch. We went to a family restaurant that wasn’t too crowded. Being a group of eleven-now twelve with the addition of L-it was difficult to find a place to eat. The food at this restaurant wasn’t the greatest, but the company was excellent.
After L left, we spent the rest of our time relaxing in cafés and restaurants. After being together for over 48 hours straight, I could tell that some people-including me-were ready to go back to Madrid and have some alone time. Being around a bunch of people in a small space for days straight brings out people’s true colors. Unfortunately, drama is inevitable. However, despite all of this, I had a great time on the trip and got to know a lot of wonderful people that I hadn’t spent much time with before in Madrid. It was a bit stressful being the only non-Spanish person at times, but I learned a lot about myself and my confidence in my Spanish skills definitely improved. I can’t think of anyone I would’ve rather spent my December puente with than the “gente con talento.” (talented people) 🙂