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The Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao

When I was planning our trip to Spain, I knew that the two main focal points would be food and architecture. The food was delicious in every city we visited and the architecture was as unique and impressive as I had hoped it would be. Gaudi was a definite highlight as was the Frank Gehry designed Marques de Riscal hotel. These buildings were complemented by numerous other sights throughout Spain including the Royal Palace in Madrid, the apartments lining the San Fermin route in Pamplona, numerous alleys and streets throughout Barcelona and the mix of religious buildings in Toledo.

I checked off the building I was most looking forward to seeing on the first day in Spain, the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao. This magnificent museum, designed by Frank Gehry opened in 1997. The opening put Bilbao on the map and made it a destination for art and architecture fans across the world. Bilbao’s success has led many cities to try the same approach, hoping that a building designed by a big name architect will help make their city a destination for tourists, helping to bring tourism money to their city. This strategy clearly paid off for Bilbao in our case. The museum was the only reason we visited Bilbao, though the close proximity to Pamplona helped as well.

The morning after we arrived we made the walk down to the river to see the museum. Like the Marques de Riscal hotel, the building features titanium panels that wrap around the building. The curves were designed to look random, making for impressive sweeping curves that line the river. We never did make it inside, instead choosing to take an early bus to Pamplona to start that adventure.

The building alone was worth the visit and lived up to the hype. The sculpture that complemented the architecture made for a great visit and a good start to a trip filled with memorable architecture.

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The life of luxury

Over the last year I have spent more and more time trying to figure out the loyalty program game. This has included hours of research online, subscriptions to blogs, time spent in online forums such as flyertalk and applying for credit cards simply for the sign-up bonus. This effort has swelled my mileage accounts, gained me elite status on United Airlines and has allowed me to travel in a bit more comfort. Starwood hotel chain recently ran a promotion that awarded a free stay at any of their resorts after every three stays at any of their hotels. To take advantage of this, I made bookings at as many Starwood hotels as I could while in Belgium and Croatia. I earned two nights which I redeemed at the Marques de Riscal Winery and Hotel in Spain. I have stayed at some nice hotels this year, but this was the best so far.

Upon approach, what really makes Marques de Riscal stand out is the stunning architecture. The hotel was designed by Frank Gehry, the designer of the Bilbao Guggenheim Museum and the Walt Disney Music Hall in Los Angeles. Gehry designed buildings stand out with their sweeping lines and use of titanium and other reflective metals in their outer shells. The hotel is set amidst the winery and the vineyards, just across the road from the small town of Elciego. The colors that he used are designed to look like a Marques de Riscal Rioja Reserva bottle of wine, purple (wine), silver (foil seal) and gold (mesh net that graces the bottles to keep counterfeiters at bay).

While the architecture is what first strikes your eye, our stay was defined by the helpful service and hospitality shown by the entire staff. Because we didn’t have a car, we were “stuck” at the hotel, enjoying the sun, sitting out at the spa, taking the complimentary winery tour, relaxing and partaking in the fantastic cuisine. Breakfast on the outdoor patio overlooking the vineyards was a highlight, as was the 8 course tasting menu we had at the restaurant.  Our meal started off with a cheese and truffle stuffed cracker soaked in honey and served on a river stone.  The cheese cracker might have been my favorite dish of the meal, the sweet and savory characteristics were in perfect balance.  This was followed up by croquettes which were fantastic. (no pictures).  The last of the appetizers was a foie gras cone, topped with grape caviar.The first of three main dishes was langoustine lobster in a white garlic sauce.  Simply delicious. Second up was Hake, candied in butter which was very rich and finally veal cheek which was not my favorite but still good.

Deserts featured an apple and honey ice cream dish that even for my palette may have been too sweet and finally chocolates.  To finish the meal, the sommelier came around with a tray of herbs to make us a custom infusion, featuring chocolate mint, a very sweet herb that we missed the name of and some lemongrass.  This was a great way to finish a meal that left us feeling very stuffed.

While the food was the major highlight, the rest of the stay left us feeling bathed in luxury.  The spa featured a pool, sauna and jacuzzi as well as massages that featured grapes such as a merlot seed scrub and grape oil massage.  It was the perfect place to sit out in the sun and relax before heading to Madrid and Barcelona.  If you are ever in the Rioja region, this hotel is a must visit.  It is pricey, but the food, surroundings, and staff make it worth it.   If you can, however, do it for free as part of a promotion you may want to find a way to get to Rioja to experience the life of luxury at Marques de Riscal.

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