Rioja food and wine trip

Spain is one of those places thats close enough, you go to often, but never really know the place. I´ve never been to Rioja or any other wine region in Spain, so it was about time I finally wined and dined my way through northern Spain.

Faustino wines ageing

The trip was designed by the Faustino group, a winemaking family that started 150 years ago and has kept growing to include more brands and vineyards across Rioja over the years. They have a large presence not only in Rioja and Spain, but a rapidly expanding export market, including Iceland. The purpose of the trip was to invite the Icelandic market influencers to come and taste the best Rioja had to offer, not only in wine, but in food pairings too.

in the wine cellar

We were 8, with our local tour guide, bus and driver. Pablo liked wine more than any of us, coming from a family of winemakers and wine enthusiasts, and drinking it all day, every day, professionally. I´ve never seen so many wine cellars, filled with wine bottles and oak barrels, all filled with Rioja wine. Every road you took passed vineyard after vineyard, and every sunny, arable piece of land had vines growing. There were bush vines and training vines, head trained and spur pruned, and the terroir changed from vineyard to vineyard, sometimes even plot to plot.

in the vineyards

The main grape varieties, tempranillo and garnacha, are used to make red wines, and blush and rosé are on the upswing. Viura is the main white wine grape, and both tempranillo and garnacha come in ´white´varieties. Depending on the time spent in barrels, a rioja wine can be classified as a crianza, reserva or gran reserva, and the overall quality of the whole region is measured each year.

some of the oldest bottles of wine Ive ever seen

2001, 2004/5 and 2010/11 are considered the best vintages in the last 20 years, and we were spoiled enough to try a 1955 and 1970 Gran Reserva, also great vintages.

the Medieval town of Laguardia

We visited Malpica estate, one of the most iconic vineyards in Faustino´s line up. Outside of Faustino wines, we were invited into Pablo´s personal cellar, and I found a 1987 vintage and 100% Garnacha rosé to try. We visited the UNESCO buildings in the medieval village of Laguardia, and stayed in Logrono town, visiting the original birthplace of pintxos, aka tapas. We went to the best wine museum in the world, Museum Vivanco, and ate only at the best restaurants, including Michelin starred Tondeluna and Ikaro. We also went to the smallest village with a Michelin star restaurant in the world, Ventas de Moncalvillo in Daroca.

gourmet food to break up the wine tasting

After 4 days of having cava for breakfast, wine for lunch and wine for dinner, we were all wined out. It took a few days before the taste for wine returned, but so it did, and now, only for Rioja wines.

Advertisements

Kentucky Derby, wedding crashers and the south

I´ve dreamed to go to the Kentucky Derby ever since I started riding horses as a child. I heard it was an epic meet of the rich and famous with the drunken and pretty, some tens of thousands of people all coming to watch (some very expensive) horses run a mile or more for a lot of money.

in the grandstands at the Kentucky Derby

Hats and fascinators are a thing, and nearly every woman had some colourful decoration on her head, while most men atl east wore a handsome hat or colourful bow tie or suit. The Twin Spires at Churchill Downs have an infield and the grandstands, split into different sections. The most expensive box seats will cost more than $3000 per person, which isn´t much when people are betting $1000 on the winning horse of the Kentucky Derby, which this year, paid out 65-1, and walk away with more than $60,000 in winnings.

a paddle steamer sails between Indiana and Kentucky on the Ohio river

I spent the weekend in Louisville couchsurfing with an ex-military Trump supporter, and although we had our political differences, we became great gambling friends. He walked me to Jeffersonville, Indiana, another state I had never been to, or really planned on going to, but the views over the Ohio River from the Big Four pedestrian bridge were a memorable highlight.

the roadtrip hybrid

I had flew into Cincinnati airport to start this adventure, which I assumed would be in Ohio, but lo and behold I accidentally landed in Northern Kentucky and felt a sigh of relief when my rental car had been rented from the right airport. I planned on enjoying the warm, sunny spring time to road trip thru the south, since Louisville is considered the northernmost city in ´the south.´ My friend Stef from NYC came and we headed thru Kentucky, stopping at a friends in Lexington, and into Tennessee. She would be married a week later in Eastern Tennessee, and without any sort of real invitation, we had already decided we´d try to crash her wedding.

Eileen and James´wedding!

We couchsurfed when we could, and rented Airbnb´s for no more than $50 or $60 a night, and drove a hybrid Ford Fusion that cost $30 to fill and lasted 500 miles, so the expenses were few. We tried to splurge on food and drinks, but that was also cheap, and I was most excited about eating my $3.99 drumstick meal from Kentucky Fried Chicken, in Kentucky! It reminds me of Viggo Mortensen´s quote in the Green Mile: Kentucky fried Chicken! in Kentucky! whens that ever gonna happen? We ate a lot more fried chicken, from random other small chains I had never heard of, some with waffles, others with biscuits and gravy, and gained at least 2 kg´s in deep fried goodness.

the Lisa Marie at Graceland

We hit Nashville and Memphis, getting our full dose of country Music, honky tonks and soul music. We visited Graceland and boarded Elvis Presley´s private plane, the Lisa Marie. We took a steamboat cruise on the Mississippi river, with views to Memphis and Arkansas state, and drove over the bridge to Arkansas just to say we´d been there. But there wasn´t much there. Except that liquor store we stopped at.

Stef and I, after crawling thru some caves in Tennessee

We them drove through northern Mississippi and Alabama, meeting two of our loveliest hostesses. In Tupelo, we visited the birthplace of Elvis and stayed with a lovely woman and her two cats, who I´m sure I´ll see again as she´s been designated as my informal guide to Mardi Gras in New Orleans 2020 for my 33rd birthday. In Huntsville, we couchsurfed a mansion, with a couchsurfer and her parents, who cooked us an amazing meal and her mother took me running at the crack of dawn with her running buddies.

sitting on a draft horse with a western saddle is like sitting on a whisky barrel

Next we carried on back north, thru Tennessee, and did indeed crash Eileen and James´wedding in the romantic foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains. We managed to visit a bourbon distillery, twice, and even a local winery in Kentucky. We spent a night in Asheville, beer tasting at Highland Brewery, couchsurfing with a crazy cat couple, who were really well meaning but actually allergic to us. Other spontaneous plans included caving at Great Mammoth caves and spelunking in Raccoon Mountains caverns, horse back riding in Kentucky and finding the trail of the Woodbooger – southwest Virginia´s own version of Big Foot.

the woodboogers!

We slowly made it back into Kentucky, just barely missing the opportunity to also visit West Virginia. Our last night was spent in Pikeville, where we ran into a crew of Kellog´s workers at a local bar, joining (and significantly strengthening) their trivia night team. After a week and a half on the road, we had hit 8 states, and I dropped Stef back off to Cincinnati airport (in Kentucky), before finally driving myself into Ohio. Stef had said it would be the armpit of America, and jokingly refused to set foot in the city, so my expectations were low, only to be blown out of the water by some incredible local hospitality.

I´ve definitely seen this bike before, at Burning Man 2009

I spent my last night with new couchsurfing friends, who I know I´ll see again (I´ve already seen one since!). I stepped foot on more than just the bridge to Cincinnati, trying my first taco turtle (so good!), taking a spin thru the nightlife, and getting pulled over in a topless BMW by a trooper (I was the passenger, not the driver, who didn´t get a ticket FYI). I was pleasantly surprised to find a Burning Man exhibit at the Art Museum. It was slightly more relatable than the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville, where Taylor Swift´s presence came as a surprise (isnt she pop?) and I hadn´t a clue who most of the other artists on exhibit were. But being temporarily transported back to the playa, with snipits of Black Rock Desert to reminisce on, I realized that many of my travel experiences in the US were similar – culture shock, only slightly different, followed by total submersion. The south now has a special place in my heart.

Beautiful Northern British Columbia

I have two sisters that live in BC, and my older sister just moved to the north east corner of the province. Kristjana lives in Dawson Creek, which is a real place in Canada, and not the setting of Dawson´s Creek TV show. She´s on mile 0 of the Alaskan highway, only a stones´ throw away from Alberta, and the last week in April seemed a perfect time to explore her new hood. We took a small roadtrip to Grande Prarie, to attend a speakeasy Gatsby party… as one does, when in Alberta.

roadtrip Alberta

We took hikes thru bear country and wind farms, to frozen wateralls and the incredible overlook at Murray Canyon. We hiked near Tumbler Ridge and Bear Mountain Wind Park, without bear spray, but luckily enough we only ran into a wild Moose on the road home – the first moose Ive ever seen, alive. Unluckily, we also drive past 3 dead Moose, and I´m still confused how such a huge animal can be roadkill without a totalled car beside it.

Beautiful Northern British Columbia

Flying into YVR Vancouver Airport is one of my favourite flights – descending slowly into the lower mainland and landing right beside the sea (and a sunset over it, if youre timing´s right) offers spectacular views of the rocky mountains and snow capped ski resorts surrinding the city. You can easily spot the suburbs around Vancouver, and the westend where UBC campus sits, unmoved since 1908.

Icelandair flight 697 direct from Iceland to Vancouver

I didnt spend much time in Vancouver, and its surprising how few friends are still left in the city, leading unsettled lives. I may be the only one, but my younger sister has set some deep roots there with her own family. My grandma will be 90 this year, so I didn´t miss the chance to see her again.

mile 0

My oldest, longest friend Lisa had a new crumpet dog we could take hiking at Lighthouse park, and she´s a dear friend to me because she really makes me feel the passing of time and the value of friendship. While I stagnate as the solo backpacker forever popping in and out of people´s established lives, she´s now invited me to her second wedding (I went to her first, 12 years ago, and happily witnessed her divorce – he was a douche). I try to remember how we went from 9 year old girls riding invisible horses to grown up women going thru such adult lives… but it still seems like just yesterday we used to gallop around the woods in Surrey.

at Lighthouse park

I have kind of (tried to) grow up recently, digging some kind of roots in Reykjavik by buying my first apartment. But, strangely enough, it doesnt feel like home, since I basically just bought it as a place to keep stuff, my stuff, and the only apartment I could afford that fits my gorgeous grand piano. I dont feel like sitting still, even now, with an address of my own, so I´ll just keep visiting, places, people, and their lives, and as long as I´ve got friends and family elsewhere, I´ve always got a home in them.

Biking in Provence

Working for Backroads has been a rollercoaster ride, but the biggest perk is definitely Provence. With our head office and training happening every spring in Pernes-les-Fontaines, I have the perfect excuse to visit Provence in April every year. It’s the time of year when the weather is perfect, the lavender is about to blossom, and tourism hasn’t gotten busy so theres plenty of wine to taste and roads to cycle.

enjoing the Loire

I flew into Paris and visited a friend in Loire to warm up my bike butt, cycling thru the Loire Valley for some wine tasting and sunbathing. Then I was off to Provence to bike Ventoux, or atleast try…

its all about the kit…

There’s a kind of unspoken rule that cycling to the top of Mont Ventoux is part of the Backroads’ family right of passage – nearly everyone has done it, and they time themselves and do it again if they think they can get a better timer. I think the record in our community is 1hr36mins.

Kevin and I in Bedoin about to start our climb

I took a cool 3.5 hours, with lots of selfie stops and pee and snack breaks, but as the temperature dropped gradually with our ascent, the 1909m top was too cold to stay too long, so it only took 30 mins to fly 21kms back down to Bedoin. I was lucky to have Kevin with me, who had cycled Ventoux twice before, so he knew the best way and pep talked me most of the way up.

on the top of Ventoux!

I had all the right gear, thanks to Backroads, including a padded butt and a performance bike, so I didn’t even hurt the next day. I decided to celebrate the accomplishment with a little wine tasting in Beaumes-de-Venise with a couple of other Backroads friends, and finally learned how to use clip pedals. After that, I finally feel like Im qualified to be a bike guide… or atleast I can fake it til I make it since I look the part.

Cycling Speyside: Whisky tasting on a Giant

Scotland was one of my first European countries that I visited last in 2006, but only went to Edinburgh and Glasgow. I remember not understanding a word of Glaswegian, so it seemed safer to fly into Edinburgh. Then Wow Air went bankrupt, 4 days before departure, so instead of flying for pennies thru London, I splurged on the direct flight from KEF with Easyjet. I loved arriving on a spring day, where a very young city rode bikes to and fro and lined up at McDconalds to buy tea.

Edinburgh

I made a friend last year thru Backroads, the young Scottish clone of Icelandic footballer Rurik Gislason. More than being beautiful, he was a biker, and helped me set up my home on wheels for a week-long Speyside bike tour. I stayed the first and last nights at his in Edinburgh, but spent 6 days, 5 nights cycling the whisky highlands on a beautiful blue Giant.

my home on wheels in Speyside

On the train north, I stopped for half a day in Aberdeen. I visited the beach and a friends favourite pub, filling up on carbs for all the cycling ahead. My tour started and ended at Elgin train station, where I cycled down to Rothes, a small village near Glen Elgin where I found a hostel, the Aqua Play bunk house. My first tasting and tour was at Glen Moray at 9:30 am, a bit early for most but perfect to start a day of biking. I carried onto Macallan, where tours were sold out, so I had a tasting and gourmet lunch inspired by El Celler de Can Roca, the three-Michelin starred restaurant in Girona, Spain. I stopped at Aberlour, before heading to Speyside camp where I was the only lonely soul pitching a tent. I had dinner and more whiskey tastings at the Highlander Inn bar in Craigellachie, home to John Dewar & Sons, where I made some more Scottish friends to reconfirm I was crazy to be camping this time of year.

cycling thru the highlands offered lots of highland cow encounters

I spent a night there before going to Glenfiddich. I rode the tourist train in and out of Dufftown (mostly to give my butt a break) to Strathisla Distillery, owned now by Chivas brothers and one of, if not the oldest, distilleries in Speyside. From there I rode thru Cairngorm park to get to Tomintoul town in the highlands, where snow from last week was still scattered on the sides of the road.

the weather was always on my side

Day 4 was spent riding back down, thru the Cairngorms winding along the River Avon, where traffic was finally at a minimum. The narrow roads sometimes made biking a bit unsafe, but the cooperative weather never made me doubt for a moment the trips perfect timing. I tasted at Glenlivet and Cardhu with a bartender friend I had made in Rothes, and went back to my tent at Speyside campground that night.

the stills at Glenfarclas

My last speyside distilleries were Glenfarclas and Cragganmore, and by this time, I felt I could have led my own distillery tour. Every distillery had their own niche blurb about their copper stills or water source, but all the whisky was excellent, all the tour guides knowledgable, but the increasing discomfort of heartburn from tasting whisky all day every day made me relieved the trip was near over.

pedestrian traffic while hiking to Arthurs seat

On the train back south, I went thru Inverness and the highlands, thru the most scenic landscapes pulled right out of a Game of Thrones episode. I returned my blue Giant in one piece, with all of my belongings still attached, but was most surprised by the fact that not a single drop of rain had fallen yet. To my pleasure, my last day in Edinburgh was spent hiking in the sunshine.

The Palm Jumeirah, take two

I went to Dubai six years ago, which made the UAE my 100th country at the time. Since then, I also visited Abu Dhabi, which was nearly as impressive as Dubai, but what Abu Dhabi has in malls and mosques, Dubai has in buildings and beaches.

the Burj Khalifa doesn´t even fit in the frame

I stayed on the very tip of the Palm Jumeirah, and getting there in a taxi is a bit indirect. First you head northwest onto the manmade, palm-shaped island all the way to Atlantis, before swinging around east and curving down south to the Aloft hotel. The coast on one side had windy, rough seas, with a perfect boulevard for marathon training, and inside the palm, we had a perfect, sandy beach with calm, blue water perfect for stand up paddle boarding.

catwalk at the Atlantis

I was there for a joint 60th birthday party, and we dined our way through some exotic meals. The food itself wasn’t the exotic part, but the locations – once we dined at Atlantis, strolling past an underwater world of sharks and Manta Rays, and another night at the base of the Burj Khalifa, currently the tallest building in the world. It sparkled in the night sky, and every 30 minutes, the lit up fountains danced to music to make everything even a bit more fantastic.

champagne and sunset cruise

The other parts of Dubai were extravagant in different ways. Traveling around the palm and into the Dubai Marina by yacht with champagne in plastic wine glasses made me feel like a rockstar. The Waterpark on the Palm was endless fun, especially for adults, where we could finally run and play and splash around like children and feel normal. There were enough slides and tube rides to fill a whole day without ever riding the same ride twice, and going on an overcast day meant there were no lines and no chance of sunburn.

the waterpark, under Atlantis, and me and my Freewaters

It rained twice in the short time I was there, which was also fascinating. For a desert city in the Middle East, it was hard to imagine where all the water for the waterpark could possibly come from, plus the showers and pools of every hotel. But perhaps that’s the charm of Dubai, a mysterious mega city where nothing adds up, but it doesn’t really matter, because it doesn’t feel like a real place; how can a real-life Disneyland for grown ups really exist?

Riding in Alto Ongamira Valley

One of the most common bucket-list trips for horse riders to want to take is Argentina. Whether its Patagonia or Mendoza, its not hard to sell your rider friends to make the trip to South America, as long as its for the love of horses.

cowboys and cowgirls

I had 4 such friends, and we went from gushing about all the places and ideas we had for an Argentina trip 2 or 3 years ago, to finally making it a reality and all meeting in Buenos Aires.

riders all aboard!

From there, we flew to Cordoba, and drove another 120kms to Alto Ongamira Valley, where our gauchos and caballos were waiting. We stayed in an estancia built over 100 years ago, by Eastern European immigrants, where rooms were still heated by wooden fire places and the buffet breakfasts and coffee hour every afternoon would have been enough food for the whole day, but 3 course meals, with Argentinian wine, at lunch and dinner were also swindled into every corner of our full tummies.

asado picnic

Somedays we had barbecues outside, roasted over open fires, and the food quality was impeccable. Red meats and red wines flowed equally generously, and one day we had a sommelier come in to teach us about wines from the region, with more than half a dozen wines to sample – sparkling, white and red, and 2 bottles of each. We were meant to take home a third bottle, but none of us had space in our suitcases after buying so many gaucho hats and gaucho shoes. Instead, we left it for the cook and hospitality staff, who never ceased to be amazed at how much 5 adults could drink.

sunset dips were the best

There was a pool to swim in at the Estancia, but the weather was quite cool, perfect riding temperature which had a freshness to the mountain plains I would never have traded out for more heat. We went down to Ascochinga one day for a polo lesson, and we had plenty of sunshine there, sweating under our colourful polo hats as we tried our best to swing those heavy polo sticks to actually hit a polo ball from the back of a cantering horse.

polo coaching at Pompeya

We spent most of our days on horseback, with a gaucho or two, and atleast 5 dogs. One dog was slightly smaller than the rest, and he would barely see over the tall grass or worn trails at time, but always insisted on coming with us, climbing even to the highest point at Condor Mountain.

Monty, the little-big dog

I felt pity for him, especially when he’d get a burr in his paw or pant up hills trying to keep up with galloping horses, so I made the excuse my legs were cold and held him on my lap for parts of the ride.

riding to the mountain

The riding was never the same, the scenery or the weather, but the horses were consistent – always excellent. Everytime I rode a new horse, I swore he or she was the fastest, and they always were. We raced moth days, and my horse always won, but maybe it was the foxtail on my cowboy hat that made us run faster – noone wants to lose their role as the fox.

this one was, really, the fastest