Salt, wine, and wealth in Spain’s Basque region

Basque, wine, Rioja, wine tasting
In the modern world we don’t give much thought to salt. We casually pick some up in the supermarket or tear open a packet at a café, but in the past salt was a vital and sought-after commodity. Everyone needed it for preserving food and as a source for iodine. Nobody could live without it and those who controlled its supply became rich and powerful.

The Basque region of Spain was a major supplier of salt thanks to a strange legacy dating back 220 million years. The remains of an oceanic deposit of salt lie close to the surface at Salinas de Añana. People have been digging up salt here for at least 5,000 years. Our hiking group is visiting this valley. We see pipes channeling saline water onto platforms, where the water evaporates and leaves behind a salty crust. The water has 250 grams of salt per liter. By way of comparison, the Mediterranean has only 40 grams per liter. The Dead Sea has 350 grams per liter and is so salty you can float on it.

The salt is ultrapure and highly prized by top restaurants. Despite this, international competition from more affordable brands has led to a decline in business. Fifty years ago there were some 5,500 salt platforms. Now there are only 45. Yet the workers at Salinas de Añana have carved out a niche for themselves and are hoping their traditional extraction process will get the valley named a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

%Gallery-124223%Leaving the salt valley behind, we follow the old Salt Trail through rolling fields punctuated by forest. We circle Arreo Lake and come to Fontecha, a town made rich by salt. Back in the Middle Ages, salt meant wealth, and wealth meant power. Two huge towers glower over the little town, erected by rival families from the money and influence the salt trade gave them. Sadly, both are being worked on and are closed to visitors. Instead we stop for lunch at a terraza, the outdoor seating of a local café. Sitting at terrazas is a favorite pastime in all regions of Spain. Sip some wine, talk to friends, and watch the world go by. It’s a nice way to spend an afternoon or relax after a hike.

More wine comes that night when we visit Bodega El Fabulista in the hilltop town of La Guardia. This is in La Rioja region, where Spain’s best wine comes from. An employee takes us down into the cool cellars, where vaulted stone ceilings shelter orderly rows of oaken barrels. The air is a constant 11-13°C (52-55°F) and 85% humidity. The barrels are made of various types of oak to lend the wine distinct flavors. The amount of time the wine is left in the barrels is critical for its rating: crianza wine spends a minimum of 12 months in oaken barrels, reserva needs 15 months, and gran reserva spends 5 five years in the winery and at least two years in the barrel.

This is all very interesting, but I’m getting anxious to sample some good old Spanish vino. I have some more waiting to do because as we stand glass in hand, the wine temptingly close, we’re treated to another lecture. This time it’s about tasting wine. When a waiter opens a bottle for you and pours out a little for you to check, there’s no need to actually drink some. Smell it to make sure it hasn’t turned to vinegar, and look at it to make sure no bits of cork are floating in it.

Next we examine the wine’s “crown”. If you tip the wine a little while holding it over a white surface, you can examine its edge. The color tells you how old it is. Young wine has a purple edge. As the wine ages it gradually darkens, until with gran reserva it looks brown. Finally we’re allowed to taste it, and everyone holds forth on their observations about its accents and flavors and subtlety. I suppose I could too, but I know very little about wine (I’ve always tasted it to check it, and until now I had no clear idea what crianza meant) so I’ll spare you the pontification and just say that to my uneducated palate, Rioja wine, especially that from El Fabulista, is delicious.

Wandering through the narrow, winding streets of this medieval town we see that wine, like salt, meant wealth and power in the old days. Many houses are adorned with ornate family crests, and the town gives off an aura of money and social standing. Rioja wine is drunk all across Spain. While the salt from Salinas de Añana has become a specialist product for connoisseurs, Rioja has a major market share in a country that demands quality wine.

Don’t miss the rest of my series: Beyond Bilbao: Hiking through the Basque region.

This trip was sponsored by Country Walkers. The views expressed in this series, however, are entirely my own.

Help select the next World Heritage Sites in the U.S.

World Heritiage Sites under consideration for U.S.As most travelers know, the UNESCO World Heritage Sites are amongst the most spectacular places in the entire world. The list, which currently consists of more than 900 unique locations across the planet, recognizes those places for their cultural or physical significance. But that list is constantly being evaluated and updated, with some sites being removed when they are threatened or altered, and others being added as their significance becomes more apparent.

The U.S. National Commission for UNESCO, which operates as a Federal Advisory Commission to the Department of State, has just opened a 30-day call for public comments on the current list of places that are being considered for World Heritage status. During this phase, the general public is invited to weigh in on the nominees, and express their opinion on whether or not those sites are worthy of UNESCO’s very esteemed list.

There are a total of 13 sites under consideration, with nine falling under the “cultural” category. Those sites include: Civil Rights Movement Sites, Alabama; Dayton Aviation Sites, Ohio; Hopewell Ceremonial Earthworks, Ohio; various Thomas Jefferson Buildings in Virginia; Mount Vernon, Virginia; Poverty Point National Monument and State Historic Site, Louisiana; San Antonio Franciscan Missions, Texas; Serpent Mound, Ohio and various Frank Lloyd Wright Buildings throughout the country. Additionally, there are four sites up for nomination in the “natural” category as well. Those sites include: Fagatele Bay National Marine Sanctuary, American Samoa; Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge, Georgia; Petrified Forest National Park, Arizona and White Sands National Monument, New Mexico.

The call for comment went out on Tuesday, Dec. 14, so the process has already been set in motion. For more information you can read the official entry into the Federal Registry by clicking here. If you would like to share a comment with the Commission, you’ll find the contact information for doing so, including mailing address, by clicking here.

This is a great opportunity to get some historically and culturally significant sites recognized by UNESCO. If you would like to see one, or more, of these sites added to the World Heritage list, be sure to share your thoughts now.

[Photo credit: National Park Service]

New World Heritage Site for Malaysia?

A cave that sheltered early humans in Malaysia more than 40,000 years ago is being proposed as a new World Heritage Site.

Niah Caves are several large limestone caves that have attracted archaeological interest since the 1950s. Excavations have turned up the earliest human remains in eastern Malaysia, as well as artifacts from various periods from early prehistory down through the Iron Age. One cave has paintings of mysterious “coffin ships” dating back 1,200 years. This long period of habitation makes the caves especially interesting to archaeologists because they can see how lifestyles and culture changed over time. The caves are part of Niah National Park.

Chief Minister Pehin Sri Abdul Taib Mahmud plans to propose the caves to UNESCO for their World Heritage List. The caves and park are already a popular tourist attraction, and getting the caves listed as a World Heritage Site would add to their appeal as well as attract conservation funding.

Mulu Caves on Borneo are already a UNESCO World Heritage Site and are famous for having the largest cave chamber in the world, measuring 600m (1,969ft) by 415m (1,362ft) and 80m (262ft) high.

The minister also wants to bring the remains found in the caves by foreign expeditions back into the country and wants to build special facilities at Sarawak Museum to take care of them. Malaysia was able to get some artifacts from another site back from Cambridge University in 2008, part of a growing trend of developing nations demanding their heritage back from Western institutions.

[Photo courtesy Dave Bunnell via Wikimedia Commons]

List of World Heritage sites continues to grow

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, also known as UNESCO, has added more sites, including several cultural locations, to its ever expanding World Heritage list. The additions were made this past weekend when the organization concluded the 34th session of the the World Heritage Committee in Sao Paulo, Brazil following more than a week of deliberation.

Amongst the new inductees are the Imperial Citadel of Thang Long-Hanoi in Vietnam; the historic monuments of Dengfeng in China; the archaeological site Sarazm in Tajikistan; the Episcopal city of Albi in France; and a 17th-century canal ring in Amsterdam. Those five sites were lauded for their cultural significance, and their inclusion brought the list up to 904 total sites.

Joining the sites named above were the Bikini Atoll, located in the South Pacific’s Marshall Islands, the Turaif District in Saudi Arabia; Australia’s famous penal colonies; the Jantar Mantar astronomical observation site in India; the Tabriz historic bazaar complex, as well as a shrine in Ardabil, both located in Iran; and the historic villages of Hahoe and Yangdong in South Korea.

Singling out the Bikini Atoll, the Committee said that nuclear tests conducted on the tiny island during the late 1940′s and early 1950′s had a profound effect on the geology and environment of the area. They also noted that the atoll had historical significance by ushering in the dawning of the nuclear age as well.

New sites are generally added to the World Heritage list on a yearly basis, with the locations receiving a measure of prestige and honor for making the cut. In order to remain on the list though, they must be protected and preserved by the country in which they reside. In recent years several sites have been added to the Committee’s “endangered list” with some actually losing their “World Heritage” status due to changes in their condition.

Lets hope these new additions are around for a long time.

[Photo credit: Chinasaur via WikiMedia Commons]

New UNESCO World Heritage Sites for Ireland?

The Republic of Ireland has a well-deserved reputation for beautiful landscapes and ancient monuments, so you might be surprised to learn that it has only two UNESCO World Heritage Sites. They are the Archaeological Ensemble of the Bend of the Boyne, which includes megalithic sites such as Newgrange that boast the world’s largest collection of prehistoric megalithic art, and Skellig Michael, a 7th century monastery on an isolated island.

Impressive sites, both of them, but surely the Emerald Isle has more to offer?

The Irish have decided to remedy this poor showing and have proposed seven sites or groups of sites for the UNESCO tentative list. Here’s a brief rundown:

The Burren: both a geological and a cultural landscape, The Burren on the west coast presents an imposing terrain of exposed limestone carved into weird shapes by the wind and rain. Nowadays it attracts hikers and other outdoorsy types, but in early times it attracted a succession of cultures that grazed their animals there and left more than 2,700 monuments. Still used by locals for their flocks, a large body of myth and folklore has grown up around this unique landscape.

The Historic City of Dublin: Ireland’s capital has a well-preserved historic center full of Georgian-era buildings. These eighteenth and early nineteenth century buildings are some of the finest of their type. Add to this generations of writers (Swift, Sheridan, Wilde, Stoker, Yeats, Beckett, etc.) and the fact that it’s the setting for James Joyce’s Ulysses, and you have one of the cultural capitals of the world. Dublin is full of atmospheric views, like the one caught here by user patrodz from Gadling’s flickr pool. You can even go on a literary pub crawl of Dublin.

The Céide Fields and North West Mayo Boglands: It’s strange to think that an entire Neolithic landscape, complete with boundary walls, farm fields, and monuments could survive intact for almost 6,000 years, but that’s exactly what’s happened here. Much of the landscape is buried under a thick layer of peat that preserves organic materials such as pollen, leather, wooden tools, even human bodies. It’s been the playground of archaeologists for generations, and every year new discoveries are made.

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Western Stone Forts: a network of Early Medieval (700-1000 AD) ringforts, circular stone walls that defended the homes of the petty rulers whose lands made up a patchwork of kingdoms on the island. These were dangerous times of constant raiding and brigandage, and regular folk made ringforts too. These Western Stone Forts are on a more grandiose scale than those of the commoners and are often better preserved, such as the impressive stone fort at Dún Aonghasa.

The Monastic City of Clonmacnoise and its Cultural Landscape: This monastic city in central Ireland has yet to be swallowed by the juggernaut of modern “development.” Founded in 545, it became a major center of arts and learning and a royal burial site. There are many churches and a castle still standing.

Early Medieval Monastic Sites: Ireland is famous for its early medieval monasteries that helped keep the lamp of learning lit after the fall of the Roman Empire. While books such as Cahill’s How the Irish Saved Civilization exaggerate the Irish role (the Byzantines and Arabs helped preserve and enhance Classical learning too) there’s no doubt that Irish monks were one of the bastions of culture during a low period in European history. Six monasteries have been chosen for the tentative list owing to their historical importance and degree of preservation.

The Royal Sites of Ireland: Ireland spent much of its medieval history as a group of small kingdoms whose borders constantly fluctuated due to the fortunes of war. The competing royal families gave rise to a rich body of literature and folklore. Five royal sites have been chosen for the tentative list. They are Cashel, Dún Ailinne, Hill of Uisneach, Rathcroghan Complex, and the Tara Complex. Each was a royal center for one of the great royal houses of medieval Ireland.

An impressive list. Here’s hoping UNESCO recognizes their global cultural value. There’s a downside to this, however, as was recently pointed out in the latest issue of Northern Earth magazine. which advised, “Go now–if they get listed, they will enter the tourism industry and become subject to inflation and packaging!”