Hiking the Basque coastline

While the Sierra de Toloño offers some amazing trails and views, the most alluring sights I’ve seen in the Basque region are along its coastline.

The coast of northeast Spain and southwest France along the Bay of Biscay is part of the Basque heartland. Inland villages played a key role in keeping Basque culture alive, but it’s the ports–Bilbao, San Sebastian, and many smaller towns–that helped the Basques make their mark on world history.

Today I’m hiking a stretch of Spanish coastline east of San Sebastian and within sight of the French border. Much of my trail today corresponds with the famous Camino de Santiago. This pilgrimage route stretching from France to Galicia on the northwest corner of the Iberian peninsula became popular in the Middle Ages. It’s still one of the most popular trails in Europe, with a record 200,000+ hikers last year.

I can see why. Our route takes us past little towns where churches once offered medieval pilgrims spiritual solace, vineyards growing on steep slopes leading down to the sea, and wide views of the water. The coastline here is rugged, with jagged rocks jutting up from the foamy surf and numerous little islands, some topped by churches and homes.

%Gallery-124603%One of these islands has an important history. It makes up part of the little port of Getaria, home to Juan Sebastián Elcano, the Basque people’s most famous sailor. He was one of Magellan’s officers on the explorer’s circumnavigation of the globe.

The journey started in 1519 with 241 men. That number quickly dropped due to malnutrition, disease, mutiny, and storms. When Magellan was killed in the Philippines in 1521, two other officers took joint command. They were killed by natives soon thereafter. Another officer took over, but he proved unpopular and when his ship sprung a leak, some men decided to follow Elcano in the only remaining vessel. They finally made it back to Spain in 1522 with only 18 of the original crew.

His hometown, shown above, isn’t very big and probably wasn’t much of anything 500 years ago. I can imagine Elcano climbing to the top of that little mountain on the island that dominates Getaria and looking out over the sweeping view of the Bay of Biscay. It’s not surprising such a place produced one of the world’s greatest sailors.

Continuing along the coast we find a slope covered in thick grass. Looking out on the sea, there’s a good view of Getaria to our left and to our right, almost lost in the distance, we spot the coastline of France. It’s a perfect place for a picnic and we feast on Spanish tortilla (a bit like a thick omelet with potatoes), cheese, bread, and fresh cherries. I’ve been on a lot of hikes in Spain and I’ve eaten well on all of them. This picnic takes the prize for best view, though.

This coastline made much of its wealth from whaling. Whale oil used to be the petrol of the world, lighting up the streetlamps of Paris and London and used in a variety of products. While whales enjoy some protection today, they were hunted by the thousand until early 20th century and came close to going extinct. Basque whalers were some of the most adventurous. When stocks were used up in the Bay of Biscay and other parts of the European coastline, Basque whalers went further afield to Siberia, Iceland, Greenland, and even the coast of Newfoundland and Labrador. In fact, they may have arrived in the New World before Columbus!

Our hike ends when we make it to the beach at Zarautz, an old whaling port turned resort. People are surfing and swimming, the smart ones wearing wetsuits to protect them from the cold water. When whaling died and the iron industry faltered, the Basque coast reinvented itself as a northern resort paradise for rich Europeans. San Sebastian, which I’m visiting in the next installment of this series, was one of the best. When you see the photos you’ll know why.

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.

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

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.

Archaeologists discover world’s oldest wine press in Armenia

Archaeologists in Armenia have discovered what they believe to be the world’s oldest wine press. The press is inside a cave, where they found the remains of grape seeds, pressed grapes, and vines of Vitis vinifera vinifera , the same type of grape still used in winemaking today. The site is dated at 4,000 BC, about 900 years older than the previous record holder–wine from the tomb of King Scorpion I, a ruler of Upper Egypt before that country became unified.

This isn’t the first time Armenia has broken an archaeological record. Last summer archaeologists found the world’s oldest leather shoe in the same region. These discoveries are hardly surprising. Armenia is an ancient land with a rich history. It had a complex prehistoric culture that culminated in the Kingdom of Urartu in the 9th century BC. Urartu was one of the greatest ancient civilizations of the Near East.

Armenia suffered from its position between several empires, and while it was often independent it also changed hands between the Romans, Persians, Byzantines, and other powers all the way down to the Soviet Union. Now it’s an independent nation again. It also has the distinction of being the world’s oldest Christian nation, having converted in the early 4th century AD.

During all this time they never stopped making wine. They were one of the main wine producers in the Soviet Union and have since started exporting their wine worldwide. Armenian wine even spread to Africa. During the Armenian genocide perpetrated by the Ottoman Empire during World War One, some Armenians fled to Ethiopia, where they cultivated vineyards. Many Armenian reds are very sweet and rich, and Ethiopian wine has a similar quality.

All of these past cultures and the Armenians’ own rich heritage has created an interesting destination for adventure travelers. Sadly I’ve never been there, but it’s been on my shortlist for years. Poring over maps and books, it’s easy to see that I’d need to spend a lot of time. The mountains offer remote trekking, there are medieval buildings to explore such as the Saghmosavank monastery pictured below, and there are even wine-tasting tours. People who have been there tell me it’s still pretty cheap, making it an attractive budget travel destination.

Maybe 2011 will be the year for me to finally get there?

[Wine photo courtesy Arthur Chapman. Saghmosavank photo courtesy Olivier Jaulent]

Axum Tej: Ethiopian honey wine comes to the U.S.

Ethiopian food is getting better known in the West. With its interesting blend of spices and unique ingredients such as teff, a nutritious grain, there’s a lot going for it. What isn’t so well known, however, is tej, the Ethiopian honey wine.

While tej is available by special request at some Ethiopian restaurants in Europe and North America, it’s rarely on the menu. I was lucky enough to try a variety of tej while traveling in Ethiopia, but I resigned myself to not getting much of it outside the country.

Now tej is being produced commercially in the United States and hopefully this unique drink will reach a wider audience. Axum Tej is produced by Araya S. Yibrehu, who was kind enough to send me two free bottles to sample. I know a lot of mead makers and decided to share it with them to see what producers of European-style honey wine had to say.

But first, my own impressions. I’m hardly a tej expert, but Axum Tej is remarkably different than any other tej I’ve tried in Ethiopia or Europe. While the tej I’m accustomed to has a bright yellow, opaque color, with a heavy, sweet flavor, Axum Tej has the appearance of a white wine. It has a crisp, sweet taste with a clean finish unlike any other tej I’ve drunk.

My mead maker friends agreed. They said that it was much lighter than any other mead they’d made or sampled. One commented, “It’s halfway between a mead and a dessert wine.” They did comment favorably on the well-balanced flavor and the high quality of production. We all liked it.

I think perhaps Axum Tej has been lightened up for Western palates, much like the Indian food you get in London or LA is different than the Indian food you get in New Delhi or Calcutta. Mead is not a widely popular drink principally because it’s so rich and heavy, and perhaps the folks at Axum Tej worried that a more traditional recipe would turn consumers off. Or perhaps I didn’t try enough tej while in Ethiopia. This lighter variety may be popular in some regions or venues I didn’t get to visit. I’ll have to hunt around some more when I go back next month! If anyone out there can recommend a good tejbet in Addis Ababa, the Rift Valley Lake region, or Harar, I’m all ears.

If you’re looking for something different in a sweet wine, give Axum Tej a try. It may not be what I was expecting, but it’s certainly a quality, sulfite-free drink that would go well with fish or dessert, or simply by itself.

Axum Tej does not currently have a webpage. You can order by emailing them at info@theheritagewines.com or calling 1-888 TEJ-AXUM (1-888 835-2986).


Beaujolais Nouveau and old: a tale of two wines and two worlds

Each year on the third Thursday of November, the world awakens with two words on its parched lips: Beaujolais Nouveau. The next morning it massages its temples and sighs.

In between, 40 million bottles of zingy Beaujolais Nouveau-the quaffable new-wine-are uncorked and spill their purple contents from Anchorage to Zhengzhou. Parties bubble into life, the biggest of them held on the eve of the official launch in the unlikely, homely little French town of Beaujeu, near Lyon. Long the seat of the aristocratic Sires de Beaujeu, it’s the mothership that squeezes and sends forth this annual vinous tsunami.

Under a tent the size of a sports stadium, penguin-suited waiters hefting giant wooden buckets pour gallons of Beaujolais Nouveau into the raucous gullets of some 1,500 merrymakers. The grapey, intoxicating scent of carbonic maceration from freshly fermented gamay grape juice fills the air. Performers in silly costumes belly dance or belt out folk songs to the sound of accordions, fiddles, drums and saxophones. As the fête reaches dionysian paroxysms, fledgling members of the Compagnons du Beaujolais-in even sillier suits-are sworn into the bacchic brotherhood of Beaujolais winemakers.

Outside, fireworks and torches, the latter fashioned from grapevine stumps, light up the façades of the town’s low stone houses and its hulking medieval church. There’s dancing in the narrow main street, and gluttony, guzzling and genteel debauchery behind half-closed doors. The extravaganza-in its 22nd year running-is called the “Sarmentelles de Beaujolais” and it lasts five days, this year from Wednesday, November 17 through Sunday, November 21.

Anyone who associates France with regal history, the Enlightenment, cultural sophistication and high-brow intellectual discourse might want to think again. This mega-festival for Beaujolais Nouveau is pure populism and, given the zeitgeist, increasingly popular. French political pundits, anthropologists and peripatetic, telegenic philosophers such as André Gluxman or Bernard-Hénri Levy should consider attending.

If you don’t happen to be in Beaujeu on the 17th you must wait an extra day: Beaujolais Nouveau wine officially arrives elsewhere on November 18. It’s launched worldwide with greater precision than a smart bomb. The masterminds are the big négociants like Georges Duboeuf and the region’s giant co-op wineries. They’re responsible for the lion’s share of the 133 million bottles of wine made in the region. But even some mom-and-pop and upscale boutique wineries join in the Nouveau fun. A single word explains why: money.

This is the reason the medieval church of Beaujeu, lovingly restored, sports several crystal chandeliers with nary a speck of dust on them. It’s also why the spruce town and region as a whole are thriving despite the recession.

The Second City

Frenchmen have long joked that France’s second city, Lyon-20 minutes south of Beaujeu-has three rivers: the Rhone, the Saone and the Beaujolais. It’s surprising that the ancient Romans, builders of Lugdunum-alias Lyon-and makers of the first Beaujolais wines, didn’t build a vinoduct from the region’s vineyards to their capacious arena. Nowadays the environmentally friendly solution would be a pipeline. The French themselves guzzle two-thirds of the wines made in the Beaujolais.

Many regions of France produce wines, but few are so densely planted with vines or so dependent on le vin for survival. Of the millions of gallons of Beaujolais bottled annually, a third is Nouveau, and two in three bottles of that come from the vineyards of the region’s southernmost portion.

The lovely limestone hills of the southern Beaujolais have given that area its name, Pays des Pierres Dorées, “Land of Golden Stones.” Strange to tell, limestone and gamay don’t make a particularly happy match-the soil of preference for gamay is the decomposed granite and clay of the region’s central and northern districts. But limestone doesn’t lower the quantity of the grapes grown.

The wine of this golden land may not be remarkable, but it’s good enough for Nouveau-and the sightseeing makes up for it.

The high-yielding grape variety and the sheer volume of wine production explain why, historically, in terms of prestige, Beaujolais is Burgundy’s poor cousin, its homely sister, a Cinderella of the vineyards. It’s also eclipsed by the big, brawny, inky, outsized Rhone Valley wines-the kinds kingpin Robert Parker loves-made in the broiling climes south of Lyon.

The upside is that Beaujolais has no posses of Rhone Rangers or Burgundy Bores. Its main peril is the kind of populism that encourages boozers who can’t tell the difference between soda pop and sludge. And this does the Beaujolais region as a whole an injustice.

For one thing, the area grows dozens of fine Beaujolais Villages appellation wines and ten excellent crus. Many of them improve with time. The premium cru districts are, from north to south, Saint Amour, Juliénas, Chénas, Moulin-à-Vent, Fleurie, Chiroubles, Morgan, Régnié, Côte de Brouilly and Brouilly.

For another thing, the Beaujolais is wonderful even if you aren’t into drinking, Nouveau or old. While billions of people know the wine and millions taste it, few seem to realize that somewhere out there a place exists geographically, a place called the Beaujolais. It’s filled not only with happy vintners but also with non-wine-related folk who busily animate the landscape year-round.

Unless you’re an anthropologist or you actually like Beaujolais Nouveau, you might want to schedule a visit before or after Les Sarmentelles de Beaujeu and the 100 other Nouveau fêtes held in most Beaujolais villages and towns from mid to late November. You might even want to do as I did recently and skip the region’s rich valley areas entirely, sneaking up instead from the side or back, via the ballooning Monts du Beaujolais mountains that hem in the south and west.

La Montagne

Whether you approach from Lyon and the Pays des Pierres Dorées, through handsome villages with wonderfully unpronounceable names such as L’Arbresle and Le Bois d’Oignt, or drive down from Cluny via the Col du Fût d’Avenas, a mountain pass, you’ll likely be as pleasantly surprised as I was by the scenery and the feel. “Diversity” is the operative word. The contrast between what locals call “La Montagne” and the rest of the region is absolute.

La Montagne is damp, brisk, mysterious and mountainous. Ravines are cloaked by fir forests and cleft by deep river valleys, with isolated hamlets and stone-built villages fringed in moss. Knotty pine décor, wood-burning stoves and heavy woolen sweaters are de rigueur. The food-served at roadside eateries-features slow-cooked beef or pork sausages braised in wine, rustic, rich in flavor, and appropriately caloric.

Arriving too early for wine or lunch, I walked to the summit of the region’s tallest peak, Mont Saint Rigaud. Breathtaking? Rising from a few hundred feet at its base, it tops 3,000 feet. Across the Rhone Valley to the east rose the Alps and Switzerland, close enough to touch. Needless to add, I had the place to myself.

Antiquity permeates La Montagne. The Roman road from Lyon to Autun ran through here, and along it sprang up Romanesque churches belonging to the Abbey of Cluny. In them are stunning sculpted architectural details even a freethinker will find divine. At atmospheric Avenas, a village clamped to the hillside, I discovered a 12th-century altar showing Christ in Majesty, among the finest I’ve ever seen in France.

Up the road at the pass I stopped to taste honey at Miellerie du Fût d’Avenas. There was bosky fir tree and mountain honey, piquant heather honey, tangy dandelion honey, and half a dozen others, all delicious. Honey-making, forestry, wood-working and cattle ranching are the economic mainstays-there is no wine.

The Beaujolais

Just beyond the pass, at a panoramic spot called La Terrasse-equipped with a fancy, glass-fronted restaurant, wine information center and souvenir boutique-I parked and hiked a short, ridge-top loop at 2,200 feet above sea level. Along it rise Druid rocks from pre-Roman days, and chestnut and hazelnut forests. Panels with folksy cartoon characters impart basic information about Beaujolais. I learned that Brulius, a Roman patrician, gave his name to Brouilly, now one of the great wines of the Beaujolais. Atop the Mont de Brouilly, in the distance, I could just make out an isolated chapel-a pilgrimage site for wine-makers. Closer to where I stood, Regnius, another wealthy Roman, had a villa under what are now the vineyards of Régnié.

La Montagne was right behind my back, but it already felt a million meters away.

From La Terrasse looking south into the sunny valley, what you see is a gently rolling, plump and prosperous universe of grapes, villages of sturdy granite blocks, the rushing Rhone River, plus highways and TGV high-speed railways. Scattered around are improbable New World-style, faux-hacienda wineries and ticky-tacky tract home developments, the French equivalent of Napa Valley sprawl. They have sprung up in the last few decades thanks in part to the wealth derived from Beaujolais Nouveau.

Cars and cyclists beetled up the looping two-lane highway from the valley bottom. I coasted down it and picked up the wine route to Beaujeu-which is hidden in a trough-and then to the more picturesque, hillside village of Lantignié.

At Morgon there was no there, there. But neighboring Villié-Morgon proved lively, with an outdoor market in the main square, and excellent vintage wines spurting from every crack and crevice. The most seductive sight appeared before my eyes unexpectedly: a chapel to the Madonna of the Vineyards, behind Fleurie on a sugarloaf knoll. From its porch I got an even better view than before of the Beaujolais vineyards shared by Burgundy’s southernmost Maconnais region. The two overlap.

Despite France’s ferocious secularism-espoused since the Revolution of 1789-many Vinous Virgins and Madonnas of the Vineyards were erected hereabouts in the 1860s and ’70s to protect vines from phyloxera and other blights. The Madonnas failed. But two Beaujolais native sons saved the day, discovering the secret of treating vine roots with boiling water, and grafting native varieties such as gamay and pinot noir onto phyloxera-resistant American rootstock. They saved not only local vintners but the winemaking industry of Europe.

Predating the Madonnas are an almost equal number of effigies of Bacchus, found even in holy places. They suggest that the paganism of the Romans has always been fine in France as long as it is drinkable. The cellar of the old church in Juliénas, now a wine-tasting room, is covered with scenes of bacchanalia. They seemed to me an illustration of how medieval churchmen seamlessly transmogrified the old lushes Bacchus and Dionysius into upstanding Saint Vincent, patron of winemakers-with an emphasis on the “vin” in Vincent’s name.

At Romanèche-Thorins, in the bustling bottom of the valley which I’d meant to avoid, I skipped the wild animal park-a huge tourist attraction-and hesitated before heading to the “Hameau du Vin” in the village’s former train station. This is the Beaujolais’ answer to Frontier Village or Disneyland, a theme park of wine, dreamed up by Georges Duboeuf, the négociant who helped put Beaujolais Nouveau on the world map. He too is a local hero of sorts.

As always, the Hameau was crowded with French families. Initiation into the mysteries of wine comes early hereabouts. Children of all ages-from toddlers to childlike super-seniors-were having a ball. Automatons act out the Four Seasons of the winegrower, and there’s an audio-visual show with a short history of wine, from Noah’s drunkenness to the present. The displays brought to mind the Sarmentelles de Beaujolais, and I realized that one of the real miracles of the Beaujolais, performed perhaps by the region’s Madonnas, is that the reputation of the area’s fine wines remains intact despite the millions of gallons of Nouveau.

Charging back into the hills as fast as I could safely drive, it occurred to me that Don Quixote would have gone wild at Moulin-à-Vent, an appellation named for the centuries-old windmill that is the northern Beaujolais region’s greatest landmark. Moulin-à-Vent happens to be one of the best growing areas. Ironically, like several other premium appellations, part of Moulin-à-Vent is actually in Burgundy.

The windmill belongs to the Château Portier-Denys Chastel-Sauzet winery. It’s not a theme park and has been in business since the 1800s. Alas, in November, you can visit the monument only on weekends. Feeling more like Sancho Panza than Don Quixote, I consoled myself by buying a few bottles of Moulin-à-Vent and Chénas, the antithesis of Beaujolais Nouveau. They would be ready to drink, said the solicitous winemaker, looking like a cross of Bacchus and Saint Vincent, in three or four years. That seemed reasonable to me. With Beaujolais, it’s the vintage wines and antique wonders of the region that win hands down.

Photo Credits:

Beaujolais: AP
Lyon: Flickr/Romainguy
Viaduct: Flickr/Hellolapomme
Beaujolais: AFP/Getty Images