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.

World Heritage Site new “Tentative List”: Places to Love: Frank Lloyd Wright Buildings (part 1)

For the Gadling series “World Heritage Site new “Tentative List”: Places to Love” we are covering the 14 sites that have been submitted for possible inclusion as an official World Heritage Site in the United States. The sites will not be posted in order of importance or in the order they appear on the list.

Number 4

Name of site: Frank Lloyd Wright Buildings (Part 1- There are ten buildings on this list, each deserving of mention. Therefore, we are presenting the ten buildings in two separate posts. Here are the first five.)

Location: Various locations in Arizona, California, Illinois, New York, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin

Reason for importance (in a nutshell): Frank Lloyd Wright, one of the most prolific, important American architects designed more than 400 buildings over 60 years. His designs embodied the idea that buildings should incorporate nature and form including the spacial elements of the environment they inhabit. Wright’s buildings were created for a wide array of purposes from individual houses to museums to cathedrals. The 10 that were selected for the World Heritage Site Tentative List “represent the fullest and most compelling achievements of Wright as an architect as well as some of the greatest works of the art of architecture in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.”

Jamie’s Take: It’s Frank Lloyd Wright! He lived to be 91 and look what he created. Sheer magnificence. Looking at his buildings is like looking through a mega kaleidoscope for adults. See for yourself.

Unity Temple (1905-08) Considering this building was built more than 100 years ago, its cubist-style architecture is astonishing. The geometric lines and patterns and poured concrete walls were unprecedented for the time according to the temple’s Website. Although is still serves as a Unitarian Universalist church in Oak Park, Illinois with regular services on Sunday, there are public tours. For more details of the inside, click here.

Fallingwater: (1936-38) Years ago a friend of mine came back from a trip to Pennsylvania where a tour of Fallingwater was on the itinerary. She described in great detail its magnificence. Ever since, I’ve been interested in heading here. This once private home, now owned by the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy, is a Frank Lloyd Wright masterpiece. Built over a waterfall, the house uses materials from the area. The floors are native sandstone. Even the furniture incorporates elements of the surrounding environment. Each detail from the chimney to the glass casement windows are Wright designed.

Robie House (1908-10), Also a once private house, the Robie House on the University of Chicago campus is considered one of the most important buildings of modern architecture. Wright designed the house to contrast to the flat landscape of the prairie on which it was built. Geometrically patterned glass windows are part of Wright’s Prairie style features, as are the tiers of balconies.

This building can be toured daily, although it’s closed in February on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

Hollyhock House (1919-21) This once private home was Wright’s first project in Los Angeles. The design elements reflect the southern California location. Stucco and terracotta were used as building materials, and Wright also designed the furniture. Several doors and windows have elaborate, geometric patterned glass, a trademark of Wright’s work. After an extensive renovation, Hollyhock House has reopened for tours.

Taliesin (1911 and later) In Spring Green, Wisconsin, this was Wright’s home and studio. Along with the main house are several others. Wright used local limestone for expanses of the buildings’ exteriors. Today, this 600-acre estate is a tribute to Wright’s sensibilities.

Every detail from the roads to the dam to the pond to the covered passageways that connect the building are according to how Wright saw the interplay between buildings and environment. Tours of the estate start up again in April and continue until November, although more extensive tours happen beginning in May through the summer.

The first picture in this post is one of the windows of Robie House.