I love to search for charming little places around the world, the type that do not usually fall under the average tourist's wish-list, places I wish I could savour all by myself and hide from all you other thirsty travelers out there. But, alas, here I am in the magical wine region of La Rioja in Spain, and I am about to-very reluctantly may I say-divulge my precious secret to all. How selfless of me. Or maybe, it could be the overdose of Spanish vino that has permeated every cell in my brain that has led me to spill the beans. Who knows.

lariojaspaincb800I am in love with Laguardia, a pretty medieval town sitting on a rocky hilltop commanding spectacular views of the whole region. I curiously make my way through the intricate network of cobbled alleyways, stopping at little tavernas to sample home-made tapas and peeping into quaint shops selling authentic produce. No one speaks a word of English here, but I am well acknowledged — old women nod at me on their way to church, meat sellers smile and big-bellied men standing in the doorways of their vinotecas wave me in to sip their best wine. Lost in my own world, trying to absorb all of this, I stumble across an imposing majestic chunky wooden door: 'Posada Mayor de Migueloa' says the sign (www.mayordemigueloa.com). What was once an old mansion is now an authentic hotel that depicts the ultimate in gracious Rioja living. I spend a 'royal' night here, chatting to the bubbly owner Meri, marveling at the grand rooms, walking through hallways complete with velvet chairs, gold-encrusted mirrors, crystal chandeliers and Persian carpets and treating myself to a sumptuous dinner of ox-cheek in blue-cheese sauce in the in-house restaurant.

lariojacb800bNext day, I wander round the little town of Elciego, dominated by rolling hills and vineyards, where I search for an outrageous looking hotel/winery that has recently dominated travel magazines, the Marques de Riscal, (www.marquesderiscal.com) designed by the renowned architect Frank Gehry. Finally I spot it, sprouting out from the vineyards, an ultra-modern, one-of-a-kind intricate mass of pink, silver and gold metal sculptures twisting around a 150 year old building, strangely blending in to the surrounding lush greenery. Truly impressive. I must explore.

“Hola, welcome, you want a room madam?”

In reality all I can afford is a photo standing outside!

lariojacb800cThe steep prices have me run off to another nearby village, Haro. I stroll around the main square, Plaza la Paz, and follow some locals through narrow alleyways leading to a compact old quarter. An old building has me intrigued. I walk in. Thick, stone walls and archways, all meticulously restored, lead to a magnificent cloister covered with a glass vault. This is Hotel Los Agostinos (www.hotellosagostinos.com), a 1373-built convent, and later on a hospital, school and even prison. I make myself at home in this oasis of peace, sipping a coffee and delving into a deliciously sweet Spanish pastry of some sort. Later on I make my way to my room for the night. Buenas Noches, I shall sleep so well.

As a grand finale, I visit the Dinastia Vivanco Bodega, in Briones (www.dinastiavivanco.com). I am speechless. This goes way beyond my expectations. This winery really is a dynasty. I walk round its very own wine museum, in the heart of the vineyards, and come out somewhat dizzy. No, no, I am not yet tipsy. It's just that five floors of wine exhibits, explanations of vine cultivation, wine making, wine art and history have sapped most of my energy. I have pleasantly been invited to lunch in the Vivanco restaurant. My dizziness fades away, and my senses are re-awakened as I sample heavenly pieces of the most delicate creations of food imaginable, washed down with different wines, each with their own specific aroma, texture and flavour, which my now I am beginning to learn to distinguish and almost bluff about.

Actually I am glad that I have not kept this precious secret all to myself. I feel relieved now. Conscience clear. Do I deserve any thanks? No, but the least you can do now is go and try it out for you yourselves!

Photos by Carolyn Bonello

carolynbonello800Coming from the tiny island of Malta, my desire to explore the world is intense. Mountains are my greatest inspiration and I especially enjoy trekking in the Alps. I love adventure and have climbed Mount Kilimanjaro, been to Everest Base Camp and backpacked through South East Asia. I have visited 30 countries so far and hope to top 50. I work as a Physiotherapist and in my free time love reading, swimming, cycling and any other form of outdoor activity. I keep journals of most of my travels, have written several articles, and love reading about other people's experiences, as this motivates me to constantly plan where to conquer next!