Sunday, 13 June 2010

Hotel Viura

When Frank Gehry created his purple and silver stainless steel structure for Marqués de Riscal in 2006 (said to resemble the folds in a flamenco skirt), Rioja became a byword for avant-garde architecture. From the glass-fronted, Bond-like Bodegas Baigorri designed by Basque architect Iñaki Aspiazu, to Santiago Calatrava’s undulating Bodegas Ysios, via Zaha Hadid’s futuristic triangular pavilion at López de Heredia, some of the world’s greatest architects have proved their mettle in the region.

The latest addition to Rioja’s ultramodern architectural portfolio is Hotel Viura, a 4 star luxury boutique hotel designed by Joseba and Xabier Aramburu that opened at the end of April. Set next to a 17th century church against a backdrop of the Sierra de Cantabria mountains in the tiny medieval village of Villabuena de Alava – inhabitants 300, in Rioja Alavesa, the hotel seems to surge out of the ground, its cubed rooms nonchalantly piled on top of each other like building blocks.

Named after Rioja’s most widely planted white grape, Viura is supposed to resemble a bunch of grapes, but to me its whimsically superimposed white cubes are very favela chic. I was invited out on the inaugural press visit last week with a small group of journalists. On arrival I’m offered the house cocktail, made with red wine syrup, amaretto, vodka and soda. It’s sickly sweet and strangely satisfying.

We sip our cocktails whilst waiting for Godoy, Viura’s ebullient, young, Malaga-born sommelier fresh from a stint at the chic boutique Hillbark Hotel in Liverpool. Godoy has already put his stamp on Viura with a reversible wine list, ordered by both region and grape variety.

Before dinner we’re given a tour of the rooftop lounge bar with an outdoor cinema and impressive 360-degree views of Villabuena de Alava. It’s dusk, and the swifts are busy making figures of eight in the sky. From the rooftop we move down to the cellar, decked out with orange neon strip lights, like a Dan Flavin installation. It boasts over 200 bins, 80% of the which are from Rioja, including a sizeable offering of barrel-fermented Viuras and a number of old vintages of CVNE, Marqués de Riscal, López de Heredia, Muga and Roda.

The restaurant serves traditional Basque cuisine with a modern twist. Gold barrels hover from the ceiling in suspended animation. ‘It took a week to paint them and stick them up there’, Godoy informs me, making me fearful I might be floored by one during the starters. On my visit I try cod croquettes, crab ravioli, green pea and black truffle, cream cheese foam with red pepper and chives, suckling lamb, poached pears…

After an epic dinner (I lose count after the sixth course), I’m as stuffed as a pillow and craving sleep. My spacious suite has minimal interiors, dominated by a behemoth bed measuring two square metres – I could turn in it like a compass needle and still be nowhere near the edge.

In keeping with the wine theme, above the bed is a print of a pair of barrels. I lucked out here – one of the journalists got a terrifying, Francis Bacon-esque hadean vision of a cellar. Between the bath and the bed is a sheet of violet glass, which, when peered through from the bath, gives the room a lilac hue. Everything screams cool, from the 42-inch flatscreen TV and red Nespresso, to the black bath products. The curtains are a sober shade of gray, and frame my view out onto Villabuena de Alava via my ridiculously large roof terrace.

Does Viura jar with the village? It sticks out like a fat man on a catwalk, but its higgledy-piggledy high jinks somehow works beside the solid sandstone church. It looks absolutely mad, like an office block has fallen from the sky and landed awkwardly, but that’s the point – it’s supposed to look mad, supposed to provoke a reaction. After all, it’s a work of art as much as a hotel.

Hotel Viura, Calle Mayor, Villabuena de Alava 01307, Spain

Tel: +34 945 60 90 00,

Doubles from €125, daily flights from Heathrow to Bilbao with Vueling

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