The gal is still at the extra-ordinary, can-you-believe it Hotel Marques de Riscal, a Luxury Collection Hotel in Elciego, Spain. Do not expect any clones of this unique hotel. First, it is not likely architect Frank Gehry will ever again be diverted from his usual mega-projects to a small private commission (he is currently embroiled in controversy over the planned David Mirvish mixed-use concept in Toronto). Secondly, no hotel developer will spend ‘so much’ in a hotel that subsequently requires heavy maintenance (this hotel employs 90 for just 43 bedrooms). But this hotel is what industry terms could call a loss leader. Remember, once the hotel opened in 2006 the annual tally of visitors to the adjacent Marques de Riscal winery upped from 7,000 to over 60,000 and rising.
The sculpture that is a hotel is a destination in itself. Not only can you see it from miles around in this gently hilly area of the Alava region, but once you get here, and stay here, there is so much to do. What with the winery and the spa, you, the hotel guest, also have a library with over a thousand books, many of them really vintage if not museum-classic, most of them in Spanish and all of them covering one or another aspect of luxury. Sit here with a glass of something in front of a big fire and look out, from the third floor of the iconic Gehry wing, at the 2,750-acre vineyards around.
Or sit, as Alexander Peev – arguably the only Bulgarian boss of a luxury hotel outside his home nation – and I did, in the Vinoteca bar, with a massive Ropema onyx counter. The wall behind, as you are up at the counter, is filled ceiling-high with a 14 (high) by 36-slot bookcase holding a total of 504 wine bottles, mostly white but the reds so set that you see a massive R, for Riscal. Then move upstairs, as we did, to the Michelin-starred Marques de Riscal restaurant, a theatrical 45-seat space that features 30-foot high red curtains, red walls embellished with child-like rondels, and ceiling-hung stainless custard-cup lamps (all designed by Frank Gehry). Tables have black Bellini chairs, white cloths that flop on the floor. There are scarlet tumblers and tiny red flowers in a pot.
At this fine-dining restaurant, leave space for the cheese trolley. The presentation is a work of art. The passionate young server must live, breathe and dream about cheese – he can talk for hours. The best thing to do, I dare suggest, is to let him compose a plate of local specialties, including the Los Cameros that is cured in olive oil. Yes, this place is all about locale. Wander round the rear of the Gehry Wing and you see, just like the back of any professional stage set, it looks ‘different’ (go round behind the counters of Harrods or Neiman Marcus or Nordstrom and they will not look like the fronts). Much of the Gehry rear is sandstone, just like the stone for the adjacent winery’s buildings, going back to the 19th century.
While you are in the area, do please take a trip to Laguardia, 20 minutes’ drive away. This is a mediaeval hilltop town, now completely pedestrianized – think Carcassonne, in France, where the then-Orient-Express group used to run the lovely Hôtel de la Cité. Here, too, tourists arrive in their hordes during the summer. Today, mid-week and in the winter rain, the streets are deserted. Where ARE the locals? I descend into the two-floor basements that all these houses have. These run for many yards under the roads, and are now in many cases turned into delightful and highly popular bars and restaurants. Sit down there, far beneath street level, and enjoy yet another glass of Rioja.
And on the way back to Elciego you will have a different view of the luxury hotel that is Hotel Marques de Riscal. Like a kaleidoscope, every picture you see is different. This unique place is truly addictive.