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To sleep in Gehry's dream

It's easy to feel transported in Elciego, home to an elegant, fantasy hotel in Rioja Alavesa wine country, a hop from the similar museum in Bilbao.

March 04, 2007|Susan Spano | Times Staff Writer

Elciego, Spain — THE theatrical, floor-to-ceiling, merlot-colored drapes at the Marques de Riscal would suit a production of "Hedda Gabler" or "Hamlet."

But this is not a tragedy.

This is a guest room at the first and only hotel designed by Frank Gehry. When the curtains part at the push of a button, you see a picture window with angular contours, erratically tilted panes and a zigzagging window seat. The undercarriage of the roof, wrapped in pink, gold and silver titanium ribbons, is visible in the foreground, and in the distance lies the sleepy stone village of Elciego, surrounded by soldierly vineyards of northern Spain's Rioja wine country.

Last month, my sister Martha and I spent two sybaritic nights at the Hotel Marques de Riscal, about 75 miles south of the Basque port city of Bilbao, where we toured Gehry's iconoclastic Guggenheim Museum, now a decade old but no less arresting for its age. In Bilbao, we ran our palms across its smooth titanium panels, crossed its catwalks and looked at the rejuvenated Bilbao riverfront from its canopied terrace. In a gallery the size of a football field, we wandered around a collection of works by Richard Serra, admiring the way the building and the artist's enormous steel-plate sculptures worked together.

We could have stayed all afternoon, but we didn't mind having to leave because we were headed to a newer landmark where we were going to sleep, eat, drink and have spa treatments under another roof that Gehry built.

The hotel was conceived as the chateau in Rioja Alavesa, a grape-growing region that has become almost as sophisticated as the Napa Valley and is dotted with wineries designed by such avant-garde architects as Zaha Hadid and Santiago Calatrava. The Riscal took four years to complete, partly because Gehry's Los Angeles-based architectural firm had to develop special methods for working with colored titanium and because the winery decided after the design process started to turn the building into a 43-room hotel.

In September, Jaguar launched its new XKR convertibles and coupes in the hotel's forecourt. Then Gehry turned up for the Oct. 10 opening, along with King Juan Carlos I of Spain. Rare Riojas were exhumed from the cellars, to the presumed satisfaction of the architect.

"When first approached about the project, Frank was a bit hesitant to take it on," said Andy Liu, a Gehry Partners associate who was the project architect for the hotel. "Logistically, Bilbao is not the easiest place to reach, and Elciego even less so.... Nevertheless, he was coaxed into visiting the site, and once the mission for the project -- to build a chateau for the 21st century -- became clear, he agreed. The vintage bottle of wine from 1929 [his birth year] that they uncorked during his visit certainly didn't hurt."

Riojas, made mostly from the region's red tempranillo grapes, are almost always beneficial, I think. I started sampling them even before checking into the hotel, over lunch at the restaurant in the Guggenheim Bilbao. Which might have been why I missed the highway turnoff for Elciego and ended up taking the back way to the Marques de Riscal complex through rolling fields of grape vines.

When we crested a hill, we suddenly saw the shiny ribbons of titanium -- mined in Russia and Australia -- draped around the roof of the hotel. Like the Guggenheim Bilbao and the Walt Disney Concert Hall in L.A., this quasi-sculptural Gehry creation could cause car crashes. It looks more like a preliminary, freehand sketch than a finished building, and it made us laugh. Gehry's buildings are like that.

As the architect has said, "It's a marvelous creature, with hair flying everywhere."

The hotel is on a hill overlooking the Marques de Riscal winery complex, designed in 1858 by Ricardo Bellsola. The architect was sent to France to seek inspiration from the chateaux of Bordeaux. When he got back he created a symmetrical stone ensemble in the then avant-garde, neo-classical style. Now the old bodega buildings and wild-haired creature looming above it are a vivid commentary on where Western architecture came from and where it's going.

I had read several mixed reviews after the hotel (it is managed by the Starwood Luxury Collection) opened. They faulted the food and service, but Martha and I were almost embarrassed by the commotion our arrival caused (even though no one knew I was a travel writer). The service was excellent throughout our stay.

We had booked a $520 room without specifying whether we wanted to stay in the phantasmagoric main building or the more traditional, box-like annex. The two, connected by a bridge, are strikingly different, the first pure Gehry amazement and fun, the second utilitarian and unsurprising, housing the pool and spa on the ground floor.

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