Throughout history, Spain has had a history celebrating wine. Even Quijote himself drank wine. (Perhaps that should be an anti-drinking campaign. If you drink wine, you will attempt to kill windmills, and we mean wind turbines, and not the ones Quijote tried to kill. I don’t see it working though.) Arguably the most famous wine in Spain is La Rioja, which now has an autonomous community celebrating its tradition.
Although Rioja wine is also made in Navarra (Rioja baja) and Álava in the Basque Country (La Rioja alavesa), a large portion of the wine is made in La Rioja. The region was once part of the Kingdom of Pamplona before being incorporated into Castilla. Today the autonomous community has around 330,000 residents, a lot of history, a lot of beautiful nature and, of course, the wine. Another thing to take note of: La Rioja is the communidad autonoma with the smallest population and the penultimate comunidad in size (only the Balearic Islands and the cities of Ceuta and Melilla have a smaller size.)
My first visit came in 2010 on a day-road trip from Bilbao, Capital of the World, where I was visiting a friend of mine. (I later moved to Bilbao in 2013, and I will probably leave in 2015, but that’s another story.) We took off to Logroño, Puente de la Reina Olite, Pamplona, Hondarribia and Gernika in about 24 hours, including a night in Olite, the most boring village to stay a night. Our time in Logroño is short, and I just remember seeing La Laurel, the street with a ton of restaurants and bars for both pintxos and tapas, and the Cathedral. It was a nice city, very typical of Castilla León, and easy to see in an hour on a road trip. Little did I know I hadn’t seen the half of what this city has to offer.
My next visit to La Rioja came earlier this year, in February 2014, when I had an unexpected day off and took off to Haro. Haro is a nice town, but I am sure it feels completely different during their wine festival in June, where instead of tomatos like in the more famous Tomatina in Valencia, people just fight with wine.
A month later, this March, came my third visit, and by far the worst visit. I went on a ski trip with my school to Valdezcaray to finally learn how to snowboard, something that has been on my bucket list since I was 20 or so. Ohio may have more snow than people (and it is the 7th largest state in population), but it is flat, so we don’t have a big tradition of skiing, let alone snowboarding. The mountain is beautiful (and the nearby village is now on my never-ending bucket list of villages I want to spend a day in Spain) and it was great being in snow. However, on my last slope of the day, someone was in my way and would not move despite my shouts of “¡Cuidado! ¡CUIDADO!”. I hadn’t mastered turning yet, and I sprained my ankle. This five-second event has had a bad effect on most of my 2014, as it took 2 months to walk normally again and another month to completely heal. I don’t hold the comunidad responsible for the incident, and my fourth visit just this month showed that it wasn’t just bad luck.
I’m currently working on a top-secret novel, and one of the characters is set to find himself in Logroño for a while. I’ve been wanting to take a trip to research, and I finally found the perfect combination of not raining, a day off *and* trips on BlaBlaCar (as the bus to Logroño is La Unión, the most evil and expensive bus company in all of Spain). I got to really explore the city and took the time to visit some cool cafés, see a free museum dedicated to the history of the walls (what barely exists today) and get a taste of the city. It’s quite similar to nearby Pamplona, and my initial judgement of being a typical Castilla León city stands.
Except for one thing. I don’t know if something was in the air, but everyone I came across yesterday was rude. Even the woman at the Oficina de Turismo was “borde”. The waitress was short with me. I think it was a combination of bad luck and people not happy they have to work during a “puente” (long weekend). Another thing I was disappointed in was the fact that it was the 5 of December and yet none of the Christmas lights were turned on. I’m glad that I took a day trip. It was only about 8ºC, but the real coldness was from the people. I’m just going to say it was my bad luck and the timing.
I did find some friendlier, more typical Spanish service at El Beso Café in la Plaza del Mercado with a great view of the Cathedral and plaza. Another great café-bar was Café Parlamento, next to the Parlamento building. Great atmosphere, and it looks like it would be a great place to go out at night.
I ended my day in an awesome book shop/store on Gran Vía. By the way, random trivia for everyone. Gran Vía is Main Street in Spanish. I’m looking forward to visiting a few more of these smaller towns and villages in the region. And, of course, trying more La Rioja wine.
Logroño, sus murallas y iglesias
Logroño is the capital of La Rioja with a population of 150,000 people and a metro of nearly 200,000, meaning it is the home of the vast majority of the population of La Rioja. Once upon a time, the city had walls, but today very little can be seen. I was very impressed with the museum they have made out of the remains in El Cubo de Revellín. The city still has a lot of churches and a cathedral that are worth visiting. Logroño is also a major stop on the Camino de Santiago Frances, the most popular of the Caminos to Santiago.
El juego de Oca
Near the Santiago Church is a sculpture/painting on the ground of the Oca game that is so popular and traditional in the north of Spain. Many claims have been made that the game is representative of the Camino of Santiago. Here you can see a live version of the game. The best things in life and in Spain are free.
El Ebro y sus puentes
The Ebro is one of the most important rivers in Spain, and I think one of these days I’m going to write about the rivers of Spain. Even in one of the driest parts of the Greatest Peninsula in the World, the river is wide and swiftly flowing. Logroño has four bridges, most importantly the Puente de Piedra (Stone Bridge), which unfortunately was destroyed and rebuilt in the 19th Century. The Puente de Hierro (Iron/Steel Bridge) is more modern.
Haro is a town of 12,000 people in the northwest part of La Rioja. It has a lot of bodegas, and strangely enough, it was one of the first towns in Spain to have electric street lighting. It has a wine festival every June that attracts a lot of people.
Ezcaray (to be discovered)
At the foothills of Valdezcaray’s ski resort is the beautiful village of Ezcaray. I’ve only seen it from the bus, but it looks like a place I would love to spend a morning or afternoon meandering the streets. It has 2000 people and a lot of beautiful nature.
Castillo de Clavijo (to be discovered)
The village of Clavijo only has 200 or so citizens; however, it has one of the most famous castles of La Rioja that unfortunately was cut off from public transport during this holiday weekend. There’s always next time. It’s 15 kilometres (9 miles) from Logroño and is visible from the Camino de Santiago Frances.
Calahorra (to be discovered)
Calahorra, the second-largest city in La Rioja at 30,000 habitants, is located on a hill across the Ebro from Navarra. It dates back to the Iron Age and fell to Rome in 187 BC. After it supported Rome during the wars of Pompeii, the Caesars gave it many distinctions. Today it is the most important city of La Rioja Baja.