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Culinary Travel

A Culinary Tour of Rioja, Spain

Lunch, first course, in San Millan in Rioja.

Rioja. Say the name and people will immediately think of Spain’s most famous wines. But Rioja is also a fascinating little autonomous province not only filled with great expanses of sweeping and rolling vineyards, but also fascinating monasteries, legends of hermits, knights, queens and kings, and a mixed world caught between, blending the best of the neighboring Navarrese, French, Basques, and Castilians. Rioja is also a land of ancient dolmens built by Spain’s first agriculturalists around 4,500 years ago, and pockets of some of Spain’s most enchanting forests, rife with wild mushroom and game.Then there’s the favorite Riojan activity of making and drinking wine, which pairs perfectly with the region’s culinary bounty.

While beautiful churches and miracle-working saints dot the region, Bacchus, the great classical god of wine, lives in he soil. Winemakers work closely with him to assure an elixir worthy of the Riojan denomination. Everywhere you go you can find some sign of Bacchus, subtle or bold.

Here is how to get started in exploring Rioja’s vast offerings of historic sites and great foods and wines. I worked this out for myself as everyone seems to recognize the province’s wine but knows little else about the area. Rioja is an area that offers travel for pleasure at Provencal or Tuscan standards. Riojans take great joy in their food and wine, from its growth and production to its preparation and consumption. I found my time in Rioja as enchanting as time I spent in Provence and among some of the most perfect blending of hiking, eating, and drinking to be found anywhere in Spain, or in Europe.

I focus on four manageable and complementary areas in Rioja, ones that together make for an excellent total experience and that can be done in a week or drawn out and savored over longer time without losing its dynamic appeal. These are: the food and wine scene in Logroño, Rioja's capital; wine touring and dolmen hiking in and around the wine town of Laguardia; a visit to Haro, Rioja's main wine capital; and the two Riojan monasteries of Yuso and Suso, which stand near each other in wine country and serve as an uplifting spiritual retreat.

Suso and Yuso are in what is known as the Rioja Alta, as is Haro. Laguardia is a part of the Rioja Alavesa wine region. Logroño, and if you wanted to include more, Calahorra to the southeast, is in the Rioja Baja region. These are viticultural designations, demarcating three very different growing areas within Rioja, areas with different soils, microclimates, and geographies. The Rioja Alavesa is actually governmentally a part of Basque Country but wine-wise it is 100 percent Riojan.

The Dolmen Alta Huesera with Laguardia on the distant hill.

Logroño—Food Market, Tapas, and St. Bartholomew’s Church

Logroño is a great first stop. It can serve as a home base since, in this small region, everywhere is accessible from the capital.

Logroño, like nearly all other serious wine towns and cities in Rioja, sits on the banks of the Ebro River. Though most of its medieval character has been whittled down to a small historic center, it is charming and filled with culinary delights that can keep a visitor occupied for a few days. Here you will find Logroño's central covered market, Mercado de Abastos, reached from Calle del Peso. Abastos is a great place to see all of what the region produces seasonally: Heaps of greens, including herbs and grassy sprouts, still with roots and soil, to be used at their freshest in salads and soups. The vegetables are jewel-toned, the favored slim, long red pepper stealing the show. But then quickly competing are curly escarole and artichoke globes on their leafy stalks, or the many varieties of mushrooms. Next are the cheeses and sausages made from local, domestic and wild animals, and the ubiquitous wine seller who also sells gallon sized jars of dried wild mushrooms and wreaths of garlic and dried red peppers.

Just around the corner, on Calle Laurel and perpendicular to Laurel on Travesía del Laurel, is an array of tapa places and restaurants. The best time for tapas is late morning, when all the tapa places seem to open up for the locals until they get to their mid-afternoon lunch hour. Some of the freshest and most creative tapa-making in Spain occurs on these streets. Often, a place specializes in one tapa and does it really well. You should wander around, order a short glass of wine, and sample each one. One place specializes in herb-grilled scallops, another in grilled mushrooms and shrimp, and another makes only paprika marinated pork kabobs that are set on the grill the moment you order them. As you make your way through the tapas, keep your eye open for the restaurants that are interspersed between the tapa joints, with their daily menus posted outside.

While in Logroño’s historic quarter, there is a particularly interesting medieval church worth visiting, the church of St. Bartholomew. This 12th century church is used by locals as a spiritual respite from the busy world outside. It is a delightful medieval church spared the excessive ornamentation of later Baroque altars. It retains simple stone sculptures and has shallow stone niches rather than those gold embossed overly ornate side chapels of other places that can often distract from a more directed spiritual focus of meditation.

Logroño's fresh vegetables.

Laguardia—Wine Caverns, Medieval Churches, and Bronze Age Dolmens

At one of the medieval stone gates to Laguardia, the Puerta de San Juan, bears a tile plaque that reads, Paz a los que llegan, Salud a los que habitan, Felicidad a los que marchan, “Peace to those who arrive, Health to those who live here, and Happiness to those who depart.” This sentiment describes the joy of being in Laguardia, a perfectly preserved medieval wine town whose people are unspoiled by their treasure, preserving it as it was, and not allowing artifice and gaudy tourism to overtake it. This is one of Europe’s medieval gems, period.

In the church, Iglesia de Santa María de los Reyes, the 12th to 15th century Gothic portal was restored and then protected by a 17th century Baroque façade that was built over it. It is a unique chance to see what these magnificent portals looked like originally. No where else in Spain and perhaps Europe will you find a stone carved medieval portal with its polychrome painting still intact.

Laguardia is also unusual for its cavernous, manmade subterranean world below its streets, once underground passageways for escape during times of war. They were turned into ideal places to make wine. But today, cars, carts, even donkeys, are not allowed in town. There are over 230 caverns. These caverns have the ideal temperature and humidity for winemaking, but because the grape harvest must be carried in on people’s backs, only two bodegas continue to make wine here today. Beyond the medieval walls all around the town’s hill below are dozens of wineries making traditionally crafted wines in more modern facilities.

In this same region there are several stunning dolmen sites to which the excellent tourist office in Laguardia can orient you. Current estimates are that the region has some 85 dolmens with 7 that are really striking and worth a visit. Dating between 4,000 and 2,500 years ago, the dolmens are indications that early agriculturalists in Iberia also saw the potential of Riojan terroir. As usual, the dolmens are set in places with exquisite vistas as if to give the deceased buried in them a great eternal view. They are also likely sites of ancient rituals and so the sacred placement was for the living as well. Hiking out to a dolmen and back through the vineyards is a great way to work up an appetite, not to mention a thirst.

Underground in Bodegas Carlos San Pedro, Laguardia.

Haro—Harvest Mary, Wineries, Tapas, and Wine Museums

If you arrive in Haro by bus, the station is just around the corner from the Basilica de Santa Maria de la Vega, Our Lady of the Fertile Plain. On the altar sits a carved statue of the Virgin Mary holding stalks of wheat. This church reinforces what is to be found everywhere in Spain—that the Cult of Mary is stronger than any other form of veneration, with its deep roots in an ancient matriarchal past in Iberia. It also expresses the respect for women in Spain, something that I feel each time I visit. (I have been visiting, living in, and traveling about Spain since 1986.)

Haro is the heart center of the Rioja Alta region with many wineries. On approaching Haro from Logroño, you will pass the Dinastia Vivanco wine museum and its gardens dedicated to Bacchus in the village of Briones. While advance reservations are required here, if you continue to Haro, the wine museum and learning center there is open to drop-in visitors during the week.

Going deeper into the medieval center of old Haro, tapa restaurants proliferate and offer creative and delicious food made to order with your Crianza, Reserva or Gran Reserva. Favorites here are Restaurante Beethoven I and II (on Calle de Santo Tomás, 5 and 10, respectively), two establishments across the street from each other that both offer great Riojan cuisine. Beethoven II, popular with locals, offers delicious tapas. Sometimes it has a wine-and-mushroom-inspired tasting menu: My recent visit there was in the autumn and they had designed a six course dinner menu in celebration of the variety of seasonal wild mushrooms. Each dish was of course paired with its perfect Rioajan wine.

A Pilgrimage to San Millán and the Monasteries of Suso and Yuso

Where Logroño, Haro, and Laguardia are in the north half of Rioja, San Millán de la Cogolla, in the Rioja Alta wine growing area, is south and away from the Ebro River. The town is named after San Millán, who was a local boy born in AD 473 in the Riojan village of Berceo, near the current village of San Millán de Cogolla. He studied under the hermit San Felices in Haro. His died in AD 574 and it is said he is interred in his cave in the Monasterio de Suso, which sits up on the hill overlooking the village of San Millán. In truth, people aren’t sure where his remains really are but it doesn’t matter as his tomb in the cave possesses enough mana for all.

San Millán’s cult was quite strong in Navarra and Castile and he was often depicted in ways similar to St. James, whose pilgrimage road, the Camino de Santiago, passed just north of here. As a hermit, San Millán lived in a cave deep in the Cárdenas river valley. Word of his miracles spread and he attracted followers, fellow hermits who settled in neighboring caves. Periodically they would meet to pray together and their meeting place became the site of the Monasterio de Suso. Eventually, Suso became a community, thus replacing the isolated hermetic ideal with a communal monastic one. As numbers grew, the Suso monastery, perched on a hillside, could no longer house all the brothers. In the sixteenth century they moved their residence downhill to the new Monasterio de Yuso. Suso and Yuso mean upper and lower in archaic Castilian.

The surrounding caves and the two monasteries physically represent, in one valley, the transformation of the hermetic ideal to one of a community of brothers dedicated to the community and to God.  

This legacy and the natural setting of river valley, mountains, and nearby wineries, make for an enchanting Riojan culinary tour. I recommend staying in the village (a great lodging recommendation is below) and then, to truly experience the authentic mystical nature of San Millán, take a hike by following the trail to La Cueva del Santo, San Millán’s remote cave. Follow the sign to Lugar del Rio and then follow the signposts "Cueva Santa del Santo" with a drawing of a hermit with his staff. These signposts begin at the base of a driveway that leads up to a terrific rural restaurant on the right. The road to its left goes to the cave several kilometers away. The trail mostly follows the little rural road until it nears the mountain of the cave. There it can be climbed only on foot. It leads to one of the original caves deep in the valley where San Millán lived and meditated. You can drive part way and park at the large, lower corral, or continue on to a parking and picnic spot at the smaller, upper corral, which is at the point where the foot path begins to the cave.

On this path to the saint’s cave you will enter the mythic realm of San Millán’s life. The forest is filled with sacred trees, including the Tree of Desires. Its trunk is split open at the middle and people place stones there with their wishes and hopes as they walk by.

When you return toward San Millán de Cogolla, have lunch at the little restaurant up the driveway near where you first found the signpost for this sacred trail. It is connected to a lovely hilltop B&B and run by a husband and wife whose skill with food, wine, and hospitality equals the saint’s with miracles. If you walk the whole way from San Millán de la Cogolla to El Cuevo del Santo, a good distance on foot, get an early start, around 7:30 or 8 AM, so that you can be back at the restaurant for a late lunch. Be sure to take water and perhaps a piece of fruit and some nuts.

Enchanted forest on the way to San Millan's sacred cave.

Resources for a Trip to Rioja

More than in any region in Spain, Rioja seems to have more people who speak French and English. This might be a reflection of the connection to wine-making, France, and to the wider international world of wine collecting. In the tourist offices, be sure to ask about English tours. Some also have a published listing of bodegas that give tours in English.

I. Logroño:

The region’s tourist office is on the Paseo del Espolón at Principe de Vergara 1 (tel. 941-29-12-60, info@lariojaturismo.com, www.lariojaturismo.com). In the regional tourist office you can ask about, reserve, and purchase tickets for thematic regional wine tours. These tours are run by an operation called VinoBus.

II. Laguardia

The tourist office (Plaza de San Juan, tel. 945-60-08-45) in Laguardia is your central stop for information and for arranging a guided tour (the only kind) of the Gothic church of Santa Maria de los Reyes.You can also get a listing of all the bodegas open to the public for wine tours and tastings. It has a good three-dimensional geographical model of the town and outlying areas.

Food and Lodging: Castilla el Collado (on Paseo el Collado I, hotelcollado.com) is a very nice hotel and restaurant in the heart of Laguardia. The chapel in this 1920s castle is older, dating to the 18th century. You can enjoy good Riojan-inspired dishes and wine in the restaurant.

Bodegas in and around Laguardia: Laguardia has over 16 bodegas open to tours and tastings. Many require an advance phone reservation while others are fine with a spontaneous walk-in. Of the 16 plus bodegas only two still make wine inside the medieval city walls in the old underground caverns. These two subterranean bodegas are: Bodegas Carlos San Pedro, www.bodegascarlossampedro.com, tel. 605-03-30-43; and Bodegas El Fabulista, www.bodegaelfabulista.com, tel. 945-62-11-92.

Outside the medieval walls are several excellent bodegas as well. The North American visitor will most likely immediately recognize the names Marques de Riscal and Palacio. These and the many others are worth a visit. Again, get the list from the tourist office where they can tailor your visit with advice on where and how to visit. Many of these bodegas have websites:

Bodegas Campillo: www.bodegascampillo.com
Bodegas Heredad de Ugarte: www.heredadugarte.com
Bodegas Solar Viejo: www.solarviejo.com
Bodegas Palacio: www.habarcelo.es
Entreviñas y Olivos: www.entrevinasyolivos.com
Bodegas Ysios: www.domecqbodegas.com/ysios
Bodegas Marques de Riscal: www.marquesderiscal.com

III. Haro

Haro’s Wine Museum: The Centro de Interpretacion del Vino de la Rioja (Estación Enológica de Haro, Bretón de los Herreros 4, 26200 Haro, tel. 941-31-05-47, reserves@lariojacalidad.org). Allow at least an hour. The displays are beautifully laid out on two floors, with a natural progression from wine growing to wine making and appreciation. I would email in advance to find out about course schedules and availability if you want to spend a week or so in Haro as a home base for wine education and enjoyment. Nearby in Briones is the Dinastía Vivanco (www.dinastiavivanco.es), a winery, museum, Bacchanalian garden, and didactic center that offers a 2-hour beginner’s course on the art of wine.

In and around Haro there are around 19 wineries open to the public, some even include on-the-premises restaurants serving foods that are perfectly paired with their vintages. You can get the complete list from the tourist office or from Haro’s wine museum.

IV. Lodging, Wine and Dining in San Millán de la Cogolla:

In Badarán, is the Bodegas David Moreno (Carretera de Villar de Torre s/n, 26310 Badarán, tel. 941 367 338, www.davidmoreno.es) where several award wining Riojan wines are made, including monastic wines, Vino del Monasterios de Yuso. They have a tasting room in the front of the winery selling the bodega’s vintages. You can also email or call ahead to schedule a tour or take a chance and show up during their tour hours. Tours cost 3 euros/person and include wine tasting.