By Liz Carlson
Why plan a trip to La Rioja. Here are five good reasons.
1. Off the beaten track: Have you ever heard of La Rioja, Spain? Don’t worry, not too many people have. It’s one of the smallest autonomous communities here, and one of the least visited. This region is one of the best kept secrets in Spain! If you are an adventurous traveler like myself, lured by the road less traveled, and want to know the locals, then La Rioja is a must-see. Without congested roads of tourists, it has many captivating sights, landscapes and activities.
2. Wine: if you have heard of La Rioja, I am guessing you know about its connection to wine. La Rioja produces some of the world’s finest vino tinto (red wine). The region is covered with vineyards and wine is one of the main sources of industry here, which is the main reason I love it so much. Everywhere you look, you find a wine theme, from bunches of grapes as decorations to wine served just about anywhere.
The best time to visit is in the fall, with its rolling hills of red, orange, yellow and beautiful mountain backdrops. Tucked away in the countryside are hundreds of bodegas (wineries) where you can tour, have tastings, and hunt for your favorite wine. My favorite bodega so far has to be Marqués de Riscal in the little village of Elciego, a very old winery redesigned by Frank O. Gehry, the same architect who designed the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao. You could live here for years and not visit them all!
3. Pinchos: if all my chatter about the wine wasn’t enough to convince you to come to La Rioja, the food is equally famous and delicious! Logroño, the capital of La Rioja, is a small city that is big on food. Famous for pinchos, coming from the Basque word pintxo, a variation of tapas, they are a portion of food served on a piece of bread held together with a toothpick.
Pinchos are served just about everywhere in La Rioja, but by far the best area in Logroño is on a street called calle Laurel. This narrow winding street in the old quarter is packed with pincho bars, each with their own specialty. On the weekends, it’s filled with locals socializing. Hopping from one place to another, they eat many different pinchos until they are full, downed with glasses of Rioja wine of course.
The most famous pincho in town is called the champi (from the Spanish champiñón, mushroom), and it consists of three grilled mushrooms coated in a rich, buttery garlic sauce, skewered on a slice of baguette and topped with a shrimp. Did I mention it costs 1 euro?
4. Beautiful places, great location: La Rioja feels less disturbed, more isolated, more rustic, and even more genuine than many other places. The skies are wide and blue, all against a vibrant green landscape with mountains and vineyards. It is nestled in-between the Basque Country, Navarre, Aragón, and Castilla y León.
La Rioja is close to big cities making it an easy stop. One of my favorites is Laguardia, a beautiful hilltop medieval village on the border of Basque Country. It also has magnificent views of the surrounding mountains and vineyards, along with great bodegas and high quality restaurants.
5. San Mateo: Every September there is a week-long festival devoted to Saint Matthew (San Mateo) that marks the beginning of the wine harvest. Thousands from Northern Spain pour into Logroño for the festival wearing blue or red kerchiefs around their necks, proclaiming their allegiance to the city. Wine flows in one of the fountains, and streets are packed day and night.
Marching bands push through the streets followed by friends and family singing and dancing in their wake. Food and wine fights are typical. Water is dumped off balconies into the crowds. Every hour is bustling with food tastings, parades, grape stomping, concerts and fireworks. Unlike many of the bigger festivals in Spain, such as San Fermín in Pamplona (the Running of the Bulls or Las Fallas in Valencia, San Mateo is predominately a local festival. So if you really want to get to know Spanish culture, check it out.
Liz writes at Young Adventuress on traveling and expat life abroad.