As SimplyEnjoying is about how to enjoy life in every way; what a better place to go than La Rioja - an absolutely fantastic place that combines really stunning nature with great wine and food, and very friendly people.
Where to stay - Laguardia
During my last trip to La Rioja we stayed at a nice Wine Spa Hotel in Laguardia; a wonderful little historically interesting town upon a hill, surrounded by a thick city wall along which people have constructed their houses hundreds of years ago. Laguardia used to be an important city that with its fortification guarded Navarra from the raids of moors and Castilians that occurred from time to time during the 10th century. The town has a subterranean level which consists of bodegas (wine cellars) and tunnels and is as big as the part above ground. Each house has their own wine cellar, which was constructed already in the 16th century mainly to store wine, but the tunnels have also been used as hide outs and a place for conspiracy during times of war.
The first morning of my stay I woke up early and went for a walk in the valley of Laguardia. The feeling of being completely alone, walking through endless vineyards where the frost from the night had left a white shadow on the grass that was still not touched by the emerging morning sun, the only sound reminding you of your existence being birdsong is hard to describe. Total freedom and peace are words that come to mind. The area is perfect for a stroll or a run, as the flat landscape with its lagoons and water reserves, with a background of high mountains on which the sun sheds its first morning light, is full of little dirt roads and paths marked so that you don’t get lost. The area is also home to lots of rare birds, and is a protected biotope, and has a number of natural parks. If you aren’t here only for the wine there are plenty of things to do; play golf, visit arts museums and so forth.
In the region of La Rioja everything has to do with wine; most people work in something related to wine production or distribution and only Laguardia produces about 12 million liters of wine per year. The Destination of Origin (DO) Rioja was granted already in 1926 and is the only one in Spain that holds the “Highest Quality” certification. Read more about the wines and grapes here.
There are about 500 bodegas in La Rioja, so take the chance and visit some of them. I would recommend visiting for instance a top modern one - like Marqués de Riscal in the neighboring town of Elciego, - and also an ancient one within the city walls of Laguardia; El Fabulista, located under the Palace of the Samaniegos. Take the guided tour to learn everything about the process of making wine and then enjoy some of the wines with the guidance of an experienced sommelier that will point out the flavors to look for in the wine to make it an even more interesting experience.
At Marqués de Riscal you get the full tour of modern wine making, brief history about the bodega and also facts about the wine production of the region. You will also be able to take a closer look at the fabulous and very characteristic hotel designed by the Canadian architect Frank O. Gehry; the same man that designed the Guggenheim museum in Bilbao.
At El Fabulista the atmosphere is completely different; here they produce wine by using traditional methods, such as manually pressing the juice out of the grapes and so on. If you are there when it is time for harvest and they get the grapes to the bodega you can take part in the making of the wine. If you are there during the rest of the year it is still a really unique feeling standing in a wine cellar that has been used for over 500 years, below ground, where the temperature is constantly around 12-14 degrees, and try a really good wine while history surrounds you in the shape of old wine making tools and several hundred years old bottles covered with cobweb decorate the old stone walls.
In La Rioja, just like in the Basque country, the food is a lot about pintxos. Pintxo means “stick” and means that every little serving of food has a little toothpick stuck in them to make it easy for the waiters to count how many of these little fellows you have eaten. Normally you can choose from a number of cold pintxos in the bar, which would be self service, and then choose from a list of hot pintxos that they prepare upon request. You can find the most delicious combinations of goat cheese, honey and walnuts, tuna with roasted peppers, blue cheese with chives and anchovies, oxtail, ham and cheese, croquettes and….. I could go on forever!
Pintxo hopping in Logroño
When visiting La Rioja don’t miss the chance to go to Logroño (the capital of the province) and its main street; Calle Laurel, a place filled with a thousand lovely smells of different kinds of food, people out until late going from bar to bar to have a pintxo and a wine chatting with their friends, friendly waiters attending their guests promptly and with recommendations on the delicious food and wine. Enter the first nice Pintxo bar you see, pop in for one or two pintxos and a glass of any of the lovely local wines (after all, you are in Rioja, almost any wine would be delicious). Be careful though – there is a high risk that you would be tempted to stay in the first bar you enter, marveled by the amount of gastronomic wonders put in front of your very eyes in the bar, but it is worth the effort leaving and go to another place for another wine with pintxo to take in the full variety of what Logroño has to offer. After three or four places you will probably have satisfied all your senses.
When to go
Depending on what you value the most there are different ideal times to visit La Rioja. Since this is inland Spain the summers are very hot; and normal summer days reach 40 degrees Celsius, and winters are cold with frosty mornings and nights; it all depends on your preference. The period from Easter to October tends to be much busier than the rest of the year, which makes the experience a lot more relaxing if you go then, rather than if you go during the busy months and you can go to the bodegas without having to reserve a tour long in advance. March or October would be my preferred months to go, since the weather is normally ok and the season is either not yet starting or has just finished. Between August and October is usually when the grapes are harvested so to take part in or see that process this would be the time to go.
Make sure to book the visits to the bodegas before you go, especially if you go during peak season, since the more popular wineries tend to be fully booked. Come prepared; read up on the region and the different bodegas so that you know which ones to pinpoint; it is of course impossible, or at least dangerous to your liver, to visit all of the more than 500 bodegas during one trip. Here you can find bodegas that match your criteria.
So do not hesitate; but book a trip to a destination that has everything to offer, the ultimate place to simply enjoy life!
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