La Rioja -  More than just the Wine

© Marshall Carter-Tripp

The word Rioja conjures up visions of good red wine for wine-lovers, and an opportunity to sample these wines close to home is one good reason to visit this area of Spain.  Many bodegas offer wines directly to the consumer, with tasting possibilities.  There are many more reasons to go, some millions of years old.  A trip from Madrid can be done in a long weekend - or more; there is a world to see.

Although relatively small in area, the terrain here varies tremendously from north to south, Alta to Baja Rioja.  In the south the land is largely flat, with dramatic mesas breaking the otherwise straight lines of the horizon.  In the southeastern corner along the Río Alhama,  around Cervera de Alhama the long centuries under Moorish rule have left linguistic traces, with many Mozárabic expressions still in use.  Between Inestrillas, where Moorish fortifications are still visible along the cliff, and Aguilar del Río Alhama, Celtiberians fleeing from the Romans in the 2nd century BC built a large defensive town, Contrebia Leukade (called Clunia by locals); the ruins here are impressive even though only partly excavated.  Minerals are abundant, and many of the travelers here are coming to look for collectors’ items - such as iron pyrites.  One pueblo, Navajún, is the only source of the latter - you can rent one of several casas rurales, and then pay a small sum to be admitted to the mining area, after which you carry away what you can remove (with a pick-axe) of these extraordinary minerals.  Alfaro is the largest town of the region.  Its collegiate church sports nearly 100 stork nests, and a few years ago almost 400 of these comical birds were counted living on the church.  At the Palacios hotel in Alfaro, Herencia Remondo wine from the owners’ bodega is featured in both the excellent restaurant and the shop.

Travelling west towards Arnedo, distinguished for its shoe industry (and with lots of shoe outlets to peruse) you pass through a strange landscape of reddish bluffs, some pierced repeatedly by cutouts for dovecotes, and others honeycombed with tunnels and man-made caves.  In Arnedo you can even dine in a restaurant established in one of these dugouts, which is a former bodega.  Once past Arnedo, you enter the land of the dinosaurs.  Lower Rioja has the greatest concentration of dinosaurs tracks, or ichnites, in Europe; about 5000 of them are clustered around Enciso, the starting point for a Route of the Dinosaurs that also includes Munilla, Navalsaz, and several other villages (sometimes with large plastic dinosaurs along the road to alert you to the presence of a dinosaur dig).  These tracks were variously described in medieval times as those of giant chickens, or the hoofmarks of Santiago’s horse.  We went first to Préjano, where you have to invest a bit more work to find the site, but also benefit from the peacefulness of this valley, filled with vines and fruit, olive, and almond trees.  (There are new finds now, some 500 or more in the Enciso area, and you can encounter tracks more easily, for example at Vírgen del Pradera where there are literally dozens on one hillside just below the ermita.)  We stopped to watch the grapes and the almonds being harvested, and were rewarded by the pickers with delicious samples.  People everywhere were friendly - if somewhat bemused by being photographed going about their daily work!  The area is also home to many birds, and vultures were to be seen circling about the cliffs.

Several kinds of roads are available for a swing toward northern La Rioja.  Having taken lots of time in the south, we turned to the autoroute, exiting 60 km later at Navarete to connect with the Camino de Santiago.  (This unfortunately meant bypassing Clavijo, just south of Logroño, where Santiago Matamoros was first seen, according to the legend of several centuries later, in a battle of 844.)  The Camino connects a string of lovely towns, in rolling foothills, also covered with grapes and fruit of all kinds.  Nájera sits against a striking red cliff, and has a very handsome monastery, Sta María la Reál.  Next west, Santo Domingo de los Calzados sports a very good Parador.  This is the town where the story is told of a young man accused, falsely, of theft, whose family arrived too late to save him from the verdict of death on the gallows.  On appealing to the judge, who was at dinner, they were told that he would be released only if the chicken on the plate came back to life, whereupon the judge’s dinner began to crow....In honor of the event, chickens are kept in a cage in the cathedral.  The cathedral was finished in 1235 and has a fine west portal with a seven-fold molding.  The town itself has part of the walls built by Pedro the Cruel, and several other fine old buildings.  Just south is Cañas, where the Cistercian nunnery of Sta María has a beautiful 13th century tomb of the abbess Urraca.

At the end of this road lies San Millán de la Cogolla, where two monasteries commemorate the 6th century hermit who became a saint; the older, higher one, known as Suso, dates to 929, and has Mozárabic design elements; the lower, or Yuso, was originally built in the 11th century, to house the remains of San Millán, but was rebuilt in the 16th and 17th centuries, in a style reminiscent of El Escorial.   The first known documents in Castilian were found in these two monasteries; this, plus the 11th century writings of the first Castilian poet, Gonzalo de Berceo, who was a priest at San Millán, has given the village the title of the “Cradle of Castilian,” which is to say, “Birthplace of Spanish.”  Part of the lower, Yuso, monastery is now a hotel, an attractive alternative to the Parador in Santo Domingo.  It is also a museum with many beautiful artifacts from the medieval period of the monastery.

This upper part of La Rioja is drained by many small rivers, creating beautiful and sinuous valleys.  Roads often run to the last small village and then stop, or turn into roads only passable by 4-wheel drive vehicles in good weather.  The road to the summer resort of Ezcaray, a steep mountain town with half-timbered houses, is one of these; it passes along the Rio Oja, from which Rioja derives its name.  Slightly further up the valley is the companion winter resort of Valdezcaray, where you can ski.  From Nájera, however, you can take the LR-113 towards Burgos and the N-I, following the Najerilla river.  The scenery is gorgeous, there is another monastery (Valvanera) up in the hills, and the most noise you will hear is the clanging of cowbells.  Two pretty spots along this road are Villavelayo, with a beautiful red sandstone Romanesque church overlooking the town, and Canales de la Sierra with its own hilltop Romanesque church, San Cristóbal.  Canales was originally a Roman settlement.  In 927 it received the first fuero, or bill of town rights, in Rioja.  Canales has a wealth of handsome old houses, built of golden sandstone and emblazoned with fabulous coats of arms, and a tiny town square, all laid out along the Canales river.  It’s the kind of place that makes you think about buying up one of the old houses and turning it into an inn.  La Rioja has lots of such places - it’s worth a journey!

Practicalities:  From Madrid, the simplest route for this excursion is out the N-II to Almunia at 271 km, where you turn north on the A271, which will shortly lead you to the A-68 autoroute to Logroño, from which you can exit easily to Alfaro; alternatively, you can sample these places in reverse, going to Burgos and then east on the N120 to Santo Domingo de la Calzada.  Places to stay include the Parador in Santo Domingo (941 34 03 000), the Hostería del Monasterio in San Millan (941 37 32 77); in Echegaray there is an interesting small hotel built in a former tapestry factory, the Albergue de la Real Fábrica (941 35 44 74).  The Palacios in Alfaro (941 18 01 00) also has a fine restaurant.  Sopitas in Arnedo is the restaurant burrowed into the hillside (941-38-02-66).  Dial Country code 34 when calling from Argentina.  <www. parador.es> provides information on this and other Paradores.  <Other webpages: www.okspain.org>, <www.iberia.com>; <revistaiberica.com>; <www.red2000.com/spain>

© Copyright 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, Richard W. Tripp, Jr.