Just beyond the expanse of glass windows at the Castillo El Collado, a perfect gem of an inn located in Laguardia, Spain, a blazing orange ball of a sun slips behind the mountains, and a violet haze descends upon the valley.
It’s nearly 7 p.m., and I am just finishing lunch. While getting up from lunch at a time when most are sitting down for dinner may seem a bit odd to Americans, it is the ideal metaphor for Spain.
This is a country deeply rooted in the past and steeped in tradition. Time is relative here, and the hours of the day are delineated not so much by traditional methods of telling time as by sensory impressions. Morning is the smell of freshly baked bread and the crow of a rooster; afternoon, the feel of the broiling sun on one’s back; nighttime, the sound of clicking castanets and the silky taste of a rich red wine.
Nowhere is this timelessness more apparent than in La Rioja. The smallest of Spain’s 17 regions, La Rioja was strategic enough to have attracted at various times Celts, Romans, Visigoths, Muslims and Christians, all of whom left their marks.
Lying in the shadows of the Pyrenees, the mountain range that separates Spain from France, La Rioja is split in two: Rioja Alta (Upper Rioja) is mountainous and humid, and Rioja Baja (Lower Rioja) is flat and has a sunny, Mediterranean-like climate. But the two have one thing in common: Together, they constitute Spain’s most prolific wine-producing region.
Here, in the basin of the River Ebro, in an area 80 miles long and 33 miles wide, are some 500 wineries, or as they are known in Spain, bodegas. Upper and Lower Rioja, along with adjacent Rioja Alavesa in the Basque country, have been producing Spain’s premier red wines since the Middle Ages, when area monks doubled as the first winemakers.
Unlike in France’s Bordeaux region and the Napa and Sonoma valleys of California, La Rioja’s bodegas are not always available to tourists who just happen by. Many are open by appointment only, and a visit requires some prior knowledge and careful planning, especially if you require an English-speaking guide.
However, for those determined to stop and sip, a few bodegas are open to the public on a regular basis. Bodegas Muga, located near the city of Haro in Upper Rioja, is perhaps the best known, although Bodegas Palacio and Bodegas Ontanon in Lower Rioja are also worth a visit.
And, of course, these delicious, full-bodied vintages can be sampled at the region’s restaurants, from Haro’s tapas bars to the magnificent Landa Palace in nearby Burgos, where the specialty of the house is prime Spanish beef.
A Hermit’s Heritage
The wines, though undeniably excellent, are not the only thing La Rioja is known for. This is an area rich in the history of 10 centuries, and visitors won’t lack for interesting sites between wine tastings.
One of the most interesting is San Millan de la Cogolla in the Cardenas River valley of Upper Rioja. It was here that the sixth-century hermit San Millan, a Benedictine monk, was said to have appeared, like St. James the Apostle, on a white horse to defend the Christians from the Moors.
It is home to two important monasteries, Suso and Yuso, both UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Suso, carved into the mountain to guard the cave where the holy hermit dwelt, is hidden from view and can be accessed by shuttle from the valley floor. In addition to its connection with San Millan, it was here that the Spanish language originated, as monks recorded the first written words in both the Castillian and Basque languages.
The second monastery, Yuso, dominates the valley below. Founded in the 11th century, it now houses the relics of the saint. Visitors will marvel at the magnificent Gothic cloister and the exceptional collection of ivory figures that depict scenes from the life of San Millan.