On the international stage La Rioja is one of Spain’s most famous regions thanks almost entirely to its wine production. However, this province and autonomous region, situated between Castilla y León, Castilla La Mancha, Aragón and the Basque Country, remains one of Spain’s largely undiscovered areas as far as general tourism is concerned. This very fertile part of the country can be found in between the Iberian mountain range, with a highest point at San Lorenzo of 2262m, and the Rió Ebro basin in the south.
There are seven major rivers flowing into the Ebro which make this one of Spain’s most prolific suppliers of water. La Rioja is Spain’s second smallest autonomous region in terms of geographical size. With regard to population it is the smallest of them all with just 324,000 people living there. Half of these inhabitants live in Logroño which is the region’s capital city, and, astonishingly, half of its 174 municipalities have under 200 people living in them.
Although the first human settlements in the region date back to the Celtiberians of the fourth century, this is a good area for dinosaur hunters, as there are some well-preserved fossil tracks to follow. The Romans controlled the area for about 700 years from the second century BC, appreciating its strategic importance on the Ebro, which led to the development of Logroño. For many years after, however, the region was passed from one hand to another and it wasn’t established as a place in its own right until the province, originally called Logroño, was established in 1822.
By that time, two significant factors in the region’s development had started to take shape. Firstly, the famous Camino de Santiago helped the area’s economy significantly. In addition, from the sixteenth century, wine growing has developed in importance. Even before these occurrences, though, La Rioja had been the site of the first known writing in Castilian Spanish. Gonzalo de Berceo, Spain’s earliest known poet, was at the Monastery of San Millán de la Cogolla at the beginning of the thirteenth century. Although La Rioja was first known by its present name as long ago as 1099, it didn’t officially change its title from Logroño province until 1980.
You won’t be surprised to learn that the wine producing industry is by far the most important contributor to the economy of La Rioja. Although the area in which Rioja wine is produced actually extends outside of the province into Álava and Navarra, the area around the town of Haro is the heart of the region which has been producing wine since it was introduced by the Romans. There is other farming here – notably wheat and barley – and a large number of sheep but wine and wine related technology and products are vital to the area’s economic fortunes.
The only airport in La Rioja is Logroño Agoncillo, about 12 kms from the capital, but this is very small – sometimes only one or two domestic flights a day arriving and departing. Be careful if you search for La Rioja airport on the web – you might end up in Argentina, where there is an airport of that name! Most people who travel by plane will go to Madrid, Barcelona or Bilbao and then continue by road or rail.
The road links into the area are very good – the A1 connects with Madrid, about 375 kms; the AP46 goes to Bilbao; and the AP 48 to both Zaragoza and Barcelona. By rail, there are excellent connections with Zaragoza, Madrid and Bilbao and a good local network leading from Logroño out into the province, notably Haro.
If you want to see the best of La Rioja, visit some of the top wineries and take part in the grape harvest festival in Logroño in September then join our Rioja Wine Festival tour. This tour is for small groups beginning and ending in Bilbao.
Where to Visit in La Rioja
Logroño, the region’s capital, will never feature in a list of Spain’s most beautiful towns but it is often the base for people travelling in this area and has a pleasant old centre with some interesting buildings, churches and places to eat and drink. If you do spend a night there, be sure to go to Calle Laurel for a ‘tapas crawl’. This is one of the best streets in the whole country for wandering between a huge number of great tapas bars.
Haro is the centre of Rioja’s wine industry which attracts many wine enthusiasts to its bodega tours and visitors to the nearby Vivanco Museum of Wine Culture in Briones. A place well worth stopping at is Laguardia, a beautifully preserved medieval town between Logroño and Haro. Santo Domingo de la Calzada is an interesting small town – with a fabulous Parador – and is perhaps best known for having live chickens in its cathedral to commemorate a local legend.
Many of the most interesting aspects of La Rioja, though, are not to be discovered in the towns – there is some wonderful and very diverse scenery here, accounting for the increasing amount of rural tourism in the region. For instance, the Alfaro Nature Reserve on the banks of the Ebro is a forested area with some superb walks. There is an open air sculpture park at Tierras Altas de Lomas de Oro, in an isolated area of pine, oak and beech trees. Of special interest as well are the valleys of Rioja Baja where you can see dinosaur footprints, Celtiberian and Roman remains and settlements in a UNESCO Biosphere reserve whilst being circled overhead by enormous vultures.
What to do in La Rioja
There are now more than 500 bodegas in La Rioja, producing what is still Spain’s most famous export. Many of these will offer visitors guided tours, tasting tours and some will even give you the chance of a set lunch or dinner. Riojan cuisine, especially in the north of the region, is characterised by its stews, such as Patatas a la Riojana, flavoured with chorizo and wine, but they also eat lots of tripe, lamb and vegetables such as roasted red peppers, butter beans, mushrooms, artichokes and asparagus. Marzipan and almond pastries are especially popular desserts.
But it’s not just wine that brings people to La Rioja. There are opportunities for every kind of sport in the province. Ski enthusiasts will find many good places – the best resort probably being at Valdezcaray. There is ample opportunity for mountain biking, road cycling, climbing, hiking, paragliding, canoeing, hunting, fishing, horse riding – there’s even bungee jumping and hot air ballooning. There are three good eighteen hole golf courses for those who prefer something generally considered to be a little safer than some of the other sports mentioned!
Local Fiestas and Festivals
As you might expect, wine plays a large part in the calendar of special festivals associated with La Rioja. Most spectacular of these is perhaps the Batalla del Vino in Haro every June – basically a pitched battle on the streets. Slightly less ferocious, but equally as alcoholic, is the September La Vendimía held in Logroño, where, as well as tasting wine you can learn different ways to tread grapes. This is part of the week-long festival of San Mateo, which attracts people from all over Spain. Still in Logroño is the festival of San Bernabé, in which bread, fish and, of course, wine are freely distributed and there’s lots of street theatre activities.