Laguardia (La Rioja), Spain August 2022

Now Laguardia, recommended by another waiter as a place to see, is very much a contender for the prettiest town in La Rioja!

With just 2,000 inhabitants, Laguardia is not a large town but it is the capital of La Rioja Alavesa. Perched on top of a long narrow hill in the Ebro Valley, the town started as a 1oth century military fort; probably a Templar monastery. As time passed a village developed around the monastery and with the demise of the Templars the monastery was transformed into a fortress church, the Santa Maria de Los Reyes. A second fortress church was added at the other end of the hill, Iglesia de San Juan Batista and the burgeoning town was then enclosed within thick defensive walls which connected the two fortress churches.

Parts of the walls were damaged during the Carlist Wars and again in the Spanish Civil War but the town’s five main gates are mostly complete; the Santa Engracia (northeast), the Carnicerias (east), the San Juan (southeast), the Mercadal (south) and the Gate of Paganos (west). We parked the Van outside the town walls and entered via the Gate of Paganos.

This was the view north towards the Basque Mountains as we arrived in Laguardia. The Basque Mountains sit between the Cantabrian Mountains and the Pyrenees. There was a bad storm the night before and the residual cloud over the Basque Mountains looked like a tsunami crashing down from the hills. The cloud cleared within an hour or so of our arriving.

The town is almost totally pedestrianised with just small tractors being allowed in at harvest time to deliver grapes to the town’s bodegas. The streets and alleys are too narrow to accommodate any other traffic and they slope gently from north to south such that the wooden barrels of finished wine can be rolled down to lorries and vans waiting outside the gates. Brilliant.

We made our way along one of the narrow sloping streets to the north of the town and the Santa Maria de los Reyes. The medieval town walls and buildings are honey coloured and quite beautiful. I’ll let the photos do the talking…

It didn’t take long to reach the northern end of the town and the Santa Maria de los Reyes. Opposite the church entrance is a 12th century military bell tower, the Abacial Tower (Abbot’s Bell Tower), which the public may ascend for views over the town and across to the mountains. Unfortunately, it was closed for lunch.

Next to the church is an unusual iron sculpture, the Escultura Viajeros, which comprises a table of iron shoes and a table of handbags. It is supposedly a tribute to those who travel a great deal. Shoes and bags? I suppose it makes sense but some of those boots on the table are certainly not made for walking (as the song goes).

Just outside the northeast gate is the Paseo del Collado, a path which leads to the Castle Hotel and around most of the north side of the town. It’s a pleasant short walk and leads past an iron monument to the Fabulist, Felix Maria Samaniego, who was born and died in Laguardia.

The centre of Laguardia is the Plaza Mayor where the new the new Town Hall, a hotel, a couple of bars and the tourist office are all to be found. We made it to the centre and were sitting in the town square with a beer when the Town Hall Clock (almost) struck the hour and three dancers in traditional dress appeared from inside the clock and did a little dance to the music. Not sure how that works because the dancers do not appear every hour.

After a short respite in the square we carried on to the southern area of the town to the Iglesia de San Juan Bautista y Capilla del Pilar (The Church of St John the Baptist and the Chapel to the Virgin of Pilar). The large octagonal Chapel was added to this fortress church during the early part of the 18th century. At first, I didn’t realise they were connected. It was only when I was inside the Church of St John that I noticed the large chapel at the back of the church. Public access to the chapel is through the church. Both buildings are absolutely stunning inside.

Inside the Church of St John the Baptist – One of the most beautiful of churches. I especially liked it’s polished wooden floors

It was an absolute pleasure walking up and down the streets of Laguardia. We took time to stop at one of the town bodegas to enjoy some wine and tapas but we omitted to visit the cellars which, in hindsight, was a mistake. I learned afterwards that there is almost as much underground in Laguardia as above ground. Apparently there is an underground network of some 300 plus caves which is where the area’s wine is now produced and stored.

We enjoyed everything about our short stop at Laguardia and I very much recommend it as a place to visit. I would definitely revisit the place although, next time, I would come outside of the summer season when there are fewer tourists and; I would be tempted to overnight in the town square hotel.

Is it the prettiest town in La Rioja? That’s a difficult question. We are forever being surprised by what we see on these trips and; we haven’t seen all the towns in this Region that we would like to see and; so often other factors will influence such a decision (e.g. the time of the year, the prevailing weather, local activities, etc) so; it is difficult to say. One thing is for certain; it’s a strong contender.

We might have stayed on longer but, it was Thursday afternoon and we were already booked into a hotel just down the road in Logrono for a couple of days. Thurday night is party night on Calle Laurel and is not to be missed. On to Logrono…

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