Logrono (La Rioja), Spain August 2022

What is to say about Logrono that hasn’t already been said in our earlier blog following our last visit? We love the place. Yes, it has comparatively little “to see and do” when compared to other similar sized or even smaller Spanish towns in Spain but, it isn’t at all spoiled by tourism and it is so very much alive especially on a Thursday night at Calle Laurel and… we had booked into a hotel (the NH Logrono Herencia Rioja on Calle Murrieta) for the Thursday and Friday nights. Yahoooo!

Despite what I have just written about the relative lack of things to see and do in Logrono (here I am talking historical buildings, monuments, etc), I took the time during our stay to revisit what is around – the parks, bridges, churches, etc – and I was fortunate enough this time around to get inside the Concatedral de Santa Maria de la Redonda. It proved a disappointment not least because of the renovation work going on inside the church. One whole side of the inside of the church, including the altar area, was almost completely covered in scaffolding.

I was also able to get a better look inside St Bartholomew’s but once again I was thwarted in my attempts to get up into the belfry for it’s views over the city. A church service was about to begin as I entered.

I was disappointed not to get up to the bell tower of St Bartholomew’s but there is always next time. On a brighter note, I discovered some great street art at the back of the church…

Of course we attended Calle del Laurel and surrounding areas on both the Thursday and Friday night and the atmosphere and food was again brilliant. There cannot be a more sociable place to eat tapas in the whole of Spain (although they call them pinchos in Logrono, not tapas nor even pintxos). Talking of the pinchos, the absolute best I tried this time were the Grilled Mushrooms at Bar Soriano (three large mushrooms grilled and dripping in garlic butter and olive oil and crowned with a small prawn). They are superb although eating them without dribbling garlic butter is an art I have yet to master. I gave the Pig’s Ears a miss this time but liked the Crujiente de Pollo Corral (fried crispy chicken) and the Torreznos (pig skin) which were served at my favourite pinchos bar of our last visit. One that I regret I didn’t get around to tasting were the Chipirones a La Plancha (plate of squid) which was served at Vanya’s favourite pinchos bar from our last visit.

That first evening back in Logrono we made two forays into Calle del Laurel, pausing in between (for a rest) on the main square. It is the quietest place on a Thursday night.

Later that same evening, as we made our way back to the hotel we paused once again. This time it was to listen to a Spanish rock band that were performing a free concert on a temporary stage at the end of Calle Murrieta. A great end to the evening.

The following day, it was more of the same.

Yes, we thoroughly enjoyed returning to Logrono and I don’t doubt we will be back there again next year.

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…

Haro (La Rioja), Spain August 2022

La Rioja, with it’s 600 wineries and 250 square miles of vines, is Spain’s most famous wine region and the town of Haro is considered the wine capital of La Rioja. There’s reason enough for us to visit Haro but, it also came recommended by a friend.

The drive from Berceo on the LR 206 and the LR207 via Alesanco and Ollauri to our Haro campsite by the River Tiron would have taken well under an hour were it not for the fact that I kept stopping to take photographs on the way. These are country roads with very little traffic (a few tractors is all) and it was too easy to just pull in to the side of the road and start taking photos of the beautiful scenery. The La Rioja Region is about wine and grain and at this time of the year the area is a giant patchwork quilt of gently rolling fields with dark green vines and straw coloured stubble set against a backdrop of the Basque Mountains and a bright blue sky. Not quite Prosecco Hills but, nevertheless, awe inspiring.

Almost everything about Haro is to do with wine. Wineries (known as bodegas in Spain) are all over the place. There is a wine museum, countless wine shops and even the statues and street art throughout the city are linked to wine.

There is also a three day wine festival in the town which includes a wine fight (La Batalla de Vino). The fight is generally a good natured event which takes place between 28 to 30 June, during the feast of St Pedro. There is a big party on the 28th June; the fight takes place immediately after mass on 29 June and; there’s another party (which includes traditional dancing) which takes place on 30 June. During the wine fight everyone wears white and throws red wine over each other using buckets, bottles, jugs, water pistols or anything else that holds wine. Thousands of litres of wine are used in the fight every year. The inaugural wine fight is said to have started in the 13th century after an argument between Haro and the neighbouring town of Miranda de Ebro.

After arriving in Hora, I did my usual preliminary exploration while Vanya stayed with the Van and practised her Spanish. The first place I made for was the Plaza de la Paz (in the old part of the town, of course) to find a suitable place to eat in the evening. Job done; there are plenty of places on the square but she would probably prefer to walk the lanes for tapas.

The most impressive building in any Spanish town is more often than not the church and the 16th/17th century Church of Santo Tomas is certainly the most striking building in Haro. It was declared a National Historic Artistic Monument in 1931. The oldest and most celebrated part of the church is it’s front entrance but I was also struck by it’s magnificent Baroque altarpiece which dates from 1740.

And so to the wine. If you want to tour one of the bodegas in the town (and there are some impressive tours to be had), you have to make appointment but; if it’s just a tasting session that you want, many of the larger bodegas in the Barrio de la Estacion area operate an open door policy where you can just walk in off the streets. Some, such as Balbainas, CVNE, La Rioja Alta and Muga have pleasant seating areas, inside and out, and have food to complement their wine list. It’s like being in an up market Austrian heurige.

I made my way to the Bodegas Muga which is currently open for tasting from noon onwards. I settled down in the very pleasant courtyard at the side entrance to their premises and was immediately presented with a wine list and snack menu. You pay for each wine you try but the prices are reasonable and the measures are very generous. What I particularly liked about the Muga is that the waiters (or are they cellar masters?) all seemed very knowledgeable about the dozen or so wines available and were more than happy to share that knowledge. There were red, white and rose Riojas available at prices between 3 and 12 euros per glass but most wines were 3 or 4 euros. There was even a fizzy Rioja. I tried a ‘couple’ of reds and my favourite by a long way was the Muga Seleccion Especial 2018 at 6 euros for a very large glass (which got even bigger after I ordered a second). I’m no expert wine taster but – intense cherry colour, long, smooth, red berries. I added the “intense” for effect lol. I promised to introduce Vanya to the Muga at the earliest opportunity.

Vanya and I made it to the Muga the very next day for the noon opening. After I had reminded myself as to how good the red wine is, I sampled the white riojas, including the fizzy. Not fussed about that one (I’ve been spoiled by Prosecco) but the other white wines were good.

Of course, Vanya enjoyed the visit to Bodegas Muga as much as me and we had to try another. We moved on to Bodegas Bilbainas for a Vina Pomal. Vanya didn’t like the Pomal and so I had to drink both but she very much enjoyed the fizzy Rioja Lumen Reserva 2019; so much so she bought some to take back to the UK. Given the price, I probably would have liked it too. As it was, I felt rather sleepy for the remainder of the afternoon.

We spent a couple of pleasant evenings during our stay on the Plaza de la Paz people watching but tended to eat at the tapas bars. It wasn’t bad food but it was a poor substitute for Calle Laurel in Logrono. It was time to move on. A waiter advised us to call in on the small town of Laguardia before going to Logrono and we promised we would.

Haro is well worth a visit and we will definitely return. As it is we were only going to stay the one day but stayed two. Next stop Logrono but via Laguardia.

Ezcaray (La Rioja), Spain August 2022

Ezcaray was described to us as the most beautiful town in La Rioja and a ‘must see’ place to visit. It sits on the edge of the Sierra de la Demanda mountains on the banks of the River Oja and is just 30 kms west of Berceo. It was an easy decision to stay on at the campsite in Berceo another night and travel to Ezcaray for the day.

With just over 2,000 inhabitants Ezcaray is not a large town but, it attracts a great many tourists throughout the year. Summer and winter, it is particularly popular with visitors from the Basque Country.

Parking up was easy. There is a motorhome aire at the edge of the town next to the pretty 18th century Hermitage of Nuestra Senora de Allende.

The resident hermit in the hermitage accommodation adjoining the chapel let me in for a look and it is as pretty inside as outside. There’s a magnificent altar piece but an attractive and unusual feature inside is the collection of paintings on the side walls by the artist Arcabuceros Angeles.

We carried on towards the old town and soon encountered the Iglesia Parroquial de Santa Maria la Mayor, which is a fortress like church put together in several phases between the 12th and 16th centuries. It looks more like a small castle than a church and, as we arrived, was locked as tight as any fortress could be. I was having to settle for a couple of photos of the outside of the church but as I readied myself with the camera, I was distracted.

The hotel opposite the church houses the El Portal de Echaurren restaurant, the first ever Michelin Star restaurant in La Rioja and, what’s more, it now has two Michelin Stars. The restaurant’s menu was posted outside the entrance. It claims to showcase the flavours of the Al Rioja region and looks both exciting and reasonably priced. They were charging between 22 and 32 euros for a meat main course and between 29 and 60 euros for a fish main although, no one in their right mind would settle for just a main course in this restaurant. Eating in El Portal de Echaurren is apparently almost theatre. The appetizers are served in the garden, then; guests are shown the kitchens where an entree is produced and then; the principal course is delivered to the guest’s table in the restaurant area. Personally I would like to try their tasting menu with appropriate local wines and Vanya and I have promised ourselves we will return for such an experience. Only issue is that, with a visit to the kitchens being part of the eating experience, I don’t think we’ll be able to take the dogs with us. They have what looks like a sister restaurant almost next door, El Cuartito. Perhaps El Cuartito will be more accommodating?

Promising that we would soon return, we moved on into the old town and with the help of Google Maps quickly found the centre, the Plaza del Conde de Torremuzquiz (the Square of the Earl Torremuzquiz). In fact, the Square is better known as the Plaza del Quiosco (Square of the Kiosk). It is an ancient and picturesque square of half timbered three story buildings in the middle of which is a very odd looking but very pretty bandstand set on a stone foundation. It is this bandstand which has given the square it’s nickname, Plaza del Quiosco. Most of the buildings surrounding the square have been converted into cafe bars and craft shops. It was mid morning; the square was fairly full and there was a great atmosphere about the place. We settled outside one of the cafe-bars and took a pintxos brunch. I mentioned earlier that Ezcaray is very popular with visitors from the Basque Country and that is reflected in the cafe bar menus in the town. What would ordinarily be called tapas across most of Spain and in much of Castile y Leon is termed pintxos in Ezcaray.

I’ve not mentioned that Ezcaray is good for shopping; woollens in particular. Vanya had noticed this almost immediately upon entering the town and it wasn’t long before we were retracing our steps to another square we had crossed earlier in morning, the Plaza de la Verdura. I remember it because the town’s tourist office is to be found on that square. Vanya had seen an admittedly pretty full length woollen jumper. It’s now in the back of the Van.

Ezcaray has long been famous for the production of cloth (particularly woollen clothes and blankets) and at it’s peak in the 19th century had 29 textile factories employing 1,000 workers. That’s almost all gone now with most of the old mills having been demolished but one in particular has been saved. The Royal Cloth Factory of Santa Barbara has been converted into the Ayuntamiento (town hall), a Theatre and a Hotel. It is a striking building full of character.

A part of the Royal Cloth Factory of Santa Barbara

Textile production has given way to tourism all year round in Ezcaray. The ski resort of Valdezcaray is only 14kms up the road. Valdezcaray was built in 1974 and has a skiable area of 22kms; service stations at three heights (1550m, 1620m and 1850m) and; 6 lifts capable of carrying 15,000 skiers an hour to a total 24 ski runs (including 4 green pistes, 6 blue, 10 red, 2 black and 2 yellow). I didn’t know that they had skiing in this part of the world.

We had a pleasant day in Ezcaray but, while it is a pretty little town, I wouldn’t describe it as the prettiest in the La Rioja region. I think we’ve yet to discover that place. No matter, we’ll be back if only to try one of those restaurants I wrote about. For now, it is back to Berceo and then on to another town which has been recommended by a friend: the wine capital of La Rioja, Haro.

Berceo (La Rioja), Spain August 2022

Our next stop was to be in the La Rioja Region of Spain. The plan was to spend a couple of nights in Logrono (a favourite city of ours) but we thought also to visit a few other places in this most underrated part of Spain.

Vanya identified a suitable stop over just inside the La Rioja region by the name of Berceo; programmed the Sat-Nav and off we set … to the end of a dirt track road nearer Burgos than Logrono! Whoops! No problem. An hour or so later we arrived at Berceo and there was still sufficient time for me to check out the town (although with just two bars this is more of a village than a town).

I found a small bar in the town for a drink or two that evening (there’s very little else to see or do) and then started to follow a pilgrimage route, the Ruta de Gonzalo de Berceo, out of town.

Gonzalo de Berceo was a local 13th century religious poet. I cannot tell you any more about him except that his route took me up and then down through some beautiful countryside to the Monasterio de Yuso. I subsequently learned from our waiter where we ate that evening that the Spanish language was first developed by the monks at this monastery. Who am I to argue with him?

I was late getting back from the monastery and we decided to leave the village bar for another time. Instead, we ate in the camp site bar restaurant and the food was fine. The drinks (Estrella beer and a La Rioja Crianza) were excellent.

The friendly local waiter who told us about the Spanish language having been developed at the Monasterio de Yuso was a mine of local information and, while we were eating, he urged us to visit the village of Ezcaray if we were staying on in La Rioja. That settled it, we told the campsite we would be staying on another night so as to both visit Ezcaray and visit the local bar in Berceo.

Our visit to Ezcaray is told in the next blog. This blog ends with me reporting that we visited the local bar in Berceo and that we were well received by the locals and we drank lots of the ‘local’ wine. It came from the Bodegas Berceo in Haro. More about Haro later.

Logrono (Rioja), Spain July 2021

So off we went to the often overlooked capital of La Rioja region, the city of Logrono. Most visitors to Logrono head out to the Rioja vineyards shortly after arriving or they just stop over for the night while walking the Camino Santiago. We were determined to make the most of our time here and, after parking the Van up on a large, free municipal car park some 20 minutes from the town centre, we moved into the NH Logrono Hotel on Avenida Club Deportivo as a treat. We got a reasonably good deal (although as in so many European hotels we did have to pay a hefty “dog tax” – 25 euros per beast per stay for special cleaning of the rooms) – I find that ironic especially when cleaning up after Covid will create considerably more work than cleaning up after dogs.

What a find, Logrono is. We both love the place. We’ll certainly be back and would recommend it to all our friends as a place to visit. It is a beautiful beige city of wonderful contrasts – There’s a modern new side to the city (with bustling tree lined, landscaped boulevards and; countless coffee bars and shops; contemporary sculptures; fountains and; large green parks) and, best of all, a fair sized scenic old town (with picturesque narrow streets and alleys; wonderful old statues; churches and museums and; quite possibly the most exciting and best pinchos area (Calle del Laurel) I’ve ever seen – In comparison, Barcelona’s Las Ramblas is quite dull. The people in Logrono are so welcoming, especially in the Calle des Laurel area where so many went out of their way to welcome us and recommend particular dishes and wines and; everything is so inexpensive – two glasses of wine and a beer for less than three quid and excellent food at half the price!

I took far too many photos to include in this blog and, in any event, I’m not so sure my photos could do the place justice…

Across the city there are plenty of references to the Camino Frances, the most popular of the pilgrimage routes to Santiago de Compestela. It starts in France at St Jean Pied de Port and travels 790 kilometres to Santago passing through Logrono on the way. It was the increasing popularity of this pilgrimage route which helped the city gain importance during the Middle Ages. Camino pilgrims will usually enter the city by crossing the Stone Bridge (sometimes known as the San Juan de Ortega Bridge or the Bridge of Lions) over the River Ebro.

During our stay in Logrono we took the Van out for a run down through the Parque Natural de Sierra de la Cebollera to Soria. It’s a pretty enough place, mountains, rivers and a lake (well, a reservoir actually) but we were both keen to get back to Logrono for a second night eating pinchos and drinking in the old town.

Best of all is the Calle del Laurel and the surrounding lanes (Calle San Agustin & Calle Albornoz) in the centre of the old town. The Calle del Laurel is the most popular street in Logrono and made for a pinchos crawl where the focus is on food as much as the beer or wine. Most of the bars do not have seats and you are generally required to stand as you eat and drink. This is fine because most of the bars on the Calle del Laurel specialise on just one or two pinchos (which are shown on picture menus outside the premises); so you eat and drink their wares and then move on to the next bar.

We were there on both a Thursday and a Friday night and the atmosphere on both occasions was tremendous. It started to get busy both evenings by about 6pm and within an hour or so was truly buzzing – the whole area being crowded with people of all ages intent on having a good time and with the party mood continuing well beyond midnight (especially on the Friday). It’s loud; it’s noisy and yes there were some “tipsy” people but there was never any trouble and the mood remained friendly throughout. We could eat there every night; it was so alive.

And the food itself? Outstanding!! Special mention must go to the Passion Por Ti bar for it’s “Trufoie” (truffled foie gras with egg yolk and olive oil boiled at a low temperature for two hours). It was soooo tasty and it was accompanied by a really good Rioja (Baron de Ley Reserva 2016). Other bars worthy of mention include the Bar Angel for it’s Setas (mushroom caps on bread crowned with a shrimp) and the Bar El Perchas for their Orejita (Pigs Ears). I had the Orejita Picante but I confess I could not finish it – I like Pig Cheeks but Pig Ears just don’t do it for me. There was one other bar that Vanya and I both enjoyed but I cannot recall it’s name – they did really good Croquettes (probably the best we have ever eaten) and they introduced us to a great cheese (Queso Idiazabal). By the way, Pinchos is a Logorno term; in the Basque Country, where this style of eating originated, such dishes are known as Pintxos and; in the rest of Spain, they are known as Tapas. Don’t let anyone try and tell you different.