We love Spain, and we spend a lot of time there every year. However, this summer I decided I wanted to see other areas of Spain and see something different. So I selected the La Rioja region just north of Madrid, and it was an excellent choice and I highly recommend it. We decided to travel in June. The plan was to stay 5 nights in Madrid, never been there before, then hire a car and spend 6 nights traveling to and through La Rioja. First night In Segovia, two nights in Valganon, two nights in Logrono and finally a night in Bilbao from where we would fly home.
We picked up the car in Madrid and headed for the one night in Segovia. It’s just over an hours drive from Madrid and it’s a stunning little city. Famously Walt Disney designed his Disney castle on the castle in Segovia. It also has an amazing aqueduct running through the center of the town, a beautiful cathedral and fabulous plazas. We stayed in a particularly nice hotel, Hotel Eurostars Convento Capuchinos which is a converted convent.
Next stop was a three hour drive to a small village in lower La Rioja, VALGAÑON, where we would stay two nights. This village is in the country side and very small. So small it only had this lovely hotel Pura Vida, and no restaurants, we had to travel to the next town Ezcaray, where there were excellent places to eat. The food was amazing and very inexpensive.
La Rioja is of course famous for its wine but also as being part of the Camino which runs through it. The country side is beautiful and in some ways reminds me of Tuscany.
The people are lovely and friendly, and there are very few English speaking tourists or indeed tourists in general. Given we stay in Costa del sol where some of the local villages and towns can grow by 10 fold during the summer holidays it certainly feels more Spanish in La Rioja, with very many less tourists.
Our first trip was a hot air balloon ride over the northern part of La Rioja where we started in a town called Haro. Like all balloon rides it was an early morning start, and a truly amazing experience. A fantastic way to see the countryside and a beautiful way to travel, just serenely gliding along. Our pilot, Ivan, has flown in world championships around the world and done very well. Amazing as we popped up out of the clouds into the bright sunshine, and then flew close to the ground clipping the tops of the crops in the fields. We were then taken for a lovely lunch in Haro. You can see a video I took using my 360 degree camera YI360R here.
Our next towns was Logroño which is the capital of La Rioja. Another lovely city which has fantastic tapas bars. From here we too our second trip with Rebecca from Rioja Like a Native. This was a half day wine tour, where we visited two different wineries and had a tapas lunch in another beautiful medieval village LaGuardia founded in the 10th century. Our first winery was the underground family winery of Valentin Pascual Winery, where wines are decanted in centennial wooden vats. It is the last remaining winery in Spain still pressing grapes from their own fields using their feet. Our tour was with Jose Maria Pascal the fifth generation of his family running this bodega. It was extremely interesting and Jose was an excellent host explaining to us all about the wine producing process in his winery. Our next visit was to Bohedal Bodega Boutique and could not have contrasted more with Valentin Pascual as it is a completely modern but family run bodega who are very passionate about their wines. Robert gave us an excellent tour and it was extremely interesting about how the oak barrels from France, USA and Hungary affect the taste of the wine. It was amazing how the different barrels changed the taste of the wine. Our day finished with tapas lunch in Laguardia. This is a walled town set atop a hill in the middle of the valley overlooking vineyards on all sides and with the Cantabrian Mountains in the background. It was founded in the 10th Century as a defence town of the kingdom of Navarra. It is without doubt one of the most attractive towns in the region. It is beautiful to walk through the medieval narrow streets, enjoy tapas and local wine, and the beautiful views of the local country side.
Other interesting sites we visited were the avant-garde wineries of Marques de Rascal and Ysios. At Marques de Rascal is the famous hotel designed by Frank Gehry and at Ysios is winery design by Santiago de Calatrava. The town of Santo Domingo de la Calzada is also worth a visit and can be found on the famous Camino de Santiago.
Finally we travelled north over the mountains that border La Rioja and the Basque country. It is quite amazing how these mountains affect the climate between these two regions. Once you travel over the mountains into Basque, the country side changes to green forests due to the greater rainfall that occurs in the Basque country. We spent a lovely day in Bilbao before heading home.
I would highly recommend a trip to La Rioja and Rebecca from Rioja Like A Native as a guide.