In La Rioja, you can sleep in castles, drink like kings

The Spanish region of La Rioja is known for its wines and its history. Yuso Monastery, a UNESCO World Heritage site, dominates the Cardenas River Valley.
The Spanish region of La Rioja is known for its wines and its history. Yuso Monastery, a UNESCO World Heritage site, dominates the Cardenas River Valley. TNS

Just beyond the expanse of glass windows at the Castillo El Collado, a perfect gem of an inn in this city in northern 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 mark.

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, while 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 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 (mostly) red wines since the Middle Ages, when area monks doubled as the first winemakers.

Unlike 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 previous 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, 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 visits.

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.

The wines, while 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.

Perhaps of even more historical significance is the 11th-century town of Santo Domingo de la Calzada. A major station on the Way of St. James, the road to Spain’s most revered shrine, Santiago de Compostela, the town grew up around an inn built by St. Dominic (Santo Domingo) to shelter and feed pilgrims en route to the shrine. Today’s pilgrims — otherwise known as tourists — can still find food and lodging in this medieval treasure that faces the town’s square.

Directly across from the inn is the Gothic cathedral, site of one of the venerable saint’s miracles. As the story goes, a chaste young pilgrim, on his way to the shrine at Santiago de Compostela, attracted the attention of a lusty serving girl at the inn. Angered when he rebuffed her advances, she planted a silver goblet among his possessions and betrayed him to the local official.

As the punishment for theft was death, the innocent pilgrim was hanged. When his grieving parents arrived at the gallows, however, they found him very much alive, proclaiming that Santo Domingo, knowing of his innocence, had saved his life. Overjoyed, they rushed to the house of the official, who was just sitting down to dinner, to inform him of the miracle they had witnessed.

Incredulous, the official scornfully replied that the young pilgrim was as alive as the roast cock and hen he was about to partake of, whereupon the two birds leapt from the plate and began crowing and clucking.

To this day, a live rooster and hen are kept inside the cathedral as a testament to the power of miracles.

Staying in Spain’s historic paradors

It may seem like something out of a romance novel to sleep in a medieval castle or a stately palace, or take lodging in a cloistered abbey, where ghostly Gregorian chants echo your footsteps, but visitors to Spain find it easily accomplished.

The government operates a network of 94 paradors throughout the country — guest accommodations in some of Spain’s most historically significant buildings, from mansions to monasteries. The La Rioja region has two of the most exquisite of these historic jewels — the aforementioned Santo Domingo de la Calzada in the town of the same name and Parador De Argomaniz in the hamlet of Argomaniz.

At the former, you can feel the presence of the 12th-century pilgrims who first received hospitality from Santo Domingo, while at the latter, you can sleep in a splendid Renaissance palace where Napoleon Bonaparte regrouped before attacking the nearby town of Vitoria during the Peninsular Wars.

In La Rioja, it appears, besides walking in the footsteps of those who helped shape Spain’s history, you can sleep in their beds.

And you can always get a good bottle of wine as well.

If you go

La Rioja

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