We spent two weeks driving around the northern coast of Spain with a few days in La Rioja which by far were our favorite days.
La Rioja, a small wine region of Spain, is located south of the Cantabrian mountains which protect it from the fierce northern winds and create the perfect climate for the wine region. It borders the Basque country which we’ll tell you more about in another post
La Rioja is known mainly for its grapes and is a fantastic destination for wine lovers. It has many beautiful Bodegas for you to visit but it’s not just about the wine. We were pleasantly surprised by her natural beauty and the quaint small Spanish villages.
If you are looking for an off-the-beaten-path vacation then you should definitely consider La Rioja.
Here’s how we spent 3 days.
I came across a bed and breakfast nestled inside canyons of Peña Bajenzain, large rock formation just above the village of Islallana. The mountainous rocks are quite impressive and there is plenty of hiking, climbing and caving in this area The house is owned by a Canadian-Spanish family but currently being run by family members, Pilar & Andrew. They are the absolute most perfect hosts you could ever wish for. Extremely attentive. They made our stay very comfortable and patiently spent time explaining various activities we could do. Rooms are clean and comfortable and have their own private bathroom. The common area is very cozy and reminded us of home. Breakfast was included and for a set price, Andrew will even cook you dinner if you don’t feel like going out.
They run summer camps until the end of July but from August on, they accept guests which is perfect as you should visit La Rioja in September/October.
Our lovely hostess, Pilar, made reservations for us at Valentin Pascual Bodega, a family-run Bodega in Cenicero, a 20-minute drive from Casa Verde . We also booked a tour at Marques de Riscal, a gorgeous, famous Bodega in Elciego about 15 minutes away from Valentin Pascual Bodega.
We had a private tour with Jose at Valentin Pascual and it was absolutely fascinating. He spent close to two hours going through the process of wine-making with us. We tried to record the tour and will be making a video where Kasm will share with his schoolmates back home.
We highly recommend visiting a smaller and a larger Bodega so you can see the difference between the two. Both were great in their own ways but Jose’s left an impression on us and it’s something we will remember into our old age.
After our visit with Jose, based on his recommendation, we headed to a restaurant called La Cueva. As the name gives it away, the restaurant is inside a cave! We enjoyed our meal. Though the dessert was a bit strange. I was served a banana and an apple and nope the banana was not peeled!
With full bellies and a little behind schedule we headed over to Marques de Riscal. Make sure you leave enough time between the two Bodegas. Our first tour was at 1pm and second at 4pm. Thankfully there was a 4:30pm tour which we were able to join at Marquis.
Marquis de Riscal is stunning. The building is designed by Frank Gehry and it’s a feast for the eyes. It’s an extremely elegant Bodega and the wine doesn’t disappoint. We enjoyed the tour and the wine-tasting but if I were to choose between the two, Valentin Pascual wins without a doubt. It was such a beautiful personal experience.
We finished our day by a visit to Laguardia. Technically, Laguardia is in the Basque Country but as it is only a few minutes away from Marques and we had received such high praises of it, we had to visit. The town, like most Spanish towns, was built on a hill (rolling eyes). It is surrounded by a wall and there are five doors to access the city – the doors even have names: Mercadal, Butchers, Páganos, San Juan and Santa Engracia. The streets and surroundings have a medieval feel to them and it’s really pleasant to walk around the town. We also took a walk just outside the wall. There is a pleasant park that goes around the city and gives you a beautiful view of the region. Be sure to time your visit and arrive just before sunset.
After a nice breakfast, we drove south towards Ortigosa de Cameros to visit the caves. There isn’t much English information on these caves so it was a little tricky to find them. There are absolutely no signs directing you to them on the highway. We pulled into the town where we guess-timated where the caves would be and saw a tiny sign that said Cueva. You have to cross a very old Iron Bridge to get to the ticket office for the caves. If you are afraid of heights don’t look down! The tour was starting at 12pm and we just made it! The Tour guide was closing up the office to get started! After an exchange of some sign language, we bought our tickets and followed her up the hill. The Tours are only in Spanish. We don’t speak any Spanish! But it’s still well worth the visit. The caves are 160 million years old and you’ll be in awe!
The visit will take up a good chunk of your day. If you remember to pack some food, you can head towards the Parque Natural Sierra for some more nature time. But since hunger was creeping up on us and we didn’t pack any food, we decided to head to another town I was told about to do some exploring and find a place to eat. We went to Briones but I have to be honest, I didn’t really enjoy the town much. Perhaps it was the time of year. There wasn’t a soul around and we couldn’t really find a place to eat. We ended up picking up some groceries and heading back to our B&B. But there are plenty of cute villages to explore. Santo Domingo de la Calzada is one place we stopped on our way to La Rioja. It’s a very pretty town. Then town square is stunning and you’ll see a lot of Camino walkers strolling about.
This was our last full day in La Rioja. We wanted to take it easy and not do much. But as it turns out, every time we say that, we end up doing the complete opposite!
This was actually my favorite day during this visit. We went to see the Ruins of San Prudencio Monastery in the village of Clavijo. The drive to the village is stunning. You will get a gorgeous view of the landscape and as you approach the village you’ll see the impressive Clavijo castle. We parked at the top of the village as instructed by our host but then we were on our own trying to find the ruins. There are no signs anywhere telling you where to go. I wrote the name of the place on a piece of paper and we started walking on the only street that went up! I believe it was called Calle Don Tomas Muro. I showed the piece of paper to a couple of old men sitting on the side of the street and after some very detailed instructions and interesting facial expressions, all in Spanish, trying to warn us of the crazy hike, we thanked them and kept going uphill. Finally a sign! Just at the top of the street, you’ll see a path going down (look for a couple of goats). It’s an extremely narrow rocky path and definitely not easy. Make sure you wear grippy shoes! The total return distance is only 3 km but it feels like a lot more. We had the whole place to ourselves! It was incredible. The only thing we could hear were the vultures circling above our heads. As you get closer you see signs of the ruins which doesn’t really look that impressive but then you turn the corner and WOW. It makes the crazy hike worth it. As you can see from the pictures, the place is amazing. It was built between the 7th and 8th century and finally abandoned in the 1820s. If you want off-the-beaten-path, this definitely will be it!
We spent a good amount of time exploring and photographing the ruins. The hike up was challenging but it was all worth it.
We headed to the village of Navarrete for lunch before packing it in for the day. If you have time, I recommend you spend some time walking around Navarette. Go into Iglesia Nuestra Señora de la Asunción and admire this beautiful church and watch the Camino walkers come in and sign the book and place their sticker on the map. Have lunch at Obrador Bar Jamonero (Calle Ctra. de Logroño, 19, 26370 Navarrete, La Rioja, Spain) . You won’t be disappointed. Great food, great wine and friendly service.
La Rioja is definitely a gem worthy of your time and we hope you’ll get a chance to visit this beautiful part of the world and enjoy it as much as we did.