Just beyond the expanse of windows at the Castillo El Collado, a perfect gem of an inn located in Laguardia, 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 the clock but 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. Together, they constitute Spain’s most prolific wine-producing region.
Premier wines produced here
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 monks were the first winemakers.
Unlike France’s Bordeaux region and the Napa and Sonoma valleys of California, La Rioja’s bodegas are not always open to tourists. Many are open by appointment only, and a visit requires careful planning, especially if you require an English-speaking guide.
However, a few are open to the public on a regular basis. Bodegas Muga, near the city of Haro in Upper Rioja, is perhaps the best known, and Bodegas Palacio and Bodegas Ontanon in Lower Rioja are also worth a visit.
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 is prime Spanish beef.
The wines 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.
At San Millan de la Cogolla, in the Cardenas River valley of Upper Rioja, the 6th-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. It was also here that the Spanish language originated, as monks recorded the first written words in both the Castilian and Basque languages.
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 Saint Dominic (Santo Domingo) to shelter and feed pilgrims en route to the shrine.
Stay in a parador
Visitors to Spain can sleep in a medieval castle or a stately palace, or lodge in a cloistered abbey, where ghostly Gregorian chants echo your footsteps. The government operates a network of 94 paradores 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 and Parador De Argomaniz in the hamlet of Argomaniz.