Visitors to Northern Spain often speak highly of the regional cuisine, wine culture and unique local traditions. On a recent visit to the Spanish autonomous province of La Rioja, we sampled bodegas in Haro, explored pincho bars in Logroño and immersed ourselves in medieval architecture and history in San Millán de la Cogolla. Read why La Rioja is worth visiting for travellers curious about Northern Spain.

 

Logroño, La Rioja

As the evening approaches, the cobblestone streets of Calle del Laurel (‘La Laurel’) in Logroño come alive. This historic section of the city becomes the epicentre of one of the most exciting culinary adventures you will find in La Rioja.

HDYTI Tip: Logroño, the administrative capital of the Rioja region, is around 90 minutes drive from Bilbao.

Pilgrims walking the famous Camino de Santiago will already be familiar with Logroño. There is however a different type of pilgrimage which this city attracts, one where pinchos are the object of devotion and the pilgrim is one with an undeniable taste for good food.

Add Basque cities like San Sebastián and Bilbao, with their equally exciting gastronomy and, together with Logroño, you have a food triangle where pinchos (Basque: “pintxos” and pronounced “peen-chos”) are an art form.

Pinchos at Bar El Munro | Logroño

For the uninitiated, pinchos are small, open-faced sandwiches prepared with a selection of meat, vegetables, fish/seafood, or cheese (to name a few ingredients) and skewered to a small slice of bread.

As Rioja is one of Spain’s premier wine regions, with 60,000 hectares of vines spread over three provinces, pairing pinchos with wines from the region is a winning combination.

 

Sampling pincho bars in Calle del Laurel

There are around 80 of these bars/restaurants dotted around Calle del Laurel, the main food hub in Logroño’s historic quarter. Each pincho bar claims to have a particular speciality. It is impossible to try them all in one night. This is one place where slow travel makes sense.

Tonight, our group is in good hands. Local wine and food expert and TV celebrity José Ramón Jiménez Berger is our guide. He meets us at Hotel Gran Vía de Logroño situated just outside the old town.

José Ramón Jiménez Berger | pintxos tour | Bar Sebas, Calle del Laurel | Visit La Rioja

“Have you ever been to La Rioja or Logroño?” he asks with a beaming smile spread across his face.

Our group admits that we are mostly first-timers to the region.

“That’s perfect! That means that I have a lot to show you tonight! Come with me,” he says as he beckons us to follow him into the night.

José Ramón leads us on a mini-tour of the old town. We stop at the medieval Cathedral de Santa María de la Redonda where the smell of roasted chestnuts rising from small carts in the town square heightens our anticipation.

Before diving into our first pincho-bar, we stop at a tiny shop where Felix Barbero, a fourth-generation craftsman is busy working late. Felix Barbero makes ‘Botas Rioja’ – goatskin wine pouches, a unique craft that has been passed down through generations.

Felix tells us proudly that he is one of around ten artisans in all of Spain who continue the tradition of making these colourful drinking vessels by hand.

We pause to admire his craftsmanship and chat about the beauty and utility of the pouches. Felix invites us to come back and pick up a souvenir or two.

José Ramón Jiménez Berger | El Educador en Vinos | Visit La Rioja

We walk towards Puente de Piedra, an iconic 19th-century stone bridge over the River Ebro. Overlooking the Ebro Park, we spend a few minutes people-watching and listening to José Ramón share a bit of history about the surrounding area.

We listen, but our attention drifts towards Calle Laurel where the famous pinchos await.



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The ultimate pincho taste test

Back in Calle del Laurel, the first pincho we try is called champiñon at Bar Angel. The garlic-infused mushrooms and shrimps are freshly grilled and melt-in-the-mouth very quickly. The white wine accompaniment elevates the flavour.

Our pincho taste lesson includes being told to throw our napkins on the floor – apparently, this is a sign of appreciation in some bars.

Champiñon | pinchos | pintxos | Bar Angel, Calle del Laurel | Visit La Rioja

Next, we head to Bar Sebas where we try something that’s more tapas than pincho – a Spanish tortilla coated with a spicy pepper sauce. José Ramón suggests another excellent wine pairing, a slightly dry rosé. Not for the first time that evening, he’s spot on!

We visit two more pincho bars but the one that wins our approval is Bar El Muro where we are presented with cojonudo, a fried egg with red pepper and pulled pig cheeks. The one vegetarian in our group opts for a vegetable tempura version which looks just as tasty.

By the end of the evening, we are surprisingly full without breaking the bank (we spend approx 30 Euros for 5 pinchos/wines).

Food and wine are a huge part of the culture in Rioja. Logroño turned out to be the perfect place to start our visit to La Rioja.

 

Bodegas and the secrets within them

In the morning, we leave Logroño behind and head to Compañia Vinicola del Norte de España or C.V.N.E (more popularly known as ‘CUNE’ due to a fluke spelling accident) in the town of Haro, Rioja.

Ivy on wall at CUNE | CVNE | Bodega | Compañia Vinicola del Norte de España | Visit La Rioja

Founded in 1879, CVNE is one of the oldest wineries (bodegas) in Spain. CVNE/CUNE wines are sold in over 90 countries with their Reserva and Gran Reserva wines enjoying prominence in the industry.

“How do you pick the wine you serve for dinner?” one of us asks Javier Moreno, our sommelier and host.

“It depends on who is coming for dinner!” he replies cheekily as he pours out glasses of Cune Crianza, kicking off our complimentary wine-tasting session.

CUNE | CVNE | five wines from Compañia Vinicola del Norte de España, Haro | Visit La Rioja

Our novice palates have a hard time deciding whether the Crianza, a fruity and oaky red wine, or the longer barrel-aged Reserva is our favourite.

We chat among ourselves and eventually agree that wine tasting can be subjective. Although many people have the ability to perceive sweet, savoury, fruity and floral notes, we simply do not experience the same thing exactly the same way.

HDYTI Tip: A wine tour and tasting (two wines) at CVNE costs between 15 and 20 Euros per person (advance booking required).

CUNE | Imperial Reserva | Compañia Vinicola del Norte de España, Haro | Visit La Rioja

On a prior tour of the facilities, Javier tells us more about the CUNE wine story.

We enter the above-ground wine cellar and inhale the aroma of wine resting in French and American oak barrels. Considered to be revolutionary for its time, early designs of the cellar were developed by Gustave Eiffel (the same Eiffel Tower designer) in 1890.

Impressive…but what is a good bodega without secrets?

Javier instinctively proceeds to answer the question. “Let me show you something really special,” he says.

He leads us to a small door to reveal a wine fermentation room. We ignore the wine vats and focus on the ancient-looking wrought iron gates shrouded in darkness at the far end of the room. They emit an eerie, creaking sound as Javier opens them, inviting us into a world of secrets.

The smell of dampness is heavy as we enter the cold underground cellar. A light comes on and we are greeted by stacks of wine bottles covered in dark mould.

“The mould helps to maintain the temperature,” Javier explains. “These bottles are reserved for very special events and VIP guests but most importantly, they are our heritage.”

We brazenly ask if we can taste one of these wines. The look Javier gives us confirms what we already know, that these gems deserve to rest in peace.

La Rioja is home to over 500 wineries or bodegas. Many of the biggest and oldest ones like CVNE are located in Haro. It is impossible to visit all of them so choose wisely. #VisitLaRioja Click To Tweet

HDYTI Tip: Learn more about ‘How To Tour The Best Bodegas In Rioja Spain’ from this excellent guide by Amber and Eric Hoffman.

 

Visiting UNESCO World Heritage Sites in La Rioja

In the Middle Ages, winemaking was closely linked to the activity of monasteries. However, wine is not the primary reason why we head to the village of San Millán de la Cogolla.

View of green hills from Monasterio de San Millán de Suso | La Rioja

The village of San Millán de la Cogolla is recorded as the place where the first examples of the language we know today as Spanish was written. #VisitLaRioja. Click To Tweet

The monasteries of San Millán de Suso and San Millán de Yuso are the main attraction. Both sanctuaries have been designated UNESCO World Heritage Sites since 1997.

Our guide is Celia Cardero with Sensum Rioja Tours. What Celia does not know about Spain’s Roman/Latin history and religious architecture is probably not worth knowing.

View of arches inside the Monasterio de San Millán de Suso | La Rioja | Spain

Walking inside the Monasterio de San Millán de Suso | La Rioja | Spain

Autumn trees outside Monasterio de San Millán de Suso | La Rioja Turismo | Visit La Rioja

Leading us through both monasteries, Celia goes into detail about Roman and Moorish influences on the architecture and emblems.

We walk in silence through rooms storing religious art and medieval manuscripts and eventually end up in the magnificent Monasterio de Yuso sanctuary where the sexton informs us that visiting time is over.

In the nearby village of Santo Domingo de la Calzada, a cobblestone road running through the sleepy town is part of the French Way, the most popular pilgrims’ path on the way to Santiago de Compostela. For 1,000 years, this village has provided shelter for pilgrims.

After lunch at the excellent Parador de Santo Domingo de La Calzada, it is time to wander around the lavishly decorated 12th-century cathedral named after the local patron saint.

We ‘time travel’ at the Santo Domingo de la Calzada Cathedral, from renaissance-era art to a newly commissioned crypt, designed by Slovenian theological artist Marko Ivan Rupnik and commissioned in 2019.

Marko’s exquisite mosaic iconography draws the same awe as does the rest of the religious imagery we see in the cathedral. On the contrary, the local legend of roosters (linked to the story of a wrongfully hanged pilgrim) raises a few curious eyebrows in our group.

 

Why visit La Rioja, Spain?

History seems unavoidable on our final night in La Rioja. 

We are back in Haro where we check into Hotel Los Agustinos. The building dates back to the 14th century. A wall plaque explains that it has been a convent, military garrison, prison and hospital before its latest incarnation as a 4-star hotel.

Over dinner, our group discusses our Rioja experience. Pincho bar-hopping, floating in a hot-air balloon over vineyards, soaking in natural hot springs and experiencing medieval art and architecture have all been highlights.

With its mix of Atlantic and Mediterranean climate, Northern Spain is home to some of the country’s most interesting landscapes and rich traditions. #VisitLaRioja Click To Tweet

Visitors to Spain looking to try something different will find a unique blend of experiences in La Rioja.

Disclosure: Our trip was organised by La Rioja Turismo. We received complimentary hotel accommodation, meals, and activities during our stay. However, all photos and opinions expressed are ours.

 

Travel information

How to get to La Rioja: Although there is a small airport in Logroño, your best bet is to fly into Bilbao.

Getting around: Hire a rental car to enjoy some flexibility and save on taxis.

 

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Co-Founders & Curators at HDYTI

Eulanda & Omo Osagiede are London-based freelance writers and award-winning social influencers who run the popular travel, food, and lifestyle blog HDYTI (Hey! Dip your toes in).