Northern Spain is home to a highly acclaimed gastronomy and wine culture. If you prefer avoiding crowds (because social distancing is still required in many places) this summer, depending on UK governmental travel advice, consider an escape to the Spanish autonomous province of La Rioja.
Best planned as a road trip, in La Rioja, you can sample wine in bodegas in Haro, indulge your inner foodie at pincho bars in Logroño and transport yourself back in time at San Millán de la Cogolla.
Read why La Rioja is worth visiting for travellers looking to see a different region .
Here at Melan, every couple of hours, you may catch us scrolling through flight/hotel booking apps and Airbnb, seeing what is available and then heading over to the UK government and local destination health authority websites to check the latest travel and Covid-19 related advice.
La Rioja, an autonomous region in northern Spain and one of the least populated regions in the whole country.
Will there be a second UK lockdown? Are we now free to roam without looking over our shoulders? We have no authoritative answers to either of these questions. However, we do know that the world is learning to travel again and that, depending on your risk appetite, there are many kinds of holidays you could consider under the circumstances.
We are mindful of the fact that UK staycations are not for everyone and so we are happy to explore further afield and bring you ideas for vacations that feed your wanderlust and get you excited for when we are able to travel freely and safely again [Refer to latest UK government travel guidance for Spain here].
Let us introduce you to La Rioja, an autonomous region in northern Spain and one of the least populated regions in the whole country.
Why visit La Rioja?
When you think of city vacations in Spain, destinations that immediately come to mind include Barcelona, Madrid, Valencia and Girona. However, if you’re looking for something a little more down-to-earth and outside the norm, why not consider a food, wine and culture road trip through the province of La Rioja in northern Spain?
The Spanish Basque Autonomous Community and notable cities such as Bilbao and San Sebastián typically receive all the attention when discussing gastronomy in northern Spain. However, the province of La Rioja can lay claim to being home to world-famous Rioja red wines (Denominación de Origen Calificada Rioja), many from family-run bodegas such as Compañia Vinicola del Norte de España or C.V.N.E that have preserved ancient winemaking traditions and local history.
With its mountains and valleys, ancient pilgrim paths and medieval cathedrals, La Rioja maintains a classic, old world Spanish charm that provides visitors with hours of endless exploration and education. Add to that lush vineyards and spa and wellness experiences and you have the makings of a relaxing countryside vacation.
If taste buds and curiosity are the only passports a traveller needs, then La Rioja offers enough to satisfy the hungriest of travel appetites.
What to do in La Rioja
If you can get to La Rioja (see travel guidance below), here are some suggestions of experiences you can look forward to (subject to local authority guidelines and restrictions and provider availability).
Feed your inner foodie in Logroño, the administrative capital of the Rioja region…
Pinchos bar hopping in Lorgroño
Feed your inner foodie in Logroño, the administrative capital of the Rioja region (around 90 minutes’ drive from Bilbao).
As the sunsets over the Pyrenees, and the town comes alive, you can join the locals on a mouth-watering, pincho bar-hopping tour of Calle del Laurel (‘La Laurel’), the gastronomic centre of Logroño’s historic quarter.
Pinchos (notably different from tapas) have become an art form in La Rioja. These small, open-faced sandwiches are prepared with a selection of meat, vegetables, fish/seafood, or cheese and skewered to a small slice of bread.
There are over 80 bars/restaurants dotted around Calle del Laurel, each claiming to have a particular specialty. You’ll have more than enough options to choose from regardless of your taste or dietary restriction. Estimate 30 to 40 Euros per person for six different tapas/pinchos and wine pairings.
Test your wine knowledge in Haro
La Rioja is home to over 500 wineries or bodegas. Many of the biggest and oldest ones like CVNE are located in Haro.
Haro is a 40-minute drive north of Logroño. This picturesque and walkable town is a great place to learn about wine history and become acquainted with red wines from the region.
There is also a lot to appreciate about the local architecture and culture surrounding La Rioja’s best-known produce. Unfortunately, due to the pandemic, you’re unlikely to see many summer festivals, processions, music or wine fights. However, check the local tourism authority website to see what’s available.
There is also a lot to appreciate about the local architecture and culture surrounding La Rioja’s best-known produce.
To enjoy your wine-tasting experience, we recommend choosing two or three wineries – a mix of small and large ones – for variety. Plan to stay overnight in Haro. The food and nightlife offer an exciting mix and is well worth the stopover.
Float over vineyards and enjoy surreal landscapes
If wine tasting does not sound appealing, we still recommend that you get a feel for the wine culture and heritage of the region. One alternative is to experience an early morning or sunset hot air balloon ride over La Rioja’s vineyards. Service providers typically offer hotel transfers.
The best time for hot air balloon rides is between May and November when the weather is warmer and the region’s beautiful landscapes are in full bloom.
Visit UNESCO World Heritage Sites
While you’re in La Rioja, we recommend immersing yourself in the region’s rich history. The villages of San Millán de la Cogolla and Santo Domingo de la Calzada offer excellent opportunities to be transported back in time.
San Millán de la Cogolla in particular is recorded as the place where the language we know today as Spanish was first written. The medieval monasteries of San Millán de Suso and San Millán de Yuso were designated UNESCO World Heritage Sites in 1997.
Local historians offer educational tours which provide insights into Spain’s Roman/Latin/Muslim past, views of religious art and architecture, and stories about local legends.
Enjoy vinotherapy skin treatments
Scenic drives through La Rioja’s tiny villages and wide-open landscapes offer an opportunity to experience the landscape and the calming influence of nature. You can combine your exploration with a wellness visit to the Balneario Hotel/Spa in the little town of Arnedillo.
With a wide range of treatments available, the pièce de résistance of this hotel/spa is their vinotherapy – a skin treatment using essential oils infused with antioxidants found in grapes also used for making wine. Combine this with a proper massage to get the full experience.
Complete your treatment with a relaxing swim in their 32ºC Roman bath which doubles as an indoor/outdoor thermally-heated swimming pool and take in the view of the surrounding countryside.
How many days do I need?
We recommend planning for a 4 to 5-day trip when visiting La Rioja.
How to get there and around
Fly: As at the time of writing, Ryanair has resumed flights to Bilbao from London Southend. Other providers are yet to announce a resumption of this route.
Once you arrive in Bilbao, we recommend hiring a car and making a road trip out of your visit.
Where to stay in La Rioja
Some of our favourite places to stay when visiting La Rioja include:
Eurostars Los Agustinos, Haro: Tracing its roots back to the 14th century, this beautifully decorated 4-star hotel has been a convent, military garrison, prison and hospital.
Hotel Finca de Los Arandinos, Entrena: This Instagram-perfect and architecturally exquisite boutique hotel/bodega is situated on an elevation and offers panoramic views of the La Rioja countryside.
Parador de Santo Domingo de La Calzada: Beautiful gothic architecture and located opposite the Santo Domingo de la Calzada Cathedral, home to renaissance-era art and a newly commissioned crypt, designed by Slovenian theological artist Marko Ivan Rupnik.
[Due to the disruptions to the hospitality industry caused by the pandemic, we recommend contacting the hotels directly to discuss pricing, availability and their safety and sanitation procedures.]
Writer’s note: The key word for us here at Melan Magazine is safety. While we want to help you visualise travel ideas, we also want to highlight the importance of following health and safety guidelines issued by your local authorities. It is important to keep yourself safe and to help others stay safe by following those guidelines.
Disclaimer: The writer’s press trip was organised by La Rioja Turismo who offered complimentary hotel accommodation, meals, and activities during the trip. However, all photos and opinions expressed are the writers.
Omoruyi (Omo) Osagiede is a London-based writer, travel blogger and digital content creator. Omo’s work has been published in Lonely Planet, Culturs Magazine and House of Coco Magazine. As a blogger and digital content creator, his work can be found on heydipyourtoesin.com (travel, food and lifestyle) and protectme.blog (digital security).