Every corner of La Rioja holds its own unique cultural charms and traditions, nestled within one throbbing community and world famous wine-making region.
While many of us will have heard of La Rioja, we are generally more familiar with the famous wine, as opposed to the Spanish Region to which it owes its name. Situated in northern Spain, its capital is Logroño, whilst other towns and cities of significance include Calahorra, Arnedo, Alfaro, Haro, Santo Domingo de la Calzada, and Nájera. Its rich culture and ancient traditions are visible in every one of its towns and quaint villages, which retain a truly Spanish feel and are largely untouched by immigration, although, provide a popular haunt for tourists.
The history of La Rioja dates back to Roman times, when it was inhabited by the varied tribes of the Berones (central country), Autrigones (upper country, extending also north and west of it) and the Vascones (lower country, extending also north and east of it). Ownership of the territory has provoked heavy debate overtime, with all manner of influences infiltrating society, from Celtic to Arabic tradition, and including shades of Christian civilization, Visigoths, and Romans. It was not until 1822 that the province of Logroño was created, finally changing its name to La Rioja in 1980.
As a result of its colourful history, La Rioja today features a diversity of artistic styles and customs, and its natives believe that all of the cultures of the Iberian Peninsula are represented within this surprising region. Along with its wine, the region is famed for its fine Craftsmanship, which has evolved over time and now appears in households across the globe. Regional specialties include tapestry; ceramics such as the acclaimed ‘Raku’ pottery of Logroño- a decorative ovenproof pottery that captures the unique character of the region; wood carving; silk painting; needlework and patchwork. One of the most important factors that attract people to a town or city is its cuisine, and those who love their food will love La Rioja! The gastronomy offered here has close links with its varied landscape and changeable climate, being separated into distinct categories that the locals describe as “cuisine of the river plains” and “cuisine of the sierra”. Typical local dishes include patatas a la Riojana, which comprises of potatoes cooked with chorizo (spicy sausage) and lamb cutlets, as well as a selection of Spanish stews, and fish such as Riojan cod and trout. Other local delicacies include a regional blend of chorizo and Camerano cheese.
Fiestas are a central part of Spanish culture, and La Rioja certainly owns its fair share of delights. The ‘Battle of the Wine’ is part of the Haro Festival held at the end of June to honour San Juan, San Felices and San Pedro. Its origins lie in a territorial dispute between the towns of Miranda de Ebro in Burgos, and the town of Haro in La Rioja, for possession of the place called Riscos de Bilibio. Their frenzied battle concluded in an agreement that in order to maintain possession, the inhabitants of Haro must visit the Riscos de Bilibio on the day of San Pedro, 29th June, each year, when the Town’s Mayor places its standard on the highest part of the cliffs as a sign of ownership. The act is followed by mass, before the tremendous ‘Battle of the Wine’ commences, at which point participants throw thousands of litres of wine at each other in a frantic exchange of colour and banter.
This is a complete contrast to the symbolic ‘Grape Harvest’ festival, which takes place in Logroño around 21st September, and sees people throughout the city flocking to the Paseo del Espolón square to offer the first grape juice from the wine harvest to the Virgen of Valvanera, the patron Saint of La Rioja. It is an entertaining act for spectators as two men, barefoot and attired in regional costume, link arms and circle within a wooden barrel containing the grapes. Once sufficient juice has been obtained to fill a jug, this is then offered to the Virgin. The fiestas last for an entire week incorporating several street parades, feasting and wine tasting, all hosted by the local ‘Peñas’ or social clubs; along with bull fights, concerts, theatrical movements and elaborate firework displays which are rolled out along the banks of the river Ebro.
As far as sightseeing is concerned, no trip to La Rioja would be complete without a visit to the ‘Camino de Santiago’. An acclaimed European cultural route and pilgrimage, this is a popular path for travellers wishing to discover the history, art and culture of La Rioja, dating back to the 9th Century and the discovery of the Apostle’s grave at Santiago de Compostela. The Museum of Art and Archaeology is another treat for anyone who is keen to learn more about the area, where it’s diverse display of cultural exhibits relate the story of its evolution. Finally, to fully appreciate the value of the region’s wine, a visit to the ‘Dinastía Vivanco Museum of Wine Culture’ is highly recommended. The museum exhibits a selection of valuable items all relating to wine and dating from the Egyptian period to Picasso; and to its merit was awarded the ‘Best of Wine Tourism Award’ in Australia during 2004. And after a full day of sightseeing, there is no better way to reach cultural fulfillment than to indulge in a fruity glass of La Rioja’s finest. Olé!!!