Ruta a la Rioja: Caminado Entre Uvas y Gotas de Lluvia 

December 2021 —   

Waking up late lead me to grab a taxi for 13 euros instead of taking the Madrid Metro, a 12 minute versus 40 minute journey. I had gone to bed later than I wanted the night before but having packed and prepared everything, including food, I was all set to run out the door. Luckily I arrived plenty early to the train station reaffirming my faith in the positivity of the excursion as I munched on a couple fluffy croissants. Embarking by train gave me the opportunity to admire the early morning skies of bright orange, purple, and pink as they shown bright across the wispy stratus clouds above. The ground along the sides of the tracks sparkled with frost, a clear sign that it is winter in Spain. 

La Rioja is a very small but super important province in Spain as it is known for its’ wine production. As far as the eye can see there are rich fields filled with rows upon rows of grape vines. You can see this world famous wine, ’Rioja,’ in any sizeable liquor store across the US and many other countries. It is one of the better know Spanish wines, just like its white wine counterpart Albariño, and of course, one of the key reasons I wanted to see it for myself! However, this province isn’t without its fair share of rainfall. In fact, it rained during almost every hour of my entire journey, but amongst the rain drops and grapes there is much to see!

There is always a long weekend off for Spanish schools during the first week of December, and as such I thought it fitting to plan a 4 day trip to a region of Spain that I had yet to traverse. When traveling by train the route is quite pleasant but not necessarily direct to where one is looking to go. My gameplan was to head to Soria by train from Madrid Charmartín station, then grab a bus to Logroño, next take a train to Haro, after that walk to/from Briñas back to Haro, subsequently take a train to Vitoria-Gasteiz, and from Vitoria-Gasteiz I’d return to Madrid via train as well. 

For this journey I chose to utilize my Osprey Kyte 46L Backpacking backpack from REI Outfitters because it is perfect for this type of endeavour! I was able to fit my Puffle Vegan 40 degree Adventure blanket from SierraMadre and Westhikers inflatable sleeping mattress pad in the bottom section, and then all the rest of my things in the larger upper section. I wore my LL Bean rain jacket and rain pants, LL Bean packable down jacket, and LL Bean packable vest with leggings and 2 layers of long sleeves, one shirt and one turtleneck on top. As an added advantage, the goretex rain cover that comes with the backpack kept all of my goods inside dry! On my feet I wore my Blundstone boots and merino wool socks. I also had a lightweight pair of gloves, an ear headband, and a scarf to lock in my warmth when needed. With all this I was never cold nor wet amongst the bountiful raindrops and damp northern climate. From this trip I reiterate the importance of smart multifaceted layers that are adaptable as needed. 

 

My Travel Plan  

Soria —  Saturday late morning to late afternoon 

Soria is actually in the province of Castilla y León, but its’ sights are on the way via train and well worth a visit. I arrived to the station around 11 a.m., proceeded to suit up for the rainy blustery air outside, and promptly began cutting across the city towards the Ermita de San Saturio, or the San Saturio church, which is perched on the cliffside of a mountain along the Río Duero, or Duero River. How rad is that?! From pictures it is stunning, but when you approach it on foot along the river, it is even more mind-blowing. The structure was built around the year 1700, and is boldly Baroque in style with floor to ceiling ‘fresco’ paintings covering much of the interior. The entrance to the structure is even more perplexing as you enter through a natural cave opening illuminated with stained glass windows. Also, the admission is free making this a must see if you find yourself in Soria! 

From here one can walk several miles alongside the river until you arrive to an ancient Puente de Piedra Medieval, or a Romanesque Medieval stone bridge, that is still used by cars. Walking to the right of the bridge for fifty yards or so you will arrive at the Monasterio de San Juan de Duero, or the Monastery of San Juan of Duero, which has a simplistic courtyard of mostly intact stone carved archways. Admission was free since I visited on a weekend, and though I did not spend more than a half hour walking around, the structure is an interesting sight to see. Starting back to the bridge one can see a fairly tall hillside lookout across the river, which is easily climbable and offers some distant snowy mountain views in the winter season. As I concluded my visit to this lovely northern city, I wandered the winding streets admiring the nativity scenes and various festive Christmas decorations. Making my way to the Soria bus station on the opposite side of town I devoured some sandwiches I had made. This station was mildly shady given that there were no live bodies manning it, but the bus arrived on time and I was soon on my way to Logroño. 

 

Logroño —  Saturday evening to Sunday midday 

Logroño is the capital of the La Rioja region. When I pulled into the Logroño bus station it was dark outside due to the shorter winter days and raining per usual. Thus, I navigated my way through the city towards where I was staying for my first night, a hostel called Pensión La Rioja. This is considered ‘a modern hostel’ because there is no live person to check-in with when you arrive, it is done digitally via a link they send you and then when you are at the doorstep you slide a button in the email and it electronically unlocks the door. I must admit I was definitely confused at first but it was a secure facility and the buttons did unlock both the outside door and the secondary door into the hostel. Once inside they give you a code to access the lockbox with you individual room key. My room was very clean, and right across the hallway was an even cleaner bathroom. Actually it was not a bad hostel, though it took some getting used to! I would recommend this hostel for your stay in Logroño since it is centrally located to both the train and bus stations. 

The next morning, I arose early to get suited up for my morning jaunt across the city prior to my tour and wine tasting at Bodegas Franco Españolas, one of the most well known wine producers in the La Rioja region. I had reserved my entrance ticket in advance for only 15 euros which included a guided tour of 30 minutes and the tasting of 2 wines of your choice. I chose to try the white wine ‘Diamante Rioja’ and the reserve white wine ‘Diamante de Graciela.’ It is a good price for the insightful experience and hour long visit. Afterwards I had to hightail it to the train station on the other side of the city to begin the next leg of my trip to Haro and Briñas. 

~ The white wine ‘Diamante’ is often called “El Blanco Pirineo,” or ‘the Pyrenees White.’ 

~ There is a famous Virgen of La Rioja region called “La patrona de La Rioja.”

~ The barrels that hold the wine are made from American and French Oak.

~ For the red wines, every 4 months they have to flip all the barrels to rotate the wine within. Then they clean them and refill them with the wine. The inside of the barrels will form reddish chips and a darker layer which means that the “Crianza,” another type of red wine, is forming with the porous nature of the wood. The ‘Crianza’ needs 2 years in a barrel for optimum flavour. A “Reserva,” or reserve wine, needs 3 years to form peak flavour. 

–> Some Fun Facts that I learned during my wine tasting tour : )

La mujer fina y elegante bebe Diamante,” meaning 'The refined and elegant woman drinks Diamante.' 
*This was the original slogan for the advertisement of Diamante wine. 

 
Haro & Briñas —  Sunday afternoon to Monday afternoon

Haro and Briñas are located just a few kilometres from the border of the La Rioja and el País Vasco, or the Basque Country regions. Once I arrived to Haro I paused to eat something and then began trekking the nearly 3 kilometers to Briñas where I was staying for the night at a hotel called Portal de La Rioja. When I booked this hostel it was the only one available in town, and as a result it was actually a cheaper hotel rather than an actual hostel. However, the price was right and it has wonderful views from all of the rooms since each room has its own balcony. The building is the shape of a hexagon which is intriguing but it is on top of a hill overlooking fields of grape vines, snowy mountains, and the Río Ebro, or the Ebro river. Since it is a super small town, it was extremely convenient to have a restaurant on the first floor of the hotel. I should mention that food prices are extremely cheap in most places in the North of Spain compared to Madrid, so I did not have to spend much to get decent sized portions. 

The scenery and views are absolutely pristine when going on foot between these two towns. The route is part of a much longer hiking route called ‘Ruta del Vino – Rioja Alta,’ or Wine Route of the Rioja Alta region. The idea is that people can hike this amazing trail amongst the various towns and cities of the region to gain firsthand insight into the environment, process, and people of wine production in the La Rioja region. The routes that follow the Río Ebro are part of the ‘Caminos Naturales de Ebro,’ or the natural trails of the Ebro river. It is a great way to see lots for practically nothing cost wise. When I was there is was clear that the heavy rains were borderline too much, and much of the rivers banks were flooding over some of the closer riverbank trails. I should note that there is another very cool Roman bridge on the way to Briñas over the Río Ebro, it is called the Puente de Briñas.

The town of Briñas is quite striking and reminded me of a my own hometown in NY, however this town was in fact much smaller. There was a sense of decay in some places though because like so many places in Northern Spain, half of the houses are only used in the summers. I rather liked this town though and the charm of the snowy peaks and red clay fields of grape vines is truly lovely to take in. After exploring the handful of streets the following morning, I decided to head out to the ‘Caminos Naturales’ and follow the ‘Ruta Hondón,’ or the Hondón route. The shape of the river meanders from Haro around a large peninsula and then passes by Briñas. This particular route essentially encircles the peninsula and leads you back to Haro where I could grab my new train to Vitoria-Gasteiz. This mid-morning hike of approximately 8 kilometers was probably one of my favorite parts of the entire trip due to its serenity. There were no people out and about, only a few birds flying about picking at left over grapes. I myself tried a few grapes that I spied, and let me tell you they were bitter! My guess is that they go frozen, but it was a must to complete my wine tasting experience.  

As I wrapped up my hike the trail naturally brought me back into town where I detoured to explore the center plaza and a church, called the Parroquía de Santo Tomás. The town center was larger than Briñas but still not all that large. I did enjoy how all the while I made my way there I was gaining elevation since the town sits on a knoll above the Río Ebro. The church was beautifully crafted inside, and the admission of 2 euros was for donation purposes. I happened to arrive at the same time a tour group that was about to climb the belltower, so they let me join them and I got to go up into the attic of the church. This was really cool because the attic is actually the space between the peak of the church building and the domes that one sees from below inside. A truly unique point of view it was and it has led me to appreciate even more all the hard work that went into crafting such buildings. From there, I descended the knoll towards the train station, and enjoyed a light lunch amidst falling rain drops. 

 
Vitoria-Gasteiz — Monday afternoon to Tuesday midmorning 

Vitoria-Gasteiz is actually in the el País Vasco region, but the ride from Haro to Vitoria-Gasteiz is not too long at about an hour and half with a train switch in the middle. Upon arriving it was an easy 15 minute walk to the hostel I was staying at, Hostal del Arquitecto. This was one of the most adorable hostels I have ever stayed at and is perfectly located in the city center for a fair price. The hostel is on the second floor of the oldest house in the city and the owner JM is the most sincere person you could meet. Everything was super clean, affordable, well organized, and beautifully laid out with mini interior window seats overlooking the streets below in each room. I would absolutely recommend this as a place to stay! I was in a 4-bed room, with two other people and they were essentially never there when I was. JM gave me a detailed run down of the best places to visit, eat as a vegetarian, and walk around. 

One of the best sights to see in the city is the Gothic style Katedrala de Santa Maria, or the Santa Maria Cathedral, which boasts a very tall belltower with guided tours. (*Side Note: In the Basque Country they also have another language, Euskara, so some words are written in this form not Castilian Spanish.) For some reason I had tried to purchase an entrance ticket in advance but was not successful. Although, when I went to the office and explained my situation they printed me a ticket right away and got me in for the 6 p.m. tour. They were super friendly and given that I used my Carné Joven Europeo or European Youth Card, I only paid 7 euros for a personalised hour long guided tour. This card is completely free and painless to obtain. A few weeks back I went to the Madrid Moncloa Youth office and I was done in 15 minutes, so if you are under 30 years old I would definitely go and get one! Something interesting that I learned during my tour was that “la enfermedad crónica de todas de las iglesias es la humedad.” In other words, the chronic sickness of all churches is humidity. That is especially true in the el País Vasco due to the purely moist air year round. The cathedral only allows guided tours due to the fact that it has had ongoing renovations throughout the last century due to the negative effect humidity has had on the churches structure. 

Aside from my cathedral visit, I saw loads of street art murals, as well as a rainbow through a misting sunshine opening in the sky. The city is very pleasant overall with lots of smaller sights, and cute bars on the streets between the hostel where I stayed and the church I toured. If you follow where some of the original city walls are you can even find a fully intact draw bridge gate just like something you might see on a movie! About this time I decided to eat dinner at a restaurant called Restuarante El 7, where I had some awesome patatas bravas, a type of saucy potatoes. It was not a bad place, but it was super busy so I did have to wait for a bit. 

The next morning I packed up my backpack and went on the hunt for a bustling cafe where I could eat breakfast before catching my late morning train. I happened upon one not too far from the station, called Velvet Bakery, which had scrumptious cupcakes, cookies, pastries, smoothies, and coffees. I would suggest coming here if you are craving an extra yummy breakfast! Departing the station I had about a three and half hour ride through the region of Castilla y León back to Madrid. 

Did you know?? -- Vitoria-Gasteiz is considered to be the city in Spain with the              highest quality of life. 

 

Concluding Thoughts

Overall, I really felt well prepared for this journey to La Rioja but that is only because I packed and wore lots of layers to prepare myself for the damp December weather. Hence, if you are planning on doing a similar trip to the Northern part of Spain you would be wise to do the same! This was a super well planned out trip but I did feel that in a few places I was a little heavy with time, so perhaps adding in one other smaller town or city to visit could make this trip a ten out of ten.

Now it is also important to note that I spent almost nothing, approximately 50 euros, on my entrances and food because I brought enough food with me for the first day and a half, plus some other snacks, but obviously if you prefer not to do that then you would have greater expenses. Additionally I purchased all of my hostels through Booking.com, as I have found it to be the best for comparing prices and easily scoping out what a hostel may offer. As I have said before, I swear by hostels because I have found that they take your dollar a lot further so you are able to do more for less! For my train and bus transportation I used a combination of the travel site Omio, and the Spanish train site Renfe.

Even though I spent a good amount of time wandering about the grape vine fields, I fully believe that I could spend more because it was such an authentic, peaceful, and unique experience. If you have a car or want to take several bus rides, the other parts of La Rioja are just stunning so I have heard. The winding rivers, twisting mountain ranges, and dewey air make the La Rioja region an excellent sight seeing location that I would without a doubt encourage one to visit if you find yourself in Spain! 

~ The_Traveling_Guapa

Don’t forget to check out my other great travel tips!

  1. Budgeting: Where To Stay & How To Get There
  2. Plan Ahead: Do More & Worry Less
  3. Minimize: Pack Lighter & Smarter
  4. Be Smart, Vigilant & Observant


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GASTEIZ

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