Holidays in Spain
Eimear Phelan gets off the tapas trail in La Rioja and discovers the hidden treasures of the north of Spain.
Ever wanted to be in a period drama? LaGuardia is your first step.
Once you pass through the gates of this completely walled town, the sound of cars fades and you are transported back in time. You can feel the history in the narrow streets and half doors of the houses.
Spend a few hours there, enjoying the slow pace of life. Have a drink in one of the many bars and try Bizcocho, a sponge cake made with olive oil, with your coffee as you admire one of the most beautiful towns in Spain.
But before you leave, make sure to walk out the main gate and take in the vineyard covered landscape for an experience that cannot be forgotten.
Make your way further south to the small town of Anguiano and walk across (drive if you dare) the “Oh Jesus” bridge. Peek over the side to see the dizzying drop below that perfectly explains its name.
While you are there ask about Nuño’s cave. The robber bandit, Nuño, used to hide out in the cave overlooking the town before he found God. You can climb the mountain and enter the cave if you can get a local to point you to the right road. It’s a moderately difficult hike, but so worth if for the beautiful view.
Just be careful you don’t run into any cows, who like to shelter in the cave.
Follow Nuño’s footsteps and continue up the valley to the monastery of Valvanera. The drive up is tough. The road is tucked into the cliffside and perched precariously above the valley below. Rocks can fall and the turns are tight but once you see the monastery rise out of the mist you’ll see why it was worth it.
In the spring you are greeted with lush green trees waking up from their winter sleep. But in autumn the trees don their festive colours and it’s a riot of oranges and reds and yellows. The monastery is surrounded by mountains on all sides and the silence of the forest makes it seem like the whole world is holding its breath.
Sleep the soundest sleep of your life, nestled in the calm clean air of the mountains. A sip of the famous Valvanera liquor will help you on your way. Made out of a secret blend of mountain grasses and herbs, it seems to be the elixir of life, considering how young the monks look. Designed to be sipped, it gives you a warm burn on the way down followed by a lovely fragrant aftertaste.
Head back down to Trico, a picturesque roman town perched above the surrounding towns. Have a drink in the only bar and try the local delicacy, snails. Don’t forget to have a drink in the fountain de la Virgin, but beware, its waters are said to make you pregnant...
If you can resist visiting LaGuardia again, another beautiful sight is the castle of San Vicente. A baron of the local town, his castle was an ostentatious show of wealth. It’s now a ruin and an undiscovered treasure.
Climb up the hill and explore the castle from inside. Peek out through the turret windows and take a picnic to try out the royal lifestyle looking out over some of the most famous vines in La Rioja.
With the average price of a glass of wine in La Rioja being €2 it's difficult to go too far over budget. Usually, a three-course menu (including wine) will cost under €20 per person.
But if you are determined to go luxurious, treat yourself to dinner in LaGuardia. It’s one of the most beautiful towns in Spain. Tapas (called pintxos) are a little more expensive than other places and dinner could go up to about €30 per person.
For a local speciality, try Patatas con Chorizo (like a potato stew with chorizo) or Caparrones (like a rich red bean stew with meat). Make sure to leave room for Bizcocho...
Fly into Bilbao or Vitoria airport. Ryanair (ryanair.com) and Aer Lingus (aerlingus.com) fly direct to Bilbao from Dublin twice a week. Flying into Vitoria means a stop in Stansted. There are many car rental options in both Bilbao and Vitoria.
Glitches? Wi-Fi isn’t great in La Rioja and getting to Valvanera is difficult (if worth it). Download your maps before you get to Spain and use your location while offline to avoid roaming fees. Also, try to brush up on you Spanish before you get there. English isn’t great in the small towns. But if all else fails, remember pointing and smiling are universal.
Always ask for Crianza if you are ordering wine anywhere. It’s usually a very drinkable two-year-old wine and relatively inexpensive. If you just ask for white or red you could end up with the Vino del Año which is the newest wine and can be a little bitter.