La Rioja

I’ve finally looked through the pictures Andrew took our last month in Spain. I enjoyed seeing our memories, laughing about how Andrew had a mini-afro most of the year that I love or how I felt anxious, annoyed or exhilarated at the time a frame was snapped. Looking through the scenes of our reality only a few short months ago makes me sad, too, though. I miss our relatively stress free life and all the time Andrew and I had to travel and spend together. I think my feelings of nostalgia have been accentuated by our transition to Knoxville, which has been bumpier (for me, at least) than I’d originally anticipated.

Our last hurrah in Spain was in true Andrew form. Always ready to seize any excuse needed to rent a car and hit the open road, the necessity of Fedex-ing home our belongings from the Madrid Airport Fedex office turned into a four night trip to a few spots he had been dreaming about fitting into our Auxiliar year.

We started off in La Rioja, a beautiful region that shares history and culture with both the Basque Country and Castilla and is known for producing some of the great robust red wines of Spain. While many vino-aficionados have surely tried a fruity vino de la rioja, most tourists overlook visiting this northern region. My introduction to La Rioja, incidentally, took place in the deep south of Spain, in Granada. Quite timidly and still unsure of culinary terminology in Spanish, I ordered a “vino rojo” in a tapas bar near the plaza de toros. (I later learned if you want to order a glass of red wine in Spain, ask loudly and boldly for “un vino tinto!”) The server glared at me and repeated, “un rioja?” Terrified of incurring her wrath on our entire table, I blurted “¡Si, por favor!,” as though that was exactly what I’d said, how dare she question me?! She proceeded to serve me a delicious, easy-to-drink glass of wine and I mentally noted that one day I’d have to visit the place where “un rioja” is made.

Before venturing to the hotel the first evening, we made a quick pit stop in the picturesque wine town of Briones to stretch our legs. After a quick spin, we continued on to the hotel and discovered we were ravenous. Thankfully, we found one open bar that seemed to be serving tapas and devoured sardine filets served atop a toasty piece of baguette and drizzled with olive oil. Making the meal even more tasty was the fact that the barman showed a true interest in us and shared a little bit about himself as well. It is our tried and true travel experience that the fewer tourists a town or region sees, the more friendly and welcoming the locals will be toward visitors (this is why we often visit places you’ve likely never heard of: Andrew hates crowds and tourist traps).

The following day we briefly toured Logroño, the capitol of La Rioja. Another majestic Spanish city, largely forgotten and well worth more time than we allowed. Make sure to indulge in a tapa or two in Logroño. Most bars serve a killer “champi” concoction, made of grilled button mushrooms, piled on a crusty heel of country bread and smothered with some sort of “champi” white sauce. Watch out for the sauce; I managed to destroy my travel pants for the trip with the milky, oily substance. Well worth it for such a delicacy though! If you are interested in visiting wineries and participating in tours and tastings, I’d recommend scheduling those ahead of time. We found most places that offered tours to be booked or not open on the day we happened to be available to taste.

The highlight of our adventure to La Rioja was a tour of the Yuso monastery, which is tucked in a valley behind rolling green hills and fields of wheat. Famous for being the birthplace of the Spanish language, we decided that we would take part in a guided tour for a change. Led entirely in Spanish by a witty guide, I would recommend the tour to any Spanish speaker nerdy enough to be interested. Most impressive were the huge, animal skin bound books filled with ancient Gregorian chants.

To finish off our day, we ate fried calamari rings and took a quick nap next to a creek in the small town of Nájera. Located on the Camino de Santiago, we spent our time eating on the terrace watching the pilgrims trickle in from a long, weary day of walking and imagined when we, too, will set off from Saint Jean Pied de Port in France on the famous 500 mile trek through Northern Spain.


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