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Navarra and Rioja, combining culture and wine
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Navarra and Rioja, combining culture and wine

Spain is hot! No, not temperature-wise (unless you travel in July or August), but as a new/old destination. When we think of traveling to Spain, we often think of Madrid, Barcelona, Catalonia, Andalusia, the many “Costa” and beaches, and – to a lesser degree – Galicia. However, Navarra and Rioja are often ignored as vacation spots, even though they have a lot to offer.

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Navarra, in northeastern Spain, was for many centuries a small independent kingdom, and an important player in history. As a semi-autonomous province, it now preserves plenty of that independent feeling. It is stuffed with things to see, from the awe-inspiring Pyrenees to castled plains and sun-drenched wine-country. The principal route of the pilgrims to Santiago de Compostela – the Camino Francés – crosses Navarra from east to west and has left some of Spain’s finest religious architecture.

In the midst of it all is Pamplona, a pleasant town which goes crazy for nine days in July for the Fiesta de los Sanfermines, of which the most famous event is the daily Running of the Bulls (Encierro), made famous by Hemingway. It is difficult to describe just how big this party is! The eating options in Pamplona are plentiful, yet I can definitely recommend an evening of Tapas (here called Pintxo: pronounced as Pinchos) as you hop from bar to bar.

Puente La Reina is a small town along the Way of St. James (i.e. the Camino), and a good place to stop for lunch. Not only does it have a couple of interesting pilgrim churches and many restaurants (BTW, often you will first need to wrestle your way through the bar in order to make it to the restaurant, so you may as well have a drink on your way in), but it also has a remarkably well-preserved Romanesque hump-backed bridge spanning the Rio Arga. It was built in the late 11th century by orders of the queen to ensure the safe river crossing of the pilgrims.

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The wines of Navarra are centered on the town of Olite. One of the oldest towns in Navarra, it was founded and fortified by the Romans. It wasn’t until the 12th century that the town began to rise to prominence. Olite became a favorite of the Navarrese monarchs and a palace was built, incorporating what remained of the Roman fortifications. This palace is now a Parador, which means it has been turned into a historical hotel. Various bodegas (wineries) are located in and around the town, such as Ochoa (my favorite), Piedemonte and Marco Real.

Rioja, just south-east of Navarra, is known above all for its red wines (even though part of the wine denomination falls in Basque Country). Also Rioja was given semi-autonomous status. The name of this province is derived from the Ro Oja, a tributary of the Ebro River. The Ebro runs down a shallow valley of enormous fertility, which also produces top quality cereal, fruits and vegetables, especially in the Rioja Baja. Riojan dishes include giant asparagus, hearty stews of white beans, large roasts of goat and lamb, perfected with a bottle of local red.

The provincial town of Haro (in the Rioja Alta) is the effective grape capital. If you are a wine aficionado, you will want to visit the wine museum. The family-owned Muga winery accepts visitors on a daily basis.

To end this blog on a spiritual note of a different dimension, let me mention the town of Santo Domingo de la Calzada. Born in 1019, Domingo dedicated his life to the pilgrims who were passing through the area. Here he built a hospital, a bridge and a road, around which a town then grew which would eventually bear his name. The cathedral is the town’s centerpiece. The most curious “object” in the cathedral is a live rooster and hen which are kept in a cage in memory of a miracle said to have occurred in Santo Domingo, when a roasted chicken stood up from a platter, and, fully feathered, crowed aloud to testify the innocence of a pilgrim who had been unjustly accused of theft and had been hung. He too was found to be alive, and was immediately released. Pilgrims still collect the bird’s white feathers!

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