Rioja wine region is divided into Rioja Alavesa (Basque Country), Rioja Alta (La Rioja) and Rioja Baja (La Rioja and Navarre). It´s mostly small family wineries, but of course there are also some big ones among them too. A visit to a winery in Rioja is always a delightful experiences, as you spend at least a couple of hours learning how they´ve been making wine during centuries. No wine bars like in Napa valley…it´s a much more enriching experience.
Medieval tower in Labraza, where time passes slowly
But there´s more to Basque Rioja than wine. When you drive along the roads surrounded by vineyards, you will for sure find a beautiful medieval town on your way. Or several prehistoric monuments, like dolmens and funerary burial sites. Or incredible churches that keep inside amazing altarpieces. Or a walled town, just where lied the borders of the ancient kingdoms of Castile and Navarre. Or maybe just a town with nothing special on it but full of flavor and a particular relaxing atmosphere, where one of its neighbors may invite you to his place for a homemade meal.
Dolmen of the Sorceress, in Elvillar
Next time you´re there, don´t forget to visit walled Laguardia and the façade of Santa María de los Reyes (a must), Labastida and its fortressed church, medieval Labraza surrounded by nothing but vineyards, Samaniego, Lapuebla de Labarca, Baños de Ebro, Kripán, Elvillar, Elciego and the Marqués de Riscal winery (designed by Frank Gehry, the Guggenheim arquitect)…you´ll find a lovely atmosphere in places where the path of time seems to be slower than in the rest of the world…
Fortress church in Labastida, Basque Rioja, and Marqués de Riscal Winery in Elciego,Rioja Alavesa
This monastery is located near the town of Bolibar (yes, Simón Bolivar the liberator of the Spanish colonies in South America had his ancestors here), belonging to Markina-Xemein (a beautiful but unknown town, where the University of Jai-Alai-Basque pelota- is located). The building is not magnificent, I´d say it´s humble and appropriate for praying and silence…but it is surrounded by a most beautiful scenery, green meadows and valleys, one after the other, and by the magnificent mountains of the Basque Country. It´s open to visitors and it´s also a hospice, where you can rest and share the meditative life of the monks. For more info, http://monasteriozenarruza.net/, available in English and other languages.
You have surely heard of the Catholic order of the Jesuits, as they are present all over the world. But I´m sure you didn´t know that the founder was born in 1491 in the heart of the Basque Country, in Azpeitia. Iñigo de Loyola (born Iñigo, a Basque name, that he changed later to Ignacio), of a noble family and educated in the best manner, soon became a soldier serving the King of Castile. In 1521 he was injured while battling in Pamplona, and retired to his fortress in the valley of Loiola, near Azpeitia and Azkoitia. During his long recovery he got used to reading religious books, that made him rethink his whole life. Once recovered, he started a life of sanctity that led him to the foundation of the Jesuit order, probably the most influential in the history of the Catholic church.
The 18th century basilica is located in a beautiful valley, surrounded by a park full of trees and by the Urola river that flows through the mountainous scenery. As you can see by the pictures, it´s a magnificent but at the same time a modest building, with a great dome covered in baroque paintings and designs. On its left hand side you can visit the birthplace of San Ignacio de Loyola, a.k.a. Iñigo de Loyola, that has been beautifully restored to its original state. You can visit both buildings, and in the fortress tower you can see the rooms as they were in the 16th century.
Right by the Basilica (or Sanctuary) there´s a nice, cozy hotel and some rural housings, as well as fine restaurants, in an atmosphere surprisingly almost tourist free. The valley offers very interesting visits, like the Ferrería de Mirandaola (Ironmongery) in theIron Valley or the town of Idiazabal, where the world famous Idiazabal sheep cheese is made (also, the Cheese Museum deserves a visit).
The sanctuary of Arantzazu is an oddity in the world of monasteries. A franciscan monastery for the past 500 years, it´s located on the steep road that leads to the highest mountain in the Basque Country, Aitzgorri (Red Rock, in Basque). The legend says that the shepherd Rodrigo de Balzategui saw an image of the Virgin Mary hidden in a thorn tree…and he exclaimed “Arantzan zu!!”, that means “You in the thorn”, in Basque. Thousands of Basque women are called Arantzazu or Arantxa following the name of the Virgin of Arantzazu. The franciscans built the monastery on the mountain, and in 1954 they decided to build a new one, after several fires had severely damaged the building. The “new” monastery is spectacular, perched on the rocky slope leading to the Urbia meadows on the way to Aitzgorri, there´s a visitor´s centre and a hotel, and the inside offers the remotest idea you´d have about a monastery. The walls are painted, there are poems and sayings, and it looks quite “70´s modern”. Outside, on the front wall, 13 apostles (yes, thirteen), or some figures that look like them.
Down, the town of Oñate (Oñati, in Basque). You can´t miss the University, founded in the XVI century, and the first one in the Basque Country, that closed in 1901. Also, its magnificent church, crossed by the river, that can be seen from inside the church. The rest of the town is also full of magnificent buildings and it´s well worth a visit. Nearby, the famous cider houses, Idiazabal cheese farms,…