Luxury and history meet in the hotels of Spain's La Rioja wine region

PUBLISHED : Friday, 08 May, 2015, 6:06am
UPDATED : Friday, 08 May, 2015, 6:06am

Just beyond the expanse of glass windows at the Castillo El Collado, a historically rich luxury hotel in the city of La Rioja in northern Spain, a blazing orange ball of a sun slips behind the mountains and a violet haze descends upon the valley.

Time is relative here, and the hours of the day are delineated by sensory impressions. Morning is the smell of freshly baked bread and the crow of a rooster; afternoon, the feel of the broiling sun on one's back; nighttime, the sound of clicking castanets and the silky taste of a rich red wine.

Nowhere is this timelessness more apparent than in La Rioja. The smallest of Spain's 17 regions, La Rioja attracted, at various times, Celts, Romans, Visigoths, Muslims and Christians, all of whom left their mark.

Lying in the shadows of the Pyrenees, the mountain range that separates Spain from France, La Rioja is split in two: Rioja Alta (Upper Rioja) is mountainous and humid, while Rioja Baja (Lower Rioja) is flat and has a Mediterranean climate. But the two have one thing in common - together, they constitute Spain's most prolific wine-producing region.

Here, in the basin of the River Ebro, in an area 130km long and 50km wide, are 500 wineries, or as they are known in Spain, bodegas. Upper and Lower Rioja, along with adjacent Rioja Alavesa in the Basque country, have been producing Spain's premier (mostly) red wines since the Middle Ages when monks doubled as the first winemakers.

La Rioja's bodegas are not always available to tourists who just happen by. Many are open by appointment only, and a visit requires some previous knowledge and planning, especially if you require an English-speaking guide. But for those determined to stop and sip, a few bodegas are open to the public on a regular basis. Bodegas Muga, located near the city of Haro in Upper Rioja, is perhaps the best known, although Bodegas Palacio and Bodegas Ontanon in Lower Rioja are also worth a visit.

These delicious, full-bodied vintages can be sampled at the region's restaurants, from Haro's tapas bars to the magnificent Landa Palace in nearby Burgos, where the speciality of the house is prime Spanish beef.

This is an area rich in the history of 10 centuries, and visitors won't lack for interesting sites between wine tastings. One of the most interesting is San Millan de la Cogolla in the Cardenas River valley of Upper Rioja. It was here that the 6th century hermit, San Millan, a Benedictine monk, was said to have appeared, like St James the Apostle, on a white horse to defend the Christians from the Moors.

It is home to two important monasteries, Suso and Yuso, both Unesco World Heritage Sites. Suso, carved into the mountain to guard the cave where the holy hermit dwelt, is hidden from view and can be accessed by shuttle from the valley floor. In addition to its connection with San Millan, it was here that the Spanish language originated, as monks recorded the first written words in both the Castillian and Basque languages.

The second monastery, Yuso, dominates the valley below. Founded in the 11th century, it now houses the relics of the saint. Visitors will marvel at the magnificent Gothic cloister and the collection of ivory figures which depict scenes from the life of San Millan.

Perhaps of even more historical significance is the 11th century town of Santo Domingo de la Calzada. A major station on the Way of St James, the road to Spain's most revered shrine, Santiago de Compostela, the town grew up around an inn built by Saint Dominic (Santo Domingo) to shelter and feed pilgrims en route to the shrine.

Directly across from the inn is the Gothic cathedral, site of one of the venerable saint's miracles. A chaste young pilgrim, on his way to the shrine at Santiago de Compostela, attracted the attention of a lusty serving girl at the inn. Angered when he rebuffed her advances, she planted a silver goblet among his possessions and betrayed him to the local official.

As the punishment for theft was death, the innocent pilgrim was hanged. But when his grieving parents arrived at the gallows, they found him very much alive, proclaiming that Santo Domingo, knowing of his innocence, had saved his life. Overjoyed, they rushed to the house of the official, who was sitting down to dinner, to tell him of the miracle.

Incredulous, the official scornfully replied that the young pilgrim was as alive as the roast cock and hen he was about to partake of, whereupon the two birds leapt from the plate and began crowing and clucking.

To this day, a live rooster and hen are kept inside the cathedral as testament to the power of miracles.

Sleeping in a medieval castle or a stately palace, or lodging in a cloistered abbey, where ghostly Gregorian chants echo your footsteps, may seem like something out of a romance novel, but visitors to Spain find it easily accomplished.

The government operates a network of 94 paradors throughout Spain - guest accommodation in some of its most historically significant buildings, from mansions to monasteries. The La Rioja region has two of the most exquisite of these historic jewels - the Santo Domingo de la Calzada in the town of the same name and Parador De Argomaniz in the hamlet of Argomaniz.

In La Rioja, you can not only walk in the footsteps of those who shaped Spain's history, you can also sleep in their beds.