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Rioja | Taste of History

Religious pilgrims have come to Rioja for centuries. But today some pilgrims are motivated by a different faith: in the region's wine and food.

In the midst of the ancient wine region of Rioja, a narrow road, running deep between two small hills, links the hamlet of Peciña to the high cliff that houses the town of San Vicente de la Sonsierra. On each hill is a stone construction: To the right, facing San Vicente, squats a dolmen, a tomb built by prehistoric man; to the left crouches a much-restored Romanesque church, founded in the early twelfth century by Infante Ramiro Sánchez on his return from the First Crusade and named Santa María de la Piscina after the Pool of Bethesda in Jerusalem. Both these monuments are perfect symbols of the area's spiritual landscape: Between the two lie thousands of years of religious search.

"You should come here for Easter," said Mariola Sáez Monje, the manager of Casa Toni in San Vicente, "to see the picaos." The picaos (the ones who are pierced) are members of the Cofradía de la Santa Vera Cruz, a religious brotherhood who, for the past several centuries, on Holy Thursday and Good Friday, parade down the narrow streets of San Vicente in white robes and hoods, whipping their bare backs with tightly braided ropes. Then the penitents' welts are pricked by other members of the brotherhood, in memory of Christ's Passion.

Fortunately for me, the manager at Toni did not describe any gruesome religious ceremonies as she served me foie gras in phyllo with a beet-and-red-onion marmalade. The rabbit ribs--dipped in bread crumbs and garlic, then fried--were a copper color; the warm almond cake, oozing hot frangipane, had a fiery blush. Like most Riojan dishes, its simplicity was astonishing: It seemed like any sauce would be an unwarranted indulgence. The wine was from San Vicente itself, a 1998 Sonsierra Crianza with a faint hint of sweetness.

I passed through San Vicente as I drove around western Rioja (called Rioja Alta; the other two sections are Rioja Alavesa and Rioja Baja) from Santo Domingo de la Calzada, with its stunning medieval cathedral, to the wine villages of Laguardia, Haro and Casalarreina, with hardly a tourist in sight. Both the spiritual rawness and the harsh, rocky landscape of red clay, on which the patchwork of green vineyards and clumps of yellow trees seem like intrusions from another world, justify the echoes of the region's name. Rioja, though named after the river Oja, conjures up in Spanish the word roja, "red," its emblematic color. From ocher to burgundy, blood seems to have touched everything here: the earth, the houses, the faces, the rituals, the sunsets, the meat, the wine. Everywhere a certain ruddiness appears to burn from within.

The starkness of the landscape lends life in Rioja a feeling of remoteness but, paradoxically, provokes in the traveler a sense not of distancing but rather of intimacy, an obligation to pause and reflect. Unlike some of Spain's more extroverted places that burst in loud colors with a raucous nightlife, Rioja requires a measured concentration.

Creativity in Rioja is sober: The Romanesque style, visible everywhere, is less finely detailed than its French counterpart, the literature (Rioja boasts the first poet to write in vernacular Spanish, the thirteenth-century Gonzalo de Berceo) less given to metaphor and flights of fancy. Equally, its cuisine, though delicious, is far from the elaborate dishes of other parts of Spain. Instead of the delicate seafood you find along the coast of Basque country to the north, you'll more commonly find pork stews (such as chorizo and potatoes in a tomato sauce) in the winter and grilled lamb in the summer, since there are many pig and sheep farms in the Riojan countryside. Perhaps the seasonal routines of winemakers and farmers and the simple needs of pilgrims have contributed to this plainness—what could be called "companionable," a quality Berceo ascribed to the vernacular in which he had chosen to write, instead of the learned Latin of his day. He described it as a language "which the people use normally with their neighbors"—worthy, added this son of Rioja, "of a good glass of good wine."

Wine, of course, is Rioja's best-known treasure. According to legend, the first vines were brought here by a nephew of Noah's who, after the Flood, planted them by the banks of the river Oja, giving rise to the several Riojan vintages known to the Romans and later to the hosts of pilgrims who, since the Middle Ages, have crossed the land on their way to the Galician shrine of Santiago de Compostela. But Rioja's great wines are far more recent. In the 1840s, problems with powdery mildew caused Bordeaux producers to look to Spain for marketable wine, leading to Rioja's first modern-day winery, Marqués de Riscal, in 1850, near Laguardia.

Some of the most memorable towns I found by chance along the winding roads near Laguardia and Haro. The tiny village of Ábalos, just east of San Vicente, encapsulates the essence of quiet Rioja: There is nothing to do here except stroll along the narrow streets, inspect the splendid Church of San Esteban, enter the delightful curate's garden that overlooks the vineyards below, sit at a café and sip a glass from the neighboring Bodegas de la Real Divisa, one of Europe's oldest wineries, founded in 1367. Ábalos also has a comfortable bed-and-breakfast, the Villa de Ábalos, in a refurbished seventeenth-century manor with large, airy stables that now lodge the breakfast room.

Exploring the area south of Rioja's capital, Logroño, I got lost on one of the smaller roads and ended up climbing to fantastic heights along a seemingly endless spiral. Suddenly, above the sprawling valley of lobster-pink earth streaked with vineyards there rose a wall that seemed to grow out of the prehistoric rocks, as if erected long before human habitation. It turned out to be the ruins of a medieval castle that once protected the hamlet of Clavijo, invisible until the last winding turn. According to local lore, it was here in the Middle Ages that Santiago Matamoros ("Saint James the Moor Killer") came to the rescue of King Ramiro I in his battle against the Arabs, who had come to collect their tribute of 100 Christian maidens.

Clavijo is minuscule, with a Baroque chapel that commemorates Santiago's deliverance, a Romanesque church with an elegant steeple, an open court for playing pelota vasca (Basque handball) and a cluster of stone houses, one bearing the name Casa Tila. This country guesthouse, with some six rooms and a tiny restaurant of seven tables, is run by a young, enterprising couple: Iñaki Gutiérrez López, the chef, is from Basque country; his wife, Maricruz Pérez, serves as manager and waitress and grew up in Valladolid. They discovered Clavijo by chance in 1998 and felt they had to stay—it was "as if a spell had been cast on us," said Pérez.

The food they serve is Riojan in its simplicity: fried mushrooms stuffed with ham, grated peppers and carrots; tiny fried green peppers, shaped like chile peppers but much milder; cecina, a brick-red smoked and cured beef; grilled lamb chops (the lamb must be nine months to a year old and have begun to graze; otherwise, according to López, "the people of Rioja find the meat lacks flavor").

Traveling farther south, I stopped next at the splendidly preserved medieval village of Santo Domingo de la Calzada. Santo Domingo is impossible to bypass: It has drawn both religious and secular interest ever since its namesake, an eleventh-century saint, miraculously restored the life of a youth who had been hanged on false charges. The governor, disbelieving the resurrection, pointed to a brace of roast fowl on his table and said sarcastically, "No doubt he's as alive as these two birds on my plate"—at which point the birds supposedly stood up, sprouted feathers and sang. In memory of the event, a live hen and a rooster are kept on display in a cage in the cathedral.

Rioja's wine, the food, the dignified architecture, the red landscape are certainly astonishing. Yet they remain mysterious, of an elusive quality that few seem to seek out, a haunting flavor not easily defined. Beyond the national highways, the country roads are deserted. Restaurants can nearly always accommodate a last-minute customer, and hotels (except the celebrated paradors) never appear to be full. A flock of sheep may block the road for a long, fleecy moment; a burst of swallows above the church steeple may suddenly invade your privacy; a gaggle of wizened, black-robed village folk may stare at you as you pass through a cluster of shuttered houses, seemingly from the mystical days of the knight Rodrigo. In these globalized times, when so little can surprise us, Rioja's passionate intimacy stands out as a small miracle.

Alberto Manguel is the author, most recently, of Reading Pictures: A History of Love and Hate.

Published October 2002
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