La Rioja: Farms and Vineyards Along the Pilgrimage Route

by Don Harris | January 2010

I find my spirit renewed each time I wend my way along the valley of the great Río Ebro as it flows through La Rioja. It nourishes fertile valleys, rolling hills, vineyards and dense forests. I am sure that many of you have enjoyed some of the most celebrated wines of Spain which are the fruit of her soil. Centuries ago it was the natural gateway through Spain for the Romans on the way to their colony of Tarragona on the Mediterranean coast. 

What I find most fascinating, however, is how this profoundly rural culture was transformed into an almost cosmopolitan repository of the European culture beginning in the early the Middle Ages. That is because both the Ebro River and also the ancient pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela, known as the Camino de Santiago, flow across these lands.

It it here that I continuously discover the essence of Spain as my wife Ruth and I wend our way through the villages and hamlets which were part of a vast network of spiritual and physical support. They were founded to serve the tens of thousands of pilgrims who streamed across La Rioja from all corners of Northern Europe and the Mediterranean basin, heading to Santiago de Compostela, hundreds of miles to the northwest. 

They were all sorts and conditions of men – some were craftsmen, sculptors, architects, and we find it enjoyable to discover their artistry expressed in the work they contributed to local churches as they passed through the towns. The hospitals and monasteries also benefited. Interestingly enough, over the past thirty years or so there has been a great influx of modern pilgrims, once more bringing prosperity to the towns. 

We have been stopping by these villages for years: we have stayed in Logroño where St Francis of Assisi laid his head. There is even a statue of wolves that he calmed – thereby protecting the villagers. Nájera has a royal pantheon within Santa María la Rea, a church built into a cave where tradition hold that miracles occurred. I like the "Cloister de los Caballeros," because there are so many tombs of noblemen there. In many cases the carved reclining figure of the nobleman has a faithful dog sleeping at his feet. 

I still have a snapshot of my eldest son Tim when he was about four years old walking with a herd of sheep led by a shepherd. They passed through town down one of the main streets. Tim now has two young boys of his own. It is quite a magical place.

Probably the most crucial town is Clavijo. All that remains is a castle overlooking the fertile valley from its dramatic location high on a hill. Here in this valley the legendary battle of Clavijo occurred in 844 AD. As the ferocious battle unfolded, St. James (Santiago) himself appeared in a white tunic, on a white horse. He bore a while flag emblazoned with a red cross and inspired the Christians to rout the Moors. King Romero in gratitude for the saint’s intervention vowed each year to bring to the site the first of the harvest from the fields and vineyards.

La Rioja cuisine is simple and straight forward, using lots of local vegetables: peppers, garlic, onions, artichokes, asparagus, lettuce, and various greens. We enjoy stopping by a local venta to savor some of their hearty stews which are often made with a base of fava beans. Some of the beans are incorporated in the stews before they have been completely dried. The result is that they are more receptive to absorb the flavor of ham, fowl, or especially Riojan chorizo, which is made in just about every mountain village.

My taste favors lamb stews. Probably lamb was especially incorporated in the diet during the domination of the Moors in centuries past. Pigs have always lived side by side with the Christian people of La Rioja, and ham has been a prominent part of their diet.

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