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Paint the town red in La Rioja | Activity Holidays | Travel | Express.co.uk

The region’s untouristy capital Logroño (Image: THEPALMER/GETTY)

“DON’T look too closely and don’t ask what it is until after you’ve tasted it,” says Federico, a tapas aficionado and my guide for the evening. I glimpse at the plate of what looks like a flat, meaty wafer, take a bolstering swig of wine and tentatively pop a piece in my mouth.

“It’s pig face,” he says with a grin. “Or careta de cerdo, to use its [more palatable] Catalan name.” It’s like a very thin, very crisp pork crackling, and as long as I don’t make eye contact, I’d happily polish off the lot.

I’m in Logroño, the beautiful, boozy and blissfully untouristy capital of La Rioja region, a city so steeped in winemaking history that when it rains I’d bet good money it has a rougey tint. I’m on a wine and tapas tour of the old town, where almost 50 tapas and wine bars crammed into four narrow streets form a fabulous foodie bar crawl.

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It’s 9pm and the cobbled medieval streets are buzzing. “Tapa means lid or cap, and was originally just a piece of bread or a slice of jamón popped on top of your wine glass to keep out the fruit flies,” explains Federico. But over the years, tapas has really upped its game and is now a culinary emblem of Spain. In Logroño, the scene is reinforced by reasonably priced, superb Riojan wines.

Thankfully, I’ve worn elasticated trousers because next up is El Rincón de Alberto, a long, narrow bar with stone beams, where I meet chef-proprietor Alberto as he carves soft, sweet jamón Ibérico from a tanned, porcine leg perched daintily on the bar.

Alberto’s speciality is seafood and with a flourish he serves up a fat, purple and white octopus tentacle brought in fresh from Galicia. Almost a foot long, it’s boiled until tender then chargrilled and served with pink wine salt and olive oil. It is magnificent. But before I can work my way through the other seven tentacles, Federico whisks me off to our next stop.

From the cheerful crowd gathering outside Bar Ángel, a rather unassuming hole-inthe-wall, including a gang of cheery stags in sailor suits, I can assume the food here is very popular. My host picks his way through the throng to the wine-laden, zinc-topped bar, returning in moments with a bottle of Tempranillo and a plate of pincho champiñones con gamba – bread topped with three fat, garlicky button mushrooms and a prawn.

The Campo Viejo winery where Tracey picked grapes (Image: NC)

Campo Viejo produces 70,000 barrels of its distinctively labelled wine (Image: NC)

With garlic butter dripping off my chin, I ask Federico if he has a favourite bar. “All of them!” he cheers. With prices starting from one or two euros a piece, you can feast like kings in places like Juan y Pinchamé, a snug little bar hidden down a cobbled lane, which serves up pinchos of fresh pineapple and langoustines, and Las Cubanas, a more contemporary spot with exposed stone walls and polished dark wood hidden behind its dusky red facade, where we gorge on small plates of cochinillo – soft, suckling pig topped with crispy skin – and yet more fine Tempranillo. Of course there’s more to Logroño than bar-hopping around cosy low-lit enotecas (wine bars).

You can mug up on Riojan history in the free-to-enter Museo de la Rioja, a charming 18thcentury former palace crammed with artefacts from around the region, including medieval paintings depicting the Camino de Santiago in all its Technicolor glory, rare Celtiberian stone carvings dating back to 500BC to enigmatic nudes by Logroño-born painter Gerardo Sacristan Torralba.

If it’s a clear day, it’s well worth visiting the beautiful Romanesque Church of San Bartolomé and climbing the intricately-decorated Mudejar tower. It’s been a popular spot for pilgrims for centuries. From the top you can see across the craggy red-tiled rooftops of the old quarter and out over vineyards and towards the rugged mountains.

But it’s not all medieval masterpieces and fine views, the Sala Amós Salvador is an esteemed arts and culture centre housed in a striking yellow 14th-century former convent and tobacco factory, which hosts a revolving calendar of contemporary art exhibitions from around Spain.

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Tapas like this Jambon is a culinary emblem of Spain (Image: Ros Drinkwater / Alamy Stock Photo)

Alternatively, many visitors to the city attempt to work off all the fine tapas and wine by walking part of the Camino de Santiago, one of Europe’s most historic pilgrimage routes which passes directly through Logroño.

To join it, cross the Puente de Piedra bridge over the Ebro River and follow the signposted path through vineyards, empty country lanes and ploughed fields towards Navarrette, a charming wineproducing town eight miles away.

But while it’s tempting to spend the next week grazing through the bodegas of La Rioja region, I have work to do. On the outskirts of the city is the Campo Viejo winery, whose yellow-label Tempranillo is one of the most recognisable Riojas in the world.

Lying low and unassuming, the domain built from natural stone is surrounded by swathes of corduroy-neat vines and has the stern, granite skyline of the mountain range bearing down in the distance. The largest winery in Rioja, it produces some 70,000 barrels each year.

Revellers are wined and dined during bar crawls through Longroño (Image: Lonely Planet Image/Getty Images)

It’s harvest time at Campo, so it’s all hands to the deck to reap the grapes before the weather turns. Togged up in a hi-vis vest and protective goggles, and brandishing a pair of secateurs, I set about earning my keep.

As the autumn sun beats down warming my hunched back, chirpy Spanish banter rising between the vines, I’m tempted to ditch the desk job for a life working the land.

Idyllic days toiling under the sun followed by wine-fuelled nights carousing Logroño’s ancient streets with handsome farmhands. Great food and incredible wine, I think life in La Rioja beats our nine-to-five hands down.


Hotel Marqués de Vallejo (dialling from the UK: 0034 941 248 333/ hotelmarquesdevallejo.com) offers doubles from £62, room only. British Airways (0344 493 0787/ba.com) offers return flights from Heathrow to Bilbao from £111. Booked tours of the Campo Viejo (campoviejo.com) with tasting and tapas from £9. Rioja tourism: lariojaturismo.com. Spanish tourism: spain.info

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