September 26, 2023


Qualified food specialists

Go to Spain’s wine country for a European vacation without the crowds

5 min read

Logroño is a pilgrimage for red wine lovers and travelers following the Camino de Santiago

Franco Españolas winery as seen from the Iron Bridge in Logroño over the Ebro River. (Ivana Larrosa for The Washington Post)


There have long been two main reasons people come to La Rioja, the diminutive region in northeastern Spain. First, to drink the top-notch tempranillos and garnachas produced in an area celebrated for red wine. The second is that the capital city, Logroño, is a common overnight stop along the 500-mile Camino de Santiago.

This city of 150,000 denizens boasts one thing that is much harder to find in Spain’s tourist centers of Barcelona, Madrid and Seville: scarcity of fellow travelers. Adventure-seekers will have the warren of narrow streets in the Old Town practically to themselves.

When I first met the woman who would become my wife, she told me she was from Logroño. I had to confess that despite a handful of trips to Spain, I’d never even heard of it. Now after several visits, this city is one of my favorite places in the country; not just because my in-laws live there, but because it’s been blossoming with memorable restaurants, bars and hotels that have opened in the last five years.

If you want to have a less-touristy trip in Spain, here’s how to make the most of Logroño.

A legion of wineries and their vineyards blanket the low-rolling hills throughout La Rioja. Within the Logroño city limits, there are eight wineries that have tasting rooms and production centers, most of which welcome guests to sample and buy the fruits of their labor.

Arizcuren is a small family-run winery whose bottles are frequently found in bars and restaurants around town — as well as in some of the highest-rated restaurants in Spain. The 90-minute tour ($34) comes with four generous samples of wine, snacks and olive oil tastings.

Bodegas Franco Españoles, on the other hand, is a huge complex across the Ebro River from the city center that’s been making wine here since 1890. The tours last up to 90 minutes, cost about $19 and include wine samples and snacks. Hemingway visited the winery a couple of times and liked the wines enough to praise them in his book on bullfighting, “Death in the Afternoon.”

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In the compact medieval center of town, a few famous narrow pedestrian streets are flanked by bars serving pinchos or pintxos, as they’re more popularly written in neighboring Basque country the regional word for small-portioned dishes with big flavor.

Calle Laurel runs about the length of two football fields and is about 8 feet wide. Nearly every humble storefront, as well as the side streets, are occupied by narrow bars serving small plates. Locals spill out into the street sipping a glass of Rioja — $1 to $3, depending on the quality — while grazing on classic and contemporary pinchos.

Nearby, Calle San Juan is similarly lined with pincho bars. Some on Laurel and San Juan only focus on one item — such as the crispy pig ear sandwich at Bar El Perchas, the fried potatoes smothered in a spicy mayo sauce (a.k.a. patatas bravas) at Bar Jubera or the excellent runny egg tortilla at Bar Sebas, all of which have been open for at least 50 years.

You’ll find more modern takes at some places, like at Tastavin, where you can get a seared scallop wading in a shallow pool of truffle-specked potato puree; a filo-wrapped, fork-tender oxtail paired with a homemade fig jam; and a terrine of pig ear and blood sausage, all for the equivalent of just a few dollars each.

Then a main course of modern fusion

In the last five years a small handful of restaurants have fired up their burners, serving up creative takes on Rioja staples. Best of all, because Logroño doesn’t get the foodie attention that, say, San Sebastian or Barcelona might, you can have a much more affordable fine-dining experience here — and without having to make reservations months in advance.

Logroño has long been a town fixed on traditional northern Spanish fare, but the fact that it now has three Michelin-starred restaurants, two of which are serving up a fusion of culinary cultures, says a lot about how much the dining scene has progressed.

At Ikaro, Ecuadorian-born chef Carolina Sánchez and Iñaki Murua, her husband, combine Basque and Ecuadoran cuisine with a pork tail terrine paired with guava and spicy choricero pepper mole.

Just a few blocks away at Ajonegro, local chef Gonzalo Baquedano and his wife Mariana Sánchez, a Mexican native, draw from the cuisines of their homelands. When I dined here, I loved the al pastor taco sprinkled with a sauce made from caparrones, a bean featured in a typical winter stew in Rioja.

“There is now a generation of chefs … who have traveled around the world and eaten or worked at great restaurants and then returned home to Logroño inspired to do something here,” said chef Oscar Torres Martinez, referencing colleagues at Ikaro, Ajonegro and restaurant Juan Carlos Ferrando.

At La Chispa Adecuada, Torres Martinez takes inspiration from his own travels to incorporate ingredients like kimchi and Thai chiles into classic Rioja recipes.

If there’s room for dessert, stop by Della Sera, a 20-year-old ice cream shop where Fernando Sáenz turns scents — such as fig leaves or the fennel, straw and fenugreek that you might pick up while walking the nearby Camino de Santiago — into ice cream flavors.

Art and a culture of ‘surprising beauty’

Logroño has its fair share of cultural diversions, including the Museo de la Rioja, a centrally located museum dedicated to the history of this region; a Gothic cathedral that boasts a painting attributed to Michelangelo; shopping along the wide boulevard Gran Via Juan Carlos I; and gawking at contemporary art at the galleries Sala Amós Salvador and the Museo Würth La Rioja.

While it borders on sappy tourist brochure cliche, the biggest draw — in addition to the food and wine — is the friendliness and hospitality of the locals.

Ana Molina, a product designer and Madrid-based friend, said it best when she told me she loves Logroño because it encapsulates various parts of Spain: It’s located in the north, but the people are friendly like in the south, and no one is particularly concerned with where people are from (like in Madrid).

“Here they just accept you for who you are,” she said.

Pablo Hermoso de Mendoza, the 51-year-old mayor of Logroño, expanded on the town’s “elevated sense of hospitality” when he led me on a walking tour.

“We owe part of that to the Camino,” he said. “For eight months out of the year, we get a steady stream of pilgrims visiting us, and we’ve learned to be very welcoming and hospitable because of this.”

As we parted ways, the mayor told me that Spanish philosopher Javier Gomá visited Logroño three months earlier and had this to say about the city: “Logroño has a surprising beauty. You can find that beauty everywhere here in ordinary and surprising encounters with people.”

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