‘The vines are sleeping.’
Elvira had picked me up at Santo Domingo de la Calzada after a three and a half hour bus ride from Madrid and was driving me to Haro, the wine-capital of the La Rioja region.
It had withered from the effects of winter. Brown, weak greens and dusty beige filled up the land between naked grapevines. Occasionally the sun burst out from the clouds and morning mists and illuminated the rugged snow-topped mountains that enclose the province.
‘Pedro has been called to a meeting in Logroño.’
I waited with a complimentary glass of the 1991 Gran Reserva white wine at the López de Heredia bodega – in business since 1877. I flicked through the little menu and saw that the bottle cost fifty-two euros. I drank it slowly and squished the liquid through my teeth and over my tongue. These were not muck about drinks.
Finding myself at a loss, I bid my leave and walked around the countryside for an hour. The wind was harsh and between gusts the air was frosty and carried the hint of wet soil and bark. Minutes from the town little hillocks appeared. From the top of one vine-covered hump I surveyed La Rioja in its wintry grandeur. Coiling down away from me and bumping away in all directions were scruffy brown and clay-red fields lined with trellises and gnarled stumps that were awaiting the coming spring. They looked like shrunken versions of the fairytale trees you’d find in an evil forest.
Resting at the bottom of the mountains, at the bends in the Ebro river or on bumps in the plain were the villages. Names like Briones, Briñas, Bastida toyed with the upper alphabet, while Casalarreina, Ollauri and Cihuri made you look twice. Cold little churches of immense age braved the winds as functional houses and cobbled streets clung to them for warmth. The view made me thirsty and I longed for a bottle of red and a log-fire. But I wasn't here for the wine this time. I had come to see the birthplace of the Spanish language.
‘Luke, I’m so sorry. Forgive me!’ Pedro arrived, neat and honest, clutching folders and notebooks. ‘Vamos. We’ll head straight to San Millán. Directo!’
The blue skies that had returned to warm the dormant fields disappeared again as our little car climbed up through valley folds and long hilly arms into the Sierra de Demanda mountain range. Suddenly the road stopped. At the end of it was a small village – all silent lanes and pastel-coloured houses – and a gigantic honey-coloured Benedictine Monastery. A wide horseshoe of forested domes surrounded the area under a gloomy lid of cloud. Coupled with another tiny monastery on a nearby slope, this collective of peaks and churches had been recognised by UNESCO.
The old and atmospheric Suso – from the Latin susum meaning ‘upwards’ – monastery hid up in the hills while the palatial Yuso – from the Latin deorsum, meaning ‘downwards’ – sat at the bottom like a bored lion. It was here that the Spanish language first emerged to the outside world.
Enter the Emilian Glosses. The language of Spain in the 10th century was Latin, but in La Rioja something strange was happening. First of all, the remote villagers of the mountains, unimaginably distant from the great cities of Spain, had started a process of irrevocable bastardisation of their language. The "Latin" they spoke was almost unintelligible. Furthermore La Rioja bordered the Basque Country, so many of the people in that zone didn’t even speak Latin in the first place. It was getting increasingly harder and harder and presumably more pointless to preach to the local populous in Latin. I can imagine, in that dank but pretty little hillside church a priest at the end of his tether as the inhabitants stared blankly back at him, picking their ears and wondering when he would get to the communion wine.
One day an enterprising preacher started to make annotations above some of the Latin words: translations. But new words do not a new language make. Sometime, in the year 964, this smart priest decided to translate whole texts into the local languages. One was Basque and the other was Old Spanish: the first instance on record of Spanish in action with its own grammar playing out on paper.
In that cold and silent monastery it was easy to imagine a local population far removed from the modernising world around it, trussed up in cloaks and with cheeks red from raw local wine; false protection against the fierce mountain air. They nattered to each other on uncomfortable wooden pews and stone benches.
‘What’s the man in the big white dress saying Jorge?’
‘Who knows Elena? Who knows?’
Until one day everything changed and Spanish flourished through the land.
In the evening we joined some of Pedro’s friends in a bar in Santo Domingo and proceeded to get through an unhealthy number of bottles of red Rioja while stuffing our glowing faces with squidgy ham croquettes, chunks of moist chorizo cooked in cider, and slices of Spanish jamón and oily manchego cheese. The air was thick with the headiness of garlic and wine and the sounds of chatter and clinking glasses.
‘People forget Spanish was born here.’ Said a jolly-faced lady dipping a hunk of crusty bread into the sweet cider. ‘You must remember that the heart of Spain is Riojan!’