After the early morning flatlands of Castille, Pamplona arrived under a dense sky of pillowy grey clouds that spat rain at the cobbles. The great city of Hemingway and bulls had made itself clear. You may enjoy me, but you shall not do so lightly. Ernest himself, his bust frozen in stone, severe and stern, guarded the doors to the bullring on the edge of the clustered huddle of creeping streets that undulated up and down the old town. At the fringes of this hilltop civilisation, hills and mountains could be glimpsed hiding under the blanket of vapour; like some child unwilling to be seen.
As night fell over Iruña, as the Vascones called it, so was it Pompaelo to the Romanas, the lights of the frilly, yet tiny, town hall were repeated in the pools that collected on the lanes. Churches and balconies glowed orange in the lamplight. If one was quiet, between overt gulps of the sharp Navarran wine, one could hear the echoes of hoofs, or was it just the footsteps of revellers or the clip of the pilgrims’ sticks?
The streets around the grand and attractive Plaza del Castillo were bursting with bars, that spilled gleefully outwards, and the glints off so many glasses, the modern day calabash for the pilgrim not on the Way, created alleyways that sparkled. It was time for the tapeo. The tapas crawl. Spreading out around the pincho bars when one glimpses edible wonders behind the bar and chooses whichever nibble looks like it will tantalise the palate.
Bar el Gaucho
Frito de pimiento - a creamy deep fried puree of red peppers and all manner of imperceptible flavours
Quite simply everything in the bar was tasty and inventive.
Croquetas - fairly scrumptious and gooey béchamel oblongs fat with chunks of serrano ham
The other pinchos here were really beautiful, but the solomillo one I chose was a little underwhelming.
La Mandarra de la Ramos
Tostadicas - large pinchos, generous laden up toasts falling apart with vegetables, molten cheeses, fatty meats in various combinations.
Tigre - a clam shell stuffed with a cheesy clam-meat béchamel and then slid under the grill.
Fritos are good; we just drank.
As the plateau of Pamplona dissolved away, the small local bus, making a quick changeover in Oronoz-Mugaire, fell into the fecund and verdant Baztan valley and deposited us in the Pyrenean chocolate box village of Elizondo. Over hot coffees and sandwiches stuffed with pancetta, homemade cakes, and bread topped with greasy chistorra, all mingling with the local Basque chatter, a plan for the day was made.
Elizondo, an hour or so away from Pamplona, felt like some isolated settlement created by those Navarran Basques by stealing away buildings from Gruyères or Goslar. A place where farmers with sticks and dogs and horses would live working the lands alongside fairies and will-o’-the-wisps. A place where Castillian would not necessarily guarantee conversation. A place where those white houses, with their rust-brown brick trimmings, their Provençal coloured shutters, bright flowerpots and Tudor timbers, contain proud and polite locals. Basques of Navarre are more similar to their neighbours in Vitoria and San Sebastián and the Celts in Asturias and Galicia than the tight, prim, fun-loving central Spaniards of Castille and Madrid or the boisterous and showy southerners.
Leaving the reflective diversions of the Baztan River, our feet took us out and upwards past the greenest of fields, dotted with sheep and ponies, and the ever-present but always distant snow-capped peaks to the very pretty village of Arizcun.
The words here seem constructed with glee out of the letters z, k, ñ, rr, egi and other such delightful contortions. Names I would love to live amongst: Arraioz, Zuaztoi, Elgorriaba, Igantzi, were these Indian names? And the lordly lunacy of Zugarramurdi with its witch caves that would yet evade me.
The procession of enormous caserios and farms led us to the equally pleasant hamlet of Erratzu, whose small brick church tower prodded up above the tiles and loomed over the quick rush of the river. We ate moist tortilla filled with ham and cheese and small sandwiches before strolling once again into those Navarran Cairngorms, passed the cheesemakers at Ordoqui, where little old men played cards in the roadside cafe and asked us quite gently ‘are you foreigners?’, passed the strung out cluster of homes that comprised Bozate, overlooking field after field of wild and inquisitive farm horses, and back to Pamplona where the sun had ripped through the sky and made everything shine.
We went back. It was really that good.
Somewhat fishy cheese cured in the nearby mountains. Our band expected it may have been left by the anchovies.
A crunchy birds nest style tube of pastry filled with morcilla and roasted pine nuts. Intriguing.
El Patio de las Comedias
Fun bar with a living garden on the back wall and sporting an impressive giant blackboard with over thirty different wines.
In the imaginary competition for most beautiful cities in Spain, where the pack would be led by Seville, Granada, Salamanca, Santiago de Compostela, and San Sebastián, Logroño, the capital of La Rioja, wouldn’t really come close to the top. It is a somewhat scruffy town, bolstered with a few grand religious edifices and enlivened by the bracing waters of the Ebro, that has grown loopy with wine and spiralled out in size. What it lacks in outright beauty it makes up for in lifestyle and the liquid gold that is Riojan wine.
Under heavy rain the Co-cathedral of Santa María de la Redonda, the arcades of Calle Portales, the might of St James the Moorslayer jumping out in stone from the Santiago Real church, the stork-inhabited wetlands under the Iron Bridge, all looked as inviting as they could. But Logroño instead called us to drink.
A couple of hours of aperitif was had at the Café Moderno, whose name had changed from Madrid, to Novelty, to Oriental. A relic from 1913, the vermouth was cheap, the insides all brassy and baroque, and the clientele a mix of old women with dice, noisy families, and pilgrims relaxing after the day’s walk.
Then the tapeo; that urgent foodie necessity of Spain. Logroño was one of the most mythical places to crawl about the bars; joining the ranks of Madrid’s La Latina neighbourhood, Leon’s barrio húmedo, Zaragoza’s el tubo, the old town at San Sebastián and Santiago, the freebies of Granada and the glut of bars in Sevilla. The words ‘speciality’ and ‘density’ have never been more apt. The tight web of streets - Calle Laurel, San Agustín, Travesía de Laurel, San Juan - house scores of bars. Ground zero for food in La Rioja.
A somewhat mythical bar and my third visit. They specialise in one thing and one thing only. Little stacks of mushrooms fried on the hot plate with a secret oil and popped on some soft local bread with a tiny shrimp on top. The drink? If you need to ask, you aren’t paying attention.
Some of the best patatas bravas (bravioli, as they seem to by default come with alioli in La Rioja) that I have ever shovelled with glee into my face.
Two more bars followed, with more wine and food. I remember an average croqueta and then some little hash brown style chips with some spicy sauce. Then I remember red liquid in a glass and a waddle home.
Despite flagging under the pressure of the previous night’s exploits almost of all us managed to make it to the local bus that took us through the hazy wine fields to the the minuscule village of Elciego: a down-at-heel looking place strung out along a low bump but sporting a fine church. Rioja’s towns mimic those of Castilla; hardworking farming places. Only, in lieu of cheese and wheat, here it was all grapes.
Stuck on the side of the village is one of the region’s more venerable bodegas, Marqués de Riscal, whose psychedelic winery/hotel complex was updated a few years ago by Frank Gehry - architect of Guggenheim fame. The otherworldly pink and chrome wavy affair, is an ode to wine but personally was more probably how people see buildings after drinking too much of the stuff.
After visiting the dusty wine caves, sampling a white and a red, we walked for an hour or more through undulating sun-dappled wine-lands where stubby dormant vines, pockmarked with magenta and white flowers, led the eyes to our destination of Laguardia: a fairytale village sitting on its own private flat-topped hill and backed by the Sierra de Cantabria and its hat of billowy clouds.
Laguardia, all honeyed streets, cobbles, stone-set walls was a dream. A floating city in miniature that housed eateries, artisan shops, and more locals than expected. We ate expensively, a final blowout: pochas (a hearty Riojan bean stew cooked with ‘pig’), a steak as large as the table, creamy rice pudding and red wine.
And then, back in Logroño, unsurprisingly tapeo…
La Gota de Vino
A friendly and bright little place with prim and clippy service with a smile. Specialising in pleasing and soft little sandwiches. A favourite is the zorropito.
A real classic dive bar of fairly bad wine, less space than a shoebox, somewhat Troll-like women behind the bar. Absolutely brilliant. One of our group had a giant finger of greasy chistorra on bread. I partook in the ‘speciality’: a tiny half hamburger than was objectively not good but it fitted the odd surroundings to a tee.
A very good wine bar with ok pinchos.
More of the group bowed out of excursions this final day. So it was only two of us that had energy enough to leave once again to pastures new before the evening’s bus back to Madrid. The little Camino de Santiago village of Nájera. A bizarre and tiny place, but good enough for lunch.
Objectively the village had one, maybe two, nice streets. Nájera was no looker, but it was interesting. An old place caught between the Najerilla river, flowing fast and piling up branches against the bridge, and the looming red-sandstone and eroded hill-walls behind. Certainly one of those places whose charms lie in the seeing of it from afar. We walked, slid and scrambled up a pointy mound topped with a large iron cross and observed the settlement.
There was a better view of the 11th century Santa María el Real monastery - with its rounded and fortified towers - the neighbouring villages, the patchwork of lined rusty browns and emerald greens of the vineyards, and the mountains that made up the north and south barrier of La Rioja.
Lunch was wine, battered and fried asparagus with a blue cheese sauce, secreto de ibérico (the marbled pork cut found between the shoulder and the loin), and strong farm-hand coffees.
It was time to put the days to rest. We had eaten the north, tried to drink it dry - evidently failing - and made the most of every minute in two of Spain’s most charismatic smaller cities. Pamplona: handsome, tidy, modest grandeur and pinchos. Logroño: scrabbly, lively, boozy and gluttonous.
I wouldn’t eat much for the days following.