When we mentioned we were heading to the Rioja region, a fellow caravanner at our campsite in Santiago de Compostela recommended Haro as there are plenty of bodegas in the actual town, solving the drink vs drive problem. When we looked in the guidebook and saw they have an annual wine festival during the time we were going to be there, we were sold.
After another long slog of a drive, we arrived at reception to a chap telling us he had 200 Australians camped at one end of the site for the wine fiesta and he hoped they wouldn’t disturb us too much. Luckily we managed to pitch at the other end of the site, and it was actually quite fun having a party on site. As ever, Evelyn made us a load of friends, so we just joined in. The aussies got to send snapchats back to their mates of them with the cool baby, and we got to drink all their all-you-can-drink sangria, result! The campsite had mandated that the fun stopped at midnight and they went in to town if they wanted to carry on after that, so we got to hang out with the cool kids and dance to shit tunes, but still get a decent nights sleep.
While there were a lot of bodegas in town, we’d been recommended to visit the Marquez de Riscal a few miles away. As well as being one of the oldest wine producers in the region, there was also a luxury hotel onsite designed by the same architect as the Guggenheim, Frank Gehry.
Typically we hadn’t thought to book, so luckily bagged the last 2 english tour spots at 4pm, although this still gave us all afternoon to kill. You can’t get in to the estate, or up to the hotel unless you’re on a tour, or have a booking to eat at the hotel. They said they could check for us if there was space to eat at either the restaurant or the bar. Luckily we opted for the bar, as we later discovered on the tour that the restaurant was headed by a triple Michelin starred chef, so even if there had been availability, we’d have been in for a shock when the bill came!
As it was, we still felt out of place in our shorts and flip flops in the very exclusive bar, especially with Evelyn throwing half digested bread sticks around the place. Our “light bites” lunch ended up being over e60, but that’s what you get when the patatas bravas alone are e12! Still, at least we got to see the hotel up close.
The bar terrace had a great view over the town of Elciego, so we wandered over to check it out. It was a very pretty village, but we’d obviously got there at siesta time as I don’t think we saw another soul in the whole place.
It was finally tour time, and worth the wait. We were shown videos of the history of the region and the vineyard, and how the owner had revolutionized wine making in the region by stealing French production methods. They showed us the vines and explained about the different types of wines. We saw the huge vats they used to ferment the wine, and wandered through the bottling factory, warehouse and cellars. And finally got to taste some of the wine. These are widely available in the U.K. so we opted not to treat ourselves this time. There was also only a brief glimpse and explanation of the hotel, so that lunch had *ahem* totally been worth it.
The wine fiesta kicks off on the evening of the 28th June in town and culminates in a huge wine fight up a hill on the morning of the 29th, with the hardcore ones partying through the night and heading straight to the fight.
The “fight” itself involves everyone dressing head to toe in white (apart from their obligatory red neckerchief) and chucking wine over each other. People take wine cartons, buckets, water pistols and as much wine as they can carry. The locals tractor huge vats of wine up the hill for people to reload.
While we really wanted to go, we weren’t sure it was an Evelyn-friendly event. The wine fight is no-holds-barred and people soak each other indiscriminately. Taking E in her sling wasn’t an option (how would I explain the Rioja stains to the mums at baby group?!), so we thought about taking her in the buggy, surely the rainhood would protect her? The more we asked around, the stupider an idea it sounded. There were minibusses to the hill, but we’d have to get the buggy on. It’s a steep, rocky walk up the hill to the clearing where the fight was. We concluded we’d go, see how far up the hill we got with the buggy, and then take it in turns to get involved while the other kept her a safe distance from the fun.
But first, the warm up evening. Haro is only tiny, and there were thousands of people in town. There was stage set up in the main square, as well as other bands and processions that wound their way around the narrow streets. After tracking down some neckerchiefs, we based ourselves in a small square surrounded by bars to soak up the atmosphere.
Evelyn was in her element with all the commotion and attention. We’d naively brought the buggy thinking we could get her to sleep so we could stay out to party, but there was no way this party baby was going to settle. She spent most of the evening being hugged by strangers and dancing with daddy to the bands that paraded through.
Unsurprisingly, that night was one of fractured sleep, and when the alarm went off at 7 and we saw how cold and grey it was, we opted to get more sleep rather than all the rigmarole the wine fight involved.
We ran in to some of our Aussie friends later that day and knew we’d made the right call. They said it was a hard slog up the hill, and chaos at the top. Not only that but the cold day meant they were freezing traipsing back in to town in their wine soaked clothes. Despite that, they’d had a ball, and it’s another thing we’d like to go back and do again without Evelyn.
The next day was a washout. Another grey day saw us opt to visit another local town, and save our bodega-crawl for what was hopefully a brighter next day. Except it was chucking it down by the time we got to Vitoria-Gastiez, and after traipsing around in the rain, there really wasn’t much to see. Still, our afternoon back in the caravan meant that E succeeding in sitting unaided for the first time, go Evelyn!
The next day was brighter, perfect weather for our crawl around the towns wine makers. A bloke on the tour the other day recommended a particular one on the outskirts of town, so we walked up there, only to find it was closed. We wandered on to the next one. Also closed. It turned out that not many bodegas are open on a Saturday afternoon! Still, we persisted and found a couple of open places to sample their wares.
Places typically offered wine flights of 4 or 5 to taste, with samples of 40ml per glass. So although you try quite a few wines, you don’t actually drink that much. Maybe it shows how uncouth we are, or just how much cheap wine we drink, but we seemed to have a preference for the cheaper stuff out of the wine flights. Still, at least we haven’t developed an expensive new taste.
We bade farewell to our new Aussie friends, and headed off on our comparatively short journey to our next stop – San Sebastián.