Fiesta de San Matteo in Logroño, Spain – Wine Festival in La Rioja
By Rupert Parker
To celebrate the start of the grape harvest, Logroño, the capital of La Rioja, hosts a week long street festival involving music, parades, bull fighting, balloon flights, and, of course, drinking.
For most people Rioja is the name of a strong Spanish red wine, but it’s actually the region where the wine is produced. As you’d expect the vineyards stretch for miles, dotted by small hilltop villages but the landscape is surprisingly varied and the mountains in the West top over 2200 metres.
It’s late September and I’m in Logroño, the bustling capital, just as the first grapes are coming in from the fields. There’s a party atmosphere here and, at 11 in the evening, in Calle Laurel, the huge assortment of tapas bars are doing great business. The street is packed with people guzzling snacks from the tops of wooden barrels and knocking them back with copious amounts of Rioja. We’re equipped with €3 vouchers from the tourist office which we exchange for a tapas and a glass of wine, a great bargain for festive night that stretches into the small hours.
Starving after a long flight, we start with Bar Lorenzo’s Tio Agus, barbecued pork in a bun topped with a secret sauce, perfect to line the stomach. Next to the Drunken Duck for a portion of Txangurrito, a Scallop shell stuffed with seafood and mashed potato, a Spanish version of Coquille St Jacques. White Rioja seems the ideal tipple here as it does at nearby El Abuelo, where we sample Sepia a la Plancha, grilled Cuttle Fish on bread, smothered in garlicky Aioli.
We swap back to red Rioja at Blanco y Negro for Matrimonio, Anchovies with hot pepper and pickles, and then finally at El Pali we tackle huge portions of vegetable tempura, Calamares de Verdura. Eating like this is not for the fainthearted and a battery of napkins is essential – these tapas squirt as you crunch into them and you must expect your clothes to suffer, as the juices dribble down your chin. But this is great way to eat – earthy food from Rioja washed down with some of the finest local wine.
At dawn the next morning we all climb aboard a hot air balloon in an attempt to clear our heads. We drift over the seemingly endless rows of vines and have an airborne breakfast of Cava and chocolate, a combination peculiar to blimps. It seems, however, that the usual rules of drink driving don’t apply to balloons, at least not in Spain, as our pilot joins us in a toast to happy landings…
So far so good but, after an hour of flying, we’re told to prepare for the descent. No fasten seat belts, just crouch down in the basket and hang on for dear life. Nothing to see but suddenly there’s a thud, and we’re all thrown on top of each other as we make contact with the ground. It isn’t quite over, for the basket is jerked into the air again and then finally comes down with a very big bump. The basket is thrown onto its side and we spill out onto the ground, fortunately still holding on to the contents of our stomachs. Who says you can’t keep a good tapas down?
Iberia (0870 609 0500) flies from London to Logroño via Madrid.
Spanish Tourist Office is a great source of information.
AC LA Rioja is central and rooms start at around €80 per night.
Globos Arcoiris offers one hour balloon flights for around €150