Camberley & District Probus Club

Annual Holiday to La Rioja, 12th June to Friday 17th June 2022

Extremely early Sunday morning departure, and just a minor hiccup during transit at Gatwick. Uneventful flight and greeted at Bilbao airport by our escort. Immediately impressed by northern Spain’s roads as we sped to Castro Urdiales, originally a small fishing village, but now overtaken by tourists needs, an extensive modern promenade and few of the party reached the old town and the Church of Santa Maria.

Then by coach into the interior, noting the changing rock formations, following the side roads to our hilltop base of Laguardia and our modern hotel with decoration suitable for hot weather. A separate dining room to ourselves, free wine and hence we were uninhibited, but rolled into bed after a long first day.

Next morning provided the opportunity to explore our base, and what a little hidden diamond it was. Although it was a steep walk up to the town, there were magnificent views of the surrounding mountains and the acres of vine and numerous bodegas below. Our walking tour wandered through the central El Gartimo Plaza, the few cafes, and the musical Carillon clock. Charming ancient, very narrow streets, only wide enough for pedestrians, with overhanging balconies – and being off the beaten track, few tourists to hinder our wandering – whilst listening to an excellent description of the history of the town and the vaults and caves below, from our young and enthusiastic guide Yaiza. Suddenly, we came to the Church of Santa Maria. Construction began at the end of the 12th Century in Romanesque style. The sanctuary was finished three centuries later with Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque features. The portico is the sanctuary’s most outstanding feature- its stone construction date was 14th Cent but it was polychromed in the 17th Cent with details of human forms mingled with vegetal motifs and then enclosed to protect its delicate construction and paint. A fantastic gem of delicate sculptures and filled with beautiful gilded altars – such unexpected wealth for such a small town.

An exposition of the History of Rioja, in a boutique small-volume winemaker, in cellars several levels below ground, described the traditional winemaking process (still treading the grapes) and the ‘best’ techniques of wine tasting. The evening was enlightened by dinner at the local gastronomique restaurant, with local specialties – some of which every morsel was consumed, contrasted to the pigs cheeks – too large to finish, but thoroughly enjoyed by all.

Tuesday featured a long journey to Burgos and met our excellent and helpful guide Loreto Estaban. Our tour majored on the magnificent and impressive cathedral, a stunning example of Spanish gothic architecture (unsurprisingly declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site) – very impressive from the outside and even more so inside, as Loreto took us through what seemed to be an endless set of chapels, each as magnificent as the previous. Loreto provided not only the fine detail but, aside tales of relationships, historical interpretations – all with a sense of humour and impeccable English which made our tour vey memorable and exciting. After the Cathedral, a quick tour of other key attractions. Sorry to leave Loreto behind.

A shorter journey on Wednesday to three classic places of worship – guided by Ivan. Started at the Rioja Alta town of Najera, and the Monastery of Santa Maria, involved crossing the bridge over the Najerilla river on the pilgrims’ route. The size of the monastery reflected the large number of monks who originally lived and worshipped there but now seemingly a large empty vault. Onto the Yuso monastery, located in the hills well-known for its library of valuable books and the La Sacristia . Finally, to Santo Domingo and lunch followed by a walk to the old prison and cathedral there.

The Pilgrims’ Route featured again on Thursday – but this location is also well-known for other activities. From our guide Mikel, we learned about the historical development of Pamplona, through the stages of three different towns and separate regions/languages including Basques. Plus how the town has benefitted from the flow of pilgrims continuously over centuries for accommodation , food and visiting. But nowadays, the bull-running during the festival of St Fermin in early July, means that the town trebles in size to 1 million, and everyone wears the traditional white shirt and red scarves. The grand square ayuntamiento and all surrounding streets are packed solid and the running bulls are shepherded by wooden partitions. By this time, the sun temperature was rising, so we truncated the tour had lunch and beat a hasty retreat back to the coach.

To Bilbao on Friday, for a relaxing cruise on the Nervion river in a boat dedicated to Probus – just the right size, with everyone in shade and an excellent commentary in English on Bilbao’s history and international architecture. The cruise finished just 400 metres from the world-famous Guggenheim Museum, designed by Frank Ghery – but by this time the temperature had climbed to 38 degrees, and few of the party made it there – but they were rewarded with wide-ranging exhibits to delight the eyes.

Later, we realized how lucky we had been with our timing – we had missed the half-term riots at the airports, left Spain before it got too hot, and were not troubled by subsequent staffing problems at airports, causing cancelled flights In the summer and chaos at Dover at the start of school summer holidays. Phew. If you think this review is optimistic, then that is because of the free wine every day.

Alan Boyd

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