Cycle as the Sun Rises, Tipple While It Sets: Bike Spain's Wine Region

Pamplona, a likely starting point for what may be the best cycling adventure ever  (PhotoDisc)

Not to take anything away from Hemingway, but Spain is much more than paella, Picasso, and bull running in Pamplona. Admittedly, these popular staples inform much of Spain's tourist image, but to experience the more remote (read: authentic) Spain, we suggest you undertake a cycling tour through the land responsible for the liquid inspiration behind Papa H's tales: the wine regions of Navarra and La Rioja.
Pamplona, the readily accessible capital of the Navarra region, makes for a good starting point. Run with the bulls, if you must, and then head along El Camino de Santiago as it winds south away from the city, deep into the Navarra wine region. As you pedal, the peaks of the Pyrenees and Picos mountain ranges melt into the great central plains that make up Spain's most picturesque landscape. Rest the quads by stopping in whichever small villages strike your fancy, but be sure to synch your cycling itinerary with an overnight stay in Olite. This refreshingly tourist-free village is the wine capital of the region, replete with Gothic and Romanesque churches and enough fine, local vintages to keep your head spinning long after your wheels have stopped. East of Olite, the hilltop village of Ujué offers a dramatic overview of the entire southern Navarra region (particularly from the vantage point of the Gothic Santa María church).
If Navarra intoxicates, then Spain's La Rioja region will surely lead to pure debauchery. Even though it's only 93 miles long and 31 miles wide, the best of Spain's wine originates from the fertile, uneroded soil of this region. La Rioja curtains the southern side of Río Ebro, across from Navarra. Most cyclists arrange for vehicle transport into the region, since mountains almost completely encircle La Rioja, but once inside the crown of peaks, the land is ideal for cycling: wide plains, meandering roads, and dozens of vineyards among quaint villages scattered throughout the highlands and valleys. The region itself is divided into Upper and Lower (Alta and Baja) Rioja. The villages, like the wine, derive their personality from the combined influence of the Atlantic and the Mediterranean. Start off in Upper Rioja, the most prosperous region, by visiting Najera, and then travel 12 miles west to Santo Domingo de la Calzada. After drinking your fill, head into Lower Rioja, whose climate is more attuned to mass production. Haro, La Rioja's wine capital, offers tours of the town's vineyards, wine cellars, bodegas, and notable architectural landmarks. To the east lies the smaller villages of Laguardia, Logroño, and Calahorra, more remote than Haro and blessed with verdant scenery and plenty of wine to ease you into a blissful, big-hearted sleep after your day in the saddle.
No time of year is the wrong time to go, though the summer heat can get extreme (The solution? Cycle in the morning and tour vineyards in the afternoon). Like most Spanish towns, the villages of Navarra and La Rioja have festivals year-round. From grape-treading and parading during Lograno's September La Vendimia and stilt dancing in Anguiano at Danza de los Zancos to Olite's children's festival and the Pamplona bull running, Spanish fiestas abound. However, should you visit during the one or two unlikely weeks when there are no festivals, rest assured: the remarkable wine will bring about a giddy festival of your own invention that would make even Ernest blush.

Published: 6 Jan 2003 | Last Updated: 14 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication

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