On my recent family road trip through northern Spain, we passed through the famed wine region of La Rioja. When in La Rioja,
do as Riojans do go to the famous wineries and sip lots of nice reds…right?!
JK, you definitely should get your vino on. But unfortunately, time didn’t allow us the opportunity— the wineries are pretty spread out and we didn’t really feel like playing darts on a map to decide where to go. So instead, we traded the vineyards for the mountains and spent a day in the small village of Ezcaray.
…and I am so happy we did.
Following a quick 1.5 hour car ride from Logroño (La Rioja’s capital), I caught my first glimpse of this little mountain town and immediately felt like I had been transported onto the real-life set of Snow White.
The whimsical trees dancing alongside the buildings and cobblestoned streets are plucked straight from the pages of a storybook. The stone-faced buildings with wooden facades and flower-potted balconies make it feel like the town’s frozen in time, unstirred by the rest of the world.
But there is more to this rural town than meets the eye. Steering slightly off the beaten path, we discovered an enchanting village delivering that authentic Spanish experience so many people crave. …and also wine. Lots of wine.
Ezcaray is located in the westernmost part of La Rioja— roughly a 3.5 hour drive from Madrid.
Although La Rioja is rather small in size, its surrounding geography makes it prime wine country. The Cantabria and Sierra de la Demanda mountains north of La Rioja shelter the region from the cold weather that grips the rest of northern Spain and harms grapevines. The Ebro River streaming through the region brings moisture and irrigation conducive to vineyards. Ezcaray is nestled in the Oja Valley, at the foothills of the Demanda mountains. It is therefore, only 30 minutes away from some of the most famous vineyards of La Rioja.
Sitting at an altitude of 813 meters, Ezcaray’s moderate climate is conducive for producing vegetables, dairy, and livestock. These fresh local ingredients are the backbone of the region’s rustic farm-to-table style cuisine.
The cuisine of La Rioja is known for being hearty and full of flavor. Think cheese and ham, croquetas, potatoes simmered with peppers and chorizo (patatas riojanas), fava beans, pork, beef stews and lamb chops.
Where to Stay
We stayed at Hotel Gastronómico Echaurren, located in the center of the historic town quarter. The hotel has been within the same family for five generations. Echaurren encapsulates the gastronomy and the culture of La Rioja effortlessly. I wrote about the hotel’s history here and our experience at the hotel here.
Things to Do
Explore the outdoors.
The town is nestled at the foothills of the Valdezcaray ski resort— the only ski resort in the region. The majestic peak of San Lorenzo provides a stunning backdrop as well as multiple skiing and hiking trails. This mostly attracts tourism in the winter months. However, the summer allows for a wide range of activities including mountain biking, fishing, golf, horseback riding and even hot air balloon rides.
Chomp on churros and chocolate.
We spent the day strolling through the side streets and people-watching in the plazas. The quaint houses, arcaded streets and vine-covered alleys deserve to be admired. They also have these funny-looking pruned trees sprinkled throughout the town. I don’t even know what they’re called, but I was a total sucker for them.
We made a pit-stop in the Plaza de Verduras—meaning ‘plaza of vegetables’— for a quick snack, but it definitely wasn’t in the form of veggies. We treated ourselves to something much, much sweeter— churros and hot chocolate! Spanish hot chocolate is unreal. It’s much denser and richer: think hot chocolate pudding. Perfect for the nippy March temperatures. We lounged and snacked at a table in the plaza while watching a game of bingo go down amongst the locals.
Shop the local art.
In the 19th century, Spain was a large manufacturer of wool and that industry eventually became centered in La Rioja. Today, there are many artisans still keeping the local textile alive.
For some authentic souvenirs to take back home, visit Hijos de Cecilio Valgañón. They are a local, family-run business that manufactures wool fabrics for luxe brands like Armani. However, you can purchase their quality mohair blankets and cashmere shawls at reasonable prices. The factory also doubles as a museum, where you can learn about the intricate craft that is wool-work.
Bar-hop in the plazas.
The other main town square is called Plaza de Quiosco. Multiple tapa bars and shops encompass the plaza, making it the busiest square of Ezcaray. Given that it was Easter Sunday, families were out and about. Parents were enjoying their wine and cañas—half-pints of cold draft beer—while their kids were busy kicking around soccer balls in the pavilion.
We did aperitivos—pre-dinner tapas— at a little bar called Jamón-Jamón. Here we sipped on a local Crianza, which is a younger type of Rioja wine that spends only one year in oak before spending one year in the bottle. These young wines are fruity and vibrant, perfect for pairing with late-afternoon tapas. We had a platter of jamón ibérico—locally cured ham— which happened to be the restaurant’s specialty.
Sip Vermouth at a bodega.
We later stumbled upon a cute restaurant + bar down the street that had a wooden portico strung with edison lights. It was called La Bodega and the sign on the door said Vermouth Solera. We had yet to try this traditional cocktail, so we ventured inside.
Vermouth is an aromatic fortified wine made with herbs and roots. It is typically served straight with an ice cube and garnished with an orange peel or olive. The taste is sweet and slightly bitter. Vermouth is typically served as an aperitif and many bars carry it on tap. Culturally, it is a social drink— meant to be enjoyed amongst others in an outdoor café on a sunny day. We decided to hang around the bar and bask in the social mores before heading to our dinner reservation.
Even though we didn’t dine there, La Bodega is definitely a recommendable spot, with its cozy atmosphere and charming tablescapes.
Where to Wine + Dine
Hotel Echaurren has two world-class restaurants: the traditional restaurant by Spain’s famous Marisa Sánchez, and the contemporary restaurant, El Portal del Echaurren, by her son Chef Francis Paniego. El Portal is known for being the first Michelin-starred restaurant in La Rioja. Together, both restaurants stand as pillars for Riojan culture and gastronomy. Read more about our evening at the Echaurren Restaurant here.
If you ever find yourself in northern Spain with a day or two to spare, make sure to pay Ezcaray a visit. This little gem of a village will forever be etched in my memory.