The weather was an uninviting grey, cold and windy, at first light. In no hurry, we waited a few hours until the rising sun worked its magic on the thin clouds and removed the morning chill. On bikes we tried to leave Casalarreina on a marked, signed route, but as is often the case, the hardest part of any new trail is finding the start. There were many signs in many directions, but none seemingly pointing the way of the correct route we wanted to follow.
With a photo of the route map we ignored the finger posts and backed ourselves instead, and soon we were on empty gravel tracks, enclosed by red-green vines and feeling fully immersed in an ancient Spanish countryside. Dusty hillsides stood tall wrapped with patches of deep green foliage and below them wide fields varying from green to yellow to brown, depending on current use. Neat rows of box vines, aflame with oranges and reds, lit up the flat, monotone landscape. Church bell towers stood tall, distinctive silhouettes on distant hillsides, helpfully marking each coming village on our chosen wine route cycle.
We passed through each small settlement in turn, circling their proud churches and making the local dogs bark manically. Zarratón, then Rodezno, then Ollauri to Gimileo. Each village was strategically positioned on a natural, curved mound set above the flat plain, and each brought a warming, breath-stealing hill-climb up followed by a fun, sweeping descent back down the opposite side.
Tiny black grapes hung in huge bunches from vines, them smaller than blueberries. Most grapes had already been harvested, but some remained, whether left or missed. We tasted a few, and they were sweeter than expected, tiny bursts of juice but with pips that were a quarter of the grape. The route ahead was cut up in deep ridges and very steep in places, a portent for our upcoming run in similar terrain.
After 15km or so, we were approaching the main town of Haro. Dating from 1040 CE, historic Haro is the capital of the La Rioja region. It was scruffy on first approach, sprawling and flat with constant lines of single-storey commercial premises, and from the viewpoint of our bikes it was unclear where the historic centre of town was. We re-joined the road and eventually found signs directing us to the Centro that led us to the main church and then into the beautiful Plaza de la Paz. The town hall, all flags and wine barrels, defined one corner of this impressive, imposing square that featured an ornate bandstand in the centre.
There were a series of bronze statues representing, even glorifying, ordinary local jobs, from shoe-shiner to goat-milker to grape-crusher to wine-bottler. Roundabouts were decorated with giant barrels and bunches of grapes, the motifs of wine-making always in plain sight, leaving no doubt as to the town’s primary occupation. It reminded us a little of Chateauneuf-de-Pape, in its single-minded approach to promoting its famous wares.
We cycled to the other side of the river where many of the regional producers had visitor centres huddled together. One vineyard’s posh tasting room had been designed by the office of the late Zaha Hadid, so we had to check that out in passing. We stayed on this side of the river and followed a small irrigation canal back west, through more expansive rows of colourful grapevines. This route led us through Anguciana then into Cihuri, with its old abandoned bridge, once maintained for passing pilgrims by the local monastery.
Nicky suffered another puncture on our return to the outskirts of Casalarreina. Unfixable, we walked back, thankful we weren’t far from Benny. This likely spelled the end of our cycling on this trip, at least until we reach a larger town with a shop where we can buy a repair kit or spare tubes; we checked the local supermarket to no avail. Kids were playing football in the sports centre adjacent to the aire, but took their frantic, energetic noise back home at dinner time, leaving us again to pass a quiet night in the drooping shade of the tall willow trees.