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Travel guide: Plan a Rioja cycling tour

Any trip to this mountain-flanked Spanish wine region is destined to make an impression, thanks to its architecturally stunning wineries and gastronomic focus. But for a truly memorable adventure – and the very best views – take to its rural paths on a bicycle. Ewan MacCormick maps a cyclist’s ideal route and shares key stops along the way

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La Rioja is a region framed by the undulating lines of the Cantabrian mountains of northern Spain, dotted with ancient hill towns and home to the endless vineyards of nearly 700 wineries. Most of the biggest names in Spanish wine reside in La Rioja, where dedicated winemakers strive to squeeze bold, velvety magic from the humble Tempranillo grape and manage to do so with unparalleled success. La Rioja looks lived-in, but its worn Romanesque facades stand fearlessly beside the wave of avant-garde architecture currently sweeping the region.

Modern Rioja is thriving, with world-class winery tours, elegant tasting rooms and dedicated, enthusiastic winemakers eager to share their passion. It would be easy enough to jump on a tour bus, or hire a car and careen through Rioja in a day or two. However, seeing this glorious region through a window greatly diminishes the experience. To truly immerse yourself, you have to get on your bike.

A Rioja cycling tour means interaction. The scent of the warm earth, the wide-open vistas, the smiles and helpful directions from friendly locals. Cycling means taking the day at your own pace, maybe stopping for a long lunch in a cafe in a honey-coloured town perched on a hillside.

There are many routes to choose through this dynamic region – however, there is one that stands out above all others for a short break. Each day in this suggested itinerary requires only two to four hours in the saddle and the routes are generally flat, with the occasional climb up to a hill town. So, while a good level of fitness would be ideal, there will always be enough time in your day to get off and have a little push.

Lastly, the standard, glaringly obvious warning: enjoy responsibly. Excessive consumption and cycling are not exactly a match made in heaven; however, the tasting experience in Rioja is much more conducive to a bike than to any other form of transport. The bulk of the cycling is off-road, along straight, well-maintained gravel paths – having a GPS device on board is a very good idea – but even when you get onto the roads, the lack of traffic in Rioja is truly astounding, with many villages feeling like charming ghost towns.

Rioja cycling tour: at a glance

  • Bike hire You can arrange to hire a bike and have it delivered to your accommodation by La Rioja Bike Tours, which also has local staff on hand should you have any technical issues throughout your trip. A hybrid bike will be perfect for this route and costs about €17 (£15) per day; if you need a boost, e-bikes are available for about €29 (£25) per day.
  • Bag transfer You have the option to add panniers to carry your luggage, but cycling luggage-free is a much more pleasant option. You can send your bags ahead by arranging a taxi transfer with your accommodation each night, at a cost of roughly €20-€30 (£17-£26) per day.
  • Fitness A reasonable level of fitness is good, as is familiarity with riding longer distances on a bike. Overall, the daily distances are manageable, and even with frequent stops, you should arrive each day with time to visit the local attractions.
  • Terrain Much of the journey will be on hard-packed gravel paths through endless vineyards, quiet country roads and the occasional lightly cobbled street.
  • Getting there From Bilbao airport, it’s a 90-minute bus journey to Logroño, or you can travel by train (two and a half hours).

Rioja cycling tour: Day 1

Arrive in Logroño

The capital of Rioja, Logroño is unassuming, relatively unknown even to people from other parts of Spain. It has all the charms of any Spanish city, labyrinthine alleys leading to vast open plazas, an enchanting mix of Romanesque and Gothic architecture and bare plane trees reaching to the skies like skeletal hands. However, there is one long, thin street in Logroño that makes any visit entirely worthwhile, Calle del Laurel. As evening comes, this alley erupts into life, providing the most joyous of Spanish experiences.

Come the stroke of eight, locals of all generations burst onto Calle del Laurel, for this is when the pincho bars open. Pinchos are tiny tapas, merely a bite, but always packing an unexpected eruption of flavour. The bars are all designed so that you do not linger, you simply relish your tiny pincho and small libation and move on to the next one.

It is an entirely sociable, gastronomic pleasure and an experience not to be missed. Despite a huge selection of local wines on offer, 99% of locals are drinking crianza. No matter your wine pedigree, it’s the perfect choice when combined with the food and the atmosphere. There is a mild adjustment as you get used to the red wines being sat on the bar in ice buckets to combat the ever-present heat of the city, but this is about living like a local, and after a few, you get used to it.

Being in a big city, you can stay in big chain hotels or opt for something with more Riojan flair. The Hotel Marqués de Vallejo has a stunning traditional exterior, a modern, fresh interior and is only a few minutes’ walk from Calle del Laurel.

Rioja cycling tour: Day 2 (37km)

Logroño to Laguardia

You start the day following the famous Camino de Santiago in the direction of Navarrete, cycling alongside pilgrims walking across the north of Spain to their destination in Santiago de Compostela, Galicia. Wishing them a customary ‘buen camino’, take the turn-off to the north just before you reach the footbridge crossing over the AP-68 motorway, to follow the track weaving between the vineyards towards the little town of Fuenmayor. On the way, the endless rows of ancient, gnarled vines begin to stretch into the distance around you, bringing the promise of that first tasting.

Fuenmayor is not only a great place to stop for a bite to eat, but a great place to start your wine adventure. Marqués de Arviza, the second-oldest winery in Rioja, sits in a squat, imposing building that looks more like a prison than a winery. However, the real joy lies in the 500m of calados, the underground cellars lurking beneath, packed with lovingly created Rioja.

As you continue on north to Laguardia, crossing the river at Lapuebla de Labarca, the scenery opens up, revealing the ever-present Sierra de Cantabria mountains, the perfect frame for your journey through Rioja. Arriving in the 10th-century town of Laguardia, you can wander through its beautifully crumbling streets and explore more of the calados that run beneath the town. There is El Fabulista with its fascinating history, Casa Primicia with its intriguing Cabernet blends, and Solar de Samaniego, its vats decorated with incredible works of art.

In the main square of this time-worn town sits Hospedería de los Parajes. The hotel’s old facade gives way to an interior bursting with personality. It is here, in the wine cellars beneath the hotel, that we suggest you dine on a tasting menu created from the best of local produce.

Rioja cycling tour: Day 3 (32km)

Laguardia to Haro

El Rincon del Noble

El Rincón del Noble

Ten minutes from Laguardia sits the remarkable Ysios winery. Designed to mimic the Sierra Cantabria behind it, the architect has traded traditional curves on the undulating roof for rectangular blocks. This makes it look like the winery is pixelated: a place where reality and online life blur. With wine tours starting at 10am, it’s a tough choice between Ysios and the nearby Eguren Ugarte, where the winery team offers a tasting of three wines from the range, paired with local produce from the Rioja Alavesa region.

From here, you’ll find narrow roads and amber-tinted gravel paths furrowing through endless vineyards, roughly following the route of the A-124 road to the west. After passing Samaniego, divert through the brassy, cobbled streets of Abalos, and then the beautiful little town of San Vicente de la Sonsierra appears on the horizon, its walled fortress standing proudly against the azure sky. The climb up to this charming hill town rewards you with several delightful cafes, a chance to recharge and take in the views.

Your final stop today is a little further west in Haro, home of the big hitters. Try to pack in a couple of winery visits in the early evening, as this is the home of Muga, CVNE, Roda and López de Heredia, maker of Viña Tondonia. Tough to decide which to visit for the full tour in the morning! Our tip would be López de Heredia, but all have their merits.

Everything in Haro, from the murals on the walls to the shuttered buildings, exudes charm. There is a multitude of tapas bars, and even if you are not tempted by the pig’s ear bocadillo, it will almost certainly provide a life-changing experience. The Eurostars Los Agustinos Hotel is unmemorable from the outside, but internally so lush and well appointed that you will never forget it. If the tapas scene does not thrill you tonight, then El Rincón del Noble is the kind of unpretentious restaurant typical in Rioja, where the menu is filling, delicious and extremely affordable.

Rioja cycling tour: Day 4 (34km)

Haro to Nájera

The temptation today is to take a morning wine tour in Haro and linger afterwards, to taste all their wares. While it is difficult to pull yourself away from the incredible hospitality in Haro, one of the real highlights of the trip awaits, so best force yourself back in the saddle.

Strike out on sunbaked white paths that lead you through vineyards and farmland to the south and southeast, back towards the Ebro river, urging you onwards via Gimileo to Briones and the remarkable Vivanco Museum of Wine Culture. This modern museum is a highlight of any visit to Rioja, skilfully curating the history of winemaking in the region, with informative displays to boost the understanding of even the most knowledgeable wine lover. Combine this with an exquisite lunch and winery tour, and you will have one of the greatest days of your wine-drinking life.

From here it is head-down, as you speed south on the LR-314/313, via Hormilla, towards Nájera, your final stop on the trip. In charming Nájera, dominated by its location on the Camino de Santiago, you will find the Duques de Nájera right in the centre. Once freshened up, you can hit the ancient streets around it to drift from tapas bar to tapas bar. If you’d rather stay in one place, Restaurante Olimpo serves delicious, unpretentious fare, or you could plump for the ‘Pilgrims’ menu from just about any restaurant in town, for a bit of value dining.

Rioja cycling tour: Day 5 (40km)

Nájera to Logroño

Marques de Riscal

Marqués de Riscal

Breathtaking scenery cloaks you on today’s ride as you follow the powerful, milky-turquoise waters of the Ebro back to Logroño. There is, however, one slight diversion to be made today – pick your route, taking the LR-113 north via Uruñuela or the LR-321 through Huércanos to get up to Cenicero, before continuing on to Elciego to reach the stalwart of Rioja, Marqués de Riscal.

With its famously stunning facade designed by Frank Gehry, Riscal looks as if a futuristic cyborg octopus of pure psychedelic beauty has alighted on its roof. The winery produces comfortably more than three million bottles per year, and this is reflected in the opulent gardens, one-star Michelin restaurant and boutique hotel. The cellars are immaculate, and the walk through the production plant almost overwhelming in its scale, but this makes for an incredible winery to finish off your tour through Rioja.

From here it is a joyous, freewheeling ride along the Ebro, heading out of Elciego to the southeast. Your feet hardly touch the pedals as you coast along the deserted tarmac paths leading back to the capital – you can cross the river at Lapuebla de Labarca again to continue on the south bank and cut out the final big loop if you wish. Once back in Logroño, you can take one more taste of the remarkable Calle del Laurel before spending your final night or jumping on the train to Bilbao to catch your flight home.

More travel ideas:

European wine weekends: Four great getaways planned

Rioja restaurants: Where the winemakers eat

Top ten winery hotels in Spain

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