Letters from Iberia – La Rioja

Letters from Iberia – La Rioja

La Rioja, a journey through fall in its outmost glory…


After leaving the dry and deserted Bardenas Reales and crossing the Ebro river, I’m “officially” done with the Pirenees mountains. Standing all along the other side of the large and fertile Ebro valley is the Sistema Iberico, or better known in english as the Iberian Range, another fascinating arrangement of rocky massifs and gorgeous valleys. Seven of those valleys, all carved by ancient glaciers and now home of vibrant rivers, have made a great part of the reputation of La Rioja, the next autonomous province on my list and the least populated region of Spain. The other important factor for the region’s recognition, its wine ! La Rioja NOCa is well known to connoisseurs throughout the world.

It is the first thing you’ll notice, leaving behind the town of Tudela (known for its delicious food), and climb the early flanks of the mountains; vineyards for miles on end, revealing a vibrant array of yellow, gold, red and crimson leafs on this fall morning !

The second thing you’ll admire are the forests above. Northern Pines and Beech mostly, grown and exploited by local industries… Oaks more randomly. We are in the Sierra de Cebollera, now a natural park. Home of intense pastural activities in the past, it has been reclaimed by nature for the most part as that economy declined in the last century. Here and there, horses, cattle, or sheep, occasionally humans !

It feels deserted, left behind, soon to be abandoned ! Villages with elder folks looking at you surprised, almost questioning, as you pass through, disturbing the peace of their moment… As everywhere else, all is for sell…

Contrasting with the ancestral aura of this land, the wind turbines planted at the top of some of the hills on the edge of the park. I may be all for green energy, and find those turbines aesthetic independently, I can’t help regretting their implementation in batches in mountainous areas. It takes away from the surrounding natural beauty. So is my opinion, to each its own !

In an ideal world, I had hoped for sun in the Bardenas desert, and mist in the forested hills of La Rioja. Only I got it backward, as a warm sun now accompanied my first day through the forests. Creating a mood that didn’t fit the season ! One that offered very little to photograph, if not for “Geraldine” (probably not her name, if she even has one, but sounds better to me than n°whatever, tagged in her ear!) resting peacefully in the middle of the road on my way to one of the many religious ruins found in the area !

Cow on the road
Meet Geraldine !

Talking about cows… I found camp later on in a field where a few more cows where enjoying the fresh green grass of the pasture. At first I hesitated. Bells hanging around their neck can be very noisy and disturbing for someone trying to sleep near by. Also the open field created an unexpected wind tunnel which could bring a lot colder temperatures for the night. But it was flat and the cows had wisely found refuge from the wind on the other side of the field, behind a large boulder surrounded by bushes, while myself stood behind a few others on the opposite side. I figured it would be fine.

Half an hour later, a pick-up and a larger animal truck entered the field. For once lucky, I stayed unnoticed, as they began gathering the cows and brought them towards the entrance, where stood a metallic fence used to trap the animals before they get loaded inside the trucks. As it got dark, and they realized they didn’t have enough room for all, they decided to leave two behind to be picked-up later. By now the wind was dreadful, and even hiding behind those rocks, my car was jerked left and right in a scary fashion. Those two cows remained there trapped between the metallic fence and wooden rods blocking them in. Impossible for them to get out, impossible for them to move, or even lay down !

“The animals silence is the dual expression of their dignity and our dishonor. We, humans, on the other end, make so much noise !”
Sylvain Tesson

To all those pretending that farmers care about their animals, I would like to believe you. Desperately ! But my experience throughout those years and all that I have seen humans do to them, makes it impossible !

I got out of my car once it was clear those people weren’t coming back until the next morning and freed those two, who immediately went back to the boulder to find cover from the wind !
Needless to say I was gone early the next morning !

Thanks to that wind, the weather had returned to its usual self; rain ! But never since the start of the trip had I been more excited about it. It now fitted the landscape and its colors perfectly. It also re-emphasized the loneliness of it all.

Rio Vadillas sparkling in the fall
Rio Vadillas sparkling in the fall

I arrive in the Rio Vadillos valley and its spectacular Gorges just in time for lunch. I sit by the side of the river where horses have gathered, matching their surrounding colors.

Horses in the fall
Horses gathering by the river, matching the colors around them…

Next I walk up towards the Ermita de la Virgen de Lomos de Orio, resting below a popular cascade I will never reach. While advancing through the dense forest of pine, a lone dog greets me with a bark. He is large, and at first scares me, but the slow wagging of his tail tells me he means no harm (thankfully). There is nobody around, no house, nothing ! After having briefly sniffed me, accepting my presence, he decides to walk along with me. He is a beautiful Great Pyrenees shepherd mix. A has no collar, no markings in his ears, nothing indicating he might belong to someone. My mind begins to question the possibilities ! What to do if he keeps on following me like this ? He’s really big… and really wet ! Now he appears to be too skinny as well ! Are you being fed by anyone ? Are you one of those stray dogs roaming the mountains ?

I have already adopted him and gone through the list of possible names to give him when I reach the Ermitage. There is nobody there to suggest he lives here. Just a bunch of sheep and cows mingling around… and a second dog looking over them, suddenly happy to see “my dog” reappear, after what must have been a brief “escapade”. Those two are in charge of the herd. “technically” ! It seems like a female (in charge) and her pup (goofing off). What a shame if I had unintentionally separated them by mistake. They’re now having a blast playing together, paying no attention whatsoever to the herd around. Just killing time, being dogs, undisciplined as they wait for potential tourists like me to share some food with them…

Shepherd dog
Shepherd dog looking after herds of sheep by Ermita de la virgen de Lomos de Orio

Since it is all the time I will have to share with them, I stick around. They sit next to me, enjoying my company as well. We end up spending the after-noon together, completely disconnected from the rest of the world. Enjoying the peace of our surrounding until it’s time for me to get back to my car for another night.

Good bye dogs, be safe, be good !… I’ll miss you…

Next Castilla y Leon.

Make sure to check our dedicated guide for the Spanish Trail where you’ll find all the informations you’ll need to complete it on your own.