Travel: Grape expectations

Robert Gaisford takes off for Logrono, the capital of Rioja, to enjoy the wine festival
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
They don't wear lettuces on their heads at the Logrono wine festival. Their entire absence from heads or any other parts of the anatomy was a sad but irrefutable fact. A usually unreliable source (a family friend) had once more lived up to its reputation.

Logrono lies on the Rio Ebro at the centre of the Rioja wine-producing area of Spain, between the Basque country to the north and the Sierra de la Demanda to the south-westish. The grape is, unsurprisingly, the central emblem of this society and much depends on it. Even the town's paving stones are impressed with a grape-and-vine-leaf motif.

The area's most important tribute to the grape, though, is the wine festival, held here each September around the feast of St Matthew (San Matteo), when the worst heat of the summer is over but it is still warm. Despite the lack of lettuces on heads, there is plenty to entertain the visitors during the festival. Traditionally, the feast day marks the start of the grape harvest and, from the start of the ensuing celebrations, it is a matter of pride that no one under the age of about 25 does more than cat- nap until the week is over. They keep going on a mixture of excitement, dancing and local hooch, frequently mixed with Coca-Cola or spices.

The start of the festival centres round the twin-towered and cracked cathedral of Santa Maria de la Redonda, where a huge procession of floats, each one built by a different pena (clubs whose sole purpose is "to provide happiness") takes place. Between the floats come groups of dancers accompanied by bands, sometimes brass, sometimes bagpipes (yes) and sometimes just pipes, all accompanied by castanets.

The following day starts with the running of the bulls - of the small and quite friendly variety, with bandaged horns. They end up in the bull ring where the young Logroninos dance and run in front of them, or stagger and blunder about to roars of approval from the crowd. The penas provide barbecues at lunchtime in and around the Plaza Mercado, just by the cathedral - which saves having to go home and be asked where you've been all night and why you look as if you've been run over by a bull - and each pena has its own speciality; chorizos (sausages), mushrooms, ham, and, I'm afraid, tripe. I was forced, against every instinct, to try this by my wife, who appeared to do the same but later confessed to having thrown it away.

At 12.30pm, the local dignitaries gather in the square, dressed up to observe the first treading of the grapes. A procession makes its way from the cathedral to the square carrying the statue of the Virgen de Valvanera, followed by girls and boys in traditional costume, carrying baskets of grapes.

One by one they empty their grapes into a large wooden flower tub; the band, playing throughout, becomes even more exhilarated as Francisco and Antonio Urdiales - the two brothers who have been doing this for the last 20 years - come forward onto the stage. Slowly, solemnly and fastidiously, they remove their socks, roll up their trousers, take each other in their arms and gingerly step into the tub. There they perform an anti-clockwise dance as they tread the grapes under foot, watched and admired by the enormous crowd.

After the grapes have been suitably squashed, two earthenware jugs are filled with the must and placed in front of the statue. After more dancing and the ritual offering of wine to the participating head honchos, the celebrations come to a speedy end and everyone rushes for the exit and Calle Laurel - the street of a 100 tapas bars - to enjoy the Rioja.

The conversation becomes more and more animated, real bullfights now take place, the afternoon temperature reaches its peak, the Joses start to look increasingly attractive to the Conchitas (and vice-versa), and everything seems entirely satisfactory.

Meanwhile, the surrounding bodegas gear up to receive huge quantities of grapes from which to produce this year's jovenes, crianzas and grand reservas. It promises well, provided the rain keeps off. There is also the prayer of the pilgrims along the Camino de Santiago de Compostela, which passes straight through Logrono and past more bodegas than the average pilgrim can shake a staff at. The route goes slightly to the south of Haro, which has its "wine battle" on the feast of San Pedro (29 June) when the locals spray each other with red wine from leather drinking bottles. Some enthusiasts now use agricultural crop sprayers for the purpose: the rest of the year they probably use them on their lettuces.

The best way to get to Logrono is on Go (0845 60 54321), which has just begun flights from Stansted to Bilbao for pounds 80 return