07/31/2018 - 08/01/2018
The north of Spain has most of the smaller autonomous regions and over the next few days we were going to pass through all of them. We would have missed Navarre entirely if we hadn't decided to stop over in Pamplona, the only city in the region of any significant size. Navarre is closely related in culture and politics to the Basque Country on their western border. In fact, Pamplona is probably the most typically Basque city in Spain. The city is famous primarily for the annual Fiesta de San Fermín, popularly known as the Running of the Bulls. I had actually visited the city seventeen years previously for exactly that purpose, although my memories were limited to the run itself and a haze of partying in the streets. When we arrived on a sleepy Tuesday morning there was little that I recognized. Our first stop was the covered market Mercado de Santo Domingo, which was pleasant enough but contained little to distinguish it from any of the others we had seen.
Not far from the market is picturesque, cobblestoned Plaza Consistorial which is surrounded on three sides by colorful and dignified townhouses. On the northwestern side is the majestic Pamplona City Hall, which blends Neoclassical and Baroque styles.
Plaza Consistorial proved to be Pamplona's high point. We walked as far as the Monumento al Encierro, an enormous bronze sculpture that was installed in 1997 to celebrate the Running of the Bulls. On the way we passed Plaza del Castillo, a huge open square that was largely devoid of interesting sights or foot traffic.
It was way too early for a real lunch. We stopped by a couple of appealing tapas bars but ultimately decided we weren't in the mood for pintxos. We spent a little more time wandering around the narrow pedestrian streets of the town center and then got back on the road to the region of La Rioja.
We probably would have skipped Logroño and La Rioja if we didn't have a modest interest in wine, honed by prior travel through areas such as Puglia, Napa, and Côtes du Rhône. That would have been a tragedy. The next two days were among the most enjoyable that we spent in Spain. I wasn't familiar with Logroño before creating the itinerary for this trip but it seemed like the logical choice as a base to explore the region. Aside from having the largest daily market in La Rioja the city is reputed to have possibly the best tapas in Spain.
We'd missed the early lunch window between Pamplona and Logroño so our first priority was to find a table during peak hours, not a trivial task. Most of the recommended restaurants were on a single short street in the center of the old town, Calle del Laurel, which we referred to afterwards as Tapas Alley. As I expected it was difficult to find a place that could take the five of us but all we had to do was keep marching down the street asking in every doorway and eventually we were wedged in. Lunch was satisfying and included savory caracoles as well as our first taste of percebes (goose barnacles) since we'd visited Portugal four years previously. Naturally we washed everything down with sturdy Rioja wine.
Our Airbnb was a modern, air-conditioned apartment just a five minute walk from the old town. We got settled and then headed right back to begin our city exploration. The architectural highlight of Logroño is the Baroque Co-cathedral of Santa María de La Redonda. It's an impressive building with imposing twin belltowers and an open courtyard that attracts local soccer players.
In the northern part of the old town is the oldest church in Logroño, Parroquia de Santiago Real. It is a traditional stop on the Camina del Santiago and in the courtyard the flagstones are painted with pictures relevant to the pilgrimage. It appeared to be some kind of a game and Cleo was infuriated with me for not being able to figure out the rules.
Just north of here was the Ebro, the same river we'd encountered two weeks previously in Zaragoza. As in Zaragoza the river was brown and unappealing, and seemed to be largely ignored. The most interesting feature here is the 19th century stone bridge which leads to roads north out of town.
As in Valencia and Aragon, street art is a thing in Logroño. Expect to see something whimsical or disturbing around every corner.
Directly south of the old town is a small but pretty park. In the center is the Monument to General Espartero surrounded by a fountain and greenery.
Dinner was very late and consisted of a migration from east to west in the old town, stopping at various hole in the wall bars for tapas which we consumed on wine cask tables in the alleys. A large variety of wines by the glass was always available.
The daily market in Logroño was pretty sleepy on Wednesday morning which was a little disappointing, but it was nice to be able to walk around and take pictures without feeling like we were getting in the way.
The few restaurants on the upper level of the market hadn't opened yet, but fortunately there was an excellent tapas place open directly across the street. They had an amazing pincho consisting of gulas rolled in zucchini atop a slice of jamon. I used to think when I ate gulas that I was eating baby eels until one day I looked closely at a tin of the stuff in a Spanish market. It turns out that gulas are actually fake baby eels made from processed pollock, essentially the same stuff that goes into the surimi used to make sushi. Real angulas are very hard to find and enormously expensive when you do. In all likelihood I've never eaten the real thing but I'm not sure it matters, since by all accounts the flavor of either angulas or gulas is entirely imparted by the garlic and oil they are cooked with. If you want to know for sure whether you're having angulas or gulas, the easiest way to differentiate is whether or not there are tiny eyes at one end. But in reality, if you have to ask then you're eating gulas.