Hidden Gems in Rioja

Thirteenth in a series of posts about a trip with my friend to Barcelona, Bilbao, Rioja and Granada

At 5 p.m. on April 1, we ascended the couple of blocks up the hill to the Santa Maria de los Reyes, St. Mary of the Kings, noting the curious way that the octagonal entry building is joined to the larger rectangular church. Soon, the tourist office agent arrived, jangling her keys.

Quiet street in Laguardia Spain

Although our guide books had not mentioned it, the church is a rare specimen, even unique, for its intricately carved wooden portico that is protected inside the octagonal building. That, and the unusual arches and cultural relics inside the main building make it a treasure, an unrecognized gem at least to Western visitors.


The carved portico took our breath away, with bigger-than-life statues of the 12 apostles, dating to the 14th century. In the middle of the figures stands a statue of Mary with a serene face, one of the most beautiful “Mary’s” I’ve ever seen. Her face is full, her skin delicate white, her eyebrows thin above eyes that seem both alert and kind. Her cheeks blush as if she just came in from the cold – or perhaps from the cold inside the church. (Indeed, it was freezing inside, which the tourism agent explained was the main reason that regular services are held in the town’s other church, and only special holidays were celebrated in this location.)

Mary, Santa Maria de los Reyes

Mary’s elaborate gold, black and red robe drapes realistically, her left hip jutting out in the pose all mothers know, as she steadies baby Jesus on that hip. She is Mary at ease, calm, with a hit of a smile on her delicate lips.

Above the apostles, repeating rows of graceful arches reached toward the apex of the entryway decorated with repeating patterns of grape clusters, prophets, virgins, martyrs and kings. In the tympanum (triangular) area above Mary, scenes from the Bible were depicted: the Annunciation, the Nativity, the Assumption, and finally, Mary’s coronation in heaven.

Portico, Santa Maria de los Reyes

After at least 20 minutes studying the portico, we entered the church. The various arches that support the roof came together in unusual ways in addition to the usual smooth ellipticals. An engineer would have a grand time figuring it out.

curving roof junctions Santa Maria de los Reyes

On one side of the church, the tourism agent pointed out a source of local pride: a huge 18th century mechanical nativity scene with figures and animals that seemingly come to life when they are operated at Christmas. In the rear of the church, a glass coffin held a life-sized figure of “Cristo yacente,” or recumbent Jesus. Dated to 1,688, the figure, with articulated limbs, is carried through the streets by a local society of penitents on Easter weekend before being hung on the cross here in the church.

Collette treated herself to a massage from Veronica, arranged by our innkeeper Javier for 75 Euros (worth every penny, according to Collette). Veronica also offers “enotouristic” experiences as part of a small firm called Las Manos del Vino. Her English is excellent and I am confident she would be an able guide.

This was our quiet day amidst two weeks of busy touring. We therefore put ourselves in Javier’s hands for dinner at Hotel Collado. We were learned that Javier is a very competent chef, often drawing upon his mother’s recipes, but updating them. One of his recipes was featured in big spread in a Spanish regional magazine promoting their wine country.

While Collette was getting her massage, I spent some time pouring over Javier’s wine list to preselect a wine. Now that I had learned a bit more about wineries in the area, I was impressed. Javier has a solid list, with a dozen or so Crianzas and Reservas and another dozen Gran Reservas, many local. I noticed a wine from nearby Baigorri, whose white wine we had enjoyed at Azurmendi. I considered the Remelluri Reserva, the Crianza or Reserva from Luis Caña, a “new wave” winemaker, and a Cvné Reserva. Cvné’s Rioja Imperial Gran Reserva was named the 2013 Wine Spectator #1 Wine of the Year, and it has become impossible to find (don’t bother trying to tour the winery — they’re overrun). Finally, I selected a Campillo Reserva 2005 for 33 Euros.

We were learning that there are always extras when it comes to Javier’s hospitality at the Hotel Collado. As an “invitation” (a complimentary dish), he began by serving us sweet red peppers lightly sauteed in olive oil, garlic, parsley and seasoned with a few grains of coarse sea salt, and then another “invitation,” a delicious potato and chorizo soup.

We ordered the mixed vegetables as an appetizer, which was easily large enough to share: fresh spring peas, carrots, artichoke hearts, a few small white asparagus tips and a touch of ham. He served it “Javier-style,” one-handed, using a fork and spoon as tongs. He scooped and scooped until every morsel and drop was divided onto our two plates.

For dinner, Collette enjoyed bakalao (cod) with tomato and sweet red peppers, while I had the entrecote, a thin beef steak prepared medium rare. It came, as before, with a crisp green salad dressed perfectly (lightly) with oil and vinegar.

For dessert, we considered several options. The arroz con leche is Javier’s grandmother’s recipe, but he suggested a puff pastry with sliced apples layered on top of a custard flavored lightly with Calvados, an apple brandy. It was yummmmmmmmmy. Perfect end to a relaxing day.

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