Rising above the vineyards of Rioja, south of the coastal city of Bilbao, Laguardia is a postcard-perfect medieval town. No cars can enter the gates in the massive walls that surround Laguardia – the ground beneath the hill is too fragile. Since medieval times, it has been carved into a maze of tunnels and passageways that were used as shelter and escape routes in unsettled times and later as cool storage cellars for the wine that flows so freely here in the heart of the Rioja vineyards.
Above these dark underground corridors, Medieval buildings are close packed along its narrow stone-paved streets, some of them homes still occupied by descendants of the families that built them in the 12th and 13th centuries. Pilgrims on the Camino de Santiago – the Way of St James en route to Santiago de Compostella — stopped at some, where families offered them food and a place to sleep.
One of Spain’s Finest Gothic Portals
The main street they trod leads from the modest Romanesque church of San Juan Bautista up the hill to the crest of the village, crowned by the church of Santa María de los Reyes, both stops on the pilgrimage route. The original portal of Santa María de los Reyes is inside a later narthex, a vestibule that has protected and preserved one of the finest Gothic portals in all of Spain.
Most of these have lost their polychrome painting, and many of them have lost the details of the carving as well. But here the colors survive on the stone images of the Virgin, prophets, saints and angels, and on relief carvings on the tympanum over the door and on the pillars at either side. The church was completed in the 14th century and the stone work was painted two centuries later.
Bodegas Ysios Winery
Behind the church, a walkway leads to an overlook at the highest point, far above the vineyards, with good views across the valley to the Sierra de Cantabria mountain range beyond. Easily identified among the vineyards below is Bodegas Ysios, designed by Valencian architect Santiago Calatrava, its undulating roof composed of metal pleated into accordion folds that shine in the sunlight.
Where to Dine in Laguardia
Wine and food are prized in Laguardia, where many of the tunnels are still vaults for wineries that welcome visitors to tastings in their dim coolness. Particularly inviting are the passages beneath the charming little hotel and restaurant Los Parajes, where they have been preserved to house a wine bar, a tiny shop selling local food products and a viniculture spa. The restaurant on the street level is exceptional (reservations are highly suggested) and upstairs, the old home has been converted into elegant guest rooms.
Prehistoric Sites Near Laguardia
The area is rich in prehistoric remains, including the Dolmen of San Martín and the archaeological site of La Hoya. This Bronze Age settlement dates from the first millennium BC and is well interpreted in a small museum. One of the houses has been reconstructed and furnished with objects found in the excavations, to give visitors a glimpse of Bronze Age life.
Shore Excursion from Bilbao
Laguardia is one of the most popular shore excursions offered by cruise ships calling at Bilbao’s new cruise port. It is often combined with a visit to the Marques de Riscal Winery, designed by Frank Gehry, in nearby Elciego.