the diary thing 
FOG IS THICK ON THE HILLS above the Cárdenas valley. We're heading into the valley where the Yuso and Suso (pronounce it fast in Castillian: "yoo-tho" and "thoo-tho") monasteries sit at the top and bottom of the lush green hills. Yuso is the one at the bottom, dominating the little town of San Millán de la Cogolla. It's a huge building, once very important and extremely rich. Nowadays, only 11 monks keep it active, but an excellent hotel and restaurant have been added to the complex. 

Our guide in Rioja, Javier, is a wine connoiseur and an important official in the region's tourism. He's probably the best guide we'll have on the trip. He takes us through the monastery, helping out a local guide who keep making malaprops like "the cunt of Navarre" (we assume he means "count"). The building is astounding -- a testament to the wealth of the church when it essentially ran the country. Things are very different now; the Franco era might have ended whatever relevance the church had here, and the anti-clerical attitudes of big cities like Barcelona and Madrid have become commonplace. 

We're shown around the inevitable cloister, then taken upstairs to the enclosed cloister that the monks had built, ostensibly to preserve the paintings on the walls, but which afforded them an added level of comfort. The sacristy is all lavish, rococo excess, where Napoleon's troops stabled their horses and ruined the alabaster floor. The monastery museum houses the treasures left behind or recovered after the French finished looting the building. Once again, that hint of nasty, bloody history that seems to cling to everything here.


"I am come to see this race which has suffered so much from treason, from corruption, from poverty, and the evil chance of war. And it seems to me that my only chance of learning something of these people, so full of sadness and pride, is that in my baggage, fortunately so small, I should make no room for any prejudices."
- Cities of Spain
Edward Hutton (1925)

Day two in Spain -- more monasteries, more booze.
the view of Yuso from Suso
Cárdenas valley: the view of Yuso from Suso

WE GET BACK IN THE BUS and drive up the hill to the Suso monastery. It's locked up, and Javier can't seem to get in touch with the caretaker to let us in, so we peer through the huge wrought-iron keyhole and walk around the romanesque interior. It's older than Yuso, down at the bottom of the valley, and in a precarious position, built on the side of a mountain which is eroding in the rain and cold and damp of the Rioja climate. The building is constantly being shored up to keep it in place. 

The view from Suso is beautiful. With mist still clinging to the top of the hills, the valley looks remarkably evocative, especially where the high walls and tower of Yuso sit nestled in the hills and trees at the bottom. It's chilly and drizzling rain, and as I stand at the top with my cameras I'm overcome with the most overwhelming sensation of sheer futility. Sure, the old stone piles are lovely, but the valley itself is a treasure, and all these centuries of armies, monks and money, kings and dictators and terrorists seem like so much frantic, wasted effort. 

"Look at this, it's all just so..." I say to Dennis.

"What do you mean?" 

"Look at this. It's just, well, what's the point?"


"Yeah. Why bother? Huh? There's just no...fucking...ahh, point. Really."

It's all very deep.

PERHAPS I'M STILL A BIT JET-LAGGED. The day before, after the half-ruined monastery at Nájera, we hurried off to the Cistercian abbey at Cañas. Cistercian nuns are a particularly austere order, and the cloisters and chapel are in a profoundly unadorned gothic. Whatever splendour the buildings might have had has been relegated to the museum, and it's in one room, while standing in front of a case of reliquaries -- bones and hair of saints preserved in worked gold and jewelled vessels -- that I realize I'm falling asleep on my feet. 

I walk out into the cloister to get some air, but I'm exhausted. Dennis joins me, and we walk out of the building to the bus, where we both slump in our seats and snooze till the group returns. It turns out we're not alone -- at the end of the tour, one of the nuns had emerged and offered the group cookies and sweet wine. Michael, the other photographer, had politely refused the wine, and fell asleep with his head on the table.

Casalarreina, across from the bodega

THE LAND BECOMES FLAT AGAIN as we head to the wine-growing region around Haro. The wine museum in the town is a bit of a bore, but on the way there, Javier asked us if we'd prefer to skip the quick tour of Logroño and, instead, visit a nice bodega in the country. The group happily agrees.

Casalarreina is a tiny town, little more than an intersection of country roads, but it has La Vieja Bodega, a lovely, low stone building built over two ancient, deep wine cellars. Apparently the property of some local noble, the cellars were used to store his wine, while the main floor had a variety of uses over the centuries, finally ending up as a garage for farm equipement until it was rented by the current proprietors and turned into a restaurant and bar. 

We're given a tour of the cellars, and their lovely, dusty bottles, and end up in the lounge next to the bar, where we're given several bottles of local aguardiente -- a kind of grappa. I love a good, rough drink like grappa, raki or schnapps, and we sit around tasting different bottles while Javier lights up a cigar. It's a nice moment, and I make a mental note to come back here one day.

Outside Haro, the bus stops in a bleak industrial suburb and we wait while Javier leans over the intercom next to the single door at the corner of a huge, high wall. We're buzzed in, and begin a tour of the Carlos Serres S.A. winery.

A century-old company, it was probably once housed in much more picturesque surroundings, but this 1960s industrial park, with its access to the highway and featureless warehouse spaces, is more in line with the export-ready, EU-friendly new Spain. A massive, dark room holds the maceration vats and fermentation tanks, while next door is the bottling and packing machinery, next to huge flats stacked with cases of wine, bound in plastic wrap, ready for the market. A further room holds hundred of barrels in new, clean oak, stacked high under dim fluorescent lights.

It's only when we go to the basement that we feel like we're in a real winery -- or at least the winery of our imaginations. It's a dark, musty room, thick with the pleasant reek of grapes and damp and mould. Picking our way between the racks of bottles, we hear the scurrying of rats; it's all very Poe-like. The tour over, we're brought into a dining room set with glasses and bottles and plates and plates of tapas -- cheese and chorizo and greasy tortilla. 

The ensuing "tasting", so soon after the splendid lunch at Yuso and the aguardiente at Casalarreina, puts us over the edge; except for Michael and Fernando, we're all a bit drunk when we get up to leave. On the way out they hand us each a bottle of their hundredth anniversary vintage. Two days into the trip, we've reached the definite high point as a group.

and writing 
Rick McGinnis
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