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Good food, Divine wine — it must be Haro

"Spain for the holidays"

There are about as many ways to get to Haro as there are reasons for going there, and, indeed the two things are linked. You may find yourself in this vibrant little town if you are a traveller on the ancient pilgrimage route the Camino de Santiago, (or the Way of St James as it’s also known) as it passes through the town. If you’re making for the Spain to UK ferry routes Haro is a favoured stop among motorhomers and caravanners, as it lies only an hour or so from the cross channel ports of Santander and Bilbao, and possesses a charming riverside campsite about five minutes walk from the town square. You might be a person who revels in outdoor pursuits such as bird watching and delights in the dozens of ungainly storks nests that punctuate the rooftops of the town. More than any of those things, however, you’re likely to be here for one reason above all others - wine.

Haro is the capital of one of Spain’s best known wine producing areas, the La Rioja region, in the North of Spain. The evidence of its prime product is all encompassing. Stroll around the streets and everywhere there are monuments and statues linked to winemaking vying for your attention. Wine shops and bodegas proliferate, and although the town is not a huge one, and walkable end-to-end with no great effort, there are sufficient bodegas for the authorities to have initiated a special bus tour. These, (think distilleries or breweries with built in facilities for trying the product) typically are dark, cool spaces, with samples for trying out the wares, which to the uninitiated (like me) baffle with their categories ranging from crianza to reserva.There are the grand old wine houses with a long history in the town, with the more modern in design shops such as the Lopez de Heredia bodega with its shop shaped like a squashed decanter, and its’ twelve foot high ornate raised bar. Although Haro has a bodega “quarter”they are not confined solely to this area and are ubiquitous, and too numerous to list, although from memory I remember the Muga bodega, the CUNE and the La Rioja Alta, and the different ambience some of the others offered, which ranged from the cosy and friendly to the frankly snooty.

In the cafes and restaurants which circle the main square there is no escape, and you can hear discussions about,”crisp, aromatic, melony wine-ideal for breakfast!”, whilst with or without food, there is no doubt that wine is king and that the sales of any other drink from cerveza to coffee to spirits are dwarfed by comparison. Loyalty of the locals? Maybe to a degree but there’s no doubt their drink is a flexible one, readily consumable solo, or as an accompaniment to tapas or a full gastronomic blowout (this is a region also noted for its gastronomy, and its cakes and pastries almost required me to tie my hands behind me to resist the temptations on offer).Still need convincing? Chess Grandmaster and former British champion, Stuart Conquest lives there, and says,” I go out a lot. By day I go to the restaurants where I can enjoy the set menu of the day. By night the bars stay open as long as there are customers to serve. The choice of food is enormous. I travel all over Spain playing chess. The Spanish food in Haro is as good as anywhere I have been in the country” That main square, with its central bandstand is the stuff of memories not just because of its picturesque nature and fabulous eateries, but because you can very easily come to feel like a local here, and I took with me memories of a people without pose or affectation. I was asked twice, by total strangers in the space of days what I thought of their town, whilst a laughing couple stopped to admire a T-Shirt I was wearing. I can only imagine what the town is like during the Wine festival in June.

This festival, has a wine drinking competition as part of the fun, but it’s on June 29th that the real fun begins with the Battala de Vino( Battle of Wine).This is the day of their patron saint San Pedro, and begins at 7am with a procession led by the mayor of the town on horseback. All ages dress in white shirts and red scarves, carrying jugs, plastic bags, bottles water pistols and every conceivable container filled with red wine proceed to the cliffs where mass is said. Then it begins. A true free for all with everyone tossing wine over each other till soaked from head to foot. A sea of purplish –pink shirts everywhere, resembling some gigantic Vimto ad is the end result. Beware if attending, though- -this is no spectator sport and the only rule seems to be,” Spray, or stay out of the way!”

How to get there

Brittany ferries run a Portsmouth to Santander service and begin another from Portsmouth to Bilbao in March 2011.Either town is about an hours drive from Haro, and from Bilbao there are also excellent rail and bus services.Bilbao airport is only 40kms from Haro, if fly and drive is the preferred option.Contact:- Brittany Ferries website or the Brittany Ferries UK reservation team 0871 244 0744

Where to stay

Haro is a large enough town to offer options for most budgets, from large hotels, to smaller rooming houses to the local campsite. Try; or for discount hotels

Camping de Haro is set on the bank of the River Tiron and very near to the bodega quarter. As well as camping caravanning facilities it has also bungalows to rent.

When to go.

Anytime other than June is you prefer a non-festival ambience, although the North of Spain can experience cold(ish) winter months and some wet. It can also get uncomfortably hot in summer- I found it just a bit too warm at the end of May and the swimming pool on the campsite was not yet open.