Text and photos: Salvador Velilla
After a week walking amongst beech groves, oak groves and wheat fields, after having left the tower-house, in Loyola, where Ignatius was born, you arrive at nightfall at a small settlement, still in Navarre, which was known in Ignatius’ time as the community of Marañón, due to it being at the foot of a mountain where Marañón Castle stood. On what was an important route and interchange, it is proclaimed to be a building that was an old pilgrim hospital and that still has symbols of Santiago: the pumpkin, the staff, the walking stick. When we rise at dawn, the view stretches into the distance, entangled in the peaks of the Sierra de la Demanda and the hills of Soria. Closer to us, at our feet, are fields of grain that in the valleys become small vineyards that slope down the mountain: they are the fertile lands of Rioja. After walking alongside the vineyards, Meano, also known as la Aldea, is the last Navarre town we will pass through before arriving at Kripán, the first town of Rioja Alavesa, which we will get to know. We will travel more than twenty kilometres crossing land and towns of Rioja Alavesa, accompanied the whole way by the vineyards of Kripán, Elvillar, Laguardia and Lapuebla de Labarca. The path sharply declines; therefore, we break off at an altitude of seven hundred metres and we arrive at the banks of the Ebro, in Lapuebla, situated at an altitude of 429 metres.
Kripan is a small group of houses, carved from ashlar stone, that sits on a mountainside at an altitude of almost seven hundred metres, surrounding the parish church dedicated to Saint John, in which a simple, early Baroque altarpiece stands out. Of its original Romanesque church from the late XII century, dedicated to Saint Mary and Saint John, all that remains is an arch, with worn capitals, which has recently been joined to the current chapel. Not far from the church is the shrine of Saint Martin, where an old hospital probably stood that would normally have accepted bequests from residents.
They named this land, which was occupied by man from very early on, el Dolmen de Los Llanos (the Dolmen of the Plains). To the north of the road which runs from Kripán to Elvillar, is the Peña Larga cave, along with some anthropoid graves in the municipal district of Casales.
In mid-May, the residents of Kripán observe the very long-standing custom of going on pilgrimage up into the mountains of Cantabria, where they worship Saint Tirso in a shrine dug into the rock.
We exit the village by going southwest, downhill and with vineyards on both sides of the spacious path. Without delay we arrive at Pilas creek. Now, we go a touch upwards and we are led to the pleasant surprise of being able to walk on a road, magnificently traced by master stonemasons and which, until recently, was said to have been from the Roman era. It can probably be dated around the end of the XVIII century when we started to make roads that had a precise width, so that carriages loaded with wineskins containing the rich wine of Rioja could travel from the villages and ports in the north.
The route follows a westerly direction but, if we have time, once we have arrived at the top, we can deviate southwards to visit the dolmen of Encinal, not far from where the shrine of Saint Águeda stands. In the dolmen, discovered in 1943, there are human remains and pieces of decorated pottery. To the west, the tower of Elvillar church is prominent, where we shall not delay in arriving, via a wide road that opens-up between vineyards and yet more vineyards, after crossing the road coming from Kripán.
To the north is the majestic Sierra de Cantabria, inviting us to go up and walk amongst its peaks. At the top, alongside the highest peak, is Toro castle which was erected in the Middle Ages, and was one of the strongholds of the Kingdom of Navarre against Muslim invasions. In the Middle Ages, in the fields around Elvillar which today we see covered in grains and vineyards, several settlements such as Riñana, Riñanilla, Biurco and Quintanilla, were set up, speaking of those that were the most enduring. In all probability, the village of Elvillar grew with the inhabitants who abandoned these settlements, and by such an important undertaking as the construction of a chapel, like the church that we see in the middle of the village, dedicated to Our Lady of Assumption. On the entrance door are the remains of what was a castle, followed by a gothic temple, with the current temple having been erected in the XVI century. The altarpiece, one of the best in Rioja Alavesa, is the work of Guito de Beaugrant, who toiled on it between the years 1547 and 1549, with it being completed by the master Araoz, a resident of Genevilla. The slimline, very tall tower bears the engraved phrase “Año 1556, me fecit”.
In this temple, you can admire a large painting on canvas, representing Saint Ignatius surrounded by several Jesuit saints, those which stand out amongst them are Saint Francis Xavier and Saint Francis of Borgia. It would appear the painting was a donation that Father Agustín Sáez de Lacuesta, “ex-Jesuit resident in Bologna”, made in 1786 after the expulsion of the order.
Now outside of the church, adjoined to the temple, is the winery that gathered the tithes and offerings of the clergy, and a little further to the south is the pillory, a stone column, which denotes the passage of Elvillar from a village to a town and to the right to hold its own territorial jurisdiction. Between the civilian buildings protrudes that which is known as the House of the Indian, with a coat of arms, an artistic balcony and a magnificent fish/snake at the beginning of the handrail which helps you to climb the staircase of the house.
We travel southwest as we leave the house, admiring the imposing mass of the Sierra de Cantabria in the distance, at the foot of which is Husos Cave, where important remains from the Neolithic period have been unearthed and in the cavity of which is the source of the Uneba stream. Close by is the majestic dolmen of Chabola de la Hechicera (The Witch’s Hut), one of the most impressive dolmens in Rioja Alavesa, whose tomb was restored during the summer of 2014. The route runs between vineyards, circumventing valleys and, on occasions, steep ascents, and after crossing the San Julián stream, Laguardia can be seen far in the distance, hoisted up on a hill.
Laguardia, a walled town, can be seen from any point, and from Laguardia, villages, hamlets and wide expanses of vineyards can be seen from all of its four flanks. Laguardia has lived from wine and for wine, to the point where kilometres of tunnels have been carved into its subsoil which have held the rich wine of Rioja Alavesa up to the present time.
In Laguardia two paintings have been preserved, one in each church, that commemorate the Ignation presence. The one in the Church of San Juan is a painting of Saint Francis Xavier, which can be viewed on the altar finial of the family of the fabulist Félix María de Samaniego. In the Church of Santa María, moving close to the altar of Our Lady of Carmen, a Baroque picture of Saint Ignatius can be seen, which is the work of José de Ortega.
We leave Laguardia by the Mercadal gate, in the barbican, with our sights and steps set towards the south, pursuing the River Ebro. We pass in front of the cemetery and, after crossing the road which runs towards Elciego, we take an asphalt path which emerges onto the corner of Palacios Wineries. The path levels out between the vineyards, dotted with small cairns covered in stones and kermes oaks. In the vineyards, in small parcels, almonds, figs and olives can be seen and, from time to time a rustic hut or wine store, where until recently farming gear was kept, and at those where the field guards have been keeping watch there have been no thefts. It is the Pisarno pathway, as was cited in the XIV century, that runs alongside the Cerro de la Horca (Hill of the Gallows), where it crosses with the Senda de la Traición (Trail of Treason), an old route which goes from east to west, from the land of Navarre to San Vicente de la Sonsierra. Our route continues southwards without delay, passing alongside the station cottage, a big cottage, today sadly dilapidated. The vineyards inundate the valley which is to our left and which goes by the names of El Valle (The Valley) and La Barranca (The Canyon).
We enter Lapuebla de Labarca via the winery quarter, small buildings whose floors have been drilled through to the underground cellars in order to accommodate the large barrels of wine. It is an area which people are sadly deserting. The sale of grapes to large wineries and the cooperative are leaving these small wineries without purpose. The church, with two uneven towers, has a large arched entrance. In its interior, the imposing Renaissance altarpiece, with Baroque expressions, draws the eye. A picture of Saint Mary of Asa, from the end of the XIII century, and a Christ with very realistic features, both stand out.
It is well worth descending into Calle Mayor, the old town, and seeing how it forms a horseshoe shape around the church, giving us an idea of what a town was like in times gone by. Travelling westwards we bump into the square, where the Town Hall is located. We begin to see another type of construction and we can peep out from a viewing point, from where we can appreciate the River Ebro. The view is splendid, the Ebro jumps up and disappears into the distance in the mountains, whilst the summit of San Lorenzo, at an altitude of more than two thousand metres, is covered in snow in the wintertime. Today, the autonomous community of La Rioja, previously known as Castile, can be seen.
It is important to point out that Lapuebla was a dry port, which muleteers and all types of merchandise passed through, along with camerano goat herds in search of the northern pastures. It had a boat, whose profits went to the church on Sundays and on public holidays of Our Lady. Then there was the suspension bridge, financed by the residents, based on taxes on the wine, and from 1942 the concrete bridge, which provides a link to the nearby station for the Bilbao-Tudela railway. They say that Saint Bernardino de Siena crossed in the boat, and on reaching the other side, threw a staff that he had been carrying to the ground and from it sprouted a mulberry tree. It may be a legend, but what certainly is history is that, at the end of the XVIII century, the residents of Lapuebla tied the boat to a mulberry tree on the opposite side of the River Ebro. It may also be that Ignatius of Loyola passed through here on the Navarrete route and, if the day he used the boat was a Sunday or a day devoted to Our Lady, his money will certainly have gone towards maintaining the church. Arriving via the Ebro he left the Basque Country and entered Castile. Navarrete was little more than a mile away.