La Rioja, a land of fiction with real landscapes and villages

La Rioja may be the smallest region in mainland Spain, but proportionally, it has/features some of the greatest contrasts in landscapes and villages, with everything from mountains to vineyards, lush forests, and mediaeval villages. You may think you’ve never been to La Rioja but we’re sure you’ve seen it in film and on television, as you’ll see in this article.

Ever since 1956, La Rioja has been a mainstay for filming locations for everything from international films to TV documentaries and streaming series.

The film archives take us back to 1956 to find the first major international production filmed in La Rioja. Directed by Juan Antonio Bardem, Calle Portales, the Círculo Logroñés, the town’s railway station, the Plaza del Mercado and the Café Moderno, among other Logroño landmarks, made it to the big screen in the Spanish-French joint production Calle Mayor

But Logroño was not the only part of La Rioja featured in 20th century films. El sur (Víctor Erice, 1983), which was also partly filmed in the capital of La Rioja, was shot in Ezcaray, a beautiful little village at the bottom of a valley with a pristinely preserved old town. The film features two famous locations: the former Gran Hotel in Logroño and a house on Calle Zorraquín in Ezcaray, with a beautiful grove of trees. Both the house and the grove remain intact. 

At long last, wine makes an appearance… though the script’s demands required that the wine was not from Rioja, but from Jerez. The film Oro fino (José Antonio de la Loma, 1989) depicted a rivalry between Andalusian winemakers with a plot somewhere between Dallas and Falcon Crest. Although on screen the locations masqueraded as others, scenes were filmed in several wineries in La Rioja, in Logroño (specifically, La Hípica and the Hotel Los Bracos) and in villages such as Sajazarra, with its imposing castle. The latter is one of Spain’s most beautiful villages with a historic centre that is well worth an extended visit. If you visit it, be sure to have a drink (a Rioja wine, not sherry) in one of the two bars in the Plaza del Ayuntamiento, the square that’s home to the Town Hall. Take your time on the terrace, especially if the weather is nice.

Aerial view of Sajazarra / Avistu

Straying a bit from the chronological order, we can confirm that Rioja – and its world-famous wine – has indeed appeared on the screen. This happened in 2010, in the Spanish Television series Gran Reserva which aired for three seasons, telling the tale of the rivalry between the (fictional) Reverte and Cortázar families. Over 42 episodes, the story travelled through Logroño and Haro, but the vineyards, the stars of the scenes under the open sky, were actually in La Rioja Alta (Cenicero and San Vicente).

The small village of Briones served as another filming location. Perched on a hilltop, this mediaeval village (which is also a member of the Most Beautiful Villages of Spain Association) overlooks the landscapes of La Rioja, where wineries, pastures, and vineyards stretch under our gaze to the foothills of the Sierra de Cantabria.  

Briones, one of the filming locations for Gran Reserva / Avistu

Did you know that the Camino de Santiago also passes through La Rioja and that it’s also been featured in a fictional series? In fact, the Camino crosses La Rioja from Navarre and leads to Burgos, passing through the region’s capital, Logroño, small villages, landscapes that bathe the Ebro River, and, of course, Santo Domingo de la Calzada, a traditional spot for pilgrims to stop and rest.

Extensive vineyards make up a large part of the landscape in La Rioja / Avistu

The series 3 caminos, broadcast on Amazon Prime in 2021, was precisely about pilgrims, telling the story of five friends who walked the Camino in different years of their lives. Logroño, Navarrete, rural landscapes, and Santo Domingo de la Calzada itself serve as the backdrop for their journey through La Rioja.

Federico Luppi (Pasos, 2004), Martin Sheen and Emilio Estévez (The Way, 2010), and Malú are also among the film stars and famous musicians who have chosen La Rioja for their films and videos because, they considered this land to be the best site to film their stories, and with good reason. The La Rioja Film Commission is keenly aware of this and ensures that the technical, logistical, and artistic teams have all the necessary facilities to do their work.

Las Peñas de Islallana, location of Un amor / La Rioja Film Commission

In fact, 2023 will bring us the premiere of Rioja, la tierra de los mil vinos, a documentary directed by José Luis López-Linares, as well as the film Un amor, the film adaptation by the award-winning Isabel Coixet of the famous novel of the same name by Sara Mesa, also showcasing La Rioja.

If you’ve already seen La Rioja as the backdrop for films, series, and music videos, all you have to do is visit it to savour the region with all your senses.

By José R. Pérez Fernández “Avistu” (Travel Inspirer)

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