The streets of Haro are paved with pride. You brush against its texture in air, it emanates from their historic bodegas and is thickest in their sense of community.
That is, of course, when the streets aren’t running with wine.
La Batalla del Vino
This sandstone town is transformed once per year into La Batalla Del Vino – the wine fight. A wine festival with a difference.
The rain poured as my husband and I arrived to Haro by train from Bilbao for the annual week-long festival celebrating St Juan, St Felices and St Pedro.
As the afternoon darkened to evening, the Plaza de la Paz became a stage for high energy music. A lorry was transformed into a stage with lasers, smoke machines and dancers. This continued until long past my last glass of rioja, after my travel-weary body gave way to sleep.
In the morning, through the fur of a thick head, I became aware of drums beating. Slowly, cymbals reached me, and I felt sure it was music. I squinted into the early sun and despite my disbelief, there was a marching band rousing heavy eyes to begin the day.
We had arrived on the Wednesday in the middle of the festival but this band was an inexplicable daily occurrence, perhaps to ensure that nobody missed any of the festivities.
Woken to the unexpected alarm, Thursday morning was marked by family activities, including a peculiarly Spanish tradition of a troop of cabezudos: big-headed traditional figures who playfully tormented children.
Evening Fiestas during the Wine Festival
In the evening, live bands in the main Plaza had competition from the bands of the local peñas (social clubs) who toured horseshoe streets from bar to bar.
The streets sparkled with strings of lights reflecting in glasses as local and tourist drift between bars, voices humming as they warmly caught up with friends and family, symphonised with chattering children who continued their games well into the night.
People laced between bars and people, taking their glass with them and topping it up at the next place. Wine barrels were convenient pintxos tables as people snacked in the street.
The Day of La Batalla Wine Festival
For those who had taken long afternoon siestas, the night continued until they joined us on Friday at 7.30am when free buses carried people from the town to as close as possible to site of the Batalla del Vino, a few kilometres away.
The whole town marched the final kilometre dressed in white with red bandanas. Trumpets and a tuba became louder and the street’s gullies poured with wine. Screams warned us that every spot of white fabric was a target.
Vans lined a narrow, grassy avenue, their precious cargo guarded by people with their choice of weapon. Crop-sprayers, buckets and super-soakers put our two-litre wineskins to shame but we tried to put up a fight nonetheless.
The 12,000-strong crowd sang, jumped and danced. Local and tourist laughed and screamed over the brass band playing the centre of it all.
A crack resonated and I span round as a man fell and hit his head on a step. The wine festival didn’t have first aiders so the prescribed remedy was a bucket of wine poured from above.
It worked, and he sought revenge with the contents of his wineskin.
70,000L of Wine Later…
Within a couple of hours, 70,000 litres of rioja drenched us all and soaked into the ground, so the crowd meandered back to the town, casting their eye over a patchwork of rolling hills and vineyards.
The peñas‘ decorated tractors trumpet and dance the end of the fiesta from the main plaza to the bullring. We took the opportunity to return to our Airbnb to carefully dispose of pink clothes.
After I had rinsed the last of the wine from my hair, and scrubbed at purple-stained skin, I realised I was reluctant to be clean of the pride I had absorbed for my short cameo in this, the cultural heart of La Rioja.
Excited about Spain? You can read more about Bilbao in my 4 Alternative City Breaks