Try not to arrive in La Rioja’s medieval capital Haro on June 29. On that day, as soon as you step on the street complete strangers will douse you in buckets of wine and cackle with glee. You have inadvertently walked into the town’s famous Wine Battle, an annual orgy of wine throwing that would make Bacchus run for cover. Thousands gather on the city’s streets armed with buckets, basins, dustbins, giant water pistols, and even back-mounted crop sprayers with the intention of drowning each other in wine. They apparently go through 49,210 liters (13,000 gal.) every year. Everybody is dressed in white but they don’t stay that way for long. Soon the teeming, screaming mass is covered head to toe in purple, with sticky hair and stinging eyes. More savvy veterans cover their cars seats with plastic, their cameras with plastic wrap and some even wear goggles. All the antics are accompanied by brass bands and tractor drawn floats and culminate in a night fiesta on the town plaza with fireworks and more wine ducking.
Haro is 100km (62 miles) south of Bilbao and the center of the country’s wine making tradition. La Rioja is Spain’s most prodigious wine region with many historical and prestigious wineries surrounding Haro. Such was the region’s wine making importance; some of the wineries even had their own train platforms to dispatch wine to all corners of the country and farther afield to the Spanish Empire. La Rioja’s wineries are famous for aging rich and fruity wines that are literally a shame to throw away. The historical city of Bilbao is farther to the north on the Atlantic coast. It is the capital of the Basque region and home to the famous futuristic Guggenheim Museum designed by Frank Gehry.
The Haro wine battle is becoming just as famous, with people coming from all over Europe for this annual wine wipe-out. Its origins date back to a 10th century land dispute between Haro and a neighboring town called Miranda De Ebro over a mountain called Montes Obarenes. Every June 29 (St. Peter’s Day), the Mayor of Haro ceremoniously passes through the town on horseback and then up the mountain to a small chapel. Everyone follows him on the 6.4km (4-mile) route, many of them holding some kind of receptacle with wine in it. After mass, the entire congregation solemnly bless themselves and then rush outside to begin a fervent purple hued battle in what is a reenactment of the medieval confrontation except the only thing that is spilled is wine. The melee eventually moves back down the hillside to the city bullring, where the festivities continue. If only all wars could be solved this way.