Even though he is not the patron saint of the city, San Mateo (Saint Matthew) has become a symbol of Logroño, the capital of La Rioja. Two factors have worked to the advantage of the San Mateo Festival: first of all, the day honoring the saint (September 21st) coincides with the start of the grape harvest (La Rioja’s most important fruit and source of income). Also, the apostle, who was a tax collector, is the patron saint of businesspeople.
The San Mateo Festival originated in the 12th century, when Logroño achieved the title of villa (town) and the right to hold an annual festival, leading it to become an important center of trade. Over time, the festival grew in popularity, attracting merchants from all over Spain and becoming a festive occasion for the people of La Rioja to give thanks for the harvest. King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella authorized the celebration of a festival and Isabella permitted the dates to be moved from early September to the 16th-23rd of that month, ultimately settling on September 21st, the day of San Mateo. Since 1956, the San Mateo Festival has also been known as the Grape Harvest Festival, and since 2005 it has been celebrated from September 20th to 26th.
Since 2006, the festival has taken place during the calendar week containing September 21st. On that day one of the main ceremonies of the San Mateo Festival takes place on Paseo del Espolón: the Crushing of the Grapes. Children from all the comarcas of La Rioja fill up a barrel with the first grapes of the season, which are then crushed by two men dressed in traditional regional garb to make grape juice. The juice—the first of the harvest—is then offered to the Virgin of Valvanera (the patron saint of the city and of La Rioja). The festival—one of the best in northern Spain—begins in Plaza del Ayuntamiento with the mayor’s pregón (proclamation) and the traditional chupinazo, the flare that announces the start of the San Mateo Festival.
The masses have found new ways to express their enthusiasm in this festive atmosphere. It’s become customary to throw foods like eggs, cava, flour, mustard, and tomatoes. On the first day of the festival, it’s also common for young people to stand under the balconies of the houses between Plaza del Ayuntamiento and Calle Mayor—the center of the city’s social life—and demand that their owners dump buckets of water on them.
The celebration is fueled by a constant flow of wine and zurracapote. Zurracapote is a popular drink that originated in La Rioja. To make the mixture, fruits like peaches and lemons are added to red wine as well as some sugar and cinnamon. The concoction is left to sit for several days and is traditionally drunk out of a porrón.
The chamizos are one of the most important traditions of the San Mateo Festival. These places are set up by local groups and organizations who offer zurracapote to passersby for free, although they all put out jars for voluntary donations. The festival coincides with Gastronomy Week, during which a variety of traditional dishes of La Rioja’s cuisine are served for a token fee. Visitors can try dishes like potatoes with chorizo, lamb chops al sarmiento, embuchados, and choricillo, all washed down with some good local wine. Plaza del Mercado de Logroño is the main site of the food sampling, but the festival extends to other areas of the city as well.
One of the most popular events of the week is the Float Parade, in which local and regional organizations and invited outside groups participate. The groups compete to design the best float, being rewarded for originality in the planning and execution of their floats. In order to encourage the largest turnout possible, the parade takes place on the weekend around sunset.
Fireworks shows have a special place in the hearts of Logroño’s people. There are displays every night of the festival along the banks of the Ebro River. Since 2007, Logroño has hosted the International Fireworks Contest with contestants from Spain and other countries. In addition to a monetary prize, the winner is invited to put on a fireworks show at the San Bernabé Festival (the patron saint of Logroño) which is celebrated on June 11th. When it comes to music, there are performances in Plaza del Ayuntamiento by well-known Spanish groups, and other kinds of concerts take place in Plaza del Parlamento, Espolón Park, and elsewhere in the city.
As with any major festival in Spain, bullfighting is a part of San Mateo. An important festival takes place in La Ribera Bullring with six or seven bullfights featuring some of the most famous matadors in the bullfighting world.