So my last day in Cuenca was meant to be about nothing – a quiet one and then I got a small two hour job to do – my fault I did say I’d pick up emails if urgent. So the morning passed and it wasn’t quite hot enough to go to the pool so given the verbiage was flowing I knocked out a short story for a collection I’ve planned alongside “the novel”. I’d written off the new town of Cuenca down the hill after driving through a few times but thought while I’m here I’d better walk down through the old town and see how it all pans out. It took about half an hour – all down – from the parador to the main shopping/drinking street. I had dinner planned so didn’t want much lunch so a beer and the freeby olives, nuts and crisps sufficed at a couple of bars and it was after four by now. The lower town does not have much to recommend it I’m afraid except for an enthusiastic balcony display commemorating Cuenca’s sunflowers and a little later the lovely strains from the practice rooms of the music academy with its lively (again) Corten steel sculpture.
The northern river Jucar had a bit more water than the Huecar on the parador side and there was a pleasant park and another incredibly modern church the cross of which probably doubles as a cellphone mast, impressive university buildings and a likely looking theatre.
Do I walk back up or get a cab? Seems daft to not walk but it does prove quite steep and there’s more to come later. However the legs make it up beside the Huecar with its little weirs gurgling encouragement to the ancient limbs and I do get a different angle on the hanging houses and the bridge which on my way down I’d heard someone refusing to cross – I guess if you have a height phobia it would be very scary.
Back at the parador I shower and prepare for dinner at Cuenca’s one Michelin starred restaurant Raff San Pedro. Of course it’s up in the old town so the bones creak a bit but the menu makes pain soon forgotten. I explain that with old age I really only need a small amount so the patron suggests the Menu Gastro which has three small starters, a main fish or meat and ice cream. I go for that – and forgive me some have accused earlier blogs of being too full of food but this has to be told. First comes a small golf ball of ajo arriero cod and garlic mixed with potato and with a truffled exterior. Delicate notes of truffle and garlic very well balanced. Next is a wine glass of foamed yogurt with migas the local croutons and jellied extract of artichoke. The third is a wonderfully smooth salmorejo gazpacho’s thicker sister with cucumber and quail’s egg. The main was an old favourite carilleras pig’s cheeks where the meat is so tender because of lying against that great expanse of bone. Accompanied by a local Tempranillo my last day in Cuenca was a huge success and Spain beat Croatia 6-0 so there was happiness in the plaza as I wended my way back down to the parador.
Breakfast, pack and on to Madrid with an easy drive until the last section where the SatNav could not put me outside my hotel despite telling me I’d reached my destination. I had to go into a giant parking garage under Plaza de Independencia and find the hotel on foot with Google maps and then go and retrieve the car and park it in the hotel’s garage. It’s a modern boutique number quite unlike the rest of my trip but very pleasant and in Salamanca an area of the city I didn’t know much before. I do now. It’s very posh (of course) with lots of international and local specialist clothes, shoe and jewellery shops. What I did find was a Galician taberna for lunch which had steamed clams fresh in from A Coruna this morning – and they and the crisp Rias Baixas wine reminded me of our trip two years ago along the north and west coast starting in San Sebastian and ending up in Baiona. Fortified I wandered, keeping to the shady side of the street as it reached 36 degrees today – pleasing the locals as it had been over 40. I walked through areas unfamiliar and familiar, finding another local market on the way and ending up on the far west of the city by the Royal Palace. I sat in front of the Opera thinking one day it would be good to come here during the season and catch a performance. Likewise the Liceu in Barcelona.
I had of course to go through Sol the very heart of Madrid and our favourite plaza Santa Ana before heading through the Retiro Gardens and back to the hotel on Alcala. My feet said enough and there’s a Mexican-Spanish fusion group playing live on the roof terrace tonight so it would be rude not to attend. Besides as I entered my room after an urgent beer in the bar I found this. Salud!
I’ve never been into to the FitBit step thing but today I did think it would be nice to know just how many steps – all as they say andando a pie.
The route to our next stop the parador at Baiona took us very close to Santiago de Compostela so we couldn’t not go. We passed a few groups of walking pilgrims on the way but I think the preferred routes keep them off the major roads, fume flagellation not being part of the pilgrimage. As we approached the sprawling city we headed for the first car park we saw signs to and found that miraculously, well it is Santiago, it was right by a major intersection from which a gate led us to the centre in about fifteen minutes. However after the drive we needed to pause for a coffee and chose a place near this big junction where coach after coach disgorged its mixtures of pilgrims and day trippers.
We made our way into the old part of the city pausing at several haberdasheries to marvel at the lace, religious memorabilia shops to wonder at the gullibility and how many shapes you can make for a scallop shell, and some art and craft shops whose wares were interesting but not compelling. The cathedral is very impressive and the whole monumental area surrounding it gave a feeling of ancient power. We refrained from joining the queues to see the interior of the cathedral. It was hot, the queue was very long and we agreed some time ago that we didn’t like paying to go into churches.
The short straw – baggage monitors
We didn’t join the queue – this is just a tenth of it.
Real pilgrims have express entry and therefore much shorter lines were forming for them to enter the cathedral – quite right after walking miles.
We covered the immediate hinterland gazing at fine buildings with amazing carvings, wandered down narrow streets and found ourselves at the Café Casino a building dating from 1873 which has high vaulted ceilings, glittering chandeliers, loads of stained glass and wood panelling throughout. It is reputed to have been and still be the haunt of artists, musicians and writers so we felt completely at home as we sipped our drinks and enjoyed the brilliant surroundings. A further amble through the other part of the old centre and we were back at coach corner and looking for somewhere to lunch.
On the corner of the road back to the car was a restaurant called Markesa which billed itself as an izakaya gallega. What could be better than Japanese pub atmosphere with fresh regional produce? We looked no further and enjoyed an excellent fusion of cuisines and after all there’s a lot in common between the small dishes served in izakayas and tapas. Prawn and asparagus tempura, some delicious yakitori skewers of chicken, beef and vegetables, teriyaki eels, eels are something else both Japanese and Spaniards love, sushi and some miso soup made for a satisfactory if surprising lunch in Santiago.
We drove off southward after getting out of the city fairly easily and bowled along passing more strings of pilgrims taking the southern route – I’d advise the northern as the final approach to Santiago is all uphill on the southern route, but maybe that gets you extra brownie points and into the cathedral quicker. We rolled through green hills and farmland for much of the way and then into an urbanized strip that seemed to connect the northern suburbs of Pontevedra right through to the south of Vigo. There are great harbours all down the coast and of course industry follows. There were some hairy stretches in which all the knowledgeable locals move at breakneck speed round blind bends and emerge from tunnels, cross and re-cross bridges but we survived and emerged to follow a more leisurely path to Baiona. We’d booked the parador here for five days on the basis that it was a long way from anywhere, had a pool, was in a medieval fortress and would enable us to have a rest after nine days of being frequently on the move.
Our first impression as we arrived was that we had struck lucky. A beautiful sandy bay with a promenade lined with shops, bars and restaurants, a fishing harbour with a replica of Columbus’s ship Pinta which brought the first news of the New World to Baiona in 1943 – oh dear too used to typing my date of birth – 1493 was when the Pinta sailed in from the Americas. Columbus is starting to play as big a part in these blogs as Murakami – he’s followed us from one end of Spain to the other. At the end of the town was a promontory with the fortress walls surrounding it and the hotel right in the middle at the top. And you had to show your reservation to be allowed to drive through the entrance gateway at the foot – proper posh!
Here we were then for five days of rest and relaxation enjoying spectacular sea views, clean air and bright sunshine. Except our friends Natalie and Graham were returning from England to their house in Antequera via the ferry to Santander which is not that far away so they are coming via Baiona tomorrow and then driving back down to Antequera through Portugal, which will be a new experience for them. As we check into the hotel in its massive stone ceilinged entrance hall we notice a host of others moving in from some vintage Mercedes and VWs, the odd Morgan and Jag. It seems there’s a German rally association that organises an annual 10-day trip staying in paradors and other smart hotels with some fun driving in between. Sounds like me – just need the vintage car now.
Our room was excellent with a view down the rocky coastline with the sound of the sea through the open window and we set off to explore the massive parador, soon finding a large lounge bar and terrace which was just what was needed. It served good tapas and there was another more formal dining room in an elegant hall and a further less formal restaurant two minutes walk down the battlements.
Next morning I set off on a quest for paracetamol as stocks were running low and pain barely under control a lot of the time. I walked a mile along the promenade to find an open pharmacy and duly purchased some tablets. However Dee found these quite hard to swallow and so I really wanted the little plastic torpedoes which they didn’t have. As I got back to near the parador entrance another pharmacy had just opened and in response to my ‘Hay paracetamol en forma de capsulas, no comprimido?’ they produced the very thing I was after. This was thanks to extending my pharmaceutical vocabulary at the last place to learn that ‘comprimido’ in this context means pressed powder -conventional pills. I returned with my triumph and after all this early exertion the full Spanish provided by the excellent buffet went down well. We had a call from Natalie to say they had left Santander and would probably hit Baiona about one. We spent some time exploring the pool area and other rooms in the parador and then walked down into town and found a central café at which to await the arrival of our friends. We soon spotted them strolling along towards us and catching up and sharing news took several cups by which time it was time to go in quest of some lunch. We found a good restaurant on the edge of the old town and spent a happy couple of hours with excellent fish and seafood – and I think I remember some ice cream too. We parted and made for our different hotels as the parador was full when Natalie tried to book – all those rally drivers and their companions – and arranged to meet up there for a drink and then go to a recommended restaurant for dinner – the number one place was way up in the hills behind Baiona but we decided being in town would prove the easier option. The food was fine, the wine and brandy flowed but it was a bit lacking in traditional Spanish atmosphere. We had failed to do a decent recce as there were several good-looking restaurants back in the old town which we discovered later when Natalie and Graham were back home. However we did have a most enjoyable evening.
The next day was as intended – a quiet day around the parador, sunbathing by the pool in which we declined to swim despite the heat since it was a magnet for seagulls and you know what they do in water. We suggested that some kind of bird repellent might be worth investigating as the confines of the hotel pool were clearly much more attractive than the vastness of the ocean. A peaceful pleasant day at the parador. But having seen the source of the Miño river in Meira we decided that on Saturday we would do the recommended driving trip around the river valley where it forms the border with Portugal and then flows out into the Atlantic.
It was a very fine trip with steep wooded slopes, small villages almost Alpine in appearance and a couple of towns at one of which Mondariz we stopped for lunch eventually. It’s a famous spa town and although the spa complex does two-hour sessions we had come unprepared so we headed for the main square where there were several restaurants but none serving food – one told us his chef hadn’t turned up today, another that the kitchen closed at two – unheard of in most of Spain.
There were however lots of signs advertising Mondariz water which had just been voted ‘best water in the world’ at the Diamond Taste Awards. Tempting but they probably use it in the local beer too don’t they? A friendly barman directed us to a rival whose chef had turned up and made us some very acceptable dishes a seafood salad and a caldo gallego – the Galician stew with cabbage, beans, peppers, ham and chorizo. As we ate it became time for kick off back home as Watford made their first visit to West Ham’s new London Stadium. So phones were consulted frequently and then less so as we went 2-0 down in the first half hour. Then miraculously it was 2-2 at half time. The guide book had said that Ribadevia although not on the circular tour was well worth a visit so after a coffee we set off in the car to explore further inland. Dee nearly jumped out of the car when her phone said we were 3-2 up as we headed through the narrow lanes high above the banks of the Miño and with frequent glimpses of the river below. We made it to Ribadevia as 20 minutes into the second half we were beating West Ham 4-2 – amazing! Also amazing was the scene that confronted us in Ribadevia. It was choc-a-bloc with vehicles and people, the streets were packed and it looked like fiesta time. It was actually market day and a rehearsal for thee History Festival in a week’s time when everybody dresses in medieval costume, something we seen in Tortosa back in 2001 on our honeymoon. We managed to creep through the town, abandoning all hopes of parking, and then made our way back to Baiona through another scenic route.
Sunday was another quiet day at the hotel with an excursion into the old town to buy a few gifts for those back home. There are lots of bars, craft shops, delicatessen and restaurants in an ancient area of the town that is very compact but has some wonderful buildings and unexpected sights around corners. And we bought what we needed.
The view to the north
The Atlantic to the west
A rest on the ramparts
In the afternoon, we made the three kilometre walk round the battlements which gave us wonderful changing perspectives of the coast to the north and south the huge ocean bay stippled with islands to the west and the pretty town and beach to the east. There were convenient places to pause and admire the view and it was a very happy excursion. We dined that evening in the less formal restaurant just down from the main parador building called the Enxebre A Pinta as it overlooks the port with the replica ship. Less formal than the main dining room the food was well up to standard and made for a very relaxing last night in Spain – and we got another lovely sunset.
Our flight on Monday from Santiago airport was not until 19:20 so we packed and decided to try to visit Ribadevia which we had failed to explore on Saturday. The contrast couldn’t be greater with the town on a sleepy Monday. Cats and kittens dozed in doorways – real not graffitti – gegants the huge figures that parade at fiesta time sat lonely in a doorway and the Jewish quarter told a story of flourishing trade followed by persecution on a series of plaques.
We were glad to have made it here where the river Avia joins the Miño, a castle dominates and the main square housed a microbrewery and an irresistible leather goods and craft shop. We set off towards Santiago and the route took us through Ourense a name I’d heard as a Spanish province but had no concept of. It’s split by the river Miño which is quite broad at this point and has dramatic sloping bridges, roads and parks along the river banks and a medieval centre with massive churches and municipal buildings. We had a light lunch and set off for the airport which looked very straightforward on the map but the SatNav had different ideas. The first part was fine – along the autovia to Lalin and then the N525 when the motorway changed from A53 to AP53 designation and we didn’t feel like paying tolls as we were not in that much of a hurry, we thought. The SatNav clearly didn’t think this was a good idea and we set off across country along single track roads – there were no problems with passing as we didn’t see another vehicle except for tractors in the fields. With high hedges, sudden changes of direction and right angle bends it was quite disorienting but also quite a laugh – possibly slightly nervous laughter at times. Then our narrow track emerged onto a major road with a sign to the airport at 1km and a convenient filling station so we could avoid the exorbitant rates charged by rental companies by returning the car full.
Parking and return were easy in the very modern airport which had been rebuilt in 2011 to increase facilities for tourists which include a lot of pilgrims who can’t make the penitential journey on foot. As it happens they needn’t even leave the airport as there’s a great model of the cathedral and old city complex so you could take your selfies there and save the trip to the centre.
The flight back was our first with Spain’s cheap flight operator Vueling and it was perfectly fine. We reflected on a holiday which balanced a little rest with some essential sightseeing in areas of Spain neither of us knew before but came to love during these last two weeks. The three-day, three-day, three-day, five-day bookings proved very satisfactory with some real rest towards the end. As always there were places we regretted not visiting – Ferrol in particular, when we saw Almodovar’s Julieta in the cinema a couple of weeks later as lots of it was set there. The holiday confirmed our love for Spain with its continual ability to surprise and delight.