Ebro and beyond

I always thought the Accu part of Accuweather was short for accurate or accuracy – not any more. It was one of those grey mornings that don’t encourage you to leap from your bed into enthusiastic activity. When I did venture onto the balcony it was windy and there was a hint of drizzle on the breeze. So bye-bye lazy day by the pool. One of the great things about paradors is they all have loads of corners where you can sit and knit, read, sew or paint according to your inclinations. However once I had made the effort I decided to drive up the Ebro valley for a bit towards a place we had visited before – the so-called Cathedral of Wine – a modernist masterpiece in Pinell de Brai. There might be a theme emerging here! First however I detoured into Xerta which lies right on the banks of the Ebro and its clever canal. I parked and sat down in the main square for a coffee and the sun came out. Coffee done my jacket went back into the car as it was already 20° at 11:30 and I’m only 10 Km up river from Tortosa which still looks cloudy. It’s a typical old medieval village with one exception to the norm. Being on the river bank it’s flat whereas all the other villages I went to today are built on the top of extremely steep hills – ooh my calves!

IMG_2354The river bank walk reminded me very much of a similar stroll also beside the Ebro but way west in Haro in the Rioja. Elegant wooden fences, plenty of places to sit and picnic and the interesting contrast of the slow-moving Ebro and the rushing canal.IMG_2355

IMG_2358As I walked back through the village there was evidence that the citrus season is all but over although I did see another septuagenarian scrumping a few remaining oranges – to be fair he may have been legit. I didn’t like to ask. On my perambulations through the narrow streets I concluded that a third of the population was over 70, a third pregnant and the other third at work or in school. Back in the main square I discovered the reasons for the canal.

IMG_2352This marker up the side of the church shows the level of the floods – it’s ten metres at the top – that used to devastate the whole area because of the unpredictability of the flow in different seasons. So in 1857 they built a diagonal dam across the river – some evidence points to a much earlier Moorish effort to control the river – which siphoned large amounts into the canal which is used to supply towns and villages and irrigate the fertile lands of the area. A hydroelectric plant followed in 2002 so the waters of the Ebro are put to good effect.

IMG_2360That’s my history quota for the day so I set off for culture. The town of Horta de San Joan has a Picasso Cubism Centre so I think I’ll pay a visit. On the way I get diverted by an amazing mountain rock formation. This one is in the Natural Park of Els Ports and it made me think how, wherever you go in this amazing country, you’re a never far away from mountains with amazing outcrops. This one is known as the Dog’s Head and, of course, The Castle. I think the dog’s a spaniel given its long ears – maybe a setter. But as I looked at them I remembered the mountains at Montserrat far north from here and those of El Torcal hundreds of miles south near Antequera all with amazing shapes. Fabulous!

 

 

 

 

IMG_2369On the way I have an opportunity to snap one of the roundabouts I obsessed about the other day and a sign that I thought would amuse any of the IT buffs out there with its nifty digitalism. IMG_2374

 

 

IMG_2364Of course after parking up and mounting the steps and steeps to Horta de San Joan I discover that the Picasso place only opens on Saturdays and Sundays – rubbish planning again. It also seems only to have reproductions and photographs of the mates he spent time with in Horta – might have been quite interesting but not essential, I think. After all that effort there was an attractive square with a bar with a beer with my name on. It was lunch time for the workers who are destroying the town centre before rebuilding it and they are all playing cards – quite competitively I would say.IMG_2368

On I go with a brief stop in Gandesa to El Pinell de Brai and the Cathedral of Wine. Designed by César Martinell, a follower of Gaudi, it opened in 1917 and has elements in common with yesterday’s winery at San Sadurni. There’s a lovely ceramic tile frieze showing the wine making process. Sadly since we were there before it has now opened a Michelin starred restaurant but it’s only open on Saturdays and Sundays – poor planning again. Totally inadequate prior research I’d say. For me the amazing brickwork of the vaults inside and the windows that look like wine bottles to me are pure mastery of form and function. And the way the modernists use light is brilliant. Glad a made a return visit.

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I also walked up to the top of the village up streets so steep they reminded me of a trip to Zahara de la Sierra in Cadiz province where we and the locals traversed diagonally from side to side in order to make it up vertiginous slopes. It also gave me an insight into how quickly and recently Spain has modernised. This municipal water supply was only turned off in 1998 when piped water was made available to the whole village.

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Back to Tortosa and back into the gloom – warm gloom it has to be said and a wander through its excellent central park and splendid market hall – a pre-modernist architect making great play with light again (some dispute about who actually designed it) – and past a poster that told me the medieval festival  – Renaissance I stand corrected – happens every year in July – probably won’t make it back this year though.

Unfamiliar Spain 29 Aug – 12 Sept 2016

2 A peek at the Picos

Wednesday morning, still glowing from our lunch at Martin’s gaff and the warm reception for Wellington’s compatriots the night before, we rose, finished packing and went to our convenient café just round the corner from the hotel for coffee and croissants to start the day. A call to our trusty cabbie resulted in us soon being whisked through the ring road and motorway suburbs to where our hire car awaited. If ever there was a misnomer Hertz San Sebastian City Centre was it. Twenty thoroughly confusing minutes later we find ourselves in a massive Centro Comercial with the car hire offices as far from the entrance as possible. However, the car was ready, there weren’t too many blemishes to note and photograph – essential as we were doing a one-way rental – and we were soon retracing our route onto the motorway and this time passing right by San Sebastian and heading for Bilbao. As we’d been there relatively recently we decided to stay on the motorway and bypass the city this time, while noting that it would be good to go back there again on another occasion.

MapWe also decided to carry on past Santander although people have said it’s a great city but we were drawn to the touristy attractions of Santillana del Mar once described by Jean Paul Sartre as the prettiest village in Spain.

And it did have a certain charm with ancient well-maintained buildings dating back to the 15th century, narrow cobbled streets contrasting with a massive church and many imposing palaces. We wandered happily in the sun with lots of photo opportunities, bars to sample cider and eventually a good place for lunch. Apparently there are strict building regulations and no access to cars unless they have a garage within the town which did make it a very pleasant place to while away a couple of hours. We decided against going to nearby Altamira since all you can see are replicas of the 35,000-year-old cave paintings since the originals have become too fragile to withstand the breath and sweat of visitors except a very few people each day. We later read that the waiting list is three years – almost as bad as booking at El Bulli in its prime.

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Instead as big Gaudi fans we decided to head off north to Comillas where one of his first ever buildings, and one of the few outside Catalunya, still stands in its decorative glory. El Capricho was built as a summer palace for a merchant who had found wealth in the Indies – like so many nineteenth century Spaniards – and was completed in 1883 the same year as Casa Vicens in Barcelona so they are of historical interest in demonstrating how the ideas that were later to find their way into the Sagrada Familia were already present in embryonic form in his first commissioned works. IMG_7301  IMG_7299 Capricho ironIMG_7289

It’s a fascinating small villa with an interesting combination of materials, stone, red brick, glazed tiles and lots of wrought iron. It has a tower like a minaret and reflects Gaudi oriental interests. There are repeating motifs of sunflowers and leaves and the use of the rooms follows the path of the sun. Seeing close up the designs Gaudi chose for door furniture, the windows that play tunes when they are opened, vermillion roof trusses, beautiful wood finishes and tiles and carvings of flora and fauna was an eye-opener which helped throw his later and more famous works into context. El Capricho had a chequered history being abandoned in the civil war, then becoming a restaurant and then thanks to a Japanese corporation which presumably included a Gaudi fan it was restored and opened as a museum in 2010. We had a brief rest in the tranquil garden and then back to the car for our hotel for the next three days – the Parador at Cangas de Onis, the gateway to the Picos de Europa.

I routinely make booking requests in most places for a room with a walk-in as opposed to an over-bath shower but didn’t bother here as we’ve never been in a parador that didn’t have both bath and separate shower. However we’ve never been up north before and they only have one in the disabled room. We can use that for the first night but a guest in a wheelchair is arriving tomorrow so we’ll have to move. So we made full use of it with a shower to wash off the effects of travelling all day and enjoyed an evening cocktail in the spacious room before going for dinner. The staff kindly agreed to move our bags during the day while we went to explore the Picos de Europa. We are both fans of a good blue cheese and one of Spain more famous one cabrales is made just down the road and there’s a cave-museum that shows the process and has a tasting tour so that’s where we headed first. The cave is quite small so groups are limited to twenty people and tours set off at quarter past every hour. So we had time for a coffee before joining the 12:15 group for a fascinating visit with video clips of the cows, sheep and goats high in the Picos with herdsmen still living up with them for weeks at a time, then a look at the equipment used to make the milk into cheese and then the actual shelves where the cheeses sit to age for between four and six months.

cheese cellarpack shotWe were surprised to learn that they make two types of cabrales – one just with cows’ milk and the other with a blend of cows’, goats’ and ewes’ milk. They are all controlled by strict Denominacion Cabrales regulations and are quite powerful blue cheeses. I marginally preferred the three-milk blend but both were highly acceptable.

The cave is on the outskirts of Las Arenas and after this little appetiser we decided it was time for lunch flowed by a drive higher into the mountains. It’s a small town but still too many restaurants to choose from but after the usual dithering we decided on La Panera which was a friendly family run place with good local food and of course a plate of cheese to finish off with. Our drive was exhilarating as we wound our way up through the breath-taking peaks often on single track roads and lots of reversing – the protocol seems to be give way to those coming down or maybe I’m just too polite. Eventually we arrived in the village of Sotres hoping to descend back to the main road via another valley but only belatedly consulted the map to find there were no other roads to Sotres than the one we had just driven.

The view does look quite different going the other way so no real complaints. They are very impressive mountains and we really enjoyed being able to get out and grab some warm, fresh mountain air. We stopped off in the town of Cangas de Onis – the parador is about three kilometres north in Villanueva de Cangas – to have an aperitif after a hard day’s tourism. Parking was a nightmare even with our blue badge translation but eventually we found a spot and headed off for a bar.

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But there’s a steep Roman bridge over the river Sella so we had to walk up that and take a selfie first. We settled down in front of El Campanu with a much needed – it’s very steep that bridge – beer and a glass of rosado when our pleasant stay was disturbed by a mother with an uncontrollably sick child which vomited freely in

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At the top of the very steep bridge.

the street making all around most uncomfortable. The staff quickly arrived with mops and buckets but we had by then retired inside to avoid feeling nauseous ourselves. The restaurant looked very good, so despite our setback, we agreed that we’d come back tomorrow night for dinner.

 

After travel and tourism for two days we agreed to suspend normal Raggett holiday mode and have a quiet day around the parador and Villanueva. This started with a sunny stroll beside the river to another hostelry for breakfast and Dee was moved to sketch a prominent sandstone outcrop across the river. We returned via the colourful little village which had a number of typical Asturian granaries or hórreos.
IMG_7359 (2)Originally raised grain stores to prevent rats and other rodents getting at the grain, some are still used for this purpose, others as garages but they are interesting structures found all across Asturias and Galicia. The village also had one shop-cum-bar and even with gentle strolling a thirst had developed so a beer was called for. We went back to the parador for a light lunch and found elaborate preparations for a wedding in full swing. We were later able to observe the guests from the balcony of our new, perfectly adequate room. A taxi took us back into Cangas for dinner and there beside our table in El Campanu was a photo of the owner with none other than Martin Berasategui who clearly approved our choice of local restaurant. Apparently he still spends quite a lot of time travelling to sample authentic local cuisine all over the country.Martin Campanu

The restaurant didn’t disappoint. The platter of simply grilled local fish was delicious and they had a good wine list as well as their speciality ciders which we did have to sample first or cause offence to the very attentive staff. I never fail to be impressed by how much Spaniards regard waiting as a real profession and do it with such enthusiasm and concern for their customers’ tastes and comfort. It wasn’t the bag pouffe and white gloves of Martin’s but it made our evening really pleasant and memorable. It seems that back home corporations with restaurant chains still haven’t learned that people by people not things. But then brands wouldn’t rule would they? As we are driven back to the parador through bright moonlight and with the mountains silhouetted around us, we are really glad we chose to explore a part of Spain we didn’t know.