Breakfast and packing accomplished, the SatNav lady asked me politely if I wanted to avoid toll roads. I’m in no rush, many motorways are boring so I elected to avoid them. There were a few tricky sections on the NII south from Girona as they convert it into an autovia – the A2. I’m not sure how that will go down as it’s pretty well parallel to the AP7 in which the P stands for Peatge or pay. It’s a commercially operated 900 kilometre toll road that goes the length of the Spanish Mediterranean coast from the French border to Vera in Andalusia. Now there are already free to use sections around the major cities as part of the deal between government and contractors but it’s an interesting point here.
It then heads off to the coast and I have wonderful sea views and holiday apartment blocks all the way down to Mataro where we cut inland to bypass Barcelona to the west, passing the Circuit de Catalunya where the Spanish Grand Prix will be held a week on Sunday. I’m very glad at this point that she seems to know where she’s going because there are some sections that would have had me asking my navigator to reach for the atlas. However we pop out the other side of Barcelona with signs to Tarragona which is good since I know that’s on the way. Much of my route is on the N340 which must be incredibly long as I’m at kilometres in the 1100s. I later confirm that it’s the old Roman Via Augusta and starts in Cadiz and goes to Barcelona. Its Roman nature explained an odd bifurcation of a twin track section round a stone archway the Arc de Bera – I couldn’t stop but, thanks to Wikimedia Commons, I can show you what I saw. It was a sunny day, progress was good until a saw a signpost for San Sadurni d’Anoia. I don’t know how many of you are familiar with the town but I’ve read it on lots of bottles of cava. San Sadurni is the capital of cava so a diversion seems essential.
Juve y Camps San Sadurni
It is situated among field after field of very neat low level vines – I later learn that the spring pruning restricts each wine to two branches to increase quality at the expense of volume. As I enter the town the first winery I happen across is Juve y Camps the cava we enjoyed at Martin Berasategui’s last August. Sadly they only do tours by prior arrangement both here and at their winery at Espiells out in the fields. Maybe one year there might be a cava winery tour like the excellent Bilbao and Rioja one a few years back. However the best known and marketed of the cavas, Freixenet, did have a tour about to start so what was I to do? There’s a fine building dating from 1914 and then a huge new factory stretching off into the distance. One good thing is that it’s right next to the railway station so if you are in Barcelona and fancy a cava tour you can do it easily by train.
There was a good introductory video, much of the content of which our guide repeated. With vines destroyed by phylloxera, a couple of families, Ferrer and Sala decided to plant new vines and make a different kind of wine. The Ferrer’s farm was called La Freixenera so a brand was born. They used the methode champenoise but couldn’t call it champagne because of DOC rules. So because the wine was stored in ancient deep caves in the hillsides they called it cava. Freixenet was founded in 1914 and the king and queen came to mark their centenary three years ago. The tour takes in the original barrel hall and caves with racks of bottles for hand turning in the traditional style. However most of their production is now totally mechanised in the new factory building.
In my group I was good at naming the three grapes used in most cavas – perellada, x-arello and macabeo – too much time reading labels! But I failed miserably when it came to guessing their output in bottles per year. I thought millions because they are big. I guessed 10. The answer is a staggering 80 million bottles a year most of which go to Germany and the UK. After plunging to the depths of the cellars we were then conducted on a little train – spared a lot of up on this occasion – back to the tasting room. The Brut Nature was to my taste – very dry but with lots of fruit – but only one as I had to drive. I was tempted to continue my journey in this but security wouldn’t let me near it.
So onwards to Tortosa and my next castle – a proper fortress this one. It’s 200 feet above the town – fine in the car with some good brake and clutch control but later on foot – that’s a lot of steps and all up. Some of my readers don’t do up and I think I might abandon it soon. Boy did the ticker pump! Yes, I know it’s good for me! When Dee and I first (and last) came here, we checked in, had a swim and a shower, frocked up and walked down into town. It was and still is easy going down. We were amazed because everyone was dressed in medieval gear as part of a July fiesta. There were displays of contemporary crafts and I remember us spending a lot of time with a guy making chain mail – one craft I’m glad didn’t come home.
It’s quieter today but I have an explore, come across this beautiful modernisme example with fabulous plaster work and then trek back up and scribble this from my balcony with views of the mountains to one side and a courtyard with bouganvillaea and the Ebro to the other.
One thing has become clear – I love to travel and explore new places. It’s sad when I can’t share them immediately, but thanks for helping. Good weather promised again for tomorrow so it might just be a day by the pool and nothing to blog about. We’ll see.
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.
We 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.
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.
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.
We 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.
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
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.
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.
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.
We’d explored a lot of Spain together over the years and I suppose with some inkling of the future Dee suggested we should go somewhere we hadn’t been before and so I started planning a visit along the north coast with a couple of injunctions: not the usual one night here and move on Raggett itinerary; not two weeks in the same place; explore new areas at a leisurely pace. The compromise reached, and fully endorsed, was three three-night stays in San Sebastian, Cangas de Onis, Vilalba and a final five-nighter in Baiona to chill. And so on August Bank Holiday Monday we set off for Biarritz. Yes it’s in France, but it was the most convenient destination for flight times and it’s under an hour to San Sebastian by coach from the airport for just seven euros each. As we approached the toll booths and border control Rafael the coach driver did the most amazing set of manoeuvres and lane changes to speed us through well ahead of where we had any right to be. Respect Rafa! He also had to deploy the windscreen wipers briefly as we approached the border but we never needed them again for the next two sun-filled weeks. Soon we’re in the middle of San Sebastian disappearing into an underground bus station from which we were able to take a lift to the taxi rank and were swept up by Jon Andoni Uson who spoke a little English and with my Spanish – no Basque I’m afraid – we got on fine and he offered to be our private taxi service for the time we were in San Sebastian. He came up trumps within twenty minutes of being called on both occasions we needed him.
He delivered us swiftly to the Astoria 7 Hotel where we were shown to the Charlton Heston room – I might have preferred the Sophia Loren next door – which was very comfortable and funky with quotes and posters from his films. The lobby has a sofa where you can sit next to Alfred Hitchcock and the whole place is filled with film iconography – even your bill comes in a film can.
The hotel is a bit out of the centre but the number 28 (and several other buses) whisk you up to the main shopping area and the beach in five minutes – sorry Jon taxista, we like buses. We found a good place for lunch and sat outside, but the interior of Bideluze was fantastic with wood panelling and glass display shelves behind a great bar. It’s well known for its pintxos – the tapas equivalent in the Basque country – something we discovered a bit later from a guide book or online, must be that PM nose. We then walked across Guipuzcoa Square and found stop number 3 of the City Tour sightseeing bus and decided to get ourselves oriented with the town. The narration was a bit awry in places and repeated in others but gave us good snippets of history and culture. It also told us of the festival held on 31 August to celebrate Wellington leading Anglo-Portuguese forces to liberate San Sebastian from the French – hey there’s somewhere Brits are still welcome – and we’ll be here.
We got off the bus on the main beachfront the Playa de la Concha and during our evening stroll came across La Perla a thalassotherapy spa originally opened in 1912. We enquired about times and prices and determined to visit next day. We then walked north into the old city centre where a number of pintxo bars had been noted from Tripadvisor or the guide book.
There’s a whole street named for the 31 August which is lined with excellent bars and restaurants. It was the only street that survived when the Brits and Portuguese sacked the city and drove out the French. The bars didn’t disappoint with hams hanging from the rafters, cider being poured from a great height into tiny glasses, glass cabinets displaying mouth-watering delicacies and crowds of people having fun. It had been a while since lunch so we just had to try a few. A stroll along to the harbour and then the bus back to the hotel for a break before deciding what to do for dinner. With an early start, travel and a new city to absorb we decided on a snack at the hotel which was perfectly fine – the restaurant and bar were both very pleasant places to sit and plan.
The upshot of the deliberations that we would spend a couple of hours at La Perla and then go up Monte Igueldo which is at the west end of the bay – Jon and the guide books said the fun fair was indeed fun and the view of San Sebastian fantastic. But first thalassotherapy. What a delight – warm sea water with jacuzzi like jets toning your body at different positions all indicated on signs above – feet and ankles; knees and calves; thighs; waist; back or chest and shoulders often in combinations. It was great. And then we found the underwater gym – exercise bikes, cross-trainers, treadmills all for use while half submerged in slightly less warm but very pleasant salt water. After all the energetic stuff, we were also able to laze in a warm pool looking out onto the bay. Our two-hour session ended all too soon but we dried off, changed and then had a coffee at La Perla’s café up on the promenade. But not before booking a repeat for tomorrow.
Energized by our watery workout we walked the length of the promenade passing Queen Cristina’s Miramar Palace – La Perla was also built for her benefit when she decided the court would spend its summers in San Sebastian. They even built a tunnel for traffic so the palace lawns to extend right down to the beach without the inconvenience of crossing a road. Isn’t royal prerogative a wonderful thing? The Miramar marks the point at which Playa de la Concha stops and the next bay – Playa de Ondaretta begins. There a fewer hotels and restaurants on this stretch but more beach volleyball pitches, sailing and surfing outlets and a pleasant park. By the time we reach the elegantly tiled façade of the Igueldo funicular, we were thinking about lunch.
As we rise up the views become more spectacular with the island and sweeping bays and the mountains beyond all with bright sun, blue skies and golden sand – the temptation to cancel the trip westward and stay in San Sebastian was growing stronger.
The top of the mountain is a giant fun fair which we had been expecting – tacky, touristy but hey we’re by the seaside. We looked around and then spied a cafeteria which we thought would be good for lunch but no it was 3:30 and they were closing. Are we still in Spain? Now quite peckish we turn tail, descend in the funicular – we decided against the walk down – and along the promenade again looking for a suitable late lunch location. I think I mentioned this area was less populated with hotels and restaurants – devoid might be a better term. Leaving the main drag we entered a warren of side streets and hit upon Bar Pepe a good old-fashioned family neighbourhood bar with no pretensions or tourists. All the staff seemed to be engaged in a twenty-strong table enjoying a family lunch to which people came and went at random with at least four generations involved. A lovely spectacle to observe. They did however find time to take our order and serve us a selection of tasty tapas. It was after seven when we left so we took the bus back to the hotel for a quiet evening in preparation for the big day tomorrow.
San Sebastian is renowned for having more Michelin stars (14) per square kilometre than any other place on earth – it’s just been supplanted by Kyoto where we’ve also eaten very well. It would be foolish not to sample the delights of one of them wouldn’t it? But which one? Not realising the festive nature of 31 August we had tried to book Arzak, Akelarre and Martin Berasategui, all of which have three stars, from the UK several weeks before. Polite refusals from all except Martin Berasategui who regretted dinner was fully booked but that we might enjoy lunch even more given the location of his restaurant out in the hills behind the city. So we jumped at it, fixed on 14:00 and come Tuesday 31 August headed off for a work out at La Perla prior to our faithful taxi driver coming to sweep us out through confusing suburbs to the imposing entrance stairway of the restaurant. It may have his name in wrought iron beside us but for Dee it would always be ‘Martin’s gaff’ well his surname is a bit of a mouthful but what delightful mouthfuls would await us inside? Well plenty. Service was amazing from the moment we entered the door. We were offered a choice indoors or out and of three unoccupied terrace tables and chose one that would furnish a full view of the whole restaurant so we could see what was going on. Attentive wait staff provided a pouffe for Dee’s handbag and a sommelier offered a glass of cava as an aperitif. Our waiter and waitress donned white gloves to turn our glasses upright ready for pouring a divine glass of Juvé y Camps Reserva de la Familia, not a cava we’d ever had before, but which made a great start to the afternoon, quite citrussy and light. Dee’s appetite has been greatly diminished of late so she decided not to join me in the 15- course tasting menu but was guided to a number of selections which would interlace with mine quite nicely. As it was the service was seamless but unhurried, the food magnificent and the only blot on the landscape was when I exclaimed ‘Oh this is real caviar’ and then didn’t give Dee any to taste. So different from the lumpfish roe served in our own sweet home! I just got carried away honest!
A couple of hours later the chef himself appeared to greet most of the diners and posed for a treasured photo with Dee and myself after a chat about the menu, the area and his continued presence in the kitchen. He can’t be there all the time as he has also other restaurants to attend to – another three Michelin stars at Lasarte in Barcelona, the two-starred MB in Tenerife and six others in the Dominican Republic, Mexico and Costa Rica – and his reputation as the chef with the most Michelin stars to maintain.
During our time dining our attention was drawn to a woman in red sitting across the other side of the restaurant from us. Dee was convinced it was Laura Mvula, featured in a recent South Bank Show and speculated as to where she might be performing next – Paris in two days’ time (thanks Google) so it could be. We never approached her or asked the staff – celebs deserve their space too. But she did attract a lot of attention from the staff and had a long chat with Martin. After a wonderful and peaceful afternoon with outstanding food and well-matched wine, we called for Jon and were soon heading back to the hotel in his taxi. Dee took a sensible siesta while I, overexcited I suspect, went walkabout round the neighbourhood with my camera. We later got the bus back into the centre and witnessed the great parade and musical festivities of the 31 August Festival, packed streets in the old town, choirs and bands, poets declaiming and everybody having a good time.
Walking about and standing watching were tiring but finding bars with somewhere to sit down was quite tricksy but eventually we managed a couple and rounded off a fabulous visit to San Sebastian with a bus ride back to the hotel which neatly exhausted our three-day travel cards. A quick pack and so to bed, dreaming of warm oysters with iced cucumber; red mullet with fennel, saffron and squid and drifting off with Martin’s selection of ‘The local cheeses that I like’.