Unfamiliar Spain 29 Aug – 12 Sept 2016

4 Pilgrims, partying and peace in Galicia

Map Day 10The 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.

P1020713We 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.

Real pilgrims have express entry and therefore much shorter lines were forming for them to enter the cathedral – quite right after walking miles.

IMG_7559We 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. P1020729
P1020730On 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.

P1020764 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.

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A view from a room

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.

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Waiting for a beer on the parador terrace

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.

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Forgot the camera so river Mino photo is by lmbuga (Luis Manuel Bugallo Sanchez) from Wikimedia Commons

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.

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Looking down on Mondariz photo by HombreDHojalataWikimedia Commons

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.

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. IMG_7588We 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.

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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.

Unfamiliar Spain 29 Aug – 12 Sept 2016

 3 Astonishing Asturias and west to Galicia

Map 2We packed and departed Cangas de Onis heading for Ribadesella at the mouth of the river Sella and which looked from the guidebook to be an interesting town with suitable locations for breakfast. The town divides neatly in two with the old town and fishing port on the right bank of the estuary and the modern resort with hotels and summer villas on the left. We headed for the port area and among the nets, lobster pots and boats we found the start of a Sunday market and a cute bakery that did great coffee and pastries. We’d missed by a month the famous International Descent of the Sella in which thousands of people in canoes race down the last 20 kilometres of the river. There were pictures of the event that looked great fun.

Then we went to explore the newer part of the town where a fine promenade with oar and lifebelt decorated railings looks over a long curving beach of golden sand. There are some elegant mansions built in the early part of the 20th century by wealthy merchants. There are hints of the modernisme of Gaudi and Domenech I Muntaner familiar from Barcelona and earlier this trip in Comillas but here it’s known as indiano style because the people commissioning them to be built had made their fortunes in the West Indies. They are colourful, well-proportioned and hint at truly elegant living. After a most enjoyable morning in Ribadesella which we’d love to come back to for a longer visit staying in the fabulous Hotel Villa Rosario with its walled garden, glassed-in terrace overlooking the beach and just a really attractive sense of style.

We set off in the car for the drive to Vilalba our next parador for three days from which we intended to visit more Asturian coast especially the famous Praia ais Catedrales (Beach of the Cathedrals) with its amazing stacks, arches and rock formations. We avoided the faster motorway with its tolls in favour of the N634 which took us through varied scenery – still quite hilly fringes of the Picos de Europa, forest, farmland – and bypassed the two main cities of Asturias, Gijon and Oviedo. They both looked worth a visit but when you’re not in peak condition there’s only so much urban sightseeing one can stand. Another day maybe as this new area of Spain was revealing many delightful places to us. Not so Vilalba itself which had a great parador but not much else of note or distinction. We arrived just in time to catch the last day of the fiesta of San Ramon and Santa Maria where a band was entertaining children in the main Constitution Square. So we checked in and caught the end of the gig and found a local bar for an early evening libation following which we made a quick recce and concluded that it was the parador for dinner tonight and one other good looking place Os Pios for another evening and one that looked promising, Meson del Campo, but appeared not to be open which on a fiesta day struck us as odd. Parador food is usually regional and local dishes, well presented but on a limited menu. Last year when we stayed in the same parador for nine nights we did find that the really attractive menu options ran out after day four but most people don’t stay that long so it’s fine for the majority.

We explored Vilalba a little further next morning – it was Monday and the museum was closed – and decided that we’d either stay in and read, paint or sew or go elsewhere in the locality. We knew we wanted to go to the Praia as Catedrais (Cathedrals Beach) so we asked the very helpful receptionist who advised us that you need a permit to go on the beach as, like Altamira, a Heritage Site was in danger from too many tourists so numbers are limited – to 4812 a day – still a lot of feet – and you have to apply for a permit between April to October to go onto the beach. Otherwise you can look and marvel from above but we wanted to paddle!

Parador Vilalba towerThe receptionist said that we should apply online and when the permits came back we should email them to the parador and they would print them for us. The website advises obtaining permits 30 days in advance so I make another trip to reception to see whether there’s any point and am advised that there’s an Urgent button on the site that should get us our permits today but that we should aim for tomorrow morning because of the tides – you can’t get onto the sand at high tide. Back to our room we get onto the site, make our application but have to send scans of our passports so it’s off to the business centre and a scanner. But wait cries Dee, we had scans on your laptop in Japan for occasions like this. Indeed we did and I haven’t deleted them so we attach the passport pics and hit send. A while later email permits pinged back but my emails didn’t reach reception for some reason the camera’s SD card was called into play and finally reception managed to print them.

Parador vilalba stairsI think in all I went up and down the stairs to reception about eight times. Thank goodness we were on the first floor and not up in the tower! During my many conversations at the front desk, the young lady suggested that the town of Meira would be worth a visit as the source of the Miño, Galicia’s longest river, which flows south and forms the border between Spain and Portugal which we would meet again later in the trip. It’s by now mid-morning and Meira’s about half an hour away so perfect timing for coffee and churros.

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The road from Vilalba must have been built by Romans it is absolutely straight with not a hint of a kink for the first 20 kilometres when there’s a slight bend to the right and more straight until a roundabout on the outskirts of Meira. Which is a typically pleasant Spanish town with a central square with banks, bars and cafés, a splendid church with amazing door furniture – photographs of door knobs are something of an obsession with Dee over many years in Spain. There was also a leafy park with the nascent Miño some 5 kilometres from its source trickling through it with a couple of bridges, seats and a children’s playground. But coffee called and we were soon ensconced in a bar in the square watching the illegal, inconsiderate and random parking of the locals who came and went to the panaderia next door for their daily bread. Not a horn was hooted, not a shout raised so people obviously accept it as a daily occurrence and patiently wait until they can move their vehicle from its legitimate spot. After a further stroll around the town we decided to follow the signs to the actual source but he initially helpful brown indicators soon petered out and we found ourselves the other side of a hill and concluded that even Galicia’s greatest river couldn’t flow up and over that and that we had passed the watershed. The road ahead looked straight and flat across a fertile plain so we stayed on it until we reached a more major road heading for the provincial capital Lugo.

The suburbs soon brought us to a massive stone barrier which proved to be the old Roman wall which still completely surrounds the town. We had seen the town of Avila some years before and because of it siting on a slope you get a better idea of the wall surrounding the town. Looking for somewhere to park we did the full circumvalation (good Spanish word circunvalacion for travelling all the way round but it appears not to exist in English) so we did get to appreciate the completeness of the structure with curved towers and a walkway along the top. We eventually parked and managed to grab a much-needed ice-cream as it was extremely hot inland.

IMG_7421So hot I photographed the clock/temperature sign outside the town hall. Lugo is a very clean and pleasant town with a black eagle statue commemorating the capture of the city by the Romans in the first century BC, a great market hall, the huge baroque town hall and many other marvellous buildings. A shady lunch spot was discovered on our travels and we sat to indulge in pulpo gallego, baked clams and a few other tasty tapas all helped down with very crisp Albariño wine from nearby. We hadn’t intended to do city sightseeing this trip – more mountains and beaches was the agenda – but Lugo was a delightful detour. Exhausted by the heat, lunch and walking we drove back to the hotel for a shower and a lie down. Later a drink and a few tapas and an early night ahead of tomorrow’s trip to the beach.

Tuesday morning dawned and we set of towards Ribadeo the nearest town to the Cathedrals Beach thinking we’d grab a light breakfast on the way – the parador in Vilalba was room only and paid for entirely by their Amigo scheme’s bonus points so effectively three nights for nothing. We drove through and around Ribadeo twice but found not the hint of a space we could squeeze into to park and look for a café. Rumbling a little and grumbling a little more, we headed for the beach where to our relief at the top of the cliffs was an acceptable cafeteria with good coffee and yoghurt, fruit and croissants.

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First sighting of the Cathedrals Beach.

Sustained, we descended the steep pathway to the beach which already looked awesome from the top but once down on the fine, golden sand the sandstone stacks, cliffs and arches interspersed with rocky outcrops were just breathtaking.

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Cameras well to the fore, we walked along the beach first to the west and then back further east before paddling, sitting a while in the sun and just absorbing the atmosphere of this special place. Neither of us was up for a very long walk so after a couple of hours we went back to the car and drove off to explore the coast further west.

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Lunch on the beach at Burela

We drove past Foz, another Cangas and stopped for lunch in Burela a small town with a working fishing port at one end and pretty, curved sandy beaches at the other. We sat for lunch overlooking the beaches to see two swim-suited people quite independently walking from one end of the beach to the other and back again ten times before putting on office clothes and presumably going back to work. Well the say regular exercise is the best and it did strike as being a bit like doing lengths but out of the water. A lovely windy coast road brought us to another pleasant town on the sea San Cibrao where we actually parked up, got out our towels and sat on the beach and read our books for an hour or more – real holiday stuff! I can’t really think why we didn’t have a swim, the sea looked calm and warm in a sheltered bay.

 

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We drove back to Vilalba along quiet departmental roads through rolling wooden hills interspersed with farms and hamlets. We’d noticed the lovely slate roofs on a lot of the older stone buildings and in the village of Muras just had to stop and grab some shots of these fabulous roofs with the rounded roof slates and wrought iron balconies or galerias which are such a part of the architecture of the area. A little further along the road in the middle of nowhere we had to stop again as we came across this amazingly decorated house. Deep in a wooded grove it looked like something out of a fantasy movie set. We saw no people around it so who knows? The gate lintel is a tree-trunk, the carvings are amazing and a tower – well we were at El Capricho earlier.

Back in Vilalba we prepared for our visit to Os Pios (#1 of 14 on Tripadvisor) where we’d had a drink the other evening in its lively bar. There were tables there but we were ushered through to the empty comedor at the back with proper red linen tablecloths and white napkins, ceramics hanging on the walls and a deafening silence. The food deserved its Tripadvisor status, the wine list was good with the Rias Baixas and Ribeiro familiar albariño-based whites well represented but also some unfamiliar reds using the mencia grape which despite years of drinking Spanish wine I’d somehow missed. Not tonight though and I note that Laithwaites has a mencia red from Bierzo so that may be worth a try on our return. Eventually another lone diner joined us in the dining room. He looked as if he might be there on a business trip rather than a local. He ordered swiftly, ate and departed while we were still savouring our meal – bizarre. Our last night in Vilalba was very satisfactory after a great day exploring the coast.