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.


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.

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.

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.







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.

A night to remember

IMG_0753My daughter and son-in-law had secreted with Dee a birthday card with the inclusion of $100 and the injunction that this was to be taken, converted into chips and be blown at the tables or slots. Neither of us is a gambler so we texted various friends of greater nous in this area for advice. “Put it all on black” was the card-accompanying suggestion; “18 Black” was another but on our wheel 18 was red so what to do? Another said you can’t lose on Keno machines. Chips collected we did a little roulette, a little blackjack and some slots but even with advice from the locals (on reflection they probably wouldn’t tell us how to win would they?) the first fifty had gone in minutes. With a minimum bet of $10 and no hint of a one-off win let alone a streak, we decided we were crap gamblers, nobody playing looked very happy and that we’d be forgiven for investing the remainder in wine and sake to accompany our imminent Nobu meal.

We had eaten at Nobu in London a while ago and knew it still had a few stars around the empire. It would take us back to Japan and so seemed the best place to celebrate. And how! The manager arrived at our table with a trainee waiter in attendance and asked if it was OK. Well I don’t object to medical students in the surgery so if someone can learn proper service I’m all for it. We are given a cocktails menu and select what has become a real favourite for Dee a dirty cucumber martini for her and a whiskey sour for me, followed by a very nice Albariño from Rias Baixas to accompany what we expected to be a fish influenced meal. The first of these arrived and we sipped and campai-ed each other. Then the duo returned and the manager still presented no menu but rather talked to us about the kind of food we had enjoyed in Japan.

IMG_0751Dirty cucumberHe nodded noted and inwardly digested, excuse the pun, and promised us a succession of dishes we would enjoy. The glow of his confidence obviously enveloped us and then it dawned on us that we had no idea what all this was going to cost us. It’s not often in my life that I’ve been in the situation where if you need to ask the price you can’t afford to buy, so we settled back enjoyed our cocktails and waited for the procession.

And that’s what it was – a procession of dishes carefully planned to complement each other and move us through a stunning evening. Presentation was so superb you didn’t really want to spoil the layout but hunger and curiosity overcame us. Sliver-sliced squid with yuzu sauce, sea bream sashimi with ponzu dressing, waygu beef carpaccio with sesame and spring onions, and several others I’ll need the bill to identify.

Finally our dinnertastic duo returned bearing no plates but enquired what we would like for dessert. After protesting that we weren’t really pudding people we agreed to have some ice cream and set them a little test. We thought they would manage green tea and possibly black sesame two of our favourite flavours from our time in Japan. However our absolute favourite was white peach which we’d first discovered in Okayama. We were sure they wouldn’t have that. They trumped us by bringing out three bowls of ice cream with all three flavours offset with a smidgeon of appropriate fruit and chocolate piping on the dish reading “Happy Anniversary”.

Sheer class! As were the delightful hammered silver teapots from which we poured our sake. It’s great when service like that makes it such an occasion that you absolutely know whatever it cost it was worth it.

Untempted by further slots and tables and excited on our anniversary and last night in the US, we took a bottle up to our room and played music and Take Two (a brilliant Scrabble variant for those who haven’t encountered it) until 3 am when we thought we’d better go to bed as we had to pack and get to the airport by one o’clock to check in for our flight back to Gatwick. We’d promised ourselves another Hooter-free visit to the pool but packing got lengthy and we wouldn’t have made it before it was check out time – we’d already negotiated an hour extension beyond the usual 11:00. Returning the car was easier than picking it up and we checked in, did security and headed for the none-too-special lounge The Club at LAS. However it beat sitting out in the general departure lounge by a long way.

The flight back was a bit delayed and we hit Gatwick about half an hour late but otherwise it was fine. Having landed just before midday and had a trusty south east London Data Cars cab to take us home I was at the computer at three checking whether I would be able to manage a deadline of the end of July for some urgent work for the Dutch publishing agency I work for. They’d enquired while we’d been away and I was keen to do the work if I could – these jaunts have to be paid for somehow. So it’s been back to the grindstone (a very pleasant one) ever since for them and the design and branding agency Maverick, hence my sloth in completing our US blogs.

And I felt bad when I wrote that in 2014. Then life, work, sickness and death intervened and here we are with a July 2014 trip finally documented in April 2017. Gentle reader (if any such there be) thanks for your patience.