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.
We’ll come to that later. Let’s start with the watery workout. Comparison I promised – pond and ocean. Thalassotherapy v hydrotherapy. I have to say that warm sea water with fabulous views over La Concha beach in San Sebastian wins hands down. The Balneari spa was good – a pool with jacuzzis and three different jet massage nozzles, a sauna in which I barely broke sweat and the ghastly Scottish shower – so cold! With wet swimmies I set off after a good breakfast headed for some old haunts. Would they still appeal?
The drive was dull for ten minutes to Cassa de la Selva and then I was in the Gavarras mountains on GI 664. Talk about bends! Up and down switchbacks! Every now and then a voice said, “Slow down Mike!”. Quite right too, not that much came the other way. It’s a road with almost no signs of habitation either – just one sign the whole 20km for Santa Pellaia which might have been a hamlet once but seems just to consist of a small church today.
Eventually it flattens out and I arrive at San Sadurni de L’Heura a totally unspoilt old village in which I saw no one on my perambulation – they were all out working in the fields or the chicken coops or indoors cooking and mending although I heard no sounds either.
Next stop Monells a slightly over-restored tourist spot but one where we had spent two excellent weeks in a villa with a pool on the outskirts. The sun dial was on BST and the square was alive with swifts, swallows and martins pausing on their way north. Our stay in Monells was the last time either of us got on a bicycle other than in the gym! As I drove up the road we had cycled I saw this and had to stop – my mum loved poppies, memories of the Tower of London display which we’d shared and a medieval Spanish village all together. Hope you’ll indulge me.
Memories of Dee’s mum hit me then and I made for Sa Tuna where we took Eileen for a break after she’d lost Dee’s dad John. I began then to understand grief. Eileen was good company, very demanding of post boxes to send postcards, but had moments when she didn’t want to talk. This is the house we stayed in for a week.
Once upon a time in a different life I used to own a house in Begur. So I did a drive by to see what my Dutch successors had done with it. It looked terrible – mould climbing up the walls after a wet winter. They obviously hadn’t continued my deal with the local Pintor Rodriguez – he could keep his van in the garage when I wasn’t there and he’d paint the house every spring. Result: fine white house whenever we arrived. Time for lunch in the village which I’m pleased to say still looks beautiful topped by its castle.
However the march of progr – strike that profit has meant that where Dee enjoyed skipping with the local girls and ladies in a communal space, two cafés have invaded with semi-permanent edifices rather than the temporary ice cream stall. Change is inevitable, not all of it good.
Next stop Toroella de Mongri which is work as it features in the novel I’m continuing next week. It’s famed for its mountains which form the shape of a sleeping woman – they even used on the town signs.
As I drove across the plain it struck me that all the water I’d seen from the air as we flew down the coast on the approach to Girona was the newly planted rice fields. Rice is an important crop here and I’m used to seeing the fields bright green not watery brown waiting for the shoots to appear. I drive into town, park, insert money in the machine which rejects it three times. The instructions are clear and I’m pressing the right buttons. Klutz, duh! You don’t have to pay till 17:00 and it’s ten past four. What an honest machine. I share my stupidity with a lady sweeping the steps of a fabric store who smiled sympathetically. I walked through the lovely old town centre to discover from the Town Hall that the people I need to talk to won’t be in till tomorrow so I’ll have to go back or just wing it – it’s fiction after all. Toroella is a special place as Dee and I walked to the castle – the nipple on the sleeping lady’s bosom. We phoned and waved to her sister lounging in the campsite far below. Quite a day!
My next stop was intended to be my hotel but on the way came a diversion caused by I know not what. In a 30 car stream everybody did U-turns and sped off on a dirt road so I followed. It gave me just the viewpoint I needed for the novel so if it ever gets published there will be prizes for the spot.
Last night I stayed in what looked like a castle – tonight I am staying in a castle. There was a good deal – early bird – on their website so I went for it. It included dinner for one night and an exciting room in the tower. That’s my room with my swimming trunks drying in the window. What do towers have? Lifts? No. Steps? Yes lots of steps – good for the fitness regime I tell myself as I pant to not quite the top. The view is magnificent. Worth it? If I survive two days without heart failure – yes. In fact we came to look at it many years ago when it was still under reconstruction by a Dutch couple who have done a great job in converting it to a boutique hotel.
The dinner was certainly worth it – an interesting take on tuna sashimi served on a thin crispy pizza dough base following a delicious sea bass ceviche amuse bouche. Also interesting to me, who became a bit of an olive oil snob a while back, was a local oil made from a variety I’d never encountered. It was very smooth, almost creamy but with a peppery aftertaste. Now I know my Picual, Arbequina and Hojiblanca but I’d not come across Argudell which Wikipedia – God bless Jimmy Wales and do donate if you can – is native to Catalunya. So a new notch on the olive branch. I also ask for some local wine and Desea is suggested. A strange – to me – mix of Syrah, Cab Sauvignon, Merlot and Carmenere. Very soft, very smooth, very drinkable. So that’s tonight. Thanks to all who are following and saying kind things. I will be back.
The first four months of this year have been rather busy so after fulfilling Dee’s last wishes on her birthday by letting her fly free from the Ivinghoe Beacon, I thought it was time for me to fly away too for a while and catch up with me and my thoughts. Friends and family have been wonderfully supportive and made sure I didn’t sit doing a bottle of scotch every night or something equally daft and making sure that I had plenty of stimulating company, excursions and diversions. So I decided to take off for three weeks in May and where better to go than Spain which has meant so much to us both over the last twenty plus years. So here we go on a visit on my own to some of the places we had enjoyed together and see how it all stacks up.
Well the planning is all rubbish for a start:
DataCars persuade me to leave home at 10:30 for a 14:45 flight despite my assertion that 11:30 would be good, So an early last water of the plants that kind people will keep alive while I’m away and off we go. Not even the slightest pause at the Blackwall Tunnel so we get to Stansted at 11:20 and I’m checked in and through security in double quick time with two hours before they even announce the gate! One of the perks Dee had on her bank account was an airport lounge pass which we had made good use of in the past. I decided to continue the pass from a Groupon half price deal. Was I glad of it today! In a quiet room with a view of aircraft if that’s your thing I had coffee and croissants, read the paper and started to write this. Then it was time for lunch and a glass of wine and then off to the gate feeling calm and relaxed not having had to spend my time being screamed at to buy duty free goods – to get to the lounge and the gates Stansted has copied IKEA so you have to walk past all those designer outlets, and Boots and Smiths, before you can reach your destination.
The best car hire deal was direct with Budget who claimed their office was on Girona airport. It’s not. And they close at 18:00. My flight arrived at 17:45, slightly early, but after baggage reclaim, determining the location of Budget and walking the half a k to get there, the office was closed. However the lady in charge had not quite escaped so a young lady with a bicycle in a big black case and I were allowed to collect our pre-booked cars BUT we had to pay €60 extra for “out of hours’ collection” which the boss lady was most apologetic about and gave us detailed receipts and instructions on how to reclaim it. It’s clearly a scam she doesn’t approve of. She also “upgraded” me to a smart red Audi which is quite nippy and fun to drive.
My first hotel Balneari Vichy Catalan was carefully selected just 20 minutes from Girona Airport and at the source of what had always been our favourite mineral water Vichy Catalan. You can really taste those minerals doing you good – just don’t put it in whisky.
I don’t know how good your Catalan is but this banner mocking my arrival says Festival the last Saturday in April. When do I arrive? The first of May. It also features the person who gives the place its name. Mala vella is an evil old woman who reportedly haunted the castle in medieval times. I checked in to the hotel and set off to find a bar with a UK TV feed so I could watch Watford v Liverpool. Everywhere was closed in fiesta recuperation mode so I came back to the hotel to find that there was a Spanish channel showing it so I could watch us just miss out on at least a point thanks to a wonder goal from Emre Can, a great save from a Capoue shot and the crossbar from Prödl. The Spanish commentators found Vicarage Road very difficult to pronounce. This led to me being by a long way the last person in the restaurant – a time honoured Lesley-Raggett tradition so I excused myself by indicating my watch still being on London time. As with the majority of Spanish staff they were gracious, attentive and had a laugh about it. They didn’t mention Brexit. I did leave a tip. An interesting fact – well I thought so – is that the Balneari Hotel and the Vichy Catalan company were established in 1881 the same year as a certain football club!
So day 1 is nearing its end and my poor planning has been rescued by the fact that the hotel is a spectacular example of modernisme architecture, the town has a lot of fine houses in similar vein and I’m doing a hydrotherapy circuit tomorrow morning just like we did together with such delight in San Sebastian last August. A comparative report will follow.
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’.