I always thought the Accu part of Accuweather was short for accurate or accuracy – not any more. It was one of those grey mornings that don’t encourage you to leap from your bed into enthusiastic activity. When I did venture onto the balcony it was windy and there was a hint of drizzle on the breeze. So bye-bye lazy day by the pool. One of the great things about paradors is they all have loads of corners where you can sit and knit, read, sew or paint according to your inclinations. However once I had made the effort I decided to drive up the Ebro valley for a bit towards a place we had visited before – the so-called Cathedral of Wine – a modernist masterpiece in Pinell de Brai. There might be a theme emerging here! First however I detoured into Xerta which lies right on the banks of the Ebro and its clever canal. I parked and sat down in the main square for a coffee and the sun came out. Coffee done my jacket went back into the car as it was already 20° at 11:30 and I’m only 10 Km up river from Tortosa which still looks cloudy. It’s a typical old medieval village with one exception to the norm. Being on the river bank it’s flat whereas all the other villages I went to today are built on the top of extremely steep hills – ooh my calves!
The river bank walk reminded me very much of a similar stroll also beside the Ebro but way west in Haro in the Rioja. Elegant wooden fences, plenty of places to sit and picnic and the interesting contrast of the slow-moving Ebro and the rushing canal.
As I walked back through the village there was evidence that the citrus season is all but over although I did see another septuagenarian scrumping a few remaining oranges – to be fair he may have been legit. I didn’t like to ask. On my perambulations through the narrow streets I concluded that a third of the population was over 70, a third pregnant and the other third at work or in school. Back in the main square I discovered the reasons for the canal.
This marker up the side of the church shows the level of the floods – it’s ten metres at the top – that used to devastate the whole area because of the unpredictability of the flow in different seasons. So in 1857 they built a diagonal dam across the river – some evidence points to a much earlier Moorish effort to control the river – which siphoned large amounts into the canal which is used to supply towns and villages and irrigate the fertile lands of the area. A hydroelectric plant followed in 2002 so the waters of the Ebro are put to good effect.
That’s my history quota for the day so I set off for culture. The town of Horta de San Joan has a Picasso Cubism Centre so I think I’ll pay a visit. On the way I get diverted by an amazing mountain rock formation. This one is in the Natural Park of Els Ports and it made me think how, wherever you go in this amazing country, you’re a never far away from mountains with amazing outcrops. This one is known as the Dog’s Head and, of course, The Castle. I think the dog’s a spaniel given its long ears – maybe a setter. But as I looked at them I remembered the mountains at Montserrat far north from here and those of El Torcal hundreds of miles south near Antequera all with amazing shapes. Fabulous!
The dog’s head and the castle
The dog’s head
Dee on the way to Montserrat
Dee in El Torcal
On the way I have an opportunity to snap one of the roundabouts I obsessed about the other day and a sign that I thought would amuse any of the IT buffs out there with its nifty digitalism.
Of course after parking up and mounting the steps and steeps to Horta de San Joan I discover that the Picasso place only opens on Saturdays and Sundays – rubbish planning again. It also seems only to have reproductions and photographs of the mates he spent time with in Horta – might have been quite interesting but not essential, I think. After all that effort there was an attractive square with a bar with a beer with my name on. It was lunch time for the workers who are destroying the town centre before rebuilding it and they are all playing cards – quite competitively I would say.
On I go with a brief stop in Gandesa to El Pinell de Brai and the Cathedral of Wine. Designed by César Martinell, a follower of Gaudi, it opened in 1917 and has elements in common with yesterday’s winery at San Sadurni. There’s a lovely ceramic tile frieze showing the wine making process. Sadly since we were there before it has now opened a Michelin starred restaurant but it’s only open on Saturdays and Sundays – poor planning again. Totally inadequate prior research I’d say. For me the amazing brickwork of the vaults inside and the windows that look like wine bottles to me are pure mastery of form and function. And the way the modernists use light is brilliant. Glad a made a return visit.
I also walked up to the top of the village up streets so steep they reminded me of a trip to Zahara de la Sierra in Cadiz province where we and the locals traversed diagonally from side to side in order to make it up vertiginous slopes. It also gave me an insight into how quickly and recently Spain has modernised. This municipal water supply was only turned off in 1998 when piped water was made available to the whole village.
Back to Tortosa and back into the gloom – warm gloom it has to be said and a wander through its excellent central park and splendid market hall – a pre-modernist architect making great play with light again (some dispute about who actually designed it) – and past a poster that told me the medieval festival – Renaissance I stand corrected – happens every year in July – probably won’t make it back this year though.
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.
The 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.
We 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.
The short straw – baggage monitors
We didn’t join the queue – this is just a tenth of it.
Real pilgrims have express entry and therefore much shorter lines were forming for them to enter the cathedral – quite right after walking miles.
We 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.
On 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The view to the north
The Atlantic to the west
A rest on the ramparts
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. We 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.
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.