Sunday, October 15, 2017

The Basque Country, A Timely Visit, by Wiggia

Our trip abroad finally took place this year after several canceled efforts due to ill-timed health problems over the last 24 months. Not that all went well on that front, as the wife managed to twist her knee prior to going and it restricted any walking to slow ambles or none at all; on return, a visit to the local surgery showed this to be not a ligament problem as thought but osteoarthritis which has already struck the recipient in several areas, so this is almost certainly the last of my European tours that we have so enjoyed over time.

Northern Spain was a choice for two reasons: firstly, the last time we went there was exactly fifty years ago, the year before we married; and secondly it afforded to avoid the long tiring drive down through France by using the Portsmouth to Santander ferry, a much more relaxed way of travelling and no need for a day to recover after the drive, plus it takes 24 hrs as against two days by road unless you are young and simply don’t stop as I did the first time we ventured south.

Our first stop was Oviedo where having arrived in the dark our satnav decided to die as we approached the city, drawing us into the centre rather than skirting round it to where our hotel was. Needless to say it was festival week and the place was teeming with people on the streets and traffic barely moving. I persevered, with much swearing at the dead guide, until we cleared the worst of the crowds, stopped in a quiet spot and took great delight in being able to foil the damned satnav by producing my old one from under the seat - nobody likes a clever dick but I was right to be smug as it fired up and got us to our destination.

The dead satnav of course was not dead but for a strange reason the micro card would not sit in its slot and kept coming springing out causing a blank screen, solved with a piece of electrical tape also from under the seat; I will have to have a proper look under there to see what other goodies lie waiting to rescue me.

Nice city. Oviedo, and they know how to put on a festival. It seemed every street in the centre had an attraction going at various times of the day and night and whilst in the covered market area a strange but familiar sound came closer: bag pipes, a marching band proving that the Celts have infiltrated this far south to inflict this strange sound on the populace.

The festival is something that we at home are not generally very good at, with exceptions of course, but there is a vast difference between this week-long indulgence in arts, fairs, street theatre and of course eating and drinking and the local efforts I have been witness to that comprise of three lorries with a motley local WI float, a reluctant 12-year-old Carnival Queen and the inevitable Morris Men who for reasons unknown have gone from being a rarity (better days) to what is now a guaranteed place in all carnivals, such is the desire of grown men ? to wave hankies in the air; but I digress.
I am not going to give a running Trip Advisor report on hotels stayed at but I will say all were top class and the staff to the last in all did their best for us; a long time since I could say that about a trip.

One thing became obvious very early on in this tour: the roads around Oviedo alone comprise of more infrastructure that works than in the whole of East Anglia - yes I know we paid for a lot of it through the EU but they have it and we don’t, something very wrong there.

Oviedo is a good base for the delights of northern Spain's wonderful scenery and coast, trips to the enchanting town of Aviles which at first sight looks like an industrial hell hole on the Ria de Aviles but don’t be deceived: the centre is a wonderful mix of styles in architecture and on the opposite bank is the site of the Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer, largely responsible for Brasilia, an exponent of modernism; it might not be to everyone's taste - "Telly Tubby land" said the wife - but it is very eye-catching and much is stunning in a modernist way.

Visiting there made me realise just how much contemporary design is in evidence in this part of Spain. There are more shops in that style than in Italy, a country I know very well, and the same style can be seen in hotels, offices and in the design of many homes. In Oviedo the hospital that can be seen for miles resembles a huge multi-layer cake.

Gijon with its two beaches and the inevitable working fishing port is also worth a trip for the harbourside area alone and a bit further north the Penas lighthouse in the style of the area, part lighthouse as we know and part house, this one has a very good maritime museum beneath it.

The other outing from Oviedo was to the Picos de Europa, a stunning national park with Dolomite style mountains and beautiful lakes and valleys. This was one trip limited by the other half's problems as most parking is deliberately well away from the best views and sites though with a modicum of “off-roading” and cries of “You're not going down there!” I  manage to get to some lesser and much quieter spots that were worth the risk of never returning up the road we had come down awhile before.

We left Oviedo and our beautiful hotel converted from a castle and headed to the part of the trip reserved for me, though I could not use those words when explaining that  La Rioja was an essential visit on this trip not just for the wine. I lie a lot in these circumstances, in fact it is a classic wine-producing area surrounded by mountains that give it a backdrop to remember, not unlike many other wine-producing areas world-wide that have the benefits of altitude and the water and protection from the elements the mountains provide. 

Bodegas Ysios, LaGuardia (Rioja country)
Rioja also reflects the desire for modernism in its bodegas. There are many fabulous new buildings in the area plus the Frank Gehry-designed Marques de Riscal hotel; whatever you think of Gehry this building is quite a landmark, worth visiting but very expensive to stay in. I suppose the problem with Gehry is as he has said himself, “The first building was the best and it is all downhill now”; not totally true but there is a modicum of truth in those words.

The Marqués de Riscal Vineyard Hotel, designed by Frank Gehry
To dig out suitable bodegas to visit involved some pre-planning before we left home, but my select list were all bar one visited and the wines sampled and purchased when they came up to the mark.

Which brings me to the second hotel we used: totally different from our castle, this was a derelict merchant's house in the middle of a  nondescript village. Completely renovated a few years ago, it provided comfortable rooms, an amazingly good and cheap restaurant and the only bar in the place where the locals gathered. Very drinkable white wine was available for 90 cents in the bar and the same was 6 euros in the restaurant; you could buy the wine in the local bodega over the road for 2 + euros.

Haro, the wine capital of the region is a must as four of the best wineries in Spain are all grouped around the station area and all have tasting rooms. Muga was the best as it was really a bar and you could taste their finest for a modest fee in very nice surroundings. For those visiting these places you will be tempted to buy but restrain yourself as the Simply supermarket down the road has an enormous selection of Riojas on sale right to the top level and lower prices than the bodegas were selling, as much as a third or more cheaper in some cases, so you should taste in the wineries and buy in the supermarket.

Whilst visiting the neighboring Vina Tondonia one could not help notice an event going on in front of the winery: a large batch of young schoolchildren were making their own wine with the help of the owner, miniature grape presses and various jars bottles etc meaning that grape-stained little hands were much in evidence and a great time was being had by all; this is evidently an annual event at harvest time and was the owner's idea as he had been introduced to wine making the same way when young and has carried on the tradition. I can’t imagine the making of alcoholic drinks at that age would go down well with our PC brigade but it went down well here.

Children learning to make wine
There are some very pretty villages in the Rioja area. We only visited a few but Laguardia, Sajazarra, and Najera spring to mind as well worth visiting along with San Vicente de la Sonserra for its hill top location and views that go with that.

The only failed find with my wineries was Bodegas Muriel: whatever I did, nothing on map or sat nav found the actual winery until I saw an arched entrance with the name. Quickly I turned in but soon realised I had simply driven into the vineyard itself down an ever more bumpy earth track; more cries of “You're not going down there!” but more off-roading got me back on tarmac and I never did find the winery. All of that makes a change for the destination I usually end up in when lost: the industrial estate wins every time.

The colours at this time of year are stunning with the grape harvest in full flow; the leaves on the vines are changing to autumn colours - the genre Vitis is known for coloured leaf climbers but the grape vines are not far behind with ribbons of orange and yellow hues adorning the fields.
I could have spent another day or so in Rioja, it is a lot more than just a wine region with its own style of landscape that compliments the rest of this gorgeous region.

Soon it was time to head north to the coast. Getaria was our destination but finding the hotel produced a story of its own. Once again the vagaries of the satnav came into play: whatever version of the address I put into it the result was a dead end. Numerous requests from the natives produced much pointing and "back there" signals but still no hotel. I pulled up in the street we were on and got the map out - it didn’t help - and then espied an ambulance parked up opposite: he must know the area so I went over with the address.

I handed him the address and he looked long and hard and said nothing, eventually he said "Español?" hoping I could converse as he spoke no English; after I said no he gesticulated and I grasped he was going to take us there, so we arrived at the hotel - which was nowhere near where we had been looking - behind an ambulance, a first for me and something I doubt would be repeated in the UK.

Unlike the previous stops this  was a very modern hotel but very well laid out and comfortable with views over its own vineyards towards the coastal outcrop at Getaria and lighthouse and the lighthouse on top.

One can imagine with the huge Atlantic swell all those lighthouses earn their keep and now of course that swell is haven to surfers who are everywhere along this coast. 

You know you are in Basque country here: all the signs and names have unpronounceable names containing lots of Xs and Zs in combinations that baffle and the Basque flag is flown proudly.

Here on the coast you realise how important fish is to these people: all the small ports have boats of all sizes out all day and into the night, the restaurants  all have fish-dominated  menus and it is an insult (as it is all round this coast including Portugal) to ask for anything but fish, so we didn’t. God knows what we spent on turbot, sea bass, sea bream etc all priced by the kilo, but they were the best fish meals I have ever consumed so it was worth it; but it does not come cheap. Saturday night saw the locals indulging in the same fish: they are prepared to pay for the good stuff as in Japan, where fish is of a higher order in the scheme of things food-wise.

Getaria is home to a superb modern museum dedicated to the late fashion designer Balenciaga who was born here. It's not my thing in the normal run of events but I was very impressed with the layout and presentation of some beautiful clothes... have to be careful here I might just step over the the current gender boundaries and be seen in a dress !

Just up the coast San Sebastian beckoned. It seemed much bigger after fifty years and inevitably is but the handsome buildings in the center all shone and the festooned bridge at the river mouth was just as remembered. The place was teeming with people and had that look of affluence you see in big cities, and whilst the outskirts are like those in most other cities. the  central harbour-side part and promenade is still very good. San Sebastian is another foodie paradise but we stayed with the fishing village fair and did not eat there.

Round Getaria and along that piece of coast a white grape is having a resurgence and is drunk with fish by most of the locals. The grape is Txacoli; not seen in the UK, it is a dry wine with natural spritz and is poured using an aerator on top of the bottle, Whilst the “good with fish” meme may stand up, to me it was the nearest thing to lemonade I have ever encountered in a wine: no subtle hints of lemon here, great gobs of it, not unlike but more overpowering than NZ Sauvignon Blancs that have lost the plot and taste only of gooseberry. No, I did not bring any back, even for the novelty value, though the wife did not mind it; I stuck to the Alborino, which is constantly improving here. There are other rare white grape varieties and I tried a few but in honesty they offered nothing out of the ordinary; but I may not have had the best of them. Needless to say, the names of these grapes all started with the letter X !

I saw little TV on this trip but the Catalan referendum was wall to wall with constant shots of the protagonists and the various police forces being shown in good/bad light according to whose side you followed. What little I could gather from the locals - who managed to find three old ETA members who appeared on TV with masked faces and berets, plus one man with a flag - was that it was as much a protest against the government in general: Rajoy along with all the western leaders is seen as a weak self-serving politician (as they all are nowadays; no change there.)

In fact an interesting part of the trip was meeting various people from all over Europe, the States and Canada who all said the same thing: the general consensus was we are not being served well by any of them, as the status quo does not like being shoved even slightly to one side. The full Trump is evil and the farce of Obama care was spelled out in very plain language. None was a good omen for the west as the problems are mutual and are simply not being addressed.

And just one other thing before the last stage of the journey: Spanish TV is ruled by women. One news program I watched did not have single man in the studio or on location, not one. Even the totally over the top football coverage was not dissimilar; and the face of Zinadine Zidane staring out of the screen was almost 1984 in its omnipresence; and if you believe them, Harry Kane is already playing for Real !

Whilst still visualising Spanish women, they still do wear the sexiest shoes - crippling, but sexy.

And one  observation that was puzzling: there seem to be an inordinate number of old “S” type Jaguars in these parts. One we came across was actually out on hire. Were they a big seller in Spain? I have no idea.

As the trip drew to a close the weather turned foul. We were in a cloud with rain for the last two days and when we left Bilbao on the ferry back the harbour could not be seen as the cloud base was so low. As for Bilbao itself we had no time to do it justice, just one venture into the centre and sample a couple of those wonderful tapas bars - some are really amazing - and back to the hotel for an early start to get the ferry.

A final anecdote: on the multi-laned highway to the port there were five visible accidents involving multiple vehicles in the space of less than a mile; this was on both sides. The irony was that huge signs saying "Drive carefully, this is an accident black spot" were evident everywhere; their driving is still appalling.

As JD is more than aware, having spent time in the country, this part of Spain is a foodie's paradise.  I have never eaten so well across the board, not in France, Italy, anywhere. I would love to return but another fifty years hence? I doubt it !


James Higham said...

Wonderful account as usual, scarcely know where to begin - St Sebastian?

Demetrius said...

Ah memories memories, we did Portsmouth to Santander back in '71, a wonderful trip. In '77 we did Wellington's march through the Peninsular.

CherryPie said...

It sounds a wonderful place to visit and the food sounds delightful. I am fond of fish so I would be in my element.