shewhomust: (bibendum)
It was only after we'd decided that our Spanish holiday would follow the pilgrim route towards Compostella that we realised the route led straight through La Rioja. But once we did realise, we set aside all thought of gollowing straight through, and booked ourselves a couple of nights in the region, to give us time to look round. We stayed at the Hotel Villa de Ábalos, which we booked through Brittany Ferries, knowing no more about it than that it was in the right place - but it turned out to be probably my favourite of all the hotels of the holiday. A big old house in a small town of big houses, the homes for centuries of prosperous winemakers, it has been converted with endearing attention to detail: even the rails of the square central staircase are wrought iron panels of vines, and the walls are hung with quilted panels, with more vine motifs. The slick design of their website reflects doesn't convey the genuine charm of the place. The restaurant is good, and they serve their own wine.

We had assumed that we could explore the wineries of Rioja as we do those of France, where you turn up and see what is on offer: occasionally at busy times we've been turned away with an apology, but mostly we'll be invited to taste some wine, and often shown round as well. As I said, it didn't wotk out that way, and our winery visiting had peaked before we entered the Rioja region. The sheer scale of the enterprises may have had something to do with it, too, anmd many of them had constructed ambitious new winery buildings. Just before we reached Ábalos we had passed the tower of Ugarte, and we returned there in the morning, if only to convince ourselves that yes, we really had seen what we thought we'd seen. We could have stayed and joined the midday tour, but instead, after a good nose around, and a detour to the neighbouring dolmen, we headed into Laguardia, perched on its high ridge above the vineyards.

With the help of the Tourist Office, we found the Bodegas Carlos San Pedro, where Carlos showed us round his cellars under the town streets, and climbed a ladder to reach into his concrete vat and take a sample of the 2008 for us to try. We emerged and made our way back to the square in time to see the clock striking the hour.

All the pictures of Laguardia.

The church and the vinesFailing to book visits was just a matter of ignorance: we'll know better another time (with some reservations about the showier modern buildings, which are as much about image and architecture as they are about wine - nothing wrong with architecture, and I'm glad to have seen the crazy titanium ribbons of Gehry's Riscal winery and hotel). But we really hadn't meant to arrive at harvest time, and though it was interesting to see people out picking grapes in the vineyards, they really didn't need the distraction visitors. Still, it was a delight simply to be driving through the vines, and we took the long way home, over the mountains where the views were stunning even though all the detail and distance was blurred by mist. And we were back in time for a stroll among the vines which crowd around Ábalos, just as the sun was setting.

We spent the next morning in Haro, which claims to be the capital of the Rioja wine region, and also the most northerly point where storks nest - there's a splendid nest on the roof of the tourist office (which seems altogether too convenient to be entirely genuine). We also found a wine shop in the huge central square, with an extensive collection of bottles, from which we picked a selection to bring home, untasted, judging purely by the attractiveness of the labels (I'm slightly embarrassed that this system worked perfectly well; we enjoyed every bottle). We stayed in the square for a lunch of salad and conversation about which I have already written.

After lunch, we turned our thoughts back to the pilgrimage, and headed for Santo Domingo.

Trivial

Jan. 27th, 2012 09:54 pm
shewhomust: (Default)
The three pilgrim routes across the Pyrenees meet at Puente la Reina. But just before we got there, we came to Eunate.

Eunate )

From here it was no distance at all to Puente la Reina - where Queen Urraca built a fine arched bridge at the end of the eleventh century. The road west enters the town through a narrow arch and - as the Calle Mayor - runs straight between imposing buildings, sheer as cliffs, to the bridge.

Puente la Reina )

When we had admired the bridge from all angles, we drove on through the late afternoon heat, through Navarra and on into La Rioja. The dusty fields of stubble were dotted with squares of vines or olive groves, the patches of green becoming more and more frequent until the area under vines was continuous, ringed in the distance by the improbable silhouette of mountains muted by the heat haze.

Nekeas

Jan. 20th, 2012 10:15 pm
shewhomust: (bibendum)
The pilgrim route west from Sos del Rey Católico passes through wine country: eventually La Rioja, but first the vineyards of Navarra. Once we realised this was the case, we asked Helen Savage for some recommendations. Of course, whenever Helen visits a winery, she is made welcome, and she had not thought to warn us that visiting vineyards in Spain is a rather more formal matter than it is in France: you can't just drop in and be shown round. Over the next few days, we gradually worked this out. It didn't help that we had arrived during a heatwave which had brought forward the harvest by a couple of weeks to - well, now, actually.

But we didn't know any of this when we arrived at Nekeas. A sequence of increasingly minor roads brought us into a side valley, its slopes covered with vines, and among them a great courtyard dominated by a huge building, dazzling white in the sun:

The Nekeas valley


There was no sign of life, but we found a doorbell and rang it, and a disembodied voice asked us what we wanted. It seemed a bit taken aback that we wanted to visit, but found an English-speaker who was extremely obliging about showing us round.We probably saw more, rather than less, than we would have done if our visit had been booked in the proper way, and if the harvest had not been in progress: he led us through among the vats, where the freshly pressed juice was bubbling enthusiastically (today was merlot) and invited us to listen to the barrels, where we could hear the chardonnay fizzing to itself.

At the end of the tour, our guide asked if there was anything else we wanted to know: well, we said, could we buy some wine? He seemed a bit surprised at this, but quite pleased - but he wasn't about to start opening bottles for us to taste, and I can't blame him. So we bought a random dozen:

From the Nekeas range, we bought two blends, a cabernet / tempranillo and a tempranillo / merlot: I preferred the latter, but both were fruity, juicy, easy-drinking wines, and we were well pleased with them. Our guide spoke warmly of their oaked chardonnay, and we would have felt awkward about refusing it, but we didn't have great expectations - I don't dislike the style, but it was so overdone a little while ago that it has to be really exceptional to be worth doing now. This one wasn't. We drank the second (and last) bottle tonight: light, candied tropical fruits with the barest edge of French oak. But the stars of the batch were the two reds from their 'singular wines' range: Cepa x Cepa, a vine by vine assemblage from a distinctive variant of grenache grapes, and better still El Chaparral de Vega Sindoa, 100% grenache from vines at least 70 years old, producing a wine of great and spicy intensity (D. asked where we had got it from, than which there is no greater praise).

In theory we could have driven on through the valley among the vines, but we must have missed our turning on the little winding tracks - though not before we had found a viewpoint from which to photograph the winery, the vines and the irrigation canal which provides one more answer to the question what becomes of the water from the Yesa reservoir?
shewhomust: (bibendum)
It was in Ruesta that we first began to suspect that the national dish of Spain is in fact the fried egg.

The Spanish national dish I've already said, I think, that the café there offered a choice of egg and chips, ham egg and chips, bacon egg and chips, sausage egg and chips (mysteriously, no spam; it was the egg which was ubiquitous): served sizzling hot and generously salted - another characteristic of Spanish cuisine as we encountered it was a heavy hand with the salt. Sometimes this was a drawback, but when it comes to chips, salt is a guilty pleasure.

Our destination that day was Sos del Rey Católico (pictures) where we stayed in the parador, the first of three on our trip. Where Ruesta was surprising for the signs of life in an apparently abandoned village, Sos was the opposite: in among the cliffs of finely cut stone of the affluent-looking and well maintained houses, a sudden patch of dereliction was as incongruous as a missing tooth. That evening, in the palatial splendour of the dining room, I ordered 'migas', a traditional dish of the region, a great heap of breadcrumbs enriched with morsels of meat and sausage - the whole topped with a fried egg.

For the sake of completeness, I'll add here that later, in a charming hotel in the Rioja, where breakfast each morning was not only the basket of baked goods at your table and the buffet of cheeses and cold cuts, but also a different treat each day, brought to you hot from the kitchen, [livejournal.com profile] durham_rambler achieved the Full Spanish Breakfast on the day the little something extra was two fried eggs.
shewhomust: (bibendum)
It's a dark wet day, and I'm thankful to have rain where in the last two years we've had snow. Thankful, too, to have photographs which bring back memories of hot sunshine and the end of a long dry summer in Spain.

For the last time, we left Santa Cruz and drove back along the valley that runs parallel to the mountains; once again we passed the reservoir of Yesa, and once again we were amazed at the extraordinary blueness of the water, and how little of it there was: had we arrived in the middle of a drought? was the reservoir newly completed and not yet full? Neither hypothesis was completely convincing.

The stolen lake


We were doubling back to visit the monastery of Leyre, at the instigation of Edwin Mullins, whose The Pilgrimage to Santiago has accompanied us along the pilgrim route through France and into Spain. We were less impressed than our guide by the monastery: nice portal, we thought, but a merely OK church. The crypt, however, was wonderful, and we were glad we'd come. (There will be photographs in due course).

As we were leaving, we picked up another piece of information for our jigsaw puzzle: an information board enthused about the beautiful setting of the monastery, with its view over the "tranquil waters" of the lake. So it had at some point been full of water. (We eventually discovered what should probably have been obvious, that the reservoir is filled in the wet months and then emptied through the summer to irrigate the fields; we had simply arrived after a summer which was drier than most).

The Lonely Planet guide suggested a scenic route to Sos del Rey Católico, where we had booked a room for the night in the pasrador: we crossed the reservoir and drove across a rock-strewn landscape to "the gorgeous abandoned village of Ruesta".

Abandoned village


It's all of that, and more. Built as a fortress by the Moors, a staging point on the Camino Aragones, abandoned in the 1950s, handed over by the water company to the Confederación del Trabajo de Aragón in 1988 as part of their policy of rehabilitating settlements abandoned when reservoirs were constructed. (There's a web site, in Spanish.) From the road, all you see are the towers of the fortress perched on a ridge, emerging from a tangle of greenery. We pulled in to the square, and plunged into the tiny labyrinth of alleyways, dotted with clues that the place was being reclaimed: a vase placed in a niche in the semi-derelict wall, a cafe backing onto an open courtyard roofed with creepers, where the menu consisted entirely of variants on ham, egg and chips, and a constant flow of pilgrims appeared from what looked like a sheer drop beyond the wall.

After this, Sos del Rey was rather an anticlimax.

(All the pictures of the Monasterio de Leyre; all the pictures of Ruesta).
shewhomust: (bibendum)
On Sunday, we had guests, and a leisurely lunch, after which we were all so relaxed and happy that when [livejournal.com profile] durham_rambler offered to demonstrate his new internet-enabled DVD player by showing us his holiday photos through the television, we didn't try to dissuade him. Some of us may have been relaxed and happy enough to fall asleep, but that's another matter. For my part, I enjoyed his pictures, and they were a reminder, too, to carry on sorting my own (of which there are many)

A factor that coloured our entire trip was that we never really came to terms with Spanish time. "We should have stayed on British Summer Time," said [livejournal.com profile] durham_rambler, and certainly subtracting an hour from the time on clock gave the day a more familiar shape. It wasn't an entire surprise: the siesta has entered the English language, and Spaniards notoriously dine late - we would arrive at the dining room as it opened at eight thirty, to be greeted in English by the waiters (because only the English eat so early). It wasn't that we were starving - we lunched late, too - but invariably by the time we reached the dessert stage, we were nodding off. One reason why there are fewer reports of fine dining from this trip is that we just didn't have the stamina.

The long, late lunch break caught us unawares most days, but not always in a bad way: a leisurely breakfast took us into the dining room at an unhurried holiday hour by our standards, early by Spanish standards. We'd still have a long morning left for sightseeing, because although everything closed for lunch, it didn't do so until two o' clock. As I said, we lunched late, and didn't hurry, but still found ourselves ready for the afternoon's entertainments well before they reopened at four or more likely five.

If we were travelling, this was fine: because our next hotel would not be expecting us until the evening, we could take our time. But we had ridiculous difficulty, for example, in getting to a post office during opening hours. We did very little shopping, partly because we were mainly in small medieval towns in which we didn't see many shops, but also because by the time the sun was setting we'd have returned from our explorations to our hotel, and settled down to read or do battle with the internet, Meanwhile, the shops would be opening, and trade would be picking up. Gradually we worked this out, but knowing it wasn't enough to override our normal time settings.

Only on our very last evening (the one we inadvertently spent back in Santo Domingo), having spent a long day driving up and down major roads, and determined to squeeze the last drop out of our evening, did we actually find ourselves in a town full of lively and inviting shops. And this is what I bought:

Milagros del Santo

biscuits commemorating the local saint's most famous miracle.
shewhomust: (bibendum)
Santa Cruz is in the foothills, on the edge of one massif and looking across a broad valley at the Pyrenees themselves. On our second day there we drove into the mountains: taking a circuitous route past the monastery of San Juan de la Peña and skirting Mount Oroel with its distinctive profile. The roads are narrow and twisty, "....and all the mountains wear hairnets," said [livejournal.com profile] durham_rambler, and just as well, too, because the heavy mesh seemed to be all that was stopping the spiky trees and loose rocks tumbling down the slopes on top of us.

We crossed the valley and took the main road up to the Somport, crossing the border into France, just because we could. There was a café at the top, and if it had been open we'd gladly have called in for coffee, but it seemed deserted, except for the cows clanging into the car park from the adjacent meadow. So we headed back down again, conscious that we were now following the pilgrim way, the Camino Aragonés: we could see the waymarking, which followed the road very closely, and the occasional walker toiling down in the hot sun. A leaflet we had picked up at the hotel recommended a walk along section of the route, but we couldn't find the starting point, it was hot, and after the previous day's experience we were wary of walks which took you from A to B and left you to find your own way back again. We enjoyed wandering through the little town of Canfranc, and following a shady path along the river behind the old houses - and then we decided to take the advice of our guidebook, and take a look at the next valley over.

This meant driving all the way down to the main valley, and then turning back up the Hecho (or Echo, in Aragonese) valley, to the little town of Echo, a delightful warren of stone houses with the characteristic chimney towers, huddled around broad open squares: "cats" say my notes (and also children playing football). I took many pictures. From here we were able to cross into the Ansó valley by driving round the top of the valley on a broad new road. Ansó is strung out along a ridge, and lacked the higgledy-piggledy charm of Echo - or perhaps we were weary by now, or simply never got a grasp on it (another time I might try walking through the park that ran along below the village).

Ansó felt more like a town, Echo more like a village; but the major route was clearly the road we had followed; the direct road back down the valley from Ansó was older, narrower, less well maintained. At first we were puzzled by this, but then all became clear:

Arch


My notes for the day end: " - Suddenly, the Foz de Binies - Total Amazement - sheep" The Lonely Planet guide had encouraged us to travel this way, but had not mentioned the most spectacular part of the day's drive, where the side valley (just before it opened out into the main valley) narrowed to a gorge just wide enough to take the road and the river. At times barely even that - a curtain of rock seemed to have been hung across the route, and then a narrow passage cut through. It was late afternoon by now, and the drama of the route was emphasised by the alternation of golden sunlight and deep shadow.

Finally we came back to the broad valley, feeling that we'd left the scenic stretch of mountain road for the humdrum and increasingly familiar highway: but there was one last thing to see. Down below the road, in a sheltered scoop of agricultural land, something was moving like flowing water, or swarming insects. We stopped for a more leisured look: a great mass of sheep moving in unison (with a handful of outliers, goats following at a distance on the lower slopes):

Sheep on the move


More pictures: of Canfranc, Hecho, Anso, the Foz de Binies.
shewhomust: (bibendum)
There were two monasteries, the old and the new, the lower and the higher (or, more accurately, the higher and the even higher). The walk, too, was in two parts, uphill and down, there and back again.

Explanations and pictures behind the cut )

All the photos of San Juan de la Peña
shewhomust: (bibendum)
From Bilbao we headed back east: the justification was that rather than connect with the route we had walked through France, and revisit Roncesvalles and Pamplona, we would explore the more easterly Camino Aragonés which crosses the Pyrenees at the Somport. We'd found a hotel that seemed to be well located for this, in the village of Santa Cruz de la Seros - and it turned out to be an even better location than we had realised.

I've barely started to sort my photos, so at this stage you have to take my word for how very pretty the village is, tucked into a fold in the hills, with the hotel just slightly raised up one slope, the old stone houses with their massive round chimney stacks ranged up the other, and the church in the bowl between them.

'La Seros' were the sisters, the nuns of the convent attached to the monastery higher up the mountain (about which more later). From the balcony of our room we can admire the old church floodlit in the night, and the following morning, over breakfast, we watch as the sun gradually spreads down its facade as it clears the surrounding mountains.

Morning in Santa Cruz


It was our first Spanish breakfast (not counting the rather international version on offer in Bilbao) and we weren't sure what to expect. A dish of individual portions of jam (no marmalade, but the greengage jam was a pleasant surprise) and a rather dry croissant - and then our hostess appeared with a plate of toast, which is one of my favourite foods. We tried to deduce what might be on offer from the cutlery, but could see no use for the fork (it turned out to be a handy pointing device for [livejournal.com profile] durham_rambler's smart phone).

Having broken our fast, we set off to climb a mountain.

All the photos of Santa Cruz.
shewhomust: (bibendum)
We are leaving Spain under a cloud - a low grey cloud, and almost the first we've seen all week - and on a sea rolling more vigourously than on our outward journey. Nonetheless, we are on the ferry, and so is our poor battered car, and a couple of days ago that wasn't at all certain, so all in all I'm content. And there's a patch of silver over to my right, where a little sun is leaking through the clouds.

We've had an anxious couple of days, with a great deal of telephoning and even more driving, some of it probably self-inflicted - with hindsight, we made some wrong decisions, most but not all of them because we assumed things about our insurers and assistance company that turned out not to be the case (that they would, for example, being owned by the same company, talk to each other; that having sold us European cover they would be able to find a Spanish speaker to look after the case; that they would appreciate that a repair which had to be authorised by an assessor the day after we were due to leave Spain was not an ideal solution; that when they said they would call us back, they would call us back; stuff like that). For a while it looked as if we would have to scrap the car because we couldn't get a quick and dirty repair done to let us drive it home.

We were misled by the efficiency with which Britannia Rescue swung into action and got us towed off the roadside, and (after a delay, which should have warned us, while they tried to locate a car hire firm - open on a Sunday, in Spain, which isn't realistic) sent a taxi to take us to our hotel, and another to take us to the car hire firm in the morning. All this worked very well, because it is what they do, but in hindsight, in expecting continuing support we were taking them outside their comfort zone, and they kept going quiet and awaiting instructions. Similarly, we seem to have been passed from person to person at the insurers, and by the time we reached the person who was prepared to assume responsibility, look at the problem as a whole and help us to resolve it, valuable time had been lost. Plus, we were by now a hundred miles away, in the mountains.

So yesterday we did what we should have done two days earlier, and returned to Santo Domingo de la Calzada for some intensive haggling, with much passing of the phone from one person to another, and at some point the logjam broke. I had the impression that the two things that most galvanised the person I was speaking to at the international assistance company were the words "temporary repair - small claim" and his realisation that if he couldn't get us and our luggage home in our car, he was going to have to do it some other way. "You live in London?" he asked, hopefully, and I said no, we lived in the north of England, with much emphasis on that 'north'.

Anyway, for whatever reason, the garage conceded that while their professional dignity would not allow them to lash it up themselves, they knew a man who would. It would take all afternoon, though, and the headlamp had been sufficiently bashed that we shouldn't drive it at night, so we had to cancel the hotel we had booked on the coast and find somewhere in Santo Domingo (not in itself a problem, though the more we abandoned the itinerary we had planned, the more convinced I was of what a good one it had been).

Then we drove the hired car back to the Europcar depot in Burgos, along the road we had driven into Santo Domingo that morning, with a little help from a fellow customer at the petrol station who very kindly guided us to the office. There we met the taxi, organised by the rescue company (who were now back on home ground, and phoned us at each stage to check that all was well). He drove us back to the garage where we were reunited with our funny-looking car, now funnier looking than ever, with Frankenstein type staples in its bumper. The mechanic had to phone a fiend before he could convey that in order to give us a receipt he needed not the car's papers but ours, but eventually all was sorted and we were able to spend a relaxing evening strolling around the walls of Santo Domingo (complete with storks' nests) and then dining on the Pilgrim menu (set menu, cheap and cheerful, good value) in a café in the old town.

So in the end it wasn't such a bad last evening after all.
shewhomust: (bibendum)
This post brought to you by the department of being careful what you wish for: over lunch in the main square Haro yesterday -

- we had both ordered the 'ensalada especial Obarenes' (Obarenes being the name of the café). This turned out to be the usual bed of crisp leaves (some frisée, some radicchio) scattered with prawns, walnuts, chicken pieces, canned pineapple and currants, dowsed in a creamy dressing (mm...could that be blue cheese?) topped with a generous helping of elvers. I don't think I've ever eaten elvers before. Call me conservative, but I could have done without the pineapple -

- [livejournal.com profile] durham_rambler remarked that although he was enjoying his holiday, he felt we were passing through Spain without really making contact in the way he particularly enjoys in France. We agreed that not speaking Spanish probably has something to do with this, and forgot about it.

But this morning, as we drove away from our hotel in the old centre of Santo Domingo de la Calzada, we reached the bollards which limit vehicle access to its narrow streets, waited until the bollard straight ahead of us had sunk into the ground and drove confidently into its companion below our line of sight on the right, which had not descended. We can't have been moving at any speed, but the impact has still left the bumper hanging off on the front right. crumpled the fog light, and made it impossible to open the driver's door.

That's the injury. The insult, as anyone familiar with Durham will have spotted, is that access to the Peninsula was until recently controlled by a rising bollard which was removed because so many tourists managed to impale their cars on it. We ought, as residents, to be used to these devices.

We have insurance and Britannia Rescue and telephone access to them, but Sunday in Spain is absolute. They found a mechanic to take our car to his garage, but the Toyota garage won't open until tomorrow. There is no car to be hired closer than the airports of Bilbao and Madrid (again, one will be available tomorrow), so eventually they found a taxi to bring us just short of a hundred miles to tonight's hotel.

Which is why we crossed out of La Rioja into Castilla y León in the back seat of a taxi, gazing through the tinted windows across the sweeping fields of tawny stubble at the pilgrims toiling along the old road in the heat (and not envying them).

PS. Tonight's hotel, which is quite charming, gives its rooms uplifting names. we are in 'Paz Intrinseca' which I could certainly do with.
shewhomust: (bibendum)
After a couple of days playing truant from the Camino de Santiago to explore the vineyards of Rioja (more about this later), we have rejoined the pilgrim way at Santo Domingo de la Calzada, where we are staying in the second parador - and by some distance the grandest hotel - of our trip.

I had thought that the pilgrims had reached saturation point at Puente la Reina, where the different routes across the Pyrenees meet and pour their travelers in a single stream across the north of Spain. But Santo Domingo owes its existence to the pilgrimage, and doesn't forget it.

Santo Domingo de la Calzada
Domingo Garcia (Wikipedia entry) lived in the eleventh century and devoted his life to helping pilgrims on their way to Compotella, not by the usual charitable supply of food and shelter, but by improving the condition of the route - the calzada - itself, building first a wooden bridge, then a stone one, and paving the road surface. A settlement began to grow around his hermitage, and in time that became Santo Domingo de la Calzada. There can't be many towns whose involvement with the tourist economy is at once so ancient and so evident. And we are staying in a hospital (or hostel - I'm never sure, in the middle ages, how distinct these two things are) built for pilgrims in the twelfth century, and now a four star hotel run by the Spanish government - there's a fine sense of continuity in that!

We went out this evening to stroll round the town, thought we might as well look round the cathedral (of Santo Domingo, of course) and ended up spending so much of our time there. As well as the cathedral itself, with its elegant vaulting and some fine stonecarving, and all the richly decorated shrines, and the tomb of the saint himself (which is where this portrait comes from, showing him accompanied by the miraculous cock and hen), there is an exhibition of medieval polychrome statues which I found unexpectedly fascinating - and just when I thought we'd come to the end of that, we reached the Chapter House, with its painted ceiling and collection of treasure, case upon case of medieval bling. There was also a gothic arch, gated with iron bars behind which a piano lurked in a niche - presumably a piano which needs to be caged is even more dangerous than a book which must be chained).

All the time we were in the exhibition we kept hearing sirens, and half expected that we would emerge to find the town up in flames: but eventually we found the funfair where the local police were offering the kids motorcycle rides round a marked course, sirens sounding and lights flashing.
shewhomust: (bibendum)
We should, of course, have been helping [livejournal.com profile] desperance launch his several books, but unaccountably we find ourselves in a parador in Sos del Rey Catolico, getting used to Spanish hours and hardly even looking at our watches to see if the restaurant is open yet. But when I last wrote, we were still on the ferry...

The voyage was smooth, in every sense: well, it could have been better if the paid-by-the-hour wi-fi had permitted me to use my time as required, instead of in a single block; and if the conection had worked throughout the ship, or even as extensively as advertised. What is it with wi-fi? If it didn't exist, we'd make do. I wasn't really expecting a connection on board ship, but because it was on offer (and OK, I had paid for it) I grumbled because it didn't reach the comfortable seat I had chosen in the bar. The next night at the quite fancy hotel in Bilbao I felt cheated because the free wi-fi was in the lobby, while our room had a secure connection we would have had to pay for (we didn't bother). Next night again, I wrote these notes sitting in the perfectly pleasant bar of a hotel we chose because of its lovely location, failing to get onto the internet. If they just said no, sorry, we don't have wi-fi, we could forget it and read a book or put our feet up in our room or... Eventually we got online, and on our last night there I even found a connection in our bedroom, when all I was trying to do was download some photos - and was eveWell, anyway, it is lovely to be able to keep in touch when we are on holiday, and when it works smoothly it's miraculous. But when it doesn't, oh, the frustration*.

But our little cabin was comfortable, and pleasantly cool: I slept better than I had for days. The sea was calm (or the ship was well-stabilised, or both). In the morning we sampled the entertainments. I don't include under this heading the wine and tapas tasting in the shop that we went to the previous evening, because its purpose was surely promotional.

But the talk by someone from ORCA about the cetaceans we might see on our crossing was fun (dolphin Fact of the Day: dolphins "hear" with their sonar by sensing the vibrations in their lower jaws). And indeed we did see some cetaceans, in the sense that someone would point to a disturbance in the water half a mile away, and identify the whale or dolphin that was causing it.

The place for dolphin spotting is the top deck, which is also adjacent to the kennels: I don't think I've ever been on a ship with kennels before. Watching people walking their dogs back and forth on deck made me expect Fred and Ginger to stroll into view.

The talk was followed by "Spanish with Paco", which we attended because though we weren't likely to learn much in one hour, it couldn't hurt,and we might pick up some pointers about how to pronounce the phrases in the phrase book. It turned out to be an hour of genuine entertainment. Paco told us that he is not a teacher, but he was enthusiastic about his subject (I suspect he volunteered for this job) and he communicates his enthusiasm to his audience. He is not a linguist, either, and he isn't Spanish, but Mexican. He speaks Spanish, he told us, while the people we would be talking to in Spain would speak Castellano. I know the dominant form of Spanish is Castellano, but I wonder whether its speakers think f it as 'not-Spanish'? Also whether Brittany Ferries is disgorging boatloads of Brits with Mexican accents into the capital of Spain's Basque country?

After this we decided we were up for lunch in the ship's fancy restaurant, and that was fun, too. The most memorable course was the dessert, and not in an entirely good way: a selection of fruit sorbets is a pleasant way to end a meal, and there's no harm in adding a splash or two of fruit sorbet. There's no need to serve it on a special palette-shaped plate, and call it 'The Painter's Palette'. The wineglass with the griottes poêlées on the side was pointless cruelty. I was intrigued by what frying the griottes would add to the dish, but in fact I couldn't tell the difference: they weren't hot, they weren't crispy, they weren't caramelised, and their sour cherry tartness, which is the whole point, was too sour alongside the sorbets, while it made their fruity freshness taste over-sweet. I hate it when a really interesting idea turns out to be a bad one (the buttery little - coin-sized - shortbread biscuits were delicious, though).

The Guggenheim shakes out her skirts

We disembarked in Bilbao, whose Basque name is Bilbo. There are Bilbobuses and Bilboats.

The streets were full of people in red and white striped shirts: it's not Sunderland, but Atletico Bilbao, and their big home match has made our short visit to the town even shorter, since we spent much too long organising our parking. I felt very at home.

We walked through the park and along the river, admiring all the buildings, but the Guggenheim most of all. Then back down the Gran Via, pausing at a fountain where kids were playing football and skateboarding in the dark.

Tapas at a little cafe where they were nice to us - it's not the words we don't understand, it's the culture (what to order, how much, do we go to the bar or does it come to us...?)

[livejournal.com profile] durham_rambler found a game of pelota on the television.

The breakfast buffet included - among other things ([livejournal.com profile] durham_rambler pronounced his cooked breakfast "strange, but quite OK") = goat's milk cheese and quince paste, so I was happy.

It then took us the best part of an hour to retrieve the car from the car park at the commercial centre - and we didn't even start until the centre opened, unlike the couple who had hoped to set off early for Malaga. But we had time for a short stroll around the old town, less spectacular than the new but still interesting, and which enabled us to start our exploration of the pilgrim road at the church of Santiago in its central square.

All the photos of Bilbao




*As for example I wrote this last night but am struggling to post it this morning from [livejournal.com profile] durham_rambler's machine, as mine isn't talking to LJ.
shewhomust: (bibendum)
We managed to tear ourselves away - imagine the sensation of ripping velcro - having done everything that had to be done, and much of what I wanted to do, Not everything, obviously: defrosting the freezer will be urgent on our return, and I had wanted to post about the places we visited over the Heritage Open Days (Segedunum Roman Fort, transformed since we walked the length of the Wall however many years ago, the Spanish City where we were able to go out onto the roof, and Earsdon Church - I think - with a memorial to the victims of the Hartley Colliery disaster). But we did manage to spend a day on Lindisfarne with D., and to finish all the urgent work, including setting up one new page which has been pending for altogether too long, and to do a batch of washing despite he washing machine springing a leak (thanks to the hospitality of a friend), and to call in on Biscuit Publishing's half-day extravaganza at the Lit & Phil - and set off from there without passing go.

We overnighted near Rotherham, which gave us an easy drive down to Portsmouth. It was strange driving through Hampshire: when my father lived there we visited quite often, but we have hardly been back since his death. Now we were passing quite close to his home, seeing the familiar place-names, the watercress beds, the brick and flint walls.

The first scallop shell


I took it as a good omen, though, when I sighted the first scallop shell of our pilgrimage in the ladies' of the Crown in Kingsclere, where we lunched. The bitter was a choice of Black Sheep or London Pride: has the micro-brewing revolution not reached Hampshire yet?

Posrted from somwhere between Portland Bill a Cherbourg on very flaky Internet@sea.
shewhomust: (bibendum)
We seem to have booked ourselves a holiday. We've been plotting it for a little while now, but all the pieces have fallen into place, we have had confirmations from all our chosen hotels, and today Amazon delivered the road atlas - so it must be happening.

Kindly disregard anything you may have heard me say earlier in the year about going to Scandinavia. we were very tempted, and we may yet go and visit some of the locations of the crime fiction [livejournal.com profile] durham_rambler enjoys so much. But we cooled towards the idea when we realised that there is currently no ferry from Tyneside to Scandinavia, and the journey would involve travelling south before we could go north. Eventually, if we must we must, but for the time boing we are sulking.

After that we tossed a number of ideas back and forth, and they all sounded fun, but there was nothing that filled us with "Of course! That's what we want to do!" Until I was leafing through the Britanny Ferries brochure, and found right at the back a few ferry plus hotel packages in Spain: including one which they described as the Camino de Santiago.

Over a number of holidays we have actually walked (almost) the GR65, the long-distance footpath that follows the Chemin de Saint Jacques, the pilgrim route from Le Puy in the centre of France down through the Pyrenees at Roncesvalles. And we'd always told ourselves that one day we would carry on across the north of Spain to Santiago de Compostela, only maybe - probably - not on foot. From not having thought of that particular trip for this year, I switched in an instant to cetainty that this was what I wanted to do.

We haven't bought the full Britanny Ferries package, which seems more concerned with booking you into the paradors with which they have an arrangement than with following any historical pilgrim route, and certainly doesn't share our passion for completeness. We have put together a mixture of their ferry crossings and those hotels where they offered a good deal, some paradors booked through their own central booking system (which gave us a much better price except on the one that we hesitated over and then decidd to indulge ourselves) and one small hotel which we have booked direct online. I couldn't have done it - neither the planning nor the booking - without the internet.

Broadly, the plan is to sail to Bilbao, drive back into the Pyrenees and pick up not the 'Camino Frances' which we had been following but the 'Camino de Aragon' which crosses the mountains further east. We head west in a leisurely manner (we've allowed ourselves a couple of days in La Rioja) to about the midpoint of the Camino, then turn and head for the coast, with another couple of days in the mountains, just to have a look round.

In a month's time I will be in Spain.

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