Bonanza Birthday Adventure…Segovia, A Parador & Toledo Up First…

My girlfriend’s (Hound #2) birthday comes up every November, as they do, and this year she made it clear that no pressies were required, just a trip, a trip to see the city of Granada and the Alhambra. Because of public travel complications (takes too long and no doggies allowed), we opted for a week or so long road trip with pit stops in Segovia, Toledo and a sweet Spanish parador thrown into the mix before our arrival in Granada…

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Segovia’s Roman Viaduct…Impressive! No Cement or Mortar here Folks…just the weight of the stones, perfectly placed.

First stop was Segovia as Hound #2 was aching to see the Roman aqueduct and that was pretty much it! We had actually thought about staying in Segovia but Segovia has NO PLACES YOU CAN STAY WITH A DOG! Serious faux pas Segovia…but we had a nice wander as the weather was more than co-operating with bright sun, blue skies and mild temps. Segovia was super busy with bus loads of tourists…and it struck us that the pueblo had been taken over by many well known chain stores. In fact, just under the 100AD Roman aqueduct was a Burger King AND a McDonalds – ugh.

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Segovia in Super Light….

Onward & upward to the Parador @ Gredos…Hound #2 has always wanted to stay at one of Spain’s amazing paradors but:

(a) they be expensive – the one in Hondarribia, where we live, can run you €250 per night; (b) and most of them do not, once again, do not allow dogs.

But as luck would have it, the parador in the wilds of Gredos (absolutely nothing else around but conveniently on our way to Toledo) not only allowed dogs, but set us back a mere €70 (plus €15 for a full on breakfast)! And Hound #1 Billie copped the deal to make ya squeal – a new travel bed, 2 new food / water bowls and a 4kg bag of Royal Canin kibble (all thanks to Royal Canin) – for free!

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El Bar @ El Parador @ Gredos…

Simply said, the paradors of Spain are impressive. Stunningly old but classy buildings with character in spades, top level staff & service, food & drink that is hard to beat and rooms to suit all needs. We hit the bar for some delicious (for lack of a better word) mushroom stew (it is the forage season here) and then split a perfect, fresh salad with a few brews in front of the open, warming fire.

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A Parador Brekky!

I scored big time too as being north of 55 years of age, we got the old folks breakfast discount & were treated to this plethora of delectable delicacies…left the table full and satisfied.

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Post Brekky Parador Woods Walk…Billie’s Fave.

And to top off & finish our wonderful parador stay, they have a marvellous woods walk which ticked everyone’s boxes (we worked off breakfast, Billie got his sniffing & peeing done) in a crisp fall morning. Estupendo!

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Toledo Bound….Bit of A View…

Then off to Toledo, with a wee pit stop atop a seriously high hill (not really a mountain) and we got this wonderful gander across a misty valley…

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Hola Toledo!

A few things to mention about Toledo:

(a) it is relatively tiny – ‘tiny’ as in squished onto the pinnacle of a hill & surrounded by old stone walls. The squish factor makes for challenging navigation – especially when they allow cars & trucks & scooters to use the very same streets. And it is quite hard to get your bearings as the streets are so narrow, and the buildings smack dab on either side of the street that you cannot see an effing landmark to orient yourself;

(b) Toledo is not a vibrant, late night kind of place by a long shot. You may have heard how famous the Spanish are for ‘la marcha’ (nightlife) and they like to be out very late – not here. Granted, it was a Thursday night but we wandered up & down dozens of streets only to find the majority of places shuttered up…and Toledo supposedly had a gastronmic tapas competition happening as we wandered!

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Window Shopping – Toledo…They Like Their Swords & Knives…Sort of Famous for them…

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Toldeo Scenes – Crazy Trafico!

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Awesome Views from the Library Cafe…

One of the all time best views to be had of Toledo that is actually in Toledo is from the library’s cafe, which sits on the top floor with vistas in all directions – and the coffee’s damn cheap @ €1 per cuppa!

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Tasting the Wares….

When we awoke on the Friday morning, it was Hound #2’s actual birthday. So a special breakfast needed to be sought out, so we went on a search & discovered Cafetería Wamba. Deal to make us squeal…

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Birthday Brekky Deal To Beat The Band….

Stuffed with the sweetest of birthday pastries & coffee, it was time for a bit’o culture. So after several dead ends & retracing of steps, and employment of Google maps, we found the El Greco Museo.

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El Greco Museo

And lo & behold, for some still not understood reason, today (Hound #2’s birthday) the entrance was free! We liked the museum but were a wee bit puzzled early on as there appeared to be no El Greco works actually at the El Greco museum. They had an interactive computer program at the start that showed you on a map all the other places in Toledo you could see El Greco’s work, and the first 2 or 3 exhibition rooms we toured were all disciples of El Greco or outright copiers, but no El Grecos. But phew, we eventually found a decent sampling of his work which some art folks speculate is painted in a seemingly exaggerated or distorted style (tall & extended bodies with pointed & small heads) because they think El Greco’s eyesight was either horrible or fading quickly, or that he was slightly mad – or both.

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Celebratory Lunch @ Kumera….Curried Chick Peas with Shrimps & a Perdiz (Local Partridge) Salad…

With the Culture Box ticked, it was time for a birthday lunch & we were hoping we’d be a tad luckier than the previous night’s debacle. And we were, as we settled into a savoury menú del día at Kumera. I won the first plate competition round with my Garbonzos Con Curry y Langostinos (Curried Chick Peas & Shrimps) but Hound #2’s Ensalada de Perdiz a la Toledana (a local seasonal Toledo specialty) was not far off a top score.

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Kumera Mains – Seared Salmon & Venison Stew….

And sorry, but glad to say folks, I won the main plate competition too with my Venison Estufado (Stew) – superb! Though, once again the Salmón al Horno (Baked Salmon) in a Spring Onion Cream would not have been kicked off the table. All washed down with a most delicious cuppa vino blanco (verdejo and macabeo grapes) of Paso a Paso by Bodega Volver.

Satiated and more than satisfied, we packed the vehicle & set our course for Granada & the Alhambra…the next phase of the birthday festivities.

Mercado Urdanibia (Irun, España) – Estupendo!!!

I had promised after my last blog post that I would return to Irun to have a decent gander at the market that takes place every Saturday in Plaza Urdanibia – well, here it is. The weather gods looked to be co-operating to a fair degree (generally cloudy but no effing rain) so with any early start we snagged a place on the E25 bus for downtown Irun….

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Busy Market Scenes On A Crisp Autumn Saturday….

This market is VERY popular with the local folks – anytime a temporary stall needs to employ a ticket numbering system you know they will be busy! I like a lot of things about this market, and some not so much. My likes are: (a) tremendously wide selection of products (mostly local) on offer at precios fenomenales (as in LOW) from charcuterie to cheeses to olives to dry goods (beans) to veggies; (b) the overall quality is superb – with many of the stall holders clearly being the actual person who grew or made it; (c) it has a real market feel with lots of noisy, up beat chatter & jokey banter back & forth between the vendors & customers and amongst the customers themselves as many appear to be regulars.

My dis-likes are: (a) Besides all the fantastic food folks here, this market also has a fair bit of tat as in cheap & tacky clothes, shoes, etc…which I feel detracts from the food side; (b) and there appear to be 2 fruit & veggie sections – one side is clearly folks who have been straight to the wholesale produce market earlier in the day & purchased their lots to on sell here, while the other side of the aisle is made up of locals with private allotments or gardens, and they are here to sell what they actually grow. We shop with the latter crowd and have yet to be disappointed.

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Fruit & Veg…

As good and fresh as the local fruit & veggie sections are, it is the stalls of cheeses, charcuterie, olives, etc…that really grab my heart and stomach’s attention. I have been a quite rabid fan of these products from an early adult age and I can get a bit giddy when starring at such a cornucopia of taste sensations. A serious level of restraint is always attempted because we are a small household (just 2 people & one dog) and we hate to see any delicious food go to waste.

So on this visit we managed to pick up:

  • 2 fat chorizo sausages that the vendor claimed were ‘muy picante’ and another one that we tasted that was just barely picante but full of flavour;
  • Amazingly powerful, flavourful goats cheese in an ash covered rind (see photo below – 3rd photo down on the left);
  • A wee round loaf of wood oven baked bread;
  • Piles of local apples;
  • A stuffed bag of clementines from the actual grower who had driven from Valencia to sell at this market;
  • A beautiful bunch of red onions & a midget of a butternut squash.
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From the Deli Section of the Market….

So if you are an Irun or Hondarribia or San Sebastián & surrounds local, the mercado at Plaza Irdunibia is well worth the effort to explore. And after you have done your required market shop, make a bee line for one of the best wine shops around – Vintoteca Mendibil (subject of a future blog post) – to top up your shopping basket with essential bottles.

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Charcuterie Cornucopia!

Irun – A World of Markets…

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Mercado Mercairun, Irun, Basque Country

The Hounds have made several Irunian forays for a variety of reasons but we had a ‘reminder’ note to venture back to have a damn decent squizzy of a covered market we’d discovered on out first outing. Post a quick Google search to track down the market’s exact location, we soon discovered Irun has not just 1 market (Mercado de Uranzu), not just 2 markets (Mercado Mercairun), but 3 (Mercado de Urbanibia)!!!!

Due to a rather late rising, we decided to make a beeline for Mercado Mercairun which is the 2nd Irunian covered market we’d yet to lay our eyes on or to sample their wares…

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Anyone for a Steak? Seriously Aged Beef Here…

Well it’s all here in spades folks – pick your section & be prepared to be excited & also overwhelmed. As it was Saturday, and late in the morning, the market had probably already seen its early dash but mucho folks were still queued up at the most popular stalls filling their trolleys with everything from succulent steaks to a charcuterie cornucopia to gleamingly fresh seafood.

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Fresh Off Da Boat…In Every Shape, Size & Colour

Although Spain certainly has its share of supermarket chains like most other Western countries (and they are heavily utilised too), it is refreshing and awesome to see a community or town or city that wholly embraces a market(s) & heartily shops this way. Markets like these provide the best of all food worlds: like a supermarket, they offer the convenience of one-stop-shopping, but with the mega advantage of choosing and buying from small, independent businesses (in many cases artisanal) that actually may give a shite about the products they sell. And clearly long term vendor/customer relationships were in evidence here with some stalls having folks stacked 3-4 deep with quick & snappy banter being fired across the hall.

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Not To Be Outdone, The Veggie Section On Splendid Display…

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Top Notch Charcuterie…Pata-Negra de Belota Is As Good As It Gets!

In the up & coming Local Food Hound posts there will be one about the 3rd market – the Mercado de Urbanibia – which I stumbled upon pretty much by accident. It is an outdoor market that is held in the massive Plaza de Urbanibia with more than 150 stall holders selling everything from socks & shoes to superb charcuterie, cheeses & olives….you know an outdoor food market is good when the temporary stalls need to employ a ticket turn dispenser! I really wanted to buy some olives but the last number called out was #62 and my ticket was #85! Next time…

And I’d be a wee bit remiss if I did not mention & include a follow up post on the stupendous Vinoteca Mendibil – easily one of the best vino stores I have visited since moving to España!

Toddling Off To The Tolosa Market…

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Tolosa Saturday Market – White Arched Building Sitting on the banks of the Oria River…

We Hounds are a wee bit passionate about exploring our local markets, and we have ticked many market boxes since arriving in Hondarribia, Spain in June 2015. But one that stubbornly still remained on our ‘to do’ list was the Saturday Tolosa Market, which many Basque foodie mates of ours had vociferously said was a ‘must do’. So we mustered ourselves out of a comfortably warm bed @ 7AM, piled into Gertie the Land Rover & bounced & jounced our way to the town of Tolosa (which, BTW, is rather infamous for being the home of the Elósegui Basque beret, of which I am a proud owner).

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Market Madness…Shopping Ops Galore!

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Market’s Kicking Off Early Saturday Morning…

And our Basque foodie mates where damn right – this is a sweet market. Not too big, not too small, not at all limited in its products on offer – just a perfect balance of all the things (in season) you’d be looking for to make a meal or fully stock your pantry. It is called the ‘mercado del tinglado’ which roughly translates to the ‘shed market’, with the actual shed being constructed on this site in 1898 (the market has been going in Tolosa for yonks).

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Tolosa Scenes: Top Left – Market; Crazy Vino Man; Lettuce Seedlings; Market & River Reflection

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Yum – Fresh Figs In Season & At Their Peak; Shiny Carrots; and Sweet Cauli…..

While Hound #2 got into the thick of it right off the bat at the very first stall with several purchases (including PERFECT aubergines – 3 for a euro…deal!), I decided to have a good squizzy of the market hall & inspect all of the vendors for potential purchases. Well, everything looked spectacular – and awesomely cheap. We were most impressed with the cheese stalls – lots of variety (many Basque market cheese stalls seem to sell the exact same cheese or minor variations on a theme) and prices to beat the band. A quarter slice of a beautiful, creamy blue which we thought would set us back €5 only rang the bell @ €2.7!

Hound #2 was on the prowl for late season figs (see picture above) & voilà! A single stall was in possession of 4 magic trays (at €2.5 a tray) of perfectly ripe figs – score! Something good & tasty will come of that I am sure…

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Cheese Galore; Local Special Beans; Chorizo!!!

And folks we are knee deep into prime fungi season here in the Basque Country, with most of the hills covered in woods of various tree species providing the perfect spawning grounds for this epicurean delicacy. They were here in all shapes & sizes & flavours (and prices)…completely hand foraged.

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It’s Mushroom Season Folks!!!

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Market Scenes…

And after some very busy shopping, a cafe con leche & sweet treat were called for…we were pointed (by several stall holders) to the Solana.4 cafe, smack dab adjacent to the market buzz. And once again our Basque advice was spot on – the best cup of java we have had in a while and pastries stuffed to the gills with deep, dark chocolate. Excelente!

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Caffeine Stop @ Solana.4 – Estupendo Coffee!

And now that we know about the Tolosa Market, we will mos def be back…even if it is just for the coffee!

To The Cidery We Will Go…

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Itziar’s Home Sweet Home…and Dogs & Cats.

We have a very good mate named Itziar who, like us, is struggling to learn a second language – for us Spanish, for her English. She’s quite good with her English but for practice we spend a bit of time each week in what is called an “intercambio”, where half the time we speak in Spanish and the other half in English. We first met Itziar at one of our absolute fave restaurants, Cantina de Guadalupe, where she works along side many folks from her family. During one recent visit to the Cantina, Itziar presented us with a bottle of her family’s cider which we promptly took home, chilled & drank as our evening beverage. Estupendo! was the general consensus.

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Cider Making Stuff

We conveyed those sentiments to Itziar upon our next meeting and she offered up an invitation to pay a visit to her parents home & see the cider making workshop and…buy some cider! Yippee! So off we toddled one fine summer’s eve in Itziar’s car, winding our way up several back country laneways, making a slow ascent toward the foothills of the Jaizkibel Mountains.

We pulled into a courtyard where a passel of folks were having a chat, buying some wonderful cider while the dogs & cats wandered freely about. Itziar introduced us to her Mum & Dad, and then launched into a tour of the cidery, explaining each piece of equipment & how it is used, as well as a timeline of events from start to the finish – cider to sell & drink. Post the tour, samples were poured all round and after a couple or three doses of cider, we headed up the hill for the late evening views.

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View from the Hill

It was a warm and slightly humid evening, which left a vague haze across the valley but the view was still stunning. We had a close inspection of the neighbour’s txakoli vineyard which appeared to be coming along nicely. Txakoli is the only native Basque Country grape and it makes a wonderful crisp, low alcohol, slightly fizzy white wine that is meant to be drunk within a year of bottling. Traditionally it is poured from a decent height when served to punch up the effervescence factor.

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Apple Orchard Trees & Sheep Shed

Post a tour of the orchard and the veggie garden, we got down to business and procured 12 bottles of this wonderful liquid. It is our favourite cider that we have tasted so far in the Basque Country and on all our trips through Spain. Long may it last or at least Itziar’s family supply stock! We hope to buy more…and maybe lend a helping hand in next season’s harvest….

Going Vegetarian in Hondarribia, Spain

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Going Veggo In Hondarribia @ El Curry Verde

Having a vegetarian restaurant in Spain is almost an oxymoron as Spain is the king when it comes down to eating meat – especially pork or jamón. Hondarribia is not short of a bar or twenty that will readily serve up all the wonderful Spanish carnivorous treats and you are quite hard done by to get any green veggies with any ordered meal. We had wandered by El Curry Verde hundreds of times (it is on one of Hound #1’s fave walks), read the menu and said “we have to go here”. But we didn’t…until Hound #2’s vegetarian-bordering-on-vegan Dad paid us a week long visit which prompted our initial & most enjoyable meal. But we had to return…

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El Curry Verde offer an a la carte menu but they also have a version of the infamous menú del día  where for €17 you get a first & second course and a dessert or for €14 you can choose a second or main course and a dessert. Unlike most menú del días in Spain, wine is not included in the price but the wine list is quite modestly priced with bottles of red, white or rosé starting out at an accessible €8.

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Top Left: Hound #1, Sweet Rosé, Veggie Spring Rolls

For vino we opted for the Egiarte rosado which we thought, on its own, was a tad too sweet for us but it worked wonders with the food. We both love El Curry Verde’s version of spring rolls so I had them as my primero course with my €17 menu while Hound #2 talked them into making them up in a main size for her segundo course. Stuffed with vermicelli noodles & diced veggies these are a taste treat – just be careful you do not burn your mouth being too eager to bite into one!

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Falafel Tacos…

My main course was a tummy filling falafel taco – perfectly cooked & full of flavour with a sensational salsa on the side. Loved the generous use of fresh herbs & veggies that lent the taco a crispy freshness and as I said before, a bit of a rarity in the Spanish restaurant or food scene.

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And to finish off our estupendo meal we both chose the inventively served cheesecake – filling up whole insides of a mason jar. Delish it was too — crispy, crunchy topping with a tart & sweet cake.

We will mos def be going back and if you are in Hondarribia, crave some super flavourful veggie comestibles, make a bee line for El Curry Verde!

The Bacalao Pil-Pil Cookoff…

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The Beginning Prep: Top Left – Bacalao/Cod & Olive Oil; Sauce Happening; Swirl & Swirl; Key Ingredient – Garlic.

Bacalao (or cod) is a mainstay ingredient for many dishes here in the Basque Country, but probably the most famous bacalao dish of all is bacalao pil-pil. Recently we were privileged to watch a Basque Cook Off of this very famous Basque dish right here in Hondarribia. About a dozen contestants had been rounded up or entered to try & make the bacalao pil-pil supreme to tickle the judges taste buds & snare a trophy.

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Basque Billie; The Trophies (looks like everyone wins!)’ Da Fish

It is pretty simple as far as ingredients go – garlic, olive oil and bacalao (cod). The challenge is in making the sauce which happens by an emulsion process, very similar to making mayonnaise. So if you have ever attempted mayonnaise by whisking in the oil by hand & ended up with a disaster, you can appreciate the skills at work here.

The cooks place the oil & garlic in the ceramic pan & then the bacalao, which starts the gentle swirling motion – first to the right, then to the left, back to the right, etc…until it all, hopefully, gels into the classic pil pil sauce.

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Top: Chefs Prep & Swirl; Judges Tasting: The Finished Product

The only mildly disappointing thing about the cook off is that we, the audience, never got to sample the goods. All we were offered is what you can see below in the photo – a fried cod pintxo or a chistorra sausage! They both tasted great but where’s my bacalao pil-pil?

Have to venture out to one of the local tavernas then….

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The Sad Offerings for the Audience😦