Kiwis Come A Calling…

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Paddle Board Day…Billie Goes To Sea!

We were fortunate to have our Kiwi mate Shelley and her 2 kids (Finn & Stella) come by for 3 weeks & experience & enjoy the wonderful Hondarribia (Spain) & surrounds – and we packed it in!. It being the depths of winter Down Under, our first few days were spent lapping up the warmth & sunshine. We grabbed the local ferry to Hendaye (France – 5 minute ferry ride) where the beach is magnificent, and just enough wave action to get a few boogie board rides in. It was also good weather for everyone to have a go at paddle boarding…I was not so successful (top left picture below)…but Billie on the other hand, Hound #1, is a goer!

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Hondarribia, Spain – The Kiwi Home For 3 Weeks!

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Stinking HOT in Hondy! Even I Had To Jump In!

And besides the aquatic fun, we of course dove into the food & vino experience! Shelley is a long time Food Hound and was my partner in our restaurant London Street in Lyttelton, New Zealand. And of course, Spain and the Basque Country are a bountiful cornucopias for a food loving person – not just the amazing pintxo & raciones and menú del día offerings, but also the vast array of stellar products & produce. From the fresh as fish, to the veggies, to the olive oils & spices, to the cheeses & jamón – it’s all here.

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Hondy Treats – Top Left: Calle San Pedro Pintxo Fest; Pintxo; Pintxo; Special New Zealand Juice Courtesy of Shelley

After exhausting many of our regular Hondarribia haunts like Gran Sol, Vinoteca Ardoka, Sadara, Extebarri and Txantxangorri, we headed out to our only 1 star Michelin joint Alameda, which is top of the line on the pintxos front. We loved the mackerel ceviche (twice in fact), and the patatas brava (classic Basque dish) which totally vanished (by the kids) before any photos could be taken! And we had one of our fave wines of the trip – a stunning Rioja white (95% Viura – Spanish varietal)  by Bodega Allende.

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High Class @ Alameda

Next on the ‘to do’ list was our first visit of several visits to the most beautiful city in the world by most folks counts, San Sebastián (or Donosti in Basque). You need to either hang here for a number of days, or make multiple visits (we took the bus from Hondarribia – easy peezy) to get a decent dose of this wonderful wee city by the sea. What’s not to love? Grand architecture, museums & art spaces, beaches to beat the band, food & drink to die for, vistas to make ya cry, cool shopping galore and even a 100+ year old amusement park.

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San Seabstián: Top Left – Mount Igueldo Rollercoaster; On the Climb to Jesus; Jesus; La Concha Beach & City

We had a set of priorities to tick off so we set off on a mission….first, to eat. The vast array of choices to try pintxos, or raciones and eat a full meal in San Sebastián are head spinning to say the least. It is pretty hard to go too far wrong – much of the time you get to ‘look before you eat’ as you wander in & out of various tavernas checking out the types & quality of comestibles. We sampled a few of our standard spots like Paco Bueno (serious Old School & even has a signed All Blacks t-shirt framed); Bar Goiz Argi where we go for the calamare a la plancha (grilled – pictured below, top left); Borda Berri – ex-Cuchara de San Telmo folks & super pintxos; and Bar Zeruko – the award wining champ. And of course there are squadron of other places to gobble, gobble….

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San Sebastián Pintxos

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Bretxa Market, San Sebastian – Top Left: Kids; Blue Fin Tuna; Mate @ BretxOliva; Sardines; Veggies; Shrimps

On any true food person’s must do list is to pay a respectful visit to the local market(s) and have an extended wander up & down the aisles, chat away with the producers and learn a wee bit about what that region/country is proud to sell & eat. In San Sebastián that would be the Bretxa Market & related outdoor veggie stalls. It is hard to think of anything you cannot find or buy here with an extensive fish & seafood section offering the ocean’s finest; poultry vendors & butchers busy at work carving up various carcasses into fine cuts of meat; charcuterie & cheese & delicatessen stalls that will simply make your mouth water; and fruit & veggie stalls packed with the season’s produce.

Since we were in the city for the day, perishable purchases were not an option so we got happily stuck at BretxOliva, and amazing olive-everything stand (and extremely amenable host – you must try everything! he said)…excelente! We made fast friends and weighed down our backpacks with a decent assortment of Spanish goodies.

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Tasting Vino At GOÑI ardoteca

And besides the captivating Bretxa Market, quite nearby is our favourite wine store GOÑI ardoteka. They have an excellent range of vino, including some very good French wine which can be next to impossible to find in Spain, go figure?. But the best thing about GOÑI ardoteka is the staff – always super friendly & accommodating, informative & patient. On this day we lucked out and managed to be served by William, who offered us a range of wines to taste, including some quite old (and expensive) vino. He wanted us to taste the style differences and effects of age – well done William (and yes, we did buy a few bottle)!

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La Cuchara de San Telmo, San Sebastian – Yum! Top Left: Tuna, Kids, Veal Cheeks, Tomato Gazpacho com Idiazabal Cheese, Pulpo!

Even though we had managed an early pintxo pit stop to satiate growing Finn’s insatiable hunger, it was now approaching the opening time of one of our favourite regular haunts – La Cuchara de San Telmo. Now the Basque Pintxo World is basically divided into 2 worlds, the pre-made-cold-on-the-bar (can be heated sometimes) pintxos and the hot, made to order pintxos. La Cuchara de San Telmo falls into the latter camp and it is oh so good – it pays to arrive smack dab @ the opening @ 12:30pm (or there abouts as they often open late) for a lunchtime snack as within 20-25 minutes you just about cannot get in. Words of wisdom folks…

After a week’s explore of Hondarribia & San Sebastián & surrounds, it was now time for a road trip…so we grabbed a rental bus (literally) & took off for a whirlwind tour of Pais Vasco with stops in Getaria, Laguardia, Logroño, La Rioja Alavesa and Pamplona.

First destination: Getaria. A more than picturesque fishing village just an hour or so west along the Basque Coast from Hondarribia. Though still sort of quaint, it has changed a fair bit in just the 3 or so years since my first visit, with a number of more upscale shops for the shoppers and a small tourist crush. Shelley & Finn paid a visit to the Cristóbal Balenciaga Museo and they rated it a 5 star attraction – Stella & I hit the beach…as ya do.

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Getaria – Top Left: Family Pic Down Getaria Calle; Menú del Día @ Taverna Politena; Getaria’s Surf Beach; Grilled Dorado

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Laguardia, La Rioja Alavesa: Top Left – Santa Maria Church; Santa Maria Altar; La Rioja Alavesa View; Family Photo; Tower of Santa Maria

If you are ever tempted to visit the La Rioja region and taste some exquisite vino, you could not be more perfectly placed than Laguardia. And besides being perfectly placed you will be hanging in one of the most beautiful pueblos to be found in all of Spain, bar none. Like many old pueblos in Spain, it sits atop a decent hill, enclosed in an ancient fortress wall with encompassing views of the La Rioja vineyards that run right up to the start of the sheer cliff faces of the Cantabria Mountains.

Our first port of call for the day was a tasting stop at Bodegas Baigorri – one of our better go to drops. Spain’s wine scene has started to change – 3 or so years ago you needed to make an appointment & most likely take a cellar / winery tour (or even commit to lunch) before you could taste. But Bodegas Biagorri now offers tastings (only 2 wines) if you rock up on a normal working day (they do the tours/lunch thing too).

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Bodegas Baigorri, La Rioja Alavesa

It was fast approaching pintxo time, so after a fruitless search to find Bodegas Allende (the vino we had @ Alameda…we did find it, but there are no tastings or tours) we made a bee line for the Casco Viejo of Logroño which is renowned for its pintxo bars that all have a signature dish, usually centred around one prime ingredient (e.g., mushrooms or grilled pork).

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Logroño Pintxo Fest…

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Bodegas Ysios, La Rioja Alavesa

On our way to Bodegas Baigorri, we stopped in at Bodegas Ysios & found that they do require a winery tour – well so be it, as we wanted to taste their wines. Bodegas Ysios only makes 2 wines, both reds and it sometimes seems to be better known for the grand winery building than the wines! They are part of the PernodRicard empire so not exactly your mom & pop operation. All in all, they were decent vinos with one from the 2008 vintage and one from the 2009 and they were generous with the pours…and left us the bottles!

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Wine Tasting @ Bodega Ysios, La Rioja Alavesa

Post 2 picture perfect & massively enjoyable days in Laguardia & La Rioja Alavesa, we packed up and made our way up & over the Cantabria Mountains with Pamplona in our sites. Pamplona as many folks know, is mainly famous or infamous for the Running of the Bulls or the Festival of  San Fermin. We scheduled our visit the day after the festival ended which was both a blessing & a curse. A blessing in that much of the craziness (and it is VERY CRAZY) had subsided, but a curse in several ways as the town was: (a) slightly dead (guess bar & restaurant owners & staff et al needed a rest); (b) it was a tad dirty & smelled of vomit in places; (c) Shelley had her wallet pinched.

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Top Left: Magina Aceites de la Sierra & Owner; Vermut @ Baserriberri; Group Pic; Catedral de Santa Maria; Final Pintxos @ Baserriberri

Despite the curses, we toddled on & managed to find some excellent pintxos at the open bars, pay a visit to the sweet wee Mercado de Santa Domingo which has one of the best & cheapest cheese stalls anywhere, and round up quite a few gourmet goodies at Magina Aceites de la Sierra shop where the owner was beyond generous and helpful (photo above).

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Hondarribia Blues Fest – Awesome!

One of the awesome things about living in Hondarribia (and in close proximity to San Sebastián) is there is always something going on…and usually free! And such was Shelley & the Kids’s luck that upon our road trip return, they happened to time it right for the Hondarribia Blues Festival. Four days and nights of stellar performances from musicians from round the world, on multiple stages about the town. Not sure how or who pays for it, but it is a seriously fun event.

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Hondarribia Blues Fest – Good Time Had By All!!!

After a wee rest (except for Shelley & the Kids who headed off to Paris for 4 days! Lucky sods…), we caught the slow train from San Sebastián that goes along the coast & ends up in the Big Smoke of Bilbao, one of the Basque Country’s biggest cities. I did not expect to really like Bilbao much on my first visit – besides the infamous Guggenheim Museum, what could the industrial capital of the Pais Vasco offer? Well, a lot to be honest.

We checked into our sweet accommodation @ Casual Gurea in the late afternoon & got out for a decent wander in the Parte Viejo. As always, growing boy Finn was hungry, so we made our way to Plaza Nueva which is lined with numerous pintxo bars and fed the beast…we sampled the wares of Bar Zuga and of course had to drop in at the classic Victor Montes.

I had made a dinner reservation at El Perro Chico, a place the Hounds had managed to grab a quick lunch at on our first visit to Bilbao but it had been firmly put on the ‘food radar’ for a return visit for a full on meal…

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El Perro Chico, Bilbao – Best Food in Spain So Far!

Pretty much all we call say is a big WOW! El Perro Chico, without any doubt, serves some of the best food I/we have had in Spain so far. It is one of those rare breeds that takes the abundance & variety of Spanish food products, and gives them an innovative, international or other worldly twist. The food has no focus on a specific style or ethnicity except to make damn good tasting food, creatively prepared.

We all tucked into our respective plates and no one chose poorly – it all tickled the taste buds (even the salad starter was AWESOME), but the general consensus was Shelley won the day with her seared tuna, perfectly cooked & flavoured. We LOVED it here so much that upon paying our bill & leaving, we booked in for lunch on our last day…

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El Perro Chico Dinner: Top Left – Seared Tuna; Smoked Beef; Veal Chop; Pork Belly

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El Perro Chico Dog Bill & Dessert

On our first full day in Bilbao we opted for a full on museum day – first the infamous Guggenheim (I like the building the best), followed up by a visit to the Museo de Bellas Artes de Bilbao (far better art in my humble opinion). The Guggenheim certainly has the “wow” factor going for it, but I could easily just walk around the building having a good squizzy from all sides & be more than happy.

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Bilbao, Guggenheim Museum

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Bilbao, Guggenheim Museum

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Guggenheim Fun…

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Bilbao Museo – Life Like Exhibition…Slightly Creepy.

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Museo de Bilbao

Post some seriously heavy museum time, we all had worked up some hunger pains so we walked as straight as the crow flies to Cafe Iruña, a cafe rightly famous for its lamb kebabs (called Pintxo Moruno) cooked over a charcoal grill & served by Ahmed. In general, Spanish food is not too spicy or highly flavoured, so it was a nice mouth jolt to bite into a clearly Moroccan flavoured skewer of roast lamb.

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Cafe Iruña, Bilbao – Lamb Kebabs by Ahmed

Besides the museums, the great food market, the riverside walks, the tasty bars & restaurants and the Old Town, one of the other ‘must sees’ is the Alhóndiga Cultural and Leisure Centre designed/renovated by Bad Boy Frenchman Philippe Starck. Originally a massive La Rioja wine warehouse that was built in 1909, it is now a full function space with art & culture exhibits, cinema, restaurants & bars and sporting activities. We all found the rooftop, glass bottomed swimming pool of most curious interest.

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Alhóndiga Cultural and Leisure Center by Philippe Starck

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Shelley & The Kids Take A Dip At The Alhóndiga Cultural and Leisure Center’s Glass Bottom Pool

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Group Fun – Bilbao, Spain

And just like me after my first visit, Shelley & the Kids really loved the Big Smoke of Bilbao. They felt they could easily have spent a couple more days there (just like me) to more fully explore the rich variety of experiences this Basque city has to offer.

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Out on the Town – Bilbao, Spain – Plaza Nueva with some Bacarones & Vermut!

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El Perro Chico, Bilbao -Again! For Goodbye Lunch…

And here we all are, back again @ El Perro Chico for our goodbye lunch (Shelley & the Kids were flying out of Bilboa @ 6:30pm for home, New Zealand) and once again, we were totally pleased. At lunch El Perro Chico offer a menú del día for the wee sum of €13.50 (they were super nice & let us adults have the kids’s vino). I also need to mention that besides the stunning food, the staff are simply superb, simply superb.

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Lunch @ El Perro Chico, Bilbao: Top – Waldorf Salad, Roasted Tomatoes & Polenta; Watermelon Salmorejo

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El Pero Chico, Bilbao – Goodbye Lunch….

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El Perro Chico, Bilbao: Top Left – Yellow Veg Chicken Curry, Fajitas With Beef & Crispy Red Onions, Crispy Chicken on a Parmesan Base & Thyme Polenta

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El Perro Chico, Bilbao: Dessert…So Good We Almost Forgot to Take A Photo…

So with a grand mix of happiness (great to spend such fun times with the crew & eat so well) and sadness (saying goodbye to great mates), we bid our final goodbyes & I toddled off to catch the slow train to San Sebastián with a few wee tears in my eyes. Shelley & the Kids made it home safe & sound though by a flight(s) from Hell & I hope to see them soon on the Other Side…

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Olite, Navarra and Surrounds…

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Puente la Reina, Navarra…One of the pueblos on the Camino de Santiago de Compostela…11th Century Stone Bridge!

The Hounds had read about the sweet wee town of Olite as it makes just about every guide book’s ‘must do’ list. We thought we might have been there on our trip 3 years ago, but we felt it was worth a couple of night’s stay as it would allow us to do the dinosaur hike just outside of Enciso…and we’d be smack dab in the middle of the Navarra wine region!

It is a relatively short drive in Gertie the Land Rover, so we decided to explore a bit on our way to Olite. We made a pit stop in Puente la Reina as the 11th century stone bridge was said to be worth a look.

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Excellent Butcher & Charcuterie in Puente la Reina…Took Home One of the Chorizo….From Carniceria de Juan Sanz

We parked up in Puente la Reina near on noon, just long enough to have a wander & then track down some lunch. The town seemed almost vacant with very few folks wandering about, and many of the local stores & bars & restaurants were pretty much closed. But we did come across the open Carniceria de Juan Sanz (pics above) & ventured in to catch a whiff of the awesome chorizos hanging from the rack. Quickly negotiated the purchase of a chorizo picante and we were back on the street. And then we found the bridge, and what a marvel – folks in this day & age might learn a thing or two about how to build a bridge to last over 900 years!

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Taberna La Fonda de Tito’s Menú del Día – From Upper Right: Pochas (Beans – yum), Grilled Horse Mackerel, Grilled Rabbit…and Vino!

With the smell of the chorizo still in our nostrils, our hunger strings had been stroked so it was time for lunch – more specifically, a menú del día. We were having next to no luck as many places (even though it was a Thursday) were either closed, or closing or had no food on offer. So we felt very lucky to find La Fonda de Tito open and they were more than happy to serve us up a menú del día – yeah! It hit the spot and all for the princely sum of €10!

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Olite’s Palacio Real….

On to Olite! Olite is renowned for a few things: (a) seriously cute old town section; (b) it is the capital of the Navarra wine region & has its vino museo; and (c) its fairy tale castle. And it is all those things & more on an early inspection tour late on Wednesday arvo when we toddled into town. We had a room for 2 nights at HOTEL LA JOYOSA GUARDA, a tad upscale for the Hounds but a splurge is called for on occasion. We struggle with places to stay due to one wee problema: Billie the Dog. Hotel La Joyosa did not say ‘no’ to Billie, but they did not exactly say ‘yes’ either. A few email exchanges & we were told he was allowed if we carried him across or through any of the public spaces in the hotel (made for some funny entrances & exits) & he had to be kept in & sleep in the wee balcony cubby hole.

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Empty Olite…Except for the Pigeons….

We quickly scrubbed up and got out for an exploration…what struck us first was how empty the whole town seemed (especially compared to Hondarribia)  – very few folks out & about and many of the businesses, bars & restaurants shuttered up. Por qué? We actually went into the tourist office (it was open – phew!) to query what was shaking? The nice lady told us it was a bit quiet as they had just finished Semana Santa (Easter Weekend) and many businesses took a small break. It was damn near beer o’clock and thirst levels on the rise, so she pointed us to the Parador, being a hotel it is usually open. Score – dos cervazas in a spot that captured the late afternoon sun!

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A View from the Top….

The evening meal in Olite was a challenge – we were not inclined to do any ‘fine dining’ and many of the touted pintxo bars remained firmly closed, even at 7:30 or 8PM. We ended up, sort of by default, at our only option – Hotel Merindad de Olite – which flung its doors open at exactly 8PM for 2 hours of service. It is an enjoyable spot despite a bit of grumpy service (which eventually warmed up). We wolfed down 2 pintxos each & placed an order for a rancion of artichokes – excelente! They also have an fantastic wine by the glass menu and an in-house bodega where you can buy bottles of wine. Which we did…

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Gertie the Land Rover in amongst the Navarra / Rioja Vines…and trusty co-pilot.

Up and alert quite early the next day, we ventured out in search of some coffee and pastries for breakfast…success though Hound #1 had to stayed tied up outside. Then we piled back into Gertie the Land Rover & pointed her due South with the day’s goal to reach the town of Enciso to do a 6KM dinosaur walk. Yes, folks…you heard me right, a dinosaur walk – something Hound #2 had on her ‘Spain To Do’ list from our visit 3 years before (we did not do the walk then).

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Dinosaur Fossil Walk – Enciso, Navarra

And it was pretty cool – to be up close & personal with footprints of beasts that walked this planet 130-150 million years ago. And they provided quite a few ‘life like’ replicas just in case your imagination suffered a massive failure….awesome.

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From Top Pic: Billie, Dinosaurs are over here mate….Boot & Foot Print Comparison….Family Photo….

After 6+KM of walking, up a reasonably steep mesa…time for lunch! Hound #2 had identified our best candidate – Casa Cañas in the small pueblo of Arnedillo, just a short hop down the road.

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Casa Cañas – Arnedillo, La Rioja…Anyone for a 1950 Rioja?

Hound #2’s research was spot on – local as local gets with an €11 menú del día & packed with town folk. The place has been up & running & serving comidas since 1907 – wow! That is what I’d call ‘success’ in the food biz!

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Casa Caña’s Menú del Día…Starters of Peas & Bacon, Lentils with Chorizo…and of course, vino!

Hound #2 took to the pea plate as her starter, I opted for a steaming bowl of lentils with chunks of chorizo floating through it – both super yum (we switched bowls half way)! The vino tinto was a pleasurable drop….like the name.

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Casa Caña’s Mains…Grilled Sea Bass, Braised Beef Cheek and Flan & Pudding for Dessert

For mains, we again split the difference with Hound #2 hankering for seafood, so the grilled sea bass was ordered. A braised meat option? Decision made – braised beef cheeks with peppers & patatas fritas. And of course, dessert…

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Río Cidacos – Sweet water…Looks Trouty.

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On Way Back to Olite – Quick Stop in Wee Pueblo of Funes….Graffiti reads: “Smile, the world is at your feet.”

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Billie’s Annual Right of Spring – A Gallop Through a Field of Wild Flowers

Our last day in Olite, Hound #2 wanted to get a close squizzy of the Palacio Real de Olite castle while the Museo de la Viña was my preferred destination – surprise!

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We both loved our respective choices – Hound #2 made the effort to climb many of the castle towers which gave her come excellent views (see pics above). And I found the Museo de la Viña an extremely well laid out, visual & tactile & sensory pleasure. As many of you folks may know, Spain takes its wine quite seriously and it has played a large part in Spanish life ever since the Romans walked & settled in the Iberian Peninsula.

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Museo de la Viña – Olite, Navarra…Like How You Finish the Tour – glass of vino!

Back in Gertie we set our course for the hilltop pueblo of Ujué. A TINY place of 239 folks with streets better designed for sheep or small carts to navigate, but not really a 1975 Land Rover.

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Gertie Makes the Climb to Hilltop Town of Ujué

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Ujué – Sweet Church of Santa María

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Mesón Las Torres…Ujué, Navarra

We wanted to drop in on Ujué to: (a) see the church of Santa María; and (b) track down & sample a local dish called Migas de Pastor. Migas de Pastor has its origins in Spanish & Portuguese cuisine and the ingredients vary across provinces, but essentially it is: day old bread crumbs soaked in water, garlic, olive oil, paprika & sometimes bits of bacon or chorizo (ours had mushrooms too). It originally was a breakfast dish, but has migrated to a starter for lunch and dinner.

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Mesón Las Torres – Migas de Pastor & Pochas…and Cerveza!

We were lucky to find Mesón las Torres open for business, and with a stunning Spring day, we opted for a picnic table outside in the sun (so Billie could join us). It was a version of Spanish ‘comfort food’ I’d say – very satisfying, filling and garlicky! A taste sensation that lasted the whole way home….

One the way down the hill from Ujué, Hound #2 spotted the Co-operative Bodega St. Martín so of course a vino visit was in order. We sampled 3 or 4 of their wines right in the fermentation warehouse where we were able to get up close to the clay amphora pots they use for some of their better wines. Came home with 2 Garnachas for the cellar….

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Bodega St. Martín…San Martin de Unx, Navarra

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Headed Home…From Bottom Right: Billie OK, Then Getting Tired & And Out For The Count!

Skiathos Island…Greece

SKBeach The most miserable and far, far too long English winter drove us to sunnier climes – the sweet island of Skiathos, Greece. And a welcome change it was with temperatures in the mid to high 20’s, gentle breezes and the tiniest smattering of rain. We were most impressed with our place of accommodation, Skiathos Holidays, where the staff were top notch and the rooms of stunningly high quality. The beach was just a few minutes walk and the breakfast of REAL Greek yoghurt & nuts & flakes, fresh OJ, hard boiled eggs, assorted breads & coffee was the right way to start each day. SKMesostratos Our man Christos, from Skiathos Holidays, was a wealth of advice & local pointers for everything from where to eat to what activities to pursue. One of our favourite tavernas he recommended was the family owned & run Mesostrato. It was clearly evident that everything we ordered was cooked or made fresh. Hound #2’s eyes were apparently bigger than her stomach, but even with a cautionary warning from Hound #3 that she may have ordered too much, she went ahead anyway.  It was all spectacular, just a tad more food than your average person can eat ;-).

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Hound #2’s Lunch – enough to feed a small family….

I erred on the conservative side & just had the moussaka – most excellent it was too… SKMoussaka We decided we liked Mesostrato so much we made a return visit & I had to try the meatballs in tomato sauce. Exceptionally well seasoned & basically yummy – Hound #2 agreed that I had won the lunch order contest. The Mythos lager beers went down a treat too & the house rose was very quaffable. SKMeatballs We also took a round-the-island boat trip on the Poseidon which gave us a great view of various parts of the island (we decided not to do the Mama Mia trip to Skopelos Island).

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Bog standard Greek scenery

And for our final farewell evening meal, we ambled in to Marmita where we had sipped an afternoon beverage a few days before & liked the vibe & the menu. And we were spot on with our impressions…. SKMarmita The owner is a top notch hospitality professional & owns 3 restaurants on Skiathos. And, amazingly, it was just him & one other server that served the capacity crowd. We had an informative chat about their very well selected & priced wine list & we opted for a Greek Syrah not listed for a mere 15 euros. We were very taken with this wine and many of the other Greek wines we sampled on our trip – who knew? Greece makes some good vino…. SKSyrah Hound #3 could not tear his eyes away from the slow roasted pork shoulder marinated in honey, thyme & lemon on the menu. And those flavours shined through this super tender cut – veggies were a winner too.

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Scrumptious Slow Roasted Pork Shoulder

And Hound #2 jumped on the same cut of meat & cooking method but from a Greek lamb but she felt the pork took the prize. SKLambDish And as seems to be custom in Greece, you need not order a dessert as many places close the meal with a free one. This was wonderful, local Greek yoghurt seasoned with chopped fresh mint & strawberries for dipping & shots of ouzo to cleanse the palate. Marmita is highly recommended. SKStrawberries Much of the produce used by the tavernas & restaurants is locally grown & it shows. As we left Marmita we saw this cart stuffed to the gills with freshly picked garlic… SKGarlic

Tierra de Vino: La Rioja


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After stuffing ourselves pintxos silly on the Costa Vasca, it was time to veer south to one of Spain’s most famous wine regions – La Rioja. La Rioja is divided into Rioja Alta and Rioja Baja, with the Alta region snatching much of the vino fame and mos def the scenery kudos.

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La Rioja Alta Valley

We based ourselves in Laguardia, a medieval fort town with still standing defensive walls and a magical old section with a decent sampling of pintxos bars, wine stores and restaurants. It makes a great home base as it sits amidst & has easy access to many well known wineries and vineyards; is a short drive to the vino capital of La Rioja (Haro) where many bodegas are to be found and it’s only a hop, skip & a jump to the Big Smoke of Logroño (actual capital of La Rioja), which possesses a mean pintxos reputation in its own rite. 

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Las Vids Viejas – The Old Vines

As with many serious wine regions of the world, in just about any direction you choose to gander you will see vines, in every nook & cranny of marginal potential. The soil reminded us of the Southern Rhone region of France, particularly Chateauneuf du Pape, with a decently rocky mixture which helps to retain heat over night and provides better drainage. Quite impressive too were the many guardaviñas (vineyard shelters) that dot the landscape providing workers with a bit of respite from inclement weather.

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Guardaviñas – Vineyard Shelters

The Spanish bodega & vineyard scene is a bit odd – unlike most other wine regions of the world where you can rock up to the cellar door, taste & buy, in Spain it is usually necessary to book a visit in advance. And that always entails a 1 to 2 hour winery tour & tasting and sometimes a required lunch. We were ‘educated’ at the Bai Gorri Bodega (amazing place & delicious vino – worth a visit)  by their head of marketing (he was German) post an unannounced appearance that that is the way Spain has done it for decades, and trying to change things is the proverbial Sysiphus challenge. They have invested mucho dinero in the infrastructure to support the tour & lunch crowds and are scared they will lose out if they open a cellar door to any old punter that comes along.

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So we booked ourselves in for a single bodega tour & tasting at Ramón Bilbao simply on the basis that (a) we had sampled a couple of his Riojas in San Sebastian pintxos bars & liked them and (b) several exceptional wine stores in San Sebastian showcased the wines & spoke highly of them. Well, if we have seen how wine is made once, we’ve seen it a couple hundred times – yawn. Post the snooze tour, we sampled the Crianza 2010, the Reserva 2008 and the Grand Reserva 2004 & it was the Reserva that snatched our euros.

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Old Bottles in the Cellar of Bodegas Ramón Bilbao

One effect of this odd Spanish bodega visiting process is that it makes the wine store’s role even more valuable and attractive in terms of learning, tasting and buying wines. Laguardia was blessed with a variety of vinoteca options from the pared down, simple- choices-basement-tasting-room to two at the top level in the main plaza that carried an impressively extensive range of wines and vintages.

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La Vinoteca – Laguardia, La Rioja

But the wine store that snatched our breath away was Vinoteca Rodríguez Alonso in Haro. This was a wine merchant in the old-style mold (in a great way) with an awesome selection of wines (some going back to the 1950’s), at surprisingly affordable prices and stocked to the rafters with all the savoury & enticing condiments Spain has to offer…including full leg hams hanging from the ceiling. We could easily of stayed there for an hour or more as at every turn & eye site twist a new box or bottle was spotted & required an inspection. And this was the only wine merchant, I repeat, the only wine merchant who, when I mentioned Bodegas Artuke of Pies Negros (our fave Rioja on the trip), immediately knew who we spoke of & showed us his K4 limited release (@ 50 euros a bottle, not in the budget).

So if you ever make it to La Rioja and have the desire to experience el cielo de vinoteca (the heaven of wine stores), then you must visit Vinoteca Rodríguez Alonso

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Vinoteca Rodríguez Alonso – Haro, La Rioja

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Estunpendo! Tienda de Vino – Super Wine Store