Back in the U.K. for Summer…Sort of.

Last Hoorah in Hondarribia…

We said adiós with heavy hearts to our home of 2 years Hondarribia…and of course all our great mates. We had a week or so of farewell get togethers that ranged from an evening pintxo stroll down Calle San Pedro to a menú del día with our sweetheart Itziar to a grand lunch @ with Gloria & Bernard @ Andoni’s (and Carmen) Txoko (cooking society). Hondarribia & Spain will be an experience that will be very hard to beat…

Back in the U.K. – Effing Cold!

We boarded the Bilbao-to-Portsmouth ferry on time post a nerve-wracking traffic jam that Hound #2 skilfully avoided by using  her Google map skills to route us through a wee fishing village – phew! Onto England…and as we disembarked in the Land Rover, England greeted us with its typical weather – pissing rain, windy as and effing cold…more like winter than effing August!

Frome’a A Pop’n! New Places Round Every Corner! – Sam’s Kitchen & the Rye Bakery Where Billie Found A Bean Bag…Loves Bean Bags!

We spent our first 4 nights camping in our old village of Frome, Somerset as Hound #1 Billie had an important vet appointment (1 of 4) to gear up for his return to New Zealand. We greatly enjoyed our return to Frome despite the wintry weather conditions as it has truly begun to blossom with new establishments popping up around just about every corner. One of our favourite morning coffee spots was the Rye Bakery which inhabits, quite stylishly, the vast insides of an old church. An amazing space that has seen some serious investment….

We also checked out Sam’s Kitchen Deli which has a truly stunning fit out & space…but we were not so impressed with the coffee in terms of quality and price, but could easily see enjoying a glass of wine or two in the 2nd floor bar & just walking the world go by, up St. Catherine’s Hill.

Fox & Badger @ Wellow – Awesome Lunch! Top Left: Bacon & Pea Risotto with Seared Duck Breast; The bar; Grilled Fresh Mackerel with Potatoes & Horseradish Cream Atop Chard

As we wrapped up our brief stay in Frome & prepared to head for Totnes for a month in an AirBnB cottage, we decided to indulge ourselves for having camped in wintry, wet conditions with a lunch @ our fave pub – the Fox & Badger in Wellow. We have never been disappointed in a meal here and this time was no exception. Exceptional quality at a more than fair price! If you’ve never been, GO!

Home Sweet Home for a Month – Totnes, Devon

We settled into our sweet AirBnB cottage late in the arvo with a cracking evening forecast ahead weather-wise. If you ever need a perfect place to stay in Totnes that is centrally located & comfortable as then check out this place. We ended up in good-vibe Totnes because my old Land Rover needed some TLC by my Devon mechanic Kevin prior to shipping to New Zealand. And Devon in August is or can be a serious challenge accomodation & price wise. But this ticked all the boxes!

Top Left: Best BLT & Avocado Sammie @ Rousdon Bakery; Venison Burger @ The Green Dragon Pub; Landcombe Cove – Stunning!

We have had sporadic stretches of an English summer & when we do, we leverage our time & our Secret Beaches book to the max. This is an excellent informational source for secluded, unpopulated beaches – a necessary bundle of information when you live in jammed to the gills England.

Top Left: Pigs Nose Pub – A Real English Pub; Macely Beach/Cove; Coastal Fields on Walk to Macely Beach

We got lucky with another forecasted, semi-summer’s day so made a plan to walk the track along the River Dart (below) to the village of Ashprington. An excellent walk was had by all and is a favourite activity of Hound #1, Billie. Hard to beat the Devon (or Dorset) countryside with rolling hills, mucho greenery & woods and a sweet river…and the pubs! Ashprington is home to the Dunstan Arms and we had a stunner of a lunch (and a pint or two).

Top: Dart River; Billie Waits for the Pizza; Lunch @ Durant Arms in Ashprington…Rabbit Rillettes & Toast Points & Cornichons.

Top: Billie Plays Hard With Toy Gift from Mate Gorka in Hondarribia; English Summer – Needs a Fire!; Another Gift from Gorka – Txakoli Vino!

We felt that after a few weeks in the village of Totnes that a day out in the Big Smoke of Exeter was in the cards. We had a few shopping missions to accomplish that could not be satisfied in Totnes, so on the train we hopped, Exeter bound.

A Day Out in Exeter…

We were able to tick a quite a few boxes in Exeter – I succeeded in replacing my about-to-disintegrate Levi jeans & Hound #2 raided all the Op Shops (Charity Shops for non-UK folks) nabbing some books & DVDs. We also managed a quick squizzy of Magdalen Road, foodie central for Exeter.

Thurleston Beach, Devon…

We were gifted with another stunner of a summer’s day…only problem it was a Bank Holiday Monday. Hound #2’s whole family has a genetic aversion to doing anything on a Bank Holiday, especially going to the beach. But we sort of devised plan which was to leave super early, get a swim & beach time in and do a coastal walk to the village of Bantham to the Sloop Inn pub for at least a pint & maybe lunch…crowds dependent.

The beach was awesome…until the hordes horded in. General theory is that any beach you can drive to & has a cafe or beach bar will have a tsunami of folks by lunchtime. And it always strikes us as funny or strange that if you are only willing to walk 10-15 minutes farther along you will almost always find a near empty, secluded beach.

The Sloop Inn was also awesome – we knew nothing about this pub but we dodged another Bank Holiday bullet by arriving a bit early when no one was there (yet) & placed our food & drink orders & grabbed a table in the empty garden courtyard.

The meals were stupendous and exceptionally well priced…wish it was our local!

The Sloop Inn, Bantham, Devon: Smoked Mackerel Salad & Local Mussels in Cream/Butter Sauce – Superb All!

Well, as we count down the days to our New Zealand return, frantically ticking off dozens of boxes of things to do with Billie the Jack Russell, my 1975 Series III Land Rover (Gertie – going to New Zealand!) & us and all our stuff, we have this (below) to return to…a massive slip – the backyard is now ever so much closer to the back door. Happy, happy, joy, joy in our wee casa in Lyttelton :-(.

Welcome Home…

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Fly Fishing Los Ríos Norte de León…

Río Curueño, León

I have always had the rivers of Castilla y León on my ‘to fish’ list but last season was literally a washout. My mate Asier & I tried to go several times but his good León fishing friend waved us away as pretty much all the rivers were in flood and pretty much stayed that way for the season. So I was very happy to see the León rivers come right this year and be in mint condition if not a wee bit low. So I packed up Gertie, my Series III Land Rover, and made a bee line for the hills north of León…

Río Curueño…

My primary source of information or guidance for this escapade was an article in Eat-Sleep-Fish, a free web-zine put out by my friend & super UK guide Pete Tyjas of the Devon School of Fly Fishing, that recounted a fly fishing adventure on León’s rivers. The Río Curueño was awarded high marks in the article for its abundant amount of trout and this was backed up by an article in Danica, Spain’s one (as far as I know) fly fishing magazine.

It is VERY difficult in Spain to find any useful information about where, when & how to fish. And you need information because Spain is an extremely complicated country to fish in with numerous licensing requirements, special permits to access to private or managed water (called cotos), vastly varied seasons and regulations, etc… Despite hundreds of Internet searches I was able to track down ONLY 2 books (and a few web sites) on where to fly fish in Spain, but one, Dónde y Cómo Pescar En León by Eduardo García Carmona, is outstanding – only drawback is you need to be able to read & understand Spanish.

As a 3rd backup information source I have struggled to use some of the books written by Englishman Philip Pembroke – his heart is in the right place but to be perfectly candid, they pretty much suck. They are poorly written & edited (or not), the maps are almost undecipherable and much of the information is just plain wrong or mis-leading. On the positive side they do not cost much and they are in English.

Centre of the World for Coq de León…

I based myself at the lovely Casa Candana in the pueblo of La Candana de Curueño which happens to be the centre of the world for the famous Coq de León feathers (there is actually a feather museum up the road in La Vecilla de Curueño). Casa Candana is perfectly situated to access the Ríos Curueño (it flows past the Casa Candana & is free to fish pretty much from La Vecilla all the way down the valley), Torio, Porma, Esla, Bernesga & many more with a short to modest drive. And the owners of Casa Candana are sweet as and serve up an awesome start-to-the-day breakfast.

Bar La Pluma (Only Bar in Town) & Free Pintxos…

To say that La Candana de Curueño is a small village is quite the understatement – it has 2 streets (one is simply called ‘the street behind the church’) and one taberna called, naturally, La Pluma (The Feather) which also appears to double as the local store because there isn’t a store in La Candana…or any of the other pueblos up & down the valley.

Rush Hour in La Candana de Curueño…

All Star Fly Fisherman’s Breakfast @ Casa Candana….

In my first full day on the Río Curueño, I combined some fly fishing with a wee bit of reconnaissance to suss out where the free (libre) fishing spots were and what the stretches or beats (tramos in Spanish) looked like in terms of fishability. I came across a lot of superb water which confirms León’s reputation as  one of the best places to fish in Spain and I believe it has the largest amount of free fishing water of any of the autonomous communities (there are 17).

Río Curueño, León

I fished 5 or 6 different beats my first day that were quite varied in character – below the gorge (Hoces de Valdeteja) you will find numerous sweet, well defined pools (top picture above) with some faster & rockier runs in between. Here the river is about 20-30 metres across with the deepest depth being about thigh high. Hooked a pile of trout with 2 or 3 hitting the 1-1.5 pound mark & beautifully coloured…Above the gorge it becomes a tad bit more bouldery and turns more toward pocket water fishing. The Río Curueño has 2 cotos – Coto de Vildapiélago and Coto de Tolibia.

Río Curueño @ the Source – High Mountain Fishing…

The next day I decided to head to the source of the Río Curueño for a fish and then work my way back down river. As you would expect, the river narrows significantly here to no more than 5 or so metres across (or way less in some cases) and the banks are, for the most part, completely covered in bushes or small trees. Some precision casting is called for or you’ll lose all your flies – after 2-3 hours I caught 6 small fry and was a bit surprised concerning the lack of trout as usually these less fished waters are chocka with very stupid trout. And these types of waters are mostly ignored by fishing folks as: (a) the fish are not big or big enough to take home for a feed; (b) the casting is a bit tricky & frustrating and (c) moving & navigating up river with all the bush is a serious hassle.

So I toddled down river to a free stretch that runs between the pueblos of Tolibia de Abajo and Lugueros. Had a delightful couple of hours here with 2 trout to hand that tipped the scale at just over a pound (or half a kilo) & they were feisty as! Now it was time for some lunch…

Superb Menú del Día @ Los Argüellos: Top Left – Vino del Día; Local Hooch; Salad of Scrambled Eggs, Shrimp & Young Garlic; Veal Cheeks – Super Yum!

I was a bit of a starv’n Marvin at this point as the last real meal I had eaten had been Sunday night (it was now Wednesday) as La Pluma bar only serves pintxos when you order a drink & Casa Candana was closed to go shopping in León. I first stopped in a popular, local taberna but when I inquired about some food I was told ‘later’ – it was now 2PM – so I asked how much later & was told 3PM! So I drove on to the next taberna or what I thought was a basic taberna (Los Argüellos) only to walk into a super swanky place – in my full on fly fishing kit of boots, neoprene socks, gravel guards, polypropylene tights & shorts and an Akubra fedora. They wanted to put me in the dining room but I managed to talk them into letting me eat in the courtyard…and what a meal! They offered an outstanding menú del día (3 courses, wine & coffee) for the pittance of €12 – score!

Post my superb lunch, I tackled several of the stretches of the Río Curueño that run through the gorge. Gorge fishing is not my favourite cuppa tea though I know (especially in New Zealand) it can be superb if you have the right conditions. It can be frustrating putting in at one point only to fish 4 or 5 pools and then find when you round the corner you cannot go any further due to deep water and there is no way to get around it as you are bookmarked by sheer rock walls. So you retreat…and repeat.

The next day I decided to test some new water – the Río Torio – which was an easy 25-30 minute drive west & then south. I parked up riverside in a pueblo called Pedrún de Torio & I knew there would be a weir here (I hate weirs), but Googe maps showed a road that paralleled the river for quite someway. Well, there is no road but I managed to walk across the weir to a footpath on the other side & make my way a decent distance up river to find – another effing weir! Pushed on to some good water & noticed the trout were taking dries – so put on a #20 Royal Wulf (all purpose bug) & made a perfect cast to drift it under some overhanging bushes and just when I lifted my rod to avoid snagging the fly – bam! A serious tug on the other end! Best fish of the trip (pic below) weighing in @ 2+ pounds (1+ kilo) – a seriously fat boy!

Roman Bridge over the Río Torio (and big trout); Río Torio; Best Trout of the Trip from Río Torio – Weighed in at 1+ Kilo or 2+ Pounds…

I left the Río Torio @ Pedrún and headed north to another free section near the pueblo Serrilla. But first – lunch! Another menú del día deal to make ya squeal @ Las Portillas @ a price shattering €9! Had a quick chat to 2 local council workers & they gave me instructions on how to get to a Roman bridge which marked the start of the free section. I was able to park up just short of the Roman bridge & slowly crept across, scanning up & down river for trout when I spotted the biggest trout I have seen in Spain. He/she easily weighed in at 5-6 pounds (sort of normal for New Zealand) but was located directly under the Roman bridge, cruising a beat in shin deep, super calm water. Impossible to fish to…

Top Left: Gertie The Land Rover; Ensalada Ruso (Mayo & Shrimp); Lomo de Cerdo (Pork Loin)

Brought to hand a decent number of trout on this free stretch, but then the wind & weather changed & I could hear the deep rumble of thunder a ways away…and some flashes! Done & dusted for this trip…

Lunch @ Casa Juanín in the Asturian Mountains…

 

Ah, Glorious Asturias…

After a gloriously fun weekend in Gíjon (post coming up soon), we packed up the Land Rover on a brilliant Sunday morning (after a superb coffee @ Raw Coco) and toddled our way towards the pueblo of Pendones…to have lunch at Casa Juanín.

On The Road to Lunch @ Casa Juanín: Top Left – Co-pilot Billie on the job; Río Nalón; Wet Pooch; Spring Pooch in the Wild Flowers: Fix’r Upper & Roman Tower

It being a stunner of a day & we had a little extra time on our hands, and Billie needed a piss stop, we pulled over in the wee village of Condado for a riverside walk. The River Nalón flows through this valley and is reported by several sources to be a very fine trout river. There are two dams (that I know of) on the River Nalón which make it, like a lot of rivers in the world, a tailwater fishery which is both good and bad. The good is that it tends to keep the water temperatures relatively constant and it also helps to prevent severe flooding. The bad is that it can also seriously muck around with the water flows when summertime irrigation extraction hits full bore. Billie had a nice dip, a pee and a run through a wildflower meadow but we saw no trouts….sweet water though.

Casa Juanín, Pendones, Asturias

We had read about Casa Juanín (you can also read about it here in an extract from the Guardian) in a recent book purchase of mine by author Matt Goulding called Grape, Olive, Pig, and thought it special enough to make a modest inland detour for a Sunday menú del día lunch.

Top: Front Of House with Chilled Cerveza; Me & Juanín (he’s 83!); Our Table View…

We arrived promptly (being American & English) at our reservation time of 1pm, but were quickly handed 2 cold beers & told lunch started sometime after 1:30 or maybe closer to 2. No pasa nada…being so early we were able to snag the best outside table and slowly sip our refreshing beverages. Juanín came out to set our table and we had a very nice chat with him and he told us the secret to a long life (he’s 83!) – work! He not only does the restaurant with his daughter Isabel, but also has a herd of cows and goats that he keeps. He told us the pueblo of Pendones only has 15 or so inhabitants in the winter and that the winter can be very tough – now that’s an understatement.

As time slipped by, more & more folks began to appear & for the most part they disappeared inside Casa Juanín. Hmmmm? At 2pm I was sent in to see if I could get the menu for the day, so I asked Juanín who looked a bit perplexed, but soon his daughter Isabel (the chef) appeared at the door & voila! – a menu appeared.

We did a quick perusal, made our 1st plate, 2nd plate & dessert choices & Hound #2 was sent in to place the order…well it seems that the printed menu bears little resemblance to what is on offer, so Hound #2 made some rapid on-the-spot decisions but upon her return table side, she confessed she really did not know what we were eating except the roasted goat.

Top Left: Jabalí (Wild Boar) & Bean (Alubia) Stew; Dining Al Fresco; Bowl of the Good Stuff; Cider!

Quick to the table was our ordered bottle of Asturian cider (Asturias & the Basque Country are THE cider making regions in Spain but very different styles) – yum. Then came a big, steaming bowl of jabalí (wild boar) & alubias stew (Asturias is famous for its big, white beans which go into a traditional dish called fabada) which was promptly dished out & scooped up & devoured. Super rich in flavour, a silky texture with chunky hunks of wild boar…Clean bowls went back to the kitchen….

Top Left: Pre-meal Table; Plated Roasted Goat & Taters; Full Plate of House Raised Roasted Cabrito, Potatoes & Red Peppers

Next in the queue was cabrito asado (roasted goat with potato & peppers), in fact we got Juanín’s goat so to speak, just kidding…beautiful, tender as, succulent & juicy, packed with flavour, crispy as skin and heaps of it. After we pretty much stripped the massive serving bare, Juanín came out and said ‘¿Más?” (More?) to which the only answer was “Nada más!” – (Nothing more!). We thought if we’d kept answering ‘yes’ food would just have kept coming & coming…

Dessert With A View…Homemade Goat’s Cheese with Apple Paste; The Best Cheesecake Ever

With only a smidgen of room left in our gullets, we made our dessert choices – cheesecake for me & some of Juanín’s own goat cheese with fruit paste for Hound #2, who decidedly declared mine the winner by a long shot. We spent another leisurely half an hour enjoying the bright, oh so sunny oh so warm day & letting our stuffed to the gills stomachs digest…and then we asked for the bill. Qué chollo (what a deal)!!! Total damage came to 34 euros for 2 beers, bottle of cider, bowl of jabalí & alubia stew, gigantic plate of roasted local goat and dessert!

So folks, if you happen by chance to be wandering the backroads of the mountains of Asturias, drop a pin on your Google map for Casa Juanín – you will not be disappointed  & say howdy to Juanín and Isabel for us…

Casa Manolo….The House of Goat

Restaurante Casa Manolo in the Barrio of Amute, Hondarribia

We have made a bucket list of places we want to eat at in Hondarribia & surrounds before we depart in August to work our way back to our home in New Zealand. Casa Manolo was put on our list due to several good recommendations from some very trusted Basque mates. So on a sunny-almost-Spring-day we made a wander some 20 minutes to the south to partake of some comestibles @ Casa Manolo…

Da House Red – Pretty Tasty When Chilled to the Bone 😉

We’d dropped in before one or two times for a beer or two, but now we wanted to eat…from the web site it was not at all clear whether a menú del día was on offer or that it was a strictly an a la cart place (and with no prices). What the heck, it was worth a gamble….

A wee bit of initial confusion ensued as we wanted to dine outside (because of Billie The Dog and it was a sunny, fresh Spring day) which caused a bit of consternation & disbelief but all was quickly sorted & our waitress arrived table side to read off our menú del día (yeah!!!!) choices. First things first – para beber, vino tinto! And quick snap arrived a bottle of the vino de mesa that was especially bottled for the establishment at a local bodega in the pueblo of Orio. Decently chilled it went down well…

Two Hungry Hounds Waiting for Da Food…

My Starter – Peas, Potatoes, Carrots & Jamón Topped with an Egg.

For a starter I went with the Peas, Potatoes, Carrots & Jamón topped with a perfectly cooked egg – excellent in my flavour book. Hound #2 opted for Alubias Rojas (Red Beans) which she did not want me to take a picture of as it is not much to look at, just tastes damn good. The house goaty red was superb with these dishes ;-)…

Tuna Atop Sliced Potatoes Smothered in a Tomato-y Sauce…

For Hound #2’s main, she (as usual) went all fishy and ordered up the Tuna on Sliced Potatoes topped in a savoury tomato coulis. She gave it a solid B+ score and finished the plate…

Star Dish of the Day – Cabrito (Young Roasted Goat) con Chippies…

I truly lucked out & ordered the dish of the day – Roasted Cabrito with Chips. Casa Manolo’s specialty is goat (just in case you had not noticed all the goat pictures or drawings so far) in many forms and I find it very hard to find goat just about anywhere so the decision was easy. A dish worth going back for – perfectly roasted to within a tender bone of its life, with a seriously crispy & flavour packed crusty skin. Yesssssssiiiiiiirrrreee folks – the real deal. I thought is was so good I had to include two photos of it to display it in its full roasted goaty glory….

Close Up & Personal Goat…

As with all menú del días, dessert is included and as usual I forgot to snap a pic but managed to artfully reconstruct my Chocolate tart back to picture worthy shape. Alex had decidedly demolished her Flan so no pic was worth taking…

A damn delicious meal had by all (including Billie, The Jack Russell) for the whopping sum of €10 a person, yes folks, that is €10 per person for a 3 course meal & a bottle of vino. Gotta love Spain!

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…

A Day Out In Donosti with Idoia…Then A Surprise!

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Donosti Crew

Our good mate Idoia, who runs our local taberna, invited us to a Day in Donosti (San Sebastián) for a personally guided pintxo stroll…and a wee bit of lunch. And we were also told to keep the evening, round 6:45pm, free for a surprise!

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Our first port of call was a mutual favourite – Bar Goiz Argi. The Hounds had discovered this place on our recon strip more than 3 years ago and have been back many times since to enjoy its tasty offerings, in a tiny, tiny space in the Old Town.

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Calamari & Shrimps & Cervezas

A recent discovery has been their hot calamari pintxo, of which 2 are needed to satisfy our hunger…slathered in a minced garlic oil, grilled to a slightly caramelised brown – estupendo! The sauce is oh so good wiped up with some bread brooms…Idoia took the gambas (shrimps) path and polished off 4 perfectly seared specimens…and, of course, some cervazas!

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Top Left: Hot Duck; Mushroom Rice; Veal Cheek

Idoia had her list ready, but some of the bars were not co-operating, and for the random Spanish reasons we have not fully fathomed, they were closed on a sweet Thursday arvo. So on we trudged and landed at the next open place for some hot, made-to-order pintxos at a joint I’d forgotten to get or remember the name of – shite. This place was in the very same vein as La Cuchara de San Telmo, one of our regular Donosti pintxo stops (when we can squeeze in). There’s nothing displayed on the bar, just a hand scribbled blackboard list with about a dozen excellent choices (our choices are in the pic above)…

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Top Left: Summer Veggie Spread; Awesome Apple Thingy Dessert; Seared Steak Loin & Ash Dust; Lamb Chops & New Potatoes

Then it was time for lunch…yes, some lunch folks. The 2 pintxo stops had put a minor dent in our hunger pangs, so Idoia led us out of the Old Town, past Gipuzkoa Square, to Restaurante Zazpi. This was a new discovery for the Hounds as we’d never crossed its path in all our San Sebastián food wanderings. They had a Plato del Día (main plate, dessert, drink) for a mere €7 & we choose a stunning pulpo salad to share as a starter – perfectly cooked pulpo arrayed on 2 cones of yummy potato mash with a fresh green salad in between. Our mains were: me, lamb chops with roasted new potatoes; Hound #2 went the veggie route (beautifully displayed); and Idoia got some seared steak loin with an amazing crumbled ash dust…Dessert was a quickly devoured apple pudding crumble thing – all 3 spoons were in active, furious use.

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Up To The Bells!

Now we were stuffed, so we jumped on the bus to return us to Hondarribia to await the arrival of 6:45PM and the surprise! Spot on time, Idoia led us up to Arma Plaza where a group of her mates were waiting. We all proceeded to the old church where Ramón, armed with a key that could kill someone, opened up the doors.

We then started our climb – up & up & up to the top of the main bell tower. Wow! Once on top, we had a 360 degree panoramic view of our adopted hometown. And then they started to ring the bells as it just happened to be the Festival of San Juan (Saint John), a festival when it is customary to set bonfires alight & cast things or lists of bad people you want removed from your life into the flames.

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On Top Of Da World in Hondarribia!

 

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Top Left: View from the Bell Tower Deck; The Parador; Hound #2 By Da Bell; Calle Mayor Casco Antiguo & San Juan Fires…

Muchas gracias Idoia for once again showing us a very special day – to have a inside glimpse of real, local Pais Vasco.

For your listening pleasure…the bells of Hondarribia

A Day Hike with Mate Edu…And Lunch!

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Church From Hell

We received a welcomed invitation from our mate Edu to come for a visit & see his village of Bergara, do a decent hill hike in Oñati‘s Aizkorri-Aratz Natural Park and then…lunch! So we packed up Gertie early one Saturday morning, turned on Google Maps & away we went…

The first sight we saw upon arrival at the park was this church – the Sanctuary of Arantzazu…coincidentally the architect (famous, apparently in Spain) was there that very day presenting his new book & giving a talk. It was a scary building – a perfect paradigm of what is called ‘brutalism’ architecture. It was about as inviting as a concentration camp – the inside main chapel looked liked it came from a scene in the Hunger Games.

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Da Crypt Was Creepy…

Below the church was a crypt that was decorated with dark & menacing murals. Mate Edu said they had been painted by a man who had lived in our hometown of Hondarribia for years. Hondarribia strikes us as a bright, cheerful, sunny place – not sure where all the darkness & doom came from…religion maybe?

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Da Hike…Oñati: Top Left – Sheep Traffic Jam; Wee Pony; Up Hill Slog; Mountain Plateau Pathway Conference

Edu had warned us that start of the walk (in reality, all of it) was a bit ‘tough’ and we guess that by that he meant it was a serious up hill slog for almost 2 hours (Hound #1 Billie loved all of it). Then we reached the top plateau & it was stunning – we lucked out in arriving about 45 minutes before the misty cloud descended and made any views farther than a couple of yards impossible. We were quite amused and impressed that we only heard people speaking Basque – no Español, no English and mos def no French. So we were truly in ‘Basque Land’…

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The Mountain Plateau…

We all were in need of a bit of rejuvenating sustenance other than water, and lo & behold there is a pub on the top of the mountain. We quickly ordered up some cervazas & chorizo pintxos & Edu’s favourite – caldo (warm broth) – and had a wee rest table side.

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Top O’Da Hill…a Pub! Yay!: Top Left: Siesta Sign – Matts To Borrow; Pub; Pub Dining Room; Coat Rack Basque Symbol Lauburu

The amble down the hill was moderately more pleasant than the sweaty climb up, and we were highly motivated by a luncheon booking that Edu had made which had come highly recommended by his sister. We appeared at the door of Goiko Venta right on the stroke of 3 (Spanish & lunch – go figure).

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Top Left: Goiko Venta, Gertie the Land Rover & Crew; Happy Campers on the Terrace

Goiko Venta was a step or two up from our typical menu del día establishments – we thought very high class, and possibly very high prices. But a glance at the menu revealed a €26 luncheon delight – choice made!

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Top Left: On The House Amuse-bouche – Smoked Salmon; Two Mates; Goiko Venta

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Top: Warm Duck Salad; Vino del Día; Eggplant Thing

The boys went the meat route for starters – a warm duck salad with bitter greens. It did the trick for us two and Hound #2 went her usual veggie path & delighted in the baked eggplant.

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Top: Lomo de Cerdo (Pork Loin); Steak (Entrecot); Squid in it own Ink

Everyone went their separate ways with the mains…Edu hopped on a Basque traditional dish of squid in its own ink (hard to photo correctly as it’s ALL BLACK); Hound #2 veered hard right (for her) and actually chose a savoury grilled steak; and I finished out the meat menu with a perfectly grilled pork loin with mustard sauce & puréed mash.

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Desserts – Yum!: Cheesecakey Thing with Sorbet; Warm Pear Tart with Scream

We all agreed on one thing – the desserts were all winners. A win-win all round – us, the desserts, Goiko Venta, the hike…

Muchas gracias to our amigo Edu for organising and hosting a wonderful Saturday in el campo…