Mutriku Mackerel Madness – Déjà Vu!

Welcome To Mutriku!

The Hounds made the pilgrimage to the Mutriku Mackerel Fest last year, but because detailed info on the when, what & how was next to non-existent, we opted to set off quite early in old Gertie the Land Rover to avoid any crowds & parking hassles & pulled in just short of the 10AM mark. The town was absolutely vacant, and we had a couple of serious doubts about the possible success of our mackerel fest quest. But a quick chat with the Tourist Information folks confirmed that it was all a “Go!”, but kicking off shortly after 12PM…

Mackerel Pintxo Numero Uno y Dos! Our First Port of Call – Taberna Ametza.

The only substantial mistake we made last year was that we missed the BIG MACKEREL GRILL OFF that capped the day at around 6PM (due to driving & drinking restrictions). So included in this year’s operational plan was an overnight stay. There are only 2 places to sleep with a dog in Mutriku & we lucked out with one of the 3 rooms @ Hostal Rin. Perfectamente location…

Our greatest advantage in attending this year’s fest was that we pretty much knew the score, and queued up for our fave spots from last year. First stop, Taberna Ametza, where we sampled 2 different mackerel pintxos washed down with a pair of  zuritos (small beers) on the town square – off to a solid start…

Batzokia’s Excellent Mackerel Strips in Olive Oil with a Drizzle of Balsamic…Top Pintxo By Far!

We next made a bee line for our top voted bar from last year’s visit – Batzokia. The front of house service @ this taberna is all women & they were: (a) super friendly and (b) massively efficient. In a brief chat with one of the women we learned (if our Spanish was up to snuff) that the bar/restaurant is run as a co-operative and is somehow part of or supported by a Basque political party called EAJ-PNV (we have one in Hondarribia). And, once again, we were not disappointed to find our most desired pintxo still being dished out in quantity (and free!) at the bar. We found it hard to leave…

Mutriku Scenes…

The Weather Gods, though not fully co-operating, were indeed most kind to us. As every time we headed into a bar or taberna for a drink & a snack, the heavens opened up & hosed Mutriku down. Then, miraculously, just as we zipped & buttoned up to battle the elements, they flicked a switch & it all ceased & desisted. Two hats off to the Weather Gods!

Mutriku Scenes – Billie Strolls the Harbour…Buildings of Mutriku.

Top Left: Mackerel Pintxos & a Croqueta; Event Poster; Yet Another Taberna – Bar Zubixa; Mr. Mackerel Stokes Up the Crowd

Top Left: Bar Zubixa Political Poster; Da Marching Band!; Boat

Top Left: Mutriku Port; Boat Houses; Family Pic; Duck Fountains

As the arvo wore down, it was fast approaching the kick off time for the Big Event – a grand scale mackerel grill up & pintxo fest port side. We developed a plan to: (a) make an initial foray into the crowded fest as Hound #2 had a great fear of missing out on some mackerel a la plancha; then (b) return Billie to our hostel room for a siesta; (c) wander the Old Town & sample some more pintxos at any bars we might have missed; and (d), end up back at the port for some more mackerel pintxos & some live music.

The Big Verdel Event – Top Left: Plate of Grilled Mackerel & a Cold Beer for 1 Euro!; Da Crowd; Festival Menu in Basque; Up Close & Personal Verdel Pic; From On High Crowd View

Parts (a), (b) and (c) all went to plan & success was achieved on all fronts…but when part (d) rolled around, something was clearly amiss. We arrived back at the port shortly after 9PM (give to take 15 minutes) and everything & everybody had vanished – no mackerel food stalls, no people, no stage and no music…party over! We were going with the general consensus view that the Spanish like to party & stay out late, but I guess the stall vendors & musicians had other ideas. But it was true that the gente (people) fullfilled their mantra ‘eso si que es la vida‘ (this is the life) & saw the sun rise…we could hear the riotous crowd noises from our paper thin walled room. And it was not much help on the sleep front when our two neighbours stumbled in (and I mean stumbled in) around 4 or 5AM.

Top Left: ‘Mackerel Day’ in Basque; Professional Txakoli (local white wine) Pourer; Two Fun Late Night Pubs…For Young Folks.

Zumia Pit Stop…

Up early for a quick walk round the Mutriku port, then headed home with a quick stop in Zumia for a second coffee and a wee squizzy around the Old Town section…safely back in Hondarribia for lunch. Excellent adventure had by all…

A Salamanca Weekend…A Savoury Visit.

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Pueblo de Palencia…Top: Plaza Mayor & Town Hall; Local Band; Church.

We had decided to opt out of a Valentine’s Day Valentine’s Day with all it requisite paraphernalia & fluff and instead, 2 weeks later, have a romantic weekend (minus our ‘child’ Billie the Jack Russell) in Salamanca.  With our time in Spain rapidly diminishing (we leave on August 1st for the U.K. to prep our New Zealand return), we have assembled a decently long list of to do’s & Salamanca was top of the list.

It is a reasonably long drive (5+ hours) so we sorted out a few pit stops along the way which was a tad difficult as there seems to be, by all appearances, nothing much of real interest on the road to Salamanca (Burgos is great but we’d already been there). We have a Spanish friend who was born & raised in Palencia, so that was where we headed for a roadway breather & something to eat…

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Bar Alaska, Palencia – Estupendo!

Though many of our guide books or articles gave Palencia a minor pass, we made the most of it & headed straight through the Old Town to highly recommended Bar Alaska. And the reviewers were spot on – our only mistake was we did not take stock of exactly how good this place was & simply stop here & enjoy. But no, Hound #2 had read about a Turkish place called El Rincon de Istanbul which by Tripadvisor ticks was the bee’s knees for Turkish food outside of Turkey itself. Not…we were both slightly suspicious when the menu was: (a) almost longer than the Bible (obviously not freshly cooked); and (b) the menu & the restaurant walls were plastered with florescent plastic photos of their food.

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Lunch @ Rincon de Istanbul, Palencia – Not Too Good…

And our gut instincts were right – the falafel came out of a frozen packet, the bread was also a packet product and my curried chicken was almost stone cold & Hound #2 summed it up precisely by stating that it looked like ‘sick’. Onward to Salamanca…

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View of Stunning Salamanca & the Roman Bridge that crosses the River Torme (trout are in there!)…

Our arrival into Salamanca was easy as due to the fact that our hotel Vincci Ciudad de Salamanca, was right on the outskirts, only a 10 minute walk into the centro, so easily avoiding all the driving & parking hassles of a central Old Town space. We quickly settled in & headed out for a Friday arvo / evening stroll to the City Centre – across a beautiful Roman bridge over the River Torme. Once again, the Weather Gods smiled upon us and we had a perfecto winter’s day of blue skies, sun, no wind & mild temps…

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Beautiful Architecture Round Every Corner….

The Old Town is, thankfully, very pedestrianised so walking or strolling is a breeze. Salamanca is a big university town & has one of, if not the oldest, university in Europe. And it is chocka with students – we heard more American/Canadian/British accents in one weekend than we have heard in our entire time in Hondarribia. We were late to find out that this weekend was El Carnaval weekend – so a wee bit fearful of possible chaos & craziness. No problema…tranquilo…sweet as.

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Top Left: Back Street View, Cathedral in the lights, Plaza Mayor – Excellent Space!

Salamanca is a bit closer in modus operandi to the South of Spain than the North, which means that many places open later (round 8PM or after). So with a small chunk of time on our hands we made a bee line for La Vendimia Vinoteca – tienda de vino supreme!

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Tienda de Vino Excelente!

It is ALWAYS a great pleasure to peruse a wine store that offers up a distinctly different range of vino bebidas….not your bog standard super mercado or local bodega selection but different juices from small producer folks that I only seem to read about in magazines. Several bottles were purchased (and 3 more the next day) and off we went into the Salamanca night…

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Bodega Cuzco – Our Salamanca Fave….

At the top of our list & just about everyone else’s was Bodega Cuzco which offered up caliente made-to-order pintxos paired with a superbly chosen wine list. The staff were top notch too – friendly & super efficient. I had the chicken curry mini burger while Hound #2 went with her usual favourite – pulpo (octopus) a la plancha (grilled).

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Bambú – Another Great Choice for Friday’s Comestibles…

Next on our visitation agenda was Bambú – again a crowd pleaser and a highly rated establishment. A really well oiled hospitality machine (not President Trump’s kind) that was cranking on all cylinders & buzzing with Friday night crowds filling the place to the max. Salamanca is technically reputed to be a city that falls into the category of a free pintxo with every drink order. What we found were 3 distinct offers: (a) order a drink & get a gratis pintxo; (b) order a drink & not get a free pintxo but notice that most of the locals were getting one so we asked…and usually, begrudgingly got one; and (c) you pay for your pintxos (like at  Bodega Cuzco) . Bambú fits into the first bucket so with our first round of cervezas, I got the universal Spanish sandwich – jamón with pimiento pepper on a wee roll. Hound #2 scored with a smoked salmon wrapped around cream cheese & dusted in bread crumbs. Round 2 was accompanied by some delicious meatballs or albondigas as they are called here.

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Salamanca Scenes…

Up early on Saturday to have a full on day in Salamanca, first port of call was the Casa de las Conchas. Unfortunately, La Casa was undergoing some renovation works so the full beauty of its facade was hidden by some serious scaffolding. But still a marvel – and we had a nice chat with the librarian (yes, there is a library inside) who told us a bit about the history & construction and said it was VERY difficult to find qualified people to do the restoration so they had ONE woman doing it bit by bit as they could afford to pay her.

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Casa de las Conchas….

Next on our Saturday morning agenda was our required visit to the local mercado – the Mercado Central de Salamanca to be exact. An always fascinating adventure to walk the aisles & floors (2 levels here) and have a decent perusal of all of the local products on offer. Salamanca has a reputation as serious ‘meat country’ in all its various forms – fresh beef or pork or veal or fowl or ox; charcuterie of all shapes & sizes like chorizo or jamón sliced or full legs, salchichon (salami extraordinaire), morcilla (blood sausage), sausages & cecina (dried beef or ox).

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Mercado Central de Salamanca….

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Mercado Central de Salamanca: Top – Serious Spanish Beef; Veggies Galore; More Meat & Charcuterie…

And of course you will find a decent collection of veggie & dry goods stalls too, and as icing on the cake, a magnificent fish section stuffed to the gills with everything possible from the sea or fresh water. The Spanish love their seafood and we are quite blessed living in Hondarribia as it is a fishing port town so we see el pescado as fresh as it can be.

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Mercado Central de Salamanca – Fish Section….

Post our mercado visit, we paid a second visit to La Vendimia vino store and then set our course for Calle Van Dyck. This street is a renowned student haunt due to its cheap eats & drinks. We were hesitant to see it in all its glory, late at night on Carnaval weekend so we opted for a mid day visit to see what the fuss was about.

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La Cocina de la Yaya (affectionate term for grandma)…Top: Braised Mushrooms; A Moruno skewer – usually lamb but this was pork…

We did a couple block walking tour, sticking our noses into various joints & decided we liked the look of La Cocina de la Yaya (Spanish for grandma). And yes folks, the price was right – 2 cervezas & 2 LARGE pintxos for all of 6 euros. The students have sussed this out correctly…

We popped into one other taberna on Calle Van Dyck before aiming ourselves to return to the Old Town & we came across Restaurante Don Bustos in our wanders. Following, once again, Hound #2’s Dad’s Rule – if it has loads of local folks inside there is a high probability it is a keeper. Score for Dad’s Rule – busy as & buzzing with Spanish. Two cañas (beer) ordered straight away & 2 pintxos gratis of fried eggplant handed across the bar. Delish.

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Restaurante Don Bustos….Pintxo of Fried Eggplant. Place was hop’n!

We had built up a respectable ‘to do’ list with regards to bars & pintxo places, so we next made our way to La Casa de Las Pulgas (House of the Fleas) which was warp speed busy with only one bartender, but scored a sweet pintxo of chickpea stew with diced shrimp & mussels. Yum.

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Casa de las Pulgas (Fleas) – Chickpea Stew with Shrimps & Mussels…

And just down the street on Plaza Angel was a super popular place called Casa Vallejo which people spilling out onto the street & plaza. And here the free pintxo was a white bean stew with various bits of diced chorizo mixed through it. Perfecto…

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Casa Vallejo – Busy As…

Queued up next was La Cocina de Toño, a place known for its hot, freshly made pintxos (versus cold or microwaved off the bar). This place got the 2 thumbs (maybe 4) up as super tasty, excellent pintxo snacks at a fair price with a great vino selection and, thankfully, in a slightly less hectic atmosphere than our previous 2 bars.

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La Cocina de Toño – 2nd Fave of the Trip…Top Left: Chickpeas with Shrimps; Back Bar & Hanging Jamón; Pulpo (Octopus).

After a wee siesta back at the hotel, we geared up for a Saturday night in Salamanca with Carnaval supposedly in full swing. We were again quite relieved to find out that carnaval in Salamanca, despite all the youngsters, was a quiet affair.

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A Return Visit to Bodega Cuzco – Great Again…Top: Goats Cheese with Caramelised Onion Topping; 2 Copas de Toro; Duck Confit Fajita.

We made our plan to be @ Bodega Cuzco spot on the 8PM opening to avoid the inevitable throngs. We got two cozy seats at the bar & placed our order for two vino tintos de Toro and 2 pintxos – Hound #2 had warmed Goat’s Cheese with a topping of Caramelised Onions while I satisfied my duck craving with a Duck Confit Fajita.

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2 Blogger Favorites….

We popped into to several other places on our list like La Viga and Bar Montero but ended up just having a wine. La Viga was packed with locals but the food on offer was not our cuppa tea – fried pork crackling & other fried things. Bar Montero seemed a bit more formal with very little being offered on the bar and only a full menu to order from.

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Live Music @ Local Salamanca Dive Bar….

We decided to call it a night & zig zagged our way through the narrow back streets & stumbled across a teeny tiny bar & decided on a nightcap. Happy to find that they served Alhambra Reserva 1925 but even more surprised to see a group setting up to play. We hung around for some tunes which, again, were not our cuppa tea but a fun way to end the evening…

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Goodbye Beautiful Salamanca…

We felt we had seen what we wanted to see in Salamanca, so we set off early to take advantage of another spectacular winter’s day & drop in on Valledolid as we had never been & had no plans to visit.

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Stretch Your Legs Pit Stop @ Valledolid….

We spent an hour or so wandering around the Old Town, stopping off @ Plaza Mayor for some coffee in the winter sun and finding 2 serious wine stores right next to each other but closed (it was Sunday) – damn!. We concluded it was a city mos def worth a night & day’s stay…

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Lunch in Burgos @ La Pez…Simple As – Tuna Fillets Topped with Pimiento Peppers & Then Turned Over – Yum!

With Burgos up ahead on our road trip home, we made the executive decision to make it our lunch destination. We had had a stupendous time in Burgos on another trip and had fond memories of its Old Town section & excellent food. We laid out a direct walking line to Plaza Mayor & its various side streets and popped in at an old fave – Meson Los Herreros. Two pintxos & two cervazas down the gullet we navigated to La Pez de la Senda which is a very different pintxo bar from your bog standard. La Pez had just recently opened on our first visit to Burgos and we found the staff super friendly and they seemed to be always giving us free pintxos or samples of vino or vermouth. La Pez is also a mini deli with various products available for sale to take home. Our pintxo of the day was a beautiful jar of the local tuna  topped with cooked pimiento peppers, then turned upside down – what a presentation! Tasted great too…

So if you have never visited or heard of Salamanca, it is a city to put on your Spanish to do list. You will be rewarded with awesome architecture, old world charm, food & drink to please any palate – go!!!!!

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!

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

Road Trip – The End…La Costa Norte de España

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Dark Clouds Ahead…

NB: I apologise in advance for the length of this post, but I simply wanted to wrap it up & move on to writing about other more recent events & happenings before they fade from memory. And in general, I write this post as our ‘electronic diary’ so we do not forget all the good times & people we’ve met…you don’t have to read it, just look at the photos!

We headed south from Viveiro towards the Galician big smoke of A Coruña (in Galician, or La Coruña in Spanish). A Coruña was as far west as we planned to go before turning around for home…one thing that always surprises me a little is how big many of Spain’s other cities (other than Madrid, Barcelona or Sevilla) truly are. And A Coruña was no exception…

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A Coruña, Galicia…

We managed to find our accommodation, Hostal Socaire, with no problemas and the staff were sweet as with help vis a vis parking for Gertie (the port has paddocks of free parking – just a 5-10 minute walk) and a bit of neighbourhood and city orientation. Our first night ended up a wee bit quiet & local as our day had knackered us out. We had a few nibbles at a local bar & the hostal staff gladly gave us another chair from the bar for our balcony, so we sat out with a bottle of vino…

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A Coruña – Roman Lighthouse…Weather Vane…Roman Lighthouse Up Close…Giant Compass

The next morning was a bit of a mixed bag – generally grey & cloudy but patches of blue poking through. We toddled off towards one of the city’s beaches for Hound #2 to take here customary dip in the sea, and then ambled along the seaside promenade towards the ancient Roman Tower of Hercules lighthouse. The weather gods were leaning in our favour as we circled the impressive faro antiguo with patches of blue sky beginning to make more sporadic appearances.

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A Coruña Scenes…Plaza de María Pita…

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Amazing Lamp post Tiles…

All along the seaside promenade they had these amazing, massive street lamp posts – they appeared to be of iron (not the best choice cerca the sea) – that had 4 ceramic tiles per post, with each set of tiles being totally different!

We were gradually working our way to the Old Town section for a bit of an explore and, of course, lunch….We strolled through some crooked laneways, poking our heads in here, then there, strolled the Plaza María Pita and then the weather gods crapped out and incredibly huge droplets started to descend. But our timing was perfecto as we were in a gorgeous tree filled plaza whose periphery was lined with bars – yippee! So 2 cervezas of draught Estrella were promptly brought table side (we chose to sit outside under the awning so Hound #1 Billie could hang) & we serenely watched the rain tumble down.

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Marvellous Momo’s…

Once the rain had lightened up, we headed off to locate a couple of ‘researched’ places to attempt lunch. We popped into one of our first choices, Jamonería La Leonesa, and all seemed more than kosher with a couple of vino tintos in hand & plates of stunning iberco jamón being whisked past our sniffing noses (unfortunately, Hound #1 was tied up outside). But a Galician chap next to us kicked off a conversation (initially in Spanish but flip-flopped to English too) which lead to some expert dining advice. He said we needed to go to Momo’s, just up the street – better food, better value he said. He told us to tell them he’d sent us, but not to use his real name, Fernando, but his nickname Manero which was how he’s known round Coruña proper.

We followed his instructions to a ‘T’ – the Momo staff had a good chuckle and appeared to pass the word round the entire place that Manero was at it again. We struck menu del día platinum @ Momo’s with an €8.70 sticker price folks…cheap as chups as they say in New Zealand.

Post our mid day repast, we wiggled & waggled our way back to our hotel for a mini-siesta and scouted out several of the touted pintxo streets for that evening’s activities…

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El Rey Del Jamón – We Concur!: Top Left – Cecina (Dried Beef); Queen of Jamón; Muchos Jamónes; El Rey del Jamón

We had a short & sweet list of places for our pintxo stroll, but we had spotted a number of other inviting establishments…our ‘tactical plan’ was to walk to the end of several of the connected, sequential pintxo alleys & work our way back, one pintxo & bebida at a time. Our first docking place for the night was El Rey del Jamón, the name (the king of jamón) says it all folks. We placed an order for a plate of cecina (air dried beef – Spanish version of bresaola) & two pours of some Spanish red – estupendo! The night was officially kicked off…

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Vintoteca Estupendo!

The next door we sidled through was Vinoteca Argudelo – a top of the line joint where we had our 2 best copas de tintos of the night. My glass held some delicious Mencia grape juice with the label ‘Tilenus’ from Bodega Estefanía  (I had sampled this in Oviedo – yum) whilst Hound #2 grabbed a glass of the meaty, mouth filling Carramimbre from Bodegas Pingón – a wine to look out for. And a nice feature of A Coruña pintxo bars is the pintxos are free with your drink – yippee!

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La Bombilla; A Taberna – A Coruña, Spain

Our next pit stop was La Bombilla, and only because we loved the sign, shallow & superficial we know, but it works sometimes. The vino was good & we got a couple of free plates of calamari. Then we decided to alter our tactical plan & wander to the back streets for a bit of an explore as we’d read that: (a) the drinks are way cheaper and (b) some places served wine in Chinese tea cups. What’s not to like??? So we found A Taberna – about as rustic & basic & simple a taberna as you will ever find (just check out the web site). So we ordered up a couple of Chinese tea cups of white vino from a barrel, poured from a pitcher for the whopping cost of €0.60 each. Yes, you read that right folks – €0.60 each. The hombre next to us gladly & proudly announced that he has 30-40 a day…and you could tell.

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Manteleria, A Coruña, Spain – Raquel @ Manteleria

We tapped a couple more spots in our wander home, but finished out the night at Manteleria where we met & had a great and interesting chat with Raquel (you will find her blog here), an architect but currently running this fine establishment. We chose the right spot to close out the night with a couple of choice glasses, fresh from a new bottle, of Finca Cuarta from Prior de Pantón, one of the best, refined & meaty renditions of the Mencia grape I had on the trip – and worth a search. Buenas noches…

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A Coruña, Spain: Breakfast Deal To Make Ya Squeal!

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Tapia Casariego, Asturias, Spain

We bid a sweet goodbye to A Coruña (Gertie was safe & sound – phew!), and plotted a path to return to a renowned surf beach in the pueblo of Tapia de Casariego (say that 5 times fast) for Hound #2 to have a go. But the tide & waves were not co-operating, so after a good college try, we headed off in search of lunch….

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Tapia de Casariego, Spain: El Muelle, Ensalada Mixta, Pulpo a la Plancha, Port View

We made a bee line for the port for both the views, and possibly better seafood & settled into an outdoor table at El Muelle (means jetty, wharf or pier in Spanish). All worked to plan & we once again enjoyed some pulpo a la plancha and a refreshing ensalada mixta…and 2 cervezas.

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Cudillero

Our resting place for the night was a camp in the much-written-about fishing village of Cudillero. We parked Gertie up at the very top of the very steep town street (yes, just one street) & wandered down…and down and down. We would agree that Cudillero is pretty and met many of the accolades that have been written about it, but it has also gone a wee bit past the tipping point on the tourism scale. Chocka with restaurants & bars, almost hocking their menus and a smattering of very twee shops to catch the tourist’s eye.

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Cudillero, Spain: Top Left – Pulpo a la Plancha; Hound #2 & Pulpo; Clams; El Faro; Scallops

So we opted to deploy our ‘back streets’ strategy and came across the almost empty El Faro restaurant. And since we were no starv’n marvins, and we were again in a fishing port, the obvious choice was a couple of raciones (small plates) del mar. First order of business – vino…so with 2 glasses of Albariño a mano, we put the order in for some clams (almejas) & scallops (zamburinas in Galician, or vieiras in Spanish). What was delivered to our table was, both presentation & taste-wise, a true masterpiece of culinary art & flavours. So good in fact, we decided we needed to have a go @ the octopus (pulpo)…and another glass of wine (awesome Verdejo that paired perfectly with all the seafood taste treats).

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Playa del Silencio, Cudillero, Spain

The next day brought us another patchwork of a day with somber clouds dispersing to reveal a burning sun. We checked our Top 10 Beach list & Playa del Silencio was on it & we were within spitting distance, so off we went…

To say we were impressed would be a massive understatement – wow! So beautiful, and so empty…

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Playa del Silencio, Cudillero, Spain: Empty Beach, Billie & The Stick Game; Chill Bill

Another fishing village on our ‘to do’ list was Lastres, and once again, lunch time was fast approaching. Simply said, we liked Lastres a lot – not past its prime tourist-wise, chocka with old or ancient buildings that were very well kept & maintained (Cudillero was a shambles compared to Lastres) and just enough restaurants & bars to keep the locals happy & well fed & full of vino.

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Lastres

We used Dad’s Rule again (many locals filled the tables & bar), and plopped ourselves at an outside seat at Bar El Meson for the menu del día.

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Menu del Día de Lastres @ El Meson

For starters Hound #2 picked the mussels (mejillones), and I was almost beside myself as they were serving the fabada asturiana! A dish that’d been on my comida list the whole trip but I’d failed to try…Now this was my kind of food folks – big bean stew with hunks of ham hock, blood sausage & chorizo floating about in a most savoury broth. I loved it so much I forgot to take a picture of the mussels….and Hound #2 had to take a taste test with a 1/2 dozen spoonfuls of my fabada. For our mains we both got what we wanted – a wonderfully grilled, fresh sea bass (lubina)  for Hound #2 and a perfectly seared sirloin steak (entrecot) para mi.

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Our Last Night’s Camp Site…

The timing of the finale to our trip was a bit open ended, and mainly weather dependent. So with a day or two of decent weather holding a place in the forecast, we headed for another campground surrounded by some of our must see beaches.

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Top: Playa de Rodiles – Too Many People; Campground Beach; Last Camp…

We awoke to a sparkling morning and decided to seize the day as the weather forecast had radically changed – par for the course here on the Northern coast of Spain. Hound #2 had her required dips in the campground beaches whilst the Beach Ground Crew (me & Billie) had a wander. Then we plotted a course for a well written about seaside town – Llanes.

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Llanes

Llanes is one of the bigger seaside towns we hit on this trip – not at all in the league of Santander or A Coruña but significantly larger than Cudillero or Lastres or Luarca. It has a modest Casco Viejo (Old Town) where we stocked up on Asturian specialities like cider, cheeses & picante chorizo. Then it was one last beach before we pointed Gertie to the East, and home.

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Playa Ballota, Llanes, Spain

A stunner of a beach to end the trip – Playa Ballota, just a skip & a jump out of Llanes and, once again, too many people!!!

So folks, we think we can unanimously say, that if you are thinking at all about a visit to Spain, the Northern Coast is ESTUPENDO! A jewel in the Spanish crown with majestic beaches, drop dead scenery (Picos de Europa are a must see), savoury food, gulpable drink and warm & welcoming people.  So go…go now before they pave over paradise       ;-)….

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Vinos de Viaje…

Road Trip III…La Costa Norte de España

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Gertie Does It Hard…

As we rumbled out of Oviedo in Gertie, the weather seemed to be of a 50-50 mindset, it could not decide if it was going to rain or show some glorious sun. We’d scouted a few more interesting beaches just in case, so we headed for the pueblo of Busto…

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Goin’ Gusto for Busto…

When we parked up at the Busto lighthouse, the sun peaked out from behind some fat, puffy clouds but it was just short of blowing a gale. We walked to the coast line for a look & though the beach was none too inviting (and a ways down the cliffs), we came across an interesting coastal walk. So with the swimming or surfing options curtailed for the day, walk we did and what a stunning coast line!

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Busto Luncho…Menu del Día – Garbanzo Beans with Bacalao (Cod) & Peppers

After being sort of blown to bits in Gusto, we finished our costal walk just in time to look for some lunch. We’ve employed one of Hound #2’s Dad’s Rules – look for a place packed with people & you just may have a winner. We passed by one establishment that had all the trappings of a decent eatery, but the parking lot was seriously empty…drive on we said.

As we rounded a bend in sight of the stunning coast, we saw Restaurante La Panera Cueva – the parking lot was chocka with cars…stop! Dad’s Rule won again – sun was beaming, front deck was inviting & the food perfecto!

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Menu del Día Yum: Top Left – Slow cooked Veal Cheek & Jus; La Panera De Cueva Restaurante; Desserts; Bacalao with Tomato Salsa

On our coastal trip we had decided to camp some of the nights & the wee fishing village of Luarca was our first camping port o’call at the spectacular Camping Los Cantiles. This time of year (mid to late May or early June) in Spain it is easy peasy to camp as you can just rock up with no reservations. This campsite is (very) efficiently run by a German couple that have been here 45 years! It was beautifully landscaped and sat right on the edge of the coastal cliffs (with beach access) – excellent for catching the sunsets.

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Luarca, Asturias, Spain: Top Left – Sunset from our Campground; Camino de Santiago Pilgrim Sign; Our Camp Site (Cliff With The Trees); Beer O’Clock

Luarca is built right smack dab into the hillsides, so each town excursion (we were here for 2 nights) constituted a serious cardio workout. We ambled round the sweet harbourside and grabbed a couple of cold cervezas & greatly enjoyed watching the Sunday stroll as the locals paraded on by.

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Wee Fishing Village of Luarca, Asturias, Spain

The next day Hound #2 got the itch for her usual sea excursion so we all headed out to the main beach where, despite a mixed cloud & sun day, she had a cold dip or two. Then it was lunchtime, so we headed back to the port to try a place Hound #2 had ID’d. A big menu del día dud is all we can say…we’ve developed a new rule: if a restaurant has a menu del día that is only scribbled on the back of an order pad (i.e., no actual, serious sign age or menu board out front on display), it is most likely NOT their forte or what they really want to serve or sell you is the a la carte options. They have to do menu del día to compete with all the folks that do a menu del día right, and but it is a slight bait-and-switch game as they really hope you are there to order the more expensive menu items.

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Playa de Las Catedrales, Galicia

Departing Luarca on a slightly grizzly day, we headed for a beach that came highly recommended by my Spanish teacher Gloria – Playa de Los Catedrales. We arrived early (thankfully, before the tour buses descended in mass) to a slightly spitting day, but that did not dent one iota the amazing sights. Incredible caves and archways carved out of the stone by the ocean’s crashing waves. Reminded us a lot of the 12 Apostles on the Great Ocean Road (now 6 I think as they have crashed into the ocean) in Australia.

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Estupendo Vino Store in Viviero, Galicia

Next in the queue was a lunchtime pit stop in the coastal town of Viveiro, Galicia. We’d read some good things about Viveiro, but it appears that big time seaside development is again starting to inch its way along the coast and spoil paradise.

On our way to the old town section we spotted in the window of Casa Chao a bottle on display of Bodegas Artuke’s Pies Negros – one of our all time faves! This we needed to investigate…Casa Chao is a wine store right up my alley & I grabbed some excellent representatives of some local juices.

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Accidental Lunch Orgasm: Top Left – Pimientos de Padrón, Pulpo Extraordinaire, La Quinta

Old Town was abuzz with folks despite the drizzly conditions & we checked out 2 of the places on our researched list – not up to snuff we thought. Then we stumbled on Asador La Quinta – jackpot! We started with our standard warm up dish – Pimientos de Padrón & 2 cold cervazas. Galicia is well known as the hot spot for octopus, so no other real choice needed to be made…this was simply the BEST octopus we’ve had in Spain (so far) – grilled to perfection (still tender but crispy, flavoured skin bits) sitting atop perfecto potatoes, sliced & roasted .

Ah…on to A Coruña!

 

Road Trip II…La Costa Norte de España

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Tunnelling Gertie Trucks On…

As we were winding our way out of the Picos de Europa via a slightly scary gorge road, the day once again looked to be a stunner. So we altered our original plans from making a bee-line for Oviedo to a day-at-the-beaches. You may not know this fact folks, but Asturias is home to some of the most gorgeous (and empty this time of year) beaches in northern if not all of Spain. So we’d made a list, and checked it twice, and 2 beaches were within Gertie’s Daily Driving Allowance (GDDA), so it is to them we toddled…

In the course of our beach drive we ended up passing through, for a second time, the town of Unquera which avidly advertised on just about every building the ‘corbata’. Now in the usual Spanish vocabulary ‘corbata’ is a necktie, but this was clearly not the case. So we needed to investigate…

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Las Corbatas…

Needles to say, corbata pastries made very a modest impression on our palates, but hey we give them an A+ for effort…we stopped!

First on our list was Playa de Torimbia and after a seriously narrow laneway hill climb, we’d arrived at the picture below…too many people we thought – not.

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Playa de Torimbia, Asturias, Spain

Everybody got naked, including Billie (he just takes his collar off so he doesn’t get a rust stain). Everyone had a paddle, but Hound #2 did some naked swimming and boogie boarding – perfecto fun.

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Playa de Torimbia, Asturias: Naked Billie, Modest Me and a Picnic Lunch…

Playa de Torimbia ticked ALL THE BOXES folks, but we still had another beach on the list to pay a visit to – Playa de Gulpiyiri. We’d been told by several of our Hondarribian mates that this was a way cool beach and a must see, so our search began.

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Playa de Gulpiyiri, Asturias

This was one COOL spot…as travel blogger www.rustictravel.com describes it so well…

A real gift from nature and a quite unique place. More or less undiscovered until recently, this little village has become more popular in the last few years and can get quite busy at the height of the season; still, it remains an exciting spot and well worth the visit. The action of the sea digging into the limestone cliffs over hundreds of years has created natural tunnels that emerge to the back of the cliffs in the fields beyond. The depression left behind fills with water when tide rises to create a natural pool with its own beach, quite special and very attractive.

We 100% concur with this assessment & description – quite special and beautiful…

We were now beached out for the day, so we pointed Gertie towards Oviedo

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Oviedo, Spain

Oviedo was made slightly famous by the fact that Woody Allen shot his film ‘Vicky Cristina Barcelona’ here, and the town embraced that fame and has leveraged it to the max. There are a few things that stand out about Oviedo: (1) they are obsessed with statues (there’s even one of Woody); (2) they like their city clean, very clean; (3) they love their Asturian cider (sidra) and even have a ‘Cider Boulevard’ (and a sister wine alley); (4) the residential buildings attractively feature, to great effect, glassed in balconies & loads of shutters; and (5), the food is effing awesome.

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From Top Left: Cider Boulevard; Woody & Me; Billie & Sign; Town Hall

Our hotel owner (Hotel Santacruz – great location) highly recommended we visit Cider Boulevard (it was a Friday, we thought it might be a manic mess post a chat with a parking attendant) so off we went on a slightly zig zag path to see a few of the sights whilst walking.

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El Ferroviario, Cide Bar, Oviedo, Spain

We arrived at Cider Boulevard & it was pleasantly buzzing – both folks & chatter. We checked out a few of our researched cider bars but they seemed too swish for the Hounds, until we found El Ferroviarro – seriously Old School (our style). As mentioned before, cider can only be bought by the bottle – so we bought & got taught how the pour gets done. Hound #2 had a go & managed to bath the bar in cider…

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Cider Boulevard: This Is How It’s Done….

Saturday morning we were up bright & early (maybe a tad early for Oviedo) and headed off for coffee & a town toddle in search of statues, a market, art & culture and food & drink.

The ‘statue search mission’ worked well as a general modus operandi to explore Oviedo, as we got lost mucho times but we always discovered something fun, new or interesting.

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Some of the many Oviedo Statues…

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…and more statues.

It being Saturday, it was a prime market day so in between statue ‘search & rescue’ we found the Mercado El Fontan. Oh Happy, Happy, Joy, Joy! We love markets – only draw back is we cannot buy much as we have no place to store it if it needs cold (e.g., fish, cheese) or any place to cook it up. Still the market offers a wonderful panorama of what local products are on offer and it also gives us a chance to track down some Asturain specialties.

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Mercado El Fontan, Oviedo

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Mercado El Fontan, Oviedo

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Mercado El Fontan, Oviedo

And as usually happens, markets tend to attract complementary purveyors in the surrounding spaces and it was certainly true of Mercado El Fontan. There were a good half dozen or more specialty food & wine stores on all sides of the market, offering up Asturias’s (and other regions) best. Coalla Gourmet was particularly impressive – a few bottles of vino were snatched up here!

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Coalla Gourmet, Oviedo

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Pooped Pooch & BB Vino, Oviedo

Post a decently long day of wandering, we all had a small siesta back at the hotel before we (minus Billie – pooped pooch needed more siesta) ventured back out to continue our explore. We headed for the Museo Bellas Artes de Asturias for a wee cultural squizzy. The Hounds were massively impressed with the works of Joaquín Sorolla – he’s been one of our faves since we saw his work in Bilbao.

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Museo de Bellas Artes de Asturais, Oveido: Top, Joaquín Sorolla, Museo & Don’t Know the Painter but Likey…

Well, by now we had certainly rolled into Beer O’Clock time…and then some comidas were in the cards. We have a pretty good knack for sniffing out the right places – we are not batting 1,000 but pretty damn close. So as we wandered the back alleys post our museo perusal, we came across El Molinón (The Big Mill) & it looked like our kind of place. Ordered up a couple of vino tintos from a sweetly selected wine list, chatted with the very nice bar folks & decided to give it a whirl. Yippee! Geez this was good – we decided to just order up a couple of raciones (smaller than a plate but bigger than a pintxo/tapas). We picked an old but delicious fave standby to start – Pimientos de Padrón – and followed that up with something new – Picadillo con Cabrales.

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El Molinón, Oviedo

The Pimientos de Padrón were perfecto, but the Picadillo con Cabrales was a taste sensation – essentially the Spanish version of New Zealand/Aussie/UK’s mince on toast except made with Chorizo (out of its casings) & Queso de Cabrales (delish Asturian blue cheese). We would like to try & make this at home…

So we bid adieu to Oviedo – sweet place…and onwards we drove.

Road Trip…La Costa Norte de España

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Land Rover ‘Gertie’ Coasting Along….

The Hounds had hatched a plan early on upon our arrival in Spain to do a northern coastal road trip in May, before it got too hot & too harried with tourist hordes. And so we packed up Gertie the Land Rover with all the requisite gear (mostly Hound #2’s surf & swim stuff) & headed out on another Spanish adventure….

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Hill Hike in Gorliz…

Our destination goal for the first night was the Big Smoke of Santander, but we’d read about a sweet hike in the seaside town of Gorliz & with some spare time in our schedule, we popped in for a bit of an explore. Weather gods were with us on the day & we meandered up & around & down the stunning coastal cliffs.

We arrived into Santander in the late afternoon & faced the usual challenge as to where o where could we park Gertie & not pay a king’s ransom or rip the roof off (she’s a tad tall for most Spanish garages). A quick chat to a helpful policeman sent us in the direction of the beach – excelente as that was where our hotel was!

Once we’d comfortably settled into Hosteria Santander (though not so comfy with the 15 euro fee for our dog!), we ambled off on a coast & beach walk in search of the Casco Viejo section of town for a little picoteo (pintxo stroll)…

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Bodega Cigaleña, Santander – Serious Vino Heaven…

My good mate Iñaki, a great cider & wine maker, highly advised me to pay a visit to Bodega Cigaleña, a virtual museum of vino. And he was dead right…

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A Real Vino Museo…

Vino, vino everywhere and all to drink! We quaffed a couple of decent reds but we were a bit scared to ask what the Rioja Reservas from 1923 & 1915 might set us back.

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Most Excelente Bar Fuente Dé

We wandered just a block away discovered Bar Fuente Dé – mos def our kind of place: alive with folks & chatter, good selection of bebidas & comidas (and way, way cheap)  & a jolly bar man. We squeezed (all 3 of us – dogs allowed) into an open spot at the bar & had 2 vino tintos quick snap & ordered 2 pintxos just like the hombre next to us had…a piece of excellent, crispy crusted bread with cheese (a flavourful blue) from the Picos de Europa slathered on. Our new Santander local…

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Bodegas La Conveniente – Perfecto…

Next on our ‘pintxo to do’ list was Bodegas La Conveniente – only a quick hop & a jump away. Set in what certainly appears to be an old warehouse space of some sort (maybe vino?), with massively high ceilings and deep, dark recesses – this is a place chocka with the kind of character you cannot build. We had a good wander & look-see & then some copas of vino tinto with our usual jamón iberico bocata.

We awoke early to yet another weather god blessed morning and Hound #2 headed for her customary sea dip while Hound #1 & I wandered the beautiful Santander beach…then a breakfast of some of the best croissants we had ever had – the coffee was damn decent too…

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Early morning swim with a ghost ship , Puss Face Jack Russell & Best Beachside Brekky

Then it was Picos Time. During our trip we ambled across the provinces of Pais Vasco, Cantabria, Asturias and Galicia before turning back for home. The group consensus was Asturias ticked all our boxes & more. We had been told over a number of years, by a number of folks that if we were ever in Spain we HAD to go to the Picos de Europa as it is as close to New Zealand as you will find on this side of the world. And they were spot on…

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Picos de Europa – Stunning…

Once again – thank you, thank you weather gods! A cracker of a day to take a hike up a hill & enjoy the multitude of natural surroundings in full Spring mode. We had wanted to do route PR-PNPE 24 which is a circular hike & gives you a scenic ride down on the ‘funicular‘ (cable car) but, damn, no dogs allowed! So we opted to climb to the snow level on PR-PNPE 24, frolic in the snow & have a picnic. All in all a full on day…

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Picos de Europa: Our Home Sweet Home

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It Really Looks Like This Folks…No Photoshop Here.

It was all these pictures show & more – it was a very tough choice as to what photos to include or leave out as they were all stunning shots.

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Mountain Hike…From Top: Church Picnic Site, View Down the Mountain, PR-PNPE 24 Route Sign with Hiking Hound #2

We reached the snow line & debated whether to continue on to a ‘refugio’ (a hut in New Zealand terms) but a short discussion with some descending German hikers put the kabosh on the that notion. They painted a picture of some pretty sloshy, wet goings with sinking into snow up to your knees & some difficulty in finding the track.

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The Snow Line…and One Happy Puppy

So it was the right time for a picnic – we set up shop in front of the old church (see pic above) with 360 degree views of the Picos & we tucked into some savoury chorizo & sausage (from our super Hondarribia charcuterie shop on Calle San Pedro – Jon Alzaga), bread & cheese…but no wine…

And to prove once again how small the world has become, we had 2 mountain bikers descend to the church & once our chatting commenced we instantly realised they were Kiwis! But not only Kiwis, they lived 10 minutes away from us outside of Christchurch on the South Island – estupendo!

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Fun In The Snow….

For the Picos visit we were based a skip outside (in Ojeda – a 10 minute walk) the wee pueblo of Potes, in the wonderful Hostal Toscana where the folks could not have been friendlier or nicer or funnier. It was always – ‘no probllema’ & no charge for Billie!

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Potes – Sweet Wee Pueblo

Potes has an old section bursting with old time character with cobbled streets, medieval bridges and seriously ancient buildings. It also has a plethora of eating & drinking establishments. We were in search of the famed Asturias cider & got directions to a popular establishment but we got hopelessly lost in the narrow, cobbled laneways and ended up at La Luna En El Sol (actually we were only 2 doors away from where we were supposed to go). One small quirk – you can only order cider by the bottle, not by the glass. So we got with the locals & had a bottle…

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Meal of the Evening: Grilled Squid & Tacos…Yum.

Post our Picos mountain climb, we had a bit of a hunger & wandered the Old Town looking for something tempting…and quite ironically, we ended up at the only Mexican joint in town!

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Trouts!!! Deva River So Sweet…

The next day saw us all piled back in the Gertie the Land Rover & making our way for a 2 night stay in Oviedo…up next in the Local Food Hound blog posts.

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Río Deva…There Be Trouts In There!