A Wellington Weekend…Part 1

Ride the Cable Car, Get this View & then Walk through the Botanic Gardens!

We felt a mid-winter’s break was in order – a change of scene, a change of faces, some new & different food & drink to try and of course, culture. We had not been to Wellington in over a decade, and our memories of it were still on the good side, so away we went for a long weekend in Wellington…

Noble Rot Wine Bar…

Since the Noble Rot Wine Bar was just around the corner from our hotel, we decided to break a Friday night rule – beer before wine – and popped in to a bustling joint (it was Friday after work). I opted for an old time fave, Samuel Gorge’s Grenache which was in peak form & Hound #2 went the bubbles route…

HUSK Brewery

The vino was a nice start, but our house rule rose to the fore & we were off in search of a bar/brewery nearby on Ghuznee Street called HUSK. This place covers a lot of bases – brewery, roastery & eatery…but it was the cervezas we were here to imbibe. Like many craft breweries / bars these days, they are quite accomodating & generous with wee tastings of a good chunk of their range and what a range it was. Hound #2 likes her stouts so a tipple of the Power of Voodoo White Coffee Stout and Shakeit Chocolate Milkshake Stout were quickly swallowed & loved, but she felt like something lighter, so a 1/2 pint of City of the Wind IPA. My choice was, appropriately,  I’m Afraid of Americans West Coast IPA. Excelente!

With a good beverage head start to the evening, it was now time for some food. So off to make our 8:30pm dinner booking @ Mr. Go’s.

This a fun & lively & affordable place folks – hard to go wrong here on any front. Packed & buzzing on this Friday night, we quickly settled into our assigned seats & perused the extensive menu. We started with a bottle of the Arriba Tempranillo which is a house fave @ home & put our order in…Hound #2, in the last month, has gone vegetarian & Mr. Go’s menu suits that preference to a ‘T’…

Mr. Go’s is designed to share & share we did: Kung Pao Cauliflower (Fried cauliflower, Kung Pao sauce, peanut salt), Tofu Popcorn (Marinated and fried tofu pieces, Fix and Fogg satay sauce), Green Beans (Dry pan-fried green beans, Chinese spices, pickled mustard greens) and Go’s Fried Rice (Bok choy, edamame, peas, spring onion, spring onion oil, furikake). Yum!!!

We awoke Saturday morning to yet another amazing day in Wellington (stayed stunning our entire visit) as for any folks that have never been, Wellington has a reputation (deservedly so) for having nasty, brutal weather…that’s why its nickname is Windy Wellington (you can add rain to that monicker too).

We quickly popped in to Hangar for some warming coffees & some edibles before heading to the Wellington waterfront / harbour. In Lyttelton where we live (on the Banks Peninsula outside of Christchurch on the South Island), we have a beautiful harbour too but access is very limited – you can always look but rarely touch. Wellington has a lot of public space waterside & we made the most of it & enjoyed…

Wonderful Wellington Waterfront…

Wellington Museum

One of the highlights for both of us was a visit to the Museum of Wellington – highly recommended & well worth your time…amazing use of modern holographic imagery to tell historical and mythical tales and the section on the tragic Wahine disaster is heart wrenching but informative.

Weeeeeeeeeeee!

Lunchtime came upon us faster than we thought (time flies when you’re having fun & food & drinks) and we made a bee-line for Pre-Fab on Jessie Street. This is a real hustling & bustling kind of industrial kitchen that was created by the folks who started the iconic Cafe L’affare, the place that kicked off the cafe scene in Wellington. Though we had to queue, everything moved quickly & within 5 minutes we had seats….

Prefab, Jessie Street

We’d previewed the menu beforehand & made our choices – the classic Rueben Sandwich for me & the Grilled Halloumi Baguette, Avocado, Smoked Beetroot & Dukkah for Hound #2. Both dishes nailed the hunger pains to the wall – some of the tastiest tucker on the trip for me.

Top: Reuben Sandwich – Yum!; Parrotdog IPA; and Grilled Halloumi Baguette, Avocado, Smoked Beetroot & Dukkah.

Post a wonderful lunch, we were in the hood of Moore Wilson’s Fresh – my absolute fave food store in all of New Zealand. I mean, what’s not to like or love here? One of the biggest & best offerings of food & et al in the country, with everything from fresh as fruit & veg to meat & fish to cheeses of the world to condiments galore…heaven. And it has certainly grown over the years, but managed to maintain its super high quality while expanding its breadth of offerings. Only draw back is: (a) we had no kitchen or fridge where we were staying so no cooking and (b) we had only brought 1 checked bag so not loads of space for transport home :-(…

Moore Wilson’s Fresh – Estupendo!

Cheese! Cheese! Cheese!


Meat & Fish…

The Wine Section….

So onto Part 2 of the trip in the next posting….

 

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Déjà Vu Melbourne…

We were in need of a pre-winter break so we packed our bags & headed to Melbourne to catchup with several friends and, of course, eat & drink! Melbourne is not too bad a town to spend a week or two…I often say it is Australia’s version of San Francisco with an overall awesome, energetic & creative vibe across multiple fronts – food & wine, culture, music & art, history, etc…

And we could not have lucked out anymore with the weather as most days it drifted into the low 20’s with beaming sun & the bluest of skies. And since we are serious walkers, it made our exploration all the more enjoyable to be free of many layers & no rain gear.

The Big Metropolis; St. Kilda’s Luna Park; Shrine of Remembrance

One of our first target destinations was one of our regular favourites when we lived in Melbourne – the NGV (National Gallery of Victoria in Fed Square). A stunning space to have a wander and experience a serious collection of art – and about 95% is FREE! And if the NGV ticks your boxes, then you need to toddle over to the NGV International just a hop, skip & a jump down St. Kilda Road (and it’s FREE! – except for special exhibitions).

National Gallery of Victoria

National Gallery of Victoria International

Besides revisiting our old friend the NGV, we made a point of checking out some of our food stomping grounds that left us with a vey warm & flavourful memory when we departed Melbourne for the UK. We are not really the ‘fine dining’ types, but rather prefer excellent quality food, cooked well, in a relaxed setting & so our big splurge was to lunch @ Cumulus Inc. Andrew McConnell knows a thing or two about food & restaurants & this is our fave out of his bevy of joints (Cutler & Co, Builders Arms, Supernormal & Canteen, Marion, Meatsmith, Cumulus Up wine bar). And it is always a delight for us to be seated at the kitchen bar & get a first hand, close up & personal view of the food proceedings. We had some fun chats with the staff who, despite a busy lunch hour, had plenty of time to answer our questions and offer some insights into Cumulus Inc.

Cumulus Inc.

Bundarra Pork Cutlet & Pickled Witlof & Butcher’s Sauce; Tuna Tartare, Goat’s Curd & Crushed Green Pea

Excellent Juice from Stephen Pannell – Tinto

And of course when in Melbourne, you must visit the markets…it is a habit we have no matter where we be to have a good squizzy at the local market whether an established fixture (e.g., Queen Vic or South Melbourne or Prahran) or a farmers market (e.g., Vegout, Abbotsford).

Prahran Market

I was always impressed & amazed at the range of goods on offer at the Melbourne markets. I swear there is a better selection of European goods like olive oils, vinegars, olives, etc…in the Melbourne markets than I could ever find in most of Europe.

Queen Vic Deli Section

And of course where there is great food, there’s great drinks…so we made the rounds of most of my old wine haunts (Cloudwine – fave for hard to find vino & great prices, Prince Wine Shop, Blackhearts & Sparrows various establishments with extensive choices, The Wine House, City Wine Shop – small but excellent selection & food is great too & Wine Republic – amazing selection & best new find) & scooped up a solid half dozen (New Zealand’s limit) examples of Australian’s finest. Yum…

Melbourne’s Wine Stores…

Another Andrew McConnell joint – Marion Wine Bar

One of the things on our ‘To Do’ list was to have some top notch ethnic food as Lyttelton/Christchurch New Zealand is not as solidly blessed with such an extensive immigrant community as Melbourne does in spades.

We had an interesting Turkish dinner at Tulum with mates from Balaclava but one of our go to places is Don Don, a Japanese restaurant that is fast as and super cheap (by Melbourne standards) and damn good! I ordered our 2 lunches & before I could put my change back in my wallet, 2 steaming bowls were before me!

We had also read some good write-ups for a place called Paper Plate (Vietnamese) where the kitchen was manned by one of chef Geoff Lindsay‘s ex-fellas of Dandelion fame, but at a far cheaper price point. Super crisp & clean flavours – you could see & taste that everything was made from scratch…

Paper Plate in Richmond; Vietnamese Chicken Salad & Vegetarian Pho; Hanoi Beer

One Sunday morning we met some mates for breakfast @ Industrial Beans in Fitzroy – excellent food but busts the wallet @ $90+ for 4! But post breakfast, our friends said we had to see the mural of our Prime Minister (Jacinda Adern) painted on a silo in Brunswick. So we piled into their car & off we went…very touching & excellent job.

Industrial Beans & Grace, Fitzroy

New Zealand Prime Minister Mural in Brunswick

Melbourne Street Art; Melbourne’s Booming Skyline; Melbourne’s Infamous Laneways…

So if you have never been to Melbourne – GO!!!!! It is a city that has so many nooks & crannies to explore you won’t get bored…and if you do get bored of Melbourne, head out to the country to visit the Yarra Valley wine region or the wonderful Mornington Peninsula or hit up Daylesford or Kyneton for a savoury food experience.

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!!!!!

GOÑI Ardoteka Vino Market…

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One of the things I really miss since leaving New Zealand and Australia to live in the UK & Spain for a wee while, is a decent amount of regular, interesting & affordable wine tastings. Melbourne was a seriously sick place for wine tastings as it was almost harder to sort out & decide what not to do versus searching to find a wine event to do. Usually, every weekend some wine store (like the Prince Wine Stores or Seddon Wine Store or even your local Dan Murphy’s) was featuring a tasting & typically with the producers doing the pour – for free. And to add wine tasting insult to injury, there was almost always a massive wine event happening every other week or so with the likes of the Barons of the Barossa rolling into town or The Taste of Tasmania making a Melbourne splash. My head (and liver) hurts just remembering all of these vinous opportunities!

The UK is pretty much bereft of these kind of gustatory pleasures unless, of course, you are able & can afford to live in London or even Bristol or Bath, or some decently sized pueblo. And we couldn’t, so we didn’t, so we did not  have easy access to a regular rasher of sipping & tastings…for effing out loud people, even Christchurch, New Zealand (population 350,000 más o menus) puts on a decent juice show with Vino Fino or Decant doing the city honours.

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When we first arrived in Hondarribia, I discovered GOÑI Ardoteka in San Sebastián quite early on, and it is, by almost any measure, an estupendo wine store – great selection, knowledgeable and pleasant staff, fair prices and easy peasy access from Hondarribia via the marvellous E21 autobus. I signed on to their regular email newsletter for updates & started to see some notifications of tasting events. But I was a bit hesitant to jump right in & sample as, to me anyway, many tasting sessions seemed a wee bit dear – like €40 to €60 dear for the option to test out a few new unknown vinos. As I mentioned above, many of the regular Australian tasting sessions were 100% free and if not, they would hit up your wallet for a modest debit of round $20+ or so (same thing in New Zealand) which is like €13…eso es no problema.

So I was more than delighted to see in my inbox the news notice for the Christmas Wine Market @ GOÑi Ardoteka – wines & bubbles & beer & producers and FREE! I have no hesitation in stating it was the best wine event, so far, that I have attended in either Spain or the UK – and the producers were: (a) super knowledgable and generous with their information & time and pours (and my crappy Spanish) and (b) they be pouring the good shite! We are talking the top of da vino line folks – the cava bodega I started with finished our tasting round of 5 different bottles of bubbles with their 2005 Reserva that would set you back a tidy €93 ($140 NZ), so clearly not in the Lindauer league.

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The Wine Market Bad Boys…

And to add more foam to the froth, all the wines (not just the Wine Market wines) were smacked with a 15% price reduction – whoa nellie, hold on to my wallet! Fortunately (for my wallet), I was a bit constrained as I only had my modestly sized backpack with me and my allowable maximum wine allowance (by weight) was 5-6 bottles. So purchase I did & hauled my delicious treasure back to Hondarribia on the E21 autobus to savour at a later date…keep it coming GOÑI Ardoteka!

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.

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…

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!