Follow by Email

Friday, November 17, 2017

October 2017 | Northern Spain

We recently returned from an 18-day trip to northern Spain, completing our tour of this wonderful country. In May 2011 we travelled the south, and in February 2012; Madrid and central regions. Much earlier, in the Nineties, we had visited Barcelona.

Sárdon de Duero
October 09 - 11:
It was into Madrid airport to start this adventure, renting a car there and driving northwest 200 kilometers to Sárdon de Duero in Castilla y Leon, and the Abadia Retuerta L’Domaine; staying three nights. This hotel is a former monastery amidst acres of vines – its wines are very well regarded. We were in room 206, very nice. The staff gave us a tour and that evening we had an 11-course tasting menu with wine pairing in their gourmet restaurant, Refectorio.
Abadia Retuerta L'Domaine

We awoke to a beautiful day, sunny with highs of 80°F. After a nice breakfast we were off to Burgos, 160 kilometers to the northeast. It is an old city, founded in 884, and played an important political, military and commercial role throughout the centuries. Our reason for visiting was the Burgos Cathedral, founded in 1221, a Gothic masterpiece. The magnificent star-ribbed central dome rises on four huge pillars. Built on a sloping site, there is a wonderful staircase linking the nave to the upper street level. I must compliment the creator of the audio guide for the visit – excellent.
Burgos Cathedral
Star-Ribbed Central Dome

The Staircase

Arriving back to the hotel, the weather was so delightful we went to the outdoor pool for some late day sun; I was brave (or foolish) enough to take a swim in the frigid water.
Dinner was at the hotel’s casual restaurant, Vinoteca; very good salad and lamb with rice. The vineyard’s 2010 Pago Negralada Tempranillo the perfect accompaniment.

Another beautiful day, we were off to Valladolid, just 60-kilometers west of the hotel. Although now a modern sprawling city, the old town is packed with history. Fernando and Isabel married here in 1469, laying foundations for the modern Spanish state, and beginning the drive to push the Moors from the country; Granada finally fell in 1492.
We parked by the rail station and walked to Plaza Mayor visiting the 15th C university with its impressive Baroque façade, the three churches of Iglesia de Santa Maria la Antigua, Iglesia de Nuestra Senora de las Angustias and Iglesia de San Pablo; and finally, the cathedral. 
Valladolid University

The Cathedral Metropolitana is an unfinished work, started in 1580. It gradually lost momentum but the redeeming feature is the flamboyance of Juan de Juni’s altarpiece. The Museo Diocesano inside contains some beautiful religious art and sculpture.
Lunch was tapas at La Cantina on Plaza Mayor before our drive back to the hotel. We had a little more time at the pool; weather still unseasonably warm. It was dinner again at Vinoteca and then to bed.

October 12 -13:
Before leaving the Abadia Retuerta L’Domaine, we walked the vineyard along the Duero River; the weather was still beautiful – there is something spiritual connecting the land with the eventual elixir in the bottle. Our next stop, Leon, was about a two-hour, 200-kilometer drive northwest. We arrived to the Parador de Leon on Plaza San Marcos; a 16th C Renaissance marvel, one of the best examples in Spain, along with its well-preserved Cloister of San Marco.
Unfortunately, the rooms and interior public spaces were sad. The spartan décor would be a familiar sight to the monks; only the poorly done modernizations would seem odd. Judith and I were both sure many centuries of clerics had slept in our bed, the indents of their bodies visible in the saggy mattress. In a word, awful accommodations; ditto for the food. By the way, the monks didn’t have Internet access, neither did we.
We were quickly out to see the city, walking up the Gran Via de San Marcos to the old town, then on Calle Ancha to the Leon Cathedral. Begun in mid-13th C, it was inspired by the French techniques of vaulting and buttressing in their Gothic cathedrals in Paris and Chartres. The tall nave is slender and long, showcasing the great glory of the stained glass, 182 windows in all, spanning the 13th to 20th centuries. The adjoining museum off the cloister contains a wonderful Pedro de Campaña panel. 
Leon Cathedral

Main Altar

We had a cava near Plaza Regla, walked back to the parador and visited the adjacent Museo de Leon. After a blah dinner of baby lamb, it was off to bed.

Up to a very proletarian breakfast, we were off on a very nice day to see the rest of the city. Our first stop was in the northeast of the old city, to the best preserved of the ancient Roman walls and the Colegiata de San Isidoro, actually a part of the walls. Travelling south along Calle Ruiz de Salazar we visited two well preserved palaces: Casa de los Guzmanes with its elegantly arcaded Renaissance patio, and Antoni Gaudi’s unusually restrained Casa de Botines. Still further south we saw three plazas: Plaza del Grano, Plaza San Martin and Plaza Mayor. Lunch was on Calle Ancha at Via Principalis.
Casa de los Guzmanes

We dragged ourselves back to the hotel and had drinks on the terrace, cleaned up, had another bland meal and were off to bed.

Santiago de Compostela
October 14 – 15:
We were up early and off to Santiago de Compostela, 3 ½ hours and 320-kilometers, again northwest. Leaving Castilla y Leon behind, we travelled to the Galicia region, the remote northwestern corner of the Iberian Peninsula. The discovery in the 9th century of the supposed remains of St. James the Apostle confirmed Santiago de Compostela as Medieval Europe’s most important religious shrine after St. Peter’s. For over some 1,000 years pilgrims have followed the route over the Pyrenees and along the north coast of Spain to this holy destination.
Our home for the next two nights was the modern NH Collections Hotel, just a bit outside the old city. Unpacking quickly, we were off on a 20-minute walk to Santiago Cathedral, travelling up Rúa de San Francisco like so many pilgrims before us. Unfortunately, a large portion of the majestic west façade of the church was shrouded by scaffolding, hiding most of the twin Baroque towers that reach high over Praza do Obradorio. The present building dates from the 11th – 13th centuries.  Entering, there was more ongoing restoration obscuring the ornate high altar and the iconic botafumerio, the giant silver censer that hangs above it. We left a bit unimpressed; perhaps our expectations were too high.
Botafumerio (Censer)

We walked the balance of the city, passing through Plaza de Cervantes and stopping for a pleasant lunch at Café de Altamira on Rúa das Ameas, east of the cathedral. We were back to the hotel by early evening and had a light dinner at the bar of some charcuterie and a bottle of local white.

The morning’s weather did not look promising as we left for Costa da Morte, the wild and remote “coast of death” stretching from Fisterra in the south to Malpica in the north. The coast is dotted with isolated fishing villages, tucked into the majestic headland.
We were heading west on AC-441, about 1 ½ hours, to Cabo Fisterra (“where the land ends”). The terrain drops into the sea, scattered with rocky outcroppings, menacing shipping over the millennia. The lighthouse stands sentry to this place where the pilgrimages final ended; many trekkers burning their shoes to mark the completion of their journey.
Cabo Fisterra Lighthouse

Pilgrimage End

Afterward, we drove along the coast and up into the hills to O’Fragón Restaurante and had a wonderful lunch: blue lobster to share, then a tasty grilled seabass. It was then another drive on to Carmariñas, seeing many of the iconic hórreos, quaint stone grain stores on raised stilts; and Rio de Porto Rias. A “rias” is a long tidal estuary, and found all along the coastline of Galicia. 
Judith posing in front of a  "Hórreos"

We got back to the hotel around 6:00 pm; dinner was at the hotel and so-so.

October 16 – 20:
We left Santiago de Compostela early on another overcast morning, driving east-northeast 320 kilometers, a 3 ½ hours’ drive. The route took us through the western edge of the Galician Massif and into Asturias and Cantabrian Mountains. The effects of Ophelia, the easternmost Atlantic hurricane on record, made for a windy and sometimes rainy trip. This was added to by smoke from forest fires in southern Galicia and northern Portugal. Sadly, all were started by arsonists. So the air was thick with a smoky fog, but it added to the atmosphere as our route passed through pristine forests, pastureland and deep gorges. At times we were just meters from the ocean. The landscape was dotted with wind turbines, the country is the fifth largest producer of wind energy, contributing 19% of its total domestic electricity demand.
Hotel Palacio de Luces

We arrived to Hotel Palacio de Luces at about 2:30 pm, a very bucolic Relais & Chatueax property just a few kilometers from the Atlantic. After a quick lunch of croquetas, we had a swim in the indoor pool. Dinner was terrible, a traditionally served chicken: a giant chicken leg (it could have been from a small pig) served in a thick muddy brown sauce. Oh well, it was off to bed.

We woke to an overcast morning with an acrid smell of smoke in the air. After breakfast we drove east on the coast road, AS-257, to Lastres, and then the N632 to Ribadesalla. This is an upscale town with a wonderful seafront on a broad estuary of the Sella River. There is a striking white church perched upon a promontory looking out to the Atlantic. We walked the jetty and were buffeted by high winds.
Ribadesalla's Church

Brave Surfers

Back to the car, we winded our way further east along the coast on AS-263 to Llanes where we had a nice lunch at El Cuera – very good croquetas, and a wonderfully rich white bean and pork cassoulet, locally called Fabada. Taking the A8 back to the hotel, the haunting Picos de Europa looming high to our left, we stopped at a car wash to clean the built-up ash on the car.
I took another swim; dinner was not very good which meant more leftovers for the white house cat who seemed very happy (and fat).

More rain to start another day. After getting totally twisted around in the wrong direction, we finally made our way up very winding roads, looking down into deep gorges, to Santuario de Covadonga nestled in the Parque de los Picos de Europa. These beautiful mountains purportedly got their name, “Peaks of Europe,” from returning sailors for whom this was often the first sight of their homeland. Built between 1886 and 1901, the church here is a Neo-Romanesque basilica and stands at the supposed site of Pelayo the Warrior’s victory, in 722, over the much larger and better equipped Moorish army. This is of course fiction; this battle most likely took place in Cantabria – an early example of “fake news.”
Santuario de Covadonga
We headed back to the coast and to Comillas, known for its many buildings designed by Catalan Modernista architects, including the grand Palacio Sobrellano built in 1881. Overshadowing all is Capricho de Gaudí, a small colorist palace designed by the then young Antoni Gaudí. In town we had lunch at the work-a-day Samovy Restaurante – grilled ham and cheese; Judith finished with the regional chocolate con churros.
Capricho de Gaudi

Our final vsit was to the beautiful fishing port of San Vincente de la Barquera, its low-slung stone Maza Bridge gracefully crossing the broad estuary. We arrived back to Palacio de Luces about 6:30 pm, a 370 kilometers jaunt. Breaks in the rain blessed us at each of our stops.
We had light bar fare this evening; unfortunately, also two bottles of 2015 Belondrade y Lurton Verdejo!

We woke to another overcast day, travelling west along Coste Verde, or Green Coast, which is a beautiful succession of attractive coves and dramatic cliffs, punctuated by deep estuaries and pretty fishing villages. Our first stop was Luarca, a neat little harbor packed with boats, and a cemetery perched on a promontory. It was difficult to get to but worth the effort; it is consistently ranked in the world’s “top ten” most picturesque graveyards.

Luarca Cemetery

Luarca Cemetery

It was then on to Cudillero, another tiny port positioned at the base of a deep gorge. We parked and walked around looking for a lunch spot, but we found nothing appealing. 


Thus, our midday meal was a highway rest stop; we also had a self-service car wash to clean more fire ash off the car and fueled up. Before returning to the hotel, we checked out the nearby lighthouse in Lluces (faro in Spanish). I got another swim in; then we were down to dinner. Nothing special.

Our final day here was reserved for a visit to Oviedo, about 60-kilometers west and inland from our location. We parked near the beautiful, centrally located park of Campo San Francisco before walking to the cathedral. It is in Flamboyant Gothic style, with a very high tower and asymmetrical façade. There are many wonderful works of art; a 16th century reredos, the supreme treasure of Cámara Santa chapel from the 9th C, and many other gold and silver objects of beauty.
The city was made more famous by Woody Alan and his 2008 movie “Vicki, Cristina, Barcelona.” We bumped into a life sized brass statute of him and Judith took a cheeky photo of us together. 
Woody & Me

Leaving the city early afternoon, we made our way to Mount Naranco and its two magnificent Pre-Romanesque churches. Santa Maria del Naranco is the more impressive; its large barrel-vaulted hall on its main floor opens to two arcaded galleries on each end.
Santa Maria del Naranco

Barrel Vaulted Hall

We drove back and had a very late lunch in Ribadesella, arriving back to Hotel Palacio de Luces after six. Another swim; then we had another uninspired dinner in the hotel.

San Sebastián
October 21 – 25:
We were up for a late breakfast and left Lluces for San Sebastián, 4 hours’ drive east into the Basque region, arriving at Hotel Maria Cristina about 3:00 pm. Our first suite was not to our liking, the staff switched us to a terrace suite, #503, which was very nice. After unpacking, we took a short walk to the Zurriola Bridge and watched the tidal waves crashing into the estuary of the Urumea River that cuts through the city on its way to the Bay of Biscay. It was room service for dinner, accompanied by a strong rainstorm. We were quickly asleep.
Zurriola Bridge - Hotel Maria Cristina in background

Up to cooler and more unsettled weather, we were out to explore the old town. It is a maze of small streets tucked behind the headland of Mount Urgull. Our first stop was to the 16th C Church of St. Vicente, then out to the promenade that circles the base of Urgull, eventually leading to the aquarium and the port. Lunch was at Borda Beri on Fermin Calbton Kalea; we had a local small plate specialty called pintxos. These bite sized portions are laid out on the bar, you are given a plate and make your selection; then pay the bartender, perhaps also asking for a vino blanco (yes, of course I did).
St. Vicente Altar
Promenade - Rough Sea
A Selection of "Pintxos"

Afterward, we dodged the raindrops to visit Museo de San Telmo. The large museum is housed in a 16th C monastery. Its chapel contains 11 large murals by Catalan artist Maria Sert, depicting Basque legends and culture. There was a large display of local decorative arts and an extensive collection of paintings by Basque artists. A standout for me was Antonio Ortiz Echagüe’s “Dos Mujeres del Taliflet,” or “Two Moroccan Women.” Overall, an excellent few hours.
Murals of Maria Sert

"Dos Mujeres del Taliflet"

We walked back through Place de Constitucion, with its rows of numbered yellow balconies. In the past this square was used for bullfighting and these terraces were rented out to patrons by the municipality.
Place de Constitucion

We were late reserving at the many Michelin-starred eateries, but the concierge booked a nice spot for dinner in the hills overlooking Zurriola Beach, “Zelai Txiki,” meaning small fields in Basque. We had very good scallops and turbot. After a nightcap at the hotel bar, it was off to sleep.

We finally awoke to the sun. After breakfast we took a long walk west on the promenade of Kontxa beach to the Wind Comb sculptures of Edward Chillida, which are mounted in the rocks at the shoreline. Then it was back to the old town, visiting the town hall and later, lunch at another pintxos spot, Restaurante Bartolo – again very good. We finally had our bearings in the winding narrow streets.
Kontxa Beach
Chillida's "Wind Combs"
More Pintxos

We took the afternoon “off,” and had another good dinner in the old town at Casa Urola; piquillos as a starter, followed by a very nice sole.

Judith and I were starting to run out of steam; we had spent two weeks in non-stop tourist mode. The day was again sunny, so we took a leisurely walk east along the Zurriola beach to its end to see the Dove of Peace sculpture by Nestor Basterretxea. Lunch was at IBAI in the Zentro section, on the fashionable Calle de Getaria. IBIA is known as a chef’s restaurant, the preferred place for many of the city’s top culinary stars. It was a simple establishment, quite small, and in the basement of a nondescript bar. Our beef main course was superb; and it was fun to watch the passion for food and wine in the other professional patrons. Lots of smelling, smiling, laughing, oohs and aahs!
More rest late afternoon; dinner was simple and at the hotel’s bar.

We received the gift of another nice day. In the morning we walked some more neighborhoods, skirting the Urumea River up to the beautiful Maria Cristina Bridge. It was then back to our car; we were off to Bilbao and the Guggenheim. So much has been written about this Frank Gehry architectural marvel, clad in titanium. It is impressive and strangely organic, in spite of its metallic skin. But the building is the attraction, nothing inside really moved me. I came away with a sense that there really wasn’t much art, only very sterile “installations.”
Bilbao's Guggenheim
Interior Shot

We walked a bit more after our return to San Sebastián; dinner was uninspired at the hotel’s Café Saigon.

Back to London
October 26:
We were up early, had a quick breakfast and were off to Bilbao’s airport. After dropping off our car at Hertz (we had driven a total of 3,337 kilometers), we had a short wait until our flight departed. It was a smooth trip; Masood had us back to our flat by 3:00 pm.

Looking back, we had seen lots of beautiful architecture from the 9th to the 20th centuries. Still, for me, the real star was the landscapes travelling out of Castilla y Leon and then into the very picturesque northern countryside of Galicia, Asturias and Cantabria, and the Basque region. I recommend it highly.