While Bordeaux left butter and Cabernet taste in our bellies, we were on our way to Spain.
Ahhh, BUTTER…I forgot to mention that when we were on “le Boat” we had a delicious seafood risotto dinner with the Seaweed Bordier Butter stirre, (monté) into it at the end. This touch added the necessary umami of not having a rich stock to use. The butter was sweet, salty and full of oceany meroir. I knew you were wondering, “What about the butter?”…
Lori and Mike and all our gear fit nicely in the Sporty 6 speed Ford Focus we rented and we were off to the mountains. That little car purred in 5th gear at 130kph so we hung there without feeling the need to find, and use, 6th. We started out on the toll free roads but it was going to be the same view with tons of roundabouts so we splurged and threw it in 6th gear and cruised at 140kph with every car imaginable booting past us. At one point we passed a truck carrying about 6 sports cars, then another and another. We lost count at 8 of them. Lamborghinis, McLarens, Maseratis, Porsche Carrera GTs, Ferraris, Jaguars, Bentleys, Gull Wing Mercedes. We saw about 50 cars. Albert and Mike were drooling, then the convoy turned off and were gone. Gut wrenched. Sad men in the car. We continued. Weird they weren’t in a covered truck or covered at all; millions of dollars of Super Cars off on a traveling tour called Miles of Mystery 2019 edition. Our traveling roadside attraction of the day!
Just before we got to St Jean du Luz, the Pyrenees mountains appeared. Thankfully; because one minute we were ogling cars and the next minute mountains. You have to understand that Albert and I hadn’t seen large rocky outcrop mountains since the end of July when we left Alberta. The Canadian shield has mountains but they are old and rounded. The hills in Brittany and Normandy are lovely but the Pyrenees were MouNtAiNs.
St Jean de Luz, France is very close to the border of Spain. The west side of the Pyrenees is Basque Country and the East is Catalan. They have their own languages and are neither French or Spanish. So the blend of culture with the influx of tourism was welcoming yet always reminded us that civil unrest could be a conversation away. Alberts leg was still tweaking and there was a “p’tit train” tour parked right beside us so we hopped on.
During the tour only the Basque were mentioned. Not France. Not Spain. The most famous building in town was the cathedral where Louis XIV married the Princess Maria Theresa (age 14 and related to him as his second cousin) of Spain. He, of course, went on to become famous as the Sun King (also King Louis the Great) of France and built Versailles. She went on to be famous as the Queen Consort of France, putting up with Louis’s many affairs, enduring the death of five of six children and dying in Palace Versailles at a young age of 30 due to a festering sore on her arm. Ahhh, the aristocracy and it’s wealthy soap opera-esque chess games! It was a very cute city with a large wall that skirts the shoreline protecting the old city that was built below sea level.
Our hopeful destination was San Sebastian of the northern western Spanish coast. This destination is very popular as the rocky outcrops hang out over two sheltered sandy beaches that flank the old city. There was a film festival in town on our dates so the affordable accommodations were gone and we couldn’t stay in San Seb. We chose an Agriturismo in the hills just outside of town. The room was comfortable and the breakfast had fresh squeezed orange juice, fresh baked bread, cheese, charcuiterie and eggs from their chickens.
We stayed two nights with a full day in San Sebastian touring with Lori and Mike. In San Sebastian we walked the beach, took the funicular up to the top of the mountain overlooking the city and sipped cold beverages and ate Pintxos (Basque for Tapas) at the top. We walked back and met Luba and Bill for an early 6pm Pintxo and wine meal. Europe and particularly Spain doesn’t even think about an evening meal until at least 9 pm. Restaurants generally open at 8. Compare that in Parksville where everyone is reclined either in bed or on the couch by 8!!! After eating we toured a bit of the old town, the church, and headed out. Maybe another time we can return when there isn’t a film festival taking all the affordable accommodations and we will spend some time there!! It is worth another visit for sure.
San Sebastian was a beautiful city that lead us to following the coastline for a few hours. Every corner we turned had another spectacular vista. We were at the top of cliffs, bottom of jungle valleys, and on busy roads with Basque cyclists owning the road. West of San Sebastian is a cape that has a church built out on a big rock. If you are a Game of Thrones fan, you will know this place as Dragonstone. Gaztelugatxe was dreamed up by some poor pilgrim that thought “God said put a church on it!” And so it was. This along with many of the otherworldly locations for monasteries and cathedrals was another piece of the pilgrimage puzzle. Albert’s leg wasn’t going to allow him to make the trek to the bottom, or the top on the other side (1000+ pedometer steps), so Lori, Mike and I left him for a couple of hours. We rang the bell at the top of the monastery and headed back.
Once in the car we were headed for our accommodation somewhere just outside of Bilbao. Our GPS couldn’t find it but the Google on Mike’s phone did and we arrived through a very narrow, hedged, laneway to a very modern agriturismo house/pension.
The owner met us and was super charming, a very proud “Basque” who designed his house to last for centuries. The nearby city of Bilbao was once a ship manufacturing centre, iron and steel fabrication was huge for the Basque people. So his house was designed and made with steel, concrete, tile, and featured an outside wall with iron sheeting giving it a rusted patina that was to express the Basque traditions and history. The house was lofty with a suite that he and his family lived in. The two story accommodations that we had, featured locking bedrooms upstairs each with a modern ensuite and a glass wall that opened on to a large balcony. I think there were about 6 bedrooms rented. The main floor featured two floor to cieling glass walls with one being an enormous sliding door opening onto a covered deck. This made the indoor room become an open airy covered outdoor room. The inner room was decorated with comfortable couches and two long dining tables and outside had pallet furniture and big pillows. A modern communal kitchen was ours to use as well.
Our farm hosts grew tomatoes and we had a tour of the facility before we left. They produced 80 tons of hydroponic greenhouse tomatoes each year on about 1/4 acre, and managed to go surfing for two months in the Canary Islands in the dead of winter. The dinner that we cooked that night featured tomatoes that they offered, and when we left they loaded us up with more. Good thing we had a car.
The next morning we picked his brain on how to do the town of Bilbao in about an hour because we were headed for Burgos that evening. He looked dismayed, being a proud Basque, and said we should skip Burgos. We didn’t and we aren’t sad about that but Bilbao blew our minds. He told us that Bilbao is undergoing a renovation. He was so proud that in 15 years the ugly part of the city had become modernized from the ruins and pollution of the factory shipbuilding era to a modern, artsy, educated and pretty city. He was proud that the city was still working with the plan, and that it was not corrupt and it had no debt. This was not the “Spanish way”. All this because a visionary mayor who conspired with the architects and planners that brought Bilbao the abstract Frank Gehry designed, landmark Guggenheim museum. As planned, it brought the tourism, which paid for the new buildings, transit, bridges, roads, green spaces, restaurants, etc etc. He said we must see the Guggenheim, but that is just one part of town. He said the subway was made of glass and very beautiful but we would have to return some time because it is a masterpiece on its own. Plus the old town is very nice with old Basque traditions and buildings. So we went and saw the Guggenheim, and were blown away by the museum, the bridges and the beautiful, well designed public spaces. And we left. We will come back to Bilbao area and spend some time there. We only had a taste, and it was good.
When we arrived in Burgos, we were too early to check into our apartment so we went to the Museum of Human Evolution. This museum is a big square box that is very modern in contrast with so much of the Burgos area that we saw that was ancient. In fact, the area is so ancient that the skull (reconstructed from bone fragments) of the “Gran Dolina” boy dating back 850,000 years, is housed in the museum. The Atapuerca dig, where these remains were found, is near Burgos but we were unable to go there. Too little time. Didn’t matter, the museum was full of great stuff. There was a replica of Darwin’s boat “The Beagle” and some readings from his book “On the Origin of Species”. And with all great museums, there were students in class being toured, schooled, immersed and probably assigned their reactions to all that was before them. We were full, we had seen alot that day with two cities in one day. We were off to find our accommodation.
One of the big reasons people travel to Burgos is because it has a huge cathedral, the Santa Maria, that is another stop along the Camino de Santiago. We saw many hikers, young ones with heavy backpacks, and old hikers who had day packs, so they probably had support along the way. We arrived at our apartment and outside the window was this same gorgeous church. We were in the centre of town, surrounded by restaurants, the cathedral, hikers, partiers, and we were about to make our own pilgrimage into the heart of the Ribera del Duero wine region.
This emerging wine region is to Spain as the Vancouver Island wine region is to BC but with alot more potential. If you google Spanish wine, you will more than likely see a Ribera Del Duero wine as one of the top 5 on the list. Spanish wines were not available or promoted for nearly 40 years when the country was run by dictator General Francisco Franco. Sanctions made it impossible to have these wines on the world stage and the knowledge to keep pace with the rapidly changing technology of wine-making was stifled by the autocratic Franco regime. When it did show up, the mainstream quality was usually over-oxidized Rioja wines most commonly from a popular producer by the name of Margues de Riscal. Their wines (and Spanish wine in general) have since benefited from embracing modern production techniques. The Ribera del Duero is quickly gaining popularity (both domestically and internationally) becoming known for its balance in fruit forwardness and dry, food friendly structure. We spent the night in our apartment, listened to the partying into the wee hours of the morning and set off the next day towards Amera del Duero. This city is in the heart of the Duero riverbank (ribero) region and houses many of the big winery’s that make the big full bodied Temperanillos of the region. We drove through the town and saw a sign for one of the vineyards, Martín Berdugo. Unannounced, we arrived and naively asked if we could taste or tour or both? They were very gracious, evidently drop in tours are not routine, but a very pleasant administrative type, took us on a tour of the facility. Harvest was starting the following week and there was a wine festival in the town on the weekend that they were preparing for, that we would sadly miss, so it was very generous of them to take the time. We took pictures, bought 5 bottles of wine between the 4 of us, and headed off.
Lori and Mike were heading back to Canada in two days so we were ultimately headed for the Mediterranean coast near Barcelona. We had a pretty relaxed two days drive so that we could experience some of central Spain’s high plateau. We booked a night at the Hotel des Vino in a small town called Cariñena about 30 minutes from the larger city of Zaragoza (pronounced Thare-a-go-tha – a real tongue twister for me at the time….) that I have since seen spelled Saragossa (English?). We plotted the route which was quite direct, but with my Micheline mapbook in hand, I saw some “scenic route” detours along the way and we hit the jackpot. Spain has its coastlines with the Pyrenees and the hills behind the Barcelona coast but we weren’t mentally prepared for the vast plateau between the west and east coast.
Having travelled in the US and Canadian deserts in Utah, California, Nevada, Alberta and BC, we felt we were repeating some of our North American travels. The white earth of the Spanish plain makes it just a bit different than North American desert. But the red earth made it like southern California, Arizona, Utah and Nevada. There were mesas pushing up and dropping down to winding creeks below. There were carved valleys with hoodoos like in the Badlands of Alberta. There were rolling hills with scrubby sage brush like in Kamloops, BC. and vast prairie like most of North America with corn, sunflowers and harvested white, red and grey dirt fields that grew onions, leeks and grains now shipped or stored elsewhere.
The hills around these flat areas were terraced with fruit orchards, grapes, olives and other vegetable and grain crops. As we got closer to some of the hills, we noticed there were dwellings built into the hillsides as well. Albert had read that with last summers 40+Celsius heat wave, cave owning people in France and Spain were renting their cool caves to families whose children or elderly were comprimised with the heat. Most of these dwellings that we saw looked pretty decrepit, and were possibly just used as storage, or not at all, we didn’t know.
We snaked along the scenic route and found ourselves on a mountain pass that went into the next wine region and our destination. The mountain pass was typically narrow, with tight corners over cliffs, where only one car might pass comfortably and we only met one or two trucks; thankfully. We kept being so incredibly overwhelmed at the vast quilted agriculture. The hills with their terraces were planted in varying ways to capture water, light and the best crops to fill those places. We had to stop. We had to take time to look. We stopped more than once. Then we said, “Enough!! or we will never get there!!”. We proceeded and rounded another bend to find we were on the top of a ridge with the same meticulous agriculture on both valleys below us. We all gasped “WOW, DID YOU SEE THAT?” at the same time. And kept going.
The village of Cariñena was a sleepy little working town that marked itself as the main destination in the Ruta del Vino del Cariñena. Reading about the region, we learned it is another Spanish up and coming region to watch on the world stage. Our hotel was a former wine production house that was more of a warehouse with a hotel now. It was surrounded with vines and harvest equipment. In town, we found a bar that had a restaurant who would feed us a meal, though the bartender looked worried when we asked. It was 8pm, they were open, and “please have a seat” was gestured without any English instruction. Then the chef arrived with a bag of groceries. Ha! The food was like a home cooked meal with local chilled red wine and pretty good. We were the only guests. The “chef”, who was originally from Morocco, came and chatted with us and tried to ply us with firewater. We obliged for one shot. The we got out of there.
We had to drop Lori and Mike at the train station in Zaragoza the next day so they could be near Barcelona in time to get their plane home. I couldn’t sleep so while looking online at accommodations I found some beachfront on the Mediterranean just south of Barcelona. Next day we changed the plan to driving Lori and Mike to Caseldellfels and another day of driving-touring to the coast. Perfect choice!!! With a stop for lunch and a look at the Roman Colosseum ruins in Tarragona, we pressed on to Casteldellfels where they were staying that night.
There was snow on the Calgary forecast for them returning to Canada so we had a lovely hot drive, walk on the sandy Mediterranean beach, beachside mojitos and left them to head to our accommodation.
Stay tuned….chilling at the beach…and Barcelona…coming up next post……
2 thoughts on “Salut France, Hola Espagne!!”
Thank you for a very inspirational travelogue. Took me thre mornings to read it slowly! What a wonderful trip.
Thanks Martin! We are behind in writing it!! HA!! Oh well. We head south tomorrow and we still haven’t finished our Europe journal.