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An Epicurean Odyssey: Galicia part I (incl A Coruña)

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By just about any metric Galicia is the most remote region of Spain. It occupies pretty much all the land between the northern border of Portugal and the Atlantic Ocean and is far from the peninsular connection to continental Europe. Like most of Spain, Galician culture represents an intermingling of the original Celtic people who colonized the Iberian peninsula and the Romans who conquered them in the second century B.C. The region was further molded in subsequent centuries by occupations by Germanic tribes, Visigoths, and Moors. The local language, Gallego, bears so many similarities to Portuguese that many linguists question whether it is a Spanish or a Portuguese dialect. Aside from all these unique features, Galicia is the most oceanic of all of Spain's regions and has a cuisine dominated by shellfish and mollusks. Galicia's remoteness, mysteriousness, and reputation for delicious seafood have drawn me to the region ever since I became seriously interested in traveling and I was very excited to finally have the opportunity to satisfy my curiosity.

Despite my fascination with Galicia I had never heard of As Catedrais Beach before I did my advance research for the trip. It was clear it would be a shame to travel all the way to Galicia and miss this unique natural phenomenon. Before going it is important to be aware only 5000 people per day are allowed to visit the beach and permission can be obtained up to thirty days in advance. Much of the beach including the cathedral arch rock formations that give the beach its name can only be accessed during low tide. Advance authorization and tide times are available here.

When I planned our visit, I pictured our family strolling along the windy, rocky coast of Galicia passing through the stone arches in a tableau of solitary beauty. As happens quite often with travel, the reality turned out to be quite different. We arrived at a very congested parking area and it took a half hour to get through the queues of cars and wedge ourselves into a narrow space between two RV's. The views from the boardwalk to the west of the beach were quite pretty, but once we arrived at the entrance to the beach we realized that 5000 people is actually a very large number especially if they all show up at the same time of the day.

Once we got down to the sand I didn't know which direction to go to see the cathedral arches. We walked several minutes in each direction and couldn't find anything, and then started asking people none of whom seemed to have any clue what I was talking about. I had to clamber all the way back up the stairs to the person checking tickets to learn that the arches are all the way at the far eastern end of the beach. Once the kids were on the beach all they wanted to do was play in the sand and they couldn't understand why I kept making us walk further and further down the shoreline.

The walk to the arches ended up being a half kilometer hike requiring traversal of large rocks and navigation of several pools. The obstacles hadn't deterred several hundred other beachgoers who were busily filling their Instagram pages with cathedral arch selfies. Besides the arches there were several interesting caves and crevasses in the rock. It was quite a beautiful place even if it wasn't the idyllic, romantic natural tableau I had envisioned.

By the time we had changed the kids and shaken off the sand we were already exhausted. It was just late afternoon but we'd already toured old Oviedo, explored Cudillero, and hiked the whole length of Cathedral Beach. Nevertheless I was reluctant to give up my last stop on the day's itinerary. Mondoñedo is a small town on the inland route to A Coruña that has a reputation of being especially pretty and typical of Galician culture. When we arrived on Sunday evening there were very few people in the streets but a surprising amount of traffic on the main thoroughfare. There was an impressive cathedral for such a small town and some lonely, atmospheric streets. The obligatory stop in Mondoñedo is at O Rei das Tartas to buy the eponymous tart made from pumpkin jam, chopped almonds, and candied fruit.

Thanks to the stop in Mondoñedo we got into A Coruña very late. Despite a dark staircase with peeling paint and remarkably large spiders on the walls, the Airbnb was quite pleasant on the inside. Hardly any restaurants seemed to be open on Sunday night and we ended up at a Chinese place downtown. I was a little disappointed to begin our experience of Galician cuisine with generic Chinese food but given the hour and lack of options we had to prioritize sustenance over cultural exploration.

Thanks to our late arrival we only had the morning to see A Coruña. Our first stop was the municipal market to see the amazing tableau of seafood I had been anticipating from the beginning of the trip. What we found was ... nothing. The market was open but the seafood counters were completely empty and abandoned on Monday morning. No one goes fishing on Sundays. A few butcher and produce stalls were open but it was such a shadow of what we had hoped for that we immediately retreated to the car and headed for the old town.

A Coruña is an oddly shaped city that resembles a polyp sticking out into the Atlantic at the northwestern corner of Spain. On the northern side of the stalk of the polyp is the beach and on the sheltered southern side is the port. Between the two lies the old town with most of A Coruña's tourist attractions. The main exception is the Tower of Hercules, a restored Roman lighthouse at the northern end of the peninsula.

An architectural touch that A Coruña is known for is the enclosed balconies that cover the facades of the townhouses that line the port area. These galerias were designed to protect the balconies from the cold Atlantic winds and quickly became popular in the modernist period of the late 19th century.

The centerpiece of the old town is Praza de María Pita, a large open square fronted by A Coruña's enormous town hall. In the smaller streets around the square we found a good seafood restaurant to assuage the pain of having missed the covered market. Afterwards we viewed the ornate Iglesia de San Jorge in its baroque splendor.

Before leaving A Coruña we drove to the Tower of Hercules. This structure is often described as a Roman lighthouse and the oldest operational lighthouse in the world, but it has been rebuilt several times and the current structure is only a couple of hundred years old. The tower is so pristine now it looks like it could have been constructed yesterday, and it certainly has little in common with other Roman remnants in Europe and the Middle East. Towards the shoreline is an enormous blue mosaic compass that represents the different directions of the world in which the Celtic peoples have migrated. It was amazing to watch the kids playing on this isolated spot at the edge of one of the most treacherous shorelines in the Atlantic.

We hadn't rushed ourselves in A Coruña and now we were facing a stark choice. We could either spend the afternoon visiting fishing villages in the jagged coastal area around A Coruña, or we could venture back inland to the walled city of Lugo. In the end the thought of Lugo's perfectly preserved Roman walls was too much to resist. We jumped back in the car and set a course southeast.

Posted by zzlangerhans 14:56 Archived in Spain Tagged travel blog tony friedman a_coruna mondonedo cathedral_beach as_catedrais Comments (0)

An Epicurean Odyssey: Cantabria and Asturias

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Within a few minutes of leaving Bilbao we were already out of Basque Country. Cantabria is a mountainous region on the Atlantic coast that few international travelers have heard of, let alone visited. Our inclusion of Valencia and the Dordogne into this trip meant we didn't have time to spend even one night in Cantabria, but we had most of the day to explore at least the coastal highlights of the region. Our first stop was Santander, the largest city and regional capital. Given that it was Saturday our first priority was to locate and explore the covered market, an important part of our travel experience that had been somewhat lacking on this road trip. Fortunately Mercado de la Esperanza proved to be the best market we encountered on the Spanish section of this trip and was eclipsed overall only by the beauty in Biarritz.

The two-level market was humming with activity when we arrived. Outside the main building were a number of produce stalls covered by canopies. Staircases led downward to the seafood market on the lower level which was filled with determined shoppers circling counters laden with innumerable varieties of fresh, gleaming fish and shellfish.

On the upper level we found more produce as well as beautiful delicatessens and a couple of snack bars. It was way too early to find anything substantial to eat but we were able to get enough into our stomachs to tide us over until lunch time.

After striking out in every Spanish city since Valencia, we'd finally struck market gold in Santander. However, we weren't finished with the city yet. I was excited to check out Santander's answer to Azkuna Zentroa, the Centro Botín. The cantilevered exterior of this futuristic cultural center proved to be even more striking than its Bilbao counterpart. The outside of the building is surrounded by a maze of observation decks on multiple levels, eventually leading to the roof with views of the town and the Bay of Santander.

It was a short walk through the Jardines de Pereda to downtown Santander. We spent a half hour walking among attractive modern townhouses mingled with a few remnants of the medieval old town, which had been largely destroyed by fire in 1941.

The best seafood restaurants seemed to be clustered in the Barrio Pesquero next to the fishing port south of downtown. We drove to the area and weren't disappointed. Marisqueria Casa Jose had pretty much everything we'd seen in the market on their extensive menu and we ate our heart's fill of all our favorite shellfish and fish stew. We were now a little behind schedule but it had been well worth it to make the most of a great Spanish coastal town.

A half hour west of Santander is the preserved medieval village of Santillana del Mar. Despite its name the town is set well back from the shoreline. By the time we arrived I was the only conscious occupant of our car and Mei Ling wasn't excited about waking up so I decided to go out exploring on my own. Our GPS had taken us to the back end of the village and car entry was strictly prohibited, so I parked at the side of the road as close as I could and set off down the cobblestone road that led into town. Once I entered I realized there wasn't very much to see. The old churches and houses were atmospheric enough but nothing we hadn't already seen on a grander scale in Cuenca and Aragon. Once I arrived at the center of town it was clear that every single person walking in the street was a visitor and that every single business in town catered to tourism. There may have been a native population there, but if they weren't in the tourism business they were keeping well out of sight. I took some photos to show Mei Ling and went back to the car. There would be much better places ahead to spend our time.

Close to the western edge of the Cantabrian coast, the fishing town of San Vicente de la Barquera enjoys a reputation as one of the more picturesque seaside towns in the area. We drove across the estuary via a scenic causeway but found little within the town that would seem to justify a stop. It seemed the town was probably much more scenic when viewed from a boat in the estuary with the Picos de Europa mountains in the background. There were surely decent seafood restaurants around as well but we had just finished gorging ourselves. Instead we passed through the town and paused on the northern bank of the Ría Brazo Mayor to take some photos of the medieval castle and church on the hill that rose behind the town.

And just like that we were out of Cantabria. We would be spending a little more time in Asturias, the next coastal region on the way to Galicia. Much like Cantabria, Asturias consists of a coastal strip with beaches and fishing towns as well as a mountainous inland with picturesque villages and ski resorts. The only two cities of substantial size are close together in the center of the province, Gijón on the coast and the capital Oviedo fifteen miles inland. We were staying in a modern apartment complex a good distance from the center of Oviedo, where there was no ambiance whatsoever but convenient parking right outside the front door. Since we would be pressed for time the next day, we decided our best opportunity to see Gijón would be to have dinner there that evening.

Gijón proved to be a good choice as there was an arts festival going on in the old town by the seaside and the streets and cafes were filled with people. It seemed that every table was covered with glasses of sidra, the traditional fermented cider of Asturias. It was so crowded that our attempts to find a table in a restaurant were repeatedly rebuffed. We resorted to Tripadvisor which came through with a very authentic Asturian restaurant just a couple of blocks from the pandemonium which was practically empty when we walked in. We were served hearty traditional food including some flaming sausages that fascinated the boys.

As usual for northern Spain our apartment lacked air conditioning but fortunately it was much less humid than it had been in Bilbao. We tossed the kids in the tub to remove several layers of grime that had accumulated over the last couple of days of heavy traveling.

In the morning we did our walking tour of Oviedo's old town. The entire neighborhood was unusually bright and well-maintained, almost as though the old quarter had been recently restored in anticipation of some major cultural event. Nevertheless the foot traffic was quite low on Sunday morning and on some streets it felt like we had the area completely to ourselves. The focal point of the old quarter was the Oviedo Cathedral, whose tall Gothic belltower could be seen at the end of almost every street in the area. We also passed the covered market which was of course closed.

Also in the heart of Oviedo is the Parque San Francisco, adjacent to the old quarter. This large and well-manicured green space boasts majestically tall trees, shady paths, bronze statues, and of course playgrounds. On the way into the park we came across a parade whose participants were wearing traditional Asturian costumes.


Across from the park is a bronze statue of Woody Allen which has stood in the middle of the street since 2003. The actor has been a long-time champion of Oviedo and was awarded the Prince of Asturias award the year before the statue was unveiled.

We had now been wandering around Oviedo long enough for the more touristy restaurants to begin opening for lunch. I had hoped to be back on the road at this point, but we decided it was better to eat now rather than risk being too late for lunch at our next destination. We browsed through the old town for a restaurant and eventually found one in an immaculate little courtyard with pastel townhouses, a polished flagstone floor, and a bronze statue of a woman and her donkey.

We were now well behind schedule but Oviedo had been worth it. We were lucky the market hadn't been open, or we might have had to scrap our next stop entirely. That would have been unfortunate because the fishing village of Cudillero proved to be another highlight of Asturias. The tiny village is protected from the forces of the Atlantic by a long seawall which forms a port. Within the port numerous small fishing boats and dinghies are anchored. The village rises up a hill from behind a large boat ramp, but most of the action is concentrated at the lowest level around the main road through town.

The village was obviously geared for tourism, but the vibe felt more like local Spaniards who were getting away for the weekend by car than international package tourists such as I'd seen in Santillana del Mar. Our chosen seafood restaurant felt very authentic as well, with succulent broiled zamburiñas and navajas. An industrial-appearing pump on the bar dispensed sidra into personal bottles and we had our first taste of the Asturian standard. I could see that sidra would have to be an acquired taste. The overall impression was musty or even fetid, and far from refreshing. Nevertheless it was a complex and savory flavor and I could see myself growing to like it over time.

I was a little stressed out once we returned to the car because we were behind schedule for Cathedral Beach, our first stop in Galicia. I had to apply for permits to visit the beach a month in advance and if we arrived too late for low tide we'd lose our one chance to see the famous stone arches that give the beach its name. Of course there was nothing we could do except get back on the road and hope for the best. The gods of travel would make the final decision on how our day would end.

Posted by zzlangerhans 06:06 Archived in Spain Tagged travel oviedo santander blog asturias tony gijon cantabria friedman cudillero santillana_del_mar Comments (2)

An Epicurean Odyssey: Bilbao

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Bilbao was the first city to feel like a real metropolis since Bordeaux. Wide boulevards lined with classical architecture greeted us as soon as we arrived. Our dismount at the Airbnb was a little hectic as Google Maps directed us to the wrong spot on the right street. There was nowhere to park, and by the time I realized we weren't at the right place I had already extracted the bags from the car with Mei Ling at the wheel ready to move the car if necessary. Rather than load everything back inside, I figured we couldn't be that far away and I schlepped all the bags down the sidewalk singlehandedly looking for the correct address. I found it about two hundred meters away but there was no answer to the doorbell. After a series of messages through Airbnb, our host's father eventually showed up and took me up a cramped elevator to a muggy, shabby fifth floor apartment. We knew in advance about the lack of AC but our luck from the previous accommodations that weren't climatized seemed to have run out. It was seriously hot inside. I threw open every window I could find, dumped the bags, and sped back out to the car where everyone had now been waiting almost an hour.

It was too late for the market and way too early for dinner so the obvious destination was the Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao's signature attraction for the last twenty years. The Guggenheim has been credited with singlehandedly revitalizing Bilbao from a decaying port city to an internationally recognized center of culture. We parked at the Zubiarte mall nearby and walked back through a large park towards the museum. The Guggenheim wasn't the only impressive building in the area. The enormous Iberdrola Tower projects straight upward from the contoured greenery of the park in solitary, glass-shelled splendor.

When we reached the Guggenheim, it was immediately clear that this was far more than just an unusually-shaped museum. While the building itself is captivating, what is even more impressive is the way the structure complements and interacts with the river, bridges, city and park that surround it. The perimeter of the museum is cleverly enhanced by several enormous and whimsical sculptures. On the terrace between the museum and the city stands Jeff Koons' enormous Puppy, coated in multicolored flowers. These flowers have to be changed twice a year and necessitate a complicated internal system of irrigation and fertilization. Between the museum and the river is Louise Bourgeois' terrifying spider Maman, its spindly legs projecting upward from the bulbous body and then spiking sharply onto the ground in full arachnid hideousness. Sculpture or not, it was difficult to look at Ian standing helplessly between all those legs like a discombobulated gnat about to be consumed. The great irony of the sculpture is that Bourgeois constructed it in tribute to her mother, a weaver, and it symbolizes the maternal values of nurturing and protection. Could Bourgeois really have been oblivious to the frightening presence of the giant spider or is she intentionally pushing the viewer to confront deep-seated yet irrational fears?

The Guggenheim is at the apex of a wide curve of the River Nervion, which ultimately dumps into the Estuary of Bilbao and then the Atlantic Ocean. The river is brown and murky yet teems with large, energetic fish that swim close to the surface of the water. Numerous bridges cross the river within the city and the museum is situated at the foot of one of the most iconic. The giant red gate over the green La Salve Bridge is a purely artistic embellishment that was added in 2007 to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the museum's opening. A little to the west is the Pedro Arrupe footbridge which provides beautiful views of the museum, the river, and the La Salve Bridge.

Going inside the museum was never a serious consideration. Apart from the steep admission price, we didn't feel like spending a lot of energy just to keep the kids from creating a ruckus. There had been more than enough to see and experience on the outside. Instead we headed to the kids' paradise just to the west of the Guggenheim with splash fountains, an ice cream cafe, and a huge playground. It seemed to be a popular gathering place for locals and tourists alike. We let the kids loose for about an hour until it was time for dinner.

We drove back to the Casco Viejo, Bilbao's old town, and emerged from a parking garage to find that dusk was settling. The difference between Bilbao and the other Spanish cities we had visited was very apparent. Whereas Zaragoza, San Sebastian, and Logroño seemed to have little interest in the rivers flowing through their town centers, Bilbao has embraced the Nervion with a wide promenade and multistory apartment buildings right at the water's edge.

The Casco Viejo was architecturally atmospheric but very commercial and tourist-oriented. Our highly-recommended dinner restaurant proved to be ordinary. Back at the Airbnb some of the day's heat had dissipated but the air was still heavy and humid. We all passed a restless and sweaty night.

For our full day in Bilbao we decided to tour the city on foot. We were directly across the river from Mercado de la Ribera which occupied a prime spot on the waterfront.

The market was decent but nothing out of the ordinary, which was something of a disappointment given that we were in the largest city on the Atlantic coast of Spain. Most of the foot traffic seemed to be tourists, indicating that the locals were finding better bargains in neighborhood stores and supermarkets. We had breakfast at a sizable food court attached to the market which had a good selection of appetizing pintxos that also seemed to be priced in expectation of a tourist clientele.

We strolled northward along the bank of the Nervion, enjoying the amazing mixture of colors and architectural styles among the buildings that lined the river. Eventually we arrived at Santiago Calatrava's uniquely beautiful Zubizuri footbridge. We had now experienced Calatrava's futuristic designs in three different cities on this trip. The Zubizuri is particularly controversial due to design flaws that led to numerous slip and falls as well as broken glass tiles.

By this point we had reached Castaños, a residential neighborhood on the eastern bank of the Nervion notable for particularly interesting and colorful buildings. We had become accustomed to beautiful and innovative architecture in Spain, but it seemed that in Bilbao there was something new to admire every time we turned a corner.

Castaños is also where the funicular begins its ascent to the top of Mount Artxanda. Artxanda is the closest to the city center of the mountains that surround Bilbao and the most urbanized. We were all in need of refreshment once we arrived at the top and found a cafe where we had some disturbingly fluorescent yet revitalizing frozen drinks.

The views from the overlook in the park were spectacular. We could see pretty much the entire city of Bilbao from the Casco Viejo to the Guggenheim. It was fascinating to see the interrelationship between the city and the amazing natural forces of the Nervion and the mountains.

In the park was a large sculpture suggesting a fingerprint. Although I later learned he sculpture was a memorial to the Spanish Civil War, at the time it struck me as a reflection on identity. Our fingerprints are a symbol of our individuality yet in the modern world they also represent the ability of governments and corporations to identify and track us, and thereby control us. So is our fingerprint our friend or our enemy? Perhaps I was spending too much time musing on dark themes instead of simply enjoying the way the sunlight and the view of the mountain range streamed through the gaps in the metal.

Back on ground level, we soon found ourselves opposite from the Guggenheim. This time we let the kids cool off a little in the jet fountains before heading inward to the modern part of Bilbao on the west bank of the Nervion. Once again we were awed by the unique lenticular shape of the Iberdrola Tower.

We soon ran into central Bilbao's largest urban green space, Parque de Doña Casilda, which was full of luscious vegetation, fountains, and swans.

From the park we set a course to the center of the modern neighborhood, passing several more exemplars of Bilbao architecture on the way. The number of different styles on display seemed unlimited, with the only requirement being that the buildings had to be both striking and beautiful.

The ten year old cultural center Azkuna Zentroa is yet another of Bilbao's temples of design. Philippe Starck designed an avant garde interior within the old municipal wine market while leaving the classical exterior largely intact. Within the lobby the upper floors appear to be supported by a grid of short columns, each of different shape and style. One of our goals was to see the rooftop swimming pool with the glass bottom, allowing a ground floor view of the swimmers. After searching all over the center for it we learned it was being renovated. We consoled ourselves with a light snack at the immaculate cafe in the lobby.

From here it was a short walk east through the most bustling section of modern Bilbao back to the Nervion and then the Casco Viejo. We still had some time for an enjoyable stroll around the old town before dinner and encountered a creative street musician playing music on drinking glasses. We did our very best to find authentic Basque food for dinner and struck out miserably, ultimately concluding that the Casco Viejo has pretty much been abandoned by the locals. It's a pretty place to walk around for a couple of hours but for food it's better to head to the eastern side of the Nervion.

We rose early the next morning to begin our drive along the Atlantic coast to Galicia. Our two day stop in Bilbao had been one of the highlights of the trip so far, despite the lack of memorable meals and market browsing. The city had been a visual feast of architecture, design, and natural beauty the likes of which we had rarely seen. These kinds of unexpected blessings are what make travel so enjoyable and addictive. No matter how much you plan, you never know for sure what's going to be around that next corner. We're far from the only travelers who have fallen in love with Bilbao. Here are some more blogs about Bilbao that I've enjoyed reading since we returned home.

Posted by zzlangerhans 04:00 Archived in Spain Tagged travel bilbao blog tony guggenheim casco_viejo friedman nervion artxanda azkuna_zentroa Comments (0)

An Epicurean Odyssey: La Rioja and Vitoria-Gasteiz


The autonomous region of La Rioja and the wine growing area of La Rioja overlap, but are far from the same thing. The wine grapes are grown predominantly in the valleys on both sides of the Ebro, with the largest subregions being Rioja Alta and Rioja Baja on the southern bank. There is also a small wine region on the northern bank of the Ebro known as Rioja Alavesa which is actually part of the Basque Country, and we headed there first on our only full day in the area. We enjoy wine but not enough to devote a full day to touring wineries, especially with the three little ones in tow. What brought us to Rioja Alavesa was the medieval walled town of Laguardia, which seemed like it might be the most interesting city in the region.

Just outside of Laguardia we stopped to admire Bodegas Ysios. This winery is more famous for its beautiful design and setting than it is for its product. The architect was Santiago Calatrava, who we were familiar with from the Ciudad de las Artes y las Ciencias in Valencia. The building has a surreal and striking appearance, with an undulating roof composed of enormous aluminum beams that create a pixelated appearance when viewed from the front.

Despite not having made an appointment to tour the winery, our curiosity got the better of us and we pressed on the buzzer at the front door. We could see people walking around the upper level through the huge glass panels but no one came to the door. I couldn't blame them. People undoubtedly show up off the road and ring that buzzer all day. We were content to walk behind the winery where we saw expansive vineyards with a backdrop of the rocky outcroppings of the Sierra Cantabria. There were innumerable bunches of unripe tempranillo grapes on the vines and we couldn't resist picking a few of the sour green spheres to pop between our teeth..

Back on the main road we took the turn-off to Laguardia and ascended to the hilltop citadel. From the mirador outside the walls we could see the winery we had just left as well as expansive views of the Rioja Alavesa.

We were delighted with Laguardia from the moment we passed through the walls. Perhaps because it was siesta time, the narrow pedestrian streets were quiet and peaceful without seeming abandoned. The buildings that lined the streets on either side were relatively tall, contributing to the sense of navigating a maze of canyons as we wandered through the town. Bright sunlight overhead and the omnipresence of greenery and brightly-colored laundry in the wrought-iron balconies created a cheerful atmosphere.

We took a break for lunch just outside the walls at Restaurante Amelibia Jatetxea, whose entryway was a shrine to Rioja wine. Then it was time to reward the kids with ice cream for having been upbeat and cooperative all morning.

At the northern end of the tiny town are some open squares and the imposing Torre Abacial and the Church of Santa María de los Reyes. We concluded that Laguardia was the most beautiful small town we had seen thus far on the trip, thanks in no small part to the lack of heavy tourist traffic.

We had now passed through most of the day in La Rioja and the closest we had come to a wine tasting was banging on the door of Ysios. We reviewed our options and decided our best option was the Vivanco Museum of Wine Culture outside of Briones, in Rioja Alta. Like Bodegas Ysios, this facility was surrounded by vineyards with a spectacular view of a medieval city on a hill.

Our experience inside was a good reminder of why we avoid museums when we travel. The kids tore around and made a god-awful amount of noise, and no amount of cajoling or threats made any difference in the way they behaved. Fortunately there were only three or four other visitors to disturb. I wasn't able to pay much attention to the exhibits, but the coolest part for the kids was a game where they got to squash projections of grapes on the floor by jumping on them. There was also the largest collection of corkscrews in the world, some of which had a phallic motif.

Vivanco is a winery as well as a museum so we finally had our opportunity to taste Rioja wines after we finished touring the exhibits. One unique aspect of the Vivanco winery is that they make wines from rare Rioja varietals. For most casual wine drinkers, the Rioja region is synonymous with Tempranillo grapes and it's true that Tempranillo makes up by far the highest percentage or even 100% of most Rioja wines. However, there are four other grapes permitted in Rioja wines: Garnacha, Graciano, Mazuelo, and Maturana Tinta. Garnacha was already familiar to us because it's the major constituent of Aragonese wines and also popular in France and Australia (as Grenache). I'd never heard of the others, so it was interesting to try wines which were purely derived from each of these grapes. And the verdict was ... they all tasted just about the same to us. We enjoy wine but we don't pretend to be connoisseurs, and I've never tasted a note of anything except grapes and alcohol in a glass of wine. How people detect cedar, coffee, plums and God knows what else in wine is something I'll never understand. Mei Ling and I certainly know what wines we like, and fortunately we usually agree, but it doesn't match up very well with the accepted hierarchies. The best thing about visiting wine regions is creating memories we can reopen any time we uncork a bottle from that area in the future.

We hadn't seen much of the Rioja valley geographically but we returned to Logroño that evening thoroughly satisfied with our experience. That evening we returned to Tapas Alley which was an even more riotous celebration of food than it had been the previous night. Then we took a last stroll around the center of this vibrant, engaging city eventually ending up at the warmly illuminated Cathedral of Santa María de la Redonda, looking even more beautiful in the dark of night than it had been in the sunlight.


Thanks to the heavy concentration of interesting cities in this part of Spain, we didn't have to drive far to get to our next destination. In fact, there was plenty of time to stop off at Vitoria-Gasteiz on the way to Bilbao. Despite being the capital of the Basque Country, Vitoria isn't even a blip on the international tourism radar that is dominated by San Sebastian and Bilbao. We love the change of pace that comes with visiting cities which aren't all about racing around to different attractions that are mobbed with tourists. We explored the more modern part of the city center first and found it pleasant and fairly typical of a Spanish mid-sized city.

Vitoria-Gasteiz starts to get more interesting as one ascends the steep hill that contains the medieval Casco Viejo. At the peak one is rewarded with the impressive Cathedral of Santa María de Vitoria, which was undergoing restoration at the time of our visit. Below the apex of the hill are a series of concentric oval levels with surprisingly wide and smoothly-paved roads. The levels are connected by staircases and escalators, giving the old town a very pleasing and symmetric geometrical structure. Navigating to our chosen tapas restaurant proved more complicated than we expected as we got the level wrong twice before we finally found it.

Lunch at La Malquerida was quite good, complemented by the alfresco setting in a small courtyard in the shadow of the Iglesia de San Miguel. I found myself in the unusual position of having to help a French backpacker who didn't speak any Spanish order his tapas, interpreting directly between two foreign languages I have far from a solid command of. In the area around La Malquerida the murals were vivid and electrifying, probably the best we'd seen on our journey.

We finished our descent from the Casco Viejo in Plaza de la Virgen Blanca, an atmospheric square dominated by a war monument and surrounded by beautiful buildings. The area was being set up for the annual city festival which would take place that weekend, but we would be long gone by then. It was time to move on to our next destination, the acclaimed and historic city of Bilbao.

Posted by zzlangerhans 13:51 Archived in Spain Comments (0)

An Epicurean Odyssey: Pamplona and Logroño

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The north of Spain has most of the smaller autonomous regions and over the next few days we were going to pass through all of them. We would have missed Navarre entirely if we hadn't decided to stop over in Pamplona, the only city in the region of any significant size. Navarre is closely related in culture and politics to the Basque Country on their western border. In fact, Pamplona is probably the most typically Basque city in Spain. The city is famous primarily for the annual Fiesta de San Fermín, popularly known as the Running of the Bulls. I had actually visited the city seventeen years previously for exactly that purpose, although my memories were limited to the run itself and a haze of partying in the streets. When we arrived on a sleepy Tuesday morning there was little that I recognized. Our first stop was the covered market Mercado de Santo Domingo, which was pleasant enough but contained little to distinguish it from any of the others we had seen.

Not far from the market is picturesque, cobblestoned Plaza Consistorial which is surrounded on three sides by colorful and dignified townhouses. On the northwestern side is the majestic Pamplona City Hall, which blends Neoclassical and Baroque styles.

Plaza Consistorial proved to be Pamplona's high point. We walked as far as the Monumento al Encierro, an enormous bronze sculpture that was installed in 1997 to celebrate the Running of the Bulls. On the way we passed Plaza del Castillo, a huge open square that was largely devoid of interesting sights or foot traffic.

It was way too early for a real lunch. We stopped by a couple of appealing tapas bars but ultimately decided we weren't in the mood for pintxos. We spent a little more time wandering around the narrow pedestrian streets of the town center and then got back on the road to the region of La Rioja.

We probably would have skipped Logroño and La Rioja if we didn't have a modest interest in wine, honed by prior travel through areas such as Puglia, Napa, and Côtes du Rhône. That would have been a tragedy. The next two days were among the most enjoyable that we spent in Spain. I wasn't familiar with Logroño before creating the itinerary for this trip but it seemed like the logical choice as a base to explore the region. Aside from having the largest daily market in La Rioja the city is reputed to have possibly the best tapas in Spain.

We'd missed the early lunch window between Pamplona and Logroño so our first priority was to find a table during peak hours, not a trivial task. Most of the recommended restaurants were on a single short street in the center of the old town, Calle del Laurel, which we referred to afterwards as Tapas Alley. As I expected it was difficult to find a place that could take the five of us but all we had to do was keep marching down the street asking in every doorway and eventually we were wedged in. Lunch was satisfying and included savory caracoles as well as our first taste of percebes (goose barnacles) since we'd visited Portugal four years previously. Naturally we washed everything down with sturdy Rioja wine.

Our Airbnb was a modern, air-conditioned apartment just a five minute walk from the old town. We got settled and then headed right back to begin our city exploration. The architectural highlight of Logroño is the Baroque Co-cathedral of Santa María de La Redonda. It's an impressive building with imposing twin belltowers and an open courtyard that attracts local soccer players.

In the northern part of the old town is the oldest church in Logroño, Parroquia de Santiago Real. It is a traditional stop on the Camina del Santiago and in the courtyard the flagstones are painted with pictures relevant to the pilgrimage. It appeared to be some kind of a game and Cleo was infuriated with me for not being able to figure out the rules.

Just north of here was the Ebro, the same river we'd encountered two weeks previously in Zaragoza. As in Zaragoza the river was brown and unappealing, and seemed to be largely ignored. The most interesting feature here is the 19th century stone bridge which leads to roads north out of town.

As in Valencia and Aragon, street art is a thing in Logroño. Expect to see something whimsical or disturbing around every corner.

Directly south of the old town is a small but pretty park. In the center is the Monument to General Espartero surrounded by a fountain and greenery.

Dinner was very late and consisted of a migration from east to west in the old town, stopping at various hole in the wall bars for tapas which we consumed on wine cask tables in the alleys. A large variety of wines by the glass was always available.

The daily market in Logroño was pretty sleepy on Wednesday morning which was a little disappointing, but it was nice to be able to walk around and take pictures without feeling like we were getting in the way.

The few restaurants on the upper level of the market hadn't opened yet, but fortunately there was an excellent tapas place open directly across the street. They had an amazing pincho consisting of gulas rolled in zucchini atop a slice of jamon. I used to think when I ate gulas that I was eating baby eels until one day I looked closely at a tin of the stuff in a Spanish market. It turns out that gulas are actually fake baby eels made from processed pollock, essentially the same stuff that goes into the surimi used to make sushi. Real angulas are very hard to find and enormously expensive when you do. In all likelihood I've never eaten the real thing but I'm not sure it matters, since by all accounts the flavor of either angulas or gulas is entirely imparted by the garlic and oil they are cooked with. If you want to know for sure whether you're having angulas or gulas, the easiest way to differentiate is whether or not there are tiny eyes at one end. But in reality, if you have to ask then you're eating gulas.

Posted by zzlangerhans 02:59 Archived in Spain Tagged travel tapas logrono blog pamplona tony la_rioja friedman navarre Comments (2)

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