The Basque Country: best beach

I’ve written so much about the gorgeous northern Spanish seaside town of San Sebastian in the Basque Country over the years that, this time, I thought I’d hone in on one of its (many) key features – its beaches. Specifically, its award-winning beach.

The Basque Country coastline stretches for 176kms (110 miles) along the Bay of Biscay, from across the border with France to the region of Cantabria, and is home to many spectacular beaches. From wild, windswept shores to idyllic golden crescents and fabulous urban sandy playgrounds, there are plenty of beautiful beaches in the Basque Country. However, for the third consecutive year, one of its beaches has been crowned the best in Europe. The winner is “La Concha Beach” which, as its name suggests, is shell shaped, and just one of three beaches in San Sebastian.

This city is often touted as the Basque Country’s gastronomic capital and its pintxos bars (Basque tapas bars) and restaurants are a must for foodies. While nights are spent bar-hopping and trying as many tantalising morsels as possible, days are spent lazing on one of the city’s beautiful beaches. You know, that sounds just like our holiday there last year.

La Concha is easily the most picturesque beach in the Basque Country.  A crescent of golden sand, hugging the edge of the city, it’s an idyllic city beach surrounded by lush green hills and the old town of San Sebastian and is a popular spot in summer when locals and tourists alike lay out their beach towels and enjoy sunbathing and splashing around in the shallow waters off the beach. In the evenings, locals stroll the beach’s beautiful promenade which has barely changed from the golden age of seaside resorts, alongside the Cantabrian Sea, lined with its famous white railings, and watch the sunset over the water. It’s still the place to take the sea air and is backed by gardens, a lovely old merry-go-round and a row of desirable beachfront hotels and residences that still yearn for the days when royalty strolled the shore every summer season.

La Concha is one of the city’s three beaches and, even before the award, was renowned as one of Europe’s most beautiful urban shorelines. Its perfect arch made it popular with Queen Regent Maria Cristina, leading her to declare it the summer capital of Europe. Looking at these photos, it’s hard to disagree!

The Basque Country: Vitoria-Gasteiz

We’ve been visiting the Basque country at least once every year since 2010, but not this year. I’m finding it hard to come to terms with this and keep looking at our respective diaries to see if I can squeeze in a week-end here or there. So far I’ve not had any luck.

It’s a poor substitute, but I decided I should write a few more pieces about the area and where better to start than Vitoria (Spanish) – Gasteiz (Basque), capital of the Autonomous Region of Euskadi which provides a heady mix of nature and culture, history and modernity, sports and gastronomy.

We’ve never stayed in the town but have often visited it during either the Vuelta a Espana or Vuelta al Pais Vasco, two professional cycle races. In fact, the first time we visited in 2011, the race finished in the newer part of town – rather less impressive – and we never saw its magnificent medieval Old Town until a subsequent visit.

Vitoria’s shield-shaped Old Town is surrounded by a fortified wall, set on a hill, that is the only elevation in the plain of Álavasits which probably gave the city its name. After being a Basque settlement first, then a Roman one, Vitoria was abandonned until more than eight centuries ago, when Sancho VI “The Wise” of Navarre  – I rather like that title – founded the city, which is a jewel of medieval architecture. In addition to the old timber-framed houses, there are superb medieval and Renaissance palaces, such as Bendaña, Casa del Cordón, Escoriaza-Esquivel, Villasuso Palace and Montehermoso Palace and it has not one but two cathedrals!

The treasures of the medieval centre are undoubtedly the Santa Maria cathedral, and the church of San Miguel, which presides over the Plaza de la Virgen Blanca (header photo), the city’s patron saint. Here some of the most typical streets of the old town converge with city’s 19th-century city expansion and it is surrounded by old houses with glass verandas. At its centre stands a monument commemorating the Battle of Vitoria, one of the more famous events of the Napoleonic wars, to which Beethoven dedicated his Opus 91.

The Gothic Cathedral of Santa Maria is not just any old church (Ken Follet researched scenes for the sequel to Pillars of the Earth here), it’s a 14th-century Gothic building with a 17th-century tower. Under the portico are three open doorways decorated with statues and reliefs. In the interior, chapels containing Gothic, Flemish and Italian Renaissance images include paintings by Rubens and van Dyck.

Visiting is a fascinating experience due to a unique “Open for Construction” project. Closed in 1994 because of serious “structural problems” someone came up with the idea of offering guided tours of the restoration process. Visitors don hard hats and follow the extremely knowledgeable guides along scaffolded walkways via serpentine stone staircases, from the crypt to the bell tower, where you’ll find marvelous 360 degree city views. If only I could find the photos I took on Dropbox!

Designated “The Green Capital of Europe” in 2012, Vitoria boasts the largest number of square metres of green space per inhabitant. A natural habitat that can be enjoyed by walking the Anillo verde, (the “green ring”), an extensive network of 47 km of green paths connecting the six major parks of the city, including the Florida Park, a beautiful urban garden just a few steps from downtown, and the wetlands of Salburua, a paradise for migratory birds.

Vitoria-Gasteiz will also delight art lovers. The city has several major museums, including the Bibat, which houses the Fournier Museum of Playing Cards. The city is known for the manufacture of playing cards and more than 6,000 cards are displayed in the museum.

There’s also the Museum of Archeology at Bendaña Palace, and the Artium, whose permanent collection is considered one of the best and most important contemporary collections of Basque and Spanish art (Miró, Picasso, Dalí, Chillida etc). Art also ventures into the open air, with gigantic frescoes that adorn the walls of some buildings in the medieval district.

In Plaza Arca, on the Calle Dato, half-way between the Plaza Nueva and the train station, there’s a bronze sculture called  “El Caminente” (the walker) which for the Vitorianos, is a symbol of the city. Created by Juan José Eguiazábal in 1985, it represents a person who’s arrived on foot in the city and likes it so much that he decides to stay.

Vitoria-Gesteiz, like everywhere in the Basque Country, is a gastronomic tour de force. In 2014 it nailed the Spanish Capital of Gastronomy award – no mean feat! Its cobblestone lanes are lined with a plethora of bars displaying a selection of the irresistible bite-sized creations (pintxos = tapas) which run the gamut from a humble tortilla to gastronomical mini-bites such as a coddled free-range egg with shaved truffles, which pair perfectly with an aromatic Rioja Alavesa or Txakoli, the indigenous young, fruity and sparkling white wine.

The city is also the capital of Alava which is home to Riojan wines. Indeed, the city’s a good starting point to venture into Rioja where you’ll find world-renowned wineries paired with impressive architecture, such as Ysios (by Santiago Calatrava) and  Marques de Riscal (by Frank Gehry), plus lovely old towns such a Laguardia, which we visited last year. There are further heritage sites including the Neolithic remains of Aizkomendi, Sorginetxe and La Chabola de la Hechicera; Iron Age remains such as the settlements of Lastra and Buradón; antique remains such as the settlement of La Hoya and the salt valley of Anana; and countless medieval fortresses such as the Towers of Mendoza and Varona. You know what, I think I need to plan another visit sooner rather than later!

 

 

 

 

 

Friday Photo Challenge – network

I’ve already established that I’ve muddled two Friday Photograph Challenges to come up with one of my own! But that’s okay, isn’t it? It’s just a way of showcasing some of our photographs. Here’s another one from my 2016 trip to Australia which I took on the drive from Melbourne to Sydney. It’s of the Gippsland Lakes, Australia’s largest and most beautiful inland waterways. The Lakes are a network of lakes, marshes and lagoons covering over 600 square kilometres separated from the ocean by coastal dunes known as Ninety Mile Beach.

Thursday doors #27

And here’s a few more from my recent trip to Palma de Mallorca which proved to be a positive treasure trove for doors, probably because there are so many churches!

Thursday Doors is a weekly feature allowing door lovers to come together to admire and share their favorite door photos from around the world. Feel free to join in the fun by creating your own Thursday Doors post each week and then sharing your link in the comments’ on Norm’s site, anytime between Thursday morning and Saturday noon (North American Eastern Time).

 

Postcard from Brussels

Aside from watching Le Grand Depart of the Tour de France 2019, my beloved and I re-aquainted ourselves with the architectural splendours of Brussels, and some of its fine dining establishments. Our hotel was centrally located, next to the Town Hall and behind Le Grand Place, perfect for pottering around the city’s largely pedestrianised cobbled lanes. Knowing the traffic would be hellish due to Tour road closures, we took the train from the airport to the main station and walked the half a kilometre or so to our hotel which was an oasis of air-conditioned calm – sheer bliss.

Not to be left out, the hotel had embraced the spirit of the Tour with a couple of Merckx bikes, one in the restaurant and one in the bar which also had a signed photo of Eddy on its walls. This was aside from all its references to The Adventures of Tintin, a series of 24 comic albums created by Belgian cartoonist Georges Remi, who wrote under the pen name Hergé. My beloved and I fondly remember the tales of Tintin, Snowy, Captain Haddock, the Thompson Twins (called the Dupont Twins in French). 

Aside from it being 50 years since Merckx won his first of five Tours, 100 years since the introduction of the yellow race leader’s jersey, it was also the 90th anniversary of Tintin’s debut, 50 years since the moon landing and 10 years since the opening of the Hergé Museum. That’s one hell of a lot of celebratory cakes or, as we’re in Brussels, celebratory chocolate! Fortunately it was too hot all weekend to be tempted by any of the wonderful chocolate shops, not even those of Pierre Marcolini.

Having arrived later than anticipated we unpacked and headed out to find a place for dinner. We didn’t have to stray too far before we found one that fitted the bill: traditional Belgian fare, long-established family business and the obligatory white linen tablecloths. We were not disappointed. My beloved indulged in mussels and chips (with mayo) – well we were in Brussels – and they were delicious! I may have had one or two…….just to substantiate his claims.

It was evident from the languages being spoken that many cycling enthusiasts the world over were in Belgium for the start of the Tour de France. It was going to be a full house for its first couple of stages. Sated we wandered back to our hotel and a good night’s sleep.

After breakfast, we headed out to the Brussels Expo on the train to collect my press accreditation. Brussels Expo comprises 12 exhibition halls on the Heysel plateau. The five emblematic Art Deco style halls (5, 4, 6, 2 and 10) built around the lake (facing the Atomium) are a legacy of the 1935 World Fair and are truly imposing structures. We hot footed back to our hotel just in time to see the peloton roll past on their way out of town.

We lunched in the hotel bar and were royally entertained by a series of wedding parties exiting the nearby town hall. Tempting though it was to watch the finish live, we had already viewed the packed crowds at the finish this morning before the stage had even started, we opted to experience it in air-conditioned comfort on the large screen.

The hotel had a highly-rated restaurant where we ate dinner after expending a few calories in the gym. Dinner did not disappoint and we went for a slowish amble round town to enjoy its many splendours. Le Grand Place was smaller than I remembered and more gilded – more finery perhaps in honour of Le Grand Depart. However, I had not forgotten how painful it was to walk on those cobbles and had packed uber-comfortable shoes! We even popped into the hotel where we’d last stayed – still splendid – for a nightcap.

The following morning we met up with some cycling friends and walked to the stage start in the Place des Palais, enjoying hospitality in the Village du Depart where we lunched courtesy of 21st Century. We greeted a few more friends in the Bus Paddock, watched the first couple of teams roll off of the starting ramp before continuing our ramble round Brussels, this time taking in the area around Le Petit and Le Grand Sablon. As the crowds began to disperse it was much easier to take photographs of the buildings and their splendid architectural details. Brussels is, of course, home to a number of fine museums but we preferred to continue wandering around in the sunshine.

Again, we watched the conclusion of the stage in our room and visited the gym before heading out to find another restaurant for dinner. We’d spotted a couple of likely candidates on our many walks but these were both closed on Sunday evening. However, one nearby looked promising, and it was. After a delicious dinner, we continued our perambulations before returning to the tranquility of our hotel and another good night’s sleep.

Monday morning allowed us to continue our investigations on foot. The crowds had greatly decreased as the tour circus had left town, sadly most of the museums are closed on a Monday, providing us with an excuse to return. After lunch in the hotel bar, my beloved left by train for London while I flew back to Nice where a security alert had prompted a comprehensive passport check which involved a 45 minute wait in an area where the air-conditioning had caved. Emerging hot and bothered, it was good to see the friendly face of our driver Christophe. Home sweat, sweltering, home but at least my beloved’s presence wasn’t raising the temperature a couple of degrees more.

 

 

Postcard from Brussels: Le Grand Depart

Last week-end we were ostensibly in Brussels for Le Grand Depart of the Tour de France. However, I did have a hidden agenda. Brussels is another town that I haven’t visited in over 20 years! On our one and only visit all those years ago I was totally charmed by all the Art Nouveau wrought ironwork which I later discovered was largely the work of architect Victor Horta – more of which much later. This time I’m back for a closer look, but first, Le Grand Depart!

We generally arrive in time to attend the team presentation and most of the team press conferences, but not this year as my beloved had only just managed to shoe horn this trip in-between business trips to Italy and London. Also, because of our forthcoming trip to Australia, we won’t be dropping in on any further Tour stages. Mind you, we’ll probably make up for it next year when Le Grand Depart is in Nice.

I’d timed my arrival on Friday afternoon to coincide with the BORA-hansgrohe team press conference where I’d hoped to snatch 10-15 minutes with Peter Sagan’s wingman, Daniel Oss. Sadly, our Sleazyjet flight was delayed and I arrived way too late to nab anyone. You might wonder why I didn’t target potential 7-times green jersey wearer, Sagan. I’ve already interviewed him and he paid me an immense compliment by saying that I posed him questions no one else had ever asked!

For those of you who aren’t cycling fans. The Tour de France is big, really big. It’s the biggest annual sporting event in the world. That’s the first thing that hits you. There are 4,500 people working on it, and only 176 of those are riding. There is no other annual event, not even other bike races, that comes close to this scale. Yes, there are two other Grand Tours, the Giro d’Italia and the Vuelta a Espana, yet they are family affairs in comparison rather than this State-like occasion.

Everytime I visit the Tour, I’m always impressed with the level of its organisation, it’s superb. I’m beginning to suspect that ASO’s secret is a very low level of staff turnover. Even the volunteers return year after year. Though, much as I enjoy the Tour, I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t want to spend my summer holidays working at it every year.

I’ve been fortunate to attend a number of Grand Departs. My first was in London in 2007, followed by Monaco in 2009 where, working as a volunteer, I scored a great gig. I looked after HRH Prince Albert’s VIP guests. Next up was 2014 in Yorkshire where the crowds had to be seen to be believed. In 2015, we sweltered in the heat in Utrecht. 2016 saw us dodging rain in Normandy, and again the following year in Duesseldorf, Germany. Last year the weather was glorious in Brittany, and again this year in Brussels. Next year, Nice will most likely be my Tour swan song.

The staging of this Grand Depart paid tribute to the maiden Tour victory, 50 years ago in July 1969, of the Belgian legend Eddy Merckx who was omnipresent in the first few stages, particularly the first stage which passed through WoluweSaint-Pierre, where the five-times Tour winner grew up.

On Saturday, the peloton rode round the city’s narrow cobbled streets before heading out through Molenbeek and then Anderlecht, in the direction of the Mur de Grammont (which was also part of Eddy Merckx’s first Tour route). Riders then raced towards Charleroi, crossing a section of cobbles before heading back towards Brussels. They rode past the base of the Lion’s Mound, the battlefield where the defeat of Napoleon’s troops was set in motion. The last stretch of the route paid hommage again to Merckx as riders traversed the streets where Eddy first learned to ride a bike… as well as where he earned his first maillot jaune. Coincidentally, it’s also the 100th birthday of the yellow race leader’s jersey.

We watched the race start which filed past our hotel after we’d been to the Brussels Expo on the train to collect my press accreditation.

profil-general-etape-01

Sunday we met with some of our many friends from the world of cycling and scored a VIP pass for my beloved so that he could join us in the Village du Depart – much upgraded and enlarged this year – and the Bus Paddock. This enabled us to briefly catch up with some of the riders and team staff we’ve gotten to know over the years.

The organiser typically likes to see the leader’s yellow jersey changing hands during the early stages. And, after the first stage was won by the poisson-pilote (lead out man) of one of the more fancied sprinters, someone who didn’t feature on anyone’s radar, it was (wrongly) assumed that the team time-trial would produce a new race leader. But, the previous day’s winner was in one of the more highly ranked time-trial teams who’d recently recruited a four-time world time-trial champion. Not for nothing is German Tony Martin nicknamed the Panzerwagen. This marginal gain helped Jumbo-Visma to pip all the other teams to the post.

The wide streets of Brussels had provided the ideal route for an impressive team effort, with few turns and a series of false flats, that truly tested riders’ technical skills, terminating at the Atomium, built for the Brussels World Fair in 1958. So the jersey stayed firmly put on the broad shoulders of Holland’s Mike Teunissen for another day.

The newspapers estimated that 500,000 people were in Brussels to watch Le Grand Depart and it was true! Not that I counted them but the place was jam-packed with tourists and fans. Brussels put on a good show, not dissimilar to that in Leeds in 2014, making me wonder whether Yorkshire’s Sir Gary Verity had been acting as a consultant. But no in the land of cycling and Eddy Merckx, there’s an excess of expertise even if they also called their volunteers « Tour Makers. »

Awesome Blogger Award

If someone gives you an award for being awesome, you’re not going  to say “NO” are you? Well I’m not, particularly since  – and you may find this hard to believe – it’s my maiden award for Awesomeness!

So huge, huge thanks to Joshua for nominating me for the Awesome Blogger Award. It’s most kind of him. Please check out Joshua’s blog and maybe give him a follow, you won’t regret it!

Of course, it’s always worth checking out exactly what “AWESOME” means:-

adjective
1. extremely impressive or daunting;
2. inspiring awe

I’m all for inspiring some awe!

<><><><><><><><>

Here are the rules…

  1. Thank the person/blogger who nominated you.
  2. Tag your post with #awesomebloggeraward.
  3. Answer all the questions given to you.
  4. Nominate at least 5 bloggers and inform them of their nomination.
  5. Give them 10 new questions to answer.

And here are Joshua’s questions:-

1. Do you play sports?

Beloved BMC

Do I play sports? Yes, I do. I’ve played lots of sport over the years: cricket, football, tennis, swimming, squash, hockey, volleyball, netball, trampolining but now I just jog (slowly), do yoga and ride my bikes.

2. Who’s your favorite author?

I have a few: Evelyn Waugh, Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Kazuo Ishiguro.

3. Do you have a watch?

I wear (and treasure) a watch my husband bought me over 30 years ago with his year end bonus.

4. What is your favorite juice?

I’m not a fan of juice. It’s very acidic and hence very bad for my teeth, plus it’s full of sugar.

5. What do you like about blogging?

The freedom – I can blog when I want, where I want and about whatever I want.

6. If you had a pet rabbit, what name would you give it?

Flopsy, Mopsy or Cottontail which are the names of Peter Rabbit’s triplet sisters. All these characters were created by Beatrix Potter whose books I loved as a child. While their brother is naughty, Flopsy, Mopsy, and Cottontail are good little bunnies, who do as they’re told. 

7. What is your very first memory?

We were on holiday on the Isle of Wight and I remember jumping down the stairs in the garden in front of the hotel. I was 18 months old.

8. Do you like fried food?

Who doesn’t like fried food? Sadly, it’s not good for me so it’s only a very occasional indulgence.

9. For what purpose are you living for?

Sometimes I wonder but it seems one of my purposes is to make life much easier for my beloved husband! If you don’t believe me, read some of my posts about him.

10. What’s your favorite colour and why

Orange because it’s a happy, summery colour. It’s a great colour for accessories as it goes with many other colours I wear.

<><><><><><><><>

My nominees are quite frankly anyone who’s bothered to read my post. In my book that makes you “Awesome.”

Here are your questions

  1. If you could make one book required reading for all your friends and family which one would you choose and why?
  2. Which sport would you most like to try and why?
  3. If you could transform into any (wild or domestic) animal, which one would you choose and why?
  4. Link to a photo/blog post/tweet that you are especially proud of and explain why you’re proud of it.
  5. If I were coming to dinner what would you cook for me? (Remember I’m a fish-eating vegan).
  6. What object best evokes childhood memories and why?
  7. How do you like to relax?
  8. What constitutes your dream job and what are you doing to achieve that?
  9. Give one (or more) example(s) of your awesomeness.
  10. What do you like best about getting awards?

<><><><><><><>

Thanks for bearing with me! And, remember, we’re all awesome in our own ways!

It’s la Fête nationale today!

In the English speaking world it’s called Bastille Day but here it’s known simply as le 14 juillet. The French national holiday commemorates the storming of the Bastille prison in 1789, a pivotal moment in the French Revolution. What began as an angry mob of anti-monarchists looking for ammunition against royal authoritarianism turned into an enduring symbol of that revolution and today’s national celebration of the French tripartite motto liberté, égalité et fraternité. Celebrations, including firework displays, are typically held throughout France and it heralds the start of the month-long French holidays.

President Macron will be hosting the oldest and largest regular military parade – much envied by Trump who was present last year –  this morning on the Champs Elysees in Paris which is always worth watching, if only on the television. I assume my invite for this year’s celebrations got lost in the post!

 

It’s all change at Nice’s main station

One of the things I love about living in France is its constant investment in infrastructure. In the fifteen years we’ve lived here, pretty much everywhere has benefited from urban renewal. None more so than one of the city’s main arterial roads, rue Jean Medecin. I recently described the renovation of the old station Gare du Sud but, more excitingly, just a few hundred metres down the road, further redevelopment is taking place.

The main railway station in Nice Côte d’Azur (8 million passengers a year – 11 million expected by 2020), Nice-Thiers station was built in 1870. The arrival in 2023 of the new high speed network, the reinforcement of the TER (second largest in France after the Ile-de-France) as well as the development of the tramway network, highlight the importance of the redevelopment of this station. The aim is to create a real multi-modal exchange hub, which will meet the evolving transport needs of the city’s inhabitants and visitors.

Work on the passenger building, services and access to the platforms was completed at the end of 2015. A second phase of works, to integrate a commercial space into the junction with the tramway is planned for delivery by 2020.

These works will not only upgrade the station but will also revitalise the neighborhood. The planned construction of a mixed-development complex  will be housed within an “Iconic” building designed by Daniel Libeskind, the architect of Groud Zero’s “Master Plan” in Manhattan and the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto.

The 40 metre high structure will be made of concrete, steel and glass (imagined in the header photo above) and will be reminiscent of a multi-faceted diamond.

Libeskind claimed:

I was inspired by the mineral forms of azurite, a harmonious crystallization to create a building that can be seen from all angles and thus help to remove the border between these two parts of the city. It will also serve to reflect the city, the light and the landscape.

On a footprint of 6,500 m2, this building will have 19,000 m2 over six levels. The ground and first floor will house 6,000 m2 of shops. The other levels will house 3,000 m2 of office space, a Hilton hotel with 120 rooms and a 1000 m2 fitness room, and a 600-seat auditorium – something the city currently lacks.

The development will not only unite the north and south of the city but will also, amd more importantly, regenerate the neighbourhood. This is one of the bolder station redevelopment projects ever undertaken and represents a significant investment for the city.

 

(Header: Daniel Libeskind et ­l’agence Février Carré. © Studio Libeskind)