Cosseted in the British countryside

I’m a big fan of The Four Seasons, not the four violin concerti by Italian composer Antonio Vivaldi, but the hotel management group. I’ve been fortunate to either stay in or visit a number of their hotels over the years – far too many to mention. You may find this surprising since I’m usually banging the drum for small, family-run businesses and these guys are at the opposite end of the spectrum. Or are they? I find that thanks to their excellently trained staff and philosophy, I always feel cosseted in their hotels.

The hotels they run are oases of tranquility with all the bells and whistles one’s little heart could desire. Despite the large throughput of guests, staff miraculously remember your name, and particular likes and dislikes. Nothing is ever too much trouble, not even my regime. The hotel whipped me up a scrumptious vegan afternoon tea at the drop of a hat!

I booked the hotel over a year ago because the wedding we were attending, which was a short car ride away, clashed with a Classic Car event at nearby Goodwood. I was also pretty certain we’d be the only wedding guests staying at this hotel thereby obviating the need to socialise further. I wanted a restful and relaxing week-end with my beloved which would serve as an early celebration of our (41st) wedding anniversary – where have those years gone? And, I think it’s fair to say, we achieved that.

We did however bump into someone we knew. Spookily, we’d only been talking about him five minutes before and were surprised to see him. I think that surprise was reciprocated though, of course, he may’ve wondered why his ears were burning.

The hotel grounds were enormous and despite my beloved’s leg, which was still painful, we had a very pleasant meander. We also enjoyed looking at the car porn. A number of guests had driven their Classic Cars to the event and you could see by their immaculate state that these were their pride and joy – all that gleaming chrome and immaculate paintwork.

We were not familiar with this part of the country, so spent an afternoon pottering around nearby Farnham, a pretty market town with bags of history, lots of interesting buildings and a good selection of shops and restaurants, the latter with many vegan options. Having eaten in the hotel restaurant on Thursday evening, we ate in Farnham on Saturday. No need to eat dinner after the mid-afternoon wedding luncheon on Friday, though we did have a couple of glasses of Rioja in the bar before retiring.

A copious breakfast was included in our room rate and my beloved enjoyed a full English most days while I enjoyed the selection provided for the hotel’s Middle Eastern guests. Fresh fruit, moutabal, salad and hummous for breakfast may not be everyone’s cup of tea but it certainly floats my boat.

A late check out allowed us to fully enjoy the hotel’s facilities, particularly in the Spa, before tucking into Sunday afternoon tea in the library ahead of our departure. It was a lovely three-day break and we enjoyed chatting about France, in French, with some of the staff, one of whom came from Nice.

When we checked out the receptionist asked me which other Four Seasons we’d visited. It was only as I started rattling them off that I appreciated just how many of them we’ve stayed at, or eaten at, and I thought about why. Largely because it’s a brand I trust. I know what I’m going to find, that’s often very comforting because I so don’t like surprises.

Looking back on our trip to Saint Jean de Luz

Saint Jean de Luz is a fishing port on the Basque Atlantic coast and a famous resort, known for its architecture, sandy bay, the quality of the light and cuisine. The town is located south of Biarritz, on the right bank of the river Nivelle, opposite Ciboure. The port lies on the river estuary while the resort nestles in a sheltered bay, just a few kilometres from the Spanish border.

The town’s wealth stems from its port and its past, as a fishing town and a haven for Basque pirates. Indeed, English sailors used to call Saint Jean de Luz the “Viper’s Nest”. The town’s prosperity peaked during the 17th Century when it was the second largest town in the region, just behind Bayonne.

The town is renowned for its royal wedding connections as Louis XIV married Maria Theresa, the Infanta of Spain, on 9 June 1660 in its cathedral, the main door of which was subsequently bricked off allegedly so no other couple could walk in their footsteps.

We’d previously visited the town on earlier trips to the Basque country, and had ridden all along the coast in both directions, but had wanted to stay here again for a few days to better get to know the town and enjoy the facilities of its Thalassotherapy centre in our hotel.

It might seem odd that, living as we do on the Med, we head to the Atlantic coast for a vacation but it is quite different. Saint Jean de Luz has a real bucket and spade family holiday feel to it, largely because of its beautiful sandy beach, which our stoney beach at home really doesn’t invoke.

We spent our five days here just pottering about, enjoying the fine weather, the beach, our hotel, the market and the largely pedestrianised town. We ate breakfast each morning in one of its many excellent patisseries, enjoyed lunch either in the hotel or out at another restaurant while dinner was largely a glass of wine and some tapas while listening to/watching entertainment put on by the town. While we much enjoyed our stay, five – seven days here are sufficient to really get to know the place.

Reflecting on our trip to Pornichet

We had gone to the start of this year’s Tour de France because it wasn’t far from La Baule, a place both of us had visited as teenagers. I’d enjoyed a delightful last holiday with my parents and sisters while my beloved had less pleasant memories, something to do with the sanitary arrangements! I booked a spa hotel in Pornichet in the bay of La Baule primarily because it directly overlooked the beach. I was after a few day’s rest and relaxation, particularly for my beloved.

I was interested in the history behind the original building and learnt that it had been built of granite in 1868 by a Belgian Viscount, in the gothic style, and christened Chateau des Tourelles by the locals on account of its circular towers. It was subsequently acquired in 1882 by a French arms manufacturer for 40,000 Francs. On his death in 1904, his son Louis Flornoy inherited the property but was forced to sell it, due to mismanagement of his fortune, to M Legrand, a local newspaper owner.

In 1938 the mayor of the 12th arrondissement in Paris acquired it to provide holidays for disadvantaged children. In 1940, without so much as a by your leave, the German army occupied the building. Post-war, it once more welcomed holidaymakers from Paris for the three months of summer but in the 1995s it fell into disuse and was closed. A family company, which already owned a couple of spa hotels, thankfully rescued it some 15 years later.

The new extension has been grafted onto the original historic building in a wrap around style which doesn’t swamp its beachside facade. Its bedrooms are spacious with large balconies, most of which have a sea view. The hotel’s main attraction is its thlassotherapy spa which proved beneficial for both my recently injured hamstring and my beloved’s still recuperating leg. We whiled away many an hour in its salty, warm waters.

Our four days passed far too quickly and we merely dipped a toe into the Tour as opposed to slavishly following every stage. We pottered along the seafront and around the small town of Pornichet but there was little need to leave our cocoon, our haven of tranquility. The beach in La Baule was pretty much as I remembered it, wide, golden and sandy, but nothing else in the town struck a chord with either of us.

We had lunched at the hotel on arrival. It had vegan options on the menu and the food was excellent. No need to stray too far for sustenance though we did try out a couple of the patisseries in town. Well, it would’ve been rude not to! As soon as we learnt the hotel did Sunday Brunch, we booked a table. This turned out to be a very fortunate move as Brunch was extremely popular, and not just with residents. As you’d expect, it included plenty of fresh seafood including oysters.

It’s a hotel we’d happily visit again, though next time I’d fly to Nantes and hire a car. It’s really too far to drive. The trip confirmed my happy memories and dispelled my beloved’s less than memorable ones.

In praise of our recent trip to Rioja

Architecture and Scenery

On our most recent trip, my beloved and I were very impressed with Rioja, a gorgeous region in northern Spain. We’d previously ooohed and aaahed over its more recent architectural delights such as the Frank Gehry designed Marques de Riscal winery and hotel which the sun tints every shade of wine. Though it’s not the only amazing combination of wine and architecture in Rioja. At the foot of the Sierra de Cantabria mountains, there’s the cedar clad Ysios winery which has an undulating roof, designed by Santiago Calatrava. Plus the late Zaha Hadid created a decanter shaped annexe for Bodegas Lopez de Heredia’s winery.

This time we visited the picture-perfect, old walled town of Laguardia, set atop a hill in the middle of a valley, with the Cantabrian mountains in the background. It’s surrounded on all sides by vineyards which offer a glimpse into the region’s wine making past and present. Founded in the 10th century as a defensive town for the kingdom of Navarra, this undoubtedly one of the most beautiful places in the region.

Apart from Laguardia’s two metre-high, 13th century defensive walls, its other main feature is its underground tunnels which kept its inhabitants safe during battles and allowed them to escape into the surrounding hillsides. Once the town no longer needed these for its strategic military position, the locals decided they were perfect for storing wine. We visited the tunnels under our hotel and they were the perfect temperature for storing wine, but I found them a bit claustrophobic.

Our hotel overlooked the town’s main square containing both the old and the new town hall buildings. On the new building, there’s a quaint pendulum clock where three figures come out to dance to a traditional song at certain times of the day. Crowds gather just before they’re due to dance. On either end of  the main street, there’s a church. On one side is the church of San Juan, a Romanesque building, and on the other, the church of Santa Maria de los Reyes, which has an impressive Gothic facade.

We much enjoyed meandering around the town’s narrow walkways and in the gardens outside the walls which contain a bust of local lad, the fabulist Samaniego, and a dolmen.

Food and Wine

The food in Rioja lives up to the wine that accompanies it. It’s fabulous on every level. In Laguardia alone there are 50-odd small pintxos bars plus a number of local restaurants, including the one in our hotel. I’ve previously written in praise of the food in Spain and it’s particularly true of the food in Rioja.

The region produces red, white and rose wines in its three principal areas: Rioja Alta, Rioja Baja and Rioja Alavesa much of which is subjected to the Rioja Protected designation of origin.

Rioja Alta

Located on the western edge of the region and at a higher elevation than the other two areas, the Rioja Alta is known more for its “old world” style of wine. A higher elevation equates to a shorter growing season, which in turn produces brighter fruitier flavors and a wine that is lighter on the palate.

Rioja Alavesa

Laguardia is in this area and, despite sharing a similar climate as the Alta region, the Rioja Alavesa produces wines with a fuller body and higher acidity. Vineyards here have a low vine density with large spacing between rows. This is due to the relatively poor condition of the soil with the vines needing greater distance from one another and hence less competition for the nutrients in the surrounding soil.

IMG_7654 (Edited)

Rioja Baja (Oriental)

Unlike the more  continental climates of the Alta and Alavesa, Rioja Baja is strongly influenced by a Mediterranean climate which makes this area the warmest and driest. In the summer months, drought can be a significant viticultural hazard, despite irrigation. Summer temperatures typically reach 35°C (95°F). Baja wines are very deeply coloured and can be highly alcoholic, with some wines reaching 18%. They typically do not have much acidity or aroma and are generally used as blending components with wines from the other areas.

It’s time to put my hand up and admit we did bring a few bottles of Rioja back to France with us.

 

Holiday photos: day 32

I can’t remember where but at some point in the holiday my beloved said we were enjoying a Tour du Vin. For once, he was right. Pretty much everywhere we went, rows and rows of vines were omnipresent. As I wrap up our holiday, three days late, I’m focusing in on the highlights of our four plus week’s holiday. As an aside, don’t you find the first few weeks of a long holiday pass quite slowly, while the second half just whizzes past? A bit like life!

In no particular order, although it may be chronological, here’s our highlights:-

1. Chateau anyone?

Our second overnight stop was at the Chateau de Beauvois in the utterly charming village of Saint-Etienne-de-Chigny. We had received an apologetic email from the hotel before we arrived saying that we wouldn’t be able to eat in the restaurant because of a function. Said function was someone’s 18th birthday celebrations. The hotel upgraded us to a larger room as far as possible from the function which frankly provided us with an evening’s entertainment in an idyllic spot. The hotel threw in a cold supper with champagne and generally couldn’t do enough for us. The only fly in the ointment was our inability to access the internet but we surmised with all those youngsters constantly taking selfies and sending them to those who hadn’t been invited that there was no bandwidth left!

We’d previously enjoyed a short stay in the Loire and visited some of its glorious chateaux and plan to return to discover more. This hotel would make the perfect base.

2. La Baule but not as we remembered it!

My beloved and I had both holidayed in La Baule as teenagers and were interested to see its transformation. About the only thing either of us remembered was the lovely, wide sandy beach. Our base for the first few stages of this year’s Tour de France was Chateau des Tourelles in Pornichet in the bay of La Baule. The hotel was right on the beach and had an amazing thalassotherapy spa and a great restaurant. We had a sizeable room with a sea view and were reluctant to tear ourselves away to go and watch the Tour. It proved to be the perfect place to recharge our batteries and one we’d happily revisit.

3. Ooops!

We drove to Bordeaux and our delightful, highly rated B&B to discover no one was home! Booking.com kindly offered to cover any additional costs we might incur as a consequence, but we didn’t. Bordeaux exceeded our expectations and we’re planning a longer visit in either spring or autumn. However, the highlight of our trip was a happy coincidence. While walking round Bordeaux, I noticed an advert for a hotel and restaurant on a soon to be opened Lalique shop. When we got back to the hotel, I looked it up on the internet and made a booking for lunch the following day.

The hotel and restaurant Chateau Lafaurie-Peyraguey is slap bang in the middle of Sauternes’ vineyards. It had only opened three weeks ago and showcases Lalique’s huge range of products. The overall effect is magnificent. Lunch was sublime and I much enjoyed chatting afterwards to the chef Jerome Schilling who kindly adapted the day’s set luncheon to meet my exacting dietary requirements. We allowed the very knowledgable sommelier to choose the wines for each of our courses. We were reluctant to leave behind such perfection………next time.

4. I’ll have a glass of….

Our penultimate stop was in Rioja, a place we’ve visited from time to time with both the Tour of the Basque country and the Vuelta a Espana. This time we stayed in the delightful old town of Laguardia in a small, family run hotel, with an excellent restaurant and cellar. I may have mentioned that neither of us is particularly knowledgeable about wine, we just know what we like. We tasted a number of Riojan wines, red and white, and liked them all! Naturally, we bought some to bring back with us. I think a tour of this area would be lovely and it has gone onto our (ever-growing) bucket list.

5. Donostia

We first visited San Sebastian in 2010 and fell in love. Consequently, ever since, we’ve visited it at least once a year. This time though we rented an apartment in town for two weeks, close to the beach, so that we could visit all of our favourite haunts – too numerous to mention – and find some new ones. While my beloved popped back to London for a few days, I also enjoyed the San Sebastian Jazz Festival.

Most of our visits to the town have revolved around a bike race, usually La Clasica, held on the Saturday after the Tour de France has finished. We had friends riding in the race who both did their bit to animate the racing. This year’s trip had an added poignancy, we already know  that we won’t be able to visit next year because of other commitments. But we will be back!

 

 

Holiday photos: day 31

Three day hiatus for the Clasica San Sebastian, our return home the following day and then yesterday’s corporate video shoot of my beloved for his Chinese clients.

This was our ninth consecutive Clasica and it’s one of our favourite races on the calendar largely because of its location, field of quality riders and overall ambience. We’ve also ridden the entire parcours, just not all on the same day!

Using my beloved’s photos, here’s how the day unfolded, starting with the sign on which is always a good opportunity to catch up with the riders, staff, announcers, journalists and photographers that we’ve gotten to know over the years in a more relaxed atmosphere than say, the Tour de France.

 

The organisers have tinkered with the race route with over the years but it still aims to showcase the area’s beautiful beaches and landscapes, plus major attractions. We next caught up with the riders just over half-way through the race, on the first of two ascents of the famous Jaizkibel climb. The roadside was chock-a-block with fans, many enjoying lavish picnics.

Unless you’re familiar with the Basque country, you’ll fail to appreciate there’s very little flat and average gradients tend to mislead because they’ll always contain a few stinging ramps at over 25%. I speak from (bitter) experience. It’s a great place to cycle around simply because so many locals do, the roads are quiet and the traffic respectful.

After the peloton has toured the Basque countryside, it sweeps through the finish line before its assault of the final barrier. Unfortunately, 20km before the finish, a crash in the peloton either took out (Mikel Landa, Pierre Latour and Egan Bernal) or waylaid (Tony Gallopin, Izagirre brothers, Primoz Roglic, Greg Van Avermaet) a number of favourites.

Despite changes to the parcours three years ago, where the organisers added the final brutal Murgil Tontorra climb, the race is typically won by a rider exiting the Tour in fine fettle, after a successful attack near the summit of the last climb. This year was no different with former winner (2016) Bauke Mollema (Trek) counter-attacking just before the summit and, overhauling the duo upfront, rapidly followed by Musketeer Julian Alaphilippe. The latter won the sprint for the line with FDJ’s Anthony Roux best of a small chasing bunch.

That made it 36 out of 38 that a Tour rider had won the race, though Alaphilippe was the first to win Fleche Wallone, KOM jersey and the Clasica in the same year, underlining his versatility as a rider.

Alaphilippe was rightly delighted with his victory and chose to wear the Basque black beret (txapala) at a rather jaunty angle – very French! One of those from the early break, Cyril Barthe (Euskadi-Murias), won the KOM, intermediate sprints and most aggressive plaudits while Ion Izagirre was the best placed Basque rider. All in all it was a very enjoyable day’s racing.

 

 

 

 

Holiday photos: day 30

Often when my beloved and I cycle over to and around Monaco, we pick an expensive marque of car, such as Aston Martin, and count how many we see. Certain marques such as Porsche are ten-a-penny and have been dropped, as has Maserati and Ferrari.

We cannot indulge this in the Basque country, instead we count sets of twins. A phenomenon I noticed on our early trips where all those double prams and buggies contained siblings of the same age.

I probably haven’t been quite so diligent this trip largely because of my sore hamstring/knee which has hindered my usual swift walking to check the contents of said prams and buggies, however I’ve still spotted 11 13 sets of twins.

To further comfuse me the Spanish are fond of dressing same-sex siblings in identical outfits, which puts my twin antennae on high alert until I appreciate that one child is taller than the other and they’re just siblings, rather than twins.

I’m not sure why the incidence of twins is so high and I’ve asked Basque friends for explanations but they have none. I understand IVF often produces twins. Anyone have any ideas? Of course, I asked Google and it appears that twins are more common in Spain which is the  frontrunner in Europe for multiple births, and they’re on the increase! And yes, IVF is partly but not wholly the cause.

Holiday photos: day 29

I keep mentioning my favourite places for drinks, coffee, snacks, breakfast etc so I thought I’d break with tradition and share some of these with you. There are lots of great bread and cake shops, cafes and bars in San Sebastian and I think we’ve tried a fair few of them.

It was only once I started writing that I realised most of my recommendations below are in or near to my favourite square, Plaza de Gipuzkoa, a romantic and charming green space right in the centre of the city, designed by the prestigious French gardener, Pierre Ducasse. It’s home to a large number and variety of trees, flowers and plants, plus a pond with ducks and swans. It’s bordered by a number of important local buildings and arcades, plus houses:

  • a monument to local musician, Jose Maria Usandizaga
  • a temple-shaped stone weather station
  • a large white marble table indicating times
  • an enormous multi-coloured flower clock

and the surrounding arcades are home to a number of our favourite establishments.

Pasteleria Otaegui

This one has several branches and was set up in 1886 by the Otaegui family in 1886. It has really pretty shop fronts and sells bread, homemade chocolates, biscuits made with local walnuts and hazelnuts, coffee and chocolate eclairs, madeleines and cakes such as their version of Pastel Vasco, a Basque cake made with cooked pastry cream and lemon rather than cherry jam.

Pasteleria Aguirre

Again, this small attractive pastry shops has a number of branches and also sells ice cream, homemade chocolates, pastries and a lovely range of tarts. My beloved likes their St Ignacio tart.

Cafe Gogoko Goxuak

With its bentwood chairs and industrial chic, this cafe has a decided Le Pain Quotidien vibe. Perfect for breakfast or an afternoon coffee and cake, it has excellent coffee, bread, croissants and baked goodies. Eat in or take away.

Pasteleria Barrenetxe

This neighbourhood institution can trace its roots back to 1699. It’s on the same square as the cafe above and is a great spot for breakfast. They sell bread, chocolate and an excellent range of pastries plus my favourite toast with tomatoes.

Bar Bideluze

This place is open all hours and offers a more substantial breakfast including their delicious tortilla, ham and eggs along with croissants, cake, coffee and fresh juice. It also serves my second favourite Aperol Spritz and we’re not above dropping in here of an evening for some pintxos. The company has two branches, the larger one being in the same square as the two favourites above but we prefer its smaller branch around the corner.

Victoria Cafe

Next to the theatre is the home of our favourite Aperol Spritz (€ 4.50) which we like to drink while nibbling on a bowl of olives and watching the world pass by. It also serves breakfast and snacks throughout the day.

Pasteleria Oiartzun

At the entrance to the Old Town is our favourite ice cream shop which has since taken over the cake and coffee shop next door. You’ll find branches of this company in other towns such as Getaria. Their ice cream is made with top quality, local, raw materials and they have over 50 flavours. We cannot claim to have tried them all!

 

 

Holiday photos: day 28

Blimey, it’s August! Where’s this year gone? It’s a fact that the older you get, the quicker time flies by and you become conscious of the trickling sand in the timer. And, we’ve been away for whole month. Although, it’s lovely and sunny here in San Sebastian, it’s considerably cooler (thank goodness) than back home on the Cote d’Azur which is enjoying a veritable heatwave.

While it was relatively cool, I enjoyed picking up fresh produce daily from San Sebastian’s two permanent markets. My favourite is probably La Brexta on the Boulevard which, as the city’s oldest market, oozes Basque history and food culture. Named for and built over the original breach, or bretxa, in the city walls this place has it all, making it one of the best gourmet markets. Sadly, many of its products are on my forbidden list (see header photo) but I still love looking and inhaling – that’s okay isn’t it?

San Sebastian’s other market, San Martin, is newer and near the Buen Pastor Church. It’s open all day and is a great option for lunch as many of the stalls offer delicious pintxos, and more! On Thursday evenings, local bands play music and vendors offer free fresh pintxos to those buying drinks, making it a popular event. This is a practice common throughout the Basque country in all its bars on Thursday evenings. The free offerings are typically limited to one or two types of pintxos. San Sebastian also has a Saturday farmers’ and craft market which is another moveable feast!

Holiday photos: day 27

My beloved returned midday on Sunday, feeling somewhat weary after working long days and a couple of evenings. I took him out for lunch to one of our regular haunts where we both ate a light  meal. I find when it’s hot and humid, I’m not so hungry. However, it’s important to keep up one’s intake of fluids otherwise it’s easy to become dehydrated. After lunch we sat and listened to some music, it was the last day of the Jazz Festival, most of which my beloved had missed. We then pottered back to our rental flat to watch the final stage of the Tour de France.

The final day of the Tour is a bit of a parade for all bar a handful of sprinters for whom winning the sprint on the Champs Elysees is a blue-riband event. I generally have paper and pencil in hand noting down the names of places we’d like to visit as the television cameras pan past a chateau or two as the peloton heads for its final circuits round Paris. Of course, I’m not the only one, 47% of the television viewing public watch the Tour to see France’s glorious heritage. The footage never disappoints.

Thereafter, we went back out to enjoy the final couple of hours of the Festival, sitting on one of the many park benches in front of the Town Hall. As we wandered back we popped into one of our favourite bars for a nightcap. Well, it would’ve been rude not to.