12 days of Christmas: day 4

This is a photograph of the old fishing port in Saint Jean de Luz, in France’s Basque country. I chose this one because I love the reflection of the traditional Basque houses in the water and the way the puffy clouds are focused on the hill behind.

Today the port has a small-scale fishing operation undertaken in small boats with lines and hooks that concentrate on a qualitative rather than quantitative selection of fish; typically anchovy, tuna, sardine and hake. Of course, back in the 15th century, it was a much more active port with fishermen catching tons of cod, and even going whale hunting as far as Newfoundland.

12 days of Christmas: day 3

Before spending two weeks vacation in San Sebastian, we had a couple of days in Rioja, specifically the old walled town of Laguardia. This is one of the many glorious views taken from the gardens surrounding the village, looking out over the vineyards, as the clouds rolled in.

With its beautiful rolling landscapes, medieval hamlets and exquisite wines, Rioja is Spain’s Tuscany. The wine country is subdivided into three regions: Rioja Alta (where most of the oldest vineyards are located in and around Haro), Rioja Alavesa (which also belongs geographically to the Basque Country, and is home to some of the prettiest towns such as Laguardia and Samaniego) and Rioja Baja (further southeast, a larger, more arid region whose main hub is Calahorra). Even though we were only there for a couple of days, we managed to try lots of its wines!

12 days of Christmas: day 2

This is a photo of La Concha beach in San Sebastian, taken on the first night of our vacation, just as the sun was setting. The broom like shapes on the beach are the canvas shelters which have been folded back and tied down. You can just see a few boats bobbing on the water in the bay and, while it’s not obvious, there is a channel between the two hills to the left of the photo.

The furthermost one is the Igueldo from which bike riders descend and race to the finish line on the Boulevard in the La Clasica race, the other is Isla Santa Clara. The beach was voted 2017 Trip Advisor Best Beach in Europe. Regular readers of my blog will know how much I love the Basque country and, in particular, San Sebastian. It should be on everyone’s bucket list.

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.

Holiday photos: day 18

A complete change of landscape as we’re in Rioja country. We’ve not spent much time here in the past, just the occasional foray to watch either a stage start or finish in the Tour of the Basque Country cycle race. In particular, we’ve never had time to appreciate and learn more about the region’s many wines.

The place I had booked was utterly lovely, in one of Spain’s  prettiest villages which overlooked acres of vineyards, bodegas and a few wildlife wetland refuges. We arrived in time for lunch which didn’t disappoint. It augured well for the rest of the week-end.

There are around 200 different vineyards in Rioja but we were never going to fit them all in over a week-end, though we could at least make a modest attempt. Many of the Bodegas in the town offered tutorials and tastings for a few euros. We were happy to accept. It could best be described as a bar crawl around the town where we discovered much to our surprise (not) that we pretty much like all Rioja has to offer!

Of course, no bar crawl in Spain is complete without tapas or, as we’re in the Basque country, pinxtos. We’ve found a bar which serves quite possibly the best tortilla either of us has ever eaten. Tomorrow we’ll head to our final destination, San Sebastian, for a two week stay in an apartment overlooking La Concha beach – sheer heaven.

 

Holiday photos: day 17

Our stay here in the French Basque country is drawing to a close. We’ve had a wonderfully relaxing time on partly familiar territory but it’s time to move on. Five days in Saint Jean de Luz was enough. We’re now packing our buckets and spades for a few days inland in Spain, more specifically, the Spanish Basque country.

Again, it’s an area we know, love and never tire of visiting. Our first holiday in the region was largely thanks to the recommendations of one of my dear cycling friends, who’s a former professional cyclist. I wasn’t too sure whether it would be as fantastic as she claimed. But she was so right and we’ve been visiting regularly ever since.

It’s hard to put into words exactly why we both love the Basque country but it’s that intoxicating mix of culture, cuisine, architecture, scenery and the Basques themselves. Not forgetting, how fabulous a place it is to cycle around. Of course we’re not always wild about the weather, far too much rain. But it’s a small price to pay for the spectacular Basque landscape.

Rest, relaxation and thalassotherapy means that my leg is now as good as new. Sadly, the same cannot be said for my beloved’s which is still causing him (and me) gip. I suspect that this is because he has been overdoing it in the gym!

 

 

Holiday photos: day 12

Vive la Revolution! We celebrated Bastille Day in Bayonne, a city we’d only previously visited. The weekend changed all of that as we happily pottered around the Old Town, the cathedral, the market and along the banks of the Adour and Neve rivers. As usual I was snapping away at all the buildings.

It had rained the night before and the day was warm and muggy which necessitated quite a bit of refuelling as we ambled along the cobbled streets of the Old Town. We were now in the Basque country so there were bars, cafes and restaurants a plenty. I was tempted by some octopus which I begrudgingly shared with my beloved. Don’t you just hate it when someone says they’re not hungry and then proceeds to eat your lunch?

Late afternoon we tottered back to the hotel to put our feet up and enjoy the complimentary aperos and nibbles, followed by the magnificent televised concert and firework dusplay from Paris. On the hotel terrace we enjoyed the local, and more modest than Paris, firework display though our thoughts were with the victims of the terrorist attack in Nice two years ago.  Vive la France!

Postcard from San Sebastian

We first visited the fabulous town of San Sebastian in 2010 to watch the Clasica San Sebastian and have been visiting regularly ever since. Sometimes it’s hard to articulate why I like the place so much. But, in short, it’s all about the city’s Belle Epoque architecture, its beautiful sandy beaches, Basque culture, Basque cuisine and overall ambience. When friends ask me for recommendations for a week-end away, I never hesitate to mention San Sebastian. Its appeal is evergreen, just like the surrounding hills.

It helps that San Sebastian is cradled in a perfectly shaped bay and boasts four beautiful sandy beaches right on its doorstep. It’s a global gastronomic giant, with more Michelin stars per capita than anywhere else in Europe – yes, even Paris! There are plenty of festivals throughout the year and last year (2016) it was the European City of Culture.

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San Sebastian has an interesting history. The city was largely destroyed by fire in 1813 by the British and Portuguese. The tragedy left just one street standing, now renamed after the deadly assault, 31 de Agosto, and home to some fabulous eateries. The place was gradually rebuilt from scratch, albeit initially still within the confines of the city walls. Thereafter, the previously compact town began to spread along La Concha beach. In 1854 it took over as the regional capital of Gipuzkoa from Tolosa and continued its inland expansion, demolishing the old city walls in the process, part of which can still be seen in the underground car park on Boulevard.

It’s a place that’s easy to walk around so come with me for a gentle stroll. If we look at the city from left to right, Monte Igeldo towers above the western end of Ondarreta beach. Access its summit via a quaint funicular railway that runs up its eastern flank. Can I suggest you ride up and walk down. It’s worth it alone for the views from the top. Ignore the hotel and fun fair at the summit, instead stop for a delightful lunch at Rekondo on your way back into San Sebastian – more stunning views, fabulous menu and an amazing wine cellar.

While you’re walking off lunch. Walk round the headland to see Pieno del Viento, one of Basque sculptor Eduardo Chillida’s most well-known works at the western end of Ondarreta beach. Three steel sculptures are twisted into shapes designed to comb the prevailing wind. The one facing the rocks represents the past, the one looking out to sea is the future and the one you can touch is the present. As you stroll back into town, you’ll pass by the Miramar Palace on your right which marks the divide between the two beaches. It’s the former site of El Antiguo Monastery which was pretty much all there was in San Sebastian back in the 12th century. On the left you’ll see La Perla, re-built in 1912, the white Victorian edifice which now houses a Thalassotherapy Centre and several bars and restaurants.

At the eastern end of La Concha beach, you’ll see the fishing port lined with restaurants, fishermen’s cottages, and now home to the Aquarium. On the way over, you’ll pass by the Yacht Club which forms part of the sea wall. It looks like a ship and is a stark contrast to its surrounding buildings. It’s not far from the Town Hall or Ayuntamiento, completed in 1887 and originally built as a casino but the 1924 prohibition on gambling rather thwarted its original purpose. Out front is the Alderdi-Eder park designed by the same gardener who designed the gardens of Versailles. The non-native stumpy tamarind trees were a present from Napoleon III to the city and burst into purple flowers during August, a sight to behold.

On the opposite side of the Town Hall, you’ll see El Dual, a hole studded sculpture which commemorates San Sebastian’s victims of the Spanish Civil war. Behind it you’ll see  the fisherman’s  church, Capilla de San Pedro Apostol. Presiding above the fishing port is Monte Urgull which sports a ruined castle, the English cemetery for soldiers who perished in the Carlist wars and another emblematic sculpture, the Sagrado Corazon (sacred heart).

Now, turn right and head into the Old Town past the beautiful Inglesia de Santa Maria. It’s the third church on this site and, aside from the beautifully sculpted stone, is notable for the ship’s emblem and crown that adorn its top. Look down the street and you’ll see the spire of the Catedral Buen Pastor which can hold up to 4,000 and has a gi-normous organ. The cathedral sits at the end of the Plaza Buen Pastor, in front of a simply splendid main post office and the Koldo Mitxelena Cultural Centre.

As you wander along the famous 31 de Agosto road, do find time for some local specialities, such as a glass of txakoli (local wine) and some pinxtos (tapas). My favourite haunt is Gandarias. Continue along to the Museo San Telmo, housed in a 16th century convent, the museum of Basque society and citizenship, whose newer extension hosts temporary exhibitions. It’s well worth stopping off in its delightful restaurant for coffee and cake or, at another time, lunch.

Head back towards the Plaza de la Constitucion. At one end is the old city hall, in use until 1940, and one of the first buildings built after the 1813 fire. There are numbered apartments on three sides of the square from which people used to spectate dances and bullfights for free. The Old Town is a delight to wander around though many of its quaint old shops are (sadly) being replaced by high street names. On the far side of the Old Town, alongside Boulevard, you’ll find Le Brexta which plays host to one of San Sebastian’s two markets and, bizarrely, a McDonalds!

Across the road  you can see the Belle Epoque Victoria Eugenia Theatre, next to the swanky Marie Cristina Hotel, named after the queen consort of King Alfonso XII who was largely responsible for the town’s emergence as an upmarket holiday resort. The hotel has been a city landmark since the queen inaugurated it in 1912.  Recently completely refurbished, the hotel just shouts glamour, opulence and elegance from its soaring ceilings, intricate mouldings, towering marble pillars to its polished grey and white marble floors. Well worth a visit, if only for a coffee.

Cross over the Puente de Zurriola or Kursaal bridge to check out Gros and yet another of San Sebastian’s beaches, the Zurriola surf beach, which often features exhibitions along its boardwalk. Last year there were Henry Moore sculptures, this year there’s the exhibition of wildlife photographs which we saw last year in Gijon. At the far end of the beach is the Okendo Cultural Centre. Alternatively, you can head along the river Urumea to the Parque Cristina Enea, probably the best of San Sebastian’s many green spaces, which is a real oasis, chock-full of exotic plants, next to the Tabakalera, a former tobacco factory now turned into a centre for contemporary culture.

Our stroll has only touched upon a few of San Sebastian’s sights, there’s many more besides. One of my favourites is the Gipuzkoa Plaza, an English style park surrounded by arcades fashioned after those on the Rue de Rivoli in Paris and bounded on one side by a major bank with the most splendid wrought iron doors. Everywhere you look in San Sebastian there are delights to discover. But, don’t take my word for it, visit it yourself.

12 Days of Christmas – day 3

I just had to have a photograph from the Basque country in my final dozen. We visit the Basque country at least twice a year, largely for two cycling events: the week-long Tour of the Basque country and the one-day Clasica San Sebastian. Some years, if we’re lucky like this year, we manage to fit in a third during the Vuelta a Espana. This was taken by my beloved in early August from the port of San Sebastian looking across the bay to the old pavillion.

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La Concha Beach, San Sebastian

Playa De La Concha (shell) is the best known and smallest of the three main beaches in San Sebastian, right in the centre of town and close to the Old Town. The beach is approximately 1,350 metres long and 40 metres wide, depending on the tide, and occupies approx. 54 sq metres, 5 metres below ground level. It’s one of the many jewels in San Sebastian’s crowns and is ranked among the top 15 European beaches.

 

Postcard from Pais Vasco

We’ve been back in my beloved Basque country for a vacation with our bikes and while we were there we watched a couple of bike races too. On the recommendation of friends who know the area well, we stayed in a delightful Casa Rural – bed & breakfast – just down the coast from San Sebastian. The place was charming with lots of lovely home-from-home touches and a very welcoming hostess.

Our days followed a very similar routine. We were woken by birdsong and the cockerel up the road, ate a hearty breakfast and then headed out on our bikes. There’s very little flat in the Basque country, so whichever direction you decide to ride you’ll soon be reaching for the little ring. I find I give a good work out to 34 x 27 (uphill) and 50 x 13 (downhill) and largely ignore the gears in between.

Txalupas en el Oria

The week started off positively sultry with us both working up a good sweat even before we reached the first incline.  Although we set off together, I’m soon distanced and soldier on behind admiring the lush landscape, flora, fauna and the lovely stone farmhouses. I find it helps take my mind off those sudden steep inclines that pepper the countryside. I just slo-mo up them, dancing on the peddles and fix my gaze on the next challenge.

One of the many delights of riding in the Basque country is the other road users. There are always plenty of cyclists who give me much encouragement as they zoom past me on the uphill sections only for me to return the favour on the descents. Vehicles are happy to patiently wait before overtaking, they don’t rev their engines or honk their horns or accelerate past you on blind bends.  But then you’ve got to figure that they’re all cyclists too.

Ride over we discover we’ve built a ravenous hunger which can only be extinguished by lunch. In this area it’s typically three courses, wine, water and coffee for anywhere between 9-13 Euros a head. We’ve made some startling discoveries. Two of the local bars serve what I’ve always regarded as British specialities, but maybe they were Basque inventions: the chip butty and the bacon sarnie! We also tried a couple of Asador’s, essentially BBQ restaurants and possibly another Basque invention?

At lunch one day we were served a pink Txakoli, the local petillant wine and after much searching we managed to find the only vineyard that produces it in Getaria. It was perched high above the town affording great views of the coastline and the grapes are allegedly bathed in sea mists which accounts for its delicious taste. I’ve bought a dozen so it’s going to be my drink of the summer.

Clasica San Sebastian

Much as I love vacations with my beloved, and our bikes, they do throw up some challenges. Suddenly we’re having to share a bathroom while at home we have his and her’s facilities at opposite ends of the flat. We also have to share a bed and a bedroom for longer than a couple of nights. I generally request twin beds so that I don’t get woken by his incessant tossing, turning and throwing off of the bed sheets. I like to sleep with the window open but am mindful of the mosquitos. It was quite humid at home before we came away and the wee beasties had been treating me as some sort of monster mozzie munchie, despite the liberal application of repellent. On the advice of the pharmacist I’ve been wearing a mosquito repellant bracelet. It’s supposed to work for a month and was fine for four days but now seems to have lost its magic charms.

Of course, holidays with my beloved also give rise to some interesting incidents, usually involving the loss of something, generally keys. This time it was his driving glasses. However, most unusually he remembered where he’d left them some four hours earlier. We returned to the scene and he managed to recover them, slightly the worse for wear, but now repaired by an optician.

We had thought we might spend afternoons quietly on the beach but instead preferred to walk along the sandy shorelines cooling our feet in the water before ambling round old towns we’d yet to explore. Although Spain’s economic decline is severe, it’s less evident in the relative wealthy north, where unemployment is half the national average. However, one senses that it’s only going to get worse following news that the local ProTour team Euskaltel-Euskadi has been unable to secure funding to continue. Local sports teams have heavily relied on local authorities for funding, that’s all coming to an end and with it the hopes and dreams of many a young athlete.

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The town where we were staying had one of the leading rowing teams which race against one another from May to September all along the coast in wide flat boats. The races are televised and enjoy much local support and sponsorship, the ladies race too. This is definitely the sport for those that weigh more than 70kg.

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We were also transfixed to the big screen one lunch-time  – a large flat screen or two is de rigueur in all bars and restaurants – watching a scything competition. Basically, how much grass can you scythe in an hour? I kid you not? The scythers bring their coach, team helpers and scythe sharpener who sharpens the one scythe while the scyther is clearing swathes of dense grass land with the other The scythed grass is weighed and the winner was a chap called Igor, I forgot his last name but suffice to say it used up all the available Ks and Zs from a scrabble board. Amazingly, there were even crowds of supporters.

 

I later discovered this is also a popular “sport” in the West Country but frankly it was no contest. The Basques dressed in running shorts and sleeveless t-shirts with bare feet looked much more like finely tuned athletes. I have to confess I was somewhat concerned at the amount of bare flesh exposed given the flashing scythes but these boys evidently know what they’re doing and frankly how else are you going to cut the grass on those steep Basque climbs?