The origins of the BBQ

Our BBQ at the Chateau got me thinking about the origins of barbecue culture. Because humankind has no doubt been cooking meat since the discovery of fire, it’s impossible to point to any one person or culture that “invented” the barbecue method of cooking. Neither do we know when, exactly, it was invented.

No discussion of culinary history would be complete without the French stepping in to assert their hegemony. Many claim the word goes back to Medieval France, stemming from an Old Anglo-Norman word, barbeque, a contraction of the old-French expression barbe-à-queue (beard to tail), referring to how a whole animal was speared before being spit-roasted over a fire.

The Spanish word barbacoa was first used by the explorer and historian Gonzalo Fernàndez de Oviedo y Valdés (1478-1557). On returning to Europe after nine years in the New World, he published a series of books describing the course of his voyages and the customs of the peoples he had encountered. In La historia general y natural de las Indias (1535), he introduced his readers not only to tobacco and pineapples, but also to the barbacoa, a word he claimed to have learned from the Taínos, an Arawak-speaking people, who were the main inhabitants of Hispaniola, Jamaica and Cuba.

But just as important to this equation is asado. A practice that goes deep into Argentine’s history, when gauchos (cattle wranglers) cooked their meals on makeshift grills which were the original parrilla grills, heated by wood or coals. The gauchos took a different route: cooking over the low, even heat generated by the embers, with no direct flame touching the meat.

How does asado differ from barbecue? In the former, the cooking of the meat takes place over a slow-burning fire using quebracho, an indigenous wood which smokes very little, but imparts a wonderful flavour to the meat which is skewered on to a metal frame. This frame is known as an Asador. Food cooked long and slow, ensuring it’s charred on the outside but maintains its succulence on the inside. Locking in all that flavour. No marinading and go easy on the seasoning.

But this is all conjecture, as no one is really certain of the origin of the word. Or, did it in fact begin in the Basque Country which has a long-standing tradition of Asadors?

I’ve eaten at a number of Asadors in the Basque Country but two stand out. Firstly, one we happened upon by accident and which fortunately managed to squeeze us in: Asador Etxebarri. The setting in Axpe seems improbably flawless. It’s a tiny Basque village surrounded by green pastures and rugged, mist-shrouded mountains. The restaurant is in an old stone farmhouse next to a 16th century church in the Atxondo Valley, in the shadow of Monte Anboto, one of the highest peaks in the Basque Country outside the Pyrenees, not far from Durango.

And the food. A meal at Etxebarri is a fire-powered tour de force, an exploration of just how far simple wood and smoke and flame can be taken as a cooking technique when they’re expertly harnessed and applied to the finest ingredients. Everything is spectacular but my favourites are the blushing scarlet prawns, cooked whole, the heat of the fire steaming the sweet meat in its shell.

This is a cuisine of deep tradition, a culture of cooking with fire that stretches back millennia and that still thrives in every corner of this autonomous and culturally independent land. There is nothing to hide behind with this style of cooking. It has the capacity to surprise you using the simplest ingredients. It can make you fall in love with Basque cuisine, with its local ingredients that have been used throughout the course of history. It has particular significance right here. There’s nothing imported or influenced by the outside, a concept that seems quintessentially Basque.

I’m not alone in holding this opinion. Asador Etxebarri is currently rated the third-best restaurant on the planet, according to the 50 Best list. Restaurante Elkano, my other favourite asador in the coastal town of Getaria, is ranked number 30. Here I always have the grilled turbot, it’s divine.

Elkano, in fact, is the perfect illustration of the living history of fire-powered cooking in the Basque Country and the interesting links that this intensely local cuisine has to the Basque passion for exploration and movement. The restaurant is named after Juan Sebastián Elcano, a Getaria native who became the first sailor to circumnavigate the world. It was Elcano and his peers, the Basque sailors and fishermen of 15th and 16th centuries, who would cook their catches at sea on wood-fired grills, and who brought this practice home. Today, coastal villages such as Getaria, Orio and Bermeo continue to lead the charge of the asadores.

Much later, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a wave of Basque migrants would travel to Argentina, taking with them their txapelas (classic Basque berets) and their agricultural skills, sparking a parrilla obsession in that country. Others set sail for the US, adapting grilling techniques they’d witnessed in the Caribbean and helping create the strong barbecue culture found across the States today.

Meanwhile, returning travellers from Latin America sought to recreate the wood-fired boom in the Basque Country in the 1960s, inspiring a resurgence in interest into what had become a home-style kind of cooking, and indeed a progression in terms of fuel and technique as local chefs began to tinker with an age-old tradition. So while the Basques quite possibly didn’t invent BBQs or Asador cooking, they were responsible for its spread.

In these times of restricted movement, grilling is a style of cooking that can be enjoyed without travel; trialled and tinkered with at home. Take fire, add produce. Simples.

French Basque Country: Biarritz

I have waxed lyrical many a time about the Spanish Basque Country. Now’s the time to bang the drum for the Basque Country in France which I love just as much as its Spanish neighbour. It’s not just about beautiful landscapes and great food either, its culture is as fascinating as it is a little mystifying because the French Basques share the same language, culture and traditions as those of the Spanish. They too have managed to maintain a buccolic, country lifestyle but this time among those dark satanic hills of the Pyrenees-Atlantiques.

We’ve often stayed in the French Basque country en-route to Spain and I’m going to start with probably the jewel in its crown Biarritz which, by comparison with the French Riviera, is a relatively bling-free coastal getaway.

Napolean III transformed Biarritzm formerly a fishing and whaling village, when he built a summer palace for his Pricess Eugenie (now the Hotel du Palais). Just like that the health benefits of sea bathing became fashionable among European nobility who descended on Biarritz for the season in the late 1800s. Screenwriter Peter Viertel had a similar impact when he visited in 1957 to film The Sun Also Rises. Impressed by the waves, he sent for his surfboard from California and single-handedly introduced surfing to Europe.

The focus of Biarritz is the Casino Municipal, on the Grande-Plage. The loveliest places to stroll around are the streets between there and the Plage du Port-Vieux. Just beside the Plage du Port-Vieux, the most sheltered and intimate of the beaches, a rocky promontory sticks out into the sea, ending in an iron catwalk anchoring the Rocher de la Vierge, an offshore rock adorned with a white statue of the Virgin, which has become Biarritz’s trademark. Just below is the picturesque harbour of the Port des Pecheurs, backed by tamarisks and pink and blue hydrangeas. Beyond lies the Grande Plage, an immaculate sweep of sand that stretches past the casino, all the way to the lighthouse on the Pointe St-Martin.

Another icon, the lighthouse was built in 1834 and stands 73 metres above sea level overlooking Cape Hainsart (so called because of the oak trees which surrounded it in the past). It marks the boundary between the sandy Landes coast and the rocky coast of the Basque Country. It’s a climb of 248 steps to reach the top but it does offer an exceptional panoramic view of Biarritz and the Basque hinterland.

Also located in the Port-Vieux, you’ll find the neo-gothic Sainte Eugenie Church aka Imperial Chapel also built during the reign of Napoleon III in 1864, on Empress Eugenia’s request, in a Roman-Byzantine and Hispanic-Moorish style. In other words, a bit of a mash-up. It’s dedicated to the Virgin of Guadalupe and was listed as historical monument in 1981. While, the more centrally located Orthodox Alexandre Newsky Church (above) was built in the Byzantine style by Biarritz architect M. Tisnés. Inaugurated in September 1892, in the presence of members of the Russian imperial family, it has been classified as a Historical Monument since June 2015.

Biarritz has a beautiful red-brick covered market, Les Halles, fresh of façade after a complete renovation. Outside, fat seagulls circle, hopeful of a fishy morsel. I love wandering around markets and always make a point of checking out the produce. Here it was so fresh and beautiful, it looked as if it was sculpted from marzipan. At lunchtime, we enjoyed a few freshly shucked bivalves at an oyster bar.

As one might expect, Biarritz has a lively restaurant scene and plenty of nightlife to satisfy even the most dedicated of party goers. I appreciate that I haven’t even touched on many of its other charms such as its surf culture, golf courses, beautiful coastal walks and cycling highway – we have done that – but maybe this is enough to wet your appetite. Further towns to follow………

 

Itzulia: I should be there!

One of my favourite bike stage races takes place in the Spanish Basque Country, usually after Easter, sandwiched between two great Classics’ races, the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix. I saw the latter live in 2011, but for five years in succession (2012 – 2016), prior to my beloved breaking his leg, we have watched the Basque race live.

His leg is now mended but pressure of work has prevented us from attending the race for the last two years and, of course, this year’s edition has been cancelled because of you know what.

As you all know, I love the race’s location. The Basque Country is famous for its sunny beaches, scintillating modern architecture and for its feisty, cycling-mad natives. It’s also simply beautiful: bright white chalet-style homes with deep-red, blue or green shutters scattered across lush, rolling hills; the Pyrenees Mountains soaring high above the Atlantic; and surfers and sardines sharing the waves. The dazzling architecture of the major towns such as Bilbao and Vitoria-Gasteiz, plus the traditional and thriving small towns, help make the entire region colourful, fun and welcoming.

I’m going to indulge in a spot of virtual travel and bike racing by looking at what might have been in respect of this year’s race which will now be held in 2021. Fingers crossed, I’ll be there!

The details of the six-stage, 898km route of the 60th edition of the race were only revealed in late February. The individual time-trial has been pushed back to the final day of the competition but before, the riders face 18,845 metres of climbing on the preceding five stages. That’s 20 mountain passes: 4 – 1st category; 7 – 2nd category and 9 – 3rd category. Unusually, the race is front-loaded meaning the battle for the spotted mountain jersey would be fought out and decided early on while the 10 sprints to decide the green jersey are pretty evenly distributed.

Monday 6 April, Stage 1: Eibar – Arrate

The opening stage has only six summits (gulp) and will be raced around Eibar, so often the concluding town for this event. It’s a very pleasant place to potter around while the riders are cresting those climbs though much of it has been rebuilt since being destroyed in the Spanish Civil War. It was formerly known for its armaments industry, and many of whose companies, such as BH and Orbea, now manufacture bikes.

For fans of the race, we’re in very familiar territory, particularly the final steep climb leading to the Arrate Sanctuary above Eibar. Both my beloved and I have cycled up here and it’s a tough, tough climb followed by a breakneck finish.

As you can see from the map above, the start is only a few kilometres from the finish line, so the riders are taking the scenic route via a rolling section along the coast towards the Bay of Biscay before they head back to Eibar and that testing finish.

Tuesday 7 April, Stage 2: Amurrio – Ermualde

Both of these towns are (unbelievedly) new to us though I’m pretty sure we’ve probably driven through them at one time or another. Again, the start’s not too far from the finish so the riders will be riding the long way round. This part of the parcours could prove to be quite windy and provide the viewers with some exciting echelon action. The stage tops out with an unprecedented uphill climb (av 11.1%) ending at the Ermualde finish line. The final 3kms are particularly tough. But again, this is just half the story. The first kilometre is at 10.7%, the second at 15.6%, and the rest of the ascent hovers around 7%. That’s gonna hurt!

Wednesday 8 April, Stage 3: Vitoria-Gasteiz – Ibardin

The longest stage in this year’s Itzulia, 200 km through Álava and Navarre. After the last two days of climbing, the kilometres could take their toll on the riders’ legs. And, of course, there’s yet another summit finish. The final ascent is just over six kilometres with an average gradient of 5.8%. This climb last featured in the race in 2012. I can still recall eventual race winner Samuel Sánchez outgunning Joaquim Rodríguez and Chris Horner in a three-up sprint.

Thursday 9 April, Stage 4: Bera – Errenteria

This stage is spectator friendly with a number of loops around the area. The riders head south from Bera and the first loop starts near Elogorriana, taking the riders over the Belate (11km at 5.1%) and Saldias (4.4km at 4.3%). The route returns to Bera after 107km and now heads north. Two more loops follow after Irún, the second of which includes the Erlaitz climb, which also featured in last year’s Clásica de San Sebastián. The riders should fly down the Erlaitz to the finish line in Errentería.

Friday 10 April, Stage 5: Errentería to Sestao

Today’s the “flattest stage” in Itzulia and the sprinters’ last opportunity to shine. The riders battling for GC (General Classification) will appreciate being able to save their energy for tomorrow’s time-trial. Of course, in the Basque Country, there’s never an ideal stage for pure sprinters because it’s always so undulating but for those with stamina….this is where they could prevail. There are only two climbs of any note. The road to Areitio climbs for 2.3km at 5.8%, but the La Reineta climb is more likely to have an impact in terms of the stage victory. This 6.4km ascent at 5.6% is just over 22km from the finish which runs slightly uphill.

Saturday 11 April, Stage 6: Bilbao – Bilbao (21km ITT)

As in previous years, the time trial will decide this year’s Itzulia. A 21km ride between the Basilica of Begoña and Etxeberria Park. It’s a fast time trial with two uphill climbs. It’s a false flat downhill for the first couple of kilometres leading to the first climb. It’s short but there’s a double-digit ramp 300 metres before the top. The road then descends for 7km kilometres before heading onto an undulating section before a wall-like intermezzo takes centre stage. The 7km climb (av.12.8%), opens with a 17% ramp for the first kilometre. Then another false flat downhill leads to the last kilometre which starts as a gradual climb before peaking in the last few hundred metres to the line at 11%.

This is the stage which will decide who gets to wear the winner’s big, black floppy “txapela.”

Last year’s edition (summary video above) produced the first Basque winner for a while, let’s hope the tradition continues next year. Meanwhile, I’d better get cracking and book our hotel for next year!

 

Hurrah – Return of the Carrots!

In its heyday (1998-2013), Euskaltel-Euskadi was a legendary team of mountain goats guaranteed to animate uphill stages in any bike race. Nicknamed the #Carrots because of their bright orange jerseys, the team provided social media with plenty of ammunition and before its demise at the end of 2013 was pretty much everyone’s default favourite team because of its so-called plucky riders who had a tendancy to hit the deck with alarming regularity.

At the end of February, Basque telecoms company Euskaltel announced it would return to cycling team sponsorship as a title sponsor of the Pro Conti Fundación-Orbea squad, starting at this month’s (since-cancelled) Itzulia (Vuelta al Pais Vasco – Tour of the Basque Country).

Euskaltel-Euskadi were a lively team of caricature climbers tasked with animating mountain stages in grand tours. But there was serious intent. Only behind the scenes the reality wasn’t quite so glorious, like much of the 2000s. Riders tested positive; plus for all the attacks they never won very much. However, more importantly, they acted as a development team with the likes of riders such as Mikel Landa (bottom row, middle photo), Mikel Nieve, Ion Izaguirre and Igor Anton going on to bigger and better things.

The Euskaltel-Euskadi team was inextricably linked with both a visual and cultural identity. Riding locally-made Orbea bikes in highly distinctive orange kits, the team was one of the most recognisable in the peloton, enjoying an enthusiastic following in the cycling-mad Basque region straddling the French and Spanish border. They were a de-facto national squad for the nationless Basque, who have at various points and with varying degrees of violence, pushed for independence.

For the duration of the team’s existence the roadsides of the Pyrenees and beyond were frequently lined with Basque fans clad in orange, waving the green, white and red Basque flag (above). Euskaltel-Euskadi’s dissolution in 2013 was perhaps only a relief for English-speaking commentators of the sport, who’d spent the last couple of decades stumbling over the complicated jumble of vowels, Zs, Ks and Xs that made up the names of its riders, but the squad’s disappearance was nonetheless a poignant moment.

Mikel Landa, currently active on the road as one of Bahrain-McLaren’s star riders and simultaneously the president of Fundacion Euskadi, is spearheading the team’s return to the upper echelon’s of the sport. Meanwhile, Euskaltel’s president has confirmed:

The relationship of Euskaltel with cycling and Fundación Euskadi has been a success story. We want to repeat the great union and bring back the excitement that it generated in all the fans. This team is something unique; it represents an entire country, and we want to be part of it once again.

It was intended that the reborn Euskaltel-Euskadi would debut at the Itzulia stage race, 6 – 11 April, where they’d be hoping to make enough of an impression to contend for their first Grand Tour berth later in the year at the Vuelta a España. With the cancellation of much of this year’s scheduled races, who knows now what’ll happen. The team has a long journey ahead in order to regain the heights of its glory days, but those (like me) with a nostalgic memory of the orange-clad climbers animating the race will be happy to see Euskaltel-Euskadi returning to some sort of prominence again, and that’s a start.

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!

 

 

 

 

 

Missing Itzulia

This week sees the 59th running of the Tour of the Basque Country (Vuelta al Pais Vasco) and we’re not there, again! We’ve watched this stage race continuously from 2011 but were forced to miss the last two years’ because of issues with my beloved’s hip. It’s now happily mended but sadly pressure of work has prevented the resumption of our visits. To console myself, I thought I’d write a bit about this year’s race which started today.

La Concha beach San Sebastian regularly voted best in class

As you all know, I love the race’s location. The Basque Country is famous for its sunny beaches, scintillating modern architecture and for its feisty, cycling-mad natives. It’s also simply beautiful: bright white chalet-style homes with deep-red, blue or green shutters scatter across lush, rolling hills; the Pyrenees Mountains soar high above the Atlantic; and surfers and sardines share the waves. The dazzling architecture of the Guggenheim Bilbao modern-art museum and the glittering resort of San Sebastian draw enthusiastic crowds, while traditional small towns, such as Lekeitio and Hondarribia, are also thriving, making the entire region colourful, fun and welcoming.

The race route (in red above) typically covers a significant part of the Spanish Basque Country visiting some old favourites, such as its capital Vitoria-Gasteiz and the climb to Arrate from Eibar. But none of it’s ever too far away so it’s possible to base yourself in one hotel and travel daily to each of the start and finish lines.

To watch the race, we’ve peviously stayed in some lovely locations such as Getaria, a small fishing resort on the coast not far from San Sebastian.

Getaria

And we’ve stayed inland among those dark satanic hills.

Home from home

But, wherever we’ve stayed, Basque hospitality has been delightful, plentiful and very reasonably priced!

This year’s race kicks off in Zumarraga, as it did back in 2011, so it’s a place we’ve visited a few times. In the town centre, there’s the charming arcaded square in the middle of which is a bronze statue dedicated to Miguel López de Legazpi, conqueror of the Philippines. Those Basques sailed everywhere! Plus, there’s a 19th century neo-classical town hall, the Itarte and Uzkanga houses, and a16th century Gothic church, Santa María de la Asunción. 

Interestingly, this year’s race begins (rather than concludes) with an individual time-trial which will be short (11.3km) but intense because the final  2.3km has an average gradient of 9.7%, reaching a maximum of 21% in the final 100 meters. This is pretty typical of climbs in the Basque Country, short but rarely sweet!

As is customary, the second stage starts where the first one leaves off in Zumarraga, finishing 150km or so later in Gorraiz after 4,800 metres of climbing. There are hardly any flat roads in the Basque Country – I speak from bitter experience. Gorraiz is in Navarra, not too far from its main town of Pamplona.

Typically, the parcours visits all the autonomous community of the Basque Country plus the Foral one of Navarra. We’ve never visited Gorraiz but I suspect it has been included on the parcours to showcase its its recently rebuilt 16th century palace and church of San Esteban (pictured above right).

Day three starts at one of yesterday’s sprint points, the ancient town of Sarrigurenat which is now home to an EcoCity dedicated to preserving the ecological habitat of its surrounding plains. It’s the longest stage of the race with an undulating 191km finishing at 12th century Romanesque Estibaliz Sanctuary (above), dedicated to the patron saint of Álava. We’ve not previously visited either of these towns, although we’ve cycled around Navarra, watched the start of the Vuelta a Espana in Pamplona and seen the GP Miguel Indurrain in Estella several times.

The fourth stage starts in the capital of the Basque Country, Vitoria-Gasteiz which has a simply lovely Old Town with some of the best preserved medieval streets and plazas in the region, plus two cathedrals. The stage, another undulating one, finishes in Arrigorriaga, a small town just outside of Bilbao, which has a parish church dating back to 9th century. While, we’re very familiar with Vitoria-Gasteiz, I don’t recollect ever visiting the finish town.

The event now starts to hot up with what is often its race defining penultimate stage, finishing in Arrate. Just look at the snaggle-toothed race profile, those boys are going to have weary legs! We’re back on very familiar  territory [to us]. The entire final climb will be lined with enthusiastic and knowledgable Basque cycling fans, most of whom will have ridden up the ascent. I have to hold my hand up here and admit we always drive up!

I can still remember Samu Sanchez winning here in 2012, his third consecutive win on this climb, before going on to lift the overall.

Though possibly the most entertaining victor at Arrate was Diego Rosa who in 2016 lifted his bike aloft before soloing across the line on foot!

The final day has only six summits (gulp) and will be raced around Eibar, so often the concluding town for this event. It’s a pleasant place to potter around while the riders are cresting those climbs though much of it has been rebuilt since being destroyed in the Spanish Civil War. It was formerly known for its armaments industry many of whose companies, such as BH and Orbea, now manufacture bikes.

So, there you have it: 784kms over six stages which include an individual time-trial and tackle 22 summits. I’ve no idea who’s going to win this year’s race. It’ll have its usual sprinkling of mountain goats and Basque riders. The locals will be hoping that one of the latter manages to climb atop the podium, preferably onto the top step. It’s a race much prized for its tough parcours and ability to get riders to peak for the Ardennes Classics or in form for the Giro d’Italia. I have friends riding so I’ll be watching the race every day on the television and cheering them on – aupa!

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.