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.

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.

12 days of Christmas: day 6

This picture was taken in early September in Valencia and features two of the Calatrava designed buildings at the City of Arts and Sciences. The one on the left is L’Hemispheric, an IMAX cinema, planetarium and laserium, while the one to the right, El Paulau de les Arts Reina Sophia, is an opera house and centre of performing arts. The buildings form part of the 12 wonders of Spain and respectively were the first and last of a cluster of buildings to be built in Valencia on the former riverbed of the Turia. The buildings look like something you might see in a Star Wars movie but the architect was in fact inspired by the massive skeletons of dinosaurs. Either way, I love that the buildings are reflected in the surrounding ornamental pool.

My beloved had raved about Valencia ever since he’d seen the America’s Cup there with a former boss who was a keen sailor. I was keen to visit and while the City of Arts and Sciences is magnificent, as are its miles of sandy beach, Valencia is a bit of a curate’s egg – good in parts. I’d go back there  but only to watch the MotoGP season ending race in November or maybe  football match at the Mestalla.

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 10

This is the view from the finish of stage 3 of the Vuelta a Espana, 176.4km from Marin to Dumbria, Mirador Ezaro which was won by Alexander Geniez (FDJ).

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It was a long, hot wait at the summit finish for the peloton, particularly as supplies of cold drinks ran out early on – we were somewhat ill-prepared. But the view back down to the Atlantic coast was worth it.

I’ve just realised that three photos of the Atlantic coast have made it into my 12 favourite photographs from 2016: San Sebastin’s La Concha beach on Day 2 along with one of Vigo’s many beaches on Day 8. But then I do love looking at water, it’s very calming. In our current home we have a beautiful sea view which stretches, on a clear day, from Cap d’Antibes to Cap Ferret and I never tire of looking at it.

 

12 days of Christmas – day 8

My beloved was keen to visit Vigo while we were following the Vuelta a Espana around Galicia. Aside from its beautiful Atlantic beaches, alleged to be among some of the best in Europe, the town has a magnificent Old Quarter which, while not extensive, covers an interesting area on the slopes above the marina with a number of beautiful plazas along with buildings and streets that have survived from the medieval period.

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Vigo’s history and heritage though is not only confined to the old quarter. The greater city has many stunning examples of civic architecture dotted  around its centre and there are a number of squares and parks and plenty of great bars and restaurants serving fish, including my favourite octopus, from the bountiful seas. Galicia seems to enjoy a warmer and less wet climate than the rest of northern Spain and fewer tourists.

 

 

Viva Espana

Yesterday evening my beloved and I went to watch a live Euro 2016 match.  We already knew first-hand what happens to the traffic on a match night at the Allianz Riviera stadium during the Championships – gridlock. So we set off three hours before kick-off. We parked easily enough at the Municipal Markets (MIN) Park & Ride, our usual parking spot for any OGC Nice home match before paying Euros 3,00 each for a return bus ride to the stadium. I wouldn’t have minded but the bus dropped us off about two kilometres from the stadium. Fortunately, the sun was shining, I was wearing comfortable shoes, looking forward to seeing Spain v Turkey and we had plenty of time on our hands.

The security was spot on. It’s the first time I’ve been properly searched before entering the stadium. There were a few fans milling around outside where a couple of stands were selling cold beverages, hot dogs and sandwiches. We skipped the refreshments and headed to our seats. We were in the Spanish end of the stadium, behind the goal, usually home to OGCN’s Ultras. It’s a great spot and not bad for Euros 55,00 a head. We splashed out on a couple of bottles of water. The catering is much improved by comparison with the old Stade du Ray but it’s essentially beer, cold drinks, French fries, hot dogs and sandwiches. I feel they’ve missed a trick for tonight’s match, they should have laid on kebabs and tapas.

during the UEFA EURO 2016 Group D match between Spain and Turkey at Allianz Riviera Stadium on June 17, 2016 in Nice, France.
Opening ceremony

Three of the Spaniards wore long-sleeved shirts and sported over the knee socks. Wise move, it got chilly when the sun went down.

SPAIN
SPAIN

As the “away” squad,  Turkey had to wear their fashionable tie-dye turquoise shirts.

TURKEY
TURKEY

 

The Gamemaker Iniesta
The Maestro, Andres Iniesta

You’ll have read the match reports. The Spanish played a mesmerising game orchestrated by Iniesta. The Turks’ Plan A contained the Spanish for the first 30 minutes though you felt it was only a matter of time before Spain broke free and scored. Thereafter, the Turks were far too static, seemingly bereft of further ideas. Clearly, no Plan B. Or maybe, they too were enthralled by the skills on display. Did Spain really only enjoy 67% of possession? It felt like so much more.

But it wasn’t just on the pitch where the Spanish scored. Their fans really dressed for the occasion. I lost count of the number in fancy dress.

A few aging matadors
Ole!

I saw plenty of  fans wearing those spotted dresses more usually seen on flamenco dancers. Here’s one of them.

A few senoritas
A few senoritas

The Turkish fans had weight of numbers of their side and, thanks to Euro 2016 sponsor Turkish Airlines, had plenty of flags to waive. Despite the body searches, a few managed to smuggle in flares which they set off at the end of the match. That aside, there was no trouble either inside or outside of the stadium.

Post-match flares up the Turkish end
Post-match flares at the Turkish end

As we made our way back to the buses, some two kilometres down the road, under the watchful eyes of the riot police, the mood was one of celebration. We’d just enjoyed a fantastic display of football. Maybe the defending champions would successfully retain their title after all. Oh, in case you’re interested, Alvaro Morata, who scored two of Spain’s three goals, was my man of the match.

Morata, man of the match
Morata, man of the match

All images supplied by Getty Images