Galicia-2

It is time to move on down towards the Portuguese border, past the town of Cambados, with its 11th century church and square, and a group of Spanish tourists with guide.

This is a charming town, which boasts the official title of Most Noble Town, and the guide books boast about the white wine that is made locally. The town certainly does have a kind of stateliness in its architecture, and obviously boasts an important past.

A festival is held on the first Sunday in August based around the Albariño wine. The grape is noted for its distinctive aroma, very similar to that of Viognier, Gewurztraminer and Petit Manseng, suggesting apricot and peach. The wine produced is unusually light, and generally high in acidity, with alcohol levels of 11.5-12.5%.The thick skins and large number of pips in the grapes can cause residual bitterness.

In the beginning of the 20th century, Albariño vines could be found growing around the trunks of poplar trees and in bushes along the outside margins of a field. When grown in a vineyard, the vines need to be wire trained with large canopies to accommodate the 30 to 40 buds per vine that is typical.

We stayed the night in a small town overlooking one of the rias. The next day we drove down to Santiago de Compostella to look at what lay at the end of one of the most famous pilgrimages of the middle ages.

I have been obsessed with the road to Santiago for years, and have always wanted to make the pilgrimage. Well, there it is. I have mixed feelings about it all, but most of my feelings are not sympathetic. What I see is something that is now irrelevant of course. Only a few people today care about the bones of one of the disciples of Christ, if they are his bones, which is highly unlikely. They were dug up from an old Roman graveyard after about 800 years. But what one sees is a vast church burocracy in stone.

The actual cathedral is in a poor state. The colors that were on the stone are no more. There is no stained glass. The stonework is not dressed. However, the main altarpiece and its immediate surrounds are covered in gold leaf and silver. The whole place reeks of wealth and power. But I dont see any spirituality anywhere. I look at the altarpiece and remember that Christ was born in a shed amongst the cow-shit, and find it impossible to reconcile that with what is before me. There is something fundamentally obscene about it all. It is not so much impressive, as oppressive.

Just to the east of the city is a more intriguing church. I dont usually go out of my way to look at churches, but this one is a trifle odd. It is the Colegiata de Santa Maria la Real de Sar.
Colegiata de Santa Maria la Real de Sar
The Sar is a small stream that winds a mainly hidden way around the city. I had to ask several people where the place was. Somehow I expected it to be a quaint little village church, but nothing in Santiago is as it seems. Santiago is the patron saint of Spain. The bones of one of Christ’s disciples are supposed to buried in the city. This is the end of a great medieval trail. The church infrastructure is massive. Despite all this the place is a sleepy little country town, much smaller than I’d expected, with a small industrial estate that also looked rather sleepy.

The church is sitting in the middle of a car park. There it is squat and absurdly massive because it is supported in all directions by huge buttresses that seem to take up more room, and more stone, than the actual church. On one side is a charming colonnade. Inside is a simple nave with three aisles, and here is the intriguing bit: the church has been built deliberately askew.

I walked back outside and looked at the buttresses. It was all rather strange. Some of the walls seemed to be perfectly vertical, other parts of the walls were leaning seriously askew.

Back inside I stood just inside the door and looked down the nave. The whole church is ridiculously massive. It is built as though someone had to get rid of a heck of a lot of stone. For a small area of worship the height of the church is more than one would expect, and the columns reaching up are deliberately built angled out towards the side aisles. It is all most odd.

There were no tourists. Julie and I had the place to ourselves. I guess virtually no-one knows about the place. But it is worth a visit for the curious.

By dark we make it to Ponteareas, which is close to the Portuguese border. All the restaurants are shut. Apparently they dont open till nine o’clock. However, we had passed one on the way in called Casa Pino that appeared to be open, so we double back.

The menu looks daunting. I order two starters, and wonder if that will be enough. I want to have local specialities so I start with a plate of mussels followed by gambas. A plate of mussels with chopped peppers and tomato is placed in the middle of the table. This is just an appetizer. It is quickly followed by empanadillas (pasties) containing tomato and squid.

The plate of mussels is supposed to be a starter. It contains 20 or 30 of them. And they are huge. I have never eaten such large fat ones before. They are cooked in a delicious sauce, which I spoon up with the shells.

I am beginning to flag by the time the second starter turns up. It is a plate containing about a dozen enormous prawns. I order more wine. I am drinking a rather fine house white.

The price of the meal comes to £16, or thereabouts. I think I am going to have to move down here. I lean back in my chair thinking what a wonderful world it is. When it comes to the bill I find to my horror that they dont accept cards. Apparently that is not a problem, I can come back tomorrow and pay. There are obviously no tourists in this part of the world. How nice.

When I pass by a year later I naturally call in. Sometimes that can be a mistake, but not on this occasion. I shall be returning many more times. This is a very special part of Spain.

To read more about My Travels Around Spain, have a look at my online book.

Galicia-1

Towards Galicia the land becomes flat, and the fields run down to the sea’s edge. The port of Ribadeo, on a rather fine estuary, was obviously once a rich port. It now looks washed out, but the town hall is a rather fine building with an amazing roof, and a cupola supported by four angels. The main windows contain stained glass. The secret would seem to be next door: the customs house. Presumably a lot of useful dosh was made from import duties. But I have no guide book to enlighten me.

There’s a big house right on the cliff edge of town just waiting to be returned to a fine dwelling.

It is beginning to get dark as we cross another range of hills towards Corunna. All across the north I have been reminded of Austria, with the way the roofs are built, and the way the wide steep valleys fan out around one.

The further we get, the more the language seems to slip into dialect. Great chunks of Spanish words are missed out. La Coruña becomes A Coruña. Los becomes os, and so on. Ciudad becomes cidade. The language is morphing into Portuguese. As we cross the watershed a wet red sunset fills the western sky above the city, and we descend into the early evening dark.

The weather is dull damp and boring. There are clouds everywhere, threatening rain, but the Corunna penninsular is really beautiful.

There are lots of little coves in amongst the estuaries. I must come back in finer weather and explore. I would think spring here would be wonderful. Everywhere is a strange mixture of plants. It’s as if the seasons are all muddled up. We have the leaves dropping in sudden lurches under an erratic gust of wind. And in one street there is a line of camelias just coming into flower. There are geraniums still blooming, date palms are laden with thick dates, and the ferns are going rusty on the hills.


There are a couple of interesting properties which intrigue me. One is the old army barracks. And round the corner is an abandoned church overlooking the cove below.


There are ruins in amongst the wooded hills overlooking the rias (estuaries). They would probably cost a fortune to redevelop.

Everywhere in these estuaries are platforms, which apparently consist of a series of drums linked together by wooden planks (young trunks of eucalyptus trees), which are strapped to the drums, with decking on top. These platforms are simulating rocks, so that mussles will grow on them. From these structures dangle ropes, on which more crustacia are encouraged to grow.

Of course, whenever we stop for food I go for the absolutely amazing shellfish. They are huge and delicious, and cheap.

We drive on down to Cambados, with its 11th century church and square, and a group of Spanish tourists with guide. This is a charming town, which boasts the official title of Most Noble Town, and the guide books boast about the white wine that is made locally. The town certainly does have a kind of stateliness in its architecture, and obviously boasts an important past.

A festival is held on the first Sunday in August based around the Albariño wine. The grape is noted for its distinctive aroma, very similar to that of Viognier, Gewurztraminer and Petit Manseng, suggesting apricot and peach. The wine produced is unusually light, and generally high in acidity with alcohol levels of 11.5-12.5%. The thick skins and large number of pips in the grapes can cause residual bitterness.

In the beginning of the 20th century, Albariño vines could be found growing around the trunks of poplar trees and in bushes along the outside margins of a field. When grown in a vineyard, the vines need to be wire trained with large canopies to accommodate the 30 to 40 buds per vine that is typical.

We stayed the night in a small town overlooking one of the rias. The next day we drove down to Santiago de Compostella to look at what lay at the end of one of the most famous pilgrimages of the middle ages. But that’s another story.

Cantabria

Cantabria

As you move towards Santander you cross into Cantabria. Things will be very different from now on. You are entering a largely rural, agricultural area. The countryside is green with hills and valleys, small coves, pretty towns, and picturesque harbours.

There is a new motorway which goes from the frontier right the way to Oviedo, but there is no need to take that. This is an area that cries out for a slow erratic meander.

Back in the sixties I wandered all around this area on foot. I stayed with families who housed me, and often fed me in return for me reading stories from books about the lives of the saints, and over the years I have been back many times to this friendly and simple part of Spain.

Just west of Bilbao the little town of Castro-Urdiales sits by a small sheltered bay, with some old houses, but very little to show that the town was first built by the Romans.

Further west is the inlet at Barcena; ideal for the sailing enthusiast. Further still you come to the bay of Santander. The town is new, clean, open, pleasant, friendly, and not too busy. The harbour shelters a port at which the Plymouth ferry docks most of the year. But the interesting towns lie even further west.

One of the most interesting and picturesque is Santillana. It is an old town, and was obviously a place with pretensions back in the middle ages. The houses are quaintly bent, the stone is warm and attractive. The upper floors have their walls rendered and painted white. The windows are of dark stained wood, and so are the balconies, making for a very attractive street-scape. The entire town is a national monument and living museum of a medieval 9th century village.

One other attraction is the family escutcheons which are set into so many walls. Here, everybody seems to have been an hidalgo. The word stands for someone with a pedigree. The word is an amalgamation of the words ‘hijo de algo’, son of someone (of importance).

There are charming restaurants, a quiet town square surrounded by sixteenth century houses, each with its wooden balconies, and massive stone walls. Beyond is the gently undulating countryside of small fields and grazing cows. But the main attraction is under the fields: the caves of Altamira, which you can no longer visit. However, you can visit the museum, which has a representation of the caves. So you can see copies of the famous cave drawings of bison.


12,000 years ago the area was inhabited by Stone Age man, and the caves are covered in black and red drawings of bison. Unfortunately a build up of white mould, the result of people breathing in the caves, led to the deterioration of the paintings in the fifties and sixties, and the caves were re-sealed.

Further along the coast is the town of Comillas with its large university building on the hill. This is now lying disused, and seemingly abandoned. It is, like so many official buildings in Spain, large, solid, and forbidding, more like a prison with a flashy frontage.

Further west are salty marshes where the trees have died, leaving white stumps sticking up from the shallow water behind great dunes of sand.

If you turn inland you are immediately engulfed by the steep rocky defiles of the Picos de Europa. They are snow covered in winter. Another twist and a turn and you are in a mountainous maze with only a tiny patch of sky visible above. There are no houses here. There is no room to build. Then you turn another double bend, and there, right by the side of the road, its back against a massive cliff, is a three storey house. What crazy person lives here with the road beside his window, the rock crowding his back, and the river roaring just below the road?

Another bend, another twist, another rough sentinel standing ominously on a hairpin bend, and the road opens out. The valley must be 150 yards wide. There is obviously plenty of room for a village, and the street is lined with houses. What do these people do? There isn’t even room to graze a goat in these mountains. There is certainly nowhere to grow anything.

We are right on the border between the two provinces of Cantabria and Asturias. Asturias is one of the most rural of Spain’s provinces, with only a couple of large towns up on the northern coast; Oviedo, the provincial capital, and its port of Gijon. The rest of the province is deeply rural.

The gorge is narrow, with rock lurching up on all sides. You wind around and around until you reach the village of La Hermida, which is a few kilometres along the gorge, and gets no sunlight from November to April. There is no land to cultivate, and no industry except for the occasional hotel and bar, but the village is a respectable size, and seems to be thriving.

Once thru the village you are immediately back in the defile of precipitous rocks. But as you approach the town of Potes the valley widens considerably, and the town sits in the middle of a mini-plain which is set right in the centre of the Picos.

Potes is a charming, alpine-style town which is the centre for walking and climbing trips in the Picos. It dates back to before the middle ages, and there are several old wooden houses and many twisty narrow streets only large enough to take a loaded donkey. There is a bent and crumbly eleventh century church, and a large medieval tower.

The town sits astride a deep gorge, with the river tumbling along the bottom. There is even a medieval bridge across the river, and just beyond the huddle of houses the alpine fields with sheep and cows. It is a charming country idyll, and a homely town.

The bars sell a raw-tasting cider, something akin to farmhouse scrumpy from Somerset. Even I found it a bit hard to take and I am used to scrumpy. It’s very much like the home made scrumpies you can get, many of which are sold too young and hence are rather raw, and so they give your stomach a hard time.

Outside some of the bars you will find a strange contraption fixed to the wall. The idea is that you buy a bottle of this cider, take it outside and fit it into the pump; push the plunger, and some of the contents are sucked out of the bottle and squirted into a glass that you have set in the holder at the bottom.

This area is mainly national park country. Here’s an extract from a local guide book:

“Parque del Macizo de Peñacabarga, which includes within its borders the Cábarceno karst, a spectacular reddish geological formation, encompasses a nature park with partially free roaming animals. The Parque Natural de Oyambre is a scenic park amid marshes and meadows with the Picos de Europa mountains as a backdrop. This is the place where the most diverse ecosystems co-exist. The Parque Natural Saja-Besaya sits between the basins of these two rivers and preserves considerable forests of beech and oak trees, where animal species threatened with extinction such as the brown bear and golden eagle can still be found. The Reserva Natural de las Marismas de Santona y Noja is a nature reserve around one of the most valuable estuaries ecologically in northern Spain. There are regularly more than 80 species of birds in the marshes .The Parque Nacional de los Picos de Europa, a national park containing the highest peaks in the Cantabrian mountains, has elevations exceeding 2,500 meters (8,200 feet) and landscapes of long narrow canyons and deep valleys.”

This would be ideal country to buy somewhere that you could live in yourself and rent out to tourists. There is skiing in the winter months, mountain climbing all year, and it is ideal for walking holidays from early spring till late autumn, with a summer season based around the coast. It must be the only part of Spain which is not over-subscribed with places to let.

I’d forgotten how much I like this area. I must go back this autumn.

john

Basque Country

Bilbao used to be the capital of the Basque country, nowadays the capital has moved south to Vitoria. Bilbao is a old industrial town. Back in the twentieth century this was one of the premier industrial towns of Spain. Now it is moving towards service industries. There is a vibrant port, which includes a passenger terminal where car/passenger ferries from the UK regularly berth. There is also an airport in the hills behind the city which is served by low-fare international airlines.

These days it is probably most famous for its art museum, the Guggenheim, which looks like a berthed ship made out of crumpled up silver paper.

To the east are the very scenic rolling hills that are the foothills to the Pyrenees. The border town of Irun is built on a collection of these steep hills fronting the sea.

A few miles west of Irun is the more sophisticated city of San Sebastian, where the royal family have traditionally spent the summer months away from the searing heat of Madrid. It is a charming city set round a conch-shaped bay, with fabulous restaurants, a great night life, and everything you could wish for. The climate is mild in the winter, and pleasantly hot in summer. It’s also a rather expensive place to live.

Forty or so miles to the south-east is the city of Pamplona, which I first visited in the sixties when it was a sleepy provincial town. Now it is a hectic modern monstrosity, but it still hosts that great piece of insanity, San Fermin’s fair, with its running of the bulls.

For this year, the dates of the fair are the 6 -14th July.

This fair dates back before the 12th century. The religious festival which pays homage to San Fermin marks the date he entered Amiens (France). Cattle fairs have also been held on this site since the reign of Carlos I in 1324. Bull fights first took place in the Plaza del Castillo on October 10th in the same year via Calle Chapitela which leads to the main square.

These days the festival is a mega-event, not just with the running of the bulls through the streets, but as a fully-featured family entertainment, with traditional music & dance, cultural sports, fairgrounds, and firework displays every night. It is simply nine days of fiesta!

You can check out the festival website:

http://www.sanfermintravelcentral.com/

Or watch the running of the bulls through the streets of Pamplona:

And if you want to watch a totally different approach to bulls in the corrida, have a look at this: No weapons, just the simple skill of man against beast, and nobody gets hurt. Some pretty neat acrobatics.

Those who like to see the bull get his own back might like to watch this, as some poor blighter gets his tights pulled off by the bull:

Hey guys, that’ll do for this week.

john

Northern Spain: Basque country

Why not move to Northern Spain?

This is the first part of a small series of articles about Northern Spain, or Green Spain as it is sometimes known. It is an under-rated area. I recommend it both as a holiday destination, and as somewhere to live.

Spain and France have overlapped at both ends of the Pyrenean mountain range. At the eastern end Catalonia has traditionally straddled the modern border. At the western end the Basque country similarly straddles the more modern political frontier. You enter the Basque region well before you get to Irun.

Basque place names are unpronounceable, and the spelling is something else. I am currently looking over a charming village set in the foothills of the Pyrenees. For the last twenty miles the place names have all been signed in French and Basque. St Jean de Pied de Port is known in Basque as Donibane Garazi, and we are eating in a jatetxea (restaurant). Most of the menus are in French and Basque, but I dont hear anybody speaking Basque. I suspect this Basque thing is all a bit of a fraud.

I suppose I had better be careful what I say about this subject as it is a political hot potato. It is undoubtedly true that the Basque language is original. There is nothing like it anywhere else, so the folk around here obviously have a very individual heritage. On the other hand, when I go to Galicia I hear the people speaking their own brand of Spanish/Portuguese, and no-one makes any fuss about it. In the Basque lands no-one seems to be speaking the language yet they make a big noise about it.

I also note that no-one made much fuss about Basque nationality until about 100 years ago. I suspect it is simply an excuse for politicians to create havoc and seek an extension of their own political power. I dont suppose there is much in the nationalist movement for the average guy in the street, but then, what’s new?

I’m still officially in France so the local tourist guides are strong on the local grub. They wax lyrical about the pigs, the charcuterie, the fresh water fish, especially trout, and of course, cheese.

As you drive along the roads there are signs everywhere inviting you to stop and taste the cheeses. There is even an Artzaintza eta Gasnaren Euskal Erakustokia, which to you and me is the local museum devoted to cheese.

Naturally there are also the local wines. I dont rate most of them. The rosé I had with my lunch wasn’t up to much, neither was the red. The local rosé vins de tables are thin and cloudy, with a sour under-taste. They are refreshing, but that is about all you can say for them. However, I am pleased to be in an area where the shops stock the wine of Jurançon.

The taste is similar to a smokey sauvignon, but it is made with grapes I am not otherwise familiar with: Lauzet, Petit and Grand Mansengs, and Courbu.

The bottle currently on my desk comes with a label celebrating ‘Le Bon Roy Henry’. I was amused at the spelling of the word for king, which should be ‘roi’. I assume roy is an old spelling. The allusion is to the baptism of King Henry IV (that’s the French Henri Quatre, not Shakespeare’s Henry). The wine acquired its celebrity after being used for the celebrations for the baptism of the king.

We drive through village after village. Some sport the ocre coloured walls standing close to a village square where the locals play Pelota.

When I was bumming around Spain when I should have been studying for my A-levels, I was puzzled to find adults playing this game, as it was a game we played at school, and I’d always thought of it as a kid’s game. We called it Fives. Here it is quite popular. Unlike the version we played at school the Basques play it very aggressively with speed and strength.

Here are a couple of You Tube video links:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XkEqs8QK6gU&feature=related
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nYyj_7ozBYw&feature=related

On the road to St Jean we passed through a quaint little village dating back to the fourteenth century. Let me quote you from the guide book:

“La Bastide Clairence is classified as one of the Plus Beaux Villages of France. This is a bastide with a Basque flavour. The houses are painted white and all have shutters painted in the deep red colour, occasionally green, typical of this region. (These are the traditional Basque colours.)

The bastide was founded in the XIV century by Louis I of Navarre, the future Louis X of France.

The church is more ornate on the outside than most in the area. Inside it has the wooden galleries around the edge which are often found in Basque churches which give them a warm, welcoming feel.”

There are some interesting caves further down the valley at Les Grottes de Sare. An underground river has hollowed out the rock, and produced some caves that were occupied way back in the stone age. There are also some reconstructed dolmens, and a museum. The village itself is another of those ‘plus belle villages de france’.

Finally we drive into St Jean de Pied de Port. It has grown very busy since I was last here. I remember a small town, almost empty, and a bit gloomy. It was on the way to nowhere. The main frontier town is Hendaye. No-one passed this way. I took a photo of the river, and drove up the hill to the pass of Roncevalles.

On this visit the town is bustling. The town spreads across both sides of the old walls, which are still clearly visible. Houses have been built alongside, and the old town is pretty much like all those old walled towns; a criss-cross of streets, with plenty of tourist shops.

At the bottom of the hill is the river, with a few balconied houses jutting over.

If I remember correctly the place was pillaged by Richard the Lion Heart. I dont remember why. Perhaps there was no real reason, only that someone annoyed him that morning, or perhaps he was showing off. I find it hard to get a grip on why these guys did what they did back then, and I’m only glad that I didn’t live in those times. I doubt whether I would have survived very long.

We stop for a meal. It isn’t that special. It is supposed to be local ham cooked in a pesto mix, with a special sauce, which is really just chopped tomato. It’s washed down with a very indifferent rosé. But the tablecloth is rather nice.

In the next article I will cross into Spain, and follow the old pilgrim route to Santiago de Compestella.

Meanwhile, for those of you who are not members of the Unique Property site, I do have some rather nice ruins for sale on the members’ section, with prices starting at €20,000. Well worth a look! You can join here:
http://www.property.org.uk/unique/index.html

john