Monday, October 22, 2012

Pilgrim’s Progress

We are now in Santiago, the destination of the famed pilgrim trail ‘Camino de Santiago de Compostela’. OK so we didn’t walk here, but I have a great excuse. We’ve enjoyed watching the ‘pilgrims’ along the way and admired their steadfast determination to keep going in the drizzle and even heavy rain, rather than pop into the nearest Tapas bar and stay there. (This is of course what we would have done).

Anyway, I digress. We left you in Rioja and from there headed for the ‘Picos de Europa’, a small but stunning mountain range in northern Spain.

Had a lovely stopover in Burgos on the way, where we met Peter and Nia from the UK and their border terriers, Colin and Penny. The dogs spent the evening sitting on our laps, very pleased with themselves. Burgos has wonderful cycle tracks, making it easy to get around and see the sights, mainly a massive cathedral and loads of bars in a characterful old quarter.
Bought some new wellies in Burgos - plastic, shiny and leopard skin pattern!!!

The road into the Picos was a challenge, but Hilda the Hymer, averaging 35kms per hour, made it to Potes without mishap. The landscape was very dramatic - jagged granite ridgelines, sweeping valleys, deep gorges, pretty streams, all bathed in soft autumn hues.
The Road in the Picos

The campsite was sensational, with views to die for and horses to feed. Actually the horses were very cheeky and knew how to beg for food over the fence, and of course me being a sucker, bought them a bag of carrots, and Lawrence fed them our lettuce.
Our beautiful campsite
View from the our spot.

We did a bit of walking, but the ankle still prevents me from doing too much, so we were happy to wander around Potes and walk up to the Monastery, famous for a scrap of the true cross. The faithful come up here by the busload to glimpse a piece of wood encased in silver and gold, that was allegedly part of the cross that Himself was nailed to. I remain sceptical.
Town of Potes
Beggar horses

Out next stop was, surprisingly, an obscure wine region, El Bierzo, where they make wine from traditional local varieties. Reds from Mencia, and whites from Godello and Doña Blanca. We popped into a Bodega late on a Friday afternoon, whilst they were celebrating the completion of vintage and were so surprised by a couple of tourists from Australia popping in, that we got the grand tour.  They opened a bottle of their top wine for us to taste and gave us the remainder to take home for dinner. Of course Lawrence felt obliged to buy 6 bottles of their very well made wine.

From there we headed to Leon, but the weather was terrible, 8 degrees and raining. There is no campsite within cooee, so we were obliged to spend the night in a municipal carpark (legally). It was like sleeping in Luna Park. The cathedral is worth seeing for the stained glass windows, quite extraordinary, but really you wouldn’t go out of your way to see the city.

Next stop was Lugo – renowned for fully intact Roman Walls.  Well we roamed the roman walls in Hilda the Hymer, around and around, but couldn’t find anywhere to park, so just abandoned the idea of lunch in Lugo and headed to Santiago.

As there are so few campsites in Galicia, we have decided to spend a week or two here and hire a cheap car to see the NW coast.

Then we’ll be off to Portugal.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Continuing Professional Development

We’ve just spent a week in La Rioja – for further education purposes of course!

La Rioja

 Being immersed in a wine region gives you such a great sense of the place. Our camp was literally minutes from the main bodegas of the Rioja Alta area, just outside Haro – the ‘capital’ of Rioja. We would ride our bikes around avoiding tractors and spilt grapes, breathing the aroma of fermenting grape juice. Being here in the middle of harvest was really exciting.
Bringing in the harvest

Our 4 bodega tours were incredibly interesting and all so different, ranging from a very very traditional style of winemaking through to the mass production hi-tech of Marques de Riscal. At R. Lopez de Heridia, they are still making wine the same way they have been for 120 years, the only concession to the modern world is the use of tractor and truck rather than horse and cart. They even make their own barrels. This wine was the best we tasted. How they can achieve such an elegant wine with an uncontrolled fermentation and 70 year old barrels in beyond me!
Hand-made to mass production

We saw wine being racked manually, oak fermenters being emptied by shovel, and ancient basket presses in action, right through to mass production bottling lines, doing 6000 bottles per hour!!!

Traditionally Rioja is not released for sale until it is ready to drink, having spent its required time in the barrel (1-5 years depending on its classification) and the 2-3 years in the bottle. For travellers like us this is wonderful as you can buy properly aged wine for a reasonable price and drink it immediately. Naturally we tasted a lot and bought too much – the magic cupboard is fit to burst. Life doesn’t get much better

The town of Haro also boasts loads of excellent pintxo bars, so we didn’t miss San Sebastian too much.

Pintxos, pintxos, pintxos...

We took a bus to Bilbao one day as I wanted to see the Bilbao Guggenheim to add to my collection. The building is simply stunning, hard to imagine anyone conceiving of its design, let alone building it. Gaudi on hallucinogens?? Also designed by Frank Gehry, the winery hotel at Marques de Riscal is reminiscent of its big brother in Bilbao with the same titanium plate curves and waves. The gallery is definitely a case of form over substance as the collections were disappointing – I really don’t ‘get’ modern art!

Guggenheim Bilbao   -   Marques de Riscal Winery Hotel

We also spent some rewarding hours in the local Dinastia Vivanco wine museum. Not being great museum people, we were surprised at how long we spent there, and how fascinating the exhibits. It was incredibly interesting and beautifully put together. There was even a glass of wine to finish your visit!

The last 2 nights saw us watching amazing thunderstorms and enduring very heavy rain, wondering how the growers would be feeling. Fortunately the days were dry enough and most of the harvest has been bought in.

Time to move on – but with enough in the cupboard to see us through and remind of us of our time here.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

South Across the Border

We have finally made it back to Spain, 6 months after I fell off my bike. Our passage across the border was fairly low key as we weren’t actually sure if we’d crossed. We stopped for a coffee and ordered café von leche and Americano which seemed to work. So, no trumpets or bells, just a sort of silent slink. However, we did see a policeman running after a chubby hooker, which amused me. I wasn’t sure if he wanted to arrest her or was after a quickie, we’ll never know.

Our first destination in the land of tapas was San Sebastian. The city boasts that it is the food capital of the world. We spent some time doing on the ground research into this claim and have concluded it is well founded. As we are still very much in Basque country, the tapas here are known as pintxos (pronounced: pinchose). Every bar in the city is laden with them and the quality and variety is staggering.
Not a great photo but this food was sensational!

You could spend days and days just eating pinxtos and never having the same thing twice. Every one is a taste sensation. The wine by the glass is also great value at around 2 euros for a decent Verdejo. In other words we are in paradise!!  A lovely campsite and beautiful weather adds to our sense of bliss. It did take three GPS’s to actually get to the campsite. James and Tom were hopeless, typically male, couldn’t admit they were lost and wouldn’t ask for directions. Katie got us there in the end.
Shiny San Sebastian

Wrapped around a deep bay, the city itself is lovely and the beaches inviting, but slightly too cold for a girl from Perth. The entire city was destroyed in 1831 by mercenary soldiers who raped, pillaged and plundered San Sebastian as payment for services rendered in helping to reclaim this part of Spain. All that remains of the original city are a few bits of churches, but still it retains a charm of its own.
San Sebastian beach

We left San Sebastian and headed along the coast, choosing a narrow, winding and hilly route, which Lawrence navigated with a mix of skill and ignorance. We found a campsite perched on a hill above a fishing port. The views were stunning and we spent a fair amount of time just sitting and looking at it – sometimes with a glass of plonk in our hand.
The coast road
Our surprise camp on the coast
Favourite bar near our camp

Next stop Rioja!!!

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Back in the Saddle

Once again - am about a week behind - oh well...
We’ve just spent 4 wonderful days in Arcachon on the Atlantic coast west of Bordeaux. The camp was beautifully situated near cycle tracks and close to town. It was a great opportunity for me to really get back into cycling proper and lose my fear of falling off every 5 seconds. First day we did 15 kms or so and 2nd around 20kms – not exactly the tour de France, but enough to get ne back in my stride.
Dune du Pilat

We rode out to Europe’s highest sand dune (some claim to fame!), Dune du Pilat. Much to our surprise it was a real tourist Mecca, complete with tacky tourist shops and icecream sellers. When we arrived, Lawrence announced “I’m certainly not climbing up that, and nor are you I would think!” That was red rag to a bull, so up we climbed – but it’s a cheat as there are stairs! The views are wonderful and worth the effort.
Cap Ferret

We caught the ferry across to Cap Ferret where the rich and famous hang out, but they must have been having a day off as we only saw the same tourists as any other day. Managed to find a great lunch and the sun was shining, so no complaints.

The architecture here is really interesting – a touch of alpine, a dash of neo-gothic frippery, a hint of Australian Federation, making quite a pleasing mix.
Typical Architecture

After Arcachon we headed south to Biarrtiz, which is a soulless place but has an interesting coastline. Just inland, Bayonne is lovely and retains the character of its past and unadulterated Basque architecture.
Biarritz Coastline

South again, we hit St Jean de Luz for 2 nights. This was a lovely surprise with a camp right by the beach, sleeping with the sound of the breakers. The town is charming and like many of these old towns, the streets are free from cars and walking is a pleasure.
Always love a good cloister - this one in Biarritz