Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Prancing Around the Pyrenees

This is our last day in Spain. After almost 7 months and around 30 campsites in Spain and Portugal we are heading over the border tomorrow to France.

We are camped in a wonderful site in the Spanish Pyrenees surrounded by snow capped peaks and lovely alpine style villages. From the camp we have access to walking trails that have aided our fitness campaign. After weeks on end of bad weather, we were feeling unfit and slightly overweight (hardly surprising if you‘ve been following this blog).
Local Village of Biescas - there's always a white van in the way!

Campiste and Facilities
The campsite has very fabulous facilities, especially the bathrooms. However, there is a curious (if very clear) notice in the ladies loo “INTIMATE WIPES PULL PROHIBIED TO THE TOILET RISK OF SHOOTING”.
Walking pic

Walking pic
On our walk - 12th century monsatery

After 4 days of abstinence we fell off the wagon in a big way culminating in our final Sunday Lunch. We adore Sunday lunch in Spain, not that other countries don’t do it well, but there is something special about it in Spain. The campsite has a marvellous restaurant that locals and tourists alike flock to – not so unusual in Spanish campsites.

We drank a wonderful local Gewurtztraminer, spicy and floral with a racy acidity. A most unusual wine for Spain, but as usual, Lawrence consulted our favourite wine guru Hugh Johnson* for tips, and came up trumps once again.

We had a very wet and cold day last week and I decided it was a good time to do a complete wine inventory, and sort out the magic cupboard. Well, what a surprising morning that was. We found wine we had bought in France 8 months ago that we had completely forgotten about. The next 2 nights were spent in high style drinking Grand Cru Classé St Estephe and Saumur-Champigny. We also found a Cremant de Loire which we will quaff to celebrate Anzac day next week (any excuse). Of course April 25 is also the one year anniversary of the 2nd operation on my ankle. Our total inventory is 65 bottles of wine – yikes!!

Speaking of weather (yes, we are obsessed about the weather), it has continued to be warm and sunny (apart from that one morning). After our long walks in the mountains, we have come home to flop in our sun lounges and do some late afternoon bird watching in the supine position. This is my kind of birding! Lying in a comfy chair, possibly a glass of something tasty, binoculars at the ready, watching kites, vultures and eagles whirling about on the thermals above us.

Bird Watching Pyrenees Style
We’re enjoying the long warm evenings and the pleasure of eating alfresco at 8pm, cooking on the barbeque – what a treat after our wet, cold winter.

We seem to have developed a rather strange habit of stockpiling local food and wine before crossing borders. On leaving France we stocked up on cassoulet and French wine, on leaving Spain for Portugal we stocked up on olive oil, jamon and wine, on leaving Portugal, we stocked up on olive oil, wine and cheese, and on leaving Spain again we are stocking up on wine, olive oil, sheep and goats cheese, chorizo, sherry and jamon. It’s as though the next country will not have enough tasty food and wine to satisfy our appetites! But can you blame us when we just bought a case of decent white wine for 16 euros (no, I’m not kidding).

We are really going to miss fabulous, wonderful, surprising Spain, but are looking forward to arriving in France. We will head through the Somport Tunnel and pop out into the French Pyrenees. Our planned route of the Col du Portalet has been closed due to an avalanche!

A bientÔt.

* We love Hugh Johnson (and we are sure he loves us), and our favourite quote from him is “I don’t score out of 100 because I don’t know how”. This is a subtle but very firm dig at Robert Parker’s 100 point system which has absolutely no methodology behind it.  We, of course, loath it also.

Monday, April 15, 2013

We are in Pamplona – No Bull!

We’ve just spent the last 5 days in Pamplona. I’m happy to report that there were no hapless bulls being terrorised in the streets, being chased into the Plaza de Toros for further torture.

This seems such a tame, civilised provincial city, it’s hard to imagine how this madness called a ‘festival’ came about.

Pamplona Main Square

Anyway spring has sprung and the sun is shining and we are very very happy. I can’t tell you what a joy it is to jump on our bicycles and zip along the cycle track to a nearby village or into the city. Having said that, on day one – we did get a soaking on the way home, but skies are now blue and the days are warm.

But, I’m getting ahead of myself. I last left you as we were preparing to visit Vega Sicilia in Ribera Del Duero. It is not open to the general riff-raff, but Lawrence managed to wangle a visit somehow. He even made me do my homework before we went, so we would look knowledgeable and professional. Happily, there was not a test.

We got the grand tour and I began to see why it’s so damn expensive. This really is state-of-the-art winemaking. No expense is spared. Every piece of equipment is custom designed, even down to the stainless steel pallets (yes, you read that right).

The vineyard is tended by hand, and the winemaking is slow and gentle with great care taken at every step to ensure that the wine is perfect.

We got to taste the entire range, but they were way too young as they need 20-30 years of bottle aging. I’ll be dead before the recent vintage is drinking. They don’t have any for sale, so we went home and drank our 2 euro wine with dinner.
Barrel Fermentation Room

Vega Sicilia Tasting Room Set in a Japanese Garden

We spent one night in Logroño (Rioja Baja) but the campsite was expensive (29 euros – yikes!) and it was too cold to do any vineyards, so we headed for Pamplona. Plus, you may remember, we had such a brilliant time in Haro in Rioja Alta last year during the harvest, we felt we’d really DONE Rioja.

The camp here is 9kms from the city and there is a marvellous cycle track that follows the river into town, dotted with picturesque villages and medieval bridges. For Sunday lunch we walked to a nearby village and had another delicious meal. The highlight was my pork cheek braised in Pedro Ximinez (sweet, sticky sherry).
Village Along the Cycletrack
Being in Basque country, the Pintxo bars are fab - innovative tapas tempting you at every turn. We declined to go into the cathedral, yet another gothic monstrosity, for 10 euros and decided that a vino and pintxo was a better way to spend our money. I’m sure God will understand even if the Pope doesn’t.
Pintxo - note the water
As we have been overindulging again, we are now on the veg, water and exercise regime. We did 30kms today – all on cycletrack, quite a lot on our 20” wheels.
Veg Diet

Tomorrow we are heading for Jaca in the foothills of the Pyrenees.

The magic cupboard is filled with Spanish and Portuguese wine for when we get to France - figure that out!!!

Monday, April 8, 2013

Groundhog Day? Portugal Again!

Last time we went to Portugal, we honestly thought it would be the last. As we drank our last Delta coffee and stuffed the last custard tart down our gullets, we said our farewells to the land of Port. But, as it happens, we have just spent another 2 days in this beguiling country.

This time it really is the last trip to Portugal (honestly). From Tordesillas it is only 100kms to the border and there was a part of Portugal we hadn’t seen, so we took our bright blue ice-cream van (aka the hired Citroen Picasso) across to Miranda do Douro, where the Spanish Duero becomes the Portuguese Douro. We checked into the Pousada and watched Egyptian Vultures swooping in the deep gorge below us searching for easy prey.
View of Douro/Duero from our Pousada
From there we drove to Braganҫa in north-east Portugal. The town itself is unremarkable except for a wonderful castle / citadel on the hill that is a joy to wander around. We found a brilliant little hotel – La Tulipa – for 45 euros a night including breakfast, free parking and Wifi.
Braganca Castle
The real surprise was the restaurant where we ate both nights. Serving delicious local specialities, we were in foodie heaven – again! The real winner for us was the wine collection. We could simply fossick amongst the wine shelves and decide which local aged wine we would drink. The first night we had a 1998 Douro for 9 euros to accompany our meat fest. We both had so much meat on our plate it was impossible to do it any justice. The second night we shared an entrée and main course and chose another beautifully aged local wine. The entrée was an unusual local sausage served with a mountain of baked potatoes. The main course was veal loin cooked on a stone, served very rare, cooking slowly to perfection at your table. The cost was around 35 euros (including wine) and still we could not eat it all.

We spent a fun half hour after dinner with a local English teacher helping her to translate the menu into English. Most of you will know how tricky it is to translate menus, and the results can be hilarious for the unwary. We’ve seen some classic ‘Google Translate’ menus. As a reward the lovely hotel patron gave us a bottle a wine as he could see that we were very keen on the regional wines.

We also persuaded him to sell us some wines of the shelf and walked away with 4 bottles of aged wine from ‘Douro’ and ‘Tras os Montes’ at an average of 10 euros per bottle. Incredible value and worth so much more to us.

Speaking of funny translations, we were recently directed by a brochure to the ‘historic helmet’ (Casco Historico) – or more commonly translated as the historic centre of town.

We spent a wonderful day driving in the very NE corner of the country and crossed into Spain several times (mostly by accident). We drove through ancient villages with tumbledown houses and crooked bridges, with snow capped sierra in the background. We naturally found a taberna for lunch serving wild boar and rice stew (we also had to buy some local goat cheese). It was the warmest day we’ve had for a long time and I could walk about unencumbered by a puffy coat. In the last month the thermometer has struggled to reach double figures. 
NE Portugal looking across to Spain
Ancient Portuguese Village
Lunch in Gimonde Taberna

On the way back we stopped at Zamora in Spain to see some wonderful Romanesque churches. We could only get into one – but it was perfectly preserved and untouched by the gothic, baroque, renaissance  ‘enhancements’.

Zamora also surprised us with the food. We meandered about hungry and aimless for a while before we found the ‘restaurant district’. Of course, it was centred at the Plaza Mayor where we wandered into a tapas bar. Oh boy! – those tapas were some of the best we’ve eaten. Simply delicious and so cheap.

Last week, back in Ribera Del Duero we also had a wonderful meal at a winery- amazing melt-in-the-mouth roast lamb with a bottle of their own wine. It was so good we went back for a winery tour the next day.
Roast Lamb!
Tomorrow we have managed to score a visit to Vega Sicilia. Most of you will know that this is Spain’s most expensive and most celebrated wine. I’m keen to find out why! I’m not sure if we’ll get to taste any of the revered nectar – but I sure hope so. My next blog will be from Logrono, Rioja Baja, so will definitely report on our success in this pursuit.

I think it’s time for the ‘vege and water’ diet again – has to happen soon.


Tuesday, April 2, 2013

The Golden City on the Silver Way

We spent Semana Santa (holy week) in Salamanca. Easter is a really big deal in Spain and nowhere more than this glorious city which was brimming with Spanish tourists.

Built from golden sandstone, Salamanca is simply stunning. Boasting magnificent buildings, wonderful churches, a stupendous Plaza Mayor and an enormous gothic Cathedral (do you love all my adjectives?). Such is the size of the Cathedral, it can be seen from 20kms or more away. I wonder if you can see it from the moon???
Salamanca Cathedral
Inside is filled with soaring gothic columns reaching up to beautiful vaulted ceilings filled with light from the lantern dome. We’ve seen so many wonderful churches and cathedrals that we have stopped photographing most of them and I don’t usually rave about them – bit this one is something to behold. The old Romanesque cathedral (15th century) is adjoined and we did a wonderful rooftop tour that took us from the new to the old including balconies allowing us to look down into the naves of both.

Wonderful Cloister at San Estaban

Salamanca also boasts wonderful tapas bars. Really delicious food spread out on the bars, proving irresistible to hungry, thirsty tourists. One bar we had 6 tapas, 6 glasses of wine for around 18 euros. Too hard to describe them but incredibly tasty bits of goats cheese and of course black pudding!!!! (OK – I’m obsessed.)

They also love a good parade and every day there was something happening. Purple pointy hats (KKK style) on the first day, culminating on Easter Sunday with 3 processions coming together at the cathedral. The people were out in their thousands and the bars were heaving afterwards – great atmosphere.
The Virgin gets carted around the streets at every opportunity.
Jesus Christ!
Easter Bonnet Parade

We hired a car again to do some touring and did a side trip to Portugal – again. This time we headed to Ciudad Rodrigo a lovely mediaeval town on the border. Our destination was Guarda which we found to be completely uninspiring (we couldn’t even find a bar!), and we carried on to pretty Trancoso. It was so cold that we didn’t feel like wandering around the ruined castle and drove on.

With no real destination in mind we stumbled upon Almeida, which was not only a wonderful walled town but had a Pousada (similar to Parador in Spain – government run hotels, usually located in convent, monasteries, castles etc). We booked in and spent a rewarding couple of hours wandering around the star shaped walls (complete with moat). The temperature seemed about 10 degrees higher and the rain had stopped – very happy. Also managed a delicious dinner of goat with a few local vinos.
A plan showing the star shaped walls
Next day we drove home to Hilda via the Sierra, but the whole area was cold and foggy and heaving with tourists.

Our last side trip saw us in the mediaeval town of Avila, east of Salamanca. Inside the imposing city walls are tributes to Santa Teresa who founded the Barefoot Carmelites. I think she would’ve hated all the hoo-ha surrounding her as her philosophy was the simple life, getting back to basics, I mean she didn’t even own a pair of shoes!
The Walled City of Avila
We are now in Tordesillas in the Ribera del Duero wine region and will attempt to do some tasting, but wine tourism doesn’t seem to be big here. The town’s claim to fame is the Treaty of Tordesillas in 1494. The head honchos of Spain and Portugal got together here and rather arrogantly divided up the new world between them. Happily they hadn’t discovered Australia then or we’d be eating dinner at 11pm and speaking with a lisp.

From here we’ll head to Rioja Baja (a bit more wine tasting), then Pamplona and up through the Pyrenees to France.

Sorry for the rather long blog – seems we’ve been doing a lot!!

PS: Lawrence is cooking Risotto ai Porcini tonight with my home-grown basil!!!

PPS: It’s been so cold I’ve been wearing my puffy coat. In Spain. In Spring.

Lawrence supports Kate's Black Pudding addiction at the Salamanca Market