Basque Country – Hondarribia, Day 1

With the Christmas and New Year celebrations over and a new year of organising travel in Spain about to begin, I decided to take a short break with my family for a few days.


I chose to go to Hondarribia in the Basque Country which is a beautiful medieval town with cobbled streets and which has a charming fisherman´s quarter with tall, colourful houses and great little restaurants. Hondarribia is situated on the mouth of the Bidasoa Estuary and looks across at Hendaye in the French Pays Basque. A more picturesque place would be hard to find and as a base for exploring from, Hondarribia offers a whole host of daytrips.


DAY 1

We set off on 6th January travelling from our home in Cantabria along the scenic Cantabrian and Basque coast. Along the way we stopped for lunch and a walk in the pretty town of Zarauz not far from San Sebastian.
 

Zarauz is famous for it´s fine, sandy beach which draws many tourists in the summer as well as surfers seeking out one of the best beaches in northern Spain to practise their sport. Zarauz is home to the charismatic and well-known TV chef, Karlos Arguiñano whose restaurant is here also. 


In fact there are many excellent restaurants in Zarauz where good food is taken seriously. The town is known for the production of txakoli, a dry white sparkling wine that comes from this region. Well worth trying if you ever get a chance. The town also boasts an excellent esplanade along which can be found quite a number of interesting sculptures. It´s a great town for families and many of Totally Spain´ clients have enjoyed staying in or near here over the years.

Upon the recommendation of a friend we made our way for lunch to the Plaza Musika and the Txiki Polit Restaurant. This proved to be a good move for a number of reasons. The place is obviously a favourite with the locals and has a lively, friendly atmosphere.

Upon entering we admired two nice murals by the very up-and-coming Basque artist Angel Uranga who is a native of Zarauz and has his studio here. The food in the restaurant was excellent and very good value for money. We ate their 18 euro menu and for this we enjoyed giant langostinos, seafood and mushroom crepes, fillet steak with a pepper sauce, dessert and wine. Truly satisfied we decided afterwards to stroll along the esplanade taking photos and admiring the sculptures. It was a perfect start to our break and it reminded us of how lovely the Basque coast is and what a pleasure it can be to travel in low season.

Hondarribia was only a short drive from Zarauz and we were lucky to find parking right outside our hotel in the fisherman´s quarter, the very well run 3 star family owned Jauregui Hotel & Apartments. It´s a very good base for couples and for families. We booked one of their duplex apartments which was ideal. The apartments are currently being modernised with the bathrooms and the kitchens having already been completed. The rest will be done over the coming months but with no inconvenience to guests.

After checking in we headed out for a stroll through the fisherman´s quarter, which was still very festive, and along the esplanade with views over to Hendaye with it´s backdrop of the Atlantic Pyrenees. It is extremely pretty and as sailing is very popular in this area the estuary is filled with colourful swaying boats which add to the lovely landscape. During the day a small launch shuttles people back and forward across the bay within minutes. Having picked up some tasty goodies at a delicatessen near to the hotel we enjoyed dining in this evening. Stay tuned – More on this trip to follow soon.

 

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Apple Cider and Fun in Gijon, Asturias

It has been some time since I have written in our blog about our travels but after having just spent a terrific weekend in the lovely city of Gijon in Asturias, I´ve been prompted to do just that. Our base was at the 4 star Parador de Gijon, a converted old mill situated in the Isabel La Catolica Park, where we were kindly given a spacious, superior room with 4 poster bed overlooking the park and it´s many bird inhabitants. The perfect location from which to explore this fine Northern Spanish coastal city.

The people of Asturias are so friendly and welcoming and they enjoy a cuisine to die for. Our first evening, despite being in Asturias, we couldn´t resist having a pre-dinner drink at O´Rison, a Galician bar/ restaurant situated on Calle Emilio Tuya that specialised in the most delicious octopus and lacon (boiled ham) accompanied by a tasty Ribeiro wine served in the typical ceramic cup known as a “taza” or “cunca”.

Our appetites whetted, we headed to La Fueya de Tomas, a traditional sidreria or ciderhouse situated on the Calle Marques de Urquijo. Asturians drink fresh apple cider like the Irish drink Guinness and therefore cider houses can be found on nearly every corner of this city where they are also known for serving tasty traditional Asturian cuisine. Here we enjoyed a scrumptious meal that included squid calamares a fogaos, cecina (cured beef), beef cooked with a cabrales cheese sauce, seafood salad and several other dishes all washed down with fresh apple cider. Mmmm. Happy and content we retired back to our cosy room at the Parador de Gijon.

The following day we spent exploring the city and strolling along the marvelous promenade that runs the length of the San Lorenzo Beach and Bay.

We saw the Eduardo Chillida statue that dominates the headland.

We also saw the impressive Roman baths which are very well preserved and certainly worth a visit. Lunch today was at the wonderful Sidreria El Pozu L´Arena which is at the junction of Calle Manso and Calle Marques de Urquijo. The owner had spent a decade working in the mines in Asturias and his restaurant is now a museum dedicated to mining. We ate their incredible 4-course, 12 euro menu-of-the-day ( yes, only 12 euros) from which we choose a stunning, spicy seafood soup followed by a clams and giant mushrooms, followed by roasted goat, followed by dessert. A remarkable meal at a remarkable price and a highlight of the weekend.

At this time of the year the traditional Christmas market is open in Gijon in the Plaza del Instituto so after lunch we headed there and enjoyed some last minute shopping. An intended brief refreshment stop at the Sidreria La Verja on Avenida de la Costa turned out to be longer than expected as the barman was extremely friendly and kept us plied with tapas, cider and his good humour as we tried to learn the art of escanciar or pouring cider from a height to aerate it.

This evening we dined in the Parador where they are celebrating the chain´s 80th anniversary this year with a range of interesting menus based on the cuisine offered in Paradores hotels across Spain.

On our last morning before heading home to Cantabria, we left Gijon and made our way to Villaviciosa. This small, pretty town is right in the heart of the cider-producing region and is to cider what Rioja is to wine. The famous El Gaitero cider comes from here. In the main plaza, Plaza Generalisimo, we ate another superb lunch at the Sidreria Meana consisting of fabada, the famous Asturian bean stew followed by roasted suckling lamb and, you guessed it, fresh cider.

I´ve been to Asturias many times and it is a place that I always feel comfortable, I always enjoy myself and I always miss it when I leave. It´s simply marvelous and always lives up to it´s reputation as a Natural Paradise.

 

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Wineries of Castilla La Mancha

The wineries of Castilla La Mancha have always intrigued me and I had the pleasure of spending the last weekend of October discovering some of the amazing, boutique wineries to be found in the Castilla La Mancha region.  This is the biggest wine region in Spain and perhaps the least known as a producer of quality wines. They do produce excellent wines here although the majority of the wineries struggle to compete in the national market. My trip started in Madrid from where I took the high speed train to Ciudad Real. Remarkably it´s only 40 minutes to get there and well worth keeping in mind as another ideal daytrip or overnight stay from Madrid.

WINERIES OF CASTILLA LA MANCHA

The first winery I went to see was Pago del Vicario near Ciudad Real. I stayed here as they have attached to the winery a lovely 4 star boutique hotel, very modern and chic. The winery´s restaurant was terrific too, one whole side being entirely glazed and affording great views of the interior of the bodega.  I didn´t get a chance to try the pool but it did look inviting. In summer they put on live music events and dining outdoors. A great approach by this winery looking to open it´s doors to the world. I´d recommend staying here for a night en route from Madrid to Cordoba. You won´t be disappointed. And their wine is simply wonderful.

Next I went to see the Dionisos winery in Valdepeñas. This was an incredible experience. Known as the Winery of the Stars this family winery dates back to the early 19th century and practises biological farming. All the decisions regarding the cultivation of grapes, harvesting, etc are taken based on the stars, the cosmic rhythms and lunar cycle. Inside the winery they have an inflatable globe large enough for 12 or more people to sit inside and contemplate the universe which they have projected on the walls of the globe. The wines produced here have won a number of awards. I highly recommend visiting Dionisos. It´s unique.

I next went to see the Bodegas Real another marvellous winery with an excellent restaurant where I enjoyed lunch.  While at this winery I had the opportunity to enjoy some additional activities including a flight in a hot air balloon followed by a very unique guided tour through the vineyards on segways. Great fun.

 

My next stop was at the charming  Bodegas Castiblanque in Campo de Criptana another family run winery but what a winery. It was a pleasure to visit. The people here eat, drink and sleep the world of wines.  Our host while there, Miguel Angel Castiblanque, was charm personified. Later I was delighted to discover that on the outskirts of Campo de Criptana, you can visit the famous white windmills made famous by Cervantes in Don Quixote. Miguel Angel kindly took me to see them.

My last stop on this whirlwind tour was in Toledo at the Viñedo Cigarral Santa Maria situated in an unforgettable location in the hills above Toledo. This small yet impressive winery is owned by Adolfo Muñoz, a famous restaurateur who has a string of successful businesses to his name including a fine 5 star hotel. They produce just 4500 bottles of wine a year here but each bottle is much sought after. I enjoyed an incredible lunch here while soaking up the views of Toledo city. Later I took the high speed train from Toledo to Madrid, a mere 30 minute journey.

 

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