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travel, stories, and other flights of fancy

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El Camino de Santiago, País Vasco

The Basque Country is where my journey began, and couldn’t have begun better. Although the north route of the Camino officially departs from Irún, the truth is that you can start anywhere you want to. Some people come down from the west coast of France, others from further abroad. I met one guy who’d walked all the way from his front door somewhere in The Netherlands.

friendly stamping stationI started in Hondaribbia, a small port town right next to Irún, and as luck would have it, where a friend of a colleague from Segovia happens to live. This was a blessing.

Despite being a girl, and having a terrible sense of direction, I was always adamant about walking the Camino alone, and wasn’t the least bit afraid to do so. I knew a few people who’d done it, or who knew people who knew people who’d done it, and they all said to me “tranquila, you’ll be fine”. Apparently alone is the best way to go. However, for some reason I was slightly apprehensive about starting by myself, and particularly about spending that first night alone in Irún. From the website, the albergue (pilgrims’ hostel) looked cold and unfriendly. I had visions of lying awake there on the eve of the Camino, locked in under curfew, staring at the underside of the bunk above me, tormented by more visions – of getting lost in the morning and all the terrible things that could happen to me on the road. “What on earth am I doing?”, I would ask myself, and then answer myself with disparaging criticism, self doubt, and the realisation that the whole idea (of carrying me and my baggage over 800km) was damn crazy.

Fortunately, those thoughts didn’t enter my head until much later on the Camino, when it was far too late to turn back. The beginning of my trip ended up being perfect.

Upon finding out that I was doing the Camino and intending to start from Irún, a colleague/friend of mine had been quick to offer me a Basque friend of hers’ hospitality. The two of them had met on the Camino, walked various routes and parts of routes (together and separately), volunteered in albergues, and could easily be classified as ‘Camino enthusiasts’. They turned out to be the best possible company for a slightly underprepared and suddenly-very-alone-feeling Australian girl. I was picked up from the bus station by the bubbly, smiling pair, driven to their house, and “checked in” to my very own room with soft carpet and a double bed with fresh sheets (it would be a while before I slept in one of them again). They even provided me with my own guidebook, some blank pilgrim’s passports, and a scallop shell painted with the red cross of St.John (none of which I’d thought to organise before leaving). We had lunch in their back yard, looking out to France across the port. My “Camino Eve” consisted of a walk around the historic parts of Hondarribia, swimming with the locals, a seafood dinner with the family, ice-cream, and not a bad nights’ sleep after all.

lighthouse at PasajesOn the first day of the Camino, I only did a half etapa (stage), from Hondarribia to Pasajes de San Juan, in order to ease into the walking. My friend accompanied me the whole way, which was, for her, just a light little 16km stroll. She set a good pace and gave me invaluable tips on the Camino, such as where to look for arrows (everywhere), what the crosses mean (“not this way”), how to strike up conversation with other pilgrims, how to graciously move on or back or away (when you’d prefer to walk alone or with someone else), which towns to stop at, where to try what food, and so on. We arrived in Pasajes (a picturesque mini toy port town) by lunchtime and were met by her friend, who was actually born and raised there (he moved to “Hondarribia City” as an adult). We had another swim and another delicious seafood meal, and then said our farewells. They left me at the albergue door to fend for myself, but not before somehow getting word out in the village that I was to be taken care of. When the hospitalero (albergue manager) arrived at 4pm to a queue of pilgrims longer than the number of beds he could provide, his first move was to ask if there was an Australian girl amongst us, and usher me in. Talk about special treatment!

So that’s how it started – almost all too easily. I kept waiting for things to unravel and all go wrong, but thankfully, they never quite did. The first few stages I was just flying, high on life, warm fuzzies, and the whole “I can’t believe I’m doing this” feeling.

Whilst the walking was hard (much harder than expected), the remarkable scenery kept me distracted, and bushy tailed enthusiasm kept me going.  I hadn’t done any specific pre-Camino preparation (in fact I was carrying a slight knee injury which made going downhill a bit of an ordeal), but thanks to all the running and walking I did in Segovia, I had no real problem adapting to my new Camino lifestyle of hiking all day, every day. My knee magically healed itself, I bonded with my backpack, got into the walking groove, and (when not wading through mud) just enjoyed the scenery. Which was the whole idea.

Pobeña, País Vasco The Basque country is, true to its reputation, a land of lush countryside, pristine beaches, and incredible food. But that could be said for the whole north coast – it’s all green, hilly, rainy, beachy and yummy. Yet each of the four regions I passed through (The Basque Country, Cantabria, Asturias and Galicia) had a distinct feel to it, a particular identity. And none more so than the Basque Country. Although technically part of Spain, it has a very strong feel of, I don’t know, separateness… something intangibly different which I’m probably not the best person to identify or describe.

Language is a huge part of Basque identity, probably the biggest. Although almost everyone speaks Spanish, there was very little of it in the air, and nothing else even remotely Latin sounding. Euskera (Basque) is, as far as I can make out, totally different from every other language – it doesn’t sound like anything I can put my finger on. It’s not unpleasant on the ear however, and despite its weirdness, it’s not too hard to imitate. Most pilgrims picked up a little and exchanged occasional pleasantries with locals, such as ‘kaixo’ (hello), ‘aupa’ (hello, encouragement, yes you can make it to the top of the hill), and ‘eskerrik asko’ (thank you, which was easy to remember as it was written on all the restaurant napkins). My favourite was ‘muxu bat’, pronounced, ‘mushu bat’, meaning ‘one kiss’. Or something like that. It’s important to be friendly.

Basque FlagAside from language, something visually distinctive about region was the number of flags and banners everywhere, especially in the smaller villages. The most common was the green, red and white Basque flag. There were also plain bright pink or red flags, to support local rowing teams (especially in Pasajes, which is famous for rowing). However the most striking banners were black and white, with Basque separatist, anti-Spain slogans. Many featured an outline of the Basque state, surrounded by inward pointing arrows; it called for imprisoned ETA terrorists to be brought home. Similar slogans and designs were often found on posters, cafe napkins, shop fronts and stencil graffiti, again mostly in the smaller towns. Since moving to Spain I’ve seen a fair bit on the news about Basque terrorists, anniversaries of attacks, memorials for victims, and the associated political minefield. It’s all pretty over my head, and as there hasn’t been an ETA attack in the time that I’ve lived there, hard to really fathom as a reality. A quick search on Wikipedia gives an approximated death toll of over 800 people since the late sixties. Most were small bombings, in car parks or on trains, blatantly targeting civilians. No wonder the hurt, anger and fear is still fresh amongst many Spaniards. For me it was a strange sensation, walking around tranquil, civilised, proud Basque communities, knowing that somewhere in the midst, there were ETA sympathisers. There would surely be friends, family, and acquaintances of the condemned terrorists, who may or may not support or feel ashamed of them, who may or may not believe in or desire independence, and who may or may not condone the use of violence (I’m assuming that the vast majority don’t), or harbour anti Spanish sentiment. Being an “anglo spanglophile”, I did feel just a little on edge a couple of times. Not from any clear threat or ill will (everyone was lovely), more as a knee-jerk reaction to the palpable political intensity. But mostly it was just sad to think about how messed up the world is, even in a place as picturesque and fertile as the Basque Country.

arriving in San Sebastián In the cities it was different. Going by what I saw, everything was more cosmopolitan, everyone spoke Spanish (or English), and was out to either make money or have a good time.

It’s hard to really enjoy a big city when you’re on the Camino, because you lose half a day in arriving, and generally need to leave at the crack of dawn the following day. Galleries, museums, shopping, and big nights out are off the cards. Of course you can stop for a few days, recharge in a hotel or whatever, but then you run the risk of losing your rhythm (plus time and money), and it gets harder to get going again.

Fortunately, I’d already been to Bilbao. I spent a weekend there a couple of years ago, just to see the Guggenheim. Which meant that for my one night there on the Camino, I was content to just amble, have a couple of drinks, buy some groceries, admire the funky bohemians playing music in the winding streets of the old town, and wonder how I’d go living there.

pinxtos in San SebastianIn San Sebastian, an afternoon on the beach and a low key bar crawl was more than enough to sate my appetite and curiosity about the place. San Seb (Donostia in Basque) is said to be the most expensive Spanish city to live in, and it’s also an internationally renowned gastronomic tourism hot spot, home to a number of Michelin starred restaurants. So I was pleasantly surprised that the pinxtos (elaborate bar snacks, often in the form of little towers) were only around €2-5. This is expensive compared to the rest of Spain (where they are often free), but still doable on a pilgrims budget, and definitely good value. They’re a lot fancier than the usual meatballs lumped on a plate, more akin to a fine dining entree, minus the cost of the silver service. A very nice alternative to backpack food. And not that I have anything against meatballs.

en route to the port, BilbaoOne thing that I noticed about cities on the Camino, is that whilst there’s not enough time to ‘experience’ them to their fullest, you do see them in a way that most other tourists don’t. That is, you need to traverse the entire city on foot. Instead of being “magicked” by train or plane into a central station, you pass through outer suburbs, industrial zones, poor and rich neighbourhoods, the CBD, all of it. So often we just see the old town, inside the walls, so to speak. But walking from end to end gives you a better idea of just how big a city is, how it wakes up in the morning, and lives and breathes. This made me think about my own city. Melbourne is rumoured to be pushing 100km in diameter, so if it was on the Camino, it would take a 3-4 day walk just to pass through.

On that tangential note, here are some more photos of the Basque region. Go there!





Segovia, in pictures

It’s hard to believe it’s over. After almost two years of living inside a fairytale, I’ve packed up my little attic apartment, said goodbye to Señor Cigüeña (the stork outside my window), and did one last scenic walk of the Segovia and its ancient walls. I tried my best to farewell each of my friends and colleagues, and have a last glass of wine and pincho at all of my favourite bars. On Saturday I handed back my keys, and I’m now no longer a resident of what I consider to be one of the most beautiful cities in the world.

Segovia has treated me incredibly well. It’s cheap, easily navigable on foot, surrounded by lush green countryside and snow capped mountains, and, most importantly, almost every bar offers free tapas. One of my reasons for leaving was actually that life there was too easy, and I was worried about getting so comfortable that I’d never be able to hack living somewhere “in the real world”. For me, one of the biggest challenges of the Madrid Metrolpolis will be that “not everything is picturesque all the time”, as is the case in most corners of the globe, save where I happen to be coming from.Señor Cigüeña

So am I sad about leaving Segovia? The truth is, not really. Whilst I loved it there (really loved it) and it will always have a special place in my heart, I simply knew that it was time to move on. I acknowledge my incredible good fortune in having had the opportunity to live somewhere so remarkable (and for so long), but I didn’t want to push my luck, and I didn’t want to let the experience stagnate. Segovia will always be there to go back to, and go back I will. I’m already planning visits for the next Segovian half-marathon and Titirimundi puppet festival, as well as scouting apartments to buy there when I win first division in El Gordo, the fat Christmas lottery.

In the meantime, as a little tribute to Segovia, I’ve uploaded some photos of my wanderings about the city. There are a lot missing, a lot of views that I was meaning to capture, yet somehow just never got around to. I would also love to have done a series of drawings based on the esgrafiados (traditional Segovian facades), and maybe I still will, but excuses excuses, there were just too many other things to be seen and done. Another thing to note is that the city is much greener and in better condition than as depicted in these photos. There are plenty of parks and nice, clean, renovated buildings – it’s just that I’m drawn to photographing old derelict walls.

If you’re interested, click on the links to two different photo pages. Then, at the foot of this post, you’ll find my recommendations for some bars, restaurants, and things to see and do in Segovia.


casa de los picos, calle real, Segovia


Segovia, anochecer


Top bars with free tapas:
José María (most famous and well regarded in Segovia city, also has big dining room)
La Judería (generous tapas of Indian/Asian/Middle eastern food, something different for when you get sick of traditional Spanish cuisine)
Fogón Sefardí (consecutive winner of tapas competitions, see menu for mini mains at pincho prices)
La Cueva de San Esteban (Cave-like venue, traditional food and decor)
El Fogón de Javier (lovely terrace, fantastic olives)
Ludos (also has board games and great breakfast combos)

Fine dining restaurants (the best ones are always outside the capital):
La Portada de Mediodía, Torrecaballeros
El Rancho, Torrecaballeros
José María
La Postal, Zamarramala (great weekday set menu)

Great bakery: Limon y Menta (just off the main square)

Fresh food markets :
Thursday morning in the main square
Saturday morning between José Zorilla and Avenida de la Constitución

Best touristy things to do:
The Alcazar
Visit to La Granja Palace and gardens (mini Versailles, but free and minus the crowds)
Museo Esteban Vicente (more for the building than the art)
Pedraza (medieval fortress town about 40mins by car from Segovia)
Puerta de Santiago (an exhibition space inside one of the gates of the old wall)
walk walk walk (around the town, around the surrounding countryside, especially around the wall)

Typical Segovian set-menu:
Judiones de La Granja (jumbo white broad beans in hearty meaty broth)
Cochinillo o Cordero Asado (oven roasted suckling pig or baby lamb)
Ponche Segoviano (sponge cake with egg yolk custard and thin real-almond-not-horrible-fake marzipan icing)

Also try:
Cocido (hearty many-part stew, with noodle broth, vegies and chick peas, and separate mixed meat and sausage component)
Alcachofas con jamon (artichokes with garlic and Spanish ham)
Tejas de almendra (sticky almond ‘roof tiles’)
torreznos (pork crackling bar snacks – not my thing, but is typical of the region)
Empanada de pisto (pastry filled with cooked tomato and onion)
Pulga de tortilla (little bread roll filled with Spanish potato omelette, typical mid-morning snack)
all the grilled/roasted vegetables, especially pimentón (sweet red pepper)


French Toast, Spanish style… and a bit about Semana Santa

This is the first time I’ve been at ‘home’, alone, in Spain over the Easter break. I decided to forgo such an excellent opportunity to travel, in order to be able to:
– Do a big, scary, expensive and unnecessary Spanish exam (tick! fingers crossed!).
– Get on top of work and clean my flat before I go to Poland the week after the holidays, and my parents come to visit the week after that (!!!).
– Organise life/update CV/de-frag dying laptop.
– Save money.
– Catch up on a backlog of Skype catch ups. It seems like everyone in Australia is getting married and eating hot cross buns without me.
– Make some headway on book 2 of Juego de Tronos (Game of Thrones), which, as much as I’m loving it and it’s great for my medieval Spanish vocabulary, is looking to take the longest of any book I’ve ever read (possibly longer than 1Q84 and Les Miserables combined).

I must say, being able to get stuck into these projects has been a luxury. There’s something to be said for a bit of time at home, when most of your friends are away (or live on the other side of the world), and you have no choice but to do all those niggly domestic tasks that have been building up for what seems like years. Hem pants, clean the little wheels under the microwave tray, and reply to near forgotten emails – all excellent reasons to not go to Ireland (which was the potential trip I had in mind for the Easter holidays before I realised it just wasn’t going to work).

capuchines de la parroquia de Jesús Cristo de Los GasconesExperiencing Semana Santa, Spanish holy week, was not a motivation for staying here. For some reason, watching bleeding Jesus and weeping Mary statues being paraded through the streets by grieving processions of people dressed in mourning, off-key brass bands, Klu Klux Klan figures, and overpowering incense…is something that just doesn’t attract me. I’ve been hearing the bands rehearsing for weeks, and seen the footage on the news, and for me that’s more than enough. I’ve no desire to go out of my way to attend a procession, and have graciously declined a few invitations to do so. I’m well aware that each statue is different and special, that some are hundreds of years old, some weigh a tonne and are carried cross country, or across rivers, or sometimes along cobblestone streets by bearers on their knees. It is all very specialised and painful stuff. The hermandades and cofradías (parish brotherhoods and guilds) spend months in preparation for the big week. They open temporary bars with names like Misericordia (not misery, mercy) to raise money for the church, and drink to their favourite Saint, Jesus or Virgin. They decorate the walls with posters of previous years’ processions, usually with close ups of Jesus’ bloody wounds and Mary’s tear stained face. Some years, it rains, and this means the pasos (statues) can’t leave the churches, which tends to produce even more waterworks. Apparently the main drawcard of Semana Santa is the sombreness of the atmosphere, as the people re-live Christ’s suffering.

But for some reason, this depressing, self-flagellating, Spanish brand of Catholicism is completely beyond me.

I’m not sure why I feel so estranged by it, but I do. Even more so than by more foreign religions. Perhaps this is the problem. Here, the religion just isn’t exotic enough. It fails to attract me on an aesthetic level (Spanish church interiors are particularly gaudy), and because it’s similar to what I’ve grown up with (it’s just an extreme version), there’s no mystery to lure me in. I know that this is wrong, that it should really be about faith (not aesthetics), but unfortunately I’m a little weak in that department.  So in Spain, all I see is a bizarre mix of unquestioning devotion, robotic obedience, complete indifference, and really tacky statues. Every now and then it occurs to me that I might be missing out on something, that to have a strong faith is probably a beautiful and comforting thing. But the truth is, I prefer not to hang my hopes on the benevolence of any specific deity, and I think “do unto others” is a reasonable, good, and straighforward code to endeavour to live by.

For me, the best thing about organised religion is that it brings family and friends together, and provides an excuse for a feast or a party. As simple as that. In my twisted, morally depraved perspective, religion is synonymous with tradition, tradition with culture, and culture with food. Nice, traditional, home cooked food. So holy wars, discrimination, and antiquated thinking aside, if religion is just an excuse for good food and a party, it can only be a good thing. Or is it?

A couple of years ago I went to a Romería, a celebration in the countryside in honour of La Virgin de la Antigua, one of the patron saints of the small Cordovan village where I was living at the time. Sure, it was a fun weekend (camping and dancing with about 6,000 people) but I couldn’t help but think, I wonder what the Virgin would have thought of the party in her name. Of the tacky carnival rides, the fairy floss stalls, the live football telecast on the big screen, the scantily dressed cover band, the excessive quantities of alcohol and the deafeningly loud music. Or of the perfect opportunity her party provided for all the teeny boppers to sneak away from their family’s tents, get drunk, and do naughty things in bushes. I’ve nothing against alcohol, or teenagers having fun in bushes, but it seemed very sacrilegious for it all to be happening in honour of a virgin.

La Virgin de La AntiguaThe week after the Romería, I was correcting homework for an after school class I had with some of the more ‘troubled’ (read: very very naughty) teenagers in the village. Unsurprisingly, most of them had written about the party. But I was more than a little shocked to read “I love La Virgin de la Antigua because she is beautiful and holy and kind”, over and over, the same sentence, echoed in almost every assignment. For once, I really hoped the students were copying each other.

So, my attitude to religion, and parties, and religious parties in Spain, is more than a little conflicted. The big parties get too debauched. I can’t stand the hypocrisy. The apparent brainwashing frightens me. And most of all, Semana Santa is just so depressing. However, at least it’s good to see Easter being celebrated for what Easter is about (I thankfully haven’t seen a chocolate bunny since I got here). Religion is such a big part of culture and identity. It would be really sad if it began to die out and the people stopped practising their traditions.

Sometimes I wonder, considering that I’m an outsider in the community, and I’m not religious, what’s the point of even thinking about all this?

I don’t know. It’s interesting. And it’s impossible not to have opinions and feelings. I’m curious about the various levels of devotion and participation that are exhibited in the processions. It makes me reflect on my own background and attitude to religion. I was raised a Catholic, consider myself agnostic, avidly dislike commercialism, and absolutely love Christmas. I think it’s a beautiful custom, so long as I don’t think to hard about what it means, or is supposed to mean, or whether or not I have the right to enjoy it if I don’t agree a lot of stuff the Church says/does/has done in the past.

So anyway. It’s happened again. This post was supposed to be a quick one, just a few photos, some interesting cultural tidbits, and ya.

You see, I’m a little tired, possibly even delirious. This morning I went for a run, a really long one, even longer than the half marathon I wrote about a couple of weeks ago. And as I was on the final stretch, I saw a big group of red and black capuchines (hooded Semana Santa figures) congregated in the street outside my flat. They cut pretty striking figures, and it occurred to me that whether I’m into it or not, this was no everyday sight, and it would be stupid to miss a procession that was literally on my doorstep. The show was starting, so I bolted upstairs (very melodramatically, with what little strength I had left), grabbed my camera (and a swig of water) and ran back into the street. I managed to get a couple of photos, but the group had moved on. And I wasn’t about to join in the procession in my shaky, unwashed, salt-caked state.

After stretching and showering, I was just sitting down to eat, when I heard the procession returning. Again, I rushed downstairs, and managed to see the return leg. It was pretty cool. The musicians sounded much better than when they were rehearsing, and the capuchines had a pretty ominous aurora about them. This particular Jesús was carried in a glass coffin, heavily adorned with flowers. The parishioners followed sombrely, all dressed in the darkest shades of their Sunday best, and many of the women wore black veils.

After a couple of minutes of straining to find a good place to stand (my street is very narrow and the procession took up most of it), I heard some voices above me. My neighbours were watching from their balcony, and invited me up. From their vantage point, they could see Jesús inside the coffin (‘isn’t he beautiful’, they all crooned), and a spectacular view of the capuchines disappearing down the street, with the Aqueduct and ancient city walls in the background. I spent a good while longer in their flat, and they told me about the monk who founded the parish (he came from France on a donkey), gave me their photos of the procession on a USB, and we gossiped about the private lives of the owners of the neighbouring restaurants. The two little girls showed me their Semana Santa drawings, and I would loved to have stayed longer, except that by this point I was close to fainting, and could only think about the (now cold) eggs and toast that were waiting for me in my attic upstairs.

So what of Spanish Easter food? Firstly, as to be expected, there is no meat on Good Friday. Except for in Segovia, where cochinillo and cordero (roast suckling pig and lamb) are the traditional dishes. If the only chance you have to visit Segovia is during Easter, well, apparently it’s acceptable to try just a bit of whole dead baby animal. As far as I can tell, the only other specific-to-Easter dish is Torrijas, which is basically sticky honey and cinnamon French toast. I’ve tried to explain that in Australia, French toast is just a regular breakfast food (well, maybe not every day, but it’s on most breakfast menus and isn’t confined to one time of year). This has been met with a bit of uproar. Apparently Spanish torrijas are special, but as far as I can make out, the ingredients (milk, eggs, bread), cooking method, and taste, are all the same. Which is a good thing. Because whatever side of the equator (or Pyrenees), and whatever the name, or motivation for eating it, milky eggy sticky spicy fried bread is delicious.

And that’s all I have to say about Semana Santa


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Logroño, a recipe for crazy dreams

Basque Witch Craze - Edict of grace from the Spanish InquisitionIn 1610, six Basque women accused of witchcraft were burned at the stake out the front of the Santa María Cathedral of Logroño (a city in the north of Spain, just below the Pyrenees mountains). The Spanish Inquisition, notoriously unmerciful in some regards but generally forgiving of witches, announced the existence of a “Devil’s sect” in the area, sparking fear, hysteria, and the first ever full blown witch craze in Spanish history. At the public execution (which was attended by some 30,000 spectators), papier-maché effigies were also sacrificed, of another five unfortunate heretics who had (perhaps mercifully) died of typhoid before the burning ceremony. Fortunately, due to the tireless investigation and campaigning efforts of a heroic young Inquisitor, Alonso de Salazar, the witch panic was eventually quashed. No more innocent old ladies were murdered, and the Logroño executions became an anomaly in Spanish history (unlike much of Europe, where witch hunts were carried out for centuries, and the death toll ran into the tens of thousands).

Today in Logroño, there is a commemorative sign (not quite a plaque) where the burnings took place, which briefly states what happened and lists the unpronounceable Basque names of the victims.

But most visitors to the area aren’t really interested in its bloody medieval history. Most visitors to Logroño are there for only one thing: wine.

Logroño is the capital of La Rioja, probably the most famous wine region of Spain. Like pretty much every city, town and village in the country, it boasts a remarkably large number of bars and restaurants in proportion to the size of its population. So what’s so good about Logroño? Well, a glass of lovely Rioja is particularly cheap there (as it should be!), and the pinchos (bar food) are also cheap, and really, really yummy. But most importantly, the city is a starting point to visit the many bodegas (wineries) of the area.

The majority of the bodegas are in the countryside, scattered across the three distinct subdivisions of the region; Rioja Alta, Rioja Baja and Rioja Alavesa. In order to visit a selection of bodegas and see as much as possible of the beautiful landscape, a car would be ideal. But cars and winery tours aren’t really a great combination, especially when everyone else is driving on the wrong side of the road. So unless you can afford a private chauffeur, or want to limit yourself to an organised tour (I found none that appealed), everyday shoestring tourists and backpackers are limited to travelling by bus and/or on foot. Which still leaves plenty of possibilities.

Haro is a small town about an hour from Logroño, and home to a large concentration of bodegas (what is the collective noun for ‘winery’, I wonder?). The bus ride is picturesque, and passes through a few small towns which are home to more bodegas and touristy points of interest (wine museums and the like).

It’s recommended to book bodega tours in advance. Plenty of information and contact details are available on the La Rioja website.

Ramon Bilbao American oak barrelsIn Haro, a friend and I visited Ramon Bilbao, one of the newer wineries. This was partly because, of the many I had contacted, they had got back to me offering a tour at a time and price most convenient to our needs (yes, we needed a wine tour). But, coincidentally, Ramon Bilbao just happens to be my favourite La Rioja wine (of the few that I have tried). I even took a bottle of it home to my family last Christmas. It may not be the best or the oldest or the most famous Rioja wine, but for me it is special, and now even more so.

The tour cost 8€, and included a very generous ‘tasting’ of three wines; the Crianza (aged at least 2 years, 1 in oak), Reserva (aged at least 3 years, 1 in oak), and Gran Reserva (aged at least 5 years, 2 in oak). Cristina, our guide, was friendly, animated, and suitably passionate about wine (bordering on poetic). She did a wonderful job of explaining the complex scientific process in layman’s terms, and was overwhelmingly non-elitist in her viewpoint towards the ageing process and personal taste. She also sang to herself at random intervals. I probably would too, if I had her job.

Haro reportedly has a picturesque town centre, and a suburb of winery-outlet bars (cellar doors?). However, due to the inconvenient return-bus schedule, and unbearably windy weather, we decided to go head straight back to Logroño for a post-wine tour siesta.

Our accommodation in Logroño couldn’t have been better if we’d paid double. Hostel Entresueños was cheap, spacious, spotlessly clean, and the staff were friendly and helpful. It had good kitchen facilities, and a comfy lounge and dining area. Best of all, as it was relatively empty, our dorm accommodation was upgraded to a private room with a balcony overlooking the main drag.

The hostel was a stone’s throw from Calle Laurel, a long, narrow, winding street, where all the pinchos bars can be found. My favourite pinchos were the ferrero de morcilla (a ball of rich melted cheese, encased in black pudding and toasted almonds, made to look like a giant Ferrero Rocher), and the bacalao rebozado (lightly battered cod fillet with roasted mini green capsicum), which were both served at a bar called El Muro (the decor was a little too orange for my taste, but the pinchos were worth it).

The city centre of Logroño is quite compact, and can easily be traversed in an afternoon. So that, and a day trip to Haro or any of the other surrounding villages, makes a nice little weekend getaway. I don’t really have an opinion on whether Logroño itself was pretty or not, it probably is in summer. But the weather affects your image of a place, and we really lucked out in that department.

So that was the end of our Carnival long weekend. Zaragoza and Logroño, Goya and mudéjar. Red wine, rich food, and wild, windy weather. Carnival is only half heartedly celebrated in the area, so from Friday to Monday there was a random sprinkling of people in fancy dress, with no apparent rhyme or reason. Suddenly you would be sitting next to Cruella Deville and a baby in a Dalmatian jumpsuit. Are they pirates or have those girls just overdone the eye makeup? And to make matters even more surreal, I was reading Bestiario, a collection of really weird short stories by Julio Cortázar. Houses possessed by faceless demons and people vomiting up rabbits etc.

And then there’s the true history, the witch craze of 1611…   I’ve been having the strangest dreams recently.


48 hours in Oviedo (and surrounds)

“The north of Spain is beautiful” they tell me, “but it always rains”.

It also snows and can be incredibly windy, but this doesn’t matter in the province of Asturias, where (according to my recent experience), everything is magical and good.

view near Las CaldasAsturias is known for its green, green hills, ragged mountains, stormy beaches, bagpipes, cider, roasted chestnuts, blue cheese, fresh milk, almond sweets, and hearty stews. It’s proudly, unequivocally Spanish (in terms of the people and lifestyle), but the Scottish, Irish, and French influences are clearly there. To me, some of the scenery is reminiscent of wild and windy Tasmania, and the scattered cows also brought to mind the lush Victorian dairy country back home. I guess I had an incredibly good value weekend, if you take into account all extra the places it felt like I was visiting. Though the truth is, these bus window daydreams were just a bonus. Asturias is wonderful enough itself, without needing to evoke other landscapes.

I arrived in the capital, Oviedo, at 2.30 on Friday afternoon, and was picked up by Marian, a long lost Australian friend (who I’d ‘done’ Spanish with at Uni, though what on earth we ‘did’ in those days currently escapes me). After dumping the backpack and having a quick cup of tea, we wandered in to the city centre for a perfectly timed meal. An Asturian lunchtime set menu is a must do, but the food is incredibly rich and it’s a good thing we were ravenously hungry. On a colleague’s recommendation we ate at ‘El Fontan’, the restaurant upstairs from the central market. I can happily pass on this recommendation, and especially urge you to try the pote, a traditional soup/stew made from chorizo, beans, vegetables, and other mystery meats. Apparently it’s not nearly as heavy as the even more famous fabada, but why you would need anything heavier in modern times beats me.

Lunch was followed by a pleasant wander through the incredibly compact city centre, and a peek inside San Salvador, the gothic cathedral (which was all at once gloomy and bright, depressing and inspiring, austere and ostentatious, depending on your outlook and other reference points… but yes, I think I liked it).

Then, before our bellies had truly registered the weight of lunch, we stopped in at ‘Camilo de Blas’, one of Oviedo’s most famous (and beautiful) bakeries. Possibly a bit overindulgent, but totally unavoidable. A friend had told me I simply must go there, and Marian conveniently happened to live just next door!

After that we had a rest, drank some digestive herbal tea, and then went to hear some nuns singing in a nearby church.

Dinner was cider, al fresco despite the rain, and I learnt a new un-translatable verb. To escanciar is to pour cider in specific manner, with the glass held low and the bottle up in the air, so that the cider (which is flat) becomes aerated on the way down. The waiters on Calle Gascona (the Boulevard of Cider) are practised experts who do rounds of the tables, rationing large swigs (never a full glass), and each table shares a bottle. As it’s considered a bit weird/rude to pour your own drink, it’s important to stay on top of your game, because the waiter tips out any undrunk cider (on the pavement) before he ‘escancias’ the next round. Fortunately, cider is neither expensive, nor gassy, nor particularly breakfast at 26 Degreesalcoholic, so both the body and the wallet managed to get off rather lightly, despite what felt to be a very long and liquid evening.

After a sleep in and some more tea, Saturday morning got to an official start with a hearty breakfast at 26 Degrees, a new and very groovy Ovetense (Oviedo-ian) bakery/restaurant/cafe. We sat in comfy lounge chairs, listened to relaxing music, were attended to by slick waiters, and enjoyed a breakfast of Spanish potato omelette (stuffed with sliced ham and melted cheese), fresh bread rolls, fresh orange juice, coffee, and mini chocolate croissants, for only €3.60 each. I don’t think I will ever be able to pay for a breakfast in Melbourne again.

Then the rain, which had been gently mizzling on and off all morning, kindly stopped for a few hours, clearly in respect for the great expedition we had planned. With the encouragement of full bellies and some unexpected sunshine, we walked 8km from Oviedo to a small village called Las Caldas. The route was the first part of La Senda Verde, ‘The Green Trail’ (which continues on for I have no idea how far, but it would be worthwhile finding out). In Las Caldas you can find beautiful views of green farms, autumn-y forests, and distant Castillo de Priorio, Las Caldas, Oviedosnow capped mountains, there’s also a vine clad castle built on the river bend, some bars and cafes, and most importantly, our target, the Aquaxana spa centre.

Aquaxana is just one part of a big 4-5 star hotel complex, which is fortunately open to the non-hotel-residing public. Whilst most of the treatments are rather extortionately priced and a bit too ridiculously named for my humble plebeian tastes (green tea ‘caprice’ with lymphatic draining for €150, no thank you), entry to the thermal baths is only €18 (and €14 on weekdays)… and for this you get 2.5 hours of spa time, with creatively aimed ‘massage jets’, indoor and outdoor pools, steamy ‘Turkish’ and dry ‘Finnish’ saunas (with optional crushed ice), beautiful views, free foam thongs (sorry, flip flops), and a water, sound and light show for those who arrive at the correct hour (we did not).

After about two hours we reached our literal saturation points, and dragged our pruney bodies out of the water and into a nice cosy bar down the road. It was called El Peñon, served fantastic cider cooked chorizo, and like everything in Oviedo, I’d recommend it to anyone who goes there. Be sure to order the delicious house red, and if you have any luck understanding the waiter’s accent (not even our Spanish friend could), please let me know what type of wine it is, or at least what it’s called.

By the time we got back home (after unsuccessfully looking for peacocks in the San Francisco park in the dark), changed our clothes, and had (another) cup of tea, it was time to do the Saturday night thing…which meant heading for ‘the Street of Wine’ (Fridays being all about the Boulevard of Cider).

On the way we stopped for a few hours at Bodega El Molinón, where you can sit around barrels in a candle lit courtyard, and order your drinks through a window which goes to the main bar. Our reason for choosing El Molinón, aside from the cool set up and excellent (exceptionally excellent) service, was to get a cheese board and sample Cabrales, a famous Asturian blue. It’s aged in limestone caves in the Picos de Europa mountain range, and as you might have guessed, it is quite a potent cheese. It quite possibly singed some of my nostril hairs, and I can almost still taste the flavour (which I’m yet to decide if I like or not). It’s recommendable to enjoy in the company of other milder cheeses, with fruit, quince paste, and perhaps some wild boar chorizo. That’s right…Pumba chorizo, which is gamier and softer in flavour (less acidic) than other chorizos, and definitely worth trying. I guess I’m back to being a fully fledged carnivore again.

The tone of the weekend was well and truly set, and Sunday was more or less a continuation of Friday and Saturday. That’s to say, eating, drinking, and walking (mostly in the rain). It’s occurred to me that for someone who claims they love to travel, I’m a really quite a creature of habit. On Sunday we had breakfast at 26 Degrees, wandered the market (umbrella stalls are a big feature), had midday drinks at El Molinón, and stopped by Camino de Blas (Marian had left her umbrella there the last time, in a rather unnecessary ploy to get us to return).

At 2.30 on Sunday afternoon I boarded the bus, laden with almond filled horse shoes and a bottle of cider*. For once the sugar high was welcome; it helped me stay awake and admire the scenery on the way home.

If this were a proper ‘48 hours’ column in a professional travel publication, I guess it would be considered a bit skewed. There must be a lot left out; I know there’s much more to Oviedo than what I sampled. Such as the seafood, fabada, chestnuts, and salmon. Perhaps they have art there too.

But personally, I simply couldn’t ask for more in a weekend getaway.

Except perhaps a salad.

* I’ve been warned that Asturian cider doesn’t taste as good after you cross the mountains. That’s okay, I bought it for cooking purposes, as boiling chorizo in cider is something that even my little ‘non-kitchen’ can manage.

Vegetable garden, vegetables, mmm...