A, B, C’s in Northern SpainSept. 11-Oct. 7, 2019
Again to Spain! This time friends, Jane and Paul, would be joining us for part of the trip, and they had never been to Spain before.. Here are some things we did to make sure we would still be friends when we returned. We planned to rent apartments in San Sebastian and Barcelona and reserve a hotel in La Guardia. We asked them how they wanted to be involved with the decisions and they asked us to do the research and give them a final 3 to decide on; that worked very well. We all agreed that we would not be “joined at the hip,” that we could go off in different directions. This was especially important because it was our fourth trip to Spain and we had already visited some sites that they wanted to visit. They tend to be spontaneous travelers, letting things just happen and I know that some things must be arranged in advance. When I found some events – like a concert at the Palau de Música Catalan - we needed to get advance tickets so I got their permission to buy them. Jane and Paul could only be gone for three weeks; Michael and I decided to go early and stay after for a few days.
Basque France and Spain awaited. The Basque culture has always been of interest to us. We encountered it over 20 years ago when spending one night in San Sebastian. The language is full of consonants and unlike any other. The food is exceptional. This would be our third time in San Sebastian, and our first to the French Basque country.
We flew into Hondarribia where the very small San Sebastian airport is located. There is a large welcoming sign extolling the virtues of the exceptional food of the area. We know that to be very true and you will notice many restaurant referrals in this article! Hondarribia was a lovely surprise. A short taxi ride brought us to Hotel Rio Bidasoa where we planned to stay for two nights before going to St. Jean de Luz, France. The hotel is nice and walkable to the pedestrian area in the new town. The plaza has many restaurants, most with outdoor seating. We chose Yola Berri, a place on the plaza, to have good pintxos and two glasses of vino blanco (E15.40).
The next day we took the lift to the upper old town and had coffee and pastries in the Army Plaza (E4). The Visitor Information center had some fun magnets and we bought one and decided that magnets would be our personal keepsakes from this trip. After a nice walk to the new town harbor we went to the Hermandad de Pescadores Basque restaurant for lunch; unfortunately, it was fully booked. Disappointed, we walked on the boardwalk at the harbor and found a nice looking and busy restaurant, Katakrak. The advertised set menu de dia at E18.90 was highly recommended by a British woman who had just eaten there and saw us looking at its chalkboard. She was right: I had white asparagus with mayonnaise; grilled salmon with potatoes, guacamole, and peppers; flan. Michael had grilled shrimp; grilled hake; Basque cake. We each had a glass of txakoli (spritzy white wine). After that hardy lunch neither of us needed dinner, so just enjoyed a walk in the twilight.
We were excited about exploring new-to-us French Basque country the next day. Having done our research, we’d chosen St. Jean de Luz as our base. We could see it just across the bay. I called La Mariposa restaurant in St. Jean de Luz and made a reservation for dinner our first evening there. The helpful Bidasoa hotel staff called a taxi for us and we were on our way to St. Jean de Luz, a 35 minute drive away (E45). The driver had a bit of difficulty finding Hotel de la Plage, which is literally at the beach, but finally had success. Our room on the second floor overlooked the beach and had French doors that opened to it.
Everyone at the hotel was nice and helpful. Laurent at reception gave us a list of restaurants and, as the next day would be a busy restaurant Sunday, made our lunch reservation for Bodega Chez Kako Extea. Before going to explore the town, we shared a delicious salad lunch at Xabi (pronounced Shabi) 21 Rue de la République: anchovies, mussels, olives, potatoes, very fresh bibb lettuce.
Rue Gambetta is the town’s main street. It has many lovely shops. Emphasis is on espadrilles, linens, and gourmet food.
One afternoon I left Michael people watching near the church and went shopping on my own. I came across a small plaza where a man was playing oldies on an upright piano. As people passed by, they started humming; a few even took some dance steps as they move along. I was searching for Henriet Chocolate and finally found it. Glorious chocolate! I treated myself to chocolate covered orange peel and a dark chocolate pistachio bark bar – and enjoyed two samples ($14.90).
That evening we were the first arrivals at La Mariposa. Sitting at our outdoor table we chatted with the owner and discovered that he and his wife – the chef – had only had the restaurant for three months. That explained why La Mariposa had not been on the restaurant list given to us at the hotel – the name had been changed with the new ownership. Tables began to fill as we enjoyed our delicious dinner. At the end I asked for an espresso with a twist of lemon. Madame le chef was stumped. She’d not heard of the lemon twist with espresso and brought a slice of lemon cut in half. I tried to show her that I needed only the rind, and we both had a good laugh. We walked along the lighted boardwalk before returning to the hotel.
The next morning we sat at a café across from Les Halles market, Le Beau Marché, and woke ourselves up with croissant avec chocolat, freshly squeezed orange juice (E5!), and cappuccino and latte. The market was very busy on that Sunday morning and of course we had to take a walk-through to see the many mouth-watering goodies. We happened upon a crowd watching Basque cake contest outside of the market hall. Three sets of three judge chefs each were minutely examining and then tasting a dozen different cakes, scoring them after confirming with one another. It was very fun to watch but we didn’t linger long enough to find out the winner.
Our reservation at Kako was for 1:00. Lunch was excellent. M had sweetbreads, which he hadn’t had for 40+years, with a glass of cider. I had sliced poulet breast stuffed with a type of small sausage and served over homemade tagliatelle mixed with lovely fresh diced mushrooms, carrots, peas. After a wonderful barefoot walk on the beach, lapped by the warm ocean, we rested at the hotel.
Lunch had been so fulfilling we were surprised to be hungry that evening. So we went in search of a bite to eat and found one near the market: Buvette de la Halle. This busy outdoor restaurant with its old metal tables and chairs provided one of our most pleasant evenings along with simple fresh food. Grilled sardines and a tomato salad, moules marinara with frites, and a ½ litre of vin blanc were just what we wanted (E35). The best part was when the gentlemen sitting next to us, who helped the non-speaking English waitress understand our requests, began asking us where we were from. We spent the rest of the evening chatting with Oliver, Orlando, and Oliver’s father, Peter, from Germany (who spoke no English). The men were from New York and create designs for fabrics including one used on a Starbucks’s energy bar. It was one of those rare wonderful evenings that travel may bring.
Walking around town the next morning, I suggested that, since were near the RR station, we just get on a train and go to Biarritz. I wanted to visit Biarritz out of curiosity. Although Michael did not, he went along with my request. It’s only a 20-minute train ride so off we went. Not speaking any French, buying tickets and taking the train were a small adventures. We were seated on the train when a woman insisted, in French, that we were in her seats and showed us her ticket. Since we only had second class tickets, we were probably in the wrong car; we moved to vacant seats. Arriving at the train station, neither of us knew how to get to the main area and beach. We discovered via Google that the tourist info office was a 40 minute walk away. It was a hot day and a very long walk. At last we got to the beach, gratefully took two shaded beach chairs, ordered over-priced drinks - an E8 vanilla milkshake and a E5 bottle of sweet peach iced tea - and watched people enjoying their time in the sun. Somewhat restored, we walked a bit on the shopping street, then headed for the bus stop to go back to the Gare Biarritz. My impression of Biarritz is of a heavily trafficked city with some high fashion shops, a glitzy casino, and no International Herald or other English newspaper to be found anywhere. Finally, we got on the train and were very happy to get back to smaller SJL. That was our Biarritz experience; no need to ever return.
Chez Mattin was a restaurant we had read wonderful things about so we’d asked Laurent to make a lunch reservation for us. He confirmed that we had a 1:00 reservation for lunch at Chez Mattin in Ciboure that afternoon, and I was thrilled. I’d woken early and went out for coffee. I walked to Les Halles, forgetting that Tuesday is farmer’s market day at the market. In addition to all of the indoor stalls there were many outside. They were selling fresh produce and huge pans of paella and sausages. It was a mob scene with packed walkways. I stood in a long line at a nearby bakery and got a spirale raison and croissant au chocolat to take back to our room.
Later, we took the easy walk across the bridge to Ciboure, found Chez Mattin and, because we were early, just sat on a bench in the shade. At 1:00 we entered the restaurant which was already filled with people; they must have opened at 12:30. The restaurant is in a residential area and has lots of typical dark wood and white walls with stripped napkins and dishes. Céline Niquet, chef Michel’s wife, presides over the restaurant and seats guests in the authentically Basque, raftered dining room – traditional tableware, shiny copper pots, a cow yoke hanging from the ceiling. Celine (“like the singer”) explained the menu and wines to us and we made our choices. It was one of the best meals we’ve had. The lovely atmosphere and, most of all, attentive Celine and Michel, added to the pleasure. We shared chanterelles in a brown sauce with a poached egg hidden in the middle. Michael had a fabulous fish stew loaded with different fish, scampi, shrimp, and mussels in an excellent broth. It was served with six well-toasted bread rounds to soak up the delicious sauce. It is similar to bouillabaisse but, as Celine proudly told us, a 40-year-old family recipe. I had “carbonara”: fillet pieces of John Dory served over squid tentacle “tagliatelle” in a very light cream sauce. The piece de resistance dessert was small scoops of house-made lemon sorbet surrounded by crushed champagne ice. Espresso ended this wonderful lunch (E138). On the way out (we were the last ones at 2:45), we stood at the bar chatting with Celine as Michel set the room up for dinner and Celine washed and dried wine glasses.
After a last morning caffe y croissant at Le Beau Marché we finished our packing.
Laurent had arranged for a car to take us to San Sebastian where we would settle into our apartment and wait for our friends to arrive that evening (E70). Driver Peter arrived, loaded our multiple pieces of luggage, and off we went. Going through San Sebastian, the traffic was terrible. Then the car trip turned a bit bizarre. We got to the Feel Free rental office and had an easy check-in. Peter started to unload our things and we reminded him that, as soon as we had the keys, we would go to the apartment. He announced that it would cost E20 more for him to do that as he thought that, when the price had been negotiated, there would be only only one stop. We said that the apartment was only four blocks away, but Peter insisted it would take too long and he would have to be paid. Michael emphasized that we had specifically told Laurent, when he ordered the car, that we would have to get the keys first and then go to the apartment. Peter did not believe us and began calling Laurent for confirmation. After several minutes waiting for Peter to connect with Laurent, we told him to leave. Michael went back into the office, explained what had occurred, and asked them to call a taxi. They did and insisted on paying the fare. We finally arrived at the apartment and got settled in. There was a little fruit stand and market across the street, and we bought enough for dinner, waiting to eat until Jane and Paul arrived, exhausted, at 8:00. Michael had made a salad and we had that with bread, wine, cheese, and smoked salmon.
We were pleased to find that the apartment Alegra in the Gros neighborhood looked just like it did on the internet. It is bright and modern. Feel Free is wonderful to work with; a problem with one of the shades was fixed shortly after we notified them. During the week a few other problems occurred like the closet light going on for no reason in the middle of the night; a power outage at 11pm; a missing cutting board. Feel Free has a 24/7 number and was always quick to respond.
Being film buffs, one of the main reasons we had chosen specific dates to be in San Sebastian was so that we could attend part of the San Sebastian Film Festival (SSFF). On a previous visit, we stood in line in the rain during the festival, watching celebrities with whom we were not familiar, arrive on the red carpet to great cheers and applause; we’d always wanted to return. The apartment is walking distance to the main venue, the Kursall, so the next morning we went to see about getting tickets. We got the program listing and were told how to get advance tickets on the internet. The SSFF is a very big international event and people come from all over the world. That is why I wasn’t able to get tickets for the films we wanted to see. The system went down for five hours the first day tickets were sold online (we were later told that this is not uncommon) and it was flooded with orders as soon as it was back. The alternative was to go to the venue of any film we wanted to see early on the day it was to be shown to see if tickets were available. Jane and I took the responsibility to do so and finally got to see one film before we left. Later in the week we walked across the bridge to the Maria Christina Hotel which is the prime hotel for all the stars coming in for the SSFF. At 4:30 about 100 people were lined up on both sides of the red carpet waiting to see the first star arrivals, Javier Bardem and Penelope Cruz. They are stars of the film which was to open the festival at 6:00; Cruz is featured on the 2019 SSFF poster.
It was time to introduce Jane and Paul to the pintxo scene at lunch. Celine at Chez Mattin had recommended Gandarias to us so we crossed the bridge into the old town, finding 31 Augusto kalea (street) and the restaurant. Indeed the cold pintxos were gorgeous, mostly seafood based. It was mobbed and there was no place to sit, only standing outside. The guys found an outside table at the bar next door. They sat there and ordered a few pintxos from that place while I went into Gandarias and bought a plate of interesting looking cold pintxos, later followed by three hot ones. Whether at lunch or in the evening, the lively and loud pintxos scene is so much fun! We tried it again at dinner. Thursday night the college students are out pintxos hopping in Gros in full force, so there was very high energy around us. Fortunately, Bar Bergara is off the student track and we grabbed one of its four outside tables. We shared 14 wonderful pintxos, mostly seafood based, except for a hot duck confit with apples and calvados. A good walk back found us at Papparino il Gelato where we finished off the evening with cones and a diabetic dark chocolate gelato for Michael.
One of the activities I had booked in advance of our trip was a 1:00 lunch at the Basque Culinary Center. It is the place where students go to become chefs. We asked Feel Free to arrange for a taxi to take us there as it is in a totally different part of the city. It only took about 20 minutes and we arrived early. The Center is in a large multi-level building with a sloping solar array on each side, each having landscaped slopes. The first-year students plan and serve the food and the more advanced practice their serving skills. I thought the E9 dish of the day included everything but drinks; I was wrong. The base price of E9 covered only the entrée and dessert. We were offered two different salads to share and took both: variety of tomatoes with perfect burrata, and “health” salad with some kind of grain, greens, and delicious marinated crisp eggplant. The entrée was merluza which is a nice mild white fish, simply prepared, over cooked eggplant and sided with arugula and baked little round radishes. Dessert was a great light ricotta cheesecake with a couple of berries on top. I had a glass of txokoli, they others had iced tea (hot green tea with a side glass of ice). The bill came to close to E70 for the four of us, which was not expected. I also thought they would ask for feedback about the food and service, but they did not. They called a taxi for us and that driver took the non-highway route through lovely residential areas. One was called Miramonte. We came out near Concha Beach and were home for E2 less than the taxi going there. It was an interesting experience and we enjoyed seeing different areas of the city. That evening, which was quite warm, we at in with a garlicy grilled shrimp salad, fresh baguette, watermelon, and a bottle of txokoli. After dinner we took a short walk around the neighborhood. The area was jumping with people at the bars chatting away, kids playing, teens doing what teens do. To be in San Sebastian is a very enjoyable experience!
Jane and Paul went to Bilbao for the day and Michael and I decided to go to investigate the markets. We began at St. Martin Mercado which is smaller than the main Bretxa. It was a nice walk along Libertad, lined with lovely shops ranging from designer expensive to affordable. After the market, realizing we were hungry and it was 1:30, we went to Chacon, grabbing a table as soon as we saw a couple moving to leave. For sharing we ordered two pintxos: omelette pomme de terre and mushrooms w/caramelized onions – yum. Forgetting how large the portions are, we ordered to share a salad of tomatoes, tuna, anchovies, onion, olives, peppers. The lovely young woman who waited on us, Letitia (“Call me Leti”) was from San Sebastian and spent a year in Sydney after getting her teaching degree. She wants to travel more, maybe US, loves sports, so we told her about Boulder and Bend an gave her our card. One never knows! The restaurant is right across from Zara, a store I like, so we did a little browsing, and buying. After Jane and Paul returned from their Bilbao adventure, we went to the old town for pintxos. The streets were packed streets full of chattering people. We ate at the first standing at tables outside we found bringing out pintxos from the nearest places. Some of the pintxos were yummy short rib, creamy risotto, calamari strips, tempura shrimp and wonderful foie gras with an apple mustard sauce.
Michael’s birthday was in a few days. He knew the restaurant in nearby Pasaia where he wanted us to go for his birthday lunch. We’d read about a nice three-hour hike from San Sebastian to Pasaia and he and Paul decided that’s how they would get there while Jane and I would take the bus. Feel Free was asked to make a reservation for us. Unfortunately, Michael’s first choice, Casa Camara, was fully booked, but the Feel Free staff recommended and made a reservation for us for the last available table at Restaurante Txulotxo, which they felt was equally as good. The big day arrived in the rain. It was the only rain we had for the five weeks of our trip. Paul and Michael decided not to chance the hike so all of us took the bus to Pasaia. Of course by the time we got there, the sun was shining. Pasaia is a port and there are four small connected villages around the bay. Victor Hugo lived and wrote here.
Lunch was wonderful, including several cava toasts at our table. I had an app of foie gras with tiny toasts, applesauce, balsamic, followed by a main of small lamb chops. The birthday boy had octopus which he loved, and hake cheeks which he did not. Paul had a salad with tuna, asparagus, olives, onions, tomatoes, followed by a gorgeous seafood platter variety. Jane had an omelette with mushrooms and a gamba (shrimp) cocktail. All of this was accompanied by cava, of course. As we finished, the long table across from us filled with a huge family celebrating their grandparent’s anniversary, which was lively and fun to see.
A highlight of this special day was taking the ferry across the bay to a wonderful UNESCO site, Albaola-The Basque Sea Factory. Michael had read about this and it was the other reason he had chosen to spend his birthday in Pasaia. Here an authentic replica of a full-size whaling ship is being built.
It is also a school for ship and model ship building. The ship being “rebuilt” sunk in 1650, Canadians found the remains in 1987, and volunteers have researched every tool, rope, etc. needed to build the ship and are using authentic materials. It’s also an excellent historical museum and well-worth our very enjoyable visit.
Jane and I decided to have a Ladies Day for ourselves. We were up and out early and were actually able to get SSFF tickets for the afternoon showing of a film we wanted to see. Patting ourselves on the back, we stopped at a nearby bakery for coffee and delicious apple crème pastry while programming our Google map for the walking route to El Centro shopping area. Both of us suffer from dysfunctional directionality, so we were proud to get there without getting lost. We walked down Libertad, looking at some of the high-end shops, and then spent 1 ½ hours buying things at Zara. We were very (unplanned) synchronous; even after we’d separated, we found ourselves in line together for the fitting rooms and opening our fitting room curtains to leave at the same time. We went across the pedestrian street to Cachon and each had a couple of pintxos for lunch, then walked in and out of some other shops. We slowly made our way to the Principe movie venue via the Concha Beach park and got there at early. It’s a very nice multi-plex in the heart of the old city, just down from the 31 Agosto pintxos strip. A line was already forming, and my Telluride Film Festival training made sure we got on it. Our guys had been having a drink at a nearby café and soon joined us in line. We all enjoyed the film. It had been a full day. We stopped for dinner on the way back to the apartment and ordered a large taxi to take us – and all of our collective baggage - to the car rental office in the morning.
The morning scene was a bit of a fiasco. After final coffee and pastry, we began taking our multitude of baggage out to the street; the taxi was right on time. In 15 minutes we were at EuroCar in a different part of San Sebastian. Everything was unloaded onto the sidewalk and Michael and Paul went up to the office to make arrangements while Jane and I stood guard. The taxi driver had been able to get everything into the trunk (although the driver couldn’t see out of the back window) but Paul was convinced that we needed a bigger car than the one we’d contracted for. An hour and 15 minutes later, the larger car, driven by Michael, pulled up. When they decided how the bags would fit best, they discovered that they did not know how to open the trunk. This entailed another visit to the office and a demonstration by the agent as to how to unlock the trunk. At last, we were off to Rioja.
The drive to Laguardia on the toll highway was quite easy. It’s a broad, beautiful part of Spain and was a pretty drive. When we arrived at Hotel Collaldo Paul and I went to check in and find the rooms. The parking area is across the street from the hotel and the hotel is on several levels, built into a hill, so one does walk stairs. We had to take the bags up a walkway to get to the hotel, then a few stairs to get to the door that let us right to our downstairs rooms. Our room was #4 (Ciggarelo), and I liked it. It is a large room with antique furnishings, a large bed with cherubs looking down on it, elegant marble bathroom with tub and shower, sitting room, etc. Their room #2 (Navigator) has a bed on a riser and a sauna in the middle of the bedroom!
We took a walk around the old town and we came across this stature dedicated to travelers.
We are in wine country with vineyards everywhere you look– no txokoli here!. After a rest, Michael and I went out to find dinner. It is interesting that dinner here is later than it was in San Sebastian; no restaurant starts serving dinner until 8 or 9 pm. We went to Gastropub Dona Blanca at 7:30 and were told that the kitchen didn’t open until 8. So we went for a walk, enjoying a beautiful sunset and returned at 8:15 just as a large wine tasting tour arrived and took over the front room. We were seated in a very nice back room; two other couples arrived. The food was delicious. I had sliced roasted duck breast done perfectly with plum marmalade and truffle mayo – all homemade, of course. Michael had pork that was tender and juicy and also delicious. Rioja style is “down home cooking.” We got a bottle of Marquis de Riscal dry white suggested by Diko (E16.50) and took the remaining ½ bottle home.
We went to the Information office in the morning. It was made clear that you must have a reservation to tour a winery. Paul had emailed La Fabulista bodega to see if we could reserve a tour, and we were fortunate to get one for that afternoon. The tour was great. La Fabulista is one of only two underground wineries in the city walls. There were about six others in the group, from Australia, Quebec, and Spain. Monte was the darling and lively tour guide. Her English was great, and when it wasn’t, she was good humored and we all helped. For example, she was showing the different labels on the wine later in the tour, and said she was always afraid she would say John Wayne instead of young wine. She began outside of the building explaining who La Fabulist was (the Spanish Aesop) and how his family was the richest in Laguardia and had started the winery. Monte explained the “lake” which is where the grapes are dumped, stems and all. This is different than the French method which separates the grapes first. After some time, the dregs are removed and the grapes are literally stomped. A man stomps one side, then rakes half to the other side where another man stomps for six hours. Then they switch, and then new men are sent in. We walked through the caverns where the tanks are kept, and the ones with the American and French oak barrels are.
She explained the aging process between the young, crezenda, and reserve wines. Finally we were shown how to consider the aroma, color, and taste difference between young and crezenda reds. 95% of the grapes in the region are tempranillo. The E8 pp tour took 1 ½ hours, was delightful, and well worth it.
Our day continues with lunch on the terrace of Biazteri. The menu del dia at E14.95 was a good value. I had white asparagus with mayo (and a swirl of hot mustard along the sides of the plate) to start, followed by medium thick strips of pork which had been baked in beer with a side of the ubiquitous French fries. Michael and Paul had lamb chops, and Jane had grilled fish. We all had flan for dessert. It was a different, more cake-like flan, with delicious fresh whipped cream. The menu included bread, a bottle of water, and a bottle of wine. Our waitress was from Nicaragua and explained that yes, January and February are very cold and it does sometime snow.
Our day had not yet ended. After a rest, we went to tour the church of Maria. A huge tour group arrived behind us, but we all got in. Unfortunately, the explanations were all in Spanish. A printed English explanation was made available to us but was difficult to understand. The church is famous for the many carved and painted statues around and over the main alter which tell the story of Jesus’ birth. Mary is the most important and the large wooden painted statue of her is the centerpiece. It’s hard to describe, but quite beautiful. It was just before sunset and we took the 2k walk to see Bodega Ysios, the Calatrava building. We could see it across the vineyards from the hotel. It was a great walk at that time of day and the views of Ysios as we grew nearer were spectacular. It is simply a breathtaking building in the shadow of a limestone mountain.
When we returned we went to the old town for pintxos which gets very lively around 8:30 as people start going to dinner.
Seeing the Frank Gehry hotel on the grounds of the Marquis de Riscal vineyards in Elciego was something we all wanted to do. The only way to get into the hotel if you are not a guest is to have a reservation at one of its restaurants. We were lucky to get a lunch reservation at 1860 Tradicion, dress smart casual. We got the car and headed to Briones. There is a wine museum there we thought we might visit, until we saw it was E25 pp. It was a twisting road and Google Map was a bit unclear as to certain turns but we finally got there. We walked a bit around Briones which is not a particularly interesting town. It’s larger than Laguardia but has none of the charm or character. In the car we tried to follow Google Map’s directions, but again were somewhat stymied. I emailed Marquis de Riscal to let them know we were on our way and might be a little late. This is a very tightly secured area. After parking in an outlying lot, we had to stop at the guard office to tell them that we indeed did have a reservation for the 1860 Tradicion restaurant, and only then did they showed us how to walk to the hotel.
The hotel is a separate building from the winery where one takes the tour and visits the gift shop. The Gehry building is spectacular with is undulating pink and gold titanium ribbons.
We walked into the very bare lobby, only an information desk there, and were directed to the elevator that would take us directly to the restaurant. It is beautiful on the terrace which is where our table was, from the luscious marbled green dishes, green water glasses, heavy modern silver utensils to the views.
Lunch was a splurge, and well worth it. After our water glasses were filled, a small plate of idazibel cheese with a small sesame cracker set in it and a honey swirl around it was placed before us and each received a large crusty roll. Needless to say, the service is outstanding. We ordered a starter of pasta with vegetables to share. It was pappardelle type noodles with flecks of orange and purples vegetables in a very light cream sauce. As entrees Michael had Grandmother’s Meatballs with a bright green asparagus stalk in the middle, and I had Monkfish with Clams, sweet potato puree, and mushrooms, each accompanied by a glass of suggested wine. Our four-spoon shared dessert was “French toast” with sweet cream ice cream, warm chocolate sauce, and a dish of cut up kiwi, pineapple and grapes. Espresso was the perfect ending. Later that evening we did take a lovely walk all the way on the path around the walls. We found, at the south portico, a plaque remembering that this had been a Jewish area prior to the Inquisition. It became a Capuchin convent later on.
BARCELONACatalonia was our next stop. On our way to Barcelona we stopped at one of the nice service areas for lunch. We had planned to stop in Tudela for lunch at Restaurante 33 but we got there too early and the restaurant was closed. Tudela was of interest because it had been home to a prosperous Jewish community until the Inquisition, and it is a famous vegetable growing area. Arriving in Barcelona we found the apartment with minimal trouble and double parked with hazard lights on while Paul went to meet owner Carlos to get the keys, which seemed to take forever. When he came back, we quickly shoveled all our baggage into the lobby. Paul took five trips getting it all up in the tiny elevator to the 3rd floor apartment and then went with Michael to return the car. Anyone who has been to Barcelona knows that a car is definitely NOT needed.
The Gran Via Classic apartment was a disappointment. It looked good on the web site and we are very aware that panoramic cameras are used to make things look better. We have rented many apartments and know the questions to ask. We’d not used Trip Advisor for rentals before and I found it difficult to use and hard to get our questions answered. We’ve had much better results with VRBO, a local reviewed agent, or dealing directly with an owner.
Our first discovery was that there is no dishwasher. Dishes of all sizes are simply piled up inside a cupboard. There are a couple of pots, no lids. The dryer is out on the balcony which you get to by going through the small bedroom. There are no dresser drawers in the small bedroom. The beds in that room are more like cots. The bed in the bigger bedroom is a mattress on wooden slats with no bed skirts as shown in the photos. There were no wastebaskets! The only hanging closet for all of us was out in the common hallway. We called Carlos and requested that he bring a wastebasket, extra towels, a cutting board and several other necessities. When he delivered them I asked him to show me how the dryer worked; it was clear he had never used it. The four of us decided to make the best of it and figured out how to have our private spaces.
That first night we had arranged to meet friends from Boulder at Cal Pep. They had been in Barcelona and were leaving the next morning so that was the only time we could see them. By the time we got settled in the apartment it was too late to walk, so we had the experience of trying to hail a cab. In San Sebastian you must phone for a taxi – no street hailing. Barcelona is opposite. You hail one on the street or you go to a taxi stand. The taxi has a green light if it is vacant. Ultimately, we were successful. Traffic was terrible and we were late. I knew this was an old established tapas bar that we’d never been to and was looking forward to trying it. As we approached, our Boulder friends came to tell us they’d had to give up the table because we were too late. We looked around and found an outdoor table at a nearby tapas restaurant which proved to be very good. Tapas are different than pintxos so we had to anticipate the portions sizes which are much more normal. I had delicious mussels with a fennel and oil sauce and prosciutto wrapped asparagus with truffle toast. After the first glass of wine was gone, I had a second, along with fresh garlic sautéed calamari. We had a great time and a pleasant walk back to the apartment.
Our friends had booked a tour of Sagrada so the two of us decided to go in search of a good supermercado. We found the nice large Mercado at Fort Peinc and got some needed food supplies. It was a longer walk than anticipated and I noticed that we were walking on Sardenya. While planning our trip I saw that we would be in Barcelona for Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year. Hoping to attend services there I researched synagogues and found one that would be the best fit: Bet Shalom, located on Sardenya. I wanted to go by and see what it looked like. It was a long walk and we finally found it. We saw the door to an apartment, and a closed metal door next to it. WE assumed that was the right place and took 40 minutes to walk back to the apatment.
We weren’t sure what time the Cohens would be back so Michael and I decided to find some place nearby to eat. As we were leaving Paul called, they were very hungry and on their way back, and we agreed that if he found a place on the way he would call and we’d meet them, which he did shortly. What was meant to be a short walk took us a long time because Jane had transposed two numbers and we’d been looking for the wrong address. We finally connected after they had finished their paella and sangria, so we ordered and chatted. The food in this family owned and run restaurant was delicious. I had a bountiful spaghetti with seafood (mussles, gambas, calamari) in a light olive oil and white wine sauce. M had grilled chicken which he said was the best he’d ever eaten, and we took part home.
We woke to a glorious Sunday. After breakfast we walked to the Cathedral to watch the Sardana dancers. The Sardana considered the national dance of Catalonia, is performed by a mixture of men and women who hold hands in a circle before making choreographed moves. The band was playing when we arrived and the circles were forming. At one time there five circles going.
To see strangers and friends in these welcoming circles, who throw their purses and things in the center in the circle and then join hands is a wonderful feeling of community. When the dancing ended we looked at the many booths on the Cathedral plaza selling a variety of antiques.
We walked down the street and stopped to watch a large woman who was singing arias from Carmen while she seductively approached onlooking men, in keeping with the theme. Besides being funny, her voice was terrific. In another side street we stopped to listen as a lovely young woman played classical music on a cello. It was a joyful walk on our way to visit the old Jewish call (neighborhood) and major synagogue. Our day ended with a salad at the apartment and a walk to get gelato.
Next morning we took a taxi to Bet Shalom for the Rosh Hashana service. Arriving at Sardenya 414 we saw, again, a metal door next to an apartment building. Michael asked several people in nearby shops if there was a synagogue at that address and it was confirmed. Soon we saw a man open the steel gate so we rang the bell and were admitted. The synagogue had been set for about 50 people; 30 eventually attended. The woman leading the service introduced herself as Ramona, from Israel and now living in Argentina. She explained that she had been coming to this small progressive congregation twice a year for 10 years to lead holiday services on Rosh Hashanah and Passover. After the two-hour service, challah bread and honey cake were served and we chatted with two young women from the USA who were living and working in Spain. We were very glad to have been a part of this intimate service, with its familiar prayers and melodies.
That evening was very special. We had dinner at El Bitxo which I had chosen for its proximity to the Palua de Musica Catalan where we had tickets for a 9:00 guitar and flamenco performance. The restaurant was a pleasant surprise. It is tiny – four tables - and the food tends toward Middle Eastern. The Palau is one of the most glorious Modernist/naturalist concert halls.
What a performance it was! The three guitarists and one percussionist were fantastic, from classical tango and flamenco to humor, and finally all of them playing one guitar together. The male and female flamenco dancers were awesome and very traditional. Our walk home on a lovely evening was the ending of a perfect day to beginning the Jewish New Year.
In our hopes of sharing with the Cohens more of our favorite places, after a relaxing morning we went to the Boqueria market. We had lunch at the Quim stall in the crazy chaotic and very fun market. Our seats at the bar were next to two nice women from Russia who told us they loved America even though they had never been there. On the other side was an Asian man who told us about his trip to Portugal and his drive all around Spain. These are the kind of brief encounters that we enjoy.
That evening we took a taxi to Barceloneta to meet a friend of the Cohens, Diego, at the Hotel Arts where he is the head – and famous – mixologist at Parallel 41. First, we had a nice seafood dinner at Marina Bay. Similar to the Gehry hotel, Hotel Arts is a high security place with beautiful flower arrangements in a sparse lobby. Jane and I were escorted on to the elevator and taken to Diego’s floor and shown to the ladies’ room. Wondering where our husbands were, we were escorted to their table in the bar. Diego is delightful and his creative drink presentations are outstanding. We shared sips of three of his favorite cocktails before making our way home.
On our last two visits to Barcelona we had rented apartments in the Gracia area. We like that area as it is more residential than touristy. We wanted to share the area with Jane and Paul, to browse along Traveraserra and Verdi in our old neighborhood. We found the primary store we wanted to find: Lady Loquita, and bought some gifts to take home. I’d made a 2:00 lunch reservation at BlauBCN so we could have a celebration lunch before the Cohens left in the morning. It had been a great trip with lots of laughs, and definitely some rough edges from time to time, but we started and ended as good friends. We were glad that the Cohen’s introduction to Spain had been such a success.
Lunch was wonderful. The restaurant is contemporary, done in black and walnut. It has a menu del week (as opposed to menu del dia) at E 25pp which is truly a bargain. I had sea and mountain rice, done perfectly, steak done med rare with a marvelous sauce and mashed potatoes. M had a beautiful and delicious cold soup similar to a vichyssoise with slivers of raw veg presented in a small mound in the center as the crema was poured in, and scorpion fish with capers and tomatoes (I did not care for the fish). Cohens had grilled veg and monkfish, Jane’s newfound favorite fish. Dessert was a fabulous melon carpacci with toasted coconut nuggets, pieces of strawberry, and a lemon cream swirl; guys had a delicious apple tarte on puff pastry with homemade ice cream. Bread and beverage were included meaning a glass of good wine and water. On the way back we stopped at Tantrend, a lovely jewelry, for a few more gifts.
It was time for all of us to pack up. The Cohens were flying home in the morning. We originally thought we would go to Girona for a couple of days before we flew home but decided to stay in Barcelona instead. The apartment had new tenants coming in, and we’d found a hotel to move into.
After hugs, we waved as Jane and Paul got into the taxi. The our taxi took us to Hotel Astoria. Hotel Astoria is a very interesting place. It has a connection the Catalan artist and writer named Ricard Opisso. The lobby has a room filled with his art. Even if you don’t stay there, it is worth a visit to the Opisso collection. The hotel is in the Eixample, as was the apartment, but in a different area that was completely new to us.
Our room was ready, so we dropped our bags and walked to El Born. We’d wanted to go back to Cal Pep since we’d not been able to have dinner there on our first night. We sat at the bar and all of the good things we’d read bout this restaurant were confirmed. A variety of place mats were designed over the years by regular artist patrons.
There is no menu. Waiter Javier asked about our food preferences – seafood, of course - and then prepared four different dishes for us. Between courses we chatted with our bar seat neighbor, Mike from London. This lucky man told us he considers himself to be a “visitor” rather than a tourist because he comes to Barcelona twice a year for vacation. On the long walk back to the hotel we stopped at Different Jewelry. This shop has truly different and beautiful hand-crafted jewelry and I treated myself to a necklace and bracelet.
CaixaForum is a venue which sounded very interesting, we never had visited, and decided to explore. We took a taxi to Placa Espanya, planning to use our energy for walking around and then, if we weren’t too tired, walking back. We found CaixaForum a few blocks from where the taxi let us off. It had a wonderful exhibit on the history of opera and opera’s connection to politics. The headphones we were given responded to sensors in each room, allowing us to hear some of opera music that was featured in that room. There was a film, protected on a large wall, of the Paris Opera performing the Marriage of Figaro; that alone was the price of the ticket. There was also a silent movie of old Barcelona done by the Lumiere Brothers which was really interesting and fun to watch. There is also a gift shop with many unique things.
On the way to CaixaForum we passed through a very active street fair so walked back there. There were block after block of food stalls and tables to sit at with a middle section stage where recorded music was playing. We shared an ear of grilled corm with queso on a stick, a sausage, and a grilled chicken skewer with a beer. The weather was cool and overcast, just perfect to walk back.
We went to Paco Meralgo around 8:30 to get some tapas for dinner. They were fully booked, very lively, and we gave our name and waited in line for about 30 minutes. Enjoying a cava and beer while waiting, we chatted briefly with an older French couple who now live in Barcelona to be near their son and 8-year old granddaughter. They gave us some suggestions for the things they enjoyed eating there, as they come frequently. We were finally seated at a bar table in front of the window. Although we would have preferred sharing a bar table with others, it was fun to watch the world go by - and the others waiting for tables – as we enjoyed our food It was 11 by the time we got back to the hotel.
We had taken some online advice and booked a room at a hotel near the airport. A taxi got us to Hotel Salles Ciutat in a few minutes and we settled in to a very nice room. As expected, the hotel is in the midst of a commercial area. With plenty of time, we took the hotel shuttle to the airport to get our VAT refund and find something to eat. It was not to be. The VAT refund was easy, once we found the office. We kept looking for United but never found it. Finally someone told us that they have an office but it is only open in the morning and that the United check-in would be at one of the #200 ticket counters in the last row. We finally got the system down: there are rows labeled “ensa” ticket booths. Different airlines are assigned to a booth within an area each day. I was glad we discovered it then, rather than being surprised in the morning. There was no place to get food so we took the shuttle back to the hotel. The hotel snack bar was fine for our early dinner. We took a brief walk in the neighborhood and bought a chocolate cupcake/muffin to take back for dessert.
It had been the best of our four trips to Spain. We can’t wait to go back for a fifth.
DIGRESSION/OBSERVATIONS IN BARCELONA
- There are some “billboards” 6 to 8 stories high, covering a large part of a building. Paul, an Apple fan, was thrilled to see one for Apple iPhone 11.
- There are many one-size-fits-all women’s shops. They are just loose-fitting dresses and tops, and you see them on the street and they look great.
- I wish there was a way to have a sign you could hold up when you see someone walking by with a great look: “Please tell me where you bought that and/or would you like to sell it to me?”
- There are hundreds of dogs, most small to medium sized and all on leashes.
- Every café and restaurant brings water, when ordered, in glass bottles rather than plastic. If you want plastic so you can take it with you, you must ask. And there are many different types of glass bottles, reminiscent of Italy.
- Upsetting to see so many people, especially young ones and parents with young children, smoking. Somehow it seems they haven’t gotten the message.
- Hundreds of electric scooters, motorcycles, bikes that go so fast they can do serious s damage if you’re in the way.
- While there is always a conversation buzz in every restaurant at lunch and dinner, you can still have a conversation at your own table and hear it.
- We have seldom seen anyone at lunch or dinner at a restaurant or café, either outside (where we mostly choose to sit) or inside, with a cell phone on the table. They are all too busy having conversations.
- Only one waiter has ever asked if we wanted the check. They wait until you ask.
ResourcesHotel Rio Bidasoa ($326.63 for 2 nights) https://www.hotelriobidasoa.com/en/...m_medium=organic&utm_campaign=Knowledge_Graph
Hotel de la Plage ($473.12 for 4 nights) https://www.hoteldelaplage.com/
Feel Free Vacation Rentals (our share for six nights $1,163.49)
Bailen 43 https://www.tripadvisor.com/Vacatio...213-Gran_via_Classic-Barcelona_Catalonia.html
Hotel Astoria https://www.hotelastoria-barcelona.com/
Auto Europe (our share for 3 day $118.99) https://www.autoeurope.com/
Church of Maria https://www.laguardia-alava.com/index.php/es/arte/santa-maria-de-los-reyes/la-iglesia
Yola Berri http://www.hondarribiaturismo.com/bar-restaurante-yola-berri
Katakrak ($48.11for two) https://restaurantekatakrak.eatbu.com/?lang=en
Hermandad de Pescadores Basque http://www.hermandaddepescadores.com/
San Sebastian Film Festival ($17.42 for two tickets) https://www.sansebastianfestival.com/in
Albaola the Sea Factory of the Basques https://translate.google.com/translate?hl=en&sl=es&u=http://www.albaola.com/en&prev=search
Different Jewelry https://differentjewelrybarcelona.negocio.site/
Caixa Forum https://caixaforum.es/es/barcelona/home
Bodega Chez Kako Extea ($61.99 for two) http://www.restaurant-kako-saintjeandeluz.com
Xabi ($15.53 for two) https://www.tripadvisor.com/Restaur...ntry_Pyrenees_Atlantiques_Nouvelle_Aquit.html
La Mariposa ($77.10 for two) (https://www.tripadvisor.com/Restaur...ntry_Pyrenees_Atlantiques_Nouvelle_Aquit.html)
Le Beau Marché https://www.tripadvisor.com/Restaur...Country_Pyrenees_Atlantiques_Nouvelle_Aq.html
Buvette de la Halle (E35 for two) https://www.tripadvisor.com/Restaur...ationId=101&albumid=101&filter=7&ff=270531198
Chez Mattin ($108.55 for two) https://guide.michelin.com/en/nouvelle-aquitaine/ciboure/restaurant/chez-mattin
Bar Bergara ($31.56 for two) https://pinchosbergara.es
Papparino il Gelato https://www.tripadvisor.com/Restaur...tia_Province_of_Guipuzcoa_Basque_Country.html.
Basque Culinary Center ($35.09 for two) https://www.bculinary.com/es/home
Casa Camara http://www.casacamara.com/
Restaurante Txulotxo http://www.restaurantetxulotxo.com/es/
Gastropub Dona Blanca ($51.27 for two) https://www.tripadvisor.com/ShowUse...guardia_Province_of_Alava_Basque_Country.html
Biazteri ($36.28 for two) https://www.tripadvisor.com/Restaur...guardia_Province_of_Alava_Basque_Country.html
Restaurante 33 http://www.restaurante33.com/index.php?lang=en (restaurant next to Cal Pep)
Mercat de Ft. Peinc http://www.mercatfortpienc.com/
Bodega El Fabulista ($17.64 for two tickets) https://bodegaelfabulista.com/
1860 Tradición at Hotel Marquis de Riscal ($116.84 for two) https://www.marriott.com/hotels/hot...al-a-luxury-collection-hotel-elciego/5967622/
Hotel Arts Parallel 41 http://p41bar.com/en/#liquid-journey
BlauBCN https://blaubcn.com/en/home-en/ (E67 lunch for two)
Cal Pep (E75 lunch for two) http://calpep.com/
Paco Meralgo (http://restaurantpacomeralgo.com/en/the-restaurant/
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