Category Archives: Europe – Mediterranean

Spain, Italy, P:ortugal & France

Auxerre, Historic Town in France

Auxere on the River Yonne

Just over an hour from Paris by train and in the heart of the Yonne are of Burgundy.  You may be lucky enough to cruise some of the canals in the area, but if not and if you can drag yourself away from the charms of Paris, you won’t be disappointed in this town colonised by the Romans.

The vineyards that surround Auxerre from which are produced some delightful  wines, are among the most celebrated in France, and some of the oldest.   This is the area of the great Chablis houses and if time permits a visit to Chablis itself would be the icing on the cake.   It lies approximately 15 kilometres away, famous for its white wine from the Chardonnay grape, referred to here as liquid gold.   The oldest certified vineyard in France, the Clos de la Chainette dating back to the 7th century, is in the Auxerre area.

Centreville, Auxerre.  Auxerre (pronounced Ausserre), was originally an active port, being on the wine route, but as the railways superseded water transport it lost its pre-eminence and became the pleasant unhurried town it is today.  Situated as it is on the River Yonne, and with the growth of sailing and the popularity of France’s canals, river cruisers and hotel barges have once again made the river the focal point of the town.  Cafés and restaurants along the banks are ideal places from which to while away an afternoon.

The old town starts right behind the Quai and from here a walk through the steep narrow cobbled streets with their timbered houses up to the newly restored Cathedral St Etienne is an essential part of a visit.   The Tour de l’Horloge, a magnificent sundial, leads into the pedestrian shopping area.

It is a town that repays exploring on foot, as it has preserved an exceptional architectural heritage and every corner seems to hold a piece of art and history.  Its historic centre is crisscrossed by winding streets along which are boutiques, restaurants and houses of the local residents.  It may look like an open-air Museum, but  Auxerre is very much a living town.

Not to be missed: the Cathedral of St. Etienne, St. Germain Abbey, Plaçe St. Nicholas and the houses with wooden sides along the banks of the River Yonne.

Cathedral Entrance
Auxerre on the River Yonne

Where to Eat in Logroño: Home of Rioja Wines

Vineyards of Rioja viewed from above

Eating well is not difficult in Logroño. From Tapas to gourmet foods, the visitor is assured of quality, freshness and a perfect marriage of Rioja to food.
Glorious Seafood in Logrono

The wines of the Rioja region are legendary, and most restauranteurs in Logroño can recommend a good accompanying wine from the many on offer. And it’s not just the wines: some restaurateurs insist that the olive oil they use is of equal importance.

Restaurant La VentaMoncalvillo

Top of the list must come La VentaMoncalvillo, a country restaurant which lies about 12 miles to the south of Longroño in Daroca de Rioja. Since opening in 1997 this restaurant has grown from a modest little place to one of the most important restaurants in the region.

The two owners, brothers Carlos and Ignacio Echapresto do everything between them from the wine buying to the organization of the seasonal menus. In spring it is daily fresh vegetables like asparagus, artichokes etc; in summer, salads and fruits and the crisp, green vegetables and tomatoes that smell of the sun, autumn offers small game like partridge, quail and woodcock and the earthy tones of wild, woodland mushrooms like morels, porcini and chanterelles, and in winter the heavier casserole dishes and big game like boar and venison.

A dish of wild mushroom sliced so thinly as to be almost transparent and served with the best olive oil and a sprinkling of chives makes a perfect starter at VentaMoncalvillo, especially when followed by Ibérico ham sliced just so wrapped round the white asparagus that is a speciality of Spain.

All dishes are served with wines chosen to accompany them, whether it be a white, a rosé or a deep, dark and luscious red.

Taberna Herrerias, Logroño  

Superb Fish

In an easy to find area of old Logroño, stands the Taberna Herrerias (means Blacksmiths Tavern), on the street of the same name, a 16th century palace sympathetically renovated without losing any of its ancient charm.

Now a restaurant serving delicious fresh, locally produced food, the clientele is mainly professional people and “ladies who lunch” – everyone hugely enjoying themselves. The wines come from all over the world, but naturally, the locally produced Rioja is very much to the fore, especially the top quality Riojas that are sometimes difficult to source.

The ground floor offers cocktails and light snacks, suitable for a quick ‘drop in’ meal and on the first floor are the kitchens. The main dining room is on the second floor from which it offer views of the 13th century Church of San Bartolomé and the 12th century spire of the Church of Santa Maria de Palacio, but it is not easy to spend time on admiring the outside views when the food on the table is so good.

Even a simple plate like a tomato salad seemed fresher and more tasty than any I’d had before and the seafood dishes, risottos, fish, vegetables and meats, matched with delightful wines from Rioja, were a gourmand’s delight. This restaurant is always very busy and reservations are recommended.

Casa de Comidas Lorenzo, Logroño  

How Many Bottles of Rioja?

For something slightly simpler but equally delicious, the Lorenzo Restaurant in Calle San Agustin is an excellent choice. Its pristine dining room on the first floor is a haven from the bustling street outside and the menu has something to please everyone.

The long list of starters was a problem on our visit, but the owner was happy to bring a selection of his best dishes which enabled everyone to have a “tasting” of the starters which ranged from a simple salad to a risotto. The fish menu contains a great variety of fish from cod, hake, sole, gurnard and monkfish..

If a main course of meat is required, I would suggest trying the roast suckling pig which is a speciality here. It’s not a dish that is available everywhere, but worth trying when you find it.

Evening Paseo in Logrono

And if all this food is just too much, then head off to the Calle Laurel for tapas, a mini-meal for which Logroño is famous.

Tapas Bar Where the Food is Always Good

The Wine Museum of Rioja

Dinastía Vivanco Bodegas Museo del Vinois not just a great Museum, it is a beautiful one as well, set in the heart of the wine area of Alberite in La Rioja, Spain.  What also places this Museum in a category of its own is its geographical position with glorious views over the surrounding countryside.

View from the Steps of the Museum of Wine, Rioja

The Museum is located right next to the Vivanco winery from which it takes its name, in the town of Briones, La Rioja, and was built to “give back to wine what wine has given to us” in the words of its founder Pedro Vivanco Paracuellos. It was Senor Vivanco’s passion for collecting everything to do with wine that led him to open this magnificent museum, created to showcase every aspect of his collection.

With audiovisual and interactive displays and a specific route for physically or visually impaired visitors, this museum ticks all the right boxes. The collection is divided into 5 main spaces and takes the visitor from the process of vine cultivation through its development from 8000 years ago right up to the present day, the history of which shows how the vine is central to our culture. Dinastía Vivanco Museo del Vino is set to become the world’s greatest museum of viniculture

What to See in the Wine Museum at La Rioja

Starting with an introductory video about the family Vivanco, visitors then move through the rest of the museum. An easy to follow plan guides one around but various sections can be skipped if time is short, or if the particular theme is not of interest. During the tour one learns that wine is closely related to human patterns of settlement and that it was found in both pagan and religious ceremonies from the earliest days.

Egyptians, Romans and Greeks are all well represented in the displays, and some beautiful mosaics and drinking vessels are on show along with the front panel of a 3rd century sarcophagus and some small oil paintings on copper. Many artistic works show how grapevines and wine have been used throughout the ages to depict figures in classical mythology. With ancient presses and ploughs, etchings and early pictures to illustrate the harvests, and photographs of more recent times, the life of the labourers in the vineyards is brought to life.

Barrels and Bottles and Transportation of Wine

Transportation of wine was always of major importance and barrel making and acquiring the correct oak wood for the barrels occupies a goodly section of the museum. There are only 3 types of oak used to make barrels today, Sessile Oak which adds a vanilla flavour to the wine, English, French and Russian Oak (not much used) which is very tannic, and American White Oak which adds chocolate aromas. Oak grows very slowly and cannot be cut before it is 120 years old.

As well as the barrels there is a whole area devoted to bottles and the corks used in them. The use of cork is always recommended for fine wines as its flexibility means that it swells up on contact with the wine and fits tightly into the bottle. The foil on the cork and top of the bottle protects it from exterior airs.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Following on from that there is a display of nearly 3,000 corkscrews that charts the evolution of this simple instrument, dating from the first patented model in the 18th century. Wine has given work to many people in many trades over many centuries.

It would be a shame to leave this delightful museum without spending time in the Essence area, a spot where different aromas can be experienced, from jasmine to leather, chocolate to chillies. It is revelatory.

Restaurant, Bar and Wine Tasting Area

Outside the displays can be found the tasting bar where one can spend a happy half-hour or so, sampling the delightful wines of the area.   The bar sells a fine collection of local and imported wines, and the excellent onsite restaurant offers superb, local dishes, cooked and served in the local fashion and with carefully chosen wines to accompany them.

A Pink Dawn Over the Rioja Vineyards

La Albufera Nature Park, Valencia, Spain

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Valencia may be going through a difficult patch at the moment with the credit crisis seeming to have hit it hard, but it’s a city that should be visited for the ultra modernity of its City of Arts and Sciences.  Those who now say Valencia shouldn’t have spent so much on this grandiose but gorgeous city had earlier been the first to admire and encourage Valencia in its endeavours.  The slideshow above shows part of this very modern metropolis, a park credited with having the most environmental and ecological value in Spain: it is beautiful at any time of the year and is well worth the short trip from the city centre.

Then the next day head off to La Albufera, the Nature Park just outside the city in the village of the same name.  Images below are all from La Albufera.

A Canal in La Albufera

To get to La Albufera from Valencia is easy whether you use self-drive, bus or cycle.   Head south along the El Saler motorway for about 12 Kl. until the Lake of Albufera comes into view.  La Albufera, Valencia, Spain, Restaurants in Main Street

Lying between sea and rice fields, the lake and surrounding wetlands are separated from the Mediterranean Sea by sand dunes and pinewoods, a paradise for migrating birds. Serious bird-watchers should head for El Palmar at the head of the park where there is a tower from which to watch the birds.

La Albufera Park and Lake, Valencia

This immense natural park and its surrounding rice fields, the crop from which forms the basis of the famous Valencia paella, and the canals dotted with fishing boats that hug the grassy verges of the lake, are less than 30 minutes away from the medieval splendour of Valencia, yet it seems like part of another world.

Farm Houses with the typical thatched roofs.

Lake Albufera is the largest lake in Spain and was formed aeons ago by sediment from the rivers Turia and Júcar which hem it in on either side sealing it off from the sea and making the 6 Kls. of water into a freshwater lake.   The innumerable canals leading to the lake are well used by fishermen who are usually to be found with their boats, ready to organize a relaxing trip on the lake or a fishing trip (bait and lines provided if necessary). Todos es posible (everything is possible) as they say in Spain.

Despite its size, the lake is estimated to be only one-tenth of the size recorded by the Romans. The remainder has been cultivated and turned into fields which in spring are drained and planted with rice seeds ready to be fertilized in May.  In July and August the Albufera is one enormous emerald paddi-field ready to be harvested in September.

Eating in La Albufera, Valencia

Eating places alongside one of the Canals. Boats for hire.

As well as the water activities, the boat trips, and the walks along the lake, the popularity of the restaurants that proliferate along the canals and in the village mean that they are a major attraction to visitors from the outskirts and from the city.   They all serve typical Valenciana fare, and more typically, dishes from the area of the lake. One of these is Ali i pebre de Anguilas, a sort of slightly spicy eel stew with potatoes, tomatoes and garlic. For those unsure of their ability to eat eels, a small tapas ración can be bought as a trial sample.

P1040632
Valencia Paella

Valencian paella is the other offering: eaten straight from the pan in which it was cooked, everyone having their own spoon, or if requested, it can be transferred to individual plates.

Beaches Surrounding the Lake at La Albufera, Valencia

There are good sandy beaches near the town of El Saler together with a camping site. Natural sand dunes make up the 10kl Dehasa del Saler, backed by pine trees which provide necessary shade in summer.

Without doubt, the best beaches in Valencia are in the city itself, miles of golden, soft, sandy beach near the harbour and the King Juan Carlos Marina built for Valencia’s hosting of America’s Cup three years ago.  They seem to stretch for miles from the Esplanade to the sea (shoes necessary when the sun is hot) and the best seafood restaurants are dotted along the promenade.

P1040599
Wide Sandy Beach at Valencia

Spending a day on the enormous sandy beach and around the harbour and marina is a perfect antidote to too much sight-seeing in Spain’s third most important city of golden-stoned buildings.

 

The Poetry is in the Pity: War Poets and Poetry

Reading some of Linda O’Neil’s poetry on her blog  http://www.poetrypf.co.uk/lyndaoneillpage.shtml) sent me back to my favourite war poets, Wilfrid Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, Isaac Rosenberg, Alun Lewis, Edward Thomas and many others, and to France where they fought.  I’m a regular visitor to France, sometimes to visit the World War I War cemeteries there, sometimes to cruise the canals, and sometimes I can combine the two.

Reading Linda’s lovely poem Embroidery, which I think we can call a homage to Owen, reminded me of the time I visited, not the vast fields of white crosses, but Owen’s grave in the little French cemetery at Ors in north eastern France near the site of the battle to cross the Sambre Oise canal.  He was killed there, just one week before the Armistice of 1918.

Today, his body lies, not in Poets’ Corner in St. Paul’s, but in a tranquil plot in the British war graves section of Ors’ village cemetery, a short walk from the place where he died.   Britain’s greatest war poet, Owen wrote poetry of a rare compassion and beauty, war poetry that did not hesitate to describe unseemly death and disablement in ways that had never been attempted before.  ‘My poetry is in the pity’ said Owen, and it is the pity and the compassion that we take from the poems.

My first visit to his grave was made nearly 20 years ago when, together with members of the Western Front Association and the Wilfrid Owen Society, we took part in the dedication of a Memorial to the poet.   The military historians who accompanied our party breathed life into statistics and Battle Plan references that our maps high-lighted.  Ground was fought over and won and fought over again and lost, as we listened to the story of the attacks across fields we stood on, and marched up trails that were once dirt tracks.

On the Somme the villages seem caught in a time warp.  After the war most places were rebuilt exactly as they had been before 1914, and you pass through villages whose names echo with a terrible resonance down the years, Thiepval, Fricourt, Maricourt, Montauban – villages which stand today almost as they did then.  What has changed is the terrain.  In many places today the Somme is like a prairie: hedges have been uprooted to maximise planting, and the flat, rolling plains are unlike the former fields on which the battles were fought.  Despite these changes, and 100 years after the 1914-18 battles, the Somme still throws up the bones of long dead combatants, old bits of ordnance and the occasional live shell.  Mametz Wood is a chilling place, even on a fine day when the sun is shining.

The sun was shining as we gathered on the banks of the Sambre-Oise canal to listen to the story of the battle in which Owen was killed.  The geese from the nearby farm were loud in their scolding, and staring at us from the opposite bank were cows, not Germans.  It was all a far cry from November 4th, 1918, when the men of the 2nd Manchesters and the 15th and 16th Lancashire Fusiliers fought long and hard for control of these now peaceful waters.  Difficult to imagine on this sunny morning, the men of the Royal Engineers working feverishly to make and mend the bridges and pontoons that were carrying the assault troops across the canal: difficult to imagine the shouts of the men, the sounds of the gunfire, and the screams of the wounded.

The day lives in my memory chiefly because of the French welcome.   The whole town turned out to welcome us, or so it seemed, and for the dedication of the Memorial.  Representatives from the Western Front Association and the Wilfrid Owen Society took their places alongside  M. Houson the Mayor of Ors, and dignitaries from other nearby towns.  Then down the street came the band, bussed in for the occasion from the neighbouring village of le Catillon.  That afternoon they had their most appreciative audience ever.

Certain songs have instant access to our emotions – one of them is Roses of Picardy.  As the opening bars of that sentimental old melody began, the chattering stopped and the crowd fell silent.  There were few there who were not moved to tears and the relief from the emotion of the moment was almost audible when the Mayor started his speech of welcome.

For some of us the pilgrimage ended as we laid our tributes on the grave of the poet and read the words on the pristine white slab that marks his burial place.  I remembered his last letter home to his mother …. There is no danger here, or if any, it will be over before you read these lines ..      Prophetic words.  The bells were ringing to announce the Armistice when the doorbell rang in the Owen household and Susan and Tom Owen got the telegram they’d been dreading.

Readers with an interest in Owen’s poetry who visit France, will have no bother finding Ors.  It is an easy spot to reach lying not far from Amiens (Michelin Touring Map No. 50.  200 Km. North of Paris, 40 Km. North-east of San Quentin and 25 Km. South-east of Cambrai).  Walk across the bridge that spans the canal and you will see the Memorial erected to Owen just nineteen years ago by the villagers, the Western Front Association and the Wilfrid Owen Society.  The Commonwealth graves are in a quiet spot at the side of the village cemetery, their pristine white slabs terribly upright in sharp contrast to the polished granite and marble of the French headstones.

The bond that grew between the men who fought in World War I was of a special kind, forged in the hell of the trenches and kept alive by the inability of those on the home front to comprehend the horror of that war.  Some may think that Westminster Abbey is the only fit place for a great English poet.  I believe Wilfrid Owen is happier to lie at Ors with the men whose life, and death, he shared.

Read Linda’s poem on http://www.poetrypf.co.uk/lyndaoneillpoems.shtml  and you’ll see why my memory slipped back to nearly 20 years ago.  Travel takes one to strange places and although I have visited the graves in the cemeteries on the River Kwai many times and been moved to tears more than once, those upright white slabs in France seem to resonate with the tragedy of all wars.  Is it the poetry the fallen left behind?  Is it the prose, not just from the English combatants, but Frenchman Henri Barbusse, German Erich Maria Remarque, and the Russian Pavel Antokolsky.

They have all left their mark on literature, and on lovers of poetry, but was still go on.

A DAY TRIP TO SAINT MALO, FRANCE

A DAY TRIP TO SAINT MALO
Saint Malo from the Sea
To St. Malo for a couple of days with Brittainy Ferries from Portsmouth, a smooth journey in an ensuite cabin that surpassed my expectations.  The food on board was delicious – and very inexpensive for the quality.  On offer was a buffet with main course served separately from the grill, an a la carte menu, a snack bar and a self-service restaurant – choice enough for everyone.
Heart of the old Town
Unfortunately, the first morning in St. Malo brought winds and rain, and when I say winds, I mean icy cold winds that cut through my three layers of warm clothing like a Siberian dagger.  Foolishly ignoring the advice of the hotel receptionist, we took ourselves off on a tour of discovery, only to find that nothing opened before 10 a.m. in St. Malo – not even a coffee shop – so we had the wet, cobble-stoned streets to ourselves as we perused the soggy map trying to negotiate the lanes, alleys and squares of this granite island.  Down one side-street we managed to locate a coffee shop which served delicious chocolate and croissants so the morning took on a more cheerful aspect.
By midday however, the sun was out, the sky was blue, and it was smiling Gallic faces all round.  Saint Malo surges up from rocks and curves to form a natural harbour.  The Cathedral which we’d earlier visited (partly to escape the rain) dominates the skyline and is a good marker if one gets lost.  Despite the religious symbol however, the city has a somewhat shady past, being the haunt of Barbary pirates in the 18th and 19th centuries who preyed on the ships crossing the channel.
The Old Town
It would be a good idea to take La Petit Train de Saint Malo for the 30 minute sight-seeing tour – a good 5 Euros worth – before embarking on a walking tour with a map, as this tours the walled city and the surrounding port and includes an English commentary.  Visitors to the town can see quickly where the landmarks are and make a note as to what they would like to return to see when time permits.
The Beach and the Causeway to the Isle
The heart of the city is the old walled town known as Intra-Muros (inside the walls) and a favourite walk is on top of these 20-foot thick walls.  From high above town and beach one has a magnificent view of the surrounding area and down into the maze of medieval streets.  A stretch of approximately one and a half miles can be walked and despite being buffeted by the wind, it was a joy to gaze on the golden sands of St. Malo which stretch right along the Brittany coast, watch the parties of schoolchildren wander along the water’s edge, and the hardier folk who were hurrying along the stone-flagged causeway to Grand Be islet (don’t attempt this if the tide is coming in: if you do, then you must stay on the island until it goes out again).
Restarant on the Walls
1 Kilo of Moules avec Frites 11 Euros
In a town known for its fish and seafood it can be a problem to decide where to eat, so many are the good restaurants on offer.  One row of restaurants backs on to the walls (Rue Jacques Cartier and Place Chateaubriand) and this seemed to be most people’s favourite place.  And do try a Kir Breton (Kir and Breton Cider).  Most people, for lunch and dinner, seemed to be opting for moules in all their forms washed down with either local cider or white wine, followed by crepes for dessert.
The weather didn’t encourage sea trips but bus rides to nearby Dinard and Dinan were easy to arrange.  We were temped to take a taxi to Mont-Saint-Michel for 85 Euros but decided against it not knowing what the weather would be like.
Next day we sailed back to Portsmouth on the Bretagne with the sun shining fiercely from a blue, blue sky.  It was ‘on the deck’ weather the whole way back and I’ve already made up my mind to do this trip again.

The Palio, Siena, and Horse Deaths

The famous Siena Palio is under attack from politicians and animal activists who feel that too many horses are dying on the streets of ancient towns as horse racing in Italian streets continues to attract crowds.

Scene of the Palio, Piazza del Campo

The famous Palio in Siena which is staged on July 2nd and August 16th each year in the beautiful medieval Piazza del Campo has been pitting jockeys from different neighbourhoods against one another, since the middle of the 17th century.  Amid pageantry and crowds dressed up for the occasion, horses ridden by ten colourfully dressed bareback jockeys, earlier chosen from Siena’s 17 quarters, gallop three times in two minutes around the Piazza del Campo, during which they lash both their rivals and their horses with whips made from bull penises.

Spectacle without the Horse Racing at Siena’s Palio

For those who want to avoid the actual horse racing but who would like to see a little of the pageantry, go to Siena a few weeks before.  During the lead-up to the main event, and especially at the weekends, the neighbourhood support groups march through the streets and alleys of the town, narrowly avoiding confrontations with each other through luck more than route savvy.  These groups are magnificently dressed in medieval costumes as they strut through the town, accompanied by their bands and sundry followers.  The core group can be composed of the very elderly to the very young, all staunch members of one particular group, although I never saw any women marching.

If by chance two groups should meet, an exchange of insults is par for the course with the occasional brandishing of swords.  Worse for the onlooker is the discordance of two bands playing different local anthems!

Siena in Tuscany, near Florence and Pisa

There is accommodation around the square with balconies from which to view the racing, or there is seating on certain balconies rented out for those willing to pay a premium, but this needs to be booked up early.

Siena is a magnificent town, it rivals Florence in many ways, and is easily reached by train or coach from Pisa to which most of the airlines fly these days.  It is also within easy reach of Florence and could be the centre of a Tuscany touring holiday giving you access to a wealth of medieval hillside towns as well as the better known artistic centres.  And when in the area, do visit the magnificent little hamlet of Civita di Bagnoregio just a few miles away.  It has a population of only ten people as it was dying at one point but efforts are being made to restore the glorious medieval properties some dating from the Etruscan period.

I shall be returning this year, not for the Palio, but to enjoy the Piazza del Campo where it seems all Italian life is lived, to revel in the beauty of the town, and to eat some truly fabulous food.

Siena Tourist Office

Back from Rioja and Catching Up.

Been a long, been a long, been a long time.  Anyone remember those words from the old song?

I’ve been busy over the last few months trying to work for a living and juggle social life which has made me neglect my blog.  I blame my computer really, as the many ways it distracts me from doing essential jobs are too numerous to mention.  Especially when it comes to playing with photographs, resizing, cropping, changing aspects, etc.  My biggest problem is not being able to resist trying them in different styles – just for my own amusement, of course – and I can waste a good few hours doing this.  But hey ho! here I am again.

Logroño

Bar in Logroño, capital of Rioja Region

Since I last blogged I’ve been to the Rioja Wine Festival in Spain where the celebrations were absolutely fabulous.  Tapas in the bars from 7 in the evening until well into the early hours of the morning, drinking some fabulous wines that I’d never tried before and when it wasn’t a tapas evening, sampling superb food in great restaurants, two of which stand out particularly.

Rich, Red, Rioja

1.   Restaurant La Venta Moncalvillo, a country restaurant about 12 miles outside Longroño. Since opening in 1997 this restaurant has grown from a modest little place to one of the most important restaurants in the region.  The two owners, brothers Carlos and Ignacio Echapresto do everything between them from the wine buying to the organization of the seasonal menus. A dish of wild mushroom sliced so thinly as to be almost transparent and served with the best olive oil and a sprinkling of chives makes a perfect starter, especially when followed by Ham Ibérico liced just so wrapped round the white asparagus that Spain specialises in.

Display of Coloured Corks at Taberna Herrerias, Logroño

2.   Taberna Herrerias, Logroño
In the old area of Logroño stands the Taberna Herrerias (a name that means Blacksmiths Tavern),on the street of the same name.  It is a 16th century palace sympathetically renovated without losing any of its ancient charm and now a restaurant serving delicious fresh, locally produced food,. The wines come from all over the world, but naturally, the locally produced Rioja is very much to the fore, especially the top quality Riojas that are sometimes difficult to source.

Logroño, Rioja’s capital, is an amazing city and one I hadn’t previously visited.  Accessible from the port of Bilbao which we arrived at and from where we hired car, we reached Logroño in just over two hours easy driving.  I met some people who had flown there, via Madrid, which they described as an easy trip.

Balloon over Vineyards of Rioja
Of the many experiences in and around Rioja, I treasure most the early morning balloon flight over the vineyards, flying up and into the clouds and watching the morning sun come up and cast the balloon’s shadow on the same white clouds.  Looking down on the toy cars and the dolls’ houses and experiencing the eerie silence as we drifted in space sharing a breakfast glass of champagne, was something I shall remember for the rest of my life.  I’ve done other balloon flights, but this one I can only describe as magical.
Museum of Vineculture

A visit to what must be one of the best Museums ever, the Dinastía Vivanco Bodegas Museo del Vino set in the heart of the wine area of Alberite in La Rioja, should be on everyone’s list of things to do in Rioja.  Located right next to the Vivanco winery from which it takes its name, in the town of Briones, it was built to “give back to wine what wine has given to us” in the words of its founder Pedro Vivanco Paracuellos. It was Senor Vivanco’s passion for collecting everything to do with wine that led him to open this magnificent museum, created to showcase every aspect of his collection.

Overlooking vineyards and the town of Briones, the Museum covers everything from ancient wine making to wine tasting guiding the visitor through ceramics, brass utensils and even a “smell experience” where the smells associated with wines can be experimented with.  Truly the most enjoyable museum I have ever visited.

There were wine tastings, trips to a thermal spa, horse riding, visiting an old monastery, and always, eating.  As a week-end trip, or a short break, this undiscovered town has everything, plus some of the best wines you will ever sample.

I think of Longroño now, as one of the places I must return to a.s.a.p.

Spanish Travels – Navarra and Galicia

When I first started this blog, I had intended to post weekly, but somehow work caught up with me and I had to postpone much that I wanted to do. I confess also that I’ve been enjoying the lovely weather, spending time in the garden pretending to be caring for the flowers and vegetables, but really, just pottering. Vigo, Spain

In between times I’ve been travelling in Spain for work, writing about the wondereful Province of Navarre which is seldom visited by tourists and that of Galicia. With regard to Navarre, tourists do visit but most of them are walkers because the area’s hills and mountains, rustic hotels and great food and wine (and the secret – cider) make it very worthwhile.
Part of the famous Route of St. James to Campostela de Santiago passes through Navarre and it was humbling to walk just a few kilometres along the road that sees pilgrims walk 15-20 miles per day for up to 30 days. Next year is the big celebration of the walk and Santiago is gearing up for a massive influx of tourists. I’m toying with the idea of doing part of the walk but I fear I may not have the stamina.
 Lots-of-ponies-on-the-mount

Galicia was a great contrast to Navarre. Spain’s northern coastal area is visited mainly by the Spanish happy to leave the southern Costas to the rest of Europe. I would hate to spoil it for them but I have to say that I plan to go back as it’s one of the most beautiful places I’ve visited in Spain, unspoiled by high-rises and bars and restaurants serving “chips like at home” and “mama’s apple pie”. Instead we had steamed mussels, scallops, oysters, langoustines, prawns and every type of fish imaginable, including sole, turbot, sea bass and hake.

Garden-of-Hotel-Escudos-Loo
Hotel Escudos

Although neither province sees a lot of foreign tourists, there are a couple of Michelin recommended restaurants with food and prices that will astound those used to paying a small fortune in such establishments. Vigo in Galicia also has a superb 5* Hotel, The Escudos, located just outside the town and overlooking the bay. There are beautiful gardens and a 200 year old camellia tree (in full blossom when I was there last week) and a few steps lead from the garden down to the beach.

 Vigo Bay, Spain
I returned from Galicia only two days ago and the temperature then was still in the mid-twenties, something I hadn’t reckoned on when I decided on the area. I had packed mainly autumn clothes, never imaginging I would be sitting in the main square at 2.30 in the morning in tee-shirt.
Crabs and Giant Prawns
Now back in the UK with dark nights and rain lashing the windows, I shall settle down to working from my notes and uploading some more articles on http://www.suite101.com/ about my travels. Next week sees the World Travel Market at Excel in London where I shall spend a few days renewing acquaintances with friends from around the globe and finding out what different countries are planning for visitors for next year.
If any earth-shattering news comes my way, it will be in my next blog.
Till then …..