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Five wonderful weeks in northern Spain

marshajc

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My husband, Michael, and I left Denver on a nonstop Lufthansa flight to Frankfurt on Aug. 29, 2011, continuing on to Madrid for five wonderful weeks in northern Spain.
From Barajas Airport, we took the free shuttle to the Axor Madrid Feria (C. Campezo 4), about 10 minutes away, for an overnight (€55, or $72) in this modern business hotel. We returned to the airport on the shuttle in the morning and picked up our rental car from Avis. We’d brought our Garmin nüvi GPS navigation system from home with downloaded maps of Spain. Then we headed for Salamanca.

Salamanca
The Abba Fonseca Hotel (phone +34 902 153 163), where we spent two nights (€153, plus €14 per night for parking), is located across from the university and is a short walk from the Plaza Mayor. It was an older hotel, but our room had fairly up-to-date furnishings and a good bathroom.
The cathedral dominates the landscape of Salamanca; you can see the domes from everywhere in the centro (city center). Some of its private family chapels are as ornate as one would expect in Spain. The main area of the church is decorated with carved stone. While the carvings are intricate and elaborate, since they are of gray stone they create a more austere feeling.
The centro is lovely. As most of the buildings are constructed of golden sandstone with red-tile roofs, you get a feeling of simple continuity. As we walked from place to place, we came across lone guitar players in different locations.
Our next stop was the Museo Art Nouveau y Déco. This was a wonderful surprise and worth the stop. The exhibits featured bronzes, ceramics and glass, including a fabulous collection of dolls from the late 1800s to the early 1900s. The museum also had a terrific Art Deco glass ceiling and windows.
Then we headed back to Rio de la Plata (Plaza del Peso, 1), where we had eaten the night before. The tiny dining room at the back was full, so we joined the two people at the bar. We ordered calamari frito with our vino blanco, followed by grilled clams. Lesson for the day — if you want to order something without seeing the menu, be sure to ask how much it costs. Michael almost fell off his stool when the bill arrived. We were charged €26 ($34) for the calamari and €35 ($46) for the eight clams!

On to Cambados
We were on our way to Cambados, in Galicia, a fairly easy drive, as the roads were good and well signed. Except for a stretch on a two-lane road, most driving was on an autovía or autopista (toll highway).
We stopped in Ribadavia to see the old Jewish quarter and have lunch. Antonio, at the information office, asked where we were from. When we said. “The USA,” he said, “What are you doing in this far corner? Are you lost?” That confirmed our perception that few Americans visit Galicia.
We arrived in Cambados and checked in at Casa Rosita (phone +986 543 477). Our room (€75 per night, with breakfast) was a nice size and had a little balcony with a table and chairs overlooking the water.
We learned of a winery tour (€6 per person) at Martín Códax , one of the largest albariño (a white wine) producers. We and a German couple were the only ones on the tour with Maria, who gave the tour in English. Because the harvest was going on, we couldn’t see the wine press in action, but we did go into the “smelling” room and could differentiate various aromas that one might find in wine. On a beautiful outdoor deck, Maria turned us over to Paola, who conducted the tasting. She was delightful and gave us many good tips on area seafood and restaurants.
We stopped for a lunch of cockles and mussels. Galicia is the mussel capital of Spain, and they were plump and very fresh. At most restaurants, un vaso de agua (a glass of water) is provided at no charge if you ask.

Cedeira and Cudillero
Our next destination was Cedeira, where we stayed at Hotel Herbeira (phone +981 49 21 67), located on a hill just outside town. The hotel was quite modern, and our room (€196 for two nights) overlooked the pool and the ocean. Carmen, the owner, spoke excellent English and gave us many recommendations for where to eat and what to do. That evening we had dinner at Taverna do Puntal (Lugar de Cordobelas), recommended by Carmen, enjoying one of the best meals of the trip.
In Cudillero, La Casona de Pío (phone +34 985 591 512) had been recommended and had good reviews, so I had called ahead for a reservation (€92 per night). It was difficult to find, so I got out of the car and walked to where we had seen a sign for the hotel. I finally found my way to the hotel, checked in and had Michael bring the car closer to the stairs that we had to walk up. After we unloaded our luggage, he had to park at the marina and walk back, as there is no parking anywhere in town. The hotel is in a refurbished salt factory and has authentic furnishings. Our room (No. 105), with a modern bathroom that included jets in the tub, was very small and had a view of a stone wall. There was only one electrical outlet. After a sleepless night in an airless room listening to a mosquito buzzing all night, we decided to change our plans and go to Oviedo.
I had seen an article praising Cudillero. It was mentioned that, since the fishing industry there was dying, the town decided to build its tourist trade. That it is focused on tourism was evident, which is why we found it to be the one place on our trip that we would not go back to.

Oviedo
Located across the street from a lovely park, Oviedo’s Hotel Libretto (phone +34 985 202 004) was quite interesting. The hotel is very modern, and its decor is based on opera themes. We had a nice-size room (€97) with a king-sized bed; a lucite desk and chair; a bathroom with a claw-foot tub and a rain showerhead, and a separate, tiny toilet room with a glass door. It was very quiet.
Exploring Oviedo was a pleasure. There are many sculptures all around the town, and it was fun to come across them. The town’s architecture is lovely, also.
Oviedo impressed us as being quite fashionable, with some very nice shops. It was easy to find lunch on one of the wide pedestrian streets, so we stopped at Las 4 Calles (Calle de Manuel Pedregal, 11). There we learned you should wait to order until you see whether or not complimentary tapas are served with the ordered drinks; they are in most places.
That evening we went to the town’s small art museum, then to Tierra Astur (Calle de Gascona, 1), on a famous street lined with sidrerías (cider houses). It was quite an experience. The street was mobbed with families, ladies-night-out groups, etc. We put our name on the restaurant’s waiting list at 9:45, waiting outside and people-watching before being seated at 10:30. People kept coming in, and the noise level was high, with lots of young couples standing at the bar. At one point, all the lights went out. As we wondered what was going on, everyone in the place started singing “Cumpleaños Feliz,” and a cake with candles was brought to a table near us. We were glad we had the experience.

Through the mountains
Our journey continued to San Sebastián via the Picos mountain range. To be fair, we saw only a tiny bit of the Picos, at the southern end.
We went into Cangas de Onís and got caught in a festival on market day. We went into the tourist information office, which also has a nice, small museum about Asturias, and bought a few things in the market for a picnic lunch before going on to the Picos.
We live in the Rocky Mountains, and I’m more of a give-me-a-beach-any-day kind of gal, and mountains do not excite me. I liked being in and driving through the Dolomites in Italy, which I found to be quite spectacular, but in the part of the Picos through which we drove, I felt a bit claustrophobic. The limestone walls seemed to be closing in on the road. There were many hikers who looked like they were enjoying themselves, and, from farther away, the craggy Picos were beautiful to look at.

San Sebastián
On our first trip to Spain 20 years ago — which was spent almost entirely in the south — we drove in from France and spent one day in San Sebastián. I had always wanted to return. On this trip, we rented an apartment there for a week. Before I go into detail, I will say that San Sebastián was even better than I remembered. My next dream trip will be to rent an apartment there for the entire month of September.
We rented our apartment, Tamarindo II (€110 per night), through Enjoyrentals . There was a different problem every day (no WiFi as had been promised, a backed-up toilet, etc.), so I do not recommend this company. The apartment, itself, located right across the street from the park leading to La Concha beach, was just fine. The main problem was the noise. Besides heavy car traffic, there was a bus stop right below our window, and large buses stopped there and idled before turning the corner. The apartment problems did not diminish the joy of San Sebastián, however.
We knew about the San Sebastián International Film Festival and purposely adjusted our travel dates so we would be there for the first day. We attended the Telluride Film Festival for 30 years and were excited to see what the “San Se” festival was like. It offered a week-long program which took place in six different locations. Unfortunately, we found out when it was too late to do anything about it that movie tickets had gone on sale on the Internet the Sunday before the festival started, so several of the films we wanted to see were already sold out.

Tasting tapas
That evening we were off to do our first pintxos (Basque tapas) tour. We had several pintxos with wine (€10) at Taberna Gandarias (Calle 31 de Agosto, 23), one of the places listed in “Maribel’s Guide to San Sebastián-Donosta” (downloadable at maribelsguides.com ). Then we kept walking, looking at what was displayed in the various bars along the way until we found another that looked good.
It appears that there are a couple of different methods for choosing and paying for your dishes. At some places, like Mesón Martin (Calle Elkano, 7), you take what you want and then, on the honor system, report how many items you had and pay (our total was €10). At others, which serve some hot or special pintxos, you must put what you want on a plate and let the waiter see what you have before paying. If you order something hot or a special selection, it will be brought to you. At these places, a running tab was kept. When we were done, they knew exactly how much we owed, even though the place was packed.
The next day we went to La Concha beach. The beach was quite a scene, with hundreds of people of all shapes and sizes. Apparently, anything goes, from women going topless to stomachs hanging out over bikini bottoms…on both sexes. The beach is surrounded by beautiful Belle Époque buildings and green hills. This is a beautiful city.
Our day ended at Bergara Bar (General Artetxe, 8), where we had the most fabulous pintxos. Instead of having the customary three and moving on, we had 10, every one super, plus several glasses of txocoli (a white wine) for €38. This is one of two places in the Nuevo Gros area that have won awards and been featured in magazines.

Day tripping
The next morning was overcast, so we decided it would be a good time for a day trip to Altamira and Bilbao. On the way, we stopped to see the highly touted town of Santillana del Mar. We walked through what we found to be a lovely but highly oversold medieval town. It was well preserved, but it was a total tourist site.
The nearby Altamira Museum, on the other hand, was wonderful and well worth a visit. And, as we are seniors, we got in for free! The actual Altamira Cave is closed in order to preserve its paintings, but the museum has a terrific replica cave into which you can walk after seeing a brief film about the cave’s history, from 15,000 years ago to when it was discovered in the mid 1800s. Explanations are in Spanish and English. There is also a large and very well-done exhibit space.
Then we went to Bilbao and the Guggenheim (entry €10 per person). The “Goog,” as it is known locally, is a very interesting building filled with abstract Expressionist works and huge installations that were not really to my taste. We did have a rather interesting experience when we tried — and initially failed — to get out of the parking garage at a nearby shopping mall. I assumed that we had to have our parking ticket time-stamped at the machine near the exit ramp, then pay an attendant somewhere at a street exit. Wrong! After several tries, with the arm not rising to let us go up the ramp, I got out of the car and looked for help. I found an office with an attendant who spoke no English. The poor woman, seeing how freaked out I was, actually locked her office and walked me to the machine in the garage where one pays, taking my money, paying my ticket, then handing me the paid ticket that we had to put in the exit ramp machine to get out. I was so relieved that I gave her a big hug.

Back in San Se
Friday was the opening night of the film festival, and we had tickets for the 9:30 movie. We left at 7:30 in a light drizzle and went back to a favorite, Bar Zeruko (Péscadería, 10), for more fabulous pintxos, including langostino and scallops (€35), before heading off to the film. We went into a very nice, large theater and got good seats in the center.
Our last day in San Se was, again, overcast, the light drizzle sometimes getting harder, though the temperature was always warm. We went to Bretxa Market to buy food for the road and wandered through the beautiful displays in the fish market. On the way back to our apartment we encountered a band of older men, led by a woman, playing traditional songs. Many people in the crowd had song books, and people were tapping toes, dancing and singing, including us. I joked that either we were part of a traditional folk song performance or a revolution was starting. It was a great scene.

The Costa Brava
Leaving San Sebastián, we drove to Calella de Palafrugell, where we’d expected to have the best weather. To our great surprise, it was really chilly and rainy. The apartment we rented there was cozy (i.e., one person in the kitchen at a time) and a bit musty, with a nice garden patio and a pool that was still open. A downside was the tiny ants that were all over everything. This was the only place without WiFi, but we knew that when we rented it (£500-£850, or $811-$1,380, per week, depending on season).
Fortunately, the next day brought a major change in the weather. The sun was glorious and the blue sky, perfect. We walked part of the path to Llafranc to see what it was like and found it to be easy, mostly following the coast.
The sun was out again the next day, and we walked the coastal path to the botanical garden at Cap Roig. The path had many series of steps and several tunnels. Of course, there were beautiful views all along the way, and the water was a clear turquoise. It’s said that this is the most natural area on the Costa Brava. I found this path, which took about 30 minutes, much easier to walk than the paths in the Cinque Terre. In spite of all the steps, the paths were either smoothly paved, paved with stones or made of packed sand. The stairways had metal banisters and/or walls to hold on to.
The botanical garden was worth the visit (€3 per person). This was off season, so there were no roses or other blooming plants, but the cactus garden was huge, with an amazing variety. Also, there were quite a few sculptures to be discovered as we walked through the many terraces.

Area attractions
We took a day trip to Girona. We went into the Jewish Quarter (El Call) to visit the Jewish History Museum (€5.50). It was very well done, and most displays were explained in English as well as in other languages.
Following some gift shopping, we had lunch at the contemporary Mimolet (c/ Pou Rodó, 12), offering very creative cookery, indeed. Our delicious meal, with salads, entrées, dessert, wine and coffee, cost E62. Before going back to the car, we pooled our coins to pay the parking ticket machine. Imagine our surprise when the total was €12 ($16)! Parking in Girona is not cheap.
We left the next morning for the Greek and Roman ruins at Empúries. The museum there was very good and explained the chronology of the city, from the fifth century BC until the capital was moved to Castelló in the 11th century. There were some very well-preserved artifacts from both Greek and Roman times. After the museum, we walked through the ruins, especially enjoying the mosaics in the Roman city.

Barcelona
We moved on to our next apartment rental , in the Gracia area, which cost E100 per night. The owners, Joan and Elisabeth, greeted us and took responsibility for our bags, as the apartment was not yet ready. The reviews we had read raved about this young couple, and I can confirm that they deserve the praise. So off we went to the Sants train station, where we returned our faithful SEAT Leon car, then took a taxi back to the apartment. To our pleasant surprise, all of our bags had been brought up to the apartment. Joan was there to show us everything we needed to know, even pointing out nearby places of interest and restaurants on a map for us.
Then we set out to find the sardana performance that we’d seen advertised in a brochure. We found the dancers on one of the grassy boulevards and thoroughly enjoyed watching the variety of people participating in this circle dance. It was a moving experience to see this traditional community event.
Michael was very interested in taking a cooking class in Barcelona, preferably one that would teach him how to make some of those award-winning pintxos. We’d seen information about Cook and Taste (Paradís 3;) and went there only to find that the class was filled. He put his name on a waiting list. (He received a call the following day to let him know an opening was available in a couple of days. He was thrilled!)
We were hungry, so we went to Senyor Parellada (Argenteria, 37), a lovely, old traditional Catalan restaurant with excellent food and service. It looked formal, with crystal chandeliers, waiters in black coats and good art and lighting, but our waiters were low-key and friendly. We shared shrimp in garlic oil, and, with our entreés, wine and coffee, our meal cost €37.50.
Our final stop for the day was MACBA (free for seniors), which we felt had better contemporary art than what we’d seen at the Guggenheim. The interesting, stark-white, angular building had interior ramps leading to each floor, offering different perspectives as you walked up and down the ramps.
On our last trip to Spain, we did not get to Parc Güell, so we planned to spend a good chunk of time there this time. The serpent bench, covered with glorious mosaics, is fascinating; no two sections are alike. We toured the on-site Gaudí house/museum, which has rooms filled with furniture. The designs of the furnishings are true Gaudí, and it was mind-boggling to think of the skills needed by the craftsmen who carried out those designs. The park, itself, was a bit of a disappointment. I expected grass but found, instead, sand, which was covered with sellers of everything from scarves to sunglasses.
The next day was another wonderful day in Barcelona, and our first morning stop was La Boqueria market — a feast for the senses. We had cortados (espresso topped with steamed milk) and a kind of apple strudel pastry at the famous Bar Pinotxo (€7). Smiling Juan, the owner, served us. We walked through the market, enjoying the sights and sounds, then stopped at El Quim for a morning snack of fried artichokes, but they were already sold out at
11 a.m.! We had really good chipirones frito (fried squid) instead. With cava (sparkling wine) and cana (lemonade with beer), we paid €14.

A bit of culture
We took what we felt was a worthwhile tour (€9) of the Gran Teatre de Liceu, one of the largest opera houses in Europe. It was very beautiful and had a lovely gift shop.
Continuing our cultural exploration, we decided to go to Museu Picasso (€9 per person), which was as wonderful as I remembered.
That evening we heard a fabulous Spanish guitarist, Xavier Coll, who performed in the most spectacularly beautiful building I have ever been in. It is hard to describe the Palau de la Música — the domed stained-glass ceiling; the ceramic columns, each one different; the ceramic roses on the ceiling and walls, and, most stunning of all, the sculpted music muses on the stage walls that seemed to come to life when lit. Coll played four different guitars from different eras, with explanations of each in English and Spanish as he went along. The second half was just Coll in concert, with encores of a tango and “Granada,” which he sang as well. His voice was operatic.

On the town
We had become experienced Metro users, so getting to the Barceloneta neighborhood the next afternoon was easy. Our choice for lunch, Can Majó (Almirall Aixada, 23), had a 45-minute wait for terrace seating. (Be sure to reserve ahead if you want to eat on the beach.)
Michael ordered a platter of seafood with lobster and I ordered grilled turbot (total meal, €97). Olives and tomato bread were brought, to start, with our bottle of vino blanco. Then the huge plate of cold mussels, clams, shrimp, berbecheros (cockles) and other weird shellfish — with a crab on top — arrived, and we shared. When the waiter came to clear our plates, I complained that there had been no lobster on the platter. He explained that the lobster would be coming, as the chef preferred to serve the cold items first, then the hot. Sure enough, a huge plate of lobster and shrimp arrived, as did my grilled turbot. After lunch, we walked on the beach promenade. They’ve really turned this area into a lovely place. Twenty years ago it was pretty seedy. Now it is home to, mainly, high-rise apartments.
That evening we attended a concert (€44 for two) at Teatre Lliure, a small theater in the Gràcia neighborhood, which was very interesting. We had tapas and cava (€11) at the upstairs bar before the performance. The pianist, Manel Camp, was quite good and so was the well-known Catalan singer, Maria del Mar Bonet.
The next day it was time for Michael’s cooking class (€65). He had elected to add a market tour (€13) prior to the cooking class, so he was off to La Boqueria in the morning and didn’t return from class until around 4 o’clock. He’d had a good time, especially touring the market and tasting several kinds of jamón ibérico (a cured ham).

Madrid
It was time for our train adventure to Madrid. I’d purchased our discounted tickets for €52 each online before we left home. Our taxi to Sants Station came right on time at 6:15 a.m., but we were quite early, as you can board only a half hour before the train is scheduled to leave, 7:30 in our case. Once on board, we found our seats and began lifting all six pieces of luggage into the overhead rack, as the two small spaces for heavy luggage near the door were already taken. The AVE was smooth and quiet. This one made three stops along the way, so it took three hours and 18 minutes to get to Madrid. At Atocha station, we waited until everyone got off the train before unloading our bags. After getting everything together, we discovered that there was no elevator. A moving ramp was the only way up, and it was a bit frightening for me, as I had both hands full of baggage, so I had nothing to hold on with while getting on the moving floor, but I managed to make it to the top.
We took a taxi to Hotel Preciados (phone +34 91 454 44 00), where we had a nice room (€265, or $346, for two nights) with a balcony facing a quiet side street. There was AC, an automatic shade and a double door, so it was quiet at night.
The main reason for our 2-day stay in Madrid was to visit its museums. Fortunately, both the Thyssen-Bornemisza and the Prado were open on Sunday.
We started at the Thyssen-Bornemisza (€15 for two, with an audio guide). It’s a terrific museum, but we were too tired to really do it justice. I would recommend spending at least four hours there and using the audio guide for every painting for which there is information.
I had planned for us to then go to the Prado to revisit works by Goya, Greco and Bosch, but even I was wound down too much to do any more.
In the evening, the plan was to go tapas hopping in the La Latina area, which we assumed would be like the wonderful pintxos bar areas we visited in San Se. We got a bit lost going there and were dismayed that, when we finally found Cava Baja and Cava Alta, a popular area for tapas, there were hordes of rather rowdy 20-something folks crowded at every tapas place I had on my list. This was very different from our San Se experience, and it was not pleasant.

Coming to a close
We spent our last day in Madrid walking through the Salamanca neighborhood, an upscale residential and shopping area. There were very expensive shops, but we enjoyed just walking around and looking in the windows.
Around 9 p.m. we walked to the Mercado de San Miguel, where there were lots of food booths. You can pick up a variety of food and drink there and eat at bar tables.
On our walk back to the hotel, we stopped to see a “troupe” doing a combined ballet and comedy on the plaza.
 
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