Wednesday, 29 June 2016

Spanish Cave Churches: A Rocky Relationship With the Lord

Leaving our cosy Liencres apartment behind, we journeyed south into the hilly lands around the river Ebro. The temperature quickly dropped (surely not helped by the mystically rectangular bank of fog we drove through), and I lamented the fact that I had been at the beach just yesterday.

Valdeprado del Río, Spain (Valdeprado del Río, España)
November 2015
Stopping along our route, we briefly checked out the Monasterio de Montesclaros, which was closed and the village utterly deserted. The facade showcased some intricate carvings, including that of the virgin and baby Jesus in a style I can only describe as charmingly yet eerily doll-like.

The story goes that many centuries ago a herdsman saw one of his bulls emerge from a dense shrubbery several days in a row. Following him one day, he found the bull kneeling in front of a small cave looking in with rapture. A light emanated from inside, and looking closer he found an image of the virgin Mary. Thinking it obviously holy, he led a procession up to the cave, grabbed the holy image and stuck it in the town's church, but it miraculously disappeared. It teleported back to the cave! He swiped it again, but the very next day it had again apparated into the holiest of holy caves. He tried containing it in another church nearby, but it failed to stay put and always returned to its cave. Conceding defeat, they built a chapel around the cave and later a church was built atop it - the Monasterio de Montesclaros!
Before we move on I have to point out that at this stage I was wearing a bikini under a pair of shorts, a thin jumper and jandals. This was blatant overhopefulness on my part, and I took the lack of passersby as an opportunity to change into more suitable outerwear in the car.

We parked in the tiny town of Aguilar de Campo, and were barked at quite unfairly by three dogs. Luckily the biggest one was chained up, so we felt safe enough. I found this church to be the most interesting of the cave churches we had visited. Again, it was closed, although apparently you could ask at the local pub for the key (many other cave churches were accessible by key obtained by knocking on the door of the nearest house or finding the priest).

It looked incredibly rustic, with windows of varying sizes and several different construction materials. 

On the path leading up to the church was a rocky belfry with a rusty gate enclosing what was possibly the crypt.

This time it was I who got to pretend to be a zombie! I need to up my acting skills, I know.

Needing a little siesta, we lunched and rested in our car in the town of Fromista, watched over by San Telmo (aka Saint Elmo). He was the most famous person to be born in Fromista. No one could compare even given the last 800 years in which to try. Standing on his tiniest of boats he protected seafarers from watery graves.

Aside from Saint Elmo, the town's main drawcard is its church - the Iglesia de San Martin dating from 1066. It's in the Romanesque style as you can see from its semi-circular arched windows and doorways, and though it somewhat invokes the idea of a barn, it's also quite beautiful.

Wrapped up nice and warm against the increasingly cool air, we drove onwards towards citylife once again.

Today's post was almost called: Confessions of Crypto-Zombology

Monday, 27 June 2016

Liencres: Pulp Fiction (Orange Juice and Audiobooks by the Sea)

Liencres, Spain (Liencres, España)
November 2015
Wanting to lead a more quiet life after such fast paced travel, we booked an apartment hotel for one week in Liencres. A whole week in one place! Wow. What slowpokes. And in a town that was not known for its tourist attractions, history or anything else for that matter. So, why did we choose Liencres? It was cheap and there was a beach nearby.
In fact, this place was so off the radar that as we were driving towards it we passed through a series of increasingly hideous towns with identical rows of houses. I assume that these sprung up effectively as suburbs for the nearby city of Santander - people could live within commuting distance to the city and also be reasonably close to the beach.
We settled into our apartment quickly, strewing our belongings about the place ("hey, we don't have to clean up for a whole week, wheee!") and discovered an orange juicer. They do love their oranges in Spain. The supermercado was just on the corner of our road, and we loaded up on provisions like oranges and taco supplies.
During that week, we got to know our local grocer. He spoke no English, and we no Spanish. He didn't let that hamper the discussion! Using complicated hand gestures and fervent language he tried to tell us many things. We understood none of them, except when he said "poco a poco", meaning that we would begin to understand "little by little". He and his wife were very friendly and always picked ripe frutas for us.
We also took full advantage of the town bakery for fresh bread and doughnuts, and tried out a couple of the local eateries.

The beach, of course, was enjoyed. Sea breezes meant that it wasn't exactly bikini weather, and how could we expect more in November anyway? We had the beach all to ourselves and listened to audio books while watching the surf crash into the rocks. 

Our tacos were zesty and delectable, with fresh chillis and lime for the salsa. We made the mistake of keeping leftover chorizo in the fridge and anytime the icy machine was accessed it scented the whole apartment like a spicy sausage. It got to the point that we dreaded opening it.
In the evenings I watched the crime-fighting TV show Castle dubbed in Spanish. It was hilarious, and I think I picked up a little of the language along the way. At one point we sampled Spanish sidra, which tasted rather alcoholic and reminded us a bit of scrumpy. We definitely prefer French cider.

Not wanting to let the sights of nearby towns escape us, we took a day trip to the Cave of el Castillo near the town of Puente Viesgo. It was here that we were able to see the oldest cave paintings in Europe, and some of the oldest in the world. Having booked online previously, we were quite concerned when a group of shrilly screaming banshee children swarmed the area by the ticket booth. Luckily they weren't in our tour time slot and we were grouped with other mild-mannered tourists. The tour was in Spanish, but I understood some words. I gathered from her guidance that there was evidence of both Homo neanderthalensis and Homo sapiens in the cave, and that occupation could be traced back over 150,000 years. Just kidding! I only understood the words "clothing" and "horse" - the rest I learned online. Some of the later paintings were depictions of a menagerie of animals, while the earlier ones were the artists' hands outlined in red paint. Hey, we all have to start somewhere.

On another day to break up our extreme laziness, we visited the medieval town of Santillana del Mar.

The namesake of the town, Santa Juliana, is kept in the church (or what remains of her).

As well as churches, the town was full of palaces and mansions of olde. In contrast to the fancy lodgings, there also remained an ancient-looking stable in the middle of the main street leading up to the church. Apparently a well-traversed tourist destination, we saw souvenir shops selling strange ornaments like clogs and cat-shaped doorstops.

And the red ivy was still going strong!

We saw a paddock filled with tiny ponies and I got excited. One pony whom I immediately dubbed "Pancho" came up right to me and I read him a bedtime story in Esperanto. Seeing how much happiness such escapism brought to the ponies, I was determined to free these little furry creatures from their agricultural prison. I broke into a lumberjack's medieval house and stole a chainsaw. Then, I emancipatorily tore down the fence posts and let the ponies run riot through the town. The greedy pony farmers, who had enslaved their animals to be nothing more than fuzzy lawnmowers, howled at this ponal revolution and tried to round up their escaped beasts, but I, wielding a chainsaw and sitting astride the charging Pancho cut them all down and so the liberation of Santillana Del Mar was complete. The ponies became successful children's tour operators, bought their own houses, and lived side by side with the citizens of the village from there on out. 

Later in the week we discovered the wondrous Playa de Valdearenas. It was a very dogged beach, in that it was tenacious in attracting every dog owner in Spain. We lay in the sun and hoped the dogs would be more interested in urinating on logs than us. Luckily the logs won out every time.

Warm and happy, we lazed on the beach until the wind picked up and we returned to our apartment trailing sand everywhere.


On our last day in Liencres, we built a teensy sand castle using a gelato spoon as a shovel and a toothpaste lid as a bucket. Why? Why not, I say!

Today's post was almost called: Enjoying the Frutas of Our Non-Labour

Comillas: Coping with Severe Racioning

Berria Beach, Spain (Playa de Berria, España)
November 2015
As we had to leave the sunny and beach-laden San Sebastián, we plotted a course straight for another beach to ease our suffering. The beach of Berria!

It was just the right temperature - not too cool for shorts and not so hot that you wanted to run into the sea every ten minutes. On our way there we popped into a Mercadona (the name of a popular brand of supermarket, aka supermercado) for lunch supplies. We hadn't anticipated a supermarket so completely crowded and suspected that some apocalyptic event may be taking place that we missed hearing about, requiring people to stock up on one hundred oranges each just in case.
As it grew later in the day, the time to leave the beach grew nearer and nearer. Finally we mustered up the willpower and continued our drive along the northern coast to the hotel we had booked just outside a little town called Comillas.

Comillas, Spain (Comillas, España)
We ventured into Comillas for dinner, where we ordered more Rioja and three raciones. Three were about one and a half too many - we had not yet experienced the racione, which is described as a large tapa. They were each like a meal in themselves. We also were unprepared for the amount of wine, as we had pointed to the €6 option, which we assumed would be a small carafe. Nope, a whole bottle! Spain is so cheap. It's great. However, Yannick was the designated driver so I became fairly tipsy during the course of the meal. It gave me the courage to try a wedge of blue cheese that until that moment had sat unappealingly by itself at the edge of a platter. I didn't mind it as much as I thought I would, and apparently described it as tasting "like the idea of a donkey".

Sleeping very soundly, we returned the next day to explore in the daylight. On the main square stood the church of San Cristóbal (it seems that they couldn't afford windows for the bell tower and made do with coin slots).

For lunch we partook in more raciones (only two this time as we learned our lesson) at a cafe on the square. Though the patatas bravas were tasty, there was still too much and we couldn't even finish our two raciones.
After a good old fashioned wander about the town, absorbing the atmosphere, we attempted to withdraw cash from an ATM. Sounds simple enough, right? Well, this machine was so old and grouchy that it sucked in our bank and card and chewed on it for about five minutes, pondering what to do with it. We were pretty worried, thinking it might not spit it back out at all and the attached bank was closed for a long siesta. Luckily the ATM decided it didn't like the card and ejected it outwards. Instead of trying our luck again, we snatched it away quick smart and decided to work with the cash we had until another machine could be found. You don't expect something as simple as an ATM to stress you out, but you never know! Beware the Automated Teller Monster.

Today's post was almost called: Insert Coin and Dial 1 for God

Sunday, 26 June 2016

San Sebastián: Pintxo Me, I Must Be Dreaming!

San Sebastián, Spain (San Sebastián, España) 
November 2015
From Biarritz we drove into Spain where we had booked a youth hostel for two nights. San Sebastián is only 20 kilometers from the French border, so it wouldn't have been an arduous drive if our SatNav Synthia hadn't led us astray. She took us the long way around to the hostel on the hill, up narrow roads and sharp turns. Once we arrived and checked in, the receptionist informed us that there was a perfectly good two-lane road that would have made the trip a lot easier. Synthia! Again you make me shake my fist at you!
Once night began to fall, we walked down the hill into town to get some tapas for dinner (though here they are called pintxos).
The sun setting over the distant mountains was a glorious sight, and we were glad that we chose accommodation that provided such great views.
We found our way into the old town (Parte Vieja) and referred to our tapas to-do list. The lady we had house sat for in France told us she had been on a walking food tour of San Sebastián, and gave us her cheat sheet so we could find some of the best places. The city is well known for its Basque food culture, and is second only to Kyoto in terms of cities with the highest number of Michelin stars per capita. A foodies' paradise, you could say!


The whole of the old town had a lively Spanish nightlife feel to it, and the bars were crammed full of people eating and drinking.


We got off to a good start at Bar Borda Berri, where we ordered two glasses of Rioja, stewed beef cheek that melted in the mouth and cheese risotto from a no-nonsense bartender. After that our food mission became more difficult, as some of the places on our list didn't seem to exist anymore or were not serving the dishes that were listed as the best ones.
The next success was at Goiz Argi, where the pimentos de padron suggested were no longer on the menu, but we instead tried the nicest mushroom dish we have ever eaten as well as a cheesy meatball that had more cheese than meat. This all washed down well with the white wine they served: Txakoli (Basque sometimes makes me think of the Aztec language).
Full but not too full, we stumbled across a fortuitous gelateria and consumed our dessert while watching a duo of drunk hobos. One seemed to be so drunk he didn't want to move, and cradled his head in his hands. The other tried to help by offering him some Coca Cola. Receiving no response from the hunched figure, he unscrewed the bottle cap and the fizz of gas joined his inquisitive calls of "Hola...? Hola! Hola..."  He eventually gave up on communication and silently watched his friend brood in deep regret over having so many beers (several cans of the stuff were discarded under the park bench).

Thinking we were prepared for the climb back up the hill, we were disappointed when I slowed right down not even halfway up. Combatting this lull in energy, Yannick pretended to be a zombie chasing me (complete with undead groans) until I made it up the hill. The view in complete darkness was almost better than that at sunset if possible, as the city lights cast the most beautiful reflections in the harbour.

The next day we lounged around in the morning and headed into town at midday. It was rather cool to see surfers in wetsuits strolling along a normal city street, amidst commuters in business outifts. The dripping, happy Spaniards could wander 100 meters away from the beach and arrive at their apartment door. Not bad. We too had beaches in mind, and bee-lined straight for the closest one, which was the surf beach (the second was on the opposite side of the old town and was more of a sunbathing beach). We dozed there for a while, not caring that we had no towels and were getting covered in sand.
When the wind picked up all of a sudden, we dusted ourselves off and headed in to get more pintxos for lunch.

Back in the old town we walked into the first tapas bar we saw because it looked nice. Not relying on our handy pintxos reference guide, we winged it (wang it?) and ordered croquettas and chorizo sidras in a bun. Interestingly enough, records show that in the year 1014 there was a monastery in the area devoted to Saint Sebastian that grew apple orchards for cider (sidra). Instead of drinking sidra, we chose two very refreshing glasses of sangria.

Hard to miss, Basilica of Saint Mary of the Chorus is right in the heart of the old town. Of course, it features a statue of Saint Sebastian with arrows stuck in him prominently on the facade. We snapped some photos of it on our way to a bakery for lunchdessert.

Acquiring Basque cakes for the occasion, we took them to the other beach that we had not yet visited. It was so close to the old town! What an amazing city.

We soaked up the sun until an untimely cloud ruined the warmth party.

With a little afternoon still left, we embarked on some minimal effort sightseeing (we were so very full and sleepy from the sun). We saw a statue by a talented artist depicting The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha and his trusty squire Sancho. It seemed that some ruffian had stolen Don's hand.

A boulevard lined with red trees led us up to the cathedral. Pointy pointy! Mopeds were very popular in the city, and residents zipped around the streets, sometimes with three people to a scooter.

On our way back to the hostel we crossed a long bridge and gazed out over the glassy river. I love clear blue skies as much as the next person, but I have to admit that partial cloudiness makes for more interesting views.
Feeling as though we hadn't absorbed as much of San Sebastián as we could have, we inquired at the reception whether we could stay another night. He informed us with dismay that the next day held an annual race event, and that they had been booked out for the last eight months. Apparently around 35,000 people are involved, so accommodation is hard to come by unless you want to be spending the big bucks. As consolation he showed us a video of some Spanish kids doing the haka in which one boy gets super into it and wows the others with his ferocity. It was awesome.

Today's post was almost called: Hurrah for the Tapa, Con Rioja y Playa

Friday, 24 June 2016

Biarritz: Teh Lowdown on a Swanky Ghost Town

Biarritz, France
November 2015
Today the city of Biarritz is world renowned as a hotspot for glitzy resorts, casinos, sunbathing and surfing.
Instead of lounging in the nonexistent summer sun, we viewed Biarritz through autumn-coloured glasses. Outside of tourist season, the city seemed positively barren. The few people we did see about were bundled up warm against the sea breeze, though there were a few surfers and boogie boarders braving the swells. I also took the opportunity to purchase stamps for postcards I had held onto since Siena (yes, Siena in Italy, which we had left over a month before).

Right next to the beach was the church of Sainte-Eugénie. This place of worship is a lot younger than many other churches we visit (construction was finished in 1903), as it was built in honour of Empress Eugénie, wife to Napoleon III. Saint Eugénie was the Empress' patron saint. In the mid 1800's Napoleon purchased a sizeable plot of land in the city so that his wife would not grow homesick of her native land, Spain, the border to which is very close by. Their fondness for Biarritz greatly increased the number of visitors, who began to flock there to see the palace and bathe in the reputedly therapeutic sea waters. (Napoleon Bonaparte, uncle of Napoleon III, visited Biarritz to bathe in 1808.)


The symbolism of whales is prevalent almost to overuse, where it can be seen on churches, restaurants, and even bins. Whaling was a lucrative business in the Bay of Biscay from the 12th-century, though over the centuries the whales stopped visiting and the whalers had to venture much further out or turn to cod fishing. With the increase of tourist spending, fishing disappeared completely. (Let me interject here about tourist spending. We passed a gelateria which we were tempted by until we saw that one scoop cost €3! Biarritz is way too swanky.)

We walked along the coast, enjoying the fresh air and pretty views. There are two stories I'd like to tell about writers here. One is that when Victor Hugo visited the city he found it so charming he stated "My only fear is Biarritz becoming fashionable." Wow, did his fear come true.
The other is only tenuously linked to a writer, that being Earnest Hemmingway. When Hemmingway's novel The Sun Also Rises was being turned into a film, several different locations were used. One was Biarritz (big surprise, I know, as this is a blog post about Biarritz). The screenwriter Peter Viertel was on set when a friend of his from California came to visit. With him he took a large plank of wood commonly known as a surfboard and was the first person to catch a wave in Biarritz. The rest is surfing history.

Today's post was almost called: Drinking In The Emperor’s Bathwaters

Thursday, 23 June 2016

Bayonne: Nobody Expects The Spanish Inquisition To Engender A World-Class Chocolate Industry

Bayonne, France 
November 2015
I didn't know what to expect visiting Bayonne. The only knowledge I had of the city was that it was home to several well-regarded chocolatiers, so of course we were required to investigate!
After parking we took a stroll along the river which brought us to le Réduit, a system of fortifications which had been destroyed in the early twentieth-century and rebuilt in 2005. This narrow wooden door led into the bartizan - an overhanging turret providing almost total protection from oncoming attacks while allowing arrow fire outwards. Bayonne has a long and conflict-filled history - one which I couldn't hope to distill here.
One aspect of its history I will cover is that of the chocolate. It's very important, trust me.

According to the chocolatier Daranatz (founded in 1890), the so-called "chocolate capital of France" got its start with the exodus of Jews from Portugal during the Spanish Inquisition. The city records stated that in 1670 they settled in Bayonne (among other areas), bringing with them coveted cacao beans from the New World and recipes for chocolat. By 1856 it was reported that there were over thirty chocolate factories in the city, which was an amazingly high number for the time period.
From Daranatz we procured a block of noir café. Delightful!

From Chocolat Cazenave (founded in 1854) we selected a block of noit vanille and a range of smaller bars to sample various other flavours. As we walked away from the chocolatiers, a gaggle of excited tourists pounced upon them, giddy and fawning over the elaborate displays. Phew! That was close.

The streets were absolutely beautiful with pale stone and bright shutters. Any foreigner would know immediately that the French are a romantic people simply by gazing upon the building facades in Bayonne.

We set our sights on the cathedral, which had a distinctive Lego brick type of vibe going on. That may be in part due to the drawn out construction of the cathedral. In the past, the cathedral has burnt down twice and rebuilt. The current version was begun in 1213 but only completed in 1615 - the exception being the two spires (one of which is shown above), which were finally finished in the 1800's. It has also been restored over the years, once by a man with the brilliant name of Émile Boeswildwald.

Before we managed to take this picture from within the cloister, we needed to find a way in. You see, at first we could only see the cloister from behind a large iron gate that didn't budge. We speculated that the cathedral (and cloister) may be shut at that time, but then a touristic couple wandered past in the garden and we would not let it thwart us!

We walked all the way around and found what looked to me like a back entrance. We were in! Theatrical tea drinking ensued.

For lunch we had our hearts set on crêpes. You should never really have your heart set on anything unless you know it's a definite, as the crêperie we selected had been converted into a burger joint. Oh the disappointment! Other crêperies in the vicinity looked like they were pandering to tourist crowds, so we skipped that plan and found a bakery. Never underestimate bakeries, especially in France. At the very least, you can always get a baguette.

Which we did! As well as two Basque cakes, one in the cherry variety and one with cream inside. It was our first experience of the petits gâteaux, but it would not be the last...

Munching on the baguette and cakes, we found ourselves on a street with three rugby shops. Apparently the people of Bayonne love their rugby. I couldn't help but pose outside one called the Otago Rugby Shop. World Cup victory, wooo! (Never forget: New Zealand claimed victory twice in a row you guys. Fingers crossed for 2019.)

On our way back to the carpark we walked a different route along the river and once again admired the shutters. Many restaurants faced the water and one had a spaniel giving the puppy dog eyes to patrons in an attempt to sympathy scam them out of their food.

More shutters! Last time, I promise. 

Today's post was almost called: Je Danse Le ‘Ka Mate Ka Mate’