Oviedo, Olvidado

Asturian King Alfonso II left Oviedo in 842, we had to wait until 1600. There were no earlier flights!

There are positives of Oviedo that won’t take long to discuss. The old town is a delight to visit.

There are buildings that have their origins in the 900’s.

We enjoyed an unexpectedly lovely lunch in a bar:

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The positives we found in Oviedo we found in the first two hours of our visit. We had booked to stay there for two nights; two and a half days. The quandry: What should we do to to fill in the time here? The answer: Get on the internet, change our flights and leave.

What is it with Oviedo that it incentivised us to leave it earlier than we had planned? The ancient buildings are tremendous in themselves. The disheartening aspect is the context that the municipality has created for them. For example, the church below is a 10th century construction. The municipality of Asturias at some stage decided that it would be great to build a freeway alongside and for good measure a number of factories.

Similar contexting has also occurred with the photogenic old town. Care has to be taken on the fringes of the old town to crop the turistica photo so that the image is not contaminated by the new town. The new town is cheek by jowl with the old, and comprises, almost exclusively, monstrous architectural creations.

Oviedo has the appearance of being less wealthy than many of the other places we had visited on this trip. In fact, all of the other places. This revealed itself in the quality of the recent buildings, the dress of the people and the quality of the restaurants.

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We rejected many restaurants on appearance before we visited Antojos del Antiguo.  It looked lovely based upon its doorway. Inside, the decor was eclectic. The interior was lit using more lumens than brighten Blackpool in September. The odour confirmed to us the floors had been recently cleansed using water and dilluted agents……..We were not deterred.

A pine/pot pourri fragranced venue with interrogation lighting could create an intimate dining experience, we thought. We ordered two typical Asturian dishes. Fabada and Callos. We ordered these two dishes because they featured on the menu in the food section of our Spanish studies, around term three. Fabada is a white bean stew with three pieces of pig floating on the top. It is available as the illustrated blister packed souvenir. Callos is tripe. I enjoy tripe because of its texture and the flavoursome broth in which it has been prepared. Both these two dishes were effectively bowls of a very salty stew. The callos had been chopped so finely it no longer had a form and certainly no texture. What a disappointment I said, using the language of the charitable restaurant review.

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Oviedo has a cider tradition. There is a street which has many cideries all along its length. The tradition is that a waiter pours the cider from a great height into the glass. This injects some sparkle into an otherwise flat cidric offering (I just created that word cidric, I translate it as, the adjectival form of cider). The good waiters take it as a point of pride that they look at neither glass nor bottle as they peform this steep pour. These waiters who pointedly look elsewhere are the waiters whose trousers are very wet. These are the waiters standing in small pools on the pavement. The waiters at our bar, watched what they were doing and poured over a bucket. This was sensible. It is great theatre, although very wasteful theatre. I was initially appalled at the waste of cider. I was eventually convinced that filling a bucket, staining the pavement or soaking the waiters trousers was an appropriate use of Asturian cider. Watery and tasteless are two adjectives that I use to describe the cider of the region.

Do not despair for the good people of Oviedo. We anticipate that, even though we considered Oviedo exhibited shortcomings, it will be swamped by tourists this summer. The municipality has undertaken a billboard campaign. These billboards will act as a very large, very powerful magnet for cashed up visitors. Do not take my word for it. Judge for yourselves:

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FEVE – Santander to Oviedo

FEVE is a narrow gauge railway operated by Renfe that travels across the North of Spain. The line goes from Bilbao in the East, to Ferrol in the West (Ferrol is on the northern coast about 1 o’clock North from Santiago de Compostela).

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We travelled from Bilbao to Oviedo. A night in Santander broke the journey into two unequal parts.

The train is slow and wobbles on the few occasions it achieves any reasonable velocity. When it isn’t moving slowly and isn’t wobbling , it is stopped. It stops a lot at small towns, some large towns and at tiny places where there are no signs of habitation, but there is a FEVE “bus shelter”.

The train runs twice a day on this leg leaving Santander at either 9:10am or 4:10pm and arriving in Oviedo around 5 hours later. The train is a bit scruffy on the outside and is only two carriages long, but inside its perfectly acceptable. The seat was particularly comfortable and there is a toilet that sits anonymously in one corner of the front carriage and makes an awful lot of noise when it dispenses water.

It is a delightful method of seeing the countryside. The track tends to follow alongside rivers and this area of Spain is very green.

Do you see that blurry photo, artistically evoking the movement of the train through the verdant countryside of northern Spain? Photos through a carriage window don’t really capture the pleasure of five hours of this type of experience (although the artistry of my technique clearly assists !!)

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Many of the stations at which we stopped were overseen by this man. He had a very nice clean red hat and a stick with a flag. We never saw the man unravel his flag. We were not sure how he got from station to station just ahead of us……..

A second mystery of the FEVE train line is that all ticketing is in cash and cannot be achieved prior to the date of travel. But that is the way that it is. The mystery of ticketing system created an unfortunate outcome for us. We arrived at the station and purchased our tickets from a machine 45 minutes before the train was due to leave. The machine only accepts cash and only dispenses change in coins…..we discovered that change weighs heavy in the pocket after we had used a Eur50 note for our 2*Eur16 tickets. Worse was to come.

We went through the automated gate to await our train. During the 45 minute wait, Alex had purchased two take away coffees. After we had drunk our coffees she revealed a pastry that she had also acquired at the coffee shop. We continued to await the train and shared the pastry as she had only purchased one. The pastry was sweet and sticky and covered with icing sugar that annoyingly dusted everything within a 100mm arc of wherever it was located. After it was eaten my fingers were sticky. The toilets were on the other side of the barrier…..So I went back through the barrier and washed my hands. Mistake. I should have waited for the train and washed my hands using the very noisy water dispenser. Despite only using my ticket to access the platform…. The machine now considered my ticket used !!!!!! I could not get back onto the platform.

I went and bought another ticket. I bought another ticket to our destination, the last station on the line for our train. Alex thought I was foolish. She said I should have purchased a ticket to the nearest destination. That way I could have got back onto the platform in the most economical manner possible. I thought I was wise (which is my consistent self assessment). If I had done as she instructed I would have had the embarrassment of being unable to leave Oviedo station with my, now, invalid, ticket. The regulatory authorities would be hot on my heels questioning my apparently unpaid use of the FEVE system. The ensuing diplomatic incident could have damaged relations between our two countries. This painful episode of my double payment of Eur16 will serve to distress me for years to come.

Entering and departing the FEVE carriage is less easy than it should be due to a miscommunication between the people building the trains and the people building the platforms. The result is less “Mind the Gap” and more ” No Really, Really do, Mind the Gap. It’s a Monster”. We saw two German hikers disappear between the platform and train, complete with their two, very large, backpacks. The man with the red hat appeared, waved his flag and the train moved away. I still think about the Germans and hope they landed safely somewhere down there. I confess, I think about paying twice for my ticket, more frequently than I think about two lost German hikers. I suspect that reflects poorly upon me.

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San Sebastian-As we got up to leave they brought chocolates

We were here for the food and wine. So on our last day our grand finale was the three starred excellence of a lunch at Akelare.

A climb up the hill to an impressive entrance.

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I think we could describe the menu as well thumbed !!! And with such perfect looking plates, certainly the food also.

I am not sure  what differentiates a three star from a one star. Service? Location? 75 Euros per person? The view here is a magnificent vista across the Bay of Biscay and sadly I know I have captured that poorly in positioning my camera.

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There is some theatre, but it was quietly restrained. The salt and pepper that were overserved by the waiter as a terrible error(!!!) and were in fact sugar and rice created to appear as salt flakes and pepper corns. The gin and tonic jelly, was exactly like gin and tonic, the ice cream being the slice of lemon. The meat dish that was, in fact,  pasta. Apple pie wrapped in paper, edible paper, advertising the restaurant. A few images:

These pictures are the first half. The goal scorer in this first half for me was, the lobster. So moist and so much of it………. Second half:

The rice was superb in itself. It also came with a little package, that was mixed sea snails and land snails, excellent. The red mullet we enjoyed because its wine matching succeeded so well. I shall end with a picture of the last course, the apple pie, as it repeats the name of the …….

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We ordered and consumed two degustacions named as “classic”, one wine matching shared between us,  Eur 465. Very good food and a surprisingly high volume of food. We were fat and very happy. I counted 43 guests in the restaurant, I counted 7 customers  who spoke Spanish, everyone else spoke English.

When we got back to the apartment, we wanted to go to bed to sleep off this big meal. But the washing machine had broken and trapped our clothes inside. The man came to fix it at 5:15 so we had to stay awake. This is life. One  moment we are eating and drinking the finest the World can offer with astonishing views. The next we are trying to stay awake so we can recover our underwear.

 

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San Sebastian- The Dessert

When I first arrived in San Sebastian I was not as impressed as I had expected to be. We were here for the beer, so it wasn’t so important. Well no, I only said beer, because it rhymes with here. We came to San Sebastian for the food and wine.

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After nine days I grew to enjoy it more and more. The bays are very attractive, there are many fine old buildings.There is a relaxed feel to the place. I really enjoyed the many streets, in the old town and the shopping area, to which cars have only very restricted access. We found fabulous coffee at Sakona and we visited every day. The Henry Moore exhibition along the promenade was a very nice touch.

The funicular provides access to a funfair as dated as the funicular itself (104 years old). More importantly it provides great views across San Sebastian.

The funicular concept has also been extended to the delivery of whitegoods:

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Apparently, this also provides very fine views of San Sebastian

Finally, a suggestion for municipal funding:

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A need for better public toilet facilities. This shrub looks remarkably healthy considering how the council advertises it should be used.

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La Rioja from San Sebastian using Public Transport

This is a ” how to” guide. How to do a day trip from San Sebastian to La Rioja and visit three wineries in a cost effective manner. The post is a bit long as it describes the process as six detail steps with glorious detail. Its been written for TripAdvisor, but here there are photos to accompany.

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The roundabout outside Bodega Muga has vines planted in the middle. This is most certainly wine country.

THE PROBLEM: We found a day tour operated by San Sebastian Food and Wine priced at Euros 345 per person. What??? La Rioja is only 160k’s away and wine is cheap. There are others offering tours, but no prices on their sites ” tell us what you want and we will tailor an offering”. We tried the tourist office in San Sebastian who have no information on wine tours!! They suggested we ask San Sebastian Food and Wine……TripAdvisor have no category for DIY wine tours and nothing that addressed what we wanted to do. The sites for the Bodegas themselves contain no information about getting there unless it is by car.

We have visited a number of wine growing Regions around the World.It shouldn’t be as difficult as this.

THE CHALLENGE: To visit La Rioja, for a day. We wanted to visit 3 wineries. We did not want to hire a car as we both wanted to drink. We wanted to accomplish all of this for much less than Euros 690.

THE OUTCOME: Success….!!!!!! We left our apartment in San Sebastian at 9:00am and returned at 8:00pm. We did one guided 60 minute tour of a Bodega, we visited 3 different Bodegas, we tasted 11 different wines in four tasting rooms, we had lunch in a bar on the Plaza Mayor in Haro. The grand total for us both was Euros 160: 530 Euros below our target. It was hard to imagine we could have enjoyed our day any more than we did.

THE PROCESS:

1. Decide where you want to go in La Rioja.

We decided Haro for three reasons: Muga is situated there and I really like their wines; The map seemed to show a train line that ends in Haro (true but the infrequency of the service made it an irrelevanceto our day); There are a number of Bodegas in Haro and they are very close to each other, literally, just a few minutes to walk from one to the other.

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2. Book a tour of a winery.

I suggest you book either Muga or Lopez de Heredia, don’t book both, that will get repetitive. Tours have to be booked in advance. The Bodegas complicate this process for no reason that was clear to me. We started trying to book four days before our visit. If we had started two weeks before it may have been easier.

Muga has a  tour and tasting for Eur35 pp. What the Muga website doesn’t say is that this only runs on a Saturday. Muga has a Eur10 tour which goes for about 60 minutes with two wines tasted and described by the guide at the end, this talkie tasting adds another 20-30 minutes. What the web site doesn’t say is that the English version is at 10-00am and the Spanish version at 13:00.  The website also doesn’t say that the wine pours are very generous, which they are. We went on the Spanish version and pleasingly captured the meaning of around 80%. The guide speaks quite quickly, but she does not speak as quickly as the Spanish newscasters. You book by going backwards and forwards on the email after submitting a form on the Muga website. An automated system with prepayment would help everyone. But its not what they do. We were told that we could not go on the tour as it was full, they can only accept a maximum of 18 people. We replied in our best Spanish that we had come from Australia and had really been looking forward to visiting Muga as it is our favourite Rioja. Actually, all this is true. They relented and allowed us on. This was very kind of them. On the day there were only 16 people were on the tour, including ourselves.

What the web site doesn’t make clear is that you can walk in off the street and visit their tasting room which is very well set up and you can sample for a small price. What the web site doesn’t tell you is that the Muga tasting room closes at 2:30pm. What the web site doesn’t tell you is that Muga closes at 3:00pm.

The Muga tour was absolutely wonderful. They make their own barrels, they have their own bottling room. The fermentation occurs in enormous wooden vats. We have been on a number of winery tours elsewhere in the World and this was quite distinctive. The Muga web site and processes exhibit much room for improvement. The tour and the tasting was fantastic. We strongly recommend the Muga tour and the Muga tasting room.

Lopez de Heredia = Vina Tondonia. Has tours for Eur30 which are two hours long and for that price you receive a bottle of wine at the end of the tour. What the web site doesn’t say is that the English version of these tours leaves at 3-00pm. What the web site doesn’t make clear is that they have a tasting room in a strange architectural outhouse that is very pleasant. Anyone can roll up and taste their wines at any time for a very reasonable price.

TripAdvisor identifies the Lopez de Heredia tour as being of very high quality. We cannot judge. We applied to join the tour by email, we experienced a negative process similar to the one we experienced with Muga. We were told that the tour was full and we were not able to get a place that day. We were OK with this as Muga had already confirmed our spot by then. By coincidence we were in the tasting room at Lopez de Heredia at 3:00pm when the English tour left, there were only 9 people, it wasn’t full at all! If we had asked (and paid) I’m sure they would have let us tag along. But by that stage we had been on one tour and had made return travel arrangements.

The Lopez de Heredia tasting room is a really nice set up. Three generous serves of wine were Eur7.5. Tasting was great and the lady explained each of the wines to us.  The Lopez de Heredia web site and processes exhibit much room for improvement. We thoroughly recommend a visit to the tasting room at Lopez de Heredia = Vina Tondonia.

Each of the three tasting rooms were staffed with people very good at describing the wines to us and each person was very friendly. No one seemed very interested in taking our money for the wine we had consumed. At Muga and Lopez de Heredia we left the money on the table as no one wanted it. At the third (Gomez Cruzado) the lady refused to let us pay as we had purchased a bottle of wine. This was all very, very charming.

3. Getting to Haro from San Sebastian

Ok you’ve decided to go to Haro and you’ve booked a tour of Muga or Lopez de Heredia. Now you have got to get there.

Buy a train ticket from San Sebastian to Miranda de Ebro. The summer timetable operates from June 6 (or 16 I can’t quite recall) and trains leave/arrive as follows: 0628/ 0900; 0857/ 1052; 0933/ 1128.

We took the 0933 . It is the A Coruna intercity train and is rather comfortable and quick. Price pp (one way) about Eur15, return twice that.

At Miranda de Ebro be clear. There are no conveniently timed buses to Haro; the next bus after our 11:28 arrival was at 16:52. There are no conveniently timed trains to Haro; the next train was about an hour after the next bus.

Outside Miranda de Ebro station there is the answer. A taxi rank. These taxis have no meters. But they do have a fixed price laminated sheet. The price to Haro is Eur22.

4. Getting back from Haro.

Note that the train times I quote are those we experienced on June 28 2016. A date covered by what I understand to be a summer timetable for the trains.

There are two choices. The train runs from Haro station to Miranda de Ebro at 18:16 arriving 18:55. The train from Miranda de Ebro to San Sebastian  leaves at 19:35 and arrives back at 21:28.

The second choice, which is what we did, is to book the taxi that took us from Miranda de Ebro to Haro to bring us back to Miranda de Ebro. In  communicating with our taxi driver,  we could point to a precise patch of ground where we would be in Haro and the precise time we would be there. That worked perfectly, another Eur 22 for the trip back. At Miranda de Ebro we got on the 17:41 train (start point Madrid, destination Irun) arriving at San Sebastian at 19:48. Another very pleasant clean train. Another Eur15 each. Actually we bought the return tickets in San Sebastian the previous day from the automatic machine in the ticket office, as we were very clear which train we were going to catch.

I do not know what it would be like trying to get a taxi in Haro without prearranging it with a taxi from Miranda de Ebro. We read Trip Advisor and concluded that it would be very difficult. Which is why we booked our return ride with the taxidriver who took us to Haro.

5. In Haro.

The centre of town is about 15 minutes from “Avenida Bodegas”. Lots of places to eat in the centre of town around the main square. We didn’t see any Bodega that served food. The town square is attractive.

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6. Tastings at the Bodega’s.

Each of the Bodegas we walked past seemed to be open for tastings. You just roll in and they will sell you a glass, or a flight, at a very reasonable price and talk to you about their offering, usually in English.

We did this at Muga, Lopez de Heredia and Gomez Cruzado. We had never heard of Gomez Cruzado wines, they are directly across the road from Lopez de Heredia. It seemed to be a location where they warehoused barrels rather than make wine. It was the find of the trip for us. The tasting was a fabulous experience sat outside on a 26 degree day and the wines tasted wonderful. We thoroughly recommend a tasting at Gomez Cruzado.

 

 

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Sundays require a fine lunch

The restaurant is called Alameda. It is an expensive taxi ride from San Sebastian and back again. Most of our fellow diners seem to have driven from France, which is closer than San Sebastian.

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Not on this menu was an aperitif to start:

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The aperatif was chocolate and foie gras, now there is an adventure. Quite a rich and distinctive combination that worked really well with the paired wine. Plus pea and mushroom soup which was sadly ordinary but colourful, bright green water.

And then back to the script:

The mackerel was the best looking dish, enormously assisted by the blue glass. The best tasting was the hake in its acidic orange sauce.

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Dessert was chocolate fondante and coffe ice cream. The interesting bit was the passion fruit sauce which was quite acidic and a great match for the sweetness.

Quite a lovely location also.

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The fat tyre man gave it a star and the price was Euro 156 for two. That broke down as 120 for the food and 30 for one wine match of five glasses which we shared. I think this is great value…..except….the price of the degustation didn’t include bread !!!!!, it was a separate line on the bill of something like $4 . An excellent meal, but charging for bread? That felt a bit unnecessary.

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