Zarautz (Basque Country), Spain September 2022

We were at Gran Camping Zarautz earlier this year (February 2022) and enjoyed our stay. It’s a very comfortable campsite and there’s nothing wrong with the small town of Zarautz but we returned primarily because of the campsite’s close proximity to Bilbao. We were booked on the Bilbao to Portsmouth ferry for travel on 28 September and needed somewhere to while away the last hours of this 2022 tour.

Zarautz beach – as pretty as ever and the perfect place to finish this particular tour

To the east of Zarautz, just 20 minutes drive away, is San Sebastian (Donostia in Basque) which, amongst other things, is supposedly Spain’s culinary capital and where the Spanish monarchy used to spend their summer holidays. We had it in mind to visit San Sebastian but the one day we had left is insufficient to do the place justice and this particular tour (Tour 6) must end now. We’ll do it next year…

So ends Tour 6.

Getaria (Basque Country), Spain September 2022

We took the coast road from Zumaia to Zarautz stopping at Getaria on the way. We’d passed through Getaria the day before (after I’d missed the turn off to our campsite in Zumaia) and the small town looked most appealing … and certainly worth revisiting.

We parked on the western edge of Zumaia, just above the smaller of the town’s two beaches (Gaztetape Beach), and then walked up towards the town centre which is dominated by a monument to Juan Sebastian Elkano (1487-1526). Until then I’d never heard of Elkano but he is a most fascinating character and fully deserving of the monument. It was Elkano and not, as I once thought, Magellan who first circumnavigated the globe. Elkano was captain of one of the five ships that in 1519 formed Magellan’s fleet in the search for a western passage to the Spice Islands and it was Elkano who in 1522 brought the sole remaining ship (the Victoria) back to Spain long after Magellan was killed somewhere in the Philippines (1521). I’ve subsequently watched a Spanish TV Series, ‘Boundless’, which tells Elkano’s story in a very engrossing manner (although I couldn’t testify as to it’s historical accuracy).

The view from the Elkano Monument, eastwards over Getaria’s second beach (the Malkorbe Hondartza Beach) towards Zarautz.

Another famous son of Getaria is the fashion designer Cristobal Balenciaga (1895-1972) whom Christian Dior described as “the master of us all” and whose brand was ultimately taken over by Gucci. A museum dedicated to Balenciaga was opened in Getaria in 2011. I didn’t go in (it’s not quite my cup of tea) but it supposedly rotates some 1,000 of Balenciaga’s creations.

Having checked out the Elkano Monument, Vanya and I made our way down the main street (Nagusia Kalea) of this quaint medieval fishing and whaling village towards the Church of San Salvador. There are a number of pintxos bars on the main street where we could have taken brunch but, from the monument, I had seen a couple of bars on the harbour and thought to eat there and; besides, I wanted a look inside the church.

There’s been a church on this site since the 13th century but this particular church dates mostly from the 15th and 16th centuries (except for some 19th century restoration work to fire damage caused during the Carlist Wars). There’s an attractive upper gallery inside the church on which a choir was practising as I entered. They were seriously good and I had to tear myself away to rejoin Vanya and the dogs waiting outside on Nagusia Kalea.

The centre nave of the church with it’s raised presbytery. The church was declared a National Monument in 1895.

We followed the main street on through a narrow tunnel (the Katropana Tunnel) which goes under the church and past a small crypt to the harbour. It was time to eat.

After eating and checking out the harbour area we walked the dogs back to the Van and then I retraced my steps to the far end of the harbour and up the small mouse shaped hill grandly referred to as Mount San Anton but better known by the locals as ‘The Mouse of Getaria’. Mount San Anton was originally a small island with a lighthouse (Faro de Getaria) and a gun emplacement which was last used in earnest during the Spanish Civil War. The lighthouse is still working but the gun emplacement serves now only as a viewpoint.

Faro de Getaria
A view west from inside the gun emplacement on Mount San Anton

It occurs to me that I have not yet mentioned food and/or drink in any detail. That needs to be corrected because this area is famous for txacoli (sometimes called txakolilocal) and it’s seafood. Txacoli is a traditional Basque white wine, slightly sparkling and very dry, made with the local grape, Hondarrabi Zuri. The wine goes very well with the local fish; talking of which, the ‘Elkano’ is a Michelin Star Restaurant in Getaria which specialises in chargrilled fish. Next time.

Zumaia (Basque Country), Spain September 2022

For the last two days of this tour we are booked into Gran Camping Zarautz (a favourite site during our earlier tour this year but one which is also within easy reach of Bilbao where we are to catch the ferry to Portsmouth). This left us sufficient time to visit both Zumaia and Getaria before our journey home. We started with Zumaia.

Zumaia is just a few miles west of Zarautz at the mouth of the River Urola. It was originally a fishing town but the harbour is now filled with leisure craft and is more of a tourist resort. The area is famous for it’s flysch. These are successive layers of rock which are in effect a 60 million year old record of the planet Earth. I know very little about geology but it seems these enormous layers of sediment stretch more than 13 kilometres along the coast and attract geologists from all over the world. They form the UNESCO recognised ‘Basque Coast Geopark’. I had to see it for myself and after parking the Van up I took off on a quick exploration.

My route took me down and across the River Urola to Zumaia’s old town; past the 13th Century Basque style Gothic Church of Saint Peter the Aposle and; up onto the cliffs. I’d take a closer look at the town on my way back. A narrow track on the cliff leads to a viewing point which provides wonderful views of the flysch (and along the coast in both directions). There’s a series of panels along the route providing rudimentary information about the flysch.

The cliffs are stunning
The flysch is everywhere

Zumaia is not a large town and can easily be seen in half a day. It’s most prominent feature is the 13th century Iglesia de San Pedro (Church of Saint Peter the Apostle) which is an austere gothic church in the Basque style and more reminiscent of a fortress than a church. It has an impressive altarpiece which has been declared a national monument.

There are two good beaches in the immediate vicinity of the town, the Itzurun and the Santiago. The Itzurun is on the west bank of the River Urola and the Santiago is on the east bank near the marina. Playa de Itzurun was being used by a group of surfers as I arrived. Part of it featured in the seventh series of Game of Thrones – John Snow is seen landing here when visiting Daenerys. Part of the flysch forms a backdrop to Playa de Itzurun and it is very pretty. On the cliff top overlooking Itzurun is a chapel dedicated to St Elmo the Patron Saint of sailors.

There is a third beach further to the west of Zumaia, the Algorri (or the Aitzgorri in Basque). It is a rocky beach and submerged each time the tide comes in. With the tide out it is considered to be the most beautiful beach in the area and the best place to view a thin black line in the flysch which dates back some 65 million years and reflects when a huge meteorite hit what is now the Gulf of Mexico and wiped out the dinosaurs.

Apologies. We stopped overnight in Zumaia at Camping Zumaia (a new site in this part of the country and just 10 minutes walk from the town) during the last week of September 2022 and it is now 1 November. Talk about being behind with this blog.

Supper in Camping Zumaia

Laredo (Cantabria), Spain September 2022

It is a 45 minute walk from Camping Playa del Regaton to Laredo town centre, taking in the town’s immense beach on the way. The lengthy curved Playa de la Salve is perhaps the longest and most popular beach on the north coast of Spain but in September almost all of the (predominantly) Spanish tourists are gone.

Playa de la Salve. That’s Laredo at the far end of the beach.

There’s a fair sized and very historical port in Laredo but I was more interested in the appealing old town behind the marina. It’s narrow streets, dotted with a number of famous 16th and 18th century houses, lead up to the Church of Santa Maria de la Ascuncion and on beyond that to the fortress of Fuerte del Rastrillar where there are quite exceptional views over Laredo and Santona Bay.

Looking down on Playa de la Salve from the Fortress

The Gothic style church above the puebla vieja was built in stages between the 13th and 18th centuries and is renowned for it’s large 15th century painted flemish altarpiece of the ‘Virgin of Belen’ (Virgin of Bethlehem) but it also has a very attractive and unusual stained glass window.

Another interesting feature of the old town is it’s unusual street art, much of which celebrates the Camino del Norte (which route passes along this coast to Santiago de Compostela) and the old town’s fishing heritage.

I timed my arrival into Laredo perfectly. The locals were eagerly erecting all manner of booths and market stalls and adorning the old town with flags, bunting and posters. A local fiesta was scheduled to begin from 6pm that day.

Needless to say, Vanya and I were in Laredo long before 6pm that day… and we were there the following day. The fiesta wouldn’t begin in earnest until the weekend but we were there for the opening and, most especially for when all the booths and stalls opened up. Moreover we were there to follow the local pipe and flute band around the town and market and, when we’d had enough walking, to sit and enjoy a nice glass of wine and indulge in one of our favourite pastimes – people watching…

…and then it was a pleasant evening stroll along the beach to… where I’d parked the Van. There was no way Vanya was up for the long walk to and from Laredo.

Colindres (Cantabria), Spain September 2022

With just a few days to go before we were to board our ferry for the trip home (Bilbao to Portsmouth) we headed north to the Bay of Biscay and the small town of Colindres. Vanya had found a nice campsite on the outskirts of Colindres (Camping Playa del Regaton) which is situated on the edge of a National Park and would serve us well for a couple of days. We had things to do. Firstly and most importantly we needed to get the dogs seen by a vet (UK rules require that the dogs must have tapeworm tablets administered by a Vet shortly before their return to the UK) and a vet in Colindres had agreed to do the necessary for just 20 euros. Secondly, there was a fiesta on in nearby Laredo for much of the week and we were not going to miss out on that although it would have to be special to top the one we experienced in Puebla de Sanabria. Thirdly, there’s a hike in nearby Santona (just a short bus ride from Colindres) that I was keen to do.

The drive back to the coast through La Rioja was beautiful….

The drive back to the coast took a little over two hours because I kept stopping to take photos…

Colindres is not a pretty town and there is little of interest there but the walk from the campsite along the Rio Tetro estuary was enjoyable enough and the town is well placed from which to visit a fair few beautiful and/or interesting places. Several UNESCO World Heritage Sites are to be found in this part of Cantabria. There’s also a wetlands bird sanctuary (now a National Park); a number of stunning beaches, including Laredo’s La Salve and Santona’s Berria Beach (sometimes referred to as Playa de San Martin) and; the nearby towns of Laredo, Santona and Liendo are all worth visiting.

There is little to see in the town of Colindres…

During this tour, I was able to visit Laredo (a couple of times) and Santona. To get to Santona I took a bus from Colindres but next time I would be inclined to try the Laredo – Santona ferry.

Sajazarra (La Rioja), Spain September 2022

While staying over in Cuzcarrita we took the Van out to explore the nearby village of Sajazarra (a Pueblo Mas Bonitos de Espana). We also revisited Haro for another wine tasting session organised and paid for by our hotel but that is another story.

Sajazzara is small but pretty fortified village just 4 miles north of Cuzcarrita. It has a 13th century church and and a 15th century castle (which is not unlike the castle in Cuzcarrita but it too has been converted into a private residence and is no longer accessible to the public). The village has less than 150 inhabitants and that number is declining. The reality is that these small villages no longer provide sufficient employment opportunities for the young and so they move to the cities for work and rarely return. If they do return, it is often to sell the home left to them by their parents. A surprisingly high number of properties were up for sale in the village during our visit.

A primary reason for our visiting Sajazarra was because it has a restaurant, the Asador Ochavo, which was recommended by the owner of our hotel as a place to get a reasonable meal. It isn’t as highly regarded as the restaurant in Cuzcarrita but at least it remains open out of season.

The Asador Ochavo…
This is a stock photo taken from the restaurant’s website. The place was very busy as we arrived and we had a bit of wait before getting a table…

Vanya didn’t eat but I knew we wouldn’t be getting much in the line of hot food back in Cuzcarrita and so I tucked into Grilled Morcilla (blood sausage not unlike black pudding) and Chorizo with a Spicy Salsa as a starter (jolly good it was too) followed by the biggest slab of Roast Lamb I have ever had. Not bad at all.

There’s no doubt we will return to this region of Spain. We have seen quite a bit of La Rioja this trip and small towns and villages like Cuzcarrita and Sajazarra have whet our appetites for more… and, of course, the wine doesn’t get much better.

Cuzcurrita de Rio Tiron (La Rioja), Spain September 2022

This quiet little town deserves listing in Los Pueblos Mas Bonitas En Espana (i.e. the prettiest little towns in Spain) but the locals voted against it because they don’t want it invaded by tourists. I can relate with that although it is perhaps a short sighted view given the way most small villages seem to be going in this part of Spain.

A 15 minute drive from Haro, Cuzcurrita de Rio Tiron is a small town of less than 500 people. The older part of the town down by the River Tiron has a simple beauty about it. There’s the Plaza Mayor, the 18th century baroque church of St Miguel, a 15th century castle which is now a private residence, a couple of cafe bars (the holiday season is over and there were just these two open), a number of small bodegas (all busy harvesting their grapes), a couple of small hotels and I saw two small shops but, otherwise, the old town is made up of predominantly 16th century stone houses of various shapes and sizes. One of the larger stone houses, on a corner of the Plaza Mayor, was remodelled in 2015 and is now a wonderful boutique hotel – the Teatrisso Hotel Hospederia. We were booked into the Teatrisso for two nights and would have stayed longer but we were scheduled to take the ferry from Bilbao back to the UK in just a week’s time.

The Teatrisso Hotel was originally a palatial private residence and it stayed in private hands for almost 300 years until, early in the 1920’s, it was converted into a small cinema and then, in the early 1930’s, into a tiny dance hall. 1936 saw it used to house Italian soldiers assigned by Mussolini to aid Franco’s Nationalist forces during the Spanish Civil War. Thereafter it fell into disuse until purchased in 2015 by the current owners, Laura and Jose Angel, who have worked hard to transform into the quintessential boutique hotel it is now.

The Reception area and staircase up to our room.

The Teatrisso has just 12 rooms all with a cinematic theme. We chose to stay in the Africa room which was clean, comfortable, tastefully furnished and… well, just perfect. Next time we stay (and there will most certainly be a next time) we will endeavour to stay over a weekend (when Laura and Jose Angel sometimes provide food and wine tasting). Descriptions and photos of all the hotel rooms are to be found on their website ‘Teatrisso.com’.

And the town? There’s a cafe bar on Plaza Mayor, next to the church of San Miguel (Saint Michael). The square was popular throughout our stay and, while meals were not easily available (the town’s only restaurant was closed) the cafe bar provided pinchos with their 1 euro glasses of White Rioja and there was an honesty bar back at the Teatrisso which, in addition to providing a good range of wines, offered olives, cheese, dried meats and bread. Invariably, we were among the last to leave the cafe bar. By the way, there’s a second bar down near the bridge across the River Tiron and that wasn’t bad either.

The Plaza Mayor during the day…

Across the river from the old town are a handful of small bodegas and beyond these is a track leading up to a viewing point above the village with wonderful views north to the mountains and south across a number of La Rioja vineyards.

Our stay in Cuzcurrita de Rio Tiron was without a doubt one of the highlights of this particular tour but, since she found the place, I will leave the final word on the town with Vanya who wrote the following trip advisor review:

My favourite hotel ever!!! The African room was spectacular, beautifully and thoughtfully decorated, very unique. The enclosed garden, with gentle background music, was perfect to sit and drink a great bottle of Rioja from the (honesty) bar in the evening. The breakfast was fresh with plenty of choice. I didn’t want to leave but we will be back in the Spring! Thank you!

Date of stay: September 2022

Miranda de Ebro (Castile y Leon), Spain September 2022

Vanya found a very interesting boutique hotel in the small village of Cuzcurrita de Rio Tiron in La Rioja Region. We decided to treat ourselves there but, on the way, stopped off for lunch in Miranda de Ebro. Miranda de Ebro is the place with which Haro started the wine fight all those years ago (see earlier Haro blog).

It is a now large industrial city (chemicals) on the banks of the River Ebro with a population of 40,000+. In the limited time available to us (we were both keen to get to Cuzcurrita) we were never going to get to see much of the place and so settled for a short walk around the old town and lunch on the main square.

A rock band were playing a mix of their own music and some Rock & Roll classics as we arrived.

We stayed long enough for a light lunch, a brief stroll around the (small) old town and then it was back across the Carlos III Bridge to the Van. Cuzcurrita de Rio Tiron beckoned.

St Pee sur Nivelle (Nouvelle Aquitaine), France September 2022

On our way back into Spain we stopped overnight in Saint Pee sur Nivelle in the French basque country (Pays de Labourd); just 8 kms from Ascain which place we very much enjoyed last year notwithstanding the restrictions then imposed on us by covid. This area is famous for it’s ossau-iraty cheese, an ivory coloured semi hard cheese made from unpasteurised ewe’s milk and I love it. We’ll be taking some of that back to the UK with us.

Saint Pee is an unusual place in that it is not concentrated around a single town centre. It has a centre of sorts (stretched out along the D918 for the most part) but the town appears to comprise several different communes spread over quite an area. This made for fair a bit of walking when I set out to explore the place; not least because there are a lot of hiking trails in the area and I couldn’t resist checking out one or two of them. There’s a nice walk along by the River Nivelle; another around the Lake of St Pee and; at least two more up and around the Hills of Ibarron. I didn’t do them all.

The ‘centre’ (if it can be called a centre) comprised a few shops, two or three restaurants or cafe bars (one particular cafe bar was selling a selection of locally produced artisan beers – I tried just one and it was good) and some pretty half timbered houses all coloured in the basque style.

The most interesting building however is the Eglise St Pierre. This unusual and imposing church has a pleasing interior – a stone floor made from old tombstones, an impressive church organ, a large intricately carved wooden altarpiece and a wonderful three story wooden gallery so typical of the area. Certainly, the gallery reminded me of the church in Ascain.

… with it’s exquisitly carved altarpiece.

This is another of those areas which suffered horribly from witch-hunts in the early 17th century. Certainly, the basque country both in France and Spain was the focus of the witch-hunts between 1609 and 1614 which saw an estimated 3,000 people put to death. Salazar de Frias, operating out of Logrono, was one of the leading inquisitors in Spain at this time while Pierre de Lancre led the hunts in this part of France.

Ossau Iraty cheese

Currently well behind with this blog. we were in Saint Pee in September. It is now 23 October – apologies

Cassaigne (Occitaine), France September 2022

With just 200 inhabitants, Cassaigne is the smallest of the three villages we visited during our stay in Eauze. In reality it is now little more than a hamlet.

Built by the Bishops of Condom the original 13th century Chateau de Cassaigne was remodelled over a period of time and by the turn of the 16th century a pretty little village, complete with church, had formed around it.

During the French Revolution the State confiscated the property from the church and it was auctioned off. For many years thereafter it remained in private hands until in 2003 the wine cooperative Plaimont purchased the 30 acre Cassaigne estate. Nowadays, 20% of the estates vines are used to produce Armagnac and the other 80% goes towards the production of red, white and rose Cotes de Gascogne wines.

Plaimont operate wine tasting sessions from the chateau but we didn’t have time for that. We simply sampled some of the cooperative’s produce and then purchased a few bottles of their white wine for drinking back in the UK. I also bought a three bottle sampler selection of the chateau’s Armagnac. I’ll try those on my own one cold winter evening in Brighton.

After a short walk around the outside of the chateau primarily to get a closer look at the Fallow Deer enclosure, we made our way back to Eauze for dinner at the Michelin rated restaurant La Vie en Rise.

Ordinarily I wouldn’t go out of my way to visit Cassaigne but it could perhaps be taken in on the back of a visit to nearby Condom, a quiet rural medieval market town with a fairly impressive cathedral.