Roses (Catalonia), Spain October 2023 (Tour 8)

We decided to drive to Spain for the day from Banyuls sur Mer, taking the D914 coast road to the Franco-Spanish border. From there, well… we were intent on having a pintxos lunch so, almost any town or village in Spain would do. We’d follow the N260 in Spain and make our mind up as to the final destination en route. This trip was as much about the coast road as the pintxos.

The coast road to the border was everything it promised to be. It is a slow route because of it’s many curves and hairpin bends but, except for a handful of motorbikes, it was surprisingly quiet and offered exceptional views along the Catalan coast. The route took us through Cerbere and then up through a series of interesting rock formations to the Belitres Pass and into Spain.

The border is marked on the French side of the Pass by a long abandoned customs post which is now almost completely covered in graffiti and; on the Spanish side of the Pass by the Retirada Memorial, erected in 2009.

The Retirada (the Memorial del Exilio del Paso de Belitres to use it’s correct name) is a pictorial representation by Columbian artist Manuel Moros of the suffering of hundreds of thousands of republican refugees fleeing Spain for France as General Franco’s armies descended on Barcelona towards the end of the Spanish Civil War. And it didn’t end there; a year later, in 1940, this same Pass was used by refugees crossing the other way, from France to Spain, while fleeing from Nazi Germany. I suspect a fair few of those who left Spain in 1939 were amongst those who were compelled to return in 1940. Talk about being caught between a rock and a hard place. Whatever, the photographs on the memorial capture the anguish and despair of the refugees. It’s a sobering memorial.

Once across the border and into Spain the road became the N260. This led us down through Portbou and then two other little fishing villages, Colera and Llanca.

Don’t ask me how it happened but, we soon found ourselves parked up in a place called Empuriabrava. Don’t go there! Reclaimed from swampland by some German entrepreneurs during the late 1960’s, Empuriabrava is a purpose built tourist resort of some 8,000 people (rising to an incredible 80,000 in the summer months). It is built around what I am advised is Europe’s largest residential marina, with some 40 kilometres of canals and more than 5,000 boat moorings. “Naff” is possibly the word that best describes the place. There is nothing about it that is remotely Spanish, let alone Catalonian, and from what little we saw (we couldn’t get out of there quick enough) it appeared to be populated largely by Russians. Vanya likened the place to an ill thought out and awful imitation of Port Grimaud. I thought she was being kind.

And so it was that we arrived in Roses. In a facebook entry on the day we arrived, I described Roses as being to Spanish beach resorts what Waitrose is to supermarkets (i.e tasty) but, looking back, any Spanish beach resort with any authenticity about it would prove tasty compared to Empuriabrava … but that shouldn’t detract from Roses.

In common with most towns and villages on the Costa Brava, Roses was a fishing town. It still has the largest fishing fleet on the Costa Brava but is now unashamedly a tourist town and probably one of the most popular tourist destinations on the Costa Brava. What sets it apart from so many other places on the Costas and what I like about the place is that it is not in the least tacky. The words fashionable and chic spring to mind (but, we are out of season). Moreover, it sits on the northern tip of Roses Gulf and is the only beach resort on the Costa Brava that faces west (which, if nothing else, will make for some great sunsets).

We parked the Van in the south of the town on a wide boulevard in the modern residential area of Santa Margarida and then, with the wide sandy beach and calm turquoise sea to our right, we strolled along the promenade towards the town centre.

Hotels, restaurants, cafe-bars and sculptures line the promenade all the way to the old fishing port. At it’s centre there is little left of the original village; just more hotels and restaurants, large apartment blocks, shops and boutiques and the odd monument and; on Sunday mornings a farmers market with 200+ stalls. There’s no doubt about it; Roses’s focus is towards it’s high quality blue star beaches and there are plenty of them.

Those nearest the town centre (the Platja Nova, the Rastrell and the Salatar) are wide family friendly beaches with fine sand and clear shallow waters and they are very popular during the high season; as is the beach just to the north of the harbour (Platja La Punta). Beyond that and accessible by car and local transport are the smaller, quieter but no less welcoming beaches of Platja Palangres, the Canyelles Petites and the Canyelles Grosses (also known as Platja Almadrava). They too offer golden sands and shallow waters and they tend to be frequented by local families in the summer. Further north, some 7 kilometres from Roses and on the edge of Cap de Creus National Park, is Montjoi Creek (where the world famous triple Michelin Star restaurant ‘El Bulli’ used to be located), Joncols Creek and Cala del Canadel. The sand on these particular beaches is darker and mixed with flat stones but the water is clearer still. Finally, there are numerous other small secluded beaches deeper inside the National Park (Cala Calitjas Creek and Cala Rostella being two of the larger better known ones) but these are stony and rocky and not so accessible and the water at Cala Rostella is considerably deeper. To reach them they require a bit of walking (unless you access them from the sea) and they tend to be the preserve of divers and nudists (or so I’m told).

Beach holidays don’t hold the same allure to Vanya and I as they used to (we can’t take the heat) but, going forward, I could be tempted to use Roses as a base from which to visit some of the surrounding countryside and especially the coastline although, it would have to be out of season. September and/or October would be as good a time as any. I think too that I could be tempted to charter a boat to better explore the coastline. Now there’s a thought.

After a short wander around the town, we set off back along the promenade to the Van, stopping at a beachfront restaurant on the way for pinxtos and a beer.

Oh. I mentioned the restaurant, El Bulli. It was owned by the Barcelona chef Ferran Adria and, until it’s closure in 2011, was one of the most famous restaurants in the world, holding 3 Michelin Stars from 1997 and being voted ‘Best Restaurant in the World’ 5 times in a row by Restaurant Magazine. Not once did El Bulli make a profit in the 27 years Adria was Head Chef but this is perhaps not surprising given they employed 40 chefs and had just 50 covers. It seems Adria’s focus was (is?) primarily towards avant-garde cooking; pushing boundaries and; creating new dishes with the whole menu being completely changed every year. Now that would have been a restaurant to visit.

We’ll return to Roses but for now, it’s back to Banyuls sur Mer and then north to the UK although; we still have a few days before having to catch our train back to Folkestone. It’s booked for Sunday 8 October.

Logrono (La Rioja), Spain May 2023 (Tour 7)

This will be a brief entry and limited mostly to photos. The facts are, this was a very short visit to Logrono and I am over a month behind in terms of bringing this blog up to date. At this rate Tour 8 will be underway before I finish the Tour 7 entries. So sorry.

It was time to make our way back to England for our friend’s wedding but we could never visit La Rioja without taking time out in Logrono, however limited. During previous visits we had used one of the city’s two NH Hotels and we had stayed over for the Thursday and Friday nights which are the best nights for pinchos (tapas) – pinchos are half price on Calle Laurel every Thurday. Because of time constraints we would do this visit differently. We would spend just the Sunday night in Logrono (it would be interesting to see what Calle Laurel is like on a Sunday evening) and, having just left the Hotel Teatrisso, we would give the NH Hotels a miss and, instead, evaluate Logrono’s campsite, Camping la Playa. The campsite is within easy walking distance of the city centre and, more particularly, Calle Laurel.

Just yards from the campsite there’s a pedestrian bridge (Punta de Hiero) across the River Ebro and it leads almost to the centre of the town. It took little more than 10 minutes for me to reach Calle Laurel.

There was time enough to check out the Cathedral of Santa Maria although these particular photos were taken during Tour 4. During this visit the front of the Cathedral was covered in scaffolding.

There was also time to revisit the local graffiti but, there wasn’t too much different from our last visit.

And then it was back to Calle Laurel for those wonderful mushrooms. These were from the Angel Bar

I was pleasantly surprised with Logrono on a Sunday. Many restaurants were open during the afternoon and there were a great many people out and about, families mostly. I returned to the city centre during the evening with Vanya and it was a little quieter but, again, the majority of the restaurants and the pinchos bars in Calle Laurel and surrounding areas were open.

We enjoyed our Sunday night on Calle Laurel but Vanya and I much prefer the rush and excitement of a Thursday, Friday or Saturday (especially Thursdays when there are fewer tourists and the pinchos are half price). There’s a warmth and joy about Calle Laurel on Thursdays which we’ve not seen replicated in any other Spanish towns or cities that we’ve visited and; it sadly it isn’t there on a Sunday evening in Logrono either. Sunday is more about eating.

Of course, our dogs may think differently. They seemed to appreciate a quieter Calle Laurel.

Vanya back at her favourite pinchos bar, Meson del Abuelo.

Once again, sorry for producing such a simple entry. I think that to some extent I took the easier way out because other Logrono entries can be found on this site and I am loathe to repeat myself.

San Asensio (La Rioja), Spain May 2023 (Tour 7)

The previous nights wine tasting session in Cuzcurrita de Rio Tiron saw Parabolas para Volar, a Rioja made with 100% Garnacha grapes, declared the undisputed winner of the ‘Battle of the Wines’ and it prompted Vanya and I to immediately book a wine tour and tasting session with Bodegas Lecea for the very next day.

This was the Parabolas para Volar which prompted Vanya and I to visit Bodegas Lecea in San Asensio. The wine was one of a limited edition of just 500 bottles and was not therefore included in the standard wine tasting session

However, six of these seven wines were included in the tasting session.

This proved a most generous wine tasting event. We were presented with a wide range of wines including a Gran Reserva, a dessert wine and one speciality wine (which I wasn’t quite so sure about, where the grapes had been pressed by the villagers bare feet) and all were served with appropriate nibbles. The tasting session was well managed and enjoyable but it was the tour itself which set this event apart and which I found totally enthralling. Bodegas Lecea is one of just three or four wine producers in Spain where, except for the growing of the grapes, everything to do with the production of the wines occurs underground (in a 500 year old network of caves). We were underground throughout the whole experience except for the wine tasting which took place in the wineshop above ground.

I should explain. Bodegas Lecea is located in the side of a hill in the Las Cuevas neighbourhood of San Asensio. Inside this hill are more than 300 cave cellars which were dug out by local farmers in the 16th century such that their wines could be stored at a constant temperature of 13 degrees centigrade. The Lecea family currently maintain four connected but very distinct cellar systems and continue to make their wines underground in the traditional way in concrete vats.

The caves are many metres underground and stretch in all directions. The tragedy is that no map of the cave systems exist and extending the current caves can be dodgy.

The tour’s focus was towards traditional wine making techniques and included elements as diverse as how and why grape vines are trained (see left) and why wine used to be stored in large pig skins (right).

Left: Large chimneys were dug out to help release the toxic fumes given off by the fermenting wine. Right: Some wines in the cellar are more than 60 years old. The Lecea family open one of these older wines each year although the colour tends to be brown and the wine must be consumed within 15 minutes or it will oxidise.

Our tour of the bodega ended in the wineshop with the wine tasting, which I have already described as being as well managed as any we have previously attended. I would highly recommend the tour and tasting session.

Unfortunately for Vanya the wines were mostly red but I did alright out of that.

What else is there to say about San Asensio? There are a couple of things which are perhaps worth adding.

Firstly, on the last Sunday of every July San Asensio has a wine fight, the Battle of Claret, not unlike that in Haro on 29 June. Some 30,000 litres of claret are donated to the town by the wineries and cooperatives in the area. Town officials supervise the loading of sulphate machines, water guns, buckets and anything else that can hold wine and then commence battle against anyone who passes by. Once everyone is covered in wine (and suitably sozzled) the participants dance their way through the town to the Plaza Vieja to continue the celebrations and tour the local bars for yet more wine and, of course, pinchos.

Secondly, I was told the San Asensio Monastery is worth a visit. We didn’t have time for that after a well meaning employee of the Bodegas Lecea directed me the wrong way out of Las Cuevas through a series of almost impossible lanes and alleys. To make matters worse, the sat-nav in the Van once again chose to play up and completely failed me. I persevered but it took over an hour to navigate my way out of the rabbit warren that is this part of San Asensio. Next time we’ll walk.

Cuzcurrita de Rio Tiron (La Rioja), Spain May 2023 (Tour 7)

As has been said before, it is not often we revisit places during these Tours but we were always going to return to Cuzcurrita de Rio Tiron and Vanya’s “best ever boutique hotel”, the Hotel Teatrisso, with it’s distinctive themed rooms and the wonderfully warm welcome provided by it’s owners Laura and Jose Angel. During our first visit, last September, we stayed in the studio suite ‘Africa’. We promised then we would return and that our next visit would be over a weekend so as to enjoy the hotel’s evening activities. We took the last available room; a charming attic room the ‘Salon de Baille’ (the Dancing Room). The hotel was full except for this room because the owners were to host a wine tasting dinner on the Friday evening and a “Teatrisso Night” on the Saturday.

Laura and Jose Angel, owners of the Teatrisso.

A couple of slightly ‘different’ photos I took of the hotel’s interior.

And so to the wine tasting. Headlining as the ‘Battle of the Wines’ this was wine tasting with a difference. Estela Lecea, the granddaughter of the founder of Bodegas Lecea, has travelled extensively throughout South America and was keen to share her experiences and compare two wines produced by Isabel Nicul in the Casablanca Valley in Chile with two produced by the Bodegas Lecea in the San Asensio area of La Rioja. Each of the wines were paired with gourmet tapas prepared by Teatrisso’s very own Jose Angel and it was a fascinating evening (notwithstanding my limited understanding of the Spanish language) with both wine and food proving amazing. Nevertheless, there was an easy winner – a sensational red Rioja produced by Bodegas Lecea named ‘Parabolas para Volar’ (literally ‘Parables to Fly’ which is the title of Estela’s book about her travels). This was a 100% garnacha rioja, limited edition wine (just 500 bottles), which was complemented with a ‘Casserole of Iberian Pig Cheeks glazed in Red Wine and served with Potato Parmentier’. Wow!!

By local standards the winning wine was not cheap but nothing could have stopped me buying some (three bottles) and Vanya and I determined there and then to visit the Bodega in San Asensio the very next day.

Left: A flyer advertising the ‘Battle of the Wines’. Centre: The battle is underway in the hotel’s old cinema with Estela Lecea presenting . Right: The ‘Casserole of Iberian Pig Cheeks glazed in Red Wine and served with Potato Parmentier’

Beanie was as interested in events as anyone.

The winning wine and my favourite, Parabolas para Volar.

Things just couldn’t get much better. There was second function organised for the Saturday night. Termed the ‘Teatrisso Night’, it was a celebration of the owners having bought and converted a rather dilapidated 16th century merchant’s house (which had subsequently served as a 1920’s cinema, theatre and dance hall as well as being a barracks for Italian soldiers during the Spanish Civil War) into the lovely boutique hotel it is now.

The Teatrisso Night commenced with a brief wine tasting session in the hotel’s wine cellar where we were introduced to a very pleasant local rose wine (rosada in Spanish). The main events followed which were (a) a powerpoint presentation by Laura, who gave us a brief history of the building and outlined how she and Jose Angel went about transforming it and (b) a small banquet prepared by Jose Angel of 6 gourmet tapas, each with an appropriate local wine. I think I floated up to our bedroom at the end of the evening.

Left: Another flyer, this one advertising the Teatrisso Night. Right: Sampling the rose wine in the cellar. Did I mention that there is a fresh water spring in the wine cellar?

A couple of the gourmet tapas prepared by Jose Angel. His food was seriously good although I couldn’t quite manage the Bacalao (Cod). It was simply too strong.

Four photos of slides from Laura’s presentation. These were photos of the building prior to the restoration. What they have achieved is amazing.

There’s more about Cuzcurrita and the Teatrisso in an earlier blog (Tour 6 in 2022). I’ll end this particular entry with a few more photos taken from on or around the Plaza Mayor.

I had the bar on the main square to myself this visit. The bar down by the bridge over the Rio Tiron was busier but the village band was practising there. I’ll let you know!

Left: The village church,the Parroquai di San Miguel Arcangel, from the main square. Right: The same church from under the 15th century road bridge across the Rio Tiron.

The last time we visited Cuzcurrita I never got to see inside the church. It was the same again this time. We’ll just have to try again (next year?).

Meanwhile, more wine tasting in San Asensio tomorrow.

Haro (La Rioja), Spain May 2023 (Tour 7)

It was with some reluctance that we left Penafiel and made our way to Haro. We had enjoyed our four days there and would have stayed longer but for the dogs being booked in to see a vet in Haro (rabies top-ups) and, besides, Vanya had reserved us a room at her favourite hotel just down the road in Cuzcurrita de Rio Tiron for two days.

Vanya has a soft spot for Haro, more so than me. I think Haro is an increasingly tired looking town and needs a facelift but it remains one of those places we are happy to come back to because we love the Barrio de la Estacion wine village. This really is the wine capital of the Rioja Region and it wasn’t long before we were back in the wine village, sitting outside Bilbainas (Vanya’s favourite bodega in Haro), enjoying their wares and purchasing more of her favourite sparkling wine. From there we moved to the CVNE Bodega such that I could sample their reds. We’d not visited CVNE before but I was not disappointed and, after sampling a Gran Reserva, I was happy to buy a few bottles. The Van is filling up.

The Compania Vincola del Norte de Espana (CVNE) and their Gran Reserva. Needless to say, Vanya stayed with their white Rioja – Monopole.

Hitherto we have favoured the old part of Haro, around the Plaza de la Paz, not least because of the cafe bar and pinchos culture which surrounds the area (and, yes, we enjoyed that once again) but this visit we spent longer in the more developed part of the town over by the Basilica de Nuestra Senora de La Vega. Most visitors intent on checking out the churches here favour the Parroquia de Santo Tomas (the Parochial Church of Saint Thomas) which dominates the old town but I consider the Basilica far more interesting and it’s altar is truly beautiful.

Looking from Jardines de La Vega towards the Basilica de Nuestra Senora de La Vega.

… and the inside of the Basilica with a detail from the Altar.

That ceiling in the Basilica is something else.

Okay, so the main entrance to the Church of St Thomas and it’s altar are also pretty impressive.

Left: That’s the Church of St Thomas as seen from the Jardines de La Vega and Right: there’s the same church as seen from an almost deserted Calle Santo Thomas.

The other very impressive aspect of this newer part of the town is the Mercado adjacent to the Jardines de La Vega. It is not a particularly large supermarket but in terms of content it is one of the best in this part of Spain and comes as close to a Waitrose as you will get here.

In terms of what there is to see and do in Haro, I’ll not risk repeating myself here but will, instead, refer you to the previous blogs I have written about the place. You need only search ‘Haro’. However, I will add that despite it’s tired appearance (Please, give it a facelift!), Haro remains a pleasant town to visit and we will continue to return.

Sepulveda (Castile y Leon), Spain May 2023 (Tour 7)

The best day yet of Tour 7.

Today was about visiting the small town of Sepulveda and, if time and energy permitted, the nearby Ermita San Frutos in the Hoces Del Rio Duraton National Park. Both places were recommended by the owners of Camping Riberduero as ‘go to’ places in the area.

Hidden within the dramatic canyons of Las Hoces del Río Duratón National Park, Sepúlveda is one of the prettiest villages in the province of Segovia and another great find.

We entered Sepuldeva from the east and stopped in a sizeable car park just off Calle Alonso VI. I subsequently learned that the prettiest approach into the town is from the south along SG-232, which route takes you past the Mirador de Zuloaga and it’s grand view of of the town clinging to the side of a particularly deep canyon formed by the Rio Duraton. That might be worth remembering for the future.

From the car park we walked along Calle de Alfonso VI and through the main gate, El Puerto del Ecce Homo, (which is actually an arch with the alternative name of El Arco del Ecce Homo – Remember, this is Spain) into what I shall call the Upper Town. The Upper Town is mostly residential although, just inside the arch, there is a hotel and a museum (the Museo de Los Fueros) and towards the top of the town, almost at it’s highest point, there is a fine church (the Iglesia de la Virgen de la Pena or, in English, the Church of Our Lady of Pena). This church is perched at the very edge of the canyon and has spectacular views. It is also the starting point for a series of great walks but, more about those in a moment.

The entrance to the Upper Town, the Arco del Ecce Homo O Puerta del Azogue, sounds most grand but it is a very plain entrance into what was once the walled part of the town.

Vanya and I wandered around the Upper Town for a while before making our way to the Church of Our Lady of Pena. This church dates back to the 12th century but, for all that, it is not the oldest church in Sepuldeva. This particular honour goes to another not so attractive church in the Upper Town – the 11th century Church of El Salvador.

Iglesia de la Virgen de la Pena at the top of the town. The Canyon is directly behind the church.

Inside the Church and…

… outside the Church. I believe I have mentioned before that (figuratively and literally) Vanya is not into churches.

I digress slightly but, later in the day, some time after lunch and having escorted Vanya and the dogs back to the Van, I returned to the Upper Town and embarked on a final brief explore – walking on past the church, through the Puerta de la Fuerza and down into the canyon to the Rio Duraton. It was good exercise and made for a couple of reasonable photo opportunities.

Left: Looking back, above the canyon, to the Iglesia de la Virgen de la Pena Right: The route on through the Puerta de la Fuerza would take me down to…

… the Puente Picazos. It was a warm walk back up to the top of the canyon.

So, back to the town. Immediately after visiting the Church of Our Lady of Pena, Vanya and I returned through the Upper Town to the Arco del Ecce Homo and along Calle Barbacana to the main part of Sepulveda which I shall refer to as the Lower Town.

The Lower Town is where most of the action is and where the majority of the 1,000+ inhabitants live. Calle Barbacana leads to it’s centre, a couple of small squares (Plaza del Trigo and Plaza de Espana) where, as we arrived, a farmers market was just closing. We checked out the market and then tarried outside a bar on the square(s) under the Clock Tower and watched the stallholders slowly and silently pack away their unsold produce and depart. At midday or thereabouts, Sepulveda is one of those slow sleepy towns where it feels quite normal to build an appetite by simply lazing around over a cup of coffee and watching others go about their business.

The Clock Tower with, behind it, La Muralla de Sepulveda (part of the old fortress walls which used to separate the Upper Town from the Lower Town) and on the top right of the photo is the of the Church of El Salvador.

Having developed a healthy appetite we moved just around the corner to the pretty Calle Lope Tablada de Diego and at the restaurant El Figon de Ismael we were persuaded by the proprietor to try the local speciality, Cordero de Lechal – a nice little lamb dish she said.

The Calle Lope Tablada de Diego where we found the El Figon de Ismael Restaurant

On the left is the entrance to the El Figonde Ismael (with our hostess in the background) and on the right is the wine we enjoyed, a local Rueda. Now mark my words, we will all be hearing more about Rueda. Currently it is largely unknown outside of Spain but I suspect it will soon become very popular.

And there’s our food, the local lamb dish known as Cordero de Lechal and that’s the chef in the background.

One of the things I really like about the Spanish (and the French too) is their enthusiasm for good food. We British are obsessed with the weather and talk about it all the time, even to complete strangers. The Spanish and the French are much the same about food but “a nice little lamb dish”? There was nothing little about this particular meal. It could have fed four, not two, but having said that, this was slow cooked suckling lamb – melt in the mouth meat and crispy golden skin – and seriously good. We coped. Even Vanya who is not all that fond of meat, especially lamb, was impressed by the food. And the local Rueda was equally sound. Unfortunately, the Balbas Bodega would not be open until the next week or we’d have popped in on the way back to Penafiels and bought a few bottles.

And so it was that, after a great start to the day in Sepulveda and well fed, we made for the Ermita San Frutos (that’s Fructos in English); a long abandoned hermitage in the Hoces del Rio Duraton Natural Park. The hermitage is only about 10 miles from Sepuldeva but it is a slow 10 miles because much of the journey is along a bumpy dirt track road and the last kilometre has to be walked.

Honestly, if you’re ever in this part of Spain, you have to visit the ruin. The first sight you get of the hermitage is from a view point just a couple of hundred meters from the car park and it’s setting is truly spectacular. If you don’t fancy the walk to the ruin itself, you’ll not be disappointed with what you see from the view point.

Ermita San Frutos from the viewpoint. It’s an easy walk around to the hermitage but you will be watched, if not followed, by many Griffon Vultures. This area is home to the largest concentration of vultures in the world – 600 pairs.

San Frutos, Patron Saint of Segovia was born in the 7th century into a wealthy Visigothic family. When his parents died he and his brothers, Valentin and Engracia, distributed their inheritance amongst the poor and, seeking complete solitude, retired to separate caves in this area which is now part of the Hoces del Rio Duraton National Park.

Tradition holds that the three brothers remained in these caves for many years until the Moors invaded the area. Valentin and Engracia were caught and martyred by the Moors. Frutus survived his brothers but died of natural causes not long after at the age of 73. Legend has it that a number of locals, seeking to escape the Moors, made their way to where Frutos lived but were followed there by Moorish soldiers. Frutos drew a line in the earth and asked the soldiers not cross it. When the soldiers ignored him and crossed the line, the earth miraculously opened up and swallowed them. The Moors did not bother Frutos again.

The existing hermitage was built on top of a small church in 1076 and was occupied by Benedictine Monks through until 1836. To access it, you have to cross a narrow bridge which was built in 1757 over a large crack in the rock. It is said this crack, known by some as ‘La Cuchillada’ and by others as the ‘Slash of San Frutos’, is where the Moorish soldiers fell to their death.

Just after the bridge and in front of the entrance to the hermitage, forged on a stone pedestal, is a large iron cross with seven engraved keys that correspond to the seven gates of Sepulveda. This cross was raised to commemorate a great pilgrimage to the hermitage in 1900. 

I could have sat amongst the ruins of the hermitage for quite a while. It was so peaceful. One thing I couldn’t help but notice, however, was that some of the headstones in the small graveyard at the back of the hermitage look very new. Curious.

Of course, it is the natural splendour surrounding this place which takes the breath away. The views in every direction are wild and spectacular and I must therefore end this entry on Sepuldeva with a couple more photos of the countryside.

Cuellar (Castile y Leon), Spain May 2023 (Tour 7)

Today started with us once again taking the Van out for a trip, this time to Segovia which is one hours drive south of Penafiel. I’d researched the city some time before and it looked to be worth the journey… the Aqueduct, the Alcazar Fortress, the Cathedral, etc. All looked very interesting and then we arrived… and the place was crammed with tourists; busloads of them, hordes of people everywhere. We made my way through the city towards one of the larger car parks recommended in the Park4night App but by the time we arrived both Vanya and I had lost all interest in the place. We were almost relieved to find the car park overflowing and made a decision there and then to move on. And so it was that we came to Cuellar.

Cuellar is a town of a little less than 10,000 inhabitants as opposed to Segovia’s 50,000+. As we arrived and parked up, the town looked almost deserted. Okay, so it was early afternoon and, as I mentioned in my notes on Penafiel, this is ‘real’ Spain and very little happens during weekday siesta time in real Spain. We set off for a short explore and to get some lunch.

We entered old town Cuellar through the San Basilio Arch and immediately stumbled upon two of the town’s most prominent landmarks, the Castle (it’s more of a Palace) and the San Martin Church. Cuellar Castle was built early in the 13th century although most of the current structure dates from the 16th century when it was home to successive Dukes of Alburquerque. They lived in the castle for centuries until moving to Madrid. The French army occupied the castle during the Peninsular War and looted it as the Duke of Wellington’s army approached. Wellington himself stayed at the castle for a number of weeks, as did a French General before him – General Joseph Hugo – the father of the novelist Victor Hugo.

For a while the castle remained empty but in 1938 it was transformed into a prison for political prisoners by Spain’s then ruler, General Franco, and it remained a prison until 1966. Since then it has been beautifully restored by Spain’s Ministry of Fine Arts and is now a museum.

Cuellar Castle

Not far from the castle is the 12th century Church of San Martin. It isn’t the most remarkable of Cuellar’s churches (The Churches of San Esteban and San Andres are far more impressive) but San Martin is now home to the Mudejar Art Visitor Centre and inside there is a light and sound show about Mudejar Art and the Christian, Jewish and Arab cultures.

It took a while but we eventually found a small bar/cafe in the old town which was open (they take siesta time very seriously here in Cuellar). Sadly, it was one of very few places in Spain which do not admit dogs and we had to eat at a table outside. That wouldn’t ordinarily have troubled us but Cuellar sits at almost 900 metres above sea level and it was blowing a bit of a hooley at the time.

That settled it. It was time to make our way back to Penafiel and we were both agreed that in the morning we would talk to our hosts at the campsite as to where we should visit next. They got it so right with Pedraza.

Pedraza (Castile y Leon), Spain May 2023 (Tour 7)

Pedraza de la Sierra (to use the villages’s correct name) is to be found some 50 miles south of Penafiel in Segovia Province in the Region of Castile y Leon. It is one of Los Pueblos Mas Bonitos de Espana and it is one of the best kept secrets in Spain. The village was recommended to Vanya and I as a place to see by the owner of our campsite in Penafiel and we decided upon a day visit in the Van.

It’s a small fortress village (less than 400 inhabitants) with just one narrow entrance. All of it’s buildings date back many hundreds of years (there is not a single modern building in Pedraza) and it is considered to be the best preserved medieval village in the whole of Spain. You’ll get no pushback from me on that point.

It took us a little over an hour to get to Pedraza. We parked close to the village entrance at the Casa de Aguila Imperial (a learning centre, housed in the old Romanesque Church of San Miguel, which serves to promote and protect Imperial Eagles) and after a quick look around we made the short walk up to the village entrance (Puerta de la Villa).

The Puerta de la Villa is small and can admit only very small commercial vans.

Just inside the entrance to the village is La Carcel, a 13th century fortified tower which in the 16th century was converted into the local prison. It was used as a prison until near the end of the 19th century but is now a tourist attraction. For 4 Euros you can wander the gaol and get a sense as to what it must have been like to have been imprisoned there. To say it was cramped, primitive and inhuman is an understatement. In addition to the gaoler’s quarters and facilities (the only part of the building with any heating) there are two levels of dungeons; one for the most common criminals (male and female) and another (little more than a pitch black hole in the ground) for the ‘more problematic’ prisoners. There’s no doubt that the prisoners were subjected to all kinds of abuse given the stocks and shackles which can still be seen in the prison.

Left: La Carcel (to the right of the entrance to the town) Right: A prison visitor

Prison quarters (left for common criminals and right for problem prisoners)

After a good nosey around the prison, it took no time to walk Calle Real to the village’s main square (Plaza Mayor). The square is simply perfect; like a film set. Talking of which, the square and various street scenes in Pedraza featured prominently in Orson Welles favourite film ‘Chimes At Midnight’ (aka Falstaff) where Orson Welles played Shakespeare’s Sir John Falstaff.

This square is not as enclosed as the Plaza del Cozo in Penafiel but every bit as authentic (moreso actually) and this square too is adapted when required to hold bullfighting events.

I’ll not try to describe the square. Just take a look at the photos.

It looks hot on the Plaza Mayor but in May at 1,068 metres above sea level (that’s higher than most Munros), it was actually perfect weather.

All of the buildings on the square date back to at least the 16th century.

Originally a 12th century Romanesque church, much of the existing Church of St John the Baptist, on the south side of the Plaza Mayor, dates from the 16th century.

I think that must be the Ayuntamiento (the town hall).

The east side of the square with it’s two bars...

The only thing I would add regarding the square is; it should be mandatory to sit and enjoy a beer and the free tapas from one of the two bars there. We were lucky; we visited on a week day and the landlord and other locals in the bar were keen to engage with us. I’m not sure how it would be at weekends when, we were told, the place gets packed with tourists from Madrid.

… and there’s the entrance to the bar we chose and a pork tapas.

Two more views of the Church of St John the Baptist. The one on the left is from Calle Mayor which leads to the castle. The one on the right is from the Plaza del Alamo.

Having refreshed ourselves with a couple of beers and some tapas, we finished our visit with a walk through the village to the castle and then back through the Puerta de la Villa to the Van.

Pedraza’s Castle which was built in the 13th century but significantly altered during the 15th century. It is currently owned by the family of the Basque Country artist Ignacio Zuloaga. He renovated and lived in the castle until his death in 1945. The castle is now a museum / art gallery.

Typical street scenes in Pedraza…

… and that’s the way back through the Puerta de la Villa to the Van (and Penafiel).

One last note for the calendar. On the first and second Saturday of July every year, the village holds ‘La Noche de las Velas’. It’s a bit of a fiesta which sees the village lights extinguished for 24 hours and 55,000 candles lit in their place while the village celebrates life with a series of music concerts and flamenco dancing. You cannot just turn up for this celebration. Access is limited to 5,000 people who must apply online for tickets towards the end of May. Now that would be spectacular.

Penafiel (Castile y Leon), Spain May 2023 (Tour 7)

I don’t know how it was that Vanya picked out Penafiel as our next point of call but I’m glad she did. We parked at Camping Riberduero on the edge of Penafiel with a view to staying a couple of days and then stayed for four. With the help of the Dutch owners of the campsite (they were a mine of useful information) we were able to maximise our stay in Penafiel and enjoy much of the surrounding area (most especially Pedraza, Sepulveda and the Hoces del Rio Duraton National Park). We’d have stayed even longer except that we were already commited to being in La Rioja by the end of the week.

Penafiel is a fairly small rural town of some 5,000+ inhabitants in the Valladolid Province of Castile y Leon. Although renowned for it’s 10th century limestone castle and extensive winemaking traditions, Penafiel is well off the beaten track and, nowadays at least, not a popular tourist destination. It wasn’t always so (in Medieval times this was a major city with no less than 19 churches) but it’s current smaller size and the absence of tourists suits us down to the ground.

The unusually shaped Castillo de Penafiel dominates the town.

Building of the existing castle (Castillo de Penafiel) commenced in the 10th century on a cigar shaped rock which overlooks Penafiel and the Rivers Duero and Duraton. Since then the castle has been significantly remodelled, mostly during the 14th and 15th centuries, to resemble a white 150+ metre long German Gothic Style Battleship. My first thought was to check out the castle. It’s an easy walk up to and around the outside of the castle with not too much exposure. However, mine is clearly not the customary approach because, after clambering over the outside wall and in, I almost frightened the life out of a couple who were already there having used the road up.

Nowadays, the castle is home to the Provincial Wine Museum which offers castle tours and wine tasting sessions at very reasonable prices but they were not open for business as I arrived. In fact, very few places are open in Penafiel during siesta time which, during the week, stretches between noon and 4pm. This is real Spain.

There are actually two lines of castle walls. I was able to climb the outer wall only.

It was an interesting walk both to and from the castle. The approach to the castle from the campsite leads across the Puenta de la Leona to the Plaza de Espana and it’s church, the Iglesia Santa Maria. It continues past the Torre del Reloj (the Clock Tower), which is all that remains of the old Romanesque Church of San Esteban, and then up the hill to the outer walls of the castle. This town side of the hill is dotted with what appear to be large chimneys. These are actually ventilation shafts for the many underground wine cellars in the area. The town is full of large excavated caves where wine used to be stored (and perhaps still is) because of the constant temperatures they keep throughout the year. If not properly ventilated these caves would fill with the poisonous gases which arise during the fermentation process.

Penafiel is located slap bang in the middle of Spain’s second largest wine producing region, the Ribera del Duero, where the focus is on producing quality red wines using the Tempranillo grape. Tempranillo is a relatively hardy grape which is better able to withstand the more extreme climates of the high altitude vineyards to be found in this area – long cold winters and hot dry summers. The better approved wines here are invariably 100% Tempranillo with Crianza wines requiring a minimum 24 months aging of which one year must be in an oak barrel; Reserva wines requiring a minimum 36 months aging with one year in a barrel and; Gran Reserva wines requiring at least 5 years aging of which two years must be in oak barrels.

Left: That’s the Clock Tower in the background with a ventilation shaft in the foreground. Right: Several more ventilation shafts fill the hillside.

I returned to town using the castle road, pausing for a glass of wine on the way, and then it was back to exploring. My focus during what remained of the day was towards the Dominican Monastery of Saint Paul (Convento San Pablo) and the elusive but wonderful Plaza del Coso.

I came across the Convento San Pablo first. This Dominican Monastery was built as a fortress in the 13th century but converted into a monastery some time during the 14th century. From the outside the monastery is a strange looking and not very attractive building, an unusual mixture of stone and brick. On the inside, it is something else…

Convento San Pablo – a not particularly attractive mixture of stone and brick although, to be fair some of the Mudejar architecture which was added to the original structure is appealing.

A simple enough entance and central nave

… but with a quite stunning Spanish Renaissance chapel built in 1536

Inside the monastery there is an impressive cloister area but otherwise all is rather simple by Roman Catholic standards… until you see the 16th century funerary chapel of the Infante Don Juan Manuel, Lord of Panafiel. Beautiful.

It took me a while to find the Plaza del Coso. There are just two entances to this large rectangle which is almost wholly enclosed by private houses – a single vehicle entrance from the north and a small gated pedestrian access from the south. I could be forgiven for not immediately recognising the pedestrian access because the gate (which looks like nothing other than the entrance to a garage) was closed. No matter, I persevered and eventually found my way on to the Plaza.

The Plaza is special. Except for the two entrances already mentioned, it is entirely surrounded by three or four storey medieval houses almost all of which have beautiful wooden balconies stretching the whole length of the building on every floor above ground level. These balconies are converted during the Fiestas de Nuestra Senora and San Roque (and at any other time when the situation requires it) into boxes from which those with viewing rights can watch the local bullfights… because this Plaza doubles as a bullring.

Talking of viewing rights, I should explain that since Middle Ages to this day the town council in Penafiel has the right to auction off any room with a window or balcony overlooking the bullring to the highest bidders for the period of the bullfights. Amazing but true.

The first photo of the large rectangle which is the Plaza del Coso (taken from up on high) is clearly not mine but the others are. The second photo is of the single road in the town which leads into the Plaza.

This first photo shows the pedestrian access to the Plaza. As I arrived, workers had just finished installing the wooden bullring which is erected as and when the townsfolk require. We learned later in the day that a festival was planned for the weekend which would include bull-running.

That’s how the Plaza looked like as I walked across it. You can tell it was siesta time.

I’m not into bullfighting unless it be limited to the type that is practised in Provence, where the bull is not harmed – see Saint Remy de Provence blog from May 2023. In Provence, brave athletic ‘rasateurs’ compete against each other, using skill and agility, to collect as many ribbons as possible in as short a time as possible from between the bull’s horns (without getting hurt). Having said that, I think I would have enjoyed attending the bull-running in Penafiel which was scheduled for the following Saturday.

Teruel (Aragon), Spain May 2023 (Tour 7)

We continue to potter around Aragon and the area continues to amaze us. We had not heard of Teruel but with it being just 25 miles east of Albarracin we thought we’d check it out and have lunch there before heading across to La Rioja.

Teruel, capital of Teruel Province, is a relatively small city (less than 35,000 inhabitants) but despite it’s limited size it is packed with places of interest and beauty. Given that it was a major Moorish city, it comes as no surprise to see so much Mudejar architecture but the quality of that architecture is as good as anywhere in Spain. The cathedral tower, together with the towers of San Salvador, San Martin and San Pedro are rare jewels and have rightly earned Teruel recognition as a World Heritage Site.

Parking our Van close to the city’s railway station, we made first for the nearby old town and came across the Escalinata del Ovalo. Built in Mudejar style, this grand old staircase was actually built in the early part of the 20th century but it’s mix of bricks and tiles is remarkable and a fine introduction to the more genuine Mudejar monuments in Teruel. I walked it with Nala. Vanya and Beanie took the elevator.

Teruel’s grand staircase (Escalinata del Ovalo) which connects the railway station with the old town.

The carving at the top of the Escalinata del Ovalo depicts a scene from the legend of the Amantes – more of that below.

The top of the staircase is just moments from the first of Teruel’s Mudejar Towers, the Torre de El Salvador. Unlike the stairs, this beautifully coloured bell tower, decorated with patterned tiles, is original Mudejar architecture. The Tower was closed to the public as we arrived or I would have climbed it for the views over the town.

These photos of the Torre El Salvador are not mine The photo on the left was taken before the Tower’s restoration in the 1990’s when it was faithfully restored.

The San Martin Tower is similar to the El Salvador but (supposedly) a little less spectacular. I can’t say that I noticed any significant difference between the two except that it was easier to take photographs of San Martin Tower because it isn’t situated in such a built up area.

San Martin Tower.

Another “must see” sight in Teruel and yet another impressive example of Mudejar architecture is to be found in the largely Gothic Catedral de Santa Maria de Mediavella. The roof especially is made in Mudejar style. The cathedral was built in the 12th century in a Romanesque style but received a Gothic-Mudejar makeover in the 13-14th centuries and was transformed into the building it is today.

A couple of photographs of the outside of the Catedral de Santa Maria de Mediavelle de Teruel…

The cathedral is stunning from almost every vantage point and nowhere more so than on the inside of the building where there are a number of important religious paintings, a 16th century wooden Baroque altarpiece and a particularly outstanding coffered Mudejar ceiling. Designed by Mudejar artists in the 13th century, the 32 metre long vaulted ceiling has detailed Islamic style carvings of medieval scenes and figures and has been referred to as the “Sistine Chapel” of Mudejar.

… and a photo of the inside of the ceiling.

The final Mudejar Tower, built very much in the style of the San Salvador and San Martin Towers belongs to the church of San Pedro and this is worth visiting to see it’s ceiling alone but there’s another reason to visit San Pedro’s. It has a famous legend which is worth following up on – the Legend of the “Amantes” or the “Lovers of Teruel”.

The ceiling of San Pedro’s

I’m aware of two different versions of the legend and both bear some similarity to Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. There are probably many more versions but the one I favour is as follows:-

In 1217, Juan Diego Garces de Marcilla and Isabel de Segura lived in Teruel. They were lovers. Diego was a second son and as such unlikely to receive much of an inheritance while Isabel was the only child of a very wealthy nobleman by the name of Don Pedro de Segura. Despite their deep affection for each other, the romance between Diego and Isabel was doomed unless Diego could prove to Don Pedro that he was worthy of his daughter. Diego persuaded Don Pedro to agree to the marriage if he could win fame and fortune within a five year time frame. Promising Isabel that he would return to marry her, Diego then went off to war to win the required fame and fortune.

During the following five years Isabel heard nothing from Diego but she waited patiently for him; turning down countless suitors and frustrating all efforts of her father to marry her off to another. Meanwhile, Diego was caught up in the war against the Muslims to the south. He failed to return to Teruel before the end of the fifth year and Don Pedro wasted no time in arranging an alternative marriage for his daughter which took place immediately the five years was up.

Diego returned from the war rich and famous but he was too late. Isabel had been compelled to marry a man from nearby Albarracin just two days earlier. Devastated, Diego went to Isabel and begged, “bésame, que me muero” (“kiss me, for I am dying”). Isabel refused, saying she was now a married woman. He asked a second time for a final kiss but again she denied him and Diego died at her feet, there and then, of a broken heart.

At Diego’s funeral the following day, in total silence, Isabel arose from her seat in the church, walked to Diego’s open coffin and gave him in death the kiss she had denied him in life. She then fell dead. Much moved by Isabel’s expression of love, the families agreed to bury the two lovers side by side in the Church of San Pedro.

An alabaster statue of Diego and Isabel in the Church of Saint Pedro over the spot where their bodies are interred.

Anyway, after a pleasant walk around a most interesting city, we made our way back towards the small Plaza del Torico. We’d passed through there earlier in the day while exploring the old town and it seemed a very popular square and an ideal place to stop for a pinxtos lunch. The plaza is home to quite a few cafe bars and the one we stopped at did a pretty good “Delicias de Teruel”. This translates to “Delicacies of Teruel” and it comprises Teruel’s own Serrano Ham with warm toasted bread and a fresh tomato jam. Needless to say, we enjoyed it with a glass of the local wine.

Plaza del Torico is named after a small sculpture of a bull (the emblem of the city) which sits atop a tall column in the centre of the square but one could be forgiven for overlooking the almost pocket sized bull on a square that has an impressive fountain and some really progressive looking buildings. The most thought provoking of these buildings is the Casa de Tejidos El Torico (which houses the Caja Rural De Teruel). Tejidos is Spanish for fabrics (or weaving) but I think a more appropriate name would be the Casa de Josiah Wedgwood. The facade to the building is not made of porcelain but you cannot tell me that those blue and white colours are not pure Wedgwood…

Casa de Tejidos El Torico aka the Casa de Josiah Wedgwood

There’s another square, Plaza Juderia, where there appeared to be a few decent looking cafe bars serving the local ham but they will have to wait until we next return to Teruel. Certainly, I would be keen to return to this lovely little city. I would like to climb one of those beautifully decorated towers for a closer look and I would like to walk the 16th century aqueduct (Acueducto de los Arcos) which connects the historic old town to the more modern part of the city in the north. The aqueduct is visible from many parts of the town but I simply didn’t have time to find the approach to the lower level walkway.

We’ll be back.