Comillas (Cantabria), Spain August 2021

Comillas is a small town on the coast which has been hailed as one of the most beautiful towns in Cantabria. We decided to stop there for a couple of days.

The town is split into two quite distinct parts being, (a) the old town and (b) the port & beaches (and the area immediately overlooking the beaches). I decided to start with the port and leave the old town for the next day (but, if you wanted to, the place is small enough to do both in the one day).

We were parked at one end of the large golden sandy beach of Playa de Comillas and within twenty minutes or so I had walked the length of this beach to the small fishing port at the other end. There are a few cafe bars on the beach but they were all plastic chairs and tables and very busy and so I sought out a small quiet more traditional bar at the back of the port with picture postcard views out to sea and back over the harbour and beach. I don’t know the name of the bar but it was a great place to take a cold beer and watch the world do it’s thing.

After a beer I set off to find a suitable restaurant for the evening (that was easy – there are two or three with outside seating alongside the harbour) and then I continued up behind the town to a very imposing building on La Cardosa Hill which I subsequently learned is the Old Pontificial University of Comillas. This university was commissioned by the first Marques De Comillas (more about him later) with a view to training and educating young priests from poor families.

I didn’t dwell at the university but made my way back down to a couple of other interesting features which overlook the beaches and which I had seen on my way up the La Cardosa. The first of these features was the Gothic looking San Cristobal Cemetery which is built on the ruins of an old 15th century church. I don’t make a habit of wandering around cemeteries but some are worth a visit and this one certainly is. It’s a small but quite spectacular cemetery, almost entirely enclosed within the ruined walls of the old church and accessed through large, forbidding wrought iron gates. There’s a huge marble statue of what I think is supposed to be a Guardian Angel perched on one corner of the ruin but it looks really eerie and could pass as an Angel of Death. Not sure I would want to be in that cemetery on my own at night.

The second of the sites on the grassy hills overlooking the beach is the Monument to the Marques de Commilas. The Marques was born Antonio Lopez y Lopez in 1817 in Comillas. He was of humble origin with limited prospects and at the age of 14 he emigrated to Cuba. When he returned some years later it was as one of the richest men in all of Spain. It is thought he made his fortune in the slave trade but, whatever, he used some of that fortune to support King Alfonso XII’s ventures in Cuba and in return was appointed Marques de Comillas.

That first night, I took Vanya and the dogs back along the beach to the Restaurante Cantabrico and we sat on their terrace overlooking the harbour and beach and enjoyed a long meal of spider crab and scallops and a couple of bottles of Albarino.

Sorry, I was talking about Antonio Lopez y Lopez. The newly appointed Marques immediately set about creating a legacy in his birthplace. He commissioned numerous significant building projects by some of Europe’s finest architects and builders including but not limited to the aforementioned University, the Sobralleno Palace (together with it’s imposing Chapel-Musem) and a particularly impressive summerhouse, now known as the Capricho da Gaudi (because it was designed by Anton Gaudi who later worked Barcelona’s cathedral, the Sagrada Familia).

On our second day, late in the afternoon, we set off into the old town of Comillas to track down some of the projects which the Marques had commissioned. We’d left it too late and and arrived at the Capricho da Gaudi just as it was closing to visitors. They wouldn’t even let us walk the gardens. To be fair, I believe the building is now an upmarket restaurant and they were probably making ready for their evening covers. No matter, we took a couple of photos through the fence.

Neither Vanya nor I were prepared for the old town and were pleasantly surprised. It is a wonderful mix of new and old; narrow cobbled streets and squares combined with cafes, souvenir shops and, most unusual, a surprising number of ladies clothes shops. Some of the merchandise we saw was fantastic. We had a good walk around (with Vanya showing particular interest in a dress shop on the Plaza de la Constitucion) and then settled ourselves down on the Plaza del Corro (by the church) for beer and doughnuts.

I was pleased we stopped at Comillas. Back to France now.

Santillana del Mar (Cantabria), Spain August 2021

Today was about our going to the beautiful and very unusual village (or is it a town now) of Santillana del Mar in Cantabria. What is unusual about the place? Well for a start, the whole village is a registered national monument. That is unusual. Of course, that also means lots of tourists (especially during the holiday month of August) and with the nearby Altamira Caves also attracting tourists (this area is the most visited tourist destination across the whole of Cantabria) we decided to have a good wander but move on after lunch. Mine was an absolutely delicious Chorizo in Cider.

It is a very attractive village and quite unlike any other that we have seen (so far) in northern Spain. Jean Paul Sartre that well known travel writer and part time literary existentialist described Santillana del Mar as the most beautiful village in Spain. I’m joking about Sartre being a travel writer but not about the other bits.

The village (or old town) is largely pedestrianised (with only the locals being allowed to drive in the centre). It probably hasn’t changed much in the last 200 years and is, in effect, a ‘living museum’. Many of the town houses have large chocolate coloured wrought iron balconies on at least two floors and these are invariably brimming with flowers. Those houses which don’t have balconies use window boxes and these too are overflowing with flowers. The whole place is a riot of colour.

The Calle de San Domingo leads to the town’s main square (the Plaza Mayor de Ramon y Pelayo) where there is a stunning little 12th century church complete with cloisters. This is the collegiate church of Saint Juliana (Colegiata de Santa Juliana) and her remains are held in the church. There is a small entry fee but it provides access to both the inside of the church and the magnificent cloisters and it is worth every cent.

During my visit, one whole side of the cloisters had been given over to a magnificent diorama reflecting events leading from Christ’s journey into Jerusalem, through his arrest, trial, crucifixion and resurrection.

Like I said, too many tourists for us to want to stay around and we decided over lunch to move on to the coast towards lovely Comillas. A few more photos to reflect on…

Oviedo (Asturias), Spain August 2021

I’ve long wanted to visit elegant Oviedo, the capital of Asturias, and it certainly didn’t disappoint. According to legend, modern Spanish history began here when a certain Don Pelayo saw the Virgin Mary and was inspired to fight the Moors who then occupied most of the Iberian Peninsula. Don Pelayo bacame the first King of Asturias and Oviedo the starting point for the reconquest of Spain.

As in so many Spanish cities, the old town forms the centre of Oviedo and it is the old town that attracts Vanya and I. We parked the Van and headed towards the old town; the spire of the Catedral de San Salvador de Oviedo showing the way.

I’ve often written in this website about the different ‘Camino’s which wend their way across Spain and Portugal to Santiago de Compostela. Two such ‘Ways’ are to be found in Oviedo. The first is the Camino Primitivo which stretches 199 miles from Oviedo’s cathedral to Santiago. The second is the Camino del Norte which travels 512 miles from St Jean de Luz in France to Santiago (crossing the Pyrenees and then travelling along Spain’s north coast to Oviedo before turning west south west into Galicia). I’m beginning to think I would like to travel the Camino del Norte.

There are a number of impressive churches in Oviedo. The first such church we encountered was the San Isidoro el Real on the Plaza de la Constitucion. This church was previously the 16th century Jesuit Church of San Matias which had it’s name changed following the expulsion of the Jesuits from Spain. Then there is the Catedral de San Salvador de Oviedo (sometimes referred to as the Sancta Ovetensis) which was built on the site of an earlier church in the 14th century but, with an 82 foot tower being added in 16th century; hence it being a mixture of Gothic and Baroque architecture. Inside the Cathedral there is a small chapel containing a very special cloth (the Santo Sudario) which is said to have been placed around Jesus’ head after his death. The third most impressive church (in my view) is the San Juan el Real which was built between 1912 and 1915. This has since been elevated to Minor Basilica status and it’s inside is supposed to be absolutely fabulous (we couldn’t get in) but General Franco was married in this church.

Just around the corner from the Cathedral is the central indoor food market, the Mercado El Fontan. We didn’t go in. We were getting hungry and wanted to eat food not shop for it. Moreover, I was keen to get along to the Calle Gascona (also known as the Cider Boulevard) to find a sidreria. We found one in La Manzana Sidreria Restaurante.

While not keen on British cider (it is usually too sweet and/or fizzy), I have enjoyed all but one of the Asturian ciders (sidra) I have sampled. There are no additives (not even sugar and yeast) in the sidra and it is never carbonated. The escanciar serves small amounts from on high so as to properly aerate the dry flat cider and it is then knocked back by the drinker before the cider goes flat in the glass. Needless to say the bottles do not last long with the small amounts being poured frequently and drank quickly. Cider is more popular than wine in Asturias and I fully understand why. I had a bottle with probably the best garlic prawns I have ever eaten and I can say in all honesty that I barely missed Vanya while she went shopping in a local branch of the El Corte Ingles.

Oviedo is one of those cities I could just wander around for hours.

Aviles (Asturias), Spain August 2021

It was time to spoil ourselves; time to chill in a hotel for a couple of days; a hotel with a large bath, a real bed and a good breakfast. Our approach when looking for such a place is to simply log into Booking.com and apply our search parameters – must take dogs (and not insist upon charging ridiculously high cleaning surcharges) and must have parking sufficient to accommodate the Van (or be close to suitable parking). Thereafter we seek something quite luxurious at a reasonable price. It doesn’t really matter where the hotel is provided it is within striking distance. We found a number of options but the one we chose was the Zen Balagares Hotel on the outskirts of Avila and close to the Trasona Reservoir Park.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with the Zen Balagares. It was perfect for us and I would highly recommend the hotel but, the surroundings? I kid you not, the approach to the hotel is through an area which resembles a film set for an episode of that post apocalyptic horror television series ‘The Walking Dead’.

Our drive up to the hotel took us first through a fairly scruffy, almost industrial, part of Aviles and then up towards what looked like a quiet upmarket residential area. Then, suddenly, our surroundings changed. We were driving along a series of wide empty roads. There were roundabouts, zebra crossings, street lights and parking places on these roads but neither houses nor shops and absolutely no people nor traffic. This went on for what seemed like miles. We passed an overgrown 18 hole golf course and driving range which, clearly, had been left unattended for years. There was a club house & cafe bar with chains on the doors and a large car park, with parking bays marked for the president and club captain, cracked and covered in weeds. Through the dirty windows of the club house we could see tables and chairs and display cabinets with cups, shields and medals but still no people. Further round the golf course was another run down, glass fronted building – an empty showroom. Through the diry cracked windows we could see scale models and artistic impressions of… This wasn’t a setting for the Walking Dead – a local developer had gone bust.

We carried on towards the hotel and again our surroundings changed. The hotel is surrounded by that quiet upmarket residential area we had seen from the foot of the hill. We had arrived at the Zen Balagares but, having said that… the estate is reminiscent of another film plot. Yes, it’s a perfect setting for another remake of the Stepford Wives. The houses… Enough already!

We spent two great nights at the Zen Balagares. The room was comfortable (and it had a wonderful hot bath), the breakfast was good, the bar was open whenever we needed it and the food wasn’t bad. Oh, and they kept a decent Albarino. The best part however was a very reasonably priced 90 minute hot and cold stone massage. We loved that.

Ribadeo (Galicia), Spain August 2021

Ribadeo is in Galicia close to the border with Asturias. Vanya had booked us into a small campsite on the coast not too far from Ribadeo and this site (A Gaivota) is within walking distance (at least for me) of a well known beauty spot, the Cathedral Cliffs (As Catedrais), which I have been told is a ‘must see’ in this part of the world. The combination of beautiful beaches and spectacular rock formations are to be found all over Galicia but the As Catedrais are reputedly the most spectacular of all.

After checking in to A Gaivota we crossed the road to check out the adjacent beaches. There are two, the Praia Benquerencia to the left (as you look out to sea) and the Praia de Fontela to the right. Both are magnificent. Not sure if the sea will be warm enough for us but the dogs…

The next day we walked the dogs eastwards past the Praia de Fontela, along an excellent paved coastal path, seeking a beach where the dogs would be allowed to swim. Sod’s law, Vanya turned back with the dogs just a couple of hundred yards before I stumbled across an excellent beach where dogs are permitted (i.e. at the very eastern end of the Praia de Longara, just before the Punta Corveira).

I carried on for quite a way beyond the Punta Corveira, passing across or behind variuos beaches (including Praia da Pasada, Praia de Arealonga, Praia de Reinante and Praia de Moledo) until I reached where the Playa de Las Catedrales would be except the tide was in and the beach and its attendent rock formations were totally underwater. Before you start laughing, I knew in advance that the tide would be in (that’s the power of Google) but I continued so as to determine whether or not Vanya would be able to cope with the walk (she could certainly manage the one way but not the return) and to ascertain if there is adequate parking for the Van in the event we were to drive there (no problem on that count). I’d put in a good day’s exercise by the time I got back to A Gaivota.

We were up early the next morning because we needed to get to As Catedrais for low tide. That meant packing up and getting across to one of the car parks I had checked out the day before by 08.00. We did it and were down on the beach by 08.15 (and that meant we could take the dogs with us too because there was no one around to say otherwise). I’ll let the photos do the talking…

Yes, we were both seriously impressed. We saw the most extraordinary natural rock formations – massive rock buttresses, stone arches at least 30 metres high and large sea caves which stretched deep into the cliffs. Most spectacular and well worth the visit – and free! Moreover, we were lucky enough to have had the place almost to ourselves.

Talking about luck… we discovered later that we should not have been there. We didn’t know at the time but, to stop overcrowding, visits in the summer months and at Easter must be booked online at least 30 days in advance, with tickets being checked on entry. As we walked up back to the Van we saw long queues of people at the entry point to the beach getting their tickets checked. It was just as well that we had arrived half an hour before the ticket collectors or we would have been denied entry. Sometimes, ignorance is bliss. Great result.

Cambados (Galicia), Spain August 2021

So, we are back in Cambados, in Galicia. We said we would return but neither of us expected it to be quite so soon.

It was a spur of the moment decision. We wanted somewhere back in Galicia, on the coast, where there is good overnight parking with easy access to a village or town centre and, in particular, a supermarket (so as to buy dog food). Cambados fits the bill perfectly. We parked in the aire on the small island just outside the town centre and, that done, set off for something to eat and drink. It was almost like coming home.

I’ll not repeat my description of the town. You can read about the town in the other blog I did on Cambados earlier in this year’s tour. Better still, if you want an expert view on the place, rather than just my initial thoughts, you can google it.

Back in Spain our first thoughts were to enjoy a a few glasses of Estrella Galicia and, of course, some Albarino wine. We did just that. I cannot remember all the bars we stopped in but I recall switching from beer to wine somewhere on the Rua Hospital (or just along from there) and then we paused for something to eat and a really nice (albeit expensive) bottle of Albarino on the Plaza de Fefinans. We finished our evening at the Maria Jose restaurant on the corner of Rua Principe and the Calle de San Gregario. I remember this because it was the first place we stopped at during our first visit to Cambados. We enjoyed two different Albarino’s here but it was the piped music in the Maria Jose that I best recall. It was excellent – the Rolling Stones, the Who, the Kinks and even Leonard Cohen. And I remember the food! The food was unusual but surprisingly tasty. Would you believe I ate langoustine, prawns and mussels all wrapped in the largest lump of cream cheese and then deep fried in a thin crispy batter and served with strawberry jam? Don’t knock it until you’ve had it. It was great!

I don’t remember much of the walk back to the Van but it was late. I do remember getting up early and wandering off in the half light to find a baker because we were after an early start. The less said about that the better but we did make it away by 8am – that’s a record.

Arcade & Vigo (Galicia), Spain August 2021

For a while now I’ve wanted to try Vigo oysters. A Spanish chef I saw on tv claimed they are the best in the world so; I have long wanted to compare them with my favourite Cancale oysters. The waiter whom we met a few days ago and who seemed to know this part of Galicia well (despite originally having come from the Angel, Islington) suggested the Arcade oysters are as good, if not better, than the Vigo ones and so it was that we headed towards Arcade (which is pronounced ar-kah-day).

The weather in Galicia was set to deteriorate within 24 hours and it suited us to continue south through Arcade and Vigo towards the warmer weather. So, we drove through Sanxenxo and then on down the coast road with a view to having lunch in Arcade and dinner in Vigo. Another person we met on our travels had provided us with the address of an aire in the centre of Vigo which would suit our needs.

Arcade is a relatively small fishing town (about 5,000 inhabitants) on one of the less well known pilgrimage routes to Santiago (the Portugal Way) and as such the place has not yet been badly affected by tourism. It is not a pretty town but it has a genuine feel about it and the people seem very welcoming. There is a basic but large parking area down by the harbour and nearby are a number of pleasant looking cafe-restaurants all of which were open and advertising oysters as we arrived. We had a brief wander around the town (to exercise the dogs as much as anything) before returning to the cafe-restaurants for a light lunch.

And so to oysters, otherwise known as the truffle of the sea. Although I hadn’t heard of the place before, Arcade is famous for it’s oysters, so much so there is a world famous oyster festival here on the first April weekend of every year. What sets these apart from so many others in the region is, I am told, the confluence of freshwater coming from the Verdugo River and salt water coming from the Ria de Vigo. These water conditions are, it seems, “perfect for farming the particularly succulent, soft tasting mollusc that is the Arcade oyster”. The Arcade is small, no more than 5 or 6 centimetres, with a shell which is almost circular in shape (although nowhere near as rounded as the Cancale oyster). They were served raw with lemon on the side and went superbly well with my Albarino wine. I’d most certainly have them again (and again and again and again) but, for my part, they don’t have as much body and taste as the Cancale.

And Vigo? Well, shortly after settling in to our aire in Vigo (and that was a saga in itself but for another time) it started to rain. Not to be deterred (that’s not true; it was so wet and miserable outside of the Van that I and the dogs would have been happy to stay put but, Vanya insisted) we set off into Vigo for some oysters. Forget it. It was a wet, dismal Sunday night and; while there were a surprising number of people out and about, all prepared to sit and eat under dripping umbrellas, only a few restaurants had opened (and none of those did oysters – we were in the wrong part of the city). No matter, we did what was necessary (burgers washed down with the ubiquitous Albarino) and we made a good fist of it. After all, we are for somewhere else tomorrow – Portugal!!

Punta Faxilda (Galicia), Spain July 2021

From Cambados we moved just 12 miles further south to Camping Monte Cabo, a small campsite on the Punta Faxilda . It is best described as a back to nature type of campsite at the end of a rocky promontory looking out over the Atlantic. Vanya chose it because other visitors had reported seeing dolphins from where they were parked on the site and for that reason she somehow persuaded the Dutch owner to move us to a cracking pitch overlooking the sea. If Vanya wasn’t going to see dolphins while at Monte Cabo, it would not be for want of trying.

The campsite occupies a secluded and beautiful spot just yards from the end of the headland and it was a real pleasure taking the dogs out there some two or three times a day.

I’m not sure if we stayed two or three nights at Monte Cabo (I’m six days or so behind with this blog and losing all track of time now) but, does it matter (?), we weren’t going anywhere until Vanya saw her dolphins and; anyway, it gave us the opportunity to sample some of the excellent food in the campsite bar and restaurant. Ordinarily I’m not a great fan of croquettes but I particularly liked their homemade octopus croquettes.

The track to our campsite from the main coastal road was sufficiently long for us not to be bothered by any noise from the road but short enough for me to walk so as to explore the bays either side of our headland. The road in both directions is full of bars, restaurants and small hotels. There’s no getting away from the fact this is a tourist area.

I walked first to the Nosa Senora de A Lanzada, which is the headland on the other side of the Poza dos Barcos (the bay to the west of our headland). The Chapel of A Lanzada sits at the end of the headland. During the last weekend of every August, the festivity of the Virgin of A Lanzada is celebrated here and “women who wish to end their fertility descend into the sea from here to be bathed by nine waves”. This Celtic rite was presumably adopted by the Christian Church because it worked. In Celtic numerological symbolism, the number nine is sacred and symbolises the nine months of pregnancy. So now you know.

Having completed the walk to and from the chapel I immediately set off in the other direction to view the bay to the east of our headland. This is a much more commercial area which leads on into Portonovo and then Sanxenxo.

Anyway, I’m going to finish this particular entry with just a few more rather random photos…

I nearly forgot to say. We were sitting having a late dinner on the terrace of the campsite bar and some dolphins came by. Vanya was made up!

Cambados (Galicia), Spain July 2021

From Santiago we set off towards Sanxenxo which was recommended as a place to visit by a friendly and very informative waiter at Camping A Vouga. He also recommended Cambados and Arcade and upon learning that Cambados is a small fishing town on the coast road to Sanxenxo, we decided to visit.

Parking is easy in Cambados. There’s dedicated campervan parking on a small island down by the beach very close to the old town (N42.512135 W8.818061) and in no time we were parked up and strolling along the Rua Real to the town’s imposing stone square, the Plaza de Fefinans, which is the centre of Cambados.

I didn’t find out until after we left but Cambados is famous for its oysters. It is also considered the capital of Albarino wines and was declared European Wine Capital in 2017. Moreover, we had arrived in the town just as the annual Festa do Albarino was beginning. What a wally I am for not having undertaken even the most rudimentary research into Cambados before visiting. Had I known these facts beforehand I could well have agreed with Vanya that we reconsider our movements. She had proposed staying on (or at least returning in three days time) after learning that a three day music festival was scheduled to commence that very day in the Plaza de Fefinans. To be fair to me, there was no guarantee that we would be able to secure tickets for the final day and in any event heavy rain was forecast for then. Oh well!

We had a good mooch around the town, taking in the Plaza de Fefinans and the 16th century San Bieto Church and then; found a bar so as to sit and enjoy a glass of Albarino (and accompanying tapas) before continuing our journey down the coast.

By the way, a large glass of Albarino white wine and accompanying tapas cost little more than 1.50 pounds!

Santiago di Compostela (Galicia), Spain July 2021

We very reluctantly left that almost perfect campsite on San Francisco Bay (Camping A Vouga) but with the new Brexit rules limiting the amount of time we can spend in the EU to just 90 days in every 180, it is time to move on.

Our first port of call was Santiago de Compostela. Despite the criticisms I voiced in my last post (Finisterre), I am seriously thinking of doing a Camino next year (I might even create a new route of my own – LoL) and thought it appropriate to check out the finish point of Santiago di Compostela or; should I go on to Cabo Tourinan, near Muxia, which is Spain’s real westernmost point (not Finisterre).

We drove into the outskirts of Santiago and parked up near an Abu Dhabi size shopping mall with a huge Carrefour. I figured that Carrefour would keep Vanya occupied for the time it would take me to walk the six or seven mile round trip to and from the Prazo do Obradoiro where the Cathedral sits (and where the relics of Saint James are supposedly interred). As it happens, I was back at the Van before Vanya had finished in Carrefour.

It was an easy walk to and then through part of the old town to the Prazo do Obradoira and the Cathedral. You simply follow Camino shells until you can no longer see any shells because of the thickening crowds and then; you follow the crowds (especially the scruffier, smellier elements of the crowd) until you can see a cathedral spire or two. Then, there you are, standing on what must be the most wonderful square in the world to those pilgrims or walkers who have just completed a proper Camino. Honestly, the excitement of some of the pilgrims as they approached the cathedral was almost palpable; it was both emotional and uplifting even to an old cynic like me. Well done them!!!

My particular route on to the Prazo do Obradoira took me through a small arch where I was thrilled to hear a busker playing foliada (traditional Galician music which is almost Celtic in style). Just goes to show, you can take the lad out of Scotland but you cannot take Scotland out of the lad.

I had time to explore more of Santiago and when I next pass through here I certainly will but; on this occasion (after taking the obligatory photos), I was content to do nothing but sit and observe. Honestly, it was wonderful. Seeing the different ways that individuals and groups of people were expressing their total joy at having finally completed their Camino was well… sublime. “People Watching” at it’s absolute best.

Okay, so I made time to take a few more photos. Time to move on. We hope to get at least as far as Cambados today.