Blaye (Aquitaine), France August 2021

If Blaye is worth visiting it is for it’s amazingly well preserved citadel and the municipal campsite inside the Citadel. Great find Vanya!

The Citadelle de Blaye is the largest of three fortifications (the Citadel itself, Fort Pate on an island and Fort Medoc on the far bank) protecting the Gironde Estuary and the city of Bordeaux. It was designed by Vauban and built on the site of an already established castle (the Chateau des Rudel ) during the period 1685 and 1689 at the behest of Louis XIV. It has two entrances the Porte Dauphine to the south and the Porte Royale to the east. We drove into the campsite via Porte Royale.

With it being lunchtime and a municipal site we were unable to check in until after 4pm (Vive la France) so; we went for a good wander around the citadel. As mentioned before, the citadel is in excellent condition. The only exception is the 12th century ruin, Chateau des Rudel, which featured in Vauban’s original design and was used as the governor’s residence to start with. It had it’s towers removed much later (in the early 19th century when it was thought they would interfere with artillery fields of fire) and then fell into ruin.

The Duchess of Berry was incarcerated in the citadel for a while. I need to be more precise; Maria Carolina, Duchess of Berry (born in 1798) was held prisoner here; not Louise Elisabeth, Duchess of Berry (born in 1695). Louise Elisabeth’s story is a real tragedy and perhaps of greater interest but for all the wrong reasons. Maria Carolina’s story is of more historical interest. Maria Carolina gave birth to a son, Henri, very shortly after her husband (the fourth son of the then king of France) was assassinated in 1820. Various other deaths followed and Henri should have become King Henri V after Maria Carolina’s’s father (King Charles X of France) was forced to abdicate but; Louis Philippe allowed himself to be crowned king of France instead. The Duchess considered Louis Philippe a usurper and claimed her son was the legitimate heir to the throne. It didn’t happen – she was exiled by Louis Philippe. She returned to France in 1832 to organise a rebellion but was discovered and imprisoned in the Citadel of Blaye. Whilst there she gave birth to another son (fathered by an Italian Count Lucchesi-Palli whom she had secretly married) and her credibility with the “legitimists” was thus destroyed. She was labelled a fallen woman and removed to Sicily, no longer being considered a threat to Louis Philippe.

Moving on, that evening, we found ourselves a table at one of the restaurants inside the Citadel. We believe it was the old officer’s mess where we actually ate and it was quite surreal sitting eating a good galette and drinking wine in a room where more than 200 years before there would have been Napoleonic soldiers standing at the fireplace doing exactly the same. The galette wasn’t the best we have ever had but the wine, Le Bastion (made using the Citadel’s own grapes) was fine.

I took the dogs for another brief walk around the fortress before retiring for the night (as much to take some more photos as anything). What an unusual place!

And the town of Blaye? Not really worth the time I spent walking round. It is very plain and very tired…

Ascain (Aquitaine), France August 2021

Ascain is a very pretty small town (or is it a large village?) besides the River Nivelle on the French side of the Pyrenees. It sits under the 905m Pyrenean summit of Rhune, just a few kilometres from the Atlantic coast, in the former Basque Region of Labourd, now referred to as the Pyrenees Atlantique Department of Nouveau Aquitaine. I prefer Labourd.

If you are so inclined, there’s an easy walk up to the summit of the Rhune or there is a 35 minute train ride up. I’m told that at the top you can sit outside a cafe and take in splendid views over Bayonne and Hendaye. Anyone who knows me will also know that I wasn’t going to waste my time with such a trip. I don’t care how good the views are; I cannot stand trains and cafes on hills. It is probably the one thing I hate more than bloody wind farms.

No, I spent the afternoon at something approaching sea level exploring the wonderfully picturesque ‘village’ and checking if my newly acquired Covid Sanitaire QR Code Pass would be accepted in the local bars. Dealing with those points in reverse order, two bars were quite happy to serve me alcohol after checking my pass. As for the village, it is lovely. Almost all of the houses are typical low roofed, half timbered properties with stone lintels and almost all are painted in the Basque colours of white, red and green. They are very proud of their Basque heritage here.

In villages such as this the main square is more often than not dominated by the local church but in Ascain the honours are shared between the church and a Basque Pelota Court. More about Pelota later. The Church of our Lady of Assumption doesn’t look particularly impressive from the outside but inside it is a wholly different matter and the place has some history. Parts of it date back to the Middle ages (and in 1609 the local priest was degraded and burned as a sorcerer by order of the infamous Pierre Lancre who despised anything Basque) but, the church received significant makeovers during the 16th and 17th centuries and was inaugurated in 1626 by no less a personage than Louis XIII. Leaving all that aside, I like to see wooden galleries in a church (they are quite common in this part of the world) and this particular church has three levels of galleries. It is beautiful inside.

Another place I visited in between testing my Covid Sanitaire Pass was the Roman Bridge. It’s not really a Roman bridge although there may well have been one on this site back in Roman times. No, the so called Roman Bridge was erected in the 15th century in the Roman style and then totally rebuilt (in the same Roman style) in the 1990’s after being destroyed by a flood. I think the bridge needs renaming.

What really excited me about this bridge (the 15th century one) is that it was of strategic importance during the French retreat from Spain during the Peninsula War. I’ve long been interested in Napoleonic history and the Battle of Nivelle took place here on 10 November 1813 with the Duke of Wellington decisively beating Marshall Soult. Ascain was, at the start of the battle, the centre of the French defensive line and Taupin’s Division held the village until the British Light Division routed them. You wouldn’t believe it to look at the place now. It is so quiet and peaceful.

Covid Sanitaire Pass working and with me having gained a good lay of the land, it was time to collect Vanya and the dogs and find somewhere to eat.

We timed our arrival back into the town centre perfectly. Indeed, we arrived as the village youth started dancing to traditional basque music in the town square. There was a real carnival atmosphere about the place which continued on into the next day with the annual Pelota Tournament also taking place on the town square.

For the uninitiated (and I had to look this up) Basque Pelota involves players hitting a heavy tennis sized ball against a wall, the frontis, with an open hand (although I understand the game can also be played over a net using different types of rackets) such that his opponent is unable to return the ball. It is the forefather of most racket sports and is played fast and hard. Some aspects of the game are like squash but Basque Pelota is played on a court which is 30 metres long and 10 metres wide and with the winner being the first player or team to score 22 points. I watched the final of the seniors doubles (they were playing first to 30 points) and it looked to be great fun but physically demanding.

So what else is there to say about Ascain. We love the place. So too did Winston Churchill who came here to paint.

Sad thing is, early the next day we learned one of our best mates has died. RIP Dave. Missed but never forgotten. 27 August 2021

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.

Garfe, Portugal August 2021

Continued north today passing up through Guimaraes and Sao Torcato to a small (and very friendly) family owned campsite in the tiny village of Garfe for a couple of day’s relaxation. We didn’t drive far but the landscape has totally changed to one of rolling wooded hillsides.

On our way to Garfe we paused in the village of Sao Torcato so that I could view the Basilica. We couls see the Basilica from quite a way off with it’s two tall, slender granite towers. They started building this church in the 800’s but didn’t finish it until well into the 1900’s with the sanctuary not being consecrated until 2015 and with the church being elevated to the rank of minor basilica by Pope Francis in 2019. Saint Torcato was born into a noble Roman family who grew to become Archbishop of Braga and then Oporto and Dume. Early in the 8th century he was killed by General Muca who had been sent to conquer the Iberian Peninsula and convert the Christians to Islam. Torcato became the first Saint on the Iberian Peninsula and his body is now housed in a glass chamber in the church sanctuary. Inside the church they were preparing for a christening as I arrived and I couldn’t help but be impressed by the craziest fountain with running hot and cold water feeding into the baptismal font.

There was little for us to do in Garfe, just the one cafe bar and the smallest shop and so we all simply chilled.

Back into Spain tomorrow

Costa Nova, Portugal August 2021

While Aveiro has no beach of it’s own, the town has two beaches nearby (Barra 9 kms away and Costa Nova 3 kms further on). Vanya wanted to visit Costa Nova to see the colourful beach hut houses which predominate there and this led to us staying overnight.

The village was formed in the 19th century as fishermen, wanting to be closer to their fishing grounds, first extended their brightly coloured wooden storage huts into temporary shelters and then into more permanent dwellings (so that their families could join them). Costa Nova still has a fishing industry but, judging by the crowds that were there when we visited, tourism has fast taken over with the colourful houses being the main attraction.

I was not sufficiently impressed by Costa Nova to recommend it as a place to visit (there’s little there other than a beach and the colourful houses) unless of course you do as we did and combine the stay with a visit to beautiful Aveiro. Having said that, the dogs loved the beach…