Zarautz (Basque Country), Spain September 2022

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

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

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

So ends Tour 6.

Zumaia (Basque Country), Spain September 2022

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

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

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

The cliffs are stunning
The flysch is everywhere

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

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

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

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

Supper in Camping Zumaia

Colindres (Cantabria), Spain September 2022

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

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

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

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

There is little to see in the town of Colindres…

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

Eauze (Occitaine), France September 2022

And so to Eauze and an altogether nicer part of France. Eauze is only a small town (4,000 people) but it is recognised as the capital of the Armagnac area. Moreover it is surrounded by a clutch of interesting villages, a number of which are included in the list of ‘Les Plus Beaux Villages de France’ and it has a reasonably priced Michelin Restaurant (La Vie en Rose). We knew immediately that Eauze was going to be good and so we booked into the municipal campsite for a few days with a view to using it as a base from which to explore both Eauze and various local villages (Montreal du Gers, Larressingle, Cassaigne). The campsite was quiet (it would close for winter the following week) but it has a pool, a pleasant and very popular restaurant (Restaurant au Moulin de Pouy) and is just a short walk from a large Leclerc supermarket and the town centre itself.

Initially named Elusa in Roman times, Eauze is a town of some considerable historical significance (especially during France’s Religious Wars). It was home to Henri III of Navarre (who was subsequently crowned Henri IV of France) and his wife Marguerite de Valois (who was sister to no less than three French Kings – Francis II, Charles IX and Henri III – and popularised by Alexandre Dumas in his historical novel ‘La Reine Margot’). I recall watching the 1994 film version of Dumas’ book which starred Isabelle Adjani in the title role.

Eauze may be small but around it’s main square (which, unusual in rural France, has a bar that stayed open until one o’clock in the morning) there is a decent sized medieval quarter of narrow streets simply teeming with character.

Also on the main square is a former cathedral, now a church, dedicated to Saint Luperc. Luperc (sometimes known as Luperculus) was a Bishop when the town was controlled by the Romans. He was martyred by the Romans during the reign of Emporer Trajan (3rd Century?). The original 15th/16th century church was destroyed by Cardinal Richelieu during the final days of France’s Religious Wars and the current building was built during the 18th century on the site of the older church. It is a tall but narrow Gothic building which, while not all that impressive from the outside, is quite distinctive on the inside. It is unusually light and airy and the apse contains a series of impressive paintings depicting the life of Jesus Christ and some beautiful long colourful stained glass windows.

One of the highlights of our visit to Eauze was a meal at La Vie en Rose, a Michelin listed restaurant which clearly deserves a star. It highlights local cuisine at very reasonable prices. A budget menu of the day was avalable but we went a la carte. I started with a really refreshing Salade de Saint Jacques a l’orange et aux avocats and followed it with the chef’s speciality, an earthy main of Papillotes de Saint Jacques au Foie Gras. The accompanying wine was a local Tariquet Amplitude recommended by the chef. I’m writing this blog some weeks after we left Eauze and, shame on me, I cannot remember Vanya’s main (she didn’t bother with a starter) but I recall her having a great looking dessert, a Marquise au Chocolat Creme Caramel, which she described as “simply divine”. I finished with a very good Armagnac but, in hindsight, I wish I too had taken a dessert. The ‘La Croustade’ looked fantastic.

We had our dogs with us when we visited La Vie En Rose and so ate outside.
Papillotes de Saint Jacques au Foie Gras. They were cooked and served in aluminium.

One other feature of Eauze which I found particularly impressive was the local street art (most of which seemed to have been created by the one artist).

Candas (Asturias), Spain September 2022

Until quite recently Candas was a major fishing village on the Asturian coast. Villagers were whale fishing here as long ago as the 13th century and the village was the first in Asturias to salt, pickle and can fish. Indeed, as recently as the mid 20th century, there were 24 canning factories in what from here on in I will call a town (because I’ve just read that the place has a population of 6,500+).

Fishing remains important, as is evidenced by the statues and murals across the town (they are nearly all concerned with fishing and the restaurants serve some of the best shellfish along the north coast of Spain) but, the fishing boats are largely gone from the town’s harbour and it is tourism where all the money now comes from.

We parked up at a good campsite on the edge of the town. It is only a short walk along the promenade to the town. It was a weekend and the small beach was full of visitors taking advantage of the warm weather and mild sea. Almost everyone we met was Spanish and we rarely heard anything other than Spanish spoken throughout what became a 4-5 day stay.

Candas from the campsite.

My first walk into town took me along the promenade, the beach, the harbour and up on to Cape San Antonio to the Candas Lighthouse and then; down into the town for a beer or two. I identified a couple of decent looking restaurants by the harbour and thought to return in the evening with Vanya and the dogs. My first impressions of the town were not that positive; I think they were clouded by the high number of holidaymakers I had seen on the beach and around the harbour area. As it happened, I needn’t have been concerned. The people we met later in the restaurant were engaging and great fun and, besides, all the holidaymakers (other than us) seemed to disappear once the weekend was over.

As I returned to the Van after that first foray into Candas I couldn’t help but notice some of the town’s statues and murals and their association with the sea. The most impressive is perhaps one of the smallest which I found down on the Plaza El Cueto. It was created by a local sculptor known as Anton (real name Antonio Rodriguez Garcia) and it is called La Marinera. It was inspired by the suffering of mothers who lost sons to the sea.

To summarise the following few days in Candas – fantastic.

At heart this is still a local fishing village with warm and friendly people, some of whom went out of their way to make us welcome. That first night in the restaurant, one of the diners at a table alongside us offered me a glass of his sidra (the local cider) and proceeded to pour it from on high, as would an Escanciar (see last year’s Oviedo blog). Before you knew it, other diners were pouring from much higher heights than was the case earlier. Of course, our waiter simply had to show the amateurs how it should be done. I too had a go but the less said about that the better. It will suffice to say that Nala who invariably lays at my feet while we are in a restaurant was somewhat splashed and moved away.

The welcome we received in other bars and restaurants was equally friendly. My favourite ‘local’ however has to be El Barcon. It doesn’t do food. It simply serves drinks and the occasional free tapas / pintxos / pinchos. You couldn’t find more welcoming hosts – Spanish hospitality at it’s best.

I must mention the seafood. The shellfish we tried in a couple of the restaurants were outstanding. The scallops were good, the langoustines were excellent and the mussels in the vinaigrette were the best. Oh, and Vanya adores the local anchovies.

I’ll not say anymore about Candas. A few photos will suffice.

Crnice (Vipava Valley), Slovenia August 2022

The drive to Crnice took us no time and we passed two favourite places of mine on the way – Lake Bled and Postojna.

We had booked into the Camp David site in Crnice for two nights because in July and August it is very difficult to find accommodation almost anywhere in Slovenia (or Croatia or Italy for that matter – it is the holiday season) and the prices are ludicrously high. This inland site was to serve as a base until the weekend when we would move into a hotel in Padua in Italy for a couple of days.

A local I met at Camp David told me about an old iron age fort up on the hills behind Crnice and I thought to take a look. It took about 40 minutes for me to find the place. There is nothing left of the fort which used to stand on this hill, now known as St Paul’s Hill after the small chapel which was erected there in 1946, but it is a pretty spot with some fine views down into the Vipava Valley. Also, on the way up to the old settlement there are the remains of an old Roman (5th century) water tower. I carried on from St Paul’s Hill up to the top of Zasod Hill but it really wasn’t worth the extra effort. I’ve not been able to discover much about the old settlement although it seems that people were living here 2,000 years ago and in the 5th century the population of Ajdovscina (then the second largest town in the valley) withdrew to the hill for safety after the Huns attacked their town.

It was a day “of some small energy expenditure” and I was ready for the wine tasting we had committed to at Camp David that evening. Over a period of 1.5 hours we sampled and reviewed 6 local wines, including two which are peculiar to the Vipava Valley (the Zelen and the Pinela) but, while all were surprisingly good, the best of the day for me was a Barbera Merlot cuvee which was outstanding. It seems the Vipava Valley has a number of unique premium wines but, with the vineyards all being so small they can produce only a limited yield and so are relatively expensive.

The weather during our second day in Crnice was even hotter than the first, getting as high as 37 degrees centigrade. It would have been cruel to take the dogs out in that sun. Leaving Vanya with the dogs in the Van with the air conditioning on (so pleased we bought that before leaving the UK) I went off in the direction of the Vipava River to see if I could find a swimming spot for the dogs later in the day. I found a good spot on the river but it was simply too far away for the dogs to walk even late at night. At nine o’clock in the evening it is still up in the high twenties.

La Garrofa (Andalucia), Spain February 2022

How we stumbled on La Garrofa, I do not know. On our journey south we had arranged to visit some old family friends (John & Ann) who have lived in Fuengirola (Mijas) for many years (We last saw them some time in the 1980’s) and we were looking to overnight somewhere that would be within easy reach of Mijas. We found La Garrofa.

The write ups on La Garrofa are not all that good but, ignore them. It is one of the oldest campsites in Spain, having opened in 1957 and so, yes, some aspects of the place are a little dated and; it is small and; it is in the middle of nowhere but; it has all the amenities you could want (including a bar and restaurant – and the food is not bad) and it has it’s own pebble beach. We were parked so close to the water’s edge that there was no escaping the sound of the waves. It was perfect for an overnight stay.

There’s not much else to say except that the owner and the bar/restaurant staff were very friendly towards us. I’ll let the pictures do the talking…

Not bad at all!

Vannes (Bretagne), France September 2021

What a place! A sizeable town of 52,000 people, near the Gulf of Morbihan on the southern coast of Brittany, Vannes is one of the most charming towns we have visited during this tour. We only had the one day in Vannes and it would take considerably more than a single day to do this town justice but, we’ll be back.

We parked up close to the town centre and walked northwards down the long ‘finger like’ harbour (plenty of boats moored along both sides) towards the old town.

We passed into the mostly walled off, pedestrianised old town through the 16th century baroque gate of Porte St Vincent (which is named after the Spanish Dominican friar, Vincent Ferrer, who died here in 1419 and subsequently became Vannes’ patron saint) and entered a wholly enchanting world of cobbled streets and pastel coloured half timbered 16th century buildings

I read that there are no less than 170 listed half timbered buildings in the old town centre and although the ground floors of many have been converted into modern shops, boutiques and cafe bars it was easy to imagine we had been transported back into the 16th century.

The Porte Saint Vincent gate took us directly on to the Rue St Vincent which in turn brought us to the Place des Lices. There used to be jousting tournaments on the Place des Lices but, that was a long time ago and as we arrived, a street market was in full swing.

It was a most complete market with the widest range of goods and produce, full of colour and wonderful aromas not just from the many local fruit & vegetable stalls but from traders selling spices, flowers and various differently scented handmade soaps. The market stretched across numerous streets and seemed to have almost everything. There were carpets & furniture, craft ornaments and jewellery and food & drink stalls. There’s also a fish market on the Place de la Poissonnerie.

Of course the street market is surrounded by plenty of cafes and bars and it wasn’t long before we were seated at a table outside of one of them while I tucked into some really delicious local oysters and a glass of muscadet. It was almost noon and it was either that or we would have to visit one of the many Michelin Star restaurants in the town. Next time?

There is so much to see in Vannes. We could have carried on to the Jardin des Remparts with it’s geometric lawns and flowerbeds and topiaries and it’s views of the Garenne Bastion and three towers but Vanya was looking for something to eat (she doesn’t do oysters) and so we turned back to the harbour where she had seen a menu she liked.

On the way we paused at the granite Cathedrale St Pierre. This cathedral took some 700 years to complete and is a real mix of styles (romanesque, gothic, Italian renaissance, etc) with the oldest original feature being the 13th century bell tower. I went inside the cathedral but a service was underway and while that was on I was never going to feel comfortable looking for the tomb of St Vincent which is housed in in one of the Cathedral Chapels. Anyway, there was a pretty good harpist busking outside the cathedral and Vanya wouldn’t mind me listening to just one song.

From the cathedral we left the old town via it’s north west corner; walking past the impressive Hotel de Ville (Town Hall) on our way to the harbour for Vanya’s brunch and for me to finish my lunch. Vanya’s chosen restaurant was right on the harbour – a great place to eat, drink, people watch and admire some of the boats in the harbour. A couple of the boats have some stories to tell too.

Except for the harbour we didn’t really get to see much outside of the town walls; which is a pity because heading south from the harbour (just beyond where we had parked the Van) is the large Parc du Golfe where there’s the Jardin aux Papillons (a glass dome housing hundreds of butterflies) and an aquarium with a huge collection, more than 50 tanks, of mostly tropical fish. Again, maybe next time.

Conleau (Bretagne), France August 2021

We parked up at Flower Camping Conleau just outside of Vannes for a couple of days. Flower is not a bad campsite chain and staying in Conleau allowed us to both take advantage of the Region’s good weather and visit Vannes.

Conleau on the Gulf of Morbihan (Gulfe du Morbihan) is one of Europe’s, if not the world’s, most beautiful bays. ‘Mor bihan’ is Breton for ‘little sea’. It is separated from the Atlantic Ocean by a one kilometre wide bottleneck and yet covers an area of about 100 square kilometres (between Vannes and Auray to the north and Arzon and Sarzeau to the south). In different circumstances we would have stayed longer and taken a boat trip around the forty or so islands and islets which fill the bay. The Gulf is a listed Regional Nature Park and the whole area is beautiful.

After checking out the small peninsula next to the campsite for a suitable bar or restaurant for the evening (easy – there are only two and one had shut down because of Covid), I paused to watch a game of Palet Breton that four local guys were playing. The game is played with contestants taking turns to throw cast iron palets (discs), from a distance of 5 metres, at a maitre or jack which sits on a poplar board (measuring 70 cms x 70 cms). The individual or team getting closest to the maitre wins the round and receives one point for every palet which is closer to the maitre than their opponent(s). First to 12 points wins the match. This is not an easy game to play but these guys were seriously good, hardly ever missing the board. Could be a great lockdown game.

Having been suitably impressed by the Palet Breton players I decided to work up a thirst with a long walk. The area is full of walks and the one I chose took me through some beautiful marshland along the banks of the River Vincin almost all the way into Vannes (and back). This is an area of incredible natural beauty full of assorted plant and animal life, especially birds.

That evening we enjoyed a couple of drinks at the restaurant I found earlier in the day but we didn’t eat there – they had run out of oysters! No matter, we drank and reserved a table for the next evening, leaving specific instructions with the “Maitre D” to keep some of the local oysters back for me.

I take Van in the Van to Vannes tomorrow…

Riano (Castile y Leon), Spain July 2021

The journey south through the Picos de Europa was full of beautiful views (mountains, gorges, rivers & forests) all wasted on Vanya. She really cannot cope with hairpin mountain roads and even the entrance to our campsite included a steep winding ascent (although nothing like the ascent at Lekeitio).

However, upon arrival and seeing the views from our spot in the camp site she began to change her mind about mountain views. The view down over Riano with the reservoir and mountain range behind it is as picturesque as anything we have seen. We immediately decided to stay at least two nights.

The next morning, after I had walked the dogs up the hill behind where we were parked, Vanya and I strolled down to the town for a look see.

Built as recently as the 1980’s, Riano (or New Riano to use it’s proper name) is one of the the youngest towns in Castile y Leon. The old Riano was demolished when a number of rivers in the area were dammed. New Riano is a well laid out little town of some 450 people and is now almost entirely given over to tourism. A pretty pedestrian area and market place has been built around the new church and it is filled with interesting features reflecting different aspects of life in the mountains and, of course, the local wildlife (which includes brown bears and wolves). These features presented Vanya with plenty of photo opportunities for Beanie.

The evening we spent eating tapas and drinking Asturian Cider in the friendly camp site restaurant and bar while planning what to do and where to go the next day. We had already decided to go on a boat trip around the reservoir but that was as far as we got. The fact is, I was enjoying the apple cider and Vanya was enjoying the local wine.

The following morning we were up (relatively) bright and early for the boat trip. This one hour trip provided some fine photo opportunities but otherwise was a bit of a disappointment.

Of more interest was our subsequent walk along the side of the reservoir. We were keen to take a last look at the town (especially the Iglesia de Nuestra Senora del Rosario) and as we made our way along the reservoir path we came across a number of photo boards with some information and pictures about old Riano – very sobering…

…It is a tragic story. A plan was made during the 1960’s to dam three rivers in the area (the Esla, the Yuso and the Retuerto) so as to create a large reservoir for both irrigation purposes and to generate hydro electric power. The decision would ultimately impact on the population of seven villages (Anciles, Escaro, Huelde, La Puerta, Pedrosa la Rey, Riano and Salio) and various historical structures including the old Roman Bridge of Valdearana and the hermitage of (La Ermita de) San Bartolo. Over the ensuing years the local population showed intense resistance to the plan (which included the suicide of Simon Pardo) but to no avail. By 1987 all seven villages were demolished and the total population forcibly removed. The largest of the villages, Riano, is now several metres under the new bridge across the reservoir.

Only one building in old Riano was saved. The 16th century Iglesia de Nuestra Senora del Rosario was moved brick by brick to a new site by the bridge in New Riano. Not everything in the church could be saved but an 8th century baptismal font was moved as were some murals from inside the church.

Time for one last look at that great view…