Grovelas (Norte), Portugal June 2024 (Tour 9)

This particular post is very much about the four star Hotel Cotto do Gatto at Grovelas in Ponte da Barca. We used it as an escape from the Van for a couple of days after crossing the border into Norte in north Portugal. That’s normal practise for us. Every 3 weeks or so during a tour, Vanya looks for a special kind of hotel which we can use as a base to explore the surrounding area from but, more important, a place where we can properly chill for two or three days (and colour her hair).

We have visited some wonderful hotels over the last few years and Hotel Cotto do Gatto ranks amongst the best. It totally exceeded our expectations. The owners and staff could not have been more welcoming and attentive to our needs and; our dogs, Nala and Beanie, were pampered beyond measure. This hotel has raised the bar so far as ‘pet friendly’ is concerned.

The hotel is set on a hill in spacious grounds and it is surrounded by spectacular scenery. There are numerous terraces and every bedroom has a sizeable balcony from which the views can be admired and; a nice touch this, all of the balconies face west such that the setting sun can be enjoyed from each bedroom. It really was quite something sitting on our balcony that first afternoon just taking in the views and, on the hour, listening to myriad church bells ringing out their tunes from every direction in the surrounding valley.

I didn’t have time to take many photos of the surrounding area because shortly after our arrival the mother of all electrical storms struck but, more about that later. I did manage some photos from the hotel gardens before and after the storms…

The hotel is relatively new having opened in June 2022. It’s a nice size with just 24 bedrooms and 4 suites and is tastefully furnished throughout (modern and stylish perhaps best describes the place) with all the facilities you need. What they don’t have they will get, as is evidenced by their arranging for a masseuse to visit the hotel after Vanya mentioned that I could do with one. He was bloody good too.

I think there are plans to add a spa area but, for the moment, the outdoor pools suffice. I think this is the first hotel we have ever stayed at where we have been allowed to let the dogs run free around a pool area. There were even pet beds and sun loungers for the dogs to use.

After a little wander around the hotel (with the dogs accompanying us), Vanya went for a lie down in our room while I repaired to the lounge/bar for a beer and to try and catch up with my blog. I did that a few times over the next two days, trying no less than 3 different bottled beers on the way (and failing to complete a single post). My two favourites beers were the Sagres and a Lagunitas (which was originally a Californian craft beer but was sold to Heineken a few years ago) with the Sagres just shading it.

Whichever beer I was served, it came with Portugal’s favourite pastry, a ‘Pastel de Nata’. That’s an egg custard tart to you and me but that description does not do them justice. They are truly scrumptious and, together with a handful of smarties, go perfectly with a cold beer. I’ve had a few of these pastries in Spain but they don’t compare. In 2009 the Guardian newspaper listed the Portuguese Pastel de Nata’s amongst the 50 best things to eat (and there’s me, after at least four previous visits to Portugal, never having eaten one before). Shameful.

Talking of food, the hotel has a really good restaurant, the Sant’Ana. We didn’t actually get to eat in the restaurant because the heavy thunderstorms prevented us getting across to the restaurant building but; we chose from the menu (same as normal) and the excellent and very well priced food was then delivered to us at a made up table in the lounge bar, complete with the appropriate local wines. I was tempted to try the restaurant’s speciality dish, ‘Naco a Terras da Nobrega’ (that’s grilled veal with a chestnut puree, sautees green vegetables with nuts & red fruits and a reduction of the local Vinho Verde wine) but; I simply couldn’t have eaten it on my own. It is huge! It could feed three people at least. Instead, I went for a fillet steak because they were selling that dish in half portions but; even then, I couldn’t quite finish it. It too was humongous! Vanya went for a fish dish which she said was delicious but, she too was served enough to feed two people. There were at least three large fish fillets on her plate with chips, a fresh local salad and a large bowl of rice. Mind you, the hotel served her a lovely local wine – a Papa Figos Vinho Branco 2022 by Cassa Ferreirinha. I helped her with that.

We visited Lebanon a few years ago (Beirut and Byblos) and I recall being mightily impressed by how much the Lebanese people love their food (and partying, of course) and I was overwhelmed by the amount of food I was served throughout our all too short stay. I tell you now, when it comes to food I think the Lebanese may have some competition from the Portuguese.

And breakfast? Breakfast was served in the Breakfast Room down on the ground floor. We were offered a hot breakfast and Vanya opted for freshly cooked bacon and eggs but I went for the cold buffet. The range of food on offer was fabulous. I don’t think I have ever eaten so much cheese and fruit in one sitting. Oh, and a couple of Pastel de Nata’s to finish breakfast off.

We really enjoyed our stay at the Hotel Cotto do Gatto and we will definitely return in the Autumn. Everyone in the hotel went out of their way to make us feel so welcome. In these circumstances it seems inappropriate to single anyone out for particular mention but, I’m going to thank Filipa by name. She kept me well supplied with the Pastel de Nata. Thank you Filipa. Thank you Hotel Cotto do Gatto.

I mentioned previously that we used Grovelas as a base from which we could visit a couple of other places. Whilst there we drove out to Ponte de Lima (which is the oldest chartered town in Portugal and one of the prettiest) and Braga (the country’s third largest city and often referred to as ‘Portuguese Rome’ on account of it’s many ecclesiastical buildings). Both are well worth visiting and they feature as separate entries on this website.

The weather was very kind to us during both these visits which is little short of a miracle given the electrical storms experienced in the area during our stay. Take a look at the ‘screen save’ from Vanya’s Lightning Tracker which identifies the thunder and lightning activity around the hotel on the day of our arrival. The blue dot shows where the Van was parked in the hotel grounds…

I was going to end this particular post talking about Vanya’s navigation skills and how what should have been two relatively short drives from our hotel to first Pont de Lima and then Braga became 50 mile excursions up, over and around some of the hills surrounding Cotto do Gatto (in sometimes horrendous weather conditions) but; instead, I’ll show you a photo of a local cow.

Thank you once again Hotel Cotto do Gatto. Vejo voce em breve!

Monteux (Provence), France September 2023 (Tour 8)

Vanya had booked us into the Hotel Le Blason de Provence for a couple of nights. How she found this place, I do not know but; it is a delightful boutique hotel just outside of Monteux on the road to Carpentras and it proved the perfect place to chill out after a little over 3 weeks on the road.

I’ll write about Monteux later. Let me start by introducing you to the Hotel Le Blason de Provence. In their website the owners describe the hotel as “a typical Provencal building from the 1930’s”. That may be true from an architectural perspective but otherwise, no; there’s nothing typical about this hotel. Vanya and I are agreed; they have transformed the hotel into something wholly charming inside and out.

It’s a member of the Logis Hotels Group(e). From what I can tell, the Logis Group is a ‘confederation’ (my word, not theirs) of independent hotel and restaurant owners across Europe who are concerned to offer “a warm and personalised welcome, quality accommodation and home-made meals based on local and seasonal produce”. The hotels are generally small (20 bedrooms on average) and, more often than not, are to be found in the countryside.

Le Blason de Provence conforms in all respects with the above. The reception we received upon our arrival and throughout our stay from the two proprietors and their staff was warm, friendly and attentive.

The hotel itself has a tiny reception area and just 18 bedrooms but, so far as we could tell, each room is well furnished, tastefully decorated and spotlessly clean. The dining area really impressed me. It is not particularly large but it’s tables are comfortably spaced and the room has a real chic feel about it (embellished as it is by some unusual artefacts collected by the owners during their travels – I’m thinking in particular of their nod to Japan). However, the part of the hotel we most enjoyed during our stay (and I include our dogs in this) was the shaded terrace area by the front entrance. This pretty garden and patio area with it’s striking mural – more about murals later – proved to be the perfect place to take coffees in the morning; cold beers during the afternoon (the hotel swimming pool borders the patio); glasses of chilled Pouilly Fume in the early evening and; a warming whisky last thing at night. I always keep a bottle of malt whisky in the Van.

We were looking for a charming place to relax and we found it – quiet and comfortable and with the most attentive service.

Surprise, surprise. Within minutes of checking in, we were on the terrace outside the front of the hotel enjoying a very nice bottle of Pouilly Fume

And the food? The continental breakfast was as comprehensive and as fresh as you would expect from a good hotel in France. I need say no more about breakfast.

Dinner in the hotel restaurant? Well, the restaurant is recognised in Gault & Millau’s Guide Jaune (Yellow Guide) as one of the best in this part of France. I was expecting something special and I wasn’t disappointed. There were 7 or 8 main courses on the menu. Vanya went for the ‘Veritable Salade Cesar’ which surprised me by having all the proportions of a main course. I decided in favour of the ‘Poisson du Moment’ which that day was Ling.

The chef, Thomas Longuesserre, is something of a celebrity having featured on national tv. Quite where he ranks as a chef I cannot say but the fish he prepared for me was outstanding. Ling is a deepwater fish that I would normally avoid, because it is often trawled and I’m not sure I approve of deepwater trawling but, I was assured the fish being offered was caught by long line. I think Ling is a member of the cod family (although it looks more like a cod-conger eel cross and can grow up to 7 feet long) but it tastes a little stronger and goes exceptionally well with Pouilly Fume. We enjoyed another two bottles and once again were ‘last men standing’.

There’s not a great deal to the town of Monteux but we were there to relax and, anyway, if we wanted more there was always nearby Carpentras; and of course Avignon is only 20 kilometres away.

Monteux is a long established market town, dating back to Roman times. It reached it’s zenith early in the 14th century, at the time of the ‘Avignon Papacy’, when Pope Clement V chose nearby Avignon instead of Rome for his Papal Palace and took up residency in Monteux’s 11th century castle and for a while nearby Carpentras. It was Pope John XXII who settled definitively in Avignon.

The castle in which Clement V lived was almost completely destroyed by fire in 1415 and the town’s two main gates (the Avignon and Neuve Gates) and the castle dungeon, known as the Clementine Tower, are all that remain of the castle and it’s walls.

A road system circles the old town where it’s castle walls once stood and I entered through what was the Avignon Gate. It is nowhere near as pretty but the town reminds me of Dozza, near Bologna in Italy, in that many of the walls are covered with some quite fascinating murals. The murals here tend to identify the original purpose of the buildings (e.g. basketmaker, cooper, tailor, etc). One of the artists who painted the walls in the old town also painted the mural at the Hotel Blason.

I particularly like those murals that have been built around existing features; such as the fountain below.

I’ve already mentioned the castle and the Clementine Tower. The only two other buildings of significance in the old town are the Church of Our Lady of Nazareth and the Hotel de Ville. Unfortunately I cannot relate much about either building. I couldn’t access the church and all I know about the Hotel de Ville is that it was originally a hospital (the Saint Pierre Hospital which opened in 1713) and it became the Town Hall in 1958.

You don’t need more than a few hours to see Monteux and so we spent subsequent days in the area visiting a couple of the local villages – L’Isle sur La Sorgue and Gordes. They are the subject of separate entries in this blog.

I’ll round off this particular entry by addressing other eating options in Monteux. It won’t take long because except for the Hotel Le Blason Restaurant, we were disappointed with the alternatives in and around the town. In hindsight we should have asked the staff at our hotel for their recommendations because having walked through and around the old town the only places that we saw open were fast food outlets. Credit where it is due, one of them serving Vietnamese and Japanese food (Le Palais d’Asie), did have a handful of tables and we enjoyed some of their Vietnamese dishes with a couple of beers. I was actually drinking bottles of Singha (Thai) in preference to bottles of Asahi (Japanese) or cans of Saigon 333 (Vietnam). Then it was back to the hotel for a final bottle of Pouilly Fume.

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.

Cuzcurrita de Rio Tiron (La Rioja), Spain September 2022 (Tour 6)

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

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

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

The Reception area and staircase up to our room.

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

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

The Plaza Mayor during the day…

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

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

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

Date of stay: September 2022

Wroclaw (Lower Silesia), Poland (Tour 6)

We parked the Van at a secure car park in Wroclaw and booked into a city centre hotel (the Puro Wroclaw Stare Miasto) for a couple of nights. In hindsight, we should have stayed longer. What a great hotel and what a great city! We loved everything about Wroclaw, pronounced Vrots-Waaf. The city was buzzing the whole time we were there.

Previously known as Breslau, Wroclaw is currently Poland’s 4th largest city with a population of 600,000 people. It’s history is as long and complex (and as tragic) as any town in Lower Silesia but, rather than repeat it all here, I would refer you to my blog on Jelenia Gora if you want to know more. It will suffice to say now that the de-Germanisation which occured in the city after World War II was perhaps as bad as it could have been anywhere in Europe with almost 300,000 Germans (many of them refugees from Poznan) being forcibly evicted from the city with only what they could carry. The Poles that replaced the German population were themselves forcibly displaced from their homes by the Soviets (many were refugees from Lvov) and the city they inherited was largely (70%) destroyed by war damage. If that wasn’t bad enough the authorities dismantled much of what was left standing in the city (now renamed Wroclaw) to help rebuild Warsaw.

The new city leaders made a decision to ‘faithfully’ rebuild the Old Town just as it was before WW2. Reconstruction around the Market Square (known as Rynek) and the adjacent Solny Square progressed very quickly but, with some not so subtle changes. Indeed, nothing that was built by the Germans during the 19th and 20th centuries was replaced and the Old Town is now almost entirely baroque which predates German occupation. Even the statue of a Prussian King on the Market Square was replaced by one of a Polish poet, Aleksander Fredro. Also, many of the buildings on the two squares had to be rebuilt using utiliterian concrete blocks and were then given elaborately decorated facades. No matter, the city was quickly rebuilt and it once again ranks amongst the most beautiful in Europe.

Throughout our visit, day and night, there was always something going on in the city’s two main squares and their surrounding streets.

Solny Square is famous for selling flowers any time of the day or night but, whilst you could still buy flowers from a number of market stalls while we were there, most of the square was given over to an amateur international five a side football tournament. I don’t know who won the competitions (there was one for men and one for women) but I watched a closely contested men’s game which saw Germany beat Belgium by 4 goals to 3 goals. The standard was quite high.

One event which has taken place on the Rynek every year since 2003 (except during 2021 because of Covid), and which I would love to witness, is the city’s annual attempt to claim the Guiness World Record in the ‘Guitar Ensemble’. Wroclaw claimed the record in 2009 with all 6,346 participating guitarists led by Steve Morse of Deep Purple playing the Jimi Hendrix version of ‘Hey Joe’ at the same time. Now that would have been something to behold!

One feature of Wroclaw that I absolutely love are the Krasnale (i.e. dwarves or goblins in Polish). There are literally hundreds of them scattered around the city. They started life in the 1980’s as cartoon characters created by an anti- communist protest group known as The Orange Alternative and started taking the form of small bronze statues in 2001. No one really knows how many there are throughout the city because as new ones arrive, others are stolen. I could spend a whole day looking for them and they are a great way to explore the city.

Still much to talk about and so, I’ll be brief. In addition to the Krasnale, the city is full of street artists of all kinds. During the day, it was mostly buskers, bands and mime artists that played the squares. In the evenings it was acrobats and fire eaters and yet more buskers. If you wanted to, you could sit outside a single bar or restaurant and see most of them because many artists rotate around the two squares but; I’ll get as much joy exploring the side streets as I will sitting and people watching and I was off.

If you’re hungry it pays to wander the side streets. You’ll not find the quieter and cheaper restaurants on the squares and Vanya and I were both keen to try the local Pierogi Dumplings. Pierogi dumplings are filled with all sorts of ingredients; too many to go into here but, Vanya favoured the plainer potato and cheese variety while I went for a spicier meat variety (containing beef, leek, Chinese cabbage, mushroom, coriander, chives and chilli). OMG. They were great, especially when washed down with Polish beer and, if I haven’t mentioned it already, Wroclaw is regarded as the city of Polish Beer.

There comes a time when you have to tear yourself away from the centre and where better to go for something completely different than Ostrow Tumski; a small island in the Oder which is filled with numerous religious edifices including the impressive 13th century Roman Catholic Cathedral of St John The Baptist. The island is within easy walking distance of the Rynek. A wedding was in progress as I arrived but by posing as a wedding guest I was able to see some of the interior of the church (I’m unsure as to what the official photographer thought of my following him around looking for photo opportunities) and it didn’t stop me getting a lift up to the bell tower albeit for somewhat limited views of the city.

Better views of the city can be obtained from the Church of St Mary Magdalene. There is a platform, known as the Penitent Bridge, connecting the twin towers of this latter church. Be warned however, there is no lift in the St Mary Magdalene and you have to ascend some 200 plus stairs (about 45 metres) to the Penitent Bridge. One other church tower with arguably the best view down onto the Rynek is that of the St Elisabeth Church but I didn’t do that one.

I’ve not really covered the more cultural aspects of Wroclaw but it isn’t easy gaining access to theatres, museums and art galleries etc when you have two dogs with you but there is a great deal of interesting street art about the city and; none more so than two sets of bronze pedestrian sculptures, one each side of a busy intersection. One group appears to be descending into the ground (a subway?) and the other is ascending from the ground (I think).

Of course, in just two days I was never going to get around the whole city but that’s reason enough to return. Some places which deserve a visit are the Wrocław Multimedia Fountain (Wrocławska Fontanna Multimedialna), the Wroclaw Zoo and the Kolejkowo Model Railway.

The Fountain, which is to be found in the Szczytnicki Park, is the biggest in Poland and one of the largest in Europe. It was initiated on 4th June 2009 on the occasion of the 20th anniversary of the first free elections in postwar Poland and it comprises 300 water jets and 800 lights which create geysers, spurts and mists, etc and is synchronised to create spectacular light and music shows every day of the week.

Wroclaw Zoo is the biggest and oldest in Poland and certainly worth a visit (but the dogs will have to be left behind for that one).