Our first week in Northern Spain is over. In glorious sunshine and teeming rain, we’ve experienced the city life and sampled the pintxos of Bilbao and San Sebastian of the Pais Vasco province and travelled south, still in the Basque region, into the depths of rural Navarre.
Aside from one scare (Van trouble), all vital signs with the van are good although we are now especially cautious at any risk of a steep incline. So when the temperature gauge started to creep up as we travelled up the motorway rising sharply between San Sebastian to Pamplona, that was our cue to pull over for breakfast and a chance for the van to calm herself.
And the highlights:
The Guggenheim Museum inside and out – Overtaking the hordes of Rapid Vienna footie fans marching through the centre of Bilbao, bellowing chants familiar to the terraces at home, we turned the corner to reach the Guggenheim. The first glimpse of the building is an ‘oh wow’ moment – as Brian Sewell would not have said. And as it was almost closing time, having the Richard Serra ‘The Matter of Time’ exhibit hall to myself was also pretty cool – another phrase I’m sure Brian would have avoided. The pieces are massive and eerie. One curiously reminded me I should see the film ‘Picnic at Hanging Rock’ again to see if it is as good as I remember.
Meanwhile Stuart enjoyed his wandering outside, though not so much the scarily high steps down from the bridge across the river. He balked at taking the six storeys of steps down and opted for the lift inside instead. (Though not as bad with heights as I am, he did also have to sit through the first seven songs at the Elbow concert in the O2 with his eyes firmly shut.)
Food Glorious Food: In Bilbao, we ate pintxos (the Basque equivalent of tapas) and rationes (bigger portions) at a few of the bars near the Moyua metro, from simple ones like anchovy and olive on a cocktail stick to more elaborate ones like this dish of calamari, chorizo and peppers.
In San Sebastian, we started off with pintxos in one of the more sophisticated bars where the counters are piled high with colourful mouthfuls and followed up with another dish at this crammed busy bar which served only calamari or mussels with different sauces served with big platefuls of patatas bravas.
Being Outdoors: We’ve walked for miles this week. In truly beautiful San Sebastian, we walked to the top of Monte Urgull, the steep hill overlooking the city and visited the English cemetery where lies Colonel Tupper resting in peace overlooking the grand sweep of the bay.
And in Parque Natural Urbasa Andia, 40 miles from Pamplona, we walked across meadows carpeted with autumn crocuses up to the cliff escarpment.
The only sounds were the bells on the sheep grazing – yes definitely bells on the sheep – the humming of bees and the squeals of a delighted nature lover who has just spotted a chough. (That’s Stuart – I wouldn’t recognise a chough even if served to me on a plate with watercress).
But this sighting was crowned for him when, the next day, we followed a trail through the Parque Natural de Valderejo at Lalastra. Way up high on the cliff tops, we saw what looked like three chamois perched on the edge together. Not chamois at all – they were Griffon vultures, sitting in companionable silence.
On another day, we walked the countryside around the village of Villanane, past the nodding ripe sunflowers and the 14th century castle and church.
Surprise discovery – Other than working out a general direction of travel, we haven’t planned too much about this trip. We want to be open to the surprises and here was one – it was the salt farms at Salinas de Anana in Navarre. We took the 1 hour tour to find out more about this fascinating place which used to be farmed by up to 1,000 individuals with their own holding and is now a local co-operative, farming and selling Anana salt to, among others, Michelin-star chefs and the occasional campervan kitchen. Every year, on the same day they are running the bulls at Pamplona, the local community gather here for what is apparently a spectacular sound and light show. I know which I’d rather be doing.