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Walking in the Asturias 

Inntravel call our walk the Picos de Europa, but I feel it is more accurate to call it The Asturias walk, as we turn our backs on that impressive mountain range,  and the Picos National Park, as we walk out of Arenas de Cabrales and into our 6 day walk. The walk will take us from the mountains to the sea, through a verdant green landscape with many ups and downs as we traverse different mountain ranges.

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The name Asturias comes from the region’s Celtic origins, and helps explain the predilection for cider, and the Celtic music that is on repeat in one of the restaurants we visit. Apparently, the local Celts, or Astures, were subdued but never completely conquered by the Romans. Or, indeed the following Moors. The mountains and the rugged life involved was not for the faint hearted of any kind. And that is probably still the case.

However, it has become a very popular area with Spanish holiday makers. The combination of rugged mountains, deep green pastures and beautiful beaches, plus a plethora of stone houses and cabins dotted through the countryside, has resulted in booming local tourism and the buying up of property to restore as holiday houses, or chalets as they tend to be known. We get the impression that there is more money in this region than we have seen elsewhere – villages and hamlets may be quiet and empty but they are not neglected, with many beautiful traditional homes to be seen.

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We spend our days accompanied by the constant harmony of bells – the deeper clang of the cow bells with the goat, sheep and horse bells adding a higher note. We are never far from their clanging, tinkling and jangling. Combined with the mountain backdrop, I keep expecting Heidi and Grandfather to appear round the next bend. But, to my disappointment we see virtually no else on the tracks we follow, however we do come across a lovely Maremma dog guarding a herd of goats one day. He is torn between his desire to say Hello and protecting his flock. The flock won out, and he shepherded them away from the path, so no photo I’m afraid.

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Birdsong is also constant, as there are many forests. I hear my first cuckoo, much to my delight. And birds of prey are often gliding above us, enjoying the updrafts from the valleys.

The tracks we follow are often little more than animal tracks. Compass and close examination of maps is occasionally required. Thank goodness for the detailed walk notes provided by Inntravel, and the bush walking ability of The Husband (except for his spectacular map misreading on one day – more of that later). Some sections we are forced to do battle with gorse bushes and blackberries, and have the scratches to prove it.

The food is probably the only let down of the walk. The Asturians seem to believe in quantity, of very basic meals. The portions are invariably huge, but several times we just push it around our plate and leave most behind. And oh for vegetables.

Day 1: Arenas de Cabrales to Pandiello, 18 kms, total ascent 1108 m, total descent 700m.

Our first day, through birch, oak and sycamore forests, affords us many views back to the Central and Western Massif mountains that make up the Picos. We even manage to get another look at the iconic Naranjo de Bulnes, or Urriello, as the clouds part for us.

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The morning starts with a consistent climb up the hills that we could see in the foreground from our room at Hotel Torrecerredo. In fact, at one point we can spy the hotel from our hilltop.

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We then drop down into the little village of Carreña, where we stop for a coffee, and a slice of cake kindly provided by the owner. He has gone to a lot of trouble decorating his bar, and his pride in the establishment is evident. I had visions of the coffee and cake scenario being repeated on subsequent days, but this proves to be the only village we pass through with either a bar/restaurant, or one that is open. Much to my disappointment. Lucky it was such a nice one then.

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After coffee it is back to walking up again, as we climb towards the top of yet another mountain range. In fact, over the course of the walk I come to dread downs, as I know they will be followed by more ups and I feel I have just wasted all that effort to get the top. But, the reward for the hard slogs uphill are the vistas of the mountains all around us, and later, the sea beyond.

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Our destination for our first night is the tiny hamlet of Pandeillo, perched on the side of a hill and the Casa de Aldea la Portiella del Llosu (the name is almost longer than the village). Our host, José, has meticulously restored an old stone house, and has also been partly responsible for designing the walk.


After showering and changing, we tell José that we are going out to have a walk around the village. He says that he will see us back in 5 minutes, and he is not far off. There is little sign of life, although many of the houses have been lovingly restored. We suspect many of them may be weekenders or holiday homes, as having a chalet (or holiday house) in the Asturias seems very popular.

So, we return to our cosy little hotel and settle in with a bottle of red wine. José cooks an enormous meal that evening, and uncommonly serves it to us at 8pm. Thank goodness, as we are more than ready for bed after the day’s walk.

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Day 2: Pandeillo to Bobia de Arriba, 18 kms, total ascent 803m, total descent 800m

Although this reads like a less strenuous day than yesterday, it was actually much harder going as the climbs were much steeper. I felt at the top that we were in the eagles’ lair itself, with views across to the Bay of Biscay, and mountains everywhere you looked. We were bombarded with colours of green and blue. Beautiful. Breathtaking – in both senses of the word.

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The day started innocently enough with a walk to the next village of Canales. As we walked through the village a car came to a grinding halt. It was Jim, mine host from Hotel Torrecerredo! A quick chat, and off we go in our different directions. Ours takes us up a dirt road, past a disused mine, before we start to rise steadily.

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Our notes warn us that the mid section of the walk, where we tackle the Sierra Gustaselvin, requires good visibility as the tracks are indistinct and the drops down into valleys are vertiginous in parts. Our day is clear blue in all directions, so onwards and upwards we press.

Up at the top we share the view with the Asturias ponies grazing on the pastures, and the birds of prey. We think they are buzzards, but are not sure.

But, all this up makes for a long, slow walk down to our base for the night, Bobia de Arriba and Hotel Rural El Rexacu, and we arrive grubby and weary; falling  upon a glass of wine before tackling the stairs to our room.

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Bobia is a tiny hamlet, made up of two parallel rows of houses, all facing yet another mountain range. Despite its small size, the hotel is relatively substantial – with 15 rooms, a bar and restaurant. That night, it is obvious that the bar is something of a meeting spot for visitors and locals alike. We join in, chatting to a lovely lady who has excellent English thank heavens, as our Spanish continues to be virtually non existent.

Our room has a little sitting area, with views across the village to the distant mountain range. Lovely.

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Day 3: Covadonga Lakes to Bobia de Arriba.

This was the day Himself got it wrong. We were supposed to walk about 14kms, with an ascent of 410m and descent of 1080m. But, we managed to walk 20kms, with an ascent of 910 metres!!!

It all started innocently enough with a 40 minute taxi ride to the Covadonga Lakes. The drive up is windy and steep, and today there was a bike/run/walking race on up the mountainside. I was very very grateful to be doing the climb in the back of a taxi, and not on my feet. Crazy people. The ascent from Covadonga to Los Lagos is a key stage in the Vuelta a España. At 12.6 kms, it has an average gradient of 7.3%. In one section this increases to 15% over 800 metres. This hill climb has broken hearts, little did I know that I was going to join them!

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As the car climbed we caught glimpses of the amazing views we would see once at the top. And then the gorgeous Our Lady of Covadonga Monastery came into view. More wows. The basilica was built to house a statue of Mary that is believed to have helped the Christians defeat the Moors in an 8th century battle. The current Monastery dates back to the 16th century, and is a place of pilgrimage.

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When we finally reach the lakes themselves I am already punch drunk from the beauty we have seen, but there is more to come. Los Lagos de Covadonga consists of two glacial lakes, Enol and Ercina, and are actually in the Picos de Europa National Park. Lake Enol is 1,070 metres above sea level and Ercina tops it at 1,108 metres above sea level. Behind the lakes are snow covered mountains. In the distance is the Bay of Biscay. Stunning.

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We are dropped off beside Enol, and then walk over the lip to Ercina, where we stop into the restaurant for a coffee. It is over coffee that we hatch the plan to abandon the walk notes and take a shortcut up beside Ercina, with the intention of joining back into the intended walk just behind the hill in front of us.

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Our problem is that there are two paths, initially travelling in similar trajectories. We miss seeing the second path and head off, at a brisk pace, away from where we thought we were. And despite me saying, on several occasions, We are doing a lot more climbing than I expected, we keep making like mountain goats ever upwards. As we almost reach the top, Himself calls a halt and we finally agree that we have gone wrong somewhere. Problem is, we are not exactly sure where we are, but we do know we have to go down. So down we go, then regroup in a valley basin.

We finally place our trust in the Maps.Me app and let it guide us down the mountain over non existent tracks. After half an hour we finally get back to the spot we should have been 3 hours earlier. From there it is a slow and very tired trudge down, down, down. I refuse to talk to himself until finally back at the Hotel and have been revived with a very big gin tonic.

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It’s all I can do not to fall asleep in the soup that night. But, it has given us a tale to tell for years to come.

Day 4: Bobia de Arriba to El Allende, 13.5 km, total ascent 580m, total descent 710m.

Thank goodness today was a shorter, easier day as the legs were  feeling a little tired.  We were driven to the hamlet of Cuerres to start walking, which made the section more than manageable.

At one stage we were walking through a eucalypt forest, with a thick carpet of leaves and bark. The smell of gum trees transported us back home, albeit home with the clang of cow bells.

We stopped for our picnic lunch in the small town of Riocalente. Here we sit amongst the cluster of hórreos and a charming sculpture of a market woman, with an attendant, and very hopeful, puppy.


Hórreos are everywhere in the region, and are essentially a wooden food storage shed on a raised platform, supported by 4 pillars, each with a rodent barrier to keep the precious food supplies safe. We have seen them in all states of repair, from derelict to beautifully restored. They are quite beautiful.

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Our home for the night is Casa Rural Montaña Mágica, or Magic Mountain. The source of the name is twofold. One is the view of the Picos we get from our bedroom window. This will be our last view of this magnificent mountain range, so we sit on our lounge chairs and drink in the view. The other influence on the name is the novel Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann (not one I’m familiar with).

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The setting is just lovely, but the evening meal is a low point in this culinary journey through the Asturias. I watched as other tables pushed their food around the plate also – a plate of admittedly soft but completely tasteless octopus (boiled perhaps?) with slabs of boiled potato, and an Asturian version of a parma, with soggy chips.

Day 5: El Allende to La Pereda, 19 kms, total ascent 690m, total descent 870m

This was a day of choices as 3 different routes were on offer: a lift to the coast then walk along the coast to Llanes; an easy walk along the valley; or the high route option, up into the hills to reach a pass overlooking the sea. The last route was only recommended in good visibility as once more it was on indistinct paths. As it was to be our last day in the mountains, and the weather was fine, we opted for the high route.

We caught a lift with the luggage down to the village of Vibano, which saved us a 2km descent. We hop out and then stand looking at the map and walk notes, trying to work out where exactly we are. A lady hanging out her washing on her balcony spies us and comes down, in her housecoat and slippers, to ask whether we need help with directions – in Spanish. Somehow, between us, we manage to communicate, with many hand gestures. The one thing I clearly understand, when she works out where we are headed, is Mal camino (bad path). This does not inspire confidence, but it turns out that, although indistinct in parts and we do have to battle gorse and blackberries in a few spots, the path isn’t too mal and we find our way through.

It is a slow but steady climb for several hours, up the hills towards a lovely hidden valley. We pass only one other person along the way – an elderly farmer coming down the hill, using a crutch to help him. His grizzled look tells us he is used to this trek, so we had better man up and stop puffing.

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We use the cabañas, in various states of repair, to help guide us. A cabaña is a stone hut, used as housing by the shepherds and mountain farmers. Some we have seen through this journey have been lovingly restored, probably to be used as weekenders. Others have seen better days. But they make good way markers in the walk notes.

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After about 2 and a half hours of steady ascent, on tracks made by horses and cows, we finally emerged at the very end of the valley and stood at the edge of the cliff face, looking down to the coast spread out before us. Unfortunately, a sea mist blurred the view but it was still a great feeling of achievement.

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The zig zag path down the face of the cliff wasn’t quite so much fun, nor was the hour walk through the slightly spooky forest at the base, riddled as it was by paths made by pesky dirt bikes.

But, we finally made it through the forest and back into civilisation. Tiredness was starting to set in, but spirits revived as the path took us through some charming villages complete with the grand homes of the Indianos. In the late 1800s, early 1900s much of the population emigrated to South America to make their fortune. Having made their money, many then returned to the Asturias and built grand mansions. These returnees were known as the Indianos, and they have left behind a legacy of magnificent houses that are slowly being restored to their former grandeur by a new generation of wealthy migrants to the region.


Our home for the next two nights, Posada del Babel, sits in the charming village of La Pereda, just outside the seaside town of Llanes. It comes as something of a surprise as whilst the main house is a simplified recreation of more traditional architecture, the owner’s home that sits in front, and the separate guest accommodation behind, are a vision of modernity – and well before their time as they were built in 1997.

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The Posada is a delight – simply but beautifully decorated , dotted with some fabulous works of art. There is currently a photographic exhibition on the walls, by a famous Spanish photographer and his daughter. Our hosts are Blanca and Lucas, but sadly Lucas is currently in hospital awaiting surgery. Whilst it is a worrying time for Blanca, she does not let this interfere with being a charming hostess and we are graciously welcomed, muddy boots and all.

Lucas is the chef so evening meals are not currently available. No matter, as Blanca has booked us into their favourite restaurant in Llanes, La Cuiera, for dinner both nights – and acts as our chauffeur there and back. It is in fact the best food we have had since leaving San Sebastián, although I am sorry not to have been able to sample Lucas’s cooking.

“We” has become 4, as another couple had been on the same walk from Bobia. An American couple, originally from Seattle but now retired in Hawaii. Once we established they were card carrying Democrats, we got on fine.

Day 6: La Pereda to Llanes and return, 10km, flat.

Our last day was a day of rest – sleep in, late breakfast and stroll into Llanes for a look and lunch, stroll back. Very pleasant.

The walk in is both easy, and pleasant. Llanes is a fishing town that is making the most of being a tourist attraction for locals and foreigners alike. It is also on the Camino Norde route, so there is the constant tramping through of Camino pilgrims.

We have a good look around the medieval centre, and go down to the port to admire both the fishing boats returning with their catch, and the Cubos de la Memoria – the painted concrete cubes that are part of the breakwater. They were painted by artist Agustin Ibarrola, a now elderly Basque painter and sculptor. We had come across him on our visit to Spain in 2015, as he is the artist that created the Painted Forest of Oma.


Lunch is taken by the river – sharing an anchovy & endive salad and a delicious plate of lightly fried prawns, with crispy, crunchy shells. Washed down with a glass, or two, of vino. An excellent way to finish what has been an interesting, occasionally challenging, walk through yet another region of this diverse and fascinating country.

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And wonder of wonders, apart from the one day of rain when we walked the Cares Gorge, we have managed to do this walk with no rain. That is a miracle for us, particularly given this region is a deep, deep green for a reason. So, I send a big Thank You to the walking Gods. Perhaps the curse has been lifted!

Dark Mofo 2017

We all know about The Guggenheim Effect, and how an outstanding piece of architecture, housing an amazing array of art, managed to transform a once struggling industrial town in the Basque Country into an international tourist destination. Here in Australia we have the MONA Effect. The vision of David Walsh and his team of curators has managed to put Hobart front and centre on the cultural tourist map of every Mainlander. 

To spread the joy across the Year, we also have MONA FOMA (Museum of Old and New Art:Festival of Music and Art), held in summer – which has become more fondly known as MOFO – and Dark Mofo, which is the reason I find myself in Hobart this June.

Dark Mofo is Hobart and MONA’s celebration of the winter solstice and all things dark, and light. This is its fifth year, and its growing popularity is evident in the packed flight heading out of Melbourne, as why else would you be going to chilly Hobart in the middle of Winter?!

We are eight, eager to experience as much as we can over our 3 days. Our Airbnb house is perfectly located within easy walking distance to all the action. The only drawback being the fact that it sits right on Davey Street, the main drag in town – and even though this is a small city it would seem that the total population of Hobart likes to spend their time driving up Davey Street. The constant sound of traffic roaring past is not exactly conducive to a good night’s sleep.  But, this is only a small dampener on our enjoyment of the festivities.


We ease into our stay with a delicious dinner at Peacock & Jones, admiring the Dark Mofo red light theme as we walk along the harbourside.


Friday morning we wander down to Salamanca Place in search of breakfast, and settle on Tricycle Cafe in the Salamanca Arts Centre, blending in with the locals who favour this quaint little spot. Browsing in the shops and galleries that line the precinct finishes off the morning.

Come afternoon we toy with the idea of walking up Mt Wellington, but quickly banish the thought when we actually look at the mountain, and hop into the car instead. And wouldn’t you know it, the cloud descends just as we reach the top. We linger in the chill long enough for a brief parting, enough to get an idea of how magnificent the view could be.


We have a date that night with Paul Kelly and the very sexy Camille O’Sullivan in their show Ancient Rain, but first we must eat, so walk down to Princes Wharf, which has been transformed into the Winter Feast site. Shooting flames and a light forest beckon you into a wharf shed packed with food and drink stalls, and lots of very jolly people enjoying a veritable cornucopia of choice.



In fact, the people you encounter are one of the joys of Dark Mofo. Tasmanians are an extremely friendly bunch anyway.  Add into the mix visitors all there for the same reason, determined to enjoy themselves, and you have the right ingredients for goodwill to all. Strangers happily sit cheek by jowl, striking up conversations about all manner of things (next day we meet one young Sydneysider who had us in hysterics with her dating stories). It is at the Winter Feast that we meet a couple (who we find out met 7 years ago at the Melbourne Cup) who tell us about a fab little cafe, Small Fry,  that we visit later in our stay. The mood at Winter Feast is upbeat despite, and perhaps because of, the crowds. And the food on offer is terrific. 

The Federation Concert Hall is heaving with people. Ancient Rain does not appeal to all. Given it is based on Irish poems and letters, it is hardly surprising that the overall mood is fairly dour (let’s face it, they are not the cheeriest bunch), but Camille O’Sullivan sings like an angel and she draws me into her world – I emerge blinking in the light, slightly in love.

We devote Saturday to MONA, and the opening of its latest exhibition by the Museum of Everything but first a visit to the Salamanca Market, held every Saturday morning. We have great fun browsing the stalls, chatting to stall holders and shoppers alike. 


Catching the ferry to MONA is a great way to start an amazing visit – excitement and anticipation builds as you travel up the beautiful Derwent River.


To quote the MONA brochure: From June 2017, MONA will be crammed to the hilt with an astonishing assortment of artworks from The Museum of Everything: the world’s first and only wandering institution for the untrained, unintentional, undiscovered and unclassifiable artists of the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries. It certainly was crammed – we spent about 2 hours just in the Museum of Everything, some of it wonderful, some of it not. But, it was fascinating, and I am intrigued as to how and where they discovered this stuff.



We were on the 11am ferry there and the 5pm ferry back – it is so easy to spend a whole day at MONA, particularly on opening day when there is a passing parade of entertainment thrown into the mix. We need a hot whisky punch to revive us before climbing aboard the Mona Roamer ferry back to Constitution Dock.



Straight off the ferry and into the Winter Feast shed, along with everyone else. Food, drink and a singalong round the fire. 


We could have lingered longer, but Dark Park beckons, so off we trot to admire the laser light show, and enjoy a whisky tasting in the shed.


Sunday morning we head off to the Farm Gate Market in Bathurst Street, via an excellent take away coffee at Small Fry – where we drooled over the menu, and admired the focus and care of the chef in the tiny kitchen.

The market was full of very yummy things – so, we bought most of our evening meal requirements: veggies, fruit pies, cheeses, cream.


Then, down to Consitution Dock to buy the fish:


And, a quick admire of the sculptures at the Dock:


before dumping our bounty to undertake a brisk walk, under grey skies, through Battery Point to the Wrest Point Casino and back. At the Casino we are delighted to see a seal doing a solo swim, just for us.


A quick change and off to the Theatre Royal to see Sleeping Beauty, a collaboration between Victoria Opera and the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra. I am definitely not an opera fan, but this production is lots of fun – telling the story of Sleeping Beauty via puppets, and singing of course. 


Home then, red wine and our wonderful home cooked meal of local Tassie produce. A very fitting way to end our Dark Mofo experience, as we fly home tomorrow (an experience marred by the Jetstar flight being delayed by 2 hours).

Thank you Hobart, Dark Mofo and MONA for a terrific long weekend. A bientôt.

A night in Barcelona 

Barcelona this trip is merely a stop over – a chance to, hopefully, get a good night’s sleep before the horror of flying back to Australia, cattle class. I’m on my own. Not something I experience all that often whilst overseas – a single stranger in a strange land. 

My train from San Sebastián arrives at the allotted time. I had decided I would catch a taxi to the hotel, some 2km away, rather than schlep my suitcase and backpack up & down stairs at the metro. But, it turns out that the Barcelona taxis are on strike today. The man at the taxi rank, who has the unenviable task of passing on this news to many disgruntled tourists, kindly turns his attention to the map on my phone. Together we work out a route for me to walk, and luckily it is via landmarks I recognise.

I stop for a cafe con leche along the way as a caffeine withdrawal headache is starting, then soldier on. In no time really I am at Hotel Market. The lovely lady on reception claims to recognise my face from my last visit a year ago. It feels very welcoming. I have a lovely room on the 6th floor, with a shared lounge and a view over local life around the Sant Antoni market. I can hear dogs yapping – some one must have brought their dogs with them to the hotel. Wouldn’t surprise me – dogs seem to go everywhere with their owners here.


After settling in, I venture forth. I do a quick check of the San Antoni market renovations – a massive job, and it is looking good, but still off limits to people. I’m sure it will be fabulous when it is finally finished.

Having missed breakfast and lunch, except for survival snacks on the train, I have a goal in mind. Reserva Iberica, that palace to all things porcine, and acorn fed. I order a tasting platter of jamon for one, and a glass of rosado. The platter looks the same size as the one Pete and I shared a few weeks ago, but I am up for the challenge. I sit and happily munch away, whilst watching the crowds pass by on the Ramblas.


It is then back to the hotel for some R & R. I head out again around 8, to a small wine bar I had spotted around the corner. It’s a cosy little place that sells an array of wine by the glass. I settle in, with a glass of red from Montsant. There are only a handful of others in the wine bar, but evidence of more – I must be in between shifts. I notice people coming in with empty bottles of all shapes. They make a quick stop to the bar, then leave with full bottles. Turns out you can bring an empty litre container and get it filled with the wine of your choice from huge barrels lining the wall. What a great idea for your everyday quaffing wine.

I then move on to a little local restaurant I had noticed on my walk to the hotel, 2 blocks away in the same street. I had Googled it and it sounded interesting – established since 1921, three sets of owners. The most recent owners, once customers, had bought it a few years back and installed a male chef to maintain the traditions but bring a touch of modernity, or so the website says. Several interesting looking menus on the website. Can Miserias. Worth a try I thought. I see no sign of the male chef – there seems to be an older lady in the kitchen – nor the different menus that were on offer on the website, or the touches of modernity.  But, the food is simple and tasty, and the owner/waiter very welcoming.

I arrive at 8.45. Early I know for Spain, but not too bad. There is one other diner – an elderly male, who amuses himself with his smart phone. I am placed at one end, he is at the other. Only one other diner arrives, just as I am finishing up – another elderly male, with his newspaper and bifocal glasses. It gets me thinking about the name, Miserias. Is this the spot where lonely old men – widowers maybe – have their evening meal. They certainly seem to be regulars. How nice that they have somewhere to go – to have a well cooked, simple, meal, and a little bit of interaction, even if it is just with the owner. But, I am concerned that with this level of clientele, Can Miserias may not be seeing another decade.


I’m in and out in 45 minutes. Back to the hotel to luxuriate in all my space. I shall sleep in, then wander out for a late breakfast before packing up and catching the airport bus, which stops just around the corner. Home again, home again jigetty jog. 

The Picos de Europa

Every time we told people in Australia that we were going to visit the Picos de Europa the response was invariably the same: “Where?”. Compared to say The Dolomites, or The Pyrenees, The Picos are relatively unknown – at least Downunder – but they deserve to be up there with the other mountain ranges as they are stunning, and we have only scratched the surface of what they have to offer.

They are called the Picos de Europa, or Peaks of Europe in English, as they were the first sight of Europe for ships arriving from the Americas. They sit 20km inland from the northern coast of Spain, with the highest peak reaching 2,650 meters. From San Sebastián to Arenas de Cabrales, the main township in the Central Massif, is 288kms. So it took us most of the day to reach Arenas by public transport.


We set off to the San Sebastián bus terminal with plenty of time up our sleeve for coffee before boarding our 9.10am bus to Llanes. We had a 15 minute window of opportunity at Llanes before catching the bus to Arenas. But, as you know, the best laid plans often go astray. We enjoyed our coffee and turned up bright eyed and bushy tailed for the bus. Only problem, no bus. Thirty minutes later a replacement bus screeches into the allotted bay, and a bus load of very agitated passengers pile on board. We know our window of opportunity has been blown out of the water. What can you do? Nada.

The trip is a bit of a milk run, as we stop at what seems like every town between San Sebastián and Llanes. We do not make up time, so are not surprised to see a completely empty bus station when we pull into Llanes. But we were surprised to find the station locked up tight, so no chance for claiming a refund on the ticket. Never mind. We trundle off in search of a taxi, only to find none at the rank. Never mind again. Sheenagh whips out her phone and her Spanish and manages to organize a taxi to take us on the 30 minute journey to Arenas. 10 minutes later we are in the cab and on our way.

We are staying at Hotel Torrecerredo. The hotel website had promised rooms with a view and we are not disappointed. What a view it is.



Arenas de Cabrales is a charming, small, village. Quiet now but it is obviously jam packed in the season. Every second building is either a cafe or a local produce store. After we have finished oh and ahhing at our view we have a wander round the village to get the lie of the land.


The area is famous not only for its mountain range but also for its blue cheese, Queso de Cabrales. Once upon a time, the cheese was made by the shepherds in their small mountain huts and left to mature in the many limestone caves that are dotted through the mountains. The cheese was made from goat and sheep’s milk with a dash of cows milk. Upon maturation, the cheeses would be wrapped in leaves and brought down from the mountains for sale.

But, since the local cheese became recognized as unique to this area and acquired an EU DO (Designation of Origin) status, all the romance has gone from its production. No longer is it made in the small stone huts of the goat herders. No longer is it wrapped in leaves. And no longer is it made predominately from goats milk – rather, it is mainly made from cows milk due to the greater milk production of cows compared to goats or sheep. But, it is still matured for 3-5 months in the caves. 



We learn all this from our tour of one of the local cheese makers, where we also get to taste, and smell, the cheese. Which they serve with a dash of the local cider. Luckily, the very kind lady serving us the samples didn’t stay to watch our faces, as the cider was tipped out into the Rio Cares flowing beside the cheesery, and I held my nose whilst tasting the cheese. Blue cheese is one of life’s great dividers and I happen to fall on the hell no side. Sheenagh and Pete however assured me that it was good blue cheese. I’ll take their word for it. All three of us however agreed on the cider – disgusting.


Reconnoiter over, we head back to the terrace of Hotel Torrecerredo to soak up the view and plan tomorrow’s walk, with the help of our very genial English mine host, who knows the region intimately.


We go to bed not only well fed by Jim, mine host, but also with a clear plan of attack for the next day, which dawns with clear blue skies. Our plan is to set out from nearby Poncebos and hike up to Bulnes, then further up again to the Pandebano Pass and over to Sotres. Jim has very kindly offered to drive us to the start of the walk and collect us from the end. 

We had originally planned to take the funicular up to Bulnes, but Jim had persuaded us to walk, claiming it was a beautiful hike, and how right he was. A bit of a slog, but oh so worth it.



We were more than ready for a coffee at Bulnes. From some way away we could spy a stone building on high, with what seemed like a terrace and umbrellas. The thought of sitting on the terrace drinking coffee spurred us on. As we got closer we saw that we had a choice to make: a last, steep, climb to the cafe or skip coffee and keep pushing on to Pandebano Pass. Up to coffee was the decision, so we slogged on up. We were greeted at the top by the charming but rather surprised owner of Mirador la Llende – surprised because he wasn’t expecting to see 3 very puffed walkers poke their heads over the embankment of the hill. Turns out that if we had continued straight ahead we would have reached the village of Bulnes and then been able to walk up the paved, albeit steep, road to the cafe, rather than make like goats and scramble up the face of the hill itself! Never mind, as it was well worth the scramble – a fabulous view, a reasonable coffee and we even managed to rustle up a take away tapas picnic lunch from the very obliging host (again, Sheenagh’s Spanish lessons came in very handy).


Legs rested, we hit the trail again for the push up to Pandebano Pass. The hike afforded wonderful views of the iconic Naranjo de Bulnes (otherwise known as Picu Urriellu), a rock climbers dream.



We were more than ready for our picnic lunch when we finally reach the Pass, although the temptation to at first spin around in circles singing the hills are alive or high on the hills lived a lonely goatherd was almost overwhelming. A temptation I, thankfully for the others, resisted.



From here it was a relatively easy one hour walk downhill towards the township of Sotres, via some hungry donkeys who were reluctant to accept No we don’t have any food left, and the remnants of a Roman road (they sure got around, those Romans). As arranged, our lift back to the hotel was waiting as we arrived. I do love it when a plan comes together.



A terrific day’s walk – 14km and an elevation gain of 1,174 metres. Did we sleep well that night.

Next morning the heavens were singing a different song – low cloud and drizzle, with heavier rain forecast for later in the afternoon, continuing into the next day. We bit the bullet and decided to walk the famous Cares Gorge regardless, worried that Thursday’s weather would be worse, and not prepared to leave the Picos without doing this walk. Again, Jim obliged by transporting us back to Poncebos for the start of the walk.


The track runs along the Cares Gorge from Poncebos to Cain, a distance of some 11kms (so, 22kms return). The track is actually the path built to allow for maintenance workers to get to the hydro electric water canal, which was built between 1916 – 1925. The canal, and the path, is an amazing engineering feat, clinging to the side of the rock walls and often burrowing through the rock itself. The Gorge walk is the most popular in the Picos, and even today – a wet weekday at the very beginning of the season – there is a constant parade of fellow walkers (which makes a quick “bush wee” very difficult, and stressful, to achieve!). Even in the wet conditions, the drama of the setting is easy to admire. 



Luckily it is only a light drizzle on the way out, but a kilometer out of Cain the rain has become consistent, so we decide to turn back. It is then heads down and just walk, as we get wetter and wetter. No time now for admiring anything. Good thing we had taken all our photos on the way out. Even better that there is a welcoming bar awaiting back at Poncebos, where the staff don’t mind if we leave big pools of water all over their floor.


Imagine how cross we are next morning when we wake to clearer skies and even periods of sunshine. Oh well. The rain does eventually arrive around 3 o’clock, so we would have ended up wet if we had waited to do the walk today. Instead, we enjoyed a late start to the day and another wander around Arenas.


Tomorrow Pete and I start our 7 day hike from here back to Llanes, through what is known as the Asturias, while Sheenagh returns by bus to San Sebastián (fingers crossed for connecting buses). We have put the Picos on our Must Return list, as there is still so much to see. Wish us luck for the next part of our adventure, as this area is verdant green for a reason, and as I finish writing this the rain has closed in and I can no longer see the mountains. Must be gin tonic time then. 

Beautiful San Sebastián 

What a beautiful town this is. The curves of its bays. The laid back atmosphere. The beaches. The food, oh the food. This is my kinda place. It’s great to be back here, and even better that we are staying with friends who have decided to decamp here for a good chunk of this year. Their apartment is in the Gros district – a block from the beach (in fact you can see the water from their apartment) and easy walking distance to the Old Town and the train station, but removed enough from the tourist madness of the Old Town. It’s a proper, local community.


We have devoted our time here to mooching, eating and drinking. So, pretty much the same as anywhere really! We have been blessed by gorgeous weather. Lucky, as this area is verdant for a reason – it does rain a lot. But, so far so good. Mind you, we start hiking on Tuesday, so I’m sure things will change given our track record.

Our first morning was spent buying supplies at the mercado. As usual buying more than we needed but not being able to resist. Pete is on dinner duty for two nights so that we can boost our vegetable intake. After shopping it was time to take to the hill and climb up to our luncheon spot, Mirador del Ulia. The hike up the hill was worth it – spectacular food and an amazing view.





Of course this was a complete indulgence, but we thoroughly enjoyed it. Each little course that came out was greeted with an Oh, Ah. We listened closely to the explanation of each dish, then resorted to the menu to try and work out exactly what we were eating, but that often wasn’t much help either. We just had to give ourselves over to the taste. Each morsel was a work of art, for both the eye and the mouth. Each bite was savoured and discussed. We easily wile away the afternoon, making the most of the experience, and that glorious view. 




Going back down the hill was much easier than the going up, helped of course by the bottles of wine consumed. Needless to say, no dinner was required that night!

Needing to feel more virtuous the next day, we set off for a 7km hike along the coastline to the next village, Pasai Donibane,  which is part of the first leg of the Camino del Norte (if starting from Irun). What a stunning walk, when blessed by sunshine as we were. It has its ups and downs, and I quickly realised I have become hill unfit since my last serious walk. The Picos de Europa walks next week are going to be a bit of a challenge.


There is a steep ascent, followed by a steep descent into Pasaia but the view from the top looking down into the entry to the harbour is breathtaking.


Pasaia is split into two by the inlet. On one side is the new town, on the other the Old Town, or Pasaia Donibane, where Victor Hugo once spent some time. The path takes you down into the harbour on the new side. From there you hop on a boat to ferry you across to the Old Town (.70 euro per person).


We joined the throng and chose a table at one of the several restaurants dotted around the square. A glass of wine each, and 3 plates to share – prawns, calamari and a mixed salad. That did the job. Back on the ferry to new town, and a short walk to the bus for the journey back to San Sebastián. 

The evening ended in much hilarity as we watched the Eurovision final in real time, live. Of course we cheered on the Australian entrant, but the Belarus duo rather stole my heart with their bouncy little tune, and bride and groom costumes. Portugal turned out to be the clear winner. An interesting choice, but it is a beautiful song. And of course, a wonderful spot for the Eurovision contest in 2018. 

We started Sunday with an excellent coffee at Sakona Coffee Roasters, a cafe that would not be out of place in Melbourne. They obviously take their coffee seriously, but serve it with a big hearted smile. And they are not just coffee roasters – the breakfast plates that went past us had us thinking we must come back for breakfast as well as coffee.


We join the crowds of tourists and locals promenading around the waterfront, admiring the views across the bay.


It is then pintxos time. We pick a bar that is crowded, nab a small table outside, then battle the customers gathered around the bar inside, groaning with a mouth watering pintxos display. We restrain ourselves and select only a few, as we know the thing to do is a pintxos hop – have a drink and one or two pintxos at a number of different bars. In fact, acting like a local comes way too easily. I swear if I lived in Spain I would become an alcoholic – it always seems to be the right time for a drink!


We move on to another bar and repeat the process. Muy buen. Muy muy buen. Our final stop is La Vina, which is rightly famous for its incredible cheesecake, which is just as delicious as I remember from our last visit. I am a happy woman.


Our stay in San Sebastián has been short, but very very sweet. I look forward to returning after a week of hiking in the mountains. There are still so many bars to sample! 

Four Days in Madrid

Madrid is a first for both of us. We arrive around midday, and quickly and easily negotiate the transfer from Renfe to the metro at Atocha station. We are only 2 stops away from Gran Via, on the blue line. Travelling makes us once more envious of the public transport systems overseas – frequent; networked with interstate trains and airports; easy to use ticket machines in multiple languages selling single tickets and providing change; clear signage; and accurate notification of upcoming stations (how often have I seen incorrect station information on the Sandringham line? Lots. Why can’t we get it right?!). The only thing I don’t like is that there are always stairs that you have to lug your case up, or down. I usually end up in a slather. But, enough grumpy old lady whinging.

We pop up like moles into the pedestrian mall of Calle de la Montera, where it intersects with Gran Via. Our hotel, Praktik Metropol, is just there. Not very encouragingly, just above McDonalds. However, it turns out to be a perfect location and we can easily walk to everything, and get to and from our train station. Also turns out to be an interesting location, as working girls (and I don’t mean the secretarial kind) throng the street. Pete, bless him, comments on how many girls with tight clothing are clustered around the street. 


First impressions – a little bit grubby, at least where we are. Lots of street vendors of jet black skin. An array of different architectural styles, with many grand buildings. A more organic street layout – we miss the grid pattern of Barcelona. Harder to get a handle on where you are, and the different neighbours. After 4 days however we start to get the hang of it, and the different identity of the various neighbourhoods. Only feel uncomfortable once, in the area around the Lavapiés metro station – I think some deals might go down there.

As in all the cities, we walk and walk. The only time we actually use the metro is to and from the train station. Walking allows us to get more of a feel for a city, and we can appreciate the different architecture. Over our few days in Madrid we see beautiful examples of Deco, Art Noveau, Baroque, and modern.


After checking in we put my cafe research to good use and head off to the Malasaña district, and the Federal Café. You could easily think you were in Melbourne, and we probably tripled the average age of customer, but didn’t let that deter us. 


Lunch done, we continue to the Temple of Debod, the Royal Palace and the Almudena Cathedral. The sun is blazing forth and there is not a cloud in the sky. The temperature hovers around 28 C. Hot. Not surprisingly, the gardens around the Temple are littered with people, some soaking up the rays, others seeking shade and relief from the heat. The park affords views across the city, and we realise that there is a massive green wedge right in the middle of the city, stretching as far as the eye can see. Our map tells us this is the Casa de Campo – 1.7 hectares of greenery, named for the fact that it was once the Royal hunting estate.


They are changing the guard at the Royal Palace and we just catch the horses trotting off for their off duty time.


I, of course, go into the Cathedral. Himself abstains. The interior is quite a surprise as the decorations are very bright, and modern. Not at all what I was expecting. Almost tribal.


We have booked into an Urban Adventures Tapas Walking tour that evening, starting at 7pm. Our meeting spot is the statue in the centre of the Plaza de la Villa. We are a group of 7- a family of 3 from Armadale, NSW and an elderly European couple who are residents of Calgary, Canada. Our tour guide is the lovely Andrea, a resident of Madrid who is enthusiastic about both her city and its food. We learn a lot about the history of Madrid in between eating and drinking. 


I thoroughly enjoyed the tour for what we learnt, but I have to say I wasn’t overly enthusiastic about much of the food, and drink, although felt it was very authentic. It is no wonder we have seen a lot of overweight Spaniards – bread, fried food, salty food, sweet food. I wonder what their diabetes and cholesterol rates are. Pete and I dumped several of our samples surreptitiously into nearby bins, whilst I shuffled my drink along the bar.

We start off  in the Mercado de San Miguel, which is full of people, although it is apparently relatively quiet as it is a Monday. This is not a produce market, rather small food outlets. You buy food, and drink, to have here – if you can find a spot to perch in the central seating area – or to take away. Andrea says it is more likely to be a tourist haunt than a locals spot, although she was here with a group of friends on Saturday night. Here we sample olives, and cheese. And vermouth (akin to drinking cough medicine is my verdict) with the olives and a rather nice vino blanco with the cheese. One of the olive Tapas is a skewer of olives, pickled pepper and salted anchovy – it is called The Gilda (but pronounced Hilda), named after the character Rita Hayworth played in the film Gilda. Apparently she asked a bartender for some olives with a bit of spice to go with her drink. He created this Tapas in response and it was christened The Gilda/Hilda. 


Walking the streets we learn that the street signs will usually have a picture of what the street name means, and that dotted throughout the town are plaques embedded into the pavements in front of significant buildings. Andrea tells us to look out for both as we walk around the city.


We pass by the famous Botin restaurant, the oldest restaurant in the world and famous for its suckling pig. Unfortunately it is not on our itinerary as we are partial to pig in all its forms. There is a queue of tourists outside, waiting patiently to be granted entrance. Botin has its own plaque in the pavement. 


We move into the La Latina district, an area that is frequented by locals, as well as tourists. 


Our destination is Casa Lucas, where we have 3 Tapas – a local ‘salami’ on bread;  a kind of ratatouille, topped with a fried quail egg, on bread, with matchstick chips; and oxtail meatballs on a bed of mashed potato. All of which were yummy, and washed down with a vino tinto.


Next up is the Cerveceria La Campana, which is famous for its bocadillo calamares, a speciality of Madrid. The place is packed, but we manage to squeeze in down the back. Pete & I elect to share one between us. Good thing we did as it turns out to be a soft, unappetising bun filled with overcrumbed and slightly chewy calamari. We eat the calamari and leave the bun. I gamely try the local wine mixed with lemonade that is a common accompaniment to the calamares. One sip is all I manage. There is no accounting for taste as this restaurant goes through 7,000 kilos of calamares every 15 days!!!


Our walk takes us through Plaza Mayor, which is full of people enjoying  their evening meal al fresco. 


Andrea points out Chocoleteria San Gine, which she insists makes the best chocolate and churros in town, and makes us promise to return and try them. We end up breaking our promise (Alex would be very disappointed in us).


Our next stop is Casa Labra, famous for its cod croquettes and fried pieces of cod. There are other items on the menu but Andrea says that people rarely order anything else but cod – rather wonder why they bother then if that is the case. Casa Labra is an institution in the city, and was the spot where the Socialist Party was founded in 1860. But it is here that Pete & I sidle up to the bin and dump our croquettes, which are full of  gluggy bechamel sauce and sparse with lumps of cod. Quite awful really. 


Our last stop for the night is La Casa de las Torrejas, via bustling Puerto del Sol. Andrea points out the plaque in the pavement marking Kilometre Zero. From this point all roads leading out of Madrid are measured.


At Casa de las Torrejas we are to have the Spanish version of French toast. Pete and I err on the side of caution and say we will share one between us. I also opt for a glass of vino blanco rather than the traditional glass of sweet wine. A mistake on two counts, as the postre (dessert) is delicious – like a custardy , vanilla, French toast – and the sweet wine comes in shot glasses and is a bit like a light fortified wine, and goes nicely with the dessert. I could easily have scoffed the whole serve, and drunk the glass of wine rather than the sip from a fellow guest that I actually experienced.


Andrea escorts us back to Puerto del Sol and bids us farewell, after checking we all know how to get back to our respective hotels. It has been a delightful 3 and a half hours, despite some of the tapas, as we have learnt about Madrid and its inhabitants from a charming and knowledgeable guide. It takes us no time to walk back to the Praktik, and our bed.


Day 2 has been earmarked as our cultural day, but first coffee and breakfast at Hola Cafe, where we are served by a set of charming and funky young men. 


Then, on to the Prado. Luckily I had purchased a Paseo del Arte ticket (a 3 museum pass) online and a Reduced Price ticket for Pete. This lets us skip the long line queuing for tickets and into the short queue for prebought tickets. The Prado is huge – 2 full floors of works, plus a small section on Level 2 and another in the basement. Not to mention the Temporary Exhibit, which in this case is paintings from Old Budapest. I have to admit that we skipped the few rooms on Floor 2 and the basement, and the Temporary Exhibition. But, we went into every other room, of which there are at least 100. Towards the end I started to get the same panicked feeling I get at Ikea- would I ever get out of there alive. After about 3 hours we emerged, staggering into the light and never wanting to see a religious painting again. Food and drink was desperately required.

La Sanabresa, one of Madrid’s dying breed of casa de comidas (basic restaurants) provided the solution. We were extremely lucky to snare a table as soon as we arrived at this bustling local restaurant, and I would say we were the only English speakers, although not the first. There is a menu in English, although none of the staff speak it. The tables are covered with paper that is replaced with each new customer. 3 courses, bread and a bottle of wine for 11.50 €. The food is simple home cooking, and the wine a very drinkable house red, and we loved it. 


Fortified, we were ready to tackle Museum 2, the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, which turns out to be the case of duelling collections. Baron Hans Heinrich Thyssen-Bornemisza, and his Dad, had amassed a huge collection of paintings spanning from the late 13th century to the 1980’s. HH’s Spanish wife persuaded him to establish the collection in Madrid, plus, she too got bitten by the collecting bug and started to build her own collection of paintings. Thus, the Museo contains two collections – His and Hers, often with overlapping artists. Overall it is considered to be one of the world’s foremost private art collections and certainly gives one a look at art through the ages.

Our day spent in galleries, together with Thursday’s visit to the Regina Sofia Museo, leaves me pondering the question of who decides what is great art?  How is it decided that a particular artist is worth collecting, and displaying to the public? How is it decided that an artist is a genius, or a particular work is a masterpiece?  How does the art world work? Over 3 galleries I have seen some work I loved, but more that left me cold, even so-called masterpieces. Interesting isn’t it.

After all that culture we needed to retire to our hotel and gather our strength i.e. have an exhausted tourist nap, before heading out one block to Al Trapo restaurant in the Iberostar hotel. I was a bit anxious about the choice as it is in a hotel, and was almost empty when we arrived at 8.45pm. But, it is mentioned in the Guide Michelin, and the food was terrific, and reasonably priced for this level of quality. Small serves, but that suited us perfectly given our big lunch. Even the butter was beautifully presented, and the bread was delicious. We shared 2 of the starters – scallops in a passionfruit vinaigrette and the green vegetable salad with ricotta cream. Then shared 2 ‘mains’ – the wood pigeon Rice and the grilled skatefish. Everything looked wonderful and tasted even better. I could not resist a dessert, and chose the Forest fruits, Greek yoghurt, frozen herbs which was sublime (luckily Pete did not want any as he may have had to wrestle the spoon from me).  So, so good. 



Day 3 was a day of walking. We decided to use the numerous city markets as our navigation points, and worked out a route that took in 5 of them, each in different neighbourhoods so we could get a better feel of the city.

We started at Mercado San Anton, our local market in the trendy Chueca district. At this hour (10am) the stalls were just getting started, but we followed the locals and ended up at a bar serving a small bocadillo and a coffee for 2€.  Jamon for me, calamares for him (and a much better one than we had on the walking tour). A good start. 

On to Mercado de Barceló, situated in a very modern piece of architecture (I suspect the building might glow with light at night), but opposite a glorious old Deco theatre.


Next one was the Mercado de la Paz, in the very upmarket Salamanca district. We had a coffee in a very authentico bar before heading back into Chueco for lunch – nothing to write home about. 


On then to Mercado de San Fernando, in the more seedy and downmarket area of Lavapies. Unfortunately, the stalls were all closed up by the time we got there. I say unfortunately as it looked slightly different, with perhaps more of an African influence. Never mind.

Back then to Mercado de San Miguel, that we had visited on the food tour. At 4pm it was heaving with tourists. We did a circuit then got the hell out of there. Back to Hotel Praktik Metropol and some quiet time, and a cup of tea, in their lovely lounge area.


Dinner tonight is at Celso y Manolo, recommended by Madrid Food Tours as her current favourite spot. Obviously very hip and happening, with young, groovy waiters and tiny tables. But, our booking isn’t until 9pm, so we fill in time at the Angelita wine bar. Propped up at the bar, with a glass of cava followed by a vino blanco, and complimentary Tapas, we feel very Spanish.

At dinner we order a bottle of red that turns out to be de-lic-ious. So despite the fact I have had 2 glasses of wine at the wine bar I proceed to demolish half the bottle of red. Subsequently I thought the food was fantastic, but I may be an unreliable judge!


Oh, bed did look good that night. Our final day was grey and cold, with rain predicted later in the day. We packed up and left our bags in reception, then headed off to Pum Pum Cafe, not far from our destination of the Reina Sofia museum. Again, we could have been in Australia – a funky cafe, serving avo on toast, and a Canberra salad!! Lovely smiling staff to boot. Breakfast and coffee done, we head to the Museum.


Our main goal was the Picasso Path to Guernica exhibition, which was commemorating the 80th anniversary of Guernica’s first showing. The exhibition focuses on the roots of Guernica’s imagery, and Picasso’s immediate post Guernica work. For those who don’t know, on April 26th 1937, the small town of Guernica in the Basque region of Spain was totally destroyed by German bombers at the request of Franco. For the first time in military history an attack was aimed specifically at the civilian population. Market day was chosen in order to ensure the most casualties. More than 1,600 people were killed, and another 1,000 injured. Picasso had been asked in early 1937 to produce a painting for the Spanish Pavilion but he had struggled to find a subject. The destruction of Guernica became his inspiration to produce a painting about suffering and war.



It was a fascinating exhibition, marred somewhat by the crowds, particularly of school children as young as 5 or 6. Not really what I would have thought was a suitable exhibition for littlies. 

A quick lunch at the museum’s restaurant and a brisk walk back to the hotel to collect our luggage.  Metro it to Chamartin and catch our train to San Sebastián – a 5 and a half hour trip. And unlike the train from Valencia to Madrid, no free beverages or food. Very poor Renfe! We had to buy our own vino Tinto and crisps.


We have enjoyed our time in Madrid, but feel we have ticked that box and feel no need to make a return visit. San Sebastián here we come.

Friendship in Valencia

There are many reasons to go back to a particular city. It might be the art, the architecture, the history, the scenery or the food that draws you back. Valencia has all that, in spades. But, our reason for returning is more personal. Some four years ago we had the good fortune to meet Mark and Alex, two Valencian residents, on a food tour in Kuala Lumpar. I know, how weird is that! They were on their honeymoon, and were including Australia, and Melbourne, on their Grand Tour. We invited them to come and have dinner with us when they arrived in Melbourne, and the rest is history. We bonded over food, and thanks to Facebook we have been able to keep the fires of friendship burning bright and this is now our third reunion in Spain, and our second visit to their wonderful home of Valencia (little did they know when they met us that we would be like the bad pennies that keep turning up!).


Over wine, and Alex’s marvellous supper,  we catch up on what has been happening in our lives since last years meeting.  They both have to work on Friday so we are set loose to explore Valencia on our own, armed with a plethora of suggestions from Alex, who is a fountain of enthusiastic knowledge about what this wonderful city has to offer. Their apartment is an easy walk to the centre of town, so we set off along the the walking, riding, jogging path that runs around the outside of the old town,  with Torres de Quart, and Mayan Coffee Cafe which sits behind this ancient tower, as our first destination. 


Coffee hit taken care of, we walk to the IVAM (Institut d’ Valencia Art Modern), where there is a terrific exhibition based around all facets of urban life, called Lost in the City. 



From there we walk along to the Museo de Belles Arts Valencia, entry free, to see an exhibition of photographs that recreate and/or reinterpret old Spanish paintings.  A very clever idea.

All this culture has made us thirsty and hungry, so we leg it to the Mercado Central and prop ourselves up on stools at Bar Central to indulge in a glass of cava (and food) to salute our 27th wedding anniversary – where have the years gone? Although the ‘official’ celebration will be in the evening, with the boys.

It is then time to meet Alex, who is taking us to see the St Nicolau Church, which has recently reopened to the public after a major restoration of the fresco covered walls and ceiling. Apparently the locals have flocked to see the restoration, and rightly so. The church is magnificent, breathtaking. A visiting scholar from the Vatican has likened the frescos, and the quality of the restoration work, to the beauty of the Sistine Chapel. The audio guide does assume a level of knowledge about religious art and architecture that we heathens sadly lack, however we manage to figure most of it out. Even Pete is impressed by this church.


In Alex’s world it is now merienda time (that’s afternoon tea to you) as it is 5 o’clock. He hustles us towards a café that won the best sandwich in the world award last year. That is to be our merienda. He insisted that the sandwich was very small and we needed one each, but when it arrives it seems massive to us, and very rich. Not surprising, given it contains black pudding, olives, melted Camembert, a slice of grilled Pork and rocket leaves!!!! One for you Darryl Morris. We stagger out, grateful for the fact that dinner is not until 9pm.


Our walk through the city streets to our rendezvous point with Mark takes us past a multitude of street art. Valencia’s walls team with excellent examples of street art, and over the course of the day I have come to recognise some of the artists. Alex & Mark have done a street art walking tour, so Alex is able to tell me a little about some of the artists and their signature style.   If you are a lover of this type of art you must visit Valencia.


The next activity on the Alex tour of Valencia is a visit to a refugio under one of the civil service buildings. Here we learn about a terrible time in Spanish modern history, the Spanish Civil War. Valencia was bombed for 237 of the 982 days of the Civil War. The bombing was done by Italian planes given to Franco by his mate Mussolini, out of a base on Mallorca. The bombing aimed to prevent anyone entering or leaving the port and to terrorise the people of Valencia, a goal they certainly achieved. To protect the people, numerous public refuges were built under Government buildings and schools. After the end of the civil war, many destitute families were forced to make their home in the refuges that were dotted around the city.


The one we visit has recently been restored, with an accompanying exhibition. Unfortunately it is in Spanish, but with the help of the boys we glean an understanding of what it was like to live in those times. We are further helped by a fellow visitor, an 80 year old lady who is more than happy to tell us a little of her experiences. A time of fear and deprivation.


To cheer ourselves up we drop into the Centro Cultural Bancaja, where we have the good fortune to see an exhibition of work by an artist called Julian Opie. None of us had ever heard of him before, but we all loved his work – a cross between TinTin and Japanese animé, with a very clever use of technology thrown in. Apparently he designed the album cover for Best of Blur , if any of you are Blur fans (again draws a blank from me).

It is then time for a pre dinner drink in a tiny authentico bar:


Dinner turns out to be a night of some hilarity. We are the only customers in the restaurant, never a good sign. The waiter is eager but clumsy, not helped by the huge angled glass plates he has to deal with. Hang on to your wine glasses as the meals are served. The food leaves a little to be desired, particularly when Alex and I discover that what we thought was going to be duck breast was actually a large slab of duck liver. No thank you. But, there is no faulting the company, nor the excellent bottle of wine, so it was an enjoyable end to a great day.

Saturday morning we are up bright and early for our weekend excursion and overnight stay in the medieval walled town of Daroca (see where the red cross is on the map below). It was fascinating to see the changes in the landscape as we travelled 237km inland.

Our home for the night was Hotel Cienbalones – Hotel 100 Balconies. We took their word for it. We had gone all out and booked the superior room, which was huge and had its own little sitting area. But our schedule didn’t allow for much lounging, Alex had a long list of things for us to see and do.


First up was a visit to the church before it closed for lunch. We arrived just as a christening party was leaving, which meant one of the chapels was still illuminated. Plus, we had a lovely chat to the nun who was whisking away the baptismal water – she told us about the legend behind the church, which escapes me now but had something to do with battling armies, blood on a cloth, and a donkey. The bloody cloth is enshrined in the church and is brought out at 5pm for supplicants.


The rest of the churches in the town were closed, much to Pete’s relief, so we satisfied ourselves with a walk up to the city walls (which extend for 4 km around the town) and admired the view.


There were up to 114 towers in the walls, but few survive today.  There are however two main, imposing, gates into the city and a delightful water trough.


Some of the houses are held together with plaster, dodgy old wood and a wing and a prayer. All in all, a charming city, but not much to do as most things are closed to the public, and/or only in Spanish. We thought we might visit a winery but it transpires that they are currently closed to visitors as they are too busy doing wine stuff. The nearby Laguna de Gallocanta, which is usually teeming with birdlife, is also a no-go as the low water level has meant that the birds have flown to greener pastures.

We stop into the local bar, Méson Felix, for lunch. The local lads in the front bar assure us the food is good, and it is indeed honest, basic home cooking. Served by Felix himself I assume – a very jovial, but slightly grubby, mine host.


It is then into the car for a drive to nearby Calatayud, which turns out to be a beautiful old town, bustling with activity. The ‘modern’ city of  Calatayud was founded by the Moors, and their castle dominates the skyline (as well as providing a wonderful home for nesting storks).


In fact, the town was a poster child for religious tolerance and ethnic diversity in its day as there was also a significant Jewish quarter, and of course the Christians muscled in, so numerous churches abound. We discover in the church of San Juan that a young Goya painted the four scenes at each ‘corner’ of the main dome, something the locals are very proud of, and rightly so.

There are a couple of beautiful towers dotted around the town:

And the old Jewish quarter is a fascinating rabbit warren of houses and narrow lanes. Again, the locals are happy to chat and point you in the right direction.


All in all, a charming and fascinating town to wander around.


But, it was also bustling with activity. When we first arrived the centre of town was cordoned off for a bike race for young cyclists. We joined the throngs of cheering parents to watch as aspiring Tour de France winners hurtled round the streets, before retiring to one of the many outdoor cafes for our merienda, which in my case was an enormous gin tonic.


From here we could enjoy not only the riding, but the antics of the bucks party with their accompanying band:


and the procession for a neighbourhood patron saint, complete with her parade of drummers:


On our wander we even meet a local artist, Juan Carlos Blas, who was busily working away in his studio as we walked past and poked our heads in. A charming man, who works with found materials – creating wooden sculptures and paintings of oil and fabric. 


We farewelled the sun from the Moorish castle, which provided beautiful views across the countryside.


Given the hour (remembering the sun sets around 8.30 to 9) we decided to stay in Calatayud for dinner, and after a few false starts (one place was booked out, another closed) we found the lovely La Dolores, which was heaving with happy eaters. Luckily they could fit us in, and we too were happy customers. Mark deserved a medal for driving us back to Daroca after all that food.

Sunday was another clear and sunny day, and the boys had some treats in store for us. First up was the village of Albarracin, which is considered to be one of the most beautiful in Spain, tucked as it is in a lovely valley and perched high on the hilltops. The village is virtually intact from its medieval days and is now a UNESCO World Heritage site. Tourism of course is its life blood, but even on this busy Mother’s Day Sunday there was space for us all. 


Lunch was taken at the Hotel Albaccarin, where the jamon salad entree had us all in stitches – food for giants; enormous tomatoes and large slabs of jamon (they certainly didn’t use the fine blade on the slicer). 


Then it was back into the car and a drive to Fanzara, which through a very clever initiative has become a street art museum, thus rescuing this tiny village from oblivion. There are now hundreds of street art pieces, from whole building size to tiny pieces tucked in secret places, and this is an ongoing project as new works will be added. Some are by world famous street artists, and I recognise many from Valencia. We spent a very happy hour and a half scurrying around the streets ‘bagging’ artists. We were often helped to spot them by the largely elderly residents, who have obviously embraced the project and taken ownership of the images in their street. Sadly, it was time to leave before we had seen them all. Here are just a snippet of what is on offer – yet another place we will have to return to.


We finally get back to Valencia around 9pm.  We have covered a lot of territory, seen some wonderful sights and had some priceless experiences. These boys are truly excellent tour guides, and we know ourselves to be very lucky. The evening ends with a tantalising spread put on by Mark, and even though I declared I couldn’t eat a thing, I managed to scoff most of the delicious fare. I swear I am bursting at the seams!


It is with sadness that we say Farewell to these lovely people, but needs must. A train trip to Madrid calls the next morning. Hopefully we will be able to repay their generous hospitality when next they visit Australia. In the meantime, here’s to long distance friendships.

Barcelona Once More

Here we are in Barcelona – again. Our fourth trip to this wonderful city. It seems you can’t keep us away from Spain. This time Barcelona is our start and end point for a trip that will take in Valencia, Madrid, San Sebastián and the Picos de Europa. 

Given our multiple visits in just a few years, we are saved from the need to be energetic tourists. Instead, our time will be dedicated to mooching around, with some specific sights thrown in. And of course, surprise, surprise, lots of eating. 

We arrived late at night on Monday, after some 21 hours of flying and 4 hours of hanging around airports. And then we had to stand in the Customs line for 45 minutes (that will teach us to arrive on a Bank Holiday). To say we were tired and longing to be horizontal would be an understatement. It was with great relief that we found Danny from Casa Consell still waiting for us at 10.45pm. A quick tour of the property and we flung ourselves into bed and beautiful oblivion.

We take more notice of our lodgings in the morning. The room is compact, but spotlessly clean. Warm and cosy. Hot water in the shower, just don’t try and move around too much as space is rather restricted. The staff are friendly and helpful, and the location is excellent as we can walk everywhere, or jump on the Metro around the corner. After a basic but adequate breakfast we hit the streets. Our agenda today is simple – find a coffee, organise our train tickets, lunch, visit the Sant Pau Hospital site, dinner.

So, first the coffee – Nomad Coffee Lab in El Born. A café latte for me, and double espresso for him, whilst we admire the barista at work.


Before heading to the train station we have a wander round the El Born market – which isn’t actually a market anymore. Once upon a time it was the largest undercover market, but the grand size proved to be its undoing as the area ultimately could not sustain a produce market of this size. It eventually closed down and fell into disrepair. Plans to restore the space and turn part of it into a Library were halted in 2002 when excavations discovered extensive remains of the medieval city that once occupied the area. It was decided to protect the ruins, and display them to the public. So now the massive iron market roof provides protection for the original city that sat on this spot.

We then head to Estació de França, as we know from experience that it is usually pretty empty and thus easier to get tickets. We decide to use the machines rather than struggle with our inept Spanish through a small hole in the window. Probably the wrong decision as the machine seems to understand that we are ignorant tourists and sets out to make the transaction as difficult as possible – it lurches between being very touch sensitive to not responding to touch at all; instructions are hidden from immediate view; make a mistake and you have to start all over again; put the debit card in the wrong way and it cancels the transaction altogether. Suffice it to say it took us well over 40 minutes, and one very sore finger from screen poking, to buy 3 train tickets! Even now I’m not sure we have the correct ones, but we shall find out.

So shattered were we that we had to immediately repair to Casa Delfín for lunch, and it did not disappoint – grilled sardines, meatballs with peas & wild mushrooms and a spinach, pear, Stilton & pinenut salad. Washed down with a glass or two of wine. Buena, muy buena.


We then head off to the Sant Pau Recinte Modernista, or, the Old Sant Pau hospital, via the Arc de Triomf and Sagrada Familia.


We try and recall what has been added to the Sagrada since our last visit. Maybe the frilly arches on the front? Whatever it is, it continues to be an awe inspiring piece of architecture. But today we are only passing by.


Our goal is at the end of Av.de Gaudí – the very beautiful Art Noveau Hospital de la Santa Creu i Sant Pau, also known as Sant Pau Recinte Modernista. The hospital was built between 1902 and 1930, and was the brainchild of the Catalan Modernista architect, Lluís Domènech i Montaner (who also designed the glorious Palau de Musica Catalana). In its day, the hospital was cutting edge and was designed by Montaner to provide light, beauty and open space to the patients. It operated as a hospital up until 2009. Now it is a UNESCO World Heritage site, and is still undergoing restoration. It is just beautiful – if only modern hospitals followed the same design aesthetic.



By the time we get back to the vicinity of our hotel we have probably walked well over 10kms, and I’m tired, hungry and thirsty and therefore, slightly testy. I spy a haunt from earlier trips – Reserva Iberica. Pete takes no persuading for a sit down, a glass of cava and a tasting plate of jamon. That is just what I needed! Spirits restored.


Now we can hold out until the Spanish meal time of 9pm – well almost. We arrive at Tapas 24 at 8.45, but still have to queue. The customers all appear to be tourists like us, but when we finally get a stool I get chatting to the young Spanish man sitting next to me. He is from Salamanca, and tells me he always comes to Tapas 24 when he is in town for business. He says that the locals stay away until around 10pm, when they know the tourists will have departed. 

Our tapas is a mixed bag, some great, some not so great. The highlight is the tomato salad, followed by the char grilled Iberian pork loin:

The squid roll and smoked mackerel are okay, but the Crab & Avocado salad – the most expensive dish of the lot – is bland and uninspiring. Disappointing.


I am now well and truly ready for bed, so we relinquish our stools to the next customers and walk around the block back to Casa Consell and much needed sleep. All in all, a terrific day in this gracious city.

Wednesday morning the sky is grey and rain is predicted – not a good prediction as we are booked to do a 3 hour walking tour with Barcelona Architecture Walks, however the rain holds off until the end of the walk, and even then is just a light drizzle. The theme of our walk is Barcelona & Urbanism, and we learn all about Ildefons Cerdà, the inventor of the science of urbanism and master planning. Cerdà was responsible for the grid design of Barcelona, which he envisaged as an egalitarian city dominated by open spaces. Unfortunately, the final city design was compromised by developers, by the desire of the wealthy to have visible and tangible evidence of their wealth and by the Catalan disdain for anything that was imposed on them by the central Government of Madrid. But, enough of Cerdà’s design was maintained to make Barcelona the very liveable city it is today. 


After 3 hours on our feet we need a coffee and a sit down. So when the walk ends we hightail it back to the Mercat del Ninot that we had walked through to get to the meeting point for our tour. A coffee at one stall was followed by lunch at another, Perellá – specialists in cod, but it was the dazzling array of olives that originally attracted our attention:


We were served by a charming young man with excellent English. Turns out he was from Mexico – came here to study cinema, fell in love, married and is now working in hospitality to make a living. Also got chatting about Spanish wines with a couple of local ladies, who were enjoying a glass of cava, or two! They agreed I knew enough Spanish if I could order the alcohol. A thoroughly enjoyable luncheon break – good food, good wine, pleasant ambiance – only locals, and not very many of them.

Ambled back to the hotel, through different streets and laneways. Pete is getting to know this city very well. I think he has walked most of it. Idled the remainder of the afternoon away at the hotel, escaping the light drizzle and cool breeze, which cleared up in time for us to emerge for dinner.

Our choice tonight was Santa Gula, in the Gràcia district, thanks to blogger Foodie in Barcelona. And what a great choice it was – a small space (if you go, you must book – we saw several parties turned away), with friendly wait staff and interesting, well executed food. We had a thoroughly enjoyable evening. Would happily go again to try out other dishes on the menu.



Thursday morning dawned bright and sunny for our last (half) day in Barcelona. This afternoon we are catching a train to Valencia. How should we spend the morning? Hmm, I know – let’s have a coffee and then brunch to sustain us for the 3 and a half hour train trip. I warned you that this visit would involve lots of eating!

So, we wandered down into the Gòtic district to Satan’s Corner, a coffee shop we had discovered last year. We lingered over the coffee, studying the map of Barcelona and applying our new knowledge about the urban planning that created the city. Quite fascinating really.  


It was still too early for brunch (wouldn’t want to peak too early), so ambled at random through the laneways of the Gòtic area before emerging into the throngs promenading along La Rambla. A street we prefer to avoid however was necessary today as our brunch destination was Kiosko Universal at Mercat de la Boqueria, recommended by the Barcelona Architecture Walks people and Foodie in Barcelona.


Their speciality is seafood, but we started with grilled vegetables and assorted mushrooms before launching into a plate of baby sardines, followed by garlic prawns – both as fresh as can be, and simply cooked, in lashings of olive oil (perfect for dunking the delicious bread into). All washed down with a glass of cava. 


That should sustain us for the train journey. Adios Barcelona – we continue to love you, but Valencia here we come.

Williamstown to Altona on Foot

I was going to call this Secret Melbourne but of course it isn’t a secret to anyone who lives over the Westgate Bridge, only to those of us on the eastern side of Melbourne who rarely go out of our comfort zone. I am very ashamed to say that in all my years of living in this fine city, I have never been to Altona, much less wandered along its coastline. The same is not true for my husband, who regularly saddles up his bike and perambulates round the numerous bike paths that criss cross this city. An overcast Good Friday was the day to rectify my omission, as we walked along the Bay Trail from Williamstown beach to Altona and back – a flat as a tack but fascinating 18.5km all up.


At the start of the Trail is the Jawbone Marine Sanctuary, home to a wide variety of birds and a small harbour for little boats – a scene painted by John Perceval in 1956.


The Trail meanders alongside the Jawbone Conservation Reserve, with birds, reeds and scrubland on the left and houses with uninterrupted views across the bay to the right.


In J.T. Gray Reserve we find a board telling us that this was the site of Melbourne’s first infectious diseases hospital, built in 1884 after an outbreak of smallpox hit the town. For some unexplained reason it was called the Cut Paw Paw Sanitorium. There is no sign now of the Sanitorium, or the adjacent small cemetery (or the cut paw paws for that matter). What a sad place it must have been.


Around the corner along Gray Reserve Road we find a cluster of small shacks at the entrance of  Kororoit Creek, together with the Brunswick City Anglers Club and the Kororoit Creek Boat and Anglers Club.  Despite the Clubhouses and the  mailboxes outside each of the shacks, all of which are connected to electricity, there are almost no signs of life and a general air of neglect is about.


The Trail continues, with Kororoit Creek on the left and Mobil Oil Refinery tanks on the right. The birdlife takes no notice of us, or the factories and warehouses along the Trail. We spot swans, pelicans, ducks, spoonbill herons and many more, happily playing and feeding in the waterway.


Amongst the factories I spy an interesting looking sign and veer off the path to take a closer look. We discover Makers Zoo, and meet the lovely Jeremy, a Kiwi who does shop and café fitouts as well as crafting beautiful custom made furniture. He is busy working on a piece today but comes out for a chat. We joke that he could be putting his coffee machine to good use, serving the many people who use the Trail. The thought has crossed his mind.


We cross over the creek:


and enter the Altona Coastal Park. 


Did you know that there used to be a racecourse here? The Williamstown Racecourse. Which explains why the road is called Racecourse Road! Built in the 1870s, it was hugely popular. Even Phar Lap raced there. But, not surprisingly, the track was prone to flooding and the fences had to have gates in them to release the water. After WWII the grandstand burnt down and that was the end of the Williamstown Racecourse.


Now all that remains is a graffitied concrete block, and a rather attractive sculpture:

Walking round the edge of the Coastal Park we come to dog heaven – the wide, dog friendly, sands of the PA Burns Reserve:


before stumbling into a human heaven – the Altona-Seaholme Boatowners Association’s clubhouse, cleverly disguised as a red brick toilet block in the car park near the Altona boat ramp. We get chatting to a member of 50 years, who is making the most of a brief spell of sunshine – imbibing on his longneck whilst admiring the million dollar views back over to the city. He graciously allows us to take a peek inside the clubhouse. A much loved Sanctuary to the local boat owners.


Altona is now in sight. We amble up the main street and find the Finnish Hall, a beautiful piece of Art Deco hidden away in Altona (apparently it was once the Red Robin Hosiery factory). Turns out that it is a Finnish Festival weekend, and the hall is open and full of happy Finns, eating Finnish food. A young lady kindly invites us in, explaining that this is an annual event for Finns living in Australia and people have come from all over for the festivities. This year it was Altona’s turn to play mine host to our Australian Finns.


It is time now to turn back and retrace our steps. Going back is never as much fun as you’ve seen the sights, and the feet are definitely beginning to tire. But, make it back we do, and reward ourselves with a drink and a toasted panini at The Kiosk next door to the Williamstown Life Saving Club.


It has been a fascinating day. I’ve seen places I’ve never ventured into before, and met some characters along the way. A very good Friday indeed.

Taking a Peek inside the Manchester Unity Building

I am a lover of all things Art Deco, and have admired the gorgeous gothic Manchester Unity Building on the corner of Collins and Swanston Street ever since I arrived in Melbourne in the late 70s. I’ve always wanted to take a peek inside; to get inside the bronze coloured lifts and be transported to the rooftop, and last Sunday I finally got my wish.

 

Turns out that it is actually very easy to do. One way would be to get your teeth attended to by one of the army of dentists that make up Smile Solutions, the main occupier and guardian angel of the building. The other way is much more pleasant – simply book into a tour provided by the downstairs 1932 Café, which are run on two Sundays of every month. You can book in for a breakfast, lunch or afternoon tea tour, which allows you to sit in the café and enjoy a meal before heading off for a guided tour of several of the floors occupied by Smile Solutions (http://manchesterunitybuilding.com.au/tours/).

I didn’t have particularly high hopes for the meal itself – we had chosen a breakfast tour – but was pleasantly surprised. Mind you, the glass of bubbles at 10.15 on a Sunday morning helped give everything a rosy glow.


Breakfast done we assembled outside the cafe, bursting to see the glories inside. But first we admire the intricate mosaic floor and hear some of the background history of the building, which was constructed in 1932 and was the tallest building in Melbourne. It was a modern marvel of aesthetics and technology, and Melburnians would come into town just to visit the building – to travel on the city’s first moving staircase; to shop or to eat in one of the cafes or take tea in the tearoom.

Since its glory days the building has passed through several changes of ownership and her age was showing badly. Millions of dollars were needed for maintenance and restoration. In 2003 the building’s saviour appeared in the form of Dr Kia Pajouhesh, a dental practitioner with a passion for Art Deco and a flourishing dental practice. Since 2003 Dr Pajouhesh has slowly acquired floors in the building for his expanding practice, now called Smile Solutions, and has channeled his passion for Deco into restoration of the building. Who knew there was that much money in teeth! But, thank goodness there is, as this Grande Dame of a building is certainly looking pretty good now, with many of its features restored or reproduced.



After a wander through the hallways on the first floor we travel up in the lift to the roof terrace ( which was once a roof top garden restaurant, complete with trees and fountains), to admire the building’s crowning glory – the tower; ignoring the modern carbuncle adjoining it.


It is then into the Smile Solutions head office and the famous boardroom, which were described at the time by the Melbourne Herald as the finest offices in the Southern Hemisphere. Due to heritage protection, the boardroom has come through the decades relatively unscathed, and still boasts the original, massive, boardroom table. 


It has been a pleasant step back into the past. Thank goodness there are people with the monetary means who care about our architectural heritage, as it would be a tragedy to lose this beautiful building. The way she is looking now is really something to smile about.