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Trip Report Trip Report: 17 glorious days in Northern Spain

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My husband and I spent a glorious 17 days and nights in Northern Spain between the 5th and 24th of June. I had been working up to this trip for some 5 years or more keeping notes and files, reading posts, casting and recasting the itinerary and all the effort paid off with a terrific trip.

Thanks
As everyone else from this board who travels anywhere in Spain, I too must thank first and foremost Maribel, our Spain specialist whose advice was worth its weight in gold. I also need to thank some unknown poster (I print off posts and reports and then take with me only the parts pertaining to my itinerary and try as I may, I cannot find where this one came from) and give credit to "the pilgrim who walked the Camino del Norte," whose brief impressions of various villages along the coast caused us to detour and see many perfect little places. Thanks also to Bobthenavigator who steered us to Viana do Castello in Portugal, DH's favorite town of all. Just wish Bob had had the great weather we got when we went there a week or two after he did. And thanks to all the rest of you whose posts I read and clipped and took with us whose info and insights saved us countless snafus and unveiled much beauty-and good food.

Report organization
Because my reports always get long, I'm going to try to break this up a bit and label so those of you reading can find what interests you and skip that which doesn't. I intend to provide info on:
- Places, sights and scenery
- Lodging
- Dining
- Observations, insights and possibly useful information.
So, before I lose my ambition, here is my report of our trip to Northern Spain.


Places, sights and scenery

In all we traveled 2741 km by car, stayed in 7 places, and made stops of some duration in 45+ places, flying in and out of Madrid and from Vigo back to Madrid, and parceling out the time as follows:
Rioja area with winery visits- 3 nights
Santandar and Cantabria- 3 nights
Ribadesella and Asturias- 2 nights
Ribadeo- 1 night
Santiago de Compostello- 3 nights
Galician coast and a snippet of Portugal- 3 nights
Madrid- 2 nights

I'll stay with these groupings as I provide info about stops along the way. FWIW, we thought the groupings and the amount of time in each place worked out quite well. And I would recommend the basic outline to anyone with similar time to spend.


Rioja area

I'd once planned to do a whole wine tour of Spain, moving from cava country in Catalonia to Rioja, Ribera del Duero, and Galicia for the albarinos (forgetting sherries of which we're not fond) and I'm glad we didn't do it that way. That would be just too much. But the three days we spent in Rioja with a bit of Ribera del Duero thrown in was just right. In fact we're now convinced that the area has it all over Napa and Sonoma for beauty of scenery and of wineries and compares more than favorably for actual product.

We flew into Madrid and immediately picked up our rental car and headed to Aranda del Duero. We found the scenery enroute attractive and loved the red poppies by the side of the road, ala Tuscany in the spring. Enchanting. We got off to a bad start with the town, however, and couldn't find the charm of the place, so we moved on to the outskirts and the lovely Hotel Torremilanos for lunch. Thereafter the scenery started to become even more beautiful with blue grey mountains in the distance pointing to pouffy white marshmallow clouds, yellow and green fields undulating over hilly terrain, and periodic spurts of blue flowers along with the vivid red poppies. This was to be the pattern in Rioja as we moved from vista to vista, each more beautiful than the last.

A word here about Rioja tourism. This region of Spain has a terrific tourism department. They publish wonderful, classy, useful guides to wineries, to hotels, to restaurants. Maribel told me to write/e-mail ahead for them and they were the best. I think them far better than those distributed by the national tourism office of France, as a comparison. I urge anyone traveling to this area to read Maribel's response on my post inquiring about Rioja wine tourism. Search on the title Spain wineries--Ribera del Duero and Rioja (my apologies for still not learning how to insert searchable links in posts)


Towns and places we saw in Rioja

First the "also rans":

Azofra- a pitiful little town on the pilgrim path, only spent time there because it was the site of our hotel for the first three nights.

Casalarienna- site of a restaurant we went to. Cute enough for a walk through while waiting for the restaurant to open on our first tired night in the country. Saw our first stork nests there. They have as many or more in this area on the roof tops of churches and other tall buildings as we saw in the villages of Alsace.

Santo Domingo de la Calzada- Nice enough medieval village with narrow streets and old, old buildings (but very much in need of repair if they are to become a big time tourist destination) and not just one but two paradores. Church where they have the chickens (long story about the crowing of a rooster saving some poor soul's life) was overwhelmed with tourists and they didn't allow photography so we only saw the exterior.

Najera- a nice little town spanning both sides of a river with a beautiful, over the top small church, Santa Maria le Real, with gold leaf covered altar and magnificent tombs, and a graceful, delicate cloister.

Fuenmajor- Location of another restaurant where we dined. It has a very nice large church fronting a large square with a fountain with a grape sculpture denoting its reliance on wine to support their economy. The square being put to good use by the local populace as children played and the grown ups gathered at a windowed bar set right in the square itself. Felt neighborly and homey.

San Vicente de la Sonsierra- also a nice little town with an interesting central square and fountain with swans and grapes. Balconied houses brimming with flowers.

Abalos- We investigated this cute little place because Maribel stays at the cute little hotel just up the street from the cute little local church which is tended by a cute little bent old lady who speaks no English but offers her services. After hilarious pantomiming by her and me we concluded that she was offering to turn the lights on in the church to illuminate the altar for pictures for a small, voluntary donation. Nice service.

Samaniego- Site of Bai Gorri winery and nothing else to my recollection

Elciego- Site of two wineries, the under construction Antion and the highly acclaimed Riscal, designed by Frank Gehry. Town itself seemed to offer little/nothing in the way of scenery or services.


The very good and the best:

While we found most of the above worthy of the visits we paid them, we found the following even more interesting and I would recommend them more highly if you have limited time.

Haro- Scene of a swell uphill town square with our first sighting of banks of glass balconies and home of three nice wineries we photographed, Heredia, Penalbe de Lopez, Muga and Bilbanio.

Briones- an almost Disneyesque small town over looking the largest wine museum in the world, Dinastia Vivanca. The town was preparing for a festival and so was filled with wine barrels and old carts in appropriate places, making it all the cuter and more appealing. Two wonderful churches with gold leaf trimmed altars. Great views of the Rioja valley from its vantage point on a hilltop.

Logrono- I believe this is the largest city in Rioja. It has a modern shopping district, lovely municipal parks and then an old town with narrow medieval streets and great tapas bars. We were there for lunch on a Saturday and though we were, as usual, early for lunch, the streets and bars were already starting to pack up with locals and tourists and street musicians. I can only presume that the carnival atmosphere continues throughout the day and reaches some kind of crescendo in the late evening/early morning. Even at late morning it was fun and the tapas was fantastic. Calle Laurel and the surrounding streets are lined with bars each serving their special brand of tapas, and some good and some very bad wine, but lots of fun.

Lagaurdia- actually a Basque rather than Riojan city, is the center of more wine production in the area. It is near several wineries, most notably Vina Real and Ysios, the Calatrava beauty that captured our hearts and our eyes. The city itself is walled with narrow streets, nice flower-covered balconied houses and great views down over the valley if you step outside the walls.

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    Wineries and our experience with Riojan wine touring

    We were wowed, blown away by the beauty of the area. We were also stunned by the beauty of the wineries themselves. These people are really investing in winery architecture and it’s incredibly exciting.

    We have sightseeing ADD and are really bad at guided tours. We’ve also already done a winery tour or two and know how wine is made, etc. so we were not hot to take guided tours in order to see wineries and taste the wines. We wanted to photograph the exteriors (and interiors if possible) and move on, not spend hours at each place. We were afraid that wouldn’t be possible, but except for Vina Real, we were able to get our photos and even a tasting or two without being roped into a 2 hour or more tour. Some of that was probably pure luck—and the kindness of strangers, but I think our experience may be repeatable by others who don’t want to spend hours and hours touring wine caves.

    All in all we saw up close or from a distance 10 wineries—11 if you count Torremilanos where we dined in Ribera del Duero.

    By far the most exciting was Ysios, the Calatrava designed enormous place near Laguardia where the undulating roof is supposed to represent the surfaces of barrels stacked on their sides, and also seems to mirror the shape of the mountains against which it stands. My description will not do the place justice but it appears that the roof is made of silver or aluminum squared but hollow tubes piled sideways against each other to cover the structure. The central area has copper colored accents around the cathedral glass that reflects the surrounding vineyard-covered terrain. Somehow the squarish roof tubes that face you as you see the building full on, make it look in real life as in pictures as if you’re viewing something with very large pixels that don’t let you see the smoothness of the roof. That’s it. It’s not smooth. It’s like squares piled next to each other. I give up. It’s just fabulous. You must see it.

    When we saw it, the winery itself was closed. But we parked, and walked through the open vineyard toward the place and watched it reveal itself increasingly at every step. It was phenomenal. I would certainly have liked to have been able to see the interior as well, but the exterior alone was worth the trip—not just the day trip to see it, but the whole trip to the Rioja area. It’s that spectacular.

    The other wineries where we spent most time walking around and checking things out were:

    Heredia Penalbe de Lopez in Haro—which was also closed. However, again we parked nearby, walked about the paved grounds and photoed the elegant old buildings. We also pressed our noses to the glass of the new tiny glass tasting room designed by Habib, the Iraqi woman architect who’s starting to get big time recognition worldwide. As we looked longingly inside, the young lady who was cleaning the place came out and asked if we’d like to step inside to take some pictures. Would we ever!!! And we did. Interesting modern space incorporating an old art nouveau bar with wooden canopy. Great stuff.

    Darien—newly built, all white—inside and out—multi-angled concoction atop a hill near Logrono. We missed the tour—oh, shucks—but the nice young girls in the lobby said we could stroll about the display of wine amphora and even invited us into the sterile tasting room for a taste. This tasting room is incredible. It’s also all white and set up like a classroom complete with individual sinks and a light next to each tasting station so you can see the color of the wines to advantage. It’s way cool. We purchased some of their very reasonable wines which were very beautifully displayed in their entry room.

    Dinastia Vivanca—is the largest wine museum in the world, located just outside the cute little town of Briones. Here we did the tour, but luckily for us, it’s self guided and we could go at our own pace. Everything is top drawer--movies, displays of everything wine, from corkscrews to esoteric wine-making equipment, and a garden of the various vines for the grapes that Spanish wines are made of. There is a beautiful gift shop with wonderful wine books and a nice tasting area as well as a restaurant. Two of the most interesting things there were outside—the entrance sculpture of a hand holding a bunch of grapes next to a brick wall with a cut out that frames a real life picture of the Riojan vineyards with an ancient church in the background and a children’s play sculpture fashioned to look like a bunch of giant purple grapes to crawl through with a yellow slide for a stem.

    Muga in Haro was also closed but we were able to park and take pictures of the place which is a nice blend of old and modern with interesting horse sculptures at the entry.

    Bilbanio, near the train station of Haro, made for colorful photos, as did Antion in Elciego. We couldn’t have gone into the latter even had we wanted to. It’s not yet finished.

    Bai Gorri outside Sameniego is an amazing piece of minimalist art. Like the Johnson Glass House, this is the Glass Winery. The top floor is completely glass. You can see through it from every angle. And there’s nothing inside. It’s strictly an enormous entry to the actual working, seven story, gravity flow winery which lays beneath. The only ornamentation is the story-high lettering of the Bai Gorri name on all sides of the glass building. We walked around it to photo from various angles and drove to the vineyards below to get a feel for the height and gravity principle of the place. Magnificent.

    Vina Real, we were able to see only from a distance. They post guards and permit admission apparently only for those with appointments.

    Marques de Riscal was both a highlight and a letdown. To assure ourselves the opportunity to see the Frank Gehry designed hotel, we obtained reservations for lunch there. The place has lovely grounds, a very nice garden and is more set up for tourism than other places we visited. The look of the hotel is arresting with its pink, silver and light gold titanium swirling sheets that look like they’re flying every which way. But after the initial excitement you realize that it is pretty much just Bilbao Guggenheim light—a variation on an earlier idea, not something completely new and matched to the surroundings like Calatrava’s Ysios. Don’t get me wrong, it was a fun experience. It just wasn’t something totally new and different. And the front view of the place is marred by long, narrow parking lot filled with cars leading up to it making it hard to get a good camera angle on it.

    The interior is appropriately lovely though it also felt a bit empty. As a hotel, you’d expect to see a few folks coming and going. We only saw one other couple and a couple of staff. We stopped in their two story wine bar before our lunch reservations but I found it a bit stark without even wine bottles in evidence, just a stripped down blond wood bar, some banquets, small tables and steel chairs. There is a patio outside the winebar with nice views of the small old church in Elciego, making for good contrast with the modernity of the hotel. And the restaurant where we dined —1860, their more casual place—was very nice. See dining section of this report-- as soon as I finish it. All in all, the place is certainly worth seeing. It just didn’t knock my sox off the way I was expecting it to—and the way Ysios did.

    To sum up the Rioja wine touring experience, I say again, the place overall is fantastically beautiful both naturally and architecturally, and there are many charming small villages that would be well worth a visit even if there were not a single grape around. Go.

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    Cantabria and Santander

    We spent three days in Santander, using it as our base to explore Cantabria. The first day was spent driving from Azofra to Santander. I’d hoped to return to Basque country and do some stops along the coast east of Santander but wet weather, slippery roads and major parking problems in Castro Urdiales and Laredo foiled my plans. We arrived about noon and explored the main area of town before returning to the hotel for naps as rain continued. We stayed in the Puerto Chico area right on the harbor which was a nice central location with good views and proximity to good restaurants. Much more about them in the dining section of this report.

    Day two was June 10 and the peak of the Spanish truckers’ strike. We kept hearing reports of blockades in Barcelona and other cities, but saw nothing of it in Santander and so took off for a day of sightseeing.

    Suances—was our first stop outside Santander on the coast. We saw there the adorable, flower bedecked hotel I’d first thought to stay at but was glad we hadn’t when I saw what a distance it was from either the town or the beach. What a shame. My discarded hotel aside, Suances is an attractive little beach town that I can feature jammed in July and
    August, Cantabria’s major tourist months and apparently the only months warm enough for swimming.

    Santillana del Mar—another place we’d thought to stay and been dissuaded from based on helpful advice from this forum. It’s a wonderful place to visit but I don’t think it would be as nice to stay three days in as Santander was. As advertised, it’s a very touristy town. Cute, medieval but very hard to walk in for all the ancient cobblestoned streets. Before entering the city we were cursed by a gypsy beggar to whom we denied the coinage she felt she deserved. Nonethless we had a pleasant time exploring the town with its many touristy shops and seeing the cloisters of the ancient church. The place is supremely colorful with pots of flowers on every balcony and brightly colored washing hung almost strategically here and there as if commissioned by the local authorities to improve the scene for the picture-taking tourists.

    Comillas—afforded us a Gaudi fix. We parked and trudged up a small hill to El Capricho, one of his first commissions. It has turrets and is covered in ceramic tiles primiarily in green and mustard with sunflower designs. It’s now a restaurant but unrecommended for food, so we contented ourselves with photoing its exterior. Nearby is the Palacio Sobrellano, home of the Marques of Comilla with Gaudi designed interiors which we could only see by shameless window-peeping as we arrived during the lunch time closing. It too is a fanciful place with great gothic arches and tracery. Nice views down the hill to the town.

    San Vicente de la Barquera—is a nice port with a fine plaza major and a great stop for lunch recommended by Maribel. You know, I’m starting to recognize how much time we spend eating during our travels. As I look back through my notes for information on sightseeing, I’m finding it far less voluminous than information on our dining.

    More Santander
    Day three in Santander had been planned for a return to the Basque seaside, fishing villages that we missed on the drive up from Azofra, but the gas shortages looming from the truckers’ strike caused us to rethink and spend the day in Santander itself. Not a bad decision. There’s plenty to see in Santander. For starters it has a great covered market—with meat, cheese and veggies on the upper floor and fish below. We were afraid that the simultaneous fishermens’ strike we were hearing about would have left us nothing to see on the fish floor, but au contraire, or whatever they say like that in Spanish. There were plenty of fish, causing us to wonder if the strike was over or if Santander was filled with scabs who were boycotting the strike. We never figured it out, but we were selfishly (sort of an appropriate word) glad that whatever the reason we’d have plenty of fish for dinner.

    We shopped the pedestrian streets, took in the only statue of Franco still standing in Spain, checked internet messages, ate, napped and then drove over to El Sardinero beach area for a late afternoon walk about. El Sardinero is actually a part of Santander but apart from the shopping and harbor areas. It’s parklike with beautiful condos and apartments lining nice beaches (that are posted with overpowering signs filled with “shouldn’ts”—you can’t do this, you can’t do that, etc, etc.) The signs are tastefully designed but a trifle off-putting and create a kind of unfriendly feeling. The beaches themselves are, however, pristine and beautiful and the homes across the street give the area a sort of Deauville quality. There’s a lovely park at the end of the peninsula called Magdalena beach. There is a great castle built in 1908 where the royalty came for the summer. It’s surrounded by hydraneas giving it a Nantucket-like feel. Before you get to it, however, you’ll pass an area with sea-lions and old ships that would surely interest children even as it interested us. There’s also a nice conference center a short distance from the castle. All in all, a lovely place for an afternoon walk.

    In summary, we found Santander to be a nice, larger city to contrast with the small towns we’d been in in Rioja. Its position on the sea, and our hotel’s position on the harbor was also a nice contrast to the hills and vast expanses of Rioja. We liked both.

    More to follow as soon as I rest my weary fingers.

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    Asturias with Ribadesella and Ribadeo

    We drove through tiny Andrin enroute to our Asturian base of Ribadesella but I was sad not to be lucky enough to see the blow holes that my northern pilgrim had spoken of. We did have a beautiful view of the ocean with rolling waves but I’d sure liked to have seen the blow holes.

    Llanes on the coast was one of our favorite stops. It feels like a larger city, has wide streets even in the old inner city, a 14th century church, nice art nouveau style post office, a very nice wine bar right in the middle of town and plenty of nice looking restaurants. It also has a nice harbor. (Perhaps, I’m beginning to overuse the term “nice.”) Only problem was parking. Not sure if the place we found was legal but we got in and out without difficulty and I was grateful for that. DH is an impatient driver and an even worse parker, so if there’s not parking immediately available, we may leave town without a stop. That’s what happened to Castro Urdiales and Laredo enroute to Santander.

    We moved on to our base for the next two days—Ribadesella. I’d read mixed reports about the town. We are on the side of those who are positive. In fact, we liked it a lot. I wish it were in a more accessible area so we could visit often. We loved our hotel. (More raving on that to follow) but we also liked the town. It sits astride a river, with resorts on one side and the downtown, commercial area on the other. In the hot sun, the walk from our hotel on the resort side to the other part was more than I wanted to tackle so we drove, but it would be walkable for the less faint of heart. The resort area had a lovely promenade directly on the sheltered bay surrounded by hotels and mansions of the fanciful type called Indianos—multi-story places with towers, etc. built by locals who made their fortunes in the new world and brought the money back to build their dream houses in their native land. We felt completely at home in the commercial area of the town. It’s small and infinitely walkable, has a large square at the center where the local kids play ball and adults take coffee and drinks at the surrounding bars. There are also plenty of places for eating and imbibing facing the water and the resort area on the other side. Nice little shops, well kept and cared for.

    Day two of our stay in Ribadesella was devoted to exploring the interior and the Picos de Europa. We liked it, though I have to admit we probably didn’t do it justice. Others have written about spending days in the area. We were content with one. We are more sea than mountain people. That’s just how we are and what we like. While we’d intended to drive beyond Covadonga to the two mountain lakes, we gave that idea up and spent time only in Cangas de Onis and Covadonga.

    Cangas de Onis held a bonus for us. It was the festival of St. Antonio, the patron saint of the town. Many of the local women (and even a few men) were attired in typical Asturian costume, the women in black beaded scarves and men in appliquéd outfits. Very colorful. By 9:30 a.m. there was already a group that had been drinking at the main street bar for a while. We observed the locals for a while, got a few to pose for us, then took pix of the Roman bridge with the alpha and omega cross having from one of the stone arches, and also of the hermitage on the edge of town and then moved on.

    Covadanga is a mountain church where the faithful are bussed for mass even on weekdays. As you approach the church, you see a smaller church/hermitage with waterfull built into the rocks where the virgin appeared to tell the warrior Pelayo to take a stand and fight the Moors. Below are two stone lions in peaceful pose like the one carved in the rock at Lucerne to honor the Swiss guards. The larger church is quite grand and makes for a nice stop, possibly for a prayer for safekeeping on the further ascent up the mountain. While the scenery was quite spectacular, the weather was a bit foggy and overcast so we gave up our quest for more elevation and descended to a one star restaurant in the middle of nowhere that I’d nonetheless hoped to find. More on that later.

    I expect that my brief time in the Picos de Europa (and my even briefer review) will disappoint those who urged us to go there. We did enjoy the bit of it that we saw and we’re glad we went, but we’re also glad we reserved the bulk of our time for seaside pursuits.

    Villavicosia—was, however, not one of the better seaside towns we pursued. Unable to find the charm, we moved on to strike paydirt, scenically speaking at……

    Cudillera—We loved this town. It reminded us of Vernazza on the Cinque Terre, at the base of a long drive down to the sea with delightful restaurants and bars clustered at the bottom of a steep hill, just inviting you to stop, eat, drink, make merry and enjoy. Luckily we scored a parking space, in a town where they are in very short supply. This place is a poster child for the kind of colorful fishing villages that we love. Truth to tell, there’s not a lot there. But you just want to sit down, relax and be a part of it all.

    Luarca—was another, nice seaside fishing village kind of a place. It being Saturday and springtime, there was a wedding at the town church and though we didn’t get a glimpse of the bride and groom, we were treated to the guests in all their wedding finery assembled at the church door waiting for the presumably happy couple to emerge from the signing of the papers. Apparently Spanish women really dress for these occasions. There were lots of long dresses, super big hats, long dangly earrings and hooker shoes all over the place. Great people watching. Fun bars lining the harbor with colorful boats here as well.

    Ribadeo—was not our favorite, town or hotel. It did, however, afford us another opportunity for people watching as a wedding was also in full swing at the parador where we stayed. This one was a bit more sedate than the one we observed in Luarca—until about 3 a.m. when the reservation faded away and the noise continued.

    The town of Ribadeo appeared sad to us, faded and in need of rehab. Case in point, the 1905 built modernist building with a fabulous copper colored tiled roof and seemingly no upkeep whatsoever. The building could/should be a showpiece, facing the central town park. Instead it’s a run down, bedraggled orphan badly in need of repair. This is a town of potential, but apparently completely unrealized.

    Praia de Catedral—just outside of Ribadeo, further along the coast, is a beautiful, area of natural cliffs on a par with those in Etretat, but if anything higher and more water-carved. Made the stop in Ribadeo almost worthwhile.

    Our guidebook raved about Viviero and Ortiqueira along the Rias Baixes. We found them ok, the former with a decent pedestrian street and an ok promenade along the biaxes, but not overwhelming. We did, however, enjoy very much the beautiful scenery as we drove along. Hydraneas everywhere, reminded us of Normandy and Brittany, beautiful tall pines and umbrella palms, and estuaries of water and swamps and greenery everywhere caused us to finally understand the meaning of “Green Spain.”

    In that vein, we loved Cedeira—a place with a nice harbor and large central square where lots of townspeople were assembled for Sunday lunch at the various restaurants surrounding it. Nice park areas as well.

    Tomorrow Galicia and Santiago de Compostela.

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    Hi Julie,
    You're doing your usual wonderful job with this great trip report! I'm enjoying every word, of course!

    The Asturian blow holes are in Puerto de Vidiago to the east of Andrín (a nice walk down to them from the Casa Poli restaurant) and also at Gulpiyuri, a beach in the middle of a meadow!, to the west of Llanes, which is an amazing sight. For your next trip, I'll give you detailed directions to reach both, as they're just very hard to find, with really poor signage!

    Love that you found Cudillero to be like Vernazza. It has always reminded me of a CT village.

    And I completely agree about Ribadeo-the town has so much potential but its architectural treasures are really run down.

    Looking forward to your next chapter!

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    Julie--

    Thanks for a great report. We enjoyed Cudillero and Ribadesella and it was great to read about them again. We too followed Maribel's advice and had a great time.

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    Sorry to be pedantic, but Viveiro and Ortigueira are not in the Rias Baixas. Yes Ribadeo is quite run down. If only you had come inland a few km you could have seen other treasures which in my opinion should not be missed.

    BTW Ortigueira has a great Celtic music festival and you should go there for that.

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    Rebeirasacra, you're quite right, of course. Thanks for the correction. And thanks for reading, your posts were among the many I read to prepare for this trip. Thanks for your guidance.

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    Santiago de Compostela

    I just realized that I’m sort of mixing up my geography in this report. A purist would have covered everything after Ribadeo in the Galician part of the report, since it is in Galicia not Asturias. Forgive me. So, having confessed, I can move on to Santiago de Compostela hopefully washed of my sin. What a little gem of a place. Not only is the Cathedral beautiful, but the several other churches are as well and the town itself is wonderful—at least the old town where we spent most all of our time. At night the place is haunting and wonderfully lovely. I don’t know why it took us so long to finally get there and I hope we’ll return.

    The church itself is fantastic, airy but gold laden with nice quiet chapels and real worshipers, and best of all complete freedom to walk about and take pictures. DH is in heaven—or as close as he’s likely to get. On the frequently debated issue of if and when the botefumeria (sp?) swings daily or only on special days, we were informed by our hotel concierge that the latter is true and that it wouln’t be swinging while we were in town. Too bad though DH would probably never have been able to stand the long seated wait to see it if it had been swinging, so it may have been just as well for us. The church itself was plenty to take in.

    But fantastic as the interior is, the exterior is probably even better and is endlessly photographable from all its many angles and in every possible light. We probably have more pictures of this church than any we’ve ever been in save Notre Dame, the latter not for the church itself but for its location overall.

    The streets near the cathedral are wonderful as well, surrounded by ancient medieval buildings and even a cute little mini-park or two and wonderful tapas and other restaurants. As I write this I recognize that my recording skills are not what they should be. We saw much more in Santiago than my notes permit me to recall, perhaps I was just too happy looking to spend much time recording. Trust me, it’s a lovely city which will take your breath away as you round the corner to the cathedral and the main square in front of it.

    One thing I do recall quite vividly, the tunas. We were lucky enough to see a group of about 5 of them playing various medieval (and some not so medieval) instruments and singing in their colorful costumes with their colorful ribbons and black capes in the arcaded areas beneath the building across the square from the cathedral. These are roving bands of troubadours representing the various schools of the university in Santiago. I think the night we heard them Spain had just won another round in the soccer tournament they were in so they were probably even in better form than usual. We bought our CD of tuna music from a delightful old gentleman I shall forever think of as Charlie Tuna, who roams the streets alone in full tuna regalia selling them. He’s a real old world gentleman hand kisser whom I just couldn’t resist.

    Day trip from Santiago

    Though our destination for the day was the large portside city of A Coruna, we made a couple of intermediate stops.

    Betanzos—was tough to get into since half the town was torn up for sewer renovation or somesuch but when we finally spotted a parking spot and got to the main street, we found a very charming main square, nice main street and lovely churches. We stopped for coffee and orange juice on the pedestrian main street where a group of developmentally disabled young adults were likewise stopping for a snack.

    Maybe it’s just that we’re more often in walking mode when in Europe than in the US that this happens or maybe there truly is a difference in approach between here and there, but I’ve often been struck by how much more humane the European approach to the developmentally disabled appears to be. We’ve often run across groups with their caretakers taking walks and even stopping for drinks (yes, even alcohol to all appearances) on their outings—something we seem to see far less of in the States. The European elderly seem to remain much longer in the mainstream than they do in the US. Now I’m also thinking they have a more integrative approach to the mentally challenged as well.

    Sada—on the coast between Betanzos and A Coruna is home to a weird modernista building covered with decorations that look like lyres--strange, nice parks and a couple of harbors. It provided us a nice stop for drinks accompanied by a pleasant little tapas of bean stew.

    Meidras—wasn’t to be. Supposedly it has a palace built for a Galician writer and lived in by Franco and now owned by his relatives, but it’s only to be seen as a glimpse during a drive by.

    A Coruna—is a large city of some 230,000, like St. Paul, MN, where we lived for a long time. It has lots of industry, much of which is port-centered. We were lucky enough to find parking and walked past a nice park and an art nouveau-like casino and then into the pedestrian town center. The main square is named for Maria Pita, the local heroine who saved the town from Sir Francis Drake and his boys. I’d say it’s a pretty fitting tribute, one of the largest squares we encountered on this trip, surrounded on three sides by restaurants (now it was I who was in heaven) all with tented annexes directly on the square itself. The fourth side of the square is taken up by the 1908 Palacio Municipal with beautiful, shiny copper tiled turrets. It made for a lovely view for our lunch on the square.

    After lunch we walked along the port viewing and taking pictures of the glass balconies on the buildings for which the city is so famous

    More Galicia

    We left Santiago de Compostela after three wonderful days there and took off for our next three day destination of San Vicente do Mar, in the vicinity of Pontevedre. Our stops in this area included:

    Vilagarcia de Arousa—a port but not a lot else. (Perhaps we’d become jaded.)

    Cambados—this, however, was a true favorite. It’s on the sea with a nice harbor but also has a cute old town, sweet actually—except for the bar named “Coyote Ugly” which added something of a balance to the scene overall. It has nice squares—one at the end of the main street with a great old wine bar and the old local church, houses with geraniums falling from the window baskets, a market that snakes along the entire harbor (a market and a harbor—my two favorite sightseeing items right together, perfect.) There was also a very utilitarian indoor fish market with an expert sardine gutter whom I could have watched all day. Skill is a wonderful thing to observe.

    We also observed many other skills being practiced when we returned to the town for dinner one evening. Arriving early, we walked down the street from the restaurant to one of a couple of squares in the town. It being a Friday evening, everyone in town had come out for a snack and the tableau was fantastic. There were waitresses and just strolling women dressed to kill (or at least to achieve something that evening), parents watching their young offspring toddle and fall and toddle some more, school age kids squabbling and finally coming to fisticuffs over a ball, adolescents doing that adolescent mooney thing, and old folks—like us—just drinking their drinks and taking in the scene. Could have watched this all night. Great street theatre.

    O Grove—colorful fishing port lined with fishermen’s nets in large piles.

    Viana do Castello—provided the destination for our foray into Portugal. This turned out to be DH’s favorite small city. So glad Bobthenavigator and Maribel recommended it. It’s vibrant, happening, and colorful. Unlike Ribadeo that looks like the city fathers give not a care, this place looks like it must have a terrific local government and chamber of commerce that are moving the little place along on all the right tracks. They were gearing up for a 750 year anniversary and the place was full of flags as bleachers lined the streets awaiting a major parade. The old town area is very cute with lots of interesting buildings, a couple of nice churches, a museum, nice squares, some interesting and colorful modern sidewalk art, lots of sidewalk cafes and a couple of ports.

    Pontevedre—is a large city between Santiago and Vigo with a nice old town, cute square, nice churches, buildings with heraldic symbols embossed on them. Again, we observe some street theatre as we stop for a mid-morning break next to a small square where the local grade school takes recess. All the elementary clichés are there in full view—the circle of the pretty little girls, some with Barbie dolls, the chubby little girl by herself away from the rest and pretending to be studying, the boys playing soccer while another little boy watches some crawly critter intently oblivious to the hubbub around him. Interesting, and a little sad.

    Vigo—we see only enough to get to the airport but don’t feel bad to miss it since it’s billed as a very industrial city lacking in charm. The airport, however, is entirely serviceable, if small, and we have no problem whatsoever, dropping our car and catching our plane to Madrid where we spend our last two nights before flying back to the US.

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    Madrid

    We flew Air Europa from Vigo to Madrid. It was just swell. Loaded easily, arrived early, no luggage problems. I love low cost flying within Europe. DH hates it (especially the EasyJet cattle call loading, etc.) but this went some way toward changing his mind. It sure made the whole trip a lot easier than if we’d have had to drive back the 7+ hours from the Galician coast or even take the 9 hour train. We were there in 45 minutes.

    Madrid was HOT. We’d become spoiled with the near perfect travel and sightseeing weather we had on the coast so when we encountered the 35 degree Celsius (95 F) that awaited us in Madrid, we wilted. The sun shone mercilessly on the Puerto del Sol and we turned crabby, ate a quick lunch and returned to the hotel for AC, cold showers and naps.
    The temperature had decreased to around 80 by the time the sun was fully down and we were able to walk to dinner and have drinks on the patio just off the park across the street from the Royal Palace where a free concert was held later in the evening. This experience with Madrid heat helped me understand a bit better the heretofore considered strange late night dining of the Madrilenos and other Spanierds.

    We were up and on the street the following morning and our last day in Spain by 8 a.m. This time the temperature in the Puerto del Sol was tolerable but the stench of public urination from the Saturday night crowd was hardly so. Indeed some of that crowd remained. We took off for the Fountain of the Cybelines and the Palace of Communication and walked the wide boulevard that passes the Prado down to the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum.

    This was one of the very few museum stops we made during this trip and it proved very worthwhile for our tastes, heavy on more recent works rather than old religious masters with a good collection of impressionists. But my favorite pictures were the two enormous portraits in the museum lobby—a stately and very attractive, classy looking King Juan Carlos and Queen Sophia, likely painted for the opening of the museum, and the other of the Baroness. (I can’t recall whether it was just her or if it included the Baron, but plainly she was the major attraction.) She is attired in a long dress with a floozy collar of flounces, holding her poodle. The only thing missing to have made it the quintessential portrait of the young(ish) society wife of a very wealthy man was a long handled cigarette holder. Money doesn’t always ensure good taste, at least not in personal attire. Catty as those remarks are, I can’t fault her taste in art. There are some wonderful paintings in the collection.

    We toured the also relatively modern Madrid cathedral, one of my favorites in all of Europe with its brightly colored murals and painted ceiling. The rest of the time we just walked about very slowly to remain as cool as we possibly could and stopped often for my latest favorite drink—zummo naranja fresca, fresh squeezed orange juice. This is one of the things I really like best about Spain. There is almost nowhere that you can’t get a great fresh orange juice, squeezed by those nifty automated zummo machines that pull the oranges in, cut them in half, and squeeze the juice out of them before dumping the rinds in a garbage receptacle. Love it.

    Had we been true soccer fans we could have joined the hordes of locals making their way to various spots around town kitted out with enormous screens on which to view the championship game of the soccer tournament (I’m embarrassed to say I can’t recall what the name was. I know it was not the world cup, but it was a big deal nonetheless.) Based strictly on concern for personal safety I couldn’t decide whether to be hopeful that the Spanish team would win or lose. I feared pandemonium in any event. As it turned out they won, beating Italy, a long time rival, and we survived. In fact we even made it to the airport through the city at 3:45 a.m. to catch a very early flight back to the states, having our own mini-Diana moment as our car came across an accident in a nearly empty tunnel which we took for nearly the entire length of the city. Luckily the motor cycle accident had already attracted the police and an ambulance so we could be on our way.

    Overall, we enjoyed this trip immensely. The sights were wonderful and we were lucky enough to have great weather in which to explore them. We also stayed in a series of great hotels and ate many wonderful meals about which the rest of this report will speak at even greater length—if you have the patience, and the stomach, for more.

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    Lodging in Northern Spain

    We stayed in 7 different hotels during this trip, most for 3 nights each, with a wide range of variation in style but all relatively reasonable in price. All were very acceptable and one or two rank with some of my favorite places anywhere.

    Real Casona des Amas in Azofra, Rioja

    I booked this place for its location enroute from Madrid to the coast but still acceptably close to the sights of Rioja. They required an upfront deposit only partially refundable so when I started having second thoughts I realized I was stuck if I didn’t want to forfeit a sizable chunk of change. As it turned out the place was fine but it did have a number of drawbacks that make me unable to recommend it to others even as I dispute some of the reviews that caused me to have second thoughts in the first place

    For starters the town it’s in, Azofra, is not just minimal, it’s miserable. Nothing there except a couple of bars and a square if you can call it that. And the exterior of the hotel is so understated that we drove by it twice before finally finding the entrance which requires that you ring the bell. That alone was completely symbolic of the place—unapproachable and certainly not inviting.

    The place has terrific basics, just bad management who are anal about the care—not of the guests, but of their investment in the furnishings. There are no mini-fridges in the room and indeed no drinks of any sort (except the clear water provided) are even allowed in the rooms, even if you purchase them at the bar downstairs. (We felt like school kids sneaking our bottles of wine in in my purse.) There are only two places in the room to put non-hanging clothes, a single drawer in the bottom of the wardrobe and a small drawer in the writing desk. The giant bathroom which sports lovely hand-painted fixtures has no hooks to hang clothes on. Everything has been thought of and no expense spared to decorate the place, but no thought has been given to the comfort and convenience of the guests. Even the parking lot was roped off (too pretty to drive on?) and guests were expected to find street parking—not a hardship since no tourists were visiting this beauty forsaken town.

    The room itself was lovely, with purple and green furnishings (better than that sounds) and a purple canopy over the bed, 400+ thread count sheets and a nice deck with table and chairs—where you couldn’t sit and drink anything except clear water. There’s even a nice, small swimming pool. The dining, sitting, bar, breakfast room was beautifully decorated including lovely tear drop lamps. There was a nice courtyard with a lovely garden and tented pavilion where I asked about being served breakfast. Of course not, only indoors, apparently too much work to treat the guests to outdoor dining. I swear I would have carried the trays myself.

    Too bad. Had the place shown even the slightest bit of generosity of spirit and hospitality the town could be overlooked. We weren’t there all that often and the drive through back roads to various Rioja destinations was so beautiful as to make the distance not only bearable, but actually a treat.

    I take issue with the Trip Advisor reviewer who caviled about the breakfast. We found that excellent even if they force you to eat it inside to save themselves some steps. Nice course ground salami that seemed locally made, ham slices and cheese with toasted bread and cake with jam and some more of that wonderful fresh orange juice was all served on beautiful table linens with lots of color beneath the orange lamp-shades with glass teardrop pulls. Classy, just too bad about the aloof, “don’t touch” attitude. As Forrest’s mom always said, “Pretty is as pretty does.”

    To make matters worse, this lovely but inhospitable setting was our most costly hotel with a price tag of 200 euros per night. You can see it at époque hotels.com but there’s really no use looking. Take some of Maribel’s other suggestions for lodging in the Rioja area.


    Vincci Puerto Chico in Santander

    The place we selected in Santander might be seen as just your typical business hotel and I guess it was. But it sure was nice and the breakfast might have been the best on the trip.
    We wanted to stay near the water, so I selected this hotel for its location directly on the yacht harbor Puerto Chico, rather than a place in the commercial heart of the city or even on the beach at El Sardinero. Glad we did. We thought the location perfect, with views across the street to the harbor and close enough to the commercial heart that we could walk it easily. We’d not have liked staying in El Sardinero where we’d have needed to drive back to town in order to see the majority of sights. The harbor was more clean kept than I’d envisioned—no cute, colorful fishing boats with nets draped over them and cats sleeping beneath them as I’d have preferred—but a nice picture out the window.

    Our room, one of 52 in the hotel, was business-like serviceable but had a chair with reading lamp right by the window and a nice bathroom with good shower and tub. The entrance to the hotel had a small bar and tables spread with newspapers and there was a small sidewalk café outside.

    We were able to find parking (for which there was an additional charge) in the municipal garage beneath the hotel and to exit the garage by foot just steps from the entry to the hotel. Nice in a larger city.

    Breakfast was served buffet style on the second floor in a modern room. For 13 euros if I remember correctly, they offered two types of tortilla omelet, one with and the other without meat and both very good, fresh fruit, pastries, cheeses, breads, tomatoes, eggs, bacon, ham, and coffee. Nice as it was, this was one of the few places that did not have fresh oj. In all other respects, you couldn’t ask for a better tasting breakfast.

    I would certainly recommend this place to others, and I would book there again myself. I never saw another hotel in the city that looked better for my needs. It’s a member of the Vincci hotel chain and I liked it well enough that I would look for others in the chain elsewhere. In fact, we checked one out in NYC on a recent trip. Seemed nice enough. The one in Santander seemed very reasonable at 115 euros per night double. I found it on Booking.com which I find a very good site for hotel shopping.


    Villa Rosario in Ribadesella

    This was my favorite hotel of the trip and right up there with my top 5 or so all time favorite hotels. The exterior is just plain arresting, fanciful, pleasing and even beautiful in a quirky sort of way. It’s one of those Indianos places that the local aristocracy built after returning from the new world with their new fortunes. It’s grey with white gingerbread trim and a turret, facing the boardwalk and the bay beyond that with a modern glass restaurant as an appendage. It’s 3 or 4 stories with a nice homelike feel as you enter the “living room” which serves as the concierge desk.

    Our room which had views of the sea from the room and the bathroom (love a bathroom with a view) was appointed in royal blue and red with modern furnishings and the bathroom had nice white and blue ceramic tiles. Comfortable, with a couch and desk as well as an entry that provided plenty of closet space and nice modern art on the wall.

    We had one nice, highly competently prepared dinner and three lovely breakfasts in the glass enclosed dining room facing the sea. Great views. Fun people watching.

    You can see this place at www.Casonasasturianas.com/villarosario. Be sure to click on the spot that allows you to see more pictures of the place. (Again a thank you to Maribel who turned me onto this website. Most of the places on it looked nice and all seemed very reasonable price wise.) The exterior looks blue on the website but in reality it is grey. Regardless of the color it’s wonderful, especially for the mere 105 euros per night we were charged in June which is still low season there. Very probably the best value accommodation I’ve ever found.

    Villa Rosario was built in 1904 by a warehouseman in the tobacco industry in Cuba and has been lovingly cared for throughout. It’s a gem. I said a heartfelt, profuse thank you to the woman tending the front desk and told her how much we’d enjoyed our visit. She asked if we might be returning next year. I felt sad to say that would be unlikely (northern Spain is less accessible to us than say, Normandy, which affords similar opportunity to be on the sea in small towns) but I promised that I would tell others about her wonderful hotel and urge them to book it if they are ever in the vicinity. Promise fulfilled.


    Parador at Ribadeo

    As far as I can recall, this was probably only the second parador that we’ve ever stayed in (the other being the modern one in Ronda which we liked very much), though we’ve eaten in several more. It was nice enough but something of a letdown after the wonderful Villa Rosario. It’s starting to fray a bit about the edges and could use some freshening up, especially in the rooms where floors could use resurfacing. The amount of space OTOH is amazing. For 154 euros including tax and breakfast on a “Golden Days” special promotion based on our age—how discriminatory but I’ll take it, we had not only a bedroom but also a very large living room, a walk-in closet room, a sun porch with windows onto the estuary and two full bathrooms. Food in the dining room was ok but nothing to write about. Breakfast there was plentiful but not as good as Vincci Puerto Chico in Santander where the tortilla was head and shoulders better.


    Hotel Monumento San Francisco in Santiago de Compostela

    The small Villa Rosario was my favorite hotel of the trip. This large, far more impersonal place, was, however, my second favorite. It had what I took to calling “ascetic chic” and it provided a wonderful sense of calm. It had been a monastery then a convent and most recently a hostel in previous lives. It was newly remodeled in 2005 but it felt like they’d just opened. Everything looked new. Everything is stone walls, dark wood and tile, with grey and brown linens. Easy upkeep. Maximum style. Soothing. I enjoyed it thoroughly.

    With 76 rooms, the place seems to do a big tour bus and convention business, at least that’s what we surmised when we took breakfast one morning in the refectory. It may also host lots of weddings and group dinners, but we never felt crowded or adrift among the other tourists. There is a pool and a spa. The place now has everything denied to the monks and nuns who once inhabited it.

    Prices vary by the day, but our Sun to Tues. stay worked out to be 155 euros a day without breakfast, but with free parking, again a good deal for a tourist mecca like Santiago de Compostela. See it at www.sanfranciscohm.com


    Mar Atlantico in San Vicente do Mar

    This was perhaps the hotel selection I most agonized about. I wanted to stay on the coast somewhere in the vicinity of Pontevedre to give us maximum opportunity for good day trips. I also wanted to be in a place where there would be enough to do to keep us interested but without being in a resort area overrun with tourists and high rise buildings. In the end the thing that sold me on this place was the red bird symbol denoting peace and quiet that Michelin uses in its guides. We got lucky. Though we bought a pig in a poke, or rather a bird on a limb, it all worked out just great.

    The hotel lived up to its symbol. It was not directly on the sea, but rather set above it about 500 meters, giving us views from our second story window over the pines and onto the sea with a waterfall below our balcony overlooking the hotel’s lovely garden. It was idyllic. The grounds overall were nicely landscaped, with a small version of one of those small graneries on stilts that Galicia is famous for, right next to the outdoor pool set in another nice garden. The hotel had lovely home like public rooms, a nice bar, a sundeck, and a spa. It also had an excellent restaurant where we had one of the better meals of the trip. No wonder so many of the guests appeared to be staying on half pension terms.

    Our room was pleasant with a nicely appointed bathroom and a balcony with two chairs and a table from which we could view the sea and the garden.

    The only downside to the place was the lack of a decent town in the vicinity. Again, no wonder so many folks were on half board terms. But at 105 euros per day it seemed like a small quibble. We would certainly stay there again and I recommend it to others with only the reservation about the lack of close by towns.


    Room Mate Laura in Madrid

    My taste in hotels is eclectic. While I most prefer small places of charm and character like Villa Rosario, I also like larger places of stripped down asceticism like Monumento San Francisco, and even utilitarian places like Vincci Puerto Chico. And I even like super modern, trendy, hip and youthful—which is what this place was.

    It’s a member of the Room Mate chain which originated in Spain and has expanded rapidly including one of their newest, Grace, in NYC, and another, Waldorf Towers in south Beach, Miami. Madrid has four of them, though at the rate they’re expanding it may be more by the time I post this. The magazine they left in the room said they were building 25 more in the next year.

    Laura is located up a hill slightly behind the opera house and it’s the location that’s the most off putting of any aspect of the place. The surroundings seem dodgy and they’re certainly not attractive, and not very clean—of course, neither is a lot of Madrid. Recall my Sunday morning experience in the stinky Puerto del Sol.

    Otherwise, it’s a pretty interesting place. You enter up a flight of stairs and most everything is orange—my favorite color. What’s not orange is either black or white. The furnishings don’t appear selected to last but they’re interesting while they remain around.

    Our room was a two story affair, with couch and table and chairs plus main bathroom/shower downstairs and bed with (thankfully) a second mini-bathroom upstairs.
    Even the stairs themselves are interesting. Each is a half step, alternating the place where you must put your foot from the left to the right—not good for a person like myself with problem ankles and knees who most often ascends, and especially descends, one step at a time, placing both feet on the same riser at once. I told you, didn’t I that this is a trendy, youthful kind of place. Oldies take note. I’m pleased to say I survived all this without mishap, but I admit I’d not knowingly book similar digs again, even for the flaming orange accents.

    The headboard for the bed was actually the wall itself, cut back in concentric rectangles with an orange lighted picture of Queen Elizabeth—the first. No clue what that was all about, but it was arresting. What I didn’t like was that this loft bed, was by virtue of the small amount of space available, pushed next to the wall causing me to have to shimmy in and out of bed if I didn’t want to wake my DH to let me out like a regular person.

    Bathrooms follow the white minimalist formulaic pattern with stainless steel small vanities and black bubble floors that can be laid of a piece. You have to do somethings simply if you’re going to erect 25 new minimalist places in the next year in parts unknown.

    The breakfast room and the breakfast were very nice with more pix of QE1, orange, black and white décor, Chilewich placemats and all the standard offerings, all of which were included in the standard room rate which turned out to average 155 euros per night, though higher one night and lower the next. Truly not a bad rate for a clean, interesting hotel in the center of a major city. I’d not return, but that has more to do with me than the hotel. For young, hip, agile under 50 somethings, I’d say it’s a pretty good deal. But I’d investigate the Madrid locations of the other members of the chain before booking this one. It may be that the others are in better neighborhoods and still afford the same trendy vibe. See for yourself at www.room-matehotels.com.


    Summing it up

    None of the hotels we selected were bad. Some were wonderful. Most I would return to. And best of all, I can say unequivocally that Spain gives you much more for your lodging euro than most other European countries. Again, go!!

    Oof da, as we used to say in Minnesota. If I’ve spent this much time and space on hotels, what will happen when I try to provide succinct comments about the places where we dined?!! That will have to wait until tomorrow. For today I’m typed out.

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    Marija, I could go on and on about Villa Rosario. It's such a gem. Glad to hear from another fan. And thanks for bearing with me so far. Plenty of info coming up about food. I even ate percebes I'm proud to say. And I'm even prouder to say that I really liked them. Now to afford them.

    Bob, glad to have your kind attention too. I needed to get this report done so I can leave the country with a clean slate in a couple of weeks to fill it up again with info from Vienna, Prague and Germany's romantic road returning early October. Then we'll be back in Barcelona for the time between Christmas and New Years staying in a apartment for the first time ever and hopefully doing a day trip by plane to Mallorca. How about you? Where to next?

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    Julie,

    Thanks so much for your very thorough review of the Real Casona de las Amas.
    Your description both of the rooms and the attitude of the staff was what I had feared (and what my friends had told me) and the reasons it didn't (and won't) appear in my Rioja guide. Along with the fact that it's simply not at all a good value.

    For your next trip, I think you would enjoy the originally decorated Hospedería Señorío de Casalarreina if you'd like to be near Haro-although Casalarreina as a town is no great beauty, but somewhat prettier than Santo Domingo and certainly offers more than Azofra, including 2 fine restaurants:
    Vieja Bodega
    La Cueva de Doña Isabela

    The rooms are beautifully decorated but with the guests'comfort in mind, and the bodegas of Haro are just minutes away.

    Or the Villa de Abalos if you don't mind staying in a very, very tiny (but cute) hamlet that has zero night life in a small inn. Merce's breakfasts are yummy and dinners (for guests only) divine and gently priced. And they produce their own wine.


    And you have confirmed everything that my friend who runs Camino bike tours says about the Hotel Monumento San Francisco where her guests stay.

    I agree completely with your comments about the location of the Laura and the "for those under 50" vibe. Although I'm not thrilled about the new Room Mate Oscar's location, I do think the overall room comfort is greater there (particularly in the executive rooms), and the Room Mate Alicia has a fine location near the museum triangle, but I recommend the jr. suites there for spaciousness. And if the Room Mate Alicia is booked, there's the 4 star Vinnci Soho right below on Calle del Prado, although it's not so competitively priced.

    I'm so happy you enjoyed the Villa Rosario and was hoping that it would be one of your favorites!

    Great, candid and balanced hotel reviews, Julie!

    Now, I'm eagerly awaiting the much anticipated dining chapters!

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    Thanks, Maribel. Good advice. We did spend time in Casalarienna, eating at the Vieja Bodega based on your recommendation. It was one of our favorite meals. I think I'd stay in the Hospederia that you recommend there. We made a special point to see the cute little hotel in Abalos but I'm afraid that the town itself would be too small to keep us happy for anything more than a one or two night stay.

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    Yes, Julie,
    I think the Hospedería Señorío de Casalarreina would be a nice and better fit for your next visit. And it's a member of Rusticae. If you liked the Casonas Asturianas, several of them are also Rusticae properties.
    www.rusticae.es
    We're quite fond of these inns as well as the Casonas Asturianas and Club de Calidad Cantabria.

    In fact, this summer we took our Club de Calidad Cantabria Infinita guide with us to "inspect" (for business purposes and our future trips) as many as we could, and we managed to visit every one of the 52 properties except for three. Whew! So if you're interested in any of them for future visits, I did take some good notes that I'll write up as reviews.

    Now, on to the dining!!!

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    Santiago: I stayed several times at Hostal Hogar San Francisco when it was called that. Now it's been renovated and the name changed but it's still the same Building(s). We stayed in the 'Special Room' named for the Carbonero who helped Saint Francis build the place. I call it the Provincial's Room: Huge double bed; full size bath; used to be Room #508, but that may have changed. I had also stayed in one of the cell-like singles: not recommended for creature comfort.

    In February, I coincided with a Bus load of Bavarian Camino Guides who were learning the Camino. They worked out of Pamplona (Navarre) in the Summer.

    Vigo: You didn't do justice to Vigo (Pontevedra) or Baiona, Islas Cies and several other locales. Next trip, try to spend some time along the coast between ria de Vigo and the Minho estuary. Include Monte Santa Tecla! Sample the Albariño wines (especially the Rosal) from the Minho valley.

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    Thanks Ned, appreciate the tips for more complete touring in the Vigo area. Interesting insight on the San Francisco in Santiago. You must return to see what wonderful changes they've made to the old hostel. I don't think any of the uncomfortable single cells remain.

    While we didn't get to see all the places you speak of in the Vigo area, we did a pretty decent job of tasting Albarinos. Wonderful stuff--except for one bottle that they were pleased to say had been aged in special oak, not a good thing to do to those wines if you ask me. I would have liked to have spent a little time seeing more of the vineyards and wineries where they grow and make it.

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    Didn't get very far on the dining info, just through Rioja. Here it is. More to follow.

    Dining in Northern Spain

    Now for my favorite part of the report. Thanks to recommendations garnered here and in Marbel’s guides and from Maribel herself, we were able to eat quite well indeed in Northern Spain. I finally had percebes (the famous goose barnacles that Andrew Zimmern ate on his show on the food network). We shattered some old biases against hotel dining. I conquered some of my standoffishness (or maybe standupishness) about tapas eating. And we consumed record amounts of goat, fish soup, iberico ham, and razor clams. As Lee Marvin said in Cat Ballou, “It was swell, just swell.”


    Hotel Torremilanos in Aranda del Duero

    We started out with a winner. Our first meal in Spain was at this lovely winery hotel, loaded with old world charm and tradition, about 4 km west of Aranda. Sitting areas and bar on main floor with dining rooms on the floor above. Nothing was spared to make this a lovely dining spot. Initials embroidered on the tablecloths, napkins and even the bathroom towels. Antique sideboards, heavy wooden chairs and oil paintings of the estate adorning the walls. Service is old school on matched china rather than disparate, different shaped glass, slate and china of varying hues as is the current fad.

    The food was the equal of the surroundings. I had lamb sweetbreads, perfectly done in butter with a touch of herbs and vinegar, then tiny lamb chops and fried potatoes. DH had the first of many plates of iberico ham slices and fried mushrooms like his Latvian granny used to make. We accompanied our meal with salads and a Torremilanos Ribera del Duero (when in Rome…) gran reserva for a mere 25 euros—probably would have been three times that in a US restaurant. The meal in total came to 104 euros. We were off to a good start.

    La Vieja Bodega in Casalareina
    Our good dining luck held through dinner at this large but very welcoming bodega.
    Searching for similarities between the Rioja and Napa experience, I decided that this place came closest to Tra Vigne from my Napa Experience—but with more light. It has high ceilings and a party vibe rather than anything quietly intimate. There are several different large dining rooms and a couple of smaller party rooms as well as a bar at entry. We were seated in the largest room that has a corner given over to a glassed in wine cellar with a sort of wine “scene” complete with large bottles and grape picking equipment, etc. on top of that. The mood is playful and somewhat rustic and artsy rather than ultramodern or trendy.

    We’ve never been very good at the late dining of Spain, and especially so on a first night after a flight. We arrived before opening and walked around the town while waiting to claim our reservations. We had the place almost completely to ourselves until we were finished and leaving when a few other local diners were starting to come in. Rather than be apologetic about our early dining habits, we use the relative freedom our lonely status affords us to walk about and take plenty of photos of the dining milieu without disturbing others. It usually also means that we get rather prompt and specialized attention from the staff.

    Overall the meal was one of my very favorites for the entire trip—a high standard to compare others against. My starter was a perfect cold poached egg in an equally cold gazpacho that I thought compared favorably with the wonderful gazpacho served at Atelier Robuchon in Paris—no kidding. DH had not just one or even two but three generous slices of excellent fois gras. We followed with beef cheeks for him and pigs’ feet in potato sheets for me, so unctuous as to be nearly overwhelming. Dinner came to the exact same total as lunch for the day, 104 euros including tip and a nice red Rioja at 34 euros. This was excellent rustic comfort food with some deft new touches and we sure liked it.

    Tapas on Calle Laurel and surrounding streets in Logrono

    I’d read about this street of tapas in Maribel’s guides and on Chowhound posts and couldn’t wait to try it. It was something. I’d always felt a little awkward with the standing at the bar thing. For one thing I have problems with my knees and ankles and much prefer to sit. For another I’m very clumsy and never felt I’d be able to properly eat while standing up and holding a glass of wine or a beer. All those reservations flew out the window as we sort of fell into the spirit of the mid-day revelry of this wonderful street.

    Supposedly each bar specializes in one tapas and you move from bar to bar to take in the specialties. We saw that formula in action at a place that made only tapas of 3 mushrooms stacked on a piece of bread (to catch the dripping grease in which they’d been fried) and topped with a shrimp. It was heavenly and ridiculously cheap. But if the next bar had a specialty, they were diversifying, because there we had scrambled egg sandwiches, and olives with both red and silver anchovies. I was also able to snag a stool to make it less likely that I’d be upsetting things with my clumsiness. Beer and wine at 65 cents per serving continued the cheap theme.

    Our final stop was a really big splurge at a place with a large selection. For all of 12 euros we had salmon topped with baby eel and thin slices of octopus covered in pulverized veggies—carrots, celery, onion, etc. Wonderful. It’s my husband’s favorite way to eat and he even prefers it to his beloved Chinese food, except for dim sum which, of course, is really only Chinese tapas.

    Asador Alameda in Fuenmayor

    Dinner on our second night in Rioja was quite different from the first. This place is smaller, set on two floors and much more traditional than Vieja Bodega. The décor was, by comparison, pretty minimal. Dining there was like a trip back 30 years to a good Relais and Chateau dining room. Even my appetizer looked like something I’d have been served somewhere in France in the 1980s—a millefeuille of asparagus and shrimp in a creamy hollandaise type sauce. Meltingly good. DH repeats the iberico ham, as he was to do at fully half of our stops. He loves the stuff and Spain is the motherlode. He followed with a large grouper steak in garlic butter. I was disappointed that they were not serving roast goat that evening. I’d read that theirs is among the best and since it’s my favorite meat, I was prepared to have the best of the best. Alas, it was not to be.
    I contented myself with the goats trotters and I have to say they weren’t my favorites. They have far less meat than pigs feet and almost no fat, so I was sort of very white skin attached to bones in a tomato sauce. The best I could say for it was that it was something I’d never had before (which of course was why I ordered it) but I doubt I’ll ever have it again.

    We had a Rioja gran reserva throughout dinner and the excellent cheese course and coffee and espresso with a pear tart for dessert. At 124 euros, again a value meal. Though not among my favorites I think we ordered poorly and didn’t give the place a chance to show itself to advantage based on the recommendations I’ve read about it. Dashed expectations (no goat) almost always result in less enthusiastic reaction to a restaurant in my experience. Also our early arrival meant we were dining along again and this time it really did feel rather lonely since we were seated upstairs causing us to feel truly out of the swing of the place and the décor left little to photograph to maintain our lonely interest. Service was, however, very solicitous especially given our lack of Spanish with a waiter who spoke no English.


    1860 at Marques de Riscal in Elciego

    We tried to get reservations in the main dining room at this winery hotel designed by Frank Gehry but were too late with our request and were offered instead the opportunity to dine in their casual “second” restaurant. Though I didn’t see the main dining room so I can’t compare, I will say this place met our needs—both for lunch and for a glimpse of the hotel interior-- just fine. Actually my first thought when I saw the place was that they’d had an opening and we were being seated in the main dining room after all. The place is quite stunning, décor-wise.

    Though on a small footprint, it has tall ceilings and a view through tall windows of the backside of the titanium sheets that decorate the building exterior. The walls are decorated with black on white and white on blue square paintings that look like drawings. The serving tables had very tall orchids in tall goblet type vases with green rock “soil.” But the dominant color is a vibrant orange—my favorite. Chairs are orange molded plastic, shaped in a kind of backward “S” that stack well and apparently can be used inside and out because they appeared on the deck outside the dining area where I assume they also serve in warmer weather. Tables were set with orange woven placemats atop white linen table cloths. Casual, but stunning with a real feeling of height.

    The menu carries out the casual theme with some playfulness. We were first served an amuse in a cup of jellied fois gras with faux caviar made of wine, pretty cute. DH once again opted for the iberico ham and I had white asparagus with mayo. This was a major disappointment. It had the look and feel of white asparagus but absolutely no taste whatsoever. Zero, zilch, nada. Do not know what might have been the problem. Bad sourcing? Just total nothing. My main course of hake in green sauce was a vast improvement. It tasted good, had a wonderful texture and a nice sauce. DH opted for the comfort option with two meatballs with sauce and potato slices—I said it was casual. This too was good and probably plays well with any younger guests. There were two tables with children while we were there, a toddler at one and two elementary age children at another.

    They serve nothing but Riscal wines (who can fault them for that) and we had a nice reserva with lunch and the excellent cheese sampler I had for dessert. Our bill came to 134 euros. While the meal was uneven, the restaurant décor was impressive and the opportunity the meal afforded us to walk about the property and photograph the hotel was a bonus included in the price and on that basis, I’d call it a bargain. Having seen the place now, I’d not, however, return for the food.

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    Hi Julie,
    I've really enjoyed reading your very accurate, completely fair and very astute take on of some of our favorite dining spots in the Ribera del Duero and the Rioja-just great, detailed and highly observant reviews! Would you like to take over the dining sections of my guides?? O:) Your description of La Vieja Bodega is the best I've ever read!

    I was really happy that you enjoyed your Sunday pre-lunch tapas crawl on Logroño's Calle Laurel and to know that the Sunday afternoon scene is as lively as the evening one. We've never done lunch tapas on Laurel on Sun., so we'll plan a proper "tapeo" there next time. And the give away prices at Bar Soriano (the mushroom hole-in-the-wall) are not to be believed!

    We've also never been to Alameda in Fuenmayor at night, but I expect that the reason you didn't find "cabrito" (roast goat) on the dinner menu is the same as not usually finding roast lamb as a dinner option at a genuine "asador" specializing in grilled & roast meats. Both are traditionally dishes consumed at lunch in Castilla and La Rioja "asadores, yantares or mesones" due to the preparation time and because they're considered too heavy to enjoy and digest properly during the very late Spanish dinner hour (just my theory!).

    Your description of Alameda's decor and ambiance is spot on! It's remained very true to its original asador roots. If you'd like to try it again on your next visit, I can heartily recommend their exquisitely grilled fish, such as the turbot (rodaballo salvaje) and sea bream (besugo)-just fabulous! Out of curiosity, did they have a menu in English?

    I'm eager to see the culinary road trip PBS series lead by Mario Batalli, Mark Bittman and Gwyneth Paltrow, "Spain...on the Road Again". They followed in your footsteps, from the Ribera del Duero to the Rías Baixas! Segments were filmed at the Marqués de Riscal winery-wine spa and in Galicia where they gorged on those berberechos and sampled clams straight from the hands of the lady clam diggers right on the Ría. And in Cambados they found their way to the totally off the beaten track little Casa Pinto, which has long been a favorite of mine. Here's the trailer, for those who haven't seen it.
    www.spainontheroadagain.com

    The Sept. Food & Wine also ran an article about their adventures.

    http://tinyurl.com/6cnzcn

    Eagerly awaiting more fine reviews! Brava!

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    Maribel, thanks for supplying the name of the Calle Laurel mushroom place. I'm sure readers will want to look for it if they are on the street. It's definitely special. And thanks too for the info on lunch being the better meal to take at an asador, especially if you're looking for goat, like I always am. Glad you're enjoying my reviews. I enjoyed my "assignment."

    Just realize that I missed one place we ate in Rioja, the "second" parador in Santo Domingo de la Calzada. Here it is, and then on to Santander and Cantabria.

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    Parador Fresnada in Santo Domingo de la Calzada

    Santo Domingo has two paradores. The other is the more widely known. This one is used as a hotel school ostensibly to train chefs, wait staff and hotel staff for the chain. While I couldn’t tour the other parador, I did look inside. IMO this one is far more attractive and has far better basic structure to work with. The public rooms and dining areas were beautifully decorated and nicely kept, especially the bar and the sitting rooms—much nicer than the parador in Ribadeo where we stayed later in the trip.

    The servers were very well-intentioned and provided lots of information about the menu in very good English. The food, not so good, perhaps more for the sourcing than the preparation. We opted for the menu and at 22.50 euros for three courses, it was certainly reasonable. My tagliatelle with shrimp and mushrooms was competent and the blueberry ice cream with apple, orange and kiwi was interesting and actually good, but the beef steak was almost too tough to eat. One of the few misses of the trip.

    Dining in Santander and surrounds

    Overall our meals in the city and outside it were good but none rose to the level of stellar. Hmm, as I look over all 34 meals (not counting breakfasts) we had on this trip, I note that we had better luck in small towns than in larger ones, since Santiago de Compostela didn’t contribute any entries to the top 7 or 8 either.

    Dias Desur

    This was a little sit down tapas restaurant that we found as we arrived late and hungry for lunch in Santander. It’s ok, but not worth writing about. Serviceable for our needs.

    El Bombi

    I promised Maribel I’d review a couple of places she was interested in in Santander. This was one. The place has a modern look from the outside, but inside it’s stone walls and some nautical décor but mostly plain. That’s how we found the food as well—competent but plain, which I think is exactly what they intend. This is a fish restaurant where the kitchen seems to make every effort to prepare fish in a way to let the fish speak for itself.
    I think they achieve their goal—perhaps, it’s just not the goal I want achieved.

    DH had fish soup. It had an almost gelatin like stock and a few clams with some pieces of fish but mostly/almost completely broth. That’s exactly how he likes his fish soup and he proclaimed this one a winner.

    I started with a dish I’d never had before (though I had it the next night as well in a kind of taste test among the two Maribel recommended Santander restaurants where we ate)—menestra verdura. As far as I can tell this is a dish of various overcooked (on purpose) mushy vegetables in a slightly creamy, thickened stock. This is vegetable comfort food. The one at El Bombi had carrots, potatoes, several kinds of beans, leeks and oodles of artichokes—all cooked to death and very tasty. I was hooked.

    DH had shrimp for a main course and I had halibut fried in oil/butter and parsley with garlic. Both were completely competently prepared and I’m sure there are folks who would pronounce them perfect. I guess I like a bit more excitement on my plate and a little adornment on my plain food. But that’s me. If you long for well-prepared plain fish, this is a great place to get it.

    We accompanied our meal with a Gramona rose cava and the bill came to 115 euros and with the price came a little gift given to us as we were seated. They give every diner who doesn’t speak Spanish, a small booklet with translations in every “standard” language including Japanese, of what the main ingredients of the dishes are. I’m carrying this wherever I go from now on. It’s perfect and a lot less heavy than all those guidebook pages I’m usually fighting to keep available for menu deciphering.

    El Marinera in San Vicente de la Barquera

    We liked this little town and we liked this little restaurant recommended by Maribel. I think the whole of the local high school class must have been out front having snacks, so we opted for the interior formal restaurant. It’s a typical place with a bar at the entry and the dining area to the side, nice and friendly.

    We started with calamari rings and anchovies with sweet red peppers. Then I had 3 large slabs of monkfish in green sauce and DH had fish soup and red snapper. DH thought the fish soup on a par with or better than that he’d so enjoyed at El Bombi the night before and, because my fish was adorned with a sauce rather than plain, I actually preferred it to that I’d had the previous night as well. All in all, a nice lunch, and, of course, less expensive than the dinner we compared it to back in the larger Santander.

    Bar del Puerto in Santander

    This was another restaurant on the list Maribel gave me to select from to review for her. It, too, was fine. We entered from the bar part which appeared to be a sort of upscale tapas bar. To get upstairs to the more formal restaurant we passed a display of large fish and a lobster tank. Aside from permitting smoking, the restaurant is very nice with wide windows looking out to the harbor, a classy nautical theme with bas relief sailboat pictures, brick colored comfy chairs and waiters in formal, almost tuxedo-like cream colored jackets. Patrons OTOH were pretty casually attired. In fact the more classy dressers seemed to have remained below in the bar.

    Unfortunately we stopped in a really fun, cute tapas bar before appearing for our 9:30 reservation and were pretty well sated by the time we got to dinner so I may not really have done justice to this place. That and the fact that the fishermen’s strike was still on and limited the available menu items the evening we were there, meant we really couldn’t give this restaurant a truly fair review. Nonetheless, handicapped as we were, we did our best and soldiered on through two courses apiece before staggering back to our hotel to gather our strength for more eating the next day.

    DH had—what else?—fish soup. He awarded it second place among the three he’d had in the last three meals. First going to that at Marinera in San Vicente de la Barquera with that from La Bombi slipping to third—and after he’d all but proclaimed it the best he’d ever had last night. This was a trip where records seemed to fall quickly. Or perhaps it’s just that when he’s not near the fish soup he loves, he loves the fish soup he’s near.
    He couldn’t get the shellfish salad he was hoping for due to the strike and so settled for lobster salad. No problem with lobster supply, we walked by it on our way up the stairs.
    The salad was very finely chopped and not to his taste, but very good by mine.

    I ordered menestra vedura again to be able to compare theirs to La Bombi’s. Puerto’s was much more varied and colorful with a tomato base and visible garlic slices, potato balls and better meat. Bombi’s was an almost all green affair and more comforting with better chunks of real artichoke. In the end I decided that Puerto’s addition of chopped hard cooked eggs, put theirs over the top.

    My main course was oxtail stew and it was excellent with nicely braised, soft meat, a velvety sauce and crispy chunks of potato and giant white Asturian beans, something different than I’ve ever had in the many oxtail stews I’ve consumed over the year.

    Full though we may have been, and limited though the fishermen’s strike made the menu, I think on balance we preferred Bar del Puerto to La Bombi.

    Mandarin

    Much as he was loving the fish soup and the plates of iberico ham, DH got hit with an attack of Chinese food longing on our third day in the Santander area. He assuaged it at this place with duck with mushrooms and fried rice. I also enjoyed it, though my notes are pretty minimal and I admit I have no recollection of the restaurant itself. I kind of block out all those Chinese restaurants I get forced into by his fanaticism, unless they’re very special.

    Retaurante Zacharia

    The chef at this place in downtown Santander is some sort of Cantabrian Molto Mario. He’s written 6 cookbooks and produced a video about his Cantabrian cooking. Media hype aside, the place was cute and the cooking good. Décor was very old world Spain with a sort of balcony mezzanine with seating that made the main floor feel like it might be the courtyard of a Spanish estate. DH had more fish stew/soup and then marinated salmon, all good but by this time he’d stopped trying to make quadruple comparisons. I was determined to try one of the chef’s Cantabrian specialties and chose a dish of spinach, shrimp with onion and a fried egg, all mixed together. Sounds awful, but it was interesting and tasted very good. I followed it with baby lamb chops with potatoes wonderfully fried in the fat of the lamb—terrific. So I guess this chef may be all he cracks himself up to be.

    And with that we finished our time in Cantabria and moved on to Asturias. More to follow.

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    Restaurante Abelardo in Ribadesella

    After trying to find Arbidel, the restaurant Maribel had suggested in Ribadesella, and finding it closed for renovation, we moved on to walk the street along the water in search of an alternative. While Arbidel appeared from my window peeping to be a very worthy place and somehow I expect, better food wise, we were very happy with our eventual choice since it provided lovely outdoor dining with a view of the local fish market and the water beyond on a near perfect day.

    The local drink, cider, not being one for which we’ve acquired any taste, we started with glasses of Rueda and followed with a Protos Ribera del Duero, good stuff, both. I scored the first of many dishes of razor clams, one of my all time favorite foods. If you’ve not had them, they come in grey/black shells about the length of your longest finger and the circumference of your little finger. And they are the sweetest things imaginable in a shellfish, almost like a scallop, only better. I followed with the typical local dish, Fabado Asturiano—beans in a tomato base with black pudding , big chunks of fat pork and Asturian (chorizo-like) spicy sausage. I don’t know if this was a particularly good or bad version of this regional favorite. I just know that I personally am not a fan of the chorizo type sausage that overpowers everything in it and I shan’t be having it again, anywhere.

    DH had more ham slices and seafood soup. I can’t understand how he can continue to repeat the same meal day after day after day, but this is a sort of refrain of his. On previous trips we’ve concentrated on onion soup, smoked salmon, escargot, etc. No wonder every now and then he insists on a change to Chinese. At any rate, hereafter if I don’t mention what DH had at some meal I’m detailing, you can safely assume it was ham slices and/or fish soup.

    Villa Rosario

    Dinner our first night in Ribadesella was at our hotel, in the glass dining room beside the lovely Indianos mansion, looking out as evening descended on the boardwalk and the bay—beautiful. I tend always to have fairly low expectations when dining in a hotel restaurant. Mine were raised that evening. I started with an excellent duck salad and then joined DH in the risotto for two. It came filled with mushrooms and a chunk of fois gras and lots of garlic and was appropriately gooey. Adding in the perennial ham slices, a simple sorbet dessert, a bottle of Jueve y Camps cava and another of Alto Ribera del Duero (we only had to stagger up the stairs to bed and we ate at a very leisurely pace) the bill came to 130 euros. A good and very relaxing dinner.

    Casa Marcial in Arriondas

    You know, those Michelin folks aren’t out there dining and rating day after day for nothing. Sometimes they get it absolutely right—at least in Spain. They’ve awarded one star to this place, raising it a notch above most of the places we dined on this trip—and they were dead on. The trick, of course, is to get there. Because it’s absolutely in the middle of nowhere. We’d just descended from the fog of the foothills of the Picos de Europa outside Codavanga and since I knew we were close to Arriondas, and one of the few one stars on our entire trip route, I steered our path toward this dining mecca. We’d never have just chanced upon it. You have to want to go there. Glad I did.

    We followed a very narrow but at least paved road from Arriondas with a few small signs posted here and there for reassurance that we were going in the right direction. It brought us to Casa Marcial where Nacho Marzano, a 27 year old chef is making his mark apparently believing in a credo of “Cook it and they will come.” He must be doing a pretty good job of it. The sweet little porch where we waited for lunch , sans reservations, had a stack of Spanish culinary magazines with articles about him and his food and there was some building going on next to the old stone restaurant suggesting that he is expanding, perhaps in search of his second star. If he achieves that goal (assuming it is his goal) it will be amazing. This place truly is in the middle of nowhere and people who come will certainly need to plan to visit. The paved cow path we traversed after leaving the restaurant actually had two cows on it right in front of our car that we had to nudge out of the way in order to be on our way.

    We certainly wanted to dine there, enough so that we were willing to wait the 45 minutes until they started serving at 1:30, though they did provide wine and red olives to make the wait go more comfortably. The place is simple with a wallpapered porch, then a bar with a couple of booth-like tables and a stone walled room with about 7 tables and seating for about 20 to 22. There is more seating in a casual, homey area with plaid curtains and colored lampshades on the second floor.

    The main dining room has a modern fireplace in one corner, two small, stark windows, black and white photos, tables lit by halogen lights, and white linens. That’s it. Minimalist to the nth, but very pleasant. Obviously a concentration on the food.

    And the food is great. With fabada on the multi-course traditional menu, we chose, instead, the modern mini-menu and one additional course to split from the carte. Perfect choice. First there were olive bread cookies placed on the table along with butter, handmade from the region. Next an amuse of chicken livers with lime, not my favorite but DH loved it. Then a sprinkling of iberico ham atop perfectly done potato pieces—two to be exact, in ½ inch cubes—with onion and green bean juice and a hint of mint.
    This was followed by a thin sliver of fois gras in a gelatin coating over seeds and grains, and finally a risotto with onion and truffle, mushrooms and soy sauce. That completed our mini-tasting menu and we added an order of traditional Asturian rooster with great skin in a red wine sauce, apparently an Asturian coq au vin.

    We accompanied this with a 19 euro Albarino wine and coffees for a total of 128 euros—a real steal for such an exciting meal prepared by a real up and comer.

    Llantares de Mar in Ribadesella

    When we walked about the town the day before I reserved for dinner this evening at this place. It looked fun and it proved so. We entered through the bar area where I spotted a pile of percebes and determined to finally try them. If you haven’t heard of them, they’re goose barnacles that grow on the rocks in this area. They’re prized as a delicacy by the locals and fetch a pretty price because they can only be harvested by hand in areas made dangerous by the waves buffeting harvesters about on the rocks where they grow. They’re also ugly, almost creepy, with hard, three toed “feet” that my son-in-law says look like elephant’s feet, and a neck covered in a turtleneck kind of leathery skin. The trick is to extract the interior neck from the covering, detach it from the toes and eat it so that you can experience the wonderful briny taste. It’s tricky.

    The young man at the bar was very patient as he showed me how to perform this culinary feat. I squirted juice all over for the first two or three, but then settled in to really enjoy the experience and remained relatively clean. I have to admit that the first bite was a leap of faith. These things aren’t pretty by a long stretch. But just like raw oysters, they proved to be love at first bite and I finished the small plate I’d ordered. Having acquired a taste, I’ll have to really work at satisfying it. Spain is the only place I’ve ever encountered percebes, though Wikipedia shows them to live on the west coast of the US as well.

    I followed my percebes with more razor clams (I’m to razor clams and roast goat as DH is to iberico ham and fish soup). They were ok but not great and I put that off to the fishermen’s strike. We shared a nice mushroom, veggie salad and then DH had suckling pig while I indulged in baby lamb, both really good. FWIW, DH declared his preliminary fish soup at this place the best out of 5—which 5, I don’t know.

    This was one of our least expensive non-Chinese meals at 97 euros with the wine costing a mere 14.

    Dima in Cudillera

    Dima was one of probably 10 or so sidewalk restaurants facing the main street down to the harbor in this fun fishing village. As such places go, you really can’t expect a great meal, just wonderful ambiance and good people watching. That’s exactly what we got.
    Although again FWIW, DH declared this version of fish soup the “best ever.” Turns out he really likes the chorizo flavor of the spicy paprika used on so many things in these parts that I so don’t like. Different strokes.


    Parador in Ribadeo

    This turned out to be our worst day for eating. Dinner was no better than lunch. Not awful, mind you, just not great. After walking the poorly kept town of Ribadeo without finding anything that looked better, we settled for dinner in our parador lodging. My experience with parador food heretofore had been generally pretty good—the beef steak in Santo Domingo de la Calzada notwithstanding—but this was not up to standard. Perhaps the kitchen was overstretched with the wedding being held there that evening. Whatever the excuse, it didn’t rise above just barely ok. DH’s fish soup was nowhere near “best ever” and the empanada with scallops and peppers that I ordered was doughy and boring. Enough said.

    Herewith endeth the account of dining in Asturia. Next dining in Galicia.

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    Exciting report, Julie. Just a point, it is always olive oil we use, never butter, to cook either fish or meat. It would be a sin in the land of olive oil. Or at least I know of no one that uses butter or fat for cooking in Spain.

    I´m planning a night in Santander with another couple and found your review of the city´s restaurants very interesting. IMHO, Santander lacks good restaurants and when we are there we like to go to the beaches north of the city where you can have a great mariscada for a very good price. But I could never find anything decent in town. We wanted to go to La Bombi (it´s a kind of surprise gathering for our guests) but your review is not very enthusiastic about the place. We are looking for product-based cooking, good atmosphere and in the city centre. What do you think should be our choice?

    Thanks,

    Mikel

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    Mike, I hope Maribel is following this thread and can give you some good recommendations. When you say product based and for a group, I'd be more include to recommend El Bombi than Bar del Puerto which has a more formal vibe in its dining room. I did notice a very nice party room at Restaurante Zacharia and I think they are very tradition based, if that appeals. The place we never tried but that looked very good, right near our hotel overlooking the Puerto Chicco, was Restaurante La Posada del Mar. It's ambiance was more modern with wood floors and high backed chairs, but it seemed to be doing quite a good business and I wish I'd checked it out. Again, I hope Maribel whose experience is vast, can give you better guidance. Enjoy Santander. We did.

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    Thanks Julie! I live near Bilbao and Santander is like to go once in a while, but it´s true that I´ve never found a good restaurant there. No doubt Maribel will come in my aid...

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    Badulaque in Cedeira

    When it became clear that this town would be our lunch stop I consulted my trusty Michelin red guide to Spain and found that this was the only recommendation in town with so much as a single fork and spoon. It proved worthy and afforded us what may have been the best single dish of the trip—another version of the sliced octopus with super-finely chopped celery, carrot and onion that we’d had for tapas in Logrono, only this was a more refined version with lobster and the veggies it had been marinated in oil and vinegar. I could eat it daily. A perfect appetizer.

    Besides this dish (does anyone know a name for it?) we had two different kinds of fish soup—with swiss chard, potato and white beans for me and with a tomato base for DH. There followed a roasted meat rouladen style main course wrapped around hard cooked egg and peppers. All very good.

    The place was kind of cute too. Large in a sort of dance hall format decked out in yellow flowers for a wedding scheduled for the evening. The entire place was, in fact, decorated in yellow and blue from the napkins to the chairs. Some local bride must have had a very nice reception with some excellent food if our experience was any indication.

    With a bottle of Freixenet cava this very good meal came only to 75 euros. Good value. Good food.

    Gambrinus in Santiago de Compostela

    Not one of our best picks for sure. In fact we made only one really good pick among the 5 meals we ate in Santiago. This place was selected for its proximity to our position as rain started falling hard. Not the best reason to select a restaurant. It’s near a cute little grassy one block park not far from the cathedral and has tiny rooms on multiple floors. DH has smoked salmon with egg and a pasta puttanesca wherein he could not detect even a hint of anchovy. I had a bean, tuna and rocket salad followed by the best dish of the meal, a gnocchi with pesto and an abundance of cheese.

    The meal was memorable not for the food but the company. The room was tiny and we were seated very close to a couple of mooning pilgrim couples and a mixed group of English oldies highly concerned for their personal comfort. The conversation between the pilgrims which we couldn’t hope but overhear was an incredible pile of psycho babble from a couple of folks going through their respective mid-life crises and using the journey to find themselves and apparently anyone else who’d be willing to have them rather than God. It was most unseemly, but I expect not at all uncommon.

    Café Centrale

    This is a cute little place on Rua Villar with a bar and cute gingham tablecloths in one area and a more upscale, classy looking tapas bar in the other. Lunch was served in the cute rather than the classy area. I was sucked in by the cuteness of the place and unfortunately it was another example of cute is as cute does. Most of the food, including the roast lamb was tasteless and disappointing. Too bad. Always hate to waste a meal.

    Taverna Bispo

    This tapas place beyond the cathedral on Rua Franco which is lined with restaurants proved to be our best meal in Santiago. It was a Chowhound recommendation so when we saw an empty table we grabbed it. We started with toasted bread with oil and tomato, the ubiquitous stuff I can never remember the name for, then dried beef slices, ham and cheese with dates in croquettes (much better than it sounds), shrimp and squid slices on a skewer, two types of mushrooms and a plate of clams before the 3 or 4 more that came after I gave up trying to keep track. Fun and very good.

    Parador Hostal dos Reis Catolicos

    We didn’t stay here and we didn’t eat here, but we did sneak in for a drink in one of their bars. I hope it’s not just sour grapes that we couldn’t get a room when I tried to reserve, but I have to say from this small glimpse of the place that I’m glad we stayed instead in the Monumento San Francisco. The parador is quintessential, gigantic old world elegance of the heavy, heavy wooden kind, but I much preferred the quiet, understated asceticism of the SF. To each his own.

    Noray on the square in A Coruna

    This nominally Norwegian restaurant facing the Palacio Municipal on the main square of A Coruna had a standard indoor area and, like most other restaurants lining the square, a tented area directly in front and on the square. This was also glassed in and very pleasant. Here we had a good, almost light lunch of crab, Norwegian salad with more crab, olives, eggs and thousand island dressing, a shared plate of razor clams, the usual fish soup and iberico ham. We also had an Albarino wine from the home town of our very solicitous waiter. Good food, with street theater to watch and all for 60 euros. A good deal.

    O Celme

    After our good luck in O Coruna, we returned to our bad luck in Santiago, debating over several places on the restaurant rich Rua Franco and other medieval pedestrian streets surrounding the cathedral, and made another unfortunate pick. We were the only diners seated upstairs in the formal dining area of this street entry place. That should have tipped us off, but we persisted. Our waiter was the best part of the meal. As soon as he started conversing with us, I recognized that there was something different about him. He seemed much more animated and less formal and standoffish than the others who had been our competent but not “friendly” servers. Sure enough this man was Latin, not Spanish, from Columbia and he was in Santiago because he’d married a local girl. He filled us in on all kinds of useful information, like Galicia is warm in July, August and September. Thereafter it becomes cold and rainy. All this I got from him even though he spoke only Spanish and I don’t understand Spanish. He was very ebullient and an excellent mime.

    The food was ok, but not good, except that it had the grace of being cheap. Fish soup, salads, and pork chops cordon bleu. Valimor Albarino and a Rioja and a total under 80 euros.

    Place overlooking the sea in Cambados, next door to (I think) Posta do Sol on
    Ribeira de Felinans


    Wow. How’s that for a title for a restaurant?! Sorry I never kept track of the name of this place, it was a right worthy lunch spot. We elected to sit outdoors so we could view the water across the street that ran in front of the place.

    We started with oysters, some of the very few we had on this trip. The ones served were very interesting, nicely briny but so flat that there was almost no room for the excellent liquor and the edges of the shells were soft and pliable. Never had oysters like them before. Next pulpo with paprika, wonderful ham slices and lamb with potatoes and salad. We tasted two different types of albarino. A really tasty lunch.

    Xantar de Ria in O Grove

    Possibly the least ok meal of the trip. The place looked pleasant enough but it didn’t have much selection and we were starting to tire of fish. I started with an odd salad of rice, carrots and corn, and then had a chicken breast pounded thin with French fries. DH had the fish soup such as it was and cold shrimp. This doesn’t sound appetizing, does it?
    That’s right. It wasn’t. Too bad. Another wasted meal. Bad choice.

    Cozinha das Malheiras, near the main square in Viana de Castelo, Portugal

    No, our bad choice of a restaurant in O Grave wasn’t enough to drive us into a whole ‘nother country. We’d planned all along to dip down into the other country on the Iberian peninsula, and this was our chance.

    As you can tell from my description regarding sights above, we loved this little Portugese town, and we really enjoyed this restaurant. It gets two spoons and forks in the Michelin red guide, and rightly so. The place is nicely attired with cute white chairs and tablecloths, green background and accents and arched ceilings. The pleasant waiter spoke some English and we were able to easily order ham slices, local cheese and olives, fish soup, seabass for DH and kid for me—finally I get goat. And it was good. Enough said. If there’s good goat, what more can you ask?

    Mar Atlantico Hotel Restaurant

    This was another hotel (like Villa Rosario in Ribadesella) whose food was the equal of its lodgings. Everything was attractively presented and well-prepared. DH had his usual and I had 3 scallops in garlic breadcrumbs atop a smear of sauce that made the plate look terrific and added to the taste of the scallops. Next came seabass fillets with potatoes and green beans. DH surprised me and himself with the rooster entre and while it was toughish, as old birds can be, it redeemed itself with superior taste.

    This was one of the few places we had desserts. Neither one of us is big on sweets and we’ll usually opt, if anything, for cheese. But these desserts looked too good to pass up so DH had a chocolate soufflé with dark and light cocoa and I had the red sorbet with chopped red fruits and a red fruit coulis. Among the better meals of the trip, even if it was hotel dining.

    Almeda de Dona Antonia in Pontevedre

    This was possibly our hardest restaurant to find. We walked by it twice and almost didn’t see if the last time. All that advertised its existence was an 8 x 11inch sign (one among many, all of the same size) on the side of a building. It was on the second floor and worth both the seeking out and the climbing up. Michelin awards it two forks and spoons, and again for good reason.

    The place had black lacquer chairs, dark green colored linens, mirrors and tons of white floral arrangements. It was very pretty. DH had fois gras and beef carpaccio. I had seabass carpaccio in vinegar, oil and dill (another of the best dishes of the trip), then hake with vegetables and tomato sauce. Another Jueve y Camps cava brought the bill to 97 euros.

    Besides the good food and the nice décor, we were entertained by the beautiful young daughter of the owners. She was probably about 3 or 4 and a true charmer, obviously quite used to meeting and greeting guests and just being around during service. She was not a distraction but a welcome addition to a lovely dining experience.

    Yayo Deporta in Cambodos

    This was to be our last dinner in Galicia before returning home via Madrid and it proved to be one of the best, possibly THE best. I searched the place out when we stopped enroute to our hotel after leaving Santiago and made a reservation to return on our last evening. It provided the perfect venue for a valediction to an area of Spain we really enjoyed.

    Michelin awards it one star and two forks and spoons. It’s all that and more. Like the other one star of our trip, Casa Marcial in Arriondas, it’s a pleasant, modern, minimalist place with black chairs, dark green walls, spot lighting and a glass room for wine selection. We started with glasses of rose cava and then moved on to a local Albarino that our casually attired waitress called “the best” and after tasting we had no reason to doubt her.

    They provided us a printed menu of our selections to take home. It details the dishes we had which were both beautiful and truly great tasting—except for the coffee vinaigrette on the cauliflower mousse but that was only an amuse. Other dishes we had were vichyssoises with figs stuffed with tuna tartar, salad of scallops with crunch rice and vinaigrette of the coral of the scallop and sea foam, risotto with small scallops, mushrooms and carpaccio of Dublin bay prawn, and mousse of titillar cheese with sticky caramel foam. All this plus expresso and the wine came to 107 euros including tip. A wonderful value and a wonderful meal. We loved it and recommend it wholeheartedly to anyone who might detour out of their way to go to this lovely town and this wonderful restaurant. Superb.

    Ok, all that’s left is Madrid. I promise, I’m almost done.

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    Hi mikelg,
    I'm not quite sure about the "product based" part, but we have always had very good luck at Cañadío on the Plaza of the same name in Santander-with tapas at the bar, with small plates from the regular menu ordered at the few tables in the bar area, and with the dining room itself. I really do enjoy the dishes from Paco Quirós. Gourmetour gives it a 7, which I think is about right. And we don't find it overpriced-pretty good RCP.

    In fact, on our recent tapas stroll through Santander (from Bar del Puerto, to Mesón Rampalay, to Bodega Cigaleña, to Pata Negra), we ended it all with our main course taken at Cañadío and very glad we finished our moveable feast there.

    But two more "product-based" dining spots in Puerto Chico, come to mind, both members of the Club de Calidad Cantabria Infinita:

    La Posada del Mar (in a new location in Puerto Chico with outdoor terrace facing the bay), which has a really nice ambiance and...

    La Mulata, which is on the square across from El Serbal, and has a very lively bar and menu of seafood almost exclusively.

    I would consider them as well. Look at their web pages and see what you think about the 3:

    www.restaurantecanadio.com
    www.lamulata.net
    www.calidadcantabria.com (for Posada del Mar and to compare all three)

    In that gastronomic guide that I showed you, "Guía Gastronómica y cultual del País Vasco y su entorno", Cañadío is rated slightly higher than La Posada del Mar and La Bombi. (La Mulata isn't featured).

    Julie,
    I too am hooked on that "overcooked on purpose" menestra, a staple of my diet when in the Rioja. Comfort food like aligot.

    Thanks so much for accepting your assignment and for soldiering on at Bar del Puerto although already satiated. With my own experience, yours and cruiseluv's reviews and mikelg's feedback, we'll have made good progress in properly covering the Santander dining scene. My friends who live in Noja really love La Cúpula in the Hotel Río (ex Rhin) in El Sardinero, but we just weren't in the mood for a more dressy, splurge treat nor the expense of El Serbal (1 Michelin star, 1 Campsa sol).

    We made our way back to Ribadesella right after your departure and also found the lively Llantares del Mar on the promenade after searching out El Arbidel to find it closed for the day. I think you made the right choices in Ribadesella. The distinct disadvantage to El Arbidel, however top notch the food, is its lackluster, tucked way location with no water view. Sunset dining with a view of the bay is the way to go in Ribadesella.

    I applaud you for making it down that country road (just finding the turn off from Arriondas is a challenge) and up the cow path to the amazing (and underpriced) Casa Marcial. This is very much a family enterprise, and the chef's wife runs the Italian restaurant just down the road. Manzano grew up here and has not strayed far at all from his roots, unlike D.C. chef-tv personality José Andrés (who is his friend).

    Sorry to hear about your Parador experience. And the Ribadeo Parador public rooms were spruced up not long ago-the make-over must not have made its way to the guest quarters (like the make over at the Parador Gil Blas Santillana didn't make it to their dining room). Wedding nights are terrible times to sample the cuisine at Paradors, I agree, learned from experience. We had a fairly lackluster meal ourselves at the Parador at Limpias (but without the excuse of a wedding), so I've marked it off our list. Ditto to dining at the Hostal de los Reyes Católicos in Santiago de Compostela. We get a very unwelcome, indifferent-to- prospective-diners vibe everytime we've gone in.

    When in the Ribadeo area next time, I think you'd have far better luck across the bridge to the other side of estuary in
    Figueres (Asturias) down at the pier side restaurant Peñalba (run by the Palacete Peñalba that didn't answer your booking request).

    Completely agree about Yayo Daporta in Cambados. Other than the tiny, family run "chow-down on pristine seafood and house albariño" hideaway, "Casa Pinto" (that Mario Batalli discoverd in "Spain...on the Road Again), Y.D. is "the" place to dine in Cambados.

    The rest of your Galicia choices, except for Alameda, are new to me, so I've dutifully filed away your fine reviews for our future trips.

    Thanks again, and any time you'd like another "assignment", just let me know. Very high marks to you, Julie!

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    Mikelg, I knew Maribel would be able to help you. Good luck deciding which place to select.

    Maribel, glad to have you bring up Canadio for Mike. Everything I read about the place suggested it would be both good and very convivial.

    Your reference to menestra and aligote has me thinking I may have been shortsighted when calling razor clams and roasted kid my favorite meal--but the addition of these two sides would certainly make it
    untouchable, placing it literally in the gastronomic stratosphere.

    Thanks for you kind words on my restaurant reviews. Indeed I'm up for more assignments. We've just booked into Barcelona for the New Year, arriving December 26 and departing January 4, staying with our gourmet son at Carders Apartment in Born from habitatapartments.com.

    Will work for recommendations. I've started preparing the list of places to try while we're there but am having a problem deciding on the New Year's Eve venue. Another post here spoke of booking Set Portes and I'm thinking that might be a good idea. NYE is not IMO a time to look for top drawer food, but rather acceptable vittels in a convivial atmosphere. Thinking Set Portes will supply and has the advantage of being near the port area where there will be fireworks. Does that sound like a plausible plan or can you recommend something better?

    We plan a day trip by plane to Mallorca and could use a recommendation for lunch there. And I'm pretty well decided that we'll make our big splurge at Can Fabes in Sant Celoni after checking out Cordornui. Reactions and other recommendations very much appreciated. And, of course, if there's anything left in BCN that you haven't tried and want checked out, we're at your disposal. Assign away.

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    Final installment. Phew!!!

    No Spanish food in Madrid

    Or, almost no Spanish food in Madrid.

    By the time we got to Madrid we were getting a little tired of travel. This often starts to happen to us about two weeks out. I’d once thought I could be on the road forever, but now I think I need a few spaces of home in my peregrinations. (I love writing trip reports, it gives me a chance every so often to use words I haven’t used in years, though I have to admit that I’m not sure there is a plural version of this one.) All that plus the ungodly heat we encountered in Madrid sort of ruined our appetites for much more heavy Spanish food. At one point I made a reservation for some of the wonderful suckling pig we knew would await us at Botin and I had to cancel it. Just couldn’t face the thought and didn’t want to spoil the memory.

    So, what did we eat? Of course, Chinese. We actually had two Chinese meals while in Madrid for two days—one good and one not so. The other two meals were mildly Spanish and off the wall Norwegian.

    The bad Chinese meal was not even worth writing about except that finding the place took us through what is apparently the red light district of Madrid, active even in the noontime heat of a very hot day. Oof da.

    The Spanish meal was at Café Oriente. We’d never eaten there and the thought of their restaurant being below ground in an almost cave-like cool room won me over. The place, owned by the folks who own the Taberna Al Habaderos in Seville and DC is the height of traditional. Everything was ok but nothing either was or seemed particularly good. OTOH it wasn’t their fault that we were overfull from two solid weeks of eating similar food.

    One thing that might have been their fault, however, was the translation into English of one of their menu items. DH made the mistake of thinking that pork ribs might actually be ribs. Instead they turned out to be pork chops, a dish of which he’s never been fond. True to its reputation, the gazpacho proved the best thing we ordered for our hot and tired of gorging carcasses.

    Olsen

    The was another Chowhound recommendation that I sought out primarily because it, too, sounded like it might provide us a welcome change and some lighter food to eat in the overly heated Madrid. Cold fish for a hot day. The place, down the street from the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum and near one of their main legislative buildings-which I can’t remember, was appropriately decorated in true Scandinavian blond wood and not much else style, except bare branches here and there. Downstairs, which was not in use for lunch, was, however perfect for a super hot day. It’s a winter garden all done in white with snow scenes and a vodka bar—cool in all senses of that word.

    Food was similarly minimalist. We started with a sampler of corn blinis with caviar, smoked trout and lox with great lemon-spiked sour cream and onion sauce. Then we had a Norwegian version of gazpacho which turned out to be the same as Spanish with the addition of pine nuts and mozzarella. We skipped the added ingredients. Even they seemed too heavy for us in the heat of the Madrid day. The basic cold soup was good though. DH proceeded to have more lox rolled around lentils in a vinegary sauce and I went with the smorebrod platter of three open-faced sandwiches—lox with sour cream and onion, pear and cheese slices, and a rolled up slice of cold beef with pickle and lingonberries. I couldn’t even finish the third sandwich. We were kaput, demoralized, done.

    Le Dragon

    Just as we were about to admit defeat and slink away back to the land of Big Macs with nary a look back, one last Chinese meal in an area not far from the Palace of Communications revived our spirits and sent us on our way happy campers. I don’t now even recall how or why I knew about this place, but I do remember being relatively confident that it would be at least a classy, upscale Chinese place and it was. DH found it even more aesthetically pleasing than our longtime Chinese favorite Chez Vong in the Les Halles area of Paris. Décorwise it probably has the most in common with Atelier Robuchon in Paris—mostly black with touches of red. If anything Le Dragon is even more stunning than Robuchon for its use of space and light to highlight the décor and the food. Mirrors and artfully arranged black screens make the space seem bigger overall but all chopped up into intimate little areas.

    Super thinly sliced cucumbers in sesame seeds and sweet sour vinegar sauce made a great start. The summai and crab rolls that followed were equally good and so was the crispy duck and fried rice. This may have been the first time we’ve ever not over-ordered in a Chinese restaurant. For once even our eyes matched our stomachs and we finished a meal and a trip that had been, like Goldilocks said, “just right.”

    Home again, home again, Jiggity jig
    We’ve now been back from Spain two and a half months. We have long since recovered from our temporary aversion to any more heavy Spanish food. I’d kill for a dish of razor clams, and a shin of goat and I’d give anything to have an asador near here that can turn out a good suckling pig. But we won’t have to wait too much longer to satisfy our cravings. We’ll be in Barcelona over New Years and I’m already planning our meals.

    I hope my recollections prove helpful to others who decide to travel to the wonderful areas of Northern Spain. If you are planning a trip yourself and would like more detail (including email addresses, or phone numbers etc. of any of the places I mention), I’ll be happy to try to dig them up for you. Enjoy. We sure did.

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    Hi Julie,
    Very happy to know that you're heading back to the beautiful north of Spain in December! In your next trip are your focusing on Barcelona or do you plan to return to the Costa Brava (Llafranc, from your last CB trip) as well?

    I applaud your choice of the Racó de Can Fabes as your Michelin star spot. With 38 years of Spain dining under my belt, I can say that Can Fabes has provided me with my very best, most memorable meal (haven't dined at El Bulli). Hope it will please you as well.

    Your "acceptable vittles..." is a reasonable, very realistic requirement for NYE, and I would certainly choose a place near or on the water to fulfill that.

    I hope that cruiseluv will weight in on Set Portes, as she and her party, with reservations made, did not receive a particularly warm welcome on a Sun. But I would hope that on NYE, the management would pull out all the stops for a gala, convivial evening.

    Another spot directly facing the water is Agua, a member of the Tragaluz group.
    (Its waterfront sister, Bestial, attracts a much younger crowd and also serves as a nightclub, which I don't think is what you're seeking.) A Pamplona friend (who knows her food) enjoyed her recent dinner there, but I suspect that Agua's NYE pre-fixe, like the other Tragaluz members in '07, would cost around €150 p.p.
    www.grupotragaluz.com


    As a retired teacher, I'm thrilled to
    have such a stellar pupil for dining research. I have a few interesting "assignment" possibilites for you in BarcelonaO:)

    The first is a review of one of the new "bistronomiques":
    easy on the budget yet high quality, chef owned bistro dining.

    Of these we really enjoyed "Ovic" on Aribau in the Eixample but didn't have time for a thorough review of the storefront "Gresca" (a reco of Fodor's George Semler in the April T&L) or "Coure", which are also in the Eixample.

    And I think you'd also enjoy the new outpost of the chef Josep Olivé, owner of L'Olivé and Paco Meralgo (2 of my favorite bistros), called "Two 7" (or Tuset), with state-of-the-art kitchen smack in the middle of a diaphanous dining room. It's been much talked about in the Spain gourmet press. Contemporary catalán cuisine.
    On Tuset 7 (phone: 934 670 232)

    And perhaps "Embat", a creation of 3 young chefs formed at Espai Sucre. Recently favorably reviewed by the gastro critic of El País, who says it is at its best at night featuring a menú-degustación for only €38, with gentle wine prices as well.
    On Mallorca 304 (phone: 93 458 08 55)

    Another "task" could be to grab a bite or wine at the new "Vinoteca Torres-restaurant de vins-an avant-garde space, collaboration of Torres wines and the Sagardi group (Basque asadores) whose chef worked with Jean-Luc Figueras. The tapas bar is open from 8 am-2 am, just two blocks from La Pedrera on Passeig de Gracia 78.

    Finally, speaking of wine sampling, a new international wine cultural center-library-bar-restaurant, "Monvínc" opened (on Diputació 249) in the Eixample this past July.
    Their current "wines-from-around-the-globe" wine list boasts 2,500 labels, soon to be enlarged to 4,000!
    www.monvinic.com

    When I hear about other exciting new openings, I'll pass them along to my prize pupil!

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    Thanks for hangin' in here the whole time, Marija. We went to San Sebastian on an earlier trip but hope to return in a few years. We tried to do a bit of Basque country on this trip, but weather was uncooperative and we backed off.

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    Quotation from Sarah Wildman (author of the NYT Costa Brava travel story), regarding the Barcelona bistronomique, "Gresca":

    "dishes like carpaccio of octopus, Catalán blood sausage and potato blend Spanish creativity with French voluptuousness".
    And this makes it of the most coveted reservations in town.
    Closed Sat. lunch and all day Sun.

    Have fun choosing!

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    Oooh, Maribel, I didn't realize that you'd posted assignments. My post responding to Marija must have crossed yours in cyber space. So I only now read your suggestions for new places to try in Barcelona and I'm so excited. I'll be reading everything I can find on these places and working as many as I can into our itinerary--tough to do with so many from our last trips to repeat, like Windsor and Paco Meralgo, but "when the going gets tough, the tough get going." We're up for this.

    We won't be going to Costa Brava this time since I assume it's probably a bit quiet--and spending this much time in one place will give us the opportunity to do an apartment, one of my goals. I also think there will be plenty in and within a day trip of Barcelona to keep us busy given that our son has never been to this wonderful city.

    So many of the places you've "assigned" sound terrific, especially the super wine library place. I can hardly wait. Thanks for all the tips. Happy to repay by giving you our candid opinions. Off to do some research. Thanks.

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    Yep, Julie, our posts did cross in ciber space. Ah, WINDSOR! My very, very favorite "classic" in this dining-rich city.

    I envy you a full week to savor post Xmas, and it's a swell time for a rental, which we've yet to do in Barcelona. Our post New Year's trip we remember as one of our best ever visits to the city. And more than enough to see, do, taste for 7 days with a day trip or two thrown in, such as Sant Sadurní d'Anoia cava cellars.

    So with the addition of a kitchen, you'll be able to sit back and relax in your pied-à-terre and sample some of the city's great "take away" treats from La Boquería market to Jamonísimo to Turris (new designer boulangerie on Aribau 148) to all the wonderful chocolate boutiques, including the new Demasié on Petritxol 15 in the Old City.
    www.demasie.es

    Now that will be even more fun!
    Happy planning!


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    Yes, I'm looking forward to wonderful deli-style, non-breakfasty breakfasts in the apartment. I figure that if we ever find outselves without fois gras or those wonderful little silver anchovies in sour we can just jaunt across a couple of streets and grab it from the Santa Caterina market though we'll undoubtedly do some shopping at Boqueria whenever we can. The chocolate shop sounds very worthy of another stop on the shopping route.

    I'm kind of torn about continuing this conversation. Any of your recommendations to me will undoubtedly be of great interest to others, but my replies less so. So if you have additional suggestions (and we're always open) we may either want to open a separate post entitled something like new spots to try in Barcelona or you are certainly welcome to send me direct "assignments" at my e-mail which is valdisvikmanis at comcast.net
    At least then people here won't have to continually skip over this giganticly long post as they look for more current reports and queries.

    Again, thanks so much for the recommendations. I'm anxious to check them out. Julie

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    This email is for anyone who has visited Spain (especially the Galicia region recently. We will be docking in A Coruna on a cruise on a Sunday and I am worried that most things will be closed. We would like to visit Santiago de Compostela and or Betanzos, but would hate to waste our time if most places are shut, not to mention the afternoon siesta. Anyone have any input or advice for us? Please email me direct: chanslin@surewest.net. C.W.P.

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    Northern Spain is really a very good place to spend some time with your husband. It has really very good hotels and resorts and also some awesome beaches where you can enjoy....!

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    Boy is this one fabulous report! Bringing it up to study since I am headed for Asturias next month.


    Based on the sage advice of both Maribel and Julie, I've booked Casa Marcial in Arriondas, as well as a few other spots.




    Julie, where are you headed next?

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    ekscrunchy, glad my old report is still helpful to you. You're gonna love Asturias and the rest of the North. I was just looking at some pictures of Casa Marcial and drooling over the food.

    We are just back from a trip to Italy(stayed in Varenna on Lake Como again), Camogli and Genoa). Don't go again until early December when we take the Rhine Getaway cruise on Viking for relaxation and Christmas markets.

    Enjoy Northern Spain.

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