Trip Report: France & Spain June 2009

Old Jul 23rd, 2009, 08:27 PM
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Trip Report: France & Spain June 2009

The following is a report about a trip I took to France and Spain in June of this year. It's pretty long, so get comfortable.

Paris in springtime really is gorgeous. It’s not too hot, nobody is tired of tourists or travellers, and everything is open. Arriving there on a Friday morning, I had the grand idea that I would do something “cultural” like visit a museum, but in the end I spent the day in a much more low-key fashion: eating lunch outside at some anonymous bistro, going for ice cream, and walking around Ile de la Cité and Ile St. Louis.

That night I went with friends to one of my favourite spots, Aux Trois Petits Cochons (www.auxtroispetits cochons.fr). We sat on the terrace, where I enjoyed a shrimp starter, followed by delicious duckling with artichokes and olives, ending with a divine tarte au chocolat, all for 35 €. The menu here changes constantly, and there is always something tasty. To cap off the evening, we strolled over to a sleek new spot called Wine and Bubbles (3, rue Française), for a bottle of Alain Thienot Rosé champagne. Very civilized, non?

St. Denis – Montorgueil is the area that is my usual base of operations, and it is much changed since I was last there 2 years ago. Many of the cheap take-away spots on rue Montorgueil have been replaced by bistros, cafés, and flower shops, and there is now a daily monop’, which seems to be the French answer to the little Marks & Spencer Food shops that I have seen in London. For my one night, I stayed at a place called Hôtel Bellevue et du Chariot d’Or (www.hotelbellevue75.com), which offers a wide variety of rooms, and a decent breakfast.
I discovered a fancy new chocolate shop called A La Mère De Famille, and treated myself to a big bar of pavé noir 68% with praline bits. Brilliant. Another find was Création ZOR (www.zor.fr), where I got a great scarf for 10 €. There is jewellery and clothing as well, and the selection was enormous. They do not take credit cards.

The bulk of my trip was organized with Blue Marble Travel (www.bluemarble.org), a Paris-based cycle tour company, and in the interest of full disclosure, I will say that I worked for them many, many years ago. My itinerary was called “Tapestries & Tapas”, and had me in the Loire Valley for the first week, and then in the Basque region for another week. I travelled with different people each week, and they were all fun. My Loire group even went so far as to give everyone code names: Miss Marmalade (me), Quba, her husband 2K Climb, Ristretto, and our guide, Le Sauce.

Loire Valley bumper sticker: Must Love Roses. Everywhere.

Our first two nights were spent in Blois, where we stayed at a hotel called Anne de Bretagne (31, avenue Jean Laigret). A nice enough spot, with recently-renovated bathrooms, it’s only a short walk from the castle, and has a pleasant terrace out front. Dinner the first evening was at Le Castelet (www.castelet.fr), and it was delicious. Not posh, just really good. Three-course menu for 18 €.

For our initial ride, we went out to Chambord and Cheverny. These two places couldn’t be much more different from each other. Chambord was built in the 15th century, while Cheverny was built in the 17th, and the contrast in styles is striking. Chambord (9,50 €) is a huge, soaring place with a double-helix staircase which is reported to have been designed by Leonardo da Vinci. It is nearly empty inside, with a few exhibits. On the other hand, Cheverny (7,40 €) is much more restrained in scale, more like a large manor house than a castle. It was inhabited up until 1985, and is packed with furniture. Visits to the house are tightly controlled, and the place is not for the claustrophobic. That said, it’s beautiful, and the gardens and park surrounding the place are gorgeous.

For our second dinner in Blois, we went to Le Bistrot du Cuisinier (www.lebistrotducuisinier.fr), on the other side of the river from the heart of town. This location let us watch a spectacular sunset. 34 € gets you four courses, but you should be really hungry before you order them all. The three-course menu for 30 € was more than enough. Some really inventive food here, such as the soufflé de crevettes and the filet de Dorade Royale with a zucchini mousse that I had, or the tartare de magret that one of my companions let me sample.

Heading on down the road the next day, we ended up in Chaumont around lunch time. Picnic supplies in hand, we bought a bottle of Touraine Rouge from M. Guilpin for 3 €, and headed into the castle grounds, which are extensive. Admission is 8 € for access to the castle, the park, and the stables. The whole thing is up on a hill, so we sat and looked out over the river as we munched. Perfect.

Later, we rolled through a tiny place called Chissay-en-Touraine, which is where we found “Fraise d’Or”, a small operation making small batches of liqueurs from local fruits, nuts, and even flowers. As the name suggests, the strawberry liqueur is the most prominent, and it was delicious. I also tried the crème de cerise, and found it to be just as tasty. It tasted like cherry pie in a glass. The sample of rose liqueur that I tried nearly ended up back in the glass, because it was nasty. I was told there are people who like it, but these must be people who like eating soap.

Our beds for the night were in Chenonceaux, at a place called La Roseraie (www.charmingroseraie.com). In keeping with the name, it is surrounded by hundreds of rose bushes. In fact, the entire Loire trip was characterized by the masses of roses everywhere. The room rates that I saw posted were 53 € - 119 €. This hotel has AC, a pool, Internet access at a cost of 1 € for every 15 minutes, and some of the happiest, most cheerful hotel staff I’ve ever met. There is a restaurant as well, but it was closed the night we were there. We went across the street to Relais Chenonceaux (www.chenonceaux.com), which had a few different set menus for dinner. 28 € got me the assiette tourangelle, a salad with duck breast and pork belly; sandre à beurre blanc, white fish with shredded zucchini and carrots; Ste. Maure cheese; and a selection of sorbets. For wine we had X. Frissant Touraine Rosé for 17 € a bottle. FYI: Beware the talking parrot.
Breakfast at La Roseraie was MASSIVE. There was yoghurt, applesauce, ham, honey, cheese, croissants, baguette, pains au chocolat, pains aux raisins, and delicious raspberry jam, plus huge pots of coffee and hot chocolate. Good fuel for a day’s cycling, to be sure.

The first town I stopped in after leaving Chenonceaux was Amboise, where I visited Clos de Lucé, Leonardo da Vinci’s last home. It was 12,50 € to get in, which is pricy compared to some of the other attractions in the area, but there was only one da Vinci, while there are many castles. Inside Clos de Lucé, there are models of machines that da Vinci designed, constructed by IBM from original drawings. Some of them are truly stunning. There is a little garden by the café, really good washroom facilities, a large lawn, and a botanical garden with notes on the plants that da Vinci studied.

Amboise is also a wine town, and I had an invitation to visit a local operation called Vinci Cave (www.vinci-cave.fr). They represent a number of wines, including Ruinart champagne, and Christophe Garnier, the man in charge, is also a winemaker. The tasting room is a funky cave decked out in modern lighting and sculptures from a local artist named Hervé Gothard. My timing turned out to be excellent as Christophe was just sitting down to lunch with some friends, and invited me to join them. 3 ½ hours, 7 wines, and 2 pounds of terrine de foie de volailles and rillettes de porc later, we were done. Or so I thought, until Christophe broke out a bottle of 1985 Haut-Médoc to honour the birth year of his guests’ daughter. Still drinking beautifully, it was a brilliant finale.

Christophe showed me further courtesy by phoning ahead to a few of his winemaker colleagues to book appointments for me to visit a couple of them. This was a great favour, since many small wineries do not accept drop-ins.

That same day I got in to see Domaine Vincent Carême, in Vernou-sur-Brenne (www.vincentcareme.fr), where wines are made under the Vouvray appellation. Vincent’s charming South African wife Tania offered samples of 5 wines, all of them excellent. The standout for me was “Le Clos” 2006, made from a tiny vineyard that is literally on top of the winery, since the production facilities are carved out of the earth. This place was absolutely worth the effort, and the fact that Tania speaks perfect English, makes it a good choice for anyone who doesn’t speak French.

In Tours, the rest stop for the night, we stayed at l’adresse (www.hotel-ladresse.com), a place that bills itself as a “hôtel de charme”. In truth, it looks like it was designed by a group of grumpy IKEA employees. Very spare, with lots of grey, only one rack and no hooks in the bathroom to hang anything on, and no shelves. The location is good though, not far from the town centre, and the breakfast was more than adequate. That night I discovered Miroir du Chais ([email protected]), a new wine bar just the street over from the hotel. Olivier, the owner, has assembled a comprehensive wine list, as well as a good selection of whiskies. There is a small menu of snacks, as well.

Once I managed to navigate my way out of Tours the next morning, I rode to Le Château de Villandry (www.chateauvillandry.com). The gardens here are some of the most stunning anywhere. Laid out in different patterns, the scale of the place is best appreciated from one of the high points on the grounds: either the dungeon in the castle, or the “belvedere”, a viewing point along one side. Since I had already seen the castle on a previous visit, I opted for the garden-only ticket, which is 6 €. Totally reasonable for such a breathtaking place.

Azay-le-Rideau was my next stop. The castle here is quite small, so the entry fee of 8,50 € seemed a bit steep, but they did have an interesting special exhibition on, and the washrooms were excellent. (It’s the little things you appreciate when pedaling about the countryside)

At the end of my day’s ride, I arrived in Chinon, another wine town, known for its Cabernet Franc-based wines. There are some tasting rooms here, so you can get a sense of what the wineries are turning out, without moving more than a few hundred metres. Hôtel Diderot (www.hoteldiderot.com), our accommodation for the next two nights, was a great little spot. Parts of the hotel were built in the 15th century, so there is some Old World charm to the place. It has a lovely terrace, surrounded by dozens of different plants and flowers, and a bar. You are not allowed to drink your own alcohol on the terrace, but the staff will keep bottles chilled for you.

The best part of Hôtel Diderot for me though, was breakfast. You start off with fresh apple juice made at a local orchard, and it gets better from there. The hotel makes about 20 different types of jam, most of which are open for guests to try at breakfast time. These aren’t just any jams, either. Some of the flavours included fig/green tomato/apple; Tahitian vanilla & strawberry; strawberry/kiwi; and rhubarb. Each guest is given an enormous bread basket, so there are plenty of platforms to hold all the jam, plus there is fresh goat cheese on a sideboard that may be dressed in one of two traditional ways: with freshly ground black pepper, or with walnuts and honey. I can’t say enough about how fabulous my two mornings at that breakfast table were.

Dinner one night was at Restaurant Côté Jardin (30, rue du Commerce). Very nice, quiet patio, and tasty food. A bottle of Chinon Rouge ran us 20 €. In the same street, there is a computer store/Internet spot here that charged me 2,50 € for about 45 minutes of use.

FYI: if you need to transfer digital pictures from a memory card to a CD, Studio les Reflets, 70, Quai Jeanne-d’Arc, will do it for 5 € per CD.

Along the river from Chinon is Saumur, which gives its name to yet another Loire wine appellation. Saumur is a pleasant place to spend some time, and has a beautiful château. Best of all, it has La Maison du Vin de Saumur (www.vinsdeloire.fr). Here you can sample a variety of wines from the surrounding area, without walking a step. Both large and small producers are represented, and there is no charge for tasting. Wines are for sale, so you can take a bottle of your favourite with you when you leave. We tried seven wines, with my favourite being the Domaine La Bonnelière 2005, at 9 € per bottle. Excellent wine, and a good value.

On the way back to Chinon, I had another appointment, this time at Château de Targé (www.chateaudetarge.fr), in the hamlet of Parnay. Part of the winery is carved out of tuffeau, the predominant local rock, a common practice in this part of the Loire. The appellation for the wines produced here is AOC Saumur-Champigny, and the proprietor is a lovely man named Edouard Pisani-Ferry, who speaks English. The property is almost bio-dynamic, and exports its wines. In Canada, the only place to get them at the moment is the SAQ in Quebec. M. Pisani-Ferry didn’t mention any areas in the U.S., but there may be some.
I sampled seven wines here, and they were all excellent. There were two that really stood out for me. The first was Quintessence 2005, a high intensity wine with 14.5% alcohol, it tasted like plums, tobacco, and smoke, and sells in France for 17 €. The other was a sweet wine, Coteaux de Saumur Château de Targé 2007, with 11% alcohol, and a price of 19 € for 500 mL. Full of the smells and tastes of peaches, lanolin, honey and apricots, it was exquisite. Let’s hope more of all these wines show up on this side of the Atlantic.

By the time I was done with all the swirling and sipping, I was in danger of being late for dinner, so I put the pedal down, literally and figuratively, to get back to Chinon. At the risk of bragging, I will say that I covered 21 km, mostly flat but with one hill, in 65 minutes. I’m sure I looked nothing like Lance Armstrong doing it, but when food is on the line, I will exert every effort.

The transition from the Loire Valley to the Basque took place on a night train, after a full day of riding from Chinon to Tours, into a nasty headwind. We took a train from Tours to the Gare d’Austerlitz in Paris, where we had about 90 minutes before the sleeper train was set to depart. Quite possibly the best 6 € I spent during my trip went towards having a shower in the train station. For the fee you get 20 minutes in a very clean room with a shower, enclosed toilet, sink, and luggage shelf with some towel racks. You are given a bath towel and two face towels wrapped in plastic, along with a bar of soap and a packet of shower gel. There are hairdryers outside the individual shower rooms. After cleaning up, I felt like a new person, and had a much better rest on the night train for the effort.

Basque region bumper sticker: Beware Of Dogs. Everywhere.

An early morning arrival in Hendaye was made easier to bear by us heading off to have hot chocolate, coffee, and gâteau Basque (a dense, jam-filled cake) for breakfast. Hendaye is known for its surfing, and even early in the season, there were a number of people around with their boards. The beach has soft sand, and is quite spacious. Beaches would become the theme of the week for me, so it was nice to get started on a high note. It was market day, so we stopped to pick up a few things, including more gâteau Basque, and headed to Marco Polo (2, Boulevard de la Mer) for another round of coffee and hot chocolate before setting off.

St. Jean de Luz, our first stop, is France’s largest tuna fishing port, and it’s a pretty nice little town. First we did the beach, and then we did lunch. We ate at Chez Théo (25, rue Abbé Onaindia), not far from the beach. I had mussels, tuna (natch), and an excellent koka au caramel (crème caramel) for dessert. Three courses cost 18 €. End station for the day was Ascain, and a small inn called Auberge Achafla-Baïta, which has no street address that I could see, but is signed from the town. It has modern rooms and a good restaurant.

We rolled out of Ascain and into some typical Basque villages, like Aïnhoa, and then Espelette, which gives its name to the AOC red peppers, piments d’Espelette. In Espelette I discovered pain opila, which is bread made with tomatoes, olive oil, and bits of pepper in the dough. For 0,80 € I got a little loaf, about half the size of a small baguette. Combining that with some mild chorizo salami, and a couple of slices of Ossau Iraty cheese, made for a great picnic on a bench in the centre of town. The only downer was that on my way out of town, I was chased by a snarling, barking dog. It was to become a theme.

Starting in a town called Ustaritz, there is a bike path that leads to the outskirts of Biarritz, and goes on into Bayonne. I rode into Bayonne for a quick look around, and liked what I saw, including the lovely cathedral. Back along the path, I found the turn-off for Biarritz and headed into an industrial area. Once again, a nasty dog pursued me. (Up a hill, of course. Thank goodness for adrenalin) My Achilles tendons were spared by the sheer force of my fear propelling me on the bike, and I needed a moment to collect myself afterwards.

Biarritz and the beach were a worthy reward for my efforts. Despite the fact that it’s turned into a bit of a tourist haunt, Biarritz has plenty of natural beauty down by the water. Lucky for me, we were staying at the Hôtel Beaulieu (3, Esplanade du Port-Vieux), right across the road from the little beach near the old port. The water here is fairly polluted with debris, but the beach is nice enough if you just want to lie on the sand. For waves, surfing, and better sand, the Grand Plage is the place to go.

For cocktails we went to La Santa Maria (6, Esplanade du Port-Vieux), right across from our hotel, and sat on the patio set into the rocks, looking out over the water. Dinner was at a casual place right on the docks called Casa Juan Pedro. We ordered a bunch of different fish and seafood, a pitcher of sangria, plus some rosé, and had a great time. One dish we encountered here that we found all over the region was piquillo peppers stuffed with salt cod. Delicious.

We looped back through St. Jean de Luz and Hendaye the next day, so I had another chance to enjoy the beach. I was also set upon by yet another dog shortly after leaving Biarritz. By this point I wasn’t having kind thoughts about man’s best friend. From Hendaye the route around the bay to Fuenterrabia is only about 5 km, but I had had enough riding, so I boarded the Marie Louise, a navette, or shuttle ferry, that runs about every 30 minutes, and took me across the bay for the princely sum of 1,60 €. The captain helped to load my bike, took a picture of me, and then helped me get the bike off on the other side. Talk about service!

I climbed up into the old town, to the Hotel San Nicolas (www.hotelsannikolas.com), which is right next to the fortress that still shows marks from Napoleon’s cannonballs. Great bathrooms at the hotel. We had a tasty dinner at the restaurant next door, but I forgot to note the name. For breakfast, we went down the hill to a little place called Gaxen for chocolate y churros, genuine hot chocolate with long, deep fried doughnuts rolled in sugar. Not the most adult breakfast in the world, but was it ever yummy. Given that we were facing an eight kilometre climb, we needed all the calories we could get.

Jaizkibel (the hill even has a name) was used as a prologue stage in the 1992 Tour de France, and it was not hard to see why. There weren’t many flat spots on the way up, that’s for sure. Gorgeous scenery though, so there were good excuses for pausing by the roadside to take pictures. It seems like every third Basque person is a cyclist, and they are happy to support fellow riders. On my way up Jaizkibel, a man easily as old as my father, overtook me, gave me a thumbs-up and said, “Come on, come on, you’re doing well”. Thanks to him, a 455 m vertical climb turned out to be a lot more enjoyable than I thought it might.

My reward for all that hard work was the fabulous San Sebastián, or Donostia, as it is also called. There is a bike path that runs along the waterfront, and it took me right to Hotel Parma (www.hotelparma.com), my home for two nights. It’s really nice, and has a good breakfast buffet, but if you go, be sure to ask for a room with an exterior window. Some of the rooms have windows that don’t open, and face an interior ventilation shaft. There is Wi-Fi, air conditioning, and CNN on the television. There is also Internet access in the lobby for 1 € per 15 minutes, which is double what you’ll pay at one of the many Internet cafés in the neighbourhood.

Right after I arrived, I headed for Playa de la Zurriola, which was about a 5-minute walk from our hotel, and can be seen from the front of it. I couldn’t miss the Kursaal, the 10-year-old concert hall, that is built right on the beach, and which apparently has caused some controversy due to its rather industrial design. At night, when the building was lit up from the inside, it became a whole different place, and reminded me (in a good way) of Lite Brite. Unfortunately, I wasn’t going to be there for a performance.

After relaxing for a while on the beach, one of my trip companions and I decided to try some of the pintxos, or tapas, that San Sebastián is known for. We checked out a place called Txondorra (Fermin Calbetón, 7) and loved it. It would become my favourite spot. Fresh, creative pintxos, in a hip space with a spacious bar area, and some tables at the back. Good selection of wines written up on the board behind the bar, all at reasonable prices. If I had to pick just one of all the pintxos offerings, it would be the one with walnuts and goat cheese on top of quince paste. A bit sticky, but worth the extra napkins.

Our group got together later in the evening to sample more of the pintxos bar scene, and we had a blast. We stopped at Astelena, which is one that has been recommended here in this forum. It’s a lively place, right on the big square in Parte Vieja, with a big selection of wine and food. Among other things, we had some grilled octopus with potatoes that went down a treat with the crisp, grassy 2008 Verdejo I was sipping on. Following Astelena, we moved on to a simpler spot, but it wasn’t anything special. To end the evening, we got ice cream at Gellateria Boulevard, and it was delicious. They have so many flavours, you may want to go more than once.

Loving the whole pintxos thing, I did it again for my lunch the next day. I went to a very basic place called José Mari (Fermin Calbetón, 5) that was good for a basic snack. A piece of frittata on bread cost 0,80 €, while a glass of sidra, cider, was 1,60 €. Based on a list I got from the Fodor’s forum, I tried Goiz-Argi, across the street from José Mari and Txondorra. It’s a tiny place, stand-up only, but modern. I tried hongos para calentar, which was mushrooms in a sort of broth, and chorizo con bacòn, a 2-inch piece of chorizo sausage, wrapped in bacon, pan-fried, and served on bread. It’s amazing how such little bits of food can be so satisfying.

Going back quickly to the subject of great bathrooms, there is one next to the Church of Buen Pastor that is super clean and free of charge. If only more North American cities would follow suit.

Dinner the second night in San Sebastián was at Jatetxea Aldanondo Restaurante (Euskal Herria, 6). “Jatetxea” is the Basque word for restaurant. Aldanondo is very close to the Hotel Parma, closes on Tuesdays, and is known for its meat. Having decided that we needed to fuel up properly on protein, we ordered chuletas, which is a giant slab of beef, about an inch thick, and sold by the kilo. We paid 38 € per kilo, which is about the going rate. If you’ve ever had bistecca Fiorentina, then you’ll recognize chuletas. It’s cooked very rare, sliced thinly, and is dressed only with sea salt. Pure, unadulterated, carnivorous pleasure. The fries it came with were excellent, too. Paired with a Marques de Murieta Rioja 2003 Finca Ygay, the whole meal was a treat.

The following morning, after a train ride, and some serious hills, we turned up in a fishing town called Lekeitio, starving for lunch. Right in the port we found Goitiko (Foru Enparnantza, z/g). This is the kind of place where if you want wine, you just take from a bottle that’s placed on the table, and it’s included in the fixed price for your lunch. Soup is brought in a tureen, and you ladle out as much or as little as you want. You can finish the whole thing, if you like, and it amounts to at least 2 bowls.
There were only 2 choices for starter, and 2 for the main (offered only as ‘fish’ or ‘meat’) so it’s a good thing none of us was a picky eater. Some people at my table started with the fish soup, which they said was really good, while I had a thick lentil stew with pieces of sausage in it that was tasty. We had all chosen fish for our main, so the chef picked three different kinds, cooked them simply in butter, and sent them out on a big platter with lemons and fries. There was more selection for dessert, but everyone chose natillas, a sort of custard that we had all fallen in love with. All this cost us only 9,50 €.

MORE major hill climbing was on the agenda after lunch. Mountains are beautiful, but they are work. At least no dogs attacked me.

Gernika (Guernica), subject of a bombing run during WWII, and subsequently a Picasso painting, was our next destination, and we stayed at Hotel Bolina (Barrenkale, 3), in the centre of town. Location is everything for this place, because the inside left a lot to be desired, especially after the cushy environs of Hotel Parma. My bathroom at the Bolina was so ridiculously small and ancient, I had to take a picture of it. Again, if you go, make sure to ask for a room with an exterior window. The good news is that you won’t be in the room much, because there are museums for the history buff in town, and beaches nearby for swimmers and sun worshippers.

I rode out to Playa de Laga, which is a beach on the ocean, sandwiched by two dramatic rock formations. It wasn’t high season yet, so there was lots of space. There were surfers, but the waves are pretty small, so nobody need fear them. After so many days of running around, it was nice to just relax on the sand with a book.

For our final group dinner, we went to a restaurant called Baserri Maitea (www.baserrimaitea.com). It’s up in the hills behind the town, so we took cabs. The ride cost 9 €. It was 100% worth the effort. The grounds are lovely, and the 2-storey space includes a balcony that offers a stunning view of the countryside. White linen, good glassware, and a comprehensive wine list made the inside just as attractive as the outside.
We all had the 6-course tasting menu, and it was divine. There was soup that had a scallop and a prawn nestled in the bottom of the bowl while the liquid was poured over; a creamy rice dish like a risotto; blood pudding on pastry with foie gras; fish and a perfect egg yolk on toast; very rare beef; and a terrific dessert of pears in pastry accompanied by ice cream and honey with goat’s milk. I am simplifying the descriptions, but let me assure you, each dish was exquisite.
To wet our whistles we drank Maior de Mendoza Albariño 2008 from the Rias Baixas appellation (14 €), Pujanza 2005 Rioja (22 €), and Onix Evolució 2005 from Priorat (20 €). All fantastic.

Before leaving Gernika, I checked out a funky independent bike shop called Kortezubike (www.kortezubike.com), not far from the train station. If you need something, they likely have it, including their own jerseys. As a souvenir from a cycling trip it doesn’t get much better than that, so I got one for me, and one for my best friend.

The ride from Gernika to Bilbao did not sound appealing, so my bike and I hopped on a Euskal Tren train that took me from point ‘G’ to point ‘B’ in 50 minutes. Hotel Sirimiri (www.hotelsirimiri.es) is about 100 metres from the Bilbao Euskal Tren station, so that was really handy. The guy working the front desk speaks English and French, which was even better, since my Spanish doesn’t even really qualify as basic. It’s a pretty nice hotel, too.

I got on the Eusko Tran (like a ground level streetcar) for 1,20 €, and it took me right to the Guggenheim Museum (www.guggenheim-bilbao.es). Admission is normally 13 €, but since the third floor was closed for a changeover, the fee was only 8 €.

Pictures don’t do the building justice. For an architecture fan like me, it was wonderful, in the true sense of the word. I didn’t even go inside until I had done a full circle around it, and taken about 10 pictures. I wasn’t alone in that: I saw three wedding parties there doing photos. The park beside the museum is great, too.
“Wow” barely begins to cover it, as far as the impression this building makes. All soaring heights and jutting angles, the main hall is breathtaking. There is drama, and there is cheek. For example, Richard Serra’s giant steel sculptures are, fittingly, displayed in the hall sponsored by ArcelorMittal, the giant steel company.
I am not normally someone who eats at museum cafés, but I found myself really hungry during my visit, so I decided to take my chances. The mixed salad I got with tuna, egg, and some vegetables came with bread, and cost 6 €. I was even given my own cruet with olive oil and vinegar. It was pretty satisfying.

I could go on for paragraphs, but suffice it to say, I highly recommend a visit here.

After finishing up at the “Gu”, I walked to Zubiarte, which is a massive mall. It reminded me of Las Vegas. Its main use for me was the grocery store in the basement where I found a Lindt 70% chocolate bar filled with cherry and spiced with chili. It was unique and delicious. Wandering back to my hotel, munching my treat, was a delight, because there are so many pretty plazas, and it felt like the whole city was an art installation. I took a whole roll of film in one afternoon.

Bilbao enchanted me. By all accounts, it was a hole before the Guggenheim Museum came to town, but you wouldn’t know it now. Every square had beautiful flowers, and there were lots of benches to sit on. On both sides of the river there is a wide path for walking, cycling, and in-line skating.

It happened that the Saturday night we were there was “Noche Blanca”, or White Night. This event has been done in other cities, and it’s basically an all-night arts party. People got into the spirit of it by putting on outrageous costumes. On our way to have pre-dinner drinks we took in a concert by an accordion orchestra. Sounds a bit crazy, but it was really good.

For dinner we went to a buzzing spot called Rio-Oja (Perro, 4) in the old town. They don’t take reservations, so if you go, get there early, or plan to stand around at the bar waiting for a table. This place had some of the fastest bartenders I have ever seen. They were both about 60 years old, and they could free pour 5 glasses of wine to exactly the same level, while moving at a furious pace. Even cutting bread was a spectacle. Once we got a table, we ordered a bunch of different things from the menu, a bottle of Rioja, and had a blast. For dessert we had something called a “Valenciana”. It’s a drink made with freshly squeezed orange juice, poured over a block of vanilla ice cream, topped off with Gran Marnier. It was like a creamsicle for adults.
After we finished eating, we headed over to the Arenal area to hear some Latin Jazz, which was a lot of fun. Our final stop of the night (morning) was the Museo Diocesano de Arte Sacro where they were doing “eclectic” flamenco. There was some terrific musicianship on display, and it made for a beautiful ending to our group adventure.

For my last few hours in Bilbao, I went to the fine arts museum (www.museobilbao.com). It’s quite well done, and for 5,50 €, something of a bargain. There is a café and a fancy restaurant, which both looked good, but I didn’t eat at either one. I took a renfe train from Bilbao to Madrid, and rode first class, so they fed and watered me.

When my train arrived that night in Madrid, I took a taxi to my hotel. Only when I went to pay did I find out that the driver wouldn’t accept credit cards. This turned out to be quite common in Madrid. Lucky for me, I had enough cash, so I was able to settle up without too much hassle.

Expedia was offering a great deal on the Best Western Arosa (www.hotelarosa.com), located on the Gran Via, so I had booked there, and it was pretty good. A little worn maybe, but generally a solid hotel. Breakfast was ridiculously overpriced, though, so going out was a better option. The location was handy for getting places, but it’s also right down the street from a McDonald’s where prostitutes hang out.

While it may seem more tourist than traveller, a bus tour is a good way to see a lot of a city in a short time. With the mercury rising past 28C by mid-morning on my first day, I boarded the Madrid Vision bus for some sightseeing. At 17 €, it’s not cheap, nor does it accept credit cards, but the ticket is good for hours, there are 2 separate lines, and you can hop on and off as much as you like.

Based on a Fodor’s recommendation, I sought out El Cenador del Prado (www.elcenadordelprado.com) for lunch. I showed up about 15 minutes before they were set to open, which led to a happy accident, or what is called in golf “a good miss”. Across the street I spotted Vinoteca Barbechera (Calle Principe, 27), so I nipped in for a drink. Part bar, part wine store, it has a stainless steel bar, and offers tapas and light meals. There are plenty of wines by the glass, the most expensive of which goes for 4€. I enjoyed a refreshing glass of Señorio de Garci Grande Verdejo for 3 €, along with a (free) dish of pitted green olives. It was the perfect apéritif.

Back at El Cenador del Prado once more, I was seated in one of the elegant dining rooms. It’s the kind of place where they like reservations, even for lunch, but I had no trouble getting a table. Service was a bit stiff and formal, but very good. The 25th anniversary commemorative menu was 15 €, and included bread and a drink. I chose a red wine. Getting tap water is a challenge in Spain, so I had to ask a few times, but when it came it was a whole pitcher. Lunch began with the restaurant presenting an amuse-bouche of smoked salmon strips over a dice of peppers and sundried tomato. For a starter I had a sort of eggplant tempura drizzled with honey, accompanied by an ‘ali-oli’ dipping sauce. My main was pork tenderloin with chopped jamòn iberico, and a dark red pepper sauce. The waiter recommended the helado de cerveza, beer ice cream, for dessert, so I tried it and loved it. It was more like sorbet and it was so refreshing. It didn’t taste like beer, it tasted like the green apple that is mixed in with the beer, but the flavour was subtle. Everything about this meal was great, and I would go back in a heartbeat.

On my way to dinner that night, I strolled through Buen Retiro park. It reminded me of Central Park in New York City, yet there were other elements to it that made it unique. What a terrific place. There were tons of people out enjoying it, and it’s easy to see why the whole city goes there on Sundays.

Thanks to another Fodorite, I had some suggestions for dinner, so I headed for Calle Menorca, right near the park. I chose Couzapin de Carlos Tartiere Restaurante/Sidreria at number 33, and had a good meal. It’s a lively place, and they offer you a free glass of gazpacho and some pastries filled with chorizo to start. A caña, or glass, of cider or beer costs 1,75 €, and they have cider on tap, as well as in bottle. They automatically bring bread, but they add 1,25 € to your bill, so if you don’t want it, decline immediately.

Day 2 in Madrid was a bit rainy, so it was a good day for museums. First up was Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza (www.museothyssen.org), which wasn’t on my list, but had a Matisse exhibition on, so I decided to go. It would end up being my favourite of all the places I visited in Madrid. I got a multi-museum pass for 14 € that gave me tickets for Thyssen-Bornemisza, the Prado, and Reina Sofía. What I didn’t realize was that while the first two are closed Mondays, the Reina Sofía is closed on Tuesdays. You have to hate it when you haven’t done enough research. Oh well, I kept the ticket, and it’s good until Dec. 31, 2010.

Admission to Thyssen-Bornemisza includes the Carmen Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection, which has just been opened recently. In my opinion, it is well worth a look. The Prado on the other hand, left me underwhelmed. I know it’s probably considered heresy to say so, but I didn’t think it was that special, especially after waiting in a huge line-up that my museum pass did not let me skip. Plus, all the descriptions are in Spanish only, so unless you speak it, you won’t get much information.

Lunch yielded a terrific discovery when I came across Zoe Café (www.zoecafe.es). It had a fun, funky interior that included floors with lit, sunken installations of stones under glass. The music was good, getting tap water was easy, the art on the walls was for sale, and, unusually for Spain, non-smokers had their own section. That would have been enough to make me love them, but the food sealed the deal. The menu del día was 10,50 €, including bread and a drink. I started with a zucchini soup with blue cheese, followed by stir-fried beef with mushrooms and brown rice, and dessert was yoghurt mousse with raspberry jelly. It was all tasty, the portions were generous, and I left feeling satisfied.

Palacio Real (www.patrimonionacional.es) was my final stop of a long day. The palace is full of displays showing what life was like for Spanish royalty a couple of centuries ago. Some of the rooms are incredible, like the one with walls covered in porcelain. There is quite a bit to see, so if you go, plan for an hour or two.

Condé Nast Traveller magazine did a piece on Madrid a little while ago, so I went to check out some of the spots they highlighted for my last night in town. Cocktail hour saw me at Llardy (www.llardy.com), which is a combination pastry shop/caterer that serves little snacks and drinks in the early evening. It was founded in 1839, and is a tiny place, full of treats, both liquid and solid. I stood up with a few other people, and had a glass of cava, along with a savoury pastry.
For a complete change of pace, my second stop was Museo del Jamón (www.museodeljamon.com), right next door (but not mentioned by Condé Nast). Raucous and rowdy, it was packed with people eating ham, cheese, and olives, while drinking beer or inexpensive red wine. Napkins get thrown on the ground, and strangers talk to each other in this place. Watch out for the bartenders though: asking for the bill seems to be their cue to refill your glass, and then expect you to accept wine you didn’t order. Maybe that doesn’t happen to Spaniards, or Spanish-speaking people, but it did to me, and to the German guy next to me.

After waiting out the only thunderstorm I experienced in my whole time away, I trekked over to Cisne Azul (Gravina, 19), another Condé Nast suggestion, not too far off Gran Via. The main claim to fame here is the variety of mushrooms on offer, although they have a full menu. It’s brightly lit, simply furnished, and quite small. Señor Vega is the owner, and his charming son Miguel is the server. If you like diners, you’ll like it here. I started with grilled asparagus covered in Manchego cheese that was thoroughly delicious, although no bargain at 13 €. For my next dish, I had sautéed mixed mushrooms with a perfectly fried egg in the middle. Again, not the cheapest fungus you’ll ever eat, but very good.

My only subway ride happened on my final morning, when I took it to the airport. There are many lines in the Madrid system, and it only costs a Euro to ride. There is a one Euro supplement for the airport. It was a quick trip, considering I had to change twice during rush hour.

One thing I noticed about Spain that I didn’t see in France was all the security personnel. It felt like everywhere you went, somebody with a gun was watching you. Even the museums felt like they had twice the staff of any other place I’ve visited. After a while, it became oppressive. I am told that Madrid is the worst for it, but I saw it in Bilbao, as well. That said, for a first trip to Spain, it was a success, and I would go back again tomorrow. With dog repellent, and lots of cash. 
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Old Jul 24th, 2009, 06:37 AM
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Thanks for such a detailed trip report!
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Old Jul 24th, 2009, 10:02 AM
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Having taken two trips through the Loire, I felt your descriptions of the chateaus was 'spot on'.

This was a well-written report--just the right amount of info about every town.

Thanks.
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Old Jul 24th, 2009, 10:47 AM
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I enjoyed your report especially the part about Paris and The Loire Valley as we will be there in Sept. I made notes about the restaurants you visited and hope to try some of them.

We've rented a cottage in the Chinon area so your description of that was interesting to me. We have already visited the Eastern part of The Loire, but may return to some places we missed.

Merci!
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Old Jul 24th, 2009, 12:35 PM
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Hi TPAYT,

If you have any questions, please feel free to ask.
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Old Jul 25th, 2009, 08:17 AM
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We stayed at La Roseraie in Chenonceaux last Fall and loved it, also. We were lucky that their restaurant was open for dinner. The food was so great, we ate there two nights in a row.
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Old Jul 25th, 2009, 08:28 AM
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Wonderful trip report; you are a great traveler! I agree with you about the Thyssen-Bornemisza. It was my favorite museum in Madrid (heresy, I know).
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Old Jul 27th, 2009, 07:50 PM
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I can't believe I forgot to mention this, because it was impossible to avoid, but almost every major street in Madrid is under construction right now. The Plaza del Sol was just a giant dig site surrounded by hoardings. Not that it's news to any traveller, but it's particularly relevant here: pack sturdy walking shoes.
The Spanish ladies were navigating shaky boards and potholes in high heels, but I wouldn't be that brave.

Happy trekking!
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Old Jul 30th, 2009, 09:37 AM
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goddessintl----I do have a question for you. Every Sept. when we are in Europe it is the time of my birthday. We always try to find a "special place" for the occasion. Last year was at "Le Train Bleu" in Paris and I loved it(touristy, yes, but still great).

This year we will be staying near Chinon on my birthday. Your description of the restaurants you ate in was so nice, I'm wondering if you have any suggestions in that area?

Any price range is fine. We've been to casual places we loved and expensive ones that were just O.K., and everything in between. We're looking for charm and good food.
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Old Jul 30th, 2009, 07:56 PM
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Hi TPAYT,


Even though I've been to Chinon before, I had not eaten there until this trip. "Restaurant Cote Jardin" that I mentioned in my report had very tasty food, and I liked the secluded garden setting. There is a high rock wall on one side that is covered in flowers. Plus, the server we had the night I was there was charming.

Trip Advisor offered up "Au Plaisir Gourmand" as a suggestion, so you might have a look for a review of that. Apparently, it's quite posh, so might be just the thing for a birthday dinner.

If you find yourself in Tours for dinner, check out "La Deuvaliere", at 18, rue de la Monnaie. I still think about the delicious dinner I had there on a previous visit to Tours.
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Old Aug 1st, 2009, 10:29 AM
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Am checking out both the restaurants you mentioned in Chinon. I'll let you know in my trip report if we go there. We are also hoping the couple who we are renting from will have some good suggestions.

Thanks for responding.
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Old Aug 1st, 2009, 11:40 AM
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I loved your report. This is the kind of trip I will never take, but it is fascinating to read about it. And you enjoyed two of my favorite things from my two brief visits to Madrid: the Thyssen-Bornemisza museum and El Cenador del Prado.
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