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Trip report, mostly food, Basque country; Dordogne; Paris 10/06

Trip report, mostly food, Basque country; Dordogne; Paris 10/06

Nov 4th, 2006, 12:23 PM
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Trip report, mostly food, Basque country; Dordogne; Paris 10/06

With my memory growing weaker by the day, I will begin my report on almost three weeks spent in Bayonne; San Sebastian; the Dordogne; and Paris. I had been to most of these areas before and did not do all that much conventional sightseeing; my primary interest was food so the report will be heavily skewed towards that subject.

With one friend, I flew Delta/AF from JFK to Biarritz with a change of planes in Paris. From the airport we took a taxi to our hotel, the Best Western Le-Grand in Bayonne. Taxi fare was under 20E if I remember correctly. We had a most interesting conversation with the taxi driver, who identified himself as Basque first, French second. He explained that he spoke Basque at home with his family and that the language was once again being taught in French schools in the region.

We chose this hotel with trepidation, for the reports on TripAdvisor were quite negative. It is an old-fashioned hotel, in an attractive older building in the center of this beguiling small city. For 82 Euro I chose a mid-range room and was not unhappy..the room was very large and light with a spacious bathroom, tall windows overlooking the street, and good large bed; my friend chose the least expensive category, for about 10-15 euro less, and her room was dark, cramped and not a pretty place to relax.

After dropping off our suitcases, we walked around the immediate area, stopping at Darantz, one of the venerable chocolate shops in the city (Cazenave, on the same street, Rue Port Neuf, was closed for holiday). We sampled many of their dark treats including chocolate studded with piment d'Espelette, the local AOC red peppers, and others with cinnamon, with clove, and with other flavors and spices, and had a lengthy converation with the female staff who told us that this was one of the few family owned chocolate makers in the city and the future was uncertain since the "younger people" did not want to pursue the trade. We did not actually see the manufacture, as this is not done on the premises. The link between the Basques and chocolate dates from the 16th Century and chocolate in Bayonne was originally manufactured by the city's Jews tossed out of Spain during the Inquisition; for anyone interested in this saga I can check my notes and recommend some reading material.

Soon it was time to make our way to Auberge de Cheval Blanc, a Michelin one-star across the river in Petit Bayonne. En route, we had time to walk along the banks of the two rivers that course through town, and admire the traditional white-painted Basque houses with their green and rouge Basque trim and doorway lintels, many with half timbered facades. Bayonne seemed to be a delightful and friendly place and one I would return to. By this time we were quite exhausted from our transAtlantic flight and I have little recollection of our dinner except for the amazing chocolate desserts. For the plat, I had a lamb dish and my friend had a local fish; with entree, plat, dessert, and a bottle of 2000 Bordeaux Chateau Cadillac, the meal was not much over 100 Euro for both of us.

Here I will make note of the fact that this report, with a few exceptions, will not have my usual (and perhaps excruciating to some readers) detail regarding meals and food in general. The reason for this is that I was dining not with my usual partner but with friends, and since the conversation was often as absorbing as what was on my plate, and often there were 6 of us at meals (in the Dordogone and for a few nights in Paris). I did not write down the details as painstakingly as I have done in the past. Now, three weeks and some later, some of the details are no longer retrievable from my memory bank.

WHEW! Getting tired now, as we were on that first night. We made it back to the hotel in a thunderstorm and slept well in anticipation of our entry into Spain the following day.
ekscrunchy is offline  
Nov 4th, 2006, 12:44 PM
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After trying numerous times to use the edit function to no avail, I have posted the report unedited. Most annoying that the function does not appear to work.
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Nov 4th, 2006, 04:53 PM
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Nice report so far.

For ease of editing, write the report in Notepad or Wordpad or another simple word processor that doesn't have a lot of formatting and when you are happy with it, cut and paste into the Fodors posting box.
AJPeabody is online now  
Nov 4th, 2006, 07:46 PM
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Can hardy wait for more!
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Nov 4th, 2006, 08:13 PM
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Write it in Word first, then copy here

Stu Dudley
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Nov 5th, 2006, 03:45 AM
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Thanks, guys..not sure if I am adept enough to use word and paste it..please do not laugh! I will continue to muddle along hopefully later today..
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Nov 5th, 2006, 05:54 AM
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Next morning was devoted to walking around Bayonne and doing some shopping (2 pair espadrilles, which were born in the Basque country, according to the owner of the small shop that makes and sells them in a myriad of colors for about 8 Euro a pair). We did not have time to visit the celebrated Musee Basque. I was disappointed but will now have at least one excellent reason to return to this city. Bayonne would make, by the way, an excellent base for visiting the small towns in the interior of the Pay Basque as well as coastal towns including Biarritz and St. Jean de Luz. Having spent some time in the area a few years back, this flying visit only whetted my appetite for further adventures. I would love to rent a house for a week or so in the area....have looked at www.justfrance.com but their properties seem a bit high-end for my set.

Back on track. We left the LeGrand and walked 5 minutes to the bus stop where we boarded a 12 noon PESA bus bound for San Sebastian. It is a wonder the bus did not veer off the road into the choppy sea someplace around Biarritz, as the driver spent the entire trip with his neck craned away from the road and toward my friend; both of them had an animated discussion the gist of which was that, although we were excited to be headed for Spain, he as a Basque did not recognize national borders..it is all one Basque homeland...Spain or France, political boundaries do not matter. Had he not had to attend to the minor matter of driving the bus, I would have joined in more earnestly. Many of our fellow riders did so and it became kind of a roundtable discussion on wheels, only to be interrupted by our arrival in San Sebastian on a drizzly Wednesday afternoon which happened to be the beginning of the bridge holiday for the Virgen of Pilar.

From the bus docks, we caught a taxi from the stand across the street for the short ride to Hotel Niza. And now we must check into our rooms...having requested a sea view double, we were to be sadly disappointed..the hotel was full and no rooms with sea view can be found....not only is it a holiday eve but there is a group from "Tejas" staying at the Niza with their guide...
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Nov 5th, 2006, 06:37 AM
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ooops.... we need to back track to Bayonne a bit. AS I said, I did not take notes and memory is fading fast...That last morning in Bayonne we spent an hour or so visiting the small and very colorful covered food market and chatting with a few of the vendors. Bought a few jars of piment d'Espelette peppers and my favorite black cherry confiture from Ixtassou cherries (used some versions of what just might be my favorite cake, Gateau Basque) and some local brebis cheese. Right across from the market, away from the river, is a large and elegant shop stuffed with fois gras in all its incarnations as well as a few local wines. We had an interesting hour there chatting with the young manager and learning about fois gras production in Les Landes, which is where the this shops' offerings hail from, and about the various forms of the liver. I learned something new here, that "mi-cuit" may literally mean "half-cooked" but means in this sense (on labels) "half pasteurized" and needing of refrigeration. We did not buy anything, however, since we had miles to travel before returning home and were headed to the Dordogne for a week of eating and then to Paris, where I eventually bought my jars to take back to the US.

(More fois gras coming up in San Sebastian very soon..Maribel knows where......after we finish our check in at Hotrel Niza and venture out into this supremely dazzling beachfront city.) Since I mentioned Maribel here, I will go on to say that it was she that actually did the planning for this trip or rather that I may have done the planning but that without her guides my task would have been a lot more difficult and not nearly as successfully executed. Muchisimas gracias, Maribel!
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Nov 5th, 2006, 10:08 AM
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I'm looking forward to reading more. My plans for that area will have to wait until a third trip. It looked like I was biting off too much to try to add it to a trip to Brittany.
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Nov 5th, 2006, 10:55 AM
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Back at the Hotel Niza. We were, much to my dismay, not accorded a sea view room although I had requested one months ago. Our room faced the street and was nice enough, if a tad small for the two of us..cheery blue and yellow prints and whitewashed walls. Decent enough bathroom. Good beds. There was no time to brood on the room (no, we could not move the next day..there were no rooms facing the sea to be had..) since it was past 2pm so we dashed over to the Parte Vieja and sat down to a terrific meal at Juanito Kojua
(www.juanitokojua.com)

This is a very relaxed place, whitewashed walls puctuated with wood paneling and dark beams.. For 70 Euro we had a terrific light lunch consisting of:

***Hongos al horno (grilled mushrooms..remember this is the fall..they looked like porcini to me) A three-star dish, one of the best of many great ones on the trip. (from now on I will indicate stellar to-be-dreamed-about-on dreary-days-back-home dishes with, what else, a few stars..)

Berenjenas con hongos y langostinos..great unexpected combo of langostino with eggplant and mushrooms..lightly stewed. Excellent.

2 Gambas a la plancha..grilled shrimp. Excellent and of course they leave the heads on, unlike many places back home. YES!

Bottle of sidra Bereziartua

A wonderful intro to the joys of San Sebastian. Good regional food, nothing fancy. Worth a return visit. And another.

JUANITO KOJUA portu Kalea, 14 in the Parte Vieja. (15 minute walk from the Hotel Niza)
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Nov 5th, 2006, 12:11 PM
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Hi ekscrunchy,

first time I have heard someone here mentioning Juanito Kojua ... I thought it was my secret ...

Rgds, Cova
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Nov 6th, 2006, 03:13 AM
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Cova that is a really good place! I read about it in Maribel's guide and it is firmly on my list for a return visit.
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Nov 6th, 2006, 01:15 PM
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.......So here we are, after a great first meal in San Sebastian. We walked around a bit after lunch and did some window shopping. At tapas time, with great excitement we made our way back from the hotel to the Parte Vieja and searched around a bit before finding our goal: La Cuchara de San Telmo, recommended by Maribel in her guide, where it receives 4 stars, a rating I concur with. We had three nights in San Sebastian and three nights found us here, elbow to elbow against the smoky bar chowing down on just about every item on their menu. The "foie" is the thing to order first here and this grilled fois gras, served with a concasse of fruit, is quite wonderful, for a very low price. All of the tapas are made in the small open kitchen in the back of the long, narrow space. It is a real show to watch the barmen pouring Txakoli, swiping plates, calling out "dos foie, tres chipi..." Fabulous. Apart from the ***foie, we loved the ***xipirones, the slow-cooked veal, the steak, the tomato stuffed with mantecado of bacalao, the tempura of bacalao, the carrot cappuccino, and lots of other dishes I can no longer recall. One of the chefs here is Catalan and trained with Ferran Adria of El Bulli and molecular gastronomy fame. If you love Cal Pep in Barcelona as I do, you need to make a beeline for La Cuchara de San Telmo. We ate and drank standing but there are tables in the back outside that may be difficult to snag but worth a try.

The next morning we were up early. After breakfast at the nearby Hotel Europa cafe (2 cafe con leche, 2 crossant, 2 mermelada..6.10), we walked to the bus station, bought tickets at the office around the corner, and boarded the PESA bus for Bilbao. The buses run every hour or so and the trip takes a bit over an hour. Arriving in Bilbao, we walked to the Guggenheim, about a 20 minute or so stroll (there is also a tram). Frankly, the exterior is the gem here and it is quite a sight rising up against the backdrop of the river and the old city. The audio guides are free with admission here. There was no line to enter. We loved the Richard Serra installation and spent a good bit of time viewing the sparkling new contemporary African art exhibition. We were inside for about 2 hours before hunger called. Of course the restaurant inside the museum, under the direction of Martin Berasategui, was fully booked as we knew it would be. This being a holiday, many restaurants were closed. We walked to Cafe Iruna across from Albia Park, about a 20 minute walk. Unfortunately it was past lunch hours and we had to "make do!!" (poor us!) with raciones of jamon Iberico and potato tortillas. Embellished with painted Moorish-style tiles under a glorious coffered wooden ceiling, this cafe is worth a visit if only to admire the interior and grab a quick drink at the bar. After our snack we walked back to the bus station and caught the bus back to San Sebastian in time for tea and a bit of jai lai on tv at the Belle Epoque Cafe La Concha in a pavillion jutting out over the sands of the spectacularly beautiful crescent of sand that curves around the Bay of Biscay. (1 cafe; 1 te; 1 small water...4.60)

Then time for a quick rest at Hotel Niza before heading back to the Parte Vieja (do you see a pattern here??) for a quick tapa or two followed by dinner at Bodegon Alejandro, another spot under the supervision of three-star Michelin chef Martin Berasategui. We had no reservation here and were lucky that they had a table left in the cheerful yellow downstairs room hung with photos of Basque sporting heroes. The restaurant offers a 30 Euro set meal (plus 7% tax). I began with an order of seasonal cepe mushrooms from the daily specials (not included on the set menu). Next was a garlic-spiked fish and shellfish soup with clams, mussels, prawns and angler fish. For the main course (6.50 supplement) I chose baked lobster and saffron rice. And for dessert, toasted hazlenut souffle. Very good value for somewhat refined and creative cuisine but not among my favorites of the trip. And then to bed........to sleep before beginning our last day in magical San Sebastian.
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Nov 7th, 2006, 02:32 AM
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Nov 7th, 2006, 06:38 AM
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ekscrunchy, I love your screen name!

Your report has me drooling! I enjoyed reading about Bayonne and Sebastian where I've never been and look forward to your impressions of food in the Dordogne and Paris.

The edit function is a pain when it isn't working but seems to be fine today. I don't know how you manage to write so well without being able to edit. I couldn't do my report without copying and pasting from Word. It's not difficult. Get someone to show you.

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Nov 7th, 2006, 06:55 AM
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Our last morning in San Sebastian, a Friday, we discovered the joys of the fabulous Mercado de San Martin in the Centro Romantico. (we visited the Mercado de la Brecha the first day) We spent about 2 hours here speaking with the vendors and trying to hold ourselves back from buying too much, since we had to take the train the next day to the Dordogne. We did, however, splash out downstairs at Jenny, specialist in jamon Iberico that had been recommended to us, where we assembled a picnic spread of bellota ham, Idiazabal and other local cheeses, and a few other delights for the train rides to the Dordogne the next day. Laden down with these, as well as several three-packs of my favorite Magno La Toja black soap, purchased at the supermarket underneath the main market and next door to Jenny, we walked back to Hotel Niza.

We wanted to have lunch in the port area but by the time we managed to make our way there, no tables were to be had at any of the string of restaurants facing the water. So we booked a table for dinner that evening at La Rampa and made our way, again, to La Cuchara de San Telmo for a tapas lunch. Not a shabby alternative to a full meal!

The weather was glorious and although it was 13 October, the beach was quite crowded with sunbathers. We joined them and my friend did some swimming in the clear turquoise waters of the Bay. What a great way to spend an afternoon in this magical city.

Dinner that night was at the aforementioned La Rampa..**Clams marinara (not the Italian way with tomato sauce but simply sauteed in oil/butter with parsley and garlic) and **grilled heads-on prawns. Amazing how far superior these are to the prawns/shrimp we usually get in the US which have been decapitated and frozen, poor things. We sat outside, weather was lovely, and watched the crowds amble by. Had a nice discussion with our waiter, who was a Cuban newly arrived in the city. With local wine the bill was, and I am estimating here, about 65 euro for two. La Rampa. Muelle, 26-27 bajo. Tel-943-42-16-52.

Then joined the parade of strollers along the walkway ringing the Bay and made our way back for a good night's sleep at the Hotel Niza. I will add that, although the city was filled with visitors on this holiday weekend, we encountered very few Americans apart from the Texans staying at our hotel. Most of our fellow tourists seemed to be Spaniards.

...next morning will find us bound for the Euskotren (commuter train) to the border at Hendaye and then onwards by French trains to Bordeaux and Perigueux where we begin our Dordogne adventure.
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Nov 7th, 2006, 09:53 AM
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Eks, pity you stayed for so little time in Bilbao...it is a city that has superb pintxos bars and restaurants...and many things to see and enjoy. Not the views of Donosti, though...Iīm so very glad that you enjoyed your gastronomic visit to my country...canīt wait to read your report on the Dordogne, I (absolutely) loved it.
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Nov 7th, 2006, 10:25 AM
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Mikelg, I was so sorry that this trip afforded us so little time in Bilbao and in the region in general. It was just so hectic and remember we did not have a car. I treated this like a reconassaince trip to prepare for a longer visit very soon. I thought of you when the PESA bus whizzed along the highway past the turnoffs for Getaria and Lekeitio and other places I have read about in your posts. Just the thought of passing by all that great food on the coasts, and those pretty towns made me a bit glum.
I hope you enjoy my posts..I do not have the usual detail that I have had in the past, as I said. Honestly I wish we had looked at the Guggenheim from the outside and taken a peek at the Serra installation, and then walked over to the Casco Viejo and spent our time there....
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Nov 7th, 2006, 10:53 AM
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Hi ek,

Your report is so interesting that you are forgiven the lack of your usuual detail.

However, don't make this a habit.

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Nov 7th, 2006, 11:43 AM
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Ira I am glad you are finding my somewhat lackadaisical missive worthwhile reading. Enjoy..at least you won't become out of breath keeping up with the (slow) pace of my postings! Thanks.
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