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Trip Report: Spanish Basque Country, Asturias and Leon, Madrid==July 2018

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Nov 7th, 2018, 03:03 PM
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Trip Report: Spanish Basque Country, Asturias and Leon, Madrid---July 2018

This is the second half of our trip to Europe, summer 2018. As always, I try to give prices so that readers have a sense of how we travel and costs,

We flew on United/British Air from SF to Paris with a change in Philadelphia and from Madrid to SF with a change in London. The total cost was $1691 for two, with the tickets purchased in February or early March for a June 20 departure and an August 1 return . Food was mediocre to worse than for the breakfast going east and the equivalent going west, with the exception of the London to SF dinner which was far better than airplane meals we can recall in the last 20 years.
One quirk with the airline tickets. When checking in at the airport in SF and Madrid, we were unable to get seat assignments for the second leg of the flight. It turned out to make no difference. In both instances we were seated together and also from Madrid to LHR, but not from SF to Philadelphia even though it was the one time we used the on-line seat reservation system as soon as we were allowed (24 hours before departure).

We rented a standard shift Fiat 500 or equivalent through Autoeurope when it advertised sales (end of February I believe) and paid $221 plus $89 in road fees and local taxes for a 20 day one-way rental from Lyon to Biarritz. Our credit card carried the CDW.

We took the TGV from Paris to Lyon ($97). And we took a Flixbus from Biarritz to Bilbao for 22€. Prices are for two.

Our housing in Menton, through Home Away, cost us $445 for 5 nights.
Our housing in Bilbao, through Booking.com cost us $334 for 3 nights.
Our housing in Madrid through AirBnB cost us $326 for 4 nights.

The rest of our housing costs were cash transactions reflected in the following:

We had $6000 in our travel account, from which the CU deducted the first three or four weeks of credit card bills automatically and we withdrew cash as necessary. By the end of our trip we had $3200 left in the account but had to pay $3385 of accrued credit card charges. In other words, I calculate that our direct expenses in Europe were $6185.

This last figure is misleading. We had free housing for our 5 days in Paris, for four days in the Provence, for our three days in the Pyrénées, and for our ten days in the Asturias. It probably represents a savings of about $3000.

Credit Cards and ATMs:
Our chip & sign credit card worked throughout our trip with no problems, even when it was a minimal charge of .75€ at a tollbooth. VISA charges us a 1% conversion fee. ATMs in France are free of charge, but all banks in Spain charge a fee for withdrawing money. The amount is fixed, but varies from bank to bank. If memory serves me right, BBVA charged 3€ per transaction, whereas all other banks charged 5€.

Housing: We had reservations for all the housing that we arranged, and stayed in our daughter’s father-in-law’s apartment in Oviedo while in the Asturias; he was staying at his beach apartment in Salinas.

Our first stay was in a hostel in Doneztebe/Santesteban. The hostel is called Hostal Ameztia, with completely renovated and spotless rooms with en suite bathrooms in two old buildings whose walls were two feet thick. However, there was no air conditioning and it did get stuffy at times. We could open the windows, but the buildings were right by a mountain stream that was quite noisy. Across the street was a café/bar where we registered, paid and were also able to have tapas and raciones. I think that we paid 60€ per night. It catered especially to bicyclists, as can be seen by its sign:

In Bilbao we stayed in the middle of the old town, in one of these B&Bs that occupy the floor of an apartment building. The room was fine, but the bathroom for our exclusive use was down the hall. I am getting at the point that I prefer en-suite bathrooms.

Our housing in Oviedo was a large bourgeois apartment in the center of town, courtesy of our daughter-in-law’s father. We were assigned the master bedroom and bathroom which had an antechamber between the two functioning as a dressing room.

In Madrid we stayed in an Airbnb apartment on the calle de las Huertas (Google the street). It was fine for us except that the kitchen as a little skimpy on amenities. The apartment is not someone’s residence at other times but a tourist apartment built for that purpose in an old apartment building. The impression was that the front part of the building had been converted to tourist apartments while the sections overlooking the inner courtyard had remained residential.

Transportation: We drove in the Baztan-Bidasoa area of the Basque country before returning our rental in France. It took us a little more than an hour to get to the Biarritz airport where we returned out rented car. There is a gas station open on Sundays ten kilometers south of the airport on the autoroute rest stop where we topped our tank. We left the car in the parking lot for rentals and discovered that contrary to our instructions for the keys, there was an attendant at the Europcar airport counter who took the keys from us. I have not heard from them since receiving the final billing of local taxes and fees (about 80€, as expected), so I assume that I have not collected any parking or speeding violations.

We took a city bus to Biarritz, had figured out where to get off previously, and found the unmarked bus stop for the Flixbus that took us to Bilbao, our next stay in Basque country. It was fast, convenient and cheap.

We purchased a Bilbao at the central tourist office pass good for transportation through the Bilbao area all the way to the coast whose counter starts when it is first used. Since its first use was in the afternoon, it was good on the morning of our departure to take us to the central bus station. It also covered some museum fees, but we did not need it because the entrance was free on the day we visited the museum.

We took an Aslan bus from Bilbao to Oviedo. Our family met us at the station.

In the Asturias we were driven around by our daughter-in-law; her father had kindly lent us his car.

The train ride from Oviedo to Spain is very nice, going through a varied terrain, from mountains to arid plains.

We purchased a multi-day pass for Madrid which was convenient in that we did not have to deal with change whenever we wanted to take public transportation—the only thing available during our stay because the taxis were on strike. But it really was not worth it. First of all, it appears that it is valid for calendar days which end at midnight. I counted on using the metro pas to get to the airport on our last morning, but the pass was no longer valid (it may be that I miscounted the days). At any rate, while we found it useful to take metro and bus at various times, the essential of Madrid between the royal palace, the Prado and the main train station is very walkable for most people. We are an exception in that my wife uses a cane and can’t stand the heat. I would not recommend the pass for anyone in Madrid for just the few days that it takes to see the core of the city.

Getting to the airport by public transportation involves either using the airport bus or the metro. Our flight left from T4 which is a long way from T1, 2 and 3 where the airport bus arrives. The metro goes to T4. The departure decks are a long way from the terminal building itself. We arrived there 2 hours before departure because we used the airport bus to avoid long transfers in the metro stations which was late (one bus was missing) and we were unaware that our terminal was not part of the central airport complex. Moreover, it is impossible to find an information desk once at the airport. It was the Air Canada information desk that told us that we were in the wrong area. We took the shuttle that does back on the main highway to reach T4. The lines were horrendous. Eventually we were told to step our of the line because of our departure time. Still, I do not think we would have made except for the fact that my wife was in a wheelchair and could move to the head of all the security lines and then was driven by van to the departure gate. In other words, count on the three hours in the airport, and if everything goes faster than anticipated, enjoy a beer at the food court that undoubtedly services the T4 departure area.

Food:
We did not picnic as we do in France. Every town if not village will have a bar that serves tapas. In more rural areas, there is of course less variety than in large cities. In eating establishments that served more than tapas, we generally had raciones, larger dishes which usually sufficed by themselves for a meal, with maybe an added salad. We had some difficulties with the divisions on a menu and were several times appropriately warned that we were ordering too much.

We went to Donamaria once in the evening to eat at a slow-food restaurant. The food was good, but not memorable; the service person was young and inexperienced; and there were only three occupied tables in a very large restaurant. From what we could find out, it is the only restaurant of note in the entire area. Walking around the old part of Doneztebe/Santesteban we did find another restaurant—as distinct from a tapas bar with tables in the back—but it was closed and we could not communicate with the personnel to know when it would open if at all—times and menus are rarely posted.

On our first night in Bilbao we ate across the street—a middling tourist restaurant. At another time we ate at the restaurant facing the first one. This latter restaurant was interesting on several counts. English was of limited help. When we came in to make a reservation in the afternoon, the owner told us in an agitated or annoyed manner that it was closed, and we were unable to indicate that we just wanted a reservation for the evening. When we came in the evening, the owner insisted that we sit at the small table cater corner rather than facing each other, and he would not let us sit down until we did sit as he demanded. He then took me to the front of the restaurant where there were two enormous barrels against the wall and two shallow wooden tubs about 5 feet in front of them. He showed me how to fill glasses about a fourth full from the spigot that let out a long stream of cider. The understanding is that I would do it myself after that, with everyone watching me do it the first time. The restaurant specialized in cider both for drinks and cooking. I did not taste the difference between dishes cooked in cider and similar dishes in other restaurants, but we may have chosen the wrong dishes by choosing what is recognizable. Generally food was fine, but I can’t point to particular dishes or really particularly fine preparations. Later we kicked ourselves because our daughter had made a reservation to a special restaurant but we did not read the e-mail, or even noticed it, so we missed our reservation date. The one ubiquitous dish we noticed in Basque country was what looked like a large very thick ribeye steak meant as a serving for two or more people. We never ordered it as the 750+ grams were far more than we could ever consume in one meal.

A culinary peculiarity: I noticed in several markets that the butchers would advertise duck products, and the names were half in French:
as if Spanish farmers did not eat duck or at least did not have a name for it. I understand that duck or goose p té may be particularly French in origin, although I doubt it, but confit is simply a logical way of preserving goose or duck and magret is nothing more than a duck breast. I did not notice a mania for French words in other instances.

Our trip to Spain was based on an invitation by our daughters of a culinary tour of the Asturias. Obviously we ate well although not necessarily at first-class restaurants. Some of the highlights include an al fresco family meal by the seaside, where we met a number of the in-laws; a restaurant meal in a more formal place in Oviedo, with excellent old-fashioned yet properly friendly service by a waiter who looked his years of experience; a very good fish restaurant in Gijon; a country restaurant—casa Poli—in Puertas de Vidiago where I had percebes (goose neck barnacles) for the first and unfortunately only time; a meal in Quiros where I ordered the wrong thing—the menu of the day for 12€—but got to taste their specialty, pote de castañas; and a blood sausage snack in a tiny bar in Leon called La Bicha.

We of course had fabada asturianas at one point, probably in the Oviedo restaurant, whose variant is called pote de Asturias, which is no more than fabada with Swiss chard or similar greens added to it. A correct fabada requires the special dried bean which is expensive even in Asturias; it can be purchased at Spanish specialties outlets. A pote de castañas can be done with fresh chestnuts—the real work is in peeling the chestnuts—or with canned or otherwise preserved chestnuts as found in Chinese grocery stores. On-line recipes of this pote vary, some include greens, some do not. I find the taste of chestnuts more interesting than the taste of the beans which are truly different from most dried beans.

On our way for a day visit to Leon we stopped in Villamanin, a mountain village. A family member advised against the local tourist restaurant whose menu was heavy on sausage and other preserved meats and recommended a higher class place. The meal was so-so. We should have eaten at neither establishments but at a country store where the owner would cut chunks of cheese and chorizo, place them on a piece of butcher paper, give you a basket of bread and send you to the dining room for your meal. That room was lined with hundreds of small jars full of sand each one carefully labeled as to the origin of the sand.

Our daughter-in-law had heard about La Bicha, but when we asked for directions, the local advice given was not to bother because the man behind the counter was so awful. We persisted and were, luckily, the first one in the place which was completely full within half an hour with a sign in the window. The establishment can’t be more than 10ft. wide—
—and its one and only specialty is blood sausage. When you order beer or wine you are automatically given a piece of bread and some sausage (it might have been chorizo) as per the Charles III decree. Otherwise it’s a plate of blood sausage meat without the casing, prepared fresh on a large griddle. As we came in, it was cooking on the griddle, and it took another ten minutes for it to be ready, one person doing all the work (the photo shows how crowded it is) of cooking and serving, and he had to constantly turn the pile of sausage meat over while cooking. It is paradise for those who seek out blood sausage—others should look for a snack elsewhere.

Asturias, like Basque country, is cider territory. But here it is served differently. The traditional way, or at least that is the impression given, is that the wait person holds the bottle of cider as high up as possible above his head while he hold the glass with the other hand as low as possible. This is not a blind tasting but a blind pouring that probably was practiced in a bathtub. Of course, a waiter in any decent restaurant does not have the time to go through this rigmarole every time to fill a glass one quarter full so a siphon is then added to the bottle that is placed on the table.

In Madrid we cooked in the apartment twice. The large department store in Sol has a food basement where we purchased a bag full of fresh razor clams. Had them the first night with salad, had some left over so the next night we purchased some shrimp and had a shrimp and clam sauce over pasta. The old market near the plaza Mayor is now mainly a food emporium where one can graze through the different offerings—we had some fresh oysters and some skewers with fresh anchovy. We had lunch at a so-so tourist place just outside the plaza mayor and our final evening meal was in a Cuban restaurant—my fault as I could not see myself standing shoulder to shoulder in a popular tapas bar trying to hear what my companion was saying over the roar of all the others—but some of the bars had very appealing dishes.

Postcards: We purchased postcards in Bilbao and the sales clerk suggested that we purchase the stamps at the same time. The cards could then be dropped off in a regular mailbox or the red mailboxes that are found in front of these souvenir shops. The stamps are scenes from Bilbao. We took him at his word, realizing that we were paying more because it was a single price whether sent to the U.S. or to Europe. We dropped off the postcards in a red letter box and, as far as we know, they never arrived at their destination. If sending postcards pick up stamps at a tobacco shop and drop them off in an official post box.

What we saw:
Our first stop in Spain was in the Baztan-Bidasoa area of the Basque country. My impression is that it is the farthest east of the Basque area and as a rural area feels isolated from the more populated area such as San Sebastian, although it is about an hour away from that city, and from Biarrtiz for that matter. It gives the impression of being a self-contained area.

The tourist brochure divides the area into several sections. The first one listed is Urdazubi/Urdax which is a small area located in the north-east corner of the area. The town of Urdazubi/Urdax has an excellent tourist office located next to the monastery church. In the area we visited the caves of Ikaburua, the cave of the witches in Zugarramurdi, and the Museum of the Witches. The Ikaburua caves are underground caves that are part of a system that includes caves near Sare on the French side of the border. The Cave of the witches is an open grotto and the walk in the area is quite pleasant even if less than what is advertised. The circuit is signposted but unfortunately the English text is in a color font that makes it impossible to the read behind the plastic cover and the general weathering of the signs. I would recommend both cave tours (one guided, one self-guided) but not the Museum of the Witches unless one is fluent in Spanish. It contains mainly text and images around a 16th century Inquisition of many individuals in that area accused of witchery; without the texts it is of little interest. From that area we drove over the mountains back to our hotel in Doneztebe/Santesteban, got lost and landed closer to Elizondo which represented a fifteen minute detour.

The second section is Baztan, whose main town and for the whole area is Elizondo. We drove through Baztan on our way to and from the caves. It is all pleasant low mountainous terrain. Elizondo is architecturally interesting as there are many imposing multi-storied stone houses that were built often by returning Basques who had made their fortune in the New World. The houses date mainly from the 19th century. It used to have a central market under an arcade along the river, but the market eventually died out and it has been converted into a beautiful public library. The librarian spoke English and French in addition to the local language while in the tourist office only Basque and Spanish prevailed. As in France, computers are only for those with library cards, but often but not always the librarians let us use a computer to check our e-mail.

The third section of the brochure covers a narrow strip that goes up both sides of the mountains from the main valley floor and is the Bertiz Natural Park. We did not explore this section.

Doneztebe/Santesteban is really in the fourth section but is not listed in the brochure even though it is he second largest town of the entire area and has a center with mansions similar to Elizondo. We stayed there because housing was cheaper than in Elizondo and it is centrally located. On this map, it is at the large intersection directly west of Elizondon, not highlighted because it has no special tourist attractions:

We went to Donamaria in the daytime to see a 15th century tower. The village is pleasantly located in a valley among rolling hills.

The last section of the area contains several interesting villages such as Subilla (interesting eaves and old bridge) where we had tapas for lunch (cross the river and find the café next to the church) and Etxalar which is larger with a couple more cafés, an interesting church, and in an outlying neighborhood, an old lavoir. Photographically the town is very appealing. The tourist brochure also mentions a view of five villages in a small valley, but as best as I can figure out (we drove way up the mountain) that view is no longer accessible due to a new wall built around a church cemetery.

The last time we were in Bilbao we stayed for two nights and visited the Guggenheim Museum. This time we stayed longer, did not visit the museum, although we went to see the Louise Bourgeois spider. We did visit the Basque Museum which is a minor museum—I think that the Basque museum in Bayonne is better. Went in and out of several churches (the cathedral and the church near the well-known covered market impose paid entrance fees), went to the market touted as the largest market of its kind in Europe, which I doubt. One-fourth of it has been changed into a teeming food court with tapas bars and restaurants. My impression is that the food court was not open in the evening when we would have been interested in having dinner by grazing around. We did pick up some picnic items to eat in a park. The old elevator to go up the hill to the basilica is no longer functioning. There is a new one inside the hill for which there is a charge because it is inside the subway system. We did not find the basilica interesting, but the edge of the hill gives nice views over Bilbao; taking the funicular de artxanda is in any case preferable; the funicular is more interesting than an elevator, the view from the top has fewer impediments and there are eating and drinking establishments in that park. Best is walking around the old town with its variety of squares and streets with specialty shops. I think that it has more cafés and restaurants per square foot than the new town.

We took a walking tour of the “new” town offered by the tourist office next to the train station. Bilbao has the “old” town on the right bank of the river, and the newer town on the left bank of the river. Most if not all of the modern architecture is to be found on the left bank. The tour was interesting, offering a brief overview of Bilbao’s modern development from the beginning of the 20th century. We later went back to see some of the buildings at a more leisurely pace.

On our last full day in Bilbao we too the metro to see the Puente de Vizcaya hanging bridge. I would call it rather a large gondola system designed to provide a reliable crossing at the mouth of the river while allowing tall ships to pass through unimpeded. I think that it was developed for flat estuaries, where a high bridge would require long approaches to connect the flat land with the required height of the bridge roadway itself. We took the gondola across the river and strolled around the beach area. We returned to Bilbao by bus, giving us a view of the sharp contrast between the resort town we had just left and the dilapidated industrial area between it and Bilbao.

There is a laundromat on the right bank of the river, about half way between the theater and the central market. Unlike older systems, this one automatically provides a measured amount of detergent in the machine; just feed coins into the washing machine (the price was not excessive), set the water temperature and the rest is automatic. This washing emporiums also has a dog wash area in an attached room, although tourists are less likely to need such facilities.

This is the Basque album that combines our two visits to that area of Spain: https://flic.kr/s/aHsmophxJ6

Our stay in the Asturias was leisurely, based around the schedule of our 6 year-old grandson who usually got up between 10 and 10:30a.m., had breakfast before noon, but then we did not have lunch until two or three in the afternoon and dinner sometimes after 9 p.m. He did not go to bed until 11 or midnight. His interest in sights varied and our visits were based on how long he would last. Oviedo has an old core with an interesting cathedral, a market, an old sweets emporium, a fine arts museum that is as interesting in its adaptive architecture as in its collection, and a generally overcast weather. While the rest of Europe was sweltering, we wore jackets. But the coast was sunny. The coastal cities (Gijon, Llanes) are pleasant. Colombres has a cultural center of the Asturian emigration to the Americas, somewhat interesting in that it represents mainly a mid-nineteenth to early 20th century migration, not the migration of the conquistadores. There are lots of photos of an Asturian club or celebration in various cities in the Americas, echoing the Basque and Portuguese (from the Azores) clubs and celebrations found in California. But it is predominantly a representation of those who did make their fortunes in the Americas, including those who came back to build fancy houses in that town. For those who like contemporary architecture, Aviles has a cultural center by the port designed by Oscar Niemeyer. It includes a gallery where we saw an interesting exhibit of paintings by Joaquin Sorolla. I think that the idea of the center was inspired by the Guggenheim in Bilbao, but I have the impression that it has not achieved the same economic success.

We attended a concert by Diego el Cigala. The concert hall was packed, went wild, sang along with him. It was a mix of Flamenco and jazz. He later came to SF, but decided that once was enough.

A cultural observation: the Asturias take pride of having never been occupied by the Moors, and in that light named a converted hospital or convent Hotel de la Reconquista. It is said to be the best hotel in Oviedo, but when a prominent politician from the Maghreb came to Oviedo during the world soccer matches he found the name of the hotel too insulting and stayed elsewhere.

We spent a day going to and from the city of Leon. We parked outside the walled city and visited the cathedral and the San Isodoro complex. The Panteón Real San Isidoro de León should not be missed. Its vaulted ceiling is covered with absolutely fresh looking murals dating from the early Romanesque period, the tour guide claimed that they were not retouched, only cleaned—photography is not allowed. After our snack at La Bicha we drove back home; getting out of Leon is a real pain, and it took us many detours and lost time to get back to the highway.

These are the pictures from that part of the trip: https://flic.kr/s/aHskGvBjfL

In Madrid we limited ourselves to three museums and some walking in the old part of the city—one thermometer indicated a temperature of 44 degrees Celsius. The Reina Sophia museum is an interesting adaptation of an old hospital, but we found it confusing and difficult to orient ourselves. It had a whole section devoted to the inter-war period, with Guernica at the center of the exhibit. It included news reels of that period from both sides of the conflict, posters, mock-ups of ballet costumes which I photographed, not realizing that photographs were not allowed in that entire section of the museum. The museum restaurant is actually outside the museum, and we had to go through security all over again just to get back to our lockers. I do not consider it a priority. We much preferred the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum, which has a better layout, with a superior collection and a better lunch menu. We spent two hours in the Prado, which is the maximum shuffle time we can take without a break. Our main interest were Velasquez and Goya; we did not see the rest of the museum. All three museums are within walking distance of each other.

Our outdoor activities consisted in taking the two bus tours that are offered—one of old Madrid and the other one of modern Madrid. They’re OK but one really needs to go back to explore the areas at more leisure, which we did for the area between the royal palace and Sol, including the old covered market and the plaza mayor. We could have spent more time in Madrid—we missed the royal palace and the accessible gardens next to it are not very interesting—but at the same time I have no overwhelming desire to return, especially not in the summer.

Here are my pictures of Madrid: https://flic.kr/s/aHskGJW5af

Last edited by Michael; Nov 7th, 2018 at 03:13 PM.
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Nov 7th, 2018, 06:33 PM
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Michael, great report! We visited some of the same areas of Spain in early-mid September. Your photos are wonderful; remind us of so many places. Thanks!
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Nov 7th, 2018, 07:09 PM
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What a wonderful and very helpful report. Many thanks, Michael.
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Nov 8th, 2018, 05:19 AM
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Wonderful report Michael. Loved the photos!
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