“Mom, it is so green!” These are the words from my daughter’s mouth every time we land in Boston, Chicago, New Jersey. She walks on the grass everywhere we go, sidewalks no longer exist for her. Grass, green and lush under her feet. She relishes this feeling along with every single rainstorm, walking happily as the drops wet her face and arms.
I remembered her words clearly as we drove through the arid plains of Castille a few weeks ago. On our way to the Basque Country from Madrid we took a couple of stops along the way. Our first was just for lunch in the town of Turégano on a crossroad between Segovia and Sepúlveda. On a hot afternoon in August the town is quiet to say the least. But, like many towns that I have visited in this area it’s grand castle towers over the main square and we are reminded of the centuries of history that this now quiet town has witnessed. Fernando the Catholic stayed here on his way to marry Isabel in Segovia in 1474.
Next to the church of Santiago we found a nice posada where we had lunch. Throughout history posadas have been a place for weary travelers and their horses to rest and eat. We arrived a bit late for Spanish lunch time but were treated graciously and fed well, as it should be at a decent posada. I have a weakness for “judiones” whenever I am in this area. Tender white beans stewed with different pieces of pork. At home I prepare them vegetarian but when in Turégano……
The traditional festivities of Turégano begin today. I spend a lot of time explaining the “encierro” or “running of the bulls” when I’m working in Pamplona. I remind my travelers that it is important to know that we have encierros throughout Spain and Turégano is a perfect example. The statue on the way out of town reminds us of this. The festivities here include three days running wth the bulls along with their other celebrations.
We always prefer the road less traveled and so we find ourselves on the national highways and passing through these beautiful towns wherever we might be. The colors change drastically from one place to another but it is easy to find the beauty and history along the way.
From personal experience, this yellow arrow will always lead to somewhere magical. On one of our many excursions to Portugal we found ourselves on “La Via De La Plata Portugues”. This Midevil Route of the Path of St.James led us to the beautiful city of Braganza in the region of Tras os Montes, Portugal. This city with human settlement dating back to the Paleolithic Age welcomed us with Christmas music played in speakers on the streets, an open fire in the plaza to warm our hands and its incredibly well preserved Castle dating from the 13h century.
We spent the night in the Solar de Santa Maria, a small hotel placed in the old home of the chief of police from 1639. The owner asked at what time we would like breakfast the following morning. When we came down we found the best spread I have ever seen, set up just for the two of us. Homemade jams, Christmas sweets, fresh fruit, rolls and a variety of local cheese. We rate hotels by their breakfast and this is definitely sharing the number one spot!
There is a magical place up high in the Pyrenees if you have the patience to travel the narrow highways and to keep going just when you thought you were already at the end of the road. In the province of Huesca you will find the National Park of Ordesa and Monte Perdido. It is a protected area and home to species such as the primula aricula or bear´s ear, a precious purple flower that grows on the calcareous rocks of the canyon.
If you follow one of the rivers with magic, the Cinca, it will take you to its headwaters at the Valley of Pineta. In this breathetaking glacier valley you will find the waterfall that heads this river and one of the most peaceful places on earth. The sound of cowbells and the river in the morning is a gift that is hard to replace. I have been blessed to sleep here many times in the past 16 months and I still can´t get enough of its greatness.
At the end of the road you will find the beautiful Parador, a small hermitage dedicated to the Virgin of La Pineta, and a cross country ski area with a small refuge. You can choose to hike up further into the Monte Perdido (lost mountain) or to just wander around with the cows and do cartwheels as I choose to do.
Everytime I arrive I find the Valley in a different mood. I have seen her covered in snow, flowing with waterfalls, cold and bare or lush green. I never tire of discovering new parts of this magical place. My love and I thought we discovered a “bar” once. Well, we found a sign anyhow and were happy that we had brought our own wine.
I look forward to returning in autumn and discovering more of the Lost Mountain. To visit my friends, the cows and see how their babies have grown. And to hopefully see my favorite of all, the chamois, a small goat that likes to hide from me lately. Hasta Pronto, hasta la pròxima querido Monte Perdido.
After leaving the Douro Valley we drove north towards the Minho river which is the natural border between Portugal and Spain. This area of the country is absolutely gorgeous. One of those places where you just want to unpack and stay for a very, very long while. Lush green landscape is the backdrop for this river that is almost 2 kilometers wide where it flows into the Atlantic Ocean..
We drove to the town of Caminha one day for lunch. Caminha is a small but very classy town located only a couple of kilometers away from the Ocean. We sat down for lunch at a cafe in the in the main square which is surrounded by beautiful Renaissance and Gothic houses. This area of Portugal is known for a type of wine called Vinho Verde. It literally means “young wine”. Vinho Verde should be consumed within a year of bottling and is produced in red, white and rosè varieties. Some people think it is difficult to drink due to the rich color but we love it!
The wine went perfect with our ¨light¨lunch of salad, a hamburger and a ¨bifana¨. The Bifana is a sandwich of slowly simmered pork served with a mustard sauce on an excellent roll. In retrospect we should have ordered two Bifanas and vetoed the burger. It was absolutely perfect with a bit of ¨piri piri¨ and the vinho verde. ¨Piri Piri¨is one of my favorite things about Portugal. HOT SAUCE. Always a few different varieties and always available.
After our very long lunch we ran, literally, to catch the sunset right where the Minho River meets the Atlantic. It was definitely the perfect end to a perfect day.
En route from Valladolid to Northern Portugal we decided spend New Years in the small city of Chaves in the region of Trás-os-Montes, just crossing over the border from Spain. The city and surrounding areas are known for it’s hot springs. The history of Chaves dates back to Paleolithic times and holds much to discover. It is also on the Portuguese Path’s leading to Santiago de Compostela.
The holiday season brings the city back to life with many locals who have emigrated to France. They are home to visit and the restaurants were filled. We wandered into a small place with excellent homemade food. The local cuisine is heart and a good wine is necessary to wash it down. The first dish that we ordered was Alheira, a local sausage with pork, turkey, chicken, bread, garlic and paprika. The origin dates back to the 17th century when the “new Christians” were trying to disguise that they still followed Kosher rule of not eating pork. Here it was served with two types of potatoes and cabbage.
Just in case the Alheira was not enough, we also shared a Feijoada. A dish of white beans, various pork products, tomato, carrot, and onion. It is eaten with rice. Luckily there is always a perfect green salad available to lighten up the meal.
It was a bone chilling New Year’s Eve in Chaves so we decided to end our meal at a funky little cafe that served up a couple of excellent gin tonics with red pepper seeds. Needless to say 2014 will be a New Years’ to not forget.
I have always had a soft spot in my heart for the Basque Country. This area of about 20,000 square kilometers is rich in its own tradition, culture, politics and gastronomy. Something special about their gastronomy is that men tend to be the cooks, not just in restaurants but in private homes and families. This is a unique part of their culture and what is the history behind the “Txoko” or closed gastronomical societies that were orignially only open to male members. The Txoco originally began in San Sebastian in the late 1800’s. A restaurant or a basement with a kitchen is rented by the society to cook, eat and socialize. Nowadays many Txokos also allow women to drink, eat and socialize within the txokos but not to cook.
Another great part of the Basque gastronomical tradition is the Txikiteo (chiquiteo). Friends gather in the early afternoon to go from bar to bar and enjoy small glasses of wine or beer accompanied by the ever elaborate pintxos (pinchos) which are usually small slices of bread topped by any artistical combination of ingredients. A pintxo could be pate with an anchovy, goat cheese with carmelized onion and cured ham, or wild mushrooms with garlic. Really there are no limits to the pintxo; sushi, grilled vegetables, a lebanese kebab. I have tried it all. For me they always go best with a glass of Txacoli, the typical white wine from the Basque country (more to follow).
The top of a bar all throughout the Basque Country is a colorful procession of pintxos and some of the best “food art” I have ever seen. In most bars you are given a plate and take what you like from the assortment on the bar. The bar person will then charge you by the amount of toothpicks on your plate. All on the honor system. Just the way life should be!
To quote Ani Difranco, ¨ I just got kind of distracted.¨ With a new tour, with a new life, and with just about a new everything. A good and healthy fresh start. And most of this distraction began up North on a new tour that I have been doing from Lisbon to Barcelona. The saying is ¨what goes up, must come down¨………….well, not in my case. I went up and never came back down. So, since last March it has been the North for me, over and over and over again. Happy and at home along my ever significant Path of St.James and eager to share every bit of what I love about this special part of the peninsula. Sometimes our job on tour can feel like a bit of a roller coaster without a place to get off and rest your spinning brain. But, I think I now have the chance to rest and to share a bit of my experience.
From the electrico in Lisbon to a fine port tasting in Porto, from the majestic maze of the Parador in Santiago de Compostela to the pintxos in the Basque Country. The Guggenheim in Bilbao to my beloved chamois in the Aragonese Pyrenees.
This year has been a great adventure in travel, love and of course great food and wine. All of which will follow soon.