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!
Some of my favorite coastline in the Basque Country is between Bilbao and San Sebastian on the Cantabrian sea. Zarauz is a relaxing village that comes to life in the summer offering excellent food and one of the longest beaches along the Cantabrian sea. Last year we spent a few days in the nearby fishing town of Getaria and walked the 3 mile seaside walk to Zarauz a few times to enjoy the beach and to dine at Karlos Arguiñano, a restaurant owned by the famous television chef. The walk between the two towns is right along the Northern Route of the Camino de Santiago. We fell in love with the rhythm of Zarauz and decided to spend a few nights there in a hotel and returned again this summer with the van.
Last year we stayed in a hotel right in the main square and there was a protest going on about the attempt to close one of the local bars due to political reasons. In the Basque Country there are bars called “Herriko Tavernas” where members of the Basque Nationalist organization meet. They are also just regular bars with excellent pintxos. The Spanish Government is trying to close them down. The protest consisted of the signing a proposition, selling t-shirts and live music.
One of our favorite bars, also in the main square, has a great display of pintxos. Everyday at 10 a.m. and 5:00 p.m. the bar was quickly covered in various types of Tortilla (spanish omelette). Some are sliced in half and layered with different fillings like crab salad, ham and cheese or tuna salad with piquillo peppers. Others are prepared with potato and onion, chorizo and peppers, or any mixture of fresh vegetables. The choices are endless.
The classic Pinxto, which should be eaten in one big bit, is the “Gilda”. Named after Rita Hayworth as “Gilda”, this pintxo is spicy, salty and green! An olive, a spicy pickled pepper and a cured anchovy are what you get on this long toothpick. Whether you are in Zarauz or any other bar in the Basque Country you can always find a “Gilda” surrounded by many other plates of art that are prepared to touch all of our senses.
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.
I am a little behind on posting but, “mas vale tarde que nunca”. And now I am on a clean eating spree so it is good to go back and reminisce about the amazing food we enjoyed on our trip.
After we left the small city of Chaves my wonderful partner decided to take us on a drive through the beautiful Douro Valley, famous for it’s gorgeous scenery and internationally renowned wine production. The whole region is filled with “Quintas” or wine producing farms. Many of which are built on slopes to protect the vineyards from the humid winds. Before stopping in the town of Peso de Règua we took a short detour so my love could show me the ¨lock¨ that raises and lowers the boats in order for them to pass through the different levels of water in the Douro River. I had never seen a lock before or my memory is blocked. I was so amazed by how it worked (and freezing cold) that I forgot to take a picture! But you can look it up on the internet or watch it https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_MDEG5p3IwA here! This one has an 89 foot drop. My next trip (besides going back to the USA) is a boat trip on the Douro.
We were a bit tired from New Year’s Eve and very hungry so we stopped in the town of Règua for lunch. We found an excellent restaurant, Castas e Pratos, that was built right in the train station. Being New Years Day they had roasted baby goat as a specialty. It was served with the most delicious rice, roasted potatoes and sauteed broccoli rabe. In Portugal everything has to be served with potatoes and rice. Atkins would not be happy. The other dish we ordered was filet mignon with a gorgonzola sauce and risotto with wild mushrooms. Surprisingly not a potato on the plate.
The wine list was a book, being in the Douro region. The service was impeccable and we enjoyed every moment. We can´t wait to go back!!
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.
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.
El Camino de Santiago or The Path of St.James is something that I hold dear to my heart. The pilgrimage to Santiago de Campostela has many different routes that begin in various places throughout Spain and the rest of Europe. I’ve walked it twice, two different routes, at two very different moments in my life. For me, the Camino is filled with fear and denial overpowered by magic and love. At the moments when you aren’t looking for it, you will always find a sign that points you in the right direction or gives you that last bit of energy needed to move forward. On my last Camino across Northern Spain we had “un día de estos” or “one of those days”, exhausting and eternal. It seemed like we would never arrive at our destination that day.
Look of exhaustion with "Psycho" hotel in background at the Salime Reservoir
When we did make it across a very long and slightly creepy dam, we found a “town” with a closed down hotel that only brought one image to my mind……. the film Psycho!!! My first thought was, ” let’s get the heck out of here”. After hightailing it 3 more miles up a very dark and windy road we finally got to our new destination, Grandas de Salime. We were greeted with a warm wonderful meal and a place to rest. Although I had many flashes of horror films as we hiked those last 3 miles, I knew that we would be okay. Earlier on that day I had found the most amazing design that someone had left on the earth. The Camino brings it all to the surface.
The dam that we had to walk over to get to "Psycho" hotel....yikes!!