Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Colin Churcher - Spain 2009

Tuesday 2 June
We made it to the hotel in Madrid after a long wait at the Airport for the airport bus and a nasty conversation with a lady at the hotel airport desk. The room is pretty good and there is a laptop with an internet connection.

The Metro is quite close and we set out after buying a ten ride pass each. It took about 25 minutes to get into town. We got off at Gran Via and walked along to find out the location of the hotel we will be staying at when we return to Madrid. Had a bit of a walk down past the royal palace and then had a beer at an outdoor cafe with deep fried, battered squids and a tortilla. Decided to come back to the room and managed to get lost. The whole area around the hotel is very high density 8 and 9 storey apartment buildings and all seemed to have been built quite recently.

Wednesday 3 June
Didn't sleep too badly considering jet lag. Went into town for chocolate con churros at San Guines which Colin found first time. Suitably fortified we walked along to the Via del Prado and went to the Thyssen Bornemisza Museum. It was pretty well laid out although there were a lot of early pictures of people having been stuck with arrows and dying a painful death. Jet lag was beginning to take its toll so we went straight to lunch at El Botin de Sobrina which Colin again found with unerring accuracy.

We shared a plate of croquettes and a salad Riojana (salad with tuna) and a bottle of the house wine. For the main course Mary had veal and Colin had roast suckling pig. Both were excellent if not a lot too much.

We returned to the room as we were both tired.

Thursday 4 June
Up early and caught the airport bus to the terminal. Checked in quickly and there was quite a long wait with two changes of departure gate. The flight to Santiago de Compostella was uneventful and we took a taxi into town as there was no bus in sight. The hotel didn't seem to acknowledge our existence but we were eventually given a room.

The first order of business was lunch at a small restaurant we had found last time. It was close to the Parador and the police station so there are always some police at the bar. We were served by a cute Peruvian waitress who didn't like either cuy (guinea pig) or conejo (rabbit). We had the 9 euro special:

Bacalao a la Gallego/callaos (chickpeas) a la Gallego (chickpeas in a deep tomato style sauce with bits of meat, tripe and other unidentifiable body parts)
Tarta de Santiago.

There was a bagpipe recording playing in the background – one of the selections was the James Bond theme which sounds really weird played on the bagpipes.

Short walk around town where we managed to get a money machine to spill its guts (the one at Madrid airport was evidently out of cash).

We met Bruce and Tonia and found a bar for a couple of drinks and a pretty large selection of snacks. From there we went to the place where we had lunch for more drinks, snacks and a couple of portions of tortilla.

Friday 5 June

Mary and I went to A Coruna with Bruce. We went in good time to catch the 1021 train but the earlier one was running late so we caught that one and got to our destination earlier. It cost €7.40 round trip and took about an hour. Both ways we had two three-car car sets in multiple. There is an amazing amount of work being carried out all along this section of line to create a high speed line between Santiago de Compostela and A Coruna. We saw double tracking, straightening of curves, new tunnels, new bridges and a long viaduct. RENFE obviously have big plans to increase traffic by increasing speeds and frequencies.

At A Coruna we found a friendly taxi driver who took us into the centre of the old city and was a tourist guide at the same time. He dropped us at the grave of General Sir John Moore who died in the “Dunkirk” style retreat of 1809. We couldn't understand all of the taxi driver's quick fire delivery but he taught us a lot and was an excellent ambassador for his city.

Unfortunately the tramway only operates on weekends at this time of year so we could only see the tracks. We had a walk through the cuidad vieja and stopped for a glass of wine close to the big square Plaza de Maria Pita. It has three sides with tall buildings and the fourth is the multi-spired ayuntamiento.

We had lunch at a good fish restaurant. The waiter was good and steered us away from some of the poorer local wines and to a cheaper Albarino which was excellent.

Octopus on potato infused with an excellent fruity olive oil
Scallop in the shell with peppers, olive oil

Merlusa (hake)
Cldeira of three fish

All very good.

After this we found another friendly taxi driver who took us on a roundabout trip back to the station so that we could see the Torre de Hurcules, the beach and the main shopping district.

The six car train was pretty empty when we left A Coruna but there was a large crowd waiting to board at Santiago de Compostela, mainly teenagers with suitcases, possibly going home after spending the week at school.

We couldn't find a taxi so we walked back to the Parador only getting lost a little bit.

We went out for a drink in the evening. The snacks that come with the drinks were all we needed to eat. On the way back we spied a bar in a supermercado which looked like fun. We had red and white wine and the lady then brought some cheese. Bruce and Colin then proceeded to wander around the supermercado with a wine glass in hand, egged on by the staff who could sense further sales. Bruce bought a bottle of Rioja which was very carefuly wrapped up in paper. There was then a conversation about whether we used euros in Canada at which point Bruce brought out some Canadian dollars to show the cashier. Some observers at the bar thought we were trying to pay in Canadian dollars. All round a very friendly experience.

Before going into the Parador we went into a bar underneath as there was a very good singer there. We had four glasses of house wine which turned out to be Albarino. This came along with bread, two types of cheese and four plates of pasta with clams, all for the princely sum of €7.60, total. Mary and Tonia were given a rose each when we left.

Saturday 6 June
We joined the El Transcantabrico group today. We met Marion just after breakfast. Our PTG Ttour leader, has spent considerable time in Portugal and has a lot about her.

We went around the town this morning looking for a small day bag for Colin. We found one which is big enough to take the computer if necessary but will also carry the maps and papers which we will refer to on a daily basis.

The weather in Santiago de Compostela was very variable from heavy rain to scattered clouds and sun. The guided tour was not very informative because we knew much of what was being said. The cathedral is just as dirty and dingy as before while the guide didn't mention the origin of the tettus cheeses. The church has probably never given it a dusting yet alone a good clean.

The FEVE check-in was very easy and Ana, the FEVE guide seems very good. The train manager is the same as last time. He was very pleasant but I don't think he remembered me. Lunch at the Parador in Santiago de Compostela was good, with a grilled scallop in the shell but was nothing exceptional. There was Alvarino with the seafood starter and an excellent rioja with the beef steak. The coach trip to El Ferrol was pleasant and the weather seemed to be improving. We were introduced to the crew at El Ferrol and there was complimentary sparkling wine, (cava) in the lounge cars as we pulled out on out voyage.

The journey to Viveiro was delightful as the sun came out and we were treated to many pleasant seaside views as well as wooded glens. Eucalyptus trees were very much in evidence.

We had a walking tour of Viveiro wghich was very interesting because the weather was good and we were able to enjoy the romanesque church, last time we had to shelter from the rain.

Dinner, once again was exceptional. Same restaurant as last time. The starter was simply shown as “Mariscos”. It started with crabs, the legs were very good and were followed by langoustine which were also excellent. These were followed by barnacles which were very different and we had to be shown how to get into them. You hold them at each end and pointing them away from you bend them in two. A “penis” pops out and this is the part that is bitten off and eaten. The final part was grilled razor clams (navajas) which were exceptional. The main course was hake and potatoes (not quite so good as last time), followed by an almond, crunchy tarte, coffee and quemada.

Arguably the best meal of the trip. A great start to the trip.

Sunday 7 June

We didn't sleep too badly considering the very narrow bed. The shower was excellent and we achieved this before we started moving.

The first stop was at Ribadeo. Good views of the sea and the lush vegetation. Sunny at times but with a threat of rain always. At Ribadeo we went first to a mirador with a monument to bag pipers. The views across the estuary into Asturias were excellent. Then off to the Cathedrals Beach. This time the tide was low and we were able to walk on to the sands which stretched for some way. The cliffs were of heavily striated, almost horizontal stone. In many places there were some barnacles, mussels and limpets.

Oreos are the granaries that are built up above the ground to keep the rodents out. There are a lot of them and many are highly decorate. They are of stone or wood and the roofs are weighted down with ornamental stones as are many of the buildings. Many have no direct access and a ladder must be used to get in and out.

The old Ribadeo Railway staithes have been rebuilt as a local monument in a park setting. The original stone piers are in place but the iron structure has been replaced by a wooden walkway as a mirador. It may have been truncated because the water is very low at the outermost pier. The weather worsened and we waited for lunch in the parador lounge.

Lunch was another excellent seafood orgy. The main course, like last night, paled into insignificance compared to the cockles, mussels and octopus which were the starters. The cockles, with their sauce were particularly memorable. It wasn't until later when we looked at menus in seafood restaurants that we realized how much El Transcantabrico meals must cost.

The journey from Ribadeo to Luarca was through pleasant scenery but was punctuated by an emergency stop just after we had crossed into Asturia. The guide said we had lost the air.

There was a stop at Navia to overtake a service train and cross another local passenger train. It was raining heavily at Luarca and we didn't spend very much time out of the bus during the city tour.

Dinner this evening was good but more fish. The restaurant staff were a pretty miserable bunch who helped to increase the miserable feeling left by the weather.

Monday 8 June

Slept better last night but got up in good time to ensure we were both out of the shower before the train started to move. A short walk down the platform revealed a bad air leak which took a little time to fix so we were a few minutes late in starting. This might have been the reason why we had the emergency stop yesterday. The station mistress arrived around 0800 and took the signals off automatic.

This part of the trip is very pleasant with many green forests and fields. We came under the wires at Cudiero and the locomotive changed from diesel to straight electric at Pravia. It ran round the train at Trubia and were only a few minutes late into Oviedo.

The bus took us to a pre-Romanesque church which was interesting but the frescos were only fragmentary. There was then a walking tour of the central part of Oviedo which has some pretty grand buildings. There are many metal statues around commemorating local figures, literary characters or just whimsy. There is a slightly taller than life sized statue of Woody Allen who is very popular in Spain.

Already many of the Brits group are trying to one up each other on holiday experiences and not looking at the sights they have come to see. While going around the Pre-Romanesque church:

“Our cat's got boils. Ever so bad they were. The vet said he'd never seen boils so bad.”
“We saw a cat with boils in the Galapagos Islands.”
“No you didn't, it was on Easter Island.”
“That wasn't a cat, it was a horse, but it certainly had big boils.”
“We saw the biggest tortoise in the world on the Galapagos but it didn't have any boils on it”.
“I saw a horse while we were going through the Corinth Canal.”

And so they go on, chattering these merry inanities, not listening and not looking. It really is amazing that they spend so much money to go to these places, helping to destroy them in the process, and then don't even look at them or understand what they are seeing. Oh for virtual reality.

Lunch was a break from fish although it started with an excellent crab bisque – thick, creamy and delicious. There was then a surprising fried egg on sausage meat followed by beans in a tomato sauce with chorizo, blood sausage and some meat. The rice pudding was topped with a type of glaze. It was a very heavy meal.

We walked back to the station and found the train which had been serviced at El Berron. The station is a joint one with RENFE on one side and FEVE on the other. It is pretty much under ground now as there has been some construction overhead with a wide plaza and some high density housing above the station. The journey from Oviedo to Gijon took about an hour. We took the north west quadrant of the diamonds at El Berron. Couldn't see any trace of the rope worked incline of the former Langeo Railway at Florida.

City tour of Gijon by bus.

Dinner was elegant and well prepared and presented but everybody was so full from the beans at lunch that we couldn't do it justice.

Tuesday 9 June

We left Gijon early just as we had finished in the bathroom. The trip to Arriondas took a long time because there were numerous waits for passenger trains in the single line. The loco switched to diesel at the end of the suburban section out of Gijon, east of El Berron.

I had a quick look at the bus station at Arriondas and we went on the trip to the Picos de Europa. The weather was cloudy but the clouds stayed high and we didn't experience the mist which is so common here. The road is very steep and narrow and has numerous hairpin bends. We had to pass several vehicles very carefully. There were also a lot of cattle, including calves, wandering loose on the highway. At the lake we were treated to a display of how to pour cider and tasted the local cheeses and chorizo. On the way back passed a truck load of cattle and a little later we encountered a herd of cattle which were being driven along the road. The animals were being taken to the higher ground for the summer.

There was a quick stop at Cordovanga which doesn't seem to have changed very much. We watched several hawks soaring around high above the hilltops.

Lunch at Cangas de Onis was quite light but the highlight was a light white wine (Rueda) from Valloadolid. There was a short opportunity to see the “Roman” bridge which was built about 732. The bus station where we were dropped off and picked up is quite new and impressive. There were several ticket wickets but they were all closed and potential customers were told to buy their tickets at the cafe/restaurant.

Back to the train at Arriondas and we had a short trip to Ribadesella. The bus took us to the centre which was pretty close. There was just time to look at the end of the railway branch down to the harbour and back to the train.

Another short train ride to Llanes and there was an opportunity to visit the town. The weather was beginning to close in and Mary was tired so she stayed on the train. Bruce and I walked through the plane trees that are intertwined and grafted to grow together. Then on to a bar to watch the end of a football match which Spain won and then back to the train for the ride out to supper. It was nothing special although it was very light and the portions were small. They tried to be very twee like putting three clams on a spoonful of crab meat on a small piece of pasta and calling it lasagna.

Wednesday10 June.

The train started out early today, not so much because there as a long way to go but because of pathing difficulties on the single line. Colin had his shower on the move. The journey to Cabezon del Sel was through pleasant green countryside with many woods and farms.

The visit to the Altimira caves was similar to last time and it was noticeable that the guide, like last time, was very good and knew her subject in depth.

Santillana del Mar was bright and sunny and the flowers on the balconies were a colourful touch. Again, nothing new here. Lunch was at the Parador and was good and included meat which pleased many. The Mountain Stew was a form of fabada with blood sausage. The steak was simply steak, not very exciting.

There was a short journey to Santander which is a pleasant place. Plenty of pleasant promenades and high class houses and a good view from the lighthouse.

Thursday 11 June

The train left Santander early so we both had to shower while it was moving. Not much of a problem.

We had a leisurely breakfast while travelling through hilly country with many valleys. The farming was mixed with some cattle but with a lot of small fields of crops. For the first time on El Transcantabrico we saw some grapes. Lots of donkeys in the fields. I wonder what they are used for these days. As we approached Bilbao there was a great deal of heavy industry and a number of abandoned factories. There is still a lot of construction going on and it looks as if there are improvements being made to the FEVE railway trackage which is very restricted. The outside of the FEVE station can now be seen properly as it was covered with scaffolding two year’s ago. It is very pleasant indeed – it was built by the Santander-Bilbao railway.

We had a short walking tour of the old town and then went on a bus tour which finished up at the Guggenheim Museum. There is some road work going on in the area and the buses now go to the bottom level. There were a number of school children playing tag in the fountains and hiding in the steam and spray.

The third floor of the museum is closed to change the exhibits and the second floor had been completely changed since last time. We both enjoyed the 99 stuffed wolves flying through the air and crashing into a screen.

This time we left Bilbao in the early afternoon and had lunch on the train. This was a good idea and the lunch, including a good wine, was excellent. We changed to a diesel at Balmaseda and came on through to Mercadillo. There then followed a bus ride to a location in the country near Galdames. The final part was over very narrow and swiftly turning country lanes and we had to back into the Rolls Royce Museum. This is only open on limited occasions and was well worth the visit. It is claimed to be the largest collection of Rolls Royces in the world. The last pavilion contained the oldest specimens and was covered in red carpet, soft lighting and we walked around to the accompaniment of a Haydn String Quartet. We were accompanied by a dog which seemed to know its way around and was good with visitors.

Dinner at Mercadillo was nothing special although, mercifully, the portions were small.

Friday 12 June.

The train started early again but there was little problem using the shower. This part of the trip is through spectacular country with many serious climbs. There was a lot of mist in the valleys but sunshine overhead. The journey along the reservoir was really pleasant and we saw the church and the church tower that had been surrounded by water.

We left the train at Mataporquera and unfortunately there was not time to visit the Centro de Interpretacion of the local railway society. Carrion des Condes was just the same as last time and not particularly interesting – it was made even worse by the walking wounded taking such a long time to get around. From there we went on to another Romanesque church but we spent the time at a bar and looking at the many storks that were nesting on the roofs.

We didn't bother to get out of the bus to see the canal. The Pilgrims' Lunch was pretty good although the blood pudding was inferior as it contained a great deal of onion.

The Roman ruins were better than last time – we didn't get an opportunity to see these last time because they were under reconstruction.

Guardo seems a gritty sort of place, the main industry being the power station.

Bruce and I rode the locomotive from Guardo to Cistierna. I had set it up a couple of days ago and had spoken to the maquinista last night so everybody was expecting us. We had a diesel, the diesel-electric/electric locomotive having been changed at Balamaseda the previous evening.

The locomotive rode well and there was a clear view forward. The engineer sits in the centre of the cab and all controls are to hand. There is a deadman's pedal and deadman buttons on either side and in the centre of the cab. There are two mirrors which give a good view of the train – they can be opened out or closed in to provide clearance.

The track was in pretty good fettle with clean, quite new ballast, with well formed shoulders. It had eroded away in a couple of places. The biggest problem is the crossings. Those that are protected with lights, bells, gates etc. are pretty good. There is a signal with a cross that is lighted red which turns to green when the signals are working properly. On green there is no need to blow the whistle. However, there are many passive protected crossings where the whistle must be blown “S”. These have, in many cases, very poor, if not non-existent, sightlines, severe gradients and bad road conditions including puddles. In many cases there were “S” signs for approaches to stations and on curves. The engineer did not whistle at all of them. We saw several storks and hawks – they took off as we approached but were not bothered too much by the train.

At one point we had descended into a dip. The track rose ahead and there was a very stiff climb but with a short stretch of down hill before the big climb. We started off well and accelerated into the dip to keep the couplers stretched. The engineer pointed out that he wanted to keep ahead of the train!

Climbing up a hill we began to lose speed and the train stopped at a small platform. The engineeer shut the engine down and hopped off on to the platform leaving us to try and sort out what had happened. Pretty soon we heard the engine start up and he came back, recovered the air and started off. It took two attempts to get going again, with a lot of sand.

He said his father and grandfather before him had worked on the railway. His father told him that he had shovelled 20 tons of coal between Mataporquera and Cistierna. In the Franco days the railway had been allowed to run down. They had been forced to use briquettes which were not very good and had to be broken up before use.

The newly opened Iron Smelting Museum is set in a magnificently restored building. The exhibits are not bad although the young staff don't know a great deal of the history of Iron Industry. There was an interesting exhibit of safety lamps hung almost invisibly by wires from the ceiling like the wolves exhibit at the Guggenheim.

Dinner was the familiar cold cuts and steak. The cold cuts were quite thick and the portion was large The steak was too rare for my liking and this was an excuse to leave a good part of it. Many people are complaining about the amount of food. Trouble is that most of it is very tasty.

Saturday 13 June

Last day on El Transcantabrico today. The steward quickly sorted out a glitch in the bar bill in which Bruce's two Cardhus were charged to our room (€24).

It is interesting seeing people arrive for breakfast. The Brits say “Good morning” to each Brit and expect a reply. They speak to the ex-pats (Canadian and Australian) and treat them as if they are honorary Brits. The Brits tend to ignore the Spanish mainly because they are too timid or ignorant to say “Buenas Dias”. The Spanish are friendly and speak to everybody and are really happy when we speak to them in Spanish even though they speak good English. The Belgians are all smiles and speak in English but the Brits tend to ignore them while we answer in French. The servants can speak in Spanish and this is tolerated because they don't know any better – very few of the Brits are adventurous enough to ask for simple things like milk or coffee in Spanish. Of course the “Damned foreigner should be forced to speak English”. Everyone is friendly but the Brits have established a definite pecking order similar to the days of the British Raj.

The final part of the journey is through pleasant hilly country and there continued to be some fierce climbs and a few tunnels. We entered the area where the FEVE performs a Cercanias type of service but only had to meet one train pn the single line as it was Saturday morning.

We said goodbye to the crew and our bags were transferred directly to the Parador while we went on a city walking tour. This helped to remind us of the layout and reinforce our understanding of the town. It was pretty hot.

There was a wedding taking place at the Cathedral and this gave us a chance to hear the organ. The bride arrived in an old car and entered the church to Handel's “Conquering Hero”. She actually entered the nave to a piece of Bach organ music which was overbearing and over powerful. Neither piece of music was appropriate.

We checked into the Parador quickly. The room is big and the beds are enormous compared to the train. One of the twin beds is about the same size as the bed on the train.

After saying goodbye to Bruce and Tonia we found a Comedor at the back of a bar fairly close to the Parador. They turned on the lights as we poked our heads in to see if there was room. It was a small room and a couple of staff entered after us to block any retreat. They were pleasant and friendly even though it was difficult to understand their quick-fire Spanish.

We made a bad mistake in thinking that “gallo” was chicken – it turned out to be a flatfish with a lot of bones. However, it was very good as was the ensalada – a great heap of vegetables with a little tuna thrown in. The olives were good, as were the tomatoes and asparagus. They substituted potatoes and peppers for the salad which would normally have come with the fish. With some flan and a bottle of white, we had a pretty good meal.

This evening we ate very lightly – just the snacks that came wth the two beers we had in “El Humido” - the wet district where a lot of drinking is done.

Sunday 14 June

Today is Corpus Christi and there was a lot of action in the old part of the town. Each church brought out its sacrament and they gathered along the street by the Cathedral. In some cases the manoeuvres necessary to get the floats right were pretty complex. One group did a three point turn.

After mass the procession sorted itself out and began to make its way slowly down the street. There were only a couple of bands but they made a lot of noise and provided the beat to which the people carrying the heavy float could walk. They have a sideways motion which is accentuated into a form of dance step. There were many stops during which the floats were rested on poles to give the carriers a rest. The kids following behind thought it a great laugh, the girls carried baskets of flower petals to spread over the route. The boys grabbed handfuls of petals and threw them at each other. One way or another the petals got on to the floor. Women carrying staves used these as weapons to keep the kids in line. One woman, dressed up to the nines, had a very black eye. It was a real shiner, all swollen up. At the bottom of the hill by the Casa de Botin they broke off and several went into the “humido”. There seemed a great deal of confusion and we went into a bar for a couple of drinks. Small processions were coming by and it was only by good luck that they didn't come into contact with one another.

The floats finally arrived back at their home church. We watched one at the Plaza San Francisco. They turned to get the float pointing towards the entrance then every one had to turn around. They did this from back to front to ensure that they did not drop the float. There was then a delay while the church elders struggled to get the gates fully open and then the head of the virgin had to be removed to get it through the door.

We walked back into the humido looking for lunch. We found a place that did a three course meal for €15. This included a beverage. We asked to see the wine list but they didn't have one so we had the house white. Alth0ugh we had had water and coffee as well as a bottle of wine the bill was €33. We queried this as being too low but they were happy and so were we. The food was workmanlike but quite substantial. Salad, paella, fried ham and potatoes, battered cod and chocolate cake.

Monday 15 June

Today we took the FEVE train from Leon, right across the former La Robla railway to Bilboa. Buying tickets in the machine was easy – the fare was €21.40 which is pretty good for 353 km. FEVE changed the departure platform number – good job Colin kept an eye out. The train turned out to be a two car diesel multiple unit with a coke machine and a toilet which became pretty rank towards the end of the 7½ hour journey. There was air conditioning which worked but similar to the air conditioning on El Transcantabrico. There was a long set back so it became warm before the fierce blast sent cold air in. There are some 51 stops shown in the timetable but many of these are request stops – we must have made about 30 stops in all.

The doors are air-operated by push buttons. The driver closes them after a warning signal which was the loudest I have ever heard. One time Mary was sleeping and it woke her up with a start,

There was a readout in each car giving the time, outside temperature and next stop. The train time was two minutes slow while there was frequently a difference of one minute between the two cars.

The train is quite tightly timed but we stayed on time all the way, getting into Bilbao just a couple of minutes late because of pathing problems close to the terminal. The driver was changed at Cistierna, Mataporquera and Balmaseda but the two man crew changed at Mataporquera. The train was quite well used but there was never a shortage of seats. We passed the other train at Mataporquera – it was a loco and two coaches.

Section between Guardo and Mataporquera, which we missed on El Transcantabrico, is probably the least interesting of the journey although there is a diamond crossing with a poorly used RENFE branch line just outside Mataporquera and there was a steam locomotive in the sidings north of the line at Mataporquera just west of the station. This appears to be wide gauge tank “REGONA”? Note – I cannot find this in the listing for Spain.

An old fellow with a Basque beret got on quite early on. He wasn't too good on his feet and kept getting up and trying to get out at stations. The crew kept an eye on him and he eventually got off at Bilbao where he was helped down the stairs to ground level.

I checked the altitude of the reservoir near Arenas and was surprised to find that we were travelling at around 3,200 feet. This explains the severe climbs in both directions. The clouds were only just above the water and dropped even lower as we descended towards Balmaseda. By the time we reached Bilbao it was drier again. The train slotted into the Bilbao suburban service for the last part of the journey. FEVE does a good job on this line which, in places, is single track. There is extensive work taking place close to the terminal to extend track capacity but Bilbao will still have just two platforms. The platforms are curved inwards towards the end showing where there was formerly a turntable as FEVE/SB did not like to run their engines backwards.

We had purchased cheese, bread, cookies and nuts for the journey.

A short walk brought us to the Hotel Lopez de Haro so we were in our room before 22.00.

Tuesday 16 June.

We split up this morning with Mary going to the Guggenheim and Colin going to the Euskotren station to see about trains to Donostia and Bermeo. The covered market was in full swing but there was only one place selling razor clams (Manojo – this must be the Basque name as the Spanish word is Navaja). The Euskotren station is the former Ferrocarriles Vascongados one and is a pleasing stone structure although not as special as the FEVE one (Santander – Bilbao railway).

We met up at 1300 and had a caña where the barman tried to get us to stay to have wild boar stew. We left and caught the Metro to the end of the line at Plentzia (€1.60 each one way). This is very much the end of the line – during the last part we ran through dense forest and passed fields of cows, sheep and goats. Getting off the train we followed the crowd and crossed a long footbridge which crossed the tidal estuary. There seemed only one place to eat and this was filled with working men. There was a three course meal with four choices for each course:

Ensalada mixta (good with asparagus and tuna/ Mexican rice (rice covered in a bright red glop with a fried egg on the side)
Thinly pounded beef slices with mashed potatoes and covered in brown glop/pork ribs and fries

On the whole it was pretty good. The total, including a bottle of white wine came to €20. As we were ready for the flan a party of 20 hikers came in. Some were passing rucksacks in through the window to save places while one tried to climb in through the window. The waitress had them under control and the kitchen quickly began to get food on the table. With the many bottles of wine it became a pretty noisy place.

We walked through the town to the walk beside the river and finally made it to the beach which has good clean sand. There were many small boats moored in the river and the marina was full. The river is very well protected from the sea as the route to the sea is very tortuous. There were a number of teenagers learning to kayak. We walked back along the river walk and caught the Metro back to Bilbao. The trains run every 15 minutes at this time, providing an excellent service into town. The line is metre gauge and is an upgrade of one of the Bilbao Suburban lines of the Santander - Bilbao Railway (later FEVE). The line runs through dense urban areas and is very well used with standing being common on the four car trains.

In the evening we walked over the white footbridge then crossed back and had a couple of glasses of wine at the cafe looking on to the Guggenheim. The wine was excellent, both red and white and only cost €2.90 for two glasses. We would have had to pay much more (triple?) for inferior wine at home. The titanium siding of the museum reflects the changing colours of the sky.

Wednesday 17 June

The trams have classical and light music playing. This morning we were treated to some guitar music followed by Mozart. Quite a difference from OC Transpo where the noise is so great you can't even hear the announcements. One feature of the tramway is in the old town where the line is single track with trams going in both directions in front of the market. There are a series of lights set into the paving stones which flash with a red tram light when a tram is approaching.

We took the Euskotren from the former Vascongados Railway station to Bermeo today (€2.50 each one way). The tram got us to the station but we had almost half an hour to wait. The metre gauge electric trains work pretty well. The one out was not air conditioned although we could open the windows. The train coming back was air conditioned which was good as it turned into a hot day. The journey was through pleasant hilly scenery with a number of streams. It was well patronized, especially from Guernica to Bermeo. The last part is alongside an estuary with a number of sandy beaches which were well used.

Bermeo is better than the tourist books suggest. It is a fishing port but there is a lively downtown right next to the railway station. There were a number of bars and we had a caña before deciding where to go for lunch. The restaurant was good and we had the menu del dia – we had to ask for it.
Pate/fish and potato stew in a paprika flavored broth.
Pulpo a la Gallego (extra – to try it)
chipirones a la plancha/pescado a la plancha
Bottle of Rueda white

It was all very good, especially the pate which came with a peach and a raspberry compote.

After a walk around the town we caught the train back and walked through the old town and alongside the river back to the hotel. We stopped for a glass of wine at the Plaza Nueva and watched the children playing with a skipping rope. They were presumably supervised by their parents before supper.

Thursday 18 June

We stopped for cafe con leche in a couple of places on the way to the Plaza Neuva. Took the elevator up and back to a large area of green space which is very pleasant and has good views over Bilbao. We then walked along past the Ayuntamiento and took the funicular up and back – good views from the top but it was very hot and humid. After a caña at a bar in Castana we walked back into town and found a good place for lunch. It was an €11.00 menu del dia.

Black rice with chipirones/lasagna a la Bolognese
Turkey breast/ Merluza rellena
Bottle of Rueda

The chef made good use of three sauces or reductions which added a burst of flavour.

We took a tram to the end of the line at Basurta but couldn't see a great deal of the hospital. Another tram ride took us back to the park with its pond-load of sorry looking ducks, geese and swans, shopping centre and back to the room for a rest. We went out again to an excellent tapas bar on Diputacion where we had anchovies a la plancha, cepes a la plancha and an excellent pate. The waitress had to struggle to set up some of the tables – she was pretty friendly and we found her easy to understand. You can pick out the good places easily by the number of people standing outside in the street with glasses in their hands.

A walk to the Plaza Nueva revealed that several of the bars were not full as people were going off to eat. We found an empty bar and had some white wine until somebody else came in and started smoking. Smoking is a real problem in Spain and the people are real pigs. They flick their ash on the floor and grind their buts in as well. There must be a serious problem with lung cancer. The plates of tapas put out in the bars are very tasty and very tempting but they are uncovered and so are contaminated with smoke.

Friday 19 June.

We took the Euskotren from Bilbao to Donostia today. Purchasing the ticket (€6.50 each) is not very intuitive as you have to know the county in which the station lies and the ticket is printed showing the name of the zone which is different from the destination stations. Euskotren is a railwayman's railway. We found what appeared to be the right train, there are only three platforms, but they switched platforms at the last minute so we were forced to take a train leaving twenty minutes later stopping at all stations.

The 9.57 arrived at Donostia at 1240 and it was like doing the journey in a Metro train. At least the seats were comfortable and the air conditioning was functional. There were no toilets. The journey is through the country we have come to expect in this part of Spain. Tortuous valleys running through hilly country with a large number of tunnels, tight curves, mostly single track but with electric signalling throughout. There is a major project underway at Durango which will see the railway buried under the town for a considerable distance. One wonders how the standard gauge high speed line between Bilbao, Vittoria and Donostia will affect this line. The train was full and standing by the time we arrived at Donostia.

First impression of San Sebasian – a man falling out of a bar by the station. He was so drunk that he had to be held up until he could steady himself against a wall.

Second impression of San Sebastian – a police car has been abandond at the Amara station for several days. It was covered in fallen leaves and flowers.

Third impression of San Sebastian – everyone calls it Donostia.

An inquiry at the station office gave us the way to get to the hotel which was about ten minutes walk away. After checking in we walked into the old town and found a restaurant (Restaurante Pollitena) that had a menu de degustacion which gave us an opportunity to sample local cuisine. The restaurant was very small, 11 tables only, on the first floor. The two waitresses were very busy, we had to wait for a table at 14:30 and people were being seated well after that. The kitchen was presided over by an old man who came out occasionally to talk to customers – he brought us a second plate of bread which we really needed to sop up the excellent sauces.

Jamon Iberico
Red peppers stuffed with crab meat and covered in a good tomato sauce
Merlusa (hake) and clams cooked in garlic olive oil
Beef Wellington covered with a liver sauce
Medley of desserts (tarte tatin, profiteroles, fried milk – dont know what that was)
With a bottle of red wine and a bottle of water the total for the two of us was €50.00. Many menus del dia were in the €18- €20 range so this seemed to be very reasonable. It certainly helped to speak Spanish but the staff also spoke French but we didn't need it.

This was the memorable meal of the trip.

After this we walked back past the scruffy REFNE station and back to the hotel for a rest. The long distance bus station is right next to our four star hotel. Didn't seem to cause any problems – it is just a set of bays without any building of any sort. Don't know where people purchase tickets.

Donostia is said to have the heaviest concentration of bars in any city of Spain. This may be true for the old city. There is a great selection of pinchas (tapas) available, most being smoked over. We went into one place and watched the two barmen at work. They were pouring cider into glasses from a great height. People don't come in for long – just for a quick drink and a smoke and then off elsewhere. Four old men, all wearing berets, came in and were given glasses of red wine without having to be asked.

At most places the system seems to be that you are given a plate and make your selection. You then show it to the barman who tots up the bill and pours your drink. One then walks away from the bar to find a table to eat. It is a bit like a do it yourself dim sum, Some of the selections are pretty pricey, such as Gambas de Huelva and the cost can quickly add up. Many of these items are fried or come on white bread so they are not particularly healthy. A restaurant meal might very well be as cheap and better for you.

Saturday 20 June

We found a place for breakfast and went into town via the RENFE station to verify that we could get breakfast there. The no smoking cafe was smoky and filled with drunks at 1000 but at least coffee and tortilla is possible. I saw the Irun to Barcelona Talgo train, still made up of that tired old Talgo equipment – last time we were in Spain we rode the Bilbao section which joined this at Miranda de Ebro.

Donstia was just getting going when we went into the port. No wonder they eat lunch so late. The Aquarium is over 100 years old but has been recently modernized. There was an exhibit on whaling and fishing and it took us almost an hour before we saw any fish. It was alright but not as good as the aquaria at Genoa or Lisboa.

Along the quay people were buying paper cones of cooked shrimps and winkles and putting the discards into plastic bags. The winkle lady must have been giving out pins as well. We found a seafood place for lunch. It was nothing special and the prices were quite high. We had the menu del dia with an additional plate of scallops.

langostinos a la plancha/seafood paella
confit de canard/fish a la plancha

The white wine was weird – it had a caramel flavour. The local wine is very bad indeed, just like Canadian wine.

After lunch we took a long walk along the promenade and took the funicular to Monte Igeldo. It is a tired operation and the cars are wooden, although well painted, The track is grass covered and the winding equipment is very slow. The route is almost entirely hidden by trees as if it were trying to conceal itself. When we got to the top we were surprised to find an amusement park with rides, donkeys, dodgems, roller coaster etc. There was none of this on the beach so perhaps the city has banished this sort of entertainment to Monte Igeldo.

Back at the bottom of the funicular we continued our walk to the end of the promenade where there are three large iron pieces of art that blend in with the rugged rocks. There is also a blow hole that groans occasionally. The rocks are folded vertically in some locations and are very impressive,

This walk was pretty tiring in the hot sun and we came back to the hotel to rest.

Sunday 21 June

This morning we took El Topo (The Mole) from Amara station to Hendaye in France. The train has this name because it spends so much of its time underground. It is metre gauge electric just like the rest of the Euskotren sets. The line is very tortuous and mostly single track with passing at stations and some double track sections. The ride was very smooth and much of the rail is welded.

We went into a bar in Hendaye and immediately noticed the difference between France and Spain. No smoking, everything was clean and there was no debris along the floor below the bar. Everything edible was covered up. The lady behind the bar was pleasant and easy to understand. The place has a completely different feel to it, especially the SNCF station which would be the same anywhere in France. We really prefer France.

We walked around the town but decided that it would be quite a hike to get to the beach and some likely restaurants so we came back after an hour or so. The Euskotren station is a single platform with a brick office tucked away in the SNCF car park. Even so, there is a half hourly interval service.

RENFE had a couple of large, ancient electric locomotives at Irun. They were covered in graffiti and I thought they were out of use, However, I saw them on freight train at Donostia a couple of days later. The train back was pretty full and many families were going for a day at the beach.

We walked into the old part of Donostia and found an excellent resturant Aldamondo off the beaten track. We were the only tourists there. The menu del dia was €28 but that included a good wine – we chose a €10 bottle of Roija.

Ensalada mixta (very fresh and with an excellent olive oil)/a sopa de pescdo which was very, very good indeed – great depth of flavour and lots of fish – and there was a lot of it.
T bone steak with fries/chipirones which was large pieces of squid in a thick black ink sauce. The sauce was slightly sweet and the waitress brought me extra bread to sop up the sauce.
Flan/another sweet dessert
Local cheese (extra)

The meal was superb. The waitress was very good, she said she was from Santander and people in Donostia knew how to cook and eat – she pointed to her slim waist implying that people from Santander didn't eat so much. Another memorable meal.

Afterwards, we walked along the eastern promenade and watched the parasailing and a bunch of guys playing soccer. Then it was a fairly long walk back by way of the RENFE station to get information on trains to Vitoria (very few) and watch a Pato leaving on its way to Madrid.

After a rest we had a walk in the area and stopped in at a bar for a caña. The waitess shouted out “Diga me” and I responded immediagtely “Dos cañas”. After some three weeks I am becoming familiar again with the language just as it is time to leave.

Monday 22 June

We were up late today and wandered into the town and around the headland. A group of protesters marched in front of the ayuntiamento with sirens and making a lot of noise. They went quiet and put up some signs. There wasn't a policeman around. There is very little police presence here. Maybe they are all out looking for one of their missing cars.

Many women are sunbathing topless. They either have nothing to hide or so much that it would be better if they covered up. Either way it would be better if they didn't.

Stopped at a couple of pinchos places and had lunch at a seafood restaurant.

Plate of clams
Sopa de mariscos y pescados
Fried ham/confit de pato
Apple tart
Bottle of rioja

Walked slowly back to the room for a rest.

Tuesday 23 June

We took the train back to Madrid today. We were ready far too soon and had ample time to get a coffee at the station before checking in with the REFNE lady. This provided plenty of time to wonder at the RENFE system of numbering platforms which is, from west to east 1-3-2-4-6. There are island platforms between 3 and 2 and between 4 and 6. There is no 5 while 3 is not shown on the stair and elevator information boards. Furthermore there are no arrivals and departure screens on the island platforms while the loudspeakers are only situated on platform 1. Our train, a pato, had been retimed and left ten minutes later than shown on our tickets. There weren't very many people in first class. We were surprised that RENFE provided breakfast. The tray came with two knives, two forks and two spoons and there were some rapid decisions to be made – breakfast yes or no? White roll or integral? Honey or marmalade? The main part was a badly burnt offering which was indescribable. The serving girls were very pleasant and friendly but the conductor was a miserable scruffy individual who resented having to look at our tickets. His tie was at half mast even though he had only come on duty at Irun.

We joined up with a second pato at Medina del Campo, presumably a section from Bilbao and the combined train ran through to Madrid. Valladolid and Segovia are both on the new line and are of the nasty concrete types so beloved by the SNCF. The disease has been passed on the RENFE. They are set in the middle of nowhere.

We crossed on to the standard gauge without stopping and running at 12 km.p/h. The maximum speed on the high speed line was only 200 km.p/h which was very surprising bearing in mind that the trains are built for 250 km.p/h.

The Madrid Metro was really, really full, mainly because there hadn’t been a train for a while on this line. We got out in the middle of a construction site not knowing how to get to the hotel. If we had come out at the other end of the Metro station we would have found ourselves in front of the hotel.

Quick, nondescript lunch, then a caña and later an ice cream later and we were ready to call it a day in the heat – low thirties.

Wednesday 24 June

Mary went to the Prado this morning while I went to the Railway Museum at Delicias. The display is similar to last time but still worth a good look. We met up at the Atocha railway station by the pool of terrapins in the tropical garden. There seems to have been a population explosion and the pool was positively seething with terrapins of all sizes, climbing over each other to bask in the sun light that filters through the high roof.

It is still very hot and we decided to take the Metro to visit the Sorolla museum which is set in the house of the painter. Lots of his portraits and a very pleasant garden with fountains.

After a pint of Guiness and a Murphy's we walked to the Museo del Ciudad. It was a very hot walk and the Museo was nothing special so we quickly caught the Metro back to the room. The scanner at the Prado seems to have cancelled Mary’s 10 ride Metro ticket. Hope it hasn’t done the same to her credit cards.

We hadn't had much to eat all day so we felt we should go out in the evening but were tired. We found a seafood place on Gran Via just across from the hotel but didn't hold out much hope because there were pictures of all the plates and it was decorated like a fast food joint. It turned out that the whole of the ground floor was no smoking and they had razor clams (Navajas). We had:

Ensalada mista
Razor clams
Clams in a marinera sauce
Pulpo a la gallega
Bottle of Marques de Riscal Rueda
Flan/milk thing (almost yogurt) with honey.

It was pretty good and while the clams were over cooked the sauce was first rate. Our waitress was pretty stern until I asked her where she came from – she told us she came from the islands off Colombia and finished up all smiles. A good finish to the trip.

Thursday 25 June

The least said abut our return the better. Suffice to say we arrived home about 26 hours late.

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