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Basque Region of France & Spain Sept/Oct 08

We'll start with this photo, D's favorite - it captures the flavor of our entire trip......great food, great wine....lots of fun! 


We were gone for 11 days.  Except for the last two, we had blue skies with perfect weather in the low to mid 70's.  We did so many things and took so many photos (1465 photos), that it is hard to pick just a few things to share.  It is a long one, so grab a glass of wine.....and enjoy.

We hopped on the train in Brussels for a 5 hour ride to Bordeaux, France.  Here we rented a car and headed south driving along the coast, stopping in France for two nights and then on to Spain.  Our first stop was St-Jean-de-luz, a lovely seaside resort and active fishing port.

Img_8462 Horse_2

The Basque Country spans the border between France and Spain.  They speak French, Spanish, English and a language know as the Basque language.  Most street/store signs are bilingual with French-Basque or Spanish-Basque.  They have their own traditions and food that are quite different from other parts of Spain and France.

In this area, you will find wild horses.  We saw this one in a wooded area.  This photo is a bit dark, but I really loved it.  It has a magical feel with the fern lying on his head.

We never saw any large herds (said to be able to see more in the summer), but did see a few walking along the roadside.



Here we are in the Pyrenees-Atlantiques area of southwest France.  It borders the Cantabrian Sea.


It was a picture/postcard perfect day.


As we mentioned in an earlier blog, we have been to many churches and cathedrals, yet every time we go into one, there is something new and unique.  The churches here have two and three tiers of balconies (called galleries).  In early times, the men sat in the galleries and the women and children in the nave.  A wooden ship hangs from the ceiling to determine the weather.  If you click on this photo and enlarge, it is easier to see.   In France - the churches are open at all times for people to visit.  In Spain, they are only open during mass.


The first night we stayed in Chateau d' Urtubie, a beautiful castle that has been in the same family since 1341, when it was built.  In 1497, the crazy wife, Marie d'Urtubie in order to keep the castle from her ex husband burned it.  In 1505 it was rebuilt (not all of it was destroyed) so many parts date back to 1341.  How amazing it was to stay in a building this old.


Count Paul Philippe de Coral is the current owner.  The downstairs is a museum where anyone can visit the rooms with original furnishings and very old tapestries.  The count gave us a personal tour when we arrived.


The next day we went to the village of Espelette in France, famous for its red peppers.  It was a lovely village with all white houses with red shutters.  Strings of the Espelette peppers were hung everywhere to dry.


The peppers are harvested over the course of 10 weeks starting mid-august.


They are hand-picked and hand-sorted before being strung into the famous "cordes".


Some of the other local products.


Our journey continued along the coast of France into Spain.  The cliffs were magnificent with heart stopping vistas at every turn.  It was early evening when we walked along this cliff.  The sun just started to set, creating spectacular color.


This is along the Bay of Biscay.


A quiet moment of reflection.  It was so peaceful and not another person in sight. 


Parts of the continental shelf extend far into the bay resulting in fairly shallow water in many areas and create the rough seas the region is known for.


This is how D sneaks mountain climbing in...he lures me with pretty photos. 


The next day was spent in Bilbao where the Guggenheim Museum, Frank Gehry's signature piece, is located.  It has been touted as one of the world's most spectacular buildings and it really was.  It is made of glass, titanium, and limestone.


It is very popular with wedding couples.  We were there on a Saturday and saw seven couples.  If you look closely at the spider photos, you can see two couples.



For those of you who have never driven in Europe, most of the roads in the small towns are very narrow and look like one-way, but are intended to be used as two-way streets.  The more narrower the road, the more D will pick it to go down.  Good thing our rental car was small.  Here are a few shots I took while we were actually driving down the narrow streets: Img_2288


We usually pick one restaurant as a "splurge" restaurant.  This trip we selected Etxebarri the chef is known world-wide for his grilling.  In fact, many have called him the world's best griller.  It has been written up in many magazines, we thought this one in men's vogue captured it well (  The chef makes his own charcoal every morning and created his own grills.  The restaurant is on the 2nd floor and has only 9 tables.  The bottom floor is a very casual bar.  You really need to know about this place in advance as you would never just "stumble" upon it.


The food is very simple, no sauces, just the perfection of the grill.  We had oysters in seaweed, a delicate fish as a 2nd course and a buttery tender sliced chuleta (bone-in rib eye).  The cows are said to be 8 years old (typical American cow is 2 years old).  For dessert, D had sheep's milk ice cream in a pasty with pineapple sorbet shavings.  I had a souffle with a molten chocolate center.  Some of the best food we have ever eaten, definately the best on this trip.

It was in a very tiny town with only six cobblestoned buildings.  A picture perfect setting. 


The drive up to it was also very picturesque.


Next stop, Hotel Ansotegi, which was once an iron foundry dating back to the 15th century.  The owners did a remarkable job restoring it and creating a 15 room B&B.  We had dinner here both nights.  Good home-style food. 


It was interesting to see how they stored their hay in this area.  We are use to seeing bails, but here they stack them in a cone shape.


This part of the country was much more mountainous then we expected.  We stopped at a monastery and across the street there was a sheep dog herding sheep - I jumped out with my camera.  But no luck, they were too far away.  We walked up to the monastery and on the way back I crossed the street for another photo.  I met D at the car and he said, "good thing I locked the door".....I asked why?  He said - "you left your door wide open when you jumped out for the photo"!  Good thing there were honest people around...we had all of our luggage, etc in the car!  A photographer has to do what they have to do for a great photo  :  )


Me with our little rental car!


The good news is bathrooms are easy to come by in the villages and usually quite clean.  The bad news is, they never have any toilet paper and often times the men's room are in plain site.  We both have funny stories on this subject.  Being the prepared traveler that I am, I always carry Kleenex.  But we had used them for napkins the day before and I forgot to replenish the supply in my purse.  Having to go really bad.......I was searching for a creative alternative and I found it.  My mom had recently redone her kitchen and I had a fabric swatch of her new fabric.  It was an EMERGENCY!

And now for D....well, it might be more fun to just show it in this photo. 


We saw sunflowers fields that went on for miles and miles.  They were past peak, but still had a certain sense of beauty.


We were told that most of these crops will be harvested for the oil.


And for those who always question if D really works?  Here he is on vacation....and working!


Our next hotel was in the capital of the Basque country -  La Casa de los Arguillos, a former tailor's shop recently renovated into an 8 room boutique hotel.  They kept the integrity of the building showing the exposed stone walls and wood floor. It was in the best location, right on the main square.  Our room was the top, upper left.


There was a large medieval fair going on the day we arrived.  Thousands of people. Usually we would not have been interested in a medieval fair but how could you resist when it was taking place in a city that was founded in 1181 and is 827 years old?  It was so much fun.  Almost as soon as we stepped out into the fair, three stilt walkers were starting a show. 

Img_1801_2   Img_1823_3

Guess who they picked to "play" in their little show?   D!!

They walked up to D and asked him a question in Spanish - he replied (in Spanish), that he did not speak Spanish....everyone bust out laughing and the man whisper to D - really? 

D became the star!  The best we could figure out with our extremely limited knowledge of the language, the man with the blue hat was accusing his girlfriend of cheating.....and the man in green was the judge.  When he pointed to D - he was accusing D of doing the when D said he did not speak made him really look guilty. 


So the play went on and they decided to get married.  At that point, they pulled D back into the play to be her "papa".  The man asked D for the women's hand in marriage.  D agreed to give her up and they proceeded to have the ceremony.  Now keep in mind, NOT A WORD of English was spoken during the entire show. 

The crowd was laughing so was I.  I could barely take the photos. 


Pouring cider at the festival. 


This photo was taken at night from our bedroom window - the medieval festival still going strong.


The next stop took us into the Rioja Region in Spain, famous for their wines.  The green rolling hills were so plush and beautiful. 


Img_8591Rioja wines are usually a blend of various grape varietals and can be either red (tinto), white (blanco) or rose (rosado).  The harvest time for most Rioja vineyards is September - October so the grapes were at peak and full on the vines. 

Stunningly beautiful.  I have always had a passion for taking close up photos of grapes.  D said that 1000 of the 1465 photos were of grapes. 

For more grape photos, check out the album on the right- hand side of the blog, titled "grapes".


The blue on the grapes is fertilizer. 



I think this one is cool because the shape of the leaf in the bottom left (near the tip of the bottom grape) looks like the outline of a wine bottle.


We visited the Dinastia Wine Museum, said to be the largest wine museum in the world.  It was built in 2006 by King Juan Carlos. It was very impressive.  We learned a lot in this museum which walked through the entire wine making process and history.  They also house a collection of 3000 corkscrews. 


D very happy with his wine purchase at the museum.

In their gardens, they have 200 different grapes vines one right next to the other and each one is labeled as to the type of grape.  No one was there, so we tasted about 15 different grapes off the vines.  It was fascinating to taste how different they were.  Not only between the green/yellow ones, but also between the different purple varietals.


These capture the fall colors so beautifully.


This is another structure built by  Frank Gehry.  It is the headquarter of the oldest wine producer in the area, Marques de Riscal.  It also houses a 5 star hotel.  It is a striking contrast next to the ancient cathedral and buildings. 


In Spain, they do not eat dinner until 9:00.  But at around 7:00, the tapas bars start to open up.  In Spain, they have drinks and tapas before dinner, we just ate tapas for dinner.  Img_1907 Img_8380_2


At the tapas bars, they lay all the food out on the bar table.  You then go and pick what you want, order your drink and in most places, you stand and eat.  The tapas can be as simple as a ham sandwich or gourmet, like the ones we had above.  The top one is duck and left are grilled sardines.


Ohhhh and did I mention a popular dish in Spain is horse?  Here is a photo of the horse butcher.  And no, we did not taste any horse.  Or at least, not that we were aware of!


Our forth stay, Villa de Abalos, a rural hotel called a hospederia.  It was a converted 17th century mansion.  It was really a special place.  They served Rioja specialties in their restaurant which we ate in twice.  It is so nice when the B&B's serve meals.  This way you do not have to worry about driving home.  They also made their own wine which we drank and purchased. 


One the way back to France we drove through the Pyrenees but unfortunately it was very foggy and we did not get to see many views.  The landscape did change significantly as we entered France, back to the idyllic country house settings.......


peaceful cows......


and little castles every where.


Img_2310_2Our last two nights ww were back in France at the lovely Le Logis de Saint Vincent, a former mansion.  A couple (Sophie and Marcel) about our age purchased it four years ago.  It had been empty for 40 years.  The glass in all the windows was gone and many of the floors were caving in.  In just two years they restored it and opened the B&B.  Marcel was a trained chef and we enjoyed wonderful dinners both evenings we were there.

There are a "few" more photos in an album on the left hand side of the Blog's main page.

Another successful adventure in Europe!  Where to next?