Thursday 30 July 2015

Dreaming in the trees in Portugal

... in Trás-os-Montes (Behind the Mountains), Portugal's most remote and isolated region, in the north-east just below the Spanish border, with an unusual and unique history.

Jewish families came here to hide from the horrors of the Inquisition, but long before that it was inhabited for centuries by Celtic people, like Galicia and Asturias in northern Spain.

Strange dialects and pagan rituals live on here. I much prefer these northern regions of Portugal to the heavily trafficked sunny southern Algarve.

And what could be better than a room in the trees? At Pedras Salgadas these eco-treehouses of wood and slate on delicate stilts are perfectly designed to disappear into the local forest.

This region is called the Terra Fria for its harsh winters, but it has ancient thermal hot springs (the nearest town, Chaves, was called Aquae Flaeviae by the Romans for the caldas that pour out of the earth here at 73°C) and these have been revived here.

We happened to coincide with one of those pagan festivals appropriated by the Catholic church. The Festa do São João, ostensibly a celebration of a patron-saint, still involves an archaic courtship-ritual custom of hitting the object of one's desire with garlic flowers or a plastic hammer in the course of some heavy partying and mandatory fireworks (see here), in a weird mishmash of traditions ...

but more importantly, involves the grilling of sardines on an outdoor fire on a midsummer night, with some rustic bread and vinho verde, a tradition (see here) from my childhood that made me inordinately happy

before heading back to my floating bed in the tree tops

Trás-os-Montes, Portugal  June 2015
Day 4, Iberian road trip

Sunday 26 July 2015

Camino by car

Driving west from San Sebastian and Bilbao along the curve of the Bay of Biscay - bay of shipwrecks and drowned sailors - following the incredibly beautiful Basque coastline of mountains and sea, through Cantabria and Asturias to Galicia,
we turn southwards to Santiago de Compostela ...

Santiago de Compostela: sidelong view from the main entrance of the Cathedral 

and voilà in just a day we've covered the Camino del Norte, one of the main pilgrimage routes of the Camino de Santiago. 

Puerta de Platerias, side entrance to cathedral. The front view is spectacular but was totally covered in scaffolding! 

There are many different routes, but all roads end in Santiago de Compostela, where legend has it the remains of the apostle James are buried. 

Though despite its appropriation by Christians, the pilgrimage was not a Christian invention; long before, pagans walked across northern Spain to Finisterre where they burned their clothes and watched the sun fall into the sea at the end of the world. 

Does it count if you do the Camino by car, could I still collect a certificate I wondered? 

Hostal dos Reis Catolicos, Praza do Obradoiro

The grand Hostal dos Reis Catolicos on the plaza next to the Cathedral is the ultimate luxury destination for weary pilgrims.

It's been here since the 1400s when it was built by monarchs Ferdinand and Isabel as a hospital where pilgrims could recover after completing the pilgrimage

and is now a state-run Parador with Gothic and gargoyled inner courtyards and monastic rooms with four-poster beds.

Santiago was teeming with weary and jolly pilgrims (hundreds of thousands do it annually - for which Paulo Coelho is generally blamed, with some reason)

but off the main routes there were empty tables waiting to be filled for dinner outside in the squares

quiet corners for contemplation

and good simple tapas for weary non-pilgrims

Santiago de Compostela, Spain, June 2015
Day 3, Iberian road trip

Wednesday 22 July 2015

Bilbao Guggenheim

In Bilbao this extraordinary sight greets you

It's Jeff Koons' Puppy, guarding the Guggenheim - a gargantuan West Highland terrier covered with flowering plants growing in soil - about 40 000 of them. 
(If you're wondering, as I did, how this living flowering structure is maintained, read here and discover what's inside el corazon de puppy!)

While Puppy almost dwarfs the museum itself, inside the Gugs, Richard Serra's installation A Matter of Time fills the largest gallery space, consisting of huge, curved maze-like structures to get lost in.

If the exterior of Gehry's building is extraordinary, the interiors are no less striking

but is it functional as a space for art? Very much like Gehry's Fondation Louis Vuitton (I posted about it here), there's masses of vast, unused space and volume which limits the capacity for exhibiting (curved walls are not really practical either!)

More interesting perhaps are the permanent art installations outside the building, on the river, where French artist Daniel Buren's Arcos Rojos stand out on the La Salve bridge

Niki de Saint Phalle's The Three Graces dance joyfully, reflected against giant windows 

Anish Kapoor's shiny Silver Balls, blend with the wavy, shimmering silver exterior

and Jeff Koons' Tulips lie scattered above the river, bringing to mind children's birthday parties

My favourite was Louise Bourgeois' giant spider cradling a sac of eggs, sweetly called Maman

On this June summer Sunday the museum spaces inside and out were getting good use from locals and tourists 

chilling under umbrellas and cooling down in the fountains.

Another fabulous Basque city.

Bilbao, Spain June 2015
More Day 2, Iberian road trip

Sunday 19 July 2015

Lunch in San Sebastian

Bordeaux, Bayonne, Biarritz roll past tantalisingly along the French Basque coastline, the names conjuring Belle Epoque glamour, but we're not stopping at any of them - we're bowling headlong towards the Spanish border at Irun, because there's a lunch date in Spain's Basque country ...

... in San Sebastian, where on this Sunday in June we found thousands of Basque citizens taking to the streets in a pro-independence march - the most orderly, organised demonstration I've ever seen, and very much like the city itself which is spotlessly clean, laid out in beautifully kept wide avenues with a wide river running through it and immaculate beaches all along its edge.

We wandered down to Playa de la Concha, where everyone in town who wasn't in the demonstration seemed to have congregated, to cool down in the lapping waves of La Concha Bay.

I loved watching el paseo in action - people walking in groups up and down the beach. It's all about the socialising.

I people-watched all along the elegant, beautifully kept promenade
from City Hall (below right with Carousel in front) to Café de la Concha at the far end, with the best views of the bay.

But lunch awaited. San Sebastian may just be the best place to eat in all Europe, considering that Basque Spain has not only the most Michelin-starred restaurants per capita in the world, but also a spectacularly good quality of everyday food, most famously pintxos (the Basque version of tapas) served in bars. 

At Akelarre, high on the hilltops overlooking the city, with these views over the bay

there was one exquisite course after another, a feast for every sense.

It may have been the effect of the lunch on my general well being, but driving along this scenic coastline afterwards towards Bilbao, I decided that the Basques have it all - a fabulous natural environment of mountains and sea, liveable cities, the best food, and true quality of life. I'm all ready to move.

San Sebastian, Spain June 2015
Day 2, Iberian road trip

Friday 17 July 2015

From London to ...

Driving for the better part of a day along motorways across a large chunk of France doesn't really prepare you for the different world you encounter when you turn off the national road in the late afternoon near Bordeaux

into the village of Bouliac in the south west corner of France, the Aquitaine

for the warmth and colours of the south

and slow village life

Surrounded by vineyards - the Aquitaine is really a giant vineyard, home to the wines of Bordeaux, Médoc, Saint Emilion, Bergerac ...

and here in Bouliac, Le St James is so well worth a visit, if only for a brief lounge at the pool-in-the-vineyards, or a drink or dinner on the terrace

Le St James was designed by none other than Jean Nouvel (I've posted on his amazing buildings herehere and here; and see also here for his latest NewYork adventure) to draw the gorgeous natural surroundings in.

At sunset there were views over vineyards and the Garonne river, with Bordeaux in the distance

Bouliac, France June 2015
day 1, Iberian road trip

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