Sunday 27 September 2015

Snapshots from Bavaria

Passing through the pretty provincial town of Memmingen in southern Bavaria on overcast, rainy days of early autumn

... in search of a place for dinner, of which there were plenty to choose from.

I passed on the bratwurst and Knödel (dumplings) but did sample some good local Bayerische beer.
A perfect rainbow over the central town square

In nearby Ottobeuren the next morning, the landscape was typical of towns in this prosperous region, A-framed houses and well-kept farmlands

 the main attraction being the grand Benedictine abbey of Ottobeuren 
founded in 764 by the sweetly-named Blessed Toto, but rebuilt in its current form by Bavaria's King Ludwig I in the 1800s 

whose extraordinary interior could be described as baroque-over-the-top
 with no fewer than three grand organs (one below). 

All was empty, quiet and clean and neat as a pin. You had the clear impression that every ornate rococo curlicue, taper, garland and petal is kept minutely cleaned and the chairs lined up with a ruler. 

If all was serious here, it was about to get a little crazy. We were headed further south to this Ludwig's much quirkier grandson's place in the mountains ...

Bavaria September 2015

Sunday 20 September 2015

Pyrenees and pilgrims

I have a photo of myself aged 21 walking down a station platform in Irun in mid-winter (in standard jeans, parka and backpack of Eurail student) taken by the boyfriend I was travelling with from Lisbon to London (the trip a birthday present from my parents) - my expression reflecting some dismaying news about non-arriving trains at the same time as a clear delight at the adventure we were having - and in the background is a wall covered in colourful graffiti, proclaiming Basque separatist ideology (those were radical times for the ETA). The political stuff was interesting  enough, but that weird language intrigued me just as much. I knew back then that it has no modern language relatives and its origins are a linguistic enigma. 

which is why on this trip I was compulsively snapping signs in Basque on the drive out of Pamplona towards the Pyrenees and France. 

We were firmly back in Camino territory and the road was dotted with pilgrims heading in the opposite direction towards Compostela. Several sections of the route are on motorways (not much fun for walkers?), so pilgrims take detours through the forest and mountain paths whenever they can.

Pretty soon we were climbing high into the Pyrenees, where Hannibal marched with his elephants en route to the Alps and Italy.

First stop was Roncesvalles, where Roland famously blew his horn in vain according to legend, defending Charlemagne against the Basques.

Memorials to Roland in the centre of Roncesvalles

The views are just stunning in these mountains, and just as beautiful in summer as I remembered them under deep snow from my winter train trip at 21 and from childhood journeys en route to skiing. But on these narrow winding roads there are very few places where one can safely stop to photograph all this beauty

At some point one crosses the border imperceptibly, the only indication being that the language of road signs becomes French.

And we wind down to the pretty town of St Jean Pied de Port.

This is the starting point for many Camino walkers and shops do a roaring trade in kitting them out for this now highly commercialised walk. Sitting across the road from this place I watched many a hopeful pilgrim walking out with bulging bags containing the full kit ...

while the baguette and French beer suddenly assumed a significance, marking our exit from the Iberian peninsula to this side of the Pyrenees and the end of our trip.

That evening in Saint Front de Pradoux, near Bergerac, there was a pool to take the edge off the heat, a friendly house labrador, and dinner in a garden where the sun set after 10, before the long drive the next day of 1000 kms back to London.

 Pyrenees, Spain and France, June 2015
Day 13-14, Iberian road trip

Sunday 6 September 2015

Gehry and bull-running in Spain

On day 12 we drove 600 kms across Spain, from south-west to north-east. 

From Extremadura across Spain's biggest central region, Castilla y Leon: mile upon mile of open, dry, arid, minimally-inhabited countryside where cattle and bulls are bred. Heading over the top of Madrid and skirting Salamanca, Valladolid and Burgos (if only there had been more days) ...

... all the way to La Rioja, Spain's small but most famous wine-producing region. Where the surroundings become more varied and hilly, and expanses of vineyards appear in patchwork with fields of wheat and the Sierra Cantabria in the background.

There was general consensus that it would be unthinkable to pass through La Rioja without stopping at a vineyard, so we headed to the winery of Marques de Riscal, where this amazing sight awaited.

It's Frank Gehry again, who (post Bilbao-Guggenheim) designed the hotel on this historic wine estate

using his signature massive undulating waves - in this case of bright purple titanium (echoing the mass plantings of lavender?)

The rooms are apparently spectacular (and extremely expensive), but in the stylish wine bar it was possible to sample some of the amazing wines produced on this historic estate (see here).

From the bar terrace there are incredible views of surrounding vineyards ... 

... and of the town of Elciego (as an act of deference, Gehry deliberately set his building a metre lower than the church tower!).

Fortified by the pit-stop (and Rioja, obviously) we headed on to Navarre, and its capital Pamplona - full circle back to Basque territory. 

The Plaza del Castillo in the early evening was filling up with people in sidewalk cafés, bars and benches. And a strong sense of anticipation: this was just a few days before Pamplona's annual fiesta of the running of the bulls, the Encierro. Around a million people were about to pour into the city, where from windows and balconies, bright blue toros looked down.

Pamplona's most famous hotel, the La Perla, whose balconies are the most coveted for watching the fiesta.

A few blocks away the Monument to the Running of the Bulls by Bilbao sculptor Rafael Huerta captures a frozen moment of danger, power, fear, in the stampede ...

Hemingway's obsession as a young man with this city (he visited Pamplona nine times in the 1920s) provided mutual fame: it led to his first novel, The Sun Also Rises, and created a global reputation and mystique around the city and its annual fiesta of San Fermin. 

One of the narrow streets where the bulls run

Glad to be missing the fiesta, I was much more interested in the incredible profusion of restaurants, bars and charcuteria lining the streets, happy to trade the excitement and cruelty of the bull-race for a leisurely pintxos (Basque for tapas) crawl ...

... ending late at night, appropriately enough at Hemingway's favourite café, the Iruña (Basque name for Pamplona)

 La Rioja and Pamplona, Spain, June 2015
Day 12, Iberian road trip

Tuesday 1 September 2015


Driving towards Spain there are plenty opportunities for distraction in the form of pit-stops in Alentejan vineyards to buy wine and olive oil

Herdade do Esporão winery in Reguengos do Monsaraz

We cross the border at Badajoz, and from there it's a hop to the walled medieval town of Caceres in Spain's Extremadura region.

Roman, Arabic, Jewish and Christian cultures have collided and left their traces here.

Looking through the Arco de la Estrella, where Ferdinand and Isabella passed through, to the Plaza Mayor

A World Heritage site, it's preserved so intact that you have the feeling you've stepped right back into the Middle Ages in this town.

It's also steeped in prosperity: built with Conquistador wealth, the proceeds of American exploration, it's filled with the solares (manor houses) of returned empire builders.

Caceres may be a little remote - there's no quick or easy access by plane or train - but it's on the map as a food destination: it's this year's Spanish Capital of Gastronomy. 

Dripping and wilting in 40 plus degree heat, we had a gastronomically unsophisticated lunch under umbrellas in the Plaza Mayor where rotating fans sprayed cool water on sweltering diners: tortilla, salad and cold beer.

A swim on the cool roof terrace of the Atrio hotel was the perfect solution in the heat.

I loved how Atrio, in complete contrast with the medieval surroundings, is contemporary and minimalistic inside its ancient stonewalled facade. The only decoration is in the form of an amazing modern art collection with the likes of Antonio Saura, Andy Warhol and Antoni Tapies.

Atrio's restaurant is drop-dead elegant and pared-down in style

 I was lucky enough to be taken on a tour of the wine cellar (which has been rated best in the world by Wine Spectator for several years running, so no slouch). Wine expert I am not, but I was mesmerised seeing the labels on every vintage of Chateau Mouton de Rothschild going back to 1945: each one painted on commission by Miro, Chagall, Braque, Picasso, Dali, Warhol, Freud, Bacon ... 

 Image source

Being off the beaten track is a definite advantage as far as I'm concerned; this place is a wee gem in Spain.

Caceres, Spain June 2015
Day 11 Iberian road trip

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