Tuesday, July 28, 2015

18 hours in Bilbao -- My last bites in Spain

After travelling for more than two weeks,  I usually start to feel the tug of home.  But on 
this recent trip to Spain, I lost track of time and didn't even realise I had  been away for a month. 
So much for homesickness!

Before I could say holler another "Hola!" it was time to leave.  We had to travel to Bilbao where we would take our flight home.  There are PESA and ALSA express buses from San Sebastian to Bilbao that take the trip in just one hour.

We arrived mid-day in Bilbao and wasted no time in trying to see as much as we could of our last destination in Spain.  Looking back, I  should have  arranged to stay another night or two but you know what they say --  hindsight is always 20/20.

Our hotel was right along the banks of the Rio Nervion.  A very convenient place for exploring the city.  Care for a river cruise?  Bilboats offer quick tours for visitors.

There's also the ever reliable hop-on-hop-off  Turistikoa bus,  perfect for those with little time
to spare.

We rushed off to Gran Via where all the shops are.  The restaurants are located on the side streets behind the main avenue.  We found Restaurante Nicolas right in the centre of town.   An outdoor table gave us a good view of the week-end lunch time crowd.  Relaxing and people watching are 
best enjoyed with a glass of  txakoli -- salud!

And of course, I just had to have another glass of txakoli to accompany the scrumptious appetisers -- spicy and juicy chistorras,  small cured sausages popular in the Basque country and a plate of golden crisp - creamy croquetas.

Jay enjoyed his solomillo which came with a side of mushrooms, pequillo peppers and 
thick cut fries.  

We had put off shopping for any delicacies until Bilbao. A trip to El Corte Ingles' Club de Gourmet satisfied all my pasalubong needs. 

Late afternoon, we took on the recommendation of the hotel concierge to visit the Basilica de
Begoña, high up in the hills above the city.  He recommended that we walk up, assuring us that 
it was just 2 kilometres but of course, lazy tourists that we were, we took the bus.

I was glad we visited the Basilica. Mainly Gothic in style, this beautiful church overlooking the 
city is dedicated to the Virgen de Begoña, patron of the province of Biscay.  The Basilica sits on 
a site where the Virgin appeared in a vision and is highly venerated by the people of this region.

The interiors are lovely and simple.  There is a wooden floor that follows a slight but perceptible 
and visible incline.  We were lucky to have attended evening mass at the Basilica - a wonderful blessing on our last night in Spain.

For dinner, we decided to stay in our hotel and sample the restaurant.  Barcelo Bilbao has a 
modern and sleek dining room,  functional but not without charm and cheer.

Txakoli, one for the road -- with ensalada mixta.

The hotel menu offered carrilleras de vaca so I had to chance to enjoy it one last time.
Three pieces of beef cheeks in a very pleasing gravy with grilled aubergines on the side,
it was tender, tasty and bursting with umami flavour.

We also ordered chipirones en su tinta or small squid cooked in its own ink.  It's too dark to
see from this photo but the taste was as intense as the black sauce.

I had a wonderful time in Spain -- the Camino, travelling through Madrid and the northern
part of the country was a marvellous and memorable experience.   Finally, after all the tapas,
pintxos, cervezas and txakolis I had indulged in,  this little piggie was ready to go whee! 
whee! whee! all the way home!
Muchas gracias, (ex) Mother Spain!  Until we meet again ... hasta la vista!

The Joys of Pintxos and Txakoli along the Basque Coast

San Sebastian along the coast of the Bay of Biscay is considered the world's top eating destination.  There are Michelin starred restaurants, internationally renowned chefs -- and for the rest of us, those without reservations,  still so many small bars and restaurants serving up delicious, creative food.

We were in the city  for three nights and stayed in the quiet and residential area of Ondarreta
Right in front of the hotel was Bernardina Vinoteca where we got our first taste of why 
San Sebastian is called the food capital of the world.

We ordered croquetas jamon Joselito -- Joselito is well regarded in Spain as the makers 
of gourmet  Iberico hams.  They even have a jamon called Gran Reserva!  Now that's what 
I call a premium ham.  We also ordered an inventive take on the taco --  a small corn tortilla
was topped with a  lively and fresh tomato salsa and crunchy bits of chicharrones. 

Morcillas are fat and thick sausages made with pig's blood, spices and pig fat.  Rice can also be
included in the mix,  not so much an extender but as a way to add texture.  

We also ordered callos al estilo tradicional.  I really liked this -- it reminded me of callos 
my father would make when I was growing up.  It was rich, flavourful  and the tripe was 
melt-in-your-mouth tender.  We really wiped this bowl clean!

A group of women in the next table seemed to be enjoying their desserts so we ordered exactly
what they were having.  This trio of mini ice creams --vanilla, strawberry and coffee came in
chic black  sweet cones.  A chocolate truffle pastry with a luscious chocolate sauce rounded
up our very satisfying first taste of San Sebastian's culinary delights.

From the hotel, it was easy to take a bus to the old town.  I enjoyed the relaxed and 
laid back atmosphere.  It was nice to just sit and listen to street performers playing along the pedestrian-only street, right in front of the Cathedral.

This street led all the way to the other end and is bound by bars where you can pop in, grab a
couple of pintxos and a drink then move on to the next bar and do the same thing.  There was
such a buzzing and casual atmosphere on the streets of the old town of San Sebastian.

The next day, we went on a tour of the Basque country.  I had previously engaged Iker, a
Tours by Locals guide who suggested that we visit pretty coastal towns outside of San Sebastian.
We started out in Zumaia where we saw these familiar flechas amarillas,  pointing the way to Santiago.  The Basque country is part of the route to Santiago called the Northern Camino.

In Zumaia,  we saw the flych -- striated cliffs formed by the waves crashing along the rocks.
The flychs date back to a hundred million years and are such a breath-taking sight.

I loved the wild and rocky coastline of Zumaia.  Our guide Iker mentioned that the Northern 
Camino passed  along these cliffs.

Next stop was the lovely seaside town of Getaria where fishing boats were in the harbour, getting 
ready to head out to sea.

Iker brought us to one of his favourite places for lunch.   

There were so many irresistible pintxos lined up on the counter.

It was a dizzying array -- I couldn't decide what I wanted to eat.

But first a drink!   Iker knew exactly what he wanted us to try -- a glass of the local wine, txakoli.  This is native to the Basque region and the grapes that produce txakoli grow along the hillsides hugging the coast.  I loved this wine --  light, breezy with citrusy undertones.  So very refreshing.  
It reminded me of my other favourite -- lambrusco from Italy.  See the slight fizz on my glass of 
txacoli? Iker said the proper way to pour this wine is to raise the bottle to a certain height to further 
aerate and enhance the sparkle of this wine.

Txakoli went so well with my appetiser -- pudding de cabracho, a light mousse made of flaked
spiderfish mixed with cream and topped with homemade mayonnaise.  This was so creamy and delicate tasting  -- I think it can also work well as a pate or a spread not on the thick and crusty Spanish bread but perhaps on thin crackers or toast.

My dish of grilled pork loin was juicy and moist and the thin slices were so tender, I didn't really need a knife to cut them -- the edge of my fork was good enough.

This is Iker -- our very entertaining and enthusiastic Tours by Locals guide.  Iker was so passionate about his Basque identity and gave us a good introduction to Basque cuisine, culture, history and even politics.  A competent and professional guide can make a big difference in how you experience 
a new place  -- I know Iker certainly added to our enjoyment and understanding of the Basque country.

Lunch over,  this small cup of a lemon gelato was just the thing to cap off a delicious meal.

Jay was not satisfied and insisted on bigger servings.

After lunch, Iker drove us to see the vineyards that produce txakoli, just a few minutes drive
from the town of Getaria.  One minute we were walking through the old streets and a few
minutes later, we were looking down on these grape vines growing on the hills.
Very picturesque and lovely.  Perhaps next time we can do a proper winery tour where I can
drink as much txakoli as I can!

From Getaria and the vineyards we drove along a beautiful coastal road to the next town, Zarautz. The waves were quite strong and I was surprised to see young surfers in the water. 

We headed to the market where Iker pointed out the various labels of txakoli.  Only a couple of million bottles are produced each year and almost all of these are consumed within the Basque country.   I wish I could bring a bottle or two home with me but I don't think they'll survive
the plane ride home.

Txakoli is so easy to drink that it quickly became my new favourite .  Back in San Sebastian,
at Bar Manex near the hotel,  I had another glass.

This refreshing wine goes so well with seafood -- I ordered crab and shrimp pintxos, fresh
sardines and a morcilla, just to keep it interesting.

It was late afternoon and people were just starting to get into a cocktail kind of mood.  I liked Bar Manex, it was a friendly and welcoming neighbourhood bar.

The bartender suggested their special for today, fresh mushrooms lightly brushed with oil
and butter and grilled -- it was a great recommendation.

Our last night in San Sebastian and we headed back to the old town, to forage for more
pintxos.   San Sebastian's Plaza Mayor is surrounded by gorgeous archways -- such a
beautiful place.  There are many bars set up in the terraces where you can sit and have a drink.

There was just enough room for a few more pintxos and another glass of txakoli.
Tomorrow, we would be heading to Bilbao where we would catch the flight back home.
I knew that there would be txakoli in Bilbao, after all we would still be in Basque country.
Hasta mañana!

Friday, July 24, 2015

Eating (and drinking) my way through Spain Part 3 -- Fiesta feasting in Leon and Burgos

The Feast of Sts. Peter and Paul is a major fiesta in Spain, celebrated in various cities and towns. 
We were lucky enough to be in Leon and Burgos the last week of June so we caught the fiesta 
in both places. 

There was a dance presentation featuring adorable little girls on a stage right in front of the Cathedral of  Leon.   It all looked so familiar --  just like any "piyesta" in the Philippines. 

We wandered a few streets away from the Cathedral and found bustling Plaza de Torres de Omana, 
a small square ringed by several bars and restaurants.  Tables and chairs had spilled out on the 
plaza where people were  enjoying their pre-dinner cocktails.  Or in our case, pre-dinner ice cream cones.

When dining out,  it's normal to just order a number of raciones or portions put together, 
family style.   We ordered  picadillo,  a cazuela of zesty chorizos al vino tinto and 
alcachofas con jamon or  artichoke hearts with ham  --  our token vegetable on the table.

I enjoyed the noisy, festive,  happy atmosphere.  It was great to see families having dinner  together,  from grandparents to grandchildren.  Dinnertime in Spain starts at 9 p.m. so I guess 
bedtime for these toddlers is much later.

The next morning, we wandered on to a street market  -- my kind of scene!  There were vendors 
selling everything from Spanish fans to Spanish bikinis.  Retail chaos at its best.
Jay literally had to drag me away.

Because of the fiesta, the stately Plaza Mayor had been invaded by this giant inflatable.

Plaza San Martin with its pretty pastel coloured buildings  had such a lively and vibrant atmosphere.  This must be Leon's happening restaurant row.

We snagged  the last empty table at El Colecho taberna Leonesa in Plaza San Martin where we discovered dishes  that were different from what we had tried before.  I loved these giant leeks with jamon cooked in olive oil and drizzled with a syrupy balsamic vinegar.  The leeks were sweet,
the jamon slightly salty and the balsamic vinegar brought the acidity that tied all the
flavours together.

The waiter suggested the house specialty,  setas or mushrooms with a sauce of
queso de Valdeon,  the blue cheese made in Leon from a blend of cow and goat's milk.
This was an intense flavour experience  -- the Valdeon queso was vivid and sharp, a great
topping for the mild, earthy tasting grilled mushrooms.

From Leon, we took the train to Burgos where our room at Meson el Cid looked out on this 
gorgeous view of the Cathedral -- the third biggest in Spain.

We took our first meal in Burgos at Restaurante Rincon de Espana,  just across the Cathedral.  

Cochinillo was on the menu so of course I had to have it.  The pork was succulent, very well seasoned and the skin melted like a pool of goodness on my tongue.  
Best of all, the cochinillo drippings were sinfully good.   The little voices in my head were 
screaming  "Don't do it!!!"  
But  I went ahead and sopped up that pork fat with a chunk  of bread.  Perfecto!

To appease my conscience for all that pork lard running through my veins,  there was 
also ensalada mixta and a very fresh baked sole.  The meal at Restaurante Rincon was a real 
treat and a good introduction to what gustatory delights Burgos would have to offer.

The city was also in the midst of their fiesta for Sts. Peter and Paul.  There was a gorgeous
display of floral wreaths and offerings beneath the statue of the Virgin Mary in the 
Cathedral square.

Burgos' Plaza Mayor was one big party place with food stalls, bands, jugglers, street performers --  everyone was just out to have a great time.

I saw my old friend, San Miguel and lined up for a glass.  The San Miguel beer in Spain tastes differently from the San Miguel  beer in Manila -- and I like them both.

It was easy to get into fiesta mode -- grabbing tidbits from various food stalls and just 
walking around,  cerveza in hand was a fun way to spend the evening.  

 The hotel  staff  had told us that there would be fireworks at 11:20  p.m.  We had the best
seats for this show, right from our hotel balcony.  The awesome display lit up the Burgos sky
for more than twenty minutes -- it was just estupendo!

The next day we continued our exploration of Burgos'  food scene  by having lunch at 
Casa Ojeda, along Calle Vittoria.  This popular restaurant has a bar and deli on the ground 
floor plus a dining room on the second floor.  We opted to take our meal on the terrace overlooking 
Plaza Libertad.  

Directly across us was the massive Casa del Cordon, the stone palace of the Constables 
of Castille.  This was where Christopher Columbus met with the Catholic Monarchs 
upon his return from  the Americas.

Salud to Columbus on his return!  I hope he had a cold glass of cerveza with the King.

Aside from beer,  I wonder what the King served Christopher when they met in the palace.   
Did he eat ensalada cesar?  Pollo asado with patatas fritas?

If the King served Columbus a dish of carrillera de vaca,  it would have been a wonderful gastronomic welcome.   Carrillera de vaca are  beef cheeks cooked till falling-apart-fork-tender 
in a smooth gravy of  red wine, onions, tomatoes, garlic,  olive oil and a pinch of saffron.  
I had never had beef cheeks before and this was a mouthful of bliss.  

 The lovely and platanos-lined Paseo del Espolon is a pedestrian only avenue that runs around the perimeter of the old town of Burgos.  Everyone was out doing paseo  on this balmy summer evening.

Our own paseo led us to this little bar on Calle de la Paloma.  How about one for the road?

How about three?  Our dinner of small plates consisted of these mini bocadillos topped with 
smoked fish drizzled with garlic and olive oil, a fresh salsa of tomatoes and jamon --  and yes, 
those little pieces of meat are nothing less than chicharrones.   And not just ordinary chicharrones 
but smoked pork belly chicharrones a.ka. bacon chicharrones.  Oink, snort, oink!

Were the bacon chicharrones good?  My mother taught me never to talk when my mouth was full.

Que lastima!  Time to take the train to San Sebastian and say adios to Burgos.  
Muchas gracias por todo!