Spain


I’m finally getting around to jotting just a few notes on a two week bike tour I did this past summer. I really enjoyed this bike tour and while this short posting won’t do two weeks and 12 days of riding justice in terms of the experience I’ll at least give a high level perspective on the tour.

Nothing like a map to provide a little context so that’s where I’ll start. As you can see, the tour starts up near the French border in a little town named Roncesvalles and makes its way across northern Spain to Santiago de Compostela. The Camino – literally ‘The Way’ – is historically a Christian pilgrimage route.

These days the Camino has become something of a tourist fav or both hikers and cyclists – whether they’re on a pilgrimage or not. There are many tour companies that’ll help coordinate and plan your way to Santiago. It was also obvious that many along the way were packing everything with them – either on their bike or on their back. Let’s just say I was glad to be on my bike and letting someone else cart the luggage from place to place.

The terrain and architecture change quite a bit as you make your way across the country. At the start in Roncesvlles, the towns and architecture look more alpine than you might otherwise expect but then it is certainly up there in the hills. In fact, upon arrival, it was chilly, wet and foggy. But the morning we left couldn’t have been better weather. I think we lucked out generally. The weather was excellent all along the route. We dodged rain a few times and it was certainly warm a few days but not bad.

The actual Camino route is mostly a trail. Sometimes it’s off road, sometimes it runs along the road and sometimes it is the road. Since we were on road bikes we deviated from the traditional route from time to time.

If you’re going to do the route, I highly recommend you get a credencial. It’s essentially a type of passport and churches and other places along the way have stamps to prove you have made your way along the pilgrimage. Mostly it’s just fun to fill it up with stamps. You have to stop at churches and take a look around, and then sure enough you find someone there to stamp your credencial. In Santiago you can get an official document as proof of your journey.

Had I gone to more effort to chronicle the trip from day to day I might have a lot more notes here. Each day really deserves its own set of notes. Every little town you stop in along the way is interesting.

Though I liked all the places we stopped, I particularly liked going through the Basque and Rioja wine regions. I’ve included a photo of me along the way in that area between Laguardia and Haro. It was one of my favorite routes/days. Low traffic, winding through vineyards with great weather. What more do you want as a cyclist?

The map here plus the stats below that follow came from a little Garmin bike computer I took along. The elevation profile below is telling. While clearly not a flat route, the terrain is not mountainous. We never got over 5000 feet of elevation. But there were days that had a bit more elevation gain.

From left to right, that first spike in the elevation profile was the route into Laguardia.

The tour was done in two week-long editions. You could do either one, or both. I and 4 others did both. The rest of the tour group – another dozen – met us mid way and did the latter half of the route. As you can see from the elevation profile, the 2nd half of the tour had a couple more interesting climbs. That said, only a couple few of us actually did those climbs. The tour group arranged for transport for most on that spike in the middle. Most chose that as a hiking day along the Camino. The climb wasn’t that bad though. And yet I was glad that we went up the direction we did. Note the backside of that mid spike in the elevation profile. It was a very steep descent!

That long and mostly flat section in the middle of the elevation profile was referred to as The Meseta. The inner plateau. It had everything from vineyards, to sunflowers, poppies and wheat fields. Our longest day of 70 miles was on the Meseta. The photo included above in this posting of the open road and wide open spaces was on the Meseta.

You can also see some of the tour group below. One of the guys snapped a good shot of us on our way to the last group dinner.

Cycling Through Rioja

Last Dinner Group

The Stats


While I was visiting Laguardia, my host at the casa rural I was staying suggested I give the Baigorri winery a try. It wasn’t too far a drive and even though it was a weekday they did a special tasting menu following the tour – if you wanted to go for the whole package. Sounded like a great way to spend a good chunk of the day so she set it up for me.

Click through to the winery link above and you’ll see the architecture of the winery is unique. From the road it looks like just an empty glass building that you can see through. As you get in though you realize it’s built on a hillside and what’s visible from the road is just the glass top floor. The winery and offices and everything else is down below and toward the back.

This architecture has a purpose. The production of the wine at Baigorri is done entirely via gravity. They don’t pump the juice around from one container to the next. The multistory nature of the building allows everything to flow by gravity. If I tried to explain why it makes a difference I probably wouldn’t do it justice. But this website does a decent job of explaining.

The tour was just two of us. And the other person spoke Spanish. The tour guide (Rocio) did her best with the two of us, splitting between Spanish first and then following that with English. There was a lot more Spanish than English but I got a good intro to the place and their wines.

At the very back of the winery, past all the aging barrels, you emerge into a restaurant with nice views of the vineyards beyond. The countryside you see in the photo at the top of this post. That’s where the tour ended and where I enjoyed a fantastic tasting menu paired with the Baigorri wines. I snapped a photo of the tasting menu which you see posted here. I didn’t catch the name of the server but she was very helpful and nice. The wine and the food were excellent!

I have no idea what a visit here is like on the weekend but visiting mid week allowed for some very personal service. As I noted, only two of us on the tour. And only two tables of us at with the tasting menu. Interestingly the other table was English speaking and had their own personal English speaking tour guide. Something tells me they planned to buy a lot more than I did.

Here it is October and I’m still trying to catch up on posts of my summer visit to Spain. It’s raining like crazy here in central Texas this weekend so it provides a good opportunity to spend a little time jotting notes here.

After San Sebastián, my next stop was back inland. I had targeted wine country and Laguardia is in the heart of that. Although strictly speaking it’s in the Basque Country, Laguardia is associated with the Rioja DOC for wines. If you’ve had wine from Spain, good chance you’ve had one from somewhere in the Rioja.

I hadn’t specifically targeted Laguardia but I’m glad that’s where I landed. I had not done that much research. I knew I was looking for some place interesting to stay in the Rioja and I simply used the map features of TripAdvisor to iterate through places that looked interesting (and reviewed well). I found a little ‘casa rural‘ called Erletxe. Your guess is as good as mine on how to pronounce that Basque name though I’m sure I was told on arrival. I encourage you to click through to the website. Maria there was such a great hostess. Very friendly and more than that, very helpful in suggesting things to see and wineries to taste in town and in the area. The room was clean and comfortable and breakfasts were great. It was like staying with a family member.

Laguardia itself is a very small walled town. You can [leisurely] walk most of it in a few hours or less. While there are some service vehicles that occasionally ply the tiny streets it’s otherwise entirely pedestrian – and thus a quiet place to stroll the streets. At the north end of the town is a park that rings a good chunk of that portion of town just outside the walls. See photo below. A quiet place just to sit and look out on the surrounding vineyards.

There are a few interesting winery tours and tastings in the town. I visit a couple of note. What you quickly understand from these tours is that beneath the buildings and walkable streets of the town it is literally honeycombed with wine cellars. A map of the cellars shows they are under pretty much all of the buildings. Moisture and temperature conditions are uniform and have made for great production and storage over the centuries.

The first I visited was Bodegas Casa Primicia. The tour is excellent as were the wines. The facility has seemingly been only recently renovated and after the tour of the cellar area the upstairs tasting area is thoroughly modern and offers great views of the countryside. As you can see from the photo here, I enjoyed the Tempranillo here. Tempranillo is one of the principal grapes from the region.

Also a great tour though not quite as modern a facility was Bodega El Fabuslista. You’ll see from the photo here of our tour/tasting guide that the final tasting was done down in the cellar. The light down there was very interesting and I liked how the photo of our guide turned out. Wines here were good too.

As yet a future post will reveal, I was back through Laguardia again after picking up a bike tour. I enjoyed that 2nd visit too and really hope I get the opportunity to visit again.

I only stayed the one night in La Vid. The next morning I headed north to the coast and San Sebastián.

The weather was pretty nasty that day. On and off again rain. Even so, the drive up to San Sebastián was quite pretty. In fact, the roads were fantastic and with all the tunnels they’ve cut through the hills, it’s really an easy drive.

I didn’t have much of an itinerary planned for San Sebastián. It’s a city with a beautiful beach and lots of great food. That’s reason enough to go, right? My hotel was steps from both.

As you can see from the couple of photos I’ve posted here, the city and its beach are beautiful from just about any angle. I think the cloudy weather that day only added to the beauty. I took the opportunity to walk around quite a bit that afternoon, including up to the summit of Monte Urgull. From that high point, you get spectacular views of the city – and it’s a nice little workout before heading back into the ‘old town’ to munch on tapas.

The tapas in San Sebastián (and throughout the Basque country) are referred to as Pintxos. Click through for a nice explanation but what’s really cool about San Sebastián is the old town is simply stacked with little bars filled with Pintxos and local wine. Walking through the narrow streets of that part of the city there are dozens and dozens of places.

The wine of San Sebastián is Txakoli. It’s a light, low alcohol, effervescent white wine made and served in this part of Spain. The way it’s served is also a form of entertainment by the folks working in the Pintxos bars. The wine glass is placed on the bar, and the bartender raises the bottle above their head and then pours. Since it’s a slightly sparkling wine, there’s a lot of fizz and splashing. It can be a fun mess. It’s also pretty tasty. Click thru the link above to see an example.

Only one night in San Sebastián. From there, back south and into wine country.

In a perfect world I would have written my notes on my recent visit to Spain while I was visiting. But as I’ve discovered on previous trips, that can be difficult. You want to explore the place instead of sit at the keyboard. So now, a couple months later, I’m taking a bit of time to jot down some memories. It would have been sooner, but it’s a busy time of year at work. (I’ve back dated these posts to the time when they actually happened.)

So where do I start? Madrid, that’s where. But I wasn’t there for long. I wanted to check out some of the wine regions of Spain. From Austin I flew to Madrid but immediately got a car at the airport and had made plans to head north. So with the Garmin affixed to the windshield, I headed to the northern parts of Spain and the Ribera del Duero, San Sebastian and La Rioja.

But that’s a LONG way to drive after a such a long flight and I knew I’d be tired. Flights to Europe often arrive in the morning and this was no exception but trying to get some solid shuteye in ‘economy’ class rarely pans out very well for me. So I had made plans to find a place to stay along the way.

I’m a planner and I rarely leave it to chance where I’ll be staying. So I had done some searching earlier in the year on TripAdvisor and happened across what turned out to be a great little place to stay in the little town of La Vid, Spain.

As a fan of good wine, what else could be better as a first stop than a little inn that’s also a winery with a great little restaurant? The place is called El Lagar de Isilla, and it was a great little waypoint to recharge after the long trip.

Aside from El Lagar de Isilla, there isn’t much going on in La Vid. Across from the inn/bodega is the monastery Santa María de La Vid that is pretty interesting to walk around but otherwise obviously pretty quiet.

The photo included below is inside the winery part of the inn. There’s a little wine shop and the photo is of the larger tasting room. At the time I was there, I was the only one doing a wine tasting and they held it in the shop.

El Lagar de Isilla is in the heart of Ribera del Duero and their wines were excellent. I’d come a long way, so I got their “best” flight. Favorite for me was their Gran Reserva.

Dinner and then later the next morning, breakfast, at the hotel were both great. The place is only a couple years old and everything still looked pretty new. If you’re passing through, check the place out.

With summer arriving I’m back on the road and this time back to Spain. I’ve been one other time but that was to Mallorca and to the Costa Brava. Like that trip, this one is largely about cycling, though not in the first week.

At 4am the bike cases were set out on the porch and ready for a shuttle ride to the airport. A long journey awaits. Like last year’s visit to Italy, this year’s trip routes through Washington’s Dulles airport. Unlike last year though, I went out of my way to avoid arranging for a 3rd leg of air travel. I’ll be going from Washington to Madrid and then from there renting a car and heading north. Last year I went from Dulles to Frankfurt Germany and had to sprint through the airport to make my connection after a delay in the international flight. My luggage was unable to sprint.

This year I planned to be delayed out of both Austin and out of Washington. It’s sad that we have to plan to be delayed, but that is the norm with airline travel for me. If it’s not for you, consider yourself lucky.

My flight from Austin to Washington was in fact a normal one and essentially on time. Fantastic. So, I had hours to kill at Dulles. I spent most of it in the United lounge. One of the few perks of having an “Explorer” card from United is that they give you a couple of lounge passes a year. I don’t generally care or have time for one but this time I had hours of time. So I hung out there. The photo below is from there. Clearly others had plenty of time to kill there as well.

The international flight to Spain boarded as expected on time and with little fanfare. And yet, no surprise, this year’s international flight was also delayed in leaving. And even more than last year. There was some kind of oxygen thing in the cockpit, followed by some kind of snafu with the oven in the galley in the rear of the plane. All tolled we sat there at the gate for about an hour.

And yet, somehow 7 to 8 hours later we essentially arrived in Spain on time. Hmm… sometimes I wonder if ‘maint’ issues are manufactured so that a plane can arrive as planned give the weather conditions of the day. Clearly we must have had some pretty good prevailing winds. We made up nearly an hour of delay.

Work-related travel recently took me to Seattle and I always enjoy visiting Seattle – at least downtown Seattle. I don’t know much about the rest of the city. Our office there is downtown and there’s plenty to do within walking distance. So on this occasion I went up a couple days early.

As has become somewhat typical of a weekend visit such as this one I didn’t have much of an agenda planned in advance. Like the recent trip to San Francisco, I know Seattle is a very walkable city and so with camera in tow, I mainly planned to just choose a direction and see what I found.

Of course I also like to find interesting restaurants so I did actually google around ahead of time and read a few reviews and arrange some places I planned to seek out. Read on for more about them in the ‘Food & Wine’ section below.

So where to stay … I didn’t want to stay at the same place I planned to be at for the work-related visit. I wanted to try some place new. In the past I’ve had good luck visiting Seattle on a weekend using Priceline and this was no exception. I picked ‘downtown’ and rolled the dice. Ended up finding The Edgewater.

The Edgewater

I flew in Friday evening and cabbed it into the city. The cabbie gave the Edgewater high praise — particularly the restaurant — but we’ll see.

The bar/restaurant at the hotel is called Six Seven and on a Friday evening the place was hopping. So often a hotel bar is a depressing and boring thing that one day had high hopes but ends up being some place a few people sit around and watch the ball game. Six Seven was packed and there was a band playing. Oh, and they had a good wine list and you could still order some great snacks from the restaurant. I had some lettuce wraps – and they were good.

I got a better look at the rest of the hotel the next day. I didn’t hang around long but the lobby is inviting. The place is very lodge-like. You can sit by a big fireplace and since you’re literally right on the water you can watch the ferry boats and ships slowly sail by.

Breakfast at the restaurant there was good – though pricey at $20 for eggs, taters, bacon and coffee. It would have been even better had the weather been nicer. While the view of Puget Sound is good even when the windows aren’t open, they clearly all opened to a set of, in this case unoccupied, tables. Maybe someday when the weather is great I’ll make a return visit.

Wandering About

Saturday morning there was a steady rain coming down but I had brought clothes and rain jacket for the occasion so no worries. I struck out up Alaskan Way with the idea to ride the ferry boat over to Bainbridge Island. No particular destination in mind over there. In some ways it was just an excuse to get out on the water and see things from a different point of view.

On a Saturday morning the ferry leaves fairly often so it didn’t take long before the next one came along. Round trip: $8 for a pedestrian.

It takes about 35 minutes to make the trip over. The little town on the other side is very walkable and if you like to window shop for an hour or two it’s an interesting visit. I grabbed a sandwich mid day at the Hitchcock Deli and then later after walking around some more and a leisurely coffee at Pegasus Coffee I headed back to the ferry. But first, along the way I found Classic Cycle. It’s a very cool bike shop that has a lot of vintage bikes hanging on the wall. You can see one of them in the photos I’ve posted here. That bike is said to have gone 80mph.

The ferry ride back was uneventful. In fact, I napped most of it. Surprising considering I’d loaded up on coffee before making the return trip.

Most of the rest of Saturday afternoon was spent poking around the Pike Place Market. The place is always buzzing with people and interesting sights. That day was no exception. A heavy rain for part of the afternoon meant it was even more jammed. The b&w photo posted here of the couple with the dog was one I snapped when miraculously the throng of people parted and they were there alone. They were just waiting out the rain it seemed.

Skipping to Sunday, I stuck close to the downtown area. I walked out to Seattle Center. It’s not hard to find. Just locate the Space Needle and it’s all of the area and buildings around and near the base of the needle. The primary draw for me was a visit to the Chihuly Garden and Glass. It’s an amazing exhibit of glasswork done by Dale Chihuly. You can see a photo of one of the room sized pieces posted here. Even at the $20 ticket price, if you enjoy art glass it’s worth a visit.

Food & Wine & Coffee

Half the fun of visiting a city like Seattle is to find some cool places to eat and drink. Here are some I visited and liked:

Matt’s In The Market


Matt’s In The Market is a place I’ve visited once but it was many years ago. Since then I’ve tried to drop in on other visits but it’s a small and very popular place so my advice is to get a reservation. Even though I was traveling solo I got one this time and I’m glad I did. I ended up with a table with a great location that overlooked the Market. I snagged the photo posted here at right from the window by my table. Despite the touristy location the food is excellent. I had a salad to start but for the main had the ‘bacon wrapped rabbit’. Very tasty. It came with spiced red cabbage, lentils, carrots, parsnips, mustard seed, and some “rabbit jus”. And to enjoy with, they had a favorite Oregon Pinot Noir by the class from Stoller.

Lark

As someone doing the town on foot, at 10th Ave, Lark is a bit of a hike. But not that bad. First, I have to say I enjoyed the wine menu. As a fan of Italian wines and a recent visit, I was happy to find selections from Piedmont. I started with a glass of Roero Arneis. Then moved on to Langhe Nebbiolo. Meanwhile, they also have some great cheese selections here. I stuck with the Italian choices. A Tuscan Pecorino and a 2nd from Piedmont.

Purple Cafe and Wine Bar

While out on Bainbridge Island, I wandered the shops and one was a wine shop. I didn’t buy anything but I chatted up the guy working there and I asked him what wine bar should I visit in Seattle. His immediate reply was Purple. So, I pulled in for a visit. The place is huge. Gymnasium sized, with a circular tower of a wine rack in the middle of it. The draw of this place in my opinion were the wines by the glass. Huge selection. And wine flights too. I had an Italian White wine flight, followed by their “Tour de France” selection of 3 great French reds. The photo posted above of the solo glass of wine was taken at Purple.

Moore Coffeeshop

Last but not least, what visit to Seattle would be complete without some great coffee. I’ve tried many places there but I still really love the coffee at Moore’s Coffeeshop. This is coffee artistry. Both in taste and in the latte art they manage to pour into your cup. The place is really tiny but they also have some seating these days so it’s not just a ‘to-go’ place. I parked there for a bit and snagged this photo of the wall and my fellow patrons.