Pleasures Reigned in Spain on a Tour of the Northwest

Tiny scallops at the estimable dining room at Parador de San Estevo

By Jean and Peter Richards

When a trip is perfect, it can be difficult to sort out its pleasures — the interesting sights, the comforts of lodging, the good things to eat. When they come complete with sunny skies and spring-like temperatures in the middle of winter, who could ask for anything more?

Two weeks was barely enough for a luxurious wintertime wander along the coast and into the mountains of Spain. The sun shone. Historic sites were often the lodging. Vistas were sparkling, verdant, snow-capped and dazzling. Food was uncommonly enticing. Roads were lightly trafficked. The cost was a bargain.

This was not the tourist-drawing sunny south, but the northern coasts along the sparkling Bay of Biscay, down along the frothing Atlantic to the Portuguese border and inland through the Picos de Europa, the mountains where the cave-cured cheese is as pungent as the defiles are defying.

Travel in winter can be a chancy affair, but it has its rewards. The Paradores, a unique chain of 93 government-owned hotels, were on sale at greatly reduced prices. Their development over the last century was a brilliant idea conceived under King Alfonso XII in the 1920’s, endorsed by Generalissimo Franco and expanding even today as a means of promoting tourism in beautiful and interesting areas where especially comfortable facilities are in short supply. We never miss a chance to stay in one, because they are themselves a journey through history — Medieval castles, ancient fortresses, monasteries with Romanesque cloisters, manor houses, masterpieces of Renaissance masonry and, occasionally, a modern retreat deep in the mountains or close by the sea.

We left our little house in a normally temperate climate of Western France in the middle of a rare period of lingering snow and sub-freezing temperatures, emerging seven hours later into a spring-like early February evening at the Parador in Santillana del Mar. Our ample room cost €70 and was only one of twelve reserved for the night. In high season, the rate could be as much as €161. Santillana is an imminently walkable, beautifully preserved stone-built town whose cobbled streets were bathed in soft light.

El Castillo, a bar-restaurant, down the driveway on the town’s square proved propitious for a warm welcome and a delicious meal of jamon bellotta, Calabrian cheeses, Cocido Montanes (a long-simmered soup-like dish of white beans, pork and chorizo), roasted lamb and an irresistible flan — all prepared in-house and consumed with relish for just over €30.

It was an auspicious start to a journey to re-acquaint ourselves with the tastes of Spain where gastronomy is steeped in respect for ingredients. Even the Arzaks and Adrias — superstars of deconstructive Spanish cuisine — rely on tradition as the foundation of their sometimes startling creations. We relied on a 20-year-old guide, Discovering Spain, by Penelope Casas, grabbed last minute from our travel bookshelves. Any guide that old in France would lead only to disappointment. In Asturias and Galicia, it led to in places not only still open, but also still answering the same telephone number — places where quality of ingredients and knowledge of how to prepare them are far more important than artistic expression. These cooks let the food speak for itself — slices of succulent ham splayed across a board, tiny scallops in their shells sprinkled with garlic, drizzled with oil, slipped under a grill and quickly arrayed on a slate; glisteningly fresh baby octopus grilled, sliced and presented on a plank or a divine lobster salad filling a soup plate.

Divinity is a force on these coasts where Santiago de Compostela has been for more than a thousand years the destination of pilgrims walking old Roman trade routes through Europe to the Cathedral site where Saint James is believed to be buried. Demons hold sway as well in the mists, myths and mountains.

Pelayo is still king at Covadonga

It was in the rugged Picos that modern Spain began when, in 722, the Visigoth Pelayo led the battle to vanquish occupying Moors at Covadonga and launched the Reconquista. To visit Asturias and not make the trip up the mountains is to have “wasted a journey,” a Covadonga website proclaims.

Having once before ventured into the Picos and encountered a hair-raising drive and rock slide, we approached with some trepidation the narrow lanes rising along sprouting green slopes beneath sharp escarpments with piercing water rushing below passing only the occasional hiker or shepherded flock. Man-made spires seemed a mirage amidst distant rock until we wound our way into a cleft and found not just a grotto where Christians venerated their Virgin, but a full blown basilica complex guarded by a regal Palayo and a parking lot full of tour buses.

Back at Cangas de Onis we ducked into the churreria El Rincon de las Delicias at Avenida  Castilla, 1, where the thick hot chocolate and six freshly made churros drew us back daily.

We admired the Roman bridge crossing the River Sella in town and the 8th century Benedictine Monastery with its Romanesque Church rife with whimsical sculpture that is at the Parador a short distance outside of town.

Church sculpture: king kisses wife as he leaves for a hunt

Most Paradores have their own dining rooms, some quite good, but we like to go local and often get apt advice at front desks. Otherwise, we never would have found Casa Moran in Benia en route to Arenas de Cabrales.

Senora Rosita Moran, all four foot eight inches of her in her pencil skirt, blouse and cardigan, was an absolute delight. There was no menu. “Typica,” she determined was what we should have. It turned out to be Fabada Asturianas with alubia  beans, murcilla (blood sausage), chorizo and pancetta; veal stewed in its juices with carrots and peas, arroz con leche and an apple tart. With water and bread and coffee, the bill was €26. We enjoyed senora as much as the meal.

Rushing stream in the Picos

The road to Arenas de Cabrales winds into the mountains along spectacular defiles. A farmer was leading his cows through the streets when we stopped at a general store for a piece of the salty, very good blue cheese whose pungency is sufficient to ensure the carrier a very wide berth.

We took a sinuous route on a perfect day along the aptly named Costa Verde from Ribadesella to Ribadeo following the two lane coastal road of the Camino de Santiago between the beautiful, blue Bay of Biscay and the green mountain slopes. In village after village houses were cheerfully colored — ochre, orange, green or the blue of the sea. Port after port beckoned a stop for a quick fresh fried calamari, one of the sweet local crabs or a pulpo Gallego, grilled octopus served with steamed and oiled potatoes, sliced and dotted with paprika. Spain’s best coastal cooks take freshness in fish as seriously as its price.

Cudillero: steeply stepped and stunning

In season, we wouldn’t have dared drive down into steeply inclined Cudillero where brightly-faced houses rise from its port like miniature skyscrapers. We crossed our fingers that no one would be coming at us on the cobbled climb back.

Nothing is more of a dare to a driver in Spain than a narrow, winding road and a sign which says,”tramo de concentracion de accidentes.”

Our assessment of the economic toll in the region is purely anecdotal, but for a recent European report that unemployment in Spain has reached 23.3 percent. There were precious few trucks making their way. Single home and larger construction sites were empty and cordoned off in place after place. Every village, town and city had vacant storefronts. Often we were alone or amongst a handful of diners in restaurants which should have been busier even in winter.

Such was the case at El Nautico at rue Marineiro, 7, in Galician Cedeira where Casas wrote, “Be sure to lunch.” When we asked someone in downtown Cedeira, he said it was closed and did not open until 5. Had we not persevered we would have missed a great dish and a delightful chat with Susi Ramondo Perez, the third generation owner and cook.

“I was born in a kitchen,” she said with a chuckle. Twelve years ago, she gave up teaching English and returned to take over the substantial restaurant her parents had inherited from her grandparents.

“Things are very bad,” she said, after patrons at the only two other tables departed. “The young can’t find work or don’t want to take the work they can find. Businesses are closing up.” Spain’s in a bad period and it’s affecting her, too. She said more people come in on weekends but that tourism is down and the Spanish can’t afford the gas to come out to the western areas the way they used to. It wasn’t until our meal was ended that we learned that she had not only welcomed and waited on us, but had also prepared our enjoyable meal. Percebes, goose neck barnacles painstakingly gathered by hand look like miniature rhinoceros feet complete with pad. When we cracked them open the juicy, translucent, gelatinous morsels were sweet with the taste of the sea. A lenguado(sole) was golden perfection.

Salpiçon langosta

But, the entrée salpiçon langosta was the star of the day — meat from a lobster large enough to feed a family warmed in a sauce of minced onion, chopped sweet red pepper, vinegar, olive oil, salt, pepper, a hint of both mild and piquante paprika and hardboiled egg sliced very thin. The lobster was sweeter than that found on our coast of Maine.

The last time we were in Santiago de Compostela it was bustling with visitors and services. On this visit, it seemed a gloomier reflection of the times. Conservation work obscured the magnificent Romanesque Portal of Glory where the Tree of Jesse pillar has been markedly indented by the hands of pilgrims touching it on arrival. Many of the objects in the abundant Treasury had been removed, but nothing can detract from its architectural and artistic splendor as the centerpiece of the Plaza do Obradoiro.

Parador at Santiago de Compostella across Plaza Obradooiro from cathedral balcony

The diagonally adjacent Hostal Dos Reyes Catolicos has been welcoming pilgrims to Santiago for 600 years. Each day, the first ten pilgrims to have their journeys validated at the cathedral are entitled to free meals for three days in a special dining room at the rear of one of its cloisters.

So in demand are the hotel rooms in this pride of the Parador chain that people change their itineraries just to stay there. We had it practically to ourselves at the very reduced rate of €140 a night with breakfast for two.

Each evening we were nearly alone in the plaza admiring the sweeping Western facade of the cathedral rising above, often to the wail of a busker playing a Galician bagpipe.

The Museum of the Pilgrim is an informative addition to the Santiago experience replete with exhibits of the hardship, artifacts and garb of the centuries including the jewelry and household luxuries left at the cathedral by those seeking spiritual blessings.

In our journey we sought indulgences more culinary than plenary. Santiago did not disappoint, particularly with its traditional tapas and raciones — not-so-small dishes of ham, squid, olives, shrimp sizzling with garlic and oil and the sizzling little green mild or hot peppers of nearby Padron.

The drive down the Atlantic Coast along the Rias Baixas is beautiful and as unsullied as any and not unlike Coastal New England before it succumbed to the tackiness of the 20th century mercantile culture. We stopped for a night at the 17th century manor house Parador Cambados in a town so pretty it raised thoughts of staying much longer.

Devout gull along walls at Baiona

The Parador at Baiona, a manor house re-created within a medieval fortress rising above town, came complete with park, fortifying walls to walk and splendid seaside views. Regrettably, its dining room is more aspirational than appetizing. Figuring that nothing could be much worse, the next night we followed a roadside sign at the edge of town to O’Rizon, (Areas, 75, Sabaris-Baiona).

We are not unaccustomed to being the first to dine in an evening in Spain. We’re old. We’re American. We’re from early-rising Maine and at 8 p.m. we are hungry. The bar, dining room and kitchen were empty when we arrived. Peter peeked into the kitchen and liked what he saw — glistening, fresh small whole octopuses. Soon a young woman appeared with a welcoming smile. Plates began to arrive.

Pulpo brasa, tentacles intact, was tenderly cooked sprinkled with finely minced garlic, parsley and oil. A veal entrecote was perfectly pink (a punto) and accompanied by a simple salad of three marinated vegetables, white asparagus, spring onion, tomato, lettuce, sliced egg and very good tuna. And for dessert, cannoli-like pastries filled with cream and a tarta caramello. The dinner, expertly prepared by Oscar Caribe, once again demonstrated that it can take more skill to perfectly prepare a simple dish which brings out natural flavor than to create a confused concoction.

Spectacular setting: San Estevo

The “Benedictine monastery in the middle of the Ribeira Sacra, an area of outstanding natural beauty where the rivers Miño and Sil meet, is one of Galicia’s monastic centres and now a holiday highlight,” is the decidedly understated description of the Parador Santo Estevo opened in 2004 in the mountainous area of the Galician province of Ourense. This fabulous complex, whose beginnings date to the 6th century, appears suddenly to oncoming visitors as if hanging off a cliff.

Most Paradores are tastefully decorated in styles referencing the periods of their original use. This one somehow manages to successfully incorporate a thousand years of style from Romanesque, Gothic and Renaissance to Modernist Barcelona.

To sit in one of its three serene cloisters alone in light of the moon is to somehow feel connected to history and what history it has seen. The monastery, set amidst a sportsman’s paradise, had its heyday in the 16th century. Its troubles and triumph are recounted on placards throughout.

Truffled risotto with calamare strips

Where monks once ate in silence, guests now feast. If all Parador kitchens performed to the standards at Santo Estevo, guests would not need not look elsewhere to dine. The zamburinas, tiny scallops briefly grilled, drizzled with olive oil and sprinkled with garlic and basil and truffled risotto topped with cuttlefish stripped into noodles were superb.

Those who do venture beyond might do well to stop at the Placa Maior Cafe in nearby Luintra. A sculpture of a knife grinder in the town square pays homage to the skill and the stamina of the men who went away with their grinding wheels to find work as itinerant sharpeners.

There is a beautiful glacial lake near Pueblo Sanabria which was worth a detour en route to León .

Carrizo crucifix

We had fond memories of the capital of the Castillian province of the same name and were saddened to see it experiencing difficult times. The 100-meter- long Plateresque facade of the old monastery that became Parador San Marcos is a splendid Renaissance sight with its friezes, cornices and medallion decoration. Alas, the Parador has seen better times both in maintenance and staff. The best objects which made the adjacent archeological museum a destination have been moved to a new location in the center of town.

The new building may be banal, but the small 11th century Byzantine influenced ivory Carrizo crucifix is magnificent and in itself worth a stop in León as is the Gothic cathedral which has so many stained glass windows and oculi that they are said to threaten the strength of its walls.

Passerby has some helpful suggestions for Gaudi

Barcelona is home to Antonio Gaudi’s most famous constructions, but León  has designs on him. One of his earliest buildings is the late 19th century neo-Gothic Casa Botines on Calle de la Legion VII. A bronze statue of Gaudi sits on a bench in front of the structure. He is working on the design as a bird watches from the other end of the bench. It is a charmingly simple homage to a man known for complexities.

León cathedral

While strolling up the Calle Anche toward the cathedral square, we couldn’t miss an opportunity to pick up a packet of the cafe con leche candy drops the Albany Confiteria  has been selling for decades — a perfect souvenir and only €1.80.

Those seeking the authentic in regional cooking will find it at a place recommended by Penelope Casas — El Racimo de Oro, (Cano Vadillo 2), on Plaza San Martin. Lenguado curado (thinly sliced cured beef tongue) sopa ajo (garlic soup), a soup with pig ears and chickpeas and roast baby lamb with roasted red peppers were well prepared.

Our journey ended where it has often begun — at the small and comfortable Parador El Emperador in Hondarribia overlooking the Bidasoa estuary that separates France and Spain. When we began staying in this 10th century fortress remodeled by Charles V in the 16th century it was a bargain at $70 a night. In recent years it has become more desirable and expensive. The active fishing port of Hondarribia has spruced itself up as an alluring entry point for tourists in Spain.

Colorful houses near the Hondarribia parador

With only about three dozen rooms, this Parador is cozy, well-staffed and beautifully maintained. The Emperador sits at the highest point of the colorful, cobbled town. A terrace faces the sea at the rear. Its severe stone facade, riddled with canon shot, dominates the plaza in front much as did when Napoleon made camp within.

The parador has limited parking, a breakfast room and bar, but no dining room. Restaurant Ainere at Calle Mayor, 31, offers well-prepared, simple fare at an agreeable price, and deskmen can offer a list of other places in the old and new towns.

For us, the Emperador’s singularity lies in the beauty of its interior stone courtyard — conserved in its natural, slightly tumbledown state. It was a fitting place to reflect on this journey within Spain — a moment enjoyed a bit more because we had accumulated enough Amigos points in two weeks for the night and breakfast to be free.

N.B. The Euro’s average cost was $1.32 during this trip.

(See Notes, tips and prejudices for information on Parador promotions.)

Copyright © 2012 Jean & Peter Richards

Laundry takes the wind next to one of the horreos (grain storage buildings typical of Gallicia) in Combarro,  a town on the rias baixas famous for their proliferation and variety

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About oldmainetravelers

The Old Maine Travelers are Peter and Jean Richards, who met more than a half century ago covering President John F. Kennedy on what would become his last trip to Boston.  They worked for many years as wire service and newspaper reporters and editors.  Peter did a nightly television show on WGBH, Boston, before he went into government in the administration of John V. Lindsay, mayor of New York City. After they moved to their brownstone in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn, Jean did a spell on Madison Avenue in the real “Mad Men” days and later became public relations officer at Chase Manhattan Bank.  Since 1973 they have worked together first as owners and publishers of a group of award-winning newspapers in Dutchess County, N.Y., and then as antiques dealers.  Now they are old and live on the coast of Maine and in the Southwest of France when not traveling further afield. In the red barn by their house in Damariscotta, Maine, they tend an antique shop specializing in 18th and 19th century furniture, metalwork and accessories, buying objects they know about and like and selling them from May to October to delightful people of obvious discernment and taste. In France, they live in an old stone house in the shadows of the remaining towers of an unfinished 17th century church and above Roman drains in a town along a pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostella. They love it — for its authenticity and abundant boulangeries.  The rest of the time they travel the world together seeing the sights, seeking out museums, stumbling into interesting conversations, savoring local specialties and otherwise bumbling along in their own style. For years they have sent article-length postcards to family, friends, fellow travelers and some media. Many of these will now be posted here.
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