It feels much longer ago than it actually was, but back in September we had a really lovely weekend in València with my mother(s)-in-law Judy and Alison, brother-in-law Chris and his partner Ching. I’d never been before, and now it’s leapfrogged up my list of Spanish cities. The home of paella boasts great architecture, a long stretch of beachfront, vibrant markets, interesting galleries, great bars, and – importantly – fabulous street art.
The weekend started with a long stroll along Jardines del Túria, created when the city wisely decided to divert the Túria river following a catastrophic flood in the 1950s. The 350,000 square metres of dry riverbed have been cleared and landscaped, filled now with pretty gardens, fountains and ponds, around which people laze post-work or whizz around on roller-blades and bikes. The area also hosts Ciutat de les Arts y les Ciències, an arts and science park filled with Santiago Calatrava’s exciting modern architecture: the Oceanogràfic (aquarium), Hemisfèric (planetarium), and Palau de las Artes Reina Sofia (opera house and auditorium), amongst others.
Food-wise, we enjoyed traditional rabbit and seafood paellas at Restaurante Levante, the socarrat crunch at the bottom of the pan particularly good. And some decent tapas at Taberna La Sénia. But it was my discovery of vermouth that was the real game-changer. For those unfamiliar, it’s a fortified wine flavoured with botanicals…and it’s delicious. It’s since become my favourite go-to apéritif.
Our Air BnB – a great apartment on Carrer de Correus – was a stone’s throw from the central municipal square of Plaza del Ayuntamiento. So the next morning saw us exploring the civic buildings, town hall and central post office, with it’s ornate elliptical glass dome. Before heading over to La Lonja, the Gothic silk exchange. Now a UNESCO World Heritage site, it’s worth popping in here to see the beautiful twisted-columned main hall and citrus-tree filled central courtyard.
The modernista marvel of Mercado Central was our next stop. Inaugurated by King Alfonso XIII in 1928, the covered market has a surface area of over 8,000 square meters, filled with drying hams, fresh fish, churros and coffee stalls, and colourful delis bursting with olives, artichokes and other delights. We ate at Bar Central: mixed reviews, given a lot of the menu items had run out by the time Paul and I made it to the front of the queue. Our companions, however, enjoyed beef cheek, cockles, veal, boquerones and great red prawns. You win some, you lose some.
Next stop: La Cathedral. Make sure to pick up an audio guide for greater appreciation of the frescoes, chapels, reliquaries and artwork. The impressive central dome has a particularly incredible fresco – only relatively recently discovered – of an angelic host against a blue starry night. Built over a mosque, which itself was built over a Visigoth church, the cathedral’s pièce de résistance is Capilla del Santo Caliz (the Chapel of the Holy Grail). Yes, the Holy Grail. The cup of a carpenter. Of course, a quick google search reveals dozens of other contenders for the final resting place of Christ’s chalice. But the chapel is stunning and you can willingly suspend disbelief for a few moments.
Before leaving the cathedral, it’s worth climbing the 200+ spiral stairs of El Miguelete bell tower for views down into Plaza de la Virgen, the once Roman forum, and out across the whole city.
By now, we were in need of a pit-stop. So, after a quick bit of shopping, we located a traditional-looking Horchatería. Horchata is a kind of thin milkshake made from pressed chufas (tiger nuts) – not to everyone’s taste, but I really enjoyed mine.
Our evening was spent in Bar Almudín, a cosy wine bar on Carrer de l’Almodí, and a great restaurant called Entrevins on Calle de la Paz. My octopus and rabbit leg were both delicious. A great place to celebrate Alison’s 50th birthday.
Day 3 was a busy one. Starting with churros and chocolate from a little cafe near the market, we headed first to the 16th century Renaissance seminary-come-gallery Museo del Patriarca. It houses manuscripts by Thomas More, as well as paintings by El Greco and Caravaggio.
A short walk away is the ostentatious Museo Nacional de Cerámica, with its highly-decorated facade and history of ceramics from the baroque period to modern day. I preferred the modern stuff, which included a collection of Picasso’s plates. Hailing a taxi, we next headed for lunch at Panorama, located on the pier overlooking Playa de la Arenas and the palm-fringed Paseo Marítimo promenade. The beachfront is about 3km from the city centre, and well worth the short ride.
After a few glasses of wine in the sun, some lobster ravioli and a tasty “deconstructed” ham and cheese croquette (presented, intriguingly, in a martini glass), we began a self-organised tour of El Cabanyal, the maritime barrio found behind the heritage port area (click on the link to see my separate photo blog). The area is full of pretty tiled fisherman’s houses along narrow lanes. I loved it, not least because of the great street art. We walked from Museo de Arroz to Mercado Municipal de Cabañal, calling into Bodega Casa Montaña on the way for a sherry and nibble of ham. The bar is an institution, lined with barrels of sherry and vermouth and old fiesta and bull-fighting posters.
Back in the centre of town, I spent a bit of time shopping around L’Eixample and replaced some of my stolen jewellery (we were burgled not long after our honeymoon, unfortunately) from the little craft stalls in Mercado de Colón, another colourfully-tiled modernist edifice. A thoroughly enjoyable day!
Our final morning in the city was spent exploring Barrio del Carmen. The “bohemian” area north of the cathedral is simply fantastic. If you’d thought El Cabanyal was a haven for street art enthusiasts…well, you ain’t seen nothing yet. The barrio is absolutely chock-full of amazing murals, graffiti and street art. I was like a child in a sweet shop. Links to separate photo blogs of the area’s highlights will follow shortly. We started our walking tour at Torres de Serranos, one of the impressive 14th century stone gateways to the city, and winded our way up, down and around the crumbling urban museum until we arrived back at Mercado Central. Leave yourself a few hours to properly do the area justice.
And that was it. A quick jamón ibérico bocadito from Beher, and then it was time to head to the airport. I can’t imagine we won’t be back at some point though. A great place for a long weekend break.
The last couple of days of our honeymoon were spent in Bilbao. Hotel Tayko overlooks the river and is in a brilliant location on the edge of Casco Vieja (the old town). Complementary macaroons and an upgrade to a bigger room with bath (heaven!) made it all the more special. I could get used to this!
After availing ourselves of the treats and lounging decadently in our soft robes, we made our way to Catedral de Santiago, a glorious mix of Gothic Revival and renaissance architecture. We then had a quick dash around the local delis (buying too much ham and txakoli); and took in the handsome art-nouveau facade of Concordia station, before strolling along the Ria del Nervión to the Guggenheim for our evening meal at Nerua.
This was our biggest splurge of the holiday. Currently listed No.32 in The World’s 50 Best Restaurants, the stark white modernist room belies the friendliness of the staff (we discovered our particular chef for the night used to work at Hackney Picturehouse: small world!) and the playful inventiveness of the cooking. I’m going to try to avoid talking about food too much this time, though. I’ll just say it was delicious. 🙂
Nine courses later, we retraced our steps along the river, passing under Louise Bourgeois’ gigantic Maman (genuinely a bit scary in the dark) and the handsomely-illuminated Zubizuri bridge, before stopping for a nightcap in a full-to-bursting craft beer bar near the hotel.
The next day, after tortilla at Café Iruña (a bit of an institution, filled with Moorish tiles and waiters who think they’re in 1920s Paris), we were back at the Guggenheim. This time, to actually look around the gallery. Since opening in 1997, the instantly-recognisable titanium edifice has been a catalyst for significant regeneration across the whole city. Tourist numbers have risen as Bilbao’s seedier and historically more industrial areas have been given a facelift, in the wake of its opening.
Frank Gehry’s creation didn’t disappoint. As the sun danced off its gleaming surfaces, we first took in the exterior sculptures and installations: Jeff Koons’ colourful 12 metre tall Puppy and his controversial Tulips; Fujiko Nakaya’s mist; and Anish Kapoor’s Tall Tree and the Eye. All brilliant. Worth lingering over, exploring in different light and from different angles. Inside, it’s a slightly different story. I felt it was the architecture that continued to amaze, more than the exhibits. Although, I loved Richard Serra’s giant rusty Matter of Time sculpture.
If you buy the Artean Pass, you’ll save money on a dual visit to nearby Museo de Bellas Artes. Like many, it seems, I favour the latter’s permanent collections over the Guggenheim’s. An eclectic mix of pieces from the likes of Gauguin, El Greco, Francis Bacon, and Basque artists Eduardo Chillida and Ignacio Zuloaga. My favourite was Juan Muñoz’s Hanging Figures (pictured below). To mark its 110th anniversary, the gallery is currently presenting an exhibition called ABC: The alphabet of the Bilbao Museum, which is wonderful – rather than ordering works chronologically or through schools of art, they are grouped into themes under each letter of the alphabet (D = Desire, for example; W = War). Loved it!
Our final day was spent exploring the seven original 14th century streets (Las Sietre Calles) of Casco Viejo, as well as Ribera food market, the riverside, San Anton Eliza church, and the “hip and artsy” Las Cortes quarter (see some examples of the area’s amazing street art in my last photo blog).
When our legs started aching and our tummies rumbled, we stopped in Plaza Nueva for a pintxos lunch, sampling bites from Casa Victor Montes, Culmen, and – our favourite – Gure Toki. I think I mentioned in my San Sebastián blog, the best dishes are often the ones you order from the menu rather than take from the counter top (although those are usually delicious too). You can also order media raciones (half-portions) or full plates. But doing so fills you up quickly, so we tended to stick to tapa-sized bites. Having said that, my favourite dish that lunchtime was the half-portion of rare chuleton steak we shared. My mouth is watering at the memory. Dammit, I said I wasn’t going to bang on about food again. Sorry!
I have newly acquired a husband. And to celebrate we took ourselves off to San Sebastián and Bilbao, in northern Spain. It was a break centred first-and-foremost on good food. So I make no apologies for the grotesquely smug photos to follow.
The city is famous for its pintxos bars: small tapas usually skewered to bread (the word deriving from the verb ‘to pierce’). On two of our three nights there, we ambled happily from bar to bar, slugging back txakoli (the local wine) and ordering a gout-inducing number of dishes.
Highlights included the grilled octopus with paprika-aioli at Atari; the risotto con queso Idiazabal (cheesy-rice to you and me) from Borda Berri; the beef rib “brownie” at A Fuego Negro; and the divine dipped ice-creams from Loco Polo.
Our favourite bar, however, was La Cuchara de San Telmo. Would really recommend heading there for a long lunch and pretty much working through the entire menu. We didn’t quite do that, but left feeling stuffed and happy after demolishing the black pudding, razor clams, piquillo peppers, seared tuna, and kokotxa (hake throats, a regional delicacy). The bar is small and friendly, and only a stone’s throw from the very pretty Basílica de Santa María del Coro. Having washed the food down with a couple of large carafes of wine, it proved difficult to move.
An afternoon climb up Monte Urgull was almost a necessity. Working off the calories, we plodded up to Sagrado Corazón (the “Sacred Heart”) statue to take in the stunning views over Bahía de la Concha and Isla de Santa Clara.
During our time in the city, we also visited Buen Pastor Cathedral, wandered the cobblestoned old town (Alde Zaharra), lazed on the beach, drank local craft beer, strolled the bank of the Urumea river, and caught the sunset at Bahía de Ondarreta.
Donostia is small, though. You really don’t need more than a couple of days there. So on our third day, after a fantastic breakfast of perfectly-squidgy tortilla and rich, fatty jamón ibérico at Azkena (within La Bretxa market), we caught a bus to Hondarribia. A tiny coastal town in Guipuzcoa province on the French border, with a pleasant beach and medieval old town. We walked the fortified wall, sat in squares surrounded by colourful Basque houses, tried (but failed) to get into the baroque church, and had a refreshing (if slightly chilly) swim in the sea.
And – of course – indulged in a multi-course lunch at Gran Sol. It’s worth a visit to this award-winning tapas bar on Calle San Pedro. Try the squid ink and chicken broth, ham croquetas and txerribeltz (pork and beets)…or pretty much anything else on the menu! It’s probably some of the prettiest food you’ll ever eat.
Here’s some final photos of the newlyweds enjoying the view from their hotel room (free upgrade: winner!).
I haven’t even mentioned breakfast churros (a must!), or our special honeymoon “treat” meal at Restaurante Kokotxa. Oh wait, there – I just did.
Next time, Part 2: Bilbao.