Spain Travel

Travelling to Spain by Train

Madrid's Train Museum

The Telegraph has a good article about travel to Spain by train – a perfectly good alternative to air travel, if you are coming from the UK or France at least!

During my first 5 years in Spain, I travelled back and forth to the UK exclusively by train (until my temporary fear of flying disappeared), and sitting in the restaurant car of the overnight train speeding from Paris to Madrid, is one of the greatest ‘old-style’ travel pleasures on earth!

But the days of the overnight trains to France are clearly numbered. The Telegraph article states:

Finally, a new way to reach Spain opens for business later this year. On December 12, the first part of the new Perpignan-Barcelona high-speed line enters service, and two daily double-deck TGVs (Train à Grande Vitesse, the 186mph French high-speed train) will link Paris with Figueres, just north of Barcelona and home to the remarkable Salvador Dalí museum.

You’ll be able to leave London on a 10.25am Eurostar, change in Paris onto the 3.20pm TGV for Figueres, arriving at 8.46pm the same day.

So how long before you leave Madrid in the morning and arrive in Paris 5 hours later? Despite the fact it’s bound to do away with the overnight service, it will be a wonderful journey, I can’t wait!

Notes: The photo above is from Madrid’s fine Train Museum.

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Greatest Tapa(s) In Spain – Gros Beach, San Sebastian

We spent a few days in my favourite city on the planet this summer, San Sebastian (how can you not love a city where one of the main forms of transport is the skateboard!), where we discovered the finest tapa known to man. It was just behind surfy-cool Gros beach, which to my mind is far more interesting that it’s posh, famous cousin, La Concha, on the other side of the old town…

Gros Beach, San Sebastian

So to this mighty tapa, so good it has won it’s own award… It’s a sort of crepey/potatoey bacalao (fresh cod) warm, pickled-peppery sandwitch type colllection of several mouthfuls of bliss, covered in a buttery sauce. How’s that for a description!

Taberna Pagadi

I think you’ll just have to go and try it yourself, acutally, at only 2 Euros a go, you can try two! It’s at Pagadi, which is hidden down a little alley with a couple of other wonderful real-Gros-barrio-bars, about two and a half blocks back from the sea just off Birmingham Kalea (it’s marked on this map). If you’re looking for the ‘real’ San Sebastian, this is it!

One small problem, I can’t remember exactly what this tapa was called – but they only have two which involve bacalao, and this is the one that won the award! Try the calamaris too – wow…

This post is in response to Catavinos request for San Sebastian ideas!

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The Destruction of the Spanish Coasts…

Gandia Beach, Pedalo, Appartments

There is an important hold-the-mirror-up-to-reality article in El Pais about the well-advanced destruction of the Spanish coasts.

You can read the original here in Spanish or try your luck with Google Translate, which gets things totally the wrong way round sometimes in its English version, e.g. “by 2030 the entire Spanish coast is untouched by human activities.” – Err I think the article actually says that by 2030 the entire Spanish coast will be affected/damaged by human activity – that’s if things continue at the current rate:

More than 50% of the beaches and 70% of the dunes belonging to the Spanish coast have been damaged or seriously altered; 60% of the wetlands that were present in 1950 have disappeared; more than 60% of the land immediately surrounding the beaches on the Mediterranean, southern Atlantic, and island coastlines, has been urbanised.

So by 2030, bye bye to the rest. The concrete necklace that separates Spain from the sea will be complete.

But wasn’t there a ‘Ley de Costas’ (Law of the Coasts) that was passed to protect this fragile ecosystem?

According to the article it is largely steam rolled by all-powerful corporations, with local councils (who need/want the cash) in their back pockets.

What’s the solution?

I suspect it has to be ground-up – people have to choose to look for well-established and/or environmentally conscious holiday locations, rather than booking into the big new resorts that have just landed on the latest bit of ‘pristine’ coastline…

Unfortunately we are due to spend some time before the season is over in one-such new beach urbanización on Spain’s southern Atlantic coast (visiting relatives there), and having read the above article, I don’t feel overly happy about that…

We’ll think more carefully about trips like this in the future, and try to keep to the kind of eco-friendly place we were lucky enough to find in Asturias.

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Inspiring Asturian Dream – Posada Del Valle

Quick point: we don’t do paid or sponsored hotel reviews, in fact I hardly every write about accommodation, unless it is exceptionally recommendable, as is the case here… With that in mind:

There’s nothing like going on a holiday that leaves you with a feeling not just of relaxation and rejuvenation, but with a renewed sense of inspiration, purpose, and dedication all thrown in.

We’re obviously getting lucky with (or better at selecting) our Spain trips these days, because the last two places we’ve stayed have done just that.

First there was the extremely inspiring art retreat at Cortijada Los Gazquez, that left us convinced of the possibility of living with almost zero environmental impact (and left me better at drawing too!), and now we return particularly inspired from Posada del Valle in Asturias.

Posada del Valle, Asturias

Like Cortijada Los Gazquez, Posada del Valle is the exceptionally well executed realisation of a brilliant dream. The idea is set out clearly in a well-worth-the-read document produced by the British owners Nigel and Joanne Burch, called What We Do And Why (PDF download link here). The “overall philosophy and aims of the hotel” are:

To be a viable business.
To offer an enjoyable high-quality experience for our guests.
To have a low environmental impact.
To co-operate with likeminded producers, especially in the local area.
To integrate our farm into the hotel.
To further our guests understanding and appreciation of biodiversity, nature conservation,
and food production systems.
To share our beliefs and experiences with others.

How many hotels have a philosophy, for a start? And one that aims to leave their guests wiser than when they arrived? Just reading the document above alone leaves you feeling like an expert in how to run an organic vegetable patch and a small, bio-diverse, sustainable organic farm!

And after a few conversations with owner Nigel (at my instigation, no preaching involved here), and strolls around the farm trail, I certainly do have a much greater “understanding and appreciation of biodiversity, nature conservation, and food production systems“. Plus I know all about the environmental dangers of chemical-based mono-cropping, and have lots of ideas about how I can make more simple changes to ‘do my bit’ for the health of the planet.

Philosophies aside, the location itself is also rather exceptional. Perched on the side of a steep valley a few kilometers from Arriondas, it is surrounded on all sides by the Picos de Europa, the Ponga mountains and the Sueve range, making for fairytale views – as I said in another piece about Asturias years ago:

The mountains are so fierce and sit so close to the coast that you imagine them put there by some imaginative storyteller, who would have giants sliding down them each morning for a quick wash in the sea. The foothills behind the cliffs are so green, the cows that graze them so picture-perfect and the woodlands and vegetable patches so ornate, that one would hardly be surprised to stumble across Hansel and Gretel, or houses made of chocolate.

Picos de Europa View

All of this lies before you as you set out each morning from the hotel, or wander the grounds, exploring the farm, accompanied by friendly chickens, with the smell of wild mint under foot.

Our favourite trip was to La Pesanca, deep in the valley above Espinadero.

La Pesanca, Asturias

Travelling with our toddler, we had no chance of following the whole trail up to Les Vizcares, but the starting point of this, one of the hotels many meticulously detailed guided walking routes, was stunning in itself – just a picnic area above a raging mountain stream, beneath a dense forest of trees – pure green nature, of the kind it’s easy to forget exists any more when you live in Madrid.

So why was the stay so inspiring?

It was inspiring to see a business so well run – to be personally helped to choose your days activities over breakfast, and given a wealth of personal notes and guides as you set out each day, to be using hand-made organic soap in the bathroom made with the hotel’s lemon verbana leaves, to be drinking organic apple juice made from the farm’s apple trees, and to be eating delicious organic suppers from the farm’s fields (and to look from the supper table at Nigel chasing his horses away from a delicate tree in the field below the restaurant windows one moment, only to find him seconds later at your side asking what you’d like to drink with your meal!)

Vegetable Patch, Posada Del Valle, Asturias

And it was inspiring to learn so much (to see so much in action) about organic sustainable farming, and to come away with the inspiration to live more ecologically, and to have fallen into deep streams of thought like this, that I scribbled down in my notebook one afternoon as I wandered along one of the farm trails:

If all the world’s great minds and powers turned their attentions to improving the lot of the whole planet, its ecology, ecosystems, species, and biodiversity, instead of just the lot and comfort of humans as the ‘top of the tree’ species, I have no doubt that very quickly the quality of life, and health, of not only the planet, but of all those that inhabit it, would soon improve immeasurably, and not only for the poor, but for the rich too, whose material and spiritual health and conscience would reach new previously unknown states of welll-being in as little as one or two generations.

I’ll leave my further expanded thoughts on this for myself (or for a later date), but I certainly do like holidays that make me think, that inspire me in areas of thought that I’d long meant to investigate.

I’m also pretty sure that you can go to Posade del Valle to simply do some exceptional walking, and some extremely easy relaxing, and I highly recommend that if you have Asturias in mind, you do just that.

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Hot Here, Green There

Asturias, Picos de Europa

As Madrid settles comfortably into the mid-thirties (day AND night in our flat – never buy a top-floor flat in Madrid!), I dream again of the green north.

A friend sent me an interesting link of different walking routes around Asturias – even if you think you might never do the treks, the photos are like a refreshing breeze on these hot summer days – click the numbers on the map here:

Asturias en imagenes

Update: it’s raining here now! Getting more Asturian by the minute!

Spain Travel

The Sudden Magic of Spain

We met a friend last night who had just spent a few nights in Granada, one of the few places she had been able to visit in Spain. She was staying in a cheap hostel (21 euros a night! In 2010!) overlooking a typical Granadan Plaza, with an old church at one end. At midnight she turned off the lights and lay in bed waiting for sleep, exhausted after a day of sightseeing, when suddenly, she heard the distant sound of drums.

As the drumming got louder and louder, she got up, opened her shutters, and went out onto her small terrace overlooking the Plaza. Suddenly an entire troupe of drummers and trumpeters processed slowly around the corner into the Plaza, followed by ladies in full festive Andaluz regalia, and lastly, at the end of the procession, a vast, ornate wooden float with Maria on top, shouldered by a couple of dozen men underneath.

They marched slowly into the square and up to the church where the festivities continued into the night.

“It was like a dream”, she said, “like a film… right there at my feet.”

More often than not I’ve found these very special experiences of Spain happen in Andalucia, but we’ve stumbled across equally fantastic fiestas in La Rioja and Galicia, and there is something uniquely captivating about the way these things suddenly come upon you in Spain.

Have you ever experienced a ‘sudden magic of Spain’ moment?

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Los Gazquez – Notes from Spain Podcast 77

Los Gazquez Art

[Download MP3]

This past week we headed to Almería to polish up my art skills, and talk to Simon at the Cortijada Los Gazquez, an incredible restored country house in a wild Natural Park in Almeria.

The house is totally off-grid, has some amazing eco-enhancements making it almost entirely energy and resource-independent, and tremendous art projects on the go, including creative art courses and artist residencies.

Listen to the podcast above, see some more images from our stay below, and do consider a trip to check out the amazing Los Gazquez experience:

Spain Travel

Only in Spain…

Hola, anyone still here? I’ve been away for a while, working, learning, travelling… Here are my latest Notes from Spain…

1. Only in Spain do the lesser mountain chains look as good as this….

Gredos mountains, Spain

That’s a corner of the Gredos mountains. We spent a weekend recently in Avila, from where we made the hour journey up to the Gredos range, starting with a coffee in the Parador de Gredos, and taking the lovely circular walk through the pine forest below. At reception they’ll give you details of picnic spots up the road by sparkling streams, and directions up to the snow-bound Plataforma de Gredos where walkers head up to tackle the nearby peaks. You’ll need a car.

2. Only in Spain can you go on retreat in tiny valleys lost deep at the end of dirt tracks in magical pine-covered national parks, as far off the grid as you can get…

Only in Spain do you discover that when you walk up the hill behind the house, you get hell of a surprise when you finally get to look over the ridge at the top: a hundred-mile view you never imagined could be there, of a million olive trees rolling across the plains of Jaen below…

Olive trees, Jaen

This was, ‘El Camino Natural’, a very special place If you are a yoga-meditation-retreat kind of a person.

3. Only in Spain, as we discovered to our wide-eyed horror, might the owner of a very rural guest house investigate the smell of gas (i.e. possible gas leak!) in your room by running a lit match along the rubber pipe connecting the gas ‘butano’ bottle to the boiler on the wall…

4. Only in Spain do you find stacks of crisps piled up against shop windows…

crisps shop window spain

Spain Travel

Trip to Gijon

Last week we were in Asturias, staying in Gijon. It’s a small city, industry (pretty heavy), on one side of a river, a lovely old town and beach on the other:

Even in early March, the grannies are on the beach in the morning, getting undressed and stuffing their clothes into giant plastic bags while they prepare to brave the waves for their daily swim.


Postcard views from the old town:


And what food! The menu del dia’s in Gijon comprise FOUR courses, not three, and would often include a fish that you might pay 20 euros for in Madrid alone – in Gijon the whole 4-course meal cost around 9.50 Euros.

One more photo of Gijon, The wonderous Gran Cafe Dindurra. A haven for old floor-tile fetishists (like me!):

Gran Cafe Dindurra, Gijon

And a final one from down the road in Ribadesella:


Spain Travel

Spain ‘no longer foreign enough’

Many thanks to Raquel for passing on this classic read in the Times: “British tourists avoid Spain because it’s ‘no longer foreign enough’”

…which says a lot more about the Brits (who aren’t aware of strange out-of-the-way places like, say Madrid) than Spain, obviously.

I love this line about a recent survey on British holiday choices:

The survey showed that the US was the most popular destination measured by the growth of bookings, with some British tourists attracted by the prospect of “meeting a celebrity”.

[Head falls into hands in desperation…]