Monday 29 July 2013

Hillwalking near Madrid

One of the great advantages of Dublin as a place to live is its proximity to the Dublin-Wicklow Mountains. Many's the weekend I spent in my youth walking in these beautiful hills!  One of the disadvantages that struck me about Paris when I moved there over 20 years ago was the relative lack of hilly terrain anywhere within easy reach. Walking in the countryside is just not the same when it's mostly flat.

Madrid, at an altitude of 667 metres, is the highest capital city in Europe – if you don't count Andorra – and is just south of the Sierra de Guadarrama.  The excellent suburban train service of Madrid will take you in around an hour to the foothills of this wild and beautiful mountain range; direct trains from the city go to Cercedilla and Manzanares el Real, for example, from where you can take your choice of multiple trails into the hills and forests of pine and oak.

Walking in the Sierra de Guadarrama
with Mar, Mónica and Juanjo
On Sunday morning I went with some friends to Manzanares (910 metres) and from there spent a very pleasant few hours walking up along the banks of the youthful stage of the Río Manzanares. which in its mature lower stage flows along the western edge of the city of Madrid.

The pace was leisurely enough. We started with a beer while we decided which route to take. Luckily it wasn't too hot, with a light breeze and intermittent cloud cover to protect us from the worst of the mid-afternoon sun. Near our highest point there was a convenient café-bar where we lunched on eggs and fries. And beer.

Got home at 9.30 pm to wash clothes and prepare for the trip to Andalusia, which starts on Monday with a train ride to Cordoba.

Sunday 28 July 2013

Una mosca en el ungüento

I went to a very nice restaurant on Friday night called Taberna del Alabardero with my two Madrid-based friends, Mónica and Fearghal. It's between Opera and the royal palace. We had the menú verano (summer menu) consisting of cold soup, hot soup, fish course, meat course, dessert. The wines were selected by the house and went very well with each course.  They offered a liqueur to round it all off nicely.

There was, however, a mosca in the ungüento: one of the waiters was very rude. When we asked him (in Spanish) what was in the soup, he replied "I serve it, I don't make it." Then at the end of the evening, he took my liqueur glass away before I had finished. All the other staff were very friendly and helpful. The manager called me the next day to apologise, which I appreciated.

Wednesday 24 July 2013

Hot enough for you?

Real Jardín Botánico,
As I was saying earlier, the heat in Madrid, though intense, is easy enough to bear as it's dry. But if you're too comfortable, there's always the tropical house in the Botanic Gardens, near the Prado. There you'll sweat while you admire the vines and cacti. There is also a collection of carnivorous plants who eat insects to make up for the lack of nitrogen in the earth in their natural habitat.

In another corner of the garden there is a fine display of bonsai trees donated to the institution by Felipe González, the first socialist prime minister in post-fascist Spain.

The garden maintains a huge range of flowers, vegetables, herbs and trees. Well worth an hour or two.

Tuesday 23 July 2013

Close shave

While I'm reading about the heat waves in Ireland, the UK and France I'm sitting on the balcony of my friend's apartment in Madrid, shoving chunks of watermelon into my gob, sipping a cold beer, and thinking about the siesta I'm going to take in a few minutes.

Streamlined me
The heat here is dry, so it's actually easy to survive in 35°C and over, as long as you're in town and can stay in the shade.  The beard was a bit much, all the same, so this morning I went to to a little barber's shop to get a haircut and a shave.

I decided to go all the way and get my head shaved and told the barber to take it all off.  As usual in such situations I took off my glasses, closed my eyes and let the barber do his job; no chat, thank you very much. Either he thought I wasn't sure of what I wanted (I was), or I didn't express myself clearly (more likely), because he didn't quite shave my head, though he went close.

The streamlined cut suits me fine in this weather.

Saturday 20 July 2013

Spanish food, cooked Japanese-style

Dinner last night was a mixed cultural event.  The restaurant is Japanese – in name at least: Sakura ("cherry blossom") – but the food is mostly Spanish. It is, of course, owned and run by Chinese people.

Sakura buffet,
calle Alfonso I, 26, Zaragoza
It's an eat-as-much-as-you-like buffet and the range of food available is quite impressive.  There are hot and cold starters; cuts of meat typical of any Spanish restaurant; various types of seafood (fillets of fish as well as shrimps, squid, cuttlefish and lots of shellfish, most of which I couldn't name); fresh and cooked vegetables; rice, of course, boiled or fried; and Spanish-style croquetas.  Cheese and dessert are included, also on a no-limits basis.

The real Japanese touch is the style of cooking: teppanyaki. The teppan is an iron hotplate on which the chef grills the food you've selected.

Great value too! The fixed price is €14.95 for all you can (or want to) eat.  It's even cheaper at lunchtime during the week when the price for the same deal drops to €9.95.  I chose white wine as an accompaniment; €2.25 for a respectably large glass.

The service was efficient and friendly, and a complementary shot of Hierbas rounded things off nicely.

They have six branches in Zaragoza city centre.


Kissing the virgin's pillar

According to Catholic mythology, the Virgin descended from heaven on a marble pillar to give a message to St James the Apostle who was then in Zaragoza. To commemorate the occasion, they built a church around the remains of the pillar.  The church was later expanded into the fabulous baroque Basílica de Nuestra Señora del Pilar.

Venerate and kiss
the oval orifice
You can see the actual pillar (authenticated by generations of bishops who know about these things) in a special chapel within the basilica, the Capilla Santa. The pious can kiss the Virgin's prop through a hole on the outside wall of the chapel (still inside the basilica).  To get your mouth at the right level you have to kneel, then lean forward and put your lips to the oval-shaped orifice.

About half the basilica is open for visits by the public.  In the open half I counted 27 money boxes where the faithful can contribute to the coffers of Mother Church.

Friday 19 July 2013

A brief hith-tory of Tharagotha

One of the main streets in Zaragoza is Avenida César Augusto. At the top of the street is Plaza César Augusto, with a statue of the great man standing beside some remains of an old Roman fortification. He is named on a plaque as the founder of the town of Caesaraugusta in 14BC.

Try saying "Caesaraugusta" with a lisp. Now you see where the modern pronunciation of Zaragoza comes from. (In Spanish, the letter z is pronounced like the "th" in "thing".)

After the fall of the Roman Empire the town was conquered successively by Goths and Muthlims. But enough hithtory. Thorry!

On a stroll around the town last night I noticed two differences from my last – very brief – visit here three years ago: the prices have gone up considerably (though they're still reasonable); restaurants and bars are mostly closed at 11pm.  I suspect both these phenomena are linked with la crisis.

Wednesday 17 July 2013

Ritual completed

Playa de la Concha, San Sebastián
(the end near the old town – it's actually much longer)
I went for a swim today at the Playa de la Concha in San Sebastián and thus accomplished, earlier than expected, my annual sea-swim ritual.  It's a beautiful beach, right beside the old town. Some nice ladies took care of my bag while I dipped my carcass in the ocean and soaked it for half an hour.  The water was a very pleasant temperature — I'd guess around 20°C.

Lunch afterwards was an all seafood affair in a cheap-and-cheerful bar near the town hall: mussels in a vinaigrette, followed by squid with peppers, washed down with a couple of cañas. That was actually my second lunch as I'd had a huge mixed salad before my swim, accompanied by a large slice of tortilla and two glasses of white wine.  No dinner tonight!

Tomorrow I head for Zaragoza where the temperature is expected to be in the mid-30s. I'm slowly building up to the inferno of Andalucia in a few weeks' time.

You can't go to San Sebastián...

... cos it's Donostia, not San Sebastián.

At least, that's what you'd think when you're looking for signposts for the city.  It seems people still call the city by its Spanish name, but the Basque name dominates on signposts and train timetables.

And here's a tip for the next time you're in Irún (and you've done all the cigarette shops) and you decide to take the Euskotren to Donostia/San Sebastián: you won't find either name on the local map in the station; get off at Amara.  Obviously!

I did the excursion yesterday and dipped my feet in the sea on the fabulous Playa de La Concha, right in the city. I'm going back today for a proper soak. It's slightly cloudy, so I might even take my shirt off...

Monday 15 July 2013

What do you do in Irún if you don't smoke?

The first leg of my trip is Paris-Irún by TGV.

This border town in the Spanish Basque Country, just across the border from Hendaye in the French Basque Country, is well known as a place to buy cheap cigarettes and to change trains.  I'm hoping there's a bit more to the place as I don't smoke.

If it turns out to be a bit too sleepy, I'll take a short hop to San Sebastian.

We'll see on Tuesday!  My train leaves Paris Montparnasse at 7.23 and takes about five hours.

Saturday 13 July 2013

The adventure continues - summer 2013

During the depths of winter in Paris (which lasted until the end of May this year) I decided I'd head back to Spain where the sunshine is pretty much guaranteed.

I'm leaving Paris on Tuesday, 16 July with the following itinerary:

16/7 París-Irún (Basque Country)
18/7 Zaragoza (Aragon)
21/7 Madrid
29/7 Córdoba/Málaga (maybe also Algeciras and maybe even Tangier)
 4/8 Madrid
18/8 Lisbon/Porto/Vigo/Santiago de Compostela (Portugal, Galicia)
28/8 Madrid

??/? Paris.
Other trips are possible.  The only parts that are confirmed are my departure on 16 July, and the trip to Lisbon on 18 August.  The rest is open to change and I'm still not sure exactly when I'll be back.

Stay tuned to find out!