A fortress, dinner in France and a Cider House

Here I was in Spain, working and working away and finally, a wild Weekend appeared! Julie used Travel! It’s super-effective!

I probably should have taken this opportunity to rest a bit, really kick that 11 hour jet lag in the bag. But no! I’m in Spain and I’ve got a partner who knows how to drive stick!

HondarribiaFirst things first, we needed to get out of town. We’ve had one too many pintxos in town and I wanted to see something new. For the best places to go, I asked my co-workers for some suggestions and we settled on Hondarribia. A swanky little town across the river from France. Still in the heart of Basque Country, there was a fort we were keen to see not too far from town. I thought a good short hike might be a good way to wake us up and get us going. Unfortunately, due to my let’s-go-travel stupor, I totally mis-read the map and we wandered into the wrong part of town to pick up the car so we got to a rather late start. Can’t complain too much, since San Sebastian is a beautiful city through which to walk.

Maybe it's a bad translation of stairway to heaven?

When we arrived in Hondarribia, about a 25 minute drive or so, we found a spot to ditch the car, and tried to find our way into town. Luckily, we didn’t have to walk up the first hill, there was an elevator. Yup. An elevator. In town. What?!

Lunch in the square, now I'm on vacationA beautiful town on a hill, with walls and a castle inside, it looked very European. Now I finally felt like I was on vacation! We wandered past tiny, curvy roads with skinny houses and balconies, past adorable shops selling chips and candy (or should I say lollies now that I’m back in NZ?) Finally, we found a square that had a popular cafe and grabbed some lunch. I opted for the most traditional dish on the menu. What I was expecting from the traditional Basque calamari, I don’t know, but it was sauteed calamari in butter and doused (and I mean doused) in paprika and salt. With boiled potatoes. While it wasn’t bad, I can’t say that I would order it again. I suppose that’s the thanks I get for trying “traditional”.

Pretty!Funky bear statueMostly, I’d say, when Andrew and I are on vacation we are wanderers. We usually have some sort of destination in mind, but the joy of Hondarribia, and this trip, was just in the moment. I was too busy to plan much, and Andrew is an anything goes kind of guy. Ergo, sorry to my sister and anyone else looking for too much history on this one. There were battles with dukes, and kings armies and revolutions in Hondarribia. But I just liked the cobblestone streets and the old buildings. Perhaps if I make it back, I’ll go better prepared.

El Camino de SantiagoSo initially, we picked Hondarribia because it wasn’t too far from a mountain called Jaizkibel, the Westernmost mountain of the Pyrenees. A handful of walks coincide near the Fortress of Guadalupe just west of town (well, perhaps eight minutes or so by car). Andrew and I parked near the Fortress, then boldly set off in the wrong direction (again) for an hour or more. Can’t complain though! We intersected with The Way of St. James, or El Camino de Santiago (El Camino for short), a long walk/pilgrimage I’d heard about that sounds like a pretty awesome, maybe sometime I’ll get to go, kind of multi-week walk starting in Spain or France to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. It’s supposed to be a long (weeks/month(s)) walk intended to inspire meditation and soul-searching.

HondarribiaWhere was I? Oh yes, less soul searching going on, we wandered around the mountains, taking in gorgeous views of the sea and Hondarribia. After some time, realizing we weren’t really prepared for a long hike, we turned around to check out that Fortress. The Fortress of Guadalupe looked pretty stellar. The sad bit? It was closed to visitors! It was only open during the summer months, and although I love the fall, tourism dips and despite the ample amount of people picnicking near the Fortress, the gates were barred shut. It looked awesome though! Like, if I were still a kid (or wouldn’t be judged as an adult) I’d definitely love to run a game of tag or hide and seek around here. Dug out trenches, and grass covered domes, the Fortress was hidden from almost every direction. When I stood on my tippy toes, I could see the walkways and paths buried in the ground. Built over a hundred years ago, I couldn’t imagine being a soldier assigned to look-out or battle here. Lucky for me, that is the joy of living in the here and now… well, and being a girl I suppose.

Okay, another stairway to Heaven reference? Entrance to the barred gates

Fortress Hidden well

Lots of wandering later, we realized we were starting to get hungry. We didn’t want to head back into town (I guess the traditional fare didn’t impress me.) and were running through a bunch of ideas, when the best idea of all occurs to us. Why don’t we go to France for dinner? Yes, and how many times can you say you decided just to pop on over to France for dinner? Well, for Andrew and me, that would be one! A friend in Auckland from France had recommended we check out Biarritz, a coastal town not 20 minutes from Hondarribia. We popped back in the car and took off to France.

That's what we needed, a road lighthouseNow here is where it gets tricky. Remember how I was saying I hadn’t done so much planning? Well, I also didn’t have a map. We sprung for the rental GPS, but it didn’t dawn on us until we got closer that the GPS map was for Spain only. BiarritzI’d seen the map a few days earlier, and besides, there’d be signs, right? We did all right on the highway, there was a sign. But then, as luck would have it, there were signs pointing to the town center for Biarritz, but the main roads were closed for construction. Plan B. Without a map, and not wanting to pay the excessive charge for data on my phone, I utilized my next best navigator tool. A compass. The town and city center is on the water. We got off the highway just south of town. We wanted to head west by northwest. A round-about here, a round-about there, and ta-da! We managed to find our way to a town in France sans map! Go us!!

It was starting to get dark, so we wandered the streets and the waterfront and just missed the bakery for macaroons by minutes! We picked a place for dinner and sat down to enjoy our evening in France! But of course, still in the heart of Basque country, the food was very similar to Spanish Basque cuisine.  I would definitely recommend Biarritz as  a place to stop and visit if anyone were ever in the area!

Saint Jean de LuzIt goes without saying that we made it back to the highway (the compass again was a huge help) and home. Not bad for my first day off in Spain!

Crepes!!!Of course, the adventures don’t stop there! Sunday morning, Andrew and I knew we needed to head back to France for crepes. We took off for Saint Jean de Luz, a smaller town, south of Biarritz and closer to Spain. A beautiful town (seriously, I’m just in love with towns) with heaps of people out and about this morning. We wandered to the water and found a cafe off the beach serving crepes and we went for it! While stunning and beautiful, we wanted to get back to Spain. I think France may warrants it’s own trip sometime [Paris, perhaps?]), but I wanted to get to know the area in which we were staying better so as to understand the culture from which my co-workers come from.

Saint Jean de Luz for crepes

Oh, and I wanted to find a cider house, or sidreria. Hard cider (sidra in Spanish) is a very popular and locally brewed beverage in the north of Spain and in the Basque region as well (so a bit in France). In Basque, a cider house is called a Sagardotegia. Andrew and I were in search of one in particular that we never found. Instead, we found another Sagardotegia in the town of Astigarraga, a town southeast of San Sebastian. The Sagardotegia Iretza. Some time ago, the cider houses opened their doors to locals to come and drink cider. They’d invite customers to come by and pay a fee for unlimited access to the cider barrels. The patrons would bring their own food and enjoy the cider houses spaces. Eventually, the cider houses themselves began to offer food as well. Now, patrons head to the cider houses for a meal of seafood omlette, fish fillet, steak, french fries, cheese, quince and walnuts, plus unlimited cider. Before you wonder who drove, I will caution that Spanish cider tends to have a lower alcohol content than those found in New Zealand and America, so Andrew was able to enjoy a bit of cider with a very, very heavy lunch. All of it was supremely delicious and hearty and I ate waaaay too much! (And they say Americans have big meals!) If you’re in the area, definitely check it out! Most cider houses are open in-season (spring/summer), but out of season only a few of the larger sagardotegias are open, so do plan accordingly.

Why yes, I'd love some cider Don't mind if I do

Weekend numero uno in Spain/France = success 🙂

Iretza Astigarragako Sagardotegia