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To build or not to build – Highs and lows of hiring a builder

To build or not to build – Highs and lows of hiring a builder

This post offers a brief insight into the murky and quirky world of local builders, at least a recap of our own experiences and a collection of thoughts from friends who have voiced similar opinions.

It’s a tricky subject even within your own native country, of picking a company that can offer what seems unattainable (at least in these parts) good price, good work and reliability. I’d settle for two out of three.

The local builder is often referred to as a paleta, a kind of jack of all trades, an all round builder that dabbles in and encompasses trades such as an electrician, plumber, heating engineer, carpenter, and maybe a few more. 

You could of course employ the individual trades if you have the stomach to do so, and the language capabilities and of course, the patience.

Just to recap, our small coastal hideaway in L’Escala needed refurbishment as it hadn’t been touched since flared trousers and jumbo collars were in fashion. White vans and pickups of all shapes and sizes whizz by that advertise ´reformas´a catch all phrase for building works.

That’s fine but where do you start in choosing a good reliable firm and getting some price quotes. Our first try was with the agent that sold us the house, he must be in the know. Cue Jordi, a local guy who dutifully appeared with notebook, tape measure and pen in hand.

We had quite a list, new bathroom, kitchen, floors, replacement doors, enough to give  any respectable builder a nice earner. Lets just add that you spend a lot of time with these individuals explaining what you want. The result, nada.

Moving on to building company number 2, recommended to us by our neighbour. Two young chaps turned up and we ran through the same spiel. Frantic notetaking is followed by the comment that we would need to move out. How long do we ask? Oh, two to three months. Okay but this is my main residence, where do I decamp to? This is looking like a non-starter. But I wait  in anticipation of an estimate. The result, nada.

I’m starting to feel a bit despondent but I will try again. This time it’s a local company, I’ve seen their shop premises in town  and made an appointment. Here we go again, notes are taken, list of jobs we want done. The result, yes, you’ve guessed, nada. What’s happening?

We´d heard that most builders here are super busy and it appears they can pick and choose which jobs they want to take on. I can understand, as during such visits (July) we were told start times would be around October. I also understand that I might not get a quote from the odd company, but three in a row. Are they so arrogant, uncaring, and not bothered?

Theories abound but I still need to find someone. A chance encounter with a local friend results in a builder who talks the talk. I decided to try him out with a few small jobs like a TV wall mount that I’ve already bought. The instructions may as well be in Chinese but he makes it look like child’s play and the price is good. I’m eager to get the bathroom redone and his answer is yes, no problem.

Post covid a lot of building material prices have shot through the roof, plus the wait is weeks not days. Ordered in August, delivered in October, and then some ordered items we got are missing. This is Leroy Merlin, a large multinational chain. My builder tells me we must complain in the strongest terms, as this is the only way to get things done.

If this is what it’s like for future projects I’m dreading the thought of how the other major works like the kitchen are going to go. That ultimately went to Ikea and may end up in part two of this saga.

My take on all of this. These paletas/builders are a law unto themselves. Jobs are started, things are done, materials appear on site then the workmen disappear into thin air. Getting to the finish line on big jobs becomes painfully slow, requiring constant chasing up. Not just us, as I’ve noticed these same patterns occurring with our next door neighbours who’ve had similar stuff done.

The more unscrupulous types look at us foreigners and see euro signs. I’ve had friends say quotes they’ve had have differed by many hundreds of euros for identical work. 

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Girona

Flower power – Girona Temps de Flors

It’s that time of the year again, Girona’s city wide annual display of flowers. But it’s not just a floral-fest-themed show spanning 9 days.

While flower displays are the main pull strung out amongst numerous locations (handy one page map available from tourist office), there are plenty more spots that host an eclectic mix of abstract art displays. Many may have a tenuous link to anything connected to flowers, but perhaps that’s what makes it so popular and interesting.

It’s that popularity over the last decade and a half at least that has really put Girona on the map, as visitors flock here daily in their thousands, causing bottlenecks within Girona´s myriad maze of  mediaeval narrow streets. Last year they did the sensible thing and created a series of one way thoroughfares.

The bulk of what is essential viewing is undoubtedly within the old town area, and includes the Arab Baths, the steps of Girona’s St Mary Cathedral and St Felix church. The latter seems to be a kind of benchmark, prompting many a comment, “oh last year’s display was better”. It is a large blank canvas that must involve a lot of creative imagination, and of course planning.

I well remember just after Game of Thrones was filmed in Girona, the long stairway below the church of St Marti had a splendid Thrones themed display. What many may not realise is that this is the only chance to peer into small private courtyards where owners show off their own ideas. Also, if you find yourself near Placa Catalunya there’s an old air raid shelter from the time of the Spanish Civil War which opens during this time.

One of my past favourites was the roofless remains of a former cinema in the back streets behind Girona city town hall (ajuntament). It had some very dark, abstract, thought provoking ínstallations like hanging chairs and sombre mood music. Sadly it’s been redeveloped and turned into offices.

With food and drink stops you would need the best part of a whole day to get to see it all, as popular locations have constant queues. Comfortable footwear is recommended as most of the old town streets are cobbled and parking is difficult.

Restaurants will have a special menu for the festival, no surprises that prices do increase, but everywhere is packed. 

Flower display on the front steps of St Feliu church, Girona

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Girona Restaurants Uncategorized

Food for thought-Girona gastronomy

There’s never a dull moment when tucking into the local grub, part of Girona´s charms and a big pull for visitors. 

It’s an ever changing food scene as a constant stream of new entrants try their arm at offering their twist on Catalan cuisine, or something entirely different. Perhaps the strangest I’ve seen was Catalan/Chilean. Unexpectedly now no more.

This can be a high stakes game, as longevity is hard to achieve and failure is common and unforgiving. The financial outlay is significant. I well remember walking past failed places that appeared expensively fitted out only to have it all ripped out and replaced with the new owner’s tastes.

I’m away a lot these days but friends in the city keep me updated when they venture out to try new Girona restaurants. I can recollect great dining experiences at places like Mimolet, Nu and Divinum, still going as far as I can tell. All three are at the upper range but well worth it when comparing with similar fare in the UK.

However, our finances could never stretch to the three Michelin starred Can Roca but it remains on the bucket list. Last time I checked the average bill for two including wine was about 500 euros. Situated in a largely working class plain looking neighbourhood, it does not strike you as the place to have a restaurant of such stature. I’d been told it is because this is where they grew up and their parents ran a local no frills restaurant.

Their culinary tentacles have stretched out to encompass more spin offs within Girona, like their Hotel Chocolat and restaurant Normal. A touch more affordable than their flagship eatery, seemingly well booked. Again, a friend who dined there said it didn’t live up to the hype. 

The youngest brother Jordi, who’s the pastry chef at Can Roca has opened both a posh ice cream parlour (Rocambolesc) and an upmarket version (Rocambolesc  Bikineria) of what’s locally known as a Bikini, basically a toasted ham and cheese sandwich.

As a piece of idle gossip, we did bump into Jordi once, at a perennial favourite haunt of ours, Cull de Mon in nearby Vall de Sant Daniel, definitely worth a visit. Chef and owner Lofti fuses Catalan dishes with a Moroccan twist with his Catalan partner. 

Kudos to the three brothers as you’ve got to make hay while the sun shines I guess. Locals, as far as I can guess, are proud of their successes but remain typically nonplussed and unfussy in their admiration. 

Other quality Catalan chefs are forging equally fine reputations and there’s a perceptible trend (in my opinion) that newer restaurant openings are catering for the upper end. Is that a good move, I’m not sure. Girona´s cost of living is high, always has been and affluent expat numbers appear to be on the up. 

Gironas’ beguiling lure as an attractive, safe and comfortable place to move to and live has gradually increased over the last decade.Just perusing the FB Girona groups gives an indication of the pull this area has. It was what brought our young family here back in 2006, when its charms were less publicised. 

Of course where food is concerned local Catalan families like to eat well and expect good quality. Traditional farmhouse type ‘masia’ restaurants that dot the surrounding countryside still do a roaring trade at weekends, especially on Sundays. Our favourites were La Barca in nearby Bescano, Can Joan in Canet d’Adri and Can Xifra in Cartella.

Brits who like their ´meat and two veg’ would fit right in here, with hearty home cooked Catalan fare. The slight difference is the almost total absence of the ‘two veg’ part. Main meat and fish based dishes are usually light on any further additions.

Just remember not to rush things, as a lot of the enjoyable dining is spread across a few lazy hours. Good conversation and good food are key elements of ‘going with the flow’.

Meat and seafood Paella

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Beaches Girona

Time and Tide

It was Chaucer who said time and tide wait for no man but I’m just going to truncate that slightly as I like the first half and it kind of fits for what I’m looking for.

I may have mentioned before that we´re spending more time away from Girona up on the coast, namely the seaside resort of L’Escala. I’ve written about its many charms and the various beaches here in past posts.

The Costa Brava is peppered with a plethora of fine beaches and the various towns and villages that cling to them symbiotically.

Our Catalan friends in Girona all have their own favourites, of course. One in particular, St. Antoni de Calonge is like Girona-by-the-sea. The real charms here are the fine sandy beach and the beachfront path that’s largely pedestrianised.

Here you can find a coterie of bars and restaurants to suit all pockets. The rest, meaning its interior is pretty unremarkable.

Almost every time we visit we seem to bump into someone we know from Girona. Not blighted by any high rise developments its three small bays are strung out along an elongated coastal path that snakes its way to Palamos the next town, larger and livelier. 

Compact and still retaining a largely Catalan feel, it’s not going to wow those of  you looking for somewhere with a pulse. Better head to nearby Playa d´Aro for plentiful nocturnal fun. It attracts both the local and tourist youths in droves so its central parts get quite boisterous and noisy during summer time.

Its popularity persists even off season as shops here are open on Sundays (but not in Girona) attracting Gironians for a spot of weekend shopping. There’s certainly more of a commercial feel to the place coupled with a much larger choice of dining options.

Another local coastal bolthole is probably the nearest in mileage terms from Girona, St Feliu de Guixols. Again it’s another one of these places where the good bits are along the beachfront and a few of the bigger plazas and streets that pierce its interior.

A fair size working town which leaves you with the impression that it has seen better days. A forlorn former grandeur that is sad and chic in equal measure.The beach is sweet, well served with chiringuito bars and it hosts an annual long running summer music festival, Porta Ferrada. It gets some big names, we saw Simple Minds here last year.

If you feel a bit flushed you’d probably go for a pad in nearby upmarket S’Agaro. Two beaches of note here are St Pol and Sa Conca, popular with weekenders all year round, who frequent the beachfront eateries ( Sa Conca only has a seasonal beach bar). A perennial favourite of ours it could have easily been chosen as a film location for a Californian hipster movie.

Off season all of these Costa Brava coastal locations vary in the degree of emptiness. Let’s give it a score then. I was lucky (or unlucky-depends how you look at it) to have spent winter months in Estartit. I’d be generous if it hovered between 2 and 3. I recently went through the Playa de Pals neighbourhood, which resembles a post-apocalyptic town where everyones dead but the buildings have remained. No a living soul around.

Our Catalan friends and neighbours from Girona look genuinely perplexed and puzzled at us living on the coast outside the usual summer months. They reiterate the quietness and loneliness of such a decision.

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Beaches

Chiringuito Bretta, St Marti d’Empuries, Costa Brava

Chiringuito Bretta, St Marti d’Empuries, Costa Brava

The chiringuito or beach bar can be found on most Costa Brava beaches these days, a chance to retreat from the heat and enjoy a cool beer or a snack in the shade. They usually pop up around March and are gone by September / October.

What were once ramshackle wooden sheds serving cheap fare, many have now evolved into culinary destinations with menus and prices that you’d expect to see in more higher class establishments. The ´spit and sawdust´variety are still abundant for lovers of plastic chairs and frayed bamboo screens.

And so it was that one evening I was dropping off someone at the nearby Hostel Empuries, a chic 4 star beachfront place near  the Empuries Ruins museum. I heard rumba music emanating within earshot but couldn’t see from where. It wasn’t until the next day that we ventured over and found the entrance to Bretta.

I should add that this chiringuito is set back a little from the beach and you can just about make out the sea through the pine trees.

Hugging one side of the museum entrance it is generously laid out with a small interior that has ground to ceiling glass windows. Plentiful outdoor seating options litter its large pebbled terrace that includes repurposed pallets, long bench seats and even deckchairs. A large oval shaped bar dominates one side of its outdoor area, which opens during busier evening hours. A handy option even though waiter service is available.

It’s mid afternoon and we park ourselves on a table, we´re just here for drinks and we observe staff busy serving and taking food orders. No one notices us, I mean we dont expect instantaneous service but Im starting to feel invisible. I’ve written about this occurring at other places before, so deja vu is kicking in.

Eventually it takes one of us to get up and wander over to the bar area. Not a great start. Believing in giving people a second chance we see a poster for an upcoming market day at the bar plus DJ music.

It’s on a Saturday and we arrive at a bustling bar with lots of mini stalls selling vintage clothing, jewellery and assorted hipster knick-knacks. It helps that the weather is good and we spend a merry afternoon trying their cocktails and stall browsing. I can’t comment on the food as none was consumed.

As more punters pile into the bars outdoor areas the DJ decides to come back to work and cranks up the sounds. It’s not long before the pulsating beats prompt people to get  up and dance. After a satisfying stay we left the party at full swing which probably continued till late.

Bretta is sure to be one we will be returning to when it reopens next year.

Summer 2023 opening times; Mon closed, Tues and Wed 11-5, Thurs to Sat 11-4, 7-1am, Sun 11-5

Moscow mule cocktail

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Beaches Girona

Long hot summer just passed me by

The song title from the 90’s UK group The Style Council seemed apt for this blog article as I had spent six weeks away at the height of summer. Initially I was glad to escape the heat and the crowds, decamping to the UK and Ireland.

If you reside here in Catalonia or on the Costa Brava then you will feel accustomed to summers arriving early, meaning earlier than usual and the double whammy being higher than average temperatures. It’s been like that in recent years.

There’s little doubt that climate change is impacting most of us worldwide and Spain has not escaped its share. It’s been experiencing prolonged drought conditions that are no joke. In recent times we’ve had highs of 40 degrees in early June, that’d be considered unbearable even during August.

We now spend much of our free time in L´Escala, just 45 kms from Girona, a popular Costa Brava resort for many nationalities, not just Catalans. The French are here big time as second home owners and tourists, and by my reckoning are followed by the Belgians, Dutch and Germans in equal measure. I still see a few English number plates but I reckon Brexit put paid to a lot of what are referred to as ´swallows´.

For anyone unfamiliar with the term it was applied to those Brits who migrated to sit out the winter months in sunny Spain. No harm in that but Brexit changes mean that if you’re British you can only stay within any EU country a maximum of 90 days before having to return home. Luckily for us we have resident status so different rules apply.

So, for the first time in ages I was absent during the peak times on the coast. Glad of the lower temperatures in London, I forgot how quick the weather can and does change. Showery days can quickly change your mood and limit what you can do. Shopping trips to the preponderance of high street charity shops and nipping into the local ´spoons´ (an abbreviation of the pub chain Wetherspoons) became the norm.

I still feel a bit nostalgic about UK pubs, but not about the prices of alcohol.

One uneventful month later it was time to move on to the Emerald Isle. Our brief trip was part holiday, part tracing family history. The inclement weather seemed to be following us but it’s no surprise, Ireland is green for a reason.

I tried not to feel too homesick for a clear blue sky, the warming glow of the sun on your face- and not having to pay five times more for a bottle of wine than in Spain.

view of L Escala
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Beaches Girona

Fira de Indians, Begur

It might be the last hot gasps of summer but no need to put away your flip flops just yet, there’s still plenty to celebrate during the first weekend of September. 

Like the proverbial London red bus, when it deems to arrive there are three of them all at once. So it is with three festive morsels on offer, all on the same weekend, the hard part is choosing.

The first is L´Escala´s own three day town wide party or´festa´and seems the obvious choice as we are holidaying here anyway. Then there’s the Fira d´Indians in the quaint hilltop village of Begur, a 3 day celebration with a Cuban theme that’s hugely popular. 

Lastly there’s a medieval weekend in the pretty village of Besalu, near Banyoles. We went there once many moons ago. The one common theme amongst them all is the dreaded problem of finding a parking space.

The clincher for us was the promise of an overnight stay from a friend in Begur, which meant we could stay much longer, enjoy the festival and not have to worry about driving home. We’d been to the Fira d´Indians back in 2019, and then Covid put a stop to future years until it restarted last year.

I’m sure I’ve written about it in a past blog post somewhere within the archives. It’s been going for about 20-odd years and has its origins in some past citizens of Begur who emigrated during the last century. They made their fortunes from such things as sugar plantations in Cuba. Many subsequently returned and built large colonial style houses. which are dotted around town.

That could be a touchy subject nowadays, amongst those who take a dim view on such colonial activity and exploitation.

I’m not sure if the organisers have a view on all that and it doesn’t seem like it detracts from visitors looking at just dancing the night away. Who even knows what the average visitor thinks, and I don’t want to go down some cultural cul de sac.

Getting back to having fun, the balmy Saturday night we were there was rammed full of people, the majority dressed in white, the de rigueur attire. As always with such summer events things don’t kick off until late. Feeling hungry then forget about getting a table as the wait would melt your mojito. There were numerous street food stalls and pop up bars dotted around its buzzing centre. 

Although salsa beats were permeating the myriad of narrow streets, the big draw seemed to be the local park. A large sound stage with an open area for gyrating couples, surrounded by food / drink stalls. Don’t expect a peaceful night’s sleep as a succession of bands and DJs pump out Latin sounds into the early hours. It’s easy to get caught up in the energy and vibe in this Cuban enclave. 

https://visitbegur.cat/en/fira-dindians-fair/

Dancing the night away

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Barcelona Restaurants

Restaurant Calabrasa, Born, Barcelona

We were in bustling Barcelona visiting  MOCO, the must see museum of modern art. I’ve done a previous blog post about it and we timed it just right so that we could squeeze in lunch before our return to Girona.

Barcelona is constantly buzzing, tourists are everywhere and it seems like it’s become  a victim of its own success. This has led to locals becoming hyper critical of how it’s all playing out. If you live and work around certain parts, I can understand why the negative sentiment Is becoming the norm.

The wider issue of how to handle such overtourism is best left to local lawmakers and I have to sympathise with them somewhat, as in a smaller way we’ve seen what’s happened in Girona over the last decade.

I’m going to leave it there as it’s such a contentious issue. I should add that with the recent local and municipal elections in Spain changes may be afoot. 

We wandered out of MOCO and very quickly ended up in a large square surrounded by bars and eateries. This is Born, a popular neighbourhood close to the old town and relatively central. It has a charming mix of small independent bijou boutiques worth browsing, interspersed with furniture stores full of vintage upcycled pieces and much more. 

Restaurant Calabrasa caught our eye almost instantly, and it had an empty outdoor table. It’s still April but no problem with a light jacket. We had a shared starter of pulled pork, mains were a large cannelloni with mushrooms and an aged beef steak (photo below). I should add that I’ve often seen it listed on other menus as ‘aged cow’, a rather unfortunate literal translation that does it no favours. 

I should add that Barcelona´s continued popularity has inevitably fed into the reality that eating out has become more expensive. Let’s add some context, for tourists that might seem reasonable but as long term residents, knowing what things cost it’s a different metric. It’s hard to shift those memories of dining as a family of four for 80-100 euros but the world has moved on. 

Final bill for 2. With a bottle of white wine, one dessert and coffees came to 88€

Verdict. A couple of hours well spent, nice enough food, forget the cost, enjoy the moment and tomorrow’s another day.

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Restaurants

L’Escala Eats – Restaurant La Mod

There’s no shortage of places to eat in this sedate seaside town and understandably many cater for the visitors and tourists alike. Cuisine-wise it’s a typical Spanish/ Catalan affair with what you might expect when visiting this part of Spain. Don’t expect to be wowed or tempted by anything different that you might have expected to find in a big city. 

Which reminds me of a poster´s wording I once saw in Girona a few years ago during more contentious times. ´Catalonia is not Spain’, a reference to this region’s strong independence movement. There’s certainly more than a grain of truth in that, as you’d find out for yourself if you’d spent a lot of time living and/or working here.

It’s a subject that evokes a lot of differing opinions and emotions. I try to avoid it, especially with Catalan friends. I’m sympathetic, a listener, happy to sit on the fence on this one. 

Anyway, maybe not the time and place for a food review. Restaurant La Mod has a commanding sea view just a stone’s throw from nearby Riells beach. It sits below an apartment block, strung out amid other adjoining bars and offices. They all have a handful of outdoor tables each, but today it’s raining so we plump for indoors.

It’s not our first time here, we’re attracted back as a result of their welcoming nature to dogs, and humans of course. These over the top dog friendly owners are aways cock a hoop to see our two canine companions. That makes our visit less stressful and we can enjoy our stay almost forgetful that they’re with us.

At this point  I should mention the eclectic nature of the interior wall decorations. Where do I start? It looks like someones been to one too many flea markets arbitrarily buying all and sundry. And then sticking it all up on the wall. Your eye wanders from what looks like a mixture of African tribal masks to more mundane dumpster diving artefacts. 

Glancing upwards the bare concrete ceiling is a disappointing unfinished afterthought, maybe money saved during its formation. I should be more forgiving.

Maybe I’m being a tad unkind as the rest of the interior, roomy tables well spaced and background music is perfectly acceptable. Billed as a jazz bar it does have a singular lonely looking piano and music posters of various well known jazz artists.  

Once we’d wrestled the smiley waitress away from our two furry friends we were ready to order. The food menu appears to have changed slightly from our last visit. We often go for shared plates as our starters and then choose a main. This time, for my main course  I chose a Thai chicken curry with rice. 

Curries over here are not the same as what I’m used to back in the UK. Generally they seem to lack the depth of flavour we get back home, and locals tend to prefer a much milder version of what passes for mild in blighty. However, I’m not going to judge today’s offering and I get a pleasingly tasteful attempt.

Desserts wise I’m happy to try a morsel of someone else’s choice as I’m usually full by this time. I’d need to be offered something truly exceptional to twist my arm, so happy to watch.

We end up happily fed and the house red wine (10€ / bottle) has worked its magic, to finish we were offered a shot of our choice, on the house. 

Verdict. If you can tear yourself away from the makes no sense wall decor and just stare elsewhere like the vibrant blue sea, and enjoy the food, plus caring service, then you’ve walked into the equivalent of a welcoming comfy lounge room.

Categories
Girona

Our Northern Spain Road Trip

Living in Girona and exploring the Costa Brava has been a delight, but there’s lots more to see elsewhere in Spain, a hell of a lot more. We’d been lucky enough over the years to have visited many places, but this time it was the northern regions we had a yearning for.

Yes, people say the weather can be a bit wetter and the Atlantic coast might feel a bit colder to swim in, but it’s high summer so let’s go. I’m not a great fan of long distance driving so we plan the trip in short stages, for me that’s driving about 300 kms or less each day.

With hindsight it was a trip we´ll remember for a while as it was done in the summer of 2019 pre-covid, so because of travel restrictions we did very little in the way of holidays for the following two years.

The timeline was two weeks and I’ll break it down below. The accommodation was a 50/50 mix of AirBnb´s and regular hotels. First stop was Zaragoza, about a 4 hour drive from Girona, for a one night hotel stay in the old town area. It’s a big city and a bit tricky to navigate but we arrived early in the evening.

View of Zaragoza church

For supper we head to a popular thoroughfare of bars and restaurants called El Tubo (the tube/pipe). It was super busy, it is August by the way, but we found a reasonable looking spot inside a place serving upmarket tapas. 

The city has a grand cathedral and we enjoyed a stroll around the city’s more touristic old parts. The one night stay feels like enough, not a place to linger and we drive on towards San Sebastian, about 3 hours away.

Our route took us past Pamplona so we decided to stop for a brief look and lunch. This place is famous for its San Fermin bull run in mid July, which attracts over a million visitors and lasts several days. We wander into Cafe Iruna, a cavernous old mahogany clad place which we discover was a popular haunt of Ernest Hemingway. 

Latin American carnival in Pamplona

Lunch over we take a stroll through nearby streets, we seem to be in the middle of what appears to be some kind of South American themed carnival. Numerous colourfully clad groups stream past a central avenue, some waving country flags that I don’t recognise, accompanied with music. It’s a nice surprise but we need to get going.

We reach San Sabastian by evening and enter via the wide sweep of  its beach that’s La Concha (the shell). It’s a stunning looking view down below. The more mundane issue of parking is a different challenge that means the eventual parking spot is a 15 minute walk from our apartment.

We appear to be in close proximity to a few bars and proper sleep becomes nigh on impossible, as constant noise continues until the early hours. Our fault for arriving at the weekend. We’re in the Basque region of Spain and the architecture is different. There’s money here and it shows. 

La Concha beach is bereft of any beachside bars, not something we are used to seeing. Our walk takes us to a promontory which is home to a famous sculpture ElPeine del Viento (the comb of the wind) by Eduardo Chillida. It’s actually a collection of three steel sculptures, each weighing over 9 tonnes, and an emblem of the city. If time allows there’s a funicular that takes you to a hilltop offering far reaching views of the coast.

Typical pinxo bar in San Sebastian

Evening looms and we wander into San Sebastian’s busy centre. This is tapas or more to the point pintxos-central and we enjoy the local fare.

It’s a relatively short hop to our next port of call Bilbao, another centrally located bnb apartment. We´re met by the charming owner who also helps me find a parking spot nearby. Big cities, height of summer, tourist season equals parking hell. We hit the jackpot here, the apartment has the look of a New York loft with a wall mounted front-end of a motorbike, and all the mod cons. 

The city is host to the world famous Gugenheim museum, which we visited the next day. Visually stunning inside and especially from the outside with its looming spider statue and a floral puppy by American artist Jeff Koons.  It easily consumes a whole day.

Guggenheim museum, Bilbao

Next stop is Santander, about 300 kms from Bilbao, the road follows the coastline and we decide to stop for lunch in Castro Urdiales. The streets here are busy and the place reminds me of a Cornish fishing village in the UK, not what I’m used to seeing on the Costa Brava.

On reaching the outskirts of Santander, first impressions are that it’s a bit industrial. Our Airbnb flat looked inviting from the indoor photos. Its outdoor location looks somewhat different-decidedly dodgy. Certain dodgy-looking characters loitering on street corners, it has the appearance of an area of social housing that begins to ring alarm bells. This over reaction however is proved unfounded. 

Walking downhill towards the seafront we wander into a bustling bar area. The next day we devote the entire day to discovering the city. Santander extends up from the coast, so steep in places that there are outdoor escalators that help reach its upper regions.. It even has a funicular that we took downhill. The areas facing the coast have a more upmarket feel from where we were staying. We walked along  the coast, stopping off for lunch at a former fire station. 

View of Santander

Although the sandy outcrops look enticing, I’m not keen to jump into the sea.

Next stop westwards is the region of Asturias, much smaller, our destination is Oviedo, its regional capital. We passed through a constant green undulating landscape, very uplifting. Our hotel choice is a sprawling white behemoth of a place. Architecturally white and futuristic looking, a bit of a step up from the last place.

Oviedo’s quite big and appears busy, its downtown is a mix of old and new, the region is noted for its cider and Avenida de Sidra is where the action is. We watch as waiters pour it into a glass with left arms outstretched high, so cider pours feet away from the glass. We’re in the mood to try some.

On day two we take a 30 minute drive north to the coastal town of Gijon for a walkabout, a boat trip and of course the inevitable lunch stop, sardines this time and yes, more cider. The town is buzzing and just by the port there’s even a large sculpture made entirely from empty green cider bottles.

Gijon harbour

The final leg of our two week foray means we are taking a different route back to Girona, and stop at Burgos. Our hotel is a stone’s throw from its emblematic Saint Mary Cathedral. It’s quite a sight and seems to change different shades of colours as the sun pans across its mighty spires.

Burgos Cathedral

Full of old town charm, by evening the whole populace looks to be enjoying a ramble through tree lined avenues with plenty of culinary options. We pull up at a place with tall bar chairs and barrels for tables to enjoy a selection of local cheeses and dried cured hams. There’s no hairs and graces involved as fingers came first.

Next day we took the cathedral tour. It’s a real tourist draw but I’m finding the audio tour a bit heavy so skip a few bits. The famous El Cid who defeated the moors way back, is buried here. For us though the trump card is the Museum of Human Evolution, a high tech looking edifice that traces our Homo Sapien ancestors and more. I’m reminded that we are not a million miles away from the limestone caves of Atapuerca where important discoveries of early humans were made in the mid-1970’s.

The following day I’m faced with a 700 km hike back to Girona where we arrived back late. Nowadays we look back fondly at our road trip and vow to repeat the journey back to this Spanish region, to venture further west to include Galicia and maybe even southward into Portugal.