Monday, August 30, 2010


Also from Ribadasella, we took a bus to the historic town of Llanes – this part of Spain does pretty fishing villages very well. At Llanes, we did an invigorating cliff-top walk, wandered the medieval streets, ate another big Menu del Dia, and also visited an odd artistic attraction.

Some decades back, the town commissioned an artist to paint the square concrete breakwaters in front of the port – to create the so-called "Cubes of Memory", making a colourful work of art out of something that's normally dull and boring.

26th-28th August – Ribadasella

Having spent such a nice time in Comillas, we felt a little sad leaving Cantabria behind and moving on to Asturias. Ribadasella is another attractive beach resort and pretty little fishing village, that has the added advantage of being a surfer's paradise too. Our campsite was a little on the pikey side, but the walk into town along Ribadasella's lovely promenade watching the huge breakers roll in from the Atlantic and the surfers bobbing about, waiting patiently for the next gnarly wave to ride, more than made up for it.

There's not much to the town, apart from some pretty pedestrianised streets and rows of restaurants and bars. As Asturias is cider country, and every second building is a Sideria, we thought we'd better join with the locals and try out a bottle. Asturian cider has to be poured at arms length from the bottle into the glass from a great height to give it some froth – this method spills a large proportion of the cider onto the floor and gives the Asturian streets a permanently alcoholic aroma, like a squad of hard boozing winos has just staggered past. However, from the bottle that we tried, the more that went on the pavement the better – it was like paint stripper (maybe they pour it at arm's length because the smell's so bad). You could feel your stomach instantly rotting away, as soon as it passed your lips – we won't be trying it again!

On our final night in Ribadasella, we felt very old and boring as we cooked dinner and ate cards on the campsite, while the majority of our young fellow campers got dressed up for a big night out on the town. There was an open-air rock festival going on in town, with the sound system cranked up to eleven, so we fell asleep to the deafening sounds of Eurorock blaring across town, then to be woken up to the cider induced shouts and boozed-up laughter of our fellow campers as they staggered back to the site in the early hours.

Comillas - We have lift off!

The part finally arrived, and somehow Tracy managed to painstakingly piece together all the wiring to get the electricity functioning again (well, the heater doesn't work, but we definitely don't need that at the moment).

We'd definitely recommend Comillas to anyone who wants to spend a week waiting for a spare part for their injured campervan.

Trip 2 from Comillas - San Vincente de la Barquera

By now, we were struggling for things to do while we waited for the replacement part to arrive at the campsite. So, we caught the bus to this little fishing town, and were pleasantly surprised to find another interesting place to visit.

The town is on the Camino de Santiago, so we passed lots of pilgrims along the way, and we then joined them on the climb up to the castle and the church on the hill above town, to enjoy the fantastic views of the estuary and green countryside below us.

Comillas - El Palacio de Sobrellano

Once you've decided that you want to become a Marquis, you naturally need an impressive old stately home to live in to impress your new Royal chums.

So, you build yourself a haunted-house-a-like Neo-Gothic pile on the hill overlooking the town to remind everyone how important you are. This was a bit of a nouveau riche attempt to buy some class with its over-the-top Gothic austerity, but it was interesting to see how the other half lived in the 19th century.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Trip 1 from Comillas - Santillana del Mar

From Comillas, we took the bus to this wonderfully preserved little medieval village – for some reason, it rolled off the tongue really well, if you said it to the tune of bom-tiddly-bom-bom, bom-bom (if that doesn't make sense, I'll gladly sing it to you next time I see you).

The town is set in the middle of some beautifully green Cantabrian countryside, and was built around a shrine to Saint Juliana – a Roman saint who supposedly captured the devil himself, there's lots of faded carvings of Juliana proudly leading the goat-like devil round on a chain. We explored the basilica with its Romanesque cloister, and wandered around the medieval streets, before having a surprisingly cheap Menu del Dia for lunch – they include a flagon of vaguely drinkable wine with each meal.

Comillas - Wardrobe Malfunctions on the Beach

Most of the holidaymakers who come to Comillas ignore all this Modernista architecture and spend their time sunning themselves on the glorious beach and getting bounced around in the waves.

We ignored the sunbathing and went straight for the waves – being too mean to buy any body boards, we improvised with cheap lilos and rode the pounding surf. A wave was judged to be a good one, if it managed to pull down Anita's by now de-elasticated bikini top and bottoms, and treat the astonished sunbathers to a full moon in the day time.

Comillas - El Capricho de Gaudi

This was our favourite building in Comillas, a summer home designed when Gaudi was just 31. Although his buildings definitely got weirder and wackier the older he got, this one had a few of his trademark touches – it has a bit of a fairy-tale/Hansel and Gretel look to it, covered with lots of colourful ceramics, and featuring unconventional shapes and curves, and innovative design feature.

Comillas - El Universidad Pontificial

The Marquis wasn't content with impressing the Spanish King and the local people, he also wanted to impress God, so he built a huge seminary the size of a royal palace overlooking the sea.

More Mondernista architects from Barcelona were summoned to design another hugely impressive, but again over-the-top monument to his wealth. The opulent interior was designed by Montaner, and it must have seemed a strangely palatial environment to learn about God for the young seminarians who'd just taken a vow of poverty.

August 17th -25th – Holed Up in Comillas

With our electricity blown, and the new part on order and being couriered over to us, we had to find a nice place to stay for a few days. There are definitely worse places to hole up than Comillas – a seaside resort with a wide sandy beach and big waves, a pretty little medieval old town, and some interesting 19th century architecture too.

In the mid 19th century, this was just a fairly ordinary fishing village, until a poor local family, the Lopez y Lopez's went to South America to make their fortune. Their son made a huge amount of money as a businessman in Cuba, and decided to move back to Spain, marry an even richer wife, befriend the King, get himself made a Marquis, and spend lots of money on his home town (this was the first town in Spain to have electricity).

The new Marquis de Comillas cleverly married into the wealthy Guell family of Catalonia, who happened to be the patrons of a young architect called Antoni Gaudi, and so this is one of the few places outside Barcelona, where you can see some of Gaudi's fantastical architecture, along with some other Catalan Modernista masterpieces.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

August 14th to 16th – Power Cut in Santander

Only our third stop on this tour, and already Tracy has found "somewhere she could live". Our first choice for a place abroad was Seville, but that's now gone down the pecking order because it's way too hot and we find it hard to understand the local accent. Here in Santander, they speak a fairly understandable Spanish and it doesn't get too hot because it's on the Atlantic.

The city's main feature is its wonderful beach – a long stretch of beautiful clean sand – according to my guidebook, the beach is the 8th cleanest in Europe; and despite being a ferry town, it's actually a very pretty place, backed by rolling green countryside.

Over the past few days, Tracy has resolved to become a fully fledged hippy - she is now making her own organic yogurt and growing her own mung beans in the van. I'm looking forward to her announcing that we're going to be raising free range chickens at our next camp site.

In our time here, we did lots of cycling up and down the hills from the campsite into town, did some lovely coastal walks, ate some delicious tapas, went to the beautiful beach, swam in the warm(ish) waters, and in contrast to these aforementioned fun activities, had to deal with an extremely annoying electrical problems with our van. There was an overnight power surge which somehow managed to blow the circuits on both ours and James and Rachel's transformers, leaving both of us without lights or water. Tracy did some excellent detective work and managed to get us some power back, but the upshot is that we have to order a new transformer at a cost of £120 – very irritating!

August 13th – Cliff Walk in Hendaye

After more overnight rain, it cleared up nicely for us to embark on a cliff top walk along the green coastline of Hendaye. We passed an odd-looking Neo-Gothic castle that had apparently been built for a famous astronomer in the 19th century, and kept walking as far as our empty stomachs would allow us.

On a sunny day (and there aren't as many as you'd think of a place that's just 15 miles from the glamorous resort of Biarritz) there can't be many more pretty places as this. We had lunch in a beachside café, and then it was time for the beach for the sun worshippers and bed for those in need of a siesta, before an early evening swimming session getting buffeted by the surf.

August 12th – San Sebastian

Today we caught the train from Hendaye, over the border to San Sebastian, one of Spain's most beautiful seaside towns, one of the country's gastronomic highlights, and the spiritual capital of the Basque Region. Even on a grey day, the golden sands of La Concha, possibly Spain's most attractive city beach, were full of holiday makers; while the famous tapas bars of the old town were piled high with delicious pintxos (basque tapas).

We immediately filled our boots with pintxos and got stuck into the beer and rioja – Spain is a lot more reasonable for going out than France – and then we walked it off by going for a bracing walk alongside San Sebastian's surf beach where the waves were rolling in nicely from the Atlantic.

Then it was time for yet more pintxos, before the half hour train ride back to France.