David and Ginna Zoellner love to travel. We live in Nice, France, half the year; the other half we live near Chicago, Illinois. We do 'home-exchanges' to explore other areas as well as taking normal trips. We'd like to share some of our experiences with you.

Friday, July 28, 2006

Basque Country - a Trip for Gourmands, April 2006

We left Nice on Thursday afternoon, after a nice lunch with friends, and drove to the Camargue area which we had never visited. We saw a sign to Aigues Mortes and, although we were a bit hesitant about staying in a town with 'Mortes' in the name, we headed there. The name is literally 'Dead Water' which translates as 'The Marshes' and the town is charming, a less-visited Carcassone, a walled city with turrets. The area is famous for horses, bullfights, birding (lots of flamants roses - flamingoes), and harvesting salt. We stayed the night and had dinner at Le Minos which we were sure would be Greek, but was not. Nevertheless, a nice dinner at this friendly place.

For you Missourians - the town of Aigues Mortes was founded by Louis IX (later St. Louis) and from there he left for the Crusades in 1248, at the instigation of Pope Innocent IV, with his 38 ships and his wife and children. There are many statues honoring him in the main square and the church.

The next day we did a detour north to Millau, the site of the famous new bridge called the Millau Viaduct which opened in December 2004. It has 7 pylons and is 2460 meters long (1.55 miles, for the metrically challenged) and 343 meters (1130 feet) high. It soars over the lovely old Roman town and the Tarn River. It's the modern architectural wonder of France, designed by an English architect and it's beautiful as well. The drive there through the area of the Gorges du Tarn was also magnificent, with heights up to 900 meters, much like the American West with plateaus and mesas.

Then we headed south again, stopping in Moissac where we found a charming hotel owned by one of the young chefs of France. It always amazes me, there are so many of these hotels, very reasonably priced, with great chefs in the kitchen. He - Michel Dussau - was noted in the "Young Restauranteurs of Europe", and we enjoyed a wonderful dinner in the lovely dining room. The wines served - a different one with each course - were especially delicious.

The next day we drove to Bayonne where we hooked up with our friends, Marcie and Bernie Wall, at the charming Hotel Loustau, on the River Adour. This river flows both ways, upriver as the Atlantic tide rises and downstream as the tide ebbs. The bayonnet was invented here. It's a beautiful city, not at all like the smelly NJ city with the funny looking bridge to Staten Island.

Sunday we went to Biarritz, the neighboring town, and explored this lovely town which perches on the cliffs above the ocean. This has been a famous beach resort for the wealthy for 150 years. For lunch we went to the beautiful rose-colored Hotel du Palais, built in 1854 for Emperor Napoleon III and Empress Eugenie. It's only fabulous. Luckily they could fit us in for lunch at a table by the window overlooking the sea. But really, the semi-circular room captured our attention with its elegant chandeliers and wall sconces and other fixtures. They had a great idea for lunch - there was the regular menu and also the menu "forme", a healthy version of the same foods. We had salmon open-faced sandwiches with our champagne aperitifs, then a bouche amuse of crab-stuffed cucumber. The entree was green beans with crevettes coated in what I can only describe as shredded wheat with grapefruit OR cream of asparagus soup. The plat was sole meunier/sole vapeur; and for dessert the 'forme' had stewed fruits while the others had 'French toast' with ice cream and fruits. The service of course was impeccable and we all felt like royalty.

Monday we headed out for a day in the country visiting many of the charming towns in the area and enjoying the scenery of hills and cows and sheep. We particularly liked the little towns of Ainhoa, with its church with multiple layers of galeries, and tiny Sare. Throughout the area are the 'maisons a colombages', the typical Basque houses with glass-enclosed balconies, trimmed in red and green, the colors of the Basque flag. The houses do somewhat resemble Swiss chalets, giving us the mad urge to yodel!

We stopped in Bidarray for lunch at the Auberge Iparla, very 'country' with its stuffed deer and boar, knotty pine paneling and tables. We all opted for the lamb stew; for dessert we sampled a slice of Gateau Basque, an almond-flavored cake, and a huge portion of delicious mousse au chocolate.

We ended the day in St. Jean-de-Luz, another lovely beach resort, smaller than Biarritz, which reminded us all of Santa Barbara (CA)! We had a nice walk around the old town, did some shopping, visited their XVII century church, again with 3 levels of galleries. The main square was a perfect spot for an aperitif and people watching.

Tuesday we left France, heading for San Sebastien, the famed culinary capital of Spain and perhaps even the world at this moment. We had thought about another fabulous meal at one of the famous places (more Michelin stars per person here than anywhere else in the world!) but were sure we couldn't top the Hotel du Palais, so settled for what seemed a nice looking place in old town, Juanito Kojua. It filled up with lots of locals, so we must have made a good choice. It turns out that according to Frommer's, it's "famous throughout Spain". David had stuffed crab and I had a plate of aubergines/mushrooms/shrimp that was wonderful. The town itself, on the Bay of Biscay, seemed more formal and impressive than others along the coast and its beach, La Concha, is world famous.

We continued along the coast, with beautiful views, and arrived in Bilbao for the night. It was a nightmare trying to find our hotel among all the one-way streets, but finally arrived. Bilbao was once a great wool port and now is surrounded by steel and chemical factories. But there were still many interesting buildings in town. And of course the reason we were there was the Guggenheim Museum, designed by Frank Gehry, which we visited the next day. It seemed more about the building, which stands sparkling along the Nervion River, than about the art, although they were having a special Russian exhibit (the old iconic art as well as newer Cold War art) which was quite interesting. We had a good lunch in the museum and then headed to the old town which was somewhat disappointing - not as much to see as the typical old towns in France. Both nights in Bilbao we went out for tapas (called 'pinchos' in the Basque area). They were not as varied as other places in Spain, consisting mostly of ham and cheese.

Bernie and Marcie left us the next day to return to the States and we headed up to Erandio, not a famous name but the place where David's Basque ancestors were from. His great-grandmother was Libriada Landavaso (the Basques tell us it would be Landabaso), mother of Clarita Garcia who married Eliseo Sanchez, parents of Paul, Clara, and Mariana (David's mother). The Basques are the oldest ethnic group in Europe, predating the Celts by 40 centuries! They are thought to be descendants of Cro-Magnon (or Stone Age) Man who did the cave paintings at Altamira east of here at the end of the Ice Age about 15,000 years ago. The language predates any Romance language and was not a written language until the 17th century. Amazing to think that Stone Age Man fished the Ebro River here and we call it today by a name that he gave it! Erandio itself now is a manufacturing suburb of Bilbao but it is easy to imagine the hilly riverside fishing village it must have been. It's not far from Guernica, made famous by the first example of saturation bombing by the Luftwaffe in 1935 and Picasso's huge depiction of the event.

We then drove on to Pamplona, the capital of Navarre, where we visited the cathedral in the old town. Inside are the alabaster tombs of Charles III and his Queen, done in 1416. He gave Pamplona its cathedral. The heart of the old town is the Plaza del Castillo, once a bullring. Nearby is the Calle Estafeta, the narrow street where they hold the running of the bulls. Not a sight we wish to experience!

We drove on to Tafalla, a town one would probably not visit, but we had heard of a wonderful restaurant there, Restaurant Tubal. We found it with no difficulty and since it was only about 12:30 we were the first people there. It's a large place (about 60 tables), quite formal with beautiful monogrammed linens, and also listed in the 'Young Restauranteurs of Europe'. The last diners arrived a little after 3 PM!, filling the place completely on a Thursday for lunch! We enjoyed a bouche amuse of stir-fried veggies with a corn/seafood sauce served in a cup; then an entree of stacked potato and fois gras for me and a stack of artichoke/mushrooms/foie gras for David, both of which were out of this world; the plat was venison for me and lamb for David; then lemon cake, more like a tart, for me and 3-berry tart for DAvid. We enjoyed the nice local rose and even bought some in the store downstairs.

We arrived in Zaragoza with no need for food! We found our hotel, the Goya, with a bit of effort and went out to explore the city. First stop was the 16-17th century Basilica of Our Lady of the Pillar which contains the pillar upon which the Virgin appeared to James the Apostle, the patron saint of Spain, in 40 AD. The church, with its 11 tiled domes, is huge and magnificent. There are ceiling paintings by Goya who was born nearby. You can imagine the crowds there on this Holy Thursday evening! The Plaza del Pilar was a mob scene but we admired the fountains and sculptures.

Sadly, we couldn't even get near the other important church, La Seo del Salvador, a 2nd cathedral, but did experience a couple of the religious parades with their drummers, incense, and holy scenes decorated with candles and flowers and carried by 6-8 locals. Many locals were dressed in what look like KKK robes in purple, brown, white, or black - very frightening for Americans, but of religious significance.

The next morning we visited the Moorish Aljaferia. The typical construction around a central patio with its gardens has been retained. The oldest part is from the 9th century, with multifoil arches and delicate decoration reminiscent of Cordoba. And of course there is beautiful tilework. We hadn't realized that the Moorish lands extended this far north. The building was taken over in the 12-14th centuries by the Aragonese monarchs and reconstructed in 1492 for Ferdinand and Isabella.

We left Spain, enjoying a picnic en route while driving through the dry, desolate hills, and drove on to Collioure, a delightful seaside village back in France which we had visited years ago and promised ourselves we would return to. We enjoyed an aperitif in one of the many seaside cafes and then dinner at a small bistrot,. Collioure is featured in many paintings by Matisse, Dufy, and other artists who visited here. There is a pretty seaside walk showing reproductions of their art by the actual scenes, a wonderful idea.

And back to Nice on Easter Sunday. 2800 kilometres.

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