Friday, July 31, 2015

#FindIggy -- A visit to the Sanctuary of St. Ignatius of Loyola in Azpeitia, Basque Country

Today July 31 is the feast day of St. Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Society of Jesus.  Just a few weeks ago, we were in his birthplace in Azpeitia in the Basque country.  It was on our "must-go-to" list of places on this last trip to Spain.  

Loyola is a small town near Azpeitia in Gipuzkoa, a province in the Basque Country.  It's less than 
an hour by car from San Sebastian.  For this trip to Loyola, we asked Tours by Locals guide Iker 
to bring us there.

The main attraction in this quiet little town is the Sanctuary and Basilica of St. Ignatius.  

The Basilica, constructed in 1738  is done in the baroque style and surrounded by the rest 
of the complex.  The cupola rises above the facade and is the first thing that I noticed.  
Stone steps lead up to the massive doors.  It is a graceful church but honestly,  I had imagined something a bit grander.

The view from the Basilica is hilly, lush and green.  Plane trees line the front of the churchyard forming that natural green canopy that is so restful to walk under.  There are flower beds and gardens where one can walk in quiet contemplation.

Iker recommended that we visit  the Sanctuary first which stands on the ancestral home of
Iñigo de Loyola who would later become St. Ignatius.

In the courtyard is this sculpture of Iñigo as a young soldier, wounded in battle.  It was because 
of  his injuries that he was carried off  the battlefield and brought back home to Loyola.  This would 
be the  turning point in his life.

These walls are part of the actual house where Iñigo, along with his twelve siblings, was born
into a wealthy and noble family.  The house was built along the lines of a fortress, ready to be
defended against attack.

Inside the house, Iker points out this small hole built into a corner.  This where an arrow can be shot through,  aimed at any would-be attackers.

 This map shows the alignments between the two major families in the region.  The castle  of
Loyola belonged to the Oñaz side.  It was in this setting that Iñigo developed his military interests
and he became a soldier at a very young age.

Jay, who studied in a Jesuit school from kindergarten to university told me that this coat of arms of the castle of Loyola was so familiar -- their grade school uniforms had a patch that showed certain features of the coat of arms, namely  the red stripes and the foxes and kettle.

On the wall above a framed painting of the Madonna and child are the words,  "Aqui nacio" -- 
this is the room where St. Ignatius was born.

And this is the room where as a young soldier, he recuperated from his wounds in battle.
While convalescing,  he realised that his life was meant to be offered to God.  Today, this room 
has been converted to a small chapel where visitors can sit and pray and spend some time with 
St. Ignatius.

The Virgin of Montserrat was very special to St. Ignatius.  After he had dedicated his life
to God,  he made a pilgrimage to Montserrat where he offered up his sword as a symbol of
leaving his previous life. On the left side of the Virgin is a replica of St. Ignatius' sword and
on the right is a typical pilgrim's staff, symbol of the pilgrimage that he would undertake all
his life.

There is a small gallery of stained glass windows that depict the milestones in St. Ignatius' journey.

And here is the  mark of the Society of Jesus, currently more recognisable and familiar thanks to
 Pope Francis, the first Jesuit pope.

As I walk through the sanctuary, Iker calls my attention to the wooden floors which he said were 
all original, belonging to the castle of Loyola.  I cannot imagine I am walking where St. Ignatius
used to walk.  

 After the visit to the Sanctuary, we headed next door to the Basilica.

Inside the Basilica is circular in shape and is bigger than what the exterior prepares you for.
There is a highly ornamented marble altar and arches on the sides where some of the smaller 
chapels are.

We were lucky that the organ was being played when we visited,  glorious music soared throughout
the church.  Thank you St Ignatius for the musical welcome.

The most impressive part of the Basilica is this dazzling dome right over the centre of the 
church.  An exquisite, intricate chandelier floats above our heads, bringing light and a sense 
of fragility.  A mirror on a rolling stand is useful for taking that perfect shot of the dome. 

These three Ateneans had a wonderful time in Loyola.    It was both spiritually satisfying and
edifying -- thank you St. Ignatius for allowing this to happen!

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

18 hours in Bilbao -- My last bites in Spain

After travelling for more than two weeks,  I usually start to feel the tug of home.  But on 
this recent trip to Spain, I lost track of time and didn't even realise I had  been away for a month. 
So much for homesickness!

Before I could say holler another "Hola!" it was time to leave.  We had to travel to Bilbao where we would take our flight home.  There are PESA and ALSA express buses from San Sebastian to Bilbao that take the trip in just one hour.

We arrived mid-day in Bilbao and wasted no time in trying to see as much as we could of our last destination in Spain.  Looking back, I  should have  arranged to stay another night or two but you know what they say --  hindsight is always 20/20.

Our hotel was right along the banks of the Rio Nervion.  A very convenient place for exploring the city.  Care for a river cruise?  Bilboats offer quick tours for visitors.

There's also the ever reliable hop-on-hop-off  Turistikoa bus,  perfect for those with little time
to spare.

We rushed off to Gran Via where all the shops are.  The restaurants are located on the side streets behind the main avenue.  We found Restaurante Nicolas right in the centre of town.   An outdoor table gave us a good view of the week-end lunch time crowd.  Relaxing and people watching are 
best enjoyed with a glass of  txakoli -- salud!

And of course, I just had to have another glass of txakoli to accompany the scrumptious appetisers -- spicy and juicy chistorras,  small cured sausages popular in the Basque country and a plate of golden crisp - creamy croquetas.

Jay enjoyed his solomillo which came with a side of mushrooms, pequillo peppers and 
thick cut fries.  

We had put off shopping for any delicacies until Bilbao. A trip to El Corte Ingles' Club de Gourmet satisfied all my pasalubong needs. 

Late afternoon, we took on the recommendation of the hotel concierge to visit the Basilica de
Begoña, high up in the hills above the city.  He recommended that we walk up, assuring us that 
it was just 2 kilometres but of course, lazy tourists that we were, we took the bus.

I was glad we visited the Basilica. Mainly Gothic in style, this beautiful church overlooking the 
city is dedicated to the Virgen de Begoña, patron of the province of Biscay.  The Basilica sits on 
a site where the Virgin appeared in a vision and is highly venerated by the people of this region.

The interiors are lovely and simple.  There is a wooden floor that follows a slight but perceptible 
and visible incline.  We were lucky to have attended evening mass at the Basilica - a wonderful blessing on our last night in Spain.

For dinner, we decided to stay in our hotel and sample the restaurant.  Barcelo Bilbao has a 
modern and sleek dining room,  functional but not without charm and cheer.

Txakoli, one for the road -- with ensalada mixta.

The hotel menu offered carrilleras de vaca so I had a chance to enjoy it one last time.
Three pieces of beef cheeks in a very pleasing gravy with grilled aubergines on the side,
it was tender, tasty and bursting with umami flavour.

We also ordered chipirones en su tinta or small squid cooked in its own ink.  It's too dark to
see from this photo but the taste was as intense as the black sauce.

I had a wonderful time in Spain -- the Camino, travelling through Madrid and the northern
part of the country was a marvellous and memorable experience.   Finally, after all the tapas,
pintxos, cervezas and txakolis I had indulged in,  this little piggie was ready to go whee! 
whee! whee! all the way home!
Muchas gracias, (ex) Mother Spain!  Until we meet again ... hasta la vista!

The Joys of Pintxos and Txakoli along the Basque Coast

San Sebastian along the coast of the Bay of Biscay is considered the world's top eating destination.  There are Michelin starred restaurants, internationally renowned chefs -- and for the rest of us, those without reservations,  still so many small bars and restaurants serving up delicious, creative food.

We were in the city  for three nights and stayed in the quiet and residential area of Ondarreta
Right in front of the hotel was Bernardina Vinoteca where we got our first taste of why 
San Sebastian is called the food capital of the world.

We ordered croquetas jamon Joselito -- Joselito is well regarded in Spain as the makers 
of gourmet  Iberico hams.  They even have a jamon called Gran Reserva!  Now that's what 
I call a premium ham.  We also ordered an inventive take on the taco --  a small corn tortilla
was topped with a  lively and fresh tomato salsa and crunchy bits of chicharrones. 

Morcillas are fat and thick sausages made with pig's blood, spices and pig fat.  Rice can also be
included in the mix,  not so much an extender but as a way to add texture.  

We also ordered callos al estilo tradicional.  I really liked this -- it reminded me of callos 
my father would make when I was growing up.  It was rich, flavourful  and the tripe was 
melt-in-your-mouth tender.  We really wiped this bowl clean!

A group of women in the next table seemed to be enjoying their desserts so we ordered exactly
what they were having.  This trio of mini ice creams --vanilla, strawberry and coffee came in
chic black  sweet cones.  A chocolate truffle pastry with a luscious chocolate sauce rounded
up our very satisfying first taste of San Sebastian's culinary delights.

From the hotel, it was easy to take a bus to the old town.  I enjoyed the relaxed and 
laid back atmosphere.  It was nice to just sit and listen to street performers playing along the pedestrian-only street, right in front of the Cathedral.

This street led all the way to the other end and is bound by bars where you can pop in, grab a
couple of pintxos and a drink then move on to the next bar and do the same thing.  There was
such a buzzing and casual atmosphere on the streets of the old town of San Sebastian.

The next day, we went on a tour of the Basque country.  I had previously engaged Iker, a
Tours by Locals guide who suggested that we visit pretty coastal towns outside of San Sebastian.
We started out in Zumaia where we saw these familiar flechas amarillas,  pointing the way to Santiago.  The Basque country is part of the route to Santiago called the Northern Camino.

In Zumaia,  we saw the flych -- striated cliffs formed by the waves crashing along the rocks.
The flychs date back to a hundred million years and are such a breath-taking sight.

I loved the wild and rocky coastline of Zumaia.  Our guide Iker mentioned that the Northern 
Camino passed  along these cliffs.

Next stop was the lovely seaside town of Getaria where fishing boats were in the harbour, getting 
ready to head out to sea.

Iker brought us to one of his favourite places for lunch.   

There were so many irresistible pintxos lined up on the counter.

It was a dizzying array -- I couldn't decide what I wanted to eat.

But first a drink!   Iker knew exactly what he wanted us to try -- a glass of the local wine, txakoli.  This is native to the Basque region and the grapes that produce txakoli grow along the hillsides hugging the coast.  I loved this wine --  light, breezy with citrusy undertones.  So very refreshing.  
It reminded me of my other favourite -- lambrusco from Italy.  See the slight fizz on my glass of 
txacoli? Iker said the proper way to pour this wine is to raise the bottle to a certain height to further 
aerate and enhance the sparkle of this wine.

Txakoli went so well with my appetiser -- pudding de cabracho, a light mousse made of flaked
spiderfish mixed with cream and topped with homemade mayonnaise.  This was so creamy and delicate tasting  -- I think it can also work well as a pate or a spread not on the thick and crusty Spanish bread but perhaps on thin crackers or toast.

My dish of grilled pork loin was juicy and moist and the thin slices were so tender, I didn't really need a knife to cut them -- the edge of my fork was good enough.

This is Iker -- our very entertaining and enthusiastic Tours by Locals guide.  Iker was so passionate about his Basque identity and gave us a good introduction to Basque cuisine, culture, history and even politics.  A competent and professional guide can make a big difference in how you experience 
a new place  -- I know Iker certainly added to our enjoyment and understanding of the Basque country.

Lunch over,  this small cup of a lemon gelato was just the thing to cap off a delicious meal.

Jay was not satisfied and insisted on bigger servings.

After lunch, Iker drove us to see the vineyards that produce txakoli, just a few minutes drive
from the town of Getaria.  One minute we were walking through the old streets and a few
minutes later, we were looking down on these grape vines growing on the hills.
Very picturesque and lovely.  Perhaps next time we can do a proper winery tour where I can
drink as much txakoli as I can!

From Getaria and the vineyards we drove along a beautiful coastal road to the next town, Zarautz. The waves were quite strong and I was surprised to see young surfers in the water. 

We headed to the market where Iker pointed out the various labels of txakoli.  Only a couple of million bottles are produced each year and almost all of these are consumed within the Basque country.   I wish I could bring a bottle or two home with me but I don't think they'll survive
the plane ride home.

Txakoli is so easy to drink that it quickly became my new favourite .  Back in San Sebastian,
at Bar Manex near the hotel,  I had another glass.

This refreshing wine goes so well with seafood -- I ordered crab and shrimp pintxos, fresh
sardines and a morcilla, just to keep it interesting.

It was late afternoon and people were just starting to get into a cocktail kind of mood.  I liked Bar Manex, it was a friendly and welcoming neighbourhood bar.

The bartender suggested their special for today, fresh mushrooms lightly brushed with oil
and butter and grilled -- it was a great recommendation.

Our last night in San Sebastian and we headed back to the old town, to forage for more
pintxos.   San Sebastian's Plaza Mayor is surrounded by gorgeous archways -- such a
beautiful place.  There are many bars set up in the terraces where you can sit and have a drink.

There was just enough room for a few more pintxos and another glass of txakoli.
Tomorrow, we would be heading to Bilbao where we would catch the flight back home.
I knew that there would be txakoli in Bilbao, after all we would still be in Basque country.
Hasta mañana!