Monthly Archives: August 2015

Exploring La Rioja; San Vicente de la Sonsierra Wine Festival.

Road trip! To get to La Rioja region of Spain we passed through 3 different counties; Cantabria, Pais Vasco and Alava. It took about 3 hours driving in total and on the way we stopped off for a coffee in Islares. Unfortunately it was raining but the bay would be stunning were it sunny;


We arrived at about 11am in San Vicente de la Sonsierra, where the wine festival was taking place. We paid 5€ for the day and this included a wine glass in a holder to carry it round your neck for the day and 5 tokens to get into 5 bodegas (wineries.) The town had put on a free bus to pick us up and collect us too but we soon worked out it was quicker and simpler to walk around to each place. The first winery we stopped at was called Ramirez de Inoriza. Here they had lots of tapas laid out and you could try a few different wines. I prefer white so had that one, even though most of the wine this region produces is usually red. Here is a guide I found online about the different types of wine available in La Rioja, taken from At this winery they didn’t really explain the process so we took our wine with us and walked along the road to the next one.


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This one was called Ramirez de la Piscina. Here you could sit at the bar and try all the wines. I was surprised to see a rose, as most Spaniards I have spoken to about wine think Rose isn’t really wine. This one was good though! Next we were taken on a tour of the winery and explained how making wine has changed over the years. It was all explained in very quick fire Spanish but I think I picked up the majority of what was said. Here is a picture of a sheep skin leather, which was how they used to transport wine in the olden days. And of me using an old grape press.

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Viña Ane was the next Bodega. This one is quite famous in the region as its Author wine is used and promoted by famous Chef Juan Mari in his restaurant Arzak in San Sebastian. Here I tried the red wine, it was okay. We walked around and saw all the many oak barrels and the owner of the winery was friendly and spoke slowly in Spanish so that I could understand.

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After lots of wine tasting at about 3pm we headed to the next town to have a siesta. On the way we saw an Osborne Bull, originally used to advertise the Osborne Sherry company.


In the evening we returned to San Vicente de la Sonsierra for more wine! We went to visit the Olmaza winery, and this was the first one that had the vineyard attached to the bodegas so we could see the grapes growing. The people in this winery were super friendly and it was run by the whole family. I had broken my glass (it dropped off the chair I put it on) so they gave me one if theirs and explained how they like to harvest the grapes by hand. They get the whole family together in September or October, depending on sun etc, and all go around picking the best grapes. Most of their oak barrels come from France.  They also showed me a porrón, a glass jug with a thin spout used to drink wine. The owner showed me how to drink from it then I asked him to do it again so I could take a photo;

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The last bodega was located inside the little town and was one of the oldest wineries of the area, called Teodoro Ruiz Monge since 1870. Here they only had red on offer to try, and I was really impressed. It was very smooth and the best one I had tried so far. I asked why it was like that and it’s because they use older methods of using the whole grape rather than crushing it.

In the evening we went to the Plaza Mayor, the main square to hear some more information about wines and to see a blind tasting, where an expert had 3 red wines to try and to guess which wine was which. At sunset, around 9.30pm we climbed to the top of San Vicente de la Sonsierra where there is an old church, La iglesia de Santa María la Mayo, thought to be built in the 1600’s. The views of the old buildings with the vineyards in the background were impressive…

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At 10pm the town had organised a group of Russian dancers to perform. They were quite young but so in time with each other and looked amazing! They did quite a few dances and the night ended around midnight when we made our way back to the hotel to sleep.

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I feel like my Spanish improved dramatically this weekend, but that could be the wine helping!

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Exploring Cantabria; Puente Viesgo, Ontaneda and Santander in the rain.

Thursday morning was spent sleeping and resting from my sprained ankle from the day before. I was feeling better and was itching to get out by Thursday evening so after lunch at around 4pm we headed to Puente Viesgo, that won Cantabrias’ Best Town award in 2007. It’s very small and pretty and set within a backdrop of hills.


A bridge goes over a fast flowing river and there is a path that goes along the river heading into the village. The town itself has a town hall, church, a few bars and one shop, a posh hotel and an old peoples home and Spanish homes, that is pretty much it. It was nice to wander around for an hour or so.

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Nearby is a village called Ontaneda. If you were going by car along the main road you could blink and miss it. However it is famous for its Helado (ice cream.) Helados Lopez and family have been selling icecreams in a tienduca since 1895 and there was a queue to get inside. I chose a scoop of toffee and a scoop of chocolate and it was yummy!

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Today we had plans to get up early and explore the coastal path in Santander however the weather had other ideas. I was told not to have breakfast as we were going out for it! We went to Santander by train (40 mins) and had breakfast in Valor, a chocolateria specialising in Churros con chocolate. I had tried these before when I lived in Madrid (at Chocolate San Gines, Sol) but these ones were with a thicker chocolate sauce that was more on the dark side than milky. It was a great breakfast and prepared us for all the walking we were meant to do.


It started to drizzle as we walked around town, seeing the townhall, library and cathedral. We also visited Mercado Esperanza, the local market where fresh fish, meat and fruit and veg are sold.

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As we started to walk around to the coast the rain got fiercer so we saw the first beach and the Raqueros monuments.

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We eventually hid in a Chiringita and had a clara and tortilla. The rain began to pour so we gave up on walking the coast and got a bus back to the train station and the train back to Torrelavega. After a bit of shopping we returned home. I am now getting ready for the weekend ahead, a festival of wine tasting in La Rioja region! More food, more wine and more exploring to do! (Photo below of sunset, view from my window last night!) It’s still raining this evening….


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Exploring Cantabria; San Vicente de la Barquera, Trasvía and Comillas.

On Wednesday I went for a run around Puente San Miguel in the morning then after breakfast wrote my blog until Francisco finished work. Then all 3 of us went out exploring again. First stop was San Vicente de la Barquera, a coastal town close to Asturias. We stopped for Tapas in a renovated old fishing bar called La Pescador. We ended up with raciones (larger portions of tapas) of Sarten de Carne, huevos rotos y patatas. It arrived at the table as a pan filled with fried potatoes, mincemeat that had chorizo in too and then 2 fried eggs on top. It was delicious. Francisco had Sardines and Jane had strips of pork in garlic with potatoes. After food we walked along the coast, admiring how dry the place looked with the tide out and seeing all the stranded little fishing boats.

IMG_20150805_154133 IMG_20150805_172052 We then walked up hills of cobbled streets to the old town, following the signs of the Camino de Santiago, as this town (as well as the towns explored yesterday) are part of the 760km pilgrimage. We saw a few pilgrims completing that part of the walk later in the evening looking very tired in the heat!


In the old town there is a castle called Castillo del Rey but the biggest monument is a huge gothic church, Iglesia de Nuesta Señora de los Angeles. As both are built high up there are incredible views of the surrounding sea and countryside as well as typically Spanish houses with orange tiled roofs.

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Comillas is another seaside town, though this is meant to be where the rich people buy their second houses, and each try to outdo each other with giant, over the top, homes. One of these is El Capricho de Gaudi. A home designed completely over the top by Gaudi that resembles Parc Guell in Barcelona. Its very colourful and has tiny tiles on the outside of the house decorated with sunflowers. The owner of the house was a musician so the balcony is made from metal musical notes. It looks like something out of a fairy tale! IMG_20150805_185500 IMG_20150805_185503 Next door to this house, is one completely the opposite, the Gothic Palacio and Capilla Panteόn de Sobrellano. If Gaudis is from a fairy tale then this one is from a nightmare. The palace is dark and looms over a hill facing the town of Comillas. Next to the palace, the owners only Son died and so they built a gothic church where he is buried. IMG_20150805_190911 IMG_20150805_190818_BURST002 IMG_20150805_190154

Other sights in Comillas were the Monumento al Marques de Comillas, comemorating the marqui of Comillas, which sits on another hill overlooking the surf. Also the Lluis Doménech i Montaner and Josep Llimona Cemetry which looks out to sea too.

IMG_20150805_180634 IMG_20150805_180755IMG_20150805_180809 After we returned to the house I tried a Sobao, a sponge cake specific to Cantabria with a glass of fresh milk from the cows outside the house.

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Exploring Cantabria; Suances, Playa de los Locos and Santillana del Mar

I woke up on Tuesday very well rested after a long sleep. It was about 1130am so I came downstairs to find a feast of fresh fruit, cereal, homemade bread, honey, jam, local milk from the cows nearby etc laid out on the table and a written note from Jane explaining she had gone out and will come back ready for 3pm when Francisco finished work, so to eat lots and then we would go out exploring.

I couldn’t believe how many nice beaches and bars are located nearby. The first place we went to was called Suances.


Jane and Francisco took me to a bar for Tapas. We had tortilla again and this time something marvelous. I had never heard of it before, despite living in a Madrid, and am so thankful I have tried such yummy new food, called Tigres (literally tigers in English, with even spanish people not knowing why they are called that.) They are mussels with half their shell on in a green thick sauce then coated in bechamel sauce and breadcrumbs and deep fried. I took a picture because I knew my description wouldn’t do it justice.


Unfortunately my picture doesn’t such just how tasty they are, like a fishy croqueta!

We went for a walk after the tapas and clara along the seafront, enjoying the views. We then went for a 5 minute drive away to see Playa de los Locos (beach of the crazies!) called this for the big waves and many surfers. The bay is cut with white rocks and you walk down many stairs to a grassy area then a sandy beach and, on that day, huge waves! The surfers looked like they were having so much fun! We walked around watching them and learning lots about the area from Jane and Francisco. It seems my job here is to enjoy exploring, spending time with them and having conversations in English and Spanish. I love to talk and Jane is so interesting that this is probably the perfect role for me, I feel like I am on holiday!

Next stop was Santillana del Mar, known as the place of the 3 lies; it is not related to any saints (Santi) neither is it flat (llana) nor by the sea (del Mar.) However it is an old small town thats very pituresque and typically Spanish with cobbled streets and stunning architecture. We wondered about the old town, enjoying the scenery and trying some more tapas, this time ensalada russa, russian salad that was mainly potato, tuna and vegetable in mayonaise, with bread. The best part was that most of the cobbled streets lead to a huge (un cacho de) Colegiata (Something like a church or cathedral with columns surrounding it.) There were many quirky shops where I bought some gifts for home and a really nice pottery place too.


In the evening we returned to the house and Jane made a salad with chorizo y picos and other tapas style dishes. For dessert I tried something traditional to Cantabria, called a Quesada Paisega. This one was from the local shop that only sells quesada and had been making them there since 1891. A quesada is the consistency of cheesecake but it doesn’t have cheese or gelatin inside. It tastes like a sweet, slightly lemony, thick pancake and was so delicious! Its typical to have it with a glass of milk and many tourists in Santillana del Mar were trying it this way!

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What is HelpX? Help exchange explained and arrival in the North of Spain

I haven’t written a blog post in over a year (stopped in Australia as decent internet connection on the road became a big issue!) but since I am now traveling alone again I thought I would keep people updated. I left England 3 days ago for sunny Spain, to join a HelpX in Cantabria, in the north of Spain. Before I left many friends and family were asking  what is helpx and is it safe etc so I will give a brief overview of the site and what I am doing here!

This is the actual website for help exchange;

Its a very simple idea in that people who want to volunteer (helpxers) create a profile similar to facebook, describing themselves, what jobs they are good at and what they like to do in their spare time, where they want to travel and for how long. Similarly, people who want to have helpers come into their home/business create a host profile with what help they need, what the accommodation is like and how much work per day.

It’s an exchange because volunteers usually work for 4 hours a day in return for free accommodation and food, though sometimes this differs depending on hosts’ needs. It costs 20EURO to join for 2 years.

I knew I wanted to go to Spain as I wanted to improve my Spanish language, it has been 5 years since I lived in Madrid and I feel like I am forgetting it all without practice! Since I had already explored Madrid and surrounds and quite a lot of the South I chose to come to the North. My host had advertised that she has been learning English for the past 5 years but wanted more help in pronunciation and to practice speaking fluently. I have a TEFL certificate, have previously taught English in Thailand and conversation classes in Madrid, plus have a British accent and want to practice Spanish too so it was a good match! We emailed each other explaining what we were looking for and my host had space for 10 days in August so here I am! HelpX is also great in that you get to be a part of a different culture and live how a local does.

I am staying in a cute house in the countryside in a place called Puente San Miguel that is almost at the end of the FEVE (local train) line from Santander.

Here is the view from my room; behind that hill is the sea!

View from window

There are lots of cows here, I ran past these guys this morning…


I flew in to Bilbao airport and my flight arrived at 11pm. My host had found a bus from Bilbao centre that arrived near her house at 1am but I didn’t think there would be enough time to collect my luggage etc and get to the city so I decided to book into a hostel and go to hers on Monday morning. Luckily I did do that as the bus leaving the airport dropped me into town and then metro had already closed so I was looking for a taxi to get to the hostel instead and didn’t arrive until 1am there.

On Monday morning I caught an ALSA bus from Bilbao coach station (San Mames on metro) to Santander bus station which took about an hour and a half. I recommend booking in advance in the summer as I didn’t and I was lucky enough to get the last seat for 7Euro. From there I caught the FEVE (local train) to Puente San Miguel (about 45 mins and cost 2.50euro) where my host, Jane, met me. Straight away she was kind and talkative and took me for tapas in a local bar. We had a clara (like a shandy) and tortilla espanola con atun, a tuna and potato omlette. Her husband, Francisco picked us up in the car and took us to their house! Once settled we went for a walk around the surrounding countryside and it is stunningly beautiful. Lots of green hills, cows, sheep and trees. It is also very peaceful. In town we stopped for another drink before heading up the hill back to the house for dinner. Jane had prepared a salad, chorizo, lots of barbecue meat and all was delicious. We sat up to the table and talked for hours, in a mixture of Spanish and English (both Jane and Francisco are fluent in both.) I even had a quick spanish lesson into wines and some lovely tasters too. After staying in a hostel and late arrival the night before I had the laziest sleep ever, and didn’t wake up until 13 hours later. Cantabria and the countryside is so peaceful!

Countryside view

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