Portugal! Home of Cristiano Ronaldo, custard tarts and [find third Portuguese thing starting with C before this goes online]. The Belated Birthday Girl hadn't been there before: I'd only spent two days in Lisbon a decade ago, or more accurately in an industrial estate to the west of the city centre. But in July of this year, we travelled to the nicer bits of Portugal and hit them like they owed us money. (Which, of course, was the exact opposite of how it ultimately worked out financially.)
So why are you about to read four thousand words about Spain?
Because, inevitably, we did this year's big holiday by train. We could have just flown to Lisbon and made our way down the road to Porto, but that would have been too easy. No, we took a rail-only route that went London-Lyon-Barcelona-Madrid-Lisbon-Porto-Vigo-Hendaye-Paris-London, adding another five days to what was technically a nine-day stint in Portugal.
Rest assured, the Portugal section of the trip will have plenty of space dedicated to it here, and soon. But for now, let's look at the Spanish bits either side of that, which neatly break down into four different cities.
As is frequently the case, we took our inspiration from The Man In Seat 61, who first suggested the possibility of stopping off at a couple of Spanish cities on the way to Lisbon. Having said that, we managed to find a variation that he doesn't mention on that page. There's an infrequent Eurostar service (one train a day, three or four days a week) which takes you directly to Lyon Part Dieu, the only French railway station that sounds like a cheap movie sequel. The downside is that you're leaving St Pancras at 7.20 on a Saturday morning, which is utterly unnatural. But on a brighter note, the Lyon service (which ultimately goes on to Marseille) uses the newer upgraded Eurostar trains: power sockets and wifi are now the norm, though the latter isn't good enough to sustain more than 15 minutes or so of NHK World's live sumo coverage before it crashes train-wide.
We have a comfortable 80 minutes to change trains at Lyon Part Dieu, so it's a shame that the station is currently a building site with little of interest in it, though we can at least pick up a couple of decent lunch meal deals from its branch of Monoprix. From our seat there we get a fascinating view of the boarding procedure for the TGV to Paris - people are rolling up expecting to pay on the train, are being told they have to have a ticket in advance, and can be seen frantically trying to make last-minute purchases on their phones while still standing at the barrier. Our own Renfe train to Barcelona (conveniently booked in English via Loco2) isn't anything like as confusing to board, apart from the fact that each seat has two different numbers associated with it: once you work out that 21 means row 2 seat 1, it's much more straightforward. It's a five-hour run through some incredibly pretty scenery, and we make notes about visiting Nimes and Beziers at some unspecified time in the future.
We've only got one night in Barcelona, and we're spending it at the Abba Sants hotel, which is pretty close to Barcelona Sants railway station. It seems friendly enough, and the room is comfortable and attractive: the wifi is also good enough that we can finally catch up with the sumo and discover that Mitakeyumi has pulled off his first tournament win. The only black mark against the hotel is that the toilet stops working after a couple of flushes, which is an awkward situation to be in when your dinner contains asparagus. And on that subject, here's The Belated Birthday Girl with the first of her restaurant reports from this holiday.
Barcelona was just a brief stop-over, partly because it was a sensible place to break the journey, and partly to get the beer visa stamp at BrewDog Barcelona, so we didn’t get much eating done there. We had a plate of acceptable patatas bravas at BrewDog, to soak up the beers and tide us over until dinner, but the main event food-wise ended up being tapas at La Flauta. Eating in Spain seems to happen a lot later than in the UK, and turning up around 10pm, we had to put our names down on a waiting list, but we got in quite quickly: I think the thing is not to give up just because a place looks full, as the queues do move. When we did get seated, the food was a good selection of both obvious and less obvious tapas dishes. We chose a selection which included a whole mini-tortilla, a tasty dish of mushrooms and asparagus, some fried fish, and octopus a la plancha, but the star of the meal was the bacalao in honey and quince jam, which was almost like a creamy dessert, but made with bacalao! La Flauta doesn’t have any craft beer, so we washed it down with a glass each of the house white wine. And as we were leaving around 11pm, the queue for people coming in for dinner was just as long as when we’d arrived.
We'd intended to do a bit of a pub crawl either side of dinner: however, once we've spent time trying and failing to crack the chaotic queueing system at our first choice of restaurant (Cerveceria Catalana), and then moved on more successfully to La Flauta, there's only really room for one after-dinner bar in our schedule. Happily, it's a great one - NaparBCN, home of one of Barcelona's most interesting breweries. It's in a gloriously ornate building (see picture above), with brewtanks prominently on display and a fun video playlist of old dance clips on a big screen in the background. As it's our last beer slot of the night, we go dark with Amundsen's Marshmallow Psycho aged in bourbon barrels, and Napar/Tro Ales' Event Horizon imperial stout.
And once we've slept that off, we're on our way again. Useful tip for anyone who's got to catch a breakfasttime train from Barcelona Sants - yes, there's an okay takeaway place just inside the entrance that'll sell you pastries and drinks, but once you've gone through the security checkpoint that leads to the long-distance platforms you'll find a much better range of food outlets. Bah.
It's a three-hour train journey from Barcelona to Madrid, and Renfe are showing the equivalent of an in-flight movie, with soundtrack broadcast via headphone sockets in the seats. We don't try it, so I can't report back on whether their copy of Darkest Hour was dubbed into Spanish. At the far end we get off at Puerta de Atocha station, although it's such a big place it takes us a while to realise we've exited at the wrong end of it. (The 'way out' signs tend to throw you out the back, rather than through the glorious front entrance complete with indoor garden.) But once we've nailed that, it's a short stroll to the Urban Sea Atocha, which immediately gets into our good books by letting us check into our room shortly after noon. The room's a little functional, and once again there are bathroom problems - this time, a shower soap dispenser that refuses to dispense any soap, something that irritatingly only becomes apparent when we first try to use the shower.
Our first impression of Madrid is that it's ridiculously hot - in fact, this day-and-a-half stopover is the hottest we'll be over the two week holiday, as temperatures peak somewhere in the mid-thirties. As such, we probably spend a little too much time than is good for us just wandering around the streets (with the occasional trip on the Metro when we've got a specific destination in mind). On our first evening, we hunt down a couple of low-key landmarks - the art deco splendour of the Cine Dore cinema (showing The Red Shoes while we grab a quick drink in their lobby), and the Kilometre Zero plaque on the pavement at Puerta del Sol which marks the exact geometric centre of Spain (it takes us ages to track down, mainly because tourists keep standing on top of it). The following day, part of the morning is spent pulling together a walking route from a couple of the maps in our Rough Guide, looking at the buildings and gardens on the approach to Palacio Real without actually going into any of them.
Madrid was a slightly longer stop than Barcelona, notes The BBG, so we had time for a couple of meals. Cheap and cheerful, the house special bocadillo Brillante at El Brilliante consisted of huge baguettes stuffed with calamari, which made a very satisfying lunch. As we had a craft beer bar crawl in Malasana planned for the Sunday night, one of the bars was going to have to satisfy our dinner needs, and that ended up being The Stuyck Co. where Spank’s black beer burger with sweet potato chips was visually impressive – not obviously beery, but certainly black - while my gambon com mango was very tasty but needed a side of chips to give some carbs. We also had some tasty nibbles for lunch the next day at Mercado de San Miguel - a combination from various stalls of salmon mini baguettes, three types of croquettas, deep-fried prawns and a squid okonomiyaki on a stick: and a pre-train early evening dinner at a completely empty La Fabrica (remember what I said about the Spanish eating late…) of pretty much every non-meat option they were putting on bread in front of us. But my favourite Madrid meal was a breakfast of delicious churros and chocolate at San Gines Chocolateria. The combination of fat and sugar is surely ideal for a morning after a night on the beers, and the beautiful setting of San Gines, whilst obviously very touristy, enhanced the experience.
Yeah, about that night on the beers: our trek round the craft beer highlights of Madrid is a lot more effective than the previous night's one in Barcelona. We start off by taking the Metro to Bilbao (no relation) and track down La Pirata’s recently opened bar, where we sample their own Primavera and Frau Gruber's Canned Heat. From there we stroll down to The Stuyck Co, where we grab our dinner and another selection of beers: Trigo Hoppy/Mad Brewing’s wheat ale, Peninsola’s Summer Smash, Citradelic Hoodlums (advertised as 'de la casa') and Dougal’s Happy Otter. There’s more home-made beer a bit further along at Fabrica Maravillas, a full-on brewpub with visible tanks, where we have their NEIPA Compris and the Rackham Le Rouge red rye IPA. It's all going far too smoothly, and eventually we hit a snag, as our planned final bar for the night (Bee Beer, which is a pretty good pun if you think about it) turns out to close early on Sundays. A quick Google reveals that there's another craft beer place called El Pedal conveniently close to our hotel, where we get two helpings of Doop Whisky imperial porter to wrap up the night.
It's not all eating and drinking, of course: Madrid has some of the finest galleries on the planet, and we get to visit two of them during our stay. We take a chance on the Reina Sofia by visiting it on a Sunday afternoon, which is when they let you in for free (although you're limited to the permanent collection and the main temporary exhibit). Despite this, the crowds aren't too bad, even for Guernica - it's inevitably the most crowded room in the place, but there's enough churn to give you a front row view if you wait for just a minute or two. Meanwhile, the temporary exhibit of Russian Dada has its moments (notably a very early Eisenstein film made to accompany a Dadaist play), although any large-scale exhibition of self-confessed Anti-Art is going to get wearing after a while. Unexpectedly, I find myself having a similar reaction to the Prado the following afternoon - the sheer amount of relentless beauty becomes tiresome over the course of an afternoon. The smaller scale and more contemporary focus of Reina Sofia appears to be more my sort of thing.
With a day and a half in Madrid under our belts, we head off to Lisbon on the overnight Lusitania Trenhotel sleeper service. Initially we regret having cut corners financially with a non-en-suite two-bunk berth, but it's actually not too bad, especially once we discover where the sink and washing materials have been carefully hidden away. We don't really explore the buffet car other than to pick up a cup of tea before bedtime, but it looks enjoyable, full of people eating decent looking meals and drinking beer. And the actual journey is perfectly fine: the one thing that wakes me up is my phone going off to alert me that we've just crossed the Portuguese border. With that in mind, we now jump forward nine days in time (like I said, you'll hear what we got up to in Portugal soon enough)...
...and rejoin the story in Porto's Sao Bento station, from which we get a commuter train to Porto Campanha followed by an international one to Vigo Guixar back in Spain. Ridiculously, the commuter train is the nicer one of the two: the train to Vigo is a tatty old thing with no facilities to speak of, and certainly no catering (particularly annoying as we've had to get on this 9am train before any coffee). After caffeining up on arrival at Vigo station, we do the twenty minute walk to Hotel Aguila. Continuing our run of minor Spanish hotel bathroom disasters, this one has the double whammy of no soap in the shower and no lock on the toilet door. Elsewhere in the hotel, we've also got no stairs, a mediocre continental breakfast, no air conditioning, and we're overlooking a street that's too noisy to risk leaving the windows open. But it’s costing us less than 40 quid (partly to offset the cost of our final hotel), so we can’t really complain.
We're in Vigo for less than a day, so once our bags are dropped off we immediately head down to the tourist office to pick up a map and a couple of tourist guide booklets. The most useful booklet turns out to be Walks In The Architecture Of Vigo (the link takes you to an online version): we cannibalise a couple of the suggested routes to come up with a walk that takes us around the old town, the historic buildings around Praza Compostela and out to the harbour. We soon realise that Vigo isn't the picturesque harbour town that we thought it was going to be – it’s a fully working fishing port, the second largest in the world after Tokyo, so it’s not really set up for tourists to wander around. Still, it’s a nice day (temperatures have dropped a little since the previous week in Madrid), and we have fun looking around anyway. The main irritation of the afternoon is that part of the harbourside area is shut down, as they’re building some sort of skate ramp and audience seating. We find out much later that this is for the following weekend’s O Marisquino festival, which alarmingly went on to make the international news.
We have a couple of decent meals in Vigo, which is The BBG's cue to chip in... By the time we got to the Mercado da Pedra everything was wrapping up and we were pretty much the only people there, but we enjoyed a lunch of croquetas (cheese, plus ham and cheese) from one stall, and a couple of glasses of not-so-craft-as-they-wanted-you-to-think Maeloc cider from the Estrella bar. But our main meal in Vigo was one of the culinary highlights of the trip. We’d not made a booking, so went for the very un-Spanish thing of turning up at Othilio Bar at opening time, which paid off, as we were given a seat at the bar, which allowed us to watch the place fill up, and see others turned away who arrived later. The food was terrific, with starters of deep fried prawns with tasty dips and octopus pie, followed by excellent mains of hake and salmon, washed down with a couple of glasses of the local Albarino wine. All the food was imaginative, high quality and perfectly cooked. We finished off the meal with a shared hazelnut meringue and a coffee, which rounded the meal out nicely.
The craft beer scene in Vigo is tiny, but it's definitely there. Our initial research turns up a bar called Craft Vigo in an out-of-the-way part of town, but it's worth the effort involved in trying to find the street it's on - particularly when we unexpectedly find a second craft bar exists literally next door to it. This is a branch of Nos Microcervexeria, a local brewery's microchain of bars. Nos has a slightly smaller selection of beers, but that selection includes a couple they've brewed themselves (we go for their Illas Cies session IPA along with Dougal's Chinook single hop IPA), and has the added bonus of opening its doors half an hour earlier than its neighbour (6.30pm rather than 7pm). Craft Vigo is more of the sort of hipster hangout that we frequent back home, and casts its net wider across the Spanish scene - we have a pair of beers from Basqueland Brewing Project, Captain Nord and Fruit Boot Jr. The big surprise is that both bars offer a free bit of food along with our drinks – a tuna wrap at Nos, mini hot dogs and crisps at Craft. This appears to be a local tradition, and I like it. Nos also have a second bar closer to the centre of town on Rua Palma, where due to some sort of administrative error we end up buying a nightcap of a half litre bottle of 10% ABV Nogne Nodingen for a ridiculously cheap €3.80, with some free toast thrown in.
We depart from Vigo at 9.20 in the morning for a complex 12 hour train journey, even though it's only on a single train. It starts off confusingly: the train initially consists of just one carriage configured with three seats per row rather than the expected four seats, meaning that 25% of the seat reservations are for an unspecified area on the outside of the train. Somehow, everyone manages to agree on where to sit. As the train progresses, it picks up additional carriages along the way (including a buffet car which is our main food source of the day), and changes direction at least twice. Halfway through the journey our ticket tells us to move to a different carriage in anticipation of a train split, though our original carriage is still there when we get off at the end. Considering it's the single longest daytime train journey we've ever undertaken (overnight sleepers are a different story), it's actually rather enjoyable, with frequent changes in scenery between fields, mountains and small towns.
When we arrive at Hendaye, we discover that getting a taxi is an absolute pain in the arse. Only the occasional cab stops at the station on spec, and the phone numbers they give you for local taxi firms are staffed by people who just shrug verbally down the phone at you. It's thanks to the kindness (or, possibly, greed) of one of those spec drivers that it only takes us over an hour to get to the Hotel Ibaia Serge Blanco (a journey that takes us a pleasant 40 minutes by foot when we head back the morning after)... but I can tell you're confused at this point. This was supposed to be a piece about Portugal, but was really all about Spain, except now I'm talking about how terrible French taxi drivers are. What's going on?
Well, it's like this. I've mentioned Hendaye here before, because it was a stop during our jaunt to San Sebastian in 2011: it's the first station you hit once you've crossed the border between Spain and France. When we realised we'd have to stop there overnight, we initially tried to get a hotel close to the station, and failed completely. The best we could do was the Ibaia, an expensive joint close to the harbour. We looked into the harbour area to see what else it had to offer, and that's when we found out about the Hondarribia ferry: a tiny boat that ran across the bay from Hendaye in France to Hondarribia in Spain, taking ten minutes to do it, costing just under two euro, and running till one in the morning.
This gave us a decadent plan: the main activity during our limited time in Hendaye would be to take a boat over to another country just to get one drink. The only problem is, by the time we get to the hotel it's 10.45pm, and we're really not in the mood for a bit of whimsical cross-border boozing. We decide to take it easy instead and go to the bar in the hotel instead. Except when we get there, it's closed, which is not what you expect from a place that's costing you well over a hundred quid for the night. To express our anger at the French, we decide to go to Spain after all. The ferry port isn't clearly signposted at the Hendaye end: the trick is to look to the right of the port offices rather than the left, and you'll find a small pier with a couple of pictures of the ferry. Late at night the crossing is ridiculously pretty, and within a few minutes you're in Spain again. You can wander round the various bars in town to see which one takes your fancy: if you're in a hurry, do as we did and turn right to locate the waterfront bar Uxoa, where we grab a quick glass of an anonymous red while looking out at the view. This is a popular thing for people to do, and you may have to queue a little while before there's room on a boat to take you back to Hendaye: just bear in mind that they run every quarter hour until 1am and plan accordingly.
Our departure from Hondarribia officially marks the end of the Spanish part of our journey, but I need to mention how the French managed to screw us over with public transport one more time. We're travelling from Hendaye to Paris on a fancy new SNCF TGV inOui, which has comfy seats, wifi, power and USB sockets everywhere, and the ability to place buffet car orders from your seat over their intranet. Here's the problem with the latter: when we go to the buffet to pick up our food, they have no trace of our order, and apparently half of the things we asked for had never been in stock in the first place. Nevertheless, I find out when I get back home that they've debited my credit card with the cost of our lunch: I end up having to claim it back from the card company as a disputed transaction, as SNCF aren't replying to any of my emails. You're better off just standing in the buffet queue with everyone else, I think.
Apart from that unpleasantness, the journey to Paris and onward to London is relatively uneventful, and we celebrate our return with dinner at the St Pancras Brasserie. It's during this meal that I realise that at some point in the holiday, I've chipped one of my teeth. But when did it happen? I'm not entirely certain myself: but there may be some clues in our writeup of the Portugal bit in the middle of the holiday, coming here soon...