I’ve just returned from a 10-day trip through northern Spain and wanted to add a few notes here. I am going from memory and apologize for various spelling and other mistakes.
We spent 2 nights in each of Segovia, Leon, and Santiago, followed by a stop-over in Asturias and 3 nights in San Sebastian, with a rental car until we arrived at the last stop. We gambled a bit that the pace would be too fast, and I think we could have filled a bit more time along the way, but we wanted to see what we could see without taking the opposite risk that we ended up overstaying in one spot. Both strategies have merit.
A few general comments:
We have visited Spain a few times before but, other than San Sebastian, this was new territory for us. We found some useful information here and elsewhere, but generally it was tough to find too much current information out there. Thus, we often winged it.
My wife and I had my 4-year old son in tow for this trip. This actually worked fine in most cases, but did change our strategies a bit. We took things easier than we might have, and were slightly more limited in our restaurant choices, although we did visit a number of nicer traditional spots (modern cuisine and multi-course tasting menus wouldn’t have worked). We also stayed on an interesting schedule, essentially having our son stay on US east coast time, sleeping late and staying up very late by his standards. We also spent the middle of the day taking it easy, often playing games at a café or the like. Spain is super kid friendly, and my son got very used to every restaurant and hotel spoiling him with candy.
We noticed that a number of places offered very reasonable fixed menus at lunch, but often tried to hide this fact (at least to obvious tourists with limited Spanish) once you were inside. This was actually a two-edged sword. In some cases, it might seem you missed a real deal if you didn’t go with the menu, but in others I saw people eating rather simple, cheap and bland food while we ate very well, albeit for EUR 25 / person rather than EUR 12. Once we caught on to this, it became somewhat clearer with some thought when to chose the menu and when not.
Segovia: Given a red-eye flight, we took it very easy our first of two days in Segovia, with just tapas for both meals. We did spend quite a bit of time relaxing on the Plaza Mayor at the cathedral, which had lovely cafes. For our lunch the second day, we chose Jose Maria and enjoyed it. There isn’t much to add to the many descriptions: suckling pig and local beans were great, and we enjoyed a grilled vegetable platter to round things out. We did two orders of pork for 3 people, which was plenty. It is a bit of a zoo, but if you reserve for the 1:45 PM slot and push through the crowd waiting for second seating slots, ordering tapas, etc., the dinning rooms themselves are calm. Contrary to other comments, we didn’t feel excessively rushed, but we were probably out in 1.5 hours.
For tapas in Segovia, what we saw mostly was very simple, like a piece of grilled cheese sandwich or a small piece of tortilla, and usually free with a drink. Actually, I seemed to notice that if you ordered a drink alone, you got free tapas, but if you ordered a drink and food, you might not. In many cases we just ducked in here or there, but we did like lively and friendly San Martin in the square of the same name. Out favorite place of all was La Tasquina, not far from the Plaza Mayor. The free tapas were fairly standard, but they offered a number of tostas in the EUR 5 range. These were rather large slices of good bread with interesting toppings – local smoked cheese with honey and vinegar, salted foie gras and apples. These were quite nice with much more of a chef’s touch than any of the local tapas we tried.
Burgos: We chose to drive to Leon via Burgos and stopped at Casa Ojeda for the roast lamb. The experience was somewhat like Jose Maria, perhaps a bit more upscale. Lamb was excellent. The town seemed nice, with a beautiful cathedral, and probably deserved more of a visit.
Leon: We stayed at the parador in Leon, which was lovely but is, as widely reported, quite a hike from the main part of town. Our second night, with a threat of rain, we almost gave in and stayed in the hotel, but we managed to convince ourselves to go out. Versus Segovia, Leon seemed to be slightly less of a café culture (e.g., no grand cafes on the plazas), but that might have been seasonal. The tapas scene was nice, with a large concentration in the Barrio Humedo but also the surrounding area. The rules around free tapas seemed similar to Segovia, and the selection remained simple, if slightly more creative than we found before. For some reason, potatoes dominated, in a blue cheese sauce at El Llar or fries with chorizo in a number of spots. Two spots that stood out were El Tizon for excellent meats and Camarote Madrid, a more modern place that served small cups of soup with each drink.
We did try Zuloaga for lunch one of our afternoons. The place opens into a very nice old bar and then into a courtyard-like dining room. This was one place where the menu of the day seemed a good value, with 4-5 choices each for starter and main. My wife particularly enjoyed a cold seafood salad. My son’s pasta with seafood was a little peppery for him, but nice, and he inhaled a nice baked salmon.
Ourense: We made a quick stop in Ourense en route to Santiago and it appeared to be a smaller town, but one that would be interesting for a day or two. There was a nice market with a number of stands selling empanada and the like, and an old center with a number of restaurants and bars. We had a quick bite of octopus at the Casa del Pulpo, which was great, and then on to lunch at Restaurante San Miguel. This was another decent, traditional meal, and I enjoyed a huge block of salt cod roasted in vegetables. (Another observation was the size of fish portions we were served in a number of places. Even as an American I was shocked to be given a 5 inch cube of fish!)
Santiago de Campostela: Santiago boasted a lively tapas scene and a nice café culture driven by the University population. Tapas were generally free and each bar had its specialty. I think you could do well just walking the 3 main drags near the cathedral (Franco, Raina and Vilar.) and popping in anywhere, but I particularly enjoyed Orella, with the best pigs ears I’ve had, Gato Negro for its way-down-scale appeal and EUR 0.5 wine (which did taste like a EUR 0.5 wine), and Trafalgar for the spicy mussels. We had a slightly larger meal at Los Caricoles, where the staff was particularly nice, especially to our son who left with handfuls of gummy snails!
We did lunch the second day at O Dezaseis. This was one place where I thought we did much better ordering a la carte rather than taking the fixed menu, although almost everyone else did so. I had a great grilled octopus and another huge piece of cod with a seafood sauce. The wine list was nice as well, with a larger selection of local mencia from regions I haven’t seen in New York.
Santiago’s market was also very nice. There was a formal market and massive seafood displays, but also an open area where it appeared anyone could sell a few things from the garden. We bought all kinds of fun things – pardon pepper seeds to plant, a huge fresh cheese from an older lady who had a few to sell, and empanada with salt cod. I was tempted but passed on the homemade wine and spirits in random reused wine bottles.
Asturias: We needed to split the trip from Santiago to San Sebastian, so we spent one night at Casa Julian in Niserias in Asturias. En route, we stopped for the famous fabada at La Maquina. While finding the place took some luck, this was well worth it. It was a small, simple place, but this is one of Spain’s food treasures. After, we stopped to see the sidra town of Villaviciosa (probably only worth it if you love cider) and tried, but missed, the dinosaur museum.
On to Casa Julian. Niserias has maybe 3 buildings in a deep river gorge. The hotel is one, and a nice bar / cheese cave is directly across the street. We were seriously off season, so we were the only guests, but the staff was nice and served a good meal and nice wine. The fabes with clams were a lighter take on the fabada at lunch, and the hake in cider was fine. My wife had the steak with local cabrales cheese. The place is really beautiful (http://www.casajulian.com/, and check out the webcam), and I would love to get back and stay for a longer time in season.
San Sebastian: In route to SS, we had great adventure by visiting the Sidreria Alorrenea for the traditional Basque sidra lunch. This definitely isn’t for everyone, but I thought it was a can’t-miss experience. The place (and the whole town) was packed with crowds. Alorrenea was essentially two big halls with rows of 6-foot round barrels surrounded by large picnic tables to hold 10-12 people. The crowd was a very interesting mix of locals, probably 60 percent young and somewhat rowdy, 20 percent groups of much older men, and 20 percent families (we were a rounding error). More than half the conversations were in Basque.
The room was deafeningly loud, with people milling around as the staff opened up taps one at a time. Fast moving lines snaked by, with each person grabbing a couple of inches of cider from the constant stream, then moving out of the way. The food was a fixed menu (salt cod omelet, baked salt cod with peppers, a huge rare steak and cheese) and was actually excellent, far better than it needed to be. Later, the waitresses brought out instruments and roamed the room playing. We stayed for 4 hours and had a blast.
No need to say as much about SS itself, as everyone knows about the great tapas and the 3-stars. We three, of course, skipped the 3-stars, but ate like kings on tapas. I note that Saturday was a bit of a zoo in the old quarter, and wasn’t helped by the rugby crowd in town for a big match. It was actually a bit tough with a kid that night, but outside of the old quarter it was stroller city outside a number of the bars. Sunday and Monday nights some places did close, but the old quarter was still great and much easier to navigate. SS was one place we could go a little earlier (7-8pm) as necessary and still find things ready to go.
For more proper meals, we went to Bodegon Alejandro and Rekondo. Bodegon Alejandro was excellent. I had the squid ink rice with tomato and the hake throats pil-pil. My wife enjoyed the crab salad. They were also quite nice to my son, bringing him a plate of jamon and French fries, his heaven.
Rekondo was a short cab ride away and was certainly a very nice restaurant. I enjoyed my hake tail with garlic and seafood soup, but the real reason to come here was the wine list. I ignored almost everything outside of red Rioja and it still took 15 minutes to comprehend it all. For some of the larger wineries you literally had 2+ pages, maybe 30 vintages each of various reservas and grand reservas. I went for the lay-up of a 1976 Tondonia Gran Reserva (EUR 55). While I enjoyed the wine and food, I had mixed feelings about the whole experience and the value. The food and service was more elegant than many places we went, but prices were higher, which offset the wine bargains. So, maybe I personally got better value from Bodegon Alejandro and a bottle of Txakoli. I think the right way to tackle this place would be with a larger group so that you could pick at the older white Riojas and still try some of the cheap (EUR 20 or so) reservas from the 1980s, which would be a unique experience.
All in, a great trip.