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Beyond Words - Issue #8 San Sebastian and Batalla del Vino en Haro (2016:25th June-30th June)- a trip diary

Beyond Words - Issue #8 San Sebastian and Batalla del Vino en Haro (2016:25th June-30th June)- a trip diary
By Nandini Chakraborty • Issue #8 • View online
San Sebastian and Batalla del Vino en Haro (2016:25th June-30th June)- a trip diary
Indians have recently celebrated the festival of colours, Holi. I suppose it was a similar feel that drew us to this festival where red wine is used to douse the crowd. A fair few litres makes its way down throats as well! For a teetotaler, I seemed to have enjoyed the alcohol greatly, but then I did not have to drink it!
Also an introduction to the north of Spain, mostly neglected by the overseas crowd heading to Barcelona, Madrid and Andalusia. Folks, explore the north- Basque country and la Rioja.

When the crowds return!
When the crowds return!
The three ladies are out to party again! On a Friday evening when most are enjoying late hours, we were turning in really early in order to catch a flight at dawn which would take us into Bilbao by 10 am. Around 3 hours on Easyjet, and we were in Spain again. It was not a full year from Tomatina in August 2015 and the 10 months in between had flown like the tomatoes- quick, bustling and breathless.
Day 1 (25th June)
Landing in Bilbao we smoothly transferred to the bus that would take us into San Sebastian in a little over an hour. Out of the bus station we found the river Urumea and walked along the neatly decorated promenade towards the Centro. We passed the ornate pillars of Puente de Maria Cristina, the wrought iron pillars of Puente de sta Catalina and finally the striking green and white pillars of Puente de Zurriola before entering the Alameda del Boulevard, with the La Brexta market on our right to meet the maze of tiny streets that make up Parte Vieja. We found the quaint and tiny Koxka Bi Pension where we had booked for two nights. Our 3 bedroom en-suite was a classic in space utilisation. Our host promised us breakfast in bed for the morning after and left us to find our way around.
It was well into lunch time by now and the streets were packed with a choice of tabernas advertising sumptuous fare at reasonable prices. The Danena Taberna was just next door where we ordered baguettes with omelettes. Well-fed and watered it was time to explore in earnest.
We walked back towards the Urumea river, turning left into Paseo de Salamanca where you can see the river meeting the sea and striking changes in water levels with the tide. We then turned left into Paseo Nuevo, walking all around Mount Urgull with its own version of Christ the Redeemer on the peak. The waves beat upon the rocks below in a timeless rhythm. We ultimately reached the promenade that borders the La Concha Plage and Ondaretta beaches and walked right up the funicular on Mount Igeldo. The geography of San Sebastian unfolded before our eyes- two mountains: Urgull and Igeldo, with a white sand crescent in between which consisted of two beaches: La Concha and Ondaretta with a sliver of rock separating them. Ondaretta is a cosier family beach while La Concha boasts ambitious beach art and a funky crowd. A few rocky islands dotted the bay. A number of noisy sea birds populated the islands and the coastline. We passed a number of plazas, street musicians and a party atmosphere before reaching the funicular building at the foot of Mount Igeldo.
The height of Mount Igeldo boasted panoramic views of San Sebastian. The beaches of San Sebastian spread below us like a giant geography map. We rested after our long walk enjoying a bag of juicy cherries that we had bought on our way. Cherries would turn out to be a highlight of our time in Basque country.
We decided to take a taxi back and after a siesta of few hours (our guilty pleasure of Spanish girly holidays) we were ready for pinxto hopping at around 9 pm.
Thanks to Aditi’s meticulous research and the fact that we were located in the midst of pinxto places, we strolled through the pinxto trail sampling stuffed peppers, mini steaks, and flash fried chillies with rock salt, ultimately ending with the most sinful fried milk dessert- leche frita, all in different tabernas which boasted their particular specialities. In one of them an American named Dennis made our acquaintance. As Aditi asked for his opinion on Txakoli or Chacolí dry white wine, the signature drink of the area, before we knew we were being offered glasses of clear slightly sparkling liquid with a lemony taste. Now remember- we are three Bengali ladies in our forties with a Kolkatan middle class upbringing which does not include accepting alcohol from strangers at a bar, not even getting to the stage where you may be offered a glass. But we will admit- we were awfully flattered at this novel experience in early middle age. I even managed to take a few tentative sips and then surreptitiously slip my nearly full glass to Aditi and replace it with her empty one. Sujata was awfully impressed with my first finished alcoholic drink (until she realized my trick and then she was impressed with my trick!).
The weekend crowd in the labyrinth of cobbled streets was all for good clean fun. There were impromptu concerts taking place with spontaneous music and dancing. As we reached the door of our pension, we decided to take one last detour to the nearby Cathedral and an adjoining plaza. There was a young crowd hanging out there, simply chilling on a Saturday. There were couples and friends, discussions and chats or simply people holding hands in warm comfort. The alcohol continued to flow but there was no disorderliness, just a place that encouraged you to contemplate- to take a step back from a busy life and think just for yourself.
We turned into our beds, physically tired, mentally content and looking forward to more.
Day 2 (26th June)
We woke to breakfast in bed- croissants, butter and jam, tea and juice.
This morning we made our way to the Camino de Santiago trail which winds around yet another local mountain- Mount Ulía- from San Sebastian to Pasajes a coastal village. But first we bought loads of cherries and stocked our water bottles. The trail starts from near the Gros district which harbours the surfing beach Zurriola. On the promenade bordering Zurriola an open air exhibition of Henry Moore sculptures made us stop for some pictures. Sujata with her sculpted figure struck an elegant pose on one of them before some officials shooed us off (but we got the pic anywaysJ).
We walked across Puento de Zurriola to Avenida de Zurriola and Paseo de Zurriola with views of Zurriola beach and the surfers of Gros district then took a bend to the right onto Avenida de Navarra and left into Zemoriya, eventually finding the stairs which took us onto Camino de Santiago. The trail is easy to follow and often there are pilgrims coming from the opposite direction who can verify that you are on the right path. At intervals there are wooden posts giving the distance and rough time left on the trail to Pasajes.
We took it at a leisurely pace reaching Pasajes in four and a half hours. On the way we stopped for breath taking vistas of the coast with hundreds of sea birds flying around, waves crashing on the rock and of course to refresh ourselves with water and more juicy cherries.
Pasajes was very quiet when we reached it, contrary to the bustle of our San Sebastian neighbourhood. We decided to take the bus back to San Sebastian which took only 20 minutes! Back to the old town we had another late lunch at Taberna Danena followed by ice creams from the Boulevard gelateria. We enjoyed our ice creams with people watching in the nearby plaza. A spot of shopping and it was siesta time again before our evening plans.
A very modern Midsummers night dream production in Enea Christina Park was part of San Sebastian’s programme to earn its reputation as the European capital of culture - 2016. We had booked tickets online far in advance and joined the queue waiting to enter the park which according to adverts had been converted to a fairyland to accommodate the play which would include the audience within the story. As our tickets were checked we were handed folding chairs and a basket of food and water. One of the organisers also gave us English translations of the play we were to see that evening and we were later to be very glad of this. Since the play was in Spanish, we had made it a point to revise the story in order to follow it easier. However without the translation we would have found it bewildering.
The play had taken a very today approach to Shakespeare’s original. Lysander was a magnetic and very charismatic Lysandra. Hermia’s father and Helena were making rounds amongst the wedding guests who were being served with elaborate care. The themed meal (included in the ticket) had starters which symbolised the sensory fulfilments of love- pasta with an eye drawn on it, a salad which made crunchy noises like a smooch and another colourful one which demonstrated passion. Meat stew and crusty buns were the main course followed by sugar sprayed fruit which meant ‘sweet nothings’. The fact that only Aditi knew the basics of Spanish, did not deter me and Sujata from enjoying the unfolding drama which was fairly obvious once we had read the translations of the scenes.
We moved with our chairs from one part of the park to another, following the lovers, guided by fairies, our path lighted by magic lanterns which were handed to us as we entered fairyland. Dreamy choreography and ethereal music accompanied the lovers’ flight and the confusion which ensued. We climbed gentle hills, lanterns in hand; the most picturesque of audience, our path marked by a line of lights in the dark evening. Many dances and songs later, the couples restored to proper loving equations, the fairy Queen having left her donkey lover after much romping on swings and gone back to her King- we were back to the first venue where the last dance was taking place. It was time for the audience to celebrate the marriage of the main characters and end the evening with a last toast.
It had been a long day. We were more than ready for bed.
Day 3 (27th June)
We took the 10 am bus from San Sebastian to Vitoria. We had decided to look around another city, en route to Haro our main destination of the trip.
Stowing our luggage in the bus station, we took the tram to the Old Town, map in hand. We strolled around the old town, taking time to relax in its many plazas. We tried cherries and nectarines for lunch- good but the San Sebastian cherries had our first vote. We also decided to experiment and bought some tasty looking nutty thing- at least they looked tasty and nutty on the packet. Trying them did not turn out to be very enjoyable and we wondered whether they were actually meant for birds?? May be we had bought stuff from a wrong shelf?
It was early afternoon when we returned to the bus station to take our bus to Haro. A very picturesque ride through mountains, rivers and vineyards and sleepy villages brought us to Haro’s tiny bus station. We were quite hungry by now and wanted a late lunch. The café at the bus station had pictures of meals on display and in a combination of Aditi’s Spanish and hand gestures we thought we managed to convey what we wanted. The man at the counter nodded his head vigorously and then disappeared for several minutes until a lady returned to the counter and gave us some food. We wondered if the man had gone shopping for us and then lost his way.
Directions to our hotel were straightforward and 20 minutes later we were checking into Hotel Luz.
In the evening we walked to city centre following a map. The two main centres of action were to be the majestic Plaza de la Paz and the smaller Plaza San Martin. A maze of narrow cobbled streets lined with tabernas form the horse shoe shaped La Herradura. A family of storks nest in the roof of the tourist office in Plaza de la Paz. We were fortunate to catch a glimpse of them in the first evening itself.
We found Los Canos and La Esquina- the two tabernas named in Tripadvisor for dinner. The Los Canos overlooks Plaza San Martin. Walking along the same lane to the left brings one to the La Esquina. Still in Pinxto hopping mode we tried quails eggs in Los Canos and mushroom pasta in La Esquina. Simply out of curiosity we tried ‘the atom bomb’ in the La Esquina, peppers stuffed with a super spicy mix. Even our Indian taste buds reacted with shock to the heat of this unique creation. We simply had to calm down with patatas bravas smothered in mayonnaise.
My lemonades costed more than my friends’ sangrias. Along with my orders for a soft drink came incredulous frowns and bewildered ‘Lemonida!!!’ exclaimed by startled bartenders who wondered at my teetotal taste within this red wine region in the week of the Batalla.
It was still two days ahead of the wine fight but the party was on. There were concerts taking place in the plazas. The signature red scarf proclaimed lots of Batalla fans. We decided to wear ours the next day as well.
Day 4 (28th June- the day before the wine fight)
 After a late morning breakfast at the café across the road we walked into Plaza de la Paz to pick up better maps from the tourist information centre. We then walked to the local bodegas for a tour and managed to reserve a place in Bodega CVNE for Thursday morning. Beautiful vineyards and manicured gardens marked this area. One could feel that wine was a sacred part of life in la Rioja. After lunch at La Esquina, we walked to the Plaza de la Iglesia and the church of St Thomas. Stairs to the left of the church led up to a view point of the surrounding rolling landscapes.
After siesta we were back to the Plaza de la Paz, this time with our red nylon scarves, where the concerts were now in full swing. On a stage, a dancing-singing group were presenting Disney songs followed by salsa numbers, equally engaging children and adults. A live band was also showing the best of its skills as its musicians took turn to take a stand and spread the most throbbing of their notes in passionate waves that brought enthusiastic applause from the crowds.
We were delighted by the nesting storks this evening who decided to fly above us, spreading their great wings. We had a glimpse of the soft downy chicks as well.
In Plaza de la san Martin there were more traditional bands and dancing that we joined in. A mobile band was also doing its rounds and we met them repeatedly throughout the evening. The friendliness of the locals was heart-warming. I suppose we did stand out with our brown skin. People seemed to go out of their way to include us. Couples stopped by to talk with us, one of the trumpeters tried to play a line of ‘Indian music’ in our honour.
We decided on dinner at La Esquina. After dinner it was back to Plaza de la Paz for more dancing and then finally we had to tear ourselves away to grab some sleep before the wine fight. I doubt everyone went to bed that evening.
Day 5 (29th June)
Batalla del Vino en Haro: the battle of wine, the central reason behind our entire trip.  The celebration takes place on 29th June, the day of the patron saint San Pedro. However, the partying starts as early as the 27th as we had already seen. The battle occurs in the dramatic Cliffs of Bilibio, 6 km from the town of Haro.
From early hours of the morning we could see people dressed in pure white, red scarves cutting a dramatic splash of colour, walking down the street, armed with wine skins, canisters, plastic bottles, cartons of wine and all kinds of armamentarium. Feeling a little unarmed, we left the hotel at 7:30 am to walk the familiar path to Plaza de la Paz and further on to the bridge, past Calle Navarra. There were intermittent buses to take the waiting queues dressed in their pristine white, past vineyards to the Cliffs of Bilibio, where a mass is celebrated at the Hermitage of San Felices de Bilibio. The mood in the queue is festive and people had to control their urges to make splashes of wine just standing there. However the sprays start early and most people had dots of purple on their white t-shirts even before boarding the bus.
The bus took us 5 km our of Haro after which we walked up another 1 km uphill through vineyards which proclaimed which bodega and which variety of wine the field was dedicated to. Yellow broom flowers lined the paths in abundance. Within the line of white clad people trucks carrying well-armed families (grans and children included, I would never have guessed what a family affair the wine battle is if I had not seen for myself). The battle was in full swing and we were drenched even before we reached the arena. We walked up to the church and view point near the statue of San Felices before descending back to the arena for more dancing and drenching.
The San Felices Hermitage has a grand spreading view of the area where you can see the Ebro River entering La Rioja.
Back to the city we popped back to the hotel to change and go back to join the festivities. Processions in Plaza la Paz included lots of families with children on their shoulders. We had lunch at Restaurant Vega-patatas, fried sausages with rice washed down with Rose wine. A band had stopped by to have lunch and we enjoyed their pre and post meal shows from a close distance.
The evening in the plazas was quiet. The festivities seem to end with the procession through Plaza de la Paz in the late afternoon, which wind their way to the local bull ring. Our last dinner was at Los Canos, a tuna salad and more patatas bravas. It was time to look back over an eventful five days.
Day 6 (30th June)
It was a just proper to end our trip to Haro by a visit to a local Bodega. CVNE, like the others around it I guess is a family affair. Our guide took us from room to room explaining the wine making process, the times, temperatures and wooden vats that produced the exquisite red tones and textures. The aroma in the halls was intoxicating (sorry for the cliché!), a heady mixture of fermented grape and wooden hues. The ‘graveyard’ was a heavily fungused labyrinth of cellars that housed bottles from special years marked by events or a particularly good year for grapes. The two hour tour ended with wine tasting where we were treated to two varies- a delicate rosẻ and a heavy red with woody aromas. The wine glasses were keepsakes that we carefully packed away. I even kept the cork!
Back in the bus station we bought tickets for a 3 pm bus back to Bilbao and had a sumptuous lunch of eggs, toast and sausages. On the way back, the bus took a route that gave us a glimpse of the Cliffs of Bilibio with the striking figure of San Felices atop the sharp rocks, stretching out to the sky.
Bilbao was really a quick stop. We made time to take the tram to Guggenheim museum for some pictures and then onto the centre where we bought churros with hot creamy chocolate, our last treat before making way to the airport.
Did you enjoy this issue?
Nandini Chakraborty

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