Intrepid Travel Offering 20 Percent Off All Food-Centric Trips Through August 31

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Melbourne-based Intrepid Travel – known for its cultural and food-focused trips to remote corners of the planet – is now offering 20 percent off over 350 of their trips, including the newly-launched Food Adventures. The discount is good for all trips departing before August 31, 2013.

Last fall, Intrepid partnered up with The Perennial Plate, which documents these culinary adventures in bi-weekly video clips. If that’s not inspiration enough, check out these “Summer of Adventure” trips on offer: Northern Spain (Barcelona to San Sebastian), India (Delhi to Goa), and Vietnam (Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City).

The trips run from four to 14 days, and have been designed in collaboration with renowned chefs, cookbook authors and other food experts, including Susan Feniger and Tracey Lister. Trip prices include accommodation, ground transportation, a local guide, activities listed on the itinerary and, in many cases, cooking classes, meals with locals and trips to local markets.

[Photo credit: Intrepid Travel]

Cider: Spain’s other great alcoholic beverage

ciderWhile Spain is justly famous for its fine wines, the country also produces an amazing amount and variety of alcoholic cider. It’s made almost exclusively in the northern four regions that make up Green Spain.

From west to east these regions are Galicia, Asturias, Cantabria, and the Basque Country, which isn’t actually a country but that’s another story. This region gets a lot of rain and is much more temperate than the rest of Spain, so it’s a good place to grow apples.

Asturias makes the most cider, called sidra in Spanish. It tends to be sweet, crisp, and a bit cloudy. You pour it from way up high like I’m doing here. This puts bubbles into the cider that makes it a bit like drinking champagne, assuming you get it in the glass and not on your kitchen floor.

I’ve seen Bedouin doing this with coffee and they said it both cooled the coffee and added to the taste. Hmmm. . .perhaps aerating liquid adds to the flavor?

Galicia produces some fine cider as well, as does the Basque Country, where in the Basque language it’s called sagardoa. The region that produces the least in Green Spain is Cantabria, where I’m living. So little is produced that I’ve met Cantabrians who said I couldn’t find any here! Well, find it I did, at a little farmers’ market downtown. It’s pretty good, but I have to say that Asturian cider is better.

Northern cuisine uses cider in lots of recipes, including my favorite chorizo a la sidra, a wonderfully rich and flavorful way to harden your arteries. You can see some below in this Wikimedia Commons photo. So if you’re headed to Spain, keep an eye out for restaurants serving northern cuisine and try out the sidra or sagardoa. It makes a nice change from wine.

Yes, Food Week was last week here at Gadling, but we’ll still be bringing you tips about what to eat and drink around the world!
cider

Green Spain: Exploring Iberia’s Celtic north

Green Spain, Cantabria, Santander
When people think of Spain, they tend to think of a sun-soaked, dry land with a hot climate and beautiful beaches. For the most part that’s true, but Spain’s northern region is very different and equally worth a visit.

Spain’s four northern provinces are often called Green Spain. From west to east, Galicia, Asturias, Cantabria, and the Basque Country are a verdant strip between the North Atlantic/Bay of Biscay and a chain of mountains that traps the rain. Lush, with a mild climate and rugged coastline, it feels more like the British Isles than Iberia. Indeed, the old Celtiberian culture that existed before the Romans has survived more here than in the rest of Spain. You can even drink cider and listen to bagpipes!

I’ve covered the Basque region in my series Beyond Bilbao: Hiking through the Basque Region, so let’s focus on Green Spain’s other three regions.

Cantabria is the smallest region of Green Spain, but packs in a lot of fun. Santander is the main city. I’ve been here for the past three days lounging on the beach with my wife and kid. The weather has been warm but not too hot, and the water cold but bearable. I actually prefer these beaches to the jam-packed tourist hellholes of Benidorm and spots on Costa del Sol in the south. Fewer drunken Englishmen, more space. More risk of rain, though, which is why I’m inside today talking to you folks.

%Gallery-127797%Like the rest of Green Spain, Cantabria has a rugged coastline you can follow on a series of trails. Jagged rocks break the surf while far out to sea you can watch freighters and tankers sail off for distant lands. Picturesque lighthouses dot the shore at regular intervals to keep those ships safe, like the one on Cabo Mayor pictured above, an easy stroll from Santander. The currents and tides make this and the Basque Country good spots for surfing, but wear a wetsuit!

If you go inland you can hike, ski, and rock climb in the towering mountains, many of which reach higher than 2,000 meters. Lots of little villages lie nestled in the valleys, where you can sample local produce and relax at outdoor cafes watching the clouds play over the peaks. Prehistoric people were attracted to this region too. The Basque Country, Cantabria, and Asturias have dozens of caves with prehistoric paintings dating back as much as 20,000 years. The most famous is Altamira, which is temporarily closed to visitors, but many more caves are fully open. There’s something deeply moving about standing in a cool, dark chamber and playing your flashlight over some paintings of bison and shamans left by your distant ancestors.

Asturias is bigger than Cantabria and famous for its cider. Alcoholic cider, that is. Personally I think Asturian cider is the best anywhere, and there’s some tough competition in England and Galicia! Many brands of Asturian cider are only available in Asturias. I can’t even get them in Madrid. The Asturians claim that cider doesn’t travel well over the mountains, but I think they’re just keeping the best for themselves!

Galicia is a bit different than the rest of Green Spain. Sticking out from the northwest corner of the Iberian Peninsula, it gets the full blast of Atlantic winds. It’s even more rugged, with more amazing views. A big draw here is the Santiago de Compostela, where the Cathedral of St. James has been a pilgrimage center for more than a thousand years. It’s the destination of the Camino de Santiago de Compostela (Way of St. James) a network of pilgrimage routes across Green Spain. Some trails start as far away as France, and they all join together eventually to make their way to this holy cathedral where St. James is said to be buried.

Hiking is big in Green Spain. If you don’t want to walk all the way from France to Galicia, there are plenty of shorter trails and day hikes. If you’re more interested in what’s under the land than on top of it, the Picos de Europa in Asturias and Cantabria have some of the best caves in the world. I’m not talking about the homey caves of prehistoric Spaniards, but massive labyrinthine networks of tunnels reaching more than a kilometer into the earth. If you’re not a dedicated spelunker, take heart. Every guidebook lists “show caves” you can go to with the kids.

This is just a quick overview of what northern Spain has to offer. You’ll be getting more from me in coming months about this fascinating region because we’re moving up here in September. If you have any specific questions, drop me a line in the comments section and I’ll try to turn your questions into day trips and posts!

Politics and people: an immigrant’s impressions of Spain’s Basque region

Spain, BasqueOne downside to being an immigrant is that you have to learn a whole new set of politics and social divisions. Since moving to Madrid six years ago, I’ve heard a lot of people talking about Spain’s Basque region. Everyone has an opinion about it but most haven’t actually been there.

I’ve recently returned from six days hiking in the Basque region with a group of Americans and two Basque guides. One guide, Josu, got elected mayor of his local group of villages on the night of our farewell dinner. This photo shows him at the moment a friend called with the news. In case you can’t guess, he’s the guy in the middle with the ecstatic look on his face. I think I detect a bit of surprise and relief too.

As is typical of locals showing around foreigners, our guides wanted to show us the best their region had to offer and leave us with a good impression of Basque culture. That wouldn’t have worked with a Spanish tour group, by which I mean a group of Spaniards from other parts of Spain. Any mention of Basque culture, the Basque country, or the Basque language will often elicit a variety of reactions ranging from dismissive grunts to angry lectures.

The Basque people have a distinct identity yet have never had their own nation. At times they’ve been oppressed, most recently from 1936, the start of the Spanish Civil War when Franco’s fascists bombed the Basque region, through Franco’s dictatorship until his death in 1975. Basques often say they suffered the most under the dictatorship. Many Catalans say they suffered the most. I’ve heard Castilians say everyone suffered equally. I have no idea who’s right and to be honest I don’t care. The bastard has been dead for 36 years. Time to move on. To keep the ghost of Franco hovering over Spanish politics is to grant him a power he shouldn’t have had in the first place.Spain’s regions enjoy a great deal of autonomy, but the central government is trying to hold them back from full independence. The Basque independence movement is the oldest and loudest. This perfectly legitimate expression of nationalism has been soured by ETA, a terrorist group that has killed more than 800 people and has set off numerous bombs in nonmilitary targets such as airports.

ETA today looks like an anachronism. The military dictatorship is long gone. It’s legal to speak Basque or Catalan, and in fact they are official languages in those regions. Nobody is being tortured for waving a nationalist flag. These things happened under Franco but they are not happening now. I’ve been to Palestine. I’ve been to Kurdistan. I know what oppression looks like, and I’m sorry if this offends the many Basques who’ve been nice to me over the years but the Basques are not an oppressed people.

It’s not even clear the majority want independence. I’ve asked several Basques the question, “If there was a referendum tomorrow, would the Basques vote for independence?” All of them said no. Our guide Christina said no, adding she herself wouldn’t vote for it. Our other guide Josu, who’s a member of the separatist Bildu party, replied, “Tomorrow? No. People need to learn why they should want independence.”

The central government in Madrid is helping with that. Its fumbling of the economy, stalemate political fighting, and widespread corruption and incompetence are enough to give anyone thoughts of secession. Having lived in six different countries, however, I’m not sure replacing one group of greedy politicians with another group of greedy politicians who happen to speak the local language is going to solve anything.

The one thing that must change here in my new country is that ETA needs to go. A group that sets off bombs in tourist destinations has no place in a democracy and too many people make apologies for them. I asked one Basque man what he thought of the ETA’s 2006 bombing of Madrid’s Barajas airport, which killed two Ecuadorians. This occurred after ETA had called a ceasefire. His response was to say, “The ceasefire had been going on for nine months with no political progress.”

Well, OK, I can see how that would be frustrating, but why does the answer have to be a bomb? Why not call a general strike, or block the highways with tractors like the French farmers do? Nonviolent direct action. The airport bombing seems to have been intended to derail the peace process rather than encourage it. Like other terrorist groups, ETA thrives on conflict. If it accomplished its goals it would lose its reason for existence.

And that’s why ETA remains a threat to everyone in Spain–tourists, Spaniards, immigrants like me, and the Basques themselves. As one Basque woman told me, “I know people who had to leave the Basque country because of threats from ETA. If they ask for a revolutionary tax and you don’t pay, that’s it, they kidnap you.”

Spain is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world. Visitors come to experience both its present and past. Its sunny beaches and formidable castles. Its lively cuisine and Renaissance art. But if all Spanish citizens–whether they call themselves Spanish, Basque, or Catalan–can’t stop pointing fingers and get over their collective past, tourists won’t have a Spain to visit.

One member of our group emailed Josu after the election.

“You were kind enough to translate a motto that I wanted in Basque for a Makil walking stick that I am having made: “Makil zuzena egia erakusten du.” (The straight stick points true.). That’s not a bad political motto to use. Read that every Monday before you start your week. That is why you ran for office.”

Sounds like good advice for all politicians in Spain, whether they call themselves Spanish or not.

Don’t miss the rest of my series: Beyond Bilbao: Hiking through the Basque region.

This trip was sponsored by Country Walkers. The views expressed in this series, however, are entirely my own. Especially this post.

Hiking in France’s Basque Region

Basque, Basque region, France
The Basque region straddles the border between northeastern Spain and southwestern France. For the past five days I’ve been hiking in Spain’s Basque region, and today I and my group are crossing the border into France.

One of our Basque guides, Josu, says the culture on the other side of the border isn’t as strong. While only 28% of Spanish Basques can speak Basque (Euskara), that number goes down to about 15% in France.

“They don’t have as strong of an identity,” Josu says. “They didn’t have Franco, they didn’t have Guernica, they didn’t have the Carlist Wars.”

And that’s an important factor for the whole Basque separatist movement. Being a distinct cultural and linguistic group got them a lot of grief from various Spanish governments. Just like with other minority peoples, that helped strengthen their identity, which in turn increased their separation from the nation. And while the Spanish Basques aren’t being persecuted anymore, they still mistrust the central government. In France there’s been more of a live-and-let-live feeling. ETA, a terrorist group that wants an independent Basque state, has committed relatively few attacks there.

%Gallery-124848%Today politics are on everyone’s mind. There are local and regional elections all across Spain and Josu is standing for mayor of Alcalá, a scattering of 23 villages with fewer than 700 voters. He’s in the Bildu party, a separatist party that was only legalized a month ago and has already caused controversy because of its alleged links to ETA. Some people call it ETA’s Sinn Féin. The supreme court, however, saw insufficient evidence of a link and allowed them to run.

Josu doesn’t think he’s going to win because he hasn’t done much campaigning. He’s mostly running so Bildu will be on Alcalá’s ballot. There’s some tension under his calm demeanor, though.

It’s a shame politics have to mar such a beautiful landscape. We drive only a few miles into France and our route has us walking along the seaside until we reach the border again. The views are excellent, with waves crashing into sheer cliffs and large fingers of rock stabbing out of the surf.

“Legend says that giants used to throw rocks at the people and they’d land in the water like this,” Josu says. “There are stories of witches too. They used to fly to the caves to have their covens.”

One true tale of this rugged shore is about the wreckers. These were a type of land pirate who lured ships onto the rocks and then looted the cargo. Josu tells us the women would stand up on the cliffs holding lanterns on dark nights to fool sea captains. When a mariner followed the signal of what he thought was a lighthouse, he’d crash on the rocks and have a horde of wreckers descend on the surviving crew. Read Daphne du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn for a great fictional account of this line of work.

In contrast to the shore, the land is peaceful, with broad green fields and apple orchards. A stately home with graceful, round towers stands proudly in the distance. The cliffs gradually level out and we walk along a wide sandy strand. This is Hendaia Beach, the longest in the Basque region. Like along other parts of the coast, it saw its heyday in the earlier part of the century when elegant villas and casinos housed and entertained the wealthy. It’s still popular for surfers willing to brave the cold waters of the Cantabrian Sea.

All too soon we’ve made it back to the border, where we go for lunch in Hondarribia, a very Basque town. While there we do a very Basque thing–bar hopping for pintxos! The Basque answer to tapas, these elegant little meals-on-bread will fill you up after two or three servings. There’s an endless variety and each bar has its specialties. They’re best when washed down with some txakoli, the Basque sparkling wine.

After lunch we return to San Sebastián, the wealthiest city in the Basque region. This port was the place to be back in the region’s days of high-class tourism, and our hotel, the Hotel de Londres y de Ingleterra, once accommodated the likes of Mata Hari. Check out the photo gallery for their astounding view of the bay.

Still talking about our very Basque lunch, we head out for a very Basque dinner on the outskirts of San Sebastián, overlooking the industrial port. With the sun setting and the ships coming and going, it’s a location to touch any traveler’s heart. We arrive a bit early so we go to a bar along Pasajes de San Juan, a street that seems to be a virtual Basque cultural center. Basque flags and protest banners adorn the windows. Basque is almost the only language heard in the bars as a band goes from place to place playing traditional music, to which everyone sings along as the txakoli flows freely.

Josu looks very at home, joking with crowd and smiling at the band. His mobile rings every few minutes as friends call him to give him updates. He plays it cool, still insisting he’s not going to win. I don’t quite believe his nonchalance. As another politician once said, “You don’t run for second place.”

Dinner is at Casa Mirones. The food is the usual high standard I’ve come to expect from this part of the world, while the view is incomparable. One wall is all glass, and we’re treated a full view of the harbor at twilight, the ships passing by so closely we could call out to the crew. Sometime during the excellent paella, Josu gets the call he’s waiting for. His face lights up and he beams a grin at the world. The table erupts in applause as he announces he’s won.

Bildu made a surprisingly strong showing. In the Basque region they got 25.9% of the vote and their candidates won many regional and local seats. Whatever people think of Bildu, it looks like it’s here to stay.

It’s not every day that your tour guide makes the news.

Coming up next: Politics and people: an immigrant’s impressions of the Basque Country!

Don’t miss the rest of my series: Beyond Bilbao: Hiking through the Basque region.

This trip was sponsored by Country Walkers. The views expressed in this series, however, are entirely my own.