Category Archives: Spain

Across the Pyrenees

We left Burgos, again without a clear plan, knowing only that we’d spend a night in Pamplona and make it to Cahors in France at some point in the coming days. A quick calculation as the city bus to the train station told us we weren’t going to make our train that day, so we grabbed a empty taxi (somewhat miraculously, as there weren’t a lot just trolling for passengers). Even the cab driver was a little surprised at how close we were cutting it, but he dropped us off in time to make it onto the train.

Pamplona is far too big and full of history and culture to begin to absorb in just a one-night stay. Still, we made the most, getting lost in the narrow, cavernous streets that look deliberately designed to form the racetrack for the annual Running of the Bulls that happens here each July. Tiny balconies seem to jut from every window – perfect for watching the run from a safe distance, or for scoping out the nightly rehearsal for the party that precedes the run, as the cobblestones are covered Bourbon Street-style with tipsy revelers.

Like so many cities on the Iberian Peninsula, Pamplona is steeped in Catholicism, and it shows in the beautiful churches that sit on every corner. The Running of the Bulls, after all, is the cornerstone of the San Fermin festival, which celebrates the town’s martyred patron. He was beheaded, hence the red scarves that folks like to wear. Not knowing much about the brutal sport/art that is bullfighting, Pamplona certainly feels like the center of that universe, from the impressive bullfighting stadium to this magnificent rendering of the run itself. It’s done so well that you almost swear the bulls and people move.

From Pamplona we headed deeper into Basque Country to the seaside town of Saint-Jean-de-Luz just over the border in France. We ended up staying at the pleasant little Hotel de Paris. The town itself is charming – in fact almost overwhelming with its cuteness. The beach too was lovely, if a bit crowded, and the warmish water made for a nice swim on our second day there.

But we’re not sit-on-the-beach people, and we used our lucky find of a hotel room here (as this was a holiday weekend and the tourist office told us that all the other rooms in the area were booked) to stay a second night and explore some of the Basque region. We made the mistake of taking a train to the top of the Rhune. If we had to do it over, we would take most of the day and hike the 900-m peak, enjoy the tough little Basque ponies that dot the hillsides, and gawk at the views of the coastline and the French and Spanish Pyrenees.

Instead, we cheated, whisked up to the top and back again by the “little train of the Rhune.” That left us more time to explore the nearby town of Sare. While it was interesting to see the feisty independence of the Basque people up close – a friendly shopkeeper explained the graffiti we’d noticed around by stating unequivocally, We don’t want another high-speed rail line built here” – Sare was touristy, and everything seemed to be overpriced.

Saint-Jean-de-Luz turned out to be a lovely spot, and we enjoyed terrific meals, replete with creatively prepared fresh-caught seafood and meat galore, at Chez Pablo and Pil-Pil Enea. I wouldn’t hesitate to return here if I was looking for a beach vacation. But, spoiled as we’ve become, we missed not being with people we know who have welcomed us into their homes again and again as we’ve traveled. Thankfully, our next-to-last stop was Cahors, where Anne-Claire had come to study French last summer and met a family eager to welcome her back.

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My most embarrassing post

So throughout our travels, Anne-Claire’s made a little hobby of taking pictures of me while I’m sleeping. Which apparently I do. A lot. Especially on buses and trains. So here are a few pictures, none of which is very flattering, of me – well, in my view, just taking advantage of the downtime to catch up on rest. None is worse than this video, however, of me on the bus from Burgos to Castrillo de Murcia. How many chins do I have?

Spanish Whirlwind

As so often seems to happen at the end of a long trip, the places we visited in our last weeks of traveling fell behind more quickly than we wanted. This wasn’t helped by the succession of quick stops we made as we headed toward Burgos in the Castile region of northern Spain, where we hoped to see Anne-Claire’s host family.

We traveled north from Porto with the vague goal of getting to Santiago. Two trains, a cross-border cab ride with a tri-lingual taxi driver later, and a short hike from the train station, we arrived in the bursting endpoint of the pilgrimage known as the Camino de Santiago. Our original intention had been to hike a few days on the Portuguese Camino, but backpacks laden with too much port and cured meat discouraged us from hitting the trail.

Santiago was pleasant enough, beautiful in fact, with its winding streets and sprawling cathedral. But not having done the hike, I felt more like a spectator as most of the folks in the town’s streets – many of them with 

Reflections of Molinaseca

bandaged knees and taped-up feet from 500 km or more of hiking – were basking in the catharsis of their journeys’ end. Still, it didn’t stop us from bellying up for some delicious food and beer.

The next day took us to Molinaseca, a charming little town on the Camino that Anne-Claire and her dad had both fell in love with on their hike a few years ago. We spent the afternoon napping at the river on the edge of town that greets pilgrims as they trek toward Santiago. If you know Sycamore Pool in Chico in Lower Bidwell Park, it’s sort of like a miniature version of that. At some point, the

The cathedral in Burgos

townspeople paved part of the bottom of the river and built walls along the banks to make a nice swimming area. Many pilgrims can barely keep their shoes on long enough to cross the stone bridge before they plunge into the icy water.

From Molinaseca, we took a bus to Burgos, now home to a Disneyland-like town center with another sprawling Gothic cathedral (a UNESCO World Heritage Site) begun in 1221. From there, we took another bus into the countryside, through streets in tiny villages that didn’t look big enough for a Smart Car, let alone a full-size motor coach.

Antonio and Michel in Castrillo de Murcia

Our destination was one of these small towns, a place called Castrillo de Murcia, where Anne-Claire’s host mother Amablé (who we’d seen in Aix-en-Provence in June) was born. Like many of the town’s residents, she moved away for work and to raise a family, but she returns every summer, when the population swells from a winter-low of 100 to about 500 in the summertime. Built around a hillside, with a skyward-reaching church at its axis, the village feels like a permanent block party. Folks mostly rest during the heat of the day in their houses built of chilly stone, but at night, kids fill the streets of the walled center, playing (as their parents do) well into the night.

Once again, we were treated to meal after meal of fantastic Spanish dishes. The first night, we sampled morcilla de Burgos, a local blood sausage made with rice, onions and salt. Lunch the next day repeated a favorite meal I’d had in quite a few countries on this trip – lamb and fried potatoes. This time, Amablé’s partner Michel cooked the steaks over a wood fire in the fireplace he built in their courtyard.

Michel has this insatiable curiosity that’s led him to pick up Spanish (he’s French by birth) and English in the last five years, and he loves to tinker (called ‘bricoler’ in French). Amablé’s mother’s house (where we stayed) is littered with small improvement projects he’s done over the years to the hundreds-of-years-old structure. Little would tip you off that he’s 70 years old, apart from the thick shock of white hair on his head that shows no signs of thinning. He and I took a 25-30-km bike ride through the countryside and through a handful of small towns that sit on the Camino de Santiago, which Michel has biked twice. He has plans to pedal along the route from Castrillo de Murcia to Molinaseca this September.

We rode up a short hill to a plateau that afforded us unimpeded views of the wheat and wind farms that stretch across the rolling hills in every direction. We each rode bikes Michel had salvaged from the trash and fixed to usable condition for just these types of rides.

After coming down the other side of the plateau, we happened on these spectacular church ruins in San Antón just outside Castrojeriz, which boasts its own specatular ruined fortress perched on a hill high above the town, a vestige of the protection once needed from Moorish invaders. The church in San Antón now houses a hostel for pilgrims on the Camino, but standing inside the roofless walls, you get the sense of what a grand cathedral this must have once been. Huge buttresses arc right over the roadway, supporting now-imagined walls that must have soared. Later that night, we drove out here with Amablé and Anne-Claire to see the church in even more splendid light.

Before dinner that night, Michel took me to the family’s cave, which Amablé’s father and his friend had carved out of the thick bedrock decades ago. True to his French roots, Michel brings a few dozen bottles of his favorite French wine with him every summer, and he stores it, along with vegetables in this chilly cellar with a green door and an almost-comically huge key.

It’s a big key

Given the hospitality they’d shown us not once but twice on our journey, it was tough to say goodbye the next morning. Amablé is pretty good with farewells, perhaps thanks to the practice that hosting 9 or 10 students over the years has given her. A few touches of cheek to cheek and we were off in Michel’s car as he drove us to the bus station in Burgos.

Still traveling guidebook-less, we wanted to head toward Pamplona and then up through the Pyrenees to see another of Anne-Claire’s host families back in France.

Two Nights in Sevilla

After our long weekend in Marseille, Julie’s father was kind enough to drive us the 45 minutes to the airport so we could catch our plane to Sevilla in Spain. The flight was comfortable, as was the trip into the center of town. But wandering around for almost an hour in the Andalusian midday sun left little doubt that we’re heading south.

A well-intentioned Dutch guy who spoke English pointed us in the direction he thought would take us to our hotel from the bus station. But five minutes and two turns down narrow cobblestone streets found us staring up at a church (one of about a dozen we’d passed since getting off the bus) but clueless as to which of the many on the map it might be. Southern Spain seems to have a church-to-people ratio in the neighborhood of 1-to-1.

Confusion is pretty universally recognizable apparently, as a well-bronzed older gentleman with his shirt unbuttoned to his sternum stopped to see if he could help us. We fumbled around trying to give him a street name that might be recognizable. As with most of the Old World cities I’ve visited in Europe, street signs in Sevilla seem to be more optional than obligatory. Yes, bigger streets do have signs if you know where to look for them, but it’s as if city planners figured if you were on one of these tiny capillaries, you ought to know where you’re going. If you don’t, serves you right if you get lost.

Finally, we uttered a street name the man recognized (and that we could pronounce at least somewhat intelligibly), which fittingly turned out to be ‘Love of God Avenue’ (loosely translated). He gave us a litany of directions in Spanish, which might have led us straight to our hotel, had we understood them. However, the only word we recognized had something to do with time, so we started looking for a clock.

That was easy enough to find, but once again, we were faced with a wagon wheel of spoke-like, nameless streets to choose from, and each with a seemingly prominent but unnamed church at its head. Anne-Claire found a hotel (not ours), got a better map, and figured out where we were on the map, and eventually we stumbled on the dead-end alley where our hotel was located.

The beginning of our visit notwithstanding, Sevilla, once the seat for administration of Spain’s conquered lands in the New World, turned out to be a lovely way point on our journey to North Africa. We settled into our hotel, then set out to ply the empty afternoon streets for some food. Our first choice came highly recommended on Trip Advisor, but was more expensive than we thought. We’d probably have had to cook our own food too, as it seems the entire was taking their siesta, though they’d left the air conditioning on and the music playing inside.

On a no-name (surprise, surprise) back alley, we found a little bar with no menus per se, only a chalkboard laying out the day’s offerings. We only recognized the word for calamari, so we tried ordering that. Somehow, the request didn’t land. The gruff-looking barkeep with a cigarette hanging out of the side of his mouth communicated to us that that wasn’t what we were going to have, but rather, he’d choose a few dishes and bring them to us.

Ten minutes later, we had a plate of fried fish, a plate of tomatoes with tuna and olive oil, two ham and egg sandwiches, and a richly flavored roll of meat that had been breaded and fried. The food found a happy home in our stomachs, as by this point we were pretty hungry, but we fretted over what the bill would come to. It’s part of traveling, we figured, to be fleeced every now and then – and something we probably deserved coming to Spain and not speaking Spanish.

All that food, plus a bottle of water (we hadn’t yet figured out how to say tap water – pardon my spelling – ‘agua del grifa’), and 4 small beers came to…€19.80. Little does that bartender know how much he did for a cranky, tired American couple that afternoon.

We had another pleasant meal late that evening, though the area we went was touristy and the prices weren’t as good. What was good – superb, in fact – were the toasts with slices of rank goat cheese and drizzled with olive oil and vinegar. That, washed down with sangria and the most refreshing lager I’ve had in my life, made the evening’s (~10:30 pm) 90+ degree heat bearable.

After a cheap breakfast of toast, tomatoes, olive oil and coffee at a bustling café the next morning, we checked out the Cathedral y Garibaldi in the center of town. It’s a massive church, somehow incorporating Moorish and Gothic architecture beautifully. It was built over several centuries by architects adhering to the different styles, and the absence of a singular unifying design makes it fascinating to look at from every angle. The abundant use of tiered flying buttresses creates ever-changing snowflake patterns of sky visible through the arches, and it makes the builders’ use of the same technology on the Notre Dame Cathedral look downright timid.

Close to the cathedral sits the Real Alcazar, a royal palace that apparently is still a residence for the Spanish monarchy. Again, the entire complex reflects the site’s past as a Moorish fort. Stunning tile work and intricate designs were the handiwork of Moorish craftsmen hired by the Catholic royals to lend a piece of their culture to the construction when it was rebuilt more recently than Moorish occupation of southern Spain. Like a smaller, Mediterranean version of Versailles, the palace wends through al fresco hallways and past courtyard fountains. Behind it lie immaculate gardens, and a perfectly tranquil underground bath tricked us into thinking the reflection in the pool was an empty trough.

As the streets became quieter and quieter, we figured we too should avoid being lumped in with the ‘mad dogs and Englishmen’ who are said to come out in the oppressive late-afternoon heat. Still, we saw our retreat into air conditioned comfort a bit of a defeat, as we figured things would only get hotter as we traveled further south.