Not Quite a Pilgrimage
This journey started nearly six years ago. A couple of my friends from Australia suggested walking the pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela to celebrate a big birthday. I agreed quite enthusiastically. But before I even started training properly, I had a health issue which made it impossible for me to join in. The books I had read in preparation and the stories my friends told me after their journey had me dreaming about seeing at least some of those places one day. And so, when my husband suggested a driving tour this summer, I quite happily started planning a trip along the North of Spain. We drove from our home in Switzerland, crossing the width of France to enter Spain close to San Sebastian. We drove a total of 4300 km over sixteen days. Here is an account from my diary.
31 July 2014
We have a very good run to Perigueux where we stay tonight; we cover 650 km in about 6 hours. We are staying in a motel in the outskirts; it is very basic. We have been to Perigueux a few years back on a longer trip to this area. It is a different kind of pleasure to revisit places one has been before, don’t you think? The weather is pleasant and I am pleased to discover nooks and crannies we missed in our previous trip. Having skipped lunch, we are ready for dinner the moment the restaurants open. We head to a vegetarian restaurant that we had noted from our last trip. My husband, a dedicated carnivore, is happy to accommodate me. Izba is a little restaurant run by a French-Russian couple. They seem like gentle, friendly souls. The food is delicious and very reasonably priced. This night our sleep comes early and deeply.
1 August 2014
The drive today has been a horror; it has taken more than 7 hours for just 450 km. The roads are crowded with holidaymakers, this is school holiday time. Many stretches of the road are under maintenance and we see a number of accidents as well. The toll way gates take forever to pass. A nightmare of a drive! Finding the Melia in Bilbao is easy and we park in their underground parking. The check-in is fast and efficient and our room quite nice.
We settle in quickly and set off towards the Guggenheim which is just a 10 min very pleasant walk away. What a stunning building! It is very artistic, very interesting from every angle.
Designed by American architect Frank Gehry, the building is quite amazing. The angles and curves, the reflections of the sky and the water and the very unique surfacing of titanium panels, limestone and glass grab and keep my attention. It is a building which I will remember forever.
It is convenient that the museum is open till late. The building is equally interesting from the inside. There are special exhibitions by Yoko Ono and by Georges Braque. Both my husband and I quite detest what we see of Yoko Ono’s work – if it makes us philistines, so be it! But really, condoms filled with water? How can this be considered art in the same way as, say, Rembrandt’s Night Watch or Vermeer’s milkmaid? My dear husband gets so angry with the exhibits that he refuses to even see Georges Braque whom I like well!
We are still put out when we exit. After popping into the tourist office just outside and booking the old-city walking tour for tomorrow, we go looking for a restaurant. Nothing is open at 7:30 pm so we enjoy a pleasant stroll instead. We have a drink at an old-fashioned very quaint cafe-bar and then dine at Tagliatella, an Italian restaurant. For those wondering why eat Italian in Spain, Spanish cuisine is unfortunately very short on vegetarian options.
2 August 2014
After an excellent breakfast at Melia, we head to the old city. The walk along the river is very pleasant but it takes a good 30 minutes to reach the tourist office. The walking tour was advertised as being in English but it is a bilingual Spanish-English one. The guide seems knowledgeable and enthusiastic but a 5 minute spiel in Spanish is translated into just a minute’s explanation in English. I feel a bit cheated! The old town is deserted at this time of the morning and frankly, doesn’t look very interesting to me. Still, it is nice to be out and about.
After the tour we sit in the park above and watch the world go by. The crowd has picked up somewhat by now. There are senior citizens in benches having a friendly natter. There are children running around. There is a small group of young folk practicing for theatre of some kind. There are young couples out for a stroll. Life streams around us.
We then walk slowly back towards the Bellas Artes museum. My husband is happy to eat lunch at a small restaurant filled with locals but the heavy breakfast has been enough for me. We get a bit lost on the way and then get caught out in a sudden torrential downpour. So it is nearly 4bpm that we come to the museum. It is an excellent museum with some very lovely artworks and we spend a very happy couple of hours inside.
Returning back to the restaurant, we have a little rest time checking emails. The wifi is very good in the lobby but not so good in our room. We dine at Melia’s in-house restaurant which has a couple of vegetarian choices. My husband is happy with his menu while my stir fry is a well below average.
3 August 2014
We dawdle over a very generous breakfast this morning and set off on our 158 km drive to Burgos at 10 am. I enjoy the drive on AP68 very much indeed. At the start the landscape is mountainous and slowly gives way to rolling plains and fields. Very pretty!
Our hotel NH Collection Palacio de Burgos is simply gorgeous! Housed in a tastefully renovated 16th century building, it even includes a wonderful Gothic cloister. Our room is luxuriously fitted and very comfortable. The exterior still looks like a church (see above).
The Cathedral is just a few minutes walk from the hotel, no distance at all. Now, I am a bit of a Cathedral enthusiast; I even have my own ‘hit list’! So it is with experience that I say that this Cathedral is one of the most magnificent ones in Europe, a real treat for a Cathedral aficionado. The exterior is a soaring symphony in stone, each angle offering a new and beautiful portrait. I am overwhelmed. In awe.
The interior is equally overwhelming. I walk with my head craned up, not wanting to miss the many beautiful designs made with light and stone. Built first between 1221 and 1260, it was added to for the next few centuries. There are so many altars, each more beautiful than the other. The choir (1550) is a beauty and so is the Golden Staircase (1477). But what makes my heart stop are the three central reliefs in the ambulatory sculpted by Felipe de Vigamy between 1497 and 1503. Two of them are water-damaged but they are all quite outstanding. I sit down to take a breath and know that the beauty of this cathedral will remain with me as a wonderful memory forever.
We have lunch at one of the very touristy places just outside the Cathedral. To be avoided.
We then have a walk around Burgos, enjoying the sun. I have an after-glow from the Cathedral and cannot quite take an interest in anything else. Still, I enjoy our wander.
We then head uphill to the ruined castle from where there are excellent views of the city. There is a lovely park to sit in and watch the world go by.
Dinner is a problem. I had taken note of a vegetarian restaurant but sadly it is open for lunch only. We wander around looking at menus but no one offers vegetarian choices. Finally we walk out of the old city and see a Chinese restaurant called Hong Kong where they make me vegetable dish. I envy my husband’s ability to consume anything and everything – sigh!
4 August 2014
After an excellent breakfast at our hotel, we set off towards León. It is an easy drive. This is agricultural country; the fields look lush and lovely. Spain, I tell myself, is quite beautiful!
We arrive at our hotel in good time. The Parador has an amazing frontage and the public areas are stunningly beautiful. It is like being in a museum! However we notice that the hotel is very much in need of a renovation. Our room is ok but not the level I expected. The plumbing is old; the veranda is quite filthy and unusuable. The back part of the hotel is quite dilapidated. Still, it is an experience, staying in such a magnificent old building.
We set off to find lunch in a cafe but my husband gets called by work for a conference call. So it is back to the hotel for a couple of hours before we can set out to explore León.
Our first stop is, of course, at the Cathedral. After Burgos, it seems small in comparison but of course there is much to see. The exterior is all light and air; very elegant indeed. The interior is specially interesting for stained-glass window connoisseurs. They are very beautiful and I am mesmerized by the colours (I played with Photoshop with my composite above to give you a hint of how it felt). There is an audio guide but it does drone on a bit so I just let me senses do the seeing, feeling and absorbing.
We stroll through the old town, checking out the places that the receptionist had marked on our map. We walk the old city wall, getting a bit lost on the way. We check out the Iglesia Santa Marina and then the Casa de Botines by Gaudi. We then wander on to Plaza Mayor and sit for a long time watching the activity. This seems to be a meeting point for the whole town. I am charmed by the way the older people have dressed for their evening stroll, the men with jackets and some even with hats, the women in dresses and skirts. They sit in little groups, catching up with the news and then walk around the plaza meeting others. The younger ones are casually dressed, looking like young ones from anywhere. There are couples holding hands, families trying to control runaway children, groups of young men looking ‘cool’, groups of girls giggling – ah! I love this place! It feels so very welcoming. We get up finally at dinner time, relaxed and happy to be in León.
5 August 2014
I had planned today as a ‘do nothing’ day but well, we don’t quite do that very well! We do have a leisurely morning enjoying the delicious breakfast spread at the Parador. I see something in my travel book which interests me; I want to see the Cueva de Valporquero which are not that far from León. I set the name of the nearby village on the GPS and we merrily head off. After a while, I am suspicious as to why we are heading East instead of North. Well, there are two villages with the same name and I have chosen the wrong one! We have to retrace our path but we finally hit the correct road.
On the way we pass the gorges called Hoces de Vegacervera. The road is very narrow and the rocks climb steeply on either side; a very other worldly landscape.
The entrance to the caves is on top of a hill and the scenery on the way is very beautiful. The caves can be visited only with guides and the tours are in Spanish. But it doesn’t matter to us; the stalactites and stalagmites are lovely and we enjoy the visit anyway. It is cold (7 C) underground but we have cleverly carried some warm clothes so we are fine. My photos don’t turn out well as I have not carried a tripod and the light is very low.
We head next to Astorga. I am surprised at parts of the landscape where the earth is as red as in Australia, makes me home sick! We park very near the Cathedral and walk up to the square next to it. It is a lovely square with the Cathedral on one side and the Episcopal Palace built by Gaudi on the other. The palace looks like a fairy tale castle! We head inside the Cathedral which is quite nice. The attached museum is simply excellent. I am quite surprised to find such a treasure trove; an unexpected pleasure!
We then visit the Episcopal Palace, admiring the unique touch of Gaudi. It has a very small museum as well. We don’t linger too long.
Back at the Parador we walk around admiring the hotel and taking many pictures of the interior. There is a beautiful cloister which we admire. There are many lovely pieces of furniture in the corridors – three legged chairs, chests, old wooden rocking chairs etc. Nicely done!
We then head back to the city centre to find dinner. My husband is keen to try local fare and I encourage him to find a nice restaurant. It seems unfair that he has to compromise with restaurants all the time because of my vegetarianism. I see a nice looking place and we peep in. Nobody seems to be around. We call out and the proprietor comes to talk with us. He speaks no English and we speak no Spanish. I ask him about French; his is rusty but we manage to communicate. Yes, he can serve us dinner and yes, he can even serve me a three course vegetarian ‘menu’! We are delighted! The food is very good and the host very hospitable. He recommends the delicacies the region is famous for and my husband really enjoys his meal. I am happy to recommend Adonias to you.
6 August 2014
It is nearly 10 am by the time we set out this morning. We are driving 351 km to Santiago de Compostela today. When we see the sign for Ponferrada, we decide to go and check out the castle on an impulse. It seems to be a market day; the streets are very crowded. We do not stop to see the market though which I regret later. The castle is up on the hill and today it is free entry for all. We walk around the ramparts, admiring the views. There is a museum inside which we do not visit.
We reach Santiago well into the afternoon. The GPS brings us to what is definitely a pedestrian area. We drive around in circles wondering how we are to reach the Parador. A friendly policeman points the way but we have qualms as we drive into what is the heart of of Santiago, the Obradoiro square (above). But what a superb location for a hotel! Leaving the car outside in the square, we check in and are then helped by concierge in parking the car.
The Parador is simply magnificent! We are to spend quite a bit of time exploring the hotel itself. The Hostal de Los Reyes Catolicos was built as a Hospice for the pilgrims which became operational in 1509. In 1958 it was converted to a Hostal. It is quite beautifully done with lovely furnishings, beautifully fitted out rooms and splendid public areas. There are plaques everywhere describing the history of Santiago and the Hostal. You can find further information here. It is not exactly budget friendly but it is a marvellous hotel and I strongly recommend a stay for just the experience.
After settling in, we set out to explore the town. The main frontage of the Cathedral is under construction. The interior is very crowded. We do a little walk around and then sit quietly taking in the atmosphere. I think about the millions and millions of pilgrims and believers who have sat as I have and see what I am seeing. I think of their journeys, the journey of the pilgrimage, the journey of their life. I think of their beliefs. I think of their pains, their sacrifices. I think of their joys, their achievements. My mind merges the then and the now. There is a sense of sanctity here and I let myself absorb that into myself. Our journey here is not quite a pilgrimage, yet today it feels like one.
It is well into the evening now; our stomachs make strong demands as we had skipped lunch. Skipping lunch is bad strategy in Spain as restaurants do not open for dinner until late. We go for a walk and check out some of the ‘veg friendly’ restaurants that I have a list of. None looked very interesting and they were still closed at 7:30 pm. The last one on my list is Malak’s, a Middle-Eastern restaurant. It is happily open, the proprietor is very friendly and the food quite delicious! We at once decide to come back tomorrow evening too! After dinner we enjoy strolling around before finally going back to the hotel to relax for the rest of the evening.
7 August 2014
Right after breakfast, I go to book ourselves into the much lauded Cathedral Roof tour. The English one is at noon. As we are a stage of the journey when we are gently fatigued, we are happy to wait it out back in our hotel. I enjoy taking some photographs before sitting down to play with the wifi. What did we do before the world was so connected? I am such a wifi junkie!! The Cathedral roof tour is quite incredible. Not to be missed. I have been to so many cathedrals but never seen one from this angle. The guide tells us a lot about the construction which I find very interesting.
I also enjoy the views of the city from the roof. It all looks quite lovely!
For the rest of the day, we don’t do anything in particular. We just wander from plaza to plaza, enjoying drinks and nibbles more often than is good for us! It is very pleasant to have a day to just chill!
8 August 2014
It is long drive we have to get to Salamanca, nearly 450 km. We make good time despite a gentle brush with the police…but we won’t speak of that! The landscape is beautiful and our drive very pleasant. We reach our hotel Eurostars Las Claras in good time. The underground parking using a car-lift is an adventure in itself! The hotel is modern and quite nice; the reception staff are the most helpful we have come across on our holiday.
As always we first head towards the Cathedral. I am captivated at the very first sight! It is so impressive! In fact it is two Cathedrals in one; the old one was thankfully not demolished before the new one was built. This is the first time I have seen such an arrangement. The main entrance is quite spectacular.
The interior is equally awe inspiring. We pick up an audio tour which is very informative. The old Cathedral is especially interesting. But in the new one we come to one chapel after another until I cannot absorb any more information!
We then wander to the Roman bridge and then back to one beautiful little square after another, ending up at Plaza Mayor. Finally we settle to dine at a Tapas bar recommended by the hotel. The choice for vegetarians in minimal but the service is friendly and the food tasty. We enjoy a nice meal, wander back to Plaza Mayor to see the lights and evening crowds before heading back to the hotel. I do like Salamanca, it is sol elegant looking!
9 August 2014
Its a lovely warm day today and we enjoy our easy stroll to the university. The entrance is stunning and there is a little puzzle to entertain us. We have to find a little frog in the facade for good luck. With my abysmal eyesight, I am quite hopeless at it, A fellow tourist points it out to us; it is a frog on a skull. I have hidden a blown-up version in my picture above; see if you can find it! The oldest one in Spain, it has a lovely old library which is very much worth seeing. An audio tour tells us details but it does ramble on a bit. There is a wedding in progress at the chapel and I happily join the gawkers!
Now that I have a taste for Cathedral roofs, I want to climb this one too. There are 300 steps with a few places to halt in between. This is another climb well worth the effort. One gets an outside view of the world, a close up of towers and structures, an internal view from high up of both the old and new Cathedrals and a chance to experience the bells ringing at close quarters! How happy I feel surrounded by these old stones, I think, how they weave their tales and magic in me! Definitely recommended.
It is nearly 3 pm. We find a vegetarian cafe which is empty except for us. It seems to be run by some very young people. The food is reasonably good; I hope they get more customers and make a success of it. I am tired today so we head back to the hotel for an afternoon nap.
The last on my wish list is San Esteban but unfortunately it is closed today. Instead we visit the Convento Los Duenos which is nearby. It is a nice tranquil place to spend a few minutes thinking of times past. After that we are happy to wander around clicking pictures, eating ice cream and finally having a nice pizza for dinner.
10 August 2014
Today we turn back westwards again; the holiday has reached a logical mid-point. Our first stop today is Avila where we see the imposing medieval walls (11th-14th centuries). It is meant to be a very brief stop as we have a long drive ahead of us. But it takes longer than we expect as we get hit by a motorbike from behind. The damage is minor, but the conversation with no common language and the filling out of the ‘green form’ is daunting. Though it is nothing major, we are both a bit shaken. We walk along the wall and pop into the city to see the Cathedral. Sadly it will not open for another hour. We decide to skip it and continue on our journey.
Our next stop is at Segovia where we want to see the Roman aqueduct. It is indeed a wonderful sight! I am much in admiration of Roman engineering. We then have a quick visit to the Cathedral. It is very beautiful but they do not allow photography. When younger, I had a wonderful graphical memory; now, without photos I can hardly remember anything. Sad. The roof vaulting is quite exquisite.
We reach Madrid with no further drama. We are staying at Mercure Plaza de Espagna. It is an old-fashioned hotel in need of some renovation. But I like old-fashioned things so it pleases me well enough. We get some good advice at the reception and set out to enjoy Madrid.
I have been to Madrid before for a longer stay and liked it very much. This trip is for my husband as he hasn’t been before. He wants to have a quick look at the masterpieces in Prado so we head there for the free entry in the evenings. The queue is long and we get about an hour inside. I take a map and walk him military style to the most important works. It helps that I had spent about 8 hours here in my previous trip! But he is not art-mad like I am so he is quite content with his hour long tour.
After a week without Indian food, we both are longing for something spicy. There are a surprisingly large number in Madrid. We walk from Prado towards the city centre and stop at this Bangladeshi run restaurant called Indian Spice. The food is very good but it is very expensive in my opinion. We eat a bit too heavily and decide to walk back to the hotel This is a mistake as it is just too far. I have been struggling with my plantar fasciitis the entire trip; I am in serious pain by the time we reach our hotel. Madrid is big, it is a mistake to underestimate the distances based on a map.
11 August 2013
A good night’s rest and a good breakfast gives me the courage to test my foot again. We walk along Grand Via to Sol and I check out some of the shops. We then take the metro to the Thyssen-Bornemisza museum. It has free entry every Monday between 12:00 and 16:00 sponsored by MasterCard. What a great idea! I don’t know if it is for tax reasons or it comes out their marketing budget, but I wish other organizations follow suit to make art available to everybody for free. This is my favourite museum in Madrid. We spend a couple of hours and then set out to explore the city. My husband is not keen on visiting anything in particular or doing a tour so we just amuse ourselves seeing this and that. It is a nice relaxed day. I like Madrid very much indeed.
12 August 2014
It is 11 am when we set out today; we are infected with ‘Spanish’ time as we call it! We drive with minimal stops to Pamplona. The drive is quite pleasant. I see many windmills on the way. They are of the modern kind but they still remind me of Don Quixote.
Our hotel in Pamplona, Maissonave, is right at the heart of town. Our GPS leads us to a pedestrian area and we can’t figure out how to get around it. I leave my husband in the car while I briskly walk up to the hotel and get directions. It is a bit complicated but we finally park our car and settle in. The hotel is very nice and the room is comfortable.
We have afternoon tea at the hotel and then set out to explore the town. The tourist office says that an English walking tour will run if there are enough takers. There aren’t. So we get a map and take ourselves for a walk along the route of the bull run. The old town is quite tiny, it takes us very little time to do this. Then we go for a quiet stroll on the old city walls. After a light dinner of sandwiches at a cafe, we head out to the castle for the jazz concert that the tourist office had told us of. But we are a bit late for it and all the seats and benches are taken. As we sit a bit far away listening to whatever snatches of music comes our way, I think of how pleasant life can be with just a park, some sun and some music.
13 August 2014
We wake early and look around for a place to have breakfast. It is 10:30, most places still seem closed. There is an abandoned air in the morning like many Spanish towns we have seen. Luckily the famous Cafe Iruña, said to be the favourite hangout of Hemingway, is open. What a lovely old place! I just adore it!
We then visit the Cathedral and the excellent archaeological museum attached. The explanatory boards are unfortunately only in Spanish. After that we stroll around town but it is very small, and we are in holiday fatigue. I am thrilled to find an excellent vegetarian restaurant called Sarasate; the food is delicious and it is very busy. I get a cider and my husband some wine. After a while a local Spanish family seated at the next table come up to us. The parents speaks no English, the twenty something daughter acts as the spokesperson. They give us half a bottle of wine which they say is much nicer than the one my husband is having and show me the right way to drink cider. It is lovely isn’t it when locals extend a friendly hand to us visitors? I felt very warmed by their gesture.
After lunch we decide to just laze at the hotel for the rest of the day. We dine at the in-house restaurant where I get only a salad but my husband finds his meal very satisfying.
14 August 2014
We head out from the hotel at about 9 am, thinking to visit the ‘5 villages’ which are on our route back. We reach the first one by 10 am. It is picturesque but we are used to picturesque mountain villages as we live in Switzerland. The village is lifeless; no one seems to be around. And there is no cafe for breakfast. We head to the next one which has the same abandoned air. We give up on the villages and head to San Sebastian instead, which turns out to be a very good decision. It is a lovely sea side city, very charming indeed. It is busy with locals at the market, holiday makers and tourists, from the very young to the old. We have a nice breakfast at a cafe and stroll around, enjoying the ambience.
And then there is the ocean! Sun, sand and an easy atmosphere; beautiful, isn’t it?
We head out at 2 pm reaching our Ibis hotel at Brève at a good time for dinner. It is very conveniently placed close to the freeway, There is an in-house restaurant which manages to make a vegetarian meal for me and the room is adequate.
15 August 2014
All that is left is a long drive home. I happily relive our holiday while drifting in and out of a doze, the beautiful French countryside streaming outside the window. I am content.