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Spring 2017 - Italy in 4 blog posts: Italy through Fresh Eyes Part 1 Venice; Part 2 Florence, Part 3 Rome, Part 4 Milan
July 2017 Crisscrossing the Camino -
When I set out to put together an itinerary of Northern Spain including Basque France I knew of the Camino de Santiago but certainly it was not a focus of the trip. It was just coincidence that my trip was to be five weeks and that’s exactly how long most people take to walk it, if they do the entire route. But as the trip took shape I realized I would essentially cover most of the two most well known/well traveled Caminos, the Camino del Norte and the Camino Frances. And while I didn’t ‘walk’ either of them (technically) I did walk a total of 315 miles over the five weeks (the Caminos are ‘about 500 miles’, though you can get your certification for having walked it with as little as 112km/70 miles), and much of that was on one Camino or another. (My best day was 13.3 miles, worst was only 5, averaged 9.3 miles/day). But I traveled from place to place by bus and car and did my walking on day trips, and most of that exploring the cities, towns and villages rather than walking between them. As it turned out though, virtually every place I went was on a Camino – mostly those two main ones, but there are many more “Caminos” and I certainly found myself following the yellow arrows/ yellow scallop shells on blue background signs everywhere I went. Surrounded by pilgrims. It really became a focus of the trip much more so once I was there (as opposed to the planning stage) and I think made the whole trip more fun and interesting. They say the Camino ‘calls you’ and I certainly heard it, almost daily, saying ‘here I am’.
While I did a big loop that covered most of the Camino del Norte and Camino Frances, I did not do it in what most people would consider a logical sequence - but there was a logical reason for this. I can take a 5-week vacation but my husband can only manage about 2½ weeks. In previous years I’ve gone one or two places, then he’d fly over and we’d go another place (last year I went to the Baltics, met him in Italy and then we went to Greece, the year before I went to Malta, then we met and went to Italy, year before that I went to Norway, Poland and we met in Italy – you get the idea). But since this trip was to be just Northern Spain (with a few days in the Basque corner of France) I decided to do the larger cities on my solo portion (he prefers more rural areas, plus the cities are easily connected by bus) and then we rented a car for the second half. Thus I ended up crisscrossing the Caminos and doing more of a figure eight than a loop.
So – the itinerary ended up – Solo Part:
The total trip was 34 nights, including the first two in London (last few years I’ve found excellent fares to London and then flew Easy Jet (or Ryan Air) to my ‘actual’ destination). This year I flew Norwegian (for $279), non-stop and it was great. Had almost no jet lag. There was no way I could get from the US to Biarritz without long layover/convoluted routes costing far more. (And had the same experience last year when my destination was Estonia). Anyway, I love London, know my way around, stay in the same hotel so it’s a pleasure to have a day or two there to start my trips. My husband flew Aer Lingus to Madrid and we flew that together on the way home.
Since we got home and began telling people about our trip we discovered that few had ever even heard of the Camino. Now I know I’m a travel nerd and spend an inordinate amount of time on Fodors and other travel sites, but that still surprised me that so few knew of it. If you search ‘Camino’ on Fodors you get lots of threads, and I know there are numerous Fodorites who have walked at least portions of it. And I know a couple of ‘actual’ people who have walked it. So here’s the basic info on it.
The Camino de Santiago, (the “Way” of Santigo), is the longest-established “tourist” route in Europe, a thousand year old medieval pilgrimage route to the city of Santiago de Compostela where the tomb of St James is located. There are actually many routes, back in day you began the pilgrimage from where ever you lived, but today there are more than a half dozen well-known routes. Collectively the Caminos are a UNESCO World Heritage site.
The most well known is the Camino Francés, a 500 mile (798 km) route which begins in the French Pyrenees town of St Jean Pied du Port (63% of people doing a “Camino” do this one). The Camino del Norte, also about 500 miles, which begins at the border of France and Spain and follows the coast (16%) is the oldest, sometimes referred to as the “Original”. The Portuguese Camino starts in Lisbon (18%) and the Camino Ingles (3%) is the route English pilgrims who arrived in Spain by boat would follow. There are several others.
St Jean Pied du Port, France Puente La Reina Sansol LaGuardia Burgos
Leon Astorga Ponferrada Santiago de Compostela
CAMINO DEL NORTE
Hondarribia San Sebastian Bilbao Portugalate Santander
Santillana del Mar San Vicente de la Barquera Cudillero Ribadeo Cathedral Beach
The history of the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela stretches back more than 1000 years to the discovery of the body of St. James during the reign of King Alfonso II (792-842). St. James, one of the apostles closest to Christ, was already revered, but with the discovery of his relics it became a focal point for pilgrims. A hermit named Pelalyo saw in the sky what looked like masses of stars falling on the fields – a ‘campus stellae’ and in that place the remains of St James had been buried. By the early 12th century, Santiago came to rank with Rome and Jerusalem as one of the great destinations of medieval pilgrimage. Although the shrine was visited by the great – Fernando and Isabel, Carlos V, Francis of Assisi – you didn’t have to be rich to do it. The various roads through France and northern Spain that led there, collectively known as El Camino de Santiago were lined with monasteries and charitable hospices. Villages sprang up along the route, and an order of knights was founded for the pilgrims’ protection. There was even a guidebook – the world’s first – written by a French monk called Aymery Picaud, which recorded, along with water sources and places to stay, such facts as the bizarre sexual habits of the Navarrese Basques (said to protect their mules from their neighbors with chastity belts). It was an extraordinary phenomenon in an age when most people never ventured beyond their own town or village.
Today the Spanish government has made a huge effort to promote the camino, maintaining an extensive network of inexpensive pilgrim hostels along the separate routes that converge on Santiago. Private companies have gotten into the act as well and there are many ‘tour’ groups, as well as companies that will transport your pack from inn to inn, etc. While many pilgrims stay in the ‘official’ albergues (aka hostels) which feature dorm room type accommodation with bunk beds, shared bathrooms, etc. there are also other options in most of the villages, towns and cities such as pensiones (aka hostals) which are family run small hotels, posadas (same only in historic buildings that have been refurbished), casas rurales (essentially a B&B), and Paradors (luxury hotels that are state run usually in historic buildings such as castles or monasteries). Oh and regular old hotels.
As Galicia is on the coast, there is a lot of shellfish. In the Middle Ages, whenever pilgrims finished the Camino, they would pick up a scallop shell off the beach and carry it back with them as proof of having walked the Camino. Today, most pilgrims begin the walk with a shell attached to their backpack, and virtually all of the way markers and guideposts feature a yellow shell on a blue background. Most cities and towns have bronze scallop shells imbedded in the streets marking the route through town. And of courses every shop along the way sells scallop shell trinkets and jewelry, as well as the actual shells. I actually cannot understand why anyone would need an organized tour, the Camino is so well marked I can’t see how you could get lost.
While back in medieval times most pilgrims walked the Camino for religious reasons (the journey guaranteed a remission of half the time in Purgatory) some did it for adventure, social fashion, or opportunities for marriage or even for crime. In the 12th century it is estimated that half a million pilgrims a year made the pilgrimage. Today most Peregrinos (pilgrims) are not religious, even if you include ‘spiritual’ reasons along with ‘religious’ reasons it accounts for less than half. Other reasons given are adventure/challenge, sport, Spanish culture/history, and actually for the majority it is ‘time out’, a chance to take a break from life. Whatever the motivation, the camino’s popularity has exploded in recent decades; by the early part of the 20th century almost no one registered to walk the Camino, in 1986 there were 2,491 recorded pilgrims, by 2016 there were 277,913 and 2017 so far is seeing about a 20% increase over 2016 (statistics mostly from the official Pilgrim office in Santiago). A huge amount of the increase in recent years has been in English speaking pilgrims. In total about 45% are Spanish, followed by Italian (15%), German (13%), American (9%), Portuguese (8%), French (5%), Irish (3%) and English (3%). 18% of Pilgrims are over 60 years old, 27% are under age 30. The male/female split is just about 50/50.
To do the ‘entire’ Camino, either the Camino Frances or the Camino del Norte, takes about 5 weeks (about 500 miles each) but actually only about 12% of those doing the most popular Camino Frances actually start in St Jean Pied du Port, more than half start in Sarría, 115km (71 miles) from Santiago, which is the last major town where you can start walking and still earn a compostela. And of those who do start in St Jean or elsewhere, many ‘hop-scotch or leap-frog’ taking buses or even taxis to cut out long stretches. The bus from Burgos to Leon was about ¾ full of pilgrims, and, as the bus followed the Camino, more got on at various stops along the way. Also, a lot of people walk stretches of the Camino at a time, a week or two, or even just a few days at a time.
One reason many people do not walk the entire routes at once (other than time) is that a good deal of the Camino is not all that pleasant. About 60% of the Camino Frances is on paths/tracks, the rest is on roads, sometimes highways. And even the paths/tracks often are within sight of, or even right next to, roads. According to one website, 95% of the time you are within earshot of car traffic. Another site explains: “This is an ancient pilgrimage trail that dates back thousands of years, way before there were highways, cars, or bikes. The trail was created since it was the most accessible, and easiest way across Spain to Santiago for trade and religious reasons. As the years have gone by the infrastructure ‘Gods’ have also recognized that this is the easiest and best way across Northern Spain, therefore roads sprouted up along the trail. So about 30% of the Camino is not pretty and some of it can be down right ugly and unpleasant includingwalking on the busy roads where there isn’t even a shoulder and sometimes walking through major industrial zones between factories. The entrances and exits to big towns such as Burgos and Leon can be mind numbing as you walk along and under/over major highways as well as past industrial parks”. www.ottsworld.com/blogs/camino-de-santiago-ugly-photography/ www.ottsworld.com/blogs/camino-de-santiago-faq%e2%80%99s/
Some people compare the Camino to major hiking routes in the US such as the Appalachian Trail or the Pacific Crest Trail but there is a huge difference. Those are wilderness trails and the Camino is not. Also especially in summer the Camino can get rather crowded so people seeking solitude may not find it. On the other hand, for many people that is exactly what they find so special about the Camino – the people they meet. But several websites talk about the ‘bed race’ and strategies to assure you get a place to sleep each night. I know many of the hostels I passed had ‘complete’ (no vacancy) signs on the doors. On the other hand, you don’t need to carry days or weeks worth of food as it is readily available every few hours, and you don’t need to carry a tent/sleeping bag.
I did some research on the Camino while planning my trip, but once there the Camino became a much more important part of the trip than I expected it would, and so when I returned home I did more research (see above statistics). I now realize that while I didn’t carry all my stuff on my back every day (many pilgrims do not, ‘tours’ carry the stuff for you and even many individuals have their packs transported for them), and I didn’t stay in albergues (many pilgrims do not, they stay in all manor of lodgings, especially those on tours but individuals too) and I didn’t cover the whole 798 km (only 12% do that) I DID ‘do’ the Camino.
Top: All the Caminos Middle: Camino Frances Bottom: Camino del Norte
Overall I enjoyed the trip immensely, saw some wonderful and amazing places, am glad I did it, probably would do the same itinerary again knowing what I know. In general I think 5 week trips are more enjoyable split between two or more distinct cultures/areas, and while this was a whole five weeks in just one third of one country (plus few days in Basque France which was pretty similar) there was quite a variety of landscape, weather and architecture which ranged from cool, green Galicia to the hot plains of Castile y Leon to Europe’s only desert.
Of course there is even more to see than I did, places I wish I’d had time to get to. And even in this small patch of northern Spain, the scenery and weather was different north of the mountains than south. But the food, the general ambiance, etc. – despite part of it being in Basque ‘country’ it was all pretty culturally similar. In fact, to me anyway, Basque France was clearly France and Basque Spain clearly Spain rather than feeling “Basque”. Only main difference I felt was the language. In Basque Spain everything was in Basque and Spanish. Elsewhere in Spain and in France it was Spanish (or French) but with English ‘subtitles’.
Language – I am terrible with languages, always have been (the only course I every flunked was French). But I type out ‘cheat sheets’ of common words and phrases and try to use local language to at least ask if they speak English or state that I don’t speak Spanish. Since I’ve been to Italy so many times I’ve found I can at least read at bit of Italian though I can’t say/understand much. Same with French. But in most of my travels I’ve found people in Europe do tend to speak at least a bit of English. This trip I found the least English spoken than just about anywhere else I’ve been including other parts of Spain. Still, I got along fine, everyone was willing to help. My best experience was the woman in Hondarribia who did the ‘chicken dance’ to tell me there was chicken in the sandwich I was buying. A few people essentially implied ‘if you don’t speak Spanish it’s your problem’ but most were more than willing to pantomime what they were trying to say and to try to understand me.
Weather – I’ll admit I am more weather – especially sun – dependent than most people. Maybe it’s just me, maybe it’s because photography is such a central focus of my trips (and with photography “it’s all about the light”). I can take it cool or hot and don’t much care, but I need sun most of the time. I guess that’s why I love Italy and Greece and Provence and southern Spain so much. Well I knew there was more of a possibility of rain in the north, after all it’s the ‘green’ part of Spain and places don’t get green without some rain. But I had quite a bit of rain/clouds. Of my 34 days only 14 were all or mostly sunny (and those mostly in Castilla y Leon, La Rioja and Navarra – only a handful of totally sunny days in the far north of Galicia, Asturias, Cantabria and Basque country). Not all the rest were complete washouts, but ‘partly sunny’ often meant only an hour or two.
Food – OK, to start off, I am not a foodie. I like to eat as much as the next person, but that has never been a priority of my trips. And while I do like to sample different and local cuisines, I actually prefer ‘street food’ types of things (and desserts) to elaborate, expensive meals. And especially in the summer both my husband and I like to eat light. And on top of that, my husband is on a low salt diet. We both love traveling in Italy because you can pretty much always get a great pizza or just have the pasta course in a restaurant. And gelato is everywhere. But generally food in Spain was way less satisfying than Italy – but also less satisfying than most other countries I’ve been to. Probably my least favorite trip in terms of food.
It’s hard to eat light in Spain - other than tapas/pinxtos – most places have a ‘menu de dia’ which was way more than we wanted. You could certainly order just one course – but then you get just one thing – for example once I ordered shrimp in garlic oil and got a huge dish of just that – good shrimp (swimming in oil with bits of garlic). But no salad, vegetable or potato. Had I wanted I could have ordered those but then it’s too much food and gets expensive pretty fast. Most of the salads all came with tuna, egg and/or ham. We hardly ever found just a side salad. Very few places had English translations, and the guidebook menu translators don’t have the regional names of things. And when we did figure out what was on the menus, most of them featured ham, squid, octopus, sardines and anchovies as well as tripe, pig trotters and blood sausage. None of which are on my list of favorite foods and all of which are very salty. The Iberian ham was wonderful, as were lots of the cheeses, but after a few weeks I got pretty tired of ham and cheese. Some of the tapas/pintxos, especially in the Basque region were wonderful, but ham and bits of salty fish featured heavily.
On any trip of five weeks I eat some meals from markets/grocery stores and did so much more on this trip. There were some excellent fruits and veggies available – peaches, strawberries, cherries, raspberries, cherry tomatoes, red peppers, and olives. Most of the stores also had packaged salads (came with meat, cheese, croutons, dressing). I bought a jar of wonderful honey early in the trip and it lasted till just the last day. Oikos natural Greek yogurt was in all the stores (at half the price it is at home), I ate a ton of that with the honey and fruit. I also frequently found whole grain croissants – don’t know if they are actually better for you than the regular ones, but sounds like they should be, right. And for dessert there were some wonderful pastries, éclairs, etc. And there is a Spanish chain of frozen yogurt shops called Smöoy that I found in every city and was delicious (and healthy if you got the fresh fruit toppings, not so much if you went for the chocolate.)
Coffee (café con leche) was excellent just about everywhere, every day. Panadaria, hotel, café, bar, restaurant – anywhere.
Driving – Roads were excellent and well marked (though the route numbers didn’t always match up with the maps, and they tended to change – and then often change back again). Drivers were mostly rather courteous – not as fast as in Italy, no imaginary third lane like we found in Greece, less tailgating than in France. We lucked out and got a Fiat 500, which we’ve had on several trips in recent years (and which we like so much we are seriously thinking of buying one at home).
We didn’t have GPS and didn’t get lost (at least not seriously) or for very long (or in ways that GPS would have helped). We actually intended to get a local SIM card so we could use google maps but the store we planned to get it in the day we picked up the car was closed and then we found we really didn’t need it. Before the trip I had google-mapped directions to all the hotels, and picked the hotels largely with the criteria that they be pretty easy to find (and have parking) and printed all that out and I had a couple of paper maps that I had purchased on Amazon.
We found every hotel with no problem although in Santiago we missed turning down the street and then had an awful time getting back to it. In Oviedo we found the hotel easily but then drove to the churches and got lost finding the hotel on the way back. And getting to the car return at the Madrid airport was a horror but that was due to construction and lack of signage and GPS would not have helped in that case. Everything else was a piece of cake.
The first half of the trip I went from city to city by bus. Alsa buses go everywhere in Spain, are cheap, comfortable and while it takes a bit longer than driving yourself it is way less expensive (especially when it’s just one person) than having the car, parking, etc. I booked all the reservations on busbud.com and some of the buses were full so I’m glad I had a reservation, but this was summer, I think other times you could have just bought your ticket when you wanted to leave.
I found it interesting that about 99% of the cars I saw on the whole trip were Spanish (E), and of the other 1%, almost all were “NL”. So I guess they don’t get a lot of visitors driving down from the rest of Europe.
General impressions: lots of street music in every city. Benches! – now that’s one thing that Spain does better than most countires. Every city had lots of benches. Water – I think a seaside is the best, but a nice river (as in Bilbao) is good too. Makes such a difference to have that focus. On the other hand, there’s something to be said for hot, dry, and sunny.
Siesta seemed longer (12:30 or 13:00 till about 17:00 in many cases) and more ‘complete’ than in most parts of Italy or France where it seems to be more like 14:00-16:00).
Beware of DCC everywhere in Spain – usually they asked (and plenty of the time it’s just done in Euros) but several times they snuck in the conversion without asking).
Storks and Swallows/swifts – Found throughout Europe in the summer, storks and swallows/swifts seem especially Spanish. I don’t recall any storks in the north, but all over the plains I spotted them, generally on top of church steeples, towers, even just tall poles, usually on the outskirts of cities. They build stick nests, often several on each church or tower. Swifts and swallows (they are two different types of bird from the same family and I’m never sure which it is I’m seeing) are seen all over Europe, especially on a balmy summer evening flitting through the sky as it turns deep blue, then purple, then black. They race around church steeples, castle towers, and ancient bell towers, usually screeching. They build their nests under the eaves or on old stone ledges much more commonly than on any modern structures. Remarkably, they eat, sleep - half their brain remains awake - and even mate on the wing. Swifts eat insects and windborne spiders and when the weather is hot and their food has been carried high on thermals, they follow it into heavens, appearing as tiny specks in the summer sky. I spent a good deal of time just watching them do their thing. Storks, swifts and swallows all spend summers (March to November) in Europe and migrate in winter to Africa.
French Basque Country
Less than 20 miles from the Spanish frontier to the mouth of the Adour is the French Basque Coast. Lots of half-timbered houses, brightly colored trim, mostly red. Coastline with crashing waves, the interior hilly and very green (they get a LOT of rain there). French is the main language, I didn’t hear (or see signs) in Basque for the most part (which is different from the Spanish Basque region where everything was in both languages and people were speaking Basque, here they were mostly speaking French). Virtually no one spoke English, just minimally in the hotel, not at all in lots of the shops and restaurants. Heard English spoken by a few tourists, but for the most part I think the tourists are from France, or at least Europe.
The airport, named Biarritz, is between Biarritz and Bayonne. There is a local bus system that goes all around Biarritz, Bayonne and other towns and line 14 runs from the airport to Bayonne (and Biarritz). It takes about half an hour and costs 1€. Several per hour. To travel between Biarritz and Bayonne line 1A takes about half an hour and costs 1€. Modern, attractive (bright pastel stripped buses – pastel stripes are the ‘thing’ around here) buses. The train works best for getting to either St Jean (de Luz or Pied du Port).
I spent 4 nights in Bayonne and did day trips to St Jean Pied du Port, St Jean de Luz and Biarritz. While I had a few sunny hours in Biarritz and Bayonne, most of the time it was cool (60s), dreary, rainy and very windy which most likely explains the fact that this was not my favorite part of this trip (or any trip). Also, this was the only hotel I didn’t really like.
Bayonne –population 45,000, divided by the Nive and Adour rivers. It’s set back about 5km from the coast, but has two rivers and five bridges. A cathedral city and the capital of the Pays Basque, it's characterized by narrow streets full of half-timbered tall buildings (about 5 or 6 stories). The smaller river, Nive runs through the center and the quaysides are full of eateries, which on nice days, have outside seating and street music. In the rain it’s pretty dreary though. The riverside quays are the city’s most picturesque focus, with 16th century arcaded houses. There are several shopping streets, it’s larger than it feels at first. Good selection of places to eat, the only international chain I saw was one ‘Subway’. The cathedral sits on a small square (which was really the only square in town) and is somewhat hemmed in by buildings. Still, it’s an impressive building and its steeples can be seen from a distance. There are some old ramparts (walls) around the edges of the old town, not particularly scenic though. There are two ‘castle’ like structures, one on each side of the river. While I was there four nights I was only in Bayonne itself a few rather early mornings or afternoon/evenings as I did day trips each of my three full days. But that was more than enough to explore the small city. If in the general vicinity Bayonne is certainly worth a visit, it’s just that compared with so many amazing places in Europe it doesn’t quite claw it’s way to become a ‘must see’.
“St Mary's Cathedral is gothic in style and built using locally-sourced white and red stone on the site of a Romanesque cathedral which was destroyed by fire in 1258. Situated in the heart of the historic centre of Bayonne on a mound overlooking the Nive and Adour rivers, the cathedral contains relics of St Léon, a 9th century Bishop of Bayonne and was listed as a World Heritage Site in 1998 as part of the French Pilgrim Routes of Santiago de Compostela. The adjoining cloister dates back to 1240. Constructed in stages between the 13th and 16th centuries, it was not until the19th century that the spires were built giving the cathedral the elegant outline it has today. The chapels are decorated with 14th century style paintings by Steinhel and the stained glass windows are done in the style of Chartres Cathedral.”
While I don’t find Bayonne listed on any of the current routes of the Camino, logistically this is where you need to come to start either the Camino del Norte or the Camino Frances (unless you had someone drive you to St Jean Pied du Port or Hondarribia) as it’s the only place with public transportation there. There is a pilgrim office in the cathedral so it seems to be ‘on the Camino’ but very few people today start walking from Bayonne, most take a train to St Jean Pied du Port or a bus to Hondarribia/Irun on the Spanish boarder.
Biarritz – Population 30,000 Up until the 1950s, Biarritz was the Monte-Carlo of the Atlantic coast, transformed by Napoléon III during the mid-19th century into a playground for monarchs, aristos and glitterati. With the 1960s rise of the Côte d’Azur, however, the place went into seemingly terminal decline, despite having been discovered by surfers in 1957. But from the early 90s, Biarritz was rediscovered by Parisian yuppies, a new generation of the international surfing fraternity and a slightly alternative family clientele, who together have put the place back on the map. Eleven miles from the Spanish border.
The main feature of Biarritz is the large curved beach, the Grand Plage, with a peninsular arm at one end with the lighthouse, and rocky outcroppings at the other. Alongside the beach is the Quai de la Plage promenade. This wide pedestrian walkway offers stunning views of the breaking waves and the Biarritz lighthouse in the distance. The large Casino, built in the 1930s, is a major feature of the beach. Biarritz is the surfing capital of Europe, heavy winds bring strong surf – this is normally a good thing for surfers. But when I was there the wind – and the surf – was SO strong that surfing (and swimming) were prohibited. It was cloudy and dreary all morning, I ended up going to the Aquarium during a downpour cause what else was I going to do. It’s pretty mediocre and no English signs. But a turtle and a fish are the same in any language. The heavy surf did make for some impressive waves which were fun to watch when it wasn’t raining. And then miraculously the sun came out for two or three hours and Biarritz was much nicer. Still, I wish I had seen it with the brightly stripped beach cabanas that are on all the post cards.
Along the beach is a large casino and the Hôtel du Palais, built by the Emperor Napoleon III for his wife Eugénie, ( Second Empire style). Since 1893, the building has been used as a hotel. The Fishermen Port, originally built in 1870 for local fishermen now mainly houses leisure boats.
Rocher de la Vierge (Virgin of the Rock) is set on a steep, narrow rock jutting into the ocean. The site is accessible by an iron bridge built by the Gustave Eiffel workshops. As the focal point, a statue of the Virgin Mary stands on top of the rock, looking out towards the sea. There is a great panorama of the coastline from here, extending from the mouth of the Adour River to the Spanish frontier. Vieux Port lies on the other side of the headland. The most atmospheric part of the town of Biarritz is centered on Rue du Port Vieux, which leads inland from the Vieux Port. There are several more modern, and pleasant, shopping streets.
Saint-Jean-de-Luz (16 miles/ ¾ hour train from Bayonne, pop 14,000) A quaint fishing village with traditional Basque character, the old quarter is full of half-timbered buildings, it’s the most attractive town in the area and still one of the busiest fishing ports in the area. Looks like it would be absolutely charming except it was very dark and cloudy and rained most of the day I was there. While there were frequent trains all morning, the options for return trains in the afternoon left me with a choice of one hour or almost six hours! I did opt for the longer time figuring I’d have a nice long lunch somewhere. But it stopped raining for an hour or two and so I walked around the town/beach and harbor and thus delayed lunch till around 2:30 and the restaurant kind of rushed me through my meal as they wanted to close up. So much for a leisurely lunch reading my book; after less than an hour I was back exploring the town in the rain.
Saint Jean Pied de Port Camino Frances
(1 hour train from Bayonne, population 1527) Located at an elevation of 1,300 meters, this medieval town was an important stop on the Camino to Santiago de Compostela and was considered one of the most difficult stages of the pilgrims' journey. Dating back to Roman times this area has been an important passage through the Pyrenees and dating back to the 10th century it has been the meeting point of the Caminos de Santiago that come through from various points in France. Listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the historic old quarter has steep, winding cobblestone streets and stone bridges and a church - the Eglise Notre Dame du Bout du Pont. Literally "Saint John [at the] Foot of [the] Pass", it is now the start of the Camino Frances, the most popular of the Caminos. It is 5 miles from the Spanish border on the River Nive.
Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port is the terminus on the railway line from Bayonne through the French Basque Country, along the valley of the river Nive, with two or three services each day. The train station is 1 km from the center of the town.
The main street is the cobbled rue de la Citadelle, which runs down hill and over the river from the 15th century Porte St-Jacques to the Porte d'Espagne by the bridge. From the bridge, there are views of the old houses with balconies overlooking the Nive. Many of the buildings are very old, of pink and grey schist, and retain distinctive features, including inscriptions over their doors. One, a bakery, lists the price of wheat in 1789.
The Camino is pretty much the main thing in town. There actually were a number of ‘regular’ tourists around but the pilgrims, and the pilgrim office, the numerous hostels, and shops catering to hiking were the main feature. I had intended to start the Camino and walk an hour or so, even though I knew I would have to backtrack but I wanted to see what the beginning of the Camino is like. Unfortunately it was raining pretty heavily by the time I had explored the town itself so I just took the train back to Bayonne.
Sign for a pilgrim hostel The official Camino office, people getting their 'passports' More Camino lodging
SAN SEBASTIAN Camino del Norte
On the Bay of Biscay, 12 miles from the French border, definitely in Basque Country, the city of San Sebastian (Donostia in Basque) was one of the highlights of my five-week trip. The fact that I had great weather and a hotel right in the middle of the Paseo de la Concha may have contributed to my feelings but I think I would have loved San Sebastian regardless. Appropriately, San Sebastian and it’s scallop shaped bay is on the Camino del Norte.
top: Paseo de la Concha bottom left: Área Romántica bottom center: Hotel Niza white building in center bottom right: Camino del Norte
A mixture of Paris and Barcelona, elegant and stately yet with a relaxed beach resort ambiance, centered on the Bay of La Concha capped by twin peaks at each end and a cute little island in the center. The incredibly delightful beachfront promenade, Paseo de la Concha, (2 km) runs the length of the bay, with the old town at one end and a ‘Belle Époque’ shopping district behind. For a century the characteristic and lovingly painted wrought iron balustrade that stretches the length of the promenade has been a symbol of the city, it shows up on everything from jewelry to headboards. The promenade leads at one end to a funicular up to the Mounte Igueldo viewpoint, and at the other end to ’El Muelle’, the little fishing/yacht port, behind which paths wind up to Monte Urguell, topped by the soaring statue of Christ gazing over the city (a kind of Rio de Janeiro aura).
top left: view from Mt Urguell right: Mt Urguell above El Muelle bottom right: Paseo de la Concha with Mt Urguell topped by Christ Statue in the distance bottom left: El Muelle center: view from Mt Igueldo
San Sebastian is a city with about 200,000 population but it feels much smaller. No towering skyscrapers. The Basque culture and language are very apparent there, signs are always in both Basque and Spanish (and sometimes also French, rarely saw any signs in English). People in the tourist trade speak minimal English, but most people were friendly and helpful. I heard a LOT of American English spoken as I walked around the city so clearly it’s on the American tourist map, much more so than other towns in Northern Spain.
I was in San Sebastian four nights/three and half days. One day I took the bus to the Spanish/French boarder towns of Hondarribia and Hendaye and the rest of the time I just wandered around San Sebastian, back and forth all three beaches and their promenades, explored the old town, climbed Monte Urguell and took the funicular up Monte Igueldo. Could have done that for weeks.
San Sebastian has five main areas. The Parte Vieje, ‘old town’, lies across the neck of Monte Urgull, the bays eastern headland. It is neatly underlined to the south by the Alameda del Boulevard whose broad promenade leads into the pedestrianized Parque de Alderdi Eder, which in turn merges with the Paseo de la Concha. South of the Alameda del Boulevard is the sleeker commercial and shopping district, the Centro Romantic [Área Romántica], laid out on a grid pattern with late 19th century buildings.
narrow streets of Parte Vieje Paseo de la Concha Parque de Alderdi Eder Avenida de La Libertad
On the east side of the Rio Urumea is the district of Gros, with a relaxed ambience and surfing beach of Zurriola. and at the opposite, western end, of the city is Playa de Ondarreta (essentially a continuation of Playa de la Concha), a very upmarket district known as a millionaires' belt on account of its lavish homes.
Paseo de la Concha runs along the beach and is full of benches and little trees, most of the time people, and much of the time street performers. There are a few kiosks selling soda and ice cream bars but only a couple restaurants so it all open for strolling and people watching. It’s a nice difference from a lot of touristy places where in the summer it’s wall-to-wall tables and umbrellas. In addition to the gorgeous white wrought iron balustrade there are a pair of huge clock towers and at another point, a pair of huge white iron Belle Époque lampposts. In the center is the Perla Spa Thalassotherapy Centre occupying a couple interesting stone buildings jutting out from the paseo (also the only actual restaurants on the Paseo). (Thalassotherapy is the use of seawater, algae, mud, and other marine items as therapeutic treatment.)
Paseso de la Concha Perla Spa
The Bay of La Concha has very calm waters and the main beach, La Concha Plage has a very wide swath of fine white sand and is frequently awarded ‘most beautiful urban beach’ awards. At low tide the beach is almost 40 meters side. The extension – past the Mirimar Palace, is Ondarreta Plage. The third beach, Zurriola Plage is on the far side of the Urumea River and has larger waves (well, at least they qualify as ‘waves’) so is the surfing beach.
la Concha Plage Ondarreta Plage Zurriola Plage
Palacio de Miramar (Miramar Palace) and park, which divides the crescent in the middle, was where Queen María Cristina resided in 1893, when she made San Sebastian the summer court. She was advised to come here to bath in the sea for health reasons. The Palace is in the Queen Anne Cottage Style.
Antiguo Tunnel passes by the Miramar Palace, joining the two beaches. It is decorated with maritime motifs (supposed to look like the aquarium), one of the legacies of being the European Capital of Culture in 2016.
Isla de Santa Clara is a tiny 30-meter-wide island just off the coast. The island has restaurants and picnic areas. During summertime a ferry runs from the San Sebastian harbor to the island.
Top left: Isla de Santa Clara top right: Mirimar Palace bottom right & left: Isla de Santa Clara left and Mt Urguell right from Paseo Ondarreta
Monte Igeldo is the higher of the two ‘mini-mountains’ and has absolutely awesome views. There is a turn of the century (Belle Époque Style) funicular which runs up and down every half hour (€3.15 RT). There’s a very old, kind of tacky, little amusement park up there which doesn’t seem to get much action. Virtually everyone just takes the funicular up, gazes at the view and goes back down. The funicular station is just behind the tennis courts where the shore turns.
El Peine del Viento (Eduardo Chillida sculpture), the “Wind Comb” – about 5 minutes past the funicular, at the very end of the promenade are three huge iron sculptures jutting out of the rocks. It’s become one of the symbols of the city. In contrast to the beach area, which has barely lapping waves, the waves crash with some force on the rocks here and can be mesmerizing to watch. I spent at least an hour doing just that (but then I’m easily amused).
El Peine del Viento Monte Igeldo funicular castello Mt Igeldo
El Peine de Viento Sculpute
At the other end of La Concha Plage is The City Hall on a small plaza, which opens into a tiny park with flowers and a carousel, Parque de Alderdi-Eder. The city hall was originally a casino when it was built in 1897 until 1924.
El Muelle - Beyond the town hall, the Paseo ends at San Sebastian’s small fishing and recreational harbor, El Muelle. There is a passage through the wall at the appropriately named Calle Puerto into the old town. The other side of the harbor, a wide promenade, Paseo Nuevo, encircles Monte Urgull, with panoramic vistas of the Bay of Biscay and goes all the way around to the Urumea River. There is another rusty metal sculpture here, the Construction Vide, not quite as interesting as El Peine del Viento,.
Monte Urgull - A once mighty castle (Castillo de la Mota), 12th century, is atop Monte Urgull, as are views. The best are not from the statue of Christ, at the very top, but from the ramparts of the left side as you face the hill, just above the port’s aquarium. You can walk up there via several paths from behind the aquarium, or from just above the old town. There are paths, steps and combinations of the two, and you can’t get lost, they all end up at the same place. On my way up I saw what I think was a bobcat.
The Parte Vieje, ‘old town’, fills the neck of Monte Urgull, the bay’s eastern headland. There are shops and residences but mostly what there is are pintxos bars, seems like hundreds of them. The old town is mostly deserted in the morning, but it’s like party central in the evening. The main (pedestrianized) street, Calle Mayor, starts at the city hall and ends at Eglise Santa Maria, an 18th century Baroque church. It was built on the site of an ancient Roman temple. The church has a splendid Churrigueresco facade with a statue of Saint Sebastian in a niche and two towers. Looking in the opposite direction down Calle Mayor you can see the spire of the cathedral.
Down Calle 31 de Agosto, the only street that survived the fire in 1813, is Eglise San Vicente - thought to be the oldest building in San Sebastián. Its origins date to the 12th century, but it was rebuilt in its current Gothic form in the early 1500s. Buried in the center of the old town is it’s only real square, Plaza de la Constitucion - bullfights used to be held there and the seat numbering on the balconies remains. Lots of cafes.
Left: side street in the old town, top center: Plaza de la Constitucion Right: Eglise San Vicente
The old town is neatly underlined to the south by the Alameda del Boulevard a broad avenue with cars on one side and a grassy area with plane trees, grass and flowers in the center, and a wide pedestrian walk on the other. There is a band-shell in the center and it ends at City Hall sitting in the Parque de Alderdi-Eder at the top of the promenade, which in turn merges with the Paseo de la Concha. Mercado de la Bretxa , a sandstone market building facing the Alameda del boulevard is now mostly a modern shopping complex, with a McDonalds (with a very good McCafe). The produce market still takes place mornings along side the building.
Just below Alameda del Boulevard is the “Romantic Area” – the Belle Époque area that reminds you of Paris and Barcelona. The Plaza de Gipuzkoa is in the middle and in the center of it is a miniature park, complete with a pond with two swans and a tiny waterfall. That’s where the bus to Hondarribia leaves from. Classy place for a bus stop. Many of the streets are pedestrianized, full of stores including some of the international chains such as H&M and Sephora, etc. The Avenida de La Libertad runs parallel to the Alameda a few blocks south, lined with elegant buildings and a row of white iron Art Noveau lamp posts in the center.
top left: Mercado top and bottom right: Plaza de Gipuzkoa bottom left: Avenida de La Libertad
The area continues several more blocks to the Catedral del Buen Pastor - The largest church in San Sebastian, the Cathedral of the Good Shepherd, is in the New Town. This Neo-Gothic cathedral was designed by a Basque architect in 1880 and completed in 1897. With its 75-meter-high tower, it is an important city landmark. The cathedral was built out of sandstone from the Monte Igueldo.
Between the Cathedral and the river is a tiny plaza, Plaza de Bilbao, with a fountain in the center and some nice Art Noveau shop fronts.
A block from there is the Rio Urumea and the most impressive of the bridges, Puente de Maria Christina (1905). Between Puente de Maria Christina and the next bridge, Puente de Sta. Catarina, both sides of the river are lined with elegant buildings and fronted with park like tree shaded promenades. The next stretch, to the last bridge, Puente de Zurriola (with modernist, art-deco lampposts built in 1921) features two Belle Époque buildings, the Hotel Maria Christina and the Theatre Vicyoria Eugenia. In most cities this riverfront would be a main attraction, but given San Sebastian’s gorgeous sea front it sort of takes second place.
The river opens up to the ocean with Monte Urgull on one side and the Zurriola Plage on the other. A large modern building, the Kursaal Congress Center, was designed to look like two rocks stranded on the seashore.
HONDARRIBIA Camino del Norte
Gipuzkoa Plaza in San Sebastian is where the buses leave from for Hondarribia. There are several bus stops (a bench with plexi glass enclosure and signs listing the routes) along one side of the plaza, at least three of which go to Hondarribia, the E 20, 21 and 27. www.lurraldesbus.eus). They are pretty frequent, each line goes once or twice an hour. I took the E20 there and it does go through a lot of suburban sprawl and takes close to 45 minutes. The E21 is the express and goes via the highway taking about ½ hour. I got that one coming back. But either will do. There are two stops in Hondarribia between the old walled town on the hill and the harbor – really just the one main street. The first one is just below the Santa Maria Gate and the other is at the other end of the walled town, just before the “fisherman’s village”. Literally about a minute apart so doesn’t matter which one you get on/off at.
The border town of Hondarribia is one of the most historic and pleasant towns in the region. Almost completely free of tourists, it’s a well-preserved town surrounded by 15th century fortified walls, the only one in Guipuzcoa province. There’s a fishing port, a marina, and a beach, but the most charming area of Hondarribia is the walled part, a hilly grid of cobbled streets entered through arched gates. But the whole town is tiny, could be crossed on foot in less than half an hour.
The main square, at the top of the town is Plaza de Armas, with colorful houses on two sides, the Castle of Charles V, built around 1190, and today the Parador, on the third side and views across the bay to France on the fourth . The Castle’s location on the hill overlooking the Bidasoa River, Hendaye and Txingudi Bay, made it the perfect position for defensive purposes. Just off the plaza is the Church of Santa Maria de La Asuncion y Del Manzano, built in the 15th and 16th centuries on the remains of the town’s original fortified walls, mostly Gothic with some Renaissance features. The belfry is 18th century Baroque.
The main street, leading down hill from Plaza de Armas to the Santa Maria Gate is Calle Mayor (Kale Nagusia in Basque) The cobbled street, is lined with 17th and 18th century buildings featuring carved beams under the eaves, wrought iron balconies and family crests. Santa Maria Gate is one of two original entrances to the town, there used to be a draw bridge, guard house and moat here. Over the gate is the town’s coat of arms and over that a sun dial.
The Queen’s Bastion, built in the 16th century where the two main sections of the wall come together.
The other main plaza is Gipuzkoa Plaza , cobbled and small but with ornate buildings overhanging a wooden colonnade. This area was originally entered through San Nicolás Gate. In the 15-16th centuries this door was the village's main entrance. Originally a chapel, a tower, two doors and two bridges (one that could be raised and lowered and the other fixed) to cross over the moat formed the compound.
Down hill and outside the walls San Pedro Street is the main street of the old fishing village, known as the Marina District. The colors of the houses reflected those of the local fishing boats. The oldest building on the street dates to 1575. Today it is filled with restaurants and shops, lined with plane trees and benches. I got a chicken pastry thing for lunch, along with an ice tea and ate on a bench while people watching. The shop I got it in had mostly sweets and though the sign said ‘poullet’ I wasn’t entirely sure. The woman spoke no English but did the chicken dance to let me know what it was. Love sign language to overcome the language barrier.
From the marina a tiny boat shuttles between Hondarribia and Hendaye, France (1.90€, summer only). The ride takes about 10 minutes and it runs every half hour.
Just on the other side of the river from Hondarribia, Hendaye’s location on the border has made it an important point for commerce between Spain and France. Historically speaking, the location has also proven to be problematic for the town since it has been involved in every conflict between the two countries. There’s a long beach (with surf) and streets of Basque style houses, a castle, the Chateau Abbadia, and good views of the flysch rock formations that are accessible on coastal walking paths.
Ondarraitz Beach has a long promenade next to it which is known as the “Boulevard de la Mer.” About halfway down the promenade there is the “Old Croisière Casino,” a building that stands out, not just because it is the only building located on the beach itself but also because it has its own particular style. Built in 1884, this is the only building in Hendaye that has an Arabic architectural style. For over 70 years, until 1980, the Old Croisière Casino was used as a casino. Today, it is a luxury residence and also a shopping mall.
At the end of the beach, are two rocks just off the coast called the twin rocks (“les deux jumeaux” in French). The legend around these rocks says that one day a Basajaun (a bigfoot like creature from Basque mythology) was in the Basque mountains and he tried to throw a rock to destroy the town of Bayonne. However, in doing so, he tripped and the rock fell out of his hand, broke in two and landed in the water of Hendaye beach.
BILBAO Camino del Norte
Bilbao, Spain's sixth-largest city and biggest port, has been described as an ugly, gray, decaying, city. The metropolitan area has the highest population in the Basque region; including the suburbs and surrounding towns, Bilbao has over a million inhabitants. After the museum opened, 20 years ago, whole sections of the city were cleaned up and rebuilt. The river has wide pedestrian walks on both sides, with trees and benches. Some nice buildings but most seem to be mid-late 20th century boring. Some are nicely colored. But not quite the charm of Italy or some other Spanish towns. Still, the old town and the river are very pleasant. The ‘new’ part of Bilbao has some very nice buildings scattered around, but they are overshadowed by boring mid 20th century cement and steel buildings so the overall ambiance is nothing special. There are a few impressive modern glass skyscrapers. It’s not a bad city, but nothing you would really go out of the way for – if it weren’t for the Guggenheim.
The bus ride from San Sebastian to Bilbao passed the ocean a couple times, and a few pleasant vistas of hills and farms but mostly it went through two medium sized ugly towns that I never heard of and took forever to drive through (to pick up or drop off one passenger each) or else highway. Driving through the suburbs of Bilbao was mostly ugly sprawl. As we were turning into the bus station I did see the tram so knew where to walk to get to it, (area around the bus station is confusing at first but there are two tram stops and a metro stop within 5 minutes walk).
The Guggenheim Museum is without a doubt the main attraction of Bilbao. Designed by architect Frank Gehry, the museum opened to the public in 1997 and has since been hailed by both the public and critics as one of the most important structures of contemporary architecture in the world. The building is wrapped in titanium panels that create what appears to be random organic curves. These panels were designed to capture light. For this reason, the building takes on a different appearance at night as the city lights reflect off it. Also, when viewed from the river, it resembles a ship (albeit abstract) and the panels are reminiscent of fish scales. Both of these attributes pay homage to the fact that the river was historically the economic hub of Bilbao. In the Atrium, the central interior hall that is a signature feature of Gehry's architecture, paintings are displayed along the walls of the curved walkway in a three-level staircase. Gehry’s masterstroke was to use titanium, an expensive soft metal used in airplanes. He was intrigued by its futuristic sheen and malleable qualities; the panels are literally paper-thin. The titanium makes the building shimmer: it seems to capture motion. Giant windows allow in natural light. The building also interacts fluidly with the river itself; the pool at the museum’s feet almost seems part of the Rio Nervión, a few feet away, and the mist sculpture, when turned on, further blurs things. It’s entitled FOG, which also happen to be the architect’s initials. The same pool also has Fire Fountain pyrotechnics at night.
Outside the museum itself, Jeff Koons’s giant floral sculpture, “Puppy”, sits eagerly greeting visitors. Initially a touring attraction visiting the city for the opening of the museum in 1997, Bilbaínos demanded that he stayed put. On the other side of the building, a sinister spider-like creature guards the waterside approach. It’s a striking piece of work, and makes a bizarre sight if approached when the mist is on. More comforting are Koons’s colorful bunch of Tulips by the pool under the gallery’s eaves.
Inside, massive Gallery 104, built with the realization that many modern artworks are too big for traditional museums, has been dedicated to Richard Serra’s “The Matter of Time”, an installation consisting of eight monumental structures of curved oxidized steel. A hundred feet long, and weighing 180 tons, it’s meant to be interactive – walk through it, talk through it, touch it. Other galleries feature ‘traditional’ modern art. The entire second floor is dedicated to temporary exhibits and while I was there it was Bill Viola a video artist whose work heavily features water. The third floor is their permanent exhibit which includes one Monet and a number of post-impressionists that were nice, plus some more modern stuff like Warhol (150 Marilyn Monroe faces), etc. I like that there were only a few rooms of each kind of art from late 1900s through 20th century. There was also some sculpture by Eduardo Chillida who did the Wind Sculpture in San Sebastian and an exhibit about turn of the (last) century Paris.
Top left "Matter of Time" steel installation, remaining photos are all Bill Viola works
The Nervión River meanders through Bilbao, whose historic core was built inside one of its loops, with water protecting it on three sides. Now there are promenades on both sides with parks, benches, playgrounds, etc. and crossed by several bridges, the most striking being the Zubizuri (which is Basque for ‘white bridge’, also called Puente del Campo Volantin) footbridge. Opened in 1997, the bridge's unusual design consists of a curved walkway which is supported by steel suspension cables from an overhead arch. The structure of the bridge is painted white and the bridge deck consists of translucent glass bricks. Hotel Conde Duque is right at the foot of the bridge, ten minute walk from the Guggenheim in one direction and the old town in the other.
The Casco Viejo of Bilbao is also known as “las 7 calles” (Siete Calles) or “Zazpi Kaleak” in Basque (the seven streets), since these were the seven streets that formed the original medieval town. Full of Old World charm, the Casco Viejo is on the right bank of the river extending between the San Antón Bridge and the Church of San Nicolás. The beautiful narrow streets are mostly pedestrian-only. More ‘up-scale’ than many European Old Towns, the buildings are several stories high, colorful, and with iron balconies featuring flower boxes. Numerous ones feature glassed in balconies. Plenty of pintxos bars but also lots of shops – produce, meat, fish, bakeries, clothing (including some international chains).
Bilbao's old town. The cute little green tram is the best way to get around Bilbao. The Camino goes right through the center o the old town.
Formerly an area of marshy sand, the Arenal was drained in the 18th century. It is now a busy nexus point for strollers, and dog walkers, and has a bandstand. The beginning of the Old Town it is joined to the other side of town by Puente del Arenal and the Paseo del Arenal.
Iglesia de San Nicolás de Bari. has a Baroque facade and an octagonally shaped interior; the church dates from the 14th century but was completely rebuilt in 1756.
Plaza de Arriaga / Teatro Arriaga, across the street from the Arenal, is an elegant Neo-Baroque theater that was inspired by the Palais Garnier Opera House in Paris. Built in 1890 and later renovated, the Arriaga Theater is the cultural hub of the city where classical music concerts, opera, and theater performances are staged. Was only reopened in 1986 after decades of neglect. It’s very much in plush fin de siècle theatre style, with chandeliers, soft carpet and sweeping staircases.
Abando train station – Across the river from the Theater. Both the side facing the river, and the giant stained glass window upstairs where the trains depart are beautiful, especially for a train station.
Plaza Nueva (Plaza de los Martires)- finished in 1849 and enclosed by elegant arcaded buildings featuring cafés and bars with outdoor terraces, also used for town festivals and farmers markets. More formal and symmetrical than most of the old town with courtly neoclassical arches.
Catedral de Santiago, built in the 14th century and then restored in the 16th century after a fire. Gothic. The cathedral's facade was rebuilt in the 19th century. Slender spire rises high above the tight streets. A graceful Gothic affair, two of its best features are later additions: an arched southern porch and a small but harmonious cloister.
Mercado de la Ribera, art deco building from 1930 sits on the riverbank. The 10,000-square-meter space is one of Europe's largest indoor marketplaces. A bright and cheerful space, the market hall has skylights above and a floor made of clear, translucent material that allows light to flood into the building. The exterior features whimsical Art Deco designs, floral decorations, and lattice windows. This is the main place in the city to find high-quality Basque culinary products, fresh fruits and vegetables, seafood, and other gourmet food products plus there is a great assortment of pintxos bars.
San Antón top left, on the edge of the old town.
El Ensanche, the new town, while a little grey and with a bit too high a percentage of boring late 20th century buildings, does manage to have an elegant European feel to it. There are stately banks and international shops lining the avenues. When the small Casco Viejo area became too small for the population in 1876 the Plan de Ensanche (expansion) was approved, and the area across the river was designed governed by the curve of the Nervión. The Ensanche quickly became Bilbao’s business district, and it remains so today.
BIZKAIA BRIDGE - Portugalete/Getxo Camino del Norte
A twenty minute ride on the metro to either town (3.60€ RT) and a ride across the river on the Bizkaia Bridge('vis-KAI-ya') Gondola (.40 – or €8 to walk across the top). Located on the final stretch of the Bilbao’s Ría, where it flows out into the Bay of Biscay, the bridge links Portugalete ('por-Tu-a-lay-te')and Getxo ('gets-co'), two towns, the former with winding mediaeval streets and the latter more of a grid pattern with larger, newer, town houses. UNESCO World Heritage Site. It was the first metal transporter bridge in the world and is considered a masterpiece of engineering of its time. It was opened in 1893 and has been in operation ever since. A bizarre cross between a bridge and a ferry, it was opened at a time when large steel structures were à la mode in Europe. Wanting to connect the estuary towns of Getxo and Portugalete by road, but not wanting a bridge that would block the ría to shipping, the solution taken was to use a ‘gondola’ suspended by cables from a high steel span. The modern gondola goes back and forth with six cars plus foot passengers aboard. You also see the bridge referred to as the Puente Colgante (hanging bridge). It’s very tall, and the mechanics of it very interesting, but otherwise not especially beautiful to look at.
Very much separate towns rather than suburbs of Bilbao, Getxo is a wealthy, sprawling district encompassing the eastern side of the river mouth, a couple of beaches and a modern marina. Portugalete is a hill town on the other side of the river with several old buildings, some winding streets and nice plazas. Both have riverfront promenades. In both directions there is evidence of the shipping industry but that is a ways from these towns. Portugalete is by far the more interesting one to wander around. There was a group in folk costumes playing bagpipes, drums, etc. and dancing so that certainly added to the ambiance.
I took the metro (‘average’, very functional but boring cars, boring stations) to Portugalete. About 25 minutes. Between the one sign (TI and bridge) and common sense (go down the hill not up) I found the main part of the old town and the bridge.
SANTANDER [Camino del Norte]
Santander, population 200,000 is a coastal city with an extensive south facing bay (the only one on the north coast of Spain), the narrow Bahía de Santander. From the heart of the city, you can see across the bay to rolling green hills and (on clear days) the high mountains of the Picos de Europa (I only saw these on my last of three days, and only in the evening). Originally it was a fisherman’s town but today it’s main activities are industry, commercial port and tourism. In the 18th and 19th century it was a major port for maritime routes between Castile and America. A huge fire in 1941 destroyed most of the historic district. In 1983 the Autonomous Community of Cantabria was created and Santander became it’s capital. It is on the Camino del Norte.
Paseo de Pereda – a long waterfront area on the Bahia (the narrow bay, not the ocean) stretches between the industrial/commercial area and the Magdalena Peninsula. Beginning at the Jardines de Pereda, the promenade continues to Puertochino, the leisure boat marina. Half the city strolls or jogs here on summer evenings. Both Paseo de Pereda and Calle Castelar, opposite the Puerto Chico, are lined with grand buildings flaunting typical glassed-in balconies. Puertochico was Santander's fishermen's port over 100 years ago, and before that commercial vessels docked there. It's home to a gigantic Spanish flag.
Just before the Jardines de Pereda is the Estacion Martima (ferry terminal) built in the 1970s, it’s roof designed to simulate the strong swell of the Cantabrian coast. Brittany Ferries from the UK docks there. Hotel Bahia overlooks it. Pereda Gardens are lovely with several sculptures, a small pond with a curved footbridge over it, a carousel. Post Office Building and the Bank of Spain building sit at one end of the garden. The area right behind here is where the huge fire began which burned much of the old city. There are interesting plaques all around showing what the area looked like before the fire.
The first building on the waterfront promenade is the Futuro Centro Botin, a futuristic building, in two parts, opened in June 2017, designed by the Italian architect Renzo Piano. The building is levitated from the promenade on slender pillars and clad with 360,000 ceramic discs finished with a mother of pearl glaze. It houses an exhibition center (Picasso and Goya, etc.) and cultural education programs, lectures and performances. Santander is hoping it becomes a major art-world destination, and that it will bring the kind of revenue and benefits known as the “Bilbao Effect”.
Next to that is Grua de Piedra, an old Stone Crane that served in the Port of Santander from 1900 until the end of the 20th century. It was used in the loading and unloading of the merchant ships that docked there. Palacete del Embarcadero, built in 1920, the former passenger station, is now an exhibition center.
Just past there is Escultura de los Raqueros - statues of boys on waterfront, in honor of poor or orphaned boys who used to wait for coins to be thrown at the sea and then dove for them.
After the Puertochico is the Palacio de Festivales Cultural Center, 1985, a gigantic theater and performance space. The promenade ends here and become woods and beaches. Steps lead up to Avenida de la Reina Victoria, which connects the Peninsula de la Magdalena with the center of the city and is lined with very upmarket houses (some of Northern Spain’s most expensive residences).
The Península de la Magdalena protects the bay of Santander from the Atlantic, at the tip is the Magdelana Palacio, a gift from the city to the king that now houses a summer university that draws people from around the globe. The building, 1908, is ‘like a child’s idea of a palace, surrounded on three sides by the sea.’ On the bay side of the peninsula are a couple of pretty beaches, Playa de la Magdalena and Playa de los Bikinis. On the sea side is the artificial Playa del Camello, named for the humped rock that sticks out of the water opposite it. The whole peninsula is a park and there are seals (2), sea lions (3) and penguins (several), and three replica Spanish galleons. The views of nearby beaches across the crashing sea are beautiful and both lighthouses are visible from here. And a bronze mermaid.
Plalya del Sardinero – a long beach between the Magdalena Peninsula and the Faro de Cabo Mayor headland has preserved the atmosphere of the Belle Époque era with elegant hotels, an elegantly restored casino and a scenic promenade perfect for coastal strolls. El Sardinero Beach is north of the Peninsula of La Magdalena, facing the Atlantic Ocean where the breaking surf can be dramatic.
From the end of the beach, a coastal path begins that skirts a golf course around the Cabo Menor headland before reaching the Mataleñas (another beach) then up through a high meadow area overlooking the cliffs and the waves below and eventually comes to Faro de Cabo Mayor and the Puente Forado, an interesting formation shaped like a bridge that was carved by nature from the limestone rocks. ~3km
I walked along a path atop a headland with waves crashing on the rocks far below, through a large meadow, wild heather, the ocean, the lighthouse, a golf course off to one side, a stiff breeze – and bagpipes. I could have been in Scotland. And the sun came out and the clouds disappeared and the sky turned blue. Made up for the last couple weeks of mostly cloudy weather. Absolutely gorgeous.
There is not much left of the ‘old town’ due to the fire of 1941. Most of the buildings are mid 20th century but a lot were rebuilt in the traditional Santander style with glassed in balconies.
Santander Cathedral is composed of two Gothic Churches, one built over the other. The lower church, Iglesia del Santisimo Cristo was built during the 8th century, the upper church was begun later in the 8th century but had to be largely rebuilt after the fire of 1941. There is a 14th century cloister. The interior of the church is rather boring but the exterior is unusual, with large square towers rather than the usual steeples, and it’s built of white stone, also unusual among European cathedrals. The cloister is the more traditional golden stone and is lovely.
Banco de Santander building dominates the waterfront area. Going through its grand archway you enter the old quarter. An extraordinary and distinctive fin-de-siecle building - actually two, joined by a huge arch - that was the original head office of what has gone on to become one of the most important banks in the world. I’ve seen ‘Banco de Santanders’ all over Europe, used their cash machines many times so it was kind of cool to see the real thing.
Palazo Pombo – A medium sized open square with a round band shell in the center. The Church of Santa Lucía, 1864, has a beautiful Renaissance portico with large columns.
Mercado del Este, 1839, now houses several tapas bars, a florist and the main office of the TI
Plaza Porticada (64 porticos) one of the largest squares in the city was built with the idea of making it the central hub of the city, after it was devastated by fire in 1941.
Ayuntamiento - The building was built in 1907 in the same place where formerly stood the old convent of San Francisco. In the mid sixties it was enlarged to its present size.
BURGOS Camino Frances
After Santander I "crisscrossed" the Camino and took a bus from the Camino del Norte to the Camino Frances, to Burgos. Burgos felt very much like a “Spanish” city, not that the others weren’t, (well Bilbao and San Sebastian/Donista are Basque). The blindingly bright sunshine and hot weather helped.
Rio Arlanzon delineates the historic center from the newer city. The river is quite small but there is an expanse of greenery on both banks that makes it a rather pastoral setting for the center of a city. The Paseo del Espolon is a wide, plane tree shaded promenade along the banks that feels much more like a park than a promenade. There are benches and fountains and in July there were little white tents housing an arts and crafts market in the evenings. Lining one side are cafes and restaurants.
The main pedestrian bridge, Puente de Santa Maria, leads to the Arco de Santa Maria – the first thing you see as you approach the center of Burgos is this grand arch – from a distance it blends in with the cathedral. Originally built in the 14th century as a triumphal arch in honor of Emperor Carlos V, it formed part of the 11th century city walls. It was turreted and decorated in the 16th century. In 1552, the gate was renovated in Renaissance style. The interior is not especially interesting though there is one large fresco. It houses temporary art exhibits.
Through the arch is the large Plaza del Rey San Fernando and the cathedral. You can see the spires of the Cathedral from pretty much everywhere within the town. It’s just gorgeous and massive in both bulk and height. It’s setting is also impressive with a small square, Plaza de Santa Maria, in front of it, with a fountain and steps going up along the side of the square so you are looking straight at the cathedral, rather than just up at it.
At the top of the steps of Plaza de Santa Maria, just behind the cathedral is the Iglesia de San Nicolas, a smaller church that also blends with the overall appearance of the cathedral though it is clearly a separate church. The street in front of San Nicolas, along the north side of the cathedral is the Camino. Burgos was historically one of the most important cities on the Camino and at one time had over 30 ‘hospitals’ dedicated to the pilgrims. (‘Hospitals housed pilgrims, some of which are still albergues, or hostels).
top: Plaza de Santa Maria bottom left: Plaza del Rey San Feranando center: Cathedral right: fountain in Plaza de Santa Maria
UNESCO-listed Cathedral of Burgos, a masterpiece of Gothic architecture, was begun in 1221 and is the third largest in Spain (after Seville and Toledo). The profusion of sculptural decoration and grandiose proportions make it one of the most impressive in Europe and one of the best examples of French Gothic. WOW – that really is a spectacular building. The size of the building is even more impressive from the inside than the outside. Built from white limestone, and predominantly Gothic, the building reveals other artistic styles that represent later additions (constructed from 1221 to 1795). The spires were only completed in the 19th century. The cathedral's main façade features the Puerta del Perdón doorway above which is a beautiful star-patterned rose window called an estrellón. Every side is just as beautiful as the last. And the cloisters, always my favorite part of any church, did not disappoint. There are two levels, and the upper level is glassed in with stained glass. A lot of the stone is painted which is unusual for most cloisters, which are just natural stone. The lower level is equally nice and the views of the towers and spires from the cloister are beautiful.
Just as amazing inside as out, extremely light and delicate and intricate. You can get a stiff neck looking up. It embodies Flamboyant Gothic style and is richly decorated with sculptured filigree everywhere. There are nineteen side chapels, each more highly decorated than the other, but most with a very light, airy feel unlike a lot of Catholic cathedrals which are dark and foreboding. This church is a riot of spiky spires and towers, pointy arches, four-leaf clovers, and flowery vaulted ceilings.
Top from steps in Plaza Santa Maria Bottom left: cathedral back from the Camino Bottom right: from the cloister
At the other end of the Paseo del Espolon is the Plaza de Mio Cid just over the river from the modern city. Puente de San Pablo is lined with sculptures of characters related to El Cid. The Plaza features a statue of El Cid, Estatua del Cid, the city’s hero (and pronounced El Thid, in pure Castilian Spanish) (he pursued a campaign against the Muslims in the 11th century). The Teatro Principal and Provincial Palace line the plaza and it is the starting point for Calle Vitoria and Calle Santander, two of the city’s main streets. Just down Calle Santander is Casa de los Condestables/Casa del Cordon, with a massive corded façade and two towers, 15th century. It was here that the Catholic Monarchs received Columbus after he returned from his second voyage. Across Puente de San Pablo in the modern citiy is Museo de la Evolucion Humana.
Plaza Mayor is in the historic center, home to the Ayuntamiento, in neoclassical style from the 18th century. The center of the square is full of modern benches, but it is lined with shops and eateries and colorful buildings in the Burgos style with glass fronted balconies. The Casa Consistorial (Ayuntamiento) has marks and dates from two of Burgos’s biggest floods; it’s hard to believe that the friendly little river could ever make it that high.
The old town feels much lighter and more airy than many old towns. The streets are wider and many of the buildings feature glassed balconies. One of the most beautiful buildings is Palacio de Capitania, early 20th century. Iglesia de San Lorenzo, buried deep in the medieval streets of the old town, is 17th century. Another feature of Burgos is bronze statues, featuring everyday people and found throughout the city.
top left: Palacio de Capitania bottom left: San Lorenzo
The Camino enters Burgos center through the Arco de San Juan, follows Calle de San Juan to the church of San Gil, passes between the Church of San Nicholas and the Cathedral, then leaves the city through the Gate of San Martin. The Camino has played a significant role in the life of the city and was its cultural and economic communication road with Europe, influencing the urban layout of the city.
Iglesia de San Lesmes, 15th century, sits on the banks of the small River Vena just outside the Arco de San Juan.
left: Iglesia and Arco de San Gil, 14th to 16th century, the church built right into the walls right: Iglesia de San Estaban, 13-14th century
Several sections of the town walls remain including those between Arco San Gil and the Castillo, and along side Arco de San Martin. The Castillo is where the original city was founded, today it is mostly a leafy park. Houses once covered the slopes of the hill down to the location of the Cathedral. Interesting displays in the cathedral show what the city looked like when the cathedral was being built. The Castle was destroyed by Napoleon in 1813 but some of the ramparts remain and there are displays showing what it used to look like. Views extend beyond the modern city of Burgos to the plains (and windmills) beyond.
Arco de San Martin, a Muddejar style gate from the 14th century through which pilgrims leave the city, and which historically monarchs entered once the city’s privileges had been sworn. Several churches nearby had storks nests atop them.
Parque de la Isla, a park along the river laid out in the 19th century with a wide variety of trees and plants and various artistic elements such as the classical arches of the Palace of the Count of Castilfale, the Renaissance fountains from the Monastery of San Pedro de Arlanza and the Romanesque front of the church of Cerezo de Rio Tiron.
Monastererio de las Huelgas - a medieval Cistercian monastery which was originally a country residence of the kings of Castile is about a half hour walk from the center, through Parque de la Isla. The Spanish word huelga means "repose/relaxation." King Alfonso VIII converted the building into a convent for noble women in 1187. The monastery exemplifies the austere architecture of the Cistercian order, and includes the church, cloister, and chapter house. The original 12th century church was built with a Mudéjar Almohad style, resembling the architecture of Andalusia. It still houses about 40 cloistered nuns so can only be visited by guided tour (long, in Spanish only). To keep the nuns separate from the public, the church was partitioned in the 16th century, and the naves separated by walls. There's a moving pulpit that enabled the priest to address both the congregation and the separated nuns. There is a large cloister and a very pretty smaller cloister with amazing carved plasterwork, no doubt Moorish-influenced.
We took the bus from Burgos to Leon, a trip which is less than two hours via the highway but which most of the time followed the “N” road so took over three hours. Much of the time we were on the Camino and could see pilgrims walking alongside the road, sometimes right on it, usually in a dirt track just to the side. About half the people who got on the bus in Burgos were pilgrims and as the bus stopped numerous times more got on at each stop (only once did a few get off). Once the bus stopped and picked up a few pilgrims and then, as it was pulling away we saw several more waiting (in the shade) on the other side of the road, waving madly at the bus, which did not stop. Bummer, as there wasn’t another bus scheduled to do that route for several hours. So essentially you can cut out over a quarter of the total Camino by taking that bus ride. (183 km of the total 780 km) – or about 7-9 days of walking). The land is mostly flat and almost entirely golden wheat fields, with a few scattered fields of sunflowers, and a few decrepit little towns. Way off in the distance you can see the mountains of the Picos de Europa . It was kind of pretty to look at – for a few hours, no way would I want to walk for over a week of that same scenery. The bus station is in the newer part of Leon, just down the street from the train station (and car rental pick up location).
León Camino Frances
A concentration of beautiful architecture from varying periods, one of the premier stops on the Camino, a lively student population, a spectacular cathedral, a picturesque old quarter – the Barrio Humedo. Immediately loved Leon. From the bus and train stations just across the river (which has extensive riverside gardens) to the cathedral is about 1km. The old town lies immediately south of the cathedral.
Located at the base of the Cantabrian Mountains, and starting life as a provincial Roman settlement, Leon lived through Muslim invasions, entering it’s zenith in the Middle Ages. It was the capital of one of the major regions in the Christian re-conquest of Spain. In the 10th century Leon was a model of reasonable, civilized medieval government. León today is the gateway from Old Castile to the northwestern region. There were signs celebrating that 2017 was the 1000th anniversary of León, which was really interesting to us as our town in Massachusetts just had a huge celebration for it’s “250th” old in North American terms but Leon is four times that old.
It’s a little-known fact that the Spanish city of León’s name only coincidentally means “lion” in modern Spanish. It was founded as an encampment for Roman legions, the Latin name for this legionary town (Legio) converged with the word for lion (leo) over the centuries as Latin grew into Spanish. Apparently this distinction was also lost on the locals and a lion is now the city’s symbol. All over Leon are lions - freestanding sculptures, imbedded on facades, on the manhole covers, on flags, etc. In Burgos, which is in ‘Castile y Leon’ there are lions along with castles featured everywhere.
Puente de los Leones – From the newer part of town where the bus and train stations are located cross this bridge with large Lion sculptures at all four corners, over the Bernesga River to the first main plaza, Plaza Guzman Bueno, a busy traffic circle but it has a beautiful huge fountain in the center and is surrounded by nice buildings. The main street leading into the old town is Ave Ordono II which leads to
Plaza de Santo Domingo – the next main plaza, a somewhat smaller traffic circle but also with nice fountain in the middle and surrounded by attractive buildings. This is the start of the old town, the street name changes to Calle Ancha and it becomes pedestrianized. You immediately see two of the most gorgeous buildings in Leon, Palacio delos Guzmanes and Casa de Botines.
Plaza San Marcelo - Plaza San Marcelo is adjacent to the larger Plaza de Santo Domingo. Iglesia de San Marcelo. Built between 1588 and 1627. Home to the Ayuntamiento which occupies a Renaissance era palace.
Palacio de los Guzmanes is an impressive 16th century Renaissance palace designed in the style of an Italian palazzo. It has an imposing facade with rounded arches, large corner towers, and wrought-iron balconies. Once a private residence, the palace is designed around a courtyard featuring classical columns. The palace currently houses the Leon Regional Government.
Next door is Gaudi’s castle like neo-gothic Casa de Botines (1893), with stained-glass windows and sharply pointed turreted towers. Gaudí started the project in 1891 when it was commissioned by textile merchants of León. Business was conducted on the ground floors, and the upper floors were designed as private apartments. The building’s façade features St George sticking it to a dragon; a bronze sculpture of Gaudí observes his creation from a park bench outside.
León Cathedral, a UNESCO site, is surprisingly French in style. A huge rose window dominates the west façade, and there is literally wall-to-wall stained glass that covers the entire upper half of the church. Massive panes span from the pointed arches up to the ceiling, giving the impression that the walls simply vanish into glorious light. The whole atmosphere is truly dazzling. The windows transform the usual gloomy gray stone interior into a reddish-purplish wonderland, though it is still quite dark inside. This only enhanced the beauty of the stained glass. There is a €6 fee to visit the church (includes an audio guide) and a separate €2 to visit the cloisters which are entered from the side.
It was begun in 1258 in the Romanesque style, but the soaring upper portions are Gothic at its best. It took 200 years to build, though the upper portion only about 50 years, in the 1300s. The exterior is covered in towers and flying buttresses which range in size and shape. Symmetry was certainly not the goal of this cathedral. In the church-building frenzy of the Middle Ages, every Gothic cathedral vied to distinguish itself with some superlative trait. Milan Cathedral was the biggest, Chartres had the most inspiring stained-glass windows, Palma de Majorca had the largest rose window, and so on. Structurally, though, the boldest cathedral was León. It set the record for the highest proportion of window space, with stained-glass windows soaring 34m to the vaulted ceiling, framed by the slenderest of columns. The windows occupy almost all the space where you'd expect the walls to be. The peaceful, light filled claustro (cloister) has 15th century frescoes. The main door has a triple-arched façade, expressively carved. The central portal features a jovial Christ above a graphic Hell, with demons cheerfully stuffing sinners into cooking pots.
Plaza Regina - The medium size plaza in front of the cathedral has a nice building to the right, the Museo Diocesano de Arte Sacro, and a few souvenir shops and cafes/ice cream parlors opposite but is otherwise rather plain.
Plaza San Martin - At the heart of the Casco Antiguo (Old Town). This quaint public square is lined with bars and restaurants. This is ‘tapas and dinner’ central. From the Plaza de San Martín, many little streets wind their way around the medieval maze of the Old Town, most also filled with tapas bars.
Plaza Mayor, beautiful and time worn, 17th century, sealed off on three sides by porticoes, this is a sleepy plaza by day, more lively in the evening with numerous tapas bars and restaurants. The old city centers around here, winding cobbled streets full of houses with wrought-iron balconies. Ayuntamiento antigo is the old town hall.
Plaza de Santa Maria del Camino (aka Plaza del Grano, for its one-time wheat exchange) feels like a cobblestone Castilian village square and is overlooked by Romanesque Iglesia de Santa Maria del Mercado. It’s a lovely time-worn space with rough cobbles, wooden arcades and a pretty Romanesque church. In the morning it’s largely shaded and had several locals and their dogs hanging out. Later in the day it’s hot and sunny and the families and dogs are replaced with people having drinks at the café under umbrella shade.
San Isidoro - one of the oldest Romanesque churches in Spain. Although it’s been spruced up over the centuries—the east section was rebuilt in Late Gothic style—the church looks generally as it would have a thousand years ago. On the south façade, are two Romanesque tympanums (the sculptures in the round semicircle above the doors), and within are some unique arches that look like they belong more in Moorish Andalucía than in northern Spain. The Puerta del Cordero (Doorway of the Lamb); the main doorway with sculptured figures of Saint Isidore, and the Lamb of God; and the Puerta del Perdón (door of forgiveness); pilgrims could gain absolution by passing through here if they were too infirm to continue their journey to Santiago.
The original 10th century church was built in the pre-Romanesque style of Asturias, similar to the ancient buildings in Oviedo. This early church was destroyed in 988 by Al-Mansur and later renovated by Christians in the 11th and 12th centuries in classic Romanesque style although the apses were converted to Gothic style.
The highlight of visiting San Isidoro is the Panteón de los Reyes, the royal burial place for dozens of kings and queens who ruled the medieval Kingdom of León. Covering the entire ceiling are bright, thousand-year-old frescoes that represent biblical scenes, hunting scenes and an illustrated agricultural calendar interwoven with animal and plant designs. These vibrant, masterful paintings have earned the Pantheon the distinction of being compared to the "Sistine Chapel". They are in a superb state of preservation (never restoration, only ‘cleaned’ twice). You have to go on a tour to see it, and no photos are allowed – two things which are usually total turn offs for me but this tour was in English (cute Spanish guy who kept apologizing for his poor English but it was really quite fine and he was very interesting). Had to make do with postcards for pictures. The tour also included the cloisters (where photos were allowed) which was pretty good, and several rooms of artifacts. The top of the tower of the building has a ‘Cock’/rooster weather-vane, the original is in the museum and he explained that roosters were a symbol of the Muslims and this one was made in the 6th century and brought over from Persia by them when they occupied Spain. All in all worth the 5€ admission.
The complex is built into the medieval city walls, much of which is preserved.
San Marcos / Parador – At the edge of town on the Rio Bernesga, now a five star Parador, built in 1168 as a hospital for pilgrims on the road to Santiago. The ornate Plateresque façade was added in 1513 and is more than 100 m long. The exterior is Plateresque style, which means the intricate stonework, shells, and sculptures on the façade look like they were forged by silversmiths, or plateros in Spanish. This architectural movement was unique to Spain and was kind of a transition style between Gothic and Renaissance. A perhaps morbid factoid about this building: during the Spanish Civil War, it served as a concentration camp for Franco’s Nationalists. The church, museum and cloisters are quite extensive and are open for free.
Right next to the parador/San Marcos is the Roman Bridge / Puente de San Marcos, a six arched stone bridge over the Rio Bernesga. The river itself is not very wide (at least in July) but it’s banks are, and they merge into a nice park which runs from the Roman Bridge to the Puente de los Leones.
We had considered staying at the Parador, I kind of wanted to do at least one Parador stay this trip, but in the case of Leon (and it turned out, several other locations as well including Ribadeo, Santillana and Olite) I found what I think were just as nice hotels for less money. Hotel Via Leon is right in the center of Leon, one block off Calle Ancha, less than a five minute walk from the cathedral and Plaza San Martin.
After two nights (one and a half days) – which was just about a perfect amount of time to explore Leon – we picked up our Fiat 500 and found our way out of Leon by following signs for Astorga. Numerous turns and round-a-bouts (all well marked) later we were on the highway for the 45 minute drive to Astorga. We had intended to get a SIM card for the iPhone so we could use google maps but the Vodaphone store was closed and we didn’t want to wait around an hour so we figured we’d get one later. Turned out driving that day was so easy we didn’t bother.
Astorga Camino Frances
On the frontier between the tan plains of northern Castilla and the green mountains of Galicia, Astorga, population 12,000) is a little town with attractions out of proportion to its size. In addition to its cathedral there is a Gaudi designed palace, and a smattering of Roman ruins and a couple nice sections of city wall. Astorgas’s old center is small and easily navigated (both in car and on foot). The cathedral and Palacio Episcopal are side by side in the northwestern corner of the old town.
We missed the turn into the first parking lot you come to off the main road and thus ended up driving through the center, which turned out to be a piece of cake (at this point I was thankful we weren’t in Italy cause it would probably have been a ZTL). We parked right in front of the Cathedral and I walked the half block to the parking ticket dispenser machine – and not only knew how to use it (we have the exact same machine at home) but showed a Spanish woman how it worked. I bought two hours worth of time, which was more than enough since it was too early in the day to be having lunch.
While Astorga has an interesting history, nothing much goes on there now. However, it’s a very pleasant, relaxed place with some attractive buildings and a peaceful small-town atmosphere. As a major Roman center for administering the gold-mining region further to the west, Astorga was known as Asturica Augusta, having been founded by Augustus during his campaigns against the never-say-die tribes of the northwest of the peninsula. The city is a key point in the Camino de Santiago, as two mains routes to Santiago, the French Way and the Vía de la Plata, meet there and there was an abundance of blue and yellow scallop shell signs and yellow arrows.
The Catedral has a Plateresque southern façade, made from caramel colored sandstone and ripping in sculptural detail began in 1471 on the site of its Romanesque predecessor and took 3 centuries to complete resulting in a mix of styles. Most of it is in late Gothic style, but the font façade and towers are later baroque constructions and don’t seem to really go with the side and back. There are some really interesting sculptures including a lot of babies, some bare breasted women and what appear to be mermaids. I didn’t go inside since after Burgos and Leon (not to mention the half dozen on the coast before that) I needed a break from cathedrals and figured no way this one was going to compete.
Gaudi Palace. In 1887 a Catalan bishop was appointed to Astorga. Not prepared to settle for a modest bungalow on the edge of town, he decided that his residence was to be built by his mate, a man called Gaudi. The townsfolk were horrified, but the result is a fairytale-style castle with pointy turrets. Inside is the Museo de los Caminos, a collection of art and artifacts relating to the pilgrimage to Santiago, but it was closed since we were there on a Monday. The garden is guarded by some scary angels.
Plaza Mayor is the most attractive square, and the town hall is typical of the region, most towns in the area had a very similar one. However this one has figures of a man and woman that strike the hour on the clock. Built in 1683, it is Baroque with three towers in its façade, the middle one including the bells. The square is (of course) lined with cafes.
Ponferrada Camino Frances
Easy 45 minute drive out of Astorga, continuing along with the Camino, and into the next town, Ponferrada. Slightly larger (60,000) but signage was still good and directed us to the center where we ran right into an underground parking garage under the town hall plaza. The google maps I had printed out weren’t very good at this point and we weren’t really sure where the castle was but we knew it was close so we parked and started walking around. Geo got to practice his Spanish asking directions. They essentially pointed off to one corner of the Plaza, which fortunately coincided with the signs to the TI, always a good place to start. We walked under a charming old clock tower and then saw the walls of the castle (right next to the TI).
Castillo de los Templarios - has 12th century turrets and battlements that look like gingerbread but were built to protect pilgrims from the very real threat of the Moors by the Knights of Templar, and the arcaded streets and overhanging houses of the old quarter grew up in their protective shadow. The front entrance to the castle is drop-dead gorgeous, exactly what you think a castle is supposed to look like (think fairy tail picture books or Lego castle designs). There are a couple of buildings/towers that have been recently renovated and house a pretty interesting exhibit of medieval life (with English translations) and there are several towers you can climb, but the majority of the grounds are just open areas and there is the ‘old’ castle building, in a slightly crumbling state. Despite it being close to 100 degrees we spent a good hour or so exploring it.
By then it was siesta so the rest of the town had pretty much closed down. Plaza Ayuntamiento is an attractive space in itself (with that similar city hall design). The clock tower, Puerta del Reloj, arches across the street that we walked through to get to the castle is the most interesting building we saw (other than the castle). We got lunch in Plaza Ayuntamiento, retrieved the car and headed on.
The main road between Ponferrada and Lugo is the A6 highway. And at this point we detoured off the Camino to Lugo (which is on the Camino Primitivo). Leaving the plains behind we entered hilly, green Galicia. Over a period of less than 15 minutes the landscape completely changed.
Lugo [Camino Primitivo] (Roman Walls UNESCO)
Lugo was founded about 14 BC by the Romans, who constructed the Roman wall in the mid 3rd century. After that, the Visigoths were in Lugo until 714 when the town was invaded by the Muslims. Today it’s a small and very pleasant inland provincial capital with a prosperous feel. We wanted to see the Roman Walls, which are a UNESCO world heritage site, and it made perfect one night stop before Santiago.
Driving into the town off the A6 was a breeze and we easily found the Gran Hotel Lugo (which I had chosen because it was a five-minute walk to the walls and town center, yet on a main road and with a parking garage). The hotel is not really our style – it’s large, old and somewhat elegant with a huge shiny lobby – but it turned out to be perfect for our needs. There is a large grocery store across the street where we got ourselves a picnic dinner, and only five minutes to the walls so we were able to go back and forth to the hotel frequently (it was close to 100 degrees and we needed air conditioning breaks).
As per UNESCO, the Roman walls of Lugo are, “the finest example of late Roman fortifications in Western Europe.” The circular walls are 10-15 metres high, with 85 circular towers along a circuit of almost 3 km and are broad enough to provide a pleasant thoroughfare for walks around the city. There are 10 gateways to enter the walled area and 6 staircases and a ramp to reach the pedestrian path on top of the walls. Sadly, insensitive building has blocked out most of the views of the surrounding countryside and a busy loop road makes it impossible to appreciate the walls from any distance outside. Walking along the base of the walls is the best way to appreciate their construction and walking along the top of them is the best way to see the town. In the morning much of the walkway on top of the walls is shaded and there are some great views out to the countryside. In the afternoon it’s hot and sunny and in the evening you can see the old town lit up. We walked parts of the walls at all three times and were glad we did.
Within the walls is a beautifully preserved, lively and mainly traffic free historic center. Lugo doesn’t have any ‘great’ sites but it’s a nice place to wander filled with late medieval and 18th century buildings and numerous plazas. The main square, Plaza Mayor, is home to the Ayuntamiento/Town Hall, mid 18th century (clock tower added in the late 19th) which is large and attractive, in Galician baroque, a style that is similar to much Portuguese architecture. The square has nice gardens, shade trees and a bandstand pavilion in the center and is lined with cafes and restaurants.
top left: Town Hall, right: Plaza Mayor Bottom left: view of the town from the walls Bottom right: Cathedral and around
There are numerous shopping streets and plazas within the walls but the most interesting place is Plaza do Campo, a triangle-shaped square. During the Middle Ages, it was the city’s main marketplace. Rúa Nova and Rúa do Miño are the two main streets leading out of Praza do Campo. Just steps from Praza do Campo are the Cathedral and Bishop’s Palace. The cathedral was built over centuries beginning in the 12th and so is of several styles including Romanesque, Gothic, and Baroque; the back and side are more interesting than the front. Across a small plaza is another beautiful building, the Episcopal Palace, 18th century.
Plaza do Campo
Santiago de Compostela Camino de Santiago
All roads in Spain, at least in northern Spain, lead to Santiago.
Being the end point of the Camino de Santiago makes it the third-most-holy city of the Christian world (after Rome and Jerusalem). But it’s also a university town and a marketplace for Galician farmers. It has cobblestone arcaded streets, beautiful gold/grey churches and buildings and numerous plazas. It is one of the most interesting and historic of Spain's great cities. The medieval city center has been declared in its entirety to be a UNESCO site. The Camino de Santiago (combined routes) is also on the UNESCO World Heritage list.
Santiago also has the dubious distinction of being the rainiest city in Spain, though the showers are frequent but brief and often consist of just a lot of mist. Water glistens on the facades and vegetation sprouts everywhere with the cathedral coated in orange and yellow mosses and grass poking up from the walls and cobbles.
Rúa do Vilar and Rúa Nova are the two main streets in the old town and they are bounded on either side by soportales or arched, covered walkways. Most of the other streets wind in and around the many tiny plazas.
Just down the street from the cathedral along Rúa do Vilar is the Casa do Deán, the modern-day Pilgrims’ Office where people go to get their compostela or certificate that says they have completed the Camino de Santiago.
The main thing in town is of course the cathedral, which is sprawling rather than just massive (inside it actually felt quite small compared to Burgos or Leon cathedrals) and has four distinct sides each with a plaza that is lined on its non-cathedral sides with other beautiful buildings.
Plaza do Obradoiro is the ‘main’ plaza facing the ‘front’ of the cathedral – the west side. It has a tile with a scallop shell in the middle of the square that is the official end of the Camino. When it’s not raining the square is full of pilgrims who traditionally sit or lie down here to mark the end of their journey. This square has four different architectural styles: the Cathedral front is 18th century Baroque, the Hostal (now the Parador) is 16th century Plateresque, The city hall is 18th century neoclassical and the university is 15th century Romanesque. This front of the cathedral is featured on Spain’s one-, two-, and five-cent Euro coins. This exuberant façade would be unrecognizable to Pilgrims from the Middle Ages, however, as it completely replaced the earlier one that was designed when the cathedral was built. In the 1700s, a Baroque façade was created, not only to get with the times (the Baroque style was “in” then), but also to finish the work begun a century earlier that had raised the height of the towers; to enclose the Pórtico da Gloria, a medieval sculpture ensemble that had been left to deteriorate in the humid air. As the cathedral (and the city) were built on a bluff between two rivers, a double staircase takes you from the plaza up to “ground level” where the main doors are. Unfortunately it’s been covered in scaffolding for years and still was when we were there.
To the left as you face the cathedral is the massive Hostal de los Reyes Catolicos (Hospital of the catholic kings/ Pilgrims Hospital) an example of Gothic Plateresque architecture. Isabel and Ferdinand came here in 1501 to give thanks for successfully forcing the Moors out of Granada. When they got here they found many sick pilgrims and built the hospital to give them a place to recover. It was free, and remained open until 1952 (when it was still Santiago’s main hospital) when it was converted into a Parador. The hospital later doubled in size in the Baroque era.
Pazo de Xelmírez/ Colexio de Fonseca, the archbishop’s palace, one of the few remaining examples of civil Romanesque architecture, is where Santiago’s university originated in the 1500s. The front of the building on the square is the original University building, today the library. This is Spain’s 3rd largest university with 30,000 students.
Ayuntamiento /City Hall (Pazo de Raxoi), built in 1766 in Neoclassical style, so pointy Ionic-order columns abound. An arcaded covered walkway spans the entire width of the building—a useful feature in rainy Galicia—and at the top there’s a statue that depicts the legendary Battle in which Santiago rides in from heaven to help the Christians as they fought against the Moors.
Praza das Praterias is the south façade, the church’s oldest and the only Romanesque façade that appears as it did eight centuries ago. A double portal supports carved marble columns, sculpted tympanums, and an upper frieze. The clock tower’s base was built in the 1400s but the upper section was remodeled in the Baroque style in 1680.
Casa do Cabido, the cathedral’s chapter house that was built in 1759 for the sole purpose of beautifying the plaza. This building with pretty red doors and windows is only three meters deep—pure façade. Gotta love the Baroque era!
On the square’s east edge is the Museo das Peregrinacións e de Santiago, a museum with a scale model of the cathedral plus a model of what the walled city of Santiago would have looked like in the Middle Ages.
Praza da Quintana is the square to the east of the cathedral. It is a curious space, with an upper and lower half; these are known as the halves of the living (the top) Praza de Quintana de Vivos, and the dead (below) Praza de Quintana de Mortos; the area used to be a cemetery. The portal on this side is known as the Puerta Santa, or holy door. The façade is 17th century, but contains figures salvaged from the Romanesque stone choir. The 18th -century clock tower soars over both Praza das Praterias and Praza da Quintana. The three walls that zig-zag across the cathedral’s east façade were put together to give a uniform look and feel to this side of the church, since it had become a helter-skelter collection of side-chapels bubbling out from the transept and apse.
On one side of this square is Casa de la Canónica, the former residence of the canon. Across the square from the cathedral is the Saint Pelayo Monastery (Mosteiro San Paio). Founded a thousand years ago as a monastery to look after St. James’ tomb. Benedictine nuns moved in after their Benedictine brothers moved out in 1499.
Praza da Inmaculada (north facade) was the final stop along the Camino for pilgrims hiking the Camino Frances - the "French Way" - and the Camino Ingles - the "English Way" (which starts on the north coast). All medieval pilgrims would have entered the church here at the north door, the Porta do Paraiso (Paradise Portal). The north entrance is also called the Azibecheria facade because shops nearaby sold jewlery made from azibeche, or jet, a black gemstone. Today the Caminos all technically end in the Plaza do Obradoiro.
Facing the Azibechería entrance looms the huge former monastery of San Martiño Pinario, once the second-largest monastery in all of Spain. Today it houses the Seminario Mayor (seminary for Catholic priests) and an hospedería for pilgrims.
Coastal Galicia, Asturias and Cantabria - The westernmost half of the north coast of Spain is an area of rolling green hills wedged between the sea and the Picos de Europe mountain range. Much more reminiscent of British Isles than Spain, the scenery is beautiful - in some cases spectacular - and there are picturesque villages and towns every few miles. The A8 highway runs all along the coast (and is fast and free) but most of the time it was more enjoyable to follow the N634. The Camino del Norte follows this route.
Coastal Galicia - top left: Santiago cake; center left: view from our room at Hotel O Cabazo in Ribadeo, bottom: Rinlo
Praia das Catedrais - About 7 km west of Ribadeo (along either the N634 or the local beach road) is the tiny village of Rinlo. I have no idea what the population there is but we didn’t even see any shops, just a collection of houses. And from there it’s just another km to Cathedral Beach/ Praia das Catedrais (large signs on the N634, can’t miss it). There are a couple of medium sized parking lots, a small café/bar, and some WCs. It’s apparently the second most visited place in Galicia after Santiago de Compostela itself.
Constant pounding from the Atlantic Ocean has sculpted this astounding work of natural art into contours resembling cathedrals. Small vaulted caves, resembling medieval Gothic architecture, are strewn all along this particular section of shore, giving Cathedral Beach its iconic name. The entire beach is under water except at low tide so it can only be visited for a few hours twice a day. Not only are the cliffs, caves and rock formations unusual and beautiful, but the rocks themselves are a gorgeous array of colors, and numerous tidal pools are interesting shades of turquoise and pink. The place is just beautiful (usually comes up near the top of the list of most beautiful beaches in Europe) and that, combined with the limited amount of time people can visit result in some pretty awful crowds. Because of this the local authorities have restricted access and require reservations during the summer. Registration online is free and easy.
A combination of luck and good planning resulted in our having a great experience. I checked the tide charts (available on line, months in advance) and was able to organize our visit on a day when low tide was at 9:00 – meaning the best time to visit would be between 7 and 11:00. We got there shortly after 8:00 and there was no one checking reservations, and although there were some people already on the beach it was largely empty. By the time we left around 9:30 there was a line to check reservations, two tour buses in the parking lot and loads of people. But we had a wonderful visit.
Ribadeo - [Camino del Norte]
Perched on the broad ría of the same name, Ribadeo, population 8000, is the last coastal town in Galicia before Asturias. There is a nice main square, Praza de Espana, with attractive buildings, some with glass balconies, plus the “Tower of Moreno” a 1915 building that looks like it belongs in Barcelona. There are a few pedestrianized shopping streets and an‘old town’ consisting of a few streets with somewhat older houses. The main part of town is considerably higher elevation than the harbor/marina. It’s not a bad walk but apparently it bothered enough residents that they built a transportation tower with elevator to help people up the 40 meter elevation change. The building housing it is of stone, designed to look like sea rocks. The marina itself is a mix of active fishing boats and leisure boats. A major feature is a tall bridge which carries the A8 highway across the ria.
Old town streets, center: Tower of Moreno
There is a great lighthouse about 2 miles from the center of town, easily walked via a paved path along the ria. The lighthouse sits on a tiny island just offshore, Isle Pancha. All along the walk out there, and then past the lighthouse, the water changes from grey to dark blue to turquoise and there are some impressive rock formations. The Camino del Norte goes through Ribadeo, the concentration of Camino signs seemed especially high here, seemed to be one every few feet. On the path to the lighthouse was a tiny albergue (looked more like a hut) with a bunch of pilgrims hanging out their laundry.
Cudillero - [Camino del Norte]
This tiny village (population 5300) is so cute and colorful it could almost be on the Amalfi Coast. By far the most picturesque village we saw anywhere on the north coast of Spain. For centuries it’s been a fishing village and there is still an active fishing fleet. The houses cascade down the hillside to a tiny port on a narrow inlet. Despite its touristy feel, Cudillero is reasonably relaxed, even in mid-July. The surrounding coastline is a dramatic sequence of sheer cliffs and fine beaches. It had everything: seaside setting with lovely harbor with pretty little boats and a nice lighthouse, and a town wrapped around the harbor and climbing up the steep hills. There are walks with steps going up all around the town, with bright blue painted railings (could be on a Greek island) up to several miradors with great 360-degree views of the water and the town. All along the walks are nicely kept flowers. The paths were fairly well marked, although that wasn’t really necessary as you could pretty much see the entire town from wherever you were. There’s a 16th century church, a lighthouse, an open-air fruit/veggie/ miscellaneous market down by the water and a small main square (actually more of a rectangle) full of seafood restaurants and cafes. Mostly its houses (some, but by no means all, of which are now B&Bs), some painted bright colors, others white with colorful trim (the colors supposedly correspond to each family’s fishing boats, which are the same color. I read about this in other villages on the Northern Spain coast). We hiked as far up as you could go, all around the town, down by the water and had a drink and snack at a café on the main square and were still ‘done’ in about three hours. You can smell the sea and hear the violin player down by the harbor; the music carries all the way up to the top of the town. Sea gulls swooping below you. Sound of waves, scent of sea air. Lots of restaurants down by the harbor, in that way it’s like any ‘tourist’ summer town. But no big hotels, no tour groups, no one spoke English, not one English menu anywhere.
Oviedo [Camino Primitivo] (Monuments of Oviedo and the Kingdom of Asturias UNESCO)
Mostly cut off from the rest of Christian Europe by the Muslim invasion, the tiny kingdom that emerged in the 8th century Asturias gave rise to a unique style of art and architecture. It was a precursor to the Romanesque, the first architectural style to be used across Europe since the fall of the Roman Empire. Abandoning the distinctive horseshoe arches from Visigothic times, Asturian architects reached further back and drew on the simple, semicircular Roman arch and threw it in everywhere it could fit: vaulted ceilings, windows, doors, and halls. The fact that these buildings have lasted 1,200 years more or less intact, despite wars and bad weather, is just as fascinating as their unique architectural style. The 14 buildings, mostly churches (and collectively a UNESCO World Heritage site) that survive from the two centuries of the Asturian kingdom all have straight lines and floor plans – no apses or cylinders – although their semicircular arches are obvious forerunners of the style that would later be known as Romanesque. Another precursor of the Romanesque style is the complete vaulting of the nave. Roman and Visigoth elements are visible. In many cases the bases and capitals of columns with their Corinthian or floral motifs were simply cannibalized from earlier structures. Another adaptation, which owes something to developments in Muslim Spain, was the use of lattice windows. They appear purely as a design effect, since their Eastern progenitors were inspired by the desire to maintain privacy from the outside world – hardly an issue in a church. There are three main examples of this ‘Pre-Romanesque’ style building in Oviedo.
Santa Maria de Naranco
Santa María de Naranco and San Miguel de Lillo, collectively known as Los Monumentos, overlook the city on Naranco hill to the northwest. There’s a good view over Oviedo, which, unfortunately, isn’t super-attractive from up here, but is backed by beautiful mountains and the immediate area is lovely and peaceful. Santa Maria (842-850) was designed not as a church but as a hunting lodge. Architecturally, the open porticos at both ends are most interesting – an innovation developed much later in Byzantine churches. The columns in the upper hall could almost be carved from bone or ivory, such is the skill of the stonework. Balconies at either end add to the lightness of the design. A range of sculptural motifs, many of them depicting alarming animals, decorate the hall, and have been attributed to Visigothic and Byzantine influences. Underneath the hall is another chamber variously identified as a crypt, bathhouse, and servants’ quarters. San Miguel de Lillo is a couple hundred metres beyond Santa Maria, built of soft golden sandstone and red tiles. It is half of a 9th century structure, the other half collapsed. There are window grills carved from single slabs of limestone and superb Byzantine style carved doorframes.
San Miguel de Lillo
The buildings can only be entered with a guide, there are tours (Spanish only) every half hour (3€). It’s a short, well marked drive from the center of Oviedo (not so easy going back down as the center of Oviedo is rather large and confusing). It looks like it would take at least an hour to walk up there, I think there is a public bus that stops up there, but not terribly frequent).
Top and left: Santa Maria de Naranco Bottom right: An 'hórreo', a typical granary for drying grain, this one located down the path from Santa Maria
The ‘modern’ town of Oviedo, population 275,000, looked pleasant enough though not anything very special, but the old town was nicer than I expected with a very nice cathedral on the large pleasant Plaza Alfonso II El Casto. Next to the cathedral are the remains of the pre-Romanesque Iglesia de San Tirso. Plaza de la Constitucion features the old city hall (ayuntamiento) and next to that the market building is turquoise metal and glass. The Cimadevilla, the oldest part of the historic quarter has an unusual Plaza de Trascorrales. Bronze sculptures were scattered around town – a lady sitting on a bench, a couple old women with pots and jugs, a fashionable lady in 19th century attire near the cathedral.
The old town had a lively atmosphere with numerous restaurants and siderias – which is a form of hard cider (often from crabapples) which seems to be as popular as wine in Asturias, Galicia and Basques regions. All over the region we saw waiters pouring the sidra by holding the bottle high in one hand and the glass low in the other. The reason for this is that cider becomes flat quickly so pouring it from a height of about 3 feet aerates it (natural carbonation). You only pour one gulp at a time. There are also devices that sit on tables that accomplish this, but the dramatic flare of the waiter pouring the cider is more impressive.
Ribadesella [Camino del Norte]
Ribadesella, population 6000, is an unaffected old port town, split into two by the Sella river, and bridged by a long causeway. The reasonably attractive old town, is crammed between the hills to the east and the river, and consists of several stone streets, running parallel to the fishing harbor. Across the river from the main part of town is a small peninsula of land between the river and ocean, which is lined with the 19th -century mansions of the fanciful type called Indianos—multi-story places with towers, etc. built by locals who made their fortunes in the new world and brought the money back to build their dream houses in their native land. There is a paved waterfront promenade going from the town center out to a point overlooking the beach, Playa Santa Marina. The ocean side beach had pretty good surf and there were quite a lot of surfers in the water, despite the cool cloudy weather, but the beach was mostly deserted. The inner harbor has a few working fishing boats (lobster/crab catching baskets stacked along the waterfront). I think the most impressive thing about Ribaesella is the setting, wedged as it is in such a narrow space between the mountains and the sea. Unfortunately I’m not sure that can be appreciated from within the town itself (the photos I’ve seen of it were probably taken by plane), but definitely not on a cloudy day. There were several bars and restaurants including one tiny coffee/pastry shop right out of the 1950s where we got amazing café con leche and croissants. There was also a cheese market going on in the main plaza with about two dozen vendors selling all kinds of local cheeses.
Picos de Europa
A relatively small stretch of cut-glass high mountain peaks (the steepest in Spain) just 15 miles inland from the ocean. The ‘best’ part is the Cantabrian part which contains the region’s most accessible and enjoyable bits: the scenic drive through La Hermida Gorge, the charming mountain town of Potes, and the views from Fuente De, home to the longest single span cable car in Europe. Rising more than 2,590m (8,500 ft.), they are not high by alpine standards, but their proximity to the sea makes their height especially awesome. During the Middle Ages, they were passable only with great difficulty. (The ancient Romans constructed a north-south road whose stones are still visible in some places.)
La Hermida Gorge
Leaving the coastal A8 at Unquera you drive along the N-621 through a pleasant river valley and the suddenly enter La Hermida Gorge with surprisingly high and close mountains on all sides, a now much narrower river still running along the road. It’s about a 45 minute, beautiful drive to the town of Potes, the only town of any size in the Picos. At Potes you can turn onto the CA-185 to Fuente De, where the road dead-ends about a half hour later at the foot of the highest peaks in the Picos, or you can continue south on the N-621 (which would eventually bring you down near Leon). All the roads in the area are small, winding and gorgeous – even in cloudy weather, and in the sunshine they rival the Alps – actually look a lot like the Dolomites.
We were there less than two full days, had some serious clouds the first day but absolutely gorgeous sunshine the second. After checking out Potes (and checking in to the hotel) we drove south on the narrow winding N-621, turning off at LaVega onto the really narrow winding road, past the village of Dobres, that ends at a cute little village of Cucayo. There are two tunnels through the edge of mountain peaks that you go through just before the village. I have no idea how people got there before those tunnels. We noticed some hiking and mountain bike trails, a few farms with chickens and sheep, and some houses. You turn around and go back down to Potes the way you went up, no other way. It was a pleasant drive in the clouds, I bet it would be spectacular with blue sky.
Our second day was gorgeous blue sky with puffy white clouds playing hide and seek with the peaks. We drove to Fuente De. The road stops at Fuente Dé, and it’s not hard to see why; there’s a massive semicircle of rock ahead; a spectacular natural wall that rises 800 m and is almost sheer. It is named Fuente Dé because this is where the Deva springs from the ground; there’s little here apart from two hotels, a campsite and a cable-car station. Fuente De is not a real town, just the end of the road and the station for the cable car (cafeteria, souvenir shop and ticket office). The large grassy parking lot was only half full, there were lots of people sitting in the sun on the grass by the cafeteria building and a short line waiting to go up the cable car. We got on the considerably longer (20 minutes) line to buy the tickets only to discover the wait for the cable car was two and a half hours! Having seen photos from the top we decided it wasn’t any better than what we were looking at right there and we wanted to see some more of the area and get to Santillana while the sun was still out so we skipped it.
Santa Maria Lebena
After another stop in Potes we drove back up La Hermida Gorge stopping (8km north of Potes) at the church of Santa Maria Lebeña, a 10th century chapel in a little valley surrounded by high peaks, full of vineyards. It is the main pre-Romanesque monument of Cantabria and one of the most important of the style denominated Mozárabe. Some people consider it the best example of Arabized Christian architecture in Europe, with Islamic-inspired geometric motifs. Continued the drive north on the N621 through La Hermida Gorge – just incredible tall mountains rising right from the road, in some places part of the mountain kind of arches over the road, just barely high enough for a car. At some places the river is right next to the road, several stone bridges crisscrossing it. In a lot of ways it reminded me of Yosemite, in others of the desert southwest only the mountains are greyish white. But the sky was blue and the trees green and overall very pretty.
Potes [Camino Lebaniego]
A picturesque town that felt larger than a population of 1500, although there really is just one main street. It sits at the intersection of four valleys surrounded by mountains, with a river running through the center, spanned by three stone bridges. In the center of town is the Torre del Infantado, a 14th century castle like tower, overlooking the main plaza, which is full of restaurant tables/umbrellas. There are walkways along the river through out the town, both down at river level and up at town level. Though mostly restaurants and souvenir shops, there is a fairly large supermarket (good for picnic supplies) and a couple of bakeries. We were passing one and the smell of bread was overwhelming so we stepped in. She had just taken out an oven full of baguettes and we bought one (for 30 cents!), still warm, and had it for our picnic lunch an hour or so later, the best bread I ever ate. Although most of the restaurants were ‘local’ fare, there was one Mexican Restaurant, we had dinner there and it was one of the best meals of the trip.
Ribadesella in Asturias, and Comillas and San Vicente in Cantabria, are three small towns wedged in the narrow strip of land between the Picos and the sea, photographs of all of them are interesting but were mostly taken from boats offshore or from the air, and the setting of the towns is hard to appreciate from within them. Not quite as 'charming' or picturesque as Cudillero or Santilanna, they were all worth short visits.
Postcard views of: left Ribadesella center: San Vicente de Barquera right: Comillas
San Vicente de Barquera [Camino del Norte]
A long, dramatic (Roman) bridge over a bay leads to San Vicente de la Barquerea. The seaside town overlooks a boat filled harbor. Marooned on both sides by the sea, inland, dark green, forested hills rise towards the Picos de Europa. The town itself, a thriving fishing port with a string of locally famed seafood restaurants, is functional rather than pretty, with not all that much left of its historic core. But a short climb up from the modern town brings you to the remnants of the hilltop medieval town. At one end of the ridge, is a Renaissance ducal palace and a Romanesque-Gothic church, Santa María de los Ángeles. The church was built in the 13th century, when Romanesque was going pointy, and it’s an interesting example of this phase. There are good views from here over the river estuary and the long bridge crossing it and in the other direction of the green hills – looks a lot more like Wales than Spain in that direction. A five-minute walk to the other end of the ridge is the castle, in reasonably good shape but not especially compelling, nice views of ocean though.
Comillas [Camino del Norte]
Another twenty minutes east, Comillas feels a bit like a large hill town, with twisty lanes clambering down to the sea. Definitely not as undeniably charming as Santillana (has not grasped the idea of ‘pedestrianized’), the beach-side road is lined with tacky tourist hotels. It does have cobbled streets and squares with ancestral houses, towers and Modernist style buildings, but the cars everywhere certainly detract from the overall ambience. It’s also feels considerably larger (despite websites giving it a smaller population than Santillana). It does have several impressive buildings.
Top left: Sobrellano Palace Top right: town center Bottom left: pilgrims on the Camino Bottom right: Comillas Beach
At the end of the 19th century, Comillas was chosen by the royal family as their holiday destination, and the city was decked out accordingly. The main royal court building, Sobrellano Palace is in neo-Gothic style and stunning from the outside. Close by is an impressive Gaudi building, El Capricho, clad in green and gold sunflower tiles, with turrets and iron balconies and a bronze of Gaudi sitting on a bench outside admiring his work. The huge Pontifical University building, the location of the International Centre for Higher Education in Spanish, (aims to become the international center for the study of Spanish and Spanish-language teaching) was built as a theological college in avant-garde style. It sits up on a hill and can be seen from all over town, and is guarded by a nice gate entrance. Heading down towards the beach from the university is a cemetery with art nouveau Guardian Angel (1895) built on the ruins of an ancient burial ground and 15th century church. The beach and small marina are nice enough, though nothing special compared to the rest of the region.
Left: University Center and right: El Capricho
Santillana del Mar [Camino del Norte]
Santillana, population 4000, is a little stone village with charming time-warp qualities that have (barely) survived the stampede of multinational tour groups here to see the village and visit the nearby Altamira Caves. Jean-Paul Sartre called Santillana "the prettiest village in Spain”. In spite of all the tour buses, Santillana retains its medieval atmosphere. It is three cobbled streets and a couple of squares, climbing up and over mild hills from where the village meets the main road. Referring to its literal translation, the locals call it the “town of the three lies” – as it isn’t very holy (santi) nor particularly flat (llana), and despite the del Mar actually stands a few kilometres back from the sea. A monastery houses the relics of St. Juliana. Some say the name Santillana is a contraction of "Santa Juliana."
Outrageously picturesque but the crowds in summer have unquestionably diminished its appeal. Its cobbled lanes abound in gorgeous sandstone buildings with flowery overhanging balconies, while the farms and fields on the adjacent hillsides give it a lovely rural atmosphere. Strolling is a delight, even if most of its ochre-colored buildings now hold restaurants, hotels or souvenir shops. It’s definitely worth staying overnight, as the bulk of the visitors are on day trips, and the emptier the town, the more atmospheric it is. At dusk, and for a few hours in the morning it was delightfully un-crowded (although delivery trucks kind of mar the ‘picturesque’ quality). And while it was certainly full of people mid day, there really weren’t many tour groups, it was mostly individuals. One morning I went out quite early – I think it was between 7 and 8 – and it was just me, a couple of dog walkers, and some Camino pilgrims.
Top Right: Klara Gomboc, violinist (we bought several of her CDs, beautiful arrangements of classical and modern compositions) www.laviolinista.es/en/index.php
The main street (which seems to have three names, Calle Carrera, Calle Canton, and Calle Rio) runs down hill to the 800-year-old cathedral, Colegiata de Santa Juliana. The current Romanesque building replaced a former Benedictine monastery in the 12th century. An arcaded gallery runs high above the portal, and a round bell tower is to the right, two towers behind that, and an arcaded porch to one side. Wonderfully asymmetric. The entrance to the church interior and the cloister is around to the side. It’s a beautiful building, on a ‘human’ scale, and takes on different shades of gold or honey color depending on the light. It has a slightly neglected appearance, which I think adds to its charm. The cloister, while small, has some really impressive carvings on the capitals.
On the street just before the church is an interesting old well with a tile roof. This part of the street is called Calle del Río, which gets its name from a stream running through town to the fountain here.
The houses in town (14th-18th Century) are mostly stone and timber, many with wooden balconies, some with iron balconies, and there are several grandiose palacios emblazoned with coats-of-arms (in some cases hugely oversized). The main square, which is at the end of the other main street, Calle Juan Infante, is Plaza Mayor, home to the Ayuntamiento, the Parador (in Casa de los Barreda-Bracho), the Torre de Don Borja, and the Torre del Merino. Around behind the church is the Palacio de los Velarde, a grey stone 16th century Renaissance style building that looks somewhat castle like.
Cuevas de Altamira –a UNESCO World Heritage Site . The bison, wild boar, horses and other animals on the ceiling at Altamira are the largest known group of “polychromes” (figures painted using several colors of pigment – ochers, manganese oxides, charcoal, iron carbonate). The two most important sites in the world are Altamira and Lascaux in France. About 2.5km from the center of Santillana is the cave, famous for prehistoric paintings dating from the end of the Ice Age, (14,000 years ago) that have caused these caves to be called the "Sistine Chapel of prehistoric art." These ancient depictions of bison and horses, painted vividly in reds and blacks on the caves' ceilings, were not discovered until the late 19th century. Once their authenticity was established, scholars and laypersons flocked to see these works of art. Severe damage was caused by the bacteria brought in by so many visitors, so now the Research Center and Museum of Altamira no longer allows visitors but has created a replica, which along with the museum can be visited. http://museodealtamira.mcu.es closed Mondays, 3€,
Museo de Altamira and the Neocueva are located a few hundred feet from the original caves. On exhibit is a perfect replica of the cave, complete with precisely realistic copies of the original murals. The replica was created by computerized digital-transfer technology; the so-called "neocave" contains every crack and indentation of the original. The highlight is the array of 21 red bison in the Polychrome Chamber. The exhibition begins with an excellent overview of prehistoric hominids so you can get your Neanderthals sorted from your Cro-Magnons before moving on to more specific displays about the Altamira epoch and ways of life at the time.
The ticket booth is outside the main entrance and when we were there (10am in July) the wait to buy tickets was exactly one hour and then our timed ticket was for one hour later. You get a timed ticket for viewing the neocueva, the museum you can see anytime. So you could choose any time later in the day, and leave and return if you didn’t want to wait. But we found one hour to be just about the right amount of time to see the displays in the museum. The museum is small – really only three medium sized rooms, but full of displays, videos, and plaques with information (all in English as well as Spanish). Most of the videos were self-explanatory so there was no talking in any language. Then you queue up and are ushered into a small room (20 people at a time, staggered about every 10 minutes) to watch a 5-minute video and then you walk through the cave. Pretty amazing, the whole ceiling is covered. As you enter the cave you see where the people spent most of their time (the large entrance area, with exterior light) and then down a few steps into the darker part of the cave where the paintings were. You only get about 5 minutes in there but there’s just the one space so it doesn’t take long, but it sure was pretty amazing.
Laguardia, population 1500, sits at the top of a hill, its tightly packed stone buildings enclosed by massive stone walls. From the walls are views of the valley below and the Sierra de Cantabria mountain range behind it. The town is surrounded by vineyards on all sides, there are bodegas everywhere. The core of the economy in Laguardia focuses on the world of viticulture, Laguardia is the capital of one of the most famous wine regions of Spain, Rioja Alavesa. Basque speakers call the town 'Guardia'.
Iglesia San Juan Mirador on west side of town
The town itself is totally pedestrianized, very narrow streets (about 3 streets run the length of the town, a few more short cross streets; the town is very narrow). You can walk up and down every street in less than an hour.
During its tumultuous medieval past, the rock beneath the streets was carved into a maze of tunnels for shelter and escape routes when the town was under attack. Today some of these house wine cellars. There is the Romanesque church of San Juan Bautista at the one end of the village and the church of Santa María de los Reyes at the other, originally probably a Templar monastery. Next to it is the Tower of Santa Maria, which has a Gothic façade with a portico finished in the fourteenth century. It is one of the few preserved polychrome portals in Spain. The tower can be climbed for great views (€2). In the center of town is Plaza Mayor, a tiny square with arcaded buildings on both sides, both the old and new town halls. The old town hall has a clock, which opens up and automated figures perform a regional dance.
Walls on eastern side of town Promenade and view from it on western side of town
There’s a nice promenade around the tip of the town, benches, tree shaded, great views. A little square near the church of Santa Maria had an interesting sculpture – two bronze tables, one filled with bronze shoes and the other with bronze bags/suitcases/backpacks. It’s by Koco Rico titled 'Viajeros/Bidaiariak Izenekoa' (“Travelers”) “The basic idea of this sculpture is the journey and the evocation of it (of the land that leaves us and of which we leave) reflect on how an object related to traveling, such as shoes or a suitcase, can make us relive different situations and moments.” It was lovely.
Tower next to Santa Maria and view from it
There were two or three touristy shops, a few wine stores, a couple of butchers and bakeries and one small grocery store where, in addition to groceries and produce, you could purchase all types of wine, including some unlabeled Rosé for €1.49 a bottle. We couldn’t resist, although the corkscrew we had to buy to get into the wine cost three times as much as the wine did. It was at least as good as your average Rosé. While we were there we put together a picnic dinner an ate on our balcony, just meters from the church and town walls and watched the stone change color as the sun went lower. Then we walked over to the mirador on the western edge of town for sunset.
The view of the sun setting over the mountains from the promenade was spectacular and in the warm evening the town came alive with people of all ages, children playing games and riding tricycles, parents and grandparents enjoying wine or dinner at one of the restaurants lining the streets, or just sitting in the main plaza.
The drive from Laguardia to Puente La Reina is pretty straightforward. Mostly stayed on the N roads, which followed the Camino. Saw a good number of walkers. Passed a few cute stone villages. Watched as the Camino went along the road and then would cut through fields for a while and reappear on the road. Slightly hilly, mostly wheat fields and vineyards. Not un-pretty landscape, but would get bored after a few hours of what takes more like a few days to walk. The route goes through Logorno and a few other sizeable towns, which are easily passed in a car but walking through them didn’t look like fun.
One very picturesque stone village, Sansol sits just where the Camino leaves the road and goes off into hayfields
Puente La Reina [Camino Frances]
The six arched medieval bridge has carried multitudes of pilgrims over the river. Over the centuries they approached from Roncesvalles to the north and Aragon to the east and then united to take the one main route, Camino Francé, west to Santiago de Compostela. Their first stop here was at the late Romanesque Iglesia del Crucifijo, erected by the Knights Templar. In Spanish literally the "bridge of the Queen”. Queen Muniadona, wife of King Sancho III built the six-arched bridge over the Río Arga for the use of pilgrims on their way to Santiago. The bridge, Puente de los Peregrinos, is Romanesque and reflects beautifully in the river.
There are several architectural gems such as the churches of the Crucifix, St. James and St. Peter and beautiful buildings peppered with details of the influence of the Pilgrim's Way. The town isn’t built around a castle as is the case in many medieval towns, instead it’s more of a medieval mall concept: the main street, Rúa Mayor, is the Camino, leading you past churches and shops before putting you on the bridge. Alfonso I, king of Navarre, designed it this way to attract Camino traffic and commerce in the 11th century. The goal was for Navarre to get settlers to beef up a sleepy Basque wheat-farming settlement and push back the northern expansion of Moorish rule. This is one of those places where you realize the story of the Camino is not just a spiritual one, but also one of political interests, immigration issues, developer power plays, and tourism opportunists. Still, what they left behind is beautiful.
We found parking in Puente La Reina with no problem and walked through the town. First thing we noticed was that 90% of the people were dressed in white with red trim. At first I thought they were going to Pamplona but then we realized there were so many of them it had to be local (plus Pamlona’s festival/running of the bulls had been over for more than a week). We finally found signs saying Puente La Reina’s festival is July 25-29th. They appear to have a tiny bull ring right in the main square –there was sand and pretty substantial walls and bleachers. Then we noticed there were large gates closing off the side streets (so the bulls must run through the main street to the main square). But the main street was currently full of restaurant tables and people eating and drinking (despite it being 11am). Everyone in white and red, even babies and grandpas. As we were leaving town there was the beginning of a parade.
The Church of the Crucifixion at the far end of town, is next to the Pilgrim Hostal and the Pilgrim monument (which is apparently the base of an old crucifix). The church has a backpack and walking staff right under the crucifix near the altar.
Heading south from Puente LaReina, a couple km past town I spotted a round stone church in the middle of a cornfield and we pulled off – there was a parking lot and a few people. It was just lovely, was actually hexagonal with a kind of round cloister all around it. Unfortunately it was closed but it was great to just walk around it. It’s the Church of Saint Mary of Eunate, a 12th century Romanesque church with links to the Knights Templar. Its octagonal plan and the fact that it is not located in a present-day village but in the countryside contribute to its enigmatic nature. I was just saying ‘why is this not in a guidebook’ and then as we were leaving a tour bus pulled in. Guess it’s in Spanish guidebooks. While there were lots of great things I saw on this trip, my extensive research meant that there were few surprises, so the fact that I just ‘spotted’ this one added to the experience.
Olite [Jacobean route of the Camino Frances]
Olite, population 3500, is a pleasant little town in the center of Navarre that was the seat of the Royal Court of the kingdom in the Middle Ages with an exceptional medieval castle complex known as the Palacio Real. There are crenelated towers and square towers and round towers and turrets and annexes, it just keeps rambling.
Left: views from the Castle towers Right: view of the castle from the balcony of our room at Hotel Merindad
Declared a national monument in 1925, the castle is the best example of civil Gothic architecture in Navarre and one of the most notable in Europe. There are lots of towers to climb (I think there were 12), each offering spectacular views of the rest of the castle, the town & the surrounding vineyards. There are interior rooms, courtyards (one completely covered in ivy), and balconies. The original part of the castle is now a Parador, the rest of it, the main parts, are open for visits. It’s been highly renovated (but very faithful to it’s original appearance), sometimes castles less recently renovated have more charm, but the renovations were well done and it really does look like a fairy tale castle. There are photos of it from before renovations. If you like to fantasize being a medieval knight or princess this is the place to go.
The old town of Olite itself is enclosed by it’s medieval gates, with one main plaza and a couple of smaller ones, a nice watch tower in the center, a pretty town hall, several streets of stone buildings. Hardly any tourists and of the few that were there, most were Spanish (although we met an American family, which felt strange since we had hardly heard any English at all in days). There is a more modern town surrounding the old town, but it’s small and unobtrusive. And the old town itself has plenty of cafes and restaurants, a small grocery store and a couple of coffee shops right out of the 1950s with amazing croissants and pastries (and of course great coffee). There are bodegas all around the town.
Sort of attached to/ integrated into the castle is the Iglesia de Santa Maria la Real, which has a superbly detailed Gothic (12th century) portal, set in a sort of cloister like ruin. The carving over the door is amazing and still has remnants of paint. In addition to the usual collection of saints there is a 3-D sculpture of the Virgin and baby and a lot of other things – animals, people, castles, flowers, scrolls, gargoyles. Really beautiful and interesting.
Perched above concentric terraces harboring apple and almond trees, Ujué, population 198, was founded in the early days of the Navarran monarchy in the ninth century AD. The beautiful walled settlement was ennobled by Carlos I, who built much of the sanctuary complex that perches atop the hill. The Santuario de Santa María seems part castle and part church – the church is sort of surrounded by a castle like enclosure, so from the outside it looks like a castle, but inside it’s really just a church. There are some great sculptings and fabulous views of the countryside, extending to Olite in the west and the Pyrenees in the east. It’s free to visit; there were two people just leaving and other than that we saw no one else in the hour or so we were there.
In fact, we hardly saw any people in the village itself, totally built of honey colored stone, really does looks like it was frozen in time from the middle ages. One shop had some local produce (honey, wine, etc.) and we saw one bakery and a couple of restaurants. That was it. Just a few cobbled streets full of stone houses. The occasional satellite dish implies there may be some 21st century people hiding in the houses, but it really does feel very medieval.
The road up to Ujué starts from the attractive little village of San Martín de Unx, and offers great views of the town from a distance.
Top left: a hilltown on the N132 between St Martin de Unx and Yesa (interesting modern tower/sculpture on the side of the road). Lower cener: St Martin de Unx
Continuing past St Martin de Unx, we next visited Castillo Javillero. The castle dates from the 11th century, but owes its present look to restoration work carried out in 1952. Francisco Javier (Xavier), patron of Navarre, was born here in 1506. Along with Ignatius Loyola, he founded the order of the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits) in the mid-16th century and thus he is a ‘big deal’ among Catholics (there was one tour bus full of people when we were there, and parking for several more). So most of the castle is dedicated to exhibits about his life. A silhouette of crenelated towers, the Castle of Javier, is more impressive from the outside. It’s very highly renovated and feels much more like a museum about Saint Javier than a ‘castle’. Even if you are not interested in religious history the mural depicting the ‘dance of death’ was kind of interesting. However there is a drawbridge, towers, dungeons, machicolations, embrasures and arrow slits. The castle well signposted off the N-240 (near Yesa).
Slightly disappointed by Castillo Javillero, we almost skipped the Monasterio de San Salvador of Leyre figuring it too might not live up to what we had read about it, but since we spent less than an hour at the castle we continued on to the Monastery and were very glad we did. It’s 16km (10 miles) east of Sangüesa, perched on the side of a mountain of the same name, overlooking the Yesa Dam. The monastery is 4km (2½ miles) from Yesa, which itself is on N-240. Take N-240 into Yesa, then follow an uphill road marked LEYRE 2½ miles to the monastery. From the outside the monastery is not all that exceptional but it’s setting above the turquoise lake (actually a reservoir) is stunning.
It consists of a monastery building where monks still live so that part is not able to be visited, a section which is now a hotel, the church itself, and the crypt. There were very few people around when we were there, but apparently it can get swamped at times (large parking lot). There is a small (modern) building that serves as a gift shop and ticket office. We were given a key and told to unlock the door to both the church and the crypt, being sure to lock ourselves IN while we visited. "And oh, by the way in 15 minutes in the church the monks will be singing, you can still go in just don’t walk around too much”.
Kind of scary to lock ourselves into a crypt but it was beautiful and very atmospheric in there and we were the only ones there. Nicely lit and the lock is modern so not really afraid we’d get locked inside, (still after my experience in Barcelona that time when I got locked in a cloister....) The crypt is part of the original 11th century pre-Romanesque church, consecrated in 1057 and is considered a major work of Romanesque art. The stone altar and ram-horned columns suggest darker ritual purposes. The columns all different and are very short – it’s strange to have the capitals at waist height. Next to the crypt is a tunnel leading to an image of San Virila – a former abbot. Then we went around to the church, same deal with the key. But in addition to the monks, who were indeed chanting, there were ten or fifteen tourists sitting and watching. Pretty cool. And the setting with the Pyrenees foothills on one side and a beautiful turquoise lake down below was very nice.
Barderas Reales Desert Park
The Bardenas Reales is one of only a few deserts in Europe and is definitely the most impressive. When researching the trip I came across pictures of it, and since it was on our way and I love deserts (I'm a huge fan of Death Valley National Park) we decided to stop. We visited it on our last day, between Olite and Madrid and it was definitely worth a couple hours. However, compared to the U.S. southwest it was a bit of a let down.
Technically semi-desert; a violently rugged expanse of white gypsum flats and scrawny sheep grazing on what little spiky foliage survives. It’s a popular location for filmmaking: eg the Bond film The World is not Enough was made here. The information center and main entrance to the park can be accessed from the road N- 134 just south (approximately 3km) from the town of Arguedas. This is the best entrance since the road is paved, pavement ends after the Info Center. At the information center (WCs and vending machine with cold drinks) we were given a map and told the road is fine for all cars, just go slow, it should take about 1 ½ hours to do the circuit, plus stops. The road is certainly very dusty, but totally fine to drive in our Fiat 500.
There are several unique geological formations and some lovely landscapes. These landscapes are the result of a very special climate made up of hot summers, cold winters and long dry periods interrupted by heavy rain. There is also a particular wind current that runs through the area, called “cierzo.” The difference of pressure between the Cantabrian and the Mediterranean Seas generates a current of strong wind that flows along with the Ebro River. The “cierzo” wind is responsible for the unique, abrupt landscapes, canyons and plateaus, produced by its erosion on the soil, which mainly consists of clay, chalk and sandstone.
It was certainly beautiful in that ‘desert’ way, but if you’ve been to the desert southwest of the US it was pretty underwhelming. The mesas and other geologic features are tiny, probably a tenth the height of most of the stuff in the US deserts, kind of like desert miniature. The most impressive is Cabezo Castildetierra which is featured on all the posters and postcards and does look very otherworldly. There were the ruins of some old buildings (can’t imagine anyone living here) and plenty of places to pull off the road to take pictures and walk around, but I didn’t see any actual paths or places where you could do hikes, not that we would have, given it was 99 degrees and sunny. There were some nice wild flowers, a lake a distance off the road, and something which we think might have been rice growing (which would be weird).
The entrance road in from the main highway (before the visitor center) features some ranches with nice cows and bulls.
Top left and right and lower left: Barderas Real Lower right: the highway back to Madrid
It was definitely worth a few hours (from the main highway and back the detour took us about 3 hours) if you are anywhere around there.
I spent eight days looking at Italy "through fresh eyes" - doing the classic first timers trip to Italy - Venice, Florence and Rome. This was my 13th trip to Italy, but it was the first for my friend Crista and I really enjoyed showing my favorite country to a 'newbie'. I'd been to Rome seven times, Venice five - most recently just last July but I wanted to show her all the 'must sees' and it turned out to be a chance for me to see what you really can see in just a week. We had a great time, and while we certainly didn't see everything, we hit most of the highlights, had time for some leisurely drinks, gelatos and meals and never felt rushed. Unfortunately for her, Crista had to go back to work but I had an additional 5 days.
I've been on a quest the last few years to 'research' places to go where it's 'nice' when it's not 'nice' where I live (northeastern US). So this was part of my research mission to see how northern Italy is is the early spring.
Although the first week we were looking at cool rainy weather in Milan and areas around it – especially the lakes – and thus made a last minute switch to Rome (where we had 70 and sunny), by the second week Milan had great weather. After one morning of drizzle the sun came out and stayed out for five days, temps climbing from the low 60s to over 80.
All over Lombardy and the Veneto – green grass, tons of pink and white flowering fruit trees, other trees just starting to bud out, dandelions, little white wild flowers, jasmine, forsythia, daffodils, tulips, wisteria.
This was my third visit to Milan, a city I didn’t even deem worthy of seeing until my 6th trip to Italy. And I still don’t think it’s on a par – from a tourist standpoint – with Rome with it’s ancient ruins and Baroque piazzas, or Renaissance Florence, or ‘like-no-where-else-Venice’. But it’s a nice city. The Duomo and Galleria and surrounding piazza is incredible and most certainly ‘worth’ seeing. And it’s got some nice shopping/strolling streets, a pretty decent center city castle whose courtyards you can wander around for free, and a pretty park. And Milano Centrale is one of the ‘best’ train stations in Europe. A huge Fascist era building that itself is worth seeing if you like train stations. But I think the best reason to plan a few days in Milan is that it’s transportation connections are so good. It’s got two airports and if you’re traveling from anywhere south to the rest of Europe, or going from one coast to the other in Italy, you most likely will go through Milan. And it’s so central there are numerous really worthwhile day trips possible. On this trip I did Pavia ( ½ hour by frequent train), Lake Como and Lake Lugano (both less than an hour), and Genoa, which at 1 ½ hours is close to my limit for a day trip, and now that I’ve been there I know next time I will plan to stay a few days, but it was a totally enjoyable day trip from Milan. Other day-trips easily done from Milan include Bergamo, Cremona, Brescia and Parma.
Sunday, March 26, 2017 Rain in am, sunny and 63 rest of day. Spent a lovely six hours exploring Pavia. Loved it.
Pavia is a university city with Romanesque and medieval buildings and an interesting historic center set on a river. Founded by the Romans, Pavia reached its greatness over 1300 years ago when it became the capital of much of the Italian peninsula. A comfortable provincial town founded on an easily defendable stretch of land alongside the confluence of the Po and Ticino rivers. Pavia barely gets mentioned in guidebooks and travel forums, and when it does it’s because it’s only 8 km from the Certosa di Pavia, a huge monastery complex, which I ended up not getting to as I so enjoyed the city itself I spent all my time there.
At first Pavia seemed to me a bit like Vicenza – quiet, prosperous, pretty - but not very interesting. The Duomo was impressive but not particularly pretty from the outside and looked closed. Most of the stores were closed (it was Sunday). I found the covered bridge – Ponte Coperto - and that was quite nice. It’s a reproduction of a 14th century bridge destroyed during the war, which itself was built near the site of a Roman bridge over the Ticino river. I sat on a bench in the sun for half an hour and watched locals walk their dogs and kids. Then explored the center – I found a TI Office which looked closed but there was a guy in there who let me in and gave me maps and was extremely helpful telling me where to go. Having the map really helped (I left my relatively lousy guidebook map in the hotel). There are posted maps all over town but without having one in my hand I kept forgetting where to turn. With the map and his instructions I easily found the main square, Piazza della Vittoria (really nice, lots of outdoor cafes and pretty buildings).
The University, one of the oldest in Europe (founded 1361 but possibly based on a school here from 825). There are at least 12 different courtyards and gardens, all arcaded, beautiful. The architecture is a mix of baroque and neo-classic. Three of the medieval towers (there were once 100, now only about 5 left, but they are quite striking) are in a park like setting behind the University.
The Castello Visconteo, (1360s) looks like a small fortified castle but was actually used as a private residence, set in a lovely park with people, kids, and dogs and everything green and with wildflowers blooming.
There are plenty of churches – none terribly beautiful on the outside, but all were huge and gorgeous on the inside. San Michele (between the bridge and main part of town) had extensive carvings on the sandstone façade including griffins, dragons and other beasts locked in a struggle with people representing the fight between good and evil. Inside was huge and impressive but my favorite was the lower level crypt/chapel – very Romanesque.
Another, Basilica of San Pietro in Ciel d’Oro, (close to the castle) 1132 is similar but of brick instead of sandstone but also has a lower level chapel that feels very old (and that strange feeling I get in some very old churches that is a combination of spooky and religious). In both churches there was singing/chanting coming from unseen voices.
A third church, Santa Maria del Carmine (towards the main piazza), also of brick was less interesting but it did have frescoes featuring the town’s bridge and other sites and some secular scenes. All were free to enter, and none had more than a handful of tourists.
I went past the Duomo a second and this time it was open and gigantic –and very white inside (different from the others which were all much darker). There was a mass just starting which actually added to the effect. Outside was a band performance and little festival. Earlier I’d passed the band leading a parade of people (many of them children) holding signs. Not sure what they were celebrating but everyone seemed very happy. Outside the Duomo the band was playing “YMCA” – then to walk into this incredible church with a mass (in Italian obviously but to me it sounded like Latin) – quite the contrast.
Back to the bridge as I saw a photo of it from the opposite side (didn’t walk across it the first time) and the view is better from that side. Finally headed back towards the train. The whole town was out shopping/walking/eating gelato. Huge difference from the sedate feeling in the early afternoon (it was now after 5pm). Tons of dogs of all kinds, lively atmosphere, birds singing in back streets/along the river, some street performers, the band (parade), the singing in the churches, wisteria, forsythia, trees just budding out, warm sun, cool breeze. Lovely day.
Monday, March 27, 2017 - Sunny and 65 – Took 8:10 train to Genoa, arrived just before 10. Walked all over. Took 4:09 train back.
I liked Genoa a lot more than I thought I would. I had figured it would be sort of like Palermo, maybe not even as nice, kind of gritty, rather dark. But it was lovely. Sprawled behind the port area (Italy's biggest) is a dense and fascinating warren of medieval caruggi (tiny alleyways) – and these are kind of dark. But the rest of the city is bright and clean and there are some incredible buildings, including several 16th and 17th century palazzos along Via Garibaldi which are a UNESCO site, and the 19th Century city along arcaded Via XX September which is the main shopping street – with all the usual international chains.
The main Piazza – Piazza Ferrari – separates the old town from the more modern 19th century city, and has a huge fountain which was incredible. 19th century neo Baroque buildings surround it including the ‘Borsa’ and the Teatro Carlo Fellice.
A couple blocks south from Piazza Ferrari brings you to Piazza Dante off which is the ancient main gate to the city, Porta Soprano, still very imposing with two huge towers. Right next to that is the tiniest cloister – no church, just a perfect square little arcaded stone cloister from the 12th century. It is the Cloister of sant’Andrea. Christopher Columbus’s house is supposedly right around here but I didn’t see it.
Southwest of Piazza Ferrari is the Chiesa dei Sant Ambrogio e Andrea (big, pretty and yellow, late 1500s) and Piazza Matteotti, home to Palazzo Ducale, the historic location of the Genova Republic' s Government and today is the center of all Genova' s cultural activities.
In the other direction from Piazza Ferrari is tiny Piazza Matteo with a cute little black and white striped church. This beautiful little square is the domain of the city’s most acclaimed family, the seagoing Dorias, who ruled Genoa until the end of the 18th century. The church is 12th century and contains the crypt of the Dorias’ most illustrious son, Andrea. Several of the buildings surround the piazza are also black and white striped (like many others in the city) which denotes homes of the most honored citizens.
Just around the corner from Piazza Matteo is the larger San Lorenzo Cathedral – also black and white stripes with a pair of nice lions guarding the stairs leading to it. It’s Romanesque-Gothic, begun in 1160, remodeled in 1307 with a Renaissance dome added in 1557. From here Via San Lorenzo is the ‘main’ street leading down to the port. On the map it looks like a big busy street but in reality it’s narrow and pedestrianized, not all that much wider than the narrow, atmospheric alleys all around it.
It opens out onto the area just behind the Harbor. Via di Sottoripa is a covered street with lots of eateries. The back of Palazzo San Giorgio is here. The back of the building looks like a medieval castle, but the front (and side) is bright, beautifully painted with pastel colors including a huge depiction of Saint George slaying the dragon. The place is absolutely gorgeous, only slightly diminished by being right across from the large highway overpass.
There is a relatively busy street even under the highway, but there are lights and crosswalks and it’s easy to see the harbor from the main side of the road. Porto Antico, totally revitalized over the past two decades, it’s old warehouses converted into exhibition spaces, concert halls, museums and waterfront cafes. It’s Italy’s biggest port, but the industrial shipping and cruise ship areas are way off to one side so the area directly in front of the city area I just described is all open and inviting. There is what is supposedly the ‘best’ aquarium in Europe (I was really sorry not to have time for it) which includes a huge round Biosphere which stretched out into the harbor. The Galeone Neptune is certainly an eye catching addition to the harbor. It’s a replica of a 17th century Spanish galleon. It was built in 1985 for Roman Polanski’s film Pirates. But it sure is pretty.
Another eye catching thing on the other side of the aquarium is Il Bigo – a ride in a capsule strung from what is supposed to look like a ships crane, that gets lifted high over the port. Next to this is an old warehouse renovated to house a huge ‘Eataly’ and numerous other shops and restaurants. There are sailboats, yachts, sightseeing boats. Modern art sculptures, renovated old cranes. The whole area is delightful (especially on a blindingly bright day with temperatures in the high 60s) and I walked quite a ways just taking it all in.
I could have stayed down by the waterfront for the rest of the day but I wanted to see the street which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site so I made my way back inland and up through the narrow caruggi. The streets here are indeed dark and narrow and the few piazzas are so tiny you can hardly call them piazzas. But Piazza San Luca has a pretty little church and Piazzi Banchi is a tiny but busy little square with an interesting kind of elevated church.
There are over a hundred Renaissance and Baroque palaces on the Strade Nuove (‘New Streets’), built between the 16th and 17th centuries and 46 of them are collectively listed as a UNESCO world heritage site, the main ones on Via Garibaldi, a few blocks inland from Piazza Ferrari. Descriptions of Via Garibaldi make it sound like a grand boulevard but it is actually a narrow pedestrianized street which feels even more hemmed in by the large palazzos on both sides. Palazzo Rosso, Palazzo Bianco and Palazzo Tursi are the most well known.
Just a block past Via Garibaldi is Piazza del Portello, a busy traffic square, which has the entrance to the Art Noveau lift up to a belvedere with great views of the lower city, the water and the hillsides which are the ‘suburbs’ of Genoa, with pastel colored buildings as far as the eye can see.
Everything was a lot closer together than I expected it would be. From the maps and what I read I figured the hills would be worse and the distances much farther. Genoa is a large city (Italy’s 6th largest I think) but the historic core and the waterfront are close together and it’s very walkable. There is a lot I didn’t get to and I definitely plan to come back. Still, I walked a ton (though never considered taking the metro which I though I would have to). The route I took is only about 5 miles, though of course I double around a lot so did at least twice that.
Via XX Septembre arcaded shopping street
Mercato Orientale (left and center) on Via XX Septembre and one of Genoa's two main train stations, Stazione di Genova Brignole
Tuesday, March 28, 2017 - Sunny and 65
It’s just about exactly an hour from Milano Centrale to Varenna. I bought my return ticket before I left Milano as I had heard the Varenna station is unmanned – which it is, but there is a café at the station and they do sell train tickets there, plus there is a ticket machine. I bought a ‘mid-lake’ ferry pass and took the ferry first to Menaggio for an hour or so, then to Bellagio for another hour or so, and spent the rest of my day in Varenna.
Lake Como in March
Snow on the higher peaks in the distance. Wisteria, forsythia, dogwood, tulips, daffodils, pansies. Empty boats. A few tour groups in Bellagio but Varenna and Mennagio were empty except for the locals and a handful of independent tourists. Less than half the stores were open but that was enough – not much to buy except overpriced clothes. Plenty of places to get lunch, a drink, gelato.
Bellagio had lots of ‘pre-season’ construction going on, reminded me of Positano in March. In fact, just in general it reminds me of Positano. Almost every shop is a tourist store or eatery, nothing I want to buy. Bellagio is supposed to be the ‘prettiest’ town on Lake Como (a designation which is deserved in the case of Positano) but isn’t. Varenna is far more attractive and interesting with a long lakeside walk with breathtaking views, tons of little steeply stepped stone lanes (most of which are not lined with stores) going up to an attractive little town center with cute church and some real stores scattered in among the tourist ones. I liked it best 13 years ago, and still feel that way. I have no idea why people prefer Bellagio, and probably it’s fame has made it even worse as there appears to be virtually no ‘real’ houses or stores. Menaggio is even less touristy than Varenna. Long wide lakeside promenade and a tiny town center with two attractive churches but overall somewhat less pretty than Varenna.
Lakeside Promenade in Varenna
However, overall, as beautiful as Lake Como is, I really prefer Lake Garda. The mountains are higher and closer (which might be the case with the top half of Lake Como, I have not been there) and the three northern towns on Lake Garda are more interesting and scenic than the Lake Como towns, the lower towns are larger and prettier and then there is Sirmironie.
But the birds were singing, the sun shinning, cool breeze, warm temps. It was lovely. In another month there would be more flowers blooming, more things open – so a more lively atmosphere – but there would be more people too. Other than the chance of clouds/rain being higher in March I think planning a trip to the lakes in early spring is a great idea. As long as you can choose a sunny day (eg plan to stay in Milan and do other things if the weather is bad).
Wednesday, March 29, 2017 - Sunny and 70 - Lugano, Switzerland – OMG what a gorgeous day – 75 and sunny, not a cloud in the sky. Lugano has a magnificent setting, much better even than Lakes Como or Garda. Lugano itself is a medium size city (71,000/140,00 urban area), mostly pretty modern. There’s been a town there for thousands of years but most of the buildings are from the late 1800s and later. The ‘center’ seems to be 1880-1920, some nice arcaded buildings and streets but nothing that feels especially old. And lots of 20th century building – that’s the majority. So not quaint, not especially atmospheric, but what a setting. There is a long promenade (at least 2 miles) part of which is a very nice park. Lots of things in bloom – pink and white flowering trees, dogwood, tulips, daffodils, willows just budding out, palm trees! I love that there you can see palm trees and snow covered Alps at the same time (which is also true of Lake Como). Delightful to walk along the water through the park. Lots of swans (and very tame). Hardly any boats in the water (most still have their winter covers on and pulled up on the shore) so that looks different than summer but otherwise it could have been June (probably more in bloom even than in than in June).
I walked all over – the ‘center’ is tiny, one main square and a few minor ones – lots of chain and designer stores, but nothing terribly interesting (and virtually nothing touristy). Italian is the main language though some signs are in French and German as well (not much in English).
I took the funicular up to Monte San Salvatore (26 Swiss francs, took credit cards). Fabulous views. The view is definitely better if you walk the five minutes from the top of the funicular station to the top of the church (there’s a viewpoint up there). The views from the ‘terrace’ at the restaurant at the funicular station are nothing compared to those five minutes further up. They had an interesting display of Swiss Tourist Posters from the last hundred years all along the walk up to the viewpoint.
I was unable to get anything to eat as I had no Swiss francs. I could have gone to an actual restaurant which took credit cards but I had my ham and swiss croissants and water so all I really wanted was a smoothie or something but that was not worth taking money out of an ATM for since I was there just for the day.
The train situation was interesting. On the way there I had to buy a ticket with seat assignment and it was just like all the other train trips I’d been taking in Italy. Very orderly. At the border some immigration and border control guards got on the train and walked through checking random passports (a nice looking blond –e.g. they were not profiling potential immigrants - across the aisle was checked but no one else in our row). On the way back it was just a ‘ticket’ (no seat assignment). Much more crowded and kind of chaotic – the exact opposite from previous train trips in which Swiss trains were super orderly and on time and the Italian trains not so much. They announced they would be checking identity cards but I didn’t every see anyone.
Thursday, March 30, 2017 Sunny and 80 – Spent the day in Milan.
I had not expected it to be so hot so of course was over dressed. But it was an absolutely gorgeous day. I walked from the hotel to the Duomo, through the Public Garden (which was OK, nothing great except it was the perfect trees just leafing out so everything is that luscious green color and the sky was intense blue), then checked out the Venetian Gate – two mid 19th century buildings, again, OK but not something to go out of your way for. Normally when I stay at Hotel Berna I take the metro the two stops to the center, but it is totally walkable if you aren’t in a hurry.
The Corso Venezia is one of Milan's most prestigious streets, bordered by stately buildings in a multitude of architectural styles, from Renaissance to Art Nouveau. It's about 1 km long and runs north from Piazza San Babila to Porta Venezia, and iis bordered by the Giardini Pubblici, one of the few public parks in the center of Milan.Just inside the park is the Museum of Natural History. From Piazza San Bablia to the Duomo is a short pedestrianized street filled with shopping options.
The last of Italy's great Gothic structures, Milan's Duomo took over 500 years to complete. Begun by the ruling Visconti family in 1386 – it is one of the ten largest cathedrals in the world, with 135 marble spires, a stunning triangular facade, and over 3,400 statues flanking the massive but airy, almost fanciful exterior. From the roof are stunning views of the flying buttresses up close as well as views over Italy’s most frenetic city.
Every time I've been to Milan I've gone to the Piazza del Duomo. For one thing it's an amazing sight, but it's also very much in the center of the city. Walking around the Duomo and through the Galleria is a 'must-see' whenever you are there. I'd been inside the Duomo on a previous visit but had never gone up to the roof.
There was at least a 15-minute line to buy tickets for the Duomo, I just got the roof access as they are now charging for the Duomo interior as well and since I’ve already been in there and it was such a gorgeous day I wanted to be outside. Then another 15-minute line for the lift plus some serious security. There’s a bit of construction going on up there so a good deal was under scaffolding – not terribly noticeable from the ground but it was from up there. Still, interesting to see the flying buttresses up close and the views of the piazza in front, etc.
Galleria Vittorio Emanuele is a spectacular, late-19th century glass-topped, belle époque, barrel-vaulted tunnel. It is essentially one of the planet's earliest and most select shopping malls, the prototype of the enclosed shopping malls that were to become the hallmark of 20th century consumerism, and of course none of those have come close to matching the Galleria for style and flair. This is the city's heart, midway between the Duomo and La Scala, an important meeting and dinning place. Like the cathedral, the Galleria is cruciform in shape. The great glass dome above the octagonal center is a splendid sight. The paintings at the base of the dome represent Europe, Asia, Africa, and America. The Galleria has always been home to luxury retailers like Prada but until 2013 there was also a McDonald’s in there. It was prevented from renewing it’s lease (after 20 years) and sued the city. McDonald’s is now located just outside the Galleria and it’s former space is occupied by a second Prada store. The entrance from the Piazza del Duomo is framed by a monumental triumphal arch, drawing people in from the square in front of the cathedral in.
The Galleria was constructed during the era of Italian unification and symbolized Italian unity, so it was decorated with patriotic symbols. Mosaics on the floor below the dome depict the coat of arms of Savoy and Italian cities are allegorically represented: a wolf for Rome, a lily for Florence, a bull for Turin and a white flag with red cross for Milan. Stepping with the heel of your foot on the genitals of the bull is supposed to bring good luck.
Just off the Piazza del Duomo is what is left of medieval Milano, now just a small Piazza (Mercanti) with a couple of buildings including the Palazzo della Ragione (1228) and the Loggia degli Osli (1316), and Palazzo dei Giureconsultli (with the clock tower) . From there, Via Dante is a pedestrianized shopping street full of restaurants and cafes that runs to the castle.
Castello Sforzesco, begun in 1358 and expanded several times through the 1400s. The present castle, with a square plan laid out around three inner courtyards , is dominated by its many towers. The main entrance leads through the castle's tallest tower - the Torre del Fiarete - to the Piazza d'Armi, an expansive inner courtyard. Behind this tower is the heart of the castle with the palatial residences of the Sforza dukes enclosing two smaller courtyards. Castello Sforzesco is home to a number of museums, but the grounds are free to wander through.
The sun was shining beautifully on the front of the castle and the fountain in front was going. I ate my croissant with ham and cheese and cherry tomatoes along with a limone granite sitting on the bench around the fountain. After wandering around the castle grounds for a while I made my way into the park, sat for a while in the sun (too hot to linger). Parco Sempione is a nicely laid out 116 acre park in a landscape style with winding paths, open grassy areas, tall trees and a picturesque bridge across a central pond which usually nicely reflects the castle. Everything was in bloom and it was just lovely.
I then checked out the Arco della Pace, which was originally a triumphal arch and looks very similar to the Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel in Paris, the smaller cousin to the more famous Arc de Triomphe which sits at the far end of the Champs-Elysees. Arco della Pace sits at the site of one of Milan's town gates, which was originally the entrance to the city from the road which led to Paris.
From there I managed to walk to the Cemetery without getting lost (the map I had printed out was actually very detailed). The Cemetery, billed as Italy’s Pere LaChase, does have a lot of very fancy statues and little buildings/tombs but as far as I know no one famous is buried there. The huge main building was pretty impressive as well.
Then I debated walking or taking the metro back to the hotel. By the time I got to the metro stop I wanted it looked like I wasn’t all that far but it turned out to be a bit of a slog. Passed some of the new shinny glass office complexes, something I don’t usually see in European cities as they, fortunately, tend to be segregated in the outskirts.
The last evening in Milan I enjoyed the beautiful way major monuments in European cities are lit and the way they glow golden against the dark blue sky.
For the Venice, Florence, and Rome portions of my trip see "Italy through Fresh Eyes: Chasing the Sun in Italy in March" Parts 1, 2, and 3
For more photos click on "All Photographs in the upper right corner and navigate to the Italy gallery.
Thursday, March 23, 2017 - Rome
We ended up getting to the train station almost an hour before our train to Rome so we sat and had cappuccinos at a train station café listening to people play the piano. I love that many train stations in Europe have pianos just sitting there waiting for passersby to stop and play a few tunes. In the hour we were there several people did just that.
Train was high speed (up to 255km/hr) and took just 1.5 hours. Went through a lot of tunnels – ear popping. Somehow I booked us in Business Class – seats are a bit wider, and leather instead of cloth. Otherwise no difference and certainly not worth any extra money.
Checked into the Hotel Julia. It’s almost a half hour walk from Termini. It’s twice as far as the Floris, the other hotel I’ve stayed at recently in Rome, but they were full with only two days notice. So it was a pain to drag the bags, but once at the Julia it is closer to everything. A ten minute walk to the Trevi Fountain, less than five minutes to Piazza Barberini (where there is a metro stop), and on a quiet (for Rome) street. It's a perfectly fine hotel, not luxury but clean and comfortable. There is an annex next to the main building, where the rooms are a bit nicer, but the wi-fi not as good (at least it wasn't a few years ago, it was great in the main building this trip).
As we had not planned on going to Rome on this trip I had none of my information with me, no map (although the hotel has good free maps they give out). Fortunately I’ve been there enough recently that I know my way around pretty well. I took Crista on my favorite “Introductory Rome Tour” (the center of Rome is a UNESCO World Heritage Site)
Trevi Fountain (nice and clean after it’s recent renovation, the scaffolding that’s been in place the last few years all gone), The Trevi Fountain, 1762, is an incredible Baroque Masterpiece, huge and beautiful. But it's beauty and fame (featured in "Three Coins in a Fountain", the 1954 film that was the first color film to be produced on location, it made half of America decide to go visit Italy) have caused it to be difficult to visit. An aquatic marvel in a city filled with them, the fountain's unique drama is largely due to the site: its vast basin is squeezed into the tight meeting of three little streets (the "tre via", which gives the fountain its name) with cascades emerging as if from the back wall of Palazzo Poli behind it. The tiny piazza in front of it is literally jam-packed most of day, full of tourists trying to throw a coin over their shoulder into the fountain to assure they will return to Rome. There are some railings to lean on - if you can get anywhere close to them - but no benches. Early in the morning before the tour groups arrive it is still enjoyable, after that forget it.
Piazza Colona (site of one of the most dramatic obelisks in Rome, the Column of Marcus Aurelius built in AD180 but changed in 1589 when a pope replaced the Roman warrior on top with a statue of St Paul. Behind the obelisk is the Palazzo Chigi, residence of the prime minister.) Then on to Piazza di Montecitorio – a Bernini designed piazza containing a 6th century BC Egyptian obelisk. About a block further is La Maddalena, Rome’s only truly Rococo church, 1669. Slight detour back a block or so to Piazza di Pietra home to 11 huge Corinthian columns that are the remains of the 2nd Century Tempio di Adriano.
Clockwise from upper Left: Piazza di Montecitorio, La Maddalena, Column of Marcus Aurelius, Piazza di Pietra
Another block or two to Piazza Rotunda.
Piazza Rotunda is one of my favorite piazzas in Rome but it was soooo crowded and a line to get into the Pantheon! (it’s free, the line was just too many people trying to get in). Six previous trips to Rome, many of which were in high season and I never saw it like this. So we skipped going in for the time being. At 9:00 the next morning there was no line and virtually empty inside. In the center of the piazza is my favorite fountain, the Fontana del Pantheon, 1575, surmounted by an Egyptian obelisk.
The Pantheon is the best preserved ancient monument in Rome. A pagan temple originally dedicated to 'all the gods' it was transformed into a church in AD 609. Originally erected by Agrippa in 27BC, (you can still see letters engraved on it spelling Agrippa) it was rebuilt by emperor Hadrian in AD120. It's size is immense but more impressive is the harmony - the diameter of the dome is exactly equal to its height - some people call it the world's most architecturally perfect building. The opening in the center of the dome is 30 feet in diameter, the temple's only source of light, intended to symbolize the 'all-seeing eye of heaven'. It houses the tombs of the artist Raphael and the first king of Italy, Vittorio Emanuele II.
Just behind the Pantheon is the Chiesa di Santa Maria Sopra Minerva, a church built over (sopra) an ancient temple (of Minerva). The church has been ‘renovated’ numerous times so it’s not terribly authentic despite technically being Rome’s only Gothic church. But inside is a Michelangelo sculpture and outside is an adorable elephant sculpture atop a short obelisk, by Bernini. Free
On to Piazza Navonna – [So far this is only about .8 mile] Rome’s most impressive Baroque square. The piazza’s long narrow shape is because it was built over space formerly used for chariot races. At center is the Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi, [Fountain of the Four Rivers] built by Bernini in 1651. The figures of the four rivers represent the four known continents as of 1650: the Nile; the Ganges (holding an oar); the Danube (looking at the obelisk); and the Plata (from Uruguay, tumbling backward), with its hand raised. The figure of the Nile is hiding its head because it represents a river whose source was then unknown. At the south end is the Fountain of the Moor (Fontana del Moro), also by Bernini. At the north end of the square is The Fountain of Neptune (Fontana di Nettuno), a 19th Century addition.
Crista duly impressed, not only with all the sculptures and fountains, but also the beautiful Sant’Agnese in Agone church, and just the overall ambiance of all the ochre colored buildings, cafes, artists selling their work. So far we have seen enough sculptures, fountains, etc. to fill a museum, but all of it for free, in the places for which they were designed.
We then wound our way through the narrow streets and tiny Piazzettas towards the Tiber (one of my favorites is Piazzetta di S Simone)
and up to Piazza del Popolo, one of Rome’s largest squares which was gorgeous in the late afternoon sun with blue sky and puffy white clouds. [another approximately 1 mile]. In the center is an Egyptian obelisk from the 13th C, brought to Rome during the reign of Augustus, surrounded by four of my favorite lion fountains. Surrounding the square are other statues and fountains. At one end is a pair of twin churches, Santa Maria del Miracoli and Santa Maria di Montesanto. At the other is another church, Santa Maria del Popolo (1442-47, Renaissance) and Porta del Popolo, the gateway in the 3rd C Aurelian wall. The gate was erected in 1561, and was one of the major gateways into the city.
We climbed the Rampa del Pincio from Piazza del Popolo to the Pincio Terrace, in the Borghese Gardens. There is a spectacular view of the city from here. Everything was that gorgeous spring green color, there was wisteria, forsythia, and pink and white and purple flowering trees.
About a half a mile from there brings you to the top of the Spanish Steps. Guidebooks say the Spanish Steps are ‘one of the most famous images’ in the world, certainly it’s well featured in tons of books and movies but Crista managed to have never heard of it. Still, she managed to be impressed by it.
It is one of the most majestic urban monuments of Roman Baroque style. Designed in 1723, the Spanish steps (there are 135 of them) were funded by the French as a preface to the French church, Trinità dei Monti at the top of them. It was given the name Spanish Steps because the Spanish Ambassador lived at the bottom, in the Piazza di Spagna. It has long been one of the most popular tourist attractions in the city: attracting artists and writers and was full of elegant hotels. At the foot of the stairs, is the Barcaccia Fountain, the work of Bernini who went on to become the creator of some of the most important masterpieces of Baroque art in the city. In the form of a sinking ship, the fountain recalls the historic flood of the River Tiber in 1598 and refers to a folk legend whereby a fishing boat carried away by the flood of the river was found at this exact spot. In reality, the sinking boat was ably invented by Bernini to overcome a technical problem due to low water pressure. The sun and bee ornamentation is a symbol of the Barberini family and a reference to Pope Urban VIII who commissioned the work. The staircase is an architectural feat with its ramps and stairs that intersect and open out like a fan definitively providing a solution for connecting the square and the Trinità Church above.
Via Sistina is just a busy shopping street although I love the view of the bell tower of Santa Maria Maggiore in the distance. At the end of the street is Piazza Barberini, with the 1642 Triton Fountain (Fontana del Tritone) in the center. Another baroque masterpiece by Bernini ( as well as the Palazzo Barberini a block down the street), it features four dolphins holding up an open scallop shell in which a triton sits blowing into a conch.
Piazza Barberini is only about a tenth of a mile from our hotel, on via Rasella. So this whole walk is really only about 3 miles – although with little detours and such it took us considerably more (according to my fitbit).
We had dinner at a restaurant on Piazza Barberini, got a bottle of wine and went back to the hotel.
Friday, March 24, 2017 - [Mostly sunny, 75] - We repeated the beginning of yesterday’s walk, this time getting to the Pantheon before the crowds. But from Piazza Navona we went in the other direction to Campo di Fiori.
Streets in the area between Piazza Navona and Campo di Fiori
In ancient times the square was used as grazing land for cattle, hence the name, which means field of flowers. In those days buildings stood on one side of the square only, with a view over the Tiber on the other. During the 1500s, this square was the geographic and cultural center of secular Rome, with inns and the occasional burning at the stake of religious heretics. The hooded statue in the center is of a philosopher burned at the stake here in 1600. Today the campo hosts a morning open-air food market (Mon.-Sat. 8 AM-1 PM), Except for the pizzerias and gelaterias, it still looks much as it did in the early 1800s.
Next we stopped at the Torre Argentina / ‘Area Sacra’, site of the remains of four temples from 200-300 BC. A cat sanctuary, run by volunteers is in one corner and cats roam the area.
A few blocks further on is Piazza Venezia, sort of the central ‘hub’ of Rome – a very busy, traffic filled square in front of the Vittorio Emanule II Monument. The monument, to the first king of Italy (I think there is a monument and/or street named after him in absolutely every town in Italy) is a huge white building, with an enormous flight of stairs leading up to it. Totally covered in statues, and fountains and columns. Inside the building are museums, but on both sides are terraces with great views in all directions and those are free.
Across the street is Trajan’s Column sitting at the beginning of the Via dei Fori Imperiali. Mussolini cut through centuries of debris and junky buildings to reveal many archaeological treasures and carve out this boulevard linking Piazza Venezia to the Colosseum. The vistas over the ruins of Rome's Imperial Forums from the northern side of the street and the Roman Forum on the south side make this half mile one of the most fascinating walks in Rome. And it's mostly pedestrianized.
Begun by Julius Caesar as an answer to the overcrowding of Rome's older forums during the days of the empire, the Imperial Forums were, at the time of their construction, flashier, bolder, and more impressive than the old Roman Forum, and represented the unquestioned authority of the Roman emperors at the height of their absolute power. A good section of The “Roman Forum” can also be viewed from this street, and recently signs have been erected telling people what they’re looking at, and with drawings showing what the ruins would have looked like. The Roman Forum was the center of life in Rome, evidenced by the many remains of triumphal arches, temples and basilicas. Although fascinating just to look at, having a map or guidebook telling you what each ruin was is a good idea, although the new signs really do help. You also get a different feeling and perspective from walking around in the Forum and from viewing it from above (both on this street, and even better from behind Capitoline Hill).
Back of Palatine Hill, the Imperial Forum from Via dei Fori Imperiali
The Roman Forum as seen from via dei Fori Imperiali
The Roman Forum as seen from behind Capitoline Hill
The Colosseum sits at the end of Via dei Fori Imperiali. The huge amphitheater was built on the site of an artificial lake, part of Nero's huge park in the center of Rome which also included the Golden House (Domus Aurea) and the nearby Colossus statue. This giant statue of Nero gave the building its current name. The Colosseum is gigantic and from pictures of it’s original appearance, clad in marble and covered with statues, it was really impressive. Especially from the outside. But it’s still really impressive even though most of the statues and marble were stolen over the centuries to build Renaissance era churches and palaces. Not that the inside isn’t also really interesting, but if time is limited, walking around the outside I think is better.
The Colosseum was the place of the grossest and best-organized perversity in all history. Gladiatorial contests were designed to make Romans better soldiers by rendering them indifferent to the sight of death. Exotic animals were shipped in from the far corners of the empire to satisfy jaded tastes (lion versus bear, 2 humans vs. hippopotamus). Not-so-mock naval battles were staged (the canopied Colosseum could be flooded), and the defeated combatants might have their lives spared if they put up a good fight. Many historians now believe that one of the most enduring legends about the Colosseum (that Christians were fed to the lions) is unfounded.
Tickets (which include the Forum, the Colosseum and Palatine Hill) can be bought at any of the three, and lines are always shorter at the other two. Even with a ticket, lines to get into the Colosseum can be crazy. We walked all the way around the Colosseum which I recommend. It really does look different from the ‘back’ as well as the ‘front’.
We stopped for cappuccinos and a snack at a café – horribly overpriced but worth it for the view.
Between the Colosseum and Palatine Hill, the biggest of the triumphal arches, the Arch of Constantine, 315 AD, spans the via Triumphalis, the way taken by the emperors when they entered the city in triumph. Today it’s lined with tour buses. We walked all the way down and around to the back of Palatine Hill through the Circus Maximus which was where chariot races were held. Today it just looks like an empty park. But seeing the Palatine Hill from the different angles is interesting. Palatine Hill is the center-most of the Seven Hills of Rome and is the ancient most part of the city. Imperial palaces were built here and it is from the name “Palatine” that the word palace/palazzo come from. It was on the Palatine Hill that Rome first became a city. Legend tells us that the date was 753 B.C. The new city originally consisted of nothing more than the Palatine, which was soon enclosed by a surprisingly sophisticated wall, remains of which can still be seen on the Circus Maximus side of the hill.
At the far end of Circus Maximus is the Church of Santa Maria in Cosmedin, with a Romanesque campanile (11th century), best known as the home of the “Mouth of Truth” (bocca della Verita), made famous in the movie “Roman Holiday” where Gregory Peck demonstrates to Audrey Hepburn that the mouth is supposed to chomp down on the hands of liars who insert their hands. Ninety percent of the tourists who come here stand in the long line to get their photo taken and never even venture into the church, one of the most unusual in Rome. The church, with a haunting, almost exotic interior is free, and for €2 you can go down into the crypt which is even more intriguing. Outside, on the Piazza della Bocca della Verita are two Roman era temples, the Temple of Hercules Victor (the round one) and the Temple of Portunus, a diety related to the ancient river harbor just across the street. There’s also the Fountain of the Tritons (1715) and around the corner from this piazza is another large arch, the Arch of Janus.
From the Piazza della Bocca della Verita we detoured across the street to have a look at Isola Tiberina (the island in the Tiber). The oldest bridge in Rome, the Ponte Fabricio (62 BC) connects the island to the Tiber’s eastern bank. The island is associated with the healing powers of the god Aesculapius, son of Apollo. Legend has it that in the 3rd C BC the Romans sent a boat to Epidaurus in Greece to discover a cure for the plague. On the return trip Esculapio left the ship in the shape of a serpent and swam to the island, indicating that a temple to the god of healing should be built here. The church of San Bartolomeo was built on the site. In the 1st C BC the Romans reshaped the island with slabs of travertine to form a “prow”.
Continuing on to Via del Teatro di Marcello you pass by the church of San Nicola in Carcere (St Nicolas in Prison), a typical example of Roman 11th C construction which was built within the ruins of three republican era temples. The temples were dedicated to the two-face god Janus, the goddess Juno and to the god Spes (hope). These Temples once overlooked the city of Rome’s fruit and vegetable market. The columns that once held these temples up can still be found embedded into the walls of the church and are easily seen just by walking by. This church also has a crypt that you can go down into, although we didn’t do that this trip.)
Another block or so is Teatro di Marcello, a small corner of the 2000 year old arcade has been restored to what presumably was the original look. Next to it are three Columns of Apollo and a smattering of other, smaller ruins.
Another block or so brings you to the base of the steps leading up to Capitoline Hill (Campidogilo), the most sacred of Rome’s seven hills. It was once the epicenter of the Roman Empire. The city's archives were kept in the Tabularium (hall of records), the tall tufa structure that forms the foundation of today's city hall, the Palazzo Senatorio, which features a classic Renaissance Italian bell tower and double sided staircase.
Michelangelo created the piazza with it’s slightly convex pavement, the staircase ramp, the buildings and facades on three sides, and the pedestal for the bronze equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius. On the other two sides of the piazza, Palazzo dei Conservatori and Palazzo Nuoveo, have been incorporated into the Capitoline Museums, one of the oldest museums in the world. These museums house some of the greatest pieces of classical sculpture in the world including the renowned symbol of Rome, the Capitoline Wolf, a 6th C BC Etruscan bronze (the suckling twins were added during the Renaissance to adapt the statue to the legend of Romulus and Remus – there is a copy outside). As Michelangelo's preeminent urban set piece, the piazza sums up all the majesty of High Renaissance Rome. From behind the Palazzo Senatorio, a stairway leads down, offering the best overview of the roman Forum. The front of the piazza looks out over the Piazza Venezia.
The loop I just described (from Piazza Venezia and back) is about three miles (plus detours of course). From the Hotel and back we walked about six miles.
After a bit of siesta at the hotel, we headed to St Peter’s. The first stop was Ponte Sant'Angelo, pedestrianized and lined with ten stone angels it joins ‘the heart of Rome’ with the Vatican side and leads directly to Castel Sant'Angelo.
Castel Sant’Angelo - During its many years of existence, the building functioned as a mausoleum, became part of the city wall and later was turned into a fortress before it functioned as a papal residence and finally as a barracks and military prison. Emperor Hadrian chose this spot away from the city’s main area as the site for his tomb. From the top is one of the best views of Rome. The castle houses part of the Museo Nzionale Romano. In AD 590 Rome was stricken with the plague and Pope Gregory organized a procession to pray for the city’s release. As a result of the miracle the building was renamed Castel Sant’Angelo. In the 9th C it was linked to the nearby Vatican by building a high defensive wall. The spiral ramp inside the castle dates back to the time Hadrian’s mausoleum and part of it can still be climbed to the main courtyard where the statue of Archangel Michael, 1544, stands. There is another Archangel Michael, 18th C, at the top of the terrace along with the Bell of Mercy which in the past pealed to announce executions. The moats and gardens are a 20th Century addition.
St Peter’s Basilica looks close from Castel Sant’Angelo but it’s actually more than half a mile. Piazza San Pietro is huge, with a massive Egyptian obelisk supported by bronze lions and two fountains in the center and surrounded by the ‘Tuscan Colonnades’, four columns deep which curve around the sides of the square from the Basilica. Bernini designed the piazza and the colonnades to be “the maternal arms of the mother church”. The whole ensemble is gorgeous and a definite ‘must see’ even if you have no interest in the catholic religion. The place is packed with tourists most of the day, some just taking it all in, the rest waiting in the long security line to get into the church. Given our limited time on this trip we didn’t go in but it is a really amazing space and worth the hour or so wait on line. Around the side of the piazza is the city wall, through which a gate leads to the entrance to the Vatican Museums (which always has an enormous line – every time I’ve been there – July, March, November, early in the morning, mid day, rain, shine).
We took the Metro back, got a pizza to eat in room and took a short siesta before heading out for a drink and to see Rome lit up. The Piazzas are all beautifully lit – my favorite for evening ambiance are Trevi (if the crowds aren’t too bad), Rotunda and Narvona. We started the evening with a drink near Piazza di Pietra, strolled around the streets and piazzas as the sky turned dark blue and the buildings became beautifully gold colored, and finished the evening with a gelato at a café in Piazza Rotunda next to my favorite site in Rome – the Fontana della Rotunda backed by the Pantheon.
Saturday, March 25, 2017 [Sunny and 78] – Not a cloud in the sky. Best day yet and we had nothing really to do. We had condensed what we planned to do in two full days down to a day and a half since we discovered that there were demonstrations planned in Rome for the 60th anniversary of the European Union so stores were to be closed and they made it sound like pedestrian access to the center was going to be curtailed - they were expecting possible violence. We tried to get our train tickets changed to an earlier one but couldn’t (special price). So we went to S. Maria Maggiore (with our bags) and took turns going in and sitting in the sun. Then went to a café and sat in the sun there and age gelato. Had lunch at the train station, then comfortable 3-hour train trip to Milan.
For the Venice, Florence, and Milan portions of our trip see parts 1, 2, and 4 of "Italy through new eyes: Chasing the Sun in Italy in March"
For more photos click on "All Photographs in the upper right corner and navigate to the Italy gallery.
Tuesday, March 21, 2017 [Sun and clouds, high 60s] - On to Florence! (After a short stroll around the the ‘Ghetto’ section of Venice) Train was from 11:25-13:30 so we bought lunch to eat en route.
Although I’d only been to Florence once, 9 years before, we easily found the Hotel Alba Palace on the street to the right of the train station. The street is not especially scenic, nor is exterior of the building. But lobby and breakfast room were quite nice, and there’s a bar with cold water, hot water – tea, coffee, etc. and cookies and savory snacks (pretzels, nuts, etc.) available all day. The room - #001 is right next to the breakfast room and elevator – but utterly quiet inside. And OMG – what an amazing room! The room is two stories high with a gigantic exposed stone and brick wall and another brick wall, arcaded ceiling, two story marble column. Queen size bed, beautiful painted armoire, matching small cabinet (hiding the mini-fridge), and bench (plus a wooden table/desk and two wooden end tables. 48” flat screen TV. And then ---- wood and iron spiral stair case leading to a loft with two twin beds, more great furniture and French doors leading to a large terrace with a table and chairs. And the bathroom is also huge, with full tub. So it’s clearly a ‘quad’ room. Only a 5 minute walk from the train station or Santa Maria Novella church/piazza (with several decent restaurants) and about 10 minutes from the Duomo. What a find. €125 a night. (Only drawback was a rather mediocre breakfast)
We dropped our stuff and went out to explore – Piazza del Duomo , Piazza Signoria, Pont Vecchio, Mercato Nuovo, San Lorenzo cloister, San Lorenzo Market. Florence center, another UNESCO World Heritage Site, is quite compact and very walkable and much of the center is pedestrianized.
On the way back to the room we stopped and got a bottle of wine and got some of the free snacks from the hotel and had ‘cocktails’ on the terrace. Then I ran out and got some early evening shots while Crista hung out in the room. Then went to one of the restaurants on Piazza Santa Maria Novella – pasta, risotto at an outside table (they had heater lamps).
Can you “see” Florence in one full day? Yes you can.
Wednesday, March 22, 2017 [Mostly cloudy, 70]
The buildings on the Piazza del Duomo – which include the Duomo, the Baptistery, and the Campanile di Giotto are among the most colorful buildings in Italy. The exteriors are composed of geometrically patterned bands of white, pink, and green marble, an interesting contrast to the sienna-colored fortress-like palazzi around the city. One description I read said they looked like “buildings in carnival wear”. Florence has a very heavy, somber and foreboding feel to its streets lined with dark, heavy stone palazzos so the ensemble on Piazza del Duomo really stands out. The Duomo is one of the largest (Europe’s 4th largest) and most impressive cathedrals and represents the “flowering of the Florentine Gothic style”. The dome, by Brunelleschi, was the largest when it was built (1296 to 1436) and he based it on the construction techniques used in the Pantheon. When Michelangelo was working on the design of the dome of St Peter’s he based it on the Florence dome. Opposite the Duomo is the small, octagonal shaped Baptistery. The exterior is clad in the same tricolor marble as the Duomo, but seems much more ‘plain’ – except for the famous bronze doors- which some say marks the beginning of the Renaissance. The actual building is much older than the Duomo, but during the same period that the Duomo was built, the interior was covered with glittering mosaics (by Venetian and Byzantine style artists). In addition to the ‘usual’ depictions of Christ, saints and sinners, there is an interesting monster like creature devouring a human.
The interior of the Cathedral can be entered for free, but the Baptistery as well as climbing the Campanile and the Dome of the Duomo require a ticket. One ticket (15€ covers all of them plus the cathedral museum). In addition, in order to climb the Duomo dome, you need a reservation. The building directly across from the Baptistery has tickets and a machine where you make your climb reservation.
Duomo and Campanille Bronze doors and interior of Baptistery
We did the Baptistery first thing in the morning – amazing and wonderful to see but it doesn’t take long as it’s just one fairly small open space. The Duomo itself is of course much larger although most of the ‘decoration’ has been removed to the museum. The most impressive part is the view of the dome – which even from the ground floor is pretty amazing. With the ticket you are also allowed to go down into the crypt, which had some interesting displays.
At our reserved time we got on line for the Duomo climb. As they only let people in every half hour, you are accompanied by quite a crowd as you ascend the 463 steps. The frescoes are even more amazing up close – and the same ‘human eating monster’ featured on the Baptistery ceiling is also here. Unfortunately you have to look through Plexiglas, which does detract. It was a fairly orderly climb till just before the open area at the top where it became a zoo – mostly due to people who felt they needed to take selfies up there. After elbowing our way past the selfish selfie takers we did enjoy the view. I think the view from the top of the campanile (414 steps) is even better as it includes the Duomo (and is way less crowded and crazy so the climb is more enjoyable). But no frescoes. So you really do have to do both.
Close up of the frescoes on the Duomo ceiling including saints, sinners, skeletons and a human eating monster/devil creature.
Around and beside the Duomo are Palazzos, stores and cafes.
A few blocks away, amidst more palazzos, is the Nouvo Mercato (now selling mostly leather goods to tourists) with the famous bronze boar, whose nose is shinny because people rub it for good luck.
It’s only about a five minute walk to the other main piazza in Florence, the Piazza della Signoria which is home to the Palazzo Vecchio (town hall), the Loggia (originally built to shield dignitaries from the elements during speeches and ceremonies) and the Uffizi gallery, Florence’s major art museum. Guarding the entrance to the castle-looking Palazzo is a copy of Michelangelo’s “David”. I know many people feel you ‘need’ to see the original, but I actually think I prefer a copy in an original setting to an original in a museum. While David is pretty serene, just standing there looking good, most of the other sculpture is pretty violent. Perseus holds up the severed head of Medusa, The Sabine Virgins are Raped, Hercules slays the Centaur Nessus, and a large lion guards the whole area. Outside in the Piazza itself are Cosimo de Medici on his horse as well as Neptune and his fountain.
Just behind the Palazzo Vecchio is the U-shaped Uffizi Gallery (Italy’s top visited museum – long lines, reservations recommended. I had visited on my previous trip to Florence and we didn’t have time this trip). But the building itself is pretty impressive, and it opens out onto the Arno, with a view to the Tuscan Hills across the river, and the Ponte Vecchio, another of Florence’s ‘must sees’. The bridge was built in 1345 to replace an even earlier version and has characteristic overhanging houses lining both sides. In the 16th century, it was home to butchers until Cosimo moved into the Palazzo Pitti across the river. He couldn’t stand the stench, so he evicted the meat cutters and moved in the classier gold- and silversmiths, and jewelers occupy it to this day. Apparently there is a way to walk from the Uffizi (which was offices, Uffizi means office) over the top level of the Pont Vecchio to the Pitti Palace with out having to interact with the hoards of people. Today there are still hoards of people – tourists from the time the jewelry shops open till late evening. So walking across it is not as rewarding as viewing it – which can be done from both banks of the Arno as well as the next bridge up. Ponte Vecchio was the only bridge spared by the Nazzi’s as they retreated from Florence, deciding it was too beautiful to blow up.
We walked to Santa Croce, another beautiful exterior (the Duomo buildings, Santa Maria Novello and Santa Croce are all pink/white/green marble and very ‘pretty’ compared to the dark Siena colored stone of most of the other buildings in Florence – made even darker and more somber looking by the fact that it was cloudy). Considered Florence’s second most important church after the Duomo it sits at the eastern edge of the centro storico in one of the most ‘genuine’ neighborhoods left in the center. It’s often referred to as Italy’s “Westminster Abbey’ for the number of it’s highly decorated chapels and the tombs of some of the most important Italians of their day: Michelangelo, Dante. Galileo, Machiavelli, Rossini. The side chapels, 16 of them, richly frescoes (many by Giotto), go on and on, as do the cloisters. There is also a leather school, which although no longer staffed solely by monks, does still produce leather products.
From Santa Croce we hiked up to Piazzale Michelangelo and Santa Maria al Monte above that. Great Views (despite the clouds). The church is quite dark inside and has a very different feel to most of the other churches in Florence.
Back in town we wandered over the Pont Vecchio but the jewelry was above our pay grade so we went back to the San Lorenzo market. I was tempted by the bags – Florence is pocketbook shopping heaven - Crista got a large light leather tote bag with matching bag inside and smaller pouch. But I resisted and only got a few smaller pouches for camera accessories etc.
We had dinner at a restaurant near the Pont Vecchio but it was quite decent pasta and grilled veggies.
Thursday, March 23, 2017 [Cloudy in Florence, Mostly sunny, high 60s in Rome] - After breakfast we took a stroll around the historic center and climbed the Campanile.
Then Santa Maria Novella –the third of the ‘white, pink and green marble’ churches in Florence. There were some interesting cloisters. While not quite as impressive as Santa Croce in terms of amount of frescoes, the ones they did have were more interesting as they included scenes of Florence and surrounding areas.
Just before the trip I had read a novel by Sarah Durant set in 15th century Florence which featured a family that hired a painter to paint the family’s palazzo’s chapel with frescoes. The painter used the family members as models for the faces of people in the frescoes, and scenes from the area. So this was apparently a common practice, at least in residential frescoes. I found it interesting to wander the streets of Florence and imagine what is in all those palazzos. Now I know many of them are carved up into apartments, or offices, etc. but originally they were ‘family homes’. Having read the novel, “The Birth of Venus” did certainly help to bring 15th century Florence alive. Sarah Durant has written numerous other historical novels set in various Italian cities (“In the Company of the courtesan” 16th Century Venice; “Sacred Hearts” 16th century Ferrara, etc.). Also watching movies set in places I’m going to visit is a good way to get a ‘feel’ for a place. For Florence one of the best is “Room with a View”. A more recent one is “Inferno” with Tom Hanks based on the Dan Brown novel.
For the Venice, Rome and Milan portions of our trip see parts 1,3, and 4 of "Italy through new eyes: Chasing the Sun in Italy in March"
For more photos click on "All Photographs in the upper right corner and navigate to the Italy gallery.
Italy thru fresh eyes / Chasing the sun in March
I decided to go to Italy for my spring trip for three reasons: first, well it’s Italy; I really didn’t need any other reasons. But two, I found a great fare from my local airport to Milan, and three, I wanted to continue my ‘research’ on Italy in the ‘off‘ season. I have been going to Europe every summer for about 15 years, always in the month of July, but some day I’ll be done with work and will be able to travel whenever I please, so am always looking for places where it will be ‘nice’ when it’s not ‘nice’ where I live (the US northeast).
When I told my friend Crista about the trip she decided to come with me. She’s never been to Italy and only once to visit a friend in Scotland so a real ‘newbie’. Our original plan was going to be Venice, Florence and Lake Como, but by mid week the forecast for Milan/Lake Como was rain so we made a last minute switch to Rome for a couple of days. Thus we ended up doing the itinerary that is so often posted on travel forums from newbies and mostly shot down by those of us ‘in the know’: 8 days Venice, Florence, Rome, Milan.
Crista only had time for 8 days but I had an additional 5 days for day trips from Milan. I did Pavia, Genoa, Lake Como, and Lake Lugano. The last day I stayed in Milan.
Part 1: The “Classic” One Week in Italy: Venice, Florence and Rome
We did all the things that many people (myself included) advise against. We flew in and out of Milan even thought that wasn't our destination. We tried to 'see' three major Italian cities in a week and took trains from Milan to Venice, Venice to Florence, Florence to Rome and Rome to Milan. Phew. Sounds like we'd spend all our time in trains and the whole thing would be very rushed. Well, I'm here to say it actually wasn't and Crista said she never felt rushed and loved it. So I think I'll be revising the advice I give people from now on.
It was a fast pace, no doubt about that. Crista walks a lot faster than most people, and doesn’t ‘require’ a lot of time to see things. For many people this wouldn’t be a very satisfying way to travel. She did a fair amount of “OK, what next?” and I’d say, “THIS IS what’s next – we’re here, just look around you”. Had to explain what a ‘passeggiata’ was and why doing that is fun. But everyone is different and goes at a different pace. This was my 13th trip to Italy, I’d been to Venice 5 times, and Rome 7 times (Florence only once before) so I was really just enjoying seeing things through her eyes and playing tour guide. Crista is a very smart, highly educated woman, but she had a pretty terrible grasp on geography and history and did zero research. I do such extensive research before trips (including reading novels set where I’m going, watching movies that took place there, etc.) that my husband says it’s almost ‘too much’. But my advice to new travelers will continue to be to at least read a good general guidebook before you go anywhere so you know what you’re seeing. And listen to us experience travelers when we tell you to stamp your train ticket before you get on!
Arrival Day - Saturday, March 18 [Sun and clouds, 60s] - We arrived only 20 minutes late into Milano Linate. Crista’s bag, which AerLigus made her gate check in Dublin, saying it was too large, arrived quickly. (BTW – last time I flew AerLingus to Italy they made me gate check my bag as they said I had ‘two’ pieces – this time they said nothing about my bag plus ‘personal item’ and it was the exact same two pieces - which goes to show it’s a crap shoot what is and is not OK). Anyway, her bag came through right away and we were outside, having bought our bus tickets to Milano Centrale, just before noon. I asked a man standing by the sign if the bus was the right one (it looked different) and he pointed and said yes. But we almost got on it and it was going to Slovenia!!! Turns out he was pointing to the space in front of that bus where the right one was about to arrive – fortunately he saw us and told us. We got to Centrale just about 12:45 so good thing I booked the 13:40 train and not the 12:40 as we would have just missed it. We had time to get a Panini and coffee and got to Venice just after four.
I had stayed at the Palazzo Odoni just last July – loved the hotel and didn’t even consider looking for anyplace else. It’s in the Santa Croce district, about 10 minute walk from the train station or Piazzele Roma, on a quiet canal, in what is – for Venice – an ‘un-touristy’ area. So what for most first timers – finding the hotel you booked – can be difficult when you are tired and jet-lagged, was for Crista just a short stroll since I knew where I was going. We were checked in and ready to head out by 5 for what we thought would be a short stroll to show her a few canals and find dinner. We ended up walking all the way to Piazza San Marco (and back). The adrenalin gets going and everything is so new and exciting. We were almost back to the hotel before we found a place we wanted to eat. I think there were actually mostly locals in there, and it was just a two-minute walk from the hotel.
Palazzo Odoni Entrance Courtyard
Palazzo Odoni - A 16th century palazzo that's been in the same family for generations, comes complete with antique furnishings, a very high quality breakfast (and a golden retriever).
Can you “see” Venice in one full day? Yes you can.
Sunday, March 19, 2017 [Sun and clouds, 60s] Great hotel breakfast – huge, delicious croissants, various meats and cheeses, fresh fruits (melon, pineapple, kiwi, strawberries, oranges, bananas), yogurts, breads, and of course cappuccino. After pigging out on that we walked to the train station and got a vapparetto day pass (€20 each) and took our first ride down the grand canal to San Marco with me pointing out most of the most important palazzos (at least the ones I could remember the names of). It was bright but overcast – no blue sky and the colors on the palazzos seemed really muted compared to summer. Crista was still duly impressed (though I don’t think as much as I was my first time on the Grand Canal).
Grand Canal March 2017 (above)
Grand Canal July 2016 (above)
Passing under the Rialto Bridge I noticed that it's renovation was completed, the scaffolding of recent years gone, all very clean and white. We considered getting off to explore the market but decided it made more sense to get to Piazza San Marco and the Doges Palace before it got crowded and visit the Rialto market later.
The stone Rialto Bridge was the first permanent bridge across the Grand Canal. The central path is full of shops – mask, glass, bead and souvenir, as are the calle leading to the bridge from both directions. The fondamenta on both sides of the grand canal are filled with restaurants and hotels. The Rialto Market is the city's main source of fruits, vegetables and fish. The Rialto Bridge and surrounding area are the second most crowded in Venice, and while not quite as bad in March as in July, it was still pretty bad. I think cruising under it in a vaparetto is a much more enjoyable way to experience it than walking across it, but he view from the bridge is the quintessential Grand Canal View (if you can get close enough to the edge to see it).
We got to San Marco about 9:45 (the ride takes just about 45 minutes).
Piazza San Marco is definitely the 'center' of Venice, one of the most famous squares in the world, much larger than any other in Venice, and the only one to be called a 'Piazza" - all others are 'campos' or 'piazzettas'. At one end sits Basilica San Marco, one of the most famous buildings in the world. The Basilica was built in 1063 to house the remains of St Mark the Evangelist. The façade is a mix of east and west. The doorways are massive European Romanesque. The mosaics are mostly Venetian designs but executed by Greek craftsmen. There is sculpture from Constantinople, columns from Alexandria, and Capitals from Sicily. The upper story has Gothic style arches and the whole thing is topped by Greek domes with onion shape caps. However, it comes together in a bizarre sort of harmony. It is simply the most unique church in Europe, which as Goethe said “can only be compared with itself”.
The Piazza is rectangular, but opens wider at the basilica end, enhancing the perspective and creating the illusion of being even larger than it is and flanked on three sides by arcaded buildings of apartments known as "Procurazie," once the official residences or offices of state ministers and now full of shops and cafes. In the summer the outside tables are full, and in the evening bands play at three of them. On this March day most of the tables were empty.
Piazzetta San Marco – is the smaller square between Piazza San Marco and the lagoon, with the Doges Palace along one side. Two granite (Egyptian) columns topped by Venetian-Byzantine capitals stand at the entrance to the piazzetta. One supports the famous statue of the winged lion of St Mark, the symbol of Venice The other column bears a statue of St. Theodore and his dragon. I believe there was a third column that fell off the boat as it was being delivered and still sits at the bottom of the Grand Canal.
The Doges’ Palace is a Gothic Renaissance building begun in 1173 which integrated walls and towers of an AD 810 castle, beautifully carved in pink and white marble. Architecturally, the Palazzo Ducale is a unique mixture: the style of its exterior, with its geometrically patterned stonework and continuous tracery walls, can only be called Islamicized Gothic, whereas the courtyards and much of the interior are based on Classical forms. It is one of the finest secular building of its era in Europe, and the central building of Venice.
The line for the Doges Palace was about 10 minutes long.
Inside is a beautiful arcaded courtyard and finely sculpted grand stairway. Once the private home of the Doges (Venetian ruler elected for life), it is today a museum filled with art treasures, including Tintoretto’s “Paradise”, one of the largest paintings in the world, in the huge “Sala del Consiglio” where the city parliament met. Room after room of incredible wall and ceiling paintings and carved wood. We spent about 2 hours there and neither of us felt rushed or that we wanted more time. I do have one friend who said she spent 5 hours but you’d have to examine every single thing to do that. Another friend went on a (high end private) tour and said they were in there less than an hour. So I guess we were going at ‘average’ speed.
The best part was the prisons and walking through the bridge of sighs. The prisons were both more extensive and larger (and nicer) than I expected. Ponte dei Sospiri (Bridge of Sighs) connects the Doges Palace to the 16th Century Prigioni Nuove (new Prison). Those condemned to death had to pass over it on their way into the prison and back out again to be executed in the Piazzetta San Marco. The bridge was built in 1600 by Antonio Contino, and takes its popular name from the sighs of the prisoners who shuffled through its corridor.
I’m glad I finally saw it, but I’m also glad I didn’t have to wait 2 or more hours in line in order to do it. And I don’t think it was a ‘highlight’ of Venice
At that point, now about 12:30, the line for the Loggia Museum in San Marco was about 10 minutes long. Nice views of the Piazza and the Piazzetta. The museum essentially consists of the loggia (with the fabulous views) and close ups of the horses (both the ones outside and the originals inside) and of the mosaics of the church.
Coming down from the loggia you entered the church itself, which was illuminated for the mass. We were allowed to walk around the sides, just roped off from where the parishioners were sitting. I think it would be much less impressive to tour the Basilica when it’s not illuminated (which is most of the time). It was a Sunday and there was a mass going on; the incense and the singing really added to the experience. So on my fifth trip to Venice I finally did what most people do on their first trip. Actually on my very first trip, which was 17 years ago, we did go inside the Basilica but it was not illuminated and therefore very dark.
Then we headed back behind the Bridge of Signs (the Castelo district) as I was looking for an old church with nice cloisters (St Apolonia). Took forever to find it despite it being literally behind the Bridge of Sighs. I had been there, I had a paper map, and we had the phone map and we asked two different people and it still took half an hour. That’s the fun of Venice. When we did find it, it was closed. Oh well, had a nice lunch with our ‘intro to Venice’ Bellini’s.
After exploring around San Marco we took the vaparetto as far as S. Toma and walked to the Ca’Rezzonico. (included on the Museum Pass with the Doges Palace – along with ten others which we didn’t have time for). Ca’Rezzonoco is an impressive palazzo filled with three floors of 17th and 18th century Venetian art. But we got over dosed on it after an hour or so. (The friend that spent 5 hours in the Doges Palace spent 3 hours here). Some nice views from the upper floors. Then we walked the rest of the way back to the hotel, got lost of course, but isn’t that the charm of Venice.
After an hour or so we decided we needed to make use of the remaining daylight and vaparetto pass so took another ride down the Grand Canal. This time we got front row seats! Just as we were leaving the train station stop a couple of boat ambulances whizzed in and took someone from the stop in front of us. Interesting to think about water ambulances. Second time we had an ambulance incidence on this trip. (first one was on the plane).
It was cool but sunny as we started but as we approached San Marco the fog literally rolled in. You could see (and feel) it rolling in. It was quite interesting. But would I choose the Grand Canal with front row seats, cold and fog – or crammed in like a sardine but with bright sun shinning on all those palazzos. I think I pick the sun.
Anyway, great views, but it was pretty cold. So we ended up eating dinner just past Piazza San Marco. A guy standing outside a restaurant as we paused to look at the menu started talking – in flawless English. He was ‘Venecian-American’ – from NY. Said his hospital on 18th street was now condos. I said the one I was born in was also condos. I had almost the same conversation (minus the hospital part) with a guy we dubbed “Mr Astoria” in Chania, Crete last summer. Apparently middle-aged men who have lived for most of their lives in the US are moving back to the homeland and working in the tourist trade. But he was nice and we were cold so we went in. The food was OK and they gave us free prosecos ‘since we were from NY’. Sure. After dinner it was cold and most of the stores were closed so we took the vaparetto back. It was cold and foggy but that made for really interesting light.
So – that’s what you can accomplish (and still have fun) if you move fairly quickly and you have someone with you to show you where to go (or have done your research). We did three and a half rides on the Grand Canal, 4 major sites (Doges Plalace, Basicila San Marco interior, Loggia Museum, and Museum Ca’Rezzencio), walked all the way from the train station end to Piazza San Marco and back, and had sit-down dinners and lunch. Did a bit of tourist shopping. And did not feel at all rushed. The whole of Venice is a UNESCO World Heritage Site so just wandering along the back canals and riding the vaparetto down the Grand Canal is really enough to make a trip to Venice worthwhile, and to know that you have seen it. Adding a couple of museums and the Basilica and the Doges Palace were just icing on the cake.
Monday, March 20, 2017 [Sun and clouds, 60s] On our other full day we spent the morning going to the Rialto market (bit of a disappointment, it wasn’t a ‘fish’ day so just produce) and then did a half day trip to Vicenza – partly to see a smaller town but mostly because Crista wanted to go to Jazzercise. She’s an instructor and it’s a ‘thing’ for jazzercise instructors to visit classes when traveling to foreign countries. She did it in Scotland last year. So she had made arrangements with Lucca of the Vicenza studio. I had been in Vicenza as a day trip quite a few years ago and remembered it as very, very quiet, pretty enough but not as interesting as other towns in the area such as Verona and Padua (and Mantua, Ferrera, Treviso). And it was the same this time. We were there on a Monday and lots of things were closed. We did a walking tour of the palazzos that the TI office gave out, and had some really good gelato but 3-4 hours was plenty. Crista went to her Jazzersize class and I went back to Venice.
Vicenza - The small city less than an hour from Venice, was home to Palladio in the 1500s, who, after studying architecture in Rome came here and developed the style named after him. Today the city, one of the wealthiest in Italy, is a living museum of his buildings and thus a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Left top: Piazza dei Signori, dominated by the most awesome of Palladio's creations, the Basilica Palladiana (bottom left) , also known as the Palazzo della Ragione. Top right Opposite the Basilica is the Loggia dei Capitaniato designed by Palladio in 1571 to replace the medieval residence of the "Capitanio", the Venetian Captain in Vicenza. Bottom right: Corso Palladio, home to many of the city's grandest palazzos.
Vicenza - Top left: town gate and Torre Bissara, Top right: Palladian Loggia Valmarana in the Giardino Salvi
Back in Venice I walked from the train to Rialto (got lost a few times, but an area I had not explored – much more residential. Once large campo was full of locals having aperitifs or coffee and kids playing soccer, roller skating, dogs playing. Then to Piazza San Marco. Got a small pannini for dinner, ate while walking. Don’t do that in Piazza San Marco, a sea gull literally nipped at the food in my hand! The main ‘street’ between the Rialto and San Marco is like a mall with chain stores, including Disney, Benneton, Prada, etc. Managed to get back to the hotel from San Marco without getting lost – first time I did that! It took just over half an hour and about 2500 steps/1 mile (according to fitbit). But I was walking fast, not strolling.
We checked the weather forecast for later in the week and it was for rain all three days we planned to spend in Lake Como - So – we decided to go to Rome instead! At this point it was 11 pm and we both had had a couple of Bellinis. But we managed to rebook our last night in Milan and book the other two at a hotel in Rome I’d been too previously. And booked the necessary train tickets. We ended up ‘eating’ one ticket which we no longer were going to use but we actually ended up saving money. But forecast for Rome is sun. And now Crista will get the ‘grand Italy tour of Venice, Florence and Rome’.
Thoughts on Venice in March. Well definitely less crowded but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t crowded in the touristy areas such as Rialto. Piazza San Marco was noticeably less crowded. We waited 10 minutes to get into the Doges Palace, about that for the Basilica. The line that in July stretched from the Basilica to almost the canal was about ¼ as long midday, same for the bell tower. So not ‘no lines’ but clearly shorter ones. Back ‘streets’ almost deserted, but the main streets to and from Rialto/Piazza San Marco etc. had enough people that you had to go around them or slow down. But overall, on a crowd basis it was almost like night and day the difference between July and March. Mid day on the vaparetto we easily stood by the side, at 5pm we even got a front row seat! There was a mix of sun and clouds and Sunday night it was super foggy (and cold). Very different from a full moon and bare legs weather. I wore a thin long sleeve shirt and half the time I had a down jacket on and the other half not. The light is definitely different, the water not as blue/green, the sun (even when it is out) doesn’t really get into the smaller canals and calles even at mid day. I’m guessing there is a tiny window of ‘good weather/ not terribly crowded’ that probably lasts a few days around late April but for most of the year I think you have to choose. This was interesting, and very glad I got to see Venice being more like a real city instead of ‘Disney World’ but I guess if I had to choose I’d pick the crowds over the poor light/cool temps. But that might be the photographer in me, I think others would choose the opposite. Piazza San Marco is nice to not be jammed, but the atmosphere is better in the summer.
I was in Venice last July and it was terribly crowded. I’d been before (in 2000, 04, & 08) and while there were certainly crowds in the main touristy areas of the Rialto, Accademia, and San Marco during midday, in the early and later hours and anywhere other than that main tourist stretch it was not at all crowded. But this last trip it was mobbed from 8 am to 10 pm and even on the smallest back canal. A friend had been first week of April last year and said it was wonderful, no crowds, great weather. So I decided I wanted to experience that for myself.
For the Florence, Rome and Milan portions of our trip see parts 2,3, and 4 of "Italy through new eyes: Chasing the Sun in Italy in March"