Day 17-20 Zaragoza and Logrono, Karen and Dom road trip, Spain

We now feel that we are very much on our way home. It’s quite strange doing a ’round trip’, so to speak, because as soon as we left the East coast of Spain we felt as if we’ve been heading home. Another reason is that the weather has turned and the rain is back, and there’s nothing like the rain to remind you of Blighty. Our main day in Zaragoza was a Sunday and we have learnt from this trip that this day really is reserved for families and religion, so most shops and some museums, cafes and bars are closed. There is a quietness on a Sunday which reminds us of ‘back in the day’ when the UK shut down for a day of rest…it’s actually quite nice but a bit odd.

So the obvious thing to do then…go to a church…but not any old church, this is the Basilica (more important than a cathedral, we were told!)

 

We had a fabulous lunch – we’ve had so many on this trip, that we are both dreading trying to get back in to the work clothes next week. We also managed to get quite a lot of work done for our book, so although we didn’t have a particularly touristy time in our short stay in Zaragoza, we enjoyed it all the same, and would certainly drop in again.

Our final stop before heading back to the UK is in a city called Logrono. It’s still raining and it means that the rusty red colour of the paving and the houses really comes out in the wet. As well as the rain keeping the people off the streets, it’s also siesta time, so after lunch we wander around barely meeting another soul. We’ve tried to capture some of that in these images of the old town.

 

 

Logrono is also a significant stop on the “Way of St. James”, one of the routes on the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela. Characteristic signposts point pilgrims in the right direction, and special pilgrims’ hostels line the route throughout the town.

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This wall mural symbolises a pilgrim with the stamps collected from each place he has been along the route.

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We followed the pilgrimage for all of about three hundred yards but that’s about as far as our commitment has gone this time around. To tell the truth, we found a nice bar and thought it was more relaxing to watch other people tramping by with their knapsacks and their sticks.

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Because the other thing that Logrono is renowned for is that it is the capital of Rioja!

Definitely not Karen’s favourite, but Dominic wasn’t afraid to try a bottle or two (the white as well as red is delicious). Shame we’re flying back: we were going to try to fit this Melchior (18 litres) into our hand luggage, but we wouldn’t get that through security.

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(observe: Dominic also doesn’t mind the beer).

Our last day before we head home and the sun has kindly come out to remind us of what we will miss.

 

(There’s a huge bird’s nest perched on top of one of the towers – you can see in the landscape image above)

The streets are also busier and today we see quite a few backpackers with hiking sticks (you know the look…) and assumed that they were taking the pilgrimage a bit more seriously than us.

And that concludes our Spanish road trip – well, except for the drive back to Bilbao in the morning. It’s been a lovely trip but we can’t wait to get back to the family and give them all a big squeeze.

In brief, staying in AirBnB accommodation for our entire trip (bar one B&B in Girona) has been interesting. Some of the places have been great, comfortable, homely and shown us a more interesting way to spend a night than in a hotel. However, it can also be a challenge, it’s certainly more stressful trying to find the homes and then somewhere to park, and it doesn’t always work out as a cheaper alternative. It’s worked best for the budget when we’ve been able to use a kitchen and laundry, and that’s made it possible to go away for three weeks. Our advice would be to make sure you research your accommodation (as much as is possible) and to consider things like parking, air-con or heating (depending on time of year) and then be prepared that it might not be exactly what you expected. It’s also worth thinking about what you need/want at different points in your journey and then making sure the accommodation can provide that. Also don’t underestimate the mosquitos: we had a couple of days feeling quite miserable because of the amount of bites we received. Finally, unless you familiarise yourself with the language – Catalan in our case – then be prepared to take pot luck from the menus. We had some lovely and some interesting surprises. Very few people spoke English (or prefer not to) in this part of Spain, and some don’t speak Spanish either so we had great fun trying to communicate.

We think that the variety of places that we have stayed in has given us a really textured experience and we’ve stayed in cities and villages that we might not have done otherwise. We’ve seen parts of Spain with very few tourists as well as enjoyed the cultural metropolis of places like Barcelona. We feel very spoilt and lucky to have had this trip and we look forward to planning our next one. Thanks for following us and reading our blog – we hope you enjoyed it.

Day 14-16 Girona. Karen and Dom’s road trip, Spain.

Girona really is the must-see capital of the Costa Brava. And so we could make the most of our trip, we looked up what the best things to do were before we arrived. Bit confused to discover that the top attractions were

  • To take a hot air balloon ride over the city
  • To eat icecream
  • To eat crepes
  • To look at the flora and fauna

Still, we are approaching geriatric status so we decided to make the most of this gentle city and rocked up to our B&B – a delightful place called the Montjuic B&B at the top of a hill overlooking the town (a bit of luxury – quite pricey, and breakfast is extra; but it really is a beautiful place). No need for the balloon ride, then, with the fabulous views we have from our terrace… but forget the gentle stroll through leafy gardens looking at flowers while we nosh on our crepes: there’s a mammoth hill with 289 steps and several steep inclines between us and the town! Going down is easy – we just roll (we’ve eaten enough this holiday); but coming back up…. we had to establish base camp and buy proper gear before we could set off.

Anyway, it’s a pretty city as you can see – and we’d like to rewrite the list of top attractions:

  • We really enjoyed the old town with its cobbled streets and its winding passageways.
  • We had some fantastic meals at bargain prices – especially in Txalaka, a traditional Basque restaurant that served a great menu del dia – including wine.
  • We popped into the Cinema Museum, which proved to be a morning’s full entertainment, tracing the history of film back to shadow puppets and Chinese lanterns, and boasting hundreds of old magic lanterns, daguerreotypes, camera obscura, and photographs. There were loads of hands-on gadgets for the (big) kids to experiment with. Definitely a must-see attraction when you’re in town.
  • Walking the walls is also worth doing if the weather’s not too hot (which it is in the day in August!)
  • And did we mention those crepes? Nutella and Crema Catalan was the pick of the day!

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And we also caught a few rays sitting by the pool of the Montjuic B&B. No wonder John Lennon found Girona an idyllic spot (there are John Lennon gardens). So did we!

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Day 12 & 13: Barcelona, Karen and Dom’s road trip, Spain.

Two days in Barcelona is not enough – not enough to take in the vibrant city, the wealth of culture, the details of the streets and gardens, and the colour of the city squares…

And we also wanted to make the most of having a beach by the marina!

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Staying on the boat has been an experience, and there are several bars and restaurants in Port Forum, not to mention a kicking club to which the whole of Barcelona’s twenty-somethings throng. We fashionably demurred (each night) and had a glass of wine at a tapas bar before heading back to the boat. This time, we didn’t bring the super yacht so we’re slumming it a bit… no air-con… no space… but lots of added benefits like mosquitos, mosquitos and erm, did we mention the mosquitos? Currently, we’re battling it out over who has the most bites. Dom has 16 including one each on most of his toes, but Karen just pips him to the post with 17 in all. Blankety Blank cheque book and pen winging its way to the Savage. So our first top tips: Citronella is not effective on these hardy buggers, and prob best not to stay on a boat in August!

The trip from the port into town takes us through a wide area of the port, next to the natural history museum and this installation. Just the first of many artworks we see around the city.

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Once in the city we love the winding back streets, the little artisanal craft shops in the gothic quarter, and the pavement cafes in tree lined avenues. We spent ages in this art shop, Galeria Maxo, with its fantastic decor (including a train set running around the ceiling!) and quirky one-off pieces, which we couldn’t resist. Maxo himself is a really friendly proprietor and we’d say he has one of the coolest shops in the city!

And down the street, bits of graffiti remind us of Banksy:

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Carrer de la Princesa is also full of little independent shops, wine bars and less interesting souvenir shops. It’s not often that you see a shop dedicated to magic, founded in 1881, which curiously enough…

… is the same year that Pablo Picasso was born. And just around the corner, in Carrer Montcada, is the Picasso Museum – so we had to pop in.

The museum has oodles of paintings dating right back to when Picasso was in his teens, though his signature style doesn’t really emerge until the 1920s. It’s great (as it always is with art) to see the original works in their actual size – some of which were familiar, but many of which were new surprises to us. Perhaps the most exciting section of the gallery (for us) was his series of Las Meninas paintings, of which there are 58 in all. These are all the result of a 6-month intense study Picasso did of Velasquez’s painting Las Meninas:

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There are a whole series of different versions of the entire painting, and dozens of smaller paintings showing little details, like this one of the main girl.

Of course, Barcelona is not all about Picasso. Elsewhere, the city has countless other delights and lots of them related to other famous artists. The figure of Gaudi looms large, for example – you can hardly miss the Sagrada Familia, though with its torrents of tourists we took a few snaps and strolled on.

It wasn’t long before we found a side-street, a plate of tapas and a friendly waitress with a bottle of vino blanco. Well, it’s what we do best.

It could have been a difficult time to be a tourist in Barcelona, yet the vibrancy, the people and the spirit of the city are so strong, it’s showed us very clearly that, although this is a city in mourning, it is also a city full of culture, soul and freedom.

Like any of the world’s great cities, you can’t do it all in a couple of days. But we’ll definitely be back before long. Viva Barcelona!

 

 

Day 11: Leaving Lleida for Barcelona. Karen and Dom’s Road Trip, Spain.

Our morning began with a moan to the hotel. We accumulated about 10 litres of water in our bucket overnight, that’s quite a lot of dripping! But, heh ho we won’t dwell and instead we are off to play a game. X-Door is a cross between the Crystal Maze and the Da Vinci Code – so, bloomin exciting! And, it’s all the rage in Espana. At 11:30 (sharp) we rang on a buzzer at a discreet venue (ooh er missus – not that kind of discreet – more like secretive) where we were greeted by Sergio, the Master Commander, as he instructed us to call him (or just Sergio if we couldn’t be arsed with that).

The premise of the game was that we were locked in a room for 60 minutes and we had to find our way out by solving a number of clues, riddles and challenges. It was Ace!!! Sergio reminded us  that we had to work together and to spot everything. He helped us out a couple of times with some additional clues, but all in all we were impressed to escape with 2 seconds on the clock. Phew! And how very filmic!

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Now, we can’t reveal any further info about the game because of course it is all ‘Top Secret’, but needless to say we recommend it. Apparently you can find it in many big cities, but we think it is a bigger hit here than elsewhere.

If you choose to accept this mission this message will self-destruct in 5 seconds…only kidding! (We felt aptly prepared for our game because we’ve been watching loads of Action films whilst we’ve been away…we know, we should have been writing instead, but Tom Cruise and Simon Pegg were calling.)

So, after all that activity we continued our journey to Barcelona. And as the road took us  along some less interesting motorway we decided to make a pitstop for lunch in Vilagrassa. We found a snazzy restaurant called El Catalunya specialising in BBQ and snails. We declined the snails… Karen has issues eating things that she’s written about, and we played it safe  with chicken and pork. So, Karen tucked in to yummy chicken and chips and Dom had three pigs feet slapped on the plate…eeeew not quite what he expected. But, bravely without complaining he scoffed them all up…Karen would have made a noise about eating anything like it and though it looked like a challenge from ‘I’m a celebrity’… these were also really yummy. (Actually, it looked like a graveyard by the end of the shift and I was half tempted to resurrect the skeleton on my plate, but that was a bit David Attenborough for me, so I had a coffee instead.)

Literally everybody else was eating these fellas… (look through the gap in the pillars and you can see a plate of the slippery little suckers!)

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Barcelona! “I had this perfect dream…” We’ve hit the east coast at last. We’ve been looking forward to Barcelona as a high point of our trip and had expected to drive into the City with Freddie Mercury in our heads and the memory of Linford Christie winning the 100m in 1992. But of course this week has put a different slant on things. We can’t ignore that, and we will have to see how the next few days play out. It is really hard to predict how such events can impact a place, and how that will in turn affect the way that we feel able to experience it too. However, in our next AirBnB venue there is an element of calm because we are staying in Port Forum Marina on a little boat…the bedroom is a bit quirky and Karen’s already blocked the toilet with a giant poo, and Dom’s broken the table, but the mosquitos are good company…(get more citronella)…and just a stone’s throw away seems to be the hippest DJ venue in Spain (our kids would love it, and on another night Karen might also be throwing some shapes, but frankly tonight we are not feeling the vibe). However it’s a peaceful waterfront idyll

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Tonight’s viewing is An Idiot Abroad (just to help us feel a bit better about our travelling selves).

Day 10: Lleida, Spain. Karen and Dom’s road trip.

It’s been a night of frustration, alternating between having the air-con on and hearing an incessant drip filling up a bucket perched on the toilet, or turning the air-con off and gradually melting into the floor. Deciding the night was best done and dusted there was only one thing to say:

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We complained to the establishment and hoped that Lleida could rescue us from our woes.

And it did! In the bright light of day, Lleida scrubs up well, especially if you have a few good recommendations from friendly faces like Andreu in the pharmacy. So we hot-footed it up the Turo seu Vella hill to the top of the town, where the resplendent cathedral looms over the city.

You can see that Karen’s capturing all the shots on camera, so I don’t have to. Tower’s a bit wonky in this one, Kazza.

It turns out that Lleida is a pretty important city in Spanish history – and the friendly receptionists at the cathedral ticket desk got us started with a visit to the Castle of the King (Castell del Rei) and then the gothic cathedral itself. Dom’s dwarfed by the giant windows, so we did a close-up too. We asked the window cleaner to hide out of view while we took these shots. Very obliging.

We had a fabulous lunch at a restaurant recommended by Andreu (thanks!), El Porton, where the staff are lovely and the food is muy delicioso – really regional, really fresh and really tasty. (Trip Advisor only gives it 3 stars, which should keep the crowds away; but take it from us, it’s worth a visit and more stars than that!) Funny how a nice meal can sort you out a treat!

Later we headed to the Connexions exhibition at the Museu d’Art Jaume Morera. There are two small salons for the collection. The first showcased more traditional work, some work by local artists and some by visitors (like John Cage) who have made art while travelling through Spain. It was a limited collection of work, so it only took about ten minutes to take it all in. The second collection was disappointing to us in its presentation and its content – we love art, and we’re real fans of lots of contemporary work, but for us this particular collection didn’t cut the mustard. Judge for yourself  – it’s free, it’s on in Lleida until October, and you might be able to fill us in on some of the virtues of the Connexions collection!

Maybe we feel a bit bah humbug today. Karen’s also gloomy because she’s had the mosquitoes feasting on her in Lleida. With that and the air-con issue, we might be being a bit tetchy.

By the way – today’s banner image is the keyboard to the interesting organ in the cathedral. To organ aficionados it might not be much to write home about, but it appealed to us for being such a tiny organ in an enormous cathedral, for being so compact in its size and piping, and for this clattery collection of keys on its manual.

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Day 9: Talarn to Lleida, Spain. Karen and Dom’s road trip.

Leaving Talarn we headed today towards the capital of the province, Lleida. It’s not a long journey but it twists and turns following La Noguera Pallaresa river, another gorgeous gorge with stunning scenery. So we stopped quite a lot to get some more snaps for the album. These are the blue waters of the Embalse de los Terradets reservoir.

Lots of opportunity to practice our selfie shots… (we know…could do better!)

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And alongside the lake are tunnels hewn out of the rock itself, looking like the naves of churches built into the cliffs.

After all this scenery, it’s a completely different landscape in the final few miles before Lleida, when the hills drop away and the industry begins. Coming into Lleida there’s not much to write home about – except for the San Miguel brewery. Think there might be a cold one waiting in the fridge…

Coming into a new town is always a bit strange, and you have to find your bearings. Lleida’s not the most inspiring city on its first impression, especially if you find yourself located as we were in the commercial district. Lots of shops, and in the back streets quite a lot of run-down residential areas. We even struggled to find a bar or a restaurant.

And although we have a nice apartment, it’s got a fundamental problem. We’ve gone with AirBnB throughout this trip, partly to be able to self-cater, and partly to get a more homely feel from the places we stay in. This apartment is fine in lots of ways, but it’s basically part of a hotel… and the air conditioning leaks into the bathroom… quite a lot… blimey…. get the towels… and a bucket… We’ve gone without air con for days but when you have it and you’re in the middle of a city in the roasting heat and all you have is a drippy air-con unit…. Looks like this is getting a frowny face from us on AirBnB!

Days 6-8: Talarn – Karen and Dom’s Road Trip, Spain

Talarn is an idyllic little village in the province of Lleida, with a handful of narrow cobbled streets and a church… and virtually nothing else. There was one restaurant, Casa Lola at one end of the street and another, Cafe PanYa at the other. There was a church, of course, and there was a pharmacy which never opened.

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But we had come here to get away from it all and partly to work on a book we’re writing together – so we were very happy with very little going on. On the outskirts of the town was a small open air swimming pool and bar where we spent a couple of afternoons just relaxing.

Talarn is built precariously on a plateau rising up above the landscape. How the buildings manage to stay perched on top of this rock is a mystery, but they do. Just a mile or so away from the town nestles a beautiful reservoir, with the most turquoise water you’ve ever seen. On one side the sluice from the dam sprays water into the valley, and huge fish swim in the calm waters on the other side.

We promised to do a little bit of hiking too – and although we didn’t get very far, we followed the Cami del Terrissos down from the plateau and underneath a railway viaduct towards the historical ice cave. Sadly, the route to the ice cave itself became too overgrown for us to keep going, but it did mean we got to see some of the countryside around Talarn looking pretty peaceful and picturesque.

Despite its tiny size and the sense that the village was asleep for the summer, the municipal groundsman was preparing for the village festival, making a huge racket every morning trimming hedges and emptying bins. He hung up lots of bunting noisily and transformed the main square into a party venue. To our surprise, when the festival opened on Thursday night, the village suddenly became packed and started swarming with townsfolk enjoying a community meal in the square, an illustrated lecture of some sort, a film festival (mostly Catalan) and a stand-up comedian who must have been hilarious judging by the occasional laugh.

We bumped into very few people while we were here – our conversation with the chef from Cafe Lola resulted in us ordering most of the food in the village despite only going in for a drink: we’ve not quite mastered the language yet. Actually, that’s been a bit difficult, even for Dona Karen who is a natty little Spanish speaker. Problem round here is that everyone speaks Catalan, few people want to speak Spanish, and absolutely noone seems to understand English. They all thought we were French or Italian, which either shows how few UK tourists come to this neck of the woods, or it shows how deftly we pass ourselves off as bona fide Europeans. Must be the berets.

We did meet a really lovely guy, Paul, who runs the local hostel. He was looking forward to the beginning of the festival, when he held a disco into the small hours of the night. Since it didn’t start until midnight, it was a bit late for us – maybe we’re not so European after all. But we did enjoy a couple of really nice evenings in Cafe PanYa, a small family-run pizza business with a courtyard and more killer views over the valley. Honestly: picturesque beauty is so run-of-the-mill for the people round here that it must get quite dull.

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While we’ve been here though, there has been a series of terrorist attacks in Barcelona and just down the coast in Cambrils. We’ll be in Barcelona in a day or two – it’s sobering to think that another vibrant European city can be targeted by yet another act of terror.

Day 5: Karen and Dom’s road trip, Spain: Pamplona to Talarn.

Today was a driving day, covering around 320km and passing through some of the most stunning scenery en route. Our journey took us through several gorges and canyons in the foothills of the Pyrenees, where we saw white water rafters shooting the rapids of the Rio Gallego. The towering fingers of the Mallos de Riglos are really spectacular, and we had to stop for a photo opportunity.

We paused for lunch at a nice wayside inn before descending into Huesca, where the San Lorenzo festival is in full swing. Well… this was siesta time, so the town was pretty sleepy and the fiesta was just setting up, though most of the residents were costumed up in their  traditional white and green clothes.

Coming out of Huesca the road took us through the Tunnels of Olvena – check that out on Google; it insists you want the “Tunnels of Love” 😉

There are about ten tunnels in a row, all very short, enabling the drive through the Olvena Canyon to be smooth whilst still giving you incredible views of the scenery – here’s a virtual ride through the tunnels of love, courtesy of RoadTrooper, a big bike and some stirring music!

Finally, after taking the mountain road from Puente de Montanana, with hairpin bends and more great views, we descended into Tremp, and tonight’s destination, Talarn.

Just in time for a glass of vino blanco as the sun sets.

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Day 4: Pamplona, no bulls: Karen and Dom’s road trip, Spain.

Hooray, it’s sunny today and hot, giving us a great opportunity to get out and explore Pamplona, with its mediaeval fortress, its quaint old town, and its recollection of another classic movie scene: the opening of City Slickers from 1991. City Slickers is an underrated film, but who can forget Billy Crystal and his pals legging it through the cobbled streets chased by a pack (herd?) of bulls.

Disappointingly, we came on a Sunday, and a month late to catch the festival of San Fermin. So there were no bulls, and no Billy Crystal, and the bullring itself was shut. But these minor location issues aside, we managed to recreate a little bit of the atmosphere of the famous bull run.

Nevertheless, one advantage of seeing the town when it is quiet and when lots of the shops are closed is that you get to see the many murals that decorate the shop grilles throughout the old town.

Karen was particularly taken with this one. Not sure if it is because of the dog or the feminist message. Throughout this region there is a quite a strong swell of political sloganism – not least because of the campaigning for Basque independence.

While Dom circumnavigated the bullring, looking for a way in (there wasn’t one: it was shut. But it has a capacity of 19,700 and is the third largest in the world), Karen spotted a fungus.

It’s been a shame not to have the thrill and exhilaration of Pamplona on a weekday, when we can imagine thousands of people running through the streets pursued by bulls. However, the local council have usefully provided a statue of the event for those of us turning up late. And to be honest, it’s quite a bit safer.

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Day 3: San Sebastian, Hitchcock and Pintxos: Karen and Dom’s Spanish Road Trip

It’s all about food and films.

Love the pinchos – sometimes spelt pintxos. These are tapas dishes served in every bar you go into from breakfast to last orders. The local custom is to drop everything, gather around the counter, and have one or two in each bar – so a pintxos crawl is rather like a pub crawl. They are usually loaded with seafood, tortilla, or spanish ham. Always with a glass of wine on the side!

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San Sebastian is about 100km up the coast from Bilbao, and has got a bit of everything – it’s an elegant city with some stunning architecture calling up the charm of the riviera; it’s a beach resort with a couple of stretches of golden sand; and it’s a pintxos lover’s paradise, with narrow, crowded alleyways lined with tapas bars aplenty.

 

And it’s home to the San Sebastian Film Festival, where in 1958 Alfred Hitchcock’s film Vertigo had its world premiere.

So what a treat that the local museum had a Hitchcock exhibition…

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Not sure the museum attendants liked our antics 😉

 

Also saw the very lovely exhibition of photographs by Louise Dahl-Wolfe – beautiful portraits and fashion photography.

Heading inland now, into Basque country, and to the bull running capital… Pamplona!