3rd & 4th February 2023: Final Fantasy Distant Worlds 35th Anniversary – Coral – in Barcelona (Spain)

3rd February 2023: Mummies, fish, and music

Though I would not have minded to become a gamer back in the day, my joint issues discouraged this. Thus, my relation with the Final Fantasy saga is tangential. However, my sibling is a big fan of one of the instalments, and last year I accompanied them to Final Fantasy VII Remake Orchestra World Tour in Barcelona in 2021. Having had more time to prepare for this one, we got VIP tickets, and I planned a two-day outing.

Our arrival in Barcelona happened right on schedule, and we walked from the station to Caixa Forum Barcelona to see the exhibit Momias de Egipto. Redescubriendo seis vidasEgyptian mummies; Rediscovering six lives, in collaboration with the British Museum. I am not sure whether the items are part of the actual collection over there or are in the archives, because I don’t really remember seeing any of the mummies. The Barcelona exhibits focus around six mummies and how they lives could have been before their deaths. Aside from the actual mummies and their sarcophagi or coffins, there are objects that they may have used in life, and images of what the bodies look like inside the wrappings.

It was at the very same time interesting and creepy, everything we can get to know through technology about these poor souls who passed away millennia ago. There was information about their age, illnesses, and objects they had been buried with – god statuettes, jewellery, funerary miniatures… One of the mummies in display was that of a small child with his face painted on the wrapping, that was more than a bit creepy, to be honest.

A collage showing a a mummy and a turquoise wrapping; a sarcophagus; four canope jars; three statuettes: Horus, an ibis, Thoth; close-up of a sarcophagus, with bright colours; a mummy and a plain wooden casket.

We took the underground towards the waterfront to visit L’Aquàrium de Barcelona, located in the harbour. With more than 11,000 animals and 450 species, it is the largest aquarium dedicated to the Mediterranean Sea. It was inaugurated in 1995 and it holds 35 aquariums, including an oceanarium with capacity for almost four million litres of water (36 metres diameter, five metres high) with two tunnels at the bottom. Species-wise, the aquarium does not have anything out of the ordinary, but the size of the tiger sand sharks is impressive. There are a few sharks, some tropical fish, axolotls, frogs… and a very fun sperm-whale room to keep the jellyfish in darkness.

A collage of the aquarium. Seahorse; swimming sharks; anaemone; baby dogfish shark; tiny crustacean similar to a prawn; sand tiger shark; octopus trying to eat the viewers; penguin showing off; fabulous tiny jellyfish

We grabbed an expensive-but-convenient bite to eat at the aquarium itself during some of the feeding events to make sure the cafeteria was empty. AFter we had finished viewing all the exhibits, we went on towards the hotel, which was well-placed between the auditorium and the shopping centre. Since check in had been so bad when we went to the previous Final Fantasy concert, this time we had booked different accommodation, and it was a total 180 – everyone in the hotel was super friendly, and we had zero issues. We procured some sandwiches for dinner, then got ready for the concert.

The Final Fantasy Distant Worlds 35th Anniversary – Coral – directed by Arnie Roth is a compilation of the background pieces from all the Final Fantasy games, from the first (1987) to the latest to date not counting the remakes (Final Fantasy XV, 2016. It was held at the CCIB – Centre de Convencions Internacional de Barcelona. We had no idea what time doors would open, but I calculated that an hour should be good for queuing for merch and then get to our seats.

By the time we got to the queue, the concert booklet had already been sold out. When we reached the front, my favourite plush toys were also gone. I decided to get the previous year’s CD in order to get it signed later at the meet & greet event that was included in the ticket we had bought. Looking back, maybe I should have asked for the autographs on the tote bag we got for the spending.

The concert had two halves and an encore, and was… strangely not very coral, for something called so. The choir was placed over to one side, and only did three or four songs – they actually did not show up for the whole first half. The set list was accompanied by projected images on the screen and it was super-impessive to see the first 8-bit games at first compared to what the technology of the latest Advent Children (movie from Final Fantasy VII) managed to create.

    First half

  1. Final Fantasy I~III: Medley 2002
  2. Final Fantasy III: Eternal Wind
  3. Final Fantasy IV: The Red Wings ~ Kingdom of Baron
  4. Final Fantasy IV: Main Theme of Final Fantasy IV
  5. Final Fantasy V: Home, Sweet Home ~ Music Box
  6. Final Fantasy V: A New World
  7. Final Fantasy VI: Phantom Forest ~ Phantom Train ~ The Veldt
  8. Final Fantasy VI: Kids Run Through the City
  9. Final Fantasy I~VI: Battle Medley 2022

    Second half

  10. Final Fantasy VIII: Liberi Fatali
  11. Final Fantasy XI: Ragnarok
  12. Final Fantasy XII: Flash of Steel
  13. Final Fantasy VII: Aerith’s Theme
  14. Final Fantasy XIV: Torn from the Heavens
  15. Final Fantasy XV: Apocalypsis Noctis
  16. Final Fantasy IX: Not Alone
  17. Final Fantasy X: 素敵だね [Suteki da ne] (Isn’t it wonderful?)
  18. Final Fantasy Main Theme with Choir ~ The Definitive Orchestral Arrangement ~

    Encore

  19. Final Fantasy X: Zanarkand
  20. Final Fantasy VII: One-Winged Angel

The concert was all right. I did not feel the general chill I had through the previous one. I really liked Liberi Fatali and One-Winged Angel, but I guess I don’t have enough of an emotional connection with most of the games. Aside from the conductor Arnie Roth, we had composer Yoko Shimomura present, and vocalist RIKKI, who is the original singer of 素敵だね in Japanese, and did the live version.

Collage. Three pictures show a classical orchestra with different things projected on the screen behind them - the logo of Distant worlds, several 8-bit screenshots of games, a very realistic depiction of a blond man with a very unrealistic sword. The last picture shows singer RIKKI, composer Yoko Shimomura and conductor Arnie Roth

The M&G was fun, and I got to tell Roth that when I grow up I want to have as much fun as he does at work. They signed autographs and took pictures with people – it was much less stiff than the usual, too. We headed off afterwards for a sandwich, a shower and a good night’s sleep. In general though, not much value for money considering how much more expensive the VIP tickets were, even though the seats were good. Also, the fact that most merchandising sold out showed poor planning.

Collage. The ticket reading the name of the concert, the autographs of the three main artists, and a plush of a Final Fantasy imaginary being, it looks like a white teddy bear with a huge pink nose, a red ball on top of it and cute wings

4th February 2023: Ramen with Friends

We had bed and breakfast at the hotel, and the latter was fantastic. The buffet had both a juice bar and a milk bar – both of which I sampled, of course. I overdid it with the fried egg, I fear, but they were just cooked and it looked just too appetizing not to fall for one. After breakfast, we packed up, vacated the room, and asked the hotel to keep our bags for a couple of hours. We went to the science museum Museu de Ciències Naturals NAT, where we spent a couple of hours. This is the only place where they refused to speak Spanish to us.

The museum is divided in several areas. The first one is “history of the Earth”, where you can see a few interactive exhibits, fossils and reproductions. The second one is the collection of living animals, most of the stuffed, some of them just skeletons. There was another one about fungi – with the edible ones exhibited in tins. Then there was one on plants, and finally rocks and minerals. Not a bad place to spend a couple of hours, but it is just one of those places that takes itself much more seriously than it should, to the point that it felt pretentious. Some items were exhibited over and over again, as if they just wanted to use up the room – I counted at least eight elbaite specimens in different locations, and there were a bunch of reproductions taking up important spaces, you would believe they were originals if not paying lots of attention to the writing, and the blue light made for horrid photographs.

Collage. Four pictures show prehistoric animals in blue light, stuffed animals, a tin of mushrooms along real specimens, a red algae and some shiny rocks.

We transited to Sants train station to drop off my sibling’s bag at the cloakroom there and went on to meet my Barcelona friends E**** and P***o who had offered to take us to eat really-real Japanese ramen. Since I had a feeling that the restaurant would be on the small-ish side, and my sibling’s luggage was a bit oversized since they had cosplayed for the concert, I decided on the Sants detour for convenience.

The restaurant is called KOBUTA ramen i més (Kobuta Ramen and More) and I was amused when all of us made the same choice – tonkotsu miso ramen with an extra of half an egg, and water; then we shared some gyoza (dumplings) and karaage (fried chicken). The restaurant is not cheap, but the food makes up for that, it is very authentic Japanese food.

Collage. A dish of breaded fried chicken, some dumplings, and a bowl of ramen, with the ingredients floating - algae, half an egg, noodles, pork meat and spring onion

Though P***o had to leave early, the rest of us headed off towards the bullfighting-ring-turned shopping centre Arenas de Barcelona. There, we climbed up the terrace for views, then sat down for drinks and a long chat. We also popped into the local comic store, since it was convenient, and eventually we headed off to the station.

Collage. Shopping centre las Arenas, a round building that used to be a bullfighting ring, there are two pictures, one by daylight and another one at night, lit up. There's a picture of the views- two clock towers leading to a palace; finally three glasses together showing brightly coloured drinks - yellow, orange and dark pink

The train ride home was surreal. People playing music on their phones, yelling, talking loudly and making the footrests squeak – apparently there had been some kind of sporting event for kids and a lot of families were coming back home. All in all, not a bad couple of days, lots of laughs, I got to see dear friends and eat nice food, and listen to cool music – in the CCIB, not on the train.

4th January 2023: It’s a trap! (Tendilla, Spain)

It was not really a trap, but a hike. A very unexpected hike, as my family decided that hiking was the best thing to do to get rid of camel-riding soreness. Tendilla is a small village in Spain, dating back from Medieval times. It holds a yearly traditional fair, there are some ruins and historical buildings… It also has a pine forest that was planted in order to control the soil that used to landslide onto the village, and back in the day, a sort of ‘emergency gorge’ was built, in order to channel water in case of a flash flood.

With the years, the pine forest grew. In the 1980s, it was really well-kept, but politics change, and the forest stopped being cleaned and taken care for. These days, the artificial gorge is overgrown with plants and only some dams are seen. Recently, people from the village have tried to create a few hiking routes throughout it, using the fountains and streams that spring as landmarks, called the “Fountain Route” Ruta de las Fuentes. These fountains are old watering holes that were refurbished and some of them re-decorated recently.

The ground was covered with fallen leaves, the sky was bright blue, and the moss was growing – moss takes a long time to grow, so it’s protected. For a while, it was endangered in the area, but now it seems to be doing much better. Unfortunately, both leaves and moss were humid and frosty (literally) – and my shoes were definitely not waterproof.

Collage - a mossy fountain on a leaf-covered ground; a pine forest in dull winter colours; an excavated gorge from the container dam, the gorge is overgrown with green-grey plants

I was very happy when we walked out of the forest and into the trail where the sun was shine. We hiked up to see the brand-new weather vane Veleta, from where we could see the whole village and actually watch sunset, as these days the sun sets early. Then we walked back to the village, not before catching some fallow deer hoof prints, and getting hung on hunting for gypsum crystals, something I used to love when I was a child.

Collage - a pine tree foreest, in golden colours as the setting sun is hitting them, the sky is cleawr blue; a weather pointing southeast

Collage - a fallow's deer hoof print next to a fifty-cent coin for reference- the coin is about half the size of the hoof print; a few gypsum crystals on reddish sandstone

Sunset picture. The sun is sinking behind a low mountain. The mountain gives way to a valley where the village is peeking. On the foreground, there is a capricious-looking grey rock. The sun is a big gold ball flaring on everything

Afterwards, we just sat down to chat and eat leftover Christmas food until it was time to go back home. Not the most exciting thing, one might think, but I had a lot of fun.

20th November 2022: Naturaleza Encendida – Origen (Real Jardín Botánico, Madrid, Spain)

It seems that the Madrid exhibits in the month of December are not being the most successful ones – this time, the weather did not help. After ten day’s worth of rain, it cleared out, but then, on Tuesday, the skies opened yet again. It was raining like there was no tomorrow by the time my train got to Madrid. Boo.

Just after sunset, my sibling and I went to the botanical garden Real Jardín Botánico to see the light show Naturaleza Encendida: Origen (Lit-up Nature: Origins). There had been some issues about the promoter cancelling the activity due to rain with little advance notice, so they decided not to close it. They instead resorted to close parts of the exhibit at random, and herding all the visitors in the same corridors, despite the puddles forming on the uneven ground. After two weeks of rain, something should have been done about it. Moreover, a few of the exhibits were turned off – not sure if just off or high wired. I wish I had some good boots, because I ended up pretty soaked, despite the raincoat and the umbrella. At least I did not ended up in a random puddle.

In 2021, the topic was sea life, and in 2022 the topic is… mushrooms. So there were spores, moulds and… mushrooms. Big mushrooms with lights, or made with small lights, or… just blown with hot air. Lots of mushrooms. The music was a bit creepy though, even if the mushrooms lit up and down with the beat. There is also an exhibit about moulds, with huge screens showing pictures of spores and microorganisms under the microscope.

Most people were antsy and cranky in the rain, and everybody wanted you to move out of the way – in different directions at the same time. A really good thing about it was the cup of hot chocolate that we had booked with the ticket. It was really nice to get in the middle of the cold and rain because it was warm and sweet. We drank it on our way out to the train, and just as we stepped out of the botanical garden… it just stopped raining.

Light display collage: on the upper left, giant red spores; on the lower left a wavy line of lights. On the right, a giant bunch mushrooms illuminated in green from inside the umbrella

Collage of lights display. A mushroom made of little yellow and white lights; a bunch of name mushrooms in red; a hanging mould-like string of lights between two dark trees

All in all, I was not too impressed. I really think that the organisers should have figured out something about the cancellations and the pathways, since they obviously could not do anything about the weather. My favourite display were the “Baymax mushrooms”, even if most of them had lost their illumination, which was actually kind of the point…

A blow-up mushroom made from plastic, looking like it's floating. The  lights inside make it glow green and pink. In the background there is a building gate in red, and a pond between the two.

6th December 2022: Tim Burton’s Labyrinth (Madrid, Spain)

Despite having decided that immersive exhibits were not for me and the fact that I’m not a Tim Burton fan, here I found myself in Madrid to see this one: Tim Burton’s Labyrinth El Laberinto de Tim Burton. Truth be told, I was only there because my sibling asked me to accompany them. I did not find premium tickets for any of the dates either of us was available, but the 6th of December is a national holiday in Spain, and I calculated that if we were there at opening times it might not be too busy, and we would not come across too many kids.

Tim Burton is an American film-maker born in 1958. His first “hit” may have been Stalk of the Celery Monster, which he wrote, directed and animated when he was a student in the California Institute of Arts, in 1979. It presumably earned him a good grade, but more importantly, an animator’s apprenticeship at Disney Animation Studios. With time, he developed a shrill eerie style, with lots of colours and creepy designs that have increased as years have passed, sometimes defined as “gothic fantasy” – I would refer to it as strident and macabre at times, to be honest. His greatest or most famous works include Beetlejuice, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Edward Scissorhands, The Nightmare before Christmas, and the first two Batman films.

The exhibition is hosted in a weird place in Madrid, Espacio Ibercaja Delicias, which might look less… abandoned… when it hasn’t been raining for days, I guess. The space consists on a big tent – where we were not going, it might be designed for circuses or so, some kind of bar / cafeteria, and the monster-like building that hosts the exhibit. It is called a labyrinth because out of the thirty-ish wards, you have to go around choosing doors to see different rooms of the exhibit, insomuch that you would need four rounds to see the complete thing. In the end, you choose 15 rooms to see, out of which some are common, and you reach them from whichever previous place you were in. Others are “less common” and you can reach them through several doors, but not all. You enter the labyrinth through a toothy monster’s mouth, then there’s a big button that “decides” on the first room for you.

Collage: exterior of the Labyrinth, which looks like a one-eyed tentacle monster, and the inner entrance monster whose mouth is the curtain you have to cross to enter the different rooms.

In the rooms there are sculptures that represent the characters, some of them with the original clothes that were designed for them (if the film is a live-action), the plain clothes, and on the walls sketches and animations, some original, some “inspired”, and some made specifically for the exhibit. Some rooms are small and rather empty, others are decorated like the movie sets. There are tricks with lights, and some mirrors, but nothing “immersive” about it, and way too many people around considering the size of some rooms.

The idea of a labyrinth is interesting, but I don’t think the price warrants just seeing half of the exhibit, especially considering the big “misses” of not seeing all the The Nightmare before Christmas. We took about 40 – 45 minutes to go through the 15 rooms.

What I am aware we saw included:

  • Beetlejuice
  • Edward Scissorhands
  • Batman and Batman returns
  • Mars attacks!
  • Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
  • Alice in Wonderland or Alice Through the Looking Glass
  • Corpse Bride
  • Frankenweenie
  • Jack from The Nightmare before Christmas

Collage of Tim Burton's characters: Batman's Pengun, Edward Scissorhands, Emily from Corpse Bride

Collage of Tim Burton's characters: Alien from Mars Attack; the clothing from the Chocolatier (I think) in Charlie and the Chocolate factory, surrounded by twirling candy canes; Beetlejuice

Collage of Tim Burton's characters: Jack from The Nightmare before Christmas; The Mad Hatter from Alice in Wonderland, with some giant mushrooms behind; the boy and the dog of Frankenweenie

I think this is an exhibit for die-hard fans that are willing to pay for the premium ticket and see the whole thing twice. What it’s not, and that’s for sure, is for kids.

On both ways, we had some train trouble – delays and technical problems, but nothing too dramatic, and I was home before sunset – but after buying a stack of Christmas candy canes! And my sibling enjoyed, which was the goal anyway.

2nd December 2022: “Tutankhamun Immersive Exhibition” in Madrid (Spain)

In 1922, an archaeologist named Howard Carter discovered the tomb of Pharaoh Tutankhamun in the Valley of the Kings, Egypt. Tutankhamun belonged to the Eighteenth Dynasty. He reigned over Egypt around 1330 BCE, and restored the Ancient Egyptian religion. When he died, he was buried in a smaller-than-expected tomb, probably because his death was sudden and unexpected – for a while, it was hypothesised that he had been murdered, but it seems that he died from a combination of an infection and several previous pathologies (nothing to do with the fact that his parents were brother and sister, I’m sure).

The tomb was robbed and restored twice within a few years of Tutankhamun’s death, but it was eventually buried by alluvium brought by flash floods, and the debris from other tombs being built nearby. Thus, when Carter found it in 1922, it was mostly untouched and unspoilt. The death of Carter’s sponsor George Helbert, five months after visiting the tomb, sparked the rumour about a Curse of the Pharaohs, which has inspired countless works of fiction.

In 2022, Spain is living through a fad of “immersive exhibitions”, heavily based on technology, virtual reality and computer games. I was curious about what it would be about, exactly, so I decided to celebrate the end of work season by hitting the exhibit. I was early as the day before there had been a bit of public transport trouble and you usually have more chances of getting in if you’re early rather than late. Thus, I reached Centro Cultural Matadero in Madrid about half an hour earlier than my ticket read, and I was let in without any issue.

The “immersive exhibit” Tutankamón: La Exposición Inmersiva was devised by MAD, Madrid Artes Digitales, which specialises in digital creation and immersive experiences such a this. The exhibit has been designed in cooperation with the History Channel.

The first bit was a number of panels, explaining the “Egyptmania” that swept the world after the discovery of the mummy, the process of mummification, or life in ancient Egypt. The second held a replica of the inner and outer sarcophagus, along with the mummy, then replicas a few artefacts that had been found in the tomb, including the famous golden mask the pharaoh was buried with.

Three part collage: The upper picture shows the mummy of Tutankhamun suspended from the floor, imitating an open sarcophagus with the lid open on top of that. Bottom left: reproduction of the mortuary mask, in gold and blue, it has the typical Egyptian hair and beard. Lower right: reproductions of small objects found in the grave: estelae and human-like small sculptures.

Afterwards, you go into a huge ward with a projection on all four walls plus the floor, which is very spectacular but does not tell you much about the real history of either Tutankhamun or the tomb, it was just a cool video of flashy images with a narration in first person, showing the interior of the tomb, yes, but mostly vaguely-related imaginary, including some of the Egyptian gods. What it did have, and that was neat, was an original newsreel about the opening of the tomb, including Howard’s voice.

Collage of a 3D projection. Left, from top to bottom, views of Tutankhamun's grave: the outer area, in sandstone with sculptures, and two views of the inner painting an decoration, showing figures and hyeroglyphs. On the right, a projection of lotus flowers blooming and turning into gold, representing the soul of the pharaoh.

A large ward with a projection of a starry sky on the walls. At the front, a view of Tutankhamun's mortuary mask, eyes glowing.

A projection of Tutankhamun's mortuary mask, eyes glowing. Around it, golden writing symbols, maybe hyeroglyphs.

The following area had an augmented reality game, which I won (didn’t get anything though), a photo booth that I skipped and some “I bet you didn’t know” facts – about one third of them were common knowledge, and another third was information from previous panels though.

Finally, there was a room with virtual reality glasses and headphones, but my headphones wouldn’t work – I later realised they were not plugged into anything. This represented – I think – the trip to the Egyptian underworld, as I “started” at Tutankhamun’s tomb, then there were volcanoes, and I ended up in front of Anubis, who weighed a heart against a plume – the Judgement of the Dead.

The VR experience there was the last spot in the exhibition – because I skipped the photo booth – before one went into the shop. In the end, I was there for about an hour and a half, but it almost took me two hours to arrive and an hour and half to come back.

Though I don’t regret the mental break, I have decided that immersive experiences are not for me.

12th & 13th November 2022: Santiago de Compostela (Spain)

Here’s a little secret – people don’t like flying on the 13th, even less when it’s a Tuesday. Thus, I came across a bunch of awesome offers for the 13th of December, which unfortunately I could not take up due to work uncertainties. What I could muster was a mini getaway on the weekend of the 12th/13th of November, to the northern Spanish town of Santiago de Compostela. There were a few reasons for this choice – one, cheap flights; two, I’ve recently started considering a route through the so-called Camino de Santiago (St. James’ Way); and three, pandemic shuffled ‘Holy Years’ round so there was a special gate to the cathedral open that I wanted to see. I flew out around noon on Saturday and came back on Sunday night. It was a perfect plan for a decompressing getaway.

Santiago de Compostela is known as one of the most important pilgrimage cities in the world. According to the Christian tradition, the tomb of Apostle James was found in the area in Middle Ages (different sources vary throughout the 9th and 11th century), and the pilgrimage to visit the remains became one of the most important in the Christian faith, alongside Rome and Jerusalem, to the point that the pavement proudly states that “Europe was built on the pilgrimage to Santiago”. While I’m not religious, I have a thing for religious architecture, and as mentioned above I’ve been thinking about the Camino for a while, and visiting the goal felt a good way to start organising how I wanted to look at things.

However, let’s say it wasn’t the most perfect getaway ever. Though the flight was on time, and pretty short, there was turbulence – not something too out of the ordinary, but here’s something you might not know about me. Back in the mid-nineties, I sort of crash-landed in the Santiago airport, so let’s say I was not so invested in a bumpy flight.

As the flight had been very cheap (about 30€), I had decided to splurge a little in the hotel – and I found a not-so-bad offer of half-board at the Parador de Santiago – Hostal Reyes Católicos, downright at the centre of the city. It is located in the old pilgrim hospital, and it is a magnificent building, aside from a five-star hotel. I arrived around 14:00, and the room was not ready – fair enough. I wanted to get there early in order to drop off my luggage, and make sure I could arrange my dinner reservations for a convenient time. One of the reasons I decided to book half-board in the Parador was to guarantee myself a meal late in the evening, as I had booked a walking tour at 20:00, and the main restaurant served dinner till 22:45.

Wide shot of the Parador. It shows a severe building with an ornate gate. The sky is bright blue.

Unfortunately, the check-in staff “had booked me” at 20:30, and they asked if that was okay. I replied it wasn’t, and explained the reason stated above – the staff then said that they could accommodate me at 22:00 at the secondary restaurant, but not at the main one. I answered that then I’d have dinner at 22:00 at the secondary restaurant then, but the staff asked me to check the menu. I stated that it did not matter. I needed my dinner to be at 22:00, and if the main restaurant wasn’t available, it would have to be at the secondary one. The staff asked me to check the menus, and I explained again that I had a tour from 20:00 to 21:30 – I needed dinner at 22:00. I thought that was resolved, and as it was too early to get a room, I picked up my camera, left my backpack in the locker room, and went on my merry way to explore the outdoor “monumental route” within the historical city Ruta Monumental de Intramuros. The old city of Santiago is part of the UNESCO Heritage Site Routes of Santiago de Compostela: Camino Francés and Routes of Northern Spain Caminos de Santiago de Compostela: Camino francés y Caminos del Norte de España.

As I had tickets for different activities in the cathedral booked for the previous morning, and the Sunday forecast was rain, I decided to do most of the walking on my first afternoon. I started off in front of the cathedral façade in the square Praza do Obradoiro (the Artisans Square), which hosts the town hall in the former Neoclassical palace Pazo de Raxoi, the Parador itself, and the main – but closed, will get into that later – entrance to the cathedral Santa Apostólica y Metropolitana Iglesia Catedral de Santiago de Compostela, with its Baroque façade called Fachada del Obradoiro.

Baroque façade: two towers and twin set of stairs, fenced away.

I walked around the cathedral, and stopped at all the other squares: Praza da Acibecharía (the Black Amber Workers Square), Praza da Quintana de Vivos (Living Villa of the Living Square) and Praza das Praterías (the Silversmiths Square).

A collage of views of the cathedral of Santiago.

I walked down Rua do Villar, which is the closest to a main street the historical town has. I strolled around the historical centre – there are many interesting buildings and churches, alongside the market. At some point I entered a bakery, but I kinda ran away when I heard the prices they were charging.

Santiago Route.  An archade, a fountain, an ornate corner with a coat of arms carved into it.

After an hour and a half or so, I found the convent-turned-museum Igrexa e Convento de San Domingos de Bonaval that has become the ethnological museum of the Galician people Museo do Pobo Galego. The museum itself was not too spectacular, but the building itself was fantastic. One of the most amazing things was the triple-helix staircase that joins the different floors on one side, and the remains of the gothic church (where I got to climb the pulpit). To the side there’s the pantheon for illustrious Galicians, including one of the few female historical figures in Spain – poet Rosalía de Castro.

Monastery and museum. The pieces include a humanoid stone idol, some Christian figures in polychromated wood, and two pipes

View of the triple staircase, from above, from below and through the door from one of the sides.

A view of a gothic chapel, showing an empty altar.

This was around 16:30, and even if I was not even a bit hungry, my legs shook a little. Thus, I decided that I needed to find a supermarket to buy a snack – I only had coffee before I left for the airport at 9:00. Before getting to the supermarket though, I walked around the former orchard and graveyard of the convent, now a picnic-friendly park Parque de San Domingos de Bonaval, full of ruins and fountains.

The previous church, from outside, on the right. There's a winter tree in front, and some old niches on the left wall.

I grabbed my snack and went back to the monumental route until I was back at the Praza do Obradoiro. I walked around to see the sunset, and caught a glimpse of the light playing on the façade of the church Igrexa de San Frutuoso, and some nice views from the adjacent park (which turned out to have been another graveyard) Xardín do Cemiterio de San Frutuoso.

Santiago sunset. Upper picture shows the church of Saint Fructuoso, and the lower one a view of the nearby park with the sun setting in the background

It was around 18:00 at that time, so I could finally check in – which I did, only to find out that the staff I had talked to had decided not to book my dinner in the end, which lead to me needing to explain about my tour again to a new staff who told me they couldn’t book me at 22:00 on the secondary restaurant! It had to be at 21:45, but they could notify the restaurant that I would arrive a bit later. I was really not impressed by the whole thing, even less when I apparently needed a bellboy to guide me to my room and carry my backpack– and of course get tipped.

I had my snack and then went on to explore the building. As I did, the sun completely set, so the different lights were cool. The Hostal Reyes Católicos used to be the pilgrims’ hospital. It is a huge rectangle with four interior cloisters named after the four Christian Evangelists, the inner areas having been refurbished into the rooms.

The four gothic cloisters of the Parador. Two have some greenery on them, the other two are just grey and built.

A few minutes before 20:00, I left for my tour. Although I’m not a big fan of tours and group activities, I had had my curiosity piqued by a “theatrical visit” of the historical centre of the town called Meigas Fóra. In the area of Galicia, a meiga is a type of traditional witch, good or bad, depending on what side the person speaking about them is – in this case, the guide being a supposed-meiga, of course they were all neat and nice. The tour was supposed to tell about the different legends and interesting supernatural trivia of the town, but just ended up being a bit watered-down walk around those graveyards-turned-parks I had walked before. The coolest thing was finding the pilgrim’s shadow Sombra del Peregrino, a fun game of light-and-shadows in one of the squares around the cathedral.

A view of the cathedral of Santiago at night, illuminated, on top. On the bottom, a column casts a shadow onto the wall behind it - it seems to be that of a man with a walking cane and a travel hat.

Hilariously though, as we were walking, someone approached me to ask in wonder if on top of taking the tour alone, I was in Santiago all by myself, in total awe of someone travelling on their own. She said that she would never be able to do so – while she took selfies of herself because the people she was “touring” with could not be any less interested…

After the tour I went to have dinner – guess what? At 22:00 h! Let’s say that it was not the greatest experience. The restaurant staff had their hands full with a table of around 20 drunk “pilgrims” who had come all the way from South America and were rightfully celebrating – albeit loudly and a bit obnoxiously (all that pilgrim wine, no doubt) – that they had reached the end of the Way. The rest of the patrons were, including myself, four one-person tables, which made me wonder if they just don’t book one-person tables in the main restaurant after the first shift. The floor staff – basically one working waiter, and one wandering waiter – was overwhelmed by the table, and it took me over an hour to finish my dinner – which was some local octopus (pulpo a feira), a roasted great scallop (Pecten maximus, not only a delicious shellfish, also the symbol of the town and the related pilgrimage, called vieira in Spanish) and a piece of the typical almond pie (tarta de Santiago).

Dinner: pulpo, a scallop and a piece of cake.

Then I went to my room for a nice hot shower and to get some sleep. I was surprised then to find no extra blanket in the wardrobe, though there was an extra pillow. This was around midnight already so I decided not to hit reception for the extra blanket and just cranked up the air-con on and off to stay warm. I slept on and off, too, but it was not too much of a long night.

The next morning I had breakfast and set out for my day at the cathedral, Santa Apostólica y Metropolitana Iglesia Catedral de Santiago de Compostela. Santiago was built around the 7th century legend that the apostle James the Great, Santiago el Mayor, was buried in the area of Galicia, after having reached Spain to convert it into Christianity. In the 9th century, a tomb was discovered among some abandoned Roman ruins, and the local bishop had “the certainty” that it was the Apostle’s tomb. The bishop informed the King, who was the reported first pilgrim, and later ordered that a church should be built to commemorate the finding.

As the number of pilgrims grew, the church became too small, so subsequent temples were erected. The current interior was built between the 11th and the 13th century in a very pure Romanesque style, but the exterior was covered in the 18th century, in a very adorned Baroque style, which is also the style of the altar.

The most important piece of the cathedral is the Portico of Glory Pórtico de la Gloria, the Romanesque entrance to the 12th-century cathedral, with 200 sculptures carved in stone in the three-archway portal. The entrance now is locked away, you have to pay to see it, and photographs are not allowed.

For starters, I climbed up to the roof of the cathedral and the bell tower – not really the bell tower but the “rattle tower”, as the bells chime on the eastern tower, and the rattle is played on the darker, western tower. The roof was restored as recently as 2021, and from there there are some nice views of the town.

The towers of the cathedral from the room, and some aereal shots - one shows the Parador cloisters from above.

Between visits, I went inside the cathedral, where the pilgrims’ mass was about to start. I might have stayed out of curiosity had I been in town for a longer period. Then I visited the portico – since pictures were not allowed, I’ve rescued some 1995 ones from when I were in town as a teen.

Three shots of the  very baroque altar in Santiago - it is heavily decorated and painted gold. On the bottom right, a silver urn, also very ornated, supposedly where the remains of St. James are.

A collage showing several sculpures of the Portico of Glory - Romanesque statues richly coloured and decorated, they look placid

After wandering the cathedral for a bit longer, I made the most out of the last hour of sunshine to head to the park Parque da Alameda to find the spot Miradoiro da Catedral next to a huge centennial eucalyptus tree (Eucalyptus globulus labill) Eucalipto centenario, a 120-year-old specimen, considered one of the oldest eucalyptus trees that was planted in Europe after captain Cook “discovered” Australia and the species was introduced by Fray Rosendo Salvado.

A panoramic view of Santiago, showing the cathedral.

My next stop was the museum of pilgrimages and Santiago Museo de las Peregrinaciones y de Santiago, which was free due to the Covid recovery plan. It features a collection of items related to Saint James Way, and other important pilgrimages of the world, including the Japanese Kumano Kodo [熊野古道], and the Muslim Mecca Pilgrimage Ḥajj [حَجّ]. The upper floors are dedicated to the hagiography of Santiago / James through the Way and in the city.

Museum of Pilgrimages. A collage that shows a wooden statue of Santiago on a white horse, sword raised; other depictions of Santiago as pilgrim; some paper scallops decorated by kids; and a Japanese sacred gate.

Later, even though I should have gone to eat a bite, I headed to the monastery and museum Mosteiro de San Martiño Pinario, religious complex built between the 16th and 17th centuries, though the inner areas and chapels date from the 18th century. Today it’s a cultural centre, and alongside the church, it features a museum with block prints, fossils, an ancient pharmacy… The church has the most baroque Baroque altarpiece I’ve ever seen, and two choirs – one behind the altar, and the other one up on the second floor.

Exterior of the monastery, including the double downward staircase, and a picture of the interior, showing a very Baroque altar painted in gold.

Finally, I stepped into the museum of the cathedral Museo de la Catedral de Santiago de Compostela, which features the entrance to the cloister, library, and the upper galleries, aside from artistic and religious treasures such as the original stone choir, wooden carvings, and tapestries. I was also able to access the upper galleries and look at the rain in the Praza do Obradoiro, and later the crypt.

A collage showing the cloister of the cathedral of Santiago while it rains outside, and the former Romanesque choir, carved in stone.

Romanesque arches and columns built in stone, and a cast ceiling.

After one last visit to the cathedral and its shop, I got myself a last souvenir – a silver and black amber bracelet I had seen upon arrival, and took a taxi back to the airport in order to fly back. All in all, I was not too impressed by the city nor its inhabitant, and I was pretty disappointed in the Parador. I think it has put me off the idea of doing the Camino as much as I thought I wanted to, but not every trip is perfect, I guess, and I hope my memories warm up with time.

A silver and black amber bracelet. The silver is very fine, and the gem is bright black.

Walking distance: around 11.68 km (18659 steps) on Saturday and 10.58 km (16931 steps) on Sunday, not counting airport transits

15th October 2022: The castle in Olite and the cathedral in Tarazona {Aragón & Navarra Oct. 2022}

Today, Olite is not much of an impressive town – but it has a dream castle Palacio Nuevo de Olite. The original fortress is reported to be a first-century Roman building where the Old Palace stands now. The first mention that we have of the old castle dates from the 13th century. In 1388, as Carlos III of Navarra (whose grave we had seen the previous day in Pamplona ) starts the process of clearing the area surrounding it, buying houses and so. The official ampliation of the palace started in 1399, and the actual construction of the new castle in 1402. First, the keep was erected, then the surrounding towers, without much planning, giving was a capricious space with staircases, yards, and even a hanging garden. Construction ended in 1420.

When Navarra was annexed to Castille, the decline of the castle started. Later, during one of the several Spain-France wars, soldiers’ distraction caused the first fire in 1794. later, in 1813, the castle was intentionally burnt down in 1813 to avoid that the French made a stronghold out of it. The wood-decorated room were completely destroyed and only the stone walls remained, although barely. The castle was used as makeshift quarry from then on, until in 1902 the modern regional government bought it. In 1925, after considering three proposals, it was decided too restore the castle using Jose Yárnoz Larrosa, who became the main architect. He chose a restoration style known for aiming to make things “as they should have been” – so rather idealistic. And one has to admit that the castle does look pretty cool, even though apparently it does not preserve the original structure too much. Throughout this time, a mulberry tree might have thriven for about 500 years.

The point of this is that the castle is cool. Pretty much fake, but cool.

After having breakfast, I set off for a few pictures. It was not too early in the morning, even, but at least the square was empty and clean, unlike the evening before. I stopped to examine the entrance of the church Iglesia de Santa María la Real. The church dates back from the 13th century, and is famous because of the decoration of its main façade and the sculpture around the portal, though personally, I was more taken by the atrium just in front of the church. While it does obstruct the view of the façade, the architectural ensemble ends up looking super cool – except for the little porch built in the 2015 restoration that… well… might be necessary but does not allow for the best view.

Church Santa María la Real: Gothic façade with an arched atrium in front of it. The portal is decorated with religious figures

I went around the complex formed by the two Medieval castles Palacio Viejo and Palacio Nuevo de Olite, the walls and the old egg-shaped building that used to work as a snow-powered fridge of sorts.

Collage with different sights of the new Olite palace. The walls, archs and merlons are shown, brown-gold colour. Some of the pinnacles have grey slate pinnacles.

We went in. The restoration of the palace is “in style” so you cannot tell what is new from what it is not. The inner area includes access to the towers, the keeps, the so-called King’s gallery, the hanging garden, and the centennial mulberry tree. I climbed about half of the towers and the keep itself, and I have to say it was pretty fun.

Palace of Olite - Gothic archways, one bare, one full of vegetation, and views from the towers, showing the merlons, pinnacles, and the rest of the towers

Palace of Olite - looking from the interior, the structures show vegetation and the pinnacles. The last part of the collage shows the mulberry tree

Unfortunately, when we left the castle, we were not allowed into the church Iglesia de Santa María la Real as there was going to be a wedding – despite being no notice outside but the normal opening times, within which we were. Sometimes I feel tempted to take pictures even when I know it’s not completely okay, in order not to miss opportunities later. Before we left town, we found a nice viewpoint to try to catch site of the whole castle.

Palace of Olite from afar. It looks like a fairytale castle with pinnacles, walls, merlons and flags.

Afterwards, we drove southwards towards Tarazona, back in the region of Aragón. It is not a big town, with but an interesting point to get to know – the cathedral Seo de Nuestra Señora de la Huerta de Tarazona. Built throughout the evolution of Gothic art, between the 13th and the 15th century, it was later enriched in the 16th century with Renaissance decoration and interior, and sprinkled with Mudejar details. The cathedral is in the middle of restoration, and the organ is fenced off. The cloister shows lots of panels on the works being done, too.

Tarazona cathedral - outside. The façade looks weirdly grey, and the belltower is on the right, darker. A close-up of the dome shows its Mudejar influences

Interior of the Cathedal of Tarazona, showing Gothic columns and the Baroque altarpiece. The cloister is modified Gothic with arcs and spikes. A close-up of the Mudejar-style bell tower.

We had lunch after visiting the cathedral, but we did not feel like staying around until the archaeological gardens. Thus, we just took the car back home, even though we might have been better off checking out some more places in town. Lesson learnt then, more planning is required in this kind of escapades…

14th October 2022: Pamplona, the city of the bulls, and Olite {Aragón & Navarra Oct. 2022}

In order to avoid crossing Zaragoza, we tried to go around it. Unfortunately, trying to save up 30 minutes, we ended up wasting an hour at the entrance of the highway, and we reached the city of Pamplona or Iruña. Today, it is the capital of the region of Navarra, which is roughly the size and shape of the old Kingdom of Navarra, which existed roughly between 1162 and 1512, when it was conquered by the Catholic King Fernando.

There had been a slight misunderstanding on who was going to plan the day – I was convinced my father had not wanted me to do it, but when we arrived he turned to me and I was supposed to know. In summer, I had drafted a small itinerary, but as he was supposed to have taken charge, I had not gone further. It turns out, I should have. Fortunately, I still had the map on my phone and the opening schedules on my travel notebook. Unfortunately, I had not really delved into all that the city has to offer and we missed a few interesting thing

Thus, I tried to take charge, but not too much because it’s hard to balance that with my parents. Even if we have travelled together before, I tend to let them do the planning and only insist on some stuff I want to do or see, and that’s how they end up at dinosaur parks (≧▽≦).

We left the car in a parking lot underneath the congress centre and walked towards St. Nicholas Church Iglesia de San Nicolás de Bari Eliza. The first building dates from the 1100s, and it was built along the now-disappeared walls, as a defensive construction at the same time as a religious one. It was demolished and rebuilt location makes the building awkward, and to add insult to injury, we arrived almost at the same time as mass started, so we just took a quick look.

Iglesia de San Nicolás de Bari Eliza - exterior with pointed arcs, and inside, showin the altar

We walked to the next church dedicated to St. Lawrence Iglesia de San Lorenzo, actually associated to the UNESCO Heritage Site Routes of Santiago de Compostela: Camino Francés and Routes of Northern Spain Caminos de Santiago de Compostela: Camino francés y Caminos del Norte de España. The current building is Neoclassic, and the façade was rebuilt at the beginning of the 20th century when the original was damaged during war. On the right of the main nave, a side chapel holds the famous sculpture of St. Fermin, the patron saint of the town. The chapel was built between 1696 and 1717, when the sculpture was placed there. Every 7th of July, the sculpture is taken out in the religious procession. From the 6th of July and for a week, Pamplona celebrates its local festivals, famous around the world for the encierros, or running of the bulls. While there are similar runnings all throughout Spain, the encierro in Pamplona was popularised by Ernest Hemingway, the American novelist, in his work “The Sun also Rises” (1926).

Church of Saint Lawrece - Neoclassical façade and interior, with the sculpture to Saint Fermin, the patron saint, in a red cape and a mithra, surrounded by red and precious metals.

We continued onto main street Calle Mayor, which ends at the main square Casa Consistorial de Pamplona, which opens to the main square Plaza Consistorial. The building was erected between 1951 and 1953, though the project kept the 18th century façade, halfway between late Baroque and Neoclassic.

Pamplona town hall / council hall, with flags hanging from the balcony.

We continued onto the cathedral dedicated to the Virgin Mary Catedral de Santa María la Real de Pamplona. The building is Gothic (French Gothic, actually), with a Neoclassical façade designed by Ventura Rodríguez (who also worked on the Basílica del Pilar in Zaragoza). One of the most interesting things in the cathedral are the paintings on the walls and columns themselves, just non-religious decorative motifs. In front of the altar lie the tombs of King Carlos III of the Kingdom of Navarra, and his wife Leonor of Trastámara (or Castille).

Cathedral of Pamplona, including a close-up of the bright polychromy in red and blue, and the altar, from far away and a close-up. The most distinctive feature are the pointed arched and the very clean masonery.

In the inner area, there is a beautiful cloister, and you can climb into the false ceiling, see the kitchen of the former convent. And, let’s not forget – they have a stamp, because it is one of the “official” starting points of St. James Way, Camino de Santiago, and also part of the UNESCO heritage related to it.

Collage: Cloister in Pamplona cathedral. The gothic ars are pointed and ornate, standing on bright green grass. One of the corners shows a fountain, the other the iner walkways

We stopped for lunch, then we walked by one of the “iconic” points of the bull-running, the corner at one of the streets of the route – Esquina de la Estafeta, and continued on until we reached the bullfighting ring Plaza de Toros de Pamplona, but since we are not big into the culture, we did not enter.

We did stop by the sculpture to the bulls and runners Monumento al Encierro, a huge bronze composition with a number of real-life pieces: nine bulls (six fighting bulls and three guiding bulls) and ten runners.

This bronze sculpture represents several life-sized bulls and runners. The runners are in front of the bulls, and one of them has been trampled.

Finally, we went to have a stroll alongside the walls of the former citadel Ciudadela de Pamplona. Although now it is a park, and only the foundations are left, the Citadel was one of the most important defensive constructions in the Spanish Renaissance, in the shape of a five-pointed star.

Several angles of the Ciudadela of Pamplona park. Not much is seen except for the building foundations, though they stand two or three metres high.

After that, we took the car and drove towards the town of Olite also known as Erriberri , where we were going to sleep. The town was home to the Monarchs of Navarra, and today there are two distinctive buildings – the old palace Palacio Viejo de Olite, where the Parador de Olite stands, and the new palace Palacio Nuevo de Olite. Originally the most extravagant Gothic castle in Europe, it burnt down during the war against the Napoleonic troupes, and was rebuilt in 1937 using the philosophy of bigger, cooler more teeth. We checked in at the Parador and I collected my stamp. From our room, we could see the main structure of the old palace, as we had a very long balcony.

Old palace of Olite. There is a tower on the right and an old Medieval house to the left. The building is made of irregular masonery and the windows are perfectly rectangular.

We went for a walk, and were surprised at how many people there were in the area. We sneaked into the church Iglesia de Santa María la Real, but did not take any pictures as (once again!) mass started. We planned to come back the following morning as it was barely a 30 seconds away from the door of the Parador.

On the left, a modern red-brick house stands on older arcs. The façade sports a protection made of intricate white ironwork.
On the left, a Romanesque church, blocked by construction and a tractor.

We walked around for a little and were not too impressive by the Medieval city centre, but we did find the typical balconies and the Romanesque church of St. Joseph Iglesia de San José.

We were beat, to be honest, it had been a stressful day after a short night’s sleep, so we turned in early after dinner. I did not even think to wander round to see if I could get any cool pictures of the area, because the area was packed and I was exhausted.

13th October 2022: Serrat in Zaragoza {Aragón & Navarra Oct. 2022}

Joan Manuel Serrat was born in Barcelona in 1943. He is a singer, songwriter, composer, actor, writer, poet and musician, whose long career started in 1965. Since then, he has sung first in Catalan, then in Spanish, and finally in both languages. In 1968, he was involved in a Eurovision controversy as there was a strife about singing in Catalan or Spanish, and in the end he was replaced by another artist – who ended up winning.

Throughout Franco’s Dictatorship, Serrat lived an unstable balance between the media veto caused by the Eurovision scandal, the censorship of some of his lyrics, and his growing popularity both in Spain and Latin America. During the 70s, he became a vocal protestor against the Dictatorship, with his songs, actions and words, which ended up with another veto and an exile to Mexico. In a way, he became the symbol of the discontent of the twenty- and thirty-somethings that had grown in the Spanish post–Civil War, who were then wading into adulthood. Serrat’s song Mediterráneo (Mediterranean Sea) has been repeatedly called the best song in the history of Spanish pop music. The album stayed as number 1 in Spain for weeks despite the censorship – since then, he has collected innumerable accolades and homages.

My parents… I don’t think I can call them fans, but they have listened to Joan Manuel Serrat for a long time – as a matter of fact, my father used to translate songs into Spanish for my mother back when they were young, as he spoke Catalan and she did not. But they are not concert people, so I was slightly surprised when back in April my mother commented in passing that, had tickets not been sold out, she would have liked to attend the Madrid concerts of Serrat’s goodbye tour El Vicio de Cantar. Serrat 1965 – 2022 (Singing is a vice. Serrat 1965 – 2022). I put the Internet machinery to work, and I found tickets for Zaragoza on the 13th of October. At that time, my parents asked if I would be interested, and I said yes, as he is indeed one of the most important singer–songwriter of the 20th century in Spain.

Ticket: Serrat, el vicio de cantar

The problems started when I could not get the day off, so that meant driving there as I left work. I could have got away with leaving half an hour earlier to get to the train as they drove off earlier, but they refused, so we ended up getting to Zaragoza around 17:00. Checking into the hotel took 40 minutes due to the slow check-in process, and luckily we were on the third floor. Funnily enough, it seemed that everyone in the hotel was there for the concert, so a lot of older people not used to travelling nor hotels.

The concert was due to start at 21:30 in the local sports centre Pabellón Príncipe Felipe, and there was a delay of about 15 minutes. To be honest, I did not expect it to be such a powerful experience – I mean, we’re talking about a 79-year-old man here, I did not think he would still have such a powerful voice nor presence on stage. There were a lot of songs I did not know, but the ones I had heard before still retained the vitality of records as old as the 80s! The set list was a remix of his most iconic songs in Spanish, with a couple of them in Catalan language:

  • Dale que dale – “Go on and on”.
  • Mi niñez – “My childhood”.
  • El carrusel del Furo – “Furo’s carrousel”.
  • Romance de Curro el Palmo – “The romance of Curro el Palmo”.
  • Señora – “Lady”.
  • Lucía
  • No hago otra cosa que pensar en ti – “I keep thinking about you and nothing else”.
  • Algo personal – “Something personal”.
  • Nanas de la cebolla – “Onion lullaby”, with lyrics from a famous Spanish poet who wrote the poem in prison, when his wife wrote to him that there were only bread and onions at home, and she had to breastfeed their baby.
  • Para la libertad – “For freedom”.
  • Cançó de bressol / Canción de cuna – “Lullaby”.
  • Hoy por ti, mañana por mí – “Today it’s you, tomorrow it’s me”.
  • Tu nombre me sabe a yerba – “Your name tastes like herbs” – grass, actually, but it sounds horrid in English.
  • Los recuerdos – “Memories”.
  • Es caprichoso el azar – “Fate is whimsical”.
  • Hoy puede ser un gran día – “Today can be a great day” – I keep telling myself this.
  • Pare – “Father”.
  • Mediterráneo – “Mediterranean Sea”, I can totally understand how this is considered one of the best songs ever in Spanish.
  • Aquellas pequeñas cosas – “It’s the little things”, started the encore
  • Cantares – “Songs or Poems”, with lyrics by Antonio Machado, one of the greatest Spanish poets in the Spanish 20th century.
  • Paraules d’amor – “Words of Love”.
  • Penélope – though I knew this song, the lyrics were differetn from the ones I was used to.
  • Fiesta – “Festival”, a bit of a high-inducing song to finish the concert way past midnight!

Serat concert: Stage with signature decoration, and two shots of the concert

It was hilarious to see all these sixty- and seventy- year-olds get out from the pavilion and walk to the hotel, all pumped up and way beyond their bedtime. By the time we arrived at the hotel, there was a queue at the lifts! All these exhausted boomers, hyped up and at the same time with no more energy left. That is when we were so happy to be on the third floor and not something like the seventh or eight (≧▽≦). The bed was comfortable but I did not sleep much.

9th October 2022: Atémpora, Sigüenza (Spain)

Sigüenza a Medieval town in the centre of Spain that is currently trying to gain the status of UNESCO Heritage Site. It has a castle, a protected historical centre, and in the heart of it stands the cathedral Catedral de Santa María La Mayor de Sigüenza . The cathedral dates back to 1124, when the original Romanesque building was was erected. The construction finished in 1326 , with remodelling and decoration elapsed several centuries, with different add-ons, until it was “declared” finished after the Spanish Civil War, with later works being just conservation.

Cathedral in Siguenza, a late-Romanesque / early-Gothic building, in a reddish colour. Left: side view, showing the bell tower. Right: façade, with two side towers.

In summer and autumn 2022, there is an exhibition in the cathedral – Atémpora. Sigüenza entre el Poder y la Gloria, which translated to something akin to “Timeless. Sigüenza between Power and Glory”. It displays some of the treasures of the cathedral and the museum, along with a few archaeological devices. We had seen most of the religious artefacts in a previous visit, but the historical chronicle was rather interesting.

The first block, around the cloister, deals with Celtiberian (the Arevaci tribe) and Roman weapons and everyday life. The second block deals with the Goth conquer and the newfound Christianity.

Upper Left: entrance to Atempora, flanked by two angels. Upper right: Celtiberian Daggers. Bottom left: oil lamp looking like a bird. Bottom left: clay bowl.

Interwoven with the exhibition are the treasures of the cathedral, including two collection of Flemish tapestries, one focused on Athena, the other on the story of Romulus and Remus. Another highlight is an Annunciation painting by Domḗnikos Theotokópoulos “El Greco” a Greek artist of the Spanish Renaissance (since he moved to Toledo in his prime). Of course, the cloister is fantastic. There is a tiny gothic altarpiece in one of the chapels that is delicious. The problem? As always, Baroque trends building choirs in the middle of the naves, blocking the view, and overdecorated altarpieces. The wooden ceilings are extremely beautiful where they have been preserved.

Upper left: tapestry collection, hanging from walls. Bottom right: Annunciation by El Greco. Bottom left: decorated wooden ceiling. Bottom right: Cloister of the cathedral.

The three final blocks present different Christian symbols and pieces of art from the Middle Ages onwards, and interestingly enough, a watermill from the old salt marshes. The exhibit makes a particular emphasis on Wilgefortis, a Catholic folk saint which is supposed to be buried in the cathedral, with the silver arch where her body lies brought from the altar. Other pieces include coins, sceptres, and even a few elements from the times when there was a Medieval university in town – one of them being a human skull with “anatomy notes” on it. There are also late Medieval sculptures, most importantly crucified Christ representations and Virgins with the Child, though probably the nicest one is the one which is permanently at the entrance of the cathedral. Next to it, a mill from the nearby salt mines (Salinas de Imón) has been brought – I really want to visit those at some point too, so great reminder.

Altar of St. Wilgefortis on the left. On the right, a coin, a scepter and half of a skull with writings on it.

Top left: Romanesque virging with child. Bottom left: watermill. Right: Crucified Christ with four nails on his hands and feet.

The most important monument, or area, in the Sigüenza cathedral is the chapel called Capilla del Doncel. It holds the tombs of Martín Vázquez de Arce and his parents. The de Arce men participated in the war against Granada Muslims during the 15th century, where the son was killed in an ambush, as the Muslims created a flash flood from the watering system they had to control the waters of River Genil. Though he was already 25 years old, too old to be called a doncel, teenage boy, the name has stuck for centuries. The parents’ tombs are traditional burials, however, the Doncel’s grave is an arcosolium, with the decorative sculpture showing the young man awake and reading a book, rather than lying in death as it is the typical representation.

Chapel of"El Doncel", showing the traditional burials in the foreground, and the Doncel's tomb in the background.

We went to have lunch after the visit, we went to have lunch at La Taberna Seguntina, where we shared some typical cheese, sausage, and roasted pork before we went home.

Typical Siguenza Dishes. Top: sausages and cheese. Bottom: roasted pork leg with potatoes.

25th September 2022: Ruta de las Caras (Buendía, Spain)

As I had a visitor, I proposed a hiking route I had heard about as a silly adventure. The area around the reservoir Pantano de Buendía is home to an… interesting hiking route.

In the early 1990s, a couple of friends called Eulogio Reguillo and Jorge Juan Maldonado, a builder and a pottery maker, got the idea to create a sculpture on the rock. That, which in other circumstances could have be just been considered “defiling nature” became a Land art project – the two “artists” have carved gigantic faces into the sandstone, and the route has become a tourist spot – the Route of the Faces or Ruta de las Caras.

The route has been on my radar for a while (but I’d been feeling lazy about the drive) and I thought it would be a fun bizarre thing we could do together. It did not disappoint. You can do the complete route from the nearby village of Buendía, which is around 9 km, or drive up to the beginning of the route at the edge of the reservoir and hike around 2 km. We decided to do this, as the complete route did not offer much else to do / see.

The route features a lot of official and unofficial sculptures, along with graffiti on the rocks. It is circular and runs through a pine forest which makes it suitable for both warm and cold weather – as long as the roads to get to the village are not frozen. Though temperature had plopped down compared to the previous day, it was still mostly over 20 ºC, so nice enough to be out in a sweatshirt.

Pine trees with a bit of water in the background - the reservoir

The rock carvings vary in size, style and elaboration. There are some religious motives, such a couple of Christian Virgin Marys, and some figures from Indian (Hindu and Buddhist) inspiration, but the ideas are so all over the place that they probably just let the artists do whatever they felt like. While the first carvings date from the 1990s, the route is still being carved, and we missed one of the faces as it is in a “new” area which is still not signalled. Some of the sculptures we did see include:

  • Moneda de Vida – The Coin of Life
  • Cruz Templaria – Templar Cross
  • Krishna (Hindu deity)
  • Maitreya (future Buddha in Buddhist eschatology)
  • Arjuna (a character in one of the Hindu epics)
  • Espiral del brujo – The Male Witch’s Spiral
  • Chemary (short for the name “José María”, Joseph Mary)
  • Sin nombre – Unnamed (and unfinished)
  • La monja – The nun
  • Chamán – Shamman
  • Beethoven (the composer, yes)
  • Duende de la grieta – Goblin in the Crack
  • Dama del pantano – Lady of the Reservoir
  • Virgen de la flor de Lis – Virgin of the Fleur-de-lis
  • Virgen de las caras – Virgin of the Faces

Different faces and shapes carved in sandstone

Different faces and shapes carved in sandstone

Our favourite was the skull overlooking the reservoir, called De muerte – Deadly – which one could actually climb – noooot absolutely sure it was “legal”, but the rules only said “do not carve or alter the rocks” and the sculptures are coated in a protective liquid. And after all, this started as a random art-vandalism thing.

Large skull carving (top) + the look from the viewpoint - the reservoir is pretty depleted, there is a lot of sand, but also some green trees (bottom)

On the way back we stopped at the dam that closes off the Reservoir Presa del Pantano de Buendía, where we played with the echo.

Massive concrete dam, and the water behind it, a rich azure. The water looks cool.

Then, we moved on and once again stopped at the dam in the Entrepeñas reservoir Presa del Pantano de Entrepeñas – and I got the exit wrong again afterwards, exactly like the previous time. We saw a flock of vultures, and as they were circling in search for prey, they were a ‘kettle’.

The silhouette of two vultures circling

To end the day with befor my friend was off to the airport, we headed back and stopped to have lunch at a tiny Mexican place in the shopping centre on our way. And there I discovered that yes, there is such a thing as too much cheese on nachos. In the end, we walked around 4.11 km (6464 steps), so I think we were allowed to deal with the junk-y food.

Nachos + tacos. Everything looks a bit greasy.

24th September 2022: Manzanares el Real & Alcalá de Henares (Spain)

My friend, whom I had not seen since January 2020 as the pandemic kept us apart, dropped by for a visit as she was in the area. Since the weather forecasting had not been promising, I had not booked anything, but given her a bunch of options to do. She was particularly taken by the castle in Manzanares El Real, a town in the Madrid area, so we drove there.

The palace-castle Castillo Nuevo de Manzanares El Real was built in the late 15th century as a replacement of the previous one by the House of Mendoza. The noble family was given control over the area the previous century, and after a hundred years living in the older castle, the new one was commissioned to Juan Guas, who designed the building in a on a Romanesque-Mudejar style. It was built in granite stone, with Isabelline Gothic decoration, mixing defensive / military, palatial and religious architecture. It was inhabited for about a century before it was abandoned. The castle was declared a Cultural Monument in 1931, and it has undergone several restorations. In 1961, it was used as shooting location for Charlton Heston and Sophia Loren’s “El Cid” film.

Considered one of the best-preserved castles in the Madrid area, the building it has four towers, six floors, and a central patio. It holds a collection of tapestries, and most of it can be walked. Unfortunately, the towers cannot be climbed, but you can walk around the walls, both in the terraced gallery and outside. It was a bit overpriced, but well-worth the visit.

Collage showing the castle. It is reddish with hard corners and rounded towers. The decoration is white and ornate.

We made a pause for lunch and tried the best wild asparagus (Asparagus acutifolius) that I have had in ages – just grilled with salt and lemon. We had some croquettes too.

Plate of perfectly-round croquettes and some crisps in the middle + plate of roasted green wild asparagus

As we had walked into the village for lunch, we only had to walk a little further to find the ruins of the original castle Castillo Viejo de Manzanares el Real. At the moment, only the foundations can be seen, though it is similar to the new one. The archaeological excavation started in the year 2022, but nothing much is known of it, except this one was an actual military fortress that predates the new castle. From there, the views of the new castle and the local church make a nice skyline of sorts.

Foundations of the old castle. Not much is seen, there is a sign reading "Old Castle Archaeological Excavation"

View of Manzanares el Real, showing modern roofs, the church tower, and the castle in the furthest background

It was still early in the afternoon, so I suggested stopping by Alcalá de Henares. I wanted to make a stop at a shop to check for something, but after a quick visit to the shopping centre, we moved on to what is, in my opinion, one of the most interesting buildings in town – the small palace house Palacete Laredo. Built in the Neo-Mudejar style, it is a bizarre combination of mosaics, moorish-like decorations, and vibrantly-coloured windows that somehow work, somehow. Though only about half of the building can be visited, I just find it bizarrely alluring. My friend loved it. Furthermore, the building has a few Complutensian Polyglot Bibles in display – the first polyglot edition of the Christian Holy book, published in the 16th century under the patronage of the Cardinal Cisneros, a key figure in local history.

Palacete Laredo: exterior and interior decorations + close up of the open bible, in Latin and Hebrew

We continued on, and walked round the city. We saw two back-to-back weddings at the cathedral Santa e Insigne Catedral-Magistral de los Santos Justo y Pastor – that meant we could not snoop into the cathedral, but we did see one of the brides arrive in a Rolls Royce.

Finally, we dropped by the archaeological museum Museo Arqueológico Regional, which has opened a very interesting new palaeontology ward – holding reproductions and real fossils of animals that used to live in the Madrid area, with a few coming from the palaeontological site of Cerro de los Batallones – most interestingly a Tetralophodon longirostris and a Machairodus aphanistus sabretooth cat.

Skeletons and skulls: mastodon, giant prehistoric giraffe that looks similar to a humongous goat, and sabretooth cat

We did a little more shopping afterwards, and eventually we drove off into the sunset… and the traffic. We ended up walking for 12.47 km (19078 steps), and driving for a good three hours, though M40 was so busy it actually felt like much much longer.

25th July 2022: Half a day {Salamanca, July 2022}

Mondays are always tricky because a lot of things close then. We reprised our latte/croissant and visited the Tourist information office that claimed that everything was open – which… was incorrect. My companion wanted to see Iglesia de San Marcos, a Romanesque church which has an interesting circular shape, probably built in the 11th century (that we had found in the book we got from the cathedral).

A Romanesque church. It has a round nave and a short bell tower with two bells.

We saw the local market Mercado Central de Salamanca, designed by the same architect as the Casa Lis. As this is a public building, it was in working order – though funnily enough, all the fishmongers were closed – no fish in Salamanca on Mondays! The building is modernist, with iron structures and colourful windows.

A Modernist building with colourful glass windows

To finish off the morning we went to visit the palace Palacio de la Salina, also a public building so also open. The architect in the project was Rodrigo Gil de Hontañón (who also designed the University building in Alcalá de Henares). It was built in 1538, mainly in Plateresque style, with some Italian elements.

The patio of a Plateresque palace, in gold tones with a lot of decoration on the stonework

Right across the park from the palace there is a lonely Renaissance tower Torre del Clavero. It was a 15th-century defence tower, with a square base that turns octagonal in height.

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We walked around for a while longer, had lunch, and our train back left around 3:30. It was a rather uneventful trip full of gothic, modernism and iron, which I really enjoyed. I keep trying to get to like guided visits, and I have somehow got fond of climbing up towers.

Walking distance: 11737 steps / 7.31 km

24th July 2022: Up, up and down {Salamanca, July 2022}

After a latte and the best croissant I’ve had in a long time, we went over to see the gothic palace Casa de las Conchas, which was built between 1493 and 1517. The façade is decorated with sandstone-carved shells (concha, in Spanish). The exterior sports ironwork-protected windows, and the interior a patio with artistic arches.

The gothic palace called House of Shells. There are hundreds of them carved on the façade. The inner patio is carved in golden stone, with very thin columns and lots of decoration

It was still early for our visit to Palacio de Monterrey, a 16th-century Renaissance palace inspired in the Italian style of the time, combined with Plateresque decoration, which was heavily imitated later on in the 19th century. The building currently belongs to the House of Alba, probably the most prominent Spanish noble family. The House opened the palace to the public, and the inner area cannot be photograph – it was weird anyway, with some antiques and art pieces, but all of it was… prepared and staged, though the carpets were rolled out of the way. In this case the only option to sneak out a picture was from the tower, as a member of the staff followed us all the time.

Monterrey palace, built in golden-like masonery. The roofs and towers are decorated, and there is a row of windows alongside the upper floor.

Next, just in front the palace, we visited the 17th-century church Iglesia de la Purísima, in Italian Baroque style. Its altarpiece is considered to have one of the best images of the Virgin Mary in her Immaculate Conception advocacy.

A Catholic altar showing the Inmaculate conception in the centre, she is dressed in blue, and standing in front of golden clouds, with angels around her. The back of the altar is built in white stone, and ornate.

Our next spot was the second university of Salamanca, the see of the Universidad Pontificia de Salamanca, a building called La Clerecía. As the original university went secular, the Jesuits built a clerical university. The building, built in Baroque style between the 17th and 18th centuries is composed of a church, a cloister, a patio and a magnificent staircase, forming the complex (read: guided tour) called Vita Ignatii.

Collage: On the left, a very baroque church from the outside, also showing the gold inner altar. On the right, some shots of the upper and lower cloister, the patio is ornate and reddish, the staircase is made completely out of stone.

Then there are two towers that give out really awesome views of the town, named Scala Coeli, the stairs to the Sky.

Views of Salamanca from the above: the dome of the church from the outside, the cathedral, the House of Shells, and the bells.

It was rather hot, so we had some unremarkable lunch and went to the hotel to wait out the blunt of it. It did not really work, and we eventually tried our luck with some more sightseeing. The first stop was the garden known as Huerto de Calixto y Melibea, based on a literature work Tragicomedia de Calisto y Melibea or La Celestina. It is considered the first Renaissance writing in Spanish, and it echoes with Romeo (Calisto or Calixto) and Juliet (Melibea), with an extra character, the old matchmaker Celestina, who is a horrible person trying to break the lovers up to marry Melibea to someone else. Though the writing does not have a firm setting, some say that it is probably Salamanca, where the author attended university. It was nicely shaded and had nice views.

Gate to the gardens, a bust of Celestina (the fictional character), from the cathedral, and some flowers: star-shaped and orange, bell-shaped and red.

Then, we wandered off to see the bridges over the river Río Tormes again: both Puente de Enrique Estevan and Puente Romano. Next to the Roman bridge there is a statue of a verraco (ancient Celtic sculpture) Verraco del Puente Romano, which is supposed to have been there since the 16th century. A bit to the side, there is yet another literary monument, which represents the book El Lazarillo de Tormes, Lazarillo being the word for “guide dog (for the blind)” in Spanish (such an eye-seeing dog). Also written in the 16th century, it is considered another of the peak writings in Spanish, telling the story of a young lad who learns to survive by gathering street-smarts and shedding off any morals he ever had, finally settling in Salamanca with his unfaithful wife: Monumento al Lazarillo de Tormes.

Collage. The historical bridges in Salamanca: the Roman one, made from stone with wide archs, and the iron-architecture one, in greyish-green. Sculptures: Lazarillo with his master, and a prehistoric bull or pig, with a flat head

Then we found a very air-conditioned and interesting place – the automobile museum Museo de la Historia de la Automoción (which reminded me a little of the Megaweb Toyota City Showcase and History Garage in Tokyo). It has a lot of classic cars, and some historical pieces such as vehicles that belonged to dictator Francisco Franco or the writer Camilo José Cela (and air-con).

A collage of some cars: A Rolls-Royce, a Ferrari, a Wolkswagen 600; and a Harley-Davidso

I had then booked myself an evening visit around sunset time, to go up the towers of the cathedral, an experience called Ieronimus, with the hope to see some cool sunset and night views. It makes sense, right? Wrong. I should have realised when it turned out to be a guided visit that most of it would be inside, listening to the guy fanboy his own city – then he started speaking about the Lisbon earthquake and its effects in Salamanca and gave out wrong information. I stopped listening to him at that point. There was a light/music show in the cathedral, and I did get some neat pictures, but honestly? The choir concert in the old cathedral would have been a much better choice, had we known about it.

Views of Salamanca at night, with the gothic architecture highlighted by the illumination. The city looks Romantic and mysterious.

Walking distance: 13017 steps / 8.00 km

23rd July 2022: Plateresque Salamanca {Salamanca, July 2022}

Officially in western Spain, Salamanca stands next to the Tormes river and sports a UNESCO World Heritage title for its old town. I was five or six the first time I was there, so it’s not like I remembered anything from it, except memorising excerpts from the book El Estudiante de Salamanca (José de Espronceda), my favourite Spanish Romantic poet.

Salamanca is known due to its university, which is considered one of the best in the teaching of Spanish as a second language, the oldest Spanish university and one of the oldest in Europe, founded in 1218. There are actually two universities, but we shall get to that later.

There is a period in Spanish history referred to as the Gold Century, Siglo de Oro (Not an actual century, the given dates are between 1492 – the year when the Catholic monarchs finished conquering the country, Europeans realised America existed, and the first book on Spanish grammar was published – and 1659 – when the Pyrenees treaty was signed after the war with France). It was throughout this period when Salamanca thrived, especially late-time Gothic styles and early Renaissance ones. Then of course Baroque later on, but you know my stance on Baroque by now I guess… The mixture of late-gothic and Renaissance gave way to a unique style, Plateresque – with a strong Gothic base and a blend of Mudéjar, Flamboyant Gothic, Lombard and Tuscan Renaissance elements and decorations. Plateresque is characterised by heavy decorations sculpted onto the main architecture, especially in the typical fusion of doors and altarpieces. The motifs are plants, animals, shields and medallions… All and all, an impressive style considering we are talking about carving stuff on stone – in the case of Salamanca, a lot of it is sandstone, which gives the old city a golden tone.

We had to take a couple of trains, but and made it to Salamanca around 10:30, and were in the city centre a few minutes later. After dropping the luggage at the hotel – I had been requested the hotel to be near the cathedral and I found one which was literally across the street from one of the flanks. Then again, here’s the thing – Salamanca has not one but two cathedrals: the Old Cathedral Catedral Vieja de Santa María and the New Cathedral Catedral Nueva de la Asunción de la Virgen. Apparently, instead of building over the old one, they decided to keep both, making the historical complex unique in the country.

The New Cathedral was built mainly in Gothic style with later Baroque add-ons, with an ornate Plateresque façade. It was commissioned by king Ferdinand V of Castile, and built between the 16th and 18th century, in the Gothic style, even though this was at time when Gothic was already in decline. However, the town authorities wanted it to “match” the old Romanesque cathedral. A cupola and a choir were added in the Baroque period, and the façades were decorated in the Plateresque way (in a 20th-century restoration, someone thought it would be funny to add an astronaut to the decoration, causing some hoaxes to pop up afterwards). The most important architect who worked in the new cathedral was José de Churriguera, one of the leading Baroque architects / sculptors / urbanists.

A very ornate Gothic cathedral. The entrance has so many carvings that it actually looks organic, if not for the fact that it is made out of golden / reddish stone

The New Cathedral connects to the old Cathedral, which is late Romanesque / early Gothic in style (I know, it’s confusing. Historically, the old cathedral is between Romanesque and Gothic, and the new one between Gothic and Renaissance – and this is the reason why the Gothic makes the two cathedral “match”). It was built between the 12th and 14th centuries. The most impressive thing in the Old Cathedral is the altarpiece, in which the highest-quality paintings were made by the Italian Dello Delli. On the way out, I let myself be tempted by a paper guidebook of the city – which was helpful because we had to remake all of our plans a couple of times.

Interior of a Romanesque church - the nave has very high and severe-seeming columns

Afterwards, we headed off to the main university building Universidad de Salamanca, the first university building. The university was founded by King Alfonso XI in 1218, which makes it the oldest university in the whole Spanish-speaking world. The most important building today is the Escuelas Mayores, the upper school, built between 1411 and 1533. The façade, which looks towards the newly-discovered New World is sculpted in the Plateresque style, with a ton of decoration – and the most famous motif is the frog that stands on top of a skull. The university was built around a cloister for the students of old, and it has the most amazing library I have seen in a long while – selfishly (I’m joking of course) closed to the public. There is also a chapel and the classroom where the Spanish academic Fray Luis de León, who was famously jailed for four years, and picked up his lectures with “as we were saying yesterday”. The cloister has two floors since the 19th century, and in the centre there is a small giant sequoia (which I thought was a simple fir). There are chapels, and halls, and areas where university holds events.

Very ornate entrance to a building. there are two doors (four or five times as tall as a person) and the decoration, all carved in stone, is on top. Three floors of decoration, with columns and shields. A close-up shows a frog on top of a skull.

The problem with Salamanca is that the entries and exits of the building make you have to backtrack a lot (and the horrible street lights), but I love Gothic so I did not mind wandering around anyway. After the Escuelas Mayores, we went to another university building the lesser school or Escuelas Menores. Today, there is a cloister which dates from 1428 with a Baroque upper veranda. In one of the side halls there is a fresco panting that used to be in the library and that was moved over in 1950. The fresco represents a night sky was used in teaching.

Gothic patio and a suck picture of a fresco painting, showing stars and the representation of constellations

We had lunch, then we went to the Dominican monastery Convento de San Esteban and its church. The current monastery dates from 1524-1610, and it was built over the previous one. The façade of the church is considered the best example of Plateresque, and José de Churriguera also worked in the main altarpiece. The monastic building has a portico with Italian loggias, typical of the Renaissance. The cloister is mainly Renaissance with Gothic features, and a small temple in the middle. The ambulatory in the cloister has beautiful Gothic columns and nerves on the ceiling.

A convent, built in ornate gotic style. The covered corridor around the cloister shows pointed arches and rich decorations

Right in front of the monastery stands the Dominican convent Convento de las Dueñas. The building is Baroque, and before being a convent it used to be a palace – which has caused the convent to have some eclectic elements of architecture, such as the Mudéjar arch mosaic or doors. The inner cloister is Plateresque and full of roses and flowers.

A Baroque building. The inner patio is decorated with plants and Moorish-seeming blinded arches

Next, we found the tiny Romanesque church Iglesia de Santo Tomás Cantuariense, where I happily sicced the oh-so-bored guide onto my companion.

Small Romanesque church in reddish-gold stone. It has a tiny bell tower.

After a stop for a cold drink we went to the Art Nouveau and Art Déco Museum Museo de Art Nouveau y Art Déco Casa Lis, which is one of those places that takes itself very seriously and does not allow photographs. I got scolded for having my camera to my side even closed – but I have to admit that I did sneak up a few things with the phone, mostly because I wanted a record of the central hall with the glass ceiling, and the green windows from the inside, more than the decorative details, though some of them were pretty nice. The Lis house was built by Andalusian architect Joaquín de Vargas towards the end of the 19th century for the first owner, Miguel de Lis.

A Modernist building with brightly-coloured glass in the ceiling and walls.

We headed to the main square Plaza Mayor for dinner, and then to see the pretty lights. On the way we found the other university Universidad Pontificia and the palace Casa de las Conchas, which we would visit the following day.

The main square was another of the city landmarks first designed by Alberto Churriguera, and later one of his nephews – it seems that the Churriguera family claimed dibs on doing stuff in Salamanca. The square is fantastic by day but when night fell and the lights were turned on, it was unbelievable. We had some local sausages and cheese for dinner at one of the street tables in the square.

A plate of sausages and cheese, and two views of the Main Square in Salamanca, one in daylight, one at night, and lit up. The square buildings have a lot of windows and arches on the ground floor

Afterwards, I wandered alone for a while, to revisit some of the sights at night, and a couple of new ones.

Salamanca at night. The cathedral is lit and the ornamets almost shine. The Modernist house is lit in green and blue lights.

I headed off to the riverside of Río Tormes, which as any river has bridges. The first one I found is the Puente de Enrique Estevan, commissioned in 1891 in order for the town to be ready for the new cars. It has six iron arches and at night it is lit in bluish light. A few minutes downstream stands the older stone bridge Puente Romano, which according to the legend was built by Hercules – it dates back to the first century, but it has been heavily rebuilt and reconstructed through the years, especially after it was damaged by a flood in the 17th century.

A collage showing an iron bridge, and a stone bridge, both lit in the dark

Finally, around midnight, I went back to the hotel for a shower and sleep.

Walking distance: 17269 steps / 10.76 km

10th July 2022: Reservoirs (Buendía & Entrepeñas, Spain)

I tried going for a hike because I was feeling cooped up, and tried to make the most out of the draught Spain is going through. The centre of Spain is sprinkled with large reservoirs, a lot of them built during Franco’s dictatorship as part of the efforts to get the country to recover from the war. The reservoir Embalse de Buendía is fed by the river Guadiela and it was finished in the year 1958. Before that, there used to be a bathing complex used by the royals, along with a village there. I have wanted to get there for a while, but it is tricky because the trail is reported to be in bad condition. So I decided to walk down the trail Camino de La Isabela to gauge whether my small city car would make it. Thus, think about this as a recognisance mission.

I parked the car at the beginning of the trail around 8:10 in the morning and started walking. I saw a small lizard which had shed off its tail, and some footprints – birds, canid, and I’m pretty sure a deer.

Close-up of a brown lizard which is growing its tail back.

Collage of animal footprints: paws, tallons and hooves

The temperature was nice at that time and I walked for about an hour until I got to the shore of the reservoir, then another 20 minutes or so until I got to see the derelict settlement. The water was still too high so I decided not to walk there.

A view of the reservoir. The sun is shining and there are some green / yellow plants ashore.

The reservoir. On one of the inlets you can guess the ruins, along with some columns that peek over the water.

I just hung out at the shore and found a bunch of dragonflies (I think Sympetrum fonscolombii red-veined darters (female and male)). Then I started walking back, because the temperature was rising fast.

A yellow and a red dragonfly.

I made it back to the car around 11:00 and drove off towards a second reservoir in the area, Embalse de Entrepeñas. I have driven by more than a few times, and I would always be drawn to a little side road that seemed to overlook the reservoir. It is actually the beginning of a hiking trail, but it was already too hot to keep going. Instead, I peered around the actual dam and hydroelectric station.

A white-grey dam closes the reservoir. There are trees in the foregrond and the water looks almost turquoise.

The electricity power-plant that is fed by the water behind the dam. There are a lot of wires coming out at different heights.

It was too hot to do anything, the beginning of the heat wave, so I just drove off and made a stop to see some friends on the way. I’ll keep an eye on the water level of the reservoir Embalse de Buendía in case I can come back to the area, now that I’ve figured out how far I can reach with the car.

Walking distance: 16846 steps / 11.76 km

27th June 2022: One unexpected Aquarium visit. Zaragoza (Spain)

Because life is strange sometimes, I found myself travelling to Zaragoza in a super-slow train that took three and a half hours (while the high-speed train takes around one hour). It was somewhat of an emergency so we had to leave on Sunday in the late afternoon, and came back on Monday. We booked a hotel next to the station, one that had been built for the Expo 2008, and it goes without saying that the hotel had indeed seen better times.

My company was not required on Monday morning, so I walked towards the area that had been the Expo’08. I crossed river Ebro using the bridge Puente del Tercer Milenio, the longest concrete bow-string bridge in the world, designed by architect Juan José Arenas de Pablo.

Several views of Zaragoza's Millenium Bridge. It is white, arched in form, and the middle is held by a zigzag of wiring.

The north wind was blowing and it was a bit uncomfortable. Furthermore, the area where the Expo used to be was creepy. A lot of it was abandoned and / or fenced off, and even if they had tried to make it a park it just looked derelict and forsaken.

A collage of the parks, buildings and decorations from the former Expo 98. Everything looks derelict, with dry weeds growing where there used to be fountains. Interestingly, no windows are broken.

I looked over at the river Río Ebro. To both sides there were bridges – Pasarela del Voluntariado to the downstream to the left, and Pabellón Puente upstream to the right.

A panoramic from the river bank. There is a bird flying, the sky is blue and there are several clouds

Then I went to the river aquarium Acuario de Zaragoza, which prides itself in being the largest freshwater aquarium in Europe.

The aquarium is divided in five areas or rivers, organised surrounding a central freshwater tank called “World River”, where there are no sharks, but there are several arapaima (Arapaima gigas), one of the largest freshwater species of fish, up to 2 metres long.

Huge Amazonian fish swimming about.

The first river is the Nile (Egypt). It included (obviously) a bunch of fish, a couple of Nile crocodiles (Crocodylus niloticus), a Nile monitor lizard (Varanus niloticus, which had somehow by the way figured out that it lived in an enclosure with a sliding door and… was trying to get it open), a couple of lungfish, perches…

Collage: a Nile monitor lizard, Nile crocodiles chilling, and colourful fish.

The second river is the Mekong (China), which is known for its giant fish – as a matter of fact, the largest freshwater fish ever was recently found there. There are also an insane amount of catfish – in the river, the aquarium has them under control. The most interesting thing about the Mekong is the freshwater rays.

Collage: Big orange-and-red fish, and a freshwater ray, which is black with white spots. It looks a bit like a pan.

The third river is the Amazon (Brazil), which is the largest river ever, so there are three separate areas – the blackwater-flooded forest or Igapó, the forest itself, and the mangrove. The displays included Knysna turaco (Tauraco corythaix), which is the “only true red and green bird”, green iguana (Iguana iguana), catfish, red-bellied piranha (Pygocentrus nattereri), electric eels (Electrophorus electricus), anaconda (Eunectes notaeus).

Collage: black and white fish with whiskers, a green and blue bird silendly judging the photographer, brightly-coloured fish and something that looks like a rock but it's actually a weird turtle.

Then there is the Darling-Murray river (Australia), which must be saltier than I had expected, because apparently clownfish (Amphiprion ocellaris) and anemone (Entacmaea quadricolor) packs, and seahorses, along Pearl arowanas (Scleropages jardinii), tree frogs (Litoria caerulea), and the supercute (I think it was a) nobbi dragon (Diporiphora nobbi)…

Collage: A lizard, quite unamused; a clown fish hiding behind an anemone

Finally, there’s the Ebro river, the local one. There are the endemic barbs (“barbo de Graells” Luciobarbus graellsii), the local otter (Lutra lutra) and sturgeons (Acipenser sp.).

Collage: a turtle, an edible fish, and a blurry otter that would not stay still for a picture

Throughout the whole run there are hundreds of turtles – the aquarium runs a turtle rescue scheme in order to get abandoned pet turtles out from the rivers, mostly the pond slider (Trachemys scripta).

I saw some of the old Expo’08 mascot, and some people diving in the central tank – I don’t think I’d go into a tank with the arapaima, even if they were swimming near when I was feeding the manatee in Faunia. There were also some animals that had been rescued from illegal trade and donated to the aquarium.

After the aquarium, there was only coming back in yet another train that took over three hours. It was the weirdest trip I have ever taken…

31st May 2022: Anaga {Tenerife, birthday 2022}

I got up on the early side as I had booked breakfast at 8:00. I was surprisingly not hungry, even if I had not finished dinner the previous evening. My plane was a little before 17:00 and I had to return the car at 13:30 (I must have messed up the time, because I was convinced I had chosen 14:30). however, there was still one spot in the island I wanted to check out – the Nature Reserve Parque Rural de Anaga, in the north of the island and about half an hour’s drive away from the airport. This is a mountain area covered in primitive subtropical moist broadleaf forests, called laurisilva canaria. The mountain range is the oldest part of the island of Tenerife.

During the Tertiary Period, the whole Mediterranean area was covered in forests which had wide, dark leaves. They disappeared with the glacial era that started with the Quaternary. The forest has not changed nor evolved with time, so it has remained as it was 40 million years ago. It was preserved in several humid areas due to the wind patterns while the continents dried out and deserts opened. Sometimes, these forests are called laurel forests, as laurel (Laurus novocanariensis) is one of the typical plants. There are other trees as tils (Ocotea foetens), bushes, vines, ferns and mosses.

I drove around two hours to get from the Parador to Anaga, and was lucky to snatch one of the last parking spots. I asked at the visitor’s centre about a route that was not too long and I was recommended a two-hour one, called Bosque de los Enigmas, the Enigma Forest.

The beginning of it was really cool. The tils and the laurels twisted almost magically and I was alone on the path. I saw some birds, though capturing them on camera was hard, possibly a grey wagtail (Motacilla cinerea) and a female blackbird (Turdus merula; which is not really black). Aside from being a nature reserve, Anaga is also a bird protection area.

A path into the primitive forest. The trees curve over and around the trail, and everything is dark

A shot up a tree, the trunk is covered in moss

An old waterway or river bed turned into a path. There are walls of dirt to the side, and the roots of the trees are showing

Collage: a grey fluffy bird looking at the camera, and a black one with its back turned, completely ignoring it.

At some point, unfortunately, I lost the trail. I reached the viewpoint Mirador de Zapata going in the wrong direction. Though the weather was very appropriate for an evergreen subtropical forest, this meant that I could either backtrack, or go along the road for a while. I decided on the side of the road as that way I knew how long I would take to reach the parking lot.

A view of the tree tops from above. In the backgrond, partially obscured by the thick fog, there is a village, and the sea is beyond it.

I eventually reached the beginning of the trail again and I had not been run over a car, which was a plus, and before leaving I could look over a second viewpoint Mirador de la Cruz del Carmen, which offers a peek onto the whole massif.

Traces of water runoff paths, which have eroded the soil and torn some trees down

A view of the tree tops from above. In the backgrond, partially obscured by the thick fog, there is a village, and volcanic mountains beyond it.

After this, I drove back to the airport to turn back the car and have some lunch. I had hoped that the smaller airport would be less strict than one of the big hubs, but it turned out they were even more vigilant. So off with the shoes again. We took off at the brink of time, landed at the expected hour… and on the way back home got caught in an hour-long double traffic jam. Ho boy!

All in all, nothing really went according to plan, even if the plans were just a draft. But all in all I had a good time and got to spend some time with myself, which I desperately needed. So yay luckiest unlucky trip ever!