13th September 2022: Wadi Rum (and the bus) {Jordan, September 2022}

I had a boiled egg, potato hash-browns and coffee breakfast because my body was craving salt, I guess. Then we set off on the bus, where we ended up spending around seven hours (the 412 km are supposed to be done in 5 hours and a half, but that does not take into account bad traffic). Urgh. Our first stop was a viewpoint over the whole canyon area.

Wadi Musa valley panorama, showing the deep gorge from above (by JBinnacle)

The second stop was a souvenir shop that had probably somehow bribed our guide or driver for it. None of us even bought anything, but we were forced to be there for about half an hour before we could continue to the only organised activity for the day – a two-hour jeep tour throughout the Natural Reserve and UNESCO World Heritage site of Wadi Rum | Wādī Ramm [وادي رم]. It is the largest wadi “valley”, created by alluvial fans and wind deposits, rather than the idea of a river bed. They are often found in deserts.

During the tour in Wadi Rum Reserve [محمية وادي رم] we drove through the desert and stopped at some rock formations that had built a gigantic dune. Wadi Rum used to be a granite and sandstone rocky formation. Thousands of years worth of wind eroded the sandstone back to sand, forming and shaping the desert dunes. Huge granite structures still stand, such as the Seven Pillars of Wisdom [عمدة الحكمة السبعة], just at the beginning of the route. One of the stops is the tourist-named Big Red Sand Dune, which you can climb for kicks, giggles and some nice views of the landscape.

Driving into Wadi Rum. The roof of the jeep is visible, along with a rock formation in the background. Between us and the rock formation there is the other jeep, causing a dust cloud (by JBinnacle)

Back of a dune we had to climb, and the rock + sand landscape that could be seen from the top. Wind erosion marks have created soft ridges. The rocks are red-grey and the sand is rose-gold (by JBinnacle)

Then we drove off to see some petroglyphs, and were offered dromedary rides. These petroglyphs, depicting early humans and their cattle – bovines and dromedaries – are the reason for the Heritage status.

A rock wall with some dromedaries in the foreground + a close up of the petroglyphs engraved in the rock, also showing dromedaries (by JBinnacle)

Finally we were shown a Bedouin tent at the feet of the Lawrence Canyon, a beautiful rock formation with faces of Jordan monarchs. Unfortunately, we did not get to see any onyx or fennec foxes, but I did see a small lizard. The Bedouins treated us to a cup of tea, but then we had to tip the driver about 10€…

Lawrence Canyon, a deep cut in the rock filled with sand at the bottom + details of engraved faces and Arab script, a lizard and a bit of tea, along with a traditional Bedouin coffee maker (by JBinnacle)

Afterwards, we started off our trip back northwards back to Amman | ʻAmmān [عَمَّان]. Though the trip is supposed to take about 4 hours, it was way more than that, and we did not arrive at the hotel until way past 18:00. We went through the security checks and ended up learning that we could not travel between floors, so we could not go to the others’ rooms using the lifts, and the stairs were blocked… Well, at least we had… views?

A view of Amman skyline in the dark (by JBinnacle)

After we managed to regroup, we had dinner and decided to try to check in online for the flight next day’s flight – and I was successful. Apparently, the airline only cared about us filling in our Covid certificate to enter Jordan, we were on our own for the way back.

11th August 2022: 21 hours straight of ups and downs in London {England, August 2022}

The first thing I had to do was waking up for a 6:30 flight – though considering I did not sleep very much that night due to the heat, I’m not sure if that it counts as waking up. The previous day, the airline had sent warning emails about arriving at the airport early – three hours before the flight would have meant being there at 3:30, so… not really. I arrived at the airport around 5:10, and I was at the gate by… 5:20, I’m not even kidding. While I normally do not queue to enter planes – the advantages of backpacks, I just kick them under the seat – I had been assigned seat 1A, which meant I had to put my luggage into the overhead compartment. I had decided to take a small backpack too, because I would be carrying it around for a while, and it would get searched in a couple of places.

Surprisingly, despite Brexit, the Ryanair strikes, airport chaos, and the fact that apparently the automatic passport reader cannot cope with my new look, I made it into the United Kingdom first and straight to London without a glitch. Not only that, I managed to get my Oyster recharged without any problems, and as soon as I had bought some food, I was on my way to the first stop of the day: Crystal Palace Park, for which I got to ride the shiny new underground line, the Elizabeth Line, then the Overground. Even though there are another couple of landmarks (that might warrant a visit when / if the restoration project finally goes through), what interested me in Crystal Palace was a collection of Victorian sculptures – the Crystal Palace Dinosaurs.

Though Ancient Greek already knew about fossils before the current era, it was in the 19th century when it hatched as a “science”, according to some spurred by Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species”. Fossil hunters ran amok, excavating and spoiling the North American badlands. In England itself, Mary Anning kept discovering cool things. There was a sort of a “Dinosaur fever” – the Victorians became fascinated with all things prehistoric. In 1852, a number of extinct animal reconstructions were commissioned to be erected in the gardens of the Crystal Palace, after the World Exhibition. Using the knowledge available at the time, Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkings, a natural history illustrator and sculptor, who did his best according to scientific knowledge at the time.

Not all the animals represented are real dinosaurs, but the nickname stuck. From today’s standards, most of the reproductions are extremely inaccurate, with some exceptions, such as the ichthyosaur (discovered by Mary Anning around 1811), and the plesiosaur (of which Mary Anning also found a skeleton in 1823, and then another in 1830 – I love that woman). Today, the park is organised in several “islands” where you can see the sculptures, though the water was a bit down due to the heatwaves:

  • Amphibians and therapsids: Dicynodon and Labyrinthodon
  • Marine reptiles: Ichthyosaur, Mosasaurus, Plesiosaur and Teleosaurus
  • Dinosaurs and pterosaurs: Hylaeosaurus, Iguanodon, Megalosaurus and Pterosaur
  • Mammals: Palaeotherium, Anoplotherium, Megaloceros and Megatherium

I have been aware of these sculptures for a long time – since I was a child and started liking dinosaurs. However, only recently did I find out that they really existed, and where they were. I arrived at Crystal Palace station a little after ten (making whole travel from the airport about two hours). I walked by a small farm with typical fauna such as… an alpaca, then I ate my sandwich overseeing the first island.

A collage showing differet statues of prehistoric creatures. Some try to be dinosaurs, and they look almost comically wrong, like giant iguanas or chameleons. There is one plesiosaurus looking rather acurate - it has a long neck and flipers. Finally, some mammals: a deer with huge antlers and a tiny horse-looking creature

I walked around for about an hour and then I set on my way back. Though I had planned to have a relaxed day at first, I had to adjust due to cancellations and train strikes. It was around that time that I calculated that I could actually cram my original Thursday and Saturday plans onto Thursday, plus the alternative plans I had made if I tweaked the time a little. So I back-rode for another hour towards the city.

Near Tower Hill stands the Sky Garden, on the 35th floor of the 20 Fenchurch Street building, designed by Rafael Viñoly. Sky Garden is considered the highest garden in London, and a fantastic viewpoint of the city. I almost accidentally came across the option to book a free access ticket for this – while I had not wanted to pay for any morning / early afternoon activities in case my plane was delayed, I figured out that I could book this for free, especially as they go stupidly fast! I made my 12:30 timeslot with a few minutes to spare, but I was let in after a queue, ID check, X rays and metal detection.

The Sky Garden features two terraces full of plants (landscaped by Gillespies), a couple of restaurants and bars, and an “open” gallery which has glass above your head so the feeling of opening dissipates – the glass is stained and scratched. It was one of the “must-do’s” in London I had never visited before, so I thought it would be a good opportunity. Fortunately, they have relaxed the rules on no bottles because of the unusual high temperatures.

After wandering around for a bit, I continued onto Saint Dunstan in the East Church Garden, the ruins of an old Wren church destroyed by The Great Fire of London and destroyed again during the Blitz (World War II bombings). Dating back to the 1100s, it was opened as a public park in 1970. Aside from being a very cute building park I wanted to see for a while, a music video by the band VAMPS was filmed there.

Ruins of a gothic church turned garden, with hanging ivy and bushes overgrowing the walls and windows

As it was lunchtime, the park was bustling with people, so I just had to move on rather quickly, and went back to the underground to get to the area of Westminster. I had originally booked tickets for Saturday (back in May) but then they were cancelled due to “repair work” going on that day (I do wonder if it was a security measure related to the strikes though).

But of course, first I feasted my eyes on the very new Elizabeth Tower clock tower aka Big Ben – though Big Ben is one of the bells in the tower, but nobody really cares about that any more.

Elizabeth Tower, shining gold with the restoration. It almost looks fake. The clock marks Quarter to two.

The Palace of Westminster or Houses of Parliament is the centre of the United Kingdom’s turbulent political life. The current palace was built after the previous one was destroyed by a fire in 1834. The new palace was erected in the Neo-Gothic style, and it was mostly finished by 1860, although it did open to be used in 1835. There was a competition regarding the design, which was won by sir Charles Barry. The Palace of Westminster holds the two chambers where the British government meets – the House of Lords and the House of Commons – alongside the Norman Porch, St. Stephen’s chapel, and the different corridors where the MPs vote or discuss state matters. I’ll forever be amused that “for security reasons, photography is not permitted in these chambers with dozens of cameras for TV broadcasting and Internet streaming”, but alas. The woodwork on the Norman Porch ceiling is fantastic, and some of the decoration choices, such as Churchill’s sculpture are… interesting. It is noteworthy that it is part of the UNESCO Heritage Site “Palace of Westminster, Westminster Abbey and St Margaret’s Church”.

Collage: a view of the houses of parliament (London), with the Elizabeth Tower on the left. Two shots of the Norman Hall, a huge ward with an intrincate design of wooden ceiling. A gothic corridor with a wooden door and some coloured glass panels

Afterwards, I just found my way to the hotel – though I had to wander a little to find the nearby supermarket, bugger those never-ending attached-house neighbourhoods, rested for a little and then went to the station to go to the theatre – I wanted some extra time to check out where my airport coach would leave, so I gave myself 45 minutes for a 22-minute trip. It turns out there was train trouble and I was barely on time, taking an alternative route instead of the direct one.

When I realised my flight timing would give a free evening in London, I booked tickets for the Apollo Victoria Theatre to watch the “Wicked”. This musical tells the story of “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” from the point of view of the witches, and somehow gives the “Wicked Witch from the West”, Elphaba, an amazing personality and backstory that resonates a lot with me. For the same price as the ticket I was eyeing back in the day, I found a VIP upgrade just one seat over, so I was entitled to a drink and “snacks”, an early entry, along with access to the “Ambassador Lounge”, a tiny reception hall with access to a private restroom.

“Wicked” was great. The actress who plays the main character, Elphaba (Lucie Jones) came out a little yelly though in her solos. The duets with the other female singer (Glinda, Helen Woolf) were fantastic, and the male love interest’s (Fiyero, Ryan Reid) song was absolutely great, even though he is a character I have never cared for.

Apollo Victoria Theatre: the inner theatre, showing a dragon and a closed curtain showing a map of Oz. The outer theatre: there is a sign reading Apollo Victoria Wicked, and everything is lit green. The VIP lounge, with a glass of soda, and some chairs. The cast at the end of the show, taking their goodbye bows.

By the time I was out, the trains were running again, and one-to-three-minute delay on a line that runs every five minutes or so, and I was at the hotel by 23:00, absolutely beat. The room was extremely hot, because London is absolutely not ready for heat, so I had a snack in front of the fan, took a shower and then got some sleep – 21 hours on the go were over. Funnily enough, by the time I went to bed, I had that wobbly-world jet-lag feeling I have after my first day in Japan. It must have been the barely sleeping the night before. I fell asleep very fast.

Walking distance: 30.52 km / 46192 steps

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

18th – 20th February 2022: Extremadura, the not-at-all-wild west of Spain

With everything that keeps going on in the world, my little travel gig seems insignificant. Here it is, anyway, for the sake of completion.

18th February 2022: Jam and Ham

After a crazy crazy period, and within a just-slightly-less-crazy period, we made space for a mini escapade – just under 48 hours, but it was an interesting mental reset. We took the car and drove off to Cáceres after I finished work in the afternoon. The trip should have taken a little over 3 hours and 15 minutes, but we spent about 70 minutes caught in several traffic jams – or just a very long jam with different instalments.

Sunset from the road. The orange light zigzags through the grey and blue clouds

Cáceres is located in the autonomous community of Extremadura, which is famous because of its particular grassland with dwarf trees called a dehesa. The typical animal farmed in the area is the native Black Iberian pig – a traditional breed of the domestic pig (Sus scrofa domesticus). Through breeding with wild boars and millennia of adaptation, the Iberian pig has grown accustomed to eating oak acorns, and thus it has become a key part of the ecosystem. Furthermore, the breed has great tendency to accumulate intra-muscular fat. This means that its meat is delicious, especially as sausage. The most famous treat is the “Black label” (Etiqueta Negra or Dehesa de Extremadura) ham: a pig raised in the dehesa, fed acorns and natural grass, and whose meat has been cured for at least 20 months.

The area of Cáceres is also known for its sheep-milk cheese, Torta del Casar. It is a strong-flavoured creamy cheese that comes from controlled sheep, also raised in the dehesa. The cheese is especially curded with rennet made from cardoon (Cynara cardunculus). Another typical food from the area is the local paprika Pimentón de la Vera, which is made from smoked local red peppers. All three – ham, cheese and paprika – hold European Protected Designation of Origin certificates.

Of course, not everything is food in Cáceres. After we checked into our hotel near the historical centre, we headed off to the Main Square Plaza Mayor de Cáceres, which features the town hall, the former wall gate called Arco de la Estrella (Star Arch), and one of the watch towers Torre de Bujaco.

The medieval square of Caceres by night. It looks like a castle, with arches, battlements. The sky is completely black.

We found a place inside to grab a bite, and we tried the sausages for dinner before turning in – acorn-fed pork ham, loin, chorizo, morcón (similar to chorizo), salchichón, and patatera (pork mixed with potato and paprika in sausage form).

A plate of sausage slices and ham

Walked distance: 1.79 km (2838 steps)

19th February 2022: The Old Town of Cáceres

The Old or Walled Town of Cáceres, Ciudad Vieja de Cáceres was declared a UNESCO Heritage Site in 1986, and it is easy to see why. It is a small knot of streets between the ancient city walls and the gorge where cars can barely drive, sprinkled with Medieval and Renaissance palaces and manors. After finding an open café, we had breakfast, then headed off to explore that. Since it was a bit before 9 am, most everything was closed – but it was also empty, which was good. We crossed the Arco de la Estrella next to the Torre de Bujaco and walked into the walled area.

The medieval square of Caceres by daylight. It looks like a castle, with arches, battlements, and irregular bricks making up the walls.

We walked past the co-cathedral – to which we would come back later and several palaces, and we ended up at a two-level square called Plaza de San Jorge (St. George Square), towered over by the peculiar-looking church Iglesia de San Francisco Javier – note the white-painted towers.

A church with two twin bell towers, both in white. Between them, the body of the church, in grey rock. In order to access it, you have to climb a staircase, which has a small sculpture of St George attacking the dragon

There was a small palace to the left, and while the building was closed off, the gardens Jardines de Doña Cristina de Ulloa were open, albeit as it was early February, still in winter mode but for some berries and roses.

Wintery garden with bare tree. There are also evergreen bushes and trees, stairs, and benches.

We wandered around for a while, the headed off to a visit we had booked in advance – the manor / palace of the Lower Golfines Palacio de los Golfines de Abajo, which has nothing to do with their position in the social scale, but literally the position within the city hill – in the lower part. The family is known to have owned the palace from the time of the Catholic Monarchs, in the 15th century, till the death of the last descendant in 2012. This woman willed all the heirloom to a foundation that today manages the palace. The foundation got the palace renovated and brought some of the furniture from other properties belonging to the family – among them a glass lamp way too big for the room it was set in, and a sofa which was identical to the one that used to be in my great-aunt’s living room… The lower floor holds the recreated rooms – with more or less success and taste – and a smaller area decorated with Medieval paintings which were discovered by accident. The upper floor holds a small ethnography museum and some documents from the family’s library. Unfortunately, the foundation takes itself a little too seriously and won’t allow you to roam freely in the palace or take pictures, except for the inner Castilian patio.

Gothic palace, with an ornate roof and a small cloister or patio.

After the palace, we walked a whole minute and a half for the co-cathedral Santa Iglesia Concatedral de Santa María. It is the oldest church in town, built around the 15th century, in a Romanesque-going-Gothic style. Outside the church, at the base of the tower, there is a sculpture of Saint Peter of Alcántara. Inside, the altarpiece was carved between 1547 and 1551, in unpainted pine and cedar. The tower can be climbed, and I decided that I wanted to do that, despite not being what I usually do. It was empty enough that I felt comfortable doing so, and I was treated to some nice views.

Collage: a gothic church with a bell tower; the inside showing a bare-wood altarpiece; the sea of columns from above, and a view from the belltower, showing another church and the roofs of some low houses.

By the time we went out, the city had already been taken over by walking tours and guided visits. There were so many companies that the guides put stickers on their tourists so they could herd them round. We backtracked to the Baroque church with the white towers Iglesia de San Francisco Javier (also known as Iglesia de la Preciosa Sangre), where there is no worship today. Instead, there is a huge collection of nativities (hundreds of them, literally). In order to visit the nativities you have to go up a perilous metal staircase. Once on the second floor – after having survived the peril – I decided to continue on the relatively safer stone staircase to one of the towers – only one, I did not climb up both of them. The lower floor holds two last nativities, a classical one and a hilarious set up made out of Playmobil, a German company that makes plastic figure toys.

Collage: The interior of a church with a baroque golden altarpiece, and a collection of Nativities.

We moved onto the following manor, to the side of the square, Casa Palacio Becerra, which shows some antique elements, and the house structure.

Inside a Renaissance palace, with a low arch, a glass lamp and a red carpet that try to look eclectic and end up looking bizarre

Later, we walked to Stork Square Plaza de las Cigüeñas. European white storks (Ciconia ciconia ciconia) are typical birds in Extremadura, and one wonders how they have not decided to make food out of them. In the tower stands one of the few towers that has kept its merlons, as the Catholic Monarchs were very into tearing tower tops down when they conquered a site. The adjacent manor, Casa de las Cigüeñas, hosts the military museum Museo de Armas Aula Militar.

A building with a tower. The inside is a museum, and there are some swords, firearms and Moorish decoration

At the end of the square, in yet another palace – two of them, actually – lies the Museo de Cáceres, the local museum. The part in the Casa de Las Veletasis a regular archaeological museum, with the kind of things you would expect – prehistoric, Roman and Celtic remains, more modern artefacts. The other area, Casa de Los Caballos, hosts the modern art gallery.

Gothic building turned into a museum. The pieces shown are funerary stelae, prehistoric animal representations - bulls or pigs - and jewells, a boat, and Roman emblems

However, the palace was erected on top of the local Arab cistern or aljibe. It is the best preserved in Spain and it has been gathering the rainfall water since the 10th century. Pretty impressive piece of engineering if you ask me.

The aljibe: a moorish basement filled with water. The columns sustain horseshoe shaped arches

Afterwards we still had some time to kill until it was time for lunch, so we wandered around the area of the Jewish quarters or Judería, under the watchful gaze of the local Cerberus.

Narrow streets, and a guarding dog looking suspicious

We had lunch in the local Parador de Cáceres, so I of course got my stamp. As a started we ordered the famous local cheese Torta del Casar cheese.

A tray with bread slices and breadsticks, and a cream cheese with spoons to be spread on the bread

In the afternoon we had a look at another church Iglesia de Santiago de los Caballeros. The church of St. James of the Knights was built in the 14th century over an older temple dating back from the 12th century. The altarpiece was carved and coloured by one of the most important sculptors of the Spanish Mannerism, Alonso Berruguete (1490 – 1561). This time I did not climb the tower – which had been happily colonised by a couple of storks.

Gothic church with a golden altarpiece. A stork snoozes on one of the towers.

After a little while, after sunset, I decided to skid around and have a walk through the old city at night. The artificial light made it look eery and romantic in the most… historical sense of the word. I came across some cats begging for food from a bunch of schoolgirls, and one of them very indignant because the girls would not beg it to take the food!

Different buildings of Cáceres at night. The are lit wit strategic lamps to give a mysterious feeling. There is also a white fluffy cat sitting and expecting food

Walked distance: 9.04 km (14766 steps)

20th February 2022: Trujillo & Oropesa (Toledo)

On this day I managed two more Paradores stamps. Trujillo is a town a meagre 30 minutes away from Cáceres. It also has a traditional / Medieval city centre, set around the main Square Plaza Mayor de Trujillo. It was the birthplace of one of the so-called conquerors during the colonisation of South America, Francisco Pizarro, whose equestrian statue, Estatua ecuestre de Francisco Pizarro (by American sculptor Charles Cary Rumsey). Other highlights in main square include the corner balcony in the “Conquest Manor” Palacio de la Conquista.

The large Reinassance square of Trujillo with decorated palaces and a sculpture of Hernan Cortez on his horse

One of the most interesting churches in the area is Iglesia de Santa María la Mayor. Its tower dates back from the 13th century, but was almost completely rebuilt in the 16th century. Inside the richly painted altarpiece was erected around 1490. Apparently, my newly-discovered activity of climbing towers yielded to a new adventure, as for a few minutes I ended up locked down in the bell tower – I guess I’m a Disney Princess now (≧▽≦).

Gothic church with gothic golden altarpiece.

I got an hour and a little to wander round the town, so I climbed up to see the Muslim fortress Alcazaba de Trujillo (also called castle). Built between the 9th and the 12th century, it is a huge building with a defensive wall, an aljibe or cistern, several towers and a Christian chapel.

Moorish castle, from the outside and the inside. The walls and the battlements are amazingly well-preserved. It seems that the castle is built around the natural rocks defending the area

Then I hurried towards the other edge of the city to get my Parador de Trujillo stamp (only cheating slightly. I was there, after all). On my way I happened upon the Torre del Alfiler, with a family of storks happily clattering away the late morning.

Storks on top of a bell tower

I backtracked to the Plaza Mayor and I had twenty minutes before our rendezvous time, so I decked into the church Iglesia de San Martín. Its origins date from the 14th century, but it was not finished till the 16th century – which makes it so that the thick Romanesque walls are mixed with Gothic and Renaissance elements. No tower this time, but the second floor holds a religious museum.

Romanesque turning Gothic church. The inside is plastered in white and the celing above the altar and the nave retains the original decorated stone ceilings

After getting a general idea of the Medieval town of Trujillo, but it being a “working Sunday”, we moved on rather quickly, and drove off until we made it for lunch in Oropesa (Toledo) which also holds a Parador – Parador Museo de Oropesa, the first monumental Parador opened in 1930. That makes three stamps in two days, I’m almost impressed with myself!

Plain building with ornate balconies, and cars parked on a row in front of it.

The Parador is adjoined to the castle Castillo de Oropesa, which was unfortunately closed, but I shall put in on my list of “to re-explore”. It was built by the Arabs during the 12th – 13th century, probably on a former Roman fortress. Today, the Old Castle is joined to the New Palace and both belong to Paradores.

Classical Romanesque castle with towers and turrets. It looks heavily restored.

After that, we drove back home, and as we got a couple of wrong turns, we ended up avoiding the traffic jam we had found on our way to Extremadura, which was convenient!

Walked distance: 5.57 km (8836 steps)

11th & 12th December 2021: Final Fantasy Remake Orchestra World Tour, Barcelona (Spain)

11th December 2021: El Triángulo Friki

When the tickets for the FINAL FANTASY VII REMAKE Orchestra World Tour first came out, 2020 promised to be an amazing year. True, we all know how that turned out, but the point was that I did not have enough fun funds at that moment. So I just looked at the Barcelona dates, sighed, and never bought tickets because I decided that it was a low-priority event for me. Then, what happened happened and the tour was pushed forward to 2021. By chance, back in summer this year, I saw that it would take place on a Saturday, the 11th of December 2021. My sibling overheard me mulling whether I wanted to try to go or not this time over, since I had not done much on the nerdsphere for a while, and the low priotity was conflagrating with higher priortity and the still lacking fun budget. They didn’t know about this, though, and they proposed we went together. I thought it was a good opportunity for a weekend out, so I did some checking. We found some tickets that had been turned back, in an amazing place, actually – row #5 on the stalls. We booked a hotel and trains, and just went on with our lives.

The train left around 8:00 and arrived in Barcelona short from 11:00 – both of us had been in town before and were looking for an “alternative” plan. I had been checking out different options, and by pure chance, on Thursday, I found out that there is an area in Barcelona called Triángulo Friki, something akin to “the nerd triangle”. It is an area near Arc de Triomph that holds a bunch stores which specialise in comics, manga, figures, merchandising and so on. I thought it could be a fun thing to see, as Japanese stuff a hobby I share to some extent with my sibling.

We took the commuter train to the area (commuter train tickets are complementary with long-distance ones, which helps, as the Barcelona public transport is very expensive) and wandered around a bunch of shops, under the agreement not to spend too much money nor to buy anything that did not fit in our backpacks. We… failed the mission successfully. On the sixth or so shop I got myself a Christmas present that sure as hell did not fit in the backpack.

A collage showing the entrance to a bunch of comic and gaming stores. Most of them have a window showing Funko pops

One of the shops we visited was Tsume Store, in association with Global Freaks. Tsume is a business that 3D-prints statuettes from anime designs, and Global Freaks is a merchandise shop. They have a partnership and Tsume is selling some of its statuettes through Global Freaks – we saw one of them, priced at 1400€. Most of the figures were just for show. On the other hand, Global Freaks had several things we bought (remember the “mission failed successfully” comment? We spent way too much money on stuff that did not fit in the backpacks). Furthermore, they had a reproduction of a motorbike from Akira (アキラ), a famous manga / anime – a cyberpunk action story whose main character, Shōtarō Kaneda, rides it through Neo-Tokyo.

Tsume / Global freaks store in Barcelona. There are different pictures of resine statues of different sizes (and prices), and a reproduction of an anime motorbike.

We walked towards the area where the basilica designed by Gaudí, and consecrated to the Holy Family, Basílica de la Sagrada Família, which had been decorated with a new twelve-point 7.5-metre 5.5-tonne star. As there was a Christmas market around the basilica, I thought that the start was just for Christmas, but it turns out that it is there for good.

A modernist cathedral. It looks a bit like it's melting. It has four towers, plus one with a star, and a triangular façade

We took an underground train to the area where the venue was, and we were there around half an hour before hotel was open to check ins so we decided to have lunch first in the adjoining shopping centre. We ended up at an Udon, a wannabe fancy noodle bar chain. This was our first time getting our Covid passport checked as it’s not necessary where we’re from. The whole process was fast – open the PDF, zoom in, get it read with a device, and a green light with our names on it lit up (eventually I just screenshot the zoomed-in QR). I still felt a little uncomfortable due to the amount of people in the restaurant, so we ate as quick as possible before heading off to the hotel.

A bowl of ramen and a peek of a tempura plate in the background

It was the worst check-in experience ever. First of all, I think it’s stupid to demand a payment deposit on an already-paid booking. Second, they tried to charge me for the room again, we were given one card key for two people which didn’t even work, and we were “upgraded” to a room with a city view (16 € more expensive than our booking), but that only had amenities for one guest. We needed to get off the lift to request another card in order to get to the 21st floor, and we finally got two working cards. Oh, and the hotel was hosting a bunch of teams for some kind of handball championship who thought masks were for lesser beings and got away with it, despite the super-strict Covid-policy the hotel claimed to have, and with the obvious blessings of the clerks, despite other guests’ complaints.

Two views of Barcelona from above, one with daylight, the other one at night. The buildings are apartment blocks, rather regular, and you can guess the long streets that separate the different areas

We stayed in the room, just chatting and taking in the astonishing views (nah, I’m not being sarcastic (≧▽≦).) The FINAL FANTASY VII REMAKE Orchestra World Tour concert was to start at 20:00, but doors were at 18:30. It took place in the convention centre CCIB – Centre de Convencions Internacional de Barcelona, which… actually turned up to be the auditorium of the local Natural Science Museum. That was confusing for a minute.

We were quite literally across the square so we just had to go down. It took just a few minutes to enter, and then we went into the goods queue, because my sibling absolutely needed a chokobo plush. We were in line for about half an hour, as we debated how expensive everything was! They decided that I needed a chokobo too, so I’m the proud owner of a Chokobo Black Mage now.

An adorable chokobo plush with a mage cape sitting on the leaflets we got from the concert.

After we had all our goods, we headed off to our seats – which had been occupied by two different people who had bought row five on the dress floor – but had tried the main floor stands, never mind that a lady told you which door you had to use when you went in, in order to avoid these “mistakes” . I decided that I did not care about causing a scene, so I just grabbed an usher and had her clear our seats. The guy on mine took my flyer too, but I found some more when the concert was over. I’m amused though that someone would buy a ticket on the first floor and then happily stroll down to the fifth row on the stalls – more than double the price.

Let me start by saying that I’m not a video-game player, that’s why this event was originally a low-priority one. When my wrist problems started, I was recommended not to play them any more. But I love video-game graphs and Final Fantasy VII designs more than any. I mean, I own the Advent Children DVD just because it’s pretty. I have to admit though that the concert blew my mind. The stage was full with a complete orchestra indeed, and a choir – the Ensemble Symphony Orchestra & Chorus. At the back of stage there was a screen that projected scenes from the game, both animations and gameplay. In the little emcees by conductor – and producer – Arnie Roth we also got messages from composers and producers from Japan. Furthermore, the composer Hamauzu Masashi was in attendance. We did not get Yosh Morita, from The Prophets, as it was originally announced, but singer Ricardo Afonso did a very decent job out of the power ballad Hollow.

Empty stage with chairs for the orchestra. There is a screen in the background reading Final Fantasy VII Remake Orchestra World Tour in front of a futuristic cityscape

    Part 1

  1. Prelude – Reunion –
  2. Opening medley
  3. Mako Reactor 1
  4. Flowers Blooming in the Church
  5. The Turks’ Theme
  6. Tight rope
  7. Stand up
  8. Words left unheard
  9. Tifa’s Theme – Seventh Heaven –
  10. Those who fight – Battle Medley –

    Part 2

  11. Anxious Heart
  12. Hurry!
  13. Jessie’s Theme
  14. Shinra’s Theme
  15. The Arsenal
  16. Those chosen by the Planet – Fate’s Calling –
  17. Arbiters of Fate – Singularity –
  18. Hollow
  19. Final Fantasy VII Main Theme

    Encore

  20. Aerith’s Theme
  21. One Winged Angel

I loved the Those who fight – Battle Medley –, and I’d say that one of the highlights was the song Hurry Up. Apparently, during a specific part of the game you have to put the rather-uptight main character in a dress and teach him to dance in a night club. I also really liked the choir interventions. The concert ended on a hype – for a second I thought it would end in the slow song, but no, we got the fantastic theme for the bad guy Sephiroth, One-winged angel.

The stage again, this time it is full with the orchestra and the director. The screen shows the main character of the game, Cloud, with blond spiky hair and a ridiculously big sword, holding a bright ball in his hand.

The concert lasted for two hours and a half, including the intermission – in which I got to see (and hug!) friends. After the ending, we tried to go and grab some sushi at the shopping centre, but they were already closing down – so in the end we just got a salad and some chips at McDonald’s and took it to the hotel – then we showered, rearranged luggage and purchases, and went to bed.

12th December 2021: Walk by the ocean

Our original plan after breakfast was to take a walk by the beach, then check out and ride the underground, but we realised that we had a train station about 20 minutes away, and we could get a detour by the seaside and make it a bit longer – and if we took the train, we had a free ride.

When we checked out we got the same person who had checked us in. They still had to charge us for the tourist tax, and I had that ready in cash. They insisted that they had to deduct that from the deposit and give us the change, they could not give us a fifty-buck note. They had to give us the change. With lots of coins. They did not even check the room for damage, so what was even the point of the deposit?

We left the hotel, and walked towards the station. We spent a little time at the beach Platja del Fòrum and the mouth of the river Río Besòs before we reached the station – lots of people walking their dogs, and lots of happy dogs playing on the beach and with the waves. In the background, the former thermal station with three chimneys looming over the sand – Central Tèrmica de Sant Adrià de Besòs. Had we had more time, we would have taken the time to try and get to it, but due to external reasons we had tickets for the noon train and it was already 10:45 – and I am paranoid about schedules.

A sandy beach with a factory building in the background, it has three chimneys made of brick. The waves are coming in gently.

We took the commuter train, then the long distance train. When we arrived, before going home, we made a short stop to have some make-up sushi for the one we could not get the previous night. And some side Chinese dumplings.

Sushi and bao plate

Walking distance Saturday: 9.05 km
Walking distance Sunday: 5.54 km

20th August 2021: A Monastery and a Castle… again {Spain, summer 2021}

Sos del Rey Católico, formerly just Sos, is a small town still in the province of Zaragoza in Aragón. Its historical centre is so historical that it has been around since the 1400s. In 1452, the infante Fernando, who would go on to become the Catholic King, was born there. Back in the Middle Ages, the Kingdoms of Aragón and Castille became intertwined when Queen Isabel I of Castille and Fernando II of Aragón got married, earning the moniker of Catholic Monarchs due to their relentless fight against the Muslim Caliphates that had conquered the country long before. The trick of their marriage was that both of them remained the king / queen of their own kingdom in a very delicate equilibrium that sometimes was referred to as tanto monta.

A walk through the town yields to viewing a lot of Medieval buildings and palaces – too many to keep tack of. The wall is still standing in several places, built around the natural rock in order to make the most of the natural defences. There are a number of palaces that have been repurposed with new functions – the town hall, a school, and so on, and you can see them all in a short stroll, which we of course took. We left the hotel at around 9 in the morning because our breakfast turn was from 8:00 to 8:30 and there was not much else to do anyway.

The second reason why Sos del Rey Católico became known was the filming of an absurd Spanish comedy back in 1985. Thus, the village erected a sculpture to the director, Luis García Berlanga, Estatua a Berlanga.

The sculpture lies at the feet of the church of Saint Stephen Parroquia de San Esteban, which we could not enter, unfortunately, due to a scheduling conflict. The church has a Romanesque-style entrance carved in the 12th century, but protected from the elements by an outer portico from the 16th century. The church has an interesting shape, which tunnels and stairs, owning to the actual relief of the area.

Beyond the church stands the remains of the castle Castillo de Sos del Rey Católico, out of which the keep and a little turret still stand, albeit heavily restored. The old town was a frontier fortified area between the kingdoms of Navarra and Aragón, and it was a strategic point in Medieval times. This is why Fernando II’s mother fled there when the war started and why Fernando was born there.

The short climb yields to being able to survey the surroundings.

The whole “Fernando the Catholic King” was born here reaches its peak in the old palace called Palacio de Sada, where the King was born. Today they have turned it into an “interpretation museum” and holds some panels, an audiovisual, and reproductions of both the Catholic Monarch’s Last Will and Testament. The highlight of the palace is the Romanesque chapel and former Church of Saint Martin, Iglesia de San Martín de Tours, which still shows the painting and polychrome on the altar walls.

Shortly after 11 we went back to the car to drive to the other side of the Aragón – Navarra border, both the old kingdoms and the current areas. We had a booking for the monastery of Leyre Monasterio de Leyre at 12:30 and considering how much our Sat-Nav was trolling us we wanted to give ourself an hour of leeway. The device behaved itself and we arrived there at the right time.

Leyre is a still-active Benedictine monastery has been rebuilt and renovated, but at its core stands the church of Leyre. Standing in the middle of the mountains, it used to be a fortified monastery.

The church is based on an early Romanesque “crypt” whose goal was to flatten the terrain in order for the church to be built above it. It is an amazing engineering work, and not at all usual.

The original Romanesque church was consecrated in 1057, and it is one of the most impressive and highest Romanesque buildings I’ve ever seen. The main nave is also Romanesque, but the dome is already Gothic. There is a beautiful sculpture of the Virgin of Leyre. The entrance of the church is magnificent, carved in the 12th century with dozens of carving in stone.

We were lucky enough to have timed the visit with the monks’ Sext prayer, in Latin and Spanish, and mostly sung in the Gregorian style. Ah, and this was also a burial point for the Monarchs, but this time of Navarra… then again, eventually the Kingdoms of Navarra and Aragón became one so…

After Leyre, we got onto the car again and crossed over to the other side of the highway to the Castle of Xavier Castillo de Javier. We had lunch around the castle before we even approached the building, under Saint Francis Xavier’s glance.

The castle was the birthplace and childhood home of this Catholic saint (born 1506), famous for trying to spread Christianity in India, South-East Asia and Japan. He was a co-founder of the Jesuit order, which owns the castle now. The building has been turned into a museum about the saint.

The origins of the castle date from the 10th century, though most of its current appearance can be traced to the 11th and 13th century. Later the towers were destroyed, and in the 19th century they were re-erected, and the adjacent basilica was built. There is also a reconstructed little church were the saint was christened.

The inside of the castle holds some items from Francis Xavier’s times – real or not – some Japanese paintings and scrolls, trinkets that were brought from Asia during the preaching missions, and a bunch of dioramas. You can climb up to the keep and look at the surrounding area. Unfortunately, the guide was horrid and he just regurgitated facts that were dubious or plain wrong – for example, he claimed that a diorama that looks like a Hindu temple represented the Emperor of Japan.

One of the most interesting artefacts in the castle is a late-Gothic oak carving of Christ on the cross, which sports a faint smile. The piece is located in a tiny chapel decorated with dancing skeletons referring to the Latin expression “Carpe Diem” (seize the day).

After the castle we drove over the “border” back to Sos del Rey Católico, and after a shower and a drink, I decided to explore de historical building of our hotel, Parador de Sos del Rey Católico, and the gardens.

Driven distance: 56 km. Walking distance: 6.17 km.

8th – 12th July 2021: Beach weekend (El Campello & Elche, Spain)

The sea is far, far away and due to a number of situations coming together, we rented an apartment near the ocean for a couple of days. Our usual summer destination was not a good option this year due to – as everything that is going less than great these days – to Covid, so we gave a try to the town of El Campello. The town likes boasting itself as a beach paradise-resort, while it’s barely a standard Mediterranean village eaten which boomed along other, bigger resorts such as Benidorm. The apartment was not anything marvellous, but it was extremely close to the ocean – just beyond the waterfront promenade, Paseo Marítimo.

8th July 2021: The arrival

We arrived in El Campello at around 4pm, did a fast sweep of the apartment in order to feel safer Covid-wise and I decided to go for a walk at the beach, jeans and all. There were surprisingly fewer people than expected, and not as hot as I thought it would be – all in all we were pretty lucky, weather-wise.

El Campello is built parallel to the coastline. The more traditional area has a small marina Puerto de El Campello to the north, and then a sand beach that extends towards the south divided into Platja de la Illeta and Platja del Carrer de la Mar. Though the beach has a couple of breakwaters, they are for protecting the beach against erosion and not to separate the different areas – the east of Spain has a reputation for building quite close to the beaches. Over the years, that caused the winds and waves to shift and the once amazing and long beaches started being washed away – now all those groins are necessary to keep the sand in place, and are liberally built along the Mediterranean coast.

I climbed on one, of course, more than once – and more than one too (≧▽≦).

In the evening we walked along the waterfront promenade. While most of it is fronted by restaurants and souvenir shops, I did see this cute little house.

Eventually, we chose a place to have dinner – some fish and the area speciality: honey-soaked aubergine (berenjenas con miel), which is not actually made with honey, but a type of molasses – which actually makes this a vegan dish, as bees are not involved in making the “honey”, what do you know? The first time I tried this I was not too convinced, but if prepared well, this dish is absolutely delicious.

9th July 2021: The lady’s town

Elche is a nearby town a bit inland, and the third most populated in the area. It is famous due to the Iberian sculpture bust found nearby and because of its palm grove. The history of the town can be traced back to the current archaeological site Yacimiento Arqueológico de La Alcudia, whose stratigraphic sequence dates to the Bronze Age. There are ruins and artefacts, mostly from the Iberian and Roman ages, though there are findings until the Islamic era.

In 1897, a young farmer found the bust named La Dama de Elche, the Lady of Elche, which can be seen in Madrid’s archaeological museum Museo Arqueológico Nacional – it is the limestone bust of an Iberian woman, probably with funerary purposes, what was carved around the fourth century BCE. Since that time, a great deal of work has been carried out in the area of La Alcudia, and today is a full-fledged archaeological site with a Roman wall, several Iberian and Roman houses, a Roman temple and an Iberian one, a basilica, and hundreds of sculptorical and clay artefacts.

We visited the site in the morning, hoping to finish the stroll before it became too hot. There are still works carried out in the site, but you can visit and walk around the area – as long as you don’t step on the red ground. There are two museums on site, aside from the outer ruins. In one of them there is a reproduction of the lady, which yields to easier pictures than the glass protection in the National museum. There are also interpretations and reconstructions about what the Lady may have looked like when she had her colours. Unfortunately, reaching the site is hard, and probably not worth the detour unless you’re an expert in archaeology, but it turned out interesting to see.

… Except for the “commemorative site” of where they found the Lady. That was hideous.

After La Alcudia, we drove off to the town centre to walk around Palmeral de Elche, the biggest palm grove in Europe, with around 200,000 – 300,000 trees, most of the date palm species, Phoenix dactylifera. The palm tree grove originates in the 10th century CE (planted by the Caliphate of Cordoba conquerors), and it has been a UNESCO heritage site since the year 2000. The most important palm grove is in the centre of the town (and we missed the dragon that stands on one of the trees 。゚(゚´Д`゚)゚。).

Close to the grove stands the local archaeological museum, Museo Arqueológico y de Historia de Elche, divided between the new building and the old Moorish castle or alcázar, Palacio de Altamira, which drinks from La Alcudia and other findings from the area.

After the museum, we headed off to see the main church Basílica de Santa María, but we had just missed opening times. It stands on the place of the original mosque, and the current building – the third church that has been built – is Baroque. The bold blue dome is typical of the area, found all over the region on towers and churches.

As we could not see the basilica, we just had lunch! After a bit of a banter with an over-friendly waiter we had some fish-based lunch to share – salt-preserved fish bits, grilled octopus and tuna tataki.

On the way back we got to see a different view from the palm grove and the castle and the palm grove – maybe it looked like this in the old Arab times?

It was too hot to stick around and wait for the museums and church to open up again, so we drove back and after a while I headed back to the beach. This time I reached the end of the sand beach and got to the boulder one at the end of the waterfront promenade.

We had a quiet dinner at the apartment, then went out for ice-cream. We ended up walking to the marina, Port d’El Campello and caught sight of the Torre Vigía De La Illeta in the background.

10th July 2021: Not much to report

Just some pizza and a night-time walk along the waterfront promenade yielding tries to take artistic pictures without much success.

11th July 2021: The Tower

I woke up with a lovely reaction to the sun – not a sunburn, more like an allergy flare-up (here’s the plausible explanation for that), so we went out rather early for a walk, to then shield from the sun.

From the Roman times, a number of watchtowers were build along the Mediterranean coast to be on the lookout for pirates. The tower in El Campello, Torre Vigía de la Illeta was built between 1554 and 1557 (and restored in the 1990s), was part of a watch system commissioned by the Viceroy of Valencia at the time. The tower was manned by two infantry and two mounted soldiers – in case a pirate ship was spotted, the former would make smoke signals and the latter would ride to raise alarm in town.

The tower overlooks the marina, the town, and the archaeological site Yacimiento Arqueológico La Illeta dels Banyets, with ruins and artefacts dating from the Iberian and Roman times, but we did not walk to them as it was early in the morning and it was not even open.

It was hot, so most of the day was spent under the air-con, to later have dinner out – some mussels, more aubergine with honey (not so good this time), and squid rings. But the highlight of the night was the final ice-cream waffle, which is a great, great idea.

And that was it, as we left early in the morning the following day, as soon as we could check out, as the trip is – as mentioned – long.

29th & 30th May 2021: The Walls (and churches) of Ávila (Spain)

There was a little-talked about consequence of the Industrial Revolution in Spain. While it is widely known that it drew a large number of people to the cities and towns, few stop to think of the subsequent steps that had to be adopted. More people in town required housing, and thus a number of projects denominated ensanches or “widenings” were projected and carried out. Even though such a thing makes sense, here lies the problem – in order to enlarge the urban area, many Spanish cities and towns tore down their Roman and Medieval walls, leaving either bare traces or nothing at all.

Legend has it that the town of Ávila lacked the money to demolish the wall. In retrospect, that was a good thing, because today, the walls that surround Ávila, Murallas de Ávila are among the most impressive Europe, some say that even better preserved than Carcassonne (France).

Ávila is a couple of hours away by car, so we drove off on Saturday morning at around 8 am and were there just before 10 am. We entered the city through one of the city wall gates, Puerta del Carmen.

Approach to the walls

We parked (100% ditched the car) at the hotel and checked in – even if it was quite early, they told us that one of the rooms was already prepared and gave us the keys. Unfortunately, it was not, and since the blunder was a Covid-protcol blunder, they upgraded us as an apology. The hotel, Parador de Ávila, belongs to the Spanish network of Paradores, and it is located in a 16th century palace, Palacio de Piedras Albas. We booked late-check-out for the following day, which can be done “for free” booking lunch in the restaurant (which is obviously not free).

Parador

Our first stop was the tourist office, but not the one that is clearly signalled in the middle of the town – the one that is located outside the wall and you have to turn around and around to find. But we needed it to buy the 48-hour pass to the monuments. Then we stuck around to wait for the nearby church to open, which gave way to observing the wall for the first time.

The Muralla de Ávila has been a UNESCO Heritage site since 1985. The structure is clearly defensive and it was built towards the end of the 11th century, quite probably as extension or reinforcement of a previous one, either Roman or Arab – though the Roman theory is the most credible as some pieces used in the original wall seem to come from a now-lost Roman cemetery, and there are documents about a Roman camp with similar shape. The wall has been restored in several occasions, and after surviving the ensanche risk, it was declared national monument and cleared of attached houses. Today most of the wall belongs to the Spanish government, and it is managed by the town hall, though there are some private parts, such as the ones that are part of the cathedral. The walls close off all the historical centre. They have a perimeter of 2,515 metres, with around 2,500 merlons, almost 90 turrets, and nine gates. Our second gate was Puerta de San Vicente.

Puerta de San Vicente

The first monument we stopped by, as soon as it opened since we were already there, was the basilica church Basílica de San Vicente (officially Basílica de los Santos Hermanos Mártires, Vicente, Sabina y Cristeta, three Christian siblings who were martyred nearby). It is one of the most important Romanesque buildings in the whole country, built between the 12th and the 14th century. It is protected as part of the World Heritage Site declaration. One of its characteristics is the golden rock in which it is built – sandstone-looking granite.

Iglesia de San Vicente

The inside of the basilica is, in the typical way, a mix of more modern styles. The grave of the martyr siblings is Pre-gothic, and the large altarpiece is Baroque. In the crypt there are proto-Christian pieces and a Romanesque Virgin which we did not get to see and which is the patron of the town.

Iglesia de San Vicente

Afterwards we headed off to the cathedral Catedral de Cristo Salvador, which is considered the first gothic cathedral in Spain (something that other people say about Cuenca), with clear French influences. It was designed as a fortress church as its abse dubs as one of the turrets of the city wall.

Catedral de Cristo Salvador

In later years, a choir was added, along with a Baroque altarpiece. The walls are also sandstone-looking granite, but some elements inside are limestone and wood.

Catedral de Cristo Salvador

To the side of the cathedral stands the cloister, which holds the grave to the first modern president of Spain, Adolfo Suárez, and the entrance to the cathedral’s museum. It yields to views of the tower and… the storks that squat there.

We headed off towards the Museum of Ávila. First we stopped at the former church Iglesia de Santo Tomé, which today is a warehouse for the museum, but can be visited anyway. When I was young, I studied the statues / sculptures called verracos, built around the 5th century BCE by the Vettones, a Celtic pre-Roman civilisation that faded upon the arrival of the Romans. The verracos are crude statues that represent four-legged animals – bulls, boars or pigs. At the time, I had only heard about a number of them, and was somehow under the impression that there were two or three around. I was quite wrong, apparently they pop up from the snow like daisies or something. In the church-turned-warehouse there were like twenty, one outside, there was one at the hotel garden… so no, apparently they are quite common. Other artefacts in the building include some carriages, Roman sculptures and mosaic, Muslim funerary artefacts and roof boards…

Iglesia de Santo Tomé

Then we moved onto the museum itself, Museo de Ávila, with a beautiful patio and a number of archaeological and ethnological items which represent the history and folklore of the town.

Museo de Ávila

It was almost time for lunch, so we headed off towards the restaurant where we had booked. Before, we made a small stop at an old palace Palacio del Rey Niño, built in the 12th century, today turned into the Post office and the public library, with a patio closed off by the Walls themselves.

Palacio del Rey Niño

Then we walked by the modern marketplace.

mercado

Which happened to be right in front of the restaurant, named La Lumbre. Aside from its walls, Ávila is famous for its cattle, a particular breed called Raza Avileña – Negra Ibérica, and of course the meat the animals produce, especially the matured and grilled meat from older oxen. After the animal has been sacrificed, the meat is matured in a traditional process called “dry maturation” for six weeks before it is grilled. We ordered the rib steak, chuletón to share, along with some grilled vegetables, a “tomato salad” that was a… one-tomato with dressing. And then there were desserts, aside from chocolate cake, we ordered yemas de Ávila – a typical confectionery made with egg yolks, lemon juice, cinnamon, and caster sugar. Lots of typical stuff, as you can see!

lunch

Our next stop was the main square, called “little market square”, Plaza del Mercado Chico, along with the town hall or Ayuntamiento. The square was rebuilt in the 19th century and is flanked by arcades. The town hall was built in 1862.

Plaza del Mercado Chico

Plaza del Mercado Chico: Ayuntamiento

After a brief stop at the Parador for some rest, we headed off to find a convent / monastery on the other side of town. On the way we came across some ruins that I assume are the church Iglesia de San Jerónimo, as they sit in the square of the same name.

Ruinas de San Jerónimo

We reached the convent Convento de San José, a reconstruction of a previous monastery and church, the first founded by Santa Teresa de Jesús (Saint Teresa of Ávila), a Christian “doctor of the church” and mystic Carmelite nun, known for her ‘raptures’, her reforms, and her literature work. More on her later though. The convent and church were a little… underwhelming, even if is a World Heritage building.

Contento de San José

Then we walked back towards the historical centre, and walked past the church Iglesia de San Pedro, a 13th-century building with a great rose window, but which was closed (reforms).

Iglesia de San Pedro

On the other side of the square, Plaza del Mercado Grande (Big Market Square) stands another of the wall gates, Puerta del Alcázar, and a monument to Saint Teresa Monumento a Santa Teresa: La Palomilla.

Puerta del Alcázar

Next we separated and I went off to climb the walls Murallas de Ávila. Well, to walk on the parapet. Due to Covid, there is only one access, next to the Cathedral and its gate Puerta de la Catedral. The walkable area is around 1.4 km, including walking over some of the gates and up and down more than a few turrets. It allows for some amazing views of the town and its outskirts…

Views from the walls

… but also of the wall itself, both the original walls and the add-ons from later eras (and a magpie).

When I reached the end of the walk, I went down and crossed the bridge gate Puerta del Puente, named that way because it overlooks the bridge over the Adaja river. I could not take a picture of it because the traffic police was checking cars at the roundabout in front of the gate. Thus, I headed off to the pedestrian bridge to cross over towards the tiny hermit popularly known as “the four posts”, Los Cuatro Postes, which yield to an impressive view of the town and its walls.

Cuatro Postes

Views on the wall

Avila and View

I walked back to see the walls from the base. Then I crossed the gate we had driven through in the morning, Puerta del Carmen, and I headed back to the hotel for a drink.

At the feet of the walls

Puerta del Carmen

After a while we headed off for dinner and tried another of the typical dishes in Ávila, patatas revolconas – mashed potatoes with paprika and pork rashers, and waited for the sun to go down so the city lit up.

Patatas revolconas

A walk around the town yielded to views of the Iglesia de San Vicente and Puerta de San Vicente, some of the inner streets leading to the town hall Ayuntamiento, the longer area of the Muralla and the Puerta del Carmen.

Night view

And then I had a very, very long shower and went to bed.

In the morning, breakfast was had – not a fan of the “we can’t have a buffet so we prepared this and this is what you get” plate, but whatever. I mentioned Santa Teresa before, let’s get into that a bit further. She was a 16th-century nun born near Ávila, canonized in the 17th century, and elevated to doctor of the church in the 20th century. She is conisdered one of the great mystics and religious women in the Roman Catholic church, author of a number of spiritual classics, and the reformer of the Carmelite nun order into the Discalced Carmelites. She founded convents all over Spain and was known for her mystics raptures which may have been messages from God or epileptic attacks. She is one of Ávila’s most important historical figures and wherever you go there are traces of her. In the place where her house stood now there is a convent, a church, a reliquary room and an interpretation museum, with really strange hours on Sundays. We could see the convent / church Convento de Santa Teresa de Jesús / Iglesia de la Santa and the reliquary room where no pictures were allowed Sala de Reliquias between services.

Iglesia de la Santa

On the way, however, I found some interesting ruins – the gate to the former hospital Hospital de Santa Escolástica, and we walked past a bunch of palaces.

Portada de Santa Eulalia

Then we moved onto a long walk to the 16th- century Gothic monastery Real Monasterio de Santo Tomás, which we could see due to lucky timing as there was a First Holy Communion Mass happening and the local little old ladies were not to keen on cultural visits of the church.

The monastery has a church, three cloisters and two adjacent museums. The church has an impressive Gothic altarpiece (by Pedro Berrugete, one of the key painters riding the wave between Gothic and Renaissance arts), and hosts the grave to the Catholic Monarch’s only male son.

Santo Tomás

The three cloisters: Claustro del Noviciado, Claustro del Silencio, and Claustro de los Reyes Católicos (Novitiate, Silence and Catholic Monarchs).

Santo Tomás Cloisters

The Museum of Natural Sciences Museo de Ciencias Naturales, an occupational therapy project could… be better, and sets the expectation bar rather low for the next one.

Museo de Ciencias Naturales

However, the Museum of Eastern Arts Museo de Arte Oriental is pretty impressive. It contains pieces and artefacts that the Dominican missioners brought from China, Japan, Vietnam and the Philippines.

Museo de Arte Oriental

And in the end, that was it for the weekend. We walked back, decided to give the museum of Saint Teresa a miss, had a drink, had lunch and went back on our merry way – with a a view of the train tracks over the dam of the reservoir Embalse de Fuentes Claras.

Train tracks over Embalse de Fuentes Claras

Walked distance (Saturday): around 12.5 km
Walked distance (Sunday): around 6 km
Total distance driven (both days): around 340 km

23rd & 24th April 2021: Mental Reset Half-weekend: Cuenca (Spain)

With everything going on, travelling is almost impossible, but the stars aligned for a tiinny bit longer than day trip – from Friday to early Sunday morning, with every precaution possible, of course. We ran away to Cuenca for a day and a fifth. As days are becoming a bit longer, when we arrived there were still a couple of hours of light left. We checked in and dropped off the car at the Parador de Cuenca. The Parador hotel chain might be more expensive than standard accommodation, but truth be told, it is upholding the strictest hygiene protocols, even though their hand disinfectants give me allergies. Truth be told, it was spectacular.

The Parador stands in a repurposed monastery, the old convent of Saint Paul, just at the edge of the historical centre of Cuenca. The hotel has a covered cloister and a newer building, and the adjoint church has been turned into an art centre.

Parador

Room

Gorge

The core of the town stands between two rivers, River Júcar and River Huécar. As the area is rich in karst – calcite rocks, which dissolve in water – the rivers have dug parallel gorges around the historical dwellings. The walled city has been declared a UNESCO Heritage Site and one of the keymost point is the hanging houses, Casas Colgadas (now home to the Museum of Abstract Art). While the houses are now rather unique, they used to be the norm in the 15th century. In order to cross the Huécar gorge Hoz del Huécar, there is a(n also) hanging bridge. The bridge of Saint Paul, Puente de San Pablo, was built at the beginning of the 20th century in the typical cast-iron architecture of the time.

Puente de San Pablo

Looking back to the other side of the bridge, you see deceivingly high hill, Cerro del Socorro, carved out of karst. I say deceiving because when you actually look at it, you’re half-way up, and you can look down to the bottom of the gorge. At the top of the hill stands a religious pillar to the Catholic Sacred Heart, Monumento al Sagrado Corazón.

Cerro del Socorro

Monumento al Sagrado Corazón

Casas Colgadas

We went on walking towards Main Square and the Cathedral of Our Lady of Grace and Saint Julian – Catedral de Santa María y San Julián de Cuenca. The cathedral is one of the earliest Gothic buildings in Spain (although the main façade has been rebuilt in style). However, it is not the typical Spanish Gothic style, but it is more similar to the Norman buildings in the north of Europe. It was unfortunately not open for visiting though (it’s the third time I’ve been to Cuenca and I’ve never been able to walk in (≧▽≦) ).

Catedral de Cuenca

There also stands the Ayuntamiento de Cuenca or town hall, a three-arched Baroque building erected around 1760 after the designs of the architect Jaime Bort. The building closes off the square and is the gateway to a maze of chaotic traffic of one-way streets and directing traffic lights.

Ayuntamiento de Cuenca

We turned towards the gorge, Hoz del Júcar on the other side of the town for a view of the sunset, but the clouds seemed to be hiding it.

Hoz del Jucar

As we continued on, we stopped by a nun convent Convento de las Esclavas. This Catholic nun congregation leads a contemplative life and they are perpetually praying to the Eucharist – at least some of them, as apparently they bake and sell confectionery to sustain themselves. You can see a nun praying in the church, and to be honest for a second I did not realise she was there, it felt like there was a ghost all of a sudden. The building was erected between the 15th and 16th centuries.

Convento de las Esclavas

Convento de las Esclavas

We found the monument to a medieval king Monumento a Alfonso VIII. During the Christian and Muslim wars, the king was the one to conquer Cuenca for the Christians, and assimilated it into the Castilla crown.

Monumento a Alfonso VIII

Another sculpture we found was, conversely, erected to honour the traditional shepherd from one of the old streets in town, a bronze statue named Monumento al pastor de las Huesas del Vasallo and located next to the bridge.

Monumento al Pastor

We also got treated to some nice views as the sun came out the second we turned out backs on it.

Sunset

After dinner – a really good club sandwich in my case, I walked out to take some pictures of the bridge and the hanging houses after dark, expecting them to be lit up… Which they were. I mean, I was really not expecting the green colours.

Night

Casas Colgadas

In the morning we had breakfast at the old dining room of the convent, the refrectorium, which still keeps its old allure.

Refrectorium

Later, we headed out to the local palaeontological museum Museo de Paleontología de Castilla-La Mancha. The museum was inaugurated in 2005, recycling, so to speak, a previous building that overlooks the city of Cuenca. The museum has an inner area with some reproductions and pieces from the different palaeontological sites around the area, and several models of the animals, organised in eras.

MUPA

MUPA

The outer part also holds replicas, and it gives a very Jurassic World feeling for a second, when you take the view with the dinosaurs. We had booked first thing in the morning, so we were leaving when the kid-crowd started to arrive, in order to see both the extinct and the extant dinosaurs (a.m., we found a mallard minding his own business at one of the ponds).

MUPA

We drove back, and unfortunately the Sat-Nav got us lost. However, we dropped the car safely off a the hotel and decided to take the plunge and walk into the museum of Spanish abstract art Museo de arte abstracto Español, home to a number of… works… by Spanish artists from the 1950s and 60s in the Hanging Houses / Casas Colgadas. I… have to admit I am not the biggest fan of abstract art, so I was not terribly impressed – I mean I had been there before and it had not imprinted on me, like at all (≧▽≦).

Museo arte abstracto

After the museum we headed back to the Parador for lunch and some rest – and I have to say that the curd I had tried the last time was nowhere to be found any more. Sad.

cuajada

But not to be deterred, we soon moved to the city museum Museo de Cuenca, which highlights the Roman origins of the city. There are displays from Prehistory to the Middle Ages, but there is either a surprising lack of Muslim artefacts, or they were in the closed-off rooms.

Museo de Cuenca

After this, we wanted to check out one of the churches, and on the way we passed by a viewpoint towards the gorge Hoz del Huécar.

Hoz del Huécar

We also came across the “Christ in the Alleyway” or Cristo del Pasadizo, which is related to the legend of two lovers – he went to war, she stayed behind and moved on, and then everything ended in tears because how dare a woman in Christian Middle-Ages Spain try to be happy. Anyway, here’s the alleyway and the Christ figure.

Cristo del Pasadizo

After that we ended up at another museum of contemporary art, Fundación Antonio Pérez, located in another former convent built in the 17th century. Honestly? It was slightly interesting but mostly claustrophobic. The majority of rooms do not have windows whatsoever and the fact that there is a one-way itinerary due to Covid, and how dry the air was, made it stressing to an almost ridiculous level.

Arte contemporáneo

It was early evening when we came out, and the second we put a foot outside it started pouring, so we headed back – it also made for a few spectacular pictures.

Rain

Rain

Some cool ones were also taken on Sunday morning just before we drove off early because there was stuff to be done throughout the day.

Casas Colgadas + Puente de San Pablo

8th & 9th January 2021: Guadalajara & Filomena (Spain)

Since 2017, Spain (alongside Portugal and France) has taken up the custom of naming bad storms, and this season we are up to ‘F’, the 6th bad storm. In this case, the storm, named Filomena, entered Spain from the south west and collided with a polar air mass that happened to be coming from the north. The result – snow. Lot’s of it, with low temperatures and snow-heights not seen in a very long time. Some call it “the snowfall of a lifetime”.

As Covid-19 has made travelling impossible – or at least pretty unsafe / irresponsible (choose your pick), plans have been pushed back again, and plain cancelled. While truth be told I still hold tickets for the Saint Seiya event in Paris in late May, I have no hope I will be able to attend. Even if the Covid crisis fades away, there’s the extra issue of the economic blow 2020 caused.

Anyway, back to Filomena – it brought something that is rarely seen in these parts. Snow. Lots of it. So before everything went to hell, I just decided to ignore the stay at home recommendation and took a couple of walks around Guadalajara for a rare sight – the monuments covered with snow. Furthermore, as the snow is expected to freeze into ice plates, I had to go out when the snow was still fresh.

I took two different walks. On the eight of January, Friday, as soon as I got out of wok I put on my snow boots (perks from the time living in Scotland) and winter coat, then threw my raincoat over it – it was a tricky movement, but I managed not to dislocate my shoulder doing so. By this time there was a coverage of a few centimetres, and I decided to head out to the outer area of town where I could sneakily take my mask off if my glasses fogged too much, which I had to do when I crossed the road, because there’s no actual crossing.

There was a surprising amount of people around! Fortunately I was able to keep my distance, especially at the times when I tried to breathe – even if I went out with the smaller glasses, at points I had to take them and the mask off to be able to breathe and see anything.

I walked up to the Toro de Osborne a winery-billboard-turned-item-of-cultural-and-visual-interest which as you can see is shaped as a bull – representing the species used in bred for bullfighting, because the Osborne winery is located in an area also famous for the livestock. It is made of metal and measures around 14 metres high, one of the 91 that remain around Spain. It stands in an area that was supposed to become urbanised but never did, so it has several unfinished alleys and corners. There has been a statue there since 1975, called El Abrazo, (The Hug), which has always reminded me of a decomposing DNA strand. It was erected by Francisco Sobrino, the most famous sculptor from the town.

I went back right before sundown, and the roads were already difficult. It continued snowing throughout the night, and when I woke up on Saturday morning, no cars could run, there were no buses, trains had been stopped and some trees had collapsed under the weight of the strongest snowfall in decades. But… temptation won. I only wanted to peek around the corner a little, but then I decided that as there was a good chance I would run into people, I could not cheat on mask policy – so I put my contacts on. That warranted for a longer walk as those are disposable, and… not cheap (≧▽≦).

First I walked down the Avenida del Ejército, one of the main arteries in town, which had already been somewhat cleaned of snow, which was good, because… well, there was a bit more of a cover than the day before

I reached the park built after the ancient Arab structure, Parque de la Huerta de San Antonio. To the left stands one of the towers of the old walls, Torreón de Alvar Fáñez.

I saw the snowed Palacio del Infantado. This palace was built in the late Renaissance style, designed by Juan Guas and commissioned by the Marquis of Santillana. Although the main construction happened between 1480 and 1497 but has been reformed in several occasions, even recently as it was turned from public library into monument and museum. Infantado is a name related to the concepts of infante or infanta, which are the Spanish terms that designate the children of monarchs who are not the direct heirs (so no the crown prince or princess). The most important feature is the main façade built with sand-coloured rocks and diamond protuberances as decoration. It was suspected to have suffered from aluminosis concrete a couple of years back, but after a small political struggle, it the palace was deemed healthy again. Magic, I guess.

Up the central street of the old town, I took a small detour to check the Iglesia de Santiago Apóstol to the left. The church, built in bricks, used to belong to a now-gone convent.

In front of the church stands the convent-turned-palace-turned-high-school Convento de la Piedad / Palacio de Antonio de Mendoza. The convent-palace represents the start of the Renaissance influence in Spain, especially the former grand entrance.

At the end of the street stands the main square and Ayuntamiento, the town hall, and main square, where the street turns into the main street, Calle Mayor. The town hall, built at the beginning of the 20th century, sports an interesting bell tower in iron.

The square Plaza del Jardinillo (square of the little garden) where the Baroque church Iglesia de San Nicolás el Real stands. You can’t really recognise him under all the snow, but there is a Neptune standing in the middle of the fountain in the square.

Main Street continues until the square Plaza de Santo Domingo. The square is half park-like, half built, and one of the trees that died in the park area was carved into a book-stash sculpture.

On the other side of the road stands another church, Iglesia de San Ginés, built in the 17th century with two towers and a Romanesque-looking entrance.

The police tape around the main town park, Parque de la Concordia, had been partially taken down and I interpreted (wrongly) by the sheer number of people inside that it was allowed to walk in. Only when I reached the other side I realised that the park was considered unsafe, and of course I did not risk any other trespassing. The park dates to mid-19th century, and hosts a gazebo-like structure built in brick and iron by Francisco Checa in 1915.

I went on to the Paseo de San Roque, only on the street area, as the more park-like one was taped off. This is one of the most diverse parks in town, and some say that it could / should have been considered a botanical garden.

I walked alongside, peeked into the park Parque de las Adoratrices, but it was packed, so I continued on. Although this park is rather recent, opened in 2009, the walls and fences were built a century earlier. The town festival used to be celebrated here, but it was moved away to the outskirts as the town grew.

At the end of the street stands the chapel Ermita de San Roque , which originally was outside the town when it was built in the 17th century, in the typical brick of the area.

I walked around the walled area of the Colegio de las Adoratrices, with some really cool views of the pantheon that stands there, Panteón de la Duquesa de Sevillano, the school building and the church Iglesia de Santa María Micaela. This whole area used to belong to the Duchess, who commissioned the architectural complex in the 19th century. The pantheon is a particular example of the eclectic architecture, with a purple dome. The church is a mixture of different styles, out of which maybe neo-Gothic would be the most prominent one.

The street I wanted to go along next was a) taped off and b) waaaay too steep for a safe climb-up, so I decided to turn towards another of the important squares in town, Plaza de Bejanque. You can guess the old fortress Fuerte de San Francisco behind it, but it was also full of people, so I walked fast.

One of the features of the square is the old gate from the walls, Puerta de Bejanque, one of the access gates through the 14th century wall. This used to be part of a house that was built around it, and it was unearthed, so to speak, in the 90s.

I went down towards the co-cathedral Concatedral de Santa María. Originally built in the 13th century, this catholic church has been redesigned and rebuilt in several styles. It is best characterised by the horse-shoe arches in the main façade.

And sneaked up towards the chapel Capilla de Luis de Lucena, a small and compact chapel built like a tiny fortress that used to be an oratory part of a larger church.

I walked past the old palatial house Palacio de la Cotilla, a palatial house from the 15th century.

The convent Convento de las Carmelitas de San José. This convent, where cloistered nuns still live (tradition says that couples that are going to marry should bring them eggs for sun on the day of the wedding) was built in 1625, and the inside is decorated in the Baroque style.

And finally reached the lookout over the park built within the old torrent, Parque del Barranco del Alamín.

I finally saw the former church Iglesia de los Remedios. Today it is used as the grand hall for the nearby university, but it was originally a Renaissance temple, with three characteristic arches guarding the entrance.

And turned back towards the Palacio del Infantado from the square Plaza de España.

It had started snowing more heavily by then and my legs were getting tired. The sloshy snow on the roads had become frozen so it was slippery, and when I was walking on the actual snow, it was up to my mid-shins, so I was feeling the strain in my legs and my back. Thus, I decided to go back home and not to return in the afternoon again because the trees had lost more and more branches under the weight of the snow. The temperature going down also meant that the snow was going to freeze and it would be more slippery as it became ice…

I mean, this is the tree that used to stand in front of my balcony… So better safe than sorry. But all in all, the snowfall of a lifetime in these latitudes!

5th August 2020: Monforte de Lemos {Spain, summer 2020}

After so many curves, we deserved a calm day, which included some art in Monforte de Lemos . We started off at the river Cabe, crossing the bridge Ponte Vella and the newer iron one.

We had booked to visit the Christian Art Museum in the Clares’ convent Museo de Arte Sacro / Convento de las Clarisas, which features some interesting pieces of art, among them a dead Christ by Gregorio Fernández, and hundreds of reliquaries with supposed remains of Saints.

Then we moved to the Piarists School, the church, and their painting collection Colegiata de Nuestra Señora de la Antigua / Pinacoteca de los Escolapios . The school is built in a Renaissance Herrerian style and the guide constantly tried to one-up San Lorenzo del Escorial.

Then we found a good meat restaurant, Mesón JM for some local beef T-bone that we could prepare ourselves, although I get the nagging feeling they actually short-served us as they never showed us the meat piece. Please excuse the reddish tint of the pictures. It was the parasol and at the time I did not notice (≧▽≦).

After lunch and a break, we took a climb into the old castle keep Torre del Homenaje, and walked around for a little.

We ended the day at the tapas bar La Fábrica for some seafood.

And finished the day with some in-accomodation exploration at the Parador de Monforte de Lemos.

Walked distance: 9.03 km

7th – 10th February 2020: Paris (France) for DIR EN GREY & BABYMETAL

7th February 2020: Through the Strikes

I had an (amazingly convenient) flight that left at 9am on Friday (and that had cost me 35€), but it turned out to be weird. When we boarded, it turned out that it was a big plane, an intercontinental plane. Which meant it was huge, and more importantly, it had on-board entertainment. Thus, as we waited for the go-ahead, I set up to watch an action film. Then, the pilot told us that we were going to have to wait something between one and two hours to be able to take off due to the strikes. But hey, at least we were flying and I had an action film to watch (the newest X Men, Phoenix one. I did not become a fan).

We took off at 10am and our big plane made the jump in just one hour, as opposed to the 2h10 minutes of estimated travel, which meant we were almost on time! Of course this did not sit well with the strikers, who had us wait first for the parking spot, and then for the stairs. Finally, I made it to the train and was downtown Paris at about 13:00. I came out at the Notre Dame stop to inspect the damage caused to the Notre Dame Cathedral by the 2019 fire. My first impression, looking at the tower, was optimistic, but as I walked round the cathedral, I could see the real damage and reconstruction efforts. Furthermore, it still reeked of burnt wood, probably because they are still pulling out debris.

Collge of Notre Dame showing the cranes and scaffoldings in the repairs

As it was sunny, I decided to go to the Sainte-Chapelle and see its windows in good weather. The Sainte-Chapelle is a small two-level chapel inside an administrative building in the Isle de la Cité smack in the middle of Paris and not far from Notre Dame. The chapel has a lower early Gothic level, and an upper level with impressive stained-glass windows that I love. As the sun was shining, I got really lovely views and pictures. It is a UNESCO Heritage Site.

Collage. Sainte Chapelle: outside showing the spire, inside with some colourful windows and pointed arches

Collage of the upper floor of the Sainte Chapelle. It shows different angles of the long gothic windows, covered in colourful glass

The weather was great, and the forecast for the following day was bad, so I decided to just walk along from the Isle de la Cité towards the Arc de triomphe (some 5 km away). On my way I walked by the Louvre, Les Tulleries, the Grand Palais, the Petit Palais, the Alexander III Bridge, and into the Avenue des Champs-Élysées.

Collage with different landmarks of Paris - the river, neoclassic palaces, Luxor obelisk, Champs Elysees...

Finally I got to the Arc de triomphe, where I took a train to the Basilique du Sacré-Cœur area, where my hotel was. After dropping my stuff, I walked up the hill to have a look at the basilica and I caught a glimpse of the sunset with the Eiffel Tower in the background.

A view of the Sacre Cour with a classical carousel in front of it

A profile of the Eiffel Tower in a blurry sunset in orange tones

As my last adventure for the day I went to see the Moulin Rouge from the outside (because inside was too expensive to even consider) – and I listened to KAMIJO’s ムーランルージュ.

The Moulin Rouge cabaret, all lit up in bright red for the night

8th February 2020: Louvre and DIRU

The forecast was accurate and on Saturday weather went down the drain. I decided to go to the Louvre Museum, even if I had been there before. I got predictably lost and I’ not even sure how. In the end, I managed to see everything that I wanted, which began and finished with the Victory of Samothrace, my favourite piece of art ever.

I have a love-hate relationship with Louvre, mostly based on my utter lack of sense of directions and the way the palace-museum is organised, with the exhibits in different wards and floors. In the Classical Greece sector, however, I overheard something strange. I was looking at the Sleeping Hermaphroditus, and I overheard a random guy explaining to a little kid that Hermaphroditus was designed to represent the “most important sacrament of them all, marriage between a man and a woman”. I had a very WTF moment and I was too shocked to address the guy because, seriously? I’m all for Christian art representing Christian beliefs. However, pushing those onto a culture that a) had completely different values, b) was 100% all right with homosexuality, and c) whose goddess of marriage (Hera) was consistently cheated on? I mean, yes, there was a connection between Hermaphroditus and marriage in how they became intersex, but let’s face it here – the Greek mythology had too many erotic undertones to be able to push the Christian values onto it.

As you can see, I am pretty much biased…

A collage with several Louvre pieces of art - Winged Victory, sitting scribe, the three graces, Diane wasing her hair, Hermaprhodite sleeping, Psyche and Eros kissing, Liberty guding the people, Venus de Milo

I spent three to four hours in the Louvre and then went back to the hotel to get ready for the DIR EN GREY concert and VIP experience in Élysée Montmartre, which could have been a better experience if my head had not been hurting and the weather had been nicer – I could have totally skipped the downpour while waiting. Oh, and if the stupid chick from behind me had known how to behave. But hey, it was a great excuse for a much-needed mental break. DIR EN GREY or “Diru” is a Japanese heavy metal band formed characterisede for its dark themes and scenography that I thought I needed to check at least once. I don’t think I’ll need to repeat the experience, though I don’t regret attending.

A dark stage with a drumset. Letters projected on the screen behind the stage read Dir en Grey Tour 20 This Way to Self-Destruction

After the concert I headed off to the hotel to catch some sleep (I had booked a very close hotel because I remembered the area being rather… unfriendly from the 2015 trip).

9th February 2020: Destroy the Bastille!

Sunday morning felt like 2ºC and it was windy. I lingered in bed for a while and then headed out to see the Bastille monument and its remains. Like, the four rocks remaining. I searched for KAMIJO’s Bastille on the mp3 and hoped that the device lasted another season.

Monument to the French Revolution

A few brick stones forming a circle, considered the last remains of the Bastille

Then, as it was cold, I headed off to the Galerie de Paléontologie et d’Anatomie comparée (Paleontology and Comparative Anatomy Gallery) which was a short walk away. I’m still trying to decide whether it was amazing, or the materials nightmares are made of.

The first floor holds a “Cavalcade of Skeletons”, along with dissected specimens and a “gallery of monsters”. The museum was founded in the 19th century, and it keeps the atmosphere – and the charm – of the old exhibitions. There are stands and wooden cases, and the smell of dust and old paper. It was enchanting, but at the same time deeply disturbing.

The second floor hosts the dinosaurs and other fossils, including a very cool mosasaurs. Most of the fossils are either moulds or reconstructions – I swear I’ve seen that Irish elk at least three times before. Also, the T-Rex skull was adorably flawed.

The third floor is… ammonite-land.

Shots of the museum. Skeletons of animals - fish, oxen, crocodiles, elephants, whale. Fossils: Dinosaurs, fish, toothed whale, shark teeth, snails

After I was done with the museum I decided to head off to yet another one, the Musée national des arts asiatiques Guimet (The National Museum of Eastern Arts or Museum Guimet), which holds pieces of art from Cambodia, India, China, Japan, Korea and so on. Behold my favourite Shiva (which is not as cool as the British Museum sexy bodhisattva, but still).

Different pieces in the museum: Dancing Shiva, sitting Buddha, Caligraphy in the shape of a dragon, ellaborate kimono, samurai armour, Indian goddess

After checking out the four floors, I left the museum and walked towards Trocadero to take the underground. I snapped a few pictures of the Eiffel Tower and saw a bunch of peddlers swinging people away from their money (up to 400 quid. Live and learn (O_O)!)

The Eiffel Tower in front of a cloudy sky

Finally, I decided it was too cold to continue walking around and headed back to the hotel to get ready for the BABYMETAL concert. Truth be told, had I known they would be adding Madrid to their tour, I would not have bought that ticket but as things went, I found that they were going to be in the same venue as DIR EN GREY just a day later, so it made sense to try to stay. It worked out. BABYMETAL is one of those insanely-profitable Japanese marketing stunts involving cute girls that had never really been in my radar until I found a cheap ticket to see them. The crew was quite different from DIRU’s, including good ol’ metalheads and families with little girls. It was entertainingenough, and it seemed very lucky timing.

A group of girls dressed in black dancing in front of a logo that reads Babymetal

The concert was short, so I was back at the hotel before 10pm. Thus I got a good night’s sleep before I left.

10th February 2020: No bells of Notre Dame

My plane boarded at 10am so I had to leave early for the airport. The weather was rainy again, so I took the underground to Gare du Nord and then to the airport, where the staff was super nasty. In the end, I made it to my plane, where I settled down to watch Jurassic World on the way back. As I was riding the train, I had a nice view of the Paris as it was dawning, but the bells of Notre Dame were not tolling, and my inner child was sad about that.

I only had three days, but this trip was a very welcome getaway, and even if the weather did not help, I got to do a lot of stuff. I had to scratch out a few plans due to the weather (and the stupid headache, I think I might have put in the left contact wrong again), but there’ll always be April… Because yes, I’m coming back to Paris for the Saint Seiya Symphonic adventure and that’s going to be epic. And heartbreaking because I found out too late to get VIP tickets (≧▽≦).

19th & 20th August 2019: Bye-bye for a while, Japan {Japan, summer 2019}

For my last day full day in Japan, I dropped my luggage off at Shinjuku station and met with D****e for lunch to say goodbye for now. I also got to say goodbye to Tokyo Tower [東京タワー] from Roppongi Hills [六本木ヒルズ].

Lunch was a bit sad, but the yakiniku was very yummy. After she had to come back to work I met with B**** for drinks and wandering around for a while in Shinjuku [新宿]. We mostly sat at Wendy’s, talking and drinking… whatever this is…

And then she took me to CocoCurry for goodbye-curry.

Then she came with me to Nippori station to help me carry my luggage to the train. I was so mentally exhausted that I did not even stop for a stamp at Narita Terminal 1. I had booked myself a hotel for the night at the airport because I felt that was the best thing for my mental health at that time, and I am glad I did. It was very handy and the transport to the terminal was very smooth.

I had been worried about my Fuji-climbing stick, but I had been told I could check it in. I bought a suit-cover which I sewed, and had no problems with it – I mean, I saw people checking-in kayaks, for fuck’s sake. My stick was tiny in comparison to that! The flight back was a-okay, unremarkable, mostly.

Walked distance: 19th: 11099 steps / 7.94 km. 20th: 5045 steps / 3.60 km. The displacement was a bit longer though… something around the 11000 km (≧▽≦)

The 2019 trip was a long one, full of awesome experiences that I won’t forget any time soon. I hope to gather experience from what went wrong, but not cling onto the bad feelings. I chose not to write about that, and look for the best in every day. Also, I did not really feel it, but a bunch of Japanese friends told me that my language skills had improved, so that made me happy. Now it’s time to go back to the real world and do adulty things, and start dreaming about the next adventure. また今度ね。

15th August 2019: Downpour Shinjuku {Japan, summer 2019}

Once more in Shinjuku [新宿], I stepped out at Tochomae station to go to the Tōkyō Tochō [東京都庁] aka the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building. To my surprise, there was a line for the observatory! Apparently they have closed the North Observatory for renovations (possibly 2020 preparation). When I got to the observatory there was a piano, and at that time, visitors were allowed to play it. I thought “Wouldn’t it be cool if someone did X Japan?”. And then two guys do 紅 with three hands. I was very impressed.

I hoped I would be able to walk around Shinjukucho Teien [新宿中央公園] before it started raining.

As I was in Shinjukujunisha Kumano Jinja [新宿十二社 熊野神社], where I got a shuuin, it started pouring.

Thus, I went back to the covered station underpasses as fast as I could and then tried to get my way round the inner passages… with dubious success. I did find the Shinjuku tourist office, because they had Coke packs there, but I could not find one that had sakura and Tokyo bottle in it (ó_ò).

Then I went to Tower Records to see INORAN’s guitar, which was on display prior to his tour.

And then I headed off to Roppongi [六本木]. And you know what I found in the first random vending machine I came across? The freaking Tokyo Coke bottle, which turned out not to be only in Shinjuku! I had been looking for it for days (;¬_¬)

Afterwards, I met D****e and M*****san for a nice shabu-shabu dinner.

Walked distance: 10978 steps / 7.85 km.

14th August 2019: The other side of Harajuku {Japan, summer 2019}

After a sweep around the V-kei shops in Shinjuku [新宿], I dropped by Shibuya [渋谷区] (finally) to go to the big Tsutaya there, along with the Mandarake and Tokyu Hands. And there, in the most random vending machine in a backstreet, I managed to find the Shibuya coke bottle (which I drank with glee as I had approached the vending machine as I was thirsty). Then I walked towards Harajuku [原宿], but instead of Takeshita Doori, this time I turned towards the other side. I wanted to see the LemonEd flagship shop, as the Nagoya one did not convince me. LemonEd is a brand created by the deceased X Japan’s guitarist Hide, known for his bright colour combinations and hearts. I wanted to see the shop at least once, I guess, even if “bright” is probably not my thing (≧▽≦). There were many items, T-shirts and so on and I sneaked a couple of pictures.

I went on a little and arrived at Tōgō Jinja [東郷神社], which I really liked. I got a shuuin there too, and almost lost my shuuincho there because the miko would not call my number to give it back (;¬_¬).

I walked from Harajuku back to Shinjuku via Yoyogi [代々木], and I pretty much went around the NTT Docomo Yoyogi Building [NTTドコモ代々木ビル] from all angles (and weather backgrounds).

When I arrived at Shinjuku station [新宿駅] though, I came across… the Salamander God in a Takashiyama Window… I’m not kidding you.

Once I was in Shinjuku I tried to find the Tokyo Coke bottle in another random vending machine… It did not work, but I found the Kabukichō Benzaiten [歌舞伎町弁財天], which I had seen in passing, and wanted to snoop around.

After kushikatsu dinner, we called it a day.

Walked distance: 19234 steps / 13.7 km.

13th August 2019: Steamy steamy Tokyo {Japan, summer 2019}

Following recommendations from some Japanese acquaintances, I headed off to the Shinagawa [品川区] area to visit Hebikubo Jinja / Kamishinmeitenso Jinja [蛇窪神社 / 上神明天祖神社], a pretty shrine where I got a pretty shuuin (aaaand discovered another stamp rally).

Among rain, sun and drizzle it was exhaustingly hot. I continued on to find Kimyozan Yogyokuin Nyorai [帰命山養玉院如来寺], a temple with amazing guardians.

And then I found an obviously very dangerous and aggressive tiny pond, I mean, look at those meshes (yes, I know that it’s probably for children safety, but I shall still make jokes about it). It was the Hara no Suijin-ike [原の水神池].

Checking how to come back I came across Ōmori Shell Mound Ruins Garden, Ōmori Kaidzuka Iseki Teien [大森貝塚遺跡庭園] and the Statue of Ōmori Shell Mound, Ōmori Kaikyo no Ishibumi [大森貝墟の碑]. The Ōmori Shell Mound was apparently the first archaeological excavation in Japan. They dig out a seaside village from the Jomon period (14,000 to 300 BC).

Opposite I found Naritasan Ennoji [成田山圓能寺].

And before I left I noticed the ground decoration on the pavement – life evolution and… telephone greetings. Because Japan, I guess…

Then I looked at Tokyo Tower [東京タワー] from Roppongi [六本木], as I checked the Don Quijote for Tokyo Coke bottles, without success.

I also came across tiny Asahi Jinja [朝日神社].

Then dinner was supermarket sushi, which was very, very yummy.

Walked distance: 14009 steps / 10.0 km

7th August 2019: Dragons & kappa {Japan, summer 2019}

It is by now a tradition to go Ueno [上野] and the National Museum of Nature and Science, Kokuritsu Kagaku Hakubutsukan [国立科学博物館] to see the summer exhibition this time it was about kyouryuu [恐竜博], “fear dragons” aka dinosaurs – this year the exhibition was called 恐竜博 2019 THE DINOSAUR EXPO 2019. So it was a must-go for me (^o^)/

And then of course I wandered a little around the evolutionary wards of the museum, because of course I did.

I came out and I turned right instead of left, so I walked right into Kaisan-do (Ryo-daishi) [開山堂 (両大師)] (which on google maps appears as Rinnoji. Note to self: explore the area beyond next time over.

Then I crossed above all the railways leading in and out Ueno station.

I continued on until I got to Sogenji [曹源寺] also known as the temple of the kappa, Kappa-dera [かっぱ寺]. There is a legend related to a raincoat maker who was helped by a kappa when he wanted to build a drainage system in the area. There are a lot of kappa in the temple.

They also populate the nearby area, Kappabashihon [かっぱ橋本].

After that, I backtracked back to Ueno and from there I took a train to Ikebukuro [池袋] to do some window shopping. Then I looked at Tokyo Tower [東京タワー] from Roppongi [六本木] before D****e and I had dinner and called it a day.

Walked distance: 13384 steps / 9.57 km

3rd August 2019: Higashiyama Sky Tower and ELL {Japan, summer 2019}

In the morning I headed out of the Nagoya centre and to Higashiyama Sky Tower [東山スカイタワー]. This was a bit far out and I had slept in – did I mention tiredness catching up? I also considered the zoo/aquarium but in the end I decided against it.

A collage of the Higashiyama Sky tower, a rectanglar building with a cilindrical core, mostly built in glass and metal. The smaller pictures show the view of the park, and the earthquake damper

I had an amazing lunch set in the shopping mall underneath / connected to Nagoya Station on my way back.

Lunch set: cold soba, white rice, breaded prawns, pickles, and green tea

Then I headed out for Electric Lady Land because my second KAMIJO concert of this trip was held there. Bought goods, waited around, enjoyed the concert. ELL is a small venue and we were not many people there for the concert – it was strange that there were so much people in Tokyo to fill up the Blitz, but not enough in Nagoya to fill ELL. It was a more humble concert, with a smaller screen for the projections, but it was fun none the less. I was able to stand close to the stage, but I chose the wrong side – I stood left while KAMIJO donned right. I shall learn from that. The set list was the same, which gave me the chance to appreciate the new songs even better. Glad I got to attend both concerts, never mind how different and similar at the same time they were.

Notice reading ell. Fits all. Japan Tour 19 Persona Grata. Kamijo. Open 18:30, Start 19:00

Walked distance: 16231 steps / 11.6 km. We don’t trust this measure either as it counts the furutsuke as walking (≧▽≦).

1st August 2019: Takehara’s Little Kyoto in Aki {Japan, summer 2019}

Takehara [竹原市], in Hiroshima Prefecture, claimed to have its own Gion-like district, and they are trying really hard to promote it. I decided to check out whether it was true / worth it. And after half an hour what I kept wondering was “are you sure you’d want this to become as crowded as Kyoto?”

The historical area consists on a few streets, temples and shrines dating back to the Edo period. Let’s see whether I can retell the route accurately. My first stop was Izumo Jinja [出雲神社]

After I had taken the wrong turn a couple of times because the map was cute but not that accurate, I found the “Takehara Historical District”, actually Takehara Townscape Conservation Area Takehara Machinami Hozon Chiku [たけはら町並み保存地区]. The main tourist route runs along Honmachi [本町] Street, and during my whole walk I ran across maybe ten other tourists.

My first diversion was Choseiji [長生寺].

After this I had a better idea of where I was, so things rolled more easily. I continued along the houses and turned right to climb up Saihoji Fumeikaku [西方寺普明閣].

Afterwards I visited Okakae Jizo [おかかえ地蔵], who will grant you wishes if you pick him up

Then Ebisu Jinja or Kodo [胡堂].

Afterwards, Shōrenji [照蓮寺].

Historical alley, holding Shumpukan [春風館] and Fukkokan [復古館].

I diverted then to Sumiyoshi Taisha [住吉神社].

And Kusunoki Jinja [楠神社].

Isonomiya Hachimangu [磯宮八幡] was under construction, so I did not bother the workers.

After this I wandered a little around the river, considering whether going to the harbour or not, but in the end I decided against it and headed off back to the station, where I took a train towards Mihara [三原], where I visited the site of Mihara Castle Remains, Mihara jōato [三原城跡].

I also found… Rakkii Jinja [らっきー神社], which I think it’s actually “Lucky Jinja”… in Mihara Station… I don’t ask anymore… but apparently Mihara is the “Octopus Town” and this is their mascot?

Then I went on back towards Nagoya via Kobe. This took around three and a half hours, so I was in Nagoya [名古屋] around late afternoon. Once there, I continued on my search for long jackets and I was finally successful in acquiring two of them in the Midland Square Mall, where I actually went to check out on a LemonEd pop-up shop… which I almost didn’t find because it was way too discrete.

Walked distance: 17438 steps / 12.4 km.

31st July 2019: Journey to the East (2): To the bunnies! {Japan, summer 2019}

I caught the train early in the morning to get to Fukuyama [福山] (Hiroshima Prefecture), barely 15 minutes away from Okayama by train. I wanted to see the local castle, Fukuyama-jo [福山城], which I had not been able to see the last time I had been around because I was a bubblehead and missed the train that gave me leeway to stop (and it was a Monday and closed). Thus, this time I factored it in.

After visiting the castle I found the complex found by Abe Jinja [阿部神社] and Bingo Gokoku Jinja [備後護国神社].

And then Sanzoinari Jinja [三蔵稲荷神社].

These three shrines were located within the same park as the Castle, but my map also pointed out that Fukuyama Hachimangu [福山八幡宮] was not that far away, so I went to find it too.

On my way back I diverted because a building had drawn my attention and I wanted to find out what it was – it turned out to be, and I quote the “Holy Zion’s Park St. Valentine” [ホーリーザイオンズパークセントヴァレンタイン]. It was a wedding venue. Live and learn.

As I had some time before the train I wanted to take, I also checked the Fukujyukaikan [福寿会館], which turned out to be a ‘traditional house with a teahouse’, so I did not come in.

After that, I took another train to Mihara where I took the Kure line towards Takehara. However, I stopped halfway, in a small station called Tadanoumi [忠海]. What is there in Tadanoumi? The ferry to Okunoshima.

And what the hell is there in Okunoshima? Bunnies. Hundreds of tame rabbits which you can feed and which will climb on you to demand your food, or climb into your backpack of bag or whatever you’re carrying.

So yes, I went to Okunoshima [大久野島]. I could lie to you and tell you that I was there because of the island (horrific) history, and places like the Poison Gas Museum Ōkunoshima Dokugasu Shiryōkan [大久野島 毒ガス資料館].

Or the magically decaying Okunishima Jinja [大久野島神社].

Or the beautiful scenery.

But bluntly put I was there for the rabbits and bunnies and bunbuns and the fluff and the floppy ears and the straight ears too. Okunoshima is also known as Rabbit Island. After it was abandoned after WWII, apparently a bunch of students released some domestic rabbits and they have colonised the whole island. Now you can go and feed them, although you are encouraged not to grab them or ‘put your fingers near their mouths’. For three hours I pranced around finding bunnies and feeding bunnies.

Then I took the ferry back to Tadanaoumi as the sun started to set.

I continued on the Kure Line to Takehara [竹原市], the city / town Tadanoumi actually belongs to (and I was super lucky because there were disturbances and delays for hours starting the following train). Honestly it was just the nearest hotel I had found – I mean, when I went out the only thing I found to grab a bite to eat was a McDonald’s… and they made my fries to order. I also found out about the town’s unofficial mascot, a character called Momonekosama [ももねこ様], from an anime that is set in Takehara

I had saved up the following day as “buffer day”. I did not know whether to try and get to Kure, or directly back to Nagoya, I thought it would just depend on how tired I was… But the hotel had a little map about how Takehara’s historical district was “Little Kyoto”… I thought maybe that was worth checking out.

Walked distance: 19058 steps, 13.6 km