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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

28th May 2022: San Cristóbal de la Laguna, Bajamar & Santa Cruz de Tenerife {Tenerife, birthday 2022}

I had a four-day weekend that happened to overlap with my birthday, so I decided to get myself a present and I booked the four days out – I wanted to visit the Spanish island of Tenerife. I seemed to have a streak of luck finding a decent flight, a couple of good hotels and a free permission to visit the peak of Mount Teide, a non-extinct volcano that happens to be the highest peak in Spain. I also decided to rent a car for the first time so I could travel around the island and do different activities in different places.

The plane left on time at 8:15 on Saturday – and I have to say that I love my IKEA travel bag, because it has a huge capacity but the perfect size to place under the seat, therefore I do not need to queue up for boarding to make sure I can stow the carry on. We taxied at the correct time, but when we got to the runway, we stopped. It turned out that one of the sensors was giving a warning of a 400 ºC temperature on one of the wheels. It turned out to be a false alarm, but we ended up with an hour-long delay that ended up cascading.

I reached the airport and got my rental – Volkswagen Polo I had to learn how to reverse. Once I was done with that, it was surprisingly easy to get by. I drove off to San Cristobal de la Laguna and went off to visit the historic quarter, which is a Unesco World Heritage site as an example of colonial architecture – Centro Histórico de San Cristobal de la Laguna. Most of the buildings date back to the 15th century, and the design was then copied in different colonial cities in South America. The houses are painted in different colours and most of them sport amazing woodwork in their doors or balconies.

It gave me a pretty distinct “Disneyland” feeling as the pedestrian streets are plagued with cafés, brand shops and bars. It was packed with tourists like myself flocking in guided tours from the tourist office, which seemed to only open to gather groups in order to hold those tours. As the week before my trip had been work-crazy, I had not been able to plan in detail, so my plan was to hit the tourist office, gather information and move on. This did not work out, and on top of that, the cathedral Catedral de Nuestra Señora de los Remedios was already closing down when I arrived – due to the delay. Other interesting but closed buildings included the church Iglesia Matriz de la Concepción, and several palaces including Casa de los Capitanes and the reconstructed Palacio de Salazar.

Typical buildings from Canary Islands. They are colonial in style, with big doors and windows. The façades are painted with different colours.

Typical buildings from Canary Islands. They are colonial in style, with big doors and windows. The façades are painted with different colours. The streets are wide and full of people.

I’m not going to say that I was disappointed, but I was really not digging the atmosphere, so I decided to move on. Instead of following the initial rough plan, I decided to head off to the tiny village of Bajamar to see the “sea pools”. Built in the petrified lava coast, the Piscinas de Bajamar are swimming pools fed by ocean water that keep swimmers safe from the rocks and the waves. I was lucky enough to find a very good and easy parking spot.

I wandered around the promenade Paseo Marítimo de Bajamar, saw the pools, the beach, and the mini lighthouse Faro de Bajamar.

Waves coming into the volcanic beach, which does not have sand but big black blocks of rock.

I moved onto Santa Cruz de Tenerife afterwards, ditched the car and checked into the hotel, then went off to explore. I walked by the market complex La Recova, also called Mercado de Nuestra Señora de África.

A bright orange building. It has a low, wide wall, and in the centre a clock tower

The tower of the church Iglesia Matriz de la Concepción (yes, again, but another one). The church has been repeatedly rebuilt and renamed between the 15th and 18th centuries. The current building is Canarian Baroque / Tuscan style.

A church with a bell tower. The building is white clay with black rock; this style is typical in the area

My first real destination was Plaza de España where the defensive castle Castillo de San Cristóbal used to stand. Now there is a fountain / pond and you can see the foundations of the castle.

Collage. The former site of the castle, now converted into a fountain or lake. On the other side, the castle foundations, and a cannon.

Next, I found another important square, Plaza de la Candelaria, but it was unfortunately under construction.

A grey building with construction work being done on it

So I moved on to the science and anthropology museum Museo de Ciencia y Antropología de Tenerife. It was rather underwhelming at first, as most of the “exhibit” were photographs. Eventually I reached the “good” stuff, with reconstructions of ancient and extinct animals such as the Canarian giant rat and the Goliath Giant lizard – we’ll come back to those eventually. There were butterfly collections, reproductions of marine animals, rocks and meteorites. In the archaeology ward there were mummies – that was a little unnerving to be honest, I thought we had learnt a little more respect about the ancient cultures.

Before the Europeans arrived in the Canary Islands in the 15th century, there was a previous civilization in Tenerife, called the guanche. The guanche settled in the island around the 6th century. While it is not clear where they came from it is thought that they came from the north of Africa, as their language was similar to those in the Berber language group. They lived off the cattle and the land, and their economy was clearly based on the goat, which they used for everything – food (meat and dairy), clothing, bone tools, and mummification material.

Collage of the museum: a prehistoric carved rock; preserved giant rat and lizard; models of fish; a meteorite; rests of mummies (a foot and an arm)

After the museum, I walked along the harbour and saw the modern concert hall Auditorio de Tenerife, designed by the famous architect Santiago Calatrava, whose style is easily recognised – even though in recent years he has drawn criticism for going way beyond budget and his building having problems due to “over innovation”.

The auditorium. It looks like the sail of a yacht, all white.

A few steps further stands the tiny fortress Castillo de San Juan Bautista, built between 1641 and 1643, and rebuilt the following century. I would have loved to see the botanical garden, but it closed early – as most things seemed to do.

Small castle surrounded by a moat that fills up in high tide.

I took a small detour to see the former arsenal Casa de la Pólvora, built in masonry in the 18th century. Eventually, I went to the supermarket to buy some dinner and snacks for the upcoming adventures, and called it a day after 14 hours on the go.

Armourine building. It looks like a treasure chest, built in grey rock

13th March 2022: The outskirts of Madrid (Spain)

I’m usually rather enthusiastic when I visit new places, but if there is a place that I’ve found kind of over-hyped, that has been the park Parque del Capricho, in Madrid. “Capricho”, which means whim or folly – in its architectural meaning of an often extravagant picturesque building erected to suit a fanciful taste, or building erected for decoration, typical of the French and English decorative gardens from the 18th century. The park is located in Madrid, and the only romantic garden that remains in Madrid. It was promoted by the 12th Duchess of Osuna between 1787 and 1839, and became a recreational area for the nobility of the time. Some of the most important gardeners and landscapers of the time worked on its design. It was declared Historical Garden in 1934 and restored in 1999.

So it is a garden, with some plants, some flowers, and a bunch of weird-looking decorative items, that takes itself a bit too seriously. It won’t accept pets and you can’t bring any food inside (it has some cage-looking “lockers” were you can leave your stuff.”. There is a strict capacity control that does nothing for it not to feel ridiculously crowded on a regular nice-weather Sunday. Maybe it improves in spring / summer, and with fewer people, but I had some stuff to do in the area and that is why I made time to visit today.

It had been raining all week, so I had mostly scrapped my plans. It was a great sunny day though so in the end I decided to get there. Parking the car was ridiculously easy – though the parking spot was maxed out, I found a very easy one in the avenue next to the park – good, it was close as I would not put my sandwich in the crappy-looking lockers and preferred taking it back to the car. Then I walked in, and explored for a couple of hours – and don’t tell anyone, but I ate a piece of candy, just to be rebellious (≧▽≦) (and to make sure I did not sugar crash without any food around, but that does not really make for a good story).

While I of course did not expect everything to be blooming and colourful and green… I hoped that it would have at least maintained through winter. No such luck. A bunch of areas were fenced off, the footpaths were swamped with puddles, and the water in the ponds was not as clean as it should have been. Exploring the 14 hectares took me about an hour and a half, considering that I did go into all the little paths, but all the buildings were closed and / or under constructions. There is a Civil War bunker in the park too, but that is only open through pre-booked guided visit and I did not know I was going to do this 30 minutes before I jumped on the car. The few flowers that had already bloomed included the garden pansies (Viola × wittrockiana, which are after all winter flowers), and the yellow and white daffodils (narcissus, maybe the subspecies jonquil Narcissus jonquilla). There were a couple of black swans (Cygnus atratus) at the main pond, and mallards (Anas platyrhynchos) on every second water body, including fountains.

Pond in the park. There are some flowers and buildings around it, and a black swan sunbathing.

Collage of different park decoration: a bush labyrinth, a fountain, and some decoration reminding of Greek temples.

Afterwards, I took a small detour to see if any of the Japanese cherry trees in the park opposite the street Parque Juan Carlos I had started blossoming. The answer was not at all. But the point was heading to the restored castle Castillo de la Alameda. The castle dates back to the 15th century, though there are older remains underneath, and it is thought that its presence is the one that got all the aristocrats to flock to the area, as it switched from defensive castle to palace.

The remains of the castle feature an irregular moat with lobe-like structures in the corners, and the restored keep, which stands up to the first floor, though it must have been much higher. An interesting characteristic of the castle is that it was built using a kind of mortar made from flint. I have to say it was a nice surprise, free to visit.

A clover-shaped castle ruins, all white. There is not much of the castle left, but the moat is almost intact, though empty

To the side of the castle there is a casemate – a fortified machine gun emplacement from the Spanish Civil War, called Nido de Ametralladoras (Machine gun nest), a semi buried cement block for snipers of sorts to defend the position.

Concrete block that was used as a machine-gun base

Then I moved onto Mejorada del Campo a little town near Madrid that only has one tourist attraction – a… handmade cathedral. Of sorts – Catedral de Justo Gallego .

Justo Gallego was born in 1925. Deeply Catholic, he became a young monk-in-training but had to leave the monastery when he contracted tuberculosis. He made a vow to erect a cathedral to the Virgin Mary in her “Lady of the Pillar” avocation, and he sort of did. Throughout the next 60 years he worked on building the cathedral, using recycled material, and on his own. His work came to fame when a soft-drink company made him the star of an advertising campaign, which made him and his work famous.

The cathedral has 12 towers, a crypt, two cloisters, a baptistery, and the main nave is 20×50 metres, with a 35 metres high dome. Most of it was done by hand, using discarded items such as tubes and bicycle wheels. It is garish and childish in its decoration, but I found it to have some strange allure. The cathedral has drawn the attention of international artists and institutions, and apparently Gallego built it without any blueprints or knowledge of construction. Upon his death, an architectural studio started working on “legalising” the cathedral (from an urbanistic point of view; it is not an official Christian building) and is it is now under management from an NGO. It was just a bizarre thing to see, but interesting since I was in the area (sort of. Construction made the route stupidly long), glad I’ve visited it at least once. I did catch a European white stork (Ciconia ciconia ciconia) coming home to one of the towers.

Cathedral made out of recycled items: pipes, plastic bottles, irons... there is a dome and a nave, in bizarre colours.

A stork approaches one of the towers of the cathedral

I drove off afterwards, and I have to say the weather that day was amazing – just in-between two piss-poor ones, so yay spring escapade.

Walking distance: 11.18 km (16916 steps)

22nd & 23rd October 2021: Zaragoza Getaway (Spain)

We had a silly day-and-a-half and it turned out that for some reason a commuting train to Madrid took about as long as a high-speed train to Zaragoza, a town in the area of Aragón that we scratched off our summer route because there are lots of curves in the Pyrenees and time was limited.

22nd October 2021: Churches, Museums and a Palace

The train to Zaragoza arrives at the Delicias station, which is a bit away from the centre of the town, so we took a taxi to the hotel. This was around 9 am so we were of course not expecting any room, what with check-in being 2 pm – we just wanted to drop off the overnight bag. Not being able to give us a room seemed to upset the receptionist quite worried, and he promised to call as soon as a room was available. Honestly, I just set my phone to flight mode because we were starting to visit monuments right away, as the hotel was just by the most important square in town Plaza del Pilar.

Zaragoza is home to one of the most important Christian icons in Spain, the Virgin Mary of the Pillar, Virgen del Pilar. The image is hosted in Catedral-Basílica de Nuestra Señora del Pilar. The bulk of the current cathedral-basilica was built between 1681 and 1686 in the Baroque style, but was later modified quite a few times and it was finalised in 1872. Interesting items in the church include, aside from the virgin image, some frescoes painted by Goya, the main altarpiece, and two bombs that fell within the church during the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939). Zaragoza is very anti pictures inside so I had to sneak them in. Sorry, not sorry.

A collage showing the Baroque Basilica, including unexploded bombs, and two of the altars

Virgin of the Pillar, wearing a mantle

After a small detour to say good morning to the river, Río Ebro, and the Puente de Piedra (stone river), the second building we visited was the Old Market Exchange building – Lonja de Zaragoza. This was the first Renaissance building erected in Zaragoza, dedicated to commerce, with an amazing Gothic-imitation ceiling. Today it is used for exhibits, such as paintings or sculptures.

Coming out, we almost walked into one of the fountains in the square, Monumento a Francisco de Goya, featuring the artist – a brilliant Spanish painter from the Romantic times. He was as brilliant as bad-tempered though. Behind the fountain stands the cathedral, for which we had tickets for 11 am, and it was still early for that.

Thus, we started the route of the Caesaraugusta Museums. Zaragoza was founded in Roman times under this name (where an Iberian dwelling used to be) and in the latest decades, this Roman past has started being dug up. We first visit the museum focused on the original forum, Museo del Foro de Caesaraugusta where we could see the foundations of the old city and walk into the sewers (yeah, it’s cooler than it sounds). The Roman ruins date back from emperors Augustus and his successor Tiberius’ reigns.

After that it was almost time for our reservation to visit the Catedral del Salvador also known as La Seo de Zaragoza, the other cathedral of the town, literally at the end of the same square as the other one. The cathedral mixes several architectonic styles: Romanesque, Gothic and Mudéjar, these last tow being among my favourite styles, so a total win – Renaissance and Baroque elements were added, including the towers. The cathedral has a tapestry museum with a lot of works, not exactly “pretty” but rather impressive.

Following the cathedral we walked towards the rest of the Roman museums, but we made a small detour to look at the Mudéjar tower of the church of Mary Magdalene, Iglesia de Santa Magdalena.

Then we reached the museum of the Bathhouse, which was open but closed – let me explain. They run an “Audiovisual” and close the museum door for as long as it runs. It runs every half hour so finding the thing open seems to be hard. Thus, we moved onto the next archaeological site, related to the old Roman Theatre Museo del Teatro de Caesaraugusta. The theatre was apparently discovered by accident in the early 1970s, and it is apparently one of the biggest Roman theatres in Spain.

We tried our luck with the Bathhouse Museum again Museo de las Termas Públicas de Caesaraugusta. Unfortunately, just like before, we walked up to it while the audiovisual was running, and the concierge made a very studious effort not to see us – so we just peered over the glass roof to see what is left of the main bath.

More impressive was the river port museum Museo del Puerto Fluvial de Caesaraugusta, which keeps the foundations and some of the clay amphorae that were used for import / export.

And believe it or not, we did all that before lunch!! Therefore, we decided it was the right time for a break. We headed back to the hotel to see if we could wash our hands (and take off our facemasks for a while). To our surprise, the hotel had given us an upgrade to a junior suite, so we had a sitting room, a full bathroom and a bedroom – and a balcony that went all along the three. When I opened the window I could hear people playing the piano on the street, as there was some kind of festival going round. Believe it or not… I got to listen to Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody and Rufus Wainwright’s Hallelujah.

We had lunch outside in a place that my companion enjoyed called La Lobera de Martín – not a cheap place, honestly! However, we splurged a little. We shared a smoked fish salad and I had a side of fresh Foie. As a main, ordered steak tartare, which to my surprise, was prepared for me next to the table! For dessert I tried the home-made berry yoghurt. I have to admit that I was totally planning on having a tiny dinner (or completely skip it!) at that time.

After lunch we walked along one of the main arteries of the town, Paseo de la Independencia, to find the Basílica Menor Parroquia de Santa Engracia, to at least see the outside, since we could not fit visiting the interior and the crypt with our tight schedule. One of the most interesting things about this church is how its façade is built like an altarpiece.

Next to the church stands the neo-Mudéjar post office, built in typical bricks from the area – Oficina de Correos de Zaragoza.

And finally, we looked at the current Science Museum, Museo de Ciencias Naturales, the former Medicine University. Why? Because that’s where my parents met *cue romantic music*!

We did not go in though, because we needed a break and had booked a ticket for 5pm somewhere else, so we decided to raise our feet a little for a while in the hotel room – the sitting area was nice though unfortunately there was no more sun on the balcony, else I would have totally impersonated a lizard there (I did scare a pigeon away though, even if the startle was mutual). Our next target was the Medieval palace called Palacio de la Aljafería – a fortress that combines Islamic architecture and ulterior Christian elements. The Moorish palace was built around 1065 – 1081, and it holds a magnificent garden called the Golden Hall with a portico made out of interlocking mixtilinear arches (I totally looked the word up, and will forget it promptly). The palace was taken over by the Christians 1118 and became a palace for the monarchs of Aragón. It was not modified until the 14th century, and in the 15th Century the Catholic Monarchs extended it further into the Mudéjar Palace. Today it is the meeting site for the local government. I adored it, to be honest, I loved the Golden Hall most of all, but the original ceilings in the Christian palace were also really cool.

We walked back towards the Plaza del Pilar (probably through some streets we probably shouldn’t have, hindsight is 20/20 they say), and we reached the church of St. Paul Iglesia Parroquial de San Pablo. The restored interior leaves a bit to be desired, but the exterior, built between the 13th and 14th centuries in the Mudéjar style – it has an octagonal tower in dark tones, with the upper roof added in the 17th century with richly decorated with tiles and windows. It is worth mentioning here that several Mudéjar buildings in Zaragoza, along with others of singular architecture, are declared Unesco World Heritage Site.

Between the church and the square we walked by the central marketplace Mercado Central de Zaragoza in the late 19th and early 20th century, in a combination of stone and iron-and-glass architecture.

Close to it we could see some of the ruins of the original Roman walls Antiguas Murallas de Romanas de Zaragoza, which are actually sprinkled all through the town and mixed with the Medieval ones at points. There, a lady was happily chatting on the phone while her child climbed the walls – so in case it is not evident, here’s a social clue: if there is any kind of barrier / signage around something, it should not be climbed on.

To finish off the day we visited the Museum dedicated to Goya Museo Goya. Goya, whose complete name was Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes (1746 – 1828) was a painter and printmaker from the Romantic age. He is probably one of the most important artists in Spanish history. He was a royal portraitist, fresco decorator, and also painted and printed many critical and fantasy works. To be honest, the museum was a bit underwhelming – with few of the minor works, and one of the least impressive major works, the Christ portrait. There was however a whole room full of prints.

After one more visit to the square, where I managed my only complete picture of the whole (night-lit) Basílica del Pilar from that angle, we just headed to the hotel. There was a sandwich shop at the entrance, so we took one each and had a late light dinner as we watched Night at the Museum in the hotel bathrobes – because it was cozier than turning up the heating. I did not sleep too well as the fire alarm was right on top of the bed and it kept flashing – at one point I thought that an electric storm had hit, but it was just the alarm…

23rd October 2021: Papercraft and walks

The next morning we had breakfast and headed off to the origami museum and workshop EMOZ: Escuela Museo Origami Zaragoza, located in the “Stories Museum” Centro de Historias. I remembered the exhibition from a few years back in Museo Cerralbo in Madrid, with an actual-size hippo, so I have to admit this time I was a little… underwhelmed, probably because the temporary exhibit ended up being “abstract” paper folding…

However, in the very same building there was a very fun exhibition about the evolution of household appliances throughout the 20th century. That was cute!

As we got ready to draw a close to our day-and-a-half getaway we went to say goodbye to the river Río Ebro. We walked by the modern Puente de Zaragoza bridge, and crossed over the Puente de Piedra, the traditional stone river of the town. The current one dates back (although reconstructed) from 1440, but there are records that a previous Roman one stood in its place and was destroyed in the 9th Century. Between the two bridges a flock of cormorant seemed to be sunbathing.

From Puente de Piedra I took my last picture of the Basílica del Pilar before we had a nice milkshake, then headed back to the station to take our train back. By the way – I find it ridiculous that the stations have blocked 60% of the seats while they’re filling up the platforms and the trains as normal…

Total walked distance: 8.69 km

15th October 2021: Torija & Brihuega (Spain)

The castle of Torija is another of those things I’ve regularly driven by and thought ‘I have to visit one day’. Even though I had been warned that it might be disappointing as it had nothing inside but some touristic promo. Boy, was I in for a ride.

I arrived in Torija at around 10:30 in the morning and upon entrance I saw the demand that a reservation had to be made using a QR – the thing was free but it did not allow for 10:00 or 10:30 reservations – you had to pick it up for 11:00.

The castle Castillo de Torija was built in the 14th century, during a time of strife among all the factions and kingdoms of Spain. Later, in the 19th century, it was taken over by the French during the so-called Peninsular War against Napoleon’s troops, after basically the king Ferdinand VII gave Napoleon Spain wrapped in a bow. Napoleon made the king abdicate and installed his brother on the Spanish throne. There was a popular uprising in 1808 to fight off “the French”, who did not like this new attitude. During the war, the castle was occupied and then blown up. The current reconstruction dates back from 1962.

So there I was. The castle was empty – literally – but nobody was allowed before the reservation time because of ‘capacity rules’. So everybody in the castle was in the hall – yours truly, two other tourists, and four employees. All in the hall. Rules are rules again, but in the times of Covid, it feels utterly stupid to do this to ‘control capacity’ – since the rest of the castle was empty.

There was nothing really worthwhile to see in the castle – none of the interiors were even interesting and some of them were almost embarrassingly bad. Just a few pictures and models and mentions of the famous regional honey. I had been warned that it was going to be ‘disappointing’ but this was utterly ridiculous.

Thus, I continued off on my drive and I reached the village of Brihuega, which aside the lavender fields has a number of historical buildings and curiosities and was declared historical site in 1973. I had left the visit to this village for Friday because there were online tickets for the castle on sale, and therefore I had gathered that it was visitable that day. Right? Wrong, but that comes later.

After being unable to find the spot I wanted my Sat-Nav to take me due to blocked streets, I dropped the car at a public parking lot at the edge of the village, then I walked towards the medieval core of the city. The first item I came across was one of the gates to the medieval wall Puerta de la Cadena.

I strolled towards the centre but after a block or so I saw an archway that drew my attention. Upon turning towards it I found myself in front of the church of Saint Philip, Iglesia de San Felipe, which I had seen in my previous flash-trip. The church dates back from the 13th century, and it is a ‘transition’ church from the Romanesque to the Gothic building styles.

I backtracked towards the main street and reached the main square where the tourist information office stands. Here I learnt that there was going to be a popular festival the following day and that explained why some of the streets were blocked. After a quick stop at the tourist information office, where I got a map and a pamphlet, then I check about the process I had read for visiting the Arab caves – Cuevas Árabes. What the Internet told me was that I had to go to the butcher’s and ask the owner to let me in.

It was true – it turns out that the caves are private property and only he has decided to open up his. The Cuevas Árabes are a number of tunnels excavated into the rocky bed in the 10th and 11th centuries. They run around 8 km underneath the village, but only around 700 metres can be visited. The temperature is constant throughout the year at around 12ºC, so it is thought that they were used for food storage, and several sites say for wine. There are a number of large earthenware jars that are indeed used by winegrowers, but Arabs historical Arabs wouldn’t be drinking wine? I’d put my money on oil, but I really don’t have information to make more than a guess.

The butcher asked me what I wanted, I answered that I wanted to visit the caves. Then he proceeded to ask if I wouldn’t be scared – I paid (2.50€) and I went in after reassuring the guy I would be okay and he explained that I would also find some Visigoth archways, older than the Arab caves themselves and probably a starting point for them. The caves were the highlight of the day, really cool and mystifying, although I kept half-expeciting the owner to jump at me and try to scare me.

After the caves I headed out to the castle area, for which I had to cross another of the wall gates Arco de la Guía.

I found myself in a small square with the castle Castillo de la Peña Bermeja to my left. The castle is mixed with the graveyard in a very strange organisation. Unfortunately, it was closed (despite the fact that the website was selling tickets for the day – so glad I did not want to pay almost double in advance!). The castle is of Arab origin, built between the first and third centuries, and it gathers its name from the reddish colour of the mountain it stands on (Peña Bermeja means Vermillion Crag).

I also got to visit the inside of the church of Saint Mary, Iglesia de Santa María de la Peña by pure chance. The church was built during the 13th century, and it hosts the image of the patron virgin of the village.

Then I walked back towards the car, passing by the corridor they were building for the running of the bulls, I saw some more buildings, such as the convent of Saint Joseph, and the traditional fountains. Then I deviated towards the medieval walls Murallas de Brihuega, which was the last spot for my three-day on-and-off adventure.

Driving distance: Around 68 km (without counting the Sat-Nav merry-go-round)
Walking distance: 7.33 km

8th October 2021: Tamajón & Cogolludo (Spain)

When I went to the waterfalls of the Aljibe I drove past a little village I had never heard of before – Tamajón, and a side sign reading “Pequeña Ciudad Encantada de Tamajón”. The term “Cuidad Encantada”, meaning Enchanted or Magic City, is used in Spanish to refer to karst formations. Karst is the name of a particular topography, created by the dissolution and chemical weathering of soluble rocks, chiefly but not just limestone.

The particular Spanish karst landscapes were formed by precipitation of salts – calcium carbonate – in the quiet waters of the Tethys Ocean during the Mesozoic Era (251-66 million years ago). Plate tectonics made central Spanish arise during the Cretaceous (the later subdivision of the Mesozoic, 140-66 million years ago) emerge, and the calcium carbonate became exposed to the elements, which started the erosion process. The most famous karst landscape in Spain is the Ciudad Encantada near Cuenca, which I guess spread the name.

Tamajón has a short hiking route around its karst formation, and while it is true that they are on the relatively smaller size, there are different shapes. I started my hiking route at the Ermita de la Virgen de los Enebrales, hermitage church dedicated to the Virgin of the Juniper Forest – the current building was reformed in the Renaissance style, thought the actual dates are shaky.

I started on the hiking route from the hermitage, along the road, and there were no markings there, so I kind of winged it for a while. After I took the first turn and started going up the rocks, I found the painting marking the routes – I had a handmade map because someone had shared it online, so I just went along it, and when I finished I redid about a fourth of it to take a detour to the other side of the road. There are cracks, arches, caves, cavities and capricious forms. I spent about an hour and a half walking around almost completely alone, which was awesome.

On my way back I stopped by the Church of the Assumption Iglesia de la Asunción, also a Romanesque – Renaissance mixture. The porch is typical of Romanesque churches in the Camino de Santiago (St. James’ Way), to shelter pilgrims.

As it was still early and I was relatively close, instead of driving home I headed off to another village called Cogolludo. I parked the car at the edge of the village and walked towards the main square, where there is a famous Renaissance palace Palacio de los Duques de Medinaceli. It is considered the first Renaissance Palace built in Spain, and it is reported to have been finished in 1492. The palace was designed by Lorenzo Vázquez de Segovia, with exquisite decoration, and the blaring lack of towers, which were very popular at the time. If I’m ever in the area again I might want to try to see the interior, which is only open in the guided visits.

The Palace stands in the main square Plaza Mayor which has a typical Castilian arcade with stone columns (unfortunately workers, sun and cars made it hard to take a good picture of it).

Cogolludo has two churches, Iglesia de Santa María de los Remedios (Our Lady of Remedies) and Iglesia de San Pedro (Saint Peter), both dating from the 16th century, but both completely closed down.

Finally, there are also the ruins of the Medieval Castle Castillo de Cogolludo, but there was not much incentive to climb up. All in all, it was a short but interesting morning – though I glad I teamed the two visits up, going to Cogolludo on its own would have not felt productive.

Driven distance: around 115 km
Walking distance: 7.27 km

22nd August 2021: Romanesque Soria {Spain, summer 2021}

We just spent the morning in Soria, in the region of Castilla y León, before we got on our way back in the early afternoon, but I have to say that the good morning sunset was spectacular.

As again we had a breakfast slot at 8:00, we were out to see stuff at around 9:00. The Parador de Soria is located on the top of the Castle Park Parque del Castillo, we just had to go down. First we came across some of the ruins and the buildings that had populated the area in Medieval times.

As we continued our trek downwards we ended up at the church of Our Lady of the Thorn Iglesia de Nuestra Señora del Espino, which was closed as it was still early on a Sunday morning.

In the tiny garden in front of the church there is a dead tree that has been preserved by pouring fibreglass and other synthetic materials on it – the dry elm tree, Olmo Seco. In 1912, the Spanish poet Antonio Machado wrote a poem – to an old elm tree, struck by lightning and half-rotten, which has sprouted a few green leaves after April rain and May sun… Well, this is the tree, preserved for all to see, with the poem in a small sign (and another in Braille) right next to it.

After staying there for a few minutes, we went on our trek downwards and we reached another church, the church of St. John San Juan de la Rabanera. It is known that the church had already been built in 1270. In the Renaissance and Baroque periods it was heavily remodelled, but restorations during the 20th century recovered most of the Romanesque purity. The main portal, although Romanesque too, used to be part of another church. The apse keeps all the Romanesque decoration – unfortunately, it was closed too.

We kept strolling around the town centre and came across a bunch of palaces – some of them have been repurposed into public-service buildigns such as the local government, revenue and taxes services, town’s archive, a high school… others were for sale or rent.

In front of the high school we found the sculpture to the poet I mentioned before, Escultura a Antonio Machado.

Not far from there we found the church of Saint Dominic Iglesia de Santo Domingo. Like the church of St. John, it is a reformed Romanesque temple. The most important and impressive part of the church is the main façade, in golden stone with amazing carvings (considered by some the best Romanesque façade in the country), and a rose window.

We decided to try to find the co-cathedral of St Peter Concatedral de San Pedro. Dating back from the 12th century, on the outside, it just looks like yet another Romanesque church, but that changes when you enter. When it is illuminated, the church seems to glow.

Furthermore, you can access the cloister of the former collegiate, which was also built in the 12th century as part of a now-disappeared monastery.

We walked back to the centre of the town. We left the main square Plaza Mayor de Soria, which I accessed through a tiny archway delimited by coloured windows, named Arco del Cuerno.

We ended up at main park Alameda de Cervantes.

However, we were more interested in seeing the archaeological museum Museo Numantino, which was open by then – it holds a few ancient straight-Tusked elephant (Elephas antiquus), Pehistoric art, and most of the artefacts that have been found in Numantia, both Roman and Celtiberian, including Roman statues, Celtiberian weapons and drinking jars and the most famous relic of all: a tiny horse-shaped fibula (brooch) that has been adopted as the symbol of Soria.

Finally, on our way out, we stopped at the ruins of the monastery of Saint John of the Douro, commonly just referred to as “archway” and not monastery Arcos de San Juan de Duero, a very cool cloister with different arc styles – a typical Romanesque one from the 13th century, and a second one that might have had Arab influence.

And with this, we drove back home for around 170 km after walking for 6.57 km. Fingers crossed for the next adventure working out!

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.

19th August 2021: A Monastery and a Castle {Spain, summer 2021}

We packed up and in the morning, we continued out trip, heading generally westward towards our next destination, which was about an hour and twenty minutes away. Unfortunately, we got on a slight disagreement with the Sat-Nav again – it sent us through the secondary road and in the end we took two hours going through the curves. Thus, around 10 am we managed to get our tickets to the “royal” monastery Real Monasterio de San Juan de la Peña – which is in the middle of nowhere but technically belongs to Jaca.

The monastery is actually two (or three, depending on how you look at it). The old monastery, Monasterio Viejo de San Juan de la Peña was built in the Romanesque style, and dates back from the tenth century. Its origins, however, seem to be more obscure, related to Iberian and pagan rituals. It is excavated into / built onto the vertical wall of a natural cove occurring in a bare-rock hill or crag in the middle of the forest. It held a convent, a church, and a cloister on the first floor. From the time it was built till the time it was confiscated by the government in the 19th century, it became one of the burial points for the monarchs of the old Kingdom of Aragón and Navarra, thus the “royal” eponym.

One of the many legends regarding the monastery is that it was home to the Holy Grail between the 11th and the 14th century. Later, in the 17th century, there was a fire, and it was decided to build a new monastery. Here is what is weird – there is a building there now, the so-called new monastery Monasterio Nuevo de San Juan de la Peña. Some of the buildings have survived, but most of it is an archaeological museum / excavation of what was there, again until the liberal confiscation.

Issues: You can only visit the old monastery after buying your tickets at the new monastery. And to get from one monastery to the other, you need to take the shuttle, again, awesome during Covid times. Furthermore, there was no control of the number of people there, which resulted in an overcrowding that would have been uncomfortable in normal times, much more during the pandemic. While the bus makes sense due to the fact that there is literally no way to park around the old monastery, some crowd managing would have been necessary.

After visiting both monasteries, we went back to the awful road. I don’t know if it was the curves, the heat, that I had overdone it the day before, or all of the above but I was not feeling well. Thankfully after some food and a stop at the water reservoir Embalse de la Peña, I felt better.

We continued our way and made a stop to look at an interesting geological feature called Mallos de Riglos, which are several almost-detached vertical walls of conglomerate rock left behind by erosive processes that dragged away what used to be around them. They stand up to 275 metres high over the river Río Gállego.

This was a short stop from a viewpoint, but we soon drove on towards the next destination – after one of the most important buildings in religious Romanesque architecture, we were going to see a civil counterpart, the (self-reportedly) best-preserved Romanesque castle in the world: Castillo de Loarre. The truth is that, from afar it looks awesomely cool, though once you are inside, it loses a bit of its appeal as there is no perspective. Besides, it was too hot to hike down the hill for good views.

The keep is built on a rocky hill, and the surrounding buildings are connected to it by a number of doors and haphazard stairs and arcs. Both the main towers and the fortified wall were erected around 1287, in a strategic point between the Muslim and the Christian kingdoms battling over the place. As the Christians expanded their influence, the Muslim tribes retreated towards the Mediterranean, leaving the castle “jobless” in a way, and the castle decayed until it was restored (twice) in the 20th century.

After the castle, we went back to the car, and from there I fought the Sat-Nav (I was not the driver). When I saw that it wanted to send us through another god-forsaken secondary road full of curves for over a hundred kilometres, I advocated for 123 km of main roads and highways. I won (^◇^)y, and around half past seven we arrived in our next destination Sos del Rey Católico, where we would be staying at the Parador for two nights (of course, I got my stamp there). A great improvement from the hotel in Torla-Ordesa, and a welcome one, with awesome sunset views to go with it.

Total driven distance: 272 km. Maybe around five hours and a bit? Some of the roads felt eternal.
Total walked distance: 5.23 km.

12th September 2020: Sigüenza (Spain)

We took a drive to Sigüenza, in Spain. This medieval town? big village? had a big relevance through the Middle Ages, and the historical centre reflects that. The most prominent point is the castle on top of a hill. The Castillo de los Obispos is a fortress that can be traced to Roman times. However, the actual castle was a Moorish alcazaba. After the Christians took it over in the 12th century, it was remodelled and enlarged. Due to its vantage point, the castle was a key element in different wars and strife, including the Napoleonic invasion and the Civil War, thus resulting pretty damaged. In the late 20th century it was decided to restore it turn it into a Parador with around 50 rooms.

During our planning stage we called and tried to book a restaurant for lunch, and we were told they were not taking them, we had to call on the same day. Of course, when we got there, it was impossible to book – there was a course and the celebration of a communion (seriously, people, learn to say no so others can get organised). Unfortunately, you could not see the interior or even the yard if you had no reservations, so I can only share a picture from the parking lot, where we left the car.

We walked down the main street Calle Mayor, a clobbered slope that ends (well, technically begins) at the town’s main square.

Main Square or Plaza Mayor is home to the Town Hall or Ayuntamiento de Sigüenza, an old palace with a typical Castillian inner yard or patio.

Opposite the town hall stands the cathedral Catedral de Santa María La Mayor de Sigüenza. The Gothic building was built upon a previous Romanesque one and it had some Neoclassical and Baroque additions. Thus, the façade sports Romanesque doors and rose window, and the main body is Gothic. The altar and the choir are awfully Baroque too, and some of the chapels sport Cisneros, Plateresque and Renaissance decorations. All in all, an interesting pout-pourri of architectural and decoration styles.

The most important piece of art of the cathedral, however, is a funerary piece to the right of the altar. It is the sepulchre of Martín Vázquez de Arce “El Doncel” (“The Young Man”). The chapel holds him, his parents and grandparents, but the sculpture on his sepulchre is the most impressive one. The Vázquez de Arce family were vassals of the Mendoza family, the most important family in the area during the Middle Ages. During the war to conquer Al-Andalus, the Vázquez de Arce males followed the Mendoza to the war in Granada, where Martín died in a trap set by the Arabs, which consisted on damming the River Genil to a creek, and then releasing the dam so the water took over the enemies crossing (which… kinda sounds like something out of the Lord of the Rings, doesn’t it? At least, it makes me think of Arwen and Treebeard). The sepulchre, commissioned by Martín’s brother, presents him taking a break during training and reading a book. He even has pupils, so if you could climb up, you’d see what he’s reading!

The cloister is also Gothic, as the previous Romanesque one was torn down. It holds a central garden and a number of side rooms where there is a collection of mythology-themed tapestries. In one of the chapels, there is also a painting by El Greco, a Greek painter rooted in Spain who was one of the key artists during the Spanish Renaissance.

The cathedral ticket also allows a visit to the Diocesan Museum Museo Diocesano, which holds many pieces of religious art, along with a few models of the cathedral in its different construction stages. These days I’m trying to learn some hagiography, which means how to identify religious figures by how they’re presented. Getting there, three out of ten times or so, because half the time they cheat.

After the cathedral we climbed up towards the castle, and we stopped at the former church Iglesia de Santiago, now transformed into a mini-introduction centre for all the “hidden” or “unknown” Romanesque in the area. The church itself had some beautiful paintings, but it was destroyed during the Civil War.

Continuing our way up, we turned a little to see the house where the Vázquez de Arce family used to live, now turned in a museum, Museo Casa del Doncel. There is a little paintings exhibition and a guitar museum, along with some ancient artefacts such as vases or looms. The most interesting part are the Moorish “Mozárabe” decoration. Here is a bit of historic trolling: when the Christian “conquerors” hired Arab craftsmen to do decoration, one of the things the Arabs did was decorate using Quran verses.

Then we saw the outside of the church Iglesia de San Vicente Mártir, Romanesque to boot.

Afterwards, we ended up at the square Plazuela de la Cárcel, where the old gaol jail stood.

Finally, we headed over to the restaurant where we had booked a lunch table, a traditional grill called La Taberna Seguntina where I chose to have a “summer menu” with salmorejo (a thick soup or purée made with tomato, oil, and bread and sprinkled with boiled egg and cured ham) and roasted cochinillo (suckling pig, roasted whole) with potatoes and herbs. For dessert I had a pudding!

And that was it, really – Medieval Sigüenza has nothing else to see. As the façade of the castle was being restored, we did not even take pictures of it as we drove away.

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

4th August 2020: Meanders and Curves {Spain, summer 2020}

The area we were visiting that day, called Ribeira Sacra, is sprinkled with Christian monasteries [mosteiros] and churches [Igrexas] in the Romanesque and Gothic styles. These religious sites became commonplace during the Medieval times, along the way that leads up to Santiago de Compostela, an important Christian pilgrimage site. The route is called Camino de Santiago (St. James’ Way).

We started off with a fierce battle against the car’s sat-nav as it refused to take us to our first stop, the church of St. Michael in a tiny hamlet. I managed to trick the navigator and we arrived at the Iglesia de San Miguel de Eiré only a little later than expected. The church is small and it was built in the Romanesque style, which is common the Ribeira Sacra. The church was built in the second half of the 12th century, and has a remarkable archway. Back in the day, it belonged to a monastery.

Afterwards we backtracked to what is probably its successor – another monastery, the Monasterio Cisterciense del Divino Salvador in Ferreira, which was built in three styles – the church is Romanesque (12th century), the main building and the walls are Baroque (18th century) and the inner cloister is Renaissance (16th century). There are also two Romanesque wooden sculptures.

Then we set off towards a salad of curves the heart of the Ribeira Sacra, the area of the River Sil where the water has excavated a deep canyon – well, ish. There was a lot of tectonic activity going on in the area a long time ago that helped the development of the river canyon, the Canón do Sil. It is dammed at the moment, which has made the river depth increase.

We had booked a “cruise” in a “catamaran” that turned out to be a plain-old boat and way too packed for my peace of mind. Fortunately everybody wore masks, we had the N-95 that protect both ways ones, and used a lot of hand sanitiser – my nails are really, really off due to the use and abuse of hand sanitiser. We sailed off the wharf Embarcadoiro do Santo Estevo and the views were pretty nice. Both the narrator and narration not so much, though the bit about the “special” vineyards perched on the canyon walls was interesting.

After a ninety-minute sail, we disembarked and took the car again to drive to the Parador de Santo Estevo to have lunch (cue stamp number three), where I tried the local beef with foie, while the rest went for the octopus.

Then we took a stroll down the Parador, which is an old monastery that has not one but three cloisters, as the Monasterio de Santo Estevo de Ribas de Sil has existed since the tenth century and buildings have been added. Two of the cloisters are Renaissance and the third is Baroque / Gothic.

Finally we stopped over at the church, whose interior is late Romanesque but with a later façade (and a very Baroque altar).

And then we went back to the curves. Lots and lots of curves. The road ran along the canyon, so we stopped over at a couple of viewpoints to observe the canyons – Miradoiro de Cabezoás:

Miradoiro Balcones de Madrid:

Then we continued onto the ruins of another Romanesque Monastery, Mosteiro de Santa Cristina de Ribas de Sil, with some very nice paintings and a very pretty cloister.

Afterwards we drove back up the road and we found another viewpoint Miradoriro Xariñas de Castro (a.k.a. Miradorio A Mirada Maxica) for more views of the canyon.

We continued to the monastery Mosteiro de Santa María de Montederramo, where we had booked at 19:00 but could join the 18:00 visit instead. Shifty, I know, but we were there at 18:04 and… yeah. Not really worth the wait, even though the Gothic church and cloister were neat, even if a bit unkempt.

And as we were finally driving back towards Monforte de Lemos, we came across the castle Castelo de Castro Caldelas, which was actually on the planning for the next day but we thought we would… how to put this… avoid some curve-driving if we took the stop.

All in all: 135 km driving; 6.96 km walking; around 20 km sailing; hundreds of curves.

3rd August 2020: On the road again {Spain, summer 2020}

After having to cancel London and Greece, we decided to try to at least take a few-day’s worth road trip within Spain as some sort of consolation prize. We were, of course, very careful, using a lot of hand-sanitizer and never taking off our face masks except within the car, hotel rooms or when we were eating – strictly so.

We started off just in time so we surrounded Madrid right after rush hour so we did not get caught in any traffic jams. We drove northwards towards Medina del Campo, a town which played an important role in Spanish history, specially around the time of the Catholic Monarchs and their direct descendants. We were there at 11:00 sharp, right at the time when the castle Castillo de La Mota opened to visitors. Mota is the Spanish word for motte, which is a raised area of ground where a castle keep, and a walled courtyard or bailey, are built. They are protected by a ditch and a palisade. These castles are thus called motte-and-bailey castle. In particular, the castle of La Mota is made of red brick, typical to the area, but it is heavily restored today. The visit included the outer building, the yard and the chapel of St. Louise.

We stopped for a quick lunch at the Parador de Puebla de Sanabria. Paradores is a Spanish brand of state-owned hotels and restaurants which have a good reputation all around the country. In our lunch stop, I got my stamp passport because I can find stamp rallies wherever they are (≧▽≦), and Paradores has launched one.

Then, as we were a couple of hours ahead our very informal schedule, we decided to take a small detour and check out the Parque Natural del Lago de Sanabria y alrededores, the natural park that surrounds the biggest natural lake in Spain, Lago de Sanabria. It is also one of the few, if not the only glacier-origin lake in Spain. It was full of people swimming and sunbathing, but the landscape was still beautiful.

After lounging for a while we continued on our way towards Galicia and our destination, Monforte de Lemos. We stayed at the Parador de Monforte de Lemos, situated in the Monastery Monasterio de San Vicente do Pino at the top of a hill. It is part of a monumental compound, along with the former castle Keep and the palace of the former Count’s family, Palacio de los Condes de Lemos . Due to some kind of fluke, my room was doubled as “supreme” and the door came out to the actual cloister of the monastery, which was super-cool! (Also: Stamp number two)

We took a short stroll down the village, and we passed by the small sanctuary to the Virgin Mary’s image Santuario de la Virgen de Monserrat.

Then we saw the walls and the old gates.

Finally, we went back to the hotel to have dinner over there. Our choices included trying a species of scallop I had not tried before, the zamburiña, variegated scallop (Chlamys varia). We also tried the local pie, empanada. For dessert, they had a ‘variety of chocolates’.

The day finished watching the sunset before turning in for the night.

Driving distance: Aprox. 600 km
Walking distance: 5.02 km

28th July – 3rd ‎August ‎2018: The Spanish “Levante”

My parents sometimes vacation in this tourist-like complex in a little town called San Juan de Alicante in the east of Spain (the “Levante”). My father uses it as a base for diving trips, and sometimes I tag along to keep my mother company. When we arrived this year we found out that there was a new resident family in the garden – a family of squirrels that had apparently shown up travelling in trees that were going to be planted. The complex management decided to make squirrel-nurturing the local sport. Guests were encouraged to watch out for them, and leave them nuts. Also, there were educational signs about what was safe or unsafe to feed the little critters. I caught sight of them at some point or another.

One of the selling points of the complex – aside, of course, from the swimming pool and the great room service – are the big gardens, with lots of trees and plants, and the rescue bunnies. Now the squirrels came over to complete the scene.

Collage. A hotel room. Red flowers. A garden. A tiny rabbit. A tree and a close-up of that tree focusing on the squirrel on one of the branches.

31st July 2018: Chocolate & Lobster. Not together.

A meagre 20-minute-drive away from this little town stands the village of Villajoyosa, which translates into something akin to “The joyous village”. If you’ve never heard of it, I’ll just have you known that it has a chocolate factory, the Fábrica de Chocolates Valor, and the chocolate museum (and of course the shop). As it is a working factory, the visit is of course guided. We were told that there was usually a long queue, so we were there before 9:30 for the 10:00 visit, and we were quite literally the first to arrive. Once inside, you get to see what they call the museum, with a short video about how they used to and still make the chocolate, and you visit some of the old equipment. Then, there is a short trip around the factory using some hanging planks – when we were there, the production was halted due to pre-Christmas-campaign holidays. So FYI Christmas chocolate is made in August. The visit was done in one hour, and then we splurged in the shop.

Chocolate factory from outside

Inside the chocolate factory shop. A painting on the wall says we heart chocolate, another, in the backfround of several chocolate bars packaged as presents, it says All you need is chocolate, with the word love scratched out

After the visit we went back to the complex, where we had booked a made-to-order lobster “paella” (traditional rice dish) for lunch, and boy was it awesome. I totally sinned with the apple pie afterwards, too.

Collage. Rice pan with lobster pieces, and a piece of apple pie

1st August 2018: Alicante

The day started awesomely with coffee and pancakes, and that alone worked to make me happy.

Pancakes with chocolate syprup, a glass of milk, and a cup of coffee

Besides, twenty minutes in the opposite direction from Villajoyosa we had Alicante. And we could also be lazy and not take the car out, we could just take the bus. We wanted to see the archaeological museum, Museo Arqueológico Provincial MARQ de Alicante, and that was out first stop. However, for some reason a bunch of pictures got lost – and I can only show you this of the library, where pictures were not allowed anyway. It was a… photography accident.

A former chapel, with gothic windows. A glass lamp hangs from the ceiling and there are dark shelves full of books in the foreground

After the museum, we walked around the base of Monte Benacantil, the mount in the middle of Alicante – again, literally – until we were exactly on the opposite side to find the entrance to the Castillo de Santa Bárbara, Santa Bárbara’s castle. The castle is of Arab origin, it may have been built the 8th century. However, there are archaeological remains in the mount dating from prehistoric times. The castle gave the city of Alicante a vantage point towards any kind of threat, whether it originated on land or the ocean. The castle was reconstructed in the 16th century, and later, in the 18th century, it played a part in the war against the French.

Castle ruins and views of the sea underneath. It looks hot.

After this we walked over to have lunch at a restaurant we had read over in the tourist complex magazine, a prime Japanese restaurant called Nigo, which has the best sushi I’ve ever tried outside Japan.

Lunch - Japanese salad, fried chicken, sushi and tuna tartar

After that we headed back to the complex and planned our next move.

2nd August 2018: Valencia Diversion

My father was unable to go on his two planned diving outings, so we decided to head home early. However, he was feeling a little disappointed over the cancellation, and I suggested that maybe we could take a detour somewhere else instead. In the end, we decided to book a hotel in Valencia and use the time to visit the Oceanogràfic over there. This is a large aquarium complex. We also reserved a table at the “Submarine Restaurant” and had lunch there.

The aquarium opened in 2003 as part of a big project called “the city of art and science” in Valencia. It has a double layout, over- and underground. The underground area is the big aquariums are built, while the upper enclosures hold most the mammals and the birds.

An empty restaurant surrounded by an aquarium where fish swim

Collage of different marine animals: octopus, sea urchin, anemone, clownfish, surgeon fish, rockfish, seal, jellyfish, seastar, sea dragon, turtle, reef shark

Collage of different animals, and general view of the park. Penguins, crocodiles, seal, pelicans, snipes, ibises, tortoises, carps, crane

Once we were done, we said goodbye to the sharks and hi to the nice sunset. Next morning we drove back home.

Sunset above an unremarkable city skyline

23rd & 24th June 2018: London Express (England, Great Britain)

I took some family members over to London for the weekend, and they asked me to organise something so they could see a lot of things. We took the red-eye flight so we were downtown London something around 8:30. Our first visit had tickets for 10:00, so first spot was a Costa Coffee for breakfast! (≧▽≦)

Afterwards we saw the Tower Bridge over the Thames.

Then, at the right time, we walked into the Tower of London, where we wandered around visiting all the areas, including the White Tower, the dungeons, the Crown Jewels vault and the raven nests.

Once we were done, we took the underground to the British Museum for a quick visit through the most important collections, along with a few of the less known but interesting things – in the end we saw the Babylonian, Grecian, Egyptian collections, and had a glimpse at a few of the Chinese artefacts and the Hoa Hakananai’a from Easter Island.

We had lunch in-between and then went to the hotel to drop our things off. After that, we took off again and, via underground, we reached Trafalgar Square. We walked towards Piccadilly and on the way we stopped at Legoland and M&Ms shop. Then had dinner in an Angus steakhouse in Leicester square, and to end the day, we had a look at the lit Piccadilly Circus.

We got back to the hotel, and honestly, I had not realised how close to the centre we actually were until I looked out of the window.

The next morning we woke up early and headed off to have breakfast on the go – actually the weather was super nice so we got ourselves some Nero coffee and sandwiches and ate them in front of Westminster’s Abby. As it was Sunday we could not visit the Abby, but we saw the scaffolded Big-Ben, and walked around the Houses of Parliament.

We went to visit the Monument to Emmeline Pankhurst because the youngest person in the group needed to be told about a period in history in which she would not have been as free as she is today.

After that, we crossed over the Thames, then moved on to the London Eye. Half of the group wanting to go up, the other half being not fans of heights, we divided and conquered – two of us went to the London Aquarium while the other three enjoyed their VIP ride in the London Eye. I know you are not surprised I picked the side with the sharks instead of going up.

This guy judged us, very hard:

After our riverbank separation, we regrouped and headed off towards the Natural History Museum where we first saw the Butterfly carp that was installed outside it – they were extremely pretty and beyond friendly, because we were landed on quite often.

When we had finished the walk, we stepped into the Natural History Museum itself to wander through the dinosaur area for a bit, and then around the animal collection.

We decided to head out to the restaurant to have a bite to eat, and as we were walking through the marine invertebrate area (the room with all the crabs and so on), there was a nice lady showing items. And that’s how I ended up holding a megalodon tooth and fanbying like there was no tomorrow. Don’t judge me. Or do so, I don’t care ☆⌒(ゝ。∂)

As they walked into the insect / general creepy-crawler gallery, I walked around the gallery that held “less impressive” fossils, including the ones discovered by Anne Manning. We had lunch in the NHM, then moved on.

A short underground ride later, we were at St James’s Park, where we took a bit of a walk towards Buckingham Palace. As the weather was nice, we got to see a lot of the local fauna, even the local swans.

We hung around for a while as we saw Buckingham Palace, then headed off back towards the airport. Although we had a couple-of-hours delay, we made it home without further complication.

9th & 10th June 2018: Wicked London (England, Great Britain)

This will be the last work-trip, at least for a while. I might change my mind later, but for now I’m done with them (although there’s an upcoming family trip rather soon…). Again, we flew in early Saturday morning, and we went to walk around the Tower of London and the Tower Bridge.

Then we went to the British Museum. I left them for a couple of hours there and I went to visit some of the lesser-seen galleries.

We had booked tickets for the musical “Wicked” in the Apollo Victoria Theatre at 14:30, so we headed over there. Wicked is a parallel story to “The Wizard of Oz”, focusing on the story of the Wicked Witch of the West, who becomes a social outcast due to her tendency to speak her mind and the strength of her magic. I had really wanted to watch this for a long time, so I used this chance and convinced the group to get there. I absolutely loved it ♥.

After the show, we dropped our things at the hotel. The group wanted to get some rest, so we stayed there for a while, then got out again. We took the underground towards London central and we were in Trafalgar Square for a while.

Then, we went to Chinatown for dinner.

Later, we walked around Piccadilly Circus, checking out some shops and so. We even stopped for cake.

On Sunday morning we went to Saint James’s Park, where we got to meet the local fauna, especially a very adventurous squirrel.

Then we dropped by Buckingham Palace. Although we did not watch the Guard Change, we did see one of the relief marches.

We walked from there to Westminster, saw the Houses of Parliament and the Big Ben, along the outside of Westminster Abby.

We visited the Monument to Emmeline Pankhurst and stayed for a while in the Victoria Tower Gardens.

As a final visit, we went to the Natural History Museum.

Finally, we headed off to the airport, and the icing of the cake was that we got caught in a controllers’ strike, so we had like a three-hour delay on our flight and it took forever to get home (;¬_¬). All in all, this was a very… strange trip, and without a doubt the highlight was going to see Wicked, which is something I had wanted to do for a long time, and gave me a couple of hours of enjoyment to myself.

10th – 12th February 2018: Highlights of Glasgow and Edinburgh (Scotland, Great Britain)

This is another trip that I took with customers. We flew into Edinburgh and took a bus directly to Glasgow, where we arrived at around 9:00 on Saturady morning. We made a stop for breakfast, then we walked to Saint Mungo Cathedral.

Then, of course, I guided them up the Necropolis Hill. The weather was very nice for a chance – because I have the exclusivity of good weather in London, but not in Scotland, which yielded to a nice walk.

We had lunch in my favourite Greek restaurant, and then walked around Glasgow – some of the members of the party wanted to go clothes-shopping so I took the opportunity to get into a bookshop or two. We dropped our things off at the hotel and walked in and out some of the shopping centres in the Central Glasgow area. In the evening, I took them to try Wagamama, a ramen / British fusion food chain. I’m always in for ramen (≧▽≦).

On Sunday morning we took the train to Edinburgh. We visited the Old City and Edinburgh Castle, with some awesome sights (because again, the weather was really good – albeit cold as hell, because, have you seen that snow??) and fumbled around for a while.

We had lunch at the Deacon Brody Tavern, a traditional a restaurant in Castlehill – mince pie here.

We also took a walk towards the New City – and there was shopping again. In the end we had an amazing cup of chocolate as early dinner before we went back. I was supersuprised they wanted dinner, but I had had enough with that chocolate and just some tea at night. The shop where we had chocolate was called Coro: The chocolate Café, and I have no doubt I would go back to that shop.

Just before we headed back to Glasgow, we came across an art installation in Prince Garden, which had lots of pretty coloured lights.

And when we woke up on Monday to go to the bus station and head off to the airport… it was snowing! Honest to god snow on the streets!

We reached Spain without further incident in the afternoon, and that was another weekend wrapped up.

23rd & 24th September 2017: San Sebastián Film Festival (Spain)

23rd September 2017: Let’s go!

Overnight, I headed off to San Sebastián as a Weekend Escapade to the Festival de Cine de San Sebastián International Film Festival that is held over there because they were projecting a Japanese film and the main actor and the director were coming over to present it. The film was “Sandome no Satsujin” [三度目の殺人], the director is Hirozaku Kore-eda and the actor in question was Fukuyama Masaharu, of whom I am a big fan.

I started off at 22:00 on Friday as I had to take a bus to go to Intercambiador de Avenida de América, which is one of the bus hubs in Madrid. My bus to San Sebastián left at 00:30, so in the end I had to wait for almost two hours until I could board. I was dozing for most of the trip so it did not feel too long. I arrived in San Sebastián bus station at around 6:50 in the morning and I had decided that I would go to the so-called Shell Beach, Playa de la Concha, to watch sunrise. I had been told that cafeterias would be open at that time, but not even the one in the bus station was ready.

A beach at night. The sea is calm and it reflects the city lights

My plan of watching a sea sunrise was trumped by the fact that the sea is towards the west, but I still could take a couple of nice pictures.

The sun rising, tinting the sky and the sea blue and orange

Among them were the beach itself, the “skyline” and the Catedral del Buen Pastor (Good Shepherd Cathedral).

A gothic or neogothic church clock tower, spiky with pointy arches

I wandered around, found the theatre where the film was going to be projected and as the sun started warming up, I started feeling less like a homeless dog.

The sun rising along a promenade

I found the local Starbucks at around 9:00 to get some rest, a coffee, and a cookie before I went to the Aquarium, which opened at 10:00. The Aquarium de San Sebastián is a bit more of a museum than anything else. The first part (second floor) is dedicated to the history of ocean commerce, with different types of ships, and rooms focused on the local harbour, companies, traditional boat racing and whaling. This includes an actual right whale skeleton and several sperm whale teeth and some baleens. The second part (first floor) is dedicated to general fishing and the local oceanography society, including machinery and live specimens.

Finally, after all this, you get to the actual aquarium (yay). There are several small tanks and then a big tank with a walk-through tunnels. The inhabitants are pretty standard, with lots of small fish and several magnifying-glass tanks to make the animals look bigger than they are. The third floor hosts the tropical fish including the piranha and the clown fish. All in all it is a nice place, however, it was under construction and some tanks were covered by dark plastic. After that I left the aquarium and I decided to go up Mount Urquil, which hosts a castle and quite nice views of the city and the ocean.

A small building entrance which yields to the aquarium. Collage showing different exhibits inside: a whale skeleton, a seven-grilled shark in alcohol, a trilobites fossil, a shark jaw, a starfish, a shark swimming above through an aquarium tunnel, a lionfish, sarks swimming in the aquarium

I walked by John Malkovich while heading there, but he did not look like he was in the mood (or the clothes) to be recognised, so I did not bug him. Then I started my climb up the mount towards the the local castle, Castillo de La Mota, along the batteries of cannons. The castle has a small history museum, and a look-out balcony, and the top has been transformed into a church, with a giant Christ overlooking. The truth is I was mostly improvising on my visits as the week was hell between work and the death of a family member.

Views from and of the ruins of the castle - the sea, the wall, and the old cannons

After that I had lunch and headed off to the theatre to check out the coming out of people. At this point I planned to wait for the actor and the director to come into the theatre, but for some reason I checked out the schedule, and the name of the actor had been taken out of the presentation! That made me sad for a little while, but I decided that I was okay with it, that it would not be a drama. I had taken my chance, and at least I had gotten some air after all the pain and drama throughout the week. I guess that helped relativise the sadness. I went to a park near the beach to get some sun and enjoy the last days of summer.

A 19th century building with large windows. A banner on the façade reads Festival de San Sebastián 65

A banner for the cinema festival, showing posters for different films. The third murder is on the bottom left

Around 15:00 I returned to the theatre, Teatro Victoria Eugenia to start lining as I wanted a seat close enough to see the subtitles- and I found a place on sixth row which was pretty good. As this was a special people’s vote session, we got a ballot to give our opinions. Then I settled to wait, and eventually at 16:00 the presenter came in, and to my surprise, she announced Kore-eda and Fukuyama. That made me so happy I could have died right there and then, and the best was still to come. Kore-eda told us about the film. Apparently several people consider that he has changed genre, but he told us that he disagrees and that he still tried to make a human drama. However, he thought that we should judge. Then Fukuyama told us that he enjoyed San Sebastián and that they had been having pinchos and that he was happy to have returned. I was shaking so hard I could barely hold the phone as I recorded.

The stage inside the theatre

Director Kore-eda and actor Fukuyama Masaharu on stage

Promo of the film The Third Murder from the Festival Webpage

All this would have made me very happy already, but there is more. “Sandome no Satsujin”, or “The third murder” tells the story of a lawyer whose job is to defend a man accused of murder. As this would be the defendant’s third murder, if found guilty he will be handed the death penalty. The film is a complex story, completely unpredictable – or I was too enthralled to see the ending coming – but when everything fell into place I felt like gawking.

Furthermore, there was more to come – at the end of the film both Kore-eda and Fukuyama had stayed behind. as I was coming out I looked up and told them “otsukaresama deshita”, and both of them bowed and replied “arigatou”. Then we waited for them to come down from the second floor, from where they had taken the ovation. I dropped my vote and rushed through the red carpet. As other people talked to the director I made a beedive towards Fukuyama. It was then or never, and it turned out to be then.

Director Kore-eda and actor Fukuyama Masaharu waving for a picture on the street after the film

I was shaking inside but I managed to tell them that I had been a fan of his since Galileo times and I asked for his autograph. He told me thank you (at some point the interpreter tried to help, but I was busy dying and trying to get my meaning across). He signed my Galileo booklet and I asked him to take a picture with me, to which he also agreed. And thus I fulfilled my wildest dreams (and look horrible in the picture). After Fukuyama had continued on the red carpet I managed to sit down on a curb and I was on the phone with my friend C*****, who prevented me from going completely hysterical in fanby bliss.

After I told her everything, I was pretty dead so I headed off to he hotel (pension) that I had booked for the night, and pretty much giggled and crashed, and uncrashed and giggled some more. At 23:00 I was completely zonked out, not without realising that I had headed to get some rest without grabbing my freebies and some merchandising I wanted from the festival.

Fukuyama Masaharu's autograph on a DVD booklet

24th September 2017: And back

I left the hotel early, around 8:30 to head towards the cinema area and buy the short Festival guide (not the big one for 22€ but the little one for 1.5€) and get the free newspaper. I bought a coffee to go and headed back to the bus station, when my bus was at 10:00. I could not sleep and the Wi-Fi was not working, but I could watch Youtube videos on the seat screen. I managed to get home around 17:00 after a couple of buses, and I was pretty much dead. However, it was totally worth it. I think this is why I was hyper enough to decide to go to Vienna next month…