Cantabria…infinite…green…and Spanish.

Cantabria infinita. As the tourism marketing goes, Cantabria appears infinite in terms of green, rain, mountains and sea, much like the entire Northern Coast of Spain. Contrary to its neighbour Euskadi (the Basque Country), Cantabria prides itself on its Spanishness. On my recent second trip to province and comunidad autonoma capital Santander, I was met with a sea of red and yellow flags everywhere I went. The only Spanish republic flag (with a purple bottom stripe instead of a second red stripe) I saw was in the offices of the Izquierda Unida (United Left). In the Basque Country, the republic flags are becoming as common as the Basque ikurriña flag itself. Granted, it was the same week Spain had lost their World Cup by failing to qualify to move past the first round and Prince Felipe became King Felipe VI, but it just felt odd seeing all the red and yellow.

Like its neighbours Euskadi to the east and Asturias to the west, Cantabria is a place for those who love nature and the great outdoors. The Cantabrian Sea to the north and the Picos de Europa mountains to the south make for some striking landscapes. While they borrow the idea of “pintxos” from their Basque neighbours, the region feels distinctly Spanish, especially if you’ve been living in the Basque Country like I have.

My first visit to Cantabria was in 2010. I found in an old journal some impressions and memories that I had forgotten. For example, from the flight from Madrid to Santander, the plane was going in for the landing when suddenly it took off again. The captain came on to explain that the airport did not open to 7:30, and although it was currently 7:32, he still had to wait until the airport opened before he could line. This experience can only happen on Ryan Air and in Spain.

That trip also took me to the infamous town of three lies, Santillana del Mar. It’s not named for a saint, it’s not on a plain, nor is it on the sea. It’s a quaint medieval village that is on the Camino de Santiago del Norte, and I remember it having a lot of flowers. It was the beginning of June when I went. That same day, I went on to a beach village called Comillas. The beach was nice, but I had missed some of the best parts of the village. I missed the bus, which gave me time to explore the village adequately. It has a nice Gaudi-designed house, and I still remember the great ice cream I had. The Spanish comedy Primos (Cousins) was filmed in Comillas.

The capital Santander itself isn’t as beautiful enough to rival the Basque San Sebastián-Donostia as the most beautiful city on the peninsula in my opinion. However, it does offer some spectacular views of the Bay of Santander and the mountains on the other side. The Magdalena Palace is must-see, and I liked the zoo that they had. I remember being enthralled with that zoo and thinking the palace could be a rich person’s house in New England. The Cathedral of Santander is white, making it somewhat different. (At this point in the game, I strongly believe that every Spanish Cathedral and Church is the same. I refuse to pay money to enter a house of God, but I do enjoy going in the free ones or if there is something unique, like in Sevilla, Granada, Valencia, Burgos and León.) I enjoyed seeing this one in 2010, but it was closed this June Saturday on my return visit.

The best part of Santander I discovered the second time around. For 4,75€ round trip, one can take a ferry across to the village of Somo, offering spectacular views of Santander and the bay. The beach is home to one of Spain’s most famous surf schools.

One thing I should mention about Santander is that it is very right-wing politically. The Banco Santander is headquartered there, which has to have a lot of influence (the less said about Spanish banks at the moment, the better!), and it is said that Santander was one of the last cities to take down their statue of Franco after his death. But never fear, the left-wingers out there. Like any Spanish city, “hay de todo”.

Closer to my current home in Bilbao, there are several villages that the bilbainos invade during the summer. The two I’ve visited are Castro-Urdiales and Laredo (not Texas). Laredo has a big beach with a nice view of a few hills, but the village itself lacks character for me. Castro, on the other hand, is a gem. Only 30 minutes from Bilbao, it is a great afternoon escape with history, beach and tons of restaurants and bars. The Santa Ana Castle and Santa María de la Asunción church are located on the port.

Set Meravelles

1. Picos de Europa (as yet unvisited July 2014)

2. San Vincente de la Barquera (as yet univisted July 2014. I’m sure these two places are made of awesome.)

3. Castro-Urdiales

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4. Santillana del Mar

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5. Palacio de la Magdalena (Santander)

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6. View from Somo (Bay of Santander)

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7. Comillas

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(Note: The featured image is from the Camino de Santiago and added post publication).

Bordeaux. Parlez-vous espagnole?

Over the past five years, I have done a lot of travelling throughout the Iberian Peninsula and a little throughout Europe. Granted, my “little” is some people’s “a lot”, but whatever. The world is a big place and we’re only here for a short amount of time. The point of the lead is…sometimes I like to see things outside The World’s Best Peninsula. And last December, I took advantage of “el Puente de Diciembre/de la Constitución”, a nice 4 or 5 day weekend that Spain has due to two holidays (the signing of the current constitution on the 6th and a Catholic holiday the 8th. Spain will glady remember their ties to the Catholic Church when it gives them a day off work.) and my proximity to France to go to a city known for its wine, the closest major French city to the Spanish border…Bordeaux.

I caught the train in Hendaye, on the border with Spain, and it was a nice three hour train ride through the French Basque Country to the capital of the Aquataine. Although Bordeaux isn’t part of the French Basque Country, you can find Basque restaurants and even a Basque gift shop in the streets of Bordeaux. After deboarding the train, I immediately went to the tourist office, where I tried one of my four sentences I know in French, Parlez-vous espagnole? (For the record, the others are “Parlez-vous anglais?”, “Je non suis pas francias” and, of course, as Moulin Rouge is my all time favourite film…voulez-vous coucher avec moi, ce soir?. Again, on the record, I did not have opportunity to use that last one.) They preferred to practice their Spanish than their English, which was just fine with me.

Bordeaux came across to me as a cross between Valencia, Milano and New Orleans. I felt as if I were walking on the set of Les Miserables, minus the horrible singing of Russell Crowe. The Place de la Bourse was massive and elegant. I just wanted to break into “Look Down” and start a French revolution when I saw it.

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The sheer width of the Garrone River reminded me of New Orleans for some reason, and my evening walks along the river this weekend were a highlight. As Christmas was approaching, there was a nice Christmas market, and on Saturday afternoon, the Rue Sainte-Catherine (the longest pedestrian street in France) was full of busy shoppers checking out the shops. I was excited at seeing many of the same shops we have in Spain (Zara, H&M, FNAC). It’s always more fun to go to these stores in another place than it is the town you live in.

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Bordeaux is also home to the largest plaza (square) in Europe, the Esplande des Quinconces. As for the French food, the croissants are divine, the café au laits are good but too expensive (considering a café con leche across the Pyreness will only cost 1,30€ most places…) I sampled Bordeaux at an Italian restaurant, and it is a great wine. But it’s not as great as Spain’s La Rioja or the Basque Country’s Txakoli. I am quite bias toward Spain about everything though, so don’t pay any attention to me here.

Other points of interest included the Cathedral, which was undergoing renovations, and the Grand Théatre. One thing that stood out to me was a church that had been reconverted into a cinema. It played independent and foreign films in the original language. This was a gift to me, as I don’t like dubbing but love indie and foreign cinema. I regret not taking in a film here. However, I was too tired to stay awake. This meant I didn’t get to sample the gay nightlife, but I’m sure it would be very French, whatever that means.

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I stayed with an acquaintance from CouchSurfing, which made the experience a bit more unique for me. I usually like the idea of Couchsurfing, but in the end I prefer to pay a bit of money to be able to come and go as I went. However, by Couchsurfing, I got the opportunity to see a bit more of the French culture and life. I was able to attend a lunch with the host and sample some amazing home cooked French cusine and more Bourdeaux, although the French were quite fond of the La Rioja I had brought from Spain. The French, at least in Bordeaux, are friendlier than advertised. What little French I did know was appreciated, and the fact I did know other languages but “just haven’t had the opportunity to learn French” (a lie!) went far. Like I said, the fact I offered up Spanish OR English went a long way, and the proximity to Spain meant a lot of opportunity to use my Spanish. I would love to tell the French teacher from my high school that I spoke Spanish in France!

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All in all, I preferred Bordeaux to it’s rival capital city, Paris. It really is the Pearl of the Aquataine (although I know I will love Bayonne when I get to go). Paris has a lot of things to see, but it left me with a bad taste in my mouth. Bordeaux left me with a much better taste, and I’m not referring to the wine.

DISCLAIMER. I AM NOT ADVOCATING THE USE OF SPANISH OR ENGLISH IN FRANCE. Never assume anyone speaks your language. Bordeaux’s proximity to Spain meant many Spanish tourists so more people knew Spanish. Always try to learn a little bit of the local language, even if it’s just “I don’t speak the language”. I

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Vizcaya. Home of the Capital of the World, Bilbao

Although I’m sure you probably weren’t aware of it, Bilbao is the capital of the world.

“Where?” you might be asking. “The world has no capital!” You may scoff, but according to many people, the largest city in the Basque Country, Bilbao, is the capital of the world. Sure, it’s just their self-promotion and way of feeling better about the fact that the actual capital of País vasco is “Vitoria-Gasteiz” an hour to the south.

Although it may not be the actual “capital of the world” or even the autonomous community of País vasco, Bilbao is the capital of one of Spain’s most gorgeous provinces, Vizcaya (officially Bizkaia). It is home to the Guggenheim Museum which attracts many tourists. However, the Guggenheim, while a very pretty building I will admit, is not close to capturing the real allure of the town. Bilbao has a population of around 350,000 people, but it is classified as a “villa”, not a city, due to ancient classifications. In fact, Vizcaya only has one city, “Orduña”, which has just over 4000 inhabitants.

The coolest neighbourhood of Bilbao is the Casco Viejo with its “Seven Streets,” which even a Bilbao native can lose themselves in. The labyrinth of streets is home to all kinds of shops, bars, cafés, nightlife (including several gay bars) and activity. The Unamuno Plaza is home to two museums, the Basque Museum and the Basque Archeological Museum. It also offers the stairs to the best park in the city, Extebarria, which offers views of the entire city and allows dogs a place to play. By the way, the Basques are very dog-friendly. It’s quite common to see dogs in the bars and cafés next to their people.

Bilbao is also home to an estuary with fancy bridges, including my favorite, the Calatrava-designed “Zubizuri”. Since Bilbao was an industrial center for so many years before reinventing itself in the 1990s as a service-oriented city, the Nervion River leaves a lot to be desired. However, it does provide a nice place to walk, run, skate or ride your bike in the bike lanes.

The new San Mames soccer stadium, still under construction, is at the top of the vizcainos’ favourite places. Soccer/football is the most popular sport here, and the Athletic de Bilbao squad is beloved by nearly every citizen of Bilbao.  They are one of three Spanish teams that has never lowered to Second Division. The other two are, of course, Real Madrid and Barcelona. Even if you don’t speak Basque (which to be honest, few people do in Bilbao), greeting someone with Aupa Athletic will make you fast friends with the Bilbao citizens.

For the nature lovers like me, Bilbao offers plenty. From the city center, you can take the cable car to Artxanda for the best views of the city. On a clear day, you can also see the sea. For the hikers, Bilbao is on the Northern route of the Camino de Santiago. I’ve already conquered Pagasarri, the highest peak of Bilbao at 673 metres.

Bilbao’s metropolitan area includes Portugalete and Getxo. Getxo is home of the rich and not-so famous, and several beaches, but the “Puente Colgante” that connects the two over the Nervion belongs to Portugalete. For the small fee of 35 cents, you can cross the river next to cars and other people by the ferry hanging from the top of the bridge. It is a UNESCO World Heritage site.

There is also a nice walk along the costal cliffs from Getxo to Sopelana (and even beyond to Plentzia, I hear).

As for actual villages, the coastal villages of Mundaka, Bermeo, Ondarroa and Lekeitio all offer spectacular views of the coast and interesting churches and other sites. Mundaka is one of the few places in the world where surfers can check out left-banking waves.

Gernika (Guernica), a few kilometres south of Mundaka and the scenic Urdabai area, is important for history buffs. Every Basque leader has taken his or her oath of office underneath the important tree of Gernika. This might be why it was the scene of attack on that fateful April morning during the Spanish Civil War, immortalized by Picasso in his famous painting Guernica.

Durango is another quaint village close to the Urkiola Natural Park, which offers rocky mountains and a small church with an important meteorite that legend states will permit whoever walks around it backward the sufficent number of times (3? 7? 13? The number changes depending on who you talk to) to meet the person they will marry within six months. It did not work for me, I have to say. I guess I’ll have to try it again now that I live in Bilbao.

For me, the most stunning place in the Basque Country is San Juan de Gaztelugatxe, an old church located on an island, reached only by a bridge with 210 stairs. I’ve been twice, and both times, I felt as if I were on the Great Wall of China with waves crashing up against the bridge. I rang the church bell 13 times both visits. I’m not sure why. One person says that it will stop headaches, but I still get them. Another person says it gives you luck. I don’t know if I feel any luckier or not. Maybe the third time will be the charm.

If that is not enough, there is also a forest that has been turned into a work of art by Agustin Ibarrola, the Bosque de Oma.

Vizcaya/Bizcaia is one of Spain’s most stunning provinces. For years, the threat of ETA, the Basque separation terrorist group, kept people from discovering its joys, and now that they are more or less history, the constant threat of rain keeps people away. The recent surge of Basque Tourism due to 8 Apellidos Vascos drives people to Gipuzkoa, and frankly, I prefer it that way. Vizcaya is my little kept secret of beauty. I don’t think it will be kept so secret for much longer.

SET MERAVELLES

1. San Juan de Gaztelugatxe (Between Bakio and Bermeo)

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2. El Arbol de Gernika (Gernika/Guernica)

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3. El Puente Colgante, Portugalete and Getxo

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4. Urkiola (near Durango)

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5. Urdabai (near Mundaka)

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6. Bosque de Oma (Kortezubi)

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7. Zubizuri (Bilbao)

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Bonus Entry: Guggenheim (Bilbao) (Happy?)

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Spain, a brief introduction

As the vast majority of entries in this blog will about Spain, I thought it might be a good idea to write a little about Spain, my history here, and a little bit about why it is so fascinating for those people who think the Spanish eat tacos while chasing bulls around.

I came to Spain for the first time my first senior year of college/university. I wanted to study abroad and improve my Spanish, which at the time was my minor. (I’d later go back for a second senior year to make this minor equivalent to my journalism major). I spent a semester in Toledo, an hour south of Madrid and has nothing to do with Toledo of Ohio, not even the pronounciation. I fell in love with this intriguing country. It was during a weekend in Barcelona where I decided that I would have to come back one day to live. Five years later, I did.

I’ve taught English in various parts of Spain now. My first year was in a small town in Jaén in Andalucía where there were more olive trees than people. My second, fourth and fifth years were in the too-big metropolis of Madrid. My third year was in Valencia, on the sea. And I am currently in Bilbao in the Basque Country. Valencia has been my favourite and the place I most identify with, although I still want to try out Catalunya. That said, el País vasco is my favourite place. The rain just affects my mood too much unfortunately.

The thing about Spain is no one feels Spanish or that their region is actually Spain. The Basques and Catalans are most adement about this. The Basques had a terrorist group, ETA (who most Basques are against despite their strong independent streak) for about forty years, “fighting” for their independence. ETA disbanded in 2011, and I feel completely safe here.

Today, Catalunya is pissed off at the crisis, so they are talking loud about becoming independent when in actuality they are hoping more for an autonomous status equal to the Basque Country. To be honest, at times here in Bilbao, I forget that this is still part of Spain. Seeing Euskera (Basque) everywhere sometimes makes me feel odd about greeting someone in Spanish (which, by the way, is the predominant language here.) The history of the two regions are quite different.

I’ll be honest. I am half in love with the Catalan language. Barcelona is an incredibly beautiful city and very cosmpolitan. It has nothing to do with Sevilla, a city in Andalucía full of life, fiesta, siesta and heat. Valencia has nothing to do with either one.

Spain is divided into 17 autonomous communities and 50 provinces. Each autonomous community is a nation unto itself. From Galicia in the northwest corner to Murcia in the southeast corner, Spain is varied with distinct landscape, language and people. The only thing that unite the different types of Spaniards are the Spanish language and a hatred of the government.

Spain has been in an economic crisis since 2008. The current prime minister says things are improving, but it’s quite easy to see it’s not when the unemployment rate still is about 25%. It’ll be interesting to see what happens with the transition from Juan Carlos to Felipe how long the monarchy will continue. The people are unhappy with the government.

But despite this crisis weighing everyone down, the Spanish still put on a happy face. There is always time for drinks with friends or a tapa/pintxo (pintxos are larger and cost money, typical in the north, especially the Basque Country. Tapas are smaller and come free with the order. To all the tapas bars springing up in the States, you are NOT serving taps BUT pintxos. Consider yourself informed!). Wherever you go, during lunch time, it’s common to linger over your meal long after the servers have cleaned your plates. No one really sleeps a siesta. The siesta is a time to eat and rest from your busy job. Nights are long, full of fiesta that doesn’t begin until well after midnight. During the summer, the sun doesn’t set until around 10 PM.

Despite its troubles, Spain is an amazing country full of history and culture. For me, the languages add to the mystique. The Spanish are passionate about life (and fútbol, and food, and wine).

Spain is so much more than Penélope Cruz (who I love, I must admit) and bullfights (who most Spanish hate). They don’t really know what tacos and burritos are, for the people who think if you speak Spanish, you are Mexican. Paella and Spanish tortilla (potato omelette), gazpacho and ensaladilla rusa (neither Russian or a salad)…these are the more typical plates.

I have been here six years now, and every day I continue to find new things to love and discover about this incredible country of 17 nations. I may not have been born here, but for me, Spain is home.

Navarra and Ibiza (Illes Baleares) are done. I have quite a long way to go with explaining each province and the wonders waiting to be found in each. I’m sure even Albacete will have something interesting.

Let’s go exploring.

 

Lekeitio, Euskadi.

When I was in high school and university, I was addicted to those e-mail surveys that everyone forwarded each other. Each survey seemed to include the question “Which do you prefer, the mountains or the sea?” A decade later, now that I’m using Facebook, YouTube and Candy Crush as my procrastination tools, I live in a place where I don’t have to decide. Euskadi, or the Basque Country autonomous community, has plenty of both right next to each other. The problem I hashtag #BasqueProblems for is “do I feel like the sea or the mountains since the sun is actually out today?” There are just so many must-see places here, and most of them are worth repeating.

Today, due to the buses being plum sold out of seats to Donostia (San Sebastían), I decided to go back to Lekeitio, a village on the Vizcayan Coast about an hour from Bilbao (53 kilometres/33 miles to be exact). The bus is long and tedious, taking you through Durango and Markina before finally reaching Lekeitio. And the bus stop isn’t near the centre of the village either. After taking you up and down and around mountainous curves, the bus leaves you a good ten-minute walk from the centre of town, which happens to be right on the coast.

The first time I was in Lekeitio, it was raining, of course. It’s just not the Basque Country if you don’t see rain at some point. The second time, I hiked up (the word “hike” makes it sound much longer than it actually is) to the Santa Catalina lighthouse near the town and had a horrible headache which prevented me from further exploration.

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The third time was the charm.

I was lucky and arrive during low tide. The beach was much more expansive than I had previously seen it, providing a path to the island in the centre of the port, la Isla Garraitz. There was a small path through Garraitz with a warning in Basque, Spanish, English and French not to wander off the path due to falling trees. Indeed, there was a fallen tree in the midst of the path. It couldn’t have been more than 15 minutes walking, and it was worth it to see the views of Lekeitio and the Cantabrian Sea.

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The mist or fog offered an intriguing view of the beach. It’s not often that one side of the beach has bright sunshine famous in the Iberian Peninsula and the other side has a low-hanging fog covering it that is more typical of the northern part of the Iberian Peninsula. This contrast was striking and beautiful.

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I later hiked up Mount Lumentza next to the town, following 12 crosses with Roman Numerals inscribed in them to the summit, which had three crosses. Remember, Spain is technically a Catholic country, though you’d be hard pressed to find anyone who attends mass. From here, I saw that the land I had just visited, la Isla Garraitz, was now an actual island again. The water reminded me more of the Carribbean or Ibiza than anything I had seen in the Basque Country from the height of 120 metres (more or less 120 yards).

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The Santa María church is also quite beautiful, and it is similar to the main church in Mundaka, my favourite Vizcayan coastal village.

The one downside to being a coastal village in June was finding a cheap place to eat. The Beatia Barria provided an amazing meal of paella and solomillo (beef) with dessert for only 9€. I lived in Valencia, so I have to say I have tried better paella, of course, but this paella was amazing. I’m not a foodie, so if I mention food…it’s because it really was made of awesome.

If I really like a place, I leave something to come back to. I saw a hiking path I’ll have to explore for the next time. So many beautiful Basque places and so little time.

What’s your favourite, the mountains or the sea?

 

 

How Not to Do Ireland in Style

(Note. I previously published this entry in http://impactmagazine.us/)

For years now, I’ve been told by the Spanish that Ireland was an incredible place, amazingly green with friendly people. On a recent trip, I somehow missed this Ireland that had been advertised, but I don’t regret my journey there.

Part of the problem was a lack of time to truly get to know the island, and trying to cram in too much in a short visit. I started off by taking the bus from the Dublin airport to Cork to begin my trip. Big mistake. My precious first hours on the island were spent on a bus watching the grey skies over the ugliest part of the green isle. It was dark by the time I arrived in Cork. My first day was shot.

The next morning, I took advantage of having my internal alarm clock still on Spanish time and waking up too early (Ireland is an hour behind Spain) to go to Blarney, the reason for my sojourn to Cork. My mom’s side of the family is part Irish, and my entire life I’ve heard stories about how she wanted to kiss the Blarney Stone that is supposedly said to give the “gift of gab” but more likely gives the gift of herpes. After paying my 12€ (highway robbery), I raced ahead to get ahead of that bus of annoying tourists being guided through Ireland at breakneck speed. Nothing against tourists (since I was one too), but I feel a tour bus is not a good way to experience the ways of the land.

I kissed the stone. Do I feel like I can talk any better? I’m still as reticent as ever three weeks later. I’m grateful for the experience, though, so if I ever have grandchildren, I’ll be able to tell them about climbing the stairs to the top, and in the drizzle, lying on my back, being held by my feet and kissing the stone. I will admit that the grounds of the Blarney Castle are incredible. However, I’m sure the Irish can suggest other castles that are more beautiful and off-the-beaten-path for those wanting to avoid a tourist trap.

I also went to Cobh during my Cork visit. It was a small, quaint village near the sea, and for history buffs, it’s the spot where the Titanic set off on its ill-fated journey. This was more Ireland, I think. Laid back, green and quaint.

Cork City was a disappointment. The River Lee was nice, but it was a bit too quiet and peaceful for being Ireland’s second largest city. Shopping was fun, and the bookstores were fantastic. Nevertheless, I left the city disappointed. Also of note, being born in the States, I found the Cork dialect of English nearly as difficult to understand as the Irish language itself (which I saw a lot of but never heard actually spoken).

On day three I left Cork for Dublin, this time by train. The train takes a more scenic route than the bus with stops in Limerick and a few other towns. It was a quick three hours compared to the eternal three bus hours, and after taking a taxi to my hostel in a residential part of town, I set off exploring.

Dublin reminded me a lot of Boston. They had a ton of American restaurants (Subway is quite popular), and Trinity College could easily have been located in Cambridge, Massachusetts and not Dublin. The St. Patrick Cathedral and Christchurch Cathedrals were spectacular, and Temple Bar is like none other for aficionados of Guinness. I’m not a fan of beer, ever, under any circumstance, but I had to take part in the tradition of having a pint. I much preferred the Starbucks, though.

Speaking of food, I think my cholesterol had to have risen during my short stay. I had eggs and sausage for breakfast every morning. Ireland is not a place for eating healthy, nor is it a place to go for those wanting to save money. I found the prices to be double or triple what they were in Spain for the same thing. That pint of Guinness set me back 5€, and their white coffee was 2.50-3€. Spain’s café con leche is, on average, 1.30€.

The highlight of Dublin for me was walking along the river. It has a bridge designed by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava, but I preferred the Ha’Penny Bridge.

I took advantage of being in the Irish capital and went out to explore the gay nightlife. The George is the most famous gay club of Dublin, and with reason. It was packed with people of all ages on Friday night. The music was good, and before 10 there is no cover. The drinks were also cheap, and it’s quite close to Temple Bar, the main tourist square.

While I appreciate what I saw, I feel I missed a lot of what I would have loved. The Ring of Kerry, the Dingle Peninsula, the Cliffs of Moher, a trip to Northern Ireland to see Belfast and the Giant’s Causeway … I did what I could with the four days I had, but I was left with a bad taste in my mouth. Perhaps I should give Ireland a second chance to see these places, among others, in the future.

However, from this short trip, I learned less is more. If you see fewer places instead of trying to see everything, you get more out of those places. My first time to Italy, I saw five cities in ten days and felt rushed. Since then, I have returned to Rome and Milan on two different occasions and had a better time focusing on these trips. It’s not always feasible, unfortunately, as you never know if you’re going to get the chance to go back.

At least the weather cooperated for once. Ireland is typically rainy? Could have fooled me. I only experienced drizzle at the Blarney Castle.

If I ever find myself in Ireland again, after a night at The George, of course, I plan on hitting the more natural areas and leaving the cities behind to experience what I presume is the authentic Ireland.

Ibiza. Eivissa és més que festa.

Ibiza is an island known for its parties. Mariah Carey herself has one of her rappers name check it in her “Don’t Forget About Us Desert Storm” remix. David Guetta got his start there in the discos. This is the Ibiza known to the world.

I challenged that notion. I’ve been wanting to go to the island for a long time but in “plan tranquilo”, as the Spanish say. I went the first weekend of March, risking “bad weather” (I live in the Basque Country and grew up in Ohio. Unless it’s a Mediterranean storm, I’m not going to be too fazed) and being bored. Neither happened.

I stayed in Ibiza Town, the biggest city with a population of about 50,000 people. The clouds were a bit grey, but nothing that deterred me from exploring the Dalt Vila, their Casco Viejo, recognized by UNESCO as a World Heritage site. The views of the sea and nearby island Formentera were incredible. Medieval villages and cobblestone streets never get old in my book, and I explored this part of the city to my heart’s content.

Despite being March, there is a bit of nightlife in Ibiza. My morning flight kept me from really seeing the discos, but I had a few drinks in the Plaza del Sol. The locals were friendly and excited that a guiri spoke catalán. They seemed separated from the political drama of Catalunya’s quest for independence and Valencia’s quest for language independence for their “valenciano” dialect. As long as you didn’t call it “mallorquín”, they were okay with it being called catalán.

On Sunday, they were having a celebration, as apparently March 1st is Balearic Island Day. A parade nearly had my bus ride to Santa Eulària des Riu cancelled. The bus made it through, and I went a half hour north to the third-largest city on Ibiza. The church on the hill made me feel more as if I were in Greece than Spain. The white décor and blue roof enchanted me, and the views of the spectacular sea below were nothing short of breathtaking. It was about 20ºC (68ºF), warm enough for a nice, long, barefoot stroll on the beach.

The highlight of the trip was the nearby island Formentera. This is the stuff desert islands are all about. The choppy waves made the half hour ferry ride torturous, and for the first time in my life, I got seasick. It was one of the windiest days I’ve seen in my life, which meant no bike ride through the island for me. Darn. I did take a hike to the nearest village from the port of Formentera and fell in love with the island.

By going during off season, I got to experience an Ibiza far removed from the parties and tourists that would make it a living hell for me during the summer. I found a quaint, picturesque island and friendly people. It was a nice return to “Spain” after living in the Basque Country for so long, and it is a place that I would enjoy returning to. I definitely preferred it to its big Balearic Sister Mallorca, which I think is owned by Germany at this point. I look forward to the day when I can go to Menorca, the least-known Balearic Island and supposedly the most beautiful. I can’t speak for the summer night life, but for a late-winter escape for those wanting tranquility, Ibiza can’t be beat.

CINC MERAVELLES D’EIVISSA

  1. Formentera
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  2. Dalt Vila, Ibiza Town
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  3.  Santa Eulària des Riu 
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  4. Puig de Missa, Santa Eulària des Riu
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  5. This Sunset
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Bucket List of Travels (June 2014)

There are so many places I want to see on the planet, and so little time and money. Until my novels start publishing and I make a ton of money and have book tours, I will just have to dream and allow my imagination to travel.

So what  is on my Bucket List of Traveling? In no particular order, 20 places I want to visit before I die.

  1. Visit Every Province in Spain. As of June 1, 2014, I only have five left. I have a trip to Huesca planned that will be most likely be published before this one. So that leaves me Lugo and Ourense in Galicia, Zamora in Castilla y León, Santa Cruz de Tenerife in the Canary Islands, and Albacete, cagate y vete (shit and leave just doesn’t have the same rhyme, sorry). I have set foot in Albacete during a bus stop of 20 minutes and had lunch there, but I am not sure that counts.
  2. Morocco. I want to see the Sahara Desert and set foot on Africa. I also want to see the Pyramids of Egypt and go way down south to see the African Safari.
  3. Set foot on all 5/7 continents. Depending on who you talk to, there are 5 or 7 continents. I’m going to go with the American definition to get me to more places.
  4. Argentina. Buenos Aires, La tierra de fuego, and Iguazu Falls.
  5. Perú for Maccu Piccu.
  6. Chile, just because the people there seem really cool.
  7. Drive Route 66.
  8. Drive the TransCanadian Highway.
  9. Hike the Camino de Santiago del Norte, along the North Coast of Spain. Hey, that is starting in July with any luck!
  10. Iceland.
  11. Scandanavia. Especially the Norwegian fjords, but I want to visit every country that pertains to Scandanvia.
  12. TransSiberian Railroad.
  13. A return to Greece for the Islands and to see Meteora.
  14. San-Michele in France.
  15. Have the cajones to hitchhike, just for the experience.
  16. I haven’t mentioned Australia, as I thought it would be obvious on my goal to visit every continent, but…
  17. Istambul, Turkey. I won’t tell them I’m a journalism major. Do they still forbid journalists?
  18.  Prague and Vienna. I think next spring, I will travel here and include Germany.
  19. Cinque Terre in Italia. I’m looking at September if I have the money.
  20. I reserve this for any cool place that comes my way.

What is on your Bucket List of Travels?

Pamplona and Estella. Navarra.

Pamplona is famous for the annual San Fermines (Running of the Bulls) festival each July, but the city of nearly 200,000 people has more to offer than drunken tourists attempting to outrace bulls who are running themselves to their own deaths. I have nothing against bullfighting, for the record, as I understand it is part of Spain’s history. However, I also don’t support it. Neither do most of the Spanish, but that’s neither here nor there.

The capital of Navarra, Pamplona (or Iruñea in standard Euskera), like almost all Spanish cities, has a charming old quarter. The Plaza del Castillo offers Café Iruña, an old café where Hemingway himself is said to have written during his stays in Pamplona. If you’re not having your coffee or meal on the terrace, it’s actually reasonably priced for being in the main square and for having such historical ties.

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The café is located quite close to the “encierro”, the route the bulls take during those 8 a.m. summer runs. Even closer to the encierro is the Arga River, which provided a nice walk through nature.

Another fave for citizens and tourists alike is the Parque Taconera, a park featuring animals. I loved seeing the deer, but children like the chickens and the “pavos reales”, or peacocks.

The old quarter comes alive on Thursday evenings when everyone goes out for “juevintxo”, which is Navarre Basque for “pintxo pote”, when everyone goes out for wine or beer and a pintxo. It was quite difficult to even get to the bar to order, but I had some decent rabas (fried squid, also known as calamares).

For me, the best of Navarra and visiting Pamplona has been the villages close by. Navarra is the gateway to the Pyranees, an area I am dying to explore more. On my first visit in 2010, I visited the Camino de Santiago village Puente de la Reina, which has a beautiful medieval bridge and is charming in its own right. I also visited Olite, home of a spectacular castle on this trip. Olite might quite possibly be the most boring village in all of Spain. It was hard even finding a place to have dinner on this trip. Granted, it was December and a very cold night. I just remember the castle being beautiful and not much else.

On this trip, I decided to visit Estella, or Lizarra in Basque. While a bit bigger than Olite and Puente de la Reina, it still has its small-town charm. Like Pamplona and Puente de la Reina, it’s a destination on the ubiquitous Camino de Santiago.

About 40 kilometres from Pamplona, Estella is built in the hills. They have a stunning basilicia on top of one hill, and a cross if you want to hike even higher. There are a few other Medieval churches and a very small castle ruins.

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I regret not having more time in Estella and spending more time in Pamplona. The people seemed a bit subdued, especially compared with the lively Bilbao where I live. There were quite a few nice cafés, including the Katakrak Liburak, which came attached with a bookshop. However, Pamplona just seemed quiet. Estella, despite being a quarter of the size, was livelier for me. I can only imagine how crowded San Fermines must be though.

In any case, Navarra, Navarre, Naforroa, or whatever language you want to use to call it, is worth visiting outside the festivals.

Set Meravelles of Navarra (that I’ve seen, as of June 11, 2014)

1. Palace of Olite, Olite: 

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2. Puente de la Reina:

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3. The Pyrenees

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4. Cafe Iruña, Pamplona

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5. Estella

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6. Parque Taconera

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7. San Fermines, Pamplona

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The Best Laid Plans.

For two weeks running, my plans have changed the second I arrived at my destination. Both times, the detours turned out to be better than the actual plan probably was.

Last week, my original plan was to visit the village of Balmaseda in the south of Vizcaya. I’ve seen it from the train, and it looked like the type of quaint, medieval village I’ve come to love. I was excited, expecting a tranquil sort of Sunday afternoon exploring the village and it’s mountanious surroundings.

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If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans. It turns out the peaceful afternoon I wanted here had to be postponed due to the fact that they were having a festival for the Basque public schools. That’s fine, but the town was almost as packed as Chueca in Madrid is during Pride. I wouldn’t be able to have the infamous relaxing cup of café con leche in their Plaza Mayor, meander the streets and explore like I had wanted.

I decided after seeing the town’s famous bridge to hike to the next train stop. The next village was 4 kilometres away, and I needed to get back into hiking. I found the backroad to Zalla, but I never made it. Discovering a trail along the river took me to some cool views of “Euskadi profunda”, or Deep Basque Country. Green and cloudy, exactly how God intended Euskadi to be.

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It was a peaceful walk, and I found my calm, Zen zone here before heading back to the hustle and bustle of the self-proclaimed “capital of the world”, Bilbao.

Yesterday, I made plans with a friend to go for a hike between two coastal villages reachable by the Metro of Bilbao. As we approached Plentzia, we saw a weird misty cloud that appeared more like smoke. We decided to go for a walk along the beach of Gorliz, the village next to Plentzia, instead of trying this hike. We actually stumbled upon a hill and a trek to the lighthouse of Gorliz. Incredible views of the coast and Gorliz awaited us along the way.

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Sure, we got lost a few times along the way before we found the actual trail. Thanks to the advice of some strangers coming from the lighthouse, we found the trail and then the lighthouse. The lighthouse was nothing special, but we could see a small island in the Bay of Bizcaya of the Cantabrian Sea. It was the perfect end to the walk. And I have to say the walk was much greener than anything I saw on my recent trip to Ireland.

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I am learning more and more that as much as you try to plan something, some of the most amazing things happen due to last minute changes. I’m sure the walk from Plentzia to Urdiliz is also beautiful, but the stunning views of the sea couldn’t be topped. Getting lost can be kind of fun, as long as you have a lot of time and a semblance of orientation of how to get to the main road. The more flexible one while on the road, and the more open-minded one is to detours to the itinerary, the better the trip can be.

What have some of your last-minute plan changes been, and how have they worked out?