Belgium. The Set Meravelles.

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Belgium surprised me in a lot of ways. This small country, about the size of Maryland (or the Basque Country autonomous community (not Euskal Herria, which is bigger) has a lot to offer. Although I saw a lot during my short time there, I know there are a lot more things to see. There are more waffles and chocolate to try, and if I could just make myself like beer (I’m a total wine guy…don’t like the taste of beer), there are a ton of beers to try. That’s the thing about traveling. You always miss out on something cool no matter how well you budget your time as there is just too much to see in this world. It’s impossible to see it all.

Bruges (Brugge/Brujas) was by far my favourite city. The medieval feel combined with the canals makes it an awesome destination.

Antwerp, the City of the Biscuits (British for cookie) was my second fave. It has 510,000 habitants but wasn’t too big or too small. It has the World’s Most Beautiful Train Station (so they say). Legend has it that Antwerp got its name from an evil Giant who demanded a toll to cross the river, and for those who didn’t pay, he chopped off their hand and threw it into the river. The giant was named Antigoon. He met his demise at the hands (see what I did there?) of the young hero Brabo, who was able to chop the giant’s hand off and throw it into the river. For this reason, there is a hand statue at the town hall, and Antwerp might be descended from the Dutch hand werpen…to throw a hand.

Ghent was also impressive with its river and old town. Brussels is a modern city with a ton to offer the city folk out there. (I can’t believe I used to dream of living in the big city!)

Belgium has a bit to offer for everyone. Maybe it’s because it was once part of Spain, but Belgium just might be my fave non-Mediterranean country. I’m not going to lie, I’m partial to Spain (and Euskadi and Catalunya shhh), Portugal, Italia and Greece and the slower pace of life. Belgium, however, was a nice change of pace, even if it was a bit hard to adjust to eating lunch at 12 or 1 p.m. and dinner at 6 or 7 p.m.! When in Antwerp, do as the Flemish do.

Again, there is a lot of the country left to discover (and a lot of the world left for me to discover), but based on my week there, these are the Set Meravelles. There are many more than seven, of course, so if your fave didn’t make the list, sorry!

Set Meravelles

Bruges

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¡Hay brujas en Brujas! Ok, no witches outside the shops catering to Spanish tourists, but Bruges is a lovely city and the “Venice of the North” due to its canals and medieval charm. If I only had one option for Belgium, this city would be it. Wednesday is market day at Grote Markt.

Antwerp Centraal

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It’s been voted a few times “The Most Beautiful Train Station in the World”, and I can understand why. If only every train station were nice enough to alleviate the rush of trying to catch the next train with beauty. It’s nice both inside and out.

Het Steen (Antwerp) and the Scheldt River

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The medieval fortress was the first stone fortress in Antwerp and built to defend against the Vikings. Holy Roman Emperor Spanish King Carlos (Charles) V later rebuilt it and gave it its current name, the King’s Stone Castle. It has been a toll booth and a prison and in 1890 became a museum of archaeology.

Rooftop of Mas (Museum Aan de Stroom)

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The “Museum at the River” was opened in 2011, and although it costs money to see the exhibits, it’s free to take 8 flights of escalators to the roof to see some of the best views of the city.

Manneken Pis (Brussels)

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The “Little Pee Man” has been a Brussels staple since 1618 or 19. Over the years, it has been stolen several times, and the current one has been in place since 1965. The original is kept at Maison du Roi/Broodhuis in Grand Place/Grote Markt. The most famous legend says that in the 12th century, during a battle with the Berthouts, an infant Duke Godfrey III of Leuven was placed in a basket above the troops. The infant urinated on the Berthouts. Another legend says a small child urinated on a starting fire to put it out which saved the city. There are many more legends and myths about the famous statue.

European Parliament (Brussels)

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Brussels is the de facto capital of the European Union, which means in the European Quarter of Brussels, the EU meets for many discussions in massive buildings. I, for one, felt a bit intimidated.

Ghent

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Ghent is a university town with an amazing old quarter located on the River Leie. It’s a shame the rest of the city isn’t as beautiful as the city centre, as you have to walk through some not-so-nice parts to get to the really good parts. Of course, that could be a metaphor for life, eh?

Brussels, Capital of Europe.

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Thursday morning, I went off by myself to see Brussels. From what I had read, it sounded a bit too city for me, and I ended up being right about that. The older I get, the more I prefer smaller cities with a laid back vibe and everything isn’t rush rush rush all the time. With a metro population of 1.8 million, I knew it would be quite different from the Belgium I had seen so far on this trip. While technically a part of the Flemish region (or its own entity, Brussels-Capital region) and bilingual, French is more common here than the Flemish Dutch.

I caught the 8.54 train from Antwerp to Brussels and was there in just under an hour. After leaving from the Most Beautiful Train Station in the World Antwerp Centraal, I was a bit disappointed in Brussels Centraal. I made my way to the Grote Markt, better known in its French name, the Grand Place (or what the Spanish would call, Plaza Mayor). It was impressive, but the guide books had built it up too much. I had fallen for the hype and wanted even more. It was beautiful, I will admit. As beautiful to be called the top thing to see in all of Belgium by a guide from El País? No.

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It took me a while to orientate myself with the map that cost 50 cents at the tourism office in Grand Place. I eventually did and went to see Manneken Pis, a statue of a boy peeing water into a fountain. The statue is one of Brussels’ most famous landmarks and fun to see, I must admit.

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I had my last Belgian waffle, this one with strawberries so it was healthy, and perused a used-book shop.

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I found my way to the Bourse, which was an incredibly beautiful building, and to Saint Catherine, a beautiful church nearby.

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I then made the mistake of taking the metro to the European Parliament buildings. This is by far the most confusing metro I have ever taken in my life, and my Belgian friend later concurred, saying he would’ve advised me NOT to take the metro had he thought about it. The ticket makes for a good souvenir, I guess. The street I randomly took to get to the European Parliament had the Spanish Embassy, and I got all nostalgic for Spain when I saw the flag. I later questioned myself how Basques and Catalans would feel about having to go there should they run into problems in Brussels. I’m too politically correct sometimes!

The European Parliament was impressive. Huge. Busy. Modern.

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I made my way back via the park and the Royal Palace, which was another impressive building.

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The stairs past the library to the city centre gave some beautiful views of the city. I had a cheap lunch and a café au lait, feeling okay about missing out on the Atomium, a 103-metre (338 yards) sculpture built for the 1958 World’s Fair. If I’m ever back in Brussels, I’ll go back. I saw it from the train, and it looked cool. It just looked like it was going to pour down rain any minute, and it never did. If I had stayed, though, we all know I’d still be drying out! That’s my traveler’s luck.

I’m glad I visited Brussels, and for city people, this would be an incredible city. There is a ton to do. For me, I prefer Bruges, Antwerp and Ghent, smaller cities where I felt more relaxed and not rushed by the trappings of city life. Overall…I’d recommend visiting all four cities if possible. There is a ton to see and do in Belgium, but for this trip, these four cities gave me a great introduction.

Next up will be the SetMeravelles of Belgium.

Bruges (Brugge), which has no witches, and Ghent.

Belgium 303On Wednesday morning, my friend and I woke up all too early and caught an 8:04 train from the Most Beautiful Train Station in the World, Antwerp Centraal, to a city in West Flanders that many Spanish believe has witches due to the name being “Brujas” in Spanish, which means witches. I had my Starbucks, which is a full 1,50€ more than Spanish Starbucks, which I try to avoid as the bar cutre across the street has better café con leche. However, I always make a point to go to Starbucks in every new country I visit, except Italia, who as of 2012 still did not allow Starbucks. Things may have changed by now.

Yeah, I have to admit, Einstein Coffee was a bit better and a lot cheaper. But Starbucks is tradition.

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(Starbucks in the Bruges Train Station)

The train took about an hour and a half from Antwerp, and the landscape continued to remind me of northern Ohio, even more with the frost. After a 1 km or so walk from the train station, we arrived in the city centre. Bruges doesn’t allow buses in the city centre, which helps its UNESCO World Heritage Status. Bruges has a population of about 117,000 habitants yet receives around a million of tourists every year (more after being 2002’s European Cultural Capital). The city was once an important trade centre and later was important in making lace. Today it’s just a beautiful medieval city.

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As it was Wednesday, it was Market Day, so in their Grote Markt (Plaza Mayor), they were having a market selling vegetables and fruits and waffles (It is Belgium). I never really was a fan of waffles until I tried authentic Belgian waffles. Now I love them. We had our waffle and had a relaxing koffie (which comes with milk) in a café that seemed right out of a Swiss The Sound of Music.

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I found my souvenirs in a shop near the Markt, and after exploring a few of the buildings that make up this Markt (which is SO much better than the Grand Place/Grote Markt in Brussels, but more later) we explored the city and its canals. It really is the Venice of the North, but for me, it was better than Venice as I wasn’t having to duck into cafés to have yet another cappuccino to keep warm.

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My fave thing in the city was this lazy dog lying in the window, watching the canal go by.

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Also for the Spanish, this might possibly be a bruja. You know witches and black cats…

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Luckily, we had beat the tourists, who started arriving in masses about noon. We grabbed a quick lunch on the go about 13:00 and caught the train to Ghent, a half hour or so away.

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Ghent is a student city with about 250,000 people. The train station is located a good walk away through some not-so-beautiful places. The city was once important in the wool area as the river area is good for raising sheep. Spanish King Carlos V (Charles V) was born here, who was also Holy Roman Emperor. It is the third largest port in Belgium.

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My first impression was “meh”. When I saw the Cathedral and the “casco viejo” (old part of town, Spanish influences my English and I think “Casco Viejo” is English most days), I fell in love with the city. The Graslei,  Gravensteen and Leie River were my fave parts. The centre was incredibly beautiful, and I could easily imagine the summer here, having a relaxing koffie on a nice terrace. We also managed to see Belgian-Puerto Rican celebrity Gabriel Ríos out for an afternoon stroll. We rested a bit with that relaxing koffie before heading back to Antwerp.

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To be continued…

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Antwerp, home of the Most Beautiful Train Station in the World.

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I’ve been through Belgium twice, “de paso”, for two very brief periods of time. On my 2003 European Vacation with my Eurorail pass, I saw Belgium from the train from Amsterdam to Paris, and I’ve always regretted not stopping there to see the country. Then in 2014, coming back from Christmas in the States, I had a layover there of about 20 minutes. It was the one where I made the connecting flight but my luggage didn’t until the following day. I was sort of hoping to have missed the flight for an excuse to get to see the country, but alas, no avail.

So when I had an open invitation to visit a friend who I met living in Valencia, I took advantage of a cheap Ryan Air offer (40 Euro return/roundtrip) during my week off in February for Carnaval, something that interests me about as much as Sookie Stackhouse’s Collection of Mosquitos. (I hate dressing up). And this week, I finally got to add Belgium to the list of countries I have visited. I’ll write up the country as a whole and my impressions (and some amusing anecdotes) later, but first I’m going to take a look at my three full days in Belgium.

Monday morning, I caught a train to the Santander Airport, which is one of the smallest airports in Spain yet still is functioning and running unlike some that shall remain nameless Castellón Castilla La Mancha.  I was able to sleep most of the fight, despite Ryan Air’s best to sell me things I’d never want and an even more expensive meal than the one I just had at the airport. I caught the bus and then train from Charleroi (I mean, Ryan Air would NEVER take you directly to the city ;)) to Antwerp. The journey was about an hour and forty minutes, and the landscape reminded me a lot of my own state, Ohio. It was great to see my friend again, who I hadn’t seen since 2011 over a quick drink in the Plaza de Chueca de Madrid when I first started working there (yikes! I’m old!). After he prepared a typical Belgian dinner of beef stew prepared with beer and potatoes, we went out for a drink at Den Draak. I did try beer, and again, I didn’t like it. Not even Belgian beer. Give me wine any day.

The next morning we slept in and tried to wait until the rain stopped before exploring Antwerp. Antwerp impressed me. It doesn’t get the attention it deserves, and perhaps I shouldn’t say that so we can keep it an unspoiled secret. After a typical Belgian breakfast with lots of breads, an egg, coffee and juice, the rain finally stopped and we went exploring.

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The Cathedral is very impressive, as is the nearby statute. It was supposed to have two towers like Notre Dame, but as they ran out of money, they decided to wait until they had more money to finish it and never got around to it. I liked the staircase façades on all of the buildings. The cafés are all amazingly cool with an awesome environment. Hipsterdom is quite the rage in Belgium, I have to admit. I tried a Belgian waffle that was great.

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We also took a tunnel that ran underneath the River Scheldt for 570 metres (reached by wooden escalators)

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and went to the roof of the MAS art museum for spectacular views of the city.

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I also must point out that Het Steen was also pretty cool. It is Antwerp’s oldest building and its name means the stone castle. The fortress has been used as a prison and a way of controlling access to the river. The statue at the front is of the Lange Wapper, a mythological (or not) giant who used to haunt streets not protected by the Virgin Mary.

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Antwerp is also home to an incredibly beautiful train station, one that they are proud of and often wins polls declaring it “The Most Beautiful Train Station” in the world. The city is so full of beautiful and amazing things to see.

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They are also trying to make an effort to light up one of the bridges as a rainbow to support the LGBTQQA (or whatever the initials are at the moment of reading) community. However, you can only see three of the six colours at any given moment.

Another thing I liked was a street full of old, incredibly beautiful mansions (called Cogels Osylei) and the Four Seasons apartment buildings that made up one corner. These buildings are a part of the city’s history, and I am so glad that people bought them in the 70s to keep from being torn down for new, more modern things.

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We also saw some Belgian chocolate being made, and yes, I had a sample.

I am so glad I based myself out of Antwerp instead of Brussels. To be continued…

A Coruña. Yes, Virginia, a place rainier than Euskadi.

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I’ve hesitated writing about Galicia until now because of my hazy memory and my desire to return to do the SetMeravelles justice. I have only been there once, for three days, six years ago. I keep hoping for a return visit to spend more time and visit the two provinces I didn’t make it too, but things keep coming up. It’s not that I don’t love Galicia, as I do. However, Galicia is in the northwest corner of Spain, chock full of winding roads. Even in Bilbao on the Cantabrian Coast, I’m a full 5-6 hours away, and the world is big. I know I’m on a personal pilgrimage to Santiago, but that’s going to take a while in itself.

On my first Semana Santa in Spain, I went to Portugal and took a train north to Galicia (and caught Ryan Air back to Madrid to catch the bus back to Linares in Jaén, where I was living at the time.) After a too brief stop in Vigo, I went ahead to Santiago de Compostela where I was staying. It was raining, of course. I checked into a non-pilgrim hostel and saw tourist shops full of Camino de Santiago stuff. I was in awe of the pilgrims arriving to town and made the decision to do the Camino one day myself. (Six days later, I’ve done…40 kilometres! Go me. I’m picking it back up in March or April whenever the monsoon stops). I walked around the Cathedral of St. James in awe. And while the city is small for its fame (only 95,000 people), it didn’t feel small. I kept walking through the small streets, loving the gallego I saw everywhere. Due to my aversion to all things related to seafood, I did not try pulpo (octopus), the speciality of Galicia. (In fact, I’m going to have a nightmare about an octopus attacking me now due to having typed this up).

I did try a piece of tarta de Santiago, though. And two more on my next two days there.

I digress. The next morning, when I was getting ready to go to A Coruña (the province capital. Santiago is the capital of the autonomous community), I discovered that my debit card was missing. I remember getting money out from the BBVA next door to the hostel, but I don’t remember what I did with it after that. And to make matters worse, it was Semana Santa, which meant all the banks were closed. I frantically emailed my mom and took off to A Coruña. It was raining. A lot. And I remember beautiful scenery and listening to Wynonna’s Revelation, but I was so freaked about not having much money that I didn’t really enjoy the city. The rain stopped for the return to Santiago, and I ended up going out for drinks with a guy from the hostel.

The third day was spent in plan tranquilo, seeing one of the coolest staircases in the Museo de Pobo Galego (Musuem of the Galician people) and heading out to the airport to catch a much-delayed flight to Madrid.

I am dying to return to Galicia, and even more dying to be out on the most famous road to get there later this year.

Set Meravelles

Torre de Hércules 

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No, this is not the Hércules Tower! However, in my fuzzy memory, when I later read about the Hércules Tower, I assumed this was it and that I had visited it. I still haven’t actually been there. Kicking myself. I blame the stress from the missing debit card that trip. You live and you learn, like Alanis Morissette sings. The actual Roman Torre de Hércules is a lighthouse dating back to the second century AD. It is UNESCO World Heritage site.

Catedral de Santiago y su camino

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The Casco Viejo (Old Quarter) of Santiago is a UNESCO World Heritage site. The Cathedral is one of the most important in Spain, and it’s on good authority that the remains of the apostle James are buried here. In 813, legend has it that a bright light lead a shepherd here, and the shepherd told the bishop who told King Alfonso II of Oviedo, who had the Cathedral built in that spot. For that reason, over the centuries, many people made a pilgrimage across Spain to the cathedral. The original cathedral was destroyed by a Moorish leader, Al-Mansur Ibn Abi Aamar. Alfonso VI of Castilla had the current one constructed in the 11th century.

Praza do Obradoiro

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The main plaza of Santiago is amazing in its own right. Located next to the Catedral de Santiago, the Praza houses a hotel that was originally an albergue for pilgrims founded by Catholic Kings Ferdinand and Isabel, the ayuntamiento (City Hall) and a school.

Museo de Pobo Galego

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In the convent of San Domingo lies the Museum of the Galician People (Museo de Pobo Galego). It has artifacts through Galicia history and tells the story of the Galicians. It also has some of the coolest staircases ever, just as twisty and windy as the Galician roads.

Muxía (to be discovered)

A Galician village of 6000 people, Muxía is part of the Costa de Muerte, where many shipwrecks happened over the years. It is also the end of the Camino de Santiago for those pilgrims wanting to make it to the coast. (It is close to Muxía where the ending scene of The Way was filmed.) The 2002 oil spill from The Prestige unfortunately took place near here, but it quickly recovered, thankfully.

Finisterre (to be discovered)

Finisterre means “The End of the World”, and until certain people “discovered” lands that were already discovered, it was believed to be the very end of the world. The cape boasts a lighthouse and several beaches, and along with Muxía, is the true end of the Camino de Santiago.

Betanzos (to be discovered)

Betanzos is a small city of 14,000 habitants located near the Atlantic Ocean. It has one of the most famous Casco Viejos of Galicia. The walls still have 3 of their 4 original gates, and there are many palaces and a clock tower to visit.

Galicia, I want to go back soon!

Also, a bit of “galego” for anyone interested. “Como estás hoxe?”

Also, a bit of a note to say that I am travelling today (unfortuantely not to Galicia) but will reply to any comments and likes and typo corrections as soon as possible, just be patient! The destination will be revealed soon…

Kolitza and Balmaseda

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I needed a trip to the mountains before all the snow melted and before the rain came back, so this morning I woke up and decided to not only knock out a return visit to Balmaseda off my bucket list but to also hike to a nearby mountain before the rain came in this afternoon.

Me hizo falta un viaje al monte antes de desaparezca la nieve y antes de la lluvia vuelva, y por eso esta mañana me he despertado y he decidido tachar una segunda visita a Balmaseda de mi Bucket List y a la misma vez hacer una ruta de senderismo antes de la vuelta de la lluvia esta tarde.

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I caught the 8:35 bus from the Termibus in Bilbao and was in Balmaseda by 9:20. I had my café con leche and lamented the fact that my iPad failed me and didn’t have the page of the day’s route loaded in its cache. I saw the arrow to the mountain though and followed it. However, due to a hidden GR (Gran Recorrido) arrow, I missed it and got lost.

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Cogí el autobus a las 8:35 en el Bilbao Termibus y llegué a Balmaseda sobre 9:20. Tomé mi café con leche y lamenté el hecho que mi iPad no guardó la página bien en su cache de la ruta que quería hacer hoy. Vi la flecha para ir al Monte Kolitza y lo seguí. Sin embargo, porque había una flecha de GR escondida, lo perdí y me perdí.

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I was soon playing in the snow and enjoying the amazing views. I got a bit off track before I found a way back to the main path. My shoes were drenched from the snow. I was an hour off course. Oops. I made my way to the top, but due to some mean looking clouds, I didn’t quite make it to the ermita at the top. I came close though, and although this isn’t horseshoes, I’m going to count it. I did not want to be caught in a snowy mountain in incoming inclement weather. The actual path back had turned into a stream thanks to the melting snow and the storms from previous weeks.

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Muy pronto estaba jugando en la nieve y disfrutando las vistas impresionantes. Me perdí más antes de encontrar un camino hacía la ruta principal. Mis zapatos estaban empapadas de la nieve y estaba una hora de retraso de la ruta. Caminé casí hasta la cima, pero dado que había nubes supergrises viniendo, no he ido a la ermita en la cima. Estaba cerca, y aunque este no es el juego de herrón, voy a contarlo. No quería estar en un monte nevado con mal tiempo. El sendero real era un arroyo gracias a la nieve descongelando y las tormentas de las semanas pasadas.

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I walked around Balmaseda, taking in once again their beautiful medieval bridge. Después, he paseado por Balmaseda, otra vez viendo su puente medieval bonito. 

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Basque Bucket List

There is about a 50-50 chance my time in the Basque Country will be coming to an end after this academic year. I am not sure where I will be May 31, although I am working diligently trying to secure a permanent job in Països Catalans (I am hoping for Valencia, Girona or Barcelona but am open to anywhere in the so-called Països Catalans). For this reason, I have put together a bucket list of things I want to do should I have to leave Euskal Herria this summer. Spoiler alert for those who want to be surprised about where I’ll be writing about.

Puede ser que tendré que marcharme del País vasco después de este año académico. No sé donde estaré después del 31 de mayo, aunque ya estoy buscando trabajo más permanente en los Països Catalans (estoy esperando encontrar algo en Valencia, Girona o Barcelona, pero estoy abierto a cualquier sitio en los “Països Catalans”). Para eso, he hecho un “Bucket List” de cosas que habré hecho si me tengo que marchar Euskal Herria este verano. Hay spoilers para los que les gusta la sorpresa.

-Bosque de Oma
-Nacimiento del Nervión
-Urkiola
-Armintza
-Aquarium de Donostia
-Zugarramurdi
-Balmaseda
-Gorbea otra vez
-Tolosa
-Oñati
-Tudela
-Iparralde (San Juan de Luz, Bayona)
-Loyola
-Laguardia y La Rioja Alavesa

And places close by/y sitios cerca de:

-Burgos/Pancorbo
-Picos de Europa
-Santo Domingo (La Rioja)
-Ezcaray

And one day, I will make it back to León and Galicia and pick up Zamora! Un día, ¡volveré a León y Galicia y ir a Zamora también!

Alicante…or Gran Alacant.

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Just a quick note…this is my 75th entry at Setmeravelles! Xé que bo! With me resorting to valenciano, you can guess that it’s time I return to writing about la meua Comunitat Valenciana to write about their third province, Alicante (or Alacant).

I’ve been to Alicante three times now, and each time I have loved the city. My first time was on my farewell for the summer 2009 trip through the Comunidad Valenciana in early June. It was the first time I got to stay at a place that wasn’t a backpacker’s hostel, although the place I stayed at had a similar vibe. I fell in love with having a room to myself, and although it was only 6 years ago, looking back, I feel much younger than 27.  It was a quick overnight trip, and the first thing I did after checking in and applying sunscreen was to buy water and head up to the Castillo de Santa Bárbara which overlooks the city and the Mediterranean. After grabbing an unhealthy lunch, I’m sure, I walked around the beach and went swimming. The next night, I went to Santa Pola and stayed at a guest house ran by a great Irish guy living in Alicante. Santa Pola is a great beach, and I enjoyed swimming in a pool for a change.

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My second time was in 2011, after I had to scrap around and change plans last minute for Semana Santa. I went to Calpe, which is a great village in Alicante on the sea, before spending the night in Alicante capital again.

My third time was in 2012, and I coincidentally booked at the same place I had stayed in 2009. The owner remembered me, but this time, I didn’t enjoy the stay as much. I was on my way to work a summer camp in Murcia, so I had that on my mind stressing me out. I had very little time to explore this time, but Alicante remains one a place I love exploring. There are quite a few places I want to visit in the future, of course.

One place I plan to skip, due to my own personal reasons (and not saying that other people should skip), is the Vegas of Spain, Benidorm. It has a ton of things to do for tourists of all types, but I prefer finding my tourism and travel plans in natural or historic places. At one time, Benidorm seemed SOOO cool, and I have seen it from the Valencia-Alicante bus. However, that time has passed. For those liking resort type holidays, this would be your dream vacation in Spain. For those wanting to get in touch with nature or seeing buildings from Roman or medieval times…there are better places.

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Calpe y su Peñón de ifach

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The city of Calpe, 30,000 habitants, is special not because of the city itself but the proximity to Peñón de Ifach, a massive limestone rock formation that is home to over 300 animal and plant species. The natural park is 332 metres (996 feet) high and can be seen for kilometres around. I didn’t get a chance to explore the formation, but it is without a doubt one of the coolest things you can find in Spain. On a clear day, you can see the Balearic Islands.

Castillo de Santa Bárbara

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The capital city of Alicante has 334,000 people, and from the top of Mount Benacantil, which boasts the Santa Bárbara, you can see the entire city. The castle was built like so many of Spanish castles by the Muslims in the 9th century. In 1248, it was captured by forces led by Alfonso de Castilla who renamed it Santa Bárbara, but the Aragonese recaptured it 50-some years later. It was once owned by the English for 3 years, proving they have been anxious to colonize the Levante Coast for a long time. ( / sarcasm font) It was opened in 1963 to the public.

Las playas de Alicante

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Alicante is famous for its beaches all along the coast of the province. On the night of San Juan, June 23rd, the beaches are alit with bonfires up and down the coast.

Elche (to be discovered)

Elche is the third largest city in la Comunitat Valenciana with some 230,000 odd residents. It’s home to over 1000 shoe factories. Every August 14th and 15th, the Misterio de Elche, which is said to be the oldest European theatre piece, is performed. It is also home to a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Palmarel de Elche with its 200,000 palm trees. I did see this from the train from Alicante to Murcia, and it looked awesome.

Alcoy (to be discovered) y su festival de moros y cristianos

The city of Alcoy, 60,000 residents, is home to a castle, rock paintings and every April, a famous festival of Moors and Christians. While performed in several Spanish (especially Valencian) communities, the re-enactment of the Moorish capture and the Christian recapture in Alcoy is the most famous. In Alcoy, it’s around Sant Jordi (April 23), the 22nd-24th, when it is performed.

Xàbia/Jávea (to be discovered)

A coastal town of 34,000 habitants, Xàbia/Jávea is on a bay and located between two rocky headlands. It has several beaches and coves and some buildings left from the Roman times.

Altea (to be discovered)

Altea, 23,000 residents, has been on my list for quite some time. Their casco viejo (old town) is a labyrinth of white houses and cobblestone streets, and it’s right on the sea. I’m looking forward to my chance to visit Altea!

Snow has hit Euskadi!

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This week, a nice cold front from France came in to give Bilbao and the Basque Country some snow. Although in the Vizcayan capital Bilbao the snow was just a dusting, in many parts of the Basque Country, there was some significant accumulation…some say it’s the most snow in 30 years. (It’s been 4 years since accumulation in Bilbao, they tell me.)

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Esta semana, una ola de frío de Francia ha venido para dar Bilbao y el País vasco NIEVE. Aunque en la capital de Vizcaya, Bilbao, no había mucha nieve, en algunas partes de Euskadi había una manta de nieve significante…algunos dicen que es la más nieve que han visto desde hace 30 años. (Ha sido 4 años desde la última nevada en Bilbao, me dicen.)

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I took the Euskotren through Urdaibai today to see just how beautiful the snow made it. I want more. He cogido el Euskotren por Urdaibai para ver tan preciosa la nieve es en Euskadi. More snow, less rain! ¡Más nieve, menos lluvia!

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Soria. More than a parada de 20 minutos

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Soria is one of many forgotten provinces in Castilla y León. Many people only know the province from the bus stop between Barcelona and Madrid that offers beautiful views and cold/hot weather, depending on the season. The capital city is a beautiful Castilian city that is often ignored for not being off a main highway between major cities. That’s okay as it keeps it an undiscovered treasure for everyone else. Antonio Machado, famed Spanish poet of the Generación de ’98, taught French in a secondary school for five years here.

I remember one of my first trips from Madrid to Zaragoza or Barcelona and the bus stop at the travel plaza in the province when it started snowing. I hadn’t really heard of Soria before and wasn’t sure which Castilla it was in. I did my research and suddenly wanted to travel. It wasn’t until 2012 when I had my chance. On a hazy summer day, I went to Soria on a day trip and fell in love with it. It only has a population of around 40,000, making it a smaller capital. It has a beautiful park, but my fave part of the day was walking along the River Duero to the San Saturio ermita (small church. Do people really use “hermitage”? As I have never heard of that word in English before, and I’m a native speaker supposedly…) I remember seeing a lot of small villages in the country that looked beautiful. I haven’t had the chance to go back, but I was just looking to see if there was a bus from Bilbao to Soria before writing this. Unfortunately there isn’t a direct one, but if I stop in Logroño and change buses…

I found this in my private journal about the day to refresh my memory just now. Today I crossed another province off my list. Soria. It’s in Castilla y León, north of Guadalajara (Castilla La Mancha) and south of Zaragoza (Aragón) and the capital city has a population of about 35.000.

It took me a bit to find a decent place that had my tostada con tomate, and it as an expensive tostada and not that great. I then took off to the castle, which would be better labeled as ruins, as there was nothing left but a few walls, surrounding a swimming pool. It was on top of a mountain with view of more mountains.

I then lucked out and found a path down to the trail next to the river Duero, which I took to find the ermita which as made out of a cave. So cool, and sort of a religious experience, of course. There is just something about putting Caedmon’s Call on the iPod and being in touch with nature.

I had a decent meal, although I am trying to eat healthy and change my diet. It was probably not the healthiest, but a lot healthier than it could have been.

A walk through the park, and now I’m on the bus back to Madrid, annoyed that the wifi doesn’t work and that the bus left 10 minutes late.

Set Meravelles

Ermita de San Saturio

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Another ermita, yay! The cool thing about this one is that it’s located in a cave. Sure, they have built up around the cave, but the entrance and part of the ermita is located in a cave. It’s a nice hike from the city, or if you have a car, a very short car ride. Construction began in the 18th century and has an octagon shape.

Castillo

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Perched high upon the hill of Soria, the ruins of a former castle (along with the old city walls)  look over the Río Duero. When I heard there was a castle, I got excited, but all that remains are ruins like in the photo. Nothing last forever! The ruins are still worth checking out, especially for the views from the hill. Those searching out for a more impressive castle can visit el Castillo de Gormaz, 13 kilometres (about 20 miles more or less) from Burgo de Osma, another meravella of the province. I have yet to visit this castle though.

Plaza Mayor

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Madrid Mayor Ana Botella would be happy to have the chance to have a relaxing café con leche in this Plaza Mayor. It’s one of the most important plazas of the city, although on the hot summer morning I was there, I didn’t spend much time there.

Duero

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The Río Duero is one of the most important rivers (the third longest after the Tajo and Ebro) in the Greatest Peninsula in the World, and this time I say it to include Spain’s frenemy Portugal as the river flows on to meet the Atlantic in Porto, Portugal. It flows through the heart of Castilla y León, crossing through five Castilian Leon provinces: Soria, Burgos, Valladolid, Salamanca and Zamora.

Burgo de Osma (to be discovered)

The third largest municipality of Soria, Burgo de Osma , population 5250, is located on the Duero. It’s another beautiful medieval village that has walls and a cathedral. For the non-vegetarian foodies out there, in weekends between January and April, they have “Jornadas de la Matanza” to celebrate the autumn’s harvest.

Medinaceli (to be discovered)

Medinaceli derives from the Arab word for “city” and the Celtic word for “hill”, so you can imagine that this is a city on a hill. Today this “city” has only 804 people, but it is said to be one of the most beautiful locals in Spain. I can attest to what little I saw from the bus that it looks beautiful. The Arco (Arch) de Medinaceli is one of the most famous images of the village, and there is also a castle.

Laguna Negra (to be discovered)

Located in the Picos de Urbión, the “Black Lagoon” is famous due to Machado’s La tierra de Alvargonzález, where he said the lagoon had no limit to its depths. Perhaps this is where the Creature from the Black Lagoon came into being. It was made by glaciers, just like Lake Erie. It’s usually only accessed by foot after parking the car 2 kilometres away (1.2 miles); however during Semana Santa and the summer a bus connects the parking lot/car park (“parking” in Spanish!) to the lagoon.

 Psst: Happy Groundhog Day! Groundhog in Spanish is “marmota”, and the Spanish think this day is pretty ridiculous. I hope the endangered Spanish lynx brings snow to Bilbao before bringing back Lorenzo the Sun!