Ávila…a wall around the city.

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Ávila, a small Castilla y León capital of 59,000 habitants located 1132 metres (3714 feet) above sea level 115 kilometres north of Madrid, remains one of my favourite cities in the Greatest Peninsula in the World and a place I’ve wanted to return to ever since my first (and really, only) visit in 2010. I definitely prefer it to its neighbours Segovia (which I also love) and Salamanca.

Ávila is said to have the highest number of Romanesque and Gothic churches per capita in Spain, along with bars and restaurants. Along with Toledo, it’s one of the most medieval cities in Spain, and by visiting the city, you feel like you’re stepping back into time. The city is surrounded by medieval walls, which for a nominal fee, you can visit and walk along the top of. It was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1985 for good reason.

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It was a snowy morning in late February 2010 when I visited Ávila. I caught the morning train from Chamartin as I really didn’t feel like going to Estación Sur de Madrid (whenever does anyone want to go there?) and the price was about the same. A couple of hours through some gorgeous countryside, and I was in Ávila to have my morning tostada con tomate y café con leche. I remember going instantly to the muralla (wall) and paying to walk above it and falling in love with the city and the wall. It was cold but sunny, and I was quite happy to see snow once again. I meandered through the city, planning a return trip that I still have yet to make. I left something left to see, the Los Cuatro de Postes, so I would make sure to come back. I made it to the Springfield and shopped the last bit of their rebajas (sales) before heading back to Madrid. I was tired from the day’s meanders.

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Yeah, I’ve never really made it back, but I did see the Los Cuatro de Postes from a bus stop of 15 minutes on the way to a summer camp. And I made it back to Ávila provincia (province) in 2010, to a beautiful village called Candeleda. I was in the mountains a bit away from the town, but I fell in love with the brilliant sunset I saw every night.

My personal blog’s comments on Ávila were short and to the point. I always go back and read them to refresh my memory. I was going through a BAD flatmate situation at that time, which explains why it was so short as I had been complaining about that instead of writing on my day. Youth!

Yesterday, I went to Ávila for the day. We read about it in class. It’s an amazing city…highest province capital in Spain. It has this “muralla” (wall) surrounding the city. It’s just how I like my Spanish cities to be. A clash of medieval and modern. Way cooler than Zaragoza.

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Set Meravelles

Ávila Capital

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The province capital is a wonder in itself. Higher in altitude than any other Spanish capital, the city offers spectacular views with a medieval flair. It has a ton of churches to visit, including a cathedral and basilica, many beautiful plazas to have your relaxing café con leche (or irlandés (Irish)) and a ton of charm and history.

Muralla

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The city walls were constructed between the 11th and 14th centuries and has a perimeter of around 2516 metres (7548 feet or 2516ish yards), which is the equivalent of 88 blocks. There are 9 gates, and the average height is 12 metres (12 yards or 36 feet) and is the largest fully illuminated monument in the world. Only about half of it is open for pedestrians, and it’s worth the price of admission to walk wherever you can on top of these mighty walls.

La Sierra de Gredos (Yet to discover)

The mountains of the Gredos are one of the largest in Spain, and its highest peak, Pico Almanzor is 2592 metres (7776 feet) high. The mountains are home to many flora and fauna, and part of the mountains belong to the protected area Parque Regional de la Sierra de Gredos.

Candeleda

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I was lucky enough to work at a summer camp located out in the countryside near Candeleda where I had this sunset every night. The “Andalucía de Ávila” has around 5200 residents and is home to the festival honouring their virgin Chilla in September and the Candelas in February. Former British Prime Minister John Major has spent many summers here.

Arévalo (Yet to discover)

Arévalo, population 8100, is a village whose name stems from the Celtic word “arevalon”, meaning “city near the wall”. Today its North Walls can still be seen, and the rest of the walls are undergoing restoration. It also is home to a Castle, el Castillo de Arévalo.

Madrigal de las Altas Torres (Yet to discover)

While only boasting 1600 habitants, the small village of Madrigal de las Altas Torres has one very important citizen, Queen Isabel I of Castilla, better known as the Isabella in Ferdinand and Isabellla, the Catholic Kings who finished the Reconquista and funded Christopher Columbus. Today it has some medieval walls and a chance to see España profunda.

Castro de Ulaca (Yet to discover)

Castro de Ulaca is an archaelogical zone near Solosancho and has been a “Bien de Interés Cultural” since 1986 (Place of Cultural Interest). It’s located in the Sierra de la Paramera and has an altar, a sauna and various houses from the Vettones in the century 1 B.C.

Three wild movies: Into the Wild, Wild and The Way.

It’s been raining nonstop (there was a 5 day hiatus early in March and a three one the first week of the year, and a few hours here and there but not many) since November in the Basque Country, and I’m just itching to get back out there in the beautiful nature that surrounds me. They say it wouldn’t be as beautiful without the rain, but enough is enough. Even Noah’s flood stopped after 40 days and 40 nights! So as I’m “haciendo tiempo” (killing time is “making time” in Spanish) until the sun returns (most likely during my trip to Italia next month), I’ve been watching a lot of films. As I have no new place to write about and definitely haven’t been out on the Camino as I have no waterproof stuff, I thought I’d take the opportunity to write about three movies about man and woman against the natural world.

Into the Wild (2007, Sean Penn) I read the even better book last year and tried watching the film then, but the book was still too fresh in my mind. For those not familiar with the true story of Alex Supertramp (born Christopher McCandless), it doesn’t have a happy ending (spoiler alert). Alex literally burned his money to live a life of a tramp, out in the wilderness, taking odd jobs here and there to get to the next place calling his name. He wasn’t happy with the status quo and believed that life was better living off of nature. Many people called him selfish and immature, while others call him a hero. He did abandon his family without much thought, but those familiar with the movie alone may not know the back story of an unhappy childhood.

Alex’s goal was Alaska to live off the land. Preparing himself financially and learning how to live off the land as well as he could in a short time’s notice, he found his way to Alaska and found an old abandoned bus. The river grew with the melting snow, and he found himself isolated and trapped, not knowing the ways or directions. His cause of death is a mystery, though the film showing him eating the wrong berries is most likely not the case. The book suggests eating the seeds of something, but studies suggest it was eating mold on one of the plants.

While the outcome of the story is not the one I’d want, his tale did inspire me when I read it and once again when I watched the film this weekend. I wish I had the cojones (see, we do use that expression in English, españoles) to just go out into a cabin in the woods somewhere (not an abandoned bus as I am not brave/brazen as Alex Supertramp) and live off the land, isolated. Is Supertramp right? Is a simpler life a happier one? I know I do enjoy turning off the 4G when I’m out hiking. However, I also agree that no man is an island, as much as some of us try.

It’s a great read, and the film was also a great watch. I just wish it had ended happier for his family and the people he encountered along the way. By the way, those of you who follow me on Twitter (@ setmeravelles), I’m Pablo Supertramp there to honour Alex Supertramp.

Wild (2014, Jean-Marc Vallée) I nearly missed this film because I’m not a fan of Reese Witherspoon, who was grossly miscast as Cheryl Strayed. Based on Strayed’s memoir Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail about herexperiences on the Pacific Crest Trail, the film shows us her struggles to overcome herself as she overcomes the trail’s obstacles which include winter, being a woman hiking alone through some sketchy parts of the West Coast, wilderness. I do believe Witherspoon was miscast. However, that didn’t deter from my enjoyment of the film. It has a more positive ending than Into the Wild and is based on a true story from 1995. I look forward reading the book. Part of doing the Camino de Santiago is overcoming my own self (anxiety, depression) and finding my true self, so I relate to that part of it. I just read that my fave writer Nick Hornby wrote the script, which makes my love for this film make even more sense.

The Way (2010, Emilio Estévez) Of the three films, The Way might be the lesser known, but it’s my personal fave. Based in part on star Martin Sheen’s driven Camino with grandson Taylor and in part on Jack Hitt’s Off the Road: A Modern-Day Walk Down the Pilgrim’s Route into Spain, this film is one of my fave films ever. It’s about a doctor whose estranged son dies on his first day doing the Camino. The doctor finds himself doing the Camino after going to France to pick up the ashes of his late son. With every passing step on the way to Santiago, he grieves his son and finds out he has strength he didn’t know he had. Yeah, cliché, but the film rises above it thanks to awesome supporting characters (the good kind of quirky) and the beauty of Spain seen from the French Camino. It’s inspiring to a quasi pilgrim (please let me have the funds to finish the Camino this summer!) , and it shows how the Camino brings people from all walks of life together.

What are some of your favourite films while dealing with the rainy day blues? What about favourite films about man versus nature (or himself?)

Málaga…more than just beaches.

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I’ve postponed writing about Málaga as I know the people who live there are very passionate about their home, whether they were born there or moved there later in life. I hope I can do this justice, as I have only been to the capital city once, in 2009, and a return visit to one of the SetMeravelles of the entire country, Ronda, in 2013. It most definitely is NOT one of the worst cities to visit in Spain, as one blogger wrote last year. I know the province has more jewels than the capital city, but I really enjoyed my visit to the capital (much more than neighbouring gaybourhood Torremolinos!) in 2009.

I was ending my first year living in Spain, unsure if I was going to be able to continue and regretting a ton of opportunities I’d miss to travel. We had the “Puente de Mayo”, the “bank holiday” weekend of May 1st. I wanted to go back to Granada and felt I should visit Málaga as I heard so much about it. I caught an early bus from the Linares bus station (I sort of miss that place as it was one of the places with free wifi in 2009 small-town Andalucía and we had no internet). The bus stopped in Granada and then went on through some amazing scenery between Granada and Málaga capital. The bus arrived, as they tend to do, and I deboarded and found myself in a beautiful city. (It’s the sixth largest city in Spain with a population of 542,000). I loved the Roman ruins and the pedestrian tunnel to go to the beach. It was one of my first times going to the beach as an adult, sadly enough. It would become a favourite pastime, although I much prefer a sunset walk along the beach than barbecuing myself. I went to Gibraltar (Gibraltar español. I had to say it!) and then tried going out in Torremolinos, which is very connected to Málaga capital all night long. I wasn’t too impressed by Torremolinos.

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I did find a great café, whose wifi I never deleted until the computer died in 2011 and whose name escapes me today, to have my tostada con tomate. It was located in the plaza where the birthplace of Picasso is located. I had forgotten it, but I did go to the Picasso Museum (I remember going to the one in Barcelona in 2003). I had the opportunity to see some beautiful views of the city. The capital may not have the elegance of nearby Marbella or the Je ne sais quoi of Valencia, but Málaga capital does have a lot of things to see.

In 2013, knowing that I was about to move to Bilbao, I went on a trip to Ronda to cross it off my bucket list. This was sadly my last trip to Andalucía as of March 2015. (I hope to go back soon). Ronda impressed me a lot. I happened to coincide with a cool local festival, so everyone was dressed in the typical Andalucía outfits. I fell in love with the bridge and had a relaxing café con leche at their Parador (castle converted into a hotel). I lamented having to go on to Granada as Ronda was so full of charm and life, but Granada *is* Granada.

From my private journal in 2009 on Málaga: Thursday I woke up real early to catch the 7.15 bus to Málaga. The province of Málaga is beautiful. Málaga sort of reminds me of Honolulu. The hostel gave bad directions again, and it was annoying the way I had to make the reservations as I had to change rooms every morning. Ah well. I was in sort of a depressed mood the first day, from lack of sleep. I went to the cathedral, saw it was 4€ to get in, refused to pay it, then went to see the alcazaba (different word for alcázar or fortress) and castle, which combined were about 3€. The views were quite beautiful. There is an ancient Roman theatre next to the alcazaba. I then went under the tunnel to the Malagueta beach…it was okay, but I’ve seen better beaches……Saturday I went to the Picasso museum where I had my brilliant insight into cubism, Spain and Almodóvar. I went to the beach for a while. Lounged around mostly.

Sounds like a good Andalucían holiday to me!

Setmeravelles

1. Ronda

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Located 100 kilometres west (62 miles) of Málaga capital, this city of 36,000 people is one of my fave places I have been in Spain. It’s a typical Andalusian town full of charm enhanced by an amazing bridge. The Puente Nuevo (“New Bridge” is over 300 years old and is 120 metres high (390 feet or 120ish yards). It took 42 years to complete and both sides threw prisoners off it during the Spanish Civil War. There is a ton of natural beauty and hiking trails to explore around this incredible place.

2. Picasso

Pablo Picasso is from Málaga. His paintings are some of the most famous ever thanks to his Cubist style, and in 2003, a museum was opened in the Palacio Buenavista which is located on Calle San Agustín, 200 metres from his birthplace in Plaza de la Merced. After visiting Málaga, I had a greater appreciation for this artist.

3. Alcazaba de Málaga

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The Alcazaba (Moorish fortress/citadel) is one of the best-preserved in all of the Greatest Peninsula in the World and was constructed by the Hammudid Dynasty during the 11th Century. It’s built on a hill and offers beautiful views of the port and Málaga.

4. Málaga Romana

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Right next to the Alcazaba is a Roman theatre rediscovered in 1951 that dates back to the 1st Century BC. That’s right, Before Christ. As the photo shows, it is currently undergoing restoration.

5. Antequera (yet to be discovered)

The “heart of Andalucía”, 42,000 residents is located equally between Málaga, Granada, Córdoba and Sevilla. Antequera boasts an alcazaba of its own, churches, a palace, and two Bronze Age dolmens (ancient tombs).

6. Cuevas de Nerja (yet to be discovered)

The small town of Nerja is quite popular with tourists and ex-pats (who make up at least 30% of the population if not more) from the British Isles. The mountains have a ton of “pueblos blancos”, or villages with white houses and architecture. The most popular tourist destination (outside the beaches) are the caves, which are large enough to hold concerts in the summer. They were rediscovered in 1959. In 2012, possible Neanderthal paintings were discovered here.

7. Marbella (yet to be discovered)

Eva Longoria and Michelle Obama can’t be wrong, can they? The posh city of Marbella is the second-largest city of the province with nearly 150,000 habitants. The Casco Viejo has ancient walls and many monuments. Most people go straight for the Golden Mile, a 4-mile stretch of villas, hotels and resorts.

Santo Domingo de la Calzada

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This weekend, I did a bit of the lazy man’s Camino de Santiago (Frances) as I caught a bus from Burgos, where I was spending a weekend, to the incredibly cool (in more than one sense of the word) village Santo Domingo de la Calzada. I messed up by not including this village of La Rioja as a meravella in my December entry for La Rioja. You live and learn.

Este fin de semana, he ido un poco de Camino de Santiago Frances en plan vago porque cogí un autobus de Burgos, donde estaba pasando el finde, para visitar un pueblo chulo y frío (de tiempo)…Santo Domingo de la Calzada. Cuando escribí de las siete maravillas de La Rioja, hice un error grande por no incluirlo…pero vives y aprendes.

The town is about an hour from Burgos on the bus that connects Zaragoza, Logroño and Burgos. I was trying to read, but I kept getting swept by all the beautiful scenery outside and somewhat jealous of the peregrinos (pilgrims) walking in the opposite direction. I saw at least 20. I know the Camino del Norte is ahead of me, but I still felt for them in the cold while wanting to be walking with them.

El pueblo está unos 70 kilometres de Burgos y una hora en el autobus que une Zaragoza, Logroño y Burgos. Intenté leer, pero no pude dejar de ver el paisaje bonito. También estaba algo celoso de los peregrinos caminado al dirección contrario. Vi al menos 20. Sé que me espera el Camino del Norte, pero todavía me relacioné con ellos en el frío a la misma vez deseando estar caminando con ellos.

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Legend has it that once upon a time, after being killed and roasted, a hen continued to sing and crow right when she was about to be eaten. For this reason, the town has ton of chicken decorations and even a delicious pastry in the shape of a chicken that I had to try. This is one of the many legends that have popped up about the Camino de Santiago.

Hay una leyenda que dice que eráse una vez, después de ser asesinada y asada, una gallina siguió cantando justo antes de ser comida. Por eso, el pueblo tiene muchos cosas de gallos y gallinas e incluso una pasta que tiene el forma de una gallina que tenía que probar. Este es uno de muchas leyendas sobre y del Camino de Santiago.

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The town only has about 6500 habitants, but it has a lot of charm. It has a cathedral and a tower. I went up the tower (2€) for incredible views of the city. I wanted to flip off the mountain where I sprained my ankle last year (Valdezcaray) snowboarding, but I restrained. The old town, with its cathedral, cobblestone streets, Plaza de España and not one but two Paradores (castles/palaces that have been converted into hotels) was named a Cojunto de Interés Histórico Artístico in 1973.

El pueblo solo tiene unos 6500 habitantes, pero tiene mucho encanto. Tiene un catedral y un torre. Subí el torre para 2€ para ver vistas espectaculares del pueblo. Quería mostrar un cierto dedo al monte donde sufrí un esguince de tobillo intentando hacer snow (el Valdezcaray), pero no lo hice. El casco viejo, con su catedral, calles antiguas, Plaza de España y dos Paradores fue declarado Cojunto de Interés Histórico Artístico en 1973.

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At one of the bars I went into, I asked for the wifi password to find out the bus times back to Burgos. The owner turned out to be from Donostia whose wife supported Athletic de Bilbao. We chatted a bit about Bilbao. (The Basques love Santo Domingo de Calzada).

En uno de los bares que fui, pedí la clave para wifi para mirar el horario de autobuses. El dueño del bar era de Donostia y su esposa era de Bilbao y Athletic de Bilbao. Charlamos un rato de Bilbao. A los vascos les encanta Santo Domingo de Calzada.

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I was quite happy with this side trip on a weekend in Burgos. I made it out of there before the rain came in. The bus stopped to pick up a trio of tired peregrinos…which I think is cheating. But then I’m the one who has only done three days so far and on days with good weather, so I can’t really judge, now can I?

Estaba super contento con este viaje a Sto Domingo de Calzada durante mi finde en Burgos. Me escapé el pueblo justo antes de venía la lluvia. El autobus paró para coger un trio de peregrinos cansados…que pienso es algo de engaño. Pero soy el chico que solo he hecho tres días hasta ahora y en días con buen tiempo…no puedo juzgar.

For anyone visiting La Rioja, Santo Domingo de Calzada is a must. Cualquier vistitante a La Rioja debería visitar Sto. Domingo de Calzada.

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¡Feliz día del padre/San José/Fallas! (Se ha publicado el día 19 de marzo de 2015.)

Burgos…home of El Cid.

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Burgos is known for being one of the coldest places in Spain. The province of Castilla y León is famous for being cold, for the capital’s cathedral, a major stop on the Camino de Santiago Frances, and for its many pueblos (villages and towns). It is said to have more villages than any other province in the Greatest Peninsula in the World. In my experience from crisscrossing the province on the bus and train over the years, it happens to have some of the most beautiful villages too. It has a ton of mountains and a ton of plains. Peregrinos (pilgrims) get a special discount to enter the cathedral by the way. (It normally costs 7€ to enter. I’m not paying that money to enter a House of God, sorry! Even if it is said to be one of the most impressive in the world. I’m not sure they’d be happy with my Credentials going from Zumaia to Burgos with no stops in between either! So I didn’t try to use them.)

El Cid, Rodrígo Diaz de Vivar is a real (yet more known for the important Spanish literature El Cid) was born in Burgos in the village Vivar del Cid. He was very important in the fight against the Moors. I keep meaning to read this Spanish work of literature but have never got around to it. (I have read Quijote in Spanish if that counts for anything.)

In 2013, on a cold three-day weekend I had in January, I finally got the chance to visit the capital city. I fell in love with the Cathedral and the Arco de Santa María, the Río Arlanzón, the Cartuja Miraflores (a Carthusian monastery) and the views from the Parque de Castillo (Park of the Castle) of the city and surroundings. I tried tapas de morcilla (blood sausage, black pudding, whatever translation works for you), which is so much better than the English name makes it sound (Reason #928392 why Spanish is better than English) and experienced the city. I had come wanting some snow, but it was 10ºC/50ºF. On Sunday, going back to Madrid, I stopped in the town whose bus station serves as the “parada de 20 minutos” in the bus from Bilbao to Madrid. It had looked so beautiful from the road. And it was really beautiful to walk through the streets, but the good weather ran out on me. It started to rain a cold rain/sleet, and I had a bit of time to kill before the next bus to Madrid. I’m glad I got to see Lerma, but I wish I would’ve had better weather.

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Later in 2013, during my move from Madrid to Bilbao, I rented/hired a car and drove through the province, stopping in Aranda de Duero. I was running late, so I had no time to really explore it, but I did get a chance to see what the town was like (very typical small city of Castilla y León). I took the back roads to avoid the too-high toll roads and saw some incredibly beautiful mountains. I stopped at a roadside café to have one last café before crossing the Euskadi border (something like that scene in Ocho Apellidos Vascos, only rainier). I love small-town Spain in the summer evenings.

In 2014, I returned to the province once again, this time to work at an intensive-English course. I regret that my ankle was still healing from the sprain as there were so many beautiful trails to hike nearby.

On the backroads, on the old highway, there is an incredibly beautiful village in the mountains known as Pancorbo.

And I just got back from another trip to the capital city. This time, I was greeted with snow flurries, a nice change from the torrential rains that have plagued the Basque Country since November. Most of the weather was sunny, though. I stayed at the same hostal I had before, which is by far one of the best hostal (cheap hotel) I have stayed at in Spain. Happy Corral Hostal will give you a good night’s stay at a cheap price, and the front-desk clerk knows a lot about Burgos and is willing to inform you about anything the province and city has to offer.

I sort of wanted to relive Burgos before writing about it, and I was also hoping to cross a few more places in the province that I wanted to see off my list. Unfortunately, without a car, a lot of the weekend transport leaves a lot to be desired (IE, not a lot of bus options). One day, when I have a car, all these Set Meravelles that I list that I haven’t been to yet WILL be crossed off, I promise.

Any trip to Burgos is a well-deserved trip, though. Without further ado…

Setmeravelles

Catedral (UNESCO World Heritage Site) y el Casco Viejo de Burgos

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Even though I haven’t seen the inside of it as I am a cheapskate don’t feel that one should pay money to enter a House of God, the outside alone of the Cathedral of Burgos is impressive enough. The construction of the Gothic cathedral began in 1221. Nearby is my fave, the Arcos de Santa María, the medieval gate to the city. There are a ton of tapas bars nearby, and the Plaza Mayor is also quite stunning (and yes, has relaxing cafés con leche.) Two great nearby bars/cafes are Cafe de España (opened in 1921) and Viva La Pepa, right in the cathedral square. The Cathedral and city are best contemplated from high above, from the Parque de Castillo in front of the Burgos Castle ruins (there aren’t much, honestly). I write all about the capital city in one shot because there is so much to be discovered in this province. The city capital is 180,000 habitants, by the way, with another 20,000 in the metropolitan area.

Lerma

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Lerma, population 2800, is more than a “parada de 20 minutos” on the Madrid-Bilbao ALSA line. It has many buildings designed by the Duke of Lerma, Francisco Gómez de Sandoval, a close friend of King Felipe III, including the Ducal palace. The Ducal palace was a prison during the Spanish Civil War and today is a parador, one of those castles or palaces turned into a hotel. There are also various churches and a medieval feel.

Atapuerca (to be discovered)

The Atapuerca Mountains has a ton of caves and secrets of the past. In the mountains lies the important archaeological site of Atapuerca where human remains from the Bronze Age were found in 1964 while digging out a railway tunnel. The excavation site is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Covarrubias (to be discovered)

Covarrubias, population around 650 habitants, is a beautiful medieval village located in the Río Arlanza valley. It was declared a Cojunto Histórico-Artístico in 1965.

Frías (to be discovered)

Frías, population 275, is an offical Pueblo Bonito in Spain and the smallest population to be called a city. Yes, 275 people can constitute a city (remember, Bilbao, capital of the world with its 350,000 citizens is a villa, not a city). But it was made a city in 1435 and has been one ever since. It has a castle, medieval bridge and some hanging houses. Skyscanner recently named it one of the 17 Most Beautiful Villages in Spain.

Santo Domingo de Silos (to be discovered)

The Benedictine Monastery and Abbey named for Dominic of Silos dates back to the Visogoths of the 7th century. Fernando I (Fernando the Great) had Santo Domingo renovate it, hence the current name. It’s considered one of the most beautiful and important monasteries in Spain.

San Pantaleón de Losa (to be discovered)

The Valle de Losa is located in the north of the province. The”ermita de San Panteleón de Losa” (hermitage/small church) was consecrated in 1207 and is said to have the blood of San Panteleón and figures into the search for the Holy Grail (it’s in Valencia!!!). For me, it’s the scenery that gets me. Like I always say, God is always a better architect than man.

Camino de Santiago. Etapa 3. Zarautz-Zumaia.

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“Balenciaaaaaaggggggaaaaaaaa!”

The dying words of Myrtle Snow from American Horror Story: Coven rang through my head today as I passed through Getaria, a village between Zarautz and Zumaia along the Camino del Norte where there is a museum dedicated to the fashion designer born there.

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I’ve been wanting to get back on the Camino ever since my two days last August. (You can read about them here and here.) Money and then a horrible bout of depression last autumn that I’m finally coming out of (I hope) have kept me away, but I made a promise to hit the trail again the second there was a bit of good weather. And good weather was had, 20ºC (about 68ºF) and sun. And can I just say how great it was to head back out on the Camino after a long, wet winter? It’s only a week break from before the rain returns, but I’m going to take advantage of it as much as I can.

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I got off to a late start and didn’t catch the bus that runs from Bilbao to Zarautz until 10:00. It was almost a self-sabotage. I woke up a minute before the alarm, turned it off and slept another hour, then caught the Bilbon Bizi (Bilbao’s bicycle service) and went purposefully slow. The world wasn’t having it though. I bought the last ticket and had to sit in the middle of those five seats, back row on a sold-out bus. I nearly didn’t realise the bus was at a stop, thinking it was at a stop light, before racing to get off the bus before the bus driver left and went on to San Sebastián-Donostia. I am caught up in the world of the Baztán trilogy by Dolores Redondo, which I hope to write about in the future, so I was off in my own world, normal for me.

I had a quick second breakfast of tortilla de patata and café con leche, which I ordered in Basque, and saw that it should take about 2,2 hours to Zumaia. I wasn’t sure if I’d go on to Deba or not, as Getaria and Zumaia were two unknown Basque towns I’ve been wanting to check out.

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Since we’ve had about 3.5 months of rain with very few breaks, I wasn’t alone in the walk from Zarautz to Getaria. Many people of both towns were taking the coastal walk between the two. I know there is another route of the Camino that takes you through a less-crowded mountain, but I wanted to be on the coast (which is the one recommended for cyclists).

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I fell in love with Getaria with each step closer. In about an hour I was in the town of the mouse (ratón). I walked around the crowded medieval streets and looked at the Balenciaga musuem (but didn’t enter. I’m a bad gay!).

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I had another café con leche before hitting the Camino, which was finally looking like a Camino again. Before I knew it, I was in the neighbourhood of Askizu, which consists of a church, a plaza and a bar for peregrinos. I had a quick lunch (bocadillo de chorizo and mosto (grape juice)) and got a stamp and a “buen camino” from the overworked waitress. I thanked her in Basque and was on my way.

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An older Basque couple from the bar soon caught up to me, and they told me about their experiences on the Camino de Plata, saying it was much harder than the Camino Frances and they hoped to do the Camino del Norte in the future. Super friendly, and I was proud of myself for overcoming some of my social anxiety issues. I was in Zumaia in less than an hour.

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Zumaia was so incredibly beautiful that I decided to end my day here so I could get to know the town some. It’s famous for its flysch beaches, and at first, I thought…”this is it?” As I looked, these rock formations were really beautiful and unique.

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I played with a golden retriever on the beach before stopping off at the Oficina de Turismo for the stamp (sello). The woman was like “No puedo con castellano hoy, ¡escribo la fecha en euskera!” (I can’t deal with Spanish today, so I’ll write the date in Basque) to which I say “Eskerrik asko!” (“Thank you” in Basque (Euskera)).

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I caught the Eusko tren back to Bilbao, capital of the World (munduko hiriburua da in Euskera, or la capital del mundo in Spanish) vowing to stay the night in Zumaia so I can explore the city some more. I did see that the Gran Recorrido meets back up with the Camino, so I may just do that detour. I’m apprehensive about the albergues, which is probably ridiculous, but…

Eskerrik asko for an amazing day and for reminding me 1. Why I want to do the Camino 2. Why I love the Basque Country 3. How easy it was before to take the sun for granted…

Day 4…hopefully soon. Day 3 was too short but amazing nonetheless.

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Cuenca and some hanging houses.

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Cuenca is a province in Castilla La Mancha, halfway point between Madrid and Valencia. I’ve unfortunately only been to the capital once, but I have criss-crossed the province by bus (and a few times by AVE) between Valencia and Madrid more times than I care to count. Castilla is the land of Quijote, and even today you can still imagine our favourite knight in crazy armour crossing the hot and dry (or cold and dry in the winter) land in search of ways to impress his beloved Dulcinea (most of the important places are in neighbouring Toledo though).

My visit to Cuenca was a Sunday in May in 2011 right before I was about to leave my beloved Valencia. I caught an early train from the San Isidre station, as they were still working with the then recently-opened AVE that runs between Madrid and Valencia (it’ll already celebrate its fifth anniversary this year?) . The train ride was about two hours. Now I could catch said AVE (and probably could have that day but was running low on cash). I walked around town, having my tostada con tomate and café con leche in a run-down bar near the Plaza Mayor and walked around some before arriving at the Hanging Houses. The houses were amazing, as is the Casco Viejo or Cuenca Alta. I hiked a little bit around the river to see some of the most amazing views of the city, and I crossed the bridges a ton to look at the city from different angles. I was tired so I caught an early train back, vowing to return with a fresh face. I am still waiting for that return visit.

I found this in my private journal from the day I went. I doubt myself too much, as that self-doubt still happens! It is sometimes good to look back and see how I’ve grown as a person and hopefully as a writer (although the private journal *is* for my eyes only!).

I went to Cuenca today. It was a three-hour train ride from Valencia. I nearly didn’t go. I couldn’t sleep last night. I woke up in a bad mood. I kept giving excuses not to go. I got to the train station to find out it left from Sant Isidre and not Valencia Nord. And the automatic ticket machine kept refusing my card (I need to get my new card before I move). So I caught the metro again. I stood there looking at the schedule not sure if I should go. And then I made myself buy the ticket. I slept some on the train but not much. Cuenca is a beautiful city in the mountains, very green, and very Medieval. It has “casas colgantes” and beautiful views. I ended up eating at 100 Montaditos, a now former fave because of all the changes they have made that are not conducive to my diet. Ah well. I caught the early train back due to all the metro issues in Valencia and because of how tired I am.

One thing I must point out to non-Spanish speakers here. Be very, very careful how you say you’re looking at Cuenca when describing it to a peninsular Spanish speaker. There is quite a difference between “estoy mirando ir a Cuenca” (I’m looking at going to Cuenca), “Estoy mirando Cuenca” (I am looking at Cuenca right now” and “Estoy mirando para Cuenca” (I want this site to stay work safe so I’m not saying!)

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Las Casas Colgadas

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High above the Río (River) Huécar, these hanging houses are Cuenca’s most famous landmark. In the 15th century, this type of architecture was quite common in Cuenca. Today, only a few remain, and these three are the most famous of the few. Today they house a mesón (restaurant) and Museum of Spanish Abstract Art (I thought that was unofficially the Guggenheim? [ /ignorant sarcastic remark about art ])

Cuenca Alta

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In 1996, Cuenca (population 57,000) was named a World Heritage Site for its historic centre, Cuenca Alta. Cuenca has castle ruins, the Mangana Tower (Torre Mangana), Paseo de Huécar, Arco de Bezudo and many miradores and plazas to enjoy. It’s a great place for a Sunday afternoon stroll.

Ciudad Encantada (Yet to be discovered)

La Ciudad Encantada is not an actual enchanted (or haunted) city but a place where nature (weather and the Júcar River) have created some pretty interesting rock formations, such as the Mushroom Rocks, the Stone Sea or the Hippopotamus. The rock formations date back to the Cretaceous Period. It is located near Valdecabras, about 30 kilometres (18 miles) from Cuenca capital.

Alarcón (Yet to be discovered)

Alarcón, population 159, is a tiny hamlet 87 kilometres (52,2 miles) from the province capital on the Río Júcar. It boasts of a castle that is on the list of Spanish Bien de Interés Cultural.

Castillo de Belmonte (Yet to be discovered)

The Castle of Belmonte is part of the Ruta de Quijote and has been a National Monument since 1931 according to the Bien de Interés Cultural. Construction began in 1456 and is one of the best conserved castles in the peninsula. They sometimes reenact medieval battles.

La Ruta de las Caras (Yet to be discovered)

La Ruta de las Caras is a path in Buendía, population 438 according to Wikipedia on March 8, 2015, that passes by many faces sculpted into rocks. Some say it’s the Rushmore of Spain, but to me, the faces are quite different. I just found out about this awesome route today while researching Cuenca, and I may have to go back to Cuenca just to see these faces carved into the rock. It’s an easy route that takes about an hour to complete, and Buendía is located about an hour from Cuenca capital (83 km/49.8 miles). It looks like you need a car to get there, unfortunately for those of us without a car.

Segóbriga (Yet to be discovered)

The archaeological park of Segóbriga was once an important Roman city and the ruins are one of the most important on the Spanish mesita. It’s another National Monument on the Bien de Interés Cultural and has been since 1931. It’s located near the village Saelices, 76  kilometres (45.6 miles) from the province capital. It has a Roman amphitheatre, theatre, fountain, acropolis, aqueduct and circus.

Urkiola.

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My first visit to Urkiola came in 2010. It was a snowy but sunny December day when a friend of a friend took us there to see the Sanctuary and views of the majestic snow-covered mountains. Ever since that day, I’ve wanted to go back. I went back today, and I am already wanting to go back again soon to spend some time hiking the many trails and mountains of this incredible natural park.

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La primera vez que fui a Urikola era en 2010. Era un día nevada pero asoleado en diciembre cuando un amigo de un amigo nos llevó para ver el santuario y vistas de los montes cubiertos en nieve. Desde este día, he querido volver. Hoy era el día, y ya quiero volver otra vez para pasar el día haciendo senderismo en los montes de este parque natural increíble. 

Urkiola is a place of many legends, such as the face of the Basque mythological goddess Mari lies on Mount Anboto. Another legend states that if someone walks around the meteorite in front of the Urkiola Sanctuary several times, they will soon fall in love. I did it in 2010. Lie. I did it again today. We’ll see.

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Urkiola es un sitio de muchas leyendas, como la cara de la diosa vasca Mari se puede ver en el monte Anboto. Otra leyenda dice que si alguien circula el meteorito enfrente del Santuario de Urkiola algunas veces, pronto se enamorará. Lo hice en 2010. Una mentira. Lo hice otra vez hoy. Ya veremos…

I went to Durango for the second time today, which is the closest city to the park. I love meandering through the Casco Viejo (old town). I caught the bus at 10:45 which connects Durango with Basque Capital Vitoria-Gasteiz. In 15 minutes I was at the Sanctuary. I explored the area some, wishing I had more time to hike through the park (I have plans this afternoon so I will be back soon, I’m sure).

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También he ido a Durango por la segunda vez hoy. Durango es la ciudad más cerca al parque. Me encanta pasear por las calles del Casco Viejo de Durango. Cogí el autobus a 10:45 (el autobus que conecta Durango con la capital vasca Vitoria-Gasteiz hace parada enfrente del santuario. He paseado por la zona más cercana del santuario, queriendo tener más tiempo para hacer senderismo por el parque. (Tengo planes para esta tarde y por eso tenía que volver a Bilbao pronto. Pero muy pronto volveré, seguro.)

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I took a picture of what a real relaxing café con leche looks like. Spring is coming. After a super hard, long and wet Basque winter, I’m ready for sunny days and not having to carry an umbrella.

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He sacado una foto de un relaxing café con leche real. La primavera ya viene. Después de un super duro, largo y humedo invierno vasco, estoy super listo para días asoleados y no tener que llevar un paraguas.

Salamanca. Looking for a frog…

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The city of Salamanca, metropolitan area of 214,000, located not far from the Portuguese border in western Spain, is known throughout the peninsula for its Plaza Mayor (perhaps the relaxing café con leche was invented at this one, seeing as how the one in Madrid was based on this one and the Plaza Mayor in Valladolid), university and student life. They even have a fake New Year’s Eve before the real deal so students can celebrate the occasion with their friends before going home for the holidays. According to tradition, students must find the lucky frog (Rana de Suerte) in order to have good luck and pass their exams.

On my one-day visit to the capital in spring 2010, I was not able to find the frog. I think I’ve had a run of bad luck ever since, as I still have not done my MA in Hispanic Studies, and the month following that day I had a horrible case of bad luck. I’m not going to reveal the location of the frog (you can Google it easily, but I’m not helping cheaters! Find it on your own, which I will do if I ever go back.)

Before I went to Salamanca, many people had built the city up in my mind, saying it was the Granada of the north. For those who have been to Granada, you know this is a mighty claim and raises the stakes of a place. You expect a lot. My expectations were not met. I will admit I was very tired the day I went and dealing with a lot of stuff (job and boy worries). And looking back at my photos, I wonder what the hell I was thinking, as Salamanca is beautiful.

It’s just not Granada.

I saw the major sites of the city (Plaza Mayor, Casa de Unamuno, the oldest university in Spain (Universidad de Salamanca), the Old and “New” Cathedral), but I never found the frog. I remember having a really good meal on the cheap at a place that had a name that was an ode to Quijote or Cervantes and having to translate for Germans annoyed that the waitress didn’t speak English. We’re in Spain, not Australia, folks! We speak Spanish, Basque, Catalán/Valenciano and Galician (Gallego)!

I had a chance to return to the province of Salamanca for a week in 2012 to the village of La Alberca. La Alberca is an amazingly charming and beautiful village (and home of the very first check apparently a few centuries ago. You can still use your debit card, but cash is preferred all over Spain!). I went with Pueblo Inglés (now Diverbo) as a volunteer for their program that gives Spanish speakers a chance to learn English with native speakers in their own country. I fell in love with this village and the beauty of it all.

I nearly ran away to Salamanca this weekend to escape the endless rain of Bilbao, but a clearer head prevailed as I’m saving money for my Easter holiday. I’d love to give this city a second chance and hit up Ciudad Rodrigo.

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La universidad y la rana

The oldest university in Spain was founded in 1218 by King Alfonso XI of León. Today the city has 36,000 students and people come from all over Spain and even the world to study here. Salamanca is one of the most popular places to study Spanish, and the city has an international flair due to all the students. The frog is hidden somewhere in the university, that much I will give away….

Plaza Mayor

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The Plaza Mayor of Salamanca is the heart of the city and boasts many shops, cafés and ice cream parlours. The plaza is always filled with people. It was constructed in the Baroque style between 1729 and 1755. The old part (Casco Viejo) was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1988. Let’s all go have our relaxing café con leche here!

Río Tormes

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The Río Tormes flows through the provinces of Ávila and Salamanca to wind up at the Río Duero. It is 284 kilometres (176 miles) long.

La Casa de las Conchas

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Construction began on the Shell House in 1493 but it wasn’t completed until 1517. Today it is a public library. It’s unique for having a façade with 300 shells in the shape of Santiago and el Camino de Santiago.

La Alberca

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Ay, the days of my blurry camera! Grrr. Anyway, La Alberca is a small village of just over 1000 habitants and has been inhabitated since before Roman times. One of the interesting traditions of this town is the pig tradition. La Alberca is famous for its jamón negro (black ham). Every year, San Anton, as the pig is named, is blessed on July 13 and released to run free in the streets. Whatever house he decides to call home for the evening must take the pig in for the night and care for him. On Jan. 17, San Antion, the pig is raffled off.

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Ciudad Rodrigo (to be discovered)

Ciudad Rodrigo is 25 kilometres from Portugal and is a Cathedral city of about 14,000. It lies on the banks of the Águeda river and is still enclosed by the city walls. It’s a must-see for any history lover or lover of medieval cities. I’ve been hearing rave reviews from many people about the beauty of this town.

Ledesma (to be discovered)

Ledasma, with nearly 2000 habitants, is located 730 metres above sea level and has a Roman bridge. It also has walls, a castle and tons of beautiful trails and views.