Castro, a Cantabrian Jewel.

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This weekend, unsure of the weather for another day on the Camino de Santiago but needing to get out to enjoy the rarer and rarer sun on the North Coast of the Greatest Peninsula in the World, I took off to one of my favourite villages, Castro Urdiales.

Este fin de semana, con la incertidumbre del tiempo para hacer otro día en el Camino de Santiago pero con la necesidad escaparme de Bilbao para disfrutar el sol, que cada vez es más raro ver en la Costa Norte de la Mejor Península del Mundo, fui a uno de mis pueblos preferidos, Castro Urdiales.

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Located in the very eastern part of the autonomous community of Cantabria, Castro (as it’s usually referred to) is a pleasant, small city of 33,000 on the sea. Many Bilbaínos live here due to the cheaper taxes and proximity to Bilbao (the bus is only 30 minutes). I named Castro one of the Set Meravelles of Cantabria last year, and I still agree that it is one of the best things of Cantabria.

Ubicado en la parte más este de la comunidad autonoma de Cantabria, Castro (como la gente suele llamarlo) es un ciudad pequeña agradable de 33.000 habitantes situado en el mar. Muchos bilbaínos viven aquí porque los impuestos son más baratos y está super cerca a Bilbao (el autobus tarde unos 30 minutos). He dicho que Castro era una de las maravillas de Cantabria el año pasado, y todavía creo que es una de las mejores cosas de Cantabria.

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The Pueblo viejo has been a Cojunto histórico since 1978 and is dominated by the Santa María de la Asunción church. There is also a lighthouse-castle and incredible views. There is neo-Gothic palace along with gardens. And it has a ton of pintxo bars and a beach. What more could you ask for on a peaceful, sunny Saturday? The pintxo bars were hopping.

El Pueblo viejo ha sido Cojunto histórico desde 1978 y las vistas son dominadas por la Iglesia de Santa María de la Asunción. También hay un faro-castillo y vistas impresionantes. Hay una palacio de estilo neo-gótico con jardines. Adémas, hay muchos bares de pintxos y playa. ¿Qué más se puede pedir en un sábado de sol y tranquilidad? Pues, los bares de pintxos estaban llenos de gente.

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I tried finding some ruins on the mountain this time, but gave up and somehow found myself on the Camino de Santiago, which passes through here. As soon as I saw the arrow, I stopped as I want to try to stay “spoiler-free” for the Camino when possible. This stretch of the Camino is going to be very tiring to end with, but it comes with some amazing views.

Intenté buscar algunas ruinas en el monte esta vista, pero me puse frustrado encontrar un sendero y después me encontré en una trama del Camino de Santaigo, que pasa por Castro. Cuando vi la flecha amarilla, paré porque quiero ser spoiler free por el Camino cuando posible. Esta trama del Camino va a ser super difícil para acabar un día, pero va a venir con vistas preciosas de Castro.

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The peace and tranquility of this small city is something I find myself needing more and more. Every time I’ve visited this quaint town, I’ve gone away with something new and wanting to see more.

La paz y tranquilidad de este ciudad pequeña es algo que necesito cada día más. Cada vez que he visitado este pueblo pintaresco, he ido con algo nuevo y con un deseo ver más.

Infinite Cantabria indeed. ¡Viva Cantabria Infinita!

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Huelva. A forgotten corner of Andalucía.

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Tucked away in the southwest corner of Spain between Sevilla and Portugal, Huelva is a province nearly forgotten by many. Sevilla dominates the western Andalucía scene, Cádiz has its famous pueblos blancos (villages full of white houses) and proximity to Gibraltar, and Portugal has the Algarve with its beautiful beaches and capes. Of course, like any place in the Greatest Peninsula in the World, forgotten does not mean it’s not worth visiting. Au contraire. Huelva has a lot to offer.

My visit to Huelva only consists of half a day returning to Madrid from the Algarve during the Puente de Mayo 2013, two years ago this week. I caught an all-too early bus from Lagos (6:30 if I remember correctly) so I could spend some time in the capital city before spending the night in Sevilla, the city where I always attract bad weather. I had just learned that I would be moving to the Basque Country and was super excited. I walked around the Casco Viejo (Old Town) with a map, just in case of getting lost, with no plan. I saw the buildings, had a cheap, not-so good lunch, walked down to the water front before catching the bus to Sevilla. I was a bit sad I wouldn’t have time to see more of the province, as the capital city doesn’t have a lot to offer. However, the mountains in the northern part of the province would have offered a lot of hiking. Maybe one day I’ll be able to return to the Algarve and see more of the wonders the province has to offer.

A few factoids about Huelva. The football (soccer) club Recreativo de Huelva is the oldest football club in Spain. There are also various sites in the province related to Christopher Columbus (don’t hold that against the province) and his quest to “discover” the Americas. The capital city of Huelva has a population of 149,410 habitants as of 2010.

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La Costa de Luz

The Atlantic Coast from Tarifa in Cádiz to the border with Portugal and Huelva is known as “La Costa de Luz“, the Coast of Light. The beaches are popular with Spanish, French and German tourists. The Parque Nacional de Doñana is an important natural park that protects the coastal ecosystems and is located on coasts here and also in the province of Sevilla.

Catedral de la Merced

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The Cathedral of Huelva was built in the 17th century and is a Bien de Interés Cultural of Spain (National Cultural Interest). The outside is Barroque and many other churches in Huelva province are based on this design.

Lepe

Ay, Lepe, the butt of so many Spanish jokes I just had to include it on here. Any time someone wants to make a joke about someone lacking in the intelligence department, they are said to be from Lepe. However, the city of 25,000 habitants is more than a joke. The wine from Lepe was mentioned in The Canterbury Tales, there is a beach and an old lookout tower (Torre del Catalán) that you can still climb that was originally built to warn of invasions from the Berber pirates.

Ayamonte

Ayamonte, population 18,000, is the last town on the Spanish border before crossing into Portugal. While there is a bridge north of the town to drive across today, for centuries there was only a ferry that crossed the Río (River) Guadiana. The town boasts of a medieval neighbourhood in the center that is pedestrian only. It also has a beach. A river, beach and Casco Viejo? I’m there one day. (I wish I had stopped here instead of Huelva capital.)

La Romería del Rocío y Almonte

Almonte is a small town of 23,000 denizens, and it’s more famous for the pilgrimage (Romería) to the ermita de El Rocío on the second day of Pentecost to honour the Virgin Rocío. The pilgrimage began in 1653 and today attracts around 1 million people. People usually wear traditional Andaluz costumes for the event. ¡Olé! (Please remember that people ONLY wear the traditional outfits for festivals.)

Parque Nacional de Aracena y Picos de Aroche

The National Park of Aracena and Picos de Aroche is part of the Sierra Moreno in the north of the province, and some 41,000 people live in the region near the park. It has been a protected area since 1989, and there are 28 villages within the park’s limits. Any place that is nature and mountains piques my interest.

Mezquita de Almonaster La Real

Although the village of Almonaster La Real has less than 2000 habitants (1800 for population geeks like me), it is home of an interesting trapezoid mezquita (mosque) that was built from a visigoth basilica. It was declared a national monument in 1931. While it isn’t as well-preserved as the more famous Mezquita in Córdoba, it is one of the few surviving rural mosques from Spain’s Muslim past.

I apologise for my lack of photos this entry! Being in only one city for a morning while running on fumes puts a damper on the photo taking!

Set Meravelles: The 100th Entry

It’s hard to believe it’s been 100 entries already. To commemorate the occasion, I thought it might be interesting to do a list of 7s, as Set is Seven and High Fidelity is my favourite novel. In this novel, they constantly speak in “top 5 lists”.

Top Seven Vacations as a Child/Teen:

1. Canada (Toronto-Montreal-New Brunswick-Nova Scotia-Prince Edward Island). I was 16, and this is one of my favourite road trips I did with my mom. A new city or province a day. Niagra Falls, Phantom of the Opera at Pantages in Toronto, a tour of Montreal, Bay of Fundy, Halifax and crossing the Confederation Bridge. I loved it.

2. Michigan: Another trip that was just my mother and I when I was 15. We drove all around the mitten and hit the Upper Peninsula too. I loved Mackinaic, and this trip meant I could say I’ve seen all five of the Great Lakes. I still want to go back to walk on the sand dunes of Lake Michigan.

3. Seattle and Alaska. I was 12, and Washington and Alaska were states #49 and 50. I remember this trip quite well, and I fell head over heels in love with Seattle. I always wanted to return to Alaska too. Seattle I’ve been back in 2004 and 2007 (and I live in European Seattle Only 500 times Rainier and Not Talking About Mt. Rainer!)

4. Hawaii: My parents and I went when I was only five, but I remembered quite a bit when I returned when I was 19. How could Hawaii not make a list of top holidays?

5. Mt. Rushmore and Yellowstone: I was seven for this long road trip from Ohio, and there is so much I don’t remember about it. I remember being super excited that the caves we went to near Mount Rushmore had the General Hospital cast signatures (Team Kristina Wagner, then Malandro). I also thought it was quite cool that US Route 20, the one my road turned off of back in Ohio, was the main road of Yellowstone. I saw a lot of buffalo too.

6. Grand Canyon, Bryce Canon and Route 66. When I was 10, I became obsessed with Route 66. Coincidentally, that summer’s vacation went all along Route 66, although usually along I-40. Memphis and Graceland, Arkansas, Mississippi, Louisiana, Texas, Oklahoma, Cadalica Ranch, New Mexico, Arizona and Vegas, then the way back through Utah, Colorado, Nebraska and Kansas. At the end of this trip, I had been to 48 states!

7.  Florida and Miami. Yes, when I was six we went to Disney World. But it was the latter part of the trip to Miami and Key West that would have the lasting influence. Miami caused me to learn Spanish, and I was obsessed with Hemingway’s cats, even if I had no clue who he was. When I was 28, I read Fiesta and Hemingway became an important influence.

Top 7 Trips as an Adult:

1. Greece (2013)

2. Portugal (2008 and 2013)

3. Italia (Pisa-Florence-Rome-Milan-Venice) (2008)

4. Italia (Milano and Verona) (2012)

5. New Orleans, 2001: During this college/university trip, I admitted to myself I was gay. It’s on here for importance.

6. London-Amsterdam-Paris (2003). My Fall Break from my study abroad semester. I saw a lot of cities in that week!

7. Belgium (2015)

Top 7 Trips in Spain

1. Basque Country (Semana Santa 2010)

2. Asturias and León (Puente de Noviembre 2011)

3. València (first visit, Puente de Noviembre 2oo8)

4. Barcelona (first visit, October 2003)

5. Granada (first visit, February 2009)

6. Granada and Ronda (June 2013)

7. Girona (Christmas 2011)

By trips, I mean the experience itself and not the actual destination.

Top 7 Bucket List Destinations

1. Australia and New Zealand

2. Antarctica

3. Morocco

4. Argentina

5. Perú

6. Prague and Vienna

7. Scandanvia

Top 7 Places to Return To One Day

1. Greece. (I have two more trips, one for the rest of the mainland and one for the islands)

2. Italia. So many places to visit.

3. Canary Islands. I still have three more islands to see.

4. Alaska

5. Canada

6. Galicia. At the rate I’m walking there, I should be there sometime in 2172.

7. Girona. Maybe I could even live there one day.

Top 7 Sunsets

1. Cabo Sounion, Greece.

2. Mirador de San Nicolas, Granada

3. Piazza di Michelangelo, Florence (Italia, not Kentucky ya’ll)

4. La Kontxa/Concha, San Sebastián-Donostia, Basque Country (Spain)

5. Cabo Sao Vincente, Portugal

6. Lagos, Portugal

7. Lykavittos (Lycabettus), Athens, Greece

Top 7 Countries I’ve Been To

1. Spain (with Catalunya and Euskadi)

2. Portugal

3. Greece

4. Italy

5. Canada

6. Andorra

7. Belgium

Top 7 Cities in the Greatest Peninsula in the World

1. San Sebastián-Donostia

2. Barcelona

3. Bilbao

4. Granada

5. Valencia

6. Lisbon

7. Girona

Top 7 Cities Outside the Greatest Peninsula in the World

1. Florence, Italia

2. Athens, Greece

3. Verona, Italia

4. Toronto, Canada

5. Halifax, Canada

6. Seattle, USA

7. Antwerp, Belgium

Top 7 English-language Writers

1. Nick Hornby

2. John Irving

3. John Grisham

4. Ernest Hemingway

5. David Levithan

6. Christopher Rice

7. JK Rowling, Stephen King, Matt Haig, Jonathan Frazen and a ton more!

Top 7 Spanish writers

1. Miguel de Unamuno

2. Bernardo Artxanda

3. Eduardo Mendoza

4. Carlos Ruiz Zafón (I’m betraying my elitist stance :P)

5. Enric Pardo

6. Dolores Redonda

7. Juan Marsé

 

Camino del Norte Etapa 4: Zumaia-Deba and Ocho Apellidos Vascos.

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Gora Euskadi and its beauty

I’m going to be honest.

I will be celebrating my second anniversary in the Basque Country this July 30th, and I do not have a single Basque surname. The Basques pride themselves if they come from pure stock of having all their surnames from both sets of grandparents being Basque. Hence the name of 2014’s successful comedy Ocho Apellidos Vascos. (Their attempt for a translation into English as “A Spanish Affair” is so off the mark I refuse to acknowledge it.)

What does that have to do with the Camino de Santiago Camino del Norte, you ask?

Because the part from Zumaia to Deba goes through some parts that were seen in the film. (If you haven’t seen it, I highly recommend it.)

Sunday morning, my alarm went off, and I slept a half hour more before getting up, having a quick breakfast and catching the metro to catch the Euskotren at Bouleta at 9:03. The train arrived at Zumaia at 11:00, and I had a quick pintxo de tortilla and kafesnea (café con leche, I ordered in Euskera) before deciding to go ahead and take the Camino instead of detouring for the route by the cliffs. I was pretty sure they rejoined, but this way I have a good excuse to return to Zumaia and revisit their incredible flysch beaches. I think there was some sort of festival going on due to the blue/white pañuelos (handkerchief) being worn about. There was a big group of hikers who I let ahead by visiting an ermita (hermitage?). I stepped out, admiring the amazing views, and something looked incredibly familiar.

The ermita on the other trail, which was visible from the Camino, was the one featured in Ocho Apellidos Vascos!  I could see a ton of people walking up to it from my vantage point. I made the right decision not to detour.

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Ermita from Ocho Apellidos Vascos

I stopped for a quick café and upload some pics to Instagram (Setmeravelles if you want to follow!) and a stamp in the credentials in Elorriaga.

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Vistas del Camino

The clouds came in, and there was a lot of walking up and down slopes today. None of them were too bad. The trail took me through some closed gates on farms, which at first gave me pause. However, I knew they would alter the Camino a bit if the farms were closed and it was just to keep motor vehicles away. I felt even better about this decision when I saw a very small stand selling honey (miel) and cider (sidra) along the way.

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Not a bad idea and helpful to peregrinos who like sidra.

The views were spectacular, the sort that only Euskadi and their clouds can offer. I wonder if the cows, sheep and goats are able to admire the beauty they were in.

The rain kept off, as the forecast said. I bought a new backpack/rucksack poncho just in case.

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Selfie time.

The Camino ran along a highway for a bit, and I was glad when it turned to a side road. This was when a car snuck up behind me, as it was a used side road (I read a lot of John Irving so forgive the italiacs). I was getting hungry, and I was looking forward to arriving in Itziar. Running through some more beautiful farms, the Camino kept stretching out before me before my arrival in Itziar.

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Itziar

The town, which I think also had a few scenes filmed in for Ocho Apellidos Vascos, seemed a bit cold to me. The church was a cold grey but beautiful inside. I was a bit mad that there wasn’t a cheap place to eat open on Sunday that I could find, but as Deba was only four kilometres away, I decided to just have a really late lunch there. I rested a bit, taking in some beautiful sites and tried to find a place for a stamp. No such luck, although the town’s crowded restaurant (wayyy expensive though) might have had them. The udaletxea (ayuntamiento/town hall) was closed. The sun was over the Cantabrian Sea and the clouds were on the other side of me over the Basque mountains. Only in Euskadi.

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Euskera. Bai is “sí/yes”…auzo no clue, udala might be something related to government or city/town as udaletxea (town hall) is like house of the government?

The walk to Deba went quick, but I was also quickly tiring. I had to put on my rain jacket over my hoodie as I was getting cold. A really cute dog ran up to me, and the owner apologised. I was content giving it a ton of attention, however. I saw some more cows and a donkey making a lot of noises. There were a few ermitas I would’ve liked to have seen a kilometre out of my way, so I decided to save them for that day I do the coastal Gran Recorrido between Deba and Zumaia.

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Views along the Camino

I had been to Deba a few times before, and I am quite happy that my next few days on the Camino will be within my Barrik zone where I can just touch my card and pay for my transport too and from Bilbao. I went to the beach after another quick pintxo. One thing about Deba, they have some of the worst customer service I have ever seen, no matter where I go. (The Oficina de Turismo, however, was quite nice when I was there in May 2014). The Iberian Peninsula is not known for customer service, and I’m quite okay with that being an introvert. However, this town has some of the rudest bartenders/waiters/baristas I’ve seen. I will just credit it to my bad luck and coincidence.

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Ermita close to Deba

I got a stamp in the credentials passport at the official albergue (hostel). For anyone staying here, it looks incredibly nice (and is above the train station). Get the keys at the tourism office if they are open or from the police station in the “udaletxea” if they are not. I sort of wished I was staying the night because it looked so nice. Alas, I had some private classes the next day (Monday, writing this entry the day I went, Sunday, to be published on Wednesday, so I hope all my tenses are correct in this entry!).

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Playa/Platja/spiaggia/beach/hondartza de Deba

I changed from the Euskotren to BizkaiBus in Eibar (more comfortable than the winding train) and saw that the udaletxea was flying the flag of the Spanish Republic and not Spain’s current flag. I didn’t have a chance to snap a photo of it, but I’m wondering what the future holds for the Greatest Peninsula in the World…

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Closer and closer to Deba….

The next part, Deba-Markina, is said to be one of if not THE hardest part of the Camino del Norte. Steep slopes and no towns or villages. It’s about 25 kilometres. I’m sort of thankful next weekend looks to be rainy, as it means I can procrastinate tackling it some more. However, I’m also anxious to tackle it as it means I will have completed ONE province (Gipuzkoa) as I start BIZKAIA (Vizcaya).

PS: I was reading Los últimos días de nuestros padres by the awesome Jöel Dicker on the train. This is more a note to myself than anything else.

PPS: More formatting issues. Should I drop the captions?

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I now have 752 kilometres to Santiago…this was at the beginning of the day.

Madrid City. Chaos and nightlife.

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View from Vallecas

Madriz. For many, this city is the bane of my existence, and when I wrote about the province of Madrid (which has little to do with the capital city as the province has so many beautiful towns and villages and mountains and the city is a chaotic whirl of chaos where the only peace and quiet you can find is at 10 in the morning on Jan. 1st when everyone is sleeping away their hangover) back in September, I had no intention of writing about the city. I find the city vastly overrated, but different strokes for different folks. So I wanted to take the time to write about the city as there is a ton of things to do and see there. And there are, of course, more than SetMeravelles in a city of 3 million. For the record, Madrid is the third biggest city in the European Union, after London and Berlin.

On my way back from Italia, I spent a day in Madrid. I originally had planned a trip to southern Spain before heading back to Bilbao when I booked the flight from Madrid, but unfortunately financial concerns are way too real for me at the moment, so it was cancelled. This one day reminded me of how, as a closeted twenty-something, my dreams of Madrid revolved around Chueca and falling in love with a dream guy, mi media naranja (soulmates in Spanish are half oranges. Today I find that I’d rather find a whole orange as I am a whole orange and two oranges would be better than trying to mix halves that have been separated.). My Madrid dreams were crushed by the reality of living in a big city when I was just not cut out for it. The stress of living in a city that never slept, where the people constantly are badmouthing anything not from the city (especially the Catalans, and as a fan of Barcelona and Catalan culture, I definitely did not fit in Madrid outside my Catalán class!) and a million and one niches and still not being able to find the niche for you? It got to me. The madrileños are said to be friendly, but I was more alone in Madrid than I have been since I was a closet case. In one of the gayest cities in the world, I was unable to feel okay about being gay as I was not (and am not) a Greek god who models for Abercrombie. In the gay world of Madrid, unless you are a Greek god modeling for Abercrombie, you’re the radioactive scum at the bottom of the Ría Nervión in Bilbao (an infamously polluted river). I suffered a lot of panic attacks from the masses of people everywhere I went.

Also, it really irks me that the city concentrates on being bilingual in Spanish-English when they fail to recognize that the country of Spain has four languages. Every Christmas, the Metro of Barcelona writes “Merry Christmas” in the four languages: Bon nadal (Catalán), Feliz Navidad (Spanish), Bo Nadal (Gallego) and Zorionak (Basque). In Madrid, you might see Happy Day Nativity or however they might attempt to translate “¡Feliz Navidad!” because they think by translating something into a language that is not spoken in their country they are doing a good job. I think if they acknowledged the fact that there is more than one language spoken in their own country they would be doing a lot more to smooth over high tensions.

It’s obvious from the above paragraphs I have a lot of pent-up feelings about the capital city and my feelings are still pretty raw nearly two years after making my escape. A lot of it has to do with the fact that I have learned that I am just not a big city person, and another large part of it is the fact that there is no coast anywhere near Madrid.

Now that I got the negative out of the way, I can focus on the positives of the city. The city is constantly reinventing itself and there is something to offer everyone. Parks, museums, a well-functioning metro system (sometimes) , fountains, shops, nightlife, and its central location in Spain means there is a ton of opportunities to travel throughout the Greatest Peninsula in the World! For city lovers, Madrid is a must-see place. It has a vibe similar to New York City with the bonus of being the Spanish capital.

I will also give the madrileños credit for at least always saying “¡Hola!” when coming across one while hiking, unlike the Basques who sometimes will offer an “Hola/Aupa/Kaixo” and sometimes will just glare at you. Granted, I’m likely to glare at you too, but whatever! I appreciate friendliness.

And with that, without further ado…

Set Meravelles

Templo de Debod y el Parque de Oeste

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Originally a give from Egypt, the Templo de Debod is located near the Plaza de España in the centre of Madrid and offers the best sunset of the city. The temple was originally located near Aswan, Egypt and the first cataract of the Nile and was dedicated to an important Egyptian goddess whose name I won’t type for fear of what types of Google searches would come up for this blog (yes, this groups shares the name with an Egyptian goddess). The temple was under threat of floods after the construction of the Aswan High Dam, so to show their gratitude to Spain for helping them out with saving the temples of Abu Simbel, the Egyptian government gave it to Spain in 1968. Today there is a museum that somehow is almost always closed whenever I go. Next to the park is the Parque de Oeste, which in my opinion, is better than the Parque Retiro but not as famous. For the life of me, I can’t find any of my photos of Templo de Debod.

Gran Vía

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The Spanish Broadway is the connecting street between Calle Alcalá and Plaza de España. It’s the busiest street in Madrid, runs close to Puerta del Sol and passes Callao (FNAC!). It has a few theatres, more than a few Starbucks (I can think of four Starbucks alone on this street) and many shops. It also features a lot of Madrid’s most famous buildings. It’s undergone many names over the year (especially during the Spanish Civil War and the years of Franco), but has been named simply Gran Vía since 1981. Construction on “Main Street” began in 1910 but wasn’t finished until 1929. The incredible Plaza de Cibeles is also found along Gran Vía.

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Nightlife (Chueca, La Latina, Malasaña)

Madrid is famous for its nightlife. Chueca is the neighbourhood taken over by the gays (although lately La Latina has been becoming a more popular place), La Latina has many tapas and other bars, and Malasaña is the alternative-Bohemian neighbourhood. No matter what your scene is, you’ll be able to find it in Madrid.

El Prado y los museos del arte

The Prado Museum is one of the most important museums in Spain and houses some of the most important Spanish art in history. (Picasso and Dalí are not well represented here, if at all, but Goya, El Greco and Velázquez are. It is home of the famous Las Meninas by Velázquez. Very close to El Prado are two more important museums of art (which I have never visited to be honest as art’s not my thing unless it’s Picasso or Dalí and even then…), the Museo Reina Sofía (which does have Picasso’s Guernica) and the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum, which has Italian, English, Dutch and German works of arts. I was just informed by a friend that this triangle of art has more art per square metre than anywhere else on the planet and that there is more art in the basements than they have room to showcase. You learn something new every day!

Plaza Mayor y Puerta del Sol

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Plaza Mayor

“A relaxing cup of café con leche in Plaza Mayor”. So before soon-to-be ex-mayor Ana Botella’s speech, no one went to Plaza Mayor for a cup of café con leche. It’s more typical to have a bocadillo de calamares (fried squid and the only seafood I can eat without gagging), people watch or visit a Christmas market. The rectangular plaza was built during Felipe III despite its orgins going back to Felipe II and is modeled on the plazas in Valladolid and Salamanca (Valladolid is my fave of the three, but Salamanca is the most famous). A stone’s throw away is another important plaza, Puerta del Sol, which is home to Kilometro (KM) 0, the center and starting point of all Spanish roads. It is more or less Madrid’s Times Square, and it is the busiest place on New Year’s Eve to eat the 12 grapes. It’s Spanish tradition to eat 12 grapes, one for each month, at the first 12 strokes of the clock of the New Year for luck, as one year the farmers had too many grapes and didn’t know what to do with them. Puerta del Sol seems to reinvent itself every two weeks or so. Originally it was a gate in the old walls of Madrid. Another important site in Puerta del Sol is the Oso y el Madrono, the bear and the tree. Tío Pepe is still there, despite the Apple Store’s temporary removal of the iconic advertisement.

Palacio Real

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Palacio Real

The Royal Palace is “officially” the home of the Spanish King and his family, but they actually reside at the Palacio de la Zarzuela. The current palace is on the site of a former fortress which burned to the ground in 1734. Felipe V ordered a new one built. Alfonso XIII was the last monarch to live here, although the president of the Second Republic, Manuel Azaña, also lived here. It has over 3000 rooms and is the largest palace in floor area in Europe.

Atocha

 While Antwerp might have the “most beautiful train station in the world”, Atocha is one of the most beautiful train stations in the Greatest Peninsula in the World. It’s definitely one of the busiest with connections all over the peninsula. While waiting for a train, one can visit the Bosque del Recuerdo, a forest of 192 olive and cypress trees in memorial of the 192 people who died in the terrorist attacks on March 11, 2004. I swear I remember seeing this forest in 2003, but my memory must be playing tricks on me. They also have a separate memorial for those who died that day where visitors can live a hand silhouette in memory of those who died that day.

Italia. Les Set Meravelles

I have been to Italia four times now (you can read about them here, here, here, here, here and here), and four trips have not done much to quench my thirst for exploring this country. I know I have a few more trips left in me to the bel paese, as I have to discover Sicilia and the south, Naples and Pompeii, Capri, Cerdeña (Sardinia in English) and its Catalan-speaking villages, Torino (Turin), Genoa, Bologna, Lago di Como, the country of San Marino…the list goes on and on.

However, in the four trips, I have managed to see quite a lot. It’s going to be hard, and I know as if I get to continue exploring these jewel of a country, these are apt to change.

So without any further ado…the Set Meravelles of Italia. I’m limiting myself to only two in Rome as if not, they might all be in Rome, which isn’t even my favourite Italian city! All of these are pretty touristy, I must admit. But they are all touristy for a reason! I’m just going to cheat and say the entire cities, as it’s hard to settle on just seven. And my beloved Fontana di Trevi is undergoing some reconstruction right now. I had to mention it as I am in love with that fountain, but it didn’t make the list this time.

Set Meravelles

Il Colosseo (Roma)

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The Colosseum of Rome is one of the most famous monuments in the world. It was the biggest Colosseum and could seat between 50,000 and 80,000 spectators. It was named a New Wonder of the World in 2007 by the New Open World Corporation. Over the years, the damage has been done by earthquakes and stone robbers. It is well worth the 13€ I paid in 2008, and I’m sure it’s even more expensive now.

Vatican City (Roma)

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The Sistine Chapel in the Vatican Museum and St. Peter’s (San Pietro) Basilica are just two of the things to see in the Vatican. I was lucky enough to attend the Misa de Gallo (Midnight Mass in Spanish) in 2008 with the third best Pope in my life (there have been three Popes in my lifetime), which was an experience in itself. The Sistine Chapel is well worth the winding walk through the Vatican Museums, as it took my breath away. I did not take any pictures there.

Il Duomo (Milano)

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The Cathedral of Milan, dedicated to St. Mary of the Nativity, is a major architectural achievement. It’s the fifth largest church in the world and largest church in Italy and took over 600 years to finish (It was finally finished in 1965). While in Milano, also check out the painting of The Last Supper, but make sure you buy your tickets in advance. The tale of this famous painting is quite interesting, as the church it is in was heavily bombed during World War II, yet the wall it is on survived. Milano also has some famous fashion designers I hear…

Venezia

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Venice, the city of the canals, is located in 117 islands on the east coast of Italy. The entire city is a UNESCO World Heritage site. The population is 260,000, but only 60,000 live in the area with the canals. Recent years have brought lots of flooding, and the city is said to be sinking. They are losing a lot of their art unfortunately. The day I went, I nearly froze to death. Fa freddo da cane, as the Italians say (It makes the cold of the dog, or it’s dog cold I guess.) I’d like to return to explore the romantic city again one day. But there are more pressing things to do at the moment.

Verona

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Oh, fair Verona, how beautiful you are, with your own colosseum, your Adige River, your House of Capulet, how you impressed me with everything you are. The city of 265,000 (and UNESCO World Heritage Site) is often ignored by tourists for more popular destinations, which is a blessing for me (fewer people!) and a curse (people are missing out!) It’s one of my favourite cities I’ve been to ever.

Firenze

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The famous Florence, which in While You Were Sleeping, protagonist Lucy dreamed of one day visiting, has so much to offer. Picturesque monuments, famous statues and incredible sunsets, and usually under the Tuscan sun. 379,000 habitants are lucky to call this beautiful city home. The historic centre is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Cinque Terre

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Monterosso al Mare, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola, Riomaggiore. Some of the most spectacular coastline and mountains with these five unique villages mean another UNESCO World Heritage site. While you may no longer be able to have a tranquil Italian experience here, you can still find some peace and quiet on the lesser-known trails and no matter where you go in this National Park, you’re going to see beautiful sights. Bella Italia, grazie mille!

Italia IV part IV. Firenze and its spectacular sunset.

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Firenze

After Pisa, Cinque Terre and Lucca, it was time to hit the last city of my four-day tour of Tuscany/Cinque Terre and go back to one of my favourite cities I’ve ever been to, Firenze (Florence). I had been in 2008, so I had already seen the statue of the David, Ponte Vecchio, il Duomo and all the other amazing things Florence has to offer. It left me wanting more, of course, which is why I based my trip out of Florence.

The Tuscan capital has 379,000 people but feels much bigger, maybe due to all the tourists. It was the birthplace of the Italian Renaissance and today boasts many important sculptures and paintings. For those of us who aren’t artistically minded, the city itself is beautiful and located in a valley with mountains and hills all around. The Arno River flows through the city centre, which is a UNESCO World Heritage site. It was also home to the powerful and famous Medici family.

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Il Duomo

I went without much planned. I had wanted to go to Sienna and San Gimignano, but I was tired of the train changing and needed to rest a bit, so those towns will have to wait for another trip. I arrived to Florence around 17:00 (5 PM) and checked into my pension close to the train station. Arriving in the Santa Maria Novella train station is a chaotic adventure, with trains arriving and taking off to destinations all over the boot peninsula.

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Ponte Vecchio

I found my way back to the Duomo, the Ponte Vecchio, the Piazza della Signora, the Palazzo Pitti and all the amazing monuments I had seen in 2008. I admired the outside replica of the Davide statue (the real one is inside the Galleria della Academia) and the Fountain of Neptune for a bit before deciding to make my way to the Piazza de Michelangelo for the sunset.

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Il Davide, Piazza della Signora

I was not the only one who had this idea, but this time I was able to shrug off the tourists and enjoy one of the most spectacular sunsets I have ever seen. It ranks right up there with Mirador de San Nicolas in Granada and Cabo Sounion in Greece.

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Sunset over Florence from Piazza Michelangelo

I had an expensive risotto and wine for dinner before getting some rest. The bed was not comfortable, and it ended up affecting my back (it still hurts nearly a week later!). I slept though and woke up without any major plan. I went looking for Il Porcellino, the famous boar statue that tradition says if you rub its snout and drop a coin from its mouth, and the coin lands in the grates, you will have good luck and come back to Florence. It looks like my luck may finally be changing, and also that this was not my last visit to Florence.

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Il Porcellino

After strolling along the Arno a while and having a great cappuccino in a café named for one of my favourite writers, Hemingway, I found a place in my Spanish tour guide for Florence called Fiesole in the hills near Florence. I took off after a quick stop in the market near San Lorenzo.

To arrive at Fiesole, I had to take a bus from Piazza de San Marco (number 7), and about 20 minutes later, I was in this incredible village 8 kilometres outside the city centre. The return trip is when I learned that buying a bus ticket on board the bus will cost more. Be warned!

The village has spectacular views of the amazing city of Florence along with a Roman theatre (which I didn’t have time or money to visit unfortunately, too many risotti and Chianti!) I visited an old church and admired the beautiful vistas. It was a great break from the tourists. Although the village is pretty famous for its views, during my visit, it was quite peaceful. I finally found the peace and quiet I was looking for.

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Views from Fiesole

As I had to catch a 3:40 AM bus to the airport in Pisa, I didn’t really have a chance to explore the nightlife of Florence this time around. I would love to share this city with a boyfriend one day and tour all of Tuscany with a car. The return to Spain went without a hitch, although my penance for arriving early at the Pisa airport was met with hurry up and wait as the plane left from a gate beyond passport control. Fortunately we just had to wait and not go through customs as this is European Union and my passport and NIE had been seen by the Ryan Air clerk who stamped my ticket at check-in. Flying is such a pain, but travelling is always worth it.

I average a trip to Italia every 2.5 years, so it’ll probably be 2017 or so for my next trip. I am hoping for Naples, Pompeii, Capri and/or Sicilia. Turin and Genoa are also options. There is so much to see in this amazing country.

That said…I still believe the Iberian peninsula, with Spain (and Euskadi and Catalunya), Andorra and Portugal is the greatest peninsula in the world.

Italia does give Iberia some fierce competition though.

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Fiume Arno

Italia IV. Lucca and a fight over dogs.

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Duomo di Lucca

All good things come to an end, and on Monday morning, I had to say ciao ciao to Cinque Terre. I was sad to say goodbye to the villages and the area, but not sad to say goodbye to the somehow increasing number of tourists. Somehow there were more tourists in Cinque Terre then there had been in Pisa with its Leaning Tower.

I caught the 8:53 train to La Spezia to change trains to one to Viareggio to change to another train to Lucca. If I had more time, I would’ve spent it exploring these towns after another day of hiking Cinque Terre. However, I had to make the most out of my four days there, so it was on to Lucca.

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One of Lucca’s many churches

Today, Lucca has a population 87,000. The Piazza San Michele is located on the former site of the Roman forum, and the Piazza dell’Anfiteatro still has traces of the amphitheatre (and has a circular shape). In 56 BC Julius Caesar, Pompey and Crassus formed the First Triumvirate in Lucca. Lucca is the birthplace of Puccini. The place is filled with history.

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One of the many churches in Lucca

I left my luggage at the train station for 4€ so I could explore more easily. A bit expensive (considering the fact last month I did the same thing in Burgos for 1€), but Italians know how to make money off tourists, so I paid it without complaining. It was a well spent 4€ to maneuver through the city.

A quick cappuccino (had to get it in before 11:oo) before going under the wall to the city centre. Lucca is famous for its medieval walls and for having a ton of churches. As I always prefer God’s architecture to man’s, I didn’t really keep track of which church was which and only looked at the map to make sure I was seeing everything there was to see. Which was a lot.

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The medieval walls

After wandering the streets a while, I spent some time sitting on a bench resting and writing in my personal travel journal near the walls and a parking lot/car park (only residents can drive within the walls and everyone else must park outside). It was about 14ºC (57.2ºF), and someone had left their poor German Shepherd dog in the car in the shade. Some woman asked me (in Italian, of course), if it was mine, and I was like “No, non è il mio cane” (although I do live with a German Shepherd). She went off on the indignities of leaving a dog in a car (which I do agree with, of course). She finally got bored of waiting for the car’s owner to show up. A few minutes later, they did, and another woman appeared out of nowhere to yell at them. This lead to a screaming match in Italian. It was like my own little Fellini film right before my eyes. They then tried to bring me into it, and with my rusty Italian, I explained I had just been there five minutes and could not say how long the dog had been in the car. I just wanted to play with the dog. The moral of the story is…don’t leave dogs in cars!

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Piazza dell’Anfiteatro di Lucca

I had my token lunch of pizza (I only eat pizza in Italia nowadays, and only once during the trip! Silly diet and trying to eat healthy) found my way to the famous Piazza dell’Anfiteatro, which I really enjoyed. Spain has some amazing plazas, so it takes a lot to impress me now. Piazza dell’Anfiteatro succeeded. I really liked the bar that advertised a husband day-care centre and reminded people that every time you tip a bartender, a Justin Beiber fan catches a cold, so tip your bartender. (With the coperto, tips aren’t needed in Italia as they’re already getting paid just for you sitting down in most estabalishments).

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Wives and some gay husbands, a new service for you!

 

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Ojalá…I wish.

I had my gelato and walked along the wall a bit more, admiring the views of Tuscany. I wish I had had more time to explore. Alas, my reservation was in Firenze (Florence), so I knew I should be wrapping up my visit to Lucca. I had bought my souvenirs in the morning from a cart selling post cards and other Lucca Memorabila in the piazza near the Cathedral, so I was good to go. I said “ciao” to all the beautiful towers and churches and headed back toward the train station. There was a train around the half hour of every hour connecting Lucca to Florence. I settled down on the train to study some italiano and admire the beauty of the scenery around me…wondering what would await me in my second visit to Florence.

A continuación…

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Under the Tuscan sun…

Italia IV. Le Cinque Terre

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Le Cinque Terre been on my bucket list for the past several years, ever since someone first told me about it. In my mind, I had planned on a nice, peaceful holiday hiking near these five villages built in the mountains on the Ligurian Sea not far from Genoa. Nature, mountains and sea.

As the train from Pisa, where I had spent the first part of the day, arrived in La Spezia and the rain stopped, I began to get excited. I changed trains in La Spezia. As the train pulled into the station in Riomaggiore, the first of the Cinque Terre…my heart sank and my anxiety levels raised as the hordes of tourists began to fight each other to board the train.

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Corniglia

I’m not talking about a few tourists. I’m talking Times Square on New Year’s Eve style tourists. Everywhere I went, it was English-only. As an English teacher and lifelong student of Spanish, when in Spain, when I am not working, I just don’t want to hear the language at all. The same goes for Italia. I was expecting and prepared for a ton of tourists in Pisa and later in Florence. I was NOT expecting so many in Cinque Terre as the majority of people I have met had no clue that this place existed. I did my best to make Aquarius Limón (I don’t like lemonade) out of lemons, but I did have a panic attack from all the people on Sunday afternoon unfortunately.

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This is a break in the tourists. They were usually in Times Square NYE masses. (Monterosso)

The thing is though…Cinque Terre is incredibly beautiful.

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Corniglia

I did my best to ignore the tourists as I got off at the train station in Corniglia. I made my way to the hostel, which for being a hostel, had nice facilities, I have to admit. I was not happy when people were talking at 2 in the morning or when people were snoring either. I may have to rethink this whole Camino de Santiago thing! (A joke).

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Even in Italia, I can find these arrrows.

I showered and went off exploring Corniglia, the one village not directly on the sea. I had my daily gelato (I only eat ice cream and pizza when in Italia now and yet still do not have a six-pack) and meandered through the village. I walked down to the sea, and then found the “closed” trail to Vernazza.

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Vernazza

A 2011 flood left the Cinque Terre damaged, and several trails of the famous Blue Trail remain closed four years later. This trail isn’t gated off, and many more seasons hikers brave it. I was one of them, and I found a lot less tourists. (I only went as I saw people ahead of me doing it!) The trail was incredibly beautiful, and I had the added bonus of it being sunset.

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Sunset

I arrived at Vernazza an hour later. I think Vernazza is my favourite of the villages. It has a castle and has a more rugged, medieval feel. I was looking for something quick for dinner as I bought the train ticket back, and for some reason, thought it mattered what time I went back. I could’ve taken a later one, but oh well.

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Vernazza

Being the night before Easter, they had mass at 10 p.m. in Corniglia, and the adults left the children out to make a small bonfire.

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Selfie time

Sunday I woke up from a restless night of sleep (hostels as I previously said) and went to my new favourite café in Corniglia for my morning cappuccino (don’t drink it after 11:00! Sure, they’ll serve it to the tourists, but Italians don’t drink it after 11:00. Remember the saying “When in Rome, do as the Romans do?” Rome is Italia!). The waiter let me practice my rusty Italian with him. I then went to the train station to buy my official Cinque Terre pass for the trains and hiking trails (12,50) and caught the train to Vernazza and went to the castle, which was not included in the pass and cost 1,50€.

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Castle

I then set off for Monterosso al Mare, waiting a bit for a large tourist group to pass. As I walked through the natural wonders (many waterfalls, plus the sea and mountains), I had to stop many, many times for large groups of tourists to pass by.

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Waterfall between Vernazza e Monterosso

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Arriving in Monterosso

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A bridge

I had lunch in Monterosso (lasagna) and played with some cute puppies. They’re so much friendlier than Basque dogs.

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Man’s Best Friend

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Ciao!

I meandered the streets for a bit before having my gelato and then a walk along the beach, then I caught the train to the first village, Riomaggiore. I was getting tired of the tourists everywhere and looked for quiet, tranquil places. An espresso macchiato improved my mood slightly, and a fresh bottle of water helped even more.

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Riomaggiore (Creo)

I found my way down to some rocks on the water to allow the sea to sooth my nerves. I also found some horrible English. Sea storm case! What did the sea storm do, pray tell? (I’m already going to hell anyway!) I went up to the church to admire the views of the village from above.

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I’m taking the sea storm to court

The Lover’s Trail was still undergoing repairs, so I waited for an increasingly delayed train in the increasingly number of people to catch the train to Manarola, the last village for me.

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Riomaggiore

Manarola I explored quickly, as I had to recover from a panic attack while waiting for the train. Meh. It was also beautiful. I decided to take the alternate route through the mountains back to Corniglia instead of risking the train. The main trail between Manarola and Corniglia was closed, so the other trail went through some steep mountains and the town of Volastra. It was nearing sunset, which provided me with some more awesome views. Part of the trail went through someone’s front lawn. I felt bad about that one, but I suppose they would be used to it. There were some stray hikers, but they were the people looking for a more peaceful time, like myself. I arrived back at Corniglia exhausted but satisfied with the trip.

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Waterfall between Vernazza and Monterosso

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Manarola

 

In the end, I loved Cinque Terre. I do wish I had gone in February though when there would’ve been colder temperatures but fewer people. I’m not sure what the solution is, but I know these precious villages are not meant for mass tourism. I can only imagine what it’s like in the summer if Easter was this crowded. However, I cannot deny the beauty of the Cinque Terre and surrounding landscape and understand why it is so popular.

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Sunset

I tried my best to get some sleep, and I slept better. After one last cappuccino in my fave café, I checked out and went down the staircase from Corniglia to the train station one last time to catch the train to Lucca…

A continuación…and sorry for any formatting issues. I’ve spent two hours working on trying to make it perfect, but I’m not perfect, so neither is this blog! All my html skills are from 2003 🙂

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Manarola (creo)

Italia IV Part 1: A return to Pisa and a tower climbed.

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El Torre de Pisa

Italia is a place that keeps calling me back time and time again. I just got back from my fourth trip there in the seven years I’ve been living in Europe. I’m not sure whether it’s the culture, the food, the natural beauty or what, but I always leaving wanting more.

This Semana Santa, I spent my time frolicking in Tuscany and the Cinque Terre. I’ve been with very spotty wifi that has kept me from updating the blog LIVE as I had been planning on doing. Better late than never.

On Friday, April 3, I caught a BlaBlaCar (a car ride share service that connects people in need of a ride with those of a car and *is* still legal) from Bilbao to Madrid. Everything went fine with the flight, although my bags were both a little bit bigger than the Ryan Air requirements. Don’t tell anyone. Upon arrival in Pisa, I was a bit disheartened to see that the weather forecast was right. Cloudy and overcast skies, as if I hadn’t left Bilbao. Where was the Tuscan Sun promised me by Diane Lane movies changing everything about a memoir? I had a quick cappuccino at the airport and bought a bus ticket before catching the bus right before it was pulling out. (This was a theme for my entire trip, it seemed).

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Pisa

For those who haven’t been to Italia, you should always buy bus tickets from the tobacco shops as they will be much cheaper than those bought on board the bus. I would later find that out on my last day in Florence, but that’s a spoiler for an upcoming entry. The bus took me to the centre of Pisa, where it’s one claim to fame, a leaning tower, can be found. The ticket I had bought online for 18€ was for 13.30 (1:30 PM), so I had an early lunch to kill some time. I had been in Pisa in 2008, my very first trip to Italia, but I had never climbed the tower. After lunch, the rain started. As you can’t take bags up the tower, I was more than happy to leave my luggage at the luggage desk. I took the obligatory supporting the Tower photo again as the skies opened and the rain came down.

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Puedo aguantar el Torre.

My umbrella did little to protect me as I stood in line, waiting for 13:30 to roll around. I practiced a little of my rusty Italian with the guard, who was quite pleased to help me with it. As people came out, he punched my ticket and let the 13:30 group in. A tour guide explained a brief history of the tower in Italian, then in English, before letting us free to climb the 300-odd stairs to the top.

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Catedral

The top is open, and my umbrella continued to fail to protect me from the torrential rains. I should consider myself lucky they didn’t close it. The views of the surrounding Tuscan landscapes astonished me, and I can only imagine how beautiful it would be in the sunshine. Diane Lane movies lie. Okay, there was that scene where the winds went through and the house got wet, which was exactly how this storm was.

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From the tower

I took a ton of photos. You don’t notice that you’re in a tower that’s leaning while you’re in it, which is part of the mystery of this tower. (And it is not made of pizza. My students believe it’s the Tower of Pizza!)

I bought a bus ticket back and arrived just as the bus to the train station 2 kilometres away (easily walkable for me if it weren’t raining and I didn’t have my luggage for a week away from home). I arrived at the train station, soaked to the bone and most of my luggage too, with five minutes to buy my ticket before the next train left for La Spezia and onto Corniglia…one of the Cinque Terre.

A continuación…..(to be continued in Spanish