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

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.

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…

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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.