As part of Jim’s (seemingly never-ending!) 60th birthday celebrations we decided to tour Spain from north to south. We’d previously visited a few times but never in any real depth. We travelled, mainly by train, from Bilbao in the north to Ronda in the south, with a few stops on the east coast thrown in for good measure. On the way we discovered Spain has probably the world’s largest tomatoes;
possibly the world’s largest G&Ts!
and definitely the narrowest streets for driving through …
We started with a bang in Bilbao where, of course, we visited the extraordinary Guggenheim Museum, designed by Canadian architect Frank Gehry. It’s built in limestone and glass, and the roof curves are covered in titanium (the same metal used in many artificial knees).
Originally he’d had to be persuaded by a few bottles of his favourite wine to take on the project, but he made the right decision. Not only did Gehry become a household name but his astonishing building also sparked the regeneration of Bilbao. The city now welcomes thousands of tourists … including ‘James Bond’ in 1999 when ‘The World is not Enough’ was filmed there.
In front of the museum is a giant topiary dog: a 43ft-tall sculpture of a West Highland terrier covered with living plants and called, appropriately enough, Puppy.
A few days before the official opening of the Guggenheim, in 1997, the museum came close to being bombed by three ETA Basque separatists posing as gardeners working on the sculpture. Inside the flowerpots they were carrying were 12 remote-controlled grenades. The plot was ultimately foiled, although a policeman died during the struggle and the plaza was renamed in his honour.
We were also very taken with the Vizcaya Bridge – the first mechanical transporter bridge to be built in the world. The architect was asked to design a structure to carry people and vehicles across the river while still allowing the tall ships of the time to pass underneath.
So a gondola, suspended below the bridge’s upper walkway, ferries passengers and up to six vehicles from one bank to the other every eight minutes. Back in 1893, when it was built, the central area of the gondola would have been for horses and carriages – and 2nd-class passengers. The 1st-class travelled on covered benches on the sides. The locals call it Puente Colgante (hanging bridge).
We’d been looking forward to reaching San Sebastián [Donostia, as they call it in Basque]. The Basque Country has the highest concentration of Michelin-starred restaurants in the world, so is a foodie paradise. The speciality is the Pintxo – a finger-food sized snack similar to tapas. The customers move from cafe to cafe, having one or two pintxos and a pote (slang for drink) in each.
Our wonderful Airbnb hosts, Iker and Estela, gave us a map and list of their favourite cafes and we happily worked our way through it.
Pamplona is known for its annual festivals of San Fermin (including the famous Running of the Bulls), held each day from 6 to14 July. We walked the route, which takes the bulls from a holding yard, along various narrow streets of the Old Town and into the bullring. Along the way they try to dodge the idiotic locals and tourists who attempt to outrun them.
This was as close as we came to the Running of the Bulls.
In the Cafe Iruna – where Ernest Hemingway is said to have written ‘The Sun also Rises’ – we stopped for their lunch special: starter, main, dessert, bread, wine and water for a few euros each. We assumed that meant a glass of wine but no, … a full bottle each of red and white appeared!
We staggered out some time later to watch a few weary pilgrims limp into town. Pamplona is the first Spanish city on the Camino de Santiago [for those arriving on the French Way]. This ancient pilgrimage route has various start points but all of them finish in Santiago de Compostela in NW Spain. It was pouring with rain that day so the exhausted walkers were also completely sodden, and I felt rotten trying to take photos of them.
The story goes that the king of Zaragosa had a lisp so everyone else had to call it Tharagoetha too … rather like extras from Monty Python’s ‘Life of Brian’. The city was originally called Cesar Augusto, which eventually morphed into Zaragosa (try it a few times).
The Nuestra Senora del Pilar cathedral sits in a vast open square in the Old Town. We climbed one of the towers for great views over the city.
Legend has it that the Virgin Mary appeared to St James and told him to build a church here in her honour. A small portion of the pillar is now exposed for the faithful to kiss. I’d heard that the pillar exudes a faint smell of roses so was keen to check it out – and, yes, it really does … though Jim the heathen is convinced a rose-scented air freshener is liberally employed.
During the civil war two shells were lobbed at the church but they failed to explode. The faithful say it was a miracle but some cynical locals say, ‘typical Czech munitions’.
Having been seduced by Cuenca in Ecuador last year, we had to visit the Spanish (and original) version. We weren’t disappointed. It’s a delightful little town perched on the side of a huge gorge.
Its big draw card is the famous medieval ‘hanging houses’.
Last year Jim escorted a Travel Directors’ group through Spain to Morocco and came back gushing about Valencia. And what a city it is. In a moment of serendipity, good friends from Perth – Paul and Irene – were visiting at the same time and we enjoyed much merrymaking. The drinking water here is full of minerals including chlorine – not great for drinking but perfect for cooking paella, which is important as Valencia is where this classic dish originated.
We also bumped into Jim’s brother Geoff’s first fiancee, Jan Brown, who was visiting with her husband Graham and we had a rather raucous, gin-infused, night out together!
In the old days the very wide river Turia regularly flooded the city centre so about 50 years ago it was diverted to the city outskirts. The resulting dry river bed was creatively turned into the Turia Gardens, a stunning nine-kilometre swathe of sunken parkland running through the city centre.
The locals embrace it for running, cycling, playing sports, picnicking, etc. We walked the length of it and discovered Parque Gulliver on the way.
Remember in ‘Gulliver’s Travels’, when the scared Lilliputians manage to tie down the giant then scramble all over to subdue him? In the park we discovered a giant sculpture of the man himself (lying down, of course) made into a children’s play park. There are steps, nets and climbing ropes hidden around the body and in concrete folds of his clothes – even some strands of his hair are slides – so kids can climb and slither all over him.
The gardens finish at the stunning City of Arts & Sciences complex, home to the opera house, science museum, aquarium and sculpture park (including one by Yoko Ono).
In Valencia’s magnificent cathedral we found the Holy Grail, the cup believed to have been used by Jesus during the Last Supper (though there are many other contenders around the world). The holy part is the cup at the top, made of chocolate-y coloured agate. The base, handles and jewels were added centuries later.
Valencia had bowled us over but Jim had a date with an old friend from his first job in radio, so we scooted down to the town of Bolnuevo in the province of Murcia. Jim hadn’t seen Sheila since he worked with her at Chiltern Radio 30 years ago, so it was a 48-hour fun talk fest.
Spain’s rail system is superb unless you want to go from Bolnuevo to Córdoba, as we did. So it was a bus ride for us, and a very scenic one at that, with vast fields of sunflowers and olive groves.
The crowning glory of Córdoba is the Mezquita-Catedral (Mosque-Cathedral). Built between the 8th and 10th centuries, it’s been a religious site for both Christians and Muslims (depending on who was ruling at the time) but has been Catholic since 1236. It’s such a beautiful example of Islamic architecture that the Catholics, rather than building on top of it as usual, built their own church actually inside the mosque. And just to prove its multi-religion-ess, the building is located in the middle of the Jewish Quarter.
Normal rail service was resumed between Cordoba and Seville – another glorious city with the world’s largest Gothic Cathedral (and yet another one to be built on top of a mosque).
The cathedral’s other claim to fame is being home to Christopher Columbus’ tomb. Well, possibly. His remains have been moved at least six times between Cuba, Spain and the Dominican Republic and there is now some grave (ha!) doubt that the ‘body in the box’ is, in fact, that of the illustrious explorer. It could well be his son, Diego. In 1877 a lead box of bones was unearthed in the Santo Domingo cathedral in the Dominican Republic with CC’s name on – and they’ve kept it safely under lock and key ever since, refusing all requests for DNA testing.
The mosque’s minaret has bricked ramps inside rather than steps so that the muezzin, in charge of calling the people to prayer five times a day, could climb to the top each time on his horse. Smart man. After the Muslims had surrendered the city, the minaret had a bell tower built on top of it known as the Giralda, and tourists can now climb up those very same ramps – trying to avoid passing by the enormous bells on the hour, as they are ear-splittingly loud.
Seville has more than one world beater. The extraordinary Metropole Parasol in the Old Quarter is the largest wooden structure on the planet (remember that for your next quiz night) and is nicknamed ‘las setas’ (mushrooms) by the locals. It seems a little out of place in among the historic and beautiful buildings but the views from the top are stupendous, and as a bonus, our €3 tickets included a free beer at the top and a free postcard at the bottom!
The spectacular Plaza de Espana has often been used as a film location, including Lawrence of Arabia (1962) and as Naboo Planet in Star Wars: Attack of the Clones.
Ditching trains and buses for the final leg of our tour we hired a car and drove south to Ronda, a beautiful mountain town which, like Cuenca, straddles a great ravine. Established during the reign of Julius Caesar it’s one of the oldest towns in Europe.
Despite being built in the 1700s, the main bridge between the two parts of town is still called Puente Nuevo (New Bridge). The room above the central arch has, over the years, been a bar, hotel, prison, and was used by both sides as a torture chamber during the 1936-39 civil war.
Ronda’s bullring was the world’s first purpose-built space for bull fighting (the first fight took place in 1785). Now it’s only used for three days of bullfighting a year, during their annual festival. We learned that the picador’s first ‘lancing’ into the bull’s shoulder muscle is necessary to release the pent-up endorphins – oh, so that’s okay then …
Our hotel, the San Gabriel, is a gem. The owner is a film buff who built an exquisite five-seat cinema for guests and has a collection of classic movies to choose from.
The reason for hiring a car was to explore the famous white villages that surround Ronda. Most are nestled in remote spots on the hillsides and the ones we visited seemed to be caught in a charming time-warp. The villages are surrounded by chestnut trees, which provide a living for the locals.
Not all of them are white though. To promote the premiere of the Smurf movie a few years ago, the residents of Juzcar were asked if their houses could be painted Smurf-blue and re-painted white again afterwards. The promotion duly took place and the white washers returned … but the villagers said, NO! We like our village blue (a good thing they all agreed). So, there we have it – a smattering of picturesque white villages and a lone Smurf-blue one.
We could have stayed and stayed in Spain (and maybe one day we will) but we wanted to catch up with friends in the UK and also to continue celebrating Jim’s 60th birthday, so we DID get on that plane ….
Until next time
Hasta la Wotnot!
Gay and Jim