A Travellerspoint blog

Spain

Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the

We were a bit towned out and had thought to seek a country inn to stay in after Santiago but whilst there we thought of some South African friends Richard and Debbie and in particular Debbie who had covered some of the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage route. We texted Richard to say 'Thinking of you...' and to our surprise he replied he would be 15k away from us when we fetched up in Pamplona next day as he now was 'El Pelegrín' and on the road. Small world.

We drove to our rendezvous and sat in the sun on the terrace of a small bar and watched the walkers arrive, sometimes in groups and sometimes in ones and twos and across the age range. The camaraderie was very evident as too was the relief at another leg of the journey completed and a chance to loosen the laces of the walking boots.

Richard arrived travelling with a family of Americans. As we drove him to his luxury hotel in Pamplona I promised his walking buddies I would ensure he slept on the floor and only had a cold shower to make up for declining his bunk bed in a shared dorm and whatever variety of pork was on the menu.

It is alway a travel dilemma for us: read the travel guide and risk the guide finding only churches and monuments significant and curiously missing the spirit of the place, or risk the guide stealing the thunder by over-familiarity. Or you can find out for yourself and risk missing an essential aspect or worse end up somewhere like Castelo Branco. We weren't fussed about Pamplona and the travel guide had said outside of the bull run there wasn't much reason to go there. So our only expectation was that we would have a catch up with Richard and hear his walking tales.

Pamplona was simply the busiest and buzziest of anywhere we've been. It is not the fairest of cities but neither is it the worse. The Plaza del Castillo is a fine and large town centre square that was so rammed, it made Leicester Square on a Saturday night look like Worthing on a wet Wednesday. We think all the jollity was the result of a pinchos or tapas festival. We had a good meal, although curiously we went Italian, and Richard under the strains of road walking did need to be talked down from visiting a Burger King. Later we had yummy ice cream and meandered, by necessity, very slowly through the unbelievably crowded streets.

Pamplona was a sometime haunt of Hemingway and Café Uruña in the main square has a life size bronze statue of the man in a side bar off the main room; the cafe, a staggeringly beautiful 1920s confection, a kind of gilded shrine to the old misogynist and boor. Hemingway visited the city nine times and found here the inspiration for his first and arguably finest book 'The Sun Also Rises' (published in 1926) a roaring twenties portrait of a group of Bohemians caught in the frenzy of the bull run festival.

We shared breakfast with Richard at a totally chaotic Uruña and left him with six weeks more walking and made our way somewhat reluctantly back to France, although cheered by a revisit to Bordeaux. We haven't been for years, the last time the city was a building site as they installed a new tram system and reclaimed the river front from its industrial and port past.

Those international tourist pals of ours Clare and Stuart have again flown out to join us, this time in Bordeaux and we have rented two apartments in a house in the Saint Michel quartier. In fact Stuart couldn't come but we downloaded him as an app and so we had our tour leader and map reader extrodinaire in digital form. At times it was almost as though he was actually with us.

The apartments are a delight, modern spacious and bang in the middle of this slowly gentrifying area which for now has tiny Arab run grocers next door to trendy bars and brocantes selling the kind of brown furniture you can't give away in London.

Every day seems to have a different market, on the Sunday as we arrived we caught the tail end of a flea market with the occasional old, unloved and unsold sofa or pile of clothes discarded waiting for the bin men. We like the area so much that it is the obvious place to be in the evenings and we sample a different restaurant every night and when it's warm enough sit out and people watch.

Bordeaux, long known as 'la belle endormie' (sleeping beauty), was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2007 and thanks to a massive decade-long revitalisation project that restored hundreds of magnificent 18th-century buildings at the city’s center, is now a very beautiful city, and with that city list in mind, could be the most beautiful we have seen. It is a limestone built place, occasionally evident as the stone will blacken over time. But much of the city is well cared for and has almost no new building in its large historic heart. The kilometre long Garonne river facade is a wonderful showcase of the architectural design skills of the 18th century. Elsewhere the apparently uniform buildings reward close attention as the symmetry is to a degree an illusion as each part of the terrace will have different details in the decorative elements. Sometimes a building sits next to a lower one but at the top in expectation of a same height neighbour the bonding stones jut out unattached in a vertical castellation.

We visit the extraordinary Cité de Vin museum, a high tech hymn to the pleasures and the complexity of squeezing fruit. It is slightly a triumph of presentation over content but is so impressively designed outside and in it was irresistible. Later our ticket bought us a wine tasting which although serving predominantly French wine had offerings from Georgia, Mexico, Serbia and Moldavia. We strolled down Rue Sainte Catherine, claimed to be the longest pedestrian shopping street in Europe but it is necessary to keep our eyes above the international and over familiar shops fronts to enjoy the exquisite architecture. We also visited the extraordinary Tribunal de Grande designed by Richard Rogers in 1998. Each courtroom is set within a very high wooden pod and the pods line up in a row all housed in a glass building on raised stilts. Very odd and very beautiful.

Bordeaux is a city with a growth agenda. Happily this is happening on the other side of the Garonne River but is relatively low rise with some very interesting new build architecture with bold colour palettes and striking materials.

We drive Clare and Stuart back to Merignac, Bordeaux's airport and head north for a two hour drive back to our farmhouse, where the grass on its usual steroids will be as high as an elephant's eye. It's been an exhausting trip which with hindsight had too many cities and not enough downtime and sometimes not enough time in the larger cities. It's also been very thrilling, rewarding and exciting.

We have had less cause to complain about the coffee than we expected, we sought and found exemplar coffee artisans (thanks to Jean's determination) in back alleys and have eaten, by and large, excellent meals. We have stayed in really good places (thanks again to Jean) whether apartments or hotels and always in good locations, sometimes in the thick of it, sometimes on the edge looking in. It's still difficult to find a bathroom where the lighting makes it possible to shave without blood loss, or a hairdryer that emits heat warmer than a spaniel's breath. It remains a mystery why so few hotel guests are respectful of other guests.

But those few carps in no way define our trip. As Proust never wrote, though is often misquoted as writing, the real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes. It's a neat aphorism and might have some merit but we have tried to do both.

A city or town in Spain, France or Portugal that has an historic heart of stone is a stirring place of wonder, likely to be well preserved and best of all unmolested by dreadful mid to late 20th century additions. It does though need to be acknowledged that without exception the expanded outskirts are uniformly grim. Great disasters or great visions, and sometimes both, have given most of the places we visited a scale, symmetry and grandness that has never been equalled at home even including cities like Bath or Edinburgh. For 150 years in the 18th and 19th centuries the new wealth of Europe, created by relentless and selfish colonial expansion was in part poured back into the creation of well planned and designed streets and buildings. A design code that is still successful, relevant and appealing today.

It is with mixed feeling that we have sold our house in France but it also has to be admitted that we both prefer Spain to France. For us the food, the coffee, the national temperament, the driving style, the landscape, the cities (except lovely Bordeaux) all are better done in Spain. Perhaps because unlike the French they seem more open to international influence and incorporate this without losing their own identity.

We still have the rest of Southern Europe to explore and then north and east so we'll be busy planning for these trips as we fondly remember the one we have just completed. Do feel free to fly out and join us, or bump into us accidentally.

And now we wend our way back home after an enjoyable week with family ....dog and all!

Hemingway statue at Café Uruña Pamplona

Hemingway statue at Café Uruña Pamplona


Richard - you are not going in there!!

Richard - you are not going in there!!


Interior Café Uruña

Interior Café Uruña


The Cité du Vin museum Bordeaux

The Cité du Vin museum Bordeaux


Who would have thought ...

Who would have thought ...


Beautiful limestone building we we stayed

Beautiful limestone building we we stayed


Saint Michel spire Bordeaux

Saint Michel spire Bordeaux


The justice court

The justice court


Another view of the courts

Another view of the courts


Bizarre sculpture by Mational Theatre

Bizarre sculpture by Mational Theatre


There is always another perspective

There is always another perspective


Reflections ....even got the tram in this shot!

Reflections ....even got the tram in this shot!


No. 1 Chevrefueille with more iris

No. 1 Chevrefueille with more iris


More iris at chez nous

More iris at chez nous


Ahh the bluebells in our woods

Ahh the bluebells in our woods

Posted by Jean-and-Tony 17:00 Archived in Spain Comments (0)

''Out of the city and down to the seaside..."

Truth be told we have rather rushed through Portugal. We don't have time to visit Porto but instead enjoy driving through the countryside with a mountain range always in view, and sometimes beneath our wheels.

We spot a town on the map, Espinho and decide to stop at the seaside for lunch. It doesn't look very large on the map, but when we arrive in a large, ugly town we realise we not going to get our adventurer badges from Akela (AKA Stuart), the Scout Leader.

Espinho is clearly a resort which is a little odd as the town is dissected from the beach by a railway line, and not of the kind where you can saunter across the track. We have a pleasant enough lunch looking over the wild, wide beach and since we didn't bring our cozzies, thank goodness, we keep our feet dry.

The sat nav, still stinging from our suggestion it has no idea what country it's in never mind what street, takes us on a small, and as it turns out serendipitous diversion and we drive by a huge street market. Of the kind of size that London or Paris would find difficult to stage. We're not sure if it's a kiss and make up gift from sat nav, or if like us he'd welcome a post-lunch snooze. Either way we spend a happy hour, agog at the cheapness and the variety in this giant one day market.

There are many plant sellers with species of triffid proportion and tropical colour. We wonder about this, as apart from municipal planting, we have not seen anything like a garden anywhere. Perhaps it's like France where the marketeers sell vegetables, presumably under government license, with the strict proviso they must never be served in a restaurant.

Soon enough we cross another border and are back in Spain, a little relieved to hear a language we don't understand, compared to the Portuguese we could neither pronounce nor understand.

We are staying in Vigo a large, possibly Europe's largest, fishing port. Our hotel is 5 star but 3 star prices, well located in a more or less private and lavishly planted and be-sculptured boulevard and mid way between the port and old town. Our room is spacious and quirky- there is a bath in the room. The lighting system is of the highest tech. There are controls for 7 million combinations of ambient, dimmed and zoned lighting. We soon discover it is necessary to plan for lights out, as no lights on at all is the most complicated and unachievable of all the options.

We take a morning stroll to the port and see buildings that take their architectural cue from ship design. We spot another monster building that looks even more like a ship. Oh goodness, it is a ship, 14 stories and all glass verandas and docked here. Within moments all we can hear are the golden tones of northern accented English. Readers we ran for it.

Vigo is an elegant town, lowish rise but wide-streeted and with good granite buildings with the familiar by now mix of late 19th and complete 20th century design built by the industrial and commercial bourgeoisie . It has a lovely modern art museum, set in an imaginatively restored building of the kind where you chose with difficulty between looking at the rooms or the art.

Some friends have recommended a particular restaurant and we set off to find it, glad as so often of Googles turn by turn help. It's nothing in particular inside and is apparently empty but then it's only 2.30 am and the locals haven't come out to play yet. The restaurant has a back room where they seat everyone and that slowly filled As our friends said it is not the kind of place you'd find on your own, but it was a brilliant recommendation: we had delicious fish of the kind of freshness so rarely tasted.

A couple of nights in Vigo and then we're off to Santiago de Compostela but first another recommendation to follow, this time from the chef in the mountain park hotel which takes us to a seaside port that specialises in mussel fishing and to a particular restaurant. Sadly it is entirely without merit but a break from driving is always welcome. At Santiago Jean has a yen to see happy pilgrims crawling the last few yards of their 600 mile journey. It's a little disappointing as the Cathedral won't allow rucksacks inside so we don't know which are fakers like us or the real McCoys. The old stone town is super busy mostly with teen school parties but quietens down after dark.

Our final recommendation is an hotel, chosen by dear friends and located opposite where the pilgrims come to have their 'passports' stamped, or used to be, sadly it is now relocated so the dream of lazing and sipping coffee under the stone porticos sharing their achievements is again lost. We take a light supper in a cafe of St Pancras proportions and style but soon slightly regret this as a wine tasting starts up at the other end of the room and a much amplified presenter talks forever with precious little sign of the attendees sniffing and sipping.

We are glad to be staying for just one night as those same dear friends forgot to tell us that the cathedral bells strike on the quarter hour, including the hour and every hour all through the night. No problem, we ask the sat nav to switch to auto drive mode and take us where it will. Possibly and we hope León. Possibly Lyon. Lagos, Lucerne or Lilliput. We snuggle down in the back seat, push the handle into drive with a foot and wait to see where we've been taken.

Feed me Seymour, feed me now...

Feed me Seymour, feed me now...


The Merman presiding over Porta do Sol

The Merman presiding over Porta do Sol


Another perspective!

Another perspective!


Fishing port at O Grove

Fishing port at O Grove


Basket shop in Weavers Alley

Basket shop in Weavers Alley


Stylish but odd building

Stylish but odd building


Urban decay next to elegance

Urban decay next to elegance


Pretty or what?

Pretty or what?


Old part Santiago

Old part Santiago

Posted by Jean-and-Tony 17:00 Archived in Spain Comments (0)

Super Salamanca Murders Madrid and Zaps Zaragoza

We leave Madrid through surprisingly light Monday morning traffic and are quickly on a pretty drive through low mountains and fertile plains, with higher pine clad snow capped mountains in the distance. It's a two hour drive to Salamanca our next stopover and though we have researched museums and sites we have no expectations.

We are staying in a Parador (a state run hotel chain, usually in ancient buildings) on a hill overlooking the historic centre. But in a break from the usual, it is a modern hotel, though quite stately and clad in corten - deliberately rusted steel - and the rich red tones remind us that wine is waiting for us later. For 10 euros we upgrade our room for a town view. Money well spent we think.

Salamanca is a university city with claims to global significance and the sixth oldest in the world, and dating back to the 11th century. It is particularly known for its language school as the Castilian Spanish spoken in the region is the equivalent of received pronunciation English or Oxford English. It is a stunningly beautiful place, and a UNESCO World Heritage Site . The centre and right up to the more modern parts are all built with a glowing, softly mottled sandstone, sometimes roughly hewn sometimes more polished. Any new buildings, always sensitively designed are sandstone too. It is generally low rise and the monumental buildings soar up from their neighbours, the Cathedral anyway already on the highest ground.

It's a perfect city for walking and our feet are the only complainers as they notch up another five miles. It's a perfect city too for coffee and pastry shops and we are doggedly munching our way through some horrible things, some so bad we have two of them so some other luckless person doesn't have to suffer.

We went to a fabulous museum set in an art nouveau palace, of the small kind (for a palace). It had a very beautiful inner courtyard with an atrium roof of glowing abstract stained glass. There were very good collections of Art Deco glass and ornaments particularly Émile Gallé, a French artist. Plenty of good art nouveau and Deco furniture and paintings and a slightly disturbing and very large collection of dolls, marionettes and clockwork mannequins. One charming and unusual detail is that the town has its own font, a kind of art nouveau style and every building of interest has its name and sometimes other details hand written on it in a rusty colour.

Another city and another cathedral, actually two here as they built a new one right next to the old one. Built of course in sandstone, the style is 'Plateresque' a kind of exotic blend of gothic and Mudéjar. Plateresque means in the manner of the silversmith and the decorative elements do indeed have that aspect. Apparently when the cathedral was being renovated in the 90's one of the stone masons carved an astronaut into a new section, as well as faun eating an ice-cream, though I confess we missed this detail.

The university has buildings all over the city and we walk around oasis cloisters glad that after some very chilly days in Madrid we can bask in some warming sunshine. We take our lunch in a busy pedestrianised street enjoying a veggie paella and thirst quenching cerveza.

After five cities an inevitable list is forming. We don't set out to make a list but as we experience the difference between one place and another our emotional responses begin to coalesce into preferences. Despite being irresistibly drawn to the large and capital cities, twice now we have felt most at home in the smaller more intimate ones where the scale horizontally and vertically is much more welcoming. Salamanca is winning the city competition right now, partly because it is so lovingly restored and maintained, partly because it is so very beautiful to look at, and partly because it has an interesting intimacy. And pastries.

For now though we have done with Spain and on our last night in Salamanca we enjoyed a very fine meal in a local restaurant which knocked the pants off the restaurant in the Parador. Tomorrow we cross into Portugal and are staying in a national park and intend to do very little except hug trees and sit still, ideally in the sunshine. We have walked more than 50 miles in the past few days and need some down time. Scary update... may only be 14 degrees up on the mountains...

Elektra coffee machine

Elektra coffee machine


Wow

Wow


Lovely city centre buildings

Lovely city centre buildings


University cloister

University cloister


Salamanca art nouveau type face

Salamanca art nouveau type face


Street view of the Art Nouveau museum

Street view of the Art Nouveau museum


Interesting house decoration detail

Interesting house decoration detail


Close up of sandstone blocks

Close up of sandstone blocks


One of many lovely plazas

One of many lovely plazas


Keeping your insides clean

Keeping your insides clean


One of Spain's premier squares

One of Spain's premier squares


Handsome sandstone carving on ugly building

Handsome sandstone carving on ugly building

Posted by Jean-and-Tony 17:00 Archived in Spain Comments (0)

Mad for Madrid?

We leave Zaragoza on the way to Madrid and are quickly driving through low mountains of extraordinary 'bumpiness' - surely a proper geo-topographic word we think. More up and down than a tart's knickers at a fair as my grandfather would have said, at once both sexist and inappropriate.

Despite the high terrain there is much evidence of cultivation, mostly olive trees and already in flower almond trees. There are no farmhouses to be seen and we wonder who tends these hard to access crops. Soon the green gives way to higher sparse grey rock and we are immediately struck by the flat topped mountains and their similarity to the ranges we saw in Arizona. The doppelgänger geography continues as the rocks become red sandstone and we almost expect to see the hoodoos of Bryce Canyon.

We make a scheduled stop at Guadalajara, simply because of the name and it's a mistake. Tony was thinking, perhaps, of the one in western Mexico. Or Swindon. We take a photograph (with our fingers over the lens) as we assume it's a legal requirement for a tourist and high tail out of there as fast as we can without starting a panic.

As the landscape flattens the traffic slowly swells and the ugly outskirts of Madrid reveal even further American ties as huge billboards sit atop 50 foot masts. We slow to a crawl and join a Friday afternoon reverse exodus and concentrate a great deal as we navigate the wide streets with frantic traffic as we get to the city centre. It has to be said though that the drivers seem very courteous especially towards pedestrians. Nearly every cross road has lights and timed pedestrian lights, however traffic can still turn right but has to give way, and give way they do even on crossings with no lights. Quite curious to see considerate motorists especially compared to France where they will kill you if dare to cross.

Our new apartment is well located but the high standards of our Barcelona pad are not met. It's perfectly fine but the it has a kitchenette suitable for making a hot drink and not much more. There is exactly two of everything and it is all a bit mingy, but not to carp, it's well located and is quite stylish with a very fine roof terrace for the daily G & T.

We are rather tired tourists today as at three in the morning the (presumably Spanish) guests upstairs came home and proceeded to promenade around with their high heels on whilst relocating all the furniture by dragging it across the floor. So we signed up for the hop on and off bus and got a feel for the place without walking. It's a capital city of course with a scale to match so it was a good introduction with the advantage that you can get off at any time. In truth though we made our morning priority a fairly long walk to the artisan coffee shop for our breakfast. And because the other must visit coffee shop was 200 metres away we went straight there and repeated the whole thing.

Madrid is not much like Barcelona, the architecture is grander, bigger and dressed to impress. The plazas are huge and the civic monuments and palaces immense. It did though share with Barcelona a determination to construct considered architecture and the Gran Via is a showcase for early 20th century styles. Built in three sections between 1910 and 1928 it is an architectural time line with styles from Vienna Succession Art Nouveau to Art Deco to a kind of Moorish revival called Neo-Mudéjar. The street is a European Broadway with many theatres and a 24 hour night life... not that we are doing much of that as we have our own nighttime entertainment upstairs.

For every gloat there is yang and after telling you of our 26 degrees a few days ago it is now very cold - 6 degrees. Our receptionist told us that he saw snow 2 days ago only the second time in his life.

We visited an Escher exhibition set in a fantastic and beautiful but curiously small palace. It was like someone wanted a scaled down but perfectly proportioned model. It made a great space for viewing the comprehensive display however and having never seen anything other than reproductions of the work, the skill of the artists woodcuts and engravings was very apparent, one of those city finds that is delight when the queues for the major galleries are around the block.

After a disco free night we are pleased the temperature is higher though the whole of Spain is wreathed in clouds. Because it's Mothering Sunday Tony lets Jean cook him a veggie full English and because we lost an hour with the clock change we are very slobby tourists and a somewhat disgruntled maid has to be turned away until later.

The Royal Palace of Madrid (Palacio Real de Madrid) is the official residence of the Spanish Royal Family and the largest palace in Europe with some 3,418 rooms. Really. Fortunately the Japanese have built a Bullet train through it and we get the whole thing done in 90 seconds. Kidding. It is ridiculously sumptuous; if the Spanish like their churches ornate, they like their homages to monarchy even grander.

As we wander around the 25 or so public rooms we are amazed, we are astounded, then gob-smacked and then in a room of pale pink and not much else are relieved to be able to retrieve our eyes from the stalks they have been on. But there is no rest, in no time we are awe struck, mesmerised and discombobulated. In the end though we assume the voice of Harry Enfield as Stravos and say to each other 'It's crazy bonkers, peeps'. God and Mammon. It's hard to know who has the best architecture. Or perhaps the most disturbingly inappropriate and greedy use of resource: one to celebrate the unknowable, the other to celebrate hubris and inequality.

One of things that has not been good in general is that Spain has a very evident tagging and graffiti problem. Whilst the main streets are free of this visual blight, go down any side street and all you see is spray paint. So ugly, so unimaginative and so utterly banal.

We are definitely going Iberian, we are at least 2 - 3 hours later doing everything. We're just in from visiting the modern art museum Reine Sofia and its 8 o'clock gone. For the third night here we are going to cook in and chill. We have realised that our own space is a perfect antidote for the full on commitment of tourism. Yes we risk missing good cuisine, and we imagine there is plenty to be found here, but our legs are tired and besides the strength of G and T that come out of our home bar would likely not be matched out there.

So Madrid, what did we think? Usual city rules apply - we can only sample it in a couple of days but we have a sense of it. Where it's not ostentatiously grand it is conspicuously tatty. There is plenty of culture here, much much more we can shake a stick at. More than we can hit or poke with a stick, which surely is the best way to use a stick. The lesson so far from our European tour is that with so many cities so close together that we need more down time between them or more time in them.

It doesn't feel like an intimate city but we have really only seen the equivalent of Leicester Square and Maybe Knightsbridge. There are many neighbourhoods here we haven't found (apart from when Jean took Tony on the coffee route!) and it is a city of global significance, the third largest in Europe after London and Berlin. So we respect you Madrid, but we don't love you but know that if we knew you better we might.

Pallacio Real from our roof garden

Pallacio Real from our roof garden


Jean Escher ???

Jean Escher ???


Ummmm

Ummmm


Trompe l'oeil shawl dropped building

Trompe l'oeil shawl dropped building


Art Deco building in Gran Via

Art Deco building in Gran Via


Old and new in Gran Via

Old and new in Gran Via


Architecture

Architecture


More architecture...

More architecture...


Architecture

Architecture


Zoological Gardens? No, a railway station

Zoological Gardens? No, a railway station


Turtle pond.... in railway statiom

Turtle pond.... in railway statiom

Posted by Jean-and-Tony 17:00 Archived in Spain Comments (0)

Zaragoza - A gem of a city with an historic heart.

Leaving Barcelona we head north into the mountains to visit Monistrol de Montserrat, a Benedictine monastery. Even Berkeley Homes wouldn't put Chinese buy to leave bait up here. We park in the village at the foot of the mountain and take a 'rack' railway ride to the mountain top. The train engages with a cog rail between the wheel tracks and winds it's way up at a far steeper gradient than would be possible for a normal train. A bit scary but fun, though we pass on the funicular which has parallelogram shaped carriages and would have taken us at 45 degrees to the very highest point.

The centerpiece is a fine church with captive choristers compelled to sing 24 hours a day until their testicles drop and a much queued for black Madonna who wears a Mexican hat. Look I only record what we see, so please don't expect explanations. Later in a cosy and modern art museum we see some French impressionist artists, and new to us Spanish painters and a whole room of black Madonna painting each with a grander hat than the last.

A four hour drive across an increasingly flattening plain with scrubby agriculture poking out from grey and stony fields takes us to the predictably unprepossessing outskirts of Zaragoza. In Europe generally there is a consensus that the centers of towns and cities are left pretty much alone and all the scaby shops and new development radiates ever outwards, but never inwards.

After our luxury pad in Barcelona we are going budget for a couple of nights though our tiny underwhelming room has a grand view across the river to a magnificent Basilica. The joy ends there though as they haven't switched the AC on despite the very warm spring weather and we have an eight hour sauna. The good news is that having shed 4 kilos in the night a breakfast entirely made from fat, flour and sugar mysteriously reformed into delicious pastries is wholly justified.

Twitching slightly from our sugar overload we set out to explore with no particular expectations. But Zaragoza is lovely. Full of 18th century squares, wide boulevards (or bulevars I suppose) the historic center is well preserved and easily walkable although an Expo here in 2008 has left a sharp legacy of avant-garde monuments. It is a modern city too with a very posh tram system, many cycle lanes and a deliberate blurring of road and pavement to calm traffic. Possibly a post Expo legacy is that the lighting columns to illuminate the monuments have a fabulous post-industrial look, themselves small design marvels.

Our first stop is the Basilica. For atheists like us it still comes as a surprise how seriously many folk take their beliefs and an endless queue of worshippers pay their respects. But what a place to find God. Cathedrals are definitively designed to impress, to pay homage to the ultimate being. And this church has pulled out all the stops to incorporate all the finest skills of the architect, the stone masons and the wood carvers. One small disappointment is the electric candles, the smell of wax being such a part of Catholic ritual. There are many confession booths scattered about but the confessor kneels outside the box talking in and rather oddly both sides can be used which could easily we imagine give rise to some very bizarre conversations, not to mention secrets accidentally shared. Later in town we see a shop selling religious regalia - fair enough but these all look like Ku Klux Klan outfits. Any clues as to why anyone?

From the sublime to the folded, our next stop is a museum of origami. Apparently since the 1940's this city has been the leading western centre for this oriental art and is responsible by and large for introducing the paper folding experience to the west. As we visited, a class of mostly women were just finishing their folding tutorial and to claps and squeals held up their creations for group approval.

We are a little surprised that the museums take siestas and our plans are curtailed somewhat with a 3 hour close at two o'clock. So we take a leisurely stroll and a leisurely lunch. We accidentally order griddled aubergine with grilled cheese on pineapple on toast with a balsamic drizzle. We are obliged to remonstrate with the chef and explain cheese and pineapple should always be served on a stick and belongs to the haute cuisine of England.

Later we visit a Moorish palace, much 'top-dogged' later by uppity Catholics and leading to a peculiar but not unharmonious collision of rich decorative palates. For the second time today we have each paid a mere Euro to gain entrance to our museums, excellent value. The city has a Roman lineage, reflected both in the street names and the huge dis-interred amphitheater, one of three well preserved sites.

The Roman theme is elsewhere and we take our evening meal (as late as we dare, trying to get used to the Spanish style) in what has to be described as a food court, but is very upmarket and buzzing with an extraordinary array of fabulous foods. A 25 foot Caesar rises from the ground floor through the eateries (almost matching the statue of Marilyn Monroe in Palm Springs) adding a ridiculous elan to the whole thing. It is all very clever and we note people ordering from multiple outlets and sitting anywhere there is space then via an electronic paging device a message tells them when their order is ready to collect.

Tomorrow we go to Madrid via Guadalajara. The last just a day visit and we again will stay in an apartment in Madrid. We are liking Spain immensely. It is both relaxed and buzzy. Everywhere is good (enough) coffee and definitely good pastries. People are friendly and helpful. Today for example on our way to the origami museum and paused to check our whereabouts a young women Sonja stopped to help and insisted on walking with us to our destination. A small act of social connection and kindness of the sort that sticks in the mind and makes travel so satisfying.

Zaragoza

Zaragoza


Zaragoza

Zaragoza


Street sculpture

Street sculpture


Ku Klux Klan religious costumes

Ku Klux Klan religious costumes


Moorish arches in Palacio

Moorish arches in Palacio

Posted by Jean-and-Tony 17:00 Archived in Spain Comments (0)

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