Saturday, July 12, 2014

The slightly faded charm of Biarritz

From Santiago de Compostela our next destination was Biarritz, a convenient half-way stop on our trip home. What we hadn't taken into account was the number of detours from the autopiste in Spain due to construction. We seemed to spend hours in these dusty detours resulting in a much longer trip that we had planned.

Finally we arrived in the famous old seaside town, Biarritz. After checking into our hotel we immediately went to the number one Trip advisor restaurant just around the corner. I ordered the sole meunière. When it came it was as tough as an old boot and I should have returned it but I was hungry. After I had pried it off the bone the taste was all right. When the meal was over the server, who spoke perfect English asked if we had enjoyed our meal. I told her about the toughness. Funny, she didn't understand that particular word in English, however a Swedish lady at the next table translated for me. The server went off to check what the problem was and reported back that the fish had been in the fridge one day too long. Horrors! She didn't charge for our coffee and gave us and our neighbours free aperitifs. But still this was the number one restaurant.

The next morning is was very dark and grey. We had breakfast on the front and ran into the bad service that the French used to have a reputation for. Basically, the server brought what she thought we ordered but she hadn't listened. How complicated can two cappuccinos, 2 croissants and one orange juice be. Even our French is up to that. This is something that we never encounter when we are in France. Once we had what we ordered we set off to explore the town.

If you close your eyes and think of old, tired looking seaside towns you will be picturing Biarritz. By now it was raining quite heavily but we walked along to the Eugenie Palace built by Napoleon III for his wife. Biarritz was the summer home to French, Russian and even British Royalty including Queen Victoria and Edward VII. We found our hotel and the restaurant prices expensive for what you got. To anyone thinking of visiting there I would suggest you go to San Sebastián, 20 kilometres down the road. It is much nicer, more fun, better food and much, much nicer beaches. It was a sandy beach in Biarritz but quite coarse sand.

We did walk around the old port, which is very tidal. When we were there all the boats were very low down on the wall but we could see that if we came at high tide the boats would be about fifteen feet higher. From here we climbed a hill to look over the coast. On our way back to the hotel we found some narrow streets lined with some interesting shops. Ryanair must fly here from Ireland, since they seemed to be filled with a lot of Irish families.

Early the next morning we headed off, glad to leave Biarritz. We didn't even have breakfast but stopped on the road. Thankfully, it was a much shorter day on the highway before our final destination, home.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Cape Finesterre, western-most point in Spain

Finisterre is the westernmost point in Spain and that's where we were headed. It was just over an hour's drive from Santiago de Compostela through green, hilly terrain. As we made our way comfortably in the car we passed many pilgrims making their way to Finisterre. Many who wish to go farther than Santiago complete this extra walk to the rock-bound peninsula on the west coast of Galicia. They make their way up the 238-metre Monto Facho, the mountain on Cape Finisterre.

We wandered around the Cape. There really wasn't a lot there other than a souvenir shop and restaurant, which looked very similar to the restaurant at Cap de Creus, on the easternmost point of the Iberian peninsula. Of course there was a prominent lighthouse. We looked out over the calm sea thinking that the next point of land was New York. Below us the pilgrims had left a variety of artefacts including several pairs of hiking boots.

It was lunchtime so we drove into the fishing village Finisterre. There were a number of restaurants right on the port. Two hake steaks and four boiled potatoes later, we were quite full. We hadn't done enough walking to justify the large portions. Once again we watched walkers meet and greet old friends from their trip along the Camino. Before returning to Santiago, we walked along the wharf as some smaller fishing boats came in to deliver their catch.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Rainy rooftop tour of cathedral best way to see Santiago

The day looked quite threatening with a dark, cloud-covered sky. We decided to do indoor things, with our first stop the Santiago Cathedral Museum housed in a vast building next to the cathedral. Here we saw how starting from a tomb, a cathedral was built and how a city grew around it. The museum's collection includes important archaeological exhibits, sculpture, painting, precious metalwork, tapestries, rugs, liturgical robes, ceramics and furniture. It is also home to the library, with its priceless volumes, numerous documents of paramount importance to the history of Galicia and, above all, to the Church in Santiago. The museum exhibits are arranged over various rooms. My favourite was the collection of tapestries with designs by Rubens, Bayeu and Goya. One of the rooms is dedicated to Goya himself, with twelve tapestries on display from the Royal Santa Bárbara Factory in Madrid. Two of them are the only ones of their kind.

After lunch we visited the archaeological excavations in the church’s subsoil. In these narrow spaces, previously accessible only to researchers, we saw the remains of what are supposed to be Roman baths as well as a Roman cemetery and a Suevian necropolis with dozens of tombs, complete with skeletons, as well as gravestones 13 to 19 centuries old. Unfortunately, the tour is only given in Spanish but the guide did translate some of the information for us. It was quite cold and damp in this spot underneath the cathedral; however it did warm our hearts, when the guide asked us if we were archeologists.

The last tour of the day for us was the roof of the cathedral. We had to meet for the English speaking tour at 6 o'clock. We came well prepared since the skies had opened and it was bucketing down. After waiting for a short while to see if the rain would let up — it didn't — we were on our way. We climbed up to the gallery overlooking the cathedral to admire a row of gigantes, the huge  papier mâché figures black, white and Asian paraded in many festivals in Spain. Someone mounts the gigantes on their shoulders and carries them through the town. Of course you can't see anything of the person under the gigantes. They represent lords and ladies or just regular townspeople. Gigantes of an old lady and a man smoking a horrible looking pipe are used to threaten misbehaving children.

We looked up at the many stonemasons' marks on the walls. Each stonemason would make his mark, where he had worked. The best stonemason's marks are the ones that are still etched deeply in the stone today.

Our climb continued and finally we arrived on the roof. The sensation of the wind and rain on our  faces, this elevated vantage point, the view… it left us speechless. It was easy to walk along the terraced granite roof, which wasn't slippery at all. First we looked out at the square where the pilgrims arrived. It was pretty empty in the rain. The bells are all automated today but we did see where the bell ringers lived right up until the 1960s, close to the bells so they could run across the roof to the tower at the bishop's bidding.

Most of the other people on the tour were Irish so they weren't too bothered by the heavy rain. I must admit it was lots of fun being up there in the bad weather. It was pointed out to is that the huge chimneys we saw on some of the houses we looked out on indicated the importance of the occupants. In the 1800s a huge, ornate facade, 1800 metres long and 3 metres wide was built in front to cover up the houses of the poor. Who wanted to look at them?

We looked across at a huge nunnery; nuns enter and are never allowed out again. Even today there is a slot, through which you put your money and receive back some St. James cake made by the nuns. There is a story of a pilgrim's shadow that can be seen at night on the bell tower. It is said that he is looking across at the nunnery that houses his lost love.

As we were leaving the rainy roof we looked up at the little gargoyles and religious figures but there tucked in the corner, almost out of sight, was a bare bottom. This was the mason's way of getting back at the church official that hadn't yet paid him.

Back in the church we stopped to listen to a nun singing a solo but now we were trapped in a mass and couldn't get out. There was a huge, immovable bar across the front door of the cathedral. This was the second time today this had happened. Fortunately, we still had our museum tickets so made our escape through the cathedral museum.

Back at the hotel we weren't surprised to see that we were soaked through. After a quick dry off, we went down to the hotel's cafeteria, which wasn't a cafeteria at all but a nice restaurant, to mingle with all the other guests watching the World Cup. A good ending to a busy day.

With the pilgrims in Santiago de Compostela

We arrived in Santiago de Compostela in the late afternoon. Our hotel began its life in the 18th century as a Franciscan monastery. In fact it still is a monastery. The monks decided to make the building into a hotel and use their profits to fund their charitable work with the homeless. As we were taken to our room we bumped into one of the remaining twelve monks in the elevator. In civvies and trainers, he certainly didn't look like my vision of a monk. The monks have their own section of the building that guests are free to visit, quietly. It was a lovely, peaceful building with huge spaces and courtyards.

After unpacking we walked the150 metres to the vast square in front of the giant Santiago de Compostela cathedral, reputed burial site of James, one of the apostles. This is usually the final destination of pilgrims completing the 800-kilometre Camino Real, by foot, bicycle or even by donkey. The traditional route is from France but there are other routes.

In Spain, France, and Portugal, pilgrim's hostels with beds in dormitories dot the common routes, providing overnight accommodation for pilgrims with a credencial. In Spain this type of accommodation is called a refugio or albergue, which usually costs between 6 and 10 euros per night per bed, although a few hostels known as donativos operate on voluntary donations. Pilgrims are usually limited to one night's accommodation and are expected to leave by eight in the morning to continue their pilgrimage. I know why I would never be doing this.

Most pilgrims carry a document called the credencial, purchased for a few euros from a Spanish tourist agency, a church on the route, or from their church back home. The credencial is a pass which gives access to the inexpensive, sometimes free, overnight accommodation. Also known as the "pilgrim's passport", the credencial is stamped with the official St. James stamp of each town or refugio at which the pilgrim has stayed. It provides pilgrims with a record of where they ate or slept, but also serves as proof to the Pilgrim's Office in Santiago that the journey was accomplished according to an official route. The stamped credencial is also necessary if the pilgrim wants to obtain a compostela, a certificate of completion of the Way.

To earn the compostela one needs to walk a minimum of 100 km or cycle at least 200 km. Pilgrims arriving in Santiago de Compostela who have walked at least the last 100 km, or cycled 200 km to get there (as indicated on their credencial), and who state that their motivation was at least partially religious are eligible for the compostela from the Pilgrim's Office in Santiago. At the Pilgrim's Office the credencial is examined for stamps and dates, and the pilgrim is asked to state whether the motivation in traveling the Camino was "religious", "religious and other", or "other". In the case of "religious" or "religious and other" a compostela is available; in the case of "other" there is a simpler certificate in Spanish. Back in the early days a scallop shell was awarded instead of a certificate.

It was lovely to watch the pilgrims arriving in front of the church. Some would just collapse and lie there. Others came in groups and you could see everyone's happiness at the accomplishment as they congratulated each other. There certainly was a real buzz about the place. We visited the ornate cathedral, which was packed with pilgrims and visitors queuing up to see the relic of St. James.

As we walked around the narrow pedestrian-only streets, we encountered people from all over the world. There were lots of restaurants and little shops that were all busy. I must say that I have never seen so many people limping around. Many people weren't dressed in usual evening attire but in their walking attire. Hiking boots ruled.

Friday, July 4, 2014

Luarca, a picture-perfect fishing port

In the morning we walked around the many plazas and wide streets of Bilbao’s main shopping area. The downtown was interesting but the stores were the usual shops found on the high street. It was time to hit the road once again. We drove along the coast admiring the white sand beaches and fishing villages. The countryside was becoming more mountainous with high rounded peaks that reminded us of Oregon. There were ferns everywhere and everything was very green. This is an area that is no stranger to rain.

Finally, we arrived at our destination, Luarca, a fishing port in Asturias. Friends of ours come from Luarca and other friends had suggested we visit as well. We knew that the villa we were staying at was above the town and well sign-posted, but it was like the old chestnut, where you “can't get there from here”. It was impossible to find. Eventually we arrived at a charming old villa with lovely Italian style gardens, just in time for the rain.

We returned to the town and had a walk around the narrow streets before opting to eat in a restaurant near our hotel. After watching the football match on their TV we called it a night.

The next morning we explored the town with its fishing fleet and some very old buildings. With the sun shining it was quite charming. For us it was another day back on the road as we headed towards our next destination, Santiago de Compostela.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

A visit to Bilbao's iconic art museum

We bid farewell to San Sebastián and headed along the coast stopping for lunch at  Lekeitio, a lovely fishing port with narrow cobbled streets. Luckily, we managed to get the last parking spot on the quay. Sitting outside at a restaurant having a lovely chilled glass of the local fruity white wine and eating grilled cod, we watched someone in big SUV come and parallel park behind our car. One of the passengers was guiding the SUV in, when it actually hit our little Fiat. Now this is a favourite trick of some French drivers to nudge their way into spaces by just moving the cars in front or behind them. I was out of my seat like a shot and confronted the idiot guiding the car in. He was very apologetic and claimed not to have seen the cars make contact. Good heavens we heard it and saw it from 30 feet away. Quel idiot! And I told him. In all fairness he did come and apologize to us again in the restaurant but really! Just before we finished our meal, the same men came back. This time a different man navigated the SUV out of the spot. We were safe this time as they hit the car behind instead. I had a laugh as the server started speaking to is in Italian rather than Spanish.

We continued up the coast passing beautiful, white sand beaches with very few people on them and more quaint seaside villages. Finally, we arrived at our destination, Bilbao and the Guggenheim. It was like walking around the Enterprise, very modern, very spaceship and a bit disorienting.

Starting on the top floor we wandered around the strange Yoko Ono exhibit Front and centre was a video of jiggling bottoms, some quite unattractive. The other artwork that sticks in my mind is two condoms half filled with water mounted on a board. I did go closer to check it was water and not some remnants of John. You never know. Many of the pieces dated back to the sixties.

 On the next floor was an exhibition of Georges Braque's work. Braque was a twentieth century artist famous for his collages, his role in developing cubism and landscapes. From there we walked over to a balcony and looked down to the permanent installations. My favourite was "A Matter of Time," seven huge sculptures made of gigantic pieces of steel. They ranged from a double ellipse to the one I liked best, the spiral, which we eventually walked around. It was like being in a very strange maze and gave me a feeling of being a bit lopsided.

We enjoyed the music video made by several people in a house in upstate New York. Each of the nine big screens showed one of the musicians playing his or her instrument in a different room, including one man in a bathtub playing his guitar. It was a fun exhibit. But by now the rain had started so we waited it out for a while in the little cafe enjoying the view of the giant floral cat outside the Guggenheim.

Dinnertime took us to a restaurant near the hotel. They must really eat late in Bilbao, since we were the only people there at 9 o'clock. However, one table of twelve women soon arrived followed by another table of eighteen. This was quite fascinating to us as one young fellow was dressed in a purple satin outfit with a few holes in it, a matching cowboy hat and a feather scarf. It looked like it was a family and friend affair but we couldn't figure out if this was a birthday party or maybe a "coming out" party. I wish we found out before we braved the elements to return to our hotel.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Sea, sun, sand and placards

The next morning we walked through the Old Town passing through the imposing Plaza de la Constitution. It is quite unusual in that all its balconies are numbered from when the square was used as a bullring and balconies were rented out to spectators. They have since been converted to apartments but the numbers remain as a colourful link to the past.

We arrived at our destination in the Old Port, the Naval Museum. San Sebastián was for centuries little more than a fishing village, but by 1174 it was granted self-governing status by the kingdom of Navarra for whom the bay was the principal outlet to the sea. Whale and cod fishing were the main occupations along with the export of Castilian products to European ports and then to the Americas. Years of knockabout trans-European conflicts included the razing of the city by Anglo-Portuguese forces during the Peninsular War.

We had fairly high expectations of the museum, which is housed in a mid eighteenth century consulate. The museum housed two floors of paintings showing the Basque sea heritage but that was it, no boats, no astrolabes and compasses, just the paintings.

As we were walking along the quay, a boat was just about to leave on a cruise of the bay so we decided to join it, partly to get some relief from the heat. It was enjoyable looking at the sites from the water and watching the teenagers on an end-of-school-year trip imagining they were on the Titanic.

After a pintxos lunch with lovely concoctions of Serrano ham, sausage, bright green padron peppers, shrimp, crab and eggs we headed to the beach to join the throngs on the sand. We followed in the footsteps of 19th-century Spanish royalty who came here to escape the searing heat of the southern mesas (tableland). We were fortunate in visiting at low tide, which left plenty of room for everyone on the beach. At high tide we would have been crammed into a narrow strip of sand. We had our first swim in the Bay of Biscay, getting battered around a bit in the sea.

Back in the hotel we heard signs of a demonstration and sure enough the street was a sea of Basque flags as people carried signs in favour of Spain becoming a republic. At the head of the march were likenesses of the royal family, King Juan Carlos in military uniform limping along on his cane; his son King Felipe, who just became king today, also in military uniform; Queen Sophia looking like a pantomime dame and the new Queen Letizia and the two children looking silly but not too bad. These challenges to the unpopular monarchy were held all over Spain today. Not an auspicious start to King Felipe's reign

In the evening we had dinner at a restaurant that was showing the England vs Uruguay soccer game. We arrived at the beginning of the game and managed to string out the whole meal to the end of the meal and the unfortunate end for England.