Archive for October, 2016
Our walking holiday in Rioja ended after breakfast on Friday 7th October. But then Part 2 of our trip began – visiting four very different cities that we’d never been to before.
On this trip we sometimes overlapped with places we’d been last year, when we were following the route taken by Ian’s father after crossing the Pyrenees into Spain during the second world war. On our first bus journey – from Bilbao to Haro – we passed close to Miranda de Ebro, where Pa was imprisoned. The first city we visited on this trip was Logroño, which we passed through last year when we went by train from Zaragoza to Miranda. Pa’s train stopped there too, and there was a change of guards. But neither he nor we went into the city.
We found it a pleasant place, attractive if not terribly exciting. It is on the Camino de Santiago, and we saw pilgrims passing through, as well as places set up to provide them with food, accommodation and general assistance. We visited the museum, the cathedral and three other city churches; we walked around the town, along the main street and through the main square, passing several fountains and the remains of the city walls. We walked along the river, past the various bridges that cross the Ebro. For old time’s sake, we visited the railway station, even though we had arrived by taxi and were leaving by bus.
Next stop was Burgos; our train had stopped here too last year, but the station is some way out of the city, so we’d not seen anything of the town. It was a real treat! By comparison with the small villages we’d been walking through, Logroño had seemed a big city, but Burgos was much bigger and more touristy. Even though it is on the Camino, there were fewer pilgrims around, but many more tourists – and it was easy to see why. On the short walk from the bus station, our first glimpse of the city gate and the cathedral towers made us gasp in amazement. The massive cathedral dwarfed the one at Logroño, and dominates the city in which it stands.
The interior of the cathedral was equally impressive. Some chapels cannot be entered without a guide, but a fairly quick canter round the others took us well over an hour. And although we cannot claim that all of the artwork was entirely to our taste, the overall design was staggering – as was the amount of detail in each individual element.
We visited the church of St Nicolas, near the cathedral, where we admired a painting of the Last Judgement, and sat with many others watching a shaft of early evening sun climb up the retablo (just missing the BVM’s face). Next day we walked up to the castle, just above the cathedral, and got some great views looking down on the city.
Our short time in Burgos was packed, but we managed to visit two monasteries outside of the city itself. First was the Monasterio de las Huelgas, founded by Eleanor of England and the location of several royal weddings and burials. The downside for us was that no photos were allowed, and you had to go on a tour, with a guide whose very fast Spanish was incomprehensible to us.
We preferred the Cartuja de Miraflores, where we could look round and take photos as we wished. It was some distance outside the town, so we took a taxi there and had a pleasant walk back along the river.
Salamanca was a long way from the other cities on our tour, but it was one we’d always wanted to visit, so it was worth a substantial detour – and much easier than making a separate trip. If Logroño was Pilgrim City, and Burgos Tourist City, Salamanca was definitely Student City. The university there was founded in 1218, and rapidly became one of the most prestigious in Europe. It is possible to visit the old university buildings, and see where lectures used to take place, as well as some halls which are still in use today.
And of course, in Salamanca there were more cathedrals and churches to visit. The new cathedral was build alongside the old one, and the latter is accessed from inside the former. We preferred the atmosphere of the Old Cathedral, with its colourful wall paintings.
By then we’d had enough of religious art, but we enjoyed a visit to the Conventu de las Dueñas, wandering round the beautiful cloisters, where every column had a different carving of grotesque and fabulous creatures. We also walked round to cross the old Roman bridge, and went up the twin towers of the Clerecia Jesuit college.
According to our guidebook, ‘Salamanca’s main square stands out as the most harmonious plaza in Spain’. It is certainly very beautiful, and we were fortunate in our choice of accommodation. The room was basic, the water was barely warm – but our balcony looked directly out onto the square. There are restaurants on all sides, with (we estimated) about 500 tables in total, and it is a beautiful place to sit. While in Salamanca we celebrated our 46th wedding anniversary. We chose to have dinner at a café we’d discovered a short walk away, as they had an unusually great selection of vegetarian options. But before dinner, we had a bottle of bubbly in the square, and more drinks afterwards – perfect!
On Tuesday 11th October we arrived back in Bilbao, where our trip began eight days earlier. During that time we’d had lots of sun, and some very cold winds, but thankfully no rain. However, we’d been warned that Bilbao was known as the rainy city, and our experience helped us to understand why! It didn’t rain all the time, but between the showers it was cloudy and dull.
Bilbao is of course in the middle of the Basque country, and is famous for the Guggenheim Museum; the architecture is certainly striking, but we were not terribly impressed with the contents. Modern art is not really our thing – although Sandie got in trouble with Ian by laughing hysterically at the pretentious waffle that accompanies some of the exhibits.
A building we liked was a former wine storage warehouse, converted into a leisure and cultural centre. On the ground floor there are lots of squat pillars, some painted, each decorated with an individual design. Bilbao is surrounded by hills; we took a funicular up one of them, and managed to get some good shots of the city with even a faint glimmer of sun.
Bilbao Old Town is small, and there is little of interest to see, unless you count the elaborate theatre situated by the river, on the edge of the old town. So two days in the city was quite enough, and we were not sorry to fly home on Thursday evening.
On Monday 3rd October we took an early morning flight to Bilbao (north-west Spain), to begin our walking holiday. On arrival, we went through the passport control channel for EU citizens, and wondered sadly how long we’ll be able to do that.
We’d never been to Bilbao before, but were impressed by our first views of the city. The weather – warm and sunny – probably helped! We had three hours to wait before our bus to Haro, but could find nowhere to leave our luggage. So we established ‘base camp’ in a pavement café near the bus station, and took it in turns to have a preliminary stroll around the city. We shall spend longer there at the end of this trip.
Haro is an attractive town, bigger than we expected, with some picturesque buildings that looked beautiful in the late afternoon sun. We had the first wine tasting of our trip, and enjoyed the quirky architecture (Disney meets Swiss chateau) as well as the produce. Later we had dinner (also included in the tour) at a local restaurant: good atmosphere, and they coped well with our dietary requests. We had four courses, a bottle of red and two glasses of white: hard work, but somehow we managed to struggle through.
Haro to Abalos
Before setting off on our official walk, we had a large breakfast, another stroll around Haro, and another wine tasting. This comprised a full glass of cava and generous samples of five other wines. We were beginning to think that this would be a staggering holiday, rather than a walking one.
The weather was surprisingly dull and murky at first, but later the sun came through and it was bright and sunny for the rest of the day. We walked a total of 17+ kilometres, mainly on dirt roads, passing though fields and fields of vines. We saw grapes ready for harvesting, and had no doubt where our Rioja came from! With a stop for coffee, and one for cold drinks, we arrived in Abalos around 6.30pm. Our accommodation was on a vineyard, some way out of the village, and soon after arriving we had yet another wine tasting. The vineyard did not provide food, so we had to return to the village for dinner, but the kind owner gave us a lift both ways.
Abalos to Laguardia
Today was our longest walk (20+ km) but as breakfast was not until 9am, we could not make an early start. Unfortunately the directions were not clear, and we wasted a lot of time trying to find the right route. After asking directions several times, we finally found our way to the village of Villabuena de Alava, much later than expected. We had coffee at the strangely designed Hotel Viura (a series of concrete blocks), and continued on our way.
Again, we had problems with the directions, and ended up walking along a minor road. We reached a village, and were relieved to discover it was Elciego, where we were booked for lunch at 2.30. It was past 3 when we arrived, but nobody seemed to mind. We had a nice 3-course veggie meal, with bread, coffee and of course a bottle of Rioja.
On leaving Elciego we at first took the wrong direction, and had to retrace our steps. After that the path was clear, although it did not quite correspond to our instructions. We could see the village of Laguardia from some distance, so we knew we were on the right track, but when we arrived we had a steep climb up to the village centre and our hotel. Having had a large late lunch, we were satisfied with tapas tonight.
Laguardia to Azofra
We thought today would be more straightforward. First appointment was for a 10am tour at a winery just below the town, which is situated on a hill. We could see the winery down below, and estimated that we could walk there in ten minutes. So we set off at 9.45, along a road that seemed to lead directly there. It did lead to the winery – but not to the entrance. We had to walk miles around the edge of the vineyards before we could actually find a way inside. So we arrived 20 mins late – but fortunately they had started the tour only a few minutes before, and we were able to join in.
After the tour (and of course, the tasting) we were collected by a car and taken to Santo Domingo de la Calzada, where (after a brief visit to the cathedral) we were to begin the day’s walk.
Santo Domingo is on the Camino de Santiago de Compostela, and most of today’s walk followed the camino – but in the opposite direction. We passed a continuous stream of pilgrims, all obviously wondering why we were going the wrong way! We walked through rolling hills, but with no signs of any vines which seemed strange after the past couple of days.
In the village of Cirueña, we hoped for a bar but found none. However, back on the camino we passed a golf club, and discovered that the restaurant and bar were open to non-members, so we were able to have a snack lunch sitting in the sun. On the latter part of the camino we saw some vineyards, so felt more at home! Finally we reached the village of Azofra, our base for the night. It was a small village, but fortunately a bar close to our hotel provided excellent (and amazingly cheap) food and drinks.
After a long delay (20 days after we were meant to hear), we finally learned that we were not successful in our bid for the project in Cambodia. Naturally we were gutted – more so because the feedback on our bid made us feel we had been treated unfairly in many ways.
The period since the last blog post therefore divides into two: the ongoing hiatus in our lives while waiting to hear but couldn’t make any plans, and the few days since when we’ve been frantically making plans in the knowledge we won’t be going to Cambodia.
Our main activity during this period was going out for walks of different lengths. We had both bought ourselves new hiking boots, and wanted to make sure they were well broken in before (possibly) doing a walking holiday. We therefore planned a carefully graded series of hikes of increasing length in the neighbourhood of Wycombe:
- 3 miles through Burnham Beeches (cut short by rain)
- 5 miles from the Dog and Badger at Medmenham, including Hambleden Mill and a walk along the Thames
- 7 miles to Hazlemere (finding a nice new pub) and back via Loudwater
- 10 miles including Downley, West Wycombe, Bradenham and Hughenden Manor.
After all that, we reckon the boots are definitely ready for anything! We also managed to attend the Marlow Folk Dance Club twice in September, once walking along the Thames from Bourne End.
Another day we made an excursion to Oxford by bus, and spent a pleasant day exploring the city, home to the second best university in the country.
Back in planning mode
Now that our life is no longer on hold, we have been busy planning for the rest of the year. We aim to return to Sarasota early in November, but before that have booked and organised a trip to Spain, including a short walking holiday in the Rioja region, where Ian’s favourite wine comes from (just a coincidence). We were delighted that the company were able to book us in at very short notice, so we fly to Bilbao to start the trip next Monday (3rd October).
Today we did our final training walk, five miles with our friend Caroline from Lane End and back. The rest of the day was spent getting ready to go. More news in our next blog post.