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.