2018 Spain – Bilbao, Santiago, Madrid, Toledo and Segovia

After limping along St Patrick’s Way in Northern Ireland (see previous Post) I flew to Bilbao in Spain – though this trip was not without its difficulties either.

I don’t know what I’ve done to jinx travel arrangements in recent years – for example, the flight problems I had when trying to get from Jersey to Canada in 2016. Now, trying to fly from Ireland to Bilbao proved just as difficult and frustrating. For some reason the flight from Belfast to Gatwick was delayed, which meant I missed the connecting flight to Spain. Yet again, I had to stay overnight at the airport, then fill in an interminably long day until I could move on. Eventually arrived in Bilbao at around midnight – and then to the BnB at 1am. (An interesting BnB it was too … up 4 flights of dimly-lit stairs, onto a landing littered with toys and boots, into the main front room of the apartment filled with sleeping bodies, and at last into ‘my’ room which obviously belonged to a little girl – presumably one of the sleepers in the living room. I met the family next morning, along with other lodgers in the other children’s bedrooms. Mum is a single mum who makes a living letting out the rooms when she can. We all shared the small kitchen and bathroom and everything worked out well)

Anyway … at last I was in Bilbao. Seeing the Guggenheim had been on my bucket list for several years, so it was naturally my first port of call, though I did enjoy the walk along the River Nervion, past the big covered Ribera Market and the old buildings in the quarter (Casa Viejo) where I was staying.

The fantastic Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao

It’s hard to find words to describe the magnificent Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao. Designed by architect, Frank Gehry, the building is awe-inspiring … a huge sculpture-like structure on the riverside. Both the exterior and interior are jaw-droppingly gorgeous, and the art pieces inside and out just add to the wonder. There were several exhibitions available during my visit – one being huge, colourful woollen and fabric decorative sculptures hanging from every level, twisting and linking different points throughout the gallery.

I wish I could remember all the artists’ names – but all exhibitions were fantastic. Here are a few more photos of art on display:

At the top of the mountain

On my second day, I took the funicular railway up the mountain – a very steep ride. There’s a lovely park at the summit and great views over the city.

All too soon, it was time to leave this lovely city and take the train to Santiago de Compostela, with the faint hope of catching up with Ben at the end of his Camino.

SANTIAGO DE COMOPOSTELA September 2016

It felt very strange returning to Santiago by train – almost felt like cheating, particularly when I saw pilgrims everywhere who must have walked for weeks along one of the many Camino paths. At least I had a backpack and hiking shoes and I had recently completed St Patrick’s Way in Ireland, so I guess I blended in. But it was very different from my time here in 2012, when I walked into this beautiful city with Bob and Nicole, my true Camino buddies.

Santiago de Compostela

This time I was alone, as even Ben had been and gone. We’d had communication difficulties over the past week or two, mainly because he’d lost his phone somewhere along the Way. Also (I found out later) he’d arrived in Santiago over a week before me, but couldn’t afford to hang around waiting. He’d had a ticket to fly home from Lisbon, so he’d made his way down through Portugal and waited out his last days in Europe living on next to no money. Such a pity we didn’t connect.

I had time to fill before moving on to Madrid, so took the opportunity to do the bus trip to Muxia and Finisterre – something I hadn’t done in 2012. Many people walk on to Finisterre (‘the end of the world’) after completing their Camino in Santiago, but I had neither the time nor the energy to do any more kilometres on foot after the previous 6 weeks of walking across Spain.

Anyway the bus trip was great, in beautiful weather. The coastal scenery is stunning in that area and it was exceedingly pleasant to be seeing it from the comfort of an air-conditioned coach.

MADRID

It was 50 years since I was last in Madrid (back in the mid-60s in the old Kombi van!). Of course I didn’t remember a thing – but I was very impressed with the city this time. I’d taken the train from Santiago, so arrived at some huge long-distance train station and had to find my way into the central part. As always, with the help of a few kind people, I found my way onto the suburban train line and eventually discovered my pre-booked hotel, just a short stroll from Puerta del Sol, one of the busiest plazas in the city. Being Spain, of course everything was still swinging late at night … a really happy place with crowds, music, statues and lights.

Couldn’t have picked a better location to stay – and my small 2-star hotel was very comfortable. The following days were spent exploring the city – the galleries, the royal palace, the Plaza Mayor and all the little streets, bars, markets and shops nearby. I let go of my prejudices here and (somewhat reluctantly) took the Hop-On , Hop-Off bus to make my way around the city. It was very hot, and the galleries etc were sometimes several blocks or more apart, so it served a purpose …. but I still didn’t like being on a bus filled with noisy tourists.

Royal Palace, Madrid

Madrid is full of treasures – one really needs weeks to savour it all. I visited the Prado (of course) and stared at Picasso’s Guernica for a long while, along with thousands of other artworks in this magnificent museum. Also explored the Royal Palace and the Reina Sofia gallery, but I think I only covered the tip of the iceberg in terms of all the art collections in this city.

TOLEDO

I was keen to see more of Spain, so made two short trips (a couple of days each) to Toledo and Segovia – both less than an hour’s train ride away. Toledo, the old walled city high on the hill, is another wonderful UNESCO World Heritage site. In particular, the Cathedral and the narrow, winding lanes of the Casco Historica (Old Town) make Toledo well worth a visit. There are hundreds of historic sites – palaces, churches, convents, synagogues and mosques. The city is also the home of the artist El Greco, and his paintings adorn many of the buildings and galleries.

The Cathedral is magnificent. Built in the 13th century, it’s one of the most important Christian landmarks in Spain. It’s kind of hidden away in the maze of little streets and other tall buildings, but once you find it and go inside it’s an enormous, soaring space with rich decorations and beautiful stained glass windows.

Also well worth a visit is the old Synagogue. Built in the 14th century, it’s been described somewhere as “the most important example of Sephardic (Jewish-Spanish) architecture in existence”. There’s a superb ceiling, as well as beautifully decorated walls and Moorish decorations, and a little museum of information about the Sephardic Jews.

The best way to see many of the splendours of Toledo is to take the little train that tours the old city and goes outside the city walls to take in the view across the valley. From the viewing point, you see the towering walls, the old palaces, the huge ancient monastery and the beautiful natural scenery of the hills and valleys all around.

Holy Toledo

Toledo is famous for arts and crafts, particularly gold and silver work – mainly knives and swords. There are shops full of them. I wasn’t tempted … and can’t imagine how anyone living outside of Spain could get items like this across borders anyway. Being so close to Madrid, Toledo is heavily tourist-infested, but I’m very glad I went – and would go again if the chance ever happens.

SEGOVIA

Another fascinating small city and yet another UNESCO World Heritage site… Seogiva is completely dominated by the enormous 2000-year old Roman aquaduct that towers above the main Plaza Azoguejo, and winds its way up and around the old part of town. It has 160 arches, and is built of huge granite blocks. It’s one of the largest and best-preserved aquaducts in the world. It originally carried water from a river quite a distance away …. and apparently is still able to carry water. It’s possible to climb a stairway near the aquaduct to get great views and photos from above.

Like Toledo, Segovia has an ancient castle, city walls and gates, an old Jewish quarter, churches and museums …. as well as attractive shops, cafes and restaurants. I wandered around just absorbing the atmosphere, stopping occasionally for a glass of wine or an ice-cream.

I’d also happened to arrive in Segovia just in time of the Ham Festival! The Spaniards love their ham and regard the whole process of manufacturing, serving and eating it very highly. Sliced wafer-thin, it really is a delicacy … but I never expected to see a whole festival dedicated to it. There were displays of different types of ham (presumably from different types of pigs) and competitions for butchers and waiters in the presentation of it. This all took place in the big square under the aquaduct, with an accompaniment of local bands. Best part was being able to sample small morsels of this tasty treat.

A SMALL PALACE OUTSIDE SEGOVIA (where? I forget … .)

The palace somewhere near Segovia

I’d planned to take a short bus trip out to Avila, not far from Segovia …. but forgot it was Sunday! The weekend timetable was different, of course, so I missed the only morning bus. Checked other timetables and found I could get to and from another nearby town with time to visit the local palace. (I’m writing this much later than when I was there and have completely forgotten the name of the place …. can’t find it on Google either). Turned out to be a pleasant day spent wandering around the small town and through the palace parks and gardens. The shops were lovely too… it seemed quite an upper-crust sort of place….. and I ended up buying a dress and a red leather purse!

Back in Segovia, I felt almost ‘at home’ … but had to return to Madrid next day in time to get the flight home to Oz.

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