Visiting Montserrat, Spain: Spectacular Site and Views

Montserrat, Spain is host to a Benedictine abbey (Santa Maria de Montserrat) that sits grandly at around 4,000 ft of altitude.  Its name literally translates to “serrated mountain” – which is appropriate as it is a jagged-topped mountain that rises up the Catalonian landscape.  It is an amazing site for several reasons.  For the faithful, it is home to the Virgin of Montserrat (the “black virgin”).  For the hiker, it is a neat place to trek up – and not a hard hike.  And for the traveler, it is a great destination offering great views, great architecture, cultural perspective, and a thrill just to get up to it!

Montserrat, Montserrate, Spain, Cataluña, Catalan, catholic, black virgin, mountain, travel

View upon exiting the railway station

 

Some History on Montserrat (but not too much!)

The monastery atop Montserrat has been around since the 10th century – it is still a functioning monastery.  It is absolutely mind boggling to me to think it has been there over a thousand years!  (I even read that it has been an important religious site since Roman times before Christ.). St. Ignatius of Loyola came to this site to pray/contemplate and, eventually, went on to found the Jesuit order in the Catholic Church.  Most recently the monastery suffered closure during the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s and the killing of 22 of its monks (lots of religious were killed by the Communist side of the Civil War).  The basilica itself is not that old and has suffered through wars and fires.  The basilica has a museum with art work that includes the likes of Picasso, Dali, and El Greco.  The statue of the black virgin that sits above and behind the main altar of the basilica is supposedly from Holy Land origins in the early days of Christianity though others believe it was carved many centuries later (Middle Ages).

Getting to Montserrat

Montserrat is easily accessible whether you have a car or you take a train from Barcelona.

If you are driving, you are basically headed to Monistrol de Montserrat.  We came from Andorra via Lleida and it was easy to find though at the very end, exactly how to get to our destination took a little more guesswork…  If you are coming from Barcelona, well, it is just about 45 minutes away.

Once there, your options for parking are parking up at the monastery (parking is limited and it is not free), or parking by one of the two railway stations.  Where you park is really based on how you want to go up.  As I mentioned, you can drive up.  You can also hike up if you are so inclined; I did not hike up but hear the trail round trip is about 20km and the trail is relatively easy and fairly ‘stepped.’

Montserrat, Montserrate, Spain, Cataluña, Catalan, catholic, Cremallera, mountain, travel

At Monistrol-Vila railway station’s parking area – notice the mural showing the ascent and the mountaintop!

Now if you don’t want to drive up or walk up, then you have two options:  the cable car (or “Aeri”) or the inclined railway (“Cremallera“).  They both are easy ways to go up but you need to decide before you get there as each is taken from a different point around the area.  Both the cable car and railway have frequent departures which vary depending on the season you visit – schedules are posted online and at the stations.

If you take the train in from Barcelona, you will arrive at the lower station, Monistrol de Montserratu, where you can take the railway.  If you drive, you can opt to drive a little further up and park at the railway station Monistrol-Vila; there was open parking for buses and a parking deck for the rest of us.  We opted to start at Monistrol-Vila as there was ample free parking, and the station was clean and new.  If you do use this station, remember that on the way down, you get off at the first stop of the railway!

Montserrat, Montserrate, Spain, Cataluña, Catalan, catholic, Cremallera, mountain, travel

At the railway station

We opted for the railway as we had heard that it allows more time to absorb the scenic views (the cable car only takes 5 mins whereas the railway takes between 15-20 mins) and it is pretty amazing to climb the slopes of the mountain via the train.  The train is very comfortable and the views were indeed great.  The cost was around 10 euros for the round trip.   Note that there are packages you can get for entrance to the museum, audio guides, etc.

Montserrat, Montserrate, Spain, Cataluña, Catalan, catholic, Cremallera, mountain, travel, view, vista

Looking down towards Monistrol de Montserrat from the Cremallera

Montserrat, Montserrate, Spain, Cataluña, Catalan, catholic, Cremallera, mountain, travel

Heading up the Cremallera, a small green train can be seen on its way down

Montserrat, Montserrate, Spain, Cataluña, Catalan, catholic, Cremallera, mountain, travel

My Mom not realizing the down train was about to pass us!

Montserrat, Montserrate, Spain, Cataluña, Catalan, catholic, Cremallera, mountain, travel

The Cremallera railway station atop Montserrat to the right

It is worth noting that one can go even higher up the mountain via a second funicular (Funicular de Sant Joan) located behind the railway station atop Montserrat!  It does not take long but, again, we were pressed for time so I had to skip that, regretfully.

Montserrat, Montserrate, Spain, Cataluña, Catalan, catholic, Cremallera, mountain, travel

A second funicular can take you to the highest point in Montserrat

My research showed there were a couple of places to stay on the mountain but I did not look into it.  I do imagine it is a spectacular place to stay and watch the sun set and rise…

Visiting the basilica and the Virgin of Montserrat

Once you get up, everything atop Montserrat is in close proximity.  There is some slope to walk up towards the basilica and monastery complex but it is a nice short walk.   When you leave the railway station, you can go straight up some steps into the walkway up, or you can make a left and avoid the steps and walk up an incline; this last approach passes a little market shop and a small cafe in case you need to eat or drink something.

Montserrat, Montserrate, Spain, Cataluña, Catalan, catholic, monastery, mountain, travel

Walking up towards the monastery and basilica (there are restrooms in this alley)

Along the way up, you will pass the museum and one of the places of lodging.  And then you enter the area they call the “atrium.”  It is a large plaza with some arches that afford views down towards the railway station and way beyond.  At that point, the basilica/monastery complex is in front of you but to see the facade of the basilica, you need to enter through some arches into a small inner courtyard.

Montserrat, Montserrate, Spain, Cataluña, Catalan, catholic, basilica, monastery,, mountain, travel, atrium

At the so-called “atrium” – a plaza with great views

Montserrat, Montserrate, Spain, Cataluña, Catalan, catholic, mountain, travel

Turning around with the basilica/monastery behind me

When we entered that courtyard, we saw a bride and groom who were about to get married.  Thankfully, the event did not close the visit to see the Virgin of Montserrat (also called the black virgin due to the color of the paint applied to it over centuries).

Montserrat, Montserrate, Spain, Cataluña, catholic, basilica, facade, mountain, travel

The entranceway towards the basilica facade

Montserrat, Montserrate, Spain, Cataluña, catholic, basilica, facade, mountain, travel

Inner courtyard of the Montserrat basilica

Montserrat, Montserrate, Spain, Cataluña, catholic, basilica, facade, mountain, travel

Detail of the basilica’s facade

The interior of the basilica felt heavy and dark to me but not so much to be drab.  If there were no tourists, I would definitely feel like I could calm my soul and pray in peace.

Montserrat, Montserrate, Spain, Cataluña, catholic, basilica, facade, travel

Heavy Gothic feel to the interior of the basilica

Montserrat, Montserrate, Spain, Cataluña, catholic, basilica, facade, travel

A rather darkish yet gold-heavy interior

The statue of the virgin sits in a narrow passageway above the high altar.  You can see it from anywhere in the church (you can see someone in a blue jacket above the altar in some of my pictures; how convenient for my photo-taking!) but to visit it face-to-face, you stand in line in the inner courtyard off to the right and you proceed along the side chapels of the basilica, up several stairs and, eventually a very narrow staircase  to individually get to see, touch and pray to the Virgin.  Photos are not allowed once by the statue (there is a guard) but I took a photo at the bottom of the steps so you can visualize the space at least.

Montserrat, Montserrate, Spain, Cataluña, catholic, basilica, facade, mountain, travel

The statue of the Virgin with a faithful wearing a blue jacket

Montserrat, Montserrate, Spain, Cataluña, catholic, basilica, facade, travel

Left: Initial staircase up. Right: the final steps and the statue at the top

As throughout the rest of the trip around Spain and France, I felt blessed to be able to come to this important Catholic site following our visit to Lourdes atop an amazing mountain in Spain with my wonderful mother and sister!!  Thanks for coming with me!

Montserrat, Montserrate, Spain, Cataluña, catholic, ilivetotravel, monastery, abbey,, mountain, travel

With my Mom and sister


Pin this to your travel board!

Montserrat, Montserrate, Spain, Cataluña, Catalan, catholic, basilica, monastery,, mountain, travel, atrium

20 Images of La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona

La Sagrada Familia, the grandiose basilica (mostly) designed by Antoni Gaudi, has become the symbol of Barcelona, and that’s not a stretch by any means:  both have been growing and evolving over the decades.  And, for La Sagrada Familia, at least, that journey will end in the next decade (target: 2026) as it is expected to be finished by the end.  Gaudi’s masterpiece needs no introduction, though perhaps some background info could not hurt.  There is no justice I can do both to its story and to how it looks and feels in person.  So this post is meant to deliver, as well as photos can, eye-candy on this masterpiece of architecture, construction, and faith…

Barcelona, La Sagrada Familia, basilica, iglesia, church, Catholic, spire, Spain, Catalunya, Espana, Passion façade ,

West side of the basilica (Passion façade side)

Backdrop on La Sagrada Familia

Gaudi was brought in to complete the design of the basilica early on in the project (a year into the project).  He continued working on it until his death in 1926 (hence targeting 2026 as the year for its completion) but, at the time he died, the basilica was only a fifth to a quarter done.  Initially, there had been opposition to it but certainly it has become iconic, almost legendary.  Its construction has been slow because it was funded through donations, and the Spanish Civil War also disrupted the effort in the 1930s.  To me, it is a marvel of imagination and creativity.  It would not surprise me to hear someone say it is ‘too much.’  But despite its eclectic designs/features, it feels elegant, not overwhelming.  If it were not for the tourists meandering and talking, it could be -more importantly- a place for contemplation or quiet prayer.  I sure hope there are/will be times when it will be closed to tours/visits though I do not know how they really could control people going in to pray versus to admire (read, gawk) the building and snap photos endlessly… like I did!!  #confession

The basilica’s design

Gaudi’s designs were lost in a fire though some of the designs were re-constructable from other artifacts available that captured what Gaudi was planning.  However, that does not mean that what we see today is exactly Gaudi’s vision:  other architects over the decades have left their imprint on the design as the work progresses and new techniques/technologies have become available.  It is hard to imagine, for example, that Gaudi could have laid out the lighting design given how much illumination know-how and technology have changed since the first quarter of the 20th century…  I am no architect, no designer, no artist but below is my layman’s recollection of the plan of the basilica and some opinions…

The spires (towers) of La Sagrada Familia

The general concept of the design includes an array of spires or towers:  a high tower representing Jesus Christ and four secondary towers representing each of the evangelists (John, Mark, Matthew and Luke) and another for the Virgin Mary.  The remaining spires will represent the twelve apostles.

Barcelona, La Sagrada Familia, basilica, iglesia, church, Catholic, spire, Spain, Catalunya, Espana

Two of the 18 spires of the basilica – Hosanna Excelsis

The three façades of La Sagrada Familia

The basilica has or will have three large façades:  the Nativity, the Passion, and the Glory.  This latter one is to be the most grandiose of the three and is currently under construction.  Its completion will require the demolition of the building block that faces it across the street as it will have a large staircase leading up to it but, no worries, people knew these were the plans since early on, probably before current residents were born!

Barcelona, La Sagrada Familia, basilica, iglesia, church, Catholic, spire, Spain, Catalunya, Espana, Glory façade

Looking to the main façade under construction: Glory

The Nativity façade was the first one built and it was completed in Gaudi’s time so it is most connected to his vision.  The façade struck me as very connected with nature, with animals and floral type of arrangements noticeable; the scene is both peaceful and elaborate.  Of course, the Holy Family is at the center of it.

Barcelona, La Sagrada Familia, basilica, iglesia, church, Catholic, spire, Spain, Catalunya, Espana, Nativity façade

Detail of the Nativity façade showing the Holy Family

Barcelona, La Sagrada Familia, basilica, iglesia, church, Catholic, spire, Spain, Catalunya, Espana, Nativity façade

Detail of the Nativity façade, stepping back a little. Angels can be seen around the Holy Family

Barcelona, La Sagrada Familia, basilica, iglesia, church, Catholic, spire, Spain, Catalunya, Espana, Nativity façade

Upper portion of the Nativity façade

Barcelona, La Sagrada Familia, basilica, iglesia, church, Catholic, spire, Spain, Catalunya, Espana, Nativity façade

Another angle of the Nativity façade

The Passion façade definitely conveys sadness and angst, as the Passion of Christ would instill:  the figures are angular and emoting their feelings on stone in a sparsely decorated space – brilliant and moving, and a clear contrast to the Nativity façade.

Barcelona, La Sagrada Familia, basilica, iglesia, church, Catholic, spire, Spain, Catalunya, Espana, Passion façade

The Passion façade

Barcelona, La Sagrada Familia, basilica, iglesia, church, Catholic, spire, Spain, Catalunya, Espana, Passion façade

Detail of the upper part of the Passion façade – the words “Nazarean Rex” can be seen

Barcelona, La Sagrada Familia, basilica, iglesia, church, Catholic, spire, Spain, Catalunya, Espana, Passion façade ,

Detail of the Passion façade – deep sorrow on that stone face!

Barcelona, La Sagrada Familia, basilica, iglesia, church, Catholic, spire, Spain, Catalunya, Espana, Passion façade

Detail of the Passion façade – Jesus tied as he was lashed

Barcelona, La Sagrada Familia, basilica, iglesia, church, Catholic, spire, Spain, Catalunya, Espana, Passion façade

Detail of the Passion façade – carrying the cross on the right, and the shroud on the left

Barcelona, La Sagrada Familia, basilica, iglesia, church, Catholic, spire, Spain, Catalunya, Espana, Passion façade ,

Detail of the Passion façade

The basilica’s grand interior – behold!

The inside of the basilica cleverly plays on light.  On the west side of the interior, with red and associated colors created by the stained glass on the side of the Passion façade.  On the opposite side across the aisle, are the greens and blues that feel cooler and happier:  the side of the Nativity façade.  The columns seem to fly up to hold the roof of the sanctuary and feel like trees holding up a canopy.  And, it takes effort to notice but the shape of the columns evolves as the column rises:  a square base may morph to a circular cross-section after passing through an octagon shape, for example.  To me, the highest ceiling is a visual contrast with its modern feel versus the traditional walls at the end of the apses/naves with their big stained glass windows and other more traditional motifs.

Barcelona, La Sagrada Familia, basilica, iglesia, church, Catholic, spire, Spain, Catalunya, Espana, column

Nativity side with its greens and blues

Barcelona, La Sagrada Familia, basilica, iglesia, church, Catholic, spire, Spain, Catalunya, Espana, column

Columns remembering the evangelists Luke and Mark, 2 of the 4 main columns

Barcelona, La Sagrada Familia, basilica, iglesia, church, Catholic, spire, Spain, Catalunya, Espana, column

Strong as a tree trunk!

Looking up reveals an impressively designed, symmetric and yet not overwhelming ceiling…

Barcelona, La Sagrada Familia, basilica, iglesia, church, Catholic, spire, Spain, Catalunya, Espana, column

Looking up at the ceiling – amazing! Notice the contrast to the wall on the right

Barcelona, La Sagrada Familia, basilica, iglesia, church, Catholic, spire, Spain, Catalunya, Espana, column

Detail of the main ceiling

Finally, the altar is simple in the extreme – a sharp contrast to the ceiling and side walls of the basilica.  The space feels cavernous by the height of the ceiling, the long tree-like columns and the emptiness in the altar area.  But that cavernous feeling is counter-balanced with the colors and light that is cleverly used in opposition (or, at least, I assume the opposition was planned for…) around the outer walls.

Barcelona, La Sagrada Familia, basilica, iglesia, church, Catholic, spire, Spain, Catalunya, Espana, column, main altar

The main altar – extreme simplicity is a sharp contrast to the rest of it all!

 

Nanoblock Sagrada Familia – I enjoyed putting one of these together!
sagrada familia, nanoblock

How to visit La Sagrada Familia

There are several ways to visit and several things to see in La Sagrada Familia.  From a basic unguided entry ticket at 15 euros (as of this writing), to an audio-guided visit for 22 euros, to going all the way to the top for 29 euros, there is a price point and scope of visit for everyone.  Sadly, going up was not available the day I visited so I was deprived of the experience of going up and taking in the views from above.  However, we did do a pre-purchased guided tour through a local tour agency located across the square from the basilica which secured us an entry time, a guide (in Spanish in our case since it was easier for my Mom), and avoiding any lines to enter the basilica.  The tour included visiting the basement of the basilica which has several exhibits.  One of the most interesting items is the exhibit which shows hanging chains which upside-down show the structure of the basilica as it elliptical or curvy inner structures are well modeled by gravity.  I may not be explaining this well but it is a clever tool for the architect.  In any case, the basement also shows photos of the basilica being built over the decades – all fascinating stuff.  Dedicate time to this visit and soak it all in!

Barcelona, La Sagrada Familia, basilica, iglesia, church, Catholic, spire, Spain, Catalunya, Espana, Passion façade ,

Looking up at the Passion façade


Pin this to your travel board!

Barcelona, La Sagrada Familia, basilica, iglesia, church, Catholic, spire, Spain, Catalunya, Espana, Passion façade ,

Barcelona. Sagrada Familia, Gaudi. church, iglesia, basilica

In Search of Andraka in Spain’s Beautiful Basque Country

One of the reasons for my recent trip to Spain, as I shared in an earlier post, was to see the ancestral lands of my Mom’s family in the Basque region of Spain (Euskal Herria in Basque).  My Mom’s last name (Andraca, in Spanish) is the name of a home that existed a long time ago where the family originated near Bilbao, Spain in the province called Bizkaia (or Vizcaya or Biscay).  We wanted to see the place but it was only one of many places we had in our roughly-sketched family tree (which also included the neighboring province of Guipuzkoa).  So, since we were not going to just one place, we decided to take a full day and just drive around these two provinces and take in the landscape of Spain’s Basque country…

All the towns in our Basque country…

Our family tree shows a lot of ancestors coming from the provinces of Bizkaia and Guipuzkoa, two of the Basque region’s provinces.  Many of their last names are the names of villages or towns spread about these provinces.  And, when not, we know which towns they came from.  Places like Bergara, Gorliz, Lekeitio, Ondarroa, Azpeitia, Azkoitia, and others feature prominently in our family history.  We definitely would not be able to hit each and everyone one of these due to time limitations and would only stop at a few even if we passed by them.  But it is not like we would have discovered unknown cousins (first, second or even fourth) – our ancestor who came from Spain to Cuba got to Cuba in 1800 so too far in the past for any real connection with living descendants of his own ancestors…

Zarautz – Beach town

We left San Sebastian, our base for a couple of days, and headed west following more or less the coast.  We had no set plans of where we would stop along the way.  One of the first places we passed caught our eye and we decided to see if we could find parking and get out and walk around some.  This place was Zarautz, a beach town of about 20,000 15km (9 mi) west of San Sebastian, that felt like a very livable place, not just a beach town for visitors.  (The town connects to San Sebastian and Bilbao by train so even if one is not driving there, one can get there on public transport.)

Euskal Herria, Basque, Spain, Espana, Zarautz, Andraka, Bizkaia, Vizcaya, Guipuzkoa, driving, Bay of Biscay, Samsung Galalxy S7

The beach

Euskal Herria, Basque, Spain, Espana, Zarautz, Andraka, Bizkaia, Vizcaya, Guipuzkoa, driving, Bay of Biscay, Samsung Galalxy S7

West end of the beach

The beach was long (I read it is about 2.8 km long; the longest in that coastline) and we could certainly see how it would be an appealing tourist destination.  The beach was not packed and it may be that it was likely already the end of the season (but finding street parking was impossible still!).  We sat in the plaza above the underground parking deck and looked out at the beach and ocean.  My Mom, uncle and I decided to walk down to get our feet wet by the waters of the Bay of Biscay as maybe our ancestors did somewhere up or down that coast many centuries ago…

Euskal Herria, Basque, Spain, Espana, Zarautz, Andraka, Bizkaia, Vizcaya, Guipuzkoa, driving, Bay of Biscay, Samsung Galalxy S7

Mom and uncle walking to the water!

Euskal Herria, Basque, Spain, Espana, Zarautz, Andraka, Bizkaia, Vizcaya, Guipuzkoa, driving, Bay of Biscay, Samsung Galalxy S7

16th century Palacio de Narros from the beach

Euskal Herria, Basque, Spain, Espana, Zarautz, Andraka, Bizkaia, Vizcaya, Guipuzkoa, driving, Bay of Biscay, Samsung Galalxy S7

Conveniently located to wash one’s feet after stepping on the beach

Euskal Herria, Basque, Spain, Espana, Zarautz, Andraka, Bizkaia, Vizcaya, Guipuzkoa, driving, Bay of Biscay, Samsung Galalxy S7

My sis and uncle enjoying the view

More Basque coastline

We both reluctantly and eagerly got back in the car.  Zarautz was worth staying but we had a key objective for the day ahead…  We drove from Zarautz past Getaria (another great-looking coastal town) and, somewhere around Zumaia, turned inland on the road.  It was disappointing to leave the beautiful coast because, as you can see, it was beautiful.

Euskal Herria, Basque, Spain, Espana, Zarautz, Andraka, Bizkaia, Vizcaya, Guipuzkoa, driving, Bay of Biscay, Samsung Galalxy S7

Yet another great beach west of Zarautz by Getaria

Euskal Herria, Basque, Spain, Espana, Zarautz, Andraka, Bizkaia, Vizcaya, Guipuzkoa, driving, Bay of Biscay, Samsung Galalxy S7

Nice curvy road bordering hills that face the water

Euskal Herria, Basque, Spain, Espana, Zarautz, Andraka, Bizkaia, Vizcaya, Guipuzkoa, driving, Bay of Biscay, Samsung Galalxy S7

Basque coastline beauty!

A phenomenal Basque lunch

We kept driving and after a failed attempt to reach Lekeitio (there was some festival that weekend with all roads leading to it blocked of – very disappointing as it was high on our list), we went inland.  And hunger was hitting… During a routine bathroom stop at a local bar in the town of Ereño (between Lekeitio and Bermeo but inland), my Mom came and told us the place had a restaurant and it had customers (my cardinal rule is to never go into an empty restaurant in an unknown town…).  The place was cozy, on the ground level of a 2- or 3-story building (can’t recall).  It was Restaurante Jatetxea Atxoste.

Euskal Herria, Basque, Spain, Espana, Zarautz, Andraka, Bizkaia, Vizcaya, Guipuzkoa, driving, Bay of Biscay, Samsung Galalxy S7

The place we had lunch at in Ereño

It was SUPERB.  The thing I liked the most is the one I did not take a picture of:  the fresh cod sauteed with spinach.  It would be the single most delicious dish I had in the entire trip!  But captured for posterity were the red beans and the rice pudding which were excellent.

Euskal Herria, Basque, Spain, Espana, Zarautz, Andraka, Bizkaia, Vizcaya, Guipuzkoa, driving, Bay of Biscay, Samsung Galalxy S7

Rice pudding dessert

Euskal Herria, Basque, Spain, Espana, Zarautz, Andraka, Bizkaia, Vizcaya, Guipuzkoa, driving, Bay of Biscay, Samsung Galalxy S7, food, red beans

The red beans – I could just have ate them all!

I always prefer the small mom-and-pop places where, though service may not be stellar, the food typically is.  Great find, Mom!!

Driving through history:  Guernica

After lunch, on our way to Andraka, we made it a point to drive through the town of Guernica which suffered a massive air attack during Spain’s Civil War in 1937 by Nazi Germany, a bombing that lasted about 2 hours.  Picasso captured the pain and horror of that moment in history in a famous painting named after the town.  There is a mural in the town center matching the painting.  We did not plan to get out of the car but I did snap a quick side photo of the mural…

Guernica, Spanish Civil War, Basque, Spain, Gernika, bombing

The mural

Guerica, Gernika, Pabo Picasso, Guerra Civil, Spanish Civil War, Spain

Guernica by Pablo Picasso

The main event:  Andraka

Andraka is not a town by my definition; not even a village, just some homes laying around (a few under construction) and a restaurant right by the road.  But it has the typical European signs announcing the ‘town’ and letting you know when are leaving the ‘town.’  If there was an original home from over 200 years ago that could have been our ancestros’, we did not see it; and that really didn’t matter that much to us.  After a quick walk around an old, abandoned house and snapping a couple of pix by signs that said “Andraka,” we got back in the car and continued on our drive, satisfied we had gotten to that area of Bizkaia where the last name Andraca originated for our family…

Andraka, Bizkaia, Basque, Vizcaya, hamlet, ancestors, family history, Spain, travel

How the area of Andraka looks

Andraka, Bizkaia, Basque, Vizcaya, hamlet, ancestors, family history, Spain, travel

The old home taken over by vegetation

Andraka, Bizkaia, Basque, Vizcaya, hamlet, ancestors, family history, Spain, travel

My uncle

Andraka, Bizkaia, Basque, Vizcaya, hamlet, ancestors, family history, Spain, travel

Mom, sister and yours truly

A truly unique and fun experience to have shared with loved ones!


Drive the amazing Basque coast!  Pin this to your travel board!

Basque, coast, coastline, vasco, Bilbao, San Sebastian, Spain, España

 

Biarritz: The Pearl of France’s Basque Country

There are places that are semi-legendary in your mind.  And when you visit them, they live up to that vision.  And sometimes they don’t.  Biarritz, France is not a place I knew a lot about but I did have an impression that it was for the rich and famous.  Its location, in the southwestern corner of France abutting Spain (just 22 miles from the border!) facing the Bay of Biscay, seems ideal with warmer climate and perhaps not the throngs of partying tourists that the Mediterranean coasts can attract.  It sits in the Basque region of France and is home to 20-30-odd thousand residents.

So, as we went from San Sebastian, Spain to Lourdes, France this past September, we decided to stop along the way.  It was not a long drive but we wanted an easygoing day.  As I looked at the map, I realized there were several neat towns along the coast and inland (like Bayonne).  As I talked to my Mom, she shared how she, when she was a girl, would read a novel with her best friend that took place partly in Biarritz and how they always daydreamed about Biarritz.  That settled it for me:  Biarritz would be our stop!

Our visit was short.  A walk around the shopping district after a meandering drive into town. Biarritz, France, Hotel, travel, photo, francia, euskadi Biarritz, France, Hotel, travel, photo, francia, euskadi Biarritz, France, Hotel, travel, photo, francia, euskadi Biarritz, France, Hotel, travel, photo, francia, euskadi Biarritz, France, Hotel, travel, photo, francia, euskadi Biarritz, France, Hotel, travel, photo, francia, euskadi Biarritz, France, Hotel, travel, photo, francia, euskadi Biarritz, France, Hotel, travel, photo, francia, euskadi

Biarritz, France, Hotel, travel, photo, francia, euskadi

Saint-Eugenie Church

 

Biarritz’ place on the coast certainly offers beautiful vistas and spots to take in the views – or get on a boat and see the city from the water (which I wish we could have done!).Biarritz, France, Hotel, travel, photo, francia, euskadi Biarritz, France, Hotel, travel, photo, francia, euskadi Biarritz, France, Hotel, travel, photo, francia, euskadi

And then, we just picked a place on the beach (the ‘Grande Plage’ – or great beach) to have lunch -not because it had the look of a great establishment, but simply because of the view out and the fact that we would sit in open air enjoying the great weather that day.

Biarritz, France, casino, Grand Plage, playa, beach,, travel, photo, francia, euskadi

We ate at a cafe off to the right

Biarritz, France, casino, Grand Plage, playa, beach,, travel, photo, francia, euskadi

The Grande Plage (big beach) of Biarritz

Biarritz most distinctive or massively impressive structure is the Hotel du Palais (of which, unfortunately, I took the picture split by a lighting pole…) built in the mid-1800s by the wife of Napoleon III.

Biarritz, France, Hotel, travel, photo, francia, euskadi

Hotel du Palais – and the pole in the middle of the photo

So, I can’t share much about Biarritz, its history or all the ins-and-outs of what to do and see.  But, if like my Mom, you have wondered what Biarritz looks like, I hope this post checks that off your list!

Biarritz, France, Hotel, travel, photo, francia, euskadi

With my beautiful mom and sister!!

Biarritz, France, casino, Grand Plage, playa, beach,, travel, photo, francia, euskadi

My sister!!!

Biarritz, France, casino, Grand Plage, playa, beach,, travel, photo, francia, euskadi

The teenager in the Biarritz of her dreams! It was about my mom that day!!

Eskilstuna: A Brief Stop in Industrial Sweden

A year ago, I went to Sweden and got to explore a few different places.  Part of the visit was drive into the countryside (starting and ending in Stockholm while circling Lake Mälaren) with the only planned stop on the way back was Uppsala, a charming college town not far from Stockholm.  But around lunchtime as we drove west of Stockholm on the E-20 highway, we decided to jump off the highway and find a place to eat in what seemed a large town in the area:  Eskilstuna.

I will be the first to admit that I had never heard of this town.  Not surprisingly for a non-Swede, I suppose.  It has over 65,000 inhabitants (so larger by 2.5 times than Andorra’s capital which I recently visited!).  The history of the town takes it back when an English monk named Eskil made the existing tiny town his home.  It felt a very industrial town but it was not dirty.  We passed a Volvo plant of some sort in getting there.

Its main square was pretty and very spacious but, at the time, I did not see any “café” life.

Eskilstuna, Södermanland County, Sweden, Sverige

The main square of Eskilstuna

Eskilstuna, Södermanland County, Sweden, Sverige

Looking out onto the square

However, we did find a great pizza shop (Redfellas)  on the main square after exploring first the pedestrian shopping street in the heart of the town.  Not a quaint or charming street, just a regular shopping street.  I could see Redfellas being very lively at night given its spaciousness and decor; sadly, I was not staying intown overnight.

Eskilstuna, Södermanland County, Sweden, Sverige

The old building where Redfellas is located

Eskilstuna, Södermanland County, Sweden, Sverige

At Redfellas

The town’s church, Klosters Kyrka, dating from the 1920s, certainly looked a little different than the ones I am used to and that made it interesting but we skipped checking it out as we were wanting to keep moving on our day trip.

Eskilstuna, Södermanland County, Sweden, Sverige

Looking towards Klosters Kyrka (Church)

Eskilstuna may not be a tourist destination but it was an opportunity to see beyond the well-trodden places in Sweden and peek at a “non-descript” (pardon me, Eskilstunians!) town.


Pin to your travel board!

Eskilstuna, Södermanland County, Sweden, Sverige


 

 

Making a Pilgrimage to Lourdes, France

Lourdes, France – a major Catholic pilgrimage destination – is a one-of-a-kind kind of place.  For me, that is for two good reasons:

  1. It is the site where the Virgin Mary appeared to young Bernadette, a country girl with no education but a lot of faith.
  2. My mother and sister are both named after that site, where the “Virgin of Lourdes” appeared to Bernadette.

    grotto, Lourdes, France, Virgin Mary, miracle, Catholic, apparition, faith, Marian pilgrimage

    The lower and upper basilicas from the Information Center

I suspect both my mom and sister have always wondered if they would ever go to that town in the foothills of the French Pyrenees.  Wouldn’t you want to go to the town where your name came from or is related to?  In their case, maybe more than just for the curiosity of being namesakes with the town but also on account of what happened there in the mid 19th century.

The apparition happened multiple times and the local clergy had initially been skeptical but, over time, became convinced of the validity of what Bernadette shared.  I will leave to other sources to explain the whole story but the Virgin Mary appeared to Bernadette on a grotto near the river.  Out of these events, water sprung from the site and waters of Lourdes are, to believers, holy waters.  People from all over the world come seeking healing or just a spiritual encounter.  Many drink the waters from the spring, bottle some to take home, or even immerse themselves in special pools set up near the grotto (we did all three).

grotto, Lourdes, France, Virgin Mary, miracle, Catholic, apparition, faith, Marian pilgrimage

The grotto

grotto, Lourdes, France, Virgin Mary, miracle, Catholic, apparition, faith, Marian pilgrimage, holy waters

Fountains where bottles can be filled

When we first arrived in Lourdes from San Sebastian via Biarritz and Bayonne, I was expecting the narrow streets, crowded and me driving this larger vehicle through it all.  I knew I was near the hotel, the Grand Hotel Gallia & Londres, which I had picked due to its proximity to the Sanctuary of Lourdes to make all the walking to and fro easier for everyone, when all of a sudden I saw a parking sign for it, not where the GPS was indicating I needed to go.  Miraculously (pardon the pun), I caught a passing glimpse of the sign before I would have hit the heart of the crowded part of town!

grotto, Lourdes, France, Virgin Mary, miracle, Catholic, apparition, faith, Marian pilgrimage

The back of our hotel

grotto, Lourdes, France, Virgin Mary, miracle, Catholic, apparition, faith, Marian pilgrimage

Right outside of the Sanctuary – tourist shop chaos

The hotel was in the old style of a grand hotel.  It was nice enough but, unfortunately, the A/C was not working on our floor.  Hard to tell with French hotels whether they are just being stingy or whether it was true.  Certainly, at night the air cooled enough to be comfortable in the room but the noise from the street did not subside until the very wee hours of the morning – not the faithful partying, I am sure.  So that made the hotel not perfect.  But other than that, it did the job nicely enough.

We had dinner before heading in the early evening to the Sanctuary, the site with the grotto and several churches/basilicas, almost across the street from the hotel.  We knew there would be a torchlight procession at 9PM where the Holy Rosary is recited but we did not quite know the ‘mechanics’ of it.  So we sat on a bench to wait and what we missed was that we were supposed to walk towards the grotto and join the procession line.  But we witnessed the procession which brought a statue of the Virgin to the front steps of the Rosary Basilica (the lower one; the upper one that one sees more evidently is the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception, or the Upper Basilica).  In the meantime, we did walk to the grotto for our first visit to the spot where the apparition took place.  The line was very short and it was always moving so it did not take long before we got to visit and say our prayers and intentions…

grotto, Lourdes, France, Virgin Mary, miracle, Catholic, apparition, faith, Marian pilgrimage

The front of the lower basilica during the torchlight procession

grotto, Lourdes, France, Virgin Mary, miracle, Catholic, apparition, faith, Marian pilgrimage

Grotto at night

grotto, Lourdes, France, Virgin Mary, miracle, Catholic, apparition, faith, Marian pilgrimage

Statue of the Virgin carried during the torchlight procession

The next day, we had found out at the information center (located by one of the entrances to the complex) that there would be a Spanish Mass at 11 AM down the Esplanade at St. Joseph’s Chapel.  After attending that Mass we went into the underground Basilica of St. Pius X, a massive modern space completed in 1958 (it can hold 25,000 folk!).  I am not sure it is the type of church I feel most spiritual in but I suppose there is a need for it in this site?

grotto, Lourdes, France, Virgin Mary, miracle, Catholic, apparition, faith, Marian pilgrimage

Information Center

grotto, Lourdes, France, Virgin Mary, miracle, Catholic, apparition, faith, Marian pilgrimage

The Basilica of St. Pius X

grotto, Lourdes, France, Virgin Mary, miracle, Catholic, apparition, faith, Marian pilgrimage

The lower and upper basilicas from across the Esplanade

We finished our exploring by visiting the Rosary Basilica and the Upper Basilica.  After that we went to the baths (or piscines) where one can immerse him- or herself in the holy spring waters.  One waits in an outdoor area (with plenty of seats!) and then eventually one gets called in to a vestibule awaiting the assignment of to one of the pools, where one will undress and be wrapped as preparation to walking into the pool.  The water was absolutely frigid so the miracle may be that I was able to walk out of the pool and that my legs regained normal body temperature!  All joking aside, it was a very moving experience and we are grateful to the kind and helpful volunteers who give of themselves to help pilgrims…

grotto, Lourdes, France, Virgin Mary, miracle, Catholic, apparition, faith, Marian pilgrimage

Detail of the facade of the lower basilica

grotto, Lourdes, France, Virgin Mary, miracle, Catholic, apparition, faith, Marian pilgrimage

The inside of the lower basilica

grotto, Lourdes, France, Virgin Mary, miracle, Catholic, apparition, faith, Marian pilgrimage

Looking towards the Esplanade from the Upper Basilica

grotto, Lourdes, France, Virgin Mary, miracle, Catholic, apparition, faith, Marian pilgrimage

Entrance to the baths or piscines

grotto, Lourdes, France, Virgin Mary, miracle, Catholic, apparition, faith, Marian pilgrimage

Amazing to see all the people helping the sick, or malade, move around

Witnessing so many people wearing their faith ‘on their sleeve’ was powerful.  Our trip was actually not just due to curiosity, or even strictly to see a place where an important event in our faith took place.  Our trip was a real pilgrimage of thanksgiving and prayer for continued health in my family after a year-and-a-half of dealing with cancer…  The grotto and the holy waters of Lourdes carry a very special meaning for us, even more now that we have been so fortunate to visit this place…

 


Pin to your travel board!!

Lourdes, France, Catholic, pilgrimage, peregrinaje, Francia, Bernadette

Andorra: The Last of the Tiny Ones

I wrote earlier this year about my visit to tiny Liechtenstein, second to last of the small European countries left for me to step foot on.  Nestled between Switzerland and Austria, it is protected by mountains which helps explain perhaps why it survived as an entity over the centuries.  Well, 2017 was the year to close the book of the small European countries for me:  I got to visit Andorra in September!

Andorra is a strange political entity – technically, a principality.  And oddly, without a royal family…  As Liechtenstein, it is nestled in mountains between two other countries.  In Andorra’s case, Spain and France.  It is an old place – first chartered over 1,000 years ago and the current version of it (i.e., the principality) created in 1278.  Back then, there were two co-princes:  a count from Spain and a count from France.  Well, the French side of things changed over time to just be the President of France whereas the Spanish side evolved to be the Bishop of Urgell, a Spanish town not far from the border with Andorra.  [An interesting factoid:  Andorra declared war against Imperial Germany in World War I but, somehow, it was left off the peace treaty ending that war so it remained at a state of war until 1958 (well past even World War II!) – awkward…]

In any case, we drove into Andorra on our way from Lourdes, France to Barcelona, Spain.  The approach through the Pyrenees from the French side was a beautiful, long ride through small rural towns and mountains.  We entered Andorra without a good spot to stop and get a picture with a “Welcome to Andorra” sign (or the equivalent…) – unlike Liechtenstein where I got to take that obligatory, cheesy pic.

France, Pyrenees, Andorra, drive, driving, Europe, travel, turismo, photo

Typical French tiny (and pretty lifeless) town near the border with Andorra

France, Pyrenees, Andorra, drive, driving, Europe, travel, turismo, photo

Pretty cool tunneling

In any case, the roads were really good and we noticed that while on mountains, one could see long, gradual slopes on some of the mountains around us.  I learned later there are a lot of lakes and trails in the 181 square miles that make up this country making it a great place to hike and enjoy the outdoors.  Or ski in the winter; ski tourism being a key income earner for the tiny country.

Pyrenees, Andorra, drive, driving, Europe, travel, turismo, photo, mountains

Beautiful mountain landscapes

We approached Andorra’s capital, Andorra la Vella after passing a couple of smaller towns.  (Andorra la Vella has about 24,000 inhabitants to give you a sense of scale).  It felt very modern and it sits right by a river valley between mountains.  Great spot!

architecture, Andorra la Vella, Pyrenees, Andorra, drive, driving, Europe, travel, turismo, photo

In Andorra, near Andorra la Vella

architecture, Andorra la Vella, Pyrenees, Andorra, drive, driving, Europe, travel, turismo, photo

You kind of see where the capital lays in this photo (OK, almost…)

We stayed close to the oldest part of Andorra la Vella, at the Andorra Center Hotel.  I figured at least we could walk easily to the old buildings while being close to the main shopping streets and good restaurants (that I found in TripAdvisor).  We were very close to St. Stephen’s Church (finished in the 12th century) and to Casa de la Vall (a home from the 1580s that is now home to the General Council of Andorra). We meandered the older small side streets (not a large area) and then also walked the shopping streets in the area.  Except…

architecture, Andorra la Vella, Pyrenees, Andorra, drive, driving, Europe, travel, turismo, photo, flag

My Mom, sister and I posing near St. Stephen’s church

architecture, Andorra la Vella, Pyrenees, Andorra, drive, driving, Europe, travel, turismo, photo, water fountain

Water fountain

architecture, Andorra la Vella, Pyrenees, Andorra, drive, driving, Europe, travel, turismo, photo, Casa de la Vall

Casa de la Vall

architecture, Andorra la Vella, Pyrenees, Andorra, drive, driving, Europe, travel, turismo, photo

Federal government offices next to Casa de la Vall

Andorra la Vella, Pyrenees, Andorra, drive, driving, Europe, travel, turismo, photo

Mom and uncle posing for me by Casa de la Vall

Except…  We noticed the streets were largely lifeless, empty.  Everything was closed.  We assumed it was siesta time and, hence, why everything was closed.  We learned when we got back to the hotel that it was Andorra’s national day and EVERYTHING was closed.  I mean, even the hotel’s little store!  Those restaurants which I had researched ahead of time were all closed.  These folks take their national day seriously but, yet, there were no festivities to be witnessed, no people just hanging outdoors either – very odd…

architecture, bridge, puente, Andorra la Vella, Pyrenees, Andorra, drive, driving, Europe, travel, turismo, photo

Curious bridge (empty road)

architecture, Andorra la Vella, Pyrenees, Andorra, drive, driving, Europe, travel, turismo, photo

Around Andorra la Vella’s commercial district (empty)

architecture, Andorra la Vella, Pyrenees, Andorra, drive, driving, Europe, travel, turismo, photo, architecture

“Skyscraper” (empty?)

So, after walking around the old part of town, we ended up back at the hotel’s buffet restaurant since there were no other options.  We were going to leave the next morning early to head to Montserrat, Spain and then Barcelona so we had no time to spare in this tiny country.  While I was glad to check off Andorra from my list and now have a good visual of what it looks like (topographically and architecturally), I am bummed at the sheer bad luck (what are the odds??!!) and the lack of anything going on on a national holiday (at least seeing some local celebrations would have been cool).

Perhaps I need to return in winter to enjoy skiing with a bunch of visiting skiers?

San Sebastian, Spain: Of Charm and Food

As I mentioned in my earlier post, one of the goals of our trip to Spain was to visit the lands from which some of my Mom’s ancestors came to Cuba.  San Sebastian (or “Donostia” in the local language), in Spain’s Basque country, was perfectly situated to serve as our base to explore before heading out to Lourdes, France.  But San Sebastian itself was a destination!

Old Town, Casco Viejo, San Sebastian, Donostia, Euskadi, Basque, Spain, España, travel, viaje, exploring, photo

San Sebastian!

San Sebastian:  charm by the sea

I had always heard about the great cuisine coming out of San Sebastian so it became a key stop at the onset of our trip.  We would stay there two nights, with the day in between being our day to explore the towns and hamlets from which the ancestors came.  That gave us one full afternoon to explore the heart of San Sebastian – and two nights!

It seems it was peak vacation time in early September, which was a bit unexpected, so there were no good hotels close to the famous La Concha Beach or near the Old Town.  However, I was not disappointed with the hotel I found, not even a mile from the old town:  Hotel Astoria.  The hotel’s theme revolved around famous movie actors and directors and had a very modern design.  It was located on a quiet street and had both a full restaurant and a cafe in the lobby.  We did not try the restaurant but did enjoy the cafe for our breakfasts.

Luckily not only were we close to Old Town but it was not hard to find (underground) parking right by the Hotel Maria Cristina or across the river by the Kursaal Center.   Old Town (or Casco Viejo) is the second oldest neighborhood in the city and it is full of bars and eateries – clearly the teeming social center of this great city!

Kursaal, San Sebastian, Donostia, Spain, Basque, travel, exploring, photo

The Kursaal Center (has underground public parking)

When we first visited Old Town, we headed first to the waterfront to check out the beautiful waters of the Mar Cantábrico, or Bay of Biscay after a quick snack and trying a “carajillo,” coffee with liquor (rum, brandy or anything of the sort!).

San Sebastian, Donostia, Euskadi, Basque, Spain, España, travel, viaje, exploring, sea, blue, photo

Beautiful waters surround San Sebastian

San Sebastian, Donostia, Euskadi, Basque, Spain, España, travel, viaje, exploring, sea, blue, photo

Must be some good fish in those waters!

carajillo, coffee, cafe, San Sebastian, Donostia, Spain, Basque, travel, exploring, photo

Carajillo

La Concha, beach, San Sebastian, Donostia, Euskadi, Basque, Spain, España, travel, viaje, exploring, photo

La Concha Beach in the background

La Concha, beach, San Sebastian, Donostia, Euskadi, Basque, Spain, España, travel, viaje, exploring, photo

Bikes a great way to move around

We saw some neat churches (San Vicente, which was closed, and the Basilica of Saint Mary of the Chorus, which charged for entrance so we skipped it).  Lots of neat structures and charming narrow streets all around.

Old Town, San Sebastian, Donostia, Euskadi, Basque, Spain, España, travel, viaje, exploring, photo

Narrow street in Old Town

Old Town, Casco Viejo, San Sebastian, Donostia, Euskadi, Basque, Spain, España, travel, viaje, exploring, photo

Entering Old Town from the river

Old Town, Casco Viejo, San Sebastian, Donostia, Euskadi, Basque, Spain, España, travel, viaje, exploring, photo

Buildings in Old Town

Old Town, Casco Viejo, San Sebastian, Donostia, Euskadi, Basque, Spain, España, travel, viaje, exploring, photo

Lots of character in this balcony

Old Town, Casco Viejo, San Sebastian, Donostia, Euskadi, Basque, Spain, España, travel, viaje, exploring, photo

Streets of Old Town

Plaza Constitucion, La Concha, beach, San Sebastian, Donostia, Euskadi, Basque, Spain, España, travel, viaje, exploring, photo

At Plaza Constitucion

Old Town, Casco Viejo, San Sebastian, Donostia, Euskadi, Basque, Spain, España, travel, viaje, exploring, photo

Neat sights – walking “aimlessly” is the best way to explore!

On to the food in San Sebastian: pintxos

Back in Old Town, we meandered through narrow streets.  Kalea (Calle) 31 de Agosto had many eateries offering the famous “pintxos” (like tapas).  We tried pintxos here and there as we kept exploring this part of town which is full of character.  We made it to the other side from which we had a glimpse of La Concha Beach and the rest of the same-named bay.

A distinguished gent (my uncle!) waiting to order while a distinguished lady (my sister) awaits

pintxos, tapas, San Sebastian, Donostia, Euskadi, Basque, travel, exploring, photo

Pintxos

A phenomenal meal in San Sebastian can be heavenly

And, as we meandered through the old town, we ran into the restaurant we had made reservations for for the following evening.  As I researched San Sebastian, one of my areas of focus was food.  I wanted to find one of the restaurants that make San Sebastian’s cuisine so well regarded.  After looking at a few places, I settled on Bodegón Alejandro.  Coincidentally, my uncle had done research and had read an article on the newspaper that also mentioned Bodegón Alejandro.  So, that was the place and, luckily, making reservations was super easy:  their website allowed for making them online!

Part of Bodegón Alejandro’s menu

croquetas, croquettes, Bodegon Alejandro, San Sebastian, Michelin, Donostia, food, foodie, travel, turismo, photo

Delicious croquetas were one of our starters

postre, dessert,chocolate, souffle, Bodegon Alejandro, San Sebastian, Michelin, Donostia, food, foodie, travel, turismo, photo

Dessert – phenomenal chocolate soufflé

postre, dessert,, Bodegon Alejandro, San Sebastian, Michelin, Donostia, food, foodie, travel, turismo, photo

Another dessert – torrija with ice cream

The charm of San Sebastian did not only reside in its waters or in the old town – it was a beautiful and livable town all around.  I would love to spend a few months residing there and enjoying this northern Basque city – and maybe with my wonderful travel companions!

San Sebastian, Donostia, Euskadi, Basque, Spain, España, travel, viaje, exploring, sea, blue, photo

Sister, Mom, and Uncle!


If you are planning a trip to Spain, pin this to your travel board!

San Sebastian, Spain, España, food, foodie, travel, Basque, Euskadi, pais vasco

Exploring France and Spain around the Pyrenees

My recent trip to Europe was centered on exploring a bit of Spain and France around the Pyrenees which serve as a natural border between these two countries.  I wanted to write this introductory post to the trip’s writings as the trip combined a few different objectives that neatly came together into a one-week trip.

Delta One, travel, ilivetotravel, Delta, first class

There is only one way to travel, especially with loved ones!

My mother and sister are both named after the Virgin of Lourdes who appeared to a peasant girl named Bernadette in a grotto near the town of Lourdes in the 1850s.  It has always been a dream to go visit this place that was so prominent in their lives given the tie to their name.  But, we also wanted to go to Lourdes as a religious pilgrimage to such a special place for us Catholics.  We wanted to go in thanksgiving for good health after illnesses suffered, and as prayer for continued health.

Delta One, travel, ilivetotravel, Delta, first class

Two Lourdes!

Another personal goal for me and everyone in the larger family is to visit ancestral lands in the Basque country of Spain.  These are not terribly far from Lourdes (about 3 hrs drive) so I saw the opportunity to connect these two destinations in one trip.  The specific towns were our ancestors came from (they left Spain for Cuba at the turn of the century near the year 1800) lay along the coast between San Sebastian and Bilbao, and inland from there with some ancestors coming from just west of modern Bilbao.  Ii had also always wanted to visit San Sebastian as I heard it had some of the most phenomenal cuisine in Europe.  Bilbao is an hour from San Sebastian, give or take, so flying into the larger airport at Bilbao made the most sense.  There we would rent a car that would take us around the Basque country and later to Lourdes.

Bilbao, airport, tunnel, modern, white, travel, Spain, photo

At the Bilbao airport headed to get our car

While getting to Lourdes from San Sebastian would take so little time, we decided to be sure to stop along the way or drive through small French towns that are easily accessible on the route.  We drove through charming Saint-Jean-de-Luz, stopped for a walk and lunch at Biarritz, and drove through impressive Bayonne (wish we had had more time to stay there and explore!).  Biarritz was a place my mom and her best friend growing up had always dreamed of so that was a bonus!

Bayonne, France, Europe, travel, photo

At the edge of the pedestrian streets of Bayonne’s city center

After Lourdes, the most logical end points if we were not going to backtrack, were Toulouse, France or Barcelona, Spain.  Well, that was an easy decision.  I had been to Barcelona for the 1992 Olympics for three days but, really, was too focused on the Games to get to know the city (plus, I was sure it had changed!).  My mom has been to Barcelona decades ago but my sister had never been.  So Barcelona became the end point for the trip which, very conveniently, allowed me to drive through Andorra, the last of the tiny European countries for me to visit…  We split the drive from Lourdes to Barcelona by staying overnight in Andorra (which may have been a mistake, but who knew – stay tuned for that post!).  This allowed us, on the way to Barcelona, to stop at Montserrat to visit the monastery nested atop a mountain and accessible by cable car or train.

crossword puzzle

I always look forward to crossword puzzles on long flights

This plan sounded so good that my mom’s only brother opted to join us in this adventure.  Next came resolving the plane tickets to get there.  My uncle was headed there from Philly so he worked his itinerary separately.  My mom and sister, coming from Tampa, would naturally fly through Atlanta.  I had saved many miles with the local monster airline hoping to someday to do a fun trip with family and decided to go all in.  I lucked out in finding three seats in first class from Atlanta to Bilbao via Paris, and from Barcelona back to Atlanta on dates that would work for everyone.  My mom and sister got to do first class all the way from Tampa and back so no one was unhappy with the travel comforts!

Montserrat, train, Spain, travelers, photo

The four travelers awaiting the train in Montserrat

Once in Bilbao, we picked up a car.  I had under-estimated the trunk capacity and, though the four of us did very well in bringing a small roller bag each, I needed to upgrade the vehicle.  Unfortunately, the next level up was not available which meant I had to upgrade two levels with no goodwill from the rental company (I will name it for its lack of spirit:  Sixt).  This cost me dearly but, considering the plane tickets were free, and that this was a special trip, well, no regrets and all the way onward-and-forward!  The plan was to return the vehicle when we arrived in Barcelona as we figured we did not need there and I figured I would be tired of driving a large vehicle in Europe (it was a BMW X1).  I was glad to get rid of it, much as it was a great vehicle to drive!

BMW, X1, white, comfort, travel

Our wheels in Europe

 

In terms of accommodations, we hoteled it everywhere except in Barcelona where we rented an apartment a block from Las Ramblas – prime location!  The owner, Carlos, was phenomenal and the apartment was spacious, comfortable and as-advertised (if anyone needs to find this apartment, just reach out and I can share).

So in the end this was the itinerary:

  • Day 1:  Arrival in Bilbao and head to San Sebastian
  • Day 2:  Drive the Basque countryside and visit ancestral lands anchored on the town of Andraka
  • Day 3:  Depart San Sebastian and head to Lourdes with a stop in Biarritz
  • Day 4:  Spend the day in Lourdes
  • Day 5:  Drive through the beautiful Pyrenees and explore Andorra la Vella in the afternoon/evening
  • Day 6:  Head to Barcelona with a stop in Montserrat, Spain
  • Day 7:  Explore Barcelona
  • Day 8:  Explore Barcelona some more
  • Day 9:  Head home!

I have to say that we packed a lot into 8 days but it was well worth it.  We had a mixture of lots of walking, lots of enjoying the food and resting, and just happy to be together going to all these special places.  Hope we get to do it again – salud!

champagne, ilivetotravel, Delta, Delta One, first class, luxury, comfort

Salud!


Skiing and Après-Skiing in Lech, Austria

Ahh, summertime… perfect time to reminisce about, what else?  Winter!  Yes, the warm, humid days of the Atlanta summer make me long for winter…  (Well, I have to say that it is not like we are in the midst of a heat wave (we are under 90F still) but a little drama doesn’t hurt when writing the intro for this post, right?)

So, in this post, I want to share of my time this past February skiing in Lech, in the Vorarlberg region of Austria – its westernmost region.  I have skied in Utah, Colorado, the Chilean Andes but had not skied in the Alps – an item in my bucket list.  I needed that to change and the opportunity arose to ski in Austria with a college friend.  After some research and word-of-mouth feedback, Lech seemed a great spot to check out, on the high-end of skiing towns in western Austria.

Driving to Lech

Driving into Lech from tiny Liechtenstein (where we had stopped on the way from Munich – a slight detour), the scenery along the S16 highway was amazing – trees and slopes covered with fresh snow.  The drive was not too long (2-3 hrs perhaps?) and soon enough we left the highway to get to Lech via Stuben and Zürs.  We hit some cool through-mountain and mountain-side “tunnels” and, eventually, approached Lech, all covered in fresh snow at around the time where the early “quitters” were leaving the slopes.drive, driving, Austria, Lech, Vorarlberg, winter, snow, road

drive, driving, Austria, Lech, Vorarlberg, winter, snow, road, tunnel

Tunnel through the mountains

drive, driving, Austria, Lech, Vorarlberg, winter, snow, road

The “tunnels” to keep roads passable – and protected

drive, driving, Austria, Lech, Vorarlberg, winter, snow, road

Entering Lech

Lodging in Lech

It took us a bit to find our destination for the first night in Zug, just a couple of kilometers off the main part of Lech.  We had a slight incident whereby our original pension (Stierfall) had overbooked itself and they got us booked in the place next door but that was not all a bad thing as the second place was nicer anyway (Stäfeli, Hotel-Garni).

Zug, Lech, Vorarlberg, church, village, Osterreich, kirche, snow, winter, Alps

View from the hotel

Staying in Zug seemed less than ideal since we could not just walk to Lech (well, we could but the road was narrow, no sidewalks, potentially icy, etc.).  However, either we could drive down/up OR take advantage of the great shuttle buses that operate taking people in and out of Lech to neighboring villages.  We had a shuttle stop just down the small hill from our hotel which was cool and made it all easier.

Lech, Vorarlberg, ski, skiing, Austria, church, Zug, tower, kirche, Osterreich

Tiny church right by the shuttle stop in Zug

Due to being high season that week we went (“spring break” in Austria and some other European countries), we were unable to find accommodations for two nights in a row.  So we checked out of the hotel the next day and later that day checked in to our second hotel in Lech.  This time, we were very lucky with the switch-a-roo.  Yes, we had another incident with overbooked places.  But, this time, not only was the place better but it was in PRIME location, pretty much at the end of the slopes that deposit skiers right in the heart of Lech.  All we had to do, was cross the main street and we were at our hotel, the Hotel Tannbergerhof.  It was not only a phenomenal location but the second story suite we were assigned to looked right at the end of the slopes and the street below.  Wow.  How I wished I had stayed there a whole week!

Lech, Vorarlberg, ski, skiing, Austria, lift, slope, snow, blue sky, Osterreich

View of the end of the slopes from my hotel window (notice the end is a mogul run)

Another option that I would recommend considering is staying in Oberlech, a series of hotels/inns in the midst of the slopes above the town of Lech (hence the area’s name).  It sure makes it easy to ski when you do not have to deal with shuttle buses and the like (not that I had to from my second hotel intown!).  Plus, easy to go for a quick re-charge nap and keep skiing later in the afternoon!  Oberlech offers plenty of places for refreshments in the middle of the skiing day which was very much to my liking!

Oberlech, Lech, Austria, ski, skiing, slopes

Oberlech area

Eating in Lech

Now, one thing we did not realize is that most people have their dinner at the hotel they stay at and those restaurants have just the tables needed for their guests. It felt like most or all restaurants we found were part of a hotel. If you don’t make reservations ahead of time for any possible open table, you find yourself (like we did) unable to just walk in to a restaurant and get a table. We lucked out eventually as one of the restaurants we walked into had just had a table cancel so we were able to eat a real meal.  At least, hunting for a restaurant allowed us to enjoy exploring the town at night – it was a winter wonderland indeed.

Lech, Vorarlberg, Austria, ski, ski town, snow, night, winter

Lech at night

Lech, Vorarlberg, Austria, ski, ski town, snow, night, winter

In the heart of the town by the Lech River

Lech, Vorarlberg, ski, skiing, Austria, foodie, food

The meal was worth trekking around town!

For the second night, we made reservations ahead of time. The hotel staff at Tannbergerhof had recommended a couple of places in Oberlech so we followed their advice. It was an adventure… We took the gondola up to the area and then walked trails (sometimes covered in ice at that time of night) roaming around a little lost until we finally found our place. We did a poor job of either listening to OR following the directions several people gave us and, apparently, got very close to the place without realizing it. It was dark and much colder than I expected (we were in higher altitude than in Lech and I was not prepared for that) and I was hungry! Anyway, we found the place eventually to my great relief. The meal, as anywhere else, was simply delicious.  The cool thing is that the staff was not just seasonal workers coming into the area. These were local folks, working the local restaurant near the farms that their family had owned for generations – pretty cool.

Lech, Vorarlberg, ski, skiing, Austria, foodie, food

This warmed me up after the cold hike to the restaurant!

During the day, having lunch was easy as people are out skiing and there are plenty of tables available.  We chose to have lunch in one of the hotels in Oberlech where I enjoyed a phenomenal schnitzel with a glass of wine.  The sun was bright and it was a good break from the skiing.

Schnitzel, lunch, Oberlech, ski, skiing, Lech, Austria, mittagessen

Mmm!!!

And now, skiing Lech!

During that lunch, we met a couple from Munich who has an apartment in a nearby village and they come all the time since it is so close.  They explained how Lech and neighboring villages connect through ski runs/paths and the occasional lift/gondola (to eliminate the need for loading up in a shuttle).  They shared how they spend the whole day traversing the area from place to place skiing without ever walking or taking a shuttle.  Sounds phenomenal to me – wish I had had much more time there to do just that!

Lech, Vorarlberg, ski, skiing, Austria, lift, slope, snow, blue sky

Up towards the first run of the trip!

I had not skied in a few years but found my skiing legs, as usual, pretty quickly.  Blue runs quickly stopped being intimidating.  We went up high for our first run and ended up going slightly off track downhill on a slope between two runs, crossing a long pile of snow.  Don’t know how we got confused and got off the run but it was fun (after I was done with it).

Lech, Vorarlberg, ski, skiing, Austria, lift, slope, snow, blue sky

The side slope that I accidentally skied through – apparently not the only one to do so

It was not to be the only ‘confusion’… At the end of the slopes in Lech, one can take a sharp right turn down a normal run to end up across from my hotel OR one goes straight down a mogul course which is a shorter distance (see earlier photo taken from my hotel room). I had no idea it was a mogul run (blessed ignorance…) and went through it. At first I thought it was just a couple of bumps until I realized where I was. I decided to just go for it as if I knew how to tackle moguls (which, of course, I know because I have watched winter olympics on and off – and I have stayed in Holiday Inns).  I have to say, that I did actually quite well navigating the moguls.  Perhaps some unknown instinct within me?  I am glad I did it – it was fun!

The slopes were usually quite broad and the skiers not typically as rude or aggressive as they can be back home…  OK, some went REALLY fast but you could tell they knew what they were doing and not endangering others.  I will say, though, that most people there seemed to be seasoned skiers vs. the casual once-a-year or once-every-few-years skiers we have at home *myself included* which made me feel safer in my underskilled skier status.  They would know how to navigate around me should I stagger or fall and were not doing non-sensical things.  I had one epic fall and a minor one.  Nothing untoward happened to limbs or bones, thankfully – all good fun!

Après-ski and “during”-ski in Lech

But the best part of this are the stops to refresh oneself.  The first morning, we happened upon a small watering hole up high where a waitress had to help me with a stubborn jacket zipper that would not open (or would it??…).  There I discovered that a beverage of choice is seltzer water with white wine.  I took one of those as I figured the lower alcohol content was better since we were just starting the skiing.

Oberlech, Lech, Austria, ski, skiing, slopes, apres ski

My first stop!

Later on, in Oberlech, we ran into a few places that were hopping with the lucky souls who get to ski there.  One had pumping music and great views so we plopped ourselves down at the bar for a beverage.

Lech, Vorarlberg, ski, skiing, Austria, lift, slope, snow, blue sky

View of Lech from Oberlech (my 2nd hotel in the middle of it all)

Oberlech, Lech, Austria, ski, skiing, slopes, lodging, apres-ski, bar

Incredible setting for a beverage in Oberlech!

When we finished skiing, we ended up at the bar area in front of our hotel, right by the street.  A happening spot, it was right under our suite’s windows.  Being that it is right at the exit of the slopes across the street, the spot was teeming  with folks who had wrapped up their day.  An Aperol spritz was in order as was people-watching.  Ahh… I love skiing and I love doing it somewhere where there is a scene to take in!  Hope to return someday!!

Aperol, spritz, skiing, Lech, Austria, cocktail, refreshment, refreshing, apres-ski, enjoy, good life

My Aperol beverage

——————————————————————————————————

Pin this image to your travel board!!

Lech, Austria, Vorlberg, ski, snow, Alps, pinterest

Small European Countries – One Left to Go!

I admit it, I am not ashamed to share it.  It is frivolous and perhaps not terribly inspiring.  Hopefully, not embarrassing.  Or so I tell myself…  (Is there a support group, perhaps?)  Here it is…  I do want to finish the little ones in Europe; the little countries, I mean.  I don’t mean “finish them” as in “destroy them” or have them absorbed by a big neighbor (ahem, Germany…).  I mean just to see them all.  Monaco.  San Marino.  Malta.  Andorra.  Luxembourg (OK, not as small, don’t want to hurt its feelings).  Vatican City.  Liechtenstein.

Before February this year, I had two of those left.  And now there is one…  Before I reveal the one left behind (you must be DYING to know), in February I visited tiny Liechtenstein.  It is as hard to get to it as it is to spell it as it has no major airport.  That means, no direct flight from JFK or Hartsfield.  For me, it was a flight into Munich, Germany and a 3 hr (or so) drive (an easy one, at that).

Liechtenstein is known for… OK, not much.  But perhaps more than anything is because they print beautiful postage stamps.  Oh, oh, has someone told them about “email”?  “Texting”?  “Whatsapp”?  Hmm… rough times ahead?  Perhaps not.  I am sure lots of money is put away there by foreigners and perhaps there are some other reputable industries…

But I surely digress.  (Do I?  Maybe someone can comment and share the wonderful economic engine in the heart of Europe called Liechtenstein.)  Anyway…

We drove in from Germany, trampling into Austria for a little bit before entering Switzerland for an even “littler” bit until we realized we had to pay like $30-40 to get a highway permit to drive in Switzerland (RIP-OFF!).  We quickly turned around and drove the two miles back to the Austrian border and (thanks to a smartphone and GPS) found a free route through Austria to Vaduz, the capital of Liechtenstein for the cost of a handful of extra miles of driving.  So, THERE, Switzerland.  The oddities of socialist Europe’s highways…

We entered Luxembourg, er, Liechtenstein (who can keep them straight??) after passing through customs (run by Switzerland, actually… another oddity) and made our way to the tiny capital driving through even tinier towns (not really sure if they count as towns or just urban sprawl from Vaduz?).

Liechtenstein, travel, Vaduz, explore, Samsung Galaxy S7, foto, viaje

I am heeere!

Liechtenstein, travel, Vaduz, explore, Samsung Galaxy S7, foto, viaje

Liechtenstein, travel, Vaduz, explore, Samsung Galaxy S7, foto, viaje

Customs into Switzerland

Not too rural really but not densely populated either.  As we got into Vaduz, we saw the castle atop the hill overlooking the town.  The high perch location of that castle may help explain why Liechtenstein has survived as its own entity.  Or not, but I didn’t really read up on it…  I just needed to check it off, you know?

Liechtenstein, travel, Vaduz, explore, Samsung Galaxy S7, foto, viaje

Castle perched right above Vaduz

Liechtenstein, travel, Vaduz, explore, Samsung Galaxy S7, foto, viaje

View of the castle from afar

Anyway, the castle’s vantage point was impressive.  We found a road up and there were some nice neighborhoods on the way up – great spot to live with a view of Liechtenstein and Switzerland in the distance (I think Switzerland charges if you even look at their highways; mercifully for Liechtensteiners, I believe there are no highways in sight from the hill where the castle is.)Liechtenstein, travel, Vaduz, explore, Samsung Galaxy S7, foto, viaje, palace, castle

Liechtenstein, travel, Vaduz, explore, Samsung Galaxy S7, foto, viaje

Houses near the caste location

Liechtenstein, travel, Vaduz, explore, Samsung Galaxy S7, foto, viaje, palace, castle

Approaching the castle

We stopped intown and walked around the pedestrian commercial street (got our passport stamped at the tourist office) and ended up at a local restaurant.  Unfortunately, it was past regular lunch hours so we had to settle for a limited menu.  But I had a bowl of goulash that was delicious so I was not complaining!  After that, we said our fond goodbyes to Liechtenstein (auf wiedersehen!) and made our way back to Austria for our next and most phenomenal stop of the trip:  the Alpine ski town of Lech!

Liechtenstein, travel, Vaduz, explore, Samsung Galaxy S7, foto, viaje

Passport stamp

Liechtenstein, travel, Vaduz, explore, Samsung Galaxy S7, foto, viaje

Pedestrian shopping street at the feet of the castle

Liechtenstein, travel, Vaduz, explore, Samsung Galaxy S7, foto, viaje

Around Vaduz, Liechtenstein

Liechtenstein, travel, Vaduz, explore, Samsung Galaxy S7, foto, viaje

Church and Vaduz City Hall (on the right)

Liechtenstein, travel, Vaduz, explore, Samsung Galaxy S7, foto, viaje

Around Vaduz

———————————————-

P.S. – Oh, and which is the lil one I have left to visit?  ANDORRA!  Mental note:  I need to check in with my Spanish friends Mariano and Isabel so I can tag along their next New Year’s ski trip from Madrid to Andorra…

Photos of the Week – Sights of Amsterdam

Amsterdam is such a unique city.  It is like Venice meets… meets… I am not sure what!  It is a charm typical of old cities, of cities by the water, of cities with architecture seen nowhere else, and of cities with a one-of-a-kind type of energy (and I don’t mean that in terms of the red light district!).

I first went to Amsterdam in 1999 when I had business there (most of my time in The Netherlands, though, was actually in The Hague, or Den Haag).  I had not returned to Amsterdam since then (except connecting through its wonderful airport) until earlier this year when I overnighted there on my way back home after skiing in Austria.

I took advantage of the limited time to walk out and about at night, and then do a quick morning walk before heading to the airport.  Though a short visit, it took me back to 1999 and it made me re-discover why I like the city so much.  I wish I had had time to visit the museums I have never gotten to explore (back in 1999, I wasn’t touristing – had no time for that!), and be a little more aimless in the walking around.  But, hopefully, I will have another chance!  In the meantime, here are some photos from my short visit!

 Night photos of Amsterdam

Amsterdam, night, Netherlands, Holanda, Holland, fotos, photos, travel, viaje, Samsung Galaxy S7 Amsterdam, night, Netherlands, Holanda, Holland, fotos, photos, travel, viaje, Samsung Galaxy S7 Amsterdam, night, Netherlands, Holanda, Holland, fotos, photos, travel, viaje, Samsung Galaxy S7

Amsterdam, night, Netherlands, Holanda, Holland, fotos, photos, travel, viaje, Samsung Galaxy S7

Notice the not-straight door and windows on the right!

Amsterdam, night, Netherlands, Holanda, Holland, fotos, photos, travel, viaje, Samsung Galaxy S7

Right outside of the train station

Amsterdam, night, Netherlands, Holanda, Holland, fotos, photos, travel, viaje, Samsung Galaxy S7

Train station

Amsterdam, night, Netherlands, Holanda, Holland, fotos, photos, travel, viaje, Samsung Galaxy S7

Royal Palace

Day Photos of Amsterdam

Amsterdam, Netherlands, architecture, Holanda, Holland, fotos, photos, travel, viaje, Samsung Galaxy S7 Amsterdam, Netherlands, architecture, Holanda, Holland, fotos, photos, travel, viaje, Samsung Galaxy S7 Amsterdam, Netherlands, architecture, Holanda, Holland, fotos, photos, travel, viaje, Samsung Galaxy S7 Amsterdam, Netherlands, architecture, Holanda, Holland, fotos, photos, travel, viaje, Samsung Galaxy S7Amsterdam, Netherlands, architecture, Holanda, Holland, fotos, photos, travel, viaje, Samsung Galaxy S7

Amsterdam, Netherlands, architecture, Holanda, Holland, fotos, photos, travel, viaje, Samsung Galaxy S7, bike, train station

By the train station – a bunch of bikes!

Amsterdam, Netherlands, architecture, Holanda, Holland, fotos, photos, travel, viaje, Samsung Galaxy S7, red door

Red doorways – cool

Amsterdam, Netherlands, architecture, Holanda, Holland, fotos, photos, travel, viaje, Samsung Galaxy S7, canal, boat

ilivetotravel, photo, champagne, business class, KLM

OK, not a photo of Amsterdam but of me leaving it in style!

%d bloggers like this: