How to Visit Montserrat, Spain for 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!

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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.’

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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!

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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.

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Looking down towards Monistrol de Montserrat from the Cremallera

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

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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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).

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The entranceway towards the basilica facade

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Inner courtyard of the Montserrat basilica

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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.

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Heavy Gothic feel to the interior of the basilica

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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.

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

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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!

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With my Mom and sister


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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…

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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.

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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!

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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.

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Detail of the Nativity façade showing the Holy Family

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

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Upper portion of the Nativity façade

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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.

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The Passion façade

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

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

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

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

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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.

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Nativity side with its greens and blues

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

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Strong as a tree trunk!

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

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

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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.

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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!
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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!

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Looking up at the Passion façade


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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.)

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The beach

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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…

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Mom and uncle walking to the water!

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16th century Palacio de Narros from the beach

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

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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.

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Yet another great beach west of Zarautz by Getaria

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Nice curvy road bordering hills that face the water

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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.

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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.

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Rice pudding dessert

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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…

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The mural

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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…

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How the area of Andraka looks

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The old home taken over by vegetation

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My uncle

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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!

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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.

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

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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.

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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!

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In Andorra, near Andorra la Vella

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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…

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

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Water fountain

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Casa de la Vall

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Federal government offices next to Casa de la Vall

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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…

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Curious bridge (empty road)

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Around Andorra la Vella’s commercial district (empty)

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“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!

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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!

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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!).

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Beautiful waters surround San Sebastian

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Must be some good fish in those waters!

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Carajillo

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La Concha Beach in the background

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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.

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Narrow street in Old Town

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Entering Old Town from the river

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Buildings in Old Town

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Lots of character in this balcony

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Streets of Old Town

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At Plaza Constitucion

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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

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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

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Delicious croquetas were one of our starters

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Dessert – phenomenal chocolate soufflé

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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!

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Sister, Mom, and Uncle!


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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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!

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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!

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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!

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Salud!


Tour of Real Madrid’s Home: Bernabéu Stadium

I may not be the world’s most serious football (soccer) fan.  Or the world’s 100-millionth most serious football (soccer!) fan.  But I know to recognize where history happened, where history happens, or where history will happen.  Madrid‘s Santiago Bernabéu Stadium is all three and I was looking forward to touring the facility.  It is well-known to be a great tour so well worth the cost to go in.  Bernabéu, which seats over 80,000 fans, is the seat of Real Madrid, a football team over 100 years old (the stadium dates from 1947).  Real Madrid is the most valuable football team in the world, valued at over $3B.  Yep, that is a “B.”   And this is their home.Bernabeu, Madrid, museum, museo, Real Madrid, tour, Spain, tourism, travel, photo, Olympus

The tour takes you through the history of the club showing famous trophies, shoes and other items in a multi-media and interactive setting.

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One can listen to stadium sounds in this exhibit

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Raul’s shoes in a display of famous players’ shoes – no favoritism here

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Exhibit showing Raul’s best goals

The museum really helps emphasize, though its interpretation, the glory of the Real Madrid club.  Beyond this, the visitor gets to see the field of play as spectators do from a high vantage point and, later, as players do:  right from the field and from their bench!

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Top seating area – not a bad seat!

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On the field!  And I sprinted across its width too

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The lesser known but more impressive Raúl

The tour takes the visitor back door through the locker room and other spots before leading the visitor, surprise, to the stadium store – of course.

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Players’ showers

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The locker room (wonder if they need to see their photo to remember their spot…)

Bernabéu is an incredible place, I am sure, to watch a match.  I hope to re-visit it one day as a spectator!


This is one amazing place to check out in Madrid!  Pin to your travel board!

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2015 – A Year in Review

2015 is almost over and it is time for the year in review which, I think, is an exercise not just in writing but in re-living the many blessings the year bestowed on me.  Here it goes and share with me some of the travels in your 2015!

In the city of brotherly love – Philadelphia, USA

My first trip of the year was to Philadelphia where family and friends live.  It is a place I love to visit though I do not get to do so often.  I welcome the opportunity whenever it comes though as I greatly enjoy spending time with my aunt and uncle who make me feel so at home whenever I go.  Though I got to see many, I did not get to see all my relatives nor all my friends which was a bummer – but good reason to go back!  As usual, my uncle likes to show me around places historical to both country and family.  I had not visited Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell since the early 90s and I enjoyed my visit there.  We also went to Valley Forge which had a special look since it was winter-time (and was also very cold!).

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Liberty Bell with Independence Hall behind it

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Independence Hall across the mall

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Valley Forge in winter – reminder of the cost of our freedom

Now, those places are not where the family history comes from 🙂 instead this building served as their home right after they moved up there from Miami.

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House where my parents and relatives lived

My first hike of the year – Blood Mountain, Georgia, USA

My first hike of the year was a training hike as I was going on a trek to Patagonia with Trekking for Kids.  My friend Phil who also enjoys hiking and I decided to do a hike near Blood Mountain that ended up -accidentally- in a climb of Blood Mountain.  While it was unplanned, it was a fortunate ‘accident’ as it all ended well and we enjoyed great vistas and trails.

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Entering Freeman Trail from the Appalachian Trail

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Along Jarrard Gap, the start of our hike

An amazing metropolis – Buenos Aires, Argentina

The orphanage work related to my trek to Patagonia was going to take place on the outskirts of Buenos Aires, capital of Argentina.  So I knew I was going to be spending time in this great city – and more importantly, eating the best beef in the world paired with great wine!  I enjoyed walking about town and having nice meals with my fellow trekkers (some which I knew already and some which I met there).

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The parrillada at Campo Bravo

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Don’t forget dessert: this beauty courtesy of Cabaña Las Lilas

But the best part was meeting the children and staff of the two homes we worked with on our projects which included repairing a very leaky roof and damaged walls and furniture.  Much as I loved spending time in BB.AA., this work was the highlight of my time there!

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Painting new furniture with the kids was an adventure onto itself!

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These kids were hard workers and also great with the soccer ball!

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At Temaiken, Buenos Aires’ zoo

Back in time – Colonia del Sacramento, Uruguay

When planning my Buenos Aires travel, I decided to add an extra day to cross the river by ferry and spend half a day exploring a town that was a good throwback to the colonial period of the region:  Colonia del Sacramento, Uruguay.  I sold three other trekkers on doing this short trip with me and we had a great time walking the streets of this easy-going town.  I highly recommend making the crossing if you ever have time in Buenos Aires!

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One of the MANY vintage vehicles in town – an Austin

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Basilica del Sagrado Sacramento

My favorite spot on Earth – Chile’s Patagonia

As I wrote earlier this year, I loved Patagonia when I first visited the Perito Moreno glacier and Chile‘s amazing Patagonia in 2010.  I’d always hoped I could return some day and that did happen… in 2015, much sooner than I’d ever thought possible.  I returned to hike around Fitz Roy in Argentina, re-visit the Perito Moreno glacier, and then trek through the Torres del Paine National Park – which I had not done in 2010.  And it was a rewarding effort for sure with great vistas and a glacier hike to boot.  Memorable is not a good enough word for the experience.  And, secretly, I hope I get to return a second time for my third visit!!  (click on the hyperlinks above to see more photos from each of the visits)

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Grey glacier, where we hiked

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On the trail to Fitz Roy

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The Torres del Paine massif

The great northwest – Portland, Oregon

Thanks to work, I spent five days in Portland, Oregon.  I had never been to Oregon so it was cool that I got to go there.  I arrived at mid-day on a Sunday and decided to take a walking tour of Portland as it would be the most effective way to see the highlights of the town while enjoying the great weather.

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Portland street

Mercifully, daylight went on late so I got to take advantage of it to take a drive along the Columbia River to see the waterfalls that dot the riverside.   I also got to enjoy dinners in establishments along either side of the river which was a phenomenal day to end the workday.

Family, friends and food fest (4 F’s) – Spain, olé!

Friends of mine were going to hike the Camino de Santiago, a hike I did in 2014.  I thought it would be cool to combine my wish to meet relatives I had not met who live in the outskirts of Santiago with my friends’ arrival in Santiago de Compostela.  My grandmother has two surviving cousins she never met in person who live in Bastavales.  I had met one of them last year when I finished the Camino walk but I had not met the other.  So I met María and her son, grandkids and great-grandkids for the first time and enjoyed their warmth and sharing special memories and photos of the family.  I also visited time with Flora, the cousin I had met last year.  It was really cool.

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With Maria, my grandmother’s cousin

I then welcomed my friends and their fellow trekkers as they arrived in Santiago at the end of their Camino.  It was wonderful seeing them glow in joy as they wrapped their long walk.  After they got their Compostela and going to Pilgrim’s Mass, it was time to celebrate with some cañas (beer) and tapas in one of the many beautiful old streets of this phenomenal city.  We also took a day trip to Finisterre on the Atlantic coast, a nice place.

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Beer and tapas in Santiago de Compostela

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The left side of the Cathedral

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With friends Phil and Tommy at Finisterre

The visit with my friends continued in Madrid and, after they left, I got to spend time with madrileños friend of mine, enjoying good drinks, food, and atmosphere around town.  It was fun spending more time in Madrid (check out “6 Cool Things to Do in Madrid“!).  I love Spain but I loved more the opportunity to be there with friends!

Reuniting with dear friends – California

In late May, dear friends left Atlanta to head to California due to a job opportunity.  It was hard to see them go as I spent many a Friday night over ten years hanging out with them pre-kids and after-kids.  So, it was great when work offered me the opportunity to go to San Francisco so I could spend the weekend after the conference with them in their home outside of San Jose.  They took me to two great Mexican restaurants, one of them right by where they live.  I enjoyed a drive down Pebble Beach on the famous 17-mile drive (which I still have to write about!).  And we visited the charming coastal town of Carmel – and its impressive mission.

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Glorious skies at the Carmel Mission

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Waters along the 17-Mile drive

Up-north (WAY up north) – Duluth, Minnesota

Work took me for a brief business trip up north, to a small town 45 mins north of Duluth, Minnesota.  Driving along the coast of Lake Superior was very nice and peaceful.  We only had one night in Duluth but enjoyed a nice breakfast at a mom-and-pop type of place and dinner at a pub.  Of course, being the traveler that I am, never having gone to Wisconsin, and realizing I was just a bridge-crossing, I just had to do it… We had mostly an open morning so, along with a colleague, I drove across the water to a coffee shop I found online in the town of Superior, Wisconsin!  A coffee later, we crossed the bridge again and back in Minnesota!

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Wisconsin, here we come!

Returning to one my favorites – Chicago, Illinois

I first went to Chicago in a bitterly cold January in 1991 with company for training.  And I kept returning over the years mainly in winter.  This year I got to go in August for pleasure, after spending a few days in Minnesota for work.  I got to enjoy walking everywhere, getting to the lake, which I had never done.  I also explored new parts of town thanks to friends (including little gems in terms of eateries).   Overall, what I enjoyed most about this trip was a first for me in Chicago:  going to a museum!  The Art Institute of Chicago was right up my alley as very much an amateur in terms of art.  It made it all approachable and enjoyable without overwhelming.  I highly recommend it.  I look forward to returning to Chicago and having more time to see all the friends who live there (this was practically a day-and-a-half visit) – and explore a new museum or two!Chicago, Illinois, skyscraper, cityscape, photo, glass. buildings, architecture

An epic trek to close the year – on the route to Everest Base Camp, Nepal

I was not planning any other hike on 2015 after having done Patagonia earlier in the year.  However, I found out that several folks I knew from prior treks were going to do the trek to Everest Base Camp and I started wondering if I could go…  I was generally fit even if not well-trained, it was a generally good time to go from a work standpoint, and though I did not have vacation time to be able to go to base camp, the trek offered a shorter itinerary.  So, I went for it.  I had a great time and was thrilled to having seen the Himalayas, Mt. Everest, and the hamlets and people of the highlands of Nepal.  I am still writing about the trek so I will just point you to a couple of the writings:  flying into scary Lukla airport to begin the hike, day one of the hike (you can keep going from there to later days), and one of the neat sites I saw in Kathmandu.  The best part of the trek was the work done before the trek in the village of Kumari.  Check out the work we did with Trekking for Kids here.

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The prayer wheels

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Kids from Kumari

Epilogue to a year that ends…

2015 was an epic year.  From great hiking experiences, time with family and friends, new destinations, and good food and drinks, it had it all.  I got to step in South America, North America, Asia, and Europe all in one year!  However, as the year came to a close, we lost my stepdad, Rubén.  It was a bittersweet time as he had been suffering from Alzheimer‘s and his last week was one full of suffering.  So his passing offered him rest that we were thankful for, sad as it was to not have him around us any more.  Rubén, as my Mom, loved to travel.  They traveled across Europe and other places many times.  I got to travel with them and my sister and her family in several cruises to the Caribbean, Alaska, and the Baltic Sea, as well as explore places like Copenhagen, Panama, and Paris (where they visited me in 1999 when I was living there).  Though we will sorely miss him in this final journey he has undertaken, I know I will see again at the final destination.  Until then, I will continuing journeying here.  Rest in peace, Rubén!

ilivetotravel, family

In Panama in 2009

6 Cool Things to Do in Fantastic Madrid

I have visited Madrid several times and, while it may not have the charm of Paris or Venice, it is a town meant to be lived, not visited.  And I don’t mean “lived” as in “live there” but a place “to live life.”  Sure, other cities are beautiful and glamorous but I find cities where life is lived to the fullest the best.  And such is Madrid.  Here are some cool things to do in the Spanish capital.

Drinks at the Westin

The Westin is an extremely well-situated hotel in the best part of Madrid.  It has incredible architectural charm – and a great lobby lounge with separate areas to sit, depending on your mood.  My favorite spot was right under the colorful and bright cupola.  If you don’t get to stay at the hotel, at minimum, go and treat yourself to a glass of wine or a cocktail.

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Awesome glasswork

Tapas and drinks at Plaza Santa Ana

Plaza Santa Ana is at the heart of Madrid. Sure the Plaza Mayor officially is “the” plaza in Madrid.  But, Plaza Santa Ana is small, manageable and a great spot to sit and watch life, while enjoying tapas and beer/wine.  And the great thing is that you can do it from the plaza itself – or from above at the trendy and cool bar at the roof terrace of the Reina Victoria Hotel.  There is a charge to go up but it applies to a drink – so as long as you have a drink, entrance is free.  And the views of the Plaza at night are awesome.

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The Hotel Reina Victoria at sunset

Reina Victoria, Madrid, Spain, Plaza Santa Ana, travel, bar, food, photo, Samsung Galaxy

View from the rooftop terrace of the Hotel Reina Victoria (Teatro Español in the background)

Tapas crawl!

The Plaza Santa Ana is a wonderful place to hang out.  But Madrid is full of neighborhood plazas and other areas where you can find the most delicious spots to have a tapa and a caña (short beer).  Madrileños on a typical night out move from tapas bar to tapas bar prior to going somewhere for dinner.  A great spot for tapas is near the Calle Cervantes where the are several good establishments.  Taberna La Daniela, Cervecería Cervantes and Taberna de la Dolores are all different and great spots to eat, sip, walk, and repeat!  And my local friends actually referred me to these places so you know they are good!

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Taberna de la Dolores

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About to go in!

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The counter at La Daniela – always hang out at the counter!

 The Mercado San Miguel

I could not believe that I had never visited the Mercado San Miguel in Madrid until I learned that it had been closed for years to open finally again in 2009.  It is a feast for the eyes – and the palate.  The structure itself is about one hundred years old with a style reminiscent of Paris metro entrances.  But the main attraction is, of course, the food!  Stop there for a bite or a meal – and a glass of wine, ¡por supuesto!

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Mercado San Miguel

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¡Jamón!

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Color and flavor!

Drinks with a view

Thanks to my local friend, I discovered the “Azotea,” or rooftop, at the Círculo de Bellas Artes building on the Calle de Alcalá.  It offers not only a bar but all sorts of comfy spaces to just lounge.  It must be spectacular at night but it is great at sunset or just during the day time to admire the views.

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The Azotea terrace

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The former main post office – now the Palacio de Comunicaciones

And just walking around

Walking about, aimlessly, sometimes yields the best experiences in a city.  Madrid is no different.  My friends showed me around districts I did not know with small plazas and great places to enjoy food and drinks.  This is the best way to get the vibe of a place.  You can stroll through parks like the famous El Retiro, grand avenues or tiny old streets.  cobblestone, street, Madrid, walk, walking, Spain, travel, tourism, photo, Samsung Galaxy cobblestone, street, Madrid, walk, walking, Spain, travel, tourism, photo, Olympus

Also, Madrid is a great town to see monuments and buildings old and new so if you like architecture, walk, I say!

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Puerta de Alcalá near El Retiro

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Plaza Mayor

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Cathedral of the Almudena

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The Royal Palace (Palacio Real) in Madrid, Spain

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Congress (Congreso de los Diputados)

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Walking unknowingly by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, we happened upon the presentation of credentials by foreign ambassadors who crossed the Plaza Mayor (I assume coming from the royal palace) and dropped/picked up the dignitaries in colorful carriages.  So one never knows what one will find!

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One of the carriages

Hope you enjoy Madrid!  Have you been?  Any places you’d recommend??


Add Madrid to your travel board!!

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Finisterre: The End of Earth No More!

A “short” 90-km walk from Santiago de Compostela, where the famous Camino (Way of St. James) ends, is Finisterre.  Finisterre is a town but the more famous Finisterre is the cape that signifies “the end of earth.”   Back when folks assumed this was the end of earth, hence the name.  (Note:  It is also known as Fisterra in the local dialect, Galician or gallego).

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The town of Finisterre from a distance

Many pilgrims who do the Camino, keep going past the end point, the city of Santiago de Compostela.  I did not when I went because the end goal of the Camino, in my book, is entering the Plaza del Obradoiro and then going to Mass at the massive and old Cathedral.

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While 0k for the Camino is in Santiago, this is 0 km too

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Posing with friends – and friendly photobombers!

However, I highly recommend hiking or somehow making it to Finisterre.  I personally loved walking the rugged terrain past the lighthouse.

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The Atlantic Ocean at Finisterre

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Water activities abound in the area

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Pilgrims leave articles of clothing upon reaching the end of their Camino

It reminded me when I went to the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa (check it out here), maybe just a little less spectacular here but impressive nonetheless.

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Finisterre lighthouse

If you drive from Santiago, there is an inland route, more direct, and a route that hugs the shoreline.  I recommend the latter on the way over to Finisterre so you can see Finisterre from the distance and see the beautiful coastline.  I am sure in other times of the year this coastline is slightly less hospitable but on the beautiful July day I went, it was nothing short of spectacular.  On the way back, we did take the fast route back – and that was fine with me.

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The Cape (top left) and the town of Finisterre to its right

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A small coastal town watched over by windmills, a common sight around there

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Beautiful waters!

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A small town along the route

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Smart to rely on these guys given how windy it is!

On the way over, before getting to the coastline, we stopped at a small village by the Rio Tambre to visit a charming town right of CP-0201, not far from Santiago.  The Ponte Maceira crosses the river into the village and forms part of the Camino as witnessed by the many pilgrims we saw cross it.  The village is graced not only by the bridge but by a chapel, an old mill, and a very approachable riverside.  Definitely a “must stop.”

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Pilgrims crossing the Ponte Maceira (Maceira Bridge)

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The Rio Tambre

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The village by the bridge

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The old mill and an approach to the river

The only bummer for my visit was that there was a small festival (for the Feast of St. James) going on near the Cape and we could not stop.  I would have so loved to eat fresh seafood and mingle with the locals.  I hear any of the towns along the shore will have incredible fresh seafood.  I believe it!

If you do have time to explore the area, don’t just go to the cape.  Not that it is overly touristy or that it isn’t spectacular, but there are other parts of the coast that are well worth exploring.  The Rias Baixas (which you may know if you know Spanish wine…), just south of Finisterre, are a series of estuaries/inlets from the Atlantic Ocean that create a mini-ecosystem rich in marine life and with many beaches and water activities, a magnet for tourists from Spain.  While certainly not the French Riviera, it also lacks the over-touristed ambience of places like that, making it more relaxed.  So, give yourself an extra day or two and enjoy Finisterre and all that the area around it offers in the region of Galicia!

Finisterre, Fisterra, Spain, sea, ocean, travel, photo, Galicia

Beautiful coastline

Finisterre, Fisterra, Spain, sea, ocean, travel, photo, Galicia

More of the coastline


Doing the Camino to Finisterre (or driving to it!) should make it to your travel board!!

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Camino de Santiago: Packing and Training Tips

The Camino de Santiago has become a very popular destination/experience for many around the world, especially after the movie “The Way” hit the movies screens (maybe home flat screens is more appropriate).  People of all ages and nationalities gravitate to this, as did I and a group I traveled with last summer to hike the Camino.  I wrote about each of our 7 days in a series of posts but I’d thought I’d devote some time to sharing about the preparation.  By now means is this an exhaustive treatise on each of the topics but it should give you a good high-level understanding on training and gear.  Hope you find it helpful and feel free to ask questions or suggest your own tips via the comments!

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Dirt path going between farms

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Another church we passed this day

Training – or how to get ready

The Camino is not Everest Base Camp or Mt. Kilimanjaro but that does not mean it is easy.  The challenges posed by the Camino are different than an epic climb.  While in some hikes, altitude is a factor, that is not the case in the Camino.  The mountains or hills faced will not compare to hiking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu or getting to Uhuru Peak in Mt. Kilimanjaro.  But if you walk more than the minimum distance required to get the Compostela (the famous certificate granted to provide pilgrims with proof that they did indeed make it to Santiago de Compostela), you will need to prepare for some good climbs – and the corresponding downhills (always fun on the delicate knees of a hiker…).

Another factor to consider is that how strenuous the day is depends on how much ground you plan to cover each day.  If you are young (read: in your 20s or early 30s), you likely think you can attack the Camino and do over 20 miles a day, perhaps 30.  That’s crazy talk.  Yes, you physically may be able to but a couple of things:

1.  After a couple of days of pushing this way, your body will let you know how crazy that was.  I have heard the horror stories.  Don’t be over-ambitious.

2.  More importantly, you are missing the point of the Camino.  Yes, getting to the destination is the “aim,” but the point is to be on a journey, a pilgrimage (whether spiritual or emotional).  Moving at the speed of sound renders this experience as just checking an item off the bucket list (which if it is all it is for you, then fast speed might as well be your friend because you will get bored not seeing it as an experience for such a long way).

The final factor to keep in mind is that while there may not be tons of steep hills nor altitude, this hike puts a lot of stress on your feet.  When I climbed Kilimanjaro, the distances walked on a given day were well in the single-digits in terms of miles (maybe it got to double digits in kilometer-land).  Yes, it was difficult due to low oxygen and steepness but it was not brutal on my feet.  Don’t get me wrong, when I would arrive at camp, I was desperate to take off my boots!  But the Camino is much more unforgiving when it comes to your feet.  They tale a beating, so make sure they keep on ticking.

Gear – or what to bring

Before I get into gear, clearly whether you are carrying all your stuff on your back or not makes a big difference.  Yes, there is an option to NOT carry it all yourself from place to place!  Now, that may not be your style and all that, and that’s OK.  But, for some, it is the way to go and so it was for me 🙂

Regardless of how you do it, I will still issue the same warning:  don’t over-pack.  You will be amazed at how little you can get by with – a lot less than you think.  And worst comes to worst, you can go to a local store along the way and buy what you need…  But I also say that because going on this journey, in my view, is about changing some parameters about our lives to develop new insights, clear our heads, have new experiences, and hopefully be renewed in whatever way you may need to.  So, with all that said, here are some things that I deemed important to take along my Camino…

Feet

    • Good walking shoes or boots.  Without good shoes that you have broken in BEFORE the Camino, you will be in trouble.  Don’t be cheap about this item.  Cheap out on the camera or other items but not on this, my friends!  These could be boots or walking shoes.  The former gives you better ankle protection.  The latter may feel more comfortable.  You may want both to alternate.  After many days of wearing the same show, you may long for a different pair…  Up to you (as are all the tips I share here!).  But I would definitely say, get waterproof in case it rains.

    • Along with the shoes, go non-cotton socks.  What good is a pair of proper and broken in walking shoes if you are going to just slap on cotton socks?  Cotton socks are an invitation for blisters and the painful fun that means for the few days after you develop them.  Wool socks and, ideally, liners complete the most important focus of your gear list:  your feet.

  • Now, if the socks and shoes don’t do it and a blister seems imminent (sometimes blisters just develop…), that is an important moment to take action one final time to prevent the blister from materializing. At that point, you want to protect the spot where you are beginning to feel the burning (which is exactly what you feel BEFORE the blister arrives). The simplest and cheapest solution is to place a small piece of duct tape on that spot on your foot. Yes, stop, take footwear off and apply the small patch of duct tape – don’t wait.  So duct tape is a must-carry on any hike with the added side benefit that you can repair other things with it as needed. But don’t carry the roll, for goodness’ sake! Wrap duct tape on a pencil or on your hiking pole and you will save space and weight.
  • In case things go too far and you develop a blister, a blister repair kit is a good idea to bring along.  I was the beneficiary of a fellow’s trekker blister “repair” kit coming down Kilimanjaro and became a believer.  I don’t recall the brand I used on the Camino but the item below is the one I bought for my next hike in Patagonia.

Clothing

Now we can get past all things feet.  From a clothing standpoint, the usual advice applies here.

    • Layers.  The weather can vary and some high spots can get very cold.  And depending on the time of year, it could get quite warm during the day.  So plan to have layers which help manage the changes you may experience throughout the day.
    • Waterproof.  At some point, you may encounter rain so you want proper rain gear which might as well also serve as wind-breaking gear.  In terms of things to wear, make sure it is really waterproof (Gore-Tex). Waterproof also refers to protecting the contents of your backpack, whether by placing a bag over your backpack or putting the contents of your backpack in plastic bags.  Your choice!
    • Wicking.  Since you may not be carrying one-for-every-day in the underwear category and to help your skin remain “un-irritated”, wicking underwear is a good idea.  It removes humidity before sweat covers your skin which prevents bad odors.  And, hence, should you decide to wear them more than once between washings, then at least you know you will not smell!  Because my hike was only 7 days, I had underwear for every day but I still used wicking underwear for the comfort of not developing chaffing, etc.

  • Temperatures.  Plan for a range of temperatures.  This ties to the layers bit but also realize that, at night when you are not hiking, you may want to sit outdoors and it may get chilly at night, even in the summer depending on the weather system on a given day in your area.  So some light jacket in the summer may be appropriate for the evenings; perhaps more substantial at other times of the year.
  • Comfort.  Be sure the materials you wear are comfortable to you.  During 6-8 hours of hiking, you want to be comfortable not itching or something else.  When you get to the next town, you WILL want those walking shoes off and will love slipping into some flip flops, sandals or running shoes or whatever other comfortable footwear you like.  Bring only one of those, no need to overdo it, but allow yourself this luxury!  (Flip flops could be handy to shower in communal showers if that’s your accommodation style!)

Miscellaneous

    • Hunger avoidance devices (read: snacks).  You will not hungry on this trek!  Plenty of places to stop and get a snack or a meal at very reasonable prices.  Carrying two boxes of protein or granola bars is wasted weight and space and, more importantly, keeping you from sampling local foods and snacks.  So, just carry what you buy locally or just stop along the way!
    • A camera!  You can certainly opt for a different kind of travel if you are not drawn to capturing memories in this manner.  Journaling, for example, may be a better way for some.  For yours truly, though, the imagery of a place not only captures my attention but is also a way I use to be able to share what I experience.  Along with this go the requisite battery charger or extra batteries and an appropriate number of SD cards 🙂  I do like the wifi SD card which allows me to transfer photos out of my SD card onto another device (good for backup or to clear memory on the SD card).
    • Toiletries and accessories.  Yep, you know what this list is about (toothbrush, deodorant, etc.) so no need to detail it nor give you too much advice.  But I will call out some things…  First, bring travel-sized items.  Second, see how much stuff you can live without.  Do you really need a hair dryer?  (No judgment implied!)  Finally, some items I will recommend…  Some hand lotion/moisturizer is a good idea.  Chapstick is a must.  And some antibacterial liquid (e.g., Purell) is also a must along with some wipies (no need to bring more than a handful per day, if that many).
    • First aid.  There are kits out there but I just go with common sense and practical.  There are drug stores and stuff in the towns you will pass so no need to overdo it.  Some band-aids, some anti-diarrhea meds in case you can’t make it to them town (no one had troubles of this sort in our group), some anti-inflammatory in case something hurts (knees, for example), and the like should make a good kit.  As a packing tip, I used the ziploc bags that are half of the regular sandwich bag to pack meds so I didn’t have to carry bottles which can occupy more space.  Whether you want to get Cipro (digestive system antibiotic), Ambien (to sleep) or anything else, it is up to you.  I took none of those meds (though I take Cipro when I go to some destinations).  Of course, if you are taking prescription drugs, bring those and write down somewhere the main ingredient (vs. the medication name) should something happen and you need to get some locally – the main ingredient is what you need.
    • Night light.  If you will be sleeping in shared accommodations, this comes in handy to minimize disrupting others’ sleep and/or preventing you from tripping in the middle of the night as you make a night run to the restroom 🙂  I prefer headlamps like this one so I can be “hands-free”; please don’t make me explain why 🙂

    • Backpack.  Please, whatever you do, do not bring a Swiss Army backpack (well-designed as they are for the frequent traveler) or, even worse, your college backpack.  You will be likely carrying more weight than you are used to and your back and shoulders will appreciate you bringing a backpack with a waist strap and a chest strap to help distribute the impact of the load  on your upper body.  Plus be sure the main straps and perhaps the backpack have some padding where they will touch your body.  It is many days of carrying it so be good to yourself.  And size does matters, when it comes to backpacks – will the size you get be able to fit all that you will carry on your back every day?  Remember, if you want the convenience, there are services that every day pick up your luggage and deliver it to the next place you will stay (if you know in advance).  With this option, you only carry what you need during your walk.  Bottom line:  figure out how much you need the backpack to carry (don’t forget to account for the water!) and then choose a size.

  • Backpack cover.  Along with this, have something ready to cover your backpack if it rains.  Trust me, no matter what they say, water will get in if it rains enough (e.g., think of the zippers).  You can buy a backpack cover (some backpacks come with it) or, save money and bring a nice size, good quality trash bag or maybe even just a cheap poncho.  You can also help prevent your stuff getting wet by packing the in large ziplocs and the place within your backpack. You are on the go and it may not always be easy or practical to get stuff dry.

Alright, there is likely more to be said and advice to be given.  I will likely made some edits in the future but feel free to share your thoughts, ask questions, etc.

Buen Camino!

Want to see what every day was like?  Click on the day and read on!  Day 1, Day 2, Day 3, Day 4, Day 5, Day 6 and Day 7

Santiago de Compostela: Food, Charm, and “New” Family

I wrote earlier about my arrival in Santiago de Compostela as a Camino pilgrim and the activities related to the end of the pilgrimage (getting the Compostela certificate, Pilgrims’ Mass, etc.).  Though my stay in Santiago was brief (less than 24 hours due to needing to bring the group back to Madrid), there were some noteworthy things to share about my brief second visit to this incredible city in northwest Spain‘s Galicia

Food

As ANYWHERE in Spain, food is spectacular.  In Santiago, I had a quick lunch at a local tapas bar before going to meet relatives.  I love tapas bars.  These are not the unreasonable facsimiles in many U.S. cities that offer tapas.  I loved sitting at the bar and looking at the tapas on display (salivating at, to be more accurate) and then making my choices.  That and an adult beverage made for a quick and delicious lunch.

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A splendid array

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One of many had…

Later that evening, after dinner with my group, a couple of us took off in a chase for some hot chocolate and “churros” (fried sticks of dough and sugar; a favorite of mine from my childhood).  Let me tell you, this hot chocolate is not of the watery style.  It is THICK – and delicious.

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Churros and hot chocolate – the real reason the pilgrims came!

Great vibe to the town – charming architecture and streets

The great Cathedral of Santiago is not the only main architectural piece in this city.  I love its side streets with or without arcades and the many small and big plazas all around.  In fact, it is the whole town, not just the Cathedral or the plaza in front of it that is a World Heritage Site!

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Hanging out at Praza de Platerías along the south face of the Cathedral

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University building facing the north side of the Cathedral

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I ate at this café called Dakar 20 years before!

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Small plaza and cafés near the Cathedral

The grand plaza in front of the Cathedral is named Praza do Obradoiro, which best I know means plaza of the workshop.  It is large and pretty plain except for the buildings around it:  the Cathedral, a palace, and a hostel built by the Catholic Monarchs, Isabella and Ferdinand, back in 1492!

Plaza do Obradoiro, Santiago de Compostela, Galicia, Spain, architecture, travel,photo, Canon EOS Rebel, arcade

Entering Praza do Obradoiro from the northeast corner

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The inn built by the Catholic Monarchs, now a parador

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Looking around the Praza do Obradoiro – Rajoy Palace

From here, once can admire the façade of the Cathedral (which was undergoing repairs/restoration) and then go into town in any number of directions.  The site of the Cathedral has been the site of a church since the 9th century.  Construction of the current church began in 1075 (!) and the church was consecrated in 1211 – THAT is patience!  Of course, it has been added to in the many centuries since.  It looks like a massive complex.

Praza do Obradoiro, Cathedral, façade, west facade,Santiago de Compostela, Galicia, Spain, World Heritage Site, travel, photo, architecture, Olympus

The massive west façade of the Cathedral

Praza do Obradoiro, Cathedral, west facade,Santiago de Compostela, Galicia, Spain, World Heritage Site, travel, photo, architecture, Olympus

Looking closer at the main façade ‘s exposed towers

Praza do Obradoiro, Cathedral, west facade,Santiago de Compostela, Galicia, Spain, World Heritage Site, travel, photo, architecture, Canon EOS Rebel

Detail of the Cathedral from the side

We stayed at a monastery-seminary called Hospedería San Martín Pinario next to the Cathedral but not within the Praza do Obradoiro – great location!  The rooms, as can be expected, are spartan but clean and functional.  Aside of the massive size of the building, I was surprised at the VERY wide hallways.  I wonder why they made them like that?!

Hospederia San Martin, Santiago de Compostela, hotel, seminary, monastery, travel, photo, Olympus, spartan

Room at the Hospedería

Hospederia San Martin, Santiago de Compostela, hotel, seminary, monastery, travel, photo, Olympus, spartan

One of the massive hallways, this one in the lobby

And the family connection

I mentioned meeting relatives earlier.  The story behind that is that my great-grandfather was born right outside of Santiago in a rural village named Bastavales (made famous in Spain in a song).  I had visited the hamlet 20 years earlier but, unprepared and not having a car, I got to see the church where he likely was baptized and walked past houses in which he and other relatives likely lived.  Years later, I made contact with the parish to see about getting a copy of the records of his baptism, etc. and got some good information, courtesy of the local priest.  I guess he told some of my great-grandfather’s local relatives about my inquiries – years later they reached out to me and we got to meet by letters, email and a phone call.  So, I made it my purpose to go meet them in this trip.  After the tapas lunch, I headed to a house in Bastavales using a taxi.  Back in 1994, I had taken a bus and had taken a while.  Now, with a brand new highway, it took about 15 minutes to get there.  Sweet.

It was really neat to meet one of my grandmother’s younger cousins (only two were alive at this point; my grandmother had been born in Cuba and never got to go to Spain so she never met any of her Spanish relatives), a lovely lady with blue eyes named Flora.

family, Bastavales

My grandmother’s cousin and her granddaughter (my 3rd cousin?)

I also met one of her sons and two of her grandchildren.  She shared some family history and showed me some photos.  Also, she pointed at a distance at the house where my great-grandfather had been born.  I only had a couple of hours to spare and they did not have a car readily available so I had to be satisfied with having seen the house from a distance.  I also saw the church I had visited 20 years earlier and noticed that I had walked in front of the houses she was pointing to after I got off the bus and walked a few kilometers to get to the church…

vines, green, Bastavales, Galicia, Spain, photo, Olympus

The side garden of their house has vines! Beautiful spot

wine press, Bastavales, vineyard, Galicia, Spain, photo, travel, wood, Olympus

Showing me the old wine press they used to use – pretty cool!

This week some other relatives have contacted me and have sent me photos they scanned of my grandmother.  Apparently, she kept in touch with them (though her dad died in Cuba when she was a toddler) and sent them pictures of her as a young woman.  They actually sent me a copy of the little “souvenir” with her baby picture issued when she was baptized; her dad must have sent it to Spain!  I realized with the info they gave me that she had been sending pictures and writing to them because her grandparents were still alive.  I was glad to hear she had some contact with them.

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This was a special way to end the Camino:  a pilgrimage to meet relatives my grandmother never met. I love Santiago de Compostela and now I must return to meet these other relatives that have given me such a wonderful gift.  And this will give me more time to explore Santiago more and keep enjoying tapas, hot chocolate and churros!

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