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An Epicurean Odyssey: Bilbao

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Bilbao was the first city to feel like a real metropolis since Bordeaux. Wide boulevards lined with classical architecture greeted us as soon as we arrived. Our dismount at the Airbnb was a little hectic as Google Maps directed us to the wrong spot on the right street. There was nowhere to park, and by the time I realized we weren't at the right place I had already extracted the bags from the car with Mei Ling at the wheel ready to move the car if necessary. Rather than load everything back inside, I figured we couldn't be that far away and I schlepped all the bags down the sidewalk singlehandedly looking for the correct address. I found it about two hundred meters away but there was no answer to the doorbell. After a series of messages through Airbnb, our host's father eventually showed up and took me up a cramped elevator to a muggy, shabby fifth floor apartment. We knew in advance about the lack of AC but our luck from the previous accommodations that weren't climatized seemed to have run out. It was seriously hot inside. I threw open every window I could find, dumped the bags, and sped back out to the car where everyone had now been waiting almost an hour.

It was too late for the market and way too early for dinner so the obvious destination was the Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao's signature attraction for the last twenty years. The Guggenheim has been credited with singlehandedly revitalizing Bilbao from a decaying port city to an internationally recognized center of culture. We parked at the Zubiarte mall nearby and walked back through a large park towards the museum. The Guggenheim wasn't the only impressive building in the area. The enormous Iberdrola Tower projects straight upward from the contoured greenery of the park in solitary, glass-shelled splendor.

When we reached the Guggenheim, it was immediately clear that this was far more than just an unusually-shaped museum. While the building itself is captivating, what is even more impressive is the way the structure complements and interacts with the river, bridges, city and park that surround it. The perimeter of the museum is cleverly enhanced by several enormous and whimsical sculptures. On the terrace between the museum and the city stands Jeff Koons' enormous Puppy, coated in multicolored flowers. These flowers have to be changed twice a year and necessitate a complicated internal system of irrigation and fertilization. Between the museum and the river is Louise Bourgeois' terrifying spider Maman, its spindly legs projecting upward from the bulbous body and then spiking sharply onto the ground in full arachnid hideousness. Sculpture or not, it was difficult to look at Ian standing helplessly between all those legs like a discombobulated gnat about to be consumed. The great irony of the sculpture is that Bourgeois constructed it in tribute to her mother, a weaver, and it symbolizes the maternal values of nurturing and protection. Could Bourgeois really have been oblivious to the frightening presence of the giant spider or is she intentionally pushing the viewer to confront deep-seated yet irrational fears?

The Guggenheim is at the apex of a wide curve of the River Nervion, which ultimately dumps into the Estuary of Bilbao and then the Atlantic Ocean. The river is brown and murky yet teems with large, energetic fish that swim close to the surface of the water. Numerous bridges cross the river within the city and the museum is situated at the foot of one of the most iconic. The giant red gate over the green La Salve Bridge is a purely artistic embellishment that was added in 2007 to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the museum's opening. A little to the west is the Pedro Arrupe footbridge which provides beautiful views of the museum, the river, and the La Salve Bridge.

Going inside the museum was never a serious consideration. Apart from the steep admission price, we didn't feel like spending a lot of energy just to keep the kids from creating a ruckus. There had been more than enough to see and experience on the outside. Instead we headed to the kids' paradise just to the west of the Guggenheim with splash fountains, an ice cream cafe, and a huge playground. It seemed to be a popular gathering place for locals and tourists alike. We let the kids loose for about an hour until it was time for dinner.

We drove back to the Casco Viejo, Bilbao's old town, and emerged from a parking garage to find that dusk was settling. The difference between Bilbao and the other Spanish cities we had visited was very apparent. Whereas Zaragoza, San Sebastian, and Logroño seemed to have little interest in the rivers flowing through their town centers, Bilbao has embraced the Nervion with a wide promenade and multistory apartment buildings right at the water's edge.

The Casco Viejo was architecturally atmospheric but very commercial and tourist-oriented. Our highly-recommended dinner restaurant proved to be ordinary. Back at the Airbnb some of the day's heat had dissipated but the air was still heavy and humid. We all passed a restless and sweaty night.

For our full day in Bilbao we decided to tour the city on foot. We were directly across the river from Mercado de la Ribera which occupied a prime spot on the waterfront.

The market was decent but nothing out of the ordinary, which was something of a disappointment given that we were in the largest city on the Atlantic coast of Spain. Most of the foot traffic seemed to be tourists, indicating that the locals were finding better bargains in neighborhood stores and supermarkets. We had breakfast at a sizable food court attached to the market which had a good selection of appetizing pintxos that also seemed to be priced in expectation of a tourist clientele.

We strolled northward along the bank of the Nervion, enjoying the amazing mixture of colors and architectural styles among the buildings that lined the river. Eventually we arrived at Santiago Calatrava's uniquely beautiful Zubizuri footbridge. We had now experienced Calatrava's futuristic designs in three different cities on this trip. The Zubizuri is particularly controversial due to design flaws that led to numerous slip and falls as well as broken glass tiles.

By this point we had reached Castaños, a residential neighborhood on the eastern bank of the Nervion notable for particularly interesting and colorful buildings. We had become accustomed to beautiful and innovative architecture in Spain, but it seemed that in Bilbao there was something new to admire every time we turned a corner.

Castaños is also where the funicular begins its ascent to the top of Mount Artxanda. Artxanda is the closest to the city center of the mountains that surround Bilbao and the most urbanized. We were all in need of refreshment once we arrived at the top and found a cafe where we had some disturbingly fluorescent yet revitalizing frozen drinks.

The views from the overlook in the park were spectacular. We could see pretty much the entire city of Bilbao from the Casco Viejo to the Guggenheim. It was fascinating to see the interrelationship between the city and the amazing natural forces of the Nervion and the mountains.

In the park was a large sculpture suggesting a fingerprint. Although I later learned he sculpture was a memorial to the Spanish Civil War, at the time it struck me as a reflection on identity. Our fingerprints are a symbol of our individuality yet in the modern world they also represent the ability of governments and corporations to identify and track us, and thereby control us. So is our fingerprint our friend or our enemy? Perhaps I was spending too much time musing on dark themes instead of simply enjoying the way the sunlight and the view of the mountain range streamed through the gaps in the metal.

Back on ground level, we soon found ourselves opposite from the Guggenheim. This time we let the kids cool off a little in the jet fountains before heading inward to the modern part of Bilbao on the west bank of the Nervion. Once again we were awed by the unique lenticular shape of the Iberdrola Tower.

We soon ran into central Bilbao's largest urban green space, Parque de Doña Casilda, which was full of luscious vegetation, fountains, and swans.

From the park we set a course to the center of the modern neighborhood, passing several more exemplars of Bilbao architecture on the way. The number of different styles on display seemed unlimited, with the only requirement being that the buildings had to be both striking and beautiful.

The ten year old cultural center Azkuna Zentroa is yet another of Bilbao's temples of design. Philippe Starck designed an avant garde interior within the old municipal wine market while leaving the classical exterior largely intact. Within the lobby the upper floors appear to be supported by a grid of short columns, each of different shape and style. One of our goals was to see the rooftop swimming pool with the glass bottom, allowing a ground floor view of the swimmers. After searching all over the center for it we learned it was being renovated. We consoled ourselves with a light snack at the immaculate cafe in the lobby.

From here it was a short walk east through the most bustling section of modern Bilbao back to the Nervion and then the Casco Viejo. We still had some time for an enjoyable stroll around the old town before dinner and encountered a creative street musician playing music on drinking glasses. We did our very best to find authentic Basque food for dinner and struck out miserably, ultimately concluding that the Casco Viejo has pretty much been abandoned by the locals. It's a pretty place to walk around for a couple of hours but for food it's better to head to the eastern side of the Nervion.

We rose early the next morning to begin our drive along the Atlantic coast to Galicia. Our two day stop in Bilbao had been one of the highlights of the trip so far, despite the lack of memorable meals and market browsing. The city had been a visual feast of architecture, design, and natural beauty the likes of which we had rarely seen. These kinds of unexpected blessings are what make travel so enjoyable and addictive. No matter how much you plan, you never know for sure what's going to be around that next corner. We're far from the only travelers who have fallen in love with Bilbao. Here are some more blogs about Bilbao that I've enjoyed reading since we returned home.

Posted by zzlangerhans 04:00 Archived in Spain Tagged travel bilbao blog tony guggenheim casco_viejo friedman nervion artxanda azkuna_zentroa Comments (0)

An Epicurean Odyssey: La Rioja and Vitoria-Gasteiz


The autonomous region of La Rioja and the wine growing area of La Rioja overlap, but are far from the same thing. The wine grapes are grown predominantly in the valleys on both sides of the Ebro, with the largest subregions being Rioja Alta and Rioja Baja on the southern bank. There is also a small wine region on the northern bank of the Ebro known as Rioja Alavesa which is actually part of the Basque Country, and we headed there first on our only full day in the area. We enjoy wine but not enough to devote a full day to touring wineries, especially with the three little ones in tow. What brought us to Rioja Alavesa was the medieval walled town of Laguardia, which seemed like it might be the most interesting city in the region.

Just outside of Laguardia we stopped to admire Bodegas Ysios. This winery is more famous for its beautiful design and setting than it is for its product. The architect was Santiago Calatrava, who we were familiar with from the Ciudad de las Artes y las Ciencias in Valencia. The building has a surreal and striking appearance, with an undulating roof composed of enormous aluminum beams that create a pixelated appearance when viewed from the front.

Despite not having made an appointment to tour the winery, our curiosity got the better of us and we pressed on the buzzer at the front door. We could see people walking around the upper level through the huge glass panels but no one came to the door. I couldn't blame them. People undoubtedly show up off the road and ring that buzzer all day. We were content to walk behind the winery where we saw expansive vineyards with a backdrop of the rocky outcroppings of the Sierra Cantabria. There were innumerable bunches of unripe tempranillo grapes on the vines and we couldn't resist picking a few of the sour green spheres to pop between our teeth..

Back on the main road we took the turn-off to Laguardia and ascended to the hilltop citadel. From the mirador outside the walls we could see the winery we had just left as well as expansive views of the Rioja Alavesa.

We were delighted with Laguardia from the moment we passed through the walls. Perhaps because it was siesta time, the narrow pedestrian streets were quiet and peaceful without seeming abandoned. The buildings that lined the streets on either side were relatively tall, contributing to the sense of navigating a maze of canyons as we wandered through the town. Bright sunlight overhead and the omnipresence of greenery and brightly-colored laundry in the wrought-iron balconies created a cheerful atmosphere.

We took a break for lunch just outside the walls at Restaurante Amelibia Jatetxea, whose entryway was a shrine to Rioja wine. Then it was time to reward the kids with ice cream for having been upbeat and cooperative all morning.

At the northern end of the tiny town are some open squares and the imposing Torre Abacial and the Church of Santa María de los Reyes. We concluded that Laguardia was the most beautiful small town we had seen thus far on the trip, thanks in no small part to the lack of heavy tourist traffic.

We had now passed through most of the day in La Rioja and the closest we had come to a wine tasting was banging on the door of Ysios. We reviewed our options and decided our best option was the Vivanco Museum of Wine Culture outside of Briones, in Rioja Alta. Like Bodegas Ysios, this facility was surrounded by vineyards with a spectacular view of a medieval city on a hill.

Our experience inside was a good reminder of why we avoid museums when we travel. The kids tore around and made a god-awful amount of noise, and no amount of cajoling or threats made any difference in the way they behaved. Fortunately there were only three or four other visitors to disturb. I wasn't able to pay much attention to the exhibits, but the coolest part for the kids was a game where they got to squash projections of grapes on the floor by jumping on them. There was also the largest collection of corkscrews in the world, some of which had a phallic motif.

Vivanco is a winery as well as a museum so we finally had our opportunity to taste Rioja wines after we finished touring the exhibits. One unique aspect of the Vivanco winery is that they make wines from rare Rioja varietals. For most casual wine drinkers, the Rioja region is synonymous with Tempranillo grapes and it's true that Tempranillo makes up by far the highest percentage or even 100% of most Rioja wines. However, there are four other grapes permitted in Rioja wines: Garnacha, Graciano, Mazuelo, and Maturana Tinta. Garnacha was already familiar to us because it's the major constituent of Aragonese wines and also popular in France and Australia (as Grenache). I'd never heard of the others, so it was interesting to try wines which were purely derived from each of these grapes. And the verdict was ... they all tasted just about the same to us. We enjoy wine but we don't pretend to be connoisseurs, and I've never tasted a note of anything except grapes and alcohol in a glass of wine. How people detect cedar, coffee, plums and God knows what else in wine is something I'll never understand. Mei Ling and I certainly know what wines we like, and fortunately we usually agree, but it doesn't match up very well with the accepted hierarchies. The best thing about visiting wine regions is creating memories we can reopen any time we uncork a bottle from that area in the future.

We hadn't seen much of the Rioja valley geographically but we returned to Logroño that evening thoroughly satisfied with our experience. That evening we returned to Tapas Alley which was an even more riotous celebration of food than it had been the previous night. Then we took a last stroll around the center of this vibrant, engaging city eventually ending up at the warmly illuminated Cathedral of Santa María de la Redonda, looking even more beautiful in the dark of night than it had been in the sunlight.


Thanks to the heavy concentration of interesting cities in this part of Spain, we didn't have to drive far to get to our next destination. In fact, there was plenty of time to stop off at Vitoria-Gasteiz on the way to Bilbao. Despite being the capital of the Basque Country, Vitoria isn't even a blip on the international tourism radar that is dominated by San Sebastian and Bilbao. We love the change of pace that comes with visiting cities which aren't all about racing around to different attractions that are mobbed with tourists. We explored the more modern part of the city center first and found it pleasant and fairly typical of a Spanish mid-sized city.

Vitoria-Gasteiz starts to get more interesting as one ascends the steep hill that contains the medieval Casco Viejo. At the peak one is rewarded with the impressive Cathedral of Santa María de Vitoria, which was undergoing restoration at the time of our visit. Below the apex of the hill are a series of concentric oval levels with surprisingly wide and smoothly-paved roads. The levels are connected by staircases and escalators, giving the old town a very pleasing and symmetric geometrical structure. Navigating to our chosen tapas restaurant proved more complicated than we expected as we got the level wrong twice before we finally found it.

Lunch at La Malquerida was quite good, complemented by the alfresco setting in a small courtyard in the shadow of the Iglesia de San Miguel. I found myself in the unusual position of having to help a French backpacker who didn't speak any Spanish order his tapas, interpreting directly between two foreign languages I have far from a solid command of. In the area around La Malquerida the murals were vivid and electrifying, probably the best we'd seen on our journey.

We finished our descent from the Casco Viejo in Plaza de la Virgen Blanca, an atmospheric square dominated by a war monument and surrounded by beautiful buildings. The area was being set up for the annual city festival which would take place that weekend, but we would be long gone by then. It was time to move on to our next destination, the acclaimed and historic city of Bilbao.

Posted by zzlangerhans 13:51 Archived in Spain Comments (0)

An Epicurean Odyssey: Pamplona and Logroño

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The north of Spain has most of the smaller autonomous regions and over the next few days we were going to pass through all of them. We would have missed Navarre entirely if we hadn't decided to stop over in Pamplona, the only city in the region of any significant size. Navarre is closely related in culture and politics to the Basque Country on their western border. In fact, Pamplona is probably the most typically Basque city in Spain. The city is famous primarily for the annual Fiesta de San Fermín, popularly known as the Running of the Bulls. I had actually visited the city seventeen years previously for exactly that purpose, although my memories were limited to the run itself and a haze of partying in the streets. When we arrived on a sleepy Tuesday morning there was little that I recognized. Our first stop was the covered market Mercado de Santo Domingo, which was pleasant enough but contained little to distinguish it from any of the others we had seen.

Not far from the market is picturesque, cobblestoned Plaza Consistorial which is surrounded on three sides by colorful and dignified townhouses. On the northwestern side is the majestic Pamplona City Hall, which blends Neoclassical and Baroque styles.

Plaza Consistorial proved to be Pamplona's high point. We walked as far as the Monumento al Encierro, an enormous bronze sculpture that was installed in 1997 to celebrate the Running of the Bulls. On the way we passed Plaza del Castillo, a huge open square that was largely devoid of interesting sights or foot traffic.

It was way too early for a real lunch. We stopped by a couple of appealing tapas bars but ultimately decided we weren't in the mood for pintxos. We spent a little more time wandering around the narrow pedestrian streets of the town center and then got back on the road to the region of La Rioja.

We probably would have skipped Logroño and La Rioja if we didn't have a modest interest in wine, honed by prior travel through areas such as Puglia, Napa, and Côtes du Rhône. That would have been a tragedy. The next two days were among the most enjoyable that we spent in Spain. I wasn't familiar with Logroño before creating the itinerary for this trip but it seemed like the logical choice as a base to explore the region. Aside from having the largest daily market in La Rioja the city is reputed to have possibly the best tapas in Spain.

We'd missed the early lunch window between Pamplona and Logroño so our first priority was to find a table during peak hours, not a trivial task. Most of the recommended restaurants were on a single short street in the center of the old town, Calle del Laurel, which we referred to afterwards as Tapas Alley. As I expected it was difficult to find a place that could take the five of us but all we had to do was keep marching down the street asking in every doorway and eventually we were wedged in. Lunch was satisfying and included savory caracoles as well as our first taste of percebes (goose barnacles) since we'd visited Portugal four years previously. Naturally we washed everything down with sturdy Rioja wine.

Our Airbnb was a modern, air-conditioned apartment just a five minute walk from the old town. We got settled and then headed right back to begin our city exploration. The architectural highlight of Logroño is the Baroque Co-cathedral of Santa María de La Redonda. It's an impressive building with imposing twin belltowers and an open courtyard that attracts local soccer players.

In the northern part of the old town is the oldest church in Logroño, Parroquia de Santiago Real. It is a traditional stop on the Camina del Santiago and in the courtyard the flagstones are painted with pictures relevant to the pilgrimage. It appeared to be some kind of a game and Cleo was infuriated with me for not being able to figure out the rules.

Just north of here was the Ebro, the same river we'd encountered two weeks previously in Zaragoza. As in Zaragoza the river was brown and unappealing, and seemed to be largely ignored. The most interesting feature here is the 19th century stone bridge which leads to roads north out of town.

As in Valencia and Aragon, street art is a thing in Logroño. Expect to see something whimsical or disturbing around every corner.

Directly south of the old town is a small but pretty park. In the center is the Monument to General Espartero surrounded by a fountain and greenery.

Dinner was very late and consisted of a migration from east to west in the old town, stopping at various hole in the wall bars for tapas which we consumed on wine cask tables in the alleys. A large variety of wines by the glass was always available.

The daily market in Logroño was pretty sleepy on Wednesday morning which was a little disappointing, but it was nice to be able to walk around and take pictures without feeling like we were getting in the way.

The few restaurants on the upper level of the market hadn't opened yet, but fortunately there was an excellent tapas place open directly across the street. They had an amazing pincho consisting of gulas rolled in zucchini atop a slice of jamon. I used to think when I ate gulas that I was eating baby eels until one day I looked closely at a tin of the stuff in a Spanish market. It turns out that gulas are actually fake baby eels made from processed pollock, essentially the same stuff that goes into the surimi used to make sushi. Real angulas are very hard to find and enormously expensive when you do. In all likelihood I've never eaten the real thing but I'm not sure it matters, since by all accounts the flavor of either angulas or gulas is entirely imparted by the garlic and oil they are cooked with. If you want to know for sure whether you're having angulas or gulas, the easiest way to differentiate is whether or not there are tiny eyes at one end. But in reality, if you have to ask then you're eating gulas.

Posted by zzlangerhans 02:59 Archived in Spain Tagged travel tapas logrono blog pamplona tony la_rioja friedman navarre Comments (2)

An Epicurean Odyssey: San Sebastian

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San Sebastian is the Spanish name for the city the Basques call Donostia. I generally call places that are well-known internationally by their international/English names (Rome, Munich, Prague etc.) and less familiar places by their local names. Although San Sebastian is neither the largest city nor the capital of the Basque region, it is probably the most popular for tourism. The city has become famous worldwide for its crescentic beach bookended by imposing coastal mountains as well as for gastronomy. The city hosts several Michelin-starred restaurants including Arzak which is recognized as one of the best in the world.

We arrived in San Sebastian on a high note. We'd had a great start to the day in Biarritz and we'd only had to drive a short distance to arrive at our home for the next two days. We had an Airbnb in the Gros neighborhood, a residential area across the Urumea River from the touristic part of town. We didn't have air conditioning but the atmosphere wasn't heavy with the windows open. The kitchen was so small that two people couldn't fit in it and any serious food preparation was clearly out of the question. It was just mid-afternoon so we decided to walk to the beach strip of La Concha. On our side of the river there was little to see except for a pretty Gothic church and some impressively ornate townhouses.

We crossed the Urumea on the Puente de Santa Catalina, the second bridge from the mouth of the river. To the north we could see the Puente Del Kursaal and the mass of Monte Urgull, and to the south was the elaborate Puente Maria Cristina and the downtown Amara neighborhood.large_IMG_1188.JPGlarge_IMG_1191.JPG

Up to this point San Sebastian had seemed much like any other mid-sized Spanish city. However, once we'd crossed through Centro to reach the eastern end of the La Concha beach crescent it was clear we were in no ordinary city. Despite the fact that it was late afternoon and overcast, the entire beach was jam-packed with a seething mass of humanity that seemed to overflow into the water. It was probably the most crowded, riotous beach I've ever seen in my life.

We hadn't come prepared to swim so we resisted the kids' entreaties to go down to the sand. Instead we walked the entire length of the elevated La Concha boardwalk, enjoying the views of the Bahía de La Concha. The twin outcroppings of Monte Urgull and Monte Igueldo formed the jaws of the bay, with the uninhabited island of Santa Clara hovering between them like a morsel of food about to get chomped. Across the boulevard from the beach were the top apartment buildings and hotels in San Sebastian.

At the western end of La Concha a vertiginous staircase led directly down into the surf. Stairs also led up from here to a hill on whose apex was perched the Miramar Palace, a former summer home of the Queen of Spain.

Behind the palace was a gently sloping lawn with trees loaded with purple crab apples. Ian and Cleo picked a few with my assistance and they proved to be virtually inedible.

We returned the way we came to forage for dinner. After a fruitless search for an atmospheric restaurant in Centro, we walked northward onto the peninsula that contains Monte Urgull. Here we encountered San Sebastian's elaborate City Hall, which was an enormous casino until gambling was outlawed in 1924. This impressive example of Belle Époque architecture marks the beginning of the Parte Vieja, or old town.

Once we were in the old town, it was clear that this was where the throngs of tourists were expected to eat. The pedestrian alleys were filled with bars and small restaurants serving the local specialty of pintxos. Pintxos are typically small tapas-like snacks on top of a piece of toasted bread, often with a wooden skewer affixing the two together. The skewer is what gives the pintxo its name. Mei Ling and I can eat these but we don't consider them dinner, mainly because we don't eat a lot of bread and because the toppings tend to be very salty. Trying to find a sit-down meal was virtually impossible due to the crowds and we were turned away from numerous restaurants. On our last attempt we were shown to a basement dining room where we had a meal that was pretty decent with no pintxos whatsoever. Sorry, but sometimes the local specialty isn't for us.

After dessert at an ice cream shop, we wandered around the old town and the seaside bar area for a while. Very little was amenable to photography with the limited equipment we had, with the exception of the brightly illuminated city hall.

There are two covered markets in San Sebastian, Mercado de San Martín in Centro and Mercado de la Bretxa in Parte Vieja, so we thought we had it made. Unfortunately, both were suffering significantly from the Mondays especially Mercado de San Martín. We puttered around dutifully for a while but the energy clearly wasn't there and we moved on.

We hadn't taken the kids to the beach once on this trip and we'd already seen most of the interesting part of San Sebastian, so we headed down to La Concha. It was still crowded although not as ridiculous as it had been on Sunday. The kids had fun although when they went in the water I was terrified of losing sight of them amid all the kids moving around in the surf. Just before we left a huge wave rolled over our towels, leaving them saturated with sand and seawater. It took close to half an hour to get them de-sanded and wrung out using the beach showers.

There's a funicular to the top of Monte Igueldo and an amusement park, which made it the easy choice of the two mountains to ascend. The amusement park is open every day during the summer, and otherwise only on weekends and holidays. The rides and games were pretty basic but my kids are young enough that it doesn't take much to entertain them. The most unique feature was a water flume that coursed around the edge of the mountain providing great views over the bay.

We didn't have much inclination to return to Parte Vieja for dinner so we decided to drive a few miles east to the small suburb of Pasaia, which has a reputation for fresh seafood. Pasaia is best known to travelers for the scenic coastal walk from central San Sebastian, which is a part of the Camino del Santiago. We did find a decent restaurant although the al fresco location along a busy street left much to be desired. The town rises steeply up another coastal mountain behind the port. After dinner we took the city elevator up a couple of levels but it was already too dark to see much in terms of views, and there was no old town to speak of. If I had to do it over again I probably would have made a slightly longer trip in the other direction to the peninsular fishing town of Getaria.

The next morning the markets were closed for a regional holiday and there was nothing else to do but get back on the road. We had two entirely new regions of Spain to visit before nightfall.

Posted by zzlangerhans 04:17 Archived in Spain Tagged travel san_sebastian blog donostia monte_urgull pasajes pasaia la_concha monte_igueldo miramar_palace Comments (0)

An Epicurean Odyssey: Aragon part 2 (Zaragoza and Huesca)

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When we're in a city with a market it's easy to organize our day. The market has to be the first destination, and then we head to whichever on our list of sights is closest. Zaragoza's covered market is a beautiful building reminiscent of Mercat Colon in Valencia, but unfortunately it was in the process of being renovated. Bummer. The temporary replacement was a block away, but it was overcrowded and devoid of atmosphere, with barely anything to eat.

Just a few steps from the rear entrance of the temporary market is Plaza de la Seo, which is one of the most breathtaking public squares that I've seen in Spain. At the eastern end is the tall Mudéjar belltower of the Zaragoza Cathedral, La Seo del Salvador. Occupying most of the north side of the square, bordering the river, is a far more impressive structure than the Cathedral. The Basílica de Nuestra Señora del Pilar is the tenth largest Christian church in the world. The square that these two churches preside over is elegant and unique. At the western end of the Plaza is the magnificent Fuente de la Hispanidad, which was constructed in 1991 as a part of the most recent remodel of Plaza de la Seo. Water runs down a concrete incline and spills over a jagged rent in the otherwise smooth surface into a pool. The water then runs underneath a walkway into another pool with a strange irregular shape. I didn't learn until later that the open space in the fountain including the pools forms the shape of Central and South America. Behind the fountain is yet another church, the stately Iglesia de San Juan de los Panetes, this one in Romanesque style with a precariously leaning tower.

Closer to the center of the square is another quirky modern sculpture, an enormous sphere whose provenance and meaning I never learned. After the sphere, the rest of the square is wide open to admire the amazing Basilica. The only building in Spain I can think of whose exterior is comparably spectacular is the Catedral de Sevilla, and I have to say I prefer Zaragoza's Basilica. Not only is it massive, but also colorful and satisfyingly symmetrical. We spent a fair amount of time trying to figure out a way to photograph the entire structure in one frame without using panorama and ultimately concluded it was impossible.

Although a striking building in its own right, La Seo del Salvador seems almost like an afterthought after the Basilica. The prodigious bell tower was a conversion from the minaret of the mosque that formerly occupied the site. In the foreground of the cathedral is the unusual cubical structure that marks the entrance to the subterranean Museo del Foro de Caesaraugusta.

We hadn't found much to eat in the market so lunch was becoming a pressing need. Fortunately, we were now adjacent to Zaragoza's "Tapas district", El Tubo. This small pedestrian quarter was colorful and atmospheric, although we found the restaurants to be touristy and not particularly good.

After lunch we walked north until we reached the Puente de Piedra, also known as the Bridge of Lions for the statues that guard its entrances. From the bridge we had another view of the Basilica as well as the greenish, uninspiring Ebro.

By this time the sun was at its peak and Spenser was sleeping on my back. Ian was passed out in the only stroller we'd brought and Cleo wasn't going to last much longer. Mopping the sweat from our brows, we abandoned our plans to explore modern Zaragoza on the northern side of the Ebro and headed back to the Airbnb for siesta. In the late afternoon, once some of the heat had dissipated, we ventured back out in the opposite direction towards Palacio de la Aljafería. The Aljafería was originally a Moorish palace, but it was repurposed by the Christians after they conquered Zaragoza in the 12th century. Today the building houses the Aragonese regional parliament, although much of it remains open for visitors. It's an appealing building, but not something I would have visited Zaragoza for specifically. We had time to kill before dinner so we looked through some of the dry exhibits. It was enough to remind us why we don't drag the kids through museums when we're traveling.

We don't usually eat at the same place twice, but there were no second thoughts about returning to Puerta Cinegia Gastronómica for dinner that evening. We weren't excited about walking all the way back from the Aljafería, so we tried our luck at the nearby bus stop. Although it was a straight line down the road to the old town, we learned that only one of the bus lines that came through would be heading in that direction. Naturally, it was the last one to come and it was packed. Mei Ling tried to shoo some people in further in order to get our stroller on but the driver waved us off. We had to walk, but the silver lining was that we found a cheap barber to lop off Ian and Spenser's shaggy manes.

Puerta Cinegia Gastronómica was great again, although we arrived a little early for a couple of our favorite stalls to open. After dinner, we walked down the main pedestrian street of the old town, Calle Alfonso I, at the end of which hovered the luminous central dome of the Basilica.

The only thing we saw in Zaragoza more amazing than Basílica de Nuestra Señora del Pilar in the broad light of day was the illuminated Basilica at night. The Fuente de la Hispanidad was also eerily lit up with an ever-changing series of vivid colors. If anything, the Plaza de la Seo was more busy than it had been during the day.

We left Zaragoza having seen much less of the city than is typical for us. Perhaps because we'd seen so many neighborhoods in Valencia we hadn't felt the need to explore as much. We had definitely made it to all the important highlights of the central city, and I think that's likely going to remain our entire experience of Zaragoza. It had been worth the visit just for Plaza de la Seo and Puerta Cinegia Gastronómica, but there's no compelling reason for us to return. Of course, we have many years of traveling still ahead of us so there's no way of knowing for sure. On the other hand, I'm confident that we'll be back to Valencia, Madrid, and Barcelona in the future.

We had to be in France by dinner time so there was no time to waste getting back on the road. It took us less than an hour of highway driving over featureless Aragonian landscape to get to Huesca. Like Teruel, Huesca was a small city with a good-sized old town. We wandered through a few picturesque alleys and squares before finding a tapas restaurant that seemed right.

The central part of the old town was a rising maze of small streets that eventually culminated at Catedral de Huesca. The 14th century Gothic church is most recognizable for its ornate arched doorway flanked by stone statues of the apostles. We treated the kids to ice cream in the nearly-empty plaza before heading to our last stop of the first Spanish leg of the road trip.

Castello de Loarre is just a half hour from Huesca via scenic one-lane roads. After taking the turnoff from the route that proceeds to the town of Loarre, the road rapidly ascends into the foothills of Sierra de Guara. At the highest point, a well-preserved medieval fortress commands sweeping views of Aragon's countryside. Castello de Loarre played a critical role in the reconquest of the surrounding area from the Muslims in the 12th century, and is now considered to be one of the most well-preserved Romanesque castles in all of Europe. Kids love castles, and this one had all the elements necessary to generate happy oohs and aahs from Ian and Cleo.

The views from Castello de Loarre reminded me a little of Rocca Calascio in Italy, although the access here had been much simpler. There were plenty of rooms, staircases, and ramparts to explore. As we ascended into the higher part of the castle we heard beautiful music which I assumed was being played on a speaker. We arrived in a chapel and saw two people already there who had such an understated presence that it took a few moments before I realized the amazing sound was actually their voices. They were taking advantage of the acoustics of the chapel to create exquisite, resonant music. It was over far too quickly, but it was a great reminder that the most memorable and wonderful moments of a trip can come at unexpected times.

Posted by zzlangerhans 13:26 Archived in Spain Tagged zaragoza huesca aragon Comments (0)

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