Laura's Vacation Blog

Monday, May 25, 2015

A Taste of Pintxos, Tapas and Culture

Justin and I had such a great time in Southern Spain in 2013 that we decided to take another vacation to Spain but this time, explore the North. We wanted to get taste of the fine Basque cuisine. We visited several Spanish cities and towns, Bilbao, San Sebastian, Pamplona, Olite and Ujue, Sos del Rey Catolico, Torla, Zaragoza, and Madrid.

We arrived in the evening of May 9 (Saturday). 

Sunday, May 10:
On Sunday, we walked out along the river to the Guggenheim museum. Sunday was the warmest day we would encounter in Spain, probably about 85-90 degrees. On our walk out there, we poked around at a flea market and flower market set up for the weekly sales. 

Maman, a giant spider sculpture by Louise Bourgeois

The Guggenheim museum itself houses just a small amount of art since most of the installations are quite huge. There is a giant room housing several sculptures by Richard Serra (rusty steel). On our visit, there was a sizable exhibit of Niki de Saint Phalle sculptures and drawings and mixed media works. 

The Bilbao Guggenheim, by architect Frank Gehry. It is a less colorful, but of similar architectural style to Seattle's EMP.

Here is one of the tamer pieces by Niki de St. Phalle. She was a very provocative artist including many feminist themes as well as a lot of sexual imagery in her works.
Monday, May 11:

Bilbao is surrounded by rolling hills and mountains. While we spent much of our time in the old town, it is a very modern city with a more contemporary edge than many of the other places we visited.

Trying out the panorama mode on our camera--this is a pretty park above Bilbao's old town, Casco Viejo.
 We took the funicular trolly up to Mt. Artxanda for some sweeping views of the city. 
Staring down on Bilbao from the park at the top of Mt Artxanda.

Beautiful produce at the city public market.

Freshly caught!

We were pretty amused by the side of beef that walked by us at Bilbao's city market

Tuesday, May 12:
We caught a bus to San Sebastian, a quick 1 hour journey across the top of Spain. San Sebastian is the city where the Spanish royalty came for vacation and is strikingly beautiful. It is also the gastronomical capital of Spain which is why we visited.

We missed out on the Basque ethnological museum in Bilbao but San Sebastian had a Basque cultural museum, Museo San Telmo, that was packed with information and exhibits and had an English audioguide. One of the things we noticed in the North was that there were far fewer translations to English in museums, churches and other sites. We know enough Spanish to get the gist of things, but we miss out on a lot of the colorful descriptions without the translation.

Here are examples of head wear worn by the Basque before the more recognizable beret was popularized.
One of the beautiful French-styled hotels built for the royalty and high society in the early 20th century. It was pock-marked with bullet holes from the Spanish Civil War.
Hanging out at in the harbor, with the Royal Yacht Club and Town Hall in the background.

Wednesday, May 13:
We wanted to hike up one of the big hills in San Sebastian for great views of the beaches and for some hearty exercise. Despite all of the amazing food we'd indulged in so far, we had a very special evening meal planned at Arzak, a 3-star Michelin restaurant. One of the hikes in town is up Mt. Urgull which has an old castle, Castilla de la Mota, at the top. In the morning, we had some fun picking up goodies for a picnic lunch at the castle--cheese, olives, fruit, pickled peppers, salami.

An antique cannon in the castle, aimed out to sea.

On top of the castle on Mt. Urgull, is a small chapel with a giant statue atop. I was amused by the lightning rod gear that makes it look like Jesus is smoking a cigarette.

Not the crispest views on the day we visited but San Sebastian's La Concha Bay behind us.

At the end of our meal at Arzak. The experience was very memorable because the food was so artfully presented. I wish I had some photos of the courses but it felt out of place to be photographing food at this place. Justin really liked the amuse bouche: a morcilla dumpling served on a crushed beer can.
Thursday, May 14:
The day started out nicely enough...I actually thought there was a chance that it would warm up enough to take a dip in the sea. We rented bicycles and pedaled out to the opposite end of the bay to ride the funicular up Mt. Igueldo.

The funicular station...a charming facade.

From the top of the Mt Igueldo, the Isla Santa Clara with the Old Town in the background.

Justin, smiling at the top, thinking about swimming in the bay below.
We made our way back down to sea level and pedaled inland on one of the City's many bike paths, through a giant tunnel, emerging into a building rain storm. By the time we had cycled back to the bike rental store, we were drenched. I couldn't even hold my eyes open over the last few blocks there was so much water coming down. We made it back to the hotel to dry out and get our rain gear before heading out on a little afternoon walking tour with a local guide. She took us around the core parts of town explaining the history of the city. One interesting anecdote she shared was that the siege of San Sebastian in 1813 was successful because French and British forces were able to penetrate the city walls through a crack. Nowadays, the public market is called Bretxa or "crack".

Friday, May 15:
On Friday morning, we rented a car in San Sebastian so we could drive to Pamplona and from there into the Pyrenees mountain villages. Justin brought his GPS but despite that, made about a dozen wrong turns trying to navigate the round-abouts. But, we made it to Pamplona without harm. We didn't have much of an agenda in Pamplona except to do laundry and poke around at a few of the city sites, including the famous street where they do the running of the bulls in July.

The government building for the Kingdom of Navarre, for which Pamplona is the capital city.
The big deal here is the Encierro or Running of the Bulls. Along the tourist streets, there were photos everywhere of runners getting gored and trampled during the festival of San Fermin.
Saturday, May 16:
With a car and a very loose schedule, we decided to spend the day checking out the charming medieval villages in Navarre and Aragon on our way to Torla. Our first stop was the town of Olite which could not have been cuter. There was an ancient castle with amazing views, old stone churches and homes and a big wine producing scene.

A snapshot of the castle, the town church and the surrounding vineyards from one of the castle towers. This castle had been destroyed in the early 1800s and then rebuilt in the early 1900s.

The queen in her courtyard garden.

This was part of the old castle that has since been developed into a hotel.
 From Olite, we motored onto Ujue, just a few miles up the road. Ujue has a beautiful old church to tour and more cobblestone streets to lose yourself in.

Chillin' in Ujue.
After Ujue, we headed east along a very windy road to the village of Sos del Rey Catolico. (Sos, of the Catholic King--Ferdinand II). We arrived during the afternoon, the Spanish siesta, when everything is closed, but poked around the village taking in the scenery of another very attractive medieval town.

Late in the afternoon, we headed out toward Torla, our final destination for the day. The roads were so curvy I had quite the episode of motion sickness but was able to recover when we finally we reached a main highway. Torla is in the foothills of the Pyrenees and like the villages we had visited earlier in the day, was a town with lovely old stone buildings and plenty of charm to go around.
The Pyrenees view from our hotel room.
Sunday May 17:

On Sunday morning, we set out to hike the Circa de Soasa to the Cola de Caballo waterfall via the valley of Ordesa. At the end, in addition to the waterfall, there are wonderful views of Mt. Perdido. Along the hike, there are 3 other major waterfalls and plenty of mountainous scenery. This hike was my kind of hike...flat. There was a little elevation gain but nothing like hiking in the Seattle area. The route was 18km round trip and took us about 6 hours.

One of the earlier waterfalls.

The Cola de Caballo (horsetail) waterfall at the end of the hike.

Nice flat trail through the valley

Another stunning view.
Monday, May 18:
We returned the car in Zaragoza on Monday morning and checked into our hotel. Exactly opposite the hotel in the same plaza was the Basilica of our Lady of the Pillar, and amazingly huge and important Catholic cathedral. It is the first church to be dedicated to Mary. The interior is pretty similar to many of the other Catholic churches throughout Spain, albeit with frescos by Goya on the ceiling. In the same plaza are several other attractions. Zaragoza has an above average number of museums, ruins and churches to tour.

Basilica de Nuestra Señora del Pilar

Le Seo: First a mosque but now a Catholic cathedral.

Zaragoza's main commercial drag with the Pilar Cathedral at the end.

Tuesday, May 19:
We walked out to the Moorish palace on the fringe of the downtown area in Zaragoza, Aljafería. The palace was a reminder of the architecture and design elements we saw a couple of years ago in the south of Spain. This palace didn't have a lot of areas open to visitors and we missed out on the gardens because despite the blue sky in the photo, it started to rain while we were visiting. There was an interesting exhibit on King Ferdinand II, the King from Sos del Rey Catolico. This King from the 1400-1500s ruled for many years and his reach and power was wide. Credited with uniting Spain, he conquered the last of the Islamic dynasties in Spain and drove the Jews out of the Spanish lands as well as the key architect of the Inquisition. He sponsored Columbus on his expedition to the Americas.

By the time we finished up in the Aljafería palace, the rain had moved in. We decided to visit another museum, the firefighters' Museum. Most of the museum was in Spanish which made reading the descriptions a little challenging but it wasn't difficult to get a basic understanding. Most of the showpieces on display were the equipment used over the years to fight fires in Zaragoza. There were several engines and some real antiques that predated engines.

One of the first rigs for the firefighters of Zaragoza. I'm not too sure this was very effective against fires.

Wednesday May 20:
We visited an exhibit on Origami. There is a community organization for this paper-folding art form in Zaragoza and this group had sponsored a modest show of hundreds of really remarkable pieces. Some of the origami was more familiar (e.g. paper cranes) but there were several pieces that are classified as origami but involved crumpling, paper weaving, sewing/stitching paper.  There was a room full of paper dresses that had been entered into a recent international competition for paper dressmaking.

Folded and woven paper.
Thursday, May 21:
Our last day in Spain, we spent in Madrid. We hadn't found much for souvenirs that were practical to bring back but did decide that we wanted a bota de vino (bota bag). We had seen these all over the Basque region during the first week of our trip but of course decided we wanted one in the second half of the trip where they were less available. We did a little internet research and learned that the cheap souvenirs don't really hold up but if you buy a real bota made from goat leather and lined with a pine resin to keep it waterproof, it will last a lifetime. We found a boteria in Madrid and were able to purchase a bota from the craftsman himself. His little workshop was really interesting. He makes smaller botas, which we bought but also makes botas from a whole goat.

Botas and barrels. The big botas are made from the entire goat hide.

We made our way over the the west side of Madrid, by way of the boteria and strolled through the gardens at the royal palace and visited the Cathedral de la Almudena before heading back to our hotel to rest up for dinner. We'd actually selected Madrid to end our trip because we had enjoyed the tapas scene so much on our earlier trip.

The gardens and royal palace in Madrid.

The organ at the Cathedral de la Almudena. This was a more modern cathedral with much more contemporary art and stained glass.

Link to all of our pictures here.