Having wanted to visit Bilbao, Spain for years to see the Frank Gehry designed Guggenheim Museum, my wife Kathy and I finally found a trip through Trafalgar Tours that covered Northern Spain, starting in Barcelona and traveling on an 1,800-mile loop to end up in Madrid and including Bilbao.
Turns out that Spain is the second most mountainous country in Europe, after Switzerland, as we found out as we drove around in a 50-person bus for 12 days.
Barcelona: You could literally spend weeks in this city to visit the myriad visual delights that the city offers. It wasn’t until Barcelona hosted the 1992 Olympics that it became more of a tourist spot. A measure of that was they had 80 cruise ships a year prior to the Olympics, and now have 800.
When we arrived, we sallied forth and found a restaurant called Bilbao Berria, which served up a delightful menu of what are called pintxos or pinchos in Basque country (tapas in southern Spain) from which to choose.
We would just point, tell them how many we wanted, and they’d serve you up right there. When it was time to pay, they’d count the number of toothpicks that held the little pintxos together and figure out what you owed. We found that the white wine was very weak so sangria became the drink of choice. Once in a while we’d run into a decent tempranillo red, but generally found them to be underwhelming and disappointing.
So, sufficiently fueled, off we went to see the wonders of Barcelona, and the highlight of the day had to be the Sagrada Familia Basilica that the Spanish architect Antoni Gaudi started building in 1882, and when he was killed by a street-car with the building plans in his head in 1926, very little was done on it for years until just recently.
Money was found to finish the building, hopefully by 2026, so that’s the year you want to go to be part of the grand opening. It’s one of those buildings that you’ve seen pictures of, but when you turn the corner and voila, there it is, it does stop you in your tracks. You also stop because there are thousands of tourists there, and pickpockets just waiting for you to start taking pictures leaving your wallet unguarded. I wear pickpocket proof pants that are so hard to get to my wallet I have to ask a pickpocket for help.
We drove up to Montserrat, the ancient Benedictine monastery where the Black Madonna relic is found. It was a Sunday, so the place was packed with locals taking Grandma up to the sanctuary, with pilgrims, since it is on the Camino de Santiago that 300,000 pilgrims walk each year on their way to Santiago, and just regular plain-Jane tourists. The views from there were excellent.
Pamplona, our next stop, is famous for its annual running of the bulls every July, officially called the St. Fermin Festival, where 10 bulls are released to chase hundreds of drunken bums for a couple blocks. This year one guy was gored and others hurt. You may have read Hemingway’s book “The Sun Also Rises” where he describes the event.
Finally, we were in Bilbao, where you have to ask yourself why would the Guggenheim Foundation want to build a museum in an isolated corner of northeastern Spain?
Turns out years ago, the Basque authorities wanted to redevelop the region, and proposed to the foundation that they build a museum in Bilbao, which they agreed to do, and chose Frank Gehry to design the building.
It opened in 1997 and is noted for its swirling forms and cladding of 30,000 titanium tiles. It looks like a titanium flower. Some critics called it an alien hallucination, but most gushed that it was the greatest building of our time. It exceeded my vision of what it should look like, and was much bigger. The interior of the building was interesting, for the most part the exhibits were average, but the building itself was worth flying thousands of miles to see.
On the northern coast of Spain, we stayed two nights in Santander for side trips, the first of which was to the Neo Cave of Altamira, often called the Sistine Chapel of Prehistoric Cave Art.
Probably the most famous ancient cave art is in south-west France’s Dordogne area, where the Lascaux Cave was found in 1948. It eventually had to be closed off to visitors because their breath containing carbon dioxide and water vapor was ruining the artwork. The French recreated the cave for visitors using hundreds of hours of laser scanning to exactly reproduce the cave.
We were very pleased to find ourselves visiting a similar cave in Altamira. The original cave had painted figures representing bison lying down, bison heads, bison hinds, wild goats, hands, rampant horses, all dating back at least 22,000 years ago, belonging to the Paleolithic or Old Stone Age.
The Spanish government, just like in France, had to finally close off the cave to the public, except once a week, by lottery, five visitors get to go into the original cave. Spain has done the same cave replication as the French, so we were able to go into a cave that looks, smells and appears to be the inside of the original cave, which was more interesting than it sounds.
When we left there, we drove to Comillas to tour a Modernist art treasure, Gaudi’s El Capricho, a house built in 1883 for the summer use of a rich client, Maximo Diaz de Quijano. Gaudi designed a edifice that is definitely over the top. Capricho means whim or caprice, and it certainly lives up to its name. The outside is stripped with ceramic bands of alternating sunflowers and green leaves. It’s one of those places you can’t stop taking pictures of.
Did you see Woody Allen’s movie “Vicky Christina Barcelona”? He shot the movie in Oviedo, not Barcelona, which is where we were for a couple nights.
From here we drove to an estuary to take a boat trip to see mussel and oyster farms. As soon as we got on the boat, we sat down at tables and a cold bottle of Ribeiro white wine was made palatable mixing in orange soda.
Next, they put out trays of freshly steamed mussels on the table and said dig in. I’ve never tasted mussels like that. They were fresh and perfectly cooked, and we just gorged on them. After eating 50 mussels, you realize that you’ve overdone it, but they were so succulent that you just couldn’t stop.
That night we had dinner at the Castanon Family Cider Mill. They produce a hard cider from 100 varieties of apples for their Val de Boides Cider, which everyone on the tour tasted and immediately spit out but their natural cider was delicious. They served spinach croquettes, vegetable pate, cheeses, a local Austurias bean stew, a mascarpone cheese cake with applesauce dessert. All of it was delicious.
Finally, we ended our tiresome pilgrim’s journey (via bus) heading into Santiago de Compostela. As we entered the city, we saw above the city the Galicia City of Culture, costing, so far, $500 million to build a library, newspaper archive, theater, museum of Galician History and an international Arts Center. It was a cemetery for money, half-finished and only partially occupied.
Officially the pilgrims end their walk in Santiago Square near the cathedral. The Scallop Shell is the official symbol of the Camino de Santiago. It’s seen everywhere, from churches and distance markers to pavements and backpacks. You may have seen Emilio Estevez’s movie “The Way” with Martin Sheen, that depicts their pilgrimage walking the Camino de Santiago.
On the way to stay overnight in Salamanca, a university town, where we went through one of Spain’s oldest churches dating back to the 12th century and walked across an old Roman Bridge. Before getting there, we stopped in the little village of Zamora for what turns out to be one of my new favorite words in Spanish, los Areos. It seems the Spanish can’t agree with the rest of the world on what to call WCs, toilets or toilettes, so they have their own word, which you definitely want to know.
While in Zamora they were having a festival, with a food stand serving pulpo, octopus. They steamed it, cut it into 1/2-inch slices, seasoned it with paprika, salt and olive oil, and laid it out on a base of boiled potatoes. It was just unbelievable good. Not chewy, just succulent, and went well with a nice fruity sangria. Most of the 49 turistas on the bus turned up their nose at it.
On to Madrid, where the tour of the Prado Museum was inspiring, thanks to a guide that made paintings by Goya and El Greco come alive. We need to go back for a week just to finish getting through the Prado’s exhibits.
We had an extra day in Madrid before coming home and, having seen all the cities around Madrid before, my friend Nick Jennison suggested we take the train to visit the eighth-century town Cuenca built by the Moors, to see: (1) the first Gothic cathedral in Spain dating back to 1270, which was impressive; (2) The footbridge over the 200-foot chasm from one side of the gorge to the other and (3) the famous hanging houses, Las Casas Colgadas, with their porches literally hanging out over the gorge, with no apparent support.
It turned out to be a delightful day trip, and we were probably the only Americans that have been there since Nick and his wife Jane were there 10 years ago.