Travel 1, 2017: Saturday September 23.
In 2013, Margaret and I and our older son, John, and his family, took an extended spring trip through north eastern, southern and central Spain and recorded our travels in our web page http://www.spainthenandnow.com/. This time, Margaret and I travelled alone, and decided on a trip from Bilbao along the northern coast of the country to Santiago de Compostela, returning to Bilbao on an inland route via the cities of León and Burgos.
Some readers might recognise from this outline that we were in fact following two well-known medieval Christian pilgrimage routes to Santiago, which during the Middle Ages was the third most popular pilgrimage destination after Jerusalem and Rome. Of the two routes, the inland one was the more traveled. Known as the camino francés, this road to Santiago was popularised by the French Benedictine Abbey of Cluny, a powerful political as well as religious institution. The Benedictines eased the journey by building roads and bridges and dotting the way with monasteries, churches and shelters. And following them and the pilgrims, merchants and settlers from over the Pyrenees established themselves along the route.
Margaret and I were not pilgrims, and we did not walk but drove a rented car. Our trip was something of a nostalgic return to some areas that we had visited many years ago, mixed with the exciting prospect of discovering corners still unknown to us. For the most part, we chose to stay in small hotels or in posadas (similar to B and Bs i.e. bed-and-breakfast) outside the large towns, the only exceptions being León and Burgos. We also chose to travel in late September early October to avoid the heat of summer when holiday makers and families from the baking central Meseta and the south flood north in search of more temperate weather. Fewer tourists, less traffic congestion. Or so we thought! It turned out to be quite a bit busier than expected, with the fewer families (home, with children attending school, probably) being replaced by more retirees with the same thought that we had.
Fall (autumn) is a good time to visit the north. It’s still green, unlike much of the south or centre of the peninsula which turn brown following the summer heat and collected harvests. And the fall is the best time to enjoy the fresh fruits (particularly apples, pears, plums, chestnuts) and vegetables. In addition, both Margaret and I love fish, and the north enjoys a well-earned reputation for excellent sea food, as well as superb trout from the numerous rivers and streams that run from the Cantabrian Mountains running parallel to the sea between Euskadi (the Basque Country) and Galicia.
So where exactly did we go and how long were we there? Let’s answer the second first. We spent 19 days in Spain (from September 24 to October 13), arriving in Madrid after an overnight haul from Vancouver, and a connecting flight from London. We stayed a night in Madrid and then took a leisurely train to Bilbao the following day.
From Bilbao (where we stayed at Hotel Artetxe, in a green belt overlooking the city), our travels took us to Argoños (Posada Trasmerano), Santillana del Mar (Posada Araceli), Oviedo (Casa Camila), Ribadeo (Parador, state run hotel), Viveiro (Hotel Ego), Santiago (Casa Grande do Bachao), Villafranca del Bierzo (Parador), León (Monástica Vía), Burgos (Vía Gótica), and finally back to Hotel Artetxe. In between, there were side trips into valleys and to small fishing ports.
Altogether, with the side trips, we covered about 1,500 kilometres (932 miles) and travelled through five of Spain’s seventeen autonomous communities: Euskadi, Cantabria, Asturias, Galicia and Castile-León.
We landed in Madrid late on Sunday evening (September 24) and stayed at Hotel Exe, a pleasant, clean hotel close to Chamartín Station where we were to catch the train to Bilbao. We were tired after our overnight flight, and after grabbing a quick meal in the hotel restaurant, headed for bed. We had to be up early the next day; the train to Bilbao left Chamartín at 8.00 a.m.