Category Archives: Spanish Travel

Spain. Climate Change, Drought, Heatwaves and Solutions.

Spain. Climate Change, Drought, Heatwaves and Solutions.

Climate of Spain.
As a country whose peninsula land mass stretches from the Pyrenees mountains in the north to within 15 kilometres (9 miles) of the coast of Morocco in the south, Spain enjoys a climate that is both European and Mediterranean.

Spain. Map of Autonomous Communities and Provinces.

Along the north coast from Galicia to the Basque Lands, the topography/terrain is characterised by wooded mountains and hills, and luxuriant green –frequently steep– valleys. Often called Green Spain, this northern strip receives cool winds off the Atlantic and the Bay of Biscay which ensure warm –not generally hot– summers and mild winters. Clouds and rainfall form a regular pattern, with snow on the upper heights of the Picos de Europa mountains in the winter.

Below the Pyrenees, the weather tends to be drier and the landscape less verdant/ lush, but melting snow from the mountains allow for green stretches as the terrain approaches the wide valley of the River Ebro. Away from the Atlantic breezes and influenced more by Mediterranean winds, the summers can be hot, and the winters fairly cold with winds blowing down from the Pyrenees.

Inland Spain is made up of the Meseta, a high central plateau ranging from 400 to 1000 metres (approx. 1312 feet to approx. 3300 ft.) in height and making up about 40% of the country’s land mass. Largely treeless and windblown, the Meseta is blistering hot in the summer and freezing in the winter. The little rain it receives falls mainly in the winter, which explains the large spring cereal crops in Castile-Leon –the northern half of the plateau– and the extensive vineyards in Castile-La Mancha– the southern half.

Southern Spain is largely Andalucía, the most populous autonomous region of Spain and second only to Castilla-León in area/size. Separated from Castilla-La Mancha by the Sierra Morena mountain range, Andalucía boasts the warmest average temperature in the country. Still, there can be wide differences ranging from the cooler mountainous terrain of the Sierra Nevada to the hot Guadalquivir River valley and the desert-like stretches in the province of Almería to the east. Temperatures regularly reach 40+C (104F) at the height of summer along the Guadalquivir while the Tabernas desert in Almería –famous as the location for several movies, including spaghetti westerns as well as Lawrence of Arabia— can reach similar temperatures.

Heatwaves. However, like many other European countries, Spain has experienced extreme heatwaves in the last few years, reflecting the climate change afflicting much of the globe. What is now happening is that the high summer temperatures (40+C) normally associated with Andalucía, Castilla-La Mancha, Extremadura and parts of Castilla-León in late July and into August now start in June. May of this year (2022), for example, was the hottest on record for Spain (and France).

Not only are the heatwaves beginning earlier but they are also more frequent and also more widespread. This, together with reduced rainfall, has led to drought conditions which virtually all climatologists and environmentalists attribute to global warming. In Spain, the latest warning touches on the Tagus –not only Spain’s longest river but also the major source of water for much of the centre of the country— which is in danger of drying up (Guardian July 4/22).

And with drought comes a marked increase in the number of outbreaks of fires.  A recent outbreak in the Zamora province of Castilla-León –where the temperature reached an unprecedented 40C (104F)– destroyed approximately 30,000 hectares (74,000 thousand acres) of woodland seriously threatening a wide array of wildlife, including the endangered wolf population of the area.

Two further serious possible consequences of the heatwaves are the effects they may have on agriculture and tourism, both major sources of revenue for the country.

The depleted Alto Lindoso dam on the Spanish Portuguese border reveals the drowned Spanish village of Aceredo. The drop in water level can be easily gauged from the clear line where the trees end.

Agriculture: Spain ranks as the world’s biggest producer of olives, and is a major exporter of fruit, vegetables, wines and cheese especially for the northern European market. As demands for these products increase so too does the need of water for irrigation. In the past, Spain invested heavily in dam construction but with the lack of rain many dams are now well below the levels necessary to sustain its water distribution infrastructure and current long-range predictions for rainfall are not encouraging. As a result, desertification, once a relatively minor concern, is growing steadily having increased from roughly 6% of the land between 1960-1990 to 12% between 2000-2020 (Euronews).

August 29, 2022. An article on the BBC (British Broadcasting Company) web site gives a very graphic description of the devastating impact of prolonged drought on olive production in the Province of Jaen (Andalusia), Spain’s most prolific olive-producing region. See

Tourism: Spain has long been a hugely popular destination for tourists, registering a record-breaking 84 million international visitors in 2019. However, the impact of the Covid pandemic was disastrous with numbers collapsing dramatically in 2020 to about 19 million. The coastal areas, where the sea and sea breezes offer some relief from the relentless sunshine, remain popular but ­–given water shortage and wild fires— inland tourism has been much affected.

The growing frequency of fires and increasing droughts makes it difficult to predict the direction Spain (and other European countries and indeed worldwide) will take in the coming years. Much depends on the political will of politicians and –assuming that they are willing to undertake the challenge– the choices they make.

Solutions? Simply put, there are no easy solutions, but there is one common-sense step that residents in hot summer areas such as Andalucía, Castilla-La Mancha and Extremadura have long adopted: the famous siesta. Often misinterpreted as a sign of laziness by northern Europeans in the past, the siesta is now recognized as an efficient adaptation to the climate conditions. Spaniards from these regions get up at the crack of dawn then take a prolonged lunch followed by rest, or perhaps a nap or a game of cards or dominos, during the mid-afternoon heat, before returning to work in the evening. This is especially the case in rural Spain, in villages or small towns where the rhythms of the past are still followed.

Common sense work practices are complemented by buildings adapted to the conditions in these heat-affected areas. Houses have traditionally been constructed with thick walls and small windows to keep the indoors cool.

A corner in Capileira, a village in the Alpujarras, south of Granada. Andalucía.

Whitewash on the walls –to reflect the heat away from the house– and adjustable wooden shutters or slats over the windows further help to maintain a steady, comfortable temperature indoors. In many houses, in Andalucía especially, there is a small patio the walls of which are commonly festooned with flowers or support climbing plants. In the middle, there may be a fountain the tinkling sound of which complements the fragrance of the flowers.

The advent of air conditioning has altered the pattern of life to some degree, albeit mainly in larger urban centres –e. g. Madrid, Barcelona, Seville, Córdoba, Granada. Here, the demands of tourism have helped to persuade many large stores and/or shopping centres (malls) to remain open during the afternoon hours, but even so there is still a marked reduction in tourist activities and general movement. This is a good time to step into a restaurant or bar, or relax in a shady patio.

Air conditioning is still largely limited to commercial and public buildings or to the homes of the wealthy in Spain. It has been suggested by a government official in Spain that commercial centres and air-conditioned urban public spaces –e. g. libraries, transport— become “climate refuges” i. e. cooling shelters for “vulnerable people like the elderly, pregnant women or those with respiratory problems” (Euronews.)

A problem, which the numbers and widespread distribution of wildfires have highlighted, is the lack of early detection and control of such fires. Much of this is attributed to rural depopulation as people, especially the young, flock to the cities leaving rural villages deserted or inhabited only by the elderly.

España vacía (“Emptied out Spain”) has become a major political issue since an estimated 43% of Spain’s municipalities are at risk of dying out leaving the surrounding land abandoned to scrub which, under drought conditions, quickly becomes tinder dry and susceptible to rapidly spreading fires.

However, efforts to tempt the young back require much investment in day-to-day amenities found readily in the cities: e. g. schools, medical facilities, reliable electrical service and fast internet connections, investment/loans to help set up small businesses, rapid transport connections (e. g. good roads, trains) to the towns. Until these are guaranteed, there is little likelihood that movement to the cities will be reversed. 

For an excellent and evocative description of some abandoned villages, see The text is accompanied by beautiful photos and personal reflections by the author (Kim). The post concludes with observations on the possibility of purchasing an abandoned village and the problems facing potential buyers.

Map of Autonomous Communities and Provinces:
Various articles on weather conditions in Spain from The Guardian Newspaper and other sources:
March 22, 2023: A dramatic headline in AP News confirms the water problems facing Spain, this time Catalonia (Catalyuna): “Drought in Spain’s northeast empties reservoirs.” The author of the text warns that “Drought in Spain’s northeast reached “exceptional” levels last month [February 2023], menacing access to drinking water for 6 million people in the Barcelona metropolitan area.” To read more, go to
April 4, 2023. For another article, with a couple of dramatic photos, see the BBC:
July 11, 2023.
The article begins with a description of the bravery and tragic death of Angel Martín following his attempt to save his village, Tábara (in the autonomous community of Castilla-León), from wildfires raging nearby. The article then expands to a very well presented description of the general state of the country faced with the prospect of ever increasing wildfires unless it adapts quickly to the changes caused by climate change.
For the latest on water problems in Catalonia/Catalyuna, see:


Travel 2017. Day 9. Oviedo Ribadeo.

Travel 2017. Day 9. Oviedo Ribadeo. Monday, October 3/17.

Today Margaret and I headed for Ribadeo (in Galicia), about 140 kilometres/ 88 miles along the coast from Oviedo. But first we wanted to see two small pre-Romanesque Asturian churches just to the west of Oviedo.

After another excellent breakfast at Casa Camila, we skirted Oviedo and climbed the hillside where both churches, Santa María de Naranco and San Miguel de Lillo, are located. The two were declared World Heritage sites in 1985.

Overlooking the city, both buildings date from the mid 9th century, but Santa María was first designed as a royal residence and possibly part of a larger palace complex that might have included San Miguel nearby.

Since Santa María was not built as a church and was later converted into one (between 905 and 1065), it is somewhat inaccurate to include it among pre-Romanesque Asturian churches. These generally follow the usual church shape of nave (often with two side aisles), transept, chancel (location of the altar), and apse. Santa María’s structure is quite different.

Sta. Maria de Naranco.

It’s a two-storeyed, rectangular building with no aisles, transept or apse and both east and west ends have open spaces with identical triple arch openings. The triple arches, set in warm, yellow sandstone bricks, are supported on slender columns each carved with a rope motif. Above them, a smaller set of triple arches complement those below, even to the point of having matching rope motifs on their small columns. Thanks to the arches, the interior of the church, which occupies the upper storey, is light, airy and appears uncluttered; the barrel-vaulted ceiling is an innovation over the flat wooden ceilings that were normal in early church buildings, and anticipates one of the most striking features of Romanesque churches. The lower level is divided into three rooms, one of which reveals the existence of baths. Entry to the church is via a pair of exterior staircases on the north side, not at the usual west end.

Sta. Maria de Naranco. Entrance to church on the second floor. North side.
Sta. Maria de Naranco. Eastern and southern sides.

Seen from the outside, Santa Maria is slender and beautifully proportioned. Supporting the whole building are eight flat buttresses, stretching up like ribs, on the north and south sides, typical of pre-Romanesque Asturian architecture.

It was only a short walk to picturesque San Miguel de Lillo (or sometimes Lino), tucked into the side of a wooded hill. My first impression upon seeing it was that someone giant hand had squished it and driven its walls up.

San Miguel de Lillo.

It looks disproportionately tall in relation to its length and width, but that is explained by serious damage caused at the end of the 11th century which left only the west end intact. Still, even as seen in a reconstructed model, it is a narrow building, which emphasises its height. And, as with Santa Maria, flat buttresses not only support the walls but add a decorative feature to the building (with patterned stonework at the top).

San Miguel de Lillo. Main entrance.

What we found especially striking were the windows, especially the four on the western wall, above the doorway. The two giving light to the side aisles are intricately carved rose windows atop double arched openings, while above the door there is a half rose window topping another double arched opening. The fourth is only visible if you stand sufficiently back from the entrance and look up. There’s a simple rose window directly above the nave. These rose window patterns are repeated on both north and south sides. What is intriguing and innovative about these rose windows is that they are one of the most striking features usually associated with later Gothic churches (although these are usually highlighted by stained glass).

On our way down the hill to our car, we saw our second hórreo, a raised granary supported on four narrow stone pillars, topped by flat stones.

Hórreo with cart and duck, just down the road from the two churches.

These hórreos are constructed in this way to protect grains, vegetables, fruit etc. from rodents who find it difficult to get traction on the pillars or surmount the flat stone slabs at the top of each pillar. The space beneath the floor is then used for storage of farm implements. This particular hórreo, with its wooden cart and ducks, is one of the best that we saw on our trip.

“No care in the world.” Pig and chickens in an orchard, next to the hórreo.

Next to it, in an orchard, a black pig was busy snuffling for figs under a fig tree accompanied by some chickens rooting for worms. Under a sunny sky, they were having a good time.

Back in the car, we took the N 634 via Grado and La Espina to the coast.

Farm on road between La Espina and coast.

As far as La Espina we travelled a picturesque route through farm land and forested hills; from La Espina to the coast, the road twisted through dense woods of chestnuts and other deciduous trees with a few tiny villages scattered along the way. It was fairly slow going until we came to the Autovía del Cantábrico (near Luarca) that took us to the Galician costal town of Ribadeo where we stayed the night. This stretch of the autovía was full of viaducts stretching over fertile valleys and tunnels cutting through mountains that reached down almost to the sea.

By the time we reached our accommodation at the parador (state run hotel) in Ribadeo, the sun had given way to mist which hung over the estuary which the parador overlooked.

Ribadeo in the mist. From the Parador

Travel 2017. Day 8. Oviedo Bárzana.

Travel 2017. Day 8. Oviedo Bárzana. Monday, October 2/17.

After an excellent breakfast at Casa Camila, served in a bright, airy room with views of Oviedo, we set off down to the city, armed with a map provided by Alejandro. After filling up with diesel and finding an underground parking not far from the centre, we strolled through the narrow winding streets of the old quarter to the cathedral, the main focus of our visit to the city.

Dominating the Plaza de Alfonso II (El Casto: The Chaste, so called because he died without children and possibly never married), the Cathedral of San Salvador dates from the late 14th century to the early 16th.  It replaced an earlier church built by Fruela I of Asturias in 781 and enlarged by Alfonso II in 802. All that remains of the early buildings is the Cámara Santa which contains holy relics for which the cathedral is also known as Sancta Ovetensis. 

Oviedo Cathedral.

The Cathedral of San Salvador is a Gothic church, often classified as “flamboyant Gothic” because of its delicate tracery work (e.g. running up the edges of the tower and on the pinnacles or finials at the very top) and the decorative pointed arches (e. g. the door at the base of the tower and the windows above, and the third door to the left). From the square, the façade looks asymmetrical, with a 80 metre/262 foot tower rising to the right but no corresponding tower to the left. The doorway at the foot of the tower is not the main entrance, which is the large one located to its left. Compared to two of the most famous cathedrals of northern Spain, León and Burgos, the facade of Oviedo’s cathedral gives the impression of being unfinished.

The interior of San Salvador is not large (67 metres/ 220 feet by 22 metres/ 72 feet), but it is light, airy and elegantly proportioned.

Oviedo Cathedral. Looking down the nave to the altar.

Standing at the west end, you have an uninterrupted view down the nave to the large and ornate 16th-century reredos (altarpiece, aka retablo in Spain) crammed with biblical scenes. The central panel shows the Crucifixion of Christ, and, below, the Assumption and the Coronation of the Virgin Mary and, below again, a seated Christ with His right hand raised in blessing. It is a remarkable piece of craftsmanship and considered one of the best Spanish Gothic altarpieces with those of Seville and Toledo. 

Oviedo Cathedral. Altarpiece.

Above the reredos, a series of stained glass windows topped by a beautiful ribbed dome complement the sense of light in the main body of the church. The clean lines of vision down the nave came as a pleasant surprise, because so many of the Gothic cathedrals in Spain (e.g. Toledo, Burgos, León, Seville) have elaborate choir stalls right in the middle of the nave, which seriously reduce the visual impact.

As you walk down the nave, take in the graceful, ribbed pillars rising to the ceiling. They frame the lower, simple Gothic arches, then reach up to beautiful pairs of blind Gothic windows with delicate tracery in the triforium (an arcaded wall above the nave), and end with stained glass windows framed in interlocking patterns in the clerestory (the uppermost part of the nave, rising above the roofs of the aisles, and punctured by windows). It’s an excellent example of symmetry, grace and harmony.

The are numerous chapels along the side aisles and in the apse, many embellished with lavishly ornate 17th-century altarpieces which contrast with and highlight the elegance of the building itself.

Most of these altarpieces are dedicated to various saints, including the Chapel of Santa Eulalia, patron saint of the diocese of Oviedo, whose remains were transported from Mérida in 780 and now rest in a large 17th-century shrine to the left of the main entrance.

Two altarpieces notable for their extreme ornamentation are the Retablo de Santa Teresa by Asturian born Luis Fernández de la Vega 1601-75, and the Immaculate Conception (celebration of the Virgin Mary’s purity from the moment of her conception) also by an Asturian sculptor: Francisco de Villanueva y Bardales ?-?.

Altarpiece in Sta. Teresa’s chapel.
Altarpiece of the Immaculate Conception.

The altarpiece to Sta. Teresa is florid enough with its intricate baroque embellishment, but that dedicated to the Immaculate Conception is even more extravagant, very much in the Churrigueresque style adopted in the late 17th early 18th century.  Many people nowadays may find these excessive, but they adhered perfectly to the dictates of the Counter-Reformation, decreed in 1563, that art should move the observer. One of the results of that decree was that from the end of the 16th century to the early 18th, church art and sculpture became increasingly intricate with swirling lines, and decorative details that can overwhelm the viewer, and detract from the focus of the altarpiece, whether it be Christ, the Virgin or a saint. For example, the altarpiece to the Virgin’s conception is so crammed with ornamentation and movement that there’s hardly an inch of untouched space! It’s extremely busy, and topping it all, those putti (cherubic boys) beneath the Virgin and scattered elsewhere …well, they are not to our taste. It all seemed one heck of a dust collector!

We’ve left to last one of the main reasons visitors, and especially pilgrims, make for Oviedo Cathedral: the Cámara Santa (Holy Room), added as a UNESCO Heritage site in 1998 to the list of Asturian sites already approved in 1985.

Oviedo cathedral. Cámara Santa.

It’s a two-storey building attached to the south west corner of the cathedral, constructed by Alfonso II of Asturias in the 9th century to house treasures and relics rescued from Toledo after the fall of the Visigothic kingdom in Spain. It was remodelled in the 12th century and rebuilt after an explosion destroyed much of it in 1934.

Amongst its treasures are two crosses, the Cross of the Angels (La Cruz de los Angeles), a gift from Alfonso II in 808, and the Cross of Victory (La Cruz de la Victoria) gifted to the church by Alfonso III in 908. Both are studded with precious stones.

There is also a cedar-wood chest encased in gold with agate inlay and dotted with exquisite stone, dating from the early 10th century. Known as the Caja de Agata, it is believed to be a reliquary (container for sacred relics) although there are those who feel it might have been intended to protect a rare Bible.

A final comment on these treasures: not only were they damaged after the explosion of 1934, but in August of 1977 they were stolen and badly smashed by the thief. The crosses and the chest were recovered shortly after, although many of the precious stones have still not been found. After painstaking repairs, the three objects were put back on display in 1989. 

Because of its holy relics, the Cámara Santa attracted large numbers of pilgrims using the northern route to Santiago. But probably the most venerated of all the relics was the Holy Shroud, said to have covered Christ’s face after He was removed from the Cross.

Photo of a description of Oviedo’s Holy Shroud.

Tradition has it that the shroud travelled with other relics from Jerusalem in the cedar-wood chest and was deposited in Oviedo by Alfonso II (the Chaste). There is much discussion over its authenticity  and its relationship to the more famous Shroud of Turin, with arguments for and against its origin. The Shroud only goes on public display three times a year: Good Friday and the 14th and 21st of September, when it is placed in the nave of the cathedral.

It was well past midday by the time we left the cathedral, but there was still plenty of time to head inland again for some more exploration off the beaten path. This time it was the valley of the River Trubia, once known for its iron and coal deposits. These minerals were transported down the valley by train, but a crisis in the industries ended the mining and the railway was closed down in 1964. Happily, the railway track has been converted into a walking and cycling path called the Senda de Oso (Bear Path), part of a country wide web of converted railway lines known as known as Vías verdes (Green Routes).

Our road took us through picturesque villages, Tuñón, Villanueva, Proaza. At Caranga de Abajo, we branched left towards Las Agueras and Barzana (Quiros), our destination.

Countryside at Santo Adriano, just north of Villanueva

The whole valley was lush and green and narrowed significantly as we approached Bárzana. Wooded hillsides gave way to sharply defined mountain sides. Bárzena was not as picturesque as Bárcena Mayor which we had visited two days earlier, but we enjoyed an excellent rustic meal of cocido montañes (mountain stew) and trout. The road continues, but we made our way back to Oviedo and found that our way to Hotel Casa Camila was as elusive as yesterday, so we resorted to the same solution to get to it: we followed a taxi!!

Las Agueras, between Villanueva and Bárzana.


Horreo (raised granary) at Las Agueras, between Villanueva and Bárzana

Image of the exterior of the Cámara Santa: De Rubén Ojeda, CC BY-SA 4.0,
Image of the Cross of the Angels: By Zarateman – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0 es,
Image of the Caja de Agata: By Zarateman – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0 es,

Travel 2017. Day 7. Santillana to Oviedo.

Travel 2017. Day 7. Santillana to Oviedo. Sunday, October 1/17.

Our next stop after Santillana del Mar was Oviedo, capital of the Principality of Asturias. For many years it was capital of the ancient kingdom of Asturias following the invasion of the Iberian Peninsula by the Moors in 711.

Oviedo is only about 170 kilometres/ 105 miles west of Santillana, less than 2 hours by car on the largely coastal road, the E70 (which confusingly becomes A8 in parts and is also known as the Autovía del Cantábrico).

We entered Asturias crossing the estuary of the River Deva (famous locally for its trout) from Unquera (Cantabria) to Bustio (Asturias). The landscape was similar to that of Cantabria: wild beaches, sandy coves, picturesque fishing villages and colourful ports. To the left, as we drove westward, green pastures rose quickly to forested hills. Behind the hills, we could sometimes make out the Picos de Europa Mountains, part of the Cantabrian massif that runs like a jagged spine across the north of Spain.

Pastel coloured houses at Nueva, Asturias.

We noticed that as in Cantabria, the houses –especially the newer ones— along the coastal strip tend to be more colourfully painted than the stone buildings in the inland valleys. White and pastel variations of blues, greens, yellows, orange seem to be favoured in villages and on the houses and farms dotting the countryside. In ports and coastal villages, glassed-in balconies are common, to protect from rain and wind blowing in from the sea.

Although there is much that is geographically, economically and socially similar between Cantabria and Asturias, Asturians are quick to point out that they have an illustrious history whereas Cantabria was for a long time seen more as an extension of Castile (in fact, Cantabria achieved separate status as a political entity only in 1981 when it became one of Spain’s autonomous regions following the terms set out in Spain’s constitution of 1978). 

It has been said that Asturians claim that “Asturias es España, el resto es tierra conquistada”, “Asturias is Spain, the rest is conquered land.” This pride is born of historical events: around 720 the conquering Moors suffered their first defeat in the peninsula deep in the mountains of Asturias.  As a result, the region has since been revered by many Spaniards as the “cradle of the Reconquista,” the gradual recovery of the land dramatically lost to the Muslims between 711 and approximately 720. Linking past and present is the title held by the current heir to the Spanish throne: Prince (or since 2014 Princess) of Asturias.

Countryside near the coastal town of Llanes.

We took our time along the coastal road, stopping occasionally at spots that attracted our attention. A few kilometres west of Llanes, we came across the isolated ruins of the Monastery of San Antolín de Bedón, a 13th-century Romanesque church, a short distance from the beautiful estuary of the River Bedón.

San Antolín de Bedón.
Estuary of the River Bedón.

At Villaviciosa (where we had lunch), we turned inland towards Oviedo skipping the motorway for a lesser road, the AS 113. There was a reason: we wanted to see the Iglesia de San Salvador de Valdediós, a pre-Romanesque church built in a style that is often referred to as Asturian church architecture. There are several in the Oviedo region, built within a 50 to 70 kilometre/30 to 43 mile radius of the city, and almost all constructed from about 800 to 900, i. e. at the same time that Islam had entrenched itself in Moorish al-Andalus.

San Salvador was consecrated in 893 by King Alfonso III of Asturias. It was well signed, and we left the AS113 and descended fairly steeply to the hamlet of Valdediós.

San Salvador de Valededios with Cistercian abbey behind it.

The church sits against a background of hills and trees; close by is a Cistercian monastery dating from 1200. For a long time the monastery was abandoned, but from 1992 it has been undergoing restoration and now houses a hostel to help cover expenses for the renovation and upkeep.

San Salvador, like most of these pre-Romanesque Asturian churches, is a small building following the basic basilica ground plan of a central nave flanked by two side aisles. The nave stands quite a bit higher than the aisles, emphasising height over width and length. The main entrance has a semi-horseshoe arch while above, interestingly, a pair of narrow horseshoe arches are set within a rectangular frame, known as alfiz. Although the horseshoe arch is frequently attributed to Muslim architecture, it was in fact already practiced by the Visigoths who dominated the peninsula from ca 411 to 711. However, the alfiz is more likely reflective of Moorish influence and probably migrated north with Christians fleeing Moorish al-Andalus in the 9th century.

It was late afternoon when we were in Valdediós, and so unfortunately we were unable to go inside San Salvador. Still, its picturesque rural setting and peaceful surroundings (and no tourists … except us!) was some compensation.

We were now only about 40 kilometres/ 25 miles from Oviedo. We had booked into Hotel Casa Camila, which we knew was on a hillside just outside the city. With our GPS/SatNav, we did not anticipate any difficulty in finding the hotel, but… Casa Camila was on the far side of the city and our GPS wasn’t up to the task. This was the first time we had used it in an urban setting and we were faced with two challenges: 1. The GPS’s pronunciation of the Spanish street names was so unrecognisable that it was useless, and 2. The street names were difficult to locate, often being small and placed way up the side of buildings, in other words more suited to the leisurely pace of donkey or mule traffic than to car speed. After suffering the frustrated honking of drivers as we stretched our neck to locate street names, we’d had enough. Solution? I approached a taxi and asked the driver to lead us to the hotel. When I gave him the name of the hotel, he sighed and shook his head. “Muy difícil (Very difficult)” he said and then added almost apologetically “muy lejos (very far).” He was right, it was very difficult, although not really too far. We followed the taxi up a steep, winding and progressively narrower road until it came to a sudden stop, and the driver waved us to a small parking area. We had finally arrived! It was 8 euros well spent, and as compensation, the view looking down on Oviedo was spectacular.

But there were lots of steps down to Casa Camila and by the time we had navigated our suitcases down and into the hotel foyer we were tired and I was rather irritable. However, the hotel owners, Alejandro and Antonieta, were wonderful  and more than willing to help us look for other accommodation if the steps were too difficult. We decided to stay and didn’t regret it. Alejandro spoke English very well, and printed us a map of the city, and both he and Antonieta were very helpful in giving us directions and helpful hints of what to do in Oviedo. Our immaculately clean room was on the ground floor, looking across the lawn and down towards Oviedo. We’d had our main meal, but Antonieta served us tea and biscuits/cookies and we were ready for an early night.



Travel 2017. Day 6. Bárcena Mayor.

Travel 2017. Day 6. Bárcena Mayor. Saturday, September 30/17.

Still in Santillana del Mar, we woke up to rather damp, dismal weather, but since it wasn’t actually raining we decided that we would go ahead with our plans to take a trip inland up the River Saja valley to the village of Bárcena Mayor, set in the Saja-Besaya Natural Park. A distance of about 50 kilometres/ 30 miles.

After breakfast at Posada Araceli, we set out taking with us a load of laundry. No, we weren’t going to wash the clothes in the river nor in any of the lavaderos (covered stone water troughs where village women used to meet to launder and gossip) we were certain we would find in any of the villages on our route.  We had been told that there was a lavandería (laundromat) in Puente San Miguel, on the way. Amazing! Like the lavandería earlier in Santona, this one was new and clean, and powder added to the washing machines automatically. However, we ran into a minor irritant: there were two washing machines which functioned perfectly but only one of two dryers was working. With only a few minutes left in our wash, a man entered and filled the dryer with clothes already washed (probably at home), which meant that we had to hang around until the dryer became free (and make sure that no other newcomer jumped the line!). But we were pleased to get the laundry done.

Soon we were on the highway. We turned inland at picturesque Cabezón de la Sal, already known in Roman times as a centre of the salt trade (hence the descriptive sal: salt), and now popular with bungee jumpers. Nearby there is an unexpected forest of sequoias, evergreen redwoods more associated with California. Their presence is explained by a decision around 1940 to plant them on uncultivated land for industrial purposes. (Other species, e.g. spruce, eucalyptus, American oak and Japanese chestnut were planted at the same time.)

We followed the River Saja edged by green pastures with thickly forested hills rising on both sides.

En route to Bárcena, near Los Tojos.

Sand and gray-coloured stone farmhouses with wooden balconies and red-tiled roofs dotted the meadows. Cows –mostly black and white friesians and prolific milkers– grazed in the fields; their milk is turned into highly prized cheeses, butter and other dairy products of the area. Beef and veal from Cantabria are also highly valued, especially those coming from the native Tudanca breed, which unfortunately is becoming increasingly scarce. The forests are home to wild boar and deer whose meat figures prominently in local cuisine. The forests and mountains are also home to the endangered Iberian bears or wolves. As we travelled along the winding road, we wondered if any of them might be silently watching us from the upper reaches of the forests.

We passed through quaint, sleepy villages and branched off near tiny Correpoco to follow the River Argoza to Bárcena Mayor. Here the road ends. Isolated where the Argoza valley narrows into a hollow, and surrounded by sloping pastures and forested hills, Bárcena Mayor’s agricultural economy has now given way to tourism as its main source of income.

If you want to get a good idea of traditional Cantabrian architecture, Bárcena Mayor is a very good place to start.

Most of the buildings have been renovated but retain the essential characteristics of typical, local architecture: two-storeyed stone houses, the lower level housing animals (or farm equipment now), the upper –with prominent wooden balconies- being the living quarters, warmed by the heat produced by the animals beneath.

Bárcena Mayor. Wooden balconies with space beneath where animals were once kept. Now has tractor and trailer.
Bárcena Mayor. A picturesque house.

Many balconies are festooned with flowers in pots hanging from balconies. A few dilapidated houses remain whose exteriors convey a romantic notion of village life in the past, as do the two fountains and three lavaderos where people would meet and exchange gossip and local news.

Bárcena Mayor is a compact village with all buildings located on the north side of the bubbling River Argoza (which is really no more than a wide stream). A narrow, single span, stone bridge leads to a hermitage along a path on the other side. The path is now part of a series of hiking trails that radiate out from the village.

Bárcena Mayor. Old bridge.

Predictably, the largest building in the village is the 12th-century church of Santa María. Even so, it is modestly sized and its squat, square tower is only a little higher than the roofs of the houses.

It was relaxing strolling through the irregular, cobbled streets where only residents are allowed to drive. Tourists park in a lot on the edge of the village.

A hidden corner. Bárcena Mayor.

There are hidden corners, small squares (plazas), and from almost any angle we could see the surrounding hillside pastures and tree-lined hills.

Bárcena Mayor. A typical street.

The largest square has a lavadero, now dry and unused, right in the centre. After a leisurely stroll, it was about 2.30 p.m. and time to eat. Like many of the villages that we passed through, Bárcena Mayor, has its share of restaurants. These are fundamental to the tourist economy, and if our experience is anything to go by, they serve excellent food. Of the three that we saw in Bárcena Mayor, we chose Restaurante Rio Argoza set alongside the river and close to the bridge.

Bárcena Mayor. Restaurant Río Argoza.

The dining room is large with windows running along the river side and an open air extension covered by umbrellas.

It was very busy and we had to wait a while for a table. But the wait was worth it. Inland Cantabrian food typically consists of hearty stews (cocidos), different cuts of meat e. g. veal (ternera) fillets, beef tenderloin, wild boar (jabalí) sirloin or chops, suckling lamb (lechazo), roast venison (venado), accompanied by potatoes and peppers. Sea fish too is common and shouldn’t be overlooked if meat is not your thing. The sea is less than 40 kilometres/25 miles way, and they do know how to prepare fish in these inland restaurants.

I always go for a cocido montañes (mountain stew) when I am in the north, Margaret chose trout stuffed with ham. We shared an excellent mixed salad. My cocido, filled with chunks of pork, white beans, potatoes was delicious as was the trout. With home-made bread, a glass of wine and dessert (arroz con leche: rice pudding for me, home-made pastry for Margaret), the bill for both of us came to  40 euros.

We were back in Santillana by early evening, relaxing in Posada Araceli’s little garden. A final stroll through the town, now far less crowded, and it was time to call it a day.

Travel 2017. Day 5. Comillas. Gaudí’s El Capricho.

Travel 2017. Day 5. Comillas. Gaudí’s El Capricho. Friday, September 29/17.

Today we decided to head for the coastal town of Comillas, (18 kilometres/11 miles west of Santillana) primarily because we wanted to see Antoni Gaudí’s building, El Capricho. Gaudí was a Catalan architect whose name is synonymous with Barcelona, and especially with La Sagrada Familia church (The Holy Family). Margaret and I had seen most of his work in the Catalan capital on previous visits and admired his original architectural innovations combining Gothic, Moorish and Far Eastern elements with the endless “structures” visible in Nature.  So, El Capricho was a must see, and would provide a fascinating contrast with Frank Gehry’s unconventional Art Museum which we had seen a couple of days before in Bilbao.

Gaudí was only 31 and relatively unknown when he was commissioned in 1883 to design a summer home for a local wealthy bachelor, Máximo Díaz de Quijano, who had made his fortune in Las Indias (the Americas). In the same year, Gaudí was contracted to build Casa Vicens and to continue the construction of La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona (following the resignation of the original architect –Francesc de Paula del Villar). Heavily committed to his work in Barcelona, Gaudí appointed his friend and fellow architect, Cristóbal Cascante, to oversee the construction of El Capricho. In fact, there is no record that Gaudí ever visited Comillas, although given his almost obsessive control over his projects, it seems unlikely that he would not have visited at some point.

El Capricho is located on a wooded hilltop, next to a family pantheon designed by another Catalan, Joan Martorell (who was responsible for getting Gaudí selected to continue with La Sagrada Familia). Another building on the hilltop, the neo-Gothic Sobrellano Palace (1882-1888), completes the three structures designed by Catalans.The palace was also designed by Martorell and the owner, another wealthy fortune maker in Las Indias, was the Marquis of Comillas for whom Díaz de Quijano had worked as a lawyer. (There was also a marriage connection: Don Máximo’s sister, Benita, married the Marquis’s brother). Having the Gothic Palace so close is not only great for comparison, it throws into relief Gaudí’s boldness and originality.

El Capricho, translated as “whim,” “fancy,” or “mood,” lives up to its name: it has a sunny playful quality, and although its shape is irregular it is a compact building solidly anchored to the ground. The heavy, pillared main entrance is set off at an angle over which rises a minaret-like circular tower topped by a delicately balanced canopy.

El Capricho. Entrance with minaret influenced tower.

To one side of the entrance there are two quarter round walls linked by a half round structure punctured by two windows.

El Capricho. Sunflower motif.

Immediately noticeable is the sunflower motif running throughout the exterior and stretching up the tower to the canopy. Sandstone-coloured brickwork, plain green tiles and green friezes with vegetal designs (in which the sunflowers are set) and warm reddish-brown roof tiles complement the warmth conveyed by the sunflowers. Wrought iron mini balconies accompanied by wrought iron coverings add to the unconventionality of the building. 

El Capricho is in all aspects striking, with one feature particularly noticeable: the brickwork around windows, doors and notably the upper part of the tower and the canopy. If you look closely, might they remind you of Lego pieces?

El Capricho. Built in Legoland?

At least, that was my first reaction: Gaudí had anticipated the basic structural components –units– used in Lego!

El Capricho is a warm, welcoming house, custom designed for Don Máximo. Filled with light, its rooms are oriented  to allow maximum sunlight to complement their function. Don Máximo’s large bedroom and balcony face the east to receive the morning sun; the west side (next to the entrance) contains Don Máximo’s office. 

El Capricho. Conservatory to the right.

The south is an elongated conservatory where Don Maximo could indulge his love of plants and entertain guests, while on the north side, Gaudí placed a high-ceilinged salon for socialising and music.

El Capricho. Seats designed by Gaudi.

Large windows ensured plenty of light for the salon while wrought iron seats on two small balconies were angled inward to admire the decorative north wall.

El Capricho. Wrought iron seats.

Don Máximo was an amateur botanist and lover of music, and Gaudí –mindful of Don Máximo’s hobbies— weaved elements of these into the house’s whimsical decoration.

El Capricho. Stained glass window.

The best examples are to be found in the stained-glass windows in the bathroom adjoining the main bedroom: in one window, a dragonfly is plucking a guitar while in the window alongside a blackbird is cheekily perched on the keys of a piano.

Unhappily, before the house could be completed, Don Máximo fell ill with liver failure. Work was stopped so that he could move in and at least enjoy a brief stay in his dream home. He died in his bedroom after a week, only 44 years old.

Comillas. Sobrellano Palace.

Margaret and I spent a few hours at El Capricho before heading to Sobrellano Palace, a short walk made longer because the gate between the two properties was shut. The palace was closed so we could only view the moody, neo-Gothic exterior. The contrast with El Capricho’s cheerful/ sunny, unconventional exterior could hardly be more pronounced.

By now we were hungry and especially anxious to find a restaurant/ bar where we could get fresh grilled anchovies (which are nothing like the tinned/ canned variety). Cantabria is noted for its seafood and we had missed out on anchovies when we were in Santona. Comillas, we thought, would make up for it. Unfortunately not so. We inquired at a few restaurants but, no, they did not serve fresh anchovies, only tinned.  What to do? Then we remembered that on our last visit to the north we had enjoyed fresh anchovies in San Vicente de la Barquera, just over 13 kilometres/ 8 miles to the west on a partially coastal road. This was a very pleasant, 15-minute drive with glimpses of the sea.

Oyambre Natural Park, between Comillas and San Vicente de la Barquera.

Descending into San Vicente, we enjoyed a spectacular, sweeping view of the ría/ estuary which the town straddles.

San Vicente de la Barquera.

We found parking just across the river and then, following the recommendation of the parking attendant, we walked back over the bridge to a waterfront street filled with restaurants. It was late afternoon and it was busy, and it seemed that virtually all the restaurants offered fresh anchovies. After eventually finding seats at El Pescador (The Fisherman), we made the most of it … not only grilled anchovies, but also grilled sardines and calamares a la romana (squid in light batter). The portions were generous and with a large mixed salad (lettuce, tomatoes, onion, olives, tuna, asparagus, and sliced boiled egg) and two glasses of white Ribeiro wine (from Galicia), the bill came to a very modest 38 euros.

Back in Santillana, we took an extended stroll through the old town again, decided we’d eaten enough for the day and ended up relaxing in the small garden of our Posada.

For an excellent description and historical overview of El Capricho, see
San Vicente de la Barquera:

Travel 2017. Day 4. Santillana del Mar.

Travel 2017. Day 4. Santillana del Mar Thursday, September 28/17

Santillana del Mar. Posada Araceli.

After a leisurely breakfast (again very good) at El Trasmerano, we made our way to our next stop, Santillana del Mar, about 70 kilometres/ 43 miles to the west, bypassing the large port city of Santander (where I had spent a wonderful summer as a student many years ago!). We quickly found our accommodation, the Posada Araceli, fronting a park (Campo del Revolgo) and a short walk from the old town. It has a small, pleasant garden in front, and from the window of our room (203) we looked out towards the countryside. Both bedroom and bathroom were spotless, and there was a small refrigerator in the room. There was limited free parking –for three or four cars– in the Posada’s parking space, but further room around the park.

Santillana de Mar (population about 4200) is an ancient town, with a proud and distinguished history. It is an architectural gem with cobbled streets (use sensible footwear) lined with solid, stone manorial houses bearing heraldic shields proclaiming their nobility.

Santillana del Mar. Casa de los Villa.

The bulk of these sandstone-coloured buildings date from the 14th to the 17th centuries, i. e. from the late medieval and Renaissance periods to the baroque. Some have found a new life as cultural centres, museums, municipal offices and exclusive hotels (including a state run parador hotel, Gil Blas). Sharing space with the aristocratic manors are more modest but no less interesting houses with striking, wooden balconies (many flower covered) very typical of the rural architecture of the area.

Nevertheless, the architectural star of Santillana is the 12th-century Romanesque Collegiate church of Santa Juliana, after whom the town is named (Santa Juliana giving Sant Illana). The Saint’s remains are said to be buried in a tomb at the foot of the steps leading to the altar (although another tradition says that she is buried in Campana, Italy).

Santillana del Mar. Colegiata.

To get to the Colegiata (as it is frequently called), you branch to the right shortly after passing through the principal entrance of old town and follow the main street (Carrera Cantón) to its end. The church stands at the very far edge of the town, surrounded on three side by rolling countryside.

The colegiata has retained the characteristics of a Romanesque church despite later modifications and additions (e. g. an early 16th-century, ornate Hispano-Flamenco retablo –altarpiece– atop the altar, and a 17th-century baroque pediment above the main entrance under which there is a sculpture/ figure of St. Juliana). As was customary in Romanesque architecture, there are carvings above the main entrance, on the capitals topping pillars inside the church and atop the slender double columns in the cloisters. Beside being decorative, these carvings were “read” by the largely illiterate faithful of the time, offering them a visual memory aid to the Bible and to Christian ethics.

Colegiata. Scene of a fight.

Themes touched upon in the Colegiata include the battle between good and evil (often conveyed through allegorical symbols), decorative vegetal motifs, as well as human activity (e. g. a fight between two combatants). The carvings above the main entrance have unfortunately eroded over time, although the figure of Christ Pantocrator (the Ruler of All) is clearly visible beneath the 17th-century statue of St. Juliana.

Entry to the church is currently via the cloisters which are reached to the left as you approach the building.

Santillana del Mar. Colegiata cloisters.

The cloisters have an elegant simplicity with varied carvings atop their slender double columns, and are an excellent example of Romanesque craftsmanship. Inside, the church feels surprisingly light and airy thanks to the uncluttered walls, simple stonework and clean-cut arches.

Santillana del Mar. Colegiata altarpiece.

Highlighted in the apse is the richly decorated Hispano-Flamenco altarpiece showing scenes from the martyrdom of the Saint and of Christ on the side rows (or columns) on three levels. The central column is topped by a scene of Christ’s crucifixion, and beneath it an image of St. Juliana and below an elaborate tabernacle (where the consecrated host –communion bread—is kept) With all the decorative wealth covering the altarpiece, it is easy to overlook the anachronism of the clothing which belongs to the late 15th early 16th centuries. In that respect, they serve as an interesting guide to what people wore at that time.

Traffic in the historical centre is now restricted to residents and businesses, which makes a lot of sense given the popularity of the town, especially during the summer when it is inundated with tourists.

Santillana del Mar. Typical street. The Colegiata is in the background.

Even in late September, the streets were busy and local shops were doing brisk business selling Cantabrian crafts, postcards and local produce. Many visitors jostling with fellow sightseers along the narrow streets would perhaps question Jean-Paul Sartre’s claim that Santillana is Spain’s “prettiest village” (but Sartre wrote his opinion in 1938).

One of the consequences of mass tourism has resulted, sadly for me, in the disappearance of one of the greatest attractions of the old town: its rural character epitomised by cows! I first visited Santillana in 1959 when it was a sleepy, country village where cows made their way slowly to and from milking twice a day, stopping for a drink of water at a trough on the main street. Alongside the trough was a covered lavadero where women gathered and gossiped while washing clothes in a long, stone channel fed by running water. There are no longer cow “patties” as I observed in another page but the watering trough and lavadero are still there, now more as a reminder of past days, and I noticed that most tourists gave them no more than a casual glance. Tourism is now the main source of income, but the town is surrounded by rolling, fertile fields with farms that provide plenty of milk. As a result, many of the shops that line the streets sell cheese, cottage cheese, and local desserts from milk products (cheese cake, flan: crème caramel, custard: natillas, rice pudding: arroz con leche).

After visiting the Colegiata, we strolled round town. Be sure to get off the beaten track and admire the old houses with their wooden balconies, many decorated with a profusion of flowers.

Santillana del Mar. Plaza Mayor (Main Square).
Santillana del Mar. A hidden corner.

You can get a very good map of the town from the tourist office, a little difficult to find but worth the effort: after passing through the main entrance, you are on Santo Domingo. Branch right on to Carrera Cantón, turn first right on to Gandara, cross Jesús Otero and the Tourist Office is ahead of you.

It was early evening by the time we had finished our stroll and time to eat. Following recommendation from our posada, we went to El Pasaje de los Nobles with entrances on both Calle Juan Infante and Calle Carrera. It turned out to be a very good recommendation … an excellent dinner, costing 37 euros (including a generous glass of wine each).

Travel 2017. Day 3. Argoños.

Travel 2017. Day 3. Argoños Wednesday, September 27/17.

Run by two sisters, the Posada El Trasmerano is low-keyed and off the beaten tourist track. However, nearby there are several beautiful beaches and a salt-marsh nature reserve on a bird migration route (Parque natural de las marismas de Santoña y Noja). The old fishing port of Santoña –located within the park– is now popular with the sailing community and with Spaniards on a summer holiday retreat from the sweltering heat of the interior.

We got up refreshed and enjoyed a tasty breakfast with freshly pressed orange juice, potato tortilla/omelette –a favourite offering for breakfast— homemade bread or toast, fruit, biscuits and tea or fresh coffee.

After breakfast, we opted for a trip inland.

Countryside near Solórzano

One of the pleasures of the northern regions is the numerous valleys formed by rivers cutting through the mountain ranges. We didn’t want to overdo it the first day, so following recommendations we headed for a morning ride towards the small town of Solórzano on the River Campiazo. It was a good choice.

From Argoños, we passed quickly along the edge of the salt-marsh reserve, touched on the A8 highway, and then started up the valley of the Campiazo. We’d forgotten how green and beautiful the north of Spain is, and the valley here was wide with small villages, farmhouses dotting the landscape, fields divided by hedgerows, and gentle, sloping hills some partially covered by trees. Having been brought up in the countryside ourselves, this rural landscape appealed to us very much.

A quick call back at our posada, and we were off to the village of Isla for lunch following the recommendation of one of the sisters at the posada. The road was picturesque and there was a scenic view from the village towards Santoña: a combination of trees, farms and wooded hills.

View from Isla towards Santona.

Outside the village, we came cross 2 striking casonas, manor houses. The first was an imposing, stately stone building, surrounded by a stone wall with fields in front of it and trees behind.

The second was of cream-coloured stone located along the road. Both had heraldic shields alluding to some historic significance attached to the house.

Similar buildings with heraldic shields are not uncommon in the north. There are two possible sources for these heraldic emblems. 1. They might indicate the nobility of the individual who ordered their construction, and point to a past when “to be from the mountains” of the north (ser de las montañas), was a sign of pride in one’s purity of blood. The reason for this? It goes back to when the Moors (Muslims) invaded the peninsula across the Straits of Gibraltar in 711.  Many Christians fled to the mountainous northern fringe of the country, which became their centre of resistance. Therefore, the understanding was that the inhabitants of the mountains were Christians with pure, uncontaminated blood.  The 16th century was obsessed with purity of blood because it was a distinguishing feature between “old” Christians and “new” Christians, that is, Muslim and Jewish converts to Christianity.  To claim to be “from the mountains” was, then, understood to be noble and racially pure. 2. Many Spaniards who enriched themselves in Latin America (Las Indias), upon returning to Spain, often built mansions as indicators of their wealth and status, even to the point of adding shields to their buildings.

We took a photo of each casona on the way back from Isla. You can just make out two heraldic shields above the main entrance (to the left of the photo) in the first manor.

Casona near Isla.

The second, a three-storied house is grandly built with a wonderfully ornate shield tucked under the corner eaves on the upper right hand side. (The large opening on the ground floor suggests that this lower area originally housed animals, again a common feature of farmhouses, which this building might well have been.)

Beautiful roadside casona near Isla.

Back in Argoños, we decided to do some laundry. We did not expect this to be easy, given the shortage of laundromats experience we experienced on our 2103 trip. To our surprise, there was a laundromat in Santoña opposite the pretty 13th-century Romanesque (with later Gothic alterations, e. g. the doorway) church of Santa María del Puerto.

Church of Santa María del Puerto.

The facility was very new and spotless, with two coin operated washing machines and two dryers. The washing was made easy with powder added automatically, thus avoiding purchasing it separately. The total cost for washing and drying was 11 euros.

Image of Santa Maria del Puerto by Nicolás Pérez:





Travel 2017. Day 2. Bilbao, Guggenheim Museum. Argoños

See Travel 2017: Itinerary and Arrival for a rationale of this trip and an itinerary.

Tuesday, September 26/17. After a good night’s sleep and an excellent breakfast at our hotel (Artetxe), Margaret and I were ready to visit the building that put Bilbao (Bilbo in Euskera, the Basque language) on the culture map: The spectacular Guggenheim Museum by Toronto-born, Los Angeles-based architect Frank Gehry.

Rather than take a taxi (cost 9 euros), we caught a bus (1.50 euros) which stops close to the hotel and takes about 20 minutes to get downtown.  The leisurely drive gave us a good opportunity to savour the city, which was quite different from what we had anticipated. Given Bilbao’s history as port (fishing), and its commercial pursuits (banking, Stock Exchange and trading) and heavy industrial activities (iron, steel, chemicals and shipbuilding), we expected a gritty, dour, colourless city. On the contrary, the impression we got was of a modern, lively, colourful and supremely optimistic municipality despite undergoing a severe economic decline at the end of the 20th century. However, the decline had given  the town authorities, with the support of the Basque government, the opportunity to clean and modernise the city, and it remains the major economic hub of Euskadi, i. e. the Basque Country.

The Guggenheim Museum (opened in October 1997) rightly takes pride of place, but there is also a state-of-the-art rapid transit system (highlighted by the stylish subway/metro entrances designed by the British architect, Norman Forster), and an ultra-modern airport terminal, the work of Spain’s Santiago Calatrava. In the centre of the city, the sleek 165 metre (541 feet) Iberdrola tower, headquarters of a multinational utilities company, dominates the skyline, while a massive new super port is now Bilbao’s impressive maritime gateway to the world. Green spaces have sprouted where grimy factories once spewed pollution, and the River Nervión has been cleaned and its banks become prime development land/locations.

But, interesting as these innovative additions were, we had come to see the Guggenheim, a stunning art complex administered by the prestigious Guggenheim Foundation. Opinions about this museum are overwhelmingly positive, and it has been acclaimed as one of the greatest architectural masterpieces of the 20th century.

The Guggenheim from park alongside the River Nervión.

Our expectations, then, were high and we were not disappointed. Edged by a park and canal on one side and by the river Nervión of the other, its dynamic impact changes according to where you view it from. From the park side, where the entrance is located, the museum rises above the trees in an imaginative combination of different shapes at odd angles.

The dynamism of the odd angles and shapes is complemented, too, by the different construction materials visible: glass, cream-coloured limestone, and titanium cladding.  However, from the Puente de la Salve bridge over the Nervión or from across the river, it is transformed into a ship with its sleek, shimmering titanium siding conjuring images of sails riding the river. What could be more apt to capture Bilbao’s historical shipping tradition?

The Guggenheim from the Puente de la Salve. Don’t mistake the tower in the background for a funnel! It is, in fact,the Iberdrola tower.

A walk around the Guggenheim is an inspiring experience. Preconceived ideas of what an art museum should look like are challenged by the irregular changing perspectives, so that the building seems to defy structural logic. The Guggenheim is not simply a museum, it is itself an avant-garde work of art.

After a leisurely look at the stunning exterior, we made our way to the entrance. But in our way was literally a big surprise, impossible to miss. Towering ahead of us was an enormous, floral sculpture of a seated dog, fondly known as Puppy.

The Guggenheim. Puppy.

The work of controversial American artist, Jeff Koons, it’s a lovable West Highland terrier just over 12 metres (40 feet) tall. The fur was made up of multi-coloured pansies and other vivid flowers, embedded in soil and supported on a steel frame, and fed by an internal irrigation system. (The flowers change with the season.) It was for us a joyful if quirky entry to the muted-coloured museum, and its unconventional form and location a playful reminder that art has many faces.

The Guggenheim. Spider Maman.

We discovered another surprising creature on the river side of the museum: an enormous, 9 metre (30 feet) metal spider, the work of the French-American sculptress Louise Bourgeois. One of a series of spider sculptures, “Maman”/ “Mother” –as Bourgeois called it—is a warm tribute to her mother who died when Bourgeois was 21 and whom she recalled fondly as protective and caring. But why a spider? For many people the spider evokes fear (arachnophobia), but in Bourgeois’s case it turns out that her mother was a weaver and the spider has long been the archetypal image of the weaver. This is how Bourgeois explains her choice: ‘The Spider is an ode to my mother. She was my best friend. Like a spider, my mother was a weaver…. Like spiders, my mother was very clever. Spiders are friendly presences that eat mosquitos. We know that mosquitos spread diseases and are therefore unwanted. So spiders are helpful, protective, just like my mother

The Guggenheim. Atrium (1).

The inside of the Guggenheim is as unconventional as the outside. From the moment you descend the entrance steps, pass through the lobby and enter the atrium, there is the same deconstruction of accepted structural designs. Soaring upwards, there are large, leaning windows, steel girders, cream-coloured stone pillars, white walls, suspended walkways, and paths that lead off in many directions.

The Guggenheim. Atrium (2).

It’s not a labyrinth, but we found it an adventure, to find the individual galleries, even with a brochure. There are three levels reached by glass-enclosed elevators (lifts); the suspended walkways that link the galleries were a challenge for me since I do not have a head for height! Of the 19 galleries, we saw only a few, all large and none of them conventionally shaped (there are others apparently classically rectangular in shape).

The Guggenheim specialises in modern and contemporary art, and its holdings are complemented by exhibitions including works drawn from other Guggenheim collections. Margaret and I chose to limit our viewing, since the galleries themselves were unusually designed and the avant-garde works they contained required us to go back and reconsider what we were seeing against our more traditional views on art. We were moved by e. g. Anselm Kiefer’s war imagery and blackened sunflowers and impressed by Andy Warhol’s famous One Hundred and Fifty Multicoloured Marilyns (silkscreen images of Marilyn Monroe).

Kiefer. Sunflowers.

The former was a moving evocation of the senseless destruction and desolation caused by war; the latter demonstrated the endless permutations potentially contained in one image.

There was a lot more to see, but it seemed to us that everything about the Guggenheim –the building itself and its contents— was a constant challenge about the nature and potential of Art. Gehry has overthrown accepted norms in architecture, and engages us in a dialogue not only on what an art museum should be but on what the role of buildings is in our lives. The works inside the Guggenheim issue a similar challenge. What, if any, are the limits of art?

From the aesthetic and intellectual stimulation of several hours at the Guggenheim, we turned to more practical matters in the late afternoon. After picking up our luggage from our hotel, we called a taxi and set out for the airport — about 20 minutes away– to pick up our rental car, an Audi A4. After having the car’s GPS (Satnav) converted to instructions in English, we were on our way, heading west along the coast. Getting out of Bilbao was quite straightforward, although we noticed that the GPS voice function was not working, something we attributed at first to our lack of familiarity with the system.

We had booked a room for two nights at the Posada El Trasmerano, just outside the small town of Argoños, about 80 kilometres/50 miles west of Bilbao. Soon after leaving Bilbao, we left Euskadi and entered the autonomous region of Cantabria. The road (A8) follows the coast for much of the way, and is a very pleasant drive. To our left, there were green wooded hills broken by fields with grazing cattle and sheep. To our right, there were teasing glimpses of the sea and sandy coves and fishing villages.

Historically Cantabria did not exist as a political entity until 1981 when the Province of Santander –until then part of Castile– acquired limited autonomy following the terms set out in Spain’s latest constitution in 1978. It was an important step towards recognizing the area’s cultural and historic identity, which had more in common with its neighbour to the west, Asturias, than with Castile. Indeed many travel books lump Cantabria and Asturias together, noting geographical, economic and even social similarities. Both Communities are mountainous with deeply embedded valleys and numerous rivers running north to the Sea of Biscay. Fishing and animal farming are basic to their economies (with tourism now having a major impact as well), and social norms tend to be still conservative.

By the time we arrived at El Trasmerano it was early evening. There was ample parking (free). Although the Posada is located just off a fairly busy road, our room (203) was on the ground floor in the back and looked out onto fields and wooded hillsides. A few cows added a bucolic touch.

Argoños. View from our bedroom at Posada El Trasmerano.

Our room was very clean, cheerful, and airy with plenty of light; the bathroom a little small but spotless, the bed very comfortable. In sum, a lovely place to relax. But before retiring, we grabbed a light meal –a potato omelette sandwich (bocadillo de tortilla de patatas)– in the town. Across the road there was a supermarket where we bought fruit for dessert. By now we were ready for bed.

Image of Anselm Kiefer’s Sunflowers:
For an excellent introduction to Bilbao, see Shankar Chaudhuri’s perceptive article:

Travel 2017. Day 1. Madrid Bilbao.

See Travel 2017: Itinerary and Arrival for a rationale of this trip and an itinerary.

Monday, September 25/17. Margaret and I were up early, energised by a good if short sleep, and made it to Chamartín Train Station with plenty of time. After passing through security and clambering aboard with our luggage, we were soon on our way. The distance from Madrid to Bilbao is only 323 kilometres (201 miles) as the crow flies, but the train meanders for 5 hours via Segovia, Valladolid and Burgos.

Chamartín Station is towards the northern edge of Madrid, so we were soon out of the city and wending our way through the picturesque Guadarrama Mountains towards Segovia. Beyond Segovia, however, the landscape changed dramatically as we entered the northern half of Spain’s Meseta. This high central plateau ranges from 400 to 1000 metres (1,312 to 3,280 feet) high and covers large areas of Castile-León, Castile-La Mancha, Extremadura, and chunks of Aragón and La Rioja. It’s a flat, dry, windswept and harsh expanse extremely cold in the winter and burning hot in the summer. Nevertheless, farmers have turned this difficult land into an important growing area (mainly wheat), and flocks of sheep have historically criss-crossed its hedge less sweep.

Clusters of holm oaks (i.e. evergreen oak trees) and the occasional bluff broke the monotony of the yellow-brown landscape, and the distant outline of church towers dominating earth-coloured villages were reminders of the enormous influence of the Catholic Church in Spain’s history.  Nowadays, the church towers often compete with modern secular newcomers: grain silos attesting to the importance of grain to the region’s economy.

After short stops at Valladolid (briefly Spain’s capital Spain’s 1601-1606) and Burgos (ancient capital of Castile and home to Spain’s first Gothic cathedral), the landscape began to change and in the distance outlines of mountains began to emerge.  Soon after crossing the River Ebro at Miranda de Ebro we were skirting the tree-lined mountains of the eastern reaches of the Sierra Cantábrica. Here our train cut through passes and edged above green valleys dotted with neatly painted villages and well-maintained farms. We were now in Basque territory.

Our train rolled on time into Bilbao’s Abando Station, in the centre of the city, on time. Train stations are frequently ornate or powerful structures, a gateway to a city, and meant to immediately impress visitors. This was particularly so before the arrival of airports, which in many cases have now taken over this role (Bilbao’s airport, designed by one of Spain’s leading architects, Santiago Calatrava) is an example. See ).

Travellers arriving at Abando Station can’t miss a large, beautiful stained glass window that fills the entire wall overlooking the entry to the lobby from the platforms. Installed in 1948, the window pays homage to the city’s industrial history, its rural surroundings and activities associated with it (e.g. fishing, farming, rowing, jai alai players holding their cestas (long wicker racquets), the old bridge over the River Nervión (on which Bilbao is situated), and the early 16th century church of San Anton (St. Anthony). Both the church and the bridge feature in Bilbao’s coat of arms –the church has always been strong in conservative Basque society.

Abando Station. Bilbao.

Outside the station, we took a taxi (fare 9 euros) to Hotel Artetxe, located high on a hill with a great view of the city.

Bilbao. View from Hotel Artetxe.

It’s a small, intimate lodging, more like a B and B, and excellent value. By North American standards, our room (105) was small, but it was immaculate and tastefully furnished, and the beds were firm and comfortable.

With a population of about 350,000, Bilbao is the largest city in the Basque Country and is its economic hub. It stretches along both sides of the River Nervión valley and is overlooked by vivid green hills. It’s refreshing to see that development has not crept up the hills; indeed, one of the pleasures of walking in the city is that the hills are never far from sight.

Still feeling somewhat tired after our transatlantic overnight flight, we decided against going back down to the city. Besides, it was now fairly late, and a meal seemed more in order. There are two Basque restaurants close to the hotel, one alongside (Asador –i.e. Grill—Artetxe) and the other across the road (Asador Berriz Txakoli).  The choice was made for us. The Asador Berriz Txakoli was closed, so it was the Artetxe (despite the similarity of names, this Asador has nothing to do with the hotel). The dining room was cozy with patterned tablecloths and matching serviettes. The meal was tasty, but compared to meals over the next three weeks, it was overpriced (euros92: $142). It consisted of garbanzo soup with lobster (much more shell than meat, unfortunately), cogote de merluza (hake cheeks, the choicest part of the neck of the fish), accompanied by a lovely bottle of Txakoli wine, a slightly effervescent white still relatively unknown beyond the Basque Country’s borders.

By the time we had eaten, we were ready for bed. It didn’t take long to get to sleep.

Hotel Artetxe from the garden. Note the beautiful stone wall. Our window, bottom right.