Euskadi & Navarra (España 4)

Don’t miss the beginning! This article is part of a series that starts >> here <<.

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Last part of this spanish adventure took place in the top right corner of the country, in the 2 Basque speaking provinces of Navarra and the Basque Country (Euskadi).

My first stop there was the capital of the Basque country, Vitoria-Gasteiz. Cities have names in both Basque and Spanish, and sometimes both are used next to each other, at least on maps. It seems to me people use more the Spanish names.

Vitoria-Gasteiz

This industrial city as a nice old centre. At least they obviously work hard to make it stand out and attract tourist who usually skip it and stay in the more famous Bilbao and San Sebastián.

This year, Vitoria-Gasteiz is European Green Capital. I didn’t even know that exists. The all region seems very concerned about environmental issues anyway. Every city I’ve visited in this region is full of bicycle infrastructures, no nuclear power and no fast train signs.

This is the main square, Plaza de la Virgen Blanca :

Vitoria-Gasteiz main square

The historic centre extends behind it and is not only called Casco Antiguo (in Spanish), but also Alde Zaharra (in Basque).

Street in the Alde Zaharra

As it stands on a hill, there are some mechanic stairs to cross it west-to-east. First time I see this kind of urban transit.

public transit

I found some really refined colourful street-art, both historical and political.

historical street art

political street art

The banco de España showed still some marks from the late march strike (probably).

Banco de España - Vitoria

And of course I couldn’t leave without a picture of the street names, often with several different names.

Street names

From this day on until the end of the trip, the weather mostly consisted in heavy showers, wind, and sometimes a bit of sun: a true Scottish weather.

I took a train to the capital of Navarra.

Pamplona/Iruña

Here again both names are used, but the Spanish name is more evocative of travels and crazy bull-runs of the San Fermin.

The city is the less lively at night I’ve seen in Spain, although there are plenty of pintxos bars in the casco viejo, around the Plaza del Castillo.

Plaza del Castillo

The only outstanding façade is on the city hall.

Ayuntamiento

Although located on the camino francese, the cathedral is far outranked by those of León and Burgos.

Pamplona cathedral

What makes the city pleasant is the amount of green spaces, mostly converted fortifications, especially the huge citadel.

Ciudadela - Pamplona

And also the green corridor along the Arga river, which is kind of a stream because the city is at the foot of the Pyrénées.

Arga river

Olite

A few kilometres South of Pamplona is the little village of Olite. Here stands the huge castle of the Navarran kings. It was unfortunately burnt down during the Spanish independence war, but has been greatly restored. The only thing missing is the inner decorations, which were, according to some writers, among the finest in European royal courts.

Olite castle entrance

Olite Santa Maria Church

Olite castle

The castle even hosts a hanging garden.

Hanging garden of Olite

Olite castle

Finally it was time to reach the last stop of my trip, on the Atlantic coast, the city of San Sebastián.

Donostia-San Sebastián

The city has a truly amazing location, with perfectly shaped city beaches, protected from the winds and flows of the open sea by an island and forest-covered mountains, on top of one is a statue of the Christ, making the city looks like a downsized European Rio.

The plaza mayor-like Constitution square reminds you that you are still in Spain.

Plaza de la Constitucion

And the harbour shows the fishermen and whale hunting traditions of the city, before it devoted to tourism.

San Sebastián harbour

On mount Urgull, the mountain protecting the city center from the winds of the Bay of Biscay, stands a statue of the Christ, from which there are nice views on the city and the Concha bay.

Monte Urgull

The center from Monte Urgull

The bay from Monte Urgull

But the view is far more breathtaking from the Monte Igeldo, topped by an odd amusement park, on the other side of the Bahia de La Concha.

The bay from Monte Igeldo

In between, almost no one dares to walk on the golden sand.

Bahia de la Concha

Center seen from the Concha

At some point we wanted to rent bicycles, but the frequent showers had reason of our determination, and we ended up walking and taking the Monte Igeldo funicular. The city seemed really bike friendly, it has the longest bicycle commuter tunnel in the world.

From San Sebastián, it is really easy and cheap to reach the French border with Euskotren, the Basque train company. This is what I did and then a fast train took a little more than 6 hours to bring me back to Paris, 800 kilometres away.

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As promised already, here is a map that locates all the stops I made during those 3 weeks.

Spain 03.23 - 04.14

Some asked me what my favourite city was. But that’s really hard to tell. I gave some clues in the previous articles and there are too many reasons not to give a definitive answer.

Hope you enjoyed the pictures and that it made you want to explore Spain deeper than just Barcelona and Madrid. Next time in this country, I’ll be interested in … all the regions I’ve not been to!

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Castilla y León (España 3)

Don’t miss the beginning! This article is part of a series that starts >> here <<.

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The day I left Madrid was by far the coldest of this trip. It was very cloudy and the train went very slowly up into the pine forests of the Sierra de Guadarrama. After 20min it was all covered by snow, it would have been amazing with a bit of sunshine. Then it went down in Castilla y León, under the limit of snow, and I stopped in the city of Ávila.

Ávila

Few people outside of Spain are aware of the existence and location of this small town. But it has some of the best medieval fortifications I’ve ever seen.

The modern city extents from the train station to the medieval centre. Once I crossed it, I discovered those amazing walls and a gate to the city.

Puerta del Alcázar

Next to the gate, the back of the cathedral is part of the city wall.

Back of the cathedral

The inner-city is not that pretty, but the main square, surrounded with columns, is very Spanish.

Ayuntamiento

Everyone comes to Ávila, either for pilgrimage to Santa Teresa, or for the city’s beautifully preserved walls.

City walls

They are complete over 2.5km with 88 watchtowers.

Panorama on Ávila

Behind it, the Sierra de Gredos is snowcapped but unfortunately it was still very cloudy.

Sierra de Gredos

At some point it was snowing in the city. I had a beanie hat, but I definitely should have taken gloves. But in Spain I couldn’t guess it could be that cold in April.

Snow in Ávila

It’s also because this city was the highest I stopped in.

Ávila height

After a few hours mostly wandering around the walls, I took another train and went on to Salamanca.

Salamanca

I stayed 2 nights there, and experienced mostly rain. But it was still the most picturesque city I’ve seen. After the quiet Ávila, here is crowded with tourist. The city’s beauty alone attracts many people, but it was also the beginning of Easter weekend. The processions during Semana Santa in Salamanca are very famous, and I saw one as soon as I arrived.

Semana Santa in Salamanca

The youth hostel had the biggest dormitory I slept in, with 20 beds. There were some pilgrims on the way to Santiago, from Sevilla this time.

From the othe side of Rio Tormes, the view on both cathedrals is impressive. Yes there are 2 cathedrals, next to each other, but it seems to make just one.

View on Salamanca

At night the city is really beautiful, and as the weather is not great, it makes the pictures look better! Almost every renaissance building or church has very detailed carving.

San Esteban

On the university wall, there is a (very) small frog that you are supposed to locate to have good luck. So the frog is a symbol of the city and you find every kind of frogs in souvenirs shops.

University

Street in the center

The heart of the city is the Plaza Mayor, probably the most beautiful in Spain.

Plaza Mayor

Among all the renaissance buildings, I found the casa de las conchas very nice.

Casa de las Conchas

Around the new cathedral’s gates, there are many funny people and monsters. For instance on this picture you can find an astronaut and a monster who holds some ice cream.

Astronaut and ice cream

With all those sights, it is in my opinion the most scenic city on this trip.

After renaissance, I headed back to middle ages, and more precisely the Romanesque era.

Zamora

An hour north by bus from Salamanca, Zamora is full of Romanesque churches and is supposed to host some of the best Semana Santa celebrations.

The cathedral was unfortunately closed. It was Easter sunday. From outside, the aspect is rude, except for the dome above the transept. The picture is taken from the Castillo, at the very end of the hill on which Zamora stands.

Zamora cathedral

Many other small churches are purely Romanesque, and as in many other cities north of Madrid, the campaniles are occupied by stork’s nests.

San Isodoro

Church portal

Stork on San Cipriano

The hill of Zamora is above the Douro river. We are just a few kilometres away from Portugal.

Zamora above the Douro

On the plaza mayor, several brass bands were playing and it was like the all city was outside, enjoying this last day of Semana Santa.

Plaza Mayor de Zamora

It was very foggy in the morning and it lasted until far after midday. But when I reached the city of León the sun was shining bright.

León

The city is crossed by the Camino Francese, the way to Santiago coming from France, the most popular one. The cathedral of León is an important milestone for pilgrims on the camino. It was inspired by the french gothic cathedrals, and I confirm it’s obvious, it could be in the north of France.

León cathedral

The city built it when it was only 5000 inhabitants, I wonder how they found the energy and money to build such a temple.

Inside there are 1800 square meters of stained glass. Which makes it probably the most important place for this art after Chartres’ cathedral in France.

Inside León cathedral

Beside the cathedral there are nice civil buildings, such has the San Marcos parador and the casa de Botines, built by Gaudi.

San Marcos

Casa de Botines

And again, the city wouldn’t be Spanish without a Plaza Mayor!

Plaza Mayor de León

There was live music in the evening and the city centre is very animated. Also further from tourists roads, the tapas were really cheap.

The next morning I started to go East and headed to the capital city of Castilla y León.

Valladolid

Valladolid is also the biggest city of the region, a busy ryanair hub and on the fast train line from Madrid. But it wasn’t supposed to be a very pretty city, so I was pleasantly surprised by what I discovered.

The main colour for buildings is a very dark red. The same colour was also present in Andalusia, but with a predominance of white and ochre.

Plaza Mayor

But the churches are all in white stones which makes them stand out of the rest of the city.

Valladolid cathedral

Santa Maria

The main sight is the church of San Pablo and its Hispanic-flemish style façade.

San Pablo

Later on I took a bus to another city on the Camino.

Burgos

It is very famous among pilgrims because it hosts probably the finest gothic cathedral in Spain. You can see it from everywhere in this medium-sized town, even right after stepping outside the bus station, behind the arco de Santa Maria.

Arco de Santa Maria

For sure it’s a masterpiece. The front façade reminded me of León, but from other sides it looks totally different.

Cathedral of Burgos

cathedral from behind

Sarmental Portal

Above it, is a small forest-covered hill with a castillo, which offers nice views on the city.

Burgos from the castillo

Describing the inside of the cathedral would take several articles, so I’m just putting a picture of those astonishing vaults.

Inside Burgos cathedral

The most famous character of Burgos is el Cid. Well I’m still not up to date with Spanish history, so ask wikipedia if you want to know about him!

El Cid

This was my last stop in Castilla y León. I really loved this region, further away from the crowds of Madrid and Andalusia, a more genuine Spain, which profound Christian culture left stunning monuments.

Then I left for the Basque country and the autonomous province of Navarra, which are totally different and thus deserve a separate article. It will be the last one, and don’t worry if you are lost after reading about so many cities in Spain, there will be a map to sum-up all this at the end.

Go on in the Basque Country  >>

Madrid & Castilla-La Mancha (España 2)

This is the 2nd chapter of my spanish adventure that started here.

I realize I’ve not been totally honest with you. Frequent readers may think I was riding my bike through Spain. Truth is I didn’t put my hands on a handlebar for 3 weeks. My only means of transportation were public transit: bus, train and subway.

I left my story on the Media Distancia from Jaén to Madrid, which made me leave the warm and sunny south for a gray, wet and cool north. I don’t say Andalusia is all warm, Granada lies in the mountains and had already cool nights.

Madrid

The capital city of Spain is less antique than other spanish cities, but it has lots to offer to visitors. It’s treasures are more hidden and I was glad to have a perfect host and guide during the few days I spent there.

She showed me first the Buen Retiro area. Right behind the Prado museum and the royal church of San Jeronimo extends a large garden that unables the city to breathe.

Church of San Jeronimo

Crystal Palace in the Buen Retiro garden

excited peacock in the Buen Retiro garden

Among the numerous statues of the garden, one is dedicated to the devil, and is supposedly located at 666m above the sea level. I didn’t check.

Most of my favourite buildings are from the 19th or early 20th century. It starts with the city hall and then continue all along the Gran Via. I’ve never been to New-York, but it’s what the perspective of this street echoes for me: New-York in the early 20th century (the pictures don’t render this effect).

Ayutamiento de Madrid (city hall)

View on the Gran Via from rooftop

Subway stop Sevilla

On plaza de Santa Ana

My host showed me also the best map library in Madrid, Desnivel, so I had a place to spend hours in case rain prevented me to enjoy the outside. I actually did so, and spent money. I also went to 2 of the most famous art galleries of the city : the Prado and the Centro de Arte Reina Sofia.

I went multiple times on the Plaza Mayor.

I also wandered north of the Gran Via, but there weren’t that much to see in this neighbourhood, just a nice atmosphere.

On the second day we visited the Temple de Debod, an Egyptian temple saved from the waters of lake Nasser.

Temple de Debod

Then the royal palace and the Barrio de La Latina had nice architectural gems.

Royal palace

Cathedral

Street in La Latina

The 3rd day, on my host’s thoughtful suggestion, we headed to the nearby city of Alcalá de Henares.

Alcalá de Henares

This university town is the birth place of Cervantes, and is scattered with old university buildings, whose roofs are a paradise for storks. Really, they are everywhere, even on the university’s coat of arms.

University courtyard

Plaza de Cervantes

We visited Cervantes birthplace. I knew nothing about him (and I just ordered Don Quichotte on Amazon to do something about it).

Inside the university was this inscription in a very nice font. I will see several time this font on historic buildings, especially in Salamanca.

University de Alcalá

I was amazed by the number of storks on the city roofs. There are none of them in the South.

Storks

The city hosts also a palace with rooms that are replications of famous palaces, one of them being the Alhambra. Unfortunately it was closed, but it has fine architectural mudéjar (Muslim architecture in Christian Spain) details on its outside.

Palacio Laredo

The city is also where Christopher Columbus met for the first time the king and queen of Spain to talk about is project. It adds up to the city’s great historic importance for the country.

Toledo

Back to Madrid, I took a high speed train to Toledo, only 35min away from the capital.

Toledo train station

I spent the night here in the most unusual youth hostel in Spain, it is actually a castle.

Youth hostel from Alcantara bridge

The city centre is up a hill surrounded by the Tage river. It means the cobbled streets are often steep, it gives a very special atmosphere and although it’s a relatively small city you can easily go away from the tourists who often stick to the main sights. Also, visitors come often on a day trip from Madrid, the city is thus much quieter at night.

Among the main sights are obviously the iconic Alcazar and the cathedral.

Alcazar de Toledo

Toledo's cathedral

The city hall had also great lights at night. My night time pictures are better than the day time because the weather was rainy in Toledo.

Ayutamiento de Toledo

As a change from erasmus students or international party-goers, my room-mate was a spanish speaking only pilgrim, on his way from Valencia to Santiago. What a quiet night.

In the morning I went for a walk on the other bank of the river, enjoying the panorama over the city.

Panorama of Toledo

I visited several small museums and buildings, including the San Ildefonso church which offers also nice views from its towers.

Toledo from San Ildefonso

Madrid

In the afternoon I went back to Madrid for a last night there, in a lively hostel this time.

Then I headed to the Chamartín train station, situated in the office and finance district of the capital.

Plaza de Castilla

Chamartin

I went on north and up through the Sierra de Guadarrama to enter Castilla y León. This time there was snow outside.

Go on in Castilla y León >>

Andalucía (España 1)

On march 23rd I left Paris for a solo backpacking trip through Spain, crossing the country south to north, from Sevilla to Donostia/San Sebastián. My only schedule was the return date, for which I had booked a train back to Paris, and a few nights couchsurfing.

The flight to Sevilla was short but one of the best I ever had, with perfect views over Paris, Orléans, Bordeaux, San Sebastián, Madrid and finally Sevilla. Cities were all easily recognizable from the plane and the weather was perfect.

Sevilla

The first thing that welcomes you in Sevilla is the kind climate, 27°C already in late march, and a bright sun. The second thing, once you step outside the bus from the airport is the smell of orange trees blossoms. Not all the city smells like that (jealous people say it smells horse pooh), the narrow streets of the centre don’t allow the presence of orange trees, but the neighbourhood of the Giralda (cathedral) and Alcázar is full of them, covered with azahars, these little white flowers.

The cathedral is built over the previous mosque, from which only the minaret remains, called the Giralda because of the rotating statue on top of it.

Cathedral of Sevilla

Going up is an easy climb, there are no stairs but a steady slope for that, so that the muezzin could ride up on a donkey and not be exhausted to call for the several prayers a day. It reminded me of an observatory in Copenhagen, where horses could go up.

From the top, the view extends on all the city (it is so far the highest building, more than 100m high) and on the patio de los naranjos.

Patio de los Naranjos

The other main sight of the city, my favourite, is the Alcázar, full of wonderful architectural details and backed with a huge exotic garden.

Alcázar courtyard

Inside the Alcázar

Alcázar gardens

But outside of its walls, the city is great too. Very lively, and also touristy, by day and by night.

The Plaza de España built for an Ibero-American exhibition in 1929, is also very impressive.

Plaza de España

On the plaza de la Encarnación, is the modern Metropol Parasol, which allows also nice views on the city over its canopy. Actually it’s a lot better from the top than from the ground.

Sevilla from Metropol Parasol

Sevilla by night

Córdoba

After 3 days in Sevilla, I headed to Córdoba, one of the 2 places where I « booked » something. I was couchsurfing there.

The city is a lot smaller but has one of the most interesting building in Spain : the Mezquita, a mosque converted into a cathedral, famous for the columns (1300?) of its huge prayer room.

Columns in the Mezquita

It’s full of architectural details like the mihrab (the wall showing the direction of La Mecca), and surrounded by many chapels.

Mihrab

The cathedral built in the middles, breaks the perspectives of the enormous room but is a fine baroque example.

Cathedral

Like in Sevilla, the courtyard is a pleasant patio de los naranjos.

Patio de los naranjos

The old city has a Jewish neighbourhood, Juderia, with narrow cobbled streets and houses all in white and ochre. In this neighbourhood, only one medieval synagogue remains. Among the 3 still up in Spain, the 2 others are in Toledo.

Juderia of Córdoba

A bit further lies the plaza de la Corredera, the first « plaza mayor like » square I will see in Spain.

Plaza de la Corredera

The nightlife is more lively here than in the old medieval centre, which seems to come to life only when tourists are here.

Málaga

From Córdoba I used a high speed train to the coastal city of Málaga. It wasn’t on my plans, but other travellers advised me to head there, not booking anything allows some last minute changes. I finally spent a full day here and 2 nights because of the huelga general (strike).

The city is not pretty, there are a cathedral with one tower (la Manquita), a castle on a hill in the middle of the city (the Alcazaba and the castle of Gibralfaro) and obviously, a huge city beach. But people come here for the party atmosphere. There were 80% of Germans in the hostel, a totally different population than in other cities.

Málaga beach

Málaga's Alcazaba and Manquita

Málaga's Plaza de Toros

Time to go up in the mountains, I took a bus to Granada and some fellow travellers proposed me a ride to the nearby Sierra Nevada.

Sierra Nevada

The ski resort was still open, but with mostly artificial snow.

The mountain range, the highest of continental Spain, is not the nicest, it’s very dry, the atmosphere was very dusty and the ski resort manages to uglify this a bit more. We went for a short walk to the Virgen de las nieves, 2500m high, and an old observatory.

Virgen de las nieves

Old observatory

View on the wildest side

The range is home to a large population of ibex and we had the chance to see some on the roadside.

Ibex on the Sierra Nevada

Granada

After all those unexpected side trips, I had only a few time remaining in Granada. This is probably my favourite city in Andalusia, mainly for its atmosphere and narrow cobbled streets with a smell of Morocco. That cannot be shown on pictures. The hostel also was the best so far.

View from the hostel rooftop

I went to the free accessible part of the Alhambra. The other parts can only welcome a limited number of visitors each day and you have to either book in advance or wait in a line from 7:30am. No way! I’m on holidays. And waking up early is so difficult. I sleep usually from 3am to 11am.

Gate inside the Alhambra

View on the Alhambra

I spent a lot of time going up and down the cobbled street of the Albayzín neighbourhood. This part of the city gives it all its charm and gipsy atmosphere.

Stream in Granada's city centre

Jaén

Instead of heading directly to Madrid, I stopped on the way in the middle-sized city of Jaén, and it was really worth it.

It hosts an enormous cathedral and is topped by a medieval castle from which the panorama on the city, the olive trees and the moutains is wonderful. I stumbled upon a second religious procession of the Semana Santa, the week before Easter (I saw a first one in Málaga).

Jaén's cathedral

The Castillo de Santa Catalina is now a Parador, which means a State-owned luxury hostel, a good way for Spain to find money to maintain its monuments.

Castillo de Santa Catalina

The view from there is amazing. Guess that Jaén is the world capital of olive oil.

View on Jaén

I went back downhill just for the arrival of the procession.

End of the procession at Jaén's cathedral

I stayed for a while listening to the brass bands and then took a train to Madrid.

It was the longest train ride I had in Spain, more than 4 hours. Now I’m too much north to enjoy a warm and sunny weather like in Andalusia.

I’ll put the rest of the pictures among 2 or 3 more articles, depending on the energy and time I want to spend on it.

Edit : it goes on here in Madrid and Castilla-La Mancha >>