Posts Tagged ‘spain’

Off to Spain with a Jaunt to France

September 23rd, 2010 at 3:04 pm (AST) by Jake Richter

We had not planned on going anywhere for exploration for the rest of the year, but a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity arose for us (the adult half of The Traveling Richters) to dine at the famed elBulli restaurant in Spain and personally meet famed chef Ferran Adrià, so we have wrapped an expedition for all of The Traveling Richters to explore parts of Spain around that event to take advantage of being in Spain for the special occasion at elBulli.

Our Itinerary:

  • Sept. 29 – Oct. 1, 2010 – Bilbao & San Sebastian, Spain
  • Oct. 1 – 2, 2010 – Toulouse, France. Just passing through southern France
  • Oct. 2 – 4, 2010 – Roses, Costa Brava, Spain
  • Oct. 4 – 5, 2010 – Zaragoza, Spain
  • Oct. 5 – 8, 2010 – Madrid, Alcala de Henares, and Toledo, Spain

In addition to having secured reservations at three of the top restaurants in the world for this trip, we’ll be exploring various museums like the Guggenheim Bilbao and the Prado and Reina Sofia in Madrid. We also have a docent to guide us through the history of Toledo, the life and times of Cervantes (author of “Don Quixote”), and an olive oil, ham, chocolate, and Tapas tasting tour in Madrid. It will be tiring, but we’re up for the challenge!

And we’ll be home just in time for our country to change on 10-10-10. We stay on the same island, of Bonaire, but the country of the Netherlands Antilles will be dissolved on 10-10-10, and Bonaire will become a municipality of The Netherlands. More on that here.

Depending on how busy we are in our travels, we may or may not post travelogues. Jake has started an on-line graduate program in photography, so we expect most of his on-line time on the road will be spent meeting his obligations for his classes.

However, if any of you have recommendations on other places we should not miss in the areas we will be traveling in, please let us know!


A Pilgrimage, Of Sorts, to Santiago de Compostela

May 10th, 2008 at 6:38 pm (AST) by Jake Richter

On Thursday, we had an early (and very tired) start, getting on Zodiacs for the first time as part of our disembarkation in the fishing village of Finesterra, Spain. Finesterra, also called Fisterra, is located in the Galician area of northwestern Spain. The name of the village allegedly comes from when the Romans arrived there a couple of millennia ago, and figured they had reached the end (fini) of the world (terra).

The fishing village of Finesterra, Spain
The fishing village of Finesterra, Spain

Boarding the Zodiacs was reasonably simple as the briefing we had received on the process the evening before was quite thorough, and all went according to plan. We’ve been told that the use of Zodiacs for getting to shore is the norm for most Lindblad trips, but as previously noted, we’ve been using docks and piers all along. Apparently we are also due to use Zodiacs tomorrow to leave St. Malo, as the tides will require the Endeavor to leave the dock before we return.

Krystyana, Linda, and Bas aboard one of the Zodiacs from the National Geographic Endeavour
Krystyana, Linda, and Bas aboard one of the Zodiacs from the National Geographic Endeavour

We boarded the ever present tour bus with our fellow horde of co-passengers, and headed off to Santiago de Compostela, a major Christian pilgrimage site featuring a cathedral which reportedly contains the remains of St. James, an Apostle of Christ. The remains were certified by a Bishop in the 9th century A.D., according to Isabella, our charming Galician tour guide. After Jerusalem and the Vatican, Santiago de Compostela is the third most visited site for Christian pilgrims.

The cathedral at Santiago de Compostela
The cathedral at Santiago de Compostela

Apparently, there are some very strict requirements for someone to be considered a proper pilgrim. First is that they must arrive on foot or by bicycle, but arrival by motorized conveyance is not permissible for pilgrim status. Pedestrian pilgrims need to travel at least 60 km to get to Santiago de Compostela, and get stamps certifying their pilgrimage walk at various checkpoints along the way. For those preferring to bicycle, the distance is 120 km, with checkpoint stamps required as well. Once a properly stamped pilgrim arrives in Santiago de Compostela they need to go to the Pilgrimage certification office and get an official certificate verifying that they are in fact a real pilgrim. Then, the first ten of such certified pilgrims each day can get a free meal at the Hostal hotel/restaurant.

Pilgrims also are supposed to be carrying scallop shells as a symbol of their pilgrimage, as in addition to being a useful tool for drinking and eating, it also represents a religious icon in Christianity (I didn’t quite grasp how or why that was, though, during our tour). Scallop shell motifs adorned the cathedral in many places in any event.

A symbolic scallop shell on the outside of the cathedral at Santiago de Compostela
A symbolic scallop shell on the outside of the cathedral at Santiago de Compostela

One thing that was very surprising to me about the pilgrimages was that pilgrims only needed to complete the journey to be certified as pilgrims, and not actually even enter the cathedral. It’s not always been that way, however, according to a historical account I later read, as pilgrims at one point had to go to a mass, visit the tomb of St. James, have their confession taken, and take communion, at a minimum. Now, however, the process seems less spiritual and more bureaucratic.

The drive to Santiago de Compostela was a bit drizzly and foggy – something that Isabella indicated was more the norm than not, as sunshine tended to be rare, and rain plentiful. But it was a beautiful drive, at least the part during which we were awake (as we had not had much sleep the previous night). Our arrival in Santiago de Compostela seemed to be at something that was a cross between a Greyhound bus station and a cruise ship terminal, seething with mostly oddly dressed individuals overladen with giant handbags, backpacks, and camera equipment, speaking in a myriad of mostly incomprehensible but strangely familiar languages, ourselves included. As we were herded along – amongst the hundreds of other tourists – we paused briefly at a restroom and then made our way to the square in front of the cathedral, being teased by free samples of almond cookies and almond cake, both of which have become traditional foods associated with the town.

In the square before the cathedral, we were introduced to the Hostal de los Reyes Catolicos, a hotel and dining facility which started life as the accommodations for visiting nobility; the administrative offices for the county of which Santiago de Compostela was the county seat; the old school building, and of course the cathedral itself. Isabella said the square and its surroundings represented the basic element of human life – education (the school), work (the administrative building), leisure (the Hostal), and spiritual (the cathedral).

We then visited the interior of the cathedral itself, which at first glance appeared large but very simple and plain, but as we walked on, that changed, with amazing (and somewhat expected) ornamentation in the area around the resting place of the remains of St. James, which was also surrounded by ornate private chapels.

The bureaucratic nature of modern day Santiago de Compostela came through inside the cathedral as well, where priests sat in confessional booths lining one wall of the cathedral ready to take confessions. Seeing this felt like a Monty Python moment brought to real life.

A priest reads while waiting to take a confession in the cathedral at Santiago de Compostela
A priest reads while waiting to take a confession in the cathedral at Santiago de Compostela

We were also told about how local cheese makers became political revolutionaries of sorts, when, in protest to a bishop having a sculptor give a statue a breast size reduction, started producing all their cheeses in the shape of a voluptuous female breast. That practice continues to this day.

Two of the breast cheeses of Santiago de Compostela
Two of the breast cheeses of Santiago de Compostela

The other thing the cathedral is famous for is the giant censer – called the “botafumeiro” – which is swung after communion is given at a mass, filled with incense. The censer weighs 55 kg and reaches speeds of 60 km an hour, and requires a handful of priests to swing it. The censer was apparently first put to use due the stink of the unwashed masses of pilgrims that visited the cathedral back in the days when pilgrims did not have access to the showers that modern hostels for pilgrims now offer. While the censer we saw did in fact emit a lot of smoke, we could smell no incense at all, so it appears to be just for show now, and not for masking human “fragrance”.

The kids got to witness part of a Catholic mass, a first for them. Bas said he found the experience boring and that he almost fell asleep, and I pointed out to him that that was not an uncommon reaction even for devout parishioners at a mass or sermon.

The local Bishop gives a sermon during noon mass in the cathedral at Santiago de Compostela
The local Bishop gives a sermon during noon mass in the cathedral at Santiago de Compostela

After the mass was over we enjoyed an aperitif of wine and appetizers at the Hostal and entertainment of local traditional dancing and music, which also includes the playing of a bagpipe, something Isabella attributed to Galicia’s heritage as a Celtic-based community. Lunch followed in a huge ornate room where every other chair was throne-like. We had a bit of time to wander after lunch, and went and purchased some previously sampled almond cake and a couple of handfuls of breast-shaped cheese.

Our bus ride out of town took us to La Coruna (the Crown), a larger coastal city where the Endeavour was able to dock. In order to delay our arrival at dock until the appointed boarding time of 6pm, we toured the city by bus and also got out at the Tower of Hercules, a structure originally built by the Romans, and now featuring 243 stairs, which Krystyana and I climbed in a few minutes (and which my thighs are now still in pain from, two days later). The top of the tower afforded us a very nice view of Coruna, but as we had only 20 minutes away from the bus, we had to hustle all the way back down the tower, and even so arrived a few minutes late.

Once back on board the Endeavour we had a “recap” – a briefing that is apparently a bit of a tradition on board Lindblad cruises, and which are supposedly summaries and further discussions of things we have seen that day. Of particular interest was a presentation by one of our naturalists about the collection of Lalique jewelry at the Gulbenkian Museum in Lisbon. Fascinating pieces, and we wish we had known about them before visiting Lisbon instead of days later. Historian Steve Blamires also provided an overview of the Celtic people in relationship to Galicia where we had just been.

Dinner was a BBQ served in the very chilly region of the back deck – a great location had it been sunny and warm out, but decidedly uncomfortable considering the exterior climate (slightly moist and windy, with temperatures in the low 50s).

We retired to bed late and tired, but well nourished – physically and mentally.


A Lazy Day in Seville and on to Marrakesh

April 28th, 2008 at 7:15 am (AST) by Jake Richter

After an excellent night’s rest, we had a late start with breakfast around 11am yesterday, after which we headed to the nearby Parque Marie Luisa. The park had served as the site of the World Expo/Fair in Seville in the early 1900s. It was a beautiful sunny day, and dry as well, as we walked over there.

First stop was the Plaza de España, a magnificent piece of architecture which had started as the Spanish national pavilion at the World Expo. It is a huge, long building with tall ornate towers at each end, curved around a half circle, with an adjacent terrace at the base featuring large niches for each of Spain’s provinces with colorful tile work. From this terrace there are several bridges (see photo above right of the three shorter Richters on one of those bridges) into a central plaza in which a large fountain in centered.

One of the neat facts about the Plaza de España is that it was featured both in the epic movie Lawrence of Arabia, as well as in Star Wars Episodes 1 and 2 (the fourth and fifth Star Wars movies), including the bridge which is pictured above.

We toured the park, visited the Sevilla Archeological Museum to see Roman relics unearthed in the area – some excellent tablets, pottery, and statuary. Bas then forced us to rent a four-person (two by two) cycle to pedal around the park for half an hour. It was then we learned that he could not pedal, steer, and talk all at the same time, much to everyone’s amusement.

We had a late lunch at the hotel, dining off the day menu featuring bull dishes (bull tail for me, ragout for Linda, and entrecote for Krystyana – Bas opted for ham and cheese pizza) in honor of the recent fiesta in Seville (which we missed by days) which also included some bull fighting at the nearby Seville bull fighting stadium. After a couple of hours of playing some card games and resting, we lumbered over to the Triana district for our last dinner in Seville, at the 120+ year old Casa Cuesta.

Our concierge, who grew up in the area, recommended the restaurant as the best source of local Sevillian cuisine, and we suspect he was right. The tripe stew (menudo), veal stew, and “cream of bread with vegetables” (turned out to be an excellent creamy Gazpacho) were all great. However, we were still so full from lunch we passed on dessert, although we did make an obligatory stop for gelato for Bas on the way back to the hotel (at 11pm).

Today we broke our fast at the hotel breakfast buffet (I was still full from yesterday though), packed up, and made our way to the Seville airport, flew to Madrid, waited a bunch of hours, and then finally with a couple hour delay, made it to Marrakesh where Lindblad Expeditions had a driver waiting for us and one other couple on the same flight. We were delivered to our hotel, dumped our luggage and had another late dinner, as Marrakesh is two hours behind Seville, so we’re all messed up again with respect to time zones.

The plan tomorrow is to explore various parts of Marrakesh.

By the way, for those of you only relying on e-mail notifications for new posts on this blog, please be advised that you have missed a whole week’s worth of posts – click on the Traveling Richters logo at the top of this page and then scroll down past this post to see what other wonderful things we’ve had to say so far.

Note also that it appears that my phone data services are not working, so posts for the foreseeable future will need to wait until I get to a live Internet connection (which I do have at our hotel in Marrakesh – it’s not very good, but with patience it ultimately seems to work).


Seville’s Mixed Muslim/Christian History

April 27th, 2008 at 10:23 am (AST) by Jake Richter

Due to something I ate earlier in the day on Friday and a mild fever, I slept very poorly and felt unwell for much of yesterday. That, however, did not prevent me from heading out to tour areas near our hotel, including the Real Alcazar (pronounced Al-ka-ztha), a former Moorish palace and college which had been taken over by the Castilians back in the late 1400s and converted over to a Spanish/Christian palace for Emperor Charles V.

The Alcazar was somewhat reminiscent of the Nazarid Palace at the Alhambra although on a much larger scale, with amazing Islamic scroll work over most of the buildings, with bits of classical European Christian Renaissance architecture and ornamentation.

We also were fortunate to be able to see an exhibit of Ottoman calligraphy, which involved a number of forms of illuminated Arabic writing, used to record the suras of the Koran, as well as issue imperial documents. These documents, known as Fermans (imperial decrees), Berats (imperial grant), and Mensurs (imperial appointments) would be headed by incredibly ornate imperial monograms associated with a particular Ottoman Sultan – these monograms are called ‘Turgas’.

After a late lunch we toured the massive Catedral de Sevilla and the associated La Giralda bell tower, which we climbed via a ramp with 35 landings (all numbered) and a set of stairs out to where the bells were (as well as a great view of all of Seville). It should be noted that the cathedral was built over a mosque, and consecrated as a cathedral in 1248. Some of the architectural elements of the mosque are still visible today.

We wandered about via narrow streets for a while before getting some gelato (ice cream has become a part of our daily ritual). After a short break at the hotel during which Bas tried the (cold) pool, we wandered back into the surrounding neighborhood to have a tapas dinner and enjoy an hour and a half of Flamenco dancing at Tablao El Arenal. It was quite an emotionally charged performance, featuring three guitarists, four singers, four female dancers, and two male dancers. Bas was too tired to take it all in, but the rest of us found it wonderful, especially considering the intimate size of the restaurant. And I finally was able to eat and feel good after being unwell earlier, which made the performance even more enjoyable.

After a stroll home, with a requisite stop for pastries, coffee, and tea, we settled in for solid slumber.


To Ronda and Beyond on our ‘Tapas Tour’

April 25th, 2008 at 5:38 pm (AST) by Jake Richter

After enjoying our repast of Iberian ham and cheese from the supermarket as our breakfast we said goodbye to Peter and Nice, and posed for a Bonaire Reporter ‘shot’ (holding up a copy of the bi-monthly Bonaire Reporter newspaper in an exotic locale) to send back home to Bonaire. The Lensvelts were great hosts and we regret only having been able to spend two nights at their place. However, as Peter so eloquently put it, we are on a ‘Tapas Tour’ – one where we taste a little bit of each place to see where we might like to revisit in the future. I see it as a sort of self-designed ‘tasting menu’ myself.

We headed out through Alozaina in The Beast, along twisty turning narrow roads high above deadly precipices (no joke), surviving the trip along route A-366 with nary a scratch but a lot more adrenaline in our systems. The scenery was gorgeous – changing from hilly and verdant to mountainous and stark and then back again. The most curious thing we saw along the way was a flock of vultures on the ground in a field – probably about 30 of them, hopping about (they don’t walk, they hop). Alas we were not quick enough with the camera.

We also learned – actually, we confirmed – that our GPS has a sense of humor. We have it set for fastest driving time mode, and somehow it has determined, incorrectly, that this means the most direct route should be chosen. Yesterday we found ourselves in a maze of narrow streets in La Linie near Gibraltar that The Beast barely made it through, and today the GPS took us up a thousand year old footpath the back way into Ronda. We managed to avoid damaging any tourists or The Beast along the way, but it was a very close thing.

Amusingly, we later saw several other GPS users coming up the same way. Someone at Garmin sure has a strange sense of humor.

Ronda was beautiful, with an ancient bridge rising hundreds of feet above a water filled gorge still in active use today (we drove over it in The Beast and walked over it a couple of times too).

After locating a parking facility – and let me tell you, parking in old cities and villages, especially with something as large as The Beast, is miserable – we made our way to the Bull Fighting Arena (see photo above), which serves as a museum when there’s not a bull fight going on. The kids were not wild about the idea at first, but I think they gradually came to understand the cultural, and dare I say artistic, roots that make up Spanish bull fighting. They are understandably still perturbed by the thought of killing a bull for entertainment, but also understand it’s not nearly as simplistic as it seems. In a way, it’s a performance and show, where almost always the bull dies, but not before making a stand of his own (and yes, a matador has actually been killed by the bull in Ronda, but it was a long tim ago – and matadors do get hurt too, although the odds are weighed pretty heavily against the bull, of course).

We then had lunch (the kids had a mixel grill with beef, ironically) at a posh restaurant outside the Arena, and went on to spend several more hours exploring Ronda’s history and quaint streets.

By 7pm we were on our way to Seville, dropped our rental car off at the train station – Good riddance to The Beast!, and took a taxi to our hotel.

Our plan for tomorrow is unclear for the most part. We are booked to see an authentic Flamenco show in the evening (with Tapas), and may go visit the Alcazar – a Moorish castle across the street from our hotel. But most importantly, we are going to try and sleep in!


Granada and The Alhambra

April 24th, 2008 at 3:09 pm (AST) by Jake Richter

We arrived in Granada Tuesday night, and tried to take a taxi to our hotel, the Hotel Guadalupe. However the taxi driver we spoke to sent us back towards a bus (or so I thought – Linda later suggested he waved us to a different taxi stand).

The bus driver told us the closest stop to our hotel was Cathedral, so there we got off even though our GPS (love that gadget!) told us it was still a bit of a way off. Turns out our hotel was adjacent to the Alhambra, the old Moorish palace we had come to Granada to see. And the Alhambra is on top of a rather tall hill. To us it felt like a mountain. That’s because it was 11pm at night, we each our one piece of luggage and our carry-ons and had to lug all that and our sorry, tired selves up all the way.

It was a very pretty hike, but still unanticipated, and rather tiring. By the time we got to our hotel I had somehow ended up with three of the four pieces of luggage, and it was only thanks to our GPS (a battery-powered Garmin Nuvi 350) that we actually found our hotel, almost 2 miles away, all uphill.

We ultimately collapsed in our beds at 1:30am.

The next day, Wednesday (yesterday) was beautiful. After dining in the hotel restaurant we headed to the Alhambra – the entry gate was only a 5 minute walk away (all downhill), and we had wisely prepurchased/pre-reservered our tickets on-line otherwise we would probably have not gotten in – the line was huge and day-of tickets were in short supply. Next tip, get your physical tickets from your on-line ticket order at the automated kiosks to the far right of the purchase line.

With tickets in hand we spent the next six and a half hours tourings the Alhambra, including the Alcazaba (featured as the backdrop for the above photo), the palace of Emperor Charles V (Carlos V), the Nazarid Palace (your ticket provides a specific time of access and you cannot miss this part of the Alhambra – it is the most stunning and splendid!), and the Generalife.

We also had a late lunch during our visit at the restaurant at Hotel America, where, ironically, they don’t take American Express, but served excellent food included pheasant, hare, and garlic Gaszpacho.

While it involved a lot walking we were all pleased with our visit and found it to be very worthwhile, long uphill walk to our hotel notwithstanding.

After getting a taxi from our hotel to the train station, we picked up our rental vehicle. We had prepaid for a minivan (family vehicle). We got a Mercedes mini-van, which Europecar swore was a family vehicle because it could seat six people even though it was basically a retrofitted delivery van with no back window and bare metal floors. All for about $300/day not including the expensive insurance we declined. Ouch! And the vehicle handles like a donkey in heat (or at least how I imagine that would be).

With our wonderful GPS guiding our way, we drove for about two hours, finally going past the village of Alozaina and ending up at Finca Morelajo, a set of villas and apartments operated by Peter and Nice Lensvelt, old friends of ours from Bonaire who moved here to Andulusia six years ago to start this new business.

We had reserved a small villa for our two nights here and Peter put us into the Vincent villa, named after Vincent van Gogh, whose is (not the originals though) is featured throughout.

We spent the rest of the evening reminiscing and trading stories and rumors over a fine Rioja and food Nice whipped up for us.