It didn’t take long to reach France from Donostia-San Sebastian, Spain yesterday as we headed east back to our original starting point: Toulouse, France. The weather was perfect for enjoying a drive through the beautiful Basque country one more time.
Donostia-San Sebastian, Spain. Before leaving town, we bought these stickers for our Thule car box at home. Euskadi is the Basque name for “Basque” and the sheep is an important part of their culture.
Toulouse, France. We had an an easy drive across southern France (again), just skirting the snow-capped peaks of the Pyrenees where we cycled a couple of months ago. This morning, we said good bye when we turned in our trusty rental car “Ja Ja” and set out to do some last minute shopping before packing up for our flight home tomorrow.
Toulouse, France. This afternoon we walked around the old section of town and found a park with these succulent plant sculptures.
Toulouse, France. Later, we went back to our favorite cheese shop (Betty) and bought some incredible local cheeses to nibble on with the bread and our last bottle of Port from Porto, Portugal.
Toulouse, France. Henri had a great time here, and so did we! But now the party’s (almost) over and we have to pack our bags and return to Colorado. Thanks for following along!
Our breakfast this morning included a printed sheet of the weather forecast with high and low tides and the lunar phases in three languages: Spanish, English and French. We spent our last day in Spain enjoying Donostia-San Sebastian in the Basque Country (Pais Basque).
Donostia-San Sebastian. Even through it’s November, things are still growing here. It’s very green due to being right on the Atlantic coast in a moderate climate.
Donostia-San Sebastian. After a few days of heavy rain, it was bright and sunny here on the Playa de Concha, the beach hugging this lovely city near the French border.
Donostia-San Sebastian. We took a walk around the beach and the harbor this morning, admiring the numerous fishing boats that look like they will be there all winter. The climate is mild here year round and attracts thousands of tourists during the summer months.
Donostia-San Sebastian. We walked out to see La Peine de la Viente (The Comb of the Wind), a well-known sculpture by Spanish artist Eduardo Chillida.
Donostia-San Sebastian. During the summer, the beach and this park right next to it is filled with tourists. Today, it was mainly locals.
Donostia-San Sebastian.The carousel was just starting up with interesting Spanish music as we passed by.
Donostia-San Sebastian. Walking around the old part of town, we were reminded that we were in the heart of the Basque Country with its unique language, food, architecture and customs.
Donostia-San Sebastian. We knew we were getting close to the French border when we finished our breakfast with a fresh croissant. It was almost as good as what we’ve had in France, but we’ll have to find out tomorrow morning for sure!
With very few hours left in Spain (we go back to France tomorrow) we hit the tapas bar scene in Donastia-San Sebastian, Spain last night. This is the place to get some of the best food in the entire country.
Donastia-San Sebastian, Spain. We are now back in the heart of the Basque country where tapas are known by their Basque name: pinxtos. We’ve found the Spanish to be very social people who like to grab something to eat, have a drink and then move onto the next bar for another round.
Donastia-San Sebastian, Spain. There are hundreds of types of pinxtos, but all of them are made to be eaten in a couple of bites, usually standing up next to a bar. We visited three (or maybe four?) last night to have one more chance at these scrumptious nibbles. Even on a Sunday night, we were early (8:30) before the locals got hungry.
Donastia-San Sebastian, Spain. When we asked “Que is este?” (What is this?) the bartender thought we said “Tres” (three) and started serving us these tiny hamburgesas (hamburgers). We stopped him and got something else.
Donastia-San Sebastian, Spain. Most of the time, we learned to ask for a plate first and then help ourselves to whatever we wanted. At some bars, we had to point first and have the bartender serve us.
Donastia-San Sebastian, Spain. Croquettes (in the front) are a typical specialty, usually filled with chicken or seafood. After eating, the bartender counted the number of toothpicks on the empty plate and charged us accordingly.
Donastia-San Sebastian, Spain. Most of the time we didn’t really know what we were eating, but that didn’t matter because everything was outstanding. The chefs here are really creative in their combinations of food and presentation of individual types of tapas.
Donastia-San Sebastian, Spain. Even when we looked up at the chalk board for the names of the tapas being offered, we couldn’t understand the Basque. It’s a good thing we weren’t picky and could eat anything!
Somewhere (we don’t know where) we read that in this part of Spain you have to speak Spanish to order a beer. It’s true. The province of Castilla y Leon, where we spent the last four days, feels like what Old Spain must be: wild, open and full of surprises.
Between Ávila and Salamanca, Spain. Yesterday, we drove about an hour to Salamanca to see what one of Spain’s university towns was like. The landscape in between was hauntingly sculpted with rolling hills, interesting trees and flowing grasses.
Salamanca, Spain. This place is still in the middle of the boonies. Once the most prestigious university in Spain, it is still known as having a beautiful double cathedral and the prettiest plaza in the country.
Salamanca, Spain. The Plaza Mayor is the grandest plaza in Spain. Even in the light rain, it felt impressive.
Salamanca, Spain. We tried to take a tour of the Cathedral, but the doors closed right before we arrived. This is the “New” Cathedral, built from 1513 to 1733. The “Old” Cathedral was built in the 12th century.
El Escorial, Spain. Today, we left Ávila and took the back roads to see the Monasterio de San Lorenzo de El Escorial, a symbol of power built in the 16th century by the Spanish monarchs in response to the counter reformation.
El Escorial, Spain. This is where the kings and queens of Spain came to relax and eventually rest for eternity. We took a tour through this enormous complex, including a walk through the gardens and a trip down to the Royal Pantheon where gold plated coffins are lined up in a circular crypt.
El Escorial, Spain. The immense library was a reminder that education was a huge priority for the Spanish royalty. The plaque at one of the doors read, “Excomunion”, meaning you’d be excommunicated if you took a book without checking it out first. We didn’t touch anything!
Our string of perfect weather finally caught up with us today when we woke up to pouring rain. We weren’t sure what we would do with our time.
Ávila, Spain. We are staying at a Parador, a former palace run by the Spanish government. This is the view out of our window, where there is a lush garden and several terraced areas to hang out—except for today.
Ávila, Spain. About an hour later, the weather cleared up and we decided to see more of Ávila and its spectacular medieval walls. Just outside of the walls, we discovered that the remaining part of Ávila easily mixes the old with the new.
Ávila, Spain. The town is built on the flat summit of a rocky hill and rises abruptly in the midst of a brown, arid and treeless wilderness. We drove through this yesterday from Madrid and were amazed by the contrast.
Ávila, Spain. For just a few Euros, we purchased tickets that allowed us access to the top of the walls. It was great to be able to get up higher to check out how immense it was.
Ávila, Spain. All around us, we were reminded of Saint Teresa, the nun who lived here in the 1600s.
Ávila, Spain. After a month of festivities associated with Saint Teresa, it is now the off season here, and we enjoyed having the views to ourselves.
Ávila, Spain. Built from about 1050 on ancient Roman ruins, Ávila’s fortified wall is the oldest, most complete and and best-preserved in Spain. It was easy to see the different layers of rock in most places.
Ávila, Spain. For more than 300 years, Ávila was the battleground between Christians and Muslims, changing hands several times. Now, it is decidedly Christian, with more churches per capita than any town in Spain.
Ávila, Spain. Ávila, the capital of Castilla y Leon, is also the highest provincial capital in Spain. Being higher, it seemed like the weather changed frequently—and it did. It started raining again just in time for us to go back inside.
After a few fun and adventurous days in rowdy Madrid, we headed northwest into the province of Castilla y Leon for three days of exploration and relaxation. It is our last week of traveling and we wanted to see what this area of Spain has to offer.
Madrid, Spain. Before leaving Madrid, we had to see one of its best attractions. For a change of pace, we actually got up early (before 9:00am) and went to see the fabulousMuseo Nacional Prado (Prado Museum), arguably Europe’s best collection of art. Photos were not allowed, but we gushed over paintings by Goya, El Greco, Velasquez, Ribera and Tiziano.
Ávila, Spain. Less than two hours from Madrid is Ávila, one of Spain’s (and Europe’s) best preserved medieval towns. We are staying within the old city which has walls comprised of eight gates, 88 watchtowers and over 2500 turrets. Our hotel shares one of its walls with this fortress.
Ávila, Spain. This is a very religious city with numerous churches and convents. It is famous of Santa Teresa de Avila, a nun who reformed the Carmelites in the 15th century.
Ávila, Spain. Ávila is famous for T-bone steak, white beans and yemas (above), a sugary egg yolk concoction supposedly created by Saint Teresa. We enjoyed sampling these cookies and hope to try some more local specialties.
Today, November 1, is a national holiday here in Spain. It appears that everyone is on vacation, enjoying the mild fall weather in the city. Since many of the shops and museums were not open, we decided to take a leisurely walk around the central part of the city.
Madrid, Spain. The market was open today and was bursting with delectable foods and things to drink.
Madrid, Spain. We loved this olive bar stuffed with a dizzying amount of varieties and fillings. After driving through hundreds of olive plantations a few days ago, we could appreciate Spain’s love for this crop.
Madrid, Spain. The flowers were gorgeous.
Madrid, Spain. Even at 11:00am, the wine bar was busy with locals sipping regional varieties.
Madrid, Spain. There were plenty of sweets to keep the local dentists busy for years.
Madrid, Spain. Madrid has several impressive public parks including the Parque de El Reitiro, above. The leaves were just changing and the park was pleasantly empty.
Madrid, Spain. We made Chuck (a.k.a. Carlos) pose in front of the Puerta De Alcalawhere King Carlos III is memorialized.
Madrid, Spain. As most Spaniards do around 2:30pm, we stopped for a long and leisurely lunch. Jenny enjoyed Sopa de Mariscos y Pescado (Shellfish and Seafood Soup).
Madrid, Spain. After lunch (around 4:30pm) we continued our slow pace back to our hotel for a siesta (nap). With the late hours we’ve been keeping in this party town, we have to pace ourselves and rest when we can!
It’s easy to forget that its the end of October when the temperature is still in the high 70s. Luckily the festive atmosphere of Madrid reminded us that regardless of the weather, Halloween has arrived.
Madrid, Spain. We spotted this little pumpkin prancing around the Plaza del Sol today, one of Madrid’s busiest sites.
Madrid, Spain. Elivs appeared to be alive and well here and even spoke a little Spanglish with us. Jenny joined us today from Florence as part of her study abroad fall break.
Madrid, Spain. After a two hour walking tour, things got a little kooky as we geared up for the wild nightlife ahead.
Madrid, Spain. We took a quick snack break to sample some of the local cuisine, snarfing down some delicious tapas with complicated names we can’t recall.
Madrid, Spain. Energized and back on the street, we ran into Spider Man, who showed us some of his super hero moves.
Madrid, Spain. While Chuck got a flying lesson, we couldn’t help but wonder who actually needed the physical training.
Madrid, Spain. We stumbled upon this street performers who was completely caked in clay and it made us slightly less dirty after all of our travels.
Madrid, Spain. Like all Spaniards, we had to stop for a quick jolt of Coffee Cortado, their version of a Macchiatto.
Madrid, Spain. Things got pretty spicy, but luckily we found a fireman to put out the flames.
Yesterday we left Córdoba and headed northeast to Madrid, the sprawling capital in the center of Spain. Instead of taking the direct route on the Autovia, we drove the heartland of Spain and loved what we saw.
Somewhere between Córdoba and Madrid, Spain on the N-420. Wide open and sweeping plains reminded us of Colorado and the U.S. West.
Somewhere between Córdoba and Madrid, Spain on the N-420. There were a few white hill towns sprinkled along the way, but for the most part the road was almost entirely unpopulated.
Somewhere between Córdoba and Madrid, Spain on the N-420. Occasionally we saw ruins visible from the car.
Somewhere between Córdoba and Madrid, Spain on the N-420. Much of the landscape in this area of Spain was dotted with olive and almond groves.
Orgaz, Spain. We wondered about the origin of this small town, but didn’t stop to ask.
Madrid, Spain. After a crazy drive into the city, we are now in the center of Madrid, staying near Plaza Mayor (above).
This morning we said adiós to Seville and drove about 120 kilometers northeast to the province of Córdoba. Once the capital of Al-Andalus and the court of Abd ar-Rahmann II, Córdoba (the city) is a fascinating place with a rich history.
Córdoba, Spain. Although the Muslims have not ruled here since the Reconquista, many of their influences are still apparent here in the architecture and food.
Córdoba, Spain. Although we are further north, it still feels sub-tropical here. Today, the weather was pleasant for walking around, even though the locals dressed like they were cold.
Córdoba, Spain. Sixteenth century Renaissance towers mix beautifully with 9th century Moorish arches and Roman ruins. For many centuries Arabs, Jews and Christians lived in a peaceful existence.
Córdoba, Spain. The big tourist draw here is the Mezquita (mosque) built in 785 on the site of a Visogothic church. By the 9th century, it was over 23,000 square meters and one of the largest mosques in the world.
Córdoba, Spain. What is really interesting about the Mezquita (now commonly called “Mezquita-Catedral”) is the existence of a 16th century Christian cathedral plunked right in the middle of the mosque. Above is a detail from the marble railing in the choir loft. The contrast between the two styles was significant.
Córdoba, Spain. Time moves on here, with plenty of modern touches such as this taverna serving tapas and other local specialties.
Córdoba, Spain. We tried a local version of Gazpacho, which was a very thick tomato soup served cold with condiments on the side. It was quite refreshing and delicious. After lunch, our waiter brought us a couple of shots of the local sherry (we think).
Córdoba, Spain. As in Seville, we noticed that ceramics still play a big role here as in past centuries. Many of the buildings have tile facades or trim around the doors.
Córdoba, Spain. So true!
The sun came out yesterday and we promptly rented a couple of bikes to see more of this lovely city. The weather was perfect for cruising around wearing light clothing.
Seville, Spain. Instead of taking in some of the tourist sites with a guide, we designed our own using a guidebook. This is near the entrance to El Alcázar de Sevilla, the former residence of many generations of kings and caliphs (Moorish leaders).
Seville, Spain. The bikes were funny little fold-up types that made it a challenge to navigate the cobblestones. It was almost harder than some of our riding in the Pyrenees.
Seville, Spain. We rode by the Plaza de Toros de la Maestranza where the famous bull fighting takes place. It is still politically correct here and a huge draw.
Seville, Spain. There are numerous pieces of public art here, but we couldn’t figure out what this one near the Rio Guadalquiver was all about.
Seville, Spain. The Plaza de España was impressive, where Seville hosted the Ibero-American Exposition World’s Fair in 1929.
Seville, Spain. This is just one of many coat of arms representing one of Spain’s provinces.
Seville, Spain. After we returned our bikes, we went out again on foot to see experience Seville after dark. It is a happening place, where the streets are full of revelers enjoying tapas, wine and the sights. Flamenco is a big deal here, and it was fun to hear it in the streets.
We’re back in Spain now, enjoying the gorgeous southern city of Sevilla (Seville). James Michener wrote, “Sevilla doesn’t have ambience, it is ambience.” It is a great place to linger and get lost in as we’re now discovering.
Seville (Sevilla), Spain. So far, we have found literally hundreds of tapas bars and restaurants in the center of the city serving fresh local seafood, special regional dishes and a dizzying array of finger foods (tapas).
Seville, Spain. This plate of fried baby hake was just one of the tapas we’ve tried so far.
Seville, Spain. This morning, we took a self-guided walking tour through Barrio Santa Cruz where Sevilla once had a thriving Jewish Quarter. Here we found a statue of Don Juan, Seville’s notorious 17th century sex addict who thumbed his nose at the Church-driven morals of his day.
Seville, Spain. Just minutes from our hotel is this open air market with local cheeses, bread, Iberian ham and other delectable treats. It was raining a little bit when we took this photo, but that didn’t seem to stop people from the evening paseo—a stroll around the city.
Seville, Spain. The 12th century Moors were the first in Spain to decorate the walls, floors, ceilings, and facades of their religious and secular buildings with colorful tiles laid in geometric patterns. Today, these traditions continue, especially here in Seville.
Seville, Spain. We found many of the residences in the neighborhood to have charming entrances and beautiful courtyards filled with orange trees and palms. Many buildings are situated close together to maximize the amount of shade for hot summers. It was rather pleasant today, especially for late October.
Seville, Spain. The Cathedral is the third largest church Europe and largest Gothic church in the world. It replaced a mosque after the Reconquista in the 1500s and contains the tomb of Christopher Columbus. We plan to see some of the interior tomorrow.
We really enjoyed Portugal, but had a hard time putting our finger on what makes it unique and special. All the words used to describe it just didn’t suffice. On our last night in this country, we found the essence of Portugal at a tiny restaurant called Tasquinha Do Oliviera.
Evora, Portugal. Manuel and his wife Carolina run this diminutive eatery in the heart of the walled section of town. They have won a lot of prestigious culinary awards lately but that’s not why we went there.
Evora, Portugal. When we walked in, our table was covered with amazing appetizers-seven in all. This is customary in Portugal. If you don’t want any, you send them back to the kitchen. In our case, we chose a couple—fava beans marinated in a sublime olive oil, vinegar and herb concoction and partridge tort.
Evora, Portugal. The restaurant had only 4-5 tables with a total capacity of 13, making it a cozy and intimate experience—kind of like going to someone’s home for a special celebration.
Evora, Portugal. It sounded like a weird combination of flavors, but the clams and pork were unusually delicious. The broth was very memorable but it is so difficult to describe its complex flavors.
Evora, Portugal. The lamb dish started out with a bowl of bread covered with a rich hot broth, followed by tender pieces of slow cooked meat and potatoes on top.
Evora, Portugal. Later, after leisurely digesting our meal Manuel showed up with a great bottle of port and two glasses for enjoying with our dessert.
Evora, Portugal. The custard pie was a typical Portugese dessert, covered with local honey, cinnamon and a stewed prune—comfort food at its best.
Evora, Portugal. The almond tort was also a typical Portugese sweet, served with locally grown pomegranate.
Evora, Portugal. We may never be able to articulate why we liked Portugal, but this meal showed us that the Portuguese are proud but humble people who really care about the small things that make a difference.
We are now in The Alentejo region of Portugal, a very enchanting and traditional area of the country. Just about and hour and a half southeast of Lisbon, it is very different from everywhere we’ve been in Portugal so far.
Evora, Portugal. This is one of Portugal’s most beautifully preserved medieval towns. Although the Moors occupied this area from the 8th to the 13th century, it is the Roman ruins that still remain. They are smack dab in the middle of the walled section of the town, which made it easy to get a close up look.
Evora, Portugal. On the way to Evora today, we drove through vineyards, olive groves and cork plantations. Apparently the cork has to be stripped from the tree for it to survive, and the trees that have been harvested have this reddish color.
Evora, Portugal. Evora is home to Portugal’s second oldest university, the Universidade de Evora, established in 1559. We had a lunch of traditional Portuguese fare (soup with vegetables and an octopus salad) at this cafe amongst mostly college students.
Evora, Portugal. According to local lore, the residents paint yellow lines on their houses to ward off evil spirits. The line above is near a roofline but most of what we saw were solid lines at the bottom of each dwelling.
Evora, Portugal. The orange trees were still full but the weather (finally!) turned a bit chilly today. It was good to dig out new clothes from the suitcase.
Evora, Portugal. There are many historical sites in Evora, but the one that stood out for us was the Capela Dos Ossos (Chapel of Bones). Seventeenth century monks constructed this as a mento mori (reminder of death) to meditate on the human condition.
Evora, Portugal. The chapel walls are lined entirely with the sculls and bones of over 5000 people. It was creepy, but successfully thought provoking. The inscription above translates as, “We bones in here, await for yours to join us.”
Evora, Portugal. It didn’t take us long to get the heck out of the Chapel and back outside, where we found another sunny yellow detail to brighten up our spirits.
It’s been a while since we’ve read a story book, but today it felt like we stepped into one. We drove a short distance (30 kilometers) from Lisbon to Sintra, where we visited Palacio National da Pena (Pena National Palace).
Sintra, Portugal. We took a twisty bus ride up through a thickly wooded forest to this fantasy palace on top of a peak. Ferdinand, the artist-husband of Queen Maria II, commissioned this creation in 1840.
Sintra, Portugal. Back in 1498, only a humble wooden monastery existed here. When King Manuel spied Vasco da Gama returning up the river from the Atlantic, he decided to create a stone palace in celebration of his great voyage.
Sintra, Portugal. The current site of the courtyard was once the cloister of the monastery. Impressive as it is when you see the entire palace at a distance, it is the details that set this place apart.
Sintra, Portugal. Onion domes, Moorish keyhole gates and crenellated towers are just some of the extravagant flourishes that make this place unusual. Here, King Charles (Chuck) enjoyed a view.
Sintra, Portugal. Prince Ferdanind was the cousin of Bavaria’s “Mad” King Ludwig, and we wondered if he got some of his inspiration from his Disneyesque Neuschwanstein Castle.
Sintra, Portugal. The palace is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the Seven Wonders of Portugal. As in Lisbon, tiles were used extensively on the exterior of this palace. Inside (no photos allowed) we saw the queen’s toilet, also adorned with tile.