Along the Cantabrian Sea

The Cantabrian Sea
The Cantabrian Sea

Time to road trip!!  Really looking forward to the next segment of our trip we set out on Saturday morning for a long drive along the northern coast.  For the next 3 days our itinerary was loose enough that we had the freedom to stop wherever and whenever.

The northern coast is absolutely beautiful and just my kind of coast:  jagged cliffs, rocky beaches and lots of vegetation that sneaks right up to the water.  It reminded us a lot of the portion of the Oregon coastline that we’ve explored.

Heading west out of Donostia we didn’t get too far before we had to stop, on recommendation from one of the men we’d met the night prior at La Sidreria Zelaia.  In Getaria, we tried a glass of of the local, light, white wine called Txokoli.  Don’t hold it against me that it wasn’t quite noon yet – it was simply divine!  Our drive continued along the coast with a few brief rain showers to liven things up a bit.

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Getaria
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Getaria
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Txokoli in Getaria

We turned inland to pay tribute to the town of Gernika, the lives that were lost and a community which was crippled during the horrific bombing of 1937 during the Spanish Civil War.  From there it was on to Bilbao, where we had thought we’d skip seeing the Guggenheim because we figured it would be too hard to find and too much of a detour, when out of nowhere we shot out of a tunnel on the freeway and were suddenly up close and personal with the iconic building.  We quickly switched up our plans given that we were now too close to NOT stop and while we didn’t go in to the museum, we enjoyed our picnic out on the grounds, under careful watch of the giant floral puppy that stands guard over the entrance.

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The Guggenheim
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Picnic at the Guggenheim
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One final drive by before leaving town

At some point we left the Basque Country and entered the state of Cantabria and overnighted in the city of Santander.  We were there just long enough to enjoy the best freakin’ calamari I’ve ever had in my life and enjoy a concert of the famed Joaquin Sabina – a momentously huge deal for anyone in the Lopez-clan!

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Rabas – or fried calamari.

The second day took us through even more beautiful country as we continued our quest to fall deeper in love with the Cantabrian Coastline.  Stopping in the ever-charming town of Santillana del Mar we loaded up on local cheeses for future picnicking and had one last dose of cider and cider-sausage as we would soon be exiting cider-country.  Somewhere in between Comillas and San Vicente de la Barquera the conversation inevitably shifted to “We should see how much it costs to rent a small bungalow here.   You know, I could write & you could geek out during the day and in the evenings we can ride our bikes to the local pub for a pint and a tapa….and then….”.

It’s that kind of place, that kind of scenery.

Fortunately the wind kept me sane and I didn’t call my broker up in the heat of the moment  to second mortgage our bungalow back home.  One thing I hate more than sand, is wind.  And it is windy up in these here parts.  But there would be windows in our little bungalow, right….and it can’t always be this windy….RIGHT???

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The historic town of Santillana del Mar
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Cider and cider-sausage.  The cider is always poured from a distance to aerate it a bit.
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Santillana del Mar
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Approaching San Vicente de la Barquera
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One of many oceanside bungalows we daydreamed about renting.

Alas, we left the dream behind and continued on towards our stopover point for the evening.  As we entered the state of Asturias, the giant, pointy, snow-capped peaks of the Picos de Europa National Park could be seen off to our left.  We were tempted to veer off to see if we could get to one of the lookout points into the national park, but smartly decided it would be too much for one day and found our way to Gijon, our pitstop point.

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From Ribadesella the Picos de Europa mountains loom in the distance
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Picnic for two!
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Gijon, Asturias
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Main plaza in Gijon, Asturias

Our final stop on our tour of the Cantabrian coast was Praia das Catedrais Beach, which we found immediately upon entering the state of Galicia the following morning.  The love and friendliness we received at the Sidreria Zelaia just kept on proving itself, as this stop became part of our itinerary only after another man and regular of the cider joint and recommended it to us.  Not only had he told us we must go, but explained we had to time our visit during low tide, for the cathedrals to open up.  We were intrigued enough by this recommendation to go for it and timed our stop just as we’d been instructed.

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During low tide each day this beautiful beach opens up.
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Many “cathedrals” also appear, making for a beautiful place to explore
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Several “cathedral” formations in a row.  Good stuff!

With that beautiful stop behind us, we decided it was time to exit the coastal drive and head inland, into the heart of Galicia and over to the Atlantic side of the Iberian Peninsula.

Our route along the Cantabrian Coast
Our route along the Cantabrian Coast

Pays Basque & Pais Vasco

Shuttered window in Bayonne
Shuttered window in Bayonne

Shutters.  That is my take away from 2 days spent in the French Pays Basque.  The shutters that adorn the architecture in both Bayonne and Saint-Jean-de-Luz are stunning and apparently quite photogenic given the number of pictures I took of shutters.  It’s also where we were introduced to the delight that is a French cheese shop as well as honest-to-goodness chantilly!  Swoon!  We had a chance to walk (me), jog (Luis) along the Bay of Biscay for the first time and enjoy the tail end of the off-season on the Basque Coast.   While Bayonne proved herself worthwhile, Saint-Jean-de-Luz turned out to be a dud of a stop.  The town seems to be a place that only exists for vacationers so it doesn’t really have a soul of its own, especially in off season.  Luis was excited to be in France to watch the soccer match between Paris Saint Germain and Barcelona, but it turned out that this is the only part of France where the average joe prefers rubgy over soccer and we were hard pressed to find a bar that was even showing the game, much less could offer something resembling an ambiance futbolera.  The highlight of my night in Saint-Jean-de-Luz was having our own bathroom after 4-5 nights of guesthouses with a shared bath – so that tells you a little something about how the place ranked in my book (although having your own bathroom IS something to greatly appreciate!)

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Bayonne & shutters
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Bayonne & more shutters
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We couldn’t help but stop and drool in every single ham shop we walked passed – this is that permagrin that I referenced awhile back!! :)  Ham=Happy!
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French Chantilly – Whoa. One bite of this and the harps of heaven begin to sound.
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Your everyday small town cheese counter

Before we knew it, we were back in Spain and into the heart of the Basque County, and the place our stomachs had been looking forward to most:  San Sebastian(Spanish) or Donostia (Basque).

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We loved most everything about our time in Donostia.  It is a town well known for high quality food and tapas (known as pintxos here) and has a great culture of bar hopping.  We had a long chat with a woman who was telling us how things have changed over the years as restaurants cater more towards visitors and take less time to prepare traditional foods.  While she said she certainly could tell the difference – we obviously couldn’t and were over the moon with the pintxos on offer around the city.

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We also got to experience the concept of La Sidreria! Sidra, or cider, is produced locally and is a popular drink in this region.  Many of the warehouses where the cider is stored before bottling open up as a restaurant.  There are several on the outskirts of Donostia and we chose to visit Zelaia.  A very well served 5 course meal was topped off with endless sips of fresh cider.  The idea is you only fill your glass with a sip or two and have it in between bites.  You eat standing for ease in walking to the nearest tap whenever you need something to wash down the amazing meal and the setup provides ample opportunity to chat with your neighbors.  We had such a delightful evening and we so surprised that the bill only came out to about 30 Euro per person.  An extraordinary value!

Luis getting a hit of cider, straight from the barrel.
Luis getting a hit of cider, straight from the barrel.
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Sidra!  While cider isn’t my beverage of choice, it was such a fun and unique experience!
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Donostia in the twilight
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Overlooking La Concha beach/bay

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Donostia a la dramatic mode

Donostia would have made a perfectly good week-long stop and perhaps next time we return to Spain on a less hectic tour, we will do just that.

Peace, love & tapas,

Jess

Lured by Princes

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When I was in high school, my friend Blair and I watched Robin Hood – Prince of Thieves approximately 600 times.  When I learned that the medieval fortress where the movie was filmed was a short train ride away from Barcelona, I threw it in as an option.

We hemmed and hawed about which route to take to reach the Basque Country.  The Spain route would have taken us through Zaragoza and into the Rioja wine region and through Pamplona.  This route was packed full of potential but La Rioja and Pamplona just seem like places where we should move to, not just fly through in 3 days.  The France route offered a visit to my castle/fortress and would include a springtime train ride through the French countryside.  An added bonus: we could check out a bit of the French Basque Country (Pays Basque) before re-entering the Spanish Basque Country (Pais Vasco or Euskadi).  We chose the latter as it seemed a route more appropriate for a quick 3-day pass.

a late night arrival into France
a late night arrival into France

As a side note, Google just couldn’t believe that I wanted to visit Carcassonne and NOT Carcass Island and even after several searches it insists on auto-populating Carcass Island.

Side, side note, there is apparently a placed called Carcass Island, should you care to visit.

Carcassonne is a huge citadel and a beautifully romantic place to explore.  We got a chance to see it illuminated at night and then by day as well.  Inside Le Cité there are shops and restaurants and a few small museums.  We centered our visit around the  opportunity to try the local dish, cassoulet, made from beans, sausage and duck!  With a roasted cheese for an appetizer and creme bruleé for dessert – it ended up being one of our top meals of the month….although we had MANY top meals so perhaps that isn’t saying much.

Beautiful Carcassonne!
Beautiful Carcassonne!
People actually live here and see this out their window every day!
People actually live here and see this out their window every day!

We didn’t have time to do much exploring outside of the fortress, in what they call the lower city, but since it was off season it seemed a lot of things in that area were closed anyway.   As with other fortress cities I’ve recently visited, Jaisalmer and Campeche, it didn’t disappoint!

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A Plane to Spain

Where to start?  We’ve had an obsession with Spain for a long while now and had promised ourselves that 2015 would be the year we’d visit Spain together.  But I think we’d made the same promise in 2014 (and ended up in Uruguay) and also in 2013 (and ended up in Hawaii), and so on, so I was sure something would come up that would whisk us away to anywhere BUT Spain.  But, the stars aligned and we found ourselves on an Iberian flight to Barcelona.

On the flight over I gave some thought to the aforementioned Spain obsession.  Anyone who has spent much time in our company would know – we love tapas!!!  So that’s an obvious reason, but beyond that…well…..Luis reads the news like its his job and an unproportional amount of that time is spent reading Spain’s newspapers.  “Why?” I asked him.  He gave me a blank look.  There’s a familial connection to Spain, given that my sister-in-law studied abroad there and my father-in-law spends a month or more there each year as a visiting professor. Spain-centered topics often sneak into conversations at family gatherings.  While in grad school, Luis had the opportunity to go for a few weeks in between semesters and has been dying to get back ever since.  I forget why I didn’t tag along that time – probably didn’t have enough vacation time saved up.  Then there’s me.  I’d been given the privilege of visiting Spain on a high school trip and my mother arranged for me to spend a few extra weeks with a friend of hers in Madrid. Awesome, right?  I hated it. I know, I know, who in their right mind hates Spain?  Apparently and embarrassingly, my teen self.  What can I say, I was 15 (read: idiot) and at the time I was more concerned with my super-important social life that I was missing out on back home and I remember little of my visit to Spain other than counting down the days ‘til I could get back to doing…well….nothing, probably.  I needed to redeem myself.  I needed to go back to Spain and beg her for forgiveness.

And so we went.  And ate. And explored. And imbibed. And walked.  And laughed.  And loved.

Upon landing, it took maybe 30 minutes of swimming through the brain fog and jet lag before a permagrin emerged on both of our faces….and grin that pretty much stayed put for the duration of our “Spring in (mostly) Spain Tour”!

 As our departure date approached, the agony began in deciding WHERE within Spain to go.  It would take months to properly see and do everything that interested us.  It was quickly apparent that our usual preference for Slow Travel wasn’t going to work here.  Too much to see, too little time.  The Basque Country and the northern coast of Spain tugged at our hearts more than any other region, so that became the focus of our journey.

 But first, Catalonia and a quick border crossing to visit a restored medieval fortress.

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One of the very few things I remember about that (torturous) teenage visit was La Sagrada Familia so we decided that our first stop would be to see how construction is coming along. The answer remains the same as it was back in 1995 – slowly.  This cathedral has been under construction since 1882 and continues to rise within the Barcelona skyline, slow and steady.  I documented its progress so as to have a reference to compare to the next time we’re in Barcelona and we continued on to the massive grounds of Parc Güell for a little exercise and views of the city.

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Parc Guell
Parc Guell
Parc Guell is a busy place, especially on a Sunday
Parc Guell is a busy place, especially on a Sunday

Having those two “must-see” stops out of the way, we dedicated ourselves to doing what we do best, wandering through neighborhoods and eating as often as our bellies would allow.

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Paella is one of my favorite foods!
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A night time walk in Barcelona
Barrio Gothico
Barrio Gothico
Markets with some divine Spanish ham
Markets with some divine Spanish ham


Barcelona is a really cool city and I’m happy we didn’t pass it over as we’d once considered.  It has great architecture and a fun and growing international vibe.  It’s easy to get around, has great biking and running paths, and the Mediterranean – all around A+!

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México Sur! Yaxchilan & Bonampak

This photo is probably in my top 10 photos of all time.
This photo is probably in my top 10 photos of all time.

**Southern Mexico Series
I am in love with Southern Mexico!  Most people think only of the Riviera Maya (Cozumel – Cancun – Playa del Carmen – Tulum) when they think Southern Mexico – indeed, a great place to spark a love affair with this region, but there is so much more!  Permit me to take you on a speed tour through Southern Mexico, to some of the places that have captured my heart!

Perhaps the best place in all of southern Mexico is the the one that is hardest to get to:  Yaxchilan.  If Palenque is magical then Yaxchilan is supernatural and otherworldly!  It’s hardly even still Mexico and in these remote parts of the country I doubt anyone cares much about the hand-drawn line of a border as they go about their daily lives.  Palenque is already somewhat difficult to get to and from there it’s several hours on a bumpy road in a crappy van to reach the town of Frontera Corozal.  Once in this nearly nothing town, you need to negotiate a boat to take you about 45 minute down(up?) the river to the entrance of the archaeological site.  Getting there is definitely part of the fun!

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Once you approach Yaxchilan you get a feel for how ‘out there’ you really are.  It’s Indiana Jones.  It’s Romancing the Stone.  It’s Jurassic Park.  Hell, it might even be The Goonies!

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It’s more than a workout to properly explore the entire grounds, and so, so much fun!

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And if you’re “in the area”, well then it just makes sense to pay a quick visit to the archaeological site of Bonampak.  It’s relatively close and you can’t go wrong in making the trek.

Hurry up and visit, before Mother Nature gobbles these ruins right back up!

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México Sur! Boca del Cielo

**Southern Mexico Series
I am in love with Southern Mexico!  Most people think only of the Riviera Maya (Cozumel – Cancun – Playa del Carmen – Tulum) when they think Southern Mexico – indeed, a great place to spark a love affair with this region, but there is so much more!  Permit me to take you on a speed tour through Southern Mexico, to some of the places that have captured my heart!

Mexico’s southern state of Chiapas may be known for many things….but the beaches aren’t one of them!  But I’d say it depends on what you are after.  Are there more beautiful beaches in Mexico?  Obviously!  But if what you are after is a bit of sunshine and to hear the waves crashing in a pretty chill place, inexpensive and with some seafood and cold beers, – well then Chiapas does have a few options.

Winter in San Cristobal can be a bit chilly. It’s a damp chill that sometimes is just hard to shake from the bones.  With no indoor heating a few weeks go by and all you want is to be warm.  With that in mind, the nearest beach is a 3.5 hour drive straight down the mountain to the Pacific.  Over the holidays we made the drive and chose to spend about 36 hours warming up in Boca del Cielo.

We didn’t really have high expectations given what everyone always says about the beaches in Chiapas – and were all the more thrilled to have a perfectly enjoyable day and night of beachtime.

Boca del Cielo is located on a narrow strip of land between a fresh water lake and the wild ocean, which is handy as you can swim peacefully on the lake side and walk the beach on the other side.  It’s generally a pretty rough ocean, we were told, which explained why there weren’t any swimmers….but you can dip your toes in the water, which is about all I ever do anyway.

Despite being the day after Christmas, it was not at all crowded and even paying the “high season” rates for the rustic cabins we choose, it was very affordable.  There were hammocks and shrimp was had for lunch, dinner and again the following morning and well, we weren’t really asking for more.

A few pics:

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México Sur! Chinkultic

**Southern Mexico Series
I am in love with Southern Mexico!  Most people think only of the Riviera Maya (Cozumel – Cancun – Playa del Carmen – Tulum) when they think Southern Mexico – indeed, a great place to spark a love affair with this region, but there is so much more!  Permit me to take you on a speed tour through Southern Mexico, to some of the places that have captured my heart!

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Chiapas is rich with history from its Mayan ancestors. Just miles from the southern border, about a 2 hour drive from San Cristobal, are the ruins named Chinkultic.  Back in August we had friends visiting and used that as an excuse to finally make the drive down and explore this archaeological site.  It is not a site that is visited by too many people, a shame really.  It’s a small site, beautifully maintained with quiet paths leading through the ruins of the ball courts and up into two different areas that are open for visit.

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A natural well sits at the bottom of the main pyramid, likely the reason this particular location was chosen. On a clear day from the top of the pyramid, you can see for miles, well into neighboring Guatemala.

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A few hours provides enough time to wander around Chinkultic at a leisurely pace. Right outside the entrance, stopping to chat with the women who make simple quesadillas and coffee right outside the entrance provides the fuel for the drive home.

I enjoyed our visit so much I included it in my “The Bee’s Knees of 2014!” for the best Tree Huggin’ Moment of the year!

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Notes to self from a dedicated wanderess….Inspired? Join Me!

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