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Road Trip – Porto To Barcelona To the Basque Region of Northern Spain – Part 2

Continued from Part 1! Barcelona

Barcelona did not disappoint in any way. It’s a much more intimate city than Madrid and very walkable. We put on over 10 miles in one day!

Of course the highlight was the work of Gaudi.

The Sagrada Familia facade that you currently enter through is almost too much to look at in one photo so I’ve added some closeups. When the Basiciala is finished (they hope by 2028, it was supposed to be done in 2026 100 years after Gaudi’s death but because of covid that will not happen), the main entrance will be to the left. They will need to tear down an apartment building to finish it. People that live there are protesting but documents were signed when that building was built that eventually it would have to be torn down. The people that lived in the building and signed the paper beleived the basiciala would never be finished.

I read that a lot of people that go to The Sagrada Familia never go inside – big mistake – it’s amazing.

As you move around the exterior, well the interior too for that matter, the style changes, as was Gaudi’s plan.

We also visited Casa Milà (La Pedrera), another Gaudi creation built for a wealthy family.

The chimneys, staircase exits, and fans, on the roof were the inspiration for the look of some of George Luca’s characters in Starwars. This is a wonderful place to visit. There is a gift shop on the first floor, the current owners live on the second floor, other floors contain apartments – you can visit one – go up on the roof where you can see across the city and there is also a museum in the attic.

And lastly Park Güell I’ve seen many pictures through the years but guess I never read much about it. It was a failed realestate venture. It was supposed to be a gated community for some very wealthy people. Gaudi built the infrastructure but it was too far out of the city and way up on a hill so only 3 houses were ever built there. It then became a park.

The park is named after Eusebi Güell, the rich entrepreneur, who commissioned Gaudi to build the luxury residential complex. When the project was abandoned, Gaudí redesigned it as a park. Created between 1900 and 1914, Park Guell has been open to the public since 1923. There are viaducts to connect different levels, A huge long bench with mosaic work, and a covered area that was going to be a market.

In 1984, it was declared as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. The park was made following the architectural style that made Gaudi famous: Catalan Modernism.

Other things I enjoyed around the city was the Gothic Quarter and seeing where the 1992 Olympics were held. We weren’t there long enough to do everything – it was just a taste to see if I want to go back. And I do. There is the Picasso Museum, Miro Museum, buildings from the 1888 Barcelona Universal Exposition, lots and lots of great shopping, the Telefèric de Montjuïc cable car, and lots more.

Here are some random shots around the city.

Since I grew up not far from Toledo, Ohio I could not pass up visiting Toledo, Spain. Toledo was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1986 .


The view of the walled city of Toledo is pretty impressive.

The highlight of the city to me was this unusual window in the Catedral Primada Santa María de Toledo. I have never seen anything like it. The rest of the Catedral was pretty spectacular as well. Toledo is also where marzipan comes from.

There was discussion about how Jews, Muslims, and Christians all got along in Toledo. We should take a lesson from them.

El Greco spent much of his life in Toledo.

Basque Country of Spain

I always thought Spain was Spain but the Basque Country is one of Europe’s oldest and strongest cultures. It is located in northern Spain, on the Bay of Biscay at the western end of the Pyrenees, straddling the frontier between southern France and Spain. Their culture and origins are distinctive from that of the rest of Spain.

What a surprise this region of Spain was! For a country smaller than the state of Texas the Country of Spain is more diverse than I ever expected.

Our trip to that region was a post trip add on, I really had no expectations of this part of the trip since I never realized that the region would be so different.


This region has been isolated from the outside world creating its own language with no known relation to any other language in the world, there is no C in their alphabet, the language has lots of r’s and k’s and even lots of people that grew up there don’t know how to speak it. People call it Basque but it’s real name is Euskera. During Franco the people could not speak the language, read it, write it, teach it, because he wanted them just to be Spanish, not Basque. So for several generations it was slowly disappearing. Now they teach it in the schools as the main language with Spanish, French, and English as secondary. Another fallout from Franco’s rules for the region is that an organization was formed that wanted the region to become its own country. They caused a lot of violence and deaths through the years. Because of the 40 or so years of his rule the Basque region now keeps all its own tax money, none is sent to the government of Spain, as kind of a payback for the years of oppression.

The area is mountainous and gets much more rain fall than the rest of the country and is the richest region in all of Spain. There are lots of farms, lots of rain, and lots of manufacturing.

Pamploma is one place they do the running of the bulls, where Hemmingway wrote The Sun Also Rises. We walked the path that the running takes place. Pamploma is also a stop on the The Camino de Santiago from Pamplona to Logroño is the second section of the Camino Frances , starting from the city of Pamplona (“Iruña” in the Euskera language).

We asked our guide how many people get hurt each year during the running of the bulls – hundreds – how many people die – it happens occasionally and is usually a visitor because they don’t realize how dangerous it is.

This photo is from the cities website. People rent their balconies for the occasion and it pays their rent for the year!

City Hall is a beautiful structure, especially the top of it.

Pamplona was where we were first introduced to Pintxo and Txakoli. Pintxo I wrote about earlier, small bites poked with a skewer, and Txakoli a sparkling cider drink. Pxakoli is only availble in the Basque Country.

The Hotel Hemmingway wrote and drank in.


I won’t go into ancient history but will say that it became a steel town, due to the iron ore mines surrounding the city, with major pollution following. We saw strip mine after strip mine as we drove through the mostly tree covered mountains on our way here. It was also a major port and ship building area.

And food wise, in the rest of Spain and Portugal they have tapas, in the Basque Country they have pintxo like I mentioned in Part 1 of this blog post.

At some point the steel industry relocated and at one point unemployment was at 60 percent. The people that had come to work in the steel industry had built slums going up the mountains that surround the city. The city center is the only part that is build on flat land. So the new part is very hilly. In order to turn the city around  The Basque government approached the Guggenheim Foundation in 1991 with the idea of setting a new Guggenheim museum in Bilbao’s then-decrepit port area. This was to be the focal point of their redevelopment plans to rejuvenate and modernise the old industrial town. It’s a fabulous building. The outside is titanium and the sculpture on the right is by Jeff Koons, a dog covered with flowers.

Inside the art is giant, and their collection consists of only 600 pieces.

Suddenly other architects wanted to leave their mark on city.  Over the past twenty years the city has created a whole new identity.  It is a beautiful mix of the old and the new.  In 2010, Bilbo received the World City Prize, “considered the Nobel Prize for urbanism”.  The city’s mayor received the World Mayor Prize just two years later.  Bilbao was chosen the Best European City 2018 by the Academy of Urbanism.

The museum has also inspired the term ‘the Guggenheim effect’ to describe the socio-economic impact landmark architecture can have on the overall success of a city. During the first three years of opening, the museum welcomed almost 4 million visitors which generated around $500 million in economic activity (hotel, restaurants, shopping, local jobs to support increased tourists and payment of taxes among other items). Now the museum attracts about 1 million visitors every year.

And the city is enjoying full employment today, mostly in service industries. And the redevelopment continues.

It’s an exciting city. On a Thursday night in early June the pedestrian streets were packed. The metro, bus and tram systems have reduced the need for cars on the streets. People here like in the rest of Spain and most of Europe don’t think about eating before 8 pm. In fact even in the big cities stores close between 2 and 5 pm and most restaurants don’t reopen until 8. The old part of Bilbao is very small and any vestiages of ancient buildings are pretty much gone but it’s full of shops and restaurants that the locals as well as tourists enjoy. In the old town the buildings are generally from the 1800s. Life is very lively on the streets!

Here, like all over Spain, the is a lot of public art, both old and contemporary.

Paintings on the ceiling of a portico across from the old market.

On our last day we visited San Sebastian.

San Sebastian.

It is very mountainous between Bilbao and San Sebastian.

We didn’t spend a lot of time there but I was glad I went. It’s only 15 miles from the French border so a lot of French come but surprisingly it’s Americans that make up most of their overnight visits. We were lucky to see the beginning of one wedding and see girls dressed in traditional costumes, and the end of a second one that had traditional drummers and black powder explosives!

Then just around the corner we saw men with big paper mache heads and others on stilts with children following, it was very festive. San Sebastian also has a huge, beautiful beach and marina area.

It turns out that in January they have the San Sebastian Festival which is where over 15,000 people come together, forming 100 bands, and start a 24-hour drumming session known as the Tamborrada, they have been doing it since 1836. So some of the drummers performed for us after the second wedding.

The photos are not brighter in San Sebastian because the sun seldom shines! The good news of that is that is is a cool place for people to get away from the heat in the rest of the country.

The Basque country gets more rain than the rest of Spain so it is very green, the weather is much like it is in Seattle.

This photo was taken at 415 am as we were leaving for the airport. Bars that don’t open until 8 pm can stay open until 6 am. Every night there was a crowd outside our hotel partying. Fornutately we had good insulation so did not hear them.

It was a fabulous trip – going and coming were a challange but we survived. Where to next? Maybe Boston, maybe nowhere until I go to Maine in August for 2 weeks. For now I need a rest from my vacation!

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Road Trip – Porto To Barcelona To the Basque Country – Part 1

A friend and I went on an 18 day whirlwind land tour on the Ibeaian Peninsula. We flew into Lisbon, then to Porto, drove to Lisbon, Óbidos, Evora, Seville, Granada, high speed train to Madrid, then Barcelona, our final stop was the Basque Country. It was a whirlwind trip but really gave us a taste of what the region is all about. I’m glad we got to see so much of the Peninsula, if we’d only gone to one area we would not have seen what the countries were really like.

I realized right away I didn’t remember or know much about the history other than Ferdinand and Isabella financed Christopher Columbus’ exploration.

I noticed a lot of passports from Brazil in the airport. Because Brazil was a colony of Portugal there are still a lot of connections between the two countries.I had a lot of time to notice this too! Lisbon airport was packed, the good news was pretty much everyone was wearing masks, the bad news was we stood in lines for several hours for passport check, causing us to miss our next flight, and then stood in line several more times before we got it sorted out. A friend who just returned from Ireland said she stood in various lines 4 hours as well.

We ended up spending the night in Lisbon (good news was there was room at the Inn right next door to the airport), and caught the early flight the next day. We made it just in time to catch the bus to start touring Porto.

We started our tour of Porto at the Stock Exchange Palace. It was a beautiful building.

 Porto lies along the Douro river. Home to Port wine, street art, and “francesinhas”, Porto is one of the world’s top 100 cities with the most international visitors. 

Next we visited the train station which was full of beautiful tiles. There is more than one station in Porto, this one is Sao Bento. It’s in the middle of the downtown and was built on the site of a Benedictine Convent. It opened in 1916 and is covered with over 20,000 hand painted blue and white tiles depicting historical events in Portugal.

The Igreja do Carmo was built between 1756 and 1768  and the blue and white tiles were added in 1912. There is another church in the city we didn’t get to see whose facade is covered in blue and white tiles on all sides.

We walked a bit through the old part of the city, then had a great lunch across the river in Gaia where port wine is matured in centuries-old cellars.

A short ride on the Douro River was followed by a visit to Ferreira Winery where we sampled three kinds of Port. I’ve never been much of a Port fan but have to say it was pretty good.

This winery was founded in the mid 18th century, and grew and to become one of the most prestigious wineries in Portugal, its owner, Dona Antonia Adelaide Ferreira, became the richest woman in Portugal. Her vineyards stretched all the way to the Spanish border.

From Porto we headed down to Lisbon.

On the way we saw these large tile installations at a truck stop. They were about 10 feet tall.

The fields were like patchwork quilts/


Lisbon is a beautiful city with new things to learn about, Fado being one. It’s a type of music that started in the 1820s. It’s a form of song with sad lyrics often about the sea or life of the poor, usually melancholy. Typically with a singer and two guitars.

Our hotel was on a beautiful street called Avenida da Liberdade which was a boulevard lined with trees and lots of monuments and sculpture. Much of the city was built over rubble left by the earthquake that struck on the morning of November 1, 1755. It is said to have lasted about six minutes, causing fissures 16 ft wide in the city center. About 40 minutes later a tsunami swept over the harbor and downtown area. Candles that were lit for All Saints Day were knocked over and started fires all over the city. the earthquake was felt throughout Europe and up to 30,000 people died because of it.

This elevator in Downtown Lisbon Santa Justa Elevator, is the fastest way to get from the Baixa  neighborhood to the Bairro Alto district. The city center is flat and not too many blocks wide then the city goes straight up.

We were lucky to be there when the jacaranda trees were in bloom.

Many cities we visited told stories about that earthquake.

On the left – The Belém Tower  was built for the defense of the port and to be an entrance door for Lisbon. It was built in 1515.

On the right – Padrão dos Descobrimentos is a monument along the river where ships departed to explore and trade with India and the Orient, the monument celebrates the Portuguese Age of Discovery (or “Age of Exploration”) during the 15th and 16th centuries.

Across the river is the Cristo Rei Lisbon – a gigantic statue of Jesus – it stands south of the Lisbon city center across the Tagus River on a hill in Almada. It was built in the 1950s.

The Águas Livres Aqueduct was built in the 1700s and remarkably survived the earthquake that devastated the city.


Stone mosaics

In Lisbon there are the calceteiros, here is an article that talks about these sidewalks and the people that make and maintain them. This walk extended from our hotel all the way to the city center and it was lined with monuments, sculpture and interesting kiosks.

I’ve taken photos of stone mosaics in the US whenever I have seen them but I was thrilled to see that many cities were covered with them. Here are some of the patterns I saw.


In most of Portugal and Spain you have Tapas, in the Basque Country you have pintxos. Everyone knows what Tapas means, food to share. Well pintxos are single servings generally with a toothpick stuck into it. In some places you go in and eat and when you are done they count the number of toothpicks and the color to know what to charge you. And of course the pastries were out of this world. My favorite were the custard tarts. We first ate those in Lisbon. It turns out we ate them from the most famous company that makes them. They started in 1837 making the original Pastéis de Belém, following an ancient recipe from the Mosteiro dos Jerónimos.

We ate some really good food and could have done even better if we knew more Spanish. Pointing only goes so far.

A delicacy you see all over is Jamón, or in English – ham. Legs hanging everywhere and they slice very thin pieces off to eat.

The most interesting thing about the Spanish jamón is the fact that it is cut fresh moments before you eat it. The hind leg is placed in a holding device called jamonera, and is sliced very thin.


On the way to Obidos we passed some old windmills that stood next to modern ones that line the ridge of the hills. I couldn’t get enough of the patchwork landscape.

Obidos was inhabited by the Lusitanians (Celts) until the Romans arrived.

The Visigoths (early Germanic people) took over after the Romans but it was when the Muslims came, in the 8th Century, that the outpost was turned into a city. and they built a wall and Castle.

History of what is now Spain goes back to 1.2 million years BC, modern history from about 900 BC. Romans, Phoenicians, Carthaginians, etc each had their turn controlling the Peninsula and each left their mark. What shaped Spains recent history was the take over by the Moors in 711 AD. During their time Christians, Muslims, and Jews, lived in harmony. Eventually, the Christian kingdoms in the north began a long fight to win Spain back from the Moors.

This period, from 718 to 1491, is known as the Reconquest. The two most powerful kingdoms in northern Spain were Castile and Aragon. When Queen Isabella of Castile and King Ferdinand of Aragon married in 1469, they united their forces. Isabella and Ferdinand finally drove the Moors out of Spain when they captured the kingdom of Granada, the Moors´ last stronghold, in 1492. They forced everyone to be Catholic or leave. And in 1492, as we all know, Queen Isabella paid Christopher Columbus to find a new trade route to India but instead he discovered America.

In the 20th century Franco took power. He was a dictator who ruled with an iron fist from 1939 to 1975. After his death Spain became a democracy. Our guide said some good did come from his rule, good education and free healthcare for all.

Next up … Evora.


The most unusual thing we probably saw on our trip was the Chapel of Bones at Igreja do Sao Francisco in Evora. It gets its name because the interior walls are covered and decorated with human skulls and bones. It was creepy but very interesting. The chapel was built in the 17th century on the initiative of three Franciscan friars. Their goal: to convey the message of temporariness and fragility of human life.

In addition to the Chapel of Bones Evora has the Templo de Diana (Roman Temple), only a few blocks from the town centre. What makes the site so impressive is that about half of the main columns are still standing. Another attraction in the city are remains of Roman Baths which were only discovered recently, but they are not open for tours. They were discovered under the City Hall.


We were really wowed by the city of Seville. On 9 May 1929 the Ibero-American Exposition was opened in Seville. A huge multi-national event, aimed at improving the relationship between Spain, Latin America, Portugal, Brazil and the USA. The Plaza de Espana with its huge building is the main attraction left in a beautiful park. Other buildings built for the exposition still survive and are used for various organizations.

Of course every European city has a Cathedral or a Basilica.

The Cathedral of Saint Mary of the Sea was spectacular, (like they all are) but what made this one really special for me was the tomb of Christopher Columbus.

His tomb is held aloft by four figures representing the four kingdoms of Spain during Columbus’ life, Castille, Aragon, Navara, and Leon.

The tomb was one of the last additions to the cathedral, installed in 1899. It was designed by the sculptor Arturo Melida, and was originally installed in Havana before being moved to Seville after Spain lost control of Cuba.

I was thrilled to see this tomb, spectacular!

This Metropol Parasol mushrooms of Seville is a monument that is located in the plaza de la Encarnación. It is made of concrete and wood in the form of a pergola. It was built in an unused lot and is the largest wooden structure in the world. There are various viewing points and it is used for public affairs. We loved roaming the streets of old Seville and had one of our best meals of the trip just outside the Cathedral.

Southern Portugal is covered with cork trees – did you know that they can strip cork off a tree only every nine years? Learn about harvesting cork by clicking here.

Southern Spain on the other hand is covered with olive trees. When I was in Italy they had centuries old trees that are unfortunately being attacked by a virus. Fortunately that is not happening in Spain.

On our way to Granada we stopped at a family run Olive farm. I’ve been to Olive oil farms before where they told you about the oil but this one was the most informative I’ve ever been to.

Some of the things I learned – two years is the shelf life, every bottle should have a date on it, there is no such thing as extra extra virgin olive oil, there is no such thing as a black olive – it is a ripe olive, olives are very tender and need to be pressed within a few hours of being picked, and picked olives and oil needs to be kept at less than 80 degrees to avoid degradation of the oil!

A lot of the ancient trees were torn out and replanted with new to do more intensive farming. There is a movement to stop the practice but we saw new, young groves everywhere. They stretched for hundreds of miles.

The grounds of the farm we visited, Basillippo Organic, were beautiful too.