8 Days in Spain

For someone who wanted to start a blog so I could share our travels with friends and family, I well and truly suck at updating this thing about said travels. I had every intention of writing about our road trip through Spain and England when we returned, but, well, life happened. For one, you know that saying “I need a vacation from my vacation”? There’s a reason people say it. We were exhausted when we got home! Right as we finally started settling back into our routine, my father-in-law became ill. Suddenly we were occupied with his recovery. Amid all this, my dear friends Neva and Jill came to visit, so we spent time showing off my new home country. And then my Norwegian class started a full two weeks early. Oy.

So here it is, seven months later. I figured I’d better get my act together before another vacation comes up and I fall even more behind. Espen has already booked a getaway for the last week of February, has started planning our July 2019 interrail tour, and is researching vacation ideas for July 2020. That’s right — 2020. So … yeah. I need to get busy on this thing!

Our vacation included Spain and England, but as I quickly realized, it was way too much for one post. Be sure to check out my post on England, coming soon. Also coming? A post about our food experience at a Michelin-starred restaurant nestled among the mountains in Basque country.

Please note that most of the photos contain detailed descriptions. You might have to scroll down a bit. All right … away we go!

Madrid

The plan was simple: Eat and drink our way through northern Spain. We kicked off our adventure in gluttony gastronomy in Madrid on a very hot Sunday afternoon. As is our usual pattern, we checked in at our hotel, the Hostal Inter Plaza Mayor, and then hit the streets to check out our neighborhood. I can’t say we’d stay at that hotel ever again, or even recommend it, but the location was close to the plaza and within walking distance of the things we wanted to get to. There were a couple of “musts” while in Madrid: Flamenco and the Prado Museum.

Without being or knowing a local, it’s hard trying to figure out which place has the best flamenco. We settled on a show at Cardamomo. It did not disappoint! Although there was one guy who gave the impression that he was still learning, for the most part the dancers were fantastic! Or course, one of Espen’s favorite memories from this evening wasn’t the passion being played out on stage but was instead when I attempted to help a Spanish lady use a feature on her iPhone and broke out with “Kan jeg hjelpe deg?” — “Can I help you?” in Norwegian. Evidently when I’m in any foreign country not Norway, I have no problem practicing my language skills. Too bad no one knows what I’m saying. It kills Espen every single time.

We had a full day planned for Monday, including taking advantage of the hop on/hop off bus tour through the city. It was the kind of hot summer day that sends one into a swoon, and we took turns nodding off. To get some energy into our bones, we finally hopped off for a cool drink before our visit at the Prado Museum. There are many treasures at the Prado, but for me, the goal was Hieronymus Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights. I remembered it from my high school art history class, and even then I couldn’t help but be fascinated by this work. Was Bosch on drugs, hallucinating, or mental when he painted those salacious scenes with his imagined creatures? (And what must have the public thought back then!) I could’ve stood there for hours examining it, but knowing that I didn’t have that luxury, I decided to take a couple of photos so I could study the images at my leisure. I managed to capture my two favorite panels before I got reprimanded by a security guard. Should I have known better than to take a photo in a museum? Yes. That’s why I checked the brochure and then looked for signs in the gallery indicating that photos are prohibited. I did my due diligence, and when I saw no warnings to the contrary, I snapped two photos. Enjoy! (And no, I didn’t use flash. I’m not a complete moron.)

We finished our afternoon with more walking through the city; a stop at the espadrille shop, where they still make them by hand; and a well-deserved nap before our dinner at Los Montes de Galicia, which had been recommended to Espen by a colleague. One of the more memorable stories from our vacation came from our taxi driver that evening. Now 50, he had emigrated from Colombia many years before to live with his sister in Madrid. He had since gotten married (to another Colombian immigrant) and they had a son, who, to his chagrin, pronounced S as th in the Catalan way. “What kind of shit is that?” our driver asked, laughing.

Espen asked what made him leave Colombia. The driver turned serious. Long story short, it was fear. The drug wars were at their height. His sister lived in Madrid, so he took advantage of that and got the hell out. He looked at us through the rearview mirror. “Yeah … you know, all my homeboys are dead.”

All?” we asked.

“Yes. All. All my friends from back in the day? They’re all dead. All of them. They were all killed.” He felt certain that had he stayed, he too would be dead. Instead, he’s now a happily married father of a 13-year-old.

Our dinner at Los Montes was good, though not exceptional. Still, it was a fine way to end our time in Madrid, and as part of the restaurant’s anniversary celebration, we got a bottle of wine to take home with us.

Aranda de Duero

I will remember Aranda de Duero not for the city itself but for the drive there from Madrid. It was my introduction to the Spanish landscape, and I fell immediately in love. Sometimes we’d come across parts of the ancient Roman aqueduct … just there on the side of the road. It seemed as though every little village we passed had its own castle. Peñafiel was one such castle. Sitting atop a high hill against the blue sky, it was irresistible! It was also an official attraction, complete with tours. We were totally game.

Here’s a tip: When the customer service person suggests that you won’t be able to understand the all-Spanish guided tour, believe her. I don’t know what made us think we could handle it — I’m guessing it went something like, “I think we’ll get it from context” — but we realized almost immediately that we were well out of our depths.

After going through the motions on the tour (Espen managed a few knowing nods before giving up), we managed to sneak away from the group and escape with what remained of our dignity. We enjoyed a quick bite in a local restaurant and hit the road bound for Aranda de Duero.

Aranda de Duero is a small town of only about 33,000. Given how sleepy many of the villages dotting the landscape are, some might consider this town to be bustling, but we arrived during siesta and it was anything but. After checking in at Hotel Villa De Aranda, we wiled away the time with a quick walk through the town, a beer for the mister at the highlight of which is the Santa Maria cathedral, built between the 15th and 16th centuries. It was closed thanks to the siesta, but the façade was a marvel.

So if Aranda de Duero is so small, why go? Because of El Lagar de Isilla and its reputation with cooking the local specialty, lechazo, or roasted lamb. It was a fine meal, but we were surprised that it wasn’t as flavorful as we’d expected.

Logroño and the Rioja Wine Region

Our favorite wines come from the Rioja region, so there was no way we were not going to take a tour through some wineries during this road trip. Espen did some research and found us a full-day wine tour through Rioja Like a Native. The most memorable of the tours was Muga, which honors old traditions by doing virtually everything by hand, including building the barrels used for aging the wine. Muga is our absolute favorite red, so it was like being reacquainted with long-lost friends … friends we wanted to pack in our suitcases and take home.

Although the winery tours were informative and it was interesting to see the differences among the three we visited, the highlight of the afternoon was our stop for lunch in Laguardia. Lunch wasn’t especially good, but the walk through the entire city was a treat. It is a beautifully preserved medieval city. The streets are so narrow that you have to park outside the city walls and then walk through one of the original entrances. Fabulous!

Logroño itself was a pleasant surprise. Dare I say I enjoyed it as much (if not more) than Madrid? One of its hallmarks is that there are over 50 tapas restaurants within a four-block square … a square that was conveniently steps away from our hotel. Each tapas place has a specialty, and as a courtesy, the other taperias have different specialties. The idea keeps competition friendly. That said, not everyone has good tapas. Even though we scouted the guide in our hotel room of which place had the best tapas, we took a few missteps, including a tragic bacalao. In another place was The Great Meatball Incident. More on that in the food post, soon to come! Still, it was a fun night, and we went to bed with pleasantly full bellies.

Pamplona

Although we didn’t spend the night in Pamplona, it deserves its own entry because OH MY GOD! It was such an amazing stop! We could’ve checked out the running of the bulls, but as neither of us had any interest in being caught up in that mayhem, we opted to leave a little later in the morning to avoid it. We timed it perfectly! We passed many tourists on their way out after having cheated death, but the real St. Fermin celebration was just getting started. How lucky were we? I’ll tell you. Our meanderings through the city streets landed us right at the start of the Procession of the Giants and Big Heads of St. Fermin. Literally, we were just standing there and then BOOM! The parade began and the giants were walking right in front of us! (Click here to see their dance!)

Alas, we couldn’t dawdle because we had reservations for a pintxos tour in San Sebastiàn …

San Sebastián

This is easily the most beach town I’ve ever been in, at least so far. The gorgeous horseshoe-shaped La Concha beach is surrounded by mountains, and the promenade is flanked by ornate white railings. “Ornate” is the keyword when it comes to this city. Everything — from the buildings to the street lights — is so extraordinary that all I could do was walk around with my mouth open in awe. “Espen! Look at that! Espen, look over there! Espen —” you get the idea.

We stayed in the Old Town Guesthouse, in the heart of Old Town San Sebastiàn. This proved to be both good and bad: Good because, I mean, come on. It was a beautiful place to stay, and we were in the heart of Old Town! But the city is struggling under the weight of so many Airbnb places, and the price of property has drastically increased because of investors trying to gobble up real estate. This is forcing many locals out, and they are not happy. We were kept awake at night by someone going through the streets shouting and singing at top volume. This was no random revelry. It felt more calculated … deliberately designed to annoy. And then there was the graffiti everywhere with the succinct message: “Tourists Go Home!” Having grown up in a beach town (one that doesn’t hold a candle to San Sebastián), I know well how annoying tourists can be. That said, I also know how necessary they are to the local economy. It’s a hard balance to find.

Espen booked for us a private pintxos tour with San Sebastian Pintxos. Talk about worth it! Sure, you can wander through the city on your own, but the benefit of having a local guide is that they know the good stuff that isn’t always obvious on the menu … or on the menu at all. In some cases, we were served things that you have to know are possible to order, and if you’re not a local, that just isn’t going to happen. Our guide, an affable guy named Imanol, set up a great tour customized to our likes and our tolerance for adventure. I ate things I never thought I’d try, including some very squidy-looking squid and sea urchin (!), which weirdly enough reminded me of sweet potato casserole. Imanol also pointed out places and dishes that were not on the tour but that would be worth our while to try later, one of which — a simple tomato salad at Bar Nestor — remains one of the best things I’ve ever eaten. Seriously, we still talk about it.

The next day was a full one. We started it off with a mountain hike up to the fort where Napoleon attempted his siege. That was followed by a drive up Mount Igueldo, which features the oldest amusement park in the Basque Country. The rides are nothing to brag about (not in the least) but the view of San Sebastiàn can’t be beat.

By then we were getting a little hungry, so Espen suggested lunch in … FRANCE! As he explained, we were so close … just a short drive away, so why not? Why not, indeed! So off we set for Saint-Jean-de-Luz, in Aquitaine, France. Our timing was a little off, unfortunately. We arrived in the dead zone between lunch and dinner, so options were practically nonexistent. We did manage to find a decent spot with some outdoor seating, and had a good lunch before heading back to San Sebastiàn for the evening for a nice walk through the city and our own pintxos tour. After a full day of good food and good drink, we made our way back to the guesthouse and awaited our nighttime caroler.

It was hard to leave San Sebastiàn, but we had big plans for the afternoon: our first time at a Michelin-starred restaurant! (That experience inspired its own post, coming soon.) To ensure that we didn’t ruin our appetites, we grabbed a couple of our favorite pastries and enjoyed them over coffee. As luck would have it, I sat by a middle-America family whose two adult sons had gone to McDonalds for breakfast. Sigh.

Bilbão

When Espen started mapping out our road trip, I mentioned wanting to see the world-renown Guggenheim Museum. Done! A stop in Bilbão was added to our itinerary. By the time we got there, it had started to rain, and — importantly! — the World Cup final was about to start. Forget checking in the hotel! We had to find a bar that was showing the final and park our asses! We lucked out and found not only a bar but also a couple of free seats. Drinks and snacks were ordered, and we enjoyed a great final.

After, we found our hotel and hit the town. When Frank Gehry designed the Guggenheim, it sparked a revitalization in the city. It shows. Bilbão is full of interesting architecture and some really cool bridges linking the city. (We caught sight of the San Mames stadium on our drive out of town and exclaimed “holy shit!” simultaneously. I’d go back to Bilbão just to check it out up close and personal.) We took a long walk through the city, including the heavily populated immigrant neighborhood. 

Of course, the jewel in the crown is the Guggenheim, which is even more breathtaking in person. It truly is a marvel. We opted against going through the whole museum, focusing instead on two featured exhibitions, one by Joana Vasconcelos. Titled I’m Your Mirror, the exhibition explored female identity in large sculptures made of everyday objects. A chandelier made entirely of tampons. A mask made of gilded mirrors. Large stilettos made of frying pan lids. Sadly no photos were allowed.

It was a great afternoon but our Spanish road trip wasn’t over yet.

Burgos

Our friend Sean recommended a stop in Burgos saying merely, “It’s just a nice place to walk around.” When we first arrived, we weren’t the slightest bit impressed, but that all changed after we checked into our hotel and headed across the street to the gate leading to the old city. Greeting you as you walk through the gates is one of the largest cathedrals I’ve ever seen. The Burgos Cathedral is a sight to behold, but as magnificent as it is on the outside, it doesn’t touch the beauty inside. We wandered for hours trying to soak in every detail of the chapels in this magnificent space. It just went on and on and on, with every chapel even more beautiful than the last. Every corner held a new surprise to delight the eyes. I’d hoped to be so swept away by Notre Dame, but it doesn’t come close to Burgos. Not in the least.

And that’s only a few of the chapels! It took a couple of hours to go through, and to be honest, one could spend even more time to soak in all the details.

We spent the rest of the afternoon checking out the old city, browsed through an outdoor art show, and then rested up back at our hotel before dinner. Of all the cities we visited, Burgos was the most surprising. Neither of us had ever heard of it, and had Sean not recommended it, we never would’ve stopped. But it turned out to be a truly charming city.

Adios, Spain …

Upon noticing Espen’s Norwegian passport, many of the hotel employees asked him if he knew of the Norwegian princess who was buried in Spain, and, of course, whether he’d planned to visit the site. It wasn’t on our list of things to do, but in Burgos, the hotel employee assured us that it was on our way to the airport, “just off the road” — a phrase that obviously means different things to different people. In this case, it meant nearly 60 minutes down a winding side road.

Covarrubias turned out to be yet another charming walled city, but was it or the statue of Christina of (Bergen!) Norway worth it? Meh. Our “quick” side trip made us well over an hour late returning our rental car, and then we nearly missed our flight when we realized — after almost 20 minutes of looking for our gate — that our flight was leaving from a completely different terminal nearly 10 minutes away by bus. In the end we made it and it was time to kick off our adventure in jolly ol’ England!

Graffiti

I didn’t take as many photos of street art as I did in Iceland (the street art there is amazing!), but I did take a few shots, including one of the many (oh, so many) “Tourists Go Home!” messages.

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