The Gem of Barcelona

One of our travels this summer took us to California where we visited the astonishing giants of the Pacific Northwest – the great Redwood forest. Anyone who has been there can agree with me when I say it fills you with awe as soon as you enter the shadowy depths of quiet. The air is suddenly heavy with the essence of moist moss and it almost seems sacrilegious to make any noise in this cathedral of green. The soaring canopy of branches and leaves supported by their massively thick trunks invites you to gaze upward and dares you to look away if you can.

Giant Redwoods
Giant Redwoods

I experienced the same feeling of awe and wonder when I entered La Sagrada Familia (The Sacred Family) church in Barcelona, Catalonia (northern Spain). In my travels, I have ventured through the doors of dozens of cathedrals and churches in dozens of countries. But I was not prepared for what I saw in La Sagrada Familia. At first glance, the exterior is a complicated mass of ornate design that reminded me of the “drip” sand castles we used to make at the shore.

La Sagrada Familia - Nativity facade
La Sagrada Familia – Nativity facade

But step inside and suddenly, a person feels immersed in a stunning masterpiece. The first thing I noticed was the light – the play of colors on the walls from the strategically placed, enormous stained-glass windows. On one side (east) cool shades of blues and greens and on the other (west) vibrant reds, oranges and yellows. Our visit was timed for later in the afternoon so when we entered the whole cathedral was ablaze in an aura of glowing colors from the western sun.

Light and color
Light and color

This is the masterpiece, in fact, the lifelong mission of one man, architect Antoni Gaudi. His unique Art Nouveau architectural style has been both heralded and ridiculed through the ages. I’m the first to admit his whimsical and sometimes comical-looking designs leave me at a loss for words. But I didn’t fully appreciate his genius until I walked into this church.

Indoor forest
Indoor forest

Gaudi began the work on the church in the late 1800’s and soon it consumed his life – 40 years of working, managing and living on site at the cost of his time, energy and finances until his tragic death in 1926. (In route to the church, he was hit by a tram car.) He was mourned by all of Catalonia and the mission of finishing the church was passed on to them. The mere magnitude of the project was unfathomable for the times and as yet is still unfinished, financed by private donations and the Catalan people determined to complete Gaudi’s dream of a church that would stand above all the rest in terms of architectural beauty and religious devotion to the Sacred Family. Gaudi was a deeply religious man and a passionate lover of nature – both of these qualities are reflected in the design of the church. The giant doors of the east Nativity portal are covered with bronze leaves from which peek out tiny hidden insects and reptiles. The giant interior columns rise up to a canopy of trusses that mimic the giant redwoods. The spiral staircase reflects the fluidity of water and wind, and many of the small windows are reminiscent of the perfect symmetry of a honeycomb. It’s clear to see the evidence of Gaudi’s many hours spent in the country observing, drawing and categorizing the tiniest details of God’s landscape around him.

Spiral staircase
Spiral staircase

La Sagrada Familia has been and still is the object of disdain and devotion, controversy and commitment. But one thing can’t be argued…Gaudi’s passion for the natural world and the God who created it is etched in every corner and façade of this church. This was his service to God and his lifelong mission. In response to a skeptic’s criticism of the constructions slow pace, Gaudi replied, “My client is not in a hurry.”

Gaudi’s own version of “slow food for the soul” was the culmination of his talents, time and resources offered, sacrificed and used up to satisfy his passionate appetite for his service to God. He died a pauper but left a legacy of inspiration for many generations to come. I wonder… what are my own offerings of service to God through the gifts he has so generously given me? Although I may not build a glorious church, what can I leave behind to inspire generations to come? What beauty is there inside of me that would inspire and awe even more than Gaudi’s church? Perhaps the legacy is not in what we DO but who we ARE. I may never have an entry in Wikipedia, but my life well lived in service to God and others is better than any accolade I could hope for. God sees and knows everyone’s heart and that’s reward enough.

Pinchos “Pub Crawl” in San Sebastian

Evening breaks on the city (photo from summit of Monte Urgull)
Evening breaks on the city (photo from summit of Monte Urgull)

There are many things to love about the Basque gem of a seaside city, San Sebastian, or as the old locals still refer to it, Donastia. This city which lies on the Bay of Biscay in Northern Basque country is where the scenery is breathtaking, the history is rich, the people are over-the-top accepting and friendly, the energy is pulsating, the streets and neighborhoods are clean, and the food — well, it should tell you something that this little area of Spain holds the gastronomical rating of 15 Michelin stars (the second highest per capita in the world.)

We arrived (finally – after a French detour) late in the afternoon to our B&B in the Parte Viaje (old town) neighborhood of San Sebastian. We had been instructed by our host to “find the La Concha parking garage” in the middle of the city and then walk to the hotel since it was in a pedestrian only section. Easier said than done, but when an elderly local woman saw us scratching our sweaty brows over a map of the city, she graciously walked us all the way around the beautiful waterfront boardwalk expanse to the door of our accommodations. It was a great welcome to the city that would soon win our hearts.

La Concha beach
La Concha beach

As we left our baggage and worries behind in our hotel, we walked the tight little back streets and rounded the corner just past the cathedral. A couple of blocks from our hotel, this scene opened in front of us: thousands of locals and tourists merging together in what can only be described as the biggest food party ever. The cafe bars were packed with people seeking the tastiest pinchos (tapas on baquettes) and the coldest beers or txakoli (pron. Chakoli), a locally produced dry white wine with a tinge of sparkle. Pinchos bars are a feast for the eyes as well as the stomach. Almost too pretty to eat, each delicacy is a 2 euro work of culinary art, and the hardest decision of the night is how many of these treasures can be devoured before moving on to the next bar for round two (or three).

Pinchos bar
Pinchos bar

There is definitely a protocol to the pinchos experience. First, you find the most crowded place, muscle your way up to the bar through all the happy patrons, order a drink from one of the hustling bartenders who will then hand you a plate. This is where the fun begins. Now you must choose a pinchos or two to decorate your plate, show the bartender who has by now handed you your drinks over the heads of the crowds hovering over the bar. Taking your drink and plate outside to sit on the steps of the cathedral or a little stone wall near the bar, youwith finish the mouthwatering event and then muscling your way back to the bar, you pay the same bartender who, by some miracle has remembered you, your pinchos and your drinks. Pay him and off you go to the next bar for more of the same. We joined this invigorating party each night we were in San Sebastian usually finishing the ritual well after midnight.

It's pinchos time in old town
It’s pinchos time in old town

Lest you think that all we did was eat and drink, I will tell you that, although that was definitely the highlight of this charming city, we filled our days with activities like swimming, boating, hiking and biking (Thomas from Urban Adventures was our fun and knowledgable guide – highly recommended!)  All in all we were enamored with this beautiful city and understand its well deserved distinction as the “2016 Capital of European Culture.”image

La Rioja Wine Region

Giant bull sculpture on Rioja hilltop
Giant bull sculpture on Rioja hilltop

I confess, I’m much more comfortable with train travel than driving a car. I realize that this form of transportation is everyday routine for most Europeans but for this woman from the “land of many giants” (big cars on big freeways with big attitudes), there’s something old world and bourgeois about getting from A to B with little or no stress. And it just fits with my new mantra of “slow down and enjoy the ride, food, conversation…life.” No traffic jams, no steering-wheel- gripping close calls, no GPS snafus, and no juggling coffee cups with a cell phone. And although usually not cheaper, it’s significantly better than taking a flight. No arriving two hours before departure only to stand in long and frustrating security lines and risk the delayed or cancelled flight that requires you to stay the night scrunched up in an airport chair obviously not designed for overnight sleepovers.
But I can’t argue with the flexibility and convenience of jumping in your car especially when driving to an out of the way location. We found this to be true of Tuscany years ago, and The Rioja wine region in northern Spain is no different. I deferred the driving of the rental car through the confusing streetscape and racing Autobahn to Richard and happily settled into the passenger seat with GPS and multiple maps on my lap.

Rioja wine country
Rioja wine country

There are literally hundreds of bodegas (wineries) in Rioja and although the landscape is drier than Sonoma or Napa valleys, each hill and curve opens to a picturesque scene of rolling vineyards and stone wineries that look to be hundreds of years old. The Rioja region produces its most famous red wine.  It has distinguisable bright, berry notes with hints of vanilla and sweet spices due to the fact that it is aged in new oak (preferably American oak.)  The flavor can best be described as somewhere in between a cab and a lighter chianti.  We chose the fortress topped wine town of Laguardia to sample our Rioja and snoop around through the tiny pedestrian-only streets.

Laguardia
Laguardia
Laguardia bakery
Laguardia bakery

It didn’t take us long to figure out that this was also a popular stop for many tourists but we enjoyed our picnic on a stone bench by the church where we found an interesting display of bronze sculpture in the courtyard.

Shoes, anyone?  Bronze is the new black.
Shoes, anyone? Bronze is the new black.

A relaxing day in Rioja wine country was the perfect precursor to what awaited us up north in the Spanish Basque country.  Because of confusing directions and fast moving traffic, we somehow ended up in France, but we eventually made it to our destination just south of the French border- San Sebastian, Spain.

Surprising Burgos

 

Burgos Cathedral
Burgos Cathedral

Air BNB has never failed us in our travels but you also never know what to expect in the way of “tasteful interior design.” Such was the case in Burgos when we opened the door of our apartment in the old city center. It could best be described as a nice sized flat with a very Bohemian look dripping from every corner. The walls were either painted a shade of Easter egg purple or wallpapered with newspaper articles and advertisements. Each room, from the bedroom to the bathroom, kitchen and small living room was a eyebrow-raising hodgepodge of decorating-gone-crazy. A hot-pink shower curtain with two yellow stars stapled to it and the loveseat upholstered in a fabric that looked like giant river rocks were two of the many things that stood out. But who needs elegance when you’ve got this beauty as a neighbor?

View out of our window
View out of our window

Surprising Burgos – where old meets new, there’s a vibe of urban energy even in the historic district, and the central gem of it all is the massive gleaming Gothic cathedral. Burgos was a quick stopover for us as we exchanged train travel for a rental car to explore the Basque country just north. But we were fascinated by this vibrant city and made the most of our day and night there to find out more about what makes it pulse.

Burgos city gate
Burgos city gate

We set out just after sunset to walk around the historic city area. Just a short walk from the cathedral, the narrow streets open up into a giant plaza buzzing with activity- young and old and in-betweens relishing in the cooler temperatures of the evening.

Plaza Major
Plaza Major

Walking under the city gate, we emerged at the riverside promenade – a delightful stroll under plane trees and around sidewalk cafes.image

About 10:00 pm we were ready for dinner and picked the place that was busting at the seams with happy locals before climbing the five flights of stairs to our purple paradise apartment to retire for the night.image

Before heading out of town, we took the morning to explore around the cathedral and bumped into some pilgrims on their way along the Camino de Santiago. You can spot them by their backpacks adorned with the symbol of the camino, the scallop shell, and their tired but happy faces as they hike (or sometimes bike) expectantly to their goal.image

 

 

 

Santiago de Compostela, Spain – A Pilgrims’ Pause

Pilgrims walking sticks
Pilgrims walking sticks

There’s a reason why the area of Galicia in Northwest Spain is so lush and green – the “rain in Spain” in concentrated here along with dramatic scenery, great seafood and a glorious cathedral that has drawn crowds for centuries to Santiago de Compostela. This small Medieval city is the final destination point for wanderers, travelers and especially pilgrims who have completed the Camino de Santiago (the Way of St. James). The complete passage is over 500 miles across northern Spain from the French border in the east to Santiago in northwestern Spain and is Europe’s mother of all pilgrimage routes. It draws participants from all over the world – more than 200,000 per year. Some undertake the entire journey while others nip off stages. Most make it a spiritual journey, others appreciate the historical significance and quite a few simply want to check it off their bucket list since it became so popular in recent years (see The Way movie starring Martin Sheen.)
Historically, St James, one of Jesus’ apostles, made the first pilgrimage from the Holy Land after Jesus’ crucifixtion. James and his brother were originally drawn into discipleship by Jesus’ words, “Come, follow me and I will make you fishers of men,” and after Jesus’ death, James took to heart the Master’s last commission, “Go, make disciples of all the nations,” and he ventured in northern Spain. Legend has it that his bones were discovered hidden away in the town that now bears his name – Santiago – and now lay in the cathedral where many generations of pilgrims have trekked to pay homage. While I’m not big on relics or bones, I can appreciate the significance of undertaking such a journey and finding a charming and welcoming city with a beautiful cathedral at the end of it.

Cathedral of Santiago
Cathedral of Santiago

The end of our not-so-arduous journey to Santiago was a delightful hotel called Costa Vella. It was a perfect place to call home for a few days as our hosts were keen on providing the best experience possible for their guests. This little 14 room establishment is tightly run on perfecting hospitality and is an oasis of quiet and beauty in the old city. We spent many relaxing moments on the terrace, in our garden view room or on a veranda enjoying an afternoon espresso, a picnic from the local marketplace or a long siesta.

Costa Vella garden
Costa Vella garden
Spanish style breakfast
Spanish style breakfast

The rain is a way of life in Galicia region, so we adapted by sightseeing under a big umbrella provided by the hotel. Attending the noon mass (The Pilgrim’s Mass) in the cathedral followed by a tour of the cathedrals towers and rooftops was the highlight of one day.image

Our days started with a beautiful breakfast on the hotel’s glassed-in veranda, and continued with slow sightseeing which included lots of stops for stopping for street musician entertainment, shopping at a local tienda, buying fresh produce from the farmers market for picnic on a park bench or cathedral steps, and afternoon espressos, pastries or gelatos. The evening was usually capped off with a late dinner – twice at a highly recommended eatery, Bodeguilla de San Roque where the Galician specialty, Pulpos de Feira (Octopus with paprika – sweet and hot) was a big hit.

Octopus with parika
Octopus with parika

Santiago de Compostela is traditionally an ending point for most wanderers to the city, but for us it was a starting point from where we would train across northern Spain and experience many vastly different cultures from Galicia to Basque country to Catalonia. All aboard! Next stop – Burgos.