Archive for Spain

05 Oct 2013

Basking In The Basque Country

2 Comments Spain


St James has been smiling down on us. Sadly he was the only one. Gillian gadded about countryside with Paul and I, clasping a €10 note and threatening to give it to the first person that smiled at us — and we thought Croatia was bad!

The sun was shining (oddly for this time of year) and the two morning hikes we completed along the northern route of the Camino de Santiago (Way of St James) could not have been more pleasant. We virtually had the trail to ourselves meeting only a few other pilgrims along the way. The northern route is picturesque and green. It passes by small farm-holdings, autumnal forests, vineyards famous for their Txakoli (pronounced Chac-oh-lee) lightly sparkling wines, through quaint fishing ports and at several points directly along precarious cliff edges with steep drops straight down to the Bay of Biscay.



Gillian managed to hold onto the €10 until our second day when we reached Zumaia and two smiling women in the local butchery promised to make us ham and cheese sandwiches if we only supplied the bread. A deal was struck — a quick trip to the bakery — and a few minutes later we were continuing along on our hike with packed lunches, cervezas and pastries.

We have been listening to the Basque language trying to make sense of it; it has no natural connection to other languages. It is strange on the ear and even stranger on the eye. We read signs and have no idea. We met an old lady at a bus stop who was born in the Basque Country but had lived abroad for more than thirty years. She told us she had come home to die. And when she returned she found the Basque she knew — a dialect, or perhaps a unique language altogether — was so different to the now standardised and official Euskara Batua Basque tongue that she resorts to Spanish most of the time. TIP: Don't ever play Scrabble with a native Basque speaker. Every second word contains Xs or Zs and you will definitely lose.

We have arrived in Bilbao. Gillian is now sadly on a long flight back home (via the rest of the world) and we are off to the Guggenheim to see Puppy to see if he is still blooming or past his best.







01 Oct 2013

Don’t Go To San Sebastián

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I have to thank Paul and Gillian for their dogged determination insisting that we head north despite all the protests from everyone in Andalucia. Don't go to San Sebastián, they said. Sure the food is good but it is cold and wet. Besides, you will need jackets. But we went anyway and they were wrong.

It is a nine and half hour train journey via Madrid, however with a bar and a good book and even a Spanish movie, it is one of the nicer ways to travel.


Twilight La Concha bay


Weather worn sculptures (these by Eduardo Chillida) bookend La Concha bay


New meaning to sandcastles


The view from our room - Zurriola surf beach in the distance and not a wave in sight


Old town architecture


The weather in San Sebastián so far has been superb and the city has done everything to impress. It is like chalk and cheese (well perhaps the cheese is the same) in comparison to southern Spain. It has a gentrified feel. It is a city you could imagine feeling proud to live in. The architecture is beautiful, carefully planned and fitting. It is completely unlike southern Spain, which while we love it, and while it has some magnificent period architecture in its old city centres, much of the surrounding skyline is often feo (ugly). It is as if during the 60s, 70s, 80s and 90s — until the 2000s when building stopped altogether — the whole of Southern Spain got together and said we will only employ failed architects or worse still no architects at all. The builders competed to out-ugly each other, and in most cases they succeeded. San Sebastián has none of that. After a three hour darmos una vuelta (take a turn, go out for a stroll — as only the Spaniards know how) we had run out of superlatives and every glimpse in every direction began to resemble a rotating display stand full of postcards. We didn't know which one to pick.

The view from our room is not bad too. From our sixth floor there is a narrow balconette (no more than 90 cms wide) that has us holding onto the doorframe or sitting down lest we be tempted to leap off. It's lucky we are not sleepwalkers.

The old town is filled with tempting pintxos (pronounced pinchos) bars where all the food is on display, each bar trying to outdo the other. It is the real reason some of us came. It is wonderful, but so far nothing has topped the whole flash fried octopus we shared with Blanca in Malaga. It came complete with a pair of industrial scissors.



The prettiness and appeal of San Sebastián is naturally aided by its beautiful conch shaped bay, La Concha and the Zurriola surf beach — though the other Aussies who are sharing our apartment: a couple and a single guy, will probably agree the tiny ripples that form in sets hardly constitute a surf beach. From the beach the mountains rise up gradually. They are green and beckoning.

And today we are going for a hike … about time!


28 Sep 2013

Same, Same, But Different

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All photos above: Alcazaba and views across Malaga.

At the risk of repeating myself, Malaga is yet another Spanish town that is instantly likeable. Is there one I don't like? It was a quick hop flight (1hr 15min) from Mallorca to Malaga. Our room was 50 metres from Plaza Uncibay which bustles day and night. It is still Spain, however Andalucia is very different from the rest of Spain. For starters the volume is upped several notches. Then there is the thick unmistakeable Andalucian accent where words are cut and slashed and tortured, and all those Spanish lessons seemed to have been in vain. There is also a vibrancy. It usually starts quite late and ends the next morning at sunrise. The voices carry and from our third floor room, I was woken by someone singing a beautiful (though rough) soulful Spanish rendition of Leonard Cohen's Hallelujah at 4.00am. I thought he was actually in the room. I wasn't sure whether to applaud at the end but was then blissfully lulled back to sleep by the brief silence that followed.

In the morning we stepped into Pablo Diego José Francisco de Paula Juan Nepomuceno María de los Remedios Cipriano de la Santísima Trinidad Ruiz y Picasso's house. Why? Because the door was open, of course. We were expecting to be redeemed after the disappointing ceramic plate exhibition in Mallorca, but that wasn't to be the case. Don't get me wrong, I love Picasso. Just show me some art. Fifteen minutes later we were out in the street headed for the Alcazaba. The Alcazaba was wonderful, not quite the Alhambra but not far behind. Moorish architecture is entrancing. At the time they were far ahead of any other civilisation. The Moorish geometry, planned gardens, water courses and fountains were a pleasing way to while away a couple of hours.

And now magically we are in Granada. Gillian has arrived. And it is the same, same, but different. We are tourists now, not locals, treading the same old well worn paths.


$140 a night luxury accommodation!


We get off to a bad start. Our first bad experience renting through AirBNB. The apartment we have paid for is a crumbling ruin, less than 20sqm in size and without a double bed. It is covered on two sides by scaffolding and netting and inside reeking of a strong oil-based paint from a newly replaced roof. We check out the next morning into a swanky hotel (a converted palace) on the River Darro. Unfortunately the owner of the apartment insists the apartment is as advertised and is perfectly habitable — for a rat perhaps — and we will not be getting any money back (we shall see if my gypsy curse works).

By chance we overhear a conversation in a cafe at breakfast. The woman's voice is unmistakably Australian. She is talking about Julie Bishop and her role as chairperson at the United Nations Security Council meeting in New York. Can you keep it down please, we ask? You are spoiling our breakfast. And we begin talking and realise the woman concerned is living a mirror of our lives a few years earlier. She has upped stumps with her family and moved to Granada. She has even enrolled in the same quirky language school and fills us in on all the latest comings and goings, personalities and mishaps at the school. It is very strange to be an outsider looking in. We are more than a bit jealous.


It's always good to catch up with old friends and not so old friends. Alena who is almost two and Alex and Katrin's pride and joy


View of the Alhambra through the scaffolding




23 Sep 2013

Paella, Palaces and Past Participles

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Paul reckons I am looking more and more Spanish every day. What a load of bull.

The last five days in school were tough. In class on Monday there were five of us. On Tueaday there were four, then three (the two Russian girls look like they might like to party hard) and finally on our last day it was only Paul and I — four intense hours with just Paul and the Profesora, lots of frowning, pen chewing, sweat dripping, confusing his preterites from his imperfect, mixing up past participles and gerunds, until at the end of it all, all he could utter was cerveza.

It was a cultural week too. Exploring the small villages (on the way into school) with their rustic charm and ancient dry-stone walls, old wooden windmills everywhere, all the while trying not to panic while riding pillion on Juan's motorcycle while he chooses to take phone calls mid-ride. It wouldn't be so bad, but the country roads are narrow, barely wide enough for a car let alone a distracted motorcyclist.

On foot it was easier and safer too. The Almudaina Royal Palace and later in the week, the Baluard modern art gallery. The Baluard is impressive architecturally. It is a modern plate-concrete structure built in to the ruins of an 11th century Arab tower and later fortifications. You climb up through the levels on a series of ramps, with galleries on each level, until you reach the roof. It has the most impressive views of over the harbour. There was also a small collection of Picassos, ceramic dishes mainly, created at a time when he must have been considering alternate careers — kitchenware perhaps, Greek weddings — and it was not that impressive. It was the only disappointment because the rest of the art was impressive. I suppose there can only be so many excellent Picassos to spread around; someone has to get the duds.


Almudaina 12th century Arabic ceilings


Who needs Picasso when you can make your own wall art


Last view of that magnificent mountain from the finca


We had to say goodbye to Juan and Maria (and the canine). It was like saying goodbye to old friends. They offered us a lift to the train station. I had to share the back seat with a very large paella pan. They were making lunch and they were late; so very Spanish — nothing changes.


What'll it be Al, the dog or the paella pan?



18 Sep 2013

The Getting Of Wisdom

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Venga Satie venga


Satie (the Alsatian) and I have developed a mutual respect for each other. The first night we slept with the door out to the garden wide open and at 4:00am Satie decided it was time to play, bounding into the room enthusiastically and launching himself onto the bed. I think I may have dropped a stitch, Paul too. The next night the door was closed, however the low window wasn't. In the pitch black of night Satie has decided the open window (which he has never climbed through before) was absolutely irresistible and again he leapt in — 40 kilos of pure animal, damp grubby paws all over the sheets — another dropped stitch.

But it's better now. We have sorted it out. We have worked out our differences.

After spending a few days with Juan and Maria at their wonderful house, they have invited us to spend a few more at their even more wonderful 1820s finca (farm). During the day Satie is allowed to roam free. At night it is a different story. Satie, because he has an attraction to sheep — and Alpacas — gets tethered by a long chain to a tree. The sheep bells are clanging; only the occasional bleat. It is a beautiful crisp and still Mallorcan night. The swimming pool with its magnificent mountain backdrop beckons. I smile at Satie as I walk past, teasing him a bit, egging him on, begging him to inch forwards venga Satie venga — those Spanish lessons are paying off — watching him bare his teeth, tuck his head down low … and launch, all the while knowing I am just out of reach.