The Portuguese Camino 2014

Sightseeing in Spain

Santiago de Compostela   Bilbao   Madrid

Santiago de Compostela

We really didn't choose a good hostel first up; I had the worst night I had experienced on this holiday! So much for a good hostel in a quiet street! The noise swelled to a cacophony by 11pm and lasted until after 1am. Helen slept, but the rubbish trucks under the window kept me awake much of the night. I was stuck in a double bed between Helen and the wall, trapped by a soft foam mattress that gave no lumbar support at all. I couldn't even get out of bed in the morning without making Helen get up, and even then I had to roll to the edge of the bed before I could push myself up. My back was a mess, with spasms and stiff muscles. Under the shower I resolved to just walk away from it all and find a real hotel with a bed and a good mattress. Over breakfast we decided to cut our losses and book into the hotel opposite the pilgrim registration office (Hotel Vilar, €100 per night) - a far cry from the cost at the hostel. I was happy - it was a lot better.

We went to the noon mass at the cathedral and it was just like I remembered it, but with more crowd control - you can no longer stand under the direct path of the censer. There was a choir singing and the whole thing was glorious. Unfortunately the repairs to the cathedral meant that we couldn't walk in the front entrance and place our hands in the groove worn into the stone by millions of pilgrims before us - that section was under scaffolding.

We had a wonderful tapas and beer lunch, followed by a siesta - even me. I never did it again - it messed up my natural rhythms. We went out for a walk and ended up in the cathedral museum. After a lot of messing about where we had to go to the crypt to get tickets, despite the fact that entry was free, we finally managed to talk someone into giving us tickets that we could wave at the museum attendant and were finally allowed in - strange. The museum is well worth the effort to get into - lots to see, with access to the roof and cloisters, and a great view down into the square. We left when the museum closed at 8pm and went back to "The Snails" restaurant, where we had eaten our very good lunch. I had a cassoulet - fish, prawns and mussels in broth - excellent. We kept steering people into the place; they would stop and look at the menu and we'd spruik its virtues and tell them to go in and try it. We deserved a commission!

I went for my usual after-dinner solo walk and came across a lot of the people we had walked with; it is so good to bump into familiar strangers.

The next day came with "a 90% chance of rain", but the clouds were breaking up. It did spit a little for some of the day, and it was quite cold - quite a change from the beautiful days we had on the Camino. We had breakfast then walked to the railway station to book tickets to Bilbao, down in the new part of town. We walked back via the shops, doing some shopping for Helen, who had thrown away most of her clothes. After lunch I walked to the bus station just to find out where it was and how long it would take to get there; we planned to take the bus to Finsterra. Back in town I sat at Praza da Quintana and listened to "Joe Cool" playing cool jazz from a sheltered bit of shopfront - good music for a cold day. Helen went off to visit the remains of St James and to look at the refuge/hotel on the square, but these were things that I had seen on my previous visit to Santiago so I decided to walk through the Alameda to the university campus, just to see if I could remember where it was. On the way back I came across a folk group performing on one of the smaller squares. There were lots of buskers and performers in Santiago, and it was lovely to see such a big folk group, especially one with a couple of pipers. We had been amazed in the 1970s to discover that Gallicia had its own version of bagpipes, and we even bought a set, and still have them all these years later.

Dinner was at a rather up-market restaurant, then I went for a late evening walk to a part of the city I hadn't walked through before.

At last - a good night's sleep - the room was cool and I was tired. We were up at 7am, and walked down to the bus station to go to Finsterra. It was cold (9°C) but sunny as we drove towards a deep purple-black sky and rain. It took almost three hours to get to Finsterra, so by the time we arrived it was sunny again, although it remained cold. We had a walk around after warming up with coffee, visiting the sea-front, the sea-wall (where we could see the end-of-the-earth) and San Carlos "castle". We scurried back to the town centre as the weather closed in again, and ate a very leisurely lunch until it was time to catch the 3pm bus. Dinner was at the same restaurant as the previous night - they were close, and the food was good.

In the morning we breakfasted at the hotel, then took the train to Bilbao. The scenery was really good; gorges, rivers dammed for hydro schemes, and snow on the higher mountains. We seemed to be zig-zagging across north-west spain, although that was an illusion; we were simply going on a somewhat indirect route that stayed inland. After León the countryside changed to flat, flat, flat - a different place altogether. At Palencia there were hills, with wind turbines all along the ridges, reminding me of the routes lined with crucifixions strung out behind Roman centurions as they passed through the land. I've been on too many Caminos. The turbines strobe a light three times per revolution and must look like giant fire-flies in the dark. Before Bilbao the country changed again, to quite dramatic escarpments.

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We arrived in Bilbao around 8:30pm, totally sick of trains. At first glance it still wasn't an appealing town, but we checked in and found a restaurant that served duck - I conceded that Bilbao might be alright after all. We were staying at the Hotel Bilbao Jardines, on a busy street in the old part of the city and very well located to walk almost anywhere in the central city. Why visit Bilbao, you might ask. We were there to meet up with Helen's friend June and to go to the Guggenheim.

Well, in the morning it wasn't raining, but it was very miserable and threatening to rain at any minute. We headed out, had breakfast, then wandered around the river to meet June at the Guggenheim, which is a great-looking building. We all managed to get to the meeting place, sorted had been doing what for the last few years over coffee, then had a look at what the Gugg had to offer. Not much at all. One permanent display and a terrible Yoko Ono retrospective full of bums and nipples. Good thing we had free tickets. Having exhausted the pleassures of the Gugg fairly quickly, we found somewhere for lunch, then went back to the Museum of Fine Arts, which was a much better art gallery. After a rather wet tour of the Bilbao shopping precinct June persuaded us to go with her to meet her sister-in-law, Penny, for a drink. We did that - Penny turned out to be a very interesting woman who speaks charmingly-accented english, having lived in Spain for the last forty years. We then took the metro back into Bilbao and had a tiny supper of four tapas split two ways.

I had a lot of trouble sleeping, and was awake by 5am. We met June at the bus station and took the early bus to San Sebastián. We were a bit confused about the town when we arrived, because the bus station is somewhat removed from the waterfront, but we finally sorted out where the main town was and caught a local bus into the centre. It was 8°C, raining, windy, and bloody awful! Then the sun came out, we dried off, the coffee was good, and our attitudes changed with the weather. We had a look around the town, visited a couple of churches, climbed up to the castle that defended the bay and had some very good tapas for lunch. We then walked back to the bus station as another storm blew in, and waited half and hour as the temperature plummeted, taking our spirits with it.

The bus trip back to Bilbao was bleak; we had arranged to meet Penny at a bar near Bidezabal, so despite the weather we went back onto the metro and sat out in the cold drinking beer. We walked around the bay in watery sunshine, past some rather colourful fishermen's cottages, and went to Penny's apartment for a wonderful dinner, meeting her husband Esteban, who is very ill, unable to walk far. Then it was back onto the metro - we were getting a bit tired of trains at this stage.

Helen had barely gone to bed - only for a couple of seconds - when a brass band came marching down the street, settling in for a session directly under our window. They belted out tunes for the next hour while we opened up the windows and shutters, danced on the balcony, and laughed and laughed and laughed.

We were up late after our late night and a wonderful sleep. We walked to the Gugg just to see the doggie, then it was back on the metro to visit the meccano-like (and world heritage listed) Vizcaya Bridge, which isn't a bridge at all, but a structure that has a gondola slung underneath it, with a pulley system to move it back and forth across the river. The gondola is big, with pedestrian capsules on the sides and vehicles in the middle.

We met Penny and the family for a roast chicken lunch, out at one of their favourite resturants - all good, although it was a terrible strain for Penny, always afraid that Esteban will fall. We strolled back along the top of the cliff through old fishing cottages and past Penny's local beach, where we stopped at yet another bar for a drink while the kids played - bars play a big part in Spainish people's social life. Helen and I went back into Bilbao late in the afternoon, having made our final goodbye. We spent our last evening taking a walk around the old part of town, where I found a beautiful material shop and bought some silk chiffon.

The next day was seriously awful, as far as weather went - rain, cold, miserable. We managed to spend the morning walking back along the river to the Gugg. Our favourite duck-cooking restaurant opened up around noon, so we lunched there, had coffee elsewhere and wasted as much time as we could indoors before catching the 5 o'clock train to Madrid.

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The train arrived late into Madrid, so we took a taxi to the hostel - I wasn't up to navigating the Metro and finding the place when I was so tired. It is actually a hostel - one of the hundreds of little places crammed into one of the old buildings in the city, one hostel on each floor. Our corner room had four balconies, each with double doors, but the bathroom was minimal and a bit primative.

Woke up to lovely sunny Spain! We walked down to the Parque del Buen Retiro and then wandered around it - the bare skelton of the Crystal Palace, the rose garden, the artificial lake. Had a beer, then went the Thyssen Gallery, which had a fantastic collection of artworks, many of which I was familiar with. Lunch was at a modern Spanish buffet-style place, and not very good at all.

In the afternoon I went for a walk, re-visiting parts of the city I'd been to four years earlier. Later we went to the Royal Palace (not free for Australians!). Walking away from the Palace we saw a number of women dressed in black and wearing mantillas. We followed them to the Cathedral; it was full of women in mantillas and there was much pomp and ceremony - something to do with the king's sister.

Madrid was proving to be a severe disappointment as far as food went - none of the tapas bars we were used to from Bilbao. Dinner was a snack from the market the other side of Plaza Mayor. I had developed a cold and a sore throat, and was feeling quite sorry for myself - I wanted to go home.

I woke up with a seriously sore throat; I waited as long as I could then got up, earlier than we would have liked. Breakfast wasn't too exciting - coffee and bad toast again. Helen and I walked slowly and circuitously to the Prada via Plaza de la Independencia, looking at all the buildings along the way. We called in to San Jerónimo's church first, then tackled the Prado, which was exhausting and nowhere near as well curated as the Thyssen.

We went to the Palace Hotel to recover, drinking beer at $A15 a glass (yes, €10!) in a room with a beautiful domed glass ceiling reminiscent of Tiffany lampshades, but on a magnificent scale. We had a bit of a walk around the back streets and ended up back at the market, still the only place we could find fresh food. I then walked up north of Sol, forgetting to take the map. I got very lost three times, but eventually sorted myself out. I was looking for somewhere to eat, but Madrid is terrible for food, and I failed to find anything I wanted to eat at all.

In the morning we walked to Atosha railway station, and had two gypsy girls try to scam us - they give you a rose then ask for money, refuse your offered money, and dive into your bag to show you what they want.... Then it was off on the shuttle to the airport, plane to Dubai, plane to Perth and home.

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