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Trip Report Criss-crossing the Camino: 5 weeks in Northern Spain (and a bit of France)

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This July I spent 5 weeks, mostly in Northern Spain. The first half was solo, by public transportation. The second half my husband joined me and we had a rental car.

I have posted a version of this trip report (with photos) on my blog at:

The photos alone (and there are a LOT of them) are:
Basque France:
Basque Spain:
Castile y Leon:
Galicia, Asturias, Cantabria:

The itinerary was:
London (2 nights)
Bayonne (4 nights) – day trips to Biarritz, St Jean de Luz, St Jean Pied du Port
San Sebastian (4 nights) – day trip to Hondarribia/Hendaye
Bilbao (3 nights) – day trip to Portugalete/Gexto
Santander (3 nights)
Burgos (3 nights)
Leon (2 nights) - leaving Leon we rented a car and did:
Astorga and Ponferrada en route to
Lugo (1 night)
Santiago de Compostella (2 nights)
Ribadeo (and Cathedral Beach) (1 night) Cudillero en route to
Oviedo (1 night)
Potes (1 night)
Santillana del Mar (3 nights) – day trips to Comillas, San Vicente and Altimara Caves
Laguardia (1 night)
Olite (2 nights) – day trip to Ujue, Monastery leyre, and Castillo Javier
Maddrid (airport) en route we stopped at Barderas Reales Desert

While I did a big loop that covered most of the Camino del Norte and Camino Frances, I did not do it in what most people would consider a logical sequence - but there was a logical reason for this. I can take a 5-week vacation but my husband can only manage about 2½ weeks. In previous years I’ve gone one or two places, then he’d fly over and we’d go another place (last year I went to the Baltics, met him in Italy and then we went to Greece, the year before I went to Malta, then we met and went to Italy, year before that I went to Norway, Poland and we met in Italy – you get the idea). But since this trip was to be just Northern Spain (with a few days in the Basque corner of France) I decided to do the larger cities on my solo portion (he prefers more rural areas, plus the cities are easily connected by bus) and then we rented a car for the second half. Thus I ended up crisscrossing the Caminos and doing more of a figure eight than a loop.

While I’m not a fan of one – or even two – night stays, sometimes they make sense and that was the case with this trip. Never felt rushed, felt I had a good amount of time and saw the things I wanted to see.

The first two days in London was just for logistical purposes – great airfare, I know London well and love to visit as often as possible if only for a few days. There was no way I could get from the US to Biarritz without long layover/convoluted routes costing far more. (And had the same experience last year when my destination was Estonia). Anyway, I love London, know my way around, stay in the same hotel so it’s a pleasure to have a day or two there to start my trips. My husband flew Aer Lingus to Madrid and we flew that together on the way home.

When I set out to put together an itinerary of Northern Spain including Basque France I knew of the Camino de Santiago but certainly it was not a focus of the trip. It was just coincidence that my trip was to be five weeks and that’s exactly how long most people take to walk it, if they do the entire route. But as the trip took shape I realized I would essentially cover most of the two most well known/well traveled Caminos, the Camino del Norte and the Camino Frances. And while I didn’t ‘walk’ either of them (technically) I did walk a total of 315 miles over the five weeks (the Caminos are ‘about 500 miles’, though you can get your certification for having walked it with as little as 112km/70 miles), and much of that was on one Camino or another. (My best day was 13.3 miles, worst was only 5, averaged 9.3 miles/day). But I traveled from place to place by bus and car and did my walking on day trips, and most of that exploring the cities, towns and villages rather than walking between them. As it turned out though, virtually every place I went was on a Camino – mostly those two main ones, but there are many more “Caminos” and I certainly found myself following the yellow arrows/ yellow scallop shells on blue background signs everywhere I went. Surrounded by pilgrims. It really became a focus of the trip much more so once I was there (as opposed to the planning stage) and I think made the whole trip more fun and interesting. They say the Camino ‘calls you’ and I certainly heard it, almost daily, saying ‘here I am’.

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    Overall I enjoyed the trip immensely, saw some wonderful and amazing places, am glad I did it, probably would do the same itinerary again knowing what I know. In general I think 5 week trips are more enjoyable split between two or more distinct cultures/areas, and while this was a whole five weeks in just one third of one country (plus few days in Basque France which was pretty similar) there was quite a variety of landscape, weather and architecture which ranged from cool, green Galicia to the hot plains of Castile y Leon to Europe’s only desert.

    Of course there is even more to see than I did, places I wish I’d had time to get to. And even in this small patch of northern Spain, the scenery and weather was different north of the mountains than south. But the food, the general ambiance, etc. – despite part of it being in Basque ‘country’ it was all pretty culturally similar. In fact, to me anyway, Basque France was clearly France and Basque Spain clearly Spain rather than feeling “Basque”. Only main difference I felt was the language. In Basque Spain everything was in Basque and Spanish. Elsewhere in Spain and in France it was Spanish (or French) but with English ‘subtitles’.

    Language – I am terrible with languages, always have been (the only course I every flunked was French). But I type out ‘cheat sheets’ of common words and phrases and try to use local language to at least ask if they speak English or state that I don’t speak Spanish. Since I’ve been to Italy so many times I’ve found I can at least read at bit of Italian though I can’t say/understand much. Same with French. But in most of my travels I’ve found people in Europe do tend to speak at least a bit of English. This trip I found the least English spoken than just about anywhere else I’ve been including other parts of Spain. Still, I got along fine, everyone was willing to help. My best experience was the woman in Hondarribia who did the ‘chicken dance’ to tell me there was chicken in the sandwich I was buying. A few people essentially implied ‘if you don’t speak Spanish it’s your problem’ but most were more than willing to pantomime what they were trying to say and to try to understand me.

    Weather – I’ll admit I am more weather – especially sun – dependent than most people. Maybe it’s just me, maybe it’s because photography is such a central focus of my trips (and with photography “it’s all about the light”). I can take it cool or hot and don’t much care, but I need sun most of the time. I guess that’s why I love Italy and Greece and Provence and southern Spain so much. Well I knew there was more of a possibility of rain in the north, after all it’s the ‘green’ part of Spain and places don’t get green without some rain. But I had quite a bit of rain/clouds. Of my 34 days only 14 were all or mostly sunny (and those mostly in Castilla y Leon, La Rioja and Navarra – only a handful of totally sunny days in the far north of Galicia, Asturias, Cantabria and Basque country). Not all the rest were complete washouts, but ‘partly sunny’ often meant only an hour or two.

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    Lovely photos, but if you want to continue to extend the Santiago trail, there are even more starting points in France and even in Germany.

    I have visited two of the starting points in France. First I went to Le Puy-en-Velay (also chosen by a huge number of Germans because, hey, it's a long walk from Germany):

    And just recently, I visited Vézelay, another starting point:

    So many people seem uncertain of what to see next when they visit Europe (after having seen Paris, London, Bruges, Rome...) that this could be an interesting theme for choosing places to visit.

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    kerouac - I agree that sometimes it helps to have a focus for a trip - other than just a geographic area. That's why I think my trip really benefited from the Camino focus even though I didn't go in order to do the walk. Doing parts of one or more Caminos or visiting the various starting points is a great idea.

    Driving in Northern Spain – Roads were excellent and well marked (though the route numbers didn’t always match up with the maps, and they tended to change – and then often change back again). Drivers were mostly rather courteous – not as fast as in Italy, no imaginary third lane like we found in Greece, less tailgating than in France. We lucked out and got a Fiat 500, which we’ve had on several trips in recent years (and which we like so much we are seriously thinking of buying one at home).

    We didn’t have GPS and didn’t get lost (at least not seriously) or for very long (or in ways that GPS would have helped). We actually intended to get a local SIM card so we could use google maps but the store we planned to get it in the day we picked up the car was closed and then we found we really didn’t need it. Before the trip I had google-mapped directions to all the hotels, and picked the hotels largely with the criteria that they be pretty easy to find (and have parking) and printed all that out and I had a couple of paper maps that I had purchased on Amazon.

    We found every hotel with no problem although in Santiago we missed turning down the street and then had an awful time getting back to it. In Oviedo we found the hotel easily but then drove to the churches and got lost finding the hotel on the way back. And getting to the car return at the Madrid airport was a horror but that was due to construction and lack of signage and GPS would not have helped in that case. Everything else was a piece of cake.

    The first half of the trip I went from city to city by bus. Alsa buses go everywhere in Spain, are cheap, comfortable and while it takes a bit longer than driving yourself it is way less expensive (especially when it’s just one person) than having the car, parking, etc. I booked all the reservations on and some of the buses were full so I’m glad I had a reservation, but this was summer, I think other times you could have just bought your ticket when you wanted to leave.

    General impressions: lots of street music in every city. Benches! – now that’s one thing that Spain does better than most countries. Every city had lots of benches.
    Siesta seemed longer (12:30 or 13:00 till about 17:00 in many cases) and more ‘complete’ than in most parts of Italy or France where it seems to be more like 14:00-16:00). And
    Beware of DCC everywhere in Spain – usually they asked (and plenty of the time it’s just done in Euros) but several times they snuck in the conversion without asking).

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    Really nice report and photos remind me of our trip in an open top car.

    busbud looks interesting but still needs a lot of data to be loaded, no use for southern italy. I think rome2rio has a big edge here.

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    This is wonderful! I am reading your blog as well. We are planning a trip next spring that will include many of the places you visited. We are deliberately paring down the total number of accommodations and intend to base 5-7 days in one place in order to explore different areas. Based on your recent visit, can you give me your opinion on where you would stay if you had to choose one town in each of the following pairs?

    Burgos vs Laguardia
    Leon vs Oviedo

    Again - we plan to visit both cities in each pair, but only stay in one of them. Would love your thoughts!

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    Started by reading your blog first and, not to jump the gun but I am startled you did not find any meals to your liking in this part of Spain. I realize tastebuds are different, but northern Spain is one of the few places in Europe I go for a purely gastronomic vacation, and while I feel a real need to research restaurant choices in most other part of the world, northern Spain is one of the few where I feel confident that with just a little basic info & a willingness to ask locals along the way, I will end up with spectacular food.

    Maybe part of the difference is that , when in Spain, I go with a big lunch, and a minimal dinner, and I travel with a hearty eater. But I generally find Galician food light and wonderful.

    Is it possible that following the Camino landed you in lots of touristy restaurants? When I went to Galicia, I avoided everything about the Camino, and the one time I landed n a town with lots of people with seashells on their heads, it turn out to be the town with the least promising restaurants -- lots of cheap fried food.

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    cheska and Jamikins- I'm glad you like the photos and hope the report is helpful

    bilbo - I thought rome2rio was just an info site for planning purposes. Can you make reservations through them? Anyway, busbud was really pretty helpful, I think they added a euro or two to each reservation, but the tickets were cheap enough I didn't care, and it was very easy to use. So maybe they will expand to other areas.

    AtlTravelr - if I had to choose I would pick Burgos and Leon. Loved all of them but those were two of my favorites of the whole trip. But I also loved those two hotels so that could be influencing my feelings. But also, we didn't have a car while staying in either of them so I'm not sure how easy parking and driving would be. I don't think either of those cities is that bad (we did drive out of Leon, picked the car up as we were leaving, and it was easy to drive out of). I know the hotel in Burgos (El Cid) had parking but since I didn't need it I didn't pay attention to the logistics of it. For both Laguardia and Ovideo I choose hotels specifically for ease of parking and driving and while that was fine, the hotels themselves were not the best of trip (not anything horrible, just not the best). So not so short answer - I would definitely visit all four towns and if I worked out the driving and parking for Leon and Burgos I would choose those towns. More going on, just lovely places to be in evenings, etc. (although great sunset from Laguardia).

    massimop - actually I did not say that didn't find any meals to my liking. I loved the pinxos in Bilbao and San Sebastian and loved the desserts and coffee everywhere. Just that I found it hard to eat 'light', and especially low salt. Also, everyplace can not be your favorite, if you are going to compare or rank then something has to be at the top and something else at the bottom. And yes, we were in relatively touristy places most of the time. I'm sure if we were with a local who could take us to the best restaurants it would have made a difference - or if we had a budget that would have allowed top notch dinning - but unfortunately we didn't.

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    "You do know the St James relics floated into the harbour in a stone boat. So nothing to do with trying to find an economic opportunity for this poverty driven part of Spain "

    And don't forget the bit about the dragons in the sea. That adds plenty of credibility to the story.

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    Sorry if you felt I misrepresented your feelings. When you wrote in your blog "But generally food in Spain was way less satisfying than Italy – but also less satisfying than most other countries I’ve been to. Probably my least favorite trip in terms of food" I was just startled by such a negative report of the food of this part of Spain.

    You have given the impression you've traveled to many countries, and I know very few people who would rank this part of Spain as the gastronomic low point of Europe, even if it wasn't their favorite.

    I've never eaten in high priced restaurants in northern Spain so I don't know if you would have liked to food better.

    But if you "loved" the pintxos it appears you did get a chance o enjoy some of the highlights of this part of the world when it comes to eating.

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    I'm so glad that you clarified your comments about the food in Northern Spain as I had the same negative impression as massipop. Your report is so beautifully written and your photographs are outstanding.

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    OK, well glad we cleared up the food issue. I have to admit I'm not a foodie - and other than sweets - which were great here - I am more of a 'go to a market and put a picnic together' type than a connoisseur of fine dinning. So don't go by me on the food front.

    So here's my take on the France part of the trip. This was my 9th trip to France, a country I really love. It wasn't my favorite place in France but I admit up front that I am very influenced by weather in terms of how much I like a place, and the weather for these four days was pretty awful.

    Day 3 (Days 1 and 2 were London) – flew Easy Jet from Gatwick to Biarritz – fairly short, painless flight. A good number of the passengers were clearly on their way to start walking the Camino, Bayonne is the main town with decent transportation connections to St Jean Pied du Port. Biarritz airport is between Biarritz and Bayonne and actually the two towns kind of sprawl together into one area. There is a great bus system that takes you from the airport to either town center and then also runs between the towns. I loved that the buses were pastel stripped (it’s a ‘thing’ there, found on beach umbrellas and everything else). Also very cheap, 1€. The buses run every 20 minutes or so and it takes about half hour.

    I checked into Hotel Cote Basque, which has seen better days. Not horrible but could use some spiffing up. I guess that’s what you get for 64€ (not including breakfast). The location is good, right across the street from the train station and the bus stop. I was taking daytrips to Biarritz, St Jean Pied du Port and St Jean de Luz, so for those reasons I’d choose the same location. It’s about a 10 minute walk to the main town and 15 to Place de Basque which is where the TI is and also the intercity buses to San Sebastian. The area around the train station is very worn and kind of dismal. The hotel and surrounding area are not someplace you’d want to linger, but if plan to be out all day it’s an OK place to crash. There is an Ibis Styles across the road which I would look into were I ever to come to Bayonne again, but I wouldn’t say don’t stay here.

    Bayonne - I took a walk around Bayonne which is actually quite interesting. All half-timbered houses and a river running through it and a fairly impressive cathedral. Unfortunately it was very cloudy and gloomy and most of the stores were closed. The few that were open – and a good number of cafes, restaurants, bars – looked promising. I’m pretty sure on a lovely warm, sunny afternoon with everything open Bayonne is lovely but most of my time there it was pretty cool, cloudy, incredibly windy – and those things influenced my feelings. I got a couple sunny hours over the four days but mostly it was lousy weather.

    I did go into the Cathedral and it’s cloisters and that was really quite impressive, some nice stained glass and painted ceilings, the cloister was pretty – but overall not on a par with many other cathedrals in Europe – or even on this trip.

    Day 4 – Biarritz Cloudy and cool again but I definitely wanted to see Biarritz and it certainly was easy and cheap to get to. The A-1 bus drops off right by the TI Office in Biarritz which is in a cute pink castle like building (with a free WC across the street). Got a map. By then it was raining. A block towards the ocean is the “Marie” (town hall), which had a free Wi-Fi sign. The internet in the hotel had been not working since I got there so I was happy to duck in out of the rain and check my email. Still raining. Stood under the arcaded covering till it let up. Walked down to the beach. Must be nice when all those ‘Biarritz Stripped’ beach cabanas are up. It was so windy I could hardly stand up. Trees blowing sideways. Huge waves.

    But it had stopped raining so I walked along the walkway that goes above the beach for a couple miles in each direction from the Casino, which is in the center. The old fishing ‘harbor’ is semi-scenic. There are a number of large rock outcroppings, two of which you can walk out onto (except they had closed gates due to the high winds).

    Biarritz is one of the surfing capitals of Europe and, as a former surfer (decades ago) I was looking forward to watching them. But they had closed the beach due to excessively high winds. Bummer

    By the time I got to the aquarium it had started raining again so I went in. Just a ‘so-so’ aquarium, not really worth the €15. But by the time I came out it had cleared up so I re-walked the whole area I had done in the morning. MUCH nicer in the sun. Makes a huge difference.

    Back in Bayonne the sun was still shinning so I walked all over Bayonne. The half-timbered buildings are nice. Quite a lot of shopping opportunities. Much nicer than day before, more people out and about, some of the restaurants had outside tables, there were some musicians outside at a few places. What a difference the sun makes.

    Day 5 – St Jean Pied du Port Another rainy day but I wanted to see the town and the train is only €7.6 each way so decided to go for it. There are a few trains per day but they are not all that frequent, I’d have a choice of either about 2 or 4 hours there. It’s only one train car, but nice and modern. Took just about an hour, along the river, past farms with cows and sheep, hills in the background.

    The town of St Jean Pied du Port is about a 10-minute walk from the train station. I thought it would be one short street with a backpackers hostel and a couple stores and the ‘Camino office’ – where you get your ‘passport’. It’s actually a fairly long street, with about 20 hostels, plus a few hotels and quite a few shops and restaurants. And not everyone there was a hiker. There were quite a few ‘regular’ tourists as well. Makes sense as it is after all a UNESCO world heritage site.

    The town is quite picturesque, even in the drizzle, with the river running through the center, a cute stone bridge and a little church with a clock tower.

    I walked from one end of the town to the other (both ends have stone entrance gates) and was planning on starting to walk the Camino for an hour or so (and then back of course) but then the drizzle turned to actual rain and it didn’t look like it was going to clear up any time soon, I decided I could just make the next train which I did. Rained most of the way back.

    So I have officially seen the ‘beginning’ of the Camino. The Camino office was crowded with a line to get a seat and have your paperwork filled out. Lots of stores to buy walking gear and clothes (I guess in case you decided you forgot something), plus of course places to buy a scallop shell on a string to hang off your pack. Little blue signs with the scallop shell on them pointing the way (starting at the train station and going through the town). And the town was cute too, and the train ride up there was scenic. Too bad it was such crappy weather.

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    Day 6 - St Jean de Luz - Woke to – yes, more rain. And windy, and even colder than the other days, the high barely reaching 60F. So much rain I had to use the umbrella, so windy it broke the umbrella. There were a few times when it wasn’t actually raining but most of the day it was. I can deal with rain – or cold – or wind – just not all three at once (in July!) and that’s what this day (and the previous three days) had been. But I took the train to St Jean de Luz anyway – “What else had I got to do?” There seemed to be a train almost every hour so I wasn’t worried about getting back, but once I got there I did check on what my options were and it turns out there would be train in just over an hour and not another one for five more hours! Yikes. Anyway, despite the weather I opted for the six hours as one was not enough, and it did stop raining for short periods.

    I can see why it’s a popular destination, lots of cute Basque looking buildings on one main shopping street and several shorter off-shoots, a long (probably) lovely beach, a fishing harbor with colorful boats. A castle like structure out in the harbor (hard to make out as the castle was the same color as the sea and the sky – all dark grey). I walked around in the rain when I first got there, thinking I’d probably go for the earlier train as it was NOT fun with the wind, the rain and the cold. But then just as I was about to go to the train station (nothing in the town is more than a ten minute walk from anything else) it stopped so I figured I’d stay, have a nice long lunch in a restaurant (tons of places offering €20 three course meals). So I walked around window shopping and taking photos till I got hungry, by then it was almost 2 pm but I thought nothing of it, the restaurants all looked full, people eat long late lunches in Europe. Well I picked a place, and it was good, but by the time I finished my first course (fish soup) the rest of the diners were finishing up and leaving and they brought me my second course immediately and I could just feel them wishing I’d finish quickly so they could close up. I ate my steak and potatoes and salad, and desert (Basque cake – not bad but not amazing either) and was out of there in 45 minutes with them literally locking the door before I was out from under the awning. So much for my two-hour lunch.

    So after 5 horrid weather days I was really thinking about if this trip was a good idea or not. Cause I am just not cut out for five weeks of nasty cool weather. My mood is so sun dependent. And the two ‘things’ I most like to do on a trip – just BE there – sit in a café or on a bench, wander around enjoying old buildings, bridges, plazas, fountains, etc. – well that doesn’t work well in bad weather. And the other – exploring new places and taking photos – well obviously that doesn’t either. Fortunately things got better.

    Day 7 - On to San Sebastian - I traveled from city to city on the first half of the trip on buses. I booked all of them on and everything worked great. Mostly they were on Alsa buses which go everywhere in Spain. I also took them on previous trips in central and southern Spain; they are comfortable, punctual, and economic. In general I would probably say I prefer train travel but in this region the buses really worked well.

    The bus to San Sebastian took 1½ hour despite being only about 40 km. The bus stopped in Biarritz and St Jean de Luz – sun was out – even from the bus it looked much better. Also in Heydene/Irun – which from the bus anyway did not entice. But San Sebastian looked wonderful as we pulled in. Bus station is almost right under the Maria Christina Bridge. The cathedral spire was visible so it was a really easy to know which direction to walk, and it was an easy,mostly pedestrianized walk. Lots of Parisian looking buildings. Found the hotel no problem, about a 15-minute walk. And did I mention it was NOT raining.

    Hotel Niza is really nice. Beautiful lobby, gorgeous old lift, right on the beach. The single room was very decent size with comfy bed, desk and chair, easy chair, nice bathroom. Everything modern and very clean. Only drawback was the ‘window’ looks out on airshaft, can’t even see the sky. Great AC, easy access Wi-Fi. Great lighting. 76€ These single rooms are very affordable because of the lack of window (and they are very upfront about it on their web site), the regular rooms, especially those with the sea view are much more expensive. The location is amazing.

    I went out and walked all over San Sebastian. LOVE, LOVE, LOVE it. It’s part Paris, part Barcelona, on the ocean with an incredible beach and very long (2km), wide promenade - Paseo de la Concha - with its elegant white iron balustrades and background of well-manicured buildings (of which Hotel Niza is right in the middle). Absolutely gorgeous. The bay of La Concha is beautiful, and the buildings behind it are elegant. The promenade leads at one end to a funicular up to the Mounte Igueldo viewpoint, and at the other end to ’El Muelle’, the little fishing/yacht port, behind which paths wind up to Monte Urguell, topped by the soaring statue of Christ gazing over the city (a kind of Rio de Janeiro aura). Everything is well maintained, there are benches absolutely everywhere, street performers, flowers, gorgeous buildings and the ocean. Did I say gorgeous city.

    The old town is adorable, with two pretty, old churches – plus a very impressive cathedral just below the old town. There are several nice squares, Plaza de Gipuzkoa has a little garden with a pond with swans and a waterfall in it. That’s where the bus to Honoradabia leaves from. Classy place for a bus stop. The river is the least impressive thing but in any other city would be a main feature, several nice bridges, nice walks/parks on either side.

    I walked from the hotel, roughly in the middle of the promenade, through the old town and all the way around the point that Monte Urgull is on (but didn’t climb up it, saved that for another day). After a short siesta I went out again and explored the rest of the old town, walked along the river from the Maria Christina Bridge to the Alameda Boulevard and back along the promenade.

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    isabel - thanks for responding to my question! I used your photos to quickly ask my husband "which city, Burgos or Laguardia" and he instantly chose Burgos so we will definitely look to stay there. Still toying with the other city - had originally decided to stay in Leon (and again, love your photos and details on the city) and Santiago de Compestola, but your pictures of Cathedral Beach and Cudillero have me wishing to also stay out at the coast! Again, thanks for your help and for your detailed trip report.

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    I know how you feel about sunny weather, we just left Switzerland - an unusually cool start to autumn - and I took almost all my photos in the 20 minutes the sun came out in Thun because it looked so much happier then. The water and the buildings look dreary and insipid on a grey day.

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    AtlTravelr - Personally I'd probably do a couple of nights up on the coast in order to visit both of those places plus Oviedo. I think you said you were preferred bases to short stops but I really think it would work better to split the stay and maybe do 2 on the coast and the other 3-5 in Leon (where you could easily do day trip to Astorga and Ponferrada, etc.)

    Adelaiden - yup "it's all about the light".

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    Day 8 – Daytrip to Hondarribia and Hendaye</> Woke up to clouds again – not that I would know given you can’t see the sky from my ‘window’, but that’s what the internet said and sure enough when I got out there it was totally cloudy. Though rather warm and the sea was still sort of blue. About a five-minute walk from the hotel I found a café and got coffee and croissant and by the time I left it was sunny! And basically stayed that way all day.

    I wandered around the old town for a short while to see it in morning light and then went to Gipuzkoa Plaza where the buses leave from for Hondarribia. There are several bus stops (a bench with plexi glass enclosure and signs listing the routes) along one side of the plaza, at least three go to Hondarribia, the E 20, 21 and 27. They are pretty frequent, each line goes once or twice an hour. I took the E20 there and it does go through a lot of suburban sprawl and takes close to 45 minutes. The E21 is the express and goes via the highway and only takes about ½ hour. I got that one coming back. But either will do. There are two stops in Hondarribia between the old walled town on the hill and the harbor – really just the one main street. The first one is just below the Santa Maria Gate and the other is at the other end of the walled town, just before the “fisherman’s village”. Literally about a minute apart so doesn’t matter which one you get on/off at. The whole town, the upper walled town and the older fisherman’s village street can easily be walked in a few minutes – maybe half an hour one end to the other.

    The whole town is very picturesque and I walked back and forth on all the streets several times. The main buildings are the Castle of Charles V (now the Parador) and the Church of Santa Maria and they are right next to each other. The church is very picturesque from the outside, but it was not open. There are two squares, Plaza de Armas which is the larger, site of the Parador and the TI and full of cafes, and the smaller one just around the corner, Gipuzkoa Plaza, even more picturesque. The main street, Kale Nagusia runs from the Parador, past the church to the Santa Maria Gate. The ‘streets’ are essentially pedestrianized, the few cars were obviously locals. Nice views to the hills and down to the harbor.

    Just below the walled upper town are several streets of colorful Basque houses that make up what was once the fisherman’s homes. Now they are shops and restaurants but the main pedestrianized street, San Pedro Kalea, is lined with Plane Trees and benches and is very pleasant. The oldest house on the street dates from 1575. Parallel to it on the harbor side is the main traffic road through town, and on the other side is Santiago Kalea, the oldest street in town, used originally by pilgrims on their way to Santiago.

    I got a chicken pastry thing for lunch, along with an ice tea and ate on a bench while people watching. The shop I got it in had mostly sweets and though the sign said something I though indicated chicken I wasn’t entirely sure. The woman spoke no English but did the ‘chicken dance’ to let me know what it was. Love sign language to overcome the language barrier.

    Then I walked down to the harbor where a little boat that crosses the inlet to Hendaye was just leaving. It goes every half hour, back and forth for 1.90€ (takes 15 minutes).
    Hendaye was a bit confusing. I walked through a bunch of restaurants to the Oceanside promenade which was nice. Some bright-stripped beach cabanas, some people surfing, a nice rock outcropping in the distance. Headed in the direction that said ‘center ville’ but after quite a bit I didn’t see what looked like an old town, and from my poor map and what I saw on the bus between Bayonne and San Sebastian (it stopped by the Hendaye Gare) I think it was quite a ways and didn’t look all that interesting so I just retraced my steps, stopped for a wonderful crepe, and took the boat back to Hondarribia, then the bus back to San Sebastian.
    Spent the evening in the old town, very lively, and strolling the promenade watching a great sunset.

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    Sorry about the all bold post above. Clearly need to work on my formatting. I try to bold some things to make them easier for people to find the stuff they are interested in.

    Day 9 - San Sebastian: Monte Urgull, Monte Igueldo, Paseo de la Concha

    Absolutely gorgeous day, couldn’t ask for a better day for an exploration of San Sebastian. I hiked up Monte Urgull. There’s a selection of steps and paths – so you could walk mostly on paths, or mostly climb the steps, or do half and half. Takes about ½ hour (not counting stopping to take photos), fitbit said it was 44 flights – that’s to the top of the ‘castle’. Up top are some remnants of the old castle (Castillo de la Mota), and the statue of Christ at the very top. The castle houses quite a lot of exhibits on the history of the area, all in Spanish/Basque though, no English. Very nice views, definitely worthwhile.

    Back at sea level I walked in the opposite direction this time, toward Monte Igueldo and the Peine de los Vientos (Comb of the Winds). From Hotel Niza it’s just over a half hour to the funicular, about 5 more minutes to the Peine de los Vientos. The funicular (3.15€ RT) is well signed, but it’s just behind the tennis courts which you really can’t miss, right where the beach ends (though the promenade continues a bit further to the sculptures.) It seems to run about every half hour (in each direction, one goes up while the other goes down), takes about 5 minutes. The view from there is the really extraordinary one. Just beautiful. There is a small tacky amusement park up there, but it’s easily ignorable. You’re going up for the view. There looked like one café (no one there). There is at least one hotel up there.

    The Peine de los Vientos are pretty interesting and the view from there back to the city is nice, great waves crashing on rocks scene. I think it could be spectacular at sunset. I spent at least an hour just watching the waves crashing.

    Day 10 – Another nice day. I explored the river front area. There are three nice bridges and a park like promenade all along between the Maria Christina Bridge and the Zurriola Bridge. At the end is the Playa de Zurriola, the “surfing beach”. Doesn’t have the nice promenade and the buildings are not as grand as the Paseo de la Concha, but the waves are definitely bigger. It was mostly children learning how – several groups of lessons going on. I walked the length of the beach along the water. Not Greek Isle warm, but definitely swimmable.

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    Day 11 - On to Bilbao The ride to Bilbao passed the ocean a couple times, and a few pleasant vistas of hills and farms but mostly it went through two medium sized ugly towns that I never heard of and took forever to drive through (to pick up or drop off one passenger each) or else highway. Driving through the suburbs of Bilbao was mostly ugly sprawl. There was a tram station with kiosk just behind the bus station, plus another tram station and the metro station near the front.

    Hotel Conde Duque, Great location only 10-minute walk to Guggenheim along the river or 15 minute walk to old town, in the other direction also along the river. Hotel is right on the river, directly opposite the Zubizuri bridge which in turn is right in front of the tram stop Uribitarte (13 minutes from main bus station).

    I explored the old town. It’s nowhere near as pretty a city as San Sebastian, and no drop-dead-gorgeous seaside promenade. But the river has wide pedestrian walks on both sides, with trees and benches. Some nice buildings but most seem to be mid-late 20th century boring. Some are nicely colored. But not quite the charm of many other Spanish towns I’ve visited. Still, very pleasant. I visited the Church of San Antonio and the cathedral. I didn’t find either spectacular but they were both ‘above average’.

    The Mercado de la Ribera is huge, the top floor is food stalls – meat, ham, fish, produce, etc. The building itself is very pretty, with some stained glass windows. The ground floor has some stalls but half is taken up with pintxos bars Probably should of checked out others places in Bilbao, but this was so good (and lots of variety) so I just ate there every night.

    I went upstairs in the train station looking for the stained glass window I’d seen photos of and there it was – very impressive.

    Day 12 Bilbao Guggenheim
    That it one interesting building, Inside and out. The building itself is really the highlight, but the art inside was pretty good too. I’m not especially a fan of modern art but this was a great assortment. The ‘main’ exhibit is a huge room filled with a set of steel sculptures, which I found only mildly interesting. But the entire second floor was a temporary exhibit and I lucked out in that it was Bill Viola, a video artist whose work is really fascinating. I was first introduced to him because he had an exhibit in Florence last spring and while we didn’t go to it (no time), there was a video introduction in the courtyard of the Palazzo in which it was held which was really interesting and got me hooked on his work. So that’s where I spent most of my time. The third floor is the museum’s permanent exhibit which includes one Monet and a number of post-impressionists that were nice, plus some more modern stuff like Warhol (150 Marilyn Monroe faces), etc. I like that there were only a few rooms of each kind of art from late 1900s through 20th century. There was also some sculpture by Eduardo Chillida who did the Wind Sculpture in San Sebastian. All in all I spent about 3 hours.

    Day 13 Bizkaia Bridge – Portugalate
    Woke to clouds AGAIN (all but one afternoon in Bilbao were cloudy) . Oh well, that’s why I give myself ‘extra’ time in places so I can ‘accommodate’ some crappy weather. But while the city is reasonably pleasant when the sun is out, it really is pretty dreary in the cloudy, misty, cool, foggy weather.

    I explored the ‘new’ part of Bilbao. There are some very nice buildings scattered around, but they are overshadowed by boring mid 20th century cement and steel buildings so the overall ambiance is nothing special. There are some nice enough shopping streets and plazas with fountains. It’s not a bad city, but nothing you would really go out of the way for – if it weren’t for the Guggenheim.

    So I took the metro (also ‘average’, very functional but boring cars, boring stations) to Portugalete. About 25 minutes. Between the one sign (TI and bridge) and common sense (go down the hill not up) I found the main part of the old town and the bridge. The Bizkaia Bridge is very tall, and it’s mechanics, the way it has a gondola to take cars and people to the other side, is interesting (and thus a UNESCO World Heritage site) but otherwise not especially beautiful or anything.

    The old town of Portugalete has a couple nice little plazas with a few nice old buildings, and a promenade along the river with great views of the bridge. There was a group in folk costumes playing bagpipes, drums, etc. and dancing so that certainly added to the ambiance.

    I took the gondola to the other side, Getxo. You can take a lift up to the top and walk over (€8) but it was grey and cloudy so I opted for the .40 cent gondola ride. The town on that side is Getxo and is more modern, supposedly more prosperous, but nowhere near as interesting. Had it been a nicer day you could walk a long ways past the fishing and sailboat harbor all the way to the cliffs and still get a metro back. But was too cloudy to interest me. So just took the metro back.

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    Day 14 Santander

    I took another bus between Bilbao and Santander. It passed some nice scenery of cliffs and ocean. There aren’t all that many trip reports about northern Spain, but there are some, yet I don’t recall any that included Santander. Maybe compared to all the wonderful places there are in Europe it isn’t high on most tourists must see lists, but I found it a very pleasant city and was easily able to fill up the three days I had there.

    Hotel Bahia is very snazzy – right on the water. Mostly the view is of industrial shipping area but at least it’s a view. The Brittany Ferry to England is docked right outside. The location is great, 5-minute walk from the bus station and literally next door to the cathedral and right on the water. Ten story modern hotel with all the amenities, large room, mini-bar, huge bathroom, Wi-Fi was sometimes fast, sometimes wouldn’t connect at all, more toiletries than I’ve ever gotten in a hotel. 89€

    Santander is a large city stretched out along a bay that cuts in from the ocean. So there is a very long ‘seaside’ promenade. It was sunny and warm when I got there so I grabbed a couple of pintxos and walked along the water for a while. You could see a massive grey cloud heading this way and the forecast was for an afternoon shower so I headed back towards the hotel and explored the old town rather than walk too far away. Most buildings are post 1941 when a huge fire destroyed most of the old town but there are a few that were spared and the overall ambiance is very pleasant.

    Day 15 – Santander Magdalena Peninsula Despite being a cloudy morning I headed out along the bayside promenade towards the Magdalena Peninsula. It’s a good 45 minute walk along the promenade and then Avenida de la Reina Victoria, which passes some interesting homes and has little belvederes with benches and pergolas overlooking the bay. Pleasant, though not stunning by any means (I guess I’m spoiled by vacations where every few steps brings more adjectives describing the wonderfulness/awesomeness/ breathing-taking-ness, etc.) The point where the peninsular leaves the main land is quite nice, pretty dramatic waves and rocks and a beach and the lighthouse in the distance. The whole peninsula is a park (there were several tour buses parked just before you get there, lots of people but not what I’d call ‘crowded’). There is a small ‘zoo’ with just 3 kinds of animals: penguins, sea lions and seals. The sea lions (3 of them) were sound asleep. The seals stayed under water but were swimming around. The penguins did come out and allowed themselves to be photographed so that was fun. There are three replicas of Spanish sailing galleons. The palace itself is a little mini castle but nice and photogenic and the sun came out at that point.

    Day 16 Santander walk to Lighthouse Woke to clouds, but it was brighter and as the morning went on more and more blue sky. By noon it was gorgeous and stayed that way the rest of the day. There was supposed to be a bus line that goes all the way out to the lighthouse but I had not seen it and none of the bus stops that say that line (15) stop at them ever have it listed on the electronic readout that says when the next buses are expected. So I took another line (13) that goes close.

    I walked through a nice park with a golf course off to one side, ocean to the other, up along the water, past a small beach, up a hill through a meadow to the lighthouse. Nice crashing waves on the rocks far below. Inside the lighthouse is an exhibition of paintings, photographs and sculpture of the lighthouses of northern Spain. Very nice. Café up there also.

    Then I walked out to the point next to the lighthouse, great views of the lighthouse and the coast. In the distance I could hear bagpipes. So basically the next hour or so I was in Scotland – Walked along a path atop a headland with waves crashing on the rocks far below, through a large meadow, wild heather, the ocean, the lighthouse, a golf course off to one side – and bagpipes. And the sun came out and the clouds disappeared and the sky turned blue. Made up for the last couple weeks of mostly cloudy weather. Absolutely gorgeous.
    It was a lovely day by then so I walked all the way back which is quite a few miles but goes along several cliffs and headland, past several beaches and then through the city. And by evening I was even able to see the Picos de Europa mountains across the bay, the first time in three days that it was clear enough to see them (previously had only been able to see the low green hills.

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    Enjoying this very much so far Isabel. The threat of rain makes me think twice about returning to Northern Spain even though we were fortunate to get 2 and a half weeks in September with hardly any rain. But the stunning green color of the beautiful!!

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    Just catching up with this. Sorry you had such bad weather in France, it does make a difference! I stayed in the Ibis Styles in Bayonne and it was fine. Also bought day passes for the buses for two euro. I loved Biarritz but it was sunny both days I was there and I love coasts with rocks, recommend the Asian museum, didn't bother with the aquarium.

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    There are two possible reasons why there were bagpipes. Although Santander is not considered Galicia, the Celtic migration passed through Galicia and the bagpipes are a regional instrument. Additionally when the English defeated the Spanish Armada many battles were fought along the coast of Galicia. There were Irishmen on the British ships, so if a ship went down and they made it to land, they thought they would have a better future in Spain than back in Ireland.

    My wife's father is from Galicia and their name is Irish sounding. We did DNA tests and there was a strong Irish component.

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    sundried - Other than my time in France, most of the rest of the rain/cloudy weather was interspersed with sun shine. There were only a couple of places where I didn't get any sun at all. But I know what you mean, I usually plan trips where at least part of the trip is somewhere I can count on sun, and only go to rain-likely areas for a part of the trip.

    thursdaysd - I know I read your report when planning this one. Should have stayed at the Ibis. At least one other fododite stayed there too. Oh well. And I did love Biarritz once the sun came out. More so than I had expected based on stuff read about it.

    IMDonehere - We also heard bagpipes in Santiago. And I had read about the Celtic influence in the area - as well as the physical resemblance to that area - so I wasn't surprised to hear them. It was just such a nice experience to have that as the backdrop to such a beautiful walk. Really made that day.

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    Day 17 Burgos I took another bus, from Santander up on the green coast, to Burgos, on the hot dry plains. We left Santander on a rather cool, cloudy morning heading south along the N623, stopping in lots of little towns, sometimes the ‘stop’ was just stopping along the road – no building or even bus shelter. Nice, mountainous scenery and within a couple hours the sun came out and it was noticeably hotter. In 3½ hour we were going through the urban sprawl leading into Burgos. But while it was clearly ‘sprawl’ it wasn’t really ugly industrial areas like around Santander and Bilbao. AS the bus neared the center of town you could see the huge spires of the cathedral.

    Headed out of the bus station and was immediately hit with glorious sunshine, warmth, incredible blue sky. So bright I was squinting even with sunglasses. Half a block further and there was the Puente de Santa Maria, in front of the Arco de Santa Maria. Through the Arco and across the square is one of the most magnificent cathedrals I’ve seen – so big – so white – so beautiful. And right next to it was my hotel. Talk about a great location.

    Hotel Meson El Cid - There are actually three buildings: the restaurant, and two hotel buildings; reception is in the middle building (the white one) to the left. Very nice rooms, plenty large, huge bathroom with all the amenities, mini bar, great AC, good Wi-Fi. €69/double. You could pay extra for a cathedral view.

    The TI is right off the square, helpful booklet and map and a nice lady who gave lots of pointers (including that the Museum of Human Evolution was free that day after 16:30). After lunch and a bit of a walk around town I figured I should check out the museum. It’s in a huge ultra modern building just across the river from Plaza del Cid. Nicely done – exhibits on Darwin (replica of the ‘Beagle’), on the various human predecessors, the brain, climate change, etc. All the exhibits are also in English.

    Day 18 Woke to bright blue sky and sunshine! Had a great breakfast at a little cafe right outside the Arco Santa Maria (cafe con leche and a croissant for 1.80€!) I spent the morning exploring the old town. Things are really quite close together and easy to find way around. Went up to the castle. There’s a bit of walls that are still in tact and look nice, and the castle walls are OK. Not much inside the castle and the view, while extensive, is not all that picturesque since there’s lots of 20th century buildings in the background of the cathedral, etc. Still, worth the effort, it’s not that far. Several other town gates and impressive buildings.

    In the afternoon I went to the cathedral. WOW – that really is a spectacular building. And I’m talking from an art and architecture perspective. But the size of the building is even more impressive from the inside I think than the outside. So much bigger than most other cathedrals. Some of the gold plated altar pieces in the various chapels are so over the top elaborate and intricate that they are just too gaudy. But the stone work in the basic building, especially the ceilings, is incredible. And the cloisters, always my favorite part of any church, did not disappoint. There are two levels, and the upper level is glassed in with stained glass. A lot of the stone is painted which is unusual for most cloisters, which are just natural stone. The lower level is equally nice and the views of the towers and spires from the cloister are beautiful.

    By mid afternoon it was really hot (close to 99 degrees F) – not that I’m complaining, I’ll take hot an d sunny over cool and cloudy any day. But I decided I need something cool there just happened to be a smöoy frozen yogurt right around the corner. I ate it on a bench shaded by plane trees listening to a woman play an accordion. Just down the Paseo del Espelon was a man playing Spanish guitar.

    Refreshed I headed for the Monasterio de las Huelgas. I had read, and I think the TI lady also said, that it was about a 15 minute walk but it was really more than a half hour. It’s a nice walk, along the river through the park like string of Paseos (Paseo de la Isla is especially nice) but definitely a good half hour not counting stopping to photograph some of the various fountains, sculptures and bits of ancient ruins scattered along it. It’s a mile and a half each way.
    The Monasterio itself is another huge, impressive building – really both the cathedral and the monastery are more like several buildings joined together. The only way to visit is with a tour, and they only are given in Spanish. But Thursday afternoons admission is free so I figured it would be nice to see, even if I couldn’t understand any of it. Well I never figured it would take 1½ hour for a tour. Even the people who clearly understand Spanish were bored, this guy went on and on and on. The monastery is very austere compared to the cathedral, very little intricate carving. But there are numerous altarpieces and choir stalls and they were just as over the top elaborate as those in the cathedral. It was kind of interesting cause they seemed out of place in the gigantic, austere building. There were two beautiful cloisters. There was one interesting room that was clearly Moorish. It was interesting and I guess in retrospect I’m glad I went but if time is limited I would not recommend it given how far it is from the center and how long the tour is (plus I had to wait 20 minutes for a tour).

    Day 19 More sunshine! In the morning I took a walk along the town walls to the Arco San Martin, the town wall gate that the Camino passes through on the way to Leon. There are a couple of small churches in the area with storks nests on their towers.

    Both storks and swallows/swifts really say “Spain” to me. Found throughout Europe in the summer, I don’t recall any storks in the north, but all over the plains I spotted them, generally on top of church steeples, towers, even just tall poles, usually on the outskirts of cities. They build stick nests, often several on each church or tower. Swifts and swallows (they are two different types of bird from the same family and I’m never sure which it is I’m seeing) are seen all over Europe, especially early in the mornings and on a balmy summer evening flitting through the sky as it turns deep blue, then purple, then black. They race around church steeples, castle towers, and ancient bell towers, usually screeching. They build their nests under the eaves or on old stone ledges much more commonly than on any modern structures. Swifts eat insects and windborne spiders and when the weather is hot and their food has been carried high on thermals, they follow it into heavens, appearing as tiny specks in the summer sky. I spent a good deal of time just watching them do their thing. Storks, swifts and swallows all spend summers (March to November) in Europe and migrate in winter to Africa.

    After my morning of medieval town walls and storks and swifts (I’m easily amused) I went back to the bus station to meet my husband who was arriving for Part 2 of my trip. Although a bit jet lagged (two flights and a bus ride from Madrid) he held up ok while I toured him all around Burgos, which over three days had become one of my favorite cities.

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    Ah, I'm glad to hear I didn't make a big mistake skipping the monastery. I am not a fan of rococo or baroque, and it sounds like that's the style you were seeing. I was quite happy with the cathedral. Did you see the Da Vinci?

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    No I did not see the Da Vinci! Where was it? I hadn't even read about it. Oh well, guess I'll have to go back.

    Day 20 León Woke up to blue sky again. That is more like it. We checked out by 9 and went to the same little café on Paseo del Espolon for breakfast – caffe con leche (€1.3) 3 croissants (1.50 -for all three!) and a fresh squeezed OJ(€2.90). Gotta love those prices.

    This was the last bus ride of the trip – from Burgos to León. For most of the 3½ hour trip it followed the Camino – you could see the path and the signs running right along the road, and sometimes see pilgrims walking. About half the people who got on in Burgos were pilgrims, then at one of the stops, Carrion, a ton more got on. A very few got off at another small town but most stayed on till León. So they were essentially cutting out over a quarter of the total Camino by taking that bus ride. (183 km of the total 780 km) – or about 7-9 days of walking). The land is mostly flat and almost entirely golden wheat fields, with a few scattered fields of sunflower, and a few decrepit little towns. Way off in the distance you can see the mountains of the Picos de Europa (clear, but with a cloud on the other side of them). It was very pretty to look at – for a couple hours - but I know I would get bored with over a week of that same scenery (and I’m pretty sure it looks pretty similar for quite a few Km in both directions beside that stretch).

    León is wonderful – really pretty. The walk from the train station to the center is about ½ mile and only took about 15 minutes. The center is all pedestrianized with gorgeous buildings (lots with the iron and glass ‘galleried’ balconies). The main buildings were all spectacular. The cathedral not quite as large and wonderful as Burgos but at least a 9.5 on a scale of 1-10 (Burgos being one of the few ‘10s’). Obviously this is just my opinion.

    Hotel Via Leon – beautiful building, carefully restored to have all the modern amenities, nice furniture, large room, bathroom with circular tub/shower and two pottery sinks, great tile, mini bar, great AC, fast Wi-Fi, TV. Staff helpful and friendly. Location superb, one block off the main street just between the Casa de Botines/ Palacio de los Guzmanes and the Cathedral. Only 67€/night double. One of the few hotels we took breakfast on this trip. This was 6€ each which I felt was reasonable, most of the others were between 9 & 15€ and there is no way the two of us eat €30 worth of breakfast.

    Although we didn’t get out to start exploring till mid afternoon it felt like we had all day. At 5:30 it was still super hot and sunny and looked and felt like noon. We mostly followed the Camino from one side of town to the Parador at the other – there are yellow arrows (painted on curbs and on posts) and bronze scallops shells imbedded in the sidewalk.

    The Parador is a magnificent building, despite half of it covered with scaffolding. You can go into the lobby and look around, and via a separate entrance you can go into the ‘museum’, church and cloisters even if you are not staying there, and for free. The cloister had a great ceiling, detailing and pretty informative placards in English explaining the various sculptures. I had seriously considered staying here but the Hotel Via Leon looked so good and was considerably less, and it did turn out to be one of our favorites.

    Right next to the Parador is the Roman bridge, which was in great shape and very pretty as well. We walked back along the river Bernesga, which has a wide park like area all along it between the Roman Bridge and the main bridge with the lion sculptures on all four corners – about 20 minutes.

    Day 21 León

    Highlights today (besides just being in beautiful León) were the cathredral and San Isidoro.

    San Isidoro Basilica itself is free, and not all that interesting, just a medium sized dark church. But the ‘museo’, which includes the ‘Pantheon’ was very interesting. It’s the old Romanesque church that predates the current church and has one main room that is entirely frescoed with brightly colored paintings all over the ceiling and walls, and large, squat Romanesque columns. It’s a thousand years old and has only been ‘cleaned’ twice, never restored, and is still in amazing condition. You have to go on a tour to see it, and no photos are allowed – two things which are usually total turn offs for me but this tour was in English (cute Spanish guy who kept apologizing for his poor English but it was really quite fine and he was very interesting. Had to make do with postcards for pictures). The tour also included the cloisters (where photos were allowed), which was pretty good, and several rooms of artifacts. The top of the tower of the building has a ‘Cock’/rooster weathervane, the original is in the museum and he explained that roosters were a symbol of the Muslims and this one was made in the 6th century and brought over from Persia by them when they occupied Spain. All in all worth the 5€ each admission.

    The cathedral was amazing. I had read it had incredible stained glass, as good as Chartres or Saint Chapelle. Well it’s been 15 years since I’ve been inside those, but I don’t remember them being this good. The cathedral itself is actually quite dark but the entire upper areas are stained glass, the stone wall between the windows more or less disappears and it’s all glass. Just beautiful. The free audio guide (admission is 6€) talked mainly about the rise of gothic architecture after the dark ages and how building developments allowed for higher churches with more windows and was pretty interesting. The cloisters was a separate entrance (€2) and was also worthwhile, thought not the best on this trip even.

    There are several pretty plazas in León but my favorite was Plaza Santa Maria del Camino (aka Grano). No spectacular architecture, barely made it into the guidebooks, but the ambiance was just so nice. Very few people and I’m pretty sure they were all locals. In the morning it was mostly shaded (with one interesting building in full sun), and several people there with their dogs, two of whom were playing fetch with each other. In the afternoon most of square was hot and sunny, almost deserted except for a few people having drinks under the sun umbrellas at one small cafe. Totally different atmosphere.

    We had a great dinner at “La Pintona” in Plaza San Martin. Great people watching.

    Finished just as the lights were coming on, the swallows were swooping, the sky turning dark blue, lots of people still at all the restaurants and walking around eating ice cream, etc. Perfect summer vacation evening. Plaza Mayor was nicely lit but the cathedral was incredible. Very, very well lit and just gorgeous golden against the blue sky. Blue and yellow, the colors of the Camino.

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    A little digging online suggests the Mary Magdalene painting may be "school of" rather than actually a Da Vinci. When I was there it was near the staircase while its usual home in one of the chapels was being renovated.

    The stained glass in Leon's cathedral (which I preferred to Burgos but then I don't care for baroque) had all been cleaned since I was there in 2004 when it was quite dark. I did stay in the parador, which I found inconveniently located and definitely in need of renovation.

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    No I still don't recall the painting, oh well, I'm sure I miss a lot in these churches that are so crammed with beautiful things. And yes the glass in Leon Cathedral was truly amazing. I had read that it was, but so often things - especially in guidebooks but also in trip reports - are made to sound fantastic and then I find they don't live up to it. In this case it was better than I expected. Interestingly, while I find some major sites don't live up to their descriptions, I often find places that are not even mentioned that I think are just incredible. In the case of Leon it was the little square, Plaza Santa Maria del Camino (aka Grano).

    I'm pretty sure it was your report that made the decision for us not to stay in the Parador - which I definitely feel was the right one. I wouldn't say it was a bad location but Hotel Via Leon was much better - and I think probably the room was nicer, though the Parador building was gorgeous. I think it would be a good place to stay if you needed to drive in and park (we didn't pick up the car till leaving Leon).

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    Day 22 Today we started the driving part of the trip. We reserved through Auto Europe which has always worked out great for us and it did this trip too. Car rental pick-up were just outside the train station, ours was through Avis. We had planned to stop at Vodaphone as we walked past it on the way to get a SIM card so we could use the iPhone GPS, but it was only 9:30 and they didn’t open till 10 so we figured we’d get one later. We never did and really didn’t need it. Car pick up was fairly easy, just wanted to see driver’s licenses (not international permits or passports). Filled out the paperwork and we got a nice new white Fiat 500. Very cute. Driving out of Leon was a breeze, just followed signs for Astorga and it led us out – a fair bit of sprawl to go through but well signed.


    Driving in was pretty easy, but we passed the parking lot just outside the walls and then couldn’t get back to it. Ended up driving right through the center of the town but fortunately it’s pretty small and traffic was light and there don’t seem to be limited traffic zones like in Italy. We parked right in front of the cathedral and I walked a block back to the TI where there were parking machines exactly like the one at home (I even showed a Spanish woman how it worked). The Cathedral and Gaudi’s building are right next to each other, both impressive from outside, though the Gaudi building is much smaller than it seemed in photos and no where near as “Gaudy” as his stuff in Barcelona. The cathedral is of course, smaller than Leon or Burgos but pretty significant for a town that size (about 12,000) and the towers are not the Gothic spires but almost look more like the towers on many Spanish town halls. But there is some elaborate carved stonework all around including some interesting things that look like mermaids, and a few females with exposed breasts, something you don’t normally find on a church. We walked to the other side of town, which took about 15 minutes tops, past the town hall and it’s plaza to the park on top of the walls. The walls are pretty impressive. Too early for lunch so we pushed on, driving out of town was also very easy, just followed signs for the A-6 and Ponferrada.


    A larger town, 66,000, but also very easy to drive into, just followed signs off the A-6 for the N-VI (which seems to be the entry road into all the towns) and then signs for the castle/town hall. That took us right to in front of the town hall and a parking garage under it. Ponferrada has a nice town hall on a large, mostly empty plaza. DH got to use his Spanish to ask directions to the castle, which was about a ten minute walk.

    WOW – Now that’s what a castle should look like! Actually the entrance is the best part, while there are some good walls and a few towers, lots of it is not still in tact and it’s not that large, but still a great castle (and I’ve been to a lot of them). There are quite a lot of interesting displays in one tower on the castle and medieval castles and life in general, most with English translations. We spent at least an hour there (open daily, not closed on Monday which my literature had said was the case, €6 pp entry).

    By now it was 3pm, about 100 degrees and I was starving and most of the town had closed down for siesta, so we went back to the town hall plaza where we’d seen a kabob place – quite good actually. Then managed to drive out and find the A-6 again just by following signs. The printed maps from google were relatively useless and the AAA map totally useless.
    The drive to Lugo was about an hour of wide open highway. Clearly going up into the mountains, now all around us, very green and totally different from the Burgos-Leon area. Also found the way into Lugo, and the hotel with no problems (At this point I was thinking “this is too easy, something’s goona go wrong”).


    Hotel Gran Lugo is a big 6 story glass modern building just about a five minute walk from the town walls. Parking garage underneath. Huge shinny lobby. It looks like it was a very elegant hotel at one time and is really in pretty good shape. Everything clean and comfortable, huge room, huge bathroom, fast wi-fi. For a one night stop over to see Lugo this is a great hotel.

    The walls are certainly impressive, encircling the whole town, numerous access points to walk on top of them which is a wide flat walk all the way around. The town, both inside and outside the walls is not all that picturesque but it was still fun to walk around both on top of the walls and along the outside. Since the town is right up close to the walls there’s not a lot of good place to appreciate them from a distance unfortunately.

    The cathedral is just “OK” (ABC syndrome), I like it better from the back. The Plaza Mayor is one of the nicest I’ve seen with a large area with roses and trees and grass and lots of benches and one of the prettiest town halls so far. And the buildings surrounding it are all lovely. Lots of shopping streets, a few with bars/restaurants, several other small squares. Overall a very pleasant town that would be a nice place to live but not too exciting to visit except for the walls, which is what makes it a tourist spot. Still, didn’t see many tourists (one tour bus), a few pilgrims. Lugo is on the “Primitive” Camino, the very first one from Oviedo to Santiago back in the middle ages. Few do it now, very hilly around here. But there are Camino signs and a few pilgrims. Making us wonder how many pilgrims take buses between the interesting towns.

    We walked portions of the walls in the mid afternoon (hot and sunny), in the evening (nicely lit) and again the following morning (shady and cooler) and were glad we did.

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    Thank you for your detailed trip report, I've enjoyed reading it.

    Having walked the Camino Frances myself, from Saint Jean Pied de Port, over 2 years in 5 stages/trips to Spain, and spent several days in Bilbao, your words have brought back some forgotten memories.

    Walking the Camino is an incredibly memorable experience, indeed a life-changing one. It has the power to alter one's perspective on the way one lives one's life.

    Did you get to meet and talk with any pilgrims?

    Looking forward to the conclusion of your TR.

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    julia - Even though I didn't go to Northern Spain because of the Camino, it certainly added a lot to my trip. We met lots of pilgrims but just for short periods as we weren't walking the route or staying in the albergues. But as the trip went on we became more and more 'obsessed' with the Camino and we're thinking about going back to walk part of it. What were your favorite parts? If you were going to advise someone who wanted to just walk 3-5 days or so which part would you suggest? I've done a lot of reading about it since we got back, quite interesting the different reasons people give for walking it, perspectives before versus after walking it, why they only do parts of it, etc. I guess I have more thinking to do about it.

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    Day 23 & 24 Santiago de Compostela

    Woke at 7:30 to such thick fog that I couldn’t see the building across the street, but by 8 it was mostly sunny. We had breakfast at “Don Leon” café a block from the hotel (towards the walls). Excellent mini pain au chocolate (12 for €1.95) plus caffe con leche and fresh squeezed Oj, then took another walk around Lugo - inside, outside and on top of the walls. The best views of the walls are from the ‘other’ side of the cathedral (away from the hotel) and there are several nice gates into the walls. There’s also a small plaza and a few medieval looking streets but also some larger busier traffic filled streets. But there was blue sky mostly and it was nice and cool. I love how totally different the atmosphere of a town can be at different times of the day.

    Left the hotel around 11:30, desk clerk told us to go back out the way we came in to get to the A-6, which we easily did. About 40 minutes of highway driving, very easily followed signs for the N634 to Santiago. Found our way into town and onto the street we wanted and even spotted the market so I knew the hotel street was to the left, but it looked so narrow and steep we thought it couldn’t be the right one, there was a big P (for parking) sign that did also say H (for hotel) and listed both hotels on the street, including ours. But the writing was so tiny we didn’t see it. But after we passed it I knew that had to be the street so without too much trouble we were able to reverse direction and make the turn. We even saw the street sign saying Rúa Das Trompas so knew we were on the right street, but went past the entrance since it looked like a parking garage for the other hotel (which it also is), just past that we saw the large ‘Belvis’ Parking lot so knew we were in the right area. But then the road went on and on, one way and no way to get back. So we ended up driving around and around for at least half an hour trying to get back to where we wanted to be (and had been). Eventually found it and in retrospect see that Hotel Miradoiro de Belvís was on the sign. But seriously, they need a MUCH better sign.

    Hotel Miradoiro de Belvís – A good location with parking just outside the pedestrian area of Santiago. Finding it was difficult mainly because the road is so small and steep you don’t think it can be the correct place, and the sign is so tiny you can’t read it from a moving car, even a very slow moving car. But once found (this took at least a half hour after the first time we passed it, signage in Santiago is not good) it is a good location for walking into town. It’s a rather charmless 20th century motel but clean, good sized room and bath, nice reception area and does include free parking. Good Wi-Fi. Nice view of a monastery set in a large park, and a soccer field just outside (we watched a game from our window).

    It was completely cloudy but no rain (just some mist at one point) and quite cool – barely 70. Santiago was just about the most crowded place in terms of tourists I’ve been the whole three weeks so far.

    Being the end point of the Camino de Santiago makes it the third-most-holy city of the Christian world (after Rome and Jerusalem). But it’s also a university town and a marketplace for Galician farmers.

    It has cobblestone arcaded streets, beautiful gold/grey churches and buildings and numerous plazas. Although a relatively small size- 15 minutes walk from one side of the pedestrianized center to the other, it is quite confusing until you figure out your way around and you can walk in circles trying to find your way out. Immediately surrounding the pedestrianized center is a more modern shopping district and a lot of one-way streets. Neither logic nor signage are strong points of Santiago.

    Santiago also has the dubious distinction of being the rainiest city in Spain, but the showers are frequent but brief and often consist of just a lot of mist. Every time I checked Accuweather it just said “mist”. The cathedral is coated in orange and yellow mosses and grass pokes up from the walls and cobbles.

    The front of the cathedral is covered with scaffolding but there are four plazas surrounding it and lots of other beautiful buildings. But to me the best part about Santiago is the arcaded stone streets – two main ones and a few others, plus a lot of tiny plazas – making the core of the old town very pretty and unusual. Of course with the dark grey sky and tons of people it was not a very rewarding photographic experience. Tons of tourist shops.

    Mid afternoon and just about every restaurant was full. We got the only empty table at Café de Paris. Food was OK, not great but it was fairly inexpensive (21€ for two burgers with fries, 2 beer, ice tea, and caffe con leche.)

    The cathedral is really sprawling but despite having four squares surrounding it, I just didn’t get the same ‘sense’ as with Burgos or Leon. Inside it was nothing compared to Burgos or Leon but it was free. Quite dark and Romanesque inside, some side chapels, main alter elaborate glittery gold. Didn’t do much for me.

    Weather while we were there was “mist – light rain – just cloudy – sun came out for 20 minutes - repeat” all day long. In the evenings the lights reflect off the wet streets and it’s really quite pretty, but in the daytime the rain darkens the stone making it less pretty and also less pleasant to just wander.

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    Buses in that region seemed to be more convenient, frequent, and economical. In most countries, with a few exceptions, I definitely prefer trains but I remember from previous trips to Spain that the buses were great. Some of the routes this trip there would be only one or two trains a day whereas there were buses every few hours. In the case of Burgos the train station was to far to walk from the center where I was staying whereas the bus station was a five minute walk. The trip between Bayonne and San Sebastian required a change of trains whereas the bus was direct. Then I found and that was so easy (although reserving on the Alsa site is easy too). None of my trips were more than 3 1/2 hours so didn't feel the need for walking around or using a WC. The only thing I don't like about buses is that you have to put your luggage underneath so can't keep an eye on it. Nothing ever happened but I guess it could. So I carried a small back pack and my 'extra' tote on board with me and put the suitcase underneath with not all that much in it.

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    Day 25 Ribadeo

    Mix of clouds and sun all day, quite pleasant. Found our way out of Santiago without much difficulty and onto the N634 which for a while merges with the A6 and then goes on it’s own and then the signs for Ribadero want you to take the A8 but we just kept to the N634, which for part of it is the Camino del Norte. Saw a number of walking and biking pilgrims. Lots of hills, farmland, forests, few tiny towns.

    Ribadero is supposedly only 8,000 population but feels much larger. Not an especially lovely town though nothing wrong with it. The harbor down below full of mostly leisure but some fishing boats is nice, there are a few back streets winding down to the water that are picturesque (one of which is the Camino, with more Camino signs than I’ve seen so close together), the main square has a few interesting buildings. The walk to the lighthouse is wonderful so that, plus the proximity to Cathedral Beach are the highlights.

    Hotel O Cabazo is very nice. Has a huge free, gated parking lot with garden and outside terrace to sit on and a restaurant. The room was huge, nice furnishings, mini bar, fast Wi-Fi, about a five minute walk from the main plaza in town. View of the estuary.

    We walked into town and found a café/restaurant on one of the main shopping streets in the pedestrianized part of town with outside tables. We explored the tiny old town, walked down to the harbor and then walked to the lighthouse, about 3km to the lighthouse but the path continues for a long ways. Beautiful, pleasant paved walk as far as the lighthouse, then dirt path. Lighthouse very picturesque set on a tiny island just off the shore. Lots of great photo ops. Lots of great wave watching opportunities.

    Day 26 Cathedral Beach

    About 7 km west of Ribadeo (along either the N634 or the local beach road) is the tiny village of Rinlo. I have no idea what the population there is but we didn’t even see any shops, just a collection of houses. And from there it’s just another km to Cathedral Beach/ Praia das Catedrais (large signs on the N634, can’t miss it). There are a couple of medium sized parking lots, a small café/bar, and some WCs. It’s apparently the second most visited place in Galicia after Santiago de Compostela itself.

    We headed out so as to get to Cathedral Beach as early as possible. A combination of luck and good planning resulted in our having a great experience. I checked the tide charts (available on line, months in advance) and was able to organize our visit on a day when low tide was at 9:00 – meaning the best time to visit would be between 7 and 11:00. We got there shortly after 8:00 and there was no one checking reservations, and although there were some people already on the beach it was largely empty. By the time we left around 10:00 there was a line to check reservations, two tour buses in the parking lot and loads of people. But we had a wonderful visit.

    Definitely an interesting and beautiful beach with large rock cliffs coming right down to the sand and at low tide, tidal pools left around the rocks, many in very pretty turquoise, pink and light blue colors. There are several arches, some quite high and narrow – thus the comparison with a cathedral.

    Shooting through them does make very striking images. Even with the relatively few people there it was a bit of a challenge to get shots with no one in them as everyone seems to need to take photos of their companions doing stupid poses and then they are so inept apparently at taking photos that they have to study them and retake them. Really, stupid should be outlawed. Really - photograph the gorgeous scenery, take a shot or two of your companions, but the endless silly poses.... But I digress. Anyway, I did manage to get some really nice shots of the arches, the rocks, the beach in general.

    It was definitely worth going and I’m very glad I didn’t listen to the people who advised against going because it would be too crowded. We did get lucky in that low tide was early in the day and we got there on the early side.
    The place is just beautiful (usually comes up near the top of the list of most beautiful beaches in Europe) and that, combined with the limited amount of time people can visit (due to being underwater except around low tide) result in some pretty awful crowds. Because of this the local authorities have restricted access and require reservations during the summer. Registration online is free and easy. I had made reservations but no one was checking when we got there.

    The drive to Cudillero on the A-8 was fast and pretty, with rolling green hills and farm on one side and frequent glimpses of the sea on the other.


    Pretty close to a “10” as far as cute towns go. This tiny village (population 5300) is so cute and colorful it could almost be on the Amalfi Coast. By far the most picturesque village we saw anywhere on the north coast of Spain. For centuries it’s been a fishing village and there was still an active fishing fleet. The houses cascade down the hillside to a tiny port on a narrow inlet. Despite its touristy feel, Cudillero is reasonably relaxed, even in mid-July. The surrounding coastline is a dramatic sequence of sheer cliffs and fine beaches.

    It had everything: seaside setting with lovely harbor with pretty little boats and a nice lighthouse, and a town wrapped around the harbor and climbing up the steep hills. There are walks with steps going up all around the town, with bright blue painted railings (could be on a Greek island) up to several miradors with great 360-degree views of the water and the town. All along the walks are nicely kept flowers. The paths were fairly well marked, although that wasn’t really necessary as you could pretty much see the entire town from wherever you were. There’s a 16th century church, a lighthouse, an open-air fruit/veggie/ miscellaneous market down by the water and a small main square (actually more of a rectangle) full of seafood restaurants and cafes. Mostly its houses (some, but by no means all, of which are now B&Bs), some painted bright colors, others white with colorful trim (the colors supposedly correspond to each family’s fishing boats, which are the same color. I read about this in other villages on the Northern Spain coast).

    We hiked as far up as you could go, all around the town, down by the water and had a drink and snack at a café on the main square and were still ‘done’ in about three hours. You can smell the sea and hear the violin player down by the harbor; the music carries all the way up to the top of the town. Sea gulls swooping below you. Sound of waves, scent of sea air. Lots of restaurants down by the harbor, in that way it’s like any ‘tourist’ summer town. But no big hotels, no tour groups, no one spoke English, not one English menu anywhere.
    Perfect sunny weather and 75 degrees with light breeze. Arrived at 11, parking lot ¾ full, left at 2, parking lot full. Perfect stopover for three hours of lunch and exploring.

    Drive to Oviedo along the A-8 was still mostly pretty, but close to Aviles it become a slag-heap for a good while, tons of industry, ugly and smells terrible. Fortunately this doesn’t last all that long and you turn south towards Oviedo.


    We easily found the hotel right on the main street that the highway (66a) had turned into, parking underneath. Checked in. Aparthotel is essentially a normal hotel but with a kitchenette.

    We easily drove to the ‘monuments’. Amazing, beautiful. Interiors can only be viewed by tours, only in Spanish 3€ each. The ‘monuments’ are examples of ‘pre-Romanesque’ style architecture. The fact that these buildings have lasted 1,200 years more or less intact, despite wars and bad weather, is just as fascinating as their unique architectural style. There are 14 still left in Asturius, 3 of them in Oviedo. The two up on the hill above town are Santa Maria (hunting lodge) and San Miguel de Lillo (church).

    Mostly cut off from the rest of Christian Europe by the Muslim invasion, the tiny kingdom that emerged in the 8th century Asturias gave rise to a unique style of art and architecture. It was a precursor to the Romanesque, the first architectural style to be used across Europe since the fall of the Roman Empire.

    Finding way back to hotel not so easy, got as far as train station then made wrong turn, took at least half hour to drive what was probably 5 minutes. Driving around the ‘modern’ town of Oviedo itself was pretty boring. It’s a fairly large city, 20th century buildings all around, not at all shabby but not that interesting. But then we walked to old town and it was much better than expected. Beautiful cathedral, many plazas, lots of old Spanish buildings and lots of late 19th /early 20th century era buildings as well.

    The old town had a lively atmosphere with numerous restaurants and siderias – which is a form of hard cider (often from crabapples) which seems to be as popular as wine in Asturias, Galicia and Basques regions. All over the region we saw waiters pouring the sidra by holding the bottle high in one hand and the glass low in the other. The reason for this is that cider becomes flat quickly so pouring it from a height of about 3 feet aerates it (natural carbonation). You only pour one gulp at a time. There are also devices that sit on tables that accomplish this, but the dramatic flare of the waiter pouring the cider is more impressive.

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    Wonderful photos, Isabel.

    If you want to walk 5 days, well you could walk the last 100km from Barbadelo or Morgade to SdeC and get your compostela, but that's still 20km a day of not particularly easy walking. And that last 100km stretch (ok, it's 116km from Sarria) tends to be very busy and is rather different from other parts of the Camino as a result.

    My favourite stretches? This is a difficult one, because almost every day I've walked has had good and bad parts. Often the best days are due to the people you walk with. I've never got bored because there's always something to look at, listen to, though some kms which run beside a road can be a bit uninteresting.

    There are parts of the Camino I;d walk again in a heartbeat, other parts I'd not want to bother with, but that's like life, we all have things we don't want to do.

    But there are moments on the Camino which are utterly magical. You feel exhilarated, ecstatic, and filled with the most complete joy. I've experienced them walking over the Pyrenees climbing up to the final pass over the top; topping a rise just before Ages (close to Atapuerca) under a perfect dome of blue sky; watching the sun rise on the Meseta; being the first one to walk up to O Cebreiro once snowy morning, walking in tracks left by a large dog (or wolf?) and then down the mountain still in 6 inches of snow along untrodden paths through trees; and other special moments too. Those are the moments when one would be happy to die because life just cannot be any more perfect at that very moment.

    If I had to pick 3 days, I'd pick random days - like from Puente la Reina along the ancient Roman road to Villatuerta or Estella. The alternative (and original) route from Poblacion de Campos to Carrion de los Condes. From Rabanal to Cruz de Ferro and stay in Acebo, and walk down to Molinaseca the next morning (that descent is sooo tricky, but worth doing). Climbing up to O Cebreiro through the forest. And taking the old route from Tricastela to Sarria via an overnight in Samos - so special, and such a lovely walk.

    I've posted here a bit about my Camino - click on my name to see what I wrote, and there's a link to my facebook 'blog' page - it's open so anyone can see it, even w/o a fb account.

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    Thanks Julia. I did read your trip reports before I took my trip and there was lots of helpful (and inspirational) information in them. I'm thinking if we do go back to walk parts of it we'd do the beginning and the end. We also really want to do some walks in England and have started planning for that so not sure when (if) we'll get back to the Camino. Hopefully we will, cause it seems that even though there are other great walks in England and elsewhere there is something special about the Camino.

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    Day 27 Ribadesella

    The A-8 to Ribadesella was fast (less than an hour) and pleasant. Ribadesella is a nice, rather large town (about 6,000 but looks bigger) right on the coast, set just inside the estuary of ariver. So the old town (which looks to have a very few ‘old’ buildings, and a good number of early 20th century and a bunch of later buildings) is set back, then there’s a large estuary (with a bridge across it) and then the ‘beach’ town houses and then the open water. There are promenades all around, and the inner harbor has a few working fishing boats (lobster/crab catching baskets stacked along the waterfront). The ocean side beach had pretty good surf and there were quite a lot of surfers in the water, despite the cool cloudy weather, but the beach was mostly deserted.

    We drove through town looking for a “P” sign but never saw one, there was free parking all along the main street and the waterfront and we literally got the last space. Unfortunately it was totally cloudy while we were there because I think you can probably see some impressive mountains in the background when it’s not clouded over. We walked around the town – several streets parallel to the main street which skirts the waterfront, there was a cheese market going on in the main square. We got caffe con leche and croissants at a 1950s type place (they had even had Werther’s originals in an old fashioned jar), very quaint. Among the best croissants of the trip, and that's saying something. Then we walked out to the tip of the promenade and watched the waves crash on the rocks for a while.

    Next stop was Llanes, larger (about 15,000). Drove all through the center (thank goodness Spain doesn’t have ZTLs like in Italy) but there was literally no place to park, it was really cloudy and gloomy so we left without stopping. Not terribly disappointed as it looked big enough and busy enough that it probably wasn’t all that charming or photogenic.

    Picos de Europa

    It’s about an hour from where you turn off the A-8 onto the N621 toward the Picos de Europa to Potes. A very pretty drive, the mountains are much higher and more rugged than you would expect so close to the sea. Very impressive gorge along the river all the way from the coast to Potes where things open out and it becomes more of an alpine meadow feel. Easily found the hotel right on the N621.

    Hotel Valdecoro – right on the N621 just as it enters Potes, extremely easy to find, nice large white building with the name in huge letters, can’t miss it. Free parking beside and behind the hotel. There’s a large restaurant on the first floor and there were two tour buses full of seniors having lunch – really loud. But checked in (receptionist did not speak any English). Room was decent but nothing special, free Wi-Fi (I had read it was only in public areas but we got it fine in our room on the first floor). Breakfast included which has been unusual on this trip through Northern Spain. There was no AC which I guess is rarely needed, but it was only about 74 for a high the day we were there, mostly cloudy, yet the room was hot enough that we had to leave the window open at night.

    Potes is really adorable, all old stone buildings along both sides of the river with at least three stone arched bridges connecting the two sides. There is one or two back streets full of tourist shops, restaurants and bars scattered all over the place. I think they must get a lot of tour groups and day-trippers, very busy mid day, less so in the evening. The sun came out and there was some blue sky, but the highest mountaintops were behind the clouds.

    By then it was 5pm, cloudy but still pretty bright so we decided to do the drive from Potes to Posada de Valdeon – the drive on the N621 south from Potes is a narrow road winding through the verdant Valle de Liebana, after about 8km (from Potes) you reach the hamlet of la Vega de Liebana. Go east the 12km for Cucayo via Dobres a lovely trip through mountains to about 900 m. Cucayo is the end of the road, around and below are jagged mountain peaks and green fields. Cucayo is a stone village with chickens and goats and one little church. You can’t go any further, you have to turn around and go back the way you came. Even with the tips in clouds the mountains were stunning, they really look like jagged glass, they are sharp and thin. There are several other little stone villages that you pass on the road, as well as a few farms with cows, sheep, goats and chickens. One place I stopped to take photos a cow mooed loudly at me, another a heard of sheep came and stared me down, another a bunch of chickens started clucking and ran down the road. It took about an hour to drive the 20 km (12 miles) due to the number of times we stopped to take photos, only about ½ hour to drive back down.

    After a brief rest in the room we went looking for dinner and settled on a Mexican restaurant (I’ve seen several in the various cities on this trip). It was really pretty good, much better than a lot of the food we’ve been having – I know, that's just my opinion.

    Day 28 A mostly sunny day! In the mountains. Breakfast buffet at hotel, average. Walked around Potes – can see some impressive peaks in one direction and nice big green hills in all the other directions. Very few people around yet at 10 am. We climbed to the top of the medieval Torre del Infantado for even better views.

    Drove up to Fuente De which is where the cable car goes from. Amazing scenery, very jagged white cliff like peaks. About a half hour from Potes. The road stops at Fuente Dé, and it’s not hard to see why; there’s a massive semicircle of rock; a spectacular natural wall that rises 800 m and is almost sheer. It is named Fuente Dé because this is where the Deva springs from the ground; there’s little there apart from two hotels, a campsite and a cable-car station.

    Parking lot about ¾ full and lots of people sitting in the sun and in the cafeteria. About a 15 minute line for the tickets only to find out that it would be another 2 hour wait for the cable car. There is only one cable car going up (and one going down) so even though it only takes 4 minutes it can be a while. I’d look at a lot of photos and videos on line and decided the view the bottom was probably as good and didn’t want to spend two hours.

    Back in Potes we took a walk along the river – there are paved walks at river level though most of the town is up a flight of stairs. The walk goes under all the stone bridges and out of town (pavement stops). Sound of the bubbling brook and birds singing. Really nice to appreciate the town from river level, and the river from up at town level.

    As we were walking back to the car we smelled bread baking so turned into the tiny bakery the aroma was coming from and got a huge fresh baked baguette for 30 cents. Then to a grocery store for picnic supplies.

    Heading back north on the N621, about 8 km is a turn off (with good sign) for the church of Santa Maria Lebena (then it's another about ½ mile after you turn off the N621), built in the 10th century in the Mozarabic style. Little parking lot with benches, few picnic tables, little hut selling soda and ice cream. Had our picnic lunch – sun shining, temps about 80, gorgeous cliffs all around, adorable church, vineyards, smell of wildflowers.

    Continued the drive north on the N621 through La Hermida Gorge – just incredible tall mountains rising right from the road, in some places part of the mountain kind of arches over the road, just barely high enough for a car. At some places the river is right next to the road, several stone bridges crisscrossing it. In a lot of ways it reminded me of Yosemite, in others of the desert southwest only the mountains are greyish white. But the sky was blue and the trees green and overall very pretty.

    Back on the A-8 - it is a great highway, runs all along the north of Spain, two lanes limited access highway mostly going past rolling green hills with glimpses of the sea every now and then,(and only occasionally going past slag-heap towns) no tolls, gas stations. Very easy to get around.

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    << We also really want to do some walks in England and have started planning >>

    Well, if you decide to do the Cotswold Way, I live only a few metres off it, at about the half-way point. Come and see me!

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    That's great to know. We had actually started to plan for this past summer but our brother and sister-in-law are interested in the England trip and they had health issues that prevented traveling this year (and probably next) but when we get to it I will definitely keep you in mind.

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    Day 28 continued

    Santillana del Mar

    From the A-8 it’s only about 5 minutes, to the center of Santillana, easily found the Hotel Colonial Santillana which is very nice, gated parking behind it, nice old building, large room, modern bath, decent Wi-Fi, friendly family run place. No AC but don’t need it. We did need to keep the window open at night and the restaurant tables are right under the window so there was a bit of noise of people talking till around 11. A room on the back of the building would probably have eliminated that.

    A one-minute walk to the TI and the town, which you can walk around in 15 minute tops if you don’t stop to take a few hundred photos. So that took us a few hours. Plenty of people but didn’t see any tour groups. May have helped that it was 5:00 in the afternoon.

    There was a violinist playing, really beautiful arrangements so bought three of her CDs. Karla Gombek, she has a website. We had a nice conversation, she is from Malaga and seemed impressed that I had been there. Can’t say enough good things about her music, I’ve been listening to those CDs continuously ever since I got home.

    After dinner the sunshine had been replaced with drizzle and while it made the cobblestone streets slippery they reflected the light beautifully making the village all gold and glisteny. Still a good number of people out and about at 10 pm, most restaurants looked like people were finishing up eating, not just starting. Nicely lit, almost ‘magical’ ambiance.

    Day 29 A rainy, humid day. The perfect thing to do would have been the Altamira Caves but since it was a Monday they were closed. So we went off to check out Comillas and San Vicente.

    Comillas is about a 20 minute drive from Santillna, and feels a bit like a large hill town that is also a beach town. It has the Gaudi house El Capricho (smaller and much less impressive than the ones in Barcelona, but more ‘Gaudy’ than the couple we’ve seen on this trip (in Leon and Astorga). 5€ pp entrance which you have to pay to see even the outside. There were tours, including a couple in English, but you could wander through on your own with a pretty good written guide explaining things. DH was pretty impressed having not been to Barcelona yet. The sun came out for 45 seconds while I was on the roof.

    The Sobrellano Palace is neo-gothic and quite impressive from the outside (even in the light rain), and as it is up on a hill, has nice views. The huge Pontifical University building, the location of the International Centre for Higher Education in Spanish, aims to become the international center for the study of Spanish and Spanish-language teaching. Universidad Pontificia was built as a theological college in avant-garde style. It’s a huge structure in reddish stone that you can see up on another hill, from all over town. Very impressive modernista entrance arch.

    Just past the university is the town cemetery, on another hill, overlooking the beach. Unusual setting for a cemetery. And it is surrounded by stone walls topped with a very large angel. The beach is average at best, nothing very spectacular. From there we climbed back up into the town center and had lunch at a pizzeria that was actually very good.

    In general Comillas was a bit of a let down. All the above mentioned ‘monuments’ were certainly interesting, but not outstanding and the center of town is OK at best. A couple nice squares and interesting buildings, but Comillas didn’t get the memo that touristy towns need to be pedestrianized in the center. There were cars everywhere, including parked in front of the most otherwise scenic settings.

    It kept alternating between raining lightly and not raining (and about 1% of the time the sun came out) all day, at that point it was not raining so we pushed on to San Vicente de la Barquera, about 12 km from Comillas. The town is still a working fishing port and there were plenty of seafood restaurants all along the harbor (which opened out at small mouth to the open sea). There’s a long Roman looking bridge as you enter the town, then another smaller one as your round the harbor, with interesting views of the harbor, the boats and the town from both of them. There is a castle and a church up on the hill, and one street connecting them, all that is left of the old town. Most of the town is modern, 20th century apartments. The town is functional rather than pretty. But the castle and the church, and the remnants of the old town walls are kind of interesting and the views from up there of the water and the green hills were very nice. Looks more like Wales than Spain for sure.

    The climb up to the castle is not at all bad and definitely the highlight. I suspect the view of the Picos behind the town on a clear day would be wonderful but that wasn’t happening that day. By 4pm without any coffee I was getting a headache so we stopped in a bar and got a wonderful caffe con leche for 1€. It was literally a bar that served coffee and not much else.

    Really rained hard on the drive back to Santillana, we took the A-8 and it was exactly ½ hour. We had taken the local roads, C-133 on the way there, nice two lane roads, nothing especially scenic but easy. Although driving through Comillas was very slow as you have to wind through some pretty tiny streets. But wasn’t more than 20 minutes or so between each of the three towns.

    Day 30 Altamira Cave, Santillana

    We got to Altamira at 10:45, parking lot full and people parking on the road leading to it, so we did as well. The line to buy tickets was exactly one hour long. We were given a timed ticket of 12:50 so had another hour. But the ‘museum’ part is excellent and we were not even done with it when it was time to visit the cave. The museum is small – really only three medium sized rooms, but full of displays, videos, and plaques with information (all in English as well as Spanish). Most of the videos were self-explanatory so there was no talking in any language. Then you queue up and are ushered into a small room (20 people at a time, staggered about every 10 minutes) to watch a 5-minute video and then you walk through the cave. Pretty amazing, the whole ceiling is covered. As you enter the cave you see where the people spent most of their time (the large entrance area, with exterior light) and then down a few steps into the darker part of the cave where the paintings were. You only get about 5 minutes in there but there’s just the one space so it doesn’t take long. But very worthwhile. And only 3€ entrance fee. A UNESCO world heritage site and extremely interesting.

    Back in town we went looking for lunch (which of course took a while since now it was bright sunshine so I had to stop every two minutes to take photos and there were tourists everywhere so it took a while). Went to a restaurant on the main street with outdoor seating slightly elevated from street level and discovered we were looking right into the ruins of an old building (only noticeable from street level if you knew to look up – could see right through the building, kind of interesting.

    Then wandered some more and went back to the ceramic store we’d seen the other day. I like to buy things to remind me of trips and hadn’t seen much this trip that I wanted. But this place had really nice stuff - not quite as good as most Italian ceramics, but so inexpensive so I got a few pieces including an apothecary jar that the owner said the painting on it was copied from old pharmacy books.

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    Isabel we were in Comillas on a bright sunny day at the end of September. I'm sure the blue sky makes a difference because we quite liked the beach, and the town was almost empty. Maybe that's why it's not pedestrianized, the tourism is seasonal. Anyway loving your very factual report.

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    Thanks, that could be.

    Day 31 Laguardia

    We followed the A-8 past Bilbao – mostly green hills and pretty, but interspersed with slag heaps and industrialized areas around Santander and Bilbao. And a little bit of views of the ocean. Would not want to be hiking through those areas but don’t know how else the Camino gets to the center of those cities, which it does. Hopefully there are paths that don’t go through these areas, the part along the ocean looked beautiful. After Bilbao the AP 68 goes south (AP roads are toll roads, other ‘interstate’ type highways are not). Around Bilbao all the signs change from Spanish with English as the second language to Basque with Spanish as the second language. But we easily followed the map/directions to Laguardia and easily found the hotel.

    Hotel Marixa On the road around the medieval town, just off the highway, very easy to find. There is a tiny free parking lot next to the hotel and a bit of free on street parking, we got the last space. Otherwise there is a larger lot down the hill a bit, only a few minutes walk but would have wanted to drop off the luggage (even just our light carry-ons) if parking there. Marixa is also a fairly upscale restaurant (we didn’t eat there) and is in a nice older (though not medieval) building but kept up well. Room was boring but perfectly fine, the best thing though is that there’s a nice terrace with table and chairs looking right onto the beautiful church tower and town walls across the street.

    Laguardia is a hill town surrounded by vineyards on all sides and some pretty impressive mountains on one side. Great views in all directions. The town itself is totally pedestrianized, very narrow streets (about 3 streets runs the length of the town, a few more cross streets; the town is very narrow). We walked every street in less than an hour. There are two churches, one at each end, both with impressive bell towers. One of them you can climb (for 2€) and offers even better views of the surrounding countryside. In the center of town is a tiny plaza with arcaded buildings on both sides, lots of flower filled iron balconies jutting out from all the stone buildings. A few bakeries, a few butchers, one little grocery store, a few wine stores, one or two stores selling post cards and not much else. Hardly any tourists.

    There’s a nice promenade around the tip of the town, benches, tree shaded, great views. A little square near the church had an interesting sculpture – two bronze tables one filled with bronze shoes and the other with bronze bags/suitcases/backpacks. “The basic idea of this sculpture is the journey and the evocation of it (of the land that leaves us and of which we leave). Reflect on how an object related to traveling, such as shoes or a suitcase, can make us relive different situations and moments.” That is google’s translation of the sign. It was lovely.

    We got picnic supplies at the little grocery store and had lunch on our terrace. It was so good, and only ate half of it so we just went back later and added a few things for dinner. There was wine for sale in the grocery, unlabeled Rosé for €1.49 a bottle. We couldn’t resist, although the corkscrew we had to buy to get into the wine cost three times as much as the wine did. It was at least as good as your average Rosé. Great dinner on our terrace watching the sun go lower and change the color of the stone.

    Went out to see the sunset around 9:30, which is lovely from the little mirador on the west side of town. After dark we wandered around the pretty town center. Tons of kids playing in the streets, old people sitting on benches visiting with friends, several restaurants with outside tables. Incredibly lively. And the clock on the town hall, at 10:00 opens up and plays music and little statues come out and dance.

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    Day 32 Puente la Reina

    The drive from LaGuardia to Puente La Reina is pretty straightforward. We mostly stayed on the N roads, which followed the Camino. Saw a good number of walkers. Passed a few cute stone villages. Watched as the Camino went along the road and then would cut through fields for a while and reappear on the road. Slightly hilly, mostly wheat fields and vineyards. The route goes through Logorno and a few other sizeable towns, which are easily passed in a car but walking through them didn’t look like fun. One very picturesque stone village, Sansol sits just where the Camino leaves the road and goes off into hayfields.

    We found parking in Puente La Reina with no problem and walked through the town. First thing we noticed was that 90% of the people were dressed in white with red trim. At first I thought they were going to Pamplona but then we realized there were so many of them it had to be local (not to mention that the Pamplona festival had been over for more than a week). We finally found sings saying their festival was the 25-29th (And it was the 27th ) They appear to have a tiny bull ring right in the main square – don’t know if it’s permanent or not but there was sand and pretty substantial walls and bleachers. Then we noticed there were large gates closing off the side streets (so the bulls must run through the main street to the main square). But the main street was currently full of restaurant tables and people eating and drinking (despite it being 11am). Everyone in white and red, even babies and grandpas. As we were leaving town there was the beginning of a parade.

    The bridge is lovely, reflected perfectly in the river. There’s a little church near the bridge, a large church in the middle of the main street, and another, the Church of the Crucifixion at the far end of town, next to the Pilgrim Hostal and the Pilgrim monument. That church has a backpack and walking staff right under the crucifix in the front of the church.


    Then we headed for Olite. A couple km past town I spotted a round stone church in the middle of a cornfield and we pulled off – there was a parking lot and a few people. It was just lovely, was actually hexagonal with a kind of round cloister all around it. Unfortunately it was closed but it was great to just walk around it. It’s the Church of Saint Mary of Eunate, a 12th century Romanesque church with links to the Knights Templar. Its octagonal plan and the fact that it is not located in a present-day village but in the countryside contribute to its enigmatic nature. I was just staying ‘why is this not in a guide book’ and then as we were leaving a tour bus pulled in. Guess it’s in Spanish guidebooks. While there were lots of great things I saw on this trip, my extensive research meant that there were few surprises, so the fact that I just ‘spotted’ this one added to the experience.

    Found Olite no problem, found hotel with parking lot behind it just as my directions, reviews had said.
    Hotel Merindad is literally just inside the wall to the old town. Beautiful old stone building, lovely reception/sitting area. Room was quite large and very nice, beautiful furniture, nice tile in the bathroom, AC, TV, free Wi-Fi, little terrace with a drop dead view of the castle and the surrounding vineyards.

    Went out to explore, the town is very tidy, beautifully kept, all stone buildings, tower with arched entrances, the Parador, just a few steps from our hotel, is in a small square with the church beside it, then beside that the castle. Main square in town is at other end of castle. Every just lovely. Hot and sunny. So nice.

    The castle is quite amazing. 3.50€ (they could get away with 5 times that). It’s extremely well restored, almost too much, at first you think it’s Disney-esque. But it’s a real 14th century castle and some of the inside rooms, while unfurnished, are very representative of a castle of that age. There are tiny courtyards with gardens and ivy. But the most amazing thing is the ramparts and towers of which there are many – they go on and on and on. There are about a dozen towers you can climb (fitbit said about 30 flights) – all stone spiral staircases. And with each tower the view got better and better. Like a fairytale. Even DH was impressed and went around fantasying about what would be vantage points for taking out medieval enemies with a bow and arrow. And the best view turns out to be from behind – just past the hotel – the view from terrace of our hotel is great.

    The church next to/incorporated into the castle has a lovely tiny cloister ruin just outside the main entrance (very unusual, most cloisters are hidden behind walls accessible only from inside the church, not right outside in front). The carving over the door is amazing and still has remnants of paint. In addition to the usual collection of saints there is a 3-D sculpture of the Virgin and baby and a lot of other things – animals, people, flowers, scrolls, gargoyles. Really beautiful and interesting.

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    Another memorable trip for my favorite traveler.

    I share your fondness for light--all the difference.
    San Sebastian is my favorite city in Spain, and I have 5 trips to Spain.

    Well done !

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    Thanks Bob!

    Last full day - Day 33

    We started the day by having caffe con leche and a pan au chocolate for 3€ that was just about the best thing I ever ate! It was at a cute retro café just off the main square that probably hasn’t changed in 50 years. A lady came in with an adorable white little dog, which she tied to the door while she bought her bread.


    A drive of about 20 minutes or less, well marked signs. We had the map and directions but they really weren’t necessary. In fact all three places we went this day we got to by signs, everything was very well marked. In most cases the route numbers were the same as on the map but not 100% of the time, but really didn’t matter. The roads are all good and driving very easy, hardly any traffic.

    Ujue is a hill town that is impossibly scenic as you approach it, there are a few pull offs for stopping. It was back lit in the morning but wonderful later. We stopped, easily followed the one “P” sign and parked next to the one other car in the lot. We did see a ‘lot’ with space for two buses but it was empty. Climbed up the hill and found the ‘fortified’ church. It’s essentially a church with a castle built all around it, looks like a castle from outside, there’s a second floor with arched walls, lots of interesting carvings, whole thing was wonderful, it was free, and there was one family there when we got there (actually if they had not been there we wouldn’t have even know you could go in as the entry wasn’t very visible) and they left and it was just us. Views for miles and miles to the Pyrenees.

    We decided rather than explore the town we’d push on to the Castillo Javier to be sure to get there before they closed at 13:30 since we had to go almost right by Ujue on the way back. Another easy half hour or so drive, past several more hill towns, the prettiest was Eslada (which had a picnic area pullover with a modern rusty steel and glass “torre”.

    Castillo Javier

    Very well marked (as was Ujue, all the tourist stuff has pink signs directing you there from quite a ways away). The parking lot there had a few more cars plus one tour bus. It’s an ‘important’ castle as Saint Javier was born there (he helped found the Jesuits with Loyola). The castle looked pretty castle like from a distance, and there is nothing around it (except the church, monastery, hotel, and café, (but no town). But it’s been very renovated and inside is all wood stairs (replacing stone ones), no spiral staircases, metal handrails, etc. No atmosphere. There is a museum of religious art. But a tad disappointing. But in the aseos there was piped in music of monastic chanting.

    Next stop. Monastery Leyre .

    We almost didn’t go as the only thing I had seen that made me want to go there was a turquoise lake in the background of one picture. But it was wonderful. The original church and crypt are 11th century but with a ‘modern’ 17th century addition on both sides. One side is where the monks still live and can’t be visited and the other is a hotel/restaurant. But the original church, and especially the crypt are fabulous. There is a little shop and a woman gave us a key (5€ deposit, €3 entrance fee) and explained how to “open the door to the crypt and be sure to lock it once we are inside, same with the church, and oh, by the way in 15 minutes in the church the monks will be singing, you can still go in just don’t walk around too much”. Kind of scary to lock ourselves into a crypt but it was beautiful in there and we were the only ones there. Nicely lit and the lock is modern so not really afraid we’d get locked inside, (I once got locked into a church/cloister when they locked up for siesta so I’m a little skittish when it comes to things like this). Then we went around to the church, same deal with the key. But in addition to the monks, who were indeed chanting, there were ten or fifteen tourists sitting and watching. Pretty cool. And the setting with the Pyrenees foothills on one side and a beautiful turquoise lake down below was very nice.

    We stopped in Ujue on the way back to explore and hoping to get some lunch but it was shut tight for siesta. (3pm). Not that there’s much there to shut, about 2 restaurants and one store that looked like it sold regional products. But there were lots of tiny stone streets with stone houses and views down into the valley that surrounds the town with the Pyrenees in the background and lots of white (modern) windmills.

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    Thanks Karen - I do put a lot of work into planning trips - but with all the advance preparation plus all the trip report writing/photo organizing I can usually manage to make the trip last for months - if I'm lucky I can make one trip run right into the next one.

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    Day 34 The End of the trip

    Las Bardenas

    I don’t even remember how I found out about Las Bardenas as it’s not in any guidebooks. But when I found the photos I knew I’d really like to try to include in on this trip. In fact, we probably wouldn’t have done Olite/Ujue, etc . if they weren’t so close. Turns out it worked out perfectly as a few hour stop on our way to the Madrid airport for out last night before flying home.

    About 45 minutes from Olite. Technically semi-desert; a rugged expanse of white gypsum flats. It’s a popular location for filmmaking: eg the Bond film The World is not Enough was made here. The information center and main entrance to the park can be accessed from the road N- 134 just south (approximately 3km) from the town of Arguedas. This is the best entrance since the road is paved, pavement ends after the Info Center. At the information center (WCs and vending machine with cold drinks) we were given a map and told the road is fine for all cars, just go slow, it should take about 1½ hours to do the circuit, plus stops. The road is certainly very dusty, but totally fine to drive in our Fiat 500.

    There are several unique geological formations and some lovely landscapes. These landscapes are the result of a climate made up of hot summers, cold winters and long dry periods interrupted by heavy rain. There is also a particular wind current that runs through the area, called “cierzo.”

    It was certainly beautiful in that ‘desert’ way, but if you’ve been to the desert southwest of the US it was pretty underwhelming. The mesas and other geologic features are tiny, probably a tenth the height of most of the stuff in the US deserts, kind of like desert miniature. The most impressive is Cabezo Castildetierra which is featured on all the posters and postcards and does look very otherworldly.

    There were the ruins of some old buildings (can’t imagine anyone living here) and plenty of places to pull off the road to take pictures and walk around, but I didn’t see any actual paths or places where you could do hikes, not that we would have, given it was 99 degrees and sunny. There were some nice wild flowers, a lake a distance off the road, and something which we think might have been rice growing (which would be weird).

    We were there from 11:30 to 1:30. It was about 99 degrees.
    It did take longer than I had thought to drive to Madrid but the scenery was more interesting than I expected and we only needed to get to the airport in time to turn in the car and grab something for dinner before bed. The Axor Feria Hotel was a great place to crash since we had to be at the airport by 7:30 in the morning. I choose it since they had a free shuttle bus to and from the airport. The shuttle was on time and efficient. And at only 62€ a good value for a very nice, clean, modern hotel.

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