A Light Rail Mini-Adventure

A couple of weeks ago, on one of the first truly summery days of the year, a friend and I headed toward the Ardennes and an experience we were both looking forward to: les Draisines de la Molignée.

Draisines are light rail cars that are human energy powered, usually like a bicycle. The Draisines of the Molignée travel back and forth on six, eight, and fourteen kilometer journeys through a verdant region of Belgium near the National Park of the Ardennes. If you choose the six or the fourteen kilometer journey, you will take your midpoint respite at the Maredsous Abbey, where you can take a tour of the Abbey’s brewery and cheesemaking facility, and of course enjoy the fruits of those labors.

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Photos by Anna Amato 

We decided to take the eight kilometer journey, both having visited the Abbey, and as we bought our tickets (they are super affordable at 18 euros per two way journey for up to four people), the seller told us that we could continue on to the Abbey if we wanted to when we reached our turn-around point; in other words we could buy the next trajectory at the turn around point and simply continue on. We asked him how hard the journey was and were assured that it was not difficult but the return journey was even easier.

As we pedaled out, we went mostly through woods so there wasn’t a lot of great scenery, but it was peaceful and fun and definitely not difficult. We stopped to snap a photo of the ruin of the Chateau Fort du Montaigle looking down on us. As we gently pedaled our way along, a trio of speedy youngsters caught up with us. They were kind of tailgating us and making us feel a little pressured to speed up, which we definitely did not want to do, so we stopped and offered to trade cars with them. Happily they took us up on the offer, and we watched them speed off ahead of us as we leisurely followed behind at our preferred pace.

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The ruined castle, and the view on the way back.

At the halfway point, we dismounted and headed for the snackbar. We bought a beer, a water and a little bag of chips and watched one of the workers turn the cars around on the rails, which he did by hand because there were only a few to deal with. There is a machine that does this much faster when needed.

After thirty minutes or so, we headed back. The vendor didn’t lie; the return trip was so much easier that we barely pedaled at all. It is apparently a very light grade, imperceptible on the trip up, but super easy on the way back. We had a bit of fun with that, as you can see here.

This is a highly recommended outing. Pet friendly, too, so you can take your furry friend along for the ride. Grandpa and grandma or tiny toddlers will also enjoy the fun because there is two-person seating between the pedalers’ seats! And it really isn’t difficult at all. The Abbey of Maredsous is another recommended stop: great beer, and an even better tour.

Click for a video taken on the journey!

Click to find out more about the Draisines!

 

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Culloden and the Bonnie Prince

Lately everyone knows the song linked here.

It’s called The Skye Boat Song, revised and shortened so as to be an appropriate theme for the runaway hit show Outlander, of which I am an admitted fan, largely because James Fraser is “The Perfect Man”. Ruddy and kilted and educated and strong and… ahem. I digress.

Yes, the song has been revised and shortened from its original form. Revised, you say? Yes, because the original was written by Robert Lewis Stevenson and goes like this: “Sing me a song of a lad that is gone…” If you also are an Outlander fan, you know the song sings of a “lass,” rather than a lad. Read the full poem below but I warn you, it is heart-rending and infuriating. Why, you ask? I will try to answer that question and a few other “why’s” in the few short paragraphs that follow.

First of all, why is it about a lad, not a lass? Because the lad was Bonnie Prince Charlie Stuart, the Would-Be Scottish monarch, who in the vain hope of becoming the Catholic king for all of England, led his Jacobite followers to spill their blood on Culloden Moor in 1746. 1500 lost lives, 1000 of them fighting on the side of the Jacobites, all for the Bonnie Prince who wasn’t worth a gram of the lavender that covers the beautiful moors of Scotland. Pardon me if you are one of the thousands of people who admire him; I don’t share that view, and you shouldn’t either! If you watch Outlander, the portrayal of the young Pretender is spot on in terms of historical records, in spite of the mythic admiration that persists for the man.

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Why, then, is the legend that surrounds the Bonnie Prince wrong? Born in Rome to a family in exile, he was brought up in ways that are anything but Scottish, and possessed none of the Highland fortitude that marked those who would die for him twenty-six years later. He was known to take to his bed sick when he didn’t get his way, even as an adult! In spite of a highly cultured upbringing and known talents for music and art, some historical accounts reveal him as a spoiled brat who later in life became a drunken wife-beater with multiple mistresses, although the account I read was of a book from the publishing house of the (Protestant) Church of Scotland and thus, perhaps stained by a certain bias.

Nevertheless, it is certain that the Young Pretender to the throne led a small army of malnourished and poorly equipped men against an army of well-fed and heavily-equipped professional soldiers in an ill-timed battle for a throne he may have been entitled to, but for which he wasn’t destined, nor which he deserved, in spite of his birthright. Why did he do it? Against the advice of all his military advisors, he went ahead to battle. Whatever possessed him to think he could win?

Young Charlie, bonnie as he was, wasn’t apparently very clever. Or maybe his pride overcame his intellect. In any event, he refused to concede even when he was advised, again and again, that his men were hungry and exhausted and needed to restore themselves; many, in fact, had already returned home for a needed break, knowing it was an unwinnable battle. The Outlander writers didn’t show this as strongly as they should have, in my opinion. Why not? I’m glad you asked…

First, promised supplies had not been delivered. Although the army possessed sufficient and advanced weaponry, much of it was still in Inverness. Further, needed support from the French had been intercepted and never arrived, devastating the Jacobites. The soldiers were weakened by cold, wet weather and by hunger. Even without Claire’s foreknowledge of the future, the prince’s able military advisors warned him to turn the army back and regroup. When the prince refused to heed this advice, the leaders of the battle groups decided to try to surprise the redcoats as they slept. For whatever reason, they miscalculated the time it would take them to arrive, and when they realized they were not going to make it to the British campsite before morning’s light, they turned back, hoping to rest and take whatever meager nourishment they possessed before the battle. Instead, the Young Pretender’s exhausted army faced the rested, advancing English, after having hiked 20 miles the night before and not having eaten in at least two days.

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The ensuing battle cost the lives of over a thousand men, and as a result, the Bonnie Prince spent five months on the run, a hunted man, trying to escape certain hanging at the hands of the British government. And that leads us to my final why: Why is the Stevenson poem both sad and maddening?

The poem is the story of the Bonnie Prince’s escape to Skye, a fleeing figure whose legacy was not one of royalty but rather of ruin. Ruined lives, false hopes, families whose fathers and brothers and sons were lost. More poignant and stirring than the poem are the quotes at the museum at Culloden, which I visited a few weeks ago, just before the 272nd anniversary of the battle.

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Displayed at Culloden.

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The museum is a moving timeline seen through the eyes of the British and the Scots, and it is rich in artifacts, media, and history. I had wanted to visit more for the battlefield itself, where the many bodies are interred, but the museum inspired me as well. My traveling companion had warned me that it was probably “just a field,” but I had seen a video about the site and was certain it was more than that. Obviously it was much more. I shot this video while there. Turn up the sound, as I was trying to be quietly respectful of the site.

Sing me a Song of a Lad that is Gone
by ROBERT LOUIS STEVENSON

Sing me a song of a lad that is gone,
Say, could that lad be I?
Merry of soul he sailed on a day
Over the sea to Skye.

Mull was astern, Rum on the port,
Eigg on the starboard bow;
Glory of youth glowed in his soul;
Where is that glory now?

Sing me a song of a lad that is gone,
Say, could that lad be I?
Merry of soul he sailed on a day
Over the sea to Skye.

Give me again all that was there,
Give me the sun that shone!
Give me the eyes, give me the soul,
Give me the lad that’s gone!

Sing me a song of a lad that is gone,
Say, could that lad be I?
Merry of soul he sailed on a day
Over the sea to Skye.

Billow and breeze, islands and seas,
Mountains of rain and sun,
All that was good, all that was fair,
All that was me is gone.

References:

The most important reference was the museum itself; by all means visit if you can.  https://www.nts.org.uk/visit/places/culloden

Online sources:

http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/10.1093/ref:odnb/9780198614128.001.0001/odnb-9780198614128-e-5145

http://nationalarchives.gov.uk/documents/education/timeline-final.pdf

https://www.scotsman.com/lifestyle/bonnie-prince-charlie-was-drink-soaked-brute-1-3351662

https://www.scotsman.com/news/culloden-moor-april-16-1746-the-worst-place-on-earth-1-4420543

https://www.nts.org.uk/stories/jacobite-stories-the-battle-of-culloden

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Scotland

I’ve a recent trip to Scotland that I am just itching to write about. I don’t yet know where to begin. Scotland pulls at my soul like a dream that I can’t quite remember but that keeps making itself known somehow. I can’t explain it.

For now I leave you with a few photos. More to come along with some details, maybe a little at a time. Here you have Loch Lomond, Loch Linnhe, Glencoe, and Eilean Donan, each in its own right worth a trip to Western Scotland!

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Clockwise from top left: Glencoe, Loch Linnhe, the flag at Eilean Donan, Loch Lomond and Eilean Donan Castle.

See you here in a few days with more about the bonny land of lochs. 
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A Castle, a Church, and a bit of Rain

A thirteenth century church, an equally ancient castle ruin, miles and miles of green pastureland outlined by ancient stone walls and worse weather than Belgium can only describe one place I know of: England’s spectacular Lakes District just south of Scotland. I spent a few days with friends there recently; there is a lot to love about the Lakes District. Except the weather.

Did I mention the weather? Here is a snippet of a conversation heard a few days before my return home to relatively-sunny-Belgium:
“So, did you see the sun break through yesterday?”
“What sun?”
“‘Twas about three in the afternoon, I think it was. ‘Bout five minutes. I put on me shorts.”
Not a lot of exaggeration, really. Maybe a little. About the shorts, probably.

Nevertheless, the wet weather makes for some very green countryside and early daffodils. And lambs. It was lambing time. If you read my other blog, What Living Feels Like, you know I’m vegetarian, and lambs are way too cute to eat even if I weren’t. Did you know lambs are often born in pairs? Twice the cuteness!

Honestly, is there anything cuter than a lamb? Well, yes, twin lambs butting heads!

The fifteenth century church is called Holy Trinity. It boasts an unusually wide nave, one of the widest in all of England, and it is very impressive both from the exterior and interior. It sits beside the Kent River on a very picturesque parcel of land called Kirkland, naturally. While it began as a Catholic Church in the thirteenth century, it is no longer. As you probably know, Henry VIII took over all the country’s churches and now it is part of the Church of England, and so of course, is Anglican.

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The Parr family, from whom came Catherine, the last wife of aforementioned Henry VIII, was pivotal in the community during the Church’s early life. Thus there is a Parr Chapel in the church. Some of the Parr family is said to be buried in the church, as was the custom in those days. In fact a lot of the burials are very interesting, dating from hundreds of years ago. Sometimes you can even read about the life of the deceased person.

I was especially taken with some of these rememberances. One tells the sorrowful story of a young and highly respected lawyer’s demise; he left a disconsolate widow and six children, the second oldest of whom lost her life only a year later. The image of the memorial is below.

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Did you know that many Anglican churches have angels flying around them? Beautiful, painted angels adorn the ceiling. They are all different! You also know I’m a fan of stained glass, and some of the windows here are worthy of a glance or two.

If you visit, there will likely be a nice lady who will greet you and give you a flyer in your choice of one of a number of different languages. Be nice to her; her day can be very monotonous. Here’s a challenge: make her laugh once.

Kendal Castle occupies an imposing position on the highest point overlooking the town. There isn’t much left of it, but what remains is fascinating and getting there makes for an interesting and mildly challenging walk from the town. The ruins date from the 1200’s and belonged to the Barons of Kendal: the Parr family. They actually lived in the castle, along with a lot of other people who helped make their day-to-day lives easier. I suspect the lives of all were pretty difficult, as life in the Middle Ages was for everyone.

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The site has been thoroughly studied and there are well-done signs here and there that explain the different parts of the remains as well as what once stood in different spots. You can easily see parts of a fireplace and a “garderobe”‘ which includes the Middle Age’s answer to a toilet: a hole in the floor that opened to the moat below.

Kendal Castle

Garderobe area, with the iron door marking the toilet room, and to the right the fireplace.

Probably the most interesting for me was the location of the apparently original well that supplied the site with water. I love imagining the people digging that well with their primitive tools, and the excitement when they found water and knew the hardest part of the chore was done.

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Well in the foreground

You can walk all the way around the castle site, as well as inside the courtyard and the castle remains. The views from all around are stunning. You can see into Kendal from one side and into the countryside from the other. The surrounding trees are home to quite a lot of birds, and your walk will reward you with birdsong. Do be careful, though, as the ground can be quite spongy and you’re liable to end up at least once on your backside in the wet grass, as I might’ve done. I’m not saying I did or I didn’t. But I might’ve done. Wink-nod-eye roll.

Kendal proper is a mostly modern small city with nice amenities. My friends attend concerts, swim, walk, shop, go to church, the doctor and really everything else they might want to do as a retired international couple (he English, she American) without leaving the town limits. Kendal is a welcoming place to make a home, especially if you don’t mind the sparce sunshine. As a tourist destination, nothing special except as a gateway to the Lakes. If you want to read more about this beautiful area and see some photos of the lovely lakes, check out the post I wrote a few years ago.

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Seneffe Chateau and Gardens

What has labyrinthine gardens, trompe-l’oeil floors, a multi-media show, spicy hot chocolate, and some rather racy art pieces? Seneffe Chateau and gardens in the heart of Walloon Belgium.

It was a rainy day and we were looking for something to do. We had hoped to walk the gardens but it was too muddy after too many days of wet weather. So we settled on the château. Beautiful from the outside, inside is in such great shape that they make you wear very odd over-shoes.

The trompe-l’oeil floors are a big part of the reason for this. They are fantastic.

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The lovely little café sells teas, coffee, a few little cakes (the one I tasted was nice and moist) and the most fantastic hot chocolate with a bite. It is flavored with a hot chili called piri piri. Even better? The server was dressed in an 18th century gown complete with period hair and makeup.

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The current exposition inside the château is called Curiosity in the 18th Century. Meant to show how the 18th Century was marked by inquisitiveness, it includes art from all over the world and a video of the debut of electricity during that time frame. To be honest, it wasn’t what I love about visiting châteaux, but there were some interesting moments. And some rather odd ones, like the pair of glass penises. I may be a woman of a certain age, but I dunno, glass phalli aren’t so much in my frame of reference. I kind of was so, er… surpised! by them that I forgot to photograph them. Probably for the best. I can tell you that one was clear glass and the other was a kind of ceramic.

There’s a crazy beautiful bathtub on display, and a well-appointed 18th century bedroom. The fantastic period clothing is actually touchable. The chandeliers and ceiling medallions are impressive, in almost every room, and some of the wallpaper is over the top. The stairway begs you to walk down it gracefully (a gift I’m not blessed with). There are way more silver hot chocolate carafes than any one château needs.

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The grounds are free access and have lovely walking trails both in the sunshine (when there is sunshine in Belgium) and in the trees. And later in spring there will be flowers, and so the gardens will be lovely to walk. I actually wrote about the gardens here. 

Click for Seneffe Chateau and gardens site.

It’s a recommendable visit, not long, but go when you want to walk the gardens, and remember, those are free.

I wrote about another great Belgian château here. 

Thanks for reading. Leave a comment. See you in (not-so) sunny Belgium.

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Wine and… what?!!?

Last weekend I went to a wine tasting. Tis the season. Here in Belgium, we often have wine tastings in the spring. They are usually accompanied by some very light hors d’oeuvres, like cheese or nuts or something. This one was late for a tasting, at 7:00 p.m. I figured there’d be something more substantial, but wasn’t sure, and since “substantial” usually means charcuterie and I’m vegetarian, I ate a salad before going.

The locations are often half the fun. This one was being held in an old hospital dating to the 13th (THIRTEENTH!) century. Now in the interest of honesty, the room in which the tasting was to take place is 19th century, and the major part of the remains of the building date to the 17th and 18th centuries, but the original edifice is a medieval building. You can read the history of the site here.

I met my friend, Rita, there; we were fashionably late as usual. I was surprised to see this was a sit-down affair. We sat with one of her friends; I didn’t know anyone, of course. (Americans in Belgium are odd-ones-out most of the time; the Belgians don’t tend to invite us to join them (to be fair, they don’t invite each other either) and we are usually reticent to do so without an invitation. Most of us can’t speak French (lucky for me, I CAN) or much less Dutch, which is spoken in the northern half of the country, and so we wouldn’t know what was going on anyway. Obviously, I love opportunities to speak French, so I’m definitely the exception.) All eyes were on us as we got ourselves situated; fifteen minutes late! I think they had been waiting for us to arrive to get the proverbial show on the road.

The fellow in charge began to address the group and Rita’s friend Sandrine leaned over and said something to the effect that this was sure to be good. I heard the speaker talking about one of the sponsors of the event, and just at that moment Sandrine joked to Rita, “I hope your friend isn’t a vegetarian,” and the speaker introduced the sponsor, So-and-So Boucherie. 

Rita stole a glance at me. She said, “well, yes, she is a vegetarian,” and I perked my ears up to hear the speaker who was telling all about the artisan butcher that was the author of this fine degustation, and the sommelier who would be providing accompanying wines, mostly from the Loire Valley in France.

My face must have registered something (disgust? Horror? An urge to escape?) because Sandrine looked at me and chortled. The lady sitting across from her and to my left rolled her eyes and sighed. Sandrine gleefully stated what we all knew by now, “It’s a butcher who is serving us! There’s nothing but meat on the menu!” Rita’s eyes were by now shifting anxiously from me, to her friend, and then to the speaker, who she evidently hoped was going to say “Poisson d’avril!” even though it was only March 23. She became progressively more mortified as Sandrine became more and more mirthful.

By now the first course was coming out, along with the first wine of the night, a light and airy rosé that was quite nice but more suited for a warm spring evening than to this dark Belgium one. As the server sat down the plate of charcuterie in front of us (it was a board generously stacked with sausages and paté to share), Sandrine tugged her arm, and said with a head jerk in my direction, “This one is a vegetarian!” The server looked properly horrified and hurried toward the front where the head honchos were standing. Sandrine chuckled again.

“It isn’t important,” I said, “I’ll have the wine. Maybe they can bring me some bread or something.”

Abashed, Rita pushed my ten euro entrance fee back toward me, saying that I would be disgusted by the food and she was so sorry. She was right, I would be fairly disgusted by the end of the evening, but I pushed the note back to her. “No, no, it’s okay. I’ll pay; I’m going to drink the wine! Besides, I didn’t come here for dinner; I came to spend time with you.” It was true. We rarely get to see one another because of our busy schedules.

One of the owners came by the table then. Sandrine devilishly told him also that there was a vegetarian at the wine and MEAT tasting. His eyebrows raised and he looked over his glasses at me. I said it was okay, perhaps there was some bread in the back? No, he didn’t think so, but he would go check. No sooner than he walked away that yet another employee of this event came by the table to look curiously at what was happening and Sandrine merrily informed her, too, that I was vegetarian. She didn’t seem surprised; word was apparently getting around.

Finally a young woman, I think one of the owners of the family owned butcher shop came by and asked if I would like a cheese plate and some bread. “You won’t have it immediately, but you will have it by the second course. Would that be alright?” Sandrine and the lady next to me oohed and aahhed.

“That would be lovely,” I said, never mind that I rarely eat cheese either; it was nice of her to offer, and it would help cut the alcohol.

By now the three ladies had begun to taste the generous charcuterie. Rita had been right; the porcine aroma was fairly disgusting to me, I admit. I held my tongue and sipped my wine.

By the time the second course and its wine were being described (head “cheese”, pig ear, and all), the door opened and the young woman returned to the table with a spectacular cheese plate and a baguette cut in rounds. The plate was top-notch with expensive cheeses, and better yet, a salad of arugula and sun-dried tomatoes, some hazelnuts, dates and dried apricots, spiced bread and a giant hunk of farm butter.

“Wow,” Rita said, eyeing the plate. “That looks good.”

“It does, doesn’t it?” I replied. “There is plenty; would you like some?” I offered the three ladies. They declined initially but by later in the evening, to my delight, bits and pieces had gone into their happy tummies as there was enough cheese on that plate to stop up my innards but good.

I was very glad to have this to divert my attention from the pig’s ear and other revolting offerings of the second course, as well as the dried pork and beef of the third. I nibbled the salad and the cheese, feasted on the butter and bread, and sipped the red wine, another Loire valley offering, one of many of that region that I don’t love. We talked about Rita’s new grandchild and life in Le Roeulx and the ever-changing international community in the area.

By the fourth course (adding lamb, to my horror, to the offering of the many varied meats of this unusual evening), Sandrine had told no less than five people that I was a vegetarian, and of course, word had passed along the rows of tables so that the strange American was doubtless the object of at least as many conversations. (“Why in the world did she come?” “Did she know?” “Who invited her?”) Anyway, I suppose Sandrine thought she was being helpful, and I guess she was, as the salad and cheese plate proved. Eventually, as it usually does, the question as to why I was a vegetarian was asked by Sandrine.

I answered as I always do, truthfully. “For me it is about the animals. I don’t like the idea of eating sentient beings. But of course vegetarian diets are also better for the planet, for the environment.” We spoke briefly about this and eventually, Sandrine was satisfied and turned to Rita and began talking about something else, and the lady beside me, a woman maybe five to ten years older than I said to me, “What about the plants? They are being raised industrially, too, just like the animals are.”

Mental eye roll. Audible sigh. I have heard this foolish and condescending argument before.

“Yes, they are,” I began, “but they aren’t sentient. They don’t form relationshi…”

She interrupted me, “The way they are raised isn’t good for the environment either.”

“No, ma’am, but they aren’t living, breath-…”

“Anyway,” she interrupted again, “vegetarianism is in fashion right now, a fad. It will pass.”

I took a breath and looked at her in disbelief. I formed the beginning of a response in my mind, opening my mouth to begin forming the words aloud. Mercifully, the speaker began presenting the next course, and I decided that was divine providence keeping me from saying something that I would surely regret later, something that would not change the lady’s mind at all, and that would probably prove to her that whatever she believed about me and other vegetarians was true.

In any event, it was an evening to remember. I can’t say I enjoyed it, but it was good to spend time with my friend who was, as always, gracious and kind and funny. And some of the wine was good; especially the Bordeaux served with the third or fourth course. I don’t know any of the names of the wines, of course, the good ones or the bad ones. When it’s up to me to choose, I’ll stick with the Spanish reds and the Provence rosés and Languedoc whites. And I’ll pair them with pastas, salads, and roasted veggies. Hold the pigs’ ears.

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You can see the few photos I took here.

If you want to see better photos of the event space look here.

If you want to know a little more about how vegetarianism helps the environment and this big, blue ball God gave us to live on, click here.

 

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Walking in Bilbao

Bilbao, home to the Guggenheim Museum, designed by Frank Gehry, is sort of the “capital” of Spain’s Basque Country. It is worth a visit, and although I’ve been there a couple of times before, on my last trip to Spain, I spent a few hours there, roaming around. Here are some of the things I saw on this and some of my other trips.

 

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The Guggenheim

Perhaps the most important aspect of Bilbao is the museum. Its silver design and the giant Puppy, which is made of real flowers, and the enormous spider around back are unmistakably Bilbao. It doesn’t hurt when you see it in silhouette at sunset.

Bilbao street art

Art abounds, from giant sculptures to brightly colored buildings and everything in between.

Bilbao River Estuary

A Port City

Bilbao is a port city, with its river estuary figuring prominently in parts of the city-scape. There are some really spectacular bridges, although on the last trip the Salve Bridge, center top, was being worked on and largly covered with tarps or some such.  Top right is the pedestrian bridge, Zubizuri. And not pictured, unfortunately, is Puente Vizcaya, a UNESCO world heritage site. Take a look here.

Bilbao green space

Abundant Greenspaces

Bilbao has plenty of greenspace. The above photos were all taken in less than a kilometer walk, I’m fairly certain. This is a city that loves to breathe, hence, TREES. And where there are greenspaces, there are statues.

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Keep Looking Up

While walking around Paris one day, a friend said to me, “Remember, when in Paris, always look up! You never know what kind of beautiful things are hanging around on these fantastic, old buildings!” That’s equally true in Spanish cities, where windows are opportunities for amateur gardeners to show off their artistic abilities with flowers and plants. And you never know, you might even see a mermaid-ish figurehead decorating a restaurant front, or some guys hanging off the side of the Corte Inglés!

Enjoy your next trip to Bilbao!

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