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.

Bilbao look up

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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And the answer is…

SPAIN!

I’m willing to bet that when you think of Spain, your first thoughts don’t include rolling green farmland, fog clinging to tree-covered hills, and rocky-cliffed, rugged Atlantic beaches. Surprise! That is exactly what northern Spain is all about.

Northern SpainWhere Spain and France border at the westernmost edge is known as Basque Country, and it is lush and green and damp. Few places on earth remind me as much of the Smoky Mountains as Spanish Basque Country. While I had already visited parts of this small region, I had wanted to road-trip the rest of Northern Spain for years. This summer I finally did it, in a rented Fiat Panda and for only eight days, but it was eight of the most visually breathtaking days I’ve ever spent.

 

I quickly learned that my long-anticipated trip was going to leave me mouth agape time and again, hunting for a place to pull the Panda over so I could snap a photo.

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Asturian Scenes

Above, the top three photos are various beaches along the Bay of Biscay, that bit of wild Atlantic Ocean that beats savagely against the sand and rocks that cover the coastline of southwestern France and Northern Spain. The bottom three are scenes in the Picos de Europa, part of the Cantabrian Mountains in the heart of Asturias. On the far left, Cangas de Onís, an excellent base from which to explore, and on the far right, the Basilica of Covadonga, a seemingly out-of-place surprise on the top of a nearby mountain. Truly breathtaking, these mountains attract hikers, cyclists, motorcycle riders, paddlers, and other outdoorsy types from all over the world. I highly recommend a stop here. Stay at the Hotel La Cepeda in Cangas de Onís: decent price, very comfortable, and with an upscale feel.

Nearer the coast, don’t miss Oviedo, a picturesque Asturian town with some spectacular hidden gems, like its beautiful cathedral and a giant statue of Jesus blessing the city from a nearby mountain-top. Oviedo’s stars for me, though, were its two spectacularly well-preserved (and UNESCO World Heritage monuments) PRE-Romanic buildings, as well as a bunch of other old and interesting architecture. And yes, I did say PRE-Romanic. For anyone, that is hard to imagine. For someone from a 240 year old country, that’s impossibly mind-boggling.

Oviedo

The Pre-romanic buildings are the two photos on the bottom left.

I traveled by rental car, and it is a good thing I had unlimited miles because the distances are daunting. Four hours for one leg, the one that took me from Cabo de Peñas in Asturias to La Costa da Morte in Galicia. Yes, that strange “da” is correct; it is the Galician dialect, a sort of mysterious blend of Spanish and Portuguese. And yes, “morte” is similar to “muerte” and it means the same thing. So I traveled from Asturias to the Coast of Death, thusly named for the perilous coastline that has been the downfall of many a ship. I stayed in Laxe and day-tripped to Fisterra, on Cape Finisterre, which in Roman times, was considered “the end of the known earth,” and was also one of the last stops along the Santiago de Compostela. This entire area is one of the most impossibly beautiful places I’ve ever seen: fantastic beaches, excellent hiking trails (some urban), and more stunning views than I could photograph.

Laxe and Fini

On Galicia’s northern coast, just across the shared Asturian border, is a very famous beach, called the Praia das Catedrais, or Beach of the Cathedrals. Of course, they aren’t really cathedrals that line the beaches, but rather huge rock formations that form caves you can explore at low tide. A highlight of the journey from Cabo de Peñas to the end of the earth.

Playa Catedral

Another treasure I almost missed in Galicia is Lugo. This small city about an hour from Santiago de Compostela boasts a Roman wall that is said to be 1700 years old. You can walk all the way around the old city on the top of the wall and I saw plenty of runners and walkers as I strolled along taking in the scenery. I spent a few hours there as a way to break up the drive back across the northern provinces. It is worth at least a day.

Lugo

Santiago de Compostela will take a post of its own, as will Bilbao. But I’ll leave you with some recognizable scenes from those two cities, as well as some less familiar, but no less lovely, scenes from all over the provinces.

See you here again soon, and don’t forget to comment and so get your name in as many times as possible for the drawing. The rules for the contest are posted on the facebook page.  If you haven’t liked us there, please do!

Recognizable Spain

In the center, the Puppy, and top right the Puppy as seen in front of the Guggenheim museum, both in Bilbao. The other photos are Santiago de Compostela.

 

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From top left: A woman carries flowers to a cemetary in Laxe, cows in their seaside field in Galicia, an unnamed church in rural, coastal Galicia; white storks in Galicia, Oviedo, Laxe, Cabo de Peñas, and finally Praia dos Cristales in Laxe.

Comment or message me for further information on hotels and so forth; happy to share my experiences!

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Fairy Tale Forest

You can tiptoe through the tulips, dance through the daisies, and run through the roses, but only for a tiny brief bit every year can you bathe yourself in bluebells in the Hallerbos forest, just southwest of Brussels, Belgium. For these few, very short weeks before the weather warms up, the forest floor transforms into a carpet of bluebells that looks like a floating velvet cloud. Grab the camera and get there at precisely the right time. But that will have to be next year because this year’s perfect day was Sunday, and my beautiful shutterbug friend and I were there with our cameras at the ready.

Here is some of what my lens captured. Collage 2017-04-24 20_05_02

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Usually the date hovers around the third weekend in April. Wear layers because the weather is fickle and the sunshine can be deceiving. This year it was comfortable in the forest but the walk from the car into the woods was windy and too cool. Find out more information at the official flowering season website, here.

And please don’t step on the bluebells!

Remember to enter to win some Belgian chocolates! All you have to do is comment on one of my posts before June 1, 2017, and you will be entered to win!

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Hiking the Ardennes

Spent a few days last week hiking in the Belgian Ardennes, specifically the region known as Hautes Fagnes, French for High Fens. Oh. Em. Gee. Crazy beautiful. Want proof? Here ya go.

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The Hautes Fagnes are the wildest, highest mountains in Belgium, and apparently they are the last of the Ardennes before the Eifel Hills, on the border with Germany. Spring can be an iffy sort of time for this area, and the weather report called for snow the week after I left! Luckily for me, the few days I was in the high country, I had good weather, not warm but when you’re hiking you don’t want warm. Not if you’re really hiking, anyway. I learned to hike in the Appalachian Mountains of North Carolina, very rugged country. Did you know that the highest peak east of the Mississippi River is in my home state of North Carolina? Yep, Mount Mitchell, just around the bend from where I was born in beautiful Mitchell County. But enough about me. Hiking. Ardennes. Belgium. Here’s what you need to know.

There are literally hundreds of hiking trails, as well marked as any I’ve ever used. Of course, you CAN get lost — be aware of where you are and in spite of the temptation to look down, keep looking up. That’s where the signs are posted. Trail markers tend to be colored shapes: green diamonds, blue crosses, etc. The trails criss-cross each other sometimes, and you shouldn’t be surprised to maybe meet the same person twice on the same trail in spite of the fact that you are following different markers. The hikes also double onto some of the GR (Grandes Randonées) trails. These are hikes that may be as long as 180 kilometers and are marked with squares of two lines, one red and one white. There are many hundreds of kilometers of GR’s in Belgium. Find out more here.  You can pick up a booklet of potential hikes at any hotel or tourist spot. Most of the booklets are in French, Dutch or German; I suppose you can find versions in English; I didn’t. There are good websites to guide you as well; I’m a fan of this one.

The hikes vary from three or four kilometer strolls to many kilometer mountain trekking and everything in between. The hike I chose for the first day out was a long one, fourteen kilometers, and definitely mountainous. I wanted some nice views, so I asked at the desk for advice, and I ended up on a hike called Vallées et Cretes which promised beautiful views and advised “hiking boots which support the ankles well.” They were certainly right about that. The hike was supposed to be about four to four and a half hours long; I supposed it would be if you had taken it in the right direction, but as I am directionally challenged, I did the hike backwards from how the booklet advised. As a result, the same thought kept running through my head — haven’t the Belgians ever heard of switchbacks, for crying out loud???  However, uphill is probably preferable to going downhill at my age; my lungs got a serious workout but my knees were saved.

Switchbacks Needed

It was a decent workout, as you can see by the photos above, and it also gave me a lot of opportunities to enjoy some nice views and clean air. The hike took me about five hours, largely because I stopped fairly often to thank our Creator for his spectacular beauty, and to try to capture some of it in photos. And of course, it’s Europe, so there was at least one surprise along the way. Collage 2017-04-22 16_45_00

I hiked another day, a short one, and again it was beautiful, moreso, in fact, than the first day, with spectacular views. On this day, I was heading back home, so I hiked only for a couple of hours.  You can see all the photos I took on both days if you click on this link.

I used a Belgian site to book the mini-vacation: travelbird.com. The trip was a bargain at 200 euros for three nights in a four-star resort located in the village of Ovifat, near Robertville, and included free parking, a three course dinner in the restaurant and breakfasts. The resort, Domaine des Hautes Fagnes, boasts a spa, and they do speak English. It isn’t much of a “spa,” though. Indoor pool, small whirlpool, sauna and steam room, with the opportunity to purchase massages and such. Relaxing, comfortable, but not really a spa. (If you are looking for a spa, choose Thermae Boetfort, near Brussels (profiled here) or Spa itself, also in the Ardennes, or Thermae 2000 in Valkenburg, Netherlands. All of these are world-class spas, offering just about everything you could imagine, including accomodations.) I did get a pretty decent massage, but it was pricey. That wasn’t what these few days were about, though. I needed a good base from which to hike, and Domaine des Hautes Fagnes was just right for that; there were a lot of other hotels around, too.  If you want to stay on water, there is Robertville, which has its lake. Very near where I stayed, and still in the Hautes Fagnes, this is where I want to stay next time. Find more information here. I drove by the Hotel des Bains, and it looked really super, also four-star, I believe. I didn’t stop, though; do your research. There are plenty of hotels to choose from.

Belgium, Luxembourg, Germany: if you live in one of these places, get out there! The hiking rivals any I’ve experienced anywhere.

 

 

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Tenerife Towns

Last February, I walked all over La Laguna, La Orotava, and Santa Cruz, the capital, sort of urban trekking, if you will. La Laguna and La Orotava are little towns, both filled with colonial-era architecture and historic character. La Laguna is a UNESCO World Heritage site for its colonial buildings: homes, churches, public spaces. The mostly sixteenth to nineteenth century houses are generally a bit shabby by now, but they are still filled with memories of mariners stopping over during voyages from the Continent to points west and South.

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The famous Teatro Leal, below. La Laguna 2 (41)

The image below is of the Real Santuario del Santísimo Cristo de La Laguna, widely considered to be the holiest place in the islands because of the crucifix believed to be gifted from Seville in the sixteenth century.
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It also boasts perhaps the prettiest statue of Mary that exists anywhere, certainly the prettiest one I’ve seen.
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Orotava is also very photogenic, with the Atlantic Ocean as its backdrop.
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La Orotava (25)
La Orotava (34) And interestingly, the little town has a morning bread delivery. Look closely at the photo above, then at the detail below. La Orotava (35)

My arrival in Tenerife conicided with the start of Carnaval. Good news for partiers, as Santa Cruz’s Carnaval is considered second only to Rio’s! I’m not much of a party animal, but I didn’t mind; I visited Santa Cruz on one of the quiet days, so I missed the craziness but got to see some of the color anyway — the best of both worlds!
Santa Cruz (31) Santa Cruz (9)Part of  the local color was especially colorful. Look closely; these are fellas in drag. They were dancing some mean salsa in those dresses, and one was singing his heart out.
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Santa Cruz is a beauty in her own right. A very modern port city with an auditorium to rival Sydney’s (well, almost), art and architectural treats galore, it’s a must-see.
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Below, see some examples of aforementioned art and architecture; it is an inspiring city, indeed.

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It also boasts a beautiful market. I wish I could share the smells from the herbalists there; those were intoxicating!
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Highly recommended, but if you go around Carnaval, it won’t be like summer. It will be comfortable, but not beach weather. Be aware, also, that Carnaval changes everything, especially in Santa Cruz. If you’re a big partier, you’ll love it. If you aren’t, maybe you should schedule your trip for another time.

By the way, if you read this post and COMMENT on it, I will enter your name in a drawing to win a box of BELGIAN CHOCOLATES. Thanks for reading!

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What is Amsterdam?

 

Amsterdam is…

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…bicycles!

Lots and lots of bicycles!

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Over 600 thousand bicycles, in fact!

Amsterdam is…

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…bicycles and canals!

Amsterdam is canals, and where there are canals, there must be boats.
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Amsterdam’s canals keep the city from flooding, so that its inhabitants can continue to ride their bicycles from their jobs to do their shopping and back to their homes in the distinctive houses we’ve come to recognize as distinctly Amsterdammer.
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Amsterdam is filled with color, from churches…33207982276_13a787761e_z_d
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…to cheeses!

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Amsterdam is old meets new.
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Amsterdam is BEER.

Unfortunately, I prefer Belgian…
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Practical advice:

Make your appointment for the Anne Frank House online ahead of time. Otherwise you’ll be standing in a line like this:
33094906182_955848c0cf_k_dAnd prepare to be moved in a way you might not expect as you walk through the rooms where she and her family hid out for two years, 1942 – 1944. The decorations she placed on the walls of the room she slept in are the only personal items left there. Otto Frank, the only surviving member of the family, insisted the rooms they lived in be displayed devoid of furnishings to represent the emptiness left when so many people captured by the Nazis did not return home.

More practical advice:

There are more museums than you can shake a stick at. You’ll never see them all, and probably you don’t want to. But the Van Gogh Museum is a don’t miss. So don’t miss it.
Most, including the aforementioned and the huge and famous Rijksmuseum, home to nearly a million works of mainly Dutch fine art, are located on or near the museum square, appropriately named Museumplein.

If you drive, park outside the city center and take a tram in. Parking is sparse. Trams are plentiful and fast. And driving in the center is like playing tag with people on bicycles. And the bicycles are also plentiful and fast.

There are a lot of choices of restaurants, especially if you are a meat-eater. There are more Argentinian steakhouses in Amsterdam than in Buenos Aires, I think. And there is usually at least one veg option on the menus of most restaurants.

Located two and a half hours by car north of Brussels, Amsterdam’s location invites visitors from all over the world. Will you be next?

By the way, if you read this post and COMMENT ON IT, I will enter your name in a drawing to win a free box of BELGIAN CHOCOLATES. Thanks for reading!

 

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More to Love about Belgium

If you’ve read my blog for the past few years, you know I like the little country where I live. Belgium has beautiful scenery, lively cities, cutting-edge cultural experiences, great beer, and top-notch chocolate. Brussels, the capital of Europe, hosts hundreds of events every year. Tour and Taxi is one of the companies responsible for some of those events. The company’s Chocolate Salon combines culture, beer, patisserie, and of course, chocolate for a stimulating weekend-long feast for the senses.

If you like chocolate, there’s plenty to taste and to buy. Chocolatiers come from all over Europe to participate. I bought at least a six-month supply of my favorite chocolate from Germany: Goufrais ! Delicious. Of course, the displays treat the eyes.
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But not to be outdone, the International College of Design created mini-works of art to challenge chocolate lovers and artists.

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And lest we forget that Paris is only three hours away… img_9220

For those budding pastry chefs among us, there is an all-day pastry-making exhibition. Very cool with the mirror hanging over the chefs to show us exactly what they are doing.

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But…the piece de resistance had to be the haute-couture chocolate fashion show. The dresses and outfits that waltzed down the runway were made at least in part (some in very large part) out of chocolate and were the results of collaboration between Belgian chocolatiers and couturiers. From elegant dresses to couture, it was a runway show to inspire lovers of fashion and chocolate connoisseurs alike!
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This model threw pralines out to the crowd. And who can resist little kids? Well, when they’re dressed in chocolate, anyway…
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Just like any other runway show, the chocolatier-partner in the design walked the runway with their creations at the end of the show.
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A lovely day to be had, as evidenced by the happy faces you see below. If you missed it this year, put it on your calendar for next!

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