You wouldn’t think you would have to go all the way to Europe to meet up with old friends from Canada, but that’s exactly what we did.
Rose and John have been friends of mine for nearly 40 years, and once we heard that they would be in Spain at the same time as us, it was just the matter of where we all should meet up, and that place turned out to be San Sebastian.
Sadly the day we took them to see some of the Rioja wine region it rained, but we still managed to find an excellent place for lunch in one of Laguardia’s bodegas, and they were able to see some of the surrounding countryside.
We were just sorry not to be able to see Michael and Tanika as well.
A chapel decorated with bones, skulls, and entire bodies hanging from the wall.
No this is not a scary Halloween tale, this is the Capela dos Ossos, or the Chapel of Bones in Evora, Portugal.
In the 16th century Evora was a town noted for it’s wealth. The monks thought they would give the townspeople a nice place to meditate on the insecurity of material things, and the undeniable presence of death, and built this chapel. (They sound like they were a barrel of fun! ) This thought-provoking message is above the chapel door:
“We bones, are here, waiting for yours.”
There are 5,000 corpses interred here in this chapel
This is a poem written by Father Antonio da Ascencao, that hangs from one pillar; (yet another fun guy, and ‘the traveller’ bit is a little disconcerting)
Where are you going in such a hurry traveller?
Pause… do not advance your travel;
You have no greater concern than this one, that on which you focus your sight.
Recall how many have passed from this world. Reflect on your similar end, There is good reason to reflect, if only all did the same.
Ponder, you so influenced by fate, among all the many concerns of the world, so little do you reflect on death;
If by chance you glance at this place, stop… for the sake of your journey, the more you pause, the further on your journey you will be.”
I did forewarn you it was a scary tale………………………………….BOO !
In the sweltering hot plains of Portugal you begin to see groves of the evergreen cork oaks, you then realize you’re in ‘Cork Country’.
The corks of Portugal have played a key role in the making of wine for 200-plus years, since that wise, wine making monk, Dom Pérignon revised the use of cork as a tasteless, odorless seal for wine.
The trees are beauties. They assume a huge girth over the centuries that they stand on these interior plains, and in a country where the summer sun all but sets the land on fire.
It’s not the grandest claim to fame for a landscape—but Portugal is the world’s largest producer of cork, and has almost 7,000 sq kms under cultivation where its parched soils produce oak trees whose spongy bark will be stripped away by workers, using knives and axes once every ten years, the normal time it takes a tree to recover. A number is usually sprayed painted on the tree to indicate the year in which it was last harvested. The average specimen produces about 45 kg of cork in a stripping,
It’s then goes to the cork factory where it’s boiled to clean and soften the bark so it makes it easier to work with. It’s then graded as the best quality will be used for high end, hand cut corks. The rest are machine punched, quality checked and finally plugged into our wine bottles.
Portugal produces over 30 million, yes 30million corks a day!
Bilbao, home of the Guggenheim museum and also first place we started to see (and eat) Pintxos. Although they are similar to tapas, generally speaking, pintxos are smaller. The name comes from the Spanish verb “pinchar” meaning to poke or stab. Historically, pintxos used to be served on a small slice of bread and have a toothpick piercing them through the middle (thereof the name). However, with the evolution of Basque cuisine, pintxos have become much more diverse and these days only some of them are pierced to a piece of bread.
This northern coast of Spain is quite spectacular. The cliffs of the Basque Country are broken by rocky coves and wide bays with sandy beaches of fine yellow sand, and roads that wind through eucalyptus wooded hills.
Chris Halliday had told us not to miss San Juan de Gaztelugatxe, near Bermeo and whose name means “Castle Rock” in Basque, and the 1km downhill climb to the man made bridge, then the 241 steps that zig zag their way up to the church is an adventure in itself. Believed to have been erected in the 9th century it has been a monastery, castle, goal for witches during the inquisition and was invaded by Sir Frances Drake, who apparently threw the hermit that was living there over the cliff into the sea. Most recently was a location used in the filming of Game of Thrones. According to legend, after you climb to the church, you should ring the bell three times for luck. The cobbled stone path down, and all the steps us were a challenge, but thank you Chris for telling us about it, and although we cursed you a few times, it was worth the effort.
The Basques are also one of the oldest, if not the oldest, peoples in Europe. Their language, Euskera, bears no clear relationship to any other language in the world. They have lived in the same place for more than 2,000 years; some Basque nationalists claim that should read 10,000. They say that they are descendants of Cro-Magnon Man and that they are the only European people who continue to occupy the sites where they originally evolved. They are fiercely independent, with on-going demonstrations and rallies to fight for their separation from both France and Spain which the Basque region covers.
Again, we cross the Pyrenees, this time leaving France and crossing into Spain.
The route we choose is not the usual one, where most just want to get through the Meseta or the dry plains, to reach the coast. We choose the La Via Dominita, which linked Rome through Gaul (France) to Cadiz in Spain and was part of an immense road network of more than 70,000 miles, and built by the Romans over the eight centuries they ruled this area.
It also took us over some of the driest countryside we have seen. Ochre coloured plains, with hilltop Moorish ruins, old fortified towns and Gothic cathedrals. Roman aqua-ducts and medieval bridges still used to this day, it’s history is as fascinating as it’s scenery. El Cid, who fought first for the King as a knight, then switched sides to the Moors, and then back again to the Christians was born in this area and is buried in the Cathedral at Burgos.
The regions of Aragon and Navarra pass by then La Rioja, the small region huddled around the Ebro River valley, and known for it’s great wine. It’s always great to find a winery that has free overnight parking for campers, and the Vinya els Vilars in Arbeca near Lleida was an excellent stop, and so was their wine!
If it wasn’t grape vines it was olive trees we passed, for hundreds of kilometres, dry stone covered ground that you would expect nothing to grow in, but both olives and grapes seem to thrive here. We are also following the Frances Camino route to Santiago de Compostela, and watching the pilgrims struggling under the weight of their packs brings back memories, some of painful feet, but mostly of the wonderful experience it was, and the of the people we met along the way.
After we turn north towards the coast of the Asturias and Cantabria the scenery changes dramatically. Lush green hills and farmland remind us of Australia in many places, especially those hillsides covered with Tasmanian eucalyptus.
At Gijón we finally see ocean, the Atlantic and today it’s calm despite the strong wind that’s blowing. Gijon has a magnificent promenade that runs the length of it’s bay, around 5kms and it’s well used by couples out having a stroll in the sun to joggers, roller-bladers and it even has a dual cycle lane that we take advantage of for a ride into the lovely old town.
Cider rather than wine is produced in this area, and I will do my very best to sample most local varieties, whilst Brian continues to look for a beer to take the place of his fav Belgium dark beer he can no longer buy in Spain. Life is hard on the road, but we will try our hardest to complete these tasks. ?
All along this northern coast are pretty fishing ports, small sandy coves with lovely beaches, hilltop churches and quiet little villages. It not very touristy at all at this time of the year, probably not the same though in the middle of the summer.
We visit the Altamira caves that contain some of the best-preserved prehistoric art and carvings dated to around 18,000 – 13,000 BC. People lived in these caves for many years, so you can see the progression in the civilisation in the drawings.
The colours and the way the rock contours were used to emphasize shape and movement are truly amazing.
We leave Cantabria for the Basque region and our next major stop is Bilbao and it’s Guggenheim Museum.