11 October 2015

Dispatches from Spain 11: Northern Spain

by Rich Gilbert

Coming Home – Where Has the Year Gone?‏

[My wandering friends, Rich and Sallie, are traveling again (after all, that’s what they do!), this time up to Northern Spain, somewhat off the beaten track for the usual tourists in Spain.  Rich explained that they were moving so much that he wasn’t in one place long enough to write up their experiences until they stopped briefly in Greece (their subsequent destination).  After the trip described here, Rich and Sallie made their meandering way from northern Europe (Belgium, Holland, Denmark) through central Europe (Germany, Austria) to eastern Europe (Slovakia, Hungary); they’ll be returning to the States in less than two weeks now.  Check back for Dispatches 1-10 (30 November, 10 December, and 20 December 2014, and 14 January, 8 March, 20 April, 23 July, and 6 September 2015) to catch up with the odyssey so far.  As usual, Rich’s account of his and Sallie’s travels is interesting and full of fascinating little details above the usual travelogue (which, in fact, he’s deliberately skipped).  I recommend that you all also check in at Sallie’s blog, Rambling Solo, at http://ramblingsolo.blogspot.com.es.]

Mykonos, Greece – October 2, 2015

Where has this year gone? We are now in Mykonos, in Greece. Not so sunny and pretty windy, but hopefully, it will clear up in the week we are here. A couple of days in another island, Hydra, closer to the mainland, then on the 15th of October we fly back to the United States. We are looking forward to enjoying some parts of life in the States, even if the Nationals will not be playing in the postseason. Still, we will miss Madrid and Spain.

I am finally enclosing the promised report on our trip to Northern Spain [see “Dispatches from Spain 10,” 6 September]. I tried to make it a bit informative, not just a travelogue. I also added a short section on the results of the Catalan elections of September 27. (It will be a real mess, maybe not so different than United States politics right now.)

The Geography of Northern Spain

To understand where we travelled in July, get out (or download) your map. Start in  the northwest corner of Spain, above Portugal. That is the province of Galicia.  Galicia is bounded by Portugal on the south, the Atlantic ocean on the west, the Cantabrian Sea on the north.

Immediately to the east of Galicia, sharing a northern coastline, is Asturias.  The majority of Asturias is mountains, including the Picos de Europa, the highest peaks in Spain. To the east of Asturias is Cantabria.  It also shares the same coastline; that’s why it is called the Cantabrian Sea.  Cantabria also shares the mountain ranges making up the Picos de Europa. In both Asturias and Cantabria there is only a narrow band of moderately flat land in the north between the mountains and the sea.  Cantabria is a bit less mountainous than Asturias, but not by much. 

To the south of Asturias and Cantabria is the province of Castilla y Leon.  It shares some of the Picos de Europa region , but has no coastline as it is bounded on the west by Portugal.  Castilla y Leon is a larger province and once out of the mountainous north is relatively flatter.  (Remember Spain is the second most mountainous region in Europe, after Switzerland.)

To the east of Cantabria is the province of Pais Vasco, or the Basque Country.  Its largest city is Bilbao. San Sebastian, a large but lovely city on the beach, is also in the Pais Vasco. At this point, the coastline turns north towards France. The capital of the Pais Vasco, which we did not get to, is Vitoria. Vitoria lies in a mostly agricultural region in the southern part of the province and is not on the coast. 

To the east of the Pais Vasco is the province of Navarra. Pamplona is its capital. It has no coastline.  To the north, sharing the Pyrenees mountains, is France.  To the east is the province of Aragon, and to the south, the smaller province of La Rioja, where many of Spain’s finest red wines come from.

Our Route

Because the landscape was important to our trip, we rented a car and left Madrid on July 4.  We spent that night in Burgos in Castilla y Leon, arrived in Pamplona for the fiesta on July 5 and stayed through the 15th.  In the middle of the fiesta, we took a break and went to San Sebastian for two nights.  We also took a day trip through the pass of Roncesvalles into France (site of the Song of Roland for those of you up on your French medieval poetry) to St.-Jean-Pied-du-Port.  After Pamplona we spent two nights in Bilbao.  Then we went to the mountains to spend two nights at an old hotel / spa on the banks of the reservoir of the Ebro River on the edge of the mountains, which was in Castilla y Leon, just over the border from Cantabria. After that we moved along the coast to the Asturian beach town of Llanes. We stayed there four nights which included day trips into the mountains as well as some beach time. We then went for one night to Ribadeo, a port town just over the border into Galicia, then one night to Ferrol, a port town on the Atlantic Coast in Galicia.  We then spent a night at a country inn just outside Muxia, a small fishing town in Galicia.  We then went to Santiago de Compostela, the destination for the Camino de Santiago, the pilgrimage route, and stayed three nights. We then went south along the Atlantic Coast to the Isla de la Toja, a small island semi-luxury resort off a larger island.  After two nights, we headed inland to Leon, obviously in Castilla y Leon. After two nights, we spent one night on the outside of Valladolid, also in the province of Castilla y Leon.  We drove back into Madrid on August 3.


The Gallegos, as the people from Galicia are called, are descended from Celtic tribes who settled in the area before the Romans. They speak their own dialect, also called Gallego, It is similar to what we call Spanish, but which is called Castellano in Spain to distinguish it from Gallego and Catalan. Usually important signs will be in both Gallego and Castellano, but we saw historical markers and other signs that were only in Gallego.

The Basque language is like no other language in the world.  I have read somewhere that the closest language to it was ancient Phoenician, and elsewhere I have read that it resembles some dialects spoken in the eastern Caucasus mountains.  The truth appears to be that no one really knows; the Basque legends do not give a clue. To me, the ancient Phoenician makes a little more sense, because they might have gotten through the Mediterranean and up around Spain into the Cantabrian Sea, but there were certainly closer places they could have colonized, and in some cases did. The Basque language, like Catalan and Gallego, was vigorously suppressed during the Franco years, and is making a comeback.  In Bilbao in the northern part of the Pais Vasco, most street signs are in Basque first and Castellano second. The teaching of which language as the primary and/or only language in the schools is a matter of substantial controversy. I understand that there is less Basque spoken in the region around Vitoria than in Bilbao or San Sebastian.

Castellano is the primary language in Asturias, Cantabria, and Castilla y Leon.


Politics in the North of Spain are complicated.  Like the Catalans, the Basques have sought independence for decades. One difference is that about 40 years ago the independence movement in the Basque country basically got hijacked by the ETA, a left wing, terrorist group, responsible for a number of assassinations in the Basque country, which also includes some Basque-speaking provinces across the border in France. Interestingly some of those assassins are get now getting out of jail after 20 years or so, especially on the French side, and there is a lot of resentment. There are now Basque political parties in the Basque country, some of them advocating independence but they are nowhere near as organized as the Catalans.

Navarra, of which Pamplona is the capital, is even more complicated.  Navarra is also a partially Basque speaking province, but Navarra was also an independent kingdom in medieval times before the unification of Spain. So you have political parties who support Basque independence and want Navarra to be part of that new nation, but there are also parties that think that Navarra will be better served by remaining apart from the Pais Vasco and trying to leverage more autonomy within a decentralizing Spain. Of course, there are parties which are completely comfortable with the status quo. Although a majority of residents of Navarra do not support independence, the leader of the provincial government, through a series of political deals, is an unabashed Basque separatist.  The big fight, as I indicated, is currently about the teaching of the Basque language in the public schools. Not sure how that will work out.

There is no appreciable independence movement in the other provinces in the north, but part of that is because Galicia, which has a strong sense of separate cultural identity, is so far away from Madrid and the other major political power centers. Plus the current President of Spain, Mariano Rajoy is from Galicia. 

A quick word about Cataluña. The independence movement succeeded in pulling together a single slate of candidates from most of the major separatist parties.  One radical left wing party (CUP – Candidatures d’Unitat Popular [Popular Unity Candidacy]) also supported independence, but chose to run separately. The separatists had hoped that their slate would gain an absolute majority in the regional elections held on September 27. Had they done so, they intended to treat it effectively as a referendum on Catalan independence. What they got was a real mess. Due to some Spanish proportional voting laws, which I do not understand exactly, the separatists, with the support of CUP, gained an absolute majority of seats in the regional legislature. They did not however, gain an absolute majority in the popular vote, which is how one normally counts a referendum. Now what?

For its part, CUP has already said that the failure to achieve an absolute majority in the popular vote means that as a referendum, the effort failed.  They have announced they do not believe a unilateral call for independence would be valid and have rejected Artur Mas, the current president in Cataluña, to head the new government. This means that the separatist majority in the legislature may fall apart quickly.

Meanwhile, the national government, led by the conservative Popular Party, is opposed to Catalan independence and does not accept the vote as a referendum in any form. The Popular Party, headed by Mariano Rajoy, the current President of Spain, is currently adamant about making no changes in the system, to include the Spanish constitution, although members of his own party are urging more flexibility.  The other national parties are trying to carve out a more nuanced position, suggesting ways, including changing the constitution, to allow Cataluña more autonomy while remaining part of Spain. All of this is important because of the looming national elections this Fall. The Socialists promise “dialog” with Cataluña.  The leader of Podemos, Pablo Iglesias, promises to let Cataluña have a real, sanctioned referendum if he heads the next government (although he says that he would recommend a “no” vote.) Cuidadanos, the other populist, center party, which also opposed independence, was the second largest vote getter in the Catalan elections. 

These are my predictions.  You can expect the struggle to play out in the press. the national legislature and the courts for some time, but I do not think there is currently any legal basis for Catalan independence, and the rest of Europe is not going to recognize a Catalan state which does not have the approval of the Spanish government. So, I do not think independence will happen. The intransigence of Rajoy, coupled with the huge loss in confidence in the Popular Party due to all the corruption scandals, means that they will lose the general election.  They may get the largest single number of votes, but they are “toxic” and I do not think any other party will join in forming a government with them. Whichever party does form the government will likely be more willing to discuss the relationship between the Spanish government and Cataluña.  This discussion will likely also include the other major regions, such as Andalucia and the Basque Country.

At least you can take comfort in the fact that United States politics is not alone in its dysfunction.


Northern Spain, especially Galicia, Asturias, and Cantabria, are the rainiest, cloudiest regions of Spain. Unfortunately, this was to play a role in our trip; given the nearly perfect weather in Madrid and during our earlier trips, however, I guess the law of averages had to even out somewhat. Pamplona was at times cold and rainy, then very hot and sunny.


If you want an argument, tell a Gallego that the best food is in Asturias or vice versa.  While I am sure that Spaniards from every province will stick up for their own regional cuisine, my sense is that if asked off the record most Spaniards will give the nod to either Galicia or Asturias. The cold waters of the Atlantic and Cantabrian Sea has given both regions (and the rest of northern Spain) access to wonderful, fresh seafood and shellfish.  I think Sallie would give a slight nod to Asturias, while I might go with Galicia, but we are definitely open to further evaluation! In fact, the food throughout northern Spain was good.  We remember, for example:

            Peppers in Burgos,
            Steaks in Pamplona,
            Pinxos (little skewers of food like tapas) in Pamplona and San Sebastian,
            Fish throughout the North, but especially in a truck stop outside Bilbao
            Tortos (fried corn pancakes with meat and eggs) in Asturias
            Pulpo (octopus) outside Muxia, Galicia

The Camino

If you are in northern Spain in the summer, you will frequently encounter the Camino de Santiago, the route of the pilgrimage of St. James. From medieval ages, pilgrims have made their way to the Cathedral in Santiago de Compostela, the capital of Galicia. Nowadays one can cycle the Camino as well as walk it. (There are also bus tours, but that seems to take away from the point.) The most common route starts in the French town of St.-Jean-Pied-de-Port, goes through Roncevalles into Pamplona, then south of the mountains through Leon into Santiago de Compostela. There are, however, marked routes all over the north of Spain. After all, pilgrims come from all over.  There is a northern route along the Cantabrian Sea, and a route up from Portugal.  We even saw Camino signs, a yellow seashell, coming from Fisterre, in Galicia, the presumed most western portion of Spain.

Where you see the Camino sign, you see pilgrims, usually on trails off the road, but going through the towns and cities. I understands that they can buy a “passport” which they get “stamped” at the major churches along their route.  The passport also gives them access to cheaper accommodations at albergues along the way. (Our hotel in Llanes also had an albergue attached to it, which we were not eligible to stay in; other pilgrims stayed in the rooms next to us.) The tradition is for a pilgrim to carry a stone with them, supposedly to remind them of their sins or whatever has motivated them to undertake the Camino. The pilgrims come from all over the world, and I suppose undertake the Camino for many different reasons. We sometimes encountered groups of English-speaking pilgrims, but, understandably they tended to talk with themselves, usually about their adventures. It was kind of neat when we were in Santiago de Compostela to see the pilgrims who had completed the pilgrimage. Sallie, as is her wont, is intrigued by the Camino and would love to make one of the shorter routes. Frankly, I have no interest in doing so myself, but I can understand both the challenge and charm.


We arrived in Burgos on Saturday, July 4.  We had a hotel room that overlooked the cathedral, a magnificent structure. Being a nice Saturday in July, there were several weddings taking place in the cathedral and we got to watch the couples exit. One was a military wedding with service members in different uniforms forming a canopy with their swords. As we walked through the old town, which dated back to medieval times, there were all sorts of sidewalk cafes and restaurants and they were full.  Turns out Burgos was in the middle of its annual fiesta and the whole town seemed involved.  At the end of the evening there were fireworks – so we had our Fourth of July fireworks after all. We regretted having allocated only one day to Burgos. Still Pamplona was calling.


Those of you who know me well have heard probably more than you want about Pamplona, if indeed, you have not been there with me. So I am not going into detail about the fiesta.  (Buy me a beer when we are back in the States and I will be glad to tell you all about it.) The fiesta starts at noon on the 6th of July, and the first run is the  morning of the 7th, which is my birthday, so I always try to run that morning.  The first 36 hours of the fiesta are the worst as far as crowds, especially of drunken young people, go. Of course, there are plenty of older folks who are drunk, but they usually have more experience in holding their liquor.

We had rented a room in the apartment rented by our friend Charlie Leocha, who has been to the fiesta consistently for nearly 40 years. The apartment was centrally located in the heart of the party section of town, which had its advantages in going out, but not so much if you were trying to sleep. This bothered Sallie more than me, but we had agreed that we would take a break in the fiesta and go to San Sebastian.  After the first 36 hours, the fiesta calms down somewhat and you begin to see more families downtown with their children. Thanks to Charlie, we got into some restaurants we would not have otherwise, and so ate pretty well. This included a breakfast at a gourmet cooking club that Charlie became a member of.

I ran with the bulls twice this year, once on my birthday, then on the 13th. Yes, we went to the bullfights twice, including the last day, the 14th. At the close of the bullfights on the last day, all of the penas, which are the social clubs which provide the energy for the fiesta, the way that the “krewes” do for Mardi Gras, pour into the bullring and they mingle and their bands play together (every pena has a band!) A positive spectacle.   (For those of you who abhor bullfights, I fully understand and respect your position.  You may be interested to know that a movement to ban bullfighting is growing in various regions and cities in Spain, but it is still  a long way off from for becoming law nationwide.)

San Sebastian

Sallie and I got away from Pamplona for two days to visit San Sebastian.  I had not been back since being caught in the riots there in 1978. [I presume Rich is referring to the violent protests by the ETA, the Basque separatist movement, which left many dead and sparked riots all over the Basque regions of Spain in the mid- and late 1970s.] I now have much fonder memories.  San Sebastian has a large beach so we got in a day of relaxing on the beach. Our hotel was a bit out of town; the only restaurant around was a famous Michelin-starred restaurant with a $200 testing menu! Probably have to do that some time. Instead, in the evenings we would go into town to eat pinxos or pinchos, which are like tapas.  They are a real tradition in the Basque region.  We went to a number of restaurants sampling their fare. It was great getaway and the scenery between Pamplona and San Sebastian was striking – a hint of what was to come.


We stayed downtown but across the river from the old part of town, where we primarily went to eat and drink. Our most memorable meal, however, was at what was essentially a truck stop on a state road about an hour outside of Bilbao.  Sallie was dubious, but we were hungry and there were a lot of cars and trucks in the parking lot.  The food was very good.  Sallie thought her fish was the best she had on the entire trip through the North. (Sorry, Galicia and Asturias.)

Bilbao is home to one of the Guggenhiem museums, one designed by Frank Gehry.  The building is absolutely fabulous, the art interesting but pales compared to the building itself. Otherwise, we had an interesting time, but would not bump Bilbao up over Madrid, Barcelona or the cities in the South, or even over San Sebastian.

The Picos Region

For a complete change of pace, our next two nights were spent in an old hotel / spa on the edge of the mountains.  The hotel was funky and had clearly seen its better days in the 1930’s, before the Spanish Civil War. The hotel was on the edge of the reservoir formed by damming the Ebro River, which eventually runs southeast through Spain, flowing into the Mediterranean about halfway between Barcelona and Valencia. We took a day trip to the mountains to the west to travel to the Picos de Tres Mares (Peaks of the Three Seas), a lookout where one could see valleys which contained the headwaters of three rivers which ran in three directions, to the Mediterranean (the Hijar which flows into the Ebro), to the Atlantic (the Pisuerga which flows into the Duero which crosses Portugal) and to the Cantabrian Sea/ Bay of Biscay (the Nansa). The roads were good, but small.  Clouds hovered around, but we were able to see the mountains. Little did we know this was as good as it was going to get in the mountains.


We left the Ebro Reservoir and headed north to the coast, to the beach town / fishing village of Llanes, on the Cantabrian Sea in Asturias.  We stayed in a simple hotel about 20 minutes walk from the center of town, which shared an albergue for student groups and for pilgrims. Llanes is a picturesque town, but the most original thing about it is the breakwater for the harbor which is composed of concrete cubes about six feet on each side.  They have permitted local artists to paint one or more sides of the cubes. It is quite colorful.

Llanes lies on the seashore of a long, narrow, relatively flat area of land.  To the south, away from the coast is the first of several mountain ranges culminating in the Picos de Europa. Our plan was spend a day at the beach and then two days traveling in the mountains. There are lots of beaches, many of them relatively small, surrounded by large rock formations.  These beaches are not highly developed; there is usually no concession for beach chairs, umbrellas, kayaks, etc. Frequently, there is no restaurant or even a place to use the bathroom. We chose a beach near Llanes that we could walk to and which had a restaurant nearby. The water was relatively clear and cool. Clouds loomed over the mountains, but never came down onto the ocean side.

The next day we took off for the Picos de Europa.  The roads in the area are “challenging,” as was the weather. The roads were narrow, with lots of turns and changes in elevation. We encountered both cyclists and cattle on the roads. (Not sure how the two interacted with each other.) As we got into the area of the Picos we encountered very heavy fog, the kind where you can only see a few feet ahead of you. Since we did not know the roads we were unsure if we could turn around, much less where. When we crested one pass, the clouds lifted somewhat so we went on to Valdeleon, a valley town nestled in the Picos.  There were clouds all around.  It became a bit of a joke with us as we could only catch brief glimpses of the peaks within the clouds. We only got “peeks” of the “peaks” (try explaining that pun in Spanish). We had lunch then headed back a different way. The weather was waiting for us.  We encountered a strong hailstorm, which left some villages looking like they were in snow.  You know those “falling rocks” road signs, but there never any rocks on the road?  We found the rocks. Slow driving all the way.  When we crossed over the last mountain range, the sun was shining in the coastal area.

So we tried again the next day to go to a couple of mountain lakes we were told we should not miss. Different roads, but still narrow and twisting. When we got to Covadonga where we had to park and take buses up to the lakes, we were told not to bother, the lakes were completely fogged in. So we had lunch and looked around.  There is large catholic church and monastery there because Covadonga is where, in the 10th century, the local Christian king handed the Moors their first defeat, thus starting what in Spain is called the “Reconquest,” which took until 1492 when the last Moorish King was expelled from Granada.

The Galician Coast

After a few days in Llanes, we headed west towards Galicia, driving along the coast when we could. We stopped in Ribadeo, a large fishing town just over the border. A small hotel was located in a pedestrian area. Just like you may have heard about Spain in the old days, the townspeople came out and strolled around or sat in the park or cafes (or bars). A makeshift band played.  All quite charming. The next morning we drove to “Cathedral Beach,” so named because of the huge eroded rock formations, many of which had caves or even arches produced by the water.  Very striking.

We kept driving west, visiting the northernmost cape in Spain and ending up in Ferrol, a small city on the coast near where the coast begins to turn south. We decided to stay on the outskirts of Ferrol, so never got down to the old city or port. We just went out to eat and have some drinks at various bars along the main street in that part of town, near the hotel. The most interesting thing was the last bar we ran into, the Café Vanessa.  The bar was surprisingly well stocked with good gins, scotches, even bourbons. We asked the owner-bartender about it and got into a nice conversation about spirits, the liquid kind. You got the feeling that most of the local customers were not really into relatively expensive quality spirits, and he was quite proud of his selection. We were sorry it was the last bar we went in, and hated to leave, but we had a ways to go the next day.

The next day, we continued to drive around the coast, stopping at lighthouses and other sights. Like Asturias, the roads in Galicia, once you left the Autovia, Spain’s excellent version of the Interstate highways, were narrow and twisting, but this is where you could see the small villages and the rugged coastline itself. Spain is continually expanding its Autovia system.  Coming into Ferrol, we got on an Autovia and used the GPS to find our hotel.  The problem was that we had borrowed the GPS from our friend in Madrid, rather than buy or rent one.  Our friend had not updated the maps, however, so as we were driving into Ferrol on the Autovia it instructed us to “turn left on an unpaved road.” No! We finally learned we had to actually get into a town or city before trying to use the GPS for detailed directions.

We spent the night after Ferrol at a country inn outside the village of Muxia. We spent a relaxing afternoon and then had dinner in the restaurant which was quite good for being in the middle of nowhere. The highlight was a dish of octopus served three ways – cold, in kind of a salad; boiled along with potatoes; and grilled.  All three were excellent, but grilled was our favorite.

You may have noticed a lack of evening exploits, which is a bit atypical of us.  That is because traveling by car in the north is tiring. Not as tough as walking the Camino, of course, but spending several hours in a small car and then hiking out to capes, cliffs and lighthouses all day can be draining.  As was the case in the Picos region, the coastal roads in Galicia are narrow and winding, so you have to be on guard all the time.  The coast in Galicia differs somewhat from Asturias and Cantabria.  I am not sure why, but the rivers in Galicia that run west to the Atlantic cut deeper valleys; almost no deltas.  The Spanish call these valleys “Rias,” not rios which means rivers, and the Galician coast is divided into the Upper Rias and the Lower Rias regions.  I have seen Rias translated as fjords, but they’re not quite as steep as the pictures I have seen of Norway. The landscapes are really beautiful and we tried to stop wherever there was a good view (and a place to pull off the narrow road). We would normally try to stop for lunch at some small restaurant with a view of the sea.

After staying in Muxia, we made our way around a couple of peninsulas and then headed to Santiago de Compostela for the night. By now, we were ready for an upgraded hotel, with a real pool, bar and restaurant. We turned around the next day however and headed back to the coast for the day.  Among the places we hoped to see was Fisterra, supposedly the westernmost tip of Spain.  (I think Fisterra is probably a Gallego variant of Finisterre, meaning the end of land.) The fog was so thick however that once we got there, we could not even see the water below. We did however get to visit Cabo Tourian, which also claims to be more westerly than Fisterra (and looks that way on the map.)  There we did have some nice views of the coast and the sea. We went back to Santiago for the night.

We spent a day visiting Santiago. The cathedral is the final destination for the pilgrims of the Camino. They have special masses for them and the pilgrims can line up to hug the statue of Saint James, which is Santiago in Spanish. One unusual thing about the cathedral is there is a really huge incense burner which hangs from the ceiling and can be swung back and forth  across the cathedral.  We are told its purpose was to mask the stench from the pilgrims who had not bathed during their long pilgrimage. (There are more services available to modern pilgrims.) The incense burner was not in operation while we were there, but I have seen clips of it and it seems quite impressive.

While walking around Santiago, we stumbled upon what can best be described as a Galician folklife fashion show.  There was a raised runway built into a plaza and a large crowd watching.  Various people and groups would get up on the runway and walk up and down displaying their traditional native costumes from different regions of Galicia. There was a bit of the striptease about it as they would remove various layers to show the clothing that made up the costume; (not underwear, of course, there was nothing raunchy about it.) It was fun and interesting, but the thing that struck me most was the pride in their heritage; these were not models, just ordinary people, not ashamed to dress up in what we would consider funny dresses and hats and then get up in front of a huge crowd.

After a few days in Santiago we headed down the coast to something different.  We stayed a couple of nights at a resort hotel on Isla de la Toja, a small island attached to another larger island connected by a causeway to the mainland. Isla de la Toja was composed primarily of a couple of resort hotels and upscale housing, either apartments or single family homes, with a golf course, tennis courts, even a skeet range. Tourist buses would come in for the day, but not stay. Sallie was feeling a bit under the weather, so we mostly hung out on the island rather than go exploring.

Two aspects of the island were unusual.  First, at low tide, the shallows would be full of people out in the water digging up what we assumed were clams or something similar. Presumably these were not the wealthy residents, although it was hard to tell in some cases. The other thing which I found unusual was that the government had set up a vehicle inspection station for the residents’ convenience. It was completely mobile; it could be taken down and moved somewhere else. I assume that they went around to the smaller towns in the area, so that the citizens would not have to drive into one of the relatively few large cities.

After Isla de la Toja, we headed inland to Leon for a few days. Although we drove through the mountains, we eventually left them behind and entered into the flatter region of Spain’s interior plateau. We stayed in a modern hotel on the outskirts of the city.  It was about a 30 minute walk into the core of the old city.  The cathedral had the best collection of traditional stained glass, in what was otherwise a kind of stark church. (Sagrada Familia, the Gaudi designed cathedral in Barcelona, has more stained glass, but it’s a completely different setting being modern.) Leon, like Burgos, also had a lively nightlife with full sidewalk cafes and a lovely Plaza Mayor, which was turned into a open air market on Saturday morning. In this respect, Leon reminded us much more of Madrid than the northern coast. There were clearly tourists, including some pilgrims on the Camino, but most of the crowds were Spanish.

When we left Leon, we had one day left.  We drove to Valladolid.  Our hotel was located in a large, new, modern, and somewhat sterile housing development.  It turns out it was some distance from the center of town and it was a Sunday. We walked around the neighborhood, but really did not do too much.  Perhaps anticlimactic,  but it had been a long, but fascinating trip, so we just relaxed. The next day we drove into Madrid, to see our friends and get ready for the long two-and-a-half month trip through Europe.

Realistically, you have to make an effort to get to Northern Spain. It is a ways from Madrid and even further away from the traditional sights of Barcelona, or Andalucia, so it does not fit in well with most people’s planned trips to Spain. Indeed, if I were giving advice on a first trip to Spain, I would recommend Madrid, Barcelona, Sevilla, Granada, Cordoba, and Ronda. There is obviously much more to Spain than those traditional highlights and Northern Spain is part of that.  It was worth the three weeks, apart from Pamplona, that we took to see it.

[It’s exhausting just to read Rich’s account of this marvelous trip.  I’m very envious of Rich and Sallie, by the way.  They got to see the Bilbao Guggenheim!  How great!!  The one here in New York City is one of my favorite buildings (designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, also an innovator in his day) and museums.  As it happens, too, there’s a relatively new theater here for which Frank Gehry designed the interior.  (It’s in a high rise in the design of which Gehry had no hand.  I blogged about the new space, the Pershing Square Signature Center, when it opened.  See my article, “The Signature Center” on 18 February 2012.)  I go there often—for the theater, not the architecture—as readers of ROT will know from my performance reports.

[I also once went to a bullfight in Spain when I was probably 16 or 17.  I figured the bullfight would happen (and the bulls killed) whether I was there or not and I ought to see one for myself once.  (My brother wouldn’t go; he said he’d root for the bull!)  I’ve never been back to one again—not even in Mexico, where I believe the bull is not killed.

[Rich’s remark about trying to explain an English pun in Spanish reminds me of a couple of instances when I faced the dilemma of translating a pun into another language.  When I was in high school in Switzerland and was assigned my first essay in French, I tried to make an English pun work in French.  I don’t remember the assignment, but it had something to do with the French proverb Qui veut, peut (‘He who wishes, can’), which is the equivalent of the English saying “Where there’s a will, there’s a way.”  I wracked my brain for some idea and finally decided to try punning on ‘way’ and ‘whey’ (as in “curds and . . .”).  In French, however, ‘whey’ is petit-lait, and there was no way, even by the most tortured route, to make the pun work in French!  (I don’t recall what grade I got on the paper.  Fortunately, it was judged not on its literary value, but its grammatical correctness.) 

[Years later, when I was living in New York and studying acting, my scene partner and I were assigned a scene from the 1935 play Tovarich.  Now, Tovarich is a comedy, and after my partner and I got the scripts, I discovered that it was originally a French play.  I got the French text from the library (New York Public Library is amazing!) and found that the scene my partner and I were assigned was light and amusing (which wasn’t obvious from the English translation), but it was based on a French pun.  The joke was built around the similarity of the phrases fond d’artichaut, or ‘artichoke heart,’ and fond d’argent, ‘money fund.’  There was no way in the world we could make the pun work in English (if there had been, I suspect Robert E. Sherwood, the English adapter-playwright, would have used it)—it was just lost.  All we could do with our knowledge was lighten up our approach to the scene since we now knew that the characters, a husband and wife, were having fun with one another.]

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