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Barcelona, Zaragoza, San Sebastian and Bilbao, Spain

semi-overcast 11 °C

On November 24 we flew from Malta to Barcelona with Vueling Airlines.
We have both been to Barcelona before but it is worth a second look. I was just here, it seems, less than a year ago. I walked on La Rambla and actually went to an opera.
It is easy to get around Barcelona on the extensive underground system. This is my third visit to Spain and Jeff's fifth! I can't explain why it is our most visited European country. It is large, diverse, the weather is good. We have never seen the Basque country and Barcelona seemed a good starting point. Also we have to be in Madrid on December 2.

The Sagrada Familia, still spectacular, still under construction:
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Intricate and fantastical in detail, the Sagrada Familia, Gaudi's masterpiece, has been under construction since 1882. It is expected to be finished around 2026. Over 3 million tourists view the progress every year.

There is a Christmas market across the street from the church.
Caga Tió and caganer are two Christmas traditions in Catalonia - both raise eyebrows and take some time to get used to! I found them disgusting last year but this year kind of endearing. Both have to do with 'poop' so if there is a four year old in your life, chances are that kid will enjoy the humour.
Caga Tio is the famous pooping log - just a little stick with a hat and a smiley face - you can find them in all sizes at any Christmas market in Barcelona.
Little kids are given the log to look after for a few weeks and then on Christmas Eve the log will poop presents - supposedly the better you look after him the more candy he poops. If he isn't pooping presents when cajoled, (there is a little song to encourage the log to poop out gifts) then the child can threaten him - 'poop out some presents or I will beat you with a stick.' One way or another the gifts are forthcoming.

The caganer is another poop-centric Christmas tradition - a pooping figurine is placed in nativity scenes. Now, in case this sounds disrespectful, disgusting and downright gross - if you are Catalan the caganer represents good luck. Some of the porcelain poopers depict famous people, Queen Elizabeth, Putin, etc.
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The market next to the Sagrada Familia had many booths selling both logs and figurines. When I got home last year I regretted not buying a caganer or Caga Tió as a souvenir - this year I got one of each.

We had the world's most expensive coffee at a cafe across the street from the church. Two tiny cups cost eight euros. Twelve dollars. Coffee was cheaper in Norway!!

We climbed a hill and many stairs to reach Guell Park:

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It is warm, about 17 degrees C at noon. but overcast.

Park Guell, another work by Antoni Gaudi.was built between 1900 and 1914. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Spain has the third highest number of UNESCO World Heritage Sites: 46. China has the most and Italy is a close second. We have actually seen less than half of the sites in Spain.

The Gaudi House Museum requires an entrance fee but the adjacent park is free for public use. Gaudi actually lived in the house from 1906 until he moved to his workshop at the Sagrada Familia in 1926. He was hit by a streetcar and died in June 1926.

Magenta Bougainvillea cascade on Gaudi's carved palm trees:
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We are staying near the Europa Fira Metro Station at the Eurostars Gran Via Fira Hotel. It is out of the centre, more of a business hotel but comfortable and fairly easy to access the city via the metro system. For Barcelona it is very good value for sixty nine dollars Canadian a night.
The lobby:
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Breakfast is included, a decent selection of mediocre quality.

We ate in the restaurant/bar on our first evening there - terrible. Terrible service and terrible food. We were the only customers. I wish I had taken a picture - one slice of English ham placed between two slices of white bread on a plate - not cut, no butter, seven dollars. We bought groceries at a gas station later to supplement this forlorn effort. So don’t plan on eating in the bar/restaurant, even though they have printed menus.

There is a pool and sauna also so Jeff went swimming.

We purchased 48 hour bus/metro passes for 15 E each at the airport and broke even. Very convenient to use the card which includes unlimited public transportation.

On 26 November we took the ALSA bus from Barcelona's Nord Station to Zaragoza - 4 hours, includes one 15 minute stop. 16 E for one ticket.

The Nord Station is right by the Arc de Triomphe Metro Stop.

The neo-classical station was built in phases starting in 1861. It was used as the table tennis venue in the 1992 Summer Olympics.
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Lots of graffiti in Barcelona. If you close your garage door somebody tags it!!

One hand printed message caught my eye on the long walk from the metro station to Guell Park.
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Barcelona hosts a lot of tourists. They drink, party and litter. They jostle in line at museums and clog up the pedestrian streets taking selfies. Rising rent and clogged streets make average residents resent tourists.
Barcelona has been overwhelmed by tourists. It is estimated that over 30 million tourists may have passed some time in Barcelona last year! 16 million stayed in hotels. That is a big number for a city of 1.6 million residents to accommodate.

Some cities, like Skopje, are building monuments to attract tourists. Others, like Barcelona, Prague, Amsterdam and Dubrovnik attract too much of a good thing.
The cities where tourism has thrived were once advertising heavily to attract them. Now the anti tourism sentiment in Barcelona is growing.

Barcelona is a modern, clean, world class city - great Mediterranean climate and many natural and constructed wonders. Tourism contributes 12 % to the GDP.

Zaragoza, Aragon, Spain

We took an ALSA bus from Barcelona to Zaragoza on 26 November - about a four hour journey. The bus was clean and comfortable.
Zaragoza, the capital of Aragon, has a population of 700,000
It is midway between Madrid and Barcelona. It is also kind of midway between Barcelona and San Sebastián, which is why we stopped here, to break up our trip from Barcelona to the Basque Country.

The Cathedral of Our Lady of the Pilar
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An apparition of Mary on the pilar appeared to St James (Santiago) in AD 40 while he prayed beside the Ebro River. She seemingly gave him a small statue of herself standing on a Pilar.
He built a small chapel in her honour.
The current baroque style replacement, the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Pilar, was begun in the seventeenth century.
The interior includes two ceiling paintings by Goya as well as a section of the original pilar and statue.
This is the second most visited pilgrimage spot in Spain after Santiago (Camino).

St James = Santiago, is said to have brought Christianity to Spain.
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It is pretty much a miracle that the statue and Pilar were given to St James in the first place and a double miracle that they have survived and are situated in the church today.

The Pilar and statue (only about fifteen inches tall) are located in the smaller of the two altar areas. Behind this altar the wall has been cut away so that about seven inches of the back of the Pilar is exposed. There is a marble step below to kneel on and to the right is a donation box. Several worshippers paid money, knelt and kissed the Pilar during the few minutes I was in the area. The marble kneeling pad is indented from all the knees that have rested there.

I did not take a picture (not allowed) but I did air kiss the Pilar which has worn away in the spot where so many pilgrims have kissed it over the centuries.

The main altar is carved alabaster, quite spectacular but security guards are wandering around amongst us pilgrims and pictures are not allowed. I did sneak a picture or two but it was not easy!!

During the Spanish Civil War three bombs were dropped on the church but none of them exploded. One bomb ripped through the right hand side of Goya's painting:

Two of the bombs are displayed in the church:
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Napoleon bombed the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Pilar in 1808 and the marks of the cannonballs have been left on the exterior wall.

The Church of San Juan de los Panetes from 1725, is built on the same site where there once was a church of the Knights of St John of Jerusalem. The tower is leaning slightly due to uneven drying of the cement during construction:
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It was heavily damaged during the Spanish Civil War
Caesar Augustus founded Zaragoza in 24 BC. The statue below was a gift to the city by Mussolini in 1940:
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One of eleven bridges over the Ebro River:
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In 1971 a bus crashed through the Roman bridge and 9 bodies disappeared (forever) into a sinkhole.

The oldest church in Zaragoza was converted from a mosque in the twelfth century. La Seo Cathedral is also on Plaza del Pilar Square.

It is considered the finest example of Mudéjar architecture in Aragon and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

A feature found throughout the city centre is the covered arcade:
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We are staying at the Inca Hotel, walking distance to all of the sights, a very nice small hotel, attractive, clean and comfortable.

Very good value at fifty dollar a night.

Lobby - they printed our train tickets for us and an adorable little girl sat across from me as I waited.
Yes there are blondes in Spain.
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We travelled by Renfe train from Zaragoza north to San Sebastián on the Bay of Biscay on 28 November. In Basque it is known as Donastia.

Aqueduct from 1790 on the Berrioplano brought drinking water to Pamplona, Navarre:
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North of Iza we passed suddenly through thick fog
Shortly the fog cleared and we could see the backdrop of hills again.
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We are now in the Basque Country, in the province of Gipuzkoa, heading north to the capital city, the resort town, San Sebastian.

The Basque Country straddles the western Pyranees Mountains of France and Spain along the Bay of Biscay.
The Basque people predate agriculture on the Iberian Penninsula.

We have seen a lot of beautiful scenery travelling by bus and train!!

Located just 12 km from France San Sebastián/Donastia faces the Bay of Biscay and the Atlantic Ocean.
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Guernica - the original Picasso painting is in the Reina Sofía Museum in Madrid. It was produced in response to the bombing of the Basque village of Guernica in 1937, during the Spanish Civil War. The mural, considered a definitive work of the twentieth century uses only 3 flat paint colours: black, grey and white.

There is a provocative temporary exhibit called The Laughter of Space at the San Treno Museum in San Sebastián - it is a tribute to the 80th anniversary of Picasso's iconic masterpiece.
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The museum is in a Dominican convent from the sixteenth century attached to a modern extension and is free on Tuesdays.
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San Treno Museum is in the old town near the waterfront and includes fine art, archaeology and history.

The Basques were shipbuilders, whalers and fishermen. They may have been been to North America before Columbus - half of Columbus' crew were Basques. A famous Basque, Ignatius of Loyola, founded the Jesuits in 1540.

The Uramea River flows through San Sebastian into the Cantabrian Sea in the Bay of Biscay.

We are across the river from the old town, in the city centre.

We had coffee at the neighbourhood pub across the street, raining now on 29 November. We are doing laundry - seems expensive at eight euros for one smallish load but it is the only time we have needed this service - we have rented a lot of apartments with washing machines in the past two months. Also the laundromat is only half a block from our Pension Aida - we just hung it up to dry - we are here for two more nights.

By 1230 it had stopped raining so we headed over to the old town. The sky was an ominous shade of grey - too bad we did not bring the umbrella.

We poked around and stopped for coffee and toast.

It was pouring rain, now we stopped for hot chocolate and churros.

Basilica of Santa Maria in the old town, baroque style Catholic Church built in the eighteenth century:
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I thought we could pass some time in the shelter of the church but it was locked so we slogged our way home and were wet to the skin. Gee, we hardly have any dry clothes to wear now, with our laundry drying - no heat coming from the pipes either - could be a long wait drying a few things with the hair dryer. Or I guess run down the street and pay the five euro minimum to use the clothes dryer!!

Eventually I figured out the heat and got the bathroom towel warmer involved - soon things got pretty toasty if a little humid with all the clothes drying.

30 November - pouring at 9 am but sunny by 1030 so we walked along the beach - very fine sand - and watched surfers enjoy the crashing waves.

Neo-Gothic architecture, San Ignacio Church - closed or we would have gone in - close to our pension - built in late 1800s - there are numerous beautiful buildings in San Sebastián, many built of limestone.
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San Sebastián has several (9) Michelin Star restaurants. To put this in perspective Canada has none.
To further put this in perspective, restaurant food here is not budget friendly.
There are three 3 star Michelin restaurants in this coastal Basque city, population 186,000.
We actually cannot afford to eat here - we have coffee and toast or churros or buy bread, cheese and Iberian ham at the grocers.
If I was going to dine in a three star Michelin restaurant I would like to dress up a little. My hair is ratty from all the rain and my Sketchers have seen better days.
At the moment they are sitting on the register, drying out.
We stayed at Pension Aida - well located and clean, private bath, free lipgloss. 137 Euros for three nights or about 60 Canadian per night.

Bilbao, Spain

On Dec 01, 2017 we took the ALSA bus from San Sebastián to Bilbao. It was the first time we have seen snow this autumn. It pretty much melted when it hit the ground but had a little more staying power in the mountains.
The going was slow, the oncoming lane was moving along well but we were in a long line up for about an hour, a bit of a rock slide into our lane, equipment was clearing it up. This made our trip one hour longer.
We passed through spectacular scenery in the mountains and also along the north coast but I was nauseous the entire trip so spent my time with eyes closed, counting breaths.
We had cafe con lache before the bus came - I may never have another one because I threw it up 20 minutes later.

It cleared up for a few hours so we walked along the river to the Guggenheim.
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The Bilbao Gugenheim opened twenty years ago and it put Bilbao on the map as a tourist destination.
One building redefined the city. It attracts one million visitors a year.

The Maman, a huge spider ? sculpture in front of the Gugenheim, was designed by Louise Bourgeois - huge, thirty feet high, 33 feet wide.
Bourgeois designed spiders for years - her mother was a weaver, Maman. The spider-mother analogy is interesting - complicated.
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The building that made both an architect and a city famous - the Guggenheim of Bilbao - Canadian born, American architect, Frank Gehry designed the building which turned an industrial based port city into a tourist hot spot - the Guggenheim effect or the Bilbao effect.
Today is not my lucky day as my camera battery died before I got the perfect picture - look it up - shimmering gold in the sun, undulating curves, a masterpiece of titanium, glass and limestone. Cost, one hundred million euros. And came in under budget.
I am glad I saw it in real life!!!
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This is a branch of the New York Guggenheim but we came for the architecture, not for the art. 'If you build it, they will come' really worked for Bilbao.

It generates 400 million Euros annually.

The Zubizuri Footbridge (white bridge) which spans the Nervion River near the Gugenheim was designed by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava (he designed the controversial Peace Bridge in Calgary).
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Bilbao, population 500,000, has 8 Michelin star restaurants. Spain has 182 Michelin starred restaurants!! France has 616! Canada 0.
Pintxo are equivalent to tapas in Basque Country. We had some today, tortilla (potato and egg omelette) and a sandwich layered with salt fish. Good. Can a Canadian's undeveloped palate be trusted though?
We stayed at the Begona, 75 Dollars for one night, we were underwhelmed but it was walking distance to the Gugenheim and the main train station.
On December 2 we took the train from Bilbao to Madrid, 323 km.
The train was clean, comfortable and relaxing. There was quite a lot of snow north of Madrid:
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We stayed one night at the Tribeca Hotel:
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This was a really lovely hotel with a great lobby.
We now went for a five day excursion teaching English as volunteers. If you like to talk and are a native English speaker, look into this gig. You get free room and board at an upscale resort style hotel.
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We enjoyed it immensely and met lots of interesting people. The day starts at 9 am with mandatory breakfast, lunch is served at 2 pm and dinner is at 9 - there is a two hour siesta break in the afternoon. The meals are substantial and a nice change of pace from our typical diet when in Spain (tapas).
Wine was included at both lunch and dinner and there was a bar available to purchase late night drinks or mid-day coffee.
There is a busy week in Spain that includes two major religious holidays - Dec 1 to 10 would be a good time not to be in Spain as much of the country is on holiday and sightseeing. Hotels are at a premium.
We were hosted by a young couple for one night in Madrid as the city was almost booked solid on Dec 8. I had made a reservation months in advance for Dec 10 but we were scrambling to get a last minute hotel during this busy time as we still needed a place for Dec 9. I think the Marriott Auditorium Hotel was a highlight. Our room was fabulous and the service impeccable.
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Expensive for us budget tourists at 150 Dollars, but they do have a free airport shuttle that leaves every thirty minutes.
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The Madrid Airport seemed very confusing but likely less so for the Spanish.
We flew Norwegian Air to Gatwick on Dec 11.
Our entire trip was 75 days and we covered 25000 km.
We visited some roads less traveled but also spent three weeks in Spain, the world’s second most popular tourist destination.

Posted by CherylGypsyRose 15:41 Archived in Spain Tagged barcelona spain surfing catalonia gaudi budget unesco backpacking mediterranean zaragoza tapas bilbao basque guggenheim aragon biscay pixtos gugenheim

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