Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Pamplona: Capital of the Kingdom of Navarra

Pamplona's pretty architecture

We didn't run with the bulls, but our 24 hours in Pamplona was packed full of sightseeing. Pamplona (Iruña in Basque) is the last stop on our spring trip to Spain, and honestly, by the time we arrive, we are tired, our taste buds and tummies are on overload and we are completely out of clean clothes. But after checking into our hotel and taking a quick look at Facebook and email, we head out to explore the medieval city of Pamplona, the capital of the ancient kingdom of Navarra.

Just as we reach the base of Pamplona's city walls, which are some of the best preserved in Europe, the skies open up and we join the soggy crowd seeking shelter just across the Puente de la Rochapea on the Arga River. As soon as the rain lets up, we enter the old city through Portal de Francia, following the route of the famed encierro (bull run), which takes place each July during the San Fermin Fiesta.

Sign along the route of Pamplona's encierro

I pick up a handy guide to city walks at the tourist office, and we peruse the possibilities while sipping thick, luscious hot chocolate at Plaza Consistorial.

Strolling band in Plaza Consistorial

Ultimately, we decide to stroll aimlessly and I put away the map. Before long, the sun is shinning, and people seem to pour into the massive Plaza del Castillo. For more than 200 years, the 14,000-square-meter plaza has served as a venue for markets, political demonstrations, tournaments, parades and, until 1844, bullfights. Today it is the city's central meeting place.

Plaza del Castillo

Ken poses by the gazebo in Plaza del Castillo.

Even Pamplonians love 'The Good Wife.'

Carlos III El Noble, King of Navarra

We eventually find ourselves at Plaza de Toros, Pamplona's bull ring. Built in 1922 with a 19,720 capacity, here is the ending point for the running of the bulls and, sadly, for many of the bulls themselves. Just outside, a statue of Ernest Hemingway, perhaps America's most notable bullfight fan and the man who made Pamplona famous. (For more on this, check out this interesting July 2011 article in The Independent.)

Sculpture at Plaza de Toros

Ernest Hemingway statue at Plaza de Toros

We stop to rest in the quiet, grassy park at the Citadel, one of Europe's most notable examples of Renaissance military architecture. The stone buildings are now used for exhibitions and events, and avant garde statues dot the park.

Sculpture in the Citadel park in Pamplona

Ken and a cannon at the gates to the Citadel

It's getting late, so we make a B-line for Taconera Park. We've been told that a variety of animals reside here in the old moats. We don't see any deer, but there are lots of birds, including peacocks and turkeys in this open-air zoo.

An old moat along Pamplona's city walls is an open-air zoo in Taconera Park.

This post ends this series on Spain, and I will end with a few thoughts about this beautiful country. Ken and I have visited Spain four times so far, and we have had nothing but great memories: of the people, the places, the food and wine. As much as we love France, each time we venture south of the border we find ourselves wondering if we should have chosen Spain as our adopted country. Those of you who know us know that someday we may decide to do just that.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Segovia: Spain's 'Stone Ship'

The Great Roman Aqueduct of Segovia

A visit to Segovia was highly recomended by our son, and despite the rain (and not bringing along our parapluies) this ancient city, 60 miles north of Madrid, surpassed expectations.

An intriguing sculpture in Segovia, Spain

No one knows for sure how old Segovia is. The city's origins date back to Celtiberian tribes, who, according to the Tourism Segovia website, lived among the craggy limestone cliffs.

Segovia's most notable attraction is the Roman aqueduct, Some say that Hercules himself built this massive structure. The majestic aqueduct includes 167 arches made of granite ashlars. Below ground, an intricate network of channels once supplied water throughout the city. Tourists can follow the subterranean path marked with bronze plaques to its end point: Alcázar of Segovia.

One of Segovia aqueduct's 167 arches

Roman aqueduct, Segovia, Spain

Originally a fortress, the Alcázar has served as a royal palace, a prison and a military academy. Today, the castle is a museum and a military archives. Its placement, perched on the rocks at the edge of the old hilltop city, is reminicent of a ship's prow, giving Segovia its nickname "The Stone Ship."

Alcázar of Segovia is one of Spain's most notable castles.

Alcázar of Segovia

Cabellero at Alcázar of Segovia

Much of Alcázar was destroyed in a fire in 1862, but the castle has been restored. We opt for the basic tour, foregoing a trip to the tower, which we think would be too slippery today. We wander through the various halls. Our favorite is Sala de Reyes (Monarch Room), which is decorated with a frieze depicting the monarchs of Asturias, Castile and León.

Ceiling and frieze in the Sala de Reyes at Alcázar of Segovia
The rain has let up enough for us to enjoy the gorgeous views from the castle before we head back inside to visit the Sala de Armas (Armoury), which houses the Royal Artillery School Museum.

View looking down from atop Alcázar of Segovia

Alcázar's moat
Halls of the Royal Artillery School Museum at Alcázar of Segovia
After our palace tour, we stroll the Segovia's neighborhoods, and end up at the incredibly bustling Plaza de Azoguejo where we enjoy a light tapas dinner in what could be the noisiest restaurant I've eaten at in years. The place is packed with young people talking, texting, laughing and enjoying the budget menu. (I must be getting old: I can't believe some of these kids are old enough to drink.)

A quiet (for now) corner of Segovia. Around 9 p.m., the town will be hopping
with young people.
Statue of  musicologist and folklorist Agapito Marazuela,
in Segovia's Jewish Quarter.
Pretty cathedral topper

Despite some raindrops, Segovia is a highlight of our trip to Spain. With its close proximity to Madrid, where we now have new friends to visit, we look forward to our next visit to this beautiful city.

We stayed in a hostel in Segovia: clean, convenient and cheap.
I forgot to bring towels so I didn't end up having to figure out
how the heck to work this faucett.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Pig tales in La Alberca, Spain

Nestled in the Sierra de Francia about an hour from the city of Salamanca, the little village of La Alberca has deep roots. People were living here before the Romans arrived. According to legend (and Wikipedia), in 1465 the women of the town defeated Portuguese troops and claimed their enemies' flag, which is still preserved in the village. (Thank you, Wikipedia.)

This quaint alley off the main plaza in La Alberca is
where the bulls wait during the village bullfights.

La Alberca was the first rural village in Spain to be given National Historic Heritage status, according to the country's tourism website. Its main square is surrounded by columned porches, restaurants and tapas bars. In addition to being the center of the town's social life. the plaza also hosts an occasional bullfight.

Our group heads off to explore the shops of La Alberca.

On our quiet Tuesday morning in Alberca, we browse the shops and are invited to a local bodega (wine cellar) for a wine and ham tasting. Iberian ham is a specialty of this area and we enjoy watching the bodega's owner artistically slice and display the paper-thin slices.

Jamón ibérico

The slicing master at work

At lunch, we are served the local delicacy: roast suckling pig. I am a bit put off by the idea of eating a baby pig, but am surprised at how delicious it turns out to be. (Tomorrow my digestive track will suggest that my first instincts were probably correct.)

Each year on July 13 a pig named San Anton is blessed and released into the streets of La Alberca. For the rest of the year, the residents feed San Anton and on January 17, the day of the feast of San Antonio, the pig is raffled off to raise funds for the Brothers of Saint-Antony.

In addition to ham and a village pig, another noteworthy swine is the stone statue outside the church. It is said couples wishing to conceive should fondle the stone pig at midnight. (This may be the most awkward sentence I've ever written for this blog!)

Ken demonstrates the method used by some seeking fertility help.

Ken and I were in La Alberca as part of a language immersion program where Spaniards and Anglos spend the week together talking, listening, eating, drinking and learning. The purpose is to sharpen the Spaniards' English language skills, but it turned out to be so much more. I will write about this incredible, life-changing week in a future post.

The village of La Alberca is a short walk from the mountain
resort Abadia de los Templarios where we spent a week volunteering
with Diverbo, 
an English-language immersion program.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Not so sunny Salamanca

Statue in Salamanca, Spain

A week or so after returning from our trip to Spain, I am piecing together the tatters that was once my map of Salamanca. It rained steadily during our visit, but our memories aren't dampened. In fact, our short visit includes a tour of what becomes one of my all-time favorite museums.

I also score (for 1 euro) one of the most poetic city brochures I've come across from the city's tourist office. I had already downloaded it to my iPad, but having a hard copy feels like a small treasure.

Salamanca's cathedral

Salamanca (pop. 228,881) is a vibrant city with the youthful energy that comes along with being a college town. Founded in 1218, the University of Salamanca is said to be the third oldest university in Europe. It is located in northwest Spain, 120 miles west of Madrid and 50 miles east of Portugal.

Roman bridge in Salamanca, Spain

Plaza Mayor is the sprawling political and social center of Salamanca. The pictures I take in the rain show a seemingly deserted square, but do not show the crowded covered walkways along the sides. When we visit the plaza that evening to partake of tapas and wine, hundreds of people are enjoying the sport of people-watching and being seen.

Plaza Mayor in Salamanca, Spain

Ken good-naturedly agrees to visit La Casa Lis Museo Art Nouveau y Art Déco ... a welcome change from cathedral tours. I am a fan of Art Deco and a doll collector from way back, but I had no idea I would love this museum so much. The Modernist-style mansion houses thousands of porcelain, glass and bronze figurines as well as Art Nouveau furniture, fans, jewelry, toys and, of course dolls. Ken rests on a bench (not quite as swelled with emotion as I) while a look each doll squarely in the eyes and ooh and ahh over their various costumes and faces. I discover that eyebrows can offer a clue to a doll's manufacturer and that Kewpies and Googlies come in many sizes.

Casa Lis Museo Art Nouveau y Art Déco

Outside Casa Lis Museo Art Nouveau y Art Déco

Other highlights of Salamanca include its winding streets. a garden stroll and an amazing white chocolate soup with Oreros. Who could resist?

Heurto de Calixto y Melibea garden

Dessert soup: white chocolate and Oreos

Statue in Salamanca, Spain

Street vendor in Salamanca, Spain

Salamanca, Spain

La Casa de las Conchas, Salamanca, Spain

And you get free nachos when you order four pieces of sushi!