Bilbao: Modern Cathedral Town

Bilbao’s old cathedral is in the heart of its medieval pedestrian centre (Siete Calles or Seven Streets), mostly forgotten today amidst the bonhomie of pintxo bars, but fortunately there’s a new cathedral in town, the Guggenheim, a shiny titanium-clad museum built in 1997 at the bend of the Nervión river by Canadian-American architect Frank Gehry. The Guggenheim has successfully transformed the once industrial Bilbao into a tourist Mecca. Prior to 1997, there were 25,000 visitors a year. In the first three years of the Guggenheim alone, more than 4 million tourists came.

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The awe inspiring new cathedral comes complete with altar pieces dotted round the exterior, most notably a sublime 43-foot-high flowered dog, clothed in an array of blooms that are kept fresh with regular changes throughout the year. Puppy, by American artist Jeff Koons, acts as a quiet guard dog ushering in the unwashed through a rather nondescript museum entrance. On the more impressive river side, three much-larger-than-life sculptures mark out this cathedral as something special: Louise Bourgeois’s giant spider Maman (1999), Jeff Koons’s coloured steel Tulips (2004), and Anish Kapoor’s shiny steel Tall Tree & The Eye (2009).

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Bourgeois’s giant Maman is truly scary while Tall Tree & The Eye, a collection of 73 stainless steel reflective spheres, shimmers beyond reach of its tentacle legs. Designated as “scientific rationalism” and a “dynamic interplay of light,” Kapoor’s circular modern cross shines with hope next to the clutches of the devil spider. We, the viewers, as always are caught in between.

Of course, the real art is the Guggenheim itself, an exquisite abstract sculpture ship, praised by some as the most important building of the twentieth century. Built by licence through the Guggenheim Foundation (after Solomon in New York and Penny in Venice) for $89 million, the Bilbao version reportedly paid for itself after only five years. Not bad to remake a lost industrial city of almost 1 million. As Gehry noted when he received the 2014 Prince of Asturias award for arts, “Bilbao’s business model was amazing” (Frank O. Gehry Architect – Royal or Rebel?).

More Gehry than Guggenheim, it has always been difficult to install sufficiently iconic art within its massive interior. This summer, exhibitions by Koons and New York street artist Jean-Michel Basquiat (a.k.a., Son of Warhol) try to expand the art to monument, along with the permanently displayed works of Richard Serra and Jenny Holzer. Love him or loathe him, Koons is one artist whose works can fit the scale required of the mammoth container. The more traditional stuff just gets lost in the massiveness.

The €15 entrance cost includes a non-optional audio guide, turning the gallery experience into an intellectual tour rather than a usual do-what-you-want sashay through the local hall of fame of past masters. With audio guide in hand, one happily partakes of the ordered 3D walking tour, to be sure an improvement over lonelier unguided visits. Alternately narrated by a posh British man and a spirited American woman, we are told that the “ah-trium” is the heart, pumping people through the arteries of Gehry’s self-styled “free-associated building.” The titanium exterior was computer designed and the smooth limestone interior tiles created by an automated robotic system. It takes little effort to see that the art inside has been similarly constructed.

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The highlight of the permanent collection is Richard Serra’s The Matter of Time (2005), 20 massive rusted steel “shapes,” leaning elliptical sculptures that snake along most of the ground floor in a dedicated room (The Fish Gallery), aptly sponsored by the giant steel company Arcelor. The 14-foot-high pieces are truly monumental, brutally simplistic, perhaps the only kind of art that can compete with the building itself, like primitive hedge mazes arranged in perfect leaning balance, defying gravity. Inside, one is subsumed by optical illusions and falling feelings, as the statues of secular saints prod us to thoughts about creation. A video shows the exacting task of creating, transporting (truck, ship, crane), and installing the mammoth works.

In reality, Serra’s sculptures are interactive play things, an extension of the building itself enjoyed by the hundreds walking through – touching, clapping, snapping – although one is technically forbidden to interact too closely, according to the prominently displayed communion rules: no touching, no photos, no sacrilegious remarks. It’s a majestically playful adult playground for the modern adherent, releasing one from an overly structured world. New interactive secular play, ever disorientating, almost ecstatic, a quest through the maze of ideas as if to a supposed end.

Control seems to be the recurring theme throughout our stage-managed interaction. In Jeff Koons: A Retrospective (June 9 – September 27), viewers are instructed upon entry that “Photos (without flash) for private, non-commercial use are exceptionally allowed in the marked spots.” The “marked spots” were indicated on the floor with a camera icon and PHOTOSPOT text, art in itself if you want to think postmodern, though there were only four such marked spots over ten rooms and two floors – in front of Lobster, Popeye, Balloon Dog (Red), and Michael Jackson and Bubbles (all of which would cost a cool €250 millionish if you so desired to own them).

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Each marked spot had an accompanying partner “stand spot” indicated by a pair of shoes icon, presumably to include selected friends in a choreographed peripheral position, like a clingy medieval cherub, but were so peripheral it was difficult to arrange object and friend in the same shot.

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A thoughtful attempt to include the viewer in the art? More like reemphasizing that we are the outsiders straining to play with the big boys. An afterthought essentially. Interact only as commanded. One can’t allow any old interaction as in the poor 12-year-old boy who put a hole in a €1.3 million painting after tripping at a Taiwanese museum. Tsk tsk.

On the accompanying audio guide, Koons’s creativity is said to be “without ego,” though one wonders how such self-consciously created objects can be egoless. Irony is the height of ego. It is nonetheless amusing to browse through room after room of big iconic stuff in a gallery that was made for big iconic stuff.

Indeed, to understand Koons is to understand big. His larger-than-life sculptures poke fun with convention, alas itself rather conventional after too much of the same. He makes small big, rough smooth, ugly pretty, but tries too hard to control the user’s interaction, almost anal as he attempts to program our interactive selfies and to limit our fun. Only four PHOTOSPOTS? Is he saying there aren’t enough utilitarian objects to go round?

He even supposes to think big, noting that “For me the stainless steel is the material of the proletariat, it’s what pots and pans are made of.” I never imagined myself as a proletariat or that pots and pans were so easy to work with. Further on he adds, “It’s a very hard material and it’s fake luxury.” Indeed, there is a lot of fake luxury in this retrospective. Unaffordable to all but the richest collectors of Pop (or Blow-Up) Art. He ought to have heeded Picasso’s advice: “Copy anyone but don’t copy yourself.” Of course, easier said than done when one has a winning formula for creative commercial success.

My favourite piece is Jenny Holzer’s Installation for Bilbao (1999). Her work has always fascinated me, and her magnificent 9-column, running-LED display (up and down in blue and red) mesmerizes as text appears and disappears from floor and ceiling. Words race up and down in a myriad of languages, inviting one to ask where creation comes from. It is monumental like all the others, but accessible all the same.


To be sure, the Guggenheim is impressive, and easily dwarfs other modern art galleries. All the more since we no longer go to church, but to large cathedral-housed galleries to commune with our better selves. The Guggenheim is a shape, “a confluence of juxtaposed shapes” we are told. According to Gehry, “I’ve always thought of the city in sculptural terms. The city is a sculpture itself.” And now, with a modern cathedral where one comes to be a part of a new secular, it’s a shape you walk into like a playground with swings and teeter-totters. The building is the show.

If one isn’t into large playground art, there is more on offer in Bilbao. One can happily amble along the gentle beauty of the remodelled Nervión river promenade and let the midday breeze blissfully blow past.

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Or check out the pintxos bar in the oldest part of town, wall-to-wall eating in a peaceful pedestrian centre. Just meander through the narrow old cathedral streets, and take in the gastronomic delights on offer at hundreds of different bars. Indeed, Bilbao is home to the pintxo walk (or pincho in Spanish), dreamy hors d’oeuvre washed down with wine or beer, though more like a meal after 5 or 6. One gets lost in time and space in search of the perfect pintxo creation.

Prices vary, so watch out for the engaños (rip-offs) like Berton, an attractive but ridiculously priced pintxo trap. We had their “medallones de solomillo y foie” for €3.50, which alas came with a withered slice of pepper, a miniscule sliver of foie (on the side), a damp cut of bad bread, and only ONE medallion. My Spanish is an ongoing process, but I know my plurals – medallones suggests at least two!

Clearly Bilbao is enjoying its makeover tourist status to reel in the unsuspecting. For a great menu del día though, after the requisite pilgrimage to the Guggenheim, I recommend the nearby Larruzz Bilbao on the river side. You won’t feel you splurged as you recount the monumental.

Best of the “pinchoterías” (my first coined Spanish word) was Santamaria, where we had a delicious bacalao (cod), melted cheese, and jam creation. Better yet, take a quick trip to Portugalete for even cheaper pintxos (a half hour, €3.20 return ride on the metro) at the mouth of the Nervión with its World Heritage Site Puente Vizcaya, the oldest hanging transporter bridge in the world. If you take the bridge (€0.70 return) you can check out the beaches of Getxo in the really posh part of town.

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Even better (if you’re after good fairly priced pinchos), try Castro Urdiales and its “ruta de los pinchos” in nearby Cantabria, that is if you’re flying from Santander. Here, one gets pinchos galore for a euro each in any of a dozen coastal pinchoterías. Meson Marinero was the best of a great bunch. No iconic modern cathedrals to jack up the prices, just simple tranquillity on the edge of a quiet ocean. Of course, pinchos like art is subjective, but I’m sure you’ll love it.

To be sure, everyone is a critic these days, so I have an idea for the Guggenheim if it really wants to offer a new cathedral experience, a modern communion for today’s adherent: the “Selfie Box.” At the outside entrance, one stands on a marked PHOTOSPOT, smiles (or mugs), and the image is instantly transferred to a video wall containing hundreds of other similar selfies. Just think how much fun to see ourselves on gridded display, to be part of the art, to be instantly artized.

How could one not ponder one’s place, or the line between artist and viewer, priest and believer? But then we might not care so much about the real professional art on the real professional walls.


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Adventures in Northern Spain – Part I: The Northwest (Asturias, Galicia, Porto, Zamora)

If you’re looking for a summer trip to knock your socks off, look no further than northern Spain – all the down-home charms of yesterday with all the modern conveniences of today. I recommend two, both by car starting and ending in Gijón, Asturias, the geographical centre of northern Spain. Trip 1 is “The Northwest,” taking in the coastal beauty of Asturias, Galicia, northern Portugal, and the western edge of Castille and León, returning along the heights of the breathtaking Douro/Duero valley and Zamora. Trip 2 is the “The Northeast” in a later Caracola.


Along the way, I will itemize suggested stop-offs and recommend hotels, restaurants, and points of interest. Total driving distance along the scenic and open north-western autopistas: 1,150 km (Autovía del Cantábrico (A8), Autopista del Atlántico (AP-9), E1, A4, and Ruta de la Plata (A66)). Total travel time: how much time have you got?

Part I A Coruña (from Gijón)

Our first leg, we drove west to A Coruña from Gijón, stopping along the way in the idyllic Asturian fishing village of Luarca and at the Galician border between Figueras and Ribadeo. We had the bright idea to take a picture every ten minutes and put the snaps together in a sped-up movie (about 1,000 for our planned 10-day journey), although we wisely discarded the plan after the first day – we would have needed a camera in our head to keep up. Here are a few though, along the Cantabrican coast to the perfect paradise that is Santa Cruz de Oleiros on the outskirts of A Coruña. Paradise Found should be so easy.

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Stop-offs: Luarca, Figueras/Ribadeo (the Asturian/Galician border)

Staying: Hotel Portocobo. The hotel overlooks an exquisite cove in Santa Cruz on the outskirts of A Coruña. You won’t want to leave this tranquil paradise on the edge of the Atlantic.

Recommended sights: Sun, sand, and salpicon. A day-trip into A Coruña to walk the streets of the old town. Don’t miss the Sargadelos pottery outlet on Rúa Real, the main pedestrian street. A little further up the coast is La Torre de Hércules, the oldest Roman lighthouse still in use today.

Notes: A Coruña is a bit industrial by the port so stick to the old town. Or just relax in the peaceful solitude of an almost secluded beach. No need to think about anything.

Part 2 Vigo (from A Coruña)

If you’ve seen Los lunes al sol (Mondays in the Sun), the 2002 movie starring a grumpy and bearded Javier Bardem about the effects of unemployment in the shipyards of Vigo, you might not think Vigo was worth a visit (see the trailer and a few scenes: La Farola and On the Rocks). Not so. On a sunny day, there is no better place to mess around on boats and watch the world go by. Or amble the streets of this charming and easily walkable, French styled city on a hill.

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Stop-offs: Santiago de Compestela (see El Camino de Santiago and The House of Words: Finding our pasts together in a previous Caracola for more).

Staying: Hotel Sercotel Bahia de Vigo. The hotel overlooks the entire bay from in front of the hillside pedestrian old part of town. Make sure to get a room as high up as possible (there are 14 floors). You can see clear across the bay to Moaña and as far as Las Islas (after which There Be Monsters).

Recommended sights: Just hang out in the Plaza de la Constitución (up the hill a bit) for a pincho and a clara (beer with lemon juice) or two. There are dozens of places to eat, including the touristy Calle de las Ostras (literally Oyster Street). I recommend the family-run O Portón at the north end of Oyster Street, where you can buy your oysters elsewhere and eat them there. Good prices, great food.

Boat trips to Las Islas are popular, full of sea-swept beaches and coastal walks, and depart every half hour from the dock across from the hotel. Try the nearer Moaña for a shorter trip, departing from the same dock for about €5 return. Sit back and chill.

Notes: Bring your walking shoes to venture even further up the hill as far as the castle.

Part 3 Porto (from Vigo)

I know Porto is in Portugal, but is too beautiful too pass up on a trip around north-western Spain (and the new Porto goalkeeper is former Spanish team captain Iker Casillas). Porto (or Oporto in Spanish) is on the Douro river and is the birthplace of Henry the Navigator, who essentially started the modern world as we know it, after he sought out the Moors on an excursion to Ceuta in northern Africa, and in the process discovered the west coast of Africa for future European explorers (Bartolomeu Dias rounded the Cape of Good Hope in 1488 and Vasco da Gama reached Calicut, India, in 1498).

Porto and its partner city Gaia (directly across the Douro) gives us the derived name for modern Portugal as well as the famous fortified wine, port, which the British brought home by the boatload. You can visit the still vibrant warehouses and muck about for hours along the Ribeira in this beautiful riverside chasm.

For the more adventurous, there are week-long boat cruises up the Douro as far as the Spanish border and beyond (where the Rio Douro becomes El Duero). We took a delightful one-hour, six-bridge Porto cruise as part of a hop-on hop-off package deal (bus, boat, and warehouse for €19). The bridges are awe-inspiring, one of which is built entirely in steel by Gustave Eiffel prior to his iconic Paris tower, and no doubt where he got some of his ideas.

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Stop-offs: Viana do Castelo. It’s a bit off-road, but has an old-world beauty you don’t see in modern Europe.

Staying: We splurged on a boutique hotel in the Ribeira, Descobertas, which allowed us easy access to the riverside. It saves on the legs and the commute time to Action Centre. And no queues for breakfast, which featured a scrumptious croissant, cream cheese, peach creation.

Recommended sights: Everything, but be sure to take in a boat cruise and hang out along the Ribeira. There are tons of tourists and restaurants, so if you prefer to recline off the main beat, try a balcony restaurant. We loved Dom Tonho and its dreamy romantic setting to eat, sit back, and enjoy. We had the Salada de Atun con Feijao and Bacalahau Grehlado with house wine, which the waitress kindly served as a split meal for two. Muito bem!

Above the Ribeira, be sure to see the train station in the city centre with its exquisite tiled interior. The Majestic Café is where Jo Rowling did her thinking as she wrote the first chapters of her blockbuster Harry Potter books.

Notes: Porto is the second-largest city in Portugal, with a population of 1.5 million, but a ring road takes you in and out with ease. Obrigado/a is thanks and “nh” is an ñ (énye), so España is Espanha.

Part 4 Zamora (from Porto)

This is the longest part of the journey, through the interior of northern Portugal with stunning views from the mountain tops above the Douro valley. The almost empty A4 takes you south of Vila Real to Bragança, essentially at the Portuguese-Spanish border. From there, depending on time, you can pick up the Douro or travel straight on to Zamora (alas via national roads instead of autopistas).

Zamora is a treat, an old walled city on a hill with castle, cathedral, and endless narrow streets. The main pedestrian walk goes on forever and fills the soul as you amble through the ages. If you bring your camera, you can’t stop taking pictures.

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Stop-offs: Hard to stop on this leg, but we went for a meal in the sleepiest of towns, Bragança. Check out the historic part of town and the Restaurante Poças.

Staying: NH Zamora Palacio del Duero on the river and a short walk to the Plaza Mayor. €66 for everything you could want in a hotel.

Recommended sights: Find the main pedestrian street and start walking. Be sure to stop in the latest Parador hotel for a good look round, built on the sight of an old Muslim citadel. Better yet, stay there if you can afford it (twice the price of the Palacio).

Notes: Zamora has the most number of Romanesque churches in Europe.

Mi agradecimiento a mi encantadora pareja Belén, la mejor parte de cualquier viaje.

Up Next: “The Northeast” from Gijón to Bilbao, San Sebastián, Pamplona, and Logroño.

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A Little Bit of Spain in Pictures

After almost 2 years and 50 caracolas, the semi-regular is becoming semi-irregular, and so it’s time for a Best Of. Like the Best of Bread or Frampton Comes Alive, hopefully the collection of greatest hits exceeds the originals, the proverbial sum greater than the parts.

Belén and I have been here, there, and almost everywhere now, which I have mostly recorded in pictures. And so herewith, my Top 20 photos. It’s been a blast. And yes, there’s a northern Spain bias. Gracias, John

Gijón: The famous red-letter Gijón sign. Nowhere like the coastal beauty of this tranquil paradise. And Sporting in La Primera again!

Gijón: The famous red-letter Gijón sign. Nowhere like the coastal beauty of this tranquil paradise. And Sporting in La Primera again!

Gijón: The oldest part of Gijón from el Muro. A walk along San Lorenzo is heaven at any time of the day.

Gijón: The oldest part of Gijón from el Muro. A walk along San Lorenzo is heaven at any time of the day.

Gijón: Cimavilla at day. Swimming, sun bathing, boating – just some of the fun in a city full of beaches.

Gijón: Cimavilla at day. Swimming, sun bathing, boating – just some of the fun in a city full of beaches.

Gijón: Cimavilla at night. The pintos aren’t quite Bilbao, Logroño, or Pamplona, but the sidra is better.

Gijón: Cimavilla at night. The pinchos aren’t quite Bilbao, Logroño, or Pamplona, but the sidra is better.

Gijón – Providencia: What better way to spend the day than on a coastal walk watching the world go by in boats!

Gijón – Providencia: What better way to spend the day than on a coastal walk watching the world go by in boats!

Gijón – el Musel: More Celtic than the Celts? Drink, song, and a love of fiesta. Maybe a shared DNA too.

Gijón – el Musel: More Celtic than the Celts? Drink, song, and a love of fiesta. Maybe a shared DNA too.

Candás, Asturias: It seems like every day is a saint day in Spain. This was the Day of Asturias. September 8, another giant paella day.

Candás, Asturias: It seems like every day is a saint day in Spain. This was the Day of Asturias. September 8, another giant paella day.

Avilés, Asturias – Oscar Niemeyer: It’s no Frank Geary Guggenheim, but then that takes money. The Niemeyer museum is in the port of Avilés.

Avilés, Asturias – Oscar Niemeyer: It’s no Frank Gehry Guggenheim, but then that takes money. The Niemeyer museum is in the port of Avilés.

A Coruña, Galicia: Our own little Mont St Michel on the north-west coast of paradise.

A Coruña, Galicia: Our own little Mont St Michel on the north-west coast of paradise.

Galician molinos: Saving the world one windmill at a time. My favourite drive from Santiago to Pontevedra.

Galician molinos: Saving the world one windmill at a time. My favourite drive from Santiago to Pontevedra.

Segovia: The Romans made a difference throughout the Iberian Peninsula. This aqueduct is one of the best-preserved examples.

Segovia: The Romans made a difference throughout the Iberian Peninsula. This aqueduct is one of the best-preserved examples.

Barcelona: Park Güell, Gaudí’s magical home on the hill. You don’t have to pay to see it, but it’s worth it to see inside a visionary’s dream.

Barcelona: Park Güell, Gaudí’s magical home on the hill. You don’t have to pay to see it, but it’s worth it to see inside a visionary’s dream.

Barcelona: Inside Gaudí’s Sagrada Familia. No words can describe the style and colours. Breathless.

Barcelona: Inside Gaudí’s Sagrada Familia. No words can describe the style and colours. Breathless.

Barcelona: Barcelona from above. It’s not all beaches and ramblas on the Catalan party capital.

Barcelona: Barcelona from above. It’s not all beaches and ramblas in the Catalan party capital.

Madrid: My attempt at a Cartier-Bresson art shot from within the Madrid Metro. 1960s pea green with light.

Madrid: My attempt at a Cartier-Bresson art shot from within the Madrid Metro. 1960s pea green with light.

Madrid: More art tries from the Sunday Rastro. You can get anything and it goes on forever. Abanicos anyone?

Madrid: More art tries from the Sunday Rastro. You can get anything and it goes on forever. Abanicos anyone?

Madrid: El Rastro – the place to be on a Sunday after a Saturday searching for Don Quixote’s master in Las Huertas.

Madrid: El Rastro – the place to be on a Sunday after a Saturday searching for Don Quixote’s master in Las Huertas.

Valencia: This could be Anywhere, Spain. Jamón ibérico from Spanish pigs only. Part of every Spanish kitchen – the thinner sliced the better.

Valencia: This could be Anywhere, Spain. Jamón ibérico from Spanish pigs only. Part of every Spanish kitchen – the thinner sliced the better.

La Gomera and Tenerife: Looking at the highest mountain in Spain, el Teide, from Christopher Columbus’s last stop before the New World.

La Gomera and Tenerife: Looking at the highest mountain in Spain, el Teide, from Christopher Columbus’s last stop before the New World.

Malaga: It takes a bit of getting used to, but Las Procesiones during Semana Santa are as scary as a Santa Claus parade.

Malaga: It takes a bit of getting used to, but Las Procesiones during Semana Santa are as scary as a Santa Claus parade.

Spanglesh Rules!

Spanglish Rules!


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Pamplona – Not just bull runs and imagined worlds

A simple word association game with Pamplona likely brings up two – bulls and Hemingway. The running of the bulls (or encierro) is part of the Festival of San Fermín, held every July 6 to 14 in this historical capital city of Navarre, and now famous the world over as either the height of Spanish cultural exuberance or an extreme sport gone mad.

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The original idea was for a number of minders to corral six bulls each morning on their way to slaughter that afternoon in the bull ring, and has been turned into the most rugged of art forms since its modest 14th-century beginnings. The route twists along narrow, bar-laden, pedestrian streets, which sees thousands of brave souls running with the bulls from pen to ring, a three-minute race which sets the heart pounding for any who dare to match wits with six angry bulls. Only 15 people have been gored to death in the process in the last 100 years.

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The American writer and international carouser Ernest Hemingway enjoyed a love affair with Pamplona, in particular with las fiestas de San Fermín (a.k.a. Sanfermines). He visited nine times, including five straight years from 1923 to 1927 to see and participate in the city’s annual celebrations. Much of Pamplona’s international fame was in fact bestowed by his first novel The Sun Also Rises, published in 1926, as he helped to immortalize what until then was a local Spanish patron party, bravely capturing the fun and frivolity of the new Bohemians in a careless modern world. Interestingly, the Spanish translation is Fiesta.

Hemingway’s last visit was in 1959 to a much changed Franco-ruled Spain. As noted by Chris Leadbeater in The Independent, “The spry Spain of the Twenties” had been replaced by a stifled state where even Hemingway’s books were banned. Leadbeater notes that the changed mood may even have brought upon the dark prelude to his suicide.

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If you want to see where Hemmingway hung out during his stays in Pamplona, check out the Cervecería Tropicana in the Plaza del Castillo in the centre of town, site of the Hotel Quintana which Hemmingway fictionalised as the Hotel Montoya in The Sun Also Rises, and where he as narrator Jake Barnes, Barnes’s friends, and the matadors  stay. On the main plaza, you will also find Bar Txoko, Café Iruña, and the Gran Hotel La Perla, where one can even visit the room he stayed in, number 217, if you’re a fan. You can almost hear the master remonstrating and the bulls trampling by in the nearby calle Estafeta.

But it’s not all bulls and American fun and frivolity. Pamplona (or Iruña in euskera) is a proud ancient town of almost 200,000 people, situated on the bank of the Arga, a tributary of the Ebro, and surrounded by a number of impressive fortifications. Less than 100 km south-west of the French border, Pamplona is within an easy drive of San Sebastián, Bilbao, Logroño, and the Pyrenees, and is the first major stop on a pilgrim’s progress from Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port in France or Roncesvalles in Spain to Santiago de Compostela along the famous Camino de Santiago. You’ll see plenty of peregrinos passing by or partaking of the good food and good company that abounds.

Pintxos are essential in the evening, and one can sample many delights on all sides of the main square. I recommend a Frito de Pimiento in Bar Fitero followed by a scrumptious Foie in Bar Gaucho, both just off the main bull run of calle Estafeta. My favourite was a Calabacín con Queso de Cabra a la Plancha con Dulce de Membrillo in Bar Otano, a short stroll away on calle San Nicolás. Be sure to go for an afternoon meal to build up your strength in the Café Iruña, with its exquisite throwback interior and five-star meal at a pilgrim’s price.

One will find plenty of memorable sites as one ambles through the tranquil city centre. Look for the cathedral and any of a number of smaller churches, including the subterranean Iglesia de Santo Domingo near the start of the bull run. A little further afoot is the Portal de Francia or French Gate, complete with a drawbridge used only on January the 5th to allow the Three Wise Men on camels to pass, and el Rincón del Caballo Blanco with its serene mountain vista, site of yet another fun-filled fiesta. On a sunny day, everyone is outside drinking and talking.

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But if it’s bulls and bravado you want, it’s easy to walk the complete encierro from the bull pen at the start to the Plaza de Torros, stopping as much as you like for pintxos and refreshments along the way. Pamplona’s bull ring is the third largest in the world, after Mexico City and Madrid, and seats almost 20,000.

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A short walk from the city centre is the Vuelta del Castillo, a massive city centre green space with impressive, five-sided, 16th-century fort, the Ciudadela, Pamplona’s major fortification against the winds of European wars, complete with bastions, casements, and ravelins. The sculptures are a bit brutal, and could do with a massive make-over in keeping with Pamplona’s modern grandeur, despite two impressive pieces by famed Basque sculptor Eduardo Chillida.

Pamplona is much changed since a young American writer first fell in love almost 100 years ago, though as Hemmingway himself noted about his adopted party town: “I found that if you took a drink that it got very much the same as it always was.” Indeed, fun and frivolity, in a vibrant modern city full of timeless charm. Bulls, bravado, and the proud beauty that is Pamplona.

Muchísimas gracias a nuestros fabulosos guías, la pamplonica Isabel y su rey Fernando.

Down below the narrow street was empty. All the balconies were crowded with people. Suddenly a crowd came down the street. They were all running, packed close together. They passed along and up the street toward the bull-ring and behind them came more men running faster, and then some stragglers who were really running. Behind them was a little bare space, and then the bulls galloping, tossing their heads up and down. It all went out of sight around the corner. One man fell, rolled to the gutter, and lay quiet. But the bulls went right on and did not notice him. They were all running together.

After they went out of sight a great roar came from the bull-ring. It kept on. Then finally the pop of the rocket that meant the bulls had gotten through the people in the ring and into the corrals. I went back in the room and got into bed. I had been standing on the stone balcony in bare feet. I knew our crowd must have all been out at the bull-ring. Back in bed, I went to sleep.

– Ernest Hemmingway, The Sun Also Rises

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Paella Town – Fire and water in Valencia

Valencia is the third-largest city in Spain at almost 800,000 people, and one of the largest on the Mediterranean coast behind its Catalan cousin Barcelona. A country’s third-largest city usually has to try harder, but with the biggest old city in Europe (170 hectares), a river that isn’t a river, 300 days of sunshine per year, and the best paella ANYWHERE, Valencia doesn’t have to try too hard.

Valencia was founded by the Romans in 138 BC by a Roman named Valencia or, according to some, just means “value.” There is plenty of value to be had in the local dish, paella, thanks to the Moors, who arrived in the Iberian Peninsula in 711 and brought its main ingredient, rice, with them. Rice is everywhere, cultivated in massive rice beds in the nearby Albufera lagoon and estuary, a wetland just inland from the sea and largest in Europe. They start seeding the rice fields and turning the water on in early May for a September harvest.

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Technically, paella is paella valenciana, made with local produce such as rabbit (conejo), snails (caracoles), eel (anguila), and chicken (pollo). I’m not much for rabbit (especially after seeing Local Hero), but there are many other lesser paellas on offer for the squeamish called arroces (rice dishes). Valencians do everything big. Even the paellas are massive, and are meant to be eaten with a wooden spoon straight from a special paella pan made of polished carbon steel. Aside from the arroz para chuparse los dedos (scrumptious rice), what marks any great paella is the saffron and pimentón (smoked pepper). And the yellow-stained fingers of the happy customers.

Agua de Valencia is a specialty cocktail made of cava, orange juice, vodka, and gin. Fire water to be sure. But Valencia is famous throughout Spain for its real fire, hosting a week-long Father’s Day festival every year from March 12 to March 19, where the Valencians have been burning things in an annual San José day parade since 1934, on a bigger scale each year (March 19 is el día de San José and since José or Joseph is the father of Jesus we get Father’s Day then). Called fallas (Valenciano for fire), there is a museum containing the one falla deemed too good to burn each year. The Museo-Fallero is on two floors and already pushing its limits.

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Just off the old town is the river that isn’t a river, as curious a site as you will see anywhere. Diverted around the old city after disastrous floods in 1957, the River Turia is now a sunken city park that winds its way through the whole of the city of Valencia. One walks along the old river bed under medieval bridges as if paddling along like long-gone ducks, and ending up in a revamped flood-plain that is now home to the majestic City of Science and Arts, designed by Valencia’s very own Santiago Calatrava.

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La Ciudad de las Artes y Ciencias consists of four stunning white-steel buildings, including a planetarium and Imax theatre, science museum, opera house, and marine centre. The entire area is beautifully landscaped with trees and water amid Calatrava’s trademark cantilevered geometric style. There’s a Focault pendulum inside the science museum (€8 entry) with a period of 6 seconds, from which one can work out the height, h, from h = T2 g / (2pi), if one is so inclined. The original Focault pendulum was in Paris just beside the Pantheon (where it now resides), and shows that the earth does indeed move for us all.

There is much to see in the historic old city and one easily finds everything by just walking around, either aimlessly or with a plan. Not to be missed is La Lonja de la Seda, a medieval trading building that once served as a terminus to the ancient Silk Road. Its civil Gothic style boasts a trading floor 17 metres high with 12 Solomonic columns. Around the corner you’ll find the narrowest building in the world called La Estrecha (107 cm wide), wedged into yet another quaint plaza. They do big and small in Valencia, whether fire, water, or the best paella ANYWHERE.

ValenciaLaLonja ValenciaMercat ValenciaCeramics ValenciaEstrecha

If you’re adventurous, take the bus to el Palmar and the rice fields and canals of Albufera. (Bus No 25 from Plaza de América, 40 minutes, though I suggest you keep an eye on the schedule for the return trip). There is nothing half so much fun as messing around in boats, and a gentle boat ride into the lagoon costs €4 euros for about 45 minutes. Walk to the end to get away from the crowds, and make sure to wear a hat – it’s hotter than you think. You can even reserve a paella in any of the street restaurants for when you get back. Canejos and anguilas optional.

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Science and Innovation in Spain: A wonderful work in progress

According to the just published Innovations Cities Forum, 8 Spanish cities are among the 445 most innovative in the world. Three Spanish cities made it to the top 100, including Barcelona (49), Bilbao (65), and Madrid (87). Surprisingly, the Asturian city of Gijón, with a population of just 275 thousand, tied for 335th, well above its punching weight on the world scene.

SanFran Gijon

Gijón is tied with other more well-known cities such as Akron, Moncton, Christchurch, Jakarta, and Cairo, all of which scored 38. The overall world leader is the oddly fudged conglomerate region of San Francisco-San Jose with a score of 57, thanks no doubt to the numerous innovative tech companies located in its Silicon Valley, followed by New York, London, Boston, Paris, Vienna, and Munich, all tied at second with a score of 56.

What criteria was used dare you ask? – always an important factor when ranking things, as noted in a previous Caracola that scored Asturias The best place to live in Spain, thanks to the amount of coastline (401 km), number of blue flag beaches (16), and percentage sloped surface (81%). The 162 indicators included the obvious health, wealth, and infrastructure standards, as well as a few not-so-obvious: Architectural Layering, Decorative Features, Green Architecture, Neighbourhoods, History, Cafes & Tea Rooms, Fine Restaurants, Food Diversity, Meal Affordability, Classical Music, Music Venues, Nightlife, Opera House, Popular Music, …. Wow, who said everything couldn’t be reduced to a number?

Of course, one wonders how they counted the decorative features and green architectures in everyone’s neighbourhoods. For that matter, what is a decorative feature or a green architecture when it comes to an innovation score? Hmm? Seems more than a bit of odd fudging went into creating these rankings. Maybe the Innovation Cities Service Packages (ranging from $3,200 to $14,000), on offer to hopeful city planners and business entrepreneurs alike, explains all that. A bargain at half the price.

The data was collected for 1,540 cities, and the top 400 were divided into five so-called “innovation classifications,” referred to as Nexus, Hub, Node, Influencer, and Upstart, more than your usual gobbledygook to get your tongue around in the morning. Thus Number 1 San Francisco-San Jose was judged a Nexus city slightly more than 3 times as innovative as Number 445 Kabul, Afghanistan, all alone in last place with a score of 18, sadly too low to even be ranked as an Upstart. I wonder what kind of decorative features and green architecture were lacking in Kabul.

TheWheel TheTelephone TheInternet

Of course, innovation is hard to measure. It is not a frictionless ride on a smooth ramp, but rather more like walking up a clunky set of stairs, some steps much larger than others. Typically after the great innovation leap wears off, the rest of us follow the trend. Indeed, how different the rankings would be if we counted only major innovations, for example, the wheel (Ur), the telephone (Brantford and Boston), and the internet (Palo Alto), in the calculations.

As far as lasting innovation goes in the real world, however, Spain can rightfully claim a number of top rankings. As a result of the successful voyages of Christopher Columbus and the search for new empire, Felipe III in 1604 first offered the competition prize of 10,000 ducats to determine longitude at sea, an ongoing problem due to the unstable motion of a pendulum on a moving ship. As Daniel J. Boorstin noted in The Discovers, “The accepted way to find longitude at sea was by precise observations of the moon, which required refined instruments and subtle calculations. As an error as small as 5’ in observing the moon meant an error of 2 ½ degrees of longitude, which on the ocean could be as much as 150 miles—enough to wreck a ship on treacherous shoals.” The problem was eventually solved in 1737 by John Harrison’s watch method that used springs. His marine chronometers enabled navigators to accurately find longitude without land or heavens as guides.

Indeed, the Age of Discovery owes much to Spanish innovation, including the intrepid voyages of Columbus, Vespucci, and Magellan, who all sailed in part under a Spanish flag. It was Magellan’s circumnavigation that proved empirically at least that the world was round, a fact that confused observers at home on his ship’s return when a day was missing from the ship’s log.

But I would credit Isabel and Ferdinand as two of our greatest innovators, guiding the expansion of the Old World to beyond our perceived limits of the sea: fearless, pioneering, determined. Great qualities indeed. Perhaps, we should include the city of Valladolid where they were married or the suburb of Madrid where they met with Columbus before he departed to the edge of the known world as two of the most innovative ever.

Isabella Ferdinand IsayFer

Antonio de Ulloa was a Spanish general who ultimately became a prominent scientist after living in the Americas, and is credited with establishing the first museum of natural history. From 1736 to 1744, while working in modern-day Ecuador to measure a degree of meridian arc at the equator, he and Jorge Juan discovered a new element, platinum. Tungsten was also discovered by two Spaniards, the brothers José and Fausto Elhuyar, who in 1783 succeeded in isolating tungsten by reduction of wolframite with charcoal. Where would Edison and the development of electric light be without tungsten? Where would we be?

Spaniards have been credited with the discovery of carbon monoxide (Arnold of Villanova, 1235–1311), the first quantitative theory of money (Martín de Azpilcueta, 1492–1586), the development of modern toxicology (Mateu Orfila, 1787–1853), the multiple-support cable car including the one spanning the whirlpool on the Canadian side of Niagara Gorge (Leonardo Torres y Quevedo 1852 –1936), and the electronic book (Ángela Ruiz Robles, 1895-1975). Spain can also count 8 Nobel Prize winners, including pathologist Santiago Ramón y Cajal (with Camillo Golgi) “in recognition of their work on the structure of the nervous system” in 1906 and Asturian-born physician Severo Ochoa (with Arthur Kornberg) “for their discovery of the mechanisms in the biological synthesis of ribonucleic acid and deoxyribonucleic acid” in 1959.

Today, Spain is rightly proud of its second-to-none organ transplant system, a well-organized national system to coordinate the matching of organ donors to recipients in a fast, efficient, and fair way, due in no small part to its excellent universal national health care system. In fact, Spain continues to break its own records as the world leader in organ transplants (“Spain breaks its own transplant record,” Elena Sevillano, January 14, 2015, El País). Spain has been the world transplant leader since 1992, conducting 4,360 last year, including 2,678 kidney and 265 heart transplants, also both records. Truly inspiring. Truly innovative.

So what is innovation anyway? Number of lives saved from organ transplants, a new high-definition television set with curved screen, the latest in military drone warfare? What about innovations in dance, wind power, or tapas? The introduction of sherry, the groundbreaking surrealist films of Luis Buñuel, the best horizontal organization of an industry that turns new Zara designs into ready-to-wear clothes faster than any other clothier?

DonQuixote TheGorge

Why not Don Quixote, Miguel de Cervante’s masterpiece published in two volumes (1605 and 1615), considered to be a foundation work of modern Western literature and perhaps the first novel? Or to use its innovative, alternative title: The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha. If we include all the arts, weighted accordingly by the effect on our lives, we would get a whole different ranking. Innovative to say the least.

See what I mean when we start questioning ranking criteria? Innovation and life, a wonderful work in progress, like all of us.

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Made in Spain: ArcelorMittal Steel

ArcelorMittal is the world’s largest steel making company in the world with almost 240,000 employees in 20 countries, including at six locations in Spain: Etxebarri, Lesaka, and Sestao in the Basque Country, Avilés and Gijón in Asturias, and Sagunto in Valencia. The former owner of Mittal Steel, multi-billionaire Indian businessman Lakshmi Mittal, is the chairman and CEO of ArcelorMittal, the company that was formed in the 2006 merger of Mittal and Arcelor, itself the result of a 2002 merger between Aceralia (Spain), Usinor (France) and Arbed (Luxembourg). The Mittal family owns 40% of the company.

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In 2013, ArcelorMittal’s total crude steel production was more than 90 million tonnes (10% of world production), 3.5 million of which was made in Spain. Worldwide revenues were almost $80 billion. The product range includes stainless steel, coated steel, tinplate, rebar, wire rod, drawn wire, rail, and sheet piles.

The AvilésGijón factory in Asturias operates as a single integrated steel plant with coking facilities, sinter plants, blast furnaces, and hot-rolling mills, and is connected by a private railway. Products such as rail, wire rod, heavy plates, galvanized sheet, and tinplate are primarily sold to the railway, automotive, and construction industries. The raw materials arrive at El Musel (the port of Gijón), where they are unloaded at the company’s own dry-bulk terminal and linked by conveyor belt to the factory. In 2013, 0.7 million tonnes of crude steel was produced.

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The big news for production in Asturias in 2015 is the manufacturing of asymmetric hardened rail heads up to 72 meters in length, a high value-added product primarily used for shunting of railway lines for high-speed tracks. The process uses a unique controlled water jet cooling system that required a 25-million-euro investment to modernize facilities. First orders were filled last October for use by Spanish manufacturers.

The Gijón factory is also looking to manufacture longer lengths requiring a further 23-million-euro investment. With new production facilities at the Gijón factory, ArcelorMittal expects to increase production from 790,000 tonnes to over 1 million tonnes. More details of the new production technique and factory expansion can be found in “Arcelor otorga en exclusiva a Gijón la fabricación de un nuevo tipo de carril,” (Diana de Miguel, El Comercio January 25, 2015).

If you drive by the Gijón plant, you will also see a number of wind generator tower parts. ArcelorMittal had planned to produce 200,000 tonnes of steel plate for windmill towers, almost 30% of European wind sector consumption, but it’s not clear how much is currently being fabricated there since the 2007 economic slowdown. There have also been concerns about untreated effluent in the Ria de Avilés after water samples were taken by the Ministry of Environment. Steel is a major part of modern living and hard to imagine a life without its many diverse products, but more work needs to be done to ensure a safe clean working environment for both workers and the public on the Green Coast of Asturias.

  • About 12% of the steel made by ArcelorMittal is from recycled steel.
  • Much more needs to be done, but carbon dioxide emissions per tonne of crude steel have been reduced by half in the last 40 years.
  • Steel manufacturing is expected to grow in Germany, Poland, and the UK, with a “low-level pick-up” in Spain.
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The best place to live in Spain!

I’ve been here a while, so I should know a few things by now. Hands down the best place to live in Spain is Asturias. Well, according to my list as weighted by my spreadsheet. Maybe your list as weighted by your spreadsheet is different.

Here’s my list for each of the seventeen regions (a.k.a. autonomous communities): area, population, sloped surface percentage, coastline, population density, purchasing power, unemployment, number of towns, number of blue-flag beaches, and number of tourists. In my weighting, I’ve opted to maximize the importance of sloped surface percentage, coastline, purchasing power, and the number of blue-flag beaches, while minimizing area, population, population density, unemployment, number of towns, and tourist numbers.

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That makes Asturias the winner with 401 km of coastline, a PP per capita of $28,271 (lots considering the very affordable price of food), 16 blue-flag beaches, and 81% sloped surface! You can ski and surf in Asturias (though not at the same time). You can walk up and down hills all day long and along as many beaches as you want. You can eat some of the best fish and seafood in the world.

After Asturias are Cantabria and Galicia, two other regions in the north of Spain. Okay, I know what you’re thinking, I fudged the data. If I were to chose another 10 factors or weight the data differently, I could make anywhere the best place to live in Spain, such as Extremadura (no coastline, yet one blue-flag beach!) or Ceuta and Melilla (only one town each in exotic north Africa, but absolutely flat and crowded) or the Canaries (all coastline, but very touristy with no industry jobs).

It’s true, one can weight data to make Barack Obama the best president ever (best teleprompter reader, lowest golf handicap), Lady Gaga best artist (most costume changes, least clothes), or Ronaldo the best footballer (best hair, cutest smile). Here is my spreadsheet to see how one region comes out on top, which you can download to change the numbers and see.


Asturias is your place if you like fabada, arroz con leche (rice pudding), and cider (over 100 varieties). And you’ll love it if you like coastline (known as the Green Coast), beaches (they are everywhere along the 401 km), sloped surfaces (including the famed Picos de Europa) as I do. There’s even a brand new finished highway to take you from the Cantabrian border to the Galician border in comfort and style.

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Things to do in Asturias include the world-class Niemeyer conference centre in Avilés, Neolithic cave drawings in Tito Bustillo or Candamo that are almost as exquisite as those in nearby Altamira, and kayaking in the rapids of el Sella near Covadonga. And don’t forget the gastronomy and the people – as good as it gets on anyone’s list.

Download the spreadsheet to change the weightings and make your own favourite place to live in Spain!

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The Canaries (Canarias)


At this time of the year, Spaniards like to go where it’s sunny. I know many people think Spain is sunny and warm all year round, but it’s just not so. In some places, it regularly gets to zero degrees with snow on the street. Snow? In Spain! So what are you going to do? Pick a Canary island, any island. There are seven main ones, almost always at least 20 degrees year round.

The Canary Islands are one of Spain’s 17 autonomous communities (the most southern community at roughly 20° N latitude and about 100 km west of the Morocco-Western Sahara border). Made up of seven main islands, they are basically overgrown volcanic protrusions in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, a.k.a. archipelagos. In order of size: Tenerife, Fuerteventura, Gran Canaria, Lanzarote, La Palma, La Gomera, and El Hierro. The local population of all seven is a little more than 2,000,000. Double that at least for tourists.

The ancient explorers knew the Canaries, and would regularly stop to restock and rest on the way to the African coast and India, and then later on their regular jaunts across the Atlantic. La Gomera was the last port of call for Columbus in 1492 and his famous three ships, the Santa Maria (his flagship which didn’t make it back), the Niña, and the Pinta. There’s not much Columbus info on La Gomera but a trip to the interior there is breathtaking and you’ll never see so many banana plants in one place.

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The Christopher Columbus museum, however, is a must-see in Gran Canaria (in the capital Las Palmas). La Casa de Colón (his Spanish name) is situated in the hacienda-style house in which he stayed on each of this three trips and has a dozen rooms on two floors dedicated to his voyages to the unknown. It’s thanks to his patrons Los Reyes Católicos Ferdinand and Isabel that the Canaries are Spanish, which we ought to better remember as Isabel and Ferdinand since she was the queen of the greater region of Castile and he was only the minor partner from Aragon.

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If you’re on Tenerife, I recommend a day trip to el Teide the volcanic mountain in the middle of the island, and the highest point in Spain at 3,718 metres. It’s easily got to from anywhere on the island through a vast national park, supposedly one of the most visited in the world, though you wouldn’t think it for all the peace. There’s a cable car or teleférico that takes you almost to the top, with great views. It’s active but not to worry; it last went off in 1909. It’s not true that the Star Wars scenes of Luke’s home planet Tatooine were filmed in the moon-like surroundings although there are obvious similarities. Those scenes were filmed in Tunisia.

TeideObservatory GTCTelescope

There’s a nearby observatory, one of the best in the world and above the so-called temperature inversion layer which permits excellent viewing all year round. Queen guitarist Brian May helped construct a building at the Teide Observatory to study interplanetary dust. The largest optical telescope in the world is the Gran Telescopio Canarias on La Palma with a 10.4-m reflector, 2,267 m above sea level, where scientific observing began in 2009. Unfortunately neither is open to the public without prior arrangements.

If it’s just food you want, the seafood is amazing, though watch out for the obvious tourist traps. When a selection of 10 tapas costs €2 it’s probably no good. The streets of Las Palmas de Gran Canaria at night is pincho central and it’s easy to see the obvious good spots. On Tenerife, check out the smaller fishing villages – that’s where the locals go. As for Fuerteventura and Lanzarote, I’ll tell you when we come back.

And of course, there are miles and miles of beaches to sit back and relax and enjoy the warm Spanish winter. What’s not to like in winter about a Spanish getaway? ¡Disfrútalas!

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La Rioja – More than Words and Wine

The Spanish language is said to have begun with a thirteenth-century monk, who first put ink to paper a poem using the vulgarized Latin spoken in medieval Spain. Like Homer’s Odyssey in Greek and Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales in English, his quill formalized a new oral language. Today, Spanish is the world’s second most popular language with almost half a billion native speakers. The poem which isn’t entirely forgotten is part of his major work Glosas Emilianenses.

Quiero fer una prosa en román paladino / en el qual suele el pueblo fablar a su veçino…

[I want to write in a language / used by the neighbours to speak with each other…]

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As his name implies, the monk Gonzalo de Berceo was from Berceo, a long goal kick from the neighbouring village of San Millán de la Cogolla, home to a vast monastery complex where he wrote the first-ever recorded Castellano. Today it’s a four-star hotel with a small visitor’s centre celebrating his commemoration of the spirit.

The village of San Millán is just outside of Logroño the capital of the comunidad of La Rioja, one of the 17 autonomous communities comprising modern Spain. The rolling hills and expansive views are a paradise of sights in all directions, whether one travels by car or by foot as do tens of thousands of Christian pilgrims each year along the famed Camino de Santiago. A favourite stop for the peregrinos is Logroño. And not just for the walking.

When one hears of La Rioja one usually thinks of wine. Indeed, the ruta del vino starts in Logroño and ends about 30 km north in Haro, capital of Spain’s famed wine country. Although there’s a brand-spanking new motorway (the tolled AP-68 all the way to Bilbao), no one is in a hurry in wine country. A better way is the scenic LO-20 national road where the true wine pilgrim can sample the many bodegas along the way, including Paternina, Campo Viejo, Berberana, and Muga. Here, one meanders through the picturesque campos de la Rioja, gently set into the embryonic sierras.

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I recommend a stop in the village of Elciego, home to the Marqués de Riscal bodega, shop, and winery tour with its stunning new Frank O. Gehry-designed headquarters (A-3210 on the right to Cenicero and right again across the Ebro river a few clicks into País Vasco). Their so-called “The City of Wine” tour is a bit pricey at €16, but you can steal a few peaks from the village since the parking lot guard won’t let you get too close for free. I can vouch for the €5 tempranillo wine, but the €242 Frank Gehry special was not in the budget.

Vivanco’s wine museum is a few kilometres north, just before the picturesque village of Briones (you’ll see it on the right from the road). There are six expansive rooms, describing everything about wine, including the history, the climate, bottle blowing, cork cutting, barrel making, fermentation, and a room full of viniculture art. Take an hour or three, but skip the movie at the beginning – it’s just an ad. At €8, it’s the best of the wine tour museums.

Not to be missed is their collection of wine-flavoured paintings including a pop art Picasso by Roy Lichtenstein, an exquisite Juan Genovés with his signature paint-glob people pouring out of a wine bottle, as well as others by Juan Gris, Joan Miró, and Picasso. The creepiest is of Jesus in a wine press.

LichtesnteinPicasso GenovesWine

If you’re staying a few days in La Rioja, a good base is Logroño. We stayed at the perfectly situated Carlton Rioja on the Gran Via. From there you can walk to the medieval centre with hundreds of wine and pincho bars in the narrowest of connecting streets. Logroño’s nightly outdoor winefest is full of thousands of happy Rioja-fuelled revellers in the Calle del Laurel off the main pedestrian Calle Portales.

From Logroño, venture north to wine country or west to the popular camino stops of San Millán and Santo Domingo de la Calzada, where a cooked chicken got up from the pan to thwart the disbelievers (Donde la gallina cantó despues de asada). There are lots of Catholic Hall of Famers along the famed way to see besides the star himself, Santiago.

Be warned if you’re driving by motorway – the signs refer only to Logroño (Oeste) and make no effort to direct you to el centro ciudad. If you see a sign for Avenida Madrid take that exit, otherwise you may end up in Pamplona. And don’t miss the two bridges across the Rio Ebro. One is a stone bridge (Puente de Piedra), where one can still imagine a peaceful way of life back to Roman times, and the other an impressive modern iron bridge (Puente de Hierro).

ElCaminoSign LogronoPincho

On our trip, we were told that there are two types of peregrinos. Firstly, the impecunious youngsters who try to cover as many kilometres in the shortest length of time, going fast, sleeping little, and eating cheaply. Secondly, the older retirees with lots of time to enjoy the cultural experience, tasting different dishes, drinking good wine, and enjoying nature, gastronomy, and art every step of the way along el camino.

I think there’s a third, the rest of us who can pick and choose what we want to see as we drive and sample. You won’t get an official Camino stamp, but you will find more than you need to be content.

La Rioja one of Spain’s top destinations. For wine, words, and all that you could want.

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