Saturday, April 11, 2009

La Semana Santa with Mom and Dad

Lesson learned: Don't go to museums on Mondays in Spain.

Woo Spring Break for me!
Before I begin, you can find all the photos here: La Semana Santa
So for the University of Oviedo Spring Break (here called La Semana Santa, the religious week more or less) began last Friday and continues until Monday the 13th. A lot of international students choose to tour during this time, or if they live close by they head home to spend the week with friends and family. For me my mom and dad wanted to visit Northern Spain, so they flew out for the week (our Spring Breaks line up so that made everything possible). They were set to arrive last Saturday the 4th around 1:30 so we could do a day tour of Oviedo, but a delay in their flight caused them to miss their connection, and they arrived closer to 7:00PM. So that night we took a short walking tour of the downtown on our way to dinner in the center of town. My parents got to experience sidra (pouring and all), as well as dining in Oviedo. I made sure to tell them never to pour their own Sidra, because if you do this the waiter will never return to your table to pour you more. I guess you could say they take pride in the pouring of Sidra. They were still pretty jetlagged so following dinner we walked back but due to a slight blonde moment on my part we ended up taking a "detour tour" of another part of Oviedo. The next morning we met up around 9:00 AM to eat breakfast and took a short driving tour of the rest of Oviedo. We drove by my new and old apartments, and drove by both of the campuses I have classes at (El Milan and El Cristo). I pointed out some other places in Oviedo and then we began the drive out to Cantabria (the next "state" over, to the East of Asturias and Oviedo). After figuring out how to get out of Oviedo (as navigator I was responsible but failed miserably -- I´m usually traveling Oviedo by foot!!), we took the scenic route to Cantabria through the mountains instead of along the highway. However the day was very foggy and rainy, and so a trip to the very popular Picos de Europa in Cantabria was not worth our time. This would have involved a tram ride to the top of some of the highest mountains here with great views in every direction however it was not to be. We ended up stopping in a small pueblo (literally probably 200 people) to have lunch and then we headed on to Comillas. This town is famous for some architectural work done by Gaudi and also his mentor. El Capricho, now converted into a restaurant, was a building designed by Gaudi and sits next to a small royal palace. Across a slight dip and up the mountain is a University that is still under construction, and closed to the public due to it being la semana santa (holy week).
The next stop was going to be the Caves at Altamira. These caves are supposed to be some of the oldest remaining evidence of cave art, however the caves you get to see are painstaking recreations, as the originals were deteriorating due to humidity from the breath of visitors. Unfortunately, caves close on Mondays! I didn´t know caves could close considering they don´t really have doors and such but the Spanish decided that caves shouldn´t have to work on Monday and therefore we had no choice but to miss out on a second great sight.
Having had to cut out the Picos de Europa and the Caves of Altamira, we found ourselves with free time so we headed to Puente San Miguel on the way to Santander. According to mom this is José´s (one of my mom´s colleagues) hometown. I for sure hope it was because we ended up spending a bunch of time there walking around and taking pictures, etc. to prove to José that we made the pilgrimage to his hometown! Puente means bridge in spanish so we finished this short trip with a picture on the puente and then it was on to Santander, capital city of Cantabria. Also a major port town in northern Spain past and present. Here we visited the Royal Castle of ( ) which had been used by the current royalty, Rey Carlos and Reína Sofia as recently as last year. We took a short mini-train tour around the peninsula upon which it is situated, learning about the surrounding port, lighthouse, and activities pursued by the royalty over the years. Also we learned about the multiple uses of the Castle over time. This train tour dumped us out near the Castle at the Santander ¨zoo¨. I say this because there wasn´t much to it--- literally small penguins and seals. They had a huge setup for lions or something of that sort but it was only occupied by ducks who seemed to enjoy a place where humans could not bother them. There were also some replicas nearby of Spanish galeons and one replica of a SS Minnow gilligan type raft. Samples of the maritime past of Santander.
From here we headed back West a bit to Santillana del Mar and we stayed at a Parador there. Paradors are typically historical buildings like convents, houses of the nobility, etc., that are then converted into hotels. They are really unique because the point is to maintain the original style of these buildings, and no two paradors are alike. This Parador was a former house of nobility built in the 17th century that was then converted to a hotel. Very nice unique surroundings but expensive at that. We ate dinner at the Parador that night. I almost ordered ox tail but my mom recognized the word tail and saved me from that. Apparently it is quite good and I may have to try it sometime.
My parents have decided there are exactly 5 principal foods in Northern Spain: Ham (jamón), Cheese, Potatoes, Bread and Olive Oil. They like to joke/complain that all foods are a combination of any of these products with more olive oil doused on top. Olive oil on everything is quite common. Cooking in olive oil, dipping bread in olive oil, frying with olive oil, and then when you´re finished it´s acceptable to put more olive oil on top of the meal. And naturally there are not one but two bottles of olive oil present at the dinner table. Good luck finding fresh ground pepper though, that´s a rarity.
The following morning we walked through Santillana del Mar and then left for Bilbao, the capital of el Vaís Basco (the Basque Country), an autonomy of Spain more or less. They like to think that they´re separate completely for Spain but only when fiscal government handouts aren´t involved. Cataluña, the next state to the East with the capital Barcelona, has more or less the same mentality. The basque people are known for being a bit rough. Eta, the terrorist organization, has its roots around here, and just in general, maybe not the nicest people you´ll meet. We had no problems with them though. Our only major problem was it was a Monday, and for some reason Monday means closures. The caves of Altamira were closed like I mentioned, and then the very popular contemporary art museum in Bilbao, the Guggenheim, was also closed for Mondays. So we got some pictures of the outside, as well as a sweet picture of a 30 foot Westie Terrier looking dog made completely out of flowers! Check the picture section for that one. We decided it resembled a very large Chia pet, and we read that it contains about 60,000 flowers which are pansies right now.
The drive to Bilbao and through the area in general was very pretty. You climb into the mountains but still remain on the coast so you get great views of both expanses of land and sea. On the way to Bilbao the weather let up a bit and when the roads hugged the coast we could see quite a bit of the area.
From here we turned South, and went to Vitoria-Basteiz in a southern Basque state. We toured the city and ate lunch there as well. I´m not sure exactly what Vitoria is known for, but we do know they are proud to have fought off a French invasion in 1813, and that every year on the 4th of August they have a celebration involving a guy named Calderón. An effigy of his likeness descends on the 4th from the tower to start the partying and then a week later he ascends back into the tower and disappears. We did find a statue of the actual guy and my Dad took a picture with him. We also went to Plaza del Machete, where politicians in Astorga take the oath of office, only in the Basque country!
Our next stop was going to be the vineyard Marques des Riscal in the Riojas region of Spain. Riojas is a region in Spain known for its wine. However we did not have exact directions and ended to Lograña, a bit past the pueblo we needed to be in. We backtracked a bit to Elciego, and found the vineyard which is located next to a very expensive contemporary hotel. It´s funny because Elciego is a very small town, and this hotel only caters to wine-connosseiurs obviously. Unfortunately, we think the vineyard is only open to tourists during the morning and early afternoon, and it was closed when we arrived! So we bagged the vineyard and drove on to Burgos, where we ate dinner. We did a very short tour, and then ate at a nice restaurant in the old town. Here we were able to have Rioja wine, so we indulged in that to salvage our failed journey to Marques des Riscal, and then drove 2 hours to Leon to stay the night. Finding the hotel in Leon was extremely hard at night. We were all very tired after a long day of touring and driving, and there were festivities in the streets for La Semana Santa. León has many many many roads that are pedestrian or residents only and we had a tough time finding parking. Finally around 1-1:30 we figured everything out and were settled in our hostel for the night. Only to get up in 7 hours or so to continue on! All in all, a tough Monday for sure.
Tuesday would prove to be much more enjoyable. We got up the next morning, having a small breakfast in a nearby cafe and then toured the Cathedral of leon. This cathedral is known for its serious amounts of stained glass, which we couldn´t photograph very well (cathedrals aren´t very photo friendly). We then went to the nearby Museum which talked about the history of Leon, and how many things had been destroyed by the invasion of Napoleon. We then ate lunch at a cafe and drove on to Astorga. Here we went to cathedral (of course!) which had a neat museum attached that showed some typical traditional attire from the area, as well as history of the Cathedral, and other works of art special to the state (Which is named Castilla y León). Then we went pretty much next door to visit the Bishop´s palace, a giant palace designed by Gaudi after the original burned down in the late 1800s. Then it was off to Lugo. I went in with a preconception that Lugo was an ugly city with nothing to offer. This was because upon talking with my host family they told me there was nothing to do there besides see the Roman Wall. However, upon arrival we ended up in an AWESOME hotel, in a great location. We parked just outside the wall and walked in to the city. Our hotel was right inside the wall with great location to the main drag of the town. The wall itself was amazing. Probably a good 2 miles or so all the way around and it was completely intact since the 2nd century. We viewed a holy week procession of catholics with music etc., and we spent a good amount of time on that wall, walking the entire thing. We then went out to eat a typical tapas restaurant, and see some of the town. The hotel itself was a converted house of nobility of some kind I think. My parents had a 42 inch flat screen in their room, and i had my own room with a 32 inch flat screen. Also I had a very sweet jacuzzi shower with like a million jets that I never really figured out. Very nicely decorated hotel, with many historical items like roman helmets, medieval wear, etc. etc. decorating the halls and staircase.
That was Tuesday, and then on Wednesday we headed off to A Coruña. This is a port town on the northwest coast that I visited 10 days prior with my friends on a tour provided by a company based in Asturias. We went to the fish market, which was very cool. My mom took plenty of pictures here. Then we went into old town to Praza Maria Pita, a famous girl who is known for fighting against Sir Francis Drake´s men when they tried to invade during the time of the Armada and all that. Story goes that she somehow got a hold of Drake´s flag and destroyed it I believe. So she´s famous in A Coruña. We also passed by the house of Emilia Pardo Bazán, famous Countess, writer, and women´s rights activist of the more or less 1880s. Then we took a walking tour to see some of the sights, and then on to Santiago de Compostela. We arrived here, and turns out the Parador that we stayed in is located adjacent to the super popular Cathedral in Santiago! Literally less than 100 yards from the door to the cathedral. This Parador was a hospital built by Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand in 1499 to nurse all of the pilgrims who arrived sick back to health. It is a huge building and the atmosphere is very unique as well. We ate dinner there, which was a seafood affair. Very good food. The dining hall was what we thought a converted horse stable or carriage entrance into the hospital.
Thursday we woke up and did the tour of Santiago. The highlight here obviously is the Santiago cathedral, which for us was only a short walk of about 100 yards from our Parador (hotel). We then went shopping in the rain, and then headed on to Vigo. However en route the rain picked up immensely to the point that any type of touring would have been miserable. So we decided to skip on Vigo. In Vigo we were going to take a bout tour out to some islands that are a national park, however the weather was not permitting so we decided we would be best off heading south and hopefully out of the weather. So we skipped Vigo and crossed the border into Portugal.
However Portugal was also rainy, and upon checking into our hotel in Porto, we decided that touring would also be miserable and that an impromptu siesta would suffice instead. That night the rain let up so we went out for Dinner. We used our tour book to find a great restaurant named ¨Mal Cozinhado¨ which literally translates to The Bad Cooking Restaurant. Very funny story here though: As we arrived, the greeter there asked us if we had reservations. We told him that we did not, and he said, oh that´s ok, and he proceeded to give us a table. We walked down some stairs to the restaurant which was situated in a very nicely decorated and open cellar more or less. The little light provided was given off by candles. However this restaurant was special because every night there are a group of performers who perform a style of music called Fado. It´s considered by our tour book to be more like our jazz blues, with songs that usually talk about Portugal´s bittersweet relationship with the sea, and the loss of many loved ones therein. Anyway on to the funny part: After not having made reservations, it turns out that the greeter seated us with a front row view of the performers and the music!! Best seats in the house---To the Americans without reservations how sweet!! They performed for all of the parties dining (no more than 40 people or so) and there was a guy on guitar who held down rhythm and the baseline, a guy on a large mandolin, and two women who sung. The mandolin guy also sung some too. Very nice music, alternating between upbeat, rhythmic beats and slow mellow tunes. Fado in portuguese means Fate, and that´s what they called this style of music. Also funny, we read in our tour book that the performers start around 930, but unbeknownst to us, as we had crossed the border going south from Spain to Portugal, the hour had changed! So we arrived at the restaurant at 830, wondering when the performance was going to start! So we ate a bit early, and we wouldn´t find out to the following afternoon that we had been living an hour in the past. Apparently Portugal does not keep the same time as Spain, but Spain technically does straddle two time zones and instead opts to use just one (the one Madrid and the East is in more or less).
Friday morning and our last day of traveling. We walked downhill (the entire town was built on a hall really) and rode the Funicular up to get some great views of the town. Then we took a bus sightseeing tour that lasted wayyy longer than we wanted it to, so after about 1.5 hours or so we jumped ship, caught a cab and headed towards the wineries which were across the river in an adjacent town named Gaia. First we tried to go to the Sandeman winery, named after a Scotsman who set up his company in Portugal in the mid 1700s, however we could not figure out how to enter the winery and the guard out front just grumbled at us instead trying to be more hospitable. So we decided to move on and go to the Croft winery, which was at the top of another hill nearby. Here we had to wait for the English tour, and were able to try some Port wine at that time. However Portugal still hasn´t figured out how to run a business yet we think. They were acutely understaffed for the volume of people they were dealing with and it was very hard to try and get someone to serve you more wine tastings. My parents said (because I wouldn´t know) that in the US typically you are served many different wines, or all of the best wines they have to offer in order to a) let you make your own comparisons to what you like and b) get you drunk so you buy more. However here it was not so. We took the wine tour, and then afterwards we were given another sample of a different type of wine. Finally we bought a third sampling after much haggling to get them to serve us, and we bought a couple of bottles (after waiting in line for some time).
Essentially we were just not very impressed with the flow and efficiency of a business that has potential to run better. It may not be about making money for them, but at least they could work on their customer service to the point where you feel like they are attending to you, the customers who buy their products in order to keep them in business. I guess we are just too used to the capitalistic system of the US or something. A lack of business acumen there for sure(credits to my mom on the SAT vocab there).
Following this wine tour we were out of time for the day (the tour book recommended a day of touring, and a day of tasting and we tried to combine). Having spent nearly 2.5 hours in one winery we could not go on to another one. We had to head back to Oviedo so my parents could catch their flight the next day. So we got in the car, plugged in the 5.5 hour drive into our GPS and we were off. There was snow on the way back in the south of Asturias. It´s a very mountainous region with many huge long tunnels. Quite impressive. However there was enough to cover the road some so we had to be careful.
We got into Oviedo around 11PM, and then the next morning we did breakfast and my parents left for the airport around noon.

And that´s a basic outline of how our trip went! A very jam packed trip -- 20 cities/pueblos in 6 days. Here´s a summary with the bigger cities in Bold: Oviedo, Comilla, Santillana Del Mar, Santander, Puente San Miguel, Altamira, Panes, Bilbao, Vitoria-Basteiz, Logroño, Elciego, Burgos, León, Astorga, Lugo, La Coruña, Santiago de Compostela, Vigo, Porto, Gaia. This is more or less in the order that we visited them. The weather blocked us from doing many things we wanted to do but we did see a whole bunch still! A summer vacation would have permitted better weather but also more traffic, so we won and lost by doing this trip now instead of later. I know I was very brief on the whole trip, but as I´m sure everyone knows it´s impossible to cover everything on any trip. However if you have any questions / want a clarification just let me know and I can post it up here!


  1. I found out the name of the castle in Santander (the one with the 'zoo'). It is Palacio de la Magdalena. I found the postcard we bought:)


  2. What a marvelous trip! Thanks for your fine reporting and the great photos.

    Aunt Norma

  3. Thanks for the detailed report! I almost felt like I was there with you. I looked at the map to get a general idea where you were, as I had never heard of any of those places. I laughed for at least 5 minutes about the "no trumpets in the tunnel" signage, and got to giggling in church on Easter morning when the trumpeter played.
    The videos were very cool - would love to know more about the symbolism of the hoods and the meaning of all the costumes.
    How are your studies going? I must have missed the post about your move to a new apartment, or did it not make the blog?

  4. wow very detailed! Did Dad say Jammin or Jamon when he ordered his ham?

  5. I am Jose. I can't believe all you saw in 6 days. I almost cried when I saw your pictures in my village!! I know the weather is a pain in the north but honestly, you visited a lot of non typical touristic places and sometimes that makes the difference. By the way, did you to get the chance to talk to my best friend? he is the chef at Parador de Santillana. I see you are enjoying your Northern Spanish experience and what is more, you know HOW TO...:)