Sunday, December 30, 2012

We Can Dream, Can't We?

Looking Back, Looking Ahead
Almost the end of the calendar year and time to make resolutions. I have finally wiped from my slate the one so many people make about body size. I took it on as the project of the year in 2012, and I am ready to move on. I have been dealing with the reality of aging this year, for myself only in minor changes and discomforts, but around me so many others in serious and final ways. It has come to me that what is most important to change in myself is the way I think about what I am doing with the precious time left. And so, the overriding resolution of 2013 will be to let go the need to please, the need to prove myself. Be pleasing, that's fine; improve myself, of course. But stop caring about measuring up. Just do and enjoy. Be there for others when I can, share and listen, but most of all be kind to myself. It won't be easy. It's an old habit, but I intend to break it down.

In the spirit of getting on with it, I have decided to give you more photos and less talk this installment. So on an "almost wordless" Sunday (as I note many bloggers like to label their quiet days) here is the third installment of my Spanish odyssey. It takes place on the Atlantic coast (with a brief visit to Pamplona), at the resort town of San Sebastian (also know as Donostia), in Basque country. A Spanish place, yet, with its own language, style and traditions. We spent two days in the luxuriantly appointed hotel to the stars, Maria Cristina, and just wandered the town, felt the heat of summer, touched upon the ancient history and culture, but only just enough, and basically enjoyed our time as we would on a "relax-cation" instead of a tour.

First a sneak peek at where we enjoyed the elegant life.

Dream accomodations

Just a corner of the massive twinkly bath

Urumea River leads to the Atlantic
Am I Really Here?

Our lovely new friends

Still life with red wine

Bob, Carol, Ted and Alice (would fit in this one)
But first, along the way from the Pyrenees, we stop for a "tourist" lunch and a tour of old town Pamplona/Iruna.
A beautiful town under the most blue of skies

Tapas and beer outside

Golden inside Cafe Iruna

Playing tourist with "Papa"

Street art 

At the gates of the bullring

Tradition in Pamplona/Iruna
On our full day in San Sebastian we tour the old town on foot.

Following the "Whisper", then off to see a town full of  color, activity, fun and surprises

We chance upon a race

The inner harbor

Tournament in the park

Glorious Gazebo

I'll take the tall one

Traditional Basque entertainment on a Saturday morning in the government plaza. The treat of many civil and church weddings to behold.

Evidence of a violent coup

Click clack, splish splash

Touring the streets of endless tapas (pintxos) restaurants

This interesting historic architectural style is echoed in the building of the new arts center across the river from the hotel

Those fake bullet marks are a modern remembrance of the revolution

We walked far and wide but we didn't climb

The water was captivating

I played my star turn

David posed too

Like a jar full of jelly beans

A town so full of life and motion

...and real life

...and modest beauty

Part of the ancient town wall 

Finally getting up the nerve to order pinxos and beer. Pretty yum.

So pretty, so fresh, so endless

Modern design in an ancient town

Setting up for an all night party (right across the river from our hotel!)

Must have had a reason, right?

The same Atlantic I grew up on, but from the opposite shore.

Elevator elegance

Coffee hour in the most elegant bar I've ever had the
pleasure to spend an hour. (Note the same crest on the coffee cup.)

Dinner for two at eight in a "booked" restaurant.
 (Booked for ten o'clock, that is!)

End of a magical visit. We'll be back if we can.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Boarding the Bus

When we left off exactly one month ago (and where has the time gone?), I had shown some highlights of my 2+ days in Barcelona. I told you that I was embarking on an intensive bus tour across Northern Spain and down Western Portugal with the international tour company, Tauck. My only previous experience with their trips was a week in the Canadian Rockies and Glacier National Park, Montana. That glorious tour had been enough to convince my husband and me that putting the time and money into vacations with them was pretty much assurance of a grand and memorable occasion.

Knowing almost nothing about Spain, I had chosen this tour, "The Paradors of Northern Spain", pretty much based on the dramatic photos of some of the destinations, including the subject of today's post, Montserrat, plus some Internet research on the hotels involved, which promised much luxury. My Tauck experience (and the recommendations of others I know who have traveled with them) has shown that you not only get what you pay for, but often you get more. They have the advantage of booking blocks of rooms or even entire inns on a regular basis and receive preferential room locations and service. If there is a best hotel or inn in the area you will be in it, and if there is a room with a best view of the attraction that drew you there, you will probably have it. At this point in life, pampering is near the top of our list for vacation criteria. We have yet to be disappointed.

If you've never been on such a trip, you may wonder: what is so special about spending that much time on a bus, especially to travel for 1540 miles? Well, for one, if you want to cover that much ground in a short time in a foreign country, wouldn't you rather leave the driving in some really competent hands? Our driver, Felipe, home town, Lisbon, was a sweet, quiet young man who could turn that thing around in a two-point-turn on a narrow, crowded city street or smoothly navigate the hairpin turns that were our frequent routes on the first few days through the mountains. Not that you wanted to look over the edge at some of those moments, but you never doubted that he had nerves of steel and experience to match. The bus was spacious with comfortable seats, the seating chart rotated daily so that you have new views and new neighbors throughout the travel time. Your bus picks you up and drops you off exactly where you need to be, and you never have to worry about parking. Oh, and your luggage: it is picked up from your room and delivered to your next one. Just carry a back pack or tote for day necessities.

Our coach awaits. (This photo was actually in the town of Leon, but it is the only full shot I had.)
When you take a bus tour with a quality company, your guide becomes your parent, your teacher, your comfort, in a place where you may not know the language or how to be a good guest, and they truly "guide" you through the experience. This allows you to expend your energy in learning about and living the culture, not the inevitable difficulties of travel. Our fun and lovely host, Carmen, a native Spaniard married to an American (who also guides for Tauck,) regaled us with stories and information about all the aspects of history and culture, made sure we were comfortable in all our accommodations, showed trip related movies, bought us local pastries, let us close our eyes on long stretches, and overall, filled all the gaps. She made reservations in restaurants for us, sometimes days in advance when they were hard to procure, handed us our entry tickets to the sights, told us what we'd not want to miss, and sometimes even joined us at the table as a friend.

So off we go! After a final view of Barcelona we head out to Montserrat. Just a short trip Northwest of the city, but another world when you finally arrive up top, these "serrated" or jagged peaks are the home to a Benedictine Abbey.

An early view of the peaks as we begin the ascent. They were laid down by sedimentary rock when this part of the continent was under the sea.

On our tour of the basilica, there were many and varied breathtaking works of art on all the surfaces, such as the gold leaf and mosaic tile work of this dome ceiling.

This refreshingly simple geometric stained glass design caught my interest.

I loved the warm colors and sweeping curves of this ornamentation. We were on our way to visit the room with the famous Black Madonna.

A perfect day in a glorious setting. The mountain above me...

and the road far below! 
After our wonderful but brief visit (as most were on this jam packed itinerary,) we headed off to lunch at our first parador, in Cardona, a ninth century castle with a second century tower, in an area famous for salt quarrying. Since I didn't explain earlier, let me just briefly define "parador". From the official website
"The Paradores are heritage monuments now converted to accommodations owned by the 
Spanish Government to use quality tourism to act as guardian of the national and artistic 
heritage of Spain and to assist regions with fewer economic resources. The Paradors are 
located on some of the most beautiful natural settings and surrounded by unique historic 
and artistic ensemble of monuments. They provide  luxury accommodation in Castles,
Palaces, Fortresses, Convents, Monasteries and other historic buildings and in some cases 
modern buildings overlooking the historic areas of the city."

Upon arrival, looking out from the castle walls over the town of Cardona and the rock salt deposits, which have been worked like a mine since Roman times.

In the entry hall to the parador, this "sculpture" is a large chunk of salt.

Restoration work was an ongoing project everywhere we traveled.
After lunch we continued North to the Pyrenees and the town of Le Seu D'Urgell, located just a few kilometres south of the border of the oldest independent nation in Europe, the Principality of Andorra, with an unusual co-monarchy by the Bishop of Urgell (Catalonia, Spain) and the President of France. Our destination was the 9th century castle, El Castell de Cuitat. The original castle, in the midst of a very slow process of restoration, served as entertainment and banquet facility, but our actual parador was the more newly built resort adjacent to it.

Dave and I visit the castle courtyard before the first evening's musical program. Those of you who might follow my interest in all things Alabama Chanin will recognize the hand-sewn garments I made last summer.

Most all the restorations we saw throughout the trip were not an attempt to reproduce the original decayed parts, many lost to time, or impractical for today's use, but a modern interpretation with modern materials and techniques that blended so beautifully with the ancient stone structures. I loved all the graceful arches throughout the building, from the iron gate above to the lovely wood and glass doors that let so much light into what would be a stereotypically dark castle structure.

This is the restaurant terrace at the resort building, scene of our first night's cocktail party.

After a good night's sleep in a room with a key that could serve as a paper weight, we took off to the historic town for a walking tour of the streets, Romanesque church, museum and park.
Cheese plays a very constant role in the cuisines we experienced throughout the trip, and milk production was the subject of this display in the local museum. The following evening we sampled a number of local cheeses at our banquet. Fresh cheeses were always available on breakfast buffets and they are one of the items I miss the most. 

Everyday street scenes mesmerize with their pastel colors, white hot sun and cool shadows, and little glimpses into the lives within.

Parc Olimpic del Segre was built for flat and whitewater paddling events during the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona, and is still used for training and recreation.

You will recall I mentioned the views: this is taken from our bedroom window at El Castell de Cuitat resort.

On the second evening of our stay at the castle, we had the grand pleasure of dining like royalty. (The entrance hall.)

And the view through to the courtyard.

This is our group of 34 sitting down to a six course feast with such delicacies as shrimp salad with peas and mango, sea bass with courgette gratin and tomato comfit sauce, beef wellington with port wine sauce, cheese trolley, vanilla and red berry pannacotta with sangria ice, petit fours, and a different wine for each course. 

And somehow I got to be the Queen, served first at each course!

Sunrise over breakfast as we prepare to head for our next adventure.

Because we spent two nights here and I had a bit of relax time at the outdoor pool, I found the opportunity to practice my very nascent painting skills in my travel journal.

Please return for the next installment when we head north to the coastal resort of San Sebastian with a lunch stop in Pamplona.