Monday, March 12, 2012

Barcelona - From Winter to Spring

the Aljaferia (Palace of Joy

 Zaragosa town square

Monasterio de Valvanera 

near the Hotel Marques de Riscal at Elciego 

Eliza enjoying lunch at the Guggenheim 

Time sure seems to fly and before you know it, almost six months have gone by. The winter was short and reasonably pleasant in Barcelona, with only several weeks in January/February that had temperatures dropping to single digit at night. There was a couple of weeks of rainy days, and other than that it was mostly sunny and pleasant. Besides enjoying our time in the city, we’ve also been busy traveling – a trip to UK, and two trips across Spain. In the most recent trip, we rented a car with a couple of friends and headed north, to Bilbao, near the Atlantic coast.

We spent the first two days of our north-bound journey in Zaragoza, the capital city of the region of Aragon. The city has many interesting old buildings, including a huge cathedral set in a beautiful square.  It’s called the Basilica de Nuestra Senora del Pilar, with the town hall (ayuntamiento) and the Lonja (commodities exchange) nearby.The next day, we walked and visited the Aljaferia (Palace of Joy), an enormous Moorish palace built in the 11th century.  The Aljaferia is really impressive, beautifully done. On our last day at Zaragoza, we had a nice dinner in the city and celebrated our friend’s 60th birthday. Continuing north, we drove through the mountains into Basque region and into the land of Rioja, one of the well-known regions for its wine. The climate and scenery were markedly different once we crossed the Sierra, and became cooler and much greener. The moist air of the Atlantic is stopped by the tall mountains and this part of Spain is very different from the Mediterranean Spain that we are used to. This is the region of monasteries and wineries, and we drove an hour through winding roads to see a monastery-the Monasterio de Valvanera, located 1,000 m above sea level, in a secluded forested valley and backed by the jagged peaks of the Sienna de San Lorenzo.. We spent a night at a small city called Navarrete, in a valley near the Hotel Marques de Riscal at Elciego, a famous hotel designed by Frank Gehry (of the Guggenheim fame). The Basque separatist movement must have settled down, as we see no military presence anywhere. The Spain today is very different from that in the ‘80’s, when machine-gun totting soldiers were everywhere. Actually the country seems quite prosperous, with very little sign of high unemployment.

We stopped at the Basque capital city of Vitoria. The city is built at the highest point of the region, and the buildings there have a completely different style, almost Northern European. Basque claims to have one of the oldest cultures in Europe, and one can easily mistake this to be a different country. The cuisine is also quite different; apart from the usual tapas, there’s also plenty of meat and fish dishes. Our trip cumulated at Bilboa, where we stayed for two days at a hostal-style hotel in the old town, near the winding Rio Nervion. Bilboa is a river city, close to the edge of Atlantic, by the Bay of Biscyne; one can almost smell the ocean air. We spent almost a full day at the Guggenheim, including a delightful lunch at its famous restaurant (since we can’t afford the 70 Euro dinner). The museum’s architecture is indeed fascinating, but its modern-art exhibits are also very interesting.

We took a slightly different route for the return trip, and turned north-east ward, hugging the mountainous region of Aragon, near the French border. Our main interest was to visit Ainsa, considered as one of the most beautiful towns in Aragon, and it has retained its charm with houses built with brown stones. To get to Ainsa, we drove through Jaca, home to the Ciudadela de Jaca, a massive pentagonal citadel built in the 16th century, and one of the two of its kind remaining in Europe.  And along the way, up a white-knuckle winding drive near the Parque Nac de Ordesa, called the Roof of Aragon, the roads cutting through a beautiful stretch of green valleys with snow-capped mountains not far away. Then the green fields give way to the arid, brown landscape of Mediterranean Spain, and we are on the home stretch.

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