Just in One Day, Spain, Travel

San Sebastián/Donostia in Just One Day

Upon arriving in San Sabeastián or Donostia as it is known in Basque we were immediately captivated by the grand majestic atmosphere of this upmarket city resort. San Sebastián established itself from a modest fishing village into a classy seaside resort, favoured as a holiday destination for the Spanish royals. It is located on the coast of the Bay of Biscay a mere 20kms from the French border.

We arrived by car after an easy 36 minute drive from our accommodation in Lesaka. The easiest place to leave the car appeared to be in the car park beneath the train station and the central location made for a leisurely walk along the river (Urumeato Itsasadarra) to the old town (la parte vieja). At the beginning of the walk we marvelled at the Puente María Cristina (María Cristina Bridge) with the four monumental obelisks that stand 18 metres high and guard the entrance on each side of the river.

Puente Maria Cristina
Puente Maria Cristina

La Parte Vieja (Old Town)

There are a number of places of interest to visit in the old town of San Sebastián as well as experiencing the culinary delights of pintxos (pronounced ‘peen-chos’) the basque equivalent of tapas. The sophistication of the modern city slowly slipped away as we entered the narrow cobble stoned streets filled with alluring architecture adorned with filigreed balconies of classical elegance. Even the moody overcast weather couldn’t spoil our eagerness to discover the richness in this part of the town. Our first stop was at San Bizente Eliza – Inglesia de San Vincent’s (Saint Vincent Church). This gothic style church was constructed during the 15th and 16th century and is the oldest in the city. It is free to enter the church and very worthwhile as the impressive stain glass windows are enhanced with the natural light from outside. The church also offers one of the finest Romanesque altarpieces as well as a sculpture of the ‘Pieta’ by artist Jorge Oteiza.

San Bizente Eliza - Inglesia de San Vincente
San Bizente Eliza – Inglesia de San Vincente

A short stroll towards the west side of the old town leads you to Koruko Andre Mariaren Basilica – Santa Maria del Coro (Saint Mary of the Chorus). The first thing that struck me about this church was the majestic size of the ornate niche flanked by two bell towers. Above the vaulted niche stands the figure of Saint Sebastián and the main altarpiece dedicated to the Virgen del Coro (Virgin of Chorus) the patron saint of the city. The facade is incredibly delicate in its decoration, a masterpiece in stonework. We were so enticed by its graceful charm that it was hard to leave this place of magnificent behind.

Koruko Andre Mariaren Basilica - Santa Maria del Coro
Koruko Andre Mariaren Basilica – Santa Maria del Coro

Once we forced ourselves away we meandered into the heart of the old town which took us to Plaza de la Constitución (Constitution Square). The square was constructed in 1817 by architect Ugartemendia after a devasting fire started during the battle between French troops and the Anglo-Portuguese army in 1813 that claimed much of the old city. The square was originally used as a bullring, the numbers displayed on the buildings mark the bullring boxes and are a permanent reminder of its history. In recent times the square has become a place to enjoy a glass of wine and pintxos at one of the many bars.

Plaza de la Constitución
Plaza de la Constitución

Monte Urgull

Monte Urgull is located on the north-east side of La Concha Bay and is one of three natural settings within San Sebastián. Access to Monte Urgull is closed during the night, for current opening times click here. The walk can be accessed from several start points, Plaza de Zuloga, next to Basílica de Santa María or Paseo Nuevo. Each way meanders through the lush vegetation along well defined pathways and offers numerous picture perfect views of the Bay. During the 12th century Monte Urgull due to its elevated nature became the site of a military fortress protected by walls that were subjected to many sieges and attacks. The summit is topped by Castillo de la Mota, a castle built in the 12th century and the grand statue of Christ (Sagrado Corazõn) that has been overlooking the city since 1950. The walk took us about an hour to complete with our two children and this was at a leisurely pace whilst stopping at several view points and fortresses along the way. Once we arrived at the summit we were rewarded with breathtaking panoramic views of the city, harbour and the surrounding mountains. Contained within the castle is the Casa de la Historian de Urgull, a small museum that showcases 800 years of the city’s history. Despite there being a lack of English translation on the exhibits it was still a valuable experience.

 

 

La Concha (Kontxa) Beach

The walk had stirred up an appetite so we wandered back to the old town to partake in a gastronomic delight of paella and a fine drop of wine. Satisfied from lunch we opted to take a relaxing amble along the beach ‘La Concha’. It’s not hard to appreciate why this strip of coastline was voted the second best city beach in the world by Travel and Leisure Magazine. The beach sits harmoniously with the backdrop of the city and is flanked by the natural wonders of Mount Urgull and Mount Igueldo. The eye is drawn along the 1350 metres of honey coloured sand and compels you to remove your shoes and feel the sensation of sand between your toes. It was not warm enough for us to swim in the sea but we couldn’t resist paddling through the frothing surf at the edge of the tide. Whether you decide to swim, stroll along the sand and surf or remain on the sophisticated promenade it is sure to delight your senses and uplift your spirits.

La Concha Beach
La Concha Beach

Mount Igueldo

On our way to Mount Igueldo we decided to stop for a refreshing beer at the Wimbledon English Pub. As well as serving great beer there is also some very interesting memorabilia on display. I really liked the style of the building, you could almost believe that you were in England.

Wimbledon English Pub
Wimbledon English Pub

After a refreshing pint we could virtually stumble to the base of Mount Igueldo. Located directly behind the pub is the furnicular railway that carries passengers up to the old fashioned amusement park at the top of Mount Igueldo. It is also possible to drive to the peak, where you can choose to stay at the Mercure San Sebastián.

We purchased our tickets (return €3.15 adult, €2.35 child) and eagerly awaited the arrival of the wooden carriage. There are two carriages on the cog railway that run on a single track and they pass each other at the midway point. The furnicular carriage operates between 10am – 9pm, every 15 minutes and it travels a distance of 320 meters through dense woodland up a steep cliff face. The minute you step out of the carriage you are transported to a bygone era that feels like it got left behind from the rest of the world. The amusement park opened in 1912 and has continued to provide pleasure with its mix of old fashioned and modern fairground attractions. There is also a bar, restaurant and coffee shop for the more faint hearted. Unfortunately the weather closed in on us and the incredible views that can usually be witnessed were enshrouded in misty cloud.

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Funicular Railway
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View from Mount Igueldo
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Enjoying the train journey

It was an unbelievably amazing day with so much squeezed into such a short time. Even though our time was brief in this suave highly cultured city it was enough to make us fall madly in love with its charm. This destination is most definitely on my list for a return visit and I plan to stay much longer than one day.

I’d love to hear about other people’s experiences of San Sebastián.

Spain, Travel

Pamplona – more than just the running of the bulls

I have to be honest in admiting that before I visited Pamplona I was naive in my belief that this town could be anything more than the ‘running of the bulls’ festival. I was wrong, very wrong!

We had planned a stop for lunch in Pamplona and to stroll through the city to break our 3 hour journey between Calatyud and Lesaka. Knowing that our visit was so short I hadn’t bothered to look up any information about Pamplona so my only knowledge of Pamplona was the Running of the Bulls or the festival of San Fermin as it is officially known. Now don’t get me wrong, it is a very worthy reason to visit Pamplona as the San Fermín Festival is certainly unique but I discovered there are so many more reasons to visit this beautiful city.

We arrived late in the morning, the weather was grey and the rain fell intimitantly. Unperturbed by the gloominess of the day we ventured out of the underground car park to immediately encounter the Plaza de Toros (the bullring). Our sense of direction was telling us to walk through the streets on the opposite side of the road. By chance we stumbled upon Plaza del Castillo, a square encased by ornate residential buildings dating from the 18th century. The central location of the plaza set the stage for main events including bullfights up until 1844. The bandstand situated in the middle of the square was installed on 28th June 1943. A wonderful place to relax and soak up the beauty of the buildings, it’s not hard to see why the locals fondly call the plaza ‘Pamplona’s living room’.

We continued to wonder through the shiny cobbled laneways, imagining what it would be like to get chased by several bulls. The shop fronts were filled with San Fermín mementos of the usual touristy particulars. The festival is celebrated every year from 6th to 14th July. The running of the bulls actually developed from a need to move the bulls from the countryside on the outskirts of the city to the bullring. The festival only became popular in 1926 due to Ernest Hemingway’s novel The Sun Also Rises, however it dates back as far as 1592. San Fermín, a native bishop during the 3rd century was martyred and allegedly dragged through the streets of Amiens in France by a bull. Prior to the ‘encierro’ or running of the bulls the participants chant a benediction of praise to San Fermín before a rocket is fired signalling the release of the bulls. The runners then traverse along the 875 metre route ahead of the charging bulls over 3 to 4 minutes hoping not to get gored. Surprisingly there have only been 15 deaths since 1910, although many participants are badly injured. Personally I would not want to witness this spectacle and fortunately for us we were in Pamplona in early June and not July!

It’s also worth knowing that Pamplona is the first major city on the Camino de Santiago (the Camino Frances), a pilgrimage walk also known as ‘The Way’ that starts in St Jean Pied de Port in France and ends at Santiago de Compostela in Spain. This route follows the streets of La Curia, Mercaderes, San Saturnino and Calle Mayor before leading up to the medieval walls of the city.

Along this route we were able to observe the Cathedral, a Neoclassical Roman Catholic Church designed by Ventura Rodríguez in 1783. On such a grey day the cathedral appeared to glow displaying the intricate stonework of the cloisters. We admired the Cathedral from the outside due to our time constraint. Had we had more time I would have joined one of the tours that include a visit inside the cathedral, the cloisters and a small museum. Apparently the 11.15am tour visits the bell tower where you can see the 2nd largest bell in Spain.

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Continuing on our exploration we emerged at The Citadel and Vuelta del Castillo Park. The Citadel was built by the order of Phillip II of Spain in 1571 to align with the murallas (walls). It is now considered by many to be one of the finest examples of military architecture in the Spanish Renaissance style. The walls stretch for 5km around the Casco Viejo (old town) and are considered to be among the best preserved walls in Europe. When the military function of the Citadel was no longer required it was turned into Vuelta del Castillo park, the largest green space in the city. It is possible to walk around the walls between Media Luna and Taconera Park to admire the impressive stonework and soak up the soothing green colours in the background.

After a leisurely lunch in a traditional Spanish bar it was time to make our way back to our car and finish our journey to Lesaka. I have to admit we were a little lost so I couldn’t say which route we took back to the Plaza de Toros. Along the way we accidentally stumbled across the Monument to the Fueros located at the eastern end of Paseo de Sarasate parade. Fueros de Navarre were the laws of the Kingdom of Navarre from the Middle Ages up until 1841. The monument is made of bronze, marble and different types of stone, it was constructed in 1903 and is 23.4 meters high. Even on a gloomy day the monument was awe inspiring and simply looked majestic.

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It really is amazing what you can discover in a matter of a few hours when visiting such a great city. Our final surprise was a gigantic red back inflatable spider crawling down the Teatro Gayarre.

Considering we only had a few hours in less than desirable weather, it was enough to fall in love with Pamplona. It had culture, history, great food and a relaxed atmosphere for a city of its size. I will definitely return and spend more time delving deeper into the character of Pamplona, it just won’t be in the second week of July!

Spain, Travel

Lesaka – A Picturesque Place of Mystique and Intrigue

Situated in the rolling green hills and dramatic mountains of the Pyrenees lies a small town called Lesaka.

Lesaka belongs to the Cincos Villas (five towns) in the community of Navarre. Geographically it is located in the Basque region close to the French border and only 45 minutes by car from Donastia (San Sebastian).

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Historically the town has a rural background rearing livestock but it has also carved it’s way as an industrious town. Structures such as the ironworks, flour mills, cider cellars and carpentry workshops have helped retain the charm of it’s past. Industry has provided a great deal of wealth for the municipality and this is very apparent in the elegance of the architecture in and around the town.

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Wandering the picturesque streets of Lesaka

We based ourselves at Duplex Usuaia on Eltzeta Kalea booked through Booking.com. Click here for a link to this property. The house was located on the 2nd and 3rd floors of the building and provided three bedrooms, two bathrooms, a well equipped kitchen and a lounge/dining area. The decoration and cleanliness of the house was outstanding and we had everything we needed (except a kettle!) for a very pleasant stay. The host was very friendly (only spoke Spanish) and had baked us some very tasty cakes. The location was perfect being right beside the river Onin and within 100 metres of a well stocked supermarket.

Outside of Property - Duplex Usaia
Above: Outside of Property – Duplex Usaia Below: Kitchen and Dining room Photos courtesy of Booking.com

The weather was not altogether compliant with our plans although we did have one day where the sun appeared through the mountain mist. We took the opportunity to explore the quaint tranquility of our surroundings. The cobbled streets were like a maze weaving around the characteristic facades of the ornate buildings. We traversed our way up to the church on the hill, San Matin Eliza. The church was deserted and we were unsure about entering but curiosity led the way. Once inside we were amazed at the beauty of the alterpiece and the impressive organ. It appeared rather majestic for such a small remote town.

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San Martin Eliza
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The beautiful altarpiece

We countined our exploration along River Onin and stumbled across the stone bridge beside the Kaxerna (Zabaleta) Tower, a fine example of a noble 15th century armoury house.

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Kaxerna (Zabaleta) Tower

For such a small remote place Lesaka had several options to stop for a well earned drink and tapas. Bar Zialdo was our place of choice because they had tables and chairs outside. Whilst we enjoyed the warm air and our cold beers the small square suddenly became a hive of activity adding to the amazing atmosphere of this quaint yet mysterious place.

I really enjoyed the natural and traditional beauty of this area. I would love to hear from other people who have visited Lesaka. What did you think of this unique place?

Spain, Travel, Uncategorized

Madrid in Just One Day

Interestingly enough I have never spent more than one night in Madrid. It tends to be a place to refresh after a long flight before setting off to other delightful places in Spain. One day I do hope to stay a little longer to delve deeper into the beauty of this magnificent city, it’s architectural prowess, culinary delights and it’s artistic elegance.

But for those like myself on a time poor budget it is possible to experience many of the delights this city holds.

Our most recent stopover in Madrid was after a 20 something hour flight from Melbourne that landed at Barajas Airport late at night. Fortunately immigration was very straightforward and we didn’t have to wait very long. We had booked a family room at the Crowne Plaza Madrid Airport for just AU$125. They offered a free shuttle service but we decided to jump into a taxi as we were exhausted. The taxi ride cost us €25 which was a little more than we’d expected. Mental note: always use the free service!

The minute we stepped inside the Crowne Plaza we knew we had got outstanding value for money. The reception was professional and the receptionist spoke fluent English and was very efficient. Upon arriving in our room we were so impressed. The decoration and furniture was classy and the room had all the necessities we needed after such a long journey. The next morning we were treated to an excellent choice at the breakfast buffet also included in our room rate. I would definitely stay here again if we had a late flight into Madrid.

Tropical garden at Atocha Station
Tropical garden at Atocha Station were you can watch the turtles in the pond

After a good nights rest it was time to hit the streets of Madrid to discover for ourselves what this amazing city has to offer. We were able to catch a bus around 200 metres from the hotel that took us directly to Atocha train station. Atocha train station has a left luggage area located behind the tropical garden and turtle pond. Before you enter the left luggage room you need to place your bags on the security machine. Once through to the locker room you have a choice of three sizes; small – €3.10, medium €3.60 and large €5.20. We opted for a large locker for our four carry-on size bags. Make sure that you have some small change to pay for the locker, as the machine doesn’t take large notes.

 

 

 

We had to be back at Atocha station to catch a train to Calatyud at 3pm so I had extensively researched ideas for such a short visit to Madrid. It appeared that our best option was to do a self-guided walking tour. After extensively searching the internet I came across an excellent article on a website called Laurenonlocation.com. The link to the self guided walking tour can be found at: https://laurenonlocation.com/diy-madrid-center-sights-walking-tour/#

This fitted our time frame perfectly and allowed us to enjoy lunch at a restaurant along the way. The itinerary included all the major sites around Madrid and if you have more time it does give you the opportunity to visit some of the tourist attractions along the way. We took a metro train from Atocha to Sol (line 1) and then Sol to Opera (line 2) where the self guided walk starts. The directions were very simple to follow and it was great that they included the walking time and distance between stops. It was also fantastic that the walk concluded at Atocha train station so we didn’t have to catch anymore public transport around Madrid.

Our Favourite Parts of Madrid

There were so many highlights from the self guided walk it’s hard to narrow it down to just a few. Eating delicious pastries from the famous La Mallorquina was memorable and the shop has been serving these delicacies since the late 1800’s. We tried a Napolitana de crema as suggested and it didn’t disappoint.

I really loved the architecture of Madrid, especially the facades of buildings in the well known Plaza’s. It’s a great idea to stop for a refreshment and absorb your surroundings. If you are on a tighter budget then just sitting in the Plaza with a shop bought drink is just as good.

Then there are the iconic images of Madrid. El oso y el madrño (the bear and the strawberry tree) a statue that appears on a vast array of tourist merchandise. Tío Pepe a historic illuminated sign and kilometre 0 a little plaque and mile marker where all Spanish roads begin.

Whatever you decide to do in Madrid be confident it not disappoint. A big shout out and thanks to Lauren and her website, Laurenonlocation.com that allowed us to discover Madrid in such a short time.

What’s your favourite part of Madrid? I would love to hear other peoples stories and experiences.