Braga (Norte), Portugal June 2024 (Tour 9)

Braga, the capital of the Norte Region was also recommended as a place to visit by our hosts at the Cotto do Gatto

Ordinarily, we would not be too enamoured at the thought of visiting a city of 200,000 in the Van but, no problem, it proved to be a wonderful place and we had arrived in time for Portugal’s National Day celebrations. Judging by the amount of bunting on display all over the city, it appeared that some form of religious festival was also under way and we learned later it was up in readiness for the Festa de Sao Joao (Saint John) in a few days time.

We were parked up in the Municipal Camping Site (Parque de Campisimo e Caravanismo Municipal de Braga) near the centre of the city . Vanya wanted to rest up with the dogs until the evening and so I went off to check out the city in advance of our all going into town later in the day. A twenty minute fast walk along Avenida Dr Viriato Amaral Nunes and then the Avenida da Liberdade (much of which is pedestrianised) took me to Praca de Republica.

This is perhaps Braga’s main square and it is a great place for having a drink and people watching, although the cafés in this part of the town are predictably overpriced. The square’s three main features are the Lapa arcades (with their 19 arches), the Lapa church and the large fountain. As I arrived, the place was buzzing with music and impromptu dancing (mostly by the older generations) and it continued all through the day. I watched for a while and then made my way to the nearby 18th century Basilica dos Congredados (for the peace and quiet as much as the shade it offered).

Braga is a Portugal’s third largest city and it was therefore necessary I plan the rest of the day so as to maximise our short time in the city. We intended to stay just the one night. I settled down outside a cafe bar on the Praca da Republica to take stock of the situation. The first important question was whether to drink coffee or wine with my sorely needed cold water? The local coffee has to be good given Portugal’s long association with Brasil but, the north of Portugal is well known for it’s green wine (Vinho Verde). Unlike orange wine which is orange in colour (you’d know that if you read my Izola blog way back in 2017), green wine is not green. It is so named because only very young grapes are used to make the wine. Progress! I decided upon wine and coffee. The wine was good (although I had forgotten Vinho Verde has a fizzy edge to it) but, the coffee proved better.

A little research while I rested identified that Braga was founded in 16 BC during the reign of the Roman Emperor Augustus. Indeed, Braga was initially known as Bracara Augusta and it is believed to be Portugal’s oldest city. It is very much a religious city and is sometimes referred to as the Portuguese Rome on account of having 47 churches and the country’s oldest cathedral (consecrated in 1089). It is known for it’s beautiful historic buildings but there is considerably more to the city than it’s buildings.

That settled it. I had already visited the Basilica dos Congredados. My next stop would be Braga Cathedral, followed by the Church and Hospital of Saint Mark and the Igreja Santa Cruz. Both of these latter churches are on a square known the Largo Carlos Amarante. Vanya is not into churches (neither literally nor figuratively) but she would want to see Largo Carlos Amarante if only because of the huge letters on the square which spell out the city name – that could be a photo opportunity for Beanie. Then, time permitting, there is the city’s most visited tourist site at the edge of the city, the beautiful Basilica of Bom Jesus do Monte. Plenty to be getting on with there.

The ‘Se de Braga’ (Braga Cathedral) is Portugal’s equivalent to our Canterbury Cathedral in England. It is the seat of the Archdiocese of Braga and the Primate Archbishop of Portugal and it was the most important cathedral on the whole of the Iberian Peninsula until the consecration of the Cathedral in Santiago de Compostela. Built on the ruins of a Roman Temple and extended over the centuries, the Se de Braga is not large as cathedrals go but; on the inside it is as sumptuous as they come. Adorned throughout with rich golden ornaments and purple flags and with the most magnificent ceiling and an incredible pipe organ it is stunning. The two Euro entrance fee to view the church is tremendous value but I came away wishing I had bought the five Euro ticket which would have also provided access to the upper side chapels and the choir, etc. Unfortunately, I didn’t see that particular ticket advertised until I was already well into my tour of the Cathedral..

I had to tear myself away from the cathedral but I soon found the Largo Carlos Amarante with, amongst other things the Church and Hospital of Saint Mark, the Igreja Santa Cruz and of course the large letters spelling out the city name.

I didn’t get inside either the Church & Hospital of St Mark’s or the Igreja Santa Cruz. The fact is I was delayed on my way to the square looking at various street art, listening to a harpist playing folk music and admiring what I later learned is the Casa e Capela dos Coimbras with, inside, it’s very decorative azulejos (tiles). It is easy to get distracted in Braga; there’s so much going on in the city.

Given how critical I was of the International Garden Festival in Ponte de Lima, I should mention Braga’s Jardim de Santa Barbera on Rua do Souto. This is my style of garden. It is a small garden in the centre of the city; free to enter (and so can be enjoyed by all); with a focus towards the shapes and colours of the plants and; with the Archbishop’s Palace (the Paco Episcopal Bracarense) providing a great backdrop, it’s a beautiful place to simply sit and enjoy.

By the way, the Rua do Souto is another largely pedestrianised part of the city and the main shopping street in Braga (the type of shopping my wife does with close friends, not the fruit and vegetable kind of shopping). It leads to a large historical arch, the Arco da Porto Nova, which was going to be a gate into the city but events overtook things. The fact is, the city expanded so much during the period it took to finish building the arch that it has only ever served as an ornament. Much like the M25 I suppose.

It’s time I wrote about Braga’s principal tourist attraction located some 5 kilometres from the city centre – the 18th century pilgrimage Basilica of Bom Jesus do Monte. This is one of Portugal’s most visited attractions and a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2019. The Basilica and the surrounding gardens are impressive but it is the Baroque Staircase leading to the church which seems to take all the plaudits. Known as the ‘Sacred Way’ it comprises almost 600 steps and depicts an ascent to heaven. It is adorned with small chapels, statues and fountains – the fountain of ‘The Wounds of Christ’, the fountain of ‘The Five Senses’, the fountain of ‘The Virtues’ (Faith, Hope & Charity), etc. It is all so very beautiful and it also offers spectacular and panoramic views of Braga and the surrounding countryside.

For those wanting to walk to Bom Jesus do Monte from Braga there is a quiet path, the Ecovia do Rio Este, which goes almost the whole way (and the Basilica is signposted) but don’t forget there are almost 600 steps as well as the return.

Be warned, the place is full of coach tours. They come from all over (particularly Porto) and more often than not combine the Bom Jesus do Monte with a visit to Guimaraes. Guimaraes is pretty but I can’t understand why it should be chosen in preference to Braga. It’s easier I suppose but, the tourists are missing out on a great city.

I missed out on so many things – the Chapel of Sao Frutuoso de Montelios, the Torre de Menagem, the Palacio de Raio (with it’s exquisite tile works), Coffee at Cafe Brasileira, the Indoor Market, the Jardima Avenida Park and the Parque da Ponte – the list goes on BUT Braga is now known to me and I’ll be back.

Ponte de Lima (Norte), Portugal June 2024 (Tour 9)

Ponte de Lima was recommended as a place to visit by one of the owners of the hotel we were staying in, the Hotel Cotto do Gatto.

Situated just a few miles to the west of our hotel, it is one of the more popular stopping points on the Caminho de Santiago (the Portuguese Camino). It is also the oldest chartered town in Portugal although; this and many other places were in existence long before towns started being chartered in Portugal in 1125.

We had no trouble finding a parking spot near the Expolima even though a couple of events were in progress (a small farmers market and some kind of biker’s convention) and from there it was but a short walk to the main focus of this relatively small town, the old bridge across the River Lima.

On the way to the bridge we passed the Capela de Sao Joao. The original Chapel of Saint John in Ponte de Lima was destroyed by a fire, together with most of it’s contents, and was subsequently dismantled. The present octagonal shaped chapel was built in 1867. It’s a pretty little building but our (my) primary interest was the bridge and the town’s medieval centre which is reputedly one of the prettiest in Portugal. I think this may be on account of the large number of public parks and gardens in evidence all over the town. There are no less than 18 formal town gardens.

Ponte de Lima was named after it’s 1st century Roman bridge across the River Lima. Little remains of the original Roman bridge with it’s 5 arches. During the 14th century the bridge was renovated, fortified and considerably extended to 17 arches. Only 14 of these arches remain but the bridge is still an impressive 277 metres long and it makes for a very scenic photograph too with the white Baroque style church of Santo Antonio da Torre Velha at it’s western end.

Pilgrims on the Caminho Santiago (Portuguese Camino) were pausing at a small chapel at the western end of the bridge for many years until it was replaced by the Igrejia de Santo Antonio da Torre Velha during the 18th century. Next to the church is a monument celebrating the efforts of the pilgrims on their way to Santiago.

The inside of the Igreja de Santo Antonio da Torre Velha is quite spartan except for what I think is a very stylish altar. No?

There’s a legend surrounding this part of the river. In 138 BC a Roman army under the General Decimus Junius Brutus was advancing north into what is now Galicia but, upon reaching the River Lima, the legionnaires refused to cross. It seems the area was so enchanting they confused the River Lima with the River Lethe; otherwise known as the River of Forgetfulness. The Lethe is one of five mythical rivers leading to Hades; famous for it’s beauty and it’s capacity to erase the memories of anyone who drank from it or was immersed in it.

The legionnaires’ commanding officer was compelled to cross the river first and then to call out the names of individual soldiers who were to follow him. By such means he was able to demonstrate that it was safe to cross and that he had not lost his mind. The rest of the force slowly followed his example but it was decided there and then that a bridge would be built to expedite future crossings.

This tale explains why there are statues of legionnaires lined up at the eastern end of the bridge, in the car park alongside the town’s main square (the Largo de Camoes Plaza) and; an officer on horseback (Decimus Junius Brutus) at the western end of the bridge.

The River Lima forms one side of the Largo de Camoes Plaza. The other three sides are mostly bars and cafes which face the river. It’s a nice place to sit and enjoy a spot of lunch, which we did. The local wine (vinho verde) and a couple of tapas dishes. The square’s principal features are it’s fountain (the Chafariz Fonte Publica built in 1603) and, at the southern end, an old prison keep which now houses the local tourist office.

Most of the medieval part of the town is to be found behind the square and the old prison keep. This includes the main church, the Igreza Matriz de Ponte Lima and the Camera Municipal (the town hall) which was once a private mansion. It also includes another very pretty chapel towards the north end of the town, the Capela des Pereiras built in 1525 (and initially named the Chapel of Santa Rita de Cassia) but renovated in 1818 (minus the bell tower – I wonder if there ever was one?). This is the chapel to visit for the views towards the mountains and across the town but you’ll not see any of mine – I accidently deleted them.

I wrote earlier that there are 18 formal gardens in Ponte de Lima. I thought to visit a couple while in the town and settled on the Arnado Park (behind the Santo Antonio Church) and the Jardim dos Labirintos Botanical Garden (where the Ponte de Lima International Garden Festival has been held every year since 2005). The Arnado Park was ‘okay’ but, nothing great. The International Garden Festival was a real disappointment. It is described as “a unique initiative.. which relaunched the taste and cult of gardens and gardening”. I’ll let you know. It proved far too intellectual for me. I enjoy gardens that have a focus towards the beautiful brilliant colours of shapes of living plants (and the odd water feature) and not some pretentious plastic or tin interpretation of a garden.

It’s a shame because, by and large, Ponte de Lima is a very pretty place. There are hydrangeas in abundance and they were very wonderful to see but… no, you can keep the pompous, hollow…. enough David!

I’ll leave you with a couple of photos of Beanie in Punte de Lima…

Grovelas (Norte), Portugal June 2024 (Tour 9)

This particular post is very much about the four star Hotel Cotto do Gatto at Grovelas in Ponte da Barca. We used it as an escape from the Van for a couple of days after crossing the border into Norte in north Portugal. That’s normal practise for us. Every 3 weeks or so during a tour, Vanya looks for a special kind of hotel which we can use as a base to explore the surrounding area from but, more important, a place where we can properly chill for two or three days (and colour her hair).

We have visited some wonderful hotels over the last few years and Hotel Cotto do Gatto ranks amongst the best. It totally exceeded our expectations. The owners and staff could not have been more welcoming and attentive to our needs and; our dogs, Nala and Beanie, were pampered beyond measure. This hotel has raised the bar so far as ‘pet friendly’ is concerned.

The hotel is set on a hill in spacious grounds and it is surrounded by spectacular scenery. There are numerous terraces and every bedroom has a sizeable balcony from which the views can be admired and; a nice touch this, all of the balconies face west such that the setting sun can be enjoyed from each bedroom. It really was quite something sitting on our balcony that first afternoon just taking in the views and, on the hour, listening to myriad church bells ringing out their tunes from every direction in the surrounding valley.

I didn’t have time to take many photos of the surrounding area because shortly after our arrival the mother of all electrical storms struck but, more about that later. I did manage some photos from the hotel gardens before and after the storms…

The hotel is relatively new having opened in June 2022. It’s a nice size with just 24 bedrooms and 4 suites and is tastefully furnished throughout (modern and stylish perhaps best describes the place) with all the facilities you need. What they don’t have they will get, as is evidenced by their arranging for a masseuse to visit the hotel after Vanya mentioned that I could do with one. He was bloody good too.

I think there are plans to add a spa area but, for the moment, the outdoor pools suffice. I think this is the first hotel we have ever stayed at where we have been allowed to let the dogs run free around a pool area. There were even pet beds and sun loungers for the dogs to use.

After a little wander around the hotel (with the dogs accompanying us), Vanya went for a lie down in our room while I repaired to the lounge/bar for a beer and to try and catch up with my blog. I did that a few times over the next two days, trying no less than 3 different bottled beers on the way (and failing to complete a single post). My two favourites beers were the Sagres and a Lagunitas (which was originally a Californian craft beer but was sold to Heineken a few years ago) with the Sagres just shading it.

Whichever beer I was served, it came with Portugal’s favourite pastry, a ‘Pastel de Nata’. That’s an egg custard tart to you and me but that description does not do them justice. They are truly scrumptious and, together with a handful of smarties, go perfectly with a cold beer. I’ve had a few of these pastries in Spain but they don’t compare. In 2009 the Guardian newspaper listed the Portuguese Pastel de Nata’s amongst the 50 best things to eat (and there’s me, after at least four previous visits to Portugal, never having eaten one before). Shameful.

Talking of food, the hotel has a really good restaurant, the Sant’Ana. We didn’t actually get to eat in the restaurant because the heavy thunderstorms prevented us getting across to the restaurant building but; we chose from the menu (same as normal) and the excellent and very well priced food was then delivered to us at a made up table in the lounge bar, complete with the appropriate local wines. I was tempted to try the restaurant’s speciality dish, ‘Naco a Terras da Nobrega’ (that’s grilled veal with a chestnut puree, sautees green vegetables with nuts & red fruits and a reduction of the local Vinho Verde wine) but; I simply couldn’t have eaten it on my own. It is huge! It could feed three people at least. Instead, I went for a fillet steak because they were selling that dish in half portions but; even then, I couldn’t quite finish it. It too was humongous! Vanya went for a fish dish which she said was delicious but, she too was served enough to feed two people. There were at least three large fish fillets on her plate with chips, a fresh local salad and a large bowl of rice. Mind you, the hotel served her a lovely local wine – a Papa Figos Vinho Branco 2022 by Cassa Ferreirinha. I helped her with that.

We visited Lebanon a few years ago (Beirut and Byblos) and I recall being mightily impressed by how much the Lebanese people love their food (and partying, of course) and I was overwhelmed by the amount of food I was served throughout our all too short stay. I tell you now, when it comes to food I think the Lebanese may have some competition from the Portuguese.

And breakfast? Breakfast was served in the Breakfast Room down on the ground floor. We were offered a hot breakfast and Vanya opted for freshly cooked bacon and eggs but I went for the cold buffet. The range of food on offer was fabulous. I don’t think I have ever eaten so much cheese and fruit in one sitting. Oh, and a couple of Pastel de Nata’s to finish breakfast off.

We really enjoyed our stay at the Hotel Cotto do Gatto and we will definitely return in the Autumn. Everyone in the hotel went out of their way to make us feel so welcome. In these circumstances it seems inappropriate to single anyone out for particular mention but, I’m going to thank Filipa by name. She kept me well supplied with the Pastel de Nata. Thank you Filipa. Thank you Hotel Cotto do Gatto.

I mentioned previously that we used Grovelas as a base from which we could visit a couple of other places. Whilst there we drove out to Ponte de Lima (which is the oldest chartered town in Portugal and one of the prettiest) and Braga (the country’s third largest city and often referred to as ‘Portuguese Rome’ on account of it’s many ecclesiastical buildings). Both are well worth visiting and they feature as separate entries on this website.

The weather was very kind to us during both these visits which is little short of a miracle given the electrical storms experienced in the area during our stay. Take a look at the ‘screen save’ from Vanya’s Lightning Tracker which identifies the thunder and lightning activity around the hotel on the day of our arrival. The blue dot shows where the Van was parked in the hotel grounds…

I was going to end this particular post talking about Vanya’s navigation skills and how what should have been two relatively short drives from our hotel to first Pont de Lima and then Braga became 50 mile excursions up, over and around some of the hills surrounding Cotto do Gatto (in sometimes horrendous weather conditions) but; instead, I’ll show you a photo of a local cow.

Thank you once again Hotel Cotto do Gatto. Vejo voce em breve!

Ciudad Rodrigo (Castile y Leon), Spain June 2024 (Tour 9)

I adore places which are steeped in history and occasion and Ciudad Rodrigo is just such a place. Amongst other things it was the scene of a Wellington victory during the Peninsula War or, as the Spanish call it, the War of Independence. It was during the period 7 -20 January 1812 that the then Viscount Wellington (he didn’t obtain his dukedom until after the Battle of Talavera), laid siege to the city of Ciudad Rodrigo (occupied by French invaders under the French General Jean Leonard Barrie) with his combined British and Portuguese army. The city was successfully stormed by British troops during the night of 19 January, with the 88th Connaught Rangers and the 45th Nottinghamshire regiments both distinguishing themselves. Casualties were heavy with 2 British Generals killed, including Bob Crauford (General of the Light Division). The French lost almost 2,000 men (mostly captured) and 153 cannon. More importantly, the victory opened a route into Spain which the British would soon exploit. The Siege of Badajoz would follow.

Let me talk a little about Ciudad Rodrigo. The old town is wholly encased within thick 12th century walls (except for where Wellington’s troops forced a couple of breaches and these have long since been repaired). The walls are very much open to walkers but, more of that later.

I crossed the River Agueda and walked through the walls to the south of the city via the Puerta de Colada (one of 7 original entrances into the town) and this particular gate took me almost immediately to the 14th century castle of King Henry II (Henry II of Trastamara) which stands at the highest point of the city.

The castle is now a Parador and one of the earliest to be opened; the very first being the Gedos in 1928. In case you don’t know, the Parador’s are a chain of government controlled 3 to 5 star hotels (Paradores de Turismo) established in the early 20th century to accommodate tourists and travellers while at the same time showcasing Spain’s culture, nature and/or gastronomy. The word Parador is derived from the Spanish word ‘parer’ which means to halt, stop or stay and the intention was that they should help improve Spain’s image. Currently, there are almost 100 such hotels dotted across Spain (and another one in Portugal). More than half are located in historical buildings (castles or monasteries for the most part) and many others offer accommodation in National Parks or other such outstanding natural spaces. We would love to tour Spain using these hotels and the one in Ciudad Rodrigo is very reasonably priced but; they will not take more than one dog per room. Vanya and I would have to take two rooms if we were to bring Nala and Beanie along. That’s a very silly rule but, whether you sleep in them or not, these places are invariably worth a visit.

So there I was at the entrance to the castle on the Plaza del Castillo – In front of the castle is a verraco (another name for a wild boar, methinks?) left by Vettons (Celtiberian people who lived here back in the 6th century) but this particular verraco was pulled from the river where it had been dumped many centuries ago – I simply had to go in for a wander and a beer.

From the castle, I made my way to what is usually the centre of almost every old town in Spain – the Plaza Mayor with it’s numerous bars, restaurants & pastry shops. I was in heaven.

As is so often the case in Europe, the 16th century town hall (the ayuntamiento) is to be found on the Plaza Mayor, together with various manor houses dating from the same period (including the Cuetos House, the house of the 1st Marquis of Cerrablo but more about him later). I paused for a wine and got to talking with a local who advised that, during festivals, this square is fitted with a ‘mobile bull ring’ (or at least I think that is what he said). There’s no denying that most everybody hereabouts seems interested in bull fighting. There was quite a crowd inside the bar watching it live on tv. I read subsequently that the so called mobile bull ring here can accommodate almost 4,000 people.

The 16th century town hall on Plaza Mayor is as impressive as any building in the town. It’s front is flanked by two small towers and above the arcaded upper floor is a large bell tower. Moreover, two cannon are situated either side of the front entrance. Well, this city figured in the Peninsula war and, a hundred years before that, the War of The Spanish Succession The Tourist Office is housed inside but the town hall but it is the first tourist office I have ever visited where the staff (a bloke) doesn’t speak a word of English. Hey, we managed.

The old town is very compact and easily explored. It is in tremendous condition and kept very clean. Wandering the narrow streets and lanes is a delight.

To the north west of the Plaza Mayor, just moments away, the Calle de Julian Sanchez leads to a smaller but very pretty square, the 18th century Plaza Buen Alcade (the Good Mayor Square). You’ll likely cross it looking for the Cathedral. It’s surrounded by arcades and considerably quieter except on a Tuesday when it holds the weekly farmers market.

Another square to visit in this area is the Plaza de Conde which proved a very quiet square but, if you’re in to architecture, it contains three of the city’s most impressive mansions being the Palacio Alba da Yeltes (with it’s corner balcony), the Palacio de los Castros and the Palacio de Moctezuma (now a hotel).

And so to the 12th century cathedral of Santa Maria; built on the instructions of King Ferdinand II of Leon “as a testament to the return and ongoing presence of Christianity in the aftermath of Muslim rule”.

This cathedral has, quite literally, been through the wars. It still shows damage from when Wellington’s troops stormed the city and took it from the French (although at least one source claims it was French artillery which damaged the cathedral when first taking the city in 1810). I think the damage was caused by British artillery because the major breach in the city walls through which the British troops stormed on 19 January 1812 was just in front of the cathedral. No matter, the damage occured during the Spanish War for Independence and for that reason it has been left unrepaired. It’s not the original cathedral tower anyway. The original was lost in the 1755 Lisbon earthquake and replaced late in the 18th century.

A small fee provides access to the cathedral, it’s cloisters and the tower. For some reason the tower was closed during my visit; which is a shame because it supposedly affords a great view over the city. However, the inside of the church and the cloisters are impressive enough although the cloister garden would benefit from some tlc. It is a bit of a mess.

Alongside the cathedral and also worth a visit is the Chapel of Cerralbo; he who owned the Cueto House on the Plaza de Mayor. I am told the First Marquis of Cerralbo had the chapel built after it was decreed that his family could not be interred in the original cathedral but, I think maybe I was being spun a yarn.

I spent almost a full day wandering Ciudad Rodrigo and was amazed by this wonderful little city. There is so much to see and revel in. There was just enough time before dinner to revisit and walk part of the city walls and look out where the two breaches occured on the night of 19 January 1812.

Where we were staying (Camping La Pesquera) is to the south of the Aguera in what I have heard described as the worst part of the city. For my part, it is the best place to take a photo of the bridge and the castle (see below) and it is not as bad an area as you might think. It is a very poor neighbourhood but the locals are friendly. It is the feral dogs which are more of a problem. Two of the locals went out of their way to warn us about them.

Vanya wanted to join me in the town that evening but was deterred, first by a British biker who had been pursued by a small pack of local dogs and bitten earlier that day. Then, later, she was again warned about the dogs; this time by a local who had also been badly bitten and insisted on showing us the damage to his leg. Carry a big stick and a pocketful of rocks is my advice if you are visiting or staying south of the river. Otherwise, this is a great place to visit.

La Granja de San Ildefonso (Castile y Leon), Spain June 2024 (Tour 9)

We checked in to Penafiel for a couple of days but whilst there took time out to visit the village and Royal Palace of La Granja de San Ildefenso, just a few miles south east of Segovia.

During the Middle Ages, the whole area surrounding modern day La Granja was a favourite hunting ground of various Castilian Kings and particularly of the first Bourbon to rule Spain, King Philip V (a grandson of the French King Louis XIV). Philip V liked the area so much that he resolved to build a palace on the site of an old hunting lodge and, at an appropriate time, to abdicate in favour of his son and retire there. Construction of the Royal Palace of La Granja de San Ildefenso commenced in 1721 with the palace being very much modelled on the Palace at Versailles where he had been brought up. On 15 January 1724, after 23 years service as King of Spain, Philip V abdicated in favour of his son (Louis I of Spain) and retired to his new palace at La Granja.

That retirement didn’t last long. Within 7 months, Louis died of smallpox and Philip was forced to renounce his abdication and return as King of Spain. He served a further 22 years as King but reigned for the most part from his new palace. The village grew steadily during this period (as an increasing number of courtiers and servants moved to the area to better serve the King) and the Royal Palace of La Granja de San Ildefenso remained the Spanish Court’s primary summer palace until the Second Spanish Republic was formed in 1931.

The village of just under 3,000 people is pretty but expensive (it has become a major tourist resort attracting thousands of visitors each year mostly from Madrid, which is just 80 kilometres to the south, and Segovia). A raciones of tiny prawns in a local bar in La Granja cost 20 euros which, for Spain, is dear. 10 euros on the northern coast would get you a dozen large langoustines.

The Royal Palace is now a museum and I wasn’t particularly interested in spending time inside on such a fine day and so, instead, bought a 5 euro ticket to wander the gardens. Vanya chose to return to the Van with the dogs.

The palace and the palace gardens with their many fountains are something special although, not one of the fountains was working during my visit. Because of recent droughts and high energy costs, it is rare if ever that all the fountains in the palace are in operation at the same time but I must have been particularly unlucky not to see even one in operation. Almost all the fountains were cast in lead to limit corrosion and then painted over to simulate bronze. Working or not, they are spectacular.

Enough waffle. I’ll leave you with a few photos of the exterior of the palace and of course the palace gardens…

Very few flowers but impressive all the same.

Penafiel (Castile y Leon), Spain June 2024 (Tour 9)

This will be the easiest (and laziest) of posts. Just as well because I am about a week behind with the blog.

We have popped in on Penafiel en route to Portugal, where the weather is looking even better (for a day or two anyway). The weather across western Europe is absolutely crazy this year and very hard to predict. Most of France, as we have already described, has been wet for the last 6 months (very much like Brighton). There is currently massive flooding across both Germany (again) and northern Italy (where 3 people recently drowned in flash floods) and, now, the southern part of Castile y Leon in Spain is set to get wet weather. Portugal here we come.

I’ll not be writing anything about Penafiel town here. I covered it in a blog last year. We came this year for just two days (a) to catch up on our chores (cleaning the Van and our laundry) at one of the better campsites in Castile y Leon and (b) to visit La Granja de San Ildefenso (some 60-70 miles away) and (c) because it is en route to the north of Portugal. So, just a few photos of Camping Riberduero before I post the blog about La Granja and it’s Royal Palace.

Oh! There is one other thing I should mention about Penafiel. Last year we discovered a particularly fine wine here – a white Rueda made from the Verdejo grape variety. This year, Vanya found a fizzy version which she claims is far superior to any Cava she has had. Methinks we will be back here.

On to La Granja de San Ildefenso…

Briones (La Rioja), Spain June 2024 (Tour 9)

Surrounded by countless vineyards, Briones is a small medieval hilltop town on the Ebro river in La Rioja. It is yet another ‘Pueblo mas bonito de Espana’ and thoroughly deserving of the accolade. It is quintessential rural La Rioja

Our ascent to the top of the town was nowhere near as steep as it had been in Ujue and Nala coped admirably in her wheels. A small maze of narrow cobbled streets and lanes, lined by ochre coloured stone buildings, led us to the town’s main ‘square’, the triangular shaped Plaza de Espana. A few of the town’s more imposing buildings are to be found on or immediately adjacent to the plaza – a very large church (the Iglesia de Nuestra Senora de la Asuncion), the Palacio del Marques de San Nicolas (now being used as the town hall), the Palace of the Gadea family and, just off the plaza on Bergareche Street, the Palace of the Quincoces (where Henry II of Castile and Charles II of Navarre are said to have met to arrange the marriage of their children). There’s also the ubiquitous town fountain (this one is surrounded by old wooden wine barrels of every shape and size), a small general store and a couple of even smaller bars.

There was some activity in the square as we arrived but it wasn’t too busy. Some scaffolders were very slowly dismantling scaffolding from the recently sand blasted church (what remained of the scaffolding was going to ruin any decent photo opportunities there might have been of the exterior of the church – not that I’m any good at taking such pictures). Another man (a mechanic?) working on a car paused to ask us about Nala’s wheels (I think he wanted to impress us with his English – and he did). An older woman was carefully selecting fruit from a heavily laden tray outside the store and two other women were selling bric-a-brac from a market stall. There were also small groups of men sitting, drinking coffee and conversing loudly outside each of the two bars. We chose a table in the sunshine outside the quieter of the two bars and I unhooked Nala from her wheels while Vanya went off to order us drinks. She likes to practise her Spanish in Spain, you know?

The principal feature of the town square is the enormous 16th century Iglesia de Nuestra Senora de la Asuncion with it’s wonderfully ornate baroque tower (so reminiscent of the cathedral in Logrono). For a town with less than 800 people, it is unbelievably and, dare I say, unnecessarily large. I am not very religious but standing inside this mostly Gothic style church and looking up at the high ceiling with it’s thick supporting columns was almost overwhelming. There is a real majesty about the place. Add in the three sizeable naves, numerous chapels, a beautiful altarpiece and pipe organ and I defy anyone not to be impressed by the church. Put a coin in the donation box marked Organo and the church lights up and the organ starts playing. Fantastic.

Oh! And inside the church is a model of the town as it perhaps was in medieval times.

Saint John is the patron saint of Briones and so it seemed appropriate I look in on the 18th century hermitage in the town which is dedicated to him (Ermita de San Juan Carlos de los Remedios). I read that the hermitage is not often open to the public but for once I struck lucky…

Whilst looking for the hermitage I stumbled upon the remains of a small, medieval keep. A spiral metal staircase has been fitted inside it so as to afford views across the surrounding plain but, if I’m honest, the views don’t amount to much.

There was time enough to return to the plaza and enjoy a quick cup of coffee and some chocolate biscuits bought in the store and then it was on to our next port of call, Penafiel…

Logrono (La Rioja), Spain June 2024 (Tour 9)

So this was our 4th visit in the Van to Logrono. This will be a short post because (a) we were only there for the one night and (b) there’s not much more I can add to what I’ve written in previous blogs about our favourite city in Spain. Yes, Logrono remains our favourite city and this is largely due to the good food and wine and, most important, the wonderful reception we always seem to get from the locals, especially when on Calle del Laurel. This year was no different except that we seemed to attract a bit more attention with Nala in her wheels.

Once again we stayed at the Camping La Playa alongside the River Ebro. It is very convenient being so close to the city and the owners or managers do seem to have improved the place. Indeed, I was almost inclined to add this site to my list of recommended campsites because the showers have been much improved (unlimited hot water) and the staff at reception were far more welcoming than was previously the case (or so Vanya said – it was her who checked us in) but, no, we’ll wait until we’ve seen the site again in the high season. The site was very quiet this time around.

It being a Monday, Calle del Laurel was also very quiet. This suited us with Nala being on her wheels and, as has been said before, not having a great deal of spacial awareness. The pinchos were as good as ever.

One good piece of fortune this year. For the first time, I was able to gain access to the Iglesia de Santiago el Real on Barraciepo Street. I’ve passed the church at least twice during previous visits to the city and it was closed on both occasions. The current church building was erected in the 16th century after the original, very humble structure (dating back to when Constantine decreed Christians should no longer be persecuted) was destroyed by fire. It is said that Santiago (Saint James to you and me) preached in this area and that his disciple (Bishop) Arcadio built the original church in honour of him. I’ve no idea as to whether this is true or not but Logrono’s city fathers believed it and, as a consequence, the 16th century church building holds great significance to pilgrims travelling the French Camino.

The current exquisitely carved altarpiece in the church, which dates back to the 17th century, features Santiago on it’s first floor not once but twice; first on horseback and then again after his decapitation (the other carvings on the first floor of the altarpiece are of Saint Peter and Saint Paul). Santiago is also depicted on horseback above the main entrance to the church.

Of all the churches I have seen in Logrono (and that includes the cathedral), this is definitely my favourite. It is difficult to explain why I should say that because I have seen many more imposing and beautiful churches but this one felt, well… warm.

This was an unusually quiet and short stay in Logrono but; it was no less enjoyable and we did take time towards the end of the evening to simply sit and chill opposite the cathedral on Plaza del Mercado with a couple of glasses of fine wine. What’s not to like about that?

Tomorrow we plan to revisit Penafiel to the south (where it is even warmer) but, on the way, we will stop at the small medieval hilltop town of Briones.

Ujue (Navarra), Spain June 2024 (Tour 9)

Continuing south in pursuit of hot sun, we arrived late the next morning at the hilltop village of Ujue. Still part of Navarre, Ujue is a ‘Pueblo mas bonitos de Espana’ located a few miles to the north of the Bardenas Reales National Park (and the Park’s wide range of geological features including the Castildetierra Rock Mountain). We were never going to get to the Bardenas Reales this tour (Logrono always takes precedence with us) but, next time…?

We parked the Van at the northern entrance to the village, hitched Nala up to her wheels (she suffers from hip displacia and cannot walk/stumble more than a few yards without the wheels) and made our way up some fairly steep streets toward the top of the village.

Being a hill top village Ujue was always going to be a test for Nala but, she has coped admirably since we bought the wheels (managing up to five kilometres a day) but; we have to watch she doesn’t over extend herself. As it happened, she did really well. We bypassed a few steep staircases but she was happy to keep going until, near the top of the village on Plaza Mayor, we thought it best to rein her in and let her rest. The Villar Cafe-Bar is on this little square and we were all happy to pause for a drink. Thereafter, Vanya and I took turns to explore the rest of the village. On this occasion, Vanya was absent far longer than I was but, by her own admission, that was because she kept getting lost. For all the time she was away, I think she saw much less of the village than I did.

The hill top village is crowned with a gorgeous 11th century church, the Iglesia de Santa Maria. It’s the highlight of the village. An earlier 9th century church was demolished so that it could be erected. Walls and walkways were added during the 14th century by King Charles II of Navarre (aka Charles Malo or Charles the Bad) and these make for a most interesting building which became the principal place of worship in the area through the late Middle Ages to the 19th century.

Inside the church is a small chest which is said to contain the mummified heart of Charles the Bad. The rest of his body is interred in Pamplona Cathedral but he wanted his heart to rest in this particular sanctuary. I did some research on him and he was a most interesting and very colourful character, dying horribly in 1387 at the age of 54. Trust me, he is perfect material for a Netflix mini-series.

Ujue is one of the best preserved medieval villages in Navarre and it is a joy to wander. It’s a small stone village and it doesn’t take long to walk it all (unless you adopt Vanya’s approach and go round in circles). It has a couple of decent restaurants (or so I have read) where the speciality is migas al pastor. We didn’t have time to stay for dinner but I popped into the Meson las Torres restaurant, up by the church, and the views from the dining area are superb.

There was just time enough to look for a couple more photo opportunities before we drove on to Logrono in La Rioja. It’s very rare that we visit Spain and don’t stop off at Calle del Laurel (and the pinchos were calling).

Sunbilla (Navarra), Spain June 2024 (Tour 9)

With the weather in France showing no sign of improvement, we crossed into Spain and headed for a small campsite (Camping Ariztigain) just 15 miles or so over the border near Sunbilla. At 36 Euros for the night during low season, the campsite isn’t cheap by Spanish standards but, it proved value for money. The welcome was friendly; the facilities were all we required (bar/restaurant and copious hot water in the showers); Sunbilla is within easy walking distance; and the weather was warm and sunny.

I took a walk into Sunbilla before we took dinner at the restaurant. It’s a small mountain village and there isn’t much to see; especially with the local church, Iglesia de San Juan Batista, being locked up during my visit but I very much enjoyed my walk up the hills at the back of the village.

I didn’t get up above the tree line (I’m not sure these particular foothills of the Pyrenees are sufficiently high for that anyway) but there was plenty to keep me interested on the animal front including, a wild boar, a herd of wild goats, two Pyrenean Mountain dogs, a herd of Shetland ponies (or something similar) and numerous donkeys (including 3 quite adorable foals).

Despite the fact that there is not a great deal to do in this particular area, I would consider using the campsite again as a stopover. The best news is that the fine weather appears to be holding in Spain .