Sepulveda (Castile y Leon), Spain May 2023 (Tour 7)

The best day yet of Tour 7.

Today was about visiting the small town of Sepulveda and, if time and energy permitted, the nearby Ermita San Frutos in the Hoces Del Rio Duraton National Park. Both places were recommended by the owners of Camping Riberduero as ‘go to’ places in the area.

Hidden within the dramatic canyons of Las Hoces del Río Duratón National Park, Sepúlveda is one of the prettiest villages in the province of Segovia and another great find.

We entered Sepuldeva from the east and stopped in a sizeable car park just off Calle Alonso VI. I subsequently learned that the prettiest approach into the town is from the south along SG-232, which route takes you past the Mirador de Zuloaga and it’s grand view of of the town clinging to the side of a particularly deep canyon formed by the Rio Duraton. That might be worth remembering for the future.

From the car park we walked along Calle de Alfonso VI and through the main gate, El Puerto del Ecce Homo, (which is actually an arch with the alternative name of El Arco del Ecce Homo – Remember, this is Spain) into what I shall call the Upper Town. The Upper Town is mostly residential although, just inside the arch, there is a hotel and a museum (the Museo de Los Fueros) and towards the top of the town, almost at it’s highest point, there is a fine church (the Iglesia de la Virgen de la Pena or, in English, the Church of Our Lady of Pena). This church is perched at the very edge of the canyon and has spectacular views. It is also the starting point for a series of great walks but, more about those in a moment.

The entrance to the Upper Town, the Arco del Ecce Homo O Puerta del Azogue, sounds most grand but it is a very plain entrance into what was once the walled part of the town.

Vanya and I wandered around the Upper Town for a while before making our way to the Church of Our Lady of Pena. This church dates back to the 12th century but, for all that, it is not the oldest church in Sepuldeva. This particular honour goes to another not so attractive church in the Upper Town – the 11th century Church of El Salvador.

Iglesia de la Virgen de la Pena at the top of the town. The Canyon is directly behind the church.

Inside the Church and…

… outside the Church. I believe I have mentioned before that (figuratively and literally) Vanya is not into churches.

I digress slightly but, later in the day, some time after lunch and having escorted Vanya and the dogs back to the Van, I returned to the Upper Town and embarked on a final brief explore – walking on past the church, through the Puerta de la Fuerza and down into the canyon to the Rio Duraton. It was good exercise and made for a couple of reasonable photo opportunities.

Left: Looking back, above the canyon, to the Iglesia de la Virgen de la Pena Right: The route on through the Puerta de la Fuerza would take me down to…

… the Puente Picazos. It was a warm walk back up to the top of the canyon.

So, back to the town. Immediately after visiting the Church of Our Lady of Pena, Vanya and I returned through the Upper Town to the Arco del Ecce Homo and along Calle Barbacana to the main part of Sepulveda which I shall refer to as the Lower Town.

The Lower Town is where most of the action is and where the majority of the 1,000+ inhabitants live. Calle Barbacana leads to it’s centre, a couple of small squares (Plaza del Trigo and Plaza de Espana) where, as we arrived, a farmers market was just closing. We checked out the market and then tarried outside a bar on the square(s) under the Clock Tower and watched the stallholders slowly and silently pack away their unsold produce and depart. At midday or thereabouts, Sepulveda is one of those slow sleepy towns where it feels quite normal to build an appetite by simply lazing around over a cup of coffee and watching others go about their business.

The Clock Tower with, behind it, La Muralla de Sepulveda (part of the old fortress walls which used to separate the Upper Town from the Lower Town) and on the top right of the photo is the of the Church of El Salvador.

Having developed a healthy appetite we moved just around the corner to the pretty Calle Lope Tablada de Diego and at the restaurant El Figon de Ismael we were persuaded by the proprietor to try the local speciality, Cordero de Lechal – a nice little lamb dish she said.

The Calle Lope Tablada de Diego where we found the El Figon de Ismael Restaurant

On the left is the entrance to the El Figonde Ismael (with our hostess in the background) and on the right is the wine we enjoyed, a local Rueda. Now mark my words, we will all be hearing more about Rueda. Currently it is largely unknown outside of Spain but I suspect it will soon become very popular.

And there’s our food, the local lamb dish known as Cordero de Lechal and that’s the chef in the background.

One of the things I really like about the Spanish (and the French too) is their enthusiasm for good food. We British are obsessed with the weather and talk about it all the time, even to complete strangers. The Spanish and the French are much the same about food but “a nice little lamb dish”? There was nothing little about this particular meal. It could have fed four, not two, but having said that, this was slow cooked suckling lamb – melt in the mouth meat and crispy golden skin – and seriously good. We coped. Even Vanya who is not all that fond of meat, especially lamb, was impressed by the food. And the local Rueda was equally sound. Unfortunately, the Balbas Bodega would not be open until the next week or we’d have popped in on the way back to Penafiels and bought a few bottles.

And so it was that, after a great start to the day in Sepulveda and well fed, we made for the Ermita San Frutos (that’s Fructos in English); a long abandoned hermitage in the Hoces del Rio Duraton Natural Park. The hermitage is only about 10 miles from Sepuldeva but it is a slow 10 miles because much of the journey is along a bumpy dirt track road and the last kilometre has to be walked.

Honestly, if you’re ever in this part of Spain, you have to visit the ruin. The first sight you get of the hermitage is from a view point just a couple of hundred meters from the car park and it’s setting is truly spectacular. If you don’t fancy the walk to the ruin itself, you’ll not be disappointed with what you see from the view point.

Ermita San Frutos from the viewpoint. It’s an easy walk around to the hermitage but you will be watched, if not followed, by many Griffon Vultures. This area is home to the largest concentration of vultures in the world – 600 pairs.

San Frutos, Patron Saint of Segovia was born in the 7th century into a wealthy Visigothic family. When his parents died he and his brothers, Valentin and Engracia, distributed their inheritance amongst the poor and, seeking complete solitude, retired to separate caves in this area which is now part of the Hoces del Rio Duraton National Park.

Tradition holds that the three brothers remained in these caves for many years until the Moors invaded the area. Valentin and Engracia were caught and martyred by the Moors. Frutus survived his brothers but died of natural causes not long after at the age of 73. Legend has it that a number of locals, seeking to escape the Moors, made their way to where Frutos lived but were followed there by Moorish soldiers. Frutos drew a line in the earth and asked the soldiers not cross it. When the soldiers ignored him and crossed the line, the earth miraculously opened up and swallowed them. The Moors did not bother Frutos again.

The existing hermitage was built on top of a small church in 1076 and was occupied by Benedictine Monks through until 1836. To access it, you have to cross a narrow bridge which was built in 1757 over a large crack in the rock. It is said this crack, known by some as ‘La Cuchillada’ and by others as the ‘Slash of San Frutos’, is where the Moorish soldiers fell to their death.

Just after the bridge and in front of the entrance to the hermitage, forged on a stone pedestal, is a large iron cross with seven engraved keys that correspond to the seven gates of Sepulveda. This cross was raised to commemorate a great pilgrimage to the hermitage in 1900. 

I could have sat amongst the ruins of the hermitage for quite a while. It was so peaceful. One thing I couldn’t help but notice, however, was that some of the headstones in the small graveyard at the back of the hermitage look very new. Curious.

Of course, it is the natural splendour surrounding this place which takes the breath away. The views in every direction are wild and spectacular and I must therefore end this entry on Sepuldeva with a couple more photos of the countryside.

Cuellar (Castile y Leon), Spain May 2023 (Tour 7)

Today started with us once again taking the Van out for a trip, this time to Segovia which is one hours drive south of Penafiel. I’d researched the city some time before and it looked to be worth the journey… the Aqueduct, the Alcazar Fortress, the Cathedral, etc. All looked very interesting and then we arrived… and the place was crammed with tourists; busloads of them, hordes of people everywhere. We made my way through the city towards one of the larger car parks recommended in the Park4night App but by the time we arrived both Vanya and I had lost all interest in the place. We were almost relieved to find the car park overflowing and made a decision there and then to move on. And so it was that we came to Cuellar.

Cuellar is a town of a little less than 10,000 inhabitants as opposed to Segovia’s 50,000+. As we arrived and parked up, the town looked almost deserted. Okay, so it was early afternoon and, as I mentioned in my notes on Penafiel, this is ‘real’ Spain and very little happens during weekday siesta time in real Spain. We set off for a short explore and to get some lunch.

We entered old town Cuellar through the San Basilio Arch and immediately stumbled upon two of the town’s most prominent landmarks, the Castle (it’s more of a Palace) and the San Martin Church. Cuellar Castle was built early in the 13th century although most of the current structure dates from the 16th century when it was home to successive Dukes of Alburquerque. They lived in the castle for centuries until moving to Madrid. The French army occupied the castle during the Peninsular War and looted it as the Duke of Wellington’s army approached. Wellington himself stayed at the castle for a number of weeks, as did a French General before him – General Joseph Hugo – the father of the novelist Victor Hugo.

For a while the castle remained empty but in 1938 it was transformed into a prison for political prisoners by Spain’s then ruler, General Franco, and it remained a prison until 1966. Since then it has been beautifully restored by Spain’s Ministry of Fine Arts and is now a museum.

Cuellar Castle

Not far from the castle is the 12th century Church of San Martin. It isn’t the most remarkable of Cuellar’s churches (The Churches of San Esteban and San Andres are far more impressive) but San Martin is now home to the Mudejar Art Visitor Centre and inside there is a light and sound show about Mudejar Art and the Christian, Jewish and Arab cultures.

It took a while but we eventually found a small bar/cafe in the old town which was open (they take siesta time very seriously here in Cuellar). Sadly, it was one of very few places in Spain which do not admit dogs and we had to eat at a table outside. That wouldn’t ordinarily have troubled us but Cuellar sits at almost 900 metres above sea level and it was blowing a bit of a hooley at the time.

That settled it. It was time to make our way back to Penafiel and we were both agreed that in the morning we would talk to our hosts at the campsite as to where we should visit next. They got it so right with Pedraza.

Pedraza (Castile y Leon), Spain May 2023 (Tour 7)

Pedraza de la Sierra (to use the villages’s correct name) is to be found some 50 miles south of Penafiel in Segovia Province in the Region of Castile y Leon. It is one of Los Pueblos Mas Bonitos de Espana and it is one of the best kept secrets in Spain. The village was recommended to Vanya and I as a place to see by the owner of our campsite in Penafiel and we decided upon a day visit in the Van.

It’s a small fortress village (less than 400 inhabitants) with just one narrow entrance. All of it’s buildings date back many hundreds of years (there is not a single modern building in Pedraza) and it is considered to be the best preserved medieval village in the whole of Spain. You’ll get no pushback from me on that point.

It took us a little over an hour to get to Pedraza. We parked close to the village entrance at the Casa de Aguila Imperial (a learning centre, housed in the old Romanesque Church of San Miguel, which serves to promote and protect Imperial Eagles) and after a quick look around we made the short walk up to the village entrance (Puerta de la Villa).

The Puerta de la Villa is small and can admit only very small commercial vans.

Just inside the entrance to the village is La Carcel, a 13th century fortified tower which in the 16th century was converted into the local prison. It was used as a prison until near the end of the 19th century but is now a tourist attraction. For 4 Euros you can wander the gaol and get a sense as to what it must have been like to have been imprisoned there. To say it was cramped, primitive and inhuman is an understatement. In addition to the gaoler’s quarters and facilities (the only part of the building with any heating) there are two levels of dungeons; one for the most common criminals (male and female) and another (little more than a pitch black hole in the ground) for the ‘more problematic’ prisoners. There’s no doubt that the prisoners were subjected to all kinds of abuse given the stocks and shackles which can still be seen in the prison.

Left: La Carcel (to the right of the entrance to the town) Right: A prison visitor

Prison quarters (left for common criminals and right for problem prisoners)

After a good nosey around the prison, it took no time to walk Calle Real to the village’s main square (Plaza Mayor). The square is simply perfect; like a film set. Talking of which, the square and various street scenes in Pedraza featured prominently in Orson Welles favourite film ‘Chimes At Midnight’ (aka Falstaff) where Orson Welles played Shakespeare’s Sir John Falstaff.

This square is not as enclosed as the Plaza del Cozo in Penafiel but every bit as authentic (moreso actually) and this square too is adapted when required to hold bullfighting events.

I’ll not try to describe the square. Just take a look at the photos.

It looks hot on the Plaza Mayor but in May at 1,068 metres above sea level (that’s higher than most Munros), it was actually perfect weather.

All of the buildings on the square date back to at least the 16th century.

Originally a 12th century Romanesque church, much of the existing Church of St John the Baptist, on the south side of the Plaza Mayor, dates from the 16th century.

I think that must be the Ayuntamiento (the town hall).

The east side of the square with it’s two bars...

The only thing I would add regarding the square is; it should be mandatory to sit and enjoy a beer and the free tapas from one of the two bars there. We were lucky; we visited on a week day and the landlord and other locals in the bar were keen to engage with us. I’m not sure how it would be at weekends when, we were told, the place gets packed with tourists from Madrid.

… and there’s the entrance to the bar we chose and a pork tapas.

Two more views of the Church of St John the Baptist. The one on the left is from Calle Mayor which leads to the castle. The one on the right is from the Plaza del Alamo.

Having refreshed ourselves with a couple of beers and some tapas, we finished our visit with a walk through the village to the castle and then back through the Puerta de la Villa to the Van.

Pedraza’s Castle which was built in the 13th century but significantly altered during the 15th century. It is currently owned by the family of the Basque Country artist Ignacio Zuloaga. He renovated and lived in the castle until his death in 1945. The castle is now a museum / art gallery.

Typical street scenes in Pedraza…

… and that’s the way back through the Puerta de la Villa to the Van (and Penafiel).

One last note for the calendar. On the first and second Saturday of July every year, the village holds ‘La Noche de las Velas’. It’s a bit of a fiesta which sees the village lights extinguished for 24 hours and 55,000 candles lit in their place while the village celebrates life with a series of music concerts and flamenco dancing. You cannot just turn up for this celebration. Access is limited to 5,000 people who must apply online for tickets towards the end of May. Now that would be spectacular.

Penafiel (Castile y Leon), Spain May 2023 (Tour 7)

I don’t know how it was that Vanya picked out Penafiel as our next point of call but I’m glad she did. We parked at Camping Riberduero on the edge of Penafiel with a view to staying a couple of days and then stayed for four. With the help of the Dutch owners of the campsite (they were a mine of useful information) we were able to maximise our stay in Penafiel and enjoy much of the surrounding area (most especially Pedraza, Sepulveda and the Hoces del Rio Duraton National Park). We’d have stayed even longer except that we were already commited to being in La Rioja by the end of the week.

Penafiel is a fairly small rural town of some 5,000+ inhabitants in the Valladolid Province of Castile y Leon. Although renowned for it’s 10th century limestone castle and extensive winemaking traditions, Penafiel is well off the beaten track and, nowadays at least, not a popular tourist destination. It wasn’t always so (in Medieval times this was a major city with no less than 19 churches) but it’s current smaller size and the absence of tourists suits us down to the ground.

The unusually shaped Castillo de Penafiel dominates the town.

Building of the existing castle (Castillo de Penafiel) commenced in the 10th century on a cigar shaped rock which overlooks Penafiel and the Rivers Duero and Duraton. Since then the castle has been significantly remodelled, mostly during the 14th and 15th centuries, to resemble a white 150+ metre long German Gothic Style Battleship. My first thought was to check out the castle. It’s an easy walk up to and around the outside of the castle with not too much exposure. However, mine is clearly not the customary approach because, after clambering over the outside wall and in, I almost frightened the life out of a couple who were already there having used the road up.

Nowadays, the castle is home to the Provincial Wine Museum which offers castle tours and wine tasting sessions at very reasonable prices but they were not open for business as I arrived. In fact, very few places are open in Penafiel during siesta time which, during the week, stretches between noon and 4pm. This is real Spain.

There are actually two lines of castle walls. I was able to climb the outer wall only.

It was an interesting walk both to and from the castle. The approach to the castle from the campsite leads across the Puenta de la Leona to the Plaza de Espana and it’s church, the Iglesia Santa Maria. It continues past the Torre del Reloj (the Clock Tower), which is all that remains of the old Romanesque Church of San Esteban, and then up the hill to the outer walls of the castle. This town side of the hill is dotted with what appear to be large chimneys. These are actually ventilation shafts for the many underground wine cellars in the area. The town is full of large excavated caves where wine used to be stored (and perhaps still is) because of the constant temperatures they keep throughout the year. If not properly ventilated these caves would fill with the poisonous gases which arise during the fermentation process.

Penafiel is located slap bang in the middle of Spain’s second largest wine producing region, the Ribera del Duero, where the focus is on producing quality red wines using the Tempranillo grape. Tempranillo is a relatively hardy grape which is better able to withstand the more extreme climates of the high altitude vineyards to be found in this area – long cold winters and hot dry summers. The better approved wines here are invariably 100% Tempranillo with Crianza wines requiring a minimum 24 months aging of which one year must be in an oak barrel; Reserva wines requiring a minimum 36 months aging with one year in a barrel and; Gran Reserva wines requiring at least 5 years aging of which two years must be in oak barrels.

Left: That’s the Clock Tower in the background with a ventilation shaft in the foreground. Right: Several more ventilation shafts fill the hillside.

I returned to town using the castle road, pausing for a glass of wine on the way, and then it was back to exploring. My focus during what remained of the day was towards the Dominican Monastery of Saint Paul (Convento San Pablo) and the elusive but wonderful Plaza del Coso.

I came across the Convento San Pablo first. This Dominican Monastery was built as a fortress in the 13th century but converted into a monastery some time during the 14th century. From the outside the monastery is a strange looking and not very attractive building, an unusual mixture of stone and brick. On the inside, it is something else…

Convento San Pablo – a not particularly attractive mixture of stone and brick although, to be fair some of the Mudejar architecture which was added to the original structure is appealing.

A simple enough entance and central nave

… but with a quite stunning Spanish Renaissance chapel built in 1536

Inside the monastery there is an impressive cloister area but otherwise all is rather simple by Roman Catholic standards… until you see the 16th century funerary chapel of the Infante Don Juan Manuel, Lord of Panafiel. Beautiful.

It took me a while to find the Plaza del Coso. There are just two entances to this large rectangle which is almost wholly enclosed by private houses – a single vehicle entrance from the north and a small gated pedestrian access from the south. I could be forgiven for not immediately recognising the pedestrian access because the gate (which looks like nothing other than the entrance to a garage) was closed. No matter, I persevered and eventually found my way on to the Plaza.

The Plaza is special. Except for the two entrances already mentioned, it is entirely surrounded by three or four storey medieval houses almost all of which have beautiful wooden balconies stretching the whole length of the building on every floor above ground level. These balconies are converted during the Fiestas de Nuestra Senora and San Roque (and at any other time when the situation requires it) into boxes from which those with viewing rights can watch the local bullfights… because this Plaza doubles as a bullring.

Talking of viewing rights, I should explain that since Middle Ages to this day the town council in Penafiel has the right to auction off any room with a window or balcony overlooking the bullring to the highest bidders for the period of the bullfights. Amazing but true.

The first photo of the large rectangle which is the Plaza del Coso (taken from up on high) is clearly not mine but the others are. The second photo is of the single road in the town which leads into the Plaza.

This first photo shows the pedestrian access to the Plaza. As I arrived, workers had just finished installing the wooden bullring which is erected as and when the townsfolk require. We learned later in the day that a festival was planned for the weekend which would include bull-running.

That’s how the Plaza looked like as I walked across it. You can tell it was siesta time.

I’m not into bullfighting unless it be limited to the type that is practised in Provence, where the bull is not harmed – see Saint Remy de Provence blog from May 2023. In Provence, brave athletic ‘rasateurs’ compete against each other, using skill and agility, to collect as many ribbons as possible in as short a time as possible from between the bull’s horns (without getting hurt). Having said that, I think I would have enjoyed attending the bull-running in Penafiel which was scheduled for the following Saturday.

Miranda de Ebro (Castile y Leon), Spain September 2022 (Tour 6)

Vanya found a very interesting boutique hotel in the small village of Cuzcurrita de Rio Tiron in La Rioja Region. We decided to treat ourselves there but, on the way, stopped off for lunch in Miranda de Ebro. Miranda de Ebro is the place with which Haro started the wine fight all those years ago (see earlier Haro blog).

It is a now large industrial city (chemicals) on the banks of the River Ebro with a population of 40,000+. In the limited time available to us (we were both keen to get to Cuzcurrita) we were never going to get to see much of the place and so settled for a short walk around the old town and lunch on the main square.

A rock band were playing a mix of their own music and some Rock & Roll classics as we arrived.

We stayed long enough for a light lunch, a brief stroll around the (small) old town and then it was back across the Carlos III Bridge to the Van. Cuzcurrita de Rio Tiron beckoned.

Puebla de Sanabria – La Fiesta “Virgen de las Victorias” (Castile y Leon), Spain September 2022 (Tour 6)

We were committed to spending a couple of days in Puebla de Sanabria (after which we would go on to Braganza in Portugal) but, when we saw that a three day local festival of the “Virgen de las Victorias” was about to take place (and that it comprised parades, feasts, fireworks, dancing, giants and bigheads), we decided to stay on a full seven days. Braganza will be there next year and the longer stay would give us the opportunity to properly enjoy Puebla de Sanabria and it’s fiesta (to use the local term) and the surrounding area (particularly the Lago de Sanabria, Ribadelago and the small town of Puerte de Sanabria).

Most of what we saw of the fiesta lends itself more to video than photographs and, while I will one day get around to producing a video, I’ll only include photos in this (early) blog. The video can follow.

The Fiesta wasn’t officially scheduled to commence until the Wednesday but we had enjoyed music up on the Plaza Mayor the previous two evenings and we were there again for the Tuesday night just in case something happened – it did. A string ensemble, a quintet, started warming up on the square in front of the Church of Our Lady of Azogue where the evening Mass was coming to an end…

… Upon a signal from inside the church, the ensemble ceased warming up and proceeded into the church. Along with others who had been waiting on the square, I followed them and watched and listened as they made their way to the front and serenaded the Virgen de las Victorias at the front of the church.

The priest concluded his mass and the ensemble led the congregation back out onto the square where they entertained us for the next 90 minutes or so with what I can only describe as “regional” musical. I confess, the only songs I recognised were “Viva La Espana” and “Guantanamera” but everyone else seemed to know them because a fair portion of the crowd joined in with the singing and some were dancing. The evening continued with a disco and a rock band sharing the temporary stage which had been set up to one side of the Plaza until about 4am but we were back in bed long before then.

The next evening we found just a handful of people up at the Plaza Mayor. They were listening to some kind of stage production, a pantomime of sorts (judging by the audience reaction) which neither Vanya nor I could follow very well but; it didn’t last long and after a couple of drinks at one of the two temporary bars which had been set up on the square we made our way back down through the old part of the village. The streets were totally empty. The lull before the storm?

Suddenly, at about 11.15pm, just as we were thinking of making our way back to the Van; it all started to happen. People started congregating at the foot of the old ‘town’, some musicians amongst them; wind instruments mostly. A brass band formed and started to play amid the burgeoning crowd. Colourful smoke flares were lit from amongst the crowd and then, almost simultaneously, from somewhere behind the crowd rockets were fired into the night sky. The resulting loud blasts of the fireworks started the band up the hill towards the main square. The crowd followed eagerly.

A large crowd had already formed on Plaza Mayor as we arrived; it’s focus directed towards the verandah above the Ayumiento. Speeches were made by various dignitaries and the crowd cheered appreciatively. These were the people bank-rolling what would prove to be a very expensive fiesta and, in hindsight, they deserved all the applause they got. The speeches concluded, the organisers chose a Festival Queen from among a number of hopefuls (with the losers being appointed ‘Ladies In Waiting’ – we would see more of them later in the week) and La Fiesta de la Virgen de las Victorias 2022 was officially declared open. A disco followed which again went on well into the early hours.

At about noon the next day there was a parade of Giants. There were 10 of them and they came down from the Calle Rua to what I consider is the physical centre of the town (i.e. where Calle Braganza meets Calle De La Pena Letrero, close to where our favourite cafe bars are located). They were escorted by 33 Big Heads. Anyone interested in learning more about Giants and the Big Heads should head for the village’s Museum of Giants and Big Heads on Calle de San Bernardo.

I don’t understand the significance of the Giants and the Big Heads to the Fiesta de la Virgen de las Victorias but I did notice that two of the Giants were standing in the church the previous evening while La Virgen was being serenaded.

No matter, the Giants danced their way down Calle Rua to the centre of the town attended by the Big Heads and to the musical accompaniment of a Hawaiian Brass Band. I kid you not! Puebla de Sanabria sits at almost 1,000 metres above sea level and, when the sun is not shining at that height, you can feel the cold but; there was this Brass Band with all the musicians dressed in short sleeved Hawaiian shirts. Okay so one or two of them were wearing thermals under their shirts.

The Giants, Big Heads and Hawaiian Brass Band regrouped in the ‘centre of the town’ outside the Cafe Bar Espana and then made their way down the Calle De La Pena Latrero and across the bridge to the newer part of the village. There, down by the Rio Tera, they joined an afternoon disco and picnic (with food provided by the town) and, again, the music went on well into the night.

The second full day of the Fiesta started with La Virgen being conveyed through the old town on a litter. Women of the town carried her down Calle Rua from the church and, later, men returned her to the church.

This particular procession was preceded by pomp and circumstance with village dignitaries leading the way accompanied by the dancing giants and the bigheads. Then came the Virgen on her litter and she was followed by the Festival Queen and her Ladies in Waiting. The music was provided by another Brass Band, this one populated almost entirely by children. Half the town brought up the rear of the procession, many wearing traditional dress and all looking very smart. The other half of the town was watching on, clapping and cheering and shouting encouragement to their friends in the procession. The fiesta was well and truly under way and the rising expectation of the crowd was almost palpable.

At this stage of the proceedings we left the village to explore the surrounding area but we too were getting increasingly excited and looking forward to the evening’s firework display and especially the next day’s ‘Running of the Fire Bulls’.

According to the Fiesta programme, much of the afternoon and evening were to be given over to children’s events and Vanya and I again took the opportunity to explore the surrounding area. We were however back in time for a bottle or two of Albarino at one of the two bars on Plaza Mayor before the fireworks display started shortly after midnight.

The fireworks display was to be run from down by the river, close to where the previous day’s disco picnic took place and; we concluded that the best views would be from up at the castle or from the town bridge or from the Camping Quijote site. We chose the latter because it was further away and would not be so noisy – we were thinking of the dogs, neither of which are comfortable with fireworks. In fact, I took the dogs back to the Van and sat with them through most of the display. The video footage of the fireworks is all Vanya’s (and pretty good it is too). The display lasted about 25 minutes and you can tell from the video that it was wholly spectacular.

Our final day of the Fiesta was it’s third day, the Friday (we decided we couldn’t hang around for Saturday’s closing ceremony) and what a day that proved to be. The Running of The Firebulls was 60 minutes of total, wonderful, madness and once again we were in a prime position to witness it. We spent most of the early part of the evening in the centre of the town at the Taberna Las Animas and it became obvious to us that most of the action would take place in that vicinity and; so it did. I’ll let the video do the talking…

(Video of the Firework Display and The Running Of The Firebulls will follow)

We had been warned by some locals that this particular event would be too much for the dogs and this warning was echoed by video footage on Youtube of the 2020 running of the bulls. Vanya took the dogs back to the Van just as it started, leaving me to video the event. I’ll not say anymore except that it far surpassed anything I expected. It was fantastic and I’m certain my video footage does not do it justice.

A rock band and disco picked up where the Running of The Firebulls left off (back up on Plaza Mayor) and it was still going when I arose at 6am to walk Nala.

Lago de Sanabria (Castile y Leon), Spain September 2022 (Tour 6)

One place we both wanted to visit in this part of Spain was the nearby Lago de Sanabria. With a surface area of some 320 hectares and up to 50 metres deep this is one of the Iberian Peninsula’s largest lakes and it is wholly natural; in fact, it is a glacial lake. It sits inside what is one of the most beautiful parks in Spain (Sanabria Lake Natural Park) which, with it’s mountains, valleys, forests, fields, lagoons, rivers, gorges and waterfalls is a hillwalker’s paradise.

I read that the Park is home to 142 species of birds, including golden eagles, honey buzzards, Peregrine falcons, eagle owls and numerous species of vulture. So far as mammals are concerned, the Park contains at least 41 recognised species including the elusive Pyrenean desman. The area is also renowned for having large packs of wild wolves which live in the Sierra de la Culebra mountain range.

The Pyrenean Desman. It will just about fit into your hand. This is not one of my photos (as if you needed telling)

We visited the Park three times during our stay in Puebla de Sanabria, also taking in the Park’s Visitors Centre and two other local villages (Puerte de Sanabria and Ribadelago). Vanya even took a boat trip on the lake while I managed to get a short hike in on one of the many trails through the Park.

The first village we visited was Ribadelago, which is more of a hamlet than a village. There are actually two hamlets being, Old Ribadelago and New Ribadelago. I parked up at the edge of Old Ribadelago and followed a well marked trail up by the River Dera into the mountains. It is beautiful countryside with breathtaking views and I could have stayed out hours except I didn’t have the right gear for an extended hike and I had no way of letting Vanya know where I was.

The second village we visited was Puerte de Sanabria. We had previously passed through Puerte de Sanabria on the way to Ribadelago and the Lago de Sanabria. We had seen that the Park’s Visitor Centre is located just outside of Puerte de Sanabria and thought to visit it and learn a little more about the area. It wasn’t quite what we expected (Vanya was expecting an otter sanctuary but there was not a single otter to be seen – you would understand Vanya’s confusion if you saw the entrance to the place – large billboards covered with photographs of otters, statues of otters, pictures of otters on the tickets, etc) but, no matter, the entrance fee was just 1 Euro each and it proved excellent value for money. It was very informative and I learned all I needed to know about the history of the Park and it’s flora and fauna.

In an annex to the Visitor’s Centre I learned too a little about Ribadelago and, in particular, the tragic events of 9 January 1959. In the very early hours of the morning that day, a section of the Vega de Tera Dam (some 5 miles upstream of what is now known as Old Ribadelago) failed. A retaining wall burst and a 34 metre high flood smashed into the village. 144 of the village’s 664 residents (together with some 1,500 domesticated animals) were killed in the flood and only a handful of bodies were subsequently recovered from the lake further downstream. Most of the survivors subsequently left the area but a few moved to the higher ground which became New Ribadelago.

The aftermath of this tragedy was captured so very vividly in a number of photographs on display in the Visitor Centre annex. I don’t know who the photographer was but I don’t recall ever being so moved by photographs…

Puebla de Sanabria (Castile y Leon), Spain September 2022 (Tour 6)

I’d previously read about how pretty the village of Puebla de Sanabria is and, after Salamanca, we decided to go there for a day or two of rest and to catch up on the blog. As it happened, even after seven days in Puebla de Sanabria I had made no further progress with the blog and we were in even more need of rest.

We arrived just a couple of days short of the village’s fiesta of La Vergen de las Victorias and within hours resolved to stay on for the duration of the fiesta and it was some fiesta! To keep this blog manageable I’ll write it in three parts; the first will focus on the village alone; the second will describe the fiesta and the third will focus on the surrounding area (Ribadelago and the Lago de Sanabria).

And so to Puebla de Sanabria. It is a fairly large village of almost 1,500 people in Castille y Leon’s province of Zamora. Does that many people make it a town? It sits at the confluence of the Rivers Tera and Castro almost 1,000 metres above sea level not far from the Portuguese border (Braganca is just an hours drive away) and the Camino Sanabria passes through the village on it’s way to Santiago de Compostela. Perhaps most telling, the village is included in the list of Los Pueblos Mas Bonitos de Espana and it fully deserves to be there.

The village is divided in two by the River Tera with the old medieval part being built around a hill to the west of the river and the newer part being to the east. We very much preferred the old town. It was convenient for us too because the municipal campsite where we parked the Van is also to the west of the river.

More often than not, my approach when exploring a new place is to head for the highest point (whether it be a hill or a building) and then work down. That system worked perfectly in Puebla de Sanabria because the village’s highest point is it’s castle and the most direct route to the castle is via the largely pedestrianised main street, Calle Rua.

Calle Rua leads directly up to the Plaza Mayor where the village’s three principal buildings stand; the Ayuntamiento (the Town Hall), the 12th century Church of Nuestra Senora del Azogue and the 15th century castle, the Castle of the Counts of Bonavente. The castle is just behind the church.

I’ll not bore you with a lengthy description of the old part of the village. I couldn’t do it justice anyway. It will suffice to say that it ranks amongst the prettiest and best preserved (or restored) medieval villages I have seen. It’s easy to find your way around too. There’s a walkway to the east side of the village which runs parallel with Calle Rua and the Hotel Rural Guaza has a pretty little terrace on this walkway which provides great views down over the River Tera and towards the newer part of the village. On the other side of Calle Rua and again running parallel to it (but not it’s full length) are the two very pretty streets of Calle San Bernardo and Calle Florida. The tiny four star boutique hotel ‘Las Treixas’ is on Calle Florida.

The villages’s castle, the Castle of the Counts of Benavente, is particularly interesting and well worth the entrance fee. It is remarkably well conserved even by this village’s standards. The entrance fee allows access to almost the whole castle, including various exhibition rooms and the battlements from which there are great views over the town and the surrounding countryside.

Eating and drinking in Puebla de Sanabria was fun throughout. We tried one of the restaurants and the food was okay but we much preferred the pinchos (this is Castila y Leon and they don’t use the ‘tapas’ word here) in places like the Cafe Bar Espana, La Male Madre and Taberna Las Animas. Not only were the pinchos good (and very cheap) but the friendliness of the locals in these bars was unmatched anywhere we have been in Spain.

The crab pinchos in Cafe Bar Espana perhaps deserve a special mention.

Nights in Puebla de Sanabria were generally raucous affairs because the fiesta was in full swing during most of our stay but I did manage to take a few quiet photos early during our stay…

… and so to the fiesta…

Salamanca (Castile y Leon), Spain September 2022 (Tour 6)

The hot weather which troubled the dogs was expected to return to the coastal areas and so we decided to move inland, south to Salamanca. Salamanca is more than 900 metres above sea level and we expected it to be cooler.

The drive through the Cantabrian mountains and the beautiful Las Ubinas La Mesa Park was pleasant. The motorway was quiet and easy and the views were great.

We were keen to see Salamanca at night and so, shortly after checking in at Camping Don Quijote on the outskirts of Salamanca, we drove our Van the 7 kms or so into the city and parked up near the Roman Bridge on the edge of the old town. This lengthy wholly pedestianised bridge is estimated to have been built in the 1st century AD but I suspect little of the original bridge remains.

The entire old town of Salamanca (often referred to as La Dorado, the Golden City, because of the tone created by the setting sun on it’s yellow sandstone buildings) was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1988 and it is recognised as one of the oldest and best preserved cities in Spain.

My reaction after crossing the River Tormes and entering the old town by the Roman Bridge was one of increasing excitement. Few cities have had such an immediate effect on me. The old town is a compact forest of spires and none are more impressive than those of the two cathedrals. Yes, there are two cathedrals in Salamanca; an Old Cathedral which was put together between the 12th and 14th centuries and a New Cathedral which was built alongside the original cathedral between the 16th and 18th centuries. Believe it or not there are actually 6 cities in Spain with two cathedrals.

Vanya has never been into churches (I mean that both figuratively and literally) and she waited outside the entrance with the dogs on the Plaza de Ayana while I had a quick look. I didn’t stay long; it would have been unfair to leave everyone waiting outside for the time it would take me to properly view the cathedrals but, I promised to return the next day for a better look.

We were particularly keen to see the main square (Plaza Mayor) at night and the evening was closing in on us but we took time to eat at a small tapas bar on Calle Rua Major; which street almost connects the cathedrals with Plaza Mayor.

Plaza Mayor is to most visitors the main attraction in Salamanca, especially when seen at night. It is spectacular at any time of the day with all it’s baroque buildings and porticos but, when lit up it is truly stunning. Photos simply don’t do the place justice; you have to see it.

In case you are interested, there are 88 porticos on the square (although it is actually more of a rectangle than a square) and what sets the porticos apart from those on squares in other large cities in Spain are the stone medallions set at the top of each one. They commemorate famous people who have in some way, shape or form helped benefit Salamanca. There are very few foreigners among them but two that stand out are Christopher Columbus (he who opened up the Americas on behalf of Spain) and our very own Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington who defeated Napoleon’s army under Marmont at the 1812 Battle of Salamanca.

September is fiesta time in many Spanish towns and a temporary stage had been set up in the square in readiness for some concerts next week.

Salamanca is one of Spain’s best cities for decent pinchos (pinchos not tapas because this is still Castilla y Leon) and the Plaza Mayor is an okay (albeit quite expensive) place to enjoy pinchos but; the better, more traditional scene is on Calle Van Dyck just outside the city centre. It will have to be good there to compare with Logrono but we will not find out until our next visit to Salamanca because we were already booked into a supposedly very good restaurant at the campsite for the next evening.

After savouring the mood in the Plaza Mayor for a short while we started back through the old town to our Van; both of us having very much enjoyed our brief excursion into the city. There’s no doubt Salamanca is very pretty and literally stuffed with interesting buildings but the one which most caught our attention on the way back was the Casa Lis. It was built early in the 20th century as a home for a certain Miguel Lis. I cannot tell you anything about him except that his taste was clearly ahead of his time and he was a great fan of stained glass. It is now an art-deco museum and well worth a visit if only to see inside. I love the house and I’m already thinking that two days and nights in Salamanca is insufficient.

Tucked just behind the Casa Lis is the ‘Cave of Salamanca’ which is actually the former crypt of the church of San Cebrian. This church was demolished some time in the 14th century. Legend has it that the devil subsequently taught black magic in this cave. Indeed, in many parts of South America, Salamanca has long been associated with black magic and witchcraft and it may be this legend that gave rise to that belief.

I returned to Salamanca the next day on a local bus – just 1.40 euros for a 20 minute journey to the northern end of Calle Gran Via. Cheap or what!?!

I came primarily to visit the city’s cathedrals but began with a circuitous walk around the city’s old town, marvelling at so many buildings as I did so. Whether they be public buildings like the Convent of San Esteban (a Dominican Church and Convent) or private mansions such as some of those pictured in this blog, they all look magnificent. Moreover, there are plenty of them to see and in such a small area.

And so to the cathedrals. I wandered inside the pair of them for almost two hours using an English Audio Guide and was enthralled by what I saw and heard.

Before entering the cathedrals, however, it is worth taking time to admire the front entrance. There are a couple of interesting features to be seen which are believed to be the work of the stonemason Miguel Romero. When restoring the front entrance in 1992 it is said he decided to follow a tradition which required that any restorations should include an element referring to the time or year of their improvement. He therefore made two additions being an astronaut and a dragon eating an ice cream. I wonder how many of these I have missed in the past. They’re not easy to spot.

Inside the New Cathedral there are three naves. Those to the left and right of the centre nave contain numerous chaples, each of which is explained in the Audio Guide. The ones that stood out for me include the Sepulcros de La Puerta de Ramos, the Capilla de la Soledad and the Capilla del Santo Cristo de las Batallas. The Guide also explained the intricately carved Choir Area in some considerable detail (the Choir Area sits in the central nave) but it is the cathedral’s long thin pillars and ceilings that most impress. The pillars, vaulted ceilings and 80 metres high dome are simply unbelievable.

Except on special occassions, access to the Old Cathedral is through the New Cathedral. Dedicated to Santa Maria de la Sede, the Old Cathedral is considered less grand than the New Cathedral but for me, for various reasons, it is equally impressive. The star of the show in the Old Cathedral is the beautiful 15th century altarpiece with 53 painted panels but I also liked the relative simplicity of Capilla de San Martin (St Martin’s Chapel) with it’s 12th century painted walls and I especially liked the cloisters and the Capilla de Santa Barbara.

Unfortunately I missed out on what is known as the Ieronimus Tour. Climbing the Ieronimus Tower provides access to the higher levels of the cathedrals (i.e. to the upper levels inside the New Cathedral and up on to some external terraces and towers where you can walk among the pinnacles, gargoyles, etc) and offers birds eye views both inside the cathedral and across the city. I’d return to Salamanca for this tour alone. Access is from the southwest tower of the Old Cathedral on Plaza Juan XXIII.

Having missed out on the Ieronimus Tour I went instead up into the bell towers of ‘La Clerecia’, sometimes called the Scala Coeli (Latin for Stairway to Heaven), for it’s views. This prominent early 17th century church, once called the Royal College of the Company of Jesus, is now the headquarters of the Salamanca Pontificia University. It sits alongside another celebrated Salamanca building, the Casa de las Conchas (House of Shells), a 16th century Gothic Palace which is now the City Library. The Casa de las Conchas is so named because it’s facade is adorned with 300+ stone carvings of scallop shells. Both buildings are well worth a visit; La Clerica for it’s views towards the cathedrals and across the city’s roof tops and La Casa de las Conchas for it’s amazing inner courtyard.

Given that Salamanca has long been recognised as a major seat of learning (particularly between the 13th and 16th centuries) and it’s campus fills the greater part of the old town, I should mention the University of Salamanca. It was founded in 1134 and is the oldest university in Spain and the 3rd oldest in Europe after Bologna and then Oxford. Some books identify Salamanca as being the 4th oldest university in Europe but it is the 3rd oldest surviving university.

It’s time to talk about food, the good and the not so good. First the not so good. While checking out the cathedrals I stopped for a beer and was given free pinchos. It wasn’t that nice. I subsequently discovered it was pig’s snout. Ugh!

On a brighter note, we had reserved a table in the very popular campsite restaurant and their food and wine (Albarino) proved very good. Their cheese board included a soft blue cheese (Musgo de Cabra) which was outstanding.

Our stay in Salamanca was all too brief. I could easily spend 3 or 4 days in the old town alone but there is also much to see outside the city. Leaving aside the pretty and interesting towns of Segovia and Avila (especially the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Avila) there is the wine producing area around Valladolid and the dazzling nature park of Arribes del Duero. This place begs at least a long weekend in a hotel.

Hontanas (Castile y Leon), Spain August 2022 (Tour 6)

We weren’t planning on visiting Hontanas until our friends Chris and Shannon mentioned that it is close to Castrojeriz and one of their favourite places on the Camino Santiago (France). That was a good enough for us to make the short detour on our way to Candas in Asturia and we were both very pleased we did so.

Hontanas is a tiny village with a population of less than 100 people but it is very pretty and it does seem to be very popular with those walking the Camino. The village’s church (La Iglesia de Nuestra Senora de la Concepcion, which used to be known simply as the Church of Santa Maria) is referenced in a number of blogs. In addition to the church the village has a number of albergues (one of which is almost a small hotel), a bar and, surprisingly, a small swimming pool. We couldn’t find a shop of any description.

… and the very unusual inside of the church. There’s just one Mass here a week with the priest sharing his time across a number of churches

From Hontanas we made our way to Leon (we needed a decent supermarket) and then up past the Embalse de los Barrios de Luna to the coast. We were looking to stay at the small fishing town of Candas for a few days R&R but, meanwhile thanks to Chris & Shannon for the tip regarding Hontanas.