Sajazarra (La Rioja), Spain September 2022 (Tour 6)

While staying over in Cuzcarrita we took the Van out to explore the nearby village of Sajazarra (a Pueblo Mas Bonitos de Espana). We also revisited Haro for another wine tasting session organised and paid for by our hotel but that is another story.

Sajazzara is small but pretty fortified village just 4 miles north of Cuzcarrita. It has a 13th century church and and a 15th century castle (which is not unlike the castle in Cuzcarrita but it too has been converted into a private residence and is no longer accessible to the public). The village has less than 150 inhabitants and that number is declining. The reality is that these small villages no longer provide sufficient employment opportunities for the young and so they move to the cities for work and rarely return. If they do return, it is often to sell the home left to them by their parents. A surprisingly high number of properties were up for sale in the village during our visit.

A primary reason for our visiting Sajazarra was because it has a restaurant, the Asador Ochavo, which was recommended by the owner of our hotel as a place to get a reasonable meal. It isn’t as highly regarded as the restaurant in Cuzcarrita but at least it remains open out of season.

The Asador Ochavo…
This is a stock photo taken from the restaurant’s website. The place was very busy as we arrived and we had a bit of wait before getting a table…

Vanya didn’t eat but I knew we wouldn’t be getting much in the line of hot food back in Cuzcarrita and so I tucked into Grilled Morcilla (blood sausage not unlike black pudding) and Chorizo with a Spicy Salsa as a starter (jolly good it was too) followed by the biggest slab of Roast Lamb I have ever had. Not bad at all.

There’s no doubt we will return to this region of Spain. We have seen quite a bit of La Rioja this trip and small towns and villages like Cuzcarrita and Sajazarra have whet our appetites for more… and, of course, the wine doesn’t get much better.

Lierganes (Cantabria), Spain September 2022 (Tour 6)

Having chilled for two days at Candas we decided to return to France (just for a week or so) because (a) the weather looked as if it would be better there for the next week (rain being forecast across almost all of Northern Spain) and (b) Vanya wanted to stock up with more Cremant. We had just enough time before the weather changed to visit a couple of places in Cantabria and we settled on first Lierganes and then somewhere in the Valles Pasiegos, probably San Roque de Riomiera.

Liérganes, which has been recognised as ‘Uno de los Pueblos Mas Bonitos de Espana’ since 2016, sits on the Rio Miera at the foot of the two small hills of Marimón and Cotillamón. I picked it out as a place to stop because I had read that it was one of the pretty little towns of Spain and so it proved to be. It is a small quaint village and we paused there for both breakfast and lunch.

A word of warning before I continue – Don’t be tempted to buy the local delicacy known as ‘Chocolate with Churros’. You’ll see it advertised everywhere. I’m not sure what we were expecting when we ordered them but it certainly wasn’t that which arrived at our table – a cup of hot cocolate and a few doughnut sticks! I’ll let you know.

Lierganes is perhaps most famous for having been the home of the legendary “Fishman of Lierganes”. The legend goes that in 1674, a young man from Lierganes by the name of Francisco de la Vega Casar, who was working in Santander at the time, went swimming with friends in the Bay of Biscay. He was an excellent swimmer but the current caught him and he was sucked out to sea. Five years later near Cadiz on totally the other side of Spain a man was found in the sea with what looked like fish scales on his chest and back. He was half out of his mind and unable to talk except for one word -‘Lierganes’. Someone recognised that word as the name of a town in Cantabria and he was brought back to the town but, when a few kilometres away, he was told to lead the way. It seems he made his way directly to a house where his mother and three brothers lived and, even after 5 years, they all recognised him. The Fishman was left to live with his family although, he kept an odd lifestyle. He kept to himself, rarely wore any clothes, had strange eating habits (sometimes going a week without eating any food) and he never recovered the ability to speak more than a handful of words. One day, after nine years back in the village, he returned to the coast for a swim and was never seen again.

I read that Lierganes is “tucked away in a lush green valley”. I couldn’t agree more. Even after the recent drought and with the Rio Miera almost dried up, you can see from the photos below how green the area remains…

Any visitor to Lierganes will be impressed by the “Donkey Tail Cactus” which is grown throughout the town. The originals would have been brought back from Mexico many years ago but they seem to have taken to the Cantabrian climate. They are everywhere. Now I have to figure out how to stop Vanya buying any?

We enjoyed our brief visit to Lierganes. It doesn’t offer enough to warrant an overnight stay but it serves as an admirable gateway to our next port of call, somewhere in the Valles Pasiegos.

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…

Cudillero (Asturias), Spain August 2022 (Tour 6)

During our stay in Candas we took a short drive west along the beach to another erstwhile fishing village which has turned to tourism, Cudillero.

Cudillero is much smaller than Candas and to some extent the village reminds me of the Cinque Terre in Liguria (Italy) in that it is made up of pastel coloured houses built into steep hills in a semi-circle around a small bay. There, I think, the similarity ends; it isn’t nearly as pretty as the Cinque Terre. The different colours of the houses in Cudillero are almost lost against the dark green foliage that forms the town’s backdrop while the colours of the houses in the Cinque Terre appear more vibrant against the stark rock which forms their backdrop. That’s just my view.

Whatever, Cudillero is a pretty place and it sits on an amazing coastline of sheer cliffs and fine sandy beaches. Not far away is the Playa del Silencio, surely one of Spain’s most beautiful beaches. It’s a long silver sandy cove of a beach backed by a rock amphitheatre.

There are two roads into Cudillero; the first enters the village from the top of the cliffs and the second more attractive route (and one that is considerably more suitable for large vans) skirts the village and curls down to the harbour. This harbour approach is interesting. Most people park up just short of the village and then walk along the harbour road to the town but; there’s a short cut which runs through the hillside and up into the town. This short cut begins behind a small artificial waterfall. Step behind the waterfall and there’s a 300 metre tunnel which leads directly into the town. Nala and I set off up the tunnel not realising Vanya had demurred and was opting for the more circuitous route along the road. Whoops!

Cudillero is not a particularly large village but it was packed with tourists when we arrived. That is to be expected in July and August. I hoped we would be able to avoid the large crowds in September but it wasn’t to be.

One place I wanted to visit, so as to take photos along the coast and out to sea, is a mirador (a lookout point) which we had seen perched high above the harbour. There are at least two (La Garita and La Atalaya) but I simply couldn’t find the access point. I tried going up from the lighthouse but met a dead end and Vanya and I walked well up into the town but, again, no luck. I have since discovered they are sign posted from the main square at the bottom of the village. That perhaps explains why I couldn’t find them. The bottom of the town was packed with tourists and I couldn’t get out of there quick enough.

In conclusion, you only have to look at some of the photos to see how pretty the village of Cudillero is and I certainly wouldn’t rule out a return trip. However, I would not return at any time during early July to mid September. Too many tourists filling the streets, bars and restaurants.

Laguardia (La Rioja), Spain August 2022 (Tour 6)

Now Laguardia, recommended by another waiter as a place to see, is very much a contender for the prettiest town in La Rioja!

With just 2,000 inhabitants, Laguardia is not a large town but it is the capital of La Rioja Alavesa. Perched on top of a long narrow hill in the Ebro Valley, the town started as a 1oth century military fort; probably a Templar monastery. As time passed a village developed around the monastery and with the demise of the Templars the monastery was transformed into a fortress church, the Santa Maria de Los Reyes. A second fortress church was added at the other end of the hill, Iglesia de San Juan Batista and the burgeoning town was then enclosed within thick defensive walls which connected the two fortress churches.

Parts of the walls were damaged during the Carlist Wars and again in the Spanish Civil War but the town’s five main gates are mostly complete; the Santa Engracia (northeast), the Carnicerias (east), the San Juan (southeast), the Mercadal (south) and the Gate of Paganos (west). We parked the Van outside the town walls and entered via the Gate of Paganos.

This was the view north towards the Basque Mountains as we arrived in Laguardia. The Basque Mountains sit between the Cantabrian Mountains and the Pyrenees. There was a bad storm the night before and the residual cloud over the Basque Mountains looked like a tsunami crashing down from the hills. The cloud cleared within an hour or so of our arriving.

The town is almost totally pedestrianised with just small tractors being allowed in at harvest time to deliver grapes to the town’s bodegas. The streets and alleys are too narrow to accommodate any other traffic and they slope gently from north to south such that the wooden barrels of finished wine can be rolled down to lorries and vans waiting outside the gates. Brilliant.

We made our way along one of the narrow sloping streets to the north of the town and the Santa Maria de los Reyes. The medieval town walls and buildings are honey coloured and quite beautiful. I’ll let the photos do the talking…

It didn’t take long to reach the northern end of the town and the Santa Maria de los Reyes. Opposite the church entrance is a 12th century military bell tower, the Abacial Tower (Abbot’s Bell Tower), which the public may ascend for views over the town and across to the mountains. Unfortunately, it was closed for lunch.

Next to the church is an unusual iron sculpture, the Escultura Viajeros, which comprises a table of iron shoes and a table of handbags. It is supposedly a tribute to those who travel a great deal. Shoes and bags? I suppose it makes sense but some of those boots on the table are certainly not made for walking (as the song goes).

Just outside the northeast gate is the Paseo del Collado, a path which leads to the Castle Hotel and around most of the north side of the town. It’s a pleasant short walk and leads past an iron monument to the Fabulist, Felix Maria Samaniego, who was born and died in Laguardia.

The centre of Laguardia is the Plaza Mayor where the new Town Hall, a hotel, a couple of bars and the tourist office are all to be found. We made it to the centre and were sitting in the town square with a beer when the Town Hall Clock (almost) struck the hour and three dancers in traditional dress appeared from inside the clock and did a little dance to the music. Not sure how that works because the dancers do not appear every hour.

After a short respite in the square we carried on to the southern area of the town to the Iglesia de San Juan Bautista y Capilla del Pilar (The Church of St John the Baptist and the Chapel to the Virgin of Pilar). The large octagonal Chapel was added to this fortress church during the early part of the 18th century. At first, I didn’t realise they were connected. It was only when I was inside the Church of St John that I noticed the large chapel at the back of the church. Public access to the chapel is through the church. Both buildings are absolutely stunning inside.

Inside the Church of St John the Baptist – One of the most beautiful of churches. I especially liked it’s polished wooden floors

It was an absolute pleasure walking up and down the streets of Laguardia. We took time to stop at one of the town bodegas to enjoy some wine and tapas but we omitted to visit the cellars which, in hindsight, was a mistake. I learned afterwards that there is almost as much underground in Laguardia as above ground. Apparently there are some 300 plus caves which is where the area’s wine is now produced and stored.

We enjoyed everything about our short stop at Laguardia and I very much recommend it as a place to visit. I would definitely revisit the place although, next time, I would come outside of the summer season when there are fewer tourists and; I would be tempted to overnight in the town square hotel.

Is it the prettiest town in La Rioja? That’s a difficult question. We are forever being surprised by what we see on these trips and; we haven’t seen all the towns in this Region that we would like to see and; so often other factors will influence such a decision (e.g. the time of the year, the prevailing weather, local activities, etc) so; it is difficult to say. One thing is for certain; it’s a strong contender.

We might have stayed on longer but, it was Thursday afternoon and we were already booked into a hotel just down the road in Logrono for a couple of days. Thurday night is party night on Calle Laurel and is not to be missed. On to Logrono…

Peniscola (Valencia), Spain (Tour 5)

Staying in the province of Castellon we moved further south this morning to Peniscola (pronounced ‘pen-yiss-cola’), a popular tourist resort in the summer but fairly quiet this time of the year. We wouldn’t have it any other way.

Peniscola has a fine wide sandy ‘blue flag’ beach (Platja Nord) some 5 kms long which is overlooked at the town end by a 14th century templar castle which was built on the site of a Moorish citadel. The official name of the castle is the ‘Pontifical Templar Castle of Peniscola’.

Both Peniscola Castle and the Platja Nord Beach figured prominently in the 1961 Anthony Mann film ‘El Cid’ starring Charlton Heston and Sophia Loren. The castle was used as the setting for Valencia and it was along the Platja Nord beach that Charlton Heston, in the role of Don Rodrigo Diaz de Vivar (El Cid), rode his white charger at the end of the film. The castle was also used in ‘Game of Thrones’ as the setting of the fictitious city of Mereen.

Peniscola Castle was home to Pope Benedict XIII for 8 years until his death in 1423. This was the time of the great schism which saw three popes being elected at the same time, one in Rome, one in Avignon and Benedict XIII (often referred to as Papa Luna) in Peniscola although Papa Luna was later declared an anti-pope and excommunicated by Rome.

Peniscola’s old town is entirely enclosed within the walls of the castle. It is small but very pretty with narrow, cobbled streets; most of which are now lined with small bars and craft & souvenir shops (although absolutely nothing other than the castle itself was open in the old town throughout our short stay).

Quite often during these tours, I go walkabout for a few hours to explore (while Vanya caches up on her sleep or on her Spanish language studies) and then, later in the day, I return with Vanya to eat and visit the more interesting sites. We did the same in Peniscola and, while (at least during the close season, there is little of real interest in Peniscola outside of the castle and the beach, the town is one of those places that has to be seen at night. It is very pretty.

Santillana del Mar (Cantabria), Spain August 2021 (Tour 4)

Today was about our going to the beautiful and very unusual village (or is it a town now) of Santillana del Mar in Cantabria. What is unusual about the place? Well for a start, the whole village is a registered national monument. That is unusual. Of course, that also means lots of tourists (especially during the holiday month of August) and with the nearby Altamira Caves also attracting tourists (this area is the most visited tourist destination across the whole of Cantabria) we decided to have a good wander but move on after lunch. Mine was an absolutely delicious Chorizo in Cider.

It is a very attractive village and quite unlike any other that we have seen (so far) in northern Spain. Jean Paul Sartre that well known travel writer and part time literary existentialist described Santillana del Mar as the most beautiful village in Spain. I’m joking about Sartre being a travel writer but not about the other bits.

The village (or old town) is largely pedestrianised (with only the locals being allowed to drive in the centre). It probably hasn’t changed much in the last 200 years and is, in effect, a ‘living museum’. Many of the town houses have large chocolate coloured wrought iron balconies on at least two floors and these are invariably brimming with flowers. Those houses which don’t have balconies use window boxes and these too are overflowing with flowers. The whole place is a riot of colour.

The Calle de San Domingo leads to the town’s main square (the Plaza Mayor de Ramon y Pelayo) where there is a stunning little 12th century church complete with cloisters. This is the collegiate church of Saint Juliana (Colegiata de Santa Juliana) and her remains are held in the church. There is a small entry fee but it provides access to both the inside of the church and the magnificent cloisters and it is worth every cent.

During my visit, one whole side of the cloisters had been given over to a magnificent diorama reflecting events leading from Christ’s journey into Jerusalem, through his arrest, trial, crucifixion and resurrection.

Like I said, too many tourists for us to want to stay around and we decided over lunch to move on to the coast towards lovely Comillas. A few more photos to reflect on…

Alquezar (Huesca, Aragon), Spain – September 2020 (Tour 3)

Vanya chose our next stop and a great one it was too. We intended stopping for a single night but quickly added a second.

The camp site she chose was Camping Rio Vero and as the name suggests it sits on the Rio Vero, one of many rivers in the Sierra de Guara – a small mountain range that runs parallel with the Pyrenees. The site is at the end point of the Rio Vero Canyon and the owner has strategically dammed the river to create two small natural swimming pools at each end of the camp. With it being sunny and the temperature hitting the high 20’s it wasn’t long before our two dogs were in the cool crystal clear pools and we were of a mind to do the same once we had gathered sufficient courage to enter the cold mountain water (perhaps in the morning?).

This area being loaded with rivers and streams it came as no surprise to learn the camp site could organise canyoning and rappelling in any number of local gorges and Vanya and I were both up for it until we were told it would be a full day affair and we would have to leave the dogs behind. Some other time perhaps.

The next morning, after an early breakfast and instead of canyoning, we elected to walk the dogs some 4-5 kilometres along the old road to Alquezar; have lunch at the village and; return by way of the river bed. I had been told by the campsite owner it was possible to walk along the riverbed all the way from the village back to the campsite and that the experience and scenery would be well worth the effort. Both these points were confirmed by the tourist board office in Alquezar.

The walk along the old road to Alquezar was easy and within an hour we entered the village and what a place! Beautiful!

The Moors built a fortress there in the 9th century and it wasn’t long thereafter before houses were being built around the base of the fortress (the Arabic word for which is Al Qasr) and that is how Alquezar came to be. Christians took the town from the Moors in 1064 and over a period of time the fortress or at least part of it was converted to a collegiate church, the Colgiatte Church of Santa Maria la Mayor. Just down from the collegiate a newer church, the Iglesia Parroquial de San Miguel Arcangel, was built between 1681 and 1708 and both buildings very much command the village.

Alquezar is a small village of little more than 300 people and despite being declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1998, I am delighted to report that it has not yet been overrun by tourists. In fact it was not at all busy as we arrived.

Almost all of the village is pedestrianised and it is a warren of narrow winding lanes with all the houses made of the same rose coloured limestone, brick or mud. Many of the lanes are covered with passageways as inhabitants extended their homes for more space.

We have seen a great many wonderful medieval villages during this tour (both in Spain and France) but what sets this one apart are the uniform pink buildings and panoramic views over the Rio Vero Gorge. There are fine viewing points all over the town and especially from the collegiate church / castle but my favourite is from outside one of the restaurants that we passed on our way into the village and we returned there for lunch.

After a mixed platter of starter size dishes and a couple of beers it was time to head down into the Rio Vero Gorge and make tracks downstream to our camp site. It started off quite well with Vanya managing her fear of heights (although she did complain a bit) as we very slowly descended the dirt track road to the bottom of the gorge. A footbridge at the bottom marked the start of our river walk…

The dogs very quickly took to the water. Vanya followed a little later holding her handbag clear of the water and muttering incessantly about how cold the water was but, otherwise, it seemed to be going quite well. Then the water got a little bit deeper and somewhat rockier and, if you believe her, colder…Well, I’ll let the photos do the talking…

Forget the pictures. It is not in my best interests to show more or relate further on this matter. It will suffice to say that the wade went on for a while longer and Vanya’s humour darkened as the day progressed but we all made it back safe and sound…

…and we’re heading for the coast tomorrow – a place called L’Escala. She’s always in a better frame of mind when at the seaside.

A final photo (not mine) of Alquezar…