28 NOV 2016: It’s high time I returned to the account of our road travels through Spain and Portugal earlier this year. Our first destination was the ancient walled city of Salamanca, reached from the Portuguese border via a good road across the vast plain of the western province known as Castilla y Leon.  

Once in sight of the city walls we easily found the pleasant park-like site designed for motorhomes and then caught a bus the short distance into the historic heart of the city.  We didn’t know what to expect, but soon found ourselves in a maze of busy cobbled streets surrounded by soaring churches, cosy restaurants, trendy boutiques and many young people as there is an ancient university here.  There’s also a British connection in this lovely city as the Duke of Wellington commanded a force that repelled Napoleon and his marauding forces here in the summer of 1812.  We enquired in the tourist office if there was a statue marking the event, but although it warranted an historical leaflet the Duke is remembered merely by a city plaque.

We found an inviting tapas restaurant for lunch (and sherry!) and agreed we were having a great day.  (Our custom throughout the trip was to enjoy a restaurant lunch on our sightseeing days and then prepare dinner ‘at home’ in the motorhome.  On driving days we’d stop in a picnic spot - often with a wonderful view - and prepare a light lunch ourselves, eating outside if the weather were fine.)

Salamanca was lovely, but the old town was easily seen in a day and Madrid was calling!  

We were surprised to see snow-capped mountains as we approached, with our GPS leading us through the suburbs and then the heart of the city and out to the recommended campsite.  For a city site this was a lovely surprise: a park-like setting with birds and wild flowers as well as excellent shower and laundry facilities, all close to a subway station for the journey into the heart of the city.

And it was the heart of the city that was in our plans.  The pleasures of Madrid are known to many and there have been detailed accounts on this website too, so my account will be brief but in just a few words ‘we loved it!’.  

During our four-day stay we easily negotiated the extensive subway system and found all that was on our list:  first a tour on the hop-on-hop-off bus to get our bearings, then the Prado Museum first (treasure filled, as expected, but also tourist filled), the quieter Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, one of the most important privately-assembled art collections in the world (we went twice!), and the modern Museo Reina Sofia, home of Picasso’s famous Guernica which is guarded by two security officers.  We enjoyed a glass of wine in the city’s Plaza Mayor, focal point of the old town; marvelled at the vast Palacio Real and took a sandwich lunch to the Parque del Retiro.  Other lunches were enjoyed in a couple of the many inviting restaurants here … the Spanish love their food and we love Spanish food!

Four days are not enough to do justice to Madrid, but although our entire trip was a long one we had to keep an eye on the calendar as other destinations were on our list.  We drove from the capital leaving cathedrals and churches, monasteries and palaces and many other museums unvisited. Perhaps we will go again one day we told each other.

Due north we travelled now, stopping to see the great El Escorial palace and the luxurious homes that surround it.  Then we were out on the plain again, passing walled towns topped with castles, monasteries and churches and wishing we could see them all.  But our guidebook told of some of the pleasures and treasures of Burgos, so that was where were heading.  

Burgos is home to Spain’s third-largest magnificent cathedral, yet another charming old quarter and many modern sculptures and dancing fountains along the park-lined Arlanzon river which runs through the town.  Also to be found here is a much-loved statue of the 11th century hero El Cid, who was born near Burgos and is buried in the cathedral.

North again the scenery changes as hills unfold revealing the vineyards of Rioja.  We’d been enjoying its product on many an evening!  There are many traditional bodegas to visit in this area, along with some beautiful drives.  But knowing the latter must not be combined with the former, and also knowing that drinking alone is not fun, we merely enjoyed the scenery and made our way into the Basque Country and on to Bilbao.

“Where on earth is the campsite?” we asked each other as our GPS led us through a maze of streets beneath a hillside.  Well, it turned out the site was on the hillside; on a grassy ledge on the hillside to be more precise!  What a position!  What a view of the city below!  What a sunset, with the light catching the famous art gallery that was the main reason for our visit.  We were enthralled.

The next morning, at said museum - the Bilbao Guggenheim - the young woman on the admission desk asked where we came from and when we replied “Canada” she said “Well, you’re at home here then,” referencing the fact that architect Frank Gehry is Canadian-born.  

And what a statement he has made with his titanium gallery in this port town which is undergoing a cultural renaissance.  The building is indeed extraordinary.  It certainly makes a visit to Bilbao worthwhile in spite of the fact that we found the gallery itself light on content.  But then, modern pieces - both sculptures and paintings - tend to take a lot of room!  Outside the gallery, facing the city, is a 13m ‘puppy’ by American artist Jeff Koons.   The puppy - a West Highland terrier - is made of a frame entirely covered with flowering plants that are watered by an internal irrigation system.  It has become a favourite icon of the city.

Walking around the city after our museum visit, another far smaller architectural detail caught our interest.  Bilbao’s subway is fairly new and each station bears an attractive smoked-glass entrance, shaped rather like an armadillo, that is unspoilt by any signs but soon recognisable as a subway stop.  We chose one in the main square and descended to have a look, only to be faced with a photograph, a quote and a signature on a large section of wall, all protected with glass.  The subject of the photograph, the writer of the quote (a gracious compliment to Bilbao) and the signer of the signature was Norman Foster, another famous architect - British this time - who had designed the subway system and left his personal mark at this particular station.

It was hard to leave our magnificent position overlooking Bilbao but the spectacular coastal road of northern Spain was ahead of us.  We needed some groceries, however, so when, after a few miles, we saw a familiar sign in a plain little town we pulled in and made our purchases.  It was only as we drove on, and saw a ‘farewell’ road sign, that we realised the town had been Gernika-Lumo, the target of the world first saturation bombing raid carried out at Franco’s request by Nazi bombers and the subject of Picasso’s powerful painting.

Our final Spanish town was San Sebastian, close to the border with France.  Here more treats were in store for us, especially as the weather had turned warm and we had arrived on a Saturday.  Crowds were enjoying the sandy beaches, or surfing or taking watercraft around the pretty island in the bay and the Old Town was bustling with yet more people out shopping and enjoying the tapas bars.  Beyond the narrow pedestrian streets of this Old Town the streets widen and are tree lined and gracious.  No wonder this is known as Spain’s most elegant seaside resort.

We enjoyed San Sebastian for a memorable week-end.  It was a fitting end to our travels in Spain which had spanned 75 days.  As I write this now it sounds such a long time and we had, indeed, travelled many miles and seen so much.  And how we had fallen in love with it all: friendly people who are so encouraging when one tries to speak a little Spanish, delicious foods and wines, glorious scenery and great cities full of art and history.  A most splendid destination.

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Ann Wallace

Ann Wallace is living a writer's dream currently writing of her adventures as she and her husband sail their boat around Europe.

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