Soria – back at the Duero to visit the unparalleled cloister

On May 17th, Friday, we drive to Zaragoza with a stop in Soria. We are slowly heading eastward. In Soria, we want to visit the cloister of the Monastery San Juan de Duero.


In Soria we are back at the Duero 

We have been at the Duero in Zamora and we have driven along it through the vineyards of the Ribera del Duero. Now, in Soria, we are back at the Duero and close to its origin, in the mountain range called “Sistema Ibérico” (Atlas geográfico, Esther Carrión Fernandez et alii, Ediciones SM Madrid).  In Soria the Duero is much smaller than in Zamora. Also Soria has its historic bridge from the 12th century, which has been rebuilt over the years.

We were in Soria a year ago, in May 2018. Like Zamora, Soria has layed out a path along the banks of the Duero that I loved to stroll along then, watched by the curious white dog.

In the city center, we found a relaxed atmosphere in May 2018. The inhabitants celebrate Saint John’s Eve all May and June. They played music in the streets and I was invited to drink wine from a leather pouch – well, I thanked, but did not dare try that.

Our hotel was at the Plaza de Oliva.

This is the Plaza Mayor with the ayuntamento and the Fountain of the Lions.

Soria hosts cultural heritage such as the Romanesque San Nicolás church – unfortunately in ruins.

The Renaissance Palace de los Condes de Gómara from the 16th century is impressive.

This is the Concathedral San Pedro, somewhat lost in a meadow. Its origins are Romanesque, and it has been refurbished again and again.

San Pedro or Petrus sits above the gate, with the keys in his hands.

In the past, Soria experienced dramatic events: As a Celto-Iberic settling it resisted the Romans for a century. Just before being conquered, they all committed suicide to avoid becoming Roman slaves. From the 8th century up to 1134, the city was ruled by the Muslims. Having become Christian again, Soria flourished, thanks to the wool industry, a capable Jewish community and the support of the Castilian king. The decline started in the 15th century, when the unified crown of Castilia and Aragón lost interest in Soria and when the Jews had to be exiled. The city suffered again and again, in the wars around 1700 and 1800.

Today, Soria is a quiet town that mainly belongs to the people of Soria. They have started to promote their touristic potential.


The Monasterio San Juan de Duero with the unparalleled cloister

The most impressive attraction of Soria is the Monasterio San Juan de Duero. A year ago, it was closed, and we took fotos from outside with the city of Soria in the background.

Now we returned after having carefully checked that the cloister is open. The cloister was built in Romanesque style in the beginnings of the 13th century, but Romanesque was interpreted here, as I have never seen it before. It is a mixture of Romanesque and Muslim elements. The arches dance and in the corners they become horseshoes.

The severe Romanesque forms on the left turn into swirling, elegant forms on the right.

Have you ever seen such Romanesque architecture?

It is just magnificent, what we can achieve across cultures and beliefs, when coming together.

I would wish more of that happened today.

Next to the amazing cloister, we enter the small Romanesque church…

… with its sculptured capitals.

It was great to see Soria again, in particular the gorgeous cloister San Juan.

Now we will continue our way eastward leaving the Duero behind us, crossing the mountain range of the Sistema Ibérico and switching to the valley of the Ebro. We intend to spend one night in Zaragoza.

Santo Domingo de Silos – listening to the vespers

On May 16th – Thursday – we follow the river Duero upwards with destination Santo Domingo de Silos.


Lunch stop at Peñafiel

We stop in Peñafiel for lunch. Like everywhere in Castilla & León, a castle watches over the small city – it has been built in the 11th century to defend the area reconquered from the Arabs.

Peñafiel says that they are the cradle (cuna) of the D.O. wine region Ribera del Duero.


In “Vinos de España”, Larousse 2008, by Claude Naudin et alii, p.192, I found Bodegas Protos, founded in 1927. Their cellar is in the rock under the castle of Peñafiel, and they were the first bodega to write the term “Ribera del Duero” on the labels of their wine bottles. So, it is true that Peñafiel is the cradle of the D.O. Ribera del Duero, as they coined the name. Perhaps “hasta pronto” will come true for me to learn more about the wines of Peñafiel and about Protos.

Driving through vineyards we head north, before the rain announced starts.


Santo Domingo de Silos – the Benedictine monastery in the wild mountains

We drive through the wild Yecla canion (Desfiladero de Yecla) and reach Santo Domingo de Silos on about 1000m, in the mountains. The place looks secluded, just right for monks to meditate and pray. Santo Domingo de Silos is a Benedictine monastery…

… surrounded by a small village with narrow streets and many hotels.

The hotel Santo Domingo gave us their last room – all other rooms booked out.


The Romanesque cloister of Santo Domingo de Silos

In the 11th century, the Benedictine abbey was founded by Dominic, with support of the Castilian-Leonian king Fernando the Great.

From that time, the Romanesque two-storey cloister has survived.

The cypress – 22m high – is more than a hundred years old, a symbol in the cloister.

The capitals are richly decorated with scenes from the life of Christ, with animals, plants and with fantasy figures. When entering the cloister, we received a leaflet that explains each capital with much care, perfectly translated to German.

Most outstanding are the representations in the corners of the cloister. This is one example: Christ appears to the apostles, and doubting Thomas touches Christ.

My favourite corner panel is Christ on the Road to Emmaus represented as a pilgrim on the Way of St. James. He wears the typical pilgrim hat and a bag that has been carefully decorated with scallops – also the buckle for closing the bag is a scallop. What a nice detail!


Gregorian Chants at Santo Domingo de Silos

The monks sing Gregorian Chants and they are famous for that. They have published records of their chants.

They invite guests to listen to them sing their chants in the neo-classical church of the monastery.

We attend the vespers at seven p.m.. For about three quarters of an hour the monks sing and read to praise God, Christ and the Holy Spirit – nunc et semper et in saecula saeculorum – now and for ever, in the centuries of the centuries. At the end, they walk to the Chapel of their Santo Domingo to ask him to pray for them, he who founded this monastery. The church was almost full and we all inhaled the solemnity of the chants. Though not being Catholic, I like this atmosphere that touches the heart instead of the intellect.


Next plans

Together with a group of about 40 Australians we have dinner and breakfast. They travel from Portugal via Spain to France. Very noisy and busy in this secluded valley.

We continue our way east, first along the Duero to Soria and then to Zaragoza.







Early morning walks in Zamora – along the river Duero

13/14/15th of May 2019 (Monday to Wednesday) we spent in Zamora. Zamora is located above the river Duero. I have already talked about this pretty city and its surroundings. Now I want to tell about my morning walks along the river banks.


The well prepared path along the Duero

Zamora has installed footpaths along both sides of the river Duero.

The aspen is in bloom, the white seeds fly in the air – like snow flakes. They fall to the ground and form a carpet.

The water lilies opened their yellow flowers, while we were there.

Flowers, trees and birds along the Duero are explained on panels. Zamora did a great job for their citizens – and for the tourists that go beyond visiting the city center.


The landmark of Zamora: The Old Bridge or Puente de Piedra

Zamora was a stop on the Roman silver route allowing to cross the river Duero here. The current Stone Bridge or Puente de Piedra is from the 13th century, but has been rebuilt in the 20th century. The morning sun makes the bridge shine brownish. The arches reflect in the water.

Taken from the west, the bridge is just a silhouette.

On a more cloudy morning the bridge is grey.

Ducks congregate near the Stone Bridge.


Aceñas de Olivares or oil mills in the morning sun

Along the river there are several oil mills or Aceñas de Olivares. These three mills are located below the old city.

I pick up a leaflet later, when the oil mills were open for public. It says that such oil mills have been known to work here since the 10th century and were in use until the 1950’s. They used the force of the river. Now they have been replaced by electricity, also produced by the river Duero, as the leaflet says.


Overviews of the city Zamora from the left river bank

During one of my early morning walks, I crossed the river Duero using the old Stone Bridge. The view of the city Zamora located on a rock above the right river bank is spectacular. This is the view of the Cathedral (tower and cupola) and of the three oil mills in the river.

This is another view with the Cathedral at the end of the steep rock “plate”.

Looking against the sun (eastwards) the city is a silhouette reflecting in the river. The factory tower stands out. It is part of the factory that has been tastefuly rebuilt to become the hotel NH Palacio del Duero, where we stayed three nights.


The cupola of the Cathedral in the morning sun

The great gem of the Cathedral of Zamora is the cupola with its flaky tiles. Poets have written about how it changes colours from morning to evening. Here it is in the morning sun…

… together with the tower…

… above the reed of the river bank…

… and above the rocks of the wild Duero.

Later on my walk the light has changed.

On Wednesday morning, I say good-bye to Zamora and its river banks. I will miss these romantic morning walks in Zamora. We will now folllow the Duero in the direction of its origin near Soria.






Around Zamora: San Pedro de la Naval and Toro

On 15th of May 2019 – Wednesday – we explore the surroundings of Zamora, the visigothic church in El Campillo and the small country town Toro.


San Pedro de la Naval in El Campillo

The receptionist of the Parador in Zamora was born in El Campillo. It is a small, quiet village and he remembered that in the late fifities, as a child, he saw the first tourist cars with the number plates “CH” and “D”. “Where are they from? Maybe “CH” is from Czechoslovakia and “D” from Denmark”, he reflected. Later he left his small village to study in Spain and to earn money in Switzerland (his Swiss accent was not bad).

He told us proudly of the visigothic church in his home village. This is San Pedro de la Naval.

A lady shepherd took his cows to the fields near this small gem and protected her head with a large black umbrella. The sun was already burning.

The church was built immediately before the Muslim invasion, i.e. shortly before 711 AD. Originally, it was located on the banks of the river Esla. The river was dammed in the 1930’s to gain electricity. One of the architects helped the people transfer the church and rebuild it stone by stone. The stones have been worked and accumulated without plaster. In the choir I recognize the typical horseshoe arch.

The capitals are ornated with figures,…

… and with floral patterns.

The base of the columns is decorated as well.

The church is open on Mondays, and the lady receiving us inside confirms: “Yes, Zacharias, he is a good ambassador for us, particuarly on Mondays, when the museums are closed in Zamora.” She is proud of her church and shows the details to the visitors.


Walking to the Esla Embalso

After having enjoyed culture, it is a good idea to walk to the lake Esla, where the small church would have drowned, if not saved by the inhabitants of El Campillo. This is the barrier lake with some white rockroses and yellow broom in the foreground.

The fields have been prepared.

Everything is flourishing – it is spring and the hot summer has not yet arrived.


Toro – the small country town near Zamora

Toro to me looks like the little sister of Zamora. The Collegiate Church of Santa Maria la Mayor from the 12th century has a similar cupola above the intersection, like the Cathedral of Zamora.

This is the western portal.

A service is going on inside. We listen for some time.

Then we stroll through the streets with their half timbered houses.

The San Lorenzo church has been built in Romanesque style.

Inside we find the Mudejár elements such as the ceiling and balcony. Mudejárs are Muslims living under post-islamic Christian rule, their architecture influenced by the Moorish taste is called “Mudejár”.

In a niche, we find this gothic altar. It tells the story of San Lorenzo.

D.O. Toro is a wine region that is becoming renowned. Merchants offer their regional wine in the streets.

On our way back to Zamora we stop in one of the vineyards. The ground looks sandy here.

We enjoy dinner in the posh Parador. Tomorrow we will continue our way going east to Santo Domingo de Silos.




From León to Zamora

On 13th of May we drive to Zamora to stay here for two days and three nights.


Zigzagging to Zamora – through villages and hills

From León to Zamora we zigzag along small roads. In small Benavente we have  some sandwiches at the Plaza Mayor. Heavy traffic here and the lamps need to be repaired.

Our bar also provides choco drinks, including a black and a white choco Suizo – charming, I did not know about that before.

We follow the river Esla and turn off to the smooth Sierra Soldana. The fields are green, the flowers are in full bloom, like the white rockrose.

The river Esla is dammed to produce electricity – the Judas tree is violet.

The river Esla later joins the river Duero that originates near Soria.

Maybe this Ilex grove (dehesa) is populated by pigs in October. The pigs love acorns. Spanish ham is delicious.

Above the Duero, I see the first “Duero” vineyard – it belongs to the D.O. of Zamora.


The tastefully architectured NH Palacio del Duero

In Zamora we settle in the NH Palacio del Duero close to the river Duero. The Palacio is in a former factory that has been tastefully rebuilt.

From far, the former factory tower shows us the way to our hotel.

Former factory areas have been remodelled to conference rooms…

… and to corners where hotel guests can relax.

The NH hotel Group has engaged an extremely talented architect. We are impressed.


Zamora at the silver road – the bridge across the Duero is their landmark

Zamora has been founded by the Romans – the Roman silver road crossed the Duero here. The Puente de Piedra (old stone bridge) from the 13th century has been refurbished in the 20th century.

The Romans called their city Ocellum Durri (eye of the Duero) and the Arabs called it Samurah. Until the late 11th century, the city changed hands several times and then definitvely remained Christian, now called Zamora.


Zamora’s Romanesque heritage with the pearl, the Cathedral

THE Pearl of Zamora is the Romanesque Cathedral de San Salvador…

… with the elegant cupola (called cimborrio)…

… that produces this dancing airiness inside.

The nave is relatively short and dominated by the Spanish choir, right in the middle.

The northern Puerto de los Obispos (the bishops’ portal) has been decorated with pretty pine cones.

Our “Dumont” says that the Cathedral was built quickly – between 1151 and 1174. I recognize the Byzantine and Arab Architecture in the cupola and the bishops’ portal.


Many more Romanesque churches in Zamora

Many more Romanesque churches are in this small city. For example the Iglesia Magdalena…

… or the Iglesia Santa Maria la Nueva…

… or the Iglesia de San Juan Baptista de Puerta Nueva at the Plaza Mayor.

These are statues representing the processions – again and again we come across doors with the name plates of confraternities.


Traces of the Spanish Reconquista

Castilla and León is full of castles – the territory regained from the Arabs had to be defended. Also Zamora has its castle.

Below the castle and outside of the city walls is the Iglesia de Santiago El Viejo that played an important role: El Cid was dubbed knight here. He is the famous and excelling commander guiding the Spanish army in the 11th century.


A vivid and relaxed city at this warm late spring evening

We enjoy strolling through the narrow streets of this vivid and relaxed city. Citizens of all ages sit on the benches and have a chat.

Cats watch the street life.

Storks feed their offspring.


Some luxury: Dinner in the Parador

We have dinner in the Parador. We are welcomed by a hearty “Grüezi” with a clear Swiss accent. The receptionist of the Parador worked in St. Gallen and Zürich many years ago, to earn money and then continue his studies in Spain.

We eat excellent fish here, and my favorite meal was the Saquito de Rabo which was oxtail carefully simmered and wrapped up in a light pastry “bag”.

We walk back to our hotel through the now dark narrow streets.

Source: Hans-Peter Burmeister and Felix Scheffler, “Madrid und Zentralspanien”, Dumont Ostfildern 2013




León – the city of the lions

May 11th/12th – now we have arrived in León, the city of the lions.


Crossing the Cantabrian Mountains

Oviedo (Asturia) and León (Castilla y León) are separated by the Cantabrian Mountains. They extend the Pyrenees to the west. North of them, the climate of the green Atlantic Coast prevails, and south the dryer climate of the Castilian High Plateau, the Meseta. We cross the mountains using the Puerto de Pajares and look back at the green slopes facing the Atlantic.

Driving down south of the Puerto we find dryer vegetation. Soon we are in the flat lands of the Meseta and León appears in front of us.


Arriving in León, the city of the lions

The City of León is proud of their lions and we find lions all over. Here are some examples. In the Confiterías, we had a tasty empañada.

In May, León holds the Festival de Cine y Televisión

Some street lamps are held by lions.

And the palaces are decorated with lions.

This toothless lion we found near the San Isidoro church.


The Calle Ancha and the Cathedral Santa Maria de Regla

Our cosy hotel la Posada Regia is located near the main street of the center, the Calle Ancha. It is busy here, even at night (view from the Plaza de Puerto Obispo).

The famous west façade of the Gothic Catedral Santa Maria de Regla is being renovated. Building it started in 1253. The Cathedral soon needed renovation and the city started to tell the legend of the mole that keeps on digging tunnels under the Cathedral. Well, they had to find someone who might be guilty.

I return in the evening to look at the west façade again.

This is one of the three portals with the White Maria. The original is inside the church.

Some of the windows are from the 13th century, some are newer – even up to the 20th century. 1800 square meters of glass produce this solemn atmosphere.

The choir with the carved chairs from the 15th century is in the middle of the nave. This is Moses carved into the backrest.

This figure guards the entrance to the choir – I find another lion here.

The baptismal font shows yet another lion. Yes, we ARE in León.


Plaza Mayor and San Martín

The city center is for pedestrians only. Through narrow streets, we walk to the Plaza Mayor. The market is taking place here, in front of the old town hall.

Near the church San Martín, they sell clothes.

In the evening, the Plaza Mayor is empty – no market stands any more.

This is the so-called “wet” area (Barrio Húmedo). On a Saturday evening, it is very, very busy and loud here. I feel happy amongst all the cheerfully chatting people.


Palacio de los Guzmanes and Gaudí’s Casa de Botines

The Art Nouveau Casa de Botines belongs to Gaudí’s early works. Güell asked for it in 1894. Gaudí sits in front of his work and people join him here.

Next to Gaudí’s house, there is the Renaissance Palace of los Guzmanes.

The Plaza Santa Domingo marks the entry to the Calle Ancha – with this playful fountain.


San Isidoro and the Romanesque “Sistine Chapel”

The Romanesque Collegiate Church San Isidore is used for a solemn service on this Sunday morning.

The tympanum shows the Deposition from the Cross… pincers are used to remove the nails, the artist has observed that carefully.

We visit the Panteón Real or the Romanesque “Sistine Chapel”, as it is called. The frescoes have been painted around 1100 and show the life of Christ and a calendar that I like very much: For example in October, the pigs are eating acorns in the Ilex groves – much detail! No fotos allowed. Look at the well preserved frescoes in the Internet.


The Rio Bernesga and the Convento San Marcos

To wrap up our visit, we stroll along the lush promenade along the Rio Bernesga…

… and admire the monastery San Marcos built in plateresque style between the 16th and 18th century. Today, it is a luxurious five star Parador.


Some History

León was founded by the Romans in the 1st century AD.  It was then called after the VIIth Roman Legion which was later shortened to “León”. It was conquered by the Arabs around 700 and, when reconquered in the 10th century, it became the capital of the kingdom León – for 200 years.


The annoying accident that ended not too badly

In the Museum San Isidoro, someone that came close to me discussing loudly took my wallet, though I had it close to me, while I was paying for some postcards. The museum personnel were extremely helpful. One of them took us to the local Police Office, where they sent us to the National Police office. I block my payment cards. At the National Police Office, I say, I want to make a denunciation. “About what”, the policeman at the entrance gate asks me. “My wallet has been stolen at the Museum Isidoro.” “This one?”, he asks and showed MY wallet, with all cards inside. I manage to deblock my EC cards. And we are very impressed about how helpful everyone is here: The guides at the museum, the reception lady at the hotel and the policeman at the National Police Station.


A wonderful light finish – dinner at the Kamado

Spanish food is rich – we felt very full from the delicious lechazo (milk lamb) that we had eaten in our hotel last night. Next door is the Kamado and it serves dimsam, the Chinese dumplings. Ursula has an unfermented green tea served luke warm (tasty) and I found the Galician Godello (a good match with my steamed dimsam dumplings). This was a great farewell, though not authentically Leonese. The pofessional young waitor impressed us. Good night now!


Sources: Marion Golder, “Nordspanien und der Jakobsweg”, Dumont 2017 and “Ganz Leon”, Reihe Ganz Spanien, Escudo de Oro 2014.



Oviedo… Pre-Romanesque churches and a relaxed city center

Friday, May 10th – today we aren going to visit Oviedo, the capital of Asturia.


The two Pre-Romanesque churches on the Naranco hill

First thing in the morning, our GPS goes crazy, drives us up on very, very steep narrow roads, until we reach a dead end in the middle of the forest. The view is spectacular: We see Oviedo surrounded by mountains.

We drive back down, up again and finally we find the Pre-Romanesque church Santa Maria del Naranco.

This church was built by the Asturian king Ramiro I around 850, first as a palace and still in the 9th century it was rebuilt as a church. We study the discreet and pretty decoration.

There are small medaillons above the arches.

The window above the terrace is elegant.

The view of the valley and the mountains of Oviedo is great from this palace-church.

Some hundred meters from here we find the chapel San Miguel de Lillo, built at the same time.

Elegantly decorated windows here as well.

This church is closed for renovation.


The third Pre-Romanesque church on the meadows (los Prados)

The third Pre-Romanesque church is San Julián de los Prados, on the meadows next to a large road with heavy traffic.

Inside we find beautiful frescoes – they show floral patterns and buildings (but no people or animals) and have been restored in the 1980’s. Photos are not allowed inside.

We return to our hotel with the lush garden and join Spain for siesta.


The Cathedral San Salvador in the city center

The Cathedral San Salvador, Gothic in style, was built between the 14th and the 16th century. The city planned two towers and completed one of them. I find it graceful.

Sculptures like this woman are all over the city center. This one is called “La Regenta”.

The Cathedral has an open nave, which is untypical for Spain; usually the choir is in the middle filling the nave ungracefully. Not here. The choir has been removed, the nave is open and the view of the golden altar is free. The altar has been created at the brink of Gothic to Renaissance (which is called “Isabelline” in Spain).

Not far from here we find this expressive Romanesque sculpture of San Salvador from the 11th century.

The most important piece in the treasury chamber is the Victory Cross. It is said that Maria handed this cross over to the commander Peylao who defeated the Arabs near Covadonga in 722 (yesterday we were in Covadonga, the craddle of Spain).


Strolling through the narrow streets of the city center

The narrow streets in the city center are good for strolling around. At the end of this pretty street, we can see the tower of the townhall.

Relaxed squares all over and many, many inviting bars like this one.

To wrap up our Pre-Romanesque culture tour, we look at the back of the San Triso church right next to the Cathedral.


Dinner and good-bye

We return to our hotel and have dinner in one of the busy bar-restaurants nearby, in the Tonel. An extremely professional waitor serves us. I have pike stuffed with seafood – prepared the Asturian way. We watch a very tall waitor, as he pours out the cider holding the bottle high above a tilted glass – a real art.

There is much more to see in Oviedo – perhaps we will return…

The cradle of Spain – Covadonga

It is Thursday 9th of May and we discover the cradle of Spain: Covadonga in the Picos de Europa.


The lakes high above the cradle of Spain: Lago Enol and Lago de la Ercina

The forecast announces rain for the afternoon. We arrive in Covadonga around eleven and decide to drive the additional 10km to the glacier lakes above. The route is spectacular, climbs up from the valley (you see it on the photo), then follows the steep hills and after each turn we see more and more peaks of the Picos de Europa.

The first lake, Lago Enol, lies on 1080m. 

The second lake, Lago Ercina, at 1108m, is just below the snow mountains.


With the Asturian cows, we enjoy the view here.

Ursula loves the flowers, gentianes, Christmas Roses and Affodills.


Covadonga – the cradle of Spain

We learn that the two lakes, formed by glaciers, give birth to creeks that disappear later, flow through various karst tunnels and reappear, one such secondary source being under the Cueva Santa, the cradle of Spain. 

The Spanish Reconquista started here in Covadonga in the mountains of Asturia. That was in 722*. The charismatic commander of the Visigoths, Pelayo, was able to unify the mountain people,  motivate them to oppose to the taxes imposed by the Emir of Córdoba (the “Arabs”), lead the Arab troops into traps and vanquished them. It is said that Pelayo and his troops hid in this cave that is now the Cueva Santa.

No photos allowed of the Virgin that is said to have given the wooden cross to Pelayo and this was crucial for his victory. This cross can now be seen in the Cathedral of Oviedo.

As the lions may indicate, it was León with Castilia that later took the lead of the Reconquista. The cradle, Asturia, was downgraded from kingdom to principality. But until today, the Spaniards venerate Covadonga and the Cueva Santa very much.

Near the cave is the Neo-Romanesque Basilika San Fernando.


Heavy rain – we retreat to our next hotel in Oviedo

We have just accomplished visiting the lakes and the cradle of Spain in dry weather. The first rain drops start to fall, when we leave Covadonga. An hour later we reach Oviedo in the pouring rain. The hotel Palacio de la Viñona is comfortable.

We make a short visit of the city center of Oviedo, watch the waitors pour the cider into the glass from high above and eat veal with sauce made from mountain cheese. 

We are wet-through. We return to our comfortable and warm hotel. From tomorrow on the weather forecast announces better weather and warmer temperatures. We look forward to that.


More about the Reconquista

The mountain people of Asturias defeated the Arabs in 722. In Poitiers in France Charles Martel halted the invasion of the Muslims in 732. In 801, Charlemagne conquered the Marca España around Barcelona to prevent the Arabs from further attacking what is Southern France today. At school we had learnt about the two Charles, but not about  Asturias and Covadonga. It was from Asturias and from Catalunya that the Reconquista continued. The two lines unified their forces later, in particular the catholic king couple Ferdinand and Isabella that in 1492 completed it by conquering Granada.

Excursion to Gaudi’s El Capricho and to the Picos

It is Wednesday, May 8th. Our excursion takes us from Santillano del Mar to Comillas with Gaudi’s El Capricho and then to the Picos of Europe, where the blue cheese DOP Cabrales is produced.


Comillas – perched on a hill above the sea

The old city of Comillas is perched on a hill above the sea.

On the other side of this hill, inviting small cottages stretch along the sea.

In the center, we find small houses along cobbled streets.

Comillas was a posh seaside resort around 1900, when the king of Spain, Alphonse XII, used to spend his vacation here, attracting other aristocrats that built villas such as the noble and spacious neogothic Palacio de Sobrellano.

In addition art nouveau palaces have been built here, the most famous of which is Gaudi’s El Capricho.


Gaudi’s early work: El Capricho

The villa El Capricho (the Caprice) is an early work by Gaudí built in the 1880’s. It is a playful building, decorated with green tiles and yellow sun flowers, adorned with a minaret like tower – somewhat reminding of the Mudejar style. This is the view from below.

And this is the view from above. The white winter garden is attached to the house.

Several doors provide access to the villa – this is the one leading to the winter garden.

I like the somewhat intimate low rooms under the roof.

Then I feel like playing with the mirror.

When leaving Gaudí’s villa, we look at one another and agree, the villa was interesting, but to our taste, Gaudí’s style is close to what we would call kitsch.


Continuing to the mountains, the Picos de Europa

The sun has come out and we continue our way to the mountains, the Picos de Europa. They are still covered with snow.

Where we stop our car, we find orchids.

We head to Las Arenas de Cabrales and on the way, we admire this mountain farm on a steep slope. Tough work here.

In Las Arenas de Cabrales, we arrive just right in time to join the tour to the caves, where the DOP cheese Cabrales is maturing. We learn about the production of the Cabrales cheese. It is made out of 95% cow milk, 5% goat and sheep, and the mixture is flexible, according to whatever is available. The cattle spends summer in the mountains and returns to the valleys in autumn. The cheese is first dried and then transfered to the limestone caves, where the temperature is constant at 8 to 12 degrees, and where water dripples from the rocks producing a humidity of 90%. In this microclimate the Penicilium Claverum (similar to Roquefort) emerges spontaneously and is allowed to grow for three to six months. In the process the white cheese loafs become blue. I buy a piece of sealed Cabrales cheese.

When continuing our ride, I see this panorama in my back mirror. Wauu. The tower like mountain is called Picu Urriellu or Naranja de Bulnes (2519m).

We return home to our Casa de los Güelitos and eat a tasty cocido (hot pot) with white beans. Then we sleep once more in our quiet room – tomorrow we will change to Oviedo, the capital of Asturias.


Altamira – an old dream of mine comes true

On Tuesday, 7th of May, we visit Altamira and the medieval town of Santillana del Mar.


The caves of Altamira – an old dream of mine comes true

When I was a child, I read the book about how the caves of Lascaux in France were discovered: Some children walked with their dog in the valley of the river Vézère in the Périgord. The dog disappeared all of a sudden. It had fallen into a hole that turned out to be the cave of Lascaux with the beautiful prehistorian paintings. The book then talked about Altamira that had been discovered earlier, in the late 19th century. I had seen the caves of Lascaux some 30 years ago (the copy) and I had always wished to see the caves of Altamira. Now I am here. My dream has come true. Oh yes, I know, what I see is a copy, but a well made copy. The bisons seem to look at me with their eyes wide open.

The prehistorian artists made use of the natural forms of the rock to place their animals. This one has been hit by arrows.

And this is another bison – just amazing.

An excellent museum is attached to the reproduction of the cave. The map shows the occurrence of prehistoric paintings in Europe, and such paintings have been found all over the continents (not only in Europe), as another map explains.

This was a wonderful experience and it would be wonderful with children, as there are many videos and animations that explain the history.


Strolling through medieval Santillana del Mar

Our Dumont announces Santillana del Mar as a medieval small town with palaces that have been built by “Indians” or Spaniards after having returned wealthy from the Americas. The Palacio de los Velarde is one example.

The palaces are decorated with coats of arms. 

Between the medieval buildings, there is the laundry house, and in the bar to the left, we have a zumo de naranja (an orange juice).

Santillana del Mar is pretty – I can understand Sartre who said that this is the most beautiful town of Spain. But that was at the time, when Sartre lived. The town is still pretty with all the houses perfectly renovated… but it is almost “too” pretty: Too many souvenir shops, too many bars, too many restaurants and too many hotels. The town just seems to live for and from tourists.

In the shops we learn about local products such as the quesado (a cheese casserole)…

or soboa (similar to our Madeleine). In a somewhat “normal” shop, I buy a sausage of jabalí (wild boar).

The Romanesque church of Santillana was built in the 11th century. It is dedicated to Santa Juliana. In Roman times, Juliana’s father found a husband for his daughter, but she had become Christian ad did not want a non-Christian husband. For that, her father tortured and killed her. She is buried in the church. This is the main gate…

… and this is the choir.

We pay the entrance fee and enter the cloister. Ursula says, look here – uoarmmmm, look, George kills the dragon by penetrating it with his sword – right in the middle.

The interior of the church is sober.

The altar is of Isabelline style from around 1500. Isabelline is late Gothic at the transition to Renaissance.

“Look, this must be a modern antependium,” Ursula says. But no, the antependium is from the 11th century. Not modern at all. Well, it is not the first time that we thought a Romanesque sculpture to be modern – Romanesque art just holds for ever.

On the antependium, the second person from the left is Petrus with his key, the other half reliefs cannot be identified. The altar, the antependium and the martyrdom of Juliana are carefully documented in the church.


Santillana del Mar has a beautiful Plaza Mayor,…

… with two towers from the 14th century.

After three hours, we leave the pretty town that is full of tourists and souvenir shops. WeIl, we had expected more local shops and more local people here – this really looks like an open- air museum to us.


Evening meal

We return to our Casona de los Güelitos and enjoy a nice dinner. We do feel at home in this cosy house.