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 benche 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 fassade 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 fassade 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 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.


An 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 has been built by the Asturian king Ramiro I around 850, first as a palace and still in the 9th century 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.

Eleganty 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. Fotos 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, has been 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 cradle 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 arrrive 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 foto), 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 fotos 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 Orviedo

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 Asturia 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  Asturia and Covadonga. It was from Asturia 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 if 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 Asturia.


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 their 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 ornated with coats of arms. 

Between the medieval buildings, there  is a 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 antepedium, the second person from the left is Petrus with his key, the other half reliefs cannot be identified. The altar, the antependium and the martyrium 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 this 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.

From Bilbao to Santillana del Mar

On Monday, May 6th, we travel from Bilbao to Santillana del Mar, along the coast.


From Bilbao along the Ría Bilbao to the sea

Our GPS takes us to the modern and well-kept residential area with appartment buildings on the right hand side of the Ría Bilboa. Soon, we reach Portugalete.

Ursula talks about crossing the Ría using a puente colgante with a cabin. I am a little worried: I see our Audi hang above the river. But then it is easy: The puente colgante is a ferry boat that works like the four Rhine ferries in Basel (a wooden boat is attached to a rope). This ferry is larger (for cars) and attached to a metallic rope that glides along an iron beam, the design of one of Eiffel’s pupils. The guard tells me strictly that I am not allowed to leave the car…

After having crossed the Ría, we continue north to Santurtzi, located at the sea. We park our car in a narrow parking house.

The sun makes the port sparkle, and in the background I can see the Puente Colgante that we had used half an hour ago.

We continue crossing mountains and ugly beach resorts with beautiful sand beaches, until we reach Laredo. It is another old city center with another sandy beach and many more ugly appartment houses.

I am hungry. Heavy traffic here and not one single free parking lot. Finally we find one single free slot right in front of a pintxo bar. We have some tapas, drink some water, and as we want to leave… we find our car locked behind two cars parked on my side. One driver sits in his car and leaves. The second driver is nowhere. Ursula contends that now it is possible to get out. I am not convinced. Maneuvering on to the sidewalk around a tree and a hydrant and with the help of Ursula, of two more men and one women showing to me, how close I am to all that, I finally get out – but I am not really amused. “Land und Leute” or “country and people”, Ursula says, shrugging her shoulder. Hmm. I am not against “Land und Leute”, but to my opinion there are limits…

We take the motor way and one hour later we arrive in La Casona de los Güelitos in Santillana del Mar. I do feel at home in this quiet old country house that has been tastefully renovated.

The sun shines and after a short siesta we decide to visit the mountains south of  Santillana. Ursula has selected Bárcena Mayor that is said to be a typical Cantabrian mountain village. Driving through smooth, green hills with pastures, we reach a large parking area. A signboard promises restaurants, shops  hotels and guest houses. We get to a well-kept pretty village with thriving flowers all over, but it is empty. Not one shop open, not one restaurant open, everything dead. Pretty, but empty on this Monday.

We leave this place and continue uphill, uphill, uphill. A gorgeous panorama here. Smooth hills, green pastures with cattle – cows of all colours, goat and sheep.

After the Puerto de Palombera on 1250 above sea level we reach a high plateau with the Alto Campoo and the Pico Tres Mares behind us. The rivers that emerge here go either to the Atlantic in the north, to the Atlantic in the west or to the Mediterranean (hence tres mares). Signs point to the source of the Ebro. We find it, blue-green, in a lush forest.

It is a pozo (well) that emerges from the karst ground. The water comes from the creek El Hijar that originates at the sides of the Pico Tres Mares, disappears and appears again here, near Fontibre. The water is blue-green, due to the plaster, clay  and limestone that the water picks up underground before emerging. This is one well of the Ebro, there are more that have the label “source of the Ebro”.

What starts here as a small creek, flows through Spain – 910 km – ending in the Ebrodelta with its abundant bird life and rice fields (foto taken in November 2018).

We return to our Casa de Güelitos to have dinner in the small  restaurant. I have three kinds of cheese from Cantabria, a solomillo and a glass of Rioja tinto.

We sleep well in our quiet guest house. In the morning, I can hear a cock crow.