Continuing my countdown having already covered numbers ten to fifteen (10. Toledo 11. Cadiz 12. Vitoria-Gasteiz 13. Palma, 14. Denia & 15. Malaga).
Number Nine – Madrid
The fact that the modern day capital is relatively low on the list says more about how lucky Spain is to have so many great cities than it being in any way sub-standard.
Madrid is a party town that is said to stay open twenty-four hours a day and to have more entertainment establishments per head of capita than any other city. We did not test out either fact, but suffice to say we were not short of brilliant places to eat, drink or listen to music in.
There are some really brilliant tapas restaurants. Go late for a brilliant vibe but expect the hardship of having to wait for a tiny table in a corner whilst quaffing amazing red wine!
Some of the oldest and best are situated on Cava Baja in the La Latina neighborhood. The atmosphere with drinkers & diners spilling onto the street is fantastic.
I have visited four times and apart from going to watch the mighty Real Madrid play Monaco in the Champions League and taking in opera at the opulent Opera House, the most memorable trip was when Mrs Wilbur and I ventured there at Easter time.
We were treated to some amazing parades, featuring hooded worshippers bound in chains carrying the epitaph of Jesus and a depiction of the Virgin Mary through the streets to the imposing main cathedral.
Saturday night was party time after the Messiah had risen, fireworks everywhere and plenty of festive eating and drinking.
Other highlights included the majestic Royal Palace with its richly decorated interiors and exquisite furnishings, plus the city’s gargantuan squares, topped by the architectural jewel that is Plaza Mayor. For the first and only time, we even had our caricature portraits done there, now gathering dust inside a cardboard tube in our loft somewhere!
Number Eight – Bilbao
Mrs Wilbur and I travelled with our friend Chris in October 2016 on low cost carrier Vueling out of Gatwick and headed for our central AirBNB two bedroom apartment which was booked for the bargain price of €228 for four nights.
We had struck lucky weather wise with all four days reaching 25+.
Day one was spent wandering. We got our first proper sight of the iconic Guggenheim at the end of a long street, but avoided the obvious draw as we had decided on the walk suggested by our guidebook that would take us along the River Nervion as we traversed new town to old.
We quickly noticed that the local dialect was totally different to Spanish or Catalan. Road sign spellings were more akin to a Scandinavian language than a Indo-European one. In fact nobody really knows the origin of the Basque lingo, but for such a relatively small region flanked by French and Spanish, it is quite remarkable how very different the language is.
Bilbao is a perfect place for strolling, a compelling mix of old and new architecture, quirky objets d’art and leafy parks.
There are bus and tram options, but à pied is the best option to see all the centre has to offer.
Our first proper stop was an old wine warehouse converted by French designer Philippe Starck into an culture and leisure facility called the Alhóndiga. Most striking were the imaginatively decorated stubby pillars, which looked as it they had been squashed under the weight of the roof.
After taking in some wonderful buildings, remarkable art nouveau features and a lake filled park with crumbling pavilion, we found ourselves following the twisting river.
After our third bend, the shining facade of the Guggenheim crept into view. Before long we were beside the curious structure designed by Canadian-American architect Frank Gehry and inaugurated 1997 by the former king, Juan Carlos I.
It was best viewed from on high up on the main bridge crossing the river. From there you could properly appreciate the majestic curves of the titanium covered building.
None of us were fans of modern art (apologies to Francis Bacon whose work was being exhibited), so we were all more than satisfied with the sparkling copper coloured facade. Was it depicting billowing sails or the bow of a ship? The architect himself merely stated “the randomness of the curves are designed to catch the light”. Whatever it appears to be to the enthralled observer, very pleasing on the eye it was indeed.
A giant Daliesque arachnid stood guard on the adjacent promenade, a magnet for tourists and local kids alike.
At the top of the steps standing guard on the other side of the museum was a situated a huge flower arrangement in the shape of a giant dog. It was pretty threadbare for our visit, but in full bloom it looked pretty amazing, as we witnessed at nearby postcard sellers.
We criss-crossed the river a couple of times and soon found ourselves in the typical Spanish old town.
The Gothic cathedral was disappointing in as much as it was swamped by other buildings making it hard to take a representative photo.
It was in the vicinity of the main old town square that we had our first taste of the famous local snack known as pintxos.
For €1-2 you take your pick from a wide selection of little open sandwiches. Most have three mouth-watering layers. Ham, mushroom dip and black olives, smoked salmon & taramasalata topped with a shrimp, black pudding, rocket and horseradish and many more, all held together by a cocktail stick.
With a very acceptable Rioja at around €1.50 a glass, it was hard to tear ourselves away.
In the evening the Guggenheim, the river and the bridges looked splendid all lit up. We ventured once more to the old town for more delicious pintxos and red wine.
The main square was crammed with bars on all four sides, so we were spoilt for choice. We seemingly couldn’t go wrong so visited three different establishments before wandering to our apartment via the next door bar, where we enjoyed a nightcap before retiring.
Next day we treated ourselves to a top-flight football match, the Basque derby between Athletic Bilbao and Osasuna.
Athletic have the distinction of only selecting players born in the Basque region of Spain & France. They do appear to bend the rules a little nowadays, but certainly the vast majority are Basque born.
Bilbao is also great for exploring nearby towns and cities including Vitoria-Gasteiz and San Sebastian.
Number Seven – Segovia
Our entry point to the lovely small city was Madrid. We hot-footed it as fast as we could to Chamartín station to take the super slick AVE train for twenty-nine minutes and one stop to Segovia in the Castile and León region of Spain. €26 was a little pricey, but all part of the fun experience.
Even though we were being whisked along at 250 kmph we could see we were heading somewhere special if the snow clad peaks of the Sierra de Guadarrama were anything to go by.
Our experienced and knowledgeable taxi driver took us from the out of town AVE station and gave us commentary in Spanish as he went. Despite being non-speakers we understood when he pointed out the circling storks and their precipitous nests atop chimneys and spires.
I closed my eyes when he pointed out the incredibly well preserved Roman aqueduct – I wanted to savour it properly next day so avoided even a sideways glance.
Our hotel, the Infanta Isabel was situated right in the main square and we were lucky to get rooms on the second floor overlooking the square, Segovia’s cathedral and the other interesting buildings such as the cabaret theatre.
First stop next morning was the aqueduct situated on the edge of the walled old town.
Well, admittedly I am yet to see Pont du Gard in France (although I have been to impressive Caesarea in Israel), but you would be hard-pressed to find a better example of such a structure (unless you know better of course!).
What makes the construction even more remarkable is that no mortar of any kind has been used with the giant rocks welded together by their own mighty force made possible by the brilliant design of what is essentially a giant jigsaw puzzle. That it has stood virtually undamaged for nearly 2,000 years is testament to the Roman’s incredible engineering prowess.
It was built at the end of the 1st century and was in use until the middle of the 19th. It is comprised of 166 stone arches on granite ashlars.
The aqueduct once transported water from the Rio Frio river, situated in mountains 17 km from the city in the La Acebeda region. It runs 15 km before arriving in the city and at its tallest reaches a height of 28.5 metres, including nearly 6 metres of foundation.
We followed its length sited above ground. Of course the balance of its main channel had to remain consistent so that the water would flow. This means that the height of the arches had to be in harmony with the lie of the land.
Therefore at the end of its visible structure, the channel was clear to see before it disappeared underground. A truly amazing geometrical site.
We walked back up to its highest point trying to get some photographs to do the huge beast justice. This is however one place definitely best viewed close up for yourself to appreciate its enormity and splendour.
Segovia is brilliant for just wandering around the ancient streets, stopping every hour for a drink and tapas snack.
Its other major draw is its majestic cathedral.
The Cathedral dedicated to Virgin Mary is the latest completed Gothic version in Spain and a very fine example it is too. Construction started in 1525 and the cathedral was finally consecrated in 1768
Beautiful vaulted ceilings and stained glass windows as is the norm at all the best cathedrals, and a fabulous cloisters too. We ambled around for a good hour until it was time to get a little physical.
We were led to the back of the sacred building and through a metal gate. There were seven of us plus the guide and it soon became clear that we were the only non-Spanish speakers there. The tour was conducted entirely in Spanish, not that we minded much as we were only there for the view.
We were spoken at for what seemed an age on the ground, so feigned understanding/interest by nodding now and again whenever the guide made eye contact.
After fifteen minutes of interesting/useless information we were let off the leash. Up we went the first flight of 80 odd stone steps and stepped into a barren room, its original purpose we never did find out.
It soon became clear that we were to be ‘treated’ to an informative film show, narrated by a hologram of chief architect Rodrigo Gil de Hontañón about the building of the great cathedral. The lights were dimmed, the guide stopped talking for the first time since we had met her and Rodrigo piped up.
Thankfully there were English subtitles so we at least understood the story being told. As interesting as I am sure it was, I just wanted to get to the top and philistine like I paid little attention to the commentary that explained how the tons of materials for building were gathered and the many thousands of man hours expended in the construction.
After twenty minutes or so the show was over. We were not however free yet as there was a question and answer session. One guy enthusiastically asked a series of questions whilst the rest of us itched to continue upwards as soon as possible.
We had our wish eight minutes later and were soon trudging heavy-footed up the twisting steps to what we found out to be the penultimate level where cathedral caretakers and their families lived. The quarters were unfurnished so that it took a fair amount of imagination to visualise the area as living quarters.
We were ‘guided’ for ten minutes, but thankfully the Q&A drew a blank this time so we were promptly on our way up the last flight of steps to the bell tower.
This is what we had come for so happily ignored the incomprehensible guide and just wandered about taking in the spectacular views of the mountains, rooftops of the old town, the alcazar and of course the aqueduct.
We also saw the impressive huge bells close up, but resisted the urge to give them a ring and used them as foreground to some photos instead.
The guide wittered on for ages. She must of thought we were either rude, ignorant, stupid or foreign, or possibly all four! This however gave us ample time to take it all in and store the scenery into the memory bank.
The time came for the decent so we clip-clopped down the entire stone staircase with thankfully no commentary stops on the way down.
We were soon back outside in the sunshine to reunite with Mrs Wilbur and drink a well earned beer after all that step aerobics and ninety minutes of overly enthusiastic Spanish. The gratis pieces of crispy suckling pig went down a treat too!
It was all well worth the effort – a must do activity if you ever visit the lovely city.
The alcazar, river walks and nearby villages are also top notch. We spent four days there and that was not quite enough.
Coming next – 6 to 4