Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Colin Churcher - Spain 2007

For an illustrated account of this trip see:

Wednesday 6 June 2007 - Madrid

Slept quite well and had coffee at the Chamartin station concourse. It is a great place with lots of shops and easy passenger information. Bright and friendly.
We then took the Metro to Callao and called at Chocolateria San Gines for a decadent breakfast of chocolate con churros. The churros were thinner than in Latin America but the chocolate was a sauce similar to what one would pour over a hot fudge sundae rather than a drink. It was good for dunking but too thick for drinking.
We followed a walk in the guide book through the Plaza Mayor past the 17th cent. Ayuntamiento and eventually to the Plaza de America where the band and soldiers, foot and on horseback, were marching in to change the guard.
We had lunch at the multi-level Sobrina de Botin which was good but highly priced.
Gaspacho/Ensalada riojana
Gambas al ajillo/Suckling pig
Bottle of rioja
Very good. The place is reputed to be the oldest restaurant in the world. The basement kitchen has pig heads stacked up beside the wood-burning oven.
On to Plaza de Espagna and the jardines de Ferraz. We then went back to the Plaza de Espagna and along the Gran Via to the Gran Via metro from where we took metro line 1 back to Chamartin. Gran Via is a wide boulevard which was put through in the 1920s. The adjacent buildings are quite impressive.
Metro line 1 is presumably the first one and the cars are smaller and don't have the wide corridor connections but just emergency doors. They have old style manually opened doors and the older type of motors and brakes.
The station at Chamartin is impressive. The metro is on two levels and both have additional platforms built for new lines. The entire section has been excavated and the escalators and very wide circulating areas give a very open and airy feel. A multi-storey-high wall is covered in light tubes with lights flickering down, giving the impression of flowing water.
The RENFE station is equally impressive. There are lots of shops and cafes and it is a very lively place. The train departure areas and information seem to be easy to use.
After a rest we went on the new light rail line from Pinar de Charmartin to Las Tablas. It was only opened on May 24 and there seemed to be a few minor teething troubles. The driver had problems getting the train into the final station. It kept going into emergency at 3 kmph. There is a well restored tram on display at Pinar de Charmartin station. It was inside and protected by a glass partition.
The tramway uses quite a lot of tunnel and the above ground section is through areas of dense housing.

Thursday 7 June – Madrid to Santiago de Compostela

We decided to check out of the hotel quite early and leave our bags at the consigne at the station. We had difficulty in working the system but it turned out that it was the computer and not us.
The Renfe Cercanias suburban train is quicker to get to Atocha than the metro. Atocha is big with lots of platforms and the concourse is confusing to get around.
We walked into the gardens by the Prado where there were a bunch of small schoolchildren going in. I can't imagine what there would be for them which would be suitable as most of the paintings are religious ones showing people nailed up with arrows sticking into them and dying in agony.
We walked up to Retiro and along to Sol via a cafe and the Banco de Espana then we took the metro back to Chamartin.
After a tapas lunch we liberated our cases, bought food for the train and went to the first class lounge to wait for the train.
It was a two unit Talgo train with portions for Ponevedra and Coruña. The seats are very low to the ground and the rails seem very close to the window. The single axles give a strange sound and the banking mechanism was a little suspect at low speeds through switches. The first class is good but was populated with old biddies who were very confused as to which were their seats but had no trouble making a bee line for the bar car.
We soon left Madrid behind and were passing through olive groves within 15 minutes of leaving. The train is low to the ground but rides quite well. However, the four distinctive towers under construction at Chamartin were visible on the skyline for some time after this.
Tasting of cheeses on board the train:
Nata cantabria (cow): (2) soft cheese with a good bite.
Roncari (sheep): (1) open texture, bite of a good aged cheddar, good after taste.
Idiazabal (sheep): Open texture, almost smoked, medium strong.
Mahon Semi (cow): soft firm texture, good medium flavour.
Manchego de mi pueblo (sheep): good texture but a little mild.
There was a change of direction at Medina del Campo where a diesel locomotive was added which helped improve the timekeeping.
Wild upland with deep valleys, very difficult to build a railway - high fills, deep cuts and many tunnels. Windmills, gorse, heather, slate.
The old ladies were going to Santiago as well and at the timetabled arrival time they got down their cases and camped at the exit not knowing that the train was running late and getting later. There was a lengthy unscheduled stop about 15 minutes out of Santiago and they took the opportunity to complain to one of the train crew. They made such a noise that many other passengers got up and crowded around to hear and join in the fun. It was all taken in good sport and everybody parted on good terms at Santiago which was reached almost an hour late.
The Parador Hotel Dos Reis Catolicos, one of the most magnificent inns in Spain, is one of the pearls of the Parador chain. In the 15th century, the building housed a pilgrims' hospice, which nurtured the sick and sheltered the humble, who journeyed from all parts of Europe to visit the tomb of Saint James. The Parador has four interior patios—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—overlooked by enclosed third-floor gallery/lounge areas lined with antiques. The central court (where a music festival is held every August) has a 15-meter ceiling and beautiful stained-glass windows.

Friday 8 June

We had the entire day to ourselves in Santiago de Compostela. The buffet breakfast at the Parador was very good and contained a large selection, including many local specialities such as fried peppers.
It is very easy to get lost here. The maps with the buildings shown as pictures in their correct location are pretty much useless and we found that one provided by the tourist office was the easiest to use. Even with this and continuous reference to the compass on my wristwatch, it was still very difficult to find our way around. It was perhaps made more difficult by the layout of the Parador and the fact that the side of the cathedral is on the main square, not the front of it.
We went into a bar for a couple of bottles of water and were offered plates of potatoes and squid bubbling away in oil.
While waiting for lunch we had a beer in a small bar and were given a plate of peanuts as well as a couple of pieces of tortilla.
There are quite marked divisions between the tourist areas and the parts frequented by the real people. We found a restaurant which had a couple of menus del dia and went in. It was close to the Police Station and several policemen came into the bar.
Cod with potatoes and peas/pork with fries
Tarta de Santiago.
The tarta is made with almonds and is finished with a dusting of icing sugar.
For supper we bought a local semi soft smoked cheese, Simon Da Costa (€6.50), a 1½ litre bottle of water (€0.19), and a bottle of Alvarino (€8.00) - total cost €14.69.

Saturday 9 June – Santiago de Compostela – El Ferrol - El Transcantabrico - Vivero

Today we join the El Transcantabrico tour group for our nine-day luxury rail journey across northern Spain.
We got up late and had another excellent buffet breakfast – it was fun to carve off a piece of ham. After a walk through town we checked out and met some of the other El Transcantabrico tour members including Ann and Jim Treloar whom I had last seen in Basildon, England in 1961.
The majority of the tour members had booked through a British tour company, however, there was a small group of Spaniards who had booked directly with the train company, and they tended to stick together. After a chilly beginning between the English- and Spanish-speaking tour members, a warm-though-distant cordiality developed after a few boozy lunches and dinners.
On the first day, there was a city tour of Santiago de Compostela and a wonderful lunch at the Parador. It was all good but the scallop was exceptional. This was accompanied by Alvariño and Rioja, both very good. It was topped off with white aguardiente and licor de hierbas, a pleasant yellow colour.
The bus trip to Ferrol was quite short and pleasant as a result of the alcohol and a lively discussion with Janet and Bill from Perth. The bus would follow along with the train, and take us on local tours and to lunches and dinners in various villages and towns along the way.
The El Transcantabrico train crew were lined up waiting for us and were introduced individually. We then went into the lounge for a welcome glass of champagne with toasts.
Our cabin is excellent if a little snug. Everything works and there is even a shower with a sauna. If the bed were a little (OK, a lot) wider and longer, it would be perfect.
The journey to Viveiro was quite short and the town tour was punctuated by a heavy downpour accompanied by thunder and lightning. The town has old walls but the buildings are relatively recent.
The most impressive part was a visit to a church where a service was in progress. The roof was bare wood with the rafters visible and the pews were full.
Dinner was excellent. The mariscos were amazing. They put a plate of crab parts in front of us and we started off well. There was an inverted crab shell with a sauce and red roe which was excellent. They then brought small, whole crabs, which were very good, plates of shrimp and finally langoustine which were excellent. The main course was an excellent steamed hake and this was followed by an almond tart and queimada which is aguardiente, sugar and apple, flamed and served hot. The hake was absolutely delicious, it was served with potatoes and leeks with saffron. The meal was prepared with extremely fresh ingredients simply prepared. The seafood tasted of the sea.
There was a choice of Galician white (Ribadeo) or Rioja and there were liqueurs (aguadiente, coffee cream, licor de hierbas).
An exceptional meal.

Sunday 10 June – Vivero to Rias Altas – Ribadeo - Luarca

Sleeping was difficult because the bed is narrow and short. As tour members arrived in the bar cars for breakfast, everyone looked rather tired and admitted that the beds were not quite large enough for a comfortable night’s sleep.
The shower worked very well indeed, though we quickly discovered that it was best to shower before the train started moving. Once the train was in motion, so was the unfortunate person in the shower.
There was a clear blue sky this morning which contrasted sharply with the cloudy, thundery weather of yesterday. The line runs along the coast for part of the way with good views of small coves and sandy beaches protected by rocky promontories. There are many eucalyptus trees. We enjoyed the scenery with a leisurely breakfast but decided not to start off with champagne. The wine has been plentiful and excellent thus far, but there is a long way to go before our trip ends.
There are large stones placed on the roofs of many houses supposedly to counteract the wind.
Photo op at Las Catedrales.
Oreos are used for storing maize. These are built up off the ground to prevent rodents getting in.
Lunch was at the Parador Ribadeo. The octopus, clams and mussels were good but the soup and the fish stew were a little disappointing after the very high standards of yesterday.
I rode the head end from Ribadeo to Luarca. The locomotive, 1903, is a diesel electric which can also operate as a straight electric. It was very quiet in the cab. There is a computer screen showing the operating parameters (throttle, sand, brake) and another screen shows the state of the locomotive (oil temperature). The screen can also show the phone and radio systems and dial a call where necessary. In addition, the engineer also had a FEVE cellphone.
The track was mainly jointed after we had crossed the border into Asturias. The driver exceeded the speed limit by over 10 per cent on several occasions. On three occasions he had to exceed his authority and pass a red signal; this was covered in the rules but is not good practice.
We had a meet with a passenger train at Navia and a freight train after we arrived at Luarca.
Luarca is a pleasant seaport with some interesting views over the town. We had the option of staying in the town or coming back to the train for a short rest and we chose the latter as it was beginning to rain and also because we were very tired after a restless night in that too-small bed. We made the right choice, because only a few minutes behind us, tour members arrived back at the train soaked to the skin from the downpour that we had just missed.
Dinner was good but not spectacular as were the meals yesterday. The asparagus stuffed with sea urchin caviar was very good.

Monday 11 June – Cudillero fishing village – Oviedo - Gijon

We were up later today and had a leisurely breakfast. Cudillero marks the beginning of the overhead wires and the locomotive changed over to straight electric. At Trubia the loco ran around the train and came into Oviedo.
At Oviedo Mary decided to go on the town tour while Colin went on the visit of the workshops at El Berron, where the train is serviced. They do maintenance and repairs on locomotives and multiple units (electric and diesel) for Asturias. They even designed and built the diesel electric/electric locomotives used on El Transcantabrico. We saw the transfer table in use as well as a car being prepared for the paintshop.
We walked across the famous diamonds, originally standard and metre gauges and caught a diesel local train back to Ovieto.
Lunch was a little way from the station. The crab soup and onion stuffed with ham were excellent although the sausages and beans was a little heavy. The green apple liqueur was excellent.
We walked back to the station and the train left for Gijon via El Berron.
After a city tour of Gijon we had some free time in the city. It is quite pleasant but many buildings were destroyed during the war and they have been replaced by characterless, nasty structures and there are some decrepit apartment buildings close to the park with a great overlook.
We saw several people drinking the local cider. It is very weak and has to be poured at arms length into the glass to aerate it and give it some froth.

Tuesday 12 June – Gijon to Arriondas – Picos de Europa national park – Lakes Enol & Ercina – sanctuary of Covadonga – Cangas de Onis – River Sella – Ribadesella - Llanes

We had a leisurely ride to Arriondas during breakfast. It was punctuated by a 20 minute wait at one point for an opposing passenger train.
Just after arriving we were advised that there was a freight train coming and the Jefe del estacion stopped it for a photo opportunity by holding out a red flag so that we could photograph it.
The Arriondas station is spotless and there is very close coordination with the buses - the bus station was right across the station forecourt.
The ride up to the lake in Picos de Europa national park was spectacular, if a little unnerving at times. Just by the lake there was a short stop to sample Asturian cheeses and some cider which is poured into glasses from a great height. It was quite a windy day, and no one, including Mary, was successful in getting the cider to fall into the glass from a great height.
There were a couple of stops on the way back at the place where the Visigoths beat the Muslims and Cangres de Onis with its Romanesque bridge.
Lunch was on board the train at Arriondas. After this we rode the short distance to Ribadesella alongside the Sella river which is well known for canoeing and its canoe festival. During the festival the FEVE runs a twenty car special along this section which stops at various locations to view the progress. The branch to the harbour at Ribadesella is used by this train, the only movement to do so during the year.
We had a short ride into town but by common consensus decided to return to the train for a siesta as it was pretty hot.
There was a short ride to Llanes where we met the westbound Transcantabrico. It seems that the crew has a water fight as the trains are passing. We didn’t know this and some of the passengers were caught in the crossfire. Fortunately it was only water and it dried quickly. Our train crew apologized to us after we were soaked, because they thought our tour guide had told us what would be happening, but she hadn’t.
Llanes is a small, but interesting town with some fascinating buildings including a casino and an ayuntamiento. It is an old fishing village and the beach access is being rebuilt. It will be good when it is completed but is a mess at the moment.

Wednesday 13 June – Llanes to Cabezon de la Sal – Neocave museum of Altamira – Santillana del Mar - Santander

I was up early so as to be on the engine before leaving Llanes at 0715 for Cabezon de la Sal. This was a new engineer and he was a little surprised to see me but made me welcome. The entire trip was made in diesel as the wires do not start until Cabezon de la Sal. The first part was over good track but later on the track was bad with bad ties, poor rail and bad level. There were a number of speed restrictions because of bad track. There were some sections with bad drainage.
Speed restrictions are shown by a figure in a diamond while the end of speed restrictions is shown by a white square.
Gated crossings are shown by an illuminated "X" signal which is red when open to the road and green when the barriers are down. These are placed at the braking distance and repeated if necessary for sighting. If the signal remains red the train must stop and presumably flag across.
We were authorized to pass a red signal to get into Cabezon.
The visit to the Altamira Caves was very good - the guide was very enthusiastic. The actual caves are no longer visited by tourists because they were destroying the caves by their presence. The museum is an excellent representation of the caves, and worthwhile to visit.
Santillana del Mar has a good selection of old buildings with a variety of styles and ages. It was pleasant wandering around, the cobble stones are not very even and there were a lot of tourist stores.
Lunch at the Parador was good and we slept or dozed all of the way to Santander.
Much of Santander was destroyed in the war and then by a fire so there is not a lot to see of a historic nature. The beaches are good and there are some pleasant gardens but nothing of note.
Dinner was good. The crab was very tasty as was the grilled hake even though it required a lot of work to separate the meat from the bones.

Thursday 14 June – Santander to Bilbao & Guggenheim Museum - Mercadillo

We got off to a slow start this morning. Mary went first into the shower and the train started moving just before Colin's shave – always a dangerous activity in a moving train.
The ride to Bilbao is through pleasant rural countryside with small-scale sheep and cattle farming and many small dense woods including stands of pine, fir and eucalyptus. Vast tangles of undergrowth with brambles, vines, grasses, dragonflies.
Bilbao looks to be an interesting place although the traffic is bad. We had a full forty minutes at the Guggenheim Museum which was long enough according to everyone on board the train except for Mary, who loved it and knew we would be returning in a few days to spend more time there. The Gallery of Fishes was interesting and we enjoyed the echoes within the various sheets of steel. Lunch was good and for once there was no shellfish. The fish stew was tuna which was very fresh. The red wine was just a little bit better than the white.
After lunch we started off with Alia on a walking tour of the old town, but soon decided to break off on our own.
We made our way to the Riberia tram stop and caught the tram back to the station. The heavens opened just as we arrived back at the train.
There is a small 0-4-0 tank engine at the Santander station which is very cramped indeed, especially when one of the two platforms is occupied by El Transcantabrico.
We left on time - we would have had to in order to avoid disrupting the timetable - and followed the Santander-Bilbao line as far as Guëñes where the La Robla line branches off.
There was a locomotive change at Balmaseda where we lost our electric/diesel electric hybrid 1912 for a straight diesel 1666. We were allowed to get down and wander around the yard while the change was taking place. There is a diesel on standby to rescue electric trains if necessary. It has the usual knuckle coupler but is also fitted with an adapter to couple to electric trains.
The white wine was exceptional - Txakoli is a local wine but it had an aroma of burnt sugar or molasses yet tasted strongly of lemon.
Very heavy use of olive oil made for some exceptional dishes.

Friday 15 June – Mercadillo to Vado Cervera – Villalcazar – Guardo - Cistierna

We started out through a wide, fairly flat valley with steep sides capped with limestone cliffs. The line twists and turns although it could have been made straighter with a little engineering. This may have reduced construction costs but limits line speeds. Some parts were rough, particularly at breakfast.
At Embalse (reservoir) de Ebro there is a large sand quarry which provides traffic for the railway. A coal train was ready to leave for Bilbao behind two electro-diesels and there was an empty sand train waiting to go into the plant.
12 villages were inundated during construction and people were relocated and given new homes. 11 km of railway were relocated.
At Matapourquera we transferred to the bus for Carrion de los Condes which is on the road to Santiago de Compostela. There were several walkers lying around as well as some discarded boots. The whole place is geared to pilgrims and people were not very pleasant.
Carrion de los Condes. This has an impressive church while one house had about ten storks nesting on the various chimneys. The village is, again, geared to the pilgrims. We went into a bar and had a caña while waiting for the bus.
We visited a flight of locks close to a cheese factory.
Lunch was in the style of the pilgrims. It was pretty elaborate and if they had eaten like this they would probably have taken a long siesta afterwards. We had to wait outside while a man dressed in pilgrims' habit greeted us. He banged on the floor with his staff then blew his horn.
After lunch we visited the roman ruins which were very large and contained many mosaics but they were incomplete and the colours were washed out.
Then on to Guardo station for the ride to Cistierna in the cab of 1666. The diesel was much noisier and dirtier than the electro-diesel. There was a fearsome climb out of Guardo which we were able to make at around 30 kmph. The entire stretch is well ballasted with good ties. Most of the rail is jointed but there was just the one section of welded rail and concrete ties on a curve. There was one short section with mud pumping.
The engine didn't seem to be very lively and the engineer was impatient at times at the delay in getting it to load.
The engineer frequently ignored whistle signs and when he did all he achieved was a short fart. Many of the rural crossings are very dangerous. Very few have crossing planks and several had the rails high above the road surface making it difficult, if not impossible, to get any kind of wheeled vehicle across. All the railway has done is to put up stop signs.
It was interesting to see how the engineer controlled the train using the dynamic brake. This avoids using the train air brakes and reduces maintenance. Even when coming into Cistierna he was able to reduce the speed sufficiently that the train stopped by itself without the use of the air brakes.

Saturday 16 June – Cistierna to Leon

The Parador Hostal de San Marcos in Leon is elegantly installed in what was originally an elaborate, stone monastery commissioned by Ferdinand at the beginning of the 16th century. Before its conversion to a hotel in 1965, it was used as a military prison and stable, seeing lots of activity during the Civil War. Behind its immense facade are over 200 rooms. The rest of the space is occupied by an exquisite stone patio peopled with statues of saints, an archaeological museum, a chapel, spacious lounges, hallways lavishly furnished with antiques, and a modern restaurant offering a delectable dinner menu (we enjoyed superb scallops "vieiras"). A few suites discovered off a maze of creaky, worn hallways are large and comfortable with high ceilings, old-world ambiance, and antique furnishings — a real treat. To the rear is a 1965 extension where rooms and several suites are found down long, broad corridors. With balconies overlooking a quiet garden, these spacious rooms and suites maintain a traditional Spanish flavor.
We had a walking tour of the city and then went to the Parador.
The most impressive part of the tour was the cathedral which was bright and airy as a result of some of the best stained glass windows I have ever seen. They claim it is the best and most extensive in the world and I don't doubt it. It is sad to reflect that the church is unable or unwilling to maintain the cathedral.

The tour group has dispersed and we are now on our own.

Sunday 17 June - Leon

My bank card wouldn't work this morning but fortunately Mary's worked alright. Mine is probably dirty.
We went back to the cathedral. The bells sound terrible, they may be cracked but they have no ringing sound - more like a croak really. Inside, the organ was being played badly with many wrong notes while the priest who was doing the warm up for the 12 o'clock mass was singing tunelessly and off key. It was enough to drive people into the bars. The only people in the congregation were old crones and miserable looking old men, many of them deformed. The church hasn't done much to reform its image.
There is a good argument to turn over these historic structures to a theme park. Several of the windows had pieces missing yet the church is only able to restore one window a year - and they have several hundred.
We came across a procession with a band playing out of tune. One of the drummers hit his thumb on the side of the drum. They were followed by small kids dressed up in formal military uniforms with the girls in long dresses.
The incense went out and the man carrying it had trouble relighting it with a cigarette lighter as he was missing the critical end part of his finger.
The women wearing mantillas were very formal in long dresses and high heels. There were gypsy women in traditional dress with wonderfully embroidered shawls.
The holy grail was carried on the shoulders of many men who swayed from side to side when standing still. There was not much room in the narrow streets and it was quite a trick to get it around some of the corners.
Among the crowds lined up along the narrow streets, there were many women wearing very sparkly red or black shoes– rather Cinderella-like.
Lunch in La Piconera in the old section.
Local wine, white, Dominio de Tares. This was very good with a nose of oak. Very complex flavour, starting with citrus and ending with blackcurrant. It is made from the Godello grape and matured in casks of french oak.
Cod with langoustines and baby eels/marinated lamb chop drowning in olive oil (this was very nasty)

Monday 18 June – Leon to Bilbao

LEON 14:52 14:54
SAHAGUN 15:24 15:25
PALENCIA 15:55 15:57
BURGOS 16:42 16:44
MIRANDA DE EBRO 17:40 18:05
LLODIO 19:19
It turned out that our train was, in fact, two trains. It originated in Vigo and divided at Miranda de Ebro into a section for Hendaye/Irun and a section for Bilbao. I took the trouble to find out where our car was in the train - it was at the end - but I needn't have worried as the train was just three cars and only one went through to Bilbao.
It was an ageing UIC type car in excellent condition which rode extremely well on the excellent track. I didn't notice one bad rail joint. Electrified all the way, there is a lot of welded rail and concrete ties.
The first surprise was a lady who got on at Leon to clean the cars including the WCs. She cleaned off all the end partitions and the vestibules. I've never seen this before.
There was a small bar/counter in the middle car and we acquired the last bottle of vino blanco along with a bottle of rosado. We drank this with a piece of well-aged cheese acquired at a supermercado in Leon.
At Miranda de Ebro the front portion left with the train loco and our solitary coach departed with a new locomotive. This was certainly enough power for the one car.
From Leon to Miranda de Ebro the country is dry plain. From Miranda de Ebro the character changed to a greener pastoral scene with dairy farming. We passed through wide valleys with steep sided limestone caps. In the setting sun it was a delightful ride which one hoped would never end.
Two plain clothes policemen very quietly worked their way through the train targeting certain travellers (young men traveling alone) and asking for identification and searching through their bags. This was shortly after the ceasefire between ETA and the Spanish government came to an abrupt end.
We lost several minutes getting everybody on at Leon. Further time was lost through track work and getting around a train of heavy steel coils which was put on to the right hand line in order for us to overtake. Good station work at Miranda de Ebro reduced the deficit and we actually arrived on time thanks to a generous recovery allowance on the final leg.
It was a short walk to the Lopez de Haro which is a five star bijou hotel close to the Guggenheim.
We walked over the footbridge and had a drink looking at Puppy, the massive art work with a flower arrangement in the shape of a dog sitting in front of the Guggenheim. Apparently this is a favorite of residents of Bilbao, who call it “Poopie”.
The Guggenheim is a beautiful structure that has regenerated the whole area. There are heavily used walk/bicycle paths along both sides of the river, a great people-watching place.

Tuesday 20 June – Bilbao to Zaragoza

The funicular was crowded with schoolchildren from an English-language school. They spoke English when they were within hearing of the teacher but Spanish when they were away. The views from the lookout were good and showed the conurbation snaking along the river but with green fields and forests on the hillsides. We could hear farm animals from the lookout.
We took the tram to the end of the line at Basurtu and then came straight back to Axturri which is a narrow gauge railway terminus. There was a Chopin etude playing over the loudspeaker system. Other trams were playing light orchestral classics – very civilized.
We visited the covered market, reputed to be the largest in Europe. The ground floor and basement are in use but the enormous top floor is vacant and looks to be in preparation for an exhibition. There are two large stained glass windows in the top floor. The entire building looks tired from the outside but is bustling inside.
Pastel Basko is a local specialty made with almonds and fruit in a pie.
Lunch was adequate but forgettable after which we visited Abando station where Mary checked out places for breakfast tomorrow while Colin bought a ticket to the first station out to gain access to the platform to photograph the Beyer Peacock 4-4-0 tank at the end of the platform. It is called "Izarra" and needs a bit of attention before the weather gets to it.
A tram ride took us to Euskalduna where we sheltered from a wind storm before walking through the park to get to the Guggenheim museum. After careful consideration I still feel that my initial impression is correct "It's a load of bollocks." Mary thought it was wonderful and suggested I leave so she could enjoy it in peace.
I left before Mary did.
We went for a walk in the evening to the Plaza de Funicular and had drinks and tapas.

Wednesday 21 June – Bilbao to Zaragoza

LLODIO 10:29 10:30
MIRANDA DE EBRO 11:41 11:51
HARO 12:08 12:09
LOGRONO 12:44 12:46
CALAHORRA 13:16 13:17
ALFARO 13:29 13:30
Walking to the station we came to several schoolchildren waiting with their parents to catch the school bus. We don't know whether or not this was a special excursion but the bus was an air conditioned luxury coach with two doors. They were just about to leave when a woman drove a car across its bows and brought out two late comers.
Two teenaged girls handing out the free local daily paper at the entrance to the train station were pretty happy when Mary gave them two Bilbao transit Creditrans cards with €2.48 left on each. Their initial looks of confusion turned into big grins and they waved goodbye to us as we disappeared into the station.
Abando station is pretty calm during the rush hour even though it would appear to receive about 22 Cercanias trains an hour.
Security at the station was strong. Our bags were X-rayed before going on the train. A cop marched off a man in ragged clothing who was attempting to get into the station.
We got to our seats early only to find an elderly Spanish lady occupying both of them with her luggage festooned around her. It took a bit of convincing that she was in the wrong coach and then we had to wait until she moved her stuff. Rather than go through the corridor to the next car she got off on to the platform and got on at the next door. You can't take account of stupidity.
This is a Talgo train which is pretty old and should have been put out of its agony years ago. It is hauled by an electric locomotive to which is attached a single car Talgo unit to allow the screw couple fitted locomotive to attach to the automatic coupler equipped train.
The train smelt as if it had just been fumigated, it was noisy and rode poorly.
We lost 30 minutes at Miranda de Ebro while our train was combined with a train from Salamanca and then had to wait while the locomotive disappeared to get another Talgo unit. During this time I managed to get a small water bottle filled with wine at the station cafeteria as they didn't have small bottles of wine. The lady used a funnel to pour in the wine and it cost €2.
We lost a further 30 mins at Castelon de Ebro while the engine carried out some very complicated manoeuvres. It was not clear what they did but it involved setting out a Talgo unit, running around it, propelling it into a siding and then picking up another section of train on the head end. We would have done better to have transferred to the local electric train which overtook us at the station.
An Australian couple traveling in our car realized they had missed their connection to Madrid because of these delays and was quietly resigned to making new arrangements in Zaragoza. We couldn’t understand how their travel agent had booked them onto this train, when there were much better, faster options.
Despite our usual preference to walk or use public transit from train stations to our hotels, the Zaragoza train station did not lend itself to this. Instead, we took a taxi to the hotel. Our taxi driver turned out to be very chatty. After we convinced him to speak more slowly so that we could understand him, we had a friendly and interesting conversation. We were pleased when he complimented our Spanish, but we know that we speak it very badly.
After checking into the hotel we went out to get the lay of the land. The strip in front of the Pilar is a tourist trap with nasty restaurants. There don't seem to be any reasonable restaurants in the old town at all. We ate at the hotel restaurant. The waitress was a disaster, very willing but sadly untrained, but the food was good when it finally came.

Thursday 21 June - Zaragoza

We had a leisurely start today with a cafe con leche at the stand up stand in the market. It was right across from a fishmonger and we enjoyed watching him prepare fish for a couple of ladies. The fish was cut just as they wanted it. Another lady came up and asked for a piece which required taking off the tail. He told her to stand back as he came down hard with his large cleaver scattering fish scales all over the place. There are many stands so the competition is strong.
From there we moved to the Churreria la Fama which is very popular. The chocolate is more like chocolate pudding but was much less sweet than the one we tried in Madrid.
The dog shit patrol van went past. It picks up the bags which are deposited in the special bins set out for this purpose.
We took in El Pilar, including going up one of the towers, the Ayuntamiento, the Seo and then found a secluded plaza where we had lunch. The Seo was amazing. It was well restored and the catalogue was a great help. It was worth paying for the entry. The tapestry museum was also very good.
After a siesta we went south into a prosperous area. There were lots of people of all ages in a local park.
Pasta for supper.

Friday 22 June – Zaragoza to Barcelona

LLEIDA 11:04 11:05
Another chatty taxi driver gave us another lesson in quick-fire Spanish and there was plenty of time to get breakfast at the station. A man was drinking a caña for breakfast while another had a glass of red wine. Delicias station is an enormous structure and very new.
The Avila seems to be intermediate technology with conventional non-articulated trucks. Some parts of the high speed line are rough and speed had to be reduced.
There was either some slack in the schedule or there have been new pieces of high speed line opened which have not yet been taken account of as the train was 4 minutes early arriving in Zaragoza and 5 minutes at Lleida. We went through the change of gauge without stopping.
Because of a derailment, the train was terminated at Sant Vincenç de Calders and we continued on a Cercanias train. It was very crowded but sort of fun. It was a good job that I had a detailed map of the Barcelona transport system as it was in great demand from the tourists, many of whom did not speak Spanish. I was able to follow our route and let them know when we were arriving. The train crew didn't give a damn at Sant Vincenç and didn't even help people transfer their bags. This is where our one small bag per person policy paid off.
Barcelona is hot and there are a lot of people around - similar to Sao Paulo and London. We ate lunch at a restaurant close to the apartment. I had rabbit and Mary had cod. The apartment is a bit of a disappointment. The air conditioning doesn’t work which is a real problem in the steamy heat.

Saturday 23 June - Barcelona

We had rather a late start this morning because it was difficult to sleep in the heat. Cafe con leche at a place around the corner and then we bought a coca, special pastry with pine nuts and crystallized fruit to celebrate the festival of San Juan which is today.
We did a walking tour of the old town - Jewish quarter, cathedral cloister with geese, cathedral, good exhibit of old manuscripts at the city archives, beer at the Plaza de los Reis.
We then decided to visit the market which is the largest in Barcelona. It was very busy and the range and choices were enormous. We bought Manchego and a goat cheese which looked all dried up from the outside but which had a good flavour. Consistency of a soft Cheddar but with a strong, sour taste. It was very good.
Lunch was paella at the restaurant across the street, then we walked down to the harbour. From there we walked through Barceloneta and along the beach to look at Frank Gehry's copper fish.
With a short subway ride we were able to visit the aquarium.
Back at the apartment we ate our cheese, drank some red wine and sangria and watched the crowd ebb and flow below the balcony.
- A couple in an apartment across the street were shouting at each other for at least two hours. Every so often he would come out on the balcony with a knife, the last time he was in his underwear. At least the knife was clean! We could hear slapping and the words "puta" and "mierda" were used frequantly.
- There were several drunks, singly or in groups. Some had to be supported.
- One large group of inebriated women all had the same uniform similar to riding outfits except for one who was very pregnant and presumably couldn't get into her skirt. They had black plastic riding hats and crops. The last girl in this group had a flashing "L" sign on her back.
- One woman turned around and stalked off at something her partner said, leaving him behind looking flummoxed. He chased after her and a few minutes later they came back and seemed to have settled their differences.
- A family of four came out of the restaurant and lingered around the menu. She put her hand down his rear and he reciprocated – out of sight of the kids.
Mary went out to get ice cream cones at the place just below the balcony, and stood in the middle of the street waving up at me with the cones before coming back in.
There are lots of fireworks being set off because of the San Juan celebrations and some of the explosions are extremely loud.

Sunday 24 June - Barcelona

Subway to Sagrada Familia. This is an amazing structure and will be worth seeing when it is finished which could be in about 15 years. It was worth visiting in spite of the crowds.
Relais de Venise. This is one of the chain we have visited in Paris.
The waitress came from Normandy and we spoke in French. She assured us the cheese was local, at least as far as she was concerned:
Roblochon, Pont l'Éveque, Cammenbert, St. Maure cendré, Roquefort.
Tower of meringue topped with whipped cream and toasted almonds, layers of vanilla and chocolate ice cream and chocolate sauce between layers of meringue.
From there we took the metro and walked to Parc Guell. This was a bit of a climb even though there were many escalators in the middle of the street and unprotected from the weather. It was hot, busy and noisy. The annoying trumpet player was even worse than the didgeree doo and Arabic singing. A man with a stick was feeding the pigeons and fending off a prowling cat which appeared, outwardly at least, disinterested. The pigeons became quite bold and walked close to the cat which stretched out on a picnic table close to the man. We took the metro back to Liceu and had a drink in a secluded square just a little south of the apartment.

Monday 25 June - Barcelona

Changed apartments today to one which has air conditioning that works.
Did a great deal of Gaudi this morning. Casa Batllo and La Pedrera.
Both are well maintained by reason of the huge admission charges. The first showed the building pretty well while the second concentrated on his work. There was an apartment in La Pedrera which showed how people would have lived in those days.
With that we were completely Gaudied out.
Lunch was at Jose Luis on Diagonal. It is a Madrid restaurant that has opened in Barcelona. It was pretty good although they used a lot of sauces, quite different from the simple preparations we had enjoyed on the north coast.
Salad/shrimp with garlic
Merluza with shellfish/confit de pato with pears
Tarte tatin/flan
Took the metro and then funicular to Montjuic.
I wonder why the Metro ticket machines are set up for left handed operation. One has to insert the ticket into the reader with the left hand. Several people became confused and inserted the ticket with the right hand and tried to get through on the turnstile to the left of the correct one.
This evening we had Manchego and goat cheese with a bottle of Alvariño followed by meringue with hazelnuts and a chocolate croissant – a nice, balanced meal.
There was the usual array of entertainment in the street below - the fellow across the street was up to his usual shouting, he used the word "puta" so much that we are wondering whether it is a Catalan form of endearment.
A white mouse ran along the sidewalk - possibly a renegade from the pet shop further up.
A woman went into the pharmacy leaving her husband waiting outside morosely with their small dog. She came out with a container then got close to him, faced him, lifted her blouse and made him smear the lotion all over her tummy and chest. That's the result of too much sun.

Tuesday 26 June - Barcelona

Not all of the turnstiles are left handed. The FGC on the line out to Tibidabo uses right handed ticket access machines. From there we took the Tramvia Azul up the hill to Plaza de la Funicular. There were two trams in operation although there were several more in reserve at the car barns. These are single truck trolley pole cars and the pole has to be changed at each end. There are two people on the car as well as a lady who maintains order and sells tickets at the bottom station.
There was a kindergarten school party on an outing. They all had blue T shirts and their names on a large card hung around their necks. Jaime was well known to the teachers. He was a dreamy little kid who watched everybody else being lifted on to the tram and was last on. When they got off he watched everyone and had to be told to get up. The teachers knew all about Jaime.
We went over to the funicular and found a car stuck just short of the terminus. A couple of maintenance men were trying to get the cable on the rollers further up while a couple were in a pit under the car. We decided to get a beer at a bar with a wonderful view across Barcelona.
Afterwards we found that the funicular was working again and we went up. Two maintenance men rode the car both ways. The cars seem worn out and the rails need replacing. The view from the lookout is good but it is just an amusement park and there was nothing to keep us.
Lunch was at a restaurant in Barceloneta, 7 Portas. We had a good paella which also included sausage and chicken which is how Joe Toscas cooked it. The food was good but the service was off hand. Nobody cared. Viva yo in action. No tip.
In the evening we rode the relatively new T4 tramway from Ciutadella/Vila Olimpica to Estacia de Sant Adria. This is nicely done and is along boulevards but on reserved section. Some grass and some pavement.
Both of us ran a temperature in the evening, mainly in the skin of the face - maybe it was a mild allergic reaction to the shellfish in the paella.

Wednesday 27 June – Barcelona to Madrid

LLEIDA 13:14 13:15
For once RENFE didn’t throw any surprises at us. I have a heavy cold and relaxed most of the way.

Thursday 28 June

I still have a good cold so I spent much of the afternoon resting. Mary went to the Thyssen-Bornemisza art gallery. It is well laid out and easy to find your way around. There was an exhibit of the last paintings made by Van Gogh.
Colin went to the railway museum in the old Renfe Delicias station. This was well done. There are four tracks under the train shed which allowed for one road for steam, diesel, electric and coaches. There is a CIWL car set up as a cafeteria and there is plenty of space in adjoining rooms for small exhibits, one of the most interesting being a mechanical Edmundson card ticket printing machine.
We had our wedding anniversary meal at Sobrina del Botin but this time we were downstairs in the oldest part. When making our reservation the previous day, the maitre day recommended we come for lunch at 3 pm, after all the tourists had left. This was good advice, because there were only local Spanish people eating at that time, and the service provided by the staff was excellent.
Ensalada Riojana/gaspacho
Baked sole/roast leg of lamb
Flan con nata
It was all very good and we had a leisurely time.

Friday 29 June - Madrid

Felt better this morning. We went first to Atocha station and admired the train shed which has been turned into a reception area with a vast tropical garden. There is a pond with an amazing number of turtles in it.
We went to the Reina Sophia art gallery which was a disappointment because it was so difficult to find our way around and because none of the work was likeable apart from some of the Miros. Picasso's Guernica was there and there were many Picassos but nothing striking. Same with Dali. Galleries make the mistake in assuming that everything certain artists did is worth displaying - it isn't.
For lunch we had paella at La Reina de Paella which was very good. This was mixed seafood and meat, mainly chicken.

Saturday 30 June – Madrid to Ottawa

Madrid Airport is terrible.

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