It is the second week of our journey and Mark and I are travelling on the Transcantábrico, a luxurious train journey of about 1000kms along Spain’s north coast between San Sebastián and Santiago de Compostella. Our train is currently taking us to our next destination and from the two windows opposite my sofa, I see a dense, green wooded landscape (lots of oak trees of various kinds and poplars too). The morning sun on Monday 15 May, is still low in the sky and the bell has just been rung for breakfast.
This train journey began to be offered to tourists in 1983. The coaches were built in the late 1920s but the interiors contain reproduction period décor, think "Murder on the Orient Express". There are 27 of us; 13 couples and one woman. I have personally met and spent time with about 10 people. (Babbling brook alert outside of my window right now!) There are three Aussie couples including us, some German couples who all speak English and the rest are Spanish/America. Our very knowledgeable and simpatica guide, Cristina, always explains what it is we are seeing/experiencing in Spanish and English. I am getting much better at understanding Spanish,
I am very happy to report.
We have visited San Sebastián (where the tour began on Saturday) where we visited the lovely royal summer house of Miramar and on Sunday, the surprisingly large city of Bilbao with its breathtaking Guggenheim museum. Because time was limited here, I have to confess Mark and I abandoned our viewing of art works in order to walk outside and just drink in the gorgeousness of this architectural creation. It is a building unlike any other I have ever seen and I totally adore it. Both inside and out, it is difficult to find a straight line. Its forms surprise and delight, no matter where you look.
After Bilbao, we spent time in Santander which was a small, quiet city with scenic vistas to the surrounding bay and mountains. There we were taken to the beautiful Palacio de la Magdalena, a gift of the city to the royal family which they used as a summer residence till 1930. It stands high on a peninsula with stunning views all around and gorgeous grounds. All these regal homes were once used by the Spanish royal families of bygone days and now belong to the state.
Their parks and gardens are open to the public at all times and the residences themselves seem often to be used for summer courses.
I am still like a kid in a candy shop on this train. Everything about our accommodation and our expertly prepared meals (most of them in the dining cars or occasionally offered in a restaurant) is delightful. The attendants are meticulous in their service. Our fellow travellers on the tour are very personable and friendly. At our get to know you lunch on the first day, our table consisted of English, German, French and Spanish speakers. Somehow, we all managed to communicate with each other. No doubt the fine Spanish wine on offer helped with everyone’s comprehension.
We are now in the Picos de Europa. These jagged mountains are stunningly dramatic as they jut like spear heads into the sky. Our bus coach took us through the equally breath taking Desfiladero de la Hermida gorge. This limestone gorge is the longest in Europe and is peppered with many caves, some of which have Palaeolithic drawings. We visited Santo Toribio de Liébana where the largest piece of Christ’s cross is said to have resided since
century and because it is a holy year, walking through the main door meant all our sins were forgiven! Our visit to the town of Potes was also very enjoyable. It is a very picturesque town surrounded by craggy peaks and complete with many lovely bridges. A spa at La Hermida Spa was enjoyed by all who took part (hot springs gushing from the mountains straight into a pool complete with modern Jacuzzi water jets) and afterwards, we feasted on the local stew concoctions at very good lunch. We also sampled Orujo the local grape based version of “firewater”. Hot stuff.
The day’s activities concluded with a visit to El Capricho de Gaudì at Comillas and dinner on the train. Gaudì’s little “whim”, the first house he ever designed, was lived in for only one week by its owner before he died (the owner that is, not Gaudì). The house has never been occupied since. I found it charming and quirky and volunteered to move in immediately. I was politely rejected. Humph.
It is now Tuesday and so far today, we have been to the new Altamira, a replica cave to the famous one, where we
were able to stare at the amazing arry of prehistoric carbon and ochre drawings left by prehistoric peoples. The real cave can now only be viewed by 5 randomly selected lucky people every Friday. This is because the drawings were deteriorating badly because of the thousands visitors who used to visit the cave.
After visiting the faux cave, we went to a very well preserved village, Santillana and there we admired charming views of ancient buildings, cobbled-stoned streets and flower adorned balconies. The church of Santa Julliana I thought very lovely. It had a beautiful Romanesque cloister. Lunch at the Parador Gil Blas was once again a wonderful meal.
I cannot express how much I am loving northern Spain. I had no idea it was such a beautiful place.
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