La Spezia: Gateway to Cinque Terre and So Much More

I’m sitting outside, in glorious sunshine, on a 50 metre long iron bench at the La Spezia Centrale station on the Ligurian coast. La Spezia is known as the Gulf of Poets, because back in the gloomy 18th century English poets like Byron, Shelley and Dickenson traveled south to get away from rainy England and swim a bit. I can see why they came. It wasn’t raining much in Paris, and it’s not like I’ll ever feel the need to “get away” from Paris, but still. It sure wasn’t warm and sunny and blue like this.

We didn’t come straight here. Instead, from Paris we went south to Nice on the French Riviera. Beautiful city and you really should go if you have the chance. But since Nice is the big city near Cannes, St. Tropez, Cap Ferrat and Monaco, it’s a little glitzy and glamourous. Which is all good, but a little awkward when you’ve been wearing the same clothes for six weeks in a row.

What Nice has going for it is fabulous architecture, a narrow and twisty old town, a cool tram system that cuts silently through town, two amazing outdoor markets and outstanding gelato (go to Fennochio’s in the old town.)

We spent a few days chilling out in Nice, walking to a market to get strawberries, oranges, fresh peas, a baguette and some cheese for lunch before wandering around the city for the day.

Before long we’d be down at the beach, wandering along the miles long promenade, checking out the people roasting themselves on the beach and trying to stay calm among men in tiny speedos and women sunbathing topless. Sure, the tiniest speedos were worn by old hairy grandpas, and the topless sunbathers were grannies for the most part, but we were in France, on the Riviera! Just go with it, man. Time to get over the years of body image conditioning we grow up with in North America and live like a local! Well I would’ve stripped right down to my gitch for the cultural exchange, you know, if it weren’t that I sunburn easily. So I took off my socks and rolled up my pant legs to just below the knee, and strolled along the water for a bit, averting my eyes all the while.

Now here’s a marketing lesson for you all. For all the glamour you’ve seen, read, or heard about the marvellous French Riviera, has it ever come up that the long, glorious beaches are all rocks? Well they are. Miles and miles of what we’d call river rock back at home. I couldn’t believe what I was uncomfortably sitting on.

The lesson here, of course, is to Accentuate The Positive. Decades of starlets and royalty sunning themselves along the Promenade des Anglais has glossed over the complete lack of sand. And hey, even now, a few days later, I’ve forgotten it too.

On our last evening in Nice we decided to hike up one of the hills surrounding the bay for a better view of things. But I misread the map and instead of a 2km loop I went to a further hill, 3.5km away and much taller. We walked forever, up and up. At one point we counted a run of 285 steps when the road got too steep for cars. But the views from the top, both of the teenagers making out and the surrounding hills, coast, villas and yachts, were worth it. And we already had a wood fired pizza restaurant at the bottom of the hill picked out for dinner. Pizza, salad and a half litre of the local grape and we’d forgotten all about the climb up. All that was left was the amazing view.

And so, on to Italy. Our train to La Spezia required two changes, and we were late for both of them. But Italian trains are more relaxed on Sunday, it seems, so the trains were both waiting for us. One of my minor stresses with AirBnb apartments is keeping our host waiting for the check-in, so I was glad to get there close to our planned time.

(And a big highlight was sitting amongst some very, very posh folks on the train between Nice and Monte Carlo. The fellow across from me was either a Swiss banker or Benedict Cumberbatch.)

Our first impression of Italy is one of relaxed joy. First off, it’s beautiful here. La Spezia is nestled in the centre of a U shaped bay, with small mountains all around. The dark green of the trees behind, the bright, azure blue of the water in front, with colourful pink, yellow and cream buildings in the middle. Wow.

And the food is everything we’d imagined. Simple, fresh and cheap. In France, the food is excellent, but you pay a big premium for those perfect French peas or local strawberries that are placed oh so perfectly in the baskets. Here, the markets are still full to overflowing with tomatoes, peas, strawberries and the cutest baby zucchini, but you just grab a bag and dig in. And the price is at least 30% cheaper than just around the bay in France.

We stayed in a modern apartment on the other side of the train station from downtown. It was lovely, because we got a tiny chance to live like a local. The block around our apartment had everything we needed, really. A two person, hole in the wall, wood fired pizza place that sold so much of the local specialty, farinata (a thin omelette made of chickpea flour,) that they could hardly fit pizzas in the oven. A gelato shop that sold trays of ice cream to take home. A butcher/deli, a bakery/coffee shop, a specialty food shop, a fruit stand, a florist, a pharmacy and a Coop. We could pull together a picnic lunch, go adventuring, and come back for pizza for supper. It took us two days before we thought to look for a central market; they have one, and it’s glorious too.

La Spezia is the gateway to the five villages of the Cinque Terre, made famous in North America by Rick Steves and his travel shows. There’s stress on these former fishing villages due the crush of tourism, but that’s how we heard of the Cinque Terre so I’m not going to over think this. It’s beautiful, we’re in the area, and we’ll try to tread lightly. So we hopped a train to the third village of Corniglia.

Back before modern tourism hit the Cinque Terre, the villages were quite isolated. They were only accessible from the sea or via a narrow and winding trail that connected all five villages. And the villages are close enough to each other that a hiker can walk to all five villages in one day.

That’s what we wanted to do, but the first two trails between Riamaggiore — Manarola and Manarola — Corniglia were closed due to mudslides. But that still left us half the trails to walk. Once we got up to Corniglia, that is. From the train station at sea level there was a huge set of steps up to the village. Forgoing the shuttle bus, we walked the 310 steps to the village. It’s getting easier and easier to climb like this, I must say.

When we reached the cliff top and strolled into Corniglia I didn’t want to leave. Ever. In a trip where we’ve seen over a dozen of picturesque little towns, this was the new #1. The village square was full of little shops selling fruit, general store type supplies and postal services. Across the square were bars, coffee shops and restaurants tempting me inside. Narrow side streets house artisans selling wine, leather goods and paintings. There was even a gelato shop with a framed picture of Rick Steves himself.

After an hour of wandering around the village, Cindy reminded me we were there to hike, so we set off northeast toward Vernazza. It wasn’t long before we started to climb, and boy did we ever climb! The path turned into steps, then the steps turned into bare rocks. I really had to focus on each step while we scrambled up and up.

That’s another thing the guidebooks don’t really mention. This is a proper hike, not a gentle stroll through the countryside. While the trail is well marked with red and white blazes, it’s not a groomed trail as such. The path is strewn with rocks and loose gravel and can get really narrow at points, so hikers travelling in opposite directions need to take turns on the trail. But every time I’d feel like the hike was getting too hard, we’d come up to a viewpoint that took my breath away. We were perched on the ridge like eagles, high above the villages, so we could see Corniglia and Manarola behind us, and Monterosso far off in the distance ahead. And if we looked down, we’d see fishing boats and ferries out on the water. It was magnificent and completely worth the hard work of hiking up to these viewpoints.

After an hour of hard hiking, we came across a cluster of buildings, including a small bar. Heaven! I thought we had made it to Vernazza early but a sign tempered my spirits. This was the half way point! Ah well. We savoured two amply priced glasses of cold, fresh fruit juice at a tiny black bistro table at the edge of a cliff, enjoyed the huge views and warm sunshine, then continued on our way.

Vernazza is right down on the water, so we descended down, down, down to the village. While we were still well above the castle at the end of town, we encountered more and more hikers, but they seemed to go just high enough to get a selfie above the castle, before joining us on the trail into town.

We didn’t linger too long in Vernazza. It was now 1:00, and the village square was filling up with tourists who came on the train or via bus tours. I can’t imagine what it’s like here in July and August; it was crowded enough for me in mid-April. Quite the change from morning in Corniglia. We ate our picnic lunch beside the marina, climbed to the top of the castle overlooking the harbour, and found the trail to Monterosso.

Now, Vernazza is on the water. Monterosso is also on the water. So you’d think a trail between the two villages would also be along the water, right? But oh no. The trail is high, high, up on a ridgeline along the mountain that sits between the two villages. So up we climbed. Up, up, up until my heart was pounding and the afternoon sun was baking my eyebrows. It was a real lung buster, but worth it. The views were amazing once again.

This leg of the trail is much narrower than Cornigla — Vernazza leg, and the trail was more crowded too, so it was a stop/start hike as we paused to let southbound traffic pass. It took us two full hours to get to Monterosso, but we were lucky in a way. The descent into Monterosso is via the longest staircase I’ve ever seen. It was like the steps in the Mines of Moria in the Lord of the Rings. They just went on and on. But at least they were steps! The southbound hikers had to deal with the rock ledges we climbed to get out of Vernazza. I don’t think I could descend on them with the rubber legs I had now.

We congratulated ourselves on our hiking prowess by soaking our feet at the beach (what a treat!) and some extra fine gelato. Then we toodled through the village for a while before catching the train back to La Spezia, tired, sore and very, very happy.

The next day we decided to check out La Spezia a little closer. We found a nice little coffee shop where I could get a real Italian cappuccino and, further up the block, a real Italian macchiato. We found a phone store to get an Italian SIM card for the phone, then headed to the central market.

The La Spezia market is a big one. Two blocks square, with a large undulating roof over the entire complex. Everything you need is inside. Fruit stands, vegetable stands, cheese and dairy carts, butchers, florists, bakers and fishmongers. And as we’ve seen everywhere else, shops and bars and restaurants surrounding the market on all four sides. It was beautiful and once we found the market we went every day, even though it was a 30 minute walk from our apartment.

I love our Farmer’s Market at home (heck, I took bread to the market for two years at the same time I was trying to build Orange Boot), but compared to what we see in Europe, from the largest city to the smallest town, our market in Regina sucks. I already know I’m going to cry when I get home and try to shop again.

I know, I know, we live in the middle of nowhere, 1000km from BC fruit or 2000km from California veggies. But surely to God we can put a roof over our market so the food doesn’t get soaked in the rain. And put up a wind screen while we’re at it. And if I’m going to dream, run enough power that the butchers can bring raw meat and keep it cool, and the cheesemongers can do the same with their dairy products. I’ll set up my oven in the market too, I promise.

The La Spezia market is busy. Really busy. Busier than the number of people who live and work around it. I saw bus after bus drop off people with empty shopping bags and pick them up again, loaded up with produce for the next day (or maybe two, tops.) Nobody here asks “will it freeze”. They shop every day and eat fresh food and I love that.

Anyway, once we had our packs full of picnic fare, we got on the bus too and headed to the town of Lereci. If the Gulf of Poets is a U, and La Spezia is at the base of the U, then Lereci is at the end of the left arm. Our host Alice recommended the beach there, and after our massive hike yesterday I was in the mood for a mellow afternoon.

The bus ride out was a blast. We got the last two seats at the back of the bus, just before the bus was jam packed with university students. And I mean packed. They just kept getting on, handing their packs to four young ladies in the seat in front of us, then started hugging each other to save space. I’ve never seen such a crush. For the longest time, nobody got off the bus, but four more people got on at each stop. More students. An old lady with bags of shopping. Some construction workers. I have no idea how they fit or where they went. But one by one, over the next 20 minutes, the bus would stop, someone would hand over a backpack from the pile, and the bus slowly thinned out. Then it was our turn.

Lereci is beautiful. A lovely horseshoe cove with a castle at one end, a marina, and a long, curving, sandy beach that went all the way to San Terenzo, the next village on the way back to La Spezia.

We walked to the top of the castle (gotta climb a little!) and gazed out across the Gulf to La Spezia in the distance, and Porto Venere at the other end of the U. It was beautiful but also very windy. I wanted to sketch and paint up there but I couldn’t control my sketchbook in the wind, so we retreated down to the marina and checked out the shops lining the quay. Then we went for a sit at the beach and I tried not to compare the bronze sunbathers to the rotisserie chicken I saw at the market in La Spezia.

Oh, and Lereci has the best gelato I’ve had so far. The local flavour, called Lereci, of course, ticks all the boxes. Coffee, nuts, caramel, chocolate all swirled around in some basic crema gelato. Amazing. Until this point my favourite was pistachio (made with real pistachios of course) but now I’m ruined. Hopefully some other local flavour will win my heart down the road, but I’m not holding out much hope.

On our last day in La Spezia, we took the bus to the other end of the U, to Porto Venere. Another spectacular fishing village with a lovely marina, two churches and even a castle on the hill. Porto Venere is really tucked in there tight between the water and the cliffs, so that getting past the first row of houses required some serious climbing. But there were spectacular views around every corner, so we kept on climbing and being wowed.

It was getting on in the afternoon, but we weren’t ready to leave the Cinque Terre yet. Cindy had read about a big hike from Porto Venere to the first Cinque Terre village, Riamaggiore. 12km, 4 hours and listed as “moderate” difficulty. The same book said the hikes we did two days ago were “easy-moderate.” Hmmm. Well it was a nice day, we felt good and it was at least 5 hours till sunset, so we decided to go for it. We’d abandon our return bus tickets, do the hike and catch the train back to town from Riomaggiore.

Well it was the best hike I’ve ever done. Way harder than I imagined; we climbed 500m pretty much straight up, then followed the ridge line around two separate mountains, before descending through vineyards and farms to the village at Riomaggiore. As we twisted up the mountains, through forests, then out on bare rock ledges, then back into forests, we had these wild views of Porto Venere, then La Spezia and Lereci across the Gulf to our right, then the wider Mediterranean off our left shoulder, then finally Riamaggiore below us.

By the time we entered Riamaggiore we were sore, tired and grimy. But the tour buses were long gone, the village was beautiful and we saw the most amazing sunset from a brick lane above Riamaggiore’s tiny harbour. It was perfect.

I can’t imagine ever finding a place more beautiful than this. But I’ve said that every day so far on this trip and I’ve been wrong each time. I can’t wait to see what we find next.

Quick Update: I’m Having Too Much Fun To Write!

Hi. I’m writing this from the smallest studio apartment I’ve ever stayed in. We figure it’s 200 square feet, including the bathroom. Smaller than most people’s bedrooms, I bet. But it’s in the Montparnasse neighbourhood in Paris and we’ve never been happier. The power was out for 14 hours last night (just in our apartment). Didn’t care. We just went out and when we got back, lit some candles.

The last long story I wrote was about our week in Madrid. I’ll get back to those longer stories, but here’s a quick update.

We took the train to Barcelona, which is the coolest city every. My favourite on the trip so far. We went out for tapas with our new friends Gillian and Brian (Gillian is the daughter of our friend Laverne) and had a great time. Then Cindy and I walked all over the place, from the Park Gaudi, through the Gracia neighbourhood and to the beach. Then we did it all over again.

We’re done going to cathedrals because we’ve been to the best. The Sagrada Familia is still under construction (started in 1882, should be done in 10 years or so) but is so amazing, so spectacular that I’m still overwhelmed by the beauty of the place.

Bummer: on our last night in Barcelona, I walked into a coffee bar to watch the last 10 minutes of El Clasico on TV. Put my pack down to pay for coffee, took a sip, and my pack was gone. My passport was in the pack. That made things more interesting.

After going to the police department and filing a report, we continued as normal, taking the train into France. First destination was Arles, in Provence.

Arles was cold and rainy, but we had a large, warm, rustic apartment that was incredibly romantic. We hung out for a few days and took a vacation from our vacation.

Arles is a neat city because they have a Roman Arena that is still being used for bullfights, and a Roman Theatre that is being restored too. (They backed Julius Caesar.)

In Arles, we realized this passport problem was going to throw a wrench into things. I thought we could get a new one at the consulate in Nice, but I had to go to the embassy in Paris instead. Ugh. So we pulled out the map and started tweaking our plans.

After spending the morning at the huge weekly market in Arles, we took the train to Avignon, 35km up the road. And the sun came out!

We had another great AirBnb apartment in Avignon. It was a great home base to get some laundry done and eat several roast chicken meals from the deli across the street.

Both Avignon and Arles are on the banks of the Rhone River. One day in Avignon we walked across the bridge to an island in the middle of the Rhone, then rented bikes and rode the 16km around the island. We went through villages, farms, and acres and acres of orchards. The peach trees were blooming too!

We wandered around the town for a couple of days then took a bus ride out to Pont du Gard, an amazing triple decker Roman Aqueduct. The best aqueduct so far, and we’ve seen a few.

Then we took the TGV train to Paris. Aw shucks. There’s worse places to be stuck without a passport.

We’re in love with Paris! Cindy is getting weepy she’s smiling so much. The architecture. The parks. The amazing shops and bakeries and cafes.

It’s without a doubt the most expensive city we’ve ever seen, a real budget bomber, but we’re eating well and zipping about on the metro. I think we’ll splurge at one of the cafes tomorrow.

Quick note. Before we left we watched this great show “I’ll have what Phil’s having” on PBS. Awesome show. Romantic, interesting and compelling travel show. But it should be called “I can’t afford what Phil’s having”! We went to all his haunts in Paris but one (still need to find the falafel stand) and it’s crazy what things cost. His favourite roast chicken will set you back $150. Vegetables, drinks, and likely plates and forks are extra. Jeez. But we’re finding great food our own way.

The passport issue is fixed (if you pay enough fees and penalties, things get done fast, and my friends Curt and Bob helped from back home) so we’re heading back south on Thursday. Spring has sprung here, but it’s still pretty chilly at night. Time for some Riviera sun.

So you’re all caught up. We’re having so much fun and seeing so many amazing things that when we get back to the apartment we just fall into a heap. And it turns out I get motion sick on trains when I try to read or type (I thought I’d write on the train.)

But I got a few emails where people were worried, so I had to get a quick dispatch out. We’re good. Really, really good.

Madrid: The Trains In Spain Go Hurtling ‘Cross The Plain

After one more trip around our favourite street in Córdoba, which was deserted after all the Holy Wednesday festivities, we hiked back to the station for our train to Madrid. We had booked on the bullet-nosed high speed train and I was a little excited for the trip. After all the bus rides we were finally travelling the ‘European Way’. And a fast train, no less.

It was a fun ride. We were quickly up to a top speed of 270 km/h for our two hour ride to Madrid. It didn’t feel much faster than normal highway driving, except when I tried to see something outside or, heaven forbid, snap a picture. Then you realized we were passing things at a very great speed.

These plains in Spain are quite beautiful. I remember hearing somewhere they get lots of precipitation and it shows. Lots of trees dotting green pastures, with sheep and goats and later, cows. Quite honestly, it was a lot like the plains at home, except for the rocky outcroppings that dotted the landscape. And then the train slowed, we rolled past industrial areas, then apartment blocks, then we were in Madrid. We went from the train to the metro, got off at the Bilbao station and found our hotel.

[A Brief Aside]

You know, all these cities are old and romantic and beautiful. But like all cities it seems, they continue to grow, and there isn’t the investment in aesthetics anymore. We passed mile after mile of the same ugly, tiny windowed, balcony-less brick apartment blocks on the way into Madrid and they looked like a sad and dreary place to live. Compared to the centre of Madrid, it was shockingly horrible.

As late as the 1920’s, Madrid was still doing strong city planning, as witnessed in the glorious Grand Via. But that seems to have stopped in current times, outside of the centre of the city. Which is a shame. And totally consistent with home, although it doesn’t feel like we do much planning in the centre at home either. But the centre of Madrid is glorious, so let’s go back there now.

Our pension for the next five nights was the Pension Antonio, on Calle de la Palma. It was tiny and spare but quiet and clean and centrally located, between the Royal Palace to the east and the Prado Museum to the west, with lots of bars and restaurants and stores in between. It was just fine and cheap enough to recommend to others, although be warned that the last two blocks to the apartment feel pretty sketchy to walk down. But that’s just the prairie boy in me reacting to the corrugated steel grates in front of the closed shops and the excessive, monotonous, ugly graffiti. I like Banksy and all, and some businesses pre-empted things by hiring an artist to spray paint their doors in advance, but holy crap it’s just endless here.


One of the good ones!

I think the biggest thing that hit me about Madrid is that we were in a really big city. Really big. I looked it up and Madrid’s population is 3.5 million people, which makes the largest city we’ve been to by far. You could tell the difference. No narrow, winding streets here. Instead we had long, grand boulevards, with six lanes of cars and huge fountains and statues in the roundabouts. And masses, and masses of people. Even when we were out looking for something to eat at 9PM, the sidewalks were packed with people doing the same thing.

We were in Madrid for Easter Weekend, which meant that some of the stores were open irregular hours, but most all of the bars and restaurants were open. And boy oh boy are there ever a lot of bars and restaurants! I’ve never seen so many places packed that tightly before. Every single street was packed with places big and small. We found a really good sandwich shop on Calle Pez and a gourmet pizza place nearer Bilbao station and lots of bakeries and fruit stands to keep our backpacks stocked up. But there were more than enough people to keep them all going.


Too fancy for us


Mmmm…that’s more like it!

The long weekend and fine weather meant everyone was out enjoying their time off, so we loaded up our backpacks and joined the fray. We walked west toward the Plaza d’Espana, with its huge foutain at one end and massive statue at the other. It’s a very impressive square, surrounded by regal offices and fancy hotels.

The normal circuit has one walking left to the Royal Palace, but we went right to walk through a fine little park. We were surprised to see a stone temple on a hill in the middle of the park so went up to take a closer look. I assumed it was a Roman temple, but when we walked inside there were Egyptian hieroglyphs on the wall. What? We went looking for a pamphlet to figure out what we were seeing.

The Temple of Debod is a real Egyptian temple, but in Madrid. When the Egyptians built the Aswan Dam in the 1960’s, many ancient temples and tombs were submerged. This temple was dismantled and moved to Madrid instead. Very interesting, but a little out of place.

Near the temple was a gondola that gave rides to a large nature reserve right near the heart of the city. The line wasn’t too long this holiday morning so we took a ride over. The views back to the city centre were amazing and the park itself was very nice. Lots of bikers and joggers running up the hill that we rode to.

And then we went to the Royal Palace, along with twenty thousand other people. The palace was quite nice but it was a real crush of people, so we hung back a bit and wandered through two statue filled parks that surrounded the palace.

We kept up the park theme the next day, Good Friday. We hiked east from our room, behind the Prado Museum and the National Library to Paque de El Retiro. This huge space is where thousands upon thousands of Madrilenos go on their days off and this war, sunny spring day was no exception. We started at the formal north end of the park, with formal gardens and a large man-made lake. There were dozens of rowboats on the lake and a very long line of people waiting to rent one. We walked around to the east side and watched the boats from a large plaza, complete with lion statues looking over the boaters.

From there we strolled past two smaller palacios and another formal garden which contained Madrid’s oldest tree (planted in the 1650’s.) But I was mesmerized by the “cabin for the association of retired men”, a rustic wooden lodge with a few dozen old fellows playing chess on the patio.

Madrid’s oldest tree

The south side of the park was more informal, with lots of benches and grassy slopes just begging to be lied down on. So we did, after eating our picnic lunch. We deserved a rest; we’d been walking a long, long time.

A long block of used book sellers, just outside the park

Even though we love toodling through parks, Madrid is home to some excellent museums and it didn’t seem right to ignore them. The Prado Museum has free entry from 6PM – 8PM so at around 5:30 we went looking for the entrance. There was already around 100 people in line, but it looked manageable, so we queued up. We were at the side door, and it wasn’t long before our line bumped into an even longer line for the main door. There must’ve been 2000 people in all, at least. It was huge!

But the thing is, the Prado is even huger, and we all fit in with no problem and, aside from the ‘big 3’ paintings, there wasn’t even a crowd. Sorry, no pictures were allowed, but it really was a fun time. We had a New York Times article outlining the preferred order to see the museum’s highlights, which we followed and really felt like experts. My favourite paintings were by the Dutch Masters – we went through that gallery twice.

The other big gallery, the Reina Sofia, is focused on Cubist and Surrealist paintings by the likes of Picasso, Dali and Joan Miro. But I was there for one painting: Picasso’s masterpiece “Guernica”. It’s fair to say that “Guernica” is the reason I wanted to go to Madrid. It’s a massive painting, a protest painting for the bombing of women and children during the Spanish Civil War and I am so very happy I got to see it live and in person. It was even better than I thought it would be. (Although, I was very surprised that I didn’t enjoy the Dalis more.)

A picture of Guernica, via the Internet.  Photos aren't allowed in the gallery!
A picture of Guernica, via the Internet. Photos aren’t allowed in the gallery!

I’m embarrassed to say I don’t know much about the Spanish Civil War, other than Franco won, the Germans tested their arms in Spain prior to invading Poland, and Hemingway was there. The “Guernica” gallery helped me learn a bit more about it. The painting was commissioned by the Republican (in power, but lost the war) government for the 1939 World Expo, to help raise awareness of what was happening in Spain, and hopefully get some assistance. In the gallery, there was a replica of the pavilion where the painting was first shown, along with posters of the time and other reflections on the costs of war.

There was also a very interesting display showing Picasso’s progression as he worked on the painting. His partner at the time was a photographer and she took a series of shots of this massive mural during its development. There was also a room full of ‘post script’ paintings where Picasso continued to develop the themes within the painting. Fascinating stuff.

Atocha Train Station

Between parks, art galleries, the classic Atocha train station and strolling down wide boulevards admiring the architecture, we had a wonderful few days in Madrid. We found a tiny square near our room which we adopted as ‘our square’, since it had the perfect combination of restaurants, ice cream, coffee, newsstands and bookshops. It even had an art supply store! So it seemed like we ended up at our square at least once per day, at least to end our day with coffee and hot chocolate.

Easter Sunday was a big thrill for me. Before we left Cindy told me about the Sunday stamp market in Plaza Mayor so even though it was Easter we decided to see if it was on. And boy was it ever!

Plaza Mayor is the classic town square of Madrid. It’s completely enclosed by four connected banks of buildings but the open square inside is huge and holds thousands of people. Usually the square is full of tables from the surrounding restaurants, and they were still there. But on Sunday’s there are also 50 or so tables full of stamp, coin, postcard and bottle cap dealers out selling their wares. And since it was Easter Sunday, there were also a few thousand people in the middle of the square watching the final Easter procession of the season. All drummers putting on a show. So the square was loud and boisterous and I loved it.

I spent an hour wandering around the tables, regretting I didn’t collect Spanish stamps. And regretting my suitcase wasn’t big enough to start collecting Spanish stamps! But I bought a set as a souvenir that would fit inside my notebook for protection and left it at that. Big fun.

On our last day in Madrid we walked down to the train station for a day trip to Toledo. After four days in this massive, crowded city we needed some space. Toledo is a beautiful old walled city, perched high on top of a hill with great views of the surrounding valley, just 70km from Madrid. We were there in 30 minutes by train and had a wonderful afternoon climbing the hill and once again wandering through narrow, twisting streets.

But the thing I’ll remember most is the nature trail we found that went around the base of the city along the river that passes Toledo. We spent an hour or so walking along the river, watching the fishermen and the couples necking on benches, with sheer rock walls across the water to our right and the walled city above us to our left. And then, because we had time, we hiked back up to the city, up the incredibly steep stone staircase that passed through the walls, for some gelato before walking back down and across the river to the train station.

Córdoba: Processions, Patios and Pails of Snails

We had tickets on our traditional noon bus northwest to Córdoba, but first we had to get out of Granada. On our walk yesterday, we walked west, away from downtown, and away from the tourist area, into a regular neighbourhood. There we found a delightful neighbourhood pastelaria, with great coffee, a bin full of oranges for juice and pan integral (whole wheat bread) for toast. Now all we had to do is find it again.

Technology is a double edged sword. That little black box in my pocket, playfully named Big Black Olaf, is crucial for finding our way around the narrow, twisting streets of medieval European cities. Paper maps just don’t cut it; the streets are smaller than the names, making them impossible to label properly. But Big Black Olaf, along with the maps.me app, can get me anywhere, and can get me back there again. But only if I pin the destination.

And that’s where the trouble began. We had such a delightful time yesterday, but I forgot to pin the location on the map. So this morning, all we knew is that it was “west” and about a kilometre from our apartment. Past that big fountain with the plaza running “south”, but before the large park with the running track and old men playing bocce.

But was it before, or after, the university residences with raised gardens full of rosemary and walls full of political graffiti? What about the roundabout with tapas bars we were at last night? Surely it’s not that far away!

So we walked, and walked, and squabbled a little. When we tried to piece together our walk from the day before, we came up with two completely different orders. And I’ll admit to you, like I admitted to Cindy on the day, that I’m not at my best without my morning coffee. So I caused a scene and we had a spat and then we looked up and there it was, across the street. Argh. I got my coffee and Cindy got her juice and we bought make up toast and four make up sandwiches for the bus ride and then quietly walked back to the room to get our bags and get on the bus for the bus depot.

The ride to Córdoba was smooth and pleasant, helped along by the sandwiches and Spanish Gravol. Outside, the landscape was beautiful. As we came out of the mountains, the miles and miles and miles of olive orchards gave way to gently rolling hills and wheat fields. Wheat fields! It was a sunny day and the wheat was already well along, creating a bright green carpet that popped against the bright blue afternoon sky. Gorgeous.

Maps.me was in a good mood today, and picked a walking route to our guest room that passed through two parks. No major freeways for us! So we had a delightful walk to our room and for the first time, arrived feeling upbeat about our surroundings. (So far, our locations needed a day to grow on us.)

Our guest room for the next three nights was in Manuela’s house and it was a real treat. We had a huge, elaborately decorated room and a very large tiled bathroom with double sinks even. There were so many statuettes and icons around the room, so many armoires and dressers and side tables, so many tablecloths and doilies and other fabrics that we put our towel underneath our suitcases lest we get anything dirty. Perhaps the decor was better suited to an older couple, but we had a ton of space and Manuela was very nice. I think our Spanish was improving because our charades went more easily as we learned about all the keys and locks and how the doors work. We could even share pictures of the snowstorm back home and agreed things were better in Córdoba.

Our room was about 1km outside of the main tourist area and that’s a very good thing. We kept discovering tiny fruit shops and cafes and gelaterias down side alleys that didn’t even have signs out front. You couldn’t tell they were there until you walked down the alley, so of course we walked down all the alleys and made sure we found them all. But wow was it tight. I measured our street, and wall to wall, including two ‘sidewalks’ and the road, was eleven feet wide. When a car came down the road we hugged the wall and hoped for the best.

When we felt claustrophobic, we’d walk two blocks to a small thoroughfare with wider sidewalks and more shops. This was our breakfast street every day. Friendly people, big glasses of orange juice, tiny glasses of strong coffee and tostadas. I discovered the local custom of spreading puréed tomatoes on my toast instead of jam and it was lovely.

Further down this street is the main square. Bars and restaurants ring the outside with City Hall in the middle. Then we turned the corner around City Hall and found Roman pillars! There were the remains of a Roman temple right beside City Hall! Amazing. While not as complete as the temple in Evora, it was still quite spectacular and a big surprise.

Most of the main square was blocked off for Easter processions, so we turned left and headed down to the Mesquita. It’s a Mosque/Cathedral that is the centrepiece of tourism in Córdoba, but for now we just walked around it, through the winding alleys of the Jewish quarter and headed to the river.

Córdoba is situated alongside the Guadalquivir River, which makes it a very strategic city, ever since Roman times. The Romans built a beautiful bridge across the river right near where the Mesquita now stands and as it was gorgeous evening, we strolled along the bridge for almost an hour, watching the ducks in the river, looking at the remains of windmills from Roman times, taking photos in the amazing evening light and watching the thousands of fellow tourists doing exactly the same thing. It was the start of Easter Break, so we saw our first busloads of high school and university students on a tour of Spain. It added to the overall energy level in the place, I guess.

While there is still city on the other side of the bridge, there isn’t a whole bunch, so I could still see the rolling hills and green wheat fields in the distance, which warmed my heart.

We continued our stroll along the river then headed back to our neighbourhood to find a place for supper. Just like in Granada, we stumbled across a crowd in front of one of the cathedrals, filling the whole plaza / intersection. Easter procession! So we hung out for a while, tried to chat with our neighbours, watched the children having fun and watched the police try to re-route traffic, including a massive tour bus that clearly made a wrong turn at some point. And then, just like Granada, the crowd dispersed before anything happened. Procession’s suspended, someone said. Ah well.


This tiny place makes one thing only. Potato Chips!

The next morning, we took care of business. It was laundry day, so I googled the nearest laundromat and we headed away from downtown, 1km across the train tracks. It’s another one of those big differences from Regina. At home, walking to a public laundromat, 1km across the tracks, is a scary bit of business. Sea Spray laundry at home isn’t a lot of fun and certainly not a place I’d want to hang out. But boy were we ever surprised in Córdoba!

First, we had to cross the tracks. But we couldn’t find the tracks! Rather than the ugliness that splits downtown Regina and the Warehouse District, here they built a hill over the tracks, so the trains ran underground from the station to the outskirts of town. And on top of the hill, they built parks! And planted trees, and installed sculptures and fountains! It was gorgeous and something we totally need to do at home. I’m forwarding pictures to my city councillor and I encourage everyone who reads this to do the same.


Promenade over the train tracks. Wonderful!

And I don’t want to insult Sea Spray Laundry, but this laundromat was gorgeous. Spotless. Self Service. With automatic soap and softener dispensing so we didn’t even need to buy soap. So we loaded up, set a timer on the phone and went for a walk around the neighbourhood. It was so pretty. Just your friendly neighbourhood shopping district, with butcher shops and fruit shops and fish shops and pharmacies and banks and anything else you’d need. Friends meeting on the corner to say hi. Children out for a walk with their grandparents. We wandered around with our mouths open, staring at how awesome it all was.

Our imagined need for private, detached houses with big yards at home means there just aren’t enough people to support this level of commerce in a neighbourhood. At least that’s what the real estate folks keep telling us. But these blocks of four story buildings with apartments and offices above stores on the ground floor sure look good to me. And everyone seemed happy enough. And Manuela’s apartment is huge too. Massive even. Bigger than I need, that’s for sure.

And oh yeah, I forgot to mention. Córdoba is full of courtyards and inner patios! One of the reasons the streets are so narrow is to maximize courtyard space. We walked by some beauties. They have an annual ‘patio walk’ in Córdoba, similar to our ‘Secret Garden Tour’ at home. I’d love to see that.

That evening, on our way to supper, we came across another procession right near our room. And there were purple hats too! This one actually happened and it was quite a bit of fun. The crowd was smaller than in Granada, but still big enough to make us find an alternate route to supper. We’d learn to call this a small crowd before the week was out. But as we drank wine and ate tapas, we watched the TV and got a hint of the fervour these processions cause all over Andalucia. The TV had pictures from Seville, Malaga, Cadiz, Huelva, Granada and Córdoba, showing crowds and processions getting underway all across the region. Then it cut to the sad news from Brussels, about which I’ve already written.

Finally it was time for our tour of the Mesquita. You can get in for free between 8:30AM and 10:30AM, so that’s exactly what we did. Along with 500 other people who got there earlier than we did. No matter though, the Mesquita is massive. 5000 people could be in there and it wouldn’t feel crowded.

The site has an interesting history. First there was a Romman temple on the site. After the Romans retreated, the Visigoths built a Christian temple on the site. When the Moors conquered Spain, the site was split and Christians and Muslims worshiped side by side. Then in the 8th century, the Sultan in power bought the Christian half and built the largest Mosque in Western Europe on the site. Then, with the Christian re-conquest in the 13th century, a huge cathedral was built inside the Mosque. That is to say, the entire building is a cathedral, but the Christian bits have been added to the Muslim bits. So the whole structure looks rather odd. Muslim architecture but Christian icons, with a Gothic cathedral in the middle.

It’s odd and overwhelmingly spectacular at the same time. We spent two hours looking up and taking pictures that in no way portray the grandeur of the place. Because it’s an active Cathedral and not a museum, there’s very little mention of the Muslim antecedents of the building. However there is a section at the back that has been left in it’s original Moorish state. Plus there is a display of some remains of the Visigoth temple in one corner too. It’s a shame, really, because there is so much layered history here that an interpretive pamphlet would really make the history come alive. There are private tour groups that do this; might be worth your while when you visit. Or read up ahead. Or just enjoy the majesty of the place.

We were getting tapas’d out. The effort to interpreting Spanish menus and coming to decisions on what was or was not octopus was tiring us out. And that time I went to what I thought was a coffee shop on the plaza but learned they sold pails of snails really freaked me out. So for supper on our last night in Córdoba we decided in advance to head to the Jewish Quarter beside the Mesquita and find an Arabian place with couscous and chicken tajin. It was Wednesday night and we thought we’d be relatively safe from Easter procession crowds. Boy were we wrong.

The easiest way to Mesquita from our place is to go down our little ‘main street’, through the town square, then turn left and head down to the river. But our main street was packed; we could see Mary heading off down the road towards a church. There was no way that would work.

So we took a left and tried to get ahead of the parade. If we could get ahead of the first purple hoods, it was polite to cross the road. So we leaped ahead of Mary’s procession and got to the town square, but that was even more jammed. Jesus had already made it to the town square. So we went further left, parallel to the parade route, until we reached the river, then backtracked and got to the Jewish Quarter.

We started looking for a restaurant with couscous and tajin (by that point I was actually craving couscous) but soon realized we were deep into the tourist zone. Too many English menus. Too many burgers. Too many cocktails. And the crowds kept growing and growing. Finally, after an hour of looking, we found a place with couscous on the menu and a table for two just inside the door. We ducked in and tried to ignore all the English being spoken around us.

Soon we couldn’t hear the English for all the drumming. Another procession was passing right beside the restaurant! Right by our table, in fact. I pushed outside and grabbed a few pictures between courses.

For a “TGI-Couscous” this place wasn’t too bad. We paid and plotted our course for home. There was still a huge crowd at the restaurant. Too big to cross. But the Mesquita was behind us. If we went the long way round the Mesquita maybe we could find open road.

So we headed out along the south side of the Mesquita and after a while turned right, into a huge crowd of spectators, hooded processioners and a full band. Another procession! They hadn’t really started, so we crossed the street and tried to pass along the crowd on the left. That didn’t really work, so after a block we ducked down a side street and tried walking parallel to the procession again. We got stuck 1/2 a block from the intersection. Just solid people, and too far away to see the procession anyway.

I muttered to Cindy, “the Christians are pushing us back to the river!”, which was happening, albeit unintentionally. But that gave us an idea. We headed to the river, away from our room, then walked along it until we were at least eight blocks past the Mesquita, the town square and even our little “main street.” Then north, then back and safely home.

In all, we saw four different Mary floats and at least three Jesus floats, eight bands and five different colours of hoods. It was quite a night. But my favourite thing of all was the little kids collecting wax balls, drip by drip, from the candles carried by the hooded folk. And the hundreds, and hundreds, and hundreds of people, from the very young, to the very old, eating sunflower seeds along the parade route. And by morning, how it was all swept up so there was no way of knowing the processions even happened. But they did. And it was amazing.