Spain 2023

Thursday 16 March 2023. London – Bordeaux. Strikes in England make the task of getting to St Pancras for the 10:30 train quite a challenge. We have to travel up to London the night before, and stay with friends. And in the morning the Tube isn’t running, although the overground from Richmond to Euston works out well. After that it’s a breeze to Paris, and then TGV south. In time to promenade along the banks of La Garonne in the warm Bordeaux evening.

Friday 17 March 2023. Bordeaux. Walking round the city, we enjoyed the quiet narrow streets with handsome tenements either side. It’s a really pleasant place, with a fine river front, well populated with folk enjoying the warm spring sunshine.

Saturday 18 March 2023. Bordeaux – Bilbao. Very early start to catch the 07:45 train, which turns out – with no explanation whatsoever – not to be running. We have to kill four hours at the station waiting for the next train to Hendaya. I guess this is the true Eurorail experience. From Hendaya we switch to the narrow-track Euskotren line, which slowly wends its way through the hilly Basque landscape towards first San Sebastián and then on to Bilbao. The train is busy with local folk journeying towards the big towns from the innumerable small stops. Because of the morning delay, we only arrive at dusk, but after some restorative tea and food we hit the Saturday Night in Bilbao.

Sunday 19 March 2023. Bilbao. What else? We hit the Guggenheim. Stunning architecture with a fabulous atrium that curves and reveals. Outside the silver scales reflect the changing light and colours. A real masterpiece. The exhibition rooms are conventional, but suit the job of showing pictures really well. Some of the modern art is a bit hit-and-miss two-dimensional, but no one obliges you to like it all. We enjoy an Oskar Kokoschka exhibition which is lively and emotional. His art is vibrant and expressive.

Monday 20 March 2023. Gernika. We all know of Gernika because of the four hours that started at 4:20pm on Monday 26 April 1937. The town lives with this, but reasonably wants to be more than this memory. It says it looks to the future without forgetting its past. It’s a fine day, and we travel by the splendid Euskotren, the local narrow-gauge railway, which is modern, spotlessly clean and punctual. Again we potter through the countryside, with regular stops and have time to admire the Basque scenery, which is verdant and hilly, and reminds me of the south Wales valleys.

Gernika is small and we wonder around the various sites, including the Assembly House of Gernika, which is a handsome chamber formerly used as the meeting place for the law-makers of Bizkaia (the local region). It is still used as the venue for the swearing in of the Basque Premier.

After Gernika we walk the 15km or so towards the little seaside village of Mundaka through the Urdaibai Biosphere Reserve. This follows the Urdaibai river as it approaches the sea, through salt-marshes.

Tuesday 21 March 2023. Bilbao. If we had a notion that an Interrail ticket allows for free and spontaneous travel, that has been well and truly dispelled. Virtually all the long-distance trains in Spain need to be pre-booked and a reservation supplement paid. To add complexity, in the last few days the Interrail website has seemingly stopped selling the reservations, so we had to go to the station here in Bilbao. Luckily we met the most helpful member of train staff in all Europe, who naturally spoke English. She sorted us reservations for all our current travel, and even intervened in our schedule, because you can’t possibly pass through Avila without having a look round.

That done, on the basis of advice from another helpful staffer – this time at the tourist information office – we took the metro out to Portugalete. Here there is the celebrated Puente Colgante which is a transporter bridge with a Gondola strung far below a gantry made of cast-iron. The design thus allowing ships of any size to pass underneath. Having taken the short ride we walked along the coast, a sort of Basque version of St Tropez with one extraordinary mansion after another.

The public transport network here is as good as any we’ve encountered. As good as Switzerland!!! Except, at a fraction of the cost. And if you get a pre-payment card, they give you 50% off. Having charged up the card with €5, we both travelled out on the metro, took the gondola, got the metro back, finished off the day with a funicular ride up to the local viewing platform, and still had 37c left.

Wednesday 22 March 2023. Bilbao to Salamanca (via Avila). An early start to catch the 0700 train to Avila, via Valladolid.  We are boarded and away well before dawn.  Looking at the line on the map, it appears that the train is taking an almost full circle:  why would it do that?  Because at the point where the circle almost closes, one line is in fact several hundred metres above the other.  This is how the Sierra Salvada is crossed.  It’s perfect Spring weather at the moment, cool air, but a warming sun that we discovered yesterday will burn you if you’re not careful.  The scene from the train is mesmeric, and I don’t get any reading done at all.  This bit of Spain is seriously hilly, although we pass a succession of small towns sitting in wide plateaux.  

We’ve decided to break the journey south, rather than hammer down to Andalusia.  So we spend most of the day travelling to Salamanca, where we stop.  And, at the insistence of the lady in the Travel Centre at Bilbao station, we delayed a few hours at Avila. This proves to be a challenge, when we discover an eerily empty station with no left luggage options, so we have to walk into and around town laden with our back-packs. I’m minded to pull on my bandana to look proper Interrail teenage troopers. We pack what we can into the three hours we’re in Avila which, according to our (2005) guidebook, Mario Vargas Llosa said is a place ‘where the past seems more alive than the present’. Possibly. You need to keep your wits about you as the locals drive briskly through the narrow streets.

Determined to catch our 1510 train, we are back at the station with some time to spare. Then onto Salamanca, where we arrive just over an hour later. Our AirB&B (vacated student studio flat) is bang in the centre of town, so we’re able to recharge with tea, and then head-out into this truly overwhelming town.

Thursday 23 March 2023. Salamanca. Despite spending most of yesterday on trains, we’re both knackered and sleep-in till the noisy diggers below give us no option but to get up. We are a week into our peregrinations, and separately we wonder if we are doing the right thing, spending the time and energy to best effect. We talk it through and agree we have to go with the flow, enjoy the moment, etc. Not overthink basically.

We set off into Salamanca and swiftly we are bowled over by the sheer scale of the place. There is one colossal building after another, build in this honey-coloured sandstone, with intricacies of carving and ornamentation. It is quite marvellous. We spend the day visiting one building after another, and by the end we are sure this was time well-spent. Salamanca is definitely a place to visit in once in a lifetime.

Friday 24 March 2023. Salamanca. Our train is only at 15:30, so we have most of the day to wander round the town. We start in the market, and admire the innumerable legs of pork, which seems to be the local speciality. Then in succession the Salamanca Town Museum (where, having established we are neither under 18 nor over 65, we are charged the full price of 1€), the Archive of the Spanish Civil War , and, the Art Nouveau and Art Deco Museum. Few pictures result. We then train to Madrid and then on to Cordoba, arriving late in the evening.

Picture in the Modern Art section of Salamanca Museum.

Saturday 25 March 2023. Cordoba. At first sights this can seem like a rather typical large Southern European town. But then you hit the old quarters. The Cathedral is half-Mosque-half-Cathedral. A unique building.

Sunday 26 March 2023. Cordoba. We wake late after yesterday’s exertions. In fact very late, as the clocks have gone forward. But for the fact that our phones automatically adjusted, we wouldn’t have known. We pack and check-out, but leave the bags, so we can continue exploring the city unencumbered. Essentially we walk the streets guided by our maps and GPS, but without any real purpose or direction. Just take in this extraordinary old city. We do pop into the Museo Julio Romerodo Torres to see the works of one of Cordoba’s most celebrated sons. Fine pictures, but an awful lot of female nudity seems a bit gratuitous. Having exhausted ourselves, we’re on the 17:10 train to Ronda – where we arrive two hours later, planning a slightly less hectic schedule for the next few days.

Monday 27 March 2023. Ronda. After four cities, it’s a welcome change to be in a small town. That’s not to say that Ronda isn’t well on the tourist map. It is. But the bustle of the place is much less, and there is clearly a local population going about its business too. The town is perched on top of 120m sandstone cliffs and cleft by a tremendous gorge which is strung by some extraordinary bridges. We walk out of town in the cool of the morning so as to get a sight of the chasm and its crossing on our return. By the time we get back it’s pretty hot for the steep climb back up to the town. After lunch we tour the sights, which are mainly in the old town on the south of the Rio Guadalevin and its gorge. But the pleasant shopping area, the Bullring and our apartment are all in the new town to the north. Both Ernest Hemingway and Orson Wells are celebrated with busts and eponymous roads.

Tuesday 28 March 2023. Ronda. We are obliged to swing past the railway station to sort our journey to Sevilla in a few days time, but this is also the start of our walk to Arriate. We follow the route of the GR7 (and E3, E4) but this turns out to be continuous road-walking, although thankfully there’s very little traffic. I’m struggling to interpret the various maps I have (Komoot, Wikiloc and a paper map from the tourist office), so I didn’t realise that this route was contiguous with roads. It’s still pretty fine, with bright sunshine and ragged mountains around us. The way picks up after Arriate, with a path through another deeply cut river gorge. We’re thankful for the shade, as by now the temperature is well up in the 20s. We get to the old Puente de la Ventilla, and there turn for Ronda. Maybe 13km.

As is our habit we delay at a Pasteleria to pick up cakes on the way back to the apartment. We’ve still not hit gold yet, but we keep searching.

Wednesday 29 March 2023. Ronda to Grazalema. We pack, but leave our bags in the apartment whilst we have another look at Ronda. We gawp over the gorge and then onto the municipal museum which gives an excellent if brisk account of the development of human civilisation in the area, from the Stone Age to the demise of the Romans.

Then bus to Grazalema where we establish ourselves in our apartment before setting out for a quick stroll into the hills above the town.

Our adventures continue in part 2, click here to continue.