A picture postcard fishing port – Castro Urdiales

9 07 2012

Headed west on a road journey that started in the Basque city of Bilbao, my three travel companions and I would probably have not thought of making a detour to the Cantabrian fishing port of Castro Urdiales just 35 kilometres into the drive, if not for a sign which seemed to urge us to make that detour. What we would have missed out if we hadn’t was the picture postcard view we were treated to of the port’s harbour against the backdrop to its medieval monuments atop a high point on a promontory that forms one end of the harbour.

The picture postcard view of the harbour of Castro Urdiales and the Puebla Vieja with its medieval church and castle sitting on a promontory across the harbour.

The monuments, part of the Puebla Vieja, the old town, are the remnants of a medieval world that had once existed where a more modern world has taken over. The monuments inlcude the Gothic style Iglesia de Santa María de la Asunción; the Castillo de Santa Ana, a castle; and the Puente de Castro Urdiales, a very high single span bridge with a pointed arch. All of these along with the harbour decorated with the colours of the boats it shelters and the houses that line the quayside paints a charming and very picturesque scene.

Another view across the harbour towards the promontory and the medieval church and castle.

The church a fine example of the Cantabrian Gothic style which shows French influence built from the 13th to 15th Centuries stands next to the ruins of a Romanesque church, the Iglesia de San Pedro. Among the artifacts that are housed in the church is a tall stone sculpture depicting Mary with the infant Jesus – Santa María con el Niño that dates to the thirteenth century.

The church, la Iglesia de Santa María de la Asunción, dates back to the 13th to 15th centuries.

The church is built in the Gothic style and show French Gothic influence.

Flying buttresses typical of Gothic style churches.

A polychrome stone sculpture of Santa María con el Niño (Mary with the infant Jesus) dating from the thirteenth century that is housed in the church.

A view of Santa María de la Asunción through the ruins of an 11th Century church, Iglesia de San Pedro.

The castle, Castillo de Santa Ana seen together with the ruins of Iglesia de San Pedro.

A view of the new part of town from the Puebla Vieja.

A view towards the breakwater from the promontory.

The medieval castle stands on the highest point of the promontory overlooking the sea.

The medieval bridge, the Puente de Castro-Urdiales. The lighthouse built on the castle can be seen atop the castle.

It is from the promontory where one gets a magnificent reverse view of the harbour – and the new town beyond it, a view that is no less beautiful than the view one gets of promontory from across the harbour and the four of us could have spent an entire day and not find the town short of views to photograph. Glad that we had made the detour, we probably spent a little more time than we had allowed ourselves, reluctantly leaving after spending a good three hours in all … three hours that were certainly very well spent.

The 18th century Neo Classical Town Hall, Casa Consistorial.

The cafe culture is very much alive in a fishing town that has become a tourist destination.

A house along the quayside.

A view of the harbour.

A close-up of a building along the quayside.





A journey to the north of Spain: Bilbao and the Casco Viejo

22 06 2012

2011 was an especially eventful year for me. As well as being caught up in the events that surrounded the last days of the Malayan railway through Singapore, I also had the opportunity to expand my experiences in exploring four different parts of the world, three of which I had visited for the first time. One, a journey to the north of Spain, was partly paid for through a stroke of good fortune – winning a Zuji blogger engagement effort for which I was generously rewarded.

The village of La Riera in the Picos de Europa in the Asturias. I made a journey last October to the north of Spain, a land of diverse cultures and landscapes.

I have long held a fascination for Spain, particularly its far north, fuelled by impressions I developed over the course of my childhood. I had known of the unique culture of the Basque country through my interactions with members of the Basque community here and read many tales of an ancient pilgrimage route, el Camino de Santiago or the Way of St. James. I also learnt that the northern coastline that stretched from the Basque country in the west to Galicia in the east, was one of diverse landscapes and cultures and of delectable gastronomic offerings – a region that I also knew to be one of immense natural beauty from the limited television coverage of one of the great European cycling races, the Vuelta a España.

Flying over and into an area I have long held a fascination for – the northern region of Spain.

The north of Spain is where an ancient westward pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela – el Camino de Santiago or the Way of St. James cuts through.

Thatch-roofed huts or pallozas in the village of O Cebreiro, Galicia, in the North of Spain.

The sun drenched hills at O Cebreiro a pilgrim village in Galicia close to its border with León.

It was with much anticipation that I started my journey, armed with a guidebook, as well as several guides and maps that I picked up from the very helpful Spanish Tourism Board’s office in Liat Towers, late on a Friday evening in mid October. The final leg of that journey to my entry point into the region, the Basque city of Bilbao, was via a connecting flight from Paris’ Charles de Gaulle airport and one that was truly magical – setting the tone perhaps for the magic of the rest of the trip. The drama of the colours of a wondrous sunrise that the flight took-off into, was one that was only surpassed by the sight out of the window that accompanied the descent into Bilbao, a heavenly sight as the flight first descended over and then in between the exposed peaks of the cloud shrouded mountains that surround the Basque city.

The dramatic sunrise over the tarmac of Paris’ Charles de Gaulle Airport.

Taking off into a magical sunrise.

The magic of the descent into Bilbao Airport.

The sight of two of Bilbao’s icons, ones that perhaps define modern Bilbao – the very distinct Puente de la Salve and the very recognisable Guggenheim Bilbao, greeted my arrival to the city. It was to the calm of a Saturday morning that was bathed in the brilliant sunshine that was to accompany me on much of my journey that I alighted from the airport bus. In no time I found myself in the hotel and after freshening up and a short nap, I was ready to head out into the balmy autumn day.

It was the sight of two of Bilbao’s modern icons that greeted my entry into the city.

Bilbao first impressions – the view as I stepped off the bus ….

Bilbao first impressions – Plaza Moyua.

Bilbao first impressions – seemed like I had eyes on me – lamps on a building’s façade.

With a day at my disposal before three of my travelling companions were to join me, I decided spend it taking a leisurely stroll to the historic Casco Viejo – the old town. Lying across the Río Nervión from the new town where I was putting up in, what seems like a labyrinth of streets that is the old town, is actually seven parallel streets – the Zazpikaleak or Las Siete Calles that date back to the 14th Century, intersected by several others. The maze of streets, some with names that reflect the traditional trades that once would have been found on them, is certainly worth losing oneself in, coming to life as the pre-siesta crowd fill the cafés and restaurants, spilling onto the streets.

What seems like a labyrinth of narrow streets, the Casco Viejo – the old town is actually arranged around seven medieval streets – the Zazpikaleak or Las Siete Calles, that run somewhat parallel to each other.

A view through the shadows cast on a street in the Casco Viejo.

The streets of the Casco Viejo come alive in the pre and post Siesta hours.

The back of the Teatro Arriaga, Bilbao’s opera house at the edge of the Casco Viejo. The Neo-baroque style theatre was designed by architect Joaquín Rucoba in 1890.

The ‘del Perro’ (dog’s fountain) dating from the early 19th Century – named because three lion-heads at the end of its water pipes resemble the heads of dogs.

Through the calles, one will also find several attractions including works of religious architecture, which speak of a time when all was dedicated to the greater glory of God. One which towers over the Casco Viejo is the very grand Gothic cathedral – the Catedral de Santiago situated at one corner of the Plazuela Santiago which itself dates back to the 14th Century and features a Neo-Gothic façade dating from the 19th Century which is the work of Severino de Achúcarro. Another wonderful piece of religious architecture is a church that lies on the fringe of the old town – the Iglesia San Nicolás de Bari, an 18th Century Baroque church laid on an octagonal plan. Its façade features the coat of arms of Bilbao.

Plazuela Santiago.

Catedral de Santiago (Cathedral of St. James)

Seeing the light inside the cathedral – a street lamp seen through a reflection on a glass panel shines over the sanctuary.

The façade of the Iglesia de San Nicolás de Bari, dedicated to the parton saint of sailors. The coat of arms of Bilbao can be seen above the door.

A visit to the city would of course not be complete without stumbling into the Café Iruña or indulging in some tapas – or pintxos as they are known as in the Basque country. I did just that on my way back from my initial exploration of the Casco Viejo, attracted by its charming Mudéjar tiled interior and the healthy crowd as I passed by the Jardines de Albia. The café I was to discover is an institution of sorts in the city and dates back to 1903. After a glass of cerveza and some delicious pintxos, it was back to the hotel for a much-needed rest and to plot my next adventure in a city that I certainly was glad to find myself in.

No trip to Bilbao would be complete with indulging in some pintxos (and cerveza).

The charming Mudéjar tiled interior of the Café Iruña.