Tag Archives: Travel

Heading West and By the Numbers

A four hour train ride took us from Pamplona to Madrid.  We got lost in the mesmerizing landscape grinning every time a small village with white stone buildings entered the scene.  Lush were the hillsides and fields of agriculture.

We walked by the Atocha Station a couple of times while in Madrid but discovered a lush garden inside after departing the train.It was an easy listless day – train and then a taxi to the hotel near the airport for our flight back to the USA the following morning.

It was an eight and a half hour flight to Newark where we were to have a quick layover and be one our way to Charlotte.  Upon landing lightening crashed in around us and the plane stood still on the tarmac as the airport closed.  An omen.  A half hour later the plane was cleared to head to the gate.

Unbeknownst to us the airline industry and particularly United was in melt down mode.  It was utter chaos. Cancelled flights and stranded people.  Our connecting flight to Charlotte a victim.

It was 5:00 pm.  A United agent told us it would be days before any  seats would be available. “Check online.” The internet confirmed the worst.

We had places to be!  The following day was our grandson’s first birthday and our son had taken time off of work – we didn’t have days…. who has days???

Quick change of plans – we rented a car and headed to Charlotte driving until dark.  It was 1:30 am Madrid time by the time we stopped for the night somewhere in Maryland.

We arrived at our destination 21 hours late but in time to celebrate.

We visited family, broke bread, raced cars and played with our grand babies. 

United continued its melt down and we feared we’d not make it home to Nevada as scheduled.  It all worked out – both flights harmoniously were delayed and we made it home.Now we shift through months of mail, dust off the house and get ready for summer.  We head out again in 8 days.

Our trip by the numbers:

13 flights, 1 cruise ship, a few boat rides, multiple trains, lots of car rides,  one tram – 34 beds and 18 Countries: South Africa, Eswatini, Lesotho, Mozambique, Madagascar, Comoros, French Comoros, Seychelles, Omán, EAU, Armenia, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Spain.

I wore everything that I packed, left one shirt (on purpose) and threw out 2 that I ruined.  I way overpacked even though we just had carry on.  Another lesson learned (again).  Way less is even more!

Thanks for following along!

 

Pamplona, Spain

The five kilometer walled “old city” of Pamplona (Spanish) and/or Iruña (Basque) is well preserved. Founded in 74 BC by Roman military and political leader, Pompey.  Due to its strategic location it was fortified right way.

* Click to enlarge photos

The Camino de Santiago Frances meanders through town.  It was on our third day of the Camino that took us through town 10 years ago. Through being the key word.  No time to explore – we had miles ahead of us.

Bill partied here one night 50 years ago and was determined to find the bar so we booked a week’s stay at an Airbnb to allow us the time to investigate.  He didn’t remember the name or the location so we drank or way through town trying to figure out which one held Bill’s barstool.

Our apartment was on Estafeta Street right above a popular restaurant/bar. The street is renowned for its 300 meter path where six bulls and thousands of crazy masochists converge for the running of the bulls during the San Fermín festival.

In 11 days, our balcony and all the ones up and down the street, now quiet and unoccupied, will be full of onlookers peering down to the mayhem below. More than 1.5 million people will fill the town.

Preparations are under way.  Stores advertise white and red in honor of the celebration – some empty store fronts are shored up with painted murals and fencing has been installed to keep people out of areas. It’s hard to fathom the masses for the festival.

We spent three days on portions of the Camino.  The first day we followed the arrows to Cizur Menór and it only took 20 minutes to get lost.  I had to pull out the GPS to get oriented. The next time we hiked in the opposite direction.  It was like Where’s Waldo trying to find the trail makers.  We taxied to Alto del Perdón and walked back – backwards on the trail again!  Yes, we got lost but not for long.

Searching for arrows that guide the Way and not knowing where they lead was thrilling.  We talked about a reunion walk in the future.  We’ll see how that pans out.  One thing we learned is that we’re not as strong as we used to be.  Super light packs and a few extra days to walk would be essential.

Pamplona pays homage to Ernest Hemingway. A city that he loved and wrote about in his 1926 book The Sun Also Rises.  Some of his favorite haunts still stand today attracting tourists and local alike.

We gobbled up as many pinchos as possible and tried to soak in every ounce of Spain as possible.

Hemingway’s book is downloaded on my Kindle to read as we head west – going to let Pamplona linger a bit longer…

 

La Próxima Ciudad – San Sebastián, Spain

We got up early to catch a 6:30 taxi.  The previous night we tried to hire one for the morning and the driver assured us there would be lots of them waiting.  No pasa nada. Don’t worry.

All there were was a bunch of drunk and tired party goers.  We had allowed ourselves 35 minutes for a 10 minute drive and one guy told us he had been waiting an hour.  Panic!  There are no ride share companies in town.  A taxi was it.

The guy was exhausted after going to three parties in three different barrios where he drank and danced the night away.  He said he had a great time as he tried to keep his eyelids open.

I expressed my concern that we’d miss our train and he kindly offered to share his taxi.  Twenty minutes later our chariot arrived.  The remaining people who got there long before us freaked out that we were getting in a cab out of turn.  It was explained and all was well with the world.

Bill tried to give our cabbie friend money and it was turned down with a – it’s for Spain and from Salamanca! ¡Buen viaje!  He certainly saved the day.

The 1.5 hour train took us to Valladolid where we switched trains for a 4 hour journey to San Sebastián – also known as Donostia/San Sebastián (Basque and Spanish).

Famous for their pintxos/pinchos (Basque/Spanish). The Spanish dictionary defines a pincho like ‘a portion of food served, sometimes with a cocktail stick, as an aperitif’. The word “pincho” comes from the verb “to pinchar” which means “to pierce”. The pincho is normally served on a piece of bread or other, served usually with a cocktail stick which you can eat in one or two bites.

* Reality is that it takes multiple bites to finish off a pincho! The person who wrote the definition must have been famished and unless you’re a glutton two of them are a meal!

The train ride was stunning.  A reminder of all the things we absolutely love about Spain.  Lush, forested mountains, quaint villages, rolling farm land and fields of vegetables inter-dispersed with thousand poppies.  Often it feels like we’ve stepped into a fairy tale.

We had been to San Sebastián many years ago for just a few hours when Carlos and Isabel took us on a field trip from their hometown about a half hour away for pinchos and a beautiful afternoon lunch.

San Sebastián is on the coast of the Bay of Biscay and 12 miles from the French border.  The Basque Country.  Where the Urumea River runs along side the town and spills into the bay.

*click photos to enlarge

“We could live here.” rolled off our tongues. The old architecture, the beaches, the long La Concha beach walkway, the forested lush hills, pinchos and bars.  I thought I heard Bill said that but upon reflection I think I imagined it.

Our VRBO was in a much quieter area than Salamanca. The bars across the street closed at 9:00 pm.  Yes!

Everything was new to us so it was enjoyable exploring.  A historical city on the beach was a new kind of perfect.  A best kind of yin and yang.

Much to my surprise at Playa de Zurriola in Gros (across the river) nudity was a thing.  This isn’t a hidden beach.  It’s right there!  Wide open for all eyes to see.  Yes, they were kinda on the corner but you had to walk past that area to get where you’re going.

Yup! I’m a prude. But the kids, do what you want away from kids…

Of course we stopped to soak it all in.  One old dude stripped off his clothing, ran to the water jumped in and frolicked in his nakedness.  I was particularly surprised by his willingness to swim in the cold water!  Just saying.  About 10% of the women sunbathed topless and G-string bottoms were worn by most.

It was kinda funny but this American who sun bathed next to us must have felt some new sense of freedom and was topless.  It had to be her first time since she had tan marks from her bathing suit top.  We watched her swim in the bay and she actually did frolick.  She raised her arms to the sky and spun circles.

It reminded us of three burners we saw on their last day of Burning Man stark naked with super white short tans lines – smiling ear to ear with their new found freedom.  Perhaps we’re missing something.

Onwards….

We refrain from shopping when traveling but this time while exploring we stumbled upon a walking shopping district where sirens sang me into a rocky oblivion!

San Sebastián is certainly an international destination and for good reason.  We enjoyed every minute of it.

 

 

 

 

On to Salamanca, Spain

We fell in love with Salamanca ten years ago when I went to extensive Spanish school for three months after walking the Camino de Santiago.  Bill said he would learn more Spanish in the bars while I was in school. Game on.  I’m sure you could figure out who the winner was in that challenge.

Actually what happened was Bill learned every square inch of the old part of town and beyond – walking while I traumatized my brain.  On weekends he would take me on field trips to show me what he had discovered.

*click photos to enlarge

Outside the old city…

What’s scary is how much our memories have deteriorated in 10 years.  We eventually found almost all of our favorite spots but it took an effort.  Sadly a lot of businesses have closed – perhaps victims of COVID lockdowns.

This time we rented an apartment on Plaza Mayor with a balcony that allowed front row seats to people watching and three concerts.

We took this time to wind down after hotel stays and a whirlwind tour the past couple plus months.  Now shifting to the Spaniard clock – sleeping in and staying up late.  Tapas and a caña (beer)/wine for lunch, snack time, dinner…. any time, all the time.

Point of clarification – We got on the old person’s clock.  The young stay up partying all night long.  There is never an hour period of time throughout the night and early morning where you don’t hear them.  When we left at 6:30 am to catch a cab to the train the taxi stand was full of drunk party goers waiting for a ride home.

Mid-week we were awakened by super loud partiers in our building. The building is 4 stories with one unit on each floor – ours the 3rd. Their voices reverberated off the walls in the narrow stairwell.  It sounded like they were right outside our door until they were inside our apartment!  They used a key to enter.  Our bedroom was near the door.  Bill popped up and grabbed a pillow to hide his private parts and exited our door and met them in the hallway where he said in his best English “leave”.  They hightailed it out of there without a rebuttal.  They partied for another half or so and then settled down.

I messaged our landlord who tried to convince me that it was impossible since they didn’t have a key and the only way to access is with one!  Can you imagine?  Later he confessed they must have had a master key.

Salamanca is stunning with old, towering and ornate sandstone buildings.  It drips history, with Roman, Muslim and royal periods.  The majority of historic buildings were created by the Catholic Church.

The “old city” is a UNESCO World Heritage site and the oldest university in Spain sits smack dab in the middle of it.  Columbus studied celestial navigation here prior to sailing for the New World.

In the afternoon some group is celebrating something almost every day with parades, artistic displays or some sort of organized party.  It makes me smile to see people living life with a happy purpose.

Storks must be the Salamanca’s mascot.  They sit proudly in their huge nests at the tops of churches.  The largest gathering was eight.  They have a strange clucking call and their vast wingspan shadows the sun when they circle.  It appears that they deliver lots of babies.

The central market has many stalls selling fresh fruit, vegetables, meat, cheese, eggs, piglets, chicken, etc.  You can shop daily. So wish we had something like this in the USA.

The week went by quickly and with a bit of sadness we left for the next town…

Oh – by the way – Bill is now snapping a photo here and there!

Hola Madrid, Spain

It’s hard to believe it’s been 15 years since we last spent time here.

Madrid is fabulous!  The old buildings are eye candy.  Food fantastic. First class museums and lush parks.  And this time of the year – tons of people.  It’s all remarkable.

*click photos to enlarge

In keeping with our routine we walked and walked and walked everywhere.  No metros to explore – only one to a train station outside the city to buy tickets which we could have purchased online, and no busses.

We hit the tops of the waves. A repeat of all the things we did 15 years ago.

Stunning is Patrick Blanca’s vertical garden wall – 78 feet tall containing 250 varieties of 15,000 plants.

It felt good to practice our Spanish and eat food different from Central Asia.

Fun story:  Bill occasionally puts one of his hearing aides in his pocket when it starts to bug him.  This time when we returned to our hotel the aid was missing.  It was assumed that he dropped it while taking his money out of his pocket but with it would be impossible to retrace our steps.

Days later we went to back to a bar, after viewing Picasso’s Guernica, where we had eaten on the day that Bill lost his hearing aid ONLY because every other restaurant in the area was full.

I decided to ask our waitress if they found a hearing aid.  She looked at us strangely and said I don’t think so – no.  The bartender heard the exchange and said Yes!  They found it on the sidewalk a few days ago.  What are the odds?  A crazy miracle for sure.

We found it interesting watching these street sellers walk up with a tarp full of knock off purses, bags, scarves, etc..  They cautiously open their bag, displaying wares and at a moments notice (police) can pull the cord which wraps up their contraband for a quick get away.  They looked right and left, constantly accessing of their situation while trying to make a buck.  The stress was apparent.

All in all it was fantastic being back.  We love Spain.  Preston met the love of his life here and it holds special meaning to all of us.  There’s more of Spain to come….

 

Ultimate Uzbekistan – Khviva

We got up at 3:00 am to catch the Bukhara-Urgench express.  Paige bought the 4 berth cabin so we had railroad sheets and pillows with privacy for the 6 hour trip across the Kyzylkum Desert.

Urgench is actually 2 towns, the ancient in Turkmenistan and the modern one across the border in Uzbekistan.  They also include the ancient settlement of Khiva.

New Urgench is a vast fertile valley served by the Darya River which originates in Tajikistan.  The area has been irrigating for more than 2,000 years, growing cotton and rice for export on the Silk Road.  It also has exported alfalfa and other seeds for hundreds of years.  Since the advent of electricity and pumping power it has really expanded irrigation as it looks like some city along Highway 99 in California.

Walking away from the train station we stopped for breakfast and Paige spotted a restaurant with 2 tandoor type ovens.  It became obvious that they were very popular as people bought them one after another.

We’ll take two!  A samosa of some sort with a spicy meat filling and a sauce on the side.  It took a couple tries to eat them correctly without silverware. When in Rome….

We spent the night in Urgench as it’s the gateway to Khiva but didn’t nothing other than walk around.

Khiva – a crown jewel and great summation to our Central Asia Silk Road adventure.

Per Lonely Planet – The historic heart of Khiva (Xiva) has been so well preserved that it’s sometimes criticised as lifeless – a ‘museum city’. But walk through the city gates and wander the fabled Ichon-Qala (inner walled city) in all its monotone, mud-walled glory and it’s hard not to feel like you are stepping into another era.

Well said!

Within a hour of our arrival, while having lunch, the same Road Scholar tour group we saw Kazakhstan and Tajikistan walked past us!

Our hotel was within the town walls so it was super convenient to walk, eat, explore and take photos. Rinse and repeat for 3 days.  Palaces, madrasas, caravansaries/markets filled the town.  The night time was stunningly peaceful as the whole town was magically lit.

We celebrated Bill’s birthday at a roof top restaurant with a sunset dinner.  Below a woman baked fresh bread Tandoor style.

My camera finally kicked the bucket! No more limping along. Now just dead weight in my pack.

Back to Urgench for our last night and a morning flight to……. It’s time for a different selection of food.

Uzbekistan – Bukhara

It was a two hour high speed train that took us from Samarkand to Bukhara – the historic city center is another UNESCO World Heritage site.

*click on photos to enlarge

Different from Samarkand Bukhara hasn’t changed much since it’s inception. No big shiny, new buildings and restorations haven’t changed much from its original form.

The Bukhara Fortress, the Ark, is an intact magnificent walled (up to 66’ tall) city full of madrassas, mosques and markets.  It was occupied without interruption from 4 BC to 1920 when the last Emir was removed by the Bolsheviks. 

Through out our time in Central Asia people asked if would pose with them in a photo.  In a sea of dark hair my white hair stood out like Rudolph’s red nose.  Bill often is referred to as 007.

Cotton is a major resource exporting to Eastern Europe.  Handwoven rugs and embroidered items hang from railings hawked to persons apparently traveling with trunks and not carry-on luggage.

Outside Bukhara is the summer palace of the Emirs – Sitora-I Mokhi Khosa.