Deep in Galicia, the river Sil squiggles through a canyon with walls up to 500 meters high. Somehow the Roman settlers discovered that the steep canyon walls produced excellent wine, as long as one had the energy and perseverance to maintain the vine plants required. It seems that not only winemakers liked the Cañon del Sil, as there are a number of hermitage monasteries scattered along both riverbanks. Oaks, chestnuts, ferns, and even Galician pine make the Sil river canyon lush surroundings for hiking – as long as one can keep up with the changes in altitude.Along the cliff edge there is also a viewpoint curiously named Balcones de Madrid, even if one cannot see Madrid from it. With a little help from Google I pulled up stories about women choosing the viewpoint to see off their trader husbands traveling to Madrid: they had to climb down the canyon on one side, cross the river by boat, and climb up on the other side. Although whether it were the women or the men who built the laid rock walls still remains a mystery to me.(Galicia, Spain; September 2019)
In the middle of the forest lies yet another over thousand years old monastery. Galicia is practically littered with these cute resting places for body and soul.
The Santa Cristina de Ribas de Sil was first annexed to the Santo Estevo de Ribas de Sil monastery (now a fabulous Parador). Later, when the Spanish government carried out a lengthy confiscation and resale of various religious assets around the country (for varying reasons, during nearly two centuries), both monasteries ceased their spiritual operations.
In a way it is unfortunate, as I am sure the Benedictine monks (and perhaps a limited amount of lucky visitors) would have continued to feel contented in this charming little monastery, for another thousand years.
(Galicia, Spain; September 2019)
I spent the afternoon studying conferring fish that look like plants growing from the sand, curious lobsters with bulging red eyes, and schools of tuna and sardines. The aquarium of San Sebastián is tucked away at the end of the old port. Half of the exhibition was about seafarers, types of trade and ships, corsairs, fishing, and whaling. I learned that Basques were famous for their shipmaking and seafaring skills, even if they rarely represented as captains on ships.
The aquarium was nicely built but enveloped in the noise of Spanish kids. It shames me to say I find Spanish children very rudioso (and sometimes their parents, too). Everybody could hear each other so much better if only they turned down the volume a notch or two. I hope the sea creatures have soundproof glass.My new housemate came home last night at 00.30 am, clomping over the floor in her shoes and having no discretion to us sleepers. This morning she got up in time but said she would catch up with us later. She did indeed, not by coming to class but by taking photographs of my homework when I got back. I guess it can sometimes be more efficient to only focus on getting homework right.(San Sebastián, Spain; August 2019)
One sunny afternoon after class I, my classmate, and two lovely Catalan ladies crammed ourselves into a car and headed out to the Flysch UNESCO geopark. Our guide gave us a walking stick each, brought us up a hill with a magnificent view over the coastline, showed us the hiking route across the rocks to a beach we could not quite see, and said “agur”, which is Basque for “adios”. “See you when you get there.” Then he turned on his heels and walked away, back to the car.
We ladies began our trek down the hill, along the beach, with some trepidation that we’d lose the way because there were so many trail options and markings. Finally we understood that “our” trail was the red-yellow-white detour trail of the Camino del Norte (the North pilgrimage route to Santiago) and we lifted our eyes to enjoy the landscape.And stunning it was: soft, undulating grassy hills that stopped short as if cut in half, with a rock face plunging straight down into the ocean. Horses with bells and lots of flies, green grass, blue skies, blue ocean water, and white froth. And several pairs of backpacked people walking the Camino, more or less worn out and sunburned.
The Flysch geopark is like an open book of the history of our Earth. Each vertical slab running from the hills into the ocean is like a page, a fossilized fold of the surface of the Earth. Once upon a time these pages were laid one on top of the other, but then the continental plates moved and forced the ocean floor to turn sideways, like a book standing on its spine. There are “pages” of yellow sand; others with ammonites trilobites, and other sea life; and surprisingly many black bands from volcanic eruptions. Together these layers form millions of millions of years of history. The reason for the extinction of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago can be confirmed here: the black band sitting in the right place “in the book” contains traces of extraterrestrial material, from the ash cloud that killed the sunlight and much life on Earth for years after the meteorite hit. Good shoes were needed, as well as a good head with two functioning ears. Our guide spoke with an Argentinian accent (which I find the most difficult Spanish accent). Somewhere along the tour he must have forgotten that I and my classmate were estudiantes de español, possibly because we nodded our heads too vigorously. And so the guidance of the second half of the tour was lost to us.
As I sat in the shade of the striped rocks I marveled at the age of our Earth: the time and effort needed to slowly create these deposits of animal fossils and dust and silt which then became band structures. The Iberian peninsula was once upon a time far adrift, and only when it floated back into contact with continental Europe the Flysch formation was squeezed and rotated into view. Could this stunning geometric structure have been a holy site for humans living here tens of thousands of years ago?
(Flysch Geopark, Spain; August 2019)
At the end of La Concha beach stands the “iconic symbol of San Sebastián”, according to most travel books and articles. I walked all the way across to have a look, and found myself at odds: two underwhelming, rusty set-ups of curved steel jutted out of two large boulders. Tourists around me took photos – out of duty, or out of true impression? I am not entirely sure what I was missing here: how and why do the locals identify with these? And why are they called El Peine del Viento, or “The Comb of the Wind”?
What did impress me was the viewing platform with groups of holes through which the wind and the waves sputtered. In stormy weather these form groups of geysers, releasing the pressure of incoming waves crashing into rocks underneath the platform floating in the air above. To me these seem to be the true combs of the wind: straightening out and vertically anything that pushes into shore horizontally from the sea.
Famished from the walk and brain activity I backtracked to the first restaurant, also by the beach. It was 11 am and the waiters looked busy even if the place was half-empty. I tried to make my presence known to a waiter arranging dishes, sweat dripping from his nose, but he successfully ignored me until I gave up.
I then tried to plead for attention with the waiters behind the pintxo bar, but did not manage until another guest politely pointed my desperation out to the staff. I asked for a sit-down menu and was told they only serve food other than pintxos after 1 pm. I asked if I could sit down, have a club soda, and wait. And if I could please have the wifi passcode. The waiter nodded, with a heavy look: I was not going to bring in any cash in the next two hours.
I took a seat out on the terrace, sighed deeply, admired the view, and punched in the wifi code which the waiter had scribbled down on a piece of paper. It did not work. Not even after five tries. I ashamedly crept back to him with the piece of paper. It turned out I should only use the second half of the word, and in small-case letters. I was to infer this from the original scribble I got, and the waiter made it clear that I had failed. Perhaps the comb of the wind had failed to comb the wind that went through my brain that morning.
(San Sebastián, Spain; August 2019)
Bologna was once a Roman city. It is easy to see this from above: all streets lead to the central square (and one presumably to Rome). But Bologna is older than Rome: it was originally the home town of many Etruscans. Each city has a local flavor of oddity. Bologna’s flavor is a penchant for building towers. Up to 100 towers in the late medieval ages, historians have concluded. Why? Who knows, but certainly one ruler would not have budgeted for all those towers so there must have been quite a few builders. Perhaps it was fashionable to have a tower in one’s backyard, ensuring that the family was viewed as having sufficient importance?
Today there are about a dozen smaller towers left and only two distinct, tall ones, aptly named the Due Torri or Two Towers. Yes, like the Tolkien book. I discovered that it is possible to stand near them and still not find them, thanks to the maze of Bolognese streets and Google Maps having the wrong coordinates for the location.
It is also possible to wear one’s lungs and muscles out before reaching the top. We passed quite a few tourists having a huffy and puffy pitstop on the winding wooden staircase inside the Asinelli tower. After all, an ascent of 97 meters and nearly 300 stairs is a decent workout.(Bologna, Italy; July 2019)
One night in Salzburg there was a little train that took us aboard and climbed up the hill, all the way to the top. Strong fortress walls welcomed us (or perhaps rather said “keep out, strangers to the city!”). There was a simple Austrian dinner in a simple wooden restaurant with a view. There was a waitress who was happy it was her last shift as she confused the orders and languages needed (her job cannot be easy on her mind).
And there was a magnificent wooden state hall, simple but tastefully decorated (and probably awfully cold in the winter!). With views over the city. And finally, there were violins and a cello; Strauss and Mozart.
As the joyful music drifted out from the open window over the city below, just like it has done for centuries, I thought of the castle lords’ best rewards: after months of chilly days and nights with no heating, after years of worry about defences and politics and threats for the safety of one’s head, disregarding the lice and cockroaches; a couple of soft, warm summer nights with good food and music must be very soothing for the soul.(Salzburg, Austria; July 2019)