The last time my wife Ann and I were in Spain was in 1987. On that occasion, she was an alto in the Tom Hall-led Choral Arts Society of Baltimore. The group was on a musical tour of Southern Spain. We took in Madrid, Costa del Sol, Seville, Toledo and Cadiz, among other cities. It was, indeed, an experience to remember.
On October 26, 2016, when we went back to Spain, we focused instead on the northern part of the country. To add interest, we put Northern Portugal on our 16-day Iberian agenda.
Our program was arranged by Overseas Adventure Travel, aka OAT. We journeyed with them before to Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands. It’s a first rate outfit in every respect. They take care of most of the meals, the accommodations and land transportation. Our tour guide, a native of Portugal, made the trip even more special with her scholarly insights about the history and culture of the towns, churches and institutions that we visited.
In the days of the Casesars, the people living in the area we covered in the North of Spain were known as Celtiberians, according to the author of the Celtic World, Barry Cunliffe. (They were cousins to the Irish, among others). The provinces we visited were Galicia, Asturias, Navarra, Cantabria, and also the Basque province of Biscay. The climate was mild, the coast line on the Atlantic side was rugged and the mountains were very green. We were lucky and got little rain during our entire journey.
The Basque are known as a fiercely independent people, with their own culture and language.
Featured in the Biscay region was its capital city — Bilbao. At one time, (just like my home city of Baltimore), it was a hub of commerce; with shipbuilding, steel and manufacturing plants. In recent years, it has come back strong as a result of a boom in tourism. One of the gems it offers the public is its Guggenheim Museum. It’s worth a visit to Bilbao to enjoy it. At night, the streets of Bilbao were filled with the locals enjoying a walk, a drink, some food. Many brought their youngsters with them — on foot, or in strollers. It was a pleasure to watch such Norman Rockwell-like scenes.
One evening, the singer-songwriter Huecco Lobbo was in Bilbao for an appearance. The paparazzi in me came rushing out. I chased across the street with my Sony mirrorless camera in hand, to get photos of him getting out of his black limo and being greeted by his adoring fans. That was great fun! (Bummer! I also dropped my glasses. When I went back later, I couldn’t find them.)
On the Basque coast, we checked out the city of Guernica. Just prior to WWII, in 1937, the Nazis’ air force bombed it in a three-hour terror raid. The artist, Picasso was commissioned by the dictator Francisco Franco to make a painting of the devastation, which forever etched the foul deed in the minds of humanity. The intrepid citizens of Guernica, however, bounced back. Although their city was badly damaged in the bombing, they have rebuilt it to its former glory. Viva Guernica!
Do you know the Spanish city famous for the running of the bulls? It’s Pamplona. It was on our schedule, too. We were too late in the season to catch the actual event, but we enjoyed walking the same streets where the bulls are let loose to run every year. This event was an annual must-see as far as the late, great writer Ernest Hemingway was concerned.
Before we hit Pamplona, we enjoyed a brief visit to the seaside city of San Sebastian. We got a nice view of it and the hills surrounding it. We also surveyed the picturesque Lo Concha beach and the cloud-filled mountains that frame it.
Close to San Sebastian is the famous Camino de Santiago. It has been a pilgrimage route for centuries for the devout. The actress Shirley MacLaine wrote a book, The Camino, about her spiritual experience on her journey along that well-tread path. We walked a total of about 3.5 mile walk on parts of the trail, through fields of green and a beautiful forest. We ended our walk at a canal. It was a unique experience.
The town of Burgos is steeped in history. We stopped there along the way to Leon. Burgos’ Gothic Cathedral dates to the 14th Century. The locals believe it is the final resting place of the legendary El Cid. When the hero’s name came up, I couldn’t help thinking of the Hollywood actor Charleston Heston, who played him in the movie. I, wisely, kept that thought to myself.
After Leon, we stopped at the site of Las Medulas. This was where the Romans, for three centuries dug into the bowels of the earth to get to the rich gold deposits. The huge holes in the mountain sides reminded me of the harmful effects of strip coal mining in the state of West Virginia. We continued then onto Lugo. It has the distinction of being the only city left in the world “completely surrounded by a Roman Wall.”
The city of Santiago and its beautiful Cathedral was up next. Like so many Spanish cities, it is filled with fine restaurants, cafes, an old town section, with winding streets and for its special feature – the Plaza de Espana.
Close by to Santiago is the lovely seaside town of Cambados. We talked with a woman there, who makes her living digging for shellfish. An entire industry is build around the digging for clams and cockles. The water was clear and sparkling blue at Cambados.
The next day we left Spain and traveled to Portugal’s soil-rich Doure Valley. We had a delightful lunch in the town of Chaves with a local family. The grandmother of the House, as a warm welcoming gesture, sang some folks songs for us. Bless her heart!
Then, we hit the road to Pinhao, a grape-growing region that dates from the 3rd Century, A.D. The next morning there, after breakfast, we traveled to a winemaking complex, “Quinta de Pacheca.” It is world famous for its Port Wine. We also had lunch at the facility and learn about its history of wine production that dates from — (would you believe?) — 1678!
We spend out last thee days of our fantastic journey in the beautiful city of Porto. It is one of the oldest cities in all of Europe and the second largest in Portugal. It is steeped in the charm and enchantment of Portugal. I particularly enjoyed the “Ribeira” area, which is located in the old town section, along the Douro River. One day, we took a boat ride in the morning on the river and we got an opportunity to see the city, and its spectacular bridges, from a different perspective. It was a photographer’s dream come true. It was also “the trade route of the first wine sellers.”
Editor’s Note: Bill Hughes is a Baltimore-based author, actor and photojournalist.
Bill Hughes is a native of Baltimore. He’s an attorney, author, professional actor and hobbyist photographer. In his salad days, he worked on the docks as a longshoreman. Bill also played on three championship soccer teams: sandlot with Jules Morstein; high school at Calvert Hall; and college at the University of Baltimore.