Thursday, October 16, 2014

Spain & Portugal - Day 11

We were up must be the excitement that was bursting inside us (or perhaps the urge to get out of our really small and spartan room?). Well, being just 3 mins walk to the Plaza del Obradoiro / old town where parking is limited and expensive, can't complain much.

Anyway, we had a great start with a hearty breakfast (a good variety of toast, eggs and bacons) all freshly prepared by our B&B hosts.

As we stroll the streets of this UNESCO heritage town towards the Shrine of St. James, being finally in Santiago de Compostela, one of three Catholic holy cities besides Rome & Jerusalem; and the final destination of the Route of St. James, everything seems so surreal.

It's a drizzling day peppered with occasional short-lived heavy downpour and very strong 2pm, the cleaner has collected a huge container of broken umbrellas! What a sight!

After some detour to the numerous souvenirs shops and aroma-filled cafes bustling with the morning crowds, the sky finally cleared and here we were........the majestic cathedral.

Pilgrim mass is held daily in the cathedral at midday. Having heard how packed the cathedral can be for the mass, we got there 1.5 hrs before the mass begins. Lucky for us that we only queued for 10 mins.

Though the exterior walls of the cathedral was rather lack-lustre despite its majestic architecture, the interior was magnificent.

Aisle facing main altar

Where the music comes about.....

Walls of the cathedral is filled with captivating carvings

By the time mass begins, forget about sitting space, even standing space is hard to come by. The cathedral was filled to the brim! Towards the end of the mass, a huge censer called the botafumeiro will be swung down from the cathedral ceiling. It's an amazing sight that draws believer and non-believers to the mass!

The Botafumeiro

A swinging botafumeiro

According to some, the fumes from the botafumeiro is said to fume off the sweaty smell of the pilgrims who had walked hundreds of miles. Personally, we just loved the smell of the relaxes our mind, body and soul.

It was the most spiritually-inspired mass we've ever attended. Not that there is any difference in the way the mass was carried out, but rather seeing the many pilgrims who travelled the long distance for their faith is touching and inspiring. After mass, we lingered around for more prayers.

There's a folklore that visitors who place their fingers in the little cavities of the candle-holder at the central arch where the 5 meter high Christ the King is; or knock one's forehead 3 times on the head of the image known as Santo dos Croques at the rear of this impressive marble column looking onto the altar, that person will absorb the genius and wisdom of the figure. Well, we did went to the back of the column but folklore being just myth to us, except praying and taking pictures, we did none of the above.

It was our lucky day! We had wanted to go to the roof of the cathedral for a bird's eye view of this old city but it was closed for repairs. We were disappointed initially but the surprise that came after was even better. We were able to visit the tomb of St. James without queuing for hours in the rain,,,,,like these faithful....

And this was only half of the queue that we took due to camera limitation! St. James being one of the twelve apostles of Jesus, he definitely deserved this queuing.

Tomb of St. James

The rest of the afternoon was spent savouring the beauty of the historical monuments and buildings of this old town that was built since the Middle Ages; browsing shops and looking for souvenirs (was really tempted to buy a smaller botafumeiro....but that means our luggage will be grossly overweight! So, had to settle for a miniature); queuing for our pilgrim certificate only to realise that we had not got our pilgrimage passbook stamped at the designated stops along the entire route.....was really upsetting,

Our sadness quickly disappeared after chatting with some pilgrims who just arrived (and officially ended their pilgrimage) the town. Their positive attitudes and overwhelming joy just overflowed to us.

Near the bridge that supposedly ends the pilgrimage is a 5-star hotel. There, we discovered an old tradition....where pilgrims were given free food and lodging by this hotel.

Having just an extremely light lunch, we were already starving by 7pm. We celebrated the end of our so-called pilgrimage with a delicious Spanish dish....potato egg omelette. Can't recall what the other dish was, some kind of lasagne,,,,anyway, it was equally delicious and local.

Since by Spanish standard, having dinner at 7pm is early, then returning to the B&B at 8pm is considered unthinkable!

With all shops closed except for cafes and restaurants, and being our last night here, we decided to catch our last glimpse of the cathedral.

With the crowds gone and the extremely dark night due to the incessant rain throughout the day, the cathedral on this wet night is evermore so mystifying and captivating.

We would had lingered a little while longer had it not been the drizzle that threatened to turn heavy. By the time we reach our B&B, our jeans were totally soaked through and we were shivering mad from the cold! Yet, it was totally worth it!

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Spain & Portugal - Day 10

The sky promised perfect weather for the sunny sky, slightly warm air with a hint of chill. After 'freezing' for the past few days, couldn't wait to be embraced by this weather.

It was a pity that we didn't had time to really check out would take us another one or two days (had a budget to watch....what to do?) or dine at the Chinese restaurant that we spotted last night while finding our hotel. Nevertheless, our quest to Santiago de Compostela - the ultimate destination of the Route of St James must push on. We had a lot of distances to cover today and with prior experience, we knew we would have to drop some of the pit-stops....just how many and which ones.

Our first pit-stop was Astorga, a small town that we fell in love instantly. The town seems locked in a time capsule with its cobbled streets and stone buildings.

Welcoming us was an ordinary looking chapel playing a charming rhapsody with its interesting set of bells.

From the chapel, climbing a steep slope brought us to the Plaza Mayor where the majestic looking City Hall greeted us.

The man and woman figurines take turns to hit on the bell situated at the top of the City Hall at the specific timings 

As we walked on for just 3 mins, we already had our targets locked.....a candy store and a cafe that serves yummy-looking paella, Spain's national dish. Yep, you are The one we're coming back for lunch. Our first exciting....can't wait till lunch time!

Our walk towards Astorga's famous landmark, Bishop Palace was peppered with many interesting shopping stops including a bakery that was bursting with the aroma of freshly baked bread (how could we resist!).

Another 5 mins of easy walking brought us to the fairy-tale castle, Bishop Palace, another of Gaudi's masterpiece. Bishop Palace was originally the official residence of the Archbishop of Astorga. After it was restored in 1956 from the damage during the civil war, Bishop Marcelo Gonzalez converted it into a museum (Museo de los Caminos) of religious art dedicated to the Way of Santiago.

Entrance to inner hall

Entrance to museum

Guardians and angels of the palace standing guard in the small garden. Beyond this stone wall, visitors are treated to a beautiful bird's eye view of the city of Astorga. 

Our visit to Astorga cannot be complete without a visit to the cathedral of Astorga, Cathedral of Santa Maria, which is located next to Bishop Palace.

Side view of cathedral from Bishop Palace

Front facade of cathedral

Impressive entrance with 3D stone carvings!

Main altar
It was the first 3D altar we ever saw! Its creativity and beauty was mind-blowing.

Yet another first (or at least for us) extremely rare presentation....the Crowning of Virgin Mary.

Another hall of the those pillars
So, let's measure them.....

Measuring the size of the pillar

and the height of the church door....3 times taller than me

Before making our way back to the Plaza Mayor for our maiden savour of Spanish paella.....we chanced upon a perfect spot to view the Bishop Palace and Cathedral of Santa Maria together. Looks as if we were in a fairy tale world!

We returned to our targeted cafe and had an early (by locals' standard) lunch of seafood paella. Being seafood lovers, we were extremely particular about the freshness of our seafood. Verdict - the paella was very flavourful and delicious. Oh, so satisfying.

We didn't forget the candy store. We stopped by and bought 2 blocks of lime chocolate. Marrying these two ingredients felt weird, yet it was this weirdness that attracted us to buy. After our first bite, we couldn't was amazingly addictive. We finished the two big blocks within 1 hr of our drive. If only we had tried it straight after buying.....the damage to our pocket would not be just 2 blocks but a dozen at least!

Our next pit-stop is a UNESCO Heritage site, Las Medulas Roman Mines in Ponferrada. It is an old working mine with reddish landscape. Finally, great weather to do some real nature walk.

Deep into the mountains on our way to the mine....see that red block of stone on the left?

Once we turned into the road that leads to the mine, even though we were a long distance away, we were already surrounded by mountains dressed in hue of red....very magical....felt like we were back in Death Valley, USA.

We reached the visitor parking area and reception but to our dismay, we were in the wrong timing / season. The office was closed and there wasn't a single soul after 15 mins of headless search. There are many long walking trails but with a tight schedule, hot weather, no signage and map, we weren't ready to risk. Unwilling to give up, we drove further into (actually, think we went beyond the 'No Entry' boundary) the mining compound and landed in a small, dusty and laid-back village with narrow sandy road. It looked like a village for miners and their family. Our hope of making inquiries with these residents disappear as fast as it rose. Apparently, from their facial expression, they were upset with our sudden intrusion. The town looked EXACTLY the same as those movies set in medieval times. We were eager to take some photos but their hostile stares tell us otherwise. Never mind, we still have another pit-stop, Lugo waiting for us.

As we drove on, it became clear that we had to forgo Lugo and its Roman Walls (a UNESCO Heritage site) that encircle the city centre. Having been to a ancient city and a medieval village, guess we weren't going to miss much skipping this 3rd/4th centuries AD built wall.

We reached the final stop of the St. James Route, Santiago de Compostela just 1/2 hours before sunset. To our surprise, this town has road signs (that weren't useful)! A sign could point you to one direction but when you reach, another sign, if any, could point you to a totally different direction for the same place! The bright light from the Shrine of St. James was visible the moment we reached the border of the town. Yet, it was so near yet so far. After 45 mins of wild goose chase, we were so exasperated that we ignored all the signs and just head towards the light. That works!

Once in the city center, another set of madness awaits us. The city center was jammed was rush hours. Ironically, it was this traffic jam that saved the day. The traffic jam gave us an opportunity to view the city without the walking, and it was this looking around that we recognised (from Google street map) the road and the parking area where our B&B is located. It was the first time we experience the usefulness of Google map and also the first time we parked on a pavement (it's an acceptable norm in Spain) cool.

All that madness earlier on couldn't stopped our bursting excitement to explore this holy city, not even the drizzle that's threatening to turn into a heavy downpour.

Busy street of Santiago de Compostela 

Walk all the way up this street brings us to the Shrine of St. James. It's closed (of course) but we couldn't wait till next day to admire its splendour. The dim lighting exults an air of 'romance' and closeness.

Night scene of the Shrine of St. James

There are numerous cafes serving seafood (given the city's closeness to the sea). Since we grew up in a country that loves eating seafood, definitely we couldn't miss the seafood here...also to celebrate reaching the high-point of our travel in Spain. Verdict - personally we felt it was overpriced and well, let's just say, we still love our seafood back home. Nevertheless, it was a great though short night out to end the day! Good night, St. James.

Monday, April 1, 2013

Spain & Portugal - Day 9

The abundance negative ions from the mountains (plus the in-room jacuzzi) was the best therapy to rejuvenate our tired body and soul, and did wonders to nurse our depleted "battery" back to its full level. We were refreshed and invigorated to brace the unexpected ahead of us as we made our way to our next destination, lovely Leon.

According to the map, the only road (at least that's what we saw in the map) to Leon from Picos was via Riano, a town that we had planned to visit for caving but didn't had the time to do so, and it was a fairly straight forward and short (2-3 hours) journey. Fantastic.

Happily, we followed the map and 2 hours later....we were still in the mountains! We have been conquering one mountain after another.....the journey never seems to end! What drawn as a straight road turned out to be a mountainous was a rude shock....we were behind schedules yet again. Surprisingly, not only were we not upset, we actually enjoyed the ride. Our excitement rose when we suspected that we might be heading towards the summit.....which means "dream comes true - enjoying snow on a snow-capped mountain minus the climb".....chuckle chuckle....sinister laugh!

What was a casual comment at a lookout point (hilltop village) we visited last night turned out to be a wish granted. Wow! who says God is not listening. Another 1/2 hours drive and we were presented with the marvelous beauty of nature....

A mountain of fresh pine trees and Christmasy.....gotten some ideas for our Christmas party.

Since it is not travel season, we had the whole mountain ( least the part next to the road) all to ourselves. We could play whatever and whichever way we wanted. Despite not having the right attire for the 1.5°C temperature and strong wind, we didn't care much. We just park our car and hop right into the ankle-deep snow almost bare-footed (well, we didn't have extra shoes and our sport shoes aren't waterproof). Instantly, we were like children....forgetting the world around us, no worries, no timelines, just play.

Man against nature....after 15 mins, we started shivering and that signifies time to move on (with our car heater on full blast). Not long after, we reached a lovely Christmas-town look alike. If only we had the chance to stay there for a night or two. What a pity.

Stream next to Christmas-town

Shortly after this town, we reached the end of our mountainous journey. We took an expensive toilet break (the law of supply and demand) in a slightly bigger town, lingered for one last look at the captivating beauty the mountains have to offer before crossing this river to urbanisation.

We had light sandwiches on the go to make up for lost time (we end up with 5 hrs drive) and managed to reach Leon in time to catch her most iconic buildings before they close for the day.

First to visit - Cathedral of Santa Maria, most renowned for its stained glass.

Main entrance to cathedral

Be mesmerized by the grandeur of the interior.

Leading to the main altar

A very unique main altar
Here comes the stained glasses....

Without a camera stand (we brought but it was not allowed in the cathedral), our camera has limited capability in taking wowing pictures of stained, in order not to short-change them, here are some postcards from the professionals......

......before taking our leave through this door full of interesting carvings.

We continued our next find in the city center, Botines House, yet another piece of architecture art by Gaudi.

Front view

Size view of Botines House....this is where its uniqueness lies

With not much time left, we head off to our final attraction, St. Isidore's Basilica. It was so near yet so far from the city center. It took us some time driving through the narrow and mostly one-way streets of Leon and finally made an extraordinary turn to reach the basilica just 1/2 hours shy of closing time. Phew!

Basilica of Saint Isidore

Main altar.....very similar to the one in Cathedral of Santa Maria, isn't it? Guess its the style unique to Leon.

If you're having the same thinking as we were....nothing special about this fact, its exterior looks really worn-out if not're perfectly right about its look. What is truly marvellous about this basilica lies in its vault. St. Isidore's Basilica is renowned for its breath-taking painting of the redemption of Man on the wall and (mostly) ceiling of its vault. To preserve these paintings, no photography is allowed. So, we'll have to leave you with some pictures from the pros again.....

Since we only had 1/2 hours to complete our tour of the basilica, we lingered on till we were one of the last few visitors to leave. Unsatisfied, we wandered around the church compound to enjoy the quietness surrounding it....with all the rushing and commotions from the day gone, the serenity is calming and much needed before we complete the last challenge of the day....finding our hotel.

Night view of the basilica.....isn't it more captivating in the night?

With no proper Leon map on hand and we didn't expect Leon to be such a busy city, we had a rather stressful one over hour navigating the streets to finally find our hotel and a free yet safe parking area that was within a short walking distance.

Stress aside, we had a couple of rewards from these short ordeals though. First, we met a nice car workshop owner who allowed us to park our car outside his gate (though a little grouchy) for 10 mins to unload our luggage into the hotel.....that little help really meant a long way to us.

Second, while trying to find our hotel, hubby lost one side of his sandal from the constant in and out of the car to check with pedestrians. Given that it was our first time in Leon and it being a big city and we made a couple of stops; to find that lost sandal is equivalent to finding a needle in a hay sack....mission impossible! Hubby was really upset and hopeless. But, somehow I (the wife) felt otherwise...for whatever just seem I was being nude to go and find it. So, ignoring hubby's protest, we tried and retraced our route and miracle happened! We found that lost sandal on the opposite direction of a busy road within 5 mins. Without a map, we never expects ourselves to successfully retrace our footstep but we did it.....with the help of the angels and saints. Our journey to Spain was truly a blessed one!

A BIG THANK YOU to the garage owner who lent a helping hand and......

A prayer in Poland....."something's lost and can't be found. Please, St Anthony, look around."

THANK YOU St Anthony!

The Authors