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Those of you who know my mom know that she’s perpetually late because she’s incapable of going from point A to Z, instead stopping at points B-Y in between. Even if her final destination is point B, she’ll still visit points C-Z before looping back to B if they’re even mildly interesting. Sights that fall into this “mildly interesting” category are everything from natural wonders and man-made landmarks to book stores and yard sales. [Insert tears-hair-out smiley.]
While this has caused her 4 kids undue grief over the years, it has more often led to amazing adventures and spontaneous discoveries with “our crazy mom”. Everyone should have a mom as much fun as she is. One of my favorite memories of her is from a week-long trip to Glacier National Park in Montana a few years back. Driving through the mountains well into the night, I looked over and realized that even with the heat cranked, her teeth were chattering and her lips were actually tinged blue, yet she insisted we keep the top down on the convertible so she could see the stars.
Those of you who know meknow that I get this inability to travel in a direct fashion from my mom (along with being easily sidetracked, this blog being a case in point, and procrastinating like there are a million tomorrows). Luckily Trav is adventurous and spontaneous, incredibly patient, and tends to have a touch of this trait as well. So it’s no surprise that not long after leaving the Castillo de Monjardín for Burgos Cathedral, our next destination, our car somehow inadvertently swerved off the main highway onto a narrow dirt road in the sleepy little Spanish town of Tosantos: population 64. We couldn’t simply drive past what looked like a church built directly into the rocky cliff face. My mom may as well have been in the car, excitedly gesticulating for us to “go check it out!”
We’d stumbled across the Ermita Rupestre de Santa María de la Peña, a cave hermitage included among the many significant religious sites for pilgrims traveling the Camino de Santiago. Also commonly referred to as St. James’s Way or simply the Road to Santiago, this pilgrimage became an important Christian tradition during the Middle Ages, though one of the main roads existed as a Roman trade route even before that.
Traditionally, pilgrims from across Europe began the journey from their own doorstep, converging to create a handful of main routes to one of two final destinations which remain in use to this day. For most travelers, the journey ends at the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia, a region in the northwestern corner of Spain. Many believe that this is the final resting place of the remains of Saint James the Great, one of Jesus’s twelve apostles. Other travelers hike several more days all the way to Cape Finisterre on the coast of Spain. At one time, this cape was believed to be the most westernmost point in Europe, hence the name, which in Latin means “end of the world”. It’s now known that this point is actually in Portugal, but pilgrims hold to tradition.
An increasingly popular trek, nearly a quarter million pilgrims now annually follow any one of the routes to Santiago with some hiking just the minimum 100 kilometers necessary to earn the “certificate” for having completed the trail. Very commercialized, it’s not necessary to carry camping gear, food, or even water along the hike since amenities are regularly available at hostels, markets, and restaurants along the way. Indeed, as we drove through Spain, we saw a steady stream of hikers following wide, flat, and often paved trails visible from the highway. Though the hike doesn’t appeal to Travis in the least, I have no doubt I would enjoy it for the social aspect and scenery, albeit minus the kind of solitude we typically prefer when we’re hiking.
With peaceful pastoral landscapes and countless hidden gems like this ermita rupestre liberally distributed along the Camino de Santiago’s many routes, the trek’s appeal is obvious. It’s just unlikely that we would ever make it from point A to point Z in this lifetime, considering all the natural wonders and man-made landmarks in between.
The yellow pins mark our travel for day three, from the Castillo de Monjardín in Spain to our friend’s home in Madrid. The blue line roughly follows our entire 10-day travel path.
“Se dice que lo construyeron los romanos, lo hicieron fuerte los moros, y con la ayuda divina lo conquistaron los navarros.” ~Carmelo San Martín
It is said that the Romans built it, the Moors made it strong, and with God’s help, the Navarros conquered it.
On the third day of our trip, I woke up to the faint light of early morning tapping at my eyelids. Tentatively poking my head from my toasty sleeping bag, I breathed deeply, recoiling back inside my bag as the air reached my lungs. It was cold. Really cold. Not your typical morning-on-Everest cold, but colder than I expected, or liked. I certainly had no desire to leave my warm cocoon. I love camping, but this part is always hard for me. I darted envious looks at Travis, who’s completely immune to the cold, and found myself wishing I could find a way to harness his heat and wear it like an electric Snuggie. Knowing that an abandoned ancient castle was waiting to be explored just a few meters from us was enough to finally compel me into the cold air, where I quickly pulled on more layers of clothing. We broke camp, packed up the car, and set out on the loop trail encircling the compound of the Castillo de Monjardín (more formally referred to as Castillo de San Esteban de Deyo).
Compared to many European castles we’ve seen, the entire complex was rather small, though the start of the trail was at its narrowest point and continued along for a rather respectable distance before reaching the opposite end, which was accessible via a flight of old stone steps. Though the castle hadn’t been restored, concrete had been used to fill gaps at its base, and huge metal spikes had been driven into the stony mass to help stabilize and preserve the structure.
We climbed the steps slowly, impressed with the stunning, expansive views of the patchwork green hills and vineyards far below. Despite the heavy slate-gray skies and frigid wind, the views were stunning.
Unlike many castles that have become major tourist attractions with modern-day cities surrounding them, I imagined that with the exception of the paved highway running through the valley, the countryside possibly looked much as it did centuries ago. The sign in Spanish at the entrance of the castle had provided little information as to its history except that much of it is a mystery, including the date it was originally built and who constructed it. It’s suspected that the Romans built it, as they built so many things in Europe. During much of the 9th century, it was under Arab rule until it was conquered in 907 by King Sancho Garcés, the king of Pamplona. Over 1,000 years ago, he could very well have stood on the same spot, surveying these lands gained in conquest.
I mounted the steps with small tingles of excitement, wondering what, if anything, would meet us at the top. Sadly, the gate at the end of the stairs was closed and securely locked, leaving me to stare straight up the castle face and wonder at the small rock monument, topped with an iron cross.
With faces smushed against the cold metal bars, we tried to see as much of the inner sanctum as possible. I imagined what it might have been like in the 1300’s when merchants from the East traveling the Camino de Santiago brought the bubonic plague to this valley. Pilgrims and villagers would undoubtedly have inundated the castle, praying for relief from the Black Death that decimated the region’s population, erasing an entire village, Adarreta, from the map.
Shivering in the cold, I descended the stairs, balling my hands into fists in my vest to try to thaw my fingers. We were both hungry and it was ready to go, but I lagged behind Trav to take in the views a moment longer.
Once in the car, we cranked the heat and cracked into a package of cervelas, the national sausage of Switzerland that we had brought from home. Traditional versions of this sausage supposedly used to include pork brains, an ingredient I was glad to discover is no longer used in their production. Though cervelas differ widely and have different names in the French, German, and Italian speaking parts of Switzerland, the interior texture of our particular sausages reminded me a bit of an American hot dog but with a much tougher exterior and a nice, smoky flavor. They undoubtedly would have been better over a campfire or bbq grill, but since we had access to neither, we ate ours raw, grateful just to have something to fill our grumbling stomachs.
In the daylight, the castle was more visible on the hill than it had been the evening before. Navigating a few decent potholes, we quickly dropped back down into the village below, Villamayor de Monjardín.
Vineyards throughout the valley were burning large piles of natural debris, adding to the already gray day.
Pungent smoke obscured our last views of Castillo de Monjardín, which slowly gave way to acres of rich, red soil and neat rows of grape trees.
Stopping briefly at a tiny tienda in town, I chatted with the shopkeeper and asked her about the various wines for sale in her shop. She proudly explained the characteristics of each bottle I’d brought her, two of which were labeled Vendimia Nocturna because the grapes had been harvested at night, a practice that is gaining in popularity. Sugar levels in grapes are more stable in cooler temperatures, which prevents unwanted or premature yeast fermentation and high energy costs necessary to cool the grapes before crushing in warm climates. With romantic images of dark, ripe grapes glistening at harvest under a full moon, I chose a bottle of Rosado De Lágrima (Pink Teardrop) for Carlos and Nicole to thank them for watching Touille for us, a bottle for Gintare, who was caring for our kitties during our absence, and another bottle for a friend.
Happy to have found a few gifts for friends and looking forward to our next big attraction for the day, the Burgos Cathedral, we hopped back on the highway and headed west.
Tidbit: For anyone planning a visit, read my TripAdvisor review of the castle for driving directions and details. Or, navigate to it with coordinates: 42°38’01.8″N 2°06’23.9″W.
The yellow pins mark our travel for day three, from the Castillo de Monjardín in Spain to our friend’s home in Madrid. The blue line roughly follows our entire 10-day travel path.
Have you ever slept in your car? If so, you know it’s not the best way to spend a night, with no way to lay flat or really stretch out your legs. But after sleeping in the VW the first night of our road trip to Spain, my stiff back and neck were forgotten as soon as we stumbled into the Aire de Service de la Corrèze (fancy service station, similar to Flying J for truckers in the States) and were hit with the smell of coffee and fresh pastries. Multiple banks of automatic coffee dispensers lined the walls like slot machines at a casino – I did, in fact, feel like we’d hit the jackpot. We put in a couple of small coins, selected the largest coffee available, and watched in awe as the machine slowly lowered our cups, then filled them with fresh, strong coffee. I have no doubt that Heaven smells like coffee (and fresh-cut grass, minus the allergies). Maybe this kind of gadgetry is common, but it was a first for me for even the cup to be dispensed. We ordered nearly a dozen mini beignets from the adjacent boulangerie and got back on the road, enjoying our tasty breakfast.
The night before when we had tried to exit the main freeway to find a place to camp, we were frustrated to be met with toll booths, an additional hassle we wanted to avoid. In the morning, our decision to stay where we did paid off since we were grateful to be able to exit the Aire de la Corrèze immediately back onto the freeway without additional tolls.
After driving around the perimeter of Bordeaux, we veered south and celebrated when we reached the Spanish border near the Bay of Biscay. It was Trav’s first time in Spain and my first visit to Basque country, a region which encompasses northeastern Spain and part of southwestern France. We almost immediately turned off the main road onto a narrow 2-lane highway devoid of any traffic and began to relax. The terrain grew more wild with mountains and rolling hills dotted with steep ravines and clear, rushing streams. Inexplicably, we felt more at home than we had anywhere in France. Perhaps it was simply due to the wild terrain interspersed with tiny towns and few people. We quickly realized that each town had a sign with its name as we entered, as is common in the US, but also had a sign as we were leaving. Some towns were so small, both signs were just a handful of meters from each other, like in the town of Maquirriain. Trav grew up in a town in N Idaho with a population of about 50 people; this town made his seem like a metropolis!
When we pulled into Pamplona, our first goal was to find a place with WiFi. We had realized that even if we drove straight through to Madrid, we wouldn’t arrive until well after our friend and her parents would likely be asleep – we needed to let her know we wouldn’t arrive until Monday. Considering that it was Easter, finding WiFi turned out to be a challenge – even McDonald’s was closed! Luckily KFC was open, so we jumped online to send AG a message and grabbed lunch while we were there. Though it hardly seems like a fitting Easter lunch, we hadn’t been to KFC in years and it was a treat, particularly the ice cream cones we bought with a 5 euro bill some friends in Oregon gave us with a going-away card when we moved to the Switz (thanks, K & J!). We laughed on our way out when we saw the advertising slogan in their window: “Rustic Potatoes: The Envy of all the Potatoes”. It seemed laughably incongruous that Two Small Potatoes from Idaho, where our potatoes are supposedly world-famous, would have lunch on Easter in Pamplona, Spain. It was one of those moments where it really struck me how odd life is and how you can never imagine where you’ll end up.
But on to some sightseeing! Though we didn’t run with any bulls while we were in Pamplona or even visit its famous bullring (which is the third largest in the world and seats nearly 20,000), we visited one of the city’s coolest features: the ancient city and fortress walls.
Like many cities in Europe, Pamplona has been inhabited for millenia. Ancient tools that date back to 75,000 years ago have been unearthed near the River Arga, which runs through the city.
A permanent settlement was established on the site in the first millennium BC, a settlement which was initially called Iruña, or “the city” in Basque. Eventually pillaged by Visigoths and Moors, its own inhabitants burned and massacred residents of a local borough in the 1200s.
After walking some distance along the length of the fortress walls, we finally found an entrance over a small drawbridge which at one time would have overlooked an expanse of water, an additional line of defense against would-be invaders.
Surrounded by a ring of mountains and nestled in a central basin with a warm Mediterranean climate and little rainfall, it’s easy to see why folks would want to settle in such a place. And it’s understandable that such a settlement would require massive walls to protect the fortress within.
From overlooks along the fortress walls, the intricate ramparts and old moat of the complex were more clearly visible.
Venturing deeper into the heart of old city and moving away from the fortress walls, we discovered ancient narrow streets with buildings so close together on either side that the light barely reached the street.
As we walked, we kept our eyes focused on the spires of a cathedral, first passing the back side of it with its austere brick walls soaring sky-high and then catching a narrow glimpse of it through the bars of a small private gated entrance. Where was the entrance?! We kept walking and walking. After no small amount of searching, we finally entered a small plaza tightly hemmed in with buildings and were greeted with a splendid view of the cathedral bathed in the early evening light, framed with a brilliant blue sky. Hallelujah, we’d found it!
Since it was closed (understandably, since it was early evening on Easter), we merely enjoyed it from the outside.
I liked the giant sundial that was affixed high up on one of the corner towers. Years and years ago, my mom made a beautiful horizontal sundial for my grandpa out of a slab of polished dark wood and metal bars for the Roman numerals. He passed away a few years ago, and I found myself wondering what ever happened to the sundial. I wished that my mom could be there to see this one, as I knew she’d like it.
The adjacent wall of the church was so different in color and form, it almost looked like a different church. Always a sucker for the color blue, I loved the blue and green stained glass in the rose window.
It does seem that where there’s one church, there’s another, and we passed so many, we lost count. Trav noted it must have been sad for all the small local churches when a larger, more grand cathedral was built in the same plaza. Neglected and with few visitors, we passed many of these little churches, still beautiful, with their own largely untold stories and small groups of loving devotees.
As we wandered through the old city of Pamplona, we periodically heard music with live bands in the streets and throngs of young people singing and dancing, celebrating Easter. Their joy was infectious. We passed one final street with standing room only before leaving the fortress. I liked Pamplona so much, I hope we can return someday and spend more time, a feeling I experienced frequently throughout our trip.
Back on the road, we headed west instead of due south to Madrid. Our next destination? Burgos, Spain (with one unexpected stop in between)! Though it added a few kilometers to our route, we were excited to see the famously magnificent Gothic cathedral in Burgos that AG had recommended.
We knew we wouldn’t make it before dark, so we planned to find a camping place nearby. Not far from the town of Logroño but still in the region of Navarre, we saw a large rocky mound high up on a hill, barely visible in the fading light of day. It appeared to be some sort of castle or fortress, but not one with the clear silhouette of a castle on a hill we’d become accustomed to seeing. The slopes of the small mountain were covered with tress that gave way to a charming little village and acres of vineyards.
On a whim, we pulled off the only road we saw into town and snaked our way through the tiny village, making turns we thought might lead up hill. Sure enough, we found a sign with the name Castillo de Monjardín pointing up a one-lane dirt road that provided little challenge for even our very low-carriage 4WD VW. Our old 4Runner would have outright mocked this poor little country road with its minor ruts and potholes. It still felt good to be doing a little off-road adventuring! Topping the final rise, we hopped out of the car and investigated what looked like a large old pile of rocks topped with a spare metal cross.
It really was a castle, albeit one that stopped being maintained long ago. Not only was it slowly crumbling back into the earth and a bit eerie in the twilight, but it was completely deserted. This was our kind of place! We had found a camping spot for the night, so we set about making some chili for dinner with our camp stove and savored it with a loaf of fresh bread we’d bought earlier in the day.
Trav interrupted our dinner to ask: “Do you realize that a thousand years ago on this same spot, someone died…right here?!” Gah! Food for thought, Travis. Thanks.
Despite his dark ruminations, we were graced with a beautiful sunset as night fell, making it a truly unforgettable Easter, and I fell asleep excited to investigate the entire castle the next morning.
The orange pins mark our travel for day two, from Aire de Service de la Corrèze in France to Castillo de Monjardín in Spain. The blue line roughly follows our entire 10-day travel path.
This month, Trav and I finally took a bona fide vacation. He took a week off over Easter weekend, which left us with a solid 10-day chunk of time to go somewhere. We decided it was our chance to get outta Dodge!
It isn’t that we don’t like Switzerland (we do, more and more), but one can only watch the flowers blooming and the birds singing for so long. We needed to head out for parts unknown, to visit places where people still commit the occasional petty crime, where trash is still occasionally tossed on the ground, and where the woods grow wild and unchecked. Somewhere different, somewhere new. So we packed a bag of sandwiches and snacks for road tripping, gratefully left Touille with Carlos & Nicole downstairs knowing they’d take good care of her, and put out huge bowls of food and water for the kitties. During one last check of the house, we found Brisco contentedly hanging out in a kitchen cupboard where we’d accidentally locked him while packing. (It really was an accident this time.) With that, we were out the door and headed for parts largely unknown.
We didn’t have much of an itinerary except that we were planning to be in Madrid late the following night to stay with a friend, AG, for a few days. The same friend had sent us a list of things we could do while in Madrid if we were interested, as well as a few suggestions for sites she recommended in Spain along the way, notably the Burgos Cathedral and Basque Country in the north.
With her suggestions in mind, we set a course for Spain by way of the west coast of France. This meant driving around Lac Léman to enter France near Geneva. Our first stop was not for the border crossing, but rather for the first of what would become many, many tolls. We knew Europe has toll roads, but we’ve never had to pay them (not even in Switzerland) and I had no idea they’d be so expensive! Our first booth allowed us to drive from Geneva, Switzerland to Lyon, France, a distance of only about 150 km, for the hefty sum of 15.80€ (EUR). With sinking hearts, we started calculating the cost of our anticipated 3000+ km round trip with tolls like this. Luckily, the first toll was the most expensive, and some tolls were as low as 1.70€. All told, we paid just shy of 60€ to drive all the way through France. I’d like to think that in the future, we’ll carefully map out a route by using the French Motorway site to calculate tolls, but I doubt we’ll ever plan anything with that much detail. It’s just not how Two Small Potatoes roll, ya know?
After a couple of hours on the road, we had a hankerin’ to get out of the car and see something cool in France. Since we were passing the city of Lyon, we took an exit and headed into town, winding our way up a steep hill riddled with narrow one-way streets and hairpin curves. At the top, we were rewarded with a superb view of the city, despite the gloomy clouds looming.
After admiring the view, we made our way to the massive church perched on the precipice of the hill next to our viewpoint. We had found the imposing Basilique Notre-Dame de Fourvière, an icon of Lyon.
Built in 1884, the church was much newer than I expected. The site itself has been one of holy pilgrimage since 1170, when folks came to pray to the Virgin Mary, to whom the present day church is dedicated for sparing the city from the Black Death that decimated Europe in the mid 1600s.
As we rounded the church to enter the front doors, we were met with an elegantly carved winged lion guarding the entrance.
Though he was quite large, at least as tall as a person, he was dwarfed by the triple arches of the entryway.
I marveled at the basilica’s design, at its rather unusual mixture of Byzantine and Romanesque architecture. Despite its lack of ornate grandeur that I’ve come to love in Gothic churches, I appreciated how much it differed from anything I’ve seen, particularly the interior.
Everywhere we looked, the church glittered in the low light. The ceilings, the arches, even the walls glittered. Massive mosaics were embedded in the walls, depicting scenes with soldiers kneeling on shore as sailors madly battled the seas with golden oars.
We sat for some time and just stared up at the beautiful ceiling.
Heading back out into the cool air, we followed signs on foot down the hill a ways to visit another site that looked interesting: Théâtres Romains de Fourvière, or Ancient Theater of Fourvière. Since it offered free entry and had few visitors, we eagerly wandered around the ruins of the ancient Roman complex, which was built in 15 BC…2000 years ago!
Consisting primarily of two amphitheaters and seating, a massive 30 foot wall used to surround the entire complex. We first visited the smaller of the two amphitheaters, which offered an excellent view of the basilica above us further up the hill.
As we walked the short distance up the hill from the small to the large amphitheater, Trav and I were surprised to pass a défibrillateur along the trail. Though we didn’t think we’d climbed that much while investigating the area, clearly someone felt we’d really exerted ourselves. We laughed and agreed that Trav’s little sister (who’s a nurse) would likely approve that city officials made the life-saving gadget so readily available. Then I gave myself a mental pat on the back for a hard day of walking.
The large amphitheater was even more impressive, not as much for its hypnotic repetition of stone seating, but for the interesting grassy spaces, sunken walkways, and arched doorways throughout the theater.
Sitting in the stadium, I couldn’t imagine a more perfect place to watch a Shakespeare play.
With darkness approaching, we took our leave of the ruins and slowly made our way back to the car where it was parked near the basilica.
After mowering down a couple of fantastic ham and cheese sandwiches we’d stowed away in our “road trip bag”, we found our way back to the freeway. Driving late into the night, we wanted to put as many miles behind us as we could on our way to Madrid. Well after dark and with both of us exhausted, we finally took an exit to an oddly deserted gas/service station in the middle of nowhere, pulled out our sleeping bags, and called it a night.
The red dots mark our travel for day one; the blue line roughly follows our entire 10-day travel path.