Those of you who have known Karen and I long enough might recall that our third date was in Europe. I threw caution to the wind and took off in the middle of graduate school with a “I gotta go see about a girl” type of excuse for my professors. We then preceded to visit 6 cities over 8 days in what seemed like a whirlwind.
We are clearly older now and long past the days when we can keep up that kind of pace. However, this past weekend we made an exception, when we decided to drag our kids around Spain seeing 5 cities in 5 days over an extended holiday weekend. Just to make the trip that much more difficult, we chose to traverse the country by car, covering 1,870 kilometers. It was tiring, but we managed to travel from Granada to Segovia to Valladolid to Bilbao to Pamplona to Madrid and back to Granada between Friday and Tuesday.
On Friday morning, we left for Segovia, a spectacular town just northwest of Madrid that is home to the incredible Segovia Aqueduct. This structure was one of the reasons we wanted to visit Segovia. It is a Roman ruin that dates back to the 1st century, and both of the boys had learned about it in school. It is one of the most spectacularly preserved ruins we have seen, and it was well worth the trip. Beyond the Aqueduct, Segovia has much to offer–a beautiful setting surrounded by mountains and valleys, another glorious Cathedral, and a Castle that inspired Cinderella and the Magic Kingdom. Back in the day, Segovia was a setting for Hollywood movies, and we stayed at a small, boutique hotel that once played host to Cary Grant, Grace Kelly, Orson Welles, Sinatra, Sofia Loren, and other legends of the silver screen. All of this lore, from the ancient royalty to Hollywood royalty, creates a mythical quality around Segovia. There is no question that it’s enchanting.
But Segovia is also real–having both a presence and a present. And in modern day Segovia, youth springs eternal in the form of college students. The city is flooded with them, as its beautiful setting and close proximity to Madrid make it attractive. We had the great pleasure of having breakfast with a student from Valencia who is a close family friend of our friends the Antins in Los Angeles. Blanca is a lovely, young woman, and it was great fun to meet her, hear about college life in Spain, and learn about her plans for the future. We were so impressed by her efforts to take the time to meet us, and the short visit was a real treat for all of us.
The next day we travelled to Bilbao but not before stopping off for a mid-day visit to Valladolid, where our niece Alana studied last summer. Although it would have been even better if Alana were still there, we so enjoyed visiting this pretty city where she lived. It boasts a beautiful town center and cathedral and lots of friendly places to eat. Alana, who is fluent in Spanish and a student at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, enjoyed living here, and we could see why.
On to Bilbao–which was our longest stay at a whopping two nights! We put Bilbao on the list for a couple reasons. First, we wanted to experience Basque Country, and second…to celebrate Jackson’s 15th birthday by seeing Granada CF play against Athletic Bilbao. Athletic Bilbao is one of the most revered teams in Spain due to both their winning history and tradition of only fielding players who hail from (or are groomed) in Basque Country. This has made them an anomaly in the world of “global” futbol, and they hold a special place in the hearts of fans.
Beyond the futbol club, we didn’t really know what to expect from Bilbao. We knew the Guggenheim was there. We knew it was a port city. But Bilbao is so much more! Although it is rarely mentioned in the same fashion as Barcelona, Madrid, or some of the great cities in Andalusia, we absolutely loved it! It reminded us of Milan in that it is ancient and modern all at once. There are plenty of old buildings to absorb and revere, but there is no question that modernity has a real presence here. Glass skyscrapers, mirrored apartment buildings, and metallic structures all line the River Bilbao that cuts through a beautiful valley between the hillsides. The city is a real hodgepodge too–with the business district, entertainment, culture, religion, and history all intertwined block after block. Although the city is comprised of people of all ages, Bilbao has a youthful pulse. Young families, in particular, were present throughout–pushing strollers, kicking balls, playing on playgrounds, and taking in the carnival along the river. It was quite idyllic, and we just loved our time there.
Birthdays away from home can be hit or miss, but everything fell just right for Jackson this time around. He wanted to go for a run in the morning, so we woke up early and ran along the river. As luck would have it, we ran right past the Granada coach and exchanged pleasantries. This was a good omen. Later in the day, Jackson spotted the team bus, and he and Cassius waited outside the team hotel for nearly 2 hours. Just when they wondered if it was time to throw in the towel, the team emerged and Jackson was able to meet the team and get photos with a number of his favorite players including Sergi Samper, Mubarak Wakaso, Martin Hongla, and Sverrir Ingason. Cassius was less interested, but he was nice enough to wait with his brother on his birthday while Karen and I took in the Guggenheim. An architectural marvel, Frank Ghery’s Guggenheim is the precursor to LA’s Disney Hall. It is a pretty remarkable achievement and stands as a glistening monument along the river, drawing people annually from all around the world. Truly something to see.
From the Guggenheim, we took the sleek metro right to the beautiful, modern Estadio San Mamés where Granada lost a hard fought 3-1 game that was much closer than the scoreline.
We woke up the next day pretty tired from Jackson’s birthday celebration the night before. Although, I had selfishly put Pamplona on the itinerary due to my love of Hemingway, I suggested we should probably pass and head to Madrid since we all slept in late. Alas, Karen and the boys insisted we make it to Pamplona for me, and so we journeyed on. I must admit I am grateful to them, as it was quite a thrill for me to see the Plaza de Toros (with the bust of Hemingway) and stop in for a drink at Cafe Iruna that was featured in The Sun Also Rises. Cassius and Jackson enjoyed walking the streets where the bulls would be running come July, and Karen was struck by the gracious center square and striking City Hall. Pamplona is a feast for the senses, but it is a little more unpolished and rough around the edges than some of the other cities we had visited. The buildings are beautiful if a little worn down, and there is a grittiness you feel in Pamplona that is unmistakable. I couldn’t help thinking about Hemingway’s line in “The Dangerous Summer” where he wrote “Pamplona was rough, as always.” We were there at a quiet time of year and could sense this, and I can only imagine how that holds true when the festival of San Fermin begins each summer. Bulls and gore seem to belong here.
The journey to Madrid following our departure from Pamplona was undoubtedly the toughest drive of the trip. It was late, growing dark, and the roads through that stretch the country aren’t big. But it wasn’t so much the drive itself as all we had seen that weighed most heavily on our psyches. It had been a trip of perpetual motion, adrenaline, and celebration. Even in a short time, we had been able to see glimpses of what makes Basque Country special and different from the rest of Spain. And we lamented our departure as we threaded our way through the Spanish countryside, past the stone building ghost towns and empty fields towards Madrid. Eventually, the lights were upon us, and we felt a sense of comfort and relief as we pulled into the Spanish capital. The last stop on our journey before returning to Granada, Madrid has become a bit like a second home. We’ve been there a number of times now, and it always feels good to see Puerta de Alcalá, stroll past the Prado, or sit in beautiful Retiro Park. It offers us with the perfect landing point whether we are coming or going–and it provided a deep breath for all of us at the end of an incredible few days.
On Wednesday morning, the kids woke up and went off to school. The parents felt a bit more like roadkill. But this trip proved that we could still rally, even if the exhausted aftermath was there to remind us that those birth certificates don’t lie.