Pais Vasco – ozeano, janari eta kultura

Travel

In search of the Atlantic Ocean, nature and culture this month I was lucky to visit Basque Country. Until the very end I was not sure if the trip will be possible, due to COVID-19 still present in our lives.

With all the precautions, I decided to take off and landed in sunny (!) Bilbao. I planned this trip in advance as a part of anniversary and birthday celebration with my boyfriend, knowing how much he loves the green landscapes of the North of Spain. As well, that Basque Country is one of the places no foodie can miss!

Travelling by air was not as dreadful as we expected – Malaga airport was almost empty on that day and we almost dreamt that air travel would look like this everyday. People being respectful and keeping the distance, simple as that. Similarly, the streets of Bilbao were spacious and only with some notion of tourism (people who were, unfortunately, the only ones not wearing masks). 

Bilbao anyhow is a living example of perfect rejuvenation of the post-industrial landscape. Awarded with the ‘urban Nobel prize’ in 2010, this city is perfectly friendly to breathe, walk and enjoy life. The sidewalks are broad, the road signals signs are melting ideally with the surroundings – to the point that at the back of them, you can find a depiction of tree leaves shapes!

We were very lucky with the weather, which is mostly rainy and windy throughout the year, and thus it is so beautifully green. Coming from Costa del Sol, where the climate is probably the sunniest and mildest on this planet, but largely affected by deforestation, green spaces are more of an oasis than regularity. 

We visited a few bars and restaurants in Bilbao and regardless of the pricing range, the experience was exquisite. There is no such thing as mediocre food, nor wine in Basque Country! As long as you are flexible and let yourself be surprised – most of the dishes contain fish or seafood, which is the zero Km dish there. We dream of pintxos for breakfast until today.

We also went to the famous Guggenheim Museum, where we visited permanent exhibitions, including the magnificent works of Jenny Holzer and Richard Serra, as well as some interesting temporary exhibitions of Olafur Eliason (the light!) and Richard Artschwager (the useless piano!). 

When talking about culture, it is hard not to mention the very separate language if the Basque. I’ve been fascinated by it and tried to grasp as much of it, as possible. Since my mother tongue, Polish, is often referred to as one of the most difficult languages to learn, why not trying to pick some Basque? My favourite word spotted in public space was probably komunak. I absolutely loved the idea of naming public toiler as a common place to go to, when needed.

Apart from the city, we took some time to visit the coastal town, even though we didn’t have too much time to wander about. Thanks to my colleague, we went to a coastal town Mundaka, famous for its picturesque landscape and one of the longest and strangest waves forming at its Atlantic shore, due to sedimentation of the river floating to the ocean. This attracts surfers from all over the world to practice. On the way, you can visit the town of Guernica and the natural park of Urdabai.

We needed this break, although the times are not perfect for any further travel. We are fortunate to live in one of the most beautiful countries full of diverse cities, cultures, languages and landscapes to choose from, close and far. Even if we are confined again soon, we will have pictures to come back to and travel back in time. 

 

 

At the Sierra’s feet: Jerez del Marquesado

Travel

New month, new updates from Spain and particularly Andalucia: amidst the pandemic, however in the ‘new normality’ tomorrow, we will be allowed to enter so-called Phase 3. Apart from the freedom to leave home anytime, go to the beach and enjoy the nature, one can also gather up with friends at a safe distance. Hoping for discovering new, remote places nearby, I’m reminiscing a day in Jerez del Marquesado, a charming village at the feet of Sierra Nevada.

What brought me there? A recommendation from the local tourist guide I asked earlier on in Guadix, where to spend a relaxing day as well as hike around without a necessity of renting a car. There was no such place in Guadix opened on that day anyway. Jerez currently counts less than 1000 habitants and this number is sadly, steadily declining. On that day the streets of its beautiful old town were completely empty, apart from the cats laying lazily in the sun.

I took my time to wander around the town, drink tinto de verano in the bar Los Cortijillos. Unlike in touristy places, the drink was followed by a huge portion of migas tapas, famous in this region as high-protein leftover food. The owner must have thought I would be hiking all the way up to Pico de Jerez, while I only took a famous Chestnut Walk all the way to a millenial tree, which could shelter up to 4 adults. 

The mountain range surrounding Jerez is particularly steep and was a place of a US military plane crash in the 60s, where thanks to the brave help of the locals all the crew members miraculously survived.

After all, I spent half a day hiking in Jerez and it stole my heart completely. Blossoming chestnuts, vivid streams and creeks, and a green forest oasis on this Spanish ‘Route 66’ will stay on my mind as one of the perfect days I lived.

Cinematic dreams of Guadix

Travel

After spending almost 50 days fully confined, I have to admit my imagination leads me to the places I’ve visited even more often. Since yesterday, I have been allowed to go out for a walk or exercise during certain hours nearby, and this makes me already very contented. Although I know the pathway to the ‘new normality’ will take some time and who knows how long it will take, and how the new world will look like.

My imagination today takes me back to Guadix, a very special town I had pleasure to visit last year, touring around Andalucia. After months of intense work, I was craving for a remote, desolated place surrounded by stunning nature. Curiosity and a random cinematic guide brought me an idea of renting a few nights in a ‘human cave’. Houses underneath the soil were very popular in this part of Spain, especially during the great migration of mining and agriculture workers. Almodovar’s ‘Dolor y Gloria‘ depicts this period of time very accurately.

Upon my arrival, what surprised me more, is that Guadix used as a film stage for other movies I’d never think of! ‘Indiana Jones’ being probably the most famous one, and ‘Karol, un uomo diventato Papa’ about John Paul II – the most surprising one. Not sure if Guadix staged as Vatican City, or Wadowice – provincial town in Poland, judging by the looks: could be both.

It does not surprise when you get to know Guadix a bit more: the town consists of various neighbourhoods, varying greatly in their architecture, wealth and even: light. The ‘cave’ neighbourhood is full of red rocks and sand contrasted by the while houses, and scorching sun, while downtown is rather shady and full of winding, narrow streets with stray cats on every corner. There is also an impressive castle and cathedral in between.

This is why Guadix can pretend almost any Wild West, Roman or provincial town. I like it most for being Guadix though. Surrounded by stunning Sierra Nevada and deserts, the sunrise and sunset shed thousands shades over this special place. As you can see below, I could not help but stare and capture the most of its beautiful light.

I found peace there. Spending a few nights in the cave (thanks to renting it from the local owner, named Maria) made me realize about how important it was to design such a place to shelter from heat in the day as well as during freezing nights. Also, how spacious the caves are and how sustainably one could live in such a close connection to the nature.

I hope for discovering more gems in Andalucia at some point later in the year, when I might be able to live the city. For now, I am lucky to have lived the authentic, Guadix experience and stayed there longer than initially expected, doing absolutely nothing.

Sierra de las Nieves

Travel

February = springtime at its fullest in Andalucia. It is probably one of the best months to experience hiking trips in the Malaga province, and this post is dedicated to describe a gorgeous hiking trip in Sierra de las Nieves, aka Snowy Range near the picturesque town of Tolox.

I was encouraged to take part of this hike thanks to the nature- and outdoor-activity loving community from the tech world of Malaga. I love to meet new people and also get to know them while doing things I enjoy: breathing the fresh mountain air while working out over a moderate 12 km route with over 600 m ascension/descend.

The route starts at the Balneario of Tolox – and in this part of the year is very green. The scent of the forest, multiple birds and water creeks are present throughout the first 3-4 kms. My hiking boots survived walking around the ice trails on Svalbard so I was not worried about their condition.

On the way you can spot at least three waterfalls: the first one is great for taking an actual leap on warmer days, the second one can be noticed from afar – taking winding curves and thus making it the highest waterfall in Andalucia. The last one you are literally walking over a tiny bridge. Unfortunately, as the land is quite arid, it dries out for most of the months. We were very lucky to see it, but we could also be unlucky if it’s too humid: the trail might be slippery when not properly dried out after springtime rainfalls. As in Andalucia rain is rare, when it happens, it is torrential.

After 13 kms the descend starts towards the picturesque village of Tolox, one of the emblematic ‘while villages’ of Andalucia. On a Sunday afternoon, it is the oasis of tranquility. After a straining hike, resting in the local bar overlooking the various mountain ranges, up to El Torcal and Sierra Nevada while eating tapas was the best reward.

To top it up, Tolox is full of actual art, depicting the local art inspirations, naive art and poems of Pablo Neruda. I can’t help falling in love in a place like this.

Montes de Málaga

Travel

Málaga is associated primarily with the sea, and a gateway to the ‘Sunny Coast’ known as Costa del Sol. Nothing more misleading: its province is by far the tallest in Spain, containing of some of the youngest, and highest mountains in the country.

You can easily experience their scope already while approaching the landing at the airport, especially if you take some additional turns around the province. One of the first trips I’ve done when I moved here, was to hike around countless trails of the National Park of Montes de Málaga, just a few kilometers away from the city centre, and within the public transportation reach. I learned though that hiking in June is already too late – it’s too sunny and too dry to truly enjoy it.

Instead, I visited the historical Botanic Garden, home to abundant and exotic flora and fauna. This stunning scenery can be found in the Northern part of the city and is also accessible with the public transportation, followed by a 15 minutes walk. The garden hosts shelter to various bird houses: if you are patient you can spend hours looking at their nesting areas and spot interesting species. It is great that Málaga has made this garden available to public, especially that the city itself lacks green spaces.

Another destination worth mentioning is Mijas Pueblo, a little village located in Costa del Sol, about 45 minutes drive from Málaga and again, accessible with public transportation. It is one of the typical white, Andalusian scenic villages with castle ruins, beautiful town hall square and breathtaking views over the coast.

Also the trip through the winding road can take the breath away, if you are sensitive. I think that the village itself is as touristy as Ronda, and it takes its toll. I was particularly saddened by the use of donkeys for the touristy rides. I escaped the crowded trap quite soon and wandered around the hilly streets followed by eating lunch at an inexpensive, unpretentious place far away from the masses.

I enjoy the little escapes around Málaga, even without having a car for now. I am conscious that the best places are out of my reach for now, but I am trying hard not to own a car – driving though is a good skill to acquire when living on Costa del Sol and is a different story. Looking forward to bringing you more tales from the trips I will take in 2020, to be honest I have not planned anything and have no idea where my imagination will take me.

Viajeros romanticos de Ronda

Travel

I feel unbelievably lucky to live in the cradle of Mediterranean and Spanish culture, Andalusia. In the past weeks I’ve been quite busy discovering the Malaga region and I’d like to dedicate today’s entry to Ronda.

 

Located about one hour away from Malaga, Ronda is one of the most picturesque towns of Spain, and a known destination since 19th century. This is when, upon the raise of the industrial era, wealthy class representatives and intellectuals formed the group of ‘romantic travellers’, trying to find a way to the roots of the European culture, visiting the emblematic Spanish, Italian and Greek land- and cityscapes. The idea of travel was born and inspired generations of writers, painters and music makes, tired of the smoggy, dirty and dehumanized big cities of the industrial era.

Ronda remained its romantic charm until today, however, overtourism is again taking its toll here. Forget about a peaceful walk around the canyon, you will end up in one or the other organized tour, queuing to see the most picturesque spots. Instead, it is best to roam around much more quiet old town, or visit Casa del Rey Moro, a (literally) breathtaking castle-house of the Moorish kingdom, situated inside one of the giant rocks, all the way down to the canyon river level. As you go down twenty floors from atop, you can visit chambers that used to serve for keeping the slaves, armour and secrets.

Being located in the middle of the Cordillera Bética, one of the highest and youngest mountain ranges in Spain, Ronda is surrounded by incredibly romantic gradient of sharp edges, equally stunning at the dawn as at the sunset. Even though I have heard there is not much to do in Ronda for two days, I enjoyed myself simply staring at the horizon, dreaming, observing colours and reading about the useless, romantic travellers from the past and their crave for the great, classical beauty in this life. It is one of these places that words are needless to describe more, so I will let you simply look at my photos instead.

 

Asturias – Costa Verde

Travel

August is undoubtedly the hottest month on the Iberian Peninsula and I feared that at some point I won’t be able to bear with it. Apparently, Malaga was not as bad as the rest of the continent, especially thinking about how global warming has been affecting Europe in the past years. The most unpleasant days were around the second week of August where the famous Terral wind started to blow. I’ve never experienced a wind which is as hot as 40 Celcius degrees with the speed reaching 40 km p/hour – it really felt as if the air was coming out of a hairdryer.

August is also a month when the most (in)famous festivity of Malaga takes place: La Feria. It is about 10 days of celebration of the local folk tradition, including bull fighting, horse riding, and most importantly: flamenco dancing and Cartojal (sweet, strong wine) drinking. This attract millions (!) of national and international tourists every year, making Malaga allegedly unliveable. This also turned out a myth, since the festivities were distributed around the whole city, and not only the city centre, while the municipality of Malaga made a special effort to keep the whole area very clean and vigilant for common vandalism. Not knowing about these two happenings of the month were not as bad as the word of mouth, I decided to escape for five days into the North of Spain: the green coast of Asturias.

After visiting Basque Country many years ago, and Galicia last year, I was the most curious about the coastal hiking in this mostly rural and unspoilt region of Spain. Landing in Asturias, I already felt the change: it was probably 10 degrees less than in Andalucia, and I got almost dizzy with the fresh air coming from the Atlantic Ocean and the surrounding woods. Quite a change after the hairdryer Terral just a few days before.  I was not too ambitious when it comes to the scope of discovering the region: since I only had 5 days, and no car, I focused on the western part of the region, leaving the higher mountain hike and the eastern routes for some other occasion.

On purpose, I stayed in a very small village nearby a more popular, touristy town of Cudillero when I only visited when in need (of food mostly). Due to its rough coastline, to visit the town, I had to descent about 700 m down with the slope of about 90%. Not to mention coming all the way back uphill. What helped to achieve this, is definitely the local food: Spaniards warned me about the size of the portions offered and they were indeed large and tasty. I’ve eaten probably the biggest and most impressive mariscada in my life in the restaurant called simply El Pescador in Cudillero, boasting a Michelin recommendation this year.

Another hiking highlight was the route called Senda Costera from the picturesque village called Muros de Nalon until the river port San Esteban de Pravia. It takes a few hours to walk through a path throughout the Atlantic forest, with a possibility to descent into the wild, Atlantic beaches.

Asturias is not only nature though, it’s also a maritime and industrial patrimony, visible in the cities like Aviles or Gijon. Although the focus of this trip was mostly on hiking (and eating out!), I managed to visit both cities – the most interesting is probably the cultural centre of Oscar Niemeyer, the architect of Brasilia and simply admiring the difficult charm of the long, post-industrial sites. To finalize the visit, on a last, rainy day in Gijon, I tried the Michelin start restaurant situated in the green Asturian park: La Salgar, run by the chefs Esther and Nacho, offering amazing experience for relatively reasonable price. Overviewing a typical, Asturian horreo, tasting the local food with the creative touch, I decided I will return to this mysterious, strangely beautiful part of Spain one day again. Who knows if not to retire.

 

Sylt – the Northern Star of Germany

Travel

As my time in Germany is limited, I am trying to make the most of it. In between wrapping up things, I decided to do a few getaways to incredible places around the country using only train and public transportation. In April, I’ve visited Weimar and I still have Dresden on my list. This post is about a two-day trip I made to Sylt, the Northernmost island of Germany on the North Sea.

You can clearly see me wearing the winter clothes and sunglasses at the same time – I think it’s the best metaphor of the weather in Schleswig-Holstein all year round. Beginning of May I had quite a lot of luck not to get too much rainfall, but the freezing 50 kmph winds that almost blew me away from the dunes.

It is fairly easy to get to Sylt from the capital: 6 hours of train drive (29,90 EUR if you’re early enough to book) with a connection in Hamburg, and you can reach the capital of the island: Westerland. To prepare you for the dramatic weather, you are welcomed by four sculptures facing the wind. Germans are pretty serious about warning you about the dangers I guess.

While Westerland is the biggest town and has some life going on (at least off season Sylt seems to be mostly a destination visited by the schoolchildren groups and the elderly), it is the nature what is the most breathtaking and worth exploring while on the island. On the Southern, ‘the sunshine’ tip of Sylt one can hike around on truly beautiful beaches, or take a boat trip to see the varied sea life of both North and Wadden Sea (Wattenmeer).

The phenomenon of the tidal flats of the Wadden Sea is the biggest in the world and Sylt is one of the places on the North Sea when one can experience the mythical ‘walking on the water’ at least once per day when the current is receding.

My favourite part of the island was the North: around the List harbour. Watching abundant and rare bird wilderness, walking through the hiking paths alongside free range sheep and cows was a bliss.

In this part of the island you can also experience the most unusual lagoon and bay formations between the Wadden and North Sea.

Even though I was one of the very few visitors at this time of the year, I loved the solitary experience – probably the island turns into a completely different place in the summer. On the way back, I could not help but looking into the rural, flat landscape of the Northernmost region of Germany – including the endless dunes, Wadden Sea flats and North-Baltic sea canals.

Deep blue at the Lisbon Oceanarium

Travel

My life tends to get intense at times, for good reasons and by choice. I am a high energy person usually which like to explore and be in the centre of various happenings. However, as I age, I find it extremely important to recharge from all the hustle and bustle of everyday. There’s nothing more relaxing to me than: music, travel and nature, not necessarily always in such order.

So while I was visiting Lisbon in November for a conference located in Parque das Nacões, I could not help but escape for a few hours to the Oceanarium, the largest and probably one of the most impressive in Europe.

Home to various species coming from all of the oceans on planet Earth, it is divided into various geographical lands, featuring both typical and rare representatives of the particular locations.

I could spend hours watching Arctic and Antarctic species, including penguins, terns, fulmars and puffins – knowing some of them from their natural habitats, such as Svalbard, Iceland or Faroe Islands. Travelling in time without moving brought me a lot of memories and peace of mind.

I have never done snorkelling or diving yet, and would love to explore the breadths and depths of the sea starting this year, by visiting more locations for discovering the water kingdom in a respectful way.

The fish which impressed me the most was definitely Ocean Sunfish (aka Mola Mola or Peixe Lua in Portuguese) with its interestingly flattened body and particular fins allowing them to move in a specific way. I could look at this natural wonder for hours not getting bored, while finding out the details of this lovely creature.

As a next step, I will be revisiting Valencia this month, famous for an impressive scientific park and oceanarium so I may take some time to learn about its species more in depth.

 

A rota da Felicidade – Costa Vicentina

Personal, Travel

If happiness is nature, ocean breeze on the cheeks and tranquility, I claim I have found it. Costa Vicentina is located in the South-Western part of Portugal and since many years it has been one of my favourite destinations in the world. It is still (!) not as popular and accessible as Algarve located in the south of the country and is a great destination for those who enjoy the nature, and powerful, jaw-dropping views while hiking. Not to mention surfing, which comes without saying as a consequence of such a landscape.

This year I’ve spent some time in Portugal, namely in Lisbon for work and life balance purposes in November. Weather around this time of the year can be surprising, if not hazardous and indeed, on the last day of my stay there were severe floodings and strong winds devastating almost all country including the capital. Staying connected to the weather warnings, I decided to travel to the south where the impact was not foreseen, at least for a day.

I took a national bus line from Lisbon to Lagos, calling at various sleepy towns of the Alentejo region. My first stop was in Porto Covo, a picturesque village south of Sines, known recently for a dispute against the petroleum investment, potentially destructive not only for the human but all the living species in the region. Porto Covo is the best example why such initiative should never happen – where the locals decorate the houses, palms and other vegetation and truly care for preserving their little paradise. I was very moved by the view of the colourful, winter sweaters embracing the plants, that may indeed feel cold during the Atlantic winter.

After a brief, 30 minutes stop the bus continued its journey further south, passing by vast, sandy beaches, and dramatic views of the National Park of Alentejo.

This region – famous for offering the out of this planet’s ocean landscape, but also fantastic wine, olives and cork. On the top of that, Alentejo can be discovered solely by foot. There are two hiking routes of approximately 250 kms each alongside the coast, or the interior. On the way one can discover natural and historic wonders, and encounter various animals (especially bird species, as I have spotted peregrine falcons, seagulls and jays struggling in the gust of ocean wind).

On that particular gloomy Sunday, I’ve taken a 12 km stroll around Zambujeira do Mar, another seaside town with breathtaking views. Contrary to the weather, while walking around Zambujeira, I noticed: a bunch of friendly people asking if I needed direction, street named for happiness and was welcomed and entertained by a very cheerful waitress in the local tasca. She was notably enjoying her work, unlike in the places where tourism is massive and overwhelming to everyone and offered be probably the best prato do dia I’ve had in a while.

Now, sitting next to the SAD lamp, my loyal companion during the winter months, I already fantasise about returning there, possibly planning a semi-active hiking trip from one winery to another in the upcoming year, combining physical activity with hedonistic pleasure. And I’d call it A Rota da Felicidade (The Happiness Route).