Voyages: A broken leg in Bilbao
October 4, 2018
"But there is one place where sunshine is essential … To get the full effect, the Catedral de León must be visited on a sunny day when light pours through its windows." — Patricia Harris, 100 Places in Spain.
For Sherry and me, it wasn't to be. It was a dark, rainy afternoon when we reached León (pop. 125,000). Nonetheless, its Santa María de León Cathedral with about 19,000 square feet of stained glass (the second largest amount in Europe after Chartres in France) is simply overwhelming and a highlight for anyone visiting northern Spain.
This January 2018 trip was redemption for a broken leg Sherry suffered in Bilbao in April 2017. That accident was what brought us together with the astonishing result that we were married on Jan. 14. Now my goal was to show her those sites she had missed earlier because of the injury. Many are little known to Americans like the cathedral in León, which has always been overshadowed by the larger one in Burgos.
We spent that night in the Hotel Gaudí in nearby Astorga (pop. 11,000 ) with a view of a Gaudí church from our hotel room. It was one of only three Gaudí buildings outside of Catalonia and he actually did the original design from photographs rather than visiting and studying the area.
Our next destination was Bilbao ( pop. 400,000) some 200 miles to the northeast where we were given a stunning room at the Hotel Miró where Sherry broke her leg. From our window we could see the Guggenheim Museum, the extraordinary building that changed the image of Bilbao from that of a rundown former industrial and ship-building center to the cosmopolitan community it is today. Many cities have tried to emulate Bilbao by building a striking art museum but few have succeeded.
Inside the museum, we were greeted by an enormous show of David Hockney portraits, their bright colors circling a huge room. Outside the highlight for me was the sculpture by Sir Anish Kapoor, the India-born British artist.
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That afternoon, we stopped in nearby San Sebastián to see Eduardo Chillida's three sculptures, the Combs of the Wind located at the edge of the sea on the west end of the Bay of Concha. When the wind is howling and the waves are crashing against the sculptures, this is a must visit.
Wednesday's goal had been to climb an eerie mountain named Ernio with dozens of crosses of all sizes and shapes on its summit but heavy rain deterred us. Instead we toured the large Cristóbal Balenciaga Museum in Getaria with its exhibit of the dresses of Rachel "Bunny" Mellon, (1910-2014), philanthropist, friend of the Kennedys and a major patron of Balenciaga. A highlight was the video of Hubert de Givenchy whose career Balenciaga really started and who just died at age 91. "Balenciaga was my religion. Since I'm a believer, for me, there's Balenciaga, and the good Lord."
Then, in an effort to break up the long drive to Barcelona, we stopped for the night at the Casa Rural Los Lilos in tiny Gotor, Spain (pop. roughly 350), not far from the major city of Zaragoza. Fortunately when we asked two local women for directions, one of them jumped in our car and insisted on guiding us to Los Lillos. We never would have found it on our own.
When we went out for dinner, the owner of Los Lillos said there were no restaurants in the town and led us two of his favorites in nearby Illueca and Brea, both of which were closed. We did find the Cervecería Chiqui, declined the house specialty of grilled lamb intestines but had an excellent dinner for 30 Euros including a bottle of wine, a huge salad, a plate of cheese and a stew. Jesús, the harried young owner, hustled back and forth from the crowded bar to the dining tables as his two children played with their grandparents next to us. This is the best of Spain — an unpretentious small town bar full of laughter and welcoming to strangers like us.
Thursday morning was bleak and windy as we arrived at Fuendetodos (pop. 125), the birthplace of Francisco Goya ( 1746-1828). A young woman ran out of the grocery store with a big key, opened the museum for us and then led us to the tiny home where he was born. It's easy to understand why he fled this barren landscape as a young man but hard to imagine how such talent emerged from such humble beginnings.
Only 11 miles away is the town of Belchite, which was devastated when Republican and Nationalist soldiers clashed in late August and early September 1937 during the Spanish Civil War, leaving over 5,000 dead. The combination of the wind, the desolate landscape and the eerie, shuttered buildings that have been left as a reminder of the horrors of war make this a stop you won't forget.
Entering Barcelona later that day was an emotional shock. My late wife, Julie, and I had lived there from 1999 to 2004 and were deeply immersed in city life. I had vowed never to return after her death in April 2016; too many memories. I changed my mind after the killings on La Rambla on Aug. 17, 2017. As I indicated in an article I wrote for the Times last September, I felt I had to go back as a gesture of support, and I'm glad I did.
Our time there was short but here are a few highlights: The best museum is the Fundación Miró on Montjuic hill. Our best meal was at the Asador de Aranda on Calle Pau Clarís with its roast lamb and lamb chops, excellent service and reasonable prices. I also enjoy the ambiente of Los Caracoles even though the food isn't as good. We tried Sets Portes for lunch where the menu is in nine languages but not Spanish, a bit of unneccesary Catalan snobbery that makes me not want to return. We had a fine dinner at the seafood restaurant, Barceloneta, but for value it didn't come close to the Asador de Aranda.
Los Tarantos in the Plaza Real off La Rambla has three half-hour flamenco shows every night and they are excellent.
Walking La Rambla was, however, the highlight and it was particularly special to stop in La Boquería, the huge market, and say hello to Juanito, who runs the small restaurant Pinoxto's near the entrance. He has no menu, just tells you what is available that day. But, as he says, everything is "muy bueno."
My first visit to Spain was 52 years ago and it still retains its magic. It was even more magical to be able to show it to someone whose earlier visit had ended so badly.
Morgan Smith is a former Aspenite whose family helped create the North Star Nature Preserve east of Aspen. He served in the Colorado House of Representatives and as commissioner of agriculture and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.