The Big Picture

imageedit_1_2366321278 (1).jpg

Image: Padre’s Ramblings

It is the beginning of a new year, and it hold many opportunities and mysteries.  But it isn’t always easy to gain perspective on events as we are experiencing them.  Despite the year’s name, it is the past which actual offers us that 20/20 perspective.  “The Big Picture,” if you will.   OFMARIAANTONIA‘s photo challenges for this year include one entitled, “Big Picture”  I have attached one such Big Picture from Guernica in the Basque Country in Spain.

This image by Pablo Picasso was his response to the Fascist bombing of the town during the Spanish Civil War.  The original oil painting measures 3.49 meters (11 ft 5 in) in height and 7.76 meters (25 ft 6 in) across.  Though huge, the meaning of the painting is perhaps even bigger.  It was painted to raise money for war relief and to bring the world’s attention to the atrocities being committed in the conflict.

Franco’s Fascist government with the aid of the Nazi Condor Legion attacked the Basque capital on 26 April 1937 during market day thus insuring maximum civilian casualties and instilling psychological terror of Franco’s opponents.  The choice of target was calculated on several levels.  First, the aforementioned psychological impact was evident.  But Guernica also symbolised democracy, as the fiercely independent Basque people had their ancient parliament in the town.

The attached photo is of a tile reproduction of Picasso’s work which has been erected in the town as a reminder of the Guernica’s past, and of the consequences of democracy being eclipsed by dictatorship.  That is truly, a “Big Picture,” to remember.





Biscay Cruise (Part Five): The Basque Region

Our next port of call, Bilbao, brought us to the Basque country.  Bilbao is an attractive city, and a gateway to the Basque region. It is home to the Guggenheim Museum (in the shape of a ship, but also with titanium tiles like fish scales), and of some outstanding engineering in both its White Bridge and the Transporter Bridge. The city is fairly clean, and has less graffiti than I saw in some other regions of Spain. With the ferry, and cruise ports it is an excellent place to start any visit to the Basques. We, however, deferred checking out the city and headed inland.

Our first stop was Guernica (Gernika).  This was a powerful and moving place to explore.

Picasso’s Guernica

The horrors of war were brought home to Guernica on a Monday morning in April 1937. This small market town was purposely and symbolically attacked from the air by Franco’s Nazi/Fascist allies. This was a direct attack on democracy, and on a civilian population. It is not surprising then, that Guernica should be along with Hiroshima a living reminder for the need for peace.

The attack on Guernica so appalled the artist Pablo Picasso that he began a monumental mural to call the world’s attention to the atrocity.  A tile reproduction of that famous work now stands near the Magistrates Court in the town.

The town also is the site of the Gernika Peace Museum. This museum and its fronting square serve as a reminder. Here the horror of war, and need for peace are focused on. There are several international photo displays on the outside as well, showing a kindred theme.

As I have noted, Guernica was purposely chosen as an example.  This is because the town was the home of the Basque Parliament.  One of, if not the oldest continuous democracies in the world.

This ancient democracy originally met in the shade of an oak tree.  The stump of the old oak is preserved under pillars, and its offspring now officiates in front of an additional pillared structure.

This said, there is now a “modern” assembly house for the Basque Parliament, the Casa de Juntas.  This serves as a debating and law making chamber. The assembly room is full of paintings and the red chairs for the members of the assembly, but an outer room with a huge stained glass ceiling is used for informal discussions, and has loads of symbolism most notably of the oak.

Under the chamber there is a small cinema area in which a very informative presentation on the Basque democracy is presented and explained, and again the oak is featured.

The Basques are a proud people with a huge legacy.  Our guide noted that their language is unique in that part of Europe, and that the people were notable for having never  been conquered by the Romans or the Moors, as was the rest of Spain.

Casa de Juntas is a great place to learn about the Basque people, their democracy, and history more generally. It is highly recommended.

After Guernica we went to the fishing village/town of Bermeo.  There is a vistors’ centre, a really lovely park with a sculpture trail and a carousel, and several nice tapas bars.  We went to the one called Akatz.  We had some really nice coffee and tea from an iron teapot.  We also had some really high quality tapas, in the regional style of everything served with toothpicks or skewers.  The prawns were is a wonderfully spiced seafood sauce, and served with a soft baguette.


Ballenero Aita Guria is an old whaling vessel and is along the port area of Bermeo near the tourist information and the waterfront park. It is an interesting dark wood ship, and while it has no masts, still gives the feel of the bygone era.

After a brief stay we were once again on our way.  This time to San Juan de Gaztelugatxe. This is in a fascinating bit of the Basque coastline with the surfer bays, rugged islands, and outstanding scenery.  It is now famous as well for being one of the filming locations for Game of Thrones. There is some lay-by parking available to look down on the area from above for those for whom the walled walks and rugged paths are beyond their abilities.


Basque Coastline

After taking in the scenery, we made our way back to Bilbao, and to the Vizcaya Bridge,
the world’s oldest transporter bridge, This is an incredible feat of engineering. Built in the late 19th Century by one of the students/colleagues of Eiffel, this bridge bears all the hallmarks of that relationship. The bridge ironwork looks much like Eiffel’s tower, and the mechanism of moving the platform across the river in ingenious. While it only carries a few vehicles at a time, the crossing only takes 8 minutes, and foot passengers are carried across on the sides as well. The high beam allows river traffic to move, and the platform is quickly cleared away as well. This too is a “must see.”

Transporter Bridge

Our day coming to an end, we returned to Aurora to begin our journey towards France.


Biscay Cruise (Part 4a): The Cathedral of Santiago


Santiago de Compostela

This wonderful cathedral is the focal point of the entire pilgrims’ trail. It is said to house the remains of Saint James the Apostle, and has been a site of veneration for centuries. The golden altar, and silver casket, the coming and going of pilgrims and the sense of the faith of those who have journeyed there, and built it as a token of faith is evident everywhere. Some features are well worn by the faithful’s touch over the years.

This is a grand Catholic cathedral, and the symbolism is strong throughout. There is a set of special doors opened only in certain years which pilgrims can enter for the forgiveness of sin, and these are regulated directly from the Vatican as to when they can be opened. Again truly powerful in the spiritual feel and significance of the place.

We arrived just as mass was about to begin. The cathedral was packed, and the pilgrims and tourists were beginning to settle. The altar area and censer were beautifully crafted, and added to the sense of spiritual praise and elevation of the cathedral.

Again, as I stated in my post on preparing for the spiritual aspect of pilgrimage,  I get much from the faith and devotion of those around me.  The true communion of the saints.  I also marvel at the works of art and architecture which are marks of the faith of those of previous generations.  This cathedral is moving in all of these.  Only at the Holy Sepulchre, have I felt it more.

That said, when mass is not taking place there are many areas to explore, and huge number of confessionals.  There is a museum and a shop, as well, which sells guidebooks and religious artifacts such as rosaries and pilgrims’ badges (more marks of faith).

When we finished in the cathedral we made our way to the Plaza de la Quintana behind the cathedral. We stopped in the plaza to take in the atmosphere, and to admire the architecture. It had some beggars, but it was quieter than the main square. There were cafes, and plaza offered great views of the cathedral and the surrounding buildings. We watched the arrival of pilgrims, and had a quiet time for reflection.



We then stopped for a cup of tea and coffee at Cre-Cotte a cafe/creperie in the square. The atmosphere was great, and we continued to watch the pilgrims and tourists coming and going in the plaza. And just soaked in the feel. The tea was good, but the coffee was a bit tart even when sweetened. The service was quick. It was also a great place to take in the architecture of the cathedral (this section not under scaffolding) and the surrounding buildings.

With our pilgrimage achieved, we decided to go back to Praza do Obradoiro to try the “road train” tour of the city. We have used “road train” facilities before in other cities and most have been interesting, even if limited. This one however, is interesting for all the wrong reasons.  Plus points first, you do get to see the city. Sorry, that’s it.

On the negative front, the tour is over very rugged cobbles, and there is a lot of jarring about. It is so rough in areas that any photography is impossible. On smoother sections it travels at too great a speed to take focused pictures. Only on the occasional stop for traffic signals are there any photo ops. The commentary is okay, but is difficult to listen to, accent is only a minor issue, but that it is over a intercom is more difficult to hear. It also has a limited scope of the sites available and spends more time in the university campuses than in the traditional old sectors.  In short the tour was a diabolical bone shaking experience with little merit.

Once back to the plaza, we went for a recuperation, and some pampering at Cafeteria Hostal dos Reis Catolicos. This was a true parador experience. Firstly, this is a beautiful building with excellent service, and really tasty food. We had a good quality tea, and a latte. Then shared an octopus dish with olive oils, spices and very good bread wedges. This was followed by St James Cake, which was also rich and satisfying. This was a luxury experience and one well worth making if in Santiago.

It was all to soon that we had to depart the city.  But it will remain one of the outstanding experiences of my life.




Biscay Cruise (Part 4): Santiago De Compostela

While it was my intention to do a single posting for Santiago, it seems that the experience merits more (so apologies for rambling in my ramblings).

The Camino de Santiago or Way of Saint James is the series of paths leading to the pilgrimage site in Santiago. Owing to mobility issues, I was limited to traveling only 7 km of The Way. It was nonetheless a beautiful and moving experience. The various paths across Spain and beyond come together at Santiago. They do in a sense as the fan out from the cathedral form a scallop pattern. It is this symbol that marks the way. I found them along the short distance outside of Santiago, but also in Guernica. As I got closer to the cathedral it is with some irony that this is where pilgrims’ staves are sold. But, even this can make a souvenir of the spiritual journey one has made.


As the cathedral was approached we first came upon the Convent of Saint Francis (Convento de San Francisco).  This is a beautifully designed convent, and the monument to St Francis is also wonderfully constructed. Both serve as inspirational landmarks on the way to the cathedral, and mark the spiritual heritage of the order, and of the city.


We soon arrived at Plaza del Obradoiro.  This is a grand plaza at the end of the pilgrims’ trail. It features the main entrance to the cathedral, and the Palacio de Raxoi. There are buskers, beggars, vendors, and pilgrims galore, and the views are great. It is a shame that the cathedral on this side is undergoing restoration, as it does slightly diminish the visual impact, though the spiritual and cultural feel is still powerful here.


Palacio de Raxoi

The Palacio de Raxoi is a truly grand building with its massive facades and pillars. With the Cathedral under scaffolding at present, this building maintains the grandeur of the plaza. I believe it is a former seminary, and if so it would have been a inspiring place to study. As far as architectural landmarks go, this is a must see.


Igreja de San Fructuoso

To the side of the Plaza is the Igreja de San Fructuoso.  This is a small round church, which sits below the main square.  Because of its recessed position, its top is essentially at eye level to those in the square. This is a beautiful little church on the approaches to the cathedral. It has a wonderful exterior, and works as a useful landmark as well when finding one’s way back from the plazas.


Fuente de Los Caballos

As the main entrance of the cathedral is under renovation, we had to make our way to a smaller square at the side of the building.  This square is the home of Fuente de Los Caballos.  There was no real seating here, though one could rest on the steps of adjoining buildings. The queues were long to enter the cathedral, but square did offer great views of this lovely horse-motif fountain.

As mass was about to begin the lines were especially long.  My wife sought some assistance for me as the steps at this entrance were rather severe, and I was allowed to enter from an alternative entrance.

Next up, the cathedral experience and beyond.



Biscay Cruise (Part 3): La Coruna, Spain


Crystal City

La Coruna is a port city in the Galicia region of Spain.  It has a well deserved nickname of “The Crystal City,” owing to its 19th Century glassed-in balconies. These are especially prevalent along the Avenida de la Marina in the Centro Historico. This is a really beautiful area, and the glassed balconies do give the impression of a crystal city. The effect from a distance is amazing, but even up close the architecture and long lines of glass-work are really something to see. Unfortunately, when viewing the area up close, there is a lot of graffiti at ground level.


The Wedding Cake

Another architectural “must see” is A Terraza, near the marina.  This beautiful structure  lives up to its local nickname “the Wedding Cake.” It is a marvelous building, and the more one looks at it, the more amazing features can be discovered.

Before making this journey, I was aware of the strong regional identity of the Catalans.  I was unaware, however, that other Spanish regions held themselves as similarly distinctive.  The Galegos are indeed proud of their Celtic heritage.  This Celtic link is shown in many regional characteristics, from unique drinks to the self-identity with “white witchcraft.”  Many market stalls and souvenir shops sell witch puppets as a reminder of this.

These witch puppets are interesting as they are used regionally on St John’s Eve, as part of a bonfire, not far off from the English Fifth of November celebrations.  Large fires are lit on mid-summer’s eve (much like the ancient Celts).  There is a twist, however, as these witch puppets are thrown into the flames to remember the “white witches” burned by the Inquisition.

Bonfires aside, fire has become an issue in this area.  With the economic collapse of Spain in the 1980s, the remaining industries needed to be maximised. This led to the large scale plantation of eucalyptus to support the areas paper mills.  These trees mature at a much greater speed than the native oaks, but they are far less fire resistant.  This has led to wildfires in the region.


Tower of Hercules

La Corunas’ greatest feature is its Roman Lighthouse.  The Tower of Hercules is a UNESCO heritage site, and is the world’s oldest operating maritime beacon.  I wish I had made this journey before writing my recent blog on lighthouses, as it would have been sure to have featured.  This wonderful tower was built in the 2nd Century, and is 57 metres tall and is a fascinating feature overlooking the approach to the city. While it has been modernised, it still had its original Roman feel. It is a must see, though those with mobility issues may prefer to see it from the car park below, or from the sea.

Next stop Santiago de Compostela.



Canaries Cruise (Part 5): Tenerife

Teneriffe 4

Santa Cruz

After a wonderful day in Gran Canaria, we arrived in Tenerife with great expectations. What we found was poor communications, greed, and quite bluntly disappointment. The information bulletin from the Columbus made no mention of shuttle services at the port, but did relate that there would be metered taxis.  Fair enough, we set out to find a cab.

Columbis at Teneriffe

Columbus at Tenerife

When we arrived at the pier, there were no taxis, so we set off through the cruise port towards the gates.  We did find a few souvenir shops, and while one manager was particularly helpful and friendly, much of what we found was tat.

When we reached the gates, there were the taxis.  BUT, not one of them was prepared to leave the taxi rank for the small fare into town.  Yes, 80 and 100 euro “private tours” were available, but no short trips. So on we went.

Teneriffe 6

Approach to the Plaza

We continued on to the edge of the Plaza, but with mobility issues beginning to take their toll, we decided to cut our losses and return to the ship.  As we entered the cruise port, I was approached by a representative of the Spanish Tourist Board to take a survey.  I bet she wishes she hadn’t asked. I detailed the day’s events, the taxis, etc, etc, etc. I did, however, note I enjoyed Gran Canaria and Lanzarote.

Back on board we settled into the Oasis deck and took in the sun.  We did get (a very distant shot) of the Opera House which was on our “to see” list.  Not quite the same though.

Teneriffe 1

Opera House

While not to the Sloop John B standard of bad shore excursions, it has to be my most disappointing to date. “Well tomorrow will be a better day.” We settled in for a sea day and then our first choice destination: Madeira.


Canaries Cruise (Part 4): Gran Canaria

Our voyage on the Columbus next took us to Las Palmas on Gran Canaria.  The Columbus link was clear here with a full-sized replica of the explorer’s ship Nina at the port and Columbus’ residence on the island in the Old Town.


When we arrived we caught the City Sightseeing Hop on Hop off at the port and toured the city.  It provided us with panoramic views and stops at the Opera House, Beaches, and the Old Town.



We made an extended stop at the Old Town. Here we found Santa Ana’s Cathedral, and Columbus’ House and sidewalk cafes.  It was really atmospheric, and indeed did feel like a step back into Spain’s past.

Old Town 2

Old Town

We stopped for drinks at the Cafe Habana.  Prices were reasonable, and it was a great vantage point to take in the feel of the Old Town.  Initially sitting in the sidewalk seating, and then exploring the inside of the cafe made for a good pit stop.

Cafe Habana 1


Cafe habana 3

We finished our tour with a journey past the naval station, and on to the ship.  A tiring but wonderful day.  Sailing on wards in the late evening our next destination was Tenerife.


[An aside:  It is amazing that the Columbus Expedition crossed the Atlantic in vessels like the Nina. The little caravel is open decked and is only 17.3 metres long, and has a draught of 1.2 metres. Nina also only displaces 36.3 tons.]

Contact for Hop on Hop Off

Canaries Cruise (Part 3): Arrecife, Lanzarote

Roadtrain Arrecife 1

Our second port of call was Arrecife on Lanzarote.  This is an interesting Island, with a desert like volcanic interior.  Many people visit here to see the “fire mountains”  and even to trek on camel-back to the cones.  I am not one of these.  As is my custom, it is Hop on, Hop off to get my bearings. In Arrecife this is in the form of a “road train.”  This service began operation in April of this year, and as yet has little publicity.  Let’s remedy that.  It goes around Arrecife, stops at bus stations, beaches, and historic landmarks, and best of all it costs only 4 euros per person.


We made our way around the town, and enjoyed the sunshine, warm temperatures (27 C) and took it all in.  We then got off at the Playa del Reducto and took in more sunshine. We then found a bench in the Parque Islas Canarias and watched the boats, swimmers, and enjoyed the garden.

Playa Del Reducto

We made our way across the street to the Manhattan Bar where we had a cold San Francisco mocktail, and a strawberry-banana smoothie.  This was a lovely bar cum snack bar with free WiFi, and freshly made drinks, not pre-mixes.

We caught road train again at the Arrecife Gran Hotel at proceeded to the little fortress of Castillo de San Gabriel.  This little fort once protected the city from pirates, and is on a small island connected to the town by a causeway.  Locals used the causeway as a diving platform as they swam in sea between the islands.  There were also some good touristy shops nearby for the little souvenirs one feels obliged to collect.

Castle of San Gabriel

Saint Gabriel’s Castle

It was then back to the Columbus for a late lunch and a chill in the library.  We then returned to the cabin where we learned about Barcelona.  Sad news after a wonderful day (see blog Reflections on Barcelona

Then at sea again, next stop Gran Canaria.


Reflections on Barcelona

It is ironic that my travel blog on Barcelona posted a few days after the terrible events there.  The irony is that I was on holiday in Spain at the time, and without computer access. The blog was a scheduled one.

We had had a pleasant day in Arrecife on Lanzarote, the atmosphere was laid back and we sat in a sunny park overlooking the Playa Del Reducto before getting some mocktails and smoothies at a seaside restaurant.  We returned to the ship, no worries no problems. Then the news.  It was shocking to turn on the cabin TV to see what we recognised as Spanish police cars.  Barcelona was breaking news.

At this point most of the news was jumbled.  Casualty figures, “lone wolf” theories came and went.  No link had been made to the “bomb factory” explosion the day before.  And we sailed on to Gran Canaria.

Things had changed.  Not massively for US, but changed.  Our ship moored alongside two Spanish warships.  There were more police at the port gates and checkpoints.  But again, life went on.  We caught the Hop On Hop Off and toured the city.   On the main avenue, having a very similar layout to Las Ramblas,we could see police vehicles parked at the visible access points for traffic to the pedestrian section.  We also saw notable police foot patrols through out the city.  As we had a snack and a drink in the old town of Las Palmas helicopters flew over alleys and byways nearby.

The striking first impression for me, however, was the the two navy vessels had dropped their colours to half mast.  This was repeated throughout the city at all government buildings and police stations.  It was to me moving.  Here in a place heavily caught up into the season’s tourist rush, those few moments of tribute seemed admirable to showed an appropriate sense of the national mourning overlooked by many tourists.

I have written of terrorism, and of memorial in the past.  These are themes which are important to me.  The first as a negative which requires action and demands dialogue to promote understanding.  The second as a human duty to remember, celebrate, and mourn those who have come before. Let us hold tight upon the words, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.”  Let Barcelona, Spain, and the world be find that comfort.



Barcelona: Gaudi, Olympics, and More

Barcelona is a city with a distinct character, and the artist/architect Gaudi has left his mark.  The Sagrada Familia and La Pedrera are wonderful examples of his style.  But the city also has the Olympic Stadium, Gothic Architecture, and former bull fighting stadiums, all contributing to the character of the place.

There are beach front leisure activities, and wonderful gardens as well.  For the foodies there is paella and fresh seafood.  The city also had a Hard Rock Cafe (yes, we do make a point of visiting them in as many cities as we can), and several sidewalk eateries near the cathedral and the Sagrada Familia.

La Piazzenza - Paella

The cathedral is also wonderful to visit, and in contrast with the SF in design, but not in purpose.  This is a city with monasteries, and churches to explore.

There is a Hop-on-Hop-off service, and it is a great way to gets one’s bearings before making a more in-depth exploration.

Oh, did I mention that the weather is wonderful as well.