ciento volando

travel, stories, and other flights of fancy

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Segovia, a runner’s paradise

This Sunday was the 8th annual half-marathon of Segovia. Nearly 3,000 people took part, including me. It was my first official half marathon, and despite having splurged on fancy footwear and aerodynamic lycra leggings with little reflective ‘speed’ stripes, and having been training (relatively) regularly since Christmas, I was absolutely dreading it.

This was mostly because of the weather. After a fortnight of spring-like sunshine (a cruel teaser), the weather had reverted back to being overcast, rainy, incredibly windy, and just damn unpleasant. But also because Segovia is just such a tough city to run, even under optimal conditions, and especially when you’ve got to do 21km of it. So the combination of wet weather and winding streets of ancient, well worn cobblestones was inevitably going to make for particularly difficult terrain, and a long, hard race.

Despite all this, the day turned out to be a success. Much to my surprise (and relief),  I finished the course – alive, pain free, and in much better time than I’d hoped. But the best thing of all was that – I had fun! It was actually enjoyable, and dare I say it, an exciting, exhilarating, and overwhelmingly positive experience.  Aside from a runny nose, minor headphone battle, toilet urgency (it passed, but was not made any easier by seeing guys making quick detours whenever there were trees or bushes available, which was totally unfair, and totally disgusting), and a rude, unexpected hill at km 17 (I’d been looking forward to running down it, but to my horror, they’d changed the route so that we had to go up it), I spent the better part of the race running along happily to a perfectly timed ‘inspirational music’ playlist, with a stupid grin on my face, waving at familiar and unfamiliar faces, highplano2013 fiving little kids along the way, thinking, ‘my god, this is awesome’. The atmosphere was electric from start to finish. That’s to say, from the pre-race warm up (so many good looking sporty people, so many hilarious warm up techniques!), to the exhausted post-race bonanza of sweaty hugs, show bag collection, powerade sculling, and the usual ‘trying to find my friends in the crowd’ chaos.

So during the race I had two hours of uninterrupted, compulsory reflection time, and my thoughts rather predictably gravitated towards running, Segovia, and ultimately, why Segovia is such a great place to run. I even made a little list in my head.

1. It’s beautiful. The city itself is full of spectacular monuments, and within five minutes you can be in the countryside, with rivers, hills, and leafy parks and picnic areas (picnicking not for you, you are running)
2. The air is fresh and clean.
3. There are lots of drinking fountains.
4. There are heaps of uphills and downhills. In fact, it’s almost impossible to find a decent flat route. Although the uphills do make it tough, they also get you in shape pretty quickly, and the downhills are a pleasant reward. Running Segovia is like doing incidental FARTLEK training, and you don’t even need a stopwatch.
5. It’s at altitude. Only 1,000m, so not enough to completely wipe you out if you’re not used to it. But enough to notice some affects when you first start exercising there. I’m no expert in fitness or physiology, but I’m pretty sure that if you adapt to the altitude and no longer feel the effects, that means you must be getting stronger. Or rather, your blood is taking up oxygen faster and you’re on the right track to becoming super human. Ye-ah
6. Aside from last weekend, the weather is usually quite good. Segovia has a dry climate, so even when it snows, it doesn’t feel as cold as it should. And in summer, unlike most of Spain, it cools down overnight (so you can run quite comfortably in the early morning).
7. There’s very little traffic. The city centre is horrible for driving and has lots of restrictions, and there are plenty of walking and bike paths all around the outskirts. So you rarely have to contend with pedestrian crossings (or feel silly jogging on the spot at traffic lights while all the cars are watching you).
8. There’s no dog poo.

And… those are all the reasons I could come up with. Of course, I was hoping for a nice round ten. Perhaps I needed to run a little further to get some more ideas. Or not.

Well, in the unlikely event that anyone who reads this blog actually comes to Segovia and runs, here’s my only warning: avoid Calle Real (the main street from the plaza to the aqueduct) between 8am – 10am (bottleneck of delivery trucks), or 10am – 2pm (bottleneck of tour groups) or 6pm – 9pm (bottleneck of locals out for their evening stroll).

And the best time to run? At daybreak, especially in the busy tourist period. That’s when you’re most likely to see the hot air balloons floating across the dawn sky. Or you can catch them at ground level; they take off from the fields opposite the Alcazar. The champagne breakfast tourists will happily give you a wave, and you all start the day with a smile on your face.


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Logroño, a recipe for crazy dreams

Basque Witch Craze - Edict of grace from the Spanish InquisitionIn 1610, six Basque women accused of witchcraft were burned at the stake out the front of the Santa María Cathedral of Logroño (a city in the north of Spain, just below the Pyrenees mountains). The Spanish Inquisition, notoriously unmerciful in some regards but generally forgiving of witches, announced the existence of a “Devil’s sect” in the area, sparking fear, hysteria, and the first ever full blown witch craze in Spanish history. At the public execution (which was attended by some 30,000 spectators), papier-maché effigies were also sacrificed, of another five unfortunate heretics who had (perhaps mercifully) died of typhoid before the burning ceremony. Fortunately, due to the tireless investigation and campaigning efforts of a heroic young Inquisitor, Alonso de Salazar, the witch panic was eventually quashed. No more innocent old ladies were murdered, and the Logroño executions became an anomaly in Spanish history (unlike much of Europe, where witch hunts were carried out for centuries, and the death toll ran into the tens of thousands).

Today in Logroño, there is a commemorative sign (not quite a plaque) where the burnings took place, which briefly states what happened and lists the unpronounceable Basque names of the victims.

But most visitors to the area aren’t really interested in its bloody medieval history. Most visitors to Logroño are there for only one thing: wine.

Logroño is the capital of La Rioja, probably the most famous wine region of Spain. Like pretty much every city, town and village in the country, it boasts a remarkably large number of bars and restaurants in proportion to the size of its population. So what’s so good about Logroño? Well, a glass of lovely Rioja is particularly cheap there (as it should be!), and the pinchos (bar food) are also cheap, and really, really yummy. But most importantly, the city is a starting point to visit the many bodegas (wineries) of the area.

The majority of the bodegas are in the countryside, scattered across the three distinct subdivisions of the region; Rioja Alta, Rioja Baja and Rioja Alavesa. In order to visit a selection of bodegas and see as much as possible of the beautiful landscape, a car would be ideal. But cars and winery tours aren’t really a great combination, especially when everyone else is driving on the wrong side of the road. So unless you can afford a private chauffeur, or want to limit yourself to an organised tour (I found none that appealed), everyday shoestring tourists and backpackers are limited to travelling by bus and/or on foot. Which still leaves plenty of possibilities.

Haro is a small town about an hour from Logroño, and home to a large concentration of bodegas (what is the collective noun for ‘winery’, I wonder?). The bus ride is picturesque, and passes through a few small towns which are home to more bodegas and touristy points of interest (wine museums and the like).

It’s recommended to book bodega tours in advance. Plenty of information and contact details are available on the La Rioja website.

Ramon Bilbao American oak barrelsIn Haro, a friend and I visited Ramon Bilbao, one of the newer wineries. This was partly because, of the many I had contacted, they had got back to me offering a tour at a time and price most convenient to our needs (yes, we needed a wine tour). But, coincidentally, Ramon Bilbao just happens to be my favourite La Rioja wine (of the few that I have tried). I even took a bottle of it home to my family last Christmas. It may not be the best or the oldest or the most famous Rioja wine, but for me it is special, and now even more so.

The tour cost 8€, and included a very generous ‘tasting’ of three wines; the Crianza (aged at least 2 years, 1 in oak), Reserva (aged at least 3 years, 1 in oak), and Gran Reserva (aged at least 5 years, 2 in oak). Cristina, our guide, was friendly, animated, and suitably passionate about wine (bordering on poetic). She did a wonderful job of explaining the complex scientific process in layman’s terms, and was overwhelmingly non-elitist in her viewpoint towards the ageing process and personal taste. She also sang to herself at random intervals. I probably would too, if I had her job.

Haro reportedly has a picturesque town centre, and a suburb of winery-outlet bars (cellar doors?). However, due to the inconvenient return-bus schedule, and unbearably windy weather, we decided to go head straight back to Logroño for a post-wine tour siesta.

Our accommodation in Logroño couldn’t have been better if we’d paid double. Hostel Entresueños was cheap, spacious, spotlessly clean, and the staff were friendly and helpful. It had good kitchen facilities, and a comfy lounge and dining area. Best of all, as it was relatively empty, our dorm accommodation was upgraded to a private room with a balcony overlooking the main drag.

The hostel was a stone’s throw from Calle Laurel, a long, narrow, winding street, where all the pinchos bars can be found. My favourite pinchos were the ferrero de morcilla (a ball of rich melted cheese, encased in black pudding and toasted almonds, made to look like a giant Ferrero Rocher), and the bacalao rebozado (lightly battered cod fillet with roasted mini green capsicum), which were both served at a bar called El Muro (the decor was a little too orange for my taste, but the pinchos were worth it).

The city centre of Logroño is quite compact, and can easily be traversed in an afternoon. So that, and a day trip to Haro or any of the other surrounding villages, makes a nice little weekend getaway. I don’t really have an opinion on whether Logroño itself was pretty or not, it probably is in summer. But the weather affects your image of a place, and we really lucked out in that department.

So that was the end of our Carnival long weekend. Zaragoza and Logroño, Goya and mudéjar. Red wine, rich food, and wild, windy weather. Carnival is only half heartedly celebrated in the area, so from Friday to Monday there was a random sprinkling of people in fancy dress, with no apparent rhyme or reason. Suddenly you would be sitting next to Cruella Deville and a baby in a Dalmatian jumpsuit. Are they pirates or have those girls just overdone the eye makeup? And to make matters even more surreal, I was reading Bestiario, a collection of really weird short stories by Julio Cortázar. Houses possessed by faceless demons and people vomiting up rabbits etc.

And then there’s the true history, the witch craze of 1611…   I’ve been having the strangest dreams recently.

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Zaragoza – madness and mudéjar

The first time I came across the name Zaragoza was when studying a map of 1612 Spain for a uni history assignment. The subject was “Witches and Witch Hunting in Europe”, a bit of an anomaly amongst my other more modern and ‘relevant’ studies. The topic for my final essay was The Basque Witch Craze and the Spanish Inquisition, a theme which I found a little too absorbing – the research obsessed and possessed me. Hours of poring over exotic, illuminated documents and ancient maps, with names like Zugarramurdi, Urdax, Almándoz and Zaragoza, transported me to the mystical world of early 17th century Spain. I imagined it as a fiery, craggy landscape, dotted with tiny wooden villages and inhabited by a backward, superstitious people, who trudged through the mud and mist, wailing in overly pious hysteria and cackling with deranged laughter as they burned ‘heretics’ at the stake (condemning them to a hell even more insufferable from the one they already inhabited). Over the course of my research I also developed a slight crush on Alonso de Salazar; a young inquisitor with beautiful calligraphy and a formidable determination to save the innocent lives of old, misunderstood spinsters. You can read the essay here if you like.

Back in the real world, it came as a bit of a shock when I found out that Zaragoza now has a population of 800,000 people, and is considered to be one of the most modern and architecturally advanced cities in Spain (and it was the first to have a telephone network introduced). How disappointing.

Undeterred, I resolved to visit it after all, mostly because Zaragoza is such a cool name, but also because it’s the province where Goya was born and is home to a number of his works.

Last weekend was “the bridge of Carnival”, a four day weekend to facilitate the debauchery that traditionally precedes the solemn fasting period of lent. I did not partake in any debauchery and nor do I have any intention of being solemn, fasting or ‘doing’ lent, but bridge weekends are great for domestic tourism, so off I went with a friend to visit Zaragoza.

The city itself was a little disappointing, through no fault of its own. The weather was awful, the modern architecture (slick bridges and shell-like exhibition centres) didn’t interest me, and we had to pay for tapas, which felt like a terrible injustice. There were a lot of unfortunate looking run-down high rises and abandoned shopping strips, which is completely normal, I suppose, for a normal city in a country in the midst of a financial crisis.

However, despite not being particularly attractive, Zaragoza did have its attractions, which rendered the trip completely worthwhile:

Goya’s etchings: Forget the crown-commissioned tapestry designs and religious frescos of his younger years, it’s when Goya was an old man  – deaf, depressed, and disheartened by society – that his true genius surfaced. At the Museo de Ibercaja in Zaragoza you can see his complete engravings. They’re beautifully displayed, with each series to a cabinet, and carefully lit to showcase all their gory detail. The atrocities of war, brutal excitement of bull fighting, chaos, despair, and madness…these are the demons that haunted Goya’s darkest years. Although he lived a full century and a half after the witch craze in the same area, you’d be forgiven for thinking that he was contemporary to the event, and witness to the winged devils reported in Salazar’s investigations. Goya’s etchings are the star feature of a three level exhibition that also boasts some fantastic medieval art, and an incongruous selection of modern works (some of which are tenuously connected to or inspired by Goya). Overall it’s a lovely gallery, with an easy layout, pleasant atmosphere, and a lot of thought provoking material on offer. Well worth a second visit, especially as it’s free!

Mudéjar: Refers to the Arabs who continued to live in the Iberian Peninsula long after the Christian reconquest, and also describes a particular style of Moorish architecture found in Castile and Aragon in the North of Spain. Zaragoza has some fantastic examples, the most notable of which is the Alfajería, a beautifully conserved castle which boasts elaborate Moorish arches, detailed painted ceilings, an Andalusian style orange garden, a small (but fascinating) exhibition on the history of Aragonese shields, and various bits and pieces of ancient pottery and Islamic tiles. Another great example of Mudéjar architecture is La Seo del Salvador, now a Christian cathedral. Like many in Spain, it la Seo del Salvadorhas a bizarre mix of Arab and Christian design – a tessellated mosaic facade, a sombre Gothic interior (vaulted ceiling), and rows of ostentatiously gilded chapels (each devoted to a particular saint). There’s a lot to take in, and to be honest, I found it a little oppressive, but if Christian symbology is your thing, I’d definitely recommend it. If not, at least check out the exterior.

El Tubo: If it weren’t for this recommendation (a student of mine used to live in Zaragoza), we would have been completely lost when it came to eating out. El Tubo is a series of narrow side streets adjacent to the Plaza de España. Although the tapas weren’t free, they were cheap (1 or 2 euros each), and delicious, and there were a tonne of slick-yet-affordable bars to choose from. All had friendly service and a welcoming atmosphere. However, many stopped serving food shortly after midnight on Saturday. Again, another shock to the system!

In short, after two days and nights in Zaragoza, I was feeling culturally sated, but a wee bit underwhelmed by the gastronomy and nightlife. I’m told the city has a second ‘hub’ on the other side of the river, but this seemed a long way off, and the weather was not conducive to exploring. After a slight mishap with trains (fortunately resolved by the world’s most friendly station attendants) and a three hour wait (spent in a restaurant, of course), we boarded a train for Logroño – another key city in my witch hunting project, which these days is more commonly known as a wine Mecca.

to be continued…