THE remaining days of our Western Europe tour seemed numbered after having covered vast areas in Spain and Portugal but enthusiasm grew even enormously zestful every passing day after having explored and visited various places with diverse historical and religious background we’re vaguely knowledgeable.
Sunday, October 8: Burgos, Spain to Lourdes, France
Lourdes, France, a town in Southwestern France at the foothills of the Pyrenees mountains, was so far one of the most exciting places in the itinerary since it’s home to one of the world’s most famous places of pilgrimage. After traveling along the Spanish and French Basque coasts we entered France at 11:04 AM with Hendaye as the first city to welcome us.
We checked in at Hotel Alliance (9 Rue Louis Pomes), about 15-minute walk to the shrine.
Our guided tour included visits to the Grotto where the Virgin Mary appeared to St. Bernadette Soubirous in 1858, Our Lady of Lourdes Shrine, the birthplace of St. Bernadette, and her ancestral home during the time of the apparition. We attended the exposure of the Holy Eucharist at the spacious Pope Pius X underground Basilica, heard mass at the St. Joseph Chapel, joined the evening’s memorable rosary and candlelight procession, and finally had dinner at Angelique’s Hotel, our residence’s corporate affiliate.
The following day, Monday, saw us attending mass at the Grotto and lucky enough to have touched the sanctified rocks of the cave before we collected holy water that flowed from a spring in the Grotto of Massabielle in the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes.
Later, my wife and I detached from the group and went to Le Musee de Lourdes and the Chateau Fort de Lourdes, a historical castle built atop a solid rock with a 360-degree view of Lourdes. Formerly the residence of the Counts of Bigorre during the 11th and 12th centuries and became a state prison during the French Revolution, then a Pyrenean Museum and currently listed as a monument historique by the French Ministry of Culture.
Lourdes, France prides itself as the French city with the most number of hotels after Paris.
Tuesday, October 10: Lourdes, France to Barcelona, Spain
Back on the road after an early breakfast at Hotel de Solei and passed by the Aude River, a 224-km. water passage used by French to transport wine to England. Had our first stop at Paul Patisseries et Viennoiserie, famous for French bakery products, for snack.
We had an exhilarating exploration of Carcassonne, a hilltop town in southern France renowned for its medieval citadel with numerous watchtowers and double-walled fortifications, where we had lunch in one of its gastronomic tiendas.
Driving to Barcelona, Spain’s second largest city and host to the 1992 Olympic Games, we passed along the Mediterranean Sea and around 3:09 we entered Spain via La Jonquera, followed by Gerona, Figueres (hometown of surrealist artist Salvador Dali), Sta. Colona, and L’Escala.
Barcelona, that week, constantly hogged the news due to the prevailing Catalan crisis that escalated with violent clashes emerging from the Catalonians’ battle cry to be independent from Spain.
Walking our way through a tensed throng of demonstrators and press people at the Plaza de l’Angel to Hotel Gotico (at Carrer de Jaume 1, 14) was a bit scary knowing that a pandemonium could erupt any moment. But the peace and order situation was appropriately controlled by three security forces: the Mosses d’Esquadra (police force of Catalonia), Policia local (Barcelona Police), and Cuerpo Nacional de Policia (CNP or National Police) that made us feel safe to roam around and shop.
Christian, an eloquent and knowledgeable tour guide, patiently oriented us about Barcelona’s history. The cosmopolitan capital of Spain’s Catalonia region and believed to have more tourists than residents, Barcelona is well-known for its distinct art and architecture most divergent of which is the Sagrada Familia, intricately designed and painstakingly executed in miniature replica by Antoni Gaudi, an architect native of Catalonia, Spain and a known practitioner of Catalan Modernism.
It took Gaudi over 40 years designing the Temple of the Sagrada Famila until he died tragically in 1926. Several local and foreign architects volunteered and contributed their expertise to finish the 135-year-old church. Currently the Basilica is 75% done and when completely finished by 2026, the Sagrada Familia is touted to be the biggest and tallest religious edifice not only in Spain but in the whole world.
Our sightseeing tour included the Columbus Monument, Plaza de Catalonia, Paseo de Gracia, the panoramic view of the city, and the harbor from Montjuic Hill aboard a cable car.
Thursday & Friday, October 12 & 13: Barcelona to Montserrat and Zaragoza
We departed Barcelona and drove 45 km. northwest to Montserrat to visit the remarkably amazing Benedictine Monastery, one of Spain’s most significant pilgrimage sites.
Amid trepidation and excitement, we dared to take the cable car that transported us from the ground level to the summit. It was a blessing that all the deadly cliffs and rock faces were covered by morning fog otherwise majority of us could have either fainted or puked from acrophobia.
Our amiable tour guide, Veronica, keenly briefed us regarding the monastery’s notable history – that it houses roughly 80 monks and boasts of one of the oldest working printing presses in the world.
How we admired and revered the 12th century Romanesque carving of the La Moreneta (Black Madonna) breathtakingly nestled on the altar of the shrine seated atop the multi-peaked Montserrat Mountain which has 4,055 ft. elevation.
There was great bewilderment when we came out upon the sight of the marvelous multi-dimensional layers of rocks completely exposed overhead after the fog was forced out by the sun. It uncovered an archetypal hushed city on a mountain top made bustling by the never-ending influx of tourists that enjoyed the panorama and the full access to restaurants, coffee shops, museum, and souvenir shops.
Experiencing Montserrat is tantamount to grasping a riveting obsession while seemingly holding eternity on the palm of your hand.
We left Montserrat at 2:45 p.m. via the same cable car ride but this time it was more of appreciating the view that we failed to marvel going up.
On the way to Zaragoza, we crossed the Ebro River, second longest river in the Iberian Peninsula (after Tagus River), and stopped at a coffee shop in the Aragon Region to rest before covering the remaining 65 km.
We were booked at the Hotel Diagonal Plaza (Avenida Diagonal Plaza, 30), a lodging place built amid an industrial area with a façade parallel to its neighboring structures…but with a surprising interior and huge rooms, not to mention the excellent food and service.
The following morning we met our tour guide Jorge, a jocular guy from Navarra, a Basque city in northern Spain. He first brought us to the Aljaferia Palace, an 11th century Arab castle built as a pleasure palace and simultaneously a defensive fortress. Currently, the preserved bastion serves as headquarters of the Aragonese Parliament.
Zaragoza, the capital of northeastern Spain’s Aragon region, is well-known for the ethereal image of the multi-domed Basilica de Nuestra del Pilar, a baroque cavern of Catholicism with the finest 16th century alabaster altar piece by Damien Forment.
We were lucky to have witnessed and participated in the city’s annual Spanish Day celebration where streets were festooned with colorful buntings and natives were dressed in authentic Spanish costumes complete with mantilla, abanico, and floral headpieces. There were dancing on the streets with vivacious music from vibrantly uniformed bands and an endless pageantry of ostentatiously garbed men and women in multi-hued costumes. The whole scenario explosively emanated a festively infectious atmosphere.
We’ve already crossed Puente de Santiago but still the pulsating beats of the festival music resonated near. It took us another 4 hours (316.7 km) to reach Hotel NH Madrid Zurbano (in Madrid) our final residence in Spain. And to make the most of the time left, we explored the vicinity and its neighborhood before dinner time.
In a capsule, Spain, the only European country to have a border with an African country (Morocco), has 17 autonomous (independent) regions with their own executive, legislative, and judicial powers. It’s confirmed! Spanish is the world’s second most spoken first language after Mandarin Chinese and that paella, Spain’s national rice dish, originated from Valencia, the third largest city located at the east coast.
Saturday, October 14: Madrid to Heathrow, London to Newark, USA
We greeted the morning with a heavy heart knowing that our gallivanting days were over and reality’s on hand. Left the hotel on a foggy morning for London Heathrow’s British Airways Flight 457 where we had a four-and-a-half hour layover. Our 4:55 PM flight was slightly delayed due to engine concern. Landing at the Newark Liberty Airport after a 7-hour travel gave us a sense of gratification for having experienced Europe, once more, and safely came home to the comforts of our cribs.
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