Guardian Travel pick: A day to remember, Santiago de Compostela
It was a rainy morning in Santiago, Galicia, in late November 1975. I was in my third year at university, studying languages, and was spending the entire year in Spain, ostensibly to improve my language skills. As I walked towards town I became aware of a large number of people in the streets, many shouting. One man thrust a newspaper at me with a laugh of amazement: “No sabes?” (Don’t you know?). Franco was dead. After 36 years of dictatorship, the seemingly immortal Generalissimo was gone. The university closed. Riots began, the Guardia Civil practised baton charges outside my apartment. I just went travelling for nine months. I still have the newspaper.
In Semana Santa (Holy Week) in Granada there were so many processions with lots of singing and music. But the one that lingers in my memory is the Maundy Thursday silent procession at midnight, as the streetlights are dimmed and the crowd falls silent, mobile phones are turned off, and to the beat of a drum, barefooted and chained men and women manoeuvre a huge crucifix through the town. Somewhere in the distance a saeta (Gypsy folk song) pierces the quiet and the air is thick with incense. We sit on our apartment windowsill in spellbound silence. This is the Spain we came to experience.
Dalí’s des res
Fall in love with Salvador Dalí’s magical house in Portlligat on the Costa Brava. Fashioned from three fishermen’s cottages, the interior and garden are now a museum, including his studio left as was. It offers a fascinating glimpse into the life and loves of Dalí, with his eclectic collections and curiosities. It’s on the coast close to the lovely town of Cadaqués, remote and rugged – slightly tricky to reach on a long, hairpin-filled drive. The reward is an insight into the artist’s day-to-day life and the surroundings that inspired his work. Book in advance. Small parties allowed in at intervals with tour guide.
Flirting under Franco
It was 1968 and I was in Barcelona on a language exchange trip. My Spanish was improving, as I was staying with a Spanish family. In those days speaking Catalan was forbidden and Franco was still in power, so discussion of politics was also forbidden in that liberal household. Every night I and the older brother would go out to meet friends in the Barrio Gótico. At the time, the paseo every evening involved girls and young women parading down one side of the street and boys down the other, but later on customs were changing and the students danced in tiny discotheques, returning home to have the door opened by the street warden.
A walk-on part in Game of Thrones
Last summer, on a road trip around the Basque Country and Navarre, my girlfriend and I made an afternoon pit-stop at San Juan de Gaztelugatxe. Despite not having a pre-booked ticket we pleaded the “daft Scots” defence and were granted access to the small islet with a little church dating from the ninth century. The setting of the church atop the islet is like something from a fairytale and provides incredible views of the ancient Basque coastline (all the more satisfying for the steep hike to get there). The location was used as Dragonstone in Game of Thrones and, to my girlfriend’s embarrassment, I sang the theme tune the whole way up the 241 steps to the church …
Moors and mountains
The village of Moclín in Granada province is a marvel. Set on a mountaintop crowned by a Moorish castle, it is surrounded by fragrant pine forest. Get up at dawn to watch the sun rise over the Sierra Nevada then wander down to the river valley below, watched by wild ibex. Listen to the sound of golden orioles as they swoop through the treetops. Cross the Río Velillos and make your ascent through the woods and back to the village in time for breakfast in the village bar. Unforgettable.
Sherry and shrimps in Cádiz
There is nothing quite like the first sip of sherry, standing in the Mercado Central in Cádiz, surrounded by the buzz and hum of the locals’ lunchtime conversations. Once the sweet manzanilla hits your palate, you’ll be ready for the contrast of a salty tortillita de camarones (shrimp fritter), the city’s speciality and a steal at €2 – bought from one of the many food stalls. While you’re there, you can also pick up some fresh fish for that evening, and walk off the afternoon’s indulgences on the Playa de la Victoria.
On the rocks in Andalucía
Somewhere in Andalucía, the Milky Way is visible. In the still darkness, we bundle into the car and set off along the dusty roads, passing sleepy Moorish towns nestled in the Axarquía mountains. By the time we’ve reached El Torcal de Antequera natural park, day is breaking. At that moment, El Torcal, known for its flat limestone rock formations, belongs only to us. The rock face emerges as if painted by light. We amble through the giant labyrinth, and out of nowhere Iberian ibex appear – we’re captivated. About 30km north of Málaga, this area was under sea until 100 million years ago.
Petroglyphs on the Camino de Santiago
While we were staying at the delightful art centre retreat Flores del Camino, a beautifully restored traditional stone house in the medieval village of Castrillo de los Polvazares on the Camino de Santiago near Astorga, our friendly hosts Bertrand and Basia took us at dawn to the nearby 5,000-year-old petroglyphs of Maragateria, facing mount Teleno. Only at the moment the sun rises can the prehistoric markings of labyrinths and cup and rings be clearly seen carved on the surface of the rocks. Silence, beauty and light combine to create a truly moving and unforgettable experience.
Basque in its isolation, Pyrenees
Following in smugglers’ footsteps, we stole towards the Spanish-French border of the Basque Pyrenees, twisted oaks and shepherds’ stone huts silhouetted in the morning mists. The Baztán valley seemed Tolkienesque as we listened to the stories of witchcraft, contraband and second world war escapes that depended on the Basques as guides. Knowing nothing of the Basques, we had stumbled accidentally on this unique walking holiday. These isolated Pyrenean borderlands have preserved the Basque culture and language by keeping tourists at bay. Today, where better to be isolated than in an area that has been isolated since time began?
Because of the coronavirus crisis there is currently no prize on offer for the week’s best entry – though that will return soon