Our First Post-COVID Trip: Roaming in the Land of El Cid

I had some health problems and needed rest, which is the main reason for my absence. I’m still catching up with reading and liking and writing, so bear with me!

Our first trip since the pandemic took us to the north of Spain, not far from Burgos, in a small place called Castrillo de Val.

Our Base during our explorations was hotel Camino de Santiago (found on booking.com), which we highly recommend. As you can see, The Viking quickly felt at home here:

Beautiful bar, great food, comfortable rooms.

If you are going to do visit Burgos and its surroundings, this is the perfect hotel.

Maybe you have seen the movie El Cid with Charlton Heston and Sophia Loren, then you have an idea who El Cid is. His real name was Rodrigo Diaz de Vivar, a Castilian knight, who liberated Valencia from the Moors. Roughly translated, “el cid” means “the master”. Even nowadays, he is still considered to be a popular folk hero.

The first place we visited connected to El Cid was the monastery San Pedro de Cardeña. Nobody knows for sure when the monastery was founded, but in the 9th century it was destroyed by the Moors and its monks and abbot were all murdered in the Cloister. 2 centuries later, when El Cid becomes exiled, he leaves his wife and 2 daughters in the monastery. After his death, he is buried there, but nowadays, you will find his tomb in the cathedral of Burgos.

It is possible to visit the monastery. During the Spanish Civil War, it served as a concentration camp. Nowadays, it belongs to the Trappist order (our favorite kind of monks!).

There is a chapel devoted to El Cid and his family.

At a certain moment, the monk who was our guide discovered that Lars used to be an organ player, so Lars gave a very short concert.

There is also a small shop in the monastery, where they sell beer, but it was closed. We had hoped to taste the beer. in the meantime, we have discovered that since the beer is not produced in the monastery itself, it can not receive the label of “Trappist”!

We also visited Vivar del Cid, the village where El Cid was born, it’s located about 5 kilometers to the north of Burgos.

There is a monument devoted to the good man.

And these 2 fellows will make sure nobody destroys the monument.

Make sure you have time to visit the cathedral of Burgos, which is on the UNESCO World Heritage list! Unfortunately, its is forbidden to photograph the interior and during our visit the weather was so bad that we couldn’t photograph the exterior either. Have a look here! Anyway, this is the place where both El Cid and his wife are buried.

Not a history fan? Don’t worry! Tomorrow we bring you something completely different!

Were you familiar with the name El Cid? Are you interested in the history of the country that you visit?

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Visiting A Muslim Palace In Crimea

There are only a handful of Muslim palaces in Europe. Most of them are in Turkey, one in Spain (the Alhambra), and one in Ukraine:

In the middle of the 16th century, Bakhchisaray had become the capital of the Crimean Khan dynasty. The palace itself was built around 1532 and is a fine example of Ottoman architecture.

The word “palace” is a bit misleading. In the enclosure you will indeed find the living quarters of the Khan and his family, but there are also gardens, a cemetery, and 2 mosques.

The Crimean Khans had their own state (in Crimea) until 1783. Once a great empire, these Muslims have now become a minority struggling for their rights. The palace is now a symbol of their former glory.

In 2017, a Russian firm restored the palace… with devastating consequences. The Russians had little experience with historical restoration. Some of the features that you can see in our pictures have now become damaged or have simply disappeared.

The most important feature of the palace is the Bakhchisaray Fountain.

The last Khan had fallen deeply in love with a Polish girl in his harem. Unfortunately, she was murdered by the Khan’s former favorite wife. After her death, the Khan became the victim of deep sorrow and grief and commissioned this fountain.

Russian writer Pushkin was so moved by this fact that he wrote a poem about it. It’s probably because of this poem, that the palace still exists. According to tradition, you will usually find a red and yellow rose on the fountain.

Some practical information

  • There are lots of road signs to the Khan Palace, you cannot miss it.
  • There is ample parking space near the palace; you need to pay a small fee.
  • Summers are very hot in Crimea. Apply ample quantities of sunscreen.
  • For those of you who like a real driving adventure (from Belgium to Ukraine, for example): crossing the border between Poland and Ukraine can take up to 2 hours!
  • We were in Crimea in 2011. At that moment, there were hardly any formalities between the Ukrainian – Crimean borders. That is, we drove all the way from Odessa via Mykolajiv to Sevastopol without having to present a passport or any other papers. Russia occupies Crimea since 2014; check official information before you leave to find out what procedures you need to follow.
  • Driving in Ukraine can be adventurous. The state of the roads goes from very bad to quite good. Very old trucks that seem to have survived at least one world war, pedestrians, cyclists transporting large goods, in other words, everybody uses major roads. We even saw a small car with 2 passengers in front and 2 goats on the backseat. Ukrainians like to speed, but we hardly encountered aggressive drivers. Finally, corrupt policemen will stop any foreign car and come up with false allegations in order to get some money from you. Just stay calm and be firm.
  • Does your GPS cover Ukraine? If not, buy a detailed map of the country!

What about you? Have you ever visited this palace? Would you fancy driving around in Ukraine and Crimea?

We are back later this week with more travel adventures, somewhere in Europe!

How to Drive To (and Through) the Gorafe Desert (and How Not to!) – Part 2

Have a look at this text first, before reading this post.

Here is Part 1.

Let’s recuperate: in the first part, we showed you an alternative route via Iznalloz, Huélago and Villanueva de las Torres. If you don’t have time to visit the latter, program the GPS for Gorafe after Huélago.

Gorafe

Usually, I describe (white) villages as picturesque or cute, but Gorafe belongs to the category ‘spectacular’.

Gorafe is known for its cave houses and about 200 dolmens. If you want to know more about these, better visit the Megalithic Interpretation Centre, situated in the Calle de Granada, 1. Open from Tuesday to Sunday, to 12pm and to 5pm. Entrance fee is 3 euros.

As you can see in the third picture, some of the more or less 500 locals still live in cave houses.

Towards the Top of the Cliff

You can indeed go to the top of the cliff; just follow the Calle la Mina. Be aware that after some time, this street turns into a steep and narrow dirt road. At a certain point, Lars didn’t feel safe anymore, so I continued on foot.

It was quite a climb, but seeing Gorafe from another point of view was certainly worth it!

To the Dolmens

When you leave the village, make sure you are driving on the GR-6100, direction south (to the freeway A-92). Not far from the official entrance of the Megalithic Park, you can see this:

You are looking at some remains of the people who lived in this area 30.000 to 50.000 years ago!

The Megalithic Park

If you love anything prehistoric, this is a place to see. Keep on following the GR-6100, and at your left you will see the entrance.

A first look…

Interesting archeological findings and impressive landscapes, what more do you want?

The dolmens that I have mentioned a couple of times are ancient burial monuments.

Make sure to come back tomorrow, because then we show you pictures of our biggest adventure of 2020!

How a Classic Movie Led Us to Odessa

Summer 2010. Lars and I made our first big trip together. Starting with Sweden, we later crossed Germany, Hungary, and Croatia. It was a big revelation for me; I had never been so far north nor east in my life.

In October of the same year, we started to plan our summer trip of 2011. I was still feeling excited until Lars remarked that we could go even further east in Europe. There was his favorite country, Romania, and why not go all the way to Ukraine?

My answer? If he was serious about Ukraine, there was one place that I really wanted to visit. Odessa. And all because of a movie.

The Movie

And not just any film! One of my favorite movies ever is Battleship Potemkin (1925), directed by the great Eisenstein. This silent movie consists of 5 chapters and recounts how a mutiny onboard of a battleship leads to a massacre of many civilians, on what is now known as the Potemkin Stairs (or Odessa Steps). And this happens to be – as you can imagine – the most dramatic scene of the movie.

This is without any doubt one of the most famous movie scenes… ever. It’s very intense and many movies have paid homage to it, such as Brazil and The Untouchables.

Historical Facts

Yes, this movie is based on facts. In 1905, there was indeed a battleship called Potemkin, where sailors rebelled against their officers. The arrival of the ship in the harbor of Odessa was the cause of demonstrations throughout the whole city, during which civilians died.

But the Odessa Steps sequence is – unfortunately – fiction. The victims died in other parts of Odessa. Eisenstein – who had started filming in Leningrad and then had moved to Odessa – used this location for its dramatic effect. Most people actually believed it was true and still do so.

The Potemkin Stairs

Let’s start with some facts and numbers:

  • 192 steps in total.
  • Designed and constructed in the first half of the 19th century.
  • Replaced in 1933 because of erosion.
  • Official symbol of Odessa.

Wikipedia has some more interesting information:

The stairs are considered a formal entrance into the city from the direction of the sea and are the best known symbol of Odessa.[1] The stairs were originally known as the Boulevard steps, the Giant Staircase,[3] or the Richelieu steps.[4][5][6][7] The top step is 12.5 meters (41 feet) wide, and the lowest step is 21.7 meters (70.8 feet) wide. The staircase extends for 142 meters, but it gives the illusion of greater length.[8][9][10] Due to the sightline, a person looking down the stairs sees only the treads, and the risers are invisible; whereas a person looking up sees only risers, and the treads are invisible.

Our Visit

It took us about a week to drive from Belgium through Germany and Poland to Ukraine. During our arrival in Odessa, a heavy thunderstorm took place, which lasted for hours. Lars and I postponed our visit to the Potemkin Stairs to the morning afterwards.

I remember this visit very vividly. Maybe it’s because I’m an aspie and my senses tend to work overdrive, for me this was very intense, very emotional.

Don’t be a tourist and start rushing up and down the steps like crazy. Take your time, sit down, take it all in, admire the views. Yes, the scene in the movie is not true and these are not the original steps anymore; it’s still a special place, because of movie history.

Before and After

  • Upon arrival, a vendor sold us postcards and stamps. He also tried to make us buy caviar and a copy of the Iron Cross (Nazi symbol). We were shocked, but the man didn’t understand our reaction.
  • When we were back in the hotel, we heard the news about the 2011 Norway attacks. Quite a shock as well.

What about you? Have you ever been to Ukraine? Odessa? Did you see the steps? Or do you one day want to see them?

Later this week, we are back with some very stunning pictures, made somewhere in Spain! Stay tuned!

Another Exploration of Iznalloz (and Extra Tapas!)

One of the most spectacular sights in our hometown is the Castillo, whose remains date from the Arab times.

First, a couple of pictures taken from the main road:

Starting from the church, you can easily climb the streets and look at the ruins. And if you are not afraid of narrow and steep streets, you can get there by car as well.

Only 2 or 3 walls are left…

Too bad that the local population built their houses right next to it! Try to imagine the 14th century when the Christian and the Arab kingdoms fought each other here.

Can we all agree that this is a gorgeous view?

Iznalloz in all its glory!

It was time again for some necessary refreshments!

In La Ruta, you can choose tapas from a blackboard. This is asparagus revuelto.

Sharing grilled calamari.

Salmorejo for me (cold tomato soup with eggs and ham).

Patatas bravas para el vikingo. (potatoes with a hot sauce and some aioli)

Omelet with shrimps.

La Ruta is located right next to La Taberna. At the moment, because of the lockdown, all bars and restaurants are closed again.

What about you? Can you see yourself eating tapas in a small town, far from the coast? Do you like “tapear”?

Exploring a Landmark with a Surprising History – Kemmelberg

“Kemmel” stands for the name of the village where this hill formation is located, whereas “berg” means “mountain” or in this case “hill”. Moreover, Kemmel comes from Camulos, the Celtic god of war.

With its height of 156 meters, the Kemmelberg is the highest point in the province of West Flanders. We Belgians are quite familiar with this landmark, because it’s very popular during cycling races, especially during the Flemish spring classics, mainly because of its steep, cobbled road.

But there is more to this landmark than heroic sports events. As Wikipedia points out,

During World War I, it was the location of one of the war’s most ferocious battles. Because of its strategic importance, it was fiercely fought in the Fourth Battle of Ypres. On 25 April 1918, German imperial forces, hoping to force a breakthrough to the North Sea, started attacking the French troops on the Kemmelberg with gas grenades. At 6 a.m. the German Alpenkorps seized and captured the Kemmelberg, causing allied troops to withdraw from all the hills in the region. Thousands of French soldiers were slaughtered.

In late 1918, the hill was recaptured…

Some other interesting facts:

  • At the foot of the hill, you can visit a war cemetery, containing the remains of more than 5000 French soldiers.
  • On top of the hill, there is a monument, commemorating the French soldiers.
  • There is a hotel nearby, with the name of the hill.
  • Under the hill is a bunker, which was built during the Cold War.

Have a look at this:

When Lars and I visited the area, it was a very misty autumn day. My pictures in color turned out to be very dull. So, I converted them to black and white.



Exploring the Judaica Trail in Warsaw

Lars and I were only in the Polish capital for 2 days and we knew that it was better to concentrate on one theme instead of running around aimlessly. The very first day, we went to the closest tourist information office possible.

We chose the places that appealed the most to us. To be honest, we were inspired by the movie “The Pianist”.

Umschlagplatz

As the brochure says:

The Umschlagplatz monument is located in the place where in 1942 Jews were transported to the Treblinka extermination camp. The shape resembles the walls of the ghetto and a railway wagon, and more than four hundred names of victims are engraved on the walls. Walk from the Monument to the Ghetto Heroes to Umschlagplatz along the Memorial Route of the Martyrdom and Struggle of Jews and pay attention to the commemorative stones depicting the history of the most important figures of the Warsaw ghetto. (website of Tourist Infomation Office)

The Jewisch Cemetery

The ultimate place of peace and rest…


This historic place of rest contains beautiful tombstones and traditional matzevot. Many eminent persons are buried there, among them the founder of the Esperanto language Ludwik Zamenhof and the writer Ischok Leib Perec. Visit the symbolic grave of Janusz Korczak, the protector of children who during the World War II was murdered in Treblinka along with the children in his care in a gas chamber. (website of Tourist Infomation Office)

Monument to the Ghetto Heroes


The monument was created shortly after the World War II to commemorate those who fought and died in the Warsaw ghetto. It was at this monument in 1970 that the German Chancellor Willy Brandt knelt in apology for the crimes committed by the Third Reich. (website of Tourist Infomation Office)

POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews

Stay safe and see you later this week!

Exploring the Gruesome Past of Terezin

From the outside, Terezin looks like any other town. But dig a bit deeper, have a close look around, and you can still see the scars of a very troubled past.

Terezin’s history changed radically when Germany occupied Czechoslovakia in 1939. Its Small Fortress was first changed into a Nazi prison.

One year later, the Gestapo ordered that Terezin (also known as Theresienstadt) should be turned into a Jewish ghetto and a concentration camp. It was intended to be a transfer camp and not a termination camp. This means that Jews from for example Denmark, Austria, and the Netherlands came here before being transported to their final destination of Mauthausen or Auschwitz. Yet more than 30,000 would die in Terezin itself, due to overpopulation, disease, and malnutrition.

This is how German propaganda presented Terezin, the town that was a gift for the Jews…

After World War II, Terezin became home for German prisoners of war. Afterward, It would take decades before life would return to normal again. Nowadays, in some of the houses, there are permanent exhibitions about life in the camp, thanks to the many documents, pictures, and drawings. Notwithstanding the harsh conditions, the prisoners were able to run a school for children and to organize various cultural activities.

Half a day should be enough for a visit to Terezin.

One more post this week, featuring my birthday in lockdown Spain. I have already planned one new destination for next week, which is Serbia!

Exploring an Underground Palace in Brussels

I am not sure if you are aware of this, but there is more than one royal palace in the region of Brussels. The one in Brussels itself is the main residence. Let’s call this the office of the king. It is also the place where he receives other royalties and heads of states. And… once a year, you can visit it, when the royal family is on holiday.

The royal family itself lives in the palace of Laeken. By the way, this is the municipality where the Belgian royals have always lived. Since this is a private residence, it’s never open for visits. But every spring, you can pay a visit to the Royal Greenhouses on the same domain. And that’s something I highly recommend. But more about that in another post.

But… did you know that you can actually explore an underground palace in Brussels?

Welcome to the Palace of Coudenberg, which got its name from the small hill in the Belgian capital, where it was built. Let’s start with a bit of history!

Once upon a time, the Coudenberg Palace towered over the city of Brussels. Charles V and many other of the most powerful rulers ever to reign in Europe made this princely residence their home between the 12th and 18th centuries, until it was consumed by a terrible fire.  Every trace of this prestigious palace simply disappeared underground for many years. (official website of the Palace of Coudenberg).

The Palace of Coudenberg is also known as the Palace of Charles V. Other notable figures who have lived here, are Philip the Good, and the Archdukes Albert and Isabella.

I can already hear you ask: if the Palace of Coudenberg was built on a hill, how come that it is now underground? The website of the Palace has the answer:

The former Palace of Brussels was built on a hill, taking up both the east side of the valley of the River Senne and the south side of the Coperbeek Valley.  To make up for topographical variation and also to fix the building firmly into the hill, the buildings that housed the chapel and the great ceremonial hall were given cellars with one or two levels. At the end of the 18th century, the entire district was levelled so that place Royale and the buildings surrounding it could be laid out. The cellars located on the slopes of the hill were preserved, primarily to be used as foundations for the new buildings. It is these cellars that now form the Coudenberg archaeological site.

Apart from these cellars, you can also see the rooms under the main banqueting hall and the warehouse under the chapel.

The educational trail ends in the Coudenberg Museum (Hoogstraeten House), where you can admire some of the archeological finds, discovered during the excavations.

This is the address:

Place des Palais, 7 in 1000 Brussels. The nearest metro station is Park. The entrance itself is via the BELvue Museum. More practical information such as the admission charges and opening hours is here.

The Beginner’s Guide to the Destroyed Villages in France

Another week, and a new destination, because today we take you to France. But instead of the good old Eiffel Tower or another touristic highlight, we take you to a lesser-known corner of the country. Today, we are in the département of the Meuse, at the Villages Détruits (Destroyed Villages). But what exactly are these?

During the First World War, specifically at the time of the Battle of Verdun in 1916, many villages in northern France were destroyed by the fighting. After the war, it was decided that the land previously occupied by the destroyed villages would not be incorporated into other communes, as a testament to these villages which had “died for France”, as they were declared, and to preserve their memory. While three of the villages in Meuse were subsequently rebuilt and are governed as normal communes, the other six are entirely unpopulated and are managed by a council of three members, appointed by the prefect of Meuse. (Source: Wikipedia)

The other departments in France with destroyed villages (from World War I) are Marne, Meurthe-et-Moselle, and Aisne.

Back to the department of the Meuse. Lars and I were staying in Metz at the time, not too far from the villages:

The weather and the landscape at the beginning of our journey already predicted a sad journey.

Some remnants of the war greeted us just before we arrived at the first village.

Fleury-devant-Douaumont

Before the war, about 420 people called this village their home. It was recaptured between the French and the Germans 16 times before the latter finally annihilated it. Because of the explosives and the poisonous gas used, nothing could be rebuilt afterward.

All that is left, are these markers… The holes that are spread all over are where the bombs hit the ground.

Tranchée des Baïonnettes

Not another village, but a different kind of reminder of World War I.

On 12 June 1916, two companies of the 137th Infantry Regiment of the French army were sheltered in their tranchées (trenches), baïonnettes (bayonets) fixed, waiting for a ferocious artillery bombardment to end. It never did – the incoming shells covered their positions with mud and debris, burying them alive. They were found three years later, when someone spotted several hundred bayonet tips sticking out of the ground. (Lonely Planet)

Douamont

This village was partially reconstructed after the war. Markers indicate where the locals used to live.

Vaux-devant-Damloup

This is the new village… Less than 100 people call this their home.

There is only a memorial for the former village, which is a short distance away. We couldn’t get any closer to it, because there was so much mud and neither of us was properly dressed.

Bezonvaux

This village underwent the same fate as Fleury-devant-Douamont. All that is left today are bits and pieces of everyday life. Can you imagine the devastation, looking at the impact those bombs made? About 150 people were killed.

Ornes

Although a few residents still remain, Ornes too has never been rebuilt, mainly because of the gas and the explosives. Here 700 people died during the war.

Cumières-le-Mort-Homme

And another village that died for France. This one too has never been rebuilt. About 200 inhabitants perished.

As you can see, we were not able to visit all the villages. After Cumières, the sun started to go down and we had to return to Metz. And for the day afterward, we had already made other plans.

Anyway, here are all the other villages that we visited that day on one map.

Wednesday we are back, in another corner of Europe.

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