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Discovering Northern Spain: A Modern Family Pilgrimage Part 2

Discovering Northern Spain:  A Modern Family Pilgrimage Part 2


It was rewarding to reach Santiago de Compostela in Galicia, in the northwest region of Spain. There were moments when we were there that it drizzled–ah, much like our own Pacific Northwest–but those moments were brief.  Mostly, the sun shone.

Doña Inez, from whom we were renting an apartment welcomed us like we were old friends, thoughtfully leaving fruits, snacks, milk and jugo de naranja in the kitchen for the children.

We experienced Pilgrim’s Mass with the Botafumeiro swinging over our heads, filling the cathedral with the scent of incense.  The cathedral’s facade was being restored when we visited but that did not take away from the experience.  Joy–pilgrims’ shared joy–in the Plaza del Obradoiro was contagious.  Whatever language it’s expressed seemed universally understood.

Plaza del Obradoiro

We had our fill of pulpo a la Gallega with beautiful Spanish wine.  The children were satisfied by churros con chocolate.

We left the warm hospitality of Santiago de Compostela happy and grateful.



Our journey in Northern Spain, though, was not yet done.  From Santiago de Compostela, we passed by many small towns on our reverse Camino Norte route taking stops in Bilbao, San Sebastian and Montserrat, ending our Northern Spain sojourn in Barcelona.                                                              



Guggenheim Bilbao designed by Frank Gehry is absolutely breathtaking.  Inside and out.  It’s design that’s inspired and inspiring.

Guggenheim Bilbao

The awe we had for the building, though, was suspended when we caught sight of Jeff Koons’ Puppy.  Love at first sight.  We’re reminded of our canine loves, Werner at home and our first childhood pets, Chippy and Shorty.

Have you ever had that feeling of incredible happiness that you’re living in the moment?  Just be.  That was us on a warm Bilbao morning in the midst of Puppy enjoying helado–ice cream–shaped like a flower.

Jeff Koons’ Puppy

Our children (aged 4 and 5 at that time) had so much fun with the Guggenheim exhibits.

The kids and I found great delight in Richard Serra’s The Matter of Time.  Of course, someone in the family had to be analytical, questioning how the metal sheets were installed, what exactly were they made of and the mathematics involved.  I winked at him before disappearing into a spiral:  This space and time is made of glee.  

We liked our experience a lot on the Camino de Santiago but after days of cathedral visits, classic art, history lessons, the Guggenheim and the city of Bilbao felt like an ode to modernity.

And resilience.


Take a Stroll:  Nervion River Promenade and Calatrava’s Zubizuri Footbridge

Louise Bourgeois’ spider Maman protects her eggs
as cars and people pass through Daniel Buren’s Arku gorriak|Arcos rojos

Bilbao made me reflect that we can’t change our past, but we have the present.  It’s ours to shape like clay or play dough or metal in the artist’s hands to what our vision is for the future.  

Later in the day, we took the easily accessible funicular at Castaños Street to Mount Artxanda for breathtaking views of this delightful city.  

Certainly more than a hole:  View of El Botxo, Bilbao’s nickname from Mt Artxanda

Donostia | San Sebastián

On a winter trip to Sun Valley and Ketchum, we were inspired by Hemingway to visit San Sebastián.  Or Donostia in the Basque language, Euskara. [If you want to have a taste of Basque culture in the United States, visit Idaho.]

We ducked into a gift shop in Sun Valley on a cold February day.  My two children insisted their Dad should get me a gift.  A book and a box of chocolates.  The book they chose:  M.H. Clark’s May You Live A Life You Love,  the source of the words below.

“May you dip your toes into a new ocean, dance under a foreign sky, and marvel at the world.”

La Concha

Playa de la Concha carries with it a ring of romance.  It’s not possible to come here and not fall in love – with the beach, the city, the food, the culture.  

There’s a beautiful beach promenade, with the characteristic balustrade and lampposts.   At one end of the beach, there’s a playground with a charming merry-go-round.  La Concha is a very family-friendly, child-friendly beach.  Soft sand, calm waters.

I thought it was just my imagination but they were really announcing invitations for multi-lingual children’s reading time in the library over loudspeakers at the beach.

Must not miss experience in the Basque Country for the grown-ups: creative pintxos and txakoli.


Just outside of Barcelona is Montserrat –literally, serrated mountain.  

It nestles a Benedictine monastery and tells of the faith, the history and culture of the people of Catalonia.  Signs in different languages welcome the visitor with Pax, greetings of Peace.  Montserrat is the mountain sanctuary of Our Lady of Montserrat, La Moreneta.

Pilgrims have come here over the centuries for spiritual retreats.  In 1522, a young man who joined the Battle of Pamplona full of chivalry and heroism arrived here limping; he was injured by a cannonball at both legs.  After an overnight vigil, he left his sword and dagger at the shrine, exchanged his rich clothes for that of a poor man’s and journeyed into a life of asceticism.  He was St. Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits).

The Escolania de Montserrat, one of the oldest boys choir in Europe sing the Salve Regina and the Virolai, hymn dedicated to Our Lady of Montserrat at 1 pm.

Even if you’re not religious, a visit here from Barcelona is worthwhile for the magnificent views; it’s a tranquil mountain/nature escape.

Cable Car (Aeri) is one of the ways visitors from Barcelona can reach Montserrat


The great city of Barcelona is known for a lot of wonderful things. 

View of Barcelona from Montjuïc

When I think of Barcelona, the immediate mental association is city of Antoni Gaudí and his yet-to-be finished Sagrada Familia.  It continues to soar up to the sky.

When he grows up, my son says he wants to be a builder. What better time than childhood to introduce him and his sister to Gaudi and allow them to be inspired by this creative architect.   There’s more to learn here than hyperbolic paraboloids, catenary arches and periodic tessellations..  

From Gaudí, we can learn about faith.  About appreciating nature in depth.  About patience, hope and humility.

Visiting Sagrada Familia is learning to believe in something bigger than yourself.

The construction of Sagrada Familia started in 1882. Gaudí was not Sagrada Familia‘s original architect.  It was Francisco de Paula del Villar y Lozano. Antoni Gaudí took over in 1883 until his tragic death in 1926.  He put in 43 years of work –turning down other projects–yet Sagrada Familia was nowhere near completion at the time of his death.

Only the Nativity Facade was completed during his lifetime.  The roof and the floor were not completed until 2010, in time for Pope Benedict XVI’s dedication.  Sagrada Familia had been declared as a minor basilica.

Gaudí’s comment on the long construction process of Sagrada Familia, “The master of this work is in no great hurry.”

The bronze door at the Glory Facade by Josep M Subirachs has the words of Our Father in Catalan along with the words Give us this day our daily bread in 50 languages.  During times of adversity, Gaudi was supposed to have said, Let us not forget that there is Providence that watches over us.

Work on the Sagrada Familia has continued despite the Spanish Civil War, two World Wars, arson, passing of the baton from one architect to another and controvery over architectural and artistic style.  Sagrada Familia is projected to be finished in 2026 (?) with 18 spires and a grand esplanade at Calle Mallorca.

Detail of the Nativity Facade

Josep M Subirachs’ Passion Facade

Detail of bronze door at the Glory Facade

Drawing from nature: Sagrada Familia’s pillars look like tree trunks 

The roof looks like a rainforest canopy

We stayed in a rental at Avinguda de Gaudí in the shadow of the Sagrada Familia.  The building in Eixample had a rooftop terrace and a pool – a tub by American standards.  But it had a wonderful view of Sagrada Familia and our children liked seeing the spires and the construction cranes while cooling off from the summer heat.

Sitting at the balcony of the Barcelona apartment, my adventure partner and I enjoyed two of Spain’s pleasures: thin slices of jamon Iberico and rojo vino from Rioja.

Our children were asleep – satiated from their own Barcelona moments.

  • Beach time at Nova Icària.  
  • Saying hello to El Drac and admiring mosaics at Parc Güell.
  • Discovering Roman ruins, papier mâché giants, nougat at Torrons Vicens in Barri Gotic.  
  • Learning about Catalan culture and traditions like La Diada de Sant Jordi, St George’s Day which is similar to Valentine’s Day.  On St. George’s Day, the ladies are gifted roses and the men books. My daughter whispered during the tour, Mommy, what if a lady wants to have a book instead? 
  • I must have been a serious adult for a long time now and had a hard time comprehending the Catalan Caganer, (excuse the term) the pooper, and Tió de Nadal, (excuse the terminology again) the log that poops presents when hit with a stick and sang to.  They’re really about Christmas?!  But my children, fans of Captain Underpants giggled and giggled and giggled.

We watched the Barcelona scene unfold below us.

Salud! Cheers to this world of wonder.

Thanks for reading our blog post.
-Kathleen PB

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