Wednesday, 19 March 2008

Running with the Bulls in Pamplona

Pamplona – The clock strikes eight and an audible silence descends on the morning crowds awaiting the cohetes, a rocket fired when the bulls are running. In just seconds twelve tons of bull charge through the narrow medieval streets of Pamplona overflowing with 3500 runners. Our tour started in Spain's northern wine region, an hour southwest of Pamplona. Rioja is a sleepy little province largely untouched by tourism.

Stopping along bike routes overflowing with vines, we savored excellent red wines. Winemakers often invited us for dinner and another took us into her home to proudly display pictures of children and grandchildren. Hot daytime temperatures gave way to comfortable nights with the region's majestic northern mountains providing cool relief in the evenings.

The Spanish are not clock-watchers. Opening hours in shops are mere recommendations. Breakfast is served at nine, lunch starts at two, siestas are the norm and the dinner table is set at nine or ten. Virtual ghost-towns during the day, small villages teem with activity after sunset.

From sleeply Rioja we traveled north to the province of Navarra and rugged Basque country.

The Basque are an ancient people with their own language and culture. Pamplona is the province's capital city. Roughly the same size as Mississauga (pop 250,000), its population triples during the San Fermin festival. This religious festival in honor of Saint Fermin runs every year from July 6-14.

A dozen bulls run every morning except on opening day or the Chupinazo when there is an opening ceremony in front of city hall that can only be described as part rock concert, part champagne water fight, part World Cup soccer match.

The crowds are rowdy but good-natured. The Spanish are lovers not fighters and the only real danger is during the bull runs. The daily runs or encierros are a throwback to medieval times when herdsmen drove their bulls through the streets of Pamplona to the bullrings.

Bullfighting has been a Spanish tradition for hundreds of years. Townspeople helped drive the bulls and this tradition eventually became running in front of the bulls. Hemingway made Pamplona famous with his book, “The Sun Also Rises.” Running with the bulls is a dangerous yet exhilarating experience. If there was any doubt as to the risk, the entire route is lined with two sets of protective fencing. Would-be runners often give up minutes before the run as ambulances, medical crews and police take their stations.

The smell of fear is everywhere and only grows thicker as the bell tower strikes eight. Near silence is broken by the crack of a rocket announcing the gates have opened. A second rocket announces the bulls are running. What follows is pure mayhem. Yells and screams reach a fever pitch. The crowd surges forward and then parts as the herd approaches. Each bull weighs at least 1200 pounds and even with heads bowed their horns easily reach up to your shoulders. Running in front of them is terrifying. Your feet hardly touch the ground. The bulls start overtaking and you instinctively move to the side but strangely follow the herd whooping and screaming. Your run may have lasted just seconds but the memories last a lifetime. The bull runs are just a small part of the festival. Families with small children are everywhere and the streets are overflowing with crowds, rides, bands, parades and dancing. Despite the often raucous masses, the feeling is one of friendship where all are united in joyous celebration.
Bull running is the most famous side of San Fermin, but we most remember the warmth and kindness of the people of Spain.

Wednesday, 5 March 2008

The Paradors of Spain

The first luxury Parador hotel was built in 1926 and created by King Alfonso X111 in a bid to use quality tourism as a guardian of the national and artistic heritage of Spain and to assist regions that had fewer economic resources.

There are around 90 Paradors scattered all over Spain and can be found in the most privileged locations such as Castles, Palaces, Fortresses, Convents, Monasteries and other historic buildings. There are also a few modern Paradors , built in traditional style, in areas of outstanding and captivating beauty.

The Paradors are one of the few pluses to have come out of the Franco era and although the term luxury is often used when referring to Parador chain of hotels
and the ideology behind them was to offer very comfortable accommodation at a relatively attractive price, prices vary from round 95 to 138 Euros for a Standard double room per night, which by international standards is very reasonable indeed.

These luxury and historic hotels can be found from Galicia in the North West through Catalonia to Andalusia in the south of Spain, the Canary Islands and in the Spanish cities in North Africa. They have a commitment to environmental protection with their many restoration projects, helping maintain both the natural and cultural heritage of Spain. Most of Spain's national parks either have a Parador inside or close by and include the beautiful nature reserve of DoƱana
in Huelva, the Picos de Europa National Parks, Cazorla Nature Preserve, Parque National del Teide on the Canarie Islands and the beautiful Sierra de Grazalema in the heart of Andalucia

Due to the absolute privileged location of each Parador they really are unique places to stay and if your driving or plan to visit the whole of Spain you will never be more than a few hours drive from each one.

Each Spanish Parador restaurant offers a menu based on the traditional dishes of the region where they are situated, accompanied by some excellent local wines. Some of Spain's finest chefs oversee the cuisine and a table d’hote menu is always available at a very affordable price.

One of my favourite Paradors is the one located in the gardens of the Alhambra Palace in Granada . A former convent built on the orders of the Catholic Monarchs, this monumental complex invites you to discover a fantasy interior mixing Moorish and Christian features and will amaze you with its outstanding beauty, tranquility and location.

Some of the rooms have exceptional views over the Generalife, the Secano gardens and the Albaicine, whilst the classical furnishings and many portraits mark the decor of interior spaces. Andalusian gazpacho, Sacromonte omelette and Santa Fe pionono cake are on offer under the coffered ceiling of the dining room or the fresh summer terrace.

A great place to gather full information on the Paradors of Spain is the official Spanish site ( which is in English, French and German)


Monday, 3 March 2008

The Balearic Islands

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The idyllic Balearic Islands are the jewels of the Mediterranean, 120 miles southeast of Barcelona. On Balearic Island holidays, take your pick from picture postcard sandy beaches with crystal clear waters, dramatic landscapes, clubbing in the hotspots of Ibiza and Majorca, historic cultural cities like Palma or shopping heaven in Ibiza Town.

The Balearics have literally hundreds of beaches. In Majorca, take your pick from long sandy beaches in Alcudia or little bays like Cala Mesquida. At Puerto Pollensa the Tramuntana mountains run down to the sea, creating a dramatic effect with exquisite views from the beach. Majorca's west coast is rugged, but there are spots for swimming and snorkelling. For stunning views, head for the mouth of the Torrent de Pareis which shapes Sa Calobra, with rock formations, a small beach and crystal clear waters to enjoy.

Ibiza alone has more than 50 beaches. Platja d'en Bossa, a large idyllic sandy stretch south of Eivissa, with the Aguamar waterpark behind it, is popular with young clubbers and families alike. Other popular hotspots include Cala de Boix, framed by green hills, and boasting a superb view.
Wherever you spend your holiday in the Balearics, you'll be wondering how to fit everything in! If cities are your thing, Palma is crammed with contemporary art galleries, a Gothic cathedral, museums, excellent shopping, and plenty of public art scattered around. There are waterparks located nearby in Magalluf and El Arenal, while the Parc Natural de s'Albufera is perfect for wildlife lovers and birdwatchers.
Ibiza Town's old quarter is a historical gem perched on a rocky promontory, and Dalt Villa, the medieval part, has a Gothic cathedral and sprawling castle. Check out the area's Museu d'Art Contemporani in Dalt Vila, with its selection of avant garde paintings and sculptures. Our Lady of the Snows Cathedral is one of Ibiza's most impressive buildings. The nearby Placa de la Vila is crammed with shops, cafes and restaurants.

Menorcan capital Mahon has an old town, with small squares, cobbled streets and a natural harbour. At the Port of Mahon are the remains of the Castle of Sant Felip, and the La Mola fort. The Museu de Menorca on Placa des Monastir holds a selection of artefacts. The Parc Natural de S'Albufera des Grau is an important wetlands reserve. Just north of Mahon is the Parc Natural de S'Albufera des Grau, an important wetlands reserve area, home to many birds and superb hiking territory.

There is no shortage of things to get up at night on Balearics holidays with everything from the coolest bars and clubs to fine dining, a sundowner on the beach or just a quiet evening on your hotel balcony with a glass of local tipple.

Experience creative dance culture at its hottest on holidays in Ibiza - one of the party capitals of the world! Resorts like San Antonio or Ibiza Town are renowned for their cutting edge dance culture and massive nightclubs. Amnesia in San Rafael is the epicentre of Ibiza's club scene, while Blues in Ibiza Town pulls in a local crowd, especially out of season.

If you fany clubbing in Majorca, head for Magalluf, but don't write off the nightlife in Palma. Expect quieter evenings in Menorca, where tourism is less developed, and focused on a few family-centred resorts.

A complete Travel Guide to the Balearic Islands