This week I had the opportunity to go with my friend Ben to Spain for a week. Ben and I were roommates in college and we’ve been doing various traveling and exploring the world ever since. It’s hard to imagine it’s been 14 years since college! Our last trip was in 2009. Ben lives in Phoenix so these trips give us a chance to reconnect.
We had planned out a very aggressive trip with lots of things to see and photograph. Overall the trip was a success but it was a bit too aggressive. We covered too much distance in too short a time. Our days started at 6:00am and went to 9:00pm so every night we were completely exhausted but the photos were definitely worth it!
The pictures below are all available for sale at:
After delays en route to Philadelphia and then more delays to Madrid, we finally arrived at around 7:00am in Madrid after just a few hours of sleep on the plane.
After picking up our rental car, we drove into the city, parked, and started to walk around to explore the sights.
There were some pretty statues and fountains that had to be creatively cropped to hide all the surrounding traffic.
The Royal Palace was by far the most interesting place to see there, however, walking 5 miles in the city was pretty exhausting.
and right across the walkway from the palace was an amazing church!
With all the walking we did we passed some cool narrow streets and colorful buildings.
We then went over to the mayor’s plaza.
We were surprised at how much graffiti was around Madrid. Also, clearly any anti-smoking campaigns haven’t taken off in Spain yet. It was definitely quite Americanized with a burger king and people dressed as Sponge Bob.
We stopped for lunch in a small cafe and saw lots of people drinking at 10:00am and then as we were walking back to our car, we passed lots of hookers.
Let’s just say that we were not impressed with Madrid as most of our walking was on busy streets with lots of diesel pollution. We were eager to head out of town and hit the small country towns.
We next went to go view a beautiful castle in a town called Manzenares. It was really cool to see but it was surrounded by apartments in a fairly dumpy neighborhood again with lots of graffiti so that took away from the ambiance. However, shooting photos from creative angles hid all the “stuff” nearby and made for some cool images.
Onward to Avila. Avila is a town surrounded by giant stone walls that clearly provided fortification back in medieval times.
It was mid-day with minimal clouds. For any of you that know about landscape photography, this is literally the worst time of day to be out taking photos. The light was very harsh and not good for pictures at all. However, it was still really cool to be there. This is what it looked liked:
By playing with the exposure and white balance, I was able to make it look like evening which I thought was a much more interesting photo:
I also enjoyed looking for some random street images:
A few hours later we arrived in Segovia which I was super excited about. Segovia had a huge aqueduct that used to bring water to the city. On the western edge of town, there was a gigantic beautiful castle. By the time we arrived in Segovia, we were exhausted from a long day. Unfortunately there was some road construction in the city which caused us to have to take a long detour to get to the view of the castle. After getting an idea of where the best light would be at sunset, we wanted to find a hotel and get some dinner. We drove a long way back around to the city to find the hotel that we had looked up on the GPS. Unfortunately that hotel must have gone out of business because we couldn’t find it. We found another hotel that was on the road that was closed for construction so we decided to go back there and park, and find the hotel and hope it was open. It was!! We then went to the nearby bar to try to get some dinner but after much difficulty with the language barrier, we realized that they didn’t serve dinner until 8:00 which was still an hour away. That meant that we had to drive all the way back around into the city again and find something to eat. We did that, headed back around again to the castle for some evening photos. Even in the evening, it was definitely harsh angular light with no clouds, but it was still incredible.
We went back to the hotel for sleep as we knew we were going to start the next morning very early.
We started the morning with some more pics of the castle and town. It was a breathtaking sight. It was a cold clear morning but well worth getting up early for!
At the viewpoint overlooking the town, there was also a pretty stone church behind us.
Next we headed to Coca to view another majestic medieval castle. On the way, we were driving down an open country road. The sun was low and provided some beautiful morning light coming through the trees.
When we arrived at Coca, the castle was difficult to photograph due to the harsh sun but still amazing. The castle was open to walk around in. It was crazy to think about people shooting bows and arrows off the ramparts to fight off fending attackers.
Now the castle just sat in the middle of town with an elementary school across the street. I think it would be weird to go to school next to a castle that is hundreds of years old.
Next we drove to a town called Burgos to photograph the cathedral downtown. This turned out to be a frustrating experience as it was very difficult to navigate the narrow streets in the city and find a place to park. We finally found a REALLY tight parking garage and managed to get a spot but soon found out that you had to be a guest at a hotel to park there. It took a long time to maneuver the car out of the parking space and after that we were not able to find another parking spot so we eventually just drove out of the city and viewed the cathedral from a distance on the highway. We were not able to get any pictures of it.
We stopped for lunch, then drove through Vittoria and on to a sleepy village named Arroiabe. There was an incredible church on a hilltop and if you drive around to the backside down the farm roads, it provides an incredible view.
Just a few minutes up the road is a small town called Ullibari-Gamboa which could be viewed from across a nearby lake.
Next we drove up to Bilboa which is home to a Guggenheim museum. We wanted to photograph it in the evening but wanted to make sure we knew where to go and where to park so that we didn’t waste time when the evening light was perfect. After getting the lay of the land, we headed farther north to view another medieval castle named Butron. It was another majestic medieval castle, however, it was difficult to get a good view of it and the harsh afternoon light made photographing it a challenge. Using some HDR photography, I was able to bring out the blue in the sky and get a cool shot.
We then headed to the north coast where we wanted to find a hotel for the night so that we would be on the coast for sunrise photos in the morning. We spent about an hour exploring some of the coastal lookouts and got some amazing views of the ocean.
After finding the hotel, we drove back into Bilboa, got dinner and then waited for the perfect evening light at the Guggenheim. It was truly an amazing sight. It’s probably the most unique architecture that I’ve ever seen. Personally I found it even more unique than the Sydney opera house, or the Eiffel tower. They even had jets of fire that shoot out of the water every 5 minutes which was pretty cool. I imagine it would be a little terrifying if you didn’t know they were coming though! The best view was from up on the bridge over the river which was easily accessible by walking.
One thing that was common pretty much everywhere we went in Spain was lots of graffiti. We figured we might as well use it for a portrait:
We went back to the hotel in Sopelana on the north coast for the night.
We woke up early again to photograph the sunrise on the coast but being on the north coast with the sun rising in the south eastern sky, the morning light with no clouds did not provide an interesting scene. We hiked down to the ocean to shoot a few photos of the water breaking over the rocks. Long exposures and some creative editing made for some interesting pictures on an otherwise dull morning.
Next we drove farther along the coast to Gorliz but by the time we arrived, the sun had risen too much and the harsh lighting made taking unique photos almost impossible.
We then drove to Lekeitio. It was a beautiful drive through windy mountain roads through a heavily forested park and past hundreds of people riding their bikes for what looked like practice for a big race. The town itself reminded me a lot of Honfleur which was a town in northern France that Cheridy and I visited in France many years ago. Again, the harsh sun and no clouds made photographing difficult.
We then followed the coast to a town called Deva. The drive itself was very similar to highway 1 in California with twisty cliff top roads and a beautiful coastline below but there were very few pull offs on the road to stop and enjoy it. The ones that we did find provided some beautiful views.
We continued driving on to Biarritz in France. When we crossed the border, the security didn’t look at our passports but they did give the front end of our car some really odd looks. We later realized that at some point we had hit a bird while driving and by the looks of it, we had been driving a long time with a dead bird on the grill.
Biarritz had a beautiful little lighthouse on the coast. Today we were expecting 50-60 degree weather with rain, but instead it was 80 without a cloud in the sky.
We were so exhausted from driving so much we decided to sit here and relax for half an hour just to enjoy the sunshine and watch the surfers trying to catch the miniscule waves.
We continued on to Pau which is a town with an old white castle which lead to a lot of cheesy White Castle Hamburger jokes (thanks Ben). Once again the town was difficult to navigate and the castle was hard to photograph in the harsh afternoon sun but I still came away with a few pics that I liked.
We then drove to Lourdes where they have an amazing gothic cathedral. The drive itself was fantastic as we could see the beautiful snow-capped Pyrenees mountains to the south. Seeing those majestic mountains was really exciting and we knew we would be driving right through them tomorrow! We again had a huge amount of difficulty navigating the streets and finding parking in Lourdes. We must have driven around for an hour trying to figure out how to get to the cathedral. While driving around, we got a nice view of the hilltop castle.
It was already pretty late and we were hungry and tired so we decided to stay the night here. However, it’s the off season and almost all of the hotels and restaurants were still closed for the season. We found a hotel that was open and they were having some type of Ferrari convention. There were Ferrari’s everywhere! It was pretty crazy. There was also no shortage of Ferrari owners who were mostly middle-upper aged men wearing cheap cologne who were really proud of their cars. They even wore Ferrari shoes and Ferrari shirts. I felt like I should be having a mid-life crisis to hang out there.
We found a little street corner cafe where we got to eat some terrible pizzas and then walk over to the cathedral to photograph it in the evening.
Today was going to be our longest day yet with LOTS of mountain driving. We woke up really early, got all packed up and ready to go and then realized that the time on our phones was different than the time on our watches. Apparently they went through the daylight savings time change last night so our phone alarm actually woke us up an hour too early. It took us a long time and a lot of confusion to figure out what happened and try to understand why the sun wasn’t coming up at the right time. We at first though that there might have been some kind of time shift between Spain and France with one acknowledging daylight savings time and the other not but with help from our friend Google, we figured it out.
Our drive started out with some beautiful views of the Pyrenees mountains covered in snow.
Around each corner the views kept changing and getting better.
We unfortunately realized that the mountain pass that we had planned to take to cross from France back into Spain was still closed for the season. This led us to an extra hour of driving to get around to the next road which was open. We were already anticipating a long day and losing an hour in the morning due to the time change and then losing another hour due to the re-route was not a good thing. Either way, the drive through the Pyrenees national park was fantastic with some incredible views.
After crossing the mountain pass and heading back into Spain we drove down to a much lower elevation where it was very hot and dry. Within a few hours we arrived at Torla which had an old stone chapel with large cliffs as a backdrop. It was an incredibly beautiful day and the smell of clean fresh air was exhilarating.
Later we arrived at a town called Ainsa with old ruins on the hilltop. We quickly realized the ruins themselves were not very photogenic from close up but while looking over the edge of the ramparts, we could see a path up a hill across the river which would give us a much nicer view of the whole town with the snow-capped mountains behind it.
This was then followed by hours of fairly dull mountain driving. The constant twists and turns and elevation changes gave me some occasionally nauseous moments. I have no idea how Ben stayed awake and focused with all that driving.
As the sun got lower in the sky, it led to some beautiful views of the mountain ridges falling away into the distance. There were also some stunning cliffs looming over the mountain valleys.
We found a spot with a very serene location with a reflection of an old house over a lake.
It was getting late and we were still a few hours from where we were hoping to make it tonight but it had already been close to 14 hours of mountain driving today.
The nearest town was St. Lorenc de Morunys. Thankfully we were able to find a hostel that was open in the off season. The only restaurant/bar that seemed to be open wasn’t going to serve dinner for another hour. Those Spanish folks like to eat really late! We walked around and found a place that said we could order pizza. Once again, we had a really bad Spanish pizza and then crashed for the night.
We once again woke up really early and drove down to the lake we had seen the night before. It provided an amazing location for sunrise photos. There were a few clouds over the mountains and the lake provided an incredible mirror reflection. It was one of the most beautiful sunrises I’ve ever seen. We spent nearly an hour there photographing it from different vantage points as the light was changing.
Next, we drove a few hours to a town called Olot. Just outside is a village built right above a huge cliff called Castellfollit de la Roca.
We then drove to a medieval town called Besalu which had an old stone bridge leading to the medieval city. There were lots of young kids on field trips out there. I thought it was amazing that for a history field trip, these kids get to go to where history was actually made. When I was in school, the only field trip I remember was going to the salt mines in Detroit.
Next we drove out to the east coast where we came to a beautiful Mediterranean town called El Port de Selva. The white buildings on the blue water were really pretty. It had already been a tiring day so we parked the car on the beach and sat for 10-15 minutes to just enjoy the smell of the sea (and eat potato chips).
Driving up the mountains behind the town, it provided an amazing view of the seaside town down below:
At the top of the mountain we arrived at an old church and monastery.
We then drove to another tourist town on the peninsula called Cadaques which was also a pretty town with white buildings on the ocean. Parking was difficult and we decided to just move on and head out after a few quick photos.
We drove to Tossa Del Mar which was another coastal town a few hours away. We were supposed to drive in to Barcelona tonight but we were totally exhausted so we found a hotel near the coast. We decided to leave our cameras in the hotel room and go grab something to eat and just relax. This was a tourist town so it was probably the first place we went where anyone spoke enough English to actually communicate which made things much easier for us.
Of course the day we decide to leave our cameras in the room, we got a beautiful evening sky on the ocean. I ended up shooting this photo with my iphone.
The restaurant that we stopped at was…interesting. Our food experience in Spain hasn’t been great. The green salad that I got had all sorts of funky things in it that I am not used to and they didn’t provide any dressing. When I asked for dressing, I was offered ketchup, mayo, or fish sauce…pass!
We stayed at a 4 star hotel tonight although we quickly realized that the star rating is very different in Europe then it is in the States. The 4 star hotel was pretty much on par with a motel 6 but for how tired we were, all we really needed was a bed to sleep in and a shower!
Today we woke up really early because we wanted to head in to Barcelona to beat the rush hour traffic. We had picked a spot right downtown to stop at that had some old gothic buildings. However, we did NOT beat rush hour and the traffic to get downtown was crazy. Since we had already seen tons of old gothic buildings, we decided to skip that stop and go to Segrada Familia which is an amazing landmark in Barcelona. Driving in big European cities is very nerve wracking so it definitely had Ben on edge. We found a place to park and walked over to the cathedral but the construction cranes, scaffolding and bad light didn’t leave for any good shots. I just shot a quick one with my phone.
As we drove around Barcelona, we saw lots of garbage and graffiti which was a common theme in Spain. Some areas stunk as bad as the industrial section on I-94 in Detroit. We were relieved to get the heck out of there in a hurry! About 45 minutes from the city and up in the nearby mountains is the Monsterrat Monastery. We loved the drive and views of the mountains in the morning.
The monastery itself is a HUGE structure built right into the cliff walls. It was impressive to think about how they could have possibly built it. However, the structure itself was really not pretty as it was just huge blocky buildings that were overrun with giant tour buses, a giant cafeteria, and plenty of people setting up tables surely to sell overpriced memorabilia to all the tourists.
My favorite part about it was some stone archways overlooking the mountains.
We decided to use those for a goofy portrait.
And then I had Ben shoot another more artsy one with my phone.
We then went three hours west to a city called Saragossa which has a huge cathedral right on the river. The cathedral was STUNNING. Probably one of the most beautiful that I’ve ever seen.
The mid day light was harsh so some creative photography and editing were needed to make some really unique pictures.
It was another beautiful day so we decided to stop here for lunch.
We really had no great plan for the rest of the day. It was another three hours back to Madrid which we really had no interest in going back to. We decided to pick a direction and just drive. We picked a little mountain town called Medina de Aragon which had a huge old fortification on a hilltop.
Next we drove through a nearby National Park called Alto Tajo. On the way, the drive was really pretty. We had some decent clouds for the first time on this trip so we took some photos of open fields and white puffy clouds and such. It was super peaceful!!
On our way back towards the expressway I spent some time looking for some cool trees to photograph.
We drove a few hours over to Guadelajara which is a city right off the expressway that we would take back to Madrid the next morning to catch our flight. Parking in the city is always super difficult and we were grateful to find a hotel right off the expressway with parking and a restaurant. Well…we were grateful until we realized that the hotel smelled like feet and had beds with sunken mattresses before we even lay in them but…it was another long day and we knew we would sleep.
The next morning it was straight back to the airport for a long flight home. Finding the rental car drop off was very frustrating as there were no signs so we spent half an hour driving to all 4 terminals until we eventually found it at the last one we tried.
I’m writing this blog post on the plane and overall, I’m looking forward to being home with Cheridy and the boys and just relaxing and watching TV!!
I’m glad we came home with good photos but, we’re very tired!!! Overall, it was a great experience and I’m glad to have spent that time with my friend Ben, but we tried to do too much in too short a time and didn’t factor in extra time for delays caused by construction, parking issues, language barrier issues, etc.
Let’s just say it’s good to be home!!!