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Since the early Middle Ages, countless devoted pilgrims from all over Europe walked all the way from the Franco-Spanish border  at the Pyrennes to Santiago de Compostela in Galicia to pay homage to the relics of St. James the Great, housed in the magnificent Cathedral in the centre of Santiago's old town. These pilgrims will stop en route at Pamplona, Burgos, Leon, before finally arriving at the steps of the Cathedral after a long and ardous route. They will carry in their possession a staff, with a Galician scallop shell (the symbol of St. James) and a document known as 'credencial' (Pilgrim's Passport), to be stamped at every town on the route where they had stayed overnight. The stamps collected in this document serve as proof that the said pilgrim has indeed completed the pilgrimage according to an officially approved route (i.e. Camino de Santiago or St. James' Way) and is entitled to an official certificate of pilgrimage upon arrival at Santiago de Compostela.

DSC00352.JPG Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela

There are several official ways, depending on where the pilgrims embark on their journey. The most common one is the Pyrennes - Pamplona - Burgos - Leon - Santiago way. Since we did not walk to Santiago (we drove there with a rental car), we were not considered true pilgrims (driving is not an approved method of completing a pilgrimage), just ordinary tourists. 

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Pamplona is an ideal destination for a day-trip if you happen to find yourself in La Rioja. Famed for its annual encierro (Running of the Bulls) every year during the San Fermin festival, Pamplona is a very popular destination for tourists from all over the world.

The drive from Ezcaray to Pamplona passes through some scenic little towns and villages in both the La Rioja and the Navarre province. As the old town of Pamplona, with all the little winding alleys and one-way streets, is best explored by foot, it is advisable to park the car at one of the underground car parks on the outskirt of the old town and walk into the old centre.


All over the route of the annual encierro, you will see red signs like this one above the street corners. Each sign explains the peculiarity of each street segment. If you follow the white arrow sign and walk from one sign board to the next, you will know how it is like to be in an encierro - except for that there are no bulls running behind you on the narrow cobble stone streets.

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The good thing about renting a holiday apartment in La Rioja is, you can rent a car and explore the surrounding countrysides at your own pace. And there are several highly interesting cities for those who want some thrill and fun, all within 3-4 hours' drive from La Rioja, easily accessible thanks to Spain's great highway systems. You can choose from the likes of San Sebastian, Pamplona, Bilbao, Burgos etc. As one Spaniard puts it, 'the possibilities are endless'.

Since we already stayed overnight at Burgos on our way from Madrid to La Rioja, we opted for a full day-drive tour from Ezcaray to San Sebastian and return via Bilbao instead.


San Sebastian is a beautiful city, located right on the northeastern part of the Basque Country close to the border with France. There are lots of things to see and do in the town: you can stroll around, shop at one of the exclusive boutiques, enjoy a leisurely afternoon on the beach, or just hang around doing nothing. Being the location of a world-famous film festival, there are a lot of posh shops and expensive hotels and bars in San Sebastian. Locals also display very good taste in terms of outfits and the way they look and behave. Needless to say, being the culinary capital of the Basque Country, you find good and inexpensive resturants virtually everywhere you go.

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When we arrived at Ezcaray, it was already well past 2 in the afternoon. Desperate for a decent lunch, we wandered around the streets trying to find a restaurant or cafe which was still open. By sheer coincidence, we parked our car at the parking lot in front of the village cathedral, and notice an elegant stone building right across the road. To our delight, it is a restaurant which serves regional cuisine.


(See the building behind the trees? That's Hotel Restaurante Echaurren, one of the most interesting restaurants we have ever visited in Europe.)

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When we planned our trip to Spain, my father said we should rent a holiday apartment at a place which fulfills all of the following requirements:

1. The town or village in which the apartment is located must be 'old' (i.e. with lots of history)

2. The town or village concerned must consist of houses and buildings made of stone (i.e. no concrete or otherwise man-made building materials)

3. The town or village which fulfills the above conditions must also have beautiful sceneries at its door steps, with plenty of nature within walking distance

4. The said town of village should have good vineyards/decent red wines/good restaurants within an hours' drive with distinctive regional character

5. Whichever town or village so lucky to be chosen by us as our destination of choice must be off the beaten track, i.e. neither rawdy tourists running around the streets half-naked nor noisy backpackers 

To be honest, I am not sure if such a place ever exists. Out of desperation, I rang up a friend for help. He is a native of Madrid, but knows other regions in Spain very well. I told him about our requirements and he came up with a few suggestions, one of which is Ezcaray, a picturesque little mountain village in La Rioja. As I have always wanted to visit the world-renown wine growing region of La Rioja and sample its legendary tempranillo reds, I thought we might as well spend a week there, just an hour's drive from the heart of La Rioja's viticulture enterprise.

Before then I had never heard of Ezcaray; after doing some research I realised that it is actually a beloved weekend destination for well-to-do Spaniards from Madrid and Barcelona. Anyway, once I set about looking for holiday rentals in Ezcaray, I know we have found the town/village that meet all our requirements: when I wrote to enquire about the availability of holiday apartments, our potential landlord replied that 'he has never had enquiries from Germany before'. Tell you what - if a village has never been visited by German tourists before, you can rest assured that the village is absolutely 500% off the beaten track. (For it is a well-known fact that German tourists are to be seen even in the most remote corners on Earth)

So I booked the 2-bedroom apartment for one week and set about preparing for our trip to this mysterious little village.


It was early April and the hilltops surrounding Ezcaray are still covered by snow.

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Mallorca is the biggest of the Spanish Belearic Islands and a popular holiday destination for tens of millions of tourists from all over Europe and beyond. At the beginning, I was put off by the island's infamous reputation as the island of Ballermann, a satire of fat, overweight German prolet holidaymakers with beer bellies who fly to Mallorca to drink cheap beer, eat sausages and spend most of their time doing stupid things on the beach.
The thing is, Mallorca has so much to offer in terms of history, culture, food and shopping, as well as sceneries. Most working-class holidaymakers tend to cluster in resort towns on the southern and eastern parts of the island, while those who are looking for stylish refinement and natural scenic attractions will head to the more exclusive resorts in the north, such as Port de Soller, seen below:

The Lighthouse and the Bay of Port de Soller, about 5km outside of the town of Soller, famous for its Cathedral, delicious Italian galati ice-cream and excellent olive oil from the hills nearby. Another famous tourist attraction is the Tram de Soller, another antique tramway line built in the late 19th century which connects Soller town with Port de Soller, passing through orange grooves and along the seafront en route to the centre of Port de Soller.

Above: Orange Grooves near Fornalutx, about 5 km outside of the town of Soller, where some of Spain's best olive oils come from.

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I admit I am a shopping fanatic. Every year, during the anuual winter sales and the summer sales, I have to spend a few days in one of Europe's top shopping destinations and splash out a fortune on designer coats, sweaters, shoes and handbags etc.
In contrast to most shopping addicts, I actually do not do my designer wears shoppings at one of the established fashion capital of the world, such as Paris, London or Milan. My favourite destination for spending money is the Spanish capital, Madrid. The reasons why I prefer Madrid to most other cities in Europe when it comes to designer goods shopping are:
a) Madrid has always been my favourite city with or without shopping
b) All the designers and brand names I fancy have flagship stores or boutiques in Madrid and they have my size (not easy to come by in other European cities given my 'petite' size)
c) The weather is almost always good and sunny in Madrid, even in winter - it's such a turn-off if you have to do shoppings in pouring rain or amid heavy snowfall
d)  Prices of decent hotel accommodation are very affordable - I don't want to spend more than 50 euro on my hotel room when I spend almost 20 hours per day outside running from one boutique to another.
e) Overseas visitors from outside the EU are entitled to tax refund as soon as purchase 91 euros or more in one store - an easy to attain target given that any designer handbags will cost at least 100 euro, Unlike Italy, where you have to purchase 130 euros or more at a shop, or worse still France, where you need to buy more than 172 euros in one shop before you are allowed to claim your VAT back, Spain are a good bargain indeed.
Calle Serrano - Madrid's No. 1 Shopping Street and one of the most upmarket districts of the Spanish capital, where some of the world's most exclusive labels and brands can be found.

Thus a shopping pilgrimage to Madrid has become an annual fixture in my calendar: usually I choose to fly to Madrid in January for 3-4 days because Spanish winter is not as harsh as most other countries in Europe and it is great to spend a few days in the bright winter sun.
The shopping trip usually takes place as soon as I get off the plane at Madrid's Barajas Airport. It takes about 40 minutes from the airport to Madrid's prime shopping district - Calle Serrano and Calle Jose Ortega y Gasset - by subway.  I always try to find affordable accommodation near Calle Serrano so that I don't have to waste too much time on public transport to and fro from the hotel.

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