Bilbao en el País Vasco

Another bus ride, from León to Bilbao with a half hour stop in Burgos. Sadly I didn’t have my camera handy when we saw a shepherd walking his sheep over the highway just outside of León… he was leading maybe 80 of them! The bus pulled through several villages, with quick stops in each, and half an hour in Burgos… enough time for a coffee (on the left, some village, on the right, a view of the cathedral in Burgos).

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We had some great views of the Cantabrian Mountains… they are crazy!
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Bilbao was really a great city. It sits on the Nervión River and because of its industrial background, it seems the city sometimes gets a bad rap. It shouldn’t. It is beautiful! For some reason it reminds me a bit of Boston.

The Guggenheim is here, and is supposedly partly responsible for the city becoming something new. Jeff Koons‘ Puppy is here (the Spaniards say “POO-pee”). I’m not a huge fan of his, but Puppy is great!
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The museum is crazy looking. I especially liked the Richard Serra exhibit “The Matter of Time” (there’s a pic on the wiki link). It was so disorienting to walk through his sculptures! Outside, on the river side, mist would rise in front of the museum.
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Here’s some views around the city….

The Zubizuri footbridge (Basque for “white bridge”). That glass snail-looking thing is the subway entrance!
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We met our first Pastor Catalán (aka Gos D’Atura in Catalan, or Catalan Shepherd) along the river under those lovely trees. She was very sweet! And don’t you love that the stairs all make it easy for wheels (wheelchairs, strollers)?

People in Bilbao (the Bizkaia) speak a unique language, Euskera aka Basque aka el vasco, which is not related to any other language in the world! Luckily they all speak Castellano (aka Spanish) too. They also keep what feels like more regular hours to us… dinner is from 8-10 pm rather than 10-midnight, and you can get breakfast 8-9 no problem. Our typical breakfast was croissant and coffee. In Bilbao, they liked to stab the croissant with a fork!
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We also had the best and most fabulous lunch in Bilbao… menu del día for 12 euro, enough to make dinner pretty much unnecessary. Complete with a bottle of water and a bottle of wine!
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Salad of escarole and baby eel substitute (gula), bacalao al pil pil (cod), some wonderful duck and mango thing, and profiteroles. It was so good, we went here the next day, which was also good, but not quite so fabulous.

There was a cathedral in the old part of the city. We didn’t visit the inside, but it was interesting to note that there are lots of shops built right into the back side of it!
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Window shopping was fun, as everywhere. (We did a lot of window shopping during siesta hours)…and, as everywhere, there were these shops that had rather unattractive (and really expensive) baby things,
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And in the silicone kitchen shop, you can get all sorts of things…
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The cars everywhere were intriguing, and this one on the Renault showfloor was especially so… the Renault Twizy,
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Skunkfunk… I mean, who thinks of these names? I did love the wall of live ferns and mosses though…
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I also liked that this shop put newspaper on the mannequins…
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Holy week wasn’t as big a presence here, but we did see a bit of it…
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We went grocery shopping at the Super BM!
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We bought red nylons at Boutique de la Media… they are all the rage this year. It is a lingerie shop, with lots of lovely things, and so, given that I am on the “ultimate bra quest”, I asked the lovely (and very tiny!) Rosa if she had something in a size 30H/32G… Her eyes bugged out a bit, she said let me see your tag, and then she proceeded to bring me really lovely bras that all almost fit. I didn’t want to spend too much time, and they were hugely expensive (as in 140+ euros), but I was impressed. She said her shop specializes in the hard to find sizes… small bands and large cups as well as larger bands with smaller cups. So, if you’re in Spain and need a bra, go here!

Apparently while I was in the dressing room, the other woman told Ginny “she’s a little crazy“. Ginny asked which one. And she said, “well, it looks like the both of them.”


After two days and nights in Santiago de Compostela, we headed off to León by bus, with a stop for a bus change in Ponferrada (say it with all the trilly r’s).

The scenery between Santiago and Ponferrada was fabulous. I think we went straight east on the N-547 to Lugo, and then the A-6 (bigger highway) to Ponferrada.

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grapes from the bus…

We didn’t have any time to explore Ponferrada, but we did note that they have a 24-hour car wash… something we’ve never seen!

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At the bus stop I noticed an older woman dropped off by a taxi, along with a big sack of potatoes (25kg/50lbs) . She couldn’t carry them, and asked somebody (who I thought she knew) to help her. I went up and told her that I was happy to help, and she declined, and then I told her that I could carry the bag, please give it to me, and so she gave up her half and the other woman and I quickly took it where it needed to go.

After a few minutes she came over and chatted with us… Amelia has a sister (or sister-in-law, I forget) in Washington DC, where are we from?, why are we in Spain?, why do I speak Spanish? where did I learn it?, what do we do?… And then she said why are you going to León?, come to my house! (in Toreno, about 15 miles to the north). We felt like we had to get to where we were expected, but I have some regrets that we didn’t make it to Amelia’s in Toreno… it’s a smallish village, ~10,000 people, maybe I’ll send a letter and it will find her.

The Spanish landscape from the bus intrigued me. Old villages and small farms and not much else. Except that the landscape around León was frankly a bit boring. Think Ohio. But drier.

Catedral de Santa María de Regla de León, a gothic cathedral!
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While we were walking around that night we heard a little squeaking noise. I told Ginny it sounded like a bat. And then… There! Flitting about the plaza… el murciélago/the bat… isn’t that a fabulous word???

This cathedral has a lot of interesting stained glass… I think compared to other cathedrals there is more glass… and much of it has floral or botanical themes. The pics are fuzzy so don’t embiggen…
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In the courtyard of the cathedral, Queen of Sheba and King Solomon (and a bunch of others that were taken off of the front of the cathedral)
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So many people in that last painting are telling each other something…

We also saw the Basilica of San Isidoro, including the fabulous and very old (12th century) romanesque frescoes (The Royal Pantheon).
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And some amazing treasure and old, old books. Of course we couldn’t take photos. But if you are a researcher, you can go to these old libraries and actually look at these books that are hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of years old.

Ginny says the Roman column we saw in León is probably the oldest thing we saw on the trip. I’ll believe her. It’s dedicated to Marcus Aurelius. There was a stork nest on top of this, and we saw the stork in it!
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Parts of the old city walls,
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The weekly market,
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Where you could also buy palm fronds, as it was Holy Thursday and Good Friday was coming right up…
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The Procession

Did I mention we were in Spain during Semana Santa (Holy Week)? We saw a bit of a procession (think parade) one night, and the next night was a wonderful Holy Thursday Procession…

We learned that the band practices all year for this! Ginny thought one of the drummers was having simply too much fun. He was rather enthusiastic with his booming (you can hear him here).

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After we saw them march here, we ran ahead and saw a part we missed…
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and then we ran ahead again and saw it from the beginning!
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Apparently, these floats (pasos) are usually carried by people (costaleros or penitents) hidden by a cover. I rather liked seeing everybody. They are heavy! The pasos can weigh up to 2 tons! Some of the penitents walked the procession barefoot. The silvery paso is carried by women and appears not to be as heavy as the one with Jesus (and presumably Joseph of Arimathea, who gave him the tomb)… only because there are fewer people carrying it.

Each float had somebody who would guide it (important for the curvy streets) and who would indicate when they should stop. This person also pushed back the crowds as needed (this happened on one of the sharp street corners). One of the photos shows one of the floats stopped… it sits on legs and the costaleros take a break and walk around.

I was also totally entertained by the window displays for Semana Santa, especially the display in the homeopathic pharmacy.
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And then, after a time, the procession made its way back to the church from the cathedral… we only watched the beginning of it this time,
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We thought we arranged for two nights in our hostal, but when we arrived, Fernando (who had one hand with black painted fingernails) told us that it was only for one night. He said also that where his hostal was wasn’t really a hopping place for evening life. But when we looked out from our balcony, it was like looking down into a mosh pit. He arranged for us to get another hostal, but out of the old part of the city, for the next night. León is pretty small, so it was only a 15 minute walk away.

We had the absolute worst meal of the trip in León. I also ate tripe (at a different place) as a tapa.
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Callos? Sure… (again with the food words being hard, and being willing to try whatever they were serving). They were apparently pushing the tripe. It was actually fine, but not something I’d look for in the future.

Outside of the old city,
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León also has a Parador. Think about it if you ever go there, though it is more expensive than the one in Santiago.
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It sits on the Rio Bernesga, which in real life didn’t look like much of a river, but it does look better in the photos.
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León is also on the pilgramage route, and you can see scallop shells here and there, as in the walls of the parador, and in the sidewalks.
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We saw several fabulous lighting shops, where these really cool lights were not especially expensive. And this fabulous kitchen goods shop had real food in the display!
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Flea market outside the veggie market, I was tempted by this knit chain mail!
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In addition to the bra/baby things/lacey junk shops, we saw a real knitting store, which was closed for siesta. Katia… nothing that looked interesting to us!
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And I bought a 2 Euro scarf at this other flea market just before we left (on another bus, to Bilbao).
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Folga Xeral – Santiago de Compostela 29March2012

We were in Santiago on the day of Spain’s General Strike, which apparently was hardly mentioned in the news here. The EU had proposed austerity measures for Spain that are harsher than those in Greece and Italy. The country went on strike to try to persuade the PM to reject them.

What struck me was that so many people came out for the march in this small city, even though they didn’t think that it would make a difference. They still thought it was important to make the statement. Wikipedia notes a population of about 95,000. The news in Spain noted that there were about 30,000 people in the march. We were 2 of them.

The other thing that struck me is that all sorts of people were marching: young, old, educated, blue-collar, grandmothers, people in wheelchairs, students, workers, and tourists… pretty much everybody.

Here’s a quick video before we joined the group…

Some of the signs around town and in the march… They are primarily in Gallego. Folga = huelga = strike. Xeral (say the x with a j sound like je suis in French) = general = general.
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And of the people… (I didn’t realize until I uploaded the photos that this young man was looking right at me in the second photo!)
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It was a pretty warm day, and we were glad to sit on the cathedral steps and get cooled off from the air inside (it was probably 30 degrees F cooler), even if it was on our butts from the crack under the door…
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And then… we saw the police (who have some headquarters in one of the buildings on the plaza) head off. They went running off in the direction of the medical college, not far from the plaza. Later in the day we saw an upturned dumpster, and some papers that had been burned. Presumably that’s where they went. The demonstrations in other cities were more violent (we found out later in the news), but it just wasn’t like that here. Though I wouldn’t want to be on the pointy open end of these weapons…
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It was, all in all, a great day. Even though everything was closed. We had bought some food the day prior to have for lunch, along with some of that wonderful liquor that we’d had the day before. But we forgot to stock up on wine. And so we drank one of the bottles… the liquor that was less alcoholic and more like Baileys.

Which means that a Mainer went to Galicia and brought home coffee brandy.


Santiago de Compostela – Part 2

First things first. I was quite taken by some simple things. All the light switches we saw in Spain were like this… unless there was no switch to move, you just put your finger on it and it turned on. And then it turned off after a set amount of time (some stayed on by motion activation). And the toilet paper holders… so simple.. so sensible.
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One evening we went off to the Galician Folk Museum (Museo do pobo Galego). We thought it was the folk art museum, and that it was free. Wrong on both counts. At first we were greeted by some big plastic cows in the courtyard, and some maritime exhibit… and were thinking “WTF???”. But then I decided it was going to be fun, and before we left the boat room it was!
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I mean, we had no idea that each area of Galicia had its own unique ox yoke design. And then, there! on the wall! the actual yokes…
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And then it really did get more and more interesting… We saw an array of unique hats, sure to be a hit in the fashion world next season,
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The tools and steps to making our own shoes, and a range of wooden clog styles, again likely to be on the catwalk soon!
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Not sure what to do with that goat? Use its skin for wine!
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(That’s a LOT of wine…)

Or, it may be that it is the bag in the Galician bagpipes (aka gaita) (oh look! the name gaita comes from goat…),
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Here’s a short video of the plaza and the gaita player. There were two. They played from 10 am until midnight. Between them, they knew 5 songs. Over and over and over and over. The Parador doormen were amused when I told them that Ginny was ready to kill the piper. They said it wouldn’t make a difference, another would come and take his place. They played in an echo-ey little alleyway next to the cathedral.

At breakfast I asked one of the servers/hosts (a lovely gentleman named Ángel) about the gaita… Are they just for music or are they, like the Scottish pipes, an instrument for war? He says Come with me. So off we go, out back, through the kitchen, stairs, an elevator, at which point I ask Where are we going? Don’t worry (Tranquila) he says. I tell him I’m not worried, after all I have a 3rd level black belt in tae kwon do. He laughed. Through another kitchen and through a really opulent dining room (I told him it was beautiful. Do I like it? No, I’m not sure I like it, but it is beautiful) and then out on the balcony to see and hear the piper in the alleyway off the plaza. I also told him that Ginny would like to kill the piper. He also laughed and said it wouldn’t make a difference.

OK, back to the museum… There was an incredibly beautiful staircase that took you here and there. Actually, there are three here, and only certain ones would take you certain places. It was a little confusing, but we think we saw it all.
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At the top, some of the stairs were a little, well, worn,
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We saw a big old weaving loom, and some lovely fabrics (that did not photograph at all well), and a giant bobbin and gi-hugic and really scary looking combs.
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A rain suit of straw (there was also a rain suit for oxen in the room with the ox yokes). We had to ask about this… I was thinking it was some burning man thing, but nope, just a rain suit.
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They were (are???) big lace makers, and it looks like they’d have tatting bees, though they don’t look any happier than the woman doing it by herself.
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We saw lots of these little shops in all the cities we visited, where one could purchase bras, presumably panties, lacy bits of we weren’t sure what, and baby things. It was all very grandmotherly looking, as in old fashioned and not really attractive. And much of it was expensive.
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Anyhow, more at the museum…

Crazy pottery (and lots of normal pottery). The docent didn’t quite know what these were for. She suggested wine.
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Um, wouldn’t you pour it all over everything with that one on the right??

There were lots of fabulous models and photographs showing different styles of farm houses and other farm buildings.
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Although I served this up with a healthy dose of sarcasm, I really was fascinated by the place. Why do people make what they do? Is it purely function? How do they make stuff? There is presumably pride in craftmanship, and presumably local styles and inputs from other areas.

This was over by the musical instruments… in case you forget… hellfire is awaiting most of us.
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Santiago de Compostela!

From Madrid we went north and west to Santiago de Compostela. For those of you who might need a refresher on Spain’s geography, here’s a map.

We took the overnight train. Spain has an amazing train system (Renfe and Ave), but the Renfe site is reportedly a nightmare to navigate, in large part because of banking confirmations that they run through. Travel Tip: If you want to book ahead on a Spanish train, use Petrabax for the Renfe trains. It’s quick and easy. The train was just a little more expensive than the hostal room, so we figured it was a real deal. Even though we had sleeping berths, I didn’t sleep too much…
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Our bunkmates were Carmen and her mom’s older friend Olympia, both schoolteachers (though Olympia is retired) from A Coruña (just north and east a bit of Santiago, on the coast). We had a lot to chat about.

We stayed in luxury in Santiago at the Parador… This was built by Ferdinand and Isabella in 1499 as a hospital!!! It was a pretty amazing place to stay in… the walls were about 3 feet thick. We got in on a promotion, 140 euro a night… upscale for us, but not out in the stratosphere.
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The bidet was used first for laundry…

The Parador sits on the plaza with the Cathedral, a destination for pilgrims walking El Camino. Need a plenery indulgence? Make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, Rome, or Santiago. More about the pilgrimage and Santiago (for mom!). Those are our windows at the bottom of the lower right photo…

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The outside of the Cathedral is nuts. It’s a Romanesque cathedral covered up by all sorts of doodads and such and is considered a fine example of Plateresque architecture. The inside of the cathedral is still rather plain (romanesque), except for the nave and the chapels.
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Apparently you can tell who a saint is by what they are carrying. But Ginny didn’t know who the saint of the rake is.

There are chapels all along the front (top) of the church, behind the nave, where pilgrims could stop and pray. It was kind of a money-making thing… these chapels range from simple to way way over the top. Creepily, many have baby heads around them… cherubim? It was hard to take photos inside as it was dark and they didn’t allow flash (and the camera didn’t know how to read all the gold)… but for your entertainment,
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Lots of gruesomeness and head chopping involved… That last pic is of the mechanism to swing the censer, Botafumeiro the flying monster. Sadly, we didn’t see this happen!

If you ever make it to Galicia or to Santiago, you must try the octopus (el pulpo). Here we are having a snack of it at 9 pm! (note how light it still is… also note that Ginny is indulging me, and that this is not a flattering picture of her)
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We also had an amazing lunch in Santiago, paella in the local style, with some crazy beautiful (and delicious) bread. There were langosta and langostina and gamba (all varieties of shrimpy to small lobstery type crustaceans). Food names were hard… especially since the menus were primarily in Gallego. Got the shy waiter talking by asking about the different beasties in the lunch, and afterwards he brought us some local liquors to try, telling us that it was important to know not only what to eat that is special to a place, but also what to drink. Basically it was two types, both what he called orujos, meaning made from grapes, so like brandy. One was quite like Bailey’s Irish Cream, the other like coffee brandy, but better.
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Our lunch spot was where the tan chairs are. Note how there is really no difference between the road and the sidewalks… In some places there weren’t even things to separate them.

There were also beautiful doors here, with great knockers!
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We had cockles (berberechos), and great coffee (we saw the woman next to us the next day at the strike)
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Courtyard at the Parador,
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Where the old leech tank sat when it was a hospital,
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We think the stonemasons had a wicked sense of humor…
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Some views around town. The first is just outside the walls of the old city. The last is the restaurant where we had paella, closed on the day of the general strike. Everything was closed.
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There was a gorgeous park, where we were chatted up by a hopeful Austrian. Weirdly there were palms with ivy growing up them…
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And everywhere in the walkways, cockleshells (scallops), a symbol of St. James and the Camino.
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I have more to tell you about Santiago, but this is enough for a post!