Friday, June 29, 2018

Family Heritage Tour

a.k.a. "In Search of the Abuelos"

Statue in Burgos, Castile and León, Spain

My family and I had been talking about doing a "Family Heritage Trip" to Europe for many years now.  While we had been to Spain before, we had never gone to see most of the towns that our ancestors had come from.  Inspired by the genealogy shows on tv, such as "Who Do You Think You Are?," we finally decided to take that nostalgic and sentimental journey this spring!

Having spent countless hours researching our family genealogy, it was important to me to get a sense of the places, sights, foods, communities, traditions, and histories of the towns where our grandparents and great-grandparents were born and raised.  Although they had all primarily met and married in Cuba, they actually hailed from many small towns and villages across the old country.

Most tours tend to showcase southern Spain, while our ancestors came from the northern areas, so we knew we'd have to forge our own trail in order to visit all the little towns we wanted to see.  It was time for an expedition in a new direction.

Temple of Diana, Mérida, Spain
We prepared ourselves for a trek, as we planned to cover a lot of miles and a lot of sites in the two weeks we allotted for it.  Not only were we interested in our personal heritage, but there were many other historical and religious sites we wanted to visit along the way, as well.  It was an ambitious plan, but completely doable, and in the end we all got to see what we wanted to see and had an amazing time.

It started with a slight hiccup in our itinerary, when the airlines overbooked our flight (seems to be standard operating procedure these days) and bumped us to a flight the following day.

What at first seemed like an inconvenience (and a loss of one day of vacation), actually worked out completely in our favor.  First, all 6 of us were compensated with a First Class seat to Spain.  If you're going to get upgraded to First Class, it might as well be on a transatlantic trip abroad!  I can confirm that those sleeper cabins are everything!  Warm nuts.  Champagne.  Personal charging station.  Blankets, socks, eyes masks, hot towels, and ice cream?  Oh, yes ... feel free to upgrade me anytime!

Second, we really didn't miss anything since we had almost no plans for our first day in Spain, and what had been on the agenda got rescheduled to our last night ... so it all worked out to our benefit.

Teatro Romano in Mérida
Upon landing in Madrid, we rented two cars and immediately hit the road with our little caravan.  Our first stop was Mérida, the capital of western Spain's Extremadura region, which has some of the best Roman ruins in all of Europe (comparable to Italy).

Built by the Romans in the 1st century B.C., relics of the ancient city are everywhere.  You turn a corner, and ancient columns are just standing there in the middle of the road.

We were mesmerized by the Teatro Romano, the Temple of Diana, and the Puente Romano.

If you ever get to go, do not miss the Museo Nacional de Arte Romano, which is a museum built directly over an active excavation site.  Head down to the lower levels and check out "the digs" before heading up to see all the sculptures and artifacts they've uncovered so far.

Our Lady of Fátima
Do we have any ancestors from Mérida?  I have not been able to absolutely verify that yet, but I did find a source indicating that one of my 9th great-grandfathers, Juan Amador, may have been from the same province of Badajoz.  So it is possible.  Juan Amador ended up in St. Augustine, Florida, when it still belonged to the Spanish crown, around 1565 (before the British landed on Plymouth Rock).  So we have very deep roots in Florida.

After Mérida, we took a little detour into the country of Portugal.  I have never done a pilgrimage of any kind before, but the Shrine of Fátima was on our list of places we wanted to visit while we were on the peninsula.

It is a very large, beautiful, modern and spacious Holy Site, and we arrived just in time for the daily Catholic Mass in English, so it turned out to be quite serendipitous.  We soaked in the sacred atmosphere and the real sense of peace about the place, as we read about the Virgin Mary's apparitions to the three small children.

Afterwards, we lit our devotional candles, collected holy water, and bought rosaries for remembrance of this special stop along our trip.

Floor mosaic in Portugal from Roman times
The following day we headed to another ancient Roman site in Portugal called Conimbriga, which was pretty spectacular.  It is comprised of a huge Roman settlement of homes and public baths, with partial walls and columns still remaining, and many intricate mosaic tile floors still intact.  It was amazing that they were in such good shape after all of these centuries, considering that most had been left completely exposed to the elements.  We spent quite a bit of time there, exploring.

And, yes, we do have a set of 11th great-grandparents from Portugal (from San Vicente de Vilarandel, Concejo de Chaves) who ended up migrating to Tenerife, Islas Canarias, Spain.

After Portugal, we headed back into Spain, to the Region of Galicia and the Holy City of Santiago de Compostela ... the destination of the peregrinos who walk the famous pilgrimage route called the "Camino de Santiago."

Parador de Santiago de Compostela
Hostal de Los Reyes Católicos
When we arrived at our hotel, the parador "Hostal de Los Reyes Católicos," it made me gasp!  It is absolutely magnificent!

Built in the 1400s as a hospital for the many pilgrims who journeyed to the city in medieval times, the hostal was funded by Ferdinand and Isabel (yes, that Ferdinand and Isabel), and was dedicated and named after them as the Catholic sovereigns who brought the country together.  The converted parador is very grand, sits on the main Praza do Obradoiro, and is right next to the Cathedral (reputed burial site of the Apostle, St. James the Greater).

(We tried to stay in as many Paradors as possible during our trip, since those historic buildings are all part of the sightseeing experience for us.)

Everything from the customer service as soon as we drove up to the impressive building, to the period rooms, to the updated bathrooms, to the restaurants and the food, all lived up to its 5-star designation.

And the views!!!  I can't recommend this hotel highly enough.  It's worth the splurge.

The Cathedral was amazing, arriving as we did just in time for the daily Pilgrim's mass.  It has some of the best sights of the city from its upper galleries, and we had the chance to embrace the statue of St. James (or Sant Iago) just like the peregrinos do.

No known ancestors from Santiago de Compostela (although we do have a set of 9th great-grandparents who were both born somewhere in Galicia in 1585), but I wouldn't have missed this stop for the world!

Playa España, Quintes, Villaviciosa, Asturias, Spain
After that unforgettable place, we drove to the region of Asturias, and to the town of Quintes, where my maternal grandfather was born.  It is a lovely place with many affluent homes.  We spent time on the famous beach where my maternal great-grandfather, an apple orchard farmer producing for the Asturian Sidra (hard cider) industry, would take his sons and nephews fishing.

Asturias is very green, full of lush, rolling hills and rugged coastline, as well as mountains.  We stayed at a gorgeous Parador set in the middle of the National Park of the Picos de Europa mountain range.

While there, we paid our respects to the Virgen de la Covadonga, a Marian shrine within a cave in the mountains, as well as to Pelayo, the First King of Asturias.  (Photos are not allowed inside the actual Cave with the Shrine, although there are some online.)

The town of Cangas de Onís also has a very picturesque Roman Bridge and a small chapel built over a pagan dolmen, and we also visited a Celtic Hillfort (the area was populated by Celt-Iberians in ancient times) with its distinct circular structures.

Puente Romano
Cangas de Onís, Asturias, Spain
First King of Asturias
Basílica de Santa María la Real de Covadonga

One of my paternal great-grandfathers was also born in Asturias, in a town called San Cucufate de Llanera.  In fact, just about every town we drove past in the region was the birthplace of one great-great-great-grandparent or another.  It was gratifying to put names to places and get a sense of the countryside and communities our ancestors came from and how they lived.  Each town and region definitely had its own character and flavor.  Asturias is beautiful country.

Monastery of Santo Toribio de Liébana
While in the area, we decided to make another little pilgrimage through the winding mountain roads to the charming town of Potes, to visit the Monastery of Santo Toribio de Liébana.

The Church within is said to contain the largest section of the left arm of the actual True Cross of Christ, and we arrived just in time to witness the ritual of the relic's blessing for a wedding that happened to be taking place, and its placement back into its reliquary.  It was another very special and timely visit.

From there we continued east to the Cantabria region, also very green and mountainous, where more ancestors were born.  My maternal grandmother was born in the small village of Mirones-Miera, and my paternal great-great-grandfather was born in Carasa, both near Santander.  We stayed in the medieval town of Santillana del Mar as our base while in Cantabria, where the buildings and cobblestone streets have not changed since the 1400s, making it a very quaint and picturesque setting for our visit to the area.

We stopped at the Church of Carasa where one of my great-great-great-grand-uncles had been a priest back in the early 1800s, and where the family has a small chapel with their name on it inside, but were disappointed to find it locked up tight.  We asked some of the locals if there was a way to look inside, but were unable to make it happen.  Hopefully, a distant cousin who visits his grandmother who still lives in the town, will be able to send me photos of the inside of the Church and the chapel one of these days.

Church of Carasa, Cantabria, Spain
One of the coolest things we did while in Cantabria was to tour one of the oldest known cave painting sites in the world.  The archaeological site of the Cueva de El Castillo, with prehistoric cave paintings dating back more than 40,000 years, still allows tourists inside to see the real deal (unlike the replicas at some of the other places, such as the famous Altamira Cave).  The cavemen who left behind these renderings of bison, horses, birds, and their own handprints, could very well be some of our prehistoric ancestors, as well!

When we were done exploring there, we headed to the next region.  On our way, we encountered many pilgrims hiking across the countryside, making their way along the many miles of the Camino route to Santiago de Compostela.  We also checked out some spectacular geoparks along the way to our next destination.

The Basque Country of Spain is east of Cantabria and butts up against France along the northern coast.   When we first arrived in the city of San Sebastián (called Donostia in the Basque language), I was driving and found the heavy traffic intimidating.  However, once the car was safely tucked away in a parking garage, we were able to walk around the city with ease and confidence.

And what a city!  I fell in love!

Walking along the beach of San Sebastián
There are certain things about a city that make it more appealing than others, and San Sebastián seemed to have a lot of it.

First of all, it has a beach ... a gorgeous crescent-shaped one.  That would be just about enough in my book.  But it also has an extensive promenade surrounding the beach ... not just a boardwalk, but a wide pedestrian strolling path completely encircling the beach.  On this promenade there is a charming carousel, a playground for children, and park benches galore.  One is always serenaded by musicians as you stroll along, and people walk arm-in-arm upon it at all hours of the day and night.

There are many Regency-style buildings and hotels lining the boulevard, and beautiful street ornamentation and parks, giving the city a very grand and regal feel.  There are bakeries and coffee shops at just about every corner, and some of the best shopping of any town we visited during our trip.

An adorable old vintage amusement park sits at the top of a mount with the most spectacular views I have seen just about anywhere.  There is a giant statue of Jesus at the top of another summit, facing the beach in contemplation, as if blessing it and the entire city of San Sebastián. There are more Michelin-star restaurants here than any other city in the world, although San Sebastián is really known for its nightlife and ubiquitous pinxtos bar food.  And did I mention it is practically walking-distance to France?

By far the most important thing about the city was that the people there are all happy.  Who wouldn't be, living in such a beautiful resort town like San Sebastián?

Do we have any ancestors in the Basque Country?  I wish!  However, I have been in contact with at least one distant relative who lives in Bilbao, so there is definitely a connection.  And some genetic markers seem to indicate the possibility of Basque ancestors somewhere along the line, as well, so perhaps we'll find even more relatives in the beautiful País Vasco.

I didn't want to leave San Sebastián, but we reluctantly got back into our cars and headed to wine country.

Wine tasting and noshes at Marqués de Riscal
In truth, all of Spain is wine country, and we saw many vineyards along our travels just about everywhere we went, with each region having its own specialties.  However, the red earth of the La Rioja region and its temperate weather produces some of the most famous wines of all of Spain.

We stayed at one of the Winery-Spa-Hotels in the area, and enjoyed lovely views of the countryside.  We visited a number of wineries close by, as well, enjoying wine tastings and pairings everywhere we went, and buying more than a few bottles to bring back home with us!  It was a very pleasant way to enjoy the region.

From there, we headed south to Burgos in the region of Castilla y León, which is a very eventful city in Spain's history.  Everybody invaded it, apparently, including the Visigoths and Napoleon, and it was a very important hub for Franco during Spain's Civil War.  So it has not had a peaceful history.

We toured a cloistered monastery, The Abbey of Santa María la Real de Las Huelgas, where Queen Eleanor Plantagenet of England (Leonor, in Spanish), her husband King Alfonso VIII of Castile, and their children, lived and are buried.  It was an absolutely fascinating tour ... so much history within those walls!  They also had some of the royal clothing on display, noting that their museum housed some of the oldest textiles in the world.

Sculpture of Laino Calvo, abt. 798 - 870 A.D., Judge of Castile
and Sovereign Leader of his Troops. My 2nd great-grandmother
who was born in this same Burgos area, shares this surname.
Then we toured the huge and magnificent Catedral de Burgos, which is definitely worth seeing.  Plan on spending a lot of time there, as it is incredibly large, detailed and elaborate.  There is a lovely park and promenade around the Cathedral, a charming pedestrian bridge, and a regal entrance gate to the city where I suspect another ancestor of ours may be depicted.

We stayed at the Palacio de Burgos, a very grand and beautiful hotel that we all thought would make a perfect venue for a wedding reception.

As we made our way back to Madrid for our final night in Spain, we drove through Gumiel de Izán (in the province of Burgos, and the birthplace of one of my maternal great-grandfathers) and Aranda de Duero.  Some of the best wines we had during our trip came from the Aranda de Duero area, so we picked up a few more bottles of those along the way.

Meeting Matthew at Luzi Bombón
We shared our farewell dinner in Spain with the genealogist who had done such extensive research into our family tree, Matthew Hovious, and his family.  Matthew has researched the Spanish ancestry of many celebrities for some of the genealogy shows on television, such as Eva Longoria, Linda Chávez, Sandra Cisneros and Martin Sheen.  We had an amazing night with excellent company and some really fabulous food at Luzi Bombón which I can highly recommend.  It was wonderful to finally meet him in person, after all of the emails we had exchanged throughout the last few years.

So, all in all, it was a pretty fantastic trip.  We got to do just about everything that was on everyone's list: visit the towns our grandparents and great-grandparents came from and connect with our heritage, see incredible Roman Ruins and ancient Celtic Hillforts, view authentic prehistoric cave paintings, explore the area's unique geological features at the geoparks, stay at a relaxing beach resort, enjoy the vineyards and various tastings in the wine country, do some great shopping, pay homage to our spiritual traditions by visiting some of the holiest religious sites in the area, meet the genealogist who had done so much work on our behalf, eat wonderful food, and practice our Spanish.  It was an awesome trip!

A bagpipe player in Galicia demonstrates his Celt-Iberian roots
Castro de Coaña
a Celtic Hillfort settlement
A funicular ride to the top of Monte Igueldo for some spectacular views of San Sebastián

Our route:

(I truly am in love with Spain ... there is still so much more I want to see, that I'm already missing it!)

Safe travels to all!


  1. Ada, it was wonderful, I enjoyed reading your paper, it was like being there. Many places you were I haven't been able to visit yet, if I had any doubts now I know I have to be there some time in the future! Thank you!

  2. Eugene,
    Thank you for your lovely comments. From someone such as yourself who has lived and traveled to so many places, that is very sweet to hear. As I told my family when we were planning our trip, "There are no bad choices!" There is nothing I wouldn't want to see ... I adore the country! Abrazos!
    -- Ada