Piney Falls State Natural Area

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Upper Piney Falls

We woke up this past Saturday morning to a predicted high temperature of 86 degrees Fahrenheit.  I immediately realized we needed to spend as much time outside as possible, taking advantage of one of our last weekends before school starts, and perfect East Tennessee weather.

We’ve been lazy about hiking in East Tennessee recently.  Saturday morning commitments, master’s courses, and grocery shopping kept us from planning any hiking adventures this past school year.  Also, in an effort to avoid visiting the Great Smoky Mountains on the weekend because of traffic from Pigeon Forge and overcrowding of trails, we can be daunted by choosing a hike that offers something unique relatively close to home. Clearly, given the geography of the region, East Tennessee must have hidden trails and hiking spots nearby, but they can be difficult to locate simply using a google search, since all the trail information is not collected into one comprehensive website.

Thankfully, we recently learned of the website Roots Rated, which compiles information about top rated hikes and outdoor experiences in your area, and then recommends hikes based on difficulty, features of the trail, length, and location.  One useful component of this site is the detailed information about the trail head location of each hike.  More than once, Andrew and I have been frustrated searching for the promised parking lot that allows us access to that fantastic ridge hike we’ve been dreaming about.  Roots Rated, based in Chattanooga, keeps the frustration out of planning a day hike, and lets you spend more time hiking, and less time planning!

Saturday morning, after 30 minutes of research using Roots Rated, we decided to hike at Piney Falls State Natural Area.  An hour away from our house, Piney Falls is located near Spring City, in rural East Tennessee.  Upon arrival, we ventured to Lower Piney Falls first, and spent considerable time trying to figure out if we could hike to the bottom of the falls (you can’t).  From here you can see a few slow moving rapids leading up to the larger falls, hop across the stream on the wide, smooth rocks, and creep to the edge of a sizable waterfall.  Once we clambered back up the steep dirt hill, we turned right to walk along the ridge of a shelf rock.  Not too many folks explore up here; we kept fighting with sticky spiderwebs!

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Lower Piney Falls

We trekked back to the split of the trail, and this time directed to Upper Piney Falls.  Once again, we found the top of the waterfall quickly, but were hoping to see the falls from the bottom.  We crossed the stream at the top of the falls, and followed a narrow trail along the ridge of the bowl of the waterfall.  Since the trail was not well-marked, we weren’t sure our efforts would lead anywhere.  Sure enough, we found a rope rigged up to help adventurers down the side of a steep hill to the bottom of the falls. I didn’t expect much, even after reading about the hike from Roots Rated, but the falls awaiting us plunged from way above.  The water pooled at the basin, and if we’d have been prepared, this would have been a great swimming hole for a hot day.

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We walked behind Upper Piney Falls, and found a trail that makes a loop back to the Lower Piney Falls trail that you can then follow back to the parking lot.  In total we spent 2 hours hiking around at Piney Falls.  We were impressed with the beauty of the falls, and glad we weren’t pushing past other outdoorsy people like we would have been at Abrams Falls, which isn’t nearly as fun to explore or as grand.  We planned to picnic after our walk, and did, but there isn’t a picnic area here, which was one small drawback.  The only other critique I had was that the trail wasn’t well-marked, but that did lead to some extra exploration for us, which made our afternoon that much more fun!

 

Going out with a bang

The last stop on our final weekend hurrah in Spain was a city that Andrew had been dreaming of all year long. I think his year in Spain would have been incomplete had we not gotten to spend a day visiting Cuenca. Andrew seems to only gain energy on weekend trips, returning home ready to face a week of work, while I start off eager to escape, only to be worn out with the thought of getting home and doing the laundry we’ve accumulated by the end.

Cuenca itself is interesting enough and definitely merits a visit, especially if you are looking for a day or two trip from Madrid. We traipsed around the old town, which is fairly small, gawked at the Casas Colgadas, houses built into the side of a cliff, literally “hanging houses,” admired the brightly painted houses in the center square and toured the Cathedral. Also worth checking out is the Parador de Cuenca, an ancient convent turned government-owned luxury hotel. An iron bridge connects the old town and Casas Colgadas to the Parador across a deep gorge in the middle of the city. Walking across the bridge was definitely not my favorite part of our visit to Cuenca.

What I remember most about our time in Castilla-La Mancha, though, is the extraordinary hospitality that we received from the family run hotel and restaurant we stayed at for the night. The hotel itself was located a few miles outside of the city, per Andrew’s bargain hunting requirements, so when we pulled in the gravel parking lot to the establishment, we were surprised to find a full parking lot and people spilling out of the entrance way. Already, I felt intimidated by the amount of boisterous Spaniards blocking our path to the check-in counter and began to second guess Andrew’s choice of accommodations. The check-in counter was conveniently located right inside of the restaurant area, where a large group of people was indulging in an aperitif and socializing before the lunch hour. I generally hate to tromp into a group of Spaniards when I’m not expecting to, mostly because they always are dressed fabulously and have their makeup perfectly in place and on a normal travel day I’m dressed in flats or tennis shoes (heels or boots are really the only acceptable footwear for stylish Spanish ladies) and wearing minimal makeup. This phenomenon is only exaggerated on Sundays, when everyone puts on their best face and outfit and prances out onto the streets, into the bars and restaurants, to see and be seen. Of course, we showed up at prime time cocktail and tapas hour on a Sunday, the last day of our trip. I look ragged and tired, the ladies at the bar were polished and styled. Needless to say, I felt as though we were on display as we waited patiently and rather nervously at the counter: the under-dressed and awkward Americans. Thankfully, this situation played out in under 5 minutes and once we met the sweet lady who checked us in, we both felt right at home.

The sign of a great family run hotel establishment has to be that when the required information for the transaction has taken place, credit card number given, passports checked, room key handed over, breakfast time confirmed, the person working at the desk has the courtesy to ask if this is a first time visit to the area. The check in girl at El Rento, the place we were lucky enough to stay, promptly pulled out a map of Cuenca, slapped it down, proceeded to explain directions to the center, the best place to park and pointed out the highlights of the city. I am always appreciative whenever this happens, since it means we won’t have to search for the tourism office and won’t have to drive around guessing where we can park. This is also the perfect time to ask for restaurant recommendations so you don’t have to spend precious time scrutinizing menus and looking for a place that isn’t too expensive in a city you’ve never visited before.

The whole time we spoke, the lady we later learned was the proprietor’s daughter, patiently answered our questions and treated us graciously, genuinely glad we’d decided on El Rento for our stay in Cuenca. A little hospitality really turned our one night stay in Cuenca into wishing we had time for another night. We ate all our meals at their restaurant and we especially enjoyed our Sunday night dinner. Around nine o’clock in the evening we returned from the city, hungry from walking. We ventured back into the dining room that had earlier been packed with a huge family celebrating a first communion. Now it was filled with old folks from the community, taking part in their Sunday night ritual of eating at El Rento and watching TV together. A hushed silence dominated the tone of the room, unusual enough for chatty Spanish folks, as the guests eating at the restaurant watched an old black and white movie on the flat screen TV. We both felt priveliged, at least I did, to be in the middle of a weekly tradition that must literally be dying out as all the people surrounding the tables eating salad and deep fried croquetas were in the seventy plus category. The most endearing moment, though, had to be when a tiny, hunched over, elderly man burst through the front door, so triumphiant he’d made it another week that he raised his fists above his head, shook them and shouted a greeting to all his friends.

Staying at El Rento left an incredible impression of true familial hospitality in my mind. For a generation where everything should be done as efficiently as possible and which places personal boundaries even higher and closer, afraid of letting others in or revealing how his or her life is lived out each day, El Rento allowed us a glimpse into what it would be like to be a part of a Spanish family, if only for a few happy hours.

Semana Santa: Road trip to Portugal in the Smart Car

Hi! We wanted to say have a great weekend before we take a two and a half week hiatus from blogging. We’re off to enjoy our Semana Santa exploring Portugal. Andrew will be the red head driving the black smart car and I’ll be the moral support and all time navigator. This car is actually automatic, so I might take the wheel once or twice as well! Look out! This will be my first time to visit this part of the Iberian peninsula and I’m pretty excited to eat cod, drink Port wine and check out the old world towns of Porto and Lisbon.

Also, we wanted to tell the Cockrums from Knoxville thanks so much for coming to visit us! We had a great time eating seafood and exploring the Basque Country with you guys! While they were here visiting, we got to see San Juan de Gaztelugatxe, a 10th century hermitage located on the Bizcayian coast. Really impressive.

We’ve been taking full advantage of having the car to see as much as we can. Last week we drove along the Cantabrian coast and enjoyed rocky, un-commercialized, pristine beaches. On Saturday, we took a day trip to the northern part of the province of Burgos, to a rural region called Las Merindades. We did a 10km walk around a man made lake, the water from which supplies the city of Bilbao. While not the most spectacular scenery, it was a beautiful day and a nice change of pace.

And, last, Happy (early) Easter. We’re thankful to have been given this opportunity to live and travel abroad for a year, but we know that it is a gift that has been given to us by the Lord. I pray that you have a restful weekend and can rejoice in our Saviour, Jesus Christ. He is risen indeed.

The weekend: An update

Andrew and I had a nice Spring weekend in and around Cantabria. We took another hike to the top of the Monte Buciero in Santoña. The view from the top back towards the marshlands offers a complete picture of the landscape surrounding Laredo. Besides spotting the normal livestock, we got to see lambs and calves dotting the hillsides as well. After all, it is the time of year when new life naturally begins!

On Sunday we visited Bilbao and went to the Museo Vasco, a museum that chronicles Basque history, life and geography. I would recommend it for Hispanophiles, Spanish speakers and persons interested in geography. One of the most interesting exhibits was about life in coastal fishing towns one hundred years (or more!) ago. Talk about a hard, isolated life! Also noteworthy is a model of the geography of the province of Vizcaya that is interactive.

We finished our weekend off in style with another round of chocolate con churros and the movie Martha Marcy Mae Marlene, which is disturbing and only recommended for true movie buffs since the acting is impeccable. We’re off to a good start of the week here, planning for classes and trying not to think too much about our Spring Fever! Have a great week.

 

Bilbao

Of all the worthy places to visit in Spain, I think one of the most overlooked and under-rated must be the Basque Country. I know that I could potentially make a lot of enemies saying this, but I think it is par none in terms of natural beauty, outdoor activities, pleasant cities and cleanliness. We spent another weekend re-visiting Bilbao and San Sebastían and crossing Biarritz and Bayonne, on the French side of the Basque Country, off our must see list. In Bilbao, we decided to try a couple of things we hadn’t yet ventured to do: Actually setting foot inside the Guggenheim Museum in the morning and on the agenda for afternoon entertainment, an Athletic Bilbao soccer match for the soccer enthusiast in our family, my dad.

The truth is that I love enjoying the Guggenheim from the outside. It is an amazing feat of architecture and engineering that is said to represent either a ship in mid-journey (it looks as though it really is in movement) or an intricate flower. The city now celebrates the “Guggenheim Effect,” a term coined to describe the revitalization of the once dirty and industrial suburban landscape into an elegant urban space, replete with green spaces tucked away in far reaching corners and an uncanny knack for integrating the modern with the ancient. I recently learned that folks from Bilbao have the reputation of doing things big, so if you do something good, do it great and if you fail, fall flat on your face. This is evidenced by the city’s pet puppy, which sits in front of the Guggenheim. It must be at least three stories tall and its “fur” is an ever changing coat of fresh flowers. My friend told me that when the Guggenheim was first opened, people from Bilbao would ask visitors “Have you seen our dog?” And as a follow-up, “Have you seen his ‘house’?” (The Guggenheim building itself).

Inside, the Guggenheim houses an impressive permanent collection of modern art and a rotating exhibition as well. A couple highlights from inside the museum would have to be an exhibit made entirely of gigantic steel sheets, about two inches thick, that are arranged to represent the fluidity of time. It is interactive, allowing the participant to walk through the undulations of the steel walls and attempt to get a sense of what the artist is trying to convey. It is also a huge demonstration, taking up the entire floor space of a fairly large warehouse. For its innovation, its interesting to view. Also, our whole group found an exhibit of urban photography that dealt with the utter bleakness of the majority of urban landscape. It highlighted people who live in such communities interacting with their surroundings and left me with a certain ache for them, for them to see the beauty of God’s creation outside of concrete blocks and trashed courtyards. Another photo I found interesting was one of a high rise office building in Hong Kong. Though nighttime in the picture, each floor was lit with a sick flourescent hue and more than a few of the cubicles contained an inmate. Each floor was a repeat of the floor above and below it.

Besides these installations I mentioned, plus one or two more, I didn’t love the art the museum had to offer. Besides being quite expensive, the museum, for as spacious as the interior is, felt almost empty in some rooms.  There seemed to be far too many white walls and not enough artwork to adorn the spaces. Also, keep in mind I don’t profess to love modern art.

After declaring museum syndrome (the syndrome in which one’s eyes and legs are fatigued and in which one’s brain can no longer process the images set before it) we headed out for pizza and then to La Catedral, where Bilbao Athletic defeated their opponent, Málaga, 3-1.

Soccer is truly a fanatic’s sport in Europe. Tickets are hard to come by, the most mundane of matches are frequently sold out (imagine, and we’re in the middle of a financial crisis), fans come dressed to the nine’s in their team’s colors, each spectator seems to know the players’ names, to know the minutest rules of the game and they definitely have an opinion if the call the referee makes isn’t in favor of the home team. In contrast, I believe Americans go to a sporting event to enjoy time with family, watch the crowd, eat a hot dog and drink a beer. The game itself is almost a side show. Not so in Bilbao, where the fans sat still the entire playing time, didn’t get out their packed from home bocadillos until halftime and didn’t even need to be entertained by a Jumbotron that catches wayward fans on camera. Definitely a true cultural experience, I’m glad we went, but I’m also glad that the soccer is over in an hour and forty five minutes because our stadium seats were tiny.

More on the Basque Coast in the next post! Happy Tuesday.

Bárcena Mayor, Carmona y Comillas

To start off my parents’ visit to Northern Spain, we decided to check out the Cantabrian interior as Andrew and I hadn’t yet visited and we’d both heard exceptionally positive reports about what they both had to offer. Both Bárcena Mayor and Carmona are traditional Cantabrian farming towns that still maintain a way of life from over a hundred years ago. The most obvious indication of this fact are the homes. They are made of thick stone walls and timber framing. This is typical architecture for farm houses and many times, we noticed that what served as a barn was actually attached to the home itself. The streets are paved in cobblestones and each town feels like it is located at the end of the earth. (Bárcena Mayor is where the highway ends.)

We stopped in Carmona on a sunny, sleepy Saturday afternoon. I think we all felt a little strange, traipsing as tourists through the town, quietly observing the townsfolk going peacefully about their daily business. We could look from our vantage point on the street and see their life, like observing an exhibition at a museum, but the scene was taking place in real time. The man in his overalls brandishing his pitchfork, standing ankle deep in hay looked curiously out at us. A woman butchering a carcass laid prone on a wooden cart smiled while taking a pause in her work. Two elderly men wearing black berets sitting on a bench bathed in sun light took a cat nap. The black speck on the bright green hill, a shepherd with his dog herding sheep barely inched along. It was beautiful scenery and it was eerie all at the same time, to stare so blatantly at someone’s reality, as if it were a curiosity purposely left in a remote place for city people to come along and wonder at.

One of my favorite moments of the day was while walking through Carmona, we saw a farmer working in the hay wearing traditional albarca shoes. They are carved from wood and used primarily to keep farmers’ feet dry from the humid conditions and are supposed to be practical to traverse stables and fields. I’ll let you take a look at the shoes and decide if they look like they’d facilitate an easy stroll through a field bombed with cow patties, but I think I’d struggle to stay upright for long if wearing them.

To end our tour for the day, we motored over to the seaside town of Comillas. The town had the privilege of being patronized by a wealthy duke in the late 1800’s. Not only does a private teaching university financed by said duke tower over the town, but he also had a palace and a summer home constructed in Comillas. Not to mentioned he commissioned El Capricho by Gaudí. To round out our visit to Comillas, we passed by the massive cemetery guarded by a winged angel and checked out the main plazas in the city center.

Long Weekend: Picos de Europa

Since every other week our schools have arranged for us to have a four day weekend, Andrew and I took an incredible 2 night, 3 day trip to Los Picos de Europa. We rented a car on Friday morning and were on the road before 9:30 am.  Andrew adapted quickly to driving a stick shift and I served as our somewhat fearless navigator.  After a short two hours driving time (What freedom we felt with our “own” wheels! No stinky bus neighbors, no sick man behind you, no sharp curves into the mountains while riding on the back row of the bus, hooray!) we arrived in the National Park.  We still can’t believe how lucky we were:  the skies were clear for two entire days, the weather was perfect, temperatures stayed in the 60-70’s, we had our own bathroom at the hotel (!) and were served coffee and hot milk along with our buffet breakfast.

Our first order of business, once arriving to our final destination within in the park, was making PB & J sandwiches with the peanut butter Mrs. Dauna sent us in a package that arrived just in the nick of time.  With a sack lunch in tow, we ascended to the top of one of the peaks from the teleférico, cable car, that leaves from the tiny village of Fuente Dé.  We hiked down the mountain on a 14.5 km trail that wound around through a refugio, past billy goats and dairy cows, into a forest that is similar to what you’d find an East Tennessee- type landscape. That’s one of the wonders of the Picos: one second it feels like the Rockies, the next it feels like the Smokies. The hike overall deserves an A- rating, which means we thought it was a great trail.  It was difficult enough to keep us entertained, and the most frightened we felt wasn’t caused by the steepness of trail, but rather by the threatening warning of a billy goat to get out of his territory.

Our hotel, La Cabaña, was located in the touristy, but inviting, town of Potes.  We can definitely recommend this jewel as a home base for your adventures in the Picos.  It boasts scenic views of the Macizo Oriental and is located minutes from amazing hiking.  On day 2, we took another 10km hike that started in the sleepy mountain town of Espinama.  After we had finished our hike and explored the charming streets of Espinama, we treated ourselves to a menú del día of cocido lebaniego.  Since the people that live in the mountains year round are exposed to harsh conditions during the winter and early spring months, the typical food of this region of Spain is a hearty stew that is made with garbanzo beans, roasted lamb, spicy chorizo sausage and lots of pork fat.  While it was quite rich and delicious, it was also a shock to our normally vegetarian systems to digest.  That said we thoroughly enjoyed our meal and left fat and happy.  To work off our intake of extra calories, we headed up to the fourth holiest pilgrimage site in the Catholic church (according to something Andrew read):  the monastery of Santo Toribio de Liébana. Supposedly the largest piece of the original cross is housed there, but we were more impressed by the views back on Potes and of the surrounding countryside.

Our last morning in Potes offered a few clouds, but we loaded up the yellow Fiat Panda and headed toward the other side of the mountain range, which is located in the Principality of Asturias.  We expected more accessible hiking and fairly easy driving, but were quickly intimidated (or at least I was) by the vastness of the cliffs before us.   Somehow we ended up driving up a steep incline to a Mirador (lookout) to check out the most iconic peak in the park, Naranjo de Bulnes.  The cloudiness impeded our view and the incline up was too much for me.  Andrew did a stellar job driving even though I wasn’t too much help in the passenger seat, sweating bullets.  We decided to skip the hike we had tentatively planned from Poncebos to Bulnes since it was starting to spit rain (not because we were a little scared off the difficulty and danger).  We continued our day in the car by heading to los Lagos de Covadonga.  After another insane drive 12km straight up the side of a mountain face, we reached the aquamarine lakes that are nestled dramatically in between mountain peaks.  We were too tired and sore to do any real hiking, but we did check out two different lagos and in the meantime were almost blown away by the fiercest wind I have ever experienced.  This is definitely a popular local tourist site, since the park here was crammed full of grandmas and parents pushing strollers.  We headed back down the windy road, ate a sandwich in front of the cathedral in Covadonga and bid farewell to my favorite part of Spain thus far.  A quick historical note: Covadonga is also quite important in Spanish history, as the Reconquista began here after the Spanish were able to stop the Moorish invaders.  You could see why it would be tough for the Moors to continue on their rampage once you saw the geography of the area.  On the trip home, we stopped in Llanes, a sweet coastal town in Asturias, and took a quick stroll along the port.

I was actually sad to see the park fade away behind us.  It is a unique place in Spain that is relatively unknown by tourists outside of Spain. I would highly recommend it to anyone who loves the outdoors and hiking and I’m crossing my fingers we’ll have a reason to go back!