• Click CONTACT US in the footer if you have any problems registering for the forums.

Three weeks in Spain - Spring 2002

Doru

100+ Posts
By Doru from Toronto, Spring 2002. Doru and his wife Josette did a 3 week trip to Spain (hotels, no vacation rentals) in April - May 2002.

Introduction

My wife Josette and I returned recently from a three-week trip to Spain (April 14 - May 5, 2002). We came back overwhelmed by the breadth of impressions collected and with the firm decision to return. It took me sometime to catch up with real life, grandchildren, work, income tax returns, etc., and then to digest the kaleidoscopic swirls of memories and to try to organise them in a more or less rational way. The result of the latter is this rather long "trip report". I wrote it mainly for myself, since time has a habit of rearranging details and rounding up impressions.

Now, to the story. First, the following attenuating/aggravating circumstances may help the reader understand our personal viewpoint throughout the trip:

  • I have two artificial hips (yes, one on the right and another on the left; ha, ha, ha!) and so our daily routine and capacity to cover points of interest had to take into account the management of this circumstance.
  • Our latest meal of the day is usually in the late afternoon and this dictated some choices we made. After that, we may still have coffee, tea, fruits, desserts. When it was late and I was hungry, the bocadillos came to the rescue. There will be no impressions on Spanish-typical 10 p.m. dinners, but we compensated at lunchtime.
  • Finally, we are Spanish-challenged but our Romanian heritage, the Berlitz dictionary of Spanish phrases and/or the capacity to gesticulate in a meaningful way came to the rescue in just about any situation.
While all or some of the above may appear as handicaps, in final analysis they didn’t impede any of our plans; we have reached any point we wished to reach and then some, in our own way, style and fashion.

Our planning of the trip was exclusively home-made, based on information available on Internet, including many of the suggestions provided by the "travelspain" Yahoo group.

The means of travel were somewhat eclectic, much like in that movie "Planes, trains and automobiles". We just substituted automobiles with buses, and (at least for us, and after seeing the hazards of traffic in the core of Spanish cities) this proved to be a wise decision. We used trains (the Talgo from Madrid to Barcelona and the AVE from Sevilla to Madrid), plane (from Barcelona to Granada) and buses (Granada-Cordoba and Cordoba-Sevilla). Of course, we used plenty of taxis, of which there is a multitude everywhere in Spain and whose cost is more than affordable, so one could say we also used automobiles…

The trip was a success and Spain as a country won our admiration for how advanced and modern it is, while maintaining and nurturing its most extraordinary heritage.

As imposed by our condition of travelers, we made the acquaintance of the Spanish people through the local services industry and we found them (with two exceptions, see further on) to be unfailingly polite and helpful. We particularly gained a high appreciation of the Spanish waiters, a breed unique in its ability to anticipate and satisfy one’s requests, with a glance, a flicker of recognition and prompt service, while quite ready ignore and not hassle you so that you can enjoy your meal, coffee, etc. Professional waiters are an almost extinct species in North America but we can compare from experience the Spanish waiters to the French and Italian ones, and Spain carries the day in our minds. This was true whether we happened to have lunch at the elegant Caballo Rojo in Córdoba or a coffee and agua at a crooked table in the midst of pedestrian traffic.

Then the taxi drivers, with two exceptions: one on arrival in Granada, on a Sunday morning, when the Granadine (!) taxi driver had no idea (!!) that the centre town is being closed to traffic on Sunday mornings, and had to back off and drive around until finding the "long way" he should have taken in first place, upon which he proceeded to remonstrate with us; the second in Madrid, where the driver of taxi number 03556 tried to pull an aggressive scam on us as he brought us from the Atocha train station to the hotel. I am a very generous tipper but this chap got nothing.

The weather was superb throughout the trip. We were forewarned that April and May are quite unpredictable anywhere in Spain and we covered quite a bit of ground. Still, the weather cooperated. In three weeks we had exactly (my word!) one and a half minutes of rain in Madrid and also a single day with single digit temperature, that same day, in Madrid. And, again the same day, there were dramatic reports on the Spanish TV about snow "just" north of Madrid and 0C temperatures in Ávila and Segovia, places in which we enjoyed sun and heat only two weeks earlier. Maybe it was rookies luck, but we enjoyed great temperatures (and then some in Córdoba and in particular in Sevilla) and sunny skies everywhere. (Later note: the first few days after we left, it rained cats and dogs everywhere in Spain, except in Sevilla…)

Euro Long live the Euro. How much simpler life can be! As a former foreign exchange trader, I can attest to this with some competence. Spain adapted to this change seemingly with ease, the one exception being the waiter at a café near the Chamartin train station, who gave me 55 Euro change to my 50 Euro bill after a consumption of coffees and churros. While I appreciated the noble gesture, I made sure he got the right change back.

Internet cafés Everywhere, inexpensive, full of kids, and some more mature specimens. The cheapest was 50 Eurocents for ½ hour in Sevilla and the most expensive (?) Euro 1.20 on Gran Via in Madrid for 40 minutes. Everybody was helpful, particularly in helping me identify the right combination of keys and strokes to obtain the character @. And it varies from keyboard to keyboard, so better ask. All "kids" in these cafes speak at least some English, which makes it easier.

Seniors privileges The vast majority of museums and other visitable sites offer pensionista discounts, from half cost to "gratis". All one needs is the photocopy of the passport showing the date of birth. However, in some places, such as the Sagrada Familia, the ticket cost represents a donation for the upkeep/construction and one thinks twice whether it is right to take advantage of the pensionista privilege or not.

Hotels We ran the gamut, from 4-star hotels in Madrid and Sevilla, to 1-star and 2-star hotels in Granada and Cordoba. In all cases we looked both at the location and the cost factors. Within financial reason, the location and/or previous recommendations guided the choice. In some cases we probably paid too much but you win some and you loose some and in final analysis we came right on budget. In some cases, such as Madrid and Granada, we stayed at two different hotels, in the first case because of circumstances, in the second by design. I will mention the hotels as I go along. With one exception, we were happy with the choices. Even with respect to the one exception (Hotel Albucasis in Cordoba), one could hardly beat the location.

Airport arrival and departure In both cases we booked with Aerocity, for arrival via Internet and for departure through the hotel front desk. In both cases the total cost for two persons, including luggage, was E14, and on weekends there is small E2 extra. They were right on time and provided good no hassle service at reasonable cost. What we could not predict was that our plane will arrive 40 minutes (!) early, so we waited.

At departure we were very impressed with the efficiency of IVA refund: it took only a couple of minutes, and the customs and the refund office were placed thoughtfully just across from each other.

Coffee, chocolate, churros There are some debates group about the quality of coffee in Spain. The general tone ran from uncomplimentary to indifferent. We think we know coffee (great tradition of Turkish coffee, espresso, etc…) and café con leche is not exactly our first choice. We tried café sólo and in most cases were happy with the results, quite comparable with the level of satisfaction met in France when ordering "un café, s.v.p.".or an Italian espresso.

A few especially good coffees stick in mind. The best at a café in the Chamartin train station in Madrid (more on this below…) and at a small café-bar in Granada (two tables, 4 chairs, 10 ft. of counter), on a little alley between the Cathedral and Pl. Pescadores, just on the left side of the alley, sorry I don’t have the exact address. Another in Córdoba at the café-bar Júda Lévi, in the plaza with the same name. The third, also in Córdoba, at the Caballo Rojo after lunch but then, maybe the wine included in the Menú del Día may have made me somewhat easier to satisfy… We have also waited breathlessly for the thick, heavy chocolate promised by many. Well, we tried a couple of times and decided there was too much jellyness (?) in the choco and went back to sólo coffees. The churros were great just about everywhere we happened to have them.
 

Doru

100+ Posts
Madrid

One of the great cities of Europe. In fact, for us it is a must "come-backer". Because of some airline scheduling changes (too long to get into this here), we had one extra day in Madrid, for a total of one and a half on arrival and four and a half in the last leg of the trip. We stayed two nights, upon arrival, at Hotel Chamartin, a 4-star hotel (E124/night, breakfast not included) which merits its stars in terms of service and quality of rooms but is mainly a convention cum railway station hotel. The area around the hotel is quite grim and unpleasant: a lot of human misery around the Renfe and the metro station, the real Paseo de los Tristes… At noontime, two scores of suspicious looking kids were frolicking in the station, to the alarm of all concerned and with no security personnel in view.

But we also had there one of the best coffees in the 21 days of travel, in a café-restaurant right across from the exit from the Renfe station, among a variety of young office workers dressed quite formally mingling with some likely prostitutes and some down and out people harassed by police to leave the place, served by a waiter who didn’t know his Euros (see above).

After taking the metro for a first Plaza de Colón and Calle de Serrano view, and having sandwiches across from the Museo Archeologico at a café with the unlikely name of "Pêle-mêle" (pronounced by the waitress Pélee-Mélee!), we booked for the extra day a guided tour with Julia Tours to Ávila and Segovia (on these later). Back to the hotel, the service was impeccable and the buffet breakfast abundant.

At the end of the trip we stayed five nights at Hotel Regina, on Calle de Alcalá (E110/night, including a generous buffet breakfast). The location was exceptional for us, as we were kind of halfway to any place we wished to walk to. One advice: At Regina stay away from any rooms whose number ends with 25; they are stuffy and no amount of A/C will help, and they are wall to wall with the elevator shaft. There is an Internet café just around the corner, the Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando with its excellent but less known museum is two buildings away and the cafeteria at Circulo de Bellas Artes is also nearby. The street is safe day and night, the metro station Sevilla is at the door. The front desk was very helpful.

Visiting the art museums of Madrid figured at the top of our list of priorities. I expected the Prado to be exceptional, based on my previous visit in 1986. It was indeed. In my mind, it rivals any other major museum, anywhere. The museum logistics have improved enormously: paintings are not hanging anymore vertically above each other all the way to the ceiling, and all my favourites were still there, with the exception of the two Majas, who were on loan. Maybe I was in just the right mood, but El Jardin de las Delicias by Hieronymus Bosch moved at my number 1 after this visit. I could stay (preferably sit…) in front of it for hours and still find new and unexpected elements. And from Bosch, the first surrealist 500 years ahead of surrealism, I was able to draw a straight line across half a millennium directly to Dalí’s sleek painting of absurd subjects, unique visual feat.

We also consolidated our discovery of Zurbaran and Ribera and this helped us better understand the tone of Spanish painting.

We went to the Prado twice: the first time for the Spanish and Italians (throw in a Rubens or two…), the second time for the great collection of Flemish and German works. In the first case, at about 9:45 a.m., we went straight to the front door, where hundreds of people, mostly groups, were already lined up. Side streets up to Plaza del Dos de Mayo were crammed with tour buses. We entertained the idea of trying the Murillo entrance, or even to change our plans and go to Museo Thyssen, but the queue moved reasonably quickly. Once in, the size of the Prado is such that the crowds just seemed to melt away, unless you stop in front of the most publicised paintings, which is inevitable. Still, we had no feeling of crowding most of the time. When we left, we turned to the Real Jardin Botánico (a must) and thus noticed that the Murillo entrance was practically deserted in the early afternoon hour. For the second visit we used the Murillo entrance, in the afternoon, and we mostly had the museum to ourselves.

Special Note 1: A Goya "Tauromaquia" exhibition is on-going until June 30th on the second floor of the Prado, an interesting cycle of graphic works first published by Goya in 1816 dedicated to the corrida culture in Madrid. There are there 30 works, filled with images of great beauty of movement, intertwined with the violence and tragedy inherent in the corrida act. A must for those who are interested in this special world or who just like art.

Special Note 2: If you plan to get both to the Prado and to the Picasso Museum in Barcelona, look particularly well at Velásquez's Las Maninas (Prado) and then to Picasso's series of studies (in music they would be called variations) on the theme at the Barcelona Picasso Museum.

The Thyssen Museum is also a must for those who care about this "stuff". It must be one of the easiest to visit museums in the world. It is organised chronologically, starting on the higher floor with primitives and gothics, through Renaissance, grouped nationally and then going down to first and ground floors spanning from the 17th century to impressionism and expressionism. The collection is varied and wonderful: Veronese, Ghirlandaio, Canaletto, then Breughel, A. van Dick, Holbein, Dürer, Cranach, Rubens, Rembrandt and Ribera upstairs, then Ruisdael, Gainsborough, Fragonard, Watteau, Sargent, Goya, Pissarro, Monet, Renoir, Manet, Toulouse-Lautrec, Van Gogh, Cezanne, Degas, Derain, Picasso, Kandinsky-all presented in a way which facilitates the understanding of the evolution of this art. And if you have left the energy required, there is also a temporary Braque exhibition at the Thyssen, interesting in itself because it allows the viewer to see Braque’s work over time and the evolution (or rather the devolution?) of this contemporary artist.

On the other hand, we found the Reina Sofia Museum a bit more difficult to digest, less well presented and somewhat unilateral. But regardless how one feels about the museum as a whole, this is where Guernica is and one must go and pay homage to this great work and to its message, still pertinent 65 years later. Before going to see Guernica, we spent some time in front of the available Picasso studies in preparation for the painting. They helped us understand even better its compelling message, as they probably helped Picasso in expressing it.

I would add the museum of the Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando on Calle de Alcalá, with its smaller but exceptional collection of Ribera, Zurbaran, El Greco, Velásquez, Murillo and then Rubens, Van Dyck, Tintoretto, Veronese, Correggio. And you have the entire museum to yourself, as there is no soul in sight other than the vigilant overseers, worrying that we may hide a painting under our light coats and go back into the sun towards Puerta del Sol. (N.B.: We had also a personal moment, since one of the paintings, by Leonardo Bassano, "La Riva degli Schiavoni in Venice", allowed a glimpse into the area we will stay (hope, cross our fingers) this coming September).

To end the notes on Madrid's museums, we missed many others, left for the ubiquitous "next time".

In the outdoors, we were impressed with the wide boulevards of Madrid, the enormous edifices (the Spaniards do seem to have some trouble doing things at a small scale) appearing everywhere, the Royal Palace, while we were less impressed with the agglomeration of humanity and general atmosphere around Gran Via, Puerta del Sol and even Plaza Mayor. On the other hand, we loved the gardens of Jardin Botánico at any hour on any day of the week and the Parque de El Retiro on a weekend morning, when families, buskers, puppet shows, all mingle to create a unique atmosphere, quite sober and solemn in fact, with people observing patiently the buskers while kids line up and sit around their preferred puppet show stage.

On the food side, the experience in Madrid was limited (our choice), although we liked the easygoing service and the food quality at the Museo del Jamon on Calle de Sevilla and at the Palacio del Jamon on Calle Arenal, both in the vicinity of the Puerta del Sol, the artsy atmosphere at the cafeteria of Circulo de Bellas Artes (where we first had to pay a donation fee of E0.60-E1 to get into the building). But the best bocadillos (de calamares) were served at the Paellador Casa Luciano, a spot on Atocha 120, where one eats together with the old ladies and the young couples of the neighbourhood. No Botin for us; maybe next time.
 

Doru

100+ Posts
Barcelona

Barcelona was our next stop. We got there after a very pleasant 7 hours train trip on the Talgo, with tickets bought in advance via Internet and picked up without any hassle on arrival in Madrid at the Chamartin station at the dedicated wicket. To us Barcelona looked more compact than Madrid, with the exception may be of Passeig de Gràcia and Rambla de Catalunya, broad avenues just as many of this kind in Madrid but with less monumental buildings. Instead, in Barcelona there is Gaudí and other fellow architects and they can consume you if this is your beat. Probably since the great architects of the Renaissance there was no other such concentration of almost the totality of the works by one architect of genius as the case is with Gaudí and Barcelona: some 90% of Gaudí’s work was executed in Barcelona, which together with the rest of Spain, celebrates this year, from Easter to Autumn, his 150th anniversary, expressed in what can be called a Gaudí orgy of the visual sense.

As a result, Casa Batlló, which is located at No. 43 Passeig de Gràcia and which was totally renovated by Gaudí around 1904-1906, is this year open to the public for visits. We were alerted to this fact by the front desk of our hotel. The opening hours are 9 a.m.- 2 p.m. If you are there and are interested in the subject, do not miss two other Modernista works, one adjacent to Casa Batlló being Casa Amatller by Puig i Cadafalch and, a bit further down the road on the same street bloc, Casa Lleó Morera by Domènech i Montaner. The three are also known as Mançana de la Discòrdia (Block ??Apple?? of Discord), and are mentioned in any guidebook worth its salt.

Also on Passeig de Gràcia, at No. 92 (corner Carrer de Provença), is the more known Casa Milà (La Pedrera), an apartment building considered as one of the best examples of Gaudí’s work, which is also open for visiting. There is there an exhibition now, "Espai Gaudí", in the attic and outdoor terrace of Casa Milà, presenting drawings, models and photographs which provide an insight in the innovations brought by Gaudí to architectural design and gives to the layman an inkling on what is the physical structure beneath the unorthodox skin of Gaudí’s works.

While on the subject, not to be missed is Palau Güell, on Carrer Nou de la Rambla. There are excellent guided tours there and it is wise to get there, buy the ticket for the specific hour desired or available and then maybe go for a coffee at the nearby Café de la Opera, then back to the Palau Güell for the tour (or vice versa…). The Palau Güell is opened for visits and an exhibition this year, again in the honour of Gaudí’s anniversary, until December 30th.

We did our obligatory visit of the Cathedral of the Sagrada Familia, even took one of the available ascensors to a platform up at a height of 65 m. (the other, which goes to 90m, was out of commission, as it is most of the time, we were told) after a wait of circa 10 minutes and came back with different perceptions of what we have seen. My wife found the newer part out of harmony with the Gaudí section, while I had no problem accepting the more choppy, block-like cuts consistent with contemporary structures. My wife found the Gaudí structure somewhat menacing, hell instead of heaven, while I linked the melting Gaudí images with Dalí and thought more of decorative art than message. We both enjoyed the privilege visitors have in viewing the building of a cathedral as a work in progress, with masons and sculptors at work, in open areas or in englassed workshops, in plain view of visitors and the massive ornamental pieces strewn all over the floor of the cathedral as they wait to be raised and locked in place to stay there for centuries to come, high above, maybe hardly visible but locked into the final structure. A sobering thought.

To complete the Gaudí pilgrimage, and just because it is beautiful and unique, we went to Parc Güell. Just a word of advise on visiting the Parc; whether you have artificial hips or not, it is a good idea to take the metro and a bus or taxi ride from the metro station since the signs informing the public that there are 1300m., etc., to the Parc do not tell the entire story: the 1300 m. are all uphill! Once there, it is…. Gaudí! And a great opportunity to see Barça’s people at leisure, families, groups of old friends, men always walking sedately ahead deep in some unspoken thoughts with the ladies in animated conversation following at some distance, people strolling and accepting the surroundings as normal and natural, while tourist gawk at the strange structures, terraces and coves. If you get all the way to the peak of the garden, please tell me what you’ve seen, since I didn’t make it there but chose to trade the experience for a coffee and agua at the outdoor café near the entrance (or exit…).

As to the "other Cathedral" in Barcelona, if one is interested in visiting it (we were and it was worth it) pay attention to schedules published above the Puertas, as visits to some areas of the Cathedral follow a strict schedule, which may not fit yours. One of the bonuses from visiting the Cathedral is the gorgeous views of Barcelona from its roof.

In Barcelona we took the obligatory pedestrian walks around the Ramblas, Plaça de Catalunya, etc. We went to pay homage to Christophor Columb, in Spain a.k.a. and honoured as Colón. On the Ramblas we felt one can’t see the flowers because of the weed(s) (figuratively speaking…, maybe literally too) and so, we were less enthusiastic about it than most. We were astonished to learn that the birds in cages all along the Ramblas were left overnight in their cages, enclosed within the walls of the modular kiosks!

We visited the Picasso Museum at a late hour when few people bothered, etc.

We had a fortunate choice in Hotel Inglaterra on Carrer de Pelai, which offered us easy access to the Ramblas and Plaça de Catalunya while still being a bit out of the way, and also a side street which allowed us to avoid both when going towards Passeig the Gràcia or Rambla de Catalunya. Although the location was Triple A, in final analysis this 3 star hotel, at E139 the first night and E195 for subsequent nights, was more expensive than justified by the location. But the service was excellent and the breakfast (not included) was very good and probably saved us from an early lunch.

When we are in a new city and find a place in which we liked the food, we usually return there. This was the case with the El Mussol restaurant at Aragó 261, just off Paseig de Gràcia, further towards Plaça de Catalunya from Casa Batlló. The service was excellent, the vino tinto de la casa even more, the food was appealing and tasty, the place was packed around 4 p.m. with young people probably working in the area, much like the patrons of a café-restaurant I favour in Toronto (the name is "Jump", if you care to know). We also had our 44th wedding anniversary lunch there, enjoying cups of cava, for which they opened for us a bottle at the table but charged only for two glasses.

The Sardana dance I would like to close the notes on Barcelona with one of the most emotional moments we have experienced in any of our travels: the Sardana dance in front of the Cathedral, in Plaça Sant Jaume. We knew that something special in the traditions of Barcelona will take place and so, we walked towards Plaça Sant Jaume, not surprised to see throngs of people following the same way as this is also the way to the Cathedral. As we sat in the Plaça and had a coffee and, respectively a Mahou, we noticed that the long granite benches which line the side of the Plaça opposite the Cathedral, usually empty, were taken by older people, hundreds of older people in fact, most of them carrying in their hands all kind of bags, from simple shopping bags to fancy Louis Vouitons. Others stood around, chatting. Many of them were wearing old-fashioned tennis shoes.

On the other side of the Plaça, on the steps of the Cathedral, a music band began to assemble. As we were watching, the music slowly started. The people waiting on benches or standing around began to change their shoes, from the walking shoes they were wearing to tennis shoes, dance slippers, etc. Then they grouped themselves in circles. In the middle of the circles went their coats and shopping bags as the people forming the circles joined hands and began to dance slowly, almost hypnotically. The steps seemed simple, but as the music went on they become more and more intricate, although the dancers, with grave, almost expressionless faces, never left their initial spots. The circles kept shifting slightly back and forth, hands linked and up, for what seemed quite a long time.

After a while, a group of young people formed their own circle, which then split in two as more young people joined. Their movements were more energetic, accompanied with rhythmic shouts, but followed the same ritual. Within 15 minutes the entire Plaça was filled by dancers, old and young, some mingling, others changing circles, all in this quiet covered by the music and occasional shouts from the young dancers.

Thus we discovered the Sardana, a dance which represents one of symbols of the Catalan identity, the brotherhood. The dance, or ritual, is repeated on Sunday, at noon, at the Plaça del Rei. We remained touched for life by the dignity, the democratic-like equality of dancers, the feeling of inner emotion brought by witnessing the Sardana. If anybody is in Barcelona on a Saturday evening or noon Sunday, go to the Sardana, maybe join the dancers, but do not miss it!
 

Doru

100+ Posts
Granada

From Barcelona to Granada we took an Iberia flight. The cost was somewhat high (approx. E180/ticket) but against the cost weighed the prospect of a 12 hours train trip. One might think that flying is no way to draw significant conclusions about a country’s view. But Spain is such a big country! During the train trip from Madrid to Barcelona, one can observe minutely the details of miles and miles of rocky hills dry brown soil, scraggly weeds and wild herbs, all growth fighting the heat above and the rock beneath. From the air the picture is condensed.

As the flight progresses somewhat parallel to the coast, over Tarragona and Valencia, over the various "Costas" and then cuts into the peninsula, the mountains come closer, then the descent into the Vega starts and then the eye is straining to see Alhambra. Unlike my older son, who 28 years ago, on his first flight from New York to Toronto was able to identify and cry: "Daddy, look, this is the Niagara Falls", I can’t claim for sure that I have seen the hill and towers of Alhambra, although I think I did. No matter, for Alhambra will fill my vision that very same day as we walked for the first time along the Darro and up Paseo de Los Tristes and then will become the center of our world for a couple of days spent up the hill.

Because I have been forewarned that the climb to Alhambra may have been OK for me until about 5 years ago, but not anymore, we decided to split the stay in Granada over two days in the old city and two up at the Alhambra.

For the first two nights we checked into (another! No relation!) Hotel Inglaterra (3 stars, E102, breakfast extra) on Cettie Meriem, in the heart of everything (because nothing is perfect, one may consider asking for a room on the side of the hotel opposite to Hannigan’s Bar if one doesn’t wish to count every bottle drank there that night as they collect the bottles for pickup, usually at 2 or 3 a.m….), and two more nights at Hotel America (1 star!!! E90, abundant continental breakfast extra), right on the Real de la Alhambra, where we were well inspired to follow my boss’ suggestion and booked months in advance.

As soon as our taxi driver found the right way to access the hotel on a Sunday morning in the maze of the old town streets when the major arteries are closed to car traffic, we deposited our luggage and found our way to Plaza Santa Ana, the Carrera del Darro and the Mahou 5 Estrellas and/or coffee on the Paseo de Los Tristes (where nobody was really looking or feeling sad!) and the gazing up, to the wonderful view of the hill and walls of the Alhambra towers. This route we will take a few more times over the following two days.

"Downtown" Granada offers access to many unique views, and we spent quite some time in the Cathedral and the Capilla Real. Walking around, we almost "happened" upon Plaças Bib-Rambla and Trinidad (the later a disappointing deserted place), the market and the Al-Cacería, the old arabian silk marketing, where all that is silky nowadays are the voices of the vendors of souvenirs from the little shops on its narrow streets.

In Plaça Bib-Rambla we stopped for a sandwich and drink at the café restaurant Mediterranéo. Bad choice: my bocadillo tasted of rancid olive oil and my wife’s salad was overflowing with mayonnaise. But the Cruzcampo and the water were cold, a group of youngsters were dancing next to the fountain currently being renovated and the flower market coloured everything in a hundred colours.

For dinner, we asked the hotel’s clerk of a good place to eat and he recommended Taberna Salinas, just around the corner, on Elvira. We followed his advice and the result was a simple but excellent meal, with complimentary small plates of paella and later small glasses of fino. We had a full meal, including grilled swordfish, at a very reasonable price. Mostly young locals frequent the Taberna and everybody seems to know everybody there. Our waiter, Humphrey, a gentle giant, took care of us with a necessary minimal English (despite his name, Humphrey says he is 100% Spanish. How did a nice Spanish guy like him get the name of the good Duke Gloucester, son of Bolingbroke a.k.a. Henry IV?) I tried to prod Humphrey into further discussion on this subject, but duty called on him and he was gone. We recommend warmly Humphrey and Taberna Salinas, which is not mentioned in any travel book that I’ve seen. In fact, as we were ready to leave, a happy bunch of about 10 German lady tourists invaded the place and sat next to us. We ended up helping them to order; I believe that in the end all 8 or 10 of them ate exactly what we ordered: Ordnung must zein! Later, we noticed two young English girls checking on the taberna menu and encouraged them to go in. A really excellent and unpretentious place.

Another rather special place we found on a little street heading from the Cathedral to the Plaça Pescaderia: a café-bar with just two tables and four chairs and 10 ft. of counter, but serving a very, very good café sólo, the real test of a good coffee; again a place frequented by locals only.

Finally, for those interested, I would like to draw attention to the open-air herb, spices and nuts market, which can be found on one side of the Cathedral: a cornucopia of choices, from cumin to saffron, from chamomile to St. John’s Wart. Prices are reasonable and the vendors always ready for a chat and offer a lot of local items of which I have no knowledge but I am sure would interest the initiated.

We knew that I will not be ready to climb up and down the Albaicín, and so we decided to take an unguided tour on the Alhambra/Alabaicín bus. I would recommend the experience even to those who can climb up and down the Albaicín. Two special things to follow: the mastery of the drivers of these vehicles built especially for the narrower than narrow streets, who drive the little buses almost as if they are rides in an amusement park, and the interaction between the driver, who, in my mind, should have kept his eyes glued to the narrow road but who found the conversation with passengers a lot more interesting. Next time we will be in Granada will also make a stop on the Albaicín at the miradór; this time around we missed it.

For the third and fourth day in Granada we took a taxi and migrated to Hotel America, up on the Real de la Alhambra. Let me first sing the praises of Hotel America. We felt the hotel, room and services, deserve a higher rating than the one star. The room, although somewhat spartan, had all utilities needed, a beautiful needlepoint on the wall and a wardrobe which could surely fetch a couple of thousand dollars (OK! Canadian Dollars…) at an antiques auction in Toronto. Our room specifically (no. 125) had a very romantic entrance from the inner patio of the house, for it is a house more than a hotel, up a few metal stairs to a little platform, which we called immediately "Juliet's balcony". Beneath our window was an equally romantic fountain whose sound should have enticed us to a restful sleep except that they stop the water around 10 p.m.!

The location of the hotel is absolutely great: you take a right and you are about 100m. from the Alcázaba or from the palace of Carlos V behind which is the entrance to the Alhambra's Palacios Nazaries. You take a left from Hotel America and you are right at the entrance to the Generalife, the Medina, the Parador. Just a few steps away, the famous Parador of Granada charges about three times as much but to our eyes it has a tired feel and the service at the Parador is completely indifferent or worse; we tried to have coffees or meals there and had to wait up to 1/2 hour until anybody would even recognise our desperate signs for attention and ask us what we wanted. Compare this with the attentive and prompt service provided by Ángel (name, not function!) and the rest of the staff of the Hotel America in their beautiful patio, which from about 11 a.m. until late afternoon or early evening fills with travelers seeking to quench their thirst or to have a meal. Speaking of which, the kitchen of the Hotel America was excellent and the prices, considering the location, very reasonable. All in all, a most pleasurable experience! We will definitely go back there, that is if they will have us again, since at departure we forgot to return the key to our room... (which I have since mailed back). And we will take with us some W40, because all doors seem to squeak for some reason.

Back to the Parador: it offers unforgettable views of the Generalife and the valley beneath, and there are a few swings excellently located away from the hotel, where one can sit for as long as one wishes and enjoy the view and peace, then go back and have a meal, snack or coffee at Hotel America without having to frantically wave for attention. This is probably what Reina Sofia did when she visited Hotel America a few years back.

Now to the Alhambra. I will try not to compete with any of the writers of guides or fiction who wrote about this extraordinary place. I will only say that before going on our trip I was about halfway through the Tales of the Alhambra, which I found charming though quaint. When we returned to Toronto, I picked up the book and finished it. This time I LIVED the book. I hope the author will forgive me when I repent and say that I will read it all over again sometime soon.

If one has the luxury of time this issue of "before" or "after" applies to the entire Alhambra experience. For example, during the first visit (because we will end up going three times to the Palacios Nazaries during the two days we stayed there) I was so preoccupied with NOT missing anything and with taking photos of everything that, at the end of the visit, I told my wife I need to go back. Not surprisingly, she felt the same way. So next morning, after the invasion of the tour groups was safely over, we went and bought tickets for that day in the 4:00-4:30 time slot at the Palacios Nazaries and thus went a second time, with my camera remaining most of the time in my pocket (Oh, well, with the exception of a couple of panoramic shots I broke down and I "had" to take in the Patio de los Arrayanes; you know, the ones with the Comáres Tower in the background..). In essence, while during the first visit I "looked", during the second visit I was "seeing". Finally, with our pre-purchased tickets we went for a night visit and this is when we discovered a new Alhambra, the Alhambra of ceilings and high walls, which during the day, because of the play of light and shade, are not visible. At night the magical palace was almost deserted; there were probably less that 100 visitors of the 560 tickets available for sale at night. We walked around already familiar with the setting but discovering at every step a new angle, a previously not seen detail, and this gave us a sense of completion. We felt that we were now ready for next day’s trip to Córdoba.

A few words about the Alcázaba and the Generalife. I could not climb to Torre de la Vela, but I enjoyed the vistas opened from the walls of the Alcázaba in every direction. I also enjoyed the gardens of the El Portal, a reminder that the warriors who defended the place in times of tumult also liked to smell the roses and sought the geometry of nature, whether natural or wrought by the hand of man. This reaches its peak a bit farther up the road, at the Generalife, which can be understood better if first seen from across the Vega, from the gardens of the Parador. Unfortunately, the Moorish part of the Generalife, including the Palacio, was closed for renovations and we were stopped at the end of the first poplar alley. But there is silver lining to this misfortune, as this means we have some unfinished business there and a good excuse (as if we need one…) to return.

Note on the much-discussed subject on tickets to Alhambra. We pre-purchased our tickets via Internet for a day visit (Palacios Nazaries 3:30-4:00 p.m.) and at night (at 10:00 p.m.) There is little waiting, if any, when picking up the tickets on the day of the visit. If there is a queue for regular ticket sales, they may release the pre-purchased tickets from a separate wicket. There is a specified requirement to have your reservation number together with your Credit Card used to pre-purchase the ticket and ID, but when we went to pick up the tickets all we needed was the reservation numbers. Depending on the time slot you have booked, you may pick up the tickets in the morning for the 8 a.m.-2 p.m. time slots, in the early morning or in the early afternoon for the 2 p.m. to 8 p.m. time slots. Depending on the clerk on duty, they may make an exception: we were declined by one clerk the night visit tickets, while another clerk next day, when we went to purchase tickets for one more visit, just gave them to us. A few words on purchase "on the spot": they sell approx. 5400 tickets for the morning, 4500 for the afternoon and 560 for the night. When we went to buy tickets for an extra p.m. visit it was in the morning, after the onslaught of the group visits (i.e. after 10-10:30 a.m.) and tickets were available for same day's afternoon. In our view, and in that of the staff at Hotel America, the best time to visit with respect to crowd avoidance at the Palacios Nazaries (to the extent possible, of course) is after 4-4:30 p.m. when crowds thin out substantially and you may have some chambers totally to yourself. As to the night visit, there were hardly more than 100 people throughout the Palace, so tickets should be easily available. The night visit is a unique revelation. We found that it was best to go at night after we have seen already Alhambra in the daylight, as we could better perceive at night the many details not visible during the day. I know that others feel quite the opposite.
 

Doru

100+ Posts
Cordoba

From Granada to Cordoba we used the very civilised and punctual intercity bus service. A real pleasure to get a bus tour without the inevitable tour guide! Here, between Granada and Córdoba, the rocks give way to disciplined rows of olive trees between which lines are plowed in the gravelly soil to make use of every inch .The eye cannot rest on a point as the view changes constantly and so we are left with impressions of thick brush, sand, rock, olive trees, hills, hills, hills and long stretches of green fields.

In Córdoba we stayed at Hotel Albucasis (2 stars, E72/night, continental breakfast extra), on Buen Pastor. I have three good things to say about the hotel: Location, Location, and Location. And I have three complaints about this hotel recommended by Karen Brown and just about any travel guide (I suspect none of them stayed there. Or maybe they had some very special rooms).

--Complaint number 1 is the complete indifference of the front desk to your presence. The lady at the desk went on chatting indefinitely with a friend or neighbour, while I was waiting to ask a couple of questions before heading for the first time into town. I finally received a map but she could not find the schedule of the Cordoba-Sevilla buses, which I found in exactly the same pile of papers later, when there was nobody at the desk (which happened quite a bit). --Second, the wall insulation or the lack of it. In two nights there we became very intimately acquainted with the bath and toilet habits of all our neighbours, whether the flashing of toilets or showering or taking a bath, one could hear everything. These included when neighbours turned in their beds, when they turned on or off the lights, coughed, name it! --Which brings me to the third objection: you either had to take your shower or bath before 9 p.m. or there was no hot, even warmish, water.

Mysteries of Córdoba One resolved: the name of the flamenco tablao just half a block from Hotel Maimonides, on the same sidewalk towards the river, is Tablao Cardenal. One to be resolved: We stayed for quite a while on an early evening in the Plaça del Potro at a table of the café-bar La Ribera. Right across, with differently coloured tablecloth, is El Caillejon. Whoever made their way to this place, mostly tourists, therefore not well acquainted with the two establishments, will sit down at La Ribera’s tables. The tables of El Caillejon remained empty for quite sometime, until somebody finally ventured and set down. Can anybody explain? Is it because, as you come from the Potro, La Ribera is on the right?

We loved Córdoba. It was the place in which we ate best, with lunches at the Caballo Rojo (wonderful menú especiál del día at gastronomic level, with excellent wine included, at E17.88 (!!), good coffee extra, first class if somewhat stiff service, shared the restaurant with the beautiful people of Córdoba, total experience worth every eurocent) and Federaçion de Peñas on Condé y Luque (friendly service, beautiful patio, again excellent menú del día, but at E8.45 with extra for bred and coffee, a great bargain). Our search for good coffee was again rewarded when we found the Café Juda Levi, in the plaça with the same name.

In Córdoba, we crossed the Guadalquivir over the long roman bridge from Puerta de Puente towards Torre de la Calahorra and into the Plaça Santa Teresa with its beautiful little church, in striking colours accented by the setting sun. We visited the Alcázar and went twice to the extraordinary Mezquita.

The first visit, somewhat later in the day because we lingered over breakfast, was before the ticket sale was opened. We walked straight to the entrance, where two people greeted us; one was visibly a guard and his intention was probably to direct us to the ticket vendors. The other politely dragged us into the Mezquita while talking to us very excitedly. The problem was he was speaking Spanish, but at least I could figure out that he had started reciting information on the Mezquita. I asked him if he spoke English, he shrugged, to which I pressed a few Euros in his hand, and said "Muchas gracias, no hablo Español". He looked dumbfounded for a moment but surely recovered because we saw him later on entertaining another couple. But we had Mezquita to ourselves for approx. 30-35 minutes, before the large groups started streaming in and we roamed around undisturbed. We left with the understanding that we will be back.

We did, around 4:30 p.m., when again this incredible place was almost empty. The view of the Mezquita and the cathedral made a profound impression for us. The enormity of this space is barely perceived because of the forest of columns, whose paths are shortened where the cathedral lies. One can argue about the idea of the construction of a cathedral in the midst of a mosque, with the inevitable destruction of old to make room for new, but to the eyes with which we saw them that day, the two structures looked one, in great harmony, which is possibly the transcendental message the Mezquita sends.

The Mezquita also houses extraordinary treasures of the two religions. One is the cathedral’s Tesoro, the other is the mosque’s Mihrab. But the beauty of the Mihrab exceeds anything we have seen during the entire trip. In fact, it seemed easier to appreciate the elegant complexity of the Mihrab, its colours and arabesques, after being at the Alhambra. And, while the Alhambra impressed us by "multi-media" beauty (palaces, patios, water works, gardens, towers, etc.), the Mihrab, pre-dating the Alhambra by a couple of centuries or more, touched us in its utter simplicity, its marble decorations, the harmony of its polychrome mosaics, its luminous projection as a gate to another world. We found that the light favours the Mihrab in the late afternoon and that by 6:00-6:30 p.m. the entire Mezquita is totally deserted (although the Tesoro, which is remarkable, is not available for view at that hour).
 

Doru

100+ Posts
Sevilla

For the Córdoba-Sevilla segment we used again the inter-city bus, and were just as happy with the choice. Hotel Doña Maria (4 stars, E134, breakfast extra) is located right in front of the Cathedral though sufficiently pulled back from the traffic to offer refuge from noise and crowds. Our room was wonderful, large, full of light, antique furniture, etc. Well, the plumbing could have used some attention but this did not take away from the pleasure of having so much space and light. From the door of the hotel one has only to take a left turn in order to step right in the heart of the old Jewish town or simply walk across the expanse of the plaza and be at the gates of the Cathedral and of the Giralda tower.

We loved Sevilla too, and did all the obligatory, but very enjoyable nonetheless, walks and visits, although I had to skip on walking up the ramp to the top of Giralda, something I would have happily done only a few years ago, as I have done indeed with the Campanile in Firenze or Saint Peter’s in Rome. With this one limit set, we walked all over the old town, as well as along the Guadalquivir with the Toro D’Oro, the Maestranza bullring and the Opera. In other parts of town we paid our homage to Carmen at the Antigua Fábrica de Tabacos, the latter now a great setting for the University, Colón’s monument and the Jardines de Murillo running parallel to the walls of Alcázar. In the plaza of the Ayuntamiento we watched a karate (!) competition with hundreds of participants in the typical white uniforms, a choir singing probably the praises of the judoka, prizes being given to the winners of the various age and weight categories.

The Cathedral left us somewhat disappointed. Its much publicised size is confirmed by a prominently displayed certificate from the Guinness Book of Records (how cheesy! what has the world come to?) certifying that this structure is indeed the largest in the world by volume, which left us bemused, not impressed. Its enormous size reminds us how little we are, but this place lacks the warmth of the much smaller, closer to the human scale Cathedral of Toledo, for example.

The Puertas of the Cathedral are magnificent and present an imposing access to the vast space, which opens, with columns so high as if reaching to the sky. While the Puertas still display vestiges of the Almohad plaster and the Moorish fountain in the Patio de los Naranjas survives together with its Visigoth 6th century carved marble, once inside of the Cathedral between the Capilla Real, the monument to Columbus, the many chapels, the masterpieces by Zurbarán and Murillo, you are in medieval Spain with all its power.

By contrast, the Real Alcázar, where we benefited from the one of guided tours, given free every 20 minutes or so, was extremely interesting, not in the least thanks to its expansive beautiful gardens and its general human-friendliness. It is easy to move through, has graceful sightlines and gorgeously decorations in a variety of materials, and then the gardens, ah!, the gardens, so varied, so balanced, somewhat mysterious! I would have loved to know what went on in these gardens over the centuries!

To come down to earth, we went to the well publicised shopping area of Sierpes and Cuna, but other than the many stores with Sevillana festival dresses and accessories, all so colourful, stores particularly popular with moms and their daughters (probably these are "No way!" places for the proud Spanish Man), we were impressed mostly by the variety of the walking humanity.

The visit to Sevilla’s Museo de Belas Artes brought us back in touch with El Greco, Murillo, Zurbarán (I am trying to pronounce it the Spanish way and my tongue and teeth collide; I am also training on Zaragoza!), José de Ribera, Valdès, Goya.

On the gastronomic front we enjoyed in particular the lunch in a place we picked because it was late, we were hungry and it seemed like a nice place, full with locals. It was Bodequita A. Romero on via Antónia Díaz, one of the streets connecting the centre and old town with the river, and almost parallel with Dos de Mayo. A table (of the total of about four or five) just became available and was cleared for us. The food was excellent, the "house wine", a ’97 Valtravieso Crianza, was the older brother of the six bottles of the ’99 vintage of the same wine sitting tight in my basement waiting to mature, the service was great. We warmly recommend a stop at this barrio-typical place to anybody who wishes to get outside of the mainstream.

Sevilla is a traveler-friendly city, with many large or small plazas, in which one can, at any moment, find a table, sit and have a coffee or a drink, or both, while contemplating in what direction to turn next. Tables overflow onto sidewalks in the Sevillian heat. But if one wants to escape the heat somewhat, we found the right place: it is the "Horno de San Buenaventura", traditional cafeteria on Avenida de la Constituçion at Avenida G. Vinessa. On the street level they have an enticing array of deli products and of sweets, and a long bar always busy with people having a coffee, drink or bocadillo. Upstairs there is an immense salon, almost never full, where one can sit and have any of the goodies available downstairs. It is cool, quiet, usually populated with young couples who want to be by themselves, or groups of pensioners arguing the latest political issues. From the large windows one can see the Cathedral, the busy Avenida, watch the other tourists running to keep up with their groups, all this while one is leisurely having a snack or some specialty gateaux, a beer, a coffee, all in peace, quiet and, not the least, cool while the outside temperature exceeds the 30C.

Flamenco show For the only flamenco show during this three weeks trip we chose Tablao Arenal de Curro Vélez, in Sevilla. We were already aware of this group from previous travelers and asked the front desk at the hotel whether it is a good quality show. Their recommendation was without reserve and proved to be true. We chose the san dinner option, for E29/person with one drink included. Tablao Arenal is on Rodo, a small street between Varflora and Dos de Mayo, down from the Giralda towards the river, and by 8:55, when we arrived, the hall, which can probably accept up to 200 spectators, was practically full. The hotel front desk clerk promised us we will have very good seats and indeed, although we were practically the last coming in, we were whisked quickly to a reserved table for two very well placed on the floor, with an excellent visibility line. (Tip: The very best seats, if one can get them, are on the platform towards the back of the room. While one sacrifices proximity, there is full visibility all the way to the toes of the dancers, all the time).

As we came in, all around us the din of cutlery was deafening and we were quite concerned whether this will continue during the show. Some of it did, all in all not too badly, but bothering at times. It remains a mystery to us why people will come to such a lovely and lively show, where the visual part is so dominant and, instead of watching the show, keep their faces in plates and glasses as the case was with many at neighbouring tables. We also understand that this is the case with just about every Tablao, where the meals and the drinks represent a very important part of their cash flow.

But this did not diminish from the beauty and passion of the show itself. The group was composed of three guitar players, one of whom also filled as singer, three other male and one female singers. There were four female dancers, three of them quite young and very beautiful, the fourth a more mature, very handsome woman, who danced and also sang and who, we suspect, could have been the mom of one or two of the dancers and one of the singers. If she is not, at least she looked very proud whenever they were together on the stage and the younger ones performed. The male dancer, a blond chap who would have fit better in Riverdance (no ethnic profiler me!), was probably the only weaker dancer, not because of lack of energy and effort, rather because these were too much and too visible, and a somewhat mechanical interpretation. Still, he worked very hard and merited his applause.

N.B. Interestingly, back in Toronto, I read that the Riverdance company is in town and that their show includes flamenco solos performed by Rosa Manzano Jiménez, a flamenco dancer from Madrid, who has been with the show since 1998! One more damning proof against pre-conceived ideas!

Back to the Arenal group: the singers were excellent, almost three different generations, all singing with heart and soul. During the finale they also treated us with some fancy dancing. Of the three younger women, who all dance extremely well, one was particularly impressive. Of a very special beauty, of which she was surely aware and which she used very expressively and why not? It’s hers, she moved with grace and dominance and an air of total freedom, which charmed (re beauty factor above) but also excited. She literally owned the spectators and her applause were deafening and rightly so. Finally, a guest artist, an older female dancer, appeared sometime half way through the show and danced an exciting solo dance with castañetas. She was definitely a master with the castañetas but the entire dance was very elegant and expressive.

During the entire show there was an utterly palpable intense physical joy in their movements and a haunting sincerity in the music, and it is hard to believe they maintain this freshness while performing twice daily, almost every day of the week! The show continued to much applause and enthusiasm shared by the troupe and the public, except for my neighbours at a few tables around us, who were still digging in their deserts as the show came to an end. What did they see or understand from this show I have no idea, but they all seemed very content, so who am I to judge?

N.B.: During the show I experienced the only catastrophic incident of the trip: my camera ran out of battery. To understand the magnitude of this fiasco, I must explain that I have been carrying with me, in my pocket, not one but two spare batteries everywhere we went, except… you guessed!, at this flamenco show, when I forgot the batteries in our hotel room. Still, a few pictures were captured and Josette, seeing me so crushed said that if she forgives me, then I should consider forgiving myself. I still consider.

From the above, the reader may conclude that we liked the flamenco show. Indeed, we liked it so much that we tried to obtain some details, names of the performers, a programme, anything that would provide us a context we always expect in performing arts. Nothing to be found. We walked the next day over to the Tablao Arenal, but all we found were closed doors and not even a sign about the show. We asked at the hotel and were told that this is a permanent troupe, from which one or an another member drops off or joins occasionally, but which maintains a permanent core of performers. If you are in Sevilla, don’t miss it!

So, we’ll have to get back to Sevilla: so much to see, so little time!
 

Doru

100+ Posts
Last Notes

Day trips We took two day trips, both with Julià Tours. Initially, we planned to hook up with a known guide in Madrid, but we did not seem to be able to get in touch at all; something with his telephone was wrong and, although he had the needed contact information, he didn’t call us and so, we set out to go the guided bus tour route. Now, these day tours may have, sometimes deservedly, a reputation for rushed visits, people trailing, lack of discipline from travelers, in a few words better don’t. In truth, we had some memorable such tours, mine in Denmark in search of Hamlet (we didn't find him), or Chateaux in France, Josette’s guided tours to Pisa, San Gimignano and Siena while I was stuck in a meeting (do I resent it?) in Firenze, or the most memorable such visit, to Potsdam and the Palace of Frederic II near Berlin, where a young doctor in history who had probably supported her studies by working part-time for the Stasi, with a clear voice and clipped phrases in perfect English, captivated us with her description of the Palace, the Sans Souci, the King’d dogs, their treasures and their past. To this list of very special day tours we are now ready to add the Julià guided bus tour to Toledo, thanks no less to a lady guide with firm voice and just as knowledgeable. We’ll get back to it but let’s start chronologically with the Àvila and Segovia tour.

Day trips - Àvila/Segovia The approach to Ávila from the highway did not prepare me in any way for what the visit will uncover. From some distance the ancient walls appear smaller than they really are and it is hard to believe how much is hidden behind them. Only when getting out of the bus one can view the walls, towers and battlements stretching out in the distance. We were fortunate with a beautiful, sunny day in which the golden colour of the fortifications absorbed the light and glowed back to us. A visit within the city took us over to the Alcázar, then to the convent of Santa Teresa, a Jewish woman who converted to Catholicism and developed into a remarkable entrepreneurial person who spurred the building of many monasteries and hospices and who kept a great correspondence and precise accounting books, some of which can be viewed; then to the Monastery of Santo Tomás, where the Grand Inquisitor, Torquemada, is buried (N.B. This was the only time the word "Inquisition" appeared in any shape or form during three weeks in Spain, a great national amnesia, it seems, much like the Civil War); and finally the Cathedral. I felt a bit rushed and I resolved to read up on Ávila when I get back home.

But there was silver lining in this rush: for the speed with which we zoomed through Ávila, the reward was Segovia. The bus stopped just less than 100m. from the Aqueduct and we were given enough time to look and marvel and photograph and photograph, and… Looking at the Aqueduct, I tried to understand what I was seeing. I was looking at a structure built some 2000 years ago and still standing; the eye could not capture it all and the mind could not wrap itself around the concept that in this entire structure there is not one drop of cement, not one piece of metal, that it all simply stands, and withstands. I kind of went camera crazy and also used for the first time the panoramic feature of my little camera, as I was to see later, with quite excellent results. After a while, we had to disconnect from the Aqueduct, but the separation was made less painful for the prospect of a gastronomic lunch loomed. Now, Josette, who is a more practical person, looked kind of funny at me when I selected the option of the tour with gastronomic lunch. Still, I am a bit of a gourmand, not gourmet, and I knew that the specialty of the region was the Asado de cochinillo and I would not be deterred from tasting this delicacy I did not have since I was a kid in my country of birth. And so, while the other 54 persons on the tour marched into the "common" dining room at Restaurante Solaire (I should have known then and there that something is not quite as expected), four of us, i.e. my wife, myself, and a Costa Rican couple who was composed, unexpectedly, of an Italian husband and a Nicaraguan wife, walked to the "gastronomic" dining room where, we found out, we were the only ones to sit. Now, in Romania when we had "milk baby-pig" or "suckling pig", as is the translation of cochinillo to Romanian, respectively English, we just used forks, or fingers. Other utensils were not deemed necessary. However, I knew that the true test of the cochinillo is to be cut with the edge of the plate (I imagine, the edge of an another plate, as one wouldn’t contemplate shedding the cochinillo in the process?).

Anyway, after a typical (we were told) Segovia soup which turned out to be a minestrone with blood chorizzo, the Asado de cochinillo was brought to the table. First, the ladies were served but Josette, after a quick look, pointed to me and the waiter placed the plate in front of me. Immediately, the Italian gentlemen from Costa Rica, who told us he lived a few years in Madrid, asked whether he could get an omelette instead. And Josette, who could see a good lead, asked for the same. In the meantime, I was looking for a plate to cut the cochinillo, but none was at hand. I picked up fork and knife and applied myself to carving, which… proved to be a bit of a problem. To tell the truth, the cochinillo may have been, once, a "milk baby-pig" but not anymore by the time it was chosen to delight our palates. By then, it was quite advanced in age. The Nicaraguan lady from Costa Rica and I applied ourselves to the task, while our companions observed our efforts cheerfully but with some discretion. The wine saved the day. Friends, there is no good reason anybody should go to Típico Restaurante Solaire, at least not with a bus tour and surely not for cochinillo. This, and more as we can see, will be a very good reason to return to Segovia, so that I may photograph the Aqueduct some more, maybe walk along it, and have some real Asado de cochinillo. In due course, I should ask for advise where to find it.

Fortified by the experience and rested, we were ready to tackle the rest of the tour, which turned out to be very interesting and culminated in the majestic Alcázar Imperial with its Royal rooms and the incredibly stone-laced Cathedral, with the cloisters, the museum housing a reliquary by Benvenuto Cellini, the well preserved archives, the luminous Plaza Mayor, Plaza de San Martín, etc. Ah: the tour guide was laconic but fine. Back in Madrid, we walked up Gran Vía. Hm!

Day trips - Toledo To set the table, I must say that the tour was overbooked. This turned out well, since a second bus, with an additional guide, joined us. To our fortune, this second guide, a very handsome lady with iron controls, clear voice and great knowledge of the subject, was to become the guide of the "English" group, made up mostly of people other than Spanish or French, but not necessarily speaking English. Once arrived in Toledo she took us over and never let go. Making sure she repeated everything sufficient times until everybody understood clearly, she took us on a great tour of a truly great city.

Let me start by saying that everywhere we visited Spain, we trekked with some purpose to the local Cathedrals. These Cathedrals are not only extraordinary structures, some built over centuries, combining whatever style and influences worked their way in their time, but they house most of the time unique works of art and worship, and they also have chairs and benches, salutary relief for the weary traveler. The only Spanish Cathedral we did not visit where available was that of Madrid. We felt that after visiting the magnificent Royal Palace, attracted being by the great view from the Palace plaza and being by then very hungry, we better get something to eat. But the Cathedral of Toledo we liked best.

But first, we approached Toledo from the Carretera de Circuvalación, a long way of saying "ring road" in Spanish. Whether you are prepared for it or not, the view of the city as it rises before you is breathtaking.

Our first stop was at the Cathedral. It was also the last cathedral we will see during this Spain trip and it impressed us the most, as I mentioned above. While not lacking size, this was obviously not the main concern when this Cathedral was built, because it is manageable at a human scale. While Moorish arches and other Moorish influences are still identifiable, the gothic style dominates. The Puertas and the Cloisters creates transitions from and to the outdoors, the chapels and their grilles retain you inside. As one walks around the church, one inevitably arrives at the "Transparente", a bold physical cut in the Cathedral’s vaulting ceiling which lets light come in from the outside and project on the internal structure. It is framed in incredibly detailed sculpted marble, in which figures and scenes may seem to represent a style from which Gaudí may have taken some of his inspiration for the façade of the Sagrada Familia. I will not go on and on, just add that the Cathedral also hosts in its Sacristy and Vestry exceptional paintings by many Spanish and Italian masters and the beauty and value of items contained in its Tesóro exceed words and just must be seen.

Toledo being the home of El Greco for most of his life, one can visit the El Greco museum and the El Greco House, but these were not included in the tour. Instead, our good guide took us to the Church of Santo Tomé to view one of El Greco’s most famous works: "The Burial of the Conde de Orgaz". The problem was that a few other tens of tour guides wanted to do the same thing for their flock and the atmosphere at the entrance of the church was quite tense, with many competing queues and the darkly looming prospect of some pushing and shoving. However we were in good hands as our guide negotiated with some of her colleagues (it was evident they all knew each other very well) and some sort of order was created. After a short wait, we made our way inside and queued for our turn to view the famous work. All around us, guides were explaining what we were seeing in hushed voices and diverse languages, pointing to the two saints (if I remember correctly, the patron saints of Toledo) carrying the body of the deceased knight in his splendid armour, the witnesses and mourners who are said to represent the portraits of El Greco himself, Cervantes and Lope de Vega and more whose names were not mentioned, no doubt because other groups were waiting outside.

St. John of the Kings was our next station. Built by Los Reyes Catolicos in thanks for the decisive battle for the throne of Castilla, its interior was readied to accept, in due course, their remains.

But it was not to be as, for political reasons, they were laid to rest in Granada’s Capilla Rèal. The church and its cloisters are models of the Gothic style at its zenith, with almost surreal ornamentations, beautifully balanced proportions both in height and in depth.

On through the narrow streets of the Jewish quarter, we continued towards one of the two remaining synagogues from what used to be the thriving Jewish community of Toledo. That was Sinagoga Santa Maria la Blanca, an unlikely name for a synagogue, but readily explained by the ease with which religions used to appropriate (expropriate?) each other’s places of worship in those days. In this case the synagogue, the oldest of the two remaining in Toledo, was built by Moorish masters at the request of the Jewish community and to this extent represents a place in which three great religions met, unfortunately with unexpected results for two of them. The columns, arches and highly placed lace-like medallions are graceful and delicate; they try to stay out of the way so that the mind can concentrate on purer thoughts. Our guide then drew our attention to the lone sign of Jewish presence still visible in the structure, a medallion incorporating the Star of David, somewhere high above the arches. The synagogue had a subsequent colourful history: upon the expulsion of the Jewish population, it served as a hostel for what we could call today politically correct the "rehabilitation of underprivileged women", then was consecrated as a hermitage dedicated to Santa Maria la Blanca ("The White"), this latter detail having nothing to do with the colour of the synagogue itself but being the use by which the Saint herself was known.

At this point, the tour took a more contemporary direction, as we went to visit a house which also serve as the museum of Victor Macho, a Latin American sculptor who made his home in Toledo, up on one of the highest points of the city. While the house itself is beautiful in a rather understated way, the work of the sculptor is very interesting and allows a mental return to our own times. Another good reason, even better in fact, to visit the museum is that from its balconies and terraces opens an incredibly beautiful and complete view of Toledo, the river Tajo, and of the hills across upon which were built the country houses of the "Cigarrales", as the rich owners of the large mansions built on the hill are called. Further and down the bridge San Martín was calling, because it was lunchtime.

The problem was, if you wanted lunch you had to show your readiness to work for it for it ensued a most incredible descent on foot, from the peak of the hill all the way to the Tajo and the bridge, where our bus was waiting. I don’t recall anything from this descent as I was just watching my footing on steps and cobblestones, and with Josette fretful by my side, undoubtedly remembering the long days and nights of rehabilitation after my hip replacement surgeries and thinking that, after all, maybe all this trip to Spain was not such a good idea.

But we made it, and then we had a simple but rewarding lunch at a restaurant up the hill (we got there by bus, thank God) called Restaurante Cigarral Del-Rey. We were greeted there by three troubadours in what seemed to be the standard medieval-style costumes for troubadours as displayed in period movies, but most importantly by nice waiters and cool air.

The huge room was already almost full with what appeared to be the guys who were viewing the "The Burial of the Conde de Orgaz" ahead of us, but also with formally dressed locals who were obviously celebrating a family event. We considered this to be a good omen and indeed, we lucked sitting at a window-side table with a young French couple, with whom we had a lively conversation and shared a bottle of very good wine (not included, but ridiculously well priced). Among other topics, such as ice hockey, rugby, the recent French elections, etc., they asked what was our experience with tapas in Madrid and we answered "none" upon which they proceeded to tell us how they have been had the night before in Plaza Mayor where they were forced to pay 50 Euros for a couple of tapas and some drinks. We all agreed that one chalks this under "experience", as we did after we had coffees and cakes and had to pay almost 100 FFR at the Louvre café in April a year ago.

Reluctantly, we returned to our purpose and proceeded to the Alcázar, the landmark of the city’s highest point. Due to its position, it served as a fortress for successive waves of conquerors and just as often was destroyed and rebuilt, last during the Civil War. A permanent photo exhibition glorifies the nationalist defenders and their rescue by General Franco. From the outside, great vistas open in all directions.

From the Alcázar another precipitous descent over uneven steps and cobblestone, with me just as frantically, but successfully, keeping up with the rest and with Josette trying as unsuccessfully to not worry about me. Well, we made it to where the buses were again waiting, this time to take us to visit the Hospital of Tavera. This palace cum hospice cum church is distinguished by a number of things: it was the first major construction outside of the walls of Toledo as the city ran out of space for majestic enterprises, its courtyard is a splendid model for the Romanesque architectural style, it houses many works of art (among them, works by El Greco, including his "Holy family", Titian, Luca Giordano, Tintoretto and Caravaggio), a Church which hosts the grandiose tomb of Cardinal Tavera who used to live in the palace next door, and an exceptional archive with historical books, letters, parchments and manuscripts, with amazing leather bindings, some open to display the written text. Quite extraordinary!.

From here we were taken to a "typical Toledan" artisanat atelier and shop, with beautiful displays from simple jewelry to double-handed swords. I couldn’t believe my eyes, but one chap who came with our group spent a few thousand U.S. dollars (I saw the bill!) for what looked as one or more swords, no doubt a collector, I said to myself. Josette spent 3 Euros on a letter J with my enthusiastic encouragement, and then we both decided to splurge and bought a beautiful bell with a sweet sound for our granddaughters to play with when they visit. Like in any human endeavour, there was an ulterior motive in this, as we thought this would keep them away from a porcelain bell we have, which is much more fragile. Scrooges…

With this timely thought, we returned to the waiting bus and then started on the way back to Madrid, deciding that this was a good tour and that we must come back to Toledo and maybe stay there two or three days. It surely has enough to interest us. Now we only have to lobby the Toledo City Council for the installation of a few funiculars on some strategic routes.

Forgotten Prado tip This is an item I have forgotten with respect to a Prado Museum visit. One of the best-kept secrets of the museum is the availability of gallery pocket guides. About 4x4 inches, these little booklets cost only one Euro and provide an excellent overview of artist or periods, together with the description of the specific works of art found in the museum, their history and placement, etc. But, as always, there is a catch: these booklets are really hard to find and nobody will tell you even that they exist and where they are.

First, in order to find them, the visitor would have to adopt a very unnatural posture for an art museum, specifically would have to look down, at the level of the floor, rather than up. This is because these precious items are sold from boxes tucked away in all kind of unlikely places, not necessarily in the same areas the works of the respective artist(s) are, sometimes in corridors, maybe by the servícios, who knows…

Secondly, the sharp visitor has to have the required ability to distinguish between the guide dispensers and those infernal shoeshine machines still available in some hotels. Because they were probably the models upon which these guide dispensers are based. Now, if you have found this unlikely shoeshine machine and you have coin (Euro-coin, that is), it all becomes easy: you just push the money in the slot, press the appropriate language button and, Olé!, you have your guide. If you have enough of them, you would have just completed a fine collection of art books in a diminutive format. Good luck and, when at the Prado, don’t forget to look down in unlikely corners!

Describe the world in 800 words or less: Back to Toronto, by a remarkable coincidence, two major newspapers, one national (National Post) and one local (The Toronto Star), wrote about visiting Andalusia. The national lighthouse of thought managed to cram Madrid, Córdoba, Sevilla, Ronda, Granada cum Alhambra and Sacromonte, Marbella and "if you go" information in, let’s say, 800 words or so. The local "Star" managed a similar feat of miniaturisation, including Sevilla, Córdoba (where the Mezquita was expressively and sensitively described as a "…jumble of religious beliefs"), back to Sevilla, then Jerez de la Frontera, Arcos de la Frontera, Grazalema, Ronda, Zahara, upon which Granada "To be honest…was a let down, particularly after the pueblo blancos". Now, I understand editorial limitations. It is only that I get severe inferiority complexes when I need a lot more words for less.

Coda, Images I read for the first time "Don Quixote" when I was 9 or 10 years old. The book created in my mind an image of Spain. More than 50 years later, I was fortunate enough to see Spain with my own eyes. I saw Spain from the train, airplane, buses; I walked, I read, I tried to communicate; I saw with my own eyes or, on a few occasions, I was told by guides what I am supposed to see. I had glimpses of the North and of the East, I flew over the South. I saw palaces, fortresses, cathedrals, museums. Somehow, the Spain of the eyes of my mind still remained that of Cervantes, Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, particularly after anchoring the vision at the posada in Córdoba’s Plaza del Potro, with its darkly painted doors encased in the whitewashed walls. Now, it seems complete.

A couple of weeks following our return to Toronto, as were walking our beloved dog Frasier and the sun was setting on the other side of the Don River ravine, I thought that if I would have to sublimate this entire trip to Spain into one single image, it would be the first view of the rising walls of the Alhambra seen close to sunset from Carrera del Darro, the towers golden in the late light, as if waiting for us to come up there. I told Josette this and she agreed. How very lucky we are!

Dedication This summary of our first trip to Spain is dedicated to Josette, my wife and the proverbial "without whom this story would not have been possible", most importantly who is now stuck with the photographs from 23 films and with countless envelopes filled with credit card receipts, used metro tickets, entry tickets to museums, houses, cathedrals and synagogues, and whose task is to make sense of all these and create the trip albums. And to my orthopedic surgeon, without whose work of art, even with Josette by my side, I wouldn't have been able to go much anywhere.
 

Sponsors

Booking.com Hotels in Europe
AutoEurope.com Car Rentals

New resources

Top