Friday, November 29, 2013

Home Again

It is interesting to look back on a trip and think about the highlights.  There were so many, it is impossible to decide on favorites. Of course the back drop that made this trip so enjoyable was our fabulous Program Director, Filipa, and the great weather. Based on our two week visit, I believe Spain is a country where I could live. The climate, cleanliness, great condition of the buildings, history, friendliness and patience of the locals, and general geography of the country all contribute to its attributes. 

We saw and did so much.  Each city and town had something unique that made it stand out.  Besides all our tours, some of my favorite days were the ones where Bonnie and I ventured off on our own… Montserrat while we were in Barcelona, spending the day exploring Madrid, walking along the shores of the Mediterranean in Torremolinos. 

Below is the slideshow of our adventures. Enjoy the music as you watch a 20 minute pictorial summary of our trip.

Our November, 2013 trip to the Iberian Peninsula

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Day 19 ~ Cascais & Sintra

This morning we traveled to Cascais & Sintra.  As we left Lisbon and approached the Atlantic Ocean, we could see a lighthouse/fortress where the Tagus River meets the Atlantic Ocean.

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As we drove along the Portuguese Riviera, we passed through Estorial where we saw the famous Casino and Hotel Palacio.  This is the place American spies stayed during World War II.

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Just 19 miles west of Lisbon, we stopped at Cascais, a fishing town and a popular vacation spot for both Portuguese and foreign tourists. Due to Portugal's neutrality in World War II and the town's elegance and royal past, Cascais became home to many of the exiled royal families of Europe, including those of Spain, Italy, Hungary and Bulgaria.

We walked some of the narrow streets, shopped and took pictures. Various cork products are plentiful throughout Portugal. A cork purse costs about what a good leather purse would cost. Cork wallets, umbrellas, hats, and shoes can be found as well. 

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On my budget, I purchased a cork bracelet.

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Another important product found in Portugal is tile.  Many of the buildings have tile facades as seen in the photo below.

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This building in Cascais only used tile around the windows.  What do you think of that sidewalk? 

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As we continued our drive along the beautiful Atlantic Coast, we passed surfers, fortresses, lighthouses and the western most point of continental Europe. We rode through areas that reminded both Bonnie and me of the rugged Monterey coastline.

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Once in Sintra, we visited the Sintra National Palace. It is the only surviving Royal Palace from the Middle Ages and initially was a royal residence of Moorish rulers. For more than 600 years, it was the summer residence of Portuguese kings and aristocracy. 

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There were many beautiful rooms inside the palace. The Magpie room below is the only room that has retained its name from the 15th century.  It was the room where notables were received, and I included this photo to show that tile has been important in Portugal for hundreds of years. 

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We climbed about 100 steps including spiral staircases to get to the top of the palace.  The view of Sintra from all directions was  beautiful.It is no wonder that in 1809 Lord Byron wrote that it was the most beautiful village in the world.

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We arrived back at our hotel in Lisbon about 2:30.  Below is the view from our room.  Today was mostly overcast, but no rain, thank goodness!

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We packed our bags and gathered for our farewell dinner. This is Filipa, our fabulous program director. Her enthusiasm, humor, knowledge, kindness and consideration made for a wonderful trip.  We would love to join her for a trip anywhere.

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Before heading back to our room to call it a day, we went to the roof top of our hotel for this beautiful view of the Castle of São Jorge on the hill by hotel. It is a Moorish castle occupying a commanding hilltop overlooking the historic center of Lisbon and Tagus River. The strongly fortified citadel dates from the medieval period of Portuguese history.

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Tomorrow, we are up at 3:30 AM for our 7:30 flight home.  We have about a three hour layover in London and will arrive in San Francisco about 5:30 PM. That’s 1:30 AM Portuguese time.  It will be a long day!  Here’s hoping for good movies.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Day 18 ~ Lisbon

Lisbon, the city built on seven hills, has been Portugal’s capital since the 13th century.  It was first settled by the Phoenicians in the twelfth century BC, followed by the Carthaginians, Romans, Germanic tribes and and Visigoths.  In 714 AD, the Moors captured Lisbon and held it for 400 years. 

Vasco da Gama set sail for India from Lisbon in 1497, and the city became a center for successful voyages of discovery throughout the East and the New World for the next 300 years.  Below is the Padrão dos Descobrimentos (Monument to the Discoveries) built in 1960 to the many explorers who set sail from this very site. 

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Across the street is the 16th century Church of the Jeronimos Monastery. Explorers would enter the monastery to pray before they set sail.  The exterior and interior of the church is an example of the new Manueline architectural style with very ornately carved decorative motifs. 

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The tomb of Vasco da Gama can be found inside the church. The monastery is one of the only historic buildings that survived a terrible earthquake and tsunami that hit Lisbon in 1755.  The monarch and his family just happened to be in the church rather than the royal palace, and for that reason, they all survived.

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The Belém Tower, one of the most famous and visited landmarks in Portugal, was constructed between 1515 and 1519. The tower was commissioned by King John II to be part of a defense system at the mouth of the Tagus river and a ceremonial gateway to Lisbon

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Looking in the opposite direction of the tower, you can see Lisbon's 25 de Abril Bridge, the first bridge built across the Tagus River.  It was designed by the same person who designed the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. Notice the similarity?

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Lisbon has many museums and monuments.  We visited the Carriage Museum and saw carriages that dated back to the 1500’s.  The most ornate carriage was the Embassy Coach for the Pope from 1716 in an Italian baroque style. 

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A few other important buildings we passed included the House of Parliament and Palace of Belém, official residence of the Portuguese President.

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The day has been an overcast, misty day.  Bonnie and I walked to the Chiado district, a popular area for shopping and had a late lunch. After lunch we were greeted by heavier rains as we scurried home to our hotel where we remained for the rest of the evening.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Day 17 ~ Horse Ranch en route to Portugal

This morning were up early and on the road to Portugal.  Unfortunately, we have lost our wonderful sunshine; but we are still dry. On our way to Brito Paes Stud Ranch, we rode through the countryside of Algarve, Portugal. Not far from the ranch, we passed some of the valuable black pigs that feast on the acorns.

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Maria Brito Paes, the owner of the horse ranch, greeted us as we entered our large dinning room.

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Our delicious meal consisted of soup, salad, rice, chicken and vanilla ice cream with a wonderful sauce. The symbol on the back wall is the family brand.  

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The surroundings were beautiful, and this Lusitanian mare loved attention.

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This building housed the arena and an upstairs area for us to sit, learn about the ranch, and watch a horse presentation. This stud ranch has been around for two centuries.  Initially, working horses were bred; but for the last 25 years, the ranch has been  dedicated to breeding sport and bullfighting horses.  Currently, there are 15 Lusitanian mares and 5 studs which are Lusitanian, English and German. 

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I had a lot of difficulty getting a good photo of these beautiful horses, but the video below gives you an idea of their athleticism.

Lusitanian horse in training ring.

When we left the ranch, we stopped by an area with cork oak which is most commonly found in the Mediterranean region.  Portugal has the largest cork oak forests and produces more than twice as much as any  other country.  Cork bark is not stripped from the tree until it is 25 years old and can be harvested every nine years thereafter. The best cork for production of bottle stoppers is achieved after the third stripping. Notice that the tree below has different sections and numbers. The red section at the bottom with the number 3 was stripped in 2013.  Above the red section, the 6 indicated that portion of the tree was stripped in 2006, and the 0 in 2010.

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The upper limbs of a tree are usually not stripped because it is too difficult and not profitable.

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Pictured here is  a pile of cork that has been stripped from an oak tree. The black area of the tree in the background has been stripped. 

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From here, we continued  to Lisbon.  We arrived at our hotel around 6:00 PM; and after briefly settling in our rooms, we went on a short walk with our program director to familiarize ourselves with the area.  Tomorrow, we will go on a tour of Lisbon. 

Day 16 ~ Seville

Like so many cities in Spain, Seville was settled by the Roman, Jews, Moors and Christians. With a population of over 703,000, it is the fourth largest city in Spain. Located 50 miles from the Atlantic Ocean on the banks of the Guadalquivir River, it is the only inland navigable port in Spain. Below is the 12-sided Torre del Oro built by the Moors at the start of the 1200's AD which controlled access to the Guadalquivir River back in the day.

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After the discovery of the Americas, Seville became one of the economic centers of the Spanish Empire as its port monopolized the trans-oceanic trade. All goods from the New World passed through the Casa de Contratación (House of Trade); and so began the golden age of development for Seville. In 1519, Ferdinand Magellan departed from Seville for the first circumnavigation of the Earth. Unfortunately, in 1717, shipping ceased because of the silting up of the harbor by the Guadalquivir River; and the city went into an economic decline. With the Ibero-American Exposition of 1929 and Expo'92, Seville attempted to improve its economy. The Alamillo Bridge over the Guadalquivir River, designed by Santiago Calatrava, was constructed as part of infrastructure improvements for Expo 92.

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Our first stop was in the Macarena District (yes, like the dance). Here we visited the Catholic Church of La Macarena, patroness of the bullfighters, built in 1939. The ornate alter has a life size Madonna whose garments are changed with the season.

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At our next stop, we found a very happy pooch feasting on one of those black-hooved hams I wrote about yesterday.  I wonder if he has a mature enough pallet to taste the difference. 

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After walking though the Jewish Quarter, we arrived at the Seville Cathedral. Originally built as a Mosque in the 1100’s, it was consecrated as a cathedral in 1248. An earthquake destroyed everything except the minaret which had been turned into the Giralda bell tower. Reconstruction began in 1434, and now this Gothic cathedral is the largest in terms of area and volume in the world (I saw the certificate from Guinness Book of World Records in the church). Below is the exterior of the cathedral and the bell tower.

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Among its many claims to fame, this cathedral also is home to the remains of Christopher Columbus.

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Even though Seville is the tapas capital of Spain, we warmed up with a bowl of lentil soup at lunch. After lunch we found our group of our fellow travelers waiting for Filipa to help us negotiate the trolley back to our hotel.

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Once there we got t ready for our exciting dinner and Flamenco show. Seville just happens to be the home of this beautiful dance. Below is what happens if you buy castanets and tell your tour director you want a lesson. You get called to the stage for instruction. I was told that in about 6 months I should be an expert. 

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After our demonstration and dinner, the show began.  The picture on the left is Spanish ballet where castanets are used.  On the right is Flamenco which does not use the castanets but frequently uses the hat and the flounced dress.

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Below is a short video I took of the ballet.

Ballet using castanets

While watching, I sipped on my final Sangria in Spain. Tomorrow, we are off to Portugal.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Day 15 ~ Ronda & Seville

Today we visited Ronda en route to Seville.  The drive was beautiful as we motored through mountain passes covered with oak and pines as well as olive and citrus orchards. 

Ronda, with a current population of about 36,700, is one of the oldest cities in Spain.  Around the city are remains of prehistoric settlements dating to the Neolithic Age, including the rock paintings of Cueva de la Pileta. In the sixth century BC, Ronda was settled by the early Celts; and like many other cities in Spain, the Romans then the Moors settled here.

Our first stop was La Casa del Jamón.  All over Spain you can see hams hanging by their hooves is store windows. It is important to leave the hooves because that is what indicates the quality of the ham.  These black hooved hams are very special because of their diet of acorns and sell for over $25 a pound.

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Our local guide, Andreas, gave us samples of the paper thin slices of ham artfully carved by the butcher.

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Ronda is famous as the birthplace of modern bullfighting, The Plaza de Toros is the oldest bullfighting ring in Spain that is still used. The bullfight, Corrida Goyesca, only happens once a year; and  only the best of the best enter the ring.

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This Mecca for bullfighters and bandoleros was the residence of both Orson Welles and Ernest Hemingway for many years. Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls describes the murder of loyalists early in the Spanish Civil War by being thrown from these cliffs of El Tajo by Franco’s forces. The river gorge is 360 ft. deep. 

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Puente Nuevo (New Bridge), an amazing architectural feat built between 1755 and 1793, spans this gorge and connects the old city with the new city.

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The vistas from Casa don Bosco in the old city of the area below Ronda were magnificent.  Photos just can’t do it justice.

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After our tour, we had lunch on our own and did a bit of shopping.  We left Ronda a little after 3:00 and arrived in Seville about 5:00 PM.  Before going to our hotel, we visited Plaza de España, built in 1928 for the Ibero-American Exposition of 1929. It is a landmark example of the Renaissance Revival style in Spanish architecture. We were blessed with another beautiful day of sunshine.

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Once at our hotel, we freshened up a bit, unpacked the necessities and enjoyed a lovely dinner at the hotel with our fellow travelers.  Tomorrow we explore other parts of Seville. 

Monday, November 18, 2013

Day 14 ~ Málaga and Salinas

Today we hopped on the bus and rode about 45 minutes to Málaga.  With the 6th largest population in Spain, it is the southernmost large city in Europe. Since it has one of the warmest winters in Europe, it is a very popular tourist destination.  Below is a view of the city’s coastline with the bull ring in the foreground. (Notice yet another sunny day.)

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Málaga's history spans about 2,800 years, making it one of the oldest cities in the world. It was founded by the Phoenicians from Tyre, Lebanon as Malaka in about 770 BC. Around 218 BC it came under the rule of the Roman Republic and later the Roman Empire as Malaca . After the fall of the empire, it was under Islamic domination as Mālaqah for 800 years; but in 1487, it came under Christian rule in the Reconquista. Below you can see the ruins of the Roman Theater in the foreground and the Islamic Alcazaba in the background.

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One of Málaga's important native sons is Pablo Picasso, born in 1881.  The city has one of his important museums  and this bronze sculpture.  Another famous person born in Málaga is Antonio Banderas.  Unfortunately, he wasn’t around to cozy up to.

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Holy Week is very important in Malaga as it is in many places in Spain.  These huge ornate “tronos” (floats), some weighing more that 5 tons, are carried through the streets by more than 250 members of Nuestra Senora de Esperanza.

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After our walking tour around the old town of the city, we loaded our bus and continued on to Salinas where six of us joined Angelina and her mother, Pura, for a home-hosted lunch.  Our hosts spoke no English so I finally was able to practice my Spanish and was the group interpreter. As you can tell, hand signals help.

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Angelina and Pura shared their lovely home which is located in the country surround by olive trees.  They grow their own vegetables, raise their own chickens, and collect the eggs. Most of our delicious meal was made from things they either raised or grew.  We arrived hungry, but left very satisfied after our six course meal.

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With great reluctance, we returned to our hotel in Torremolinos around 5:00 PM. We decided to walk off our great meal and were treated to this beautiful early evening sky.

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So, it’s time to finish packing and get ready to move on to Ronda tomorrow morning and then to Seville to spend two nights.