Saturday, November 30, 2013

Spain and Portugal - November 14th to 30th, 2013

Madrid, your Royal Palace, Prado and Jamon.
Sofia, Thyssen and Puerta Del Sol...
Barcelona, oh! That Sagrada Familia!!
Oh Gaudi, you are with familia'...
Montserrat was awesomely great,
The choir was certainly worth the wait.
Granada's Alhambra was a revelation.
Flamenco...added the Arab, Spanish, Indian relation...
Sevilla! You fair city...
Alcazar you little beauty.
Cordoba - the light during dark ages,
Your arches now adopted by new sages.
Cadiz, a sleepy little town..
With gardens, blue seas, and no reason to frown.
Lisbon your Fado, like blues, so enchanting...
Looking at your bridge, cable car...I'm San Francisco reminiscing.
How many people coming back from holiday can say...
'I'm heading back to the San Francisco Bay'

Good websites: 
Train tickets:
Tickets can be purchased in the US and they send you the pdf. Print and carry them with you. We bought most of the long distance train tickets before leaving the US. The day trip tickets to Cordoba and Cadiz (from Seville) were purchased on the day we traveled.
All BnB:
Again, as in Italy, we had great experiences with our BnB bookings. They were all well located and really nice places with friendly hosts. 
We only carried backpacks with check in luggage.

(More tips on my previous post on Italy)

The pros and cons of a winter trip:
Cons: November is cold and could be wet. It did rain while we were in Madrid and Barcelona. Some sites close a bit earlier in winter. Shorter days so less daylight for outdoor sites.
Pros: Low tourist season so plenty of time to see all the sites. No long lines. No need to buy City Passes as the lines at all the museums and sites were very short. Although cold, the weather was nice for walking in Southern Spain. Just layer up and you will be comfy.
Plenty of good deals for traveling – airfares and hotels/BnBs were cheaper. Restaurants were not crowded and we got some great service and food.

The five stooges

The Trip:
Given that our company had a forced shutdown for the Thanksgiving week, we had started looking for places to visit. After researching New Zealand for a November trip...found that too expensive and saw some rather decent airfares for Spain. We worked our itinerary; going from Madrid to Seville to Granada to Barcelona then on to Lisbon and back. It was then that Balu mentioned that he too was going to Spain and Chandrika and Muneer would be joining him there. They were doing the exact opposite trip...we reworked our schedule to match their trip so we all could be together. Switched the trip to Madrid to Barcelona to Granada to Seville to Lisbon.

As a kid I remember reading about Cordoba and the great Moorish Caliphate in Spain. I was really excited that we would finally get to see it.

Day 1: Landed in Madrid and took the Yellow Bus 'Airport Express' to the main train station 'Atocha'. IT WAS COLD!! 5C!! We were welcomed with piles of trash! Madrid was in the midst of a garbage strike! Horrible! The BnB was about a 10 min walk away...having printed out the directions we started following Google maps...bad took us the long way. Anyway after a good 40 min walk we reached the BnB a few minutes early. Miguel got there at 11:30AM sharp! Showed us in, a cute and clean place, well located. It was walking distance to everything...30 mins to the Royal Palace and 15 mins to the Prado and Thyssen museums.

BnB in Madrid

The early morning and the long flight got to us, so decided to sleep in for a few hours and head out later in the evening. 6:00pm headed out to Plaza Mayor, which was about 10 mins from our BnB. Walked around and went into the Mercado De San Miguel for a bite. Walked around this market, tasted some wines and sampled the jamon (Cured Ham). We strolled around to Puerta Del Sol and called it a night.

 Plaza Mayor
 At Mercado de San Miguel

Day 2: Headed to the Royal Palace - another cold morning. Bit overcast. No lines! Got our tickets for the palace and spent a few hours taking in the various rooms, art and opulence! We checked out the Armory room as well, well documented collection of all the various arms and full armors dating back to the 15th century. Walked across to the Almudena Cathedral. The views of the palace from the top were great. No photography allowed inside the Palace or the Royal Armory...hence no photographs (sad!).
 Almudena Cathedral
 Royal Palace from the Cathedral
Almudena Cathedral

Onto the Prado Museum across town (25/30 min walk)...where we spent the next five and a half hours. The museum is brilliant! The collection of Velazquez, Goya, El Greco, Titian, Rubens is a feast! After coming out we tried to see if we could get into the Thyssen (called a museum featuring the minor works of major artists and major works of minor artists)...but were a too late.
 Velazquez 'Apollo at the forge of Vulcan'
 Camillo Torregiani's 'Isabella II veiled' in marble, a wet drapery technique.

So we walked back towards the Mercado De San Miguel and stopped in for dinner at a cave like basement restaurant (cannot remember the name of the place) but the food and wine was good.

Day 3: Walked to the Reina Sofia Museum - bit of an odd ball museum - not our kind of art...lots of rooms with weird 'art' like a bunch of tiles in the center of the room! A room full of parrots (in cages). Some random 'Modern Art'. The top draw was Picasso's Guernica. Got bored and left to see the Thyssen. Lots of good impressionist work and works of lesser known artists. Definitely worth a visit (after seeing the Prado). Had an early train to Barcelona the next morning so we picked up some wine and ham and headed home for an early, light dinner.

A couple at the Thyssen Museum
 Reginald Marsh 'The Battery' - Thyssen

Day 4: Got to Atocha station (it was drizzling) and after a quick security check we figured out that our train was cancelled due to a strike...luckily they put us on the next one, all of a 20 min delay. A nice smooth ride to Barcelona and we were there by 10:30AM. Walked to the BnB and met Chandrika, Muneer and Balu.
Left the house at noon and walked the Ramblas to the was raining 'gatos y perros'!! We walked to the Sagrada Familia, Gaudi's monstrosity that is still decades away from being finished. The inside is huge, but the roof leaks! Buckets placed in places to collect the much for modern construction! I was shivering! We all were drenched and it was cold & windy. Took a taxi back home and after warming up headed out for dinner to Cerveceria Catalana...the place was packed! After hanging out at the bar for half an hour we got a table. The food was good. We then headed to a bar called Bar Obama. Had a great evening!
 Casa Mila
 Inside Sagrada Familia

Day 5: Left home at 9:00AM and got to Montserrat which is about an hour from Barcelona. Montserrat is a mountain range and there is a Benedictine Abbey nestled amongst the mountains. We took the cable car to the monastery and made it just in time for the Montserrat boy's choir (one of the oldest in Europe). The entire setting is beautiful and the choir was great. We took a short walk to the top of the mountain and made it back to Barcelona in time for dinner. Dinner was at Restaurant Sensi.
 The virgin of Montserrat
The Benedictine church

DAY 6: Captivating Andalusia! The highlight of the trip! It was here that Islamic Spain lit the lamp of enlightenment that ultimately led to the renaissance in Europe. Europe was still in the dark ages while the grand Caliphate of Cordoba and later, the last bastion of Moorish Spain, Granada, were at the pinnacle of poetry and scientific knowledge.

History, they say, is written by the victors...the snippet (below) talks of the near obliteration of Moorish history in Spain.

"Never was the Annihilation of a people more complete than that of the Morisco-Spaniards. Where are they? Ask the shores of the Barbary and its desert places [...] They have not even left a distinct name behind them, though for nearly eight centuries they were a distinct people [...] A few broken monuments are all that remain to bear witness to their power and dominion, as solitary rocks, left far in the interior, bear testimony to the extent of some vast inundation. Such is the Alhambra [...] an elegant memento of a brave, intelligent, and graceful people, who conquered, ruled, flourished, and passed away." - Tales of the Alhambra - Washington Irving.

-----------------------------wikipedia quote------------------
Legend has it that as the royal party moved south toward exile, they reached a rocky prominence which gave a last view of the city. Muhammad XII [Boabdil] reined in his horse and, surveying for the last time the Alhambra and the green valley that spread below, burst into tears. When his mother approached him she said :
"Thou dost weep like a woman for what thou couldst not defend as a man."
ابك اليوم بكاء النساء على ملك لم تحفظه حفظ الرجال
---------------------------end quote----------------------------
[] added by me.

Got to the airport to head to Granada only to find out that Vueling had overbooked the flight. After much back and forth we managed to get ourselves on Iberia and made it to Granada at 2:00pm...lost about 3 hours...not too bad. Spent the evening walking up to Albaysin and watched the sunset. The views of Alhambra were great. Sat and listened to the gypsies playing the guitar and singing as the sun set over the Sierra Nevadas and then headed to see a Flamenco show/dinner at Albaycin. The dance performance was powerful - the music, an amazing mix of Arabic and Spanish influences. 

Alhambra from Albaycin.  
[A view of Alhambra from the Albaycin, with the snow capped Sierra Nevada shimmering in the background. From the 'Hall of Ambassadors' room in Alhambra you can see Albaycin.
"Ill fated the man who lost all this!" exclaimed Charles V, as he looked forth from this window upon the enchanting scenery it commands" (From Tales of Alhambra - Washington Irving)"]

Day 7: Alhambra! Balu had done all the bookings (Flamenco and the Alhambra) and it was all perfectly planned out. Alhambra was brilliant! Spent a few hours walking the gardens and seeing the castle/fort and then made it to our appointed time to see the Nasrid Palace. Wow! The intricacies in the lattice work and the fountains and reflecting pools were incredible...reminiscent of Mughal architecture...

Headed back to Albaycin and had dinner at El Balcon de San Nicola' awesome place overlooking the Alhambra, all lit up at night.
(Dinner at El Balcon. Photograph by Chandrika)

 Court of Lions (Alhambra)
 Palacio de Generalife

Reflecting pool - Alhumbra
Fine stone work for lattice windows.
Arabesques around the windows and doors at Alhumbra.

Day 8: Took the train to Sevilla. At the BnB we were given a quick 'things to do and places to eat' tour by the host. Rushed out to see the Alcazar that afternoon. A mini Alhambra with a lot of the colours still preserved in the walls. Tried to see the Plaza De Espania but it was closed. Went to one of the recommended restaurants for dinner. Oxtail stew was a hit!

 Alcazar (Seville)
Courtyard of the Maidens - Alcazar

Dome of the Ambassadors Room - Alcazar in Seville

Day 9: Took the train to Cordoba - due to some special mass the opening was postponed to 11:30AM. Walked around town, crossed the old roman bridge and then headed back to the Mesquita (Mosque-Cathedral). It is beautifully preserved site with a massive and beautiful cathedral carved out in the center of the old mosque. This was the center of Islam in all its glory & learning during 800-1200AD and the 800+ slender pillars with their red and white double arches seem to signify infinity. The splendor of the construction passed the ultimate test, in that, the Reconquistas did not destroy the mosque. Instead, they built their cathedral into the architecture - imbibing the Islamic influence and creating a Christian cathedral that is a confluence of Islamic & Christian architecture.
Rick Steves book was very handy resource and we followed his  'self guided tour'.

 Mezquita - Cordoba
 Cathedral ceiling
Additions to the Cathedral - Choir chairs
 View of the Mosque-Cathedral from Cordoba streets

Got back to Sevilla by late afternoon - had a quick tour of the Grand Cathedral of Sevilla (the largest in the world) and got some great views of the city from the top of the Giralda. We then went across town to see the bull fighting ring, had a quick tour and then walked to the Plaza d'Espania. It was late evening and the place was all lit up...the fountain, coloured tiles, bridges over the small moat was beautiful. After another good meal we headed home. Chandrika and Muneer were heading back to UK the next morning.
Day 10: Cadiz. Balu, Renuka and I headed to the sleepy port of Cadiz in the south of Spain. Cadiz is one of the oldest continuously used ports in Europe. We walked the waterfront and visited the Cadiz Garden which has trees from all over the world. Apparently Columbus brought back these trees from his various voyages. Visited the tower (Torre Tavira) and had some great views of the city. Also got to see the city through the camera obscura (a reflected view of the city on a screen). Pretty cool!

 Cadiz from Torre Tavira
 Trees from around the world - Cadiz gardens
 Cathedral in Cadiz

Day 11: Balu left for Madrid and Renuka and I checked into a new BnB in the old city of Sevilla. Spent the day walking the city and saw the Basilica of Nuestra Señora de la Esperanza Macarena (Our Lady of Hope Macarena). It was a lazy day enjoying the city...had a late dinner and then called it a day. We were off to Lisbon the next morning.
 Plaza Espania
 Isabella II Bridge
 View from Giralda, Sevilla
Sevilla Cathedral
 Bull Fighting ring

Day 12: LISBON: Train to Madrid and then a flight to Lisbon. The train was on time and EasyJet was on time too. Made our way to the BnB by the Metro (surprisingly easy) and got there around 7:00pm. Zita (our host) was there to greet us. What a superb place...tastefully done and very comfortable. It was smack in the middle of the happening part of Lisbon, Baxia Chiado. Zita gave us a 20 min 'what to see and do and places to eat'. Since Balu was coming in later that evening we decided to stay local and went to a bar just below our BnB.

Day 13: Walked to the seafront and made our way to the tourist info department. They recommended that we take the famous 'No. 28 tram' to the St Georges Castle which overlooks the city. We took the tram up and walked back down - there were some great views of the city and the famous Alfama district. Next, we headed to the famous pastry shop in Belem...which we were told had the best pastries. Trammed our way there and ordered some was...well...a disappointment. Made our way back to the city and headed out to dinner and a lovely Fado evening at a local bar. Bit more about Fado here.

 Lisbon - Barrio Alto
Alfama in the background
Tram 28 - Lisbon
Day 14: Took the train to Sintra (a hill station about 40 minutes from Lisbon). Went up to the castle at Pena. Nice place with some spectacular views. Got back to the city and had dinner at Restautante Salgadeiras, a rather overpriced place with excellent service. They got us a reservation at O Faia (the restaurant below our apartment for a Fado session). 

Sintra - a suburb of Lisbon

Castle in Pena

Day 15: Checked out of the BnB and made our way across the bay to see the giant Christ the King statue, a replica of the 'Christ the redeemer' statue in Rio. Got some great views of the Golden Gate Bridge replica (April 25th Bridge) and made our way back to town. We took the train to our hotel - left our bags and then headed back to the city. Walked around, had a very poor dinner at a touristy spot....horrible food! Skip these tourist traps...they are never good. Made our way back to the hotel for an early night as Renuka and I had a 5:00AM flight back to San Francisco and Balu was continuing on his four month travels to India and East Asia.

25th of April bridge
The Funicular in Lisbon
 Christ the King

What a wonderful trip! Andalusia is just so beautiful...As Jim Morrison sings in 'Spanish Caravan' - 'Andalusia with fields full of grain...I want to see you again and again...' Definitely going back to see Alhambra once more...maybe in a few years.

TIP: If anyone is going to make this trip I would suggest doing it the other way, that is, Madrid to Cordoba to Sevilla to Granada and then Barcelona (if needed). Barcelona can be avoided as it really is not a good fit for the Andalusia experience. I'd replace Barcelona with a trip to Toledo from Madrid. The reason I suggest the reverse trip from what we did is; Because Granada was the last bastion of the Moors in Spain it has the best to offer - The Alhambra is the gorgeous icing on the Moorish-Catholic cake.

Suggested reading and viewing:
1) The Tales of Alhambra - Washington Irving
2) When the Moors Ruled Europe (YouTube)

3) Concise history of Spain - William D Phillips, Jr & Carla Rahn Phillips
4) Rick Steves Spain.

One of the things I take away from this trip is the length. I’d say I would have been happier with a 12 day trip as opposed to 15. By the time we landed in Lisbon, I was ready to head home...I don't know how folks travel for months on end.