portugal & spain blog


Day 0-1, May 11-12:  Lisbon

On a chilly spring day we fly to Lisbon via Heathrow, arriving during rush hour and balmy weather. Our hotel is on the swanky Avenida Liberdade and is both comfortable and within walking distance of many interesting areas. We happen on a delightful restaurant nearby,, Restaurante Sancho, and have a light dinner of celery soup or shrimp salad with olives, cheese and wine with an almond tart for dessert.

Day 2, May 13:  Lisbon

Eleven hours of sleep and the ample hotel breakfast fuel our day of walking: first down to the Baixa (an area in the heart of Lisbon that was destroyed and completely rebuilt after the Great Earthquake of 1755), Rossio Square with its beautiful pavement designs, the waterfront with its official buildings, and then by metro to the Park of the Nations, the site of the Lisbon Expo of 1998 with its many interesting modern buildings. First is the Vasco da Gama shopping mall and Oriente Metro and train station, both by Calatrava, plus the Vasco da Gama bridge that is almost 11 miles long! (Engineers are said to have factored the curvature of the earth into its design because of its length.) We happen upon an interesting exhibit of powerful political cartoons celebrating the 150th anniversary of the newspaper, Diario de Noticias, and on exiting are given copies of the front page of the paper on our birthdays.

Late afternoon we meet with our travel group and Fernando Conchello, our tall and charming guide, and take a walking tour that includes a tram ride for a great city view from the Bairro Alto area and have a traditional first meal together that includes soup, salmon, vegetables and a sweet.

Day 3, May 14: Belém & Sintra

After a whirlwind bus tour of the city, we drive to Belém (Bethlehem) on the Tagus River, past the 25th of April Bridge (commemorating Portuguese freedom from monarchy and sister to San Francisco's historic bridge), where we see the three major attractions: the Monument to the Discoveries shaped like a caravel and celebrating Portugal's 16th century explorers, the ornate Tower of Belém (1514) designed as a fortress to defend the estuary mouth, and the magnificent 16th century Manueline (late Gothic Portuguese style named after King Manuel I) Jerónimos Monastery honoring the navigators with images of the sea and containing Vasco da Gama's tomb.

A complete change of pace is next, the hill town of Sintra and the colorful 19th century Pena Palace built on the ruins of a monastery. We lunch on our own with Jill and Stan before the palace visit and walk through the beautiful and extensive and somewhat wild gardens. Finally, before our return to Lisbon we dine in a local restaurant where we hear fado, music for two guitars (one of which is a 12-string Portuguese guitar) and voice with lowly origins, like the tango, that was later cultivated by royals.

Day 4, May 15:  Rural Portugal

My aching legs have a rest today with a journey to a working windmill where I have a donkey ride (the only group member willing to do so) and where we help prepare a local kind of bread. Next we visit a farm where a Rhodesian-Portuguese woman introduces us to cheesemaking from sheep's milk and where we sample the results during a delicious and ample lunch of minted pea soup, turkey, eggplant casserole, and freshly-picked sliced oranges and sweets. Next is a tile factory where, humbled by our poor painting skills, we break down and buy tile house numbers for our Maine cottage.

Back in Lisbon we go off on our own to find a battery charger at El Corté Ingles, a large Spanish department store chain, which we eventually find high on the hill overlooking the city. On our way back, we spend a happy hour or two in the botanical gardens. Dinner on our own is at a simple but excellent Indian restaurant not far from the hotel which is just a chilly walk away.

Day 5, May 16:  Évora, Portugal

Today we reluctantly leave Lisbon and travel through the unspoiled wine-growing region of Alentejo province on our way to Évora. We drive through gently rolling terrain dotted with vineyards, cork trees, and olive groves on our way to a traditional 18th-century monte (a typical Alentejo farming estate called the Monte da Ravasquiero winery which produces 1 million bottles a year), where we see the vineyard, winery, and cellars and have a wine-tasting (a rosé, a white and a special reserve red) and lunch. Later we stop at a small rug-making town (Arraiolos) of white-washed houses with blue trim, unfortunately fading for lack of jobs, and tour the museum.

When we reach our pousada or inn (Pousada dos Loios) in Évora, we find it is a former convent founded in 1485 with walls from an earlier Évora castle. A major earthquake in 1755 damaged the building, but the building was restored in 1965 and is now a National Monument and hotel. The rooms are small, nun's cells, but comfortable, and we have a dip in the lovely little pool. In the evening, we stroll outside to see the sunset and the lovely remains of the Temple of Diana (just outside the pousada) dating from the 2nd and 3rd centuries.

Day 6, May 17:  Évora, Portugal

Fernando, our guide,loves to walk, and we begin the day with another lengthy but enjoyable walking tour, stopping first at Evora University where two students struggle to understand our questions and formulate answers in a classroom made resonant by half walls of blue porcelain tiles. Next we have a closer look at the temple commonly known as the Temple of Diana but actually Temple Augusus Julio for Caesar. We hear more of history as we pass various churches (22 Catholic churches in the town), and finally see the large town square, the market, and the Chapel of Bones, an ossuary where one is confronted with one's own mortality in the columns and arches made of skulls and other bones—a good thing for contemplative monks but more than a bit strange to us. Still, while it is macabre, it is something more than that. The sign over the door reads in Latin: "our bones are awaiting your bones." Apparently, the bones were unearthed to make more building space for the church and the monks decided to display them instead of burying them.

Back to the hedonistic pleasures of the pousada, we take a refreshing swim after I purchase a silver "heart of Portugal" pendant that has caught my eye. Lastly, we have a cooking lesson and dinner at a local hotel where four chefs oversee our efforts.

Day 7, May 18:  Mérida & Carmona

Mérida is our first stop in Spain, mostly to see the extensive Roman ruins in what was once the capitol of Roman Lusitania. The Roman theater, built in 24 BC and later decorated with statues, is reminiscent of the library at Ephesus. There is also a large ampitheater and various temple remains. On the way to the ruins, we see a stork nest with two fledglings and several cafes suitable for lunch which we have with Jack and Sylvia (who speak Spanish) and Jim and Shirley. After a seemingly endless bus ride, we arrive at Carmona and the magnificent Alcazar de Arriba or castle fortress that is our parador or historic hotel for two nights, overlooking the valley near Seville. The building is high on a cliff and very large with Moorish detail in the delicate arches of the courtyard and the requisite fountain. There is a Harley gang present but they are probably all bankers and lawyers and are very polite.

Dinner is in the newly refurbished great hall: an elegant meal from tiny aubergines and medallions of pork to espresso at the end.

Day 8, May 19:  Carmona & Seville

A bit under the weather with a cold, I was disinclined to join the group and ready for an independent adventure. So after a sumptuous buffet breakfast, we walk into Carmona from our stately parador to take the M124 bus to Seville, about 45 minutes away. The Seville Cathedral is our first stop and it is one of the largest in the world with an organ having 7,000 pipes. The Tomb of Columbus is inside as well. Exiting through an orangerie that betrays the Moorish origins of the site, we find a plaque to Cervantes about pickpockets, an episode in Don Quixote that I look forward to reading. Led by our noses, we find an amazing spice shop and buy a large packet of Seville floral tea which turns out to be delicious and reminds us of our favorite Caribbean tea. The Alcázar, originally a 10th century Moorish building, is now the oldest building in Europe still functioning as a royal palace. In the 14th century it was redecorated for Pedro I. We are entranced by the delicate beauty of the place, especially the Courtyard of the Maidens with its slender columns and reflecting pool, the Hall of the Ambassadors, the Charles V Ceiling Room, and the elaborate and beautiful gardens with fountains and even an hydraulic organ that was being tuned while we were there!

Returning to the parador gave us an hour or so of rest before dinner in a local restaurant and a pleasant walk home.

Day 9, May 20:  Ronda

Leaving our beautiful parador in Carmona, we find a still more spectacular view from the Parador de Ronda, a converted city hall, where the gorge is just below our balcony. On the way, we stop at a cemetery to see the above-ground tombs with flowers and inscriptions and then, driving through a mountainous national park, we again stop at a reservoir for the view of a "white village" with its white-washed houses in the distance. With aplomb, the bus driver manages the hairpin turns, bikers, and the dirt road to the Reservatauro Ronda, a ranch where fighting bulls are sired and raised wild by the owner, torero Rafael Tejada. We tour the ranch, see Andalusian horses, cattle, and the wild bulls plus a demo of a bull fight with a mock bull and Rafael himself. In Portugal, they don't kill the bull, but in Spain the bull is only spared if he exhibits exceptional spirit and the crowd waves their white handkerchiefs. No bull fights twice so a spared bull becomes a stud. Oxen are used to herd the bulls at the ranch for vet services.

Ronda, a city in the province of Málaga in the autonomous community of Andalusia, is the most beautiful of the towns we visit and one of the oldest cities in the world, first settled in 770 BC, then later under Muslim rule until the reconquista in 1487, and more recently the birthplace of Picasso. The old and new parts of the town are separated by a chasm and there is a new bridge built on the ruins of the old one that collapsed. We share a glass of wine with Jim and Shirley, sliding glasses under the balcony divider, and have an elegant dinner of guinea fowl preceded by our first taste of white sherry. Fernando takes us on a walk into the Old Town where I buy a CD of Spanish music from a guitarist in the square.

Day 10, May 21:  Ronda

Another walking tour of the Old Town takes us across the 360' deep ravine (called El Tajo) from El Mercadillo (New Town) that was built after the reconquest. The white-washed houses with wrought-iron balconies clinging to the cliff are a special sight, but we also bear in mind that prisoners were tossed alive from the bridge into the gorge below during the bitter Spanish Civil War (a horror described by Hemingway in For Whom the Bell Tolls).

Ronda is home to one of Spain's oldest bullrings, the Plaza de Toros (1785) where cavalry training consisting of spearing bulls from horseback developed into the more "sporting" form of confronting the bull on foot. The father of this modern form of bullfighting was Ronda native Francisco Romero, and his grandson Pedro is widely considered the most famous Spanish bullfighter of all time and is said to have killed 6,000 bulls, a career celebrated in The Sun Also Rises. We have lunch at Casa Pedro Romero across from the ring, but the food in his namesake restaurant does not live up to his reputation. In the evening we hear a recital of flamenco music played by a local guitar teacher.

Day 11, May 22:  Granada & Úbeda

"It was my endeavor scrupulously to depict its half Spanish, half Oriental character; its mixture of the heroic, the poetic, and the grotesque; to revive the traces of grace and beauty fast fading from its walls; to record the regal and chivalrous traditions concerning those who once trod its courts; and the whimsical and superstitious legends of the motley race now burrowing among its ruins." — Washington Irving on the Alhambra

Many in our small group are unwell as we leave beautiful Ronda, but we press on to Granada and our long-anticipated visit to the Alhambra located high above the Darro River. Before the visit, we have a buffet lunch that includes paella at a local hotel and then walk through the gardens and palace with our local guide, hearing about the 13th-century fortress palace of Nasrid kings and their harems, and snapping pictures at every breath-taking turn.

I have prepared for the visit by reading some of Washington Irving's Tales of the Alhambra (1832), written during and following his stay of some months in the actual palace (a favor granted because of his celebrity status) while he was researching A Chronicle of the Conquest of Granada, which is also fascinating and a very human account of the politics and battles during the reconquest. We come across a plaque acknowledging Irving's residency at the palace and found another in Ronda describing his pleasure in that city. Tales of the Alhambra is considered instrumental in reintroducing the Alhambra to western audiences although he himself laments, "How unworthy is my scribbling of the place."

Day 12, May 23:  Úbeda

Our parador is in the World Heritage City of Úbeda that is located west of the Cazorla and Segura mountains near the Guadalquivir River. It is in the old quarter, housed in a 16th-century palace on Renaissance-style Vázquez de Molina Square. The hotel façade conceals an interior courtyard and there are suits of armor on the wide staircase. Since Jack is sick and I am not so well either, we skip the visit to an olive-oil mill and finally see a doctor at a local clinic who gives no meds but advises a very simple diet.

Day 13, May 24:  Toledo & Madrid

Restricted to a breakfast of dry toast and water, we rejoin the group for the trip to Madrid. En route we stop at a small village with three windmills on a hill, said to be the site of Don Quixote's tilting disaster, about which I have just read on the bus. Later we stop for coffee at a store full of Franco memorabilia and hear more details of the 40-year reign of Franco and the backlash against the church after his death.

In Toledo, glimpsed from afar, high on its hill, we take a multi-tiered escalator—reminiscent of those in Perugia and Hong Kong— to the huge cathedral with its impressive monstrances and sacristy filled with El Grecos and many other works we unfortunately have no time to see. Walking the narrow streets, we enter a beautiful synagogue build by the Moors and later used as a church, now a monument to the once peaceful co-existence of Jews, Muslims and Christians in this city until Ferdinand and Isabella expelled the Jews in 1492 . We also see another El Greco still displayed in the church for which it was commissioned.

Finally, we arrive at the Hotel Emperador in Madrid, rather a shock after the bucolic quiet of our paradors, but comfortable and centrally located.

Day 14, May 25:  Madrid

This morning a local guide takes us for a tour of the city by bus and by foot. We have a long walk in the 500 acre Retiro Park and discover the Palacio de Cristal where we find an interesting exhibition of a huge Arab tent made from women's dress cloths. The artist explains the intent as honoring women in general and these women in particular. We also stop at a Cervantes monument and also in another park where there is a beautiful Egyptian temple given as thanks for Spain's help in saving the temples flooded by the new Aswan Dam.

Then we are on our own to see museums, first Guernica which we wanted to see again in its home country along with related materials (such as preliminary sketches, other 1937 drawings, and the model of the 1937 Expo Pavillion) in the Reina Sofia (free to those over 65) and then a select number of works in the enormous and varied collection in the Prado. In between we investigate the train station which is a huge and interesting structure and then walk to the Prado, exhausted but still on our feet. In the Prado we spend a lot of time on Goya: everything from the anti-war Third of May, 1808 (protesting executions following Napoleons occupation) to the room of embittered Black Paintings that were fresoced on the walls of his house and never intended for exhibition. Additionally, we search out Velasquez Las Meninas (1656), the Bosch triptych Garden of Earthly Delights (ca. 1500), Fra Angelico's exquisite Annunciation(reminding us of the Annunciation in San Marco), and finally many El Grecos. The museum is so vast that it seems as if we walk miles to find each painting, but at last we can walk no more and taxi home to Hotel Emperador.

Day 15, May 26:  Madrid

Another walking tour this morning takes us to the Puerto del Sol with plaques about the May 3 resistance to Napoleon and the bear statue, emblem of the city of Madrid, also the Plaza Mayor where there have been bull fights and public executions, and Mercado de San Miguel which is still a covered market. Later in the afternoon we walk to the Palacio where Spanish monarchs have traditionally resided. Like other palaces such as Schoenbrunn, this one attempts to rival the opulence and size of Versailles and almost succeeds with its enormous banquet hall, throne room, handsome portraits by Goya, ceilings by Tiepolo, and even a chapel with thrones.

Still not feeling well, I see a private doctor at the hotel who does a checkup and prescribes medicines that work like a charm. So for our last night with the group, we walk to a local atmospheric restaurant cellar where we are given a seemingly authentic and impressive demonstration of flamenco (voice, guitar and dancer this time) before an elaborate meal of tapas, fish, steak, and sweets. We share our purchase of a special reserve red wine from the bull ranch and say our farewells.

Day 16, May 27:  Barcelona

On our own. Our plane ride to Barcelona is short and the taxi ride to our Eurostar Hotel seems long in comparison, but we are wonderfully near the Gaudi Sagrada Familia (begun in 1882) which we walk to after leaving our bags. Gaudi's work has been described as a highly personal interpretation of Gothic architecture, and his massive plan (largely destroyed by anarchists and later by a fire) has been reinterpreted and perhaps undermined by more recent and lesser architects. There are cranes and masses of tourists everywhere not to mention a crush of traffic on the streets around the cathedra but we stop and look and ponderl. Later we make do with a simple meal in our room and reserve timed tickets for the morning.

May 28:  Barcelona

Our tickets for 9:45 at the Sagrada Familia have been reserved online so we arrive early and after a minor glitch enter the cathedral. It is stunning inside despite the intermittent construction racket. The abstract designs of the beautiful stained glass windows reminds me of some of those at the Prague St. Vitus Cathedral and they bathe us in the green and blue light filtering through. Windows at the opposite end are in the warm colors—reds, yellows, orange. The height of the nave and tree-like columns are impressive and occasionally one can hear organ or choral music when the hammering stops. The long and checkered history of the work on this structure is rather sad since Gaudi saw only about a quarter of the building completed and the Civil War ended work for a time and funds were short. Now there is a pledge to finish by 2026, the 100th anniversary of Gaudi's death. But as he said, "My client is not in a hurry."

After lunch at the hotel, we take the metro to the Picasso Museum which showcases 4,200 mostly early works of the painter in five adjoining medieval palaces. There is also a special exhibit of Dali and Picasso comparing the two artists. We are surprised to see that Picasso admired Velasquez to the extent that he painted 40 interpretations of Las Meninas that he painted 20 years after Guernica and donated to the museum, saying about the work, "I'll try to do it my way, forgetting about Velazquez."

Exhausted but still kicking, we find the Barcelona Conservatory of Music which is as fantastical as any Gaudi building.

May 29:  Barcelona to Huseca

Having changed our plans and cut a day from our Barcelona itinerary to allow for a more leisurely drive to Bilbao, we take the metro to see one last series of buildings on the Block of Discord, a block of unusual mansions by architects apparently trying to outdo each other. One Gaudi house is Disneyesque with strange mushroom shapes and psychedelic colors, but a Gaudi hotel is simply beautiful with its curving lines and twisted wrought-iron railings. We then head to the airport to pick up a spacious black diesel Opel, sort out the GPS, and head to Huesca which is a disappointment although we take a detour and discover the beautiful town of Alcazar with stunning views and regret we didn't ditch our reservation to stay there overnight. Our Michelin-suggested posada is dingy and uninviting without parking so we switch to a modern hotel (Hotel ABBA), find a restaurant for supper, and cut our losses.

May 30:  Bilbao

25 euros for breakfast seems a bit steep, even with the euro and dollar almost at parity, but we enjoy the caffe doppio and cappuccino and get on the road. The scenery becomes increasingly rugged as we near the Pyrenees and we are sorely tempted to see the Monasterio San Juan de la Peña for its amazing location beneath overhanging rocks. So we start up a narrow road that becomes increasingly iffy and decide to find a way to reverse direction in order to make Bilbao by evening. We spend an hour or so in San Sebastian, a city resort by the sea before setting off to find our hotel.

Finding our hotel in nearby Santurtzi proves to be an adventure since we find ourselves on an elevated road next to a bay with the GPS pointing to the water and saying to take the train ferry. We later discover that a disciple of Eiffel designed what is called the Puente Vizcaya (1893) and that it is on the UNESCO World Heritage List and rather famous. Anyway, a suspended gondola eventually arrives from the other side and we drive on with several other cars and various pedestrians. Nobody chocks the wheels so we secure the handbrake and hope for the best. A few euros toll and a few minutes later we are on dry land again and a few blocks from the beautiful Palacio de Oriol Hotel, a 1902 palace now a hotel located right on the bay and with a beautiful view of the working port and promenaders along the water. We order room service to enjoy the view and relax and have a delicious Basque meal with a not very wonderful wine we purchased along with a top for Alex (like those we see children playing with everywhere) and the makings of a picnic for tomorrow.

We read that clouds and rain are common more than half of the time so we are lucky to have a beautiful day.

May 31:  Bilbao

After waking early and cold, we turn up the heat and sleep late, finally rising to discover we are lucky with the weather once again. There is a metro to Bilbao so we soon find ourselves in the upscale city center with radiating streets from the park toward the river or mountains. Frank Gehry's stunning Guggenheim Museum (1997) doesn't disappoint although the approach and outlying blue buildings are not very attractive. The Sunday crowds are dense as there is a major festival in progress with tents, food, bands on a stage, and inflated critters all around the museum plaza. Once inside we find quiet and simply gawk at the beauty of the interior, the warmth of the marble colors, the intricacy of the designs Gehry calls fish scales with nothing lined up but overlapping, the sinuous curves, and glistening titanium. Much of the art inside, with the possible exception of works by minimalist sculptor Richard Serra and the giant spider of Louise Bourgeois, seems ephemeral while the building itself already seems a timeless classic of modern architecture. We spend all day exploring the building and art, riding the glass elevator, having a picnic outside, and walking across a pedestrian bridge to view the building from across the river.

Once back at the Palacio de Oriol Hotel, we have coffee on the terrace and later dress for dinner in the dining room, finding ourselves the only guests but enjoying delicious entrees of salmon with a delicate green mustard sauce and beef cooked in the Basque style with mild red peppers.

June 1:  Burgos

On the road early, we wind our way through the mountains on excellent (if sometimes expensive) roads reaching Burgos in a few hours, park, and walk across the small river to the cathedral. This building, begun in 1221 and continued until 1567, is the most elaborately decorated cathedral we've seen with high Gothic spires, Renaissance and Baroque interior decorations, and numerous (15) chapels— all of which was designed first under a 13th century French architect and later a a 15th century German one. A curiosity inside is the "Flycatcher" or animated statue which opens its mouth at the sound of the bells each hour. The tomb of El Cid and his wife are here too. The Chapel of the Constable, deemed a cathedral within a cathedral, contains the graves of its sponsors and features masculine designs on one side and feminine on the other at the insistence of the Constable's wife who commissioned the work and believed in equality of the sexes, a rather advanced view for the 15th century.

Then onward to Madrid airport to return the car, take the shuttle to the airport hotel, and prepare for midday departure tomorrow.