Iberia describes the peninsula that includes the countries of Spain and Portugal, as well as Andorra, Gibraltar and a small section of France. The term isn’t used as often now as in the past, but it’s appropriate for this trip of ours in which we explored much of Spain and Portugal.
I have been to both countries previously, on business trips, but this time it would be for fun, and it would also be along with my Lady Adventurer wife, Debbie.
It was hit the ground running as we arrived. The flights went well, we found our ride, and we were able to get checked into the hotel even though it was still morning. All this enabled our plan to visit the Prado to materialize.
The Prado is one of the great art museums in the world. We walked through Retiro Park to get there. Fellow Trafalgar travelers Don and Clara, whom we’d met at the airport, came with us. Retiro itself was interesting. It’s a large, well-manicured city park that was full of people of all sorts on a Saturday afternoon. It must be the thing to do for local families. I would run here the next morning.
The Prado lived up to its reputation. Of course we didn’t have as much time as necessary to do it justice, but we saw wonderful European paintings from the 15th through the 19th centuries. We especially liked those of Goya and Velazquez.
The food in Madrid was great, and it would get even get better as this Spain leg went on. Tapas galore.
And faithful readers of these posts will attest to my consistent concern about this matter. I apologize for the repetition, but it simply must be said once again. As much as I love Europe, and especially Europeans, why in the world can’t they build a shower that doesn’t make the bathroom floor completely wet? And please explain why coffee isn’t available early in the morning – when it’s needed? Needed badly? Okay, enough complaining. Back to fun stuff.
This medieval walled city is about an hour from Madrid. We went as a day trip. The old town is located on a high hill. We took six escalators to get to the top. It’s a good thing we had a guide to lead us through, since the streets, walkways and alleys were a jumbled, confusing tangle.
It was a fun walkabout. And yes, there was a reference to Toledo, Ohio. We actually found a street by that name.
|Yes it's Toledo, but which one?|
The Mezquita, the Mosque-Cathedral of Cordoba, is fairly fantastical. It was built in the eighth century as a mosque. This is notable because it was only a very short time after Islam became a religion. It started out large enough to hold 5,000 worshipers, but was soon expanded enough to hold 20,000. Hundreds of years later, as the Christians pushed the Moors out, they converted the huge building to a cathedral.
One amazing aspect of this is that those early Christians who were generally not known for their consideration of other cultural institutions, chose to convert the building rather than raze it completely. They were evidently as impressed with the structure as everyone is these days.
And it is definitely impressive. The cathedral part shows of a plethora of architectural styles, as things changed over the centuries. Parts of the mosque were mostly left alone. There are hundreds of marble pillars everywhere. Our local guide made us as impressed as she was.
|Sevilla Plaza Espana|
According to Rick Steves, “Flamboyant Sevilla thrums with flamenco music, sizzles in the summer heat, and pulses with the passion of Don Juan and Carmen… Sevilla has soul. It’s a wonderful-to-be-alive kind of place.” I couldn’t agree more.
On our way to Sevilla, we stopped at Pueto Lapice. This was a famous haunt of Don Quixote, the Man of La Mancha. And they sure let you know about it with various statues and other various figures and figurines about the village.
Once within Sevilla for good, we did the tapas thing once again, but this time it was with the group, and of gourmet quality. We walked around the old town a lot, and saw the various sights. One highlight was their famous cathedral. It’s where Christopher Columbus is buried. Well not quite. For one thing, there was some controversy about whether it’s really him, but it appears that there’s now DNA proof of that. The other thing is that he’s not exactly in the ground, but hoisted up above by some big templar-esque statues.
The Trafalgar ‘Be My Guest’ dinner was definitely another of the highlights of the trip. Tour Director Jay Mathieson arranged for a visit and dinner at Basilippo, a family olive farm and world-class olive oil processing facility. We learned a lot about olive oil and had a great dinner. The best part was listening to the proprietor speak so passionately about his craft.
|Olive Oil Farm|
|Olive Oil Farm|
It was fun walking around this medieval town with our Australian friends Ian, Marg, Barry and Rhonda. We did the tapas thing once again; this is one of the last places where you can get a free tapa when you order a drink. Most importantly, we learned a new term: ‘chock-a-block’, meaning, crammed full of people or things. And this small town is certainly choc-a-block with people, cars, squares and more people.
Granada is really all about the Alhambra. Another medieval icon, this thousand year-old Moorish palace and fortress complex is huge, and mostly preserved. The intricate work on the ceilings and walls is fantastic, but the most impressive part was the gardens. There were acres and acres of flowers, manicured hedges and fountains. As much as we enjoyed this attraction, we were upset when we later learned that one of our fellow travelers was pick-pocketed for about 2,000 Euros.
Gaudix and Valencia
En route to Valencia, we drove the scenic coastal road, and made a stop in Gaudix. Gaudix is in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains, and the home of cave-dwelling troglodytes. We got to visit one such family, walking through several rooms of their underground home. It was all pretty cool.
Valencia is the home of oranges, paella, El Cid and the famous tomato food fight. It’s also the location of the ultra-modern complex known as the City Arts and Sciences. Recently completed, this group of museums and exposition centers are dazzling to the eye. And the scale is huge. Lady Adventurer pointed out that a row of large ceramic fixtures – really just a design of some kind – looked like a bunch of urinals for giants.
|Valencia (2) - for giants|
We had some horchata, which is Spanish tigernut milk. It tasted like a cross between almond milk and potato juice, but was very sweet. Another drink, sangria, is big here, as it was in Granada and Sevilla. The Spaniards don’t drink our variety, but so many tourists do, that it’s very common. The locals drink a version made with only the red wine, fruit and lemon soda, called tinto de verano. We tried some of that as well. Not bad.
The truly authentic Valencia paella also wasn’t bad, but there’s no seafood involved; just chicken, rabbit and snails. The one we tried omitted the rabbit and snails. We still want to try seafood paella, but Debbie still insists that my version is best, no matter what.
Whilst traipsing through the old town area (Valencia is over 1,000 years old), Lady Adventurer tripped over some uneven bricks and hurt her knee. She was in pain afterwards. I joked that she hadn’t had enough sangria, but she wasn’t in a laughing mood.
|Lady Adventurer just before the fall|
Peñiscola, Barcelona and Montserrat
|Peniscola, where El Cid Beach Scene was filmed|
Along the way from Valencia to Barcelona, we stopped in scenic Peñiscola (Lady Adventurer was the only one I know of who joked about the name) for lunch as well as a walk along the Mediterranean beach and up to the ancient castle of the 'Spanish Pope', used in the film El Cid.
We were fortunate that the Lady Adventurer’s injured knee was a little better. She could get around without too much pain, although stairs were a problem. There weren’t too many of those, as we drove, and then walked around Barcelona.
The streets and walkways were filled with people. Some were normal tourists like us, but many were in town because of the upcoming (in just two days) Catalan referendum for independence. There were hundreds of tractors clogging everything up. It seems that the farmers, along with the vast majority of other Catalans, wanted to protest, and lobby in favor of a yes vote. Catalan independence flags were everywhere, including on the tractors.
|Tractors and Flags in independent-minded Barcelona|
|Sagrada Familia (1)|
|Sagrada Familia (2) - notice the hang-gliding Jesus|
Montserrat is a monastery and small village built into a mountain that is so jagged, it looks as though it too was designed by Gaudi. We saw the clouds below us; all the views were spectacular.
But now it was time to head to Lisbon. As we departed the hotel on Sunday morning, October 1st, the Catalans were massing to vote across the street. The national government was trying to prevent the voting entirely, so we were wondering how this would turn out.
|Our Spanish Wonder Group|
As mentioned, I’d been here before, and I’d seen some of these same sights, but I wanted to have the Lady Adventurer join the fun. The really good news is that we will be spending a great deal of time in this lovely city: three nights on our own at the Marriott, then two at the Turim Marques at the beginning of the Trafalgar tour, and finally one night at the Turim Avenida Avenida Liberdade as we return before departing back to the States.
|Moorish Castle in Sintra, near Lisbon|
Lady Adventurer and I did indeed go on an adventure. It was planes, trains and automobiles, without the planes and automobiles, but with autobuses. The goal? A grand tour of and around Sintra, Cabo da Roca and Cascais, all on public transportation, for a low 15 euros each. We walked to the train station and rode out to Sintra, where we picked up the crowded 434 bus that travels the area, picking up and dropping off people from all the attractions. And there are some pretty great attractions there; the scenery from the 1,000 year old Moorish Castle and the Disney-esque Pena palace is spectacular. Even with the bus transportation, there were huge hills to climb to get to some of these places. Too bad we didn’t have time for all of the palaces and castles. Next it was the 403 bus over to Cabo da Roca, the easternmost tip of Europe. The sea cliffs there are stunning. After that it was back on the next 403 bus to Cascais. Cascais is a very old-fashioned beach town for the rich and famous. It’s cool, even though a bit long in the tooth. Now it was time to get on a train to take us back to Lisbon. This train was hot – not at all comfortable like the one out to Sintra in the morning. As we arrived, we couldn’t find a taxi, so I had the bright idea to take the metro back to the Marriott. Normally a good idea (because they’re fast and efficient), it didn’t work out so well this time, because we had an extremely long walk after getting off at the wrong station. Lady Adventurer wound up with a record number of steps for the day.
|Pena Palace in Sintra|
|Cabo da Roca|
Did I mention that it’s been hot in Lisbon? 31 to 33 every day. It’s also dry; not humid, but if you’re in the sun for any length of time, you feel it. Especially when you’re setting step records.
We took it a little easier after that long day in and around Sintra. Yet we did see about all there is to see in Lisbon:
- We followed Rick Steves’ suggested walking tour of the Bairro Alto neighborhood, starting with a ride on a funicular. We explored the Baixa area (the main square) a little as well, and had some good seafood at a tiny authentic restaurant. I know it was authentic, because they were tying bibs on the locals who talked in.
- We explored the Parque das Nacoes, the ultra modern part of Lisbon. Built for the 1998 World Expo that celebrated the 500th anniversary of Vasco Da Gama’s voyage to India, this is also where I used to work during my previous visits. The park is built along the wide bay section of the Tagus River; the architecture, scale and size of everything is surreal.
- We did the Alfama thing, which is to say we got lost in the tangle of streets just below the picturesque hilltop castle in Lisbon. Had a nice lunch up there, and then worked our way down to the Fado Museum. Earlier, I mentioned that you haven’t seen Spain until you’ve experienced Flamenco. The same can be said for Portugal and Fado. But Fado isn’t a dance, it’s soulful singing, mostly by women accompanied by men with Spanish guitars. We didn’t get our dose of Fado late at night in a bar like you’re supposed to; but the museum visit was the next best thing.
- We saw the sights in Belem: the Monastery of Jeronimos with its Manueline Architecture, the Tower of Belem, the Monument to the Discoveries; not to mention the Golden-Gateish 25th of April Bridge and the huge Rio-esque statue of Christ that sits across the river. On top of all that, there was a 10K race starting and finishing just in front of the monastery for us to try to get around. Too bad I missed it.
One more thought about the Lisbon I love. The Marriott not in the best location, but it is, by my own estimation, 100,000,000 times better than any of the hotels Trafalgar gives us on their tours. Those are okay, but they’re not Marriotts.
|Alfama in Lisbon|
|Algarve - Armacao de Pera lunc|
The Algarve is the huge beach area of Portugal. It makes up the 100-mile southern coast of the country, and it’s where all the Europeans go to hit the beach these days. It’s very Mediterranean-like in many ways, although technically it’s on the Atlantic Ocean.
On our way down from Lisbon, we drove along the scenic coast, stopped at Setubal to see their market (it was just a bunch of fish), and also at a Lusitano stud ranch (Solar do Monte Negro), where we had our ‘Be My Guest’ Lunch. Lady Adventurer and I are not horse people, but it was good to hear of the passion these folks put into their avocation. The family has run the ranch for over 300 years, but there was an interruption as the property was confiscated during a communist revolution in 1974. They were able to buy it all back a few years later, and they’re still looking for the remains of the breeding stock, which had been distributed around the country. The traditional chicken and other food they served in their country home was very good.
We stayed at a beach town called Armacao de Pera. It’s about in the middle of the Algarve, and the Holiday Inn sure is nice. After all the on-the-go touring, it felt good to relax, if only for a short while.
|Western Algarve area|
The western end of the Algarve, including the southwest corner of Portugal, Cape St. Vincent and Lagos, is all pretty spectacular. The eastern side, including the walled city of Faro, was nice as well. The Chapel of St. Lawrence in Almansil with its mosaic walls made up of thousands of blue tiles was an unexpected highlight.
|Algarve town of Faro|
|Chapel of St. Lawrence in Almansil|
|Lunch in the Algarve with our friends Jan and Paula (not the old people!)|
This is a nice, medieval walled city with a cathedral, white-washed buildings, squares and lots of cobblestones. After driving up here and touring the city (and seeing the chapel of the bones, in which the interior walls were entirely covered with bones, and was pretty cool), we did what anyone else would do in the same situation: take an optional tour to a different medieval walled city with a cathedral, white-washed buildings, squares and lots of cobblestones.
|Monsaraz - check out the guy with his olive oil|
This option took us to Monsaraz, which is ‘deep in the Alentejo area’. This particular medieval walled city with a cathedral, white-washed buildings, squares and lots of cobblestones was outstanding, and very much worth the trip. Monsaraz is a hilltop town with 50 residents, and the whitewashed buildings with a 360 degree panoramic view was sublime. This was yet another highlight of this entire trip.
Another memorable moment came the following morning when I got very badly lost during my run. But you will need to read my running blog to hear more about that one.
On the way between Evora and Viseu, we stopped in Castello de Vide, in order to walk around this charming hilltop medieval walled city with a cathedral, white-washed buildings, squares and lots of cobblestones. We also stopped at an ancient Roman artifact: the bones of a 2000-year-old block building. Lady Adventurer would like to buy it and then flip it.
The wine and food pairing dinner at a charming Insua Manor, an old manor house, was great. We’ve been enjoying the company of several of our traveling companions, including some Americans with much in common, Jan Simpson and Paula Touhey, and several Canadians (Keith, Tacey, Gary and Jill, to name a few) and Aussies.
|Insua Manor Dinner - that was a pretty big table|
And have I mentioned the heat in Portugal? I suppose I have, but I’ll do it again. We’ve been here for ten days now, and it’s been 30 or slightly above for each and every one of them. And there’s never a cloud in the sky. They have been experiencing a severe drought, and the landscape shows it. Now that we’re in the north, there’s some hope that things will cool just a bit.
Porto and the Douro Valley
We drove through the Douro Valley on the way up to Porto. And what a drive that is. This has to be the most scenic wine country in the world. It’s where they make port and other wines. The terracing is nearly unbelievable. It’s hard to imagine how they get to all those places to pick the grapes.
The beachside dinner, walking tour and on our own time in the thriving river and port town of Porto were great. We tasted some fancy port wine, had a nice lunch and rode the funicular on the way back from town.
The Douro river cruise was slightly disappointing (crowded and didn’t go real far), but the second dinner on the brightly lit-up river was really great.
The Road to Fatima
On the way from Porto to the Fatima area, there were several stops of interest:
- The historic and scenic university city of Coimbra
- The convent home and castle of the Knights of Templar in Tomar (they were quite prosperous and powerful, until ultimately double-crossed, hunted down and killed by the king of France)
- The monastery at Batalha, which celebrates Portugal’s nationhood and independence from Spain
We stayed at the Eurostars Oasis Plaza Hotel in Figueira da Foz. This is important enough to mention because:
a) it was a last-minute substitution, since we weren’t able to stay in super-crowded Fatima
b) it was on the beach… a beach that we never saw, since it was dark when we arrived, and dark when we left
c) it was by far the nicest hotel – they were supposed to be four and five star, but this was the only real five star
Fatima and Beyond
The date was Friday, October 13, 2017. Fatima was celebrating the 100th anniversary of the date of the third appearance of the Virgin Mary to the three shepherd children. And we were there. There were a few other people to commemorate the occasion as well. Oh, did I say a few? I meant a few million. Really. The funny thing is that I was here on May 13, 2007, the 90th anniversary of the date of the first appearance. That was also a crowded occasion.
|There were a few folks in Fatima|
On to Lisbon
After that memorable stop in Fatima, we made a couple more stops: hilltop Nasarre overlooking the beach town, and also most-scenic-of-all walled city of Obidos. Both were great. In fact, we would have been happy to spend a whole lot more time in Obidos.
We finally made it back to Lisbon. Said goodbye to all our friends, as well as to our great Travel Director, Alex, at the farewell dinner.
|Our Portugal Group|
A few thoughts and lessons learnt:
1) Group tours have their advantages and disadvantages. Wake-up call at 6:30; Breakfast and bags out at 7:00; bus departs at 8:00; comfort and coffee stop at 9:30; sightseeing with local specialist at 11; and so on. That kind of strict timeline discipline allows everyone to stick to a tight schedule, and to see so very much. And you simply could not see and do all this stuff on your own in these time frames. Some things, like the Alhambra, could hardly be done individually at all. Still, this kind of life does wear one down. Trafalgar (and Cosmos, for that matter) is a good bargain, all things considered.
2) A little kindness, consideration and concern for others goes a long way. This is true regarding the fellow tour group members as well as with communication and transactions with locals. The other travelers are like family, only more so. Some can irritate the heck out of you, but when you understand that you absolutely have to get along with them for the whole trip, you wind up cutting some slack. It takes some extra effort to be more kind than usual. But the rewards all around make it worthwhile. A smile goes a real long way.
3) As Mark Twain - and I - like to say, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one's lifetime.”
For information about my running adventures in Iberia, see my running blog.
For more photos, see the whole bunch.