Wine and liquor served freely in international flights ! How splendid! Air France wined and dined us and delivered us to Paris’ CDG Airport on way to Lisbon, our first stop in a whirlwind 14-day,5-city tour.
Day 1: Lisbon Sunday May 8, 2016
We’re 3 couples traveling first time together. It’s a testament of our friendship that we survived this trip. I’m the designated trip planner and unofficial tour guide and had 5 months of internet research. It was a lot of fun for me but not as much in practice. This tour guide needs more experience!
We arrived in Lisbon Portela Airport at 6:13pm (Google Map’s timeline told me so) and headed outside the door & downstairs to Metro station. So very convenient! Ticket machines were easily found and I followed YouTube instructions for buying Viva Viagem and load the card via Zapping option. Had some difficulties buying 6 cards so we broke up the transactions, scrambling for Euro while filtering different voiced opinions on how best to operate, we finally managed to get our green Viva Viagem cards. A photo proudly marked our accomplishment! Off we went on Linha Vermelha to Alameda then switched to Linha Verde for Baixa-Chiado. We had just carry-ons and did not recall any difficulties getting on or off metro. Metro was empty near airport but as we got closed to city center, people piled in. It took 50 minutes to get from landing to Hotel Do Chiado, located around corner to Biaxa-Chiado metro and our base for next 3 days. All in all it was not as hard and quite fun to take the metro from the airport. We felt like a local!
Hotel DC looked unassuming from the entrance, just a small light green awning over the double door. I would have easily missed it if did not pre-check Google Earth. The ambiance got better as we ascended to higher floors. We quickly dropped luggage in our rooms then headed for the infamous view from the 7th floor terrace. And what a view! Red-tiled roofs over white plastered buildings, lit up outside and within, glowing under puffy gray clouds behind which the pinkish yellow sun was setting. Our gaze followed the horizon and spotted Castle São Jorge and the Tagus River. Thank you, Lisbon, for the nice welcome. Now let us eat!
Metro delivered us to Cais do Sodre station, we crossed the street and reached Time Out Mercado do Ribeira. It’s 9pm sunday and we didn’t see anyone at the gate, walked up one side and saw no activities, all was quiet. We walked to another entry and found EVERYONE. How well insulated from noise it was! There were so many people, we were lucky to find a table for 6 quickly. The men went foraging first and brought back beers and wine (of course!) then fried bacalhau balls, noodles & salmon, salsa & guac, and grilled cod. The women later found sauteed clams, grilled squids and charcuterie plate. Everything was fresh and tasted delicious. Left-overs got saved for tomorrow lunch. American tunes were playing and people danced, provoking the dancing queens in our group to join in. Why don’t we have any thing like this in California? It was a happening scene perfect for the first night in Lisbon. We departed and returned to hotel at close to midnight.
Day 2: Lisbon Monday May 9, 2016
Rain in the forecast today as we walked few minutes to Rossio train station at 8:30 a.m. to get to Sintra. The station itself is an impressive structure, very ornate with horse-shoe shaped entrance. We used our Viva Viagem to board the train and at 9:53 a.m. arrived at Sintra, found bus 434 (which is the SECOND bus station as we turned right from train station) and rode all the way up to Pena Palace. It started to pour so we paid additional 3€ each for the tram to the entrance. Through the misty drizzle, the palace showed its colorful turrets and towers. The hills are lush and towered with canopies of mature trees among which rising fog drifted. Rainy weather brought a romantic beauty to Sintra different from the sunny bright postcard perfect pictures shown on the website. Our favorite room in the palace is of course the grand kitchen. So spacious! Imagine the feasts prepared here!
After 2 hours at Pena, we caught bus 434 back down to Sintra town to visit National Palace of Sintra. We had hoped to visit Castelo dos Mouros but rain chased us indoor. Although this is the oldest palace in Sintra, it seems newer to us than Pena. We can see Moorish influence from the courtyards, arched windows, and glazed tiles. The kitchen again captivated our attention but we still preferred Pena’s kitchen for its rustic feel.
The main attraction, as everyone gathered here, is the Sala da Brasoes, or Coats of Arms room with its domed ceiling showing stags holding coats of arms of noble Portuguese families whose names are etched in tiles along the wall. Panels of blue azulejos tiles of hunting scenes circled the lower wall adding to the spellbinding contrast in this octagonal room.
From this palace, Sintra the town beckoned as our hunger became prominent. We tasted cherry liquor called ginjinha at nearby shop, nibbled on “travesseiros”, the famous flaky pastry stuffed with custard and almond at a bakery called Piriquita, wandered up and down the small pretty alleys, and tried on hats after finishing some drinks and snacks at Cafe Paris. It was nice playing the wandering tourists and spending hard-earned money. We really like Sintra and wished there was time to see more of it.
Up next in our agenda was Quinta da Regaleira which was a 10-minute walk from town with a waterfall to mark the way–as instructed by a friendly Sintra guide. The sun made its appearance finally and a nice pleasant stroll brought us to the most whimsical fantasy land in Lisbon! We could have spend the whole day there with full picnic provisions. There were grotto and lakes, and castlelets with winding stairs leading to turreted towers, views from these towers were panoramic and mesmerizing. We could make out Castelo dos Mouros, and Monserrat palace, and National Palace in the distance. So much to see at Sintra in one day, we ran out of reserve and hightailed back to the train station then back to our hotel at 6:45 p.m. Although weather was wet, we lucked out with timing for the train and buses at Sintra. They just magically appeared and whisked us to our destinations as we arrived!
After a quick rest, we hit nearby A Vida Portuguesa for quick 15-minute souvenir shopping, loading up on Portugal port and wines. The store carries all kind of wonderful Made in Portugal products but sadly we came near closing and had no time to browse. Dinner was reserved at 8:30 p.m. via the Fork at Restaurant Frade dos Mares. Portugal is known for their fresh seafood and we loaded up on those. For appetizer, mussel au gratin with corn bread crust and lime, followed by octopus salad, prawn Frade dos Mares styled (olive oil and herbs), entree to share included octopus Lagareiro style (with olive and garlic and herbs), salmon in phylo with crab cream, cod Lagareiro. All were delicious but the octopus was the star! The restaurant staff conversed with us in English and the clientele were mostly locals. The place was very small and tables were up close to the door so patrons had to be buzzed in –to avoid disturbing closeby diners. We thought we found a local gem.
It’s about 11pm when we finished dinner. Late for us tourists but nightlife is just starting for night owls and fado fan. Unfortunately some of us was tired and plan for late night out got abandoned. Such is life for group touring. You win some, you lose some, you compromise some. So back to the hotel by taxi we went. But not after a quick night time romp in the area around the hotel for the women. The rain stopped but the wet surface reflected lights making for a pretty walk. People still mingled about at this late hours. We detoured back to the hotel’s bar and an unplanned nightcap with the men followed. Thus ended our second night in Lisbon.
Day 3: Lisbon Tuesday May 10, 2016
Late breakfast at 8 a.m followed by a walk to Praca Luis de Camoes to meet our guide Gabriella and Maria from Lisbon Chill-Out Free walking tour. It was our first ever free walking city tour and it was outstanding. The 3+ hours went by quickly, I don’t even remember looking at the clock! They took us from the flat part of Lisbon, the Biaxa, to the river near Praça do Comerció, all the way up to Alfama alleys spewing funny anecdotes and historical and cultural lessons along the way. We learned about the 1-day Carnation Revolution, the favorite Portuguese wine –vino verdé, and how the statue erected at the Praça do Comerció depicts how people hated King Jose I and embraced the architect the Marquis de Pombal who helped rebuild the city after the 1755 earthquake. Maria recited a fado poem and Gabrielle asked us to close our eyes and listened to the sounds of people chatting, children snickering, household noises–the sound of life in Alfama. We got to see the lives as people live in Lisbon, laundry fluttering in the balcony, shopper with baskets from stores, dogs following their owners home from wherever. It was an awesome experience. Thumbs up, Chill-Out!
Our tour ended at a gorgeous viewpoint in Alfama –Miradouro Sophia de Mello Breyner Andresen–and we wandered into a flea market–Feira da Ladra–nearby. A vendor bends spoon and fork tines into rings. Another sells antiques we haven’t seen a long time–an old iron press. We tried haggling for pretty red capes for nieces but lost. Then we tried haggling with driver for Tuk Tuk ride to Belem and WON ! 25E got us 6 a bumpy memorable ride to Belem on an electrical cart. The driver is from Cape Verde and spoke perfect English. He showed us where to get the fresh seafood–via a ferry over to the other side, the new developments along the seaside, and Pastel de Bélem, the famous Lisbon custard tart –tip: go inside and sit down instead of wait in takeout line.
At Bélem, the wind kicked in. We found shelter at the Mosterio dos Jerónimo which was built on the site of a chapel where Vasco Da Gama, the famous Portuguese explorer who reached India, had stayed before leaving for his voyage. The architecture of the monastery is a wonder to behold. Scalloped arches with ornate details on the columns in the cloister, religious motifs scattered throughout, and a beautiful sun-filled central courtyard connecting the corridors. Lisbon people surely know construction in the old days.
Exiting the monastery, at the end of the garden, we found the tunnel to go across to the Monument of Discovery, i.e. the Padrão dos Descobrimentos. The white stone landmark can be seen far away, it symbolizes Portuguese Age of Discovery during which Portugal laid claims to far away lands in India, Asia, Africa and South America. On the ground there is a giant Compass Rose, offered by South Africa, on the vast square leading to the Monument.We declined on going to the top of the monument because it was quite windy at this point. This area is quite spread out and the vicious wind made it hard to travel between monuments. We should have start at Bélem Tower and walk downwind to the Monastery. Regardless we powered on to Bélem Tower, i.e.The Torre de Bélem. It was a lighthouse guarding the entrance to Lisbon’s port and another important symbol of the Age of Discovery. Now it became a tourist hot spot for pictures. Again, we opted against going inside the tower and headed for the tram 15E across the road, at Pedroucos station, to return to our hotel. Just a quick rest then off we went to Fado in Chiado show at 7pm. It was a nice introduction to Portuguese traditional music with its signature longing and mournful tones. Going to Portugal and not listen to fado is like going to New Orleans and missing jazz. So this was definitely on the to do list. The women enjoyed the show and preferred the male fado singer. The men however thought is was passable and somnolent. Arrhh, Mars and Venus!
Dinner was to be at the infamous seafood mecca of Lisbon–Cervejaria Ramiro. No reservation allowed so we joined the long line at about 8:30pm and after 45 minutes in line we got a table on the upper floor. Seafood lovers paid tributes to shrimps and crabs at every table. We asked for tiger prawns, oysters, langoustines, crab, mussels, garlic shrimps, and percebes or gooseneck barnacles. The waiter had to stop us from ordering. Little he knows how Asians eat-gangster styled and with gusto! All of this was washed down with vino verdhe and cerveza. Needless to say we were full to the gills but of course desert had to be served. Medium rare steak sandwich! Followed by lemon sorbet (liquid Viagra) and tiramisu and chased down with cognac delivered swirling in warm glass to evoke the aroma of the brandy. Damn, what a meal and fine ending to our last night in Lisbon!
Day 4: Madrid Wednesday May 11, 2016
Arrived at Madrid Barajas Airport at 12:17pm by Iberia Airlines. We quickly got into a taxi van costing 40E and checked into Hotel Lusso Infantas. The rooms are facing the front with some bar/restaurant across the way so we asked to be moved to interior albeit smaller rooms which they graciously accommodate. They also helped hold a package, mailed to me from Tuenti, which contain SIM card for my cell phone. I have T-mobile which allows for international data plan but at 2G so I opted for Tuenti. The 1Gb plus 100 minutes prepaid plan costs 10E and helped tremendously with web search and Google maps for the 2 weeks that we traveled in Spain. After we dropped off luggage, we met up with Joaquin of Sandeman Free Madrid City Tour at Plaza Mayor, the main square at Madrid tourist center. The area is bustling with energy from pedestrians, locals and tourists. This is historically where Spain coronations, royal weddings and famed bullfights occurred. Colorful old buildings and cafe /restaurants lined the square and many walking tours start from here. Joaquin gathered about 30 of us and started toward the Royal Palace. Along the way, we stopped at various points as he talked about history of Madrid and its royalty. He also pitched other paid city walks from the company. We learned funny stories of the royal families but quickly lost interest and excused ourselves, with tip handing over,when the group break for bathroom at a nearby cafe. I guessed we lucked out with Lisbon walk the first time. From here, we made our way to the Royal Palace which we opted out and the Cathedral de la Almudena which has a very colorful ceiling and not at all somber like other churches. By now our stomach was growling so we made a beeline for Mercado de San Miguel for fuel. The women found some pintxos of tuna, sardines and plate of sauteed razor clams, the men brought back beers and wine and fried squids. We cordoned off a table and consumed with gusto. We could eat endless plates of those razor clams! As the men rest, the women went in search of the jamón store seen on the way to the Mercado. The prices for Jamón Iberico de Bellota, Spain famous ham, there was much cheaper than at Mercado so we made some purchases for tomorrow picnic. The shopkeeper also let us go behind the counter to try slicing the jamón. It was a great tourist Kodak moment.
After lunch, the women did what women do best-shopping! more like browsing.. the area we visited was around Puerta del Sol and it was jam-packed with people. The famous bakery near Puerta del Sol, La Mallorquina was mobbed with shoppers. We didn’t have a chance. Heard the Spanish pastries there are divine and a steal! When the rain started we ran into El Cortés Ingles where the food court handed out samples of turrón, a Spanish candy. Seemed pricey so we hesitated on purchasing. Something about buying from department store seemed off to us. We preferred buying from smaller merchants. Then it was time to head back to hotel but because of the rain or the failing Google Map apps plus our un-Magellan tendency, or the combination, made us lose our ways and frustration kicked in. We made it to the hotel for a quick rest before setting out for our dinner reservation at La Tragantúa. With roundabouts and crooked cut-off streets, Google Maps became confusing and we got lost again and missed our dinner reservation by 30 minutes. The owner graciously referred us to another restaurant called Ganz but the food were just alright, added on the surly service and it became unremarkable. We didn’t know it then but Madrid was the black hole of the trip. It started to suck. Mostly our fault. Grumpiness, not a good attitude during travel, affected our Madrid visit. Plus, it rained frequently and we missed many sightseeing opportunities. Plaza Cibeles’ and Museo de Belle Artes’ awesome views from the rooftop terrace will have to wait until our next sunny Madrid return
Day 5: Madrid Thursday May 12, 2016
The plan today was to get to Atocha Renfe train station for 8:50 am train to Toledo. We were late heading out the door at 8:11am, we chose to walk versus taking Metro, then we walked the wrong direction. So we missed the train. No refund, sorry, but we were able to get on the next train around 9:20 am. Things happened, as you know, in spite of your best plan and intention. However, the mood was already sour. We arrived at the gorgeous Toledo train station around 10:30 am and boarded the bus off the right of the station for Plaza Zocodover. From there we walked and looked for grocery market for picnic provision. The road had a nice canopy overhead for shade! Not needed today with the ominous weather. The shop were just opening and we had some difficulty getting helps with directions. Found one finally, bought some fruits and bread and had an early lunch picnic near the cathedral.
The cathedral though grand was not impressive to me at the time. The audio guide added nothing to the value and after a while I stopped walking and just sat enjoying the serenity of the church and waited for the rest of the party. We joined up but some were getting dizzy /cold from dehydration/wine for lunch/under-dressed and needed hot drinks. We decided to split up from the group. The rest of the day was dull, due to rain and foul mood, we walked but barely entered any site. Toledo is quite hilly and although I mapped out the route so we’ll be heading downhill mostly, it was scrapped. We wandered into local area with few tourists and saw a demonstration. Loud speakers, drum banging, banners were every where. The rain was steady throughout the day making walking less enjoyable. After visiting the Synagogue de Santa Maria, we stopped at a small cafe for quick rest and use the WC then caught bus 12 back to Plaza Zocodover. The bus picked up a load of teenagers from school and it was fun noting no difference in antics between American versus Spanish kids. Back at Plaza Zocodover, the rain stopped and the sun came out, we met up with our party sitting at McD–of all the gin joints! Shopping followed as the ladies regrouped and seeing no bargain we decided to head back to Madrid early at 4pm reaching Atocha station at about 5pm and taking the Metro, allelujah, to easily return to our hotel.
Dinner at Casa Benigna at 9pm was the saving grace of our Madrid visit. In fact, of the entire trip! It was divine intervention of sort to lift us from our pit. We all wanted to eat paella while in Spain but while Valencia was touted as the place, it was not on our list to visit. Others mentioned Barcelona and dismissed Madrid. Unless eaten in Valencia, paella might be expensive or salty and unauthentic. Luckily, I happened by Casa Benigna’s name the night before and booked via Trip Advisor/the Fork. The restaurant located on a nondescript area outside of Madrid city center reachable by taxi and even the decor is unusual with clothing hanging from the rafters. But it got very high rating so we gave it a go. EVERYTHING WAS DELICIOUS!!! For appetizer we were served the roasted eggplant with duck confit, sweet heirloom tomato salad, and tender smoked salmon. The smoked salmon was made in house and with a special juniper. The bean soup was uniquely prepared with hint of fish sauce. Next came the paella, first spare rib paella, then seafood then black squid. The rice used for seafood paella was different from the meat paella, all expertly seasoned and tasted different and all were outstanding. The meat paella has a crackling smokey burnt layer, adding texture. Not greasy, not soggy, not salty. Just perfect! Norberto the owner gave us the negro paella on the house since the cook missed it and we had to ask. Then he threw in free dessert–toasty cinnamon cracker with chocolate cup. Then he gave us free champagne. Holy Trinity! We never experience anything like it. What a place! What a gem! We chatted with Norberto and learned about his restaurant and the way his staff cooked paella. We took picture with his Mom and got a promise from him to stop by for a visit with us while he’s in LA. He’ll be bringing his special paella pan for KH! Stop the presses! We left dinner that night on cloud 9th redeemed by Norberto’s graciousness and hospitality. The trials and tribulations of the morning swallowed and digested thoroughly with each kernel of the delicious rice.
Day 6: Madrid Friday May 13, 2016
Having learned our lesson, we awoke early at 7:30am and took the Metro to Moncloa bus station which was located on the second floor of the metro and waited for our bus to Segovia. It rained on route to Segovia so after we disembarked, we confirmed our return for an earlier time 2:30pm–prematurely. From the bus station, it was an easy walk to town but the ladies stopped short in their track by shoes stores. Purchases made and with bags in tow we headed for the gigantic structure stood guard at the beginning of the town–the aqueduct. What an impressive feat of engineering! 25,000 granite blocks held together without any mortar and stands some 30m above the ground. It transported water from the river in nearby mountain about 17km away into Segovia for 1500 years. The Romans were brutal during their conquest but we owed so much of what we have today in Europe and the world to those imperialists.
Segovia is a pretty quaint town, less crowded than Toledo, less hilly to us and because we were more properly dressed today for the rain & cold, more appealing. It helped that the ladies got some shopping done early. We strolled under the light rain and passed by some restaurants advertising roasted suckling pig or cochinillo asado, a Segovia specialty. Most restaurant are not open until 1pm for lunch and our bus ticket was at 2:30pm so some maneuvering ensued involving the men dashing to the bus station to change tickets, which was not allowed, then dashed back to buy new tickets to allow for later departure and thus lunch with pig! The ticket office lady now have some hilarious story to share about the crazy Asian tourists. It was so worth the hassle because pig lunch at Restaurant JoséMaria was delectable. The poor little pig was so juicy and tender that the waiter could easily cut the meat using the edge of a plate.
Repleted from a delicious meal, we headed toward the Alcázar of Segovia or Disneyland Sleeping Beauty Castle as we like to call it. Alas, it was enshrouded in tarp for renovation! Rain and renovation work halted our visit to the tower and battlements of Alcázar. The rooms inside proved interesting. The Moorish influence is visible through tile works and arched windows. Hall of Thrones has plush red walls and gold plated ceiling. Hall of Kings has many windows showcasing the gorgeous rolling green hills of Segovia. The views through those windows are mesmerizing. Remnants of fortress wall surrounded the city can be seen. Pink stuccoed houses with red tiled roof dotted the verdant landscape. Missing were the puffy clouds and sunshine.
After Alcázar, we walked slowly back to the bus station under the steady rain and return to Madrid. Some of us returned to the hotel and some headed for the Prado Museum free hours from 6-8pm. The line was interminable and we didn’t see how we would be admitted. Luckily, a museum guide routed us to another line around the corner where there was a shorter line and we entered after short wait. The Prado was huge and the crowd dispersed among the rooms so it was not as claustrophobic as the Louvre during peak hours.We mapped out the attractions we wanted to see–Bosch, Velasquez and Goya and zeroed in on those rooms and was able to see the important works in the short visit before we were ushered out. The Louvre has Mona Lisa and the Prado has Velasquez’s Las Meninas. Velasquez is court painter to King Philip IV and is the undisputed headliner of the Prado’s collection. He painted everyday life inside the palace poking fun sometimes of his royal subjects. Goya’s The Naked Maja is another famous attraction showing next to The Clothed Maja. The model’s direct unabashed gaze toward the viewer daring us to criticize her bold nudity. The last famous painting we saw was Bosch’s famous The Garden of Earthly Delights showing the passage from Garden of Eden to Hell. The 2 enjoyable hours at Prado quickly passed and we returned to our Hotel along Paseo do Prado’s green belt.
Dinner at 9pm was at Restaurant Gastromaquia in the Chueca district. We didn’t realize it was a gay hub until passing some colorful characters and storefronts. The women nonchalantly walked the streets and the men now became the center of attention. On the menu at Gastromaquia were patatas bravas, mussels with masala sauce, entrecote, and meat paella (not as good as Casa Benigna). All were tasty but not at the same caliber as Casa Benigna which now became the bench mark for all restaurants. The waiters are extremely cute thin gay guys, there were some cute gay women waiters too. It was good fun to be in a new environment and we had a great time walking the district and accepting coupons to late night drag shows. We didn’t go, had to pack to leave for Seville next morning.
Day 7: Seville Saturday May 14, 2016
We all rose at 7am to take metro to Madrid Atocha train station for 9am train to Seville. By now we were familiar with train travel– arrive early, go thru security, watch overhead display for departure platform, look for coach/train number, look for our seat number, and watch our luggage in the train. We arrived at Seville’s Santa Justa train station at 11:38am and caught the taxi to Apartamentos Murillo in Barrio Santa Cruz of Seville. The apartment is in an old Jewish quarter filled with small alleys and passageways to shield from the hot summer sun. The smell of orange blossoms wafted through the air of the lobby when we checked in. The staff had our luggage in hold until 4pm check in. We sauntered into the warm Seville sun. Got lost looking for a bank, then some wanted to wander/shop /eat, some not, so the group split up. Some ladies went shopping, the men convened at a watering hole, I went into Cathedral and enjoyed the serenity of the chapel amidst the crowded throngs. The long 30 minutes wait in the hot sun was not ideal but the umbrella helped. My favorite part is the courtyard of the orange grove at the exit of the cathedral. Weekend in Seville is hectic. People everywhere and the hordes gathered at sidewalk cafe and restaurants made for a bustling scene. The plan to stroll and discover the Barrio Santa Cruz was swapped for a slow lunch at an outdoor cafe, La Sacristia, where we chatted about religions and the church. How so much money and manpower went into building temples for God while the unfortunates are neglected. TT also told us about the times his prayers were answered and shored his faith. We agreed on the moral purposes of religion but that some people bend it then impose their ill intentions and turn religion on its head and force feed to the mass. It was a thought-provoking lunch hour then the mood got lighter when some of the women returned from shopping and showed off their prizes.
We sat a while longer just watching the parade of people. Several groups wearing uniforms or costumes chanted as they passed the cafe. KH the dancing queen joined them in an impromptu powwow. Great fun! But sadly we had to head back to check in to our hotel. Our room are more like suites with a living room and kitchenette. More roomy than we’re used to. But some rooms were not to our liking and were switched. We learned that magement rather fixes problems for customers immediately than to hear whinings about it later in the reviews, so always ask if you’re not happy with the room. After some rest, it was chow time at reserved Restaurant Mechela. A nice long walk passing Seville’s famous landmark, Iglesia del San Salvador, Plaza San Francisco, Ayuntamiento, Archivo de India, brought us to a local gem Mechela. Small and unassuming, with the front house ran by a very capable lady whose name was not proffered. We enjoyed grilled fish, salmorejo, octopus in cream, and salad. All good but too creamy. By now we craved vegetables but delicious greens were hard to find at restaurants. Although markets in Spain are full of fresh produces, good vegetable dish in restaurants are hard to find. Some drowned it in creamy or sugary dressings, some created unusual combination of ingredients . The taste symphony was inharmonious and left us wanting. The night was still young by Spanish standard, 10:30pm on a swinging Saturday, but we walked home and turned in early. Sorry Seville, we owed you a revisit to make it right.
Day 8: Seville Sunday May 15, 2016
Double bookings for Mechela and Petite Comité restaurants last night was discovered . Error was magnanimously forgiven by Petite, via Facebook, and rebooked for tonight. Spanish hospitality is alive and well.
Half of us woke up early and set out for Plaza Espana at 8:00am. We walked into a 5K or 10K race finishing at the Plaza. People in fluorescent garbs scattered all over and event booths dotted the Plaza with American pop tunes blaring. So much for a quiet Sunday. We resigned ourselves to one small section at the far end and that was more than enough in this vast beautiful Plaza. Pavilion and galleries lined the semi circular building. Marble columns hold up mudejar-styled and geometrically tiled towers of bold colors and intricate carvings. Bridges spanned the canals fronting the buildings and create photogenic backdrop for the Most Beautiful Plaza in Spain.
Hurrying back to our hotel to meet our group for our next attraction, Seville Alcázar, we walked by many rental bike stations, mentally noting a bike ride back to Plaza Espana later with the group. Of course we forgot to do it. Add another reason return to Seville!
Alcázar had 3 long lines at 10:00am for tour groups,for buying tickets and for reserved ticket holders of which we belonged. We had 10:30 timed entry for Cuarto Real Alto, the private royal residence, and had no idea the line would be so long nor where exactly to go. Guide told us to go upstairs and with crowds we missed the sign and our timed entry. Luckily we were rebooked but we were split into 2 groups. No photos were allowed in the Royal rooms and audio guide steering us into private quarters of the Royal family. Sumptuous and regal with magnificent views of the Alcázar gardens. It is good to be king!
Google told us Alcázar came from Arabic word “alqásr” meaning royal house. Seville Alcázar is a walled palace with Christian and Islamic designs. Mudejar architecture, geometric tiles and intricate carvings lend the Palace a mesmerizing and spellbinding grandeur. Courtyards adorned with fountains, a trademark of Moorish designs, connect various chambers, with pathways leading to the gardens. Courtyard of the Maiden with showstopping water feature was one of the most beautiful place we ever saw in Spain, with its geometric tiles and intricate Arabic carvings and motifs throughout. Following the pathways, we meandered in the dappled shaded gardens and found the underground Hamman or Moorish bathhouse. Water channels, water walls and a miniature waterfall are prominent features of the gardens and help cool the air while serving a practical function of watering the luscious landscape of magnificent date palms, cycads, citrus trees, lavenders and roses. Three hours passed quickly and we found ourselves headed out of the gate dazed and enchanted having seen one of the most awesome place in Spain.
One hour remaining from the 10am-2pm Sunday art fair at Plaza del Museo, we rushed northward to meet it. Feeling uninspired at the offerings at the faire, we marched back and lunched at La Hosteria del Laurel enjoying a delicious spread of oxtails, entrecote, baked cheese, and roasted pepper salad with tuna. We forgot to mention the divine wines, delicious olives and oils and bread that accompanied each meal that we ate in Spain. Not free but we gladly hand over the euros. Spanish olives and olive oils are national treasures. So good!
Flamenco in Seville was up next. Tourists drive the industry because how could you visit Spain and not see flamenco? The choices are dizzying and many and to stay true to its Andalusian root, we chose Seville. To stay true to our thinning wallet, we chose La Casa de la Memoria. One hour long show of feet stompings , chest heavings, arms/body swirlings, along with soulful wailings accompanied by rhythmic guitar struttings was worthed the 18€ price. Just don’t hate yourself if you miss seeing flamenco in Spain.
Still full from the late lunch, we didn’t ingratiate ourselve at Petite Comité at dinner. Fried anchovies, octopus, entrecote and oxtails were washed down with a good bottle of red wine from Duoro valley. The restaurant was small but had a nice ambiance. Located near the river, so we walked along the river paseo back to our hotel to pack for Granada tomorrow. We missed seeing a whole lot of Seville but we had only 2 nights there. More reasons to come back. Hasta proxima, Seville !
Day 9: Granada Monday May 15, 2016
Taxi delivered us to Seville Plaza de Armas bus station for 8:15am trip to Granada. Signage for bus departure is nonexistent and little help came from the bus driver because his job is to drive not directing. Computer terminal was of little value so after a few frustrating minutes of yoyo-ing between platforms, we boarded the correct bus to Granada. Three hour bus ride through nice countryside filled with olive groves was accompanied by a shrilling continuous spiel from a Dutch lonely gal 2 seat diagonal from us. What could be so captivating to have her talk such way for such length? And not a complaint from any bus rider and especially her seat neighbor! Such good citizens of the world. We finally arrived at Granada bus station at 11:30am and hastily caught a taxi to our hotel La Casa de la Trinidad. It’s important to discuss the taxi in Spain here . It was not outrageously priced but we never knew of the charges and what or how much the supplement are and felt manipulated somehow to pay more than we should because we are tourists and at their mercy. Madrid driver were the trickiest. We turned on Google Maps and even showed the driver how he went the long route and looped farther to increase mileage on his taxi meter. No luck, the driver just played deaf. Pfft! In Granada , we lucked out. Our taxi driver gave us a nice intro and pointed out the sites to see. He was also deeply appreciative of the small tip as he drove us to our hotel.
And, here we got the best view so far for hotel. We enjoyed the leafy canopy of Plaza Trinidad across the way. After dropping off our luggage, we quickly made our way to lunch at Restaurant Oliver nearby. This became our favorite hangout and we returned 3 times before leaving Granada. The waiters are colorful characters and had great fun joking with us. The food was
good too. Fried anchovies and vegetables went great with beers. Grilled lamb chops were tender and tasty and those olives were outstanding! We kept asking for clams and octopus but they kept saying “mañana” and that was how we came to eat at the same place 3 times.
Alhambra visit was scheduled for tomorrow and we needed to pick up the tickets ahead so we rushed to the Alhambra Store which directed us to the new location to pick up tickets–Corral del Carbon! A friendly tour guide and a helpful office lady helped us print out the tickets. Waiting for our next attraction, Segway tour with Ensegway, we passed the time browsing the boulevards. It was afternoon and many shops were closed until 5pm. We seek shade and refreshment at nearby Hagen Daz. After the rainy first week, the warm weather was making some of us tired so we deferred our 4pm segway tour to 6pm to allow for cooler ride closer to sunset. Heading back to the hotel to rest we crossed some Arabic alleys and shops and the aroma of shawarma enticed us with a promise for lunch tomorrow. A quick siesta was just what we needed before heading to our most exciting adventure, 40Euro for 3 hours Granada City Tour with Ensegway.
Nacho gave us a quick introduction and after a shaky start, we followed him duck-in-row through Granada small tight streets near Plaza Nueva and Carrera del Darro and up to Albacyin’s hillside and Sacramonte barrios enjoying the magnicient views along the way. On the hillside were many squatters who live in makeshift housings free from governmental interference. Nacho told us that we can all come to Granada and get free lodging on the hill. Minus the utilities! We took to segway like fishes to water. It was such a cool way to ascend those steep cobble-stoned hills effortlessly. In bright fluorescent vests, we provided comical and free-advertising spectacles for the people on foot. It was super fun! Please Santa do bring it to California for us this Christmas! Following a happy mood from the segway tour, we revisited Restaurant Oliver for dinner, chatting and joking with the same waiters then retiring early because bright and early tomorrow we see the magnificient Alhambra.
Day 10: Granada Tuesday May 17, 2016
While researching for visit to Granada, I was advised by Trip Advisor to purchase tickets for Alhambra as soon as we know of the dates. The on-line purchase process is unnecessary complicated because entry is timed to Nasrid Palace entry and is divided to morning and afternoon session. Added to this is the fickleness of Ticketmaster for preferring certain credit cards over others, plus the different and changing ways of collecting Alhambra tickets in Granada , plus the different entrances/gates to Alhambra. It’s pure lunacy! So after combing through many advice, I decided on the earliest timed entry at 8:30am–to avoid the crowd ruining our pictures at Nasrid Palace and to have more free time afterward for enjoying Granada. With pre-printed tickets, we hopped on bus C3 at Plaza Isabel La Catolica for Alhambra and hopped off at Puerta de la Justicia, the second stop AFTER the Main Alhambra stop. We entered at Justice Gate (which is closest to Nasrid Palace and is open 24/7 ) and encountered just one other party waiting before us at the palace. No other soul around!
Where we waited in line, we can see the Alcazaba, or fort. It is the oldest part of the Alhambra built on top of the ruins of an old Roman fort. The stone foundation scattered around are all that was left of the soldiers’ barracks and quarters. There were baths, bread ovens, food stores and weapon stores. The Keep, the tallest point in Alhambra, stand guard over the compound which consist of three rows of fortress walls. So strong was the fort that the only way it could fall was by an indefinite siege like the one it underwent at the hands of Queen Isabela and King Ferdinand in 1492.
The ground of the Alhambra is vast and the star of it all is the Nasrid Palace. It is spectacular! Every inch is decorated beautifully with geometric Arabic patterns. Wooden carvings of Arabic inscriptions of the Quran or Islamic poems and colorful tiles adorn every surface. It was mesmerizing and left us speechless and in awe of the creative genius that went into building the palace. At the center of the palace is Courtyard of the Myrtle, taking its name from the myrtle hedges that surround it, and dominant at its center is a reflecting pool from which a number of rooms were arranged, including the Salon de los Embajadores, where ambassadors would be received, and the Comares room, where the sultan pray.
Next to the Nasrid Palace is the Palacio de Los Leones, dominated by Courtyard of the Lions. The courtyard supposedly represents paradise. Small trees and flowering plants fill the flowerbeds. Four water channels represent the four rivers of Muslim paradise, linking the fountain to the surrounding rooms, symbolically dividing the courtyard into the four corners of the Earth, a Persian idea which inspired Islamic culture. In the center is a fountain supported by twelve lions made of marble, each carved with distinct features, and on their backs rests the central basin, made of a single piece of stone. In earlier time, the details on the basin were decorated with bright colors!
One of the surrounding room is called Sala de Dos Hermanas or the Hall of Two Sisters, named after the two great twin slabs of Almeria marbles lining the floors. The dome of the room is an impressive honeycomb work of geometric shapes know as mocarabes. Cascading down from the ceiling and adorning the walls are intricate carvings representing the local flora .
Light filtering through the windows, the sound of trickling water from the fountains combining with the aesthetics of the rooms made for a spellbinding effect. All senses are awaken! Leaving the Nasrid compound, we stepped into the Lindaraja garden then the Partal garden and slowly made our ways into Generalife where our group got split due to the vastness of the garden. The Generalife, pronounced “heneral-iffe” from the Arabic “jinan al-arif” meaning “Garden of the Architect” (THE architect here is Allah/God) used to be a working garden providing its bounty to the rulers in Alhambra. Now it is mostly decorative with many flowerbeds, esplanades, rows upon rows of hedges and meandering pathways. Gorgeous and absolutely amazing!
We walked from Generalife to the exit and completely forgot to check out King Charles V Palace. From what I read, we didn’t miss much. It was built as an afterthought to emphasize the dominance of “Christian-dom” and has Renaissance influence which is totally incongruous to the Moorish surrounding.
Returning to Granada city center, we let our noses lead the way to find shawarma for lunch. Then we headed back to hotel for a nap after a long morning at Alhambra.
Dinner was at El Quinteto, reserved in advance and although had high ranking with Trip Advisor was just okay. The interior of the restaurant is GRAY with purple accents! Not charcoal gray, but stormy gray, so not very appealing nor appetizing. Perhaps we ordered the wrong dishes.
Still hungry, we headed back into La Bicicleta where we suffered another blow, this time surly service. So after a glass of wine and some roasted jalapenos, we hopped over to Restaurant Oliver a third time. Still no clams nor octopus! But it was more atmospheric and we had a quick laugh when the waiter, asked to bring “oliva”, brought us one olive. OlivaS, si?
Day 11: Granada/Barcelona Wednesday May 18, 2016
We spent half day touring Granada before flying to Barcelona at 7:05pm. With luggage in hold at the hotel at check out, we had planned to visit Carmen de Los Martyres then Cuarto Real de Santa Domingo then lunch at Bar Los Diamantes. Others voiced in to skip Carmen due to time constraint so we headed to Cuarto Real. We later discovered that although free to the public, it was quite a small attraction. It bears some distant resemblance to Alhambra but pale in comparison in scale and scope. It’s off the tourist track and still under renovation. We comleted the tour within the hour.
With ample time remaining, we hopped on bus C2 to Carmen de Las Martyres. We should have stick with the original plan because this place deserves ATTENTION. Also locating off the tourist track and very close to Alhambra, the Carmen is expansive and has amazing view of Granada. The signature Moorish fountain in the courtyard greeted us. Tall palms stand guard in another courtyard in which peacocks languidly stroll. A few steps away and on higher ground is a hidden lake with a bridge spanning over to stone towers under which swans float leisurely. What a fantastic find! All free to the public and hardly anyone here…
Up next is where to do lunch? The men won the coin toss and we headed to Marisqueria Cunini to enjoy an assortment of tasty but expensive seafood at an outdoor table. Afterwards, we searched for caffeine from La Finca Coffee. It’s a little tiny place off the alley near our hotel but served great espresso. The aroma of the roasting coffee enticed us yesterday as we walked by and we promised to return. We brought back a chocolate torte to share with the group. It was a good send-off from Granada. Magically, we managed to check off everything in our Granada to-do list before heading to Barcelona.
Arriving late in Barcelona, we hopped into a taxi speeding toward H10 Urquiñaona Plaza Hotel arriving at close to midnight. We chose this hotel due to its closeness to Placa Catalunya. It’s a small boutique hotel in a renovated building. The room is tiny with the wash basin located outside of the bathroom making it a bit inconvenient. The front staff however is very helpful and friendly offering champagne reception at check in. Once luggage was unloaded, we went foraging. Most restaurant nearby were closed. We found an Irish pub but bolted out the door when we heard the deafening music. Luckily there was an oasis of calm in a 24-hr bakery across the street. Serenity came at a price! Sandwiches and muffins and drinks totaled about 50€.
Day 12: Barcelona Thursday May 19, 2016
Two early birds met this morning to roam Las Ramblas and do a reconnaissance of Mercat San Joseph de La Boqueria, aka Boqueria for short. At 8am, the market is just waking up with the merchant setting up the displays. We browsed quickly and settled at the bar stools facing smiling Senor Juan of Pinotxo. His stall is the famous fixture of La Boqueria serving famous patrons such as Anthony Bourdain. We started with Cafe con Leche and shared a torta. Nice and easy start. Too early for any cooked dish, the kitchen was just prepping, so we bought 2 tortas to go and promised to return. On the way out, we saw some mouth-watering strawberries but the lady merchant, with not even a glance toward us, wanted 5E. No sale for this lady! After a quick breakfast with the group, we hopped on bus 19 in front of our hotel to Sagrada Familia. At 9am there were already long lines for those with pre-purchased tickets. Gaudi’spirit must be smiling on us because we were brought up to the front of a newly formed line! Gazing up at the cathedral, we slowly take in the immensity of what we were seeing. We were below the Nativity facade gazing at angels heralding the birth of Jesus next to the Three Wise Men. Tall spires jutting skywards with skyscraper cranes playing pic-a-poo between the towers. The cathedral is Gaudi’s masterpiece and are under construction since Gaudi’s time with plan to finish in 2026. The sandy brown facade with its spiky towers reminds me of sand castle sculptures.
Grabbing our audio guide, we headed inside. It is immense and fantastical unlike any cathedral we had ever seen. The columns and roof look like giant albino celery sticks. Surrounding us are stain-glassed windows of all hues and tones bathing the interiors in rainbows of colors. Even the altar with Jesus on the Cross is built differently. He is sheltered under “God’s canopy.” There are 2 different ascending elevators–to Nativity and Passion towers– but only one available for descending. We opted not to climb due to fear of height for some and climbing for others. The view is supposedly not the greatest so we don’t think we were missing out much.
The museum downstairs showed behind-the-scene constructions of the cathedral and we explored a bit then headed out the door for fresh air after touring the cathedral for 2 hours. We had a date with Senor Juan at La Boqueria! Waving hello to the crew, we settled down at the nearby table and enjoyed a spread of sea snails, razor clams, eggs with mushrooms, and white beans
The colorful market is packed with shoppers and tourists so we were glad to have had a chance to browse in the early morning. We bought some fruit cups of mango and coconuts for 2E each and headed out for the bus to Parc Guell. After asking around, we found bus 24 near Placa Catalunya by El Cortes Ingles which took us directly to the side entrance of Parc Guell but the bus ride took nearly an hour due to numerous stops. We rushed to the entrance of Monumental Zone for 1:30m timed entry and made it barely.
The Monumental Zone is topped with a large sandy square meant for open-air shows and lined with undulating bench of colorful tile-shard mosaic system called trencadis. Dense columns of stones, call the Hypostyle Room, hold up the square. Originally, the park was built for Eusebi Guell by Gaudi with plans to divide up the plots for houses. The plan did not pan out and eventually the city open the park to the public. The most interesting part is at the entrance with 2 whimsical guard towers straight out of Dr Seuss’s Whoville. Next to the entrance is the garden with unusual spiral ramp, called the Portico of the Washerwoman, supported by leaning columns made from unhewn stones. Needless to say this park, like other Gaudi’s creation, is uniquely fantastic.
After about 2 hours at the park, we exited taking bus and metro to get back to our hotel. Some rest, some shopped and some went to Runner Bean Free Gothic Quarter Walk. This was the third free city walk for the trip and it was very interesting. We started at Placa Real and weaved through the old Gothic Quarter of small alleys and old Jewish barrios. Eric our tour guide led about 20 people and told tales of yore’ and showed us some landmarks including Iglesia de Santa Maria del Pi and Barcelona Cathedral. The Pi or pine was the remaining lone pine of what was a pine forest. In Barcelona Cathedral, 12 geese guarded the cloister. During Christmas season, it was the Three Wise Man, not Santa, who deliver gifts to the Children on January 6, not December 24! These were few of the interesting facts we learned during the walk. It was great fun but after a long day, we had to bid Eric goodbye early at 7pm with tips in tow. By now it was getting chilly so we grabbed a quick cafe con leche and apple tart then hurried back to hotel for a short rest before dinner.
Dinner was at crowded Bar Canete with no reservation– a la Anthony Bourdain! I don’t know what kind of string TT pulled but we were seated quickly. After a quick look of the menu, we knew why. Tourists pricing! 30E and up for a bottle of wine! Up until now Spanish wine was so affordable. 12-15E for an excellent bottle! We didn’t know and chose the cheapest one, but it was ORGANIC without additives. It did not tasted good. So they brought us a replacement–for 90E! We swallowed the harsh truth along with tomato toast, tuna tartar, rabbit, and steak. Steak is good but the other dishes were just okay. Anthony, you misguided us!
Day 13: Barcelona Friday May 20, 2016
Some of us visited Senor Juan at Pinotxo again for breakfast of zucchini omelet and cappuccino; made some purchases comprising of turron and olive oils then met the group to walk to Palau de La Musica Catalana for a guided tour of the concert hall. It was a beautiful hall built by another modernista architect,Lluis Domenech i Montaner. Concerts and shows take place daily but we passed it up due to time constraints. The concert hall is designed in the early 1900 and is a UNESCO Heritage site. It shows rich colorful designs that emphasize floral and organic motifs made up of numerous tile mosaics and stained-glasses and red brick with iron works. The main concert hall is a symphony of color and texture. You can’t help but utter amazement upon seeing it.
From Palau, we walked up Passeig de Gracia to see Casa Battlo, another Gaudi’s work. With our timed entry ticket, we breezed through the line without waiting. Casa Battlo’s exterior is colorful with tile mosaics on its facade punctuated with balconies that shape like bony masks. The roof resembles the spine of the dragon with its shiny kaleidoscopic scales and curvy lines. Inside, curves and circles are the dominating design elements. No straight line in sight! Felt like you are inside an aquarium or under water with lots of colorful glassy wavy surfaces and circles or bubbles everywhere. The audio guide is linked to a smartphone that, when positioning along the room, offers virtual images of the fully furnished rooms. Super cool!
After Casa Battlo, we continued walking up Passeig de Gracia toward Casa Mila or La Pedrera with a short break at McD for fries and beers. Passeig de Gracia is known as Modernista Mile with many buildings from that architecture style. Dotted the wide leafy boulevards are high end fashion houses including Louis Vuitton, Hermes and Rolex. All geared toward big spending tourists! Too bad we were just browsers. Still, we enjoyed strolling the boulevard with its many shops and stopping by the many benches to rest our weary soles.
At La Padrera, we were allowed on the rooftop and just a few of the rooms since it was a residential building and not just a tourist attraction. This Gaudi work again uses curves as its focus. Called La Padrera or the quarry for its rough outer appearance, it was built for Pere Mila and thus named Casa Mila unofficially. Inside we find a light-filled courtyard 10-story high decorated with polychromatic murals and iron works. Exiting into the roof terrace, we saw chimneys shaped like Star Wars ‘ stormtroopers and ventilation shafts warped into wondrous sculptures unlike anything we know. Gaudi is a genius or he was on SOME drugs. Just brilliant!
On the fourth floor, we saw the Pedrera apartment as it was lived by a family in the early 20th century. The layout, the furniture and decor recreates the residence of a wealthy family living in Barcelona at that time. The rest of the building comprises of actual rental apartments. Some are available for vacationers. At a dear price surely!
We were all Gaudi-out by this time so decided to call it a day. Walking toward our hotel, some made a detour back to La Boqueria for souvenirs. We reconvened at around 8pm for our last hurrah at Tickets Bar.
Trying to reserve for Tickets Bar is ridiculously hard. It’s done only by computer at exactly 2 months and 1 day before the date that you want, and exactly at midnight Barcelona. The site is maintained by the Fork but it kept crashing due to the amount of people trying for reservations. The system seems to remember you and only when it deems you worthy will it let you in. Or so it seemed. Now that we visited the place, we could say that it deserves a visit if you are curious. We chose the tasting menu. Their signature style is surprise gastronomy, what you see is not what you taste. Some dishes were amazingly good like the Manchego cheese that surprisingly burst full of flavor in your mouth or the amazing olives and the eel on chicken skin. Some like the lobster or the coconut soup and the sweet&sour razor clams were just weird. The wine offered was not the best of the trip nor the service. AND it was the most expensive meal of our trip coming in at over 600E. Will we be back if we are in Barcelona again? Not too sure…
Day 14: Back to California Saturday May 21, 2016
Advice: if you plan to shop at Barcelona airport before flying, allow plenty of time (3-4 hours) before going through security/passport control; also, if you plan to get VAT refund, look for Custom upon entering the airport. Very few shops or restaurants exist after passport control; and there were no additional custom office near the VAT refund office. Traveling today involves lots of time wasted at the airport waiting in lines for security check and airplane arrival. We had security issues at Atlanta Airport upon entering the States. The lines were horrendous and took over 2 hours to clear custom. Adding baggage claims and transit time and you got 3 hours plus. Good luck guessing if you can make your connection if you have less than 3 hours! Luckily we did not miss our connection but the whole day was draining us of energy. Wish we can just teleport ourselves home!
Epilogue: 2 weeks after trip
What a whirlwind tour! We did a lot and see so many places during the 2 weeks. Lisbon is full of old world charm. It’s not squeaky clean but the grunge gives it an “antique” mystique. We love the Alfama neighborhood. Windy alleys around hills lead to spectacular views. In Sintra, Quinta da Regaleira is outstanding with its whimsical layout. Let’s not forget the food. The seafood in Lisbon is amazing and so affordable.
Spain is also beautiful and so CLEAN and full of architectural gems with Alhambra and Seville Alcazar at the top. The Andalusian cities owe their heritage to their Islamic past and it’s evident in their architecture and vocabulary. Senor Gaudi and his modernista cohorts introduced Barcelona to the world and we deeply grateful to see their works. Catalans are rightly proud of their history but God forbids if they ever separate from Spain. With so many churches and Cathedral around, one would think Spaniards are a religious bunch. A very relaxed drunken bunch! How can they not be! Spanish wines, olives, olive oil and jamon iberico de Bellota. Those are Spain’s national treasures.
Traveling in groups offered so many valuable lessons. Foremost is acceptance–accepting personal differences with those you travel, religious and cultural differences in places you travel to; and that sometimes #$!% happens….but tomorrow is another day to try make it right again. Another lesson is to be in the present. Let your senses absorb the beauty and process the surrounding. Feel the emotion a place evoked. We will turn to dust but these places will withstand against time.
Here’s hoping for more lessons to come from traveling–with carry-ons!