CHAPTER 12 – SPAIN, PORTUGAL & MOROCCO 1999
In1999 we had our first trip to Spain It was a startling discovery to arrive in Madrid in August to find that no-one was at home. They had all fled the city – hence the “Spanish flea“ – it seems every August every self-respecting urban dweller deserts and heads for the coastal regions. Heaven knows they have a delightful selection to choose from, beginning from the Costa Brava to the Costa del Sol and not too far to the Portuguese coast, San Sebastian etc.
It is not all bad being in Madrid as a tourist in August, as there is no traffic on the roads, sight seeing is easy especially from the open top tourist buses, it is hot, but so what we Aussies are used to that, all the shops are shut, John says that is a bloody good thing, but so too are the restaurants, not so good. It seems the restaurant owners go to the coast as well. Everyone goes.
Madrid does have a lot to offer in the way of monuments, palaces, fountains and memorials, and is a very clean city, that was one group of people that did stay on, the cleaners who were incessantly sweeping pavements. We did admire the rows of standard native oleander throughout the city.
Let me tell you, the train system in Spain is one of the best and cleanest and fastest anywhere in the world. It is extremely efficient, right down to procuring tickets, and until you get that right, frustration can creep in. You do need to allow plenty of time to acquire a ticket, first getting a little slip of paper with a number from a well hidden vendor machine. Spanish people come up and poke you in the ribs and pointing to it when you look totally lost. Then you sit on a very hard bench and wait till your number appears, then try to make a non-English speaking attendant, of which they all are, understand where it is you wish to go with a lot of pointing at timetables and gibberish.
Having obtained the ticket, paid the required amount, you then go to the exact platform and have less than a minute from when the train stops, to departure. The trains make our XPT’s look like out-dated museum pieces they are so modern, and meal service on board is much better than in-flight services.
Next stop Cordoba on our way to Seville. The miles that unfold through La Mancha country, are all olive groves in the same red earth in similar tapestries of pattern all the way to Seville. Seville was readying itself for the World Athletics Championships so was very colourful with banners flying, as this city knows how to put it on as is an Expo city. Once again the open top bus is the way to explore a city and Sevilla has lots to offer, from its quaint little side streets winding through rows of dwellings with wrought iron windows and doors. This is the city where Bizet put Carmen on the map, she was the one who made cigars famous, not Monica.
The 16th century Seville Cathedral is simply magnificent. It is the largest Gothic Cathedral in the world, and third largest church, even bigger than Hagia Sophia in Istanbul. It was originally built to demonstrate the city’s wealth. When you go inside you realize just how huge it is it has 80 chapels where it is said 500 masses can be held in a day. It is the burial place of Christopher Columbus.
It has 15 doors, and my photo does not show one, good one, but some of the doors are called Door of Baptism Door of Assumption, Door of Nativity, Door of Forgiveness, Door of Bells, and many more. When we went back with our group in 2001 we looked through but this trip there was a religious festival on and we could not get inside.
One of the most beautiful places I have ever visited the Reàl Alcazares in Seville. Originally a Spanish fort, it is the oldest royal palace still in use in Europe and a UNESCO World Heritage listing along with the Cathedral. There is the courtyard of the maidens surrounded by lime scented gardens and everything is beautiful, decorative tiles, on walls, floors, seats, ceilings, just everywhere. This place has a real otherworldly feel about as you ponder its grandeur.
Back on the train in Spain again, across the plain to Malaga where we were picked up by our lovely friends Paco and Elizabeth where we were to stay for three nights in the best company, in one of the prettiest places in the world – Peurto Banus, where Liz has a beautiful apartment overlooking the fairyland of the Costa del Sol.
This in August, unlike Madrid, is inundated with tourists who promenade their expensive European cars along the marina making it hard for those wanting a leisurely stroll to move, shoulder to shoulder. Shops there are glitzy and expensive. One needs to go to Marbella to see exclusive outlets off the delightful Orange square, very elegant shoe and clothing outlets but best of all hats from ‘THE HAT SHOP’ run with such flare and pizzazz by Paco and Liz.
Elizabeth took a day off her busy routine to take us for a memorable drive up through the winding, craggy goat-clad mountain sides to Ronda perched high on a cliff-top “As a dream it rises above the abyss” overlooking a tapestry of Spanish landscape that epitomises everything you ever saw or read about Spain from Ernest Hemingway to James A Michener and the romantic poets. It was the place that Orson Wells chose to leave his ashes.
Among the amazing structures to visit was the Church of Santa Maria with its many ornately decorated alters and frescoed walls, but the most specific building is the Plaza de Toros the oldest Bullring in existence, built in 1784.
Its stark white walls surround the arena that stirred the hearts and passions of Spaniards for centuries with such colourful bullfighters as Pedro Romero and Antonio Ordonez.
We found a real lover’s nook right in the historical artistic area of “La Ciudad” the Hotel San Gabriel, an Andalucian house built in 1736 turned into a very stylish boutique Hotel where room No. 8 would be the chosen place for a clandestine weekend to remember. It was regret that we had to leave beautiful Puerto Banus and Elizabeth who had so charmingly catered for our every need. But move on we had to.
We got right on the overnight train from Madrid to Barcelona and rambled down the Ramblas, with its colourful flower markets and people.
We walked for hours trying to find those elusive towers of Sagrada Familia that Gaudi started building in 1882, but Barcelona being so flat you have to be right up along side of them to see the 12 Gothic towers dedicated to the Apostles rising ghost-like to the sky.
Gaudi has put his stamp all over that town for posterity with flourishes that look like entwined giant octopus tentacles everywhere. He must have had awful nightmares to dream up such atrociously different architectural designs for his era and he must have invented ‘gawdy’, Gaudi by name and nature.
I just loved the town of Ronda, perched high in the hills behind the Costa Brava. And so I sent this message….
I felt your very magnetism draw me down your narrow streets like a flirtatious wench. I admired your flower adorned portico’s and wrought iron clad windows, as I leisurely strolled pavements trodden for many eons by your former lovers.
I do not know if it is your poignant mystery, or your precipitousness that is your main attraction as you perch like a raven, alluringly evasive “as a dream rises from the abyss”. Or your colourful adornment of myriads of tiles, or your mysterious past which attracted many famous writers, actors and artists to your perimeters or your enchanting facades.
I know I am not the first to enjoy your favours, many others have written of your charms, I feel not cheated by your flippant air, but rather privileged to be one of your admirers.
Your girth is surrounded by a tapestry of colourful Spanish countryside made up of earthy reds and verdant greens and olive tones. I want to see into your hidden soul. You are a pious entity watched over by Our Lady of the Incarnation and Our Lady of the Peace, and Chapel of our Lady of Sorrows and many old religious buildings.
You are cleansed by the Fountain of eight spouts, ancient Arab baths and the sometimes raging waters of the Rio Guadelevin that spills through your steep crevasse. You are cooled by shaded patios bearing shapely urns of leafy plants. In turn icy water from one of your many fountains cooled by heated brow one summer’s day.
You taunt and coerce me to stay in your precincts in romantic little hotels like the San Gabriel You draw a following to seek the excitement of years gone by in the Plaza de Toros where many a brave matador fought to see the bull’s demise.
Having tasted of your pleasures just once, I cannot wait to return to see your enchanting beauty once again.
GROUP TOUR TO SPAIN, PORTUGAL & MOROCCO 2001
We later in July 2001 took a group of 25 mainly all from Cowra, back to Spain and Portugal to do a Globus tour, which was relaxed and pleasant, flying into Madrid to take in the sights like the magnificent Prado museum and begin with tapas and treats with jugs of Sangria, which my bridesmaid Sandra from Perth WA who was along on this tour got quite a liking for. Every coach stop it was, let’s have a jug of Sangria! Our first Spain dinner had on the menu would you believe whole crackling roast baby pig! So of course we had to order it to see what a whole pig looked like on your plate. It arrived head, ears, little curly tail and all, about 30cm long and although I felt really bad eating it, it was absolutely delicious. The crackling perfect, I gave everyone a little sample to taste. Still feel bad little piggy!
We did a memorable day trip to the Palace of King Phillip II built in 1598 at El Escorial (the Royal Monastery of San Lorenzo of Escorial), 45 kms from Madrid, houses many royal remains and is breathtakingly vast in architectural splendour.Close to Escorial is The Valley of the Fallen, a vast basilica built into the side of the mountain and topped by a huge granite cross, seen for miles around. The monument was built by the Spanish dictator General Franco to remember the dead of Spain’s civil war. The guided tour inside the vast basilica under the mountain is very poignant.
On this trip we headed from Madrid to Segovia with its Roman Aqueduct the greatest surviving monument of Roman engineering. It is 2,950ft long from walls of old town to Sierra de Guadarrame. We also saw Segovia’s Alcazar one of Spain’s most beautiful castles with its turrets from a vantage point below.Then on to Avila a fascinating walled city,which we walked around and found it fascinating, including the church with the nesting storks.
We went on to Salamanca stayed in the quaint and quiet beautiful University city with its honey coloured cathedral. This is where Wellington routed Napoleon’s army in 1812.
We crossed the border into Portugal through vast areas or cork trees to stay in Lisbon for 2 nights, where we visited Belem tower (opposite), and the old cobbled streets of the Alfam running from the Tagus River. One evening we partook of a strange Fado singing show.
We admired the marble Discoveries Monument (or Monument to the Discoveries) built in 1960 to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the death of Prince Henry the Navigator, who sponsored many of the Portuguese explorers of the 16th century.
The Discoveries Monument has statues of all the great Portuguese explorers such as Vasco de Gama and Magellan. The monument also has a map that chronicles Portugal’s empire building around the world.
From Lisbon we visited Holy Fatima and its cathedral “Our lady of the Rosary at Fatima”. And whilst in Lisbon we visited Jeronimos Monastery where the tomb of Vasco de Gama is set in a maritime theme. It was quite something to visit, once again huge. We have been very lucky to have been able to visit so many fantastic Cathedrals in our travels.
I know some people joke about not another ‘C & C’ Tour meaning ‘Cathedrals and Churches’, but they are magnificent buildings and to build them today would be impossible even with all of our architectural and building prowess. I will have to list my 10 top Cathedrals, but that will be a tough one, as each one is memorable. But Jeronimos Monastery Lisbon would have to be on it.
The main square in Lisbon is attractive to the eye, with its steep parapet rising behind the regal looking buildings, a beautiful lemon yellow colour.
We went to a most unusual dinner and show at CAFE LUSO, Fado Music which was very intense bordering, because it was so serious, on comedy and we had an embarrassing fit of the giggles.
On then to Seville but on the way we made a brief stop at the Aqueduct at Avila (see above photo). In Saville we saw the beautiful Cathedral but could not enter because a Corpus Christi festival was in full swing. also a very vibrant, colourful flamenco show, and the magnificent Alcazar, to travel through the Jerez (sherry growing area of Spain) to the Costa Del Sol.
We rode in the horse and carriages around beautiful PLAZA DE ESPANA and Murillo park adjacent to the Real Alcazares in Seville
We stayed at a Hotel at Torremolinos on the Costa del Sol, having a very nice four course seafood specialty dinner and the next day spending a fascinating full day on the Rock of Gibralta, with its airstrip you have to drive through to reach. Its Barbary monkeys are fascinating. A real surprise was St. Michael’s Caves within The Rock and long tunnels housing a hospital and military secrets.
Then a ferry across to Cueta Morocco saying one night at Tangiers with a visit to the Medina, Grand Socco market and Casbah to take in all the flavours of Morocco. We were all quite happy with just the one night in Morocco as it turns out. In that time we got to get the real feel of the place.
We saw the mosques but women were not allowed to enter in Morocco.
Ferry back to Spain and on to Torremolinos where we wandered around the pretty town of Mabella, saw the cathedral (see photo above) and waited for our Globus coach to pick us up before going back to base. We had some spare time here, so I went for a swim, but the water was honestly icy cold.
Our next town to arrive at was Granada which is a lovely town famous for The Alhambra Palace and fortress, with its most magnificent, massive Alhambra gardens.
On the way back to Madrid we had a quiet stop at Don Quixote Inn and resting place before venturing into Toledo. Six degrees of separation again happened here as whilst we were at the Don Quixote Inn, a bus load of tourists pulled up with 3 couples on board that were to have come with our group from the south coast of NSW but decided to do the 5 days in Morocco instead of just the one that we did, and they all said they wished they had come on ours, as they had gotten severe stomach ailments from their longer stay there, whereas we were all OK!
On to Toledo, I know that is how the saying originated “Holy Toledo” as that is what you say when you enter this most glorious of cities with its Gothic cathedral. It is unbelievable.
Toledo was the former capital of Spain before Madrid was chosen because it was right in the geographical centre of Spain. We walked through the maze of narrow cobbled streets to visit the Church of Santo Tomé, housing El Greco’s famous painting, ‘The Burial of the Count of Orgaz’. This painting considered among his finest works. The theme inspired by the legend from 14th century when a said Don Gonzalo Ruiz of the town of Orgaz when he died he left some money to enlarge the church of St. Tomé and it was said that at the time he was buried St. Stephen and St. Augustine descended from heaven in person and buried him by their own hands in front of all the amazed persons present. El Greco added a self portrait in this painting easily spotted in the centre of the painting looking upward. One of the most amazing features of this artwork has to be seen in person is the sheer material of the cassock worn by the priest front right. As an artist I have no idea how he attained this affect.
We had another night at Madrid and then had a coach transfer from Madrid to Barcelona arranged. This was a funny experience because the coach driver did not speak a word of English. So firstly, as we took off from the Hotel for Barcelona, one of our group said they just saw Lesley eating breakfast at the Hotel and on looking around the coach, NO LESLEY, oops I had miscounted’
So to get the bus driver to go back was one thing, and then half way to Barcelona, I had to point to the map to show him I wanted to stop for the group to see Zaragoza Cathedral which is another spectacular one in my book. And then make out I was eating to say we wanted lunch there, as well, all sign language.
The Zaragoza Cathedral, the Basilica of our Lady of the Pillar,it’s origins are said to go back to the dawn of Christianity in Spain. There was a wedding taking place in the main Cathedral whilst we were there which we watched for a while.
When St., James was preaching the Gospel in Spain in 40AD he had an apparition of the Mother Mary who gave him a statue of herself and piece of jasper, and instructed him to build a church there in her honour. This statue and pillar stayed intact watched over by the people of Zaragoza. It, like these other ancient cathedrals had many chapels within the church, nine in fact.
On arrival in Barcelona to stay for two nights, we walked down La Ramblas taking in all the atmosphere of this busy colourful wide avenue with no vehicles, only pedestrians and marquees, on our way to our Flamenco dinner and evening which was fabulous.
We took our group to the PLAZA DE TOROS for a real live bullfight. These were still allowed then, but not since 2010. They are still allowed in Madrid. This was a very colourful visit, some of the group did not want to go because of the cruelty to animals, but could you go to Barcelona in all honesty and not see a Bullfight? And now it becomes a historical page in our book. We went.
Whilst we were at the bullfight Kathy from Cowra kept looking at another Japanese lady in front of our row, and all of a sudden they both caught sight of each other to great commotion, they had both gone to school together in Japan. So they had a lovely time reminiscing.
Next day we did a grand tour of Barcelona, the Expo site etc. Gaudi’s Guell Park, Gaudi homes. Marina area, the intrigueing Gothic quarter, Salvadore Dali museum, and Picasso museum.
Adios, lovely Spain and Portugal