Monday, July 12, 2010
Wednesday, June 09, 2010
Madrid's Terminal 1 is unnotable. Functional and efficient (at least at our hour), but lacking any signs of style or comfort. But soon we were on board our Lufthansa flight to Frankfurt, watching as we banked over sun-drenched Madrid for one final glimpse.
Lufthansa crams a lot of service into even short intra-European flights. A beverage service and a warm meal (chicken and rice) are surprising touches for U.S. travelers used to flights with no free pretzels.
Frankfurt's airport surprised us with its efficiency...even more than usual. No additional U.S. security checks...odd. Certainly a pleasant change, but definitely makes it hard to predict how long it takes to get from gate to gate. A Dieter look-alike stepped out of SNL and walked by with slick, jet-black hair, a lean-yet-friendly German face, and (of course) a tight all-black outfit topped off with a high turtleneck. Apparrently HE hadn't been walking in southern Spain recently.
Our United flight home was uneventful and ahead of schedule. This time, our flight path took us over the northern edge of Iceland, for a cool view of the rocky island as we passed. Greenland. Canada. And then south over Washington and Oregon. Pleasant cool temperates greeted us...as did Chris and his speedy chariot.
Home again, home again, jiggety jig.
Tuesday, June 08, 2010
We passed through the Plaza Mayor to catch the main building in the square-enclosed plaza lit up with warm light. Not much activity on a workday morning, except for Fat Spiderman trolling for children. I think this Spiderman ate the one from El Retiro yesterday, because this one was enormous. His red and blue costume was soiled and stretched tight around a substantial gut. A red triangular bandana formed the lower half of his creepy mask. What child wouldn't want a balloon from this guy? (On this morning, the alternative was an equally scary clown...so it was really a coin toss for King Icky!)
On to the Cabildo Catedral Metropolitano de Madrid...the city's late 20th century cathedral adjacent to the Royal Palace. Completed in 1993, this is the latest cathedral constructed in Europe. Classic features like the stained glass windows, wooden ceilings, gilded high altar, and central dome all exhibit modern styles and colors blended with traditional iconography. The look is clean and powerful...not pretending to be old, but rather embracing its youth. The view from the exterior of the dome was panoramic...although the now-midday sun and still haze made the view less than photogenic. On the horizon, the Plaza de Toros stadium resembled the iconic saucer spaceship from Lost in Space.
Our main stop for the day...and our most anticipated sight in Madrid...was the Royal Palace. We purposefully left this for Monday, since all of the museums are closed today. The Palacio Real de Madrid is the working palace of the Spanish monarchy...although the King and Queen reside elsewhere in town. This 18th century structure of over 2000 rooms was completed during the rein of Carlos III...and many of the rooms are decorated in his style. Our tour consisted of a couple dozen state rooms...all ornately decorated. Most of the rooms had elaborate ceilings of varying styles and materials. A favorite was the Chinoserie style room used as a formal dressing room for the awakening cermony of Carlos III...and to think I just get dressed unceremoniously. A beautiful painting adorning one of the large rooms depicted a colorful scene with Columbus returning to the court of Isabel and Ferdinand from the New World. The palace was probably the best possible way to finish up our trip. The visit certainly left you with a reminder that Spain has a rich and powerful history in spite of its current economic place in the world.
Spent the late afternoon people watching and recalling highlights from our trip. Strolled down the crowded Grand Via...ducking occasionally down a side street for a more intimate walk. Cervezas on the Plaza de Chueca...love the olive oil chips that accompany drinks. Laughed reviewing photos of Fat Spiderman. Scouted out our last meal in Spain...for now. The pleasant breeze and entertaining scene won us over, and we dined once more outside...yummy pizzas and cervezas from Pizzete. As the town closed up after midnight, we traced a circuitous route back to the hotel taking a few final photos.
Sunday, June 06, 2010
Spent a few hours touring the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza...another popular art museum...this one with a broader, less Spanish-focused collection. In addition, the Thyssen includes "modern masters", versus the more traditional masters in the Prado. So, this means we saw a fairly chronological collection that started in the 13th and 14th century with religious triptychs...and progressed steadily through all the major painting eras. El Greco and his famous "Annunciation" was a standout (again) for us. Seemed like all the big names were in the house... Rembrandt. Van Dyke. Rubens. Monet. Degas. Modern art stars included Picasso and Dali mixing company with Hopper, Pollock and O'Keefe. Oh, and a nice Rothco for Sherie :). Unfortunately, most of the Monets were out on loan...to Paris...don't they have enough Monets in Paris? For me, I got a kick out of seeing late 19th century landscapes of the Blue Ridge Mountains and Yosemite alongside traditional scenes from Europe.
Leaving the Thyssen, we strolled to the end of Paseo del Prado and entered the lower-left corner of Parque del el Retiro, Madrid's main park. As you might expect, El Retiro was the perfect place to join the city residents for a leisurely Sunday in the park. The temperature dropped noticeably. The breeze smelled fresh...almost moist. Sunbathers followed dots of sun under dense green canopies. Row boats dodged each other on the wide pool at Monumento Alfonso XII. A chubby Spiderman twisted balloons for kids. Shutterbugs posed for photos with people posing as bronze statues, Spongebob Squarepants, and Ghandi. We wandered past the Palacio de Velazques and Palacio de Cristal. An expansive book fair drew crowds as we exited the park.
Returned to the hotel and had a late afternoon drink on the rooftop terrace...Splash@Oscar. Certainly an in-place to be. The warm waning sun, rooftops dotted with statues, and an entertaining (um...silly?) crowd made the over-priced mojitos worth it.
We had been trying for three nights to get into the popular Mercado de la Reina on the Gran Via. Sunday is clearly a slow night and our patience was rewarded. Definitely worth the visit. Our goat cheese and chorizo scrambled eggs were a creamy delight to start (paired with some yummy Machego of course). And the "stewed pork" was a decadent slow-cooked dish with a rich sauce...amazing. A warm apple tart and ice cream for dessert. Highly recommended. We walked off dinner through nearly deserted streets that were packed the night before. We think the city is repenting the sins of the all-night weekend.
With its strict no-photo policy, the Prado is a great place to escape being a tourist. There is no pressure to capture that "one shot" that details the visit...and equally as important, there aren't a dozen other tourists jostling you for that same shot.
The Prado is one of the great European museums with paintings from great masters and statues from ancient times. Its all a bit overwhelming, but with a trusty map and lots of English signs, we plunged in. As you would expect, the heart of the collection focuses on Spanish masters...Goya and Valazquez dominate, but El Greco's one room made the biggest impression. His distinctive style stands out amongst rooms full of his contemporaries. We felt fortunate to have seen so many other Grecos in Toledo, where he painted his masterpieces. Beyond the Spaniards, there was fair representation of Rubens and Rembrant and similiar old masters.
We quickly took in the adjacent Royal Botanical Gardens. Less of a park and more of a plant museum. An extensive collection of varieties. Not a lot in bloom this time of year, expect some just-past roses and some lovely purple something-or-others (ok...Jeff tells me they are Alliums...clearly his memory is better than mine :) Still, the cool foliage broke up an otherwise hot afternoon.
Returned to the hotel via a circuitous route under lengthening shadows. A couple of much-needed cervezas on Plaza de Chuega. And then off to dinner at Kiyo...a surprising Spanish-Itanian fusion spot. Wonderful patas bravas and a luscious goat cheese salad to start. A savory (and hint of sweet) ravioli. And a rich chocolate-drizzled crepe for dessert. Drinks and music at Liquid until almost 3.
Friday, June 04, 2010
We made great time, and decided to take a short drive to charming Carmona less than 30 minutes outside Sevilla. (Jeff had learned of this "must see" town from his neighbor on the plane.) We didn't have time to take in the town, but we walked around the main plaza and snapped pictures of churches decorated with blue ceramics. Colorful banners hung across the streets in advance of Corpus Cristi. A town to return and absorb on out next visit.
Emily guided us back to Sevilla, and into the Santa Justa train station. I will give Emily credit...she butchered pronunciations and was unaware of some recent road construction, but in the end she always got us where we needed to be...muchas gracias, Emily! The Avis return was confusing, but a friendly woman patiently guided us...adios, Leon!
For our AVE train to Madrid, we decided to upgrade to get a more peaceful three-hour ride. Certainly worth it for this leg. A quiet coach. Facing window seats to ourselves. As we left the station, we were served a sherry from Jerez...which wasn't our favorite...but something we had to sample. A simple lunch was included with fruit, salad, and a hot pasta. And afterwards, they brought around small glasses of Gecko caramel liquor...perfect for dessert! With no intermediate stops, we arrived faster than we expected. A smooth ride in peace.
Arrived at the Madrid Atocha station (again)...grabbed an easy cab...and we were suddenly plopped in the middle of bustling Madrid. A simple lime-green room at the hip Oscar RoomMate hotel.
Spent the afternoon trying to get acquainted with our new surroundings. Cities are the hardest to appreciate at first glance. Sun beating on us. Cars barrelling down every street and alley...and even in the pedestrian plazas. At first, its all just harsh and irritating. But as we crossed a few landmark plazas (Plaza del Sol and Plaza Mayor), grabbed a sweet nutty treat at a foodie market, and entered the gardens behind the Royal Palace...we began to appreciate the surroundings. The gardens (Jardines del Campo del Moro) were cool and refreshing, and the Palacio Real loomed overhead brightly lit by the late sun. The Jardines de Sabatini provided another "well lit" view of the palace.
Dinner at Umami on the Gran Via. (We can't tell is this is related to the Umami in LA...someone will have to verify.) In any case, our meal was a nice change from trasitional tapas. Our two shared burgers were inventive and flavorful. Two rice dishes were delightful with Asian flavors. And everything is more awesome with mojitios. Drinks at trendy Liquid.
Hooray...the Altantic Ocean!
Visited the expansive archeological complex at Balio Claudia...the ancient Roman city that is being uncovered and reclaimed from sand, earth, and time. Ruins from the time around 1 B.C. Roman wall and gates. An ampitheatre. The ancient forum. Foundations of temples. And buildings along the shore for salt-curing fish.
Continued on through the beach-town of Tarifa at the southern-most tip of Spain, Got our glimpses of Africa. (Tarifa is one of the main points to catch a ferry to Morocco...not this trip.) Leaving Tarifa, a road-side mirador provided a better view of Africa...so close across the Staights of Gilbraltar. Grabbed a sandwich with an African vista.
Through the busy, hectic port city of Algeciras. Got our first (and fleeting) glimpses of Gibraltar. Again...something for another trip. Hooray...a glimpse of the Mediterranean.
Time for the second half of our circle-route back to Arcos. Hit another white hilltown...Jimena de la Frontera. Plotted a course back...only discover a road closed. Ugh! The new, less-certain route was an hour longer. Up and over the mountain...through the national park (again)...this time up a rough park road. Up and up and up. Faith that the route would not be blocked along the way. The occasional biker or runner gave confidence that something was on the other side. Yay!...cozy Ubrique and a smoother (and wider) drive on to El Bosque and Arcos. Whew! :)
After a long drive, nothing better than cervezas! Meson Don Fernando for more tapas...patatas bravas, croquetas de espinicha, brocheta de solomillo. Muy excelente! And a delcious tarta de limon for dessert. An excellent way to end an excellent day full of firsts. A quiet evening before tomorrow...back to the big city...Madrid.
Along the route of the Pueblos Blancos...the white hilltowns...arrived in Zahara de la Sierra...with the tower-ruins of its Moorish castle watching from above. The hot sun surprised us as we climbed to the tower along a dusty footpath flanked with short olive trees and dense bunches of cactus. The tower provided a welcomed break from the heat...cool and moist...narrow windows channeling strong breezes. On top...a 360 degree view of the world...the white buildings of Zahara, its belltower-topped church, the enormous man-made reservoir, and the the rolling expanse of the Sierra de Grazalema park.
Leaving Zahara, we wound further up into the mountains. Dozens of switchbacks...each one seemingly the last. Short oak trees. Steep cliffs. More limestone outcroppings. Stopped for the view as we crossed the pass...the Puerto de las Palomas (1357 meters). On the other side of the pass, Grazalema... another hilltown of white buildings spilling down the hillside. On through the park...until we were stopped by dozens of goats crossing through a break in the fence. Making a beeline for a fresh picnic area, they were soon sitting on soccer fields, standing on tables, and lounging on a terrace like it was built just for them. Two goats paused for some goat lovin'.
Arrived in our hilltown for evening...Arcos de la Frontera...at one time on the frontier, now simply a pitstop in the midst of the agricutural interior of southern Spain. Once again entrusting Emily with our fates, we traced a winding path up into the old town, through narrow streets and blind curves...sometimes with mere inches on either side....uphill...with a stick shift. But Emily was right, and we reached the Parador hotel in the main plaza...the Plaza Cabildo...atop the hill adjacent to the town's main church. Our room was worth the nerve-racking climb...a cliff-side balcony with a strong, refreshing breeze.
Tackled Arcos's two main churches: Santa Maria and St. Peter's. Both fine churches built after the reconquest in the 13th century. Lots of artifacts from the centuries, but we found more amusement reading the spotty translations on various interpretive signs.
By 9pm we were ready for an "early" dinner outdoors. Frenzied swallows above...occasionally diving down to street level. We sat entertained, nibbling on so-so tapas...improved by a few frosty cervezas. A slow stroll around the quiet old town eased us towards our beds.
Thursday, June 03, 2010
And so, with the long weekend still to tidy up, I'm fixated on Tuesday. Its still early enough that there isn't much traffic through town, except for the occasional Vespa or delivery truck rumbling over the cobblestone New Bridge. So instead, the gorge carries the gurgling of the Guadalevin River 350+ feet below. This low white noise is punctuated by the chirps of birds...mostly the curve-winged swallows, but I can see other shapes flying by or headed for unseen nests on the gorge walls. Mom and Dad would surely have better descriptions than "other shapes", by for me, this will suffice.
Beyond the gorge, the river enters a patchwork of fields and forested areas covering low rolling hills...grasses, rows of crops, olive trees. White houses dot the land. Something to research today: from the right and left, a narrow ridge with steep walls seems to encircle the land in front of us, almost as if it was an ancient caldera, forming a protected bowl. The wall is only broken where the river has carved its way through at the far side...the steep walls bow down to meet it. Or maybe its all an optical illusion. Time will tell.
Walked down from our hilltop to the lowest of three gorge-crossing bridges. The morning light was already hot, as we charted our course carefully from one shady nook to the next. At the bottom, the original entry to the city and the site of an old Moorish defense. Nearby, the ruins of the town's baths, the Banos Arabes. It was customary for the baths in Moorish cities to be located just inside the walls so that outsiders could purify themselves. A fascinating film explained the simple-yet-ingenious system used to bring water up from the river, across a short aqueduct, and into the boiler room. Hot (steam), warm (massage and social), and cold (changing) rooms. For us, the partially buried brick sturcture provided a cool respite from the sun. Only the star-shaped holes in the domed ceilings provided subtle, soothing light...a far cry from the harsh lighting outdoors. Recovered Roman marble columns held up Moorish brick arches...symbolic, since the Moorish baths are adaptations of Roman baths. We felt transported back to simpler times.
A steep climb along sunny stairs from one city wall to the next. Old towers and narrow-ledged walls. Finally out of the heat again, and into the Iglesia Espiritu Santo, from the 15th century. Now we know why the Spanish and Italians REALLY loved their churches...these were sanctuaries in the spiritual AND physical sense! A simple interior with fine gold-leafed ornamentation. Choir music was piped through the sound system. We climbed the bell tower...looked up and saw bells inches from our heads. Time check...two minutes till the hour. Ummmm...do these still ring? Racing out, we were chased down the tower by deafening chimes. Yep...they still ring. (A tasteful warning would have been nice.)
More hot climbing along city walls and cliff edges. At the top had a cold beer at a shady bar in the Town Hall plaza. A guitarist played nearby...soothing Spanish tunes...and Pink Floyd? Yep...Wish You Were Here. How appropriate. Worth a euro in the blue-lined guitar case.
A quick break from the heat, a quick bite to eat, and off to Ronda's famous bullring. The oldest bullring in the world...built specifically for bullfighting in the late 18th century. Unlike the stadium feel of Sevilla's bullring, this one felt intimate. Wandered freely thru the two-tired stands. Out onto the dusty ring with fine dirt the color of saffron. The intricate system of tunnels and sliding doors guiding bulls from pen to battle. A museum of armaments and tack gear. Tourists posing as matador or bull (or town idiot) in the sun-soaked center.
One last stop for the day...the Casa del Rey Moro (the Moorish King's House)...but we didn't go in the house anyway. The gardens and a Moorish staircase down to the river are its attraction. The gardens provide a serene perch overlooking the gorge and hills beyond. A three-level Moorish-style fountain dominates. 'The Water Mine' is a series of stacked chambers and stairs carved down through the ciff to allow water to be carried up from the river from the 14th century. Cold and dark and wet. A long way down. Felt like the Mines of Moria :)
With a sun-beaten exhaustion, we spent a quiet evening.
A swift return to the train station to Avis. Picked up our little red Seat Leon. Remembering manual transmission is like riding a bike. Navigated through the sleepy towns outside Granada and on through rolling fields. Snack and soda at a gas station where the two attendants (women) looked genuinely surprised to see us.
Emily (our GPS) did an admirable job directing us into Ronda...the white hilltown where we would spend the next two nights. With blind faith, we followed Emily's course up into the historic center...across an old bridge, up narrow cobblestone streets with steep grades and tight turns. Ronda is perched on a hilltop with a river cutting a narrow gorge through the middle. A picturesque bridge (the New Bridge) atop three stone arches spans the gorge. Our hotel sat along the cliff edge with a wonderful view of the bridge...not to mention the sweeping landscape below. Our room was aptly named Granada.
Walked the winding white-walled streets of Ronda's Moorish Quarter. The picturesque Colegiata Santa Maria la Mayor beckoned us in with its Moorish belltower. Learned that William Randolph Hearst fell in love with this belltower and replicated them at Hearst Castle at San Simeon (California)...now we know why it looks familiar. The church's most notable resident, the statue of Santa Maria was missing...she gets paraded through town early in May to her summer home in a cave on the edge of town...she knows how to stay cool in the summer!
Walked along the cliff top in the hot afternoon sun. Crossed the New Bridge and walked along the pedestrian way snaking above the cliff edge to take some late afternoon pictures. Watched the sun dip below the mountains directly to the west of us from the balcony in our room.
Dinner at El Sampillo as the dark blue sky turned pitch black. Wonderful food and our first sangria. Potatoes with peppers. A creamy Spanish omlette. Meatballs in a lovely sauce. Ice cream for dessert. And a friendly, persistent cat...who entertained us as she hid from passing dogs. Couldn't resist giving her a few nibbles of our food. Wandered the (very) quiet streets after dark. White walls and yellow trim glowed under street lamps. This is a cozy town that closes down early...if midnight is early.
Wednesday, June 02, 2010
Anticipating a hot day approaching 90 by the late afternoon, we planned a walk in the morning and the cold cathedral for later. Ducked quickly into the Museo Arcqueologico, with artifacts dating from pre-historic to Roman to Visigothic to Moors. Then a long walk along and above the Darro River into the Sacromonte district... famous for its cave homes and gypsy community. By noon, we needed a break... Los Faroles was the perfect hole in the wall (more like a cave in the wall) with a small terrace tucked into a white-washed corner overlooking the river and Alhambra beyond. Two cold Alhambra beers and a plate of spicy salami, cheese, and bread...all for 4€. The cheery owner had a wide, gentle smile that never left his face. Dressed in light gray pinstripe slacks, with a cream-colored shirt dotted with roses and a brown vest. He wore a neat brimmed hat (straw) with a black band. He gladly sold a similar hat to a bald customer with a full-sun seat...our picture-perfect perch was under a wide umbrella emblazoned with an Alhambra beer logo.
Plotted a return route that wound upward as the shadows grew narrower. Found a grand vista with panoramic views of the city wall, Alhambra and the snow capped mountains beyond. Re-entered the historic city thru the Puerta Nueva. Back into the Albayzin following winding routes to Plaza Nuevo near our hotel. Water and creamy ice cream to beat back the now-oppressive afternoon heat.
On to the cathedral...the second largest in Spain after Sevilla...check and check. It's becoming hard to describe these cathedrals and not use the same words: immense, ornate, enriching, breathtaking. Our path usually circles around the outer edges, taking in the many side chapels and naves, and other decorative things stuck in every nook. And then its time to dive right in...with enclosed choirs and towering high altars. The amazing things about cathedrals is that when you step back, they are amazing...and when you step forward, the tiniest detail tells a story. I may not understand the meaning of all of the Catholic imagery, but I am moved by the sheer artistry and inspiration.
Leaving the cathedral, we wandered through the local streets, taking in random sights...snapping random photos. Came upon another church, the Real Monestario de San Jeronimo...with a quiet cloister and santuary to explore. Only two other people in the church with us...which made the visit even more intimate and reflective.
We grabbed a late afternoon beer at Six Colors. Dinner was in a plaza near the catheral. Once again, we ate outdoors...as we had every night except for the one rain night. You can really connect with a city when you dine surrounded by it after dark.
Entered the Royal Chapel, the burial place for Isabel and Ferdinand...the Catholic monarchs who united their kingdoms to create Spain...and most importantly for this visit, they retook Granada and the Alhambra...the last stand for the Moors on the Iberian Peninsula. The chapel is located off of the cathedral. It has an enormous high altar, but the Royal Chapel is dominated by the Italian marble tombs of Isabel and Ferdinand and their daughter and son-in-law Juana and Philip. (Philip was called Philip the Fair...how cool it that. I think I will use 'John the Fabulous' from now on and see if it sticks.) A narrow set of stairs take you just below the floor to peer at the simple lead coffins of the monarchs.
From the tomb of the conquering monarchs, we headed up to see their prize conquest...the mighty Alhambra...a sprawling complex perched high above Granada. The climb was steep-but-shaded. The temperature drop made the walk tolerable. While we awaited our alloted time to enter the ticketed portions of the complex, we toured Charles V's Palace...or at least the captivating interior...a two-level, circular courtyard with marble columns.
On to the main attraction...thr Palacios Nazaries...the Moorish palace. This the must-see Moorish sight in all of Spain. The rooms are covered with intricate stucco patterns, punctuated with pinpoint-windows of light. Water runs throughout the complex...you can imagine the water entering thru aqueducts above the city and flowing through many tiny diversions to feed fountains and pools and winding channels. Unfortunately, in the palace, many of the water features were dry...some for restoration and some (most likely) because there are just so many people. And this is where the wonder was lost. We had just come from Sevilla, where the lush Real Alacazar enchanted us...and the Alhambra just seemed crowded. Ah well...it was still beautiful...but perhaps next visit, we will do a nighttime tour...when most of the tourists are long gone. Till then...
A dusty walk through the imposing 13th-century Alcazaba fortifications at the tip of the Alhambra, and a hot walk up through the center of the complex...and we were feeling rather overwhelmed. What a wonderful surprise when we entered the Generalife...with its summer home, tiered gardens, and (most importantly) fountains. Water...water everwhere. Even a staircase with banisters of running water...awesome! THAT was what I wanted. :) As if to say "here is more water", as we were returning to the city along the Cuesta del Rey Chico a gush of water exited the walls of the Alhambra...done running through fountains...back into the Darro River.
We dined on a long plaza along the Darro under a vine-draped canopy. Tapas as we viewed the well-lit Alhambra against a pitch-black sky. Drinks and wonderful loungy music at the cozy El Rincon de San Pedro with the sound of rushing water over a fall just below.