Monday, July 12, 2010

Along the lazy White River...

As we wrapped up our mid-summer visit to Muskegon, Jeff and I joined his father for an afternoon kayak down the White River. As we have in summers-past, we put in at the Happy Mohawk canoe of those classic old-school river-side rental spots with the politically incorrect logo and converted school bus to cart paddlers back and forth. Set forth in three sea-blue kayaks...the comfy wide-bottomed ones...perfect for a slow, winding river. This is a fun old river with low brush-covered banks and tall hardwoods (maples and oaks from my limited tree vocabulary) with long, heavy branches reaching out over the water to provide shade. The greenish-brown water is broken (frequently) by fallen trees and hidden sandbars... creating a leasurely obstacle course... one that we navigated with the occasional dip of a paddle or shrug of a shoulder. Unseen birds and breezes through the treetops formed our soundtrack. An otter slid past, dragging some long blades of grass. Dragonflies dotted with irridescent blue topped every sunny log. A light drizzle cooled us at the midway point. A pretty perfect way to see Western Michigan up close and personal.

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Tuesday (Madrid to SFO)...

A 12:45 flight meant we could sleep to a reasonable hour, grab a latte to go, and re-pack all of our treasures for the long trip home. Checked every nook in our lime-green room, walked down the dark purple hallway, and exited the red and silver lobby. A friendly but timid taxi driver rationed air conditioning and forward momentum like it was gold in her little Prius.

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 did Chris and his speedy chariot.

Home again, home again, jiggety jig.

Tuesday, June 08, 2010

Monday (Madrid)...

Awoke this morning with a feeling of wrapping up the loose ends. A final day of lathering up. A couple of must-see sights to visit. And leasurely wandering to say adios.

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 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 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

Sunday (Madrid)...

A late Saturday night deserved a late(er) Sunday morning. Still, we certainly started before the majority of people in this town. A latte and a pastry to go...nibbled them in the dappled light of a park along Paseo del Prado.

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 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.

Saturday (Madrid)...

Even by 10am on a weekend, Madrid feels sleepy. This is a much more pleasant way to experience the city. The lighting is softer (yet still quite intense) and there are fewer people to contend with. Grabbed a couple of lattes and we were soon strolling down the tree-lined Paseo del Prado towards...yep you guessed it...the Prado museum.

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

Friday (Arcos to Madrid)...

A hazy morning greeted us, but pleasant breezes kept away the mugginess. Loaded up the Leon, squeezed out of the Plaza, and left Arcos for greener pastures. Curvy country roads became regional roads and finally a big autovia to whisk us to Sevilla.

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.

Thursday (Arcos and the South Coast)...

Awoke to a cool, breezy morning for a long driving day along a grand loop to the southern coast. Exiting the Plaza Cabildo was a tight sqeeze. Pastries in nearby Medina-Sidonia on its town square. South to the coastal town of Vejer de la Frontera... yet-another hilltown with a harrowing climb to the top.

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 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.

Wednesday (Ronda to Arcos)...

Dropped down from our hilltop perch in Ronda as the warm morning sun woke up the fields before us. Entered the rocky mountains of the Sierra de Grazalema Natural Park. The craggy limestone, low vegetation hills, fields of purple wildfowers, and short stubby trees were all so reminiscent of the California Sierra Nevadas. Winding narrow roads with very few cars. Sleepy towns...some merely a roundabout. A tiny, dusty bullring along the road.

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 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 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.

Really Blogger...

Its hurtfull when you lose my posts :(

Thursday, June 03, 2010

Tuesday (Ronda)...

I feel like a dottering old writer this morning, peering out from the balcony of our room, full of energy from a morning cappuccino, pouring through scribbled notes and half-written stories to assemble a few days worth of tardy blog entries. The view in front of me is both inspiring and distracting. Assembling snippets of stories from the past, when a swallow zips past me and brings me back to the present. Once the eyes follow the swifts to the gorge, the cliffs, and the green fields beyond...well, all hope is lost. Like a child that has spotted that one toy from across the room, the mind will not stop until it has played for a bit.

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. 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.

Monday (Granada to Ronda)...

We did a bit of morning shopping before departing Granada. Ornate boxes crafted by local woodworkers. An architectural volume from the Alhambra bookstore. And (finally) a small pomegranite momento to remind us of the symbol of Granada...we had made a game out of spotting the fruit on doors, in decorative tiles, and city infrastructure..

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) 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

Sunday (Granada)...

We began today like every other day of this trip...with the ritualistic application of sunscreen. We can't match the warm olive complexion of the Spanish...but at least we don't resemble the lobster-red (or shrimp-pink?) northern Europeans here on vacation. Knock on wood!

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 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.

Saturday (Granada)...

A front passed through overnight, bringing a light rain and crisp morning temperatures. Nevertheless, bright sun and clear blue skies greeted us in the morning. Started the day with a pastry and a walk through some of the old city. Wandering the narrow shaded alleys of the Alcaiceria...the old Moorish silk was easy to imagine shoppers following these same step centuries ago. Today, the tiny shops are crammed floor to ceiling with colorful trinkets...mostly with the feel of "tourist quality", but who knows, these could be artisan crafts from Morocco for all I know. Still, the colorful fabrics, varieties of leather, and dull-gray metal jewelry are a sight to see.

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 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 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 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.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Friday (Sevilla to Granada)...

The alarm rang early...too early...but nothing a couple of lattes couldn't handle. Pleasant morning temperatures and a sweet light breeze made for a leasurely walk around the cathedral and along the outer Alcazar wall. Shopkeepers rolled out their displays of fans and flamenco dresses, postcards, and pottery. Picked up a small antique tile from the 1880s in a tiny shop outside the cathedral...used my (very) broken Spanish to communicate with the elderly shopkeeper.

The street in front of the hotel was closed for a bit. Preparations for a short civic celebration for the return of pilgrims to the cathedral. Apparently they rented 30,000€ per week houses along the way...not quite the "visit the flock and find God" kind of pilgrimage-of-old.

The train station was busier than we had seen so far. Something was up. Tourists were joined by news cameras and protesters (we think). Several trains were listed as cancelled, while others (including ours) were delayed. Still, we boarded without incident...two facing window seats for the 3 hour trip through Andalucia.

Graffitti once again quickly transitioned to rolling hills of olive trees...lots and lots and lots and LOTS of olive trees. (The local tap water must shimmer with olive oil.) This leg was on a medium distance train (versus the high-speed AVE lines), so stops were frequent in smaller towns with "real" people. Caught up (finally) on my blog. Spotting a corral of donkeys... awwww, with two frisky baby donkeys... ain't that a kick in the head (go Dean-o). A tiny, dusty soccer field... vacant in the hot afternoon sun. San Francisco de Loja pronounced with a soothing "fran-thithhhhh-co" Spanish Cindy Brady lisp. New houses with satellite dishes...old houses with cows.

Arrived at Granada's sleepy train station on a sleepy cul-de-sac with a hoard of travelers and nary a cab in site. A slow trickle of cabs cleared the group bit by bit...and somehow we were last :) nothing else was sleepy. We passed busy city streets until we hit the narrow cobblestone lane in front of our tiny, historic, Spanish-style hotel. Just five rooms in the hotel...each with a balcony overlooking a babbling stream and the next-door church. A slight head-tilt upwards reveals a bit of the Alhambra... high above... tempting us. Our room has a signature feature we've noticed in southern Spain...enclosed second-story half-balconies jutting out over the street... ours is done up in dark wood, black iron, and wavy windows. They open so you can peer at the sights all around. How cool.

From our home on the edge of the historic Albanzin...the old Moorish section of the city, with its twisting single-lane steets and steep walkways weaving up the hill. We visited a popular perch overlooking the old city and the Alhambra high above. From this vantage, the Moorish palace and fortress look truly imposing complex of stone building covering a craggy hill. Mountains in the distance still holding onto their snow. The flat plains of Andalucia lay to the right. The scene reminded us both of a scene from Lord of the Rings. A guitarrist played up-tempo tunes and drifters/hippies sold handmade metal and leather jewelry. We visited the overlook twice this aftenoon to find the right light. Truly breathtaking.

Ducked inside the Iglesia de Santa Ana across the street from the hotel. Cool and dark and quiet, the 17th century church had its very own Weeping Virgin...not everyone can take first place.

Decided to embrace the Moorish influences in the town and dine on a sweet and savory mixture of dishes. Chicken backed tender in a tajin with plums and nuts. Couscous with chicken and raisins and sweet onions. Creamy hummus. A yogurt-based desert topped with honey, nuts, and cinnamon. And Arabic coffee with heavy whipped cream. What a wonderful meal... unexpected and new.

Midnight by the time we finished dinner. Had an after-dinner Alhambra beer at Six Colors. Packed full of late-night locals. Lady GaGa and Madonna were paired with quirky Spanish tunes. When we left at 2am, the streets were still teaming with women in hip fashion and men in stylish suits...just gearing up for an even later night. For us... bedtime... to the gentle rumble of tires on the cobblestones beneath our window. .

Thursday (Sevilla)...

Awoke to Jeff's iPhone alarm adorable (adorably funny...sorry) sound clip of neice Mia saying "twinkle little star!". Sure beats the jarring noise my phone makes!

Headed off to our first of three stops for the day...the Museo Palacio de la Condesa de Lebrija. (Passed dozens of designer fashion and shoe shops...smiled fondly for Sherie :) The Palacio is the early 20th century mansion-turned-museum of the late Countess of Lebrija. Clearly an independent woman, she married at 49, widowed at 50 with no kids, and set off on a solo around-the-globe shopping spree soon therafter... picking up antiques and artifacts, china and furniture, paintings and tile from all corners. The ground floor is famous for its collection of Roman mosaics...many of which are installed as regular-use floors in the mansion, and yes, we got to walk on them. The Countess didn't hesitate to move a wall to accommodate the shape of her "new" floors. Shelves loaded with ancient archeological fragments. China from well as Europe...with one set only the second in existence with the other at Buckingham Palace. A pricey painting from the Dutch master Bruegal. And who doesn't need their own private chapel with a glittery altar...perhaps for those days the chef makes sinful desserts?

On to the Catedral de Sevilla, past the pack of Gypsy women outside the gate offering twigs of rosemary. The cathedral is the 3rd largest in Europe behind Rome's St. Peter's and London's St. Paul's. (Ooooo, we have completed the tri-fecta!) Built primarily during the 15th and 16th centuries, portions pre-date the main construction (the 12th century Moorish mineraret (now bell tower) and exterior courtyard/patio) and portions we're built for centuries to follow. The caverous Gothic interior is filled with glittery church-stuff, including beautiful stained glass and an impressive 65-foot-tall golden high-altar. Workmen feverishly polished all things silver for some upcoming celebration (including hand-carried "floats" topped with silver statues). Local hero Chistopher Columbus' massive and somber tomb drew a snapshot crowd.

A warm afternoon walk past the Lamedas de Hercules (Jeff dubbed them the "pillars of Hercules)...four marble pillars anchoring either end of a huge oval plaza. (Our theory is this is the site of the city's former Roman circus... something to research.) Visited the small Basilica de la Macarena and its famous altar with the Weeping Virgin. This towering display glitters to entertain the eyes, but draws you in to stir the soul. Its difficult not to sit in silence and stare.

Left the Macarena...and spent the remainder of the day humming that incessant song! Circled a portion of the old city wall and returned to the hotel via a LONG river walk. Spotted a bridge by Calatrava (Maybe? Probably?) Joggers and sunbathers and skateboarders. Rockclimbers scaled the undersides of arched stone bridges.

Another wonderful late evening. Mojitos on the rooftop as the sun set. Our first paella for dinner. An evening return to the Pillars of Hercules, which transforms at night to a hotspot...with dozens of restaurants and bars...overflowing with cheery locals. We walking until we felt like the last people on the streets. It will be hard to say goodbye to Sevilla.

Wednesday (Sevilla)...

Italy will always have a special place in my heart, but Spain is certainly a wonderful second. Layers of cultures, friendly people, creative food, a sunny climate, late-night dining and long strolls. What's not to love! We are having such a wonderful, inviting first trip to Spain that its hard to imagine we will not return...soon.

We spent the bulk of the day at one sumptuous location...the Real Alcazar. This is the oldest in-use royal palace in Europe...basically a 14th century makeover of a 10th century Moorish palace by a Catholic monarch. The building and its walled gardens are a feast for the senses. The eyes are captivated by colorful tile floors, towering mosaic walls and elaborate ceilings. The ears are entranced by slow trickling fountains, tall trees blowing the the breeze, and hundreds of nesting doves cooing to their mates. The nose picks up the sweet scent of hundreds of citrus tree flowers, the pungent bite of scattered falled oranges, and freshly watered soil. The skin tingles with the transition from warm sunny alcoved gardens to cool palace rooms to damp royal baths.

We wandered for hours, and circled around to take it all in again.

After hours wandering and staring and interpreting, we indulged with a couple of beers on the roof terrace, watching the swallows swoop overhead for late afternoon insects. The perfect time to try (in vain?) to catch up on some blogging. Or to stare at the carefree birds and have another beer :)

Our pre-dinner stroll was through Maria Luisa Park...the site of the 1929 international exposition. The Plaza de Espana and several other remaining buildings anchored the ends of long pathways with dozens of tiny gardens and features. A dozen or so parrots (or some long-tailed green birds) circled together overhead. Old fountains sat dry.

We ended the day with a late tapas dinner, a night time walk, and drinks on the roof. Rinse and repeat...with pleasure.

Tuesday (Cordoba to Sevilla)...

Began the day bright and early with the royal Alcazar and its walled gardens. The building itself housed tapestries and mosaics. A highlight was the tower...not a high tower...just high enough to provide interesting views of the gardens and the city. The gardens were beautiful, with tiered pools and foutains. A historic gravity-fed irrigation system ran throughout the entire garden...bricked trenches that carried water to every corner. Watched gardeners move metal "gates" that directed rivers of water into specific gardens...sunken to absorb pools of water for deep irrigation.

Visited the only surviving synagogue predating the forced-conversion of non-Christians by the Catholic monarchs. A tiny gem...the synagogue was primarily one room with mosaics and inscriptions. We learned that this one of only three surviving synagogues in Spain from that era...the other two in Toledo...which we had visited days before.

Time to leave Cordoba. Ducked into the Mezquita courtyard (free) to wander the rows of orange trees. Watched a row of trees getting their morning soak with another gravity-fed irrigation system that fed deep roots. Took a breezy walk to the train station.

The AVE train zipped us to Sevilla in less than 45 minutes. Dropping further along the Guadalquivir River, we passes dry grasses and squat orange trees. The monitor read 250kph. Hibee to Sevilla.

Arrived at the perfectly situated EME Catedral Hotel...aptly named for its next-door neighbor...the cathedral (duh). A glass of perfectly-chilled light red Spanish wine while we waited for our room. And oh what a oaisis of tranquility. Sophisticated yet comfortable. Comtemporary yet functional. Lunch (tapas) in the Santa Cruz neighborhood.

Visited the city's historic bull ring (and museum). One of the oldest in all of Spain. Upwards of 20 thousand spectators turn up every Sunday in May and June (and a special show for Easter) to watch 3 matadors fight 6 bulls. I'm pretty sure I would not want to watch a bull fight, but the ring was fascinating. Things I learned...this is certainly a sport, but it began as practice for fighting enemies in the Middle Ages. Every fight is 20 precise 5 minute stages. the matador makes the bull dip its head so tha he can jump over the horns to make a precise kill into the heart. There are specific rules for what can happen in the shadowed and sunlight parts of the oval ring. If a bull performs well, the matador clips one of its ears; if it does very well, both ears: and an exception goes the tail. The meat is sold at market. Truly fascinating.

A bird pooped on my head as we left the bull ring. Gracias.

Walked along the Guadalquivir River under a canopy of trees. Crew teams and kayakers zipped by. A rag-tag band of young trumpters "practiced". The cool afternoon breeze felt wonderful. Spotted an iced coffee.

The hotel's soothing rain shower washed away the days grime and soothed aching calves. Calming music on the cd player. Fully refreshed, we had dinner in a cozy coutyard in the Santa Cruz neighborhood. No tapas tonight...tried some recommended dishes...pork and veal. Spanish wine from Castilla-Leon.

By 1am the streets finally start to get quiet. Tossed a Euro to a guitarist playing soothing tunes outside the cathedral. Mojitos...wonderful refreshing mojitos on top of the hotel overlooking the cathedral...amazing. (Kim...these mojitos need to be on your to-do list :)

Achy feet trundled off to bed.


For signs of life from Blogger?

Friday, May 28, 2010

Someone clean out the pipes...

Wouldn't you know it. I start blogging again and the pipes fill up :( Three days of updates waiting to post! Isn't some IT person's pager going off yet? Sigh. That's free for ya!

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Monday (Cordoba)...

Got a (somewhat) early start to beat the heat and the crowds...although we really haven't seen mobs of tourists...just the occasional glut when a bus tour releases its cattle. The herds of Asian or European moo-moos meander through every now and then, trampelling everything in their path, moving erratically and stopping randomly. (We've seen solo American travelers, but no groups yet.)

The Mezquita is an enormous 8th century Islamic mosque constructed on the ruins of a destroyed 5th century church with a 16th century cathedral poking up through the center. The mosque is considered one of the most beautiful in the world. The signature features of the old mosque are the rows and rows of marble columns (850 according to the we didn't count) interconnected by red and white double-arches. No matter what direction you turn, the columns lead your eyes onward to infinity. The ceilings are wooden, with patterns that vary depending on the age of the section...the mosque was expanded twice. Around the perimeter are dozens and dozens of naves, each containing an altar or a sculpture or a painting...and usually a mixture of all three. Several of the naves still contain Islamic features, including the mosques original focal point...the Mihrab...which directed worshipers' eyes to Mecca. In the center of all of this darkly-lit symmetry sits a towering, bright Christian cathedral, begun in the early 16th century. Ornate decoration draw attention upward.

A quick snack and then we crossed the Roman Bridge to the tiny tower-housed museum at the end...the Museum of Al-Andalus Life. This interpretative museum told stories of Islam in Spain, including large-scale replicas of the Mezquita and the Alhambra's Palacios Nazaries in Granada.

Despite a cooling breeze, the hot afternoon sun moved us to another cool dip in the pool. We dined outdoors (again)...this time in a cozy restaurant beneath the city-wall gates. Yummy flan for desert. We ended the day with late drinks at Soul. Dire Straits...old and new(er). The Clash' London Calling. Elvis. Quite the mix.

Each day seems to top the last. Not an easy feat!

Monday, May 24, 2010

Sunday (Toledo to Cordoba)...

Started what would turn out to be a long, long walking day with a short walk to Iglesia de San Ramon, a small 13th century church with some beautiful frescoes and Mudejar achitectural features. It also housed a small collection of artifacts from the Visigoths...all explained in our eyes were mainly gazing upward at the colorful wood ceiling.

A quick stop for pastries and cappuccinos, and back to the hotel to pack up and say goodbye to Toledo. A quick taxi to the train station. And with a quick ride on the hourly AVE train, we were back in Madrid...or at least the Atocha train station. Snack time.

The AVE train to Cordoba was lightly populated...tourists and locals scattered about the blue and white seats. Leaving Madrid, the terrain was gently rolling, keeping the eyes entertained and the mind soothed. Rows and rows of olive trees. Fields of bright-red poppies. Pallets of bricks. As we moved south into Andalucia, the rolling fields gave way to rocky hills with jagged ravines topped with pines and short, deep-green oaks. Grazing livestock filled in the gaps. Numerous pitch-black tunnels created a slide show effect as we swept from valley to valley. Scattered sun-bleached haciendas with terra cotta tiled roofs and enclosed courtyards.

But soon enough, we transitioned back to green and gold fields as we neared Cordoba. Our arrival was smooth, into a modern glass-and-metal train station. Took a leasurely 20 minute walk through a wide city park, past fountains and Roman ruins to reach our hotel. Certainly a gem of a hotel...ultra-contemporary design with an outer shell of copper panels peppered with holes. Reminiscent of the de Young museum in San Francisco. Our room was bright and sophisticated, with views of a fountain and the Mezquita.

Took a soothing dip in the roof-top pool. The cold water instantly whisked away the fatigue of the intense afternoon sun. Refreshed and cooled, we began a long walk that became dinner that became a late night. No interiors this was an orientation stroll through old Cordoba and its unique blend of Moorish, Christian, and Jewish cutures. Started with the long 12th century city wall, with long cascading pools outside. This led us to the Alcazar de los Reyes Christianos...the former royal fortress. We skirted the outer wall and walked along the Guadalquivir River...which we heard but only occasionally saw...a wide river at the fall line...with a grass and tree-filled flood plain. Approached the impressive (and imposing) Mezquita, and circled its sandy-orange walls, with Moorish arches, golden doors, and intricate stone carvings. The belltower caught the afternoon sun, while the streets below were hidden in shadow.

As evening set, we wandered through the narrow, winding streets of the Jewish Quarter. The low residential buildings were all painted in shades of white with trims in yellows and golds and oranges. Needless to say, the Medieval street pattern combined with the uniformity of the building made keeping a sense of direction difficult. We found a tempting outdoor tapas restaurant...Casa Rubio. Once again, an amazing mixture of flavors. Moorish potatos with a savory spicy curry sauce. Tender pork with a rich truffle sauce. A creamy Spanish omlette. Oh, and of course...manchego cheese...this time drizzled with olive oil and topped with toasted almonds. We finished with a light-yet-rich rice pudding with cinnamon ice cream.

We walked off all those calories with a long route through the Jewish Quarter, around the lit-up Mezquita, and across the cities Roman bridge. Happened upon a city carnival, full of late night revelers. Even after midnight, kids were clutching their balloons and adults were indulging in twisty churros and waffles piled high with ice cream. Women dressed in flamenco outfits. The bridge and adjacent buildings were lined with lights.

Legs and feet need a break. Time for bed.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Saturday (Toledo)...

Started the day with a morning visit to the nearby monastery...San Juan de los Reyes. This Franciscan monastery and attached church was tarted up as the burial site for Isabel and Ferdinand...but now sits as a quiet wanna-be :) The interior of the church is beautiful and grand, and the adjacent courtyard was sunny and scented with orange blossoms. A well-sized mesh above let cheery songbirds in and kept pooping pigeons out.

Pastries and cappuccinos fueled us for our next two stops...two synagogues...also nearby our hotel. The Synagogue de Santa Maria la Blanca was a simple single-room structure that combined Jewish, Christian, and Moorish elements. The Synagogue del Transito (free today!!!) featured an ornate wooden ceiling and an intricate plaster wall with pink and green highlights. Neither synagogue had English we spent time oggling the architechture and moved along.

A random set of graffittied stairs brought us to an unexpected park overlooking the montastery and the river beyond. From there, we continued up to the Iglesias de los Jesuitos. This gem was perched on the tallest hill in the city with a bright, sunlit interior and two lofty belltowers offering panoramic views of the nearby cathedral city below. This was church that was begging to be loved...gilded ornamentation, cool temps, photos encouraged...and a low-price Coca Cola machine on the way down from the towers. There couldn't have been more than 5 other people in the church while we were there. Awesome!

Next on the hit parade: Santa Tome. This tiny church had one famous asset...El Greco's "The Burial of the Count of Orgaz"...his grand masterpiece...right in the place he intended it to be installed. Certainly worth waiting for the tour groups to depart. This wonder was full of mini-scenes and intricate details. The main chapel was also bright and colorful...but who was paying attention.

Late afternoon, we kept in the deep shadows to stay cool. We took paths less traveled, trying to get lost. And yet we always seemed to circle back to some spot we knew. Popped into an exhibit Obra Social...a former church of some type...currently housing an exhibit entitled "El Arte del Desnudo"...a study of the nude figure in paintings and sculpture. How odd. Although, come to think of it, churches are FULL of nude frescos. Maybe not so odd after all.

Moving on we had a snack. And more to drink. Boy that later afternoon sun sure is strong. Wandered back, resisting the temptation to buy shiny trinkets of gold and steel.

Returned to "El Corralito" for our last dinner in Toledo. Frankly, the food+outdoor vibe was too much to resist. Added delightful plates of grilled chorizo and cheesy croquettas along two favorites from last night...the must-have manchego cheese and that fricking amazing pork/beef/tomato dish. Ugh...seriously...I was going to snap a picture of the menu to remember the name of that dish! Ah well, three beers later I really had better things to do.

Returned to the cathedral at midnight. The bells tolled and late-night revellers wandered by. Overhead, bats dipped and swooshed in the spotlights. A huge owl glided silently across the square to a hidden perch atop the cathedral.

Wandering Toledo's streets after midnight reminded us of Venice and Siena...pretty high compliments in our travel itinerary. We stopped into Alfileritos 24...a cozy restaurant with a bright orange bar...cervezas taste even better from an orange bar. Ben E King and Gun n Roses mixed it up. Jeff was captivated by the upstairs restaurant...with its two story glass and blue light design. A must for our next trip to Toledo.

A final stroll back to the hotel down a street with "Tome" in its name...we dubbed Marisa Tomei street. Ya know...its MY blog. Sleepy time.

Friday (Toledo)...

Awoke to a cheery Spanish sunbeam. (Oddly enough, my mental soundtrack was playing a mash-up of the 30 Rock intro and some sappy Brian Adams power-ballad...I ignored the omens...whatever the heck they foretold!) Recovered from the multi-modal travel yesterday, we headed off towards Toledo's grand cathedral.

Along the way, we stopped at one of the many pastry shops. The specialty in Toledo is marzapan, but we saved that for desert and grabbed two flaky pastries--one lemon, one raisin. A nice light breakfast.

Toledo's cathedral is truly cavernous, and ornate, and all the things you want in a landmark. You can see why this one took 250 years to build! The march of time was evident as we wandered from nave to nave, each one showing off flurishes of a new era. And every so often, as the odd shape of the city blocks permitted, the builders crammed in a side room or two...tiny spaces crammed with art (a dozen or so famous works by local favorite El Greco), or garments, or golden objects dotted with jewels. Wonderfully cool temperatures made it difficult to leave this sanctuary from the real world...the reverent silence broken only by the occasional cries of "no photos" across the croud.

We followed winding streets decorated for a holiday for Corpus Cristi. A long twisted path through the city was lined with ornate and varied lanterns, while long ribbons of cream-colored canvas were suspended above the streets. The meaning of these covered paths escapes us so far--the only book we found so far is in Spanish only--but we took delight in the visual treat...and resulting shade! Wandered past the municpal market smelling of fresh fish. Named a sleeping dog Paco. Grabbed a warm ham and cheese sandwich.

We made our way past the busy Plaza de Zocodover to our next stop...the Santa Cruz a tiny (and free) museum with designs to be something grander. In spite of ongoing construction, the building and grounds were full of unexpected beauty...a peaceful, two-story cloister; an ornately carved staircase full of whimsical figures; rooms peppered with even more works by El Grecco; a dozen huge tapestries with tales of La Mancha.

With a sense of a general direction, we set off for our next stop...a tiny Moorish mosque. We wove through tiny streets, circled and backtracked a few time, and felt the grand delight of being lost without caring. Views of the lazy Rio Tajo below and sorrounding Castille - La Mancha beyond. Occasional feral cats darted across our path. Delivery trucks folded in their mirrors to squeeze down narrow streets. Finally, La Mezquita del Cristo de la 11th century mosque converted in the 12th century to a church. Under some sort of restoration, this tiny, two-room building shows off Moorish arches and intricate stone ceilings. The grounds include an overlook of the city walls and the Gate of the of several we could explore.

The Gate of the Sun had a free exhibit inside, which also allowed us to peer down on unsuspecting walkers. Boil the oil! We wandered outside the wall through the Bisagra Gate, ducked into the cozy courtyard gardens of Hostal del Cardenal, and strolled along to the multi-level escalators, whisking us back up into the city. Strolled along the western and southern edges of the city...high above the Tajo. "Discovered" the ruins of baths near the water. Felt inspired to shower before dinner.

An even later dinner (9:30-ish) seemed fitting. Tapas at "El Corralito". Patatas bravas. Queso Manchego. And some divine specialty of tender pork and beef in a spicy tomato sauce (I will call it "muy yummy" since the actual Spanish name escapes me). Washed them down with several cold cervezas.

Meandered through quiet city streets stopping for the occasional nighttime photo. Watched the lights go out at the cathedral at 1am. Fell asleep with a head full of memories.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Wednesday/Thursday (SFO to Toledo)...

With a skeptical eye on the roving plume of volcanic ash meandering around Europe, we headed to SFO with an 'on time' notice from United. Soon enough, our pilot had received our 'slot' in the approved route guiding North American travelers safely over the north Atlantic and we were on our way. Our path to Frankfurt was notably more southern than in previous trips, but we only arrived 15 minutes late! Not bad at all given the dicey conditions. Along the way, we met a jolly German woman returning home from a trip to California--her two glasses of Champagne made her VERY chatty--and a middle-aged American man traveling solo to Florence. (Sigh...Florence!!!)

A light rain tapered off as we landed. Maybe the rain is what kept the ash at bay. No sooner had we stepped out of our gate in Frankfurth, than Jeff spotted his friend Tom from his Detroit days! What a small world. Cramming as many happy 'what's new' comments as possible into a 15min chat, and we were back on track to find our Lufthansa gate to Madrid. A shoulder-to-shoulder bus wisked us out to our plane...a cramped little number compared to the 747 that brought us across the pond.

The Alps and Pyrenees broke up the fertile green checkerboard fileds of Europe as we flew south. These were our first fleeting glimpses of Spain and its arid terrain. We landed in Madrid and zipped through arrivals. Then it was a short 15min taxi ride downtown to the Atocha train station to catch a high-speed AVE train to Toledo. The station is beautiful and bright...but no photos allowed :( Damn terrorists. For the 30min hop to Toledo, we sat across from a chatty father-daughter traveling team from Oregon nearing the end of their journey. They shared cautionary tales of pick pockets. (Unemployment in Spain is 20 percent!)

In the blink of an eye we were disembarking in Toledo...the well-preserved former capital of Spain. Our hotel is right in the midst of the historic city housed in a beautiful historic building. A quick shower returned us to human status. We spent the late afternoon wandering the windy streets passing by sights...the cathedral, lots of tucked-away churches, and tiny alleys...all whose names I have already forgotten. They will all stick when we actually visit them tomorrow :)

We found a cozy tapas restaurant for a late dinner (9:30) under a clear sky with a perfect breeze. Potatoes, a spanich fritatta, beef and gorganzola, and two icy beers. Wonderful!

We took the long route home through deserted streets. A few nighttime photos to document the peaceful scene.

We will sleep well tonight :) Buenos noches.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Getting ready...

Dusting off the ole blog in preparation for our trip. Fingers crossed.

Sunday, January 31, 2010

Amsterdam in Disney 3D...

Well, I promised myself that I would post images from Amsterdam in January, before the memories of New Years faded away. Interestingly, the short winter days of Northern Europe didn't curb my shutter-happy this posting is over-stuffed with images. But before commencing with the colorful revelry, I thought I would indulge in some stream-of-conscious memories...

Gelukkig nieuwjaar.
Eyeing the Rembrants and the Van Goghs.
Standing in extra long lines in the cold.
Visiting the Hermitage and its Russian court dress.
Powdered sugar on warm donuts.
Sh** toe.
Dodging firecrackers in Nieuwmarkt.
Being mistaken for 25.
Tapas at Duende with friends old and new.
Snow-capped bridges over icy canals.
Church in the red light district.
Wandering the Jordaan.
PC Cafe.
Savory pancakes.
Vondel Hotel.
Vigorous frisking at Schiphol Airport.
Dancing at EXIT.
New Dutch friends.

And now...on with the pictures.