Blown Away by Barcelona

October 15, 2015


We have left the lazy south. Barcelona is quite the contrast. It seems people get up early and go to work here — our hotel puts out the coffee and muffins at 7:00, unheard of before.  We splurged to some degree on a sweet hotel here, very conveniently near all the main sights, a so-called boutique hotel of 8 rooms in an 18th century building on a street of similar buildings.

When we drew up in the taxi we could see no reason to think it was a hotel, the taxi driver’s GPS having declared that this was the spot we all got out and looked, and sure enough, beside the bell was a discrete sign declaring the name of the place.  We rang and a young woman came running down to show us the elevator at the back of the nondescript lobby, up we went to a landing, then  up a few steps, she opened a door and we stepped into a minimalistic tiny lobby with abstract and whimsical art on the walls, distressed furniture, brightly coloured lighting fixtures, in complete contrast to the heritage building and the antique elevator.

Our room is huge, very modern, and we have casement doors that open on to our own wrought iron balcony overlooking the street.  At night we pull wooden sliding doors over the windows which keep out most of the street sound.  Quite cool!  and such friendly, kind of unhotel like young women running the place.  The 8 rooms occupy only two floors of the building so we have a key to enter the building, go up the stairs and use a scan card to get into the hotel, then our own door key!

The city is very large, and very very busy.  Somehow just so many more bodies than we are used to.  The Barcelonians must get so sick of the throngs of tourists in their midst.  We are definitely sick of them!  Much different culture than in the Andalusia area.  People are up and off to work here at the early hours we are used to at home, and although the evening meal is not happening before 8 or 8:30, it is not 10:00 like in the south.  Also Catalan is the first language, and all the signage is in Catalan, so much for my (slightly) improving Spanish!  Found out that nearly 40% of Spanish people smoke, hence my previous comments about smoking. However, years ago the government began raising the price of cigarettes and they have banned smoking inside bars and restaurants, though the patios are still fair game.  So things will no doubt change here too.


We have been walking and touring sights, and despite feeling overloaded with sight seeing we have enjoyed some special ones here.  Many of the most lovely old buildings, including the area of our hotel, were influenced by a movement called Modernisme, its most famous architect being Gaudi whose buildings with their hobbit house like curves and crazy wrought iron railings you may have seen in pictures.  Modernisme was a reaction to the industrial age and borrows its themes from nature, with lots of curves and floral embellishments, with especially lovely ceramic work and mosaic tile covering everything.  The aesthetic is similar to the Arte Nouveau movement in Britain I think.  We toured an apartment building built by Gaudi in 1914, really interesting structurally as well as in terms of the thought that went into the comfort of the inhabitants, unusual at that time.



However his most famous creation is an enormous cathedral called La Sagrada Familia which has been under construction for more than 100 years now and is slated to near completion by 2040 if they are lucky.  It is astonishingly innovative, every piece of it is its own work of art, and even though we are quite jaded by cathedrals now, we found it fascinating.  It would be so interesting for an engineer like Jeremy to see how the plans and models were done, as the forms were invented as Gaudi was conceiving the visual design.   Nowadays a team of people on computers is transcribing blueprints from his original ideas but they still do a lot of models.  Cranes are operating, machines grinding away, and literally thousands and thousands of people are touring the site every day, while in a couple of (fairly) quiet chapels people are worshipping.  Quite a unique place.  Gaudi is buried in the crypt.


A contemporary of Gaudi’s Montaner, designed the so-called Palace of Music (Palau de la Musica Catalana) which is in its own way, similarly stunning.  He sandwiched this vivid but elegant building, decorated with ceramic mosaic and sculpture in between tenements and factories in 1914 because he wanted to build a structure to house a choir of women who worked in the textile factories of the neighborhood.  When we found it, with some difficulty, in a small street crammed between buildings, we thought they had encroached on it, not the other way around.  To view it you had to be taken around by a tour leader, which was great as we got into all the parts of the seating and he explained the symbolic intent of the decor.  The intent was to give equal emphasis to the folk art of the people and the classical roots of music.  It has been upgraded for better acoustics and ventilation by adding a glass envelope to part of it, but the original structure and decor preserved.  They clearly have lots of money for upkeep as they run concerts 300 days a year, and I don’t know how many tourists go through each day — admissions here are startlingly expensive too.


We have enjoyed other things too and walking from end to end of the old city and around the port.  Our little hotel is just sweet and the “girls” who work here are so helpful.   Time to go home! Adios to Espana.

The Grandeur of Granada

 October 10, 2014


Granada is fabulous.  The usual beautiful cathedral — we are cathedraled out by now — but the main event there is the Alhambra which is spectacular even after all the many sights we have been touring in the last 3 plus weeks.  It was originally constructed in the 14th century by the Moorish sultans, then added on to by Spanish kings as they took over in the late 15th c.  Queen Isabella gave Christopher Columbus the thumbs up here to set off for the New World, or wherever he thought he was going.  

 It is so popular you have to buy tickets on line in advance, then they have a great system for pick up.  You go to a bank machine, put in the credit card you bought the tickets with, and presto out come your tickets!  So handy, as the site is a bit far from the centre where we stayed beside the cathedral.  And they give you a specific time at which you are permitted to enter, if you are late you can’t go in.  I tell you crowd control is a serious business at these European sites.  We booked for 8:30 am, so took a taxi from our guesthouse (the first place so far that has served breakfast before 9, they started at 7:30 to accommodate those with early Alhambra tickets) and it delivered us right to the Palacio Nasrid where we had to enter.  Most inconveniently the ticket office for the site is 15 minutes walk to the place where we entered so we were glad to accomplish the whole proceedings so efficiently. IMG_5912 

The Palacio Nasrid was built for one of the early sultans and embellished as time when on.  Even for jaded over loaded sightseers such as ourselves, it is amazingly beautiful.  The lovely Mujahid style is intricate but elegant.  Pools abound as water is the elixir of life but also a source of great tranquillity.  The gardens here were well tended, cypress hedges trimmed in formal style.  Our audio guides explained the inscriptions, the architectural features etc etc as we walked along at our own pace, doing our best to  dodge large tour groups. 


 Next up was the Alcazaba, their version of the castle/battlements, of which we have also seen our share on this trip.  Most impressive, and since we were high above the city, remarkable views from the top most tower.  

On to Generalife which were the original gardens supplying food to the thousands who lived in the castle, but also a source of aesthetic pleasure to the royal personages.  Loved watching the gardeners trimming up the hedges with such precision, into shapes like mini turrets with arching doorways in the hedges.  Interesting kind of magnolia here with large fruits in the fall.  Totally enjoyed the morning and realized we had spent 5 hours there, so went back to town on foot for lunch. Lovely walking in the old Quarter and the Gypsy area where many houses are in caves, some still occupied, some squatted in by young African men with impressive dreadlocks.


 We said a fond farewell to Manolo and Carmen at the Casa Leon who were such wonderful hosts.  The guesthouse was extremely unusual, very ornate and rococo room décor with a dining room full of suits of armour and other such collectibles.  They served the  best breakfast of the trip, and Manolo’s mother cooked paella for us the first night we were there, which though they didn’t undercharge, was served with great flair and included champagne with dessert!  Carmen spoke no English at all but managed to explain the steps required to manage the Alhambra expedition with great precision using the most dramatic body language I have ever seen.

 She also provided directions out of Granada and on back to Malaga where we needed to return our car, and that was not nearly as successful.  Marlene got in a tiz and we went round and round until we finally pulled up on the outskirts in front of a large hotel and I went in and asked the concierge where in the heck we were.  Quite near the freeway as it turned out.

The journey back to Malaga along the coastal road was rather pretty but not nearly as impressive as I had expected.  Very crowded with villas and depressing looking hotels with patios full of overweight expats ordering poor quality lunches.  The rain and wind didn’t help the impression.  Sad to say good-bye to the south, but on to Barcelona.


Part Seven Olive Country

October 6 2014


As we headed in a northerly direction away from Cordoba the farming became less and less mixed, with olives, olives and more olives.  Really it is interesting to see agriculture that is devoted to one, and one only, crop.  Olive trees are short and stocky, and quite pretty with sage green leaves that show silver underneath when they move.  The soil is so dry at this time of year, and they seem to keep the area around the trees completely clear of vegetation.  Rather different from northern Jordan where we picnicked among the poppies growing under the trees.  So a very monochromatic colour scheme.


Baeza is a small place, about 12,000 I think, and we arrived on a Sunday so a great opportunity to see ordinary people outside of a touristy environment.  The buildings are mainly 16th century, with the usual eglisia (church), city wall, towers etc, but the real action was on the streets.  This is a culture that lives in small flats and thus spends time outside on the streets visiting, and constantly drinking and eating tapas in small sidewalk cafes.  Everyone seems to have a dog, and is quite funny to us that these dogs never get onto grass, they spend their lives on pavement, or at least cobblestones, but healthier, more well cared for animals you’ll never see.  One odd thing is they are terribly feisty with each other for dogs that are on the street all the time — as far as we could see all the males are unneutered so that may account for it.  Fortunately they are nearly all small.

I have described the fashion sense of the elderly senoras already, well I wouldn’t like to leave the impression that the old boys are behind in any way.  Pressed dress pants, dress shirts, ties, sports jackets, and polished leather shoes are the order of the day when appearing on the street.  Younger people are equally well dressed though a bit trendier — brightly coloured trousers are very popular with even middle aged men, pink, turquoise, red — I mean coloured!

We walked down to the main plaza for lunch and found it bursting at the seams with families having their mid day meal — basically a 3 or 4 course dinner to us.  Such well dressed children and the baby gear is amazing.  I have been pricing these children’s clothes and I am not exaggerating when I say that the well dressed baby here can be wearing $100 worth of clothes.  And this is an olive growing area, which we had expected to be much lower income according to the reading Doug has been doing, no evidence of it in the dress and cafe culture we observe.  The towns seem prosperous with shops selling expensive clothing and appliances, and are very tidy and well maintained.

The next day we drove over to Ubeda a nearby town with some lovely Renaissance buildings, again enjoyed wandering through the usual old city sights, with a stop for lunch where we did get the “comida” or daily 3 course set meal with included wine — and what a fantastic meal it was — I had rabbit again and Doug the most beautifully prepared sole.  We have not had a badly cooked piece of fish or meat here — since we come from a seafood loving area and have had more than we would like of overcooked fish in our restaurants, we are impressed how every insignificant seeming restaurant can prepare fish so perfectly, and the meat is tender and done to perfection.  The pounds just keep accumulating..


Our last day we decided to head over towards a nearby national park and visited a small hill town called Cazorla.  What a wild ride through the streets which were not only narrow with right angle corners as usual, but threw in the added challenge of steep grades!  Doug lost his cool once or twice, but Marlene kept us right and we enjoyed their old fort which had some interesting remnants of ancient castle life in it.

On the way back we decided to visit an Olive Museum south of Baeza, since we have been fascinated and puzzled by the cultivation of olives and the preparation of olive oil which this country lives on for breakfast, lunch and dinner.  I programmed the name of the town into Marlene as we started back, thinking that we would bypass Ubeda and Baeza on a different highway we could see on our map.  Well Marlene was feeling frisky and decided to go on a cross country ramble — we set off on a road that at first looked like a secondary highway, then became a one lane paved road, then a semi surfaced road — well visions of that poor girl who followed her GPS into a snow drift in Nova Scotia and nearly perished before being found danced in my head, but the terrain was really neat as we wound among thick groves of olives and alongside the most brilliant turquoise lake, long and narrow, which followed us for kilometres.  Try as I might I could not see any possible route we might be on on the map, couldn’t even find the lake at that point, but we just kept going, through at least 3 tiny but as usual maze-like small towns, but Marlene kept valiantly on, even where u-turns were needed to get us going the correct way on one way streets, it got funnier and funnier as we realized the trip was taking well over an hour when we had expected to arrive in about 20 minutes — Finally we crossed some highways we recognized, but Marlene didn’t want us on them, then lo and behold we shot out of a side road and there we were at the turn off to the Olive Museum.  After all that it was well worth the journey and answered a lot of our questions since it supplied a partial English translation for the step by step process exhibited.  Even a grove of all the different species of olive trees.


After another comfortable night in our eccentric hotel — imagine a very trendy minimalist hotel inserted inside a 16th century stone building —  our cheapest so far and the first decent breakfast in a while, we set out for Granada with the navigator (me) on tenterhooks about negotiating such a huge city and finding our hotel in the usual tiny lane.  A piece of cake for Marlene as it turned out and she took us right through the sign that said “Prohibited entry except for taxis and residents” (but we later found out registered hotel guests are allowed too) with a camera to record infractions — the worst part was that we missed our lane the first time round and actually had to go through the camera twice — and into the tiny lane, up to the nondescript door of the Hostal Lima.  This bizarre and very pleasant place will get described in the next installment.

Part Six Can’t Leave Cordoba

October 4, 2014

We have loved our stay in Cordoba, will leave tomorrow to go somewhat north to the olive country, passing through Jaen on the way to Baeza.  A little higher there so may be cooler, we have been enjoying the warm days and evenings here.


Finally made our way into the Mezquita yesterday morning.  It is a large mosque which morphed into a church — like so many of the churches here, when the Christians took over 700 years or so ago, they sensibly made use of the Muslim structures that were in place and embellished them with their ideas of a place of worship — heavy on the lugubrious depictions of Christ’s sufferings, but that’s my minority opinion.  This one is particularly attractive as the arching pillars of the mosque have remained and when one stands at the original front door you can see right through the vast space to the holy place of the mosque — supposedly pointing to Mecca of course, but in this case slightly off kilter!  A vast patio full of orange trees outside, with the fountains used for ablutions by the Muslim worshippers still in place.


If we are to travel in Europe we will have to get used to the hordes of tour groups — October is not the high season but these places are just thronged with them.  The only place we experienced anything similar was in Beijing, but these here have at least eliminated the guide’s blaring megaphone, everyone walks around with a little receiver hanging on their necks and an ear bud in their ears and can hear the guide’s voice without her shouting.  That said, the lone tourist is pretty much trampled and shoved out of the way as the herd, intent on following the fan or umbrella or some such held aloft by the guide, stampedes through looking to neither left nor right!.

Even that couldn’t dampen our enjoyment of this quite spectacular site, and the audio guides we used at least helped make sense of the convoluted chapels, and the interwoven history of the place.


In the afternoon we visited the palace of a marquis, occupied by the family until 1980, and containing 12 “patios” or courtyards, a feature for which this part of Andalusia is famous.  The patios were very interesting from a gardener’s perspective and we were able to wander at will.  For the private rooms we had to join a guide who spoke only in Spanish at machine gun pace, but we had a bit of a printed handout in English and we were glad we went as it was a behind the scenes look at how the rich have lived for ever in Spain.  The house was 700 years old but had been renovated by different owners.  It did make me think how lucky we are not to be lumbered with tons of family heirlooms, which in this case are so valuable you couldn’t just take them to a garage sale if you hated them.  I particularly dislike Sevres style porcelain, those ghastly cherub ridden bright blue monstrosities, but can you imagine if you had to display them every day on your mantel?  Not to mention keep the servants from smashing them with their incessant dusting?  The room where the royals did most of their relaxing had the most uncomfortable looking sofas in it, tufted velvet, not at all cozy!  So no envy from us.

In the evening we went to a flamenco performance in the Sephardic Museum.  Absolutely different from our first one in Seville, where we were on tenterhooks that the dancer would collapse with a nervous breakdown and the ambulance have to be called.  This one was more of a performance in a way, though still heartfelt.  The first half was quite light hearted and flirtatious, with the dancer wearing multicoloured ruffles; in the second half she was in all black and it was more balletic and dramatic with more anger and passion in it.  The singer, the guitar player, and the dancer seem to kind of riff off each other, sort of like improvisational jazz groups do.  We wonder if the singing would be easier for us to appreciate if we understood the words, the emotions come through though.

I have been meaning to tell you of an interesting phenomenon that we have been observing here.  At least one of every 20 people we pass has an arm in a sling or an arm or hand in plaster.  Have never seen anything like it, a bit like all the people on crutches from their motorbike accidents in Thailand, but these people run the gamut from old to young, as many locals as tourists.  It is just bizarre, can’t help wondering if whatever you go to a clinic in Spain for, they put your arm in a sling before they get on with the rest of your problem.

The other thing that is just so strange to our eyes is the constant, non stop, totally ubiquitous smoking that goes on.  Young, old, parents, grandparents, — you name it — all apparently chain smokers.  It is at least 40 years since I have seen someone smoke while holding a baby, or pushing a baby stroller.  Everyone smokes while walking in the streets and they throw the butts down whenever they finish them!  I saw a young, very smartly turned out clerk from a tony women’s clothing store, emerge and retrieve her butt from where she had lodged it on the shop windowsill earlier and relight, finish it off and throw it down on the store steps.  Doug remembers guys doing that 50 years ago when he worked in the sawmill, so very strange in young affluent people.  And the kids must grow up wreathed in smoke, though I have to say they are very well looked after and their clothes are extraordinarily nice, all the little girls play on the playgrounds in beautiful smocked dresses with white ankle socks, leather shoes, and bows adorning their heads.  Ella would not enjoy it, but it sure is cute.

Something else I like is the spirit of the female over 80 set who seem to meet for coffee and sherry in the mornings at the cafes with which these cities absolutely teem.  It seems one does not give up one’s fashion sense after a certain age here, and no qualms about looking like mutton dressed as lamb either!  They all come out in short stylish shift dresses, high heeled sandals, perfectly coiffed, all made up, carrying their lovely leather handbags, just to go to the corner cafe and meet friends for coffee.  Quite makes me ashamed of our casual attitude to our appearance — and of course all that smoking keeps them very slim so that helps.  No worries about veiny legs or wrinkled cheeks, just forging on and looking like a million bucks!  And we’ve seen a number of wedding parties heading into hotels, the men all wear tail coats, the women amazingly short, tight dresses in brilliant colours, with sky high spikes (remember the streets are cobbled) and fabulous fascinator hats.


We devoted today to some very interesting art museums so feel we have really covered Cordoba.  We plan on an earlier than usual start tomorrow as we want to do some sight seeing on the way, notably in Jaen, before moving on to Baeza, a very small place.  Day trips from there.

Part Five Classy Cordoba

October 2, 2014.


We arrived in Cordoba yesterday after driving from Seville.  We retrieved our car from the super expensive car park attached to our hotel, got Marlene rolling and headed out of town — that part is quite easy, roads to main cities are well signposted and we can figure it out well with just our map most of the time.  I have grown to love Marlene’s exhortations though (Doug not so much) so we use her for reassurance.

We stopped at Carmona after about 40 minutes to walk around the pleasant small town, and climb up into their Alcazar.  Every city has one of these castle/fortress constructions, parts of which date to Roman times with successive waves of conquerors making their own alterations through the centuries.  It is really interesting to see how the various lines of defence against ravaging hordes were constructed.  We clambered around on top of this one, the rolling farm land with olive groves and huge orange orchards interspersed with fields of cotton and newly ploughed land waiting to be planted presenting a very restful vista from that vantage point.  We then walked out of town a short way to a Roman necropolis with adjacent amphitheatre.  Lunch in the main square was a fraction of Seville prices.  That place hit our wallets hard and my waistline is suffering badly.  Doug may have gained a pound or two on his trim, hyperthyroid frame.

Back in the car we took a smaller highway towards Cordoba passing a most imposing medieval style castle high on a hill about midway.  Didn’t go up but it was an impressive sight.


Entering Cordoba I was extremely apprehensive as our hotel again was in the Juderia, or former Jewish ghetto as had been the one in Seville.  This time though Marlene held on to her composure, and never lost her satellites until we were right at the door of the tiny hotel in a narrow lane.  Never in a million years would we have found it without her, as even the detailed instructions sent by the hotel were useless as these tiny lanes have the calle or street name painted on the walls of the buildings, but not consistently at every corner, and since they twist and turn so much and change names with every twist….well you can imagine.

This hotel includes parking in their tiny adjacent garage (despite being our cheapest hotel of the trip!) and the young man had to come out and coach Doug on how to get the car turned around in the lane and eased into the garage, I was outside watching the sides of the car as Alejandro beckoned him into the garage, Doug was horrified because he had to go uphill into it and couldn’t see what he was coming to at all until he was on the downward side!  I couldn’t figure out why he was being so slow.


We love this old city area, just so charming and we are steps from the Mezquita which is the hybrid mosque/cathedral everyone comes here to see.  Our room has lovely windows that open onto an interior patio, and with them open we can hear the cathedral bells bonging the hours and quarter hours, and once a day, the muezzin in the mosque calls the prayers.  Quite an atmosphere.


We went to the Mezquita at door opening which is 10 am (everything starts so late here as it is dark and cool until 9) but it was a special religious day and all the town dignitaries including legions of military all in very correct uniforms with odd little shiny hats and white gloves were the only ones allowed in for the morning.  We went to the Alcazar instead and clambered all over its towers and battlements which we found enchanting, some lovely mosaics like the ones we saw in Madaba which were discovered when they were excavating for a building elsewhere in town and brought there, huge and very well preserved, also a sparkling alabaster Roman sarcophagus which was found in someone’s garden.  The gardens are gorgeous, with water fountains and many pools, very well kept up in contrast to the larger Alcatraz we visited in Seville which had distinctly scruffy gardens.  We were impressed with the topiary and plan to make a topiary figure our next garden project.  I even managed to ask a passing gardener about an extremely vivid and unknown to me bed of flowers — he told me in Spanish and in Latin, I figured when I caught the word “gallo” that it must mean cock’s comb as it resembled that, and sure enough when you google that, up comes a picture of them.  Quite weird, rather beautiful in red, but quite grotesque in yellow when they resemble brains.  The orange groves were weighted down with ripe oranges, and also the pomegranate trees.


Later we walked to the site of the old synagogue, near a statue of Maiomedes (spelling) a brilliant scholar of the 15th century, one of those vastly erudite figures whose published works covered everything from philosophy to religion to medicine.  He along with most of the Jews in the area were subject to the ravages of the Inquisition and set off in quest of safety through North Africa.  There is a fascinating and very well done small museum of Sephardic history (Sephardic Jews are those of Spanish origin), truly the world has learned nothing from historical lessons like the Spanish Inquisition.  They have small, very serious concerts there and so we are going to see more flamenco tomorrow night.  Since the one we went to in Seville represented the “root” of the tree that is Flamenco, we are interested to see this one too, also serious in intention.  There are other versions put on in restaurants and so on, but you know us, we always hope we will experience the real thing….

We are very comfortable here in this little hotel, and have 2 more days.  Try again for the Mezquita tomorrow and then there is a lovely palace with 12 patio gardens that has been much recommended.  And since we so enjoyed the Museum of Beaux Artes in Seville with all its wonderful old masters, which were ALL concerned with Biblical themes due to the fact that they were commissioned for a convent, we have decided to go to the one here too.  I loved the rooms of 19th and 20th c painters in Seville and hope this one may be more secular in theme. So lots to do.

We do far too much eating and drinking, but it is all so tempting.  The only weak link is breakfast as it is all white bread and croissants, all the time, which to us is so unhealthy, but what can you do?  When in Rome….all the rest of the food is unbelievably well prepared, just not cheap.

On to Seville

September 28, 2014.

Before heading on to Seville, we drove to Cadiz, a sea port about an hour away from Arcos.  It is the oldest city in Spain and it is from here that all the various explorers set off for the New World in their tiny little boats.  One of the parks is dedicated to all those who went out to rule the South and Central American colonies of the Spanish.  Short lives they all had, similar to those Brits who went out similarly to rule India and Sri Lanka.  Cadiz had a most interesting self guided walking tour map — all colour coded according to your interests with correspondingly coloured lines on the sidewalks to guide your walk.  We  took the yellow walk all along the sea coast, then the purple walk through the town to see the antique buildings, then the blue walk, it was fun and relieved us from consulting our map constantly.


Next day we set off for Seville, following a route through rolling and then very flat farmland, avoiding the pay freeway.  They grow olives, oranges, cotton, and it seems they are preparing the fields for wheat not planted yet.  Our car is not the best we could have had, and cannot go 120 anyway so the freeway is a waste of money.  We loved the drive but of course the fun started when we got into the city.

Our hotel is right in the old part, an area called Barrio Santa Cruz, steps from all the main sites, but almost impossible to access easily by car. “Marlene” tried valiantly, and I had researched the route beforehand, but we never could find the little street the hotel was on.  The “street” turned our to be only one block long so no one I asked knew it.  We got into this network of tiny narrow streets, eventually I was running ahead of the car to guide Doug through the tighter corners, never sure if we were going the wrong way on a one way or not as the signs are enigmatic at best.  Finally poor Marlene gave up as the narrowness of the streets meant that she could not get her satellites.

We found a rare slightly wider area at the edge of a plaza and I appealed to a waiter in a restaurant (having had no luck with a couple of pedestrians and a taxi driver) and he got the street address on his phone and drew me a map.  I then ran ahead, leaving Doug parked there – he was in a panic that I would get lost, so little faith — found the hotel, got instructions to pull up beside (“pay no attention to the cars honking behind you, just bring in the luggage quickly”) and a pass for the parking nearby.  All accomplished and though the parking is a fortune, we would have paid anything to get rid of the car!!

The area around our hotel is packed with sidewalk cafes attached to the restaurants beside.  Everyone eats breakfast, lunch and dinner on the street it seems.  Packs and packs of tourists, this is really something new for us.  It being a weekend, tons of Spanish families eating their dinners each evening, as I think I told you before, families turn up for their dinner at 10 p.m. with their little children in tow.  The first evening we were ready to leave at 10:15 when an adjacent table was taken by a couple with a two year old daughter, gorgeously dressed as all the Spanish children are, the waiter brought out a high chair and they settled in with their wine and began spoon feeding the little girl from their plates.  She seemed happy as a lark.


Yesterday we wandered around the Alcazar of Seville, a huge palace built to begin with in the 1300’s, but renovated by successive kings through the intervening years.  It is still the occasional palace of the current king and queen.  It has a lot of Moorish details and wonderful craftsmanship with tiles, plasterwork, and carving.  The surrounding gardens are vast though they could do with some upkeep, clearly a king with deep pockets and a cast of thousands of servants is required.  Fountains in various styles dot the place with formal lines established by myrtle hedges along the paths.  Even a small maze, though they have cut it shorter to avoid losing tourists in it.  We got the audio guides again, the site is so large it would have been quite confusing without them.  Thoroughly enjoyed it despite the hordes of tour groups, sure would hate to see this place in the “high” season.

We also stopped into a beautiful old house, formerly a residence for ailing and aged priests, now a small art museum which houses a Velazquez painting entitled Santa Rufina for which they paid 12.5 million Euros (close to 19 million dollars) a few years ago.  Quite small and unprepossessing but oddly appealing I thought.  Free on Sundays, glad we went.


While strolling back from that we came upon a museum of guitars, housed in the old house of one of Spain’s most famous flamenco guitar players.  They were having a performance that evening of flamenco dancing, singing and guitar playing.  The young woman at the door explained so sweetly how the performance would work that I insisted that we get tickets, Doug was reluctant as he did not think we could find our way back to the spot.  He is terribly frustrated by not being able to navigate the streets, it is similar to what happened to him in Hanoi, his usual good sense of direction deserts him when the streets have no logic to them.  You will find it hard to believe that I guide us around, using a tiny map of the streets and my compass…


Luckily we did find the place again in the evening.  The venue was tiny, just about 25 in the audience, and the performance was just riveting, particularly the dancer.  The guitarist was amazing, and the singer, quite famous was excellent when accompanying the dancer but I think this style of singing must be an acquired taste (we experienced it before in Arcos).  The program was like this:  the guitarist played a short set, the singer came in and accompanied him with rhythmic clapping, then the dancer arrived and sat on a chair while the guitarist and the singer performed together.  The dancer seemed to almost enter a trance like state.  She then danced, it was intense and overwhelming, the whole thing is about emotions not really a narrative.  Her first set was angry and defiant, and very sad (I am only guessing of course) and by the end of it she was literally dripping with sweat and seemed to be on the verge of a nervous breakdown!  Then the singer sat on the chair and sang, again all an expression of emotion the words are improvised apparently.  The dancer came back for a supposedly more light hearted set, with the guitar playing what he called more playful music, still the whole thing was quite overwhelming and the dancer was equally dripping at the end of the performance.  She must have to have her costumes dry cleaned each day. She changed mid way through, the costumes are lovely and they wear combs holding back their severely styled hair, hers flew out of her head and across the stage at intervals.

After all that, we headed to a quiet square for dinner!  Quite the long days here, having trouble getting through my usual number of books as we are so busy.

Part Three The White Towns

September 25, 2014


When we left Ronda to drive to Arcos de la Frontera, we chose a route that took us through a steep mountain pass (or so the guidebook said, these people have clearly never been to the northern border of Thailand) so that we could visit two of the so called “white villages” on the way.  The terrain is very beautiful in these parts, typical Mediterranean I guess.  Wild olives, oak, laurel and pines very different from our trees of the same name, and gorgeous orange trees on golden rolling hillsides.  The villages are visible a long way off because of being blindingly white, and are tucked onto the sides of hills, lots of mountain goat work to walk around them.  We went to Grazelima and Zahara, then on to Arcos which is technically also a white town, just a large one.


Our GPS led us to the hotel and thankfully it is just on the edge of the old city and not in the middle of it, as these are the narrowest, most torturous roads we have seen yet.  We just cannot believe that cars, let alone trucks and small buses can actually negotiate the streets of the old town.  All the cars, even quite expensive ones like BMWs and Mercedes are scraped and dinged, and it is common to see mirrors dangling like broken wings on the sides of cars.  Some corners are so sharp that most people cannot make it around in one go, they have to back up, and gradually inch their way around.  Another amazing thing is that all the tiny restaurants put their chairs and tables on the edge of the pavement — there is no sidewalk and the roads are all cobblestones — and so the unlucky diners on the edge get brushed by the larger vehicles that go by.  Quite unbelievable and a bit overwhelming at first!


We spent a day wandering the steep streets and exploring the lovely cathedral and a number of other gorgeous old buildings all made of golden sand stone.  Then today we went to the neighbouring town of Jerez from whose name the word “sherry” is derived.  We visited their cathedral (so so) and a beautiful Gothic styled church called San Miguel, much lovelier than the cathedral.  The carvings are most impressive, and we have also added a new twist to our experience of veneration for dead bodies — in the past we have seen numerous relics, several embalmed personages, and the most life like wax replicas, — well now to add to that are the “incorrupt saints” which are favoured here.  Basically it seems that they dig up the bones once someone has been declared a saint and encase them in a kind of mesh with gloves over the hand bones, and a bit of face formation over the skull also encased in mesh, then dress the skeleton in satin clothing, festoon it with artificial flowers and display it in a glass case in the cathedral.  Really rather grisly, the ones we saw date from the 3rd century, the bones that it, the mesh encasement was done much more recently, like say 3 or 4 hundred years ago.


We visited the sherry bodega where they make Tio Pepe among many other types of sherry — the company is called Gonzalez Byass  and it has been in business since 1845.  A vast place with rooms piled up with oaken barrels full of sherry in various stages of aging.  The tour explained how sherry is made and then we had a tasting — we opted for 4, which turned out to be 4 whole glasses of sherry, a bit much at 3 in the afternoon, but quite tasty.  Rather a complex process making sherry and can’t quite think how anyone ever got the idea.  We climbed all over the old fort area called the Alcazar to work off the sherry before we had to drive back.  The place is very well preserved and actually dates back to Moorish times, ie more than 800 years ago.


Back to Arcos tonight, we think we will make a day trip to Cadiz tomorrow, the oldest town in Spain, before heading to Seville on Saturday.  We are having a great time, eating way too much, but trying to walk it off.  So far so good with the GPS though we have definitely had some minor tussles with the route — we got so mixed up in Jerez that we just headed into the first underground parking lot we found, then went back to ground level and had to ask the GPS “Where am I?” as we hadn’t a holy clue where we were.  Turned out we were only a couple of kilometres from the Alcazar, great relief!