Madrid (3 days)
We arrived in Madrid one day before the tour group. I wanted to meet up with a friend who I had not seen for almost 15 years. She was my very first student in Mexico City, where I began my career as an ESL teacher at the age of 19. I also realized when we got to Madrid that I had forgotten my camera, a very nice one that I bought for this trip, at the hotel in Chicago. I quickly contacted my daughter and asked her to call the hotel to check on the camera. Fortunately, they had the camera and were going to store it in a safe. Now what? I had three weeks of vacation and needed a camera. I ended up buying a smaller camera at Corte de Ingles, the best place to go shopping in Spain. They have everything you need.
On the second day in Madrid we visited the Palacio Royal, Plaza Mayor, and Los Jardines del Oriente. We walked from the hotel and back which took us about five hours. It was quite a warm day. The cafe that we chose to have lunch was in a working neighborhood. As we sat eating our lunch we could observe the comings and goings of the people who live in the neighborhood. Older men were standing on the corner chatting, women were pushing their babies in strollers, and right in front of us were men unloading a beer truck which took them about an hour. No one was in much of a rush.
We met the rest of our group on the second day in the evening. We took off on our tour the next morning. We will return to Madrid at the end of the trip.
Hotel: NH Ribera del Manzanares, Paseo Virgen del Puerto, Madrid, Spain
Comments: The accommodations are very good. The beds are lower to the ground than American hotels and there are no queen or king size beds. They are all twins and they are very close to each other. The lights and the air conditioner are turned on when you insert your room key into the device on the wall. All bathrooms have bidets. I am still not sure how to use one. The bidets are never in the same place. In some of the hotels they are on the right or left of the toilet and in others the bidet is right in front of your while you are sitting on the toilet.
A free continental breakfast is provided every morning. This is nothing like the free continental breakfasts that you find in hotels in the USA. This is a spread like no other. The breakfast includes at least five kinds of cheese and five kinds of ham, three kinds of cereal, fresh juice, fruits, yogurt, coffee, tea and breads. The set up is very organized and clean. Don’t get up and leave your plate if you are not finished eating because it will be picked up by one of the busy servers. No tip is needed.
Location: The location of this hotel is not far from the center of Madrid. It took us about thirty minutes to walk to the Palace and many of the parks. Walking is an essential part of visiting Madrid.
We were only able to spend two hours in the town of Avila, but it was enough. It is a very small walled in town and the people who live there have been there for many years. There were mostly senior citizens, males, sitting around chatting away. I approached a couple of them and started to talk to them in Spanish. I found out that they had lived within these walls for all of their 80 years.
Ávila is the capital of the Spanish province of the same name. It is a city in the rolling hill country northwest of Madrid. It’s best known for its intact medieval walls, with 80-plus crenelated, semicircular towers and 9 gates, including the arched Alcázar, on the eastern side. Long sections atop the walls are walkable ( some of our more agile and young visitors were able to walk part of the wall). At night, the lighted walls are a distinctive sight.
Ávila is likewise the birthplace of two great figures: Santa Teresa and San Juan de la Cruz, who through their poetry and writings on mysticism brought the Spanish language to one of its highest levels. Today both of these saints are remembered in the city, many are the historical spots where one can follow in their footsteps.
Salamanca was our next stop. I had been to Salamanca almost fifteen years ago because my daughter was enrolled at the age of 15 to attend a Spanish language school for the summer. I went to meet her after her program had finished. It is one of my favorite cities in Spain. The only disappointment was that we were only able to stay for three hours. In the three hours, we witnessed a wedding, the bride was not shy about inviting tourists, but her husband did not look as eager as she did, ate lunch in the beautiful square, and took photos of the university.
This ancient university town northwest of Madrid was first conquered by the Carthaginians in the 3rd century B.C. It then became a Roman settlement before being ruled by the Moors until the 11th century. The university, one of the oldest in Europe, reached its high point during Salamanca’s golden age. The city’s historic centre has important Romanesque, Gothic, Moorish, Renaissance and Baroque monuments. The Plaza Mayor, with its galleries and arcades, is particularly impressive.
Coimbra was our third stop on the tour. We spent about two hours walking up and down the narrow cobblestone roads. It was a very warm day and all I could think about was ice cream. Portugal and Spain have some of the best gelato I have ever tasted. My friend was addicted to gelato and I was addicted to cafe con leche. It was just too hot to sip on cafe con leche so I chose a really big fruit parfait with vanilla gelato. It was great. There is no indoor seating, so we sat outside ate the parfait and sweated for an hour. The people were friendly and the service is not fast. No one seems to be in a hurry. It takes getting used to.
Coimbra, a riverfront city in central Portugal and the country’s former capital, is home to a preserved medieval old town and the historic University of Coimbra. Built on the grounds of a former palace, the university is famed for its baroque library, the Biblioteca Joanina, and its 18th-century bell tower. In the city’s old town lies the 12th-century Romanesque cathedral Sé Velha. The first Muslim campaigns that occupied the Iberian peninsula occurred between 711 and 715, with Coimbra capitulating to Musa bin Nusair in 714. Although it was not a large settlement, Qulumriyah (Arabic: قُلُمْرِيَة), in the context of Al-Andalus, was the largest agglomerated centre along the northern Tagus valley, and its principal city boasted a walled enclosure of 10 hectares, supporting between 3000 and 5000 inhabitants. Remnants of this period include the beginnings of the Almedina, Arrabalde and the fortified palace used by the city’s governor (which was later converted into the Royal Palace by the early Portuguese monarchs). The Christian Reconquista forced Muslim forces to abandon the region temporarily. Successively the Moors retook the castle in 987–1064 and again in 1116, capturing two castles constructed to protect the territory: in Miranda da Beira (where the garrison was slaughtered) and in Santa Eulália (where the governor rendered his forces rather than facing a similar massacre).
Hotel: Hotel D. Luis, Santa Clara, Coimbra, Portugal
Comments: We had a great view of the city from our hotel room. There is no public transportation, so in order to go into the town at night we would have to call a taxi. We decided to sit out on the balcony of our hotel and enjoy the city lights, sipping our sangria. Our dinner was provided for us, but it was not the typical food from Portugal that I had expected. It was more American style with a lot of pasta. I wasn’t very hungry after the huge parfait that I just ate in less than one hour before dinner. The internet connection was bad and we had to go to the lobby to get the best connection. The breakfast is very good and includes so many choices of ham, cheese, pancakes, waffles, eggs, and cereal. There are choices for vegetarians.
Location: The hotel is located in a very nice area, but not easily accessible for a walk into the city.
After spending the night in Coimbra, we took off for Fatima. I had always wanted to visit Fatima because of the story of the three children who say the Blessed Mary appeared and talked to them. I was very impressed with the spiritual feeling in Fatima. We arrived on a Sunday and an open mass was being held by the priest in Portuguese. After the mass ended in Portuguese, the priest led the rosary in both English and Portuguese. Some people were walking on their knees all the way up to the altar. I saw many people carrying very long candles and I wondered why they needed such long candles. We were led to a place in front of huge blazing furnaces and people where lighting their candles and some were throwing them into the fire. Now I know why the candles were so long. The candles that I bought and was planning on lighting in memory of my husband were much too short for getting close to the furnaces. I said a quick prayer and threw them into the furnace.
On 13 May 1917, the children saw a woman “brighter than the sun, shedding rays of light clearer and stronger than a crystal goblet filled with the most sparkling water and pierced by the burning rays of the sun”. The woman wore a white mantle edged with gold and held a rosary in her hand. She asked them to devote themselves to the Holy Trinity and to pray “the Rosary every day, to bring peace to the world and an end to the war”. While they had never spoken to anyone about the angel, Jacinta divulged her sightings to her family despite Lúcia’s admonition to keep this experience private. Her disbelieving mother told neighbors as a joke, and within a day the whole village knew.
Have you ever wanted to go to a real life castle and experience a Medieval Festival? When we arrived in Obidos, we learned that the Medieval Festival was taking place. This was a little disappointing because we were only given two hours to walk around the little town. The streets were very narrow and it was incredibly hot. We did walk to the entrance of the castle. The most popular thing to do in Obidos is to drink sherry from chocolate cups. I never got a chance because the line was too long. I decided to sit with my friend in a gelato shop and eat gelato. There is a choice of at least 24 different kinds. It is also very cheap, much cheaper than in the USA. As we were sitting jousters came down the street playing music to summon all of the people to the festival.
Obidos is one of the most picturesque towns of Portugal. The compact town centre is filled with cobbled streets and traditional painted houses, while the entire town is encircled by the solid city walls. Obidos was traditionally owned by the queen of Portugal and this has ensured that every house or shop has been lovingly cared for and maintained. There is no better example of a traditional Portuguese town than Obidos.
Be prepared to walk. Lisbon is a city best experienced by walking. The buildings are very colorful and the people are friendly. We always felt safe. I really can’t say how safe it is in the evening because we didn’t explore when it was dark. Lisbon is a very big city. We were lucky enough to spend two days there. The beach side is very vibrant. You will find people who are swimming, sunning, and having a great time. There are also a lot of street vendors selling ice cream, drinks, and snacks. We walked through the very old neighborhoods where people were sitting in parks, playing with their children and chatting with their friends. No one was in a hurry.
Lisbon, Portugal’s hilly capital, is a coastal city known for its cafe culture and soulful Fado music. From imposing São Jorge Castle, the view encompasses the old city’s pastel-colored buildings, Tagus Estuary and the Ponte 25 de Abril suspension bridge. Nearby, the National Azulejo Museum displays 5 centuries of decorative ceramic tiles. And just outside Lisbon is a string of Atlantic beaches, from Cascais to Estoril.
Hotel: Roma, Avenida De Roma, 33
Comments: The breakfast was also a continental breakfast and the rooms were comfortable. We were also under the airport and could here the planes fly right over the hotel all night long.The Internet was not that great, but there were also a lot of people staying there. The staff were very friendly and could answer our questions. Most of them spoke English.
Location: The hotel is a very nice hotel located in a city neighborhood. There are supermarkets (small) and small cafes. My friend and I learned how to use the metro very quickly. The metro stop is located one block from our hotel. The view from our room was the laundry of the people living in front of us. It was quite colorful. We could never figure out why there were never any lights on in the rooms.
Sevilla was my most favorite place to visit in Spain. There is so much to see and do. We walked for miles and miles and witnessed the lives of the people around us. In the evening we sat in the plaza and watched students trying to make a living by dancing the flamenco, while people sat outside enjoying the music. The students passed around a hat and we put some money in to help them out. They quickly changed their clothes, got on their bikes and sped away. Sevilla is the capital of Flamenco and I recommend that you seek out the small Flamenco dancing places and not the ones that are designated for tourists.
Seville is the capital of southern Spain’s Andalusia region and a hotbed for flamenco dance, especially in the Triana neighborhood. The city is known for its ornate Alcázar castle complex, built during the Moorish Almohad dynasty, and its 18th-century Plaza de Toros de la Real Maestranza bullring. The massive Gothic cathedral is the site of Christopher Columbus’s tomb and a famous minaret turned belltower, the Giralda.
Hotel: Don Paco, P. Jeronimo Cordoba 4-5
Comments: The breakfast was also a continental breakfast, not as good as the previous hotels, and the rooms were comfortable. Hotel beds in both Spain and Portugal are built very low to the floor and they are singles. There were no king or queen sized beds.
Location: Our hotel was located in the middle of the city. It was a good place to walk to get to know the more common areas where the people lived. It is easy to catch a bus.
We arrived in Cordoba and had three hours to look around. I wanted to see the mosque which had been converted into a church so many years ago. The history of Spain is so interesting because of the influence of the Arab culture that came before them. There were wars and there was peace. The Arab influence is everywhere in Spain.
Córdoba is a city in the southern Spanish province of Andalusia. It was an important Roman city and an Islamic cultural center in the Middle Ages. It’s best known for La Mezquita, an immense mosque dating to 600 C.E. featuring a columned prayer hall and Byzantine mosaics. A 1600s Catholic cathedral now occupies the center of the mosque.
Comments: You must pay cash to get in to the cathedral. They do not take credit cards. By the time we got to Cordoba I had seen enough churches and cathedrals, but I knew that I didn’t want to miss this one. I am glad I didn’t. I highly recommend visiting this cathedral even if you feel you have seen enough!
Spain and Portugal made a great impression on my life and I hope to return soon.