Here was a new angle on European trips!  We traveled with another couple (Marie & Ed). They had never been to Europe before so Lee & I were the tour leaders. Since we had never been to Spain, ourselves, this may have been more like "the blind leading the blind". We landed in Madrid, picked up our car, and proceeded to our hotel. Ed did a great job of navigating (thankfully we had a good map this time) and we found our hotel with a minumum of stress. After freshening up a bit, we did a walking tour of the area closest to our accomodations, known as Hapsburg Madrid. We began at the Palacio Real (Royal Palace) (Photo #2), the King’s residence in the city. It is a spectacular chateau in the tradition of Versailles or Buckingham Palace although significantly smaller. Rooms were opulent with ceiling frescoes, sculptures, tapestries, and beautiful furniture.
    Next we headed for the Plaza Mayor (Photo #1), admiring some interesting architecture along the way. The Plaza Mayor is certainly reminiscent of some of Europe’s most elegant squares. It is huge, surrounded by majestic apartments, numerous shops, and outdoor restaurants, and obviously one of the chief gathering places in the city. Another gathering place, the Puerta del Sol, Madrid’s version of Times Square, was next on our agenda, but mainly to call home.  
    The next morning, we left Madrid for our first venture into the countryside. Our first stop was El Escorial (Photo #4), a summer palace for the Kings of Spain since 1564. We opted for the guided tour and Jose was extremely informative. We were particularly impressed by the ornate woodwork, much of it gifts from countries around the world, and the crypts (Pantheons) of the kings and their families. We even witnessed a wedding taking place in the chapel.
    From here, we drove to Valle de los Caidos (Valley of the Fallen) (Photo #8), a huge, stone crucifix, erected as a monument to all those who gave their lives defending Spain. Beneath the monument is a basilica which, among others, contains the grave of the dictator Generalissimo Franco. Armed guards patrol nearby to prevent people from spitting on the gravesite (a measure of his legacy?). 
    Then we went further northwest to the beautiful town of Segovia. There are three significant attractions in the city, although we would maintain that the city itself is the major attraction. These include the still-in-use-after-almost-2,000-years Roman Aqueduct (Photo #11). Its condition is amazing, especially considering that no mortar was used in its construction.
    At the opposite end of town is the famous Alcazar (Photo #12), Segovia’s majestic castle, perched at the top of a cliff overlooking the broad expansive countryside below. Its crenulated walls are punctuated by pointed towers and turrets. The interior is Moorish in design (our first glimspe of this style of architecture which is so pervasive in the western part of Spain), with some beautiful rooms.
    In the center of town is Segovia’s Plaza Mayor, not as large or elegant as Madrid’s but lovely and very conducive for people-watching. Ed and I spent some time nursing "una cervesa" (a beer) while the girls wandered.  We also explored the gorgeous Cathedral (Photo #10)which dominates one side of the square.  
    Our next day was spent completing our walking tour of Madrid. We spent a short while at El Rastro, the city’s famous outdoor market. It was great for people-watching but the goods were mostly junk. Bourbon Madrid is the eastern side of the city. It includes the famous Prado Museum (Photos 3 & 6), one of the world’s best, and the Reina Sofia, its companion museum which contains Picasso’s Guernica, his most famous painting. Nearby, we strolled through Retiro Park and marveled at the beautiful statue in the center of the busy Plaza de Cibeles (Photo #5), and also at the ornate Post Office which occupies one end of the square.
    Our evening dinner was at the world-famous Casa Botin (Photo #7), Hemingway’s favorite restaurant in the world and supposedly the world’s oldest. The food was fantastic and the cave-like ambience was also great — we even got a tour of the wine cellar!
    Our next excursion took us to Avila, a Medieval, walled city which is also famous as the home of St Theresa. We walked the incredibly well-preserved walls (photo #13), visited the Cathedral and wandered the tiny streets and alleyways. From here, we traveled further west to the charming city of Salamanca, whose Plaza Mayor (Photo #14) is as regal and elegant as Madrid’s. We also strolled by the House of Shells, and the two Cathedrals, Old & New.
    When we returned to Madrid, we headed for the Plaza de Toros de la Ventas, Madrid’s famous  bullring. Here we sampled the local fascination with a "sport" that we all (especially the girls) found revolting. The poor bulls have no chance whatsoever, since the matador does not enter the ring until the bull has undergone some preparatory events which seem designed to weaken him. We stayed for about half of the program and then left. We were all glad we had seen the performance, even though we would not want to see another.
    We finally left Madrid and traveled south to Cordoba, a walled Moorish town with whitewashed buildings, cobblestone streets and beautiful flower-bedecked courtyards when you peak through the wrought-iron doorways. We arrived late because of a horrendous traffic jam, so it was time for dinner — "Caballo de Rojo" is a fabulous restaurant with wonderful service and great food! We strolled the streets after dinner to try to walk off the calories.
    The next morning, we headed first for the Mezquita (Photos #15 & 16), Cordoba’s famous mosque/church. Construction began on this mosque in 788 AD. It interior is positively breath-taking, with hundreds of red and white striped arches. The Mihrab, the most sacred part of the mosque, has intricate geometric designs. The most unusual aspect of this sight is the presence of a cathedral within the mosque, built after the conquest of the Moors and the unification of Spain in the 1400’s. The cathedral itself is gorgeous with beautifully carved mahogany choir stalls and interesting pulpits but its placement inside the mosque is part of the attraction.
   Other sights in Cordoba include the Alcazar de los Reyes Christianos (basically the Royal Castle) which has some Roman mosaics and some of the loveliest formal gardens we have seen thus far, attractively incorporating many varieties of flowers, well-manicured trees and shrubs, along with numerous ponds and fountains. Since the temperature was well over 100 degrees, we welcomed the shade and coolness.
We also walked down to the Puente Romano (Roman Bridge) and the elegant Plaza de Corredera (Photo #17), with its orange and blue color scheme. We checked out some of the many shops and wandered down attractive alleys such as the Calleja de las Flores (avenue of the flowers). 
    Our next stop was Seville, just a short distance to the south.  Our hotel was less than a block from the Cathedral (Photo #22), another of Europe’s magnificent churches and the largest Gothic church in Spain. The gilded decorations and exquisite woodwork, as well as the riches displayed in the Sacristy and Treasure are emblematic of the wealth of this important city. The Cathedral also claims to contain the tomb of Christopher Columbus, although there are several other places in the world which make the same claim. 
    That evening, we experienced some quintessential Sevillan culture with a night of Flamenco at El Arenal ((photo #18). The show was almost a full 2 hours, with beautiful, elaborate costumes and wonderful dancing. It’s another must-do in Spain!
    The next day, we met our cousin, Jill, who traveled by train from Torremolinos to show us the sights. She speaks fluent Spanish which made life very easy for us that day. We toured the Alcazar Reales (Photo #19), similar to the one in Cordoba, then strolled through Maria Luisa Park, which showcase several locations, the Plaza de Espana (Photo #21) and Plaza de America, which were erected for the World Exposition in 1929. The former plaza was used for a scene from Star Wars, Episode II. This plaza is beautifully designed and decorated with the azulejo tiles which are a trademark of Andalusia, the name given to this part of Spain.
    We strolled along the Guadalquivir River to see the Torre del Oro, then crossed over to Triana, a charming section of the city, where we enjoyed some excellent tapas, small servings of appetizers which, for many, substitute for a main meal. Returning to the hotel, we strolled the Santa Cruz (Photo #20) part of town, with its jumble of labyrinthine alleys opening to lovely squares.
    The next day, after Mass in the Cathedral, we took an unscheduled excursion into Portugal, less than 100 miles to the west. We stopped in an adorable little village just over the border, Vila Real de Santo Antonio.  In an excellent example of the seredipity of travel, the town was having a festival, with music on the main square — very lovely! We strolled the pedestrian-only streets and checked out a few shops before continuing to the larger town of Faro (Photo #23), further along the Algarve Coast. We walked along the marina section of town, then returned to Seville. 
    Leaving Seville the next morning, we headed first for Jerez de la Frontera, where we toured a Sherry Bodega (Jerez is the sherry capital of the world) called Real Tesoro Tio Mateo, an interesting and informative experience, then headed onto the Ruta de los Pueblos Blancos toward the fantastic little town of Ronda. Our hotel here was a real splurge — we stayed in the Parador de Ronda, one of the government owned historic facilities which are found around the country. This particular Parador is located on the edge of a gorge, right next to Ronda’s famous Puente Nueve ((photo #24). Our elegant and spacious rooms had balconies which looked out over the gorge and the beautiful mountains beyond.
    Ronda’s Bullring is Spain’s oldest (1785) and was small (intimate) and beautiful. Inside is the Museo Taurino, the bullfighting museum, which tells the history of the sport with special emphasis on Ronda’s own Pedro Romero, one of the greatest bullfighters of all time.
    We absolutely loved the charm of Ronda, but we were only staying one night, then moving on to the Costa del Sol and Jill’s home of Torremolinos (Photo #25). The girls went shopping while Eddie and I put on bathing suits and went down to the beach. We swam a little, but mostly enjoyed the feminine scenery on the beach where topless is not only tolerated but fairly common.
    For dinner, we went with Jill to Casa Juan where we sampled an incredible variety of seafood tapas — adobo (fried shark), boquerones (anchovies in vinegar), sardines, and mercado (grouper). All was delicious! After our early dinner we continued on to Granada.
    Granada is the home of one of the most exquisite buildings in the world, the famous Alhambra, which is really an immense complex of buildings, basically a walled fortress above the city. Reservations are absolutely necessary here, during the high season, since the number of visitors per day are limited. The Moorish architecture here is positively incredible! The walls, archways, and doors of the Palacio de Nazaries (Photo #26) are all delicately sculpted with what looks like arabic writing and intricate detail. From the Salon of the Ambassadors to the Patio of the Lions (Photo #27), all was carefully crafted and blended in with the entire structure. The Alcazaba (fortress) was formidable and its frequent towers offered great views of the city below.
   Another attractive part of the complex were the Generalife Gardens (Photo #28), an oasis of solitude and refreshing coolness, because of its many fountains and pools.
   Next we walked downhill to the old part of the city, visited the Cathedral with its unusual white interior, and the Alceceria, which used to be the local silk market, but is now a complex of shops. After dinner we began our seemingly interminable climb through the narrow alleys and stairways of the Albaicin (the Old Arab Quarter) to the Mirador of San Nicolas (Photo #29), a viewpoint near the church which offers a fantastic view of the Alhambra, across a valley and lit up at night. The place also appeared to be a gathering place for young people, some playing their guitars. It was magical!
   We moved on the next morning to our last destination in Spain, the Medieval, walled city of Toledo (Photo #31). One of Toledo’s native sons is the famous Spanish painter, El Greco, so many sights in the city are focused on him. We visited his home and museum, then saw the famous painting, The Burial of Count Orgasz (Photo #32)in the Iglesia de Santo Tome’.  We strolled the narrow, cobblestone streets and checked some damascene, jewelry and trinkets which are made by inlaying gold or silver into steel, producing a unique result. We also stopped for a few beers at the Plaza de Zocodovor, the main gathering place in the city.
   Our last day in Spain was spent checking out the rest of the city. We toured the Alcazar (Photo #30), located high above the city, which had an excellent display of weaponry, the distinctive city walls and gates, and the Cathedral, probably the most beautiful on our trip. The reredos, the transparante, and the choir stalls are all exquisite. Too bad they don’t allow photos to be taken inside.
   Lee and I then took a short excursion outside of town to the Parador, where we tried to duplicate the View of Toledo, made famous in the El Greco painting. The next morning we said adios to Spain.
      Lessons learned:
           1. This Spain trip was a good example of the necessity of delving into local culture to make a trip more meaningful. For instance, we had to see a bullfight and flamenco in Spain because they are essential parts of the culture.
           2. One experience in Spain made us understand why Americans are not necessarity welcomed in foreign countries. We were in a wonderful restaurant (Caballo de Rojo) in Cordoba, when a group of Americans were being taken to seats by the Maitre d’Hotel. They were saying things like "What do you mean, you don’t have non-smoking areas? We want a table where no one is smoking." Then they proceeded to ask our group and another nearby group if they smoked. These people were loud, rude, and obnoxious — the classic "Ugly Americans".


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