Relaxing in Reading, the New Forest and Los Angeles….

Tags

, , , , , , ,

Reading is the home of my dearest friend Kim and we are lucky enough to be able to stay with her and her family whenever we are in the UK. There is nothing better than being able to wind down with people you know, in an environment which feels like home and that’s how it is when we stay there. After nearly 7 weeks away from home, it was time for a few days catching our breath after our flight from Madrid.

Washing was the first task on the list and we took the next day at our own pace,  beginning with a 7km walk with Lexi, the gorgeous family dog. England is such a beautiful country with fantastic public walks and byways available everywhere, taking you through leafy lanes, pretty woodland areas, open fields – you name it, you can find it.

I have family in Bournemouth that I had never met, so the next task was to get on the train to Bournemouth and meet my nephew and his delightful family.  The train trip was pleasant and quick, but quite expensive. The family meeting went well, and despite worrying how it might go, we felt very comfortable with each other.

A bit of shopping in Reading was still to be done and we ticked that off our list plus a visit to the excellent Indian restaurant at the end of Kim’s street was a must. Then the real fun began – a weekend in the New Forest, staying at the charming Montagu Arms in the pretty village of Beaulieu.

p1090399 p1090400

The place is very traditional in style, and perhaps needs some refurbishment, but it is in an idyllic setting, the rooms are cosy and clean, it boasts a Michelin-starred restaurant, and also Monty’s Inn, the excellent pub where we chose to dine both nights we were there.

Once settled in, it was time for lunch. Steff’s Kitchen was the place to be and what a find. The selection of foods was impressive, the portions large and the place had a lovely feel. We determined to return for enticing cakes and coffee the next day.

While Kim’s husband attended to some business, the three of us went exploring in the village and wandered around the pretty lake. As we were in the New Forest, there were several horses grazing on the roadside near the lake, and even three very cute donkeys in the the town!

P1090414.JPG

A couple of chics by the Lake in Beaulieu

14642197_10208525835678263_4458290131411656911_n

After getting our bearings we decided to venture on to the Palace House and the Abbey Ruins. We paid our entry fee to see the House and grounds, but not the National Motor Museum. The house is no longer a full-time residence to the Montagu family and parts of it are open to the public, complete with living history guides (in our case the maid and valet were on duty) but we chose to “go it alone”.

The history of the house and the family is very well presented, and quite fascinating. The house itself is not palatial in my opinion, rather it was quite a warm cosy feeling. I loved the coloured vaulted ceilings, and the children’s playthings on display and the beautiful stained glass window. The grounds are immaculate too – obviously well tended.

p1090445

Palace House, Beaulieu

Having had a really good look at the Palace and taken in some of the family history, we ventured outside and walked to the Abbey Ruins. The abbey was built in the C13th century on land donated by King John and destroyed in the C16th at the request of Henry VIII. The history of the Abbey is available to view in the Domus, and is a fascinating watch. What was once the Monk’s Refectory survived and is now the Parish Church.  The ruins have a tranquil feel about them, and have been preserved with the aid of the Montagu Family, some of whom are buried there.

On our return the village, we had a real English afternoon tea in a very quaint teashop near the hotel – delicious scones with clotted cream for us and Victoria Sponge for Kim. I felt like one of the Famous Five….

14650599_10208525835878268_4209877076573199255_n

Pre-dinner drinks in the bar at Monty’s Inn set us up nicely for our dinner there. The menu choice was quite wide and we even found a nice New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc on the wine list.  We thought the Inn was ambient and comfortable, so we were happy that we had booked to eat there both evenings.

Saturday morning’s breakfast in the hotel, was in the very traditional dining room which is currently being refurbished. The new carpet was interesting with deer being a focus….! We took our time over breakfast – we had no reason to hurry as the weekend was all about taking it easy, and relaxing in each other’s company. It was precious time spent together.

14666298_10208544299539848_148339343735516492_n

Our plan was to walk to Buckler’s Hard, about 4 km away so we set off after breakfast under sunny skies, though it was a little nippy. The walk was pleasant – through woodlands and along the banks of the Beaulieau River – we envied the homes set on the river banks – very posh and in a perfect location. The river was calm and reflected the images of the boats moored there – idyllic.

p1090503

Buckler’s Hard was much smaller than we had expected – an C18th ship-building hamlet with pristine Georgian cottages leading down to the Beaulieu River – some of which are set up as they would have been when inhabited all those years ago.

img_1764

It took only a short time to see everything so we determined to return to Beaulieu, have a cake and coffee at Steff’s Kitchen and drive to Lymington.

By the time we reached Lymington, the weather had deteriorated, and when we began our walk through the main street, where the Saturday market stall-holders were just packing up, the rain set in. It was a pity because the town was delightful, especially down near the harbour, but the rain took the gloss off our walk.

Having returned to the Montagu Arms, we rested up a while and then went back to Monty’s Inn for another excellent meal. The Mushroom Risotto was delicious!

Sunday saw us enjoying breakfast at the Montagu Arms and returning to Reading to complete packing for our late afternoon flight to LA. The weekend away was exactly what we needed to recharge our batteries.  It was relaxed, and comfortable (and comforting) because we were with two special friends, and that again would be the case LA when we reunited with Roger and Frances.

I love LA! The weather is so good, and the shopping is amazing. I have generally left shopping to the end of our trips (usually in LA), because the variety is enormous, everything is so cheap, and it makes sense to keep cases light until the final flight home.

Each morning began with a walk from Redondo down to Manhattan Beach where we stopped at Peets for coffee and a Morning Glory muffin (to die for!). The walks always turn up something interesting to photograph – this time it was the Halloween decorations – such fun and lots of floral colour along the way.

Three of the four days we were there involved some pretty intense shopping (the refurbished Del Amo Mall has everything you could want), for ourselves, our daughters and our grandchildren – mission accomplished!

The morning of the day of our departure was spent at Griffiths Observatory – amazing, such views!  LA Live in dowtown was a perfect place to lunch on the way back home – we met a delightful would-be actor who waited on our table – very handsome, and with such perfect teeth. He reminded me of  a young Tab Hunter – I hope he succeeds.

Our flight departed late in the evening – it was a perfect flight too – it was bringing us back home to our girls, our gorgeous grandchildren and friends. Sadly, it meant the end of the magical Grand Tour, but all good things come to an end as they say – however, it also meant we could start planning the next one… watch this space.

Goodbye Madrid….the Grand Tour ends

Tags

, , ,

Our last day in Madrid was set aside to visit the Museo Nacional del Prado, with our “skip the line” tickets again being organised by the obliging Sergio. As luck would have it, our hotel was within in easy walking distance, so we set off after breakfast to arrive in time for the 10am opening. The walk in the early morning air was pleasant and gave us time to enjoy some beautiful buildings seen along the way, and the pretty church of San Jeronimo, which is opposite the Prado and also houses some works of art.

For me, the Prado experience was much more satisfying than the Reina Sofia. Again, it is not a pretty building but it contains an overwhelming array of amazing art works by Spanish, Italian, German, French, Flemish and British painters, plus decorative arts and scultpures. We saw many masterpieces – the Museum has an excellent information brochure which guides you to each and every one.  We saw works by Brueghel, Raphael, Titian, Tintoretto, El Greco, Caravaggio, Velaquez, Goya, Rembrandt – more. It was a overload kind of experience and we had only limited time before we had to check out of the hotel, so we saw as much as we could. Personally I am really happy I was able to see as much as we did, despite the crowds.

Pasteleria Mallorca was the place we returned to for lunch as we had enjoyed it so much the previous day. This time we managed to get a seat outside. Lunch was short and sweet as we had to return to the hotel and get ready for our trip to Madrid airport.

AC Palacio del Retiro served us well, and even gave us a late check out since our flight to London didn’t leave until 7.45pm. They were such an obliging team under Sergio’s guidance, the boutique-style hotel is classy and small, and the location is perfect for the exploring the city. When our taxi arrived we were pretty sure that all  the luggage wouldn’t fit in, but with the expertise of a practiced bellboy and the driver, the door closed, with all the bags stuffed tightly in.

Madrid airport is huge and somewhat confusing. We actually had to get an underground train to our terminal once we were checked in – but we got there in the end. The departure in our British Airways flight was delayed since the plane taking off ahead of us had hit a bird and the runway had to be checked. The delay had its benefit as the Madrid skies turned beautiful shades of vermillion before our eyes.

fullsizerender

Vermillion skies over Madrid

Spain was a new experience for all us. We laughed when we heard a tourist say “its very Spanish isn’t it?”, but on reflection she is right. It is quite unique – I thought it may be similar to France and Italy, but in my opinion not so – only Cordoba has the magnificent Mezquita….

p1080340

Southern Spaniards seem like a vibrant, warm and relaxed people, who know how to enjoy themselves. Southern Spain is sunny and dry, the  roads are good, and the place is chock full of amazing historic sites and churches which leave you open-mouthed, lost for words, and inspired. I fell in love with Valencia and Seville but each city we visited had so much to offer – The Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, the Alhambra in Granada, The Mezquita in Cordoba to name just a few.

With our last day in Spain, The Grand Tour with longstanding and trusted friends came to an end. While most of the time there were only the four of us, we had our dear friend Dave with us in the South of France, and my long time friend Kim and her husband Ivor met us in London and travelled with us to Paris. We all know each other so well, we travel easily together, and the shared experience creates wonderful memories which will remain with us always, and will surely often be discussed.

img_1193

Kim et moi in Paris

p1040789

Dave and Phil on the tiki tour train in Marseille

This is one of my favourite photos from the trip, taken by Dave – I think it encapsulates the joie de vivre inherent in our relationship….. and naturally it is taken in France, still my favourite place to be outside of New Zealand.

st-tropez

As a postscript, this tour came 8 months after I had neurosurgery – a craniotomy to clip an unruptured aneurysm. I had no idea if I would even make it through surgery, let alone do what we have just done. The trip had been planned for a while prior to the discovery of the symptomless aneurysm, and it was an incentive to recovery quickly. Luckily, due to the skill of my surgeon, my fitness and the fact I had no other health issues, I have made an excellent recovery and have no neurological deficits.

I have had a chance to spend quality time with my husband Phil, who has been amazing throughout my recovery. It was as stressful a time for him as it was for me. We have had a wonderful time together and I am looking forward to The Petite Tour to the Amalfi Coast and Sicily in 2017.

Leaving on a jet plane for home now….. will post about London and LA shortly.

p1060854

Madrid – a little bit of culture

Tags

, , , , , ,

I have to admit I am not an aficionado of modern art so I was a bit dubious about our first port of call, the Museo Reina Sofia, the Spanish National Museum of Modern Art where Picasso’s famous Guernica resides. The building itself is stark and unprepossessing and was formerly a hospital, but has a lovely interior courtyard.

We arrived well before opening time with our ‘skip the line tickets’, expertly organised by Sergio from AC Palacio del Retiro, and we were soon inside, heading straight towards the Guernica, before the crowds arrived. It is a large and moving piece, mainly greys, blacks and whites. While I confess to not understanding many of the works we saw, Picasso’s work resonated and I think I “got it.” The agony on the faces of the participants is clearly evident, depicting as it does the annihilation of the Basque village of Guernica, when it was bombed by the Nazis and Fascist Italians. We stood for some time contemplating the work, before moving on to explore the other modern art on offer.

I am afraid the works we saw did nothing to make me admire modern art works, in general. Obviously some do appeal and for me this is mainly to do with colour, but for the most part, the intention and meaning of the artist escapes me. Nevertheless, we did see as much as we could before we ventured on to our next appointment – the Royal Palace. No photography is allowed in Reina Sofia  so I cannot show you the types of works we viewed.

The Reina Sofia is close to the Atocha train station, the largest railway station in Madrid and  a very impressive building which Cecil had recommended we visit. I was surprised by the greenhouse-like interior concourse where a tropical garden thrives.  There is even a little pool with baby tortoises – very cute!

Cecil had implied that there were good places to eat there, but we were not tempted, so after a quick coffee we caught a taxi to the Mercado de San Miguel which we had seen the previous day with Cecil. It had intrigued us as we had spied some very tempting sweet treats there, but it was as busy as it had been the previous day, so we chose to eat in the shade at restaurant beside the market.

p1090217

Taxis are cheap in Spain and the Royal Palace, the official residence of the Spanish Royal Family (but now only used for state occasions) was a bit far to walk, so we took the easy route. Sergio had obtained tickets to The Palace for us, but they had to be validated at the Tourist Office which entailed a walk in the hot sun before we could enter, but we did see some pretty cute shops along the way.

p1090220

With our validated tickets we were able to skip the line and enter, having gone through a security check first. The enormous courtyard offers a great view of the Palace Facade, and also to the Cathedral which we had visited the previous day.

 

The palace is impressive, but understated compared to Versailles for instance, and sadly no photography is allow, beyond the Grand Staircase. It offers a glimpse of daily life of the Spanish Royal family,  both past and present. It contains some great art works, and Frances and I were particularly interested in how certain artists had depicted clothing of the day. The clothing of the female members of the Royal family was obviously lavish – velvets, silks and laces were painted with such artistry that you could virtually feel the textures of the fabric – this is the kind of art I understand, and because of that, it will remain a memorable visit.

Phil and I were eager to have a coffee at a place recommended by Cecil – Pasteleria Mallorca in Calle de Serrano, quite near to our hotel. Cecil was right – there was a wonderful array of both savoury and sweet food to choose from. We managed to snaffle a table and proceeded to selected sweet treats from the cabinet – delicious and the coffee was great too.  We sat in the window, watching as a waiter moved among the tables outside, tray in hand, offering selections to diners – very civilised!

Before returning to the Hotel, we took a further walk in the irresistible Buen Retiro Park, as there was much we still had not seen. It is so pretty currently, with many trees covered with burnished leaves, the harbinger of autumn.

 

We found the Palacio de Cristal and hoped to get inside, but it was being set up for an exhibition.

p1090325

The Park reminds me of the Jardin de Luxembourg. It is immaculately maintained, huge, well-patronised, and full of locals – happy family groups, young lovers, older couples walking hand in hand, and of course, tourists like us.

p1090287

We decided to push the boat out for our last dinner in Madrid and we dined at the lovely Bistro a block or so away.  The interior decor, was plush and colourful and quite quirky. Our waiter was attentive but not obtrusive and had a great sense of humour. The food was high quality and we felt the evening was a fitting way to celebrate our last night in a city which appealed so much to all of us.

fullsizerender

 

Another great day in Madrid …

Tags

, , , , , , , , , ,

The team we dealt with at the AC Palacio Retiro were brilliant, nothing was too much trouble, and in particular, a very pleasant young man named Sergio was extremely helpful. We mentioned we might like to take a private tour, and within minutes he was back, with one which we felt would suit us – four hours with a private driver, in a Mercedes – how could we refuse? … The cost was 75 Euro per person and it was very worthwhile.

p1090009

At 9am,  our driver and guide, the very dapper Cecil arrived in a beautiful black Mercedes, and proceeded to introduce us to Madrid. We were able to get out and take photos at many places, beginning (for the boys) at the home of Real Madrid – a pretty impressive arena which holds 80,000.

p1090006

Cecil was then keen to show the Gate of Europe (La Puerta de Europa) in the Plaza de Castilla. It comprises twin inclined office towers (Torres Kio) – they are very impressive.

p1090018

The Kio Towers in Madrid (Torres Kio)

Our next stop was the Plaza de Torres de Las Ventas bullring – an arena with an obvious moorish influence, and I loved the statues outside with the wonderful detail of the Matador’s costumes.

P1090029.JPG

 

Our next stop was something of a surprise. We were off to see the Eyptian Temple of Debod, set in a pretty  park which offers a fabulous view across the city to the mountains beyond. The temple was gifted to Madrid by the Egyptians in 1968 to save it from being lost forever because of the construction of the Aswan Dam.

p1090050

We  moved on to see the Teatro Real (Opera House) after taking in the view in the park housing the Temple.  The area around the Opera House is pleasant- very colourful and pretty.

p1090067

Pretty buildings beside the Opera House

p1090069

The Madrid Opera House – Teatro Real

The Catholic Cathedral in Madrid, La Almudena is a must see and Cecil gave us time to do this. It is a more modern Cathedral and is simple and colourful. I loved it and I enjoyed the fact that you could view the Virgin Mary by ascending the stairs at the far end of the Cathedral. It felt rather special.

Next we were off to see the covered market near the Plaza Mayor, Mercado San Miguel. It was jam packed with not only  fresh produce, fish, hams, and delicious sweet treats, but also with vibrant Madrilenos squeezed into every available space, standing and enjoying tapas and drinks – probably a Saturday lunchtime ritual.

Having driven through Puerta del Sol, past the famous Kilometre Zero among other places, our final destination was the Royal Palace of El Pardo – the place where Franco lived after the civil war. Again, we felt a little ambivalent about it, but Cecil offered to take us there (it is a little way out of the main city) and and we accepted.

Taking a tour like this is an excellent way to work out where you might like to spend your time, and while Cecil was not such a mine of information as other tour guides we have had, he certainly was easy to understand, he took us to the right places, and was very pleasant and obliging.

Post tour, we lunched at Ramses under large shade umbrellas and then it was time for shopping…

p1090366p1090168

I still had not had a really good go at Zara so off I went, but it was a complete shambles – both at 2.30pm when it was absolutely jam packed and again at 7.30pm when I went back thinking it would be quieter. It was a disappointing experience – it was messy and busy with very long queues for both the changing rooms and the till sovI gave up. For me, Zara in Paris is the best place to shop.

Phil and I dined around corner at the excellent Tierre del Queiles  and we completed the evening with another walk in the irresistible Buen Retiro Park.

Next post – The Galleries

 

 

Toledo again ….

Tags

, , , , , ,

The title of my previous post was “Tantalising Toledo” – why? Because it dangled the prospect of visiting the Alcazar in front of us. We could see it rising from its commanding location as we looked out of hotel room window, but when we arrived at opening time we were greeted with a sign advising it was closed “due to staff issues!” What a disappointment, and the free entry to the military museum on site, frankly didn’t make up for it, though we did take a cursory look.

p1080772

Toledo is famous for the beautiful swords manufactured there, both in past times and currently

The Alcazar dominates from its postition on the highest hill in Toledo, and was initially built by Carlos V as a Royal residence, but was never lived in by royalty. Its history involves devastating fires and it was almost destroyed in 1936, with reconstruction beginning in 1940.

Plan B was now on the table, so we went in search of the Church of Santo Tome so that we could view the famous El Greco painting, The Burial of Count Orgaz. While checking our map to find our way there, we were accosted by a well-dressed and friendly chap, who said he could direct us to the church, though he did seem to be sending us in the opposite direction. As we continued on, feeling somewhat unsure of the gentleman’s direction and wanting to divert, he came running up to us again, urging us on, and sure enough we came to a workshop were visitors can view jewellry etc.,  being made, and can then purchase pieces… lesson learned!

We eventually found our way to Santo Tome, and found outselves lining up with tour groups, whereupon entering the church, we inched our way forward patiently while the first line of visitors stood before the famous painting, as their tour guides enlightened them and then off they went. The guide leading the group in front of us rattled on for some time, but finally we stood before the painting, duly admired it and the burial site of Count Orgaz.  I must say the painting was impressive, but no photos were allowed.

In seeking out the El Greco Museum, we look our time to enjoy strolling through the shady lanes, looking at some of the attractive merchandise displayed,along the way – in particular a wonderful shop stocking local crockery which was like an Aladdin’s Cave – needless to say some euros were spent….

Having completed a little shopping spree we sought out the El Greco Museum and House in the Jewish Quarter.  In fact it was not the actual house of El Greco (aka Domenikos Theotokopoulos), but a re-creation, and  the separate Museum surely does hold some of his works, thanks initally, to patron of the arts, the Marquis of Vega-Inclan. It was an interesting wander through the house, cellar, gardens, and museum and after exiting to bright sunlight, we went to a nearby shady restaurant where we had a relaxed lunch.

p1080798

After lunch Phil and I continued our exploration of the Jewish Quarter – and went to view the restored Synagogue El Transito and its Sephardic Museum. The Prayer Hall is impressive.

We continued our exploring after the Synagogue visit and came across the massive Monastery of San Juan de los Reyes, which we didn’t enter, but we certainly noticed the shackles on the exterior walls , symbolising the liberation of Christian prisoners after the Reconquisition.

On our return to the Parador, we decided to go back into the town to have a very nice tapas dinner. Toledo is a town full of amazing history, outstanding monuments, and I forgot to mention that apart from its famous steel, it is also famous for its Marzipan. We did enjoy it, but left feeling disappointed that we had not been able to see the much-vaunted Alcazar…

Tantalising Toledo ….

Tags

, , , , , , ,

The drive to Toledo was much longer than the previous drive to Cordoba, but we arrived at the Parador (again situated on top of a hill overlooking the city) and we were blown away by what we saw.  It was like viewing a painting or stepping into a fairytale, as the city lay before us, with the Alcazar and the huge Cathedral rising up through the lower layers of buildings – a truly spectacular and panoramic view.

Excited by what we could see, we were keen to inspect our rooms and get out and about. Our accommodation did not disappoint – like the Paradors in Ronda and Cordoba, we had three separate rooms each, and ours had double aspect views to the city and the pool.

We took lunch on the terrace which offers a brilliant panoramic view, and headed off in a taxi where our first stop was the Plaza de Zodocover. Toledo has what Rick Steves likes to call a “goofy” tourist train (which leaves from the Plaza) – and Rick is right, but it serves a purpose and is pretty inexpensive, so we hopped on and duly did a circuit, the benefit of which is the stop the train makes to allow photos to be taken from an ideal viewpoint. It is easy to snap away while the train is moving too, though you need a steady hand.

Having seen the city, we formulated our plan for viewing the main sites, deciding to head straight to the  Gothic Cathedral, and leave the Alcazar the until next morning as it was getting late. There was no queue at the entrance to the church so we were soon inside. Yet again we were standing inside a truly magnificent structure, with a huge and unusally colourful altarpiece (retable) in the Capilla Mayor. The Cathedral boasts impressive and huge pillars, beautiful stained glass windows, and some fascinating side altars.

p1080718

The retable in the Capilla Mayor, Toledo

p1080705

p1080706

The retable is behind a reja, a decorative grilled screen

Directly opposite the Main altar is the outstanding choir (coro), but photos were not allowed at the time we were there. It had the most amazing carved choir seats.

El Transparente is an incredible Baroque work situated directly behind the altar, and is something you could stand transfixed by for a long time, trying to piece the story together, so the audioguide is useful, but with so much to see in the Cathedral, I tended to race through the guide and missed some useful information I am sure. The symbolic skylight above it, is literally awesome and the huge sculpture itself is a little overwhelming.

The Capilla San Blas (Chapel of Saint Blaise) is a chapel accessed via the cloisters, and has stunning restored murals – an absolute highlight because is so beautiful.

The Sacristy of the Cathedral doubles as a museum and contains fine art works. It has a magnificent fresco on the vaulted ceiling.

fullsizerender

It also contains El Greco’s famous altarpiece “The Disrobing of Christ”:

fullsizerender

You can’t see the Cathedral and not mention  C16th “Monstrance”processional -silver gilded in gold and it contains diamonds. It is pretty impressive…

Having done all we could do in the Cathedral, we returned to the hotel for dinner on the Terrace- a bit tuckered out after a long drive and a busy afternoon.

p1080758

Next post … a little more of Toledo

 

Marvellous Madrid …

Tags

, , , , , ,

Madrid truly is marvellous. I had no idea what to expect from Spain’s capital city, but I had heard others say they didn’t like it. We loved Barcelona and thought it might remain our favourite, but Madrid topped it. It is an elegant city full of wide boulevards,  pretty buildings, beautiful trees, stunning museums and galleries.  It felt a lot like Paris to me… I simply loved it.

p1090279

Alacala Gate in the Plaza de la Independencia

The journey from Toledo to Madrid is quite short if you go direct but we decided to go via the  Valley of the Fallen (Valle de los Caidos),  in the Sierra de Guadarrama hills. The setting is majestic, especially on a sunny day and the expansive view down the valley from the huge monument is amazing. The “crowning glory” of the monument is the 500 foot cross.

P1080974.jpg

The monument is actually a Catholic Basilica – the Basilica of the Holy Cross of the Valley of the Fallen, plus it contains the tomb of General Franco. The huge Pieta sculpture above the entrance is rather moving but I found entering the Basilica quite eerie -in fact I felt rather ambivalent about being there since 34,000 of the fallen are buried there and the place was partially built by convicts, some of whom were political prisoners.

P1080990.JPG

After having lunch at a sunny roadside cafe, we ventured on to a place near Madrid airport to return our reliable Renault Grand Scenic – it took us over 4,000kms  from Milan to Madrid without a hitch, and again reinforced our belief that Eurolease is the way to go when doing a long trip like ours. We had a long wait for a taxi to take us to our hotel because of traffic congestion caused by an accident. The poor taxi driver seemed somewhat stressed but he proceeded to stuff our bags into the back of his taxi despite us thinking they would not all fit.

fullsizerender

Our accommodation in Madrid was the AC Palacio del Retiro– a boutique style hotel in an absolutely perfect location opposite the enormous and fabulous Buen Retiro Park. The Prado and Reina Sofia within easy reach too and if you don’t feel like walking taxis are inexpensive.

P1090334.jpg

Buen Retiro Park across the road from the AC Palacio Retiro

After settling in with help of one charming Sergio, we wandered through the beautiful park across the road. It has a pretty artificial lake offering rowboats for rent – a well used facility on both our visits to the park.  The lake is presided over by a large statue of King Alfonso XII and also boasts the Palacio  de Cristal built in the late C19th.

fullsizerender

The artificial lake and monument in Bueno Retiro Park

We chose to dine in the hotel’s elegant dining room/bar and the food was excellent. Sergio had arranged a private tour for us the following morning, and we retired knowing we had made and excellent choice of hotel in which to base ourselves for exploring Madrid.

p1090346

Beautiful stained glass windows in a stairwell in the AC Palacio del Retiro

 

Next post – our orientation to Madrid via private tour

Captivating Cordoba …

Tags

, , , ,

Cordoba was bewitching due, for the most part, to the fabulous and unique Mezquita (also called the Mosque-Cathedral of Corboba, or the Great Mosque). The drive from Seville to the Parador in Cordoba was surprisingly quick and in no time we were being shown to our spacious Junior Suite – three huge rooms with a wraparound terrace, looking out over the town.

 

The Paradors on this trip have met our expectations each time – all three have been in outstanding positions providing amazing views and this one was no exception. Once settled in we took a quick lunch on the expansive deck overlooking the best hotel swimming pool I have seen. We were on a mission as we had only the afternoon to see the Mezquite and get our fill of the town before we left for Toledo.

We took a taxi down to the Mezquita, had no issue buying tickets, and off we went, never expecting it to be as spectacular as it is. I have no superlatives to describe it – I could have spent hours, open-mouthed in the astonishing double-arched Prayer-Hall. The mosque was built originally in the C8th, and construction of the minaret began in the C9th. After the conquest of Cordoba in the C13th the place was consecrated as a Catholic church and the main Christian chapel was added in the C15th. The building combines Islamic and Christian architecture, including arches, columns and domes, plus of some wonderful Christian icons. Its transformation through history stands before the visitor – its architectural differences, its elegance, its beautiful filtered light, its tranquility and much more, will be indelibly etched in our memories. It is now a World Heritage site and rightfully so. All of us came away with the knowledge we had seen a unique and living treasure.

The Great Mosque-Cathedral of Cordoba also boasts a wonderful bell-tower, previously a minaret, the remains of which are incorporated in the tower. We contemplated climbing it but we were short on time, and felt satisfied we had the climbed the one in Seville.

p1080331

We couldn’t be in Cordoba and not wander through the Jewish Quarter. They have been fascinating wherever we have found them in Spain. I love strolling through the tiny shaded alleys in these beautiful places – it is  often more real than what you see in the crowded tourist areas. In particular I wanted to find the little street famous for its beautiful blooms in summer –  Calleja de las Flores and I found it, but the flowers sadly were not in bloom since it is really autumn. Nevertheless the street still presented a pretty picture.

p1080509

The Jewish Quarter provided some other lovely photo opportunities, and despite getting a bit lost when we were trying to find it, we were rewarded when we stumbled upon it.

Our time in Cordoba was short, but it will remain a top highlight – the Mezquita is something that stands alone in its magnificence.

p1080348

Our only evening  in Cordoba was spent on the balmy terrace at the Parador before we left again for a longer trip to Toledo…

 

 

Seville – the Cathedral and the Alcazar

Tags

, , ,

After our orientation tour with Pepa, we knew what we had to do – the Cathedral and the Alcazar, so we got up early to beat the queues – except we didn’t. By the time we got to the Cathedral, the queue was rather long, which meant a half hour wait in the already hot morning sun. We could see that the queue for the Alcazar was of a similar length, so we just stood waiting, chatting to a couple of women from North Carolina – fierce anti-Trumpites!

Pepa had walked us through the free part of the Gothic Cathedral on the previous morning, so we knew we were in for a treat. The High altar, the Retablo Mayor, is simply spectacular. Set behind a high iron grill, it dazzles nonetheless – absolutely incredible.

The Cathedral has many side chapels, a huge choir stall and of course the wonderful Christopher Columbus tomb – well, the small coffin that carries some of his remains. It stands magnificent within the Cathedral and is a drawcard for many.

p1080035

The Christopher Columbus tomb

p1080037

The coffin is very small

I always find the side chapels in these large cathedrals fascinating as they contain wonderful religious icons and Seville Cathedral is no exception

During our visit there was an exhibition within the cathedral which offered the chance to see some more icons and some of the stunning robes worn by priests – such fabulous needlework.

The interior of the church overwhelms like many other of the fabulous churches we have seen on this journey and it will remain memorable.

The Giralda, the bell tower of the Cathedral, was previously a minaret when it was a C12th mosque (the Cathedral having been constructed a couple of centuries later, where the Mosque once stood). We decided to climb the 35 floors to the top to view the city. The climb up was easy enough, as no stairs are involved. The way up is via a ramp, making the five trips per day to call the faithful to prayer easier for the Muezzin…. The vista the tower provides makes the climb worthwhile and we were glad we were there early, because the descent was somewhat of a crush with many more people ascending at the same time.

After lunch we set off for the Royal Alcazar  (a World Heritage site)- the line was much shorter than it had been in the morning for which we were grateful, as the sun was incredibly hot. The Alcazar is beautiful and peaceful and somewhat reminiscent of the Alhambra.  It has a tranquil appeal to it and the stunning Maidens’ Courtyard will linger in my memories of the Palace along with the beautifully kept gardens. The architecture is a mix of Moorish and Gothic styles, called Mudejar.  I will let the photos tell the story.

We loved our time in Seville – for me it ranks with Valencia for its ambience, colour and vitality. I loved every minute of it – our accommodation, the food and the glorious sunshine – it was a real highlight for me.

Next post – Cordoba.

Sunny Seville …

Tags

, , , ,

Being in sunny Seville was so satisfying. On this trip we have managed to cram in as much history as we possibly could, so much so that I have sometimes felt as if I am in a kaleidoscope  – being bombarded with colour, sounds, (church bells in particular), delicious aromas, and so much history. Seville served us up a huge platter to sate our needs – the Cathedral, the Alcazar and much more – its colour, vibe and incredible history.

For three days we based ourselves in the historic centre at Hotel Alminar. It is small, well run, clean, and right in the hub of the action, so perfectly placed for exploring this glorious city. A couple of hundred steps takes you to the Cathedral and then on to the Alcazar – it is right there in front of you, and the rest of the old town is walkable.

After settling into our new place for the afternoon, we were resting up getting ready to celebrate Frances’ birthday – but I could hear the marching band we had seen earlier, on our first quick walk around the town – so I went to investigate, iPhone in hand,  and to my delight, the band was leading a huge religious procession. I waited on pavement, in the heat of the late afternoon sun, crushed in amongst the locals – young and old, many of whom seemed to know people in the procession. Women of all ages who stood around me flicked out their fans with a practised twist of the wrist, and I was glad to be next to an elderly lady who was fanning furiously – her breeze was wafting my way.

The piece de resistance of the procession  was something I have been longing to see -a float (paso), bearing an enormous elaborate image of the Virgin, carried on the shoulder of men wearing what looked like sackcloth swathed around their heads and shoulders to protect them from the weight of the huge float. The locals were getting more excited as it came closer and as she passed by there was much gasping and clapping. I felt privileged to be amongst it all – it was mesmerising and so worth the wait in the heat.

The day was completed perfectly with a very good birthday dinner at a fusion restaurant called Gusto, which we found at the end of the lane. The ambience was great, the service was excellent, the menu really suited us and the food was superb.

The next morning  we took a walking tour with a very competent guide called Pepa. She was well versed in the history, and for several hours kept us interested and engaged with what she was showing us. We walked quite a distance  over the length the tour, but it is such a good way to acquaint yourself with what to see and do in an unfamiliar town.

Starting at the Cathedral, we headed on to the river, then San Telmo Palace (now the seat of Andalucian Government), the impressive Plaza de Espana, the iconic Hotel Alfonso XIII and back to the old town, through the Jewish Quarter, completing the walk back at the Cathedral.

After lunch Phil and I took a walk past the famous Bullring and over the river to look back at the old town, stopping to cool off with drinks at a shady riverside bar.

The evening meal was at a fine looking establishment recommended by Pepa, very close to the hotel but it was disappointing. The evening picked up however with a brilliant Flamenco show at an establishment just a couple of doors down from the hotel – it was one of the most energetic and astounding dance performances I have seen.

p1070985

Next post – the Cathedral and the Alcazar of Seville