The Alpine Retreat – and perfect poached eggs …

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In three weeks we will be flying out to start a new adventure in Southern Italy and Sicily but it occurred to me that we often take for granted our own beautiful country. We were reminded of this on a recent weekend trip to Queenstown in the South Island. Our accommodation was at The Alpine Retreat, an elegant B&B, set in a truly stunning spot on the outskirts of the town, and run by our friends Gavin and Simone.

The flight down provided us with a spectacular geography lesson- especially from the top of the Southern Alps – bright blue and cloudless skies meant we could see the constantly changing topography with ease, and the snaps I took with my phone are surprisingly clear, capturing the snow-capped mountains, glaciers, the rocky terrain and the deep blue lakes.

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Once on the ground, the bracing mountain air smelled fresh and sweet as it swirled around our bare faces while we waited for our rental car. The trip to the The Alpine Retreat was easy from the Airport and on arriving we could appreciate the truly spectacular position in which the retreat sits, having only seen it in photos – simply breath-taking, especially on such a beautiful day.

Having been warmly welcomed by Simone and Gavin, we deposited our gear in the cosy and elegant guest room, while our friends took the large, well-appointed studio, which has a private balcony, providing the same stunning view offered by the main deck. Ready to explore, we set off to visit Moke Lake.  In the right light, the lake and surrounding landscape provide wonderful photo opportunities, mirroring the rugged terrain on the water, but the sun was too low by the time we arrived to capture it. These two snaps were taken the next day, when we returned for better photo opportunities – but the lake had iced over so its reflective properties were reduced. Note that there is a good walk that can be done around the lake.

Two weeks previous, our friends Franco and Sue, stayed at The Alpine Retreat and captured this amazing shot which they have allowed me to share.

Our first evening concluded with a six-course degustation dinner at Gantleys on the other side of Queenstown. It is a quaint place, seemingly in a time warp, but we were delighted to be led into an elegant dining room, to a table directly in front of a roaring open fire – top marks from me before we even started our meal, which did not disappoint. The courses were superbly prepared and well-presented, and the wait staff were excellent – a great way to end our first day in Queenstown for over 15 years.

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Each morning of our all too short stay I took a walk with Simone – the early morning was quiet, moody, envigorating and inspirational. The place seems to will you to get out and enjoy the benefits of walking in the clear mountain air and to be inspired by communing with nature – take a look –

In case you hadn’t noticed, the point of this post, apart from getting back into the swing of things for Italy, is to acquaint you with the excellent accommodation offered by Simone and Gavin at the Alpine Retreat. They are a vibrant, intelligent and entertaining couple, who go out of their way to make you feel welcome in their stunning home. As the photos show,  the position is outstanding, the home is warm and inviting, and the breakfasts Gavin serves are brilliant – his poached eggs are the best I have had in years! Not only that, The Retreat is perfectly placed for visiting nearby tourist attractions – we are not skiers so I will not be mentioning the great ski fields close by, but rather the other beautiful places which can be reached with a fairly easy drive. We had the most perfect weekend of weather – no snow – making for good driving, with clear sunny skies. The following are a few of the options for visiting when you stay at The Retreat:

Arrowtown – the historic gold mining town – such a pretty place and the history is fascinating…

Wanaka via Crown Ridge. We took the longer scenic route by accident, but were glad we did as the views from the Ridge were awesome.  Lake Wanaka itself is a picture-perfect location, surrounded as it is by mountains. The town feels vibrant and go-ahead, with a great array of places to eat, and stunning sights to see.

On the road up to the ridge

The views from Crown Ridge – chilly but spectacular

Coming into Wanaka

Spectacular views from the Lake shore

Picture perfect Lake Wanaka

The Cardrona Bra Fence ( Bradrona) A well-know tourist attraction along with the nearby Cardrona Hotel

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My hubby donating to a great cause

 

Gibbston Valley Winery – we have developed at taste for this label so a visit to the winery was a must – the ambience in the cellar was upbeat and it was very busy – we only went to purchase, not to imbibe, but would love to return to partake…

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Queenstown and Lake WakatipuQueenstown is built on the shores of the lake – superlatives are not enough to describe the scenic beauty of this area – you simply have to see it for yourself, and the place to stay when you do it is The Alpine Retreat – tell Simone and Gavin I sent you….

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Four very happy customers

Postscript – for those who love the snow, this is how the place will look when snow has fallen – photos courtesy of our friends Sue and Franco, taken two weeks before our visit – as you can see it is truly a winter wonderland!

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Rooms with a view (in Italy and Sicily) … two months and counting down!

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After a fabulous two months touring in France, Italy and Spain last year, we quickly developed a taste for more, and resolved to visit another part of Italy which we have yet see- Southern Italy that is, and of course Sicily.  Our itinerary is set and all things being equal, we will be picking up our car in Rome on August 29 and driving to Cassino – if you want to come along for the ride, we are off to the following places after Cassino : Sorrento, Naples, Praiano (Villa Horizon in Praiano–  a beautiful base for our week on the Amalfi Coast), Paestum, Matera, Tropea, Taormina,  Catania, Siracusa, Piazza Armerina, Palermo, and Pompeii ….. bring it on I say…

And by serendipity I came across this today – while in essence it is an advert for a travel company,  it is quite thought-provoking – especially since it encourages sensing the feel of the places we visit rather than ticking so-called highlights off a travel bucket list. The four of us prefer the first option – engaging with local people going about their daily lives, eating their regional cuisine and soaking up centuries of their history – and sharing the experience with close friends makes it even more perfect….

Famous 4 on way back to Ca Angeli

Having a laugh with a waiter in a Venetian piazza – it was he who took the photo for us.

 

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

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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.

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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!

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A couple of chics by the Lake in Beaulieu

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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.

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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….

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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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 an overload kind of experience and we had only limited time before we had to check out of the hotel, so sped around, cramming ourselves full of the huge array of art works on display. 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 vermilion before our eyes.

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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….

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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.

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Kim et moi in Paris

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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.

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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.

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Madrid – a little bit of culture

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Another great day in Madrid …

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Our next port of call was something of a surprise. We were off to see the Egyptian 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.

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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.

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Pretty buildings beside the Opera House


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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…

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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 ….

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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.

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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.

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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 ….

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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.

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The retable in the Capilla Mayor, Toledo

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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.

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

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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.

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Next post … a little more of Toledo

 

Marvellous Madrid …

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

 

Next post – our orientation to Madrid via private tour

Captivating Cordoba …

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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.

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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.

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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.

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