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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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