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Trip Report From Portugal to the Pyrenees and onto Paris

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Our 3 week trip this past April from Portugal to Paris was ambitious as far as the distance traveled and the logistics involved in covering those miles. But as we approach our seventies, we feel the need to fit in as many of our bucket list destinations as we can on each trip. Somehow, that darn list, instead of getting shorter, seems to be lengthening as we add more places we'd like to see while we are still able.

We have travelled to Europe from our home in upstate New York several times over the years. After spending a year in Germany while my husband was stationed there in the Army back in the sixties, Europe became our favorite destination, even though there were often many years between trips as work, kids, and financial restraints got in the way. Now that we are retired, however, we try to plan an vacation somewhere in Europe every year. On this trip, we wanted first to return to Portugal which we visited last year, specifically to visit Sintra, Porto, and the Douro River Valley. After Portugal, we planned a visit to San Sebastian in Spain and then the Basque region of France before heading to the midi-Pyrenees to follow some of the famous Tour de France routes. Then we were off to the town of Ceret in the Pyrenees-Orientales in southeast France, a town that captured my imagination when I read a brief description of it while researching vacation rentals. After 5 days in Ceret, we would head to Paris, which we have visited 5 times and always love.

PLANNING - Trip planning is one of my favorite hobbies, and I often start planning the next vacation a few days after we return from our last one. I usually start with the Michelin Guide for the area plus a few other guidebooks to get a sense of the premier sights and their locations. Then I go to the Fodors Forum to research how Fodors travelers experienced these places.

Once I have an idea of where we want to go and in what order, I work on the logistics of how to get from place to place. Typically, we combine train travel with car rentals. We use trains to go long distances or between major cities, renting cars on the outskirts (usually at airports) to negotiate the countryside and small towns. The older we get, the less we like to drive anywhere challenging but we know that having a car is often necessary to really see some of those out of the way places we love.

Lodging is something I give a lot of consideration to these days. As we get older, we tend to spend more time relaxing in our own space, so we want that space to be a satisfying part of the vacation, reflecting the ambience of where ever we are. I try to find a room with a view, either of life on the street below or of a lovely bit of scenery out our window. That way, after a day seeing the sights, we can sit with a glass of wine and continue to enjoy the area around us. Advice from Fodors Forums, Tripadvisor reviews and other review sites are good resources and we usually end up in good places. Often we alternate between hotels and rentals of apartments or small houses. When we rent, we enjoy cooking our own meals. Marketing and then preparing meals with local ingredients is a great way to add to the experience of an area, plus a break from restaurant meals is not a bad thing now and then.

ITINERARY :
Flights - American to Chicago then Iberia to Madrid and onto Lisbon
Sintra - 2 nights
Porto - 1 night
Douro River Valley - 2 nights
Obidos - 1 night
Night Train - Lisbon to San Sebastian, Spain
San Sebastian - 1 night
St Jean de Luz, France - 3 nights
Loudet - Midi Pyrenees - 3 nights
Ceret - Orientale Pyrenees - 5 nights
Paris - 2 nights
Flights - American to Philadelphia and onto Syracuse

Too ambitious but it was a wonderful vacation. Next post, I will try to give some details that might be helpful to others in their trip planning.

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    Kansas, I had never heard of Ceret before I stumbled across a description of it while researching apartment rentals, as I said. But I knew right away it sounded like a perfect town for us to visit on this trip An artists colony in the early 20th century, its picturesque squares and small side streets still glow with the golden light that attracted the likes of Picasso and Matisse. Although it has a very helpful tourist office in the center of town, tourism doesn't seem to be the dominant force like it is in some other similarly attractive villages. Ceret feels authentic, with lots of traditional character, so it was easy to feel we were living like locals for the five days we were there. We wished we could have stayed longer.

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    One of my most memorable travel stories took place in Ceret. We drove into town and wondered why it was so crowded. We got to within site of our hotel but were turned down to a side street by the traffic cop. Turned out we got there only moments before a big parade started - it was their town festival. We were therefore stuck in a square within a circular parade route that continued for hours! Two of us left the third in the car and walked to the hotel, checked in and then we watched the parade until we were finally able to drive out to the hotel and park the car. Will never forget Ceret.

    I'm looking forward to your trip report - especially the San Sebastian and St Jean de Luz parts as I'm presently planning a trip to that area next summer.

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    Next time you need to visit O Grove in Galicia! I went for the first time to Galicia this past October, I have been wanting to go for ages, and what really set my mind to it was when I last year on Spainsh tv saw a clip from the Seafood Festival in O Grove ( yes LOVE food).

    Had the best of times, everything so much more economic in Galica in comparation to Barcelona where I live since 16 years, I´m originally from Sweden.

    Warm regards,
    Sara
    Appetite & other stories

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    Isabel, after one night in San Sebastian, we decided it was one of our favorite cities in Europe. Unfortunately, we only had one night there, which was probably the biggest error I made in planning this trip.

    Sara, I just looked up O Grove in Galicia. Looks like our kind of place. We need to go back to Spain, revisit San Sebastian and explore Galicia.

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    OFF TO A SLIPPERY START & FLYING IS NO FUN!

    The day before our departure, we drove to the airport to pick up a rental car. Lately, we have arranged for an airport rental so we don't have to pay for long term airport parking or recruit family or friends for a ride, usually in the early morning hours. The car rental cost this time was remarkably cheap, somewhere under $20 for a compact car at Hertz. Then, surprise! We were upgraded to a luxury class Chrysler 300. We would have a classy 30 minute ride between home and the airport. Except, the next morning, Mother Nature intervened with a freshly fallen layer of April snow and the luxury car, with rear wheel drive and no snow tires, almost didn't make it up the hill out of our driveway. Hey, we live in the hills south of Syracuse, New York, so we know all about driving on snow, but my husband pronounced this the worst driving of the whole winter. Maybe the snowplows had all been put away for the season, because even the interstate was super slick.

    But we made it to the airport after a white knuckle drive, ready to begin our wonderful journey, with our newly issued Global Entry-TSA Pre Check documents in hand. Unfortunately, the PreCheck lane was closed when we went through security so our new status was not that advantageous. Belts, shoes and jackets all came off. But hopefully, on the way home, the effort we made, filing out the applications, traveling to Buffalo for the interviews, and the money spent on this special status would pay off and we would re-enter the USA free of long lines and hassle. Let's hope.

    The flight to Chicago was on time even though the plane needed de-icing. Yes, using American Airlines frequent flyer miles, we almost always fly to Chicago from Syracuse on our way to Europe. Seems like we are going backwards to move forward, but it works out.

    The Iberia Airlines flight was also on time but we were dismayed when we settled into our assigned seats. We don't remember having such cramped quarters on a plane in a long time. My husband's knees were jammed into the seat in front of him. When the passenger ahead put that seat back it was claustrophobic. Plus the seat backs were configured in such a way that there were fairly wide gaps, allowing the person behind to have a unobstructed view of the person opposite in front. I don't know, but I like a little privacy when I'm squirming around trying to survive an overnight flight. It's often pretty undignified. I know I probably sleep with my mouth wide open. On the plus side, there were plenty of movie choices on the seat back screen. Unfortunately, the provided earphones had poor quality audio and it was hard to hear the dialogue. Add to that, no beverage service except a glass of wine with dinner. Dinner and breakfast were both pretty lame. Bottom line, we probably won't fly Iberia again if we have a choice.

    We landed in Madrid in the early morning. Frantic, hectic deplaning, long lines at customs, long distances to travel to our Lisbon connection caused some stress. And then there were the dreaded security lines to be navigated before we could access Iberia's Lisbon departure gate. Security here was close to chaos. Everyone was surging through at top speed in order to make connections. There were panicky faces, lost shoes, frenzied tossing of varied possessions into plastic bins, then more frenzied repossession of the bits and pieces sent through the x-ray machine to hopefully be repacked on the other side. Steve set off the walk through machine and had to be patted down. No idea why. We made the Lisbon flight with only a few minutes to spare. The relatively short flight ended with a windy, shaky landing, but at last we are back again in Portugal ready to begin our long anticipated adventure.

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    BACK AGAIN IN PORTUGAL - SINTRA AT LAST

    Last year, we traveled to Spain and Portugal, then back to Spain from Lisbon for 2 nights before flying home. Our last night in Portugal was supposed to be spent in Sintra, which we were really looking forward to seeing. But as we prepared to check out of our rental apartment in Lisbon, we got a message from TAP airline. Our flight to Madrid the next day had been cancelled. TAP pilots were on strike. Of course, panic set in as we first tried to call the airline only to hear a recording telling us that due to high volume, calls could not be answered at this time. About then, the kind young woman who was in charge of the apartment arrived to pick up our key and offered some very good advice. She suggested that we go to the TAP office downtown for help. She wrote down the address for us to give the cab driver and off we went. The office was mobbed when we got there, but we finally figured out that we needed to take a number, only to find out that there were 122 people in front of us. We settled in for a long day. Finally, we were booked on a flight to Madrid leaving early the next morning. We were thankful for the flight but disappointed that our overnight stay in Sintra was no longer possible. We cancelled our Sintra hotel reservation and stayed in Lisbon for one more night. Right then, we decided to return to Portugal the next year so we could finally make it to Sintra.

    And here we were. After exiting the airport, we had an easy cab ride to Lisbon's Rossio Station, where the lines for Sintra tickets were long but moved quickly. We made the next train. I don't remember much about the ride except that the train was packed full and the view out the windows was mostly of large housing complexes which were not very attractive. But finally, we pulled into the Sintra station, and with the good directions provided found our way to the Chalet Saudade, our hotel for 2 nights. Arriving at noon, we had 3 long hours till check in, and we were pretty exhausted. Three hours seemed like 3 years but we forged ahead. Lunch at Cafe Saudade, sister cafe to our hotel, was light and good. We both ordered spiced pumpkin lentil soup, plus a ham and cheese sandwich for Steve and a mini spinach pie for me.

    Revived somewhat, we headed for the Palacio Nacional. Because it would be closed tomorrow, this was our only chance to see it. Tired and jet lagged as we were, we liked it a lot. For me, it was a much smaller version of the Alhambra we had enjoyed the year before in Granada minus the beautiful gardens. Each room was a visual delight, with painted ceilings, pretty tiles, and great views out of many of the windows. The only disappointment was the kitchen closure due to renovations. We had heard that the kitchen with its monstrous chimneys was quite a sight. Unfortunately, it was not for us on this day.

    Steve's dry throat needed a beer after our walk around the palace so we settled into a sheltered table at the Cafe Paris opposite the palace on the main square. Good beer, a glass of rose for me, a nice view of passersby, and lots of friendly attention from a seemingly genuinely happy maitre'd made for a good break. After a walk back to the train station for our tickets to Porto two days from now and a stop to pick up water, etc., we finally checked into our room and took a much needed nap. The bed was comfortable and heavy wooden shutters blocked the light. The 150 year old house, near the train station, with a lovely courtyard and pretty lounge rooms, was a good place for us to stay.

    After our nap and a shower, we headed out for dinner. It was early, Just 7:00 pm, and we were the first customers at the Restaurant Regional. Decorated attractively, mostly in shades of white with a sprinkling of color, the restaurant was near our hotel in the less touristed part of town. The maitre'd, who was also the waiter and probably the owner, presented us with iPads as menus which worked great. We didn't touch the bread offered but we did finish the olives and the little cheese filled buns that were brought to the table (both delicious). Our meal began with a shared house salad, then Steve had lamb in red wine sauce and I had bacalhau with tomato, cheese, and potatoes (like homemade chips). I guess bacalhau is an acquired taste and I think I'll give up trying to acquire it. I tried it a few times on our previous trip to Portugal and just kept hoping I would like it more next time. Steve, however, said his meal was the best he'd ever had in Portugal. After dinner, we headed back to our hotel for some much needed sleep.

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    Candace, I am enjoying your trip report. We are in our 60's; my husband is almost 70, so I understand what you mean about a bucket list and trying to do everything while we are in good health & shape. I admire you for tackling such a long trip, and so many destinations!

    I haven't been to Portugal yet, but definitely want to go there within a few years. We have been to Barcelona; and I am currently planning a trip to Madrid and Andalucía for October 2017, to include Madrid, Toledo, Granada, Seville, Cordoba and perhaps Ronda. Did you have any favorites on last year's trip to Spain? Where did you go? Any advice?
    I like your style of planning a trip. Good advice and suggestions. Do you prefer an apartment over a hotel? When renting an apartment, do you miss not having hotel staff to ask for advice re sightseeing, restaurants, etc?

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    Karen, I'm glad you are enjoying my report. Unfortunately, I never got around to writing a report for our trip last year to Spain and Portugal. It was a great trip and we loved Spain. After landing in Madrid, we took the train to Córdoba for our first night. We saw the Mezquita the next morning. It was amazing. Next, we traveled by train to Granada for two nights. Of course, the Alhambra was our focus there and it is absolutely beautiful, especially the Nasrid Palace and the gorgeous gardens. From Granada, we traveled to Ronda for one night. Ronda's setting is spectacular, above a deep ravine, but in retrospect I would pass it up and add a third night to Seville which we loved. The city is so beautiful, especially in the old barrios where we were constantly getting lost. We were there during the April Feria when women young and old dress up in their colorful ruffled dresses and the brightly decorated carriages fly by on their way to the festival grounds. Fun to see. We ran into celebrations again when we spent our last day in Madrid on May 1st. Parades and big crowds, but we enjoyed all the pomp and circumstance complete with mounted cavaliers and lots of music.

    In answer to your question about apartments and hotels, we really enjoy our rental stays as a way to settle into an area and live a little bit like a local. Generally, in Europe, when we arrive at a rental we are met by either the owner or their contact person. That person generally offers a really enthusiastic welcome full of information about the area and they are always ready to answer any questions. It is sort of like having our own personal concierge, as they are always just a phone call away. Also, most rentals have guest books that previous guests often fill with extensive tips on local restaurants and sights, so there is no lack of that type of information. That being said, hotels can be more convenient as far as checking in and checking out goes. A hotel stay doesn't require prior arrangements as to time of arrival etc. which a few times has become somewhat complicated with a rental.

    I hope I've helped. And I hope you have a great trip to Spain when you go.

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    SINTRA CONTINUED

    Last year, when the TAP strike ruined our plans to spend our last night in Portugal in Sintra, we were disappointed. As we checked into a hotel for our unexpected fourth night in Lisbon, we mentioned to the receptionist how we had missed out on visiting Sintra. He replied that one night was not enough to spend there anyway, and we should come back for at least two nights. And we are so glad we did. It is a beautiful place. Our first afternoon there, walking from the train station, jet lagged, up to the old center of town in a drizzle of cold rain, we kept saying "This is beautiful!" The curved walkway leading up to main square and the Palacio Nacional overlooks the town and green vistas, and is punctuated by marble statuary along the way, each unique and lovely. High above, the crenelated walls and towers of the Castelo dos Mauros are outlined against the sky, making a dramatic statement anytime we look up. The town center itself is dominated by the yellow and white Palacio Nacional with its unique twin chimneys. The forested hillsides below the Castelo reveal small castles and turreted mansions among the trees, sort of like a magical kingdom.

    So, in the morning, which was sunny and cool, we set out to visit the Pena Palace and the Castelo dos Mauros. We lined up by the train station for the bus that travels the circuit of major sights. The first two buses to pull up to our stop filled up as we waited our turn. When we finally boarded the next bus there were no more seats available. The packed bus lurched its way up the steep hill as we clung to straps and bars. When we finally reached the Pena Palace, there was another line to buy tickets. If its crowded in Sintra in April, it must be crazy during the summer.

    The Pena Palace is an extravaganza of deep red and orange towers, turrets, and terraces, set off against the brilliant blue sky above. A child with a box of big bright crayolas might have designed and colored the fantastic scene before us. Taking in the twisted columns, cartoonish carvings, and various patterned tiles, we walked the wall with all the views in every direction, some even of the distant sea. Moving inside , we enjoyed the interior, with rooms fit for nineteenth century royalty, luxurious, filled with rich color and lots of opulence. I was especially taken by the candelabras in the shape of full sized Persian princes holding their tapers high. Exiting the palace, we walked the pretty grounds on our way down to the Moors Castle, where the view down to town was wonderful. We walked half way around the castle wall until the scary heights combined with the lack of railings discouraged us from going further. We headed out to the road to catch the bus back down the hill.

    We had a good dinner that night at a restaurant near our hotel, the Restaurant Apeadeiro. A more casual establishment than the place we ate the night before, it was busier by far. (I did a TripAdvisor review if anyone is interested.)

    After dinner, we walked the promenade up toward the town center. It was so worthwhile to spend the night here. The crowds are gone and everything is bathed in gorgeous light. The sculptures along the way are mostly marble and glow, seeming almost to come to life. And the Moorish Castle floats above, surrounded by backlit clouds, shining like the gates of heaven. It seems to hover there in the sky.

    It is our last night at Chalet Saudade. We have been comfortable here. And I have to comment on the breakfasts, which are included with the room and are served in the Cafe Saudade around the corner by the "Cuban" as he calls himself . You are offered a menu which includes great and varied choices and the Cuban provides plenty of amusing conversation. It's a great way to start the morning.

    The next day, after our generous breakfast which included enough bread, ham and cheese for lunch, we head back to the train station. Off to our next stop, Porto.

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    Candace, thank you for responding to my question about the places you visited in Spain and about hotels vs apartments. Your response is very helpful.

    I love your description of Sintra! You should be a travel writer!

    Visiting in April sounds like fun with all the festivals. But I assume hotels and perhaps restaurants might be more expensive at that time. Did you find this to be true?

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    Thanks, all, for your kind comments. Yes, Karen, festivals do cause higher lodging costs but the increases weren't drastic in Seville. We spent two nights at the Apartmentos Suites Santa Cruz for two nights and although I can't remember the exact cost, I know we wouldn't have booked it if the price was too high. The apartment was an annex of the hotel, and the high point for us was the large private terrace with a view of the cathedral. At night, we stretched out in the lounge chairs and watched the kestrel Hawks diving like tiny shooting stars around the illuminated cathedral tower. Magical.

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    Having returned a few days ago after three weeks travelling in the north of Spain and Lisbon, your report is so timely for me! And so well-written and filled with detail. Please keep on..I will eagerly await the next installment.

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    NO PORT IN PORTO BUT A DELICIOUS DINNER

    We caught the train from Sintra to the Oriente Staion in Lisbon, where we boarded another train to Porto. The three hour ride in second class only cost 12 euros but you get what you pay for sometimes. It was a long three hours in uncomfortable, crowded seats and the toilets were nasty. Not much decent scenery on the way although we did pass by the sea a few times. But things looked up when we took a cab from the station and found our hotel easily after the cabbie let us off a block or so away. Our hotel, the Ribeira do Porto, was right on the riverbank, in the Ribeira district. The district is full of color, with eccentric old buildings jammed together, funny old boats bobbing down on the river and the music of various street performers thumping away. Our hotel room turned out to be the perfect place to experience it all. Our room, number 31, was a corner room with a wrap around balcony. From the balcony, we had a great view of the river and the Pont d Luis. We could have just stayed put and watched all the action, but we decided to walk across the bridge (on the lower level) and visit a port house for a tasting on the other side. Unfortunately, that didn't work out. The recommended spot had no English tours available so late in the day. Never the less, we did enjoy a good long walk on a nice sunny day. When we got back to our hotel, we asked the young man at the desk if he could recommend a good place for a light meal, or maybe just tapas. He could, and sent us to a place right across the square, Jimao Tapas e Vinhos.

    Our expectations were not high for Jimao Tapas e Vinhos but the friendly greeting as we stepped through the door made us feel welcome. The restaurant is small and there were only two tables free when we arrived but the hostess fussed over us, worried that the table by the door might be too drafty. We settled in and ordered four tapas to share: sausage cooked in honey, garlic, and balsamic vinegar, an omelet with sardines, asparagus toast with cheese and ham, and finally cheese toast with tomato jam. Each dish was unique and delicious. Great wine enhanced every flavor. And the young wait staff, obviously very well trained, were knowledgable and enthusiastic and just a joy to watch in action. They struck just the right note, even when turning unhappy customers away from their very full restaurant.

    Back in our room, the view from our balcony was glowing. The bridge sparkled with white lights, the waterfront and the river shimmered in gold, and the Cathedral across the way was lit up in turquoise and yellow. We hated to eventually close the curtains and go to bed.

    We took a cab to the airport the next day to rent a car. Europcar employees won our customer service award for this trip. The young man and woman at the rental desk worked long and hard trying to enter our remote and probably obscure destination for our first night on the road into the GPS. Finally, they called the hotel themselves and got the coordinates entered.

    So we were off. The GPS worked perfectly most of the way but some glitch (shortest mileage maybe) eventually took us up and over the mountains on incredibly steep and winding roads, instead through the valley on the normal, straight and level, but maybe less direct highways to our destination. Finally, in a remote little village high above the valley, the sweet and refined female voice giving us her steady straightforward directions, finally lost it and began taking us in circles which dead ended in narrow lanes with no place to turn around. The views were fantastic, as we were high above the Douro Valley in truly rural countryside. But we were really lost. Finally, after driving by him a few times, we asked a local man for help. He wrote "2 km" in mud by the roadside with a stick and waved us off in the right direction.

    The Casa do Visconde de Chanceleiros, when we finally found it, was worth the drive. Extensive gardens, immaculately cared for, surrounded the antique farmhouse. Our room was spacious, with a wisteria covered patio overlooking the distant hills. The weather was sunny and mild. I could have sat in that garden for days except this was, unfortunately, the last sunny and mild day.

    Dinner was served each night in a glass enclosed veranda with a sweeping view. Dinner the first night was pork tenderloin in a creamy wine sauce with mashed potatoes, carrots and broccoli. Shrimp bisque and marinated sausage with olives were starters with a burnt creme pudding for dessert. It was all very good and after a short stroll around the garden, we headed for bed, looking forward to the next day when we would head down to the Douro Valley and travel up the river.

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    Ekscrunchy, I have often noted your comments and followed your trip reports, especially regarding travel in Italy, where we are planning to go next April. Thank you for your kind words.

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    THE DOURO RIVER FROM PINHAO to POCINHO

    We had read that the train trip from the little town of Pinhao along the Douro River to Pocinho at the end of the line, was the best way to see the section of the Douro everyone believes to be the most scenic. In the morning, clouds and rain smudged the view from the glass enclosed veranda where breakfast is served at the Casa do Visconde but we decided not to let the weather alter our plans. After breakfast, we headed down the steep, winding road to Pinhao. The train station at Pinhao was pretty, covered with blue, white, and yellow tiles depicting local scenes. The train at Pinhoa, because it is a local line, does not require reservations. We bought our tickets and climbed on board when the train pulled into the station. We knew that seats on the right hand side would provide the best views of the river and there was no problem finding seats on the right hand side. The problem was that most of the windows by those seats were covered with graffiti, which completely obstructed the view. Even though the train was not crowded, we went through two or three cars before we found unoccupied seats with clear views through unpainted windows. Then, as the train pulled away from the station, the rain intensified and raindrops smeared those windows, further obstructing the view. But we peered out as best we could, through the rain, and we knew from what little we could see that we wanted to see more.

    It was then that the angels who sometimes look out for travelers intervened, and the sky began to clear, the rain stopped, and eventually the sun even came out. In clear view now were the steep riverbanks, with vineyards and olive groves sharing the territory. There were few structures except for the occasional Quintas, both new and prosperous, and ancient and delapitated. The river current was strong in places and the banks were mostly rocky, with occasional trees and sandy eddies. We saw a few lone fishermen with long slender poles and wondered what they were trying to catch. We passed by a few little stations,mostly deserted. One, however, was quite charming with white fences and climbing roses. Closing my eyes, I could image it as a setting for a romantic nineteenth century love story.

    But charm disappeared as we approached Pocinho. The train left the river bank for a ways before it pulled into Pocinho station. Disembarking, the first things we saw were smoke stacks spueing white and gray smoke into the cross winds, maybe from a cement factory beyond the tracks.

    We had two hours to kill before catching the train back to Pinhao. The little station had a tiny cafeteria that closed soon after the train came in. Obviously, serving train passengers was not a high priority. We asked the conductor, who might have been the cafeteria's only customer, if there was somewhere we could eat lunch in town. After first trying to sell us a 20 euro cab tour of the "city" with a female cabbie who was obviously a friend of his, but who was very unfriendly to us, he pointed us in the direction of the only (I think) cafe in town. In a nicely renovated building, the cafe was clean and basic. No one there spoke English but we ordered as best we could. Steve had red peppered pork with little fried potatoes and rice. I ordered a salad which came with delicious sweet onions and a really good vinegrette. Sharing, we had a nice light lunch. As we were lingering over coffee, the aforementioned cabbie parked her car on the street in front, came into the restaurant, frowned at us, and made her way into the kitchen. Obviously, she is a daughter of the restaurant family. We don't know her story, or the source of her unfriendliness and never will, but maybe we should have taken that 20 euro cab ride and found out a little more about life in Pocinho. Or maybe not.

    Taking advantage of the sunny, mild afternoon, we walked back to the station and were soon on the train returning to Pinhoa, enjoying the lovely views as we chugged along in the opposite direction.

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    Karen, the overnight train from Lisbon to San Sebastián left Lisbon's Oriente Station at 21:34 and arrived in San Sebastián at 10:53 the next morning. With the time difference between Portugal and Spain, it was about a twelve hour trip. Traveling on this overnight train was an unique experience. We were glad we did it but don't think we would do it again. I will describe the experience later in this trip report. We traveled from San Sebastián to St. Jean de Luz by train and then rented a car to travel to Loudet and then Ceret. We dropped the car off at the Perpignan train station and traveled by train to Paris, where we spent two nights before flying home.

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    Our 5 days in San Sebastiàn, 1 in Bilbao, and 1 in St-Jean-de-Luz were just spellbinding at the end of September. We are so grateful to live close enough to drive right back there again sometime soon. I don't think I've eaten as well as we did in St-Sebastiàn anywhere else we've traveled in Europe. What a lovely, lovely place! And if and when we do get around to leaving this corner of France for a nice little pied à terre in coming years, St-Jean-de-Luz beckons.

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    StCirg, we couldn't agree more! What a mistake, budgeting only one night of our trip in San Sebastián, an absolutely gorgeous city. Unfortunately, we were only able to enjoy one meal there. All the more reason to go back. Thankfully, we did have three nights in the St-Jean-de-Luz area. We rented an apartment which was actually in Ciboure right across the little fishing harbor from St-Jean-de-Luz and we just loved it. We also really enjoyed driving through the countryside with those picturesque little towns like Ainhoa and Espellette. I wish, like you, we could just drive right back there. Since we spent a week in the Dordogne, we have always dreamed of a having a place of our own in France. It must be wonderful.

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    Candace, there is always so much more to see. We live here and can hop around pretty easily, and still we feel we can never, ever get to it all. It's really frustrating, especially considering I started all this European travel 40 years ago and pretty much never stopped. i need to live to be 400 to do all that I want to do, even at my doorstep! Ech.

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    Candace I am riveted by your report. I am head over heels in love with San Sebastian and that is where I would have my dream European home. (Or at least that is what I've decided today; who knows where that dream home will be tomorrow!) We spent 5 nights in San Sebastian on this recent visit, which was my third to the city. I wish I could return every year! I will look forward to the details of your train ride, as it sounds like a good way to fuse Spain and Portugal in one trip. (I think I mentioned that we flew to Lisbon from Bilbao, which worked out well also but was just a quick flight and not an "experience.") There is just SO much to see in Spain, never mind the lovely Pays Basque.....

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    Aussie, I love planning trips. The only thing I am ever really sure of when I start is the general destination. Putting together the particular destinations and sites and connecting the dots from place to place is often a puzzle of sorts. When I finally have it solved, l know it looks good on paper. Hopefully, it all works out in practice.

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    Candace, I apologize for asking more questions about your trip last year to Andalusia. I checked out the website of the Apartmentos Suites Santa Cruz in Seville where you stayed. Do you remember if they have an elevator? How many floors? It looks like a wonderful place to stay in a great location.

    Do you remember where you stayed in Granada and Cordoba?
    Thank you for taking the time to answer my questions!
    And I am looking forward to the rest of your trip report!

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    StCirq, you are right, of course, there is never enough time. It is frustrating, but it is also a challenge to make the most of that time with every opportunity. It sounds like you have been doing that for 40 years. Like you, I know we will never see all there is to see but I am thankful we can keep trying.

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    Ekscrunchy, San Sebastián really took us by surprise. Even though I had researched it pretty thoroughly, I was not prepared for how truly beautiful it was. The city is elegant. That is the word that comes to mind when I think of it and our short time there.

    But the overnight train from Lisbon was far from elegant. It was an "experience" but not necessarily one I would recommend for everyone. Flying is probably quicker and easier.

    Bilbao and the Spanish Basque Country is definitely on our to do list. We knew we couldn't fit it in this time, but we will be back.

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    Karen, the Apartmentos Suites Santo Cruz did not have an elevator. In fact, the apartment we stayed in was up two flights of narrow stairs, as I remember. There was a young man who helped us with our bags. The apartment was a great place to stay. We loved the terrace and the location was really good. Plus, the young people at the reception desk were friendly and helpful.

    We are currently out of town so I don't have the names of the Córdoba and Granada hotels right at hand. I will get that information for you when we get home.

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    ON TO OBIDOS

    The next morning, we left Casa Do Visconde de Chanceleiros in the rain, headed to Obidos. As we drove south over the mountains, the rain was mixed with snow. Because the weather was just downright nasty, we decided to forego a stop at Tomar,

    a place I had hoped we could fit into the itinerary, and instead we drove directly to Obidos. Directly, however, turned out to be not very direct at all. Peeling down the superhighway, about an hour from our destination, neon signs appeared above the road. We were almost clueless but Steve somehow figured out that the highway was closed ahead and we needed to exit. Eventually, that was the only thing that we could do, as the road abruptly ended. Our GPS lady, soft spoken as she was, was beside herself, telling us to turn here and turn there. We were not the only people lost and confused. All around us, cars were circling, stopping on the roadside and asking each other, and even us, for directions. We could see the direction we needed to go, and finally, after a few confusing passes through towns that didn't even show up on the maps, sweet Ms.GPS finally latched onto the correct route and we we were off again on our way to

    Obidos was not high on our list of places to see in Portugal. We have seen other well preserved medieval towns throughout Europe that have been just so weighted down by hoards of tourists. They are pretty, for sure, but some of the life seems squeezed out of them. But Obidos on this trip was in the right place at the right time. It was in the perfect jumping off point for our last night in Portugal before catching the night train to Spain. We booked the Hotel Real d'Obidos.

    The Hotel Real d'Obidos is located outside the town's wall. I have learned that ease of access is important when booking a hotel in small medieval towns and villages. Driving into a walled town, with streets designed for foot traffic only, is sometimes beyond stressful. As we get older, we try to find less stressful options. Hotel Real' d Obidos was easy to find, and even had a parking gara

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    even had a parking garage.
    (Wow. Not sure what happened there. Just typing along and suddenly the post was submitted.)

    Our room had a view of the castle wall and the tower high above. After all the rain, the sun came out and everything brightened up, including our moods. After settling into our room, we climbed the stairs and were soon through the main entry into the town. Unfortunately, it was the Sunday of Chocolate Festival weekend. The streets were so crowded, it was hard to make any progress, so we decided to head back to our hotel and explore the town the next morning.

    Where to have dinner with crowds like that was problematic. It would probably take forever to get a table. But surprise, it started to rain yet again and the town cleared out dramatically. We made our way to the restaurant ranked number 3 in town by TripAdvisor, Taxa Torta. We were seated right away, even though the restaurant was quite small. Dinner was good. I had a delicious chicken skewered with sausage. Steve had skewered black pork, a bit on the tough side but tasty. As rain shimmered again on the cobblestones, we walked back to the hotel, hoping to get a good nights sleep before our big day tomorrow.

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    WAITING FOR THE TRAIN

    The train to San Sebastián didn't leave until 21:34 from Lisbon's Oriente Station. So when we woke up to a sunny morning in Obidos, we had the whole day ahead of us to see and do as much as we could before we dropped the car off at the airport and headed for the train station.

    The breakfast at the Hotel Real d'Obidos was extravagant, from fresh squeezed orange juice to hot sausage and eggs, fresh fruit, all kinds of breads and cakes, cheese and sliced meats, and the crowning touch, warm pastel de natas delivered by a waitress to each table. To be honest, all our breakfasts in Portugal have been extravagant to us. Normally not big eaters in the morning, we tried hard not to overindulge when tantalized by so much temptation. Not always easy!

    After breakfast we walked up to the main gate into Obidos and headed down the Ruo Direita toward the castle, which is now a pousada. To the left of the castle, we accessed the ramparts to enjoy the view out over the countryside, then meandered through the little side streets and back on to the main thoroughfare near the small church square. With its white houses trimmed in blue and decorated everywhere with flowers, Obidos is a pretty place. We did a little souvenir shopping on our way back to check out of the hotel and then drove up the highway to the town of Nazare on the coast.

    Nazare is noted for its huge waves, and there were some big ones crashing on the beach this cold, bright morning. We found a parking space on the street that runs along the beach and walked a ways up to the funicular that heads up the cliff side to the upper town of Sitio. The view of the coastline and the town from Sitio was worth braving the powerful wind that swept the belvedere at the cliff's edge. We had a simple lunch in Sitio on a little patio protected from the wind before we left for our next destination, the monastery at Alcobaca.

    Alcobaca is a very large religious edifice that stands impressively in the center of town. We entered through the cathedral door, struck by the austere and soaring interior. After the ticket counter, we turned left and passed through the Gallery of Kings on into the cloisters surrounding the garden. Impressions of darkness and shadows broken by soft light then sunlight, followed us as we circled around. Religious allegory? The monks kitchen was huge and fascinating with gigantic open fireplaces. So still and cold now, but imagine how it must have looked, and smelled, in full production, feeding hundreds of monks.

    Because we had the deadline of the rental car return, we hurried through the last of Alcobaca. As it turned out, we arrived at the Europcar drop off at the Lisbon airport with only a few minutes to spare. Then it was off to the taxi line that stretched around the front of the airport. Finally, we got a taxi that dropped us at the Oriente Station where we had hours to kill before we could board the night train to San Sebastián. Oriente Station was designed by a prize winning architect for the Worlds Fair in Lisbon. It is large and impressive to look at with soaring sail-like elements throughout the design. But I don't think you could call it people-friendly. Its interior is totally open to the elements, with the wind blowing through the open entries and around it's dull gray concrete arches. Maybe that is good in the heat of the summer but if it is cold in mid April, it must be freezing in the winter. There are three levels and only a few escalators at each end. The waiting rooms are glass enclosed cubes here and there. The Gran Class tickets for the night train, however, allowed us the use of a special glass enclosed waiting room which was at least warm. It took us awhile to find a place to eat in the station. We wanted to sit and relax over a light meal and kill a little time. Most places, if they had tables at all, had them set up out in the cold. Finally we found a place with nice looking inside seating but we were told that if we only wanted to order a sandwich, we had to eat outside. We asked the young server what we had to order to score an inside seat. She didn't seem to understand but thankfully her boss came along and kindly helped us stack our luggage in a corner, offered us inside seats, and brought us a menu. We ordered hot sandwiches and wine, which seemed to quality for upgraded seating and we enjoyed our dinner. Our sandwiches were the famous Porto Francesinha, served with or without a fried egg on top. Steve got the egg. I didn't. Not health food but those sandwiches tasted great.

    We still had a few long hours after dinner before the train arrived at this station at 9:30. We headed to the special waiting room and hung out, watching the clock. Finally, the night train arrived and we climbed aboard.

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    I am waiting with anticipation to hear about your overnight train ride! I believe you said it was an adventure, but you wouldn't do it again.

    Your descriptions of Portugal make me want to go there SOON!

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    Karen, we came home yesterday from a visit to our daughter in Virginia to find 20 inches of snow in our driveway. Fall was gorgeous here this year and the temperature was close to 70 a few days before we left. But we knew winter would eventually arrive and now it has, with a vengeance. Oh well, only 5 months til spring.

    I promised you the names of our hotels in Córdoba and Granada. In Córdoba we stayed at the Hotel Las Casas de la Juderia. We traveled to Córdoba by train after we landed in Madrid, so by the time we got to the hotel, we were exhausted. Thankfully, we were able to check right in. Our interior room opened to the upper walkway around the enclosed courtyard so with the drapes closed it was the perfect place to nap for a few hours, which we always do after an overseas flight. Freshening up after our nap, we enjoyed the beautiful bathroom, which was fitted out with marble, emerald green tiles, mirrors, gilt, and scented soaps. We hadn't expected anything so luxurious. Nice! That evening, we decided to have dinner right at the hotel. As I remember, our meals were a combination of good food and not so good, but the restaurant itself was lovely, in a beautiful room with soft candlelight and music. Very romantic. After dinner, we walked around the old Juderia area and down to the river.

    Our hotel in Granada was the Hotel Shine Albayzin. We splurged for a suite (number 302) with a view of the Alhambra and the splurge was worth it for us. Down a narrow little alley not far from Plaza Nueva, the taxi driver had quite a time getting us to the front door. We entered into a lobby situated in the interior courtyard of what was once a grand home. The courtyard rises three or four stories, with the rooms arranged around the perimeter. Our suite on the third floor (and yes, there is an elevator) had two Juliette balconies looking out onto the tiny street and a bridge over the little river, and up to the Alcazaba of the Alhambra. Day or night, there was so much to see out those windows. One afternoon, a handsome young man set up a table on the bridge where he sold poems he wrote for whoever stopped to buy (mostly pretty young girls). The next day we watched a photo shoot involving several young models, both male and female, on the narrow stairway across the bridge. And always there was the Alhambra above, flying brightly colored flags during the day and beautifully lite up at night. We originally had wanted to stay at the Parador on the Alhambra grounds but I think the Hotel Shine Albayzin worked out better for us.

    Hope this helps.

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    Thanks, ekscrunchy, what a great title!

    ALL ABOARD FOR THE NIGHT TRAIN

    When planning our 2015 trip to Spain and Portugal, we had considered taking the night train from Lisbon to Madrid, but ultimately decided that flying TAP between the two capitals would be cheaper and easier. Turned out, after the TAP pilots' strike, it was neither. So this time, when we discovered there was a night train to San Sebastian from Lisbon, we figured that this might be the perfect way to travel from Portugal to Basque country. So, here we were, climbing on board, clutching our Trenhotel tickets purchased online. Soon we found the private Gran Class compartment that was to be our little bed-sittingroom for this trip through the night.

    I knew this train would not be the Orient-Express, but I was expecting something a little grander that the actual reality, I guess. Not that it was dirty or shabby, but it was just so basic and kind of drab. However, there was a tiny ensuite bathroom, which was a real bonus in the middle of the night, even though getting to it from the top bunk became a feat requiring both balance and coordination.

    So we settled into the two seats in our little compartment. After a bit, the porter knocked and offered to make up the bunks. We gladly accepted his offer. Steve watched, amazed, as he turned the small space with two seats into a tiny space with two bunks and a set of collapsible steps. When he left, we wearily changed into pajamas, brushed our teeth at the little sink and climbed into bed. I should mention that we each received a little pouch of amenities, including toothbrush, toothpaste, comb, shampoo, soap, and even slippers. Once our suitcases were stowed away they were not easy to access, so we took advantage of some of these handy little toiletries. In fact, stowing suitcases in this compartment, even though we only travel with carryon luggage, was a bit of a challenge, as I remember.

    When I say we climbed into bed, I literally did, as I took the top berth, which seemed very high up even with those collapsible stairs assisting my assent. Lights out, we finally settled down for one of the most unusual night's sleep we've ever had. Shake, rattle, and roll became the theme song running through my head. We literally bounced back and forth and up and down all night long. I had visions of what it might be like to be trapped in a giant popcorn popper or to be the little steel ball in a very large pinball machine. Somehow, we finally fell asleep. Maybe the wild rocking became so familiar it was finally soothing. And to be fair, I think once the train crossed into Spain, the tracks became a little smoother. Then, in the pitch dark at 4:00 in the morning, Steve's cellphone started ringing. Immediately, fears of an emergency at home had us wide awake, lurching around in the dark trying to locate the phone. Thank God, no emergency, just a misplaced call from someone who was not aware that Steve had retired a year ago.

    How we ever got back to sleep I'm not sure but suddenly it was 7:00 am and, opening the curtain, we saw morning dawning in Spain. With almost three hours still to go, we took our time getting dressed, a difficult feat in the top berth, then went to find breakfast. We were disappointed there was no dining car on the train, but we ended up in the bar car where we ordered a petit dejeuner. Before we knew it, the porter was warning us that we would soon be arriving in San Sebastian. We lined up with some other passengers by the exit door as we came into the station and were soon in a taxi on our way to the beautiful Hotel de Londres y de Ingleterre, where we would stay during our wonderful 24 hours in San Sebastian.

    As I have said, the night train was an experience I am not sure we will repeat anytime soon. It was certainly different and it was not a bad thing to fall asleep in Portugal and wake up the next morning in Spain. If we were younger, it would have seemed like a real adventure, I think. But comfort is more important the older we get and we did not have a very comfortable night's sleep. That said, we do have the memory of a quirky ride through the night, from country to country, and I don't think we will soon forget it!

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    Candace, very interesting and well-written report. Portugal remains on our list of places to explore. Not sure we'd enjoy that overnight train, though! Thanks for sharing so many interesting details.

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    Candace, thank you for the names of the hotels and your wonderful descriptions!

    Enjoyed your description of your overnight train ride! We took an overnight train once from Krakow to Prague; a very interesting experience. I agree that you don't get a good night's sleep, and at our ages, too, we are more concerned about comfort. But it's fun to do at least once!

    I notice you mention that you travel with carry-ons only. How do you do that for a 3-week trip? I know I pack too much, but I can't imagine only bringing a carry-on. What size is yours? Mine is quite small. Think it would only hold a few changes of clothing and toiletries. I need to learn to pack lighter but can't imagine getting everything into a carry-on for a 3-week trip. When we go next year to Spain, we will actually be gone for a month because we will spend the first 2 weeks with our daughter in France.

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    Thanks, tomarkot. Portugal is a great country to visit. I just opened my December issue of Travel and Leisure magazine and found that Portugal was named their "Destination of the Year", based on its cultural riches, affordability, and everything else it has to offer.

    Karen, it does take some planning to travel with carryons only, but it is worth it if you can do it. We each have a Travelpro rolling suitcase (approximately 20x10 inches) which is designed to qualify as a carry on. We also each have a small collapsible nylon backpack. Everything we need for a three week trip can fit into these four pieces of luggage. Actually, there are many Fodorites who advocate for carry on luggage only and if you search on "packing tips" you can find some great advice. I generally stick to a black and neutral color palette with a few brighter tops and accessories so everything can be mixed and matched. And it does help that we rent places on every trip that have washing machines. On a European vacation, I like to feel good about how I look and I try to dress well in order to fit in, although I know I will never look like a Parisienne. However, on this last trip, as we were strolling together in Paris, we were twice approached and asked, in French, for directions. Maybe we did look like we belonged.

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    Looking forward to hear about your great 24 hours in San Sebastián, my favourite since the late 1980's. Have lived here and visited almost every year the past 30 years, and for your future visit, I can give tips about most things here based on your interests.

    A fun intro to the spectacular San Sebastián food scene. Starts, of course, right in front of your hotel: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OwmBAvqa_0U

    A fine presentation of the town: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_C4IjsVKvAA

    And more pintxos: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WowXrGJdFCU

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    Kimhe, I really enjoyed the YouTube videos on San Sebastián. Thank you for the links. We know there is so much there we missed, especially the food. Next time, we plan on staying at least a week. I will definitely contact you when we are planning our return visit.

    Loncall, I am glad you are enjoying my report. Thanks for the encouragement to keep on going with it.

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    LOVELY, LOVELY SAN SEBASTIAN

    The city of San Sebastian reminds me of a stately and sophisticated nineteenth century lady, the kind of noble lady whose full length portrait would hang in the drawing room of a fine little palace. Elegant and refined, the city carries itself in my memory like royalty. With its balconied buildings lining the streets in perfect form, with its various bridges spanning the river with such grace, and with its many gardens so impeccably groomed and ornamented, it felt truly aristocratic to me. Then there was the brilliant sea and the curved and sandy beach, with its beautiful promenade like a necklace on the throat of the bay. The hills and the island beyond were the crowning touches, as we fell in love with this lovely, belle-epoque place.

    So why were we here for only one day? Good question. When I was researching San Sebastian as a stopover on our route from Portugal to Basque country, I kept running into words of caution regarding the weather there in the spring. Chances were it would be cold and rainy in April. Except that it wasn't. It was sunny and pleasant. Except for a very brief little shower, it was sunny all day. The next morning was just as nice. I usually don't worry about weather when I'm planning our trips. I wish I hadn't worried about it in this case and scheduled more time in San Sebastian. But now that we know we love this place as we do, we will come back and see much more of it along with the rest of the Spanish Basque country we missed.

    Our hotel in San Sebastian, the Hotel de Londres y de Inglaterra, was our splurge hotel for this trip. The grand lobby created a great first impression which was further enhanced by the people at the reception desk who greeted us warmly. Even though it was only 11 am, they said our room would be ready in an hour, which we truly appreciated. We took advantage of the opportunity to speak to the woman at the concierge desk with questions regarding transportation to St Jean de Luz the next day. She was very helpful, and also gave us some ideas of where to go for lunch. After a walk around the promenade we made our way to the funicular, which raised us high above the city and its bay. Truly spectacular, the views stretched for miles in every direction and helped us to further realize what an amazing place this was. After enjoying the walk back around the promenade, we stopped to have lunch at a beachside cafe. We ordered a sandwich and a seafood appetizer, but there was some sort of mixup and we waited a long time after the appetizer was served for our sandwich to arrive. It was about then that the brief rain shower passed through, so we packed up half the sandwich, paid our bill and went back to the hotel to check in.

    When we opened the door to our room, we knew this room was worth every extra euro we paid. A large glass door framed a superb view of the wide beach and the sea, the promenade, and the old town to the right. Outside the door, a small balcony gave us the space to enjoy even more of our surroundings. The changing scene below was endlessly fascinating. There were a few hardy souls heading into the waves for a swim. Dogs were running joyfully on the sand, among the kids kicking soccer balls. Well turned out ladies strolled arm and arm, taking advantage, along with bicyclists and joggers, of the wide promenade. When it turned out that Steve was feeling under the weather and didn't want to go out for dinner, I was not as disappointed as I might have been to be missing those pintxos I had been so looking forward to sampling. Relaxing for the rest of the day in that beautiful hotel room, watching the world go by in San Sebastian, was not a terrible fate. The sandwich left over from lunch became our dinner, and we watched the sunset turn the beach and the sea pink and gold, then deepen those colors into glorious reds and purples. If we had gone out to dinner, we might have missed that magical scene. No number of tasty pintxos could have made up for that sunset.

    Steve was back to normal the next morning, and we ventured out into the old town looking for coffee and croissants. We found a very pretty little coffee shop/bakery and where we could enjoy our coffee and watch passersby rushing off to work. On our way back to the hotel, we wandered some of the side streets, past some enticing little shops and interesting restaurants which hopefully we can visit next time. Both of us kept commenting on how clean San Sebastian was. The streets had been washed down and there was no trash to be seen. The flower beds didn't have a flower out of place and the beach sand had been combed smooth and pristine. Amazing.

    We decided to walk to the station to catch the train on the way to St. Jean de Luz. It was an easy walk and although we hated to say goodby to San Sebastian, we looked forward to experiencing the Basque country of France.

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    Candace, I LOVE your description of San Sebastian! It is better than the guidebooks! You really should become a travel writer.
    I am looking forward to the rest of your report!

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    Thanks for your encouragement, Karen. San Sebastián is one of the most beautiful cities we have visited in Europe. Being enthusiastic as I described our visit there was so easy.

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    The whole time we were in San Sebastián the word "elegant" was in my head. Being an old, possibly jaded, European hand at this point, it's hard for me to squeal in delight at a new place, but we did just that in San Sebastián.

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    ON TO ST. JEAN DE LUZ AND OUR CIBOURE APARTMENT

    The trains from San Sebastian to St. Jean de Luz via Hendaye were cheap and easy to negotiate. The only excitement we encountered was in Hendaye on the French border. Three young men, who appeared perhaps to be from the Middle East, got off the train ahead of us. One of them asked the station master for directions to the train to St. Jean. The station master waved toward a building across the street and the three were headed that way when they were stopped by two French policemen. One, an imposing blond woman, was in uniform. She could have been central castings perfect version of a modern day Jean d'Arc. Tall, large in the sense that she looked very strong, she was impressive. The other was an older man in plain clothes, with a buzz cut, a gun, and a no-nonsense demeanor. We heard them question the men about their nationalities and then ask them for their papers. We went on into the station. We got onto the train to St. Jean but those three, presumingly detained by the police, never did.

    The taxi from the St. Jean station to our apartment in Ciboure on the fishing harbor took five minutes and cost ten Euros. Oh well, it would have been difficult to find on our own, so probably it was worth it for us to take a cab. The apartment was on the second floor of a building in a working warehouse zone, and I was startled at first to see that the area seemed so industrial. Forklifts traveled by occasionally on the asphalted area in front. There was a large ice machine directly across that the fishing boats used to fill up with ice on their way out of the harbor. There was a long low shed around the corner where the fishermen's wives sold fish every morning. Steve bought fish there twice, cleaning it himself and cooking it for dinner. It was morure (or hake) and it was delicious. Anyway, it did not take us long to feel comfortable living next to the fishing port. The apartment itself had large floor to ceiling windows that looked out onto the water. Fishing boats left the harbor in the morning and came back in the afternoon, although some left in the late afternoon and were out all night. We had a front row seat on all the comings and goings. One afternoon we walked up to the main warehouse to watch boats unloading their catch. One man proudly unstacked his plastic bins so we could see his fish. There were several different types, carefully laid out on beds of ice.

    On the afternoon we arrived in Ciboure, all the markets and little groceries were closed for lunch till 3:30, so we found a cafe in town for lunch. Steve ordered whitefish with creamy risotto on a red pepper sauce which was very good. I had a plate of ham, sausage and pickled peppers which was also good. After lunch, we walked across the bridge to St. Jean and did our grocery shopping at a little supermarket. Of course, we also had to find a bakery for a baguette and a pastry shop for some special goodies. When we were well supplied, we headed back to our apartment, where we cooked our first home cooked meal of the trip.

    The next morning, we took a bus to Biarritz where we rented a car at the airport. It was a pretty straightforward drive back to Ciboure, where we found parking directly in front of our apartment building, out of the path, we hoped, of the forklifts. That afternoon, we set off on foot to explore St. Jean de Luz, which is a very walkable little town. It is also a pretty town, from the beach to the Place Louis XIV. We were lucky enough to stumble upon the street market outside Les Halles covered market and bought some beautiful produce for dinner. We also visited the tourist office where we picked up some helpful maps, etc.

    In 1660, the marriage between Louis XIV and Maria Theresa of Spain took place in St. Jean de Luz at the Elise St. Jean-Baptiste. The wedding was an event that lasted for months and brought all the brilliance of the Sun King to St. Jean, however briefly. From our apartment window, we could see Louis's lodging house and also the pretty pink mansion where Maria Theresa stayed before the marriage. The church tower is also visible. As the sunrise tinted everything in the morning or as the lights came on at dusk, it was fun to imagine that festive time so long ago.

    Our next day in Ciboure, our plan was to drive out into the countryside to visit three scenic little Basque towns, Sare, Ainhoa, and Espellette. The circuit from town to town promised to be picturesque and interesting.

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    Kansas, it's great to hear that you are getting new ideas from my report. That's what I like so much about the Fodors forum. It is a treasure trove of ideas and information, all so willingly shared by people who love to travel.

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    A CIRCUIT THROUGH COUNTRY VILLAGES: SARE, AINHOA, AND ESPELETTE

    Every day in Ciboure some rain was predicted but somehow we were lucky enough to enjoy many hours of sun. We set out for Sare under a bright blue sky. The winding road meandered through some pretty countryside and shortly we were driving into Sare. Parking was easy on the edge of town next to a pelota court. Pelota is a traditional Basque sport and every town, we're told, has a court, called a fronton. The fronton in Sare looked like the townsfolk took particular care with its upkeep. I bet matches there are well attended.

    But today, the stands were empty, and we walked past and up a few streets to the church with its neighboring cemetery. Basque cemeteries are decorated with porcelain flowers and commemorative plaques in pastels and purples. Real flowers and greenery were also carefully arranged around each gravesite. The combination of living flowers and painted china flowers was unusual but pretty. I wondered, was it meant to convey a subtle message of the impermanence of life and the permanence of death? Maybe not on purpose, but it had that effect.

    We entered the church through heavy wooden doors. Inside, the church wore the three tiers of intricately carved dark wood balconies and the barreled ceiling typical of Basque churches. The shadowed wooden spaces were punctuated by colorfully painted religious figures, also carved from wood. Golden accents, here and there, glowed in the low light. When we left the church, the sun seemed especially bright.

    The next town in the circuit, Ainhoa, was just opening up after lunch. We parked on the street opposite the church, which had a sparkling alter piece, carved from wood but painted in gold, brightening the interior. Leaving the church, we strolled past some little shops and were drawn into one selling espadrilles. I bought a colorful striped pair from an excellent young saleswoman who explained how they should be worn and where exactly they were made. (In France, of course, somewhere nearby.) These shoes made me happy whenever I put them on this summer at home.

    Our last stop was the village of Espelette. I had seen pictures of Espelette over the years, with strings of red peppers always hanging everywhere. It looked so charming and I really wanted to see it. Sure enough, red peppers were all over the place, strung in garlands in shop windows, festooning buildings in layers. One hotel must have had hundreds of them, hanging all across its facade. We bought some pepper jelly and red pepper sauce, then relaxed at a sidewalk cafe with a beer and a sangria.

    It had been a good day. When we got back to the apartment, we cooked a great fish dinner and researched our route the next day to our rental in Loudet, in the Midi-Pyrenees. The next morning before we left. we met our hostess, Elizabeth, for the first time. She had been traveling herself, on a tour to Iran, when we arrived in Ciboure and had arranged for a friend to meet us at the apartment . She was so well traveled and interesting, it would have been great to have more time to stay and talk, but we soon had to say goodby, and thank you, and were on our way to Loudet.

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    THE PYRENEES BECKON AS WE BEGIN OUR "TOUR"

    The sun was shining when we set out toward Loudet and we hadn't driven far before we could see imposing mountain peaks highlighted by the sun far in the distance. The Pyrenees. Capped by snow, they seemed immense. This part of our trip had been planned so that we could drive some of the famous mountain climbs of the Tour de France. Steve is an avid fan of the Tour, and we had looked into traveling to France to watch it in person, but decided that would be too costly. We would have to make do with traveling some of the same routes in April that the Tour would follow in July. We would miss all the excitement, but at least we could see for ourselves what the terrain was really like on some of those climbs.

    Watching the mountains come closer, we pulled off the highway into a rest stop just beyond the city of Pau and were thrilled to discover a huge metal sculpture commemorating the tour off on one side of the parking area. Tall steel arches soared high and monumental sculpted bikers, muscles bulging, ascended and descended in various depictions of speed, strength, and endurance. One steel biker painted yellow, with arms raised, was the symbol of victory. A circle of pictorial plaques surrounded the sculpture, outlining the history of the Tour. This memorial provided us with the perfect way to start our personal Tour de France experience.

    The directions to our rental in Loudet in the region of the Midi-Pyrenees were spot on and we arrived around 4 o'clock as scheduled, after stopping for groceries at a tiny little shop in the next town. Our hosts, Marianne and Brian, were there to welcome us. We learned later that they had purchased this property with its farmhouse and outbuildings four years ago after a search of six months. That search certainly paid off, as this property is beautiful. Since they bought Le Fournil they have worked hard on renovating it, turning a little building attached to the barn into a rental cottage. I think this cottage might be the loveliest rental we have ever stayed in on our travels. Brian did much of the work on his own and he obviously strives for perfection. It is also obvious that he and Marianne believe in quality, from the materials used in the reconstruction to the kitchen appliances and the bathroom fittings. Even the fruit Marianne had arranged in a basket for us to enjoy was perfectly ripened and ready to eat.

    After we settled in, we spent some time before dinner on the covered porch enjoying the view of the mountains. We were glad we didi because the next two days the mountains were obscured by clouds. Until, wouldn't you know, the morning we left, when they reappeared in all their majesty.

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    Still enjoying your report! Writing this report is a wonderful way to remember the details of your trip. Since you took the trip last April, did you keep notes so that you could remember all these great and memorable details?

    BTW, when and where is your next trip? Just curious.

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    Yes, Karen , writing a trip report is a great way to relive a trip. I kept a little journal as we were traveling where I wrote down lots of details. Without the journal, writing this report would be much more difficult.

    Next April, we plan to travel to Sicily for two weeks, then head up to the Amalfi Coast for a week. We will fly home from Rome.

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    THE PYRENEES CONTINUE TO BECKON

    Because of rain in the forecast, we decided to spend the next day exploring nearby. Loudet is a tiny village with a church and a townhall but no shops, so we first headed to the larger town of Montrejeau to stock up on groceries at the big supermarket there. Shopping in supermarkets in France, in fact anywhere in Europe, is an adventure. The setup of the supermarkets are often similar to those we frequent at home, with grocery departments, and departments for meat, fish, and frozen foods, etc. But many of the products offered in those departments are obviously different (for the most part) from the stuff on the shelves at home. It is lots of fun to fill our cart with a variety of new products to try. Eggs are eggs, and chicken is chicken, everywhere, but somehow even they seem exotic when they are purchased from a supermarket in Europe. Of course, the best shopping is done the European way, at the local butcher shop, bakery, or patisserie, or better yet at a weekly street market. But if that is not possible, the supermarket supplies us with what we need while traveling and gives us the opportunity to try lots of new things.

    After stashing our groceries and fixing lunch, we took advantage of a break in the weather to visit the remains of the Gallo-Roman villa at Montmaurin, only a short drive from Loudet. After paying the admission fee at the little office, we were given a map of the site. We were the only visitors there and could wander around at will. Begun in the first century by Roman invaders, the villa was expanded and modified over the next few centuries. Constructed of the finest materials, it covered 19 hectares, contained 200 rooms and was richly outfitted with baths, courtyards and gardens. The ruins were discovered in the nineteenth century but excavation didn't begin until 1946. Following our map, we walked up steps leading to what had been a heated bathing pool. Other rooms had heated floors. Comfort was a high priority for these aristocratic residents. Lovely marble pillars once supported the various roofs surrounding courtyards and gardens. Low walls outlined various formal rooms and more private spaces. Wouldn't it be amazing to see it all as it was, inhabited by the people who lived in those spaces. Unfortunately, thunder, then heavy rain, ended our visit before we could do any time traveling into the past.

    The storm canceled our plans to walk up a nearby narrow ravine trail recommended by our hosts. Instead, we headed back to our cottage and watched a second storm come in. This time, hail preceded the rain and we watched in horror as hail stones bounced off our rental car. Fortunately, no damage was done to the car and the drifts of hailstones on the lawn soon melted away. When the sun came out , we were even able to take a pre-dinner walk along the little canal below the house. On a nicer day, it would have been pleasant to follow the canal for a few miles , as we were told it meanders along for quite a distance through the countryside. The countryside of this area, the Haute Garonne, is pretty, with rolling hills, roads lined with plane trees between old farmsteads, pastures grazed by cows and sheep, and tidy villages with tan and grey stone houses.

    The next day was again grey and cloudy, but it would be the only opportunity we had to drive into the high Pyrenees so we set out early, hoping eventually the sun would make an appearance.

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