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ENCHANTING SPAIN: Madrid, North of Spain, Barcelona

ENCHANTING SPAIN: Madrid, North of Spain, Barcelona

Dec 22nd, 2018, 09:16 AM
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ENCHANTING SPAIN: Madrid, North of Spain, Barcelona

August 29 to September 15, 2018


Travel preparation is always stressful, but this year was more so with the serious health situation of our brother who just eight months ago was diagnosed with bone marrow cancer. His low points had us checking into our cancellation insurance, and only half-heartedly learning about places we would visit; differing languages we would encounter, etc. We went through months of ups and downs. When he seemed to be on a more even keel, we felt comfortable in leaving, especially as he was expressing interest in our trip.

Once we made the final decision to go, it was the normal endless details of preparing, only in a more condensed, rushed time-period.
Our checklist is helpful but…still details and decisions. Thankfully, our neighbors would again take of mail and watering. Any additional preparation for the locations we would visit was just pushed to the side.


On departure day, August 29, we were up early. Last minute for thermostat, water shut-off, computer unplugging, etc., etc. Off at 10 AM via Executive Shuttle to CVG for a 12:22 PM take off to Atlanta. The transfer to the international terminal was easy, and we had a couple-hour layover, before our nine-hour direct flight to Madrid.

We felt fortunate to be going and had the attitude to just take things a day at a time. This trip would be partially independent travel and partially with a tour. At this point, we were grateful that a portion would be with the tour as we did not have time to do any more advance preparation.

The inconveniences/discomforts of flying in economy class are the price to be paid for European travel: the small seating where there is no room for elbows and the monitor on the seat in front being too close to read the flight data clearly; stuff in every pocket and a seat belt and earbuds locking you in. Further, sounds of constant conversations, frequent notices interrupting the monitor or songs you were listening to. It’s difficult to find a comfortable position…have a Heinekens/wine and snack…careful not to knock over the water, wine, coke, etc. A nine-hour flight, with a loss of 7 hours or so with time zone change. Although, when we consider the long travel hours of our Aussie friends, we don’t have much to complain about. These are the woes of most international travelers, not that it makes the journey any easier. Overall, it was a smooth trip. In flight, the date changed, and was the next day when we were happy to land safely in Madrid!


We arrived in Madrid at 8:35 AM; an extremely long walk to immigration, which, fortunately, did move quickly. Our pickup from Sun Transfers was ready for us, with a very legible computerized sign displaying our name shining brightly. Our luggage was close to the last that was taken from the Atlanta aircraft. But once on our way, Madrid greeted us with blue skies and sunshine, and helped awaken two tired travelers.

The Mercedes Benz van was comfortable, but had dirty windows, prohibiting clear photos. We were impressed with the many tree-lined streets and beautiful buildings which we passed as we made our way to our hotel. The driver, who used his friendly smile and gestures, knew absolutely no English. With his “lead foot”, he zoomed in and out of lanes. In 29 minutes, through heavy workday traffic, we arrived at the Hesperia Madrid Hotel.

Our hotel was in a nice neighborhood, a bit out of the central historic area, but still in the commercial center. We were greeted at the door by helpful staff. We would learn that the Hesperia Hotel is in a mixed-use area, with residences, hotels, stores and restaurants, and several large museums housed in elegant buildings.

The Hesperia has an inviting, long sophisticated lobby designed by a renowned local, and is flanked with gorgeous fresh flower arrangements. In addition, the hotel has an elegant restaurant, but unfortunately, the dining hours would not fit into our schedule. Their hours were on “Spanish time”. (Dinner after 9 PM; no early service)

We checked in at reception and stored our luggage at the desk. Our room wouldn’t be ready for an hour, so we walked a couple of blocks to the Santa Gloria, a small restaurant, where we split two sandwiches, and each had café con leche’, and small OJ’s. It was enough to satisfy our hunger, and cheap enough: €7. The friendly young employees challenged the somewhat pervasive idea that everyone knows English. No one there did.

Our hotel room was ready about 11 AM. We were pleasantly surprised at how nice it was: attractive design and appointments, and an up-to-date bathroom. Just outside our room was a large open sitting room, with access to the elevators. We chose this hotel as we would be staying here when we joined the tour group and, thus, could avoid changing locations.

After checking into our room, we met Ruby, the “guest services” (concierge). We liked Ruby, who was from Peru, and discussed her country of origin, and which places to visit should we ever travel there.

We also discussed booking a trip to Toledo the following day. We hadn’t had time at home to research a daytrip to Toledo and lacked the energy to take the train and plot it our own tour.

Why Toledo? It’s a fabulous city with amazing art treasures and architecture, incredible historical significance, and, not to be missed, is its spectacular setting, high above the Tagus River. Although we had visited Toledo a few years back, we wanted to take in some attractions which we had missed.

The Paseo De La Castellana, the street on which our hotel is located, is a wide, tree-lined boulevard with several lanes in each direction, and a central park area. On each side of the main boulevard is a one-lane small street on which our hotel is located. So, crossing the street is a challenge, negotiating three traffic lights across three sections.

Arriving in a new city, feeling fatigued, we often find it works for us to use the narrated Hop On-Hop Off bus to get acquainted. We learned that there were two routes in Madrid, and that Stop 5 for one route was across the boulevard, a little bit of a jaunt from our hotel. Tickets were €20 for both. We began on the green route which covers the outer ring of the city.
It was interesting passing the Estadio Bernabéu, capacity 81 K+, upscale shopping areas, as well as attractive, and expensive, residential areas where the architecture of the apartments is outstanding.

The HO- HO bus seemed new, with recordings that were understandable and worked well, the best of any we have yet experienced. The fatigue of first day arrival is easily assisted by a narrated tour of the highlights we will visit.

Arriving in the city center, we would be introduced to the three main historical areas in the vicinity of the city’s main plaza, an extremely busy center: Puerto del Sol. This bustling square is named for the ancient gate which had a sun carved into it. Puerto del Sol marks the geographical center of Madrid, and is a hub for buses, and the Metro, government offices, stores, restaurants, and is normally crowded with people.

In our few days in Madrid, we would discover Old Madrid centering on the Plaza Major; the eastern quarter by the Royal Palace (Palacio Real); and Bourbon Madrid, with its sweeping avenues, elegant fountains, and the Prado Museum. We recalled that the citizens of this exciting city are called “Madrileños”.

Near the historical center, we disembarked at the outstanding Alcala Gate (Puerta de Alcala), with multiple lanes of traffic swirling around it. It was designed in 1778 as the main entrance to the Spanish Court. Its monumental scale has five grandiose arches, each topped with impressive sculptures, and set in a circular sea of green grass and flowers.
Near the impressive Alcala Gate is the Retiro Park (Parque del Retiro), acres of beautiful paths, gardens, lakes, kiddie entertainment areas, and walkways. On this gorgeous day, we couldn’t resist walking a bit, enjoying the atmosphere, which reminded us of Borghese Park in Rome. After that welcome respite, we transferred to the blue route which covers the busy tourist area.

About 2:30, we exited at the Puerta del Sol, the central point of Madrid. Many stores, such as the large El Corte Ingles, are clustered around here. After taking in the sights and flurry of activity, we stopped at an outdoor, Café & Tapas, on a small street just off Sol, as it is called. Two Heineken drafts and tapas with meatballs in tomato sauce. Very tasty!

After walking some of the small surrounding streets, we again boarded the green route bus to return to Stop 5, closest to our hotel. Each of us took our turns nodding off, but we did OK, considering the jet lag and overall fatigue. We felt that we had gotten a good introduction to the city.

Back at the Hesperia Hotel, we wanted to finalize details for our Toledo trip. It seemed that we were all set for the following morning starting at 8:30, but it was suggested that we appear in the hotel lobby for pick-up at our hotel at 8 AM. The tour would return to Madrid about 4:30 when, we were told, we would be dropped off at the Plaza Colon. We would need to take a cab back to the Hotel (Cost of the Toledo trip: €138 for two, without the lunch meal included).

We napped for about a half-hour before taking Ruby’s restaurant recommendation for La Madreña Restaurant across the boulevard from our hotel. Reservations were set for 7:30, which is out-of-the-ordinary, given the 9:30 or 10:30 cultural time for Spanish dinners to begin. Fortunately, the restaurant has a bar which opens early, and there were patrons. When we entered, the lights in the dining area had to be turned on for us. We were impressed with the attractiveness of the whole place. No other diners were there.

Beebe, the Philippino waitress, was delightful, as was a sharply dressed, attractive Egyptian worker. He told us about visiting his ex-girlfriend in Boston and living in London for 11 years and explained, when we asked, that Standard Arabic and English are the Egyptian languages.

We began our meal with the house red wine, a bargain at €3 a glass. Requesting a small salad, we enjoyed one of unbelievably fresh lettuce. The waitress dressed it tableside, with only olive oil and vinegar. We’ve never had such tasty lettuce! Fresh bread was a welcome accompaniment. Our entrée’ was a shared Asturias beef and ham “croquets”. (Total with tip was €45).

We returned to our hotel via an Express Market stop for tomorrow’s croissants and OJ. We were back just before 10, eager for our trip to Toledo in the morning.

This inspirational saying was posted in the bathroom: “SO MUCH OF WHO WE ARE IS WHERE WE HAVE BEEN.” “Welcome to Hesperia Madrid.” Wow! Only Day !!
tomarkot is offline  
Dec 22nd, 2018, 10:42 AM
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Looking forward to revisiting Spain through your report. Great start!

maitaitom is offline  
Dec 22nd, 2018, 01:57 PM
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Thanks, Maitaitom! It was a frustrating experience getting started. I composed it on Microsoft Word, and had trouble posting on Fodor's. So we'll see. Thanks for your encouragement!
tomarkot is offline  
Dec 22nd, 2018, 01:58 PM
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Nice to see you start your report, Tom. Very sorry about the family illness, but glad you were able to go.
Adelaidean is offline  
Dec 22nd, 2018, 02:15 PM
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Thanks, Adelaidean. Always enjoy your travels. Glad to have you along for our TR!
tomarkot is offline  
Dec 27th, 2018, 02:36 PM
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Toledo Day Trip; Evening Madrid


Early rise-6 AM. Enough time to eat our pastries and OJ. And have our first little crisis! Tom started down on the elevator to the restaurant for coffee, but didn’t have his room key, which is necessary to operate the elevator. Once on, with the door closed, he got stuck inside on level 3. So, a phone call to the room from inside the elevator. Fortunately, he had his phone with him, and Margie heard her phone ring and answered the call to rescue him. Crisis resolved

A bus pick up at 8 AM, we departed Madrid by way of the underground highway which circles around the city, until we caught route M42. Toledo is 70 km. south of Madrid drive via M 42. Clara, the guide for the day was extremely sharp and knowledgeable. She provided commentary along the way, as well as throughout the visit.

Throughout much of recent history, Spain has struggled to achieve a national identity. It is a country of regional identities, with distinct parliaments, institutions, cultural customs, and languages.

Madrid, a bustling and prosperous area, with a strong service-based economy, is its own autonomous region. With its approximately 6 million people, it is the most densely populated in Spain. Retaining the honor of being the highest capital city among the EU member states, it sits at an altitude of almost 2100+ feet above sea level. It enjoys a continental climate, hot and dry in summer, and cold and largely dry in winter. The central government is in Madrid. The language is Castilian Spanish.

Leaving Madrid proper, the terrain became flat and dry. We were heading into Don Quixote country. The cultural heritage of Castilla la Mancha, while sparsely populated, has remained intact over many years. Agriculture is extensive in the region. Half of Spain’s wine production is here because of Its hot, dry conditions. The main attraction in this region is the dramatic city of Toledo, set high on a hilltop, visible from miles around. Toledo was named a World Heritage Site in 1986.

As we approached the city on the winding road which surrounds it, we were looking intently for any glimpses of the Alcazar or the Cathedral which are most prominent. When reaching Toledo, the bus let us off at a lower level of the hilltop city. Then began a long, steep trudge uphill into the heart of the city. Lots of narrow, cobblestone streets and steps that were uneven. Oh well. . .we trudged on!

We were perplexed as to why we weren’t using the more recently constructed escalator into the city, instead of climbing up the steep hill. It wasn’t until later that we learned, upon asking Clara, that we were approaching from the opposite side of Toledo and would miss the main town square where we had intended to eat. A downside of not planning our own trip!

Clara proved to be an excellent guide, sharp with the facts and displaying a love for Toledo, known as one of Spain’s finest jewels. We would learn about its history of three cultures: Muslim, Christian, and Jewish. It was once the capitol of an Iberian tribe, followed by a Roman take-over in 192 BC. In 1085, Toledo was captured from the occupying Moors by King Alfonso VI of Castile and it became the residence of the kings of Castile.

Toledo continued to be a center of art and learning, reaching the height of its splendor at the end of the 15th and first half of the 16th centuries. When King Phillip II transferred the capitol to Madrid in 1561, Toledo lost its status.

We visited many buildings that had old historical roots: Muslim, Jewish, and Christian. Lacking photos in this report, it’s difficult to describe the architectural beauty of all these structures. One building which was successively used for each denomination is now a museum. Another building has remnants of the old Roman road under it and was a place of worship before becoming a Catholic church. It is now a museum.

Each mosque or synagogue we visited involved a walk, mostly on cobblestones. At one point, as we transitioned to another location, we enjoyed a view over a part of the city and out to the surrounding area.
The highlight of the day for us was the grand Cathedral, one of our main reasons for a repeat visit to Toledo. The cathedral sits on the Plaza Major (main square).

Built between 1227 and 1493 on the site of the former Great Mosque, it is widely considered to be one of the finest Gothic cathedrals in Spain, second only to Burgos, located in northern Spain. Its impressive high tower dominates the skyline.

Walking through the Catédral Primada Santa Maria de Toledo, there were constant quiet “oohs” at all the beauty! Wow! The cathedral is massive, full of gold and ancient statues, huge pillars, multiple stained-glass windows, decorative ceilings, and all types of beautiful art.

The most richly decorated is the sanctuary. It is noted for its “retable”, or main altar backing, which depicts the Life of Christ. The sculptures are of wood with gold overlay. Viewing the sanctuary area through the gorgeous gold-plated iron grille was a sight to behold! We could have stayed there longer. But the next surprise area was the sacristy.

No doubt, this must be one of the most outstanding sacristies of any cathedral. It resembles an art museum, with the works of various famous artists represented.

El Greco, “the Greek”, a painter, sculptor, and architect of the Spanish Renaissance, is the personality in Toledo. His #2 painting, The Disrobing of Christ, is the focal point in the Cathedral sacristy. Jesus is pictured in a red robe just before crucifixion time. The painting shows El Greco’s characteristic use of bright colors. He signed his paintings with his real Greek name: Domenikos Theotokopoulos.

Our tour inside the cathedral was quite extensive. We viewed the numerous side chapels, the choir, and amazing beauty in other areas. One unique feature, to solve an issue of low light behind the main altar, was the installation of a “transparente” in the 1700’s. A hole was cut in the main ceiling, and a Baroque masterpiece was created to surround the glass, thus allowing sunlight to enter.

We appreciated the extensive tour of the Cathedral. There were far too many points of interest to describe!

But it was time to move on. From the Cathedral, we walked a few more cobblestone streets to another church, Santo Tomas. Constructed at the beginning of the 12th century, its tower is thought to be the best example of Mudejar art. It is the most visited of the churches in Toledo, not because of the beauty of its interior, but because it possesses a painting known to be one of El Greco’s finest works: “The Burial of the Count of Orgaz”.

The painting has two parts; the top part representing heaven, with St. Augustine and St. Stephen represented coming down from heaven for the occasion, while the lower half represents earth. The count, a notary from Castile, is in his armor. The top of the picture features all the saved faithful coming to greet the count as he enters heaven. No photos permitted. A postcard would due.

Time was now allotted for lunch. We, and several others, priced the tour without lunch, and as the main portion of the group headed to the restaurant where the lunch was scheduled, we parted ways at a little area which is located near the cobblestone lane leading to the St. Martin Bridge, where we would meet the remainder of the group. Instead of consuming time walking to another area, we chose between two restaurants in the vicinity, one having red chairs on their patio, and the other green, we chose the green chair café! The menus were similar. What a basis for a decision!

The Taberna Sherry menu looked appetizing enough, though the waiter wasn’t exactly “Mr. Personality”. Perhaps it was because he knew no English and we did not know enough Spanish to communicate. Margie wanted red wine but ended up with white wine. Oh well! She ordered the special of the day and Tom ordered paella. The beer was cold and welcome. €38 total. The area was quaint and quiet, and it was a lovely day to enjoy an outdoor leisurely lunch. After several hours of walking up and down cobblestoned streets, lunch in this small terrace area proved to be a perfect respite.

Following the meal, we took the 15-minute cobblestone walk downhill to the St. Martin Bridge which crosses the Tagus River, and offers a pretty view of the city perched on top of the hill. We enjoyed the beautiful panorama as we awaited meeting the tour group.

After boarding the bus, we headed to the tour designated restaurant to pick up the group that had paid for lunch. When we asked a lady from British Columbia about their lunch, she said with a laugh, “it was about the worst I’ve ever had” and said that they even had to pay for water! We enjoyed her humor and the fact that we had relished our relaxing meal.

The bus traveled up a hill to a famous panoramic spot to take photos of the old city from a distance. It is quite an impressive site to view the city of Toledo perched on the hilltop with the Tagus River below. This was a spot we had visited in the past, and the background of our photo this day was identical.

We then had one those stops that the literature doesn’t describe: a stop at a damascene factory, which conveniently, also sells jewelry. It was located outside of the city. We asked about being left in town while the bus went to the damascene factory but were told that it was impossible, as the bus would not return to town, but would continue back to Madrid.

The art of damascene is the process of inlaying different metals, especially gold and silver, into a darkly-oxidized steel, and it was fascinating to watch a craftsman at work. This art has been known for centuries in places such as Egypt, Greece, and Rome, and was brought by the Moors to Spain, especially Toledo, in the 15th century. The factory was interesting enough, even though we might not have chosen to spend our time there. However, Margie’s reward was a pretty black and gold bracelet!

Around 3:30, we were headed back to Madrid, part of Castile. Old Madrid is famous for its urban architecture, its ornate churches, and its world-famous museum and art gallery, the Museo del Prado. We would be spending our evening and the following two days exploring this wonderful city.

Both of us caught a few winks for part of the hour-long return trip. Once back in the bus terminal in Madrid, it was a healthy walk and climb up a couple of levels from the underground terminal which is below the Botanical gardens. After walking a small bit of the gardens, we wandered to the huge Palacio Real of Madrid.

The exterior of the Palace is impressive. However, after the long day in Toledo, we had no energy or motivation to wait in line to tour the inside of the sumptuous Palace, with its 3400+ rooms, (twenty-four of which are open) and luxurious décor: a rival to Versailles.

Although originally a home for the royal family, King Felipe VI and his family now live in a less ostentatious palace on the outskirts of Madrid. Every few years, we do explore the interior of one of these sumptuous palaces, like the Schonbrunn in Vienna. And since we’re returning to Paris in 2019, we may re-visit Versailles.

After taking in more of the exterior of the Palace, we visited the Catédral de la Almudéna, which is directly next to the Palace.

When learning the name of the Cathedral, meaning “Mary of the Walls”, we were curious to learn the history. Apparently, at the building of the initial cathedral, a statue of Mary was discovered buried in the remains of a wall built by the Arabs. The first stone of the original structure was laid by King Alfonso XII in 1883. Suffering destruction and lack of finances along the way, and interruption during Spain’s Civil War, construction took place over 110 years.

The stained glass, a later addition, is outstanding. Another interest facet was the placement of the altar, high above the pews, affording a good view to all the worshippers. The Cathedral was finally completed and consecrated in 1993 by Pope John Paul II.

After touring the Cathedral, we were drawn to a corner café, Dehesa Santa Maria, for an afternoon refreshment. We had a beer and 2 complimentary tapas. A welcome break!

Following that stop, we slowly strolled up Calle’ Major which is lined with shops of all sorts. Tom bought a couple of “garden” t-shirts and we enjoyed speaking with several of the shop employees. We ended up in Queen Isabella Plaza, a delightful discovery. This plaza is the location of the Opera House and surrounded by a variety of restaurants. It’s a much less crowded area.

A lucky find: De Maria Parrilla Restaurant on Plaza de Isabel II. They offered several complimentary samples: gazpacho and sparkling champagne, before the meal, and a mini-dessert and limoncello at the end of the meal. We enjoyed a salad and paella for the meal. Tasty food in a relaxing setting!

We had a 10-15-minute taxi ride to our hotel, always an enjoyable experience. We traveled along the busy, lit-up Gran Via, one of the main tourist shopping streets. All the plazas and fountains were also brightly lit. A beautiful ride! We arrived at our hotel about 9:30, worn out from a day in Toledo, followed additional sightseeing in central Madrid.

Thought for the day from the Hesperia Hotel:
tomarkot is offline  
Dec 28th, 2018, 08:09 AM
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"It is noted for its “retable”

We didn't get to see it since they were getting ready for Corpus Christi. We loved Toledo. Your report makes us want to return. Keep it coming!

maitaitom is offline  
Dec 28th, 2018, 12:35 PM
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1st Attempt at Posting a Photo-Toledo City

Toledo City
tomarkot is offline  
Dec 29th, 2018, 07:05 PM
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More Madrid Exploration

More Madrid Exploration

Up at 7:45 after 2 alarm snoozes…hard to rise, even after 8 hours. Off to Santa Gloria Coffee and Bakery for breakfast. The croissants were especially fresh and tasty, with café con leché (€10). Being Saturday, the pace is less hectic. We were enjoying our stay in a residential area, within 10 minutes of the tourist district.

We were off in a new white taxi to the Reina Sophia Museum, the Modern Art Museum, housed in the former Hospital de San Carlos. It’s another beautiful day, and, again, the drive along the Paseo de la Castellana, one of the longest and widest streets in Madrid, lined with flowers, and the elegant buildings and monuments, was a treat.

We’re generally not fans of modern and contemporary art which is featured in the Museo Reina Sophia, but after learning about Picasso’s painting of the bombing of Guernica on the 2nd floor, we were motivated to view his work. Apparently, when Picasso first completed the work, it hung in a gallery in New York City. Picasso did not want it shown in Spain until democracy was established. After Franco was out of power, it was first displayed in the Prado and moved to the Reina Sofia in 1992.

Only recently had we learned more details about Franco’s approval of Hitler’s bombing and destruction of the city of Guernica, a Basque city on the north coast of Spain. Hundreds of French citizens were killed or wounded. One of the many horrors of war! We watched a film about the civil war between 1936-39.

Memories of the autocrat Francisco Franco are apparent with the people. Young people who weren’t alive heard about the treacherous times from their parents or grandparents. All statues of Franco in Madrid have been removed, and when asked if they want his body exhumed from the Valley of the Fallen, several people told us that many citizens aren’t interested in having their tax money spent for this purpose.

“No photos” is strictly enforced, but a postcard of Picasso’s work serves as a reminder of that horrible event.

A visit which we thought would be short stretched on until we were ready for some lunch.

As we exited, using the glass-enclosed elevator, an addition to the exterior of this historic building, we were provided with a good view of the Atocha Train Terminal and the surrounding city.

The inner plaza next to the museum was convenient for lunch. We chose to sit at the front table at El Brillante, an outdoor café. The beer is always good, and Margie enjoyed the rose’ wine. Surprisingly, the salad sandwich was very tasty and easy to eat. Tom’s French omelette sandwich was different from most others, but OK too. (€18.25).

After lunch, we headed to Plaza Major, a historic city center, located only a few blocks from Sol. This huge plaza was formerly used for activities such as bullfights and fiestas during the reign of the Hapsburgs. It’s extremely busy because the Plaza Major connects or is continuous with the Sol plaza, the hub of the city center, where the metros and buses converge.

It seemed that a large portion of our time in Madrid was focused on eating and drinking, but we consumed a lot of energy walking in the city, admiring all the beautiful buildings and plazas, taking in many of the shops, and people-watching.

On the corner of Calle Major and Puerta del Sol, we couldn’t resist stopping by Salon La Malloquiña, a confiteria, akin to a combined bakery/ice cream parlor. The interior was lined with cases of freshly baked pastries, some being taken from the ovens as many people seemed to be stopping by for a sweet treat and coffee. We walked to the upstairs parlor where a window seat with ice cream and coffee was a perfectly delicious afternoon snack.

After that treat, we did more window shopping, before taking another taxi to our Hesperia Madrid Hotel. We wanted to freshen up for the Welcome Dinner, which marked the beginning of the Tour. We were eager to travel north from Madrid and into Santiago de Compostela in Galicia, then through the Asturias region, and the Basque country, ending in Barcelona.

We met Betty, who would be our tour director, in the hotel lobby. Betty is from London, but lives in Italy. She is extremely articulate; someone we immediately liked. She gave us a bit of an orientation. Before returning to our room, we studied the list of events which was posted in the lobby.

About 5:30 PM, we left from our hotel for the Welcome Dinner. The destination for the meal was a restaurant located in the middle central park-like area of Paseo De La Castellana, in the area of several hotels. El Pabellon Del Espejo was a nice choice for the opening night of meeting with the group. Since we were the only patrons, we figured that the restaurant made special considerations for early dinner.

We began with vino rossa. The waiter offered us choices for the meal. Both of us went for gazpacho soup, veal, potatoes, and finished with a glass of champagne, and dessert.

We met three wonderful couples and were immediately engaged in pleasant conversation. We found out, by Tom’s teasing one of the guys, that they are Syrians who live in Philadelphia. They have a long history of friendship and frequently travel together.

Over the course of the trip, we had a great time with them, sharing various travel experiences, and learning a little about each other’s home towns, hobbies, and families. They would be among our favorite people in the group.

We returned to the hotel before 8 PM and had hope for an early retirement time.

We would have one more full day in Madrid, a city which we had come to love.
tomarkot is offline  
Dec 30th, 2018, 01:39 AM
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Sounds wonderful. A nice taste of Spain before your tour.
Adelaidean is offline  
Dec 30th, 2018, 08:15 AM
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Adelaidean, glad that you're following along with us!
tomarkot is offline  
Dec 30th, 2018, 08:56 AM
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Madrid City Guided Tour; Prado Museum; Thyssen Museum


Up at 6:30. We enjoyed a full buffet breakfast at Hesperia Madrid, typical of the breakfasts served with our Insight tour. The bus was off at 8:45 with Ruffino, a local tour guide, who is with us for a narrated bus tour of Madrid and a visit to the Prado Museum.

Ruffino provided a good explanation of the main city highlights, interjected with a lot of local color. Especially interesting to us was hearing commentary on the many plazas, monuments and buildings we had passed during the past couple of days.

One such is the Plaza Cibeles, the most important symbol of Madrid. The goddess Cibele is shown holding the keys to the city. Real Madrid Football Club victories are celebrated here.

Another prominent plaza, which we passed often in our travel from the hotel to the city center, is the Plaza de Colon, named for Christopher Columbus. There is a similar statue of Columbus in Barcelona. Both statues point west, the direction of Columbus’ discoveries.

We traveled the busy Gran Via which is undergoing some reconstruction, especially of its sidewalks. This main street ends at the famous Plaza de España.

In the center is a marble monument of Cervantes, considered to be Spain’s premier author. Also represented in the giant sculpture are Don Quixote and Pancho Sanchez, lead characters in Cervantes’ book: Don Quioxte.
The monument is in a beautiful park setting. It is fronted with a pond and landscaped spaces with colorful flower beds.

What a long and complicated history Spain has had! We were trying to learn a bit more of it. We’ve been impressed with the overall design of Madrid, the many tree-lined wide streets, accentuated with colorful flowers, the statuary and beautiful fountains.

Much of Madrid’s design is credited to King Carlos III who reigned in Spain in the mid-late 18th century. Although he helped lead Spain to a brief cultural and economic revival, he was referred to as an “enlightened despot” who imposed his rule by force. Carlos III was a person of enigmas. Supposedly a Catholic, he was a “regalist”, who considered it the right of the state to control the Church in all civil matters. This was defined widely as including clergy appointments, charity, and education. He expelled the Jesuits from Spain in 1767.

Following our city tour, we headed toward the Museo del Prado, one of the world’s premier museums. It has one of the world’s finest collections of European art, dating from the 12th to the early 20th century, including the single best collection of Spanish art.

A long line of visitors was awaiting the 10 AM opening, including a couple of tour groups. We were the 2nd group to enter, passing through metal detectors.

Maria, an art historian, was our guide, and as she introduced herself, she jokingly said that 90% of Spanish women are named Maria. For well over an hour, we followed her excellent leadership as we viewed works of major Spanish artists such as Goya, Velazquez and El Greco.

Fatigue does set in after observing and listening for a long while, and we were ready for a break in the café’ of the Prado.

Suddenly, we were made aware that the coach, where we had stored Tom’s backpack to avoid having to check it at security, would be leaving within minutes. He had to hustle out of the Prado to rescue it, as we were not traveling to Segovia with the rest of the group, having been there on a former trip. Another mini-crisis as he would then have to again wait in line to pass through security, find his ticket for stamping, etc.

We had intended to remain in the Prado a while longer. But we talked with Maria for a few more minutes, discussing life in Spain under Franco. She told us that people were divided in half when Franco took power. Many people had hopes that he could stop the threat of communism. Most experienced him to be a ruthless dictator.

After that extended conversation with Maria, we changed our minds about spending more time in the Prado. On a former trip to Madrid, we had visited the Prado on two days. The museum is so large (thousands of works) that, with our short time in Madrid this trip, we wouldn’t have time to visit some other places of interest.

Upon leaving, Maria told us that next year (2019) is the Centennial of the Prado and suggested that we not choose that year for a return visit as the museum will be inundated. But we would like to return in the future.

As we were off to find a café, we paused in a park lined with Sycamore trees.

Looking across the busy street which led to a circular plaza, there were many cafes; however, most were closed, as it was Sunday. We found an outdoor café for beer/wine and a sandwich to share. It was again a beautiful sunny day, where outside dining was delightful. Another advantage of this café was its location near Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza.

Following lunch, we walked the short distance to the entrance of the museum. The outdoor green lawn and garden plants leading up to the entrance were enhanced with colorful flowers.

The Thyssen is a collection which offers a representation of all art history. It was purchased by the Spanish government from wealthy Spanish citizen collectors. Included in its collection are works by the Impressionists, a period which is not represented in the Prado Museum. Fortunately for us, a special exhibit of Monet/Boudin was showing. Many fine works were in this collection! One genre was “seascapes” and included a painting from our Cincinnati Art Museum. After quite a while viewing this extensive collection, we were ready for a break.

With a dessert and café con leche’ at the museum cafeteria, we were rested for more museum enjoyment. We viewed a few more paintings of El Greco and Caravaggio, part of the Thyssen Museum collection. And, again, over-stayed our two-hour museum limit!

The Basilica de San Francisco el Grande was our next goal to explore. With its enormous dome, the 3rd largest in Europe, it is an imposing sight. Goya had painted this outstanding church in several of his works. Unfortunately for us, when we approached it, all the doors/gates were locked, so we had to limit our exploration to the exterior.

We then headed toward Calle’ Major, and while strolling on the street, found an inviting leather shop. Tom insisted that Margie needed a new purse. With the wide selection, and a friendly salesgirl, it wasn’t difficult to select one.

In addition to acquiring a purse, we enjoyed the discussion with the young woman, a Madrileño, about life in Madrid. It was, as we suspected, a nice city in which to live. One thing which we enjoy while traveling is the opportunity of conversing with the local people whom we meet.

While meandering down a small alley, heading toward Plaza Major, we decided to have our dinner at Corrientes, one of the many cafes lining the street. Being in the tourist area, dinner is served early, contrary to the typical late dinners of the Spanish. In fact, in the tourist area one can find cafes open at almost any time. We began with drinks. Tom had an average paella, while Margie had a large, tasty salad.

Following the outdoor meal on that small street, we traveled on to the large Plaza Major. It is surrounded by three-story buildings with balconies. The front of the main building has colorful frescoes added in 1590, which have been refreshed several times, most recently by Carlos Franco in 1992.
Many restaurants and cafes are located under the arches which skirt the plaza, and in the center is a statue of Felipe III.

The Plaza Major atmosphere was lively, with many patrons enjoying the various restaurants and cafes. We were glad to score a seat to leisurely enjoy a uniquely presented dish of ice cream, accompanied with café con leché.

Darkness was falling. The lights of the city would soon illuminate the plazas, fountains, and buildings. It was time to catch a taxi on Calle’ Major for our last enjoyment of the 10-minute ride to our hotel.

Passing the numerous lighted fountains was a nightly treat. Back in our room 321 by 8:30. Again, we had enjoyed a great day in Madrid, utilizing the benefits of excellent tour guides for the morning, and exploring places of interest on our own for the remainder of the day.

In the morning, as we would leave at 8 AM for Galicia, and its capital city, Santiago de Compostela!
tomarkot is offline  
Dec 31st, 2018, 08:20 AM
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Just a quick note...on the bombing of Gernika it was hundreds of Basques that died, not French. Just been there today!
mikelg is online now  
Dec 31st, 2018, 08:26 AM
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Yes, stand corrected. I guess I had France on the brain as we're planning our next trip.
tomarkot is offline  
Jan 3rd, 2019, 01:13 PM
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Last evening in Madrid; Plaza Cibeles, one of many monuments and fountains providing a light show as we returned to our hotel each evening.
tomarkot is offline  
Jan 3rd, 2019, 01:57 PM
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Leaving Madrid; Destination: Santiago de Compostela in Galicia

Travel Day North to Galicia

Breakfast at 7; coach departed at 8 AM.

As we left Madrid, we agreed that the city was more beautiful than we anticipated, with its wide, tree-lined streets, flower gardens, stunning art and architecture, monuments and fountains, tourist-friendly attractions, plethora of restaurants, and friendly people. We would be definitely be interested in a return visit.

Today we would be headed to Galicia which lies at the northwest tip of Spain. An Atlantic coastal region, it enjoys a temperate climate. With its adequate rainfall, it is the greenest region in Spain. This is a benefit for its agriculture and its beauty, but often a liability for tourists, especially those who wish to take photos.

The population of Galicia is concentrated along the coast where there are a couple of major port cities. The area is an industrial hub, with shipbuilding and car manufacturing.

Away from the urban areas, Galicia has a dramatic rocky coastline, deeply indented on the western side by fjord-like inlets. Inland from the coast, the terrain is hilly and rocky, with many parts deeply forested.

Our destination was the capital city of Santiago de Compostela, about 30+ miles inland from the coast.

Leaving Madrid, we traveled for about 2 1/2 hours, and began to see miles of vineyards. We were in wine country, where there weren’t too many places to stop. We took our break in the very small town of Rueda. Alberto is the signature brand of wine in the city of Rueda.

We had previously visited many wineries, in France, Italy, and in the US. The unique and challenging aspect of this stop was being led through dark, damp, chilly underground tunnels which have been used since ancient times for making and storing wine. These tunnels have rock walls, uneven floors, and different levels with narrow steps. Some halls are extremely long; formerly extending under much of the small town. A guide was definitely necessary. A challenging walk! A misstep could easily put a damper on one’s onward travel!

Even though it was not much past 11 AM, we did have a wine tasting. This area is known for its white wines. The samples were light and refreshing.

Following that tasting, we traveled two more hours through the scenic Guadarrama Mountains until we made a lunch stop at a roadside restaurant taking call-ahead sandwich orders.

Prior to our trip, we had become interested in the “Camino”, a pilgrimage to Santiago (“Saint James”) de Compostela, with various starting points, the most popular being the Camino Frances, a 464-mile trek which begins in Roncesvalles, France. Santiago de Compostela is believed by many to be the final resting place of the remains of St. James, the Greater, the apostle who brought the gospel of Jesus Christ to Spain.

When he returned to Jerusalem in 44 AD, the Acts (12:2) described that James was beheaded by Herod. Although there are various legends about how his body was returned to Spain, there is wide agreement among religious scholars that, in 813, a sarcophagus was unearthed and believed to be the remains of the Apostle James.

The popularity of Santiago de Compostela has centered on St. James, the patron saint of the city. Centuries ago, Christians from many parts of Europe began making the trek to Santiago to honor him.
At the height of its fame in the 12th Century, it is estimated that up to two million people each year made the pilgrimage, nearly as many as those going to Rome and Jerusalem. Though periods of political, religious, and societal unrest caused the popularity of the pilgrimage to wane, it did not die out. In 1996, the number of walkers, called peregrinos, was said to be about 30,000. Since then, that number has grown.

The peregrinos describe various motives for undertaking this grueling camino, from religious or spiritual, to desiring a retreat from their everyday lives, to the challenge of completing the journey. Over hundreds of years, various businesses have developed to provide rest and food for the peregrinos, from the very basic to the more comfortable.

Peregrinos are guided by scallop shells along the way, posted on buildings, or laid in the stones. Many pilgrims tie a scallop shell to their backpacks. There are various legends and myths as to how the scallop shell, because of its association with the sea, came to be the symbol for the Camino.

Previous to our trip, the 2010 movie “The Way” starring Martin Sheen, had piqued our interest in the “Camino”. We had viewed several peoples’ experiences on You Tube. And, coincidentally, we had heard of four local people who had walked the Camino.

Following our lunch stop, Betty, the tour director, started a film on “Walking the Camino” which kept our attention for the final two hours of the trip.
The ending of the film was aligned with our arrival in the city of Santiago de Compostela, Spain’s most famous pilgrimage center, with the Cathedral being the city’s crowning glory. The city was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1985.

Entering the city, we couldn’t help but see the statue of St. James in a center garden of the town’s roundabout.

We were eager to see the Cathedral, so after getting our luggage and checking into our room at the NH Collection Hotel, we requested a taxi from the hotel desk.

Within a few minutes., we were excited to be in the Cathedral square, taking photos at the so-called Golden Hour when the sun is directly on the façade of the Santiago Cathedral.

The large cathedral square was comfortably peopled, and we leisurely took in the beauty of the façade. Several peregrinos who had completed the month-long Camino or walk...465+ miles from France, were in the courtyard. One even offered to take a photo of us.

It was a delightful late afternoon, and we enjoyed the overlook taking in the surrounding area from a wide patio. Spotting a tourist train, we paid €6 each for a narrated 40-minute ride that circled the town, passing many colleges. We got a good overview, as we drove through a park which afforded a nice hilltop view of the town. Toward the end of the ride, we traveled past the main stores and cafes of the Santiago town center.

Immediately after returning to the Cathedral square, we took one more photo of the Cathedral in the ideal light, and then hustled to the taxi stop area to return to our hotel. A 7:30 wine get-together had started, so we quickly freshened up and returned to the party for complimentary beer/wine/snacks.

Dinner was served about 8:30 PM in an adjacent area. We made friends with Tuohy and Su who have Vietnamese roots; both are dentists in a city near Melbourne, Australia. Great conversation at the meal as we discussed travel, movies, Australia, etc. Two more people whom we would add to our favs.

It was 10:30 before we were in our room. We were happy to have had great weather for another full but fulfilling day!

Happy to be in Santiago de Compostela, one of the highlight destinations of our trip!
tomarkot is offline  
Jan 3rd, 2019, 07:48 PM
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Thank you for your report. Santiago de Compostela is my favorite city in Spain, and I always enjoy reading other travelers impressions of it. Maybe you should consider coming back and doing a segment of the Camino, very rewarding! How long did it take you to go from Madrid to Santiago by bus?? Looking forward to reading more of your report!
cruiseluv is offline  
Jan 3rd, 2019, 09:10 PM
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following this thread, we're vising spain this April
wendsang is offline  
Jan 4th, 2019, 09:23 AM
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cruiseluv, thanks for following along. We really loved Santiago de Compostela! Yes, we would love to return, and like you suggested, walk some of the Camino. Even the shortened Camino is 100km. A local girl we met said it took her eight days to complete that. So we'll see. We talk about flying into Madrid, spending time there, then flying to Santiago. We love that northern coast. San Sebastian is another city where we'd like to spend several days.

The mileage from Madrid is 500+ miles. Whether by bus, car, or train, it's a long trek. Except for a stretch in the mountains, it's miles of vineyards. That's why we're considering flying. Right now, we're recovering from the holidays, and making rudimentary plans for France in the fall. Spain will have to wait until 2020. At least we have time to consider.
tomarkot is offline  
Jan 4th, 2019, 09:27 AM
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Wendsang, glad to have you on board with our TR! Spain is such a beautiful and interesting country, with many diverse regions. Happy Planning!
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