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Just back from Spain, Portugal and a bit of Morocco in Winter – trip report.

Just back from Spain, Portugal and a bit of Morocco in Winter – trip report.

Old Jan 21st, 2009, 01:25 PM
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Just back from Spain, Portugal and a bit of Morocco in Winter – trip report.

I have asked Fodorites for help before, and used a number of trip reports in planning this holiday, but have not been game to post a trip report of my own before. Although I’m a bit nervous, the time has come to pay my dues and even though our itinerary covers a well-travelled route, I think the timing turned out well and have decided to write a report in hopes of helping others, especially those who may be wondering about travelling in the winter.
About us: we live in Australia and being a teacher, I get my main holidays in mid-December –January, hence any European travel has to be in the midst of their winter. Our 21 year-old son has been studying in Cambridge for 6 months and has another 6 to go, so we wanted to catch up with him for Christmas and spend a month travelling with him. We left our nineteen-year-old daughter at home to house-sit (with one of her friends) as she had study commitments and could not join us. I chose Spain and Portugal because friends had loved their travel there and I thought it might be warmer than some of the other options. I have always wanted to go to Morocco, but my husband was not at all keen, so we compromised on three days in Marrakech as I could get a direct flight from Madrid. Whether Jeremy (Jem) could put up with his parents for 4 intense weeks after half a year of freedom remained to be seen!
Bookings: I had a travel agent book the flights and trains, whilst I did the buses and accommodation. I think I’m now confident enough to do it all myself next time. No problems at all –except in Marrakech –see later, which seems to be quite a common experience.
Budget: we are mid-budget travellers – definitely looking to economise on food and wine – lovers of top-end restaurants stop reading now - but we like good authentic food and like to try all the local specialities. We also like to walk everywhere, rather than take the metro etc. where we can. Our accommodation is probably 3-4 star standard.
19 December: the trip began in fine style when we were told at Melbourne airport that we had been upgraded to Business Class for the first leg to Hong Kong. The carrier was Cathay Pacific and the experience was wonderful. Suffice to say that at the end of the 9 ½ hour flight I could have voluntarily kept going! We bought tickets for the efficient express train to Kowloon at the airport, only a 15 minute journey, then took a taxi to the hotel, the YMCA Salisbury Hong Kong – definitely the best value and a fabulous position. We arrived to be told that we had been upgraded to a harbor-view suite. If only I had taken a lottery ticket that day!!!! (I don’t know if the economic crisis or the time or year caused bookings to be quiet, but we weren’t complaining).
A friend had told us about the many eateries at Knutsford Terrace, tucked behind the former Miramar Hotel in Kowloon. It was a little tricky to find, as it’s now a shopping precinct named Mira and you literally have to go out the back of the shops and up some stairs which lead to a whole street of restaurants. Many featured cuisines such as Mexican, Italian and Spanish, but we wanted Chinese so settled on La Cuisine de Mekong, where we had prawn mousse on sugarcanes, satays and magnificent fried soft-shelled crabs. We dined on a pretty terrace and the cool breeze was welcome. Back at the hotel, we slept with the curtains open – you just couldn’t block out the magnificent view of the lights over the harbour.
20 December: We had been to Hong Kong before and done the obligatory sights, so today we went for a big exploratory walk early in the morning, checking out the antique shops, bars and restaurants in the Soho area, up steep laneways where markets were just setting up. On the way back we discovered that a pedestrian elevator travels all the way from the Star Ferry terminal at Central to Elgin Street and back – very handy on those steep slopes.
I had pre-booked lunch at Rainbow Seafood on Lamma Island via their internet site and this included a free transfer by shuttle ferry from the Public Pier. The trip took about 30 minutes and was an experience in itself, bringing us close alongside huge freighters from Panama, little old Chinese junks and flashy speedboats. The meal was spectacular, as was the view. We settled on steamed garlic prawns, gigantic clams with garlic sauce and the best salt and pepper squid I’ve ever had, washed down with a cold Australian white. We walked around the island for a while before catching the free shuttle back, getting off at Central (on Hong Kong Island). We walked up to the bars in Elgin Street in time for Happy Hour (4-8), starting off at Staughton’s Wine Bar then progressing to the Real Bread Café where we snacked on chilli nuts and a terrific thin-crust pizza. Suitably fortified, we caught the express train back to the airport for our midnight flight to Barcelona, via Zurich, with Swiss Air, 13 ¼ hours (unfortunately no upgrade this leg), arriving at 9am Barcelona time.
21 December: we caught a taxi to our apartment which I had booked on the internet. When we were given the key and entered, we found that the place had not been cleaned or made up and seeing it in this state, I thought I had made a huge mistake. It looked rather seedy, for want of a better word. The check-in place was round the corner and as I walked back to complain, I saw a familiar figure. Jem had arrived a day before us and had stayed in a youth hostel last night. He looked just the same, but he thought I looked pretty frazzled! The girl in charge explained that the cleaner had called in sick and she had arranged for a replacement (and admittedly it was early in the morning). We left our (heavy) luggage in the uncleaned apartment and set out to explore Barcelona with our son.
I immediately fell in love with the feel of the city. The apartments and shops were elegant with iron balconies, the street corners were spacious as all buildings were set on a diagonal, the people were stylish and well-dressed, and every block had a local bar cum coffee shop which was a focal point for the locals. Then we reached Placa Catalunya, the large square teeming with people, leading on to Las Ramblas. Everybody loves walking down Las Ramblas, the main avenue which leads from the Placa down to the sea. Street vendors sell everything from birds to flowers to trinkets; performance artists are of a high calibre, Boqueria Market has amazing fresh produce and, even in winter, the crowds promenade, enjoying the experience of being in this amazing place. We walked all the way to the end, marked by the enormous statue of Christopher Colombus. The lift was being repaired so we could not go up for the view. We crossed over into the marina area and just strolled around, then we got lost in the maze of narrow streets in the Barrie Gothic, noticing interesting shops which we vowed to visit again, but could never find a second time.
We decided to go back and check the progress of the apartment. It had now been made up and looked an entirely different proposition. No one could call it luxurious, but it was quite adequate. We had 2 bedrooms, 2 bathrooms, a very usable kitchen and a lounge. It was right in the middle of a residential area, so we felt a little like locals, and it had one of those old-fashioned wrought-iron lifts with lots of layers of doors that you see in Paris. The location was great for us, but some people may find it a little far from the action. It was a brisk 10 minute walk to Placa Catalunya and the start of Las Ramblas, and was fairly quiet at night. The address was Valencia Apartments, Valencia 170 and we paid 508 euro for 5 nights. We had bought bread, ham, cheese and wine and made a nice lunch at home, then set off for more walking. On our travels, I had noticed a restaurant called Taller de Tapas, which I have read good things about in this forum, so we went back in the evening. It was a great venue for our first Spanish tapas experience. We enjoyed a rocket salad with goat’s cheese, toasted almonds and quince jelly; langoustines with thick cut mayonnaise; chorizo with chilli and tomato, anchovy, spring onion and olive salad. With 2 San Miguel beers and a bottle of Cabernet Merlot Temperanillo, the bill came to 50 euro, only 13 a head – very reasonable. This soon became our pattern of eating – a selection of tapas and a few drinks instead of a “proper” meal. While Jem was enthusiastic about embracing the Spanish lifestyle, with late nights, an afternoon siesta and big sleep-ins, I wanted us to make the most of the short day-light hours (it got dark about 5.30), and tapas was available everywhere at 7 or 8pm, which is when we preferred to eat. In fact, eating hours seemed to be very flexible in Barcelona. It was possible to have lunch as early as midday, tapas was always available and no one looked at us oddly if we ordered a meal in the early evening. It was unnecessary to make bookings at this time of year. In fact, there didn’t seem to be many tourists around at all, and most of them were Spanish. Again this was probably a combination of economic circumstances and the season, but it meant that we never had to queue up for attractions and could take our pick of restaurants.
pepperjack1 is offline  
Old Jan 21st, 2009, 02:09 PM
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pepperjack - Can you please post your entire trip report under one thread, instead of separating it into various Parts? It'll be much easier for us to follow when everything is posted in one thread, than to search all over the place for the various Parts II and III etc.

If your post is getting too long, just divide it up and post it under several posts in the same thread.

Here's part 2:

Author: pepperjack1
Date: 01/21/2009, 04:47 pm
22 December: this was quite a busy day. We walked to Gaudi’s unfinished church, La Sagrada Familia, which actually exceeded all our expectations. He was so far ahead of his time, and we found the museum/exhibits fascinating – seeing how this architecture had its roots equally in nature and mathematics. Jem took the lift to the top and watched with bated breath as a crane lifted a huge block of stone right over his head. People wouldn’t be allowed this close to an ongoing construction site in Australia but I was glad that Barcelona allowed us to see both the past and future of this great project. We then walked to the Cathedral via the Museu Palau and checked out the Christmas market. The Cathedral was beautiful and the cloister garden, with resident geese was enchanting, busy with locals bringing their children to visit a nativity scene in the garden. We continued our walk to the beautiful Catalan Gothic Cathedral del Mar, which featured in the novel we had brought to read, Cathedral of the Sea. We ambled down to the sea, past the Roman walls, and made our way to Barceloneta, home of many excellent seafood restaurants. Again thanks to Fodors, we chose to lunch at La Mar Saladea, Passieg Joan de Barbo 58-59, where we feasted on Mejillones Mariera (mussels in a fisherman’s way), Chipirones de la Costa (small squid crispy fried), and fisherman’s paella (for two). With a couple of beers and a nice bottle of white wine, the cost was 80 euro, 27 per head.

Barcelona is a great city for walking, so we set off along the man-made beach and promenade area which was created for the Olympics. The weather was quite warm (about 15-16C in the sun) and plenty of people were strolling along the beach. We walked all the way to Gehry’s Copper Fish sculpture and the Olympic Port, then headed inland to Parc de la Ciutadella where both the fountain and the lake were drained for refurbishment. By the time we reached the Arc de Triumph, our legs were ready to give up, so we caught the Metro back to the apartment, stocking up on baguette, ham, cheese, olives and wine for a light dinner. The baguettes in Barcelona are excellent, by the way and we enjoyed trying out the different Spanish hams. Fruit and vegetables are also top quality and we felt a little bit like locals as we shopped at the little fruit shop on our block for grapes and bananas. Luckily we had watched the locals first and found out that it is definitely not self-serve. You ask the shopkeeper for eg 3 bananas and he selects them for you, while you wait politely outside on the footpath.

23 December: this morning we walked to Placa Espanya to catch the train to Montserrat. There are 2 stations at the Placa – we wanted the one that was not Metro and it was easy to use the machine to buy combined tickets for the train and cable car. Now, as you will find out, I am not good with heights, or more particularly I dislike the means used to get to heights, such as cable cars and even lifts. A friend had told me I absolutely HAD to visit Montserrat when I came to Barcelona and David and Jem were keen. I had actually googled it trying to find out just how scary the cable car ride was going to be - how paranoid am I? The train trip took an hour and then we walked straight out of the station and into the cable-car terminal which looked out on a sheer mountain with our destination at the top! I watched the cable car descend towards us and wondered, for the first of several times on this trip, why I had brought my precious husband and son to this destination and organized for them to put their lives at risk in such a way. (Yes I’m mad). I took a deep breath, decided there was no backing out now, and stepped into the car. For any other paranoid people out there – it was bearable! I stood in the centre and didn’t really look outside, just took quick glimpses and the best thing was it was over quickly – about 5 minutes. I had considered the other alternative to get up the mountain – the rack and pinion railway, and now seeing it, was glad I’d chosen the cable car. The railway looked really steep and narrow – and looked like it would take much longer to get there. I was glad that the weather was good – it would have been scarier on a windy day.

Anyway, the monastery was worth the angst of getting there. The views were spectacular, the church beautiful and it was quite moving to file past the little Black Virgin, touching her hand for luck and into the little children’s chapel with magnificent painted ceiling by Joan Llimona, where we sat in silent contemplation for a while. How could the monks have built the original structure in such an inaccessible place? And how could Napoleon bring himself to destroy it? The famed children’s choir sang at 1pm – it was not touristy but quite moving and reverent. One of the children wished us all a happy Christmas at the end. David and Jem had thought about taking the rack railway further up the peak and walking back but it was already getting cold and a bit dark at 1.30pm, as the mountains blocked out the sun, so we decided to head back down on the cable car to the train.

We were starving by now so took the Metro to Catalunya and walked to the Barrie Gothic. It was 4pm and we couldn’t seem to find any of the cute tapas places we had seen on other days, and walked into one of the first restaurants we saw (can’t remember its name). We had intended to have tapas but this place only had the set menu (plate dei) and that was only in Spanish (I had left the phrasebook at the apartment). This was the worst meal of the trip so far – salmon on toast accompanied by smoked salmon on toast for entrée, various mains all full of carbs and fried and accompanied by fried chips. We all felt uncomfortably full and realized that we had become accustomed to our routine of grazing on tapas. David went home for a siesta and Jem and I hit the shops. We liked the chain called Deziguel and bought a nice handbag for Steph (our daughter). Went into all the big names like Zara, Mango and Il Cortes Ingles, but didn’t buy anything else. Eventually we got sick of the crowds of Christmas shoppers and headed back to the apartment in the dark. None of us felt like dinner after that late, heavy lunch.

24 December – Christmas Eve: today was a Gaudi day. After breakfast in the apartment (we had bought muesli, yoghurt, and bananas and this saved us quite a bit of money not buying 3 breakfasts every morning), we set of to walk to the Golden Square of modernist architecture – theQuadrat D’Or. We walked all around the blocks and saw the exteriors of the buildings. I really liked the outside of Casa Batlo, but the entry fee of 15 euro was pretty steep. We decided to visit Casa Milo instead, but it opened at 10am, so we repaired to a café for hot chocolate (and a big fat chocolate pastry for David). Entry to Casa Milho (La Pedriera) was 9 euro each and worth every cent. This apartment building (where some people still live) was designed by Gaudi without traditional load-bearing walls. Instead, the structure relies on a series of pillars and arches, which you can see clearly when you visit the attic. The place is done very well – one large apartment is set up and furnished as Gaudi intended, including some furniture which he designed. I loved the office with its inkstand and old typewriter, and especially the children’s bedroom with a huge dolls’ house, puppet theatre, toy trunk and lots of old-fashioned toys. There was a storage room for rifles and golf clubs and a terrific old steamer trunk which stood on its end to become a wardrobe. The attic area held an excellent museum/display about the construction of the building and the shop had a great range of memorabilia, especially reproductions of vintage posters and antique toys. The highlight of the visit was clambering around on the roof area, with its witch-scarer chimneys and magnificent views of the city, including Sagrada Familia framed by an archway.

We walked to the closest Metro and took a train to the station near Parc Guell. It was a very steep climb up a hill to the park (some sections had elevators). Then you get to the park and have to climb some more, up steep narrow stairs to a lookout marked by three crosses with spectacular views over the city. The park is huge, and we wandered through it past the Gaudi Museum and assorted sculptures to a large semi-circular area with jugglers, buskers and market stalls. Everyone was having a great time. This is the site of Gaudi’s famous tiled bench – all colourful mosaics and sinuous curves - the longest park bench in the world. Nearby was more Gaudi landscaping – cavelike structures under a series of arches, and interesting water features and sculptures everywhere you looked.

A bit foot-weary, we caught the metro back to our favourite restaurant Taller Tapas for lunch washed down by sangria and red wine. We had salt cod fritters; sautéed wild mushrooms with onion, garlic and parsley; sizzling chorizo in cider; rocket salad with shaved goat’s cheese, diced quince paste and toasted almonds; and sautéed spinach with chickpeas and pancetta. Magnificent!
Back to the apartment after stocking up on supplies for tomorrow (Christmas Day). I wanted to see the Maritime Museum, which was closing shortly so David and I power-walked the length of the Ramblas to the museum which is housed in the old medieval shipyard. The displays and models were impressive, but I liked the lovely old Gothic building itself the best. Back through the throngs of Christmas shoppers to an internet café to send a Christmas message. Not hungry after a huge lunch so just had bread, cheese and a bottle of wine in the apartment and made a few phone calls home.

25 December (Christmas Day): We celebrated by sleeping in! Initially I had thought to book a nice restaurant for Christmas dinner, and had done some research and sent some emails. Everything was very pricey and in the end we decided that the company was the important thing, not the venue. We packed up a bag with baguette, cheese, ham, grapes, incredible chocolate Jem had bought in Belgium on his way to Barcelona and a bottle of red wine and set off for Sants RENFE station, where we caught the train to Sitges, a beach-side town half an hour away. Sitges is a lovely town with narrow cobbled streets, little balconies everywhere, a glorious church right beside the sea and a little market in the town square. Jem went for a run along the beach then we had a Christmas picnic on a seat right beside the sea. After a long walk along the beach, we repaired to a café for coffee, then caught the train back. David had a siesta while Jem and I wandered all around the Barrie Gothic and the Ravel for the last time. In the evening, we feasted on nuts and a bottle of Belgium beer Jem had brought with him. It was called Chimay (Peres Trappistes) Grand Reserve Blue and is brewed by Trappist monks. Some more ham and cheese baguette followed by a small tub of Hargaan Daz icecream. Happy Christmas!

26 December: Caught the metro to Sants then the RENFE to Barcelona Airport. The flight to Madrid took an hour, but Madrid airport is huge and we got rather confused trying to find the luggage pick-up. It turns out that Terminal 4 is the only exit and you have to take the shuttle train there. Took a taxi to our hotel, the Best Western Atlantico in Gran Via. I was very happy with this hotel and its location was fabulous – in the middle of a great shopping area and an easy walk to everything. We walked around the Chuecca area and had tapas lunch at Vinoteca Barbbechera – had the Montego cheese I’ve heard so much about, goat’s cheese with onion and quince jam on toast and mushrooms with bacon on toast, as well as potato frittata. The sales were on so we went shopping – got a couple of lovely dresses for Steph and David bought a shirt and jumper. We were a bit tired and not hungry for dinner so had a TV night in our room snacking on Corn Chips.

27 December: I had pre-booked our entry to the Prado but it was pretty quiet when we got there at 9 am. Somehow it wasn’t as fantastic as I had been expecting, but we did enjoy seeing the Garden of Good and Evil by Hieronymous Bosch. The day was clear but freezing, so we went to McDonalds for a coffee, more to warm us up than because we were thirsty. We walked through Retiro Park and decided to have lunch before seeing the Reina Sofia, which has free entry Sunday afternoon. I had read that there were good tapas places in Calle Alto and Calle Cava Baja, so we walked to this area. Madrid seems to keep more strictly to “Spanish time” than the rest of Spain. This was the only place where we really had to stick to Spanish time in order to eat. None of the tapas places were going to open before 2pm, which is when I hoped to be at the gallery. We walked around a bit more and eventually found a bar which was serving tapas (Bodegas Galiana). They insisted we sit at a table, while we just wanted to sit up at the bar like the locals. We looked at the set menu and decided there was not anything we wanted to order. In the end a few locals came in and sat at the bar so we got up and joined them. This was a good move as they then gave us free tapas to accompany a few drinks. We walked to the Reina Sofia, where there was quite a long queue, but it moved quickly. Guernica was the undoubted highlight and we also enjoyed seeing works by Dali. We walked back to the hotel via Plaza Major and Plaza Cybeles. The boys had a bit of a rest while I walked to Plaza D’Espanya to see the statue of Cervantes, Don Quixote and Sancho Panza. There was a huge craft market covering the whole square. Eventually I found a way in to view the statues.

We walked up the Gran Via for a pre-dinner drink at Museo Chicote (number 12), one of many Spanish bars frequented by Ernest Hemingway. The 1930’s interior looks just the same as it did in the Civil War, when the International Press Corps drank here while shells were fired along the Gran Via. A tunnel is rumoured to have connected it with the vintage Bar Cock on a parallel street. We paid for the surroundings – the drinks were extremely expensive. Then on to our 8.30 reservation at Botin, the oldest restaurant in the world according to the Guiness Book of Records (1725). I had emailed the hotel a couple of weeks ago and they made the booking for us. The setting, ambiance, and service were every bit as good as I was expecting. David had soup and the suckling pig, Jem and I both had melon and ham for entrée and the lamb, with side dishes of eggplant and white asparagus. It was not inexpensive, but I’m glad we decided to have a special meal there.

28 December: we had an early start. We left our suitcases with the hotel and just took hand luggage with us for our flight to Marrakech. We took the metro to the airport (2 changes) and then had to use the machine at the airport to buy an airport supplement (1 euro each) so we could exit. Madrid airport is huge and it takes longer than you think to navigate around it. Our Iberia flight took 1 hour 45, and we were met by a taxi sent by our riad – thank goodness, as we had to park in a square and our driver walked us down several alleyways to a door in the wall.

I had booked the riad back in April and luckily I had sent out reconfirmation emails to all our accommodation the week before we left home. I heard back in the affirmative from all but the riad and was feeling like I hadn’t needed to double-check. The morning of our departure from Australia I checked my emails while waiting for the taxi and there was one from our riad (Riad Belbaraka) saying they were sorry but thought I had cancelled my booking and had given my room away! They had arranged for us to stay at another riad if that was OK with us (Riad Agathe). I didn’t even have time to google it, just to reply that it would have to do because the taxi arrived. The owner of our tour company later told me that this happens often in Morocco. It turned out to be quite nice. We settled in then went for a walk through the winding streets and souks of the Old Quarter to Djemaa el- Fna, the main square. There were lots of tourists in Marrakech – many more than we had seen in Spain, and the square was already bustling. We bought some fresh dates and almonds from a vendor then found our way to Chez Chegrouni which was recommended in Jem’s Lonely Planet guide. Jem had tagine with meatballs and David and I had lamb and prune tagines accompanied by freshly squeezed orange juice. The food was great and we had a perfect view of the action. We walked around some more and finally managed to find our way back to the riad.

29 December: We were picked up at 7am for our 4WD tour to Kasbah El Glaouli in Telouet and Kasbah Ait Benhaddou with Authentic Morocco Tours (www.authentic-morocco.com). We were sharing the tour with a Canadian couple who amazingly were based in Cambridge at the same hospital where Jem is doing his research. It was a very long drive on winding mountain roads and sometimes a bit hairy – another moment when I wondered why I had enthusiastically put us into danger! Our guide Naim was an excellent driver and had very good English. Although the weather was perfect, there was snow on the High Atlas and some roads were closed. We drove higher and higher until we reached the Tizi-n-Tichka Pass and then on to the traditional Berber village of Telouet and the Kasbah of El Glaouli, former warlord and Pasha of Marrakech. Then we continued to the spectacular World Heritage site of Kasbah Ait Benhaddou, which guarded the lucrative caravan route through the Atlas Mountains. The camel trains would bring salt through the Sahara and return with gold, silver and slaves. The Kasbah was stunning – its red pise walls rising above a salty reed-strewn river and the sands of the desert. We could not believe the intense blue of the sky. No wonder this Kasbah has been the location for many films, including Gladiator, Lawrence of Arabia, Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves and Babel. We had lunch at the restaurant over the river – vegetable soup with good bread, kefta tagine or chicken vegetable tagine, and sliced oranges with cinnamon.

The day was wearing on and we did not want to be on these roads in the dark so we headed back. The first road sign said 200km to Marrakech. Dark fell quickly in the desert and we still had a long way to go. We all held our breath on the hairpin bends as we climbed towards the pass. We were glad we had a careful and skillful driver, but it seemed to take a very long time to get back to Marrakech. The trip cost 2000 Dirham in total, which we shared with Graeme and Louise, so our share was 1200 Dirham (about A$215). The tour was the highlight of our stay in Morocco and I would certainly recommend this company.

Anticipating a late return, I had ordered dinner at our riad, where we dined by candlelight in the central courtyard. Even though we had a large lunch, we had done a lot of uphill walking, so had no problems polishing off our delicious vegetable soup, tagines and fruits in syrup. It was pleasant dining in the quiet courtyard with just sounds of the fountain rather than braving the mayhem of the Square after such a long day.

30 December: 5am and woken by the call to prayer from the minaret of Koutoubia Mosque. The muezzin is apparently saying “It is better to pray than sleep”. The breakfasts at the riad are not particularly tasty – consisting of very thin plastic crumpets, slabs of doughy bread and some form of chapatti. The freshly squeezed orange juice and coffee are good however. Today we set out to explore the souks, following the route outlined in Jem’s Lonely Planet guide. I particularly liked the dyers’ area, where great strands of yarn were looped over the stalls to dry. I also loved to look at the silverware and the polished copper washbasins. We bought some cheap beaded bracelets and a wooden box for one of Jem’s friends. I bought a silver bangle from an upstairs jeweller also recommended in Lonely Planet. (Belhadj). I bargained down from 700 Dirham to 300. We then got lured into a spice shop by a fast-talking spruiker. It actually was very interesting and he insisted we smell lots of things. We bought some amber blocks which you can rub on as perfume, secret tagine spice and saffron threads. The price was much more than we were expecting and then he tried to shortchange us by 50 Dirham as well. After this we started to walk to the tanneries along the crowded dusty streets full of donkey droppings and swerving motorbikes. We were not really in the main area anymore and an insistent teenager attached himself to us and would not go away. He insisted he would escort us to the tanneries and did not want any money. He just would not leave us alone and then another one appeared. By this stage the motorbike fumes, the crowds of insistent touts, and the noise of the souks were getting to us and we decided to abandon our quest in favour of lunch., which we had at cheap place in Djemaa el- Fna – 3 couscous and orange juices for 100 Dirham. As we crossed the Square, I decided that I wanted a photo of the colourfully-clad water seller. I knew I would have to pay for the privilege – that was fine, but several other water sellers and a couple of musicians muscled in on the photo and then demanded to be paid – very aggressively. I gave them 2 Dirham but they demanded 20. We threw 10 more at them and fled. I had forgotten the important lesson – negotiate the price FIRST. We stopped at the internet café to check our emails and then went home for a long well-deserved rest.

Feeling much better, we headed back into the souks on our way into Djemaa el-Fna for dinner. Each night, hundreds of open-air food stalls set up their braziers and tables. The air fills with smoke and the smell of cooking meat and seafood. The action in the Square was really hotting up, with African drummers, snake charmers, jugglers and other musicians strutting their stuff. We watched a few performers, then wandered around and chose a stall to eat at. We all had harira (chickpea, lentil and vegetable soup), then Jem had a very tender lamb and lemon tagine, while David and I shared tiny spicy sausages and vegetable kebabs. Delicious! After our meal, we walked towards the mosque where the horses and carriages were waiting for customers, then walked back to the riad. It rained heavily all night and in the morning.

31 December: We caught a taxi to the airport and began a tiring day. I don’t know why the travel agent was unable to book a direct flight back to Madrid, but we had to go via Casablanca, where we had to wait 3 hours for a connecting flight. We arrived back in Madrid at 8pm and caught the metro back to the hotel. It was a lot of mucking around to spend three days in Morocco, but I’m glad we made the effort while we were so close. I would like to go back to Morocco one day and do an overnight trek into the desert.
New Year’s Eve was noisy in Madrid. We had intended to go to the main Square for midnight celebrations, but we were all too exhausted to bother. We opted for snacks and drinks in our room instead. The crackers and celebrations went on for hours outside!
yk is offline  
Old Jan 22nd, 2009, 10:22 AM
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Having stayed in the Best Western Atlantico this past November, with a room overlooking the Gran Via, and knowing how noisy the Gran Via was then, I can just imagine what it was like at 12:10 AM on New Year's Day, after people have just eaten their 12 grapes in the Puerta del Sol...
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Old Jan 22nd, 2009, 12:46 PM
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Thanks yk - I see what you mean.And yes tdyls - very noisy.

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1 January: We caught the metro to the RENFE station and took the AVE train to Cordoba. I had pre-booked tickets. The train was very comfortable and the trip only took 1 hour 45. We all agreed that an AVE train probably would have been a better option from Barcelona to Madrid, rather than mucking around getting to and from airports (not sure if the Barcelona-Madrid link is open yet. If it is, I would recommend it). We decided to walk from the train station to our hotel next to the Mezquita. It proved to be a long walk pulling our bags over the cobbled streets. We could tell straight away that we were going to like Cordoba. It’s a very pretty town with laden orange trees everywhere. Our hotel was fantastic – friendly staff, a large room and a terrific location. When we asked about internet, they brought out a laptop and connected us for free. We sat in the beautifully decorated lounge area and accessed our mail. The hotel was called Hacienda Posada de Vallina in the Calle Corregidor Luis de la Cerda, 83. It was in the very heart of the historic town, next to the Mezquita. The hotel only opened in March 2008 and was originally a house dating from 785 a.c. ?? when it was occupied by the mosque builders. Christopher Columbus was supposed to have stayed in one of the rooms. It was excellent value at 128 euro for a triple room, including 3 delicious breakfasts. Highly recommended! Lots of things in the town were closed as it was New Year’s Day, so we asked the hotel to recommend somewhere for lunch. Their choice, Casa Pepe de la Judiera, just around the corner in the old Jewish Quarter was a winner. We had the best gazpacho, stylishly poured into our bowls from champagne glasses, then tapas of broad beans, garlic and Spanish ham; a dish of scrambled eggs with ham, prawns and vegetables, as well as a cold dip of egg, garlic and olive oil (Mazamorra) accompanied by excellent bread. A bottle of very good house red completed the best meal of the trip so far – for the total price of 50 euros.

After lunch we strolled over the old Roman Bridge whose 16 arches span the Guadalquivir River to the Torre de la Calahorra, an old tower now housing a museum. We crossed back over the bridge and spent a very pleasant afternoon wandered around the Jewish Quarter, a very pretty area with lots of ornate balconies and window boxes. Of course we visited the famous Calleja de las Flores – a tiny alleyway famed for its flowering pot plants. For dinner we went to Bodegas Mezquita, just a few doors down from the hotel. The tapas looked great, but when we heard that the special stew of the day was chorizo, potato and lentil, we all opted for that. It was sensational and the bill only came to 27 euro which included bread and a bottle of wine. Another really good find.

2 January: after breakfast we packed up and left our bags with hotel while we visited the Mezquita. Jem’s Lonely Planet book said that entry was free from 8.30 to 10am as long as you are totally silent. I had not read of such a thing anywhere else and was skeptical, but Lonely Planet was on the money again. A church service was in progress in the church in the centre of the mosque (complete with clouds of incense), and only a few visitors were there, moving about in reverential silence, necks craning to see the amazing overhead arches. The Mezquita is truly beautiful – it’s striped arches are made from granite, jasper and marble and it was much darker than I had imagined and it was almost impossible to find the right angle to photograph it to do it justice. Next, instead of walking the short distance to the Alcazar Gardens we got a bit lost and ended up walking all the way round it before we found the entrance. I thought Cordoba was principally famous for its Mezquita, but we also loved the Alcazar (entry 4 euro each). The gardens were very symmetrical, with long ponds and water features and rows of orange trees. We climbed the two towers and saw the lovely Roman mosaics which were discovered during refurbishment. Jem headed off for a run along the river , while David and I visited the Synagoga in the Jewish Quarter of course. It was small and very old (entry was free). The women had to sit in the little upstairs balcony, separated from the men. The stark simplicity of the building, in comparison to the splendor of the Moorish mosque and the gilded beauty of the Catholic church, somehow emphasized the holy feeling in this place.

Jem met us at Bodegas Mezquita which we had noted opened at 12 pm (we had a bus to catch). We had meatballs in raisin sauce (served with hot chips!); broad beans and ham with an egg on top; potatoes with red pepper, onion and ham (and an egg on top) and ratatouille Corovan style (which turns out to have an egg on top!). The tapas was quite nice, but not a patch on last night’s stew, or Pepe’s tapas. We took a taxi to the bus station where we bid a fond farewell to Cordoba. Everybody talks about Granada (and rightly so), but Cordoba is an absolute gem. I think a full day and a night or a day and a half is about the right amount of time to allocate to its charms.

I had pre-booked the Alsina Gruells Sur bus on their website. It left Cordoba at 3.15pm and reached Granada about 3 hours later. Even though it started raining steadily during the trip, it was quite a good drive. We wondered just how many olive trees there are in Spain. Every hill was covered with them. Also saw quite a few of our eucalypts (gum trees). They are well-suited to the climate in Southern Spain, but unfortunately I think they have contributed to the bushfire problems here.

We took a taxi to our hotel, the Plaza Nueva on the (surprise) Plaza Nueva. The location was brilliant but the hotel room was pretty tired and very small. Suffice to say we had to put the light on to be sure of navigating round the third bed if we wanted to visit the bathroom in the night. It was not a room you would want to spend much time in, so we headed out. The internet at the hotel was free but very slow, so after checking our email we had a couple of drinks at a bar in the Plaza. Just a note on accommodation in Granada. I spent more time on booking this than anywhere else on the trip, purely because I read so many reports about which areas were unsafe and attacks on tourists etc. I now wish that I had ignored all that and focused more on the standard of accommodation. It is good and necessary to be aware of dangers and perhaps we were just lucky, but I only felt uneasy once on this whole trip, when Jem and I wandered deep into the Ravel in Barcelona after dark. I didn’t like the feel at all, but it may have been quite harmless. We were on our guard for pickpockets in Las Ramblas (Barcelona), the Metro (Madrid) and in Granada. I actually think that if you take a few sensible precautions, these places were quite safe (barring bad luck!). I did wear my bag strap across my chest in high-risk areas, although I felt this was sending a signal that I had valuables (passports, tickets, credit card) in my bag, so most often I just had it on my shoulder with a protective hand on the strap. I also tried to restrain the boys from talking on public transport – no point advertising our foreign accent. I also think there’s a lot to be said for the approach of trying to look comfortable and confident as if you’re an expat living in the city. I deliberately avoided showing either guidebook or camera on public transport or in dodgy areas and pretended to know where I was going even if I didn’t.

Any way, back to dinner time in Granada. We’d had a pretty full day and just wanted to eat locally and have an early night. Ended up at a local place called La Cueva for tapas which was pretty ordinary but cheap. There’s always a silver lining! The (Spanish) people at the next table were enjoying an after dinner liquor in shot glasses. It was bright yellow. We thought it might be a local delicacy and asked them what it was. Didn’t catch the name at all, but they insisted it was good for the digestion. Sounded like a good excuse to us so we pointed and ordered., but lost something in the translation. We got the yellow liquor OK, but it was served in huge brandy balloons over ice. Hope we like the taste as there’s a lot of it to drink! It was quite palatable and from the bill we established that it was called Licor Herbas Ruavieja, and yes, according to Wikipedia it is good for the digestion. Even our ordinary hotel has a silver lining. When we returned, there was a very lively bar kicking into gear just next door – in fact there was a special connecting door inside the hotel. Jem went for a late night walk and David and I repaired to this bar which had a great atmosphere – full of locals – and generous free tapas. The only drawback was the noise – Jem said he heard the music turned off at 3am and the last people leave at 6.

3 January: up early for our Allhambra visit. We had not paid for hotel breakfast and nothing was open so we set off to walk up the steep hill to the Allhambra – a 15 -20 minute walk in the dark. It started to drizzle as we set off, and I had left my coat at home (big mistake!). Note re clothing: I think I was hot on this trip more than I was cold. I had a really warm coat which I found hot and uncomfortable to wear. Lulled by the beautiful weather we’d experienced, I left it at the hotel on the very few days I really needed it. I wore a long-sleeved t-shirt, under a jumper, under a coat – way too hot. I eventually realized that the Spaniards wore only a light top under their coats, not 3 layers as I had. Next time I will pack one jumper (pullover) not three. I also left my gloves in the hotel room after not needing them so far. Note – if they’re in your handbag they’re there when you need them. To compound our misery, Jem had brought an umbrella with him, but we left it in the hotel room. The walk was fine, although I thought if ever we were an easy target for thieves it would be then. On the contrary, I think the few single travelers on the path looked a little warily at us, a group of three. Because I had allowed time for breakfast in the Square which we didn’t have, we were now ahead of schedule and I thought we’d get there and have to wait half an hour in the dark, much to the dismay of the boys. When we arrived at the ticket office at 8.15 there was already a HUGE queue. Having taken the advice of Fodorites, I had prebooked tickets on the internet (our time for the Nasrad Palaces was 11 am). We found the pre-reserved ticket queue which was still long, but a guide saw the printout in my hand and propelled us to the front of another line, then printed out our tickets with my visa card. Done!

I had read quite a few accounts of the Allhambra, but you don’t really understand it until you get there. Your entry ticket allows you to walk around most of the site, including the castle which has great views over the surrounding area. Do this first and visit the art gallery housed in the ? Palace. Then 15 minutes before the time shown on your ticket, you line up for the Nasrid Palaces, the absolute highlight of the place. It was absolutely pouring and we did a good effort in exploring the castle and grounds, but then needed to revive our freezing fingers by buying an excellent coffee at a kiosk. If the weather had been better, the timing would have been great for 11am at the Nasrid Palaces. As it was, we had rushed the other sight-seeing and were ready to go in by 10am. No can do so we did the next best thing. We revisited the gallery in the Palace of Charles V where we had spied a comfy red sofa and sat down to read our guide books in comparative warmth. The guards looked at us a little strangely but we were too cold to care. We’d paid our money and so what if our favourite exhibit was the red sofa! Eventually 10.45 arrived and we lined up in the rain for our entry. It had better be worth it – and it was. I’m not even going to try to describe the beauty of the Nasrid Palaces. Just go there – and pre-book your tickets as everybody says. The walk back through the gardens of the Generalife was equally spectacular. Every time I thought we were finished, there was another treasure around the corner. I couldn’t keep my hands off the camera as everything was so seriously photogenic, but I’m sure no photos can really do it justice – not mine anyway. Eventually we reached the road back down to Plaza Nueva and there was an temporary open-air exhibition called Agua which had amazing photographs of aspects of water. We lingered by this for quite a while. It was quite stunning. We walked back to the hotel and then to the Bib Rambla in search of lunch. We were starving and ordered pizza which turned out to be all cheese! David and Jem decided they needed a siesta and I felt in need of some “by myself time” so went wandering around the streets in the rain, then came back and had a long hot bath and a session with the hairdryer. We had intended to walk around the Albaycin this afternoon but the rain was persistent and we were tired. I convinced myself that shopping is a valid tourist activity and bought a couple of nice tops at 30% off. We still felt full from the cheesy pizzas so decided against dinner and just had a couple of drinks in the bar in the square where we could sit and spread out our maps, then adjourned to the great bar next door again. It was called Taberna Gastronomica on La Hacienda Plaza, 8. Because we bought a bottle of wine, they bought 2 plates of free tapas – ham etc in a lovely sauce and a cod dip with bread. It was all we needed. We were early to bed, but the bar went to 3 am.

4 January: up early again and packed. We had a breakfast of coffee and toasted ham sandwich in the Plaza before taking a taxi to the airport, from where we were to pick up our hire car. The Allhambra was spectacular but I feel we didn’t do justice to Granada. We enjoyed the shops but didn’t discover the good restaurants and didn’t visit the Albaycin. The weather had thwarted us and we were getting a little tired of always being on the move.
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Old Jan 23rd, 2009, 03:21 AM
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We picked up a Renault for our drive to Ronda. I had booked pick-up from the airport which was well on the way to our destination so we could avoid parking and traffic issues in Granada. The traffic was very light as we headed along the expressway, which gave David a chance to get used to driving on the wrong side of the road. It’s amazing how quickly you get used to it, but roundabouts were the great danger. We instinctively look to the right for approaching traffic and it took all of our combined concentration to look to the left as we approached a roundabout, especially as we were usually looking for street signs at the same time. Anyway there were no roundabouts on this freeway , and the traffic was light. Spanish roads are excellent and we had no problems with Spanish drivers. In fact it was extremely civilized compared to driving in Spain and Italy. However, the weather was settling in. The road was cloaked in misty drizzle and low-lying cloud. I was worried about the drive ahead to Ronda if it was this bad low down. David had always wanted to visit Torriemolinos – the result of some novel or song years ago! Yes, I know it’s a hole. And so we took the exit off the A92. We worried about parking, so stopped in the carpark of a Burger King and walked to the beach, which had to be accessed via an elevator( .50 euro each). It was a very ordinary beach with grey sand, but a guy in a red shirt assured us it was better than Liverpool. It was good to see the Costa del Sol since we were in the area, but I don’t think we’ll come back. We continued down the coast to Marbella, then took the exit for San Pedro de Alcantara and 40 kms up the scenic A397 to Ronda. The weather had cleared and the roads were good – just very high up! We were staying at the Hotel Polo on the edge of the Old Town. I had read reports here and elsewhere about the problems of driving and parking in the old town, so we decided discretion was the better part of valour and that we would take the ring road through the new town. The hotel was well-signposted and we were lucky enough to find a park on the next street. This was another great hotel -our triple room was spacious, clean and only 90 euro for the night, including 3 breakfasts and the location couldn’t be bettered. If you can’t find a carpark on the street, (which is the norm) the hotel will validate your voucher for downtown parking so it’s only 15 euro. ([email protected]).
We walked around the town and looked out over the surrounding area. It’s amazing how high up we are. Ronda is one of the oldest towns in Spain. Why is that? Was it strategic for battles or closer to heaven for religious reasons? I can’t believe the ancients chose the highest, most inaccessible peaks to build their settlements. How hard would it have been to build in these remote areas? One thing’s for sure – they would have had spectacular views of any approaching enemy. We walked to the bullring, where it was 6 euro per person so only I went in. The bullring at Ronda is one of the oldest in Spain with its first fight in 1785 and they have a fantastic museum with all sorts of harnesses, costumes, posters and guns. I bought a bull-fighting poster at the shop. Then we walked on over the bridge , the Nuevo Puerto (New Bridge even though it was built in 1751), spanning the famous 400 feet deep gorge which splits the town. The old town was fantastic with narrow laneways with wrought-iron balconies and grilles and tons of red geraniums. Ronda has been Roman, Moorish and then Spanish. Again , you wonder how the practicalities of building in such a high and remote area were carried out. We had a couple of drinks in a bar then chilled out n the hotel room while Jem went shopping for jeans.
We wandered around and selected a restaurant on the main square for dinner – Dona Pepa. I had pasta with wild asparagus and salmon, David had broad beans, black sausage and quail eggs, while Jem had crepes with spinach and salmon. Our wine was decanted into a decanter resembling a yard glass. Reasonably expensive but nice.
5 January: we had a well-deserved sleep-in, then a nice breakfast at the hotel. Then we visited the museum inside the Bridge, which was used as a prison at one stage. Hemingway recorded accounts of prisoners being thrown to their death in the gorge below during the Civil War in For Whom the Bell Tolls. The museum chronicled a remarkable feat of engineering, including an early version of the bridge which collapsed after 6 years. We then went back to the shop at the bullring as Jem wanted a poster he had seen in the landing of the hotel, then he bought a great pair of jeans for 20 euroes in a little shop near our hotel. We stocked up on ham, cheese, bread and water for our picnic lunch.
Thus commenced the scariest drive of our trip. We were driving the route of the white villages, but no one had told us quite how frightening it would be. We started gently enough up the A 376 to Algodonales then took the turn off to Zahara de la Sierra, a white town with great views over the mountains, a man-made reservoir below, and a Moorish castle above. There’s a great story about Zahara which reminds me of the Trojan Horse. In Moorish times, Zahara was contained inside the castle walls and it was considered strategically as the gateway to Granada and a plum target for the Spanish forces of the Reconquista. A clever Spanish soldier noticed that the Moorish sentinel on watch duty would toss a rock over the parapet to check if enemy invaders were hiding there. If birds flew up, it indicated there were no humans there and he could have a snooze. The Spanish soldier hid under the wall with a bag of pigeons which he released when the sentinel threw his rock. While the guard slept, the Spanish soldier scaled the wall and opened the gates for his troops, who conquered the castle. That was in 1482.
We walked uphill to the centre of town and had a drink in a café. It was a very pretty town with whitewashed houses and narrow laneways. Then we took the smaller road to Grazalema, nestled right in the centre of the Sierra de Grazalema National Park. This was a spectacular and scary drive – not because the road was bad (it was quite good, but much narrower than the previous one) – but simply because we were so high up. I could barely dare to look at the stunning views as we negotiated hairpin bend after hairpin bend. Every time we thought we couldn’t go any higher we glimpsed the road ahead, higher up the mountain. We stopped at the Mirador (lookout at the highest point – the Puert de las Palomomas (the Pass of the Doves). At 1350m it is the second highest pass in Andalucia. The air was thin (and cold!) and magnificent eagles were soaring in the updrafts. We then started our descent through beautiful pine forests into the very pretty town of Grazalema, where we had our picnic lunch. We kept on driving through the villages of Villaluenga del Rosario and Benaocaz, saw the remnants of the old Roman road, continued to Ulbrique and El Bosque and finally to Arcos de la Frontera, where we were staying at the Hotel los Olivos. This town is perched high on a double crag overlooking the Rio Guadalete – it must have been impregnable , but was taken from the Moors in 1264. The Plaza del Cabildo (main square)apparently has hosted bullfights and it looks out over the river. We stopped in at an Italian restaurant/bar for a drink and the owner gave us magnificent marinated olives and brushcetta with diced green tomatoes and garlic. We walked around the town and had a bit of a rest.
We decided to revisit the Italian place (Mamma Ttina) for dinner, but when we emerged in the main street, there was a festival in full swing. The 6th of January is the Festival of the Three Kings in Spain (and a public holiday), but Arcos was celebrating the night before as the floats had to go to another village tomorrow. This is the time when Spanish children receive their Christmas presents. Float after float emerged through the arch from the Old Town, with local children, Santa, Mickey Mouse, Spiderman and some Moorish characters all throwing lollies and plastic soccerballs into the crowd. The people followed the floats down the hill. We continued on to the restaurant where Jem had salmon ravioli with salmon sauce, David had oriechiette with peppers and eggplants, and I had pesto and prawn taglietelle. With wine and bread the bill only came to 45 euro and the food was delicious.
6 January: had breakfast at the hotel, where the bill was only 83 euro for a triple room, three breakfasts and car parking. We drove to Seville on the autoroute which was practically deserted because of the holiday. The road was very good and the trip took 75 minutes. We returned the car at Seville airport then took a taxi to our hotel, the Amadeus in Barrio Santa Cruz. Our room was not ready so they upgraded us to a larger room in the Hotel Musica next door – a lovely room with lots of timber and white linen. The location couldn’t be bettered and there was a free internet computer downstairs for the use of guests (very slow connection). We settled in, checked our emails and took advantage of the hotel’s overnight laundry service. We strolled around the neighbourhood looking for a tapas bar and settled on Catalina La Heroina Bar de Tapaps (Passeo Catalina de Ribera, 4) which turned out to be an inspired choice. We had 5 glasses of very good house red wine, a plate of Andalusian-stylespinach and chickpeas, baked eggplant with goat’s cheese and paprika and a stunning tapa of grilled baby squid – so good we ordered another serve of it. All this came to 24 euros. Highly recommended! After lunch we walked all around the Barrio Santa Cruz, the Murillo Gardens then all the way up to the Parc de Maria Luisa. The Placa d’Espanya, which is a square within the park itself, was amazing and beautiful. It is a huge space decorated with blue and white tiles and featuring a tiles tribute to each province of Spain. We walked back along the Gualdalquivir River, past the beautiful tower (Torre de Oro) and the bullring. After such a long walk, we just wanted to eat close to the hotel and this dinner was the most disappointing of the trip. We selected place at random and the food was very forgettable.
7 January: David and I had both developed very sore throats which turned into colds overnight. We had a shocking night and slept in until 10am – unheard of for us! We felt a bit better after breakfast at a café and headed off to the Cathedral. Seville’s cathedral is the largest Gothic-style church in the world, and the third largest cathedral after St Peter’s in Rome and St Paul’s in London. The outside of the building is really beautiful and the Giralda (the bell-tower which used to be the minaret of the original mosque) dominates the skyline of the Barrio Santa Cruz. Whenever we lost our bearings, we just looked up to spot the cathedral. The inside was stunning and contains the tomb of Christopher Colombus. What was really amazing though was the literal “treasures” of the Cathedral. Lavishly-decorated chapels housed loads of oil paintings by early masters and exquisite silverware. There was an embroidered Bishop’s cape from the 1500’s still in amazing condition and a wonderful example of stump-work embroidery. We followed a little corridor and entered the Chapter House, an oval-shaped room with a magnificent domed ceiling and works of art. The Cathedral’s organ is massive and beautiful. David and Jem walked up the 37 ramps to the top of the Giralda. They built ramps rather than stairs so the man who called the faithful to prayer from the top of the minaret could ride his horse up.
We went back to Catalina La Heroina for more tapas. We had the spinach and chickpeas again, jamon, goat’s cheese and a fantastic dish of minced meat flavoured with oregano, cheese and tomato. Four wines, 1 diet coke, 1 freshly-squeezed orange juice – all for just under 20 euro. After lunch we tackled the Alcazar. It was very restful strolling in the gardens then we walked around the Barrio Santa Cruz some more, before having a little siesta. Jem and I headed off to Sierpes Calle for some shopping but came home empty-handed. We wanted Paella for our last night in Spain and went to Dona Lina near the Los Venerables Hospital. The food was good, but quite expensive. Jem and I shared a paella nigra (with squid ink) while David had the set menu of gazpacho, paella and lemon sorbet. With wine, the bill came to 60 euro. We packed up ready for an early start and settled the hotel bill. The triple room was 105 euros per night and I would highly recommend this hotel.
8 January: Getting from Seville to Faro by bus:
I know there have been lots of posts and good information about this. It is possible to look up the timetable on the internet but not to make a booking. I wanted to take the 7.30am EVA/Damas bus and I had stressed about not being able to book it because the hire car in Faro had to be picked up at a certain time. I had even emailed the hotel in Seville to see if they could book for me over the phone, but they said tickets had to be bought at the bus station. Jem volunteered to go for a run to the bus station the day before and buy the tickets and I was glad he did this as there were only 6 or 7 spare seats on the bus in the morning, although most people got off in Huelva. The trip took 3 hours, but we gained an hour in time difference so arrived in Faro at 10.15am. We caught a cab to the airport where we picked up our hire car and drove 20 minutes to our apartment at Jardins Do Golfe, next to Vale Do Lobo golf courses. I had booked this through Owners Direct website and received arrival instructions etc direct from the owner. The apartment was lovely and spacious, with 2 bedrooms and 2 bathrooms and a large balcony. The kitchen and bathrooms were well-stocked and the “welcome basket” of bread, cheese, ham and a lovely bottle of local wine (Convento Da Vila 2006) was very welcome. We explored the Vale Do Lobo golf courses and the local beaches which looked great. Then we enjoyed a home-cooked meal of tuna pasta and a good Portuguese red from the supermarket. It was nice to have some English-language TV for a change – both CNN and BBC and Jem and David were keen to try out the DVD collection.
9 January: we drove into Faro and found the Carmelite church of Igreja do Carmo. Luckily we arrived at opening time which was 10am. The beautiful rococo gilt church contrasts with its Capella de Ossos (Chapel of Bones), which is an austere little chapel lined with the bones and skulls of monks. The church was built on the site of a monks’ graveyard, so the remains were dug up and incorporated into the chapel. Then we drove on to Carvoeiro for an early lunch of fish soup and baguette before playing 18 holes at the par 3 Vale de Milho golf course. This is not one of the famed Algarve courses, but Jem and I could play there as there were no handicap requirements and it was much cheaper than the top courses. It was very pretty and we enjoyed having a hit. We came back and cooked another evening meal and watched DVDs. It was good to have some chill-out time after 3 pretty hectic week of travelling.
10 January: We drove to where we could see the famed 16th hole of the Vale Do Lobo Royal course (the most photographed golf hole in Europe) which is perched at the top of cliffs overlooking the sea. We then went for a drive to Quarterfiera, a nearby beach resort which was extremely quiet in winter. Then we had lunch at the Praca (beach area) at Vale Do Lobo. The apartment’s owner had recommended Papagaios Restaurant , so we feasted on grilled sardines with chips (the boys), and Grilled tiger prawns with rice. The tiger prawns were huge – more like some type of bug or small crayfish. Everything was delicious and the seaside view was stunning. With a bottle of wine the bill came to 60 euro. Jem went for a run along the beach (which he said were the best beaches he has seen in Europe so far) while David played 9 holes at Vale Do Lobo Ocean Course. I walked round with him. The course was magnificent and David said this round of golf was probably the highlight of his holiday. He played beautifully with the Tailormade clubs he hired. He is a golf fanatic and is off 7. The golf was very expensive, but worth every cent. We decided that when (if?) my handicap improves we will come back to the Algarve on a golfing package. We started packing our cases again and went to Senhor Frango’s (Mr Chicken) on the Almancil Road for piri-piri chicken and chips. I have to say that it was fairly ordinary and that Nando’s is much better
11 January: this was rather a tiresome day. We drove to the airport to return the car, then got a cab to the train station. Because we had not had internet in the Algarve, I had not checked the train timetable and had assumed that there would be plenty of trains from Faro to Lisbon. Wrong! I should have checked, because we missed the morning train and had to wait 3 hours for the 1.20pm one. We enquired about the bus, which would have been a bit earlier, but we had already bought the train tickets and decided to just wait. Found the local McDonalds and chilled out there as well as in the local park. The train trip was quite good but took 3½ hours. We got out at Entrecamps Station then took the Metro (1 change) to Restauradores. We had an apartment at VIP Aparthotel Eden, right on the Praca dos Restauradores. The location was fantastic, but I was a bit disappointed that Jem’s bed turned out to be the sofa (bed) in the lounge for the money we were paying. He said it was very comfortable and we got used to it. We scouted out a couple of seafood restaurants but they seemed extremely expensive, so when a guy handed us a flier for an Indian restaurant, David realized he had a craving for Vindaloo. The food was actually quite good, although the spicing was a bit milder than we’re used to. Three vindaloos, naan, rice and vege samosas, 2 beers and a half bottle of wine set us back 43 euros.
12 January: we slept in a bit and had breakfast at a café on the Praca. Then we set off through the Rossio Square to Commercia Praca, then along the waterside to Cais de Sodre Station where we took the train to Estoril (40 minutes). We had a quick look at the outside of the Estoril Casino, which was the inspiration for Ian Fleming’s Casino Royale, and the adjacent Hotel Palacio which featured in Richard Wilson’s novel “A Small Death in Lisbon”. Neither looked all that impressive. We set off to walk the seaside footpath to Cais Cais, which took about 20 minutes. It was a nice walk in the sunshine. Cais Cais was lovely – it had a really nice feel and a picturesque setting. We wandered around the town and then set off on a wild goose chase looking for a restaurant which had been recommended, but which appeared to have closed down. Jem was looking for a long stretch of sand to run along, but the beaches were tiny. After lots of exploring, we returned to a beachfront restaurant we had passed on the walk from Estoril called Duche Café. David and I had a drink and bread with sardine pate (which was really nice) and olives while Jem ran up and down the beach in front of the restaurant. One brave soul went in swimming – he lasted about a minute and a half! The day was glorious and it was lovely sitting in the sunshine – but I’m sure the water was close to freezing point. We all opted for the grilled sea bass with salad, which was absolutely magnificent. The bill was 54 euro. We struck up a conversation with an English couple who live in Cais Cais half the year and absolutely love it. We had noticed some very interesting shops and the sales were on so we thought we’d boost the local economy. David bought a jumper and a pair of slacks, while Jem bought a jumper as well. I tried hard but didn’t find anything for me! We caught the train back to Lisbon and walked back through the Chiado area. Lisbon is a great city for walking. Yes there are hills, but they were quite manageable and we started to get a feel for the layout of the city. We walked along the Avenue de Liberdade looking for restaurants, but they were way too expensive. We went a block over to a street which I think was called Rua San Jose and went into a local restaurant there. I forgot to write down the name. The food was quite good – I just had cream of seafood soup, Jem had red mullet and David had fried squid. It was a big night for Portugal as Ronaldo had won the FIFA Player of the Year. The TV in the restaurant showed no other story the whole time we were there and the waiting staff were very excited and proud.
13 January: it was very hard to get the guys moving this morning. They had started watching the Phildaelphia Story on TV and absolutely refused to budge until it finished. Eventually we set out to walk to Cais de Sodre station again, where we took the ferry over the harbor to Cacilhos (about 15 minutes). I wasn’t really that keen to do anything there, but I thought a ride on the harbor would be nice – which it was. There was a restored Portuguese Man’ War (battleship), and Jem and David walked to the top of a hill for the views. We took the ferry back and caught the train to Belem – the bus would have been cheaper and easier but we were already at the station. We hadn’t really had breakfast so we were well and truly ready to sample the famed pasties de Belem (custard tarts) from Antiga Confeitaria de Belem, a 19th century café. They were totally unlike any custard tart I’ve ever seen and were dusted with icing sugar and cinnamon. Supremely delicious – and I don’t even like custard tarts! We visited the Monastery Jeronimos, including the tomb of Vasco de Gama, the Monument of the Discoveries and Belem Tower. By this stage we were feeling rather footsore and looking for lunch. The restaurants in Belem looked really good and prices seemed much lower than in Lisbon proper, by our perusal of the menus. One restaurant was absolutely packed – in fact we got the last table. It was called Os Jeronimos and the food was very, very good. David had the cod fish cakes with carrot rice and salad. This was a local dish we had been looking forward to trying and we all had a taste – brilliant. Jem and I both tried another local speciality – bread, shellfish and coriander stew. The food was excellent, the service friendly and the bill, including wine, was only 38 euro. Recommended.
We caught a tram back to Praca Figuera and walked home. David had a siesta, while Jem went for a haircut. I was a bit tired but relished the chance to wander the good shopping areas of Chiado and Barrie Alto all by myself. I bought a jumper and a lovely blue scarf. I just love walking around this city. There’s just a feel about places and I realized that I just loved the experience of being out and about here. It was the same in Barcelona, Cordoba, and Seville. They remind me of Melbourne – we don’t have iconic sights as Sydney does, but we have a really nice city for walking, dining and shopping.
Jem had a crewcut, which takes a bit of getting used to but actually really suits him. We bought roasted chestnuts and walked to the Elevador de Gloria – a tram which goes straight uphill to the Barrie Alto. We crossed the road to the Solar do Vinho do Porto, where we did a tasting of Portuguese ports. The Maitre d’ was a bit surly and didn’t explain how it all worked, so we watched other people to get the hang of it. There is no cover charge. You are given a listing of ports with prices per glass and tasting notes. We decided to share our glasses and taste more ports. We began with white ports, which I really love. I had first tried it when we visited friends in France several years ago and we were offered port as one of choices for a pre-dinner drink. We looked amazed as I have only known (red) port as an after-dinner drink. They explained that Pascal’s Portuguese patients often brought him white port as a gift. It was served chilled and was delicious. I have since looked for it in Australia but never found it. We bought a bottle in the Algarve and enjoyed it as an aperitif. We bought a bottle to take home as well and Jem bought one to take back to Cambridge. Back to the tasting – we decided we liked the sweet white port better than the dry, and preferred the tawny to the ruby and the vintage, especially the 10 year-old tawny. We just chose glasses around or below the 1.5 euro mark and shared 6 glasses (2 choices each). It was good fun. Instead of walking back down the steep hill, we took the gentler route through the Chiado back to the Rua da Douradores, where we took on board another Lonely Planet recommendation- the Gandhi Palace (Yes we were craving Indian). Two Madras, one vindaloo, naan 1 beer, 1 mango lassi and ½ bottle wine cost 40 euro.
14 January: We walked the short distance to Rossio station (on Praca Restauradores) and took the train to Sintra (40 minutes). We bought the all-day round bus ticket from the tourist office 434 for 3.5 euro each – a very good move. The first stop was the Old Town and National Palace. Because it was Wednesday the Palace was closed but we could walk around the outside. Then we got back on the bus for the trip to the Moorish Castle. Remember my fear of heights. It kicked in big time here as we swooped up the steep winding roads to the ruins of the Moorish Castle. It was built on the tip of a very high mountain peak. If the drive was a bit hairy, the walk was too. Thank goodness Tourism Portugal has not seen fit to put handrails, safety barriers etc. in this amazing site, but it can be a little scary walking up steps with not much between you and the valley a very long way below. It makes you really think about how people could have built this stronghold in such an inaccessible place in the ninth century. We walked back down and caught the bus for a short (totally non-scary) ride to the Plena Palace. This was amazing! It was the summer palace of the Portuguese kings who needed to escape the summer heat of Lisbon. The exterior of the Palace is quirky with coloured minarets, bizarre wall-sculptures and interesting turrets. The interior is a snapshot of a time now gone – the rooms are furnished as they were for the royal family. I saw where the term “throne room” meaning toilet came from. The temperature had dropped sharply. Lulled into a false sense of security by the sunshine of the past few days, I had left my coat at home. I now paid the price, barely being able to feel my fingers and freshening up my cold. We walked briskly down to the bus stop, but had to wait 15 minutes in the now freezing cold. We got off at the Old Town and found a little restaurant in a side street, fitted out like a fake cave,. Never mind the décor, it was warm and the food looked good. I had to order a pre-dinnner coffee purely to try to thaw out my hands. Jem and David had Chicken in beer, and I had pork Portuguese style with lots of vegetables. (40 euros). We caught the bus back down to the station then the train back to Lisbon. David decided to have a haircut too, and Jem and I headed off in search of a scarf to go with his new jumper. This was our last day together. We would not see him for another 6 months and I really wanted to buy him a present. We walked the length and breadth of the city with no luck and eventually turned for home. Very close to our hotel was a little shop with a scarf in the window. They only had 2 scarves in the whole shop, but one was just the right shade. Eureka!
Very mixed emotions. We had had a lovely time with Jem and he had put up with us for 4 weeks. This morning when we rang our daughter I knew immediately that something was wrong and she was crying as she told us about a drama in her life. David and I were both pretty upset as we realized just how far away we were. It was nothing really awful, but she was upset and we were half a world away. We just wanted to get on that plane and get home. I was also proud of her as she had known this for 2 weeks and hidden it from us so as not to spoil our holiday. We headed out for our last dinner together. We had promised to buy Jem a big steak before he went back to his shoestring budget in England and found a place which logic told us we should avoid – it was right on the corner of the Rossio Square. The restaurant was called Valentino, the service was fantastic and the food was very very good. We splurged on pre-dinner drinks (I had my last white port), a good bottle of wine, fillet steak for Jem (excellent) and pasta for David and myself. How could the bill only come to 60 euro?
15 January: the weather had turned nasty. It had poured all night and was still raining very heavily in the morning.
A note about the weather: a couple of days probably reached 15- 16C in the sun, but most highs were probably 12 or 13. The lows didn’t really go below 3 or 4C. I took gloves and a beanie which I never wore. We took an umbrella which we never used – the one day we needed it we left it in the hotel. I was only really uncomfortably cold twice – in the Allhambra where I was saturated with rain because I didn’t bring my coat, and in the cold mountain air at Sintra, where I had again left my coat at home. I think that I was hot more than I was cold on the trip because I was really rugged up and we did a lot of brisk walking. To put things in context, this was a year of exceptionally low temperatures in most of Europe, and we had weather I would describe as “mild” in Spain, Portugal and Morocco. We also had a huge element of luck. We seemed to take the good weather with us as Madrid had snow after we left and Lisbon had low temperature that hadn’t been seen in a generation, again just after we left. This is probably pure coincidence, but the same thing happened a few years ago in my first European trip. We arrived on the 12th December then and had fantastic weather , but shocking weather followed just a week behind us everywhere. I have evolved a theory that if you’re travelling in winter, try to start early in December and avoid mid-to-late January.
We caught a taxi to the airport. Jem’s flight left 10 minutes after ours. It was hard to bid farewell to one child, but I was anxious to fly home to the other. We had a nice surprise that we were upgraded to Business Class for the longest leg from Zurich to Hong Kong. This was doubly fantastic as we had a 4 hour layover in Zurich and were able to access the Star Alliance Lounge, where we chilled out, read papers and accessed the internet. We managed to get some sleep in business class which made all the difference and we had a night in Hong Kong (YMCA again). We had a lovely but expensive Chinese meal where we were the only non-locals. The flight back to Melbourne was completely full and we had the worst seats – the 2 in the middle with no aisle access – a bit of a come-down. We survived and arrived home at midnight to be greeted by one lovely daughter and one manic dog. My mother said we brought the good weather with us. Melbourne has had a terrible cold summer while we’ve been away, yet yesterday was 37C and today was 40C.
This is the second time I have travelled in Winter in Europe. There are lots of advantages – all to do with a lack of crowds. The cold has not put me off – just dress appropriately – nor has the early onset of dark. We’ve made the most of the daylight and been ready to stop when the sun went down. Christmas Day and /new Year’s Day can be a little tricky – you just have to think of things that you can do outside because everything is closed. Think outside the square – a beach picnic with loved ones is as good as a traditional Christmas dinner somewhere, although I’d love to have a Christmas in England one year.
I have gained so much confidence and information from Fodors that I hope this may help someone with a little detail somewhere.
pepperjack1 is offline  
Old Jan 25th, 2009, 12:58 AM
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Hi Pepperjack
Love the name - you don't own the vineyard do you? Great Shiraz.

I'm reading your report with great interest & enjoyment as I'm an Australian heading to Spain for 2 weeks at the end of March. I'll be based in Madrid mainly and plan to do a few 1 & 2 day trips plus 2-3 nights in Gtanada.

May I ask where you stayed in Madrid?

Thanks & cheers
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Old Jan 25th, 2009, 01:38 AM
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I'm really enjoying your report.

This is a link to the continuation:

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Old Jan 25th, 2009, 04:55 PM
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Hi Bokhara - no I don't own the vineyard - just like dringing the wine.

We stayed at the Best Western Atlantico on Gran Via in Madrid. I was really happy with this hotel - fantastic location in walking distance to most things, Metro close by and good breakfasts. It can get a little noisy at night but I'm a light sleeper and it didn't really bother me.

In Granada (wich we LOVED), we stayed at the Hotel Plaza Nueva, which I wouldn't recommend. The location was great on the Plaza Nueva but the room was small and it was pretty rundown.

Make sure you pre-book your tickets to the Allhambra on the internet - you will love it. Enjoy the trip.
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Old Jan 25th, 2009, 04:55 PM
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Thanks Nikki,
I didn't understand how to post a continuation at first.
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Old Jan 26th, 2009, 01:33 PM
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Thanks Pepperjack - I'm looking forward to it enormously.
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Old Jan 30th, 2009, 01:18 PM
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Thanks so much for posting this report. We will be in Portugal for the first time in May so I enjoyed reading about your experiences - lots of useful and interesting detail. We've also been thinking of including a side trip to Morocco, and your description has helped, though we haven't quite decided yet.

(By the way, we spent 10 days in Melbourne a few years ago and loved it!)
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