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Trip Report Spain Newbies: Cordoba, Granada, Seville, Toledo, Madrid

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This was our first trip to Spain. We have traveled a lot in France and Italy, especially Rome and south including Sicily. Many of our friends kept telling us that we have to visit Spain, which was pretty much a blank spot for us, not knowing much at all about the country. We finally decided to make the trip. We spent 10 nights in Spain, focusing on Andalucia, with just a peek at Toledo and Madrid. We sadly had to choose between focusing on Barcelona-Catalonia-San Sebastian or Andalucia and finally decided to put Barcelona on the bucket list for next time. We were very happy with our choice and we’re already planning our next trip to Spain—it’s an addicting place.

These five great cities have been extensively described on TRs so I will do my best not to repeat information. I have used so many Fodor TRs it’s impossible to thank everyone but I’d like to say in particular how helpful were the TRs of: Tdudette, ekscrunchy (food especially), judy_rosa, progol, and maitaitom (encyclopedic, the Pun-meister). And of course, kimhe’s comments throughout the forum.

Avertencia / User Information

This report is heavy on food, drink, and history plus conversations we had with local folks like taxi drivers, hotel staff, and museum guards. I’ll post segments roughly city by city, organizing day by day just to give a sense of what we found doable without exhausting ourselves but I will not slog through every step of the way.

We are in our late 60s and early 70s (egad, how did that happen), both thankfully in good health, enjoy walking around, but we took taxis sometimes to save time. I started researching the trip in January and we went in mid-October. Weather was perfect, sometimes with very strong, hot sun (Cordoba) and then becoming pleasantly chilly in the evening toward the end of the trip (Toledo).

In addition to using Fodor Forums and Tripadvisor, I read materials on the web and used the Cadogan, Rough Guide, Michelin, and Rick Steves guides. Also read of lot of history in order to get a hold on this densely historic culture-rich country. Two visual sources are especially helpful for an anglo to find an opening into this culture: the Youtube video documentary about Moraito Chico--the beloved now deceased flamenco guitarist (thanks to kimhe for this reference), and Pedro Almodovar’s movies.

Language: we like to talk to people about their lives and their towns so in the last few months we worked hard to bring back to life our broken pieces of Spanish, mainly learned in Vermont (!) and Mexico. I used two somewhat unusual resources to boost my Spanish: Youtube and hotel/restaurant comments by Spanish users of Tripadvisor. On Youtube you can find a lot of Spanish material. Example: the director of the Alhambra narrates a half-hour video of the Nasrid Palace and other elements. You can play one minute of the video, pause it, go back, and play it over and over to learn the phrases.

For Tripadvisor, you can use the language filter (upper right hand corner) to show Spanish language comments first. I copied and pasted the comments into a Word document and inserted English translations of the words and phrases I did not know. This kind of material would be the most relevant to how we would be speaking; no need to waste time trying to memorize all the verb conjugations and things like that. Instead, I could just focus on phrases like “we stumbled on this restaurant, the wait staff was really good, the museum was straight ahead three blocks and then just around the corner, etc.”

It turned out that the Spanish spoken in Andalucia did not seem that different from Mexican Spanish, although they often dropped the “s” and “z” and did not seem to pronounce the “c” as if it were “th” which I was anticipating. Example of rapid Andalucian Spanish: when we were in Seville searching for the little street where Vineria San Telmo was located, I asked an old server in a café and she pointed to a big intersection and said something like “A la loo ee kerda” which of course means “a la luz, izquierda”. Who knew?

The people we encountered were extremely gracious, even busy wait staff and hotel staff, courteous, often going out of their way to show us directions and even walk with us to find a place.

Expenses: our hotels ranged from 95 euros/night/double (Toledo) to 240 euro/dbl (Madrid, a splurge, worth it). We always ate breakfast in the hotel, always really good; often we did not eat lunch but started grazing on tapas and GinTonic (thank you Maitaitom for informing us about this) or fino or manzanilla around 4 pm and then tapas or dinner later in the evening. Food costs per day: 40 – 70 euro/person. We used trains for the whole trip (but half of the Cordoba-Granada link is being rebuilt so RENFE moves you effortlessly onto a waiting bus at the midpoint, which is the town of Antequera).

Weeks before the trip, when the euro dropped down to US$1.11, we each bought US$500 worth of euros. This way we could go for days without trying to find an ATM. In fact, we did not need any more euros until the last couple of days, when we withdrew a few euros from an ATM in Madrid.

Pickpockets, hassles: nothing at all, nowhere, nada. We used money belts.

Dynamic Currency Conversion (DCC) scam-theft-ripoffs: that’s what it is, thieving bankers! We always said “euros solamente, no dolares” when handing over our credit card to pay for something. They exorbitant exchange rates used in DCC should be outlawed, the entire practice should be outlawed, IMHO.

Best of the Best for Hotels and Food

Hotels: We were really happy with the hotels in all five cities (details follow later in the report). Three were smallish and/or family-owned hotels in very old houses or palacios:
--Cordoba: Hotel Viento 10 (run by Gerardo, yayy)
--Granada: Shine Albaicin
--Toledo: Posada de Manolo (run by Manolo and Almudena, yayy)
Two were large hotels, also in old structures but totally renovated or rebuilt:
--Seville: Hotel Amadeus
--Madrid: NH Palacio de Tepa

Tapas winners:
--Cordoba: La Tinaja
--Granada: Puerta del Carmen (thank you ekscrunchy for this one)
--Seville: Azotea on Calle Mateos Gago (there are 2 Azotea tapas bars)
--Toledo: La Ludena (thank you Almudena for this one)
--Madrid: two winners during our all-too-brief stay:
>Mercado de San Miguel
>Golfo de Bizkaia

NEXT UP: first days in Cordoba

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    "We are in our late 60s and early 70s (egad, how did that happen)...."

    Indeed, our lament as well (well not quite 70's yet but it is shocking to say out loud....we're in our late 60's...)! Looking forward to full report, definitely on our bucket list and granddaughter is going with her Spanish high school class in March.

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    Thursday Day One: CORDOBA

    Arrival at Madrid airport; easy yellow express bus to Atocha station, then fast AVE train to Cordoba, passing through the arid hills of La Mancha, olive trees stretching to the horizon.

    For a first-timer to Spain, Cordoba is a good place to begin. It is a small, quiet, unpretentious place and once you get away from the Mezquita you can wander the historic center. The streets are winding, many very narrow, all whitewashed. Feels sort of like how I imagine little villages in Morocco (never been there) or Greece (never been there).

    Hotel Viento 10 on Calle Ronquillo Briceno, our home for two nights, is on a narrow alley branching off the Paseo de la Ribera along the Guadalquivir river. Owned by Gerardo, a former lawyer who bought the house nine years ago from a lute-maker and artist. The three-story structure is about 400 years old.

    The rooms are arranged around a courtyard lined with the original columns and arches. The interior spaces are furnished in a spare but luxurious-feeling modern way. There is a free spa with a hot sauna space and a Jacuzzi and bathrobes, you just reserve a time. Breakfasts are sumptuous, served by the very welcoming Carmen, and another welcoming Carmen manages the front desk when Gerardo is not present. We laughed with them about who should be named Carmen Numero Uno and Carmen Numero Dos. We never settled on that.

    The hotel is in the eastern part of the centro, 15 minutes away from the Mezquita. The area is just now being slightly renovated, with a walking route suggested by the town, the Monument Route of La Ribera. There are several little churches, some closed down and decaying.

    After checking into the hotel and resting an hour we walked around the giant Mezquita but waited til the next day in order to have plenty of time to explore it. Even in the late afternoon, with the tourist bus groups having moved on, the immediate blocks around the Mezquita were still crowded. In fact the main sights in Cordoba (especially the Mezquita and the synagogue in the Juderia) were always crowded during our stay. There seemed to be many European and North American student groups visiting the city.

    Dinner was at La Tinaja, on Paseo de la Ribera along the river, a short walk from our hotel. This was a superb dinner, 10 out of 10: wine = Vina Solorca Crianza. Jamon iberico; toast with anchovies; little potatoes hollowed out and stuffed with goat cheese and fried and covered in a light tomato sauce, fried eggplant with honey, fried bacalao cubes, tiramisu, and manzanilla (small detail: some clean, neat, large city dumpsters are about 50 feet away from the terrace dining area, no problem, but there’s also inside seating). Lovely, professional, and extremely beautiful waitresses.

    Friday Day Two

    Walked from the hotel west toward the Mezquita, on Calle Agustin Moreno. There is a nunnery here, the Convento de Santa Cruz, founded in the XVth century, run by the Order of St. Clare. This is a very famous order of nuns, founded by St. Clare of Assisi, a follower of St. Francis of Assisi. It has a pretty cobbled courtyard with greenery and flowers. There was a a plump little nun chatting away with two visitors and the nunnery sells sweets.

    Calle Agustin Moreno changes its name several times in the direction of the Mezquita--Calle Don Rodrigo, then Calle Lineros and then at Plaza del Potro it becomes Calle Lucano. This walk gives you the feeling of an old Spanish town, with whitewashed one- and two-story houses, workshops, and offices, people going about their business, little cafes and such.

    The Plaza del Potro (the Colt), is a charming square, once a market for horses and mules. Cervantes mentions the plaza in Don Quixote and there is a big plaque on the plaza wall commemorating this. Lovely small fountain with statue of a colt. Going down toward the river the plaza turns into a wide, tree-lined street, Calle Enrique Romero Torres. Many cafes and restaurants here. We would eat at two of them today, afternoon tapas at Fusion and later dinner at La Siesta.

    The Mezquita: No need to describe this stunning place, but I will say how striking the difference one feels, walking through this structure, between the Islamic and the Christian approaches to worship. In the mosque area there is, of course, no figurative work except for stylized leaves and flowers. One would kneel on the floor, face the mihrab toward Mecca, and connect to Allah in some way. In the cathedral, in the center of the mosque, the spiritual connection is strongly figurative and literal: here is a picture or a statue of the God the Father, here the Son, and here the Dove of the Spirit, and here the Mother of God. Amazing that these two faiths with such different approaches came from the same Judaic roots.

    It is certainly jarring to go from the mosque section of the structure, with its hundreds of columns and double arches, and then stumble on the cathedral smack in the middle. But I have to say that, once inside the cathedral part of the building, putting aside the fact of the surgery inflicted on the mosque, the cathedral is actually very beautiful. This was the first time I had seen the Spanish design for a big coro (choir) which is surrounded on three sides by a high wall and a grill on the side facing the main altar. This acts as a roadblock on your view if you are at the nave entrance—the main altar cannot be seen. The choir stalls, grill work, main altar, and central dome and vaulting are striking.

    We wandered through the Juderia, could not enter the synagogue because of the waiting crowds, walked around the Almodovar Gate, the sole surviving Moorish gate, and made our way to the Alcazar.

    The Alcazar of Cordoba is bare inside and guidebooks often dismiss it in discussions of the city, but we found it fascinating to wander through. It’s not well signed nor is it well lighted in some of the narrow hallways. Watch your step!

    Ferdinand and Isabella lived here in the Alcazar in 1486 and were visited by Columbus, seeking their support for his Atlantic voyage. It would take him another six years of persuasion before they agreed to support him, in a final meeting in Granada, just weeks after the Moorish surrender of that city in January, 1492.

    There are other treasures tucked away here and there but you have to look for them and use a guidebook which describes them (Rough Guide worked well here). An exhibition hall, for example, contains the largest complete Roman mosaic in existence.

    The gardens of the Cordoba Alcazar are beautiful and extensive. It’s relaxing to slowly wander the gardens and rest under the trees on a hot sunny afternoon, which was the weather we had in Cordoba in mid-October.

    All in all, we thoroughly enjoyed visiting this site; its beauty was not so overwhelming as to numb the mind (…which the Alhambra and the cathedrals of Seville and Toledo did in fact do to me).

    Now on to important things like afternoon tapas and then later our attempt to be Just Like Real Genuine Spanish People, i.e., eating dinner at 10 pm and walking around til midnight.

    Afternoon tapas at Fusion, Calle Enrique Romero Torres: slices of parmesan cheese, salmorejo (cold pureed vegetable soup topped with chopped egg and ham), smoked sardines with sepia sauce and tomato salsa; to drink: oloroso (a light sherry), Cruz Campo beer, and Pedro Ximenez.

    After a full day of exploring Cordoba, we took advantage of the hotel’s spa, had a long Jacuzzi soak, then hit the streets for dinner.

    Evening dinner at La Siesta, also on Calle Enrique Romero Torres: a bottle of Ramon Bilbao Crianza 2012 Rioja, cod done two ways: bacalao confitado = cod cooked in olive oil at low temperature, covered in a creamy sauce, and bacalao mozarabe = cod in a Pedro Ximenez reduction. Note to self: in reading up on Spanish wines, I kept bumping into Pedro Ximenez and, without paying much attention to what I was reading, I assumed it was a brand name. But it’s actually a grape used to make different kinds of sherry and sweet after dinner wines.

    The fish was fresh and the flavors mild and delicious. But the memorable part of the dinner was talking with our waiter. When he first started explaining things to us I thought that he was the most hectic, nervous, fast-talking Spaniard I had encountered so far. Turns out he was Cuban, from Havana, and that explained it. From living in Key West, a town with a large Cuban population, some today’s refugees, many fifth-generation Cuban Americans, we are familiar with the rapid pace of Cuban Spanish (we’re familiar with it but cannot understand it!) He agreed with us, saying that Habaneros speak an especially rapid kind of Spanish and that Spanish visitors often can’t understand a thing they say. He was in his twenties, had fled Cuba on a plane whose flight departure information listed Serbia as the destination but the plane actually landed in Rome, where he obtained political refugee status from the Italian authorities. From there he moved to Spain, obtained residency and work papers, and there he was in Cordoba. What a story.

    We finished dinner around 11:15 pm, proud of ourselves to still be awake. We wanted to take a look at the Plaza de la Corredera, built in the 1600s. From the web photos it looked like a big, sober, grand plaza. We imagined it to be elegant and empty in the late evening. Walking through the narrow streets toward the plaza, we began to hear a low buzz, then a rumble, then a roar of human voices. Turning a corner and entering the plaza, we saw hundreds of people sitting at café tables covering the big plaza, laughing, shouting, eating, drinking, kids running around, teenagers hanging around doing their thing. Hey folks, its almost midnight! Why aren’t you all asleep? We walked around the plaza a few minutes then went back to the hotel, had a sound sleep, woke up late the next morning deciding that we would abandon our effort to eat dinner on Spanish time.

    Next up: our RENFE near-catastrophe on our way to Seville

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    "We finished dinner around 11:15 pm, proud of ourselves to still be awake." are to be commended. In our three weeks we never quite made the late, late dinner. I'm afraid one of us would have ended face down in a plate of paella. Great report. Look forward to more. Spain rocks!


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    Saturday Day Three: GRANADA

    (note: that previous sentence should read: “on our way to Granada” – you can see how stressful the whole thing was for me)

    We slept late, recovering from Our Night As Real Spaniards. Enjoyed another of Carmen’s excellent breakfasts. Actually, most of our hotels served great breakfasts like this—breads, croissants, two or three kinds of jam, café con leche, jamon, chorizo, juices, oh my.

    We slowly got organized, packed, left our suitcases at the front desk and took a walk around the neighborhood. A quiet Saturday morning. Of course it would be since these folks had not gone to bed til 4 a.m. A little boy kicking a soccer ball with his dad in front of the family tienda. Ah, we were so wise to book a 1:30 p.m. train out of Cordoba for Granada. This left us the entire morning to relax, enjoy our part of the centro, then take a leisurely taxi to the Cordoba train station.

    Approaching the station, our taxi driver explained that the station (modern, beautiful, spacious) was built for the 500th anniversary of Columbus’ discovery of America. When construction crews were excavating for the foundations they uncovered extensive Roman ruins, the good part of which are now in museums.

    It was now 12:45 p.m. Plenty of time to check in for our 1:30 p.m. train. Walking into the station I pulled out my RENFE tickets which I had printed at home weeks before. I looked at the departure time.

    Insert here: musical score from the shower scene in Psycho.

    The tickets read:

    “CORDOBA SALIDA 10:39 h”

    Uh oh. This was not good. Many weeks before, I had originally written the earlier departure on the small notes with all the train times, hotel addresses and such that I keep in my pocket. And then I must have decided to take a later train and forgotten to change the notes. Very much not good. The trip to Granada takes almost four hours. Many weeks before we had bought tickets for the 8:00 p.m. night tour of the Alhambra. Even if we could obtain two seats on a fast train later in the afternoon (highly doubtful, these AVE and AVIA trains often are full at this point), the tickets would cost us a fortune. And we’d probably not be able to be at the front door of the Nasrid Palace in time for the night tour.

    I went to the customer service office and was greeted by a stunningly beautiful RENFE person. Side note just to relieve the tension: the Spanish, at least in Andalucia, are a handsome/beautiful bunch, those folks under 40, and after that point they morph into very distinctive types. Just my opinion, but it must be the influence of a few thousand years of Iberian-Phoenician-Greek-Roman-Visigothic-Moorish-Christian living.

    Back to the story, greatly condensed:

    Me, broken Spanish, trying to look aged and befuddled (not a stretch at the moment): “I misread our tickets, I thought it said 1:30, whine whine whine. Can we get seats on the 1:30 train? Will we have to pay a lot more money?”
    She: “So you misread the time? You did not just come late for the train?”
    Me: “Yes, I misread the time, there are so many numbers, it is so complicated to reserve on the internet, I misread the time, whine whine whine.”

    The agent sprang into action, in the no-fuss way that so many Spanish we encountered handle things, in contast to, say, Naples. Rapid typing on the computer terminal, phone calls, questions asked of her colleague next to her, more computering, more calling. The answer: we were booked on the 1:30. There would be no penalty fee. Booked on the train. No penalty fee. This droppeth like a gentle rain from heaven.

    Insert here: Hallelujah chorus from Handel’s Messiah.

    She walked us over to another office, talked to the jefe, papers inspected, passed back and forth between them, more talk, more talk, jefe signs a paper, paper is stapled to my ticket, handed to me.

    She, rapid Spanish (it is now 1:17 p.m.): “You need to go to Via 3 … blah blah … position 6 …. But not coach 6 …. Coach 8 …. At position 6 …. 8 …. 6 …. 8”
    Me: total incomprehension.
    She: asks her English-speaking colleague to walk me to the track, which is track 3, but we need to stand at the place marked 6 on the landing even though our tickets are for coach 8 because when the incoming train from Madrid pulls into the station it will stop such that coach 8 will be in front of position 6. Clear as day. Got it?
    Me: Got it! MUCHAS GRACIAS!

    What a heart-warming encounter with RENFE officialdom, viva RENFE!

    The rest of the trip to Granada was a breeze, with a smooth transfer midway at Antequera to a RENFE bus to Granada because of new rail construction in that area.

    We taxied to our Granada hotel, Shine Albayzin, Carrera del Darro 25. This street borders the Darro river, which forms a valley between the edge of the Alhambra hill east of the river and the hilly Albayzin quarter to the west. I see that I spelled it with a “c” earlier, which you see often, but the hotel name uses a “z”. This is the old Moorish quarter, more on that later.

    The hotel is in a 16th century palace and the rooms are on four floors, arranged around a beautiful courtyard. Many of the buildings on the Carrera del Darro were built in the 1500s, as the Christians slowly pushed the Moors out of this quarter, pulling down the mosques and baths and taking over their houses. There’s a novel by Tariqu Ali that I must read, all about a Moorish family in 1492 in the days and weeks following the surrender of Granada to the Christians and the massive changes in their lives which start happening, week by week, month by month.

    Philip III finally expelled all Moors from Spain in 1609, regardless of whether they had converted to Christianity decades before. It was truly an ethnic cleansing: if your great-great-grandfather had been a Moor in 1492 but then the family had converted to Christianity, didn’t matter, you had to leave in 1609.

    We had reserved the top floor suite with a wide wall of tall windows looking out at the Alhambra fortress (Alcazaba). Walking into the room, we were…to use a wonderful English expression…gobsmacked. I had looked at a lot of hotel sites in this area, trying to decipher what the various rooms would be like based on the web site photos. Sometimes this works, sometimes it doesn’t. This definitely did.

    A great way to forget the late unpleasantness of my RENFE botch-up and to slide into the Alhambra Experience that evening.

    Next up: the Alhambra

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    Saturday Day Three (and some of Four): The ALHAMBRA

    We walked from our hotel down to the Plaza Nueva to Calle de los Reyes Catolicos #40, the Libreria Alhambra, in order to retrieve our tickets from the machine. We had bought tickets for three visits: night tour at 8:00 p.m., then the day ticket for the 8:30 a.m. – 2:00 p.m. slot, and also the 2:00 p.m. – 5:00 p.m. slot. Our strategy was to give ourselves plenty of time for the day experience so that we could relax over an unhurried lunch and let our brains rest before continuing on to the Generalife gardens. This worked very well; I recommend it for people who like “slow travel,” and the afternoon ticket doesn’t cost that much in the grand scheme of things.

    After I inserted the credit card which I had used back home to buy our tickets on the web, the machine spit out the first pair, for the evening tour. Insert the card again, out comes the second pair for the next morning’s visit. Insert card again, out comes one card for the afternoon visit and … no second card, nothing. Look at the machine. Be calm. Be Spanish. Do not wave arms, sweat, curse. Walk over to the live human at the booth next to the machine. In cool unstressed Spanish, say: I bought two afternoon tickets but the machine only printed one. The cool unstressed Spanish staff person walks over to the ticket machine, sticks her hand way up inside the beast, and pulls out my crumpled, folded ticket, smooths it flat, and gives it to me. No problem.

    Methinks this is not the first time this has happened. Hence, I shall begin to list occasional Helpful Hints, an idea created by Tdudette in her excellent Madrid TR of March 22, 2014:

    Hint 1. The ticket machine at Libreria Alhambra on Calle Reyes Catolicos sometimes sticks. Don’t panic. Ask the clerk to extract your wrinkled ticket.

    Hint 2. Related to #1—print out your acknowledgement email from Alhambra/Ticketmaster after you have purchased your ticket online; it can serve as a backup if the machine says it does not have a record of your purchase. I saw an Indian couple in great distress at the morning entrance gate, with papers given to them by the Libreria apparently because of some printing glitch.

    Hint 3. For the evening tours of the Alhambra, you can ONLY enter through the Puerta de Justicia/Justice Gate. I just happened to ask the clerk at the Libreria if we could use that gate instead of the eastern, main entrance since the Justice Gate was closer to our hotel. It was then that she volunteered that, indeed, we could and we definitely should use that gate.

    Tickets in hand, we went back toward the hotel and stopped for late afternoon tapas at La Fontana, Carrera del Darro 19. This is a comfortable little café with several eating spaces and a very busy and capable bar. Me: a fino, love this stuff. Partner: a cana. Some salmorejo and anchovies. Just what we needed to get us through the night visit and then on to more food and drink.

    In planning the Alhambra part of the trip, I wasn’t sure the night tour would be worth the effort, as opposed to spending the entire night in some other worthwhile activity, i.e., drinking fino and eating lots of different tapas. But indeed it was. We knew that the route up the Alhambra hill would involve some steep walking so we set out around 7:00 p.m., took the Cuesta Gomerez from Plaza Nueva, through the big stone Gate of the Pomegranates (“Granada” = pomegranate in Spanish = origin of English word “grenade”).

    Once past the gate, we took the walking path at the left (there are three paths facing you: gravel to the left, asphalt access road in the middle, and another path going who knows where to the right). The walking path on the left takes you easily up to the Charles V fountain; turn left and voila—there’s the Justice Gate. But be forewarned, the walking path is steep, about a 40 degree angle. A good cardio workout. Give yourself about 20-30 minutes for a slow, unsweaty ascent from Plaza Nueva.

    Hint #4. The path from Cuesta de Gomerez is really steep. Give yourself plenty of time to walk up comfortably.

    There was no ticket check at the Justice Gate. I think it must be open most of the day and evening because it is the access point to get to Hotel America and the Parador along the Calle Real, inside the walls of the Alhambra complex. (I wonder if you can also enter freely in the evening from the main entrance at the eastern end?)

    We arrived at the ticket checkpoint for the Nasrid Palace/Palacio Nazaries about 7:30 p.m. and there was just one person ahead of us. So when the guard let us in at 8:00 p.m., we walked quickly through the first couple of rooms. I had read about the rooms of the palace in a great little guide book, “The Alhambra and Generalife in Focus,” and I knew roughly about the splendors to come. This meant that we could move quickly to get to the truly splendiferous rooms ahead of the crowd, take photos, and enjoy them just by ourselves, with only that one other person wandering around sometimes.

    The lighting effects on the evening tour make this astonishing building incredibly beautiful. This prepares you for the daytime visit the next day. Also, you do not have access on the evening tour of some parts of the palace near the Partal Gardens but you do go through these spaces on the daytime visit (can’t remember the names of these, but they include some overlooks and colonnaded covered bridge type sections with great views of the city below). I had no sense the next day that I had “already done the palace” – the rooms are so complex, the perspectives so masterfully designed as you move from one room to another to a courtyard to a hallway, etc., that the daylight visit is a quite different experience. Besides, for someone who has seen “North by Northwest” eight times, how could I be bored only on my second visit to the Nasrid Palace?

    Here, just a word about the ornamentation (not quite the right word) of the palace walls, ceilings, domes, and arches. There is no representation of humans, of course. In addition to abstract, geometrical designs on the wall tiles and the arches and domes, there is Arabic script all over the place. I took a number of photos of this. It’s bewitching, the script sometimes is angular, sometimes curved, entwined in and out of the stylized leaves and flowers and abstractions. I knew it must be quotations from the Koran but I could not grasp the full impact of the integration of the writing, whatever it said, with the decoration.

    Then, toward the end of the daytime palace visit, I found a book in the gift shop called “Reading the Alhambra,” by Jose Miguel Puerta Vilchez. It describes every inscription in the palace, with photos of every wall or ceiling surface containing writing. This is a history geek’s delight. Vilchez says: “It is not enough merely to see the Alhambra to obtain a complete idea of the intentions of its builders and the deep roots of its magnificence; to do that you have to read it, read what the builders inscribed on its walls and its arches in majestic epigraphic panels….”

    There are actually two Arabic scripts used for the inscriptions: an ancient Kufic script, very angular, and the later cursive script. The first lends itself to complex, angular designs and the second works well with flowers and leaves and such. Throughout the palace are inscriptions for “blessing” (baraka), “good fortune” (yumn), and “there is no victor for God” (this was the official motto of the Nasrid dynasty. There are many quotations from the Koran and poems.

    Different rooms had inscriptions related to their functions. In the Courtyard of the Lions, for example, a long poem is inscribed around the rim of the fountain, composed in honor of the sultan, Mohammed V: “Can’t you see how the water runs through the bowl, but the bowl itself stops its flow, just as the lover whose tears are on the brink keeps them in for fear they might betray him…Oh you who behold the lions before you, only their respect for you restrains them from attack…may God’s peace be with you, may you live forever…”

    I will pass on describing individual blockbuster rooms and spaces like the Mexuar, Comares, and court of the lions; they are well covered all over the web and in various TRs. However, I have to talk a little about the Comares Tower and one of the magnificent rooms there, the Hall of the Ambassadors, sometimes called the Throne Room. The domed ceiling is beyond description, composed of 8,000 separate pieces of wood, colored and fitted together in a mind-boggling jigsaw pattern. The design symbolizes Mohammed’s ascent through six heavens, reaching the seventh heaven, a small brilliant white piece in the center of the dome, representing divine power.

    Here’s the spooky part: Yusuf I built this throne room and the rest of the tower sometime between 1333 and 1354. Dante had just completed the Paradiso section of the Divine Comedy about 1320. In the last lines of the Paradiso, Dante enters the realm of God, apprehending an infinitely small, infinitely brilliant point of divine light.

    Whew. Danger of brain overload. I finally exited the Nasrid Palace, wandered the Partal Gardens, and went to the Charles I Palace to meet my partner who had slept late, recovering from a bad back experience on the plane ride over.

    We went into the Palace of Charles I (his Spanish title) / V (his Holy Roman Emperor number). If you could extract this palace and plop it down in an empty field, it would be an imposing thing: a circle enclosed by a square, a design developed by an architect who was a student of Michelangelo. Bumping up against the south side of the Nasrid Palace, however, it feels like a desecration.

    The Alhambra Museum inside the Charles V Palace has superb displays not only of large objects such as original Alhambra doors but also small household objects from the Nasrid dynasty: children’s ceramic toys, washing bowls, thimbles and needles, jewelry made from gold filigree barely the thickness of a human hair. It has the Fountain of Lindaraja, an enormous Alhambra fountain bowl, 6 feet 10 inches in diameter, carved from a solid block of marble. All around the rim is a poem: “My beauty is of the highest degree…My immense capacity has never been seen in the East or the West, neither could any King, either Arab or not, achieve it, I am in truth the very firmament of water….”

    Then on to a really delicious, long lunch at Hotel America.

    Afterwards, we walked around the open sections of the Parador, which includes the walls of the original Alhambra mosque, now just an open courtyard, Then past the checkpoint for the Generalife (it is now 2:05 p.m. and we are using our third ticket, the afternoon ticket to visit only the Generalife). This checkpoint is very near the Parador and the Partal Gardens, so we are still in the western half of the Alhambra complex. We had a pleasant walk eastward into the Generalife gardens and the pavillon with its reflecting pool.

    Exiting the entire Alhambra about 3:30 p.m., I calculated that, all told, I had spent about seven hours, evening and daytime, in the complex.

    Next up: more tapas in GRANADA

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    Saturday and Sunday Days Three & Four GRANADA

    OK, so it’s a little confusing: I lumped together all my impressions of the Alhambra just for some coherence. We did the Alhambra night tour Saturday and then spent a lot of Sunday there, as described above. Here are comments, first, about one more sight and then the important stuff, food in Granada.

    The Capilla Real: this has been covered a lot in TRs, so just a few impressions. This is a very serious place for Spanish people, sort of like the Lincoln Memorial only more so. No photos, guards, a quiet atmosphere. It really drove home to us the close alliance, almost union, of Monarchy and Church centuries ago and the momentous events of 1492--within the first four months of that year, Ferdinand and Isabella had #1 completed the Reconquista by capturing Granada, #2 decreed the expulsion of the Jews from Spain, and #3 funded Columbus’ voyage.

    The building and the main altar, flanked by life-sized statues of the two monarchs done just a short while after their deaths, are splendid. We focused on a number of things in the chapel and the treasury area: the cape covering Isabella as her body was carried from Valladolid to Granada; her mirror, missal, Bible, crown; Ferdinand’s sword.

    Leaving the chapel, we walked around the cathedral. The name of the founder of the fascist Falange party in the 1930s, Jose Antonio Primo de Rivera, is engraved on the western wall of the cathedral. It is splattered with red paint. A Mass is said every year for the soul of Generalissimo Franco. Just sayin’.

    On to food….

    Los Diamantes, Saturday eve: after the night tour we exited through the Justice Gate and walked back down to the Plaza Nueva (insight: it’s easier walking down a 40 degree incline than walking up). The city was really hopping, a very easy-going fun ambiance, sort of like Mardi Gras without the drunkenness. Following ekscrunchy’s notes, we went to Los Diamantes on Plaza Nueva. Packed with people munching on various fried seafood creatures and drinking canas (how do I do a tilde on my keyboard?) I believe eks’ adjective for the bar itself was “heaving” and this was accurate. But no hostile shoving, just a gentle insinuation, bellying up to a four-inch opening at the bar and then gradually widening that.

    Forewarned, I had my Spanish phrase all prepared to shout at the waiter: CHIPIRONES DOS CANAS. Boy, these guys are good. They’re data sponges, they move fast but don’t seem rushed, everything’s under control and they are pumping out chipirones, boquerones, mejillones, every little swimming creature imaginable. Oh my, when we got our plate it was the best of the best, our little squid full of fried crunchy goodness.

    However, inhibited as we are, we could not take an hour of this manic pace, so on to another spot after finishing up our beers. Where next? Consulting the Fodorite notes archive, we headed for another of ekscrunchy’s faves, La Puerta del Carmen on the Plaza del Carmen. (Carmen = originally, a term for a Moorish house such as those which once covered the Albaizin. Don’t know if it has another meaning. Sort of an odd name for a Plaza.)

    Before going into the restaurant, we paused to admire the Plaza del Carmen. It’s now about 10:00 p.m. Even though we had not intended to do so, it looked like we were going to do another Real Spanish Dinner Night. No matter. The plaza was beautiful at night, with the Ayuntamiento city hall building all lit up with the flags and such.

    Off to Puerta del Carmen restaurant on the other side of the plaza. This is a marvelous space, a kind of art-deco-ish restaurant inside a solid granite-looking building, lots of old-fashioned glass windows looking out on trees and the illuminated plaza. We waited in the foyer for the maître d’ and he signaled that we could have a table in 10 minutes or so. I spied a couple of empty tables but we resolved to be Good Respectful Tourists: we knew the waiter was not simply refusing to seat us, rather, those tables were probably reserved, or they were probably held back because some regulars who have been coming to this place for 23 years and whose cousins are married to the chef, or something like that….these regulars always come here at 10:15 on a Saturday night, etc.

    While standing in the foyer, we surveyed the bar scene. Half a dozen youngish folks sitting, drinking, chatting, noshing on tapas. Just in front of us, behind the bar, was the master jamon slicer. There must be a Spanish word for this person. In the best places, I have read that only the master slicer cuts the prized, best quality jamon. One place actually told customers that it could not serve jamon that night because the Master Slicer was sick. Anyway, this master slicer was slowly cutting super thin, almost transparent pieces of jamon from a leg of ham, slicing them symmetrically into elongated triangles, each one with a delicate edge of white nutritious fat, then placing them very carefully on a large plate in a sunburst pattern. Finally, after many minutes, the plate was completed. He carried it over to a young couple at the bar. Lo and behold, the lovely young woman took the plate and handed it to us, saying “take some!” Is Spain a GREAT COUNTRY or what???

    Patience rewarded. The maître d’ comes over and seats us next to the front window. We start with a bottle of Marques de Murrieta Rioja 2009 Reserva. Sipping the wine, looking out the window, enjoying the plaza view, we see … a young lady wearing a long tunic shirt and apparently no …. pants? Right in front of the restaurant? Talking at length with a young gentleman? Hmmm. Well, I’ve read that prostitution is legal in Spain and everyone else inside and outside the restaurant took no notice, so we carried on with our dinner.

    Which was: jamon iberico to start, then steak and pork shoulder (codillo), with an after dinner shot of a new digestivo find, Rua Vieja, really good, sort of like an Italian amaro.

    After a good walk along Reyes Catolicos, through Mardi Gras on the Plaza Nueva and the Carrera del Darro, we finally got to bed about 11:30 p.m. Great day and great night!

    Next up: SEVILLE

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    Addendum to GRANADA

    Forgot to mention our dusk walk through the Albaizin to the San Nicolas Mirador for the view across the Darro river valley to the Alhambra.

    We must have been visiting an alternate reality Albaicin. In contrast to much that I had read, the narrow hilly streets, which we explored a little at dusk and early evening, were clean, not covered in dog-droppings, not that difficult to maneuver, with no sulking thieves waiting to pounce. At one point, when Calle Zafra zigzagged in a way not shown on our map, we asked for help (“disculpe disculpe senor donde esta, etc.”) from a cluster of half a dozen neighbors drinking in the lane and they jovially pointed us in the right direction. (Note for future walkers: if you are on the Carrera del Darro and take Calle Zafra up the hill, it is going to jog to your right and then 200 feet ahead it will turn to the left and cross the Calle San Juan de Los Reyes and pass the little Plaza de Toqueros. At this point I think we passed the apartments which Maitaitom used on his recent trip, looked like a great spot.)

    The same good news held for the San Nicolas Mirador: this was not a massively over-visited site when we arrived, simply dozens of people gathered in the square, all of them absorbing the evening panorama of the illuminated Alhambra beyond us and half-moon above, the city lights spread out below, a gorgeous sight—no smell of pot, no hawkers or guitar players, just a very mellow bunch. We loved slowly walking along the twisting lanes; the street lanterns shining on the cobblestones and white walls made for some good photos.

    Once again, next up: SEVILLA

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    Enjoying your report. Loving all the little details and historical asides.

    I think we were within a few days of each other, illuminated Alhambra beyond us and half-moon above, that's how it was for us too. We are also glad we split our Alhambra visit over several entries.

    Spain was indeed fantastic and the Spanish people were wonderful. We came seriously close to extending our trip when we had just two days left, but finally decided there were too many moving parts.

    Maybe I'll cobble together a brief synopsis of our trip, but a real TR will wait some weeks for a photo album.

    In any case now that maitaitom's TR has sadly come to an end, looking forward to more of yours to relive our trip!

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    just found this, EYWandBTV, and loving it.

    we too saw the Alhambra by night before our day-time trip and never felt that it was overkill.

    what with coping with cuban spanish, embracing late dinners and ignoring knickerless ladies, you seem to have absorbed the local culture pretty fast.


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    So you are continuing your fascinating report about Spain? We explored Madrid-Andalucia-Lisbon a year ago with Grand Circle Travel. At 84 I was dragging behind but didn't fall or even stumble. After dealing with congestive heart failure this summer (though improved) I doubt we will venture overseas again...last trip Elbe R. cruise last Spring. Both reports are on Fodors. But we will continue Road Scholar programs as we are able (two in Florida next Feb. when snowing in Boston?)

    Anyway I appreciated your Madrid, Cordoba, Granada descriptions. Mezquita of course is just splendid and thanks for the thoughts on worship (as a retired pastor). Yes, Columbus did get support from Isabella and Ferdinand for his exploration but did you know they threw him in jail when he returned? You would enjoy Michael Meyer's book "Isabella the Warrior Queen." No doubt like me you read alot about Spain. We did see the small synagogue. Relaxed at a cafe on Ave. de la Libertad.

    Your description of Granada is beyond what we could appreciate in our briefer visit and also it rained hard. I liked you pointing to ornamentation and you did mention the fountains but not so much the lovely gardens, all so important to Moorish culture. With my walking disability this day was a bit of a challenge. After lunch we moved on to Torremolinos so you enjoyed more in Granada than did we.

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    Thanks all for the comments.

    Ozarksbill: yes, re gardens, magnificent, but Spain, just the region of Andalucia alone, is such a treasure chest that I am leaving out a lot of detail in this TR...and we only stayed 10 nights!

    I touched lightly on the difference between the mosque area and the cathedral area of the Mezquita. The issue is so inflamed, with current events. But the difference was quite striking to me.

    I read your Spain TR before our departure, very helpful background--please excuse my not acknowledging your report earlier.

    Annhig: re Cuban Spanish, midnight strolls, and knickers or lack thereof: Spain is so full of life, in all its variety...but in a very different way from southern Italy. No theatrics, no hand waving or horn-beeping, no opera buffa in day to day life, but rather a dignified, friendly, no-nonsense approach to the day's questions. I love both places.

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    Monday Day 5 - SEVILLA

    We took the bus from the Granada train station (because of the reconstruction of the rail lines) to Antequera, then transferred easily to the train bound for Sevilla.

    We checked into Hotel Amadeus on Calle Farnesio in Barrio Santa Cruz. Again, a very comfortable hotel, well located, just a half block away from the eastern end of Calle Mateos Gago (about three blocks away from this hotel is a great stretch of tapas bars and cafes on Mateos Gago, very near the Giralda plaza). We sprang for a suite and appreciated the extra space in the room. Closing the windows in the evening and then closing the wooden inside covers made the room totally dark and quiet. The evenings were cool so we did not need open windows.

    The staff of the hotel was outstanding. They helped us buy tickets for two flamenco shows at the Casa del Flamenco and the Casa de la Memoria and printed our tickets.

    Time for a tapas lunch:

    Azotea on Calle Mateos Gago, just across the plaza from the Giralda, score: 10 out of 10. This is a highly rated but simple, unpretentious tapas bar, friendly too. Our lunch (at 3:00 p.m.): this place has invented perhaps the world’s greatest tapas—“saquitos”—little bags. Pastry triangles stuffed with chicken and goat cheese, fried, served with a kind of creamy tomato sauce. Oh, pure fried goodness. Also: lomito = small slices of cured pork loin; ensaladilla = potato, smoked fish, capers and mayonnaise mixture shaped in a little mound; pulpo a feira con parmentier = cold, cooked octopus pieces in a little vinegar on slices of potato. Truly truly outstanding. With GinTonics.

    We walked around the huge Cathedral and the Giralda bell tower (former minaret of the mosque) and the Plaza del Triunfo. Everyone was in a happy mood. The carriage drivers politely asked if you wanted a ride as you walked past. I am soaking in the relaxing atmosphere of this elegant city.

    For dinner:

    Vineria San Telmo: good and fun but not surpassingly great like Azotea; salmon tataki with onions and leeks; warm red cabbage with mascarpone, gorgonzola, and pine nuts; bismilla (Morroccan type pastry filled with chopped chicken, raisins and pine nuts, dusted with cinnamon and sugar), GinTonics, canas, and vino de naranja (“orange wine”—no idea how they make this but it’s a nice slightly sweet after-dinner wine).

    Tuesday Day 6: more SEVILLA

    This morning we tackled the cathedral. I had read the foreboding statistics. It used to be considered the third largest Christian church in the world but new calculations apparently show that it is in fact the largest, number one. The Guinness Book of Records has given them a certificate. (Does this matter? my evil twin asks…)

    The cathedral is a massive thing and I am not quite able to absorb it all when I enter. I had the same reaction visiting St. Peter’s in Rome. The scale is one step beyond the glorious stage and my brain is numb. The main altar is 65 feet high, covered in gold. The spotlights on the altar make the gold almost blinding, it’s hard to distinguish the details of the many sculpted figures.

    The cathedral has many treasures: the coronation cloak of Charles V, Felipe III’s banner which was hoisted over the Grand Mosque after the conquest of Sevilla in 1248 (history geek note: the Moorish kingdom of Granada was allied with Ferdinand III and helped him conquer the Moorish kingdom of Sevilla; these cross-religious alliances were not unusual—Machiavellianism was the rule; Christian Byzantium, for example, was allied for a time with the Moorish kingdom of Cordoba and the Byzantine emperor sent some of the precious mosaic materials and workmen to help build the mihrab in the Cordoba Grand Mosque.)

    Lunch: back to Azotea. More saquitos, gazpacho (a creamy, orangey, tomatoey version, delicious), carillada (pork cheek) al vino with purple radish sprouts as a garnish (why not?). I want to live in Azotea.

    After lunch:

    Archivo de Indias: this was for us surprisingly interesting—a beautiful building; the historical archives of the explorers and merchant traders of the Americas are kept under lock and key, but copies are exhibited. Documents signed by Columbus, Ponce de Leon, Magellan, early maps of Florida, parts of the Gulf Coast of what is now the coast of Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama, many Latin American countries.

    The museum has a cannon from a Spanish treasure ship which sank off the Florida Keys in 1622, Nuestra Senora de Atocha. The American diver who discovered the wreck of the Atocha in the 1970s donated the cannon to the museum.

    The museum has two fine Goya portraits of Queen Luisa of Parma and Charles IV. This is a hint of the Goya glories we are about to see in a few days in the Prado.

    Back to the hotel to energize and then get ready for our first flamenco experience. I was ambivalent about attending a flamenco show. I had looked at a couple of videos on Youtube and could not relate to the dancers. The singing seemed raucous and unpleasant. I actually suggested to partner that we forego flamenco this trip and instead just relax and eat tapas and … drink. However, we opted for a cultural experience and off we went.

    7:30 p.m. Flamenco at the Casa del Flamenco in the Hotel Alcantara. This place gets high marks by various posters here and elsewhere. The place is very simply arranged ( = a good thing), just a stage, a few rows of seats around three sides of the stage, no drinks, no food. This night the dancers are Lola Jaramillo and Jesus Herrera. I forgot the names of the singer and the guitarist. From the little I have read, the singer is actually considered more important than the dancers, which is not the general impression of foreign visitors, I don’t believe.

    For the first dance the man and woman danced together. Little by little their bodies twined around each other, almost touching but not quite. The dance became sensual, erotic. My goodness…gasp, do they really let children under 16 see this performance?

    The second song was danced by the woman alone. She had a striking appearance, a chiseled face, beautiful, strong features. Her hair was jet black and pulled tightly to the back of her head. She began her dance slowly, clicking castanets. I can’t quite find the right words but she moved in a very graceful but also very muscular way. From time to time she broke into rapid, very rapid tap dancing, and toward the end of her dance her expression became intense, almost tortured.

    For the third song, the man danced alone. His dance was frenzied, with mesmerizing, rapid-fire tap dancing and leg movements. At times he seemed almost to be in a trance. He shirt was drenched with sweat at the end.

    The audience was really into the performance, lots of clapping, and I think we all were exhausted when the show ended. I’m glad we chose Casa del Flamenco for our first exposure to flamenco.

    We headed back toward Mateos Gago for dinner:

    Cerveceria Giralda: This was in the same block as Azotea. We had one tapas plate to begin: grilled octopus, pulpo, with sauce on a bed of potatoes. Pulpo and jamon have become my favorite things. Then the waiter suggested the large mixed plate of fried seafood. This was a great choice. It was a huge plate of many different kinds of seafood: squid, whitefish, anchovies, mussels, clams, other little friend chunks of sea critters that I could not identify, resting on a bed of friend vegetables. White wine and canas for drinks. Total satisfaction, 10 out of 10.

    Time to rest up in order to prepare for more Sevilla.

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    Fabulous trip report full of interesting details and observations!

    About Plaza de la Corredera in Cordoba: <Turning a corner and entering the Plaza, we saw hundreds of people sitting at café tables covering the big plaza, laughing, shouting, eating, drinking, kids running around, teenagers hanging around doing their thing. Hey folks, its almost midnight! Why aren’t you all asleep?>
    This goes on at least until three in the morning both here and in close by Plaza de las Tendillas, at least in the week-ends. Wonderful city!

    And good to see you had a fine flamenco experience in Casa del Flamenco. Your two dancers seem to go way back together, here in a clip from 2008:

    And yes, the song/cante is considered the essential part of flamenco from where the rest grows. The dance is much about communication with the song and guitar (or also other instruments today), and it can be extremely powerful when this communication works. A couple of examples:
    Joaquin Grilo and flamenco piano genious Dorantes.
    Rocío Molina and La Tremendita:

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    Yes, we too enjoyed Casa del Flamenco performance. New experience and exciting. kimhe, surely you will list more performances on youtube. For which I thank you. Santa Marie Cathedral...amazing. Enjoyed walking through Jewish section.

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    Wednesday Day 7 – more Sevilla

    Oh what bliss, to wake up in Sevilla on a sunny morning! I love this city.

    Another delicious breakfast at the Hotel Amadeus. This time on the roof terrace overlooking the skyline, Jacuzzi to the right of us (empty at this morning hour), sofas and tables with miniature kumquat (?) trees in front, the coffee and drinks bar to our left. Fueled with lots of fruit and bread and jam and cheese and croissants and café con leche, we headed out to the Alcazar.

    First, a word about preprinted tickets with reserved time slots. It’s required for the Alcazar (and, separately, for the Palacio Real Alto inside the Alcazar if you wish to go there) in Seville as well as the Alhambra in Granada and the Prado in Madrid. We reserved the Alhambra two months ahead of time but we had our hotels reserve one day in advance for the other two.

    Hint #5: reserve your tickets, with time slots, sufficiently in advance for the major sites which carefully manage the number of visitors entering the premises, such as the three mentioned above.

    The Alcazar is a stone’s throw from the Plaza del Triunfo. What a beautiful and historically important public space this plaza is, with the Giralda, Cathedral, Archivo de Indias, the Ayuntamiento city hall and, nearby, the Alcazar.

    Many visitors rank the Alcazar as the equal of the Alhambra. I would rank it 97.87352 per cent as magnificent as the Alhambra. They are both variations on the same theme, with the main part of the Alcazar having been constructed during the reign of Pedro I in the mid-1300s. It is perhaps the prime example of mudejar architecture, designed and built by Moorish craftsmen for Christian monarchs.

    There are dozens of magnificent rooms in the palace complex, most well described in TRs and web sources so no need to describe them further. I’ll just mention our visit to the royal apartments still used from time to time by the king and queen today, the Palacio Real Alto. You can reserve your ticket ahead of time or buy it at the entrance on the second floor ( = “planta I”). Only 15 persons are permitted during the guided tour, which is given every 30 minutes. There were only two other people during our time slot, but in high season I am guessing it would be wise to reserve tickets ahead of time.

    The main rooms in these royal apartments are not massive; their dimensions felt impressive but not oppressive. This was mudejar décor at its finest. As well, the original colors on the decorations of the upper walls and ceilings were intact, in contrast to the Alhambra, where many sections of the wall and ceiling ornamentation have lost their colors (but not the ceramic tile work on the lower walls, however; these retain their brilliance). Especially fine was the Sala de Audiencias, which today’s monarchs still use for official receptions.

    After spending a couple of hours in the palace complex, we stepped outside, to the edge of the vast gardens, and had lunch on the outside terrace of the cafeteria. The choice of dishes is not huge here but we had a really good chicken curry, which was a welcome change of pace from jamon, cheese, and fried fish.

    This was another “stop-the-clock-I-want-to-live-here-forever” moment. Dappled sunlight, royal gardens in front of us, tasty food, little kids talking with their parents around us, and … peacocks! Peacocks all over the place. The little girl next to us kept feeding them, tossing pieces of bread on the ground. One crumb of bread landed next to my foot and I had to fend off a starving peacock attack. They are beautiful creatures, but quite ill-tempered.

    We returned to the palace, visited most of the rest of the rooms and hallways, then went out into the magnificent gardens. I am wearing out these superlative adjectives but I have no choice. We wandered all over the gardens, which have several different areas. Especially interesting was the Garden of the Grotesque and the water organ, powered by water moving through organ pipes, one of only four in the world. It plays every hour on the hour. We were lucky to pass by it just a few minutes before it played. Was it a transcendent experience? Er, no. It sounded like a primitive phonograph playing Dance of the Skeletons. But as water organs go, I guess it was pretty good. And fun to watch.

    By this time it was mid-afternoon and our second flamenco performance at the Casa de la Memoria was scheduled at 6:00 p.m. (Bizarre time, like having Christmas dinner in July, but our hotel manager said more and more flamenco stages are cancelling their late evening performances because foreign tourists can’t stay up that late—that would be us—and instead they hold an early evening performance around 6:00 p.m.)

    Here follow some details about the performance at the Casa de la Memoria. I am now a flamenco fan; this performance was even more riveting than that of the previous night. I am going to have to dig deep into my tool kit of adjectives to do justice to it.

    Listed below are the songs/dances which we saw. I met the guitarist of the group after the performance and asked him the names of the dances and he kindly wrote them down for me. And, as kimhe has confirmed in his earlier comment on this TR, the central piece of the flamenco performance is the singer not the dancers, so these terms are actually names of types of songs. The dancer improvises along with the singer but I think the singer takes the lead in directing the spectacle. (I think that’s accurate, all corrections are welcome here.)

    Dancers: Asunción Pérez "Choni" and David Pérez (I wonder if they are married, or brother and sister?)
    Singer: Bernardo Miranda
    Guitar: Jordi Flores

    First song/dance: Taranto, danced by the woman. Alternating staccato, almost geometric movements and patterns of the arms and legs and then suddenly a pause for two seconds, followed by flowing, sinuous moves of the entire body, especially magical hand movements.

    Second dance: Alegria—both the man and the woman, betwitching.

    The dancers took a break and the singer sang two songs, malaguenas and abadolados.

    Third dance: Bulerias—the man alone. This was the most extraordinary dance of the various dances we saw over the two nights. David Perez projected so much energy that at times I thought his body was going to explode. But then, at a certain moment, he would stop and take a certain pose and remain still for several seconds before moving again. At one point he stood still and leaned his body back almost 45 degrees, barely supported by one leg behind. He looked almost like a sculpture. Then he burst out of that position.

    All along, of course, the singer was singing these difficult-to-describe flamenco songs, full of harshness, dissonance, half-tones, then sliding back into beautiful melodies.

    At this point, the members of the audience—we were mainly a sedate Anglo-Saxon group of folks—were going wild, shouting, whooping, and clapping, and the performers seemed to pick up on this and ride the wave even higher.

    When David Perez finally finished, I turned to partner and said “I’m exhausted, I need a drink!”

    (If you want to get some sense of Perez’ performance, here’s a video from a flamenco festival where he performed:

    It occurs to me that those who really know flamenco might rank the dancers differently. The wildness of Perez’ performance impressed us most but the other dancers were saw during these two nights were probably showing great finesse and skill in movements which might not be as superficially striking as those of Perez. Must attend more flamenco to figure this out.

    We filed out of the casa, our legs wobbly, and walked over to the Plaza de la Incarnacion to take a look at the “mushroom,” the Metropol Parasol. As we approached the plaza, we saw…walking toward us…was Asunción Pérez! She must have darted out to the plaza for an errand before the next show. I walked up and said “Gracias gracias por el espectaculo!” She was most gracious and hoped that we enjoyed it. I am in love.

    The mushroom: About $100 million was spent on this thing, with huge cost overruns. We learned this earlier in the day from a disgruntled taxi driver. The goal allegedly was to rejuvenate the surrounding neighborhood. The huge, undulating construction is certainly an amazing thing but I don’t think the goal was reached. The main floor is a dull, open grey concrete expanse, with several big pillars holding up the mushroom.

    Five kids were playing soccer using one of the pillars as the goal. Not many people around (it is Wednesday about 7:30 p.m.) The sign says there is a gastrobar on the roof of the mushroom. Oh good, let’s go up, have some gourmet tapas and drinks and look out over the city. Nope. Gastrobar closed. If you want to go up and just look, it will cost you 3 euros. Umph, we declined. Walked across the street, got some tasty roasted chestnuts, walked around the sidewalk stalls selling cheap Chinese scarves and whatnot, then walked down to our dinner place.


    Bodega Gongora, Calle Albareda, off of Calle Sierpes. This bodega gave us a memorable goodbye meal for our last night in Sevilla. We sat at the outside street terrace (it is a pedestrian street so no worry about cars). Looking at my notes now I am amazed at our tapas consumption: thick creamy gazpacho, albondigas de choco (cuttlefish meatballs), flamenquines con aioli (pork loin nuggets stuffed with ham and cheese and fried with garlic mayonnaise sauce); a delicious, simple salad of tomato, raw sliced white onions, mild cubed white cheese, and oregano; bocaditos of pork filet with roquefort sauce on toast; spinach and chickpeas; cod cooked in tomato sauce; manzanillo, white wine, vodka tonic, Rue Vieja, and complimentary vino de naranjo to finish. Extraordinarily tasty.

    We ambled away from Bodega Gongora, slowly going toward our hotel; turning a corner, we came across a young violinist in the street paying a beautiful violin version of the bittersweet adagio of Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez. Above was a half moon. People slowly walking by, kids, parents, grandparents, couples, tossing money into his violin case. Stop The Clock I Want To Live Here Forever And Ever.

    But I have said that already. Enough. Time to go to bed and prepare to leave Sevilla in the morning. Sniff.

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    Recently back from wonderful Seville and the delightful Amadeus hotel.

    The Casa de Memoria was a real highlight of my 3 week trip...we sat in the centre seats in the front row and revelled in the power of the troup....Yolanda Osuna, Jesus Corbacho, Pedro Sanchez and Oscar de los Reyes (brilliant).

    Also loved turning a corner to find flamenco in the street. Terrific city.

    Thanks Kimhe for the recommendations and tha nks to E YWandBTV for the great
    trip report.

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    Thursday Day 8: TOLEDO

    We sadly left Sevilla Thursday for Toledo, via a change of trains at Madrid Atocha. Zooming north through La Mancha on the AVE (at 150 mph), I visited the café car for a sandwich around 11:00 a.m. It was full to bursting with our Spanish compatriots, drinking espresso, laughing, chatting away, as the olive fields buzzed past us. Gotta love this country.

    A slight hiccup in the change of trains in Madrid at the Atocha station for the Toledo 30-minute train. At home, weeks before, my computer printer had not printed out the RENFE tickets completely, intact, one on each page. At first, the ticket checker was not going to let us on the train, but finally reason prevailed. Hence, Hint #6, below:

    Hint #6: DO buy your RENFE train tickets ahead of time (I used, very easy) to make sure you get a seat on popular trains and DO make sure your computer printer prints out the entire ticket (including RENFE ads), each on a single sheet of paper. Helps avoid hiccups.

    Arrived Toledo, easy taxi to Posada de Manolo, one-half block from the cathedral. I must say, this little family-run posada was one of the reasons we loved Toledo so much, even if we only stayed there one night. Manolo and his wife Almudena run the hotel. His family bought the property in the 1970s, and he and his father totally renovated, actually rebuilt would be more accurate, the property in 2001-2002. But the structure goes back at least to 1480, when it first appears in city records, and in 1490 the owner received a rental license from the city!

    Manolo and Almudena were terrific hosts, always happy, genuinely happy, to help out. We talked at length about the building (being history geeks). A friend of theirs did a lot of the ironwork, with the motif of dragons—the street sign, the handle of the front door, the iron stand for the guest book, and other things. The big carved bench in the foyer, now holding tourist brochures, has been in Manolo’s family for 250 years.

    The top floor (3rd? I think) is the breakfast room and there is an outdoor terrace for breakfast as well, with views of the cathedral and, in the distance, the Alcazar (destroyed in fighting in the civil war and since rebuilt as the army museum).

    Condensing our wanderings around Toledo, or else this TR will never be finished, we saw three outstanding sights:

    >>Cathedral: more pleasing to me than Sevilla because the proportions seemed more human. The Toledo cathedral has a narrower nave and narrower total width and a greater elevation than the Sevilla cathedral. For me, it seemed to be easier to grasp as an architectural space, seemed to hang together better, if that makes any sense. The art masterpieces are mind-boggling. Magnificent El Greco in the priests’ changing room (a huge, magnificent space), The Disrobing of Christ.

    >>El Transito Synagogue and Sephardic Museum: one of the few surviving synagogue structures in Spain. Beautiful synagogue and museum, with outdoor remembrance garden displaying many ancient Jewish burial stones.

    >>El Greco’s Burial of Count Orgaz in Church of San Tome: a must-see masterpiece.

    We spent the rest of our time in Toledo wandering the narrow streets and hanging out at the posada, chatting with Manolo and Almudena and asking them to correct our Spanish. For dinner, they recommended Ludena, a home cooking, “cocina casera” place. “It hasn’t changed since the 1950s,” said Almudena, and she was right.

    Before going to Ludena for dinner, we stopped at a bar recommended by Almudena for its various vermouths, La Mona, just around the corner from the hotel. I had two different vermouths: Miro and Izaguirre. The latter I had “con sifon”—they squirt some CO2 into the drink to carbonate it, fizz it up. Both were excellent. Then on to dinner at Ludena.

    Ludena is a couple of blocks from the cathedral. Its specialty is carcamusa, a mild stew of pork with a medium spicy tomato based sauce. We started off with tapas of red peppers stuffed with tuna and white anchovies in vinegar, followed by the carcamusa, accompanied by white whine and canas. Dessert: madillas (custards). Real comfort food, just like our Spanish mamas used to make, if we had Spanish mamas.

    We felt we only scratched the surface of Toledo, but it was good to visit if only briefly. Friday we had an easy, quick train trip to Madrid.

    Next up: MADRID

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    Seems like you had a night for the memory book in Casa da la Memoria. And after great flamenco you definitely should be exhausted and need a drink ;-)

    Both Asuncion Pérez "La Choni" and David Pérez performs as soloist on great stages and in the most important festivals. She won the revelation prize in the world's greatest flamenco festival, the Bienal de Flamenco in Sevilla, in 2008.

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    Days 9, 10, 11: MADRID

    We stayed at the NH Palacio de Tepa. We like to find hotels in historic buildings, and this one was superb. The building had fallen into great disrepair by the early 2000s. The NH chain purchased the structure and transformed the inside into a beautiful, elegant space.

    Avertencia, Alert: the following few paragraphs are for history geeks, feel free to skip.

    The palace was the home of Francisco Leandro Viana, first Conde de Tepa. It was built 1797 - 1808 on Calle San Sebastian, across from San Sebastian church. Our room looked out on the church façade, to the statue of poor, punctured Saint Sebastian. The Conde de Tepa served as a financial administrator for the colonial government in the Philippines and later as a judge in Mexico. He returned to Spain in 1777, becoming First Minister of the Council of the Indies.

    The building was designed Jorge Duran and, later, Juan de Villanueva, architect of the Prado, the Royal Botanical Gardens, and the Royal Observatory.

    Settling into Madrid … a very brief taste of the city. We only had two nights in Madrid before our departure for the States. We just wanted to enjoy two or three things slowly, then walk around and not do too much sightseeing. So our choices were …

    >>>Plaza Mayor with GinTonics, watching the crowds.

    >>>Guided tour and dinner at Botin – or, to use the complete name, Restaurante Sobrino de Botin: weeks before, we had reserved a 7:00 pm tour with Botin Experience. This would give us a guided tour of the place, with lots of background history, followed by a 6-course dinner. Our guide met us out front, ushered us into the front room and sat us down for an introductory glass of fino. Out came the owner, Antonio Gonzalez Martin, son of Emilio Gonzalez and Amparo Martin. The Gonzalez family purchased the restaurant in the late 19th century.

    Sr. Gonzalez told our guide “don’t seat them here, seat them over there, it’s much more comfortable.” He was a very distinguished looking gentleman and he was carefully checking details around the first floor, getting ready for the 8:00 p.m. opening.

    Botin barely survived the Civil War years. Leftist Republican troops were about to seize Emilio, a “capitalist businessman,” but Amparo dissuaded them with a promise to feed them for free as long as they wanted. Franco’s Nationalist forces were bombarding this part of Madrid. The building next door to Botin was bombed but Botin emerged from the war unscathed.

    The building dates from the late 16th centry. A Frenchman, Jean Botin, opened the restaurant in 1725. (He had no children; his nephew inherited the restaurant, hence the name “Sobrino de Botin”.) This part of Madrid was growing rapidly, just outside the area of the old city walls. The walls had been taken down in previous decades and the large stone blocks were used for the foundations of the houses on this street, the Calle de Cuchilleros (Cutlers) and neighboring streets. The foundation stones are quite visible at the sidewalk level.

    In 1725, the restaurant used its stone oven to roast meat which customers brought in. Only later did the restaurant actually use a menu and provide its own meat for the entrees. Gradually it expanded over four floors of the old building. It still uses the oven built in 1725.

    We visited each floor, going down to the very bottom level, seeing the original foundations of the building. These are big, jagged stones, unlike the foundation stones at street level, and our guide said they are similar to the remaining foundations of the original Moorish walls of Madrid (the city was a small settlement, not very important during the Moorish era).

    Hemingway loved Botin, ate there often, and liked to go into the kitchen to try to make paella. The staff tolerated this, but his paella was not very good. Our guide pointed out the small corner table which Hemingway preferred. Above it was a letter of appreciation from Nancy Reagan following her dinner in the restaurant with Queen Sofia (no comments, please, this is a non-political TR).

    It was now two minutes before 8:00 p.m. and the front doors were about to open and the hordes enter. We were thinking about our six-course dinner. Then our guide asked “Would you like to dine at Hemingway’s table?” Well, sure!

    Dinner: must be candid, it was only so-so. A variety of things from mushrooms to the famous suckling pig. But we did not expect a gourmet experience, we went to explore a piece of Madrid’s history and it was definitely worth it.

    >>>The Prado. Somewhere, one of my guidebooks says something like “the Prado has the greatest collection of classical European painting in the world.” To which I say: YES! Plus, the entire complex is magnificent, and has been thoughtfully upgraded during a major expansion project in the late 1990s.

    We focused on three geniuses: Velazquez, El Greco, and Goya. Velazquez’ “Las Meninas” seemed to have a vast magnetic field, pulling in dozens and dozens of admirers, transfixed by this amazing, complex painting. And in the big oval gallery, this work was surrounded by Velazquez’ majestic portraits of various kings, queens, and infantes on horseback.

    The El Grecos were luminescent. How did he make paint and canvas convey this intense spiritual light?

    We then moved on to the Goyas, ending our too-brief three-hour visit with the Black Paintings. Um. Poor planning, we should have begun with the Black Paintings then end with the luminescent El Grecos. The Black Paintings convey such a feeling of pain and despair, especially the centrally positioned painting of the little dog, drowning. We did not feel chipper when we left the gallery.

    But emerging into the sunlight, we knew that we had visited one of the world’s greatest art collections, and we had only touched the surface.

    >>>The Palacio Real: a mixed experience for us. The huge entrance staircase space was grand, but the following rooms seemed masses of overdone, un-elegant, unimaginative 19th century reworking of the 18th century designs of Charles III’s era. In retrospect, eminently skippable, IMHO … YMMV.

    For our final night in Spain we decided to eat simply, drink little, and go to bed early to prepare for the flight the following morning. After walking around the Plaza Santa Ana (and unknowingly walking by Cerveceria Alemana, another Hemingway haunt we were later told), we ducked into a little tapas bar right next to the hotel, on the Plaza del Angel. This was the Golfo de Bizkaia.

    The Golfo de Bizkaia is a Basque tapas bar. We had a long chat with our waitress, a student of history preparing for her degree as a high school teacher. We did not know the routine of Basque tapas, but the tapas jefe told us to take as many little plates as we wanted from the bar and later he would count the toothpicks on our plates and calculate the bill.

    This was an excellent, simple dinner of canas, GinTonics, and tapas: pimientos stuffed with tuna, sardines with tomato and chopped pine nuts, tuna with a little vinegar and a sort of white caviar topping (? Is there such a thing as white caviar?), a tiny pork meatloaf “sandwich” in between two discs of crunchy parmigiano, salmon with chopped onion and dill, and a dessert of goxua, pronounced GO-shwah, a kind of flan with some sponge cake and a crunchy caramelized topping. Yum. I do not ever want to go home.

    But we did go home the next morning, an easy flight to Newark, a tedious 6-hour layover, then a quick flight back to Burlington, Vermont.

    General impressions of our first exposure to Spain: the gracious, courteous, friendly people; the many layers of history, especially in Andalucia with the strong Moorish heritage; the stunning architecture and works of art; and tapas tapas tapas. Time to start planning for next year…

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    Thanks once again for the great report, including the historical asides.

    We enjoyed the Royal Palace, ostentatious as it may have been, but I get your point.

    Goya's black painting are pretty depressing. That poor dog is terrifying, worse perhaps than Saturn Devouring his Son. Even his early paintings had a dark side:

    Somehow we finished our visit down at The Garden of Earthly Delights, which was uplifting in a way, compared to that dog. At least you could spend a lot more time looking at it in fascination.

    Glad you enjoyed your trip!

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    "In retrospect, eminently skippable..."

    It's funny...We all loved the Royal Palace. That's why I love trip many varying opinions of the same thing.

    Goya also didn't do it for me...and Nelson, The Garden of Earthly Delights was my favorite Prado painting. El Bosco a rather bizarre way.


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    "At the age of 75, alone and in mental and physical despair, he completed the work as one of his 14 Black Paintings,[note 2] all of which were executed in oil directly onto the plaster walls of his house. Goya did not intend for the paintings to be exhibited, did not write of them,[note 3] and likely never spoke of them.[35] It was not until around 1874, some 50 years after his death, that they were taken down and transferred to a canvas support." Many of the works were significantly altered during the restoration, and in the words of Arthur Lubow what remain are "at best a crude facsimile of what Goya painted."

    Interesting info. about Black Paintings.

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