Author: Carolyn Boyle
Date of Trip: May 2016
This review describes a nine-night stay in Spain and Portugal, with two nights in Barcelona, four nights in Madrid, two nights in Porto and a final night in Barcelona. We took day tours from Madrid to Segovia and Toledo. This land tour was preceded by transatlantic cruise on the Royal Princess from Fort Lauderdale to Barcelona that had port calls in Madeira, Lisbon, Gibraltar, Malaga (for Granada), Cartagena and Palma de Mallorca. The review for that cruise will be posted on Independent Traveler’s companion site, CruiseCritic.com.
Barcelona: Bus tour to Montserrat with panoramic tour of Barcelona, Park Guell, La Pedrera, Basilica of Sagrada Familia, DIY walking tour of the Barrio Gotic and La Rambla, tapas walking tour, bus tour of Penedés wine region
Madrid: Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum, Prado, Royal Palace, Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, tapas walking tour
Segovia: Aquaduct, Cathedral, Alcazar, La Muralla (city walls), DIY walking tour
Toledo: Iglesia de Santo Tomé, Cathedral, Museo de la Santa Cruz, Museo de Tapices y Textiles de la Catedral, views from Biblioteca de Castilla-La Mancha cafeteria, DIY walking tour
Porto: Douro River Valley and quintas, port lodges in Vila Nova de Gaia
John and I (Carolyn) are retired Mississippi State University professors in our mid-sixties, who currently reside in central North Carolina. Both of us are natives of New Orleans and, as such, are interested in good food (and wine!) and good times.
We have traveled extensively worldwide and enjoy both land tours and cruises; often our trips combine the two. On cruises, we prefer DIY port tours, private tours with other CruiseCritic.com roll call members or shared public tours. We favor nature and wildlife tours that involve snorkeling, SCUBA diving or hiking. In particular, we will hike for miles to see waterfalls, volcanoes, caves or other interesting geologic features. We also enjoy lighthouses, forts, castles and anything else we can legally climb up on for a good view.
On this trip, we chose to use public transportation, shared public tours and private tours rather than renting a car for touring. One reason is that we planned to enjoy the tastings at the various wineries and port houses. Also, we adopted the Spanish/Portuguese tradition of making lunch our main meal and accompanying it with a bottle of wine. Consequently, we did not want to risk the possibility of “driving under the influence”. Other considerations are that some of the sights we wanted to visit are not easy to find without a local guide and that driving/parking is difficult in big Spanish cities and small medieval towns.
Maribel’s City and Regional Guides (www.maribelsguides.com/city-and-regional-guides/)
Rick Steves “Spain 2016 Guidebook” (store.ricksteves.com/shop/p/spain-guidebook, updates at www.ricksteves.com/europe/spain/guidebook-updates)
REVIEW OF THE TRIP
DAY 1: MAY 7 (SAT) BARCELONA – MONTSERRAT – BARCELONA
Alas, this morning we had to disembark the Royal Princess after 15 days aboard. It had been raining more or less for the past week and that trend would continue for the remainder of our trip. Today was overcast with light rain. We used the “Express Carry Off”; that went fairly well. There are no customs formalities but we had to spend about 25 minutes going through passport control.
There were no problems meeting our group of 14 for a bus tour to Montserrat and a Barcelona city tour with Spain Day Tours (www.spaindaytours.com/barcelona-montserrat-shore-excursion.html), DBA Barcelona Day Tours. As we left the port, our guide (Dolce) pointed out the monument to Christopher Columbus. She also mentioned that tomorrow at noon there was going to be a demonstration at the port against large cruise ships calling at Barcelona (there were four here today) and disgorging hoards of passengers into the Barri Gòtic (Gothic Quarter). International companies (like Starbucks and McDonald’s) are moving into and changing the character of the area, rents and land prices are rising and mom-and-pop establishments are being driven out of business.
MONTSERRAT TOURIST INFORMATION: www.montserratvisita.com/en/index.html
MONTSERRAT MAPS: www.planetware.com/i/map/E/montserrat-map.jpg
It is approximately a 90-minute drive to the Montserrat massif, which is a national park. The name Montserrat means “serrated mountain” in Catalan; weathering and erosion have resulted in spectacular limestone formations, such as needles, pillars and spires. One reason people go there is for the outdoor activities: hiking, climbing and great views of the Pyrenees Mountains. Another is to visit the Benedictine monastery and its church, which houses a miraculous “Black Madonna”, the Virgin of Montserrat. It was misting when we got there but the views were still pretty good. The parking lots were packed; you can also get there by cable car, funicular and cog railway. It was Saturday and apparently everyone in Spain wanted to come here and venerate the statue.
After a toilet break at the Restaurant Montserrat, our guide pointed out some sights from the terraces. Then we headed up to the small town. Besides the monastery and church, there are a few stores, restaurants, hotels for pilgrims and a museum. There is also a school for altar boys and their famous choir, L’Escolania. The boys go home to their families on Saturday, so there were no performances today. The local people set up stalls along the road leading to the parking lot; this features local products like cheese and honey.
The monastery was founded almost 1,000 years ago but the whole complex was destroyed by Napoleon in 1811-1812. The church is relatively modern, dating to the end of the 19th century. Just outside the church is the Gothic Cloister, rebuilt in 1955 with fragments from the old cloister. Our guide walked us through part of the church but we only had limited time there because Mass was about to start and no tourist visits are allowed during the service. The church has some interesting decorations including a huge number of metal votive lamps, each one different from all the others (as far as I could tell).
Of course, the main attraction is the statue of the Virgin, which supposedly was carved by St. Luke, brought to Montserrat by St. Peter, hidden in a cave and later discovered by shepherds who were drawn there by a heavenly light. The statue allegedly would not allow itself to be removed from the mountain, so the monastery was built around it. Also known as La Moreneta (”the little dark-skinned one”), the current statue dates to the late 12th century and is black because its varnish has darkened from centuries of candle soot. There was a long line of people waiting to climb up above the altar to venerate the Madonna or at least take a selfie with her. We did not have time to do that.
There is not much else to do there except pray, eat, shop or go to the bathroom. While the rest of the group was enjoying those activities in our hour of free time, John and I went for a hike (www.guidemeup.com/mygmublog/mallen/tag/itib/). Most of the trails are really long, so we started up the Camino a Sant Miquel, past the Sant Joan funicular station and a monument to the Catalan cellist, Pablo Casals. There are also a number of other monuments and statues of saints along this trail. Our goal was a small chapel, the Capella de la Soledat/la Dolorosa (Chapel of Solitude/Our Lady of Sorrows); the chapel is not open to the public.
Behind and up from the chapel is a life-sized crucifix, the twelfth station on the Via Crucis (Way of the Cross). A bench here, inscribed “ La Virgen Negra – Istenanya“, is the work of a Hungarian carpenter. Istenanya is the “Mother God” in Hungarian mythology, who is now identified with the Virgin Mary. To the left of the crucifix was a very rustic trail. We followed that trail to its end at the viewpoint of La Miranda de Fra Gari and found great views of the monastery complex. We could also see the Creu de Sant Miquel (St. Michael’s Cross), which was actually on a lower outcrop than where we were standing. There is also a small shrine to Our Lady of Montserrat, made of majolica ceramic tiles, at the viewpoint.
Then it was back to Barcelona for the city tour. First we drove to the Plaza de Carlos Ibanez overlook on Montjuic for hazy views of the city. We drove past most of the major landmarks: Joan Miro Museum, Poble Espanyol, 1992 Olympic Stadium, Plaza España, the National Palace, the old bull ring, Plaza Cataluña, Passeig de Gracia shopping area, several Moderniste houses, La Pedrera/Casa Mila (Antoni Gaudi) and the Basilica of La Sagrada Familia (more Gaudi). We stopped at a several of the sights for photo ops or a short outside tour. Our last stop was at Park Guell (www.parkguell.cat/en/). This area was a failed real estate development (60 houses were planned, only three were ever built) that is now a city park. The development was designed by Gaudi and was his first big break. Most of the park is free but the “Monumental Zone” requires a timed ticket. Barcelona City Tours had obtained discounted, skip-the-line tickets for us ahead of time. The fee area includes the famous lizard/salamander covered in Gaudi’s trademark trencadis (broken tile shards) mosaics, which is a symbol of the city, and other structures that were to be enjoyed in common by the residents of the development. In addition to a guided tour, we had free time here. After the tour everyone was dropped off at the ship or his/her hotel. This tour cost 99 EUR pp plus 5 EUR pp for the ticket to Park Guell.
Our hotel was the Barcelo-Sants (www.barcelo.com/barcelohotels/en_us/hotels/spain/barcelona/hotel-barcelo-sants/general-description.aspx); we were able to reserve two nights using a combination of Aadvantage points and cash. The hotel is right above the train and metro stations—very convenient for our touring and the trip to Madrid. The interior is decorated to look like a space ship (think “Star Trek”). Our room was the nicest one that we stayed in on this trip and had the most amenities (free Wifi, safe, minibar, coffee/tea pot, extra pillows, shaving kit, toothbrushes, shower cap, sewing kit, shampoo, conditioner, bar soap, shower gel and lotion).
We had a chance to rest up at the hotel for awhile before heading out to meet our tapas walking tour outside La Pedrera/Casa Mila. To get there, we went downstairs to the Sants metro station and bought two “T-10, 1 Zona” tickets (www.tmb.cat/en/abonaments-integrats) for 9.95 EUR pp. These tickets are good for 10 rides and actually can be shared by more than one person if only a few rides are needed. The tickets are good not only on the metro but also on the local Renfe trains (route map: www.tmb.cat/ca/c/document_library/get_file?uuid=a85c6ac9-9b40-467b-8122-e18820ad07af&groupId=10168).
We took the metro L5 Blue Line in the Vall d’Hebron direction and got off at the Diagonal station. It is easy to know when to exit the train because there are route maps above the doors, a display showing the next station and the next station is usually announced (maybe not intelligibly). However, there are no maps in the stations showing where the various exits emerge on thecity streets; we invariably chose the wrong one. Nevertheless, we arrived in plenty of time to meet our tour at 7:30 p.m.
John had booked a four-hour, small group “Tapas Lover Tour” (foodlovertour.com/barcelona/tapas-lover-tour/) for 92 EUR pp. The group tonight was supposed to include 8 people but one couple never showed up. We toured with a couple a few years older than us and their daughter and SIL. Our guide (Josh) took us to three tapas restaurants in the Eixample district: two serving traditional tapas and one that was more trendy.
The first place, La Bodegueta Provença (provenca.labodegueta.cat/en/), featured traditional meat and veggie tapas served with a red wine made from Garnache (Grenache) grapes. The tapas included the famous Jamon Iberico, Manchego cheese, Pan con Tomate (bread smeared with tomatoes), Pimemientos de Padron (small green peppers fried in olive oil), and Chorizo con Vino (sausage cooked in wine). This was all good but everyone especially liked the peppers.
The second restaurant, Restaurante Cerveceria Val D’ Ouro, featured traditional seafood tapas served with an Albariño wine. (Warning: There are several restaurants with similar names; this one is at 253 Carrer de Còrsega.) In addition to a different version of Pan con Tomate, we had Pulpo Gallego (Galician-style octopus with boiled potatoes), Boquerones (deep fried anchovies), Navajas al Ajillo (razor clams in wine and garlic), Calamares Rellenos (stuffed squid), Zamburiñas a la Plancha (grilled scallops with their roe) and Gambas al Ajillo (shrimp sauteed with garlic). Again, it was all delicious but the razor clams and the scallops were special hits.
The stop at La Taverna del Clinic (www.latavernadelclinic.com/eng/index.php) was advertized as a “proper gastronomic and gourmet dinner”. The chef there puts a modern spin on some of the things we had already tried and other classic tapas dishes. We were served a multi-course dinner, accompanied by IMO, a Garnacha-Cabernet Sauvignon-Merlot blend from the Priorat region of Spain. We started with Pan con Tomate and Jamon Iberico. Next came the chef’s take on Patatas Bravas (boiled potato shooters filled with spicy tomato sauce). That was followed by Salmorejo (a pureed version of gazpacho) topped with a foam and a percebe (goose barnacle). Next came scallops and octopus on a sauce and mushrooms with asparagus and black truffle. After that came a wild mushroom and foie gras cannelloni and something delicious for dessert.
This tour involved a huge amount of excellent food and wine. Josh said the restaurants have to be prepared to feed a group of linebackers, so needless to say the six of us had more than enough to eat and drink. Josh pointed us in the right direction to catch the metro. We did not make it back to the hotel until almost midnight.
DAY 2: MAY 8 (SUN) BARCELONA – PENEDÉS WINE REGION – BARCELONA
This morning we had to get up around 6 a.m. to get ready, negotiate the metro and meet our all-day “Wines and Cava” tour. Today we took the local Renfe train (R1, R3 or R4) in the direction to Cataluya station; the trip takes longer by metro and a transfer is required. The local Renfe trains are on the same level in the Sants station as the high-speed Renfe trains, but leave from a different part of the station. It is a little confusing but we had scoped out the location yesterday before going to the tapas tour.
Today’s tour was the “Wine and Cava” tour from Bacelona Turisme (barcelonaturisme.com/shopv3/en/product/18373/wine-and-cava.html?i=o); we paid 62.10 EUR pp. The meeting point is a little confusing because it is given as “Plaça Catalunya (in front of El Corte Inglés)”. However, there are TWO El Corte Inglés on Plaça Catalunya; the correct one is where all the city bus stops are located. It was pouring rain and the driver would not let anyone on the bus until the guide arrived. Fortunately, we could wait under the awning of the El Corte Inglés (along with a homeless person sleeping on the sidewalk).
The three wineries we visited were about an hour drive from Barcelona and about a half hour apart. I kept falling asleep on the bus. The first one we visited, Bodegas Jean Leon (www.jeanleon.com/en/), was the smallest and is now owned by Torres, First came a tour of the museum area where a guide from the winery told us about the life of Jean Leon. He came to the USA with nothing, started out at the bottom in the restaurant business and eventually opened the La Scala restaurant in Beverly Hills. Copies of menus that were served with Jean Leon wines at various White House functions were on display, as well as original artwork that was featured on the wine labels and other artifacts. After that, we walked past the vineyard to the winery building. At the end of the winery tour, we were given a barrel sample and taken back to the visitor center for a taste of the same wine (different vintage) that was ready to drink. There were some Goldfish crackers, mixed nuts and Patates Xips (potato chips) to go with the two samples. I would never have considered potato chips to be an accompaniment to wine but apparently they are in Spain.
Bodegas Torres (www.clubtorres.com/en/visits-workshops-tastings/localization/winery-penedes) is a big industrial operation; they drove us around the facilities in a little tourist train. We tasted four reserve wines paired with four cheeses (brie, semi-cured, cured and blue). The wines were: 2015 Viña Esmeralda (Grenache rosé), 2014 Atrium (Merlot), 2012 Gran Coronas (Cabernet Sauvignon), and Florales (Moscatel Oro). This was an impressive tour and operation.
The final stop was at Cavas Freixenet (www.freixenet.es), which makes cava (a sparkling wine). We descended on foot down, down, down into their extensive cellars and were brought back to the surface in another tourist train. Here we tasted two cavas: Cordon Negro Brut and Brut Rosé. These were accompanied by a platter of Fuet (Catalan dried sausage), Iberian ham and Manchego cheese and Carquinyolis (traditional Catalan almond cookies). And don’t forget the Patates Xips; the menu listed these at 1.9 euros for a little bowl. We finished up the tour about 4 p.m. That gave us just enough time to go back to the Space Station so I could get another nap before taking the metro back to the Diagonal station.
Our last activity was a tour of Gaudi’s Casa Mila, better known as La Pedrera (the stone quarry). We had timed tickets for the 6:30 p.m. tour (www.lapedrera.com/en/la-pedrera-day); this tour costs 20.50 EUR pp, including the audio guide. Because there was no one else waiting, we were allowed to enter early. This was originally built as a multi-unit dwelling with one floor for the owners and the other floors divided into apartments to rent. To me, it looks like a stack of underwater grottoes and the wrought iron balconies look like seaweed. People thought it was awful when it was first built. Now it is recognized as incredibly creative, not only in the design but also because of its ahead-of-its-time (early 20th century) features. For example, the building is supported by pillars, catenary arches and steel; there are no load-bearing walls. Thus, the living spaces have a completely open floor plan and the interior walls can be rearranged to meet the changing needs of the residents. Also, Gaudi thought that roofs did not have to be ugly. On the roof terrace, the staircase exits, chimneys and ventilation shafts are works of art in their own right.
After touring the building, we went to view (from the outside) a famous trio of Moderniste houses on Passeig de Gracia, the so-called Manzana de la Discordia (Apple of Discord): Casa Lleo-Morera (#35), Casa Amatiler (#41) and Casa Batlio (#43, Gaudi). There are many other examples of Modernisme in the Eixample district. (Map: www.barcelona-top-tours.com/WebRoot/Store/Shops/BTT/MediaGallery/Barcelona_Turisme/Barcelona_Walking_Tours_Modernismo/Barcelona-Walking-Modernisme..jpeg)
DAY 3: MAY 9 (MON) BARCELONA – MADRID
Ahhhhh! Sleep is wonderful! Today we did not need to get up quite so early before taking the metro L5 Blue Line to the Sagrada Familia station. We had timed tickets at 9 a.m. to tour Sagrada Familia, Gaudi’s magnificent Moderniste basilica. We had prebooked the “Experience Panoramic Views” tour (www.sagradafamilia.org/en/tickets/), which includes entrance to one of the towers and an audio guide for 29 EUR pp. Even though we were among the first in line to enter when the gates opened, the crowd was enormous. I was a little worried that stopping to pick up the audio guide would make us miss our 9:15 a.m. timed visit to the Nativity Tower. However, most of the crowd did not rent the audio guide, so we got that quickly. John and I spent about three hours at Sagrada Familia and thought that the audio guide greatly enhanced the visit.
The Basílica i Temple Expiatori de la Sagrada Família has been under construction for over 130 years. When we were here in 1998, only the Nativity facade and part of the Passion facade were finished. The interior was still a construction zone and we walked through on top of plywood panels. There were no elevators in the towers, so we had to climb 65 meters for the views of Barcelona and close-ups of the fanciful decorations on the towers. Now we were able to take an elevator up the Nativity Tower, much of the interior is completed and many of the stained-glass windows have been installed.
It is impressive how much work has been done in the 18 years since our previous visit, but it is still only about 60% finished. It is supposed to be 80% done by 2026, the 100th anniversary of Gaudi’s death. (He was hit by a tram while walking to daily Mass and is buried in the chapel of Our Lady of Mount Carmel in the crypt of Sagrada Família.) In addition to the funding (all by private donations) issue, the mayor of Barcelona decided in the 1990s that it would never be completed. So he sold the land needed for the monumental staircase to the main (Glory) entrance. Now a block of apartments (owned by a local character) will need to be demolished.
Gaudi recognized that the basilica would never be finished in his lifetime. In fact, he only saw parts of the Nativity facade and two of the 18 towers completed. He also expected that future architects would apply their own skills and new engineering techniques to his framework. Therefore Gaudi left extensive drawings and models to help others interpret his vision. Unfortunately his workshop was ransacked during the Spanish Civil War. It has taken decades to reconstruct the fragments (now using computer-aided design and 3D printers). A lot of the restored models and fragments are on display in the basilica’s museum; one is big enough to walk through.
This is an amazingly creative structure from the smallest detail to the overall impression!
Next, we walked along Passeig de Gracia to Plaça de Cataluya to start our DIY tour of the Barri Gòtic (based on Rick Steves’ “Barri Gòtic Walk”) in the rain. We turned off Avinguda del Portal l’Angel to stop by the Church of Santa Anna (www.parroquiasantaanna.org/05b-triptico-santa-ana-int—ingles.pdf), where we viewed the exterior of this small Gothic church. We had lunch at Els Quatre Gats (www.4gats.com/en/) on Carrer de Montsio. The restaurant is in the Casa Marti, which looks like a medieval castle decorated with Moderniste ornaments. Around the turn of the 20th century, it was a gathering place for intellectuals and artists, such as Pablo Picasso. Picasso designed a poster featuring the restaurant, which is displayed in the entrance and on the menus. We arrived a little early for lunch, so there was only one other party in the dining room; however, the place was packed by the time we left. We each chose the menu del dia: a delicious 3-course lunch, which included a bottle of water and a full bottle of wine, for less than 40 euros (about $45) total. We ordered the vegetable risotto for the first course and the Iberian pork loin with truffle cream for the second course. For dessert, John ordered the strawberries with whipped cream and chocolate sauce and I had the 4 Gats sacher (like a chocolate mouse/whipped cream parfait). The house wine was bottled by Ferré i Catasús.
After lunch, we continued along Avinguda del Portal l’Angel to a square with fountain that is decorated with pretty blue and yellow tile work. There are two Roman towers on one side of the square. Our next visit was to the impressive Barcelona Cathedral (www.catedralbcn.org/index.php?lang=en). Entrance is free at certain times but the usual fee is 7 EUR pp. There is a richly-carved choir and many ornate chapels, including the crypt of Saint Eulalia (a Barcelonan martyr). There is a really pretty cloister, inhabited by ducks and geese.
We continued our wanderings to view the Carrer de Bisbe Bridge, a covered walkway that connects the upper stories of two government buildings. That street leads to the Plaça de Sant Jaume and the City Hall.; this area was once the Roman forum of ancient Barcino. We passed (but did not visit) the remains of the Roman Temple of Augustus, built on the Barri Gòtic’s highest point: 16.9 m (55 ft) a.s.l. Next, we entered Plaça del Rei, site of the Royal Palace. A set of stairs fanning out from one corner is reputed to be where Ferdinand and Isabella received Columbus after his first voyage to the New World. One one side of the square is the Chapel of Saint Agatha, built on the remains of a Roman wall. On another side is the Viceroy’s Palace and we visited its Renaissance courtyard.
From here, we strolled back to Plaça de Cataluya to follow Rick Steves’ “Ramblas Ramble”. On the way, we unsuccessfully tried to find the ruins of the Roman necropolis. The stroll along the Rambla of Flowers is not nearly as pleasant or colorful in the rain, with all the stalls covered by plastic tarps. We took a detour through La Bouqueria Market with its gorgeous displays of seafood, including many types of bacalao (salt cod) and other foods. There is a vast array of meats, vegetables, cheeses and other wonderful things to eat.
The halfway point of La Rambla is marked with a colorful mosaic by Joan Miro in the pavement. At Carrer de Colom, we turned left to see the Plaça Reial. This square is surrounded by arcaded buildings; it contains a number of palm trees and two helmeted light poles that are Gaudi’s earliest public works. Back on La Rambla, we took a short detour to see the Palau Guell, another of Gaudi’s early works. Although not as playful as his later work, the roof is bordered with 18 chimneys topped with cones covered in broken pieces of ceramics.
We persevered down La Rambla to a view of the Columbus monument. Then we took the metro from the Drassenes station back to the hotel using the L3 Green Line in the Zona Universitaria direction. Back at the hotel, we reclaimed our luggage and relaxed in the lobby until it was time to catch the fast Renfe train to Madrid. The train takes just over three hours and costs 89.60 EUR pp for Turista Plus class. John had bought our tickets for Madrid, Segovia and Toledo online (www.renfe.com/EN/viajeros/). The web site is a little difficult to navigate; he found this web site to be useful: www.tripadvisor.com/Travel-g187514-c80518/Madrid:Spain:Buying.Renfe.Tickets.Online.html (especially the part about entering an acceptable telephone number).
The Atocha train station in Madrid is huge! It even has a rain forest inside! As usual, there is no map showing where the various exits emerge on the city streets, so we managed to pick the one furthest from our hotel. However, I asked directions from a nice security guard outside the National Anthropology Museum, who confirmed that we were headed in the right direction.
For the next four nights, we would be staying at the Hotel Paseo del Arte (www.hotelpaseodelartemadrid.com/EN/hotel.html), which we reserved using United Airlines points. This hotel is in a great location on Calle Atocha but did not have as many amenities as the one in Barcelona (free Wifi, safe, minibar, shampoo, conditioner, bar soap, shower gel and lotion). We made it to the room at about 9:30 p.m. and just had time to wash out some socks and underwear in the sink before collapsing into bed. Thankfully, this would be the only time I needed to do any laundry.
DAY 4: MAY 10 (TUES) MADRID
Our first day in Madrid (www.esmadrid.com/en, www.planetware.com/tourist-attractions-/madrid-e-mad-mad.htm) was a museum day. The unsettled weather meant that we had to take turns lugging my heavy messenger bag filled with hats, plastic ponchos and umbrellas in case of afternoon thunderstorms. So far we had only needed the umbrellas once and managed to get by with just hats and windbreakers otherwise.
Our first stop was at the Thyssen-Bornemisza Musuem to pick up the Paseo del Arte passes (www.musement.com/us/madrid/paseo-del-arte-pass-for-museo-del-prado-museo-thyssen-bornemisza-and-museo-reina-sofia-2452/) that John had bought online. In addition to the Thyssen, the pass (27.20 EUR pp) includes the Prado and Reina Sofia but it must be collected at the Thyssen.
Thyssen (www.museothyssen.org/en/thyssen/home) is a small museum that, as the guidebooks say, has major works by minor artists and minor works by major artists. Nevertheless, it is impressive for what was once a private collection. Photographs were allowed here, so we took photos of a few works by Picasso, Chagall, Gabriel Mälesskircher, Domenico Ghirlandaio and El Greco.
Our next stop was the Prado (www.museodelprado.es/en); holders of the Paseo del Arte enter through the Jeronimos entrance. A brand-new addition to the collection was “The Virgin of Granada” by Fra Angelico; his “Annunciation” is also displayed here. Some other famous paintings in the collection include Bosch’s “Garden of Earthly Delights”, Rubens’ “Judgment of Paris” and “Three Graces”, Goya’s “Naked Maja”, “Clothed Maja”, “Second of May 1808” and “Third of May 1808”. The Prado does not allow photos, which is probably for the best for our camera memory card. The collection here is so vast that even cherry-picking our favorite artists and genres left us exhausted after a few hours.
Tonight was another tapas tour, so we took a short rest at the hotel before touring the Royal Palace of Madrid (www.patrimonionacional.es/en/royal-palace-madrid). It is possible to pay the 10 EUR pp admission fee by credit card but the 4 EUR pp fee for the audio guide must be paid in cash. It is not quite as glitzy as the Palace of Versailles but very impressive nonetheless. This is the largest royal palace in Western Europe. Fortunately, we did not have to visit all 2,800 rooms. With all the self-aggrandizing statues, paintings, frescoes, tapestries, etc., the take-away message is that one must really be full of oneself to be a monarch. They are also a reminder that inbreeding is not a good strategy for producing healthy and intelligent (let alone attractive) heirs. The tour also includes a visit to the Royal Armory (lots of mounted soldiers in parade and tournament armor) and a nice scenic viewpoint over the Campo del Moro Gardens.
By the time we finished touring the Palace, we got the promised downpour. We sloshed over to the meeting place for our “Tapas, Taverns & History Of Madrid Tour” with Devour Madrid (madridfoodtour.com/tapas-history-tour-madrid/, 97 EUR pp) in Plaza de Isabel II. We took shelter under an arch of the Opera House until we saw the guide (Luke) with his sign. We let him know we were there and stayed under shelter but he had to stand at the appointed meeting spot getting drenched. One other couple showed up but we finally gave up on the third couple only to find that they were waiting for us at the first tavern.
The Taberna Real (www.tabernareal.com/index_en.htm) is right across the plaza from the Opera House. Here we tasted Jamon Iberico, Pan con Tomate, Campo Real olives and Patatis Xips served with Vermut Miró (sweet red vermouth) on tap. Luke explained that it really is the custom to throw the olive pits and napkins on the floor. In fact, the amount of debris around the bar is a measure of the popularity of the place to such an extent that less-popular places will try to sneak the sweepings to place around their own bars.
Because this was also a walking tour of the neighborhoods around the Plaza Mayor, Luke next took us to the Plaza de Oriente, in front of the Royal Palace for some commentary. From here, we walked along the narrow streets to the Plaza de la Villa, a pretty square with several examples of 17th-century madrileño architecture. There is also a statue of Alvaro de Bazan, the Spanish Admiral who planned the Armada.
The next stop was the Taberna la Concha (www.laconchataberna.com/en). Here we had fancier tapas: mussels in a sauce, Cecina (cured beef) and Parmesan on toasted bread, mixed vegetables topped with a quail egg, Salmorejo sprinkled with cured ham, Piquillo peppers stuffed with Tetilla cheese and strawberries and whipped cream drizzled with chocolate. Those were served with a Bodegas Castaño 2013 Hécula, made from 100% Monastrell grapes from the Yecla wine region.
On the way to to the next tavern, we passed the Restaurante Botin, opened in 1725 and certified by Guinness as the oldest restaurant in the world. We did not stop there but proceeded to Mesón del Champiñon (www.mesondelchampinon.com). There is mushroom décor everywhere; they even seem to be growing from the ceiling. Although other tapas are sold here, the specialty is mushrooms stuffed with chorizo and grilled in sight of the customers. There is a trick to eating one: hold it by toothpicks on two sides and pop it into your mouth. We ate these with a red wine from Ribera del Duero.
On the way to our fourth tavern, we passed the Mercado de San Miguel and the Plaza Mayor. One specialty at La Casa del Abuela (lacasadelabuelo.es) is Gambas al Ajillo, small shrimp grilled in a casserole with olive oil and garlic, served with bread to soak up the delicious sauce. Another specialty is their Vino El Abuela (Grandfather’s wine), a sweet red wine made from 100% Tinta de Toro (Tempranillo) grapes from the Toro wine region.
The final tavern was Casa Toni (www.tripadvisor.com/Restaurant_Review-g187514-d1907082-Reviews-Casa_Toni-Madrid.html). Before going in in, Luke pointed to the meats and vegetables displayed in the window and said we would be trying something that none of us had ever had before. I could identify the Zarajo (braided sheep intestines wound on a stick) and asked whether we were having that. Luke said no and pointed to a tray of pink lumps. However, as soon as we tasted the Mollejas, John and I knew that they were sweetbreads. By this time, we were so overwhelmed by all the different tapas (and wines!) we had tried that we forgot to take any more photos; I do know that the last item was a hard coconut cookie made by nuns. The wine was another red wine from Ribera del Duero, Prios Maximus Roble from Bodegas de los Rios Prieto.
This was another great tour. We visited five different tapas bars, all small family-owned places, plus we got an interesting introduction to the history of Madrid. The wine did not flow quite as freely on this tour as on the one in Barcelona but we were quite full and pleasantly buzzed by the end, when Luke pointed us towards Calle Atocha so we could walk back to the hotel. Luke gave us a sheet listing all of the taverns we visited and most of the tapas we tasted tonight. He gave us another sheet with suggestions for other places to eat and drink in Madrid. Later, we received an email from Devour Madrid with more suggestions for Madrid and other cities in Spain. This was great follow-up from the tour company!
DAY 5: MAY 11 (WED) MADRID – SEGOVIA – MADRID
Fortunately last night’s tour started and ended slightly earlier than the Barcelona tour because we had to get up very early this morning to take two trains and a bus to Segovia. Unfortunately, this morning all the traffic signals were out around the huge traffic circle in front of the train station that is the intersection for seven major streets. We joined groups of pedestrians that were forcing their way through the honking cars.
Segovia is a popular day trip from Madrid and sometimes the trains sell out, so John had reserved seats on the AVANT train to Segovia ahead of time online. The kink in this plan is that the AVANT train does not leave from Atocha; it leaves from the Chamartin station. We first had to get a return ticket (3.40 EUR pp) on the Cercanías (local) train to Chamartin. We caught the 6:43 a.m. train and arrived in Chamartin with 20 minutes to connect to our 7:30 a.m. AVANT train (round-trip 20.60 EUR pp). The Chamartin station is confusing; there are no signs directing passengers to the AVANT trains, so I had to ask someone at the metro information desk. It turned out that we had to go outside and up three escalators to reach the AVANT platforms.
The Segovia-Guiomar AVE station is 6 km outside of town, in the middle of a field. The schedule (posted at the bus stop or www.urbanosdesegovia.com) for the #11 bus is supposed to be coordinated with the train but that bus left two minutes before the train arrived at 7:57 a.m. The #12 bus was waiting there but it does not go close to the aqueduct. Nevertheless, everyone got on the bus except us and one other couple. After a few minutes, an enterprising taxi dispatcher approached us and showed us the rate sheet. The taxi fare to the aqueduct was 8 EUR and the bus fare was 2 EUR pp; if the other couple joined us, both options would cost the same per person. They were agreeable, so we took the taxi and arrived at the Plaza del Azoguejo just ahead of the bus we had missed.
Main attraction in Segovia (visitsegovia.turismodesegovia.com, www.planetware.com/tourist-attractions-/segovia-e-castl-seg.htm) is the spectacular Roman aqueduct that was built in the 1st century to bring water to the city. The most impressive part is the 683 m (2240 ft) arched aqueduct bridge, which spans the valley between the two parts of the city. It begins with a single level of arches followed by a two-tiered section as it crosses the valley; at its highest, it is 28 m (92 ft) tall. The bridge was built without using any cement and consists of approximately 20,400 huge blocks of granite.
We could not walk on top but we did walk along the whole section that is above ground in the city. First, we walked towards the intersection of Calle del Coronel Rexach and the Avenida del Padre Claret in the newer part of town. Here we were able to see the water channel but it is not the original channel from Roman times: it only dates to the 15th century. From there the water passes through the Case de Agua, which contains a cleaning basin to remove floating debris.
Then we climbed up to the city walls of the old town for great views of the aqueduct bridge. We had gotten to Segovia well before anything opened so that we could walk around the old town and get lots of great photos of the sights before they were overrun with crowds. We started wending our way toward Plaza Mayor, following suggestions from Maribel and Rick Steves. Many of the buildings are covered with the geometric Moorish stucco decorations called esgrafiado (possibly the origin of the word “graffiti”). There are interesting carvings on many of the buildings, such as the head of a snarling dog in the corner of a doorway. The front of one building, Casa de los Picos (house of a thousand peaks), is covered with rows of small stone pyramids.
Segovia claims to have the most Romanesque churches of any Spanish city. We walked past several of them, such as Iglesia de San Martin in Plaza de San Martin; some of the columns in of the cloister along the side of the church show considerable weathering. The square also has a pretty fountain. Iglesia de San Miguel (the Archangel), is next to Plaza Major. It has three interesting relief sculptures: St. Michael above the entrance door, St. Paul to the left and St. Peter to the right. This is the church where Isabel the Catholic was proclaimed Queen of Castile in 1474. The Cathedral is on Plaza Mayor but it was still too early to visit it. Instead we walked over to one of the three remaining city gates, the Puerta de San Andrés, which marks the beginning of the Jewish Quarter.
We were back at the Cathedral (catedralsegovia.files.wordpress.com/2014/10/horarios.jpg) when it opened at 9:30 a.m., so hardly anyone else was there. The entrance fee is 3 EUR pp for the Cathedral and 5 EUR pp for the tower (with audio guide). We wanted to climb the tower, but the audio guide was only available in Spanish and the 90-minute tours only take place three times a day. There is an English brochure describing the sights in the Cathedral and Rick Steves has a self-guided tour. This was the last Gothic cathedral built in Spain. There are 18 ornate gated chapels along the walls. The Chapel of the Conception is one of the more elaborate: the statue of Mary (depicted as the pregnant Woman of the Apocalypse) above the altar is surrounded by a wall full of paintings, statues and carvings. The side wall has an interesting painting, the “Tree of Life”: people are partying in the top of a tree that Death is chopping down while Jesus is ringing a bell to warn them to repent.
In the Chapel of Santiago, there is a statue over the altar of the saint dressed as a pilgrim with his trademark scallop shell; above that is a relief carving of him as “Santiago Matamoros” (St. James the Moor-slayer), a popular legend in parts of Spain once occupied by the Moors. The main altar is dedicated to the Virgen de la Paz (Virgin of Peace). She is surrounded by the patron saints of Segovia. Opposite the main altar is the choir; it has carved walnut seats and a book stand that holds four gigantic illuminated hymnals.
Next we headed to the Alcazar, stopping at the Mirador del Valle del Clamores. From here we had great views of the city walls, the Cathedral and the Jewish Cemetery. Across the valley, we could see the Romanesque Iglesia de la Vera Cruz. Across the road from that church is the Convento de los Carmelitas Descalzos.
When we reached the Alcazar (www.alcazardesegovia.com/en/), we were disappointed to see that the entire middle of the facade of the castle was covered in scaffolding and green netting; also the tower was closed. The entry fee (3.50 EUR pp, senior rate) and the fee for the audio guide (3 EUR pp) could be paid by credit card; however, we had to leave a 5 EUR pp cash deposit for the audio guide. We found the audio guide to be very helpful for our visit. Although tour group activity was picking up, we just took our time and let the waves of people flow past us. I think we saw more with the audio guide (supplemented by Rick Steves) than they did with a live guide.
The Alcazar is built on the perfect spot for a fortress: on a promontory above the confluence of two rivers, making it look like the bow of a ship. A dry moat was constructed in the middle ages that further enhanced its defenses. The site has been used for a fort since Roman times; the Roman foundations are visible at the bottom of the stairs near the toilets. The Roman aqueduct also ended here.
The palace was heavily damaged by a fire in 1862; many ceilings and decorations from other palaces and churches were brought here to help restore the building. Inside there is a large panting of the coronation of Isabel as Queen of Castile. One of the more notable rooms is the Hall of Kings, which has a frieze composed of 52 intricate, raised portraits of various Spanish monarchs of Castile and Leon. The chapel has another depiction of St. James the Moor-Slayer, seated on his white horse and chopping off Moorish heads. The terrace, at the prow of the ship, has spectacular views of the countryside surrounding Segovia. This is also a good place to see a style of esgrafiado with embedded chunks of slag.
Now that we had seen the big three sights, we could wander at leisure. Just outside the entrance to the Alcazar there are stairs down to the rough trail along the base of the wall (we had spotted this earlier from the mirador). The trail ends at stairs up to a tourist information center near the San Andrés gate. The information center has very limited hours. When it is open, you can get a code to unlock a gate and walk along the top of a section of La Muralla (city walls) (muralla.turismodesegovia.com). Access to the parapets is free on weekdays (except holidays) and 1 EUR pp otherwise. Of course, we had to climb up and were rewarded with more great views.
Now it was time for lunch at Mesón Don Jimeno, a small restaurant well away from the main square that was recommended by Devour Madrid. The specialty dish in this area is Cochinillo Asado (roasted piglet), which is split down the breastbone and flattened. It is cooked and served with the head, feet and tail attached. Most restaurants only serve ¼ piglet for 2-3 people but this place offers a smaller portion for one person. We wanted to be able to order a smaller portion because we also wanted to try the roasted lamb, which Luke (the guide from Devour Madrid) claimed was even better than the piglet. (We thought the pork was better; both were quite good.) Both dishes were served with French fries. We also shared an appetizer of sweet peppers stuffed with cod in a shrimp sauce and a nice bottle of wine (Marques de Caseres 2011 Crianza from Rioja).
After a leisurely lunch, we strolled around a bit, collecting a few more churches on the way. One, Iglesia San Esteban, is especially noted for its Romanesque bell tower and its arcaded gallery. Then we headed back to the bus stop to catch the bus to the train station. The warnings about needing a reserved seat proved true today today; the departure board said that our 3:57 p.m. train was “completa” (full).
DAY 6: MAY 12 (THURS) MADRID – TOLEDO – MADRID
Today we made yet another early start to avoid the crowds at yet another favorite Madrid day tour destination, Toledo (www.toledo-turismo.com/en/, www.planetware.com/tourist-attractions-/toledo-e-cast-tol.htm). We later learned that crowds are the least of one’s worries there. Very little of the old town is pedestrianized: cars, trucks and motorcycles zoom up and down the incredibly narrow streets. On several occasions, we had to flatten ourselves against a wall or squeeze into a doorway to avoid being run down. Street not wide enough for your car? Just drive on the skinny sidewalk too!
John had reserved seats for the AVANT train to Toledo ahead of time online and the round-trip fare was again 20.60 EUR pp. Thankfully, today the train left from Atocha, but from the “planta baja”, one level below the trains we have been taking. We took the 7:50 a.m. train and got to Toledo about 33 minutes later.
The Toledo train station is relatively modern (1920) but very distinctive because it is built in the Neo-Mudéjar (Moorish Revival) style. We walked along the Tagus River (which surrounds the city on three sides) to the Alcantara Bridge. Along the way, there were great views of the city atop the hill to our right. This bridge was built in Roman times and was long the only bridge to the city. Over the ages, it has been damaged, rebuilt and modified. The end next to the city still has a tower with a portcullis but the tower on the other end was replaced with an arch.
Once over the bridge, we crossed the street to a horseshoe-shaped gate in the city walls. There were stairs on the other side and I thought we would be using them to climb up to the old town. However, my brilliant husband had found out that there was an easier way up so that we could save our energy for wandering the narrow streets. We followed the base of the walls to the right, up the ramp along Calle Gerardo Lobo. We quickly came to the Miradero parking garage; inside there is a series of escalators that took us up to the old town, near Plaza Zocodover!
As for Segovia, we wanted to arrive before the tour buses and resulting crowds. We had lots of time to take photos and locate all the sights we wanted to visit because none of them open until 10 a.m. We walked through the Plaza Zocodover, where there is a tourist office. The Santa Cruz Museum, which we planned to visit, is right around the corner. We continued on to the Plaza Ayuntamiento, where the Cathedral (another must-see) and another tourist office (in the city hall) are located. However, the Cathedral’s ticket office and visitor entrance are around the corner on Cardenal Cisneros. The third sight that particularly interested us was Iglesia de Santo Tomé, so we located that next.
Santo Tomé is at the edge of the Jewish Quarter. We meandered through this area, passing the Synagoga del Tránsito, a house where El Greco reputedly once lived and the El Greco Museum. From the Jardines del Tránsito, there are nice views of the cliffs along the river. We walked clockwise, mostly along the walls above the river, until we reached the park at the end of Bajada Santa Ana. There is an excellent view of the two-towered San Martin Bridge from the park. The bridge was built in the middle of the 14th century but was soon destroyed in the First Castilian Civil War between King Pedro I and his half-brother, who became King Enrique II upon his defeat of Pedro. The bridge was later rebuilt and modified. The tower on the city side of the bridge has a large imperial coat of arms, flanked by seated images of the two kings. We crossed over to the other side of the river for some great views back toward the city.
We continued our stroll to the Puerta del Cambrón, also known as the Gate of the Jews, which was built over the remains of a Visigoth gate. As we ambled through the scenic streets, we saw several houses that were connected above street level. Some of those bridges were plain, while others were quite ornate. We also saw many shops selling knives and other souvenirs made with Toledo’s famous steel.
We were back at Iglesia de Santo Tomé (www.toledomonumental.com) just before it opened. Like many churches in Toledo, it was originally a mosque. The Count of Orgaz had generously contributed to its renovation in the 14th century. When the Count was buried in one of the chapels in 1327, a miracle occurred: St. Stephen, the Protomartyr, and St. Augustine appeared and personally lowered his body into the grave. This miracle was officially recognized in 1583, and the parish priest at that time commissioned El Greco to immortalize the event. The “Burial of the Count of Orgaz” is one of El Greco’s most famous paintings and the artist included a self-portrait (man with lace cuff and raised right hand); the artist’s son is the boy in the foreground. Above the crowd of mourners, the soul of the Count is helped by an angel into the afterlife, to be judged by Christ and received by Mary and all the saints into heaven. The Count’s actual grave is in the floor in front of this powerful and moving painting. This chapel is separate from the rest of the church and there is a small admission fee (2.50 EUR pp).
The Cathedral of Toledo (www.catedralprimada.es/catedral/primada/eng/) is the premier sight. John noted that it was a good thing we had already visited the cathedral in Segovia because it pales in comparison to Toledo’s. We bought the combination ticket (11 EUR pp) that includes the Cathedral, museums, Cloister, Bell Tower, audio guide and tapestry museum; I had to leave my driver’s license as security for the audio guide.
The first Bell Tower tour was at 10:30 a.m., so we hurried over to the meeting point in the Cloister, next to the Capilla de San Blas. The guide unlocked the gate to the staircase leading up to the second level of the Cloister. To reach the tower, we walked along two sides of this upper level, then took a narrow stairs up to the bell room. In the center is the Campana Gorda (Fat Bell), which is severely cracked and no longer rung. There are eight smaller bells, one for each of the two windows on each of the four sides. There are panoramic views of Toledo from these windows. There are also good views of the town and the decorations on the Cathedral as you climb up and down the stairs.
After the tour we visited the Capilla de San Blas, which has some beautiful frescoes. Sadly, some have been badly damaged by humidity because some walls are below street grade. The Cloister also has gorgeous frescoes by Francisco Bayeu (BIL of Goya), illustrating the lives of Toledo’s patron saints. From here we walked back to the entrance to follow the audio tour around the ambulatory. In one corner is the Chapter House, which has portraits representing all the archbishops of Toledo. Over the door is a fresco of the Last Judgment, with personifications of the Seven Deadly Sins being consigned to Hell. Lust is depicted as a beautiful woman with flowing tresses and a fiery crotch.
As usual in large churches, a semi-circular Girola (ambulatory) surrounds the Capilla Mayor (main chapel). Along the outside walls of the ambulatory are chapels (many gated with intricate ironwork); on the other side are stone screens around the Capilla Mayor. In the ambulatory, directly behind the main altar, is the most distinctive feature of the Cathedral: El Transparente, a huge marble and bronze altarpiece that is a Baroque riot of angels, saints and allegorical figures of the three theological virtues. A windowed hole was cut into the ambulatory ceiling opposite the altarpiece. The ceiling and the area around that hole are lavishly decorated with paintings, plaster decorations and statuary. Near the top of the altarpiece is an oval hole that allows natural light to pass through and illuminate the main altar. Hanging from the ceiling are the red hats of two former cardinals buried beneath the floor. This is such a remarkable work of art that we needed to replay the audio guide commentary to help us better appreciate it.
Another distinctive aspect of this Cathedral is the huge display of art in the Sacristy and adjacent rooms. In addition to 19 El Greco paintings, there are works by Goya, Titian, Velazquez, Caravaggio, Rafael, Rubens, Bellini and other important artists. Among the paintings are El Greco’s “The Disrobing of Christ”, Goya’s “The Betrayal of Christ” and Caravaggio’s “John the Baptist in the Wilderness”. These works could form the core of a major art museum.
Back in the main part of the Cathedral, we viewed the Capilla Mayor behind its elaborate wrought iron screen. The enormous gilded polychrome and wood altarpiece rises in tier after tier of panels depicting scenes from the life of Mary and Jesus. Opposite is the similarly-gated Coro (Choir). At the Choir’s entrance is the “Virgen Blanca”, a 13th century Madonna and Child. The choir has two levels of wooden seats; the top level is carved with scenes from the Old Testament and the bottom with castles representing the towns around Granada that were retaken from the Moors towards the end of the Reconquista.
Above the western entrance of the Cathedral is a lovely rose window. On either side are two chapels. The Capilla de la Descension (Chapel of the Descent) portrays the miracle of the descent of the Virgin Mary to present a chasuble to a 7th-century Toledan bishop, San Ildefonso (Saint Ildephonsus). This miracle validated Toledo as the spiritual capital of Spain and is depicted in numerous places (such as the Cloister and the Choir) throughout the Cathedral and city. On the other side of the aisle is the Capilla Mozárabe (Mozarabic Chapel). The Mozarabic Rite or Visigoth Rite of the Catholic Church was gradually replaced by the Roman Rite after the Reconquista. The chapel is open daily when Mass using this rite is celebrated; the rite is also occasionally used in other churches in Spain. The Tesoro (Treasury) is also in this part of the Cathedral but it was closed today.
After thoroughly enjoying our visit to the Cathedral, we headed back to Plaza de Zocodover, down some steps through the Arco de la Sangre and past a statue of Miguel de Cervantes to the Museo de la Santa Cruz (www.patrimoniohistoricoclm.es/museo-de-santa-cruz/). The facade of this 16th-century former hospital is covered with the relief carvings typical of the Plateresque style of architecture. The main attraction of this museum (5 EUR pp) is the 15 works by El Greco and his student, Luis Tristán, in the Fine Arts collection. Here we were seriously misled by Rick Steves: he said we should take the stairs in the cloister to the second level, from which we could access the Permanent Collection. Although the cloister is quite lovely, the upper level features a ceramics collection and the temporary exhibits. The windows in the upper level have nice views of the Alcazar and the city; they also show bullet holes from the Spanish Civil War. We had to ask a docent there where to find the El Greco paintings and were directed back downstairs to the entrance just to the right of the ticket machine.
We were finally in the Permanent Collection, a cross-shaped space. The arm at the entrance is part of the Archeology section, which contains prehistoric and Roman antiquities. An interesting item here is a well with an Arabic inscription and grooves cut by the ropes used to haul water up over the ages. However, the highlight of the collection is in the Fine Arts section: El Greco’s “Assumption of the Virgin”. In this remarkable painting, Mary soars above the sleeping city of Toledo, supported by angels and bathed in the divine light of the Holy Spirit. There are other excellent works here including a “Crucifixion” by Goya.
We had lunch at a wonderful modern restaurant in a 14th century building that we read about in Maribel’s guide to Toledo. Restaurante Alfileritos 24 (alfileritos24.com) is sort of a new wave place with unbelievable food. John and I both got the daily menu but added a bottle of wine (Pago del Vicario 50-50 blend of Tempranillo and Cabernet Sauvignon). They reduced the price of the bottle since the meal included a glass of wine in addition to bottled water. We first enjoyed an amuse bouche of warm seafood tomato soup. This was followed by a first course of great “scrambled eggs” with truffles and Iberico ham. In essence this was a very upscale way to serve ham and eggs over a stack of potatoes. My husband got the veal cheek with creamy potatoes and mushrooms; I chose the soupy rice with rabbit sausage—kind of like a wet risotto. Both were outstanding. Dessert was a choice of chocolate souffle or tiramisu. Wow! This was all eclectic, delicious food in an interesting setting for 18.5 EUR each.
After lunch we visited the Museo de Tapices y Textiles de la Catedral (www.turismocastillalamancha.es/patrimonio/museo-de-tapices-y-textiles-de-la-catedral-26961/visita/), located in the Plaza del Colegio Infantes. We did not know about this museum in advance (it only opened in November 2014), but it is included in the combination ticket for the Cathedral; the ticket agent had marked it on our map. The 16th-century Antiguo Colegio Infantes was renovated to conserve and exhibit 24 of the 48 tapestries that once were displayed at the Cathedral during the feast of Corpus Christi. The museum also contains other tapestries depicting scenes from mythology and the history of Toledo. A series of six tapestries shows events in the lives of the bishop-saints of Toledo. Another is the “Astrolabe Tapestry”, which illustrates the medieval concept of the universe. (Rick Steves mistakenly places this tapestry in the Santa Cruz Museum.) Other textiles, ecclesiastical garments, religious objects and four silver spheres (representing the known continents in the 17th century) are also on display.
The covered courtyard contains the top part of an enormous (26 m by 16 m or 85 ft by 52 ft) monument, dating to the early 19th century. It was once positioned in the nave of the Cathedral during Holy Week to serve as an altar of repose: the Holy Eucharist was placed there after Mass on Holy Thursday so that it could be distributed on Good Friday. The structure looks like a domed temple, which covers an ornate tabernacle for holding the Eucharist. The whole thing is made of plastered wood, painted to look like marble; some of the wood was gilded to simulate bronze. Originally, there was a 30-step staircase leading up to the tabernacle, flanked by statues of four soldiers and eight angels. Those 12 life-sized carvings were painted to resemble alabaster and some of them are now placed in various parts of the museum. This monument has not been exhibited to the public since 1956.
From here, we wandered along the city walls toward the Alcazar, getting good views of the Infantry Academy (where Franco was a cadet) across the river. Most of the Alcazar is now a military museum but one tower is the Biblioteca de Castilla-La Mancha (corner of Cuesta de Carlos V and Cuesta de los Capuchinos). In his research, John had discovered that the cafeteria in the library is open to the public (free) and offers outstanding views of Toledo and the Tagus Valley. We took the elevator up to the cafeteria and enjoyed a “cafe con leche caliente” (1 EUR) along with the great views.
After our coffee, we walked along the walls to our final sights. The 13th-century crenelated Puerta del Sol (Sun Gate) was constructed by the Knights Hospitaller. Its name comes from the sun in a relief sculpture above the arch, which depicts the miracle of San Ildefonso receiving his chasuble from the Virgin Mary. The main entrance to the city, the Puerta de Bisagra Nueva (New Bisagra Gate), is actually two gates connected by a small walled plaza. The inner gate is distinguished by its two square towers with pyramidal roofs covered in checkered tiles. The outer gate has two thick round towers. From here, having thoroughly enjoyed Toledo, we made our way back to the escalators, down to the riverside and back to the train station. Today’s 5:25 p.m. train was crowded and we were again happy that we had reserved seats.
DAY 7: MAY 13 (FRI) MADRID – PORTO
This morning, if the weather had been nicer, we might have spent some time at the Royal Botanical Gardens or Retiro Park. Instead, we decided just to visit the last museum on our Paseo del Arte, have a pleasant lunch and head out to the airport for our flight to Portugal.
Our hotel is located only a short distance from the Centro de Arte Reina Sofia (www.museoreinasofia.es/en), Madrid’s museum of 20th-century art. We were there right when it opened at 10 a.m. Entering the museum turned out to be a bit of a free-for-all as the person at the information desk did not have a bar code scanner to process our pass and we got caught up in the surge of tour groups.
Photos are allowed in the museum, except in the room holding Picasso’s “Guernica” and the surrounding rooms. This huge painting depicts the annihilation of the Basque village of Guernica during the Spanish Civil War, which was bombed by the German and Italian air forces on behalf of the Spanish Nationalists. The painting was unveiled at the 1937 Paris International Exhibition and afterward continually toured Europe and the Americas because Picasso did not want it returned to Spain until Franco was out of power and democracy restored. Eventually, it was entrusted to the Museum of Modern Art in New York (where John and I saw it in 1979) and returned to Spain in 1981 after the reestablishment of the monarchy. The painting powerfully evokes the terror and horror of war and becomes more poignant the longer one studies it. In addition to the painting itself, the museum displays many sketches and studies for the painting and photographs documenting its creation.
Of course, the museum contains many, many other works by Picasso, (“Monument to the Spaniards Who Died for France”, “Seated Woman Resting on Elbows”) and by Spain’s great surrealist master, Dali (“The Great Masturbator“). This is another vast collection; the list of artists goes on and on: Miro, Calder, Kandinsky, Klee, Man Ray (“Indestructible Object”), Magritte, Max Ernst, Warhol… After several enjoyable hours here, we decided that it was time for lunch.
Our plan had been to try a restaurant (recommended by Devour Madrid) that specialized in grilled octopus. However, their kitchen did not open until 2 p.m. We wandered back in the general direction of the hotel until we found La Taperia del Prado (lataperia.es), which looked promising. This is a small restaurant very near the Prado and so is convenient for lunch. We had their daily menu, which had nice selections for a good price (12 EUR pp). I started with Ensalada de Pollo (salad with chicken) and John had Crema de Puerros (cream of leek soup) Our one quibble was that the chop in the main course of Chuleta de Cerdo a la Parrilla con Pisto (grilled pork chop with ratatouille and roast potatoes) was rather thin. The meal included Postre (dessert), bread and a Bebida (drink). We chose bottled water for the Bebida and ordered a bottle of 2014 Viñademoya Mencía Centenario, Bierzo. Ordering a whole bottle of wine scored us a fancier tapas that that served to the diners who chose a glass of wine or beer for their Bebida.
After that lovely lunch, we ambled back to the hotel to collect our luggage, head over to Atocha and catch the Cercanías (2.60 EUR pp) train to the airport. Our TAP flight to Porto required a stopover in Lisbon and we had allowed 1.5 hours for that. We were very surprised to be met in Lisbon by a TAP employee holding a sign with our names on it. Before we could become alarmed that something awful had happened back home, he asked us whether we would be willing to switch to an earlier flight to Porto that was leaving in less than a half-hour. We were agreeable as long as they promised that our luggage would also make the flight. We scooted over to the gate to get new boarding passes and saw our luggage being loaded on the plane before we had to board.
Getting into Porto an hour early plus gaining an hour with the time zone change made us decide to take the metro to our hotel rather than a taxi (~50 EUR). Nevertheless, we were a bit disoriented after a long day and the metro ticket machines only gave instructions in Portuguese. Fortunately, there was a uniformed agent there to help us buy the ticket (0.60 EUR pp for a rechargeable card and 1.85 EUR pp fare). It took about 30 minutes for the ride to the Bolhão stop near our hotel. When we got off the train, we could not shake a friendly local who insisted on leading us to our hotel (for a small tip).
Our home for the next two nights was the Ibis Porto Centro (www.ibis.com/gb/hotel-3344-ibis-porto-centro/index.shtml). When we checked in, the clerk provided a map of Porto and very helpful suggestions for catching our early train to Pinhão tomorrow morning. This was the most basic hotel we used during the trip. Our room was more like a dorm room with little space on either side of the bed; it was smaller than most cruise ship cabins. The Ibis had no hand towels and the only bathroom amenity was a combo face/body/hair gel. The only other amenity provided was free Wi-Fi; there is no safe. The hallways are spartan; they reminded me of the endless hallway of back doors in “The Matrix Reloaded”. On the other hand, it is neat, clean, modern and comes at a really good price. Plus, it is convenient to the metro which makes it convenient to the airport. It is also just a short walk to the São Bento train station, which connects to the larger Porto Campanhã station.
DAY 8: MAY 14 (SAT) PORTO – PINHÃO (DOURO VALLEY) – PORTO
Train tickets to Pinhão cannot be purchased online ahead of time, so we went to São Bento very early. Again the ticket machines only gave instructions in Portuguese and the ticket office was not open yet. I did find one station employee, who told me simply to get on the train for the 5-minute ride to Porto Campanhã and buy a ticket there. At the train, I asked the conductor for help; he said the same thing and studiously ignored us as he checked the tickets of the other passengers. At Porto Campanhã, the ticket agent sold us return tickets to Pinhão (19.55 EUR pp), which she said included the fare to/from São Bento. This all seemed very informal to us!
We had to catch the early (7:15 a.m.) train to Pinhão because the ride through the Douro Valley (www.dourovalley.eu/en/) takes almost 2.5 hours. The first hour or so of the trip is pretty mundane, with an industrial/commercial/suburban landscape. After that, however, the tracks run along the lovely Douro River and there are fine views of the vine-covered hillsides. This was the point of taking this train ride.
Unfortunately, the rainy weather had followed us from Spain; it had cleared somewhat by the time we reached Pinhão. The small train station there is covered with beautiful azulejos (blue and white ceramic tiles) that depict scenes of the valley and wine making activities. (The inside of São Bento also has fine azulejos.) Near the station are a number of old concrete fermentation vats.
Our guide, Jorge of Jorge Barefoot (www.jorgebarefoot.com), was waiting to take us on a spectacular tour around the vineyards of the Cima Corgo region in the Douro Valley. Through numerous email exchanges, we had settled on a plan for the day that was to include winery visits plus a tour and lunch on his boat. Unfortunately, we had to skip the boat ride because this section of the river was closed due to high water. (He had warned us before we left the USA that this might be the case.) Instead, Jorge showed us the beautiful Douro Valley and took us to some fairly remote spots using his four-wheel drive vehicle. Because the boat ride was to also include a picnic, he said he would substitute lunch at a local restaurant. (This was all part of his price – that he actually lowered to 150 EUR pp a few weeks before our arrival!)
Our first stop was the Casal de Loivos Miradouro. From here we had a magnificent view of the Douro Valley and several important quintas (estates) and vineyards: Quinta do Bonfim, Quinta da Roeda and Quinta das Carvalhas. We could also see some of the tourist river boats forlornly tied up along the river. Jorge pointed out the various viticultural practices used in this region. The traditional vineyards have terraces supported by dry stone walls, which follow the contour of the hillsides. Those terraces are generally so narrow that they can only contain one or two rows of vines. Many traditional vineyards were never replanted with grapes after the phylloxera blight of the 1870s; called mortórios, some of those terraces are now used to grow almonds or other crops. Modern machine-made terraces (patamares) are separated by tall earthen banks instead of walls and also follow the contours of the land. On less-steep slopes, the newest method, vinha ao alto (vertical planting), uses rows that run perpendicular to the contours. Both of the later methods offer certain advantages but can lead to problems with soil erosion.
Next we visited the D’Origem (dorigem.pt/ing/) Olive Oil Press Museum. The owner explained the traditional process of pressing olive oil, which can no longer be made in this facility because of EU regulations. However, the family estate still produces olive oil, honey, grape juice and, of course, wine. We greatly enjoyed tasting the olive oil and three of their wines: Velha Geração Branco (white), Fisgas (rosé) and Velha Geração Grande Reserva (red).
The Quinta do Panascal (www.fonseca.pt/en/visitors-centre/) was one of the first estates to begin public tours and offers a more commercial experience. There is a self-guided audio tour of the vineyards followed by a tasting. The tour gives more wonderful views and a close-up look at the vines and the rocky slate soil they grow in. We also could see the traditional rectangular lagares (granite tanks) used to stomp and ferment the grapes and some old large wooden casks. We then tasted three non-vintage Fonseca ports: 10 Year Old Tawny, Bin No. 27 (ruby) and Siroco Branco Extra Seco (white).
We had a more personal visit at Quinta do Pessegueiro (www.quintadopessegueiro.com), where the Administrative Manager opened up just for us. We had a complete tour of this thoroughly modern, gravity-flow facility. There is even a special elevator used to raise the tanks so that pumping is never needed. Nevertheless, this winery still uses the traditional lagares, with the grapes either stomped by foot or pressed with wooden paddles, to produce some of the wines. Here we tasted 2011 Pessegueiro Aluzé, 2012 Quinta do Pessegueiro and 2011 Quinta do Pessegueiro Late Bottled Vintage Porto.
After all that tasting, it was time for lunch at Toca da Raposa (www.facebook.com/tocadaraposa.douro/). Lunch was great! We decided not to order off the menu but just take what the waitress recommended. Good choice! We are adventurous eaters and so we loved the grilled octopus (thick tentacles!) and the goat with pasta! We were served five different wines including a Raposeira Blanc de Blancs, 2014 Quinta de la Rosa Reserva, Quinta de Cidrô Semillon, 2011 Quinta d Malhô, 1975 Andresen Colheita tawny port. This was a really memorable meal! After a cappuccino, we got a tour of the restaurant’s wine cellar.
Following some more scenic driving (including a stop to see a cork tree), it was time to return to Pinhão and catch the 6:19 p.m. train to Porto. Jorge is really nice guy and is incredibly knowledgeable and well-connected with local wineries and restaurants. We do lots of wine touring and this was one of the best ever!
DAY 9: MAY 15 (SUN) PORTO – BARCELONA
We would only have part of the day here before flying back to Barcelona this evening and returning to the USA on Monday. We had appointments at two port houses later in the morning but there was enough time to see a few sights of Porto.
Porto is built on high bluffs along the Douro River. All the port houses are actually on the bluffs on the other side, in Vila Nova de Gaia. There are six bridges that link the two sides of the river but the one that we cared about was the Ponte Luís I . That is a double-decker bridge: the deck connecting the top of the bluffs carries pedestrians and a tram line, while the deck at river level carries pedestrians and vehicular traffic. Although it was a little foggy, we had good views of both sides of the river from the top deck; the views would be spectacular on a sunny day. We crossed over the bridge, then followed streets and stairs down to the riverfront. We followed the river downstream, passing many restaurants. Floating in the river are many replicas of rabelos, the traditional boats used to transport port barrels. These are owned by the various port houses and are used for races. Vendors were just setting up their stalls along the riverside; later in the day, we saw a man carving small model rabelos for sale.
After enjoying our walk along the river, we headed uphill to Graham’s 1890 Lodge (www.grahams-port.com). The distance is not great but the last 1500 feet are somewhat harrowing. The road is steep but walkable. However, there was almost no sidewalk on this really narrow two-way street. In any case, we survived and were happy we made it to Graham’s.
We had reserved a tour in English at 10 a.m., right when the lodge opens. There was no one there to start the tour for the four English speakers present, so we were delayed while a large group of French tourists were checked in. Finally we were admitted to a small theater for short film about Graham’s. This was followed by a very good tour. We only wish that the video had not repeated what our guide later had to say. It is much better to hear the story from a person who can respond to questions. The other couple had booked a different tasting, so we were taken to a separate room, where our tastings were already set up. We had each reserved a different tasting so that we could share and taste all six wines. The Super Premium Vintage Port Tasting (35 EUR pp) included Graham’s Vintage Ports 1983, 2000 and 2007; the Super Premium Tawny Tasting (35 EUR pp) included Graham’s 30 Years Old Tawny, 40 Years Old Tawny and Single Harvest 1982. Wow! We loved the vintage ports but the tawnies were on another level. This was an outstanding experience!
The Graham’s tour and tasting was supposed to last 40-60 minutes. However, with the late start, we had to rush to make our next appointment at 11:30 a.m. We arrived at Offley Cellars (eng.sograpevinhos.com/visitas/cave/9) a few minutes after the group tour had started but we didn’t really miss anything. Offley offers a number of different tastings after their very informative and interesting cellar tour. John and I were the only ones who had booked the Baron of Forrester Visit (12 EUR pp, cash only) so we could taste a large selection of their ports (we’re big port fans). We were not disappointed; they had five really good ports to sample and these were not small pours. The wines included were: Porto Tawny 10 Years Old, Porto Tawny, Porto Late Bottled Vintage 2010, Porto Reserva Forrester and Porto White. This tasting was a little rushed because they really wanted everyone out of their tasting room by 1 p.m. (They close for siesta from 12:30-2 p.m.)
The guide at Graham’s had recommended a local restaurant in the area around Igreja de Santa Marinha, but we could not find it. Anyway we felt that by now it was getting too late to enjoy a unhurried lunch before returning to the airport. We walked back to Porto on the lower deck of the Ponte Luís I and climbed the medieval stairs on the downriver side of the bridge, the Escadas do Codeçal. Being on a bluff, Porto required many sets of steep stairs to connect the top of the bluff to the river. This set is considered one of the most interesting because of the street art on the walls of the buildings lining the stairs. Clotheslines filled with colorful garments, sheets, etc., are strung over the stairs. Eventually we reached the Romanesque Sé do Porto (Porto Cathedral) in the center of town. The plain facade, crenelated roof line and the garitas (sentry boxes) at the corners of the terrace give the Cathedral a fortress-like appearance. A Baroque loggia along one side has lovely azulejos. The terrace has expansive views of the old town and also contains an ornate pillory, which is purely decorative and was never used for punishments.
We stopped at the hotel to retrieve our luggage and took the metro out to the airport. After all the wonderful lunches we had been enjoying, it was a real letdown to have a sandwich and Coke at the airport. We arrived in Barcelona after 11:30 p.m.; by the time we collected our luggage, it was nearly midnight. Although the airport hotel we selected runs a 24-hour shuttle service, we decided that a long wait at this time of night was not worth it. We splurged on a taxi for 25 EUR (including tip).
Our final hotel was the Frontair Congress Aeropuerto (www.hotelfrontaircongressbarcelona.com/en). This is a nice, clean, modern hotel but we only stayed there because it is near the airport and has a free shuttle.
DAY 10: MAY 16 (MON) BCN TO RDU
In the morning, we took the shuttle back to the airport for our British Airways (operated by American Airlines) flight to RDU (Raleigh-Durham), connecting in CLT (Charlotte). Because we belong to the Global Entry trusted passenger program, customs and immigration in Charlotte were a breeze. It turned out that we could have caught an earlier flight to RDU but we had been unwilling to chance the shorter layover time.
Our flight to RDU was scheduled to arrive at 11:37 p.m. and the Budget Car Rental office was closing at 1 a.m. I told John to take the shuttle and pick up the car for our ride home while I waited for our bags to come out. That was a good choice because American managed to mislay my suitcase. I was just getting ready to fill out a claim form when it miraculously appeared out of nowhere. If we had both waited for the luggage, the Budget office would have been closed by the time we got there. We collapsed in our bed at home around 2 a.m.
Including the sights we were able to see during the cruise portion of our trip, we were able to experience many of the highlights of Spain and Portugal. Despite not being very (or at all) fluent in Spanish or Portuguese, we were able to manage nicely and look forward to returning to these fascinating countries again some day.