Spanish countryside and Granada – Days 7 & 8

We retrieved our car from the Barcelona airport parking area and headed toward the coast.  Although it was cloudy, we could see the beautiful  Mediterranean Sea.


Heading inland, we saw almond, orange, and olive trees for miles and miles.


After a while we began to see mountains.


As we came close to Granada, the mountains were very high and snow-covered.  It was truly a day of beautiful scenery!

We arrived at our hotel which was directly across the street from the Alhambra.  We walked to Plaza Nuevo to find a spot for a tapas dinner.  We decided to go to Bodegas Casteneda since it was one of Rick Steves’ recommendations.  The place was packed with lively people!  We felt a bit like vultures, but we finally found a small stand-up table and ordered a bottle of wine to go with the free shrimp appetizer the personable waiter brought us.  We had been sitting in the car for most of the day so decided to go ahead and order tapas at our table rather than wait for a sit-down table.


It was a very fun evening with great food, wine, and atmosphere.

The next morning we crossed the street to enter the grounds of the Alhambra.  Fortunately, our daughter had ordered tickets online so we could go right in.  We began by strolling the Generalife Gardens.


The summer palace was home to the Moorish kings.  The gardens were planted over 600 years ago and still look almost the same as they did in 500-year-old paintings.   The original residents enjoyed the fresh fruits and vegetables which were grown here.

The Palacios Nazaries is a fabulous structure which highlights the refined elegant Moorish civilization of Iberia.  We visited all the magnificent rooms.


Much of the decoration is writings from the Quran.  The phrase “only Allah is victorious” is repeated 9,000 times in the palace.


One can hardly imagine what it must have been like in its prime with such vivid colors.  At one time the Alhambra was a city of 2,000 people.


The largest room is the Grand Hall of the Ambassadors which was used mostly as a throne room.  After a 700-year battle, the Reconquista was completed in this room as Boabdil signed his surrender before leaving for Africa.  It was also the room in which Columbus pleaded with Isabel and Ferdinand to fund his voyage to sail west in order to reach the East.


The Courtyard of the Lions is being restored, so the original 12 lions have been restored and are on display inside (no photos) awaiting their return to the courtyard.

The conquering King Charles V built his own palace with funds from the defeated Muslim population.  The circular courtyard is still used for music since it has outstanding acoustics.


His son, Philip II, then built his own massive palace, El Escorial.  (See Days 1 & 2 to read about it.)

We visited the Alcazaba which is the original “red castle” or “Alhambra.”  The view from the top makes the climb worthwhile – Plaza Nueva, the Albayzin neighborhood, the Sierra Nevada mountains.  This is where the Aragon and Castile flags were raised along with the Christian cross as the Moorish king Boabdil fled in 1492.  Much later Napoleon had troops here who left substantial damage.


After returning home, I read Washington Irving’s “Tales of the Alhambra.”  He wrote it during a romantic time in Spain while he was staying in the Alhambra in 1829.  His writings rekindled interest in the Alhambra and caused it to become a national treasure.

After a very interesting day at the Alhambra, I was ready to relax for a while.  The rest of the family pushed on.  They stopped at the lavish Royal Chapel to see the tombs of Queen Isabel and King Ferdinand.  Isabel made Granada the capital of Spain since that was where Christianity had overcome Islam in Europe, and it’s where she agreed to sponsor Christopher Columbus.  One of the most interesting sights is the painting in the lobby of Boabdil giving the key of the city of Granada to King Ferdinand.

We had heard that the Alhambra is especially beautiful just before sunset from San Nicolas viewpoint, so they continued on wandering up through the Albayzin to the viewpoint.  It was a difficult walk, but they were not disappointed.  What a view of the Alhambra with the snow-capped mountains in the background.


As the sun went down, they looked for a taxi, but there was not a single one to be found, so they made the trek back to the hotel.  After a long busy day, we decided to do something we almost never do – eat at the hotel.  It was a fine choice as the food was good and we were serenaded by an ensemble from Universidad de Granada.

Barcelona – Days 5 and 6

Having no need for a car in Madrid, we took the Metro to the airport to pick up our car to begin our travels to Barcelona.  The landscape and scenery along the way were varied and beautiful.  The highways were excellent with little traffic.  The almond trees were in full blossom.


We drove to the Barcelona airport to park the car to avoid driving in the city.  It worked very well.  We were warned to leave absolutely nothing in the car while it was parked anywhere.  Our daughter inadvertantly left 2 2-Euro coins in the cup holder and worried (unnecessarily) about them.  No problem!  We took the bus to Placa de Catalunya and walked to our hotel near the cathedral.  We were pleasantly surprised that we had been upgraded to their sister hotel across the street.  As we left the hotel to find a tapas spot for dinner, we enjoyed watching people in front of the cathedral doing patriotic Sardana dances.  These take place on most Saturday evenings and every Sunday noon.

The next morning, after a quick breakfast at Starbucks and LaMie, we were off the see Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia (Holy Family Church).


It is spectacular, unbelievable, and like nothing else we had ever seen.  Antoni Gaudi worked on it from 1883 until his death in 1926.  Construction is still being done and is not expected to be finished for another 25 or so years.  We thought both the interior and exterior were beautiful, but like all art/architecture, beauty is in the eye of the beholder.  The original design calls for 18 towers – 12 apostles, 4 evangelists, Mary, and the tallest one in the center representing Christ.  So far 8 have been erected – 4 apostles on each of the Passion and Nativity Facades.


The three facades chronicle Christ’s life – birth, death, resurrection .  We started at the Passion Facade by Josep Subirachs, not Gaudi, which depicts much symbolism from the Bible with figures carved in stark straight lines.  It’s difficult to believe this impressive facade is actually just a  side entrance.


Entering the church, it seemed as if the massive columns reached all the way to heaven where daylight streamed through little windows high above. 


There are stained-glass windows, a horseshoe-shaped choir halfway up the columns, an organ, and a spiral staircase.  No matter which way we looked, there were endless geometric designs.  An awe-inspiring crucifix is suspended above the altar.


To give our necks a break from looking up for so long, we took the elevator up 215 feet, climbed a few stairs, and got quite a view of the city and a close-up view of a few of the church towers


Returning downstairs we went outside and walked around to see the Nativity Facade.  This is the best example of Gaudi’s cake-in-the-rain style.  


The sculptures are ornately decorated with scenes from nature.


By now we were pretty hungry, so we found a nice restaurant with tables outside to enjoy tapas and sangria.  On the map it didn’t seem very far to Park Guell, so we started out walking, refreshed from our lunch.  What was missing on the map were the elevations showing the steep hills we needed to climb to reach the park.  It was quite a hike, but we enjoyed seeing the neighborhoods along the way.  Gaudi designed this park as a high-income housing community, but he was ahead of his time.  As a park, however, it’s very much a success.  Even though we were there on a rather cool cloudy Sunday afternoon, there were lots of couples and families enjoying the day and seeing what the street vendors had for sale.


From there we took a taxi to the harborfront which was also bustling with people.  The 200-foot Columbus monument marks the place where Ferdinand and Isabel greeted him on his return from his first trip to America. 


After a nice walk along a crowded pier, we started walking up the Ramblas toward Placa de Catalunya.  My son-in-law and I returned to the hotel somewhat earlier than my wife and daughter.  It had something to do with stopping (or not) at all the little shops along the way.

My wife and daughter ordered squid for dinner.  Rather adventuresome, but they said it was very good.  Anyway, our dinner was a nice way to cap off a very full and interesting day.


Since our daughter was limited on vacation time, we almost skipped Barcelona.  We were all very glad we didn’t since it proved to be one of our favorite places.

Madrid &Toledo-Days 3 and 4

Day 3-Madrid:  I picked up a late breakfast at Starbucks and we waited for our daughter and son-in-law at our hotel.  They arrived right on schedule via the airport and the metro.  Notwithstanding their fatigue from the long over-night flight from Oklahoma, we immediately started off to see the Royal Palace


King Philip V, who ruled Spain for 40 years, commissioned this huge palace.  He was the grandson of Louis XIV and was born in Versailles.  His French style, coupled with his wife’s Italian heritage, can be seen throughout the more than 2,000 rooms.  We didn’t see them all.  It is very beautiful and it is still used today for formal affairs.  The throne room was especially impressive.  This is where King Juan Carlos greets his guests before dinner.  The Stradivarius Room has the only in tact Stradivarius quartet (2 violins, a viola, and a cello) in existence.  The armory is full of interesting armor and other instruments of battle, attractively displayed,  from the 1400s on.  The oldest piece is the shield of Boabdil who was the last Moorish king.  No photos are allowed inside the Palace, so you will have to see it for yourself. 

We went for lunch at the market that Barbara and I had found the day before.  The food (small servings of a variety of selections) was  interesting and quite good.  Daughter and Barbara, proving the adage that woman is the stronger sex, immediately took off to see the Centro de Arte Reina Sofia to view its modern art collection, while the males returned to the hotel for a (for them) much needed nap.  Meanwhile, the “girls” enjoyed the works of Goya, Miro, Dali, Picasso, El Greco and lesser (?) lights at the Modern Art Museum.  The highlight, considered by many to be the most impressive work of art in Spain, was Picasso’s “Guernica“. In shades of stark black and white, this expansive canvas shows the horrors of modern warfare (the Spanish Civil War bombing of Guernica by Hitler operatives at the request of Franco) in modernistic form.  This painting, shown only in New York until after the death of Franco, generates one’s interest in the history that it illumines. 


In mid-afternoon, we all met at the Prado.  This huge facility houses more art than can possibly be viewed in a day, or perhaps a week.  The most important masterpieces and their locations are listed in the brochure, so we made it a point to find them.


That evening we enjoyed a Spanish specialty, Paella, at a local restaurant recommended by our hotel staff.  This capped a very long and busy day. 


Day 4-Friday the 25th:  We walked from our hotel, the Preciado, through Puerto del Sol, to the train station to board for a trip to Toledo.  The next couple of trains were fully booked, so we reserved seats on a later morning departure.  With an hour or so to spare, we walked around the park for a while.  The ride to Toledo is only about 30 minutes, through interesting open country-side.  Toledo was once the Capital of Spain.  The mix of Jewish, Moorish, and Christian heritages makes it very interesting. 

The train station at Toledo is a neo-moorish style, very attractive. 


From the train station we took a taxi up the “hill” to the Cathedral.  Our first objective was to find a place for lunch.  The hilly terrain makes walking a bit difficult, but we located a little open-air cafe and enjoyed a typical Spanish mid-day repast.  Thence, to the Cathedral


How ornate!!!  Some would say “over-the-top” with its vast array of gold and jewels located throughout: at the high altar, the choir area, the side altars, the sacristy full of masterpieces of European artists, the room full of old, ornate vestments, etc.  The most interesting is the Treasury, the resting place for the 10-foot tall, 430 pound monstrance, layered in gold.  One day a year, Corpus Christi Sunday, it is taken from the Treasury and carried through the streets of old Toledo.  Again, no photos inside, so there’s another place for you to see for yourself. 

From the Cathedral we walked to Santo Tome Chapel to see El Greco’s, “The Burial of the Count of Orgaz”.  Some consider this to be El Greco’s finest work.  It certainly is impressive and especially since it is still in the place where the artist placed it 400 years ago.  We all spent many minutes, fascinated by the lovely colors, shadings and details of the painting.  El Greco was the resident artist here and called it home. 


After Santo Tome, I relaxed a bit while the others went to the Santa Cruz Museum to see the lovely old tapestries


We then sampled a little of the local specialty, marzipan, produced, apparently by the bushel, by the nuns in the local convents, and sold in many small shops.  We are all big fans of marzipan, so the local specialty was especially enjoyable for us. 

The sun was going down by now, so we hailed a taxi for a  ride to the train station and the fast train trip back to Madrid for another late Spanish schedule dinner.