Category Archives: Spain

Walking in Granada

albaicinThere is so much to see, and we have so little fluency in Spanish, that we have booked lots of tours on this trip.  Too many? Time will tell. Today we started off with a walking tour of the lower Albaicin (another World Heritage Site on the list!) and the old city with Senna, a delightful young Belgian with impeccable English and what sounded to me like a perfect Spanish accent.  He began by explaining the history of the Muslims in Spain and pointed out that, as I have discovered, if you are a progressive you tend to think that the three religions coexisted happily, and if you’re a conservative, not. He led us up steep streets lined with shops just like in Morocco, offering leather, textiles, jewelry, etc.  We stopped at the top of a hill at a Catholic church run by the Clare Sisters, who pray unceasingly. And indeed we saw a white-clad figure, immovable in front of the altar, and a similar figure took her place as we watched.


Everywhere we went we saw pomegranates, the symbol of Granada. 

Narrow streets, some made narrower because people had been allowed to extend their houses into the streets as long as they left room for a man and a donkey to pass. And when the Muslims were expelled, Christians took over their houses and turned them into spacious buildings with gardens and vineyards. We ended this part of the tour at an overlook where we could see the Alhambra and the white palace.

Walking back down the hill, we came to Plaza Nueva and admired the Christian church with Muslim elements (notice the tiles and the arched windows). Down the street we came upon a massive monument to Isabella and Columbus (they are buried in Granada), then we turned down a side street to the souk, reconstructed after a nineteenth century fire, thanks to the romantic admiration for the Muslim era (due in part to Washington Irving’s Tales of the Alhambra).

We wended our way through the narrow streets to the cathedral, a Gothic presence in the midst of everything else.  Off to one side is a building used by the University of Granada, that has preserved a room of the original 14th century madrassa, complete with mihrab.  This was, again, just like Morocco.  I couldn’t resist several photos.

As we walked back towards the cathedral, we noticed this wall with someone’s name partly obscured by red paint.  Senna lowered his voice in deference to the many church people who might be passing by (we were opposite the archbishop’s palace) and explained that this was the name of a noted Fascist active during the Civil War, honored by the church but to this day abhorred by many.

We left Senna here and walked back to the Plaza Nueva for a pizza lunch and a brief rest before our afternoon tour of the cathedral and chapel. Our guide for just the two of us was Violetta, whose English was wonderful though sometimes oddly pronounced (as is my Spanish, I’m sure).  More about the tour here.

Dinner tonight was at La Fontana, a tapas place just around the corner from our hotel, facing the Rio Darro.  We are still tapas novices, as evidenced by our behavior: we ordered wine and a hummus tapa to start and were surprised to see two little containers of couscous arrive.  We tried to take it back only to learn that this was the tapa libre! Lo siento!! It was delicious, as was the hummus we ordered. All the tapas here were so good that, even though the waitrons as aways do not like to deliver the bill, to Alison’s frustration, we vowed to return tomorrow.

The train that’s a bus

Sometimes, it’s all about the transportation.  We went to the Atocha train station to leave Madrid for Granada, the first leg by train and the second by bus.  The first part was easy, assigned seats, a quiet train, and an arid, bleak landscape passing by. We dutifully got off at Antequera to catch the bus to Granada, but were stopped by the train people.  They explained that for some reason we didn’t catch we would have to get back on the train, go to Malaga, about twenty minutes on, and get the bus to Granada there. We were to look out for them at the head of the train in Malaga.

Well, they were strolling along the platform without us when we arrived and raced to catch up.  The man said, “follow the chicas” and we zipped along behind a young couple and a young woman, in and out, over streets, through buildings until we came to the bus station.  Bought our tickets and eventually boarded a comfortable bus for the 90 minute trip to Granada.

But our adventures were not yet over, because the cab we took ripped us off.  He sped off to our hotel, then deliberately confused Alison about the change he owed her.  With any luck, he will come to a bad end! I’m glad to say that this was the only bad incident we had in two weeks.

We trundled up the cobbled pedestrian street to our hotel, Casa del Capitel Nazari, described on their website as “an ancient Renaissance palace built in 1503 and located in the picturesque area of the Albaicin, in front of the Alhambra in Granada and in the city centre, close to the cathedral. It is a palace with lintels and Tuscan columns, Corinth capitals, Arabic chromium-plated beams; Renaissance decorated wooden ceiling and two Roman columns.”  All true, and was very reminiscent of Morocco:  little courtyards, wooden ceilings, tiled floors, and all. We have a large room with a mini-kitchen and a dining room table, very comfortable.  We walked down to the Plaza Nueva, a busy square with several restaurants, and had a strange dinner, large platters of fried spaghetti sprinkled with a few shrimps, and lots of pork and potatoes. And so to bed.

Art art art, part two

Today we met Barbara, our Toledo guide, for the Prado tour, three hours of amazing art, Barbara’s knowledgeable insights and lots of standing. Tiring but so worth it!

Bosch’s triptych ‘The Garden of Earthly Delights’ started us off with a powerful, detailed religious painting famously  filled with crazy details, especially of the Hell that awaits the wicked.  I was particularly struck by its bubblegum pink Hieronymus Bosch, The Garden of Earthly Delights, c. 1480-1505, oil on panel, 220 x 390 cm (Prado)details, which don’t really show up in this tiny image, but you get the drift.

From here, Barbara took us chronologically through the collection. Roger van der Weiden’s Deposition of Jesus is the best painting I’ve ever seen that I knew nothing about (not that that’s unusual, I am still a novice when it comes to art).Image result for roger van der weiden death of jesusLarge figures, faces each individualized, richly colored clothing, and a human sense of scale. It’s truly stunning in person.

We saw lots of Rubens, who I must remember is Flemish. I asked Barbara how to know a Rubens (especially for those of us think of Renoir when we hear his name) and she said to look for lots of color and a dynamic design with lots of movement. Got it!  Here’s an example:Image result for rubens prado madrid

The real highlight for me was the Velazquez collection, now that I’ve read The Vanishing Velazquez. The small painting of a wall in Italy was as wonderful as the author had promised, very reminiscent in its stillness and gem-like quality of Vermeer’s The Little Street.  It really has to be seen in person.Image result for velazquez view of the garden of the villa medici I also admired the man with outflung arm.   Is he an actor?Image result for velazquez portraits pradoLas Meninas is a puzzle picture – who are these people and what are they doing? – more than an emotional one.  Image result for las meninasCumming describes it beautifully in her book, and it’s one to go back to over and over.

That room is also filled with portraits of Habsburgs with their unfortunate chins.Image result for velazquez portraits prado

At the end of the tour, we bade farewell to Barbara, who told Alison about a Fra Angelico exhibit coming to the Prado next year – will we come back? – and we had lunch in the cafeteria before going back to revisit Senor V. We found The Surrender at Breda

Image result for velazquez surrender at breda

plus the so-called “buffoons” or dwarves in all their humanity.Image result for velazquez buffoons

Despite our museum fatigue, we headed for the Reina Sofia museum around the corner and its modern art. We started dutifully with the Surrealists and then went straight to Guernica, whose scale is not conveyed with this thumbnail image.

Image result for guernica painting

There’s a big buildup to the painting, which I had last seen in New York when I was a teenager, diaplaying Dora Maas’s photos of the work in progress and plenty of political and artistic runups to the art. Guernica (Ger NEEK a) was one of the first mass casualties of civilians, carried out by Hitler with Franco’s assent, a truly horrendous act. I’m so glad to have seen it again and must find a good book on the Spanish Civil War to understand the whole thing better.

We were truly exhausted by this point, so we had a drink and went back to our old favorite tapas place, La Abuela, for shrimp, followed by a second trip to Toni’s. I meant to order mussels but ended up with anchovies, which luckily were quite good. On the way home we ran into a protest in the street about sex trafficking. This in addition to a protest in the Puerto related to the disinterring of Franco from the valley of heroes to Madrid, and another one by young people in matching T-shirts to do with prisoners. Democracy is alive and well here!

[Note: Because the Prado prohibits all photos in all parts of the building, including the gift shop, these images are not mine but probably better than I would have managed.]

Toledo with Context

Above: what we didn’t do!

One of our favorite things when we’re abroad is a tour with Context Travel. The guides are usually excellent, the groups are small, and we learn a lot.  For this trip we met at the Madrid train station, which features a wonderful botanical garden right in the middle of it (see earlier post), where our guide said people have been (illegally) dropping off their unwanted turtles!

Our guide, Barbara, is a young Polish woman with a PhD in art history, specifically in medieval manuscripts.  During our 30 minute ride she gave us the highlights of our day.

We arrived at the Toledo train station, built in the early 20th century in the mudejar style, “a style of ornamentation and decoration in post-Islamic Christian Iberia that was strongly influenced by Moorish taste and workmanship,” according to Wikipedia. I especially liked the flat screen TV bordered by traditional tiles. Toledo is built on 12 hills and protected on three sides by the Tagus River, so we needed to cross the river the get to the city. We got cabs and enjoyed the beautiful views of the city, stopping at a viewpoint for some great photos, then crossed the bridge and began walking uphill.

Toledo provides a great example of the layers of history in Andalusia.  We saw a synagogue, a mosque turned into a church, and more.   First up was one of the original gates in the wall around Toledo, displaying a combination of keyhole and Gothic arches. 

Next we came to a a mosque that was turned into a church, Cristo de Luz, with the remains of a Roman road on display just below our feet. The columns inside were scavenged from Roman ruins. As evidence of the mixing of cultures, the Christian inscriptions were written in Arabic leading to this interesting juxtaposition of the shadow of Christ on the cross surrounded by Arabic text.

Outside again, the narrow streets were very reminiscent of Morocco. This one had a roofed room connecting two separate houses above the street. Only a few are left, since one of the kings decreed that these structures, resulting in dark tunnels throughout the city, should be destroyed. Then to a(nother) convent with cloistered nuns, where marzipan is said to have been invented – Toledo is famous for it – and then the spires of the San Juan de los Reyes Monasterio. Ferdinand and Isabella were to be buried here, but after they conquered Granada they changed their minds.


On the outside of the monastery are chains that once belonged to Christian prisoners liberated from Muslim Granada. (Click through for a good view on the bottom left.)  Inside is a beautiful French Gothic structure, with soaring arches and a lovely cloister (all that’s left after a fire), featuring darling little carved animals and plants along with the saints.

Next on to a synagogue that was taken over by the Christians, leading to the odd name of Sinagoga de Santa Maria la Blanca. The columns are newly repainted white, with beautifully carved decorations of pineapples. The floor was tiled (no Jewish symbols here), and the apses have been turned into Christian chapels. The wooden ceiling was again very Moroccan. The whole thing very clean, light and austere.

These tiles set into the roads indicate that we’re in the Jewish quarter, although there are no Jews in Toledo any more.

The Museum of The Sephardic Jews was our last stop in the Jewish Quarter. This was a former synagogue that’s been reconstituted as a museum of the Sephardic Jews, defined as Spanish Jews who have left the country (which they all did in 1492, and to say they left is to minimize the pain and terror of being thrown out). There are still some carvings and decorations from the original synagogue, and displays of Jewish memorabilia from ancient times up to now.

After a quick snack break (where we learned that the Spanish put cooked tomatoes on toast the way we would use jam), we came to the cathedral, the jewel in the crown of Toledo. Its Baroque altarpiece and Transparente are over the top, until you come to the enormous gold and silver Monstrance and you know that there’s always one step more in the gaudiness sweepstakes.  Plus, the Monstrance is paraded through the streets during Holy Week, and I can only imagine how they do that.

Also here were more lovely carved animals,

and a painting by my frenemy, El Greco.  This is the Disrobing of Christ.

It was a good day, and Barbara was a terrific guide, very knowledgeable but not overwhelming us with information. It turns out that she will be our guide at the Prada tomorrow, and Larry and Tatiana from this group will be along.

Dinner tonight was at a place recommended by RS for its cod. But, unfortunately, hearing bad news from Marshelle about Weezer’s situation plunged me into darkness. Plus, the waiter rushed us and our order was a mess! We ended up with two cod tapas, neither very good, and an enormous salad with big chunks of tomatoes (not terribly ripe) and tuna. We bailed at this point, after confusing the waiter with our order – first jamón, then not jamón, then jamón after all and then no jamón! – and went back to the Europa. A comforting bowl of soup and glass of wine did a lot to restore my spirits.

Here’s a view of the train station tiles to finish off the day!

Art art art, part I

We usually look for history, art and nature when we travel.  This trip was no exception, except that the paintings were mostly at the beginning of the trip.  First, the Thyssen-Bornemisza National Museum in Madrid on our first day there.  Sadly, the Metro ticket operation was so confusing that we had to ask for help, and I’m still not sure we could do it again.  But once we got the tickets, it worked well. We walked down the Paseo del Prado to the museum, spotting a magpie on the way, bathing in a fountain.magpie

The Thyssen is a private collection started by the Thyssen and Bornemisza families in the early twentieth century,  bought by the Spanish government and housed in a former palace.  The website touts paintings by “Dürer, Rafael, Titian, Rubens, Rembrandt, Caravaggio, Manet, Renoir, Cézanne, Van Gogh, Gauguin, Kandinsky, Picasso, Hopper, Rothko.”  They were all there although, as Rick Steves says, it’s a collection of minor works by major artists.  But we very much enjoyed it.

Our old friend Memlingmemling

Holbein’s Henry VIII in a lovely frameHolbein

El Greco, who is an acquired taste which I hadn’t yet acquired at this point in the tripEl Greco 1

a RembrandtRembrandt

Kirchner, whom I remember from SwitzerlandKirchner

and this lovely orange dress on St. Casilda, by the Spanish painter Zurbaran.Zurbaran

Unfortunately, the Caravaggio we wanted to see was not on display.  

It was a LOT of art to see at the end of the day, but it was just right.

We Metro’d back and all was well until we tried to leave the station.  Many signs saying Salida but no way out! We finally found our way and walked back through the Puerto to a restorative glass of wine outside the hotel. wine after art

Touring Madrid

Our first full day in Spain was on our own, which is a good way to start. After breakfast in the hotel restaurant – churros (yum), yogurt, orange juice, an apple, and some bread and marmalade, plus good coffee – we started off on the Rick Steves walk.

In the Puerto del Sol, the busy plaza just outside our hotel, we saw the symbol of Madrid, the bear eating madrones, which is everywhere once you start looking for it (see below);the statue of Charles III with the iconic Tio Pepe sign behind him;

and the city building which back in the day was the headquarters of Franco’s government.

We strolled down small streets with lovely tiled street signs like this one for the Street of the Embroiderers,to the very formal Plaza Mayor, with King Philip on a horse.We walked through to the Mercado de San Miguel, which had just opened when we got there, but the vendors already had everything beautifully displayed. As you can see, I couldn’t stop taking pictures.

Unbelievably, we didn’t buy anything, just ate with our eyes.

Next up was the convent where the sisters make delicious cookies. You buy them by ringing the doorbell ( a street person helped us with this), entering when she buzzes you in, and proceeding to the torno, a lazy Susan where you order your cookies and place your money. The nun turns it, takes your money, and turns it again with the box of cookies neatly bagged, all without revealing herself to you. And the cookies are delicious!

A quick look at the oldest door in Madrid, set in a Moorish keyhole, then to the town hall with the bear symbol above the door (and another one set in the sidewalk close by).The  memorial for the attempted assassination of King Alfonso on his wedding day in 1906 (he survived, 30 were killed, and the original monument was destroyed during the Civil War),and then the enormous cathedral opened up on our right. But we were headed for the royal palace next door.

We took the audioguide, which devoted about a minute thirty to each room, really enough for the likes of me. Lots of ornate furniture, silver, tapestries, and symbols of royal power and authority. No photos allowed, but this one of the throne room give you the general idea. We had a refreshing lunch in the cafeteria, good salads and cut-up fruit, and then continued the RS walk.

An imposing statue of Philip IV (one of the good kings) and then a walk along Calle de Arenal, lined with restaurants and shops, plus musicians, opera singers, and illegal sellers who place their goods on sheets and bundle them up when the police come (or use elaborate ropes to pull them together even faster). Back to the hotel for a quick respite before taking the Metro to the Thyssen.

What we ate

Spanish food was good, with a few highlights, but not spectacular (who can ever match Italy?).  But we were able to choke down quite a bit of delicious food over two weeks.

Tortilla Española

This was lunch on our first day, at the hotel in Madrid once we had dumped our bags.  Soft, creamy, warm and comforting, eggs and potatoes and occasionally onions.  But there are many versions of this, including a cold or room-temp tortilla that’s heavier and good for eating out of hand.


We had these along with our breakfast the first day and felt we had crossed it off our list.  Something like a caky doughnut, sweet and crispy on the outside, soft on the inside.  If we’d had the strength, we would have stopped here for the classic churro and chocolate, which looked delicious but would have put us into a diabetic coma.  And here’s a big coil of churro outside the cafe we visited on our food tour in Seville.  Yes, it looks a bit odd, but after all it had been sitting outside for a couple of hours!


I’m not usually a beer drinker, but the Alhambra beer we had in the Sierra Nevada mountains was delicious (maybe it was the setting).The beer is quite local, meaning we did not see this brand outside of Granada.  In Seville, it was Cruzcampo all the way.  And una caña (a small glass of beer) with a lunch of tapas hit the spot around the corner from our apartment.

Tapas were everywhere, and we enjoyed a couple places along the way.  In Madrid, we liked La Abuela, where we sat in the open window and had fried shrimp, good bread and un chato de vino, or small glass of house white wine, while we watched people in the plaza outside.

Just around the corner from La Abuela was Toni’s, where the menu is posted on the wall.  

I ordered Boquerones thinking they were mussels, but ended up with these delicious anchovies in vinegar instead.

In Seville, our wonderful cathedral guide recommended this place, where we bellied up to the crowded bar and ordered a caña and a little pork sandwich (pincha or pintxo or tapa) which we ate standing up and watching the people, a good mix of locals and tourists.  And the place was hopping at three in the afternoon!

busy bar

Our silliest tapa experience was in Granada, where we tried this place right around the corner from our hotel.  We ordered hummus but instead were served a small dish of something else.  When we pointed this out in a polite way, we were informed, politely, that this was the tapa, a free snack that comes with drinks!  Our hummus came along in due course.  I think this was the only place where the traditional tapa with drinks was free.

Of course, Iberian ham was everywhere.  Here is a ham leg placed in its handcuffs so the paper-thin slices can easily be cut off.  We saw these in many places, not always so delicately draped as this one was.  Notice the little hoof…


Why Spain?

Well, we hadn’t been there before; it has a fascinating mix of cultures and religions; southern Spain is very reminiscent of Morocco; and I had a romantic view of what it might be like.  Like every country, Spain has a lot to offer once you start looking, so we decided to limit our trip to Madrid and southern Spain (Andalusia).  Next time, Catalonia!

After a hot, noisy flight on Brussels Air (and angst about whether we would actually have seats, but arriving four hours early worked), we caught our second flight, from Brussels to Madrid, and landed, fairly sleep-deprived, in Madrid.  The Hotel Europa is just barely off the busy Puerto del Sol, where we saw peaceful protests almost every evening.Our room is in the back and very quiet, with a great bathroom complete with walk-in shower (best bathroom of the trip!).

We had a late lunch at the Europa restaurant on the sidewalk seen here just below the sign, on a bright blue, sunny afternoon. This is a pedestrian street so we could enjoy watching the tourists and locals walking by as we ate.  The tortilla Espanola was just the thing to restore us enough to go back in and take a nap.

We walked through the Puerto to find dinner at a couple of tapas places.  Alison’s friend Catherine recommended La Abuela, so we stopped in at the bar side for some delicious ham and a chato (small glass) of white wine.  Another customer was eating sizzling shrimps, so we will have to go back and try them.  They were cooked in this tiny area in the corner.  Notice the beautiful painted tiles.
We wandered up and down the streets – it was early for dinner, so some places weren’t yet open – and ended up at a tapas place where we had a surprisingly large plate of fried anchovies and shrimp in garlic.  The television in the corner was tuned to the news, live coverage of a church service for 13 people killed the other day in flash floods in Mallorca. 

Walking back through the Puerta we came upon a mariachi band. Mostly for tourists, I’m sure, but the crowd seemed to include all kinds of people.  And so to bed.