Medieval Spain, Andalusia y Don Quixote

December 7th, 2018

By now, everyone that celebrates it is heavily into the season’s traditions as they plan to visit family, exchange gifts, spend time with loved ones, or just relax until the throes of the New Year come upon us.

For me, I haven’t seen my kid and her kids for 2 years, as they’ve lived for years in the Western US, and most recently in Hawaii. As fate would have it, they’re currently in the state of North Carolina so, in a few days after this writing posts, I’ll make the lengthy drive up the East coast to visit them for several days.

Although the drive may only span about 12 hours one-way (if I go pretty much straight through) it can be a little bit grueling so I’ll make my way north to Saint Simons Island in Georgia and spend an overnight before finishing the second half of the drive. (I’ll post on beautiful Saint Simons some other day, as it’s a fine place to visit; but I say all that to ssay this : I didn’t want to leave the blog hanging empty while I spent time with family, so I hope you enjoy this installment as we visit the medieval capital of Spain, Toledo, and the cultural gem, Cordoba, to its south)

Day 3 : Toledo 

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Portions of Toledo, pictured above, sit on high providing great vistas of the Castilian Plains and is itself surrounded (except for one side) by the Tagus River, it being the longest river in the Iberian Peninsula at 626 miles long.

Back in the 1500s El Greco used Toledo as the background for much of his work and as you move through the town it is easy to see why.  Featuring cobbled streets, narrow hidden passages, and views like that of the Church of Santo Tome (below) visitors can’t help but be in awe of Toledo’s atmosphere.

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The Church features El Greco’s “The Burial of the Count of Orgaz” while another major religious site, Santa Maria la Blanca, is purported as the oldest synagogue in Europe still standing, and the picture below gives an inkling of how spectacular it is.

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After you finish a healthy day of sightseeing and turn to more more earthly pursuits, you’ll have no trouble finding a nearby chocolatería or pastelería offering endless delights of high quality and low price.

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Toledo is not the largest of Spanish cities so once done there we traveled south to Cordoba which is about 3 and a half hours by car (a train taken between the two cities shaves about an hour off)

Day 4 :  Córdoba

We arrived to the Hotel Eurostars Palace in Córdoba at about 6:30 PM and all were surprised at the exterior (rusty) look to this place. While not exactly fitting American tastes, the “modernistic” refurbishment is still very unique, and once entering the Palace, you’ll find this to be a very cool hotel with excellent staff catering to all your lodging needs. Views to the city are also spectacular here, so anyone visiting should ask if a room on higher floors is available in order to get the maximum benefit from the outside walkway adjacent to each room.

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After a good night’s rest, it’s easy to explore Córdoba, the capital of the province of the same name. When walking the city it is easy to spot the vestiges of Romans who once ruled this settlement, as well as later influences of the Visigoths and Muslims.

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Córdoba is a very nice and relatively quiet walkable town where you can find some peace of mind while winding through its beautiful cobbled streets, contemplating its various monuments, gardens, and unique feel.

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Mainstream tourist sites include the 10th century-built Great Mosque (Mezquita), and the beautiful Roman Bridge that spans the Guadalvivir River.  I think one of the great pleasures here is to just start walking, where within minutes you’ll soon find yourself lost within the curves and twists of the back streets. For those afraid of labyrinths, all I can say is, as long as you can see the top of the Mosque, you will always find your way back to civilization and the enticing sights and sounds that envelope the Mezquita. Just be sure to keep an eye out as gypsies do frequent this area and may relieve you of some of your dollars if you’re not wary.

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While gypsies are essentially harmless, once you proffer one dollar, you can be sure that this will be followed with a request for more. You’ll also likely see, as we did, the ‘manteros’ who are often immigrants working to vend merchandise illegally to the many tourists that pass by. These goods are often laid upon a blanket to which ropes or chains of some sort have been fastened in several corners. If police converge upon one of these sellers, the mantero is able to quickly grasp a single handle that is centrally attached to each of the ropes or chains. This snaps the blanket shop immediately shut so that the dealer can run before being apprehended.  A step beyond this kind of crime is the more insidious presence of pickpockets which isn’t so much a Spain-problem as it is a European one. This kind of criminal is far more skilled at their craft in the EU than any American pickpocket ever could be.  In fact, during this trip, we found out that one of the travelers we’d met had taken a Metro in one of the larger cities and hadn’t even realized that a very stealthy pickpocket had made their way into her purse and absconded with her mobile phone. While Spain is beautiful, it still pays to be just a bit vigilant.

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Córdoba offers a nice change of pace to the traveler compared to larger Spanish cities. With a population just a tenth of the size of Madrid, you’ll actually be able to hear yourself think, enjoy the tree lined streets, and perhaps even some fine dining. The meal will likely be cheap, but the taste will be richer than expected.

At more than double the size of Córdoba, Seville is next on our journey and one of my favorites, so until then, Ciao !

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Rain In Spain Falls Mainly On the Plain

November 24, 2018

We didn’t have any rain while we were in Spain, but even if we had gotten wet, I would still have enjoyed the adventure.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. Figure out why you want to travel. I want to see the world mainly on my own terms, to engage with some of the interesting folks that are out there, and to take the best photographs I can of people, nature, the sights, and even the shadows. It’s that simple for me. I can travel pretty much anywhere and be happy but engaging yourself with others is what it’s all about wherever you are.

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The red dots on the map represent the main points my wife and I visited in October.

Day 1 and Day 2 : Madrid

This is the splendid center (culturally and geographically) of the Iberian Peninsula. In fact, if you walk along the Calle Gran Via you’ll find tourists photographing themselves as they stand upon a bronze marker of the center.  This city is very walkable, offers great weather this time of year, and you can be sure to eat and drink well.

The Royal Palace is larger than life (pictured below) so expect long lines most days to get inside, although tour groups might be able to arrange preferred/expedited entry.

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Other popular tourist activities will take you through the Gran Via, the Opera district, the Plaza de Colon (yes, Columbus is still a big thing here !)  and past the Puerto del Sol Plaza and Plaza de España (a main square in the city). Neither the Plaza de Colon, nor the Plaza de España should be confused with similarly named sites that you’ll find in Barcelona.

I do recommend you visit the Prado Museum. Just be aware you’ll have to check your backpack and carry any valuables and cameras with you, but it’s well worth any incovenience as you’ll get to see some of the works of El Greco, Velázquez, and Goya.

If you’re not into art museums, you can try and get over to Retiro Park before the sun goes down. Madrileños make great use of this beautiful green space as you’ll see families with babies in strollers, dog lovers walking their pets, and exercise enthusiasts winding their way through the curves, fountains, trails, and walkways of this aesthetically pleasing greenway. Once you finish your own paseo there, you can make your way across the boulevard the Calle de Alfonso XII to enjoy the quaint nightlife as the locals enjoy an apéritif or two and people-watch.

For the uninitiated, Spaniards eat late, so if you get hungry before 8 or 9 PM, then its best to spend time at a tapas bar where you can try a vast assortment of tapas and maybe some wine before dinner time arrives.

This is Madrid in a nutshell. Next installment, we’ll hit beautiful Toledo with a small dash of Cordoba. Ciao.

 

 

Put Me in Coach, I’m Ready to Stay Today

Thanksgiving Day (2018)

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Key West (September 2018)

I hope I don’t martyr too many catch phrases in this premier writing. My intent is to discuss a few travel points that I’ve learned over the years. One is that, different forms of travel are integral to how you experience that travel (each has its own advantages and disadvantages) and secondly, a rose might still be a rose, but some roses just aren’t as nice as others. In other words, when taking a trip, travelers should make themselves very aware of the advantages and disadvantages of the kinds of transit they might be traveling by. To me, the most exciting and indulgent form of travel involves using most (or all) of the available ways to get around. To others, sitting on a cruise ship for days on end, with the full offerings of the ship, is the most heavenly way to travel. This choice is subjective, and so the advice I would give travelers is to understand themselves, so that they can choose the mode that is most beneficial to them and makes the travel experience as rewarding as it can possibly be.

I first started traveling in earnest back in 1985. The way I travel today differs very much from how I did it back in the old days. There are lots of reasons why too. As we go on in life, we probably earn more money so that we can afford to travel in different (and sometimes more expensive) ways, but we also learn how we like to travel and what actually delivers the experience that we are traveling for.

To give an example, many travelers find that the super giant cruise ship experience provides them with every single thing that they are looking for when jaunting away from home. I was astounded by the fellow I met who proudly proclaimed to me that he had been on no less than 80 cruises and was planning do to more. Internally, I cringed at the thought since for others, like myself (although I’ve NEVER taken a long-term cruise in my life), I’m more interested in experiencing my destination as much like a local as possible. So, for me, walking onto a cruise ship and surrending all of my time and resources to the ship’s constraints almost feels like a prison sentence. I don’t place that high of a priority on the ability to have meals or drink always available, and the activities that I enjoy while traveling don’t include aqua parks, sports courts, or rock wall climbing in a seaborne environment ; so it’s highly likely that I won’t indulge in cruise liners until I’m in my 80s or 90s when that is the only way that I may be able to travel cheaply and safely enough.

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Spain (October 2018)

I’m also not saying that I wouldn’t try a zipline or two when away from home, but I simply don’t want it to be part of a controlled environment where I have to trade totally free choice for structure. I’d rather freelance my day than map it to an itinerary inside of a grid, that’s been nailed in place by a cruise ship blueprint. (But that’s just me ! and so for others that enjoy the experience, I say that they should go for it)

That said, I’m certainly not totally innocent of giving up the control of my day to planned tours done through other modes of transportation ; and thus the title of this premier writing where I ask the powers that be to put me in ‘coach’- ‘cuz I’m ready to stay. I did that very thing just this past October when I booked a birthday trip across Spain for my new wife’s birthday. I did it that way for a few reasons. For one, I know the stress that can be involved in traveling to Europe free-form, hitting the ground after an 8 hour flight, and then not knowing how the trains, taxis, or buses work in a new place. I’d never been to Madrid before and it seemed simpler to have someone else do the driving. Not to mention, I don’t think that I could have done as well money-wise had I planned the trip myself. For a comparable price I removed most of the stress, let SmarTours’ partner company cart us all over the country, and had enough free time to experience local Spanish culture without shortchanging my wife in the delights of Europe.

Travelers (young and old) always feel their hearts skip a beat when they know that an upcoming trip is going to break up the day-to-day and that unknown discoveries are coming up soon. But, I always try to be grounded in what I want from my excursion, and what I’m going to gain from it. I do still dream about my trips before they happen, but now that my dreams line up with real life, I’m never disappointed once I get where I’m going. Still, is the former me you now ?

Romanticizing your Destination : Always Know Why You’re Going Where You Went

While it’s great to feel anticipation for an upcoming trip, it can be counter-productive to romanticize your destination. In a group trip to Thailand back in 2010, a few travelers had commented that they expected Thailand to be much more lush aesthetically than what they actually found it to be. They were disappointed while I, on the other hand, had a great trip. I spent one morning riding across a jungle while sitting upon an elephant. A few days later, somewhere in the countryside, I had the chance to walk with a monk while he chewed betelnut and I held an adult lion, by leash, beside us. I didn’t go to see the landscape and so I didn’t mind what it was like.

In another case, one of my close friends had taken a first trip to LA. They ended up having an OK time, but returned home feeling mostly disappointed.

In my family’s case, my own daughter had been part of a small school group (just 4 travelers) to visit Europe back in 2006 and while they had the opportunity to tour through Spain, France, and Germany – when I later debriefed on how the trip went, it was clear that what could have been a great once-in-a-lifetime experience ended up being a big European disappointment.

So where could these trips have gone wrong ? Well, they did not go wrong after these travelers arrived to their destination. They all failed in the planning stages. Why ? Because often travelers will pick a place to go but they will have no idea why a particular destination is a place they should go. Mismatching your destination to your personality, hopes, desires, interests, and abilities is one of the surest ways to sabotage a perfectly good vacation. So, before putting a pin in the map and leaving for Timbuktu it is almost always better to level-set your expectations of the trip AND

    1. Make a list of research-based reasons why this place is right for you
    2. Be sure the activities you enjoy doing are options at your destination
    3. Know your personality : and make sure your destination fits with it
    4. Become familiar with your destination’s culture, history, cuisine, and customs
    5. Offload logistics to some other entity if you’re not one who enjoys details
    6. Consider solo travel if you enjoy spur-of-the-moment activities
    7. Pack as light/efficiently as is appropriate for your trip of choice
    8. Travel with like-minded companions : This is what makes travel fun !
    9.  Figure out if you prefer urban to suburban / or seaside to turf
    10. Know your favorite form of travel (motorcycle, cruise, train, metro, etc.)
    11. Consult with an experienced traveler if you’re a novice (even take them along)

In the case of my buddy there might have been some unreasonable expectations about LA. Some research about the city and activity planning always helps to make a trip better  and … let’s face it … LA is a city like few others in the US so if you LOVE cities, then LA could be just fine for you, but the urban jungle just isn’t for everyone. I am thankful for the fact that, growing up in Philly, I’m happy to visit major urban areas from time to time, but I also know that, given the choice, I would much rather spend time absorbing nature than the swelter from a 100-story skyscraper as it radiates heat my way in the 2nd week of August. It’s also worth mentioning, though, that an urban area in the US can be very much different from what you might experience outside of the states (so, for travel, generalizations go out the window and it falls upon the traveler to know what they’re getting themselves into long before they ever buy that ticket)

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Spain (October 2018)

For my daughter, her European aspirations weren’t fulfilled primarily because she was new to such a trip, the group that was thrown together really wasn’t working as a unit, and the goals of their jaunt were never really penciled in fully.  The teacher-leader saw this trip as an opportunity for self-indulgence and so the student-travelers ended up being the losers in that game.

Revisiting my Thailand travel companions, they had simply not researched if Asia was the right place for them. The price tag on the trip was attractive, and so all of the other important decisions took second place to affordability. While, often, this is not a problem, the traveler should definitely compare the pros and cons of a planned adventure before enduring a 20 hour flight to disappointment.

For myself (whether my precognitions are based factually or not) I’ve already decided that travel by cruiseliner is, most likely, not for me (at least not yet). I base this on a few things. One, I can’t swim, do not especially enjoy water adventures, and have no plans to learn how to swim. Two, there is something on a personal level that clashes with my improptu nature when I think about being trapped on a large boat for several days, with thousands of people that I actually don’t know, knowing there may be a requirement to dress for a semi-formal dinner, and will only have a pre-defined time slot carved out to enjoy the tourist-packed ports-of-call as the ship makes its rounds. It’s almost as if, once I found enjoyment in fully immersing myself via solo travel, I found it impossible to ever entertain such a claustrophic way of traveling as a cruise ship. Sure, these ships are huge, the food/drink great, and the activities endless, but it’s the (invisible) pre-constructed nature and superficiality of it all that would trouble me the most if I were ever forced to see the world that way.  I’d rather see the world through the eyes of a local where I can actually blend into the masses, strolling at my own pace with hours to spare than be hustled and bustled about with strict timelines that simply can’t be violated.

To be clear, I’m not saying cruise travel is a no no for everyone. What I am saying is that, like the 10th bullet above, you have to know if it is a good fit for what you are looking for or if a boat is going to mark your next disaster. I am willing to trade off certain modes of travel for gains in other areas though, if the balance tips enough in my favor. As an example, during last month’s jaunt from central Spain, to the southwestern corner, and then back up to the northeast in Barcelona, I was more than willing to endure passing the trip with other unknown travelers on a coach tour bus in order to gain the benefit of staying in top-notch hotels, availability of high quality meals twice a day, and the ability to break from the 31 other travelers as long as I was on time to rejoin them once we started toward the next city on the list.  Why ? Because, although I wouldn’t consider myself the life-of-the-party, I am able to discern individuals on a trip who are like-minded, that enrich my travel experience and who, by the end of the trip, my family is able to form a certain travelers’ bond with. In this case, on one of the last night’s about 10 of us were specially invited to share a birthday dinner in a wonderful Barcelona restaurant meant for the wife of one of our fellow travelers. They were quite the sweet couple and both my wife and I gravitated toward their brilliant personalities. For us, it is those relationships on a smaller scale that are more important. As quantity dissipates, you’re only left with quality and for a lot of travelers, things on a smaller scale actually means things happen on a better scale.

This flies directly into the face of myself, as a new traveler in the 1980s and early 90s where, for some reason, I thought I had to do anything and everything in order to have a good trip. Over time, I began to realize that I was totally exhausted by the time vacation had ended and I actually hadn’t even enjoyed myself as much as I could have. Instead, I should have taken recuperation days off too once all was said and done.

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Key West (September 2018)

So, certainly choose quality over quantity, and if you can work in the most intimate travel experience with the cost of that travel, then you will certainly gain greater peace of mind by the time you return home than you might otherwise have had. The stories to tell from intimate experiences are far more interesting than the typical “I-drank-’til-I-couldn’t-see-anymore” tales.

In the end, travel is what you make of it and each person’s trip is uniquely their own. I hope that travelers always will draw very rough brushstrokes about what their vacation will look like, without falling too far into the micromanagement of it. A lazy trip to the Jamaican resorts is one thing (and for that, even the planning will be different), while a 3 week adventure to fish from Alaska’s Innoko River to Bristol Bay is a fantastically different sort of endeavor. Each has its own kind of intimacy, but the bottom line is that the traveler should always travel the way they like, and have a place/setting/activity in mind that is going to fulfill the gap between what you’ll need and what you’ll want once you get there.

Next installment : I’d like to talk about One : How To Pay For Your Next Adventure and Two : Spain In Review

Work pays for travel, and travel is good, therefore work must be good too 😎 Ciao