19 Oct 2011

Some photos of the trip

The Post Office in Madrid
The Relecting pool at the Al Hambra, Granada
View of the garden from the Queen's room in Al hambra
The Monastery in Battalha
Spain, Portugal and Morocco are really beautiful countries , with a lot of similarities in climate and vegetation. The only difference is the culture and religion but even this you can see a number of similarities. Like Spain, Morocco too had been a Roman outpost a long time ago and till today there are any number of Roman ruins to be found. In Spain especially nearer Seville, we visited a Roman aqueduct and a site that had once been a Roman village. It is fascinating to see the modernity of these antiquities - much of the layout of these Roman villages were very modern and showed careful planning and design. In fact we can learn a lot by learning more about them, I think.

6 Oct 2011


FRom Lisbon it was another 5 hour drive south to Seville, which was our  next stop. we had two short breaks during the journey, once to eat and a sceond stop just to stretch our legs. The view though was still as beautiful though as we drove further south  changes in scenery was inevitable. Instead of  the high mountain roads we now pass through farmlands - mostly olive but also oranges and other fruits. there are also more and more windmills - the ones that Don Quixote tried to topple in the legendary story of the Don from La Mancha.

The medieval city of Toledo in Spain

At Avila, walled city
Seville is even more beautiful than madrid, though in a different way. Oranges line the streets and for some one like me who has not really seen orange trees this is something. Much of Seville is made up of narrow streets which intertwine with one another and it is so easy to get lost here. Our hotel - Don Pedro - is situated in a quiet street but still very close to most of the sights that we want to see. For me, I had enough of churches and cathedrals and at the first opportunity Repin and I wandered off in search of other things to see and do. We walked towards the town centre and saw many shops and decided to do some shopping here.

That night we were treated to one of the highlights of the tour - a flamenco show and dinner at a really nice restaurant.

Fado singer

5 Oct 2011

Batalha and Fatima

There's so much to see and do in Lisbon we all felt that there were not enough days to do it. That is the problem with guided tours - you are on a schedule and everyone has to follow that schedule. That first night we went for a real Portuguese dinner - complete with a fado - or a singer/ singers. This is in a way some form of Portuguese opera with the singer telling a story in a song. The singers were good - really strong and expressive so that even though we didnt know the language we still liked the songs. Then there were the Portuguese dances which is very similar to our own Portuguese dances here in Malaysia. I think I enjoyed this night very much and it was a good ending to a really wonderful day - the tour of Lisbon, the trip to Cascais and Sintra and finally the dinner and the Fado. We took a walk from the little restaurant and saw the yellow tram that is like a funicular train climbing up the hill. This was like icing on the cake - the tram was crowded but some of our group jumped up anyway and took a short trip down.

The church at Fatima

Next day we were supposed to drive to Seville but with a stop at Battalha and Fatima - two cities with a lot of religious significance. Fatima is a very small town and is only famous because of its saint - The Lady Fatima. It was said that the girl, Fatima who lived in the 15th century was the daughter of an Arab fisherman. She fell in love with a young Portuguese nobleman and of course there was a lot of anger on both sides of the family. In the end Fatima, because she loved her young nobleman passionately, decided to run away with him. They were caught and she was killed. However after she died the young nobleman wanted to take away her body and bury it himself. To his surprise, the body was intact and not even decomposed. He brought this to the attention of the town people and many declared that she was a saint. After this there were stories of people who saw her and they said that she always appeared to people who were in trouble and she would help them, which is why she is considered the patron saint of fishermen in Portugal.

Battalha is another small town with a beautiful and very old monastery. The day we arrived was a holiday so entrance was free and we all had a good look around. After 30 minutes though Repin and I went out and decided to have some coffee under the trees at one of the outdoor cafes.

4 Oct 2011

Lisboa, Portugal

The Henry the Navigator monument
 Early in the morning of the next day we drove down to Lisboa, capital city of Portugal. The view changed from hilly to undulating to plain - we passed through scenic countryside and gorges as we passed through the mountains of Sierra Madre towards Lisbon, or Lisboa as the Portuguese call it. On the way we stopped twice - once at a wine bordega and had some wine tasting. Angel, being the caring person that he is, brought biscuits because he didnt want anyone taking the wine on an empty stomach. Here we learned the history of wine making in Portugal, the average ages of the various wines and why certain wines were for the table and some for special occasions at restaurants. I wanted a taste so Repin let me have a sip - no more! Hmmm... I didnt really like the taste - it was a bit bitter  and tart on the tongue - but they say it grows on you, and I guess it does. It did give me a warm feeling though.
Almost everyone bought some wine - to take with them to Morocco, it seems.

We arrived in Lisbon late in the afternoon and were checked in by Angel fairly quickly. Lunch today was on the house - paella - for us it was seafood. It was quite delicious actually and I was pleasantly surprised. Angel said that Portuguese food is so much better and fresher than Spanish food because most Spanish people had come to depend on restaurant and store bought food whereas the Portuguese still cooked at home and most of them dine at home rather than eat out.

We were then taken on a short tour of Lisbon - just a drive through actually. Lisbon is a very beautiful city and is situated on the banks of the River Tagus. There are more than 20 bridges spanning this river and the widest and longest looks a little like the Bay Bridge in San Francisco. We were told that the San Francisco Bridge was designed by the same architect.

The beautiful monastery at Battalha
In Lisbon we visited the Henry the Navigator Monument, The Belem Tower, the Royal Palace and also the Expo site. The next day we went to Cascais and Sintra both outside the city and a fair distance from Lisbon. The journey to Cascais which is a seaside resort on the Estoril coast took about one hour. We had plenty of time to wander around the pretty coastal town and had lunch at one of the tiny cafes near the seafront.

After Cascais we went to Sintra, this time a town up on the mountains. The drive was scenic but a bit harrowing though our driver Sergio was rather good and very experienced, in spite of being young. The views here was fantastic and what I loved about it was that it was much cooler than Lisbon, though Lisbon was cooler than Madrid.

Cascais seen from the bus
view of one of the castles in Sintra

view from Sintra

3 Oct 2011

Coimbra, Portugal

The third night we spent in Coimbra. Actually we drove on to Coimbra right after Avila where we had a light meal of coffee (cafe leche) and muffins. I noticed some others had hamburgers but since we could not take meat during this trip we made do with muffins, pancakes and other light pasteries. An interesting thing happened in Avila that day - Ron and Julia, the only New Zealanders among us - were late to the bus and was finally thought to be lost. Poor Angel. our Tour Director was quite distraught because nobody knew them at that time except us - I sat with them during breakfast at the hotel, so could give a description of the couple. I'm sure it must have been a scary experience for them - I know how easily one can get lost in that medieval city - a wrong turn and you don't know where you are! We sent out a small search party but after half an hour still could not find them. Finally after waiting for almost one hour they turned up at the supposed meeting place, very pale and frightened thinking we might be angry with them. Of course we were not for anybody could get lost in the narrow winding streets!

So at 2.30 pm, one hour later then the scheduled time we left for Portugal. It was a long drive through narrow gorges and splendid looking scenery, past olive and cork plantations as well as vineyards.We arrived at Coimbra in Portugal earlier than we thought, thanks to our fantastic driver, Sergio and still had time to visit the university that is so famous for its black uniforms or capes! The Coimbra University or Universidad de Coimbra is the oldest university in Portugal and the fifth oldest in Europe. Coimbra itself is a scenic city, very well-preserved with old cobble-stoned roads, tiny alleys that climb up to the university which is situated at the top of the town. I noticed that there were also a lot of nice shops but we didnt have time to shop so had to say good bye to that!

One of the narrow cobbled streets

Gate into the old city

Facade of old church

Avila and Coimbra

The second day of the tour we journeyed to Avila, a fortress city north of Madrid, in the province of Castile. It is a beautifully preserved city - looks practically medieval as we approached it, with high walls surrounding the city and lots of churches and cathedrals. It was first built in the 5th century it is claimed, but deteriorated due to the Roman invasion but was rebuilt in the 12th century and still stands today as it was. There were at least three large churches or cathedrals in this small city and two universities!

Walking along its narrow streets

The medieval looking Avila seen from the road

walled city of Avila, Spain

Madrid, Spain

The Spanish trip had actually been planned since a year ago and included Morocco. We planned to go in April initially, mainly because it would be nice to travel in the Spring when the weather wouldn't be too hot. However circumstances such as Wan's wedding, overtook us and the trip had to be postponed.We finally made the trip and flew via Emirates on the 29 September. After a really long journey ( 13 hours in all) we arrived in Madrid on a warm September afternoon. The plane trip was smooth and unexciting - we had left KL in the early hours of the morning and thus I fell asleep as soon as the plane took off.
A Cosmos representative was waiting to take us to the Hotel Praga, a smalll hotel somewhat far from the city. After checking in we decided to go around The Plaza Major, right in the center of town. A bus goes there daily and it was convenient for us as it stops right in front of the hotel.
The Plaza Mayor is actually more like a square- with buildings surrounding it. It is one of the oldest plaza in the country and one can see so many old buildings, some going back hundreds of years old. Today there are many restaurants at the plaza, offering mostly international cuisine.

2 Oct 2011

Travelling through Spain, Portugal and Morocco

For this year's holiday we went to Spain, Portugal and Morocco. Three countries with almost the same climate but very different cultures and traditions. The holiday began in Madrid - we arrived there on 30th September, Friday about noon and were taken to the hotel by the Cosmos people. The Hotel is in the suburbs and quite decent, though we had to pay through our nose for the Internet! The following are some pictures from the first few days we were in Madrid - mostly taken with my Iphone, so may not be too good.

Hotel Praga where we stayed

 There is a beautiful park a few metres behind the hotel, we discovered and for the next few days took our evening walks there.
It's a large park, with a river running in between and since the evenings are warm and balmy we notice that many families go there - either to exercise or relax.

The tour proper only began on 2nd October and our first trip was a tour of Madrid - the palace, some monuments, museums etc and later in the afternoon we were taken to the ancient city of Toledo, famous for its steel and sword making. Toledo had at one time been captured by the Arabs and turned into a fort, so there is a very high wall around most of the city, surrounded by a river. We watched the making of jewellery - mostly made of platinum, steel and silver as well as the making of daggers and swords at one of the small workshops there.


Park behind the hotel

Plaza Major,  is one of the main squares in Madrid, very popular with tourists and locals alike, with restaurants and lots of souvenir shops. Since there is a bus that goes there directly from the hotel, it was one of the first places we visited upon arrival. We spent hours there, just walking and admiring the scenery - very European with a main square surrounded by small shops and restaurants. We had lunch at one of the many outdoor cafe - seafood paella - very Spanish indeed! We sat outside and watched the world go by - so our first day in Madrid was spent there!

Repin at Plaza Major