This trip was Chris and Frank’s bucket list birthday trip. Since they both hit 60 this year, they got to pick our trip location and then Ginny and I made all the plans. Spain has definitely been on my bucket list too, so I was thrilled to select some additional options for our itinerary. This was by far one of the longest trip we have ever taken, and definitely one of the best so far proven by over 3000 photos! Consequently, this is a very long blog post!
We arrived in Lisbon Portugal on August 15. To my delight, our former exchange student Marcelo had made the trek down from Vigo Spain with his entire family to spend a few days with us. We met them for a wonderful dinner and tried to catch up on the last 4 years. The next day, we went site seeing, exploring various areas of Lisbon and had lunch at an excellent sea side restaurant. After such a wonderful start to our trip, I knew it was going to be an amazing vacation!
We spent 5 days in Lisbon exploring the city, gaining some historic knowledge and tasting the amazing cuisine (Portugal has BEST sea food EVER. No kidding, it was really amazing)! We visited the site of Jeronimos Monistary, Monument to the Discoveries, Alfma district and the Castelo de Sao Jorge (great views at dusk!), Belem Tower and drove along the 25th of April bridge. We tried going to Sao Roque church – we went twice and both times it was closed- rotten luck on our part.
We took a day trip to Sintra to visit the Pena Palace and the Castle of the Moors. Somewhere we thought we saw that the road to the palace was only about 5K, so we decided to walk there instead of taking the bus, this was a mistake. The road to the palace, although not very far, is ALL up a never ending steep hill. We are all fairly fit individuals, so we made the trek ok, but somehow we missed the castle (took the wrong road??). Once we realized we had passed it (by this time we were tired and crabby) no one want to go back down to find it, so we continued uphill to the palace where we waited in a long line to enter. Needless to say, the walk up and waiting in line took a large amount of time away from our day, so after we visited the palace, we took a taxi back down to the town and never ventured back to find the castle.
We also took a guided tour to the towns of Estoril, which is a beautiful town with seaside views, beaches and a casino, and Cascais a primarily touristic town with shops, beaches and some historic sites. We also went to Cabo Da Roca, the very windy western most point of Europe which had some excellent seaside views and a fantastic restaurant called Da Adraga where we stopped for lunch, the food here was amazing!
On Thursday, August 20th, we flew from Lisbon, Portugal to Barcelona, Spain for 5 days. We have traveled to Barcelona before, but only for a few hours off a cruise ship about 10 years ago. Since then, we have always wanted to go back and explore the architecture and see the inside of the Sagrada Familia (on our previous visit, we were only able to see the outside). Our 5 days were spent exploring the city, admiring Gaudi’s architecture, and venturing off to the Costa Brava and Montserrat.
Our hotel was right across from the beautiful Catedral and in the evening we would enjoy shows provided by the street performers in this square. Many of the performers were quite good and tipping them is welcome of course! We stopped to view Gaudi’s buildings and art again on this trip but our highlight was being able to see the entire Sagrada Familia from the inside as well as from the outside this time. There are no words to describe this massive work of art. Every inch of this church is so defined, so precise, that it’s no wonder it has taken over a hundred years to complete (and is still unfinished). We spent almost 4 hrs just admiring the inside and outside of this structure, it’s really incredible. We did use the hop on hop off bus to see some of the more far away attractions and I would highly recommend this option. We saw parts of the city that I don’t think I would have gone to otherwise and it was a great time saver too! We saw the national museum of art and explored the nearby gardens, took the cable car up to MontJuic and also explored other part of the city that were a bit too far to walk.
We also took a 1 day guided tour to the Costa Brava, and I was very excited to explore the Camino de Ronda. Our first stop was in Calella de Palafrugell, a post card beautiful little town on the coast. We set off from here to walk along the Camino De Ronda exploring the area and taking some wonderful photos and briefly stopped at a nearby beach to hang out. We left this area for L’esartit, another beautiful port area where we went on a glass bottom boat tour (the boat tour was very lame and I could have done without it). I was disappointed that our walk of the Camino de Ronda was very limited as I was expecting a longer hike with a few more seaside villages to explore. I will have to add it to my “return to” list! Our last stop was PALS, a very cool medieval town with more beautiful views, site seeing and some cool little shops too.
Another day we took the train to Montserrat to explore the monastery and hike the mountainous area. This article provides excellent information on how to take the train, purchasing tickets, and the various ticket options. We spent the entire day hiking the trails and visiting the monastery with the Black Madonna. My friends were able to see the Basilica Choir boys (I opted to walk down from St. Jerome mountain to the monastery instead), they enjoyed the show but said it was extremely crowded during the performance.
Tuesday, August 25th, we left Barcelona by high speed rail and went to Madrid for 2 days. We had a nice hotel, which was very central to all of the sites we wanted to see. Since we only had two days, we didn’t opt to see any museums and ventured off mostly to explore building architecture, parks and fountains (Madrid certainly loves fountains!). Contrary to Barcelona where the food was less than spectacular and everything was focused on tourism, I never felt like I was in a “tourist zone” (except at the San Miguel food Market where you will pay many Euros for virtually nothing). We did have some very good meals in Madrid and the prices were very reasonable. I would highly recommend El Caldero for a special night out, it was a bit pricey but very good!
Highlights in Madrid were Retiro Park, The Royal Palace and gardens, and the many many squares: Cibeles, Plaza Mayor, Plaza Callao, Plaza Espana, etc. etc. I especially enjoyed visiting these at night; they are all beautifully illuminated and provided a very comforting ambiance. I wish we were able to visit the Prado and Thyssen museums but doing so would have limited our time around town so we opted out. I will save it for next time!
On Thursday, August 27th, we said goodbye to Frank and Ginny who were heading home and Chris and I took off for our 5 day Southern Spain adventure of the Andalusia region of Spain.
We decided to book a tour company for this part of the trip since the cost was very reasonable compared to hotel/car/food own our own, and far less stressful than making our own plans and driving. We booked through Viator, and the trip included Breakfast & Dinner, transportation, hotel stay, entrance fees and a guide each day at the main attractions.
Day 1) Our first stop was to Cordoba, Spain. We toured the city of Cordoba and the Holy Cathedral (Mother church of the Diocese) or Mosque (depending on the century). The Cathedral was an amazing structure inside and out. The history behind the transformation from Mosque to Cathedral and the artistic works within it made it my favorite of all the structures/Churches we had seen on this tour. Leaving Cordoba and heading to Seville, we had a late dinner at the hotel and it was not very good ;(.
Day 2) Lots to see in Seville. Our first stop was the Spanish Square; a very beautiful square with amazing tile artwork and walkways. We were there very early in the morning, so it was nice to experience it without too many crowds. We walked through Maria Luisa’s garden, the Santa Cruz quarter, saw the cathedral from the outside and spent quite a bit of time wandering around town on our own near the river and admiring the many old buildings. Late dinner at same hotel and once again it was not good. ;(
Day 3) Ronda, my favorite of the villages we visited. Ronda is a vibrant little town famous for is bull fighting and sits above a deep gorge called El Tajo. The views from the Puente Neuvo bridge were stunning and I couldn’t take enough picture of these views! We also found (off the beaten path) an artist shop with etchings. All were originals and we watched the artist as he completed one of his art sketches. Of course this was my take home present from the trip. I don’t usually buy much when I travel, but I do try to find one or two nice pieces of original art if possible as a momento.
Leaving Ronda and arriving at Costa Del Sol, Torremolinos. I was expecting to have an opportunity to explore this area, but was disappointed. The distance from Ronda to Torremolinos was short but it was over mountainous areas, thus it took almost 3 hours to arrive. I was disappointed that we arrived so late. It was our only evening here, so by the time we cleaned up and had dinner we only had a few hrs to walk the promenade, have some coffee, etc. Naturally, this was the best hotel with the best food from the entire trip, would have preferred to have stayed longer!
Day 4) Granda and the Alhambra. The Alhambra is yet another artistic marvel with a very interesting background in both Muslim and Christian history. The carvings and artwork were simply amazing and the central court an incredible site. The exterior of the Alhambra was quite plain, so it was amazing to see such a transformation on the inside! We also visited the Generalife Gardens, a brief walk from the Alhambra with very beautiful scenic views as well as very interesting plants, flowers and fountains.
Day 5) Toledo and return to Madrid. Leaving Granada today and after a long drive, we finally reached Toledo. Set up on a hill, it is known for medieval, Jewish and Christian monuments. It has an old Jewish quarter and beautiful large cathedral among many other sites. The entire city is walled and quite a site to behold from the outside as well as the inside. It was an interesting city to explore with much history and monuments, many of which we didn’t get an opportunity to explore fully. Since this was our last day on the tour, we were dropped off back in Madrid and off to our hotel. We were exhausted and hungry, so we decided to return to Lamucca, a familiar restaurant from our previous visit which did not disappoint!
Tuesday, September 1st, we arrived in Bari, Italy. My dad picked us up at the airport and his first suggestion was “let’s go to the beach tomorrow”! I was thrilled! After weeks of walking around site seeing, packing and unpacking, I was looking forward to having no agenda and lazying around for a little while. We ended up at the beach the next two days, with perfect weather and nothing else to do! We also ran into my cousins who arrived in Bari the day before we did. They suggested having a day at their farm, making pizzas and hanging out. My uncle has a brick oven right on the farm and my cousins make the most perfect pizzas! It’s one of our most favorite things to do while we are in town, so of course we jumped at the chance! We did this on Sunday, our last day of vacation. It was a perfect ending to an awesome trip!