Monday, November 19, 2007



As we continued our trip through Spain, our next stop was Toledo, of which, all I knew was that it was somewhere near Detroit. We arrived on a day with light showers dampening our clothes but not our enthusiasm. The first thing we saw in Toledo was a deep river gorge running through the town, separating the old city from the suburbs. The tour busses had to park on the outskirts, but we were dropped off near the main square and Cathedral, and we walked around the downtown area.

Toledo is well known as the home of the famous artist El Greco, whose real name was Domenicos Theotokopoulos, but of course, that was too hard to pronounce, so everyone called him El Greco, which means "The Greek." From all accounts, he was the only inhabitant of Greek ancestry in town, so everyone knew who he was. We visited the Toledo art museum, which featured many paintings by El Greco.

We stopped in a large store which sold sets of medieval armor, swords, coats of arms and other types of stuff that if you wanted to start a war, you could do so. To re-enact the Thirty Years' War(1618-48), for example, this is where you'd shop. The problem in buying some of this stuff is that the airline won't let you board the plane with it. Some of this merchandise was surprisingly affordable--several hundred dollars for the cheap set, plus several hundred more to ship to the U.S.

Toledo was a major center of Moorish and Jewish culture in the Middle Ages (before 1492). The people here are proud of the Arabesque Jewish synagogue, which is empty, because there are few or no Jews in town (except, amazingly, for the guy who owns the armor store and his family). The synagogue was constructed by an Arab architect, hence the Arabesque style. The Spanish government has encouraged Jews to return to Toledo, but very few have done so.

We hiked back over the San Martin Bridge to our tour bus for the trip to Madrid.


Madrid is a huge, modern city, the size of Chicago, with wide, beautiful boulevards, fountains, statues, museums and heavy traffic. Dianne and I were to spend 5 days in Madrid, staying at the Miguel Angel (Michelangelo) Hotel located in an upscale neighborhood, several miles from the heart of the city. Fortunately, public transportation is good--there are busses and a Metro (subway) system that goes everywhere in the city for 1 Euro (about $1,40).

Our first couple of days there, we hit the major art museums. The Museo Nacional del Prado is a world famous museum bearing the works of Goya, Velasquez, Raphael, and a host of others. Most of the art is religious in nature, and you've probably seen pictures of most of these works in art history books. There is a hall with portraits of the kings and queens and royal families of Spain. In the royal families, there are children (and adults) who are not in line for the throne, They are called infantas. Many infantas had their portraits done, also, by the famous artists.

The Bourbons (kings and queens starting about 1700) were not known for their good looks. Many had large chins, like Jay Leno. Onc prominent king, Charles III, who ruled from 1759-88, was homely, to say the least. "He looked like a moron, but he was actually a good king." He was a visionary king who passed several laws making Madrid a better place to live. One ordered people throwing their slop out the window onto the street to warn passersby to beware. Previously, people would empty their chamberpots by tossing the contents out the window without looking, on the heads of unsuspecting people. Believe it or not, this law was controversial because people had to change their habits. The other law was his decree that people had to wear black hooded cloaks when walking down the street, ostensibly to protect their clothing from the slop from their aforementioned neighbors' chamberpots. Charles III is best remembered for a massive building campaign to construct many of the government buildings still standing in Madrid. He helped finance this by instituting a lottery.

We had some free time and, with several others on the tour (Richard & Tessa, John & Diane, Ed & Hazel) took in the Reina Sofia Museum, which is the modern art museum featuring the works of Picasso and Miro as well as a bunch of other characters. The most famous painting in the museum is Picasso's epic work "Guernica", which is a huge mural (23' X 11') depicting the sad fate of the city of Guernica in the North of Spain which was bombed by the Germans during the Spanish Civil War in 1937. Guernica was a Republican stronghold (remember, the Republicans were the leftists of the day), and the Franco government was brutal in putting down the opposition. The Spanish people we encountered on the trip decline to discuss the Franco years, which ended at Franco's death in 1975.

The painting was a jumble of tangled bodies and faces, done, in Picasso's inimitable style, representing a scene of death, violence, brutality, suffering and helplessness without portraying the immediate causes (which might have gotten him in trouble). The painting was done in shades of black and white to portray the sadness of the situation. Many people lined up to see the work.

Picasso did some of his early paintings straight up, before he got into his modern art periods for which he became famous. This museum has an extensive Picasso collection, and, frankly, some of it is junk. Of course, with Picasso's name on it, it's worth big bucks, and I was afraid to ask how much the museum actually paid for some of this stuff. Actually, I like much of Picasso's (and Miro's) art because of its pretty colors--lots of reds and blues. We didn't want to be the "ugly Americans", but, honestly, it was hard not to laugh at some of the works in this museum (especially several artists not familiar to us) passed off as "art".


Friday night, October 26th, we celebrated our farewell party with a dinner at our hotel. The trip was a wonderful experience with 36 compatible people. On our tour, everyone pretty much liked each other and felt comfortable mingling with each other. We took many pictures at the party. Joe, the tour director, hired the Spanish version of a mariachi band, with 4 uniformed musicians playing Spanish music and involving the whole group in singing and dancing.

Joe, played a big role in keeping everybody going in the right direction. At the many meals on the trip, Joe would mix up the seat assignments so that, ultimately, everyone got to know everyone else. Also, on the tour bus, the assigned seats were posted and changed every day, presumably to minimize the formation of cliques. I think it worked well, but then, I'm not a clique person anyway. To paraphrase Groucho Marx, "I wouldn't join any organization that would accept me as a member."

Steve and Ellen, from Montreal, Quebec. We didn't get to know them much until the last 2 days. Steve was born in the Middle East and came to Canada at age 14, barely speaking English and certainly not French. Ellen, an attractive blonde lady about our age, took an interest in him in high school, and they've been together over 40 years. Steve is a dead ringer for NBA commissioner David Stern, in fact, that's who I thought he was when I first saw him. Instead, he is a real estate developer in Canada, building small shopping centers and office buildings, and he is semi retired, enjoying the grandchildren. We had a wonderful Italian dinner with them Saturday night at a restaurant near our hotel. We got there at 9:00 at night, when the restaurant opened (restaurants in Spain generally close at midnight). Steve & Ellen supposedly left to go home on Sunday, but at the bullfights, I looked over in the next section and saw them. We could wave, but couldn't talk to them, because it was a crowded stadium, and we couldn't move to a different section. We learned later that Air France was on strike that day, and their plane didn't take off. Steve and Ellen are just pleasant down home folks, and we're glad we met them.


Most of the tour people, including Joe, went home on Saturday, leaving 3 couples--us, George and Marshia from Phily, and Steve and Ellen from Montreal. The 6 of us arranged to tour the Palacio Real, the opulent Royal Palace. We had earlier seen it only from the outside. On the inside, it rivals anything in Versailles or St. Petersburg. As expected, it has numerous rooms with extravagant decorating. We used a map to find where we were. It has an armory with suits of armor, swords and firearms from the glory days of Spanish history. The king doesn't actually live at this palace, but uses it for ceremonies and banquets.

After visiting the palace, we had a paella lunch at the Plaza Mayor with George & Marshia. We then left them and went shopping. The major store in Spain is the ubiquitous El Corte Ingles (English court) which has probably about 100 stores scattered around the city as well as in Barcelona and other cities. It is the largest employer in Spain--over 100,000 employees. Like an upscale Sears or Macy's, ths store carries everything. In several locations, it has stores across the street from each other--one store for clothing and soft goods, and the other for hard goods. Everything is expensive there for us, because of the weak U.S. dollar. Unless you're buying something unique, you get more for your money in the U.S. I had run out of clean socks, and I found socks at El Corte Ingles, about 20 different brands.

We caught the Metro and, after taking 3 different trains, got back to the hotel. We tried to do this by looking at the map in the station. The blue line goes to our hotel. the problem was there was another shade of blue which went somewhere else. Fortunately, an English speaking young lady student explained that we were going in the wrong direction. We got off and transferred at the next station. The whole thing cost 1 Euro.

We found a big shopping mall, about 2 blocks from our hotel--the ABC Shopping Center, with all upscale stores. We enjoyed browsing, but bought little. The anchor store is, of course, El Corte Ingles.

The next morning, we went to the public market at La Latina Square, which is open every Sunday. This is Madrid's version of Chicago's Maxwell Street market. It consists of several blocks of street vendors selling every kind of cheap jewelry, arts and crafts, t-shirts, jeans and weird stuff. We took the Metro, and knew it was the correct stop because thousands of others also got off the train to stream into the market. Apparently, this is where normal working people buy goods they can't afford to buy in the department stores. This place was wall to wall people, and you had to guard against the pickpockets and hustlers.


Dianne and I like to hang out in the hotel lobby over drinks. On our second night in Madrid, we met Frank and Marie, an Irish couple who were not on our tour, but were staying in the same hotel. Frank, a big, friendly chap, is in the heating and refrigeration business back in Ireland.

After a couple of nights in the bar, they asked if they could go to the bullfights with us. It was the last bullfight of the season. So we went with them on the Metro which stops in front of the stadium. The bullfight starts at 5 P.M., and we got there about an hour early on a sunny day, with the temperature in the high 60's. At the bullfights, the seats in the sun are the cheapest, so we got those, for 10 Euros each. The reason for that is during the Summer, it gets really hot in Spain--over 100F, and you don't want to be in the sun if you can afford not to be. But since the weather was mild that day, and the sun goes down early in late October, we got a good deal on the seats.

The bullfight starts with much pageantry. The matador and his entourage, all the assistant matadors who help out, paraded around the bullring. There were 8 bullfights on the schedule. We left after 7--the process was similar in each one. The bull comes running out and circling the arena, which is circular, about 100 meters in diameter. Trumpets announce each stage of the spectacle.

The banderilleros (flagmen), 3 of whom were strategically placed around the bullring run out and wave magenta capes to provoke the bull. It charges after them and they duck behind partitions that the bull can't get to because its horns are too wide.

Then 2 picadores (lancers)--men riding big, heavily armored and padded draft horses come out. In every bullfight we saw, the bull would charge and ram the horse broadside and somethimes get its horns tangled. The banderilleros then run out to distract the bull. The picador eventually stabs the bull in the neck to draw blood, which lowers the bull's head and makes it less dangerous.

Then the 3 banderilleros come out with brightly colored spears and provoke the bull into charging at them, and they stab the bull, driving the spears into the bull's neck and back. The bull, bleeding and worn out, then gets involved with the matador who does his thing with a red cape and essentially, gets up close and personal with the bull. Sometimes the matador gets gored. On one occasion, the bull butted the matador in the backside and lifted him off the ground. The others then run over to help.

Eventually, the matador gets his sword and kills the bull, who dies a slow death, being provoked by the banderilleros.. The bull rolls over dead, and 3 draft horses come out to pull the bull out of the ring.

This sport will never catch on in the U.S. The animal rights people would put them out of business. You'd have movie stars picketing. But not in Spain, although it is controversial there also. The Queen makes no bones over her opposition to bullfighting, but the King occasionally presides over an important bullfight.

Spain has farmers who breed bulls just for bullfighting. The bulls are 3 or 4 years old. They can cost over $100,000. After the bull is killed, the meat is sold or given to charitable institutions, or so I was told.

Bullfighting is a cultural thing in Spain. I personally don't care to see another bullfight. On the other hand, in the U.S., we have on TV boxing, extreme wrestling, pro football and reality shows, where people try to kill each other. But at least, no animals are involved.




Wednesday, November 14, 2007



Granada, a picturesque city in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, is known as the jewel of Andalucia. Granada is the Arabic name for the pomegranate, the reddish fruit with many seeds, which is very common in the area--think Grenadine.

Granada is most famous for the Alhambra, which was the Sultan's palace and is the most popular tourist attraction in Spain. We arrived in the late afternoon and stayed at the Alhambra Palace Hotel, down the street from the famous palace. We weren't scheduled to tour it until the next morning--you have to reserve times. So we caught a public bus to go across town to St. Nicholas Church, originally built as a fort, and now a popular spot where people gather to watch the sunset over the Sierra Nevada Mountains. This place was a hippie haven, a throwback to the 1960's wich the small of pot wafting through the air and people in tie-dyed clothes carrying guitars and other instruments. We sat with a Japanese movie crew filming the sunset and the Alhambra, a few miles away, across the river valley.

Early the next morning, we visited the Alhambra Palace. Alhambra, in Arabic, means "red hill" for the red clay composition of its walls. The outside is somewhat mundane, but the inside is magnificent. The Moors' policy was to incorporate the beauty on the inside of their structures, but not the outside. This Moorish castle took 200 years to build, even without the necessity of government permits, and was completed in the 1200's. An examination of the detail in the floors, walls and ceilings makes it evident that it couldn't be completed overnight. One cannot capture the essence of the decorations in mere words, you must see it to appreciate it. The Moorish architecture incorporates stylized designs such as 5 and 6 pointed stars, Arabic calligraphy and flowers. No people are depicted, except in later additions constructed by the Christians after the fifteenth century. The palace has hundreds of rooms and covers 30 acres, including the grounds.

Adjacent to the Alhambra is the Generalife gardens dating from the 1800's, with beautiful arched hedges of cedar, and numerous varieties of flowers. The gardens were used and enjoyed by the royal family.

Jim and Liz from Arizona. Liz grew up a "cheesehead" in Platteville, Wisconsin, and met Jim, a Boeing executive. A second marriage for both, they moved around the country--Seattle, Philadelphia, Arizona. Both are retired now. Jim is a very caring and gentle man, and Liz is a boisterous and gregarious lady who gave us light hearted fun at our parties and dinners. Liz had some difficulty walking over the cobblestones and uneven surfacts in the ancient cities we toured, and she will be having knee replacements in the near future. We spent a lot of time with them over drinks in the hotel lobbies. Liz celebrated her birthday with the tour group in Madrid, and Joe, the tour director, provided a cake.


Cordoba was a great center of learning and culture during the Middle Ages. It once was the largest city in Western Europe with over 600,000 people. Today, the population is less than half that. The former glory of Cordoba is evident in and around the old, walled city where one finds 3 statues of the great philosophers native to Cordoba, representing the 3 major religions. The Arab poet Ibn Hazam (994-1064), the Christian philosopher and jurist Averroes (1126-1198), and the Jewish theologian and physician, Moses ben Maimon, a/k/a Maimonides (1135-1204), who has streets and hotels named after him. Actually Maimonides and his family had to flee the country to avoid persecution at the hands of fanatics. He went to Fez, in Morocco, and then to Egypt where he eventually became personal physician to the sultan Saladin.

Although there are few, if any, Jews in Cordoba today, the city celebrates its Jewish history and maintains one of the three medieval synagogues in Spain today. The Jewish Quarter in the walled city is a major attraction. The Jews were ordered to leave Spain in 1492, during the Inquisition, and some trickled back in relatively recent times. I was told there are 4 synagogues in Gibraltar and another 4 in Malaga, on the Costa del Sol.

The tour guids emphasized that the Spanish people and government encourage Jews to return to Spain, but few have done so. The Cordoba synagogue ("la sinagoga"), a small unassuming building on a narrow street, remains empty except for a small menorah which apparently was placed as an afterthought. The inside of the building is Moorish style with arches and tiled multicolored inlaid walls. It contains a balcony where the women would sit during the services.

We walked through the narrow, winding streets that see little sunlight. The reason for that it that the weather is extremely hot in summer, and the architects attempted to create as much shade as possible. Inside, the houses have shaded courtyards.

The other major attraction is the Great Mosque, which is now, under the Catholics, called the Mezquita Cathedral. This is the second largest mosque in the world, covering 6 acres, slightly larger than a Super WalMart. This building is renowned world wide for hundreds of its characteristic red and white striped arches and towering ceilings. The Great Mosque was built on the site of a former Roman temple. It became a Cathedral in 1239, shortly after the Christians conquered the city, and part of the inside was remodeled, with intricate polished wood carvings, to accommodate the Cathedral.

In Cordoba, we stayed at the Hesperia Hotel, right across the street from the ancient Roman Bridge, which is closed, undergoing major repairs. We had a fine dinner at the Caballo Rojo (red horse) restaurant, about 2 blocks from the hotel as the crow flies, but a $10 cab ride to take the long way avoiding the bridge. We ate with John and Diane from Connecticut and our Chicago friends, Richard and Tessa. John, being a college professor, did the research and informed us that the Frommer's Guide rated it the best restaurant in town.

I had Sefardic salad, which consisted of roast asparagus with mushrooms, tuna and roasted red peppers. The waiter didn't speak English, so we weren't sure what we were getting. Tessa had fried eggplant in honey which was delicious. I had sea bream, which is a type of bony fish. It was tasty, but had too many bones. Richard and John had roast venison, which tasted like steak. Diane had duck with artichokes in sauce. This was a very fine meal, quite expensive, but the company was great.


An hour or two north of Cordoba we stopped at a roadside restaurant in which the owner was a big fan of Generalissimo Franco, the long time dictator of Spain who died in 1975. Several members of our tour were offended by Franco and wouldn't buy anything. History gives Franco mixed reviews. Like much of the media in America today, when things were bad, Franco blamed the Republicans. In the Spanish Civil War (1935-39), however, the Republicans were the leftists, supported by the Soviet Union, while Franco, supported by the Fascist Germans and Italians, made many enemies in the West when he brutally crushed the leftist opposition.

I pointed out to those incredulous members of our tour that, although Franco had some odious friends like Hitler and Mussolini, he did save thousands of European Jews (expecially Hungarian Jews, but also Jews from Greece, Bulgaria and Romania) during World War II by issuing them Spanish passports and allowing them safe passage through Spain;. Also, he refused, despite the pleas of his "friends", to persecute those Jews living in Spain at that time. In fact, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee operated openly in Barcelona. Well known Orthodox Rabbi Yitschak Rudomin, Sinai Heritage Director, pointed out "Spain under Franco helped save more Jews than any other country during the war; anyone who could make to Spain or one of its embassies survived. This is a fact."

Marshia & George, from Philadelphia. Marshia was widowed several years ago, and she met George while building a Habitat for Humanity house with her church in Gulfport, Mississippi, after Hurricane Katrina. She learned to hang drywall with the best of them. George is a park ranger at a state park, essentially a rural cop enforcing the drug laws in the parks. Marshia is an avid Phillies fan and season ticket holder with eternal hope despite the Phils' 10,000 losses. After the tour, they stayed on for a extra day in Madrid, and toured the Palacio Real with us. We shared a delicious paella lunch with them at the Plaza Mayor in Madrid.


In this small town, we stayed in the historic Parador, formerly a Franciscan monastery, which was the most rustic accommodations of our entire trip. Although it was reasonably comfortable, it was Spartan living for us, with rough hewn wood walls, floors, and paneling. Our tour director, Joe, led a walk to the historic town plaza where we went shopping at a store which made frilly lace. We watched those artisans creating those lacy designs and bought some lace pillow cases.


While the windmills don't look anything like the windmill farms of today, they are a prized part of Spanish history. We arrived on this hill on a cold, windy morning with a hint of rain, and relived the story of Cervantes' fearless knight, Don Quixote de la Mancha, who jousted with the windmills. Joe broke out several bottles of local wine and we toasted the brave knight, and then took many photographs.

Next: Toledo--meet "The Greek"; and Madrid, the Geographic center of Iberia and the magnificent capital of Spain.


Sunday, November 11, 2007


Welcome to the Third Installment of our adventures in Spain and Portugal.

Seville is quite a fascinating city. It is ancient--predating the Romans. Two Roman emperors hailed from Seville--Trajan and Hadrian. Both were generals in the Roman legions before getting the CEO job in Rome. After the Romans came the Visigoths and the Osteopaths (sic). The Moors took over in the 700's and built mosques all over the place. When the Christsians conquered it in the 1400's, they built churches on top of the mosques, rather than demolishing them. As a result, many buildings are of Moorish design with the add-ons of Gothic architecture.

For example, the great Cathedral of Seville, the largest in Spain, and containing the tomb of Columbus, is larger than the Vatican. I've been to both, but didn't measure them. This building was formerly a mosque. The lower levels are Moorish and the upper levels are Gothic. The Giralda Tower, attached to the Cathedral, is the tallest building in town, 294 feet high. We, along with hundreds of others, hiked the 36 flights to the top for the city view. The walking wasn't so bad because they were ramps, rather than steps, thus complying with the Spanish version of the ADA.
Going down is a skateboarder's paradise.

The famed Alcazar Palace, which is used by the royal family, is of Moorish design, with its multi-colored tiled walls and ceilings and beautiful gardens. The palace, like those in the other cities we visited, has so many rooms, ornately decorated, that one runs out of words to describe the beauty of the architecture.

We toured the old Jewish quarter of Seville, with its many small shops, and we stopped for tapas at one of the numerous small restaurants. Dianne is developing a taste for the ubiquitous CruzCampo Beer which is served everywhere in Spain. It is not exported to the U.S. because it has no preservatives.

Seville is the setting for the famous opera Carmen. The main character, Carmen, worked in a cigarette factory in Seville. The tobacco indusstry was a monopoly controlled by the King, and it was a key source of his income. The music from Carmen, by the French composer Georges Bizet, is very popular in Seville. Most people are familiar with the Toreador Song. In the opera, Carmen, a beautiful, but fiery tempered Gypsy lady has several love affairs with military officers and bullfighters, which eventually lead to her murder at the hands of a jealous suitor. The music from Carmen is especially popular with Flamenco dancers.


Sherry who? You may ask. Sherry, as in after dinner wine. Apparently, the English corrupted the pronunciation of Jerez and made it sould like "sherry". We had the privilege of touring the Don Sandeman winery which makes sherry. You may be familiar with the logo--a man with a black cape and sombrero. The tour guides (all female) wore that uniform. We viewed hundreds of wine barrels in various stages of the aging process. They passed out free samples. Fortunately, we didn't have to drive. Lunch consisted of tapas at the winery.

The other point of interest in Jerez is the equestrian school which is famous all over Europe for training riders and carriage drivers. We toured the stables, interacted with the horses and watched the students learning to handle and train horses.


As everyone probably knows, Gibraltar is a big rock overlooking the Mediterranean Sea and the Straits of Gibraltar. It has great strategic importance.

During the War of Spanish Succession, a struggle for the Spanish throne between the French Bourbons and the Austrian Habsburgs, a joint Anglo-Dutch force took over the rock and a small surrounding area, in 1704. When that war ended, the warring parties signed a treaty, the Treaty of Utrecht, in 1713 in which Spain gave the colony to England in perpetuity.

Almost immediately, Spain regretted that and laid siege (unsuccessfully) to the colony in 1727, and again in 1779, the latter lasting 4 years and causing great destruction. Spain has remained somewhat hostile to the colony, even in recent years. Several years ago, the 30,000 inhabitants voted in a referendum, and 99% voted to stay with England.

Essentially, Gibraltar is the rock with some landfill next to it, which contains the city. The whole shebang is less than 3 square miles on a peninsula. The culture is very British, although the inhabitants speak Spanish also and are mostly Catholic, as in adjoining Spain. The currency is the Pound Sterling and also the Euro. The red London phone booths are all over the place. One major difference from England is that cars drive on the right side of the road, as they have since 1929. The Rock was (and is) heavily fortified during World War II, and used by the Allies to monitor shipping and aubmarine traffic through the straits. There are numerous tunnels drilled into the rock for defensive purposes, with many cannons and fortifications. One interesting item: the airport runway crosses the main road into town, and when an airplane lands or takes off, they have to stop traffic on the road to allow the plane to pass.

Living on the rock is a colony of small Barbary apes, actually macaques--the only such primates in Europe. These critters are about 3 feet tall and are wild, but friendly. They climb on cars and busses. One was sitting on a window sill of a house attempting to open the window. A female ape walked around, carrying its baby clinging to its back. Although there are posted signs telling you not to feed them because they may bite, people do so; and they'll grab things out of your hand.

The rock also has a natural cave, St. Michael's Cave, containing colorful stalactites (on the top) and stalagmites (on the bottom). There is a concert hall inside the cave which is often used. Compared to Carlsbad Caverns or Mammoth Cave in the U.S., the cave is small, but it is quite impressive and worth seeing.

John & Diane, from Connecticut. John is a well published psychology professor with a major university, who is also an expert on movies and baseball--a Yankee fan. Of Greek ancestry, he was the only person on the tour able to pronounce El Greco's real name (Domenicos Theotokopoulos, in case you're interested). Diane, a very sweet and pretty lady who shares a birthday with me (2 years younger) is a long time Realtor who became fast friends with Dianne and me. They shared a lunch with us at the Madrid McDonalds when we all were suffering from American food withdrawal. We were all in heaven!


A resort town on the coast of the Mediterranean with a 2 mile long boardwalk, this is Spain's version of Miami Beach. There's even a casino, but it's not on the waterfront, and we didn't go there. We encountered many souvenir stands, as well as sand sculptors who meticulously create elaborate sand castles, some the size of a hotel room. We spent a whole day there, which was our tour director's day off. Our hotel room had a balcony with a fine view of the Mediterranean. We wore our bathing suits and waded in the surf.

We did some shopping, but found that everything is expensive in Europe because of the weak dollar relative to the Euro. $100.00 American bought only about 65 Euros, although for Europeans, a Euro was like a dollar for what it would buy. So although the stores carried the designer brands we all know, the items, priced in Euros, are significantly more expensive in Europe than in the U. S.


Ronda is a mountain town, just to get there was an ordeal--a long slow trip on a narrow, winding mountain road with no guardrails in a big tour bus.

This is the bullfighting capital of Europe, with a famous stadium containing a museum
devoted to the history of bullfighting. Very interesting. There was no bullfight on the schedule, and we would have to wait until Madrid to attend one.

To us, the most impressive sight in town was the gorgeous gorge running through the center of town, approximately 500 feet deep. The road goes over an old bridge of stone block construction, with graceful arches, spanning the gorge. Although I had never heard of it before, this gorge is comparable to the Grand Canyon in its beauty, in its own way. The bridge, dating from the 1780's, and built on the foundation of an earlier bridge, is over 400 feet high. This was an impressive feat of engineering construction without using modern equipment.

The famous producer and writer Orson Welles was enamoured with Ronda, had a home in Ronda, and in fact, was buried--well, scattered there.

We had a fine lunch at the Don Miguel hotel, right next to the gorge.

Gladys, a young 80 year old lady traveling by herself kept everyone in good spirits. Her husband didn't make the trip because of health problems. Gladys has worked at New York's Macy's for many years in the china department. Although she probably has less energy than she had years ago, she kept up with the group, and several of us looked out for her. She had a wealth of stories about her travels and her years at Macy's. One was that her phone number was one number off from that of Macy's. At Christmas time, many people mistakenly dial her number to talk to Santa Claus. Gladys' last name is Kloss, which sounds similar. She told the caller in her sweet little lady voice that Santa wasn't home, but Bobby Kloss (her husband) would talk to them.


Grenada, as in Grenadine, featuring the Alhambra Palace, the Great Mosque of Cordoba, and sandy Consuegra, home of Don Quixote's windmills.


Wednesday, November 7, 2007


In Part One, we covered some of the sights and activities around Lisbon prior to the Tauck tour and some of the personalities on the tour. Let's cover some more of the personalities and highlights of the tour.


Our first evening on the tour, we took in a fado restaurant. Fado is a uniquely Portuguese form of music. The best analogy is to that of American blues music. Accompanied by guitar music, women (and men, but mostly women) sing mournfully about lost love and guilt. This is the Portuguese form of "blue collar" music and is the favorite of common working people.

Most of the people from our tour went to a group meal in a small restaurant in a working class neighborhood of Lisbon, walking down narrow streets that the tour bus could not navigate. The first course of the meal consisted of charcoal broiled sardines. We posed for a photo with the guy grilling the sardines. These are not your mother's King Oscar sardines in that little tin that you open with a key. These sardines are about a foot long, seasoned with sea salt, and very tasty. You have to de-bone the fish yourself, but after the first one, you can get the hang of it.

After that we feasted on boiled chicken, chunks of pork, lots of wine. At every restaurant, the wine costs less than bottled water, so we drank a lot of wine. Dessert consisted of flan or rice pudding (arroz con leche) or almond cake.

The entertainers came out for several sets. There was a guitar player, a mandolin player, and a male and female singer. We enjoyed the music, but since the lyrics were in Portuguese, our tour guide, Joe, had to narrate what they were singing.


No connection to Frank (Junior or Senior), the Sintra Castle is a UNESCO World Heritage site, built in the 14th century. This castle is up in the hills, about 30 miles north of Lisbon, and it was used by the Portuguese royal family for a summer home because the weather was somewhat cooler than in the city. Like many of the castles we would see on the entire trip, there was much Moorish influence in the architecture and the decorating. Many of the rooms here were used to entertain foreign dignitaries.

After our tour, we drove down to the beach resort town of Cascais with its beautiful harbor and medieval fort. This is the last stop for the Lisbon commuter train, and we were free to stay there for lunch and take the train back. Nobody from the tour chose to do so.


This is a Lisbon museum devoted to the ornate and well preserved, mostly horse drawn coaches used by the nobles and the royal family in the 14th to the 19th centuries. Nowadays we show our wealth in other ways, but these coaches were the 18th century version of our fancy cars.


We had a short visit and photo op at the riverfront monument dedicated to Vasco da Gama, Christopher Columbus, Prince Henry the Navigator, and the whole gang who ushered in Portugal's golden age in the 15th and 16th centuries.


We checked out of our Lisbon hotel for a long bus ride. We crossed the 8 mile long Vasco da Gama Bridge across the Tagus River and headed toward Evora, another UNESCO World Heritage Site. This is a walled city dating back to Roman times. It features the ruins of the Temple of Diana, and also a cathedral. Evora was conquered from the Moors in 1166 by the Christian knight, Gerald the Fearless, and it was a leading city in Portugal in the Middle Ages. The main square is named after him.

Incidentally, the difference between a cathedral and a mere church is that if a bishop resides there, it's a cathedral.

The Church of St. Francis is unique in that the walls in the Capela dos Ossos (Chapel of Bones) were covered and filled in with the carefully arranged human bones of approximately 5,000 monks which were obtained from the overflowing ceneteries inside the local churches. This church was built in the 1500's by a Franciscan monk who wanted to show his colleagues that life is only transitory, on the way to heaven. The inscription reads (in English translation), "We bones that are here, for your bones we wait." While I realize that many people are not into that kind of thing, its a cultural difference that the Portuguese are apparently proud of.

After that,we had a fine lunch at the monestery.

Frank & April. Frank was a New York cop who retired after 9/11 when he lost several friends. He married April, who still works at the NYPD, about 11 years ago. April, in her early 40's, the youngest person on our tour, has battled cancer and other health problems, and Frank has devoted his life to caring for her. He is one of the few truly compassionate cops I have ever met.

We headed south, through the Portuguese countryside past vineyards, olive groves and sheep herds toward the seashore, which is the area called the Algarve. This is the Portuguese Riviera. The destination was Almancil, on the coast, a short drive from the exit at Faro, a relatively large city with the major airport. No word on whether or not the 19th century card game was related to the city of Faro.

We stayed at the Quinta do Lago resort hotel, a first class hotel. This hotel was built by Saudis about 30 years ago and, after several changes in ownership, is now owned by Portuguese interests. This area is a playground for the rich, but then, we must be rich also. Close by are large estate houses and expensive condominiums.

To get to the ocean, we had to walk down a boardwalk about a quarter mile through a salt water estuary and over a sand dune to find the beach. Its a beautiful beach, and we frolicked in the sand where Dianne found some nice seashells. We hung around to enjoy the sunset over the Atlantic Ocean.

We returned to the hotel for dinner which was served buffet style--but what a buffet! Cracked crab legs, oysters, lamb, salmon, sea bass, several types of salad, many desserts. You didn't know when to stop eating. The breakfast buffet the next morning had most of the same selections as well as normal breakfast food.

We would have been happy to stay there for the whole trip.

Ed & Hazel are an unmarried seventy something couple from New York. Ed, a structural engineer who heads his own firm, has worked on many of New York's most prominent landmarks. Hazel is a prominent architect. Ed gave us the structural analysis of the various 800 year old castles we visited on the trip--the NY building department tour. "Look at those joists up there--that won't pass Code." Hazel, the architect, suffered from an edifice complex. An hour after I told her that, she caught the joke and came running up to me, laughing. I told her the same joke several times more, on the trip.


We arrived in Seville, Spain's fourth largest city, in the late afternoon and pulled up to the King Alfonso XIII (Alfonso Trece) Hotel a magnificent Moorish style structure built in 1929. King Alfonso didn't enjoy it for long; he was deposed in 1931.

Seville is a city of 750,000 population which has been the site of two World's Fairs, in 1929 and again in 1992. Many of the beautiful buildings in town were built for those expositions. Now they mainly house the foreign embassies. The architecture is a mixture of Moorish and modern.

Seville was the launching point for Columbus' ships to discover America (which was called "the Indies"). Incidentally, October 12th is a national holiday in Spain, honoring Columbus, although he wasn't honored much during his lifetime. We all assume Columbus was Italian, but in reality, little is known about his early life. Many of the Spanish people think Columbus was actually raised Jewish. Also, nobody knows what he actually looked like--the pictures you've seen of him are from the artist's imagination.

His remains are interred in the cathedral, but it was a long Odyssey. They have been brought there fairly recently. Columbus died in 1506 and asked to be buried
in America, but no church of sufficient stature existed there at the time. Finally, in 1537, his remains were moved to Santo Domingo, but when the French took over Hispanola in the 1700's, Columbus' remains were moved to Havana, Cuba. During the Spanish-American War of 1898, the ashes were moved to Seville. The Santo Domingo folks still believe they have him, but recent DNA testing of the Seville remains show they have the right guy, at least for the most part. But some of his ashes may still be in Santo Domingo also. The next project is to determine Columbus' true nationality by comparing his DNA with that of the Colon families of Catalan in Spain and also with the DNA of Italians named Columbo. That is a work in progress, and is obviously important to the Spaniards.


We attended a flamenco dancing concert. Flamenco is the Spanish national dance. I had always assumed that "flamenco" had something to do with "flamingo" as in the tall bird or the Las Vegas hotel. But no! The real story is that Charles I, the grandson of Ferdinand and Isabella, assumed the Spanish throne in the 1500's. He was from Ghent, in Belgium, and he spoke no Spanish--only Flemish. He brought his Flemish advisers with him to Spain, and they proved to be unpopular with the people. Flemish (or Flamenco) became a derogatory term at that time. The dancing style--the stomping of feet--was brought from the Middle East by Gypsies, and the Spanish people derogatorily referred to it as "flamenco". Now, of course, it's mainstream. In any case, I wouldn't want to live downstairs of a flamenco dancer. It would be comparable to the guy next to you at the traffic light blasting his woofers; you can feel it even with the windows shut.

Dinner in Spain begins after 8:30 in the evening and lasts until Midnight. In fact, most restaurants do not even open until 8:30 or 9:00 at night. People take 3 hour siestas in the afternoon, so they stay up late.

The first night in Spain, we had a feast of paella, a traditional Spanish dish of saffron rice, vegetables and assorted seafood. Traditionally, fish markets would gather up the fish parts that weren't sold and put them into s stew and mix it with whatever vegetables were available, and thus make paella. It's still pretty much made that way, except that the fish is the expensive kind--along with shrimps, clams, and even lobster. The dish is very delicious.

The City Tour, or where do you find a good barber in Seville; a trip to the Rock; and help me Ronda. Stay tuned.


Saturday, November 3, 2007


Our adventure began on October 12, 2007 flying first class (on frequent flyer miles) from Chicago O'Hare to Dublin, Ireland on Aer Lingus, the Irish airline. It was a comfortable ride and the food was excellent.

In the Dublin airport, we met an elderly, nearly blind octagenarian lady named Margaret, traveling by herself. She was on our flight from Chicago, and was getting assistance from airline personnel. We struck up a conversation and helped her get situated. She is apparently wealthy enough to be able to take many so-called adventure trips. For example, she has taken 2 trips to the North Pole (on a Russian icebreaker out of Murmansk). This is a "cruise", available to the public for a price, which I know, as I previously looked into it. She especially enjoyed Spitzbergen, a large barren island in the Arctic, 1000 miles north of Norway.

She had also taken 2 trips to the Antarctic, also on a Russian icebreaker, and is planning another trip to the Antarctic Peninsula. I asked her about the food and service on those ships. She said that as long as the food is edible, she didn't care. She is a traveler, not a tourist. Crossing the Drake Passage can be a hair raising experience, with the ship rocking at 45 degree angles.

She told me she doesn't like the modern cruise ships because of the nightclubs and gamblihg. I guess I won't be taking her on any of my future trips.

Margaret has also traveled to Tristan de Cunha (in the Atlantic) and Pitcairn Island (in the Pacific)--two remote islands known mainly to philatelists. Their main revenue source is the sale of postage stamps. Pitcairn Island is best known for the Mutiny on the Bounty story. I remarked that there are only about 90 inhabitants and ships can't land there. She told me there are only 45 now, and they come out on longboats to meet the ship. She almost fell off the longboat.

Margaret was traveling to Portugal to catch a cruise ship sailing to Brazil. She was certainly inspiring, and I recalled the wisdom of Yogi Berra who said, "It ain't over till it's over."


We caught the connecting flight to Lisbon where Tauck World Discovery Tours had arranged a ride and a hotel room. Tauck is a world renowned tour company known for first class travel. It's not cheap, but Tauck takes care of everything--rides, hotels, meals, luggage. The bags get picked up in your room. All you have to do is pack. You don't have to schlep your suitcases.

We arrived on Saturday afternoon, but the tour would not begin until Sunday. We stayed in the Tivoli Hotel, a 5 star hotel in a trendy neighborhood on Avenida Liberdad, a wide boulevard with prominades on both sides.

No sooner did I arrive than I discovered that my cellphone didn't work although Verizon had inserted the international chip that was supposed to make the phone (and eMail) work in Europe. There is no Verizon store in Lisbon, and I didn't have the phone number. I went to a phone store (different phone company), but nobody was able to help. So I resigned myself to cut my ties with the cell phone. Fortunately the hotels where we stayed had internet service, so I was able to keep up with business.

Portugal has a mild climate (hot in Summer) with many palm trees and outdoor restaurants, most specializing in seafood. The country has been a democracy since 1974, when the dictatorship was deposed. The city of Lisbon is very clean, and we felt safe there. There is Sagres Beer wherever you go, and the food is good.

Lisbon had been destroyed by an earthquake, tsunami and fire on All Saints Day, 1755, a disaster which killed about 100,000 people in Portugal and Morocco, and was felt all over Europe. Many priceless paintings by artists like Titian and Rubens were destroyed. The oldest buildings in town date back to that time, and the architecture of Lisbon is almost uniformly mid 18th century.

We had some free time prior to the tour, so on the recommendation of our friends, the Rosens, we visited the Calouste Gulbenkian Museum in Lisbon. Gulbenkian, not well known to Americans, was an interesting guy. He was known as Mr. Five Percenter, which I'll explain in a moment. An Armenian, born in Turkey, he studied petroleum engineering in London around the turn of the 20th century, and became a British citizen. He went to Baku, by the Caspian sea and started setting up oil companies. Upon doing wo, he would retain 5% of the stock and let the others do the work. Around, 1900, that wasn't a big deal, but when the oil industry expanded exponentially, his small interests made him a billionaire. His motto was "Better a small piece of a big pie than a big piece of a small one." He helped arrange the 1907 Royal Dutch/Shell merger and became a major stockholder. Over the years he became involved in the affairs of Iraq and Iran, developing oil fields in both countries and later representing the Iraqis in Vichy France during World War II. The British decided he was a spy and imprisoned him, but a year later, they rehabilitated him. Any love he had for the British had faded by then, and in 1942, the Salazar regime in Portugal welcomed him.

In return, he willed his extensive art collection to the City of Lisbon. Gulbenkian and his museum are not well known, but for us, it was a delightful find. It is a huge museum, with ancient art from Egypt, the Middle East and China. It contains a large number of Renaissance paintings, from France and Italy, as well as sculptures, gold and silver objects and furniture from the 15th through the 18th centuries.

Another interesting find, not on the organized tour, was San Jorge Castle in Lisbon. Situated on the highest point in town, this is a medieval fort where you can climb the walls and walk around the parapets. It contains a periscope (invented by Leonardo DaVinci) which they demonstrate to the public. You look down into a large, shallow bowl which they rotate 360 degrees so you can see the whole city.

We walked back to the hotel through the narrow streets of the old quarter, observing the daily lives of the working people of Lisbon.


We signed up for the Tauck Tour along with our friends, Richard and Tessa Rosen from Chicago. The tour had 36 tourists--the motor coach capacity was about 40, but 4 people didn't show up. In addition, Tauck provided our tour director, Jose (Joe) Periera, and a driver, Antonio, a short, congenial man who speaks several languages, but unfortunately, none of them are English. We had one of the most wonderful experiences of our lives with those 36 people. There was a camraderie, not unlike that of a winning team--we were all headed the same direction. The cast of characters was quite interesting. All were middle aged or older; many were retired. Several were unmarried couples traveling or living together. All had stories to tell.

Joe, our tour director, was born and raised in Portugal, but moved to the U.S. as a teen and spoke English with a Massachusetts accent. He spoke Spanish and Portuguese fluently. Joe could do standup comedy, and has done some in the past, and he filled us in on historical and practical information on each stop of the tour. He kept our rapt attention with his monologues during our long rides from place to place.


My good buddy, Richard Rosen, a Chicago lawyer, is a walking encyclopedia on movie and drama trivia. In my mind, the renowned movie critic Roger Ebert can be compared to Rosen, not the other way around. Every place we saw, every art museum could be related to an obscure movie. Richard's wife, Tessa, is a doctor and also an expert on botany, which was helpful in the several gardens we toured.

Marcy, from Pennsylvania, was the most conspicuous lady on the tour. An attractive blonde, who speaks Queens English, as opposed to the Queens English; she kept the group laughing. With her Joan Rivers voice, she kept Joe hopping. "I'm Mawcey, from Cawnshahawken." Recently widowed, Marcy had spent several months in China with her ailing husband, unsuccessfully seeking a cure. I can picture the Chinese wondering what to make of her--like that Fran Drescher movie, The Nanny where she teaches the King's children to speak English with a Brooklyn accent.
She was the consummate shopper at every stop, which often made her late for the bus. But there was no more generous and sincerely friendly lady than Marcy.

15 more days including more personalities, several UNESCO Heritage Sites, Don Quixote windmills and friendly apes. Stay tuned.