A Trip Around the World, on Our Xmas Tree

When I travel, I’m not much of a shopper, preferring to spend as much time as possible exploring.  What I bring back from travel is memories, and I record those with my pictures, photo books, and blog posts. But on each trip, in every location, I do buy at least one thing, something to hang on our Christmas tree. I prefer it not be an actual ornament and try to find something specific to the place or experience. Once back home, I write the year and location on each.  

Decorating our tree is a trip all its own . . . down memory lane.

Three Days in Lisbon

A view of Lisbon from the Barrio do Castelo.

They call Lisbon the City of Seven Hills – but when you start walking, it seems like a hundred. But what a great city to explore on foot.

I always feel some sort of draw to the oldest parts of cities and Lisbon was no exception.  We began exploring getting into the Alfama district with its medieval narrow streets now lined with enticing-looking restaurants, people of all sorts wandering around, and the occasional car trying to make its way through.

Sé De Lisboa is the area’s cathedralThe famous Sé De Lisboa is the area’s cathedral. Taken from the Moors in 1147, it’s built on ruins left behind by the Moors, Visigoths, Romans, and Phoenicians. There are currently archeological excavations underway by the cloister. The Romanesque Nave features a beautiful rose stained glass window. The window was restored using pieces from the original, after the earthquake of 1755 destroyed much of Lisbon. There are also some nearby ruins from a Roman colosseum, but we did not manage to find them in time to see the site.

The city is filled with beautiful plazas (praças) and tree-lined avenues. The big central plaza, Rossaio, is officially the Praça Dom Pedro IV. Funny though, I read the statue is not Dom Pedro at all, but a leftover likeness of Maximillian of Mexico, who died inconveniently just before the statue was delivered. It’s an early example of repurposing fixtures. At his point, you are exploring the Baixa district. Read the rest of this entry

Santa Cruz de Tenerife: Island of Majestic Contrasts

 

View from cruise ship of Tenerife, Spain.

The first glimpse of Santa Cruz de Tenerife is very striking.  The city nestled into the angular brown volcanic landscape and set off against the bright blue sky and deep blue sea is spectacular.

The largest and probably most famous of the Canary Islands, Tenerife was the starting point for Columbus’s long journey across the Atlantic to search for a better route to India.

Playa del Teresitas, Tenerife, Spain.We always like to get the lay of the land when we visit a new location and selected a tour from our ship, the Regent Seven Seas Explorer, that would cover a lot of territory. Known for its beaches, we did see one, Playa del Teresitas.  (Famous, but still, in my opinion, no comparison to our Florida beaches). Read the rest of this entry

Lanzarote: Island of Hidden Beauty

Jameos del Agua, Lanzerote, Canary Islands.

The real magic of travel is when you discover something you knew absolutely nothing about . . . that’s what the experience visiting Lanzarote in the Spanish Canary Islands was like for me.

Mirador del Rio in Lanzerote, Canary Islands.I never heard of the architect César Manrique, who was from this island and returned to make it his life’s work to celebrate and memorialize its unique beauty. His installations are throughout the island, and we had the privilege of visiting two of them.  In both cases, their real meaning was totally hidden from view and not obvious until you enter, and then, Wow. The first was the Mirador del Rio, a stunning view of the volcanic terrain all the way to the Atlantic shore. My pictures will give an idea, but just do not capture the magnificence of the view or the experience.

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Las Canarias: Santa Cruz de la Palma

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Our first stop in the Spanish Canary Islands was Santa Cruz de la Palma, and the island was a real surprise. One of eight islands in the Canary chain, it was one of three we would be visiting this trip on the Regent Explorer.  I did not expect the incredibly dramatic rocky landscape, deep gorges, huge caves, lush vegetation, terraced farming or massive banana farming. My photos do not come close to capturing the beauty here.

We began the day with a walk around the charming capital city and checked out the Castillo de Santa Catalina, the only surviving of 9 forts established in the 1500s to protect the island from pirates. These islands were very important ports, and ships from the New World stopped here before proceeding to the European mainland, these islands were very attractive plunder for pirates of the era. The town had walls and was locked up at 9 every night, a practice that continued well into the 20th century. Read the rest of this entry

How to See Madeira in One Day

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Madeira looked like it was going to be a beautiful island, so we signed up for a tour from the Regent Explorer that would get us around as much of the island as possible in the one day we had to visit. Boy, were we glad we did. Blessed with an absolutely gorgeous day and, as our guide described, “fresh” cool temperatures, we set off from Funchal to see the western and northern coasts along with the high point and scenes from the interior.

There are no natural beaches on this pile of lava rock, and so the brilliant blue sea and crashing Atlantic waves hit a shore of black rocks and pebbles. Several places we visited had barriers to keep visitors away from vantage points due to aggressive wave action. Our guide was a German native who has spent the last 57 years on the island after marrying a local and raising a family. Her insights and commentary were authentic and very interesting, and I felt we had a good window into what it was like to live on an isolated island (with unreliable air service). She also gave us a very graphic description of how life on the island has evolved, from 10 cars and few hotels when she arrived in the 60s to the thriving tourism industry it is today. As part of Portugal, Madeira’s fortunes have also risen and fallen with changes and political transitions in their home country. Read the rest of this entry

Minutes in Morocco

Want a camel ride? Tangier, Morocco

Tangier was a substitute port on this trip.  Our stops in Casablanca and Agadir Morocco were canceled due to an Atlantic storm, and this was a sub for one of those days. Can’t say that I’m in any rush to come back here. Although I know you cannot judge a country by one short visit, so let’s all keep that in mind.

I did enjoy our driving route since we saw some of the nicer residential areas, including a ride-by of the Presidents’ summer palace. Our first stop was at Cap Spartel, the 1,000’ seaside outcrop with a lighthouse which is the image most often associated with Tangier. Just below the Cape is the Hercules Grotto, another of the mythological legends attributed to Hercules in this part of the world. Our guide was useless and explained nothing so we hung around and eavesdropped on other guides who were giving some very lively background. I also spent some time unsuccessfully trying to get good pictures of the cats in the Grotto area. Read the rest of this entry

The Big Rock – Gibraltar

The Rock of Gibraltar

Finally. Got the see this big rock. From our cruise ship, The Regent Explorer, we took a bus for a scenic ride through bull-ranch country and crossed the border into Gibraltar, a British territory.

Upon arrival, you have to pass through both Spanish and British customs, a process that can be tedious, but this day was a breeze. Arrival of an Easy Jet, however, did slow our entry, since the runway crosses Winston Churchill Ave, the main road into town and of course, planes get priority.

Once there, we were on our own but only had 3.5 hours. We decided to forego the gondola to the top and hired a shared tour van that would not only get us to the top, but to the caves and a few other notable scenic points. It turned out to be an excellent choice since winds shut down the gondola later and people were stranded at the top.

St Michael's Cave, GibraltarSt Michael's Cave, GibraltarWalking down the main commerce street, we met Chris whose family has owned a tour company for several generations, “Official Rock Tours”. This engaging young man, a Gibraltar native, was a great guide and a lively commentator. We went in St. Michael’s Cave, stopped at an area where the famous Barbary Apes (actually macaque monkeys) congregate, enjoyed the views of the town and airport as well as across the straight towards Africa at The Pillars of Hercules.  Legend has it that Hercules split the land creating the Straights of Gibraltar.

We enjoyed walking around, and as it turned out, it was the opening day of parliament so there was a big police presence and a bit of additional excitement in the area. We settled on a typically British pub, The Angry Friar, for a Ploughman’s lunch for me and fish & chips for my husband. As entertainment, we watched the guards change duty at the Governor’s residence just a few yards away from our outdoor seats.

BTW, when you leave Gibraltar you do it on foot. You have to cross the border on foot because they search the vehicles looking for cigarettes and liquor that may have been purchased to re-sell at favorable prices in Spain. That would not be proper.

A typically British misty rain started just as we were headed back to find our bus and make our way across the border.

El Palau de la Música Catalana

Barcelona's iconic El Palau de la Música Catalana.

I guess the third time is a charm. It’s taken me that many visits to finally get into the Palau de Música and I’m so happy I did. We did it all, a performance and a tour. We saw a fabulous evening performance in the theater – this one featuring four very talented Flamenco dancers.  If you have never had a lesson is this classic Spanish style or tried to play the castanets while moving you may not truly appreciate this precision-oriented, graceful, and expressive form of dance. Tappers might appreciate the rapid-fire footwork and core control. We were treated to a variety of Flamenco styles during the 90-minute performance. It was a magical evening.

The following morning, we returned for a daytime tour. You really need to see the facility during the day to appreciate the magnificent stained glass and incredible tiled pillars and interior workmanship.

Domènech Montaner designed the theater in 1908 as a daytime venue, so it’s important to really appreciate the dramatic details, artistic details, and the way he channeled light into such a tightly configured space.  Montaner was Gaudí’s teacher and the father of Barcelona’s modernista movement.

English language tours are held every hour and during the week you can usually arrive 15 minutes early and get tickets.  You can also buy them online.  Our tour guide was excellent and at one point turned on music by the 4,000-pipe organ so we could experience the remarkable sound quality. What an amazing combination of artistry.

Barcelona's iconic El Palau de la Música Catalana.Stained glass ceiling at Barcelona's iconic El Palau de la Música Catalana.Details at Barcelona's iconic El Palau de la Música Catalana.The artistry continues outside at Barcelona's iconic El Palau de la Música Catalana.

Gaudí’s First House – Casa Vicens

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I was super excited to learn that Gaudí’s Casa Vicens is now open to the public for tours.  Up until a few years ago, it was a private home to the second family to own it (after the Vicens). Now privately owned by a bank it is being run as a museum. The cab driver didn’t understand where we wanted to go, which gives you an idea of just how “new” and unknown this property is today.  Located in Gràcia, it was once considered a country house.

We bought tickets online for one of the two daily English-language tours and joined a couple from Hong Kong as we explored the incredible house. A UNESCO World Heritage site, this home reflects so many influences and is a testimonial to Antoni Gaudi’s incredible obsession with details.

Built between 1883-85, the home uses stucco, plaster of Paris, ceramics, iron, wood, and paper mâché in design elements on walls, floors, and ceilings. Nature, as always with Gaudí, was the inspiration for many of the designs, from the chrysanthemums used on tiles to the fan palm design on the fence and gate and the ivy pattern etched into the wall over the dining room fireplace. Color is everywhere and function is never forgotten with external panels that rotate to maximize breezes, areas that can be closed in the colder months and Gaudi’s first accessible rooftop, so charming who wouldn’t want to visit.

With my husband Fred on the walkable rooftop at Casa Vicens.A portion of the property had been added in an expansion that Gaudí had approved in 1925, and that area, as well as the attic, are now used for exhibits explaining worldwide residential architecture of the era, details of the workmanship in the home, and the former uniquely landscaped gardens long lost to the sell-off of the surrounding land. The original kitchen was housed in the basement, now repurposed as an eclectic gift shop and the outside features a small café.

Add it to your list of ‘must-see while in Barcelona’.