Today we travelled about 90 miles south to Cadiz. It’s changed hands between the Moors and Spanish a few times and is best known in the UK as the port from which the Spanish Armada set sail to face Nelson at the Battle of Trafalgar.
Hot, seriously hot, and sunny, this little gem is almost entirely surrounded by water. The mix of cultural influences adds a lot of interest.
It has many beautiful open squares and narrow shopping streets. Unusually these are not packed with tourist junk; most of the shops are “everyday” high street shops: jewellers, clothes retailers, opticians, mobile phones, banks and a vast number of restaurants and pavement cafés.
The sea front has views across to Africa (Algeria/Tangiers) - a bit too far to see! On days like today it was a lovely place to stroll and enjoy a cool breeze.
There are the usual array of cathedrals and churches, lovely on the outside, but expensive, with long, hot queues, to view the insides (they claim to be “museums”)!
It also has a good number of small, shady parks, where we found a local bird lady enjoying her day. The pigeons seemed pleased to see her!
Surrounded by water, fish was the main element in many cafés and restaurants and obviously fresh. You almost expected to see them flapping.
We spent a leisurely 90 minutes on a lighter lunch of pizza and paella in the main square with a couple of co-travellers who were passing by just as we’d ordered. There’s something about warm sun and cool beer that makes even the simplest of foods taste special.
We were back at the hotel by late afternoon to await our final dinner here (where even the simplest recipes can be cooked badly).
The day didn’t have the best of starts when M was struck with an attack of “Tapas Tummy”. However, as we take a fully stocked pharmacy, the cure was quickly applied.
It turned out to be a blessing in disguise. We skipped the tour of Granada to allow for recovery and had spent the time resting & relaxing in the hotel. As a result, when our 4pm departure for Alhambra came around, we were both feeling refreshed and ready to go.
It’s quite an experience, enhanced by an excellent guide. Photography doesn’t really do it justice.
Firstly we strolled the beautiful gardens. The other attraction… The new Sultans of Alhambra are Cats. Roaming free and owning the place as only cats can.
An amazing insight into the artistic skills of Islamic Art & Culture not to be missed.
Just over half way around, 2000Km completed. We’re starting the journey North.
Picked up at Cardiff West; mini-bus to Gordano, Bristol and on to Portsmouth harbour via the most unusual route you could choose from A to B. But, problem free and easy going.
Boarded the Pont Aven (Brittany Ferries) at around 4pm for our 24 hour crossing to Santander. To be honest, this was not something either of us were looking forward to. The Bay of Biscay has a reputation for rough seas (we’d “enjoyed" it once before!) and a ferry run by a French company (sorry for my Franco-phobia) didn’t inspire confidence.
Well, we were wrong! The sea was as like a mill-pond as the North Atlantic could be. The ferry was clean and cheerfully decorated; the cabin was small but comfortable and well equipped; the cafés and restaurants served tasty fare at reasonable prices and (so un-French of them) the staff and crew friendly and efficient. One quirk, however, being French: we were sailing from the UK to Spain, but the crew always greeted you and spoke French, unless you replied in English. Vive La Republique!
We arrived, on time at 17:30. Disembarkation was simple and we were quickly on board our Luxuria coach - home for the next 17 days.
It’s a beautiful evening. High clouds, warm sunshine, soft breeze. Perfect! A short 45 minute journey to our overnight stop in Torrelavega. Another surprise.
These one-nighter hotels are usually little better than dormitories - clean and tidy bedrooms if you’re lucky and body fuel rather than food.
This is a completely different story! Bright comfortable rooms. A delicious and generous 3 course dinner with local (very good) red wine and bottled water and (but we haven’t the time) included use of a swimming pool and spa.
After a really good breakfast at the hotel (wide selection of continental favourites and some Spanish specials) we set off for Salamanca at 7:50am.
Sunshine and changing scenery all the way: mountainous in the north changing to farmland (a bit dry and arid) as we moved into Castille.
An interesting experience en route. We pulled in at an alleged service stop on the Autovia. Time travel is possible! 1960’s here again! A gravelled (unpaved) track led to what can best be described as a shack with petrol pumps out front. Inside, formica topped tables and 60’s school-room chairs were scattered about. Food was being served from behind an equally antique counter. Soap in the toilets was bottles of washing-up liquid. You often see this sort of place in old American movies about road-trips through Mississippi or Alabama. They are still alive and kicking in Spain! The excellent breakfast had saved the day.
Salamanca by noon, and just as beautiful as we’d remembered it. We had just under 5 hours to stroll around, snack on local foods in pavement cafés and take in the atmosphere: a warm 27℃ and a cloudless sky.
Salamanca has a beautiful large square, surrounded by lovely buildings, the ground floors of which are mostly pavement cafés and restaurants. But something new had appeared since our last visit.
A sculpture of an elephant, that looked a little like papier-maché, now adorned the square. Quite attractive really (if a little out of place). Then, suddenly, as we were having drinks in the café from where I took the photograph, it farted! A voluminous cloud of steam exited its nether regions (the top). I didn't catch it in the act; it seemed to be a random entertainment - who said the Spanish don’t have a sense of humour!
Now, how’s this for weird. Last night we’d been talking to some of our group about visiting museums in foreign countries. When we’d talked about it together, later, we’d decided modern history was what we liked and had actually said something like, “You can keep your old masters; what would be good would be something like an Art Deco Museum”. Guess what? There is an Art Deco Museum in Salamanca, and we stumbled on it by accident!
The building houses an enormous number of Art Deco items: glass sculptures, jewellery, dolls, ceramics, paintings, furnishings etc, etc, the collection of a single “rags to riches” local who, in his will, left it all to the City of Salamanca. No photography!
Our hotel tonight is about 30 minutes from the centre, and the room is even better than last night’s. It also has a balcony. The hotel has an outdoor pool and extensive gardens.
Dinner tonight was superb. The largest selection of plated hors d’oeuvres I’ve seen in a while. Beautifully tender braised beef with potatoes and a baked Alaska.
After a good, if basic, continental breakfast, we set off for Porto at 8am.
A pleasant trip from Spain into Portugal with some lovely scenery en route, arriving in the City around 11:30am. Apart from being hilly, it is also a contender for traffic jam capital of Europe.
We were dropped off in a central square next to the local office of the American Embassy (aka McDonalds) and set off to explore on our own. We’d visited Porto before, so decided to skip the guided tour.
After exploring a local market, we set off downhill towards the River Douro and decided to stop for a drink and, maybe, a light bite to eat. We sat in a café under an umbrella. After a longish wait our order was taken for a tea, a beer and a dish of Octopus Rice. The drinks arrived and Margaret shared a beer with me for the 1st time in 40+ years. The waitress tripped and emptied the tray all over the table and Margaret’s trousers. Fortunately, the table cloth took the brunt.
The waitress was horrified (she was new, and wondering if unemployment beckoned). She quickly cleaned up, still apologising every few seconds. The replacement beer was carefully brought on its own and delicately placed on the table. The tea came separately!
Octopus Rice: something new and delicious. Risotto-like except in a spicy tomato based sauce with lots of cubes of tender tentacle mixed in. Maybe not for the faint-hearted, but I’d order it again.
We headed down to the river, reminding ourselves that what walks down, must walk back up! It’s worth it, though. The Gaia waterfront is beautiful.
We took a trip on the river to take in the scenery, catch some sunshine with a cooling breeze and look at Porto’s six bridges, two of which were designed and built by Eiffel - he of Paris Tower fame. Learn something new everyday!
And yes, we were right - it seemed so much further going back uphill than it did going down!
Our hotel tonight is a little way out of the City in the business district and is an 18 floor tower, with good size rooms designed to the vanilla flavour international business-user standard. We’re on the 12th floor with some spectacular views across the city.
The restaurant? It’s 4-star, but McDonalds has better food and service.
A buffet meal where, at 8:15pm (early by Iberian standards) offers for main course: 2 dishes of bones (what's left of some duck and, perhaps chicken), 4 portions of lasagne, a few scoops of a mussel pasta, some cold french fries (& a few other similarly aging items) and several spaces where other items once were present. "We're doing our best to replenish these". Took about 20 minutes.
Desserts... Same story: all gone in a few moments and prompting was needed for more to be laid out. And if the food had been wonderful maybe the wait would have been worthwhile. Sadly, mediocre is a compliment.
Fortunately, I needed to start my diet!!
Today we travelled from Porto to Lisbon, stopping en route to visit the Catholic shrine at Fàtima.
It was quite misty and overcast to start, but by lunchtime the sun had broken through the clouds and the day turned out to be warm and pleasant, if a little cooler.
We had lunch outside a local bakery. Do the Portuguese know how to bake pastries? Does the Pope pray? Probably the best anywhere. Tea, coffee, pastries, pastis da nata, sunshine, perfect!
In Fàtima, 100 years ago, 3 shepherd children claimed to have had 6 visions of the Virgin Mary, the 6th being observed by many others (it is claimed). Later, they were Canonised by the Pope.
The centenary of these miracles was this year and services were held by the Pope in commemoration. A vast complex has been created around the site.
It’s quite incredible to see so many Catholic rituals being conducted. Pilgrims approaching the shrine on their knees, along (perhaps) a ½ mile pathway. Candles being thrown into a fire. (Various sizes, various prices - Why? Don’t know).
The level of commercialisation (and exploitation) is beyond credibility. Maybe nearly 100 shops and stalls selling religious statues, pendants of Saints, paintings, plaques and all manner of “I’ve been to Fàtima” junk clothing. Worst of all, perhaps, “candles” representing body parts to be thrown to the flames in the hope of a miracle cure. The mind boggles!
Much of the architecture is beautiful and, I suppose, as we now gaze in awe at old cathedrals and churches, in a few hundred years time this place with be viewed in the same way. But for now…
Our hotel is located in Lisbon, right next to the massive 25 De Abril bridge - looking vaguely like the Golden Gate in style.
Another business style hotel (by the same chain as last night - Vila Galé).
Same hotel group, different people. This deserves its 4 stars. Attentive courteous staff, wide ranging, well presented and properly prepared buffet, capable of creating 5 separate courses. As buffets go (and I’m not a fan) this was exceptional.
Whilst in the city of Lisbon, the hotel is located about 20 minutes by bus from the centre - big cities, big distances. We’re being given an “orientation” tour tomorrow, which although we’ve been here before, will provide the necessary transport into town.
It’ll be good to have some downtime. More gentle a pace and a late 10am start.
Started the day with a really good breakfast. First time, this trip, someone’s been on hand to fry eggs to order and these were excellent. (Absence makes the heart grow fonder, maybe?).
It’s going to be a hot, sunny day. Temperatures forecast to reach 31℃. Set off at 10:15am for an orientation tour of the City, estimated to last an hour. It seems everyone else in the city had a similar plan and pretty well everywhere it was difficult to find a parking space, made more difficult as whilst most tour coaches are 10 metres, ours is 14 metres long!
Our crew is one of the best and most determined we’ve ever encountered. We saw everything promised and a few bonus stops. It took just over 2 hours and was really good fun (especially listening to our driver and local police exchanging points of view about parking restrictions). Pick-ups from free-time were adjusted to make sure we had plenty of time to walk around the main central sites.
We were dropped off in the Central square and strolled down to the waterfront, window shopping on the way. We found a super pavement café for lunch. The Portuguese version of a burger, I suppose. Sourdough bread, lightly toasted with a fillet of tender, grilled, marinated pork loin inside, with a side of salad. Very tasty.
There’s some very disorienting paving in one of Lisbon’s main squares. It looks uneven, but is perfectly flat.
Back to the hotel for 3:30pm. Vila Galé hotels… Just when we thought it was safe to get back in to the water…
The room hadn’t been cleaned and made up. Phoned reception. 5 minutes ringing, no answer. Checked the hotel directory. No number for housekeeping. Ah! thought I, they always want to sell you food. Rang room service. A few language-barrier induced mis-steps later, he promised to contact housekeeping. (Either that or a 4 course meal was about to arrive!!).
3:55pm. No one came, so I went down to reception and told my story to the Duty Manager. Shock and horror marred his Mediterranean good looks and off he went, clearly with murder in mind.
At 4:20pm the promised maid appeared and we found a comfortable spot in the lobby to wait. Not sure exactly what she did, but it took her 25 minutes!
However, once again the restaurant came up trumps with a well cooked, well stocked, varied buffet, most items different from yesterday. Bang goes the diet (again)!
After a really good breakfast we left at 8am for Seville, stopping en route in Évora.
The old town still has its original medieval walls and a goodly number of old churches, old buildings and souvenir shops.
With clear blue skies and temperatures already at 30℃ at 11am we were so, so pleased this was a morning stop.
It’s a pretty little place with something interesting to look at, at almost every turn. It also has one truly unusual site: The Bone Chapel, constructed entirely from human skeletons. More info.
We then travelled on to our hotel set in peaceful countryside about 10 minutes from the centre of Seville. It’s a real treat to stay somewhere that doesn’t feel like an office-away-from-home. Rural charm and individuality.
A “serviceable” evening meal and an earlyish night. Exploring Seville tomorrow - should be good.
I’ve heard it said that Andalucia is the most beautiful part of Spain. They weren’t kidding. Seville is one of the loveliest cities we’ve visited.
Stunning architecture, old and new. Wide boulevards and narrow alleyways. Parks and gardens, green, colourful and lots of them. The Plaza De España!! Never, ever seen anything like it, anywhere.
Pictures paint a thousand words.
And hot! October in the mid 30’s. Magnificent.
Back on the road again, this time to Granada, via Córdoba. Hot when we arrived at 10am and the thermometer continued upward until we left at 3:30pm. Around 37℃.
Another attractive Spanish/Moorish city, but somehow lacking the charm of Cadíz. The alleys were a little narrower, the shops a little tackier and traffic penetrated deeper into the old town.
The main attraction is the Cathedral/Mosque; a building that’s changed allegiances a few times. Queues a mile long so we skipped the interior.
Again, lots of open squares and peaceful gardens. Pleasant enough for a visit, but not to plan a return trip.
We arrived in Granada around 6pm (actually about 4 miles from the centre). The hotel is one of those soulless, minimalist attempts at being arty-farty. Something of a bad attempt at giving rebirth to the late 1960’s. (Allegro Granada if you want to avoid it!).
And ABBA; not the group - Awful Bloody Buffet Again.
Guess what? This hotel isn’t going to do well on Trip Advisor.
Free time in Granada tomorrow with an early evening visit to the Alhambra Palace to look forward to.
Another pretty, quaint, hilltop town on a hot and sunny day.
You reach the old town via 6 escalators - tour buses are not allowed and if you had to walk up, no one would go.
Lots of trouble in Spain at the moment over Catalunya’s independence. There appeared to be a unity demonstration. Not an issue to us or other tourists.
Several imposing buildings and churches, but we’ve seen so many over the last few days, we found a quiet courtyard pavement café and ate a small, leisurely but delicious lunch of local tapas.
Our hotel in Madrid, isn’t. It’s in a suburban town about 40 minutes from the centre. All-in-all not a bad thing. It has good size rooms, and although another buffet dinner, the quality and setting for this was streets ahead of previous hotels.
A coach tour around central Madrid today, taking a look at some of the more significant buildings. Unfortunately, we didn’t stop that often and the tour guide was fluent in Spanglish, a strange, heavily accented language mixing of words from two nations.
It’s a fine city, but as with so many capital cities, it is spread out, so unless you understand the public transport system, it’s too difficult to return to a particular site for a more detailed look. And on this occasion, as the tour guide was useless, that would have been the only viable way to see Madrid. There’s also the hustle and bustle of traffic and locals trying to get on with their lives: and on a Sunday the Spanish hit the shops!
The lack of “guiding” and the seemingly complex geography of the city meant that after the tour we opted to return to our hotel in the small town of Torrejon for a stroll around. Bit of a shame, really, but that’s coach holidays for you!
Tomorrow promises to be more interesting!
We often feel we’re given too much free time in the places we visit. Not today. These two cities are so delightful, you could simply spend time in them, not bothering to walk around, simply enjoying coffee and watching the world go by in one of their many beautiful plazas… Repeat in the next beautiful location…
A walled Roman city; the walls completely intact (if undoubtedly maintained over-time).
There’s a pathway around the outside of the walls, landscaped with trees and flower beds. You could take an hour or so, just enjoying the stroll with views across the countryside to the mountains beyond.
Another Roman city with an aqueduct almost on the scale of the Pont du Gard, only this one’s in the town not miles from anywhere.
It’s cathedral and other churches are on a massive scale...
And it boasts the castle that, allegedly, Walt Disney used as inspiration for Cinderella’s castle.
It also has an abundance of beautiful squares and views across the landscape.
A great way to say “Adios” to Spain, as tomorrow we travel to St Jean de Luz in Southern France.
An unexpected bonus, but for not the best of reasons, whilst travelling from Madrid to St Jean de Luz.
A fellow traveller was taken seriously ill and had to be taken to hospital. We stopped at a motorway services to summon an ambulance and they took the lady to the University Hospital in Burgos. We followed, so the crew could establish the whys & wherefores of her condition.
Unfortunately, she had to be admitted and will be taken back to the UK by her insurers when fit to travel.
However, we were set down in this magnificent location for a couple of hours whilst the crew did their job.
This must be the most magnificent, totally ignored, city in Spain. The streets and parks are delightful and the Cathedral must be the most magnificent we’ve seen (outside Russia).
It is where El Cid is buried. Oh, but to have had hours more to explore.
We travelled on to St Jean de Luz and strolled in to the town from the hotel. Pure France: a fishing port with chic bars and restaurants. Picked one at random for dinner. I don’t much like the French, but, boy-oh-boy, do they know how to cook and make wine.
We’ve all day tomorrow to explore and eat some more!
With a long day ahead tomorrow, we opted for a quiet time, strolling around the pretty little seaside town.
Nothing spectacular, but interesting. People on the beach in October - ridiculous!
It’s a lovely little place; quaint local shopping streets, restaurants and a casino that looks as big as Monte Carlo's. It’s probably one of those places where the nouveau riche gather to sip cocktails by the pool.
Leaving for Paris at 6:50am - up and about by 5:15am.
Thursday: A long and tedious journey through France, which, amongst other things, is famous for the most boring landscapes on Earth. Mile upon mile of flat, often uncultivated farmland, enjoying the richest of handouts from the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy.
Friday, the final leg home. To Calais for the ferry, transferring before boarding to the bus routed to South Wales (via many unexpected places thoughout the land). We should be home by 10pm.
This has been a long, exhausting and totally fabulous tour on which we’ve revisited a few old favourites and discovered some fascinating new places.
The Luxuria coaches are incredible. Even today’s journey of over 12 hours was actually quite relaxing (except the traffic tour of Paris).
The hotels were very good in terms of rooms and facilities. The exception was the meals. Too many of their restaurants were of a standard and ambiance of a 1990’s factory canteen. It’s such a shame that even though Leger only use 4-star hotels for Luxuria "resort” stays, they do not insist on 4-star food to make this tour outstanding. Whilst most were very good, too many were simply appalling. A small increase in the cost of the tour wouldn’t have been noticed and would have made all the difference. It was a wonderful itinerary, superb transport, knowledgable guides, friendly couriers, quality rooms and then ...
We’ve had a great time, but are definitely looking forward to sleeping in our own bed tomorrow.