We spent a few days in the heart of Porto, steps from the River Douro, Se Cathedral and across the river from the famed river port that stores the even more famous Port wines!
For some reason we often wander into a cemetery if we come across them on our travels, or even as we wander around closer to home. We are interested in how long they’ve been in use and there always are at least a few interesting comments on the headstones.
We had some business to conduct in Porto and the folks we met with pointed us to some authentic franceshina, a local specialty. As we worked our way to the restaurant we heard some chiming bells and stopped to look around. It was an animatronic clock with quite the display. What really intrigued us though was the NO ONE had mentioned anything about this, and we had talked to lots of folks about we should see while in town.
We had so much success with our day trip to Braga, a few days later we headed to Guimaraes, often referred to as the birthplace of Portugal. It was here that King Afonso Henriques was born, and near where Portugese forces expelled the Ottoman forces and Portugal began to assert itself.
There is a Castle and the residence of a Duke that can be toured, but as we approached the site a large group of school children arrived for a field trip. For those of you who don’t know us that well, that means we decided to put those attractions on the list for “next time, a quieter time.” And we wandered a little bit down the road.
After he turned off the organ he explained he needed to get back to the desk, but he left us to explore, and showed us the very narrow stone steps to the bell tower and encouraged us to check it out.
We took the slow train from Madrid to Salamanca, which was nice because the countryside was lovely and the regular speed allowed us to catch more than just a quick glimpse of the stone walls and villages, as well as some cows and blooming fields. The train had two stops in Salamanca and the second was closer to our hotel. What we didn’t know was that the stop was just that. The train stopped, there was a platform, but no signs, no buildings; so it was a good thing some guy on the train told the people in front of us that we were at the last stop and should exit. We followed them. I don’t remember what exactly our plan was for getting to the hotel, a short two kilometers away, but it is good we pack so we can make those walks.
When we were planning the trip we came across several suggestions to add Salamanca to our itinerary, so we did. But, as we walked along a nice but nondescript commercial strip, I admitted to Dan that I forgot why we put the city on the list of places to stop. His response “I’m sure there is something worthwhile here.” That’s why he is the best of travel companions (and husbands). As we got closer to the hotel we started to pass by the amazing buildings the city is famous for and I remembered why we came!
Salamanca is home to two major cathedrals, a university, monasteries and cloisters. The city still has much of the medieval walls intact and a bridge dating back to the days Spain was part of the Roman Empire. We enjoyed several days wandering around looking at the buildings and enjoying the end of term vibe given off by the students. One day as we finished our (too early by Spanish standards) lunch, we realized that all of the folks we’d seen walking around in various costumes were following some musicians down the street in an impromptu parade. Apparently it’s a thing, but we couldn’t find many details about it.
We took the “tower tour” and made sure we got there early to avoid the lines. We were the first to enter and enjoyed poking around the stairways, rooftop walkways, and various rooms and exhibits with very few others. Good timing too, because as we made our way down and out there were several large groups working their way up to the bell tower.
Our original plans for the trip through Spain included Vigo on the west coast, but the transportation just didn’t work out. So, faced with a need to find a way to get to Porto we came across a private tour where a driver would take us! It was only a little more than the other options and took way less time. There was an option to add a “tour” and Dan signed us up for the stop at the town of Cuidad Rodrigo. It was perfect! Marta was friendly, knowledgeable, and was almost s excited we were going to Porto (her home town) as we were.
On the drive to reach Ciudad Rodrigo we passed so many more nesting storks. I started pointing out the ones I saw and Marta, our delightful Portugese driver, was so impressed that when I dubbed myself “stork spotter” she agreed! Dan mumbled something along the lines: they can’t be storks, there aren’t anywhere near enough babies…
We took the high speed train from Barcelona to Madrid, and it was fast! With only 2 short stops, the trip was easy. It helped that I took advantage of the onboard free wifi to put up a blog post. What a great way to travel, too bad we can’t do that in the US because a train like that to Pittsburgh or Indianapolis would allow me to really annoy some of my favorite family members!
We arrived to a rainy Madrid a few hours before we could check in to our accommodations, so we decided to store our bags and check out some of the city. There was a place to store bags a few hundred meters from the station, so we headed over stash our stuff. The whole thing was automated, just select the size locker you need (S,M,L), choose how many hours, a locker magically opens and they email you the code you need to open it with later. Easy peasy! Again, why isn’t this a thing in the US?
We wandered away from the train station and found ourselves near the botanical garden, which those of you who remember the posts from Australia and New Zealand know we are susceptible to, but it was closed for some event. We carried on and found a large city park and spent time wandering there. It was lovely.
We stayed in the “Times Square of Madrid” full of theaters, neon billboards, shops, and action. It was located near many of the highlights of old Madrid, so it was a great, if noisy, location! We inquired at the i-Site (tourist information center) about the Hop on Hop off bus on Saturday but they advised that we should avoid it on Saturday due to a “labor demonstration” and on Sunday for the Madrid Marathon. So, we just started wandering around. We ended up in a local market and decided to buy some cheese and wine at a booth. While waiting in line a man asked me something in rapid fire Spanish. At my befuddled look, he immediately asked me in un-accented English if I was in line. I said yes and then asked him to repeat slowly which he did. He asked where I was from, and then because I said Ohio, he admitted to being from Indianapolis! He said he usually says Chicago because it’s easier. Nice Midwestern chat ensued where I learned he had followed a woman to Madrid (and introduced me to the 6ish year old result of that who was with him). Small world indeed.
The next few days we walked around Madrid, took the Hop on Hop off, found some “outside the tourist district” neighborhoods for low key, yummy food. We also learned that sometimes you need to pre buy the tickets! Oh well, we will just have to go back to Madrid so we can tour the palace next time!
We departed our ocean going transport early on Easter Sunday and made our way to our hotel in Barcelona. The hotel, located right on Las Ramblas, was in the heart of the tourist district. This proved to be a good base to wander the city. As our room was not ready, we left our bags and moseyed up Las Ramblas to see what was there. We came across the Hop on Hop off bus and bought a 2 day ticket. That way we could use day one to get the lay of the land and day two to see the major highlights.
The tour allowed us to figure out where various places were, what was walkable versus what wasn’t, and see what things were crowded by mid afternoon. One intriguing area, Montjuic, had a cable car, a castle, a park, the Olympic Stadium, and huge lines by 2 pm. So, we made a plan to be on the early bus and get off there, tomorrow! The plan worked, the cable car line had not really started, and the castle was not yet overrun when we got there the next morning.
We enjoyed a variety of views from the castle and learned that it began as a look out station, but when the city was attacked the defenders were able to quickly fortify it from a land attack and it became a major player in up to, and including the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s and World War II.
We took the cable car back down to the station, which is about half way up the mountain, and started to walk the rest of the way down. We entered a park and meandered along various paths, mostly just making sure we were going more down than up.
Our goal was to reach the bottom of the path near a plaza with a large fountain so we could hop in the bus to head back closer to our hotel. As we did that, it became apparent the fountain was really part of a series of water features we would see in our trek down.
We went to see La Segruda Familia, which is the building Gaudy devoted decades of his life to designing, and which continues to be constructed over 100 years after his death. There is a lot going on at the site, both visually and physically. It is worth looking the place up, and I am not up to the task of really explaining. We didn’t take a tour as the crowds were more than we wanted to interact with.
The beautiful weather of the first few days gave way to more cloudy skies and some rain, but we were able to see a fair amount on foot and took a morning to visit the Maritime museum. The museum is housed in a building that had been the Naval ship yard and in continuous use for 600 years. The displays were amazing and the building itself definitely worth the visit.
Each of these beautiful coastal cities likely deserves it’s own post, but since our behavior in each was so similar I worry that folks might get confused about which one they are reading!
We made port in Málaga on the Thursday of Easter week and were warned to be aware of an Easter Procession that might impact how long it would take to make it back. The main procession was scheduled for 5 pm, but folks were already lining up near the port at 9 am, many of the main roads were closed and people were pouring in to the city center as Dan and I began our meandering exploration. We spotted a castle high on a hill overlooking town and headed that direction.
The city was bustling and had a very holiday vibe, even early in the day. We continued to climb on a nicely laid out path with several good places to stop and “enjoy the view” (take a break from the climbing). As we neared the top, we heard a marching band from below and noticed a grouping of boats near where the crowd had been gathering earlier. The many trees lining in the park that went along side the main street kept us from seeing the parade, but is was well attended!
We arrived at the end of the trail and the signs said the castle was a twenty minute climb up the hill. Dan joked that we’d already made a big climb, so we might as well buy the combination ticket to see both the fort and the castle! We spent a fun 40 minutes or so poking around the stone fortifications, parade grounds and in the big hall looking at the armor and uniforms. We also took advantage of the small cafe to enjoy a really good lunch of a queso bocadillo, a small baguette type loaf of really good bread and delicious cheese melted on it.
After out lunch we felt energized enough to head the 20 minutes up hill to the castle! We started looking for the path to take, but it wasn’t very well marked. I took my little tourist map over to the security guard and asked how to get to the castle. She gave me a strange look and I was worried I might have to try in Spanish which wasn’t going to be much of an improvement. Then she pointed down the hill and said we should tour the fort next. Yep, we had no clue which big stone structure was which!
Back down the path we went. Sure was a lot easier than we anticipated! The fort was right in town, surrounded by a bustling neighborhood and overlooking a Roman Theatre archeological site. The Fort actually seemed a bit fancier and more livable than the castle.
During the day we heard and saw a few parrots, including several flying by with branches which seemed pretty big-the nests must be impressive!
Alicante – another hilly walk up to the castle!
We landed in Alicante on Good Friday and there was going to be some big to do at the Cathedral, but apparently no traffic impacting processions.
From the port we could see a hilltop fortification and Dan has a theory about forts which means we usually visit. They always have a good view. So off we went to find a way up the hill. Walking along the beach we saw a large queue of folks taking over the sidewalk near where we thought the path began. Ugh, maybe the castle/fort is too popular. As we approached we found out it was to take the elevators to the castle. We put on our intrepid attitudes and kept walking.
We followed some steep and winding streets, saw some stairs and a few other other tourists obviously trying to do the same as us. Finally one of the other folks started up the steps as if they knew the way so, with a shrug, we followed. The city has a nice park that is really just a well structured path with various plazas and resting places at the switchbacks that delivers you to the castle.
The castle was very crowded, but Dan was right, the views were amazing! There were several buildings still standing and the walls were still very protective!
As we worked our way back to the ship we ran in to a couple from Cornwall in the UK. As we stood chatting they mentioned they had made their way up to the castle the day before. They also had a crowd and the gentleman admitted that he had had his pocket picked while there. He had a good attitude about it though, he had lost some cash and had to cancel a credit card, but he “could still buy a drink” with the Euros left in his pocket. They also recommended the converted convent where they were staying and hoped we got as good a room as they did if we made it back there. Just another one of those lovely, random interactions that add something special to your travels.
Madeira is an island off of the coast of North Africa and is a self governing region of Portugal. It is also a really pretty place. There were spring flowers in bloom and lots of great views, especially if you went up the steep streets. You’ll have to trust me on the views, apparently I enjoyed them so much I didn’t take a photo.
We had several fun retail experiences as we meandered through the streets of the main part of town. We stopped at one shop with lots of souvenirs and an older gentleman sitting near the front. I greeted him with “bom dia” (good morning) and looked around. There was a lot of stuff and most of it was very nice, but we are terrible tourists and seldom buy things. As I left, I said “obrigada!” (Thank you). He then began to tell me something he seemed to think I should know. Alas, I had to admit that my Portugese did not extend much past the meager greetings I had recently offered. He smiled, and told me we should check out the basement where we could taste Madeira, sweet cakes and chocolate. It was pretty early in the day, so we continued on our walk.
As we worked our way through town we found a bustling two story market. Part of the reason it was bustling was there were two cruise ships in town and it was easily accessed from the port. In addition, the Easter holidays were underway so there were a lot of tourists enjoying the beautiful weather. It was a regular market that also catered to tourists and had an eclectic collection of items. One very enterprising salesperson plied us with samples of dried fruit, flowers, and nuts. She was pretty good at her job and we left with a bag of dried hibiscus flowers.
After that, I convinced Dan to head back to the first little shop and try some of the fortified wine named for the island. I have always thought Madeira was a sweet wine, but it is a fortified wine, Port is another example of fortified wine, the fermentation is stopped and more alcohol is added. We got there, selected some postcards and an older woman, I assume the wife of the man from our earlier stop, counted them out and carefully wrote the total on a scrap of paper and pointed me to my friend from earlier. He collected our payment with a smile. We asked if the wine tasting was still happening and he sent us down with his lovely assistant.
She poured us tastes of both sweet and dry Madeira to compare. They were sufficiently enjoyable that we purchased a bottle of the dry. With no idea how to determine what we got, we are assuming it was a pretty middle of the road option. We will likely try some more in the future. There was also Madeira Cake. I asked what is was and the response was “like Christmas cake” which I took to mean fruit cake. I took a little slice and it was pretty yummy and a good fruitcake. It is also known as cane sugar syrup cake we learned later. Yes, we bought some chocolate, yes it was good.
We are taking a cruise ship to Europe. Repositioning cruises can be a bargain and are a fun way get somewhere. We like the slow aspect because it helps you understand how far you’re really going.
Our first port of call was Bermuda. We took the free boat ride from the port to the other end of the Island to see St. George. While we didn’t go up to the fort, we enjoyed walking around the area.
Unfortunately most of the museums here have not resumed regular hours; so I will have to learn about the history of the area, including the role Bermuda played in the US Civil War, some other time. As good a reason to return as any, I guess.
The people here are very nice! As Dan and I walked along a street we got into single file so the car coming at us would have plenty of room as the streets are pretty narrow. Then we realized we were crossing the drive to the lot they wanted to turn into. We gave the “sorry” wave and hustled along. They smiled and told us “you’re fine, have a great day in Bermuda!”
It was an overnight stop so we had a second day to explore the Royal Naval Dockyards which are the cruiseport. It includes an old fort which is now a museum. Learned about how Bermuda was “discovered” and how important it was for the British in maintaining their colonization in the US. Nothing on the Civil War though, so my excuse to return remains, phew!
The fort was built primarily with convict labor as the British were very fond of this source of free labor. Even after outlawing prison labor in the 1850s, the Fort was still used as a prison of some sort through the Boer War which ended in 1902. The display on the use as a prison was very informative and included reports from both the people imprisonered there and the officers in charge. The difference in perspective was stark.
Having the time to travel by ship is one of the things we love about our life! We boarded the NCL Epic today and will spend the next two weeks working our way to Spain! We will be disconnected during most of that time, but the posts will resume once we leave the ship in mid-April!