October 30, 2012 – Jerez, Spain

Today is a great day. We have a really enjoyable activity and we manage to find a good meal at a time when we are actually hungry.

Before we left for Spain, I booked tickets at the Real Escuela Andaluza del Arte Ecuestre or Royal Andalusian School for Equestrian Art. We get to see a show, “The Dancing Horses of Andalusia” and tour the grounds.

The grounds are lovely with a palace that houses a museum, stables, training area, a saddlery and the show ring.

Grounds of the Royal Equestrian School

On the grounds they have an enclosure for Przewalski’s horses. Przewalski’s horses are the only existing wild horses and are native to the Mongolian steppes. The horses that exist are all from 9 horses that were in captivity in 1945. They were reintroduced into the wild in their native habitat and there are now about 300 in the wild and a total population of about 1500.

Przewalski’s horse

From there we walk over to the saddlery and watch craft people work the saddles and harnesses by hand.

Saddlery

We also take a couple of “we were here” pictures. As you can see it is still wet out. It was pouring earlier in the morning but has improved since then.

John


Mary

Then we are treated to a training session. The horse is put through its paces. There are lots of dressage steps. The rider does not appear to be doing much but a shift in weight or a slight change of her hands and the horse responds.

Trainer working with an Andalusian horse


One of the gaits


In the exhibition ring we are not allowed to take any pictures after the horses arrive. We understand but it would have been fabulous to have some of this incredible show recorded. We see all the different steps the horses can do with a rider on them. We see the horses (without riders) rear, rear and step, and rear and them kick out their back legs. We see a whole carriage exhibition with carriages with one, three and four horses. The complexity of controlling all these horses seems immense. The driver has all these reins and must, when making turns, have the outside horses go faster and the inside horses slow down. We really enjoy the show.

Exhibition building


Show ring


Later we decide that what would be best for us is to eat a late lunch and skip dinner. Eating at 9 PM or later is just not for us. We locate an Italian restaurant that appears to be open until 4PM and walk the mile to the restaurant through the pouring rain (again!) We are rewarded with salad! and pasta! We are so happy to eat fairly plain food in a relaxed situation at a reasonable time. This an altogether good day despite the rain.

Salad!


Pasta!

October 29, 2012 – Jerez and Gibraltar

One of the goals of this trip is to look out from the top of Gibraltar and wave at Africa. Africa, a continent that we have no intention of going to ever. But we would like to gaze upon it from afar. When we wake up in Seville this morning we check the weather for the next few days at Gibraltar. It is not looking good. Today appears to be our best bet in terms of clear weather.

After driving to Jerez and dropping off our luggage, we drive the one and half hours to Gibraltar. As we near “the rock” we are impressed by its enormous size. According to Wikipedia the Rock of Gibraltar is a monolithic promontory. It is a deeply eroded and highly faulted limb of an overturned fold. The sedimentary strata comprising the Rock of Gibraltar are overturned (upside down) with the oldest strata overlying the youngest. The sandy spit of land that connects it to Europe is only 9 feet above sea level while the “Rock” at its highest is 1398 feet. So the difference is striking.

Here are a series of pictures as we approached it.

Gibraltar looming ahead


Getting closer


The buildings at the bottom are high-rise hotels and apartment buildings

Here are a couple of pictures showing where we are going. You can see the cable car stanchions at top.

Cable car stanchions at top


The top of Gibraltar

After a few arguments with each other and Jack, we finally pull into the cable car parking lot and make our way to the ticket booth. Oh, sorry, Americans who have come all the way from California to see this and wave at Africa, too much wind today. Cable car not operating.

Sadly we turn around, fight through all the other tourists at the border crossing back into Spain and drive the hour and a half back to Jerez. It is just not meant to be.

We sit stopped amidst the other tourists waiting to get back into Spain.

October 28, 2012 – Seville, Spain

Today we are touring several sites in Seville. First on our agenda is a visit to the Museum of Fine arts. In the afternoon we are meeting our guide, Antonio, for a tour of the city. First the art museum.

The Fine Arts Museum houses a collection of mainly Spanish visual arts from the medieval period to the early 20th century, including a large group of works by artists from the golden age of Sevillian painting during the 17th century. The building itself is housed in what was originally home to a convent. Many such buildings became available for civic use after the shuttering of religious monasteries and convents between 1835 and 1837.

Last Supper by Alonso Vazquez

After our time at the Fine Arts Museum, we make our way to the square in front of the Giralda Tower and the Cathedral to meet up with our guide, Antonio. We stand around for 40 minutes until 2pm watching people and horse-drawn carriages. A bride and groom are having photos taken. This would seem to be a pretty uncomfortable proposition as the wind is blowing briskly.

Mary in the plaza


Giralda Tower – doesn’t Antonio know that we will be super early?

Senor Antonio arrives pretty close to schedule. We start with the Alcazar, originally a Moorish fortress/palace located right next to the main mosque (later re-built as Seville’s cathedral). The original Moorish palace was reworked in the 14th century by the re-conquering Spanish king Peter I. Since the majority of skilled craftsmen of the time were Muslim, they mostly preserved the Islamic style of tile decoration: intricate geometry and calligraphic Koranic verses. These are interspersed with occasional symbols of Spanish royalty.

Old city wall near entrance of Alcazar

Front facade of palace

One of the most curious of these was the “Plus Ultra” motif. Originally, the motto was “Ne Plus Ultra”: Nothing Beyond Here. This referred to Spain as being the western end of the known world. Then came the discovery of the Americas, with the entire Spanish effort sailing in and out of Seville (which became incredibly rich in the process), so the motto was quickly re-written as “Plus Ultra”: More Beyond Here.

Not the end of the world

Antonio advances a theory that the sign for the US dollar was based on this phrase, snaking around two columns symbolizing the Pillars of Hercules used to adorn the first coinage in the new world.

We view many magnificent rooms and gardens and then proceed to the old Jewish Quarter, the Juderia. Back in the era of Moorish Al-Andalus, the rulers kept their bankers and merchants just beyond the palace walls. This persisted through the early reconquista until 1492, when the Jews were expelled from Spain and the neighborhood was renamed Santa Cruz.

Picturesque view of the Giralda Tower from the Juderia

Notable residents of Santa Cruz included the legendary Don Juan, the opera composer Rossini (who wrote the Barber of Seville), the painter Murillo, and US ambassador Washington Irving. There are many beautiful small squares: lots of restaurants, churches and flamenco establishments. Antonio tells us that, unlike many European cities, the old section of Seville is a very prestigious address.

Don John and Don Juan


A square in the Juderia decked out for Don Juan night, October 31. Young men dressed as Don Juan come and sing to young women standing on the balconies. Then they all go to a big party at midnight.

[One of the cool things in Santa Cruz was the modern trash collection system. High-tech trash bins are connected to an underground vacuum system that sucks trash out to a central collection point 2km away. The streets are so narrow that garbage trucks would be impossible.]

We proceed on to the Cathedral. It’s the third-largest in the world, after St. Peter’s in Rome and St. Paul’s in London. At the time of its initial construction in 1434 it was the largest house of worship in the western world (larger than Hagia Sophia in Istanbul), and still the largest Gothic church anywhere. The planners wanted it to be so big that anyone who came to Seville would remark that the builders had to be crazy.

The Cathedral was built over the earthquake-ruined (1356) main mosque, whose most notable feature, the minaret, became (with suitable modification) the Giralda tower, the symbol of Seville, about 300 feet tall.

The interior is indeed huge. We pray for someplace to sit, and lo and behold, there are pews! We see dozens of side chapels and some really ornate silver and gold work. A highlight is the tomb of Christopher Columbus, who in 1492 set sail from Seville in order to celebrate Columbus Day on a warm Caribbean island.

A view of the cathedral’s choir


Christopher Columbus tomb

It’s been an awesome two and a half hours. We thank Antonio, say adios, and make our way to the strategically-placed taxi ranks just beyond the courtyard’s exit. We are beat, but totally enamored with Seville. What a beautiful city!

October 27, 2012 Caceres to Seville, Spain

On our way out of Caceres we stop at Cuevas de Maltravieso. These caves were inhabited by humans some 25,000 years ago. There is a small interpretive center (all in Spanish), a mock-up of a cave, and you can see the outside of the cave itself. The paintings consist mostly of negative hand prints. Some show various numbers of fingers.

John at Cuevas de Maltravieso

Then we are off through the beautiful countryside to Seville. We try to figure out what kind of trees are growing in the area. The tress seem to be non-deciduous and low in form but are darker in color than olive trees – maybe oak for cork or acorns for the various livestock we see grazing under the trees?

Spanish countryside

After some trouble finding the hotel thanks to Jack once again getting us close but not to the hotel, we make our way to our room. The Hotel Silken Al-Andalus is outside the old town but close by. It is a little worn. I think it is limping along due to its being a venue for weddings and events. Our room is large but lacks such things as tissues or a clock. We are told that the wifi is broken due to rain. (It is not fixed during our stay.) Since it is late in the afternoon and we have not eaten since breakfast, we hit the cafe for some tapas.

Our room at Hotel Al-Andalus

We also check out the menu of the restaurant. Item three has an odd salad. I think we are done eating for the day. I am, in any case, still trying to get over my case of the “travelers complaint.”

I think I will pass up the “salad of germs”

There is quite a bit of noise outside our window. We look out upon a giant soccer stadium. It is filling up quickly. The Seville team, Bettis, is playing Valencia.

The big game

We can follow the action by hearing the cheers and groans of the crowd. It seems like one of the main activities is singing. The crowd knows many team songs and sings them in unison. I guess since there is little scoring in soccer it keeps them involved. Seville Bettis wins and the crowd disperses happily. As quiet settles in, we retire early reading books and planning the next day’s activities.

Actual scoring and not just a penalty kick at the end!

October 26, 2012 – Dinner at Atrio, Caceres, Spain

It is just good fortune that we are able to get a reservation at Atrio. We turn left out of our hotel and there it is. We go in and ask if there is a reservation available for Friday evening. Sorry, no, they say but they take our name in case there is a cancellation. Around 1:30 PM the phone rings in the room. They have had a reservation cancellation and what time we would like to come? Not being Spanish we say 9:00 PM. Excellent the person on the phone says. We open at 8:30 PM.

John and I get dressed in our “good outfits” and head over to the restaurant around 9. Amazingly we are not the first people there. One other table is populated. Soon another large group of Americans comes in and then some Spaniards start to drift in. By 10 PM the restaurant is full.

Tonio, the chef, comes over to our table. He wants to know what we like and do not like. Are we allergic to anything? We decide on the tasting menu and he sends the sommelier over. We decide to have him pair the fish dishes with a regional white wines and the meatier dishes with a regional red wine. We sit back with a glass of champagne ready for our culinary adventure.

This is perhaps the best meal we have ever eaten.

First is an amuse bouche. This consists of a red meringue cookie with caviar sandwiched in between. It is so fleeting and light that it is difficult to assess.

Meringue cookie with caviar

Tapas #1 is a small square consisting of layers of pate of fish, cream cheese, and anchovy on top. The textural element is hazelnut and there is a microgreen and a chrysanthemum petal on it. It is very good.

(Sorry for the blurriness) Tapas #1

Tapas #2 is one of the best small bites I have ever eaten. It is described as foie capuccino with mushrooms and crispy corn. What it is is a small cup of deliciousness. It is kind of a mushroom and corn pudding with foie gras and parmesan foam. It is served in an espresso cup. I want to lick out the inside of the little cup. Wow.

Tapas #2 Foie capuccino probably the most delicious thing of the evening

Having now been spoiled by the tapas, what else could measure up? Maybe this next course could. It is shrimp carpaccio with a sour cream and caviar salad.

Shrimp carpaccio with microgreens,sour cream and caviar

The tapas and the shrimp carpaccio are served with a Payva Caytena 2010.

We change white wines to an Alunado Chardonnay 2009. The wine has a start like a buttery California chardonnay and finishes more like a French chardonnay. We like it a lot.

Our next small dish is an Iberian pork ear, calamari, green salad and curry. The texture of the pork ear mimics the texture of the squid. This dish is in close running for the best dish with the foie capuccino.

Iberian pork ear, squid, salad and a touch of curry

The next dish consists of an Iberian pork cheek crisp and a lagoustine in a creamy duck sauce. Maybe this is the best dish. Oh, it is all so good.

Iberian pork cheek crisp, langoustine, duck broth/sauce

Now we change wines to a Basangus Crianza 2008 which is 100% tempranillo. It is paired with sea bass in a sauce with three varieties of wild mushrooms. This is good but not as fabulous as the other dishes or maybe I am just getting full. In any case I forget to take a picture.

The final dish before the cheese and dessert courses is pork shoulder, grilled foie gras, corn crisp and watercress puree and peach sauce. In his note John has written – Why foie? Because it is delicious. We cannot identify the peach sauce so it must be irrelevant to this dish.

Pork shoulder, grilled foie gras, corn crisp and watercress puree


John dutifully taking notes during dinner

The cheese course consists of a sheep cheese torte and sheep cheese ice cream with quince marmelade. I am definitely not a fan of the sheep cheese ice cream.

Weird cheese course

With dessert we have a M.R. Montain Wine – Moscatel 2009. It is sweet and bitter kind of like the taste of burnt sugar on a creme brulee.

Dessert is yougurt ice cream on grated cocoa. It’s okay but I am not a dessert fan.

Dessert

The dessert star, in my opinion is an astonishing faux cherry with faux seeds and a chocolate stem. It was palate cleansing and a perfect final bite.

Faux cherry

But of course they couldn’t stop there and we had a bunch of petit fours that we didn’t eat. The cherry was the perfect end.

Petit fours

So there you have it, an almost perfect, fabulous dinner.

October 26, 2012 – Caceres, Spain

At 8:15 AM this morning it is still very dark outside. Standard time begins this weekend and I am sure that the people of Caceres are ready for it. We will be enjoying an extra hour of sleep. Even though we have gotten past jetlag, we are still doing more each day with more stress than at home. So sleep, good.

The hotel breakfast is quite impressive. There are tortillas (like frittatas), a haunch of ham to slice from and all the other things one might want at breakfast. There’s also a cup of breadcrumbs, a specialty around here. We are not sure what you are supposed to do with it. Finishing breakfast we head out for the day’s sights. It is still intermittently spitting rain. We go first to the Tourist Information Office where a very enthusiastic worker gives us the lowdown on everything to see. With map in hand we start out.

Mary in front of the parador


The little street in front of the parador


One of the many towers of Caceres

First thing on our agenda is to go to the Caceres Museum. Cacares has been inhabited for a long time, a very long time. There are paleolithic artifacts in the museum, as well as Roman artifacts, Visigoth artifacts, etc. We are able to trace the ages from Stone Age to Iron Age by what the peoples left behind. Tomorrow we plan on visiting the caves of prehistoric peoples. It’s only a twenty minute walk from the hotel. The cistern beneath the museum is a leftover from the Arab occupation in the 12th century. There’s also an art museum attached with Picassos and other notable works of art.

Arab cistern, second largest in Europe after the one in Istanbul


Sculptures that I liked in the beaux-arts section of the museum

Since I am not feeling particularly well today, we make lots of stops back at the hotel. After a short period at the hotel we are back out on the streets. Our next stop is at the Cathedral of the Virgin Mary. We are greeted at the door by a gentleman telling us a lot of stuff in Spanish. We get from what he says that the fee is 1 euro and that the tower is open. What we don’t get is that the rest of the cathedral is draped in plastic and there is major work going on. So there is not too much to see. We do have a good time, though, going up to the bell tower.

Cathedral Santa Maria


Not too much to see inside


Bell and view from the tower


The Gong Show

We spend some time walking along the walls and then repair back to the hotel for siesta. I have got to feel better for tonight as we have booked a table at the Michelin two star restaurant, Atrio. (separate post)

The star gate, one of the many along the walls


Little lane along the wall. We might have driven down here yesterday while looking for our hotel.

October 25, 2012 – Getting to Caceres, Spain

As it turns out the weather and the traffic are not cooperating. What should have been a four hour drive with a stop in Estremoz, the city of marble, turns out to be a six hour trip through massive traffic in Lisbon and howling wind and rain the rest of the way. We also lose an hour due the time change between Portugal and Spain. Our only stop is at a roadside eatery where we have a surprisingly good bean and vegetable soup. One of the highlights of the day is crossing the Vasco da Gama bridge in Lisbon.

The sail-like cable-stay piers give the Vasco da Gama bridge the impression of a large Portuguese caravel

We arrive at our next destination, Caceres, Spain, late in the afternoon. We are staying at a parador here. According to Wikipedia the Paradores de Turismo de España are a chain of Spanish luxury hotels. Paradores de Turismo was founded by Alfonso XIII of Spain as a means to promote tourism in Spain, with the first opening in Gredos, Ávila, in 1928. A profitable state-run enterprise, the hotels are often in castles, palaces, fortresses, convents, monasteries and other historic buildings. Of course this means that they are often in the rabbit warren of narrow lanes in the city centers. Parador de Caceres is no exception.

We are directed to find a plaza with some bollards at one end. Then we must use the intercom to ask that the bollards be lowered. Once inside the bollards we must locate the hotel. Jack, our GPS, gets us close but decides we have reached our destination without the hotel being in sight. Round and round we go trying to find the hotel. No luck. John asks directions twice. People are helpful but do not speak English. We can only glean what they are saying by where they are pointing. Finally, by accident, we come across the correct set of bollards. At last we find the hotel. We are pretty stressed out.

The hotel is in a palace refurbished as a hotel. Our room is very nice and looks out over the tiny lane that the hotel fronts. We have some tapas and wine and fall asleep early exhausted from the day’s adventures.

Our room at the Parador de Caceres


View from our tiny balcony

October 24, 2012 – Sintra, Portugal

Today started out quite rainy. When we got to Sintra it was really pouring. We were looking to visit the Palacio Pena and it turned out we were in the wrong place. Rather than dodge raindrops again we decided to tour the National Palace built in the early 15th century. Later in the day we found the Palacio Pena and took a tour of that as well. Here are pictures, first of the National Palace and then of the Palacio Pena.

The National Palace might be called the Palace of ceilings. This room is called the swan room…


because the ceiling is covered with swans.


Here’s John swanning about by the fireplace.


Next we pass the water grotto. Actually today almost any space outside is a water grotto.


Next is the magpie room because…


the ceiling is covered with magpies.


Here’s the Gold Chamber. It has a king-size bed made for an actual king!


Then there’s the mermaid room with mermaids on the ceiling.


This is the Galleon Room with ships painted on its interesting barrel ceiling.


Here are two of the ships on the ceiling of the Galleon Room. John points out that the flag on the righthand ship has a flag like the modern flag of Turkey (but Turkey didn’t exist when the room was decorated.)


John has just smacked his head on a low lintel but he continues to take notes. This is the Coat-of-Arms ceiling. John is happy that this ceiling is vaulted.


We continue along through many sumptuous rooms and finally end up in the kitchen.


They are obviously cooking for a crowd.

It has stopped raining as we finish our tour of the National Palace. We decide to continue our original quest and find the Palacio Pena. We drive up and up to the top of a high hill. Along the way we pass many folks tramping up the hill. We decide they must be Germans. We park as close to the top as we can. What’s this? For 2 Euros each we can get a bus the rest of the way? Why, yes, we will buy those tickets along with an audio tour of the Palacio Pena.

By this time it is around 2 PM. We decide to avoid the bad food at lunch problem by not eating. 🙁

The Pena Palace was built in the 19th century by Ferdinand II. It was only occupied by royalty for about 60 years. In 1908 King Carlos I and his son were assassinated. King Carlos’s other son was only king for two years before the republic of Portugal was declared. The palace itself evokes a feeling of Neuschwanstein in Germany, kind of a crazy quilt of turrets and tile. No pictures were allowed inside.

Approaching Palacio Pena


Entrance to the Palacio


John on the rampart looking toward the Moorish ruins

The triton, a transitional figure between sea and earth


A view of Palacio Pena

We are looking forward to dinner tonight. Our plan is to have some bar snacks and a couple of tapas plates. This works out fine except for the fact that the World Real Estate Agents have taken over the bar. They appear to all be American. The waiter in the bar leads us to the dining side of the floor since it is much quieter there. He calls us by name. That’s really nice. We were only in the bar one night and only ordered wine and tapas. We order a glass of champagne to celebrate our last night in Portugal and tapas. Portugal has been scenic and interesting from a historical point of view. We only wish that either we had ordered better or that the food that we ordered had been better. One stop tomorrow in Portugal and then on to Spain.

This has been a great hotel. One more shot of the stormy Atlantic Ocean off our balcony.

Atlantic Ocean waves crashing on the rocks in Cascais, Portugal

October 23, 2012 – Lisbon, Portugal

Today we are spending in Lisbon. We get some help from the nice lady at the front desk who lists our five visiting sites on a map and explains how we can get there. Since we are driving we are always afraid we will end up with no parking at our destinations. She assures us that all will be fine and we start off.

We drive along the shore of the Tagus River to the Torre de Belem. From here you can see the entrance to the port of Lisbon. It is a wonderful natural harbor which was guarded in part by the tower completed in 1519. There is also a modern bridge spanning the river that I am definitely not walking over.

The 25th of April bridge built by the same engineering firm as the Oakland Bay Bridge and Christ the King statue overlooking Lisbon.


The Torre de Belem guarding the entrance to the harbor

In the same park with the tower is a replica of the seaplane that flew from Lisbon to Rio (with many stops for refueling) in 1922.

Seaplane that crossed the Atlantic in 1922

Now we take a longish walk over to the Monument of Discovery. Both John and I have always wanted to see this. It was built in 1960 so we had heard about it as middle-schoolers. It honors Prince Henry the Navigator and the Portuguese explorers of the late 15th and early 16th centuries.

Prince Henry along with Barolomeo Deos, first to go around the Cape of Good Hope and venture into the Indian Ocean, Vasco da Gama, first to sail to India and Pedro Cabral, discoverer of Brazil


My favorite picture, Prince Henry the Navigator


John and the monument

From the top of the monument we can see our next destination. It is the Monastery of St. Jerome.

The Monastery of St. Jerome executed in Manueline style

Inside the church is the tomb of Vasco da Gama.

Tomb of Vasco da Gama

After a lunch break for some more bad food we head off to the Museum of Ancient Art. John and I collaborate on a truly excellent job of parallel parking. I never cease to be amazed at how adept Europeans are at fitting their small cars into tiny spaces. We are quite proud of ourselves.

Mary in front of Musuem of Ancient Art

By ancient art, they mean painting from the 14th century onward. We spend some enjoyable time looking at early renaissance paintings and identifying various saints. Our favorite is Hieronymus Bosch’s Temptation of St. Anthony. Bosch had a very fertile imagination and his paintings are full of weird creatures.

Hieronymus Bosch’s Temptation of St. Anthony

Now the not-so-good lunch is catching up with me and we are getting tired. We have done a ton of walking today. We decide to head back to the hotel. We spend some time catching up on the blogs and tracking down our laundry that we had sent out yesterday. Only part of it came back. Two pairs of my pants are missing as well as one of John’s shirts. This would be disastrous for me because I only have one other pair of pants. John and the housekeeping lady try communicating in various languages, they settle on some German. The laundry is found. Hurray!

Our dinner will consist of some tapas in the bar. We are not prepared to spend big bucks on iffy food. Along with some bread and olives we order marinated swordfish. We expect this to be a cerviche-like preparation. It comes out breaded and fried like fish sticks. Sigh.

John in the bar


Tapas of bread, cheese, ham and olives

October 22, 2012 – Coimbra and Cascais, Portugal

Today is a busy day. We want to visit Coimbra plus drive over 300 kilometers to our next hotel in Cascais. And it is threatening to rain. But stalwart adventurers that we are, we get it all done.

Bidding a fond farewell to to Amarante with its penis cookies, we hit the road through mist, fog, rain, pouring rain and sunshine to Coimbra. Originally a Roman city, Conimbriga was plundered by invading Germanic tribes in the 400s AD, occupied by the Moors in 711, and reconquered by Ferdinand I of Leon in 1064. In the mid-12th century it became the first capital of the new kingdom of Portugal. The University of Coimbra, whose team is known as the Hilltoppers (just kidding), was founded in 1290 in Lisbon and found a permanent home in Coimbra in 1537. It is high above the Mondego River and gives its students and visitors a real workout getting up to the libe. (Rutgers slang for library)

The U of Coimbra atop the hill

But before we visit the University with its magnificent library, we want to see the old cathedral. We find a parking lot with spaces so narrow that you are sweating before you even start to climb the hill. From the parking lot you cross the bridge and then begin the trek upward, sometimes on slanted cobbled stones and sometimes on giant stone steps. By the time we get to the top we are sweaty and out of breath. Wondering which way to go next, we look up and there is the cathedral. It is constructed in a golden stone and glows in the few moments of sun today.

The old cathedral in Coimbra was begun in the mid 12th century but experienced many renovations. The portal of the cathedral has Moorish influenced decorations. The exterior has fortress-like elements.

Moorish decorative elements


Exterior defensive windows and crenalated top

We go inside and are treated to an interior much as it would have been in the 16th century. It boasts a flamboyant Gothic altarpiece.

Flamboyant Gothic altarpiece

After enjoying our visit to the church and catching our breath from the incredibly steep climb up the hill, we move on to the University area. Our goal is to see the Biblioteca Joanina built in the 18th century during the reign of the Portuguese King João V. It is a fabulous result of form meeting function. The three rooms are tiered with ornate shelving holding 250,000 volumes of great historical value.

Old University plaza


John with King Joao


Mary with Coimbra landscape


Biblioteca Joanina


Interior of Biblioteca Joanina – We are not allowed to take pictures so this is one I got off the internet

Interesting factoid about the library, since this building was designed to be a library from the beginning, the walls are incredibly thick making the interior temperature and humidity perfect for books. Plus since insects are also the enemy of books, they have bats living in the library who patrol the space at night for insects. The tables are covered with leather so that the bat droppings can be easily disposed of. John suggests that guano duty is an undergraduate’s nightmare.

Next on the agenda, a little lunch. We opt for an outdoor cafe and against Portuguese food. We have a small margarita pizza and beer. The added Portuguese touch to the pizza? Olives with pits.

John and beer at lunch

The rest of the drive to Cascais takes a little over two hours. We are staying at the former home of the last Italian king which has been turned into a hotel. The room and bathroom are really nice. (Yay, real shower) But the best part is the view which looks out on the Atlantic Ocean. I am treated to a sunset over the Atlantic Ocean which is weird for someone from the Jersey shore.

Nice room


Great bathroom


Fabulous view!

[The reason there are so many pictures in this post is that the upload speed is lightning fast. After our last stop where I would go to breakfast hoping that my five pictures might upload by the time I got back, this is a real pleasure. I could not control my desire to upload a ton of pictures.]

October 21, 2012 – Amarante – Dinner at Largo da Paco

On our last night in Amarante we treated ourselves to a tasting menu dinner at the restaurant in the hotel, Largo da Paco. Here’s our experience –

Mary sitting with a glass of wine waiting for dinner to begin


Salud!


The first amuse bouche – lobster quenelle with pineapple, micro-greens, passionfruit and balsamic vinegar. This was too mayonnaise-y and the passionfruit was too much texture!


Second amuse bouche – mushroom ravioli in an intense seafood broth and caviar. I thought this worked best when eaten all together.


Mackerel pate, tartar and confit with roasted peppers, olives, garlic bread, tomatoes, cucumber and watercress. Served with a Vallido rose. This was pretty good.


Broad beans with bisaro pork, egg cooked 62 degrees, broth of broad beans with Portuguese sausage served with Tres Bagos sauvignon blanc 2011. I liked this except the beans were very green tasting. John thought it could have been better.

Then we had ray fish with noisette butter, banana and peanuts, bok choy, and maize with dried tomatoes served with 2010 Tiera, a white blend from Niepoort. Except for the peanut sauce this was very good. I forgot to take a picture.

Next a palate cleanser of mojito granite. They must have stolen the idea from us!

Rabbit stuffed with pistachio, mustard and herbs, celery puree, pumpkin chutney and thyme sauce served with Fagote 2008, a red blend. This was the best course of the evening. The rabbit was a little dry but was perfect with the sauce.


For dessert a pear with white wine port and spices, Portuguese cheese mousse, chocolate pie and lavender ice cream served with Rozes port white reserve. This was dessert. I am not a fan. I especially did not like the cheese mousse.

A lot of small courses. A lot of wine. We enjoyed our evening but definitely wouldn’t want to do it every night!

October 21, 2012 – Amarante, Portugal

John is tired of all the driving around so instead of heading north up twisty mountain roads we decide to stay local and see the sights in Amarante. First stop, picture in front of the hotel.

Mary in front of the hotel

We are looking forward to seeing the church of Saint Goncalo, the museum, and just generally taking a walk around town. Crossing the bridge their is a carving on the side of the church called the Madonna of the Bridge.

Madonna of the Bridge

Mass is still going on so we must postpone our visit to the church.

Church of Saint Goncalo

We walk around for a bit and then try to visit the museum. Unfortunately it has closed for lunch! People in Spain and Portugal take their lunchtimes very seriously!

Finally mass is over and we go into the church. It was built in 1543 and its interior is part renaissance and part baroque.

Interior of the Church of Saint Goncalo

As I mentioned yesterday, there are a couple of things that St. Goncalo helps with such as hemorrhoids and acne and he is also the patron saint of lovers in Amarante. In an effort to check this all out, I visited the Catholic Church’s website and found that the church is pretty skeptical of all the claims about St. Goncalo. They suggested that his biographer could have used a sobriety check. Anyway, the people of Amarante love him a lot and have a special chapel with his tomb in it.

The tomb of St. Goncalo

Giving up on the museum we head back to the hotel to get cleaned up for our fancy dinner tonight. I am really hoping it will be good. We also partake of the tea that the hotel offers around 5 PM. We are hungry from no lunch and our dinner reservation is late.

Tea at Casa da Caladas

October 20, 2012 – Porto, Portugal

After breakfast we have a big conversation with the man at reception about what we should do and how we might get into Porto without being caught in a situation of narrow streets and no parking. No problem, he says. Today is Saturday and there will be parking a-plenty at no charge. We are skeptical. He also suggests that we take a look at the Amarante market across the little stone bridge from the hotel.

Not to let the guy at the desk down, we walk across the bridge to a rather large market. Lots of clothes, shoes, gardening equipment, vegetables, fish, etc. I am, however, curious about an item I have read about in Wikipedia. It seems that Saint Goncalvo, the patron saint of Amarante, is kind of like the cupid of saints. He is also the patron saint of hemorrhoid sufferers, so kind of a multi-tasker. Anyway, on his saint day there is a big festival in Amarante with couples exchanging phallic pastries. And there they are at the Amarante market. I just could not bring myself to buy one of these giant pastries, probably at least a foot long. But I have found a picture of them on the internet that I will share.

Amarante love cookies (Pic attributed to K. Kendall)

We also enjoy looking at the octopus which has been a participant in John’s lunch. We just don’t see a big counterful of octopi at the Pleasanton farmer’s market.

Octopus at the market

Having fulfilled our duty to the deskman, we are off to Porto. We are still worried about finding a parking space but when we get there, voila, right by the cathedral there is a space. Our first stop is at the cathedral where the people inside are waiting for the bride. Maybe she got hung up in the traffic.

This cathedral, like the others we have seen on this trip, is a Romanesque fortress-like structure with crenelation above its rose window. The interior has massive pillars to hold up its stone roof with flying buttresses to help allay the weight of the roof. Using the flying buttress was a major innovation in this cathedral.

John in front of the Porto Cathedral

We wait a bit to see if the bride will show but no luck. Stopping in at Visitor Information, we find out that Porto is built mostly on a high cliff overlooking the Rio Douro. There are a lot of stairs leading down to the river’s edge. The oldest section, the Ribeira, hugs the shoreline. From there one can also access the lower bridge across the river to Vila de Gaia where the port caves are located. There is no way we want to move the car from our primo parking space so we take to the stairs.

One of the zillions of staircases leading down to the river


The bridge over the Duoro River

We decide to have some lunch before tasting some port. We stop in at a family-run restaurant and decide to try local dishes of baccala. Mine is grilled and John’s is baked and they are both horrible. I do not even take a picture. Salty, bony fish with, in my case, greasy, fried, sliced potatoes, some cooked through some raw, and pickled vegetables. John only fares a little better. Tomorrow we are planning on eating a big breakfast and skipping lunch. So far it has been a waste of euros.

As it turns out, now the port caves are closed for lunch and they only port you can get you have to pay for. I have not walked down all those stairs and crossed the scary bridge for nothing and we sit down at Sandeman’s outdoor cafe and have a glass of tawny imperial reserve. It is only three euros.

Sandeman’s cafe


Enjoying a glass of port

Later in the evening after a well-deserved nap, we look for a place for dinner. We walk around the immediate neighborhood but nothing appeals to us. We repair to the hotel bar where we have a glass of wine and split a grilled cheese sandwich. Oh, haute cuisine!

October, 19, 2012 – Viseu, Portugal

After sleeping really soundly last night, we have a nice breakfast at the hotel and are off. We leave a little later than anticipated and realize part way through today’s journey that we are going to have to omit one of our stops. We were going to stop at Guarda and Viseu, Portugal on our way to Amarante but even though we gain an hour when we enter Portugal, there just isn’t enough time. We decide our one stop will be in Viseu.

At the border between Spain and Portugal we are stopped and pulled over by the Spanish police. They are looking for people carrying more than 10,000 EUR. We explain that we only have 300 EUR but they want to look at our luggage. They go through the outside pockets of John’s suitcase. After finding only empty plastic bags (pretty suspicious) and flip flops (less suspicious), they decide we are not drug dealers, terrorists, or money launderers. They let us proceed. We are a bit shaken by this as the last time we were searched was in 1971 crossing the Canadian border. However, since John no longer sports long hair and a beard, we look a little less counter-culture. I decide that taking pictures of this episode is probably not the right thing to do.

The terrain has changed greatly. Where as yesterday we were in the Spanish plain (where quite appropriately the rain mainly fell), Portugal is ruggedly mountainous, sunshine-y and appears poorer.

We arrive in Viseu around lunchtime, negotiate scary narrow streets, find a parking space, and make our way to the cathedral and Grao Vasco Museum. The cathedral is closed for lunch but, yay, the museum is open.

John with Clark and Lewis in front of the Grao Vasco Museum

The museum houses extensive works by Vasco Fernandes, one of Portugal’s great Renaissance painters. We are pretty much followed around by security guards since we appear to be the only visitors. This makes surreptitious non-flash photo taking difficult. I am only able to snag one picture of a reliquary for Sarah (an art form she enjoys).

Reliquary

The paintings are populated by many of the Saints you see in most Renaissance works – Peter, Paul, Catherine, Sebastian, etc. The most interesting painting is in a series of works about the life of Jesus. Painted in 1502, it is of the three kings who travel to Bethlehem. The Moorish king has been replaced by an Indian from Brazil! Here only 10 years after the voyage of Columbus and a humble artist from the hinterlands of Portugal is including an Indian in his works. Discovery of the New World must have been very big news.

“We three kings of Orient are?”

With our visit to the museum completed and the cathedral still closed for lunch, we find a nearby cafe for our lunch. I try to order safely – grilled salmon with vegetables. John is more adventurous – octopus rice. I am learning that vegetables mean potatoes and a garnish of lettuce and tomatoes. The salmon is tasty but full of bones. John’s lunch consists of undercooked rice in a watery pink sauce, some tentacle slices and a bunch of shrimp looking back at him with their beady black eyes. John declares that the watery pink sauce is delicious and goes to work peeling the shrimp and sucking the heads. Yum.

Here’s looking at you, John!

After lunch we visit the cathedral. It is fortress-like on the outside and a combination of Romanesque, Gothic and Baroque in the interior. The most interesting aspect are the trusses shaped like ropes with knots.

Viseu Cathedral

Interesting knot detail

It turns out that we have a very long trip to Amarante. The roads are narrow and mountainous. We are stuck behind a truck carrying rocks who can hardly muster 5 mph up the steep hills. Finally we find our hotel. Our room is nice. There is a pretty view and, surprisingly, a billiards table on our floor.

Nice room


Nice view of Amarante


Who’s behind the eight ball?


We go down to the bar for a glass of wine. A glass of wine and some snack mix will have to suffice for dinner.

John at the bar in the Casa de Calcadas

Then I am done. I must sleep and go to bed at 7:45. Since I am writing this at 3:30 AM, it was probably not the best idea.
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October 18, 2012 – Avila, Spain

After the temporarily lost luggage and the can’t get the GPS to work issue, we are finally on the road in the right direction about two hours later than expected. The skies have darkened and we are experiencing some spitting rain. By the time we get to Avila it is quite rainy.

Avila is surrounded by medieval city walls and the cathedral, a fortress-like structure, is built right into the wall. Our goal is to view the city walls and to tour the cathedral.

John braving the elements outside the city walls of Avila

Once inside the city walls we make our way to the cathedral. Although the cathedral was begun in 1095, most of what exists today spans the 12th to 14th centuries. So it is a polyglot of Romanesque and Gothic architecture.

The fortress-like Avila cathedral

We rent the audiotour and are treated to commentary that ranges from informative to religious. One of the big draws in Avila is Saint Teresa. Saint Teresa decided to become a nun because she felt that she was so much of sinner that being in a convent was the only way she could have a life safe from sin. She became a mystic and was later named a Doctor of the Roman Catholic Church. The most famous statue of Saint Teresa was carved by Bernini. In it she is being pierced by the sword of god. The art historian, Sister Wendy, comments that the statue is one of the most erotic carvings of a saint.

Saint Teresa in the throes of religious fervor. (Thanks to Dr. History for the pic)

After our tour we find a place for lunch and decide to try some of specialties of Avila. I have Barco de Avila which is a bean soup with chorizo. It tastes like bean soup.

Barco de Avila

John tries the patatas revolconas which ends up being a giant bowl of orange-y potatoes with chorizo. It is tasty but way too much.

John’s big bowl o’potatoes

John did find something more interesting than a bowl of potatoes, though. He asks the waiter what callos are. The waiter unsure of how to characterize this dish points to his stomach. Ah, tripe! John must have this. I am just glad that he wasn’t ordering testicles because I cannot imagine the waiter pointing to the correct body part.

John’s yummy tripe

We are really tired by now. John drives on to Salamanca where we stay in a hotel off the freeway. We nap. We eat at the hotel (nothing exciting), and then sleep all night. (yay!) I am not fooled, however, that jetlag is beaten. We shall see.

October 17, 2012 The trip to Spain

This morning we get up really early to get to the airport. Our flight leaves at 6:40 AM. We are so efficient that we end up standing in line for almost half and hour waiting for the TSA people to arrive. I use the extra time to help Clark and Lewis brush up on their Portuguese.

And remember, guys, in Portuguese the “s” is pronounced “sh.” Lewis responds appropriately “sees!”

The flight to Miami is very bumpy. As it turns out the flight to Madrid is very bumpy as well but while the American Airline pilot would barely let us out of our seats at all, the Iberian Airlines pilot is much less stringent. The business class section of the plane is less than a half full and really very spacious. The seats recline until they are flat. I am able to sleep some but John is not.

Business class ghost town

We are served some interesting food. When the flight attendants first come around they ask if we would like nuts or olives. So we get two cupsful of olives. They are good but way too much all by themselves.

I’d already eaten a couple of these with my nice Albarinho wine.

I think the best part of dinner is the salad plate which consists of smoked salmon, a bitter salad, hearts of palm and a veal consomme.

First course

We choose duck for the second course. Lewis is appalled.

Duck entree – meh

Surprisingly as we land at about 7:40 AM it is completely dark outside, not even a glimmer of sunrise to the east. Spain is really far west in the central European time zone. Portugal is in a different time zone.

Then my suitcase does not arrive. One by one people pick up their luggage. Finally we are the only ones left. The carousel stops. Oh uh, this is not good. We go to the window of lost luggage. They suggest we check carousel 6. It is apparently the carousel where the put errant bags. Thank goodness mine is there. It is good we are not in a hurry this morning.

We pick up the rental car and then we cannot get our GPS, Jack, to work. He cannot find his satellites. We drive for a while in what turns out to be the wrong direction. Finally I change his clock setting (which is supposed to be done automatically) and, voila, he is working again. Some more time is lost but as I said we are not in a hurry.

Now it is October 18 and that will have to wait for another entry because I am tired out and going to bed.

October 7, 2012 – Sam and Nathan (and Jonathan) come to play

On Sunday we have a quick visit with Jonathan, Nathan and Sam. We are busy with Sarah’s move to her new apartment so we only have the morning and lunchtime to spend together. Later Jon joins us in helping Sarah get her furniture moved into her new place. Yay! We accomplished it without having to rent a truck!

Most of the morning we spend out on the tennis courts. Nathan is getting so he can hit the ball with his racket some of the time. It is a step up from being a ball boy or his pretending to be the net. Sam, Nathan and I play a spirited game of Mother May I? Sam doesn’t quite get the rules but he is an enthusiastic participant and Nathan is very tolerant when Sam takes at least ten baby steps when he is only supposed to take three.

Before we go out to lunch, I present the boys with their gifts from Hawaii. They are delighted with their junior ranger vests. The vests have so many pockets! We discuss what treasures they might put in all those pockets. Nathan declares that he is going to wear his vest every day. Sam pipes up that he will too. I must admit that it is gratifying to see them happy with something I have selected.

Nathan and Sam in their junior ranger vests (the picture is a little blurry because I just got a new camera and am not quite sure what I am doing yet)

For lunch we go to the Main St. Brewery. It’s Jonathan’s favorite place to have lunch in Pleasanton. The restaurant is decked out for Halloween which delights Nathan and Sam. Our server gives the boys a box of toys to play with. There are many dinosaurs and lizards in it. Sam is especially fierce with his lizard.

Sam being fierce with his lizard while Nathan watches


More fierceness!


John is a little less fierce with his pterodactyl